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At the start of the spring holidays, from 24th March, I took a 5-day trip to Kyushu. I did the long journeys on a juhachi-kippu (see Japan costs page), which meant that the travel was very cheap but entirely on local trains so not very fast. I caught the 05.02 train out of Hikone on Saturday morning and was due to get to Kumamoto at 21.42 the same day, but at 3.28pm I was about half way from Hiroshima to Shimonoseki (which is at the westernmost tip of Honshu) when a big earthquake struck. The epicentre was somewhere in the Inland Sea, and in Hiroshima it was a weak 6 on the Japanese scale. (I think that's 5-point-something on the international Richter scale). Where I was, I think it was a strong 5. I didn't realise at first that it was an earthquake, because I had an MD playing and was immersed in a book, and of course the train was moving anyway. I did notice that the train seemed to be shuddering sideways more than usual as we stopped at a little station in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn't until half an hour or so later that I found out it'd been an earthquake. All I'd managed to glean from the announcements was that there had been some kind of signal failure. We were at this little station for well over five hours before the train finally started moving again. Apparently all the lines were stopped, the shinkansen too. It was after 11 by the time we got to Shimonoseki. Managed to make it to Hakata (Fukuoka) that night, and spent what was left of the night in the station before getting an early train to Kumamoto in the morning. (I decided against going looking for a capsule hotel - there were two fairly near the station and only one of them was explicitly men-only - since I was only going to be in the city for about 4 hours.)
The train at the station in Daido, where we were stuck for more than five hours.
Stayed in a cute minshuku (Minshuku Higoji, in the Lonely Planet) in Kumamoto for only ¥3000. The elderly couple that ran the place were really sweet, and the wife even took me into town and insisted on buying me lunch! Unfortunately the weather was a bit miserable, but the cherry blossom was out so that did something to compensate. Kumamoto has a huge (mostly reconstructed) castle, one of Japan's three finest; the other two are Nagoya and Osaka. There's one original tower still remaining, and even that's bigger than the main donjon (keep) at Hikone Castle. Also went to Suizenji-koen, which is another famous garden. Nice, but very touristy, and a lot more expensive than it said in either of the two guidebooks I looked at.
The traditional-style irori (fireplace) in Minshuku Higoji.
At Kumamoto Castle.
Suizenji-koen, and the spring of longevity at one of the shrines there.
The next morning the weather was really nice so I took a walk up to the top of the hill that my minshuku was on (along with at least 8 love hotels). At the top there was an Indian pagoda and a little park with views over the city.
Hilltop pagoda, and a view of the city.
After that I took a train up to Aso, the main one of several small towns inside the world's biggest volcanic caldera, in the middle of Kyushu, and spent two nights in the YH there. The caldera was formed by an ancient volcano and consists of a huge plain surrounded by a circular ridge of mountains. In the middle of the plain is Aso-san, a collection of five peaks which are all extinct volcanoes except for the very active Naka-dake. When I arrived the crater was closed because of the sulphur gas it was emitting; it was open again a couple of hours later, but by then we'd already missed the last bus. Went for a walk around the local roads with a couple of American girls I'd met on the way there, and stopped off at a "friendly farm" for a while. To our surprise there didn't seem to be any kind of admission fee, just a little gift shop selling home-made ice cream. The farm wasn't all that exciting, but most of the animals seemed to enjoy having visitors. There were several dogs (including one with a tiny puppy whose eyes weren't yet open), a Shetland pony and a donkey; an enclosure with hens, rabbits, a couple of vicious ostriches and a peacock and peahen; and another enclosure with larger beasts including a couple of llamas. Once we got away from the inhabited area, some of the scenery almost made me feel as if I was back in the Lake District at home.
Looking up towards Aso-san, and an enclosure at the "friendly farm".
