A Day in the country

I suppose the number one thing on anybody’s wish list when travelling to Japan is to ride a bullet train. Well Saturday held a day of varied travel for our novices. With lots of luggage and five of us we decided on a taxi from Asakusa to Tokyo Station. Lacy antimacassars and white-gloved drivers are a surprise when you first see them but you realise that cabbies take pride in their work, We didn’t use many but they all wore suits and ties and had enough English to make a joke or respond to ours. Then it was into the station and up to the Shinkansen tracks for a journey to Mishima. The one mistake I’d allowed the ticket office guy to press on me was that our reserved seats were in coach sixteen. How many coaches on a big Shinkansen? You got it. Where does the escalator deliver you on the platform? In the middle. So it was a long trek along the platform and then you have to board very quickly so as to keep to the schedule. I love the way the guard looks along the train, down at the track and mutter phrases to themselves almost like praying for the train’s success. I also like the fact that whenever any official or vendor enters the carriage they bow to it.

I’d promised the grandkids a bit of magic on the train and they were amazed when their forward facing seat was pivoted so that they could face their parents as a four. We whizzed off at high speed and through suburbs, tunnels and occasional stretches of countryside and were in Mishima within the hour. It’s over a hundred kilometres and given four station stops speeds must have been up around 180 km/h at times. At Mishima we changed to a local train to Shuzenji which is half way down the Izu peninsula. This was a fun ride with speeds which allowed you to look into peoples’ back gardens, see folk working in the rice fields and admire rural building styles. It also gave me time to contemplate that I had a vivid picture of my phone in the net on the back of the seat in front of me on the Shinkansen – probably in Nagoya by now. I did this five years ago when leaving Tokyo for Hong Kong and somehow it was produced for me to collect in Hong Kong at the airport. At Shuzenji we had to take a bus and sadly because of a change in our departure from Tokyo we had nearly two hours to kill in Shuzenji. Time for lunch. With all our luggage we didn’t want to stray far and despite worries about my granddaughter’s likelihood of finding something she could eat we entered a restaurant with a Japanese only menu, some helpful plastic plates in the window and a proprietress whose English consisted only of numbers, we enjoyed a great traditional Japanese meal.

We had to phone our next stop to tell them we were catching the 14:20 bus and a voice confirmed that we would be met at the bus stop. We purchased tickets and boarded the bus for a fantastic voyage. The Izu peninsula is mountainous and we were in the middle and needed to get to the west since the name of our destination was Nishi Izu Koyoi Onsen and I know nishi means west. The first third of the journey was through winding, climbing roads through various spa resorts, golf courses and a Tudor England theme park Niji no Sato (Rainbow Park) which also features a miniature railway modelled on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch narrow gauge one in Kent. The bus went in but there were no takers on this occasion. From then on there were trees clinging to sheer mountains, almost as many hairpin bends as Nikko and eventually glimpses of a gorgeous little circular bay. This was indeed the port of Heda our home for the night. I thought all the family would enjoy one night of constant shoes off, shoes on of a traditional Japanese hotel or ryokan so booked this one in hope from the internet. It had pictures of Mount Fuji on its website but then so do most of the hotels in Japan. We were met as promised by a smart lady who took us five minutes to the hotel and treated us to a glass of delicious yuzu juice while checking in took place. We also noted that there was a free whisky offer from 15:00 onwards and a wine dispensing system I’d seen somewhere before. You charge a card and select the amount and type of wine from 10 options until your credit runs out. We were then shown to our adjacent identical rooms. I then caused confusion by asking if there were different rooms for singles and families but it seems they are all 12 mat tatami rooms and futons are laid out for the number of occupants.

Having warned the children that all onsen (hot spring) bathing in Japan was always in the nude after having a really good scrub in the shower to keep the spring water clean, we booked the private onsen. It was a bit small for five and very exposed to a howling gale so I left them all to it and went to pursue the return of my phone. I found the number for Japan Rail lost and found and called it but no one spoke English so the helpful staff spoke to them in Japanese with the train, coach and seat details I’d written down for them with a description of the phone: Samsung, black wallet with business cards. In the conversation I heard the word meishi which I knew from previous trips meant business cards. Great relief – they had my phone and agreed to send it to our next hotel in Kyoto on Monday. It cost 907yen – about a fiver – but that’s so much better than an insurance claim and replacement. We all met up in the lounge with the family having enjoyed their onsen experience so much that we all decided to go to the public one next morning before breakfast. We’d spotted a sign to “Beach Walk” and decided to give it a try. At the foot of a set of rather uneven steps we found ourselves in a car park and as we rounded the corner this view confronted us.

What a stroke of luck! Many people visit Japan and never see the sacred mountain because of cloud. WE got her in resplendent beauty with a defining strip of cloud as well. We walked back along the beach in the almost completely circular bay but then emerged to confront a gale so strong it made everybody work hard and literally took my breath away. I always carry an inhaler for my asthma but it’s a comfort blanket from the old days but before making it, in stages, back up the steps I had to have a puff.

Time for a shower and change and a card game before dinner (Mike A look away). I’d experienced a kaiseki meal with Dee and was a bit concerned as we’d had grasshoppers, forest ferns and fish heads. However this one was more mainstream and my granddaughter’s child’s choice came served in a miniature fishing boat. It included vegetables boiling in a bowl with a fire pellet under it that indicated the food was ready to eat when the fire went out – dead clever. The courses went on and were all delicious and the service was attentive, amused and excellent. I don’t think they see that many English families. After dinner we returned to the lounge where it would have been rude not to avail ourselves of free whisky and dispensed wine. It was not a long start as an early onsen was required before breakfast.

Onsen enjoyed and Japanese breakfast enjoyed by all even the sceptical junior, we did the beach walk again. Less good. views but still OK and the wind, while strong, had abated somewhat. We’d decided that the bus schedule was incompatible with our travel plans so had ordered a taxi to take five plus luggage back to Shuzenji. However we we’re a bit dismayed to find a single ordinary four seater with inadequate boot space. Much sucking of teeth and phone calling resulted in a nine-seater appearing in about ten minutes and as the minibus could go much faster than the scheduled bus we were there in very good time to take a train back to Mishima and then the shinkansen to Kyoto. We arrived in time for a walk about the immediate neighbourhood near the station with a massive shrine to be seen when open and including a visit to the roof garden and the ten floors of Isetan department store in Kyoto’s incredible station. A first for us was cherry blossom images on the station steps made from LEDs affixed to the risers.

Underneath the station as with most is a retail and culinary plethora of opportunities. We went for an interesting Japanese take on Italian and on leaving I suggested that if we took the adjacent exit we might be quite close to the hotel. To everyone’s amazement we were right by the lobby steps. I confess it was just good guesswork as these subterranean passages are totally disorientating. A plan was hatched for the next day which involved meeting up with the sister of one of Chris’s mates who happened to be in Kyoto as part of a world tour.

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