Friday, September 07, 2007

So, how about them typhoons, eh?

(Turtle Inn Nikko, Nikko)

I think the outskirts of the typhoon reached Tokyo yesterday. I set out early to visit Ueno Park, and with the rain turning off and on sporadically and violently, I decided not to go too far into the park itself, and visited the Tokyo National Museum instead.

(Holy cow, I’m watching the news right now. That typhoon is doing some serious water dumping, and if I read the map and path right, it looks like I got out of Yokohama in good time. Even the rivers up north around Nikko are hugely swollen, and on the point of bursting their banks.)

I like me a good museum, and the Tokyo National Museum was much better than ‘good’. It was incredible! There are four buildings to it, each specialising in certain collections. I only ended up visiting the first one I walked in, as there was so much to look at in that one building I spent several hours there without noticing. The Hankon (I think I’m remembering that right, I lost my map somewhere) building housed artefacts of Japanese archaeology, which were humbling to behold. According to the plaques, the Japanese were the first people in the world to develop pottery. I stood in front of a pot that had been fired approximately 10,000 BC. I, you, everyone, will be dust in a handful of decades. That pot will endure.

(Oh my god, they’re showing footage of Tokyo now, and they’re sandbagging department store doors! I think I picked an even better time to get out of Tokyo. Except I’m going back tomorrow. Eeek! Look at all the delayed trains!)

The display carried on through time, detaining the introduction of rice farming and irrigation, metal work, even the governing system was largely imported from China. Australia, while having a long history of population, doesn’t possess those traces of permanence. The Aborigines left very little trace on the land. Only since white settlement of the continent is there a physical sense of history, which even then only stretches back 200 years. There are centuries of history all around me, still standing, and it’s hard to believe.

Australia, by its physical location, is also fairly isolated. Culture was forcibly and painstakingly imported from England, for better or worse, and only recently, in the last few decades, have other cultures started to have influence. China and Korea and India are all over Japan. I can’t imagine living with such tangled histories.

(Oh wait, the typhoon has already passed over, if I’m reading that right, and is up the northern end of Tohoku now.)

There was a great display on the old firefighting techniques, a very important profession given Japan’s fondness of earthquakes and that the majority of buildings were wooden. The scrolls depicting the various great fires throughout Edo’s history, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, were stunning.

A hall full of swords, most from the thirteenth century, and one in particular by the great swordmaker Masamune. Ai! They were beautifully kept.

Perhaps my favourite display, a collection of toys. Some of the board games were quite intricate, and just from looking, I had no idea how they worked. There was limited English signage unfortunately. Best of all, were some absolutely beautiful metal-work dragons and snakes, full articulated, wonderfully intricate, created by armoursmiths during Edo peacetime. I can’t imagine how much time they would have taken to create, they were so detailed.

There was much more, including the buildings I didn’t visit, but I didn’t want to spend the whole day in the museum. Asakusa is only a short trip in the metro from Ueno…which wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d been able to find the metro station, which wasn’t in the same section as the JR station. Having found the metro, I mistakenly thought I wanted the Toei Asakusa metro line, and spent half an hour walking around in circles till I realised I wanted the Ginza line all along. Me and maps, man, fuck.

Asakusa was brilliant. It’s the polar opposite of the hyper-modern glow-stick uber-crowd, being home to Senso-ji, a temple housing an idol of Kannon since 628 AD. From the station, I found Kaminari-mon, the Thunder Gate. Unfortunately, what with the rain and wind, the giant paper lantern wasn’t fully down, but Fujin and Rajin (the gods of wind and thunder) made up for it.

(Kaminarimon, with Dude #1 and Dude #2 /anime reference)

From there, the path leading to Senso-ji was danger, danger, danger. I’m not much of a shopper, but daaaamn. Some lovely stuff there; quality fans, yukata, foodstuffs, a couple of shops specialising in wigs to wear with your kimono, and more. I found one shop that sold all manner of chopsticks. I wouldn’t have though of chopsticks being objects of beauty, but I had a hard time pulling away from many of the sets there. In the end, I settled for a reusable, unscrewable set, to use instead of all the disposable chopsticks about the place. No more worrying about splinters.

