Japan. The larger the town, the less we like it. Sakaiminato was a gem, Matsue a delight, and Hiroshima was lovely. It’s so humid though; we have to carefully choose our itinerary because its overwhelmingly difficult to get about. As soon as we leave the hotel in Matsue it feels as if a damp blanket has been thrown over us. After taking just a few steps, we’re dripping with sweat. This is probably the reason why all Japanese hotels provide free laundry facilities and a free set of pyjamas/lounge-suit to change into whilst hanging out inside. It’s such a horrible feeling to wander around in sticky clothes, beads of perspiration cascading down our backs, knowing that there are umpteen places we would like to/should visit but just can’t face in these uncomfortable weather conditions.
We take our fans (provided free by the hotel), as few other items as we can get away with carrying, and step out into the street. It’s day one in Matsue and we’ve decided to visit the castle. Matsue has one of only 12 remaining, ancient wooden castles, dating back to the 1400’s, and home to the shoguns of old. It’s surrounded by a moat, gardens and shrines. We bought day travel cards for the circular bus that stops at all the attractions Matsue has to offer (just ¥200; about £1.40). The bus has air-con, which makes its hard to get off. We strolled slowly around the castle and its grounds for a couple of hours and then decided that the only other attraction we can bare is the micro brewery a few stops away on the circular bus. We savour the salty beers and chilling air-con before struggling on to the bus back to the station.
In Matsue we decide to forego the free nocturnal noodles provided by all the hotels in ‘The Dormy Inn’ chain and try a few of the local restaurants. This is partly to get some variety into our diets and partly to make the most of the cooler nights. The hotel backs onto several lanes of ‘girly’ bars and we wander up and down a little to see what it feels like to be a Japanese business man, although we don’t go as far as going inside; I’m not in the least bit tempted. Eating out in lunchtime cafés is relatively good value and you can fill your belly for £6 or £7, but eating out in restaurants is shockingly expensive. You don’t really see poor people out and about in the places we’ve visited; no beggars, no tramps. Japan may have a thriving and successful capitalist economic system, but it’s also one of the most equitable in the world.
Matsue is one of the larger towns in Shimane province; it has beaches, vineyards, hot springs and plenty of shrines. It isn’t particularly touristy, but is keen to attract visitors so it is a rare place where sites, travel and museum entrances are half price for foreigners. The opposite of Russia, where we always had to pay double; I’m not sure what’s fairer, but its nice to get a bargain. One day we take the train out of town to the Adachi Art Gallery. Its not just arty inside, the gardens too are a work of art, though you can’t roam about but rather gaze awe-struck through strategically placed openings at the so-called ‘living pictures’ (windows). It’s not all wonderful though and they currently have an exhibition of schmaltzy manga creations by a famous living artist; whatever floats your boat. After three days we decide to push on to Hiroshima; we’ve heard that its a beautiful place and its historical significance calls to us. There’s a half price coach from Matsue too (¥500, or about £3.50).
Travelling through the Japanese countryside is a sublime experience. The land is lush and green, the terrain covered with evergreen forests and bamboo groves, rice fields and long tunnels that cut into craggy mountains. People appear to live their gentle lives in small communities as well as enormous sprawling metropoles.
We have booked a room in a traditional Ryokan, which is a hotel with a bath house. The Japanese seem to love to be squeaky clean, and we’ve adopted the practice of washing everyday at showers that are set low on the wall so that the user sits on a little stool to access. There’s always large bottles of shampoo and cleaning products and either large, shallow baths or small, deep ones where you soak after washing. The routine is to change into the kimono or pyjamas provided and take the fluffy towels and flannel, also provided, with you. These are replaced every day with fresh ones that creates a home-from-home atmosphere; don’t pack a towel, soap or tracky bottoms if you’re coming to Japan; it’s all provided, wherever you stay.
Hiroshima is quite a bit larger than Matsue and its the first place that we come across fellow travellers from Europe and the West. We all stop in our tracks at the sight of the A-Bomb Dome; a municipal building that was very close to the atomic bomb that exploded 600m in the air above the centre of Hiroshima just after 8 O’clock in the morning on August 6th 1945, when children were travelling to school and people arriving at work. There were two other planes accompanying the Enola Gay (the plane that carried and dropped the bomb itself): one to take photographs and one to take readings. We found this kind of information out at the Peace Museum in the centre of the city. The museum was packed with people from all over the world who, like us, shuffled around, silently taking in the horror that was perpetrated on the innocent in the name of war and progress. (It sticks in my throat that our government have just voted to upgrade Trident; has Teresa May been to Hiroshima, I wonder?).
