Japan Trip – Week six – The Journey South – Part One


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The week started in quiet fashion; the six children who had taken part in the full three-week camp had left the day before, but as I have already mentioned, their departure was rather quiet, and sedate compared to previous weeks. Over the next couple of days the rest of the volunteers would leave, either leaving Japan, or going back to their home towns or cities, although some had left either two days before the end of the challenge camp, or with the children. As such, the nature school, which can be a place of constant activity during a camp period, soon returned to the serene, quiet, and calm place that it was when I first arrived well over a month before. It is an odd contrast since there had been three weeks of activity, and energy, but ultimately the school is a place of constant movement and change, with the busier camps surrounded by periods of rest, and relaxation.

The first day after the camp saw most of the volunteers leave, and the staff taking it in turns to take much needed rest. For my part I spent the morning at the local onsen, enjoying a long soak, and then a nice meal afterwards – definitely a good way to spend three hours of your time. I still remember the first time I ever entered an onsen, and was somewhat unsure what to do, given the complete lack of public baths where I am from. But now they are wonderful spaces where you can have a good wash, and then enjoy numerous different baths, saunas, and other amenities. They are places for relaxation, but also gatherings, and have certainly become one of my favourite aspects of staying in Japan – nothing quite beats going to the onsen after a hard day’s work after all. This was an especially welcome trip, as the previous times I had been to the onsen during the camp were all too brief, thanks largely to the children on the challenge camp taking a very long time to sort out their equipment, and possessions.

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Afterwards I had a relatively quiet day, mostly spent filling out my feedback form for the nature school, and continuing to write. The rest of the volunteers spent their time tidying up the guest house – the Taiwanese students in particular had spread themselves out, with computers, books, and a small fortune in snacks absolutely everywhere. In fact, one memory that will likely stick with me during my time at the nature school, was the general noise and chaos of the guest house, which lead me to start writing, and even relaxing in the staff office, as it was generally much quieter there, even when they were busy working. After all of this we had the opportunity to experience the local towns Bon Odori – the dance, and community event for the end of Obon – it was a small affair, since the town is only quite small, but it was still fascinating to watch. They had two competitions running, with children, and adults dressing up and being judged based on their costumes, and dancing by the village elders – if they won they got a bag full of snacks, and a small amount of money, but ultimately everybody who took part got a bag of snacks regardless. The town was very happy to see foreigners, and particularly a westerner visiting during their Bon Odori, even if it had to be moved indoors due to the poor weather outside. I was able to meet the town mayor, and a number of other senior figures, and was asked to try on their Happi coats, and try playing some taiko drums.

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The next day everybody else was leaving, with the Taiwanese students leaving first thing, while I had chosen to leave in the afternoon. As such I spent most of my day sitting with Marika-san, the wife of the schools’ founder, and a fascinating woman who used to be a mountain guide, but suffered a horrendous traffic accident (what little information I have been given makes it sound particularly bad) that has meant she has permanently injured her back, and finds it very difficult to walk unassisted. As such she moves around with wheeled Zimmer frames, and a electric mobility chair – and yet she has not lost that energy, an astonishing woman really, who is also the one to keep the schools accounts, and cook its meals.

I was sad to leave the nature school, it is a great place, full of great people, but it is also important to explore the country, so that I have something to compare my experiences there with. My journey south started with a fairly short trip to Hakodate, although I was also travelling into a typhoon. The news had been covering little else, and the couple of days after the camp were generally dominated by wind and rain that were being pushed ahead of the typhoon system. While it wasn’t going to hit the area directly, its effects would be felt along that part of Hokkaido, and it looked like I might have a wet, and rather disrupted start to my trip, which ultimately turned out to be true. I found myself traveling through wind and rain, and upon arriving in Hakodate, was greeted with much the same, but the rain was warm, and my guest house for the night was a bare 10 mins walk from the station, so no raincoat, or umbrella were needed. But it did mean that despite arriving with a few hours of daylight to spare I found myself sitting in the hotel waiting for the typhoon to move further north and east.

