JULY 1997

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My first visit to Japan took place from 11th to 25th July 1997, when I went to visit Darren, a friend from university, who at the time was living in Sendai and carrying out research work at Tohoku University. Following advice from those in the know, I bought a Japan Rail Pass beforehand. It seems pricey (I paid about 170 for a week), but is well worth the money when you compare it with paying as you go! Unfortunately you can only legally get a Japan Rail Pass on a tourist visa; if you have a working visa then you are not eligible. The pass also has to be purchased outside Japan, so don't expect to be able to get one once you're there.
(Note: There is a way of getting a JR Pass while you're in Japan on a working visa, but it's illegal so don't blame me if you try it and get into trouble: get someone to buy the voucher at home and send it to you, then take a photocopy of the personal details page of your passport when you go to get the pass validated, and tell them that your passport is with the Chinese or Australian Embassy (you need visas to visit these countries if you're British - find another appropriate country if you're of some other nationality).)

The Japanese bullet train, or shinkansen.

Darren, Hugh & Alison
Darren with friends Hugh and Alison in Tokyo.

This is what a Japanese "genkan", or entrance hall, looks like when you have a lot of visitors! The genkan is a small area where you take your shoes off before entering a house. Slippers will often be provided for use inside the house. I even got told off for not removing my shoes before going into the fitting room in a shop!

I spent the first week of my visit touring central Honshu (The main island) and enjoying the hospitality of Darren's friends Hugh in Tokyo and Beatrice in Kyoto. At that time of year it was very hot and humid, with the daily high averaging over 30 Celsius. I caught the end of the rainy season, which runs through most of June and into July, so for the first week I had one very wet day followed by a day that was just hot and humid. After that it stayed hot and humid, but there was no more rain. Fortunately it's never difficult to get a drink in Japan, as there is a vending machine on virtually every street corner. The majority sell drinks, cigarettes or ice cream, but you can get all sorts of other things too: camera films, CDs, and reputedly even used schoolgirls' knickers!

Tokyo is just what everyone says: huge and crowded. Saw quite a few of the tourist attractions: Yoyogi Park and the Meiji shrine; the skyscrapers and gadget shops of Shinjuku; kabuki (a form of traditional Japanese theatre) at the Kabuki-za; the Imperial Palace; and various other places that I can't remember the names of.

Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace in Tokyo - this was as close as you could get to it. The bridge is known as "Glasses Bridge" because its twin arches are said to look like a pair of spectacles when reflected in still water.

Purely by chance I hit Kyoto just at the climax of the Gion Matsuri, one of the biggest festivals in Japan. Thousands of teenage girls wore their yukata (summer kimonos), there were sideshows and lantern displays, and what seemed like an endless parade of floats/shrines took place. Of course, I also saw some of the more permanent sights of Kyoto, including Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion Temple), Nijo Castle and Arashiyama.

Gion - goldfish catch
The "goldfish catch" stall at the Gion Matsuri. You were given what looked like a magnifying glass, but with rice paper in place of a lens, and the object was to catch as many goldfish as possible before the paper disintegrated. Notice the yukata that the girls on the right are wearing.

Gion lanterns
The lanterns that formed the centrepiece of the Gion Matsuri (I think they surrounded a shrine, but I'm not too sure of the cultural significance).

Gion parade 1 Gion parade 2
Floats in the Gion Matsuri parade. These things were each hauled by around 40-50 people and didn't go round corners; the first picture shows one of them being manoeuvred. This was done by rolling the wheels onto (bamboo?) mats then wedging them in place, throwing copious quantities of water on the ground for lubrication, and then hauling the float sideways. For a 90-degree angle this procedure had to be carried out three or four times.

Inside one of the Hongan-ji temples near Kyoto station. Note the tatami matting. You should never step onto tatami, whether in a home or a temple, without first removing your shoes or slippers.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion Temple) in Kyoto.

Nijo-jo garden
The garden at Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle) in Kyoto.

Arashiyama in western Kyoto, known for its cormorant fishing.

