Sunday, September 30, 2007

This is what insomnia does to your-

-ability to think of the right word. Fuck. Insomnia = teh ugly. Insomnia + EXCITING DISCOVERY MUST EXPLORE = teh uglier.


New backdated post to be found here. This is the first internet access I've had for a couple of days, and I'm about to enter another internet black hole, as I'm going to a remote area to sit in the bath all day.

I think I've replied to all emails, apologies if you slipped through the cracks. I'm not sure what did and didn't get through last time. AHAHA! I typed 'apologise' at first. Damn right you apologise to me. You've done something wrong, I'm sure of it.

There’s a man in his underpants dancing around on TV.

(Morioka City Hotel, Morioka)

Nu. Nununu. Shinkansen make my ears hurt. The trip from Sendai to Morioka was less than an hour through the rice paddies. I’ve mentioned the seats on these things are great. They’re bigger than economy class plane seats, and with a hell of a lot more leg room. They’re big cushy things, with arm rests and tray tables and a lot of recline. Yes, we likes the seats. Just not the trains.

(Look, when bakeries sell stuff like this, you have to buy it and eat it. It's the law. Just black ink, they were only filled with custard.)

At Morioka I found the information centre and was given a helpful map indicating where my hotel was, which was only across the road, actually. They gave me a cookie as reward for using their services. No kidding.

I’ve checked in and out of so many hotels now, I get my passport out before I’ve even given them my name. Still not sure why they need to photocopy my passport, but the staff always seem relieved when I’m familiar with the drill.

My luggage hadn’t arrived yet, which seemed to erase that relief and send them into a panic, even though I wasn’t that concerned. Free wireless in my room meant I had stuff to do while waiting for my dirty washing to appear. This room is the smallest I’ve been in yet. Can’t turn around in the bathroom without knocking something. Like it miles better than the resort.


The hotel has no coin laundry, so I was given another map with a path drawn on to one nearby. This map was screwy with street sizes, angles, and block lengths. I got lost, and spent some time wandering around the back streets of Morioka before heading back to the one landmark I was sure of, being the bridge. After another couple of false starts, I found the laundry, and spent an exciting evening watching my clothes tumble in the dryer, while two women swept the street outside their building and talked about a fat cat with a recent surgery stitching.

(There isn't much to indicate it's a laundry at a glance. I spent a long while watching the lights on the cigarette and drink machines scroll through the rainbow.)

It is very cool here at night. Nearly time to get my windcheater out.

I walked past the fine and well presented restaurants, and found a simple little ramen joint staffed by one woman in a giant kitchen. She cooked me a big bowl of soup noodles, gyoza and rice. They were good quality noodles too. It’s in these little places that I’m comfortable. The finer restaurants make me feel like a trespasser. Maybe if I was a bit better dressed that wouldn’t be the case, but I didn’t really bring any thing that I couldn’t hurl in a washing machine. Or shoes that weren’t made for spending all day in. My functional shoes don’t look that pretty.


Tomorrow….ah, Tsurunoyu Onsen. Extended bathtime, here I come.


(Sendai Station, Sendai)

The Matsushima Bay area isn’t large, and last night’s walk didn’t take long at all. I ran out of town and shoreline to explore quickly, and ended up just strolling back and forth, turning random corners, and not paying a lot of attention to where I was going. A lot on my mind. I knew I should eat, but I didn’t want to stop walking.

A little lady outside the restaurant Ishida-ya took advantage of my aimlessness, and directed me inside her shop. At that point, I had no will power, and would have gone into a room full of rabid vampire kittens if a yakuza boss had gestured for me to do so. She sat me down, gave me an English menu, and after bringing my meal of unadon, left me alone. With each meal, I find I eat slower, and slower. They had no other customers, and I was grateful for the quiet.

I wandered back to my ‘resort’ hotel. Those in rooms with views of the harbour were out on their balconies in their yukata. There isn’t much to see of the bay at night. My own room has a great view of the parking lot.

I had a bath, but it didn’t settle me. The TV only picked up two channels. I watched some sort of game show, in which various TV celebrities were given all sorts of bizarre challenges. One of the main guests was none other than the actor who played Pigsy, in Monkey Magic. His face has deeper lines, but hasn’t changed in the slightest, and I recognised his mannerisms.

