Posts Tagged ‘japan’

On To Seoul

Welcome to Seoul: outside Gyeongbok Palace

Staying in Asakusa gave me what should have been easy access to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where I’d catch my flight to Seoul Gimpo. The helpful lady in the T.I. office wrote the route out for me in great detail (very simple, one train change, no platform change), starting out on the Asakusa line. So when I got back the night before, ON the Asakusa line, after I followed the arrows to the exit I wanted and cleared the ticket barrier, I looked back to see the arrows pointing the way to the Asakusa line, and I looked round for a ticket machine for that line. But I was now in the Ginza line station, and even the English language terminal wouldn’t recognize Haneda as a destination. So finally I asked the guy in the ticket office. Guess what? He had a nice big sign, in English, telling you how to buy a ticket to Haneda – HIDDEN IN THE OFFICE!

He could put it up on the wall, and let the foreigners read it at their leisure, but then they’d know what to do, and that would be no fun, right? Then I found another catch. I wanted to buy a ticket that day, when I had no luggage, to use the next day, when I would have luggage. Could I do that? No, I couldn’t. (Good thing I noticed the tickets were date-stamped.) When I expressed quite mild dismay at this news I clearly violated the Japanese code, because the guy went completely blank on me. I ceased to exist and he just stood there. (I know that technique – I’ve used it on persistent Indian salesmen.) Well, I feel the same way about the Tokyo subway non-system.

Aside from having to get up at 5:00 am, I had no trouble getting to Haneda. Since the rain

Live guards at Gyeongbok Palace

hadn’t stopped, and I was flying JAL again, I had taken the precaution of packing everything in plastic. A new International terminal was due to open at Haneda on October 21st, and did they ever need it! I was very grateful to slide past the zoo at economy check-in to the business class area. The JAL lounge turned out to be a bit better than the one in Vancouver, but the food on the flight was much better, featuring a double-layered bento box.

Although JAL managed to keep my bag dry, I had an inordinately long wait for it to arrive. Apparently a soccer team had traveled on the same flight, and ALL their immense quantity of luggage was unloaded before anyone else’s! Then I had a little trouble finding my hotel from the limousine bus stop, as the map I got at the T.I. counter in the airport had positioned it too far west.

My western chain hotel

Shortly before I left on this trip, I had been introduced to a Korean couple, long time friends of friends,  about to move back to Seoul after a second sojourn in the U.S., and they had kindly offered to help me with my visit to Korea. They had recommended the Ibis  Ambassador in the Gangnam district, south of the river but close to where they lived in the upscale Apgujeong area. While the Ibis was both more western and more upmarket than my usual hotels, after several nights on the floor I appreciated some extra comforts. I started by taking advantage of the guests’ discount for the Japanese style hot bath in the basement.

Statue outside the nearby Starbucks

That evening D and M took me out for a traditional Korean meal, and I had my first adventure with Korean chopsticks. Now I’m no fan of chopsticks – I find it perverse that peoples who love noodles choose to eat them with chopsticks – but I am reasonably competent with the normal round variety. In Korea they aren’t round and they aren’t made from wood or plastic. They’re flat and metal and I had no end of difficulty with them. You also get a metal spoon with a long handle, but don’t imagine this is just for soup. Later a waitress gave me a lesson in how to use the spoon: you pick up some rice, you add pickled vegetables with the chopsticks, and then you dip it in the soup. I felt like I needed an extra hand.

No Korean meal is complete without pickled vegetables – lots of little dishes with different kinds. You’ll also get soup and rice, and whatever you’ve chosen as the main dish. The little dishes may contain other treats – at one meal a whole fish showed up! Some restaurants presented me with additional implements – tongs and shears. These are for kimchi or noodles or both – you lift the long strands with the tongs and cut off a sensible length with the shears.


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Day Trip to Nikko

Staying in Asakusa had several advantages, one being easy access to Nikko. I had debated whether to visit Nikko or Kamakura from Tokyo, both home to old and famous temples, and easy to reach. The feedback I got favored Nikko, but I was less impressed than I expected.

Nikko at its best

But it was mostly like this

True, Rinno-ji was covered in scaffolding for renovations, but it looked like the three gilded Buddhas, the largest in Japan, were permanently located in an inconvenient passageway. At least Rinno-ji was quiet. Elsewhere I encountered a stream of school groups, interspersed with regular tours. Forget serenity.

