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From Sakhalin island on Russia's far eastern shore we caught a ferry to the Japanese port of Wakkanai. This was to be the last leg in our Trans-Siberian saga.
After our our ordeal in Russia we were looking forward to Japan.
Our welcome was not as effusive as it might have been. "Why do you come to Japan?" barked the immigration official. "To see a friend," we said. "You realise you cannot work here?" he asked. "Of course," I replied. "I hope so," he growled, and then nodded, "Welcome to Japan!"
But he was the only mean person in the whole country.
The first real person we met was the lady in the tourism office who spoke only a little English but found us an excellent hotel room for the night. "How expensive?" she discreetly enquired. I spread my hands and shrugged, "We'd like a nice hotel," I said. "I know somewhere," she said with a wink. The room she found for us was the same price as the one on Sakhalin Island, but this one came with breakfast, a spa on the roof with breathtaking views from the hot tub and staff who bent over backwards to make us feel welcome.
We were so very happy to be in Japan.
We spent a couple of days in Wakkanai, planning and trying to put back the kilos we lost in Russia. We ate sushi and ramen and tonkatsu and all manner of things we could neither identify nor name. All of it was delicious. Everything in Japan is delicious. Some of it can be a little scary.
Out first venture out of Wakkanai was on a boat, back the way we came. We took a ferry to the little island of Rishiri-to, north-west of Wakkanai and stayed the night in a youth hostel.
Hostels in Japan are a little different. To start with, they're not much cheaper than hotels - we paid around A$50/person. They normally have a communal (gender separated) bath instead of showers and the kitchen is often not available to guests. If you're looking for something cheap and cheerful in Japan (and can bring your own bedding) you should look for a 'rider house', generally used by cyclists and motor cyclists.
Rishiri-to is a tiny little island formed from a perfect volcanic cone. On our first day we wanted to climb the peak, but doubting our ability to handle an 8 hour round trip, we opted for a walk in the woods instead. We did a 5 hour trek across the island that featured some mountain scenery, a delightful little lake and lots of wildflowers.
We could have stayed another day on Rishiri-to or hopped over to nearby Rebun-to but opted to flash back to Wakkanai to get on with our travels. In Wakkanai the very helpful JapanRail staff helped us get a ticket to Biei-Furano where we hoped to see some more mountains.
Biei and Furano are famous in Japan for a 'European' landscape of rolling green hills, not found elsewhere in the country. Hordes of tourists come from the south just to photograph the cows.
We stayed in Biei at the interestingly named "Potato-no-oka" (Potato-on-the-Hill) youth hostel. The hostel is a beautiful new building set in a pleasant rural area with a backdrop of mountains. The place is owned by a former JAL pilot who used to do the Sapporo to Tokyo run but decided that retiring to Biei was a better bet. He stole his chef from the Sheraton in Tokyo and together they served up fantastic (but not very Japanese) food.
After some advice from the former pilot, we decided to head for the onsen (hot spring baths) at Fukiage. We took a train from a Biei and a bus from Kami-Furano to the top of a mountain road where there was an extensive hot spring facility and a tiny, but well maintained campsite.
That day, we tried to climb the highest peak, Tokachi-dake (2077m), but were driven off 300m from the summit by driving wind and rain. As we scampered down we passed two octogenerians who waved their umbrellas at us and shouted, "Okay! Okay!" with broad smiles. We were soaked to the skin so I don't know how they faired. We spent the rest of the day drying out and the next day we managed to conqure the smaller Sandan-Yama (1748m) in gorgeous sunshine.
Both mountains are active volcanoes and plumes of steam pour into the sky from fumaroles on their flanks. While we were atop Sandan-Yama we were engulfed in a huge, stinking cloud of sulphur and retreated to avoid asphyxiation. On the way down we spotted a helicopter circling the peak, probably looking for signs of an imminent eruption. We retreated to the onsen to luxuriate in the steaming baths and ignored the threat.
