Robert and I met in the 6th grade of school in Munich and have been best friends ever since. I missed him a lot during my year in New Zealand, and I was afraid I’d miss him just as much again during my time in Japan. This time, however, it turns out to be quite different, for Robert decides to visit me here in Japan for three weeks, and together we should embark on a jolly journey…
It all begins with me picking up Robert at Narita Airport on 5-May-2018. Since he’s only staying for three weeks, his luggage is not quite as extensive as mine.
After a heartfelt welcome full of jokes and friendly jibes (boy have I missed those), we return to our hostel so Robert can shed his gear, and then we’re all set to start with…
The Tokyo Throughput
5-May-2018 – 7-May-2018
Now that I’ve been here for a whopping 3 months, that makes me the ideal guide to give Robert a tour of…
As I already mentioned in the last chapter, Robert and I are staying in the Asakusa Smile Hostel in Sumida-Ku. The bathrooms outside the rooms are kinda crappy, the beds are uncomfortable and squeaky with weird blankets that come off easily, and we have to share a dorm room with another person. At least there’s good free WiFi, and it’s warm and close to everything. The price isn’t too bad either, though I still feel it’s about 40% too high.
Also, there’s a wee bit of a problem with the stovetop in the kitchen.
On the other hand, it does have its amusing Engrish moments.
Fortunately, we do spend most of our time outside, starting with…
The Great Tokyo Round-Trip
Robert gave me a list of places he wanted to visit in Tokyo. Today, I should try to hit as many places as possible on that list, and we would travel all over the map as a result, making liberal use of the Tokyo Transit System in the process.
Our first goal is Odaiba, and it goes without saying that we take the Yurikamome to get there, racing across the roofs of the town.
Arriving there, we are soon privy to a sight that’s about as wrong as it gets… and on so many levels too.
It’s not like we want to be there, nor is it open at this hour, so we move right on, and after showing the giant Gundam Statue and the Odaiba State of Liberty to Robert (see Book II ~ Chapter 2 ~ Touchdown in Tokyo), we move right on and take the Yurikamome across Rainbow Bridge, and past this ship sunken in a theatre and into the heart of the city.
The original plan was to go and visit the Imperial Gardens. However, since I don’t pass the security check at the gates due to my incredibly dangerous leatherman, we have to change our plans. Frankly, the one thing I'm most disappointed about is that they stopped me because of my leatherman, but didn’t even realize I had an even more perilous Swiss army knife in my pocket (they did superficially check my backpack though).
Oh well, that just means we can proceed to our next attraction all the sooner: A ride with the fabled Marunouchi (丸ノ内 “Inside of the House”) Metro Line.
One of the reasons is that it takes its role as a subway pretty liberally and features extensive above-ground segments along its route. And then, it also has a station in the 2nd floor of a freaking building.
And then, we arrive in Ikebukuro (池袋 “Pond Pouch”), the famous entertainment district of Tokyo. It also has a thing with owls (梟 “Fukurou”), a pun on the “Bukuro”-part, which would explain the many owl spots around here.
It’s here that we get hungry and Robert drags me down right into the rabbit hole, where we get served delicious Omrice (オムライス), a mixture of omelette and rice. In addition, I try out an interesting combination of apple-vinegar juice, and make a mental note of trying this one by myself once I get back home, for I find that the acidic taste of the vinegar balances the sweetness of the apple juice perfectly.
Alone the size of the dessert is a bit disappointing.
Subsequently, we proceed to walk towards Rikugi-En, passing Tokyo’s one tram line along the way.
Rikugi-En (六義園 “Six Honours Garden”) turns out to be a bit of a downer for Robert, who expected to see the whole place in full bloom, and I, too, am a little bit disappointed considering that we 300¥ apiece to see what effectively is only a 4-hectare park, not much different from any of the free, public parks. The top attractions here are a semi-natural stone bridge, a small bunch of blue flowers in the middle of a “no trespassing” lawn, and the former site of a tea house.
Moving on from there, we take the Yamanote Line past a number of very interesting hotels…
…and arrive at our next stop, the Toukyoukokuritsuhakubutsukan (東京国立博物館 “Tokyo National Museum”).
There are many interesting pieces on display. However, what’s a bit of a bummer is that they are just standing there without much description about what they are or how they were used. For the most part the descriptions resemble those found in an art museum, even if some of the pieces on display are historical artifacts from hundreds if not thousands of years in the past.
After that, we walk through Ueno Kouen, past the statue of the Water-Puking Frog…
…and into Akihabara, which is quite busy with today being a Sunday and all.
We do not spend too long there, however, for our final goal for the day is one that we need to reach before sunset. I’ve been building up the suspense for the past three months, and now, with Robert here, it’s finally time to ascend the mighty Tokyo Skytree.
With 634m, the Tokyo Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa of Dubai with its 830m. Completed on February 29th 2012, this architectonic masterpiece has ever since become the new landmark of Tokyo and primary broadcasting tower displacing the Tokyo Tower, which is no longer quite as impressive or functional ever since it was surrounded by high-rise buildings. Beneath the Tokyo Skytree, there’s an impressive shopping- and event megaplex including famous cafés, restaurants, an aquarium, and even a Pokémon Centre.
But enough stalling. Up we go onto the Skytree, and although the majority of the ride in the elevators is inside the building, there is a short, 15-second segment where we can see outside on our way up.
The Skytree is divided into two decks: The lower Tenbou (展望 “Outlook”) Deck with three floors from 340m to 350m, and the upper Tenbou Galeria from 440m to 445m, meaning that you can get almost half a kilometre above the surrounding area, and the view is absolutely fantastic!