That didn’t settle me either. I just didn’t sleep.

Breakfast was included in the room price, and was better than I was expecting. There was a decent buffet. I stayed away from the ‘continental’ foods, which are strange and not quite right, and had myself vegies, tofu, omelette and salmon.

Checked out. Investigated the Fukuurajima Bridge. There was a big sign out front, stating a ‘toll’ was necessary. I did not tell the lady taking the toll that my bigger billy goat brother would be along after me, and was much tastier.

The bridge is over 200 metres long, reaching over to a small island on which is a couple of pavilions and lookouts amid the gardens. This early in the morning, the weekend visitors hadn’t invaded, and I largely had the island to myself. It was a nice quiet stroll, broken occasionally by the honk and loudspeaker announcement of departing sightseeing boats.

There were fishermen working beside the bridge. I’m not sure what they were doing. Nets were stretched out on the surface of the water between bamboo poles, which they fed over their boat. I think they were checking the nets for damage.

I followed the flow of foot traffic to the jetty from which all sight seeing boats depart. The ticket counters were many, with no obvious route maps or English. I went with the first attendant to direct his attention at me, jabbering away in Japanese despite my totally blank face. I just paid the 1400 yen, and went to the jetty number he told me.

(Most of the cruise boats were similarly, er, decorated.)

Matsushima Bay is gorgeous. The great poet Basho is said to have been so struck by its beauty, that the first time he viewed it he could only cry, “Matsushima! Matsushima! Oh, Matsushima!”

You will find your appreciation of this natural artwork is diminished if you’re crammed in with the weekend visitors, who, for some bizarre reason, are more interested in feeding the bloody seagulls than enjoying the scenery. You will find your view of the bay and islands is obscured by silly twats throwing chips overboard, and by the swarm of flying rats who just won’t bugger off. Seriously. Seagulls. Not that cool, you know.

(The bay is full of such interesting outcroppings, but unfortunately all my photos are terrible due to the bland overcast sky and the number of seagulls swooping into frame. Not kidding.)

A lovely place, but I’m worn, and don’t have the same patience I should have when it comes to other people.

The LP mentioned a boat from Matsushima to Sendai, which I thought would be a nice way to get back to the station, but the woman at the information desk indicated otherwise. There are boats that travel near to Sendai, but still a fair distance away. Skip that.

I wandered into Kanrantei, a guest house given to the Date clan by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and moved to an outcrop on the shore. 200 yen admissions for a very small museum, which I wasn’t that interested in. Instead, I ordered a cup of green tea and a bowl of sweet bean soup with glutenous rice balls, and sat in the tea room looking out into the bay. This far up north, with October arriving tomorrow, it is now cool, and the warm snack went down a treat. The tea house staff cast me looks, for sitting there so long.

The right train station and the right train track, and now I’m at Sendai, awaiting the shinkansen to Morioka.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


(Matsushima Century Hotel, Matsushima)

Didn’t sleep well. Got up early to get the circus happening. Decided, given the itinerary for the day, to pack an overnight in my backpack, and forward my rucksack on ahead of me. There are awkward bulky sticky out presents in the rucksack. Hopefully they survive the trip.

First leg; the limited express back to Nagoya. Just over two hours travel time. As luck would have it, the woman next to me had a wee little baby travelling with her, and the French couple across the aisle had an even wee-er little baby travelling with them. Extraordinarily, I heard not a peep out of either. Cute little big-eyed critters. She apologised and tucked her baby in every time she stretched her legs or reached out towards me. I didn’t mind. I liked the feel of little baby feet.

Second leg; shinkansen from Nagoya to Tokyo (y hallo thar), stopping at Odawara (been there, done that) and Shin-Yokohama (been there, done that). Just under two hours travel time. Fuji-san can be viewed on this trip, but as luck would have it, the rain was out, and Fuji-san was wrapped in clouds and wouldn’t come out.

I’ve decided I hate shinkansen. Sure they have big comfy chairs and they certainly get you where you’re going fast, but it isn’t a comfortable journey. The pressure inside the carriage is exactly right to make my ears hurt. Not even aeroplanes do that to me. Not happy camper. Somewhat disconcerting to watch the walls of the train flex with the air pressure inside the mountain tunnels.

