Japan


Tōkyō Bay

Yakiimo truckFor my last few days in Japan, I went back to Tōkyō – the huge sprawl of concrete and neon that gave me my first taste of this country almost exactly two years ago. Oddly, being there didn’t thrill me as much as it did before; I had either become desensitised to vast urban conglomerations during my time in Seoul, or was just too familiar with the place for it to have the allure of the novel. Most museums and shops were still closed for the holidays, so I spent a lot of time on foot exploring new neighbourhoods and avoiding the teeming crowds pressing into the temples and shrines to make their New Year offerings.

Kanda at lunchtimePlastic beer

Tōkyō cosplayersOne thing I had read about that I quite wanted to photograph was the cosplay-zoku (Costume Play Gang), an inconstant group of (mostly) teenage girls who hang out on Harajuku’s Meijijingu-bashi (a wide bridge near Meiji Shrine) dressed as characters from manga/anime series or computer games, or in whatever unique and subversive style has taken hold that season. Unfortunately, almost everyone was engaged in New Year-related activities and most people on the bridge were disconsolate photographers.

In no particular order, I also browsed Ueno’s kitchen supply street (featuring shops selling only plastic food, red lanterns for your izakaya, split hangings, automatic melon deseeders etc.), went to look for the ultra-nationalists at Yasukuni Shrine (they were also off for New Year), stumbled across hundreds of goths queuing for a An Cafe concert, followed a truck selling yakiimo (roast sweet potato) by literally singing its virtues, got harangued at length on a bridge over Tōkyō Bay by an elderly homeless guy pulling a recycling cart (who also apologised at length and then disappeared when I got up to take a photograph of the sunset), watched feral cats try to catch pigeons (who were in turn trying to get breadcrumbs from people eating lunch in the park), wondered aloud at the profusion of purpose-built bagel-, banana- and onigiri– (rice ball) lunch boxes, heard a recognisable Neon Genesis Evangelion theme ringtone and, perhaps most importantly, made final preparations to get my flight back to Europe tomorrow morning. Next stop, London.

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Although I’d only visited two of the five local lakes, I had plans in Tōkyō and so bid the area a fond farewell. Before leaving, though, I made it a point to walk the short distance across Lake Kawaguchi to take a look at the mountain both at night and at dawn. Thankfully, the weather was still clear and I was rewarded with swirling snow, colourful clouds and even a recognisable constellation.

Fuji dawn (1)Fuji in Kawaguchiko

Orion over FujiFuji dawn (2)

Gokodai sunsetI left Kyōto early on a bright and sunny day, for what I expected to be a 10- or 11-hour journey to Kawaguchiko (河口湖), a small town at the base of Mt. Fuji. Everything was running ahead of schedule (I’d managed to get to the station a little earlier than planned and take advantage of a quicker service), and exactly when my confidence in an early arrival was at its peak we ran into a huge snowstorm just outside of Ōgaki. The train slowed to a crawl, punctuated by fifteen- to twenty-minute waits at each rural station (with the doors open), though services in the other direction seemed completely unaffected. Even the Shinkansen services were delayed, meaning that the storm must have been severe even by Japanese standards (on a related topic, Shinkansen services yesterday were delayed due to a “track invasion”, which I think may be a euphemism for a suicide). We emerged into glorious sunshine at Nagoya, and ran straight into the next flurry a few kilometres later. I eventually rolled up fourteen hours after I’d boarded the first train, rarely so glad to see a resting place.

Mt. Fuji (1)I awoke late the following morning to almost painfully bright and sunny weather – perfect for getting blinded by the snow on the gigantic volcano a mere 25 km away. When it’s not hidden by the other mountains in the region, it completely dominates the skyline and constantly draws your attention with its looming presence. To get myself acquainted with the region, I puffed up Mt. Tenjō (天上山) near the excellent K’s House hostel and got my first clear (and highly impressive) view. I followed this up with a quick walk around the nearest part of the lake, and then headed for the mountains.

Mt. Fuji (2)Mt. Fuji (3)

Mt. Fuji (4)Sea of trees

Mt. Fuji (5)I had initially planned to walk down to one or two of the other local lakes, but quickly came to realise that the distances were much farther than they appeared to be on the trekking map. Having walked as far as Lake Saiko (西湖), I decided that I’d get my view of Mt. Fuji at sunset from the lofty peaks of Mt. Ashiwada (足和田山) and proceeded to follow a very poorly-marked trail up to Sankodai (三湖台 – with good views over Aokigahara/青木ヶ原, Japan’s top suicide spot) and Kouyoudai ( 紅葉台) before almost running back to the main peak of Gokodai (五湖台) to catch the last light. Just as I was packing up my equipment, the sound of bear bells alerted me to the presence of another (over-cautious) hiker – the first person I’d seen on the trails all day.

Tōdaiji (1)My initial plan for my second day in the Kansai region was to head down to the temples complexes at Ise (Shinto’s holiest site, containing the sacred mirror of Amaterasu) and/or Kōya-san (Shingon Buddhism’s holiest site, reckoned to be the spot where Miroku Buddha will return to Earth to collect the faithful), but after much train timetable browsing I realised that both would entail around eight hours of travel for two hours of sightseeing. Not wishing to spend any more of my limited time in Japan on a train than necessary, I instead went out to the far more easily-accessible city of Nara (奈良; a former Japanese capital that predates even Kyōto).

Upon arrival, I joined the throngs making their way over to the temple complex of Tōdaiji (東大寺) and did my best to avoid both the worst of the crush and the hungry deer. Like Miyajima, Nara is infested with Sika deer (Cervus nippon) who hang around waiting for people to feed them (one reportedly ate a traveller’s JR Pass). This led to many comic scenes as children of various nationalities got frightened by them, ran away, got chased, got rescued by parents and then tried to eat the deer biscuits themselves.

