The Obligatory Tourists

23 sushi pink  What can we expect

          from a very early start

          in Hakodate?

Apologies to Anne Tyler for today's title.

So we are at Hakodate Station bright and early – two hours till tourist information opens. So we take a cab to the hotel – not far but dragging all those cases at this hour does not appeal. The hotel is friendly, allows me to charge the gear enough to post my apology, gives us coffee for free and a map but is quite adamant that check in is 4 pm. So a morning’s kip is out of the question – it’s only 8 degrees so a park bench is rejected as an option. We’d read that the Morning Market is a popular attraction so off we set, coffee buzz overcoming the yawns.

As we walk down the main street we muse: if Kobe felt European, Osaka like being in New York, Hakodate feels like the US mid west or provincial Canada. There are big wide streets with low buildings and the most prominent feature is the electricity and telephone cables and their supports. So clearly significant are they that the tour guide we got later lists the first concrete telegraph pole in Japan as a sight to visit. I think we missed it. It does have beautiful manhole covers though – a feature that you can find in many Japanese cities representing their specific identity.

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We reached the market area to be truly astonished. So many shops, three big indoor market areas, tempting free samples being offered at every corner. The Morning Market is superb and helped us spend our first two hours revelling in the sight of fresh fish, massive crabs and vegetables and filling our hungry mouths – remember last night’s train dinner! A first for both of us was sea urchin – orangey-pink, smooth with a bit of grain and delicious if a bit rich – the idea of eating a whole one was a bit daunting.

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Armed with our map from the now open tourist office we set off to explore the town on its excellent streetcar service. As one of the first cities in Japan to opened for trade in 1854 along with Kobe and Yokohama, it has a lot of  European and American influences mixed with its vernacular architecture, especially near the harbour. We met a Texan who had married a Japanese lady and after much globetrotting had come back to settle in her hometown. He was cycling with a couple of Japanese friends on the first decent weekend of weather. There’s still lots of snow about and with a brisk breeze we didn’t exactly find it balmy.

A big attraction is to go up on a cable car to Mount Hakodate to see the magnificent view over the isthmus that forms the main part of town. Sadly the high winds caused the service to be suspended but you can see what we didn’t here. So after wandering around the harbour area and the old colonial region we took the streetcar to Goryokaku Fort, an unusual five-pointed star shaped structure designed in 1855. Its shape apparently gave opportunities for more gun emplacements and better protection. In three weeks time it will be one the the country’s top cherry blossom viewing sites – today we saw swelling buds. It has an observation tower with great views and made for another pleasant if chilly garden stroll.

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Back into town for lunch, check-in and a much wanted shower. Dee did a bit of online research for dinner and came up with a recommendation from several sites for a restaurant Uni Murakami. Clearly there was nowhere else in town we could eat. It was a struggle to find and only average when we got a table after a lengthy wait. Shame.

When travelling by car it’s difficult to keep blogs up to date so at the time of writing this on Tuesday evening 30 April, we have just had the most amazing news via good friend Steve Resco in Hong Kong that the Hobgoblin Bar in Roppongi in Tokyo will show the Watford v Leeds game on Saturday. Guess where we will be!

As so often, Monday morning dawns bright and clear as we go to pick up the next car and head off north. Our first problem with Mazda/Times Car Rental occurred with no trusty, copiously booted Axela available despite being specifically requested. An hour’s delay after declining a Nissan Note – name, shape and size all totally unacceptable – we eventually set off in a seven-seater people carrier which is OK but not ideal with no cover over our bags in the back (however, with such a low crime rate and vigilant car park attendants it’s not really a problem). We decide to drive on national roads along the stunning coastline which was a mixed decision. It was a great drive but it was slow. We had failed to note that Monday was Greenery Day – a public holiday welcoming spring and, as all over the world, everybody takes to the road on bank holidays. We stopped off at a viewpoint called Panorama Hill which was a great place to eat, look at the sea and the mountains and let kids let off steam. Lunch was a couple of pancake-like slices to make a sandwich. Dee had savoury vegetables. I thought I was getting cheese only to bite into custard – delicious, but I’ve had pudding, now where’s lunch?

Next stop Noboribetsu a region of hot springs and geysers. There’s a rather ugly spa development with a shopping street of questionable value, but the lakes and streams themselves were fascinating and bathing our feet in warm flowing water was brilliant. I’d never done fumaroles, geysers and hot springs before so it was a great experience and we found a monument to a famous haiku writer, Kyoshi Takahama, so I had to go pay my dues for bastardizing the form on a daily basis.

