Japan 2004

Here is a small movie of the trip. Make sure you keep watching to the end, so you don't miss my tanuki imitation (belly drum explosion).

The plan of our trip was mostly to see Shikoku, which we had not visited much. I am writing this travelogue two years after the visit, so some details are missing.

We flew with Austrian airlines. Don't get me started on how awful that was. Ended up going through Beijing, which was yellow with Gobi dust. In the past, we had flown on free tickets that we had received for being bumped off the Virgin London to Boston flight. Sadly, Virgin seems to manage their overbookings better these days.

We rented a great phone at the airport. It worked everywhere, had an email address and sent pictures. We could be on some obscure train line and the kids would ask "How many more stops?", and I would say "Let's ask the phone!" I also used it to check used-book prices while I stood in a bookshop. I still can't do this with my Nokia at home...

Shin-Osaka Youth Hostel Delicious grasshopper Having lived for four years in Tokyo back in the early 1980s, I was never much of an Osaka person. But an old school chum was on sabbatical there with his family, and it is near P's Japanese "parents" from a home-stay when she was in high school. So we spent two nights at the Shin-Osaka Youth Hostel,which was brand new and shiny clean with a nice bath. And we had a room to ourselves with four bunks and a tatami area. Perfect.

Also I got to know the Osaka station underground warren pretty well. We met often at Kinokuniya bookstore, where we stocked up on Doraemon comics. And behind that is the used-book arcade: paradise for me, though pricey. Further from the station we found the baseball-practice place you can see in the video. And in an arcade near there, while the rest of the family was having a nice sushi lunch, I found another used bookstore. The first four floors were porn, but the top was a wonderland of old books. I picked out a book of old photos of Fuji, and some bound proceedings of the Asiatic Society that included a few Hearn articles. I was sorely tempted by a woodblock book of butterflies for ¥60k (I regret not buying it now). What was weird was, the owner was away and I had to negotiate with a woman downstairs, over a stack of very explicit magazines...

As usual P's Japanese mother cooked an enormous feast at her house. She remembers everyone's favorites (Ross: soba, me: koebi no karaage, P: pumpkin, and so on). This time she even had some inago (grasshoppers) because she remembers that once upon a time I made a big deal about eating lots of bugs.

Resting with Totoro at Ritsurin park John magics up some waraya sanuki udon We stayed at Rihga Hotel Zest in Takamatsu for two nights. It was across from another bookstore!

At Takamatsu station you should try the strawberry shortcake mochi. It is like eating trifle through a balloon -- the texture is so awful (with chalklike powder on the outside) that I had to have P feed one to me, so I wouldn't touch it. Good, though.

Takamatsu now makes me think of Kafka on the Shore.

I took John on a proper pub crawl, where we found some fantastic pickled fish at one place, and some less fantastic giant sea snails at another.

A tanuki took my shoe from our yurt Strongman art at Naoshima From Takamatsu we took the ferry to Naoshima, the modern-art island. We stayed in a yurt for our two nights. At left is the tanuki that we supposed took one of my shoes. The yurts were luxurious, with beds and one of those high-tech kerosene heaters.

Naoshima is an absolutely fantastic place to visit. Besides the museum itself, there are art installations all over the island. A giant squash sits on a pier. An old house has its floor made into a pool with glowing LED numbers. A forest temple has glass steps. Most amazing of all was a house that was utterly dark inside. You had to be led in single file. Unseen hands urge you to sit down in the pitch black. Even Griffin was unnerved. After quite some time your eyes adjust and you can see just a little bit...So much conceptual art is trivial, but this experience stays with me.

The huge barbecue feast that you see in the movie is on Naoshima. You were supposed to order in advance, and P overdid it. Not that we minded.

We sadly parted from our friends at this point, since they had to fly back to the US.

Scarecrow ladies Kazurabashi vine bridge We picked up rental car at Takamatsu airport and drove to Chiiori. I had read Lost Japan and thought that Mr Kerr's farmhouse would be fun to visit, as would the nearby Oboke gorge and the Kazurabashi vine bridges. The bridges have steel cables in them to be on the safe side. But there were also workmen hardening vines with blowtorches, for maintenance.

There is no bath at Chiiori, so we went to a modern one close by. It had a huge indoor pool with various sluices and bubbles. But you could also take a tiny railway car up to some outdoor pools. I think they were co-ed but you never know. A bunch of old ladies enthused to me about the snow on the moonlit mountains and the cherry blossom in bloom at the same time. Gosh, I love onsen.

A hike in Shikoku Udo for dinner at Chiiori Daisuke was the reigning Chiiori caretaker. He had found some udo which we grilled over the hearth in the floor. A writer and a photographer from the magazine Iitabi Mitsuketa were visiting and took pictures of us, and though I had a friend procure one issue subsequently, it was not the one with us in it.

We hiked to a waterfall with the magazine people. We also hiked along the roads, where Ross found a golden plastic castle in a junk pile. This now sits in his room.

Not far from Chiiori is a dog kennel, where they also kept a wild boar.