Even only from the Tenbou Deck, we already get an amazing view on so many of Tokyo’s defining features, such as the Sumida River…
…Sensou-Ji and the Five-Story Pagoda…
…and even the mighty Arakawa (荒川 “Rough River”) in the distance, forming the eastern border of Tokyo City, though the radiant metropolis stretches far beyond its shores.
Also, there’s what I’d call Skytree-targeted advertising, because this is probably the only place from where you can see this particular add.
Much like the Sky Tower in Auckland (see Book I Chapter 2 ~ Absolutely amazing and astoundingly awesome adventures at Auckland), the Skytree also has a glass floor segment. However, this one is not nearly as impressive as that of the Sky Tower, since it has way too many steel crossbars for a clear view down.
Afterwards, we take the next elevator up to the Tenbo Galleria. One clever marketing trick the Japanese use here is that there is a second sales counter up here at the Tenbo Deck selling extra tickets for the Tenbo Galleria. It’s 2060¥ per person to get to the Tenbo Deck, and another 1030¥ per person to proceed to the Tenbo Galleria. That makes it about 50% more expensive than the Sky Tower in Auckland, but since you can get more than twice as high up in exchange, it’S more than worth the price.
From up here, we see the last piece that was still missing to perfection. The snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji is visible on the horizon.
And now, we wait for night to fall. We have managed to time our trip well enough that we arrived close enough to nightfall, and although the weather conditions prevented us from seeing a nice sunset, we still get to experience the Radiant Metropolis at night from on high.
The Tokyo Tower in particular seems tiny from up here.
For the Grand Finale, I take some long-exposure shots of the Radiant Metropolis stretching indefinitely towards the horizon in all directions…
…and then we get in line to get down. Just like in the Metropolitan Government Building, getting back down proves to be a more difficult endeavour than getting up.
But eventually we do get in, and then it’s a ride back down the massive shaft of this colossal building.
Down in the Megaplex, we start looking for a place to have dinner. Sure, there was a restaurant up in the Skytree, but eating there was out of the question for a variety of reasons, the first and foremost one being that dinner there is prohibitively expensive, ranging from 12,000¥ to 15,000¥ – a price range at which I could easily buy a month’s supply of Kitsune-Udon! Lunch and dinner!
Instead, we eventually turn in at an Okonomiyaki Restaurant in the Skytree Town megaplex. This one is a slightly different kind, and the food is not prepared at your place, but rather in the kitchen. However, in exchange you have a direct view into the kitchen, as it’s pretty much part of the dining area.
As for the Okonomiyaki itself, it’s as usual satisfying and filling, both to Robert and myself.
And with that, this day comes to a close, and we return back to the hostel on foot. Tomorrow, there should be another big day of exploring Tokyo, and a very special one at that, for I of all people was summoned to give…
I probably should have seen this coming, but I didn’t. Having travelled to Japan for the primary purpose of visiting Inari Shrines and seeing foxes, I have familiarized myself with the matter quite intimately, and now I appear to have reached the point where people are starting to see me as an authority on the subject to the point where they want to interview me about it. And what better place would there be for such an interview than the big-ol grand-daddy of all Inari Shrines, the Anamori Inari Shrine in Ota-Ku? Also, it’s the perfect pretext to ride the monorail down there with Robert, and tick off a few more items on his list on the way back.
The people who want to interview me are Nathanel Creson and his grandmother Safta from Israel, the two of whom are on their own backpacking adventure through Asia and making videos about what they call “The Gran Adventure”.
The weather holds up just long enough for me to give them an elaborate rundown about the Shinto religion, the goddess Inari, and the role of foxes in Shintoism, Nathanel filming me all the time, and eventually editing his recordings into a little teaser-like video which I am free to share with you.
After the interview, the weather gradually starts to become more rainy, but that won’t stop me from showing Robert more of Tokyo. Our next stops are Shibuya, Harajuku and finally Shinjuku.
In Shibuya, we briefly stop by the Moyai-Statue again – which has two faces, as I’ve found out by now, so I use the opportunity to take a picture of its other face.
Afterwards, we stop by the CoCo Curry House and have some yummy vegetarian Cheese Curry Rice. I'm still very fond of it, yet it doesn’t turn out to be one of Robert’s favourites.
Subsequently striking out towards Harajuku, we pass by a rather queer Hachiko Statue in front of the Tower Records building. Must have been one heck of a windy day.
Speaking of adverse weather, the rain around here is also gradually becoming more insistent, yet Robert remains determined to explore more of Tokyo, and bound by friendship and hospitality, that leaves me little choice but to continue guiding him through the elements’ wrath. After all, there is still stuff I want to show him myself.
A little later, we arrive in Harajuku, another of those “must see” spots in Tokyo. Upon seeing it Robert and I both ask ourselves “Can someone please explain to us why we had to see this so badly?”. I mean, sure, it’s a nice shopping district, but nothing you wouldn’t find in any other major city like, say, Munich. Maybe with a little extra flair, but still…
Our next stop is the Meiji Shrine, which is almost completely devoid of people this time due to the meanwhile Lv4 Rain that has penetrated my coat and started soaking my clothes beneath. I have to admit that it is a majestic sight and I'm happy that Robert gets to enjoy it, but my own excitement is somewhat dampened by the wetness seeping into my undergarments.
Wish that we could just call it a day there and then, but unfortunately the Meiji Shrine is rather isolated in the middle of the park, so we have to enter the rain again to get out. Imagine my joy when we finally Finally FINALLY arrive at the southernmost reaches of Shinjuku’s extensive network of nicely dry and warm underground walkways.
It is in one of the buildings connecting to the underground walkways that we observe what happens if two escalators get close and comfy with one another.
As we tour the shopping malls of Shinjuku, we realize that there are entire buildings filled exclusively with clothes stores for women. This is a result of how traditional Japanese families work: The husband works, and the wife manages the family’s finances, and since the husband usually spends six days a week at the job with only brief intermissions at home for sleeping, that gives the wife some liberties as to how to spend her day and… allocate budgets (hard working Japanese husbands are usually too tired from work to ask questions about such things and don’t have time for hobbies anyway).
