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The only way is up, I hope

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In Japan, getting from A to B can be expensive. Like most visitors I had opted to buy a Japanese Rail pass in the hope of limiting the damage to my already dwindling bank balance. You can only buy these passes outside Japan and whilst 300 Stirling seemed a rather hefty price tag for two weeks of travel, I knew that in the end it would save me money. However my pass wasn't stamped to begin until a few days later, so my ticket from Tokyo would have to be purchased at face value. Since arriving in Japan frugality was fast becoming my second name, so I chose a destination a mere two and a half hours away and a train that wasn't one of the sooperdooper fast and expensive ones. Nonetheless I will still stung with a bill of over fifty quid; which after some initial heart palpitations was put in perspective by realising it was cheaper than the Irish Rail fare from Dublin to Cork.

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Before I hopped on the train I bought a bento box and a soft drink to consume along the way. Even the packaging of my bento box was beautiful and when it was opened I was faced with a visual feast of savoury delights, which taste wise, worked together to create something you wouldn't expect of a box sitting on your lap. It's distant cousin, the British Rail cheese and ham sandwich should hang its head in shame. Food gives me enormous pleasure and as I mastered my chop sticks and drunk my tin of fizzy lemon, which ended up being an alcohopop, sure I was in great form, the price of my ticket long forgotten.

The train passed slowly through small towns and hamlets; a constant low density of housing nearly all with their own vegetable patch, many with a small orchard, some with vineyards, tree clad low mountains in the near distance. This natural and built landscape reminded me so much of the Basque Country in Northern Spain. As time progressed the low mountains morphed into big ones and I realise I am entering the foothills of the Japanese Alps.

I arrive in the city of Matsumoto, the bright sunshine hurts my eyes and is the only clue that I am at altitude. In my excitement at having escaped Tokyo, I immediately head to what my guidebook describes as a recital of traditional Japanese music. I enter a rather intimate room in a house where two aul dolls in kimonos do a huge amount of smiling and bowing before playing two songs on their Shamisens, a Classical Japanese string instrument played with what looked like a plastic scrapper you get with a food processor. Their playing and singing seemed horrifically off key and I wonder for quite a few moments if this is a joke and wait for some Japanese camera crew to jump out from behind the curtains. Japanese candid camera, that sort of thing. But they don't and quite quickly we are at the interval where we are provided with green tea and a Japanese bun, the type filled with a sweet bean paste which I have to grimace when I eat. I thank god that I'm not the only member of the audience. For company I have two European gay men. The Spanish one thinks the whole occasion is utterly sweet whilst the German one wants to head for the door. I think I am somewhere I between. Then we are invited up on stage to have a go at playing the Shamisen. I decline, they have a go. A folk song later and we are free to leave. Phew. Then I hit the Nawatedori, an area of old streets by the river, full of cute shops and cafés. I have no time to browse though; as a treat I have checked into a business hotel for the night, so privacy, a tiny bath tub, dressing gown and disposable slippers await me. I feel like I'm staying in the Ritz.

Next morning I take the bus to Takayama. The road curves through the mountains; orange, reds, russets and browns, autumn foliage all around. The river is always below. It is really beautiful, reminding me of those pictures you see of New England in the fall. Then it gets more alpine. The houses change shape and become more chalet like. Then I'm in Switzerland.

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Takayama is lovely in the afternoon sunlight. I am immediately drawn to San Machi Suji an area of dark wooden merchant houses dating from the mid nineteenth century. They are crammed with souvenir shops, art galleries, cafés and the like. Very similar to Matsumoto infact. I shriek when I take a look at the prices. I have been spoiled by spending a lot of time in China about ten years ago, returning home with more goodies (at next to nothing prices) than Marco Polo could fit on one of his camels. They are also crammed with hoards of tourists. It feels a bit like a Disney version of 'olde Japan' which I sense I'm tiring of already. Nonetheless I spend a couple of days there; I'm struggling with a bad cold and it's a pleasant enough place to spend some time.

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But its been three cities in a row now and I am craving a taste of small town life. So I head for the Kiso valley where there are a number of small mountain villages close together and linked by easy walking trails. It takes two trains and two buses to get to Magome, and by the time I get there I am a tad nervous at being out in the sticks for my first time. I gingerly step off the bus only to be almost knocked down by droves of marauding tourists. Where did they all down from? The village is beautiful; a steep cobblestoned street lined on either side with restored wooden period buildings, but they are filled with, as you might guess, cafés, galleries and souvenir shops. Arrggghh.

