Japan

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Japan

Thursday

Up early for our trip to Hokkaido. Checked out, took a taxi to Gimhae and arrived at Chitose Airport about 1:30. Long wait and stuffing and bussing around before we got our Budget rental car, reserved through ToCoo. Not sure what they do for their fee but that seems to the way of making a reservation these days. No dramas in driving from the airport to Furano about two and half hours away. We are driving on secondary roads, the speed limit is unbelievably 50, I think they mean 50mph and so do many other drivers. Great to be out in the countryside which is flat and neat and agriculture and green for about two thirds of the way. Then we drive into the heavily forested green hills, through several tunnels and arrive in Furano about 7pm. Book into the inn, get set up, transfer some money to my daughter and go out for a late dinner about 8pm. There is nothing still open except McDonalds. Would you believe it our first meal in Japan was a McDonald hamburger, coke and a small salad. Notwithstanding the heightened expectations over a long period of time, we still had a giggle about it.

Slept well on the floor, another first, mainly for the reason we put double layers of the “mattress underlay” down first.

Friday

Breakfast at 7, a bit of work then out about 9am. Spent the day at attractions in and around Furano. Having the car was vital.

First stop was Highland Furano for photos of the lavender field out the front and a browse around the shop inside. Then quickly on to the Chateau Furano for a tour of their winery and pics of the girls packing bottles into cardboard boxes, of the casks and some old bottles of their vintages saved since at least before 1977.

Then on to the Nakafurano Town lavender field where we walked up part way, rather than taking the gondola and took heaps of photos of the lavender and flowers. At one point we stopped where about 20 old folk were weeding the flower gardens. They were all short but had to bend over to do the weeding and, remembering the days I used to pick dwarf beans, I sympathised with one old bloke and the strain on his back. He stretched, nodded and laughed. Hard work and salt of the earth folk, many of them women.

We reach Tomita Farm. The car parks are full and we are waved on until one right at the top. Works out well because we park right at the top and have less walking to do up the hill. Again beautiful flowers, petunias, marigolds, snapdragons, lavender and others I can’t remember. Understand lavender but what do they grow the others for? Fun? I must ask. Down below I sneak in behind a bus and drop Lilly off to take some photos of the lower gardens. I am glared at and beat a hasty retreat, but the conductor wanders off and I return to pick her up. Just too many people and tour buses around at this place.

We drive for quite a while towards Biei and stop at Shikisai No Oka, a major flower farm. We find only parking for a fee and stop for a tour of the gardens on foot. They are amazing in huge beds of about 20 metres across stretching for hundreds of metres. Alternating colours of the different flowers make for a fascinating kaleidoscope. There are promotional and souvenir shops and a supermarket.

We head on to Biei for lunch and stop at tourist info for a road map, attractions and restaurant recommendations. Of the four she mentioned two had long queus outside, one we could not find and another looked closed! Lilly bought a sandwich for a very late lunch and we stopped on the way back at yet another flower farm to eat and for more pics.

Then back to the inn where we crashed for an hour and headed off to the Furano Cheese Factory, not too far from where we are staying. Another very good presentation of the cheese making and packing process but where are the cows? We have not seen one animal yet in Japan apart from pet dogs. One girl seemed to understand my questions and said up in the mountains. Maybe she thought I was asking about deer or bear cheese. The cheese we sampled was tasty and the range of products in the inevitable shop was huge and very well packaged. I liked the combinations of wine and cheese packaged together but they were not cheap.

Last stop today was Ningle Terrace a series of very picturesque little timber cottages and workshops in amongst trees showcasing and selling traditional handicrafts of the Japanese. Some beautiful stuff, really showing how skilful and precise they are.

On the way back right alongside our inn we spot a wild deer on the edge of the road. It suddenly takes off but stops in the middle of the field for us to take some pics from a distance. It is joined by its mate and Lilly snaps away while they keep an eye on us from afar.

Finally, we make an early attempt at getting a genuine Japanese meal, ending up (with not too long a wait) at a sushi train restaurant of fairly ordinary food, albeit at pretty cheap prices. We are still waiting for our first Japanese meal.

Saturday

We breakfast at 7 sharp and are greeted at the door of the restaurant by the two ladies who run the place who bow and welcome us. We try to reciprocate but bowing and scraping is not my forte. Lilly is better attuned. Nevertheless, we do our best and anyway enjoy the breakfast before setting of for Kitami taking the southern route via Obihiro. Not sure this is the best way even now, because I had planned on going via Asahikawa.

Anyway we reached Kitami about midday after stretches of highway (road toll cost us about $45) and a lot of slow going behind “browns cows” on the secondary roads. Some of the traffic on the country roads is at snail pace. The speed limits are low and I think they still have mph signs up but the cars are on kmh. Anyway that’s the excuse I will make if we are hauled up for speeding. Talking about being hauled up, we get off the highway at Kitami and there is a cop car right behind us with flashing red lights. We glance back, is it us they are after or are we just in their way. They follow behind us, they don’t go past, the lights are still flashing, I am outfoxed and pull over. Yes, we are their target. I think the cop who is young and extremely polite does not know how to deal with us because communication is zero. He looks at Anna but soon realises she too is incommunicado. We proffer my International Drivers Permit but he is not interested. Several attempts at communication fail. It goes through my mind, was it speeding or something else. He eventually shows us a message saying drive safely from now on. We bow and scrape this time meaningfully and reassure him we understand and will obey. Where did we go wrong, if we did and if so how do they know? I remember going past a truck on the inside lane of a two lane passing area because he stunk to high heaven and we had got sick of following him and then he pulled out to pass but everyone had moved on. Perhaps that was it.

Talking about browns cows, we did see a couple of herds of Fresians which explains that the milk we drink here is probably not plastic stuff. About the only animals we have seen apart from the two deer yesterday.

We fluff around in Kitami, which seems like quite a city, before filling up with petrol for the first time and finding a Tourist Info Centre. There a sweetie little lady with quite good English (after a year in Adelaide a few years ago) helped us with our route to Shira and suggested a couple of attractions en route.

We take the country route, after adjustments, and get into Kitami about 2pm. We have to wait till 3pm to be able to go to our rooms, so we look around for a restaurant meantime. No luck so we go across the road from the hotel to the local store and get some meat and rice and coffee which we consume in our car.

Then follows a frantic hunt to try and watch the ABs playing the Boks but giving up on live streaming because of having to lodge credit card details. I get delayed commentary on the game which at the end is drawn. Does not sound as if the ABs functioned all that well and the Boks put them under a lot of pressure in the first half. The Boks are up a rung from 2 or 3 years ago and the ABs are in decline in my opinion. Could it be that a Wales, Ireland or England might eclipse the traditional Southern powers this World Cup?

We go off to find a place to eat and the town’s streets are closed down for a parade. Everybody has come to town for Shiretoko’s biggest annual festival. Every year at the end of July on a Friday and Saturday, about 15 illuminated Neputa floats both large and small wind through the streets of Shari along a 2.5-km route. Some of the floats are 8 meters high.

Apparently in 1807, because the Edo Bakufu government feeling the need to defend the area against a possible invasion by Russia, ordered Japanese officials from another prefecture to Shari to guard the area.
About 100 officials from Tsugaru arrived at Shari in July and August of that year. When the cold began to set in from mid-November, some of the officials began to suffer from malnutrition and by the end of winter, as many as 72 had died. The explanation in Wikipedia for the origins of the festival do throw some doubt about the above origins of the fesrtival.

In 1973, a monument was erected in memory of the Tsugaru martyrs, and each year since then, townspeople have been holding a memorial service. This takes the form of a Neputa festival with floats and singing and drums. The whole town participates with a large number of floats and everyone seems to participate either in the procession or along the way.

We eat amidst all the commotion at a local place, Anna noodles and raw fish and me venison, hardly the 2 deer we saw yesterday. I have a large tankard of Sapporo beer and take some Asahi back to the hotel to help me tap this in.

Sunday

We eat an early breakfast after buying tickets at the hotel check-in. Nobody is interested in seeing our tickets at the restaurant reception, you just place them in the basket receptacle. Astonishing that they just accept that everyone entering the restaurant is honest and has paid for their breakfast or it is included in their room rate. Not the western way! But it speaks volumes of the inherent decency of the Japanese.

We head towards the Shiretoko Peninsula and National Park. First stop is for pics at the OshinKoshin waterfall, easy access and one of the top 100 Japanese waterfalls.

We cruised around the small town of Utoro, poking our nose into all sorts of places for pics including two wharfs to get shots of the fishing fleet.

Then on over the Shiretoko Pass to Rauso where we essentially did the same thing as Utoro. The fishing fleet here looks really professional, nothing like South Korea. There are cranes on the decks of the boats and they look seaworthy and well maintained. We stop at the Rauso Visitor Centre and stay for probably an hour. It has several stuffed bears, a large stuffed sea lion, dolphin and the skeleton of a Killer Whale. The latter was part of a pod that got trapped in the drift ice nearby. We watched a video presentation of the four seasons of this area and the whole Shiretoko Peninsula. The annual drift ice is a phenomenon caused by rivers to the north (in Russia) flowing into the sea and the freshwater freezing. A combination of currents and wind bring the drift ice south and Hokkaido is the southernmost part in the Northern Hemisphere that is reached by drift ice. This Visitor Centre is well worth a visit. We are astonished that there are not more Western tourists in Hokkaido.

Back over the Shiretoko Pass which is quite a long winding road to visit the five Shiretoko lakes. We can’t wait for the guided tours so take the walkway by ourselves as I suspect most people do. This is a very well-constructed elevated walkway with an electric deterrent along-side it to prevent bears clambering on to it. Bears can be a menace apparently and everyone is warned not to feed them, not approach them and stay quiet and calm if they encounter one. I have read, not to make eye contact, appear non aggressive but on no account run. If you decide to run, make sure anyone with you is slower than you! We only saw one lake (the others can only be seen by guided tour) but that was enough to give us an idea of the terrain and the beauty of the area.

Back to the hotel for a pit stop, quick snooze and re-charge batteries.

Onward to Abashiri where we took up yesterday’s suggestions of the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples and the Mt Tento Observatory.

The first was first-class, well worth the small fee. The northern peoples are those that live in the most northern regions around the top of the world including the northern parts of Hokkaido (such as the Ainu). We learnt a great deal in about ninety minutes from a video presentation and the exhibits of how they are born, raised, live, hunt, erect homes, raise animals, eat etc.

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido who were culturally and physically distinct from their Japanese neighbours until the second part of the 20th century. Going back to the 18th century, there were about 80,000 Ainu. In 1868, there were about 15,000 Ainu in Hokkaido, 2000 in Sakhalin and around 100 in the Kuril islands.

At the nearby Mt Tento Observatory, we take a quick stop for photos over the wide area including the city of Abashiri, population about 40,000 souls.

Back to Shira where we could not find a restaurant, couldn’t agree on takeaways from the local supermarket and ended up at last night’s restaurant which was packed and where we had to wait half an hour for a table. I had the well proven venison and Lilly shared a bit and had a pizza we also shared.

Back at the hotel, she goes for a spa he goes for the diary. Who may I ask gets the rough end of the pineapple?

Monday

Quite a long day in the saddle today then returned the horse at about 3:30pm after mucking about for half an hour trying to find the drop-off stables. Nobody spoke English so it was pointless complaining. I hope the Japanese cops come quickly to the same conclusion if they pull me over again. Budget Avis was Ok at the pick-up point after we arrived there, then ignored 2 emails seeking an extension, then gave us a Map Code for the drop off that simply did not work. Eventually we almost came upon the obscure little place by accident. ToCoo did nothing for their huge fee. Next time avoid Budget Avis, at least in Hokkaido. Mental note to self to find horses for courses in Honshu.

Took us about 6 hours to get to Sapporo taking the northerly route. The highway and motorway were good but the traffic on the secondary roads can be boringly slow and there are many traffic lights in the towns, most of them have to be looked for. They are not the easiest to spot.

Checked into the Mainstays Hotel Aspen, then had a quick nap at about 3:30. The room is so small that Anna and I have to coordinate our breathing as there is not room for us to both to have full lungs at the same time. Will need to reduce our eating to a dried biscuit every two days, same as my young brother declares his eating habits to be.

We walked to the former Hokkaido Government Office Building, also known as the Red Brick Government building. Built in 1888, this building was designed and built using the American Neo-Baroque architectural style popular abroad during that time. The distorted glass and the double-thickness doors and other measures were used in order to protect the building against the cold. It is a building perfectly designed to survive the cold Hokkaido winters. Many rooms open but could not get to grips with the displays and exhibits because virtually nothing is presented in English. I noted to Lilly that I could hardly complain as neither Australia or New Zealand provide commentary in Japanese in similar situations.

Japan has disputes over islands with China, South Korea and Russia. Today the latter was given some exposure with people being asked to sign a petition so that Japan could get back the Kuril Islands off the coast of Hokkaido, currently occupied by the Russia. If when we were in Rausu yesterday, it was a clear day, we could possibly have seen the southern-most part of one island.

We walk on to the Clock Tower, another American inspired building erected in 1878. This clock tower is known by many as the symbol of the city and is a main feature of almost all domestic and international tours of Sapporo. The clock after which it is named continues to run and keep time, and the chimes can be heard every hour.

A block away is the Odori Park which stretches 1.5km east to west and divides the city into north and south sections. We walk a short way in then head back to the Sapporo Station where I insist Lilly find a restaurant to eat that she is happy with and what she wants to eat. She resists but eventually nominates a Chinese restaurant on the 6th floor of the Sapporo Station. The food is plentiful but ordinary. We are yet to have one decent Japanese meal although the hotel breakfasts are adequate.

Home to retire early, I have just about finished this by 8pm.

Yet to come, flowers – what do they do with all the others besides lavender, cows – where have all the cows gone and Okhotsk, who or what is it besides a sea. History of Hokkaido also on the list.

Tuesday

Following an argument yesterday over food – he believes to eat properly in Japan you have to be prepared to pay about 50% more than in South Korea, she believes you should be able to go to a food court and get about the same value for money. Both of us have been eating too much and we are going to cut back, hopefully more quality and about half the quantity. So this morning we stop at Starbucks for a coffee and a shared sandwich. Pretty much the same at about midday, but tonight we broke the “fast” by having a more substantial meal, plate of sushi, eel and rice and other trimmings. Reasonable food at reasonable prices. Still look forward to really tasty Japanese cuisine, but am I going to be disappointed. The local signature dish is hairy crab, Kegani I think they call it. Also Ramen noodles and a soup curry. They will have to wait another visit unless we find in Hakodate.