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A remote country road took us back to the main road along the coast and suddenly we were confronted with this:

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It knocks anything on Route 1 in Saugus into a cocked hat – crab, salmon and bear – and lit like a Hopper. Awesome! On to Tomakomai for the night with a good dinner immediately opposite the hotel. Result!

The long railroad to the north

22 sushi pink Will our grand send off

        help us through the train night 

        or exhaust us both?  

Commotion on track 13So here we are finally after faffing around at the Shinkansen gates expecting to be whooshed to Hokkaido while we slept but are redirected to Track 13 – not a bullet train line. All the paparazzi are still lurking about and a guard comes running down the platform to get us underway.

guard on track 13

He checks the signage – as do we – and the insignia on the train. LEX Sapporo sign  train badge

Both look fine but this is our train.

our skinkannot Not the post modern express we’d hoped to help us through the night – rather less elegant inside than that in Some like it Hot as it happens. The Hokutosei seems to use rolling stock from the fifties.

corridor good  berth WS

However, we installed ourselves, the train set off and after organizing our bags in this tiny space we set off for the dining car. Oh, oh, no. Reservations only and must be made three days in advance. Why did nobody tell us this when we booked our berth at considerable expense above our JR Passes? A cart came by with some provisions and we had a few bits and pieces so we were able to construct an amuse bouche and then dinner.

amuse bouche  dinner

Fish biscuit amuse bouche                                               Dinner

After this wondrous repast and a few rounds of “Take Two” there being no electricity for blogging except by standing in the washing area – and dear reader some lines have to be drawn. So anticipating an early (06:35) arrival in Hakodate we prepared for bed. As we finished our ablutions the train stopped. We looked through the window to see a solitary figure on the platform opposite photographing us. Ironically, or perhaps necessarily, we were at Fukushima and expressed our solidarity as best we could.

Mike ready for bed  Dee sleeping - not

Not a great deal of sleep was had by either of us before dawn broke and we emerged from the Seiku the world’s longest undersea tunnel (53 Km; 33 miles) into Hokkaido. We soon had our first glimpse of Mt Hakodate, arrived at the station and saw the train depart for Sapporo. Off for a day of enforced sightseeing as we can’t check in till 4 pm.

first sight of Mt Hakodate Together in Hakodate leaving for Sapporo

As the song says “Oh what a night!” But not quite inn the same way. Do the sums: Osaka – Tokyo 570 km in 3 hours; Tokyo- Hakodate 830 km in 11 and a half hours.

Day off in Osaka

21 sushi pink  Just one more day in

      the Kansai before we go

      north. Will it suffice?

[Apologies for a half post of this by mistake - finger trouble whilst tired.]

The one thing we’ve noted in our travels in the Kansai region – the mid section of Honshu Island – is that it’s a continuously built up area. It took half an hour to get from Kobe to Osaka and the train was going on to Kyoto in another half hour. We whizz through station after station with commuters in their neat rows waiting to board the local trains. Such a mass of humanity everywhere. We began the day with a final walk around Kobe including a visit to Daimaru Department Store. A memory from thirty years ago is of smartly dressed young people, mostly young ladies, greeting you to the store with genuine pleasure. They still exist with perhaps slightly updated uniforms and greet you with the same degree of enthusiasm. The top and bottom of ten floor Daimaru were real revelations. On top of the store is a garden and a garden centre. It’s a great space with views over the city. The bottom floor is the food hall of such immense scale and variety that you could browse all day, stopping occasionally for fresh drinks and snacks from the counters that pop up every now and then. It was good to see Fortnum & Mason and Daylesford Organics flying the flag in the midst of the oriental delights that abound.

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Arrival in Osaka was uneventful until we took a taxi to the hotel. We had the address written down but finally we had to resort to my suggestion that he use the phone number we also had. This worked – the hotel had changed its name – and we were able to get into our room ahead of check-in time at three, something we’ve been really lucky with. We planned to go to the National Art Museum to see if we could see any other prints by Kenji Ushiku who made the etchings I’d bought 30 years before. We asked the front desk for directions and they suggested a cab and wrote directions for us to give to the driver. We arrived at the back end of the building – is SatNav Lady interfering with other drivers too? – and found our way to the entrance under increasingly black skies. It was very hot when we arrived and I’d gone out in only a polo shirt which was now inadequate as the winds got up, thunder rolled and rain started to fall. Sadly the permanent display has been suspended for a Picasso exhibition and a seasonal Painters of the Kansai show. So no go on the print front. As we’re quite close we decide to go to Osaka Station to check our departure times for Tokyo tomorrow. We managed to achieve the walk of about a mile entirely underground, thus avoiding a soaking.