The day after that the weather was cloudier and a bit hazy, but as a result of being out on the hills all day I still managed to get pretty sunburned. With a couple of other hostellers (Shana and Gary, also Americans) I took the bus up to the base of the crater. The crater was closed because of the gas again (you could smell the sulphur in the car park where we got off the bus), so we went for a walk up one of the extinct peaks (Kijima-dake) in the hope that it would be open by the time we came back down. Kijima itself was interesting too, like a miniature version of the giant caldera that we were inside. We walked to the top - it didn't feel like a proper hike really, since it was on a tarmac path and a long flight of steps - and then followed the ridge around the extinct crater. Got good views of Komezuka-san - a smaller hill shaped just like a mound of rice (its name means "rice mound") with some scooped out of the top. We considered going to the museum, but decided against it because Gary was a bit short of time and the admission charge was pretty steep. Apparently there were virtually no English explanations either.
Shana & Gary, with the smoking crater of Naka-dake in the background (Shana is doing her impression of the Japanese "lucky cat" with the raised paw); the extinct crater of Kijima-dake; looking down from Kijima-dake over Komezuka-san.
When we got back to the Naka-dake crater it was open. We decided against forking out for a cable car ride because it was only a 20-25-minute walk up a tarmac path to get there on foot. The crater was very impressive. Smoke rose up from it constantly, and once you got to the edge you could see the greenish liquid inside, with a fluorescent tinge to it. My photos don't do it justice.
The crater of Naka-dake.
After seeing the crater we walked across the neighbouring Sunasenrigahama ("beach of 1000 ri of sand" - I think a "ri" is about a kilometre) then climbed up to the summit of Naka-dake. This was more of a "proper" hike, with parts of the path marked only by cairns and arrows painted on the rocks. The first part of the climb was a bit of a scramble in places, but it would probably have been worse going down that way. From Naka-dake we went on the the top of Taka-dake, the highest peak in the group, and walked back to the car park via the ridge and a track that went round the back of the crater. Longest hike I've done in a couple of years!
Shana on Sunasenrigahama; some of the volcanic landscape views we got; Shana and me at the summit of Taka-dake (1592m).
The next day I was up early again for a train back to Fukuoka, where I met up with Robin, a friend who used to teach at Nova in Hikone but transferred down to Fukuoka last autumn. She'd just got back from a visit home to Canada the night before, and hadn't received my emails, so she was a bit surprised to hear from me! She had the day off so we spent a few hours together, visiting the castle ruins and the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. Then in the evening I took an overnight train back to Kyoto. I'd only been able to book a seat in a smoking carriage, but it turned out that there were two unreserved carriages and one of them was non-smoking, and I was able to bag a seat in that carriage instead. Didn't get much sleep, but at least I didn't end up stinking of cigarette smoke. Got home, had a shower and went straight to school. I didn't have anything much to do at school (a prime example of the Japanese idea that being present is more important than being productive) so it didn't matter that I was half-dead.
Robin & me at the castle ruins.
On to Tokyo
I had a single night to catch up on my sleep before taking another overnight train on the Friday night, down to Tokyo for the weekend. I'd been unable to book a seat on the "Moonlight Nagara", but there was also a seasonal train, all unreserved seats, running the same route (Ogaki-Tokyo) at almost the same time, so I took that one. People were queuing up on the platform long before the train arrived, but since this was the starting point for the journey we all got seats.
I got into Tokyo station at 4.47am and headed straight for Tsukiji to visit the fish market. You have to get there very early in the morning to see the action, so this was the perfect opportunity - besides which nothing else was going to be open at that time of day! I might well have failed to find the market itself if it hadn't been for a helpful (but anonymous) person on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin board who gave me detailed directions. The key landmark to look for is a blue metal bridge; on the far side of that bridge from the Tsukiji subway station is a big single-storey building, with a big pile of polystyrene boxes outside, and that's where the market is. Inside, the pace is frantic, and you're constantly dodging motor trolleys carrying fish from auction to wholesale stall to distributor.
Tsukiji fish market.
After spending a while exploring the market, I hooked up with three Americans who'd just arrived in Japan the previous day and were taking advantage of their jetlag by coming to see the market, and we went to one of the little neighbouring sushi places for breakfast. At 6.30am there was already a sizeable queue outside the place that we picked (we had to go to that one because, judging by the number of people waiting, it was obviously the most famous - it was a place called Daiwa and apparently it's on TV regularly). We had to wait for about an hour, but then there was nothing else to do at that time in the morning. I took the set meal, and was a bit shocked when I found out the price (¥3000 plus tax) - I'm pretty indifferent to sushi, so if I'd realized it was going to be that expensive I'd probably have given it a miss. My companions, though, were all sushi fans and agreed that this was the best they'd ever had, and well worth the price.