We mucked about in the nearby Sapporo Station getting Tourism Info, freebies for tickets and getting train tickets. While getting the latter a smartly dressed young woman sidled up and asked us where we were going. Part of the tourism assistant service, she quickly found where we wanted to go, suggested a slightly better station, where to catch a bus at the station etc and showed us how to get our tickets and where to catch the train. A big help.

The entry fees to attractions in Hokkaido are not too steep and me being over 65, after showing my passport, often get in for free. Lilly still got a bit more than a year to go!

First stop on the metro was about 4 along where we alighted to catch a bus and make our way to the Hokkaido Museum. This is a museum that shows the culture and history of Hokkaido, the natural environment, the indigenous peoples and the lives of the immigrants from Honshu. Very well laid out and presented, with enough English to make it comprehensible.

Briefly Hokkaido’s history is mainly one involving the indigenous people. The Jomon culture was a hunter-gatherer lifestyle of over 15,000 years ago. About 2000 years ago, much of the Island’s population shifted away from hunting and gathering and towards agriculture. The indigenous Ainu peoples of today are thought to have originated from a merger of the Jōmon, Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures of more than a thousand years ago. From the Middle Ages, the people in Hokkaido began to be called Ezo and Hokkaido was known as Ezochi. The people relied mainly on hunting and fishing and obtained rice and iron through trade with the Japanese. Then followed a long period of conflict between the local people (then known as Ainu) and Japanese feudal rule. When Japan renamed the island Hokkaido about 1869 it began to develop systems of government and prepare defences against a possible Russian invasion. Hokkaido only became equal with other Japanese prefectures in 1947. Some of the Ainu have survived, many have been assimilated and are pretty much indistinguishable. But there are ongoing efforts in Hokkaido to preserve and promote the indigenous culture of the Ainu.

After walking for about a kilometre along a road through the park we arrived at our second planned stop, the Historical Village of Hokkaido. This must have taken a huge amount of capital to move and effort to re-construct. Most of the buildings are the originals and more than 100 years old. There is a post office, a police post, a grocery shop, a blacksmith, a farmhouse, city council office, high school, sweet shop, signage shop, a fishing village area, a mountain village area, several residences and the list goes on. At least 50 structures. It’s very interesting to imagine how Hokkaido looked in the late 1800’s. In some exhibits, they even have the old furniture in them with realistic looking mannequins to help each visitor imagine how life was in that era. Not many people visiting and very few westerners. It was very hot today which did not help. Still we did our best to visit most of the buildings and read the descriptions. Anna takes plenty of pics.

Finally, on return to the Sapporo Train Station, we visit the JR Tower at the south west corner of the station. The tower is the tallest building in the city and comprises a shopping mall and office complex. The height of the tower is 173 m with 38 stories. On the observation floor at the top we get a panoramic view of the city in all four directions.

Lilly is starting to make observations about the Japanese people. While sweet and bubbly when they greet you at reception or serve in you in various capacities, they generally seem quite reserved and placid. The women all dress conservatively, no flaunting of their sexuality like Westerners and you don’t see couples arm in arm or holding hands much at all. I tell Lilly it is too early to jump to conclusions, perhaps we will get different impressions from Honshu. She tells me not everything has to be principled and decided by a court, typical of me. I retort, the judge says it’s time to go to sleep.

Wednesday

Short and sweet today.

Boarded the 9:32 express train to Hakodate. Rushed up three flights of stairs to catch the 9:32, we were the last ones on and it left when Lilly entered and the doors slammed shut, phew! Otherwise we would have waited on the platform till 10:44 an hour and a quarter later.

Arrived at 13:32 after watching the country and Japanese homes and towns for four hours. Almost all the modern homes are 2 stories. Occasionally a single story and its old.

Booked in to the hotel about 100 meters from the station. There is room after we paid an extra $100 for more space. Had a snooze, walked along the port to the Bay Area of red brick warehouses, restaurants and shopping. Lilly had another fall, even though we were arm in arm. Took me by surprise and I wasn’t able to hold her. Fortunately, not so bad as the one 3 or 4 days ago, but shook her up a bit again. Her knee is still badly bruised, hip still not 100% and ribs still store. We are going to need to equip her with an instantaneous parachute or some such.

After we walked back along the main road, found a reasonably salubrious restaurant and had hairy crab, scallops, salmon and preserved fish, already forgotten the name, sable I think, not the fur!

Goodnight diary, I’m getting a bit sick of you coming on top of website work.

Thursday

Bit of runny tummy today, not helped by our first real setback, not being able to find a hotel in Aomori at least not without having to pay about $450 a night which Lilly and I get twitchy about. Then came another blow, we cannot find a rental car anywhere. So we are booked by train to Aomori tomorrow departing 10:40 and getting in about 13:00. If we still can’t find a car, we will catch a train on to Kazuno where we did find a reasonably priced hotel, booked for three nights. Then we will again try for a car. I hope it is just a weekend issue, but our problem is in leaving the bookings until the last minute. To date on all our trips that’s the way we have travelled and today has been our first real hassle of this nature.

Today we spent a bit of time wandering around the markets, fish and fruit/veg before having a tasty breakfast in the hotel, pay for 1 get 1 free.

Then we took off by tram for Gorky Park, my abbreviation for the Goryokaku Park and Fort (neither the Russian park nor the film) which is on the outskirts of Hakodate. It is now a Special Historical Site, being a part of the Hakodate city museum. and a citizens’ favourite spot for cherry-blossom viewing in spring.

Goryokaku Fort was designed in 1855 and is shaped like a five-pointed star allowing for greater numbers of gun emplacements on its walls than a traditional Japanese fortress, and reducing the number of blind spots where a cannon could not fire. It is surrounded by a wide moat and was built to protect the Tsugaru Strait against a possible invasion by the Russian fleet. One can imagine that in spring the cherry blossoms are magnificent because there are cheery trees everywhere.

Back to the hotel by early afternoon for the rest of the day off for planning and booking purposes, only to encounter the problems as above.

Tonight we head out for a meal only to be caught up in a mass of humanity walking towards the port area. We go along for the ride. Lilly wants to ask what’s going on but I suggest wait and see. This huge car park and port area is packed full of families many who appear to have been sitting there for sometime. After waiting about 45 minutes, the fireworks start. Yes today is 1 August and this is how the locals describe it:

This fireworks display is one of the three major displays in Hakodate. The fireworks are set off from the man-made island in the harbor and sparkle over the waters. You can watch them from the quayside where the memorial ship Mashumaru is moored and the Bay area, where there are Red Brick Warehouses. It would be a good idea to see it from hills looking down the harbor. Elaborate creative fireworks are set off one after another to music. You will enjoy the powerful fireworks show.

And we did enjoy it, very close, many of the rockets almost seemed overhead from our vantage point.

Meal on the way back of Waygu beef and a salad. Hopefully tummy and Lilly’s headache will be better tomorrow.

Friday

After breakfasting at the hotel, we head for the station and on to the train for Aomori. Almost 2 hours including about 56 kms under the sea between the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu.

At Aomori we got lucky. Headed immediately about 100 meters from the station to five rental car companies, the first had nothing but the second Nissan could give us a car for 8 days providing we return it on 9 August by 17:00 and return it to their station in Aomori.

It’s a little Nissan called a MARCH but it flies along all right for us. We don’t need power just the sight to differentiate the traffic lights from all the clutter around them and patience to trail behind slow traffic and pass through countless lights in countless towns. Whoops did not see the lights on an overhead bridge and got half way across a busy intersection before I stopped and reversed. Fortunately, traffic from both sides had not moved and the guy behind me pulled up quickly allowing me a space to reverse into. Now I watch acutely for lights which are not as bright or obvious as the lights I am used to. Wonder if others have this problem.

Today on our way down to Kazuno our main stop was at Hirosaki where we visited the Hirosaki Castle, the Botanical gardens and the memorial garden. All are pretty much at the same venue but there was a lot of walking in pretty hot conditions. The Hirosaki Castle is huge but only its outline remains intact. It was formerly walled and separated by moats. The current castle-tower of the castle was completed in 1811. It is a three-story building with three roofs, and a height of 14.4 meters. At present, it is a separate standing structure; however, prior to 1896 it had an attached gatehouse. You ascend and descend up and down very steep staircases. Inside they have constructed a heavy steel structure to support the timbers. The surrounding Hirosaki Park around the castle grounds is one of Japan’s most famous cherry blossom spots and we promise ourselves that we will apply to our company for leave to visit again in the spring.

We wander past the museum to the Fujita Memorial Japanese Garden which was constructed in the style of a traditional Japanese landscape garden. Built or planted by Fujita Kenichi in 1919, it is the second largest garden in the Tohoku region. The garden wraps around a 13m high cliff area and is divided into high ground and low ground. We should have spent more time there but were starting to get leg weary.

Then on to the botanical gardens quite a hike away. Just got into them and a thin green snake about a metre long made its leisurely way across the path in front of us. Lilly was scared stiff as were the reception staff in the hut nearby. The gardens were first opened in 1988 and contain over one hundred thousand different plants representing around one and a half thousand species, all located within a 7.6 ha area of Hirosaki Park.

Onward to Kuzano. Took us a lot longer than expected as we followed Googles GPS some of the time and the GPS in the car. At times quite a variation.

This place we are staying in is outside Kazuno in the mountains or at least surrounded by high forested hills. Beautiful area, we are in the annex which is separated by an enclosed walkway over a river.

Now we have to re-plan our schedule for the next 8 days because I aim to be in Tokyo by the night of the 9th otherwise we will run out of time in probably the most important part of the trip Tokyo to Okinawa inclusive. That gives us 8 days in Northern Honshu, all of them with a car that has to go back to the top of Honshu. We have two full days here in Kazuno and can see all we need to in the very north from here. Then we need to probably have 2 more stops of 2 days each allowing a day to drive the car back up the country. So planning:

Kazuno Friday 2

Kazuno Saturday 3

Kazuno Sunday 4

Matsushima Monday 5

Matsushima Tuesday 6

Sakata Wednesday 7

Sakata Thursday 8

Friday 9 – On Friday morning drive car back, catch train to Utsunomiya (Nikko). (You can amend or cancel your booking of the car FOR FREE anytime before 5:00 pm on August 7, 2019. ) Rental Location: Utsunomiya Train Station, August 9, 2019 5:00 PM Drop off: Utsunomiya Train Station, August 12, 2019 12:00 PM – Thanks for booking Booking number: 695805936 – Nippon just has to confirm the details, and this can take up to 24 hours. You don’t need to do anything else. We’ll email tonyanna10nz@gmail.com as soon as Nippon confirms your booking. (You are booked but no they still have to confirm it!)

Saturday 10 – Nikko

Sunday 11 – Nikko

Monday 12 – Tokyo

A lot is made of the Japanese bullet trains but it is impossible to reserve a seat online in advance without a Japan Rail Pass. Indeed, can it be done even with a Pass? A Pass is very expensive and if you just want to reserve limited travel by train (say one way Aomori to Utsunomiya (Nikko), it does not seem possible to do this online. You have to go to a station and purchase a basic fare ticket and for traveling on a Shinkansen (bullet train) or a Limited Express train, you need to purchase a super (limited) express train ticket in addition to a basic fare ticket. The system is obtuse and archaic for a modern country like Japan. Ditto for reserving a car. The online reservation system for cars does not work if you want to drop a car off at another location. Some sites require 2 to 3 days advance booking. Nissan has a prominent sign up (at least they advise you) that you cannot book anything online within the next 25 hours. Japan needs a few switched on computer engineers to bring them into the 21st century.

Saturday

Internet here is painfully slow, but at least it functions eventually. Today we skipped breakfast for nuts and biscuits from packets and spent some time first thing making bookings for cars and hotels. Booking.com works for accommodation but nothing much else does when it comes to reserving cars and trains. I suppose we got spoilt by Europe, South Korea etc.

Cruised around the local Yuze Onsen, somewhat nondescript and then headed off for Lake Towada. On the way admired the rural areas we travelled through including stopping a couple of times for photos of local apple orchards. Also detoured quite a way to see the Oyu Stone Circle a late Jōmon period (about 400 years ago) archaeological site designated a Special National Historic Site of Japan in 1956 by the Japanese government. Not exactly Stonehenge just a few piles of stones or rocks in a rough circle. I don’t want to diminish the ancient history of Japan but this attraction must be of borderline interest to all but an ardent archaeologist.

Pressed on to Lake Towada, stopping a couple of times at observation points. What a beautiful setting for this caldera lake and what a fantastic drive around it. Reminded me of Lake Rotoiti outside Nelson in NZ where we used to go as kids. Water beautifully clean, cold, setting very similar in that it was also surrounded by beautiful native bush. Think Rotoiti may have been a glacial creation though.

The volcanic activity of Lake Towada apparently began more than one hundred thousand years ago but there was a really big bang about 20,000 years ago that made the original shape of the present lake. Then there others and apparently the crater started filling up as recently as 4000 years ago. It’s the 3rd deepest lake in all of Japan at 327 metres so it must have created havoc when it went up, possibly around the world.

At the Southern end we stop to view the Towada Jinja Shrine which lies at the end of a path lined with huge Japanese cedar trees. I was more interested in these massive trees than the Shrine but the Japanese were very respectful, I think of both.

Towards the northern end we detour down the beautiful Oirase Gorge which follows a stream of the same name. There are several waterfalls and the whole gorge was filled with people sightseeing, taking pics, cycling and hiking. We tack back at the end and continue on around the lake stopping for a catnap at the northern end observatory.

Stop at the Nanataki Falls then on to Kosaka where we drove through the Kosaka Railroad Park and stopped and took pics of the Kosaka Mine office and Korakukan.

The Mine Office was built in 1905 but dismantled in 1998 and then re-built at its present location. It is quite an imposing structure. The mine itself was one of the largest copper, lead and zinc mines in Japan. According to Wikipedia the mine had reserves amounting to 30 million tonnes of ore grading 2.84% lead, 8.48% zinc, 1.1 million oz of gold and 177.3 million oz of silver.

The nearby “Korakukan is Japan’s oldest wooden theatre built in 1910. The exterior is along the Western style of the time but the interior is Japanese with a revolving stage that is turned by four people below the stage.

I delayed proceedings a bit this afternoon to wait for the Kosaka Tanabata Festival which is an annual event starting at 6:30pm, begun over a 100 years ago by the miners of the town to remember their hometown festivals that were held to enhance the harvest. Anyway there were 2 or 3 floats we saw in various parts of the town and it did not seem all that well organised so we found a little place for dinner, Restaurant Seidokan. Boasting Japanese and Western styles, quite a large place, not many patrons but an excellent meal at surprisingly good prices.