The three wise monkeys, one of Nikko's most famous sights

Most of the groups made the pilgrimage to the tomb of Ieyasu, the founder of the Shogunate. I joined them, although when I discovered just how many steps I’d have to go up, and worse, down, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t find the site particularly interesting, when I finally got there, either.

Tokugawa Ieyasu's tomb

I was interested to see an obvious VIP in Arab robes and headgear, escorted by several Japanese men in Western dress. He gamely made it up to the tomb too, where he posed briefly for photos with some of the school children. All of the school groups had their pictures taken at designated places around the site – the fetish for being photographed in front of sights is established early.

Rooted in moss

The best part of the day came near the end, when I found an almost deserted walkway flanked by towering cedars rooted in moss, and a subsidiary shrine with few visitors. Since I spent around four hours on suburban trains getting there and back, the excursion took an entire day. But at least I picked a dry day – the next morning, the rains started up again.

A quieter spot

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Trying Tokyo

Some people are beach people. Some people are city people. I’m a mountain person – nothing lifts my spirits like seeing a mountain in the distance, getting closer. There are a few big cities I like – London, Paris, Vienna, Lisbon – but I approach places the size of Tokyo (12.56 million people) with caution.  In fact, I put it last on my Japan itinerary just so I’d have time to get used to the country before tackling it, and I was a little sad to see the rice fields give way to a rather depressing cityscape well before my train pulled into Shinjuku station.

Senso-ji in Asakusa at night

Things started out well – my JR ticket got me as far as Ueno and I found it easy to buy a subway ticket the rest of the way to Asakusa. (But I had a lot more trouble with the subway “system” later.) I was sleeping on the floor again, at the Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa, in an historic, if very touristy, section of town. I had eaten on the train, so after I cleaned up (the humidity was much higher than in the Alps) I headed back to Ueno to visit the Shitamachi Museum.

Shinobazu Pond at Ueno Park

Getting out of the subway station was a real route march, worse even than the Moscow system, and I had even more trouble later getting back in from Ueno Park, as I needed the Ginza line section, and the Park entrance turned out to be just for the JR lines… I know it’s a big city, but three, THREE, independent subway systems? All serving the same parts of town? Sometimes from the same station, sometimes from adjacent stations, but not sharing a ticketing system? Hate.

Reconstructed theater in the Edo-Tokyo Museum

The Shitamachi Museum turned out to be quite small, and with the second floor devoted to a special exhibition with no English explanations. I later discovered that the Edo-Tokyo Museum, much bigger, gave a better feel for historic Tokyo, although most of its exhibits were reconstructions (and it was a lot harder to get to).

Torii in Ueno Park

In Ueno Park I saw the first dirty pavement of the whole trip, and the first homeless men. Also for the first time, I had the feeling, possibly quite wrong, that it might be better to be gone before dark. While I enjoyed the shinto shrine I visited (lots of torii and lots of steps), the shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu was being renovated. I paid my respects to the nearby flame from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which earned me, to my surprise, a very strange look from a local.

I spent another, very wet, day mostly in the Ginza area. My first target was the Sony Building, which turned out to be having a massive promotion around the Charlie Brown cartoons. (I couldn’t help wondering how much Charles Schulz’ estate was taking in as a result). Its popularity was evident. The unpopularity of foreigners was also evident. On the top floor a 3D demo took place every 20 minutes. (It was a total waste of time.) Two prime front row seats, between me and another westerner, remained empty, even though plenty of people were standing.

Sony loves Snoopy

Following the guide books’ recommendations I planned to eat lunch in one of the Ginza department stores, but found the selections both more western and more expensive than I had expected. I eventually wound up waiting around 30 minutes (the top floor restaurants were very popular on a Saturday) to eat at a place advertising its use of fresh, local, produce. And for the first time in Japan I enjoyed an actual salad bar and raw veggies!

I also enjoyed some quality people watching. I saw a grand total of six other westerners during my half hour wait, but plenty of locals. Further to the matter of skirts, more women were wearing trousers, and those in skirts were split between knee-length and dowdy, and fashion-forward frills. Fur (probably fake) and frills seemed to be the key-notes for the winter season in Japan.

