Day 19: The Final Observation: 16th May 2017

I am writing this on the plane home. It is a long flight, almost, 12 hours. So I thought I would offer some final observations and conclusions.

Before this visit to Japan my impressions, for what they were, came from James Clavell’s novel, Shogun, which I read a very long time ago. This and listening to and seeing the Opera Madame Butterfly when I was a teenager! Not much to go on really.

I really did not know what to expect. And yet many of the experiences we had were unexpected. Probably the most striking was the simplicity of life in rural Japan. The dwellings, by and large, are very small. Most have no gardens. Some dwellings do have nice arrangements of potted plants around the entrance, many do not. Because of the cramped nature of the houses, much of the bric a brac of their lives is kept outside. The only place we saw, what I think of as traditional Japanese gardens with stones or sand and winding paths, was in the big formal gardens surrounding shrines or temples. In the cities the dwellings are even smaller.

Because of the cramped nature of the accommodation and the density of the population Japanese people have worked out a way of avoiding each other in the most polite way.

We spent a lot of time on trains so we feel somewhat expert in the Japanese railways system. It is absolutely superb. From the tiniest two carriage local train to the twelve carriage Shinkansen bullet train, they were always on time. They were spotless. The railway staff, without exception, were helpful and smiling. Even if you had exited the station and were standing looking lost someone would come out of the station to try to help. The smallest station has an indicator on the ground of where the carriage door will be. People waiting for the train queue up one behind one another at these points. When the train arrives those boarding move forward and stand to one side of the door until those alighting have departed. This even in Tokyo!! We never saw anyone push or queue jump. Of course, we did not travel in any of the big cities at rush hour, but even at busy times and places, like the famous five way street crossing in Shibuia, the thousands of people seem to manage. The only time we experienced any issues was when young men were moving around together, like many young people today, they tend to ignore others especially older people.

So, even though the politeness is very obvious, maybe it is changing.

I think we are all aware that bowing is extremely important in Japan. But the whole ritual is fascinating. On the trains, for example, the guard exited the carriage backwards and once outside the carriage door he bowed deeply to all the passengers. Airline staff arrive at the check-in desk and turn towards those waiting and bow. Try getting Iranrod Eireann staff to walk up and down the train instead of sleeping in the first class carriage!!! Our host in Togura, the seven foot American, had perfected this art of exiting backwards while bowing, he needed to do it carefully, being his size meant all doors, exits and entrances are a challenge. Leaving wherever we were staying each morning involved several bows. I just love this custom. It is so respectful.

Talking of respect, people respect one another. Each person seemed to take pride in their work. The lowliest of jobs, like cleaning the train station, was respected. The staff member had a sparkling clean uniform. His or her implements were spotlessly clean. In every occupation this appeared to be the case.

As I have indicated throughout this journey cleanliness is a priority. Hence the ritual before using the onsens (hot baths). The onsen itself can be any size or shape. Some are round and some rectangular. Some are small and some are quite large, some are indoors and some outside. But whatever the size or shape the pre usage washing ritual is the same. You don the Yukata to visit the onsen. Before stepping into the hot bath you sit on a low stool in front of a shower. You wash every part of your body, including your hair, thoroughly, using foam soap or shampoo and rinse. Every sud must be washed off! Then you wash down the area where you have just showered including the stool. The towel situation is a bit like the slippers… There is a special small rectangular towel for use in theo nsen. We really enjoyed this experience each day and have never been so clean. I cannot imagine what Japanese think when they come to Europe.

All of these are very personal observations and yours might very well be different. But in conclusion Japan is a really interesting country to visit. It is not at all difficult to get around even if you do not speak Japanese. The people are delightful. We feel very privileged to have had this experience. The one absolute necessity is to get a rail pass before you go, they are not obtainable once you arrive in Japan. The pass gives enormous freedom to come and go and you see a lot more of the real Japan.

We found the food to be a little bit hard to fathom. Like many foreign foods, the exported version is not quite the same as what is available on the ground. Sushi is everywhere in bewildering varieties. However, there are a myriad of other dishes, soups, noodles, fish in profusion, but also, the inevitable McDo, pizza and French specialities. The influence of French cuisine really surprised us. There are boulangeries everywhere.

One disappointment, in Tokyo airport this morning, the shops were only the well known, expensive, stores, Bulgari, Hermes, Rolex, etc. It is not representative of what you see on the streets, there are millions of big and small shops selling everything you can imagine, as well as the big names. But none of these small traders are present in the airport.