Besides Tokyo and Kyoto, I visited the former capital Nara (they used to change the capital every time an emperor died, so Japan has quite a few former capitals), Himeji Castle and Hikone Castle. The castles at Himeji and Hikone are two of Japan's four remaining mediaeval wooden castles and are each around 400 years old. Not all that old compared to some castles in the UK, but how many of ours are wooden? Most of Japan's ancient temples and castles have been burnt down - often as a result of earthquakes - and reconstructed at one time or another, but I believe that these two are originals.

The main street in Nara.

Todai-ji Temple
Todai-ji temple in Nara, the largest wooden building in the world. The main hall is the Daibutsu-den, which houses the Great Buddha. The original bronze Buddha was cast in 746 AD, and the current one stands (or rather sits) over 16 metres high and is only two-thirds of the size of the original. It's still pretty impressive though!

Himeji-jo, probably Japan's most famous castle.

The main keep of Hikone Castle - not quite as imposing as Himeji, but very pretty.

Hikone & Lake Biwa
Looking down across Hikone and Lake Biwa from the castle.

Genkyu-en garden
Genkyu-en garden in Hikone.

When my rail pass ran out I went up to Sendai to stay with Darren. We went to Zao-onsen, a hot spa resort on the slopes of a volcano (Zao-san) and stayed in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) there. A stay in a ryokan is an interesting experience, without which no visit to Japan is complete. The main things to remember are:
- don't wear your outdoor shoes indoors or your slippers outdoors (this applies in every house in Japan);
- take your slippers off before stepping on the tatami matting of your room (applies for tatami rooms everywhere);
- when you go to the loo and change into the garish toilet slippers you find there, remember to change back afterwards;
- if you find yourself faced with a Japanese-style toilet (looks like a kind of ceramic cradle), squat facing the hood end;
- expect communal (but usually single-sex) baths, NEVER USE SOAP IN THE BATH (you sit on a little plastic stool and wash at the taps around the room before getting into the bath to soak), and check that the water's not too hot before you get in!
An evening meal and breakfast are often included in the price of a night in a ryokan, but bear in mind that you will get traditional Japanese food - I found myself unable to stomach semi-raw egg and pickles for breakfast! You get lots of small dishes, though, so there's bound to be something you can eat. Meals may be served in your room or in a dining room. In both cases you will be sitting on cushions or floor-level chairs around a low table. The Japanese sit on the floor for most activities - even ironing!
After you've had your dinner a maid will lay out the futon for you to sleep on, perhaps while you are out for a walk around the resort wearing your yukata (a cotton dressing gown provided by the ryokan) and the traditional wooden "geta" (clogs/sandals) that you find laid out for you at the entrance.

Mount Zao (Zao-san), a volcano in the mountains not far from Sendai.

Ryokan room
Our room in the ryokan in Zao-onsen (Zao Spa). This is a typical Japanese tatami room.

Ryokan dinner
A traditional Japanese dinner at the ryokan. The stuff in batter is seafood and vegetables and is called tempura; the sliced raw fish is sashimi; and I think the meat & veg on the burner is either shabu-shabu or sukiyaki (they lit the burners as soon as we sat down and we cooked the food ourselves).

Ryokan breakfast
A traditional Japanese breakfast at the ryokan. Most of it was fine, but at 8am I really couldn't stomach either the pickles or the semi-raw egg floating in an unknown brown liquid! The gown I'm wearing is the yukata provided by the ryokan.

Temple in the mountains at Yamadera. The path up to the temple was lined with little statues wearing red bibs. At the time I had no idea what these where, but I found out later that they were put there in memory of aborted babies. At the time of writing (July 1999), the Pill still has not been legalised in Japan for contraceptive use (although Viagra, when that became available, was legalised in a matter of weeks - guess who makes the laws in Japan!), and abortions are commonplace.

On my last full day in Japan, Darren took me to see part of the Soma/Haramachi samurai festival which took place a short journey south of Sendai. There were at least a hundred "samurai" on horseback and in full costume, and the object of the activity we saw was to gain possession of a small banner which drifted down from a firework that exploded overhead. I suppose it dies in the telling really, but it was quite a spectacle.

Samurai festival Samurai festival
The samurai festival at Soma/Haramachi.

And of course there was the obligatory karaoke!

At a karaoke bar in Sendai.

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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002