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Because of the lack of any affordable accommodation in the area, I have booked an expensive room in a Ryoken, a traditional Japanese Inn. It's a lovely traditional house and I have my first traditional room with shoji, the paper thin sliding screen walls, tatami mat flooring, low furniture and a futon mattress that is unfolded before you retire for the evening. As a fan of a minimalistic interiors, I am surprised at how austere and uncomfortable it feels. I am also provided with a yukata, a cotton dressing gown and a more ornate cover coat to wear to dinner. Out of a fear of making a fool of myself, I refrain from dressing up but my fellow dinners, half Westerners, half Japanese have been braver. There are four long tables in the dining room, the guests, all in couples are spaced out along three of them and I am placed at the fourth, alone. Feeling a tad crumpled, I hold my head high, as I have learnt to do from many years of travelling alone. A delicious spread is placed in front of me, it looks so beautiful, as so many things do in Japan. This is such a treat and I leave the table with a full belly, a pretty unusual experience for me in Japan where I find the portion sizes insufficient to meet my appetite. After dinner I take a quick walk up through the village which, post the exodus of day trippers, is now totally deserted. And then I collapse and have my first proper nights sleep since I left Ireland, nine days previously.

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Next morning I begin my hike to the next village, Tsumago. The sun is shinning, the air is mountainy and cool. I am excited. The path is well marked, through woods, bamboo groves, little villages. Its a relief to be out in the countryside and lovely to see people living their lives; working their vegetable gardens, drying chillies in the sun, airing their clothes and bed linen. I am very surprised by the abundance of public conveniences, aka loos, given I am in the middle of nowhere. I ponder wether this is a reflection of amazing organisational skills or a fear of having to pee in the open. I have become quite fascinated by toilets in Japan.

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Computerised toilets are now common place; they have lots of buttons which enable you to do lots of things, one of which is to play a soundtrack of a flushing toilet, to cover up any noises you might be making yourself, heaven forbid. Other public conveniences have a device on the cubicle wall which is triggered by movement; it plays the wholesome sounds of birds chirping. It's a far cry from my time in China when visiting a public toilet involved crouching above a gulley to do your business, facing the backside of the person in front of you and offering a similar view to the person behind you. What does birds chirping in toilets say about the psychology of the Japanese? I could only hazard a guess, but I think Dr Freud might have a few things to say.

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After about three hours I'm in Tsumago. It's also touristy but much wider, more open, bigger and less Disney- esque than Magone. I like it. I am blown away by the beautiful flower arrangements outside many of the shops. I wish I could stay just a little while longer but I have a long journey to my next destination, so I have a bowl of the local speciality, sansai soba, buckwheat noodles topped with mountain greens, before hopping on a local bus to the train station.

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In many countries, travelling after dark is a no no. In Central America, even leaving your room after dark was always carefully planned. But Japan feels extremely safe and what with the efficiency of public transport, I travel many evenings without anxiety or fear. I leave Tsumago at just after two for a journey that is probably about 400 or kilometres.Seven hours, two buses, three trains and a walk later I arrive in the the port town of Onomichi.

I immediately like Onomichi. It feels real and alive; a world away from the restored, olde worlde, ever so perfect Japan for tourists that I seem to have been unable to avoid. At this point in the trip I am completely underwhelmed by Japan. Sure it's very pleasant, but it feel like its a safe sanitised version of North East Asia, a place to travel if you don't have the balls for the real thing! Honestly, I really was that dismissive. For me thus far, Japan had no kick, no bite, no spice. Insipid would be the word I'd use. The other issue connected to this reticence was my struggle with having such minimal interaction and connection with the people around me. I walked the streets of Japan smiling at everyone, as I do in my home town , as I do in every country I visit. The issue wasn't that the smiles were unreturned, it was my sense that I wasn't even seen, that I was in fact invisible. Of course I understood it was a cultural issue, a complex one at that. But it was one which I had no way of really understanding. The lack of reaction from young children was especially interesting to me as a child psychologist, a psychologist who has spent at least ten months in Asia before this current trip, in about nine different countries. In my experience in Asia ( and this is very generalised) the under twos will stare at the pointy nosed white person for quite some time. Some will get bored and look away whilst some will get frightened and upset by this strange looking person. In relation to the over threes, generally they go boogaloo; jump up and down, run around, scream, grab each other, grab you., a scene of mayhem linked to the excitement/fear of something new. In Japan no reaction, nothing, like they haven't seen you. I found it absolutely fascinating to puzzle over, especially In relation to the younger ones for whom socialisation hadn't yet become so potent. Anyway, back to Onomichi.

