Week 8 – Japan

Japan Week 8

We made one train journey of 700 kms at an average speed of 200 kms /hour including stops and a train change. In Kyoto , which was particularly confusing because where we lived there were 3 lines and stations which criss crossed each other resulting in us catching the wrong train, whistling past our station on an express and trying to use my hotel pass card and getting it jammed. This is all part of the joys of train travel in Japan.

We moved to Nagano in the Japanese highlands, where the winter Olympics were held in 1998 and what a difference in the temperature, down to 13C. The first day we went by bus to Togakushi with the intention of walking but changed our minds as it started raining and got colder and colder. So we walked around the shrine and took photos of the fall colours before beating a hasty retreat down the hill.

We have enjoyed Japanese food and it is by no means all sushi. The variety and quality is enormous. Like sake there is so much on offer. We also loved the drink dispensing machines everywhere; they all work and they all give you the correct change.

Another cold and rainy day in Nagano so we stayed local and visited the local Zenkoji Temple , another large wooden temple and nice old area with specialist shops all around.
Nagano is a pleasant city, not too big, less people and lots of places to walk and in winter ski.
We went on a day trip to Obuse , a small town 30 minutes away . We just walked around a pleasant village with fruit, nuts and crafts in abundance. It’s a tradition in Japan to buy someone a gift, usually some food speciality from the region, all beautifully wrapped and presented.

Some things puzzle us about japan, there are no litter bins but there is no litter. People just take their litter home. Heated toilets are nice, even in public loos. The Japanese have this wonderful ability to make art out of gardens , furniture, and rooms. The road crossing lights all work and people religiously abide by the rules and the people take such a pride in their work and appearance. The bus driver wears his uniform with a white shirt and tie, the shop girls are all turned out spotlessly. We loved the bakeries; we never expected such beautiful, bread, cakes and confectionary.

There’s no aggression, only modesty and courtesy.

The railway stations are abuzz with cafes, shops, stores, tourist information and helpful ladies.
We met up with Rob and Yumi , Patrick’s cousin and wife ,and made an overnight stay in Hakone near Mount Fuji, we just a caught a glimpse through the clouds. The hotel was a traditional Japanese one with an onsen, a communal bath in a hot spring where you must follow a strict code of behaviour and etiquette. This was followed by a traditional meal, 7 courses , all beautifully presented and explained by the waiter. We then slept on a futon on the floor, followed by another onsen in the morning and a further traditional Japanese breakfast.
By now it was raining cats and dogs and we holed up in Tokyo for 3 days as a typhoon approached and then struck. It was a bit of an anti climax , just lots of rain and some wind one night.

Rob told us some interesting facts about Japan. With the state of their economy there is a continual housing recession for the last 15 years and houses are still worth less than now. The Japanese corporate world is alive and well, long hours ,and beery dinners with bosses. 34 million people live in the Tokyo, Yokohama conurbation. There are a lot of single people; they work long hours and are not socially set up to find partners. Rob earns Y2000 for one 45 minute lesson ,the students pays Y8000 .
Their flat costs Y150000 per month , furnished with 2 bedrooms.
Thanks to them and their family for entertaining us and making our stay in Japan so memorable. One last train trip to Osaka to catch our flight back to Kuala Lumpa and our Japanese venture is over.

Great memories from a great country.

Week 7 – Japan

Japan Week 7

I find the Japanese people very helpful, reserved, exceedingly polite , well organized ,modest, hard working and very environmentally conscious. Carol left her phone on the train and someone handed it in to the lost property office. On the tram a couple offered to pay the fare as we struggled to find change.

We moved to Saga , a small town close to the centres that we wanted to visit. We went by train to Nagasaki and the Peace Museum where the second atomic bomb had been dropped. More of the same as Hiroshima , harrowing photos and relics in the museum.
Fukuoka is an attractive fun loving town and we spent time sampling some of their food from stalls as well as an open top bus ride.

When travelling around Japan the scenery is much of a muchness , heavily built up between the green hills.
We travelled from Saga to Kyoto, we only had a few minutes to catch our connection and the place was packed with people scrambling on to the escalator. Patrick said “ We’ve got one minute “ and we arrived on the platform as the train doors closed , the guard blew his whistle and my last memory is the guard hanging out the window as the train passed by already doing 80 kms / hour. No problem , there was another one 15 minutes later.

We stayed at an Airbnb in Kyoto owned by a friendly American Barry who also runs a café and an English school. On our first day we visited 3 temples , Sanjusangen do, which had 1000 gilded statues of Buddhist ladies, Chisshaku Temple with beautiful gardens and rooms and finally Kiyomi Dera temple , a spectacular temple on a hill. This was very crowded, and lots of ladies and some gents wore kimonos and traditional dress.

Although the Japanese are world leaders in the manufacture of cars I guess many people don’t own one because it’s expensive , crowded, and congested on the streets. Many of the cars are small box like models that you rarely see in South Africa.
We took a day trip to Nara , a really nice place but very tourist orientated. The main temples and shrines are situated in a park with tame deer wandering about. We walked from the station to the Todajii temple , the biggest wooden building in the world and overwhelms you with its size. Inside is a massive bronze statue of the Buddah.

