A few hours on a bus going south, a brief overnight stop, a few hours on a ferry and then I was back in Japan, frantically trying to separate Japanese and Korean expressions in my head. The fact that I was finally back only sunk in properly after I got stuck behind a Sumo wrestler on the bus (there’s a Sumo tournament in Fukuoka in November) and found that the toilet in the bus station played running-water noises to cover the sounds of any bodily functions. I had a few hours to spare before my bus to Tokyo, so I went on a wander and found myself in the middle of the enormous Fukukoi Asia Dance Carnival. This, from what I could gather, consisted of all the local schools (and/or dance outfits) performing an Asia-themed dance routine at one of two locations – a routine that has to contain elaborate costumes, lots of shouting, flags, fans and a compere-cum-backing singer keeping the crowd informed. There was a lot of energy.
As the shortest (and therefore least seasickness-inducing) ferry to Japan docked at Fukuoka, I had the privilege of taking Japan’s longest bus journey (14.5 hours) overnight to Shinjuku, and another bus from there to the airport to meet my folks as they came off the flight battling jet-lag (but not officialdom, as the new foreigner photographing and fingerprinting rules haven’t come into force yet). After collecting maps at the tourist information point, we boarded a slow train into Tokyo, transferred to the metro, walked a good long way and rolled into the hotel several tiring hours later. We were lodged in a slightly more upmarket part of town than I’m used to, and the views over Tokyo to Mt. Fuji, not to mention the bathroom consumables, rather impressed me. After orienting ourselves, we walked into Ginza for some tempura and went to bed early to sleep off the travel fatigue.
Tuesday was our first full day in Tokyo, and we went up to Ueno to tour some of Japan’s national treasures at the museums. David and I took a side-trip to a nearby temple and graveyard, and discovered another temple claiming to have 84,000 Jizō statues in its grounds (Jizō is a Buddhist deity, the guardian of children, travellers, firefighters and the dead). The National Museum covered a huge site, complete with huge buildings, for a relatively small collection – possibly it requires large spaces for the droves of visitors in the high season – but was interesting nonetheless. We discovered a flea market while walking round the lake (actually a kind of lily field as you couldn’t see the water for plants), and after sunset went down to Shinjuku (discovering in the process that metro passes aren’t valid on suburban JR lines) for the famous night view of the Tokyo from the Metropolitan Government Building.
The following day, Dad and I took a walk from Ochanomizu (where we’d been looking for a transport museum) all the way east to Ryogoku – him for the Tokyo-Edo Museum; me for the Sumo Museum. The exhibit turned out to be mainly wrestler profiles and old match flyers, so I headed back west to check out the Meguro Parasitological Museum – the world’s only museum dedicated to parasites and a popular date spot for local students. There were shelves upon shelves of carefully-preserved things removed from people and animals, some rather unpleasant photographs and a few couples wandering round wishing they’d gone to the cinema instead. David and I got up early to see the famous fish market at Tsukiji, which turned out to be like a giant fishmonger and not the warehouse full of enormous and exotic sea creatures I’d been expecting. We squeezed into the narrow aisles with a few hundred other tourists (thanks to the market being in all the guidebooks); everyone taking photographs and generally getting in the way of business.
Our first stop in the Japanese countryside was at Takayama, a small town nestled up in the hills and a welcome break from the exhaust fumes of the capital. We found the Rickshaw Inn ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) both friendly and characterful – though any accommodation provider that subscribes to National Geographic has to be worth staying at. With only a day and a half or so to spare, we did a tour of the local Folk Village (next to some height-of-tack cult temple topped by a giant snooker ball) including feeding some giant carp) and I took a wander in the autumn-coloured park before visiting most of the local temples (conveniently built in the same district).
At Kanazawa, our only visit to the north coast, the weather took a turn for the wetter and we found ourselves in the middle of a huge thunderstorm whilst out and about looking for somewhere to eat. The rain held off (though the sky brooded a lot) while we looked round Kenrokuen (one of Japan’s top three gardens), but the clear skies in Kyoto were a welcome sight. Having dropped our luggage off, we immediately walked out to the temple at Kiyomizudera (passing an enormous and interesting graveyard) and fought off both the crowds of tourists at the entrance and of those of hopeful couples at the shrine to the god responsible for matchmaking. A delicious falafel dinner and some sleep later, I went and marked myself as a fan by visiting the International Manga Museum (actually more of a private library) and then took a short train ride north to see Ryoanji Temple, which I’d missed last time. The temple contains a famous Zen garden consisting of fifteen rocks placed in an auspicious pattern – from the viewing area, you can only ever see a maximum of fourteen unless you stretch out rather dangerously and already know where a certain rock is.
Our penultimate stop was Hiroshima – somewhere I’d visited before but wanted other people to see. We arrived in the afternoon, did the museum and park, and found quite by chance a superb African-decorated jazz cafe with Mexican food. I took everyone out to Miyajima the following day, so that they’d at least seen one of Japan’s top three sights, and marvelled at the 2.5 ton giant rice scoop that I’d somehow missed the previous time. There is still no food available for the tame deer, so they’ll most likely be eating ice creams and the local waffles in perpetuity.
Finally, we trundled into Osaka and our last few days in Japan. Dad and I went to take a look at the Human Rights Museum, which had a lot of material but was slightly lacking in English explanations (even on the audio guide). It was extremely interesting to see a Japanese museum talk openly and fairly about issues like indigenous people, Koreans and women – all of whom have had few or no rights in the past. That afternoon I eagerly went out to Ikeda (a satellite city just north of Osaka) to find a rumoured rabbit/marmot petting zoo set in a beautiful park. I found the park (as beautiful as advertised), but the touch section of the zoo was closed (possibly due to it being winter) and I could only watch several rabbits hop around in their pen (which was larger than those of some of the larger animals, including the emus). Australian animals were especially well-represented, as there is some kind of partnership between Ikeda and a town in Tasmania – perhaps there’s a zoo over there full of tanuki.
As I type, my family is preparing to fly back to the UK and I take a train to Kyoto in a few hours. From there, there’s an overnight bus to Fukuoka (thankfully not as long as before) and I should be back in Yongin sometime on Saturday night. I am very glad that the PSP has a full charge.