The approach to Senso-ji in daylight

Between my bad foot and the bad weather, I ate dinner close to home my three nights in Tokyo. I consulted the English-speaking man on the reception desk, and he actually walked me to neighborhood restaurants. I ate twice at an izakaya, feasting on excellent skewers of chicken, chicken liver, duck and shellfish, washed down with sake, and once at an okonomiyaki place that didn’t measure up to the one in Kanazawa – and was reluctant to seat a solo diner. I did learn that Tokyo has its own, sloppier, version of the pancake – I stuck to the provincial version.

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Matsumoto’s Crow Castle

The signature anilmal for Matsumoto's historic district - a frog

I loved the ride to Matsumoto – lots of mountains and not too many tunnels (although one was so long it had cut-outs for breakdowns). I had wanted to stay in a ryokan between Takayama and Matsumoto, but even with KJ’s help I hadn’t been able to find one that was both near public transport and willing to take a solo foreigner. So I thought I’d just stop off in Kamikochi on the way for a little hiking – with a bad foot I’d had to abandon that plan, too, and just went straight through. The more I saw of the mountains, though, the more I wanted to come back and stay longer – when I could hike.

I had booked the Toyoko Inn in Matsumoto, and found it, like the one in Tokyo, a great deal for a single. The room might be small, but it had everything I could want. As with every room I stayed in in Japan, aside from the temple and the farmhouse, it had AC and en suite bath, and secure internet. (While I appreciated the security, I rather missed the freedom of wifi, as the wired connections kept me chained to the desk.)

Matsumoto's historic district

Just as in Takayama, I found the historic district in Matsmoto sterile and overly touristy, but Matsumoto had an honest-to-goodness historic castle to make up for it. Apparently it’s the oldest wooden castle in Japan – many castles having been destroyed during the Meiji Restoration in the 1800s. I found it rather surprising that it had survived since 1595 – was it never besieged, or did the Japanese not use fire arrows? Surely it would have been fatally easy to burn it down?

Entering the castle

Crow Castle: Black and Beautiful

While the associated museum didn’t interest me much, the castle kept me occupied for most of the morning. I thought it a great improvement over Nijo in Kyoto. The same formidable foundations were topped by three black and white towers. I was pleased that my bad foot held up while I climbed the steep stairs inside, although I skipped the topmost floor, and came down most of the staircases (more like ladders) backwards. Once I successfully made it back to solid ground, and put my boots back on, I enjoyed the moat, the trees, the swans and the view of the castle.

I enjoyed lunch too – at the “French” cafe at the station I had a chicken salad pita followed by a chestnut and sesame roll just oozing cream. Then I took a bus to Utsukushi-ga-hara Spa for what I hoped would be an outdoor hot bath. Alas, only a small triangle of sky and leaves was visible between the walls and roof. The town itself was dead, although the surrounding hills were pretty enough. It was my last taste of the countryside – I took a train to Tokyo the next morning.

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Art Nouveau in Takayama

The Lalique fountain in pink mode

I forget now where I heard about the museum in Takayama devoted to Art Nouveau. It certainly wasn’t in Lonely Planet, which doesn’t mention it at all. I am a huge fan of Art Nouveau – I’ve been known to go to Washington just to catch an exhibition, and on my last trip to France I went Nancy specifically because I had heard that it was the home of the French version. So, Takayama would have made my itinerary even if it hadn’t been a convenient stop between Shirakawa-go and the rest of the Japan Alps.

It was still raining when I left the farmhouse, but I did a better job than JAL at keeping my luggage dry.  Between the built-in rain cover for my Eagle Creek backpack, and my umbrella, only my long-suffering feet got a little damp on the way to the bus stop. I was more concerned about my lungs, but happily a local woman pointed out the “No Smoking” sign to the elderly gentleman puffing away under the shelter.

Art Nouveau glass

The no-smoking revolution has yet to hit Japan. I actually thought I had mis-heard when I was asked whether I wanted smoking or no-smoking seating at the first restaurant I entered. I live in a tobacco state, and I haven’t been asked that question for several years. But public transport is smoke-free.

The bus ride to Takayama disappointed – mostly tunnels and mostly rain. I was glad to check into my surprisingly posh hotel (the Spa Alpina), and go out to find lunch. Eating soba noodles and beef in a  very popular little place near the station, I also found a companion. An Australian woman sitting next to me at the counter said that she, too, was an Art Nouveau fan.

While I enjoyed her company, and we indulged in a beautiful (and delicious) afternoon tea together, I got a reminder that I travel better solo. I put my umbrella in the stand outside the museum to dry, and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized that when we left I had forgotten to retrieve it.

