Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Weekend in the Japanese Countryside

It's December, so it must be Japan. Every couple of years my wife has a meeting in Japan, each one threatening to be the last ever. The time has come around again, and as always we made an adventure out of it. It's getting harder to find places to go - we've long since covered all the standard tourist destinations, and have been from Ibusuke in the far south to Wakkanai and Utoro in the far north.

This time we picked Kinosaki Onsen and Amanohashidate, a couple of hours north of Kyoto on the Japan Sea coast. They're both very well known in Japan, even though none of our Japanese friends have been to either. Amanohashidate is one of the "three scenic views of Japan", designated in 1643 by Hayashi Goto (rather like the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wine). The name means "bridge to heaven", referring to the long sandspit across the estuary. But more of that later.

We flew with JAL to Haneda. After years of flying to Narita, Haneda is such a pleasure. Despite being the fifth-busiest airport in the world, it never has any queues or congestion, and it is only a short subway or monorail ride from central Tokyo. From doors open to our hotel was just 45 minutes, including immigration.

For our couple of nights in Tokyo, we stayed at the Park Hotel in Shimbashi. It starts on the 25th floor of a new skyscraper, so the views are fabulous. Ours included the Tokyo tower and Fuji, magnificent as always behind the mountains that surround the Tokyo plain.

Train tracks from our room, with seven
out of eight tracks occupied.

For me another special view is down over the eight parallel tracks of the railway leading south from Tokyo station. In the rush hour, the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku lines are so busy that on the mile or so of visible track looking south, there are nearly always four trains visible, one on each track. Sometimes you even get a bonus, with one train leaving the station at Hamamatsucho as another arrives. The southerly view adds another four tracks, the Haneda Monorail and the tiny trains of the Yurikamome Line. My record for the maximum number of trains visible at once stands at nine, which is probably not possible anywhere else in the world. Though it doesn't stop me hoping for better!

On the first day, my wife was in meetings. I decided to go to the Japanese National Railway Museum which is out in the suburbs at Omiya. This is a name you see on trains all the time, because it's the northern terminus of the Keihin Tohoku line. It seemed natural enough just to hope on a blue train at Shimbashi station, and stay there until it terminated. Bad mistake. Not only does it stop everywhere, but a couple of times it stopped for longer than 5 minutes. Train delays are very rare in Japan, but they do happen. On the way back I took the Utsunomiya line, which runs parallel but makes about one third the number of stops - one of which is Shimbashi, so you don't even need to change trains.

One of the first locomotives in Japan... British of course
The museum at Omiya is really excellent, and absolutely worth visiting to anyone interested in trains. As compared to the British equivalent at York, one big difference is that it is a lot more relevant to modern trains. Many of the exhibits are electric trains very similar to the ones still running. (Embarrassingly, I have travelled on quite a few of the exhibits when they were everyday workhorses). There are also exhibits from the very early days of Japanese railways, including the first steam locomotive - built in Britain, naturally, as was the first heavy freight electric locomotive on display. It's kind of sad for Britain, though, which now imports its top-notch trains from Hitachi in Japan.

Omiya station was an interesting place. You could live your whole life without leaving it, at least without stepping outdoors. It has a department store, restaurants - and a railway enthusiast shop. It was here that I managed to find my JR system timetable. A few years ago these were ubiquitous, every station kiosk and every bookstore had them. Then along came the web, and now it's much easier to figure out your journey using an online service like HyperDia. The timetable book is near impossible to find, only anorak train spotters (like me) want it. On my previous trip I didn't manage to find one even at Tokyo station.

I spent a very pleasant evening with my Japanese friends from my Cisco days. And then it was time for the adventure to start.

Getting to Kinosaki Onsen from Tokyo is not simple. I was glad that HyperDia worked out the details for me. We took the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto, and then a normal express train from there. We had 20 minutes for the connection, which seemed plenty, but we had to hike the whole breadth and length of Kyoto station's 20-odd platforms, so it was quite tight by the time we got there.

