Travel day part 2

31-sushi pink How can the last day

            be such a disaster for

            us after such fun?

Thursday 9 May [no pictures – no time]

OK let’s get the worst bit out of the way first. We get up, check out and are on our way to catch the 08:02 Narita Express from Shinjuku Station. It’s morning rush hour and negotiating the crowds with four suitcases was not easy. We arrive at the barrier and the clerk looks at our JR passes but says we also need a reserved seat ticket for the N’Ex. I go to look for the office and discover acres of white sheeting covering building works. I return but he’s adamant I have to go further and get a ticket. Beginning to worry a little now with ten minutes to spare, I scoot to the ticket office and get our tickets. Back to the entrance and we are let through. As we scuttle towards the platform, Dee says “Where’s the camera bag?” Ooops! That’ll be in room 601 at the hotel where I packed and prepared it and then failed to pick it up.  I race back to the hotel with an outside chance of making it back. This vanishes when the receptionist quite legitimately checks my details before issuing a duplicate room key. The lift takes forever to arrive. Bag swiftly retrieved, key back to desk, shoot out of door, fly through the morning masses but to no avail. I find Dee, as ever, minding the luggage. So I leave her there, go to the ticket office and get a new N’Ex reservation – umm – from Tokyo Station not Shinjuku. So it’s down several escalators to the Chuo Line for the fifteen minute trip to Tokyo and then escalators and elevators to the Narita Express platform with ten minutes to spare. No problem then. The train gets to Narita at 09:55 and our departure is 11:55 so good time to return the portable wi-fi router and get checked in.

However on the train I check the tickets along with the wi-fi return location and discover that China Eastern Airways to Shanghai actually departs at 10:55, not when my memory told me it departed. However we still have an hour and all should be well. Part one is good – the rental company are happy to email me a receipt from the card details they took on arrival so we don’t have to wait for that.

But this is when I realize I don’t have a phone in my pocket any more. After frantic searching I conclude that I must have left it on the train when checking Tom’s phone number in Hong Kong. We go to the airport information desk and get a number for lost and found but it won’t connect. All I get on Dee’s phone is “NTT Docomo regrets to inform you that this line is not in service.” Oh well we have to go to through security and get to the gate now since my bonus hour proved illusory. We’ll try again at the gate. Here the China Eastern/JAL staff are superb. They call the number we gave them which works from one of their mobiles but gives them another number. They call this and confirm that a phone matching the description I’ve given them was indeed found in seat 11A and is now at the Narita JR terminal. As we are now minutes from departure time there’s no way we can get it but I think we agree that they’ll ship it on the next Hong Kong flight. We are both staggered that within ten or fifteen minutes of us leaving the train, the phone was already gathered in and available for collection had we been able to get there.

The flight to Shanghai is comfortable, has food and beer and gives us time to calm down a little after a mad start to our last day in Japan and get some blog written. Shanghai Pu Dong International Terminal is a vast soulless hangar of a building virtually devoid of life which makes it good for frequent fliers who can get through it fast but it did not appeal to me. Unlike Hong Kong’s new airport – on my last visit I had landed at the old Kai Tak where the plane’s wings scraped the skyscrapers and the runway ended in the harbour – scary. There’s a lot of water around Chep Lak Kok as with much of modern Hong Kong as it’s all built on reclaimed land. The terminal is elegant and efficient and we take Tom who kindly came to meet us, to areas he’s never been to to make a full report about my phone. [Between them, the train line and the airline contrived to forward my phone for collection in Hong Kong on Saturday. A bit of a result that!]

An exciting cab ride back into central Hong Kong island and to our Happy Valley home for the next few days. A celebratory glass of champagne and the joy of  home cooking after 28 days of eating out every night provided a wonderful relaxing end to what might for some have been a somewhat stressful day.

Training Day

29 sushi pink  Can a holiday

            in golden week deliver

            all our varied goals?

Monday 6 May

This is a public holiday and golden week when all Japan is on the vacation move. So we elect to travel to Chiba in search of the Ushiku prints that are reportedly in their collection. Chiba is a prefecture to the east of Tokyo and takes about an hour by train. On the way we pass through Funabashi where Murakami used to live so there’s a Haruki element as well as an art quest in today’s schedule. The second part of the day involves a trip to Kamakura to see the famous bronze Buddha – Daibutsu. That’s about an hour south west of Tokyo so during the day we’ll make a big triangle around Tokyo Bay.

