The last time I met Liam in Tokyo, I was on the cusp of returning home. You’ll no doubt be saddened but unsurprised to hear that this time his arrival has little significance when it comes to my return to England. Unless you count ‘eight-and-a-bit months’ as an important milestone, I suppose.

Together we went to many places and did many divers things, so this is going to be a (very) photo-heavy post. Let’s go.

Caravan Cult

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I begin my tale in Tokyo. Liam beat me to the city by a few days to meet Issui, our mutual friend who studied architecture with Liam. In the intervening months since graduation, he’s formed a company called Sampo, which aims to introduce a more nomadic form of living centered around modular campervans. While the infrastructure doesn’t exist yet, they’re already backordered significantly on the campervans, and most of the group have one parked outside the warehouse where they live.

After a decent party and intro pitch to Issui’s parents, Liam and I set off to have a day in the city. Ueno Park featured heavily, especially as I hadn’t been back for a while, then we took in the Thousand Vintage Shops of Shimokitazawa and, of course, the Pokemon Centre. We were a little late getting back to the warehouse to set off, as a result.

I knew beforehand that we were going to drive to a lumber mill near Nara with Issui and Riku (one of the founding members), but the plan for that night was to hit Nagoya and stop there for a drink. For some reason I had assumed we would all be up front, then sleep in the back, but there were only two seats in the cabin. So, with an instruction for one of us to hide if we were stopped by the police (the presence of two people in the back apparently being the most illegal thing about the whole rickety setup), we set off.

On the Road

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Rickety is, I think, the right word. Issui’s house has walls that swing out, but this meant they didn’t exactly close with a perfect seal. The ride was incredibly bumpy, and it was tough not to notice the multitude of pointy things on the front wall upon which we could spear ourselves in the event of a sudden stop. Some mystery shochu that Liam found in the airport helped.

In the end, we went to sleep not really knowing where we’d wake up. It turned out not to be Nagoya, but a riverside most of the way to Nara. We arrived at about 5am and woke up late to a glorious view. Issui and Riku had driven through the night to reach this very scenic spot.

The main attraction that day was The Site of Reversible Destiny in Yoro Park. The brainchild/fever dream of architect Shusaku Arakawa, it was a strange place full of concrete buildings designed to force visitors to think using their bodies to navigate the space. The main ‘house’ was maze-like, with tables, baths, washing machines and toilets cut in half by walls and rooms repeated in different orientations.

Outside, there was a crater full of smaller installations. Most of the site was on an angle just steep enough to make you unsure of your footing. Some ramps were unexpectedly slippery, while others interacted with the walls to make balanced walking almost impossible. It was an excellent place to explore and take gravity-defying photos.

After that it dawned on us that we hadn’t washed for nearly 3 days, so I was given the wheel (at a moment’s notice) and directions to an onsen. Initial shakiness gave way to relative confidence — it was certainly more comfortable to be driving than sitting in a bumpy room for four hours. It also gave Issui and Riku time to sleep.

As we trundled up the mountain we came across a sign saying that the road was closed, which necessitated a panicked phone call to the onsen to see if they’d still be open when we got there. Thankfully the receptionist was understanding, and we enjoyed the most necessary bath I think I’ve ever had.

Next came an enormous Chinese meal in which Issui proved himself the fastest eater I have ever seen, before we wobbled our way down to another river for drinks, music and much rejoicing.

We awoke a good hour later than expected, which led to the second panicked phone call of the trip. Issui and Riku were due to meet with the lumber mill owner for a tour, and Liam and I were to join them. After twenty minutes’ speeding up and down country roads during which Liam and I were expected to tidy up in the back, we arrived to find the owner very laid-back. I wasn’t allowed to share any photos I took online, but suffice to say it was very, very expensive hinoki wood, the best of which is often used for detailing or centrepieces in fancy houses.

The plan had been to go into Nara together then on to Kyoto, but it became clear that our paths were now set to diverge. Liam and I said goodbye to our companions of the last few days and threw ourselves onto a train to the City Of Angry Deer.