10 minutes between arriving in Tokyo and departing. Bit nervous about that. Thankfully, the shinkansen platforms are all lumped together, and made my next train with plenty of time.

Third leg; shinkansen from Tokyo to Sendai. Just under two hours travel time. Ears hurt. The train followed the mountains up Tohoku, the backbone of Japan. It took an hour to leave Tokyo’s urban reach.

(Sendai Station)

Arrive at Sendai, and transfer to local JR line to get to Matsushima. Realise have failed one vital point of research, and don’t know which direction I need to go on this line. There are no line maps in the train, or on the platform, and the one in the corridor is not very helpful. Ask conductor, and am directed to another platform, and kindly told exactly which train to get on.

Fourth leg: local train from Sendai to Matsushima. Approx thirty minutes travel time. Get out LP to check the route to the hotel. Realise am going to wrong station, and am in fact on wrong train line. Have been on train for many hours, and don’t care. Stagger out of Matsushima station, see taxi, get in taxi, make it taxi driver’s problem.

Short taxi ride later, am at hotel. Hotel is a resort hotel, picked for convenience more than price. Am alarmed when tiny woman greets me at entrance, and takes my backpack. Am accustomed to lugging around backpack containing laptop, toiletries, two cameras, various books, and sundry stuff. Note tiny woman stagger slightly. Am escorted to front desk, and check in. Another tiny woman takes my bag again, and has trouble with it, but insists on carrying it to my room.

Room is large, with a lounge area, three sinks, and a big big bathroom. Room is worn, with the varnish on the desk peeling, stains in the carpet, and wrinkled wall paper.

Room does not have internet access.

Bugger resort hotels. Business hotels have what I actually want.

It’s that dead hour again. Going to take me for a walk down by the bay before hunting up some dinner. Methinks a bath will happen tonight.

(Fukuurajima Bridge at night.)

The thing about holidays is that although you take a break from life, life doesn’t stop while you’re gone.

I don’t know if I should be here.

Friday, September 28, 2007


(Rickshaw Inn, Takayama)

You know how I said I wasn’t a red meat girl? That might change.

I decided to give the Hida beef another shot, this time at a place listed in both the LP and on the restaurant map the staff here gave me – Yamatakegyu. It wasn’t nearly as posh looking as the last place, and when I slunk up the stairs the owner pounced on me with a huge welcome. He claimed to speak no English, and hoisted up another customer of his to explain the way his restaurant worked. An open freezer was packed full of fresh steaks, from which I could choose my cut. From there, I could grab a plate and fill it with whatever and as many vegetables I desired, for a mere 420 yen. He’s a fibber, his English was quite good and he could have explained it all perfectly well. I went with the amount he recommended, grabbed some capiscum, something that is not quite an eggplant, and something that was entirely unidentifiable which looked like potato and certainly wasn’t.

Each table was set up with a charcoal grill in the centre. He brought out my plate of raw dead animal, and made sure I had not just one, but two different sauces, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Off I went.

You know, I haven’t really eaten any red meat for over a month. And this freshly grilled steak with pepper and sauce was just…oooh my fucking god. That was so good. So unbelievably fucking good. And play food too! I messed around flicking meat and vegies all over the grill, so that each piece was exactly to my liking.

The owner had himself a great time. He brought out posters of the matsuri and the giant floats, telling I and the other foreigners all about the festival, the greatness of Hida beef, that Takayama was the centre of Japan. These people are proud of their town.

I don’t think my body was against a little hit of iron, either.

Unfortunately, I’ve developed a bad habit of eating dessert. Just as there’s no one to tell me red bean cakes aren’t an appropriate breakfast, there’s also no one to tell me to lay off dessert. I might as well get away with it while I can.

Ice cream at the ready, I settled in the Rickshaw’s lounge, and flipped through a National Geographic article on the depletion of the ocean’s fish stocks. Specific focus was given to the bluefin tuna, which is highly overfished and equally highly prized as sushi meat.

I must be more tired than I realise. Reading about the state of the ocean made my eyes hot.