There was an astonishing amount of activity around the station, with TV cameras and crowd control in full swing Japanese style, which we found was due to the opening of Grand Front Osaka a huge nine-floor, vertical mall with offices, a hotel, 260 shops and many food outlets. It’s branded as “a new city centre” and they are expecting 25 million visitors in the first year. We approached, wavered and did not enter. Scary shoppers, megaphone toting security and the crowds made us think better of it – it was Bluewater at Christmas x 10. Judge for yourselves if we were right. We went instead into the, now deserted and peaceful, Isetan store with the intention of buying a jumper or light jacket for me but the prices made me wince more than the cold so we just took lunch on the top floor.

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National Museum of Art with imminent thunder    Crowds at the opening day of Grand Front

On leaving the new Osaka Station City area after our rather late tempura lunch cooked lovingly in front of us on the top floor of Isetan department store, we set off on the JR City Loop train to explore. We were approached on the platform by a diminutive lady who wanted to practise her English and presented us with an origami bird as a gift. We got on a train with her – going in the wrong direction as it happened and were regaled with the highlights of her language acquisition method. She had meticulous, cursive handwriting in an exercise book. It was crammed with lyrics of popular songs – many of them karaoke favourites. It clearly worked for her. After two stops we apologised and went back round the loop the other way, failing to find the area we wanted and retired via subway to the hotel. With a late lunch and mid-trip exhaustion we decided to have a rest, go out and have a few drinks and maybe a small snack and then have an early night. Phwoomp – art frustration, thunderstorms, cold and tiredness had me wondering whether coming to Osaka was such a good move after all.

Our early night was dramatically interrupted by what we correctly assumed was a fire alarm at about eleven and it was only after about ten minutes of yukata-clad peering along the corridor to see other confused guests wondering what was going on. It was ten minutes before reception managed a tannoy in English – after Dee had phoned to enquire whether they could tell us what was happening – to the effect that it was a false alarm, the alarm had been tripped accidentally and not to worry. Reassured, we were prevented from further sleep by an insistent, recorded message that the staff had obviously switched on but couldn’t stop. Annoyingly, despite hearing it at least 200 times we still couldn’t make out the words due to an echo in the system. Finally it stopped and we crashed.

Saturday morning Osaka was a far more encouraging place with bright warm sun and a bit of a breeze and the news that Watford beat Leicester away 2-1 – highly energising. We set off to explore an old style shopping street – 2.6 kilometres of Tenjimbashi-suji. It was brilliant. A chemist provided much needed hairspray, toothpaste and plasters – way too much walking! The best array of knives in one shop, cooking implements, fresh fruit and vegetable stalls lined the street in a dazzling and comforting, human display. Grand Front may be for some but this is what we came for. At the bottom end – we didn’t do all its length, shame on us – we visited an appropriate shrine that celebrates the gods of learning and the arts. Temmangu was one of the most interesting shrines we’ve visited with many small areas for private devotion, several child blessing ceremonies and, quote the hon scribe “lots of wedding ceremonies today”.

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After a refreshing coffee in a small coffee house opposite the shrine, we went to the Nakanoshima Park which is on an island between two branches of the river Dojimagawa. It was lovely to find rose gardens, picnic tables, recreation areas and space surrounded by the high rise of Osaka downtown. It took us back to the Esplanade by the Charles River in Boston. There were several groups of people sketching under the supervision of  a tutor, others doing group exercises. No time for loitering though with a three o’clock departure for Tokyo. Next stop was Namba Walk a modern underground mall which contrasted starkly with the atmosphere of Tenjimbashi-suji. You know which I prefer. However at the end of Namba Walk we arrived at Namba Gardens a truly stunning shopping mall and cinema complex famed for its high level gardens and views over the city. It was an incredible structure and worth the visit. It was also, as everywhere there are shops has been, rammed with people carrying bags with purchases not just window shopping. So maybe the latest round of quantative easing of the yen recently introduced is working. Note to Mr Osborne perhaps.