Bite marks

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Those of you who have been following this blog since last time will have already heard my thoughts on Nara. The deer were just as vicious as last time, the temples just as numerous. What was especially fun was watching the reactions of other tourists, which followed almost exactly the same pattern each time.

First, they caught sight of the deer and exclaimed with wonder how tame and cute they all seemed. After buying some deer rice crackers from a stall they approached the now advancing deer with similar awe, giggling as the first to arrive snatched a cracker out of their hand. The joy turned very suddenly to fear as they found themselves surrounded by four or five very insistent animals, butting and biting them as they sought more and more crackers. The interaction almost always ended with the person walking/running briskly away, waving their empty hands until the last of the deer gave up the chase and waited for their next victim.

The day drew on, and accommodation still needed to be sorted, so we set course for Kyoto.

Fancy Fancy

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Kyoto was, as it has always been in my experience, grey and drizzling. Our first night’s accommodation was a little out of the way, but featured showers so our complains were numbered at around zero. We arrived in the evening, so there was only really time to be turned away from an obviously not full izakaya and find food at a smaller place, then have a few drinks and turn in for the night.

Day 1 tackled the important bits: Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple) came first, followed by a multitude of other temples and shrines — this is Kyoto, after all. We were able to tackle Nijo Castle too, and got so distracted talking about films in the garden that I actually came away from it feeling a little I understood a little more what it might have been like to live there. We only had the accommodation for one night, so some time was spent frantically finding somewhere else to sleep that night, and moving our bags from one place to the other. In the evening we tackled Gion, which was mercifully close to where we were staying.

A recommendation from a Kentish barman in an establishment which seemed at least 50% foreigners/tourists led us to a yakitori (chicken on skewers) restaurant where everything was just under ¥300, and the cabbage was unlimited. We took full advantage of both the cheap drinks and plentiful vegetables and devoted much of our energy to eavesdropping on an English couple who were clearly going through rocky time.

In a wonderful twist, Jaz came to join us on Wednesday as we tackled the many red gates of Inari Shrine. The rain mostly held off, but did make the path rather muddy. It was actually quite a climb, but we got the required photos that everyone else did, so our time there was not wasted. In the afternoon we visited Kennin-ji to see the Fūjin and Raijin painting as well as a very impressive dragon on a ceiling. Jaz too was introduced to the wonders of unlimited cabbage — it’s a shame we don’t seem to get these chains in Yamagata.

The last day was spent in Arashiyama to the West. I introduced Liam to the monkeys, who were awfully photogenic. We also swung by the bamboo grove where we totally failed to capture the majesty of the place with our pitiful photography. At last we went for ramen in a well-hidden but very fancy place that was full of design. After eating we had just enough time to grab some road beers/sake and pile onto a night bus, which would take us up to Yamagata.

The Shape of Mountains

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And thus we arrived, blinking in the chilly sunshine, outside city hall and 20 minutes walk from my car. When we got home there was time for a couple of hours’ nap (I slept far better than Liam did on the bus) and a shower before we hoofed up north in the car.

First stop was Dainichi-Bō Temple, near Yudono-san, one of Yamagata’s three holy mountains. After quite a warm time in Kyoto it was weirdly calming to see snow again. When we arrived, however, it looked completely empty. After a few minutes of shouting and knocking a lady arrived to take ¥500 off the both of us and let us in, lighting candles and setting off heaters in the main room. A priest hurried out, motioned for us to sit and began to chant and hit a drum. Then he appeared with the classic ‘lots of bits of folded paper on a long stick’ and shook it over our heads while continuing to chant. Just as quickly as he’d come, he was gone, and replaced by a monk.

We weren’t expecting all of this, but I was glad to get more of an insight into temple rituals. It’s easy to exoticise such things before one has seen a priest go through the motions like a bored vicar. The monk walked us through the various objects in the room in very thickly accented Japanese, stopping about half as much as he should have done to let me try to translate for Liam. As far as I could tell, the temple owes a great deal to the fourth Tokugawa shogun (Ietsuna), of whom it keeps a handprint and sword as part of its display. It may or may not have been one of the few Buddhist temples allowed to stay open unconditionally during the Meiji Restoration, too, but that’s getting far above my abilities.