We round off the day with a stack of Sushi at the same running sushi restaurant in Shinjuku that a local Furry by the name of Phyxius originally showed me. This time, Robert is absolutely amazed by the selection and quality of the food, and even though it shouldn’t be the best sushi he should eat on the trip, he still admits that he could easily eat enough sushi here to burn a hole in his wallet. It’s a good thing he’s still partially satiated from the curry rice, but even so the stack of empty plates in front of him reaches a sizable height.
And with that, our stay in Tokyo already comes to a close. 2 days may not quite be enough for Robert to gain the same amount of familiarity with it that I have obtained over the last 3 months, but nonetheless, we have managed to tick off the majority of items on Robert’s list for Tokyo. As for me, I’ve seen quite enough of it by now. Having been here for pretty much exactly 3 months, I’ve visited 14 of the 23 special wards that make up the core of the Radiant Metropolis (plus the nearby Kanagawa Prefecture)…
…plus I have walked what must be hundreds of kilometres of different roads and encircled a total of 107 km².
But now, it is time for us to leave the big city and appreciate…
The Nature of Nikko
8-May-2018 – 10-May-2018
After pretty much exactly a quarter year in the Radiant Metropolis, I am finally on the road again. On the morning of 8-May-2018 we depart from the Asakusa Smile Hostel, and ride the Metro towards Ueno-Eki with only minor complications, such as an unintentional kilometre-long walk with all of my heavy luggage due to me misinterpreting the directions of a station attendant. Either way, we eventually arrive at the platform from where our train is due to depart, and I am excited to be officially on the road again.
Our route there leads us first to Kurishashi-Eki (栗橋駅 “Chestnut Bridge Station”) with the JR Utsunomia Line…
…and from there on to Nikko with the faster, cheaper and somewhat more comfortable Tobu Nikko Line. The one downside is that the announcements here are incomprehensible due to being in Japanese and at a volume where even a native speaker would struggle, but since we are headed for the final station of the line, I'm sure we’ll be alright.
I may have already mentioned that there is a number of different railway network services in Japan, and while JR (Japan Rail) is still the biggest one, the Tobu Lines are a perfect example for a different provider, running alternative lines such as the one to Nikko, but all of them eventually arrive at the same goal.
Now, since we are about to begin our travels through Honshuu (本州 “Main Island”), the largest of Japan’s four primary islands, let me give you a short overview of its geography: Just like the South Island of New Zealand, Honshuu is divided by mountains from north to south. Unlike New Zealand, however, that division is not as complete, and there are numerous routes to get from the west to the east coast and vice versa. The most mountainous region are the Japanese Alps to the west of the Radiant Metropolis, which form a knot in the middle of Honshuu. Meanwhile, our travel route leads us more or less directly north through the valley next to the Echigo and Ou Mountains.
For now, we are off on the first leg of our grand journey together, eventually leaving the Radiant Metropolis behind us, and entering the fields, and later the mountains of Tochigi-Ken (栃木県 “Chestnut Tree Prefecture”), and with it the valley of Nikko.
The Nikko Tobu Station, one of the two train stations in Nikko – the other one being the JR Nikko Station – is one of those very definite final stops.
The hostel I booked for us is called the Nikko Park Lodge, which is a little ways out of town and up the hillside, which turns out to be quite fun with my heavy luggage.
But we eventually make it, and arrive at what should be our base of operations for the next three days.
With that, we have now officially arrived in…
Well, literally, Nikko translates into “Sunbeam”, but unfortunately the weather does not quite want to agree with that description at the time of our arrival… nor during the following two days.
Yet that doesn’t stop Robert – whom I’ve never realized to be quite this adventurous up until now – from dragging me out of the hostel almost as soon as we’ve dropped off our luggage to go on a tour through Nikko under my barely capable guidance, and so we’re off to…
The Nikko Town Tour
This should be more or less an impromptu trip guided by geocaches, but it should nonetheless (or maybe because of this) lead us by quite a number of nice places.
Even during that initial exploration, we already come across quite a number of Shrines and Temples…
…most notable of which is probably the Shougi-Shrine. Shougi (将棋 “Generals’ Board Game”) is a traditional Japanese board game not unlike chess with distinctive pentagonal wedge-pieces as seen in this Shrine. One of the most distinctive differences from chess is that in Shougi, players can return captured pieces to play under their own control, meaning that the number of pieces on the board remains relatively constant throughout the game.
Another thing that catches my eye is the large number of private Shrines in backyards and gardens. It would seem that the Shinto faith is indeed strong here in Nikko.
We also pass by the Shinkyo (神橋 “Sacred Bridge”), which spans the width of a beautiful meltwater river. Unfortunately, the bridge itself is currently undergoing repairs, so we have to cross the waterway via a nearby road bridge.
Subsequently, we turn in at a traditional Japanese restaurant…
…where we have a hearty lunch of Yakisoba, followed by the experiment of fried quail eggs. The Yakisoba is both to mine and Robert’s liking, and the fried quail eggs too are not bad, but nothing I’d pay extra for either.
As we continue to explore Nikko, we pass by a number of restaurants advertising their dishes, and while I'm used to the plastic replicas of food in the windows by now, the flying forks and pizza are definitely new.
At dinnertime, Robert and I share an experience set of Sushi, Sashimi and Yuba at another local restaurant. I’m assuming you’re all familiar with Sushi, and Sashimi is pretty much the same thing without rice. Yuba, however, is a local specialty of Nikko. It is food made from layered tofu-skin, which forms while boiling tofu, and turns out to have a rich and juicy taste.
