Tabi wa michizure, yo wa nasake

This is for the lady who bought me matcha ice cream on the shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo. You were everything I needed just at that moment and I will never forget your kindness.

A very slow train took me into the mountains, to the old village Tsuwano. I wanted to go hiking, but did not because apparently mountains have bears. Instead I visited a temple and had a look around the old samurai quarter, where koi fish crowd the streets more than traffic or people do.

Seven and a half hours aka one limited express train, one shinkansen, one streetcar, one ferry, one local train and a second streetcar later, I found myself in Matsuyama on the island Shikoku. Matsuyama is known for its old onsen and castle. so those I went to see. I found Matsuyama a very pleasant city, and it really is a pity that I did not spend more time to see Shikoku. Luckily when I left I took a three and a half hour back to Okayama that went along the coast, which was absolutely magnificent.

A few days of travel by train later I made it to my final destination in Japan: Nikko. An abundance of World Heritage temples and a funky bridge make this town appealing for tourists, and also ridiculously expensive. But it was all very pretty.

Japan was everything I had imagined and more. I was surprised and warmed by the kindness of strangers, especially the plastic bag man and the fan and matcha ladies. It is a country with great natural beauty, rich history, and a current, up-to-date, convenient and technological approach to contemporary living. It is also sometimes highly bewildering and freaky. I am so glad to have visited this country and would definitely recommend it to everyone. Sayonara, friends.

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Never a cloudy day

My Japan Rail Pass proved its value again when I chose to move from Nara to Okayama. I actually only wanted to spend the night in Okayama to break up the journey to the Inland Sea island Naoshima, but ended up exploring the city as well. Okayama is home to the Korakuen Garden, one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. Don’t laugh, this is an official title! I don’t know which the other two gardens are, but if you want to find out I’m sure the answer is only one Google away. I can only attest that yet, the garden is gorgeous. Next to the garden lies the Okayama castle, which is also quite a sight.

From Okayama I took the train once more, to Uno (yes, really). From there I took the ferry to Naoshima, a small island which has somehow turned into one big art project. I was having flashbacks to Tasmania’s MONA as I rode my e-bike around the sunny, beautiful island and visited the Benesse Art House and its surrounding artwork. I felt that the island’s beauty somehow outshines the art, and that the whole project did not turn out quite as cool as MONA. But then I did the art house project in Honmura… Basically the art house project is six installations placed in old houses around the fishing town of Honmura. The one which I thought was pretty awesome was one where we were led into a dark barn, told to touch the wall and follow it, and eventually sit down on a bench. We sat there and stared in front of us for what felt like ages, and after about ten minutes our eyes got used to the dark and could discern a faint source of light in the barn. It was then possible to move around and explore the space surrounding us. Maybe it sounds a bit banal, but it was really cool to do.

From one island to the next. Ferry, bullet train and another ferry, and I was on Miyajima. This World Heritage island is famous for its floating shrine and temple (they’re not really floating, of course, it just looks that way when it’s high tide) and for its historic temples. Daishoin is the biggest temple complex and has some very impressive features. I was mostly impressed/entertained by the Buddha statuettes in red knitted hats.

Somehow, Miyajima is also home to the world’s biggest wooden ladle.

Then it was time for Hiroshima. I visited the A-bomb dome, the Peace Park and its monuments, and the Peace Museum. Sad, sad stories.

Anecdote: due to an accident with the local trains, I had to take the hiroden to Hiroshima instead. It was completely packed and the air conditioning was not sufficient for so many people. One very kind Japanese lady saw me sweating and handed me her spare hand fan. Thank you!

Do I get the gold chariot, do I float through the ceiling?

Temples! Shrines! Pagodas! More temples! More shrines! More pagodas!