(Many stalls. Some quality, some not.)

(The second gate to the temple.)

Senso-ji was just glorious. They had fortunes there – where you shake the jar till a stick comes out, and with the number on the stick get your fortune – but being all in Japanese, I figured my knowledge of the future wasn’t going to change. I bought some incense for 100 yen, and lit it for my grandfather.

I don’t know if a Japanese version of a bodhisattva will mean anything to him.

(The temple ceiling.)

The inside of the shrine was quiet, and still, and gloriously old. It had a well-used feel about it. Afterwards, I drank some of the sacred water, and sat and watched. It’s an interesting mix of people who visit the shrine.

(The shrine.)

I explored the shopping district a bit further, and took a break in a bakery.

None of the tourist sites or travel guides warned me about this, so I shall impart my hard won wisdom to you. Free of charge, no less. Listen well, ye uninitiated.

Japan is mad for bakeries.

They’re everywhere. Ev. Er. Y. Where. And they’re not cheap nasty bakeries either, they’re full on. They do cakes like you wouldn’t believe, and the buns! I am in bun heaven! The bakery I entered had just set out a tray of fresh out of the oven red bean (adzuki) buns, hot and so bloody delicious.

(What the hell am I watching now? This is still the news, right? Some giant boar is loose in some suburban area, and haha! Not all the police, vets, towns folk and king’s men can catch the bugger. I don’t think this is supposed to be funny. The boar wins. No wait, the boar loses. Poor boar.)

But yes, anyway. I’ve had to develop an immunity to the smell of baking, or I’d stop every couple of minutes to gawk. You are now prepared to visit Japan.

I sussed out the Tobu Asakusa station for my trip to Nikko, and then headed over to Shibuya with the intention of finding the largest pedestrian crossing in the world. Shibuya is not a small station, and although I knew the crossing was around it, I had no idea where. Because I’m just wired that way, I took exactly the wrong exit, and turned exactly the wrong way, and did a giant loop around the station before finding it. Easy to identify because a) it’s fucking huge, b) it’s fucking busy, and c) there’s a Starbucks two floors up that overlooks it. Dinner at Starbucks isn’t exactly quality eating, but being able to look down and watch the flood of people each time the lights changed was amazing. At this point, the sun had set, and the typhoon was making itself known by dumping down. The crowd was a dance of umbrellas. It was mesmerising, a great way to unwind.

(One of the less busy crossings I watched. I recorded a movie with my camera, but Eddie doesn't like the format, so that will have to wait till I'm home.)

Since I was in the neighbourhood, I decided I might as well hit up Tower Records, all seven storeys. It was just up the road. But because I’m just wired that way, I went the wrong way, around in all sorts of circles in the pouring rain, until I ended up back at the intersection, and noticed the giant neon yellow and red sign. Bit of a give away that. Probably not the smartest move I’ve ever made, as I blew my budget on a bunch of J-pop and J-hip-hop albums. Ahem.

I had intended to explore Shibuya some more, but at that point, the rain wasn’t an amusing novelty anymore, so I fled back to my ryokan, and attempted to dry out. And pack. I hate packing.

A family of rowdy chinese had arrived and set up shop in the lounge area, which was across the hall from my room. Rowdy chinese are rowdy. I discovered exactly why I brought ear plugs along.

This morning I checked out, leaving my big bag at the ryokan, and began my journey to Nikko. JR to Ueno, metro to Asakusa, and then a limited express train to Tobu Nikko station, two hours at 1320 yen. There are express trains which travel to Nikko, but are only half an hour faster, and cost significantly more. I wasn’t in a rush, and my feet appreciated the sit down. The rivers we passed over were huge and fat with rain. There were trees of which I could only see the tops in all the water. The trip was largely through suburbia, the urbanisation of the country is pretty extreme. Quite abruptly, there were sharp hills, covered in dense lush trees the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and filled with low clouds.

