2009 April. Japan

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If it’s Easter it must be time for holidays and Robyn and I snuck away from Australia on the back of one of those long builders holidays. I pleaded with my new employer for an extra week and here we are with two weeks in Japan. I’ll pay for the extra time on my return I’m sure. We’d always wanted to visit here and it’ at a great time of the year.The blossom is out and the weather is beautiful spring weather.

First few days have been in Tokyo. We arrived late into the evening and really should have gone straight to our room but there was a little light shining at a seedy looking bar across the road. It was demanding that I partake of the legendary Japanese businessmen’s Friday night drinks. The locals didn’t disappoint. They were telling each other the wildest jokes, so funny they were choking on their two hundredth cigarette as their collars loosened and the beer bonded us all. The proprietor was kept busy mopping up spilt beer and cooking plates of fishy things. I had no choice but to eat only those things that came to other nearby tables. By grabbing his arm and pointing in a primitive way we were able to share a few dishes which although tasty were and still are unknown to both of us.

11042009223The bar beckoning us like a lighthouse from across the road. we are coming….
Headed off early to the famous Tokyo fish market the following morning. My hope was to identify some of the things I had eaten the previous evening. There was everything that crawls the ocean floor and then some. I am sure that half of the fish that live in the sea were on ice here. The multi-millionaires from Port Lincoln in South Australia would be besides themselves if they saw the care and price being paid for their exported blue fin tuna. It is treated with great care, wiped dry between cuts just as a mother does in caring for her first-born. It was almost religious and taken very seriously the way these guys were treating these lumps of glistening red flesh.

P1000924The precision in cutting the tuna, like gold from the sea. We watched in silence.

We munched on tempura calamari as we walked the streets around the market. Stalls selling bonito flakes from huge wooden boxes the aroma of the tuna strong in the air. It was like a carpenter’s workshop with tuna shavings billowing about as bags were jammed with various grades of the benito flakes.

P1000956Benito (tuna) flakes being packaged and sold. The air full of, um, the smell of fish.

Still trying to get my head around the quantity of fish being eaten here. Strong oily fish for breakfast really doesn’t get my heart racing like cornflakes and a strong coffee. The coffee is fine but they struggle with milk products. All coffee milk seems to be more like rich cream, I’ll get by I’m sure.
Walked all of the major parks in the city, The weekend was supposedly a lucky one for getting married. Yeah I know, lucky and marriage in the same sentence. Anyway it was a nice day out and the women were beautifully dressed in traditional gowns and powdered up in those ghostly white faces. They shuffled along under huge orange umbrellas looking solemn and wondering if they could afford to feed all of those they’d invited to the reception.

P1010017The wedding ceremonies are so classic, so elegant and full of tradition.

Just as impressive were the young girls tottering along on high, high heels on the gravel paths. It must have been like running a marathon on their calves to do the two plus kilometres from the shrine to the subway station. I’m sure they take them off immediately. Blossom fell on everyone as we strolled the paths, everyone cherishes the blossom season here.

Spent yesterday morning in ‘Tokyo Hands’ a department store that sells everything, yes everything. You could get bottom wipes for your dog, dog clothes with a handle on the top to pick him up. A special thing called “cat in a bag” which was a play thing for your favourite pet which was a paper bag which distinctly looked like a cat was inside struggling to get out. Oh it’s tail was outside the bag. Spent much of our time in the stationary department where they had every thickness of pen imaginable in every colour you could dream of. Robyn will be the talk of her department with her bright purple .35 ultrasonic !

12042009224At “Tokyo Hands” you can buy anything. Doggie toothbrush. What colour sir ?

Caught a flight to Nagasaki today. Went to the atomic bomb peace park, the devastation was unbelievable and a grim warning of the potential damage from nuclear power in the wrong hands. For all of the pain that Nagasaki has had there was an upbeat feeling to the place. it is in a beautiful area of Japan with low mountains and many sea-inlets about. The force of those bombs flattened everything.

P1010046Hiroshima fountain resembling the wings of an angel. at the other end an imposing statue of a man one hand pointing skyward, warning, the other reaching out in peace.

Just a pity that it feels like every single part of the country has been controlled by man, even the “natural’ forests. We are both loving it here although we are regularly looking at each other for support as we eat unknown objects. I’m hoping it wasn’t whale blubber we ate for lunch, it certainly was rubbery and that wasn’t a pun. I’m off for my first sulphur loaded spa, I hope I don’t scare the locals.

P1010073Plumbing the Earth’s steam for the towns spa-baths.

The last week has been like one of those game shows where the minute you understand the location you are in they send you off somewhere else using another form of transport. Nagasaki was interesting yet upsetting. A beautiful place that was blown to absolutely nothing yet today has regrown and seeing it in Spring it is hard to believe that it all happened.
A mixture of trains and buses has us in the mountains around Unzen, a stinky town full of sulphur gas that doesn’t leave you or your clothes till you depart. We wander about the scenic walks full of burping mud and escaping gas. It leaves the whole mountain side looking surreal in a thick wash of fog. We escape all of this to eat at a very nice looking restaurant frequented by the local well-to-do ladies, you know the ladies who lunch? We are given something that tastes and has the consistency of chewing gum without any real taste. Blubber, surely not, if it is, Greenpeace have nothing to worry about, the taste simply won’t catch on.

