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The bus arrived in Hakodate, my last stop in Hokkaido, just after 5am on August 3rd. It was quite comfortable, but you don't get much sleep in a five-hour trip. The station was full of sleeping bodies. I took a wander round the morning market, which was just by the station and was already open, then roughly followed the waterfront along to the Motomachi area, and had a look round the various historical sights there, which included warehouses, churches, a few red brick buildings and a concrete telegraph pole. A couple of the information boards referred to Hakodate's "exotic atmosphere", but it didn't seem all that exotic to me. By 8am I'd seen just about everything that was within walking distance and started heading back to the station, when the heavens opened. I'd left my umbrella in the station luggage locker and had to seek shelter in the entrance to an office building, and one girl on her way into work was kind enough to offer me her umbrella! Fortunately the rain eased off just then anyway, so I was able to get back to the station - only to find that the next train to Aomori wasn't for another two hours.
Hakodate morning market, and a stall selling one of the local specialities.
When I got to Aomori it was still wet, so the first thing I did was to go to the free Internet place in the prefectural information centre, as mentioned in Lonely Planet. It was great, with fast connections, no time limit, and even free use of an inkjet printer! Watatani (from the rider house in Biei) had said he was going to be in Aomori all week, and I'd told him what train I was intending to come in on. Because of the bad weather in Hakodate I'd actually arrived on an earlier train; I went back to the station just in case, but there was no sign of him. I found out the location of the temporary campsite where he was probably staying, but it was too far to walk there and back before the parade started, so we missed each other. The parade was great, with very impressive nebuta (floats). They tend to look a bit two-dimensional in the photos, but they definitely weren't. The loop that the parade travelled around was quite big so there were plenty of places to get a good view without having to struggle to see over the heads of crowds. Unfortunately, because it had been raining earlier in the day, most of the floats were kept covered with vast sheets of polythene. They would go careering from one side of the road to the other, directed by someone waving two fans around as if he were directing aircraft, and stopping just short of crashing into the spectators.
At about 8.30pm I took a train to Hirosaki, and caught the end of the Neputa-matsuri on my way to the youth hostel. The neputa are fan-shaped, with flat front and back surfaces. The front side of each neputa is painted with a scene of some mythical hero or other, and on the back there's usually a lone, beautiful but sad-looking woman. The Neputa-matsuri is about going off to war, whereas the Nebuta-matsuri is a celebratory parade following a victory, so the Hirosaki festival tends to be less boisterous than the Aomori one.
Front and rear views of the same neputa. You can see musicians sitting in the top of it, which gives an idea of the size.
I spent the following morning exploring Hirosaki, which was a pleasant place. Visited the Neputa-mura, which was a festival museum with a garden and a handicrafts centre attached, then took a walk around the historical preservation area and visited three houses that were open to the public (one the former home of a doctor and the other two of samurai families). After that I wandered back through the castle park, which was very nice, though the castle tower itself - apart from a nice view from the top - wasn't particularly exciting. Still had a bit of time to spare before I needed to go and catch my train, so I went down to see the five-storey pagoda too.
Hirosaki tour: giant neputa (too big to parade around the town's narrow streets) in Neputa-mura; samurai house; Hirosaki Castle's main donjon, and the view from the top storey; five-storey pagoda.
Next stop was Akita-shi, home of the Akita Kantou (pole lantern)-matsuri. I arrived a couple of hours before the evening's proceedings began, and walked along Kanto Odori looking for the Kencho (Prefectural Government) team; my hosts for the night, Catherine and Graham, were playing taiko (drums), and all I had to go on was Cath's description of the prefectural symbol on the teams' lanterns: "a bit like the Nike swoosh". Once the event was in process I found an information stand and got the staff there to tell me where the team was and sketch the logo (think the Nike swoosh standing on its end and cradling a ball), and within a few minutes I'd located my hosts.
The event began with a parade lasting a few minutes, up one side of the street and down the other, with music being played and each lantern pole being carried horizontally between two people. Then the parade stopped and the balancing acts began. Each full-size kantou had 46 lanterns on it, was about 10m tall (I think) and weighed about 50kg. (Younger boys had smaller kantou.) Over 200 men balanced these poles on their hands, shoulders, foreheads and hips, and some of them added extra poles to the bottom to extend the height, as if the kantou were a chimney sweep's brush. At the Nebuta and Neputa festivals the floats are lit with electricity nowadays, but the Akita kantou still use candles. The performers frequently lost control of their kantou and they came crashing down; fortunately the telegraph poles along the sides of the road were strung with lanterns and these usually prevented the kantou from hitting the spectators. After about half an hour of balancing the kantou, the performers paraded round a bit further and then did some more balancing. Finally the stage was thrown open and anyone who wanted to was allowed to have a go at lifting the kantou. I had a go with one that had been used for performances by 13-year-old boys and was about two thirds of the size of the adults' ones, and it was still pretty heavy. I also had a taiko lesson from Graham.
