Slippers on and slippers off.
04.11.2013 - 15.11.2013
The ferry to Shikoku is very pleasant; the views of the inland sea are beautiful and I feel very calm and content, like I am really getting into the groove of travelling in Japan. After arriving I get the train to downtown Matsuyama. It has a tram system which I can't figure out, so I decide to walk through the lengthy covered shopping arcade, so typical of Japan, to get me to a stop that I know will take me to the suburb of Dogo. Maybe it's my imagination, but in the space of a ten minute jaunt through the arcade, the people seem friendlier. I stop to buy some locally grown oranges from a old but spritely man who has a little fruit and vegetable stall. He initiates a huge smile and offers an enthusiastic hello. I nearly topple over.
I enjoy the dander through the arcade and board a lovely old wooden tram to my destination, Dogo Onsen. When I end up back at the train station I realise I have taken it in the wrong direction. This is not a problem for the ever so polite conductor, no need for another ticket, I am to remain on the tram and head back in the right direction.
I love Dogo immediately, I wander up through an arcade selling touristy nicnaks, a left turn past a fantastic supermarket, a right turn up a residential street and I'm at Sen guesthouse, my favourite accommodation in Japan. The place is run by a young couple, he American, she Japanese. It is full of cool furnishings and decor collected from their travels and is flooded with light. They have an amazing kitchen which I load up with fresh fruit, yoghurt, cheese and other western goodies from the supermarket, goodies which I consume with relish every morning during marathon breakfast sessions. Even better, my bed has a memory foam mattress and pillow, it's own little power point to charge electronic equipment and a curtain to give privacy. And I get the dorm to myself. Result.
I'm in Dogo because it's an onsen resort. To simplify the concept hugely, I'd say an onsen is another form of naked communal, scrubbing, cleaning and steeping in hot spring water, albeit a posher experience than visiting the neighbour sento. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen, which are now big business in the Japanese domestic tourism market. Couples, families and company groups flock to them, seeking relaxation and an escape from hectic city life. There are many onsen in the Dogo area, hence why it's called a resort and people seem to be here for a few days, sampling the delights of a number of places. I am very amused to see gaggles of them, wading around town in their yukatas (a causal cotton kimono-esque dressing gown) white, two toed socks and geta (wooden clogs). I feel like I have walked into a movie set, a comedy one. Sadly my limited funds mean I can only visit one, so I choose the Dogo Onsen Honkan, the oldest hot spring in Japan.
After my sento experience in Tokyo I feel like an old hand, as I confidently lock my shoes away and buy my ticket. I opt for one step up from the pauper experience, buying a ticket which asides from the soak, includes the loan of a yukata and permission to recline in the second floor saloon. Apparently I will also be served green tea and rice crackers. The changing area is hectic, crowded with people coming and going, the scrubbing area is larger and a bit more upmarket than the sento and the soaking is done in one large, ornate mosaic pool. There are probably forty or fifty women there at any one point, a mixture of classes but definitely a wealthier bunch than in Tokyo, I guess mostly tourists like me. Now that I am more at ease with the right way to do things I can relax and take it all in; not just the heat and humidity, the sense of being properly steam cleaned, but all those lovely non saggy, pert breasted, cellulite free bodies. A few days ago I was describing this experience to a Japanese woman who was curious as to my experience of onsens. She was dumbfounded at my positive take on the Japanese female body. She told me that Japanese women hate their small boobs and lack of curves, how they desire a 'western' body, long and lean but replete with luscious bums and boobs. Ahhh I thought, the 'Barbie' bodies you see in the media. So I told her about cellulite and love handles and what a muffin belly looked like and invited her to come stay with me in Ireland and have a proper look.
The next day I venture further out of town, where there are a number of lovely walks and temples to visit. Near the end, I am huffing and puffing my way up a steep set of stone steps to a temple, just as a party of school children, aged about ten, are trickling down. They are all stoney faced. My brain is doing its usual; marvelling at the lack of apparent curiosity, or their ability to mask it, when out of the line steps a very brave boy. He addresses me in English, "Good morning, what is your name? Where are you from?" I see his teacher and the other children stop, jaws dropped, not quite believing what has just transpired. I reply and ask him the same questions back, to which he is replies in excellent English, beaming away and confident as you like. My inner drama queen, developed through twenty years of working with children, kicks in. I pull an exaggerated face, holler a very loud wow, clap my hands, the works. The other kids start cheering for him, everyone including the teachers are clapping. Mark my words, that boy will go far.