By chance, I haven’t eaten much tuna the whole month I’ve been here. I’ve eaten plenty of seafood though, and do so back home too. I feel obligated to reduce the amount of fish and seafood in my diet, although I’m not that inclined to replace it with meat. Maybe I’ll live on tofu.

Procrastination time is at an end. I must shower, and then do that thing I don’t like doing: pack.

Home of Sarubobo

Home of Sarubobo

(Rickshaw Inn, Takayama)

I’m getting worse at getting up. Worse than usual, I mean. Now I’ve taken to setting my alarm two hours before I need to actually be out of bed, and hitting snooze over and over. What can I say, it takes me a while to reconcile myself to the idea of being awake.

This morning started with a stroll through the riverside market. There are two morning markets in Takayama every day. The one by the river is the larger, although that doesn’t mean it is big. Most of the stalls were locals selling local foodstuffs. I so wish I had the ability to ship all this food home. It all looks fantastic, but as a traveller I just don’t have the means to do anything with it.

An elegant woman accosted me as I sat beneath a tree having a drink, asking if I was from Thailand. When I told her I was from Australia, she went on to ask if she could have an English conversation with me. My paranoia factor rose by several degrees of magnitude, as requesting to practice English is a pretty standard scam opening in most Asian countries. But no, she did just want a short conversation in English, in which she asked the usual tourist questions, and then gave me a brief run down on the attractions of Takayama. She went on to point out one of the float houses on the street, before bidding me good morning, and going about her shopping.

There are many float houses scattered throughout the town, housing the enormous two- three-storey floats that are pulled out and paraded around for the spring matsuri. None of them are on display, but they’re quite elaborate from the pictures, most of them with clockwork moving puppets.

Breakfast was a bag full of little fish-shaped red bean pancakes. Best thing about being a supposed sensible grown adult travelling alone is that no one can tell me that isn’t a simply smashing breakfast.

I walked to the second market, much smaller, and situated outside Takayama Jinya, a local government office set up by the Shogunate. Many such offices were used throughout the Edo period, but this is the only one left standing.

I have to say, the paper-pushers of the Edo era worked in much nicer offices than I currently do. Although they didn’t have air conditioning or heating or computers, so I probably shouldn’t complain.

(The carpet in a 24 hour office is disgusting. I don't think the tatami mats would do well at work. Still, it's a much nicer atmosphere than the cubicle farms.)

There was an English guide available when I entered, so I was given a thorough tour of the premises. Having all the little details pointed out, and someone to direct questions to, was most excellent. I was particularly fond of the kugikakushi, which are decorations designed to hide the nail heads in the walls. These ones were rabbits (this area has an obsession with rabbits). I’ve picked up from all the rabbits all over Japan that it is a favoured animal, supposed to be lucky, but in this particularly case, is meant to be good luck against fire. A good charm to have in a wooden building.

The use of each room could be somewhat deducted by looking at the tatami mats. If they had decorated borders, then they were probably for the head official’s use, black borders indicated lower ranked officials, and a lack of borders entirely meant the area belonged to servants.

(I was quite taken with this simple set up for raising and lowering pots over the fire, with the wooden fish acting as brakes.)

There was a very simple court room which doubled as a torture chamber. The instruments on display were very straight forward; the victim was made to kneel on a sharply ridged slab of wood, and then blocks weighing about 40kg were placed on their knees. Ouch.

From there, I headed to the station. The staff at the tourist information office directed me as to which bus to use for the Hida-no-Sato (Hida Folk Village) and what ticket to buy. I had some time before the bus left, so I also reserved my train seats for tomorrow. Getting in early for window seats is way important, hai.

The village was in walking distance, but far enough that I was pretty sure I’d get lost if I tried to find my own way. The bus was the much simpler option. It dropped me off at the entrance.

Hida-no-Sato is a sort of museum/amusement park. With the westernisation and progression of Japan, a lot of the old lands were lost due to the building of dams. Takayama city took it upon itself to preserve some of these old farm houses, and so rescued whole buildings from destruction, moving them piece by piece to this village. They’re good, walk-in displays. A lot of focus was given to the various roof styles used, which seemed to depend on how much snow a roof was expected to support. Some buildings claimed to have been able to support two metres of snow in winter. Yikes. That’s a lot of snow.

