Kagoshima and Sakurajima

Upon the German’s advice, we rose early and took the bullet train south to the coastal town of Kagoshima. We arrived around 10am and purchased a ‘Welcome Cute’ card, which allowed us to travel on the buses and ferries all day and gave discounted entry to some of the sights. As we left the station we saw plumes of smoke billowing from the volcanic island of Sakurajima. We were also pleased to encounter the warmest temperatures since… England?! You don’t hear that very often!

Our first stop on the bus was Senganen. This is a beautiful landscaped garden and villa, which was first built in 1658 by the Shimazu clan. They were a very powerful family who ruled Satsuma (now Kagoshima prefecture) for around 700 years until the feudal system came to an end in 1868. The garden is famous for making use of the surrounding natural features – the bay and the smoking volcano – as ‘borrowed scenery’. Most Japanese gardens will represent natural features like the ocean, lakes and mountains by miniaturising them in the form of ponds and large stones, or piles of sand. Here at Senganen, there is no need, as there is a very real volcano and the sea right in front of you, and they are incorporated into the design of the garden.

We used our Welcome Cute cards to get a free gift of some sticky orange sweets, and treated ourselves to a purple Mr Whippy style ice cream made from sweet potato, then meandered through the garden, passing by the cat shrine and the cat shrine shop, the small streams and stone bridges. Once we reached the back of the garden, the fun began. We each chose a bamboo walking stick, and started to climb up a path that led up the steep wooded hill. It was like Indiana Jones territory! The fences were made from bamboo canes and the vegetation was a vivid tangle of ancient trees, writhing vines and crops of bamboo. Unseen birds squawked as they flew through the canopy. Once we reached the top, we had a great view of the volcano and across the bay. We didn’t see a soul on our way up or on our way down – people were really missing out, but all the better for us! Back in the main garden, we came upon a stream that is used every year during a poetry festival. Aspiring poets seat themselves along the waters’ edge, and the challenge is to complete their poem before a floating sake cup reaches them. I’d love to see this in action! I wonder how ‘on the spot’ the poems are in reality; I imagine they would need to have a theme that is revealed on the day to prevent cheating.

We then caught the ferry to Sakurajima itself. It is not strictly an island any more – lava from the massive volcanic eruption of 1914 solidified to join the volcano to the mainland at the Osumi peninsula. It is still very much an active volcano and has several small eruptions on an almost daily basis, with the result that dealing with volcanic ash is routine for inhabitants of the island and sometimes Kagoshima itself if the wind carries it that way. The volcano was merrily puffing away, as we bought our lunch, kicked about in the thick layer of ash that smothered the pavement and headed for the second longest footbath in Japan for a soak in the volcanic heat. The footbath was covered over with a roof so that ash doesn’t settle in the water, which was very hot, but great for tired feet once you learnt how to bear it. Living near a volcano has its benefits as well as its inconveniences (and dangers of course).

After lunch and a trip to the visitor centre where we learnt a little more about volcanoes, we caught the bus to the viewing point closest to the crater – which was at a reassuring distance away as you might expect for such an active volcano! After reading about the eruptions in recent history, you certainly looked on it with a greater respect. It has been known to send plumes of ash 2km into the sky, and the islanders and people from Kagoshima have regular evacuation drills.

The origins of the volcano are fascinating. 22,000 years ago, there was an enormous eruption causing a huge magma chamber to collapse, forming the Aira caldera. This is 20km across, and debris from the explosion fell hundreds of miles away, so it must have been colossal. Sakurajima was formed by subsequent eruptions within the caldera, and the modern day volcano is an active vent of the original. It is a composite volcano, made up of three peaks, but only Miname-dake, the southern peak, is active now. Up close, we could see clouds of yellowish brown ash billowing into the sky – it is strange watching how quickly the plumes build up; it really does seem like a giant monster is belching it out. Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing in our direction, so we were spared a dusting in ash, but now and then we caught a sulphurous smell on the breeze. We made our way safely off the island without being engulfed in lava or poisoned by noxious fumes and back to the train station and the Shinkansen.

Once back at Fukuoka Hakata Station, we treated ourselves to an evening at the Christmas market, which was in full swing for Friday night. There was a brilliant American soul singer performing – he had a magnificent voice and really knew how to work the audience, which was no mean feat as he only had a backing track on his i pod to sing to and the Japanese are quite reserved! We were quietly boogying away at the back, when a man came up to us and picked up our bags and coats and said, ‘I am the owner of the market – we can keep your bags behind the bar, please go to the front and dance!’ I of course, was quite happy to do so, but Luke was not so eager! However, he came to the front with me without much persuasion and we had a bit of a dance. The Japanese were very happy to join in singing, but were very shy about dancing, and it wasn’t until quite a bit later in the evening that we had companions. In the interval, the market owner found us again and gave us a cup of mulled wine each, which was great because at £5 a cup it would have broken our budget! There was also a fantastic Japanese duo who played French accordion and guitar music, who were great fun.

The following day, we packed up our things and set off on a journey to Aso, another region of Kyushu renowned for its volcanic activity. The scenery there is stunning and we were looking forward to some hiking.

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Kyushu – Fukuoka

A couple of Shinkansen trains later, we arrived on the southern island of Kyushu, at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. It was around 9pm when we pulled in and dark outside, so we had a pleasant surprise when we stepped out of the station into the heart of a German Christmas market! There were stalls selling mulled wine, European beers, German sausages and Christmas decorations and the whole of the square outside the station was festooned with twinkling lights in frosty white, blue and green. It was nice to see European festivities so far from home, if a little unexpected. We spoke to some cheery German students in pixie hats and then walked to our hostel.

The hostel was in a tiny, narrow building, rather like three shoeboxes stacked on top of one another. The ground floor comprised of the reception and a common area/dining area. The other two floors were dormitories. Inside our dorm, six bed cubicles were arranged in a line with a narrow corridor down one side, with another layer of six cubicles on top. Each had a little curtain at the foot of the bed. It was a little like having your own tiny room. At the far end, there was a bathroom with one shower and one toilet. In short, it was a very clever use of space!

We went to a ramen bar that evening and I slurped noodles messily all over my coat. Next time I think I’ll bring a bib. The ramen bars are like fast food outlets really – the kitchen is along one wall and seats are arranged around the kitchen rather like in a bar at a pub. There are some small tables set around the rest of the room. Your food is prepared very quickly and you can slurp and wash it all down with a beer, before moving on. The men in the bar we went to were all wearing wellies, so they could just shake out the water from the noodles onto the floor and so speed everything up.