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I had chosen Hakodate specifically to see Goryokaku, the only star fort in Japan, and I believe one of the very few in Asia. Since reading about the history of Hakodate, and its role in the Ezo republic, a short lived state formed by the remnants of the Shogun’s army and loyal retainers, I had wanted to visit the city, and see the fort for myself. The fort was a fascinating place, an area of calm within a very busy city – as you walked across its bridge, past the walls, and into the centre much of the cities noise was left behind, deadened, or shut out by Goryokaku’s immense walls. That the Imperial Army during the late 1800s could only get through by building an earth bank across the castles moat helps to illustrate how powerful, and well defended the castle was when it was built. I am always happy when I see an older building left in its original state – for example, it would have been easy to turn Goryokaku into some sort of re-enactment theme park, complete with recreated buildings, and so on. But, other than part of the Former Magistrates Office, alongside three other buildings, the rest of the fort has been left as is, with the other buildings marked on the ground with stones – it has instead been turned into a park with over one thousand Sakura trees.

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I also stopped to ask a number of Japanese tourists (although they technically stopped me first), why, given how the samurai have long been viewed as corrupt, especially during the final years of the Shogunate, they were so fascinated with Goryokaku, and the Ezo republic. While I got a variety of different responses – beautiful scenery, interesting building, and so on – one aspect of their answers that came through was there interest in a cause which was doomed from the very start. We see this a lot of Japanese popular culture, the doomed hero who goes into a fight knowing that it is hopeless, but pushes forward regardless. The loyal retainer who fights for his lord until the bitter end, knowing full well that his fight will not change anything, and will most certainly lead to his death is another classic example. The Ezo republic was founded by the remnants of the Shogunate, and they continued to pledge their allegiance to their lord, even fighting a vastly superior Imperial Army, both in numbers, and technology, until their eventual defeat at the Battle of Hakodate, which marked the end of the Boshin War, and a return to Imperial Rule. Their cause was hopeless, yet they continued to pursue it regardless, and that fact appears to have appealed to those I talked with. Admittedly it is a small sample size, but it was rather fascinating to hear similar answers from a number of very different people, and perhaps helps to illustrate why Goryokaku remains an important cultural, and social landmark.

Although there is much to do, and see in Hakodate, I only really had enough time to see Goryokaku (luckily the weather had improved during the next morning), plus I like to wander around such structures, taking my time to enjoy them, rather than rush from place to place. But I had a Shinkansen to catch, from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, to Tokyo. I did have one small scare on my way to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto though, well, two – firstly the locker I put my luggage in wouldn’t open (turns out it was a delayed unlock and I was being impatient), and then I heard an announcement when on an express train that made me think it wasn’t going to stop at the station. I think you always have at least one such moment when traveling, that moment when you are on the right train, or other form of transportation, but for some reason believe that you are wrong, and will therefore miss all your connections, and this was my moment.

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The Shinkansen from Hakodate to Tokyo takes just over four hours, and represented a very different form of transport to the local trains I had been using previously. Whereas local trains take their time, stopping at all stops, often with windows that can be opened fully, and drivers who will hold the train for you if you’ve just got onto the station, the Shinkansen is smooth, and ruthlessly efficient. I also think that the journey would have been more scenic during the winter, when the mountains are covered in snow, and offer a different landscape to the sort of green that I have become accustomed to, having spent over a month in rural Hokkaido. It would have also helped if I had a window seat, but unfortunately the route between Hakodate and Tokyo is very busy right now (it is advertised in Hokkaido literally everywhere, with the Hokkaido baseball team, The Fighters, on the advertisements), and I was on the aisle seat, a shame, but that’s the way of the world. Ultimately I did some writing instead, and spent my time observing the way the train crew acted, there mannerisms, and so on. I think observing how people act has become a habit, especially when it comes to the rituals of train travel in Japan. As the Shinkansen leaves, you may often see station staff bowing to it, ticket inspectors will bow before they enter a car, and bow as they leave, the same is true of the women who push the refreshments and souvenirs trolleys. Furthermore, everybody wears white gloves, and their uniforms are highly distinctive compared to normal JR uniforms. Put all this together and the Shinkansen almost become a sacred object of speed, a deity that is separated from everybody else, and we as its passengers must become part of the ritual in order to use it for travel.

