On the Road in Japan

The last 6 days I have been driver on our 3 week tour of Japan. I have driven in other countries that believe driving on the left is the proper thing to do, so really that is not much of a problem. For the most part the people here are extremely polite and that carries over onto the road. Even though I have made a couple of mistakes no one has even tooted the horn at me.

The speed limits here are very low by my standards. The highest speed limit I have encountered is on the toll roads, a four lane divided highway. The max speed allowed, and only in a few spots is 80 km/hr. Most of the time the limit is 60 or 70. On the regular highways one is allowed to go 50 km/hr. And through the towns the max speed drops to 40. The city roads are 50 or 40 km/hr. There are some who push the boundaries and fly by us law abiding folks but they are few. It is not like anywhere else I know of.

The result of the lower speed limits is one has to allow ample time to travel from one place to the next. One huge advantage for us tourists is the route finding is much easier at the slow speeds. It is not often we miss a turn because the approach is slow enough adjustments can be made and exiting on the proper ramp is easy.

Japan

In our unending pursuit of adventure we chose a couple of roads MUCH less traveled on our way to and from the Iya Valley. The routes are more or less mountain passes. Up a very steep slope on one side and down a very steep slope on the other. These roads are paved and in reasonable condition but have yet to be widened beyond the one car width they were originally built to many years ago. In some areas this is for good reason because the only way they could widen the road would be to hand the extra out over the very steep valley below. These roads are so twisty and narrow no one has bothered to post a speed limit. The maximum speed one can attain is 40 km/hr anyway and most of the time we move along at about 20. Imagine, we don’t meet a single tourist on any of these roads.

Today we take a much improved mountain road on our way to Izumo. It is pouring rain. The mist swirls about the mountains like the steam from a witch’s caldron. It’s spooky but quite spectacular. The built landscape is quite different along the way. On Shikoku Island the towns and homesteads were mountain dwellings. The buildings were maybe a bit shabby and the yards were natural. North of Hiroshima towards Izumo the houses are quite upscale, very well maintained and the yards are all manicured and kept up. It might be money but I think it has as much to do with location and the mind set of the people who live there.

Japan

We have been ‘experimenting’ with food as we progress our way through this area and that. If we can, we try the local specialty. We did pass on the deep fried batter octopus balls in Osaka. Because Debbie and I scuba dive and have a particular liking of octopus we could not possible eat one. R & L just passed as the timing when we ran into a vend0r was not appropriate. We missed out on the crepe like pancakes filled with everything from soup to nuts that Hiroshima is known for but today we found a place that serves Izumo’s famous food, Izumo soba. The cold soba noodles come in three stacked dishes. A fishy sauce is added to the top bowl and the noodles eaten. What is left is poured into the next bowl and more condiments are added. Those noodles are then eaten. This continues to the last bowl. Not sure what this procedure is suppose to accomplish but that is the way it is done. When we ordered the set meal it came with a bowl of miso soup and some tempura and rice. The noodles were OK and I think would have been better if served hot but I ate them. The miso was very good and the tempura was excellent. All in all a successful experiment.

Izumo soba noodle set meal
Izumo soba noodle set meal

No more toilet updates. Yestereday’s commode was boring. The seat had no electronics what so ever.

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Hiroshima

Hiroshima is an important stop for me on our journey through Japan. In fact, every traveller to Japan should stop here and experience the Peace Memorial Park was created to remind people about the atomic bomb that was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, Japan
Atomic Bomb Dome

When the bomb was detonated, the explosive force hit the Hiroshima Perfectural Industrial Promotion Hall almost vertically, so the building’s walls and dome withstood the impact. Everyone inside died instantly and the interior burned, but the shell remained. The Japanese made the decision to keep this shell and maintain it to keep it like is was after the attack as a reminder to the world of the devastation one bomb inflicted upon humanity.

In the park, we visit a number of memorials, the Peace Bell, the Flame of Peace, the Centotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims and the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall. All are designed with clean classic lines, concrete, an airiness and are approachable.

Peace Bell, Hiroshima, Japan
Peace Bell

The Children’s Peace Monument was built to commemorate all the children who died and was inspired by Sadako Sasaki, a young woman who was exposed to radiation at age two and died from Leukaemia ten years later. She set about to fold 1000 origami cranes believing it would prolong her life. There is a group of children at the monument today. A young girl is speaking in front of the group. Cranes are brought by children to the monument everyday.