It was surprisingly warm the next day, and we were lucky enough to be able to borrow two bikes from the hostel free of charge. Not electric this time, but perfectly good! We cycled to nearby Tochoji temple to add another large Buddha to our list! This time it was the largest wooden seated Buddha in Japan. He was a very handsome Buddha and we both spent a good amount of time drawing him – we weren’t allowed to take photos. He was beautifully carved and there was a backdrop of hundreds of smaller Buddhas behind him. The nun was pleased to see our pictures (are they called nuns?) and she brought out a replica of one of the small Buddhas so we could see it close up.

We spent a short time in a pretty little garden before meeting up with a Japanese friend of Luke’s called Maduka, who he knew from life drawing classes in Oxford. She had spent twelve months in Oxford on a university foreign exchange programme a few years ago, so it was great to be able to see her. She had brought a friend along, Aya, who had also spent a year abroad – this time at the University of Tasmania – and so she spoke very good English as well. We passed a pleasant afternoon chatting about plans for the future and differences in regional accents in Japan and England amongst other things, and I even taught them a few northern phrases (e.g. ‘put wood i’th’ole’ – shut the door), which will probably never come in useful, but never mind! They took us to a tempura bar, which made a nice change from ramen for me (Luke would eat ramen for every meal if he had his way). The batter was lovely and light and crisp, but it’s pretty hard to eat a massive piece of battered chicken with chopsticks! Maduka had brought us a gift bag each filled with Japanese sweets and savoury snacks and tourist information about Kyushu. We were both very touched by this kind gesture, and the maps and brochures (and the food!) were very useful in the days to come. It was a pity, but they could only stay for a few hours before catching their train back. It was so lovely to spend time with them and definitely worth the rush down from Tokyo. We’d love to have them visit us one day in England.

That night, we sought out the renowned yatai of Fukuoka. These are street stalls, like temporary restaurants, that set up from around 6pm to midnight along the major roads in the centre. We wandered into the area, feeling a bit sceptical at first at the idea of eating in a tent alongside a main road, but soon changed our minds once we were inside. We hung around one of the yatai that looked quite busy, and two Japanese ladies that were leaving gave us the thumbs up to signal it was great food and gestured for us to sit down. We took up seats next to two young German men (unrelated to the Christmas market!), who both spoke perfect English – of course. The elder of the two also spoke very good Japanese and he helped us order our food. They were from a German and English language school in Fukuoka, and spoke very highly of the city. We had certainly found it a vibrant, friendly place, and they confirmed this to be the case. It was very cosy inside – it was basically a tent with a kitchen in the middle and a bar around the edge, so the atmosphere was intimate and encouraged conversation. The food was delicious and we had a beer as well, as it would have been rude not to. We mentioned that we wanted to do a day trip out from Fukuoka the following day, and the elder German advised us to head south to Kagoshima, as it would only take an hour and a half to get there on the Shinkansen bullet train. After they left, we were joined by a merry troupe of Fukuokans, who were really good fun (and I suspect a little drunk). We commented on how young one of them looked after he told us his age, and his friend laughed knowingly and said, ‘Japanese cream!’ – you heard it here first!

Tokyo – cuteness and technology

Our good weather charm broke in Tokyo, and we had two days of drizzle. We had originally intended to spend longer in the capital, but we had enjoyed our stay in other places so much, Tokyo kept getting shunted back. We had arranged to meet a friend in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, which left us with only one and a half days to see the sights. We discussed what we wanted to see, and settled on some crazily dressed youths, bright lights and shopping malls and exciting new technology. We arrived fairly late in the evening. It was clear we were in a big city, as people were noticeably busier, walking with more purpose and absorbed in their own little missions, rather like London. The rain may have had something to do with it, but the general air was not so laidback as elsewhere in Japan.

We found a small restaurant for dinner where we had to cook our own meal at the table. The owner brought us a small camping stove and a deep pan that was filled with raw chicken, mushrooms, leafy greens, leeks and a thin broth. We boiled it up and ate it, fishing out the pieces and dipping them into a dish of lemony sauce. When we only had soup left, she brought out a dish of rice and tipped it in and added a couple of raw eggs. We boiled it up again until we had a delicious risotto-like soup. I rather like this DIY style of dining!

The next day we started off by exploring the area nearby our hostel. Luke was keen to investigate the electric city and so we went into a huge electronics department store, which was like my idea of hell and Luke’s idea of heaven. There was floor upon floor of mobile phones, cables, laptops, digital drawing tablets, camera equipment… it was like a maze inside; the shelves were so high you couldn’t see over them. I felt like I was beginning to lose my mind, and killed time by drawing bored people on the touch screens. We did however, find a new lens cap for my camera (which had fallen off whilst horse riding in Mongolia) and managed to get out of there before I was reduced to a blubbering wreck. I now know how Luke feels when he comes shopping with me.

We took the subway across the city and made sure to take the Hachiko exit. Hachiko was an Akita dog owned by a professor of agriculture. He acquired Hachiko in 1924, when he was a young dog. It is a bit of a Greyfriar’s Bobby kind of tale. The professor would go to work from Shibuya station every day and Hachiko would trot to the station wait for him to return in the evening. One night, in 1925, the man didn’t come out from the station as he usually did. He had died that day of a cerebral haemorrhage whilst giving a lecture. Hachiko went to live with the professor’s gardener, but each evening without fail, he would walk to the station and wait for his master’s train. He did this for nine years until he died at the age of 11. Now they have a statue of him and he is revered for his loyalty.

We then wandered through a large but almost empty park, full of beautiful autumn colours which were intensified by the rain and stormy light. We reached the teenage shopping district late in the afternoon, hoping to spot some ‘kawaii’, or ‘cute’ culture. You may have seen photos of this Japanese phenomenon – advocates may sport tutus, fluffy jumpers with animals on and knee high socks. Basically if it is bright or pastel coloured, has some sort of fluff or cute animal on it and your outfit generally doesn’t match, then it goes. We saw plenty of shops selling the clothes, but perhaps because of the rain, disappointingly few people were actually dressed like that! Seen from above, the streets were a sea of umbrellas, and it reminded me of the Pixar short film, ‘The blue umbrella’ – watch it on YouTube if you haven’t seen it already, it is wonderful, and only about 5 minutes long. I got my revenge for the electronics department by spending an inordinate amount of time in a sock shop. I do like a nice pair of socks, and there were some excellent specimens there! I couldn’t really afford the space for a new outfit, but I was getting a bit bored of my backpacker clothes, so decided I could brighten myself up a bit with some lovely new socks! How could I have known it would take so long to make a decision?! We finished up our evening in a karaoke booth, singing Disney songs (which was rather kawaii of us).