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Onomichi faces out onto the inland sea, which I need to explain, given I spend a lot of time in and around it. Japan is made up of five main islands and the inland sea is a big stretch of water trapped between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. Within the sea are nine small islands, all of which have now been linked to each other and the main islands by a series of ten bridges, including one which at 1480m long is the worlds longest cable suspension bridge. This route through the islands has become a real draw for cyclists from all around Japan.

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I took a ferry to one of the nine islands, Ikuchi Jima and rented a bike to go explore. The bike is not made for people my height and I'm crippled within ten minutes, nevertheless I spend a lovely afternoon peddling along the empty cycle paths at the side of the empty beautifully paved roads, taking in the views of the inland sea and it's islands. Ikuchi Jima itself is pleasant and dappled with citrus groves, but not the Mediterranean type landscape that my guidebook had lead me to believe. The route is flat, and almost without cars, so perfect for an unfit cyclist and I get an added thrill of whiz zing onto and across one of the big suspension bridges, getting to cycle across water at a huge height and with minimal effort. The subtle charms of Japan are slowly beginning to dawn on me.

Next day was spent exploring the town of Onomichi. To start I take a cable car up to Senkoji-Koen park where I find the views over the city and the islands quite magical. The main temple, Senkoji is bright and colourful with lots of paraphernalia for sale, all requesting special favours of the gods. I spend a couple of hours descending back down to the town, along what's called the temple walk; twenty five temples scattered amongst neighbourhood shops, narrow little lanes and flagstoned alleyways, houses, and shack like noodle bars. It really is charming. I see why this place is a popular setting for nostalgic movies. There seem to be a lot of Japanese here for the weekend. In the hostel I speak with two lovely girls, both in their twenties and living in Tokyo. They have taken a few days off work and are here to see the sights. The sisterhood in Asia is something else.

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The joy of Onomichi is just dandering along taking it all in. The trendy set have definitely arrived in this provincial place; there are a lot of cool cafés, bars and restaurants, many with French and Spanish influences, just like in Tokyo. It would lovely to be here with a friend or even better, a lover and just hang out in some of the cafés and see what it leads to. Small intimate spaces can be hard to manage when you are on your own, especially at night. From speaking to other travellers, it would seem that the best place and time to connect with the local people is in the evening, in places exactly like this, when work their done for the day and a few beers have worked their magic and on the famous Japanese reserve.

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For dinner I try a speciality of the area and nearby Hiroshima. It's called okonomiyaki and can be best described as a pancakey/pizza type thing, made of layers of noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts, egg and the like, all doused in batter and fried on a griddle. I opt out of the house speciality, the key ingredient being chicken gizzards. Accessing good food has become increasingly difficult since leaving Tokyo. The good food is there, it's just that I don't have the language or cultural knowledge to get at it. For instance, I can't decipher the restaurant signs which tell you the type of food it serves, for example a soba noodle bar, or a sashimi restaurant. When I do venture inside, the menu is most likely only in Japanese, so I don't know what I'm ordering. In China I would walk around the diner and having a good gawk at what everyone else was eating before brazenly pointing to someone's bowl, indicating I want some of this. But that was rural China, where etiquette and manners at the table are few and far between. And prices were not an issue. In Japan they are. Especially after my sushi experience, I am paranoid about ordering something which is going to cost a bomb. In Japan I often berated myself for being obsessed by the cost of things, but then Id tell myself I been without a wage and travelling for 18 months, with five more ahead of me, so I need to be careful. I am smiling as I write this a few months later, having gone through my bank statements. Despite staying in dorms four nights out of every five, not buying any souvenirs, eating in cheapish restaurants and never having beer or coffee with meals, my spending each week averaged around 700 euros compared to 250 euro a week in the Philippines. Japan, it ain't cheap.

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By chance I had stumbled upon the weekend of the Betcha festival, an entirely local celebration, linked to the temple about thirty seconds from where I was staying. The temple deity is carried along the streets on an elevated alter, carried by hordes of chanting macho men in strange outfits, replete with headbands and those thoroughly Japanese two toed shoe/sock things. The entertainment comes from three masked characters who seek out young children and hit them on the head with a bamboo stick, thus ensuring their protection from illness in the coming year. It is a sight to witness countless grannies pushing terrified, screaming grandchildren into the face of adversity, and with such glee. While the festivities had been going on all weekend, the big event started at 645 on Sunday morning. I am awoken by the sound of kobo drums at about six. It is so exciting to be in the middle of things, rather than having to seek them out. By eight I have seen enough, so I head to the train station and lo behold, about ninety minutes later I am in Hiroshima. The ease of travel in Japan is phenomenal. I think, slowly slowly, that I am beginning to quite like Japan.