In fact, this has been one aspect of my travels which I have taken particular notice of, the little rituals, and signals that train drivers, conductors, and ticket inspectors go through during the journey. Pointing to signals with a grand, and often over exaggerated gesture to demonstrate that they have seen them, apologising at various stops, and then mentioning when the train or tram is leaving, and bowing when passengers pay their fair (this is specifically to do with local trains and trams). We all have little rituals in everyday life, daily routines, things we say, and other actions that are part of the day, but in Japan, those rituals have become codified within specific jobs, and are a curious mixture of practical and symbolism. Using such a grand gesture to point at train signals serves a practical purpose, as the driver is demonstrating they have seen them, and in the case of train networks that criss-cross cities, with numerous road crossings, and safety barriers, those signals and barriers have done their work. Instead that gesture is symbolic of an action, a highly noticeable signal to everybody on-board, and the diver as well, that they have seen that signal, and know that it is safe to proceed. But that symbolism, rather than wasted effort, is important, and becomes an integral part of train travel, at least on local lines and trams, we never see the drivers on the Shinkansen, or Limited Express services, but one must assume that they do something similar, as ubiquitous a part Japan’s transport system as it is.

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I never really saw Tokyo, arriving at dusk, and leaving first thing in the morning – was simply there because my original plan had been to use the Sunrise Seto, a night train from Tokyo to Takamtsu, but it was completely booked up. I had forgotten that I started my travels during Obon, and the train was likely booked up months in advance, so ultimately had to stay in Tokyo for one night, which also gave me a chance to visit the Ginza Apple store and get my phone sorted. As for the hotel, it was a capsule affair – an odd experience really, since they are basically the bunk bed taken to its logical conclusion – comfortable, and yet, somewhere best suited for the short stop over, or a drunken night out when you need a place to sleep, and shower. I had booked a very early Sinkansen south the next day, so had to be up at 5am, my experience of Tokyo was therefore immensely brief, and quite narrow, but it was a potentially interesting city that I could happily explore. My journey south was largely uneventful, as all Shinkansen journeys are really – comfortable, and with a brief glimpse of Mt Fuji, with its peak just visible above the late morning clouds. It was, however, interesting to further see how ritualised rail travel, and particularly Shinkansen travel is in Japan, in a way that arguably doesn’t exist anywhere else. Seeing staff on the platform deeply bow to the train as it left, along with the bows, and very formal language used on board, further reinforces the almost divine nature of the Shinkansen network in Japan. And yet, such actions are never noticed, or rather, they are such a part of daily life that their meaning – assuming it was ever truly noticed – has either been internalised, or simply forgotten.

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I have to say that the journey from Tokyo to Okayama would likely be more interesting in the autumn, winter, and spring, times when there will be snow on the mountain tops, and the landscape will be a variety of interesting colours, rather than the general green of the Japanese landscape in summer. Certainly there are variations, and differences as you travel south, with rice paddies in abundance, rather than other, more varied crops, and to say that all of Japan looks the same would be a barefaced lie. But, the contrast between snow, and forest would arguably make for a more enjoyable view, assuming you aren’t fast asleep as the train speeds along. The journey from Okayama to Takamatsu on the other hand was rather interesting. As I have been using a Japan Rail Pass, I had reserved seats for my journey south – but in the case of the train to Takamtsu, the reserved car was a little different, with two decks, a green car, and a normal car. Subsequently there was actually no room for luggage, and my bag, which has been full of outdoor clothing which is utterly useless in the heat of a southern Japanese summer had to go in the leg space, with me sitting cross-legged on my seat, and finding the 50-minute journey a little on the uncomfortable side.