Miraikan, the museum of science and emerging technology, was where we spent our final few hours in Tokyo. We could have spent a whole day there, but it had been closed the day before and we needed to leave in the afternoon to catch our train to Kyushu. It definitely ranks among the top museums I have ever visited! Even the train line to and from the museum was futuristic, like something from a Batman film, with the tracks carving their way high above the ground on a metal lattice, sweeping over the river. We sat right at the front so we could have the full roller coaster style experience.

We started the morning with a 3D show in the planetarium, called Birthday, which explained about the origin of the solar system, the sun, stars, galaxies and the universe itself. It was great sitting beneath the dome watching stars merging to form galaxies before our eyes. As always after being reminded of the enormity of the universe, we left feeling rather smaller than before. After the show, we moved through as many of the exhibition pieces as possible, including a section on how in the future we may be able to grow plants that can make biodegradable plastic (how cool is that?), a section with a replica submarine on exploration of the deep sea bed and the creatures that are found there, a machine that demonstrated how the internet worked using ping pong balls, sections on medicine and surgery and some scarily human-like androids. At certain times of day you could have conversations with them, but we had to leave before then, so we just saw them sitting in their chairs blinking and gently nodding their heads. They also have Asimo, the Honda robot here, but again we missed the demonstration! Gutted! It’s definitely a place I would want to go back to, and it seems like they keep it well up to date with advances in technology, so there’s probably always something new and exciting to see. As you might expect for Japan, there was an area explaining about earthquakes and a real time map showing the pattern of tiny earthquakes that are happening all the time over the Japanese islands. The whole country is trembling, but you usually can’t feel it! On the top floor there was a balcony, in front of which was suspended a huge globe, made up of lots of television screens. The screens flickered and changed, displaying maps of the earth of the present and past, changing weather systems and facts about different countries. I was mesmerised and didn’t want to leave! However, we had to go.

I left feeling a bit more optimistic about the world; so often we are told that our future is bleak, what with global warming, waste disposal issues and depletion of resources, amongst other things. However, this museum showed that there are some very clever people out there who are trying to tackle the pressing issues of our age and whilst achievement of some of their goals may not come to pass in our lifetime (or at all), it is heartening to have a glimmer of hope. Of course, in the meantime, we mustn’t be complacent and must do our best to be responsible citizens!

Now is probably a good time to talk a bit more about the quirky things we have encountered in Japan that are a part of everyday life. The Japanese seem to take an invention and do it again, but better. The showers here have been invariably wonderful, even in the cheapest hostels. The toilets… now you have probably heard about Japanese toilets. They are often made by Toto and have names like ‘warmlet’ or ‘washlet’. The seats are heated (I still instinctively think that somebody else’s bottom has warmed the seat) and in many places they have a mind boggling array of buttons which you can press that squirt water at your nether regions at a variety of angles! In one toilet, there was even a sign with instructions of how to stop the flow should you feel ‘overpowered’! Now that’s a scary toilet. Then there are the discretionary soundtracks you can play to hide any embarrassing noises you may produce whilst on the loo. This ranges from an unconvincing flushing noise, to the babbling of a brook, or brook plus birdsong, which is my personal favourite. I find it very funny. I mean, what do people think you’re going to be doing in there anyway? EVERYONE knows why you’ve gone to the toilet. If you press the music button, I’m sure it just highlights the fact that you’re going to let rip, and draws attention to it!

When crossing the road, everyone waits for the green man, even when there is no traffic. When the green man arrives, he is often accompanied by a merry little electronic tune, so crossing the road is fun! There are no rude, intrusive beeping noises. All machines that normally beep in Europe play a tune here. When your train is leaving, it plays a relaxing melody. Vehicles whose jobs entail driving in pedestrian areas play cheery tunes to let you know they are coming. Japan is a land of cute, happy machinery, all content with getting on with their jobs and eager to make your day a little bit brighter. It reminds me somewhat of the lift in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – ‘Thank you for using this lift! Have a nice day!’, except it is pleasant rather than grating.

Fuji-San

Having seen Mount Fuji from Shimosuwa, we hadn’t quite imagined how long it would take to actually get there. Our train ride was over five hours and I began to think that this mountain must be massive. The final train we got was a Thomas the Tank Engine themed train! Apparently there is a Thomas Land near Mount Fuji! Rather unexpected, but it was quite a fun final leg to our journey. It was dark when we arrived at Kawaguchi station , but nevertheless, it was extremely busy. We paid an exorbitant taxi fare and arrived at our hostel to find a note for us with our bed sheets at reception. The hostel was pretty much a camping ground; perfectly adequate facilities, but not much in the way of atmosphere, the common space being tiny and people in the dorms turning in early in anticipation of being up early to hike the following day.

Feeling a bit claustrophobic in the quiet of the dorm rooms, we decided to go out for dinner. We walked along a quiet road to a ramen restaurant, where a kind young Japanese man who was also eating there helped us decode the menu. It was quite an eerie feeling walking back in the inky blackness, knowing that somewhere out there was a huge mountain, but you couldn’t see where it was. You could just about make out grey cloud drifting over the forest high above. I felt like I was being watched by a vast, silent presence, and my heart started beating a little faster!

The next morning, we rose and eagerly went out on the balcony to see the view. Fuji-san was there, but shrouded in cloud, which occasionally shifted a little to give a tantalising glimpse. Laughing, we resigned ourselves to the possibility that we had travelled all that way to see a volcano that we could see more clearly from our previous location. However, as we breakfasted, the sky cleared, and it became obvious that it was going to be a perfect day. We went on a short climb from the station that led up to a viewing platform – we could have taken a cable car, but we would have had to wait an hour because the queue was so long. It only took 25 minutes, so it was a bit of a no brainer. Halfway up, we had our first unspoilt view of Fuji-san. The mountain really is magnificent. It is colossal; the crater alone is around 4km across. The base is so wide and the gradient so gradual and gentle at first, it seems to embrace the surrounding land in a fatherly fashion. The volcanic rock was dark and provided a striking contrast with the bright white snow that crested the top half and the clear, baby blue sky behind. There was a small white cloud which crept over the crater, clinging to it like a child. In the summer, we would have considered climbing it, but we didn’t have the time or the equipment to tackle Fuji at this time of year, and to be honest, it was much better seeing it from afar! It is Japan’s highest mountain and an active volcano, but is currently ‘sleeping’ – it last erupted in the early 18th century.