Retro-style wood interior of the Kyoto Tango train
When we eventually found our train - the Hashidate - it was quite a surprise, very different from a typical JR train. It was short, just four coaches, and painted deep blue like the Orient Express. Inside, it had a very striking light-coloured wood finish, a cross between steampunk and a steam launch from the 1920s. Even more surprising, it was a diesel - just about every railway of any consequence in Japan is electrified. It was also very full, with nearly all the seats taken. Although most of the journey is on JR tracks, this train is operated by the private Kyoto Tango railway (named after the area it passes through, not the dance). The design makeover of the trains was done by a famous Japanese designer, and it is very successful - both inside and out, they are both striking and very attractive. The light wood finish could only work in Japan - anywhere else it would be a scruffy graffiti-covered mess, but in Japan it still looks like the day it left the workshop.

After an hour or so came the slightly scary aspect of the journey. We knew we had to change trains, with just one minute between the arrival and the departure. I figured - and certainly hoped - that this would be a cross-platform change, which indeed it was. Every hour two trains pull into Fukuchiyama station alongside each other, one coming from Osaka and the other from Kyoto. Passengers hop across the platform and then they glide out again, one to Kinosaki Onsen, our destination, and the other to Amanohashidate. It makes four trains for the price of two. Another thing that could only work in Japan - anywhere else, one of them would be late, leaving you to stand around on a cold platform for nearly an hour waiting for the next one. Which would be cancelled anyway.

Nishimuraya Honkan garden
All three nights of our weekend were spent in traditional Japanese inns, or ryokan. Our first, the Nishimuraya Honkan, was very luxurious, a member of the prestigious Relais et Chateaux club of high-end hotels. Our room looked over a traditional Japanese garden, very mysterious and covered in moss. All these places work the same way. The room has a traditional tatami floor, with no fixed furniture. The evening meal is served in the room by your own maid, then later she clears and sets up futon beds. You can forget having a nice lay-in in the morning, because shortly before your designated breakfast time she appears again to remove the beds and set the table for breakfast.

The maid at our first ryokan surprised us by speaking in French when she heard us. She spoke French really well, with very little accent. It turned out that she had studied it at university and spent some time there too. It seems that in Japan, working in the hospitality industry is not ill considered at all. In another hotel we were talking to the young lady who led us to our room, who had studied at a university in the US. I don't think you'll find many native university graduates working in hotels in the US or Europe.

It was the crab season, in an area famous for its crabs. We both really like crab, but when every single course of the meal contains it, it becomes a bit overwhelming. We had boiled crab, fried crab, stewed crab, crab soup, cold boiled crab, cold fried crab. And crab sake and crab sashimi - both of which I really don't recommend. About the only thing we didn't have was crab ice cream. Then it was time for bed. There's absolutely nothing to do in most ryokans after dinner, so we ended up asleep by 9.30 every night. At least the futons here were seriously high quality, as comfortable as a bed.

The next day's plan was to explore Kinosaki Onsen. Except that actually there isn't much to explore. The principal feature of an onsen is the variety of public baths. Here there are seven of them, all very different. We decided to start by taking the cable car that goes up the hill to the inevitable temple. By the time we got there, though, it had started to rain seriously. Reluctant to be stranded on a hillside in a downpour, we took refuge in the Dreams Come True Café, opposite the cable car station. This was a very charming place in an extraordinarily Japanese way. It's run by a guy in his 50s, I'd say, who has two fixations: the eponymous Japanese girl band, and his extremely cute tiny dog. When we arrived most of the chairs were taken by a group of elderly Japanese men, whose departure soon afterwards was prompted by the arrival of a minibus to take them... who knows where. For a while we were on our own with just the proprietor and his dog, the latter's life story given in great detail on the back of the menu alongside a potted history of the band.

The downpour got heavier and heavier, the kind of soaking that you rarely see, then there were two lightning strikes within a hundred yards or so of the café. There's nothing quite like a direct hit to get your attention! It was about then that we decided we might as well settle down to lunch. We chose a Japanese interpretation of the french "croque monsieur", a toasted ham and cheese buckwheat pancake, which was very good. We were joined by a party of teenage boys, on their way home from a sports match of some kind. They'd certainly worked up an appetite, given the size of the lunches they demolished with relish.

By now it was time for our next engagement. As we were checking out of our hotel, we were approached by the manager who asked us in a suitably deferential Japanese way whether we'd be prepared to meet a TV crew who were making a program about foreign tourists in Japan. They'd certainly have their work cut out, because in an out of the way place like Kinosaki they were very lucky to find any at all. We chatted with them, and they wanted some footage of us walking to the bath, kitted out in all the obligatory onsen-tourist gear: yukata, happi coat and geta. The latter are wooden sandals, like flip flops but with wooden "teeth" on the soles that give your feet a couple of inches clearance above the ground - handy in the days when streets were deep with mud or worse, but extremely challenging to walk in without either tripping up or having them fall off.