Afternoon tea at the Hida-Takayama Art Museum

The museum was worth the loss of my (easily replaced) umbrella. Most of the major figures of the movement were represented,  with plenty of glass, and rooms devoted to Majorelle (France) and Mackintosh (Glasgow). The prize exhibit was an amazing Lalique glass fountain that once graced a Paris arcade.

The next morning I was back to Japanese sights, taking a taxi to the town’s

Takayama float

float museum. Takayama has two big celebrations each year, which feature two- and three-story high floats. In between times four or five of the floats can be seen in the museum (the rest are in tall, narrow “garages”). Unfortunately they are behind glass, which makes photography difficult, but they are unquestionably spectacular. Probably even more so on parade, but I have an aversion to crowds… Then I took a look at the morning market, which was just packing up, and wandered through the historic section,  which I thought not particularly interesting. Too many souvenir shops for my taste.

I had eaten sukiyaki for dinner (at Suzuya), even dipping the meat in raw egg. Although I draw the line at drinking raw egg neat, I have to admit that the sukiyaki tasted good.  I could have done without raw egg showing up again at lunch, though, which I ate a rather up-market place next to a butcher’s shop.

I got to the bus stop (just outside the train station) in plenty of time for my ride to Matsumoto, as I wanted to be sure of a front seat, but no more than six other passengers shared the  bus with me for the whole two-hour trip.

The historic section

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The Shirakawa-go and Gokoyama regions of Honshu island used to be extremely isolated, especially in winter, home to rice farmers and little visited. Not any more – tunnels through the mountains have brought expressways and tourists to its doorsteps. But for those relying on public transport, some areas are still hard to reach, and I was thrilled when KJ offered to drive me. I’d sleep in popular Ogimachi, where I could get a bus on to Takayama, but first we’d visit Suganuma and its gunpowder museum.


With KJ’s daughter studying for exams in the back seat, we headed for the hills. I can’t get enough of mountain scenery, especially when there are rivers as well, and was also interested to see the haystacks (are they still called haystacks when they’re made of rice stalks?), with bundles of stalks draped over poles and topped with plastic against the rain. But the signature sights here are the farmhouses. Large, multi-story buildings, with unique thatched roofs, they’re called gassho-zukuri or praying hands, after the shape of the steeply-sloped roofs. We saw a thatching job half-done, and I was struck by how thick it was, compared to the thatched cottages I was used to seeing in England.

Half thatched

I thought that Ogimachi was fairly crowded, despite the looming clouds, but Kim said she’d never seen it so empty! We were able to get seats in her favorite restaurant, Irori, where we were seated round the namesake irori or central fireplace. The food was delicious – mine was a hida beef “set”. In the US I seldom eat beef, as I’ve developed an allergy to either bovine growth hormone or the antibiotics used on factory-farmed cows, and grass-fed local beef is expensive and not always available. I make up for it when I travel, and the Japanese beef is, of course, famously tender and delicious. I saw no need to try to find Kobe beef (or the money to pay for it) when hida was so good.

Under the thatch

The farmhouse we visited, Wada, the ancestral home of a well-off family, reminded me a little of the houses in Bhutan, with different activities on different levels. Here the attic level had been used for raising silk worms, but I paid more attention to the quite remarkably massive beams forming the roof supports. I would hate to be within range of one of those during an earthquake! Despite the thick thatch, and the insulation likely provided by snow drifts, I’m sure these houses were seriously cold in the winter. I remembered growing up in England, before my father installed central heating, when only the side facing the fire was warm (wing chairs were invented to trap the heat). Since I would be spending the night in a farmhouse, I was glad it was only the beginning of October!

View from above

After we went up to the best viewpoint (by car to save my foot), KJ delivered me to my farmhouse and headed back to Kanazawa. I was sorry say goodbye, and very appreciative of her help and friendship. I was not as isolated that night as I had expected, though. At dinner, served around another irori, I found that only one of the other guests was Japanese, and the other two an Australian couple at the end of a four month trip home from London. I felt sorry for the Japanese man, who apparently did not speak English, as we spent the meal indulging in travel chat. He seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did – a more elaborate version of my lunch.

