Having survived Osaka I come to the end of my victory lap around Japan. It wasn’t all grim, however. This week held host to one of the three biggest festivals in the country: Tenjin Matsuri. Technically it is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet and politician of Edo period Japan, currently deified as a patron of learning and art. In practice it consists of a large parade with loud red-hatted drummers, hundreds of umbrella dancers and children leading an ox, culminating in a great show of river-based pomp and ceremony with fireworks and yet more drummers on boats.
There were crowds aplenty, especially next to the river. In 32 degree heat this was not pleasant, but I soldiered on somehow by eating far too much festival food and gawping at the attractions which seemed to involve catching goldfish, crabs and terrapins (not all at once) in incredibly shallow hand-nets. I stuck to the food lest I found myself unexpectedly burdened with a crustacean.
On my last day I rounded off the travels with a true air of finality by visiting the tomb of Bashō. This was actually a second attempt, as I had been caught out by Osaka’s cryptic train system and didn’t arrive until the temples were closed. When I finally made it it was raining with a thunderstorm on the horizon, which seemed oddly fitting. After a rather glassy-eyed ‘discussion’ with the local priest and much money thrown into every single shrine just in case I wrote a final haiku in the visitors book and, cradling my excellent mikuji, said my silent goodbyes before preparing for the next leg of my journey.
I arrived in Osaka ready to tumble into yet another mad rush of Japanese urban living. Unfortunately, being alone and in yet another ‘youth hostel’ jam packed with tired-looking Japanese men over thirty in one of the rough(er) areas of the city I felt rather more inclined to leave and spend my days either sheltering from the heat in a dimmed, highly air-conditioned room or out in some of the more pleasant surrounding areas. In Arashiyama (just outside Kyoto) and Nara, there was something of a recurring theme.
First up were the charming Japanese macaques (snow monkeys), who are native around much of Japan but especially well known in the north. I had spotted some whilst in Tohoku (and surprised my host by telling her that England did not have monkeys natively), but they were rather more timid than their southern counterparts. An interesting inversion is that the visitors stand in a cage (or sorts) and feed the monkeys on the outside, who are completely wild and native to the mountain, and are attracted by the prospect of easy food. This attraction was more of a simian sideshow, however, compared to the main event.
The real reason I had come to Arashiyama was to witness the age old tradition of ukai. This involves a boat about ten metres in length, with two people propelling it punt-fashion and a large cage of burning wood. A third man stands at the front holding a number of strings, which are tied around the necks of about five cormorants swimming in the water. At dusk they set off, followed by eight long boats of tourists, and glide up and down the river, led by the birds. Occasionally one dives and comes up with a fish, which is left half-swallowed due to the rope. It is then yanked out of the water, stripped of its loot and dropped back in to try again. It really is a dramatic spectacle by firelight.
Finally, I journeyed to Nara. It turns out the deer are just as mercenary as I have been warned. Although there are many signs warning that they are still wild animals, it can get somewhat unnerving when surrounded on all sides by antlers butting steadily more urgently at one’s sides as soon as deer cookies are smelled. They are polite at first, even bowing upon introduction and in return if one cares to try. These deer may be wild, but they are certainly still Japanese.
I left Biei and upgraded its gentle rolling hills for some proper mountains around the town of Sounkyo, in Daisetsuzan National Park. Although I made four trips from the café in which I was staying, two stand out as examples of my short career as a Japanese hiker.
My first journey up the mountains was to the point marked via a trail which I was warned could be steep and rather difficult. This was certainly true, but all would have been fine if my only issues were some low hanging branches and inclinations. The real things battling against me the entire way were various members, particularly of the blood-sucking variety, of the animal kingdom. A minor altercation with a snake quickly became the least of my worries as ticks upon ticks came out of nowhere to latch on to my arms, neck and bare calves. By the time I realised this assault several had already become firmly latched, one in a very personal place indeed. This was disheartening to say the least. The fact that the path was narrow with many plants (most bearing large spiders and webs) to climb through did not improve the situation. Twice I very nearly gave up.
Fortunately I did continue, and the result can be seen at the top of this page. Sounkyo Gorge feels very much like a Japanese Yosemite Valley, and I could see all of it from that one precarious outcrop. However, having spent nearly two hours working my way up and with my new parasitic companions redoubling their efforts I allowed myself only a short while to enjoy the cool breeze and muse upon the meaning of life before making my way back down.
This was, in some ways, even worse than the climb up. The parts which had been tiring and steep now became dangerous. If the first part had been a frustrated and uneasy trudge the second was an all out arms-flailing dash of terror from spiders, another snake, countless ticks, mosquitos, wasps and at least one of the terrifying giant hornets. Once home it was straight into a cold shower with a pair of tweezers for a final test of my willpower, resisting the urge to burn the clothes I had walked in.