We'd arranged to meet them at the next night's hotel, just across the street from the Nishimuraya. This was a fairly typical ryokan, which is to say much less luxurious, and a lot cheaper! By now the rain had settled down to heavy drizzle, but it was ice cold. The walk to the bath wasn't far, a couple of hundred yards, but hobbling along in geta and a yukata, clutching an umbrella with one hand while desperately trying not to trip, made it seem a lot further. By the time we arrived my hands were frozen, and smiling for the camera - rather than the chilled grimace which came naturally - was not easy. The hot bath was extremely welcome.

We were told that our chilly adventure would be shown on Japanese TV a few days after we left, but we never found out whether we'd really made it to stardom.

Afterwards (and dressed in warm clothes!) we explored the main street. It was lined with tourist souvenir shops of various kinds. Isabelle explored the kimono shops, while I walked to the river. The town is on an estuary and you might suppose that the river, with its view out to the bay, would be one of the sights. But as always the Japanese disdain the water. After negotiating my way through an industrial yard and a parking lot, I came to the neglected, semi-derelict waterfront. The views upriver to the mountains were magnificent, but I was the only one there to appreciate them.

The next morning we were dutiful tourists. We went to another public bath - though dressed normally this time, like all the Japanese visitors we saw. We visited the "barley museum", a curious little place where we did meet another foreign tourist, a Swiss lady who courageously, considering she spoke no Japanese, was visiting these outlying places on her own. The museum is a showcase for local handicraft to decorate boxes and the like with intricate patterns made from scraps of dyed barley. We watched a video showing an old man carefully cutting the barley, gluing it to thin rice paper with rice glue, cutting it again and so on. The rice glue means that all this fine work will be destroyed both by too much humidity and by too little.

Then it was time for our next train journey. A tiny single car diesel from the Kyoto Tango Railway again took us on a lonely single track line along the coast. Sometimes we were in sight of the sea, sometimes passing through tunnels to inland valleys. We saw snow, even though we never got above a few hundred feet. Every couple of miles was a little station where a handful of people got on or off. You pay the driver when you get off, according to prices showing the fare from every station we had been to so far. This is Japan, nobody would cheat. There was an elderly couple in front of us who began their preparations about four stations ahead of theirs. At each stop I thought, "Surely this must be the one?" But no, they stayed there, fiddling around, putting things away, looking at their tickets. They seemed nice enough but it was quite a relief when they finally gave the driver their fare and descended to the platform.

Soon we were at Amanohashidate, after following the bay shore for a couple of stations. There was a minibus waiting to take us to our hotel. We climbed its long, steep driveway, wondering whether we would have to do this on foot every time we returned. But they had a very civilized system - the hotel also owned a coffee shop at the bottom of the hill, on the main road. All we had to do was go into the coffee shop and ask - five minutes later the bus was there to whisk us back to the hotel.

The view from the hotel reception was spectacular, straight out to the sandbank that gives the place its name. Literally it means "bridge to heaven". We hoped that our room would be as good - and in fact it was even better. It was hard not just to stand in the window admiring it, every slight change in the light giving a different impression. The hotel - the Genmyoan - was the height of luxury. Our room was vast, probably twice the size of a typical Japanese apartment for a family. As always we had our own room-maid, a lady I guess in her 50s who talked absolutely incessantly. I could just keep up with her Japanese, luckily it was rarely anything complicated. Our short stay there did wonders for my Japanese conversational fluency! Given that I spoke some Japanese, I don't think it occurred to her that I wasn't fluent. She did understand, though, that Isabelle understood absolutely nothing. Every few sentences she would turn to her and say "I'm sorry, thank you", expending her entire English vocabulary in a single sentence.

Amanohashidate at sunrise

Our room at the Genmyoan, complete with Gaijin Chairs

She was very understanding though. She quickly realised that for us, the normal Japanese seated position on a thin cushion on the tatami was not exactly comfortable. She summoned a porter who arrived with two of what we called "gaijin chairs", like normal chairs with arms and a back, raised about a foot off the tatami. What a difference that made to the enjoyment of our meals!