Children’s Peace Monument, Hiroshima, Japan
The top of the Children’s Peace Monument with Sadako holding a crane
Children’s Peace Monument, Hiroshima, Japan

There are Japanese schools groups everywhere in the park. Elementary to high school aged children. The younger ones wear hats, all one colour for each group, yellow, red, orange. The older students get away with no hats. They are learning about what happened here 75 years ago. It is an intgral part of their country’s history and their lessons.

It is an important part of the world’s history and those far away may be forgetting the devastation and loss of life that occurred with that one act. Not only should school groups from Japan be visiting this park, but school groups from all over the globe, and world leaders, need to be visiting this park so they can learn what happened on August 6, 1945 so it is not forgotten and perhaps repeated.

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Off the Tourist Track

Today we spend most of the day driving from the middle of Shikoku Island to the city of Matsuyama on the west coast. We get off the tourist track by following less traveled routes. The roads are winding and sometimes very narrow, really only a one lane road. If we meet another vehicle, both must squeeze to the side to pass. Makes for a bit of hair raising if there is a drop down down down to a creek bed below us.

Shikoku Island, Japan

We should be doing a bridge count and a tunnel count as we go over and through many. There must have been a time of massive infrastructure construction in this area to build so many structures. The Japanese like concrete. When a road is widened, they pour concrete to fill in the gap through the canyon. No cutting and filling like they do in Canada, just pour that huge concrete block and get ‘er done. Fascinating!

Shikoku Island, Japan

It’s lunch time and we are hungry. We spy a small restaurant and pull over. It is called something like Restaurant 439, which is the highway number we are on. Small place run by two older ladies, one in the kitchen and one serving. With our rudimentary Japanese, a lot of pantomime, the server lady’s rudimentary English and help from a young woman patron, we manage to order chicken and rice. Oh, and we make sure we add in a lot of laughing and smiling when ordering. The food satisfies the hunger pangs and we are on our way again.

Shikoku Island, Japan

When we travel, we attempt to use as many modes of transport as we can. So far on this trip we have traveled by airplane, boat, car, subway train, legs, bullet train, cable car, bus and now today we add chair lift. The Matsuyama Castle sits high on a hill and is accessed by walking (done that), a cable car (done that) or a chair lift. We opt for the chair lift. Not the safest chair lift in the world, but rather fun.

Matsuyama Castle Chair Lift

The castle is huge and has these massive stone walls as protection. We were late so we could only walk around the castle. Impressive and intimating, which I am sure, was the idea.

Matsuyama Castle

Tomorrow we add another mode of transport. The car ferry, as we make our way to Hiroshima.

Don’t mean to take away from the tour of Japan, but this topic has intrigued us all. Installment three in the Japanese toilet series. Messing around with the console control panel I figured out how to raise and lower the seat electronically. Then on another toilet I found the fan was activated once one sat on the seat. These folks have taking potty time to a whole new level.

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The Iya Valley

Today we start our drive across Shikoku Island. We leave Tokushima about 10:00 and slowly make our way into the forest and up in elevation.

As we climb, the road gets curvy and the mist gets thicker. The vegetation is deep green with moss everywhere.

Japan
We discouvered a small bridge along the way.

We have two stops to make today before we reach our accommodation for the night. The first stop is at the Oku-Iya Niju Kazurabashi (Double Vine Bridge). The path down to the bridges is well constructed and maintained. We are surprised at the bridges when we descend to them as they are held together by thick vines, and nicely hidden strong steel cables. The walk across is a breath holding experience as the boards are separated so we have a great view of the creek rushing past many metres below us.

Vine Bridge, Japan

Our second stop is the Scarecrow Village (the Valley of the Dolls). A woman moved back to her small hometown after getting fed up with living in the big city. She was saddened to see so many people gone from the village, so she started creating people to populate the village.

Scarecrow Village, Japan

All along the road there are characters going about their daily lives – the potter, construction workers, farmers. There are folks waiting for the bus, attending a wedding, playing in the haystacks and taking a snooze. From behind they almost look like real people. It is a charming stop on our journey.

Scarecrow Village, Japan

We are staying the night at the Kazurabashi Hotel. One of two nights in very fancy places. This hotel has indoor and outdoor onsens (hot pools) for soaking in. The men and women are separated as soaking is done in the nude. After we check in we partake in a soothing soak with a gorgeous view of the Iya Valley, it refreshes us.

Supper is an experience. Very Japanese. We are not sure what we are eating……

Kazurabashi Hotel, Japan

Except the fish…..

Kazurabashi Hotel, Japan

By the by the food pics were taken by our friend L.

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Indigo Dyeing

Our first stop today is the Aizumicho Historical Museum, the former residence of a very wealthy indigo merchant. Inside the museum we learn how awa indigo was cultivated, processed, sold and used in dyeing.