From Kyoto I traveled to the holy mountain Koyasan. The trip up to the basin was definitely an important part of the experience: taking a slow, squeaking train up, up, up, through dense forest and tunnels. The last part uphill was too steep for the train, so we had to change to a cable car. The mountain town of Koyasan is ancient, very sacred, and filled with temples. Many of these also operate as ryokan (guesthouses), so I staid two nights in one of them. This can easily be described as a once in a lifetime experience. I was given slippers and a yukata to wear at my leisure around the temple, except to meals and prayers. My bedroom had no bed at first, but did have a low table and cushion set up for me on the tatami. Green tea and a sweet were waiting for me. The monk who checked me in opened the sliding window panels to let some air in, and came back to make a bed for me on the floor while I was having my dinner. This dinner consisted of 14 – 17 little bowls, cups and plates, all containing some different vegetarian Buddhist nutriments. Tofu, tempura, seaweed, soy sauce, pickles, rice, more green tea, and some fruit for dessert were all included. The elaborate meal took a long time for me to finish, especially as I was not accustomed to eating soup and soft tofu with chopsticks. I can proudly say I managed a lot better for breakfast and dinner the next day.

Here are some of the sights at Koyasan.

Possibly the most sacred and famous attraction in Koyasan is the Okunoin. This is a long road where pilgrims used to and still go to pay their respects. The long winding road is basically one long cemetery, with various statues and shrines alongside it. The road leads up to a huge lantern hall, which was originally built around two large lanterns which were donated by devout patrons in the 16th century. Nowadays it is still a custom to donate lanterns of various shapes and sizes, and so the hall is filled from top to bottom with them. Next to the original hall is an annex with more lanterns. Behind the lantern hall lies the most sacred spot of all, a wooden shrine where Kobo Daishi is said to remain in eternal meditation. Kobo Daishi is a learned, much respected monk who went to study Buddhism in China for two years and upon his return set up the holy community in Koyasan. He also managed to convince several warlords of his time not to attack the village, and some of these military men became devoted Buddhists themselves later on. The continued cultural/religious importance of this man in Japan cannot be underestimated. He is revered by many, and his legacy is still tangible in many parts of Japan. Rather than being dead, he is said to remain in deep meditation in his wooden shrine at Okunoin, to spread compassion and kindness to all suffering humans. Sometimes, it is said, he appears to pilgrims on the Okunoin.

All this holiness and I still wanted more. From Koyasan I took a train back down, and finally ended up in Nara. For any Alt-J fans reading this blog: yes, the very same Nara! This pretty little city draws visitors not only for its significant and impressive temples and shrines and history, but also because of the deer. Yes, deer. Before Buddhism became big in Japan, the locals in Nara believed that deer were messengers of the gods, and could not be killed. That is why today deer still live alongside humans here. They are cute, enjoy being fed deer cookies, and roam the streets at their leisure.

If you build yourself a myth

Personally I had never heard much about Kyoto, apart from that at some point some years ago a bunch of important people got together there and said some things about climate change. I guess I was vaguely aware it was a city in Japan; from my eurocentric point of view it always seemed like such a strange move to go all the way to frigging Japan to talk about the climate. You may just as well do that in a place closer to home and thus less polluting to travel to, folks. Yeah. My perception of the world has changed a bit since then.

Anyways, I’m getting sidetracked. Kyoto! Anagram of Tokyo, this place was the capital of Japan once upon a time. Nowadays it is a big, modern city, with so much history left all over the place, I hardly knew where to start. So I just followed my feet and ended up in old Higashiyama. Gion. Where the geishas live. Lo and behold! I came round a corner and saw three getting in a taxi. Wuuuut. Lucky me.

Here’s a quaint street in Higashiyama for ya.

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Gion/Higashiyama

Kyoto, being so old and formerly so important and all, naturally has a lot of old (reconstructed) buildings and temples to showcase. Here’s one of them.

An area that has streets as charming as Gion but more known for its nightlife is Pontocho.

One temple that Kyoto is, like, REALLY famous for is Kinkaku-ji, aka the Golden Temple. Gorgeous. And check out the phoenix on top.

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Can you believe this is real?!

But there’s more temples!