Home about 35 kms arriving at the same time as dusk.

Sunday

I can’t make payments from my NZ bank account and now I can’t even log in to it. This is just because our IP address has changed and the banks can’t accommodate the change without throwing a wobbly. Security is getting to the point of stupidity, the convenience of the internet is being eroded by the criminal element and we are all paying. We must remember to advise banks well in advance that we are going to be overseas in future. I have some sympathy for people who want to pretty much withdraw from society, close bank accounts, keep cash under the mattress, pay bills with cash, no more forms, less government, less regulation, less precious crap and simplify their lives.

Today we went South and around Lake Tazawako, first stop the Tamagawa Dam observation deck where we stopped for photos. The lake behind it looks to be about 10 metres below its normal level so hope they are not running short of water.

On to Lake Tazawako, Japan’s deepest lake at 423 metres. This is another caldera lake (although it had been conjectured it may have been created by a meteorite impact) and the centre of an area popular for vacations. Several hot spring resorts can be found in the hills above the lake. We stopped lakeside where there is a fairly large hotel, a landing area for the paddling pleasure craft and a large roped off area for swimming. There were a lot of people sunbathing and in the water. Looked like about half of Bondi on a hot day. The water was not icy cold suggesting there may be hot springs here taking the chill off it. Very hot day today so good for a swim. Strange most of the women were covered up and not swimming, I only spotted one girl in a bikini (at a distance) and she was sunbathing. Anna also remarked that they were all very conservatively dressed. And they were all minding their own business. No one appeared to notice a bedraggled old Westerner and a tall beautiful young Chinese lady walking in their midst.

Bit later we stopped at a little place where there were jet skiers racing around and a little place jutting out over the water where people were feeding thousands of small fish, apparently the Dace. All the other fish have died out because of the high acidic content of the lakes water.

On to Kakunodate to see the famous samurai houses of Bukeyashiki Street. This town was established in 1620 by the feudal lord Yoshikatsu Ashina, who was ruler of the area. The town is split in two with the merchant district to the south and the samurai district to the north. Samurai were the military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan.

The samurai district with its groves of massive trees and dignified architecture has remained pretty much unchanged for 380 years. There are homes for dignitaries and typical homes of the middle class. Lilly and I wander around taking photos but not going in to two or three of the establishments that were charging admission. We felt the free admission dwellings gave us a reasonable view of the district and the art and culture aspects we will pick up on in Tokyo by visiting some of the national museums.

Had a noodle and beef lunch. Very ordinary and a long wait. Going to forget the noodles in future, rather go for the rice.

Long trip home as we missed a turn on Route 105 (Lilly was asleep and I was too focussed on the driving) and ended up going almost to Odate.

Very pleasant to get back to the hotel and sip a coffee or chilled apple juice alongside a beautiful Japanese style pond surrounded by boulders and trees. Calmness and serenity descend upon the soul.

Monday

Main objective today was to travel south to Sendai where we are booked for two nights. We travelled through three cities stopping briefly at each.

At Morioka, a city of about 300,000, known for its spring cherry blossoms and fall colours, is home to the ruins of the 17th-century Morioka Castle. We stop and park near the ruins of the old castle. There is the inevitable reception to collect the admission, a museum and souvenir shop. We stop briefly to watch a film of Japanese girls dancing and take pics of two huge floats. The castle was originally constructed in 1592 by the Nanbu clan, based in Sannohe to the north. The walls are still intact; it must have been an impressive structure. We wander around taking photos, it is very hot and Lilly is suffering from a headache which has been plaguing her for days. She has been taking a disprin to ward it off but it keeps returning. It’s a worry. Is it tension, the heat, the air conditioning or an allergy. We both wonder about coffee, she has been drinking a lot of it lately, so that’s now eliminated altogether.

Next stop is Hanamaki a city of about 100,000 souls and notable for its hot springs. We stop only for McDonalds and a pause to consider why this franchise has been so successful. The burgers in this country of exquisite cuisine are as tasty as they are in Nelson, Sydney or Johannesburg.

Finally, we stop in the small town of Hiraizumi to savour the scenic beauty surrounding the remains of the Motsuji Temple. This was a Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect originally constructed more than a thousand years ago and destroyed by fire or conflict and in ruins by 1226.

Onward to Sendai by breaking with tradition and taking the express. We fly down the 100 odd kilometres almost in even time. Some Japanese truck drivers are surprisingly as inconsiderate as they are in Australia occupying the fast lane for miles while they struggle to overtake other trucks. Otherwise a good run and we are happy with our Route Inn in Sendai.

Tuesday

No shrines or temples today but quite a long drive to see what has become of the areas ravaged and inundated by the massive tsunami of 2011. Outcome was that it is hard to see what the damage was and hard to see what the rejuvenation has been. At first sight it seems that a lot of the flat and low lying areas where one would expect there to have been almost total devastation are re-housed and the homes look to be reasonably new.

There is certainly a lot of construction work erecting sea walls along the coast. A lot has been completed and in some areas it does not look as if it protects very much but a few houses in a small valley. Wonder why? Perhaps they intend completing the barricades and walls and then go on with re-settlement in some areas. It has obviously been a huge exercise, but of course it was 8 and a half years ago and a lot can happen in that time, when people are well organised, resourceful and diligent as are the Japanese.

All along the roads there are teams working on various repair and new roads. In one case one of the guys was furiously waving at the driver in front of us with a green flag, signifying that the driver was good to go. But he had the wrong flag in his hand and the driver started off and then realised he was running head onto into traffic. The flag waver eventually realised his mistake but tried to cover up and made no sign that he had got it wrong. LOL as they say.

First stop was the Shiogama Fish Market where we wandered around viewing the offerings. Huge number of vendors, virtually no buyers and no auction of tuna. Perhaps it was the wrong time of the day for either.

We also stopped at Matsushima and walked over the Fukuurbashi Bridge and around the picturesque Fukuurajima Island. It was not apparent what damage had occurred here but Anna read a note that Taiwan had contributed money to repair the bridge.

We tried to follow the coastline but find the GPS and Google maps difficult to navigate with, the GPS needs a Map Code or phone number. We have trouble finding the former and the phone number rarely works. The GPS does not function well. The car companies also need a bunch of Google’s software engineers to bring them into the 21st century.

We travelled a long way onto Miyato Island and went around in circles when the navigation aids failed us. But we did see some of the ongoing seaside constructions works. Cranes and big trucks working all along the coast. Apart from this work it does appear as if homes have been rebuilt and the survivors rehoused.

Fukushima and the nuclear reactor is another story which we may get to later when we are based in Nikko.

Wednesday

Mainly travelling today from Sendai to Sakata. It does not look a long way on the map but if you take the secondary roads and amble a bit it takes time, in this case most of the day.

We stopped at Yamagata, popn about 250,000, the capital city of the prefecture by the same name. Beautiful looking city, very tidy, trees line some streets, as do coloured lanterns. It feels like the temperature today is above 35c (top was 37c) so we don’t want to be walking a lot in the sun. We approach an English Renaissance building which we take to be city hall so that we can get some local tourist info. Turns out it was established in 1916 to be the seat of government for the prefecture of Yamagata. Described as Bunshokan it is quite an impressive building with exhibits and large rooms for assemblies and dignitories. But absolutely no info in English so we are reliant on Anna’s ability to translate a bit from her knowledge of the Chinese characters.

Going back a bit in time, the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 (which was the last Japanese military government overseen by a shogun or military dictator) led to the Meiji Restoration. This effectively wrestled power away from the shogun and restored practical (not just titular) power to the emperor. (Meiji at that time.) The clans were abolished in 1871 and the new government sent governors across Japan to implement a new societal system. The prefecture of Yamagata was established in 1876 and a building constructed at the time. In 1911 it was burnt down and the current building erected in 1916.

We finally establish that Tourist Info is at the station and find parking nearby. Bit of a maze as we wander around in a daze trying to find the actual station, Japan Rail and Tourist Info. There is a dancing troupe and big drum performing in the rail concourse. Lilly snaps away. We eventually determine that a Japan Rail Pass (East) is not the best option for us as we just want travel Shin Aomori to Shin Utsonomiya on 9 August. We reserve our seats on that day for departure about 2:30 getting in about 17:40 from memory. That’s a big day for us to return the car from Sakata to Aomori, travel by train to Utsonomiya, collect another car and check into our hotel.

We then find Tourist Info and as soon as we speak a young western man steps forward to advise us. He describes the local attractions and gives us a map. Then does the same for our route to Sakata. Very helpful, turns out he is Canadian and he seems to know the area well.

We travel on a bit and stop for lunch at a roadside shopping area but can’t really find anything we like. Lilly buys some rice based sushi and fruit and cucumbers and water while I take a quick snooze. A bit further on we stop and lunch in the car in the shade. Why can’t we find a little Japanese style takeaway place like we have in Chatswood which offer such a complete range of sushi choices?

We go through the Mogami Gorge and follow the Mogami River for a fair bit of the way to Sakata and arrive about 4 for a 30 minute snooze and the rest of the day off in the Rich and Garden Hotel. Lilly can have the rich, even though I can’t find the garden. The room is quite spacious and I decide Norton VPN is not up to it given my experience with it and reading about it. Download Express VPN which will hopefully mask where we are (connect to a server in Sydney) allowing us to make payments to staff and otherwise in future. Added benefit watch Foxtel and the rugby.

Thursday

Today after breakfast in the hotel we head off for Tsuruoka City, first visit the Chido Museum. Founded in 1950 by the former Lord Sakai of the Shōnai Domain this private museum was established with the intention of promoting local culture. The museum houses folk materials from Shōnai, classical calligraphy, woodcraft and ceremonial sake barrels, boats and a wide range of tools for woodworking and metalwork. In addition to about 8 separate buildings that make up the complex housing the exhibits, there is a beautiful Japanese garden and a large three-story farmhouse with thatched roof built in 1822. Pity no English translations for the exhibits but that is not a complaint just an observation. There is a pamphlet in English describing each of the buildings and its contents.

Hot like yesterday, it is a relief that at least some buildings have effective air conditioning so that we can cool down and the brain start functioning again.

Next stop is the Tsuruoka Park and the Fujiswa Shuhei Memorial Museum. We wander around the park and watch a crew of workers erecting a long pole with a willow branch on top. A festival is planned. These guys really struggle with a job that should not have been too difficult given they had a crane to assist. Not much to look at here, a nice park but probably beautiful in the spring with the cherry blossoms.

On we go for about half an hour to Mt Hagurosan. The scenery is again a feature with forest covered hills and streams. The three Mountains of Dewa Sanzan refer to the three sacred mountains of Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono, which are clustered together in the ancient province of Dewa. They are famous for having the oldest record of mountain worship in Japan. The mountains were first opened as a religious centre over 1400 years ago in 593 by prince Hachiko, who was the first-born son of Emperor Sushun, the 32nd emperor of Japan and reigning emperor at the time.

According to Wikipedia the practice of mountain worship holds a significant place in Japanese beliefs. Nearly every high mountain top has had its own dedicated shrine at one point, with some receiving pilgrimages every year from thousands of worshippers. This collection of diverse phenomena linking religious activities and beliefs with sacred mountains is referred to as sangaku shinkō.

Haguro-san is the easiest to visit because of a toll road that allowed us to reach the top by car. However, the traditional and recommended approach to the shrine is via a walking trail, which leads through a cedar forest over 2446 stone steps from the base to the summit of the mountain. Along the way, 33 figures carved into the stone steps bring prosperity to anyone who can find them all. Not for us thanks on a day like today. Even hot in the shade of the huge and beautiful Japanese cedar trees. The Haguro-san Shrine, the only of the three Dewa Sanzan shrines which is open year round. Symbolizing birth, Haguro-san is usually the first shrine visited by pilgrims.

There are a number of other shrines, tombstones (some covered with clothes) and grave markers which sparks a conversation about Japanese religions and their values. Lilly does not want me taking a photo of the tombstones and grave markers because it may disturb the occupants. Needless to say I don’t concur.

Shinto and Buddhism are Japan’s two major religions. Shinto is as old as the Japanese culture, while Buddhism was imported from the mainland in the 6th century. Since then, the two religions have been co-existing relatively harmoniously and have even complemented each other to a certain degree. Shinto is the ethnic religion of Japan that focuses on ritual practices to be carried out diligently to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. Is it a religion though?

Less than 40% of the Japanese identify with an organised religion. About 35% are buddhists and most of the rest are members of Shinto sects. Thanks Wikipedia.

Back to the hotel for a snooze then we take a brief tour around Sakata. The place is practically deserted at 4pm – is it because it is so hot or is this typical? We visit one residence where there is no admission, mainly though just a place selling souvenirs. Then across the road is the historical Homma Residence. We enter but it is 4:30 and they are closing. Admission is anyway 800 yen each which we consider a bit steep to visit someone’s home. A kindly lady rushes out with a brochure after we have already reached the street which makes me feel a bit bad. The brochure shows this home was constructed in 1768 and has quite a history including being used as a civic centre. The structure is a combination of a samurai and merchants house. The Homma family trace their roots back to 1689. We will make a point of visiting next time we are in Sakata.

Friday

Big day today, but no sightseeing.

Up early for breakfast and left for Aomori shortly after 7am. Arrived about 1pm after driving on toll free roads. Surprisingly get a refund of about 2500 yen on getting our car back early.

Cross the road to Shin Aomori and find we can get an earlier train so instead of the 2:09 we re-book on the 13:52 and after changing at Sendai get into Utsunomiya at about 5pm. Carry bags about 400 metres to Nippon where a young smiley and very polite Japanese man describes painstakingly the ropes for our new car in Japanese and a bit of English. Mainly we nod in agreement.

Go around in circles a bit trying to find our hotel nearby. Car attendant drives our car into a hole in the wall from where he will presumably lift or lower it into carbed until we next require it.

Search around for a place to eat. Lots of dumpling places but suddenly the ones in our area are closed (sharp at 8:30) and so we settle on takeaway dumplings for a snack back at the hotel. Later I find dumplings are particularly loved in Japan. Here, they are honoured not only with their own capital — Utsunomiya — but also by an iconic dumpling statue that stands proudly in front of the city’s main station. In Utsunomiya, where the per-head consumption of gyōza (steamed pork dumplings) is the highest in Japan, people gather once a year at its gyōza festival, to taste various local specialties served with soy-based tare dipping sauce, rice vinegar and rāyu (Chinese chili oil).

Wish we had more days of no sightseeing so I don’t have to concoct you every night dearest diary.