P1010083Every mouthful of food prepared and presented with care. There was never a grain of rice out-of-place. It must be so expensive and time-consuming to present.

P1010087                          Robyn getting into the mood or is she praying that the bed is comfy ?   
Our rooms seem to be getting more stark, I walk around our room wondering where everything is. Matting for a bed, a cord to pull to turn an overhead light on. That’s it. I decide on a spa, that’s what they do here. I try to remember the etiquette, strip off, scrub like your mother would, rince….twice, and then ease into the spa preferably with a wet towel on your head and eyes straight ahead. The spa will gurgle and carry on as the excess water leaves the tub, more if you are big bugger. Now look serene. I scare the poor Japanese guy into next week with my awkward entry. He’s the size of a thirteen year old and as pale as a new moon. I finish the day as I had my entry into the spa, by mistakenly leaving our room butt-naked to trying to find the light switch. Guess who was past ? my friend from the spa, he’ll have nightmares. We’ll be removed before morning. The next morning I meet ? my small friend again in the spa, I’m sure he thinks I am stalking him. I can imagine him saying I’ll go early tomorrow for some peace and quiet, the spa burped and gurgled as the monster, that would be me, tried so carefully to enter serenely, but his day was ruined ! To be honest I’d needed the early spa to loosen my stiff bones after having slept on the floor. We have how many more nights of this traditional stuff? Five ! oh my god….

P1010098Kumamoto castle

A ferry, then a tour of Kumamoto Castle before another train which leaves us in the middle of nowhere. We pick up our Toyota, yes I’m giving their roads a test and zoom off into the distance but I’m being screamed at by the Satnav. I know its angry at me, the thing is flashing madly and the voice pitch even in Japanese is high, I ignore it and press on. We find our traditional inn and it at least sells beer. Enough beer and I won’t notice sleeping on the floor again. Our holiday highlight over dinner is when I remark as Robyn shovels in the first meat in days that the steak is very tender. I then reconfirmed with the hostess that the horse meat is very tender tonight, Robyn’s eyes cross as she tries to hold it down.

P1010127Just before Robyn unknowingly eats her first horse…..giddyup !

We are both losing interest in the food. Next morning we head to Mt Aso a big live volcano with more smoke and coloured water. It’s impressive but I need to get out and walk. There is a mountain range behind and I leave Robyn to drive the car whilst I scramble over rocks and then walk the ridge to better view the area. It’s magnificent but I find myself holding on tight as the wind buffers me threatening to push me over the edge. Many hours later I return for lunch, a hotdog from a small van in the museum car park, Robyn’s grin tells it all, real food.

P1010101Mt Aso. cauldron.

Spent a couple of days in Beppu further down the coast. Robyn has been sick for a few days and hasn’t eaten anything, anything. Back on the local trains. The staff is so courteous and so proud of their jobs, Conex, you are on notice. God we don’t even have conductors ! After visiting the Beppu foreshore I am disappointed, concrete blocks for miles to protect the shoreline but it looks like a battle field.


Things get better when I venture above the town and into a huge parkland. I spot a sports complex and end up going to the basketball on Saturday night. Just like at home except no Doug crying out “oh yeah baby” after each goal. The guy next to me is very excited but leaves downhearted as the local team lose by ten points. We all walk back through the pitch black unlit gardens in the middle of the night, no-one concerned for their safety. I meet a local guy in a bar, we talk in English as I point at passing trays of food then nod for refills of their best beer. He is the president of some tie company. Times aren’t so good, no-one wears ties any more he laments pulling his tie up above his head like a noose. We drink to that. I stumble back to our room, Robyn has been resting up in the room but is finally getting some colour back in her cheeks. Or is that because of the time I’ve rolled in after the basketball ?
I find myself in another municipal spa the next day, don’t ask. I was reading the sign in English on the door when suddenly I was inside ? I stripped off and was looking for soap and a towel when I realized it was bring your own, my two souvenir towels, the size of face-washers are suddenly pulled from their plastic. God only knows what the ten, scrubbed to a shine, hairless locals thought of this big hairy Westerner invading their space. The water was boiling and lowering myself slowly into the caldron I felt like I was preparing two steamed dumplings.
I’m not sure everything down there will work again but boy am I clean. Even behind the ears Mum !