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So, Hiroshima. You'll be expecting me to talk about the bomb, which I will briefly, but not now. I want to talk about umbrellas. For me, how the Japanese manage their umbrellas is a symbol of much of what is really great about Japan. Let's start with the basics, it's raining and you need an umbrella. At home you would have already lost the cheap, inferior quality umbrella bought at Dunnes stores the other week. So you get wet heading out to buy another cheap, inferior quality umbrella that will break within ten minutes of usage or get nicked or you'll loose it again. The Japanese have that covered. Let me explain. Many hotels, even hostels, have cheap umbrellas you can borrow. Super. But if you want a better quality item, why not hire one from the hotel. Frightened you might loose it? No problem. Park it at one of the umbrella parks, where a nominal fee will ensure it is locked away for safe keeping until your return. It's been raining hard and your umbrella is really wet, it's dripping, dripping water onto the nice polished floor of the hotel or department store. No problem. A kind member of staff is waiting to help you, armed with long thin plastic sheaths into which you slip your umbrella. But why bother will all that manpower when a machine can do it better. So, to the machine, pop the tip of your umbrella into the hole, push down and hey presto, your umbrella pops back up, sheathed in its own little plastic condom. Fantastic or what?

The preponderance of storage lockers is another example of how great the Japanese are at making things easy and convenient. Why carry a heavy bags round with you, when for a small fee you can lock it away and pick it up later. Railway stations are full of them, of every size, so you can arrive in a city, leave your bag to go see the sights and reclaim your luggage before hopping on the train to somewhere else. Parks, temples, museums, shops are the same, hire a locker, an umbrella or maybe a wheel chair if you're in the mood.

And what about getting around? Firstly everywhere is well signposted, with regular street maps on walls, in Japanese and English, with red dots saying ' you are here'. Unlike anywhere else in the world, the red dots appear to be in the right place! It seems that everything has been thought about in a logical and sensible manner. So, when you descend from the train all you need to do is follow the logically placed signs to the tourist information desk. Here you will be greeted by a smile and perfect English, before being offered a city map, after which all your questions will be answered competently and correctly. Perhaps your next step is to get on a tram, but you don't have any change. No problem, a little change machine is right by the ticket machine, just waiting to helpful. A lady with an American accent is usually there, over the tanoy , telling you where you are now and what the next stop is. I realised that in Japan I no longer needed to brace myself when I arrived in a new place, a habit I have formed out of years of experience of travelling solo. Yip, no need to stress, it would all be fine. Travelling in Japan really was growing on me, at an exponential speed.

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What shall I say about Hiroshima? The picture says a lot. That was less than seventy years ago. Now Hiroshima is a vibrant, prosperous, accessible city and like most cities, is wall to wall with swish department stores, a never ending maze of underground shopping arcades, over ground covered shopping malls and eateries. The day of my arrival was wet and gloomy and after walking through endless shopping arcades I bit the bullet and went into a pleasant looking, upmarket-ish restaurant which didn't have menus in English. After ordering I waited, ravenous with hunger for what seemed like hours, only to be eventually served up a fish with a face. I normally don't do fish with faces, a hangover from all my years as a vegetarian, but by God, I tried my best that day, managing to scrape off about a gram of flesh before giving up and heading to bakery next door for a pig out.

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I went to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum the next day, a day glorious with sunshine and optimism and hope. Everything was beautifully done; although the park is a memorial, the intention is to focus not on what happened to Hiroshima per se, but on ensuring that it never happens again. Thus the over arching concept and feeling to the experience is educating people about the risks of nuclear testing and warfare and the need to constantly be working towards peace. Successive mayors of Hiroshima have sent letters of protest in response to every nuclear test, by any country, since 1968. That is an amazing commitment. Each time a letter is sent, the mayor hopes it will be the last. I was impressed; impressed at how the museum acknowledged Japan's own history of oppression and violence towards other nations, impressed at how the horror of the A bomb has been turned around and used a force for good rather than retribution, impressed at how sensitively the information was conveyed. Nonetheless I was still overwhelmed and sick to the stomach when I left the museum. To drop an atomic bomb on a city. Jesus.

Next day I was finally leaving the island of Honshu and heading to its neighbour, Shikoku.

Posted by noratheexplorer 04:41 Archived in Japan

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