Saturday

Today we head off to Nikko, where we would have stayed if it were not for the fact we could find no accommodation there. Nikko is about 35k’s away and is the centre of the tourist attractions in this part of Japan. It had its beginnings with the first temple founded by the formidable priest Shodo Shonin over 1200 years ago. It became a buddhist-shinto religious centre over the centuries and in 1634 was chosen as the site for the mausoleum of the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu. Fifteen thousand artisans from all over Japan worked for two years on the construction of the Tosho-gu shrine/mausoleum and it is quite magnificent.

The approaches are lined by huge Japanese cedar trees and besides the main building there is a pagoda, a drum tower, impressive entrance gates, a granite gate, a bell tower, a sacred fountain, a sleeping cat carving, a sacred stable decorated by three wise monkeys, (the NZ government gave them a horse which is stabled here for several hours a day) storehouses, an art museum and a treasure tower where the warlord’s ashes are. There are very few international tourists, but thousands of Japanese who are very obviously respectful of this significant heritage site. We sit down for a service which we don’t understand a word of. It may have been a description of the treasures and history but it felt more like a religious service of some sort. Everybody very quiet, almost deferential.

The main street of Nikko is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and inns. It is very busy. Outside some restaurants, queus of people wait patiently for other patrons to exit. The traffic through the whole area moves at snail’s pace. There are cars and car parks everywhere. Some of the car parks have people outside to wave you down and invite you to sample their space for a fee of course. Wherever there is a tourist attraction, it is accompanied by cark parks, toilets, restaurants, souvenir shops, takeaways and reception. All, are on the collect but it is orderly, people are polite and respectful. They seem not to notice foreigners and what seems like excessive politeness and hospitality is so ingrained as to be quite natural. Anything less would probably be construed as bad behaviour.

The Rinno-Ji Temple is nearby. First founded in 766 by Shod Shonin it is now a Tendai sect temple. Another impressive structure not sure when it was re-built in its current form.

We take the car a few kilometres and stop at the Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park. This was a former imperial summer residence constructed for Emperor Taishō in 1899. It served as a hide-out for Emperor Hirohito during World War II. We look around but consider the admission fee a bit steep and our car possibly not properly parked so we don’t go in.

Instead we go off to the Urami Falls which involves a walk of about 15 minutes. As Lilly often observes if you are visiting a scenic spot, the scenery on the way there and on the way back often surpasses that of the spot. This whole area is beautiful and the falls while not huge just add to the beauty of the area.

By the time we return to the car, enough is enough and we head back to the hotel through the countryside including some beautiful roads lined by massive Japanese cedar trees.

Today will go down in infamy as a day that the All Blacks lost to the Wallabies in Perth 47-26. The AB’s have only themselves to blame having lost Barrett to a red card just before half time but anyway looked as if they were not up to it. Would Retallick have made the difference? No, the Wallabies deserved their win. Can the ABs recover in time for the return at Eden Park in a week or will the Bledisloe come across the ditch for a change? ABs do not look like a side that can win the World Cup in Japan this year. The forwards need to review some videos when McCaw was playing and take a leaf out of his book in terms of graft and intensity. Maybe it’s the time for a Wales, Ireland or England. The Bokkie and now Aussie also look likely.

Sunday

We return to the scene of yesterday’s sojourn taking a long time to traverse the kilometre of Nikko’s main street. It is holiday time and also the weekend and the traffic in and around Nikko is a shocker.

Eventually we are through and first stop today is the Ryuzu Falls which we tackle by walking up the river and back down again. The opposite is also possible, we discover later. Quite an attractive setting with the fast flowing river cascading down in several spots. The twin falls are called ryuzu because the falls resemble a dragon’s head.

We drive via a very winding road through beautiful forests to Lake Chuzen-ji. Part way up the mountain we encounter the Akechidaira Ropeway which is a cable car meant to give a view of the scared Mount Nantai which dominates the lake. No mountains today sorry, the fog is thick up here and the cable car sits forlorn. Instead this also serves as a halfway house for the traffic with the usual array of support shops etc.

The lake itself is another really picturesque spot with hotels and restaurants and piers for ferries and boating. We drive around a bit then find a car park and walk the 15 minutes, lakeside to the British Embassy Memorial Villa and garden.

The buildings within the grounds are reconstructions of the personal summer house built in 1896 for Sir Ernest Mason Satow, a British diplomat who exerted a significant influence on the Meiji revolution, and was used for many years afterwards as the official British Embassy Villa. There are a lot of exhibits and photos about Satow’s life and his love for Japan and for this spot for a home. Japan at the time had been anti-foreigner with a British merchant killed by samurai party after he failed to make way for a feudal lord’s entourage, as they met on a road in Yokohama.

According to Wikipedia, Satow was an exceptional linguist, an energetic traveller, a writer of travel guidebooks, a dictionary compiler, a mountaineer, a keen botanist and a major collector of Japanese books and manuscripts on all kinds of subjects. As the years passed, Satow’s understanding and appreciation of the Japanese evolved and deepened. For example, one of his diary entries from the early 1860s asserts that the submissive character of the Japanese will make it easy for foreigners to govern them after the “samurai problem” could be resolved; but in retirement, he wrote: “… looking back now in 1919, it seems perfectly ludicrous that such a notion should have been entertained, even as a joke, for a single moment, by anyone who understood the Japanese spirit.”

On the second floor, you can drink tea and eat scones with the view of the lake and you can feel the culture of the international summer villas (an Italian equivalent nearby) that flourished on the shores of the lake in that era. Perfect view out over the lake and on a hot day, this would be an ideal place to relax for a little diplomatic tête-à-tête.

Last stop on the way back is the Kegon Falls, difficult to see through the fog that blankets the area. We go to the top platforms but not down via elevator to the bottom. The falls cascade almost 100 metres to the river below. Again in the vicinity are all the supporting acts including small fish on sticks that are being fried over a hot fire. They seem popular but we resist as we can see they are quite bony.

We often see the swastika in Japan, it is called manji. The manji doesn’t have the kind of stigma in Japan as it does in the West, and is used pretty frequently in Buddhist tradition. In the Japanese sense, it can mean a number of positive things from strength to compassion. It is not some anti-Semitic symbol. Thousands of years of history that Japan has with the swastika overrides the awful associations that much of the Western world has with it.

Home by about 4 to catch up on diary, websites and bookings.

Monday

Up and about in the city of Utsunomiya this morning before making our way to Nippon, dropping car off and heading south by train to Tokyo about midday.

First stop in Utsy, the Matsugamine Catholic Church, designed by a Swiss architect and built in 1932 using volcanic ash stone, the only one in the world to be constructed of this stone. A medieval style church with four storied Romanesque twin towers.

Also visited the nearby Utsunomiya Castle Ruins Park, where part of the castle has been reconstructed. The shoguns stayed here when they visited to Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. The castle was ruled by 22 generations of the Utsy clan and after the Tokugawa clan came to power by another 25 generations of feudal lords in hereditary vassalage to the Tokugawas.

Then on to the Futaarayma-Jinja Shrine which was moved to its present location in 838. This shrine was dedicated to the eldest prince of Emperor Sujin.

And so early afternoon we arrive in the big smoke and where there is smoke there is heat. Every Japanese citizen and a few tourists arrived at the Tokyo station at the same time as us, but we eventually determined that we could go on for another station and shorten our walk to the hotel. Hotel was about 900 metres away so it was good to be able to check in and retire to the room for a rest. We are very central in Ginza and very pleased with our accommodation.

After a rest we head off along Chuo Dori Street. People are everywhere, this road is blocked off to traffic except at crossroads, the one with Harumi Dori Avenue thought to be the busiest intersection in the world.

All along Chuo Dori Street, are department stores and shops. This is the shopping mecca of Tokyo and Japan. If you can afford to pay Y25m or more for a watch this is the place to come. The world’s most up-market stores line the street, all the top brands are here.

We visit the Matsuya Ginza, a massive department store, the Apple store, the Wako Department Store, the Mitsukoshi Store, the Ginza Six, Yamaha, Sony showroom, Nissan and others. Sony has their latest offerings including a toy dog that is quite amazing in how it reacts and moves. Wired up to a computer it reacts to be stroked or patted or talked to. Nissan have concept cars showing what we may end up with in the future, although they could not be drawn on when. They call their AI system B2V or Brain to Vehicle whereby the car’s computer detects the drivers brain waves to improve the driving experience. Apparently this breakthrough from Nissan is the result of research into using brain decoding technology to predict a driver’s actions and to detect discomfort. The driver’s brain activity tells autonomous systems when a movement is about to be initiated. My brain was advising me it was fed up and high time we got back to the hotel for an early night.

On the way back to the hotel we go into the basement floors of Matsuya Ginza where there are a huge number of shops selling pre-prepared meals and all manner of food and drink. We buy dumplings and salads to eat in the hotel.

Tuesday

We leave early on the Ginza line for Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum. At 7:20am the streets are not empty but there are noticeably fewer people around. It is still difficult to get a seat on the train and there is no giving up seats for the elderly or infirm. Not that we are either but we do notice the kids and teenagers stay glued to their seats when old ladies board. Next time it happens I will offer my seat, despite Lilly telling me, better while in Tokyo to do as the Tokyoans, or words to that effect.

We alight at the Ueno-okachimachi Station, one station too early and have to walk about a kilometre to the Ueno Station and thence to the park. Not a good start to what promises to be a hot, humid and walky day.

The Park has three ponds, lots of paths and forest and shrines and temples, a zoo, a pagoda, a cemetery, tombs, art academy and museums including the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Nature and Science. It takes us about two hours walking around the park just to digest a small bit of all that before lining up at the Tokyo National Museum to get tickets at 9:30am. Being over 70 I am free and Anna pays only 620 admission.

The Museum boasts the longest history of any Japanese museum, having been founded in 1872. There is a lot of old stuff in this museum, archaelogical finds dating back to the Jomon period about 10,000 BC. Some of the artworks, religious artifacts, pottery, ceramics, weapons of war, armoury, calligraphy and lacquer work is amazing. It gives us a better idea of the history of the Japanese and the influence that Korea in particular and other countries including China had on the history and development of Japan.

Outside in the heat are a large area of tents selling Pakistan wares and food in celebration of the Japan Pakistan Friendship Festival. There is a stage and singing but it is 34C in the shade and it feels like 40C so we forgo the curry and kebabs and hurry on back to the station.

Eventually we find the Asakusa line and catch the train to that station. It is hot and sultry and the crowds are unbelievable so we find a McDonalds, guaranteed cool air, clean bathroom, free WIFI and if you are lucky seats together. Burgers and chips and coke are always good, we don’t need fancy cuisine.

Great to get the weight off our feet before heading to the Senso-Ji Tempe, Tokyo’s most sacred and spectacular. Its background dates from 628 but how big it was through the middle ages we don’t know. While it survived the 1923 earthquake, it did not survive World War II bombing so its main buildings are relatively new. We take many pics of the main gate, five story pagoda and main hall of the temple. It’s a popular tourist attraction judging by the number of visitors who also patronise the long row of shops and restaurants leading from the station to the temple.

Home about 4 for a rest then out to take in more sights of Ginza including eel and beef in a little restaurant under the Yurakucho Station. Before that we visit the Kabukiza Theatre with a view to watching a performance or at least one act of it. There is standing room only so we will try again tomorrow. To reserve tickets, you have to see the whole play which is expensive, given we are not going to understand a word of it.

Wednesday

First stop today is the Shibuya in Western Tokyo. This along with Shinjuku (which we visit later) is part of the new Tokyo that only started booming after the 1923 earthquake. Shibuya is supposed to be the centre of young and haute-couture fashion.

Just outside Shibuya Station is a statue of Hachiko, a dog that waited for his master at the station every night for more than a decade after his death. We wand around the streets in close proximity to the station. At times it rains quite heavily and we shelter in doorways. From the street level we view and take pics of Tokyu Hands, Tower Records, Disney Store and Marui Department Store; we are too early to visit them, they don’t open until 9:30 perhaps even 10:00am.

The Centre Gai or Basketball Street looks as if it has had a rough night. Mainly focusing on fashion and fast food stores for youth, the street is also packed with restaurants and bars. Unlike the rest of the city the streets are strewn with rubbish at this early hour.

We take the JR Yamanote Line one stop to Harjuku and follow the crowds into Takeshita Street. This is already a narrow alley with barely room to move with the people moving in both directions. It’s worse on weekends apparently. This is the place for teens and everything from high-end fashion to bargain basement clothes and everything else but elephants. Before leaving the street, we cram into a McDonalds for seats, the air conditioning and a bite.

We retrace our steps to the west side of the station and, via a very wide avenue, to the Meiji Shrine. This Shinto shrine and its various gates and other structures are a memorial to Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. The shrine was destroyed during the war but rebuilt in 1958. I have to try and summarise, with a little help from Wikipedia etc., the Meiji Restoration which has cropped up many times now.

Emperor Meiji ruled as emperor over Japan from 1869 until he died in 1912. His reign came at a particularly difficult time in Japan’s history. Europe and the United States had already forced Japan to sign treaties that limited its control over its own foreign trade. The country had also just experienced a civil war fought from 1868 to 1869 between forces of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to return political power to the Imperial Court. (Although there were ruling emperors before the Meiji Restoration, the civil war restored practical abilities and consolidated the political system under Japan’s emperor.)

The ideology or is that the religion of Shintôism was also very much associated with the imperial line, which reached back a long way. Japan had not only the oldest ruling house in the world, but a powerful symbol of age-old national unity. The people seldom saw the emperor, yet they were to carry out his orders without question, in honour to him and to the unity of the Japanese people, which he represented. In point of fact though, even after 1869 the emperor did not rule. It was his “advisers,” the small group of men who exercised political control, that devised and carried out the reform program in the name of the emperor.

And so it was that with the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan lurched into a process of Westernization, adopting Western political, judicial and military institutions. The feudal lords were forced to give up their domains, which were then transformed into prefectures of a unified central state. Western cultural influences were integrated with Japan’s traditional culture and the Meiji Restoration transformed the country into a modern industrialised state.

Japan was able to then flex its muscles in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894- 1895, primarily over influence in Korea. The Qing government capitulated quite quickly, demonstrating to China and others, the failure of the Qing dynasty’s attempts to modernize its military compared with Japan’s successful Meiji Restoration.

In much the same way that Europeans used the “backwardness” of African and Asian nations as a reason for why they had to conquer them, for the Japanese elite the “backwardness” of China and Korea was proof of the inferiority of those nations, thus giving the Japanese the “right” to conquer them.

The Japanese thus thought that Korea had no right to be independent and when Russia started encroaching in Manchuria (to gain a warm water port) the nations went to war. The Russo-Japanese in 1904–1905 also resulted in a complete victory to Japan, the first time an Asian power had dominated a European power.