I think that experience was a turning point in my time in Japan. I felt the country warmed to me and I warmed to the country, warmed to the extent that I could now say, officially, I like Japan!. Wheyhey!
A train ride up the west coast of Shikoku took me to the city of Takamatsu. At the tourist information desk, a lively inhabitant proudly told me of the city's Saint Patricks day parade last year, their first ever. Whilst I remained unclear as to why the city needed a Saint Patricks day parade, I was amused at her clarity about the size of the Irish population there. Three. Two men and a woman. Such was her enthusiasm that I felt guilty, almost apologetic about just using the city to get to another place. At times I am a terrible softy.
My destination that day was the small island of Naoshima, home to a few hundred people, a couple of general stores, three superb contemporary art museums and an interior landscape scattered with many large scale art installations! Like many other small islands in Japan, depopulation had meant that Naoshima was slowly ebbing out of existence. But in stepped a forward thinking regional revitalisation program, backed by a wealthy art corporation, now a major force in revitalising island communities. With time, this really really unique island experience took shape.
I arrive into Miyanoura port just as dusk is descending. It appears to be the seafront and a couple of lanes running back from it. It is deadly quiet and there doesn't seem to be anyone anywhere. I can't quite get my head around what might be in store. When I check into my accommodation I find a Japanese tv crew in the foyer, they are desperate to talk to foreigners about their experience of the island. I reluctantly agree. What follows is a comedic thirty minutes of mutual misunderstanding. Most of their questions relate to how I have experienced the island. I keep trying to tell then that I have just arrived and haven't seen the bloody island, but their English is not sufficient to get what I am saying. I keep laughing, necessitating numerous breaks in filming and when the owner arrives, who speaks English, I can't stop rolling my eyes and pulling faces at the whole shambles. When the debacle is over they ask if they join me on my trip around the island the next day. Oh how I start to laugh. By the way, I was not flattered by this request, viewing it as some reflection of my charismatic personality or on screen beauty. It's called pure desperation.
They are there next morning at breakfast, waiting for some fresh victims. I almost feel sorry for them. But it's time to jump on a bike and go find out what this place is all about. I cycle on the main road, almost devoid of traffic, through countryside, clusters of houses, small farms; normal, everyday, slow paced rural life. Thirty minutes later I arrive in the small fishing village of Honmura where several old houses, a temple and a shrine, all scattered amongst normal neighbourhood housing, have been turned into art installations. I have visited a lot of art installations in my time, especially in my twenties, desperately trying to be interesting and cool. I'm a bit cynical about the majority of them now. What I saw in Honmura was enjoyable, interesting, a great way to spend a few hours and a brilliant brilliant way to get income generating tourists to visit the island for the day. I have a snack and jump back on the bike for another gentle enough cycle to the Benesse House Museum; a stunning piece of contemporary architecture and home to some really nice art. I walk through it slowly, this is the second ten pound entrance fee I have paid today and I have more to come. The islands icon, the Pumpkin is there, swarming with people trying to get the perfect picture. And the camera crew and two young, sensible looking Europeans.
Back on the bike and it's a steep drive uphill. I have to get off and push and push and push. I'm quite high up in the mountains and am certain that I've gone the wrong way, surely they wouldn't build anything in a place that's as inaccessible as this. But lo and behold another beautiful building comes into view. It's the Lee Ufan Museum, in the most glorious position in the middle of nowhere. It's twenty quid to get in, no way Jose, so I peddle off, feeling stingy. The road curves round and down and with relief I realise I'm heading back to Miyanoura, just in time for the sun setting. Before dinner I head to the island's sento. As expected it is off beat, arty farty and funky, although I still manage to get told off by the custodian for some footwear violation. I had a brilliant day; a chance to experience quiet island life, a chance to be out in nature, a chance to experience art you might find in a top class museum in a major city, a chance to exercise, all rolled into one. Like I have said many times before, the Japanese do things well. That night I slept in a four bed dorm, housed, I kid you not, within a shipping crate. It was quite comfy, but cold and I thanked God I had no dorm mates. I would loved to have stayed a few days, to just hang out, but my time in Japan was running out.
Over the past few pages I have been very kind and generous to Japan. But now I need to share some of my irritations and frustrations. Let me begin by saying the word slippers. Six months ago Slippers was just another word in my footwear vocabulary. Post Japan, mention the word slippers and I can become overcome with emotion ranging from minor irritation to anger and rage! Let me begin to explain.