Tobu Nikko is a small station, given it’s a popular tourist destination. The information counter there is great value. I was able to buy a combination admission ticket for the shrines and temples, as well as a bus ticket, and the staff sorted me out well and good, making sure I knew exactly what bus to catch, from which platform, to which stop number, tracing out the path I should take between shrines, and gave me a map that provided both the English and kanji names for all landmarks. Most excellent! One of my bugbears with the English language maps is that they’re only in English, which is a problem if you’re surrounded by signs in kanji.

Two bus stops later, and I was at Shodoshonizo, where I exchanged my coupon for my admission tickets, and visited the first shrine on the list, Rinno-ji. It’s big, red, and hard to miss. No photography is allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word that the three giant golden Buddha inside were awe-inspiring. There wasn’t anything else like them in the whole area.

From there, it was a short and lovely walk to Toshogu, through these trees, these towering, fat old trees, so old and settled they were furry with moss. The whole area was wet black stone and rampaging green moss and low misty clouds. I am so far from home.

(The first enormous torii leading to Toshogu.)

Toshogu was probably my favourite of all the Nikko shrines. The complex is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the warlord who unified Japan and established the Shogunate, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Yes. Really. It was great to go squeeeeeee! over real history, and not an association with fiction. In ten years time, 2017, Ieyasu will have been dead for 400 years.

(Recommenced at 10:24pm, after dinner, walkies, talkies and rub-a-dub-dubbing.)

Toshogu was just decadent. If there was a surface to be decorated, then it was decorated. Everything, the walls, eaves, fences, frames, everything was stunningly carved into all manner of reliefs, and lavishly painted. It was a celebration of his glory, and there was colour and gold everywhere. The attention given to detail, all these tiny motifs that were hidden all over the place, it was overwhelming. I drowned in the sheer gorgeousness of it all. No photographs were allowed inside, of course, but the outside more than made up, and I think my camera is mad at me.

(Carving on one of the buildings in the Toshogu complex. Recognise them? Thought you might.)

At one of the many grand temples, a monk nattered away something no doubt very interesting in Japanese, and demonstrated the acoustics of the hall. The roof was painted with a 16 foot dragon. Sound falls flat in the room, except directly under the dragon’s mouth, where it echoes sharply, to the point of making my ears hurt. There were statues of the 12 zodiac generals, and I hailed the Rooster General, who looked like he was having a good time.

After Toshogu, I was afraid the rest of the area wouldn’t compare, but Futaransan Shrine was charming in an entirely different manner. The pathway to the shrine was bordered by moss-laden stone walls, and lined with stone lanterns. Futaransan didn’t have the wealth of decoration, and its simplicity made it refreshing. It had many little shrines and prayer walls, and another sacred spring (I have drunk so much sacred water today).

From there it was a short walk to Teiyun, another surprisingly lavish temple up a steep slope. I tossed money in the box, rang the bowl three times, and said hello to whatever higher power was listening. This is the tomb of Ieyasu’s grandson, and so was equally as grand as Toshogu, but not as big.

After Tokyo, being surrounded by such lush greenery and hills, and the quiet of the temples, was soothing.

Then, I got brave, and decided that I wasn’t going to call a taxi or get on a bus, I was going to walk to my accommodation. I had maps. I was prepared. I SHOULD KNOW BETTER. I spent half an hour walking around in circles. I found the old Imperial House, now converted to a museum, but not my accommodation. It wasn’t marked on the excellent map the information center provided me, but it was in my Lonely Planet book, so I knew the rough vicinity. Well, even in a town as small as this, rough vicinity isn’t enough for me. In the end, I walked into 7-11, pointed at the accommodation ad, and said “kore wa doko desuka?” being “where is this?” A simple and highly useful phrase, and it brought me to my hotel.