Last few days of what has been a terrific holiday. After sleeping on the floor for five nights in the first week we are spoilt with a night at the Sheraton in a place called Seagaia. It’s a golfing mecca further down the coast and a step off place to Kagoshima where we get a ferry to Yakushima (what is it with these guys and their shimas ?) The Sheraton is a trap, miles out-of-town we are forced to eat at one of ten super expensive hotel restaurants. Don’t even raise a burp after eating two hundred bucks worth of Chinese food whilst drinking tea. The rooms must be cheap, as the worlds largest indoor swimming pool is next door and has been abandoned for two years. It sits there a massive monolith which only proves that the Japanese don’t like swimming or lying in the urine loaded water of thousands of others ! Yet they LOVE their Onsens ?
On to Kagoshima where the room is small enough for your bag to be packed tightly in a corner giving you enough room to spin around and leave, which we did. Spent the day at the local Aquarium down on the waterfront looking at all the creatures from the deep. A massive circular tank with sharks, stingrays and schools of fish trying to stay ahead of the sharks gaping jaw. The sea otters are everyone’s favourite and we watch them eating fillets of fish whilst lying on their backs and spinning to keep wet. They are like cartoon characters the way they slap the water demanding more food and bossing the keeper about. They clean their teeth by diving deep into the tank and shaking any loose fish from their whiskers as they thrash about in their tank. A big child’s dream afternoon, Robyn said I was like a big child, all but wetting my pants with glee.

P1010182The sardines were spellbinding, no hypnotic !
It’s a wild and overcast ferry across to Yakushima. A group of pensioners out on the deck literally hand food to the seagulls who are game enough to fly tight to the ships handrail tearing the potato chips and twistie look-alikes out of the pensioners hands. This goes on forever, the birds getting more tired as they fly on. Eventually they leave, full and not flapping half as fast as when they first met us.

15042009239The seagulls literally took the food from the old girl’s hands.

We pick up another car in Yakushima, I complement the Satnav guy on his English but too soon he tells us “right turn into town.” We travel in this direction only to work out that his English was pretty good but his left and rights are questionable. The island is about one hundred klms around, a parkland unlike most of Japan. In Japan that means they only build concrete on the foreshore and roadways. After that the Island is really all cedar trees and not much else. Deer and monkeys abound, scratching and inspecting each other for fleas, the monkeys plant themselves on the roadway. There are high electric fences around all of the farms to stop these thieving monkeys from demolishing the crops. They say it is a problem here and shoot hundreds of monkeys a year although it’s predominately a National Park, work that out? The deer are not startled Bambi’s and are unconcerned, accustomed to humans not even lifting their heads as we walk nearby along the bush paths. The forest is so thick that light struggles to get to the ground, everything is lush and very unAustralian. Hungry we start looking for lunch, there’s little about. We finally find a small place and settle in for whatever the cook can bring to the table. This happens to be flying fish or toppy as they call it. Toppy is on every menu and we eat it for lunch and dinner, they’d give it to you for breakfast too but they have to get rid of the mackerel as well. I’m fished out, grilled, salted, dried but never battered, I’m growing gills.Oh yes, some more fish livers, please ! I guess we are on a small island surrounded by the sea.

P1010255Toppy, breakfast lunch and dinner !
We catch a couple of planes, first a baby plane back to the mainland and then onto Osaka for a short bus to Kyoto. The day is all sitting and waiting. On that basis I drag Robyn out for a late afternoon marathon walk along the historical river. She has no idea that we will still be walking in the dark. The river is pretty with blossom hanging about and koi gulping for life in the shallow water, there’s few tourists about and the touts’ are eyeing us up and down in that typical polite Japanese way, too scared to badger us to come in and buy.

P1010344The Kamogawa river. Kyoto.

We visit a few gardens, temples and more temples. I’m now too tired and completely lost. Robyn brings her navigation skills to the fore, she finds a bus to take us within metres of our door. She is the best navigator I’ve ever met, she is without peer. We have a guided tour of the city on our last day. The guide Yuki is good value and we wander about checking out some of the cities 1600 temples.


Lunch is a highlight, a bowl of thick whippy noodles with some tempura atop. The tempura and stock are so hot that each noodle that smacks my checks leaves a third degree burn but hungry I plough on. Three quarters of an hour later I uncrossed my legs and go to get up, my legs have died and gone to heaven ? It’s another fifteen minutes before they are mine again. The afternoon entails more sitting as I enjoy some ground green tea in a beautiful Tea garden away from the hustle and bustle of modern Kyoto.
There is a modern Japan out there too, a world of Pachinko halls full of addicted folk playing machines in an environment of roaring, deafening noise and mesmerizing steel ball bearing dropping through the machine. I couldn’t believe how loud these places were and had to leave almost immediately after seeing the same blank looks I would see whilst working at Crown Casino. It is a big problem but no bigger than it is in Australia.
Can’t leave Japan without mentioning the toilets or washlets as they are better known. They are like chairs from Apollo 11. Buttons and levers for everything from sitting on to warming your butt, to washing and blow-drying. You don’t get on one the first time before someone points out where the off button is, a scary moment in my life that’s for sure. One even had the water coming out above the cistern to wash your hands before draining into the cistern for the next flush. Always experimenting and then manufacturing.

22042009301Houston we have lift off. 

But the highlight for me has been the people, so helpful, polite and trustworthy. Every person we have met has welcomed us and tried to show their country in it’s best light we could not have wished for a more welcoming host.