Day 18: The Final Round up: 15th May 2017

With this sort of independent travel you nearly always win some and loose some. So far we had won them all but yesterday we felt we were about to loose this one.

We had decided to change our arrangements a couple of days ago. Originally we were due to move from Togura to Karauizawa for one night and then to Isobe Onsen for our last night on the road. Our original intention was to try to cross the Usui Pass which is the final part of the Nakasendo trail. But we could not find any trail information before we came to Japan. We knew this was a 14km hike. But we did not know if we could have our backpacks sent ahead. I knew I could not carry my pack that far with the gammy hip. So we decided to skip Karauizawa and go straight to Isobe Onsen. We managed to cancel our booking in the one place and extend our stay in the other. BAD plan!!!!

When we mentioned to our host in Togura that we were headed to Isobe for two days, He looked shocked. He asked “why”. So we said we liked the name Isobe Onsen.

We set off south from Togura to Ueda on a local train. From there we got the bullet to Takaski. This is a big train intersection. From there we got another local train to Isobe. On arrival we were confronted with the sight of a huge refinery! The station was fine if small and rural. We knew fairly well where our hotel was situated, thanks to Dr. Google. Off we set. Well this place is not like almost anywhere else we have ever been. There seems to be no one living here. The shops are all closed and very run down. We have hardly seen a living soul everyone seems to have packed up and left town. We did not spot our hotel so I saw a light in what looked like an office. I went in and there was several people sitting behind a long counter. When I entered the young woman at desk one’s eyes became huge and totally round. I do not think she had ever seen a European in her office before. However being Japanese she jumped up and offered to accompany us. It was, in fact, just back down the road.

The hotel is really nice but we are the only people here. There are about twenty pairs of red slippers lined up in the reception area. The owner does not have a single word of English and our Japanese is limited to “thank you” and “hello”!!! But she is delightful. We set off to explore the place. There is a gigantic hotel that looks like a Russian built hotel, reminded us of Yugoslavia in the 70’s or 80’s. Other than a man making biscuits in the window of a shop the place was devoid of human life.

That evening we asked where we could eat dinner. Our hotel owner showed us the only place that was open on a map. We had passed a rather seedy place on our way to the hotel and behold this was the place she recommended. So off we set. It was indeed very basic. A husband and wife team were running it. They did not have any English nor did they have pictures of the food, as many restaurants do. But, by now, we know many Japanese dishes so we were able to order two Udon with soba noodles. The food was fine if simple and very cheap.

Our hotel has a wonderful onzen which we have to ourselves.

We decided we had made a mistake coming here and wanted to check out what we had missed in Karauizawa today. With our JR rail passes we can travel about almost anywhere we want.

Back we went and discovered a totally different side of Japanese life. Karauizawa is a ski resort and extremely sophisticated and rich. The railway station was huge and modern, with a marble floor!! There was a big school group on our train and they alighted at the same station as ourselves. What amazed us was their discipline. There was about 250 teenage girls in the group. They all rose together  when given the signal by  a their teacher. They walked calmly and in line out of the train and along the station platform. Their English teacher was with them so we chatted to him. They were on a four day sports camp.

There was an information center right there in the station. We paid them a visit and tried to get information about walking in the area. The lady had only a few words of English but the map was great.

We followed a trail through a wooded area on the edge of town where we discovered where rich Japanese have their holiday homes. One house was bigger and more elaborate than the next. Many were very American in style. Most of the sites would accommodate ten families in Tokyo or Kyoto or in most of the towns we have visited. All but two were empty at the moment. There was a magnificent house under construction, not very big, modern style, but constructed entirely of cedar, you could smell it from all around. This in a country where most people live in miniscule accommodation, in places like Kyoto there are posh places but very few houses have a garden, maybe a little border, but no garden as we would understand it. So Japan has its ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Also in this area we came across a very posh hotel called Cotswolds House!!

Needless to remark there was a Rolls Royce parked outside. The walk was about 7 km but we could not find anywhere to sit and have our sushi picnic lunch!!! Every square centimeter of this wooded area is privately owned. We eventually sat on a bench by a bus stop. We came across a posh shopping street, a Ginza, quite bizarre.

It was a really interesting day. These two places, the one where we are staying at called Isobe, and Karauizawa, are like night and day to each other. Yet they are only about 50 or 60 kms apart.

Off to Tokyo tomorrow, scheduled to arrive in London lunchtime Thursday 18th.