Such a civilised way to climb mountains!
We left Furano and the mountains and went south to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. We had a little trouble finding accommodation but our guide book advised us that, in emergencies, Japanese internet cafes can be a good home away from home - they open 24 hours and most have showers and laundromats!
It didn't come to that but Sapporo still had a few surprises in store for us.
On our third night we went out for dinner and dithered over selecting a restaurant. Japanese restaurants all look the same from the outside - small, demure, curtained doorways - nothing to hint at what lies inside.
Eventually we picked one from the menu outside and went in.
We thought we`d found a yakitoriya - a place that specialises in barbecued, skewered meat. What I think we found instead was a ryo-te, a top notch traditional restaurant. When I asked the chef about yakitori, he laughed and shook his head, "Not that kind of place!" he said kindly, "I know, I make menu for you, okay?"
"Okay," we said, "fire away."
We sat and sipped beer and got a stream of soup and sushi and sashimi and some unidentifiable stuff that was all gorgeous. Very, very nice food. Delicate. Exquisite.
Then came a delicious bowl of soup with leeks and some funny meat - very fatty, little bit slimy, tasted a bit fishy... maybe sparrow? What are all these little bones? When the chef came out of the kitchen I asked him what we were eating. He told me in Japanese but looking it up in the guidebook drew a blank. "Look here!" he said and pointed into a large pot beside the counter.
Two snapping turtles swimming around.
Aha. That explains the pointy tongue in Veronika's bowl. Urk.
For the next two days we resorted to eating Mosburger for a while, a healthy Japanese version of McDonalds. We didn't really want any more surprises.
While we were in Sapporo we visited the University grounds, the largest in Japan, the excellent botanical gardens and the ropeway or cable car which has a panoramic view of the city. We also took a day trip out to the little port of Otaru which is written up in the guidebooks as a historical seaport. In reality the historical stretch of Otaru is a couple of blocks and the place is a bit of a tourist trap. On the positive side, the seafood is excellent and the shops are filled with interesting stuff. The train ride up the coast is also quite scenic.
We left Sapporo after a couple of days and headed to a spa on the edges of Toya lake. Toya-ko is famous as the home of Usu-san, one of the most active volcanoes in Japan. Usu has erupted roughly every 30 years, the last time in 2000 when it demolished part of the town. You can still walk among the destroyed buildings and go down to sniff the sulphur in the brooding crater of Usu.
Since Russia Veronika and I had been beset by intermittent spells of sheer exhaustion, possibly caused by our tribulations in Russia or something nastier we picked up along the way. When we tried to do a six kilometre walk from the volcano back to Toya, we managed a total of about 300m before we were forced to give up. We spent the next three days camping on the shores of Toya-ko and recuperating.
From Toya we went south again to the coast of Hokkaido and a little town called Muroran. There we found the yakitoriya we'd been looking for - a place called Smokey Joe`s. We had a fantastic meal of barbecued seafood and beef, cooked in front of our eyes and delivered smoking to the table.
The next morning we went an hour up the coast to Tomakomai where we caught a ferry to Sendai and a train to Fukushima.
Our Japanse friend, Kumiko, came to visit us in Prague and we`d promised to return the gesture. When we found out Kumiko was going to be in Japan at the same time as we were heading for Oz, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Kumiko met us at Fukushima station and took us home to meet her family. They all went to extra-ordinary lengths to make us feel at home. They fed us and housed us, looked after us and took us to see the sights.
We went to visit Aizu castle, a samurai stronghold with a story which appeals to the hearts of many Japanese. The castle was built in 1384 but was burnt down and has been rebuilt a number of times, the current version being a 1965 reproduction. In 1868 during the Boshin War, it was home to the daiymo Matsudaira Katamori who fought on the side of the Tokugawa shogunate against the forces gathered behind Emperor Meji.