(Across the pond. Just out of shot is a family having a cheesy photo taken, parasol, straw hat and all.)

(That is a thick-ass roof. Serious business.)

(Yeah...don't let your roof get like that. Also, I loathe the perpetually overcast sky. It isn't even an interesting cloudbelly.)

One house used to belong to a priest, and beside it was a large bell, with a log and rope all set up for ringing. Hell yes I gave it a ring. The ‘doooooong’ was magnificent, and it shivered under my hands for a good two minutes afterwards.

Unfortunately the more interesting section of the village was largely closed. There was a group of houses for local artists to work their craft in view, such as weaving, wood working, lacquer work and so on. Only the woodworker was present when I visited. Possibly the huge mob of school children scared the others off.

(Heh. Deliberate play on words. I didn't see any bees.)

A bus back to the station, and headed back to the ichi- ni- and sanmachi street area, where all the buildings are beautiful old wooden creatures, settled in place and comfortable. I found a little restaurant, and had cold soba noodles with dipping sauce and vegetables. Actually eating lunch is a hell of an achievement if you ask me. Someone give me a prize.

I walked to Shishi-Kaikan, which I’d heard was a museum of lion heads, used in another matsuri of Japanese lion dancing. The section housing the heads was actually very small. There was no English signage, and given the minimal Japanese signage, I think they only provided the names of each head. They’re not lion heads like I know them. Each is a solid block of wood, sometimes with ears or jaws that move. Most are unpainted.

There’s a small token museum housing various artefacts, which is nothing you won’t see in every other museum in the country.

However, included in the admission price is a puppet show, put on twice hourly. These puppets are clockwork powered, and are called ‘karakuri’. According to the pamphlet, a watch belonging to Tokugawa Ieyasu needed to be repaired, and the repairman was so fascinated by the watch’s inner workings, that he copied the basics and created these puppets. They were fantastic! They utilised not just the power of springs for fast and strong movements, but very cleverly designed sets as well. The acrobat impressed me the most. You wouldn’t think a puppet could be a trapeze artist with no puppeteer obviously holding it.

Two women stood at the ticket office before me, accompanying two much, much older women. Maybe mothers, maybe grandmothers. A little senile, prone to wandering and clapping and random bursts of song. These two old dears, they loved the puppets even more than I did.

As I was in the area- wait, that’s misleading. Takayama is small enough that everything is ‘in the area’. Anyway, near Shishi-Kaikan was Kusakabe Mingei-kan, an old private merchant’s house that has been restored and preserved as an exhibit. It’s quite the mansion. No English signage, but most of the displays are pretty self-explanatory. Included in the admission price was a free tea service, which is a pleasant interlude in the court yard. I saw three separate gardens for this one house. That’s what you can afford when you run a money-lending business.

After that, I just wandered the streets like a dog that doesn’t know she’s lost, because there are too many new and interesting things to sniff and paw at. I love this little town, I do. I don’t know that it has more than two, maybe three, days of things to do, but what it has is what I want. I will return.

This is now that dead hour between everything closing and it not quite being dinner time.

There is a sharp distinction between feeling like you don’t belong, and knowing that you don’t belong. The former is unpleasant, impossible to quantify or dismiss, and every day. The latter is being an obvious foreigner in an unknown land, knowing there is nothing you can do to change this, and is strangely, breath-takingly, liberating.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Foxes, and foxes, and foxes again.

(Rickshaw Inn, Takayama)

On my last full day in Kyoto I had three goals; the Johnny Hillwalker walking tour, Ni-jo, and Fushimi-Inari Taisha. The walking tour was due to start at 10 outside Kyoto station. One flyer I picked up said the walk was three hours. Another ad said it was four. From his own mouth, it was five. It was going to be tight.

Given I was testing out the buses from my hotel to the station, I left early (still leaving time to screw up). The bus system really is excellent. Kyoto is laid out in a grid pattern, in emulation of the old Chinese cities. As such, it’s pretty straight forward getting from one side of town to the other. The buses are even designed specifically for sightseeing, which coincides with being useful for residents getting about as well. That said, just because a bus travels down one road, it won’t necessarily stop at all the bus stops. Best to check the route maps on each of the bus stops before hopping on.