After we'd drunk our ritual cup of tea and extensively admired the view, we took the bus down to the town, Monju. Strictly speaking the name Amanohashidate refers only to the sand bank itself, although the train station is named after it. There are a couple of bridges that cross the ocean channel onto the sand bank and from there you can walk its two mile length to Fuchu, the town on the other side. But that was for the next day. One of the bridges swings open, to allow larger boats to access the sea - fun to watch, especially as there's nothing else to do if you're waiting to cross it.

The town has all the usual tourist attractions: a very pleasant temple, giant shops selling local delicacies and all the rest. You can also rent bicycles, a quicker way to cross the sand bar. It didn't take us long to explore all it had to offer. Somewhere we'd bought some excellent roasted chestnuts, a specialty of the area, which we enjoyed with our tea and coffee while we waited in the hotel's coffee shop for the shuttle to take us back.

Dinner was excellent, the usual ryokan kaiseke meal, this time with rather lass crab - thank goodness. This is not an onsen - a natural hot spring - so the bath was nothing special, though enjoyable. Once dinner is over there is nothing to do but sleep - night life in small Japanese towns, even highly touristic ones, is utterly, totally non-existent. At least the futons were comfortable, as thick as a normal mattress, soft and wider than usual too. A classic futon is thin and just barely wide enough to sleep on, anything but comfortable.

The next morning, after an excellent Japanese breakfast served by our voluble room maid, we set out to walk across the sand bar. It's a very pleasant walk - taken at a slow amble, with frequent pauses to read the life stories of the trees or admire the view out to sea or inland to the bay, it takes about an hour. Every single tree is numbered and logged. Many of them are named, with plaques explaining (only in Japanese of course) the origin of the name and the life story of the tree. They have very shallow roots, necessarily since the surrounding water is salty, so they are very vulnerable to storms. There was a big storm in the 90s which blew down hundreds of trees. One of the biggest has been left as a sorry memorial with (of course) a plaque describing its life story.
Amanohashidate from the western end
Kamome, with kamome

At the far end is another small town. It is much more touristic, with many stands selling all kinds of fried and grilled snacks of dubious origin. We bought some more chestnuts, much less good than the previous day's. The main attraction is a funicular which climbs the hill, first to a viewing point for Amanohashidate, and then further to the inevitable temple. We stopped half way, to indulge in the prescribed exercise of standing on a stone and bending double to admire the view from between our legs. Supposedly it's like this that the scenery truly resembles a bridge going skywards to heaven. So they say. Anyway the view is beautiful.

For the journey back we took the ferry. It's called Kamome, which means seagull, and they encourage you to buy bird food on the boat to throw to the gulls, who swoop around catching it as they follow the boat. That explains the cloud of gulls we'd noticed around the boat from our hotel room. If you don't want to wait for the ferry, there are water taxis which will take you for a tour of the sand bar or the bay. It would have been fun, but we didn't really have time.

After an excellent lunch of soba, it was time to catch the next train. At the hotel we all said our goodbyes, our room maid included. There was lots of bowing and "aah, nihongo-wa jouzu desu-nee". That means "your Japanese is really good", but it's used for anyone who can say please and thank you.

Our next stop was in Kyoto. There is a non-stop express train every hour, initially taking the extraordinary Miyafuku Line. The line itself is ordinary enough, a single track winding its way through completely empty countryside for 30 km or so. What's extraordinary is that it was built at all. It was discussed on and off for most of the 20th century, and approved for construction in 1953. But it was only completed in 1988 - by which time the near-bankrupt Japanese National Railway had been closing country railways for two decades, just like everywhere else in the world. Compared to the prior line a little further east, it knocks maybe 20 minutes off the journey time between Kyoto and Amanohashidate. It's a wonderful thing that Japan has such excellent railways, even in the depths of the countryside, but sometimes you wonder why when much more socially valuable lines, as in Hokkaido, have long since been closed.

We had planned all along to stay in a Western style hotel in Kyoto, the Granvia which is an integral part of the station shopping complex. We figured that after three days in traditional ryokan, we'd be grateful for a normal bed and a pizza, which was indeed the case. The lady who took us to our room knew San Francisco well - she'd lived in the US for a while as a student. Once again it struck us that in Japan, hospitality is not considered a low-status profession.