On our way up, we had met a couple of Japanese girls who were on a day trip. When we reached the official viewing platform, they explained some of the silly games that tourists could play. One involved trying to toss two small pottery plates through a rope hoop – if you managed, you would have good luck. We both failed; I more miserably than Luke. Another was a heart shaped twist of metal that framed Fuji from which hung a bell on a rope. You were supposed to ring the bell three times – the man rings it once, looking at the woman, then the woman rings it looking at the man, and then you ring it together looking at each other. We did it of course, but I don’t know if accomplishing this would outweigh the bad plate throwing luck. We will keep our fingers crossed. There were several cartoon-like models of a racoon and a rabbit, and they explained the story behind it. Apparently the raccoon killed the grandma, who had hung the raccoon over a fire for stealing food, so the rabbit rubbed salt in the raccoon’s wounds… or something like that! I think there is a slightly tamer version now for children. After an ice cream, which we carved into the shape of Mount Fuji (they really are missing a trick there), Luke and I continued our hike up the mountain, into the quiet of the woodland.

There was rather a lot of up, and we had stopped to take off layers when we spotted someone coming towards us up the path. I squinted a little, and then gasped in surprise – it was Harriet, the English girl we had met on our final leg of the trans-Siberian railway! Talk about it being a small world! It was fun catching up with each other’s adventures and comparing our experiences in China and Japan, but after an hour or so, Luke and I realised that we would miss our trains to Tokyo if we didn’t turn around soon, so we stopped for a quick picnic before heading back down. We made surprisingly good time and were able to collect our things and amble to the platform at a leisurely pace.

The Japan Alps – castling in Matsumoto, we have a hoot in Shimosuwa

Having encountered so many sight-seers in Kyoto, we were anxious to get off the well-trodden tourist route, and so we tried a different technique for the Japan Alps. Throwing the Lonely Planet guide aside, we took a map of Japan and followed the Japan Rail train lines from Nara northeast into the heart of the Alps. At each little town along the way, we checked online for hostels and guesthouses until we found a couple of places that seemed interesting.

Our first stop was a town called Matsumoto. It was lovely seeing the countryside change as the journey progressed, the land pulling itself into creases, towns being tippled into valleys, and eventually the mountains heaving themselves free of the tangled life below. As the light dimmed, we pulled into Matsumoto station, where we picked up a few leaflets about the town. It was a nice surprise to discover that it was home to the oldest castle in Japan, so our plan for the next day took little effort.

We were to be staying in a ryokan that night – a traditional Japanese guesthouse. Higher end ryokan provide you with all your meals in your room and you can swan about in a kimono, but our budget didn’t stretch that far! The building itself looked quite new, and the walls inside were not made of rice paper screens, but there were woven straw mats on the floor, futon style beds and a low table with floor cushions to sit on. We debated whether to go out for dinner, but instead elected to get a take away meal and make the most of our dining area. We had a lovely Katsu curry, then spent a good couple of hours periodically running up and down the stairs checking whether the bathroom was free. Instead of individual showers, the set up here was more traditional. There was one large tiled room for bathing – there were four showers along the walls and a deep bath that was kept full of hot water at the back. There was no privacy at all; Japanese families would bathe together. Similar to the onsen (hot springs), the idea was that you got yourself scrupulously clean before having a soak in the bath.

In the morning we made our way into the town centre in search of the castle. At first, Matsumoto didn’t seem like the sort of place you would expect to find the oldest castle in Japan, most of the architecture being modern. However, we spotted one very old building jammed in between the concrete blocks. It was a second-hand bookstore, and it looked so inviting we just had to pop in for a look around. It was small, with a curving roof which was capped with two leaping stone fish, and seemed so improbable in the context of the rest of the street that it gave the impression of being a time machine that had landed and squeezed itself in amongst the buildings in the hope that no one would notice it. The contents of the shop were spilling out onto the street and inside it was even more disorderly. Shelves were stacked with yellowing tomes and towers of books and roughly bound paperbacks leaned in from either side, leaving a narrow passage for us to walk down. I spotted a pretty Japanese print of a harbour and decided to buy it. The owner was a very old man, possibly in his 90s, who merrily hobbled his way around the little shop and seemed to know where everything was in spite of the apparent chaos. He told us the book shop had been there for 80 years! We asked if he had any books of haiku poetry, thinking it might be a nice thing to have, and he rummaged around in a cupboard, before pulling out a tattered blue booklet, bound with a ragged ribbon. He spent a long time battling with the knot to get it undone, before opening it and showing us the price – 40,000 yen (about £200)! He told us it was written by a very famous poet and was well over a hundred years old. The paper was delicate and the handwriting was graceful, but even with the 50% discount he offered, it was way beyond our budget for something we couldn’t read! Nevertheless, he gave us another picture free with our 50p purchase, before pottering off to get a large piece of thick blue paper, which he folded into quarters. He then handed me a fat marker pen and asked me to write my full name, the date and the country I came from on it, which I presume then went into his collection of many years. Before leaving, we got a photo of him in his shop. He grinned and stuck his fingers into the ‘V’ for victory sign just as all the Japanese teenagers do!

The castle had a similar appearance to Osaka castle to European eyes, with floors of diminishing sizes stacked up like a layer cake and sloping roofs with curved tips. It was surrounded by moat, which was full of fat carp, which cruised around the perimeter hoping for food. We fed them a little bread and watched with a mixture of disgust and fascination as the waters seethed and their blubbery fish mouths gaped and slurped for the titbits.

In the grounds, we were greeted by a lady in a kimono and a man in full Samurai armour. We had to remove our shoes to go around the castle, as in so many places in Japan. The floor inside was really cold and Luke spent the time jigging about from one foot to the other as if he was tobbing for the loo! There was a large collection of firearms inside, many of which were really beautifully crafted and some of which were enormously heavy and cumbersome. There were the usual holes for windows that you see in European castles – the narrow ones used by archers and the square ones for muskets. The interior floors were held up by huge wooden pillars, and in the past there would have been screens dividing some of the levels into smaller rooms. One floor, the one which would have been used for storage of weapons and gunpowder, had no windows and so was hidden from the outside, giving the impression that there were fewer floors than there actually were. The steps that led from one floor to another were huge and very steep; even more so when you consider that Japanese people are not renowned for their height! You had to lift your knee almost to your belly to climb them. I wondered if this was a defence mechanism – any enemies who gained entry to the castle would have had a hard time getting up those steps in a hurry, but it would be relatively easy to run them through from above! The top floor had a great view of the surrounding land, and it was from here that the general and his top men would assess the state of play of a battle and make their plans. In peaceful times, the castle had an extension built – a moon viewing platform, which sounds lovely and romantic! Very few castles in Japan have this feature, as the addition tends to reduce the security of the fort as a whole.

The castle tickets also gave access to the Matsumoto museum, a small but interesting museum that gave an insight into the history of the area and its traditions.