Meiji is thus highly regarded by the Japanese and rightly so. Japan was successful in organizing an industrial, capitalist state on Western models and it gained international recognition for equality with Western nations.

It is hot and sultry, so we move on quickly through the park to the next station Yoyogo where we catch the Oedo Line one stop to Shinjuku. Tokyo works on the West side in huge office blocks where some 250,000 people work each day. We ascend to the Observatory of the biggest which is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. I have never seen such massive structures. Anna takes countless photos. Next stop is the Metropolitan Assembly Hall but they are not in session so we take photos of the empty seats.

Then back to the East side of the station, the side where Tokyo plays. We wander through some of he streets trying to get a feel for the cinemas, parlours, bars, hostess clubs, karaoke bars etc., but we are getting tired and none of this is our scene at the best of times.

Finally we catch the Metro to Roppongi station where we encounter just outside the station, another massive complex the Tokyo Midtown which houses the Suntory Museum of Art and seemingly endless floors of high-end clothes stores. We walk around it to the attractive gardens at the end then back through it to the station and home to rest our aching feet. Roppongi by the way is the club and music centre of Tokyo, for us next time perhaps.

Thursday

Wandered aimlessly this morning as a direct result of my failure to do my homework. The idea today was to focus a bit on central Tokyo starting at Kitanomaru Park to see the Science Museum and the National Museum of Modern Art. Somehow we got into the Imperial Palace East Garden and wandered about looking for the exit. After toing and froing a bit we found the Science Museum which I think was probably set up about 20 years ago mainly for children. There was little of leading edge stuff there but it obviously appealed to the young children and we were both astonished to see how they applied themselves to learning and experimenting. If Western kids of the same age demonstrated the same focus and curiosity, it would bode well for the future.

A couple of whinges dear diary. Firstly, why don’t the Japanese have signs up on station platforms and in their train stations generally indicating where the exits are and where the other train lines are. Whoever can develop a decent signage system that can be quickly and easily read by commuters will save the country millions of man hours.

Google maps for all its wonderful facility could still do with a couple of very basic improvements on iPhone. One, allow for North on the map to be fixed so that it does not swing when the phone is turned. Two, make the Search function easy to find. I still search on a place, save it as a favourite and then can’t get back to Search. Is it me or is the far too smart bunch of Google software engineers who need to come down out of the clouds?

After the Science Museum we hang around outside on the road because the Prime Minister is about to arrive at the War Memorial for some ceremony. Lots of police and plain clothes guys wandering about, our bags are opened but we get impatient and move on. A bit later having decided there was not much more to see in the Imperial Palace grounds we return to the road only to see dozens of black cars leaving the area. Who knows which contained the PM, some had darkened windows. Have a good day sir.

We catch a train back to Kyobashi Station to see the Tokyo International Forum but get waylaid by the building which is called Kitte. In the atrium we find sumo wrestling being promoted with bouts scheduled later this month. There is an actual ring which is far smaller than I thought they were and a promotional film about these huge guys going about their training. This is a huge place, mainly shopping on about the first eight floors. We go to the Roof garden for photos and on the way back browse around an interesting exhibit of a wide range historical items collected by Tokyo University.

At the Tokyo International Forum we watch a show by a group of ladies with drums and review the “Hop! Step !! 2020 !!! Summer vacation at Tokyo International Forum -Marunouchi Kids Jamboree Special Edition”. Another great sporting and all sorts educational experience for the kids. Unbelievable glass roof to the Atrium.

Later we have another go at watching a play at the Kabuki-za Theatre but there is standing room only.

Friday

Up in good time we firstly visit the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple located in the Tsukiji district close to the old Tsukiji Fish Market. This is an impressive temple, quite ornate inside but what was most moving was the service being conducted inside. We missed the beginning of it but saw several hymns, a short sermon and prayers. The worshippers wore beads around their hands and sang from books. Tended towards the elderly and mostly men, many appeared to be there on the way to work. Very dedicated and focussed. Many monks leading the service from the front of the temple.

Jodo Shinshu is also known as Shin Buddhism or True Pure Land Buddhism was founded by the former Tendai Japanese monk Shinran. Shin Buddhism is considered the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan.

We walked on to the former wholesale market of Tsukiji Fish Market, which was also known as the “inner market” and was famous for its tuna auctions. It closed on October 6, 2018 and moved to a new site elsewhere where it reopened as Toyosu Market. Tsukiji’s outer market with its many shops and restaurants, on the other hand, did not close and remains in business. We wandered about, not many of the shops were open, perhaps the Japanese housewives shop later in the day. Anna sampled the famed strawberry and cake and I stared longingly at slabs of marbled Waygu beef which were not only expensive but also very fatty. Just as well I have resolved to eat less.

We check out of the hotel and lug our worldly possessions about a kilometre to the Tokyo Station where we bought tickets on an express train to Gotemba via Kuzo. To find the line and the track was difficult (one Rail Info counter could not even answer the question) just drawing attention once again to the need for decent signposting in stations. We boarded the train storing our suitcases in front of seats immediately in front of us. Not long after sitting down, the attendant approached us to inform us we were not in the right carriage. Turns out we were in 1st Class, so we paid the extra $35 to stay where we were. Bit later she turns up again and gets us to remove our bags. So we are sitting with large bags piled up on top of us. All good for a giggle.

Picked up our Honda Fit at Gotemba without incident, checked our bags into the Hotel Square and set off for Lake Ashi. We decide to do a circuit of the lake and not bother too much with museums, shrines or temples. There are about 18,000 museums, 80,000 temples and 80,000 shrines in Japan. At the end of some days recently we feel as if we have had our fill.

Not long after we got somewhere near the lake we visited the Hakone Park Info Centre. Great educational facility for kids and big kids including a movie showing the history of volcanic activity in the area. Shortly after we had some scary moments travelling down the west side of the lake. The fog was so thick at times we had to crawl along. Had lights and blinkers on and drove for maybe 10 k’s at a snail’s pace.

Our hotel room is large and quite different in many respects from the usual. Large spa bath, roman columns each side of the beds, old fashioned colours and it’s called Hotel Square. Astonishingly we have just finished 4 nights in Tokyo in a hotel only a few months old called The Square Hotel. Always thought we were a bit square, not unhappy about that. In Japanese the square character is “erect,” “proud,” or “upright.”

Saturday

Today we toured right around Mt Fuji initially going quite high to Grinpa and finally catching glimpses of the mountain top at relatively close range. It has been wet and the top covered by cloud mostly but we got lucky with some snaps when the cloud cover passed by.

Further round where we intended to drive as far up the mountain as possible, the road was closed and we were told to turn back. May have been temporary.

We go on to the five lakes, one is the deepest, one is the smallest, one id the biggest, one is the most accessible and one is the most commercial, or something like that. They are all picturesque and Lilly takes plenty of pics. Skirting one of them we gain catch sight of Mt Fuji briefly again when the cloud cover moves. It is massive in the distance over the top of other hills and mountains. From memory it is still an active volcano and the five lakes formed by eruptions thousands of years ago.

Later after a snooze we drive around the city and suburbs of Gotemba and visit Chichibunomiya Memorial Park, maintained in memory of Prince Chichibu, the second son of Emperor Taisho and grandson of Emperor Meiji. He lived here for about 11 years prior to his death in 1952 at the age of only 50. He had studied in Britain and was known for his anti-war sentiments. The gardens are beautiful with rows and rows of spectacular Japanese cedars and gardens with flowers blooming. There is a heavily concreted air raid shelter in the grounds at the back of the property. We see a living room, study and an exhibition room with artifacts and various exhibits.

Somehow I miss seeing the All Blacks get revenge (36-0) over the Wallabies for last week’s disaster. Savour the prospect of seeing the game tomorrow.

Sunday

Check out, get petrol, take the car back, get tickets and travel Gotemba to Numazu then to Mishima by express and onto Osaka by Shinkausen. Still can’t get my head around how fast these trains travel even through a crowded railway station. No dramas with our travel today, but it all takes time and we arrive at the hotel about mid-afternoon.

Later in the day we head off for Umeda Station and get the metro to the area around Tsutenkaku which is called Shinsekai. The whole area is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants among flashy signboards and a lively atmosphere. The crowds are unbelievable; this is a popular spot that boasts the best of Osaka food.

We head towards the Dotonbori canal has been the site of Osaka’s entertainment district since the 1600s. Originally the location of many theatres, the firebombing during WWII destroyed much of the area. It was reborn as a popular dining and nightlife location and is characterized by massive neon signs, including the famous “Glico man”. Dancing girls on one side of the canal are wowing the huge crowd. We find a Japanese revolving dish restaurant where we wait quite a while outside for a meal, only to discover the food was no better than average, albeit not all that expensive.

Monday

We are debating how to get around in Osaka (a city of about 2.7m but the larger area of the prefecture is more like 20m) and have bought a 2 day pass which we will activate tomorrow. We have also decided to shelve Kobe and instead go one day by train to Nara and then spend a couple of nights in Kyoto and cut short our stay at Fukuyama by a day. We make the changes including hotels and car. We consider we will try Kyoto without a car but may change our minds at short notice.

So today we go off to Nara for the day after a basic breakfast in the hotel and making the changes to our bookings. It’s hot and the metro is crowded but thins out when we get to Nara. Why go to Nara instead of Kobe? Always thought of the latter as an industrial city and had never heard of Nara until coming to Japan. But Nara is an ancient city with some historic attractions. The city was established as Japan’s capital city in the year 710 and remained so until 794 when the capital moved to Kyoto. This era is known as the Nara period in Japanese history and many of Nara’s famous shrines and temples date from this time.

We walk down a long covered shopping area and beside a pond to Naramachi, which is the old merchant area of Nara. Here we could see some of the preserved traditional wooden townhouses with their white plastered walls, dark wooden latticework and tiled roofs. There are many low-key restaurants, cafes, boutiques, souvenir shops, museums and galleries. Not a lot of flashy neon signs in this part. Very clean and tidy. We enter a small semi-gallery/museum with historical exhibits which is free admission and are warmly greeted by two ladies who maintain it. The red monkey like figures on string are like angels bringing messages from heaven. This is typical of the area.

We walk on trying to take a short cut to the huge Nara Park and specifically the Deer Enclosure. We enter the park from the south about where the Ukimido Gazebo is according to our map. Comparing Google Maps with our tourist map does not always play out well for us. Anyway after a bit of a trek through the park and up a long hill we encounter our first deer. Then more and more of them. People are feeding them biscuits and petting them so these wild animals appear quite tame and submissive. You can walk right past them without them moving at all. They are everywhere and after a while all we were doing was avoiding the piles of raisins they leave behind.

We make our way to the main objective of the day, the Todaji Temple also known as the Big Buddha Temple. This is really the centrepiece of the park and of Nara’s history. A lot of people are here to view this temple.

Soon after entering the surrounding hall we see a sign advertising a free English guide. So we hang about and soon a Japanese lady possibly in her sixties appears and introduces herself. She will show us around. Her English is quite good, she is knowledgeable and informative. Originally built in 552 the temple was twice destroyed by fire as a result of civil wars. It was then restored in 1709 at about 60% of its original size. It is still today an absolutely massive structure and looks as if it could go for 1000 years in the absence of a civil war.

She tells us about the history of the structure, the huge number of people that were employed to construct the temple in the years up to 552 (most of the population of Japan contributed in one form or another) and filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of Japan’s history and religion, in particular Shintoism and Buddhism. She maintains that the 3 metre high bronze fish tails that adorn the top of the structure are in the water which therefore covers the wooden structure and thus prevents further fires. Our guide and Lilly have the same mindset. I tend to think the temple has survived because there have not been civil wars since! She understands and responds extremely well to questions I put to her to the point that Lilly starts interrupting to say we have already taken up too much of her time. We thank her and continue on our way.

I have googled Shintoism to find it is commonly defined as, ‘Japan’s indigenous religion’. It is as old as Japan itself. Its roots and origins trace back to the latter part of the Stone Age, when it is said that the Japanese first began inhabiting the Japanese Islands. The ancient Japanese clan Yamato initially believed in Shinto only as a tribal religion but, as they grew in number, proceeded to propagate it as a means to establish and solidify their reign. Since those ancient times, Shinto has been influenced by an influx of various religions into Japan from surrounding regions. The notable arrival of Buddhism into Japan in the 6th century had a significant impact on Shinto doctrine; thus, it was only to distinguish itself from Buddhism that the term Shinto was initially coined. Consequently, most Japanese (85 percent) culturally practice a mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism. Although Shinto rituals are still widely practiced throughout Japan, only a minority of Japanese identify exclusively with it. Nevertheless, Shinto beliefs and practices are firmly embedded in the civilisation of Japan and continue to remain an integral part of Japanese culture today.

We return towards the Nara Station visiting the three story pagoda and Kohfujuki National Treasure Hall on the way. After a hamburger and a break we set off for the Toshodaji Temple.

The heavens open and it pours for half an hour while we wait patiently for a 98 bus that never appears. So we go back to Nara Station and catch the train to Amagatsuji Station. This station is absolutely deserted as are the surrounding streets. So we use Google maps and set off for the walk to the temple through a very pleasant area of well-maintained homes and narrow streets. We struggle to find exactly where this temple is and it rains steadily throughout. Finally about 4:25 pm we arrive at the temple gates to find it closes at 4:30 and the admission fee is Y600 each.

For the record this is a Buddhist temple of the Risshū sect. The classic Golden Hall, also known as the kondō, has a single story, hipped tiled roof with a seven bay wide facade. It is considered the archetype of “classical style.” It was founded in 759 by the Tang dynasty Chinese monk Jianzhen.

We are wet and a bit bedraggled by the time we get on the train for the almost hour journey (incl a transfer at Namba) back to Osaka and then get lost in the Umeda station. I have never seen so many people passing through a station, not even in China or Tokyo. But they are yielding, not pushy, disciplined, polite, no yelling or squabbling.

Tuesday

First day of our Osaka Two Day Pass. Today our focus is almost exclusively on the Osaka Castle Area, first stop Tanimachi Chome-4 where we bypass The Osaka History Museum (closed today) and make for the castle grounds. The walls of this castle (besides the walls only two turrets remain) are impressive and some of the blocks of stone in the structure are absolutely enormous.

So impressed was I with the huge stone walls and width of the moats, I have copied the image from Wikipedia, which also says “the main tower of Osaka Castle is situated on a plot of land roughly one square kilometer. It is built on two raised platforms of landfill supported by sheer walls of cut rock, using a technique called Burdock piling, each overlooking a moat.”