And if all of those temples aren’t enough yet, there’s a castle, too. The castle was home to, believe it or not, the very last samurai. Samurai ruled Japan for a good 700 years I read, but then in the 19th century the political climate changed (what is up with Kyoto and climates changing, eh…) and the imperial family decided they would take back the power to rule, thank you very much. The last samurai realized his days would be very numbered indeed if he did not cooperate, and so he called his mates and decided to hand back power to the emperors. That all happened in Nijo Castle.

Obviously the emperors couldn’t let the samurais have a castle and not have one of their own… so there’s the Imperial Palace as well.

Right next to that there’s a fancy building where important international guests are received. It was built only after the Kyoto agreement, I read, so none of those important people would have spent the night there. However, some of them were very likely in the building just south of that, which used to be a palace with extensive gardens for retired emperors and/or dowager empresses. Now I think I read recently that in all the history of Japan there was only ever one emperor who stepped down before dying, so I suppose not many men ever lived there. Before the fancy new house was built, it was this palace that was often used to receive important international visitors. I also read that the furniture was redone in the early 20th century to boast a Western style, so as to please the Prince of Wales. We weren’t allowed to look inside, so I have no idea what the interior looks like now and if I would be pleased if I were Prince of Wales.

To change things up, the last thing I did in Kyoto was visit the International Manga Museum. It’s not very international, and there’s a lot of manga. On my way back from there to the hostel it started raining like crazy, and my feet got wet, and now my shoes stink like I’m single- well, footedly – raising a new kind of blue cheese in them. Seriously. This has gone beyond simple stinky feet and has turned into fermentation. I would like to point out that my feet smell just fine, it’s the shoes that have developed this… quality. If anyone knows how to get rid of this evil, please comment. And yes, I have tried washing them.

Ashes in the snow

As I mentioned in my previous blog, after three days in Tokyo I said bye-bye to the big city and set sail (well, I took a train) for Kamakura. This little seaside city was Japan’s capital once upon a time, but that time is long past. As a result it is now a pleasant coastal place with many historic sites. Temples, old buildings, ocean view apartments, the beach, hills and the train tracks that run through the town make a quirky, charming combination.

After my last night in Tokyo, I left again, with no intentions to return before the end of my tour of Japan. Where does one go from Tokyo? Why, to Mount Fuji, of course. Two trains and two and a half hours since Shinjuku I set foot in the mountainside town of Kawaguchiko, which lies next to the lake with the same name. Clean air and spectacular views made my two days in the shadow of Mt Fuji very worth my while indeed. Many tourists, Japanese and foreign alike, set out to climb the mountain. This is still considered an important pilgrimage and many Japanese especially adore the holy mountain and cherish dreams of one day reaching the top. As I am not Japanese and the best view of a mountain is never from its own top, I was satisfied with cycling the 25 km around lake Kawaguchiko and enjoying the views of the lake and mountain from there.

 

I will travel across the land, searching far and wide

Konnichiwa, and greetings from the land of the rising sun! I have now been in Japan for a little under a week, and every day has been an adventure. I started off where most do just that, in Tokyo. Fact: Tokyo is the most populous metropolitan area in the whole world. As such I was expecting people, a lot of them, hustle and bustle and a sink-or-swim feeling as one navigates the streets. There certain are areas like that, places which get swarmed during rush hour or on Saturday evening when everyone wants to see the hottest new absurdity in town. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that Tokyo certainly also has its quieter parts, and more so, that the city is built to accommodate so many people. There is space to breathe, cars will not run you over, people ride bicycles. This is somewhat of a revelation coming from Southeast Asia.

Based in residential/historical Asakusa, on my first day I set out to visit the Tokyo National Museum and the old town Yanaka. Here are some pictures.

On my second day I went to visit some sites that are perhaps more frequently associated with Tokyo. Busy Shibuya with its famous Hachiko crossing, Omotesando with its fancy shops, Harajuku with its pop culture, and the park and shrine at Meiji Jingu.

