Westward ho from Kyoto

I think I said the next day was promising. How could it start so badly? I checked out quickly and decided that Times Car Rental claimed to be six minutes’ walk from the south entrance of Kyoto Station and what with stairs, escalators and our usual ten minutes to get to the north entrance I would take a cab. I’ve probably gone on about Japanese cabs with their suited and white-gloved drivers, lacy antimacassars and automatic doors. First in the line outside the hotel was the exception. He wore a flat cap, was malodorous and clearly disgruntled at having such a short ride. We got to the other side of the station and he indicated I should walk down a street to the left. I waved my piece of paper with the concierge written address and refused to get out. He insisted we were there, I suggested he drive on. He refused to go any further and popped the boot for me to get my luggage out. So I paid him half what was on the meter and he drove off disgusted leaving me at the entrance to a building site and he had the address slip in Japanese! It took me twenty minutes to find the tiny office of the car rental company and I was an unhappy sweaty mess after struggling with the consequences of another wrong decision. The car was a little blue Suzuki something and the process worked fine with no attempt to sell extras. The satnav was a great improvement on five years ago when we could only input phone numbers in that I could type in Roman characters with multiple press like phone texting used to be – remember that? She gave me an error free route out of Kyoto and onto the Chugoku Expressway which took me out of the continuous sprawl of the Kansai where there’s little evidence of countryside between Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. However before long I was able to exit onto Route 1 (always a favourite in Boston) which took me to Sassayama City where I joined Route 9 to head west through the mountains to the Sea of Japan coast. Dee and I has seen a section of it at Koga when driving south from Kanazawa and I’d read that Tottori and the coast nearby were even better.

As we wound gradually upwards I was struck by a windmill in the middle of Makigawa and later had a stop to snap a typical settlement in one of the flat bits. Japan is 73 percent mountains with the population crammed into a quarter of the land area. At this time of year, April, the nascent leaves on the deciduous trees give the mountains a very fluffy look. I’m told they look great in the autumn too when the acer go through their colour changes. The little bluebottle buzzed its way nicely up through the Fukushiyama Pass at 323 metres above sea level and onto the Kannabe Plateau. On the way I had passed several stopping points for adding chains or changing to snow tyres but my favourite was one that had the tyre sign but also “Nap Parking”. The Japanese are the world leaders in napping in my experience – on the subway all the time, on buses, planes, on park benches so given the distances you can drive it’s probably a good idea to stop for forty winks. I didn’t nap but did have a coffee break. Route 9 goes all the way to Tottori but gets sucked into a toll-free expressway so I had to ignore the very polite “turn around when possible” and follow my nose. It led me to a parking lot called Tottori Sand Dune Parking. These are Japan’s only dunes and they are constantly shifting, mostly on today’s evidence inland across the roads.

The whole coast along this stretch has been designated the San-in National Park and was awarded UNESCO Geopark status in 2010. I explored an immediate stretch of, frankly not that impressive dunes when you’ve seen Braughton Burrows and the Coto Donana. However I spied a village and set off to explore. It was Iwami and behind a fisherman mending his boat was a shrine – no chance of getting a stamp here but the steps beckoned up towards the unpretentious Ajiro shrine.

There were 111 of them so I stood on one leg at the top (arcane cricket reference, sorry) and I loved finding the shrine gardener’s tool bucket.

I carried on through a tiny village road eliciting some strange looks from homeward bound schoolchildren and their parents. I had that awful feeling I’d be driving sheepishly back past them after a dodgy three-point turn. But no, it emerged onto a lovely winding coast road with ample stopping places to walk a stretch of the coastal footpath. I’m not sure whether the footpath extends the full 120 kilometres of the park which carries on from Tottori Prefecture in the west through Hyogo and Kyoto.

On the short stretch I was able to admire stacks and archways, not quite as dramatic as Galicia’s Cathedral Beach, but most enjoyable. There are also caves and interesting geological features warranting the UNESCO designation. The the road dropped down into Higashihama with its wide sandy beach and an island shrine you have to swim to or perhaps take a boat. However there was another shrine on the beach and I declined its invitation to climb these steps.

I awoke satnav and allowed her to take me back inland to join the toll-free expressway. I instantly understood why they couldn’t charge for it as it’s a two-way single carriageway road with occasional slower traffic lanes to allow overtaking. She took me right to the hotel where they were all ready for me and soon after check in had to rescue me from the WiFi wilderness by apologising for their slow speeds and providing a portable router that plugged into the Ethernet – long time since I’ve handled one of those cables apart from setting up the router at home. I haven’t got my laptop with me and I guess it has a socket but I’m not sure.

A quick run to Family Mart for a couple of beers – I’m averse to paying minibar prices except in extremis. After the first one slid down one of those moments came over me: “It’s all caught up with me, I really can’t be bothered to go out tonight or even be bothered to eat.” Do you ever get those? I don’t often but … After a severe talking to and a shower I ventured out to sample the delights of downtown Tottori. Just around the corner past the Daimaru department store – no town seems to be without one – I came to an interesting looking bar and ordered a beer an asked for the menu. No food was the reply so I didn’t linger long over my beer, paid and moved on. There was a small covered shopping mall, which also seems obligatory in Japanese towns, which contained a couple of dull looking, nearly empty places. I gave them a miss and was starting to curse my gung-ho alter ego when I hit paydirt. No menu in English, no pictures or plastic samples to point at but some friendly people having a laugh at the bar and a gnarled chef who seemed keen to accommodate me. I couldn’t really tell whether the lady that served me a beer was his wife or daughter but shortly afterwards she placed a fillet of fish in front of me and indicated that it was on the house. A voice piped up in English, “How you find this restaurant?” I replied that I was staying at the New Otani and had come out looking for some food. This prompted gales of laughter from a couple just along from me who confessed they were also staying there and had it recommended. Our concierge recommendations have not been brilliant so I hadn’t even bothered. With the help of the first voice who was an art dealer from Galerie Nichida in Nagoya and had studied in America, the couple said they had spent their honeymoon in London four years ago – second time around for both and now on a trip to celebrate their retirement. The conversation moved onto age, oh and by this time I had a plate of fabulous sashimi fresh from the sea today and some local, very good sake, and I arm wrestled the chef metaphorically, asking why he hadn’t retired if he was so old. He enjoyed the business, closed for three hours a day to go fishing, lived upstairs and what else would he do? Sign language, help from the gallerist and recourse to my phrase book made for quite a coherent chat. I won the age contest as he was only 68 although looked older than me. They were all suitably impressed at my venturing out alone in provincial Japan at such a great age. Some tempura including ginger root, asparagus and forest vegetables according to the book followed and then chef gave me a bowl of miso soup with some crabs legs – a speciality of the area. The evening ended with more local sake and an impromptu Beatles medley – chef is a huge fan – wife or daughter presented an extremely modest bill and I left thinking about what fun I’d have missed if I’d just flopped in the hotel. It reminded me of the night before Dee’s birthday five years ago in Okayama when we became firm friends with the couple who ran the bar.

It’s what travel’s for.

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