I had plenty of time at the station, so indulged in breakfast. I know, crazy! When I surfaced, Johnny was already present and handing out maps. He’s a little weathered man, hair more white than black.

While waiting for everyone to turn up, a man from Dallas started chatting up a tiny little chinese woman from New York, who was standing next to me. Standard traveller talk; where are you from, where are you going, where have you been, oh, I’ve done this and this and all this.

The first place Johnny took us was Higashi-hongan-ji, again. It was much better with a knowledgable guide. Turns out, what I thought was general construction was actually a repair of the main hall, the largest wooden building in Japan. Shame. With the main hall out of order, the Amida Hall is being used for services. When we visited, there was a service to state “I am a Buddhist” being performed.

Like the Imperial Palace, this temple has burnt down several times as well. The first couple of times the Shogunate rebuilt it, but the third time not so, as the Shogun lost power. It was rebuilt by the people, by volunteers who went into the mountains looking for elms large enough to be the supporting pillars. They wove rope out of their own hair to haul the lumber down the mountain. The rope is on display, and much larger than you’d believe.

(One of the pillars in question. That's a lot of tree to lug back from the mountains.)

At the new temple, which had very strong church-like overtones, Johnny gave an abbreviated summary of Japanese Buddhism, which is different from Chinese Buddhism, which is different again from Indian Buddhism. The Japanese like the Amida Buddha, who is not popular with the Indians and Chinese, as the Amida Buddha does not deliver wealth or happiness. The Japanese already have their Shinto gods to look after wealth and happiness, and so look to the Amida Buddha for the one thing the Amida Buddha gives; Paradise. Amida only cares if you are alive or dead, and if you are dead, he takes you away.

There was a woman with us, toting around a wheeled backpack with all the zips open. When we took our shoes off to enter the Amida Hall, she left her bag there, despite being told we were putting our shoes on again elsewhere. Of course, when she went back to get her bag, it wasn’t there. Johnny sent us all on to the next stop while locating her bag for her.

Stupid woman. If your bag contains what you need to continue travelling, then don’t be a stupid daft idiot and leave it unattended and out of sight. Not to mention, duh! Security risk, of course it will be taken away.

The next stop was a fan shop, at which we were able to watch fans being made by hand. Interestingly, the fan industry in Kyoto is quite a specialised one; many people work at home, and work at doing one part of the fan making process only. One household might specialise in making paper, another in painting it, another in cutting bamboo, another in making the frames, and so on. The same with many other traditional industries. Johnny said that one kimono can go through up to forty households before being completed. It’s no wonder they cost so much.

The fan making industry is dying out though, due to the cheaper imported fans from China. Seeing as I knew what was before me was hand crafted, I splurged and bought myself a luverly one, which will never be used because it’s too pretty. Back in Tokyo I bought the cheapest, plainest fan I could find, and it’s served me well, and is already banged up as all hell.

From there we visited a Shinto shrine, Ayako-tenmangu. The tenmangu set of Shinto shrines are for ‘better head’, which is intelligence and wisdom related, and as such they’re very popular with students in the throes of exam period.

Here, Johnny explained the rituals of a Shinto shrine. Shinto tends to circulate around purity and cleanliness. The ropes around the shrine are to keep dirtiness and impurity out. Before passing beyond the rope, you must wash your hands and mouth with the water found at all Shinto shrines.

Because Shinto gods are spirits, and zoom around all over the place, it is necessary to get their attention. To do so, you ring the bell and clap your hands before praying.

Kitano-Tenmangu, at which I’d visited the market, is the head tenmangu shrine in Japan, where all donations from all the tenmangu shrines in the country go.

This was followed by a visit to a much smaller Buddhist temple, which housed a Shinto shrine in the corner. As Johnny pointed out, the many buddhas in Buddhism don’t quarrel, and the many gods in Shintoism don’t quarrel, and as such, both are quite happy to be mixed up together. I like these religions.

(The Shinto shrine tucked in the corner of the Buddhish's temple yard, both equally well maintained.)