Contemplative view at Shisen-do
We've been to Kyoto many times, and while it's always a pleasure to visit the well known temples like Kiyomizu-dera and Ginkaku-ji, it's also nice to find a lesser known one. We chose Shisen-do, to the north on the western flank of Higashiyama. It was built as a private residence, the retirement home of Ishikawa Jozen who lived from 1583 to 1672 - not a bad innings for the period. It has a wonderful classical garden, and a room from which you can sit on the tatami and admire it. I could have spent hours just sitting there in contemplation, despite the steady drizzle.

We went there on the bus. One great thing in Japan is the rail card, known as Suica or Pasmo depending on where you buy it. Originally it worked just in Tokyo, but now you can use it on buses and trains throughout the country, and also in convenience stores and such. Much easier than trying to find the exact change in ¥10 pieces.

On the way back to our hotel we stopped at the giant Teramachi indoor shopping arcade. I have memories from our first ever trip together to Kyoto, of buying a set of airport vehicles for my son Joe, who was then about 6. I still have the little orange and white bus on my desk. Now there are only clothes shops, all the toy stands and other lower-margin things have disappeared.

And then... back to Tokyo, 2.5 hours on a packed Shinkansen, and a different room in our favourite hotel.

We decided to get up early and take one last look at the Tsukiji fish market. There have been plans for ever to move this out of central Tokyo to the suburbs, as has happened to many wholesale markets throughout the world. It is finally coming to fruition because the enormous site will be used for the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, similar to what happened to the Stratford area in London for the 2012 Olympics. They will have to get a move on, though, because for the moment, with only a couple of years to go, it is still a fully functioning fish market.

When I first visited Japan (1982!) and for a while afterwards, Tsukiji was a well kept secret. You could just show up there and stand at the back of the tuna auctions, or wander around the market stalls with their amazing array of different fish. But then it became part of the tourist "must do" list, and the market operators and users understandably got fed up with having the narrow passageways clogged with gawking spectators. Now, there are a handful of designated spectator places at the tuna auction - you have to be there by 3am to get one. The whole market is off-limits if you don't have official business there. We took a taxi, which dropped us at the furthest corner, far away from anything interesting. We suppose the taxi drivers are under orders to do this. Since we knew our way around we were able to find our way to the tuna auction. We peered through the doorway, carefully avoiding the motor carts which zoom around through the narrowest openings, turning on a ¥100 piece and generally making the experience potentially lethal.

We did wander through the halls as before, but only because nobody spotted us. Inevitably we eventually ran into a security guard, who made it very clear that we were to leave by the shortest path, and definitely not pass Go. Not before we passed in front of one stand with just a few pieces of very dark meat and a sign in several languages saying "no photography". We were pretty sure it was selling whale meat - the only one we saw. All the others were perfectly happy to be photographed, as long as you kept out of the way of people earning a living.

Outside the market there are several streets selling associated stuff, like tableware and kitchen equipment. On a visit there a good few years back, we went into one of the sushi bars used by the market workers, where an old man with very few teeth insisted that I share his sake. We didn't find anywhere like that this time, though we did buy several plates and dishes.

For lunch we met our friend Kumiko-san. We were colleagues 10 years ago. Since then she has had two sons, one the same age as my grandson. She lives way outside Tokyo, in  the ski and summer resort town of Karuizawa. This was her first outing in Tokyo since her youngest son was born. We ate at a spectacular sushi restaurant on the 47th floor of the Carettea Shiodome building. There is a magnificent view over the water side of Tokyo, and especially over Tuskiji. It is only seeing it from the air that you can realise just how truly vast it is.

We still had time before our flight. Isabelle had found by chance a tiny shop selling cat-themed... stuff, and she took me there. They have cat mugs, cat calendars, cat notepads, cat sweaters, cat socks... We came away with way too much cat stuff, including the drink mat at the end of this piece.

And then, a taxi to Hamamatsuchou station, and the Tokyo Monorail out to Haneda. As always in Tokyo, things change. The monorail station used to be a dump, with two grubby escalators up the side of the building and cramped, narrow passageways, difficult to navigate with baggage. Suddenly it is almost palatial, like a replica of a Moscow subway station.

Haneda was a delight as always, not even the shortest wait at any point through the airport. And then back home, courtesy of JAL.

1 comment:

Catofstripes said...

I can't see the cat mat! Lovely to read about your trip, about the closest I'll ever get to Japan I think. Be well.