Since it was built in 1583 to 1597, it has seen a number of civil conflicts, much of which is depicted in paintings and descriptions exhibited in the main tower of the building.

We start with one of the turrets, proceed to the gunpowder room and then to the central tower. The latter is a particularly impressive structure but it dates only from 1997 after Osaka’s government approved a restoration project, with the intent of restoring the main tower to its Edo-era splendor. Today the castle is a concrete reproduction (including elevators) of the original and the interior is a modern, functioning museum, mainly exhibiting depictions of battles from the past.

The castle grounds cover approximately 15 acres and contain thirteen structures that have been designated as important cultural assets by the Japanese government

We walk on to the nearby Illusion Museum where a head (no body) talks to us in passable English. She asks us where we are from, Australia we say. We put the same question to her, she says from Egypt. We have an intelligent conversation with this head in a box. There is nothing under the box. Got no idea how it is done! There are several other illusory scenes, in one case a young Japanese man in a filmed sequence reveals how easy it is to trick people by ensuring they focus on just one element. They are then immediately prey to a sleight of hand very close to the action. A taste of the history and developing trends in magic and illusion.

We keep walking to the nearby Aqua Liner which is a water bus that takes us on about a 15 minute cruise on one of Osaka’s many waterways from the Osaka Castle Pier to the Yodoyabashi Pier.

Train then to the Bay Area stopping at Osakako Station where we walk on to the Tempozan Ferry Terminal. We resist the huge nearby ferris wheel that seems to turn extremely slowly, we cannot enter the Legoland exhibition because we are not children, nor do we have children with us. That leaves us with the Santa Maria a harbor sightseeing cruise ship that sails around the most famous spots in the Osaka bay area. This is a twice the scale recreation of the flagship on which Columbus reached the American continent. It hosts 45-minute-long daily cruises once an hour. We enjoy lunch we bought on the way on board and spend quite a bit of time up front enjoying the fresh air and views of the port and a number of bridges. Hardly any crane activity at 3:30pm in the afternoon, perhaps the stevedores knock off early in Japan or are on strike!

We walk back past the station to the Glion Museum where there is a great selection of vintage cars are housed in a Red Brick Warehouse constructed in 1923. It has been renovated into a classic car museum to exhibit approximately 250 classic cars including Rolls-Royce Phantom II which had been popular between 1900 and 1950. Some of the cars are apparently available for purchase.

Train back to Umeda, where we again lost our way in the vast maze of shops and arcades under the Umeda and adjoining stations. Today we walked about 9km, felt like 90 in the heat, but we seem to be surviving.

Wednesday

Day 2 of our Two Day Pass in Osaka starts well. We walk about a kilometre to the huge Umeda Sky Building and ascend 35 odd floors in a lift from which we can view the outside. There are two buildings connected, a first in the world apparently. The enormous framework between the two was prefabricated and hoisted by cranes to the top where it was secured in place. The building thus consists of two 40-story towers that connect at their two uppermost stories, with bridges and an escalator crossing the wide atrium-like space in the centre. A real engineering masterpiece and of course it makes the two buildings much more secure against wind and earthquake. There was to be a third but that is on hold at present. There is both viewing from the top storey and a rooftop observatory. Lots of pics by our star photographer.

We move to the 27th floor of the adjacent tower which houses the Koji Kinutani Tenku Art Museum. We are first treated to two five minute videos which we view through 3D glasses. Astonishing for us both, first time for me. Quite spectacular colours showing the Osaka Castle and battles etc. This collection of affresco paintings by Koji Kinutani has been showing here for about 3 years. Affresco starts with a wall of half-dried plaster on which paint is applied using pigment dissolved in water. As the plaster dries, it absorbs the pigment (presumably meaning the colours) into the lime layer. There is a glass like finish when the plaster has completely dried.

We catch trains to the Temmabashi Station and board the Osaka Wonder Cruise at the local pier. A good view of the river, canal system of Osaka including a lock where the tidal estuary has to be raised or lowered to proceed into the canal. Good account of the bridges, the history and surrounds by the young guide, mostly in very reasonable English.

The cruise drops us off in Dotombori and we struggle to find the nearby performance show by ZAZA. A minute before it starts we find the place and a young bloke kindly rescues us from a queue and directs us to reception. We are seated on the bell for an hour long show including the arts of kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama), revue, Japanese drumming, shamisen (a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument) and tap dancing. Quite entertaining but a bit long and not quite what I expected.

We have our usual McDonalds lunch followed by at least an hour traipsing around somewhere under the Namba station looking for tourist information, then for an electrical store for a SIM card. Complete and utter waste of time. The signposting under these stations with various levels and subways, lines and tracks and exits is atrocious. Mind you it is a maze but quite why the brilliant Japanese developers can’t get to grips with decent signposting beats me.

It is 4pm by the time we get back to the hotel, after losing our way again under Umeda Station. I am starting to feel leg weary, with one ankle a bit sore. Lilly wants more of the free Pass so off she goes to take another night cruise. I catch up with website stuff and do some research on Kyoto.

Thursday

Travel through to Kyoto on the Rapid Express and leave our luggage at the hotel.

First stop is the Kyoto Tower right outside the Kyoto Station. Typical tower probably 20 to 30 years old (and showing it) but it does give us a great view of the city and its suburbs. We first pick up a SIM card that we spent so long on yesterday trying to track down but now all is in order and we have the blessed card. Quite why it is such a hassle buying a relatively simple piece of paraphernalia for a relatively sophisticated device as an iPhone beats me.

At the top of the tower we pick out some of the attractions we want to see from screens around the perimeter of the observatory and resolve to get a JR Pass to see some of the outlying ones today. But downstairs at the Tourist Info Counter the girl dissuades us. The Bus Pass we already have is all we need.

So we make our way to the 100 bus, like everybody else, and take off to the East side of the city. This is noble, west today is rich. Unlike almost everybody on the bus we resolve to stay on the bus till the last stop and work our way back from there.

At the last stop we make our way to the Ginkakuji Temple. Ashikaga Yoshimasa initiated plans for creating a retirement villa and gardens as early as 1460. Built in 1482 but not finished then, the temple is popularly known as Ginkaku, the “Silver Pavilion” because of the initial plans to cover its exterior in silver foil; but this familiar nickname dates back only as far as the Edo period. After extensive restoration, started February 2008, Ginkaku-ji is again in full glory. In addition to the temple’s famous building, the property features wooded grounds covered with a variety of mosses.

On the way back from temple we take the Philosopher’s Walk, a pedestrian path that follows a cherry-tree-lined canal in about the same direction as the bus route. The walk is so-named because the influential 20th-century Japanese philosopher and Kyoto University professor Nishida Kitaro is thought to have used it for daily meditation. It passes a number of temples and shrines such and took us about 30 minutes to complete.

We then catch the bus back a stop or so to see the next temple in line, the Eikando Zenrinji Temple. This average temple which we pad around in our socks has really beautiful gardens, with maple trees and ponds with moss covered grounds. I can imagine that in about a month these grounds would be magnificent in autumnal colours. Anna could spend all day in the gardens, ponds and little stone ponds.

On to the bus again this time a couple of stops to the relatively new Heian Jingu Shrine. We are footsore by now and start to get weary. We trudge around this shrine built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto and dedicated to the Emperors Kammu and Komei, the first and last Emperors to rule Kyoto. The gardens are representative of Meiji Period garden design and apparently huge, sorry not for us today.

Bus again a couple of stops, skipping Gion and then take a long uphill walk with and against the crowds to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Took the walk quickly and without stopping to prove to myself the fitness is still Ok despite the feet protesting. This temple was founded in 778 by Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, yes good on him. Its present buildings were constructed in 1633 without using even a single nail in the entire structure. Can’t personally vouch for that. They may not have had nail guns back then. Takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills.

Bus back to see the Gion district. Start with the Yasaka Shrine, more steps, more photos. Initial construction on this Shrine began in 656. How much of the original still exists, who knows.

Wak around the Gion district, past the famous Gion corner. See lots of girls dressed up as geisha girls, almost all of them young and pretty. None of them looked the genuine article, but we did see one lady (40 ish) who was ushered into a bus quickly and another (50ish) who crossed the street very quickly with a shopping bag and into a red lantern door, both of whom looked the real deal. Red lantern district it may be but we are ready for home.

Long ride back on the bus, standing up.

Enough shrines, enough temples, perhaps we could try something else (is there?) tomorrow. One thing not on the menu is the geisha girls, the real geishas look far too old for me.

Friday

Today we are not going to be too ambitious. Start with Tourist Info and decide on another bus pass, firstly by 28 on a fairly long trip (maybe an hour) to Nonomiya Bus Stop. This stop is right alongside the entrance to Bamboo Park, a famous grove of bamboo plants growing fairly close together. Reminds me of the ubiquitous scaffolding in China and wonder if this is not also a source for them. This park was begun by the city of Kyoto almost 40 years ago and is now a major tourist attraction.

Today it rains off and on throughout the day, when on it fair buckets down.

We wander back through Arashiyama to the Tenryuji Temple and grounds and stop for photos of the Lotus plants in a pond and of the temple. According to Wikipeadia this is the head temple of the Tenryū-ji branch of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The temple was founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339, primarily to venerate Gautama Buddha, and its first chief priest was Musō Soseki. While recent the site has history going back about 1200 years to the founding of a temple called Danrin-ji.

There are crowds along the street as we wander over the Togetsu-kyo Bridge and head up towards Mt Arashiyama. Here there is park inhabited by a troop of 140 Japanese macaque monkeys. The animals all have names known to the keepers but they are wild. These free-ranging monkeys await visitors at the mountaintop, which is reached by a twenty-minute hike. We buy a pack of snacks to feed the monkeys from inside an enclosed rest area. Outside the monkeys are free to roam and don’t take much notice of the people. There were a couple of barneys among the monkeys while we were there, the humans were well behaved throughout. Lilly’s pick of the trip. She was fascinated, taking many photos, particularly of me feeding them and also of the mothers with the young. She seemed to have a real affinity with them, a bit in the same way she has with me! The panoramic views of the city are also worth the hike uphill. It pours as we make our way downhill.

We stop on the island between bridges to catch a 73 bus that we think will takes us back towards the city. As we are about to board a middle aged man shouts No, No at us. We had tried entering the bus after not being strictly in the queue. In fact, we had been there longer than anyone but had grabbed nearby chairs and not queued in exactly the right spot. We complied immediately without fuss, Lilly warning me quickly not to say a thing. What I found interesting was that the Japanese appear to be quite submissive, almost obsequious, but there is an underlying toughness about them and they are not afraid to speak their minds if they feel there is something not fair. We end up in a bus depot about 10 stops away, where we wait about 20 minute for what we think is a continuation of the route. However, after going back about 10 stops we find we are back where we started!

This time we catch a 28 bus, eventually back to the city. It is bucketing down again and we have a hot bath and then a meal out in a restaurant in the station complex. We figure joining a queue to line up and wait is sound practice but we are disappointed in the meal once again. We eat better Japanese meals in the Korean run restaurant in Chatswood that we frequent, at less than half the price.

Saturday

Lilly is still upset about the possible theft of either 20,000 or 30,000 yen (2 or 3 10,000 yen notes) yesterday from her purse. First time she left money behind in an unlocked suitcase and she reckons she is short and somebody has stolen it. I am just as adamant that there is no proof and by reporting it she could be destroying an innocent person’s life and livelihood. We should not have left the suitcase unlocked and we should therefore take it on the nose. Anyway she still reports it and I hope it has no repercussions for innocent people.

Today we board the slinky Shinky at Kyoto for Fukuyama. We have barely settled our cases and it pulls up in Osaka. Getting people off and on is so smooth, the Japanese have it down to a fine art and the stops are very efficient. The train slows down and accelerates quickly and you otherwise feel as if you are coasting on a slight downhill slope. J reckons the Japanese have the best infrastructure in the world. Hard to disagree with that.

We pick up our usual Nippon small car, this time a Honda WagonR, book into our hotel and about mid-afternoon take off for a local look around. First stop is the Fuk Castle Park. This is the site of a castle constructed in 1622 by the Katsunari clan, a vassal clan of the Tokugawa family. It led to the establishment of Fukuyama as a city and was ruled by three different family clans over the next 250 years and abandoned in 1873. It was pretty much destroyed (apart from the massive walls) by air raids in 1945 and then parts restored in 1966 as a celebration of Fuk’s 50th anniversary as a city.

In the grounds the main castle tower houses an art museum. We are warmly welcomed by the staff but the museum is rather small and has no English descriptions so we review the exhibits but don’t linger long. They do kindly give us English pamphlets to help us to “experience an everlasting culture.” The park and castle tower are certainly worth a visit.

We head south down the Ashida River to Tomonoura, a port of Fuk and apparently a relatively prosperous area. We try to stick to the river going south but eventually run into a sea wall. The streets are often one way and very narrow. The drivers are polite, sometimes almost too polite to determine what they want to do. All along there are seawalls of some description. The land is fairly low lying but not far away are islands and in particular in the distance is Shikoku. So one can imagine this area would not wear the full force of a tsunami.

Thought to be one of the most beautiful places in Japan, ancient Japanese dignitaries would hold their most important meetings in the port town of Tomonoura. Before the 1900s, if an ambassador of Korea ever came to Japan they would be housed in the Tomonoura with the belief that its beauty would lull them into a state of tranquillity perfect for negotiations. Looks are deceiving perhaps or more likely we missed the right part of the town.

We head back to Fuk with the idea of taking an overall circular route. We spy a rather spectacular looking bridge, take snaps and resolve to cross it. Later I discover it was on the plan as it leads to Tajima Island and Crescent Beach. We make our way there but this great looking golden sands beach is deserted and there do not appear to be supporting hotels or restaurants or whatever. There is a nearby marina but it is a rather poor and bedraggled cousin of Australian marinas, at least those of Sydney.

Home about 7 pm after stopping for supplies at a well-stocked super market. The imported Zespry gold kiwifruit are quite expensive but otherwise prices are quite comparable with Australia. The packaged takeaways are better than Aust and better value than the cheap (or not so cheap) eat restaurants.

Sunday

Today is Shikoku Island day. Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four major islands with a population of about 4m. It’s encircled by a 1,200km, 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage route honouring the 9th-century monk Kukai, some other time for us maybe. The whole area we travel in today is quite hilly and forested.