We walked through the forest to Kasuga Taisha shrine with rows of lanterns and then back to town to the station.
The train lines around Kyoto are very confusing and criss cross each other . A number of times we found ourselves on the wrong train or whistling past our station on an express. We didn’t know that a Limited Express stops less than an express. We have a JR rail pass but there are many private lines where this cannot be used. On one of our journeys on the Shinkasen we did 700kms at an average speed of 200 kms /hour including stops and changing trains. That’s like going from Durban to Johannesburg in 3 hours.
The Golden Temple is just that, a beautiful house covered in gold leaf next to a lake and beautiful gardens but the experience was ruined by hordes of people and school parties. Previously we visited Nijo Jo castle, a family Shogun estate.

Kyoto and other cities are well equipped to deal with foreign tourists , at the station there is a tourist information centre and with their help we took the public bus around the city.
With the decrease in population there are many apartments for rent, but many of them are tiny and crammed in together. It’s difficult for foreigners to work in Japan except as English teachers.

On our last day in Kyoto it was much cooler and a little rainy ; we visited Fushimi Inari Taisha. We climbed up a hill 4 kms to the top through 10000 orange gates and past a number of shrines.
We saw amazing sights in Kyoto and Nara which I will never forget.

Week 6 – Japan

Round the world 6

All went well with our flight and customs and immigration in Tokyo but then things started to go wrong with the Narita express that we were due to catch to our hotel. There was a surprising lack of information and people to help us and we ran round like headless chickens until we were told to get on the express train which we duly did and paid extra. This was our introduction to Japanese railways which continued to confuse and puzzle us thereafter.
We were staying first of all in Kawasaki, a suburb of Tokyo near Patrick’s cousin and this proved to be a pleasant town with a pedestrian shopping street and small friendly shops and wonderful food. In the evening the commuters flood off the train into the town to eat and drink in the restaurants and cafes, the men nearly all wearing a uniform of white shirt and black trousers and suit jacket as an extra. A bit of a treadmill and I’m glad I’m not on it.
It’s almost like going back in time to my mother’s life, many people don’t have cars and use bikes to get around and go shopping, sometimes with two children in chairs front and back of the bike. Streets are narrow and apartments small.
The Tsukiji Fish Market is a large warehouse full of octopus , live eels, tuna and all things fishy and fresh. Around the area shops were selling everything connected with fish and were jam packed with people. From there we walked to Hama Rikyu Gardens and took a boat ride to Asakusa and the temples there and market stalls. We then bumbled our way back to Kawasaki by train.
Looking at the map of the train and underground system is like looking at a bowl of coloured spaghetti but we managed to find our way around with the help of Patrick’s ap. But Tokyo station is intimidating.
The following day we visited the Emperor’s Palace and Ginza , the high value shopping area. Compared to China everything is neat, efficient, well ordered and controlled and spotlessly clean.
We bought a 3 week Japan Rail Pass enabling us to travel around the country. This was our first experience of the Shinkase or bullet train which didn’t start well as we were thrown off the first train because it was Nozomi as we are only entitled to get on Sakari trains with our passes. But the guard was super-efficient and helpful and wrote down the trains and platforms we must to get to Hiroshima.
People are friendly and helpful, if they see us scratching our heads they come over and ask if they can help us. In the main tourist areas there are English speaking guides to help you. Carol left her phone on the train one time, she went to the desk and someone had handed it in. A lady offered us cash for the tram when we were struggling to find change. Japanese people are helpful, reserved , exceedingly polite , well organized, hardworking and very environmentally conscious. Tokyo is the safest city in the world, children travel alone , even some quite small ones.
Hiroshima is a well ordered , attractive city with lots of rivers to walk and run along. The site of the atomic bomb peace park was near to our hotel and we first visited the museum and other shrines with many children and adults paying homage to the fallen. We walked around the domed building which still stands as the last building remaining. The images we saw are powerful, it should be mandatory for all politicians to visit the park.
The next day we went by train to Miyajima with a shrine in the sea and a cable car and a cable car to Mount Misen . In our wisdom we walked down the steep rocky path to the bottom but this was the first time we had got away from people and we relished the quietness and being in nature.

Week 5 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong week 5

Arriving in Hong Kong island at our AirBnB we had to lug our cases up 3 flights of stairs to a miniscule non too clean apartment which was so small that there wasn’t enough room to store a suit case. Spartan living but Hong Kong apartment prices are horrendous and we were well located. Our neighbours were a church and a massage parlour.
The next day we took the ferry to Portuguese Macau and found this to have a very European feel with squares and churches except for the masses of people and the heat.
Hong Kong is a great place to walk except for the heat and humidity , there is an escalator going right up the mountain with off shoots for shopping centres. We walked up to the Botanical Gardens, an oasis in the middle of the high rise office buildings. Hong Kong is not ashamed of its colonial past, street names are familiar English ones , statues remain of Royalty and English is widely spoken. Hong Kong definitely sees itself as being different from China.
It’s also very cosmopolitan, restaurants everywhere, and the developments inside and outside the city take the breathe away . The vistas of sea, islands, high rise buildings , bridges and old tenements like we lived in are unique. And everywhere there are people , masses of them, what vibrancy. But live there? I doubt it, real estate prices are astronomical and there’s a lack of breathing space.

