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.

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!