During the battle for Aizu, a company of Katamori`s young samurai, the White Tigers, were cut off and tried to return to the castle. Coming upon a hill which overlooked Aizu they discovered the castle was wreathed in flames and smoke and surmised that their lord had perished. Without hesitation they drew their swords and committed seppuku - ritual suicide. Out of twenty men only one survived, by accident.
Unbeknownst to the White Tigers, the castle hadn't fallen and Katamori fought on although he was to perish a month later. The Japanese love the story for it's tragic quality and the White Tigers blind loyalty to their lord. Benito Mussolini also loved the story and donated a column from Pompeii to the Japanse to mark the spot.
After the castle, we visited a sake distillery to sample the wares. We ate sugared grasshoppers and sampled sakes and Shiro-san (Kumiko's dad) asked me to select one for dinner. I punted for something dry but a little fruity and he seemed to approve when he sampled it later.
We stayed with Kumiko and her family for a week but then pressed on into Tokyo and the south of Honshu.
We didn't really intend to visit Tokyo, neither Veronika nor I really like big cities and Tokyo, at 20 million people, is one of the biggest of them all. But for all its size, we found Tokyo quite attractive and less crowded than say, London.
We went to Tokyo with Kumiko who was looking for a job and a place to live. We stayed a couple of nights in Tokyo and went shopping and poked around but generally avoided the tourist sites in favour of soaking up the atmosphere.
We also stayed a night in the port city of Yokohama with one of Kumiko's friends. Yokohama is an attractive, modern harbour town that Kumiko rightly paralleled with Sydney. It's about 30km south of Tokyo or about 20 minutes on the train.
In Yokohama our friends took us to a local do-it-yourself barbecue joint. The place crouched on the side of the road like some abandoned shack and the clientele seemed mostly to consist of large hairy men with Yakuza tattoos. We sat at the bar and the waiter deposited a brazier full of glowing coals in front of us. The smoke stung our eyes and a TV blared out baseball scores in the background while dark suited salarymen rubbed shoulders with stevedores.
The menu was a kind of anatomical inventory of four legged animals. One of our friends would shout out something and a plate full of quivering flesh would be passed over the counter. You then opt for whichever bits you can stomach and char them into edibility on your personal barbecue.
We had, for example, 3rd stomach of cow, which looks and tastes a little like crunchy cardboard. We didn't try 1st or 4th stomach and, strangely, 2nd stomach wasn't available. We also had raw liver, scallops, octopus, tongue, cheeks, beer, sake, three-snake-shoju and some other stuff I can't remember very well.
The next morning we went for a stagger in Yokohama's China town, licked some ice creams and rode the ferry around the pretty but industrial bay.
From Tokyo we went to what is possibly the opposite end of the Japanese spectrum - a little town called Takayama.
A bus took us up the motorway towards Nagano and then cut down a little road and over the Japanese Alps. There was still snow on the peaks and V and I watched them wistfully through the windows of the bus. We had planned to climb a few, but now we just didn't have the strength.
We arrived late in the afternoon and went in search of the "Rickshaw Inn", a popular ryokan or traditional Japanese inn. The Rickshaw was extremely comfortable, relaxing and the Japanese style rooms were delightfully composed. The surrounding streets held a variety of restaurants and we dined comfortably on Chinese, yakitori, tempura and ramen over the next few days.
The next morning we went out to explore.
Takayama is rightly praised in the guide books as "a modern city that has preserved its traditional feel". It sits in a bowl of hills on the northern rim of which are a string of Buddist temples. A river cuts through the town and two bridges, one green and one red, link the two halves.
A huge part of the town consists of older wooden buildings built in traditional styles and which now house sake distilleries, craft shops or restaurants. The local culinary speciality is Hida beef, a pink, almost white marbled meat that is usually served raw. The local crafts include wood working and pottery and lacquerware.