That evening, we boarded the train again, this time heading just a short distance south to a lakeside town called Shimosuwa. We stayed in Masuya guesthouse and yet again, we asked to extend our stay because it was such a wonderful place. If you ever come to Japan, be sure to make a detour for this fabulous hostel, you won’t regret it! Kyon is only 27, but she and her friends took on this old ryokan early this year and renovated it. It is clearly a labour of love! Inside it was all dark wood and cosiness, there was a homely bar area with a wood burning stove, a large kitchen, and in spite of the small size of the doubles, the rooms were lovely. They even provided us with little baskets of shower gel, shampoo and moisturiser for us to take to the local onsen. The atmosphere was such as you would get if you had gone on holiday with a bunch of close friends; full of relaxed laughter and fun conversation. An infectious cheerfulness permeated the place and all who stayed there, and we didn’t want to leave!

I spotted a guitar in the lobby and told Kyon that I played the flute, thinking it might be fun to play together. She had never seen a flute before, so I played a tune from one of my classical study books at the bar. For once, I got nearly all the right notes and because I am not disciplined at practising, I was pleasantly surprised to find I was having a ‘good tone’ day and it sounded quite beautiful drifting through the rafters. At times like these, I feel a bit of a fraud, because I can seldom pull this off; it’s a bit like someone else is playing instead of me! I could pick up the flute a couple of days later and on the high notes it would sound like I am blowing with fluff in my mouth.

Kyon recommended a sushi restaurant and, very bravely for me, we sought it out. Inside we sat cross-legged on flat cushions at a low table, and the chef brought out a large bowl of fresh, raw, mixed seafood with wasabi and ginger on a bed of sticky rice. There was also a thin broth with balls of minced fish in it. I truly did my best. I am sure to a fish lover it would have been wonderful, but for me it was hard work! I ate several pieces of raw fish, which were not unpleasant, but drew the line at the suckered chunks of octopus and jelly-like fish eggs. I had felt I was doing quite well, and began to tuck into some grated white turnip – then I realised all the little pieces had eyes and they were actually tiny fish, probably some sort of fry. After that, I felt myself retching a bit with each mouthful, so stuck to the rice! Luke profited well from my aversion and had a hearty meal! I am not sure why I have such a problem with eating fish – it clearly isn’t just about the flavour; there’s something more visceral than that. As a child I had a nightmare where the fish in our pond came flapping out of the water, flobbering on the floor in the greenhouse. Perhaps seeing them out of water and on my plate harks back to that somehow!

The open mic was at a bar called ‘Charly’s Café. It was fairly quiet inside, there were probably only about six people in there when we arrived, but a few people from the hostel came and joined us as well. A couple of men played the guitar and sang; one in particular had a beautiful, sonorous voice. I sang Fly Me to the Moon and played a couple of flute tunes, then sang along to some Beatles songs played on guitar, to which I kept forgetting the words! Later on I did a bit of flute freestyle with Kyon’s boyfriend, who was a brilliant guitarist. Luke sat and sketched; he has been doing some really beautiful drawings and they are a great way to meet people and explain about our trip. I finished up with my GCSE piano composition, the somewhat pretentious ‘Theme to an American Court Case Drama’, which is aptly teenage and melodramatic. At the end of the night, a lady who had sang some jazzy numbers came up to us and started talking very emphatically in Japanese, seeming to think we would understand if she persisted! I was floundering, but I think she was saying she was pleased we had come and also may have been giving me tips about syncopated rhythms… anyway, I just had to nod and hope that was the correct answer in the end!

Back at the hostel bar, we tried sake – I had it hot and Luke had it cold. It was nice and warming, but beer is better! Earlier on, Kyon and Rie (another very smiley girl) had shown us videos of a Japanese childrens’ program called Pitagora Switch (‘Pit-AG-o-RA ser-WITCH-ee!’, whose music had been playing when we arrived. It is a wonderful, entrancing program and deserves a YouTube search if you like marble runs and silly contraptions that have no purpose other than to entertain. The repetition of its perky little theme tune later that night led on to an exchange of silliness. Kyon showed us how to make our fingers dance and how to make a frog with our hands; Kyon and Rie demonstrated an extremely complex playground hand clapping game that apparently all girls in Japan know how to do; Luke and I showed them how to make owl hooting noises by cupping your hands and blowing through the gap in your thumbs. No one had ever seen his before, and the Japanese were all very excited and impressed, with cries of, ‘Ah! Segoy!!’ (cool!) and ‘Ehhhhhh!?!’. They all had a go, but at first no one could do it, and the rest of our stay there was punctuated by muffled hoots as people wandered round the hostel trying to get a sound. When they managed, they would run up to us and try to demonstrate, but often the hooting power would desert them at the crucial moment! It is hard to hoot under pressure. I like to think that if we were to return to Japan in 10 years, all Japanese people would be able to hoot with their hands, and it would all be down to us.

The following morning, we hired electric bikes from a place just around the corner. It was only 50p an hour; a real bargain! They were beautiful machines and it was rather fun trying them out for the first time. They are the perfect lazy way to cycle. You can cycle without the motor on for as long as you like, then when you need a bit more oomph, you switch on the power and the hills are a breeze! Shimosuwa borders lake Suwa, and there are a number of old temples, shrines and historical sites scattered about the town. We took a route that allowed us to see the majority of these – beautiful old temples made of elaborately carved dark wood, with huge tree trunk pillars at the four corners of the temple site that get changed every 6 years. This is a town ritual and the humungous trees are pulled down from the mountains by hand, taking about 2000 people in total we were told. It probably doesn’t really need that many, but who wouldn’t want to join the party? There were also big woven straw twists that hung above some of the entrances, and in one of the temples there was a wedding – the bride was beautiful in a white kimono and a sort of piled up hat of white drapery. There were also stone dragons that spouted hot spring water from their mouths, that were surrounded by billowing steam. We saw a big fat stone Buddha, who was rather crudely carved and had an endearing, slightly comical appearance. He is probably my favourite Buddha so far. We finished up cycling partway around the lake, from where we were lucky enough to have our first view of Mount Fuji in the distance, peeping its flat white head over the mountains between. We took the opportunity to stop at an outdoor hot spring footbath on the way back. The temperature of the water was around 42°C, which is pretty hot! We sat with a family, who laughed at us when we had to dry our feet on Luke’s scarf (well, we could have used mine, but there’s no point in wetting two, eh?).

I attempted a Japanese style dinner that evening, with lots of garlic, ginger, leafy veg, shiitake mushrooms and soba noodles – it worked out pretty well and we had enough left over to extend into a soup for the following night.