Nara deer (1)Nara deer (2)

NigatsudoDeer and lanterns

Tōdaiji (2)Graves to Kiyomizudera

The main hall of the temple is gigantic, and so I walked around to the picturesque mountain just behind it to get a better photograph. However, the it turned out to be closed for redevelopment (how do you close a whole mountain for redevelopment?) and the only things there were a few hopeful-looking deer. On my return to Kyōto, I took a very roundabout route back to the hostel and hiked the mountain just behind Kiyomizudera – I had been hoping for a panoramic view of the city at sunset, but was met only with dense stands of cedar.

Kiyomizudera (1)Kiyomizudera (2)

Kamigamo (3)Although I’ve been to Kyōto (京都) twice before, I wasn’t about to pass such a rich concentration of Japanese culture by and so decided to take a couple of days to see some of the things I hadn’t had time to in previous visits (it also made a convenient stopping point between Hiroshima and Mt. Fuji). I based myself in the north-west of the city (determined more by where had vacancies during the busy New Year period than by where was best-placed for the sights I wanted to see), and so had a lot of walking (and hence exploring) to do. I struck out early in the morning, and immediately stumbled quite by chance up on a small shrine dedicated to good departures and safe journeys. I made an offering to keep me safe on my way back to Amy in Canada, and continued on my whirlwind sightseeing tour.

I breezed through several of Kyōto’s lesser-visited temples and shrines in relatively short order, all of them frantically setting up stalls, decorations and signs for tomorrow night’s New Year (c)rush. These preparations aside, they were mostly quiet and serene (I surmised that all the tourists were out at the bigger name attractions such as the Gold and Silver Pavillions), and I was able to explore the plethora of torii, altars and incense virtually unobstructed. The peace even extended down to the river, and I saw my first wild kingfisher (probably Alcedo atthis) – though it was much too wary for me to photograph.

Kadode HachimanguKamigamo (1)

ShimogamoNanzenji roof

Chion-in (1)Chion-in (2)

Tofukuji bridge (2)Tofukuji bridge (2)

Imamiya ShrineKamigamo (2Only in Japan

Chion-in inappropriate lanternInari crane wreaths

Inari fox modelsThe last place on my list for the day was the Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), head shrine of Inari (the Shinto god of fertility, rice and foxes to name but a few areas of influence). What makes this shrine unique is the sheer number of donated torii and the (over)abundance of kitsune (fox) statues – great photographic opportunities abound, and are seized by every visitor with a camera. I wandered around until dark, and scuttled off just before dark lest my gloves not provide enough protection (among other magical abilities, kitsune can possess people by entering the body under the fingernails, but it’s usually young women that are chosen as victims).

Inari torii (1)Inari torii (2)

Inari torii (3)Inari fiery altar

Nanzenji SanmonInari guardian (2)Inari guardian (1)

Redundant and oxymoronicFor only the second time ever, Japan Railways let me down and brought me to Hiroshima around 30 minutes late (a 2-minute change turned out to be just not feasible, putting tomorrow’s 1-minute change in doubt). With all accommodation unexpectedly booked up for the next few days, I hit the nearest manga/internet café, settled into a plush reclining chair with the usual array of free drinks and quickly discovered that: i) there was a dirty lino floor rather than a comfy mat; ii) the lights were not going to be dimmed overnight; and iii) people browsing the internet make a lot of noise. I therefore slept quite fitfully, but sufficiently to explore the city for the third time.

Unfortunately, it being a Monday, most of the non-atomic-bombing-related attractions were closed and I spent most of my time in the vicinity of the Peace Park. It turns out that there’s an abandoned baseball stadium just over the road from the A-Bomb Dome, which would also have been interesting had there not been far too many people around to make an entry feasible. The Peace Park, as expected, was largely unchanged save perhaps for a few more paper crane wreaths, but the Peace Memorial Museum had acquired a few new items from the time of the bombing. There were also a couple of temporary exhibits – themed artwork from survivors (highly disturbing) and the winners of an international children’s painting/poster competition (surprisingly Obama-heavy).

Memorial CenotaphChildren's Peace Monument

A-Bomb Dome (1)A-Bomb Dome (2)

With a little time to spare before presenting myself at a Wikitravel-recommended capsule hotel (in a part of the city ominously described by the tourist-office-approved map as “a bit of a dodgy area”), I hiked over to the hills on the northern edge of town where a large stupa had been erected as a memorial from the people of India and Mongolia. It reportedly contains some of the Buddha’s ashes, along with artefacts from the victims of the bombing.

Fountain of PeacePeace Pagoda

One does not simply ski into MordorAs I was walking from the smoking crater of Mt. Naka (中岳) towards the less-active Mt. Eboshi (烏帽子岳) (a possible inspiration for Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke), I happened across an abandoned ski field. While ski slopes clearly don’t rate as highly as hotels or amusement parks, the place was still interesting and (given the rate of decay) had clearly been abandoned for some time.

Walk or waitChairlift motor

Abandoned polesThe chair lift, severe rust aside, was more or less intact, though the chairs had all been piled inside the main building (presumably when the place was closed down,to prevent them falling off). All the rental equipment – skis, boots, sledges, clothing and so on – was still stacked neatly on the shelves, and the offices seemed to be completely intact (even down to tea-making equipment). It looked as though the place had been abandoned almost overnight, with no effort made to salvage anything useful or even retain the business records. I didn’t have enough time to check the place out properly, but it was a superb addition to an already fascinating day.

Abandoned chairsNo more rentals

The last cupWaiting to restart

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