The indigo was grown in rows, in the plants early stages in between rows of wheat. The rows of wheat protected the rows of indigo from the weather elements of wind and sunshine. The wheat would be harvested first and then the indigo plants would grow to their full size.

When the indigo leaves were harvested, that same night they were chopped into small pieces before they dried out. The next day they would be dried and then winnowed so the veins of the plant were separated from the flesh.

The leaves were then fermented and turned into a pulp, which was ready for market. To use the indigo it had to be mixed with lye so it would liquify. When dyeing, articles had to have oxidation so they would be dunked numerous times before washing and drying.

Many women’s toilets in Japan do not have hand dryers or paper towels to dry hands after washing, so the ladies carry small facecloths for that purpose. I want to try dyeing something, so I buy a facecloth.

Aizumicho Historical Museum
Folding

The first step is to create folds and choke points so the fabric will have a pattern. L helps me and we fold, twist and wrap elastics around the facecloth and then tie it in a knot until it is a little bundle.

Aizumicho Historical Museum
My little bundle is ready for dunking!
Aizumicho Historical Museum
Soaking

I submerge it into the vat of indigo, careful not to drop it or go deeper than my plastic gloves. It soaks for a minute, then I lift it squeeze the liquid out, spread in out abit and submerge it again. I do this three times before the lady says it should be done.

Aizumicho Historical Museum
Squeezing
Aizumicho Historical Museum
Checking
Aizumicho Historical Museum
Rinsing

The lady helping me, cuts off the elastics and unwinds it. It has a greenish tinge to it but as I rinse it in water until no more colour is coming out of it, it turns blue. It is placed in a spinner to get all the water out.

Look what I created!

Aizumicho Historical Museum
My masterpiece!
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And Now We Are Five

Debbie and I started this trip at the beginning of September, just the 2 of us. Last week L & R joined us. When we picked up the car we found a tour guide came with it. So we are now 5. She did not introduce herself so we named her Clarice. It is a bit crowded. C is reasonably competent but she is annoying. Similar to the lady in Safeway’s self check out tills. Every word she speaks is a command and there is no opportunity to question or ask for clarification. “Turn left in 700M, pause, turn left in 300M, pause, turn left at the intersection with traffic lights, short pause, turn left”. On it goes until the last thing she says for the day is “you have reached your destination”.

Towards Tokushima
Towards Tokushima

I generally do not like to travel on freeways. We travel too fast and the walls on the side of the road block the vision of the countryside. Therefore today we get off the toll roads and travel the secondary highways to our accommodation in Tokushima. The trip is along the ocean side, through towns and past some agricultural land. A much better picture of Japan than the ubiquitous asphalt road lined with a metal fence.

The vision is one of SE Asia. Although it is much more modern and in very good repair. The ocean is calm because we are on an island protected from the open ocean by other islands. The towns are quiet and orderly. The agricultural land is green (or golden in the case of rice) and organized in neat rows.

Air BnB in Tokushima
Arty corner in Air BnB

We arrive at our Air B&B house to find it a very small, older Japanese house. Two floors, a living area, kitchen, dining area, living space, two bedrooms and one bath (in North American terms). It has a Japanese dining table and a western sit down dining table. The part we are surprised at is there is food in the fridge and food prep supplies in the cupboard. The place was a bit expensive but if you calculate the included meal stuffs it is quite a good deal.

Air BnB in Tokushima
Teeny tiny kitchen in the Air BnB

The house is the source of my second Japanese toilet installment. This can has the usual heater, rear washer, and a localized exhaust fan, almost boring by now. The cool thing is that the lid (not the seat) lifts as you open the WC door and closes once the toilet is flushed and the door shut. Spooky the first time you enter.

Air BnB in Tokushima
Our bedroom at the Air BnB

We constantly heard from others how expensive Japan is. I therefore budgeted for meals at a slightly inflated amount to cover off lunch and dinner, 12oo Yen each for lunch and 2500 Yen each for dinner. After 6 days here we have only exceeded our budget twice. Once when we took someone out for dinner and the other time when we were in a Japanese Restaurant and our basic Japanese was not adequate enough to know what we were ordering or what it cost and the bill came to slightly more that 10,600 Yen for the four of us. The rest of the time we spend less then 1/2 what we expected.

We have one day in the Tokushima area and then the next few days we will be about as far from civilization as one can get in Japan. Should be interesting.

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Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge

We stay at Guesthouse Geragera in Kobe the night of the typhoon. We have a great view of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge. R and I are, of course, fascinated with it. Here is a day in the life of the bridge.