On my third day I visited the old temple Senso-ji, which lies in Asakusa. The previous evening I had also passed by a Hello Kitty-themed parking lot, which I found to fascinating not to take a picture of.

On my fourth and last day in Tokyo I switched my residence from Asakusa to Shinjuku, with a stop in Kamakura in between – more about that in my next blog. I had really enjoyed staying in stylish, old, quiet Asakusa, and was less than impressed with Shinjuku. This is your typical Tokyo with too many people, billboards, neon lights flashing everywhere, music playing at you from every direction. Moreover my hostel was not as close to the train station as I would have liked, and actually it was located in an area called Kabuchiko. Ever heard of Japanese robot shows? Cosplay love hotels? If you haven’t and are curious to find out, I warn you that your boss will not appreciate you googling these things on your work computer.

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Shinjuku

Ok, so while Shinjuku and especially Kabuchiko are essentially the planet’s biggest freak show, all in all I was pleasantly surprised, entertained and fascinated by Tokyo. I am really happy that the bored-to-death version of myself in Sydney decided to just book that flight.

Malaysian Highlights

Well, haven’t I been neglecting you all. I meant to write sooner, but first the wifi wasn’t good enough, then I had other things to do. I’m in a country with magnificent wifi now and I can’t wait to tell you about all the things I’m seeing and experiencing here, but let’s finish off Malaysia first.

Here goes. From George Town in Pulau Penang I took the rockiest ferry ride of my life to Pulau Langkawi. I am never taking that boat again (I think I still go green in the face just thinking of it) but the beaches were nice.

Langkawi northern beacch

My original plan was to take the ferry back to Pulau Penang and spend some more time there before moving on to Belum National Park and then the Perhentian Islands. But no way Jose was I getting back on that ferry! So instead I took a plane to lovely Melaka, where there was more street art and World Heritage.

As I was now basically on the opposite side of the Malaysian peninsula from where I thought I was going to be, the rest of my travel arrangements changed accordingly. I took the bus to Mersing and from there another ferry – which I was obviously dreading – to Pulau Tioman. This ferry ride was a breeze in comparison to the one to Langkawi, and as soon as we reached Tioman I knew I had come to paradise. The bluest, clearest water. The whitest, finest sand. The greenest, lushest jungle. And that was before I discovered the coral reefs. Oh man. The coral reefs. They were orange and pink and magenta and light blue and yellow. And Nemo lived there. And blue-spotted stingrays. And sea cucumbers. (They are yuck.) And tiny little see-through fish that electrocuted me. And zebra-striped fish, and fish with weird snouts, and with five different colours.  It was incredible. I also met up with an old friend and her girlfriend, and almost every day I went for coconut milkshakes at the Cabana. Oh, life.

Paradise never lasts forever though, and so in due time I moved on to Taman Negara at Kuala Tahan. Taman Negara means National Park, and apparently this one is the biggest and most famous one of Malaysia. Deep in the jungle there’s tigers and snakes and rhinos. I saw squirrels. You may laugh, but who is not cheered at the sight of a squirrel? I also saw leeches, was bitten by one, bled profusely, still have the mark on my ankle to show it. The little mousedeer I spotted was way more enjoyable to watch, as were the many giant butterflies and tiny little birds. I slept in a tent for a week, which was nice for a change, until it rained and I found it had a hole in its roof. It’s also such a shame that this national park is kind of left to rot. 10 to 20 years ago it must have had good facilities for any kind of visitor, from experienced hiker to jungle rookie, but now it’s kind of falling apart. Apparently this is the most accessible national park in Malaysia, too. Many of its mammal inhabitants are supposedly protected, but there’s plenty of poaching going on still. I think the Malaysian government can make an effort there, both for the sake of tourism as of the environment.

Finally I ended up in Kuala Lumpur again. I staid in another area than I had previously done, and so ended up seeing new things. Among them the famous Petronas Towers aka Twin Towers.

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Petronas Twin Towers Kuala Lumpur