Day 17: The Snow Monkeys: 14th May 2017

Yesterday was our first wet day so we decided to postpone our visit to see the snow monkeys and to do some domestic chores instead. First on the list was our washing. We located the launderette that was within walking distance. The area where it was situated was quite down at heel. This is something quite common in rural Japan. My image before coming was one of shiney stainless steel and glass. But this is far from reality. Rural areas are just that, rural simple places with a range of dwellings ranging from ‘just about’ detached houses to almost shacks.

Luxury is not evident anywhere.

Our host loaned us two umbrellas. He assured us not to worry if we lost or damaged them as he had plenty more. This is something we have noticed. Umbrellas are usually sitting outside public buildings for your use. They are transparent and must be issued free. Just as well as Barry’s blew inside out on the way home as we crossed the Chikuma river’s, very expansive, bridge. This river is, apparently, the longest in Japan. This information may help in your next game of Trivial Pursuits! Again our host claims that this is no big deal… Chikuma is the name of the city where we are and Togura Onsen is the old hot springs district.

We relaxed for the rest of the day and located a place for dinner. We were curious about it as the information said the chef made pizza and pasta! After almost three weeks of Japanese food I really fancied a pizza. Our host said that it was a fairly new restaurant and the place had not yet been broken in! So he came with us to help us order. He also wanted to translate the menu for his future guests. We had the best pizza we have had in a very long time, washed down with a glass of not bad red wine, served freezing cold but ok when it thawed out!

So Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny with a predicted temperature of 20°. We took the train to Nagano. We are getting very familiar with our local train line. Had breakfast there and found the bus for Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park. This was not difficult as the bus driver was standing beside the bus with a notice saying Snow Monkeys! It was a very luxurious coach. The trip was due to last 41minutes! This is how precise the Japanese are. It was a lovely trip again rising out of the valley up in to the low hills of the gigantic mountains that surround this valley.

Many of you will have seen the David Attenborough’s BBC production on the snow monkeys. I remember being totally fascinated by it. He made the show in winter, of course, which is the best time to see these lovely creatures. But spring is baby boom time so we were full of anticipation.

The bus arrived at precisely the correct time. We were astounded to find the most extraordinary building at the bus park. It is a Roman museum with a cafe! We did not work out how or why there is a Roman museum in this fairly isolated location. We decided to have a tea and coffee before we set out for the monkeys. The cafe was situated in a glass cone shaped building – fascinating. My tea came with pictorial instructions of how to deal with it to get the best flavour.

The story of the snow monkeys is an interesting one. In the early 1960’s a railway worker discovered these red faced monkeys in the mountains. For three years he came every day to feed them, eventually winning their confidence. He then decided to make his finding known to the authorities. The species was apparently dying out. Researchers and photographers descended on the place so the government decided to protect these animals. Research was encouraged and a hot pool was created at the side of the river. This river is very fast flowing with geysers shooting up in the air.

A single baby was the first to test the hot pool and soon his siblings followed. Finally the mother’s took the plunge. They soon discovered how pleasant the warm water was, especially during the three month snowy season. They are now completely attuned to this behaviour.

At this point the government realised what a tourist attraction this could be. But they wanted to protect the species at the same time. So they organised the place so that the monkeys were safe and happy and the public could enjoy them. The access by road is very limited, we had a lovely 30 minute walk in the forest before reaching the entrance to the protected area, which is a big area with a racing snow melt river running through it. The monkeys, macaques, are now completely at ease with humans in their midst.

They are so comical to look at. They have very humanoid faces with flat noses. Their hands and feet resemble ours with five digits. Their fur is so soft, like a very expensive fur coat! Of course you are not allowed touch them but there is a pelt on display in the information centre.

Unfortunately, or fortunately it was too warm for them to get into the hot pools but they were playing around. The mother’s were carrying their babies, either on their backs when they were a little bigger or on their tummies when they were tiny. Sometimes they just sat there hugging their babies and dozing off to sleep. The father’s take no part in the child rearing

Mother and baby

I never dreamed that I would be so lucky as to spend time with these fascinating creatures, so close to us humans in their behaviour. They just wander about oblivious to your presence, not constrained in any way. The keepers toss out food, looks like grains, from time to time. You can see them on the livecam, try snow monkeys Japan.

Remember, Japan is 8 hours ahead of UK/Irl, 7 hours ahead of continental Europe, early morning in Europe is mid afternoon here.

We stopped at a cafe on the way back, we had beautiful sushi of salmon & avocado wrapped in seaweed, and chips! We set off for where the bus left us and happened upon a bus heading for Ilyama, where there was a Shinkansen station! We got the Bullet train to Nagano and a local bone rattler to Togura.