It’s a fine and sunny day again with Hokkaido snow a faint memory. The train is on time of course – we have seen a couple of apology notices for delay in trains displayed on their LCD screens. “passenger injury” was one; “smoking on the track” the other. We do stop at Funabashi but there’s no time to get off and explore. Chiba is a pleasant city and the Art Museum is in an amazing building which also houses City Hall. As is so often the case with the majority of museums and galleries they confirm that they have his work but regret that it’s not on display because of special exhibitions which of course bring in visitors and money. They also kindly confirm with their colleagues at the Sakura Museum that the Ushikus that they have are also not on display so we are saved an extra trip there.

What we do see however is a painting very like some other watercolours we have at home which I bought on the same trip thirty years ago. He is Sagai Hoitsu an important member of the Rimpa movement. I’ll do more research on those when we get back – I’d thought they were Chinese but the similarity in technique and subject matter make me think I might have displayed a degree of taste in my purchases all those years ago.

In chatting to the helpful ladies in the museum shop we discuss hanko and hon as there’s a sample one which has photographs and narrative alongside the shrine and temple stamps. I admired it and showed it to Dee and discovered that one of the ladies had actually compiled it for real on a trip to Izu prefecture. She then suggested we visit Chiba’s shrine which we do and it is very beautiful and has a memorial gathering and some baby ceremonies which we would refer to as christenings but need to find out what they are actually called.

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Back to the station via Chuo Park where music, dance and food stalls are out in force to celebrate the holiday. There’s a very festive atmosphere which leaves us with a brief but fond impression of Chiba. They also have a fun way with police boxes.

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We are fortunate to find on arrival that there’s a train which goes through Kamakura without us needing to change in Tokyo as we had expected. So we settle down for a fascinating ride through the suburbs, a little countryside and the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama before we reach Kamakura and can smell if not see the sea. Our journey musings are rudely interrupted by the ingress of a group of ten year old soccer players who were keen to try out their English. Great fun and some lovely lads who took the mickey out of Eric who was part-English but wouldn’t speak to us.

On arrival in Kamakura, our first trip is through Shopping Town to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. It never fails to surprise me how the route to sacred sites is always lined with hundreds of retail and food outlets. We finally make to the shrine – an important site in a lovely setting in wooded hills above the town. It’s a real struggle to make progress through the streets as the Japanese on holiday have only two speed settings – amble and dawdle. Our thrusting western strides are frequently forced to a shuffle as blocks of ditsing humanity prevent our progress.

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The shrine is great and we then make our way back down to the station and take a further branch line train two stops down the line to Hase the station for the giant Buddha. I need to check my photographs from 30 years ago but my recollection is of this huge and beautiful bronze statue standing alone in a clearing in the woods, not surrounded by buildings as it is now. The Buddha is still as wondrous as it was then – 35 metres high, symmetrical in form and smiling enigmatically clasping the most wonderfully moulded hands. It’s 700 years old too.

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We leave the Buddha and walk to the beach where waves are pounding the shore and people are enjoying surfing and windsurfing in what are obviously quite difficult conditions given the number of crashes. We walk along the beach back towards Kamakura when I suggest that if we turn left we’ll come to the station before Hase and can then go back to Kamakura from there. My companion expresses some doubt and is pleasantly surprised when my sense is vindicated. It’s a one track station so has only one platform. It is suggested that we get on the next train down to Hase anyway, stay on it and be sure of a seat. Not such a good plan as there are a further four stations after Hase! So we wait at Hase again and then re-board the train for Kamakura and then onto a JR train back to Shinjuku. Dinner is in a fine shoes-off restaurant Imaya in the centre of Shinjuku. Again a few new taste experiences were on offer: gingko nuts, smoked radish, and chicken thighs with pickled ginger shoots which came with a warning not to eat the red bit.

Chasing food and unicorns

30 sushi pink   Will inspiration

              come to us at the Jingu

              as to Haruki?

Tuesday 7 May

Today is another big Murakami location chasing day beginning in Shibuya where we have immense trouble getting out of the station surrounded as are most Tokyo termini by huge malls and department stores – a different brand seems to own different stations. Wecare also going to the Jingu Baseball Stadium where he decided to become a writer. Many of the novels involve people eating, drinking and shopping on Aoyama-dori so we walk up that taking in a number of possible locations before arriving at a definite one, the Kinokunia International supermarket which features in A wild sheep chase. Most appropriately given the amount of pasta consumed in Murakami books they have an Italian Week special feature.

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We then go past the baseball stadium to check our gate for tonight and a photo op. Then a walk to the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery to find the unicorns featured in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Disaster as there is no sign of any unicorns on or around the building until a cry of “behind you, behind you” from Dee causes me to turn and espy a pair of unicorn statues on the other side of the road. Job done we now set off to be tourists and experience a tea ceremony.

