Scampering around Shikoku

19 sushi pink Can we find Kafka

          on Shikoku’s shores and hills

          or will he escape?

First of all I (Dee) would like to thank everyone for their birthday wishes and for the cards and gifts received before we left.

Although the train service is good we decided to rent a car in Okayama to drive to Takematsu, our next stop and one of the main places to feature in Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore. We checked the location with the front desk who sent us to Okayama Station. I’d seen a Times Rent a Car Office in a street about a minute from the hotel but their webcheck told us to go to the station. So we do. And the Times Rent a Car office says we’re just for returns, you have to pick cars up just round from the hotel. Well it’s sunny and it’s exercise, but then they offer to drive us to the pick up point. Our baggage is still at the hotel but we accept. It’ll save us some time and we are now entering a period of serious hunting for Murakami places.

Installed in another Mazda Axela with its copious boot we set off on another sunny morning for the delights of Shikoku. The first of these was a stop at a service area as several of these are referred to in Kafka. Not this particular one but we wanted to know what they were like – excellent facilities, mediocre coffee, but warm loo seats and a peaceful garden to gather strength for the next stretch. Lots of trucks were parked up to so it could have been a stop for Nakata and Hoshino. Our next pleasure was crossing the Seto-Ohashi Bridge, the longest double-decker bridge in the world. We’d seen it yesterday from the ferry to Naoshima and now we were on it, all thirteen kilometres of it. Splendid, flying from island to island across the Inland Sea was exhilarating and you can see from it, unlike a lot of expressway travel. The toll was quite steep at ¥4800 but there is a lot of bridge to pay for.

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Once in Takamatsu SatNav Lady – new car but no better sense of direction – delivers us to the back of the hotel where there is no visible means of access so I drive forward and we find ourselves in a pedestrianized shopping mall – oops! Creeping across it amid startled shoppers and speeding cyclists we come to a road again and escape with some relief. It takes a few false turns down side streets before once again gaining access to the front of the hotel from the correct direction – U-turns are very rare and often prevented by central barriers or cones that even I wasn’t going to take on.

Our room wasn’t ready this time but we left our luggage and went off to garden number three on our hit list, the Ritsurin Koen which was about five minutes drive up the road and had good parking so we strolled for two hours in this fascinating mixture of the South Garden – a traditional Japanese strolling garden with the usual calm atmosphere, borrowed landscape, tea houses, lanterns and bridges and the contrasting North Garden which is in a more modern style imitative of European park layouts. On discussing it later we both agreed that the traditional was much more to our liking – so the lawn’s coming up when we get back.

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After going back to check in we drove down to Takamatsu Station which features in the book and photographed it and several hotels of the type Kafka might have stayed in on first arrival. Then it was find Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker – 50% success rate. Yashima Shrine is thought to be the model for passages of action in the book so we went there and then drove round the coast looking for Kafka’s shore. Many beautiful coves presented themselves but no fishermen came to talk to us. Lots of crows did however. (For those who haven’t read it the hero converses frequently with a crow.) As the sun goes down we make our way back to the hotel – front entrance first time, this time – and are parked from a turntable into a vertical rotary stacking garage for the night – good value at ¥1000.

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An evening stroll through the pedestrian area resulted in us being approached by a gentleman who had probably had a few too many after leaving the office so we politely declined his offer to buy us a drink and shot some of the shady side streets where Nakata’s deals could have taken place. Dinner and back to blogging duties.

Tuesday morning sees us set of for Tokushima where Hoshino and Yakata arrive in Shikoku and stay at a hotel near the station. We find possible locations there and then head for the mountains behind Kochi where Kafka spent several bewildering passages in dense, steep, tumbling forest. We found plenty of that and some fabulous mountain scenery. The comparison with European mountains is interesting with the vista softened here by the presence of deciduous  trees and bamboo so high up, particularly at this time of year with their fresh unfurling foliage. We passed through what appeared to be a ghost town but did have a working post office and phone box and parked cars so we assume life was present. It was all very Murakami again.