I’m staying at the Turtle Inn Nikko, and I love this place. I have another 4 tatami mat room, which isn’t quite as nice as Kimi Ryokan, but has a huge extra bonus of my own private sink. It’s only small, about ten rooms in total I think, and family run. I was given a lovely guide of the town and the hotel by the manager, who provided me with another map and pointed out some other points of interest, a tutorial on using the bath, pointed out free internet, and made sure I knew what times dinner and breakfast were served.

Then, because I’d only eaten one onegiri and one red bean bun for breakfast, and a single ice cream cone for lunch, and I was sticky as all hell and didn’t want to be on my feet any more, I sponge bathed, changed, and started writing this.

Dinner was at 7, and as luck would have it, I made the wrong decision again and did not bring my camera. Holy smokes, Batman! What a feast! A couple of small vegetable appetisers to keep me entertained while the main cooked. It was some small iron stove, set on the table, with some sort of coal or heat bead lit inside to cook the great pile of assorted mushrooms and greens and thinly sliced beef in broth that was contained on top. NOM NOM NOM. Trout was also served, although the smallest trout I’ve met. It was cooked whole, with the skin on, and looked pretty unhappy when it was set down before me. I ate it with relish. It was cooked just right, warm and tender and NOM NOM NOM. This was also accompanied by miso soup and rice. Dessert was a block of utterly sublime red bean jelly and green tea. See, now, not eating a real meal all day does have its perks. I’m not sure I would have been able to fit all that in, normally.

It’s quite cool here in Nikko, far cooler than Tokyo. After dinner, I went out for a walk to investigate the sacred bridge, which the hotel manager had told me was lovely a lit up at night. The hotel and road run right along the Daiya River, which is a stream of charging bulls right now, with the rain from the typhoon. My window looks out onto it, and charging bulls are very loud. The walk should have been 10 minutes, but I’m easily distracted, and started playing around with my camera. Oh me, oh my, I need a tripod!

Once returned, I made use of the free internet to research some train times and the sumo tournament tickets, and make various disparaging comments to assert my personality faults on the internet once more, and had tremendous trouble with the keyboard. The space bar on Japanese keyboards is much shorter, to make room for various shift keys, so that you can switch between hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romanji. One of those shift keys is right where I hit the space bar (with my right thumb), and I had a terrible time keeping my typing in the roman alphabet. I think I amused the three drunk old me sitting around me though.

At last, I checked out the bath. I felt like Boromir, looking at the bath, saying, “what new devilry is this?” It was so big! So deep! It was nearly a pool in its own right. And it was kept at a permanent temperature of Just Right. And it was constantly topping up, a waterfall always pouring fresh hot water in. Outrageous! I was good, and didn’t dive in face first. I showered and scrubbed outside, as is proper, before getting in for a good soak. Bliss. I suppose they have to do something with all the water in this country. I’m going to do this as often as possible while I’m here; just thinking of using water like that back home makes my brain twitch.

I’ve only been here a week, and now I don’t think I could do without a yukata (summer kimono). All hotels provide them, standard. They’re light and comfy and exactly what you want when you’re just lolling about in your room. Shall definitely acquire one before returning home.

While on the train in, I had time to think. The last week has been filled with so many new and incredible and whacky and grin-inducing things, I haven’t had space in my head to do anything other than go “wow!” I wonder if that is half my depressive triggers – my head is too empty of the outside world.


  1. Anonymous18/9/07 09:33

    Mmm. World. Yummy. My head has space for the outside world now, too... I am saving it up. Someday, when he's a bit older, I will travel with Jacob, and he and I can get the world into our heads together.

    I've nicked the picture of the bridge, btw, for my desktop. :) Is okay?

  2. You don't even need to ask. The river there was mad with the typhoon rain, the next day, it wasn't nearly as high or fast.