Afterwards, it’s finally time to return to the hostel for good and have a better look at it. The common room is nice enough and features a furry friendly fluffball companion, and the dormitory is okay, although the beds are really hard. Futons simply were not made to rest on wooden lattices. Most notably, even this hostel has its own little house Shrine.
The next day – our first full day in Nikko – should be loaded! Not only do we complete a full tour of the entire Shrine- and Temple-Hill of Nikko, but we should also scale a nearby mountain, for better or for worse. This would be…
The Nikko Shrine Swing
For historical reasons, the majority of Nikko’s Shrines and Temples are concentrated on the foothills to the northeast of the city, which should make it easy for us to construct a route that passes the majority of them.
As you might imagine, this means that the number of Shrines we would visit today is quite substantial.
Perhaps most notable of those are the holy stones, of which we encounter a few on our path. With Shinto being an animistic religion, it is not particularly surprising to find stones being venerated the same as trees, but I have yet to grasp the oncept of why certain stones are chosen, and not others.
Then, there’s the famous Sake-no Izumi (酒の泉 “Spring of Sake”), the water of which is supposed to taste like Sake. However, since I don’t fancy the taste of alcohol, I don’t pay it any particular heed.
We also stop by the major Shrines and Temples in the area, those being Taiyuu-In (大猷院 “Large Plan Temple”), Futarasan-Jinja (二荒山神社 “Two Wild Mountains Shrine”) and Toushou-Gu (東照宮 “East Shining Shrine”), the latter of which contains Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb. However, since there is an admission charge to each of those and tourists abound despite the rain, we decide not to visit either of them, and instead proceed to the next item on our list.
Toyama (外山 “Outer Mountain”) is the name of the peak we want to climb today. It starts relatively harmlessly with a hike along a forest trail…
…but while the trail leads us to a glade filled with vibrant, fragrant flowering trees…
…it does not quite seem to be the right track, and so we soon have to fall back on some impromptu cross-forest mountaineering.
Fortunately, we soon enough come across a clear guidepost leading us back on the right track.
A track which soon enough becomes quite steep and even a bit tricky, I might add.
But eventually, we reach the top, which has a small and slightly dilapidated Shrine. This Shrine was erected to ward the Demon Gate, which according to Shinto Mythology is the north-western cardinality – an inauspicious direction from which evil spirits and demons are thought to come. As such, this Shrine was built atop a mountain to the northwest of Nikko to intercept the evil spirits approaching from that direction.
Now that we have successfully scaled this mountain, we are rewarded with a majestic view of the valley of Nikko.
Well, at least we get the satisfaction of having made it all the way up to 880m on our own. Granted, Nikko itself is already at 580m, so it was only a net total of 300m, but that’s still something, especially factoring in the treacherous way up here.
On our way back down we pass through a total of three Torii – which is two more than we passed on our way up. Also, it is already beginning to get noticeably darker, and since we heard that there be bears around, we’re eager to be out of the woods by nightfall.
And we almost make it. But then, within sight of the first houses, a beast crosses our path. Fortunately, it is only a shy Tanuki, and the little racoon dog makes his exit far faster than I can brandish my trusty camera. Nonetheless, this makes this otherwise disappointing endeavour suddenly worthwhile in my opinion, since this was the first time I have ever seen a wild Tanuki, and at a distance of little more than ten meters too!
Next, we strive to find some food. Not an easy task in a tourist hotspot – at least not on rainy days when all the shops are closed due to a lack of customers, as we have to find out. It is only after a long search that we find a single open shop selling food – and even there the two of us are the only customers. On a plus note, this restaurant sells Yuba-Ramen, so we have an opportunity to taste this speciality of Nikko in a different context.
Working and Washing in Nikko
The next day should be a work day for me, and while Robert should use this day to explore some more of Nikko’s attractions such as the Kanmangafuchi (憾満ヶ淵 “Full-of-regrets Abyss”) and the Imperial Villa, I remain at the hostel and earn some money doing remote work for my job as a software developer, and occasionally petting the dog
Also, I have to make some time to get the laundry done. Unfortunately, the hostel doesn't have its own laundry machine, so I have to walk all the way down into the city to get my washing done at the coin laundry. The upside to this is that I can take care of Robert’s laundry as well and thus buy him a little more time for his explorations since the capacities of the washing machines and driers at the coin laundries start at “Uh oh…” and go up to “Dafuq?!?”. Incidentally, I seem to be one of the few people who does not come here by car.
Conveniently, there is a rather sizable supermarket nearby, so I can get my shopping done while the laundry is in the drier.
One thing I find there is a Japanese specialty by the name of Melon-Pan (Melon Bread), which should become part of our last breakfast here in Nikko. Much to Robert’s dismay, this turns out to be a cookie-dough pastry that is only shaped like a melon. I, hover, find the taste quite appetizing.
Another interesting specialty is Cheese Egg, which turns out to be… something… probably involving cheese in an egg-like shape… that is edible. Words fail to describe it properly, so I can only recommend that you try it yourself if you get the chance. Either way, it’s not going to be one of my favourites.
So much for our stay in Nikko. Coming up next is the one place I’ve been looking forward to visiting for the last… uhhh… few years? Either way, concrete plans have only existed for a few months, and now I'm finally on my way to…
A Village of Vulpines
11-May-2018 – 14-May-2018
On the morning of 11-May-2018, we take our leave from the Nikko Park Lodge, but not without me putting a little something in the guest book.
Since we planned liberally, we arrive at the station a bit early. Since I'm a big fan of “Bis repetita non placent” (repetitions do not amuse), I have planned our trip to continue with the JR Nikko Line, so we can depart from Nikko’s other train station and take a different route out of the railroad-wise dead-end valley.
Our coming here early gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the humorous info graphics, such as the instructional poster for how to open doors or the “have a nice trip” poster warning about the excessively wide gap between train and platform.