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Descending from the mountains we stopped frequently as photo opportunities presented themselves to the amusement and extreme courtesy of a truck driver who repeatedly overtook us while we were stopped and then pulled in to passing places to let us go by him. It was another amazing display of generosity and selflessness. As we approached Takamatsu again we went off to find another temple alluded to in the book and saw one of the pilgrims arriving.  Shikoku is famous, among many other things, for an 88 temple, 1200 km pilgrimage which many Shingon Buddhist followers make each year and this pilgrim was on foot and dressed in the traditional manner rather than in a coach party.

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We had to get the car back by six as we resume rail travel tomorrow so down to the port area, another easy and friendly drop off and back to the hotel for an onsen visit on the roof while our laundry swirled around in the free laundry. The communal bath was a first –  separate male and female baths here but the ritual of a thorough cleansing shower followed by wallowing in hot, briny water, cold tubs for a contrast and for men an interior and exterior option so you could see and hear the city go by while lying up to your neck in water.

We asked reception for a recommendation for dinner and they didn’t fail us with Kokon restaurant. The sashimi dish the chef prepared was a work of art in itself and he and his assistant combined our phrase-books and their mobile phone apps to tell us exactly what we were eating. Squid, mackerel, sea bream, tuna, abalone, cuttlefish adorned the dish of ice with radish, shiso leaf and an intricately carved cucumber. When our tempura arrived it was already accompanied by a note prepared with the ingredients.

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What service, what a delight!

Dee’s birthday blog

18 sushi pink copy      What’s it like to be

             far from home on your birthday?

             Well, we’d best ask Dee.

A birthday outing had been long planned. Naoshima Art Island sounded just the ticket for a day out with multiple modes of travel, walking, gardens and art to enjoy. We walked to Okayama station and took the Rainbow Bus to Uno Ferry terminal to catch the boat to Naoshima. Most of the passengers got off after fifteen minutes at Happy Village an enormous shopping, gaming and pachinko mall. We arrived at the port where numbers of volunteers guided us to buy our ferry tickets. It’s a mid-sized ro-ro car ferry and we shuffled on and made for the upper deck to enjoy the views across the Seto Inland Sea and the increasingly sunny day. Shimmering, shiny blue sea with fluffy, spring-leaved islands mark our way until after 20 minutes we arrive at the island.

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There are five major areas of interest to art lovers and we walked around Miyanoura Port while waiting for the island bus to take us to the  Chichu Art Museum. At Chichu there’s a Monet Garden to entertain you while you wait to purchase your timed ticket slot and then it’s into the brilliant Tadao Ando designed museum where the most stunning work for us was a huge granite sphere in a specially designed room by Walter de Maria (sorry photography prohibited but you can get a bit of an idea of its power from the weblink.)

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We travelled on by shuttle bus – just when you thought it was full, new seats flapped down in the central aisle to accommodate even more folk – to Bennesse House Museum another stunning Ando design for a really visitor friendly space. We were introduced, I’m ashamed to say, to the work of Yasuo Kuniyoshi a Japanese artist who emigrated to the US aged 17 and later had real trouble during the Second World War. He’s enigmatic, haunting, self-questioning and his paintings and lithographs are full of emotion and impact all displayed beautifully. The display also contains most of the contents of his New York studio which are fascinating.

We hoped to catch more of the island’s project but the need for lunch and getting back for Mr Yamamoto’s specially arranged dinner meant that we had to scuttle by shuttle to catch the ferry back and then bus back to Okayama. Bright sun all the way this time it was a brief voyage to savour. Walking back from the station we heard live music coming from the canal area so popped by to see what was going on and happened to find Espana Leon which fortunately had some cava, so a proper birthday toast was made possible.