We also hiked into the mountains above the vine bridges. I wish we had scheduled time to take a really long hike. I love the sasa no yuki.

a wild boar

We drove back to Takamatsu, dropped off the car, and took a train to Matsuyama, where we stayed at the Dogo Onsen Youth Hostel. P's Japanese mother had told me that there are basically no really good onsen in Shikoku, including Dogo although it is very famous. Well, as you read we had a lovely onsen experience near Chiiori, but I agree about Dogo. It is like a museum where you take a bath. Different from the usual ryokan experience, but worth doing once.

I found a nice first Kodansha edition of Norwegian Wood in Matsuyama.

Yukata in Momijiso on Itsukushima From Matsuyama we took the ferry to Miyajima. On the way it stopped at Kure, where I met a woman leading a tour of Australian schoolchildren. It turned out that we had both taught at TCLC way back in the 80s!

Miyajima is probably the most touristy place in Japan. I had been there before, but thought that the kids would like it, what with the deer and all. The ryokan, Momijiso, is sort of a "beginner's" place: the meal was tonkatsu, not what you really expect at this price, but they do cater to foreigners. Also, the priests at the temple refused to sign the kids' diaries, saying they were not proper temple books. No other temple or shrine in Japan has ever balked at sharing their calligraphy this way. Oh well. The whole town was out around the big torii at low tide, gathering asari, and the townspeople were very friendly. Something about the scraping sound of the digging, and the spurting clams, and the big torii, made us want to compose haiku. I can't remember any now. An old lady gave the kids some oranges.

As a nurse, P is normally indifferent to alarming symptoms in anyone, including herself. But she felt that a pain in her leg could be a blood clot, so we used the amazing international health insurance phone line and she had a fancy CAT scan in Hiroshima while the rest of us climbed Mount Misen, praying at the small shrines along the way. This worked, because she had a clean bill of health.

Torii up the hill in Tsuwano From Hiroshima we went to Tsuwano, where we stayed two nights at Meigetsu. That was easily the best cooking that we ate (apart from P's mother's). We especially fancied a sort of soba log rolled up with chicken. The pottery of each dish matched the pottery of its sauce dish. Ross loved watching the carp in the gutters, and then eating their sashimi at dinner! We also had a great sesame salad dressing here, which P imitates and serves in a rough pot bought in Tsuwano.

The castle ruins above the town are very sabishii.

The shrine on the hillside is spooky at night. I took the boys for a long walk in the dark up the lantern-lit torii pathway. Someone was practicing a big drum somewhere in the gloom.

We thought about a side trip to Hagi but did not manage it.

The part in the video where I drum my stomach like a tanuki was at Meigetsu. Then I reach for some of the excellent local Nihonshu. I was referring to the tale of the tanuki who drums his belly until it bursts. Here are some pics of a version of the story, from Shojoji no Tanuki, Yuhodo 1955:
Tanuki drumming Tanuki has burst his tum Tanuki memorial stone
It looks like Shojoji is in Chiba, so should be easy to visit next time we go to Tokyo. We might even catch the festival.

We moved on to Matsue for a Hearn pilgrimage, and because I had always wanted to head over that way, and to see Amanohashidate. We stayed at Terazuya (¥27,500) which is a little run down but cheerful. The owner gives you his rendition of Noh or Kabuki songs at dinner. We had thought about Chorakuen, which has a rotenburo, but suddenly couldn't stomach the expense.

Hearn's garden is worth seeing, though a member of the Hearn Society lies in wait nearby and buttonholes you if you are not careful. A bit down the street is a microbrewery that makes Hearn Beer, a fine tribute to the man, or so I felt after a few half-pints.

We liked Matsue Castle, especially as there was festival food in the grounds: Ross ate a whole box of tako-yaki. On the top floor of the castle, one of the kids dropped the shoe-box key onto the roof. When we apologised at the entrance, they said it happened pretty often.

The boat tour in the moat and canals was pleasant. Claire was amused that she was the only person who did not need to duck when the boat roof lowered to go under bridges.

Old book from Kyoto I forget why, but we felt the urge to leave earlier and return to familiar haunts, so we popped back to Kyoto and stayed at the Coop Inn for a few nights. I had a whole day to myself to hunt used books. In fact, I found a book with a map of 100 used bookshops in Kyoto! Heaven. Most book stores deny that they have anything in English, but they usually do, way down at the bottom of a dirty forgotten pile. Ross elected to come with me instead of doing temples with P, and I think he came to regret it, though I did buy him a cool T-shirt. On the left you see one of my scores.

We did a lot of shopping, which, as I recall, does not lead to family harmony. Oh well, we all still want to return.

Then back to Shin Osaka Hostel for 2 nights, and home to England.

Many thanks to the Akehi family.

貴方の家とロンドン郊外の一軒家を交換してみませんか? 欧米ではポピュラーなことなのですが、夏休みなどに一定の期間 お互いの家に住み替えられる家族を探しています。基本的に金銭のやり取りはなしです。 家の使い方など書面で置いていきます。もしくは、お互いの家族の一人が先乗りして 情報を交換します。条件が合えば、車の貸し合いもありえます。 ご興味のある方は是非!


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