A twenty minute bus ride out of town takes you to the Hida Folk village - an outdoor museum of traditional Japanese life. Clustered around the shores of an artificial pond are about twenty old wooden houses, relocated to the village after they were threatened with demolition at their original sites. The houses are preserved in their original state and a few even have furnishings and fires smouldering in the grates. It's a fantastic place to immerse yourself in a little Japanese history without being surrounded by stuffy scrolls in glass cases.
The houses, although incredibly solid, are light and airy and have a connection with the exterior that no western house seems to be able to achieve. Also on site are craftsmen who demonstrate traditional forms of pottery and woodwork.
Closer to the heart of Takayama is the city's original prefectural office. Built at the turn of the century, this is one of the few such offices preserved in its original condition. You can wander around the office, the garden and the rice store where the taxes for shogun would have been stored. Once again I was struck by the lightness and clean proportions of traditional Japanese buildings.
From Takayama we had one last destination - Nara, the original capital of Japan.
Nara was selected as the seat of Shogunate power in 710 but had only a brief reign as the capital before Emperor Kammu moved the throne in 784 to escape the influence of the troublesome Buddhist monks of Nara. Afraid of the political influence of the monks he moved to Kyoto which would remain the capital until 1868 when it moved again to Edo, or modern day Tokyo.
We chose Nara because Kyoto seemed far too big to swallow in the little time we had left to us. The guidebooks suggest a minimum of three or four days in Kyoto and I guessed five or six would be more realistic. Nara, with only 300,000 people, is far more compact and digestible.
But we didn't avoid Kyoto completely. From Nara it is an easy day trip into the big city and we dropped by to look at the gardens and ogle at the steel and glass temple of the new Kyoto station. Kyoto too seemed pleasant for such a large city and getting around was easy. We didn't spend long there, though.
We still preferred Nara. It's a pretty city, with a central park in which deer roam, some modest shopping arcades and a nice group of moderately priced ryokan. We stayed in one called the "Matsumae" run by a pleasant husband and wife team. Most ryokan offer meals as well as lodging and at the Matsuame we opted for both dinner and breakfast with our hosts.
Our accommodation was only a stone's throw from the park where the deer congregate and most of Nara's sights can be found.
One of the legacies of the political machinations of the monks of Nara is a fantastic set of temples, including the Todai-ji, the largest wooden structure in the world. It houses the 15m tall Daibutsu Buddha.
Near the temple is the Isui-en garden, a traditional Japanese garden with ornate ponds, tea houses nestled in the trees and weeping willows which shade tranquil paths. You can even take tea there.
If you're looking to do something more adventurous you can feed the deer back in the park. You buy a pack of 'deer' biscuits from one of the many vendors around the park and it won't be long before the deer find you. Some of the males still have horns and can be a little insistent so don't hang onto them too hard. We saw more than one child disappear under a swarm of brown bodies and I'm not sure all of them made it out alive.
After a few days in Nara, we caught a direct shuttle bus to the Kansai airport, which serves the whole region. We flew direct to Sydney on a budget airline for a little over A$500 each. The food was so awful I nearly got on a flight straight back to Japan.
We loved Japan. The people were friendly, the food excellent and the transport and accommodation first class. And it wasn't expensive. Once, I suspect it would have been but now the local tourist trade is ebbing with the economy and their are more and better deals to be had. Japan now is about as expensive as Europe or America and, if you are careful, can actually be cheaper.
It's also a fantastic otherworldly place to visit. It's just similar enough to be familiar and just different enough to give you that sense of an alien world. You can stick your toe in just as little, or dive into the deep end if you want.
In Fukushima, Veronika and I went into town on a bus by ourselves. When the bus stopped by a kindergarten we looked across the fence and into the eyes of a startled little girl. She regarded us solemnly for a moment and then threw her head back and screamed at the top of her lungs, "Gaijin! Gaijin!" - "Foreigners! Foreigners!" Within minutes the fence was crowded with grubby little children all screaming "Hello!" and waving frantically. We waved back and grinned at the kids and their giggling teachers.
What a welcome!