We visited a grave yard, where the death customs were explained to us. Death anniversaries are marked on the third, seventh, and so on years. I couldn’t quite figure out the exact pattern with the numbers.

Ichihime was another Shinto shrine, this one dedicated to the protection of women.

After that, we strayed into a declining geisha district, and a geisha house was pointed out to us. The area was going down hill, and while there were still geisha operating, there were fewer and fewer each year. Johnny detailed the process girls have to go through in order to become a geisha, which sounds even harder than trying to get into university in this country. The profession appeals largely to those interested in dance and music, and apparently half of the girls who become maiko do not become fully fledged geisha.

(The lantern is the sign of a geisha house. They're were not extravagant buildings, and quiet during the day.)

Kyoto seems to be in decline, at least from Johnny’s point of view. A lot of old crafts are thinning out.

The next stop was something completely unexpected. Many years ago, a company made it big selling picture playing cards. The factory still stands, although it is no longer used, as the company is now busy doing other things.



We were given a piece of inari sushi (you probably know it as the sushi that is rice in a jacket of sweet bean curd) before strolling about the pottery district. The house of one apparently very famous potter had bowls just drying out on the front fence. Apparently these bowls are only available at exhibitions, not in any stores, yet they were just sitting out the front for any of us to steal or knock over.

In a small bakery we were given a cup of tea and a sweet, and from there descended on Toyokuni, a shrine dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Johnny gave a unique perspective on the Toyotomi/Tokugawa feud. The Tokugawa Shogun did unify Japan, but also sealed the country off from the outside world, and generally wasn’t all that nice a guy. When the Shogun finally lost power, they were so afraid of him that they made a shrine to keep the shogunate away using the power of Hideyoshi’s spirit.

Hideyoshi isn’t without his stains; he did some terrible things to the Koreans. But he started something.

While Johnny was telling us this, Mr Dallas and Ms New York were standing next to me. He’d maneuvered himself behind her, and stood with his hands on her waist, and she was not happy with it. I’d seen him getting man-handly with her when crossing roads, taking her by the arm and such. First chance she got, she moved away, to my other side. I tried to subtly ask if she was okay, but she waved me off.

The tour ended shortly after. I stuck close by her, in case she looked like she needed intervention. The two of them left together though, him with his hand on her forearm as they ran across the road. She’d half-attempted to brush him off when he offered to show her around a temple, pointing out he’d already been, but never actually said “no.”

Sometimes, I think being a tiny little pretty thing must suck. I’m glad I’m not. I’m also glad I’m cantankerous enough to tell people when to bugger off. Girl, it’s your holiday. You don’t owe him a thing.

Time was short. Luckily, there was a bus leaving from a stop nearby that went straight to Ni-jo, so I leapt on it. It was a very rushed tour of the castle, built by Tokugawa Ieyasu (I swear, all these guys did was build big things), but very much worth it. It was what I was expecting the Imperial Palace to be. Every room was full of gold paint and the sliding doors were covered in lush beautiful murals. Ever room and corridor was a piece of art.

Best of all was the floors. Ni-jo is full of the famed nightingale floors, and yes I tried to walk across them without making a sound, and only succeeded some of the time. The sound they make is different to what I’d expected. I’d anticipated the creak and grumble of wooden floorboards, but it is the nails themselves that sing, and they’re much sweeter. They’re like the little squeak of mice, or the peep of baby chickens. The passage of feet is pronounced, but not obnoxious.

The sun was setting by the time they kicked me out. I lept on the first bus to the station, and took the JR Nara line to Inari, where the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Temple is located. It is the head Shinto shrine of Inari, the god of rice and favourable business. Foxes are his messenger, and there were fox statues everywhere.

The main drawcard was the paths leading back from the temple up into the hills, where various smaller shrines were housed. Each path was lined thick with great vermillion torii gates. They were thick and tightly-packed. It wasn’t like strolling through the forest at all.

I walked through twisting orange corridors, as the sun set and the crows bickered and the last cicadas of summer buzzed their chorus. Gradually, the lanterns came on, and my corridors were striped with light and shadow.

(I turned around, and was startled to find all gates were carved upon, a stark contrast to their blank faces. Remember - always look behind you.)

(There were temple kitties everywhere. I assume the foxes don't mind their presence.)