In the evening, we head to an Italian restaurant that overlooks the river and is only a stones throw from the A-Bomb Dome. It’s raining, but it’s warm, and we sit outside under a parasol, the raindrops pattering down above us as we tuck into some delicious food. It’s very relieving to have something European for a change, as we have been struggling a little with Japanese food. We discover that one of the chefs is an Australian, from Melbourne, and he is very friendly (one of the few Westerners who have been) and gives us some tips about places to go in Melbourne, which is where we’ll be in a few weeks.
The next day we head to Kyoto on the Shinkansen (new trunk line), riding what we English call the bullet train. It’s not the cheapest way to make the trip, but it sure is the fastest; the Nozomi train we take reaches speeds of up to 300km/h . Mike stares out of the window as Hiroshima disappears surprisingly quickly and keeps say “geez, we’re going fast”, and “blimey, this train is really fast”, and other words to that effect. The train is plush and spacious, the toilets are state of the art, and it even has a number of small smoking rooms in some carriages, where three people can stand side-by-side, looking out of the window at the world whizzing away, and puffing away in the honourable goal of destroying their lungs and hastening heart disease; but like a lot of things we’ve seen in Japan, the Japanese take this activity seriously, accept that people have the right to do it, and facilitate it for them.
We arrive in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan: it’s the biggest place we’ve been so far and it’s notably more bustling that the previous places; there’s noticeably more foreigners around, and there’s notably more menus and signs in English. It’s hot (again), and no sooner than arriving, we check into our hotel near the main train station, change into the pyjamas provided and hit the onsen.
The next day we try to decide what to do, but the place is much bigger that the others we’ve visited and it’s difficult to decide what to do as there’s much more choice. Kyoto is complicated to get around for some reason: It takes us a while to find a decent map, and a lot longer to work out where everything is and how to get there via public transport, or feet. In the end we take a walk to the Toji Temple, which is relatively near to our hotel, and apparently has a craft market on. The rains have gone and it’s pretty hot out there with no cloud cover, but we make it to the Toji complex where we find a large collection of shrines and gardens. We spend a couple of hours wandering round and looking at the incredible collection of religious effigies from the Hindu and Buddhist world, but no craft market (it’s only on intermittently). Eventually we struggle back to a Nepalese restaurant that we passed on the way to the Temple and bask in the fragrant atmosphere of curry and naan.
After 12 or so days in Japan a combination of the heat and humidity, the overwhelming variety of tourist attractions, and the building pressure from a conviction that we must make the most of the chance to visit places of interest every day, pushes me over the edge into exhaustion. I am beginning to feel guilty that I’m not packing enough in; something I haven’t felt yet on our trip. Could it be because Japan is such a new and different culture for me, or could it be that I’ve been away for long enough? Whatever it is, the flight to Australia arrives just in time to nip my worries in the bud.
The flight is on a Jetstar Airways plane from Tokyo Narita Airport and it takes 10 hours: the first eight hours to Coolangatta (Gold Coast), and then two more hours to Sydney. It’s a low cost airline, not dissimilar to the likes of Ryan Air or EasyJet and this means you have to pay for everything and for the whole duration of the flight you won’t even get a glass of water unless you ask for it and only then its begrudgingly given. Don’t expect to get a cup of tea or coffee unless you’re willing to hand over large amounts of cash for one; and this on an eight hour flight. We arrive in Sydney parched and hungry. We’ve booked to spend four nights near to Sydney Harbour, a few minutes walk from the Opera House; right in the centre of everything.
Sydney is incredible: shining skyscrapers, new buildings built on top of old, beautifully crafted, urban spaces, cafés, and snazzy restaurants that are really expensive. We continue to beaver away at being tourists and visit a hipster street in Glebe Point (wow, what whole-food shops they have), take the ferry across the habour to Manly, and go to a sealife sanctuary; the modern art museum is fantastic.
On Monday we took the train southwards to Goulburn, where Mike’s dad is living with his son, Andrew. The weather’s not great, and his house is old, and cold and damp. It’s the antithesis of Japan, and I feel more energetic but brrrrr its cold! So far, the highlights of this part of the trip have been meeting Mike’s family, especially a visit to his uncle Gill’s vintage car workshop in Crookwell. It’s an enormous warehouse where he and his team (including his sons: Shannon & Tim) work on very old and vintage cars. Some are wooden skeletons, barely recognisable as the cars they once were, and some are ready to go: a gleaming 1930s Cadillac and old world gauges. It’s a multi-million dollar business, but Gill is not yet millionaire. We also meet up with Judy and Trent. Judy was once married to Mike’s dad and its serendipitous that she and her son, Trent, are travelling through Goulburn on their way home from a holiday. It’s lovely to meet them; we look at photos, listen to stories, and its clear to see how much they love Mike and what good memories they have of times spent together many years ago.