The Big One
I had headed up the main mountain (Kurodake) in the early evening and intended to stay the night at a hut just past the peak, get up for at sunrise and then walk around a large volcanic crater. The hut was cramped and uncomfortable to such a degree that I didn’t need an alarm to be wide awake at half past three in the morning. The sunrise was classically difficult to photograph, but the real advantage was the clarity with which one could see the rest of the area. Normally it is covered in clouds, but that morning and for a few minutes the evening before the weather cleared and everything was gloriously visible.
Reaching the edge of the crater was another spectacular moment. The variation in terrain in and around it was such that it felt as though every aspect of Earth’s geography was represented (visually, at least) at once.The walk was long and hard, particularly as I only had a small plastic bottle of (delicious, clear and cool) glacial river water by way of refreshment. I started walking at about a quarter to five on a strict ration, and eyed with envy the bourgeois climbers with their real walking boots, seventeen water bottles clanking away and a backpack stuffed full of snacks. I certainly earned my breakfast. Unfortunately the lack of water meant that I couldn’t detour to Asahidake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido, which lay an hour off the trail.
In a way I was rather glad to be leaving when I did and returning to a (relatively small) city in the form of Sapporo, with pavements and flatter ground. This move was doubly pleasant as the owners of the room where I stayed in Sounkyo not only drove me there but also gave me a place to stay at their house after we failed to find accommodation for my second night. Live jazz and a beer festival capped the whole thing off.
Next stop Osaka.
Leaving Sendai and the ferry behind, I made my way through Hokkaido’s capital of Sapporo and back into blissful rurality once more. Biei is well known for rolling hills of field and flower, and has been the location for a number of adverts, to the point that some areas, such as Mild Seven Hill, are actually named after the brands that took up the image.
However, as a result of my rural upbringing, I rather felt a little out of place amongst the hundreds of tourists from Tokyo and Beijing taking thousands of photos of a small rapeseed field with gargantuan cameras, completely ignoring the birds of prey wheeling overhead. I opted to cycle some of the way (although not to the hostel – that was an hour and a half of hot, tiring trudging up hills with 20kg worth of possessions that I don’t intend to repeat outside of military conscription), while most drove from signpost to signpost, barely stopping to take photographs. I, however, focused on the heat and rather more impressive (read:terrifying) wildlife on show in this part of the world, from hornets the size of my thumb to the aforementioned hawks.
Rather, my experience of the area was more one of city-to-country culture shock. Although I’ve been travelling for over two weeks now, this is the first time I’ve really been outside Tokyo on my own. If nothing else my internal timetable still needs adjusting, as it seems to custom here to rise around dawn and be in bed by nine, which means that they fall asleep at about the time the city folk start waking up and operate on completely opposing systems. Twice I have been caught out trying to eat dinner after six-thirty, and generally been punished for it, but that brings me to the story at the heart of this stop.
If I had known the above, I probably would have been more insistent on my supposed dinner reservation at the hostel, but instead merrily set off down the lane to nearby eateries, wincing slightly at my feet and sunburn, only to find that they either only served lunch or were fully booked. Although not yet, there was not a soul in sight. I had reservations about walking another two hours in total to the town, but thankfully a friendly café owner lent me an almost broken bicycle with a torch taped on the handlebars by way of a lamp.
After one of the most joyous (and downhill) bike rides of my life, I came across a similar story – most restaurants were lunch-only, with the exception of the 7/11 and an intimidating-looking sushi restaurant. Opaque sliding doors are common for such places in Japan, but not being able to get a glimpse of what one is about to walk into is rather disconcerting for me. Upon steeling myself, I was told dismissively that they only served sushi. It took three attempts before I was begrudgingly let in and sat down in the tatami area rather than the seats, just to be sure. Three locals with varying degrees of speech impediment were my only companions, and I had my back to them. The atmosphere was one of passive-aggressive confrontation of the kind I had heard about but never experienced in the city.
Not pictured is the intimidatingly enormous ikura (fish eggs), mainly because I wolfed it down as quickly as possible. It was clear (to the dramatic side of my mind, at least), that I was expected to prove myself not just able but worthy of partaking in such a meal at such a place. Naturally, each piece was utterly slathered in wasabi, but ginger, the beer bought for me by one rather loud patron and gritted teeth got me through the worst of it. With the final, nose-burning piece of salmon successfully ingested without choking, I left, with many awkward pauses and slightly suspicious looks from the owner, feeling rather exhausted at the experience.
The bike ride back up the hill(s) was less joyous. A storm was on the horizon, with lightning filling the sky at regular intervals well ahead of the thunder. I met no cars and almost no streetlights, the silent fields just visible in the darkness surrounding the meagre, off-centre torchlight which stuttered at every bump in the road.