But our personal highlights are still the tri-lingual advertisements for the “Free Bus Pass”, a convenient and economic travel pass for “T-O-U-R-I-N-G-N-I-K-K-O”.
The train itself is not quite as comfortable as the Nikko Tobu Line, but it does have a dedicated station plan which not only accurately depicts the stations’ relative distance and height, but also the sights one can see when looking out of the windows on one particular side. I guess that means that these trains always run on the Nikko JR Line, and always face the same way. Talk about dedication.
Our route this time should be somewhat of an odyssey. Sure, we could have taken the fast way and travelled to our next destination of Shiroishi (白石”White Stone”) by Shinkanzen, but instead we opt to take the scenic route and travel by local trains, which takes about 5 hours and involves changing trains a total of 5 times in Utsonomiya (宇都宮 “Heavenly Capital Shrine”), Kuroiso (黒磯 “Black Beach”), Shin-Shirakawa (新白川 “New White River”), Koriyama (郡山 “County Mountain”) and Fukushima (福島 “Lucky Island”). Yes, the Fukushima. But don’t worry, the reactor accident was not actually in the city of Fukushima itself, but rather in a coastal town by the name of Ookuma (大熊 “Big Bear”) within the prefecture of Fukushima. Our closest approach to that place is actually in Koriyama, and even there we are still a comfortable 55km away, and there’s an entire mountain range between us.
The trains we travel with this time are all relatively small, but although they are all different in design, you can actually get a nice view out front in all of them as we zoom through forest, fields and towns.
It is on this trip that we should first get into a Wanman (ワンマン), though we shouldn’t realize the full implications of that until later. The first indicator that something is different in this “train”, however, is this display at the front.
Being able to read at least some of the Kanji, I eventually figure out the purpose of the display: Each cell refers to a station and the number within is the fare you have to pay if you got in at that station and get off at the current station. That’s why the current and future stop’s cells are blank, and the numbers in the previous cells continuously count upwards as we pass more and more stops. However, the exact process of how to pay should remain a mystery to us at this point. Fortunately, this shouldn’t cause any major problems yet since normal tickets and IC cards such as our Pasmo card work just fine at major stops like the ones we get in and out. Well, at least they kinda work, but more about that later.
Now, on the topic of Wanmans, and what we should eventually figure out about them: These are actually railbuses – either a single one or two of them joined together.
“Wanman” stands for “One Man” and describes the fact that these vehicles are operated by a single person. Now, the special thing about this is that they also serve minor rural stations that do not have ticket gates, station attendants or even ticket machines. So how do you pay? Well, you have to get in at a certain door – usually the middle or back door – and pull a ticket that records which station you got in. Then, when you get out, you get out at the front door and hand your ticket to the one man who incorporates both engineman and conductor and pay your fare as displayed on the screen. It’s easy if you know how. Unfortunately, the instructions are a bit hard to follow if you don’t know at least 1000 kanji.
When we arrive at Shiroishi-Eki, we run into a slight problem right away: Although there are IC-card readers, they do not accept our IC cards. It turns out that the IC cards only work for trips inside certain areas, and we unknowingly crossed over from one area into another. Fortunately, the station attendant is able to manually book the fare from our IC cards and remove the lock placed on them, so everything is fine for now, and we have thus successfully arrived in…
Since our destination is a bit off the public transport grid this time, we’ve rented a car for this leg of our journey. Fortunately, I have pre-emptively taken the precaution of getting a translation of my driver’s licence a few months ago (see Book II ~ Chapter 3 ~ Living, Learning and Working), so I am actually allowed to operate our cute little Suzuki Wagon R.
The place we’re staying in are the Kamasaki Onsen (鎌先温泉 “Previous Scythe Hot Springs”), which are about 6km out of town, and also 200m up into the mountains.
As we drive the distance and go up the hills, I am sincerely grateful that I’ve invested in a rental car this time. I wouldn't have wanted to walk this distance – and especially height – while carrying my luggage.
Our accommodation is the Suzukiya Ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn (旅館: Ryokan “Travel House”) – which may not look like anything special from the outside…
…but the rooms are really something, featuring traditional Japanese tatami mats and even a tea set complete with finest tea herbs.
Naturally, that also means that we sleep on Futons.
Next, there’s an outdoor Onsen on the roof that gets its water directly from the Kamasaki Hot Springs…
…and also an indoor-version for colder days. For those of you who are not familiar with Onsen: These are not for washing, but rather for relaxing, so before you enter the hot bath, you have to thoroughly clean yourself at the nearby shower stations.
Since the only proper way to use an Onsen is blissfully naked, there are separate baths for both men and women. Fortunately, the division is unambiguously stated on the curtains in front of the entrances.
Anyway, it goes without saying that Robert drags me right out of the door again as soon as we have dropped our baggage, and thus begins…
The Lesser Yajiro Romp
There isn’t really much in the direct vicinity of the Ryokan worth exploring – much to Robert’s dismay – but that apparently won’t stop us from exploring it anyways, and so we set out to walk north to the nearby village of Yajiro (弥治郎 “Increasingly Calm Retainer”) and back again.
Along the way, we pass a house that’s clearly gone downhill…
…and walk across a bridge adorned with interesting cylindrical dolls that we should yet learn more about.
We also come across a lone and old shrine on a knoll in the woods next to the road…
…and make our way through what can only be described as idyllic untouched nature.
Night is already rapidly approaching by the time we reach Yajiro, and so we eventually turn back and return to the Ryokan.
Now, another great thing about this place is the food. Although the entire stay should not come cheap…
…Robert and I agree that it was probably worth it for the food alone. Dinners at this place are served right into the room, and consist of a mix of traditional Japanese food, including all sorts of fish, rice, soup, vegetables and meat on elegant plates arranged in a way that indubitably maximizes Feng Shui. Once I inform them that Robert is a vegetarian, they even go out of their way to prepare equally yummy meat-free alternatives.