When you enter a home, your hostel, sometimes a museum, sometimes a shop, it is the correct etiquette to remove your shoes. Rather than walk bare footed, it is also the correct etiquette to wear a pair of hideous slippers, which are provided for you. If that was it, I could cope. But it's not. Say that after ten second seconds you get to the living space or perhaps your bedroom, basically any area that has tatami mats flooring, then you have to remove your slippers. Deep breath Nora. Then Lo and behold you realise you need to pee, so you leave your room, put on your slippers and walk to the loo, hoping to not come across any tatami flooring during the journey. By the loo door you will find a pair of toilet slippers. To me these look identical to the other slippers, but somehow they are not. So, off comes the normal slippers, on go the loo slippers, sit on the pot, wee, flush chain, remove loo slippers, put on normal slippers, walk ten metres, remove slippers. Jesus H. Christ. What is wrong with these people?
Of course rules are there to be broken and I merrily wore the wrong footwear on many an occasion, but only when I thought I wouldn't be caught. Being caught would not be pleasant. During a four week stay I witnessed only four 'showings' of strong emotion from the Japenese. All four were linked to my breaking of the footwear code; all involved me accidentally standing on wooden floors while still in my shoes and all involved a distressed person coming running towards me looking as if they had lost their only child. Hhhhmmmnn.
Before Kyoto, my final destination, I make a quick detour to Koya San, one of Japan's holiest mountains. The journey offers quite a build up, a rickety train climbing higher and higher into the mountains, followed by a dramatic cable car to the top. My head is full of romantic images of the hundred or so monasteries, perched on the edge of steep cliffs and swathed in mist. The reality is that the weather is pretty gloomy and by the time I get to the top, heavy rain has kicked in. It's also freezing. I have to then get a bus to my lodgings and am completely dispirited by the big main road being lined with tourists shops. However I am rewarded by the lovely Koyasan guest house. On the outside it looks like a small tin cow shed, on the inside is a cool and funky contemporary space. I climb into my my own pod, with the most luxurious comfy mattress and duvet I have ever had the pleasure to get intimate with. I could lie there till Check out time the next day but I have a date with some chanting monks at dawn the next morning.
At four thirty a.m I am scuttling through the Okunion, the ancient cemetery of the mountain and home to over 200000 graves. All on my lonesome, I wonder who I should be frightened of the most, the living or the dead. Obviously it's pitch dark, but the path is lit by lanterns and after thirty nervy minutes and jumping out of my skin on only four occasions, I find myself at the ceremonial hall of the monastery. It's time for dawn prayers. It's all very simple, ten chanting monks, two devotees, myself and ten thousand oil lamps. Yip, ten thousand. The lamps are donated by the faithful and like those on the path, are kept constantly alight, they say two of them having been burning since the 11th century. Their glow is golden but muted and I find it all impossibly magical
When the service is over the darkness has lifted and I spend time wandering through the cemetery, scattered with 200000 stone stupas of all shapes and sizes, intermingled with ancient cedar and pine trees trees. It's like a huge jungle of mossy stone and wood. I don't see another soul (living or dead) in the two hours that I spend there. As you may guess from the pictures, I am very drawn to the stone deities draped in brightly coloured bibs. Their colours are such a treat for the eyes, amongst all the muted greys, greens and browns. I later learn that the bibs are placed there by those who have lost children, with the prayer that Ojizo-San, who I assume is some form of deity or spirit, will watch over them as a surrogate parent.
After breakfast and a very quick nap I head out to explore some of the other religious sites. There are some lovely colours to be seen, but I find everything energy draining and the weather is miserable, like a proper depressing Irish November day. Before I depart I head back to the cemetery for another fix. The place is crawling with large tour groups, at least about twenty of them. The tour leaders don't have megaphones like they do in China, but they shout so loudly they don't seem to need them. Get me out of here.
I descend back down the mountain, take the slow train to Osaka and then my final bullet train of the journey to Kyoto. Japan and it's railways are something else.
I am greeted in Kyoto station by piercing cold and a tiny little old man on an escalator, who swears he was a Professor of Linguistics and Syntax at Trinity College, Dublin. I don't know whether to believe him or not, but when I eventually shake him and his enthusiasm off, I notice he is following behind me at a distance. I am chuckling away to myself when I enter the tourist information centre, heaving with tourists and much to my amazement, find Karen, an old colleague Karen, who is there on holiday with her family. I haven't seen her for nearly ten years. Professor Hito emerges from the crowds, seizes his opportunity and pounces on each and every one of them, taking over the show entirely. We have to escape to a nearby restaurant for a catch up and it's nearly ten at night before I get to my accommodation for the night, a capsule hotel! I am very excited.