Trust me to go to a place of outstanding natural beauty and instead catch myself between distrustful locals and a potentially supernatural murder on a dark country road.
In my quest to delve even deeper into the remote countryside of Japan, I left Tome and began the arduous journey up to Hokkaido. This, however, required Shinkansen and ferries, and thus a trip to the big lights of Sendai for a night.
In between eating rather expensive sushi (from my budget, at least) and and drinking a little too much for a far more reasonable price, I was able to sniff out yet another Pokémon Centre (with numerous Tohoku-based events occurring precisely when I leave the country) and taste a local delicacy consisting of battered fish balls on a stick with ketchup, which actually taste remarkably like the former part of fish & chips.
After an hour on the train and a hidden £40 cost I still don’t really understand, I found myself in Hachinohe and boarding the ferry. I booked an overnight trip, and currently type this while the floor sways gently beneath me. As I climbed on, I was somewhat worried about internet. It quickly became clear that I would have other things to be concerned with.
Here’s hoping it isn’t too long a night.
Matsushima truly might have been created by Ōyamazumi [God of the Mountains] in the Great Age of the Gods. What painter or what writer could ever capture fully the wonder of this masterpiece of nature?
-Matsuo Bashō, Oku no Hosomichi
-Matsuo Bashō, when forced to write a
haiku about the place, much later on
It is perhaps testament to the state of the weather and the time period in which I find myself that I was not quite struck dumb (although poetically the value of my contributions could be called into question) upon gazing out onto the bay of Matsushima. The clouds and impending rain made the sky and water grey, and peaceful views of the countless islands from Ōjima Island interrupted by the horns of ferries doing tours of the area.
Maybe it was just the clouds, maybe it’s peak season for visits, or maybe it’s because I bit into a seemingly delicious curry-pan only to find it stuffed with oysters (serves me right for not reading the sign properly), but it would appear that Matsushima is one place for me to visit again, just to be sure.
These last three days have been a veritable smorgasbord of Basho-based visitations. While I wait for my sometime companion and, in a sense, hostess, to join me up in Tohoku, I have been saving the more famous Matsushima in favour of three other places that made an impression on the poet.
Taking the poet’s words to heart, on the way up to my present lodgings I stopped by at Shirakawa, once home of the barrier which divided the safe and civilised south from the lawless north. Not one to take the obvious course of calling a taxi, I set off on a roundabout route following the train tracks with only a highly stylised wall map with no visible scale to guide me on my way. Although the walk was very pleasant, allowing me a view of the town with traffic lights that were literally (rather than figuratively) blue, as well as the steady spread of rice fields, after two hours I found myself in a park with an impressive mountain ridge and lake, but no sign of the (somewhat) famous Shirakawa no Seki. In the end I folded, took a taxi at great expense and was given an electric blue umbrella for my troubles. Remember kids, always check to see how far it is before walking.
Number two was a village with a number of very old temple… foundations. It seems Japan was/is not the best place to be for ageing holy wooden structures, which, even in my experience, seem to have a habit of being knocked down by earthquakes or obliterated by fires, whether naturally occurring or caused by an angry monk who had a bone to pick. Thankfully there are other temples in the area, so up the scenic route I went only to find Call my hysterical, but I was rather unnerved, and put this to use by augmenting the bear-scaring noise made by hammering the block (most of which were almost completely broken) by practically bellowing any form of tune that sprang to mind, which ended up being a twisted mix of Frank Sinatra and Salve Regina. Despite barely coming across insects on the short walk up, I now feel far more worldly at having navigated bear-infested woods and feel sure that my plan of throwing everything in my camera bag at my oncoming assailant (it being a black bear) whilst sobbing quietly at the loss would have come off in my favour.
The most famous of the three, boasting a grand total of one foreigner (the only one spotted in three days — we shared a quiet nod of solidarity), Yamadera is so named because it features a large number of temples and, so it would appear, graves, on the side of a mountain, with the town in the valley below. High heat and humidity, coupled with sporadic rain, did not make the journey on foot particularly pleasant. On the way, however, I was graced with a statue of my predecessor-of-sorts for some inspiration before visiting the nearby museum in his memory. There seems a slightly odd disparity between the number of Japanese people who know much of Oku no Hosomichi and the emphasis placed on the route by the locations mentioned, although perhaps my very presence in such places proves a point.
On the way up, I also encountered my first genuine real life wild Japanese monkey, who seemed rather unnerved at having a camera brandished at her, as indeed many of us would. She, along with the aforementioned bears and the strangely large and copious dragonflies brings the grand total of animals that my current hosts didn’t really believe we don’t have in England to three. I can only expect the total to increase from here on out.