One more perk is that part of the meal is cooked right in front of you on special boiling platters that are ignited by the staff as the meal is served.
Overwhelming though the dinner might be, the desserts still fall into the “cute” category. Must be a Japanese thing.
Afterwards, we wrap up the day by donning the Yukatas (浴衣 “Bathing Clothes”) provided by the Ryokan, and taking a relaxing dip in the Onsen on the rooftop.
Afterwards, we quickly go to bed. I am especially excited, for tomorrow should finally be the day on which I would visit…
The Foxiest Place on Earth
We begin our day with a hearty Japanese breakfast served right into the room. With both dinner and breakfast being this plentiful, even Robert agrees that we probably won’t need any lunch.
One particularly notable dish here is the Natto (納豆 “stored beans”), fermented soybeans with a rich, earthy taste. They are also quite sticky, and tend to fall into the “love it or hate it” category of foods. Much to my delight, I seem to belong into the “love it” group. The trick is to mix the Natto with just the right amount of soy sauce (the perfect amount of which is conveniently provided as part of the breakfast arrangement) to create a harmonious symphony of flavours yet still leave the Natto sticky enough that it can be conveniently eaten with chopsticks.
And then we’re off to the one place that is heavily advertised all along the roadsides around here.
It’s another 8 km to get there, and while we ostensibly could have walked that distance along the dotted line, I still say getting the car was worth it.
At first, I’m so worried we might accidentally miss it that I end up driving up a back-country road, but as it turns out that fear was completely unfounded since you couldn’t possibly miss the place if you tried.
So, after over three months in Japan, and what feels like a lifetime of looking forward to this day, I have now finally arrived at the one place I always wanted to visit. Welcome, everyone, to Miyagi Zao Kitsune Mura (宮城蔵王キツネ村 “Princess Castle Storehouse King Fox Village”).
The following section contains many cute foxes. I will not be held accountable for any cuteness overloads that happen as a result of reading the following section, viewing the pictures in it or watching the videos. Also, it’s probably going to be really long.
At 1,000¥, the entrance fee is ridiculously cheap. Yet before we can enter the actual we have to read the safety instructions which are illustrated by the cutest pictures, and written in the most adorable Engrish.
The entire village is divided into two major parts: A caged area where foxes are displayed in a zoo-like fashion, and the main attraction, the open fox range, and areal about 1 hectare in size where you can walk freely surrounded by real life foxes with no barriers whatsoever.
The caged area serves as a hub of sorts, as well as a resting place since you can’t just sit down inside the open fox range for “Hi, butt! Meet fox teeth!”-reasons.
Apart from foxes, there are also other animals on display, such as goats, ponies, fox food and family-sized fox food (aka Patagonian Maras, large relatives of guinea pigs).
Then, there’s the fox nursery, which apparent contains three-headed foxes. Actually, this is another instance of Engrish, whereas the correct translation would be “Three foxes”, with “heads” being the counter, as in “heads of cattle”.
And then, there’s also a fox hospital for sick and injured foxes.
The main attraction, however, is without a doubt the open fox range, where well over a hundred foxes freely run around and play in what really can only be described as a fox village. There are even plenty of houses for its vulpine population.
Roughly at the centre, there’s the feeding station…
…which is constantly surrounded by leagues of hungry foxes in a charming siege from all sides. Radiant!
At just 100¥ a bag, fox chow is incredibly cheap to come by. Naturally, I don’t miss out on the opportunity to generously distribute a few delicious titbits.
Another central element of the open fox range is the Kon Kon Kaidan (コンコン階段 “Yip Yip Staircase”) running from the entrance to the feeding station and past it.
With up to three levels of balconies on either side, this makes it really easy to get face-to-face with the foxes without having to risk crouching down.
Also, there naturally is an Inari Shrine here, only this one has live fox guardians in addition to the stone statues.
But the one thing I'm really looking forward to is the “Invent of Holding Fox”, which comes at another 600¥.
This is probably the one time in my life when I actually get close and cuddly with a fox, and since it’s that time of the year I actually get to cuddle with a cute kit. Unfortunately, the little rascal doesn't seem to enjoy it nearly as much as I do, so I refrain from coming back for seconds.
After that, it’s back into the open fox range, where apart from foxes, there are also many informative billboards around. It’s a shame I can’t read any of them, but this level of Kanji usage is simply beyond my capabilities at this point.
The only one I can figure out is this fox to human age conversion chart, according to which I would be a three-and-a-half year-old fox. Also note that apparently different Kanji are used to denote the age of humans and other animals.
Meanwhile, the foxes start raising quite a ruckus as feeding time approaches in a nearby breeding station.
Which makes for a need transition to fox vocalization. I mean, you’ve probably all heard of this by now…
…and while the basic answer to that question would be “Yip” (or maybe “Kon”, since we’re in Japan), the more factual version would be that amongst the vocalization of foxes there are many diverse elements such as barks, whines, chirps, yaps, growls, yelps and screams. Unsurprisingly, they’re at their most vocal while fighting.
Yes, I could veritably stay her forever, surrounded by these delightful balls of cute adorable fluffiness on all sides.
Interestingly enough, they do seem to be naturally drawn not to me, but rather to Robert. Maybe that explains why I stick around him as well? =^,^=
Anyway, eventually the closing time for the day approaches, so I grudgingly leave this vulpine haven behind… but not without hitting the souvenir shop hard and leaving over 9,000¥ at the counter, more than tripling the amount I spent on souvenirs thus far. Oh well, I got lots of exceedingly cute stuff from it, and in the end the foxes will profit from it, so I guess it’s alright. My exorbitantly overpriced spoils include a shopping bag, a tail-pouch, a fox-head purse and a bag of mixed goodies. “You should have bought the pillow too”, Robert says even as we leave, but with no space to spare in my backpack I really don’t know where I would have put it.