Another wonderful day out.

Day 16: Togura – more observations: 13th May 2017

Since it is lashing rain today I will take the time to tell of some more observations we have made. 

We are in deepest rural Japan now but some customs and rituals are pretty universal.

  • Removing your shoes when entering a home or other building is pretty universal. But then comes the whole slippers ritual. In most guest houses you remove your shoes in a small sunken area at the entrance. Slippers are usually lined up in a row on the upper level. In some places there are racks on which you place your footwear, in others you just leave your shoes lined up in the sunken area. Since I have only boots with me I have to unlace these every time I enter a place and re-lace them up on leaving. The slippers are then worn on any surface other than the rattan mats. The rattan mats are usually on bedroom floors and often on restaurant floors. Here only bare feet or stockinged feet are allowed. You might think this is complicated enough but if you visit the toilet you leave your house slippers, which you have donned at the main entrance, outside the toilet door and just inside the door there will be another pair of slippers which you are expected to wear in the toilet area…. Barry and I have both discovered ourselves en route to our room still wearing the toilet slippers!
  • Then there is the Yukata – a dressing gown made of light cotton. The Yukata is worn when visiting the hot baths or onsen. In some ‘onsen towns’ such as Togura, where we are now, you can wear your Yukata out on the street! Normally a Yukata jacket is worn over your clothes. One is also permitted to wear this garb at all times in resort hotels, like the Kisoji Hotel, where we stayed. Almost everyone came to dinner in these Yukata. It makes a weird picture to see dozens of people all sitting at their table wearing identical outfits. It eliminates fashion competition. It is sort of typical of Japan, a mix of the flashiest modernity and tradition if you ever saw the picture Last Year at Marienbad you will understand.
  • Thinking of fashion we are struck by how the young girls dress. Teenagers adopt a, to us, very childish style. They wear ankle or knee socks with lowish heels. Their skirts are like those I wore in the fifties!! Men going to work wear dark suits and white shirts. Young, working women, often wear similar black skirt suits with white blouses. Very, very occasionally you will see a man in sports jacket and trousers.
  • About ten percent of people wear facemasks in public places. The supermarkets have racks of these on sale.
  • We were fascinated by graveyards. The headstones are packed tightly together. So we asked Dr Google about what happens when someone dies in Japan. If you are eating while reading this please stop now!!! Japanese are almost exclusively cremated, makes sense in a crowded country. The family then retrieve the bones in a certain way using long chop sticks and place them in an urn. The bones are often passed from one family member to the other – grizzly stuff. But this is why you NEVER pass food from one person to another using chopsticks. We were also a little surprised to see headstones in the corner of some rice paddies. These would be the family plot. Graves contain the deceased’s ashes

On to less dark stuff!

  • Instead of open and closed signs, shops and restaurants use curtains to indicate if they are open for business. Curtains in place means “we are open for business”. At the end of the business day the curtains are taken in. These are called Norden curtains.
  • For a country, we consider, as the epitome of high tech, the electricity distribution network is a poor example. Generally the voltage is a low, 100volt, although there are car recharging points of 200v. But, almost all the distribution is on poles in the street, a festoon of interwoven wires, interspersed with transformers and isolation units all on poles, even in central Tokyo. The telecom network is on the same poles. We assume this is because of earthquakes. Putting wiring underground would be too much of a risk. There is universal wifi, everywhere we have been there is free access. Just in case we rented so-called pocket wifi, available everywhere, in the street, on the train, etc., for 100€ for the three weeks, bliss. You can also recharge the gear on the train.
  • We mentioned the cleanliness of cars, but the range of models is bewildering, and a lot are hybrids. Given the closeness of everything the majority of cars are tiny, smaller than a Smart. The politeness extends to driving. If you approach a crossing that is not light controlled the cars stop instantly.
  • We haven’t done much shopping, just the basics. 7-11 is everywhere, offering an ATM that actually works with Irish cards! Food, including for eating on site, booze, basic stuff like loo rolls etc. all available in one store. There are more specialised shops selling all sorts of stuff, supermarkets of course, some really classy ones, clothes shops, the usual international collection of brands. Japan is moving towards universality of brands, more is the pity, but their very specific character set restricts the advertising. However, just this morning, we managed to find a packet of Daz, by “reading” the Kanji script, same sort of style, but in the recognisable Daz colour scheme.

Day 15: Togakushi: 12th May 2017

On our arrival here yesterday Tyler Lynch (!) chatted with us about what we liked to do and then made some proposals. We decided to go to Togakushi National Park. This involved a train and bus trip. It is situated north west of here, in the region where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. The train departed from our local station, not the one at which we had arrived.

