Monday, 26 May 2014

Island life on shodoshima

Our first Workaway experience. The deal with Workaway is that you work a certain amount of hours labour in return for food and lodging. This Workaway was with Mitsi, her two boys (and dog) on the island of Shodoshima - west of Osaka in the Setouchi Sea of Japan. Shodishima is a hilly, rugged island covered in thick woods and rocky outcrops with three or four settlements mainly on the south. Mitsi’s house was on a hillside overlooking the harbour and 

View from the balcony
reached by, what felt like, a thousand steps. We had the two rooms on the second floor with a huge balcony overlooking the bay, it was a fabulous space! In return for this space we washed her car, cleaned windows inside and out. Did a complete spring clean of the house, fixed screens, erected a sunscreen, looked after the boys and generally just chatted. One day we decided to surprise Mitsi by cleaning weeds from a wall and heavily overgrown piece of land below her house. We managed about 7 metres before she came home and told us it wasn’t her garden!!!

Mitsi, Ansell, Miki and Coco the dog were a lovely family, full of enthusiasm (well some more than others – Miki needed encouragement to pull his eyes away from his comics or electronic games!) and very warm and welcoming. Maybe not conventional Japanese because Mitsi had spent half of her life either in the US or New Zealand and the boys were only a year in Japan, but they introduced us to Japanese life nevertheless. We were plunged into the realities of being a working single parent family and helped out as we say above and with some English lessons that Mitsi gives.

Working for a change was something of a novelty so the little that was asked of us we did with good heart and relish but as well as this we enjoyed going around the island on bikes and trying soy icecream from one of the many soy factories there, seeing how life on a small island works and practicing our poor and insubstantial Japanese on the locals.

During our week here we went to the boys sports day. An odd mixture of dance, performance, small races and chanting team challenges. Who would have thought unicycles, glorified four man piggy back battles, and 5 tier human pyramid would be part of a school curriculum.

We spent a day with Akiko (a friend of Mitsi) being shown the island. Going up the ropeway to the high point of the island to Kan Ka Kei and looking down on the blue sea and craggy coastline before heading to Olive park for lunch.

Another day was spent at the local dam. This large structure spans a gorge that is some 200 metres high. At the bottom there is an outlet that regulates the water contained inside the dam and this is open enough to form a shallow stream that trickles over boulders down the length of the valley to the sea. The sun shone and we climbed the several hundred steps up one side of the dam to walk across the bridge and down the other side – strangely satisfying in a sweaty sort of way. Another family joined us and we ate and chatted whilst the children played in the 

stream, jumped from rock to rock and threw flip flops at one another. We finished the day there by going to an Onsen. A large public bath where sex-segregated groups can sit in overly hot water and chat. Potentially a pleasant thing were it to be mix sex and in a natural setting but in a square bath in a utilitarian building it was a little forced. Later, when we arrived home Mitzi prepared a meal of Sushi do it yourself dishes to try and we ate various raw fish, cooked chicken and vegetables wrapped in seaweed until it was time to have an inpromptu dance competition/exhibition in front of an ipad. Great fun and very funny.

We played badminton with a group of Japanese people and conversed through their limited language and our miming skills.

We had dinner with a family at their home which was a cross between the home of the Darling Buds of May, a Mexican taverna and a ramshackle Japanese farmhouse. This lovely family had been moved from their home near Fukushima because of radiation from the plant and they now live something of an idyllic life Great thanks to Ken chan and Ton chan for the food and huge amount of wine.

Life on Shodoshima is slow and easy and feels a little like a place trapped in time. We were so fortunate to go there and know that if we ever go back we have good friends there to welcome us.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Accommodation juxtaposition


The drive from Hakuba to Takayama is stunning. The road winds through tunnels, along wooded valleys and beside icy blue lakes until it reaches the beginnings of the plains and Takayama. This small city of 100,000 or so people is dotted with temples, shrines and charming buildings all set amongst pine covered rolling hills with snow-capped mountains in the distance. The centre of the town has been well preserved and everywhere you look there 

are one or two storey wooden buildings of the traditional Japanese style. The streets have water filled gulley’s running down either side and streams are often found being channelled between the houses. Consequently the trickling sound of water is heard everywhere. It is truly one of the most picturesque cities we have seen and because it is relatively small it is easy to explore. We are here on a whim but because it is so pleasant we stay for three days. We have a room in a Zen-Buddhist temple that opens directly into the main prayer hall. So going to and from our room involves passing an ornate altar and prayer mats. 

It is a lovely peaceful room with paper screens and although there are one or two other people staying here they are all housed in another part of the temple so we only see them in the communal kitchen. Because of the architectural delights in the town there are always lots of tour groups wandering around but as the day wears on these seem to fade away and the streets become virtually empty. We walked for miles during our time here and especially enjoyed the quite hillside walk taking in shrines and cemeteries all tucked away in the pine forests and the forest of 7 happy gods where there are some magnificent wood carvings.


