We’re on the bus from Matsue to Hiroshima rolling past green valleys between jagged hills that are utterly tree covered. It’s very green here in Shimane Prefecture; a multitude of different deciduous and evergreens carpet almost every hill. This verdant landscape is so much greener and more varied than anything we’ve yet encountered on our travels. It’s comparable in its own way to the green and pleasant hills of England and Wales, except that the forests are all in tact; there’s far, far less cultivation of the hills here. I look to my left, and through the window see a valley of evergreen trees; they’re well-spaced, perfectly manicured examples that almost look like they’ve been cultivated that way; except they haven’t been, they just grow that way. Alex points out the bamboo out to me; I hadn’t noticed them before because they are trees; I had always thought of bamboo as a bush, but these bamboo are trees, often taller than the surrounding firs and pines, oaks and cedar, their heads bowed over in welcoming deference to us as we pass. Down in the valleys the rice fields and grasses are equally as green, but in a less varied way as the forests. They are dotted with houses, farms, and other dwellings, factories, the odd shop, the occasional bigger town, rivers, and roads. We pass into a long tunnel and suddenly it goes dark, the greenness replaced by darkness drenched in the orange light of sodium lamps. Just as suddenly the tunnel ends and we emerge once again into the greenness.
The bus is modern and air conditioned. Just as well as it’s pretty hot and very humid out there. This morning we left our hotel with our luggage to catch the bus to Hiroshima, and five minutes after stepping out I was drenched. We quickly headed for the air-conditioned safety of the Starbucks in Matsue Station’s up-market shopping precinct. We’ve spent three days in Matsue, and before that about the same amount of time just up the coast in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture; the place where we arrived in Japan.
Sakaiminato was a quaint, quiet, and peaceful little town. What once was a sleepy and unremarkable fishing port has been turned into a shrine to the Japanese manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, who was born there. Having lost his arm to a bomb attack whilst serving as a musician in the Japanese Defence Force during the Second World War, he was a prolific artist throughout his life, and continued to be so until his death in November 2015. He was unusual in the world of manga in that he wrote not only the stories but also illustrated them himself. He is most famous for his version of the character Kitaro, a character from traditional Japanese ghost stories, and the streets of Sakaiminato are lined with bronze statues of characters from the Kitaro stories. The main street is named after Mizuki and the shops lining this street are almost all ostensibly selling Kitaro memorabilia: Kitaro bags, Kitaro pens, Kitaro sake bottles, Kitaro ashtrays, Kitaro umbrellas, Kitaro flannels, Kitaro slippers, Kitaro sweets; you get the picture. There’s a wonderful museum of Mizuki’s life in the town, and, in addition, the local train line to Yonago is called the Kitaro line, and all the coaches are liveried with Kitaro characters both inside and out. Not surprisingly Sakaiminato is no longer a sleepy fishing port, but rather a sleepy shrine to Mizuki with many Japanese fans making the pilgrimage there.
Apart from a guy that worked in the Sakaiminato tourist office, who was Russian, we were pretty much the only Europeans in town. There were the odd Chinese or Korean tourist, but other than that there was just us two; everyone else were locals or Japanese tourists. This meant that outside of the tourist information office, and a couple of people in the hotel, the infrastructure for supporting English speakers didn’t really exist. This made life both tricky, but also rewarding, as we were immediately able to try out the mediocre amount of basic Japanese we had learnt. We inevitably got ourselves into a few pickles, most notably on the first night when we decided to go into a random bar in the centre, it being Friday night and all that.
There wasn’t much apparently happening in Sakaiminato on a Friday night; every Kitaro souvenir shop having closed up some hours before. Pausing for a moment, we became aware of the sound of music and voices coming from behind a discretely marked door. “That must be where the party is”, we thought to ourselves, and after umming and ahhing, we decided to try our luck. As is often the case, inside it wasn’t quite a rowdy as it had sounded outside. There were four people sat on some sofas, one person sat at a bar, and two people stood behind it. We decided to sit at the bar and order something. It quickly became apparent that none of the people there could speak any English (or Russian, French, Spanish, or anything else we might have known some words of), and on top of this, I had forgotten my little purple notebook, which is where all my Japanese phrases are written down; we thus had very little Japanese to work with. We got some beers though, the Japanese for beer being biru, and proceeded to sup them. Noticing that there were music videos with subtitles on various screens and that our fellow patrons were taking it in turns to sing into microphones, we realised that we’d stumbled unwittingly into a Karaoke bar. It wasn’t long before we were handed a small control device and asked to choose a song each to sing. Having had some help with the machine, which was in Japanese, from the barmaid, we’d got two songs lined up: Dolly Parton’s Jolene for Alex (currently a firm favourite and trending on Facebook), and Radiohead’s Creep for me. When it came for her time, I joined in on a few parts in Jolene to support Alex, and she did a great rendition, but then I had to sing Creep all by myself. As with a lot of songs, I’ve got my own special way of singing it, and it was disconcerting to sing along to a live video of Thom Yorke crooning away, whilst I mumbled and strained into the microphone. We both got applause from everyone else nonetheless; it’s the done thing, of course.