We changed and were taxied to the Kokusai Hotel up in the hills overlooking the by now lit up city. The restaurant is essentially French in style with a few Japanese touches. First taste of wine for ages. There were more staff than diners by the time we finished and it was an interesting way to celebrate. On the way out Dee was presented with a rose which will accompany us on our travels for the next few days.

Off to Okayama

17 sushi pink Our first bullet train

        Kyoto to Okayama

        excited or what?

With our domestic laundry duties completed the night before, cases packed, we’re off to take our first shinkansen or bullet train to Okayama. We walk across to the station find the appropriate gate and are told we can actually get an earlier direct train rather than the 10:13 we’d planned that meant a change at Shin-Osaka. Some shinkansen are not valid for travel with JR passes so we were delighted to be told to get up there and get on. A swift purchase of a sushi box for breakfast and we’re on the platform. Slight surprise that the platform is not at ground level but up a level on stilts. Important to check with the sign boards which coaches (carriages) are for unreserved seats on a highly accurate poll of two trains it seems  they are usually the front three or five so it’s good to be waiting in the right place when the train arrives. The coach numbers are clearly marked on the platform and orderly queues form behind them. A sleek, shiny beast slides into the platform but it’s not ours. It disgorges its passengers and loads new ones swiftly from orderly queues – the Japanese do queue in the most disciplined manner everywhere – while a guard signals repeatedly to each end of the train before waving it out. Ours is next and on we get.

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First impression of how much space there is. We were worried about stowing our copious baggage but it fitted in easily. There are loos and recycling points every two carriages, a trolley service comes through with acceptable coffee and sandwiches and so on which we didn’t need to try having scoffed our sushi. After that initial delight the actual journey was a bit dull. Much of the track runs through noise-reducing barriers or tunnels so you can’t see much. But it is quite fast once it gets out of the station area. You feel that satisfying little push of the seat into your back as the acceleration kicks in. From Kyoto to Osaka is only 26 miles and we did it in 13 minutes so quick but not amazing. The rest of the trip to Okayama was similar because of three more stops but we have longer journeys ahead.

Arrival at the hotel in Okayama way ahead of check in time which as usual was three o’clock, we were utterly charmed by the hotel director who came to greet us, told us a room was ready which we could occupy straightaway with no extra charge. Mr Yamamoto speaks fluent and elegant English and had spent years travelling with groups of traders in Europe and Asia and has the style and urbanity of a well-travelled gentleman. I enlisted his help shortly after we had gone to our rooms to see if he could suggest somewhere special for dinner on Dee’s birthday next day. He went off to make enquiries and later came up with a solution and then booked both the table and a taxi to take us there.

We then walked off to see number two in our great gardens of Japan subquest. Okayama is delightful. It has really funky trams, loads of buses, broad main streets behind which lie lots of atmospheric smaller ones. It feels lively and very cultured. On the way we passed by, and were of course, diverted into  a Saturday flea market in front of a shrine. Lovely pots too big to think about, dubious netsuke, old farm and cooking implements, clothes, books, prints and stall holders rushing to erect gazebos as the rain started. We did however stand on the bridge and watch cormorants in the river before going on into the Koruaken and were well rewarded.

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The spaciousness, variety, beauty of the planting and the “borrowed landscape” of a nearby mountain worked superbly. The rain mostly held off too. It’ll also, like Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, have it’s own page when we are back in the UK and can sort the photographs. On then to Okayama Castle which is  impressive and we hoped would have an exhibition of wood block prints, judging from the poster we spied. It did, but only three of them, poorly displayed and part of a bigger exhibit on travel in the Edo period which was interesting but not what we’d hoped for. However the nearly birthday girl did get to be carried in a palanquin!

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From the castle we went, getting soaked now, in quest of Maruzen Books where we succeeded in purchasing our coveted road atlas of Japan. Incredibly in a modern shopping mall were stacks and stacks of second hands books being eagerly leafed through but good numbers of people. It was a bit like a vertical version of the stalls under Waterloo Bridge outside the National Theatre.  We then wandered through a long shopping arcade with a Dutch Week so tulips and pancakes everywhere. We got lost and finally made it back to the hotel extremely bedraggled and determined to eat very close to the hotel.