Just for a bit of contrast we have come from Takayama  and back to Osaka and wow is this place buzzing. It’s like Blade runner without the rain and gravity defying cars (oh and murderous robots). Huge billboards shout out there messages, neon is everywhere. Shops and restaurants are stocked with beautiful items of houseware, clothing, shoes and food are all around us. We 

walked the length of the world’s longest undercover shopping arcade – 2.8km I think and still could find a pair of shoes to fit me. There is money here in abundance and the fancy shops are stacked one after the other along the roads but having said that there are still plenty of places to eat for relatively little money. 1300 yen gets us a shared salad, a pasta dish and 500ml of wine. Osaka needs to move a lot of people so the road system must be efficient. 4 lane highways are not uncommon and we even came across an 8 lane one running through the centre of town 

(that’s 8 in one direction). As per usual we walked for miles and saw Osaka castle, the parks and so many shops that I felt confused. It’s a great city to be in. Huge and vibrant and full of crazily dressed young hipsters that no one apart from us seem to even notice.

Sexy fun

Our accommodation was something of a change from the Zen temple because we have spent the last two nights in a love hotel!!! These excellent establishments sell rooms by the hour in the day but at night they are much cheaper than normal hotels. Consequently we have a room that was 7 x 5 metres plus toilet, dressing room and large bathroom. The bathroom comes 

equipped with a whole host of toiletries, a shower, Jacuzzi bath and indispensible blow up Lilo for sexy, soapy fun. The main room has a huge bed covered in crisp, clean sheets over memory foam mattress. There is massage chair, a sofa, karaoke mikes, a wired in vibrator/massager, free condoms, eye-masks and vending option in each room to purchase sex toys for your pleasure. It’s a bit cheesy but spotlessly clean and you don’t have to watch pixelated Japanese porn on the 50 inch flat screen if you don’t want to. But quite honestly it would be churlish not to. These hotels offer supposed discretion but invariably look like they have been styled by Disney. Ours was a French clock tower affair. 

Love Hotel - Osaka

You enter the unmanned foyer select your room by picture and push the buy button. You then take a lift to the appropriate floor and room number. Later, when you leave, one simply scans a credit card or puts the room price into a cash payment machine. A simple, seamless, secretive and sexy sojourn without meeting another person – really quite brilliant!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

The big budget busting day is looming, the day I have been waiting and planning for weeks…The Alpine Route, from Toyama to Ogizawa 55.6kms on 7 different modes of transport. I am so excited!

We get up early (some of us had trouble sleeping, a bit too excited) and leave the hotel at Dawn’s Crack to try and beat the rush for one of the first trains to Tateyama. But you can’t beat the rush in Japan. It doesn’t matter how early, there is always a crowd. Anyway, we queue to check our rucksacks on to the end of the journey and buy our tickets. The first tense moment and its only 6.50am….we can only buy a ticket for the first leg of the journey because its snowing on the mountains. So we get our ticket, send our luggage on but not certain we will reach the same destination and get on the local train for a 60 min ride. Gradually the scenery and atmosphere change. More hills and the peaks of the snow topped mountains come into view and we travel over streams and rivers of the clearest aquamarine water gushing over rocks. We can only imagine how cold and fresh the water must feel. Chris had a close shave when he got out of the train at one stop to take a picture and had to dive in through the doors as it left the station.

We arrive at Tateyama to good news, the route is open and the day is turning out to be perfect. The sun is shining and burning off the clouds, though the temperature is still a chilly -6.5 degrees at the top! Tickets are bought for the rest of the journey on cable car, bus through snow corridor, tunnel trolley bus, ropeway, another cable car and finally another trolley bus through a tunnel.

The first cable car starts our ascent into the mountain range to 977m and we all ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ at the scene. Then the bit I have been waiting for, the bus. It’s the first time I’ve ever been on a bus with snow chains on. This part takes you up to 2,450m, the highest point without trekking, and it takes you through primeval forests of cedar and pine trees with some of the oldest recorded. Including one that has a diameter of over 10m. The views are absolutely spectacular. The 

higher we get the higher the sides of the snow corridor get. We can see where they have literally cut the road through the snow. The snow walls are about 8m high on either side as we drive through and glimpses of the mountain peaks keep flashing up. We get out and the air is so clean and crisp at -3.2 degrees, the sun is shining and it feels so exhilarating, especially after all the months spent in hot, humid climates.