Daiwa sushi restaurant.
After that I went looking for the tourist information office, but my Lonely Planet guide book was out of date so I started off by looking in the wrong place. I did manage to locate it eventually: it's in the basement of the new International Forum building, a few minutes' walk south of Tokyo station and just west of Yurakucho station. Opening hours are 9-5 Monday-Friday and 9-12 on Saturdays, as in the latest LP (not 10-6.30 daily as stated on a notice at Tokyo station).
From there I made my way over to Shinjuku to meet up with my friend Yu and a few others, in the Shinjuku branch of Isetan. The original intention had been to go out for a spot of "hanami" (cherry-blossom viewing) in Kudanshita, but the weather was so abysmal that this plan had been abandoned in favour of going to see a Marilyn Monroe photographic exhibtion in the Isetan Art Museum. (In fact it even snowed quite heavily in the afternoon, and Tokyo hardly ever gets snow, even in the middle of winter!) Saved the ¥900 entry fee to the exhibition by signing up for membership of the Isetan foreign customers' club, though it's highly unlikely that I'll ever use the membership again since it's only valid at the Shinjuku branch. After looking round the exhibition, we went for lunch at a nearby tempura restaurant, before going our separate ways.
In the tempura restaurant: Dominica, Brina, Ruth, Yu.
Sakura and snow in Shinjuku.
Yu and I spent the rest of the afternoon in Shinjuku, in various shops and showrooms, then in the evening we went to a bar in Kichijoji called Star Pine's Cafe, where Yu's best friend's band, Soul Drops, had a gig. Yu's friend Kana was the lead singer and had a good voice. The second band (either Hamonizu live or Half the Man, I don't know which) was good too, but we left before the third band came on.
Soul Drops in action.
I stayed the night at Yu and her mum's in Koganei, and woke up in the morning to my first ever view of Mount Fuji. I've been past it a few times on the train, but the first time I didn't know it was there, and every time since then it's been either too cloudy or too dark to see it. Today the weather was fine, infinitely better than Saturday had been.
Mount Fuji from Yu's balcony. (It would have been clearer earlier in the morning.)
After breakfast we walked up to the local park, which is the biggest in Tokyo. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hanami parties were in progress, and it wasn't even afternoon yet! We went round the park's open-air Edo museum, which had at least 20 houses and shops that you could go inside, brought from different parts of of Tokyo, and ranging in style/age from several hundred years old to mid-1900s.
Hanami in Koganei-koen. The second photo shows Yu (left), her mum (2nd from right), and her mum's friends from primary school.
In the afternoon we went to Ueno. Ueno park is known as THE place for hanami, so it would no doubt have been packed out. We just struggled through the crowds in the Ameyoko-cho shopping arcade. Didn't get much of a look at the shops; most of the time we were too busy trying to find enough space to take the next step forwards. From there we walked over to Asakusa, which I liked, touristy though it was. It used to be the main nightlife centre of Tokyo at one time but it's a lot more downmarket these days. At the heart of Asakusa is the huge Senso-ji temple, and leading south from the temple towards the river and subway station is a long street, called Nakamise, lined with souvenir shops. Tacky but interesting!
At Senso-ji. The smoke from the incense burner in the second picture is supposed to cure ailments in whatever part of the body you rub it on.
After that Yu had to head home, so I went to Ginza and explored the Sony building, where all Sony's latest products were on display. After all the shops had closed I still had some time to kill before my train home; I considered going to the cinema but most of the local cinemas were closed, having started their "late" show around 7pm. In the end I spent two hours waiting (and shivering) on the train platform at Shinagawa - and even though I was so early, I was far from the first to arrive. When we got back to Gifu and Shiga in the morning it was frosty, and inside my apartment it was only 7°C. And here was me thinking that spring had come!