There were many branches, and the few maps I encountered were entirely enigmatic, so once I reached the point where I wasn’t sure if I’d remember what route to take to get back, I turned around. I could have spent much longer there, just walking through the torii.

I ducked into the basement of a nearby department store for dinner, as I had to contain the mess in my room and sort myself out for check out. I have to say, while the Japanese excel at presentation, they overpackage. There are wrappings in boxes in wrappings in wrapping paper in bags. It’s an enormous waste. I also, er, got sucked into Tower Records kindofmaybeonpurpose. Look, when the new albums from Iron & Wine AND Jose Gonzalez are released on the same day, you’d do the same. Gonzalez does an excellent cover of Teardrops, you should seek it.

I messed up with Kyoto. I didn’t give myself nearly enough time to poke around, nor did I have my act together and have a coherent idea of what I wanted to do. Next time, I think I’ll give myself at least a week here, for a good rummage.

This morning I slept in, since check out wasn’t until 11. No that I slept, oh no, but just lazing in bed was good enough. A quick trip to the post office to send my latest batch of stuff I didn’t want to carry around back home before hitting up the station. I love the post offices here. They’re useful, unlike most of the ones I encountered in America. I have all my terms memorised, and the process is pretty painless. A newly discovered talent of mine is knowing exactly when I have enough stuff to fill a box snugly.

The shinkansen took me to Nagoya, and from there a limited express train to Takayama. The limited express alarmed me initially, as the first leg of the trip was spent travelling backwards. No way I could travel backwards for over two hours and not hurl my guts up. Thankfully, it was the train equivalent of reversing out of a driveway. The majority of the trip was spent following a river up a deep valley. The water was a fantastic colour, somewhere between blue and green, and so very clear.

Takayama is a little mountain town that has retained most of its traditional Japanese buildings and atmosphere. Just walking from the station to my hotel was enough to win me over.

(There is someone walking down the street, regularly hitting two blocks of wood together. Old school nightwatch man? Dammit, missed them. I’ll have to check again tomorrow.)

The Rickshaw Inn is great. It’s a very small ryokan, but wonderfully decorated and with an elegant feel. My room is yet another tiny tatami mat room, squeezed in behind the kitchen.

I’d intended to visit an arts and crafts museum before it shut, but, er, this town is another of those towns full of fascinating little streets lined with fascinating little shops, and I got so distracted it closed before I made it there.

There is a dead hour in most of the smaller towns, between the shops shutting and the restaurants opening. The river cutting through the centre of town seemed a nice quiet place to chill, so I found a seat and gave home a call.

The path by the river is where the locals take their little dogs to do their evening poo-poo. FYI.

Beef dishes are pushed as a great specialty in Japan, which I think is due to the scarcity of beef itself. Japan doesn’t have the space to have large herds of cows at pasture. To be honest, I’m not that much of a red meat girl back home, so I haven’t made any effort to try the beef here. But I liked Takayama, so I figured I’d try the local Hida beef.

The restaurant I found only had a Japanese menu out front, without roman numeral prices, and looked rather up market and probably wouldn’t appreciate me walking my shabby arse in off the street, so I nearly walked away. Then I slapped myself, and strode in and asked if they had an English menu, which they did. Unfortunately, the really good stuff like shabu-shabu and sukiyaki were two people minimum, which made me sad. I settled for a beef and rice claypot, and because I was feeling slightly out of character, decided to inebriate myself and ordered some hot sake.

You know I can’t drink for shit. I still managed finish half the bottle, which is a good effort by my standards.

I don’t know if they cut their cows differently, but the meat does look different. Instead of there being one concentrated strip of fat, the fat is evenly and thinly distributed through the flesh. It gives it a very creamy texture, and of course tastes nummy.

If I can find some other lone traveller tomorrow, I’ll convince them they need shabu-shabu for dinner.

(ETA: I can tell from reading this I was exhausted at the time of writing. I'm cranky, and my goodness, crappy sentence structure! I have held off from editing any of these though, just...'cause. In case you couldn't tell, I was a bit snap-happy at the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Temple, and spared you most of the photos. Will go back there. WITH A TRIPOD THIS TIME.)