The most spectacular of today’s sights were the huge bridges spanning the five small interim islands between Honshu and Shikoku. Construction began in 1978 and the bridges were opened in 1988. From the record, “stretching across a total distance of almost 10k there are six bridge sections that span the gaps between islands as well as four viaducts on the islands themselves. The whole route is a double-decker construction, with an expressway running above a railway. In terms of scale, it is the largest combined road and rail bridge system in the world. Among all, the 1100-meter (3,609-foot) central span of the 1,723-meter (5,653-foot) long Minami Bisan Seto Ohashi Bridge at the southernmost end is on its own the world’s longest combined road and rail bridge. Talk about amazing infrastructure, this beats most as the bridges are designed to withstand winds of about 150mph and earthquakes of magnitude 8.5.

Shikoku’s major cities include Matsuyama, home to the Kochi Castle, originally built in 1611 on the order of Yamauchi Katsutoyo, lord of the Tosa domain, but burned down in a massive fire in 1727. The current castle tower was rebuilt in 1749. It sort of sounds familiar with a lot of other castles we have visited, including Fuk’s yesterday, so we don’t visit this one! Today we go only as far as Matsuyama intending to do a round trip via the Great Seto Bridge but that is just too far today. We have a good look around Matsuyama sans castle and drive around Shiroyama Park without finding parking!

We drive back up the coast route poking our nose in here and there and taking snaps of anything that catches our fancy. At Innoshima Island we come off the expressway and tour around the northern part of the island. The island used to be a stronghold of the famous Murakami Suigun pirates who were very powerful in medieval times. Looks not quite as prosperous as some areas of Japan, we wonder what they all do. The city of Innoshima had a population of about 30,000, 20 years ago before it was merged with Onomichi. We spy a rather large factory called Manda Fermentation. Turns out it employs 260 people and produces “fermented botanical food product made out of spontaneously fermented and matured 53 kinds of botanical raw materials from kakokusosai–fruits to grains and edible algae to vegetables. Health benefits of fermented foods have been recognized by the history of food cultures around the world.” Had it not been the weekend we may have stopped for a plant tour (they apparently have them) because I was intrigued as we passed by.

Later we are held up at the end of the islands by people lining up for parking so they could watch boat races in the sea. Lilly catches a glimpse of them from the car and takes a snap.

We detour through Onomichi, on the way back, stopping close to its port for photos.

The whole area today of islands and bridges and forest with the sea was very picturesque. We could spend a week or so here just walking and exploring if we had the time.

Monday

Head east today by Expressway to Himmeji to see the castle, rated Japan’s number one as Japan’s most significant wooden building. Known as the White Heron Castle for its white plastered walls, the main keep resembles a white heron in flight. Test of the imagination but it is an impressive structure. The plaster covers the walls and eaves of the entire building and is made using a traditional method from slaked lime, shell ash, hemp fibre and seaweed.

The castles had its origins in a fort originally constructed in 1333. Some further additions were constructed in the years to 1600 but in 1601 construction of the current castle began. In 1609 the keep was completed and in 1618 the west bailey was constructed. It’s got quite a history but one thing of note is that apparently it has never been besieged or attacked. The castle survived a bombing raid in 1945 that destroyed Himeji. From 1956 to 1964 the main keep and other structures were dismantled and repaired.

There are two main massive columns in the castle described at the East Large Pillar and the West Large Pillar. They are not on the edge of the structure but somewhat internal and the whole structure seems to hang on and around them. There are large beams supporting each floor and the weight of the whole structure must be enormous. In some places cracks appear but heavy steel brackets have been bolted to the timber to hold it together. This is a work of engineering, construction, art, call it what you like, its remarkable.

As an aside, fortresses have been built in Japan since early times. A particular need for castles arose in the 15th century after the central government’s authority had weakened and Japan had fallen into the chaotic era of warring states. During that era, Japan consisted of dozens of small independent states which fought each other and built small castles on top of mountains for defence purposes. When Oda Nobunaga re-established a central authority over Japan in the second half of the 16th century, and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed the reunification of Japan, many larger castles were built across the country. Unlike the earlier castles, they were built in the plains or on small hills in the plains, where they served as a region’s administrative and military headquarters and a symbol of authority. They became the centers of “castle towns”. After the end of the feudal age (1868), many castles were destroyed as unwelcome relics of the past or were lost in World War II. Only a dozen “original castles”, i.e. castles with a main keep that dates from the feudal era (before 1868), survive today.

We drive back to Okayama to the Korakuen Garden. This is ranked among the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, easy to see why. It has basically retained its original identity since it was completed in 1700. The garden was commissioned for and used as a place for entertaining important guests by the feudal lord of the time. It has many ponds and streams and bridges and koi and the whole setting is very picturesque. We wander around the garden for possibly a couple of hours taking photos of the tea houses, a tea plantation, maple grove, cherry grove, a manmade hill in the middle of the garden (which gives a commanding view over the whole area), rice fields, a crane aviary and numerous cypress and pine trees.

Just a note from Wikipedia on the Japanese monarchy which is thought to be the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world. In much the same way as the British Crown, the Chrysanthemum Throne is an abstract metonymic (an example being the “Kremlin” which houses the government of Russia) concept that represents the monarch and the legal authority for the existence of the government. According to legend, the Japanese monarchy is said to have been founded in 660 BC by Emperor Jimmu. The current Emperor, Naruhito is the 126th monarch to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. The extant historical records, however, only reach back to Emperor Ōjin, who is considered to have reigned into the early 4th century.

The role has historically alternated between a largely ceremonial symbolic role and that of an actual imperial ruler. Since the establishment of the first shogunate in 1199, the emperors have rarely taken on a role as supreme battlefield commander. They have nearly always been controlled by external political forces, to varying degrees. For example, between 1192 and 1867, the shoguns were the de facto rulers of Japan, although they were nominally appointed by the emperor. During this long period the shōguns held almost absolute power over territories through military means. (Kamakura shogunate (1192–1333), Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1573), Azuchi–Momoyama period (1573–1600), Tokugawa shogunate (1600–1868) After the Meiji Restoration in 1867, the emperor was the embodiment of all sovereign power in the realm, as enshrined in the Meiji Constitution of 1889. Since the enactment of the 1947 Constitution, the role of emperor has been to act as a ceremonial head of state without even nominal political powers.

Last stop today is the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter in the city of that name. This area with a canal running through its centre is an area of classic architecture, with shops, eateries & galleries. We stop for a while walking up one side of the canal and down the other. We are late and most of it has closed but there are still tourists wandering about like us taking photos.

Arrive home about 7:30. A long slow drive back today as we wanted to avoid tolls. On the way there this morning we somehow managed to organise for the toll gate to rise without paying the toll of 2750 yen. We decided Japan deserved the money (in view of its incredible roads and infrastructure!) so we stopped about 50 metres down the road and Lilly went back to pay. The nearby police station had already sent a policeman out to collar us and Anna had a lot of trouble explaining how it occurred. Anyway she got it sorted, Japan received its entitlement and the police don’t have to track us down.

Tuesday

Take it easy today. There are no major attractions in the area and we spend time on advance bookings, car and hotel. To complete we have only 3 or 4 locations in Taiwan, accommodation-wise, yet to book.

Early afternoon we head south to the islands of Tajima and Yokoshima. The other day we got as far as the Crescent Beach, but today my intention is to go right around both. Although there is a huge bridge leading on to the main island and there appears to be a road around the coast, it is little more than a goat track in places. While we almost complete the circuit of the smaller Yakoshima, the road peters out on the larger island. Nevertheless, we negotiate some pretty tricky stuff, fortunately not running into any traffic at the nasty points. Lilly reckons only we are mad enough to drive here, but there is room for small cars. At one point I almost turn back (on finding a bit of space) because of the danger and I don’t want to scratch the car. Gotta think of our own safety as well. Anyway we enjoyed the challenge and Anna took plenty of pics on a rainy day. Both islands look like a bit of backwater in some respects, although there were some nice homes in places. Scenery as always green and beautiful. On the sea side the road is so narrow as to be almost impassable and some homes looked abandoned. Back to Fujuyama early and called it a day, our first real day of rest on this holiday!

Wednesday

Raining most of the day today, sometimes quite heavily. That, however, did not disrupt our onward trip in the shinky to Hiroshima, the trip taking only a bit more than half an hour. But it did put a dampener on our plans in Hiroshima a bit. We found Nippon for the inevitable Suzuki WagonR in brighter that sky blue and found our hotel on a peninsular south of the city.

Then back to the city for our main event in Hiroshima, the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There are some 62 nominated attractions in the Peace Memorial Park, but we were not going to wander around in the rain trying to track them all down. Instead we spent a sobering couple of hours in the Memorial Hall and Museum reading about the events of 73 years ago when the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Hiroshima had about 140,000 victims, about half immediately and half from the awful firestorm and radiation aftermath. Some of the personal accounts and suffering of victims are harrowing. There was quite a crowd viewing and for most of it, there was absolute quiet. Nobody talking, nobody even whispering. We were both quite emotional. Compulsory viewing for our politicians and military command.

Must say I thought the American’s pre-distributed leaflets over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, warning of the destruction to come. No mention of that in today’s account. Reading subsequently, yes there were leaflet drops warning of “normal” bombing raids, but there was no advance notice to residents of the two atomic bombs. The thinking was that they were to have maximum impact in bringing about Japan’s surrender.

Also in the park are the ruins of Genbaku Dome, one of the few buildings that was left standing near ground zero. We stopped and parked, especially to review and take pics. Other prominent sites include Shukkei-en, a formal Japanese garden, and Hiroshima Castle, a fortress surrounded by a moat and a park. Perhaps tomorrow or early Friday.

Wikipedia argues that the bombings caused the Japanese surrender, thereby preventing casualties that an invasion of Japan would have involved. There was talk by the American’s of saving one million casualties. A naval blockade might have starved the Japanese into submission without an invasion, but this would also have resulted in many more Japanese deaths.

Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argued that the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan “played a much greater role than the atomic bombs in inducing Japan to surrender because it dashed any hope that Japan could terminate the war through Moscow’s mediation”. Another view is the idea of atomic diplomacy: that the United States used nuclear weapons to intimidate the Soviet Union in the early stages of the Cold War. Although not accepted by mainstream historians, this became the position in Japanese school history textbooks.

Whatever the justification, the Japanese appeared to have been somewhat dilatory in responding to the allies’ requests for unconditional surrender before Hiroshima, after Hiroshima and even after Nagasaki. The Potsdam Declaration essentially gave Japan an ultimatum that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction”. So Japan was warned about ten days before Hiroshima. American bombers also dropped over 3 million leaflets describing the declaration over Japan. At first sight it appears Japan’s reluctance to surrender was attributable to divisions within the leadership and the Emperor’s insistence that his sovereignty be preserved. Did that effectively cost the Japanese, the city of Hiroshima and 140,000 lives and even more so the city of Nagasaki and 80,000 lives?

Thursday

Today we take off to Iwakuni about 45k’s to the south.

We walk over the Kintai-kyo bridge described as a “brocade sash” bridge because of the rippling effect created by its five linked arches. Originally built in 1673, it was destroyed by a typhoon in 1950. It was rebuilt as an almost exact replica and depends on precise joinery and invisible reinforced steel. The river is in flood today following rainfall over the last few days.

Also we can see in the distance across the other side of the river a police car travelling slowly along and making an announcement. They go on and on for maybe 15 minutes, blaring away. We have no idea what they are saying. We are on the bridge, taking photos and relaxing. We get almost to the other side from where we parked our car when I glance up towards the hills to the north east. It is pitch black and threatening. We scamper up and down the bridge arches and I run for the car. Lilly stops at a toilet shelter by the roadside. I reach the car as the heavens open, pick Lilly up and we park nearby for half an hour while the deluge continues. It gradually clears but still raining a little as we drive around on the park side of the river taking pics from the car of some of the pretty spots. It is obviously a major tourist attraction with parks, streams and a ropeway up the nearby hill for viewing.

We drive back towards Hiroshima, stopping at the Miyajima Island terminal pier and take the ferry to the island. This island is one of the most scenic spots in Japan, described as an “Island of Gods on the beautiful Seto Inland Sea”. In particular it is the site of the Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage site. The island also has a number of temples, including Toyokuni Shrine with a five-storied pagoda and Daiganji Temple. It is also famous for its upper hill side cherry blossoms and maple leaf autumn foliage.

How famous a shrine or temple is can generally be judged by how many streets of souvenir shops, restaurants, bars etc., you pass through before reaching the objective. On that basis the Itsukushima Shrine has to be close to top of the list. The famous gates, partially submerged during high tide, are shrouded in scaffolding with cranes and a crew working on them. We take pics for the record. The shrine itself is built on stilts over a cove and must look spectacular at high tide. It is low tide today and we are about two metres up from the sand. Both of us are feeling tired today. I have had a sore throat and cold for 2 or 3 days and it has left me feeling a bit lethargic. Lilly complains of the same feeling. So we ferry back and reach our hotel about 4pm for a snooze and a relaxing evening.

We are staying at the Grand Prince Hotel on a small Island about 5ks to the south of Hiroshima and have out of our huge front window on the 12th floor, panoramic views over the sea and islands, harbours and part of the city. Best accommodation on our trip thus far and about as cheap as any.

Friday

After returning our car we travel via the shinky to Fukuoka a city towards the top of Kyushu. Another car, this time a Nissan March awaits us close to Hakata Station and we wander around the city for three or four hours.

Stop firstly at the Ohori Park for photos over the water and park, pass on the ruins of yet another castle and the Fukuoka Art Museum.

We travel on a while to the outskirts of the city to an area called Momochi which is new development containing a modern shopping centre and office blocks, a huge Hilton hotel and a monster circular creation called Hawks Town, which was closed down and is to be re-opened as “Mark Is Fukuoka Momochi”. Something lost there in the translation surely? We stop for a buffet lunch in a Chinese restaurant in the shopping centre where Lilly chats to a girl from Dalian and another from Taiwan.

At the nearby Fukuoka City Museum we stop in the car for a snooze and then visit this very impressive museum for a wander around. This museum opened in 1990. The Samurai exhibition has not yet arrived and the permanent exhibition, which tells the history of Fukuoka, is not of sufficient interest to us to pay the admission. We are neglecting our cultural development but will take a chance on us compensating elsewhere.

After checking in to our hotel the Dormy Inn Premium we later in the early evening take a walk around Canal City and the precincts. Quite an impressive development with the Grand Hyatt along one side of it. Walk along the river where there are a number of little food stalls serving beer and snacks or meals. There is band and music. Very pleasant environment. On the way back in Canal City there is an amazing “Dancing Water” 3D show projected onto the nearby hotel walls and combined with coloured water fountains, lights and sound. Quite spectacular.