At the kantou-matsuri. The fourth picture shows lanterns being hurriedly re-lit in a kantou that had fallen over quite a few times, and last one shows me lifting the same kantou that the boy in the third picture is balancing on his head.
When it was all over I met up with Cath, and before going home we went for a quick visit to a bar called Speak Easy, run by a cowboy-wannabe who goes by the name of Tex and loves foreigners (he takes a picture of every foreign customer who comes to his bar, and I was no exception) and appears to be drinking his profits. Interesting place, but a bit dark, loud and smoky for me.
Catherine and Graham, my hosts in Akita.
Th following day it was on to Tochigi-ken to visit Richard, an American friend who came to visit me in Hikone in the spring. The journey took all day on local trains, but I did have a stop of an hour or so in Yamagata, where I caught a bit of the Hanagasa (flowery bamboo hat) festival.
Hanagasa-matsuri in Yamagata.
I met up with Richard and his girlfriend Nobuko in Utsunomiya, where yet another festival was just winding down. It seemed to centre on a shrine (as a lot of festivals do), and involve mikoshi (portable shrines) and men in mawashi (loincloths). After we'd got some food at a couple of the festival stalls, Richard and I headed back to his home in Ujiie for the night.
Nobuko and Richard in Utsunomiya; half-naked men on a mikoshi.
On Monday 6th August Richard took me to Nikko, home of some very famous temples and shrines, and as a result, one of Japan's biggest tourist traps. We went for the ¥1000 combination ticket, which got us into Rinnou-ji (temple), Toushou-gu (shrine) and its dragon hall, Futarasan-jinja (shrine) and Taiyuin-byou (another shrine). The first two were pretty crowded with tourists, but the last two were much quieter. I suppose the rushed coach tours tend to give them a miss because they're basically smaller versions of the more famous Toushou-gu, but they were worth seeing, and Taiyuin in particular was in a very pretty setting. By the time we'd used up our tickets we were both "templed out". We hiked up to a viewpoint part-way up Nakimushiyama (Crybaby Mountain), then went up to a waterfall on the other side of town called Urami-taki.
Toushou-gu (with lots of tourists, including Richard); view of Nikko from the viewpoint on Nakimushiyama; at Urami waterfall.
In the evening we ate in Utsunomiya, at a Chinese restaurant with gigantic menus. Since I knew I wasn't going to have many more opportunities, I finally plucked up the courage to try out the all-singing, all dancing toilet seat with built-in bidet, bottom-washer and dryer, and discovered that you have to sit well back on the seat if you don't want the jets of water to splash up behind you!
Nobuko and a Chinese restaurant menu.
Hitting the big city
I left Tochigi-ken the next morning and went down to Chiba, east of Tokyo, where I met up with Seiko. I originally met Seiko when she came to Britain in 1998 to take part in a working holiday that I was leading in the Lake District, and although we'd had occasional contact by post and email, this was the first time we'd met up since then. We had lunch at her flat in Inage, then took a train into Tokyo and visited the Shitamachi (old downtown) museum on the edge of Ueno Park. It was fairly small but interesting, with reconstructions of shopfronts and homes, and a wide selection of traditional toys and puzzles to play with. There was an antiques market just outside so we had a look around that too, then explored the Ameya Yokocho shopping area, which was a lot less crowded than it had been when I was there in cherry blossom season.
Seiko trying to do a puzzle in the Shitamachi museum, and plants (lotus?) in the pond at Ueno.
After we'd parted company I went on to meet up with Yumiko, my first Japanese teacher, in Asagaya, where she now lives. Yumiko was living in Solihull in 1997 (her husband, who works for a bank, had been transferred to Birmingham), when I visited Japan for the first time, and we did some language exchange so that I had a bit of basic Japanese vocabulary in preparation for my visit.
On the way there I had to change trains in Shinjuku and had about half an hour to spare, so I dashed up to the Keio Plaza hotel to see if I could find Tom, Ben and Paul, the three Brits doing the Hyakumeizan trek in aid of a landmines charity; they'd told me that they were going to be in Tokyo around this time, but I hadn't been able to get through to their mobile phone (I found out later that they'd left it on a rock somewhere). I knew that the second of the orientations for new JETs was just coming to an end, and they'd been hoping to do some promotion there, so it was worth a try... and they were there! At least, Tom and Paul were there, manning a stand at the information fair; I was told that Ben had already gone to bed (I got there at 6.15pm).
Despite the time that it took to negotiate Shinjuku station, I still somehow made it to Asagaya in time for my 7pm meeting with Yumiko. We ate at an izakaya, then walked most of the length of the local Tanabata festival and back to Yumiko's house, where I met her daughters Junko (not for the first time) and Mayumi.