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In the middle of Nihombashi, the finance and business district, on the second floor of a standard office tower is a traditional Japanese teahouse operated by Koomon a cultural organization dedicated to keeping traditions alive in a significant way for contemporary Japan. It is a truly amazing hour and a half in which we learn about the traditional tea gathering and the ceremony that surrounds preparing the tea for guests. I participated in a tea gathering thirty years ago when we sat cross-legged in appropriate manner for over an hour and then immediately fell over when I tried to stand up as my legs were completely numbed. This time they kindly allowed us a stool and reassured us that lots of Japanese use them too. It certainly helped us to take on board the four concepts of respect, harmony, purity and tranquility which might have been difficult through the pain. Our tea mistress Yukiko left us with the excellent  thought about our session based on the name of the tea scoop she had chosen: “one chance, one encounter” the Japanese equivalent of seize the moment I guess. It worked for us.

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We then went from tea house to coffee shop and having failed to lunch today (not for the first time I’m told) we took tea in a branch of Henri Charpentier. This small and exclusive chain was started in Ashiya where Murakami grew up and he is reported to have taken would-be girlfriends there in his youth. This is a very impressive chat up location with delicious cakes and confectionery. Then the train back to Shinjuku and change into baseball watching attire.

It had been a brilliantly clear blue day all day and you know what happens at night with clear skies – it gets cold. The stadium had the usual hawkers of beer, snacks and popcorn we are used to from Fenway Park and the swallow family mascots go wild when the second run is scored.

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Haruki may have had his light bulb moment in the same stadium watching the Swallows and exclaimed, whether internally or aloud we don’t know, “I can be a writer!” After six rather desultory innings with 4 hits and 2 runs for the home team, Yakult Swallows, all I could exclaim was “I can be an icicle!” remembering those metre long shards from Hokkaido. We chickened out, repaired to an English pub just down the road and watched the four-run eighth on the big screen with circulation returning to my blue finger tips. No score in the top of the ninth meant a 6-0 win for our team and a successful outing all round.

We dined in Touan down some steps next to the pub and had an initial disappointment that most of what we had selected was off. However they more than made up for it with an amuse-bouche of fish cakes with edamame and azuki beans and some superb smoked duck.

Travel day – crew half rate, production carries on

26 sushi pink  What surprises and

           delights will we find as we

           return to Tokyo?

We have time for a brief look at downtown Asahikawa before taking the car back to the rental company at the airport. It’s pleasant enough with a long pedestrianised shopping street through the middle and another large mall underneath the station – best place to go today with temperatures still only 4 or 5 degrees and sleety drizzle starting. We did have an interesting encounter with a Buddhist monk who offered to show us round his temple – an offer we had to decline with a flight to catch. An uplifting moment – he had been to London a couple of years ago and reported that the people had been extremely friendly and that he found London a beautiful city.

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As we filled up with petrol just before the airport – at a selfo – the garage man came rushing out as I was about to get back into the car and presented me with two boxes of tissues. Although this was our last five minutes with a car it seemed churlish to decline so we left one for the next renters and brought one with us.I had limited expectations of Asahikawa Airport which were totally overturned after the quickest return of a rental car ever and transfer to the terminal. I guess it’s because of the skiing at Furano and other resorts around that Asahikawa is now an international airport with flights from Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei already. The terminal is a shiny glass building that reminded us of Cork where we went for Watford FC’s pre-season tour back in July. What a season it’s been! And what a finale tomorrow with playoffs assured but a chance of automatic promotion if we win against Leeds and Hull lose or draw with already promoted Cardiff. And we’ll be watching it in the Hobgoblin Roppongi.

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Check in was swift and slick with my credit card used for the booking printing boarding cards and baggage tags from bright yellow machines – an omen perhaps. We managed a light lunch in the departure area before getting on to the plane to our delight in bulkhead seats with added legroom. The one drawback was that I was sitting next to a trainee sumo wrestler so spent most of the flight leaning at a forty-five degree angle. While we were flying I took to musing about a question that had cropped up several times during our periods of driving. I’m sure someone knows the answer or has the time to Google it. The question:

Does Japan have the greatest number of kilometres of road enclosed in tunnels of any country in the world? Not the longest tunnel but the most stretches of road aggregated together that are in tunnels. It may apply to railway tracks too.

All the times we were driving on Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido we could scarcely go for fifteen minutes without going through a tunnel some of them 5 and 7 kilometres long. I’ll Google myself one day but if anyone knows the answer I’d be glad to have a comment with the answer.