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It couldn’t really have been closer – diagonally across one street, in fact a pleasant, well-planted and landscaped canal-side walking area rather like the Gion Canal in Kyoto –  and into Hachimonji a small but crowded Japanese restaurant where we were taken in hand by a gentleman of some years and guided through a “we’ll give you the best things to eat” menu. Sashimi to start was fine. Then small fish, increasing less strange vegetables, broad beans, rice of course and tempura and finally fresh strawberries, with local biscuits and a soft jelly-like blob of subtle and excellent taste. All washed down with a few beers and some sake. As he relaxed with increased shochi  consumption, it was clear that he’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the charms of my wife. I was forbidden to speak any Japanese because my wife speaks it so beautifully. She’s taught the Japanese for beautiful so she could accept his compliments. The husband and wife chef and patronne spoke a little English and went along with the banter and joshing until he took a phone call from his wife asking where the hell he was – we heard Igirisu in his shamefaced reply so we knew we were being used as an excuse. The time to break up the party finally came but not before everybody in the room had joined in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to Dee. Does everybody meet characters like this on their travels or is it something about us?

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Booking, booking, booking

4 sushi pink   As the week unfolds

   what shall we now discover

                to threaten our trip?

With the little frisson of Takayama Festival safely behind us I settle down to the slog of going stage by stage, train by train, car hire by car hire through the whole itinerary. My daughter-in-law commented on an earlier post with a fine Japanese word for us – Ganbatte. Apparently a literal translation would be Exhaust yourself but it’s used as an encouragement to hang on in there, chin up, stick with it or come on my son. With this exhortation taken to heart and being of a thorough, and cost-conscious nature I start out consulting about four or five sites for each location. A pattern soon emerges – the Japan based sites with the extra hassle of converting yen or dollars to pounds soon start to fall by the wayside with fewer and fewer hits from me among the forest of tabs open across the top of my screen. Then there’s the tedium of consulting my master plan to see what dates to enter and the number of nights for each hotel and entering them in different formats on each site.

I discover that to select a hotel I think will be appropriate, bookmark it for ratification later in the day by Dee who doesn’t share my benefit of working from home and book it with a secure ability to cancel with no fee all takes about an hour to an hour and a half depending on the destination. Choosing the one hotel with a room near Takayama should have been speedy but I still had to look at all the SOLD OUT ones before I got there. Even checking the “show only available rooms” option is not infallible as it doesn’t filter for my choice of a double room so I look at a lot of hotels with only singles. It’s time consuming, frustrating and one day I’ll invent a proper booking site that meets all my criteria.

Oh do stop whinging! It may take a while but you are going to Japan! Get over it and get on with it! My alter ego always was most encouraging. Eventually it seems the best option for me is to use to do a comparative trawl and then as it transpires select the best option on either or which always seems to have the lowest rates between them – sometimes one, sometimes the other with no real pattern, rhyme or reason.

Three days later, I finally manage to get a spare hour or so to show Dee my selections. She starts to glaze over after about the fifth but we plough on and agree that without her looking at all the available options herself I’ve done a good job. Well time will tell won’t it?

I’m fairly comfortable with e-tickets, showing my phone to go to the cinema, green about recycling and cutting down on paper but I can’t resist printing out each booking confirmation – being careful just to include the core information and not the other three pages of guff that incautious printing from websites always seem to include. At the top of each I write the hotel number and the dates we’re staying there. The last one reads “Hotel 15, 3 to 9 May Tokyo”. So we have accommodation for every night of the 29 nights we’ll spend chasing all over Japan except for one night on a train still to be booked.