Week 4 – China

China week 4

We took a bullet train for 8 hours to Guilian , for long spells it went at over 300 kms per hour and at that speed it’s hard to focus on anything outside. But it’s mysterious for us to see deserted building sites and derelict half ruined houses. Is this all part of a mass relocation project or is it just the on-going Chinese scheme to keep the GDP growth at 7% by creating engineering schemes.
The train stations are built on a model and all look the same and many seem far too big for their purpose. It’s like putting Shanghai station in the middle of a country village.
We stayed a couple of nights in Guilian but I was suffering again from breathing problems so stayed put. We then moved by bus to Yangshuo to a pleasant family run hotel next to the river. This is the land of the karst limestone mountains , at times it looked eerily like the Chinese landscape paintings, misty mountains, peasants tending the rice fields and a slow pace of life. Patrick and I took a bike ride and proceeded to get lost, we were rescued by a local who poled us across the river on his bamboo raft. We called in at an English language school; it would be very idyllic to teach there in the middle of the country.
There’s an element of interference by the Government here, empty state run buses which charge an arm and a leg and police manning road blocks . The local people resent this. It would seem that some people believe because of the one party state the individual has little say in the running of the country. The Government encourages a movement away from the country villages and that genetically engineered crops mean higher food growth and efficient agricultural system. The Government bulldoze their projects through, there’s little or no negotiation on compensation for building, the Government own the land on a 70 year lease.
We met some climbers from Switzerland who had travelled to climb the steep karst limestone.
Because of the increase in costs there are less foreign visitors who can visit other Far Eastern countries at a lower cost. It seems to us that China charges high amounts for some mundane sights , it’s not a cheap destination any more.
There’s an English school here . It would be nice to teach for some time here.
Walking and riding around in the heat and humidity is energy sapping. I need to keep topped up with water and food.
On our last day in China we took the bullet train to Shenzhen, the metro to the border with Hong Kong, went through customs and immigration , which seems strange as it’s now one country and then the MRT to our AirBnB on Hong Kong Island

Week 3 – China

China week 3

Xian is a complete contrast to Pingyao , row after row of high rises ,swarms of people and ugly. Patrick was not feeling well so Carol and I went in search of some medicine. The system is different here, pharmacies are inside a nearby hospital and this created a good impression. Clean , prompt helpful service despite the language problem , and we got our medicines. Patrick stayed in bed and Carol and I explored the Bell and Drum Towers and the Moslem market and old mosque. The market was frenetic with countless things to eat, men bashing bread, meat, making nuts , pasta and half the time we had no idea what they were doing or selling. We walked back in pouring rain.
The next day we did the sensible thing and hired a car and driver and visited first an archaeological site from 6000 years ago , living very similarly to remote African tribes today. On to the Terracotta Warriors, an astounding place. 3 digs of hundreds of clay soldiers , each individual in build and face together with horses , chariots . The question is why did the Emperor do this , have this whole army buried with him? Was it megalomania or as some think did he expect to carry on in death as in life , inspecting his army ?
The following hot day we went by public bus to the Large Goose Pagoda, another large temple complex in the centre of the city with splendid views from the top of wide avenues in 4 directions.. Here Carol took a tumble and has been hindered since by a badly bruised foot.
We flew to Shanghai , a painless experience except for having to open our checked baggage all for the sake of nail scissors. There’s a lot of mindless beauracracy in China , one becomes a little tired of bag and personal searches on trains, planes , and undergrounds but I suppose it’s better than terrorist bombs.
By now I had succumbed to the Asian bug and spent one day in our rather disappointing Air BnB . However it was well placed and for 2 days we took a hop on and hop off bus around the remarkable city. The Bund is a pedestrian area around the river with a collection of 1920’s well-preserved bank buildings and across the river in the financial district we went up to the 80th floor in a split second to have wondrous views around the city. Shanghai ranks up there as a major city alongside Hong Kong , Singapore and Bangkok and is far more modern and fresh compared to Beijing.
But you have to ask questions about the sustainability of the Chinese miracle.
A short train ride to Hangzhou and a special in a 4 star hotel which was welcome. A day spent by the lake with a boat ride alongside what seemed like a million other persons.
China never ceases to amaze , this town has an expanding metro , an airport and a population of 6 million, just another town in China.
A disappointing aspect of China is the lack of Facebook, Internet, Instagram due to China’s fear of social media. Their ATM’s are also a bit fear making and the vast railway stations with thousands of people milling about, the stations seem to be carbon copies of each other.
If asked the question “ Is it worthwhile to visit China ?” the answer is a definite yes. We’ve seen amazing sights, wonderful foods and witnessed first-hand a country that has transformed itself in 20 years.