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Hotel, luggage, taxi, Shinosaka Station to take our first big Shinkansen trip – 3 hours to Tokyo via Kyoto, Maibara, Gifu and Yokohama. A box lunch at the station to eat on the train and an altogether more interesting ride with the ability to see landscape and cities whoosh by. As we took bends at high speed the tilt of the train was very noticeable with, on occasion, only water visible through one window and sky through the other. My geography lessons at school led me to believe that Japan was all mountains with extremely narrow coastal plains. Either the books were wrong or tectonics have achieved a lot in 45 years. Some of the stretches we covered were as flat as the proverbial pancake for as far as the eye could see.

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We arrived at Tokyo Station made the transfer to Ueno Station from which trains go to the north via Tokyo’s excellent Yamanote Loop line and after some confusion found our train bound for Hakodate. We were surprised to be met by a mass of paparazzi, kids with large Nikons and Canons and an atmosphere of something special. Now we know our blog is reaching a large audience but this did take us by surprise. What happened next is another story …

Kyoto diary

16 sushi pink Three nights in the same

         hotel, how will we cope with

         such wardrobe choice?

Good morning Kyoto. A little later than intended after completing the three day blog, going to Yodobashi – an incredible nine floors of electronics, electrical, camera and computer gear with some stationery thrown in – to buy a bigger USB drive to store all the photographs we’ve been taking. Yes they are on the cloud but it’s always reassuring to have a physical backup for us oldies. Our late night activities were accompanied by a little whisky which may have accounted for a good night’s sleep.

There’s some admin to do today too. We need to exchange our JR pass vouchers for the real thing and reserve our week after next overnight train to Hakodate. Fortunately the hotel is right across from Kyoto Station so we don’t have far to go.  JR passes were easy, the sleeper reservation not so easy as the train I had selected from Hyperdia online is no longer in service so we’ll have to go from Osaka to Tokyo and get an overnight from there to Hakodate. It’s booked and we’ll just rejig things a bit.

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Kyoto station is stunning. A glass and steel facade with amazing angles, lines and reflections and an interior to challenge Grand Central for the classical railway station images of the future. And like the St Pancras redevelopment in London it’s making stations not just places from which to travel but places to be. It has a stage and stepped terrace for music gigs, more restaurants and shops than you can imagine and a green garden on the roof with some very clever eco planting that helps reduce heat transfer into the building – lots of summer days are over 35 degrees – 19 last year alone and it will probably rise.  From the roof there was a great view of the Kyoto Tower and our acceptable but undistinguished hotel (the one with the white T up the front). And that’s where we headed next.

Having set out in jeans and jumpers we quickly found temperatures soaring to 25 and up. We didn’t pack shorts but fortunately did have some light walking trousers and sandals which were more appropriate attire for the day – thank goodness for the three day unpacking stay. We set off with Katie’s “dorky” maps to explore some small parts of this huge city. Mastering the simple two-line subway, we went first the Shinjo-dori the main shopping street to see if we could buy a Japan road atlas in English to help with our next stages of rentacar travel. We found a big bookshop with new Murakami book posters everywhere but no road atlas. Off the main street, which is the universal, global big city shopping area, are arcades crammed with little shops which are much more interesting. Then we came to another of Katie’s suggestions, Pontocho, which is a narrow street lined with bars and restaurants overlooking the Tama River. It was so warm that we just had to go into one to enjoy the air conditioning for a bit and of course a beer. We had a great view of a team who had dammed up part of the river to build a platform out over it which apparently many of them do for the summer season. We could imagine the delights of a glass of wine out on the terrace.

Refreshed we strode off to the Nanzen-ji Temple where we enjoyed the beautiful spring garden – the shimmering colours of acers in spring are almost a match for their autumn glory and of course so much fresher. Here we also obtained, as advised, our hon (pr. hone) a folding book on which temples stamp their insignia with a hanko (handwritten kanji combined with a special rubber stamp). They are beautiful and will give us a great souvenir of our trip.

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We then set off on the ‘Philosopher’s Walk’ a canal-side stroll through eastern suburbs with stretches of complete calm and peace conducive to higher thought – I certainly needed that – and small craft shops selling locally produced goods. By the time we reached the end we were well away from train lines and subway but Dee had cleverly picked up a bus map and the next one to round a corner was the 100 bound for Kyoto Station. It was very crowded at shop and shrine closing time and we stood for most of the journey which was a shame as it passed several landmarks of which we could only see the bottom half.