Our traditional Japanese breakfast consisted of only about six different dishes and bucket loads of green tea. We just couldn’t imagine how long all this takes to prepare so we asked our hostess. She confirmed it took a long time but that Japanese families do not eat this every day. She said their three children just wanted cereal and yogurt!

Equipped with train timetables that Tyler had printed out for us, he then drove us to the station. This is a funny train line. It is partly run by a private company and partly by JR, the Japanese railways. This involved buying a ticket for part of the journey and showing our JR pass for the other part. Nagano, our train destination is a very big town. It, apparently got a huge face lift, for the Olympics. But we were not to spend a lot of time here as we had a bus to catch. The bus company is called Highland Express. This sounded like an adventure already. We had only minutes to catch the bus but needed to purchase tickets in the office. In the process of purchasing the tickets the bus arrived. The assistant who was helping us rushed out to hold the bus until our purchase was completed.

Off we set on a fairly packed bus. Most of the clientele were about our own age, all Japanese, mostly carrying hiking sticks. So we felt right at home. The journey takes 1.5hr. Everyone has heard of, and seen, spiral staircases, well Japan has spiral roads! What do you do when you need to ascend a mountain, quickly, by road? You build a spiral road, of course. It was fascinating, but I imagine pretty rough on the gears. Our bus was a low gear model so we took it in our stride, if somewhat noisely. Back on the normal roads we continued to climb until the snow clad mountains were all around us. The trees here were just putting on their light green coats. The daffodils were in full bloom and there were some Sekura trees in blossom. It was a beautiful trip.

But Barry was feeling the loss of his morning coffee so the first thing we did on arrival at Chusha was search out a coffee shop. Most places were closed as this is low season. A bit like looking for coffee in Baltimore in early spring, it’s a Hobson’s choice. But we did find the coffee shop and it served wonderful coffee and some sort of sticky pastry. Delicious. The owner was so delighted with our business, admittedly Barry had 2 cups of coffee, he gave us a bag of sweets. With the aid of a map we picked up in the coffee shop Barry worked out a suitable circular walk in the forest.

At the start of the walk there is a lovely shrine with the largest cedar trees I have ever seen. Some of these are sacred and people were coming to pray there. They rested their foreheads on the trunk with palms laid flat against the tree.

A little way along the route we heard “excuse me” . We turned to find two young women. They asked where were we walking. Barry showed them. One was Japanese and the other turned out be an Israeli. They asked if they could walk along with us as they had no map. We were delighted. What wonderful travelling companions they made. The Israeli girl was a fine arts graduate, turned pastry chef and the Japanese girl a political science graduate turned sociologist. They had just met up! We had a most interesting walk and in the way of walkers we tried to put the world to rights. We did not shy away from political discussion and their world views were extremely interesting. The Japanese lady was well travelled but a little naive but the Israeli was certainly not. Both were taking career breaks, looking for more balanced lives. Both loved nature and walking.

Barry navigated us while Madoka, the Japanese girl, was able to interpret the signs for us. The forest floor was covered in Skunk Cabbage, which despite their name look magnificent, a little like a field of mini Arum lilies. There are also other spring flowers just emerging.  We had noticed that it being quite high and the snow had not long melted, the local people were planting their vegetables, in their little parcels of garden, enhanced with mushroom compost. All the while the big snowcapped mountains surrounded us. We walked about 8 or 10km. No one noticed as the time passed so pleasantly. We came across a tiny hot spring pool where the clear hot water was rising gently through a ring of sand under the water.

After our walk we had a lovely meal together of soba (buckwheat) noodles and tempura washed down with copious quantities of green tea. Poor Barry, more tea!!! We caught a different bus back down but from the same company so we could use our return ticket. This was on the old traditional mountain, winding, road. We had to pull over several times to let cars pass. It was a scary but splendid trip. Cannot imagine what it must be like in the Winter!

We parted from our wonderful walking companions with an exchange of addresses. Then we got the commuter train back to Togura. We walked the twenty minutes back to the Royokan. We did not want a lot to eat so Tyler showed us a place where we could have something called a beer snack. This was a hilarious place. You ordered from a machine, picked up a ticket and the information was already transferred from the machine to the kitchen. A pretty soulless exercise and a pretty soulless place which seemed to be frequented by all the cleaning staff of Togura.

But it was just what we needed.

Then a shower and a ten minute soak in the onsen and we were ready for bed.