The  last half hour of the 90 minute flight was excellent with great views of the Sendai area and the coast to the east of the capital with massive areas under rice paddies, glinting in the sun. Quickly out through domestic arrivals and onto the Narita Express again with its excellent LCD progress, weather and news reports – among the ads and sponsors’ messages – to Shinjuku. Old hands now at baggage wrangling we were soon at the taxi rank and asking for the hotel. What a laugh! A one minute taxi ride and there we were just round the corner from the station. However walking our cases through Friday rush-hour legs (or shins) could have been painful for the good people of Shinjuku.

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In my planning I’d pushed the boat out a bit with our last hotel as we are here for six nights. Not huge extravagance, you know, just £70 a night instead of the £40-50 we’d routinely been paying. Oh wow! A proper hotel – huge lobby, ten check-in clerks, four lifts, a restaurant and a bar. This was hotel number 15 and was the first with its own bar. We got to our room and decided that Dee deserved a G&T and me a malt whisky. However as the bar served a magnificent martini plans were changed while we had a planning meeting and marked up the many, many parts of Tokyo we need to visit in search of Murakami’s locations over the next last days in Japan.

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Then it was out to what looked like a local basement dive but actually produced a repast of brilliant lightly marinated aubergine (eggplant) slices, tuna, avocado and crunchy yam, pig’s cheek skewers and a subtle teriyaki pork dish. As Dee wrote at the time a veritable feast with again staff reaching for their phones to look up ingredients for us. There’s an app that gives the Latin names for plants and fish which has proved very helpful. Then back to the hotel for a nightcap and plans firmed up for tomorrow culminating in a trip to Roppongi to watch Watford v Leeds. Come on you ‘Orns!

Railways, expressways and byways

5 sushi pink Can Hyperdia

 and Navitime help me to

              calculate the costs?

So I have an itinerary, the hotels are booked and we know what they will cost. I know the basic cost of a Japan Rail Pass and I discovered that you can actually buy them online from JRPass.com. The passes are great as they show huge savings over the rates for all our journeys as a few enquiries on the web soon reveal. They come in 7 day, 14 day and 21 day versions. Japan Rail Passes are only available to non-Japanese citizens and you have to buy a voucher before you travel and exchange it for a pass once you arrive in Japan or when you need to start using it. In our case we’ll start to use it in Kyoto for the remaining 21 days of our trip since the first few days are in Tokyo or in a rented car. So, that cost can be added to the spreadsheet.

Next, car rental. When I first looked at this back in February I couldn’t get anywhere since most of the car hire companies hadn’t published their spring and summer rates – ominous. Nissan Rent a Car did have rates on their site and so I entered dates and places to get an estimate of costs for the Hokkaido leg of the trip. In my inbox next morning was a confirmation and a request for payment so I had to reply that I wanted to cancel the booking as I had not yet decided on whether and when we were coming to Japan. Hope it doesn’t leave a black mark against my name on file should we need to use Nissan for real. However it did give me a good idea of a daily rate including English SatNav, unlimited mileage and insurance which I could then use to calculate the rest of our trips for car.

But once we are in the car how to calculate time and cost of journeys? I fiddled around with Google Maps and various other sites and eventually came across Navitime‘s Journey Pro where you can enter your start and end points – in this case our first day of car hire to go from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Mount Fuji. Based on picking up a car at the station the site was able to locate our hotel in Fujiyoshida. It provides a complete stage by stage route – and marvellous device  – it tells you distance, time it’ll take and toll costs. Interestingly it also tells you how much it would cost to do it by taxi! Maybe long distance taxis are common in Japan – we’ll find out perhaps. I had an idea of average fuel consumption for the class of car we’ll be renting and fuel cost so I could now work out all our road travel costs. What is brilliant as you’ll see in these two screen shots is that it shows the route on toll roads or on national roads. In our case it’s a significant difference 1 hour 40 minutes and ¥3600 (£25) or 4 hours and 9 minutes. I think we’ll take the expressways especially as they are marginally greener too – oh yes the CO2 emissions are on there too. The byways might be more fun but we will get to drive on several non-expressway segments of our route later on.

 Navitime expressway route 

Navitime 1

Navitime national general road routeNavitime 2

So with lots of fuel consumption, mileage and currency conversion formulae in Excel I was able to ascertain a pretty good idea of costs for the least predictable part of the trip. Just hope the decimal points are all in the right place because the spreadsheet shows we can do it for nearer what we wanted to spend than what we were told we could expect to spend. Only time will tell but we go into the next phase with some degree of confidence. Up until now everything I’ve booked has been able to be cancelled without charge. However the time has come to say:

“We are going in search of Murakami’s Japan.”

 Maps reproduced courtesy of Navitime