With all our layers on, hats, gloves, scarfs (hats courtesy of Jean, thanks, they were perfect!) we take a 1.7km tramp through the snow to see the sights. The snow corridor is impressive but is out done by the panorama of the mountain range all around us above the clouds. We smell ‘Jigokudani’, Hell Valley, before we get there. I thought Chris had a bad tummy but apparently it’s a volcanic area that is constantly erupting volcanic gas into the air and it stinks of eggy farts! Stomaches rumbling we decide its time for food so stop at a restaurant where you pick your lunch from a vending machine, buy the ticket and hand it in at a counter. All sounds simple….but the menu is in Japanese with no pictures. A friendly Japanese man translates enough that we

 have Miso and Soyu Ramen noodles with a glass of Sake. Bloody fantastic. As my dad noted, this is like the Japanese version of Laksa, delicious too. All warmed through we decide to continue or snow walk around a lake. The wind is getting up and the snow is getting deeper as less people have been along this path. Chris and I both lose our feet and sink up to 40cms into the snow as we make our way round. The lake itself is actually just a snow covered bowl where it should be, it does thaw out later in the year, and we are still clicking hundreds of photos of the views.

View from Kurobe Dam
The trolley bus is through a tunnel in Mt Tateyama, which is one the three most sacred mountains in Japan, and this is followed by a ropeway and cable car that bring you back down to 1455m and the Kurobe Dam. Again the views are breathtaking with the clearest, cleanest water in the dam with the backdrop of the mountains. Unfortunately they only open the dam twice a year so we didn’t get to see or hear the dramatic thunder of the water, but we did get a tasty strawberry ice cream. The final part is another trolley bus through the mountain again where the alpine route ends and we catch a regular bus and train to our next destination. The Alpine Route had a lot to live up to. I had researched and looked at so many pictures that I was worried about it being a disappointment. But I can honestly say it exceeded my expectations and was up there as one of my most amazing travel experiences.

Next stop Hakuba, a small ski resort at the foot of the Japanese Alps that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. It’s a beautiful little town with cute little bungalows and villas dotted around and a walking trail through pine scented forest. We arrive on the last day of the ski season. ‘Hoorah’, says Chris. ‘Shit’, says Rachel. And before I know it I’m wedging my feet into ski boots, the most uncomfortable form of footwear known to man, and pulling rather unattractive wet weather trousers on so we can drag ourselves up the mountain and launch ourselves down again with planks of wood strapped to our feet. Erm, as a first experience goes I don’t think I can say I actually skied. But I went down the slope, screaming, swearing and on my arse. Chris was very patient as small humans of about 3 & 4 whizzed past in their multi coloured outfits with their cool looking parents and I was so tense chris had to pull and push me down the slope. Anyway, getting on and off a chair lift once was enough for me so we stopped for lunch. A gorgeous beef stew and a much needed glass of red wine. I stayed there while Chris had a few more turns and I took photos.

The next day left me with, stiff legs, creaking knees and a sunburnt nose. Thankfully it had been the last day of the ski season! I guess its still quite cool to say my first ski experience was in Japan. I have a feeling the second will be in New Zealand and hopefully a little more successful.

Friday, 9 May 2014

IFLJ (I Fucking Love Japan)

After a break of five months living in Borneo we have once more resumed our travels and
arrived in Osaka in Japan at 12.30am on 3rd May. Our first accommodation is a  2m x 2m room equipped with the three “F’s” – fridge, fan & futon. The walls were paper thin. The futon even thinner and for our morning ablutions we sat in a row on little stools next to strangers and wondered why we do this. But then as we stepped out to the street in the morning sun, started to smile and haven’t stopped yet.  

The Japanese toilet is a technological wonder.  Sensors note your arrival and heat the seat to a pre-set temperature. Toilet seats open and close by the touch of a button. A pre-flush assures that the basin is clean. Pre-set music can be chosen to play whilst shitting and whilst flushing. To ensure a clean bum there are an array of spray setting that can be chosen according to sex, position, pressure and temperature and these are delivered by a retractable nozzle that appears automatically from beneath the seat. “But I have a wet bottom?” I hear you cry. Fear not, one only needs to push the bum-dryer button on the command console to have warm air blasted up your jacksie to dry you off. Finally all that’s needed is to hit the flush and close seat buttons before walking away to wash your hands. Although some cisterns have a sink on the top of them into which the refill water runs before collecting in the cistern. This way the hand washing does not use unnecessary water.

Toilet Mission Control
(For video see Gallery Pictures file 73. Japan)
Everyone here looks like they are the Japanese version of the North London set. The clothes are layered, well made and stylish.  Rolled up chinos, converse and tee shirts over long sleeved top are in for men with over knee socks, lace frills and chains over school ma’am clothes with trainers for girls. Anything goes and everybody looks shabby chic. Not only that – age makes little difference to style and they all look great. However, it is still a treat to see a beautifully crafted kimono worn by women and these are far more common occurrences than you might expect. As a rule the Japanese are a good looking bunch and to top it off many have funky hair, ready smiles and all have good manners.