Where I slept

After dinner I decided against an evening stroll – it looked too dark, and the ground too uneven, for me to risk it with a bad ankle, and I had a bath instead. The tub was wooden, just big enough for one person, with wooden covers to keep in the heat. Aside from my usual problem of getting too hot under a duvet, I slept fine on the tatami mats in my room, although I would have been happier with somewhere other than the floor or the small table for my belongings. Unfortunately, I was woken early by the sound of heavy rain, and while I did get about 15 relatively dry minutes for photos, the rest of the morning was solid rain.

In the rain

Breakfast was Japanese, except for the egg. Three of us had scrambled eggs alongside the soup, rice, pickles and vegetables, but the Japanese man had what appeared to be a boiled egg. Not so! It turned out to be raw, and after stirring it up just a little with his chopsticks, he drank it down with apparent relish. I’ll take mine scrambled any time…

Manhole cover in Ogimachi

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More Kanazawa

With three whole days to spend in Kanazawa, I was able to devote most of my second day to Kenrokuen, which Lonely Planet said was one of the top three gardens in Japan. I can well believe it. Again, it was totally manicured – I spotted several guys up trees, pruning – but beautiful.


Kenrokuen - a place for people to eat



Kenrokuen - a place for birds to eat


Since it was larger than Ritsurin, with many more trees, it didn’t feel as unnatural. I particularly liked the low, star-shaped ground cover that looked like moss but wasn’t. Along with the oldest fountain in Japan, the garden was well-provided with streams and ponds, but not with places for lunch. I eventually wound up sitting on the floor, which was very hard on my bad foot, much as I like tatami. (I noted that the clumsy foreigner was seated out of sight of the locals.) Alongside the soup, rice, spring roll, shrimp, and veggies (including edamame) was a serving of a local “stew” with chicken and gluten bread which I enjoyed much more than I expected.


A rather geriatric tree at Kenrokuen


After lunch I paid my respects to Kanazawa’s signature stone lantern (see the picture of the manhole cover in the previous post), which was starring in a lot of the local’s photographs. Then I set off to visit the Seisonkaku Villa, built for the mother of a local lord near the end of the Edo period (a.k.a. the Shogunate).

While I envied the lady her expansive home, I couldn’t properly appreciate the gardens as the building was covered with scaffolding while the wooden roof tiles were replaced. I also found I could no longer properly appreciate Kenrokuen, as the gravel paths were upsetting my bad foot.

I also had some difficulty with the foot the next day, as my Welcome Guide had trouble accepting that the bandage and cane indicated a real problem. Still, we did visit a former geisha house,where I learned that the house where they entertained clients wasn’t the house where they lived. The client sat in the main room (with his back to the alcove, oddly), and the geisha performed in the smaller, adjoining “waiting” room.


Handling gold leaf


I found our next stop, the gold leaf “museum”, especially interesting. What starts as an ingot is taken down in successive stages to foil so thin you can practically see through it. The kimono painting place was less successful – probably only really interesting if you want to try it yourself. After lunch we visited the Museum of Traditional Crafts, which turned out to actually exhibit modern versions of the crafts.

All in all, my visit to Kanazawa was a big success, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to see if I ever go back.


Lunch with my Welcome Guide featured 15 kinds of fish


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An Unnatural Garden

From Tokushima I took the train on to Takamatsu – a limited express, not a shinkansen, but it still seemed pretty fast, and it leaned into the curves like the French ICE trains. With my ankle still in poor shape I took another taxi to my hotel instead of figuring out the buses. I had booked the Dormy Inn through agoda.com, as the web site was all in Japanese, and when I checked in I was pleased to be upgraded to a double.

Pathway at Ritsurin

The next morning was reserved for the Ritsurin Garden, one of the most famous gardens in Japan. Still limping, I followed the route recommended for wheel chairs, and skipped much of the northern section, and anywhere with steps, but I still had a lovely time. Checking the back of the map for the garden, I see that development occurred in stages from the 1570s to the 1740s, and that the landscaping is considered “typical of the elaborate daimyo style gardens of the early Edo era”.

Bridge, fish and well-trained tree

Elaborate, yes. Beautiful, yes. But completely unnatural. Not in the sense that a French garden can be unnatural, with everything laid out in geometric forms, or that an English park is supposed to look like wilderness, but isn’t, but that the existence and shape of almost every twig was the result of conscious decision on the part of the gardeners. Indeed, I spotted a couple up a tree busy pruning, and fine wires forcing branches to grow in the preferred directions.