Takamatsu was rather special for a number of reasons. I had been warned before traveling that Shikoku was one of the hottest places in Japan, and during the summer was often far hotter than even Okinawa, so I had some idea of what I was travelling in to, but the heat wave that hit me when I left the train was something that could only be experienced, and any description I give would simply be inadequate. Suffice to say that the official thermometer at Takamatsu station read 34ºC, but adding on the humidity it was actually closer to 43ºC, more than hot enough for anybody really. It also made carrying my baggage to the guest house for the night quite tricky – but I did get to use the Kotoden Electric Railway, a privately owned local train service that worked its way throughout the city, cross-crossing streets and paths. In fact, as I travelled through the city, it seemed as if it had been built around the railway, rather than the other way around, if anything it was more like a tram network than a railway, and the carriages were fairly old, operated with a large metal and wooden handle that each train driver carried with them when they switched shifts. These sort of train journeys, and the trams of Hakodate are often one of the best ways to view a city – they are certainly slow at times, stopping everywhere, but then that’s the point, you want to look at, and savour the place you are in, rather than rushing from one monument to the next.

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Because I had arrived in Takamatsu before midday I had some time to do a bit of sightseeing, and had intended to visit two particularly well known temples just outside of the city – Zentsuji, and Konpira. But, because it was so hot, and the train journeys were actually rather long (they were all local trains), I ultimately decided to take me time, and only visited Zentsuji, a particularly special temple that is part of the eighty-eight temple pilgrimage trail that winds its way around the island of Shikoku. The Shikoku Henro is intimately linked with the Buddhist monk Kukai, or Kobo Dashi, as he is often known –One of the most important, and influential religious figures in Japan’s history – the trail is supposed to have been created by Kukai to promote Buddhism around the island of Shikoku. Zentsuji is a particularly important temple along the pilgrim trail, as it is the birthplace of Kukai, and there was a steady stream of pilgrims, in their white clothes, straw hats, and carrying their staves, coming to pay their respects to the preface of the Lotus sutra. It was a rather special place, and even though I don’t take as many pictures as other tourists ive encountered, there were moments when it didn’t quite feel right to take any while visiting Zentsuji – also there are certain buildings with no photography signs around them. Also, as I walked back to the station, I passed an older woman on her bike who was stopping to buy a drink from one of Japan’s ubiquitous drinks machines, and to my surprise, not more than two minutes later I found her ringing her bell, and handing me a bottle of Pocari Sweat – I must have looked very hot at the time, but it was still an astonishingly kind gesture from a complete stranger, and one that left a lasting impression on me of Zentsuji as a place.

The following day I was traveling to Matsuyama, but like most journeys on my trip, I had chosen to leave in the afternoon, partly because I didn’t fancy rushing, but also because it gives you the opportunity to visit other areas before leaving. I chose to visit Ritsurin Koen, a famous Daimyou, or wandering garden – it was originally founded by the feudal lord Ikoma Takatoshi in 1625 (although there is suggestion that it sits on the site of a much older garden), but the main work on the garden as completed by the Matsudaira clan, starting with Matusdaira Yorshige when he took over as Daimyou of the Takamatsu domain in 1642. It actually served as the Matsudaira estate and retreat for several hundred years, until it was opened to the public in 1875. As a garden it is rather fascinating, somewhere that needs to be explored, with many different buildings, tea houses, and retreats where one could enjoy a cup of tea and look at a number of aesthetically pleasing ponds, rock gardens, or other features. But as the name suggests, it was designed as a garden to wander through, rather than sit in one place. The heat of Takamatsu meant that I didn’t actually see the whole of the garden, choosing instead to find quiet, shady areas to write and think – I had also arrived at the same time as three coach loads of Chinese tourists, who all followed the main route, and had enough selfie-sticks to brain quite a large group of people (I really, really despise selfie-sticks).

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

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