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The philosopher?  …   in pursuit of gesiha on the walk?       … this is what Dee wanted by the end of it.   

As we got back to the station, we decided to see if the Kyoto Tower had an observation gallery.  It does, we went up. Dusk falling visibility hazy after the heat of the day but a fun visit nonetheless.

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Shinkansen passing on the approach to Kyoto   The Tower reflected in Kyoto Station

After a freshen up and a couple of much needed beers following a hot day on our feet we decided to head out to find dinner locally. I don’t know if you have the same problem but we are very indecisive when confronted with a street with five restaurants all of which look interesting. We walk up, we walk back, we look at menu pictures outside and then we decide we really are hungry and are going to have to plump for one of them. We did and it turned out to be a hibachi grill place. We were shown, shoes off of course,  to a private screened booth with a footwell under our table and were served fresh vegetables and akta mackerel which we cook ourselves over a brazier with three red hot charcoal logs. Great fun and very tasty and we had chosen some excellent sashimi as a starter. We enquired of our server how she spoke such good English and it turned out that Mikita was coming to Brighton in June to study English and had been practising ahead of the trip. We have been struck by amazing meetings with people with existing and possible connections throughout the trip – there really are only six degrees of separation.

We left the restaurant and walked back towards the hotel and spied a rather lively and bright yellow-coloured bar (apologies to our Hornet friends that it is yellow AND green)  – standing only and it had a great name. So given the deprivation of yellow as we are missing so much Watford football, we thought a sake night cap was in order.  It proved a great people-watching place as late nighters popped in for a quick one on the way home and two ladies of a certain age stood consuming beer to our left until closing time – when we too were asked to drink up and depart – extremely politely. Busy, busy, Kyoto.

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Masoho restaurant entrance                                 The last orders bar

Friday dawned fresh, bright and breezy and it was back to jeans and sweaters big time. How can the temperature change by 15 degrees overnight?  Well it did and we took the subway south to visit Higashi Inari Shrine. Sadly we missread the map and finish up at a station which is s forty-five minute walk from the shrine rather than the railway station that’s right in front of it. So a taxi was hailed and delivered us to the Fox Shrine which apart from amazing main buildings has a walkway of shrine gates or torii which stretch up to the main shrine on the mountain and involve 10 000 vermillion gates – awesome. We only walked the first three thousand as other sites called but a stroll to the top and back would make a great half day outing given more time. We were approached by a uniformed guard and were worried that we’d been photographing in the wrong place but he was a retired firefighter who had spent time in Sheffield and Liverpool on job exchanges and welcomed the opportunity to speak English. We next took a short train ride to Tofukuji Temple where the buildings are stupendous but the main attraction was a beautiful zen garden on all four sides of the main hall. A wonderful oasis of peace and contemplative strolling in the midst of busy, busy Kyoto. On our way back to the station we called into a small temple  Doju-in where the attendant most beautifully calligraphed and then stamped our hon. 

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We then used our JR Passes for the second time on a train to Kiyazumi which is an amazing complex with superb views over the whole spread of Kyoto and then walked through quaint streets with fabulous little shops dotted about until we reached the Yasaka Pagoda and turned in to the Maruyama Park a popular open space with ponds and shady pathways – and a few ups and downs as we’re in the mountain foothills. After an increasingly chilly walk around the park as the wind got up we descended to the Chion-in Temple just in time to find it close. This is fortunately a short downhill walk from Gion the ancient geisha district which we wanted to explore. It’s lovely, weird and wonderful. We saw women buying kimonos and accessories, having their hair done and one of my favourite shops was a koto, shimasen and shakuhachi  shop.

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Yasaka pagoda         Maruyama Park                                                          Old and new Kyoto meet in Gion    

Some difficulties next after boarding a train at the first station we came to, Kawaramachi, where we showed our passes only to be told at the exit ticket barrier that it was a private railway and we’d need to pay. Kyoto – maybe Japan trains = confused.com. However we got back safely and did a load of laundry in the coin-op in the hotel, conveniently on our floor. Then repacking ready for the road tomorrow and what felt like a wimpy dinner in the restaurant beneath the hotel which was actually rather good – beef and potato stew for me and fried beef and rice for Dee occasioning slight food envy. She had made the right choice.

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 Trivago.com to do a comparative trawl and then as it transpires select the best option on either Booking.com or Agoda.com 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!

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Cherry trees are blooming in Bloomsbury
March 2013

Who needs to go to Japan?