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, Japan
Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge on the edge of the typhoon
Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, Japan
Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, Japan
An artsy view
Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, Japan
The morning after

Today we drive across the bridge on our way to Shikoku Island.

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Super Kabuki Super Typhoon

I woke up excited today. Today is the day we are attending a Kabuki theatre production. 

Months ago, while searching for “things to do” in Tokyo, I stumbled across a website showing Kabuki productions playing and there was one during our stay in Tokyo. L&R agreed that we should try to buy tickets online. It was nerve wracking, and very expensive, but we managed to procure four tickets for today’s show.

Our first bit of excitement is the metro train ride downtown. It is rush hour and the commuters are packed like sardines in a tin. I take a deep breath and push my way onto a train, my three companions follow. There are attendants on the platform, with white gloves, that nudge people into the train and help get extraneous items within the car so the doors can close. I can’t reach anything to hang onto, but there are so many men around and up against me that I am just held in place. No personal space on this train. No matter how packed it is more people get on at the next station. For me it was a giggling situation. 

Murray ordering his egg on a stick!
Murray ordering his egg on a stick!

We eat breakfast at the Tsukiji Outdoor Market. Sushi triangles, egg omelet on a stick, grilled scallops. Once our tummies are full, we walk the few blocks to the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre. Murray picks up our tickets and L&R and I buy boxed lunches (sushi) to eat during the first intermission. It’s a thing everyone does and totally acceptable to eat in your seat in the theatre!

Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre

The theatre holds maybe 1,000 people on three levels and we four look to be the only caucasians in attendance. Our seats are half way back on the main floor beside the runway down the left aisle, it will be a great view.

Kabuki Theatre
Waiting for the play to begin.

The opening of the play is jaw dropping. It grabs us with powerful music, striking lighting, lanterns, laser patterns, mirrors as a backdrop and small pink hearts floating down from above. We are amazed at the spectacle, and I have a wide childlike grin on my face.

The basic story is girl meets boy, girl looses boy, girl gets boy back, Super Kabuki style. The costumes are colourful and outlandish. All the actors are men, even the women’s roles. This goes back to the time when it was no longer appropriate for women to act in the theatre, so men replaced them and it has remained that way for Kabuki theatre since.

A couple of highlights are a bright silver horse operated by two men underneath its frame. Very convincing and agile. At the end of the second act, a structure with water and a fountain is used during a fight scene. Fantastic visuals with lasers and lights, water spraying everywhere, including the first few rows of spectators, who had sheets of plastic to hold up and ward off the spray. I decide I am glad we did not buy tickets in the first row. Our mouths were agape when the curtain closed for the second intermission.

No matter what I write I cannot relate the spectacle that this Kabuki production creates. Even without understanding the language we could follow the story. We decide it far out performs any Cirque de Soleil performance.

During the second intermission, L checks the train website for an update on train cancellations due to the approaching super typhoon. Yup, they are cancelling our train on Saturday (tomorrow) to Osaka. We decide to go to the train station right after the play ends to try to change our tickets for later today.

At the train station we learn all the reserved seats for all trains to Shin-Osaka are full, but we can buy non reserved seats and try to get on any train going that way. It is back to the hotel, pack up as quickly as we can and troop back to the train station. We got good advice from the fellow at the JR train office and went to Tokyo Station, the start of the train route.

As I write this we are on a bullet train to Osaka and I am relieved, surprised and thankful that we are even on the train. The press of bodies on the platform was worse than the morning commute train. The crush and the pushing that we endured to get on the train was almost laughable. I snuck through the train door because a fellow got his body in the door but his suitcase was trapped outside the door, leaving me an opening to squeeze past. Murray followed close behind me. I snagged a seat, but Murray is now sometimes standing and sometimes sitting on our suitcase. L&R are in the next car thankfully as we lost sight of them in the melee. There are many, many people fleeing the typhoon, just like us.

Between train rides, Super Kabuki and Super Typhoons, we have had a rather eventful day.

It is now the next morning and our eventful day kept going with a fire alarm (a false alarm luckily) waking us up at 3:00 am to go stand in the rain for almost half an hour.

Hopefully today will be calmer. We do pick up a car today an start driving so we will have to see.

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Tokyo

Tokyo is not a very photogenic place. We have traveled around town by foot and subway for 3 very long days and I have taken maybe 100 photos. Most of which are just a record of the places we have passed by. The cityscape is quite bland and there are not too many things that are worth lifting the lens for. I did take a few pics today as we passed by the Imperial Palace and gardens. Debbie and I then traversed the absolutely boring financial district on our way home. I didn’t even take my camera out of my bag.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Grounds
Tokyo Imperial Palace Grounds

The train/subway system here was set up over time and the concessions were awarded to many different companies. They generally work together and the transit passes work on all lines but it is a very clumsy way to operate things. The connections even at the ‘same’ station are long and circuitous. The route from one point to another is often piecemeal. It is often a long walk from where one stands to the train route that will get you to where you are going.