Events proceeded with everyone taking it in turns to sing something. Alex and I did a few more numbers (Common People, Wonderwall, Baby One More Time), and gradually a few more people joined the throng, including some young kids, who jumped about excitedly. A young girl sang a couple of songs herself, one where she had switch between Japanese and English lyrics, which she did with consummate ease. He mother encouraged her to chat to us a little; shyly we exchanged some words. I kept accidentally finishing my glass of beer, and every time I did, they topped it up again without my asking. The first time this happened, I asked the guy who seemed to be the owner, how much the beers were; I didn’t have a lot of cash on me. It was a simple question, and one that a piece of paper should be sufficient to communicate with (I point to a beer, write a Yen sign and a question mark, he writes down the numbers), but all he did was say something I couldn’t understand and wave his arms about. At one point I thought he meant they were free, because we were foreign guests, or perhaps because we’d sung some songs. I was wrong.
After finishing the second beer top up, we decided it was time to get the bill and skedaddle. I asked the barmaid for the bill hoping that the 2,400 Yen I had in my pocket would cover it. She wrote some figure down on a scrap of paper and passed it to me: 5,000 Yen! 5,000 Yen?? That worked out at 1,250 Yen a beer, about £10! Extortionate. Of course we didn’t have the money, nor the ability to discuss this with them. I offered them 2,000 Yen, and we tried to explain via paper and pen that we’d come back the next day and pay the rest. It was awkward, but they smiled and appeared to agree to accept the 2,000 and not expect us to come back. We said our thankyous and goodbyes and I even had my photo taken with a selection of staff and clientèle outside the bar upon leaving. What had happened? Had they been trying to pull a fast one on us? Were we supposed to pay for every song we sang as well as every beer we drank? We didn’t understand, but we knew that beers couldn’t possibly be that expensive. When we got back to the hotel we asked the staff about how much a beer should cost. “550 Yen” they said. In a very Japanese way they embarrassingly and indirectly implied that perhaps those running the bar were trying to pull a fast one. In the end I’d paid roughly what it should have cost us anyway.
We spend a further two days in Sakaiminato. The hotel was splendid and all done out in a Japanese style, with tatami mats on all floors, so that you had to take your shoes off and go barefoot around the place, and a hot spa, sauna and plunge pool on the very top floor. The breakfast buffet was fantastic with a wide selection of Japanese and Western food that ranged from the delicious, to the unpalatable, to the downright strange. One of the staff there, who had studied in the US and spoke excellent English, gave us a tour around the fish market and took us to the only known ATM in Sakaiminato that accepted international cards; thus we finally had some more cash. We bought some presents and souvenirs (Kitaro of course), visited the Kitaro museum, and visited the stuffed fish museum, where, as the advertising told us, “cute fish were waiting for us”; they weren’t that cute really, just kinda stuffed.
Our last day in Sakaiminato and we caught the Kitaro line train first to Yonago and then on to our next port of call: Matsue. We got into a bit of propusk trouble on the Matsue train as it was an express train and our tickets weren’t valid. The conductor wanted us to pay an extra 1,500 Yen on top of the 1,680 we’d already spent. By feigning complete ignorance, inability to speak Japanese, and saying that we were sorry but we were English, we managed to wriggle our way out of this.
So we arrived in Matsue, where we stayed in another hotel of the same chain, but this one was an express business hotel, and nowhere near as luxurious; similar to an Ibis or Premier Travel Inn. We spent the next two days in Matsue, which is a fairly ordinary town straddling rivers and lakes in a valley surrounded by hills. We took the city loop bus that goes all around town, visited Matsue castle, which I believe is one of the oldest of its kind in Japan, and took a bus and train to the Adachi Museum of Art, which is beautiful both inside and out, with the gardens a work of art. Having abandoned Airbnb for the time being, we’re now staying in hotels, and this means that we’re now having to eat out for all meals. Not only is this expensive, but oddly it gets boring quite quickly, especially when one has no clue as to what any of the food on offer is. We did have some delicious food at one place, visited a tapas bar (called Spain), and an Italian trattoria last night. As might be expected, the latter two provide Japanese versions of popular Spanish and Italian dishes. The gambas al ajillo (prawns in garlic, parsley and oil) turned out to be tempura prawns; the croutons in the salata alla pomodori were old bits of bread in tempura batter. The food in general was good, but really rather expensive. It is notably more expensive than Russia, possibly twice or more times, and even possibly more expensive than the UK. In addition, thus far language has also been difficult, with very few people being able to speak English, or any other European language.
Our language disabilities will hopefully diminish when we reach the more international city of Hiroshima, where we continue to head in air-conditioned bliss as I type this. Having taken in some smaller, more provincial, and largely unknown, places, we’re looking forward to visiting a well known place like Hiroshima, notorious sadly for all the wrong reasons: Being utterly flattened by the yanks dropping an atomic bomb on it on 6th August 1945. The city has been completely rebuilt and is apparently very beautiful. We’re staying in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house and spa; let’s see how that is. We’ve a tram to catch to get there, and I’m hoping that there are some signs in Romanji, the Japanese-Roman alphabet they use for writing words, so that us foreigners can read them. If not, then we might well be in trouble again.