Yumiko at the Tanabata-matsuri (with Wallace & Gromit suspended from the ceiling behind her), and Aibo the robot dog, all dressed up for the occasion.
After breakfast the following morning I went out with Yumiko for a walk along the riverside near her house, and visited a big shrine called the Omiya Hachiman-gu (where we bumped into a group of scary-looking men in suits whom we were sure were Yakuza (gangsters)), then we walked back to the station with Junko and parted company (they had other commitments for the day). I had been hoping to meet up with the mountain trekkers today, but they'd finished their stint in Tokyo and had to hitch back to Nagano-ken to continue walking, so it wasn't to be - I was lucky to have caught two of them the previous evening. I spent most of the day in Shibuya and Harajuku. Outside Shibuya station there's a statue of a dog called Hachiko who used to go to meet his master every day; one day the master died at work but the dog still came back every day for 11 years, until his own death. Almost exactly the same story as that of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, who also has a statue in his memory - though I think Bobby lasted 14 years.
Hachiko, the faithful dog.
In the evening I met up with my friend Yu. We went to the Boots the Chemist closing-down sale (apparently Boots is withdrawing from Japan), had an Italian meal, then took the monorail across the bay to the waterfront area at Odaiba, where we had great views of the Tokyo skyline including the Rainbow Bridge that we'd just crossed. On the other side of the peninsula was a complex called VenusFort, which contained an indoor shopping centre made to look like an Italian town, complete with trompe de l'oeil blue sky overhead. (It was similar to the fake Italian town shopping arcade at the Caesar's Palace hotel in Las Vegas.) When we were there it was dark outside and the lighting was fixed to make it look like daytime inside; Yu told me that during the day they have night-time lighting inside the shopping centre. There was even a car museum that you could wander around for free.
The Tokyo skyline, with the Rainbow Bridge. (That's Yu & me in the second picture.)
After that, Yu went home and I went to catch the Moonlight Nagara - the train that I'd taken the precaution of booking my seat on a month in advance - back towards Hikone. It turned out to be considerably more comfortable than the alternative unreserved train that I'd had to take previously.
Last few days
I got back to Hikone just before 8am on the 9th, and stayed at Sachiko's for my remaining three nights in Japan. Spent most of the time tying up loose ends - getting my 12 films of photos developed & labelled, picking up my flight ticket home, unpacking and repacking my bags (by the time I'd finished, I'd sent home about 70kg of stuff by surface mail), and so on. I had a leaving do with miscellaneous friends on the 10th, at the same yakiniku place where I'd had my birthday do last November. There were several last-minute dropouts, unfortunately, but there were still enough people for a fun evening - and James didn't seem to mind being the only man among 15 women! I was presented with several leaving gifts: a lovely pair of Lake Biwa pearl earrings from Sachiko and the other Japanese friends whom I'd met through her, a ceramic tanuki for my house from Freya (he's now sitting on the windowsill of my front room in Birmingham, and the one I got last summer is standing guard outside the front door), a yukata (blue with a firefly design) from my colleagues at Genko, a purse from Mariko, and a set of three pretty furoshiki (cloths for wrapping things in - it literally means "bath cloth") from Hanafusa-sensei. Afterwards most of us went to karaoke for a couple of hours, of course.
On the 11th I met Julianne, who's going to have Nishiko as her visit school from now on, and showed her round Hikone and the school. Later on I went shopping for an obi (sash) to go with the yukata I'd been given. One shop in Viva City had some at ¥1000 but the colours were no good, so I told the assistant that I'd been hoping to find a red & yellow one. He went through to the back of the shop and reappeared with a perfect one - and he gave me it for nothing because it had been used for practice! So I bought a pair of geta (flip-flop-style clogs, worn with yukata) too; they're a bit on the tight side but I wouldn't have got bigger ones anywhere else, unless I'd bought men's.
I left Hikone on the 6.55am train on Sunday 12th August, in order to catch my Air France flight shortly before noon. As well as Sachiko, Fukunaga-sensei and the Hisakis came to the station to see me off, despite my departure being at such an uncivilised hour on a Sunday morning. In some ways I was glad to be going home - as I've already said, I felt it was time to go back and get on with my "real" life - but of course there were also elements of life in Japan, and good friends, that I was sad to leave behind. I had to fight the tears back as I said goodbye to Sachiko.
Two years on the JET Programme was, for me, a great way to experience Japan's very different way of life. Of course, JET won't suit everyone, but if you've read this account and thought "I'd love to do that" (or even "I could cope with that"), then I strongly recommend that you take the plunge. Don't procrastinate; if you don't go ahead and do it now, it will only get more and more difficult to tear yourself away from your commitments at home.