Street furniture is rare here. I’m guessing it is to discourage loitering. There are plenty of benches in parks but there is not an over abundance of them either. In fact there seems to be a lack of chairs with backs in general. Our hotel room has sit on the floor cushions with chair backs but no legs. The breakfast room has stools with no backs. Most of the eating establishment we have been in have stools. The subway does have proper seating. For back support we have been using the hotel room walls.

We were warned Japan is a cash society. When our on site connection mentioned this I upped the amount of cash we ordered from our bank at home. Still I expected Tokyo to be credit card enabled. SURPRISE! Most food establishments in the big city are cash only. The biggest shock is some of the ‘tourist attractions’ do not accept credit cards. Debbie and I have taken to touring the city we are in by way of the river. The river boat in Tokyo which is basically supported by tourists will only accept cash. The transit cards can be topped up at machines but the machines have no way to insert a card and must be fed bills. On the upside to this Japan is not as expensive as we had been led to believe and if we are careful we will have enough liquid funds to survive our trip.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Grounds
Tokyo Imperial Palace Grounds

A bit of a disclaimer. The comments do seem negative but that is not how I meant it to be. My intention was rather to give my impressions. Neither good nor bad, just that is the way things are.

Tonight we sit with the knowledge a category 5 typhoon is about to make landfall near Tokyo. Some people seem to be somewhat panicky with the news. We have decided to remain calm and stick to our plan. We have no control over many aspects of the near future and if our plans get interrupted we will adjust as necessary. In the mean time we wait.

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Impressions of Tokyo

Debbie and I have ordered beef yakiniku at a Japanese restaurant at home, it is beef served with sesame sauce and rice. Yakiniku is just the way the meat is cooked, basically it is a Japanese BBQ. Last night we headed to a restaurant whose specialty is BBQ. It would seem by the menu, Japan and North America could have a symbiotic relationship over the use of an animal for food. The Japanese would use all the ‘innards’ and the ‘muscle’ part would be shipped to NA. The menu of most restaurants here is posted in large pictorial displays on the exterior. Some are pictures only, some have Japanese characters and some include prices. There are even a few with English attached. Thankfully the place we headed to last night had English appended on each item. The wall sized menu included exactly one item Debbie and I would have eaten. The wording is descriptive enough that we instantly knew what we were about to get into. “Beef, pork and chicken innards with rice” is one of the translations. There were 20 plus other choices none of which I would even venture to try. The one thing I would have eaten was I believe noted as “sirloin” and I think that meant the part of the cow Canadians mostly indulge in. We went for sushi!

Tokyo

We survived our first earth quake last night. Our room is on the 5th floor of a small hotel. It is 5am and the Ring of Fire lives up to its reputation, the building starts to shake, but only for a few seconds. Either we have a Sumo wrestler in the room next door or the ground is moving. I’m going with the latter.

Tokyo

Tokyo is turning out to be quite tourist friendly. We have a paper map but there are so many streets it is not possible to include all the detail on a reasonable sized sheet of paper. We wander about following the map and just when we are about to get lost there on the edge of the sidewalk is a map of the immediate area. As we have only wandered about for one day I cannot say if this standard throughout the city but it did help greatly on yesterday’s walk about.

Tokyo

When reserving a room in this hotel we thought we might jump with both feet into the Japanese experience. We book a Japanese style room. 6 tatami mats in size, plus a little extra for good measure. The futons are in a closet. Staying here is much like camping at home only you do not have blow up the mattress. Each night we move the ‘living area’ to the side of the room and lay out the bedding. Climb onto a rock hard futon and voila, sleep. Although we soft westerners had to get a second mattress just to soften the substrate.

Tokyo

The Japanese are a bit anal about the bathroom experience. Having a bath is quite ceremonial, we are looking forward to visiting a couple of onsens. What is an immediately evident is the difference in the make up of what a toilet consists of. How about heated seats. Maybe the living spaces are cold here but other than outhouses I haven’t found that to be a problem. Here there is a dial on the edge of the seat so you can set the temperature. Then there is the ‘rear wash’. A jet is strategically situated so when the water valve is turned on you can eliminate the use of toilet paper. Only thing is your butt is dripping and it makes for uncomfortable underwear. I’ll keep you updated on any other toilet innovations I run across.

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