The staff of 'First Cabin' capsule hotel are dressed as air stewards and stewardesses, of the old pre RyanAir times, when air travel was still glamorous. They speak perfect English and check me if for my first class cabin experience (as opposed to business class). I am given an electronic key to wear round my neck and am directed to the women's floor. Much to my surprise my capsule is far from a coffin like pod into which I need to climb. It's a decent sized room with almost a double bed, crisp white sheets, a locker, tv and even my own pyjamas to lounge in. The thing that makes it a capsule rather than room is that it is a plastic pod and has a curtain rather than a door to go in and out of. The communal bathrooms are huge, spotless and space age ish, with free Sheisedo products with which to beautify yourself. I have a fantastic shower, slather myself in expensive body lotion and don my pyjamas to go buy a beer in the vending machine and use the wifi. I bloody love it and it's just a few quid more than my dormitories have been costing, What a great way to be leaving Japan.
I'm staying in modern Downtown Kyoto; large, broad, heaving, modern shopping streets interlaced with an intricate network of small lanes and roads full of all sorts of shops, services and cafés. I like this about Japan. Big and small together. Modern and old together. Kyoto has the added delight of being peppered with little shrines and temples, tiny things crammed into tiny spaces. They seem more colourful than elsewhere; more lanterns, more lucky charms, more quirks, more character. A visit to the Nishiki koji food market is lovely, so so much food for sale and as always in Japan, everything is exquisitely presented. But asides from the green tea there are no strong smells. That's what makes it different to all other countries in Asia; yes the same obsession with food exists, but minus the noxious odours that knock you for six. Maybe it's a good metaphor for Japan, nothing too strong, obnoxious, offensive. On the surface that is, I have no clue as to what might lie beneath. I have lunch in my favourite type of eatery; 1970s Formica furniture, pictures of the food on the walls, customers from every walk of life and a mean feed for less than a fiver. After the initial thril of being in sopping heaven, I find moving through all the consumerism quite soul destroying, especially because I can't afford anything. Nonetheless the next day I return to a classic local store to buy a yukata I'd fallen in love with. Although reduced by 70 % it's still 10000 yen, nearly seventy quid. I like it a lot and imagine walking round my house looking elegant, sophisticated and terribly exotic. I hope my postman will appreciate it.
The vast amount of culture and history in Kyoto is mind boggling. It is crammed to the gills with ancient Buddhist temples, majestic places, gardens of every size and description, art, architecture, tradition. Never mind the Geishas. I hardly knew where to begin and to be honest, found it quite overwhelming to know what to do with my last few days there.
One of my favourite times was lurching around the North Eastern end of the city, late in the evening. It's dark and I don't really know where I am, but then I stumble across a temple which I figure out is Kiyomizu- dera temple, a pretty famous one. The moon is up high in the sky and the views across the city are beautiful. The streets surrounding it are lined with souvenir shops selling beautifully packaged boxes of sweets, purses handkerchiefs, the usual stuff. There are so many people there, but rather than detract from the atmosphere, it adds to it creating a sense of fun and occasion, of celebration. The golden lights from the shops creates a really lovely atmosphere. Everything seems so tasteful, so nice, so atmospheric. I could sit on the street and drink it in for hours but I know it's late and I have no idea how to get back to where I am staying. So I continue wandering in a vague direction, every few minutes tripping up on more temples, pagoda's, shrines, gorgeousness. Eventually I tumble out of the magic and onto one of the neon shopping streets, still going strong at 930 in the evening. I'm not resentful of the neon, like I said before, it's the mixture of old and new, big and small, brash and subdued that makes Japan special.
Fushimi inari temple, a simple ten minute train journey north of downtown was also special. I am immediately mesmerised by the reds, oranges and vermilion's and by the shape and arrangements of the torii gates everywhere. It really is a feast for my eyes and spectacularly photogenic, everyone, including myself, is camera crazy. You climb to the top, through ten thousand, more red tori gates, before descending. It's tough, but glorious.
Like I said before, there was so much to see and so in Kyoto that I often found it overwhelming. I also made some bad decisions about what I visited and what I left out. But I did get many glimpses of magic and I guess it made me want to come back. I felt that I only got to see the tip of the iceberg in Japan, I'll definitely be back at some point in my life, hopefully with a bit more money and some company. But it was time to head off to the Philippines, the poor Philippines, devastated by typhoon Haiyan only the week before.