After some careful and invaluable instruction from Kyon, we went to our first onsen. It was a huge improvement on my Russian banya experience! I was prepared with all my cleaning products and had been told exactly what to do. What’s more, the ladies in the onsen were smiley and welcoming, and evidently proud of their hot spring culture! The baths were split into male and female areas. You stripped off in the outer room, then took your basket of soaps into the bathing area. The walls were lined with showers and you took a stool and a basin and sat at a shower and scrubbed and soaped yourself thoroughly and washed your hair. Then, when you felt as clean as possible, you took yourself over to the onsen (the hot spring bath in the centre of the room) for a relaxing soak. The temperature was 42°C, like the footbath, much hotter than a bath I would have at home. The ladies giggled at me as I gasped my way into the water. Once you got used to the heat, it was quite pleasant, but after a few minutes I began to feel a little dizzy and had to get out and cool down. Some of the ladies repeated the washing, bathing cycle a few times before leaving. This filthy English girl only managed it once!

That evening, we had more fluting and hooting and we were introduced to a lovely chap called Shige, who worked as a chiropractor but whose passion was hiking in the mountains, and really wanted to become a guide. Lucky us, he offered to take us on a hike the following day for a very cheap price. He collected us from our hostel early the next day and we bought provisions at the supermarket. He drove us about 40 minutes into the Alps and we climbed a mountain called Nyukasa. It wasn’t too difficult, having trails all the way up through forest and bamboo grass, and it was a gorgeous day. When we reached the top, we had magnificent views across the Alps – we could see the South Alps, the Central Alps, the North Alps – and in the distance, we could even see the crisp white crater of Mount Fuji! Shige had brought a camping stove, so we were able to have a proper Japanese hiker experience, eating cup noodles on the top of a mountain! In front of us, we could see billowing gases coming from a volcano in the far distance. This had erupted recently, killing around 60 people with rocks that flew from the explosion, some of which were as big as cars. Japan is extraordinary; living here must be like living on the back of an enormous dragon, which quakes and breathes fire at whim – you really feel conscious of the Earth as a force of nature. Later that evening as we were sitting down to dinner, we felt our first earthquake. From where we were, the tremor was mild and lasted only a few seconds, but about 80km away it had been strong enough to bring a building down, although no one had been killed. The attitude of the Japanese was almost blasé – it happens all the time, don’t worry about it! So we didn’t!

On our way back from the mountain, Shige took us to another beautiful old wooden temple. I bought a fortune paper (which was fairly good, third out of six levels of luck, so can’t complain) and tied it to one of the frames there. This temple even had a sumo wrestling ring, and Luke and I had a wrestling match, which somewhat disturbed the calm of the place. He would argue that he wasn’t trying very hard in order to give me a chance, but I’m not sure… As for who won, let’s just say that I was first out of the ring, but Luke flew the farthest! In the heat of the contest, I ripped the knee of my trousers and spent the evening sewing a patch on. Kyon gave me some nice blue and white spotted material that had been used for the hostel, so I chose a contrasting red thread and embroidered ‘Masuya Sumo’ on it, so I would remember the story behind the hole!

The following day we had to bid a sad goodbye to our friends at the hostel, but first they requested a group photo, posing with the persimmon crop, which they were going to post on their facebook page. They had a few persimmon trees which produced rather a lot of fruit (we know it as Sharon fruit) and they had dried a lot of them on strings hanging from the windows. They were really succulent and tasty. As we wandered back to the station, we smiled to hear a few hooting noises in the distance!

Nara

The taxi dropped us off in Nara Deer Park just after dark. The shops at the edge of the park had been shuttered for the night and it was very quiet as we went down the stone steps towards our hostel. We had been told that if we arrived at night to be aware we may startle the deer, but there were none there to greet us. We swung open the door to a warm glow and the scent of cut wood. We were greeted by a very smiley young Japanese man, who gave us a guided tour of the place. The key to our room had a torch attached so that we could go and explore the park in the small hours if we wanted to. We were very impressed by what we saw; the atmosphere was serene, the rooms beautiful and the shared common areas welcoming, so we immediately asked to stay three nights rather than our original two.

Luke, still feeling sore from the ‘can’t cook’ incident, decided that he was going to prove himself as a master chef and insisted on cooking dinner – I certainly wasn’t going to complain! We had heaped bowlfuls of delicious spaghetti bolognese and a rare glass of wine sat at the chunky wooden table in the kitchen. It was a lovely relaxing evening, and we enjoyed talking to the other guests as they came and went.

The next morning, we rose with the dawn and started to explore our surroundings. We soon discovered that the deer were far from shy! Any rustling of bags would bring them creeping nearer in the hope of food. A lady came out of one of the shops and threw a bowl of peelings down on the ground for them, and they flocked around. A little while later, we saw one of the deer going into the same shop; perhaps it had some pocket money to spend! It was wonderfully peaceful early in the morning, the air was fresh and clear and as the deer were so tame, we could watch them close at hand, which was great for drawing. Apparently the Sika deer were considered sacred and thought to be messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. Killing one of them was punishable by death until 1637.

There were temples and a shrine within the grounds and when Todai-ji temple opened, we made sure we were some of the first visitors in order to beat the crowds. This particular temple was the largest wooden building in the world until 1998. It is 57m long and 50m wide, but it used to be 30% bigger at one point; due to fire it has been rebuilt twice. The wooden pillars inside were huge and straight, like entire tree trunks. This temple is also famed for its enormous bronze Buddha, the largest of its kind in the world. After admiring the building from the outside, we walked in, not looking up at first. Then, starting from the platform on which we could see a huge bronze lotus flower, we allowed our gaze to rise upwards to take in the full scale of the seated Buddha. He is around 15m in height, his toes were bigger than my head, he had an elegant outstretched hand big enough to sit in and his gigantic face was lit by a sweet, calm smile. There were other large statues of guardian gods around the perimeter, some of which were quite scary looking, but none of them were as big as the Buddha himself, who
seemed to fill the room with his presence. We passed the rest of the day milling about between the deer park and our hostel, relishing our proximity to the sights and the opportunity this gave for relaxation.

That evening we attempted to climb the hill next to our hostel to watch the sunset. However, there was still a lady working at the ticket desk and she told us we weren’t allowed to go on the path that led to the top as it was too dangerous at night, so we had to stay within a restricted area. We had our torches, so thought we’d wait until she shut up shop and sneak round anyway, but by that point the sun had set and it had begun to drizzle. We didn’t really mind though, as the slopes still had
good views and it was pleasant just sitting in the dusk and letting the deer nose their way closer, snuffling at us and blinking their wide, shiny black eyes.