And with that, this very vulpine episode comes to an end. However, this should not be the end of our adventures in Shiroishi by long shot, today we would go out to see…
Mountaintops and Mannequins
Wanting to make sure I get at least one clear day to visit Zao Kitsune Mura, I planned in an extra day into our stay at Shiroishi. And since we do have a car available, we can now use that extra day for a thorough tour through the terrain.
Our first destination is all the way up in the Zao Mountain Range. First, we have to circle the might Mt. Zao itself, with its height of 1841m. The Zao Mountain Range is actually a complex volcanic landform, featuring many spectacular sights, some of which we should come to see today. However, first we have to brave a dreadfully twisting and winding ascent up a curving mountain road through imposing canyons of ice.
The last few hundred meters are a reasonably cheap tool road with an integrated parking lot (or maybe a metered parking lot with an access road), and then we’re off to walk the mountaintops of the Zao Mountain Range, our first stop being Kattamine Jinja (刈田嶺神社 “Reaped Field Peak Shrine”), atop the nearby Katta Peak.
However, the real reason why we came here in the first place lies between here and the next peak over in a crater.
Okama lake, also known as Goshiki Numa (五色沼 “Five Colour Pond”), is truly a marvel to behold. Its apparent colour changes with the weather, and even in these overcast conditions it remains a vibrant speck of colour in the otherwise monochrome landscape.
The lake itself is 360m across and 60m deep. Its peculiar colour probably comes from the volcanic sulphur that dominates this area.
“Hey, let’s go up to the peak over there!”, Robert suggest, and while I’m initially opposed to the idea, I eventually change my mind, and thus we begin our hour-long ascent towards Kumanodake (熊野岳 “Bear Field Peak”) through ragged terrain and whipping winds.
And then, we reach the officially highest peak of the Zao Mountain Range. At 1841m, this one doesn't even make it into the top 50 highest mountains of Japan, but it is still one of the highest mountains I’ve ever climbed, and probably the most arduous thus far what with the rather unpleasantly biting cold wind and occasional showers.
The weather might not be all that nice, but the panorama up here is still impressive… almost otherworldly.
Naturally, there’s a Shrine up here as well, this one being the one and only Zaosan Jinja (蔵王山神社 “Mt Zao Shrine”), which should also become the highest Shrine I visited in Japan (thus far).
Afterwards, we make our way back down the mountain again, and while Robert suggests that we take the ultra-scenic “another six hours around the lake” route, I'm quite happy to take the easy way back to the parking lot this time.
We make a brief stop at the rest station, which I note is one of the last places where I would have expected to see a sign like this.
Moving on, our next destination is the Zao Yaki Manpuu Kama (蔵王焼万風窯 “Zao Searing Wind Pottery”), which may not look like much from the outside…
…and really isn’t much more interesting on the inside either. Apparently, there are pottery classes at some time, and there’s also a store with the perfect souvenirs to take along in a backpack that will get thrown around like crazy on the plane.
So, moving on, we continue straight to the next point on our list: The Kokeshi-Kan (小芥子館 “Kokeshi Museum”).
Kokeshi are these unusual cylindrical dolls that we have noted earlier being prominent in this area, and this place tells us all about them. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours.
Just kidding, the only shape they come in is “cylindrical”, and the only colours are red, black and wood. However, they do come in a range of different sizes from about a metre in size to only a few centimetres. These peculiar dolls are a regional specialty of the Touhoku Region. The process of making these toys was quite arduous, and is documented on a number of traditional drawings.
Today, only a few masters of this trade remain as Kokeshi have long since been replaced by more popular toys, and have become a cultural heritage. Meanwhile, we have the high honour of watching one of said few remaining masters in action at this very museum – albeit using more contemporary methods.
Our next stop after that should be the Zao Cheese Factory. However, that should turn out to be just a collection of stores selling cheese- and milk-related goods – such as Zao Cheese and Milk Cubes – with some occasional workshops. Further observations along my journey, however, should eventually confirm that the English word “Factory” apparently has come to mean something like “store” or “outlet” in the Japanese language, for I should encounter many more “Factories” along the way.
Instead, Robert and I wrap up the day by going on a stray through the woods near Yajiro.
We start out with a visit to the Kokeshi Shrine near the Kokeshi Village in Yajiro…
…and then proceed through forested hills past tanbo (田んぼ “Rice Paddy Fields”)…
…as well as another really old Shrine, this one dedicated to a mountain god and featuring an expert-level staircase.
Eventually, we return to the Ryokan just as the Kokeshi-lanterns are being turned on.
There, we enjoy another hearty Japanese dinner, which is most welcome, for tomorrow there should be…
No Rest for the Wicked
I originally intended for today to be a day on which I would work diligently on my blog and get a lot of writing done.
Unfortunately, the winds have other plans for me, such as having me drive Robert into the town of Shiroishi so he can check out the sights, such as the ancestral Shiroishi Castle.
Although we go separate paths from there, I can’t help but at least go for a brief stray through the city, checking out local Shrines…
…peculiar canal constructions…
…and most importantly, the white stone after which the town is named (note: not actually a white stone).
But after that, I drive straight back to the Ryokan and proceed to diligently work on my blog without any further detours.
Okay, actually not really. At the first sign post I miserably fail my will save and take a left straight back to the fox village.
Once again, the foxes are up and at it all over the place. Some of them are quite vocal today, while others have taken to silently fighting out a corner conflict over the shrine.
Also, I take note that part of the Kon Kon Kaidan appears to be undergoing renovations today (not that the foxes mind).