We were only in Osaka for the morning as we will be going back later on in our travels. But in the area around the zoo where we were staying is reminiscent of Camden with cool shops and restaurants and a liberal amount of those lovely locals. We asked for help at an info kiosk and were not only given maps but led down the street to our turning to ensure we wouldn’t get lost.

Later, we took a series of trains that connect Osaka to Kyoto (50 minutes) and catch a bus to a suburb where we have rented a tiny one room apartment for three days this is about 2.5m x 6m and includes a wc room, a bathroom with slipper bath and sink and a kitchen-cum-lounge-cum-bedroom. It is bijoux and a bit out of the centre but easy for us as we have a couple of bikes with the flat to toodle around on. And toodle we did covering close to a 80km over the time we were there.

The Golden Temple - Kyoto
Kyoto is one of the major tourst towns but even so the evidence of tourists was pretty minimal. After dumping our bags we went to the Golden Palace. A truly beautiful building in landscaped water-featured gardens. The place was rammed with people but they are a placid bunch and we just went with the flow clicking photos of ponds and sculptured roofs, beautiful blossoms and interesting architecture. Later we go to another temple/shrine that is virtually empty and although not as impressive we were able to enjoy the sense of serenity that the gardens and courtyards were intended to convey., We even had green tea and local delicacies in a tea house with low tables and cushion mats. The sun shone down all day and as we cycled down the pathway that runs beside the river we saw couples and families playing on the banks and paddling in the cool waters. Young and old strolled hand in hand and it felt amazing to know we were in Kyoto on such a beautiful day.

Day two reminded us that we are no longer near the equator with a constant cold drizzle keeping us wet. Once more on our bikes we cycled down the river. At one stage Rachel rang her bell to move a pigeon from the path and startled a huge hawk that flapped up into the sky almost making her fall from her bike. The next thing we knew they were everywhere. We counted 12 of them as well as one egret, one crane, a handful of ducks, a fuck-load (official collective) of pigeons, several rooks and sparrows and other unspecified feathery friends. The Japanese are plainly good at birds.

Cars and signage
The need to optimise space has had a huge bearing on the car market here. There are nice cars about but Joe Average drives a box. Cars are small and essential short, thin and tall so they can still carry lots but take up hardly any floor space. Initially you think ugly but the longer you are here the more you get to appreciate the practicality.
Translation mistakes in signage are always funny here is one we have seen and a lovely piece of poor printing in the Air Asia magazine which has caused the letter ‘I’ to disappear. Another sign not here advertised the mouth watering "salad of Steaming Cock"......

Sightseeing on this wet day we biked through the central park and past the closed Imperial palace until we reached the Nijojo Castle. Inside was very dull with just lots of empty rooms but the walk around the outside was very nice although looking back at our pictures it all looks a bit drab because of the rain. We stopped for a Japanese fry up at some point and after chatting with the waiter for a bit were presented with a gift of decorative napkins. Awww.  Later, we happened upon The Bodu centre where Japans oldest martial arts training arena  is found and on this particular day a Kendo tournament was being held (Kendo - wooden sticks, caged masks and Darth Vader outfits). We were able to watch several contestants thwack one another whilst making strange noises in very formalised duels.

Day three and the sun is shining again. Today’s bike ride took us to the far south of the town to visit the Sanusangendo Temple where we saw the extraordinary sight of 1001 life-sized, golden painted, individually carved and unique, wooden buddhas. These beautiful scultures all stand side by side ten rows deep and are fronted by 28 guardians and a huge centre piece statue, Amazing!


Next stop was Fushimi-Ku a collection of shrines that are reached by by going through 1000 Tori gates that wend their way up the mountain to the principal shrine. These gates are painted orange with Japanese text running down the columns and stand close behind one another to form virtual tunnels. Another incredible sight.

Finally we bike back up through the Gion district. Geisha houses, tea houses, restaurants and lots of tourists. But with the wonderfully crafted wooden architecture all around we barely noticed.

The last two days have been spent first in Kanazawa and then Toyama. The second has not too much to recommend it and was more of a resting post for us but the first has some pleasant sights – The principal characters being the Omi-cho Market which sells a huge variety of fish and especially crabs. The lovely and extensive central park around the Kanazawa Castle and the Kenroku-en Gardens. A delightfully crafted botanical show piece said to be one of the best in the world. The gardens are dotted with streams and ornamental ponds around which Bonsai trees, rocks and wonderful flower arrangements can be found.


If you are stupid enough to buy shoes that are too small in Borneo then you might have to buy more shoes in Japan. If you are a woman that’s easy. If you are a man with size 10 feet it is nearly impossible. Over the last two days we have visited about 20 shoe shops and none have over size 9.5. so am having to do the Alpine route tomorrow in either old worn out trainers or new ill fitting shoes.

For a look at the pics we have taken in Japan so far. Gallery