Even while I admired the results, the carefully contrived vistas and the twisted trunks, I was conscious of what had produced them. I love the Japanese pine trees, with their contorted branches and fine needles: they remind me of the junipers in the south-western US, surviving despite adversity. But in this case, as so often, the adversity is man-made. So surprising, that something intended to look random, instead feels so formal.

Another Ritsurin pathway

Back at the train station I lunched on excellent fried chicken and cabbage salad, before catching a little local train to visit Yashima-ji. Yashima-ji is temple no. 84 of the 88 temples that form the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit of Shikoku island. Several small groups of pilgrims made brief visits while I was there – I rather suspect they arrived by four-wheeled transport rather than on their own feet. Some wore all white clothes, with an elaborate sash round their necks, and carried staffs and bells, but others just wore white jackets or vests.


The main temple sights are a very old wooden building, and a thousand-handed Kannon statue, which reminded me of the Hindu goddess Durga (NOT a friendly deity) rather than the Buddha. Maybe it was because she held what looked like a skull in one of her hands. I did enjoy the views of the coast from the shuttle bus on the way up, and the story of the Yashima Tasaburo badger, Kannon’s messenger.

I thought I had been careful in the garden, but clearly the day had been too energetic, as my ankle swelled up alarmingly. I soaked it in the Japanese bath on the top floor of the hotel, and ate dinner at a little izakawa just round the corner.Tthe waitress was very upset when I ordered chicken liver skewers (by the Japanese name) and tried to get someone to translate to make sure I knew what I was doing. I did, and they were delicious!

Detail of Yashima-ji

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I had wanted to visit at least one Japanese island besides Honshu, and once I decided to include the Japan Alps on my itinerary, my first choice, Kyushu, was just too far. But Shikoku seemed reasonably close, and I could get there by ferry. However, the day I spent getting from Koya-san on Honshu to Tokushima on Shikoku would have been a bit of a marathon even without a bad ankle, as it involved five buses, two trains, one cable car, one ferry, and, finally, one taxi. The first two buses got me to and from the cemetery, and the third, after I retrieved my main pack from the temple, back to the cable car.


Permanent "ad" for the Naruto whirlpools


The first train took me down to Hashimoto, where I found the station undergoing renovation, and sadly short on escalators, elevators and options for lunch. But I made my next train, for Wakayama, with no difficulty. Even though it was Sunday, at one point I shared the otherwise all-male carriage with half a dozen school girls, in full uniform – plaid skirts, knee-high black socks, blue sweaters and bow ties.

When I had planned this day, I had somehow overlooked the fact that the Wakayama train station might not be next to the ferry dock! Fortunately, the efficient young woman in the Nippon Travel Agency in Kyoto had fixed this potential problem, arranging my trip so that I easily made the single mid-afternoon bus connecting the two.


Unexpected sight in downtown Tokushima


The ferry was unlike any I had ridden before. Up front, a small, enclosed section had airplane-type seats, but no view, and cost an extra 500 yen. In the main section, one area had regular seats facing a TV (showing golf when I checked), and the other two sections were just floor – plus an area for kids. Instead of staying on the breezy deck (where the view was, in any case, largely obstructed by both superstructure and haze),  I dropped my packs, took off my boots, lay down on the floor and gratefully closed my eyes.

After a final bus met the ferry and delivered me to Tokushima’s train station, I gave myself the luxury of a taxi the (very) short distance to my hotel, the unexpectedly posh Agnes. I also ate dinner in the hotel, where the “cafe” served a delicious, and elegant (if expensive) four-course western meal starring a perfectly cooked serving of wagyu beef.

Although there are some other sight-seeing option in Tokushima, my main objective was actually in Naruto – for the whirlpools. I skipped the Awa Odori museum showcasing the town’s dance festival, and its associated ropeway, deeming the kilometer round-trip too far for my ankle, but did visit the whirlpools, using the information I had collected from the office on the sixth floor of the station building the day before.


Looking towards the ropeway I didn't take


The bus from the station to the sightseeing boat took over an hour, as it followed a winding route that included a deserted airport. I arrived in good time for the second-best boat of the afternoon – the display is at its best near the full moon (just a few days earlier) and at high and low tides. High tide on September 27 was at 8:00 am, so I had settled for low tide, and I didn’t want to take a later boat since I would still need to catch a train to my next town afterwards.