It also goes without saying that I should not make it through the souvenir store unscathed. This time my critical weakness to foxes (and by extension fox-related merchandise) should leave a 15,000¥-wide hole in my wallet. My spoils this time should include another two tail-pouches to properly represent my status as the head of tri-Tail, a t-shirt, a Japanese-style door curtain, and the cushion which I couldn’t stop thinking about ever since Robert mentioned it. Fortunately, by now I have hatched an ingenious plan about how to transport it (that is, having Robert carry it in his less crowded backpack).
But after that, I finally get to work on my Blog… for about two hours before I have to drive back to the outskirts of Shiroishi via a rather adventurous route to pick up Robert at the end of his stray.
And while we’re there, I should also take the opportunity to go geocaching in the nearby hills, which serve as a forested cemetery of sorts.
Afterwards, we once again return to the Ryokan for one last fabulous feast, for tomorrow, we should continue our journey and head for…
The Kingdom of Cats
15-May-2018 – 17-May-2018
After obliterating one last exquisite Japanese breakfast, we are on the way to our next destination, the coastal town of Ishinomaki (石巻 “Stone Scroll”).
This should actually be our shortest trip, and we would only have to change trains once in Sendai, and another time in Ishinomaki to a local train.
Our route should first take us through a fertile valley, and eventually arrive at the coast of Matsushima Wan (松島湾 “Pine Tree Island Bay”).
Short though the trip should be, there are a number of notable peculiarities along its way, such as the protector of the west standing atop a hill near Oogawara (大河原 “Large River Plain”)…
…as well as an aerobatic display of the Blue Impulse demonstration team of the Japan Air Self-Defence Force stationed at the Matsushima Air Base.
Our hostel this time is located in Watanoha (渡波 “Ferry Waves”), which is two more stations from central Ishinomaki with the Wanman, and it is here that we finally run into serious trouble with our Pasmo Cards. Whereas Shiroishi still had the option to manually charge our cards, this little provincial station does not feature such facilities, and thus I have to explain our predicament to the station attendant using what little Japanese I can. Eventually, we end up with one debenture each, our Pasmo cards locked until we can pay it off at a better-equipped station.
Our port of call here should be the Long Beach House…
…which promptly wins Robert’s award for “Least Luxurious Accommodation”, and even I have to admit that this place probably scrapes at the low end of the quality bar (though I’ve already gotten accustomed to similar accommodations during my travels in New Zealand (see the very end of Book I ~ Chapter 5 ~ Ferreting around Marton) .
In accordance with the prophecy, Robert should drag me back outside again as soon as we’ve settled in and take me on a trip to explore…
What Is Left, and What Will Be
In 2011, a devastating magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck the Touhoku Region. This cataclysmic event – now known as Higashi Nihon Daishinsai (東日本大震災 “Great East Japanese Earthquake”) – not only resulted in the reactor accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but also caused a major tsunami that finished what the earthquake had started in major parts of the region. The town of Ishinomaki was one of the municipalities most heavily damaged by this disaster. Tsunamis up to 10m in height travelled inlands for up to 5km, completely destroying half of the town and claiming thousands of lives. The reconstruction effort continue up to this day, and evidence of this event still remains after all this time, such as a stone Toori that used to be whole.
Our route should take us through the neighbourhood of Watanoha on a rather roundabout route, first east to Mangokuura (万石浦 “Ten Thousand Stones Bay”), then up into the forested hills, and finally back through the town.
One thing that catches our eyes right away are the tsunami shelters that are evenly spaced throughout the city. Considering that they couldn’t have been cheap to build, it helps drive home just how traumatic the disaster must have been to the people of this area.
Also, the attentive observer will quickly spot the odd memorial plaque visualizing just how high the tsunami of that day reached even a good ways inland.
Meanwhile, even with the reconstruction effort still ongoing, there are already plenty of Shrines around. Notably, it is only Shrines we should find, and not temples. I guess this can be attributed to renewal and rebirth being classical aspects of Shintoism.
But enough about such grave things. Let us move on to more amusing sights, such as this house the owner of which apparently only knew how to write the Kanji for Tree (木), and thus named his house Kishinrin Rokki (木森林ろっき “Tree Woods Six Trees”).
Much more notably, however, there is an electoral campaign going on.
Back where I come from, such a campaign is carried out quietly and decently, utilising posters on every street corner and political debates and commercials on TV, all of which can be conveniently ignored.
Here in Japan, however, an electoral campaign is a much more “hammer-in-your-face” matter, featuring electoral tanks blasting the neighbourhood with sound at maximum volume.
Since the core of the Japanese democratic system is writing the name of your favoured candidate on a piece of paper and casting it into the urn (as opposed to putting a checkmark on a list of available candidates), the electoral campaigns revolve mostly around making sure the voters know the names of the candidates. As such, the essence of all those inadvertent voice messages can be summed up in the formula [Candidate Name] × [2 to 5] + [Empty Words (e.g. “For a better future with all our strength!”)] + [Please Vote for] + [Candidate Name] × [2 to 5] + [Thank you very much] ×2. On most days, this modern form of courtship display lasts well into the night.
Eventually, we arrive at the Ten-Thousand Stones Bay, and looking at the shore, it’s easy to guess where that name comes from.
After visiting the Shrine on a little peninsula there, we continue across the railway line and up into the forested hills. And just in case you can’t see the forested hill for all the trees, there naturally is also a “This way to the high ground” sign, just to make sure.
Just like in Shiroishi, this forest – which contains at least partially of extensive bamboo groves – also seems to double as a cemetery, for there are graves hidden all over it.
[To be continued…]
The Island of Felines
A Brief Breather
Make for Morioka
18-May-2018 – 20-May-2018
Straight to Sapporo
21-May-2018 – 24-May-2018