Saturday

Leave about 7:40 by car towards Nagasaki, first stop Arita. This is one of three notable pottery towns in the Saga Prefecture that is famous throughout Japan for its pottery, known as Arita-yaki. The history of Arita-yaki dates back about 400 years, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi attempted to invade Korea and brought back several highly skilled Korean craftsmen to Japan. In 1616, one of these craftsmen discovered kaolin – the mineral required to make porcelain at a local site – and consequently, Arita became the first place in Japan to produce porcelain.

We stop first at the Kyushu Ceramics Museum which was built and supported by the local prefecture to contribute to the local cultural heritage and the development of ceramics and pottery culture throughout Kyūshū. It houses mainly collections of pottery manufactured from about 1600 to 1900 that have been donated by two families. Astonishingly we are the only visitors to the museum, perhaps the electronic age has overtaken the Japanese and other tourists? Anyway we have the place to ourselves to appreciate the work and art that has gone into the creation of many beautiful pieces of pottery.

Not far away we stop at the Arita Porcelain Park which is a recreation of a traditional German village. Looming over the park is a reproduction of the Zwinger, a famous palace in the German city of Dresden. Inside the palace are supposed to be exhibits of both European porcelain in one wing and Arita-yaki in the other. But if they are there they are not available for viewing. Instead in one wing is a small shop selling a range of porcelain products. Behind the palace is a European style garden. Here too, there are not many visitors and the whole place looks a bit dilapidated.

We drive on to Nagasaki, a city which suffered a tragic fate as the second victim of an atomic bomb at the end of World War II, and a city which is also noted for its recovery and resurgence since. Our main objective is the Atomic Bomb Museum where we spend an hour or so poring over the artifacts and exhibits. The museum also has photos and videos which depict some of the devastation caused by the bomb of 9 August 1945, 3 days after the Hiroshima bombing. In a city of about quarter of a million, 75,000 people died and 75,000 were injured.

At one point the issue of warnings was mentioned. The suggestion was that leaflets were not dropped by US aircraft over Nagasaki prior to the bomb but only after it. But there is also some evidence that suggests civilians were warned of the destruction of cities in July with even a list of cities provided. Perhaps the real truth will never be known. For sure if the Nagasaki citizenry had been informed in advance that the destruction of Hiroshima was about to be visited upon them, you would have thought precautions would have been taken.

The other issue of course was the disregard of the Potsdam Declaration by the Suzuki government. The Emperor and a ‘fight on’ mentality undoubtedly influenced the thinking but could Nagasaki at least have been saved? Very possibly. If it were not for the hope that Japan would not be defeated but defend every inch of its homeland – if necessary to the point of annihilation – the country could well have reasoned that its position was hopeless and surrendered, saving both cities. The invasion of Manchuria by Russia was another factor at the time, some believing that was the last straw.

We visit the Spectacles Bridge and a rather old and rundown temple before beetling back to Fukuoka on the Expressway.

Sunday

Travel the length of Kyushu on the shinky in no time at all, despite about a dozen stops. It is raining and there is fair bit of fog. The countryside where we can see it is invariably neat and tidy with perfectly flat squares of rice and vegetables with villages, towns and cities. Where it is not so flat, forested hills dominate. It is green like NZ and Ireland. Water is not a problem here. Japan is about a third bigger than NZ from memory but has about 30 times its population. Between shin stations, except for tunnels, it is often built up most of the way. No fences and no animals, so all the pigs, sheep and cattle must be tucked away in barns or warehouses or whatever they call animal housing these days.

After we get off at Kagoshima we pick up our Nippon car and head south to Chiran. This was one of the castle-towns built to protect the feudal lords. There is no sign of that today as we head up the main street lined both sides with small pine trees neatly trimmed and the odd water wheel being churned by the pavement side stream.

We visit the seven preserved samurai houses and gardens of Samurai Lane, all having distinctive features that we would like to borrow for a miniature version in our own backyard.

On a hill above the village we watch a large group of old folk playing croquet. One or two of them are not much bigger than their croquet weapons and can barely walk. But they are part of the team which demonstrates suppression of the ego and the never say die spirit of the Japanese.

Nearby we visit the Chiran Peace Museum where there is quite a crowd reviewing the materials and exhibits, including damaged and undamaged aircraft of the kamikaze pilots who took off to a certain death in the sea of Okinawa in 1945. These young pilots, mainly in their early twenties (some as young as 17) were a part of the Japanese Special Attack Units who initiated suicide attacks against naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign.

According to a U.S. Air Force webpage approximately 2,800 Kamikaze attackers sank 34 Navy ships, damaged 368 others, killed 4,900 sailors, and wounded over 4,800. Despite radar detection and cuing, airborne interception, attrition, and massive anti-aircraft barrages, 14 percent Kamikazes survived to score a hit on a ship; nearly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank. About 3,800 kamikaze pilots died during the war.

As Chiran was the southernmost airbase of the mainland, the largest number of tokko (the Japanese expression for kamikaze) pilots launched from here. Again the stories of their recruitment, training, housing make interesting reading. The young pilots also wrote their final testaments and letters to parents or girlfriends or siblings, many of which have been preserved. The last few days of their lives must have been quite traumatic for them. Most regarded it as a sacred duty to defend the homeland but apparently some of them argued against it, even refusing to obey orders. Lieutenant Commander Iwatani, Taiyo said “I cannot predict the outcome of the air battles, but you will be making a mistake if you should regard Special Attack operations as normal methods. The right way is to attack the enemy with skill and return to the base with good results. A plane should be utilized over and over again. That’s the way to fight a war. The current thinking is skewed. Otherwise, you cannot expect to improve air power. There will be no progress if flyers continue to die.”

We book into our hotel which is in quite an elevated position overlooking the city. Later we catch its shuttle bus into the city where we wander through a lengthy covered mall and have a tasty meal, one of our first in Japan, before catching the bus back up to eagle’s nest.

Monday

There was a plan to drive through to the Nichinan Coast but it would have involved driving most of the day to go there and back. I settled on a drive around the bay from Kagoshima to the island on which stands the volcano of Sakurajima. That itself turned out to quite a drive with the traffic meandering along like Brown’s cows.

Sakurajima is an active volcano, formerly an island and now a peninsula. The lava flows from an eruption in 1914 connected it with the mainland. It is the most active volcano in Japan. We cross a bridge on to the island take a left and travel part way around, stopping firstly at an observatory to get good views of the mountain still partly obscured by cloud and of the surrounding ocean with its ubiquitous lobster pots and oyster beds.

Bit further along we take a drive up to the Yunohira Observatory which is 373m above sea level and about a third the height of the three peaks of Sakurajima. Magnificent almost 360 degree views of the bay of the city and of the mountain itself. Anna snaps away happily. We take another route down and back along the coast a short way to catch the local ferry, only 1300 yen for car and us back to Kagoshima in about 20 minutes.

In the afternoon after a relax at the hotel we visit the Sengan-en Garden and museum and house. Originally built in 1658 this was where the clan of Shimadzu lorded over its domains in Kyushu. With Kinko Bay on its doorstep and Sakurajima not much more than a stone’s throw away, you could hardly beat this place for views. Chinese influences can be seen everywhere, demonstrating that Kagoshima was truly the southern gateway to the world. The house where the clan lived has been mainly rebuilt. It is quite large but hardly stately. The gardens and majestic aspect, however, would have made it a worthy place to welcome dignitories from overseas, in particular Edward VIII of England and Nicholas II of Russia.

The glassworks was closed, but we did also spend some time in the museum which is housed in the oldest stone built western style factory in Japan. Some old British textile machinery is on display, hard to say exactly what its function was.

We got a photo of the History of the Meiji Restoration Museum but are too late and that will have to wait another day for a visit.

Tuesday

Travel to Okinawa, involving return of car, topping up with petrol first, getting a shuttle to the Kagoshima Airport, then the same process at the other end, all went smoothly although we got held up in a traffic jam in Kagoshima which got us edgy a bit for 10 minutes.

Make changes to M’s resume and a covering letter on the plane. Hope he finds another job quickly. He was fired from SP, the contending that L was responsible again.

Before we book in to the hotel we travel south around the bottom of Okinawa and visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum. This museum provides a history of Okinawa, a bit patchy in parts and difficult to follow, but unmistakeably critical of both Japan and the US.

It appears the island, populated by the original people described as Ryukyuan, was for long a vassal state of Satsuma (centred in Kyushu). It was then formally annexed by Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration and forcibly made a prefecture of Japan.  The Okinawans were assimilated and, against their will, made to become faithful subjects of the Emperor. They were then compulsorily conscripted into Japan’s war effort against China in the Sino Japanese war, then in the war against Russia and finally in the last battleground of the so-called “15-year war” that began in 1931.

According to Wikipedia, Okinawa Island had the bloodiest ground battle of the Pacific War from April 1, 1945 to June 22, 1945. During this 82-day-long battle, about 95,000 Imperial Japanese Army troops and 12,510 Americans were killed.

But the Cornerstone of Peace at the Peace Memorial Park also lists 150,000 Okinawans – approximately one quarter of the civilian population – that were either killed or committed suicide. The total number of casualties shocked American military strategists. This made them apprehensive to invade the other main islands of Japan, because it would result in very high casualties.

The material that we reviewed today was not just critical of the allies but more so overtly critical of the Japanese forces. The Okinawans were coerced into the war effort and in many cases either slaughtered by the retreating Japanese, forced to commit mass suicide or died of starvation.  The Americans to their credit set up refugee camps for the locals, but in those camps people continued to die of starvation and malaria. I wonder why the Japanese in the homeland (which was never invaded) could not have found some compassion within themselves to assist at that time in supporting their fellow citizens in Okinawa.

Another point at issue here is that Japan had already been forced back from the Pacific and was making a last ditch effort to defend its mainland, essentially by sacrificing Okinawa. Could Japanese strategists and cabinet etc., have not reasonably foreseen, prior to Okinawa, that America and its allies with their vastly superior forces would continue to prevail? Why was it necessary for so many lives to be sacrificed because Japanese “face” and psyche could not wear the thought of defeat?

And this was before Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Perhaps fighting inch for inch over Okinawa more than anything else underlay the justification for the use of the atomic bombs. Pity the Japanese still had to be convinced of the futility of fighting on. The issue should have been beyond doubt prior to Okinawa and most certainly by July 1945.

Okinawa was rebuilt under US control in the years following the war. In 1971 there was an agreement between Japan and the US in which the United States relinquished in favour of Japan all rights and interests it had, thus returning the island to Japan’s sovereignty.

Okinawa is still a strategic location for around 26,000 US military personnel spread among 32 bases and 48 training sites. The presence of the US military in Okinawa continues to cause political controversy on the island and elsewhere in Japan.  That it should do so, given Japan’s history with China and Korea, is quite unbelievable.

We travel on to Okinawa World where we traverse the large limestone Gyokusendo Cave and look around a theme park about Okinawan culture. The Kingdom Village is a replica of a traditional Ryukyu village with workshops introducing the various traditional Okinawan crafts, such as weaving, dyeing, paper making, pottery, sugar cone processing and glass blowing. There is a small orchard with a wide variety of fruit trees growing. This is an overtly commercial venture, in our view not worth the admission fees. The cave is one of the longest in Japan with large stalactites (from the roof?) and one large stalagmite but not many have joined in a mighty tight embrace.

Book into our hotel which is fairly basic but we have a large bedroom and a good view. Broadband is non-existent.

Wednesday

We get our own router first thing this morning and now have decent broadband. I can download emails and send emails. Catch up on yesterday’s stuff including diary, emails, payments, notes to KM and M etc. We both swim in the heated pool downstairs and the morning passes without us going out. Okinawa was always supposed to be for two days uncluttered rest anyway.

This afternoon we take a drive out to the islands off the coast from Okinawa, namely Hamahiga, Miyagi and Ikei. On all three there are settlements, sugar can in some areas is grown, otherwise the villagers seem to depend on fishing. At Ikei we stop at a golden sands beach. It is not our intention to swim but rather to walk along the sand but the beach is fenced off and at the entrance we are told the fee is 400 yen each, about $6. I can’t help but feign astonishment that someone can fence off a nice beach and charge swimmers.   Feign, because this is not the first time we have encountered a beautiful beach in Japan only to find you can’t get to it without paying. Neither can I stop myself from mentioning to the collection official (in a kindly manner) that we come from Australia where all beaches are free to be used by everyone. Lilly lectures me subsequently about it and I have to acknowledge that I can be patronising and pedantic!

Drive back through Uruma and Okinawa.  A bit tatty and dilapidated compared with the mainland. Note the evidence of American troops, helicopters and jets and huge oil tanks, presumably for storing strategic supplies. See later that this is stored by the Saudis but Japan gets priority claim in the event of an emergency.

Thursday

Very windy today with frequent showers and at times heavy rain. We swim early and venture out about mid-morning.

First stop the Shurijo Castle Park, a World Heritage Site and described as the magnificent Shurijo Castle. In reality this was a castle that was almost completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa. Between 1429 and 1879, it was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, before becoming largely neglected. Beginning in 1992, the central citadel and walls were largely reconstructed on the original site based on historical records, photographs, and memory. It is possible there was a castle constructed here as early as 1322, but it was burnt down several times and rebuilt.  Wikipedia also says that unlike Japanese castles, Shuri Castle was greatly influenced by Chinese architecture, with functional and decorative elements similar to that seen primarily in the Forbidden City. The gates and various buildings were painted in red with lacquer, walls and eaves colorfully decorated, and roof tiles made of Goryeo and later red Ryukyuan tiles, and the decoration of each part heavily using the king’s dragon.

We take photos and watch a video but do not get overly excited. A castle built in 1992, even if a faithful replica does not capture my fancy, except from the perspective of its history significance.

Nearby we tackle the Kinjo Stone Pavement Road. The car bucks a bit as we go up and we have a bit of a problem turning at the top because somebody has their car parked awkwardly. The road pavement is wet and slippery and irregular, probably because it dates back to the 16th century.

We stop in the city of Naha to briefly savour both the covered markets off Kokusai Dori Street and a ham burger at McDonalds.

It is raining heavily and visibility is poor as we head for the Umikaji Terrace a rather unique shopping area opened in the summer of 2015. It is an island with over 30 shops, restaurants, cafes, and boutiques, on a circular road overlooking the sea. The buildings, stairs, and sidewalks are a creamy white colour. Great on a sunny day but with the gusting wind and rain, almost invisible today.

Our last full day in Japan today. Okinawa is quite distinctive and could do with a lick of paint but we must not judge Japan by the last couple of days on this island.  Overall it has been an enjoyable adventure. We have added to our understanding of Japan and the Japanese, my impressions of both have been enhanced if anything.

Tomorrow Taiwan.

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