Naruto whirlpool


While I’m glad I went, I have to say that I found the whirlpools, especially on a damp, overcast day, a little disappointing. Maybe closer to eddies than whirlpools – although I did see one perfect circle, which I unfortunately failed to get on camera. After all, just how ferocious could they be when my boat was able to sail right through? I suppose those given to motion sickness might feel a bit queasy, but no-one on my boat seemed bothered. In a row-boat or a small sail boat, of course, I would have felt differently!


Another sight-seeing boat



And another


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It was not exactly Koya-san’s fault that the best parts of my visit were getting there and back. The train rides were great – once we left Hashimoto the little local wound its way laboriously up through forested mountains, the sea of trees broken only occasionally by rural communities where the farmhouses clustered together amid the rice fields. At the end of the tracks I switched to a cable car, rising almost vertically higher still, and then to a (rather expensive) bus, which delivered me to my temple – if you spend the night on Koysa-san (aka Mt. Koya) you do it in a temple.

The entrance to Rengejo-in

But good mountain scenery was only one of my hopes for the visit: I also looked forward to at least serenity, if not spirituality, from my temple stay, along with some good vegetarian food, and an atmospheric, even eerie, visit to the famous cemetery Oku-no-in, where all Japanese Buddhists hope at least a piece of their earthly remains will be buried, to await the arrival of the future Buddha. These additional expectations were not met.

Part of the problem came down to scheduling: I arrived at my temple, the Rengejo-in, at 15:00, check-in time, to discover an unexpected 17:00 meditation, followed by dinner, after which the buses stopped. In the morning, an 06:00 religious ceremony would be followed by breakfast and check out, leaving me little time to catch the bus that would be the start of a marathon trip to Tokushima, on Shikoku. In the end I skipped breakfast, which gave me a rushed 40 minutes at Oku-no-in – in bright sunshine, rather than gathering gloom.

My room at Rengejo-in, showing the kotatsu

I had known about the 06:00 ceremony, but not about the meditation – if I had known I might have tried to get to Koya-san earlier. The other problems were in no way my fault – except perhaps, by selecting the wrong temple, but it’s hard to know which is the right one, especially when the first requirement is that they will accept a single foreign traveler. Initially, things looked good. The temple was quiet, the gardens were beautiful, and my room came with tatami mats and a kotatsu heater.

Entering the cemetery

But, but, but… I returned from a brief trip to the village – just to look around – to find a tour bus disgorging its passengers! I would be sharing my temple experience with a fair-sized tour group (of Israelis, it turned out). Not at all what I had in mind. Plus, this particular group had no idea how to behave during meditation – people kept getting up and leaving, making a lot of noise in the process. Then a large guy moved next to me, and when his knee stayed touching mine I destroyed all the serenity I had built up in rush of anger (jabbing him with a sharp fingernail did get the knee removed, though).

Meditation was followed by a lengthy sermon, which ensured that dinner was served cold – tempura, tea and soup were all stone cold. I had expected meals to be served in my room. Instead, we ate in a large dining area, although I discovered the next morning that the Japanese guests had their own section, apart from the foreigners. (I did not appreciate being segregated.) I imagine the Japanese were spared the long talk by the 90 year old mother of the current head monk, mostly about the hardships of life in Koya-san during W.W.II. I couldn’t quite make out whether the Americans were being regarded as responsible, or as saviors.

I had actually enjoyed the meditation (until the incident of the intrusive Israeli), but I found the morning ceremony a complete waste of time. In fact, I thought the whole thing might well be a fake for foreigners – until I noticed that there were Japanese guests there. The room was festooned with dangly gilt things, quite unlike the one next door used for the monks’ private observances. The session ended with another long sermon, all in Japanese.

Oku-no-in in sunshine

I had met a couple from Amsterdam on the train up to Koya-san, and when we met again on the train down we compared notes. They hadn’t been entirely happy with their temple, the Eko-in, either. Their food was served in their room, but it didn’t have a heater. However, I think I would have preferred Eko-in, as it was much closer to the cemetery, and an evening walking tour was offered.

I chose Rengejo-in from guidebook recommendations, and because I could book a single room through the Japanese Guest Houses site, and it’s certainly true that the room, the gardens and the Japanese bath were all fine (but in the morning only cold water was available). I would suggest that anyone considering a visit find out exactly what schedule their intended temple keeps, how big it is, how the food is served, and whether there are heaters. But even though I didn’t have the experience I expected, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone else from going.

Also at Oku-no-in

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