Our second day in Nara was spent Christmas shopping! We headed into the town, which was a nice, manageable size and stocked up on Japanese knick knacks for our families so we could sent two exciting boxes back to England. One thing I have noticed is that the Japanese seem to be obsessed with facecloths! Every shop we went in had an array of beautifully patterned textured cotton facecloths. I have sometimes seen people whip a facecloth out of a handbag to mop their brow, and I think it also comes in handy in case you pop into the local onsen (hot spring) for a foot bath. The deer were all frisky in the dusk as we wandered back that evening, yipping, barking and squeaking, skittering about on their spindly legs, springing in the air and trying to head butt one another. Most of the males have had their antlers removed so they can’t lock horns like they would normally; I think the park owners are worried about people getting injured by them as they have no fear of people. I wonder if they find it frustrating when they want to have a good fight during the rutting season.

The next day we got up early to make the most of our last morning and went for a walk to a view point on the top of Mount Wakakusa, which lay within the park. The path led us through ancient woodland, where the writhing, tangled branches added to the air of mystery in the half light. At the top we had splendid views across the valley, with Nara spread out below us, and of course plenty of deer to keep us company! Back at the hostel, we packed our rucksacks and set out on our mission to post our Christmas boxes home. We must have looked more laden down than your average pack horse! We had to itemise, price and guess the weight of every single thing we had packed – no mean feat when you have bought things for about 20 people and already wrapped them up! We finished with five minutes to spare, and made a dash for the train station to catch the train to the Japanese Alps.

Kyoto

Kyoto

The next day we left for Kyoto, another short train ride away.  On arriving at the station, we stumbled upon the tourist information office and were furnished with free maps, bus timetables, recommendations for places to visit and routes to take by quite possibly the most helpful tourist info lady I have ever come across. We were to be couchsurfing again, but were not due to meet our host until that evening, so we put our rucksacks in the station lockers and spent a few hours walking around the centre. Saying we ‘put our rucksacks in the lockers’ really does not do justice to the time this took. Being cheapskates, we were determined to fit both of our huge rucksacks in one locker, and the resulting collage of rucksacks and their contents was a feat of tessellation worthy of a Tetris master.

We seem to have fallen into a sort of pattern whereby we get hungrier and hungrier, then start to look for somewhere to eat and somehow none of the restaurants fit our idea of the perfect restaurant for the moment (too expensive, not local food, too empty, too bright…). Thus we wandered, with hunger gnawing at our bellies, past dozens of what were probably perfectly passable eating establishments. As the rumbling increases, so the desire to find a delicious, filling, paragon of Japanese cuisine heightens, whilst the ability of restaurants in the area to satisfy your now unreasonable expectations lessens. We ended up in a Korean barbecue all you can eat restaurant. Not Japanese, but you can’t beat an all you can eat when you are ravenous!

We spent our 90 minutes of allotted time contentedly grilling strips of meat and vegetables on our table top barbecue, dipping them in spicy sauces, slurping soup, gobbling sticky rice and munching on kimchi. We weren’t, however, a match for the couple next to us. They were slight, but their frames belied their gargantuan appetites. Dish after dish came out and disappeared. They were still grilling meat when their dessert arrived. Two chocolate ice cream sundaes. Followed by two more. Followed by three bowls of ice cream. We left feeling nicely full, but somehow felt we hadn’t quite got our money’s worth!

After dinner, we prised our bags out of the locker (which thankfully hadn’t exploded in our absence) and caught the bus to the outskirts of town to meet our couchsurfing host. Van is a lovely, bubbly, enthusiastic Vietnamese girl, who is studying for an MBA (master of business administration) here. Her room was in student accommodation and I shared her bed, whilst Luke slept on the floor. We had a nice chat before turning in and she told us about her family and Vietnam. Hopefully we will be able to stay in touch and get some tips for when we visit there next year.

In the morning, we shared a breakfast of toast, omelette and noodle soup. Luke was in charge of grilling the toast, but Van didn’t seem to think he could be trusted and when she spotted the bread was a bit brown (Luke prefers it well done), she cried, ‘Luke can’t cook, right?’. Luke looked mortally offended by this, and responded, ‘I’m a GOOD cook!’, to which I said, in a somewhat non-committal way,  ‘yes, he can cook’. Afterwards I explained that I would be lying if I said he was a GOOD cook (we had planned to make her dinner that night, and I got the impression her standards might be high after our conversations about Vietnamese cooking, so I didn’t want to inflate our abilities), but that he was a perfectly passable one. Having never really shown much interest in cooking other than as a means to an end (i.e. to provide fuel for a few hours), I was somewhat baffled by his desire to be acknowledged as a wonderful cook! This could work in my favour…

Kyoto is one of Japan’s ancient capitals and has more temples than you can shake a stick at. We really were spoilt for choice and a little overwhelmed by the options, but luckily the flat was close to some of Kyoto’s best temples, so first of all we walked to Ginkakuji. It was built in 1482 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was the eighth Muromachi Shogunate. He spent a good part of his life building and perfecting the relaxing villa where he could spend a peaceful retirement, and it was subsequently converted into a Zen temple. It is a world cultural heritage site, and the Japanese style garden is famed for its beauty.  As we walked in we were confronted by an enormous, perfectly sculpted sandcastle. I think it may have represented Mount Fuji, with its fat, conical structure and flattened top. Or possibly one of the many other volcanoes in Japan! The sloping sides were impeccably smooth and the sand at the base had been raked in concentric circles, so there was no evidence of the person that had made it. Nearby, there was another, larger sand area which had been raked into diagonal lines. Now this is all very well and good and rather impressive, but is it peaceful? What person in their right mind could sit in calm contemplation when they are surrounded by so much sand? The temptation to run through it was quite high, but we filed past demurely with all the other tourists.

We had, unfortunately, hit peak season when it came to visiting Kyoto, so the temples were heaving with tourists (mainly Japanese) eager to document the autumn foliage at its best. The temple gardens are an ideal place to do this, with the maple trees that arch gracefully over the ponds, waving their little fire-tipped fingers in the breeze, the whimsical wooden bridges and winding paths that entice you into hidden corners and up little hillocks where you can look out at the view below. You will all have heard of ‘feng shui’, and here it was in action; or perhaps one should say harmonious inaction! Japanese gardens are truly a work of art; so much time is devoted to achieving a perfect balance between the elements and they maintain their elegance throughout the year through careful choices of plants and trees. Personally though, I like a bit more disorder in my life, which no doubt will come as a surprise to many of you. Charming as they are, I think I would feel happier in a space with a bit more wilderness and fewer boundaries. However, as a spot for quiet meditation, I imagine they would score pretty highly. Had we arrived at a time when there were fewer tourists, I believe I would have appreciated the gardens more. However, we had to shuffle round in a line ducking out of photos as people stopped to take snaps. It does detract from the restful atmosphere somewhat!