There’s a map of our day-by-day schedule on the blog but the main stages are:

1 Tokyo 2 nights 2 Mount Fuji area 1 night 3 Kiso Valley 1 night
4 not too far from Takayama 2 nights 5 Kanazawa 1 night 6 Kyoto 3 nights
7 Okayama 2 nights 8 Takamatsu 2 nights 9 Kobe 2 nights
10 Osaka 1 night Train Osaka – Hakodate 1 night 11 Hakodate 1 night
12 Tomakomai 1 night 13 Sapporo 1 night 14 Asahikawa 2 nights
15 Tokyo 6 nights

And then Hong Kong for four nights where we hope free accommodation might be on offer.

So far so good – it looks like it will work but now to gauge the distances, train fares, mostly with a Japan Rail Pass – but the extras for sleepers – car hire, fuel costs and expressway tolls to give us an accurate estimate of what it will cost and whether I or the tour operator experts were right.


Planning a dream trip

1 sushi pink         Long planned, will this year

see a dream trip to Japan

be reality?

Ever since I was lucky enough to make trips to China and Japan in the late seventies and early eighties, I’ve dreamed about going back – especially to Japan.  Those trips were work – a party from the Inner London Education Authority was  invited by the Ministries of Education in Beijing and Tokyo to run a series of lectures and workshops for teachers. They worked us hard and I think we gave them value for money but there was only a very little time for sightseeing. But what I did manage to see of Japan in particular gave me a lasting hunger to return.

Then discovering more of Japan through its literature provided a way of staving off the hunger. An earlier Japan was evoked in novels by Kobo Abe, Akutagawa, Kawabata and Tanizaki who each brought the country to life through superb description and the painting of atmosphere. In the sixties there was a cult following for Yukio Mishima who gave completely new insights into a different Japan. And then I discovered Murakami (Haruki that is) and the desire to visit and explore grew stronger with every new book. The twin wishes to return to Japan myself and to share my excitement for the country with Dee who is equally hooked, have grown steadily. Time, budget and circumstances have contrived against it until now.

Somehow this year I will celebrate a major milestone birthday – my biblical span is up. I can’t really believe it but my birth certificate has inscribed in that beautiful, long-lost functionary script my date of birth in July 1943. So it must be true. We’ll actually be in Japan for Dee’s birthday but perhaps I’ll join in early and, who knows, just carry on until the due date.

Our Murakami pursuit will take us on a Wild Sheep Chase and a right old Dance, Dance, Dance in Hokkaido in the north, extensive forays into Tokyo and several other parts of Honshu and down to Shikoku to pursue Kafka, Nakata and Johnnie Walker from Kafka on the Shore. In addition to this we were both in the process of reading Tan Twan Eng’s Booker candidate Garden of the Evening Mists and an existing interest in Japanese gardens, reawakened on a recent visit to Tatton Park, became even stronger. So a lovely gift of a few years ago 1001 Gardens You Must Visit Before You Die came off the shelf and the itinerary expanded to include at least three of the country’s most highly regarded gardens: Kenrokuen at Kanazawa on the western China Sea coast; Korakuen in Okayama overlooking the Inland Sea and Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu on Shikoku Island. Well at least we’d intended to go to Takamatsu since Kafka on the Shore is largely set there.

Early in 2013 it became clear that a space in our work schedules would permit a sensible length trip to Japan in April and May. It would also afford us an opportunity of visiting my son and daughter-in-law who are living in Hong Kong. We had been working for some time on an itinerary that would take in many of the locations we knew through reading – especially those of Murakami. We needed a month to do it justice. We’d picked the most expensive time to travel since we include Golden Week in our dates with no less than five national holidays and the time when all Japanese go travelling. It’s also of course smack in the middle of hanami – the cherry blossom viewing season.

Ah well, best bite the bullet (train) and see what can be done.

Then the other day walking to meet some fellow Watford supporters for a City ‘Orns monthly drinks and dinner I came across this in the middle of Bloomsbury!

Cherry trees are blooming in Bloomsbury
March 2013

Who needs to go to Japan?