What we were really there to see was a sokushinbutsu  — a monk who had mummified himself over the course of several years. We were taken into his room after the main tour, and had his life and the process explained to us. He (Shinnyokai Shonin) became a monk in his early 20s and was incredibly devout, as one might imagine. In a strange twist, during a period of disease in the surrounding villages, he tore out his own eyes and offered them to the mountain. As I said: devout.

The mummification process takes about 6 years in total. For 1000 days, the monk restricts their diet and does intense exercise to remove their body fat. For another thousand days, they eat only bark and roots, and drink tea with a chemical in it that’s used to make lacquer for bowls and cups. This effectively begins to embalm them from the inside, and most importantly keeps the maggots from eating them in the future.

After this, they are put into a chamber underground and sit in a lotus position. Down the air hole hangs a string attached to a bell, which the monk rings each day to show they are still alive. Liam and I disagree on this point, but at this point the monk may or may not get a single nut and some water each day at this stage.

When the bell stops ringing, the other monks seal up the chamber and wait another 1000 days before they check to see if the process has worked. Most of the time it doesn’t, but this time it did. Well done Shinnyokai Shonin!

Nowadays they change his clothes every six years, and put scraps of the previous outfit inside charms, sold for the low low price of ¥1000. Naturally, Liam and I bought one each, which seemed to keep the monk(s) happy.

Next on the list was Tsuruoka Aquarium, home to a Great Big Jellyfish Tank and some rather sad seals. Liam and I ended up going through everything backwards for some reason. In a typically Japanese move, jellyfish ramen was on the menu in the cafe, so naturally we both dove in. If I hadn’t expected it, I would have thought it was a strange root vegetable, but since I did it tasted of cartilage and nothing. Something to tick off the list, I suppose. 

After a brief stop at a sake brewery/museum (wherein Liam was given six cups to taste very fast and I, as the driver, was not) we settled down at a friend’s empty house for the night.

The next morning we went to another holy mountain: Haguro-san. In a mistake that it seems everyone has made, we accidentally drove to the top, rather than the bottom of the famous steps up to the summit. This meant we had to climb down to the pagoda, rather than up, and all in the hour or so before a pre-arranged meal in the shrine itself. What with all the snow, the going was treacherous in both directions, but all the more picturesque for it, in my opinion.

That afternoon we completed our third ramen in as many days — Akayu’s nationally famous Ryu Shanghai spicy miso ramen. Then it was up to Yamagata city for a second night away at Jess’ house so Liam could meet The Gang. Drunk Mario Kart got us all started very quickly, then Liam went missing for a good hour in the 20 metres between karaoke and our favourite bar. A good night well made, I believe. Certainly, it was enough to make us abandon our plans to hit Yamadera and instead take a day out, which turned very definitely into a day in when we cooked stew with Jay and the beers once again started flowing.

Monday saw us take Sendai, starting at the now-traditional Zuihoden and Date Masamune’s mausoleum. Then it was up the 100m Sendai Daikannon statue to marvel at the tiny windows and 108 buddhas within. The important parts, of course, were the Delirium Café and Craftsman, both chock-full of eye-wateringly strong/expensive beers. You can probably sense the theme of our evenings by now. Furthermore, Liam was able to enjoy an actual pint in his first real British pub — Hub — while we opened a second round of Pokemon cards from a second Pokemon centre.

Finally, we made it to Yamadera on the last day. Spring is tied with Autumn as the perfect time to visit, in my opinion, and while you’ve all seen these photos before they are always worth repeating. We stopped off at a couple more shrines on the way home, including Kumano Taisha, where we failed to find more than one hidden rabbit on the back of the main hall. For a final meal we went to my local sushi restaurant, where Liam ordered the crab soup I’d been talking about for the last ten days.

And so, at last, it was time to say goodbye. Now I sit in city hall with absolutely nothing to do, waiting for term to start again next week. At least I’ve had a proper holiday.


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