We wandered on from here trying to find a quieter spot and were surprised to come a across a red brick aqueduct, just outside Nanzen-ji temple. It used to carry water and goods to Kyoto from Lake Biwa in the neighbouring county. For a moment I felt a little like I was back in the industrial north of England, but the effect soon wore off once we entered the temple grounds!

We visited Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple in the afternoon, but this time we had company. As we were contemplating our options, two students approached us – a boy of 18, named Ren and a girl of 19, named Saki. They told us they were studying English and asked if we would mind if they gave us a free tour. They were very sweet and polite, so we said yes. As they were only in their first year, they weren’t yet fluent, but they still managed to explain the purpose of the many shrines and rituals that are performed there, of course peppered with a few moments of mutual confusion. They showed us a platform from which people used to hurl themselves in order to have their wish granted. If you survived the 13m drop, your wish would come true! Around 85% of people that did this survive, but as you might expect, the practice has now been banned! In this same part, there were two very heavy metal posts, which stood upright and were supported by a wooden table. If you were able to lift the post with one hand (the larger pole for men, the smaller for women), you were destined to be rich. Luke managed to lift the ladies’ one with one hand, but the biggest post was impossible to shift.

There was a famous shrine dedicated to love and matchmaking, and there were stalls selling small wooden prayer cards, on which you could write your heart’s desire, which you then tied to a fence. You could also pay for charms that would assure a good marriage, fertility, luck in love… the list goes on. I think this is what could be classed as temple kitsch. There was a pair of love stones set 6m apart that you had to walk between with your eyes closed. If you reached the far stone without peeping or having any assistance, then you would find true love. If you found it with some assistance, you would find true love if you have someone else to guide you. If you missed completely, you might as well go to the aforementioned platform now. I managed to find it with some audio guiding courtesy of Ren and Saki, and Luke was standing at the end, so I think I’m okay.

Probably the best part of this temple was the entrance into the womb! We paid a small fee and took off our shoes. Then we descended some steps, holding onto the handrail. As we followed the rail around, it got darker and darker, until it was so inky black we couldn’t see a thing. In this sort of perfect darkness you feel vulnerable, and whilst you know it is probably safe to march straight on as long as you keep your hand on the guide, some uncertainty holds you back. We rounded a corner, and there on a pedestal, glowing as if with a light of its own, was a large, grey, egg-like stone that was engraved with writing. When we reached the stone, we laid our hands on it and made a wish, before navigating our way back out, blinking in the light of day as we emerged from the womb, born afresh!

After this primal experience, we were way overdue some refreshments, so we took Ren and Saki to a nearby café. Luke and I had missed our lunch, but we had promised Van we would cook for her that evening at around 7.30pm and it was now almost 5pm. We settled for half a meal each, which took the edge off. We then merrily bid goodbye to our helpful guides and boarded a bus back towards the apartment. We spent about half an hour dithering over food in the supermarket, then when it came to paying realised we were out of cash and they didn’t accept cards! I duly headed out to find an ATM, whilst Luke guarded our groceries. Half an hour later, I returned, having tried 3 separate machines at different banks, all of which had declined my card. I discovered on reading our guide to Japan, that the only ATMs that accept foreign cards are those at the post offices, Citibank Japan and in the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores – none of which were in our immediate vicinity. Luckily we had bought a one day bus pass, so we were able to catch a bus into the town centre where Luke had remembered seeing a 7-Eleven shop. Time was creeping on and our hopes for cooking a delicious meal for our kind hostess were dwindling. By about 9.30pm we had finally managed to establish contact and ascertained that she had already eaten. Now only having ourselves to feed, we headed for an area we knew was full of restaurants to grab something quickly. Restaurant after restaurant turned us down – all were full. The only place we could find that could feed us was a Japanese equivalent of McDonald’s! Sadly, but hungrily, we tucked into our processed burgers and French fries… then found we had missed the last bus. Thankfully, it wasn’t too difficult to find our way via a different part of town and we were able to stop at the original supermarket to pick up some breakfast things instead! The best laid plans…

The following morning, we introduced Van to croissants, which she liked very much, so hopefully that made up for the lack of dinner the previous evening! We took our bags to the station, hoping for a quick drop off so we could enjoy our last day in Kyoto and found that every single locker was full. We followed the signs for the luggage storage room and encountered a huge queue, snaking around the building, discovering to our dismay that this was the queue for left luggage. However, the Japanese are fantastic at organising things, so what seemed like it was going to take half a day, in reality only took about half an hour, as they split the queue into sections and marshalled people to separate areas.

Feeling slightly jaded, we took a trip up the escalators to seek out the restaurants on the eighth floor. Kyoto JR station is probably the swankiest railway station I have ever been in. Architecturally it is an attraction itself, a swooping steel and glass structure with fantastic views of the city from the rooftop garden. This was our first experience with ordering a full meal via a vending machine. There was a maze of small ramen restaurants inside, with people lined up on benches outside each booth. We chose one that seemed popular. After observing other customers, we approached the vending machine. On it was an array of buttons, each with a picture of a different meal and the price. We fed our money into the slots and punched in our meal options. The machine printed out some coupons and spat out our change. We then gave the tickets to a member of staff and joined the queue of people on the benches. Not long after, our order was ready and we were called through to sit down. It was quite fun, and very efficient!

Feeling restored, we caught a bus to Arashiyama, where there were more temples, but most importantly for us, a famed bamboo forest. The bus was packed and the closer we got to our destination, the slower the bus became as the traffic got heavier and heavier. Eventually we decided it would be quicker to get out and walk. At first it was, but soon we were in the press of tourists being born along by the tide through the pretty streets without really being able to appreciate them. I don’t remember being in a crowd like that since jostling at the front of Britpop gigs as a teenager! It was pretty horrible, I’m glad I don’t suffer from claustrophobia. Once we reached the main attractions, the crowds thinned a little as people dispersed in different directions. We entered a temple, Tenyru-ji and walked through the pretty grounds to the south gate, from where we found ourselves in the thick of the bamboo forest. Even with all the people, it was still impressive. A path wound through the grove, with woven walls on either side. The bamboo plants were as thick as my calves, tall and straight, reaching high above our heads before their leaves spread out to form a vivid green canopy that was lit by sunlight. When you looked to the left and right you saw elegant stripes of green silently clustered together, stretching into the distance. It was quite a magical place, and I imagine would be even more so if you arrived at sunrise. Apparently they filmed part of the film, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ here. The bamboo forest makes you feel very small; it’s probably the closest you could get to feeling like an ant in a field of grass!

That evening, we caught the train for a short journey to Nara, another ancient capital. We were looking forward to it very much, as we were to be staying in a deer park!