5 – Korea (briefly) and Japan

The Sea of Japan, Eastern Dream Ferry (21/9/11)

One last sunny morning in Russia, one traveller too impatient to wait for the alarm clock. Not that I’m eager to be leaving—I’ve had a great time in Russia, and Vladivostok is probably my favourite city so far. Still, I set my schedule a long time ago, and I was keen for another sea voyage.

After a breakfast remarkable only for the lack of cutlery and crockery, I managed to grab enough to satisfy myself and then returned to the room for preliminary packing. When everything looked ready, I headed out to another sunny but chilly morning, to do some final shopping. The military store wasn’t open when I reached it, so I roamed some more and wandered in a circle back to it. (My routes that morning had already taken me past a tiger statue with a prominent penis and now the did so for the park of sister cities, beside the sports stadium.)

Once the shop was open, I got myself a nice fur hat, then finally located the well-hidden Yul Brynner plaque. Some bananas from the market and was set—back to the hotel, final pack, settle bills, and out the door.

Down at the ferry terminal, I was a bit early, and there were few clues as to the embarkation process. Still, I got my ticket and made the acquaintance of two Londoners on an 8-month journey, Gemma and Darren, who kept me company, together with two Frenchmen, on the wait for customs and boarding. The process proved painless in the end, even with an adorable sniffer dog and a worrying use of a red telephone during a passport check.

The Eastern Dream is small and compactly made, and we were all soon onboard, wondering about our sleeping arrangements—mine were curtained beds in a room with no doors. Cubicle style. Waiting for the ship to cast off, which it did an hour late, took up the rest of the day-ish, and we loafed about in the sunshine, watching the city drift by, then the more distant Russian coast fade into the distance. Out to sea and we gained two hours—Korea and Japan time—feels more like theft, really. More of the day to while away. There was an impromptu sax solo on deck, two Russian girls who are celebrities to the Japanese, and a lot of relaxing. Maybe even rugby—Japan vs. Tonga? I’ll go and see, though my roubles seem worthless now.

The Sea of Japan, Eastern Dream Ferry (Still) (22/9/11)

No rugby on the TV in the bar, no ability to use my roubles on the boat, but there are better options. I ended up hanging out with a bunch of other travellers, from Israel, Holland, Austria, the U.K., France, etc. Everyone with their own stories, most hopping off in Korea but a few heading on to Japan as well.

Mostly we just hung out on deck, swapping stories and trying to just enjoy the company of others in the same boat, as it were. We, the odd stragglers among the locals, got on pretty well, using English as a lingua franca. Groups hived off and came back together, and some of us were entertained by Koreans, one of whom claimed to be a “Siberian Shaman” and performed magic tricks while pissed, not necessarily to the pleasure of his wife.

We watched the sun go down as the last sights of Russia disappeared over the horizon, and eventually we ended up in the onboard disco, where the Koreans were the main dancers, with floor shows and singing. It was just a really fun evening, with the girls Mitra and Hagar the life and soul and all sorts of fun happening around them. We hung around most of the night and talked about getting up for dawn, but come the morning, only Mitra claimed to have done so.

I slept until well after dawn, dreaming and stirring and dealing with the incomprehensible complaints of my cabin mates. When up, I roamed and poked around and eventually had something to eat, and now I’m on deck with my notebook, in the sunshine, with the mountainous coast of Korea ahead. Donghae’s not very far away, and we’ll have a few hours there before sailing on. No panic, hopefully, but it’d be nice to get some internet connectivity briefly.

An Express Train, South of Yunago (23/9/11)

There was plenty of faffing about on the boat before we got into Donghae. Some slept later than others, but eventually all were moving, if not quite as well as others—the perils of the night before. It was, as always, a simply beautiful day, despite a bit of a breeze, and Donghae, an industrial smudge on the green, mountainous coast of Korea, was a welcome sight for those of us who’d been up for a while.

Queueing to get off the boat took a while, and customs even longer, especially for the Austrians and their motorbikes. There were copious goodbyes, especially since we’d all gotten on so well, but eventually Mitra, Eric, and I, who were all continuing to Japan, hopped on a bus to the city centre a couple of miles north. There, amid the neon and the streetside vendors, we found a coffee shop where we could check our internet status. We also grabbed some sushi and other foodstuffs, eventually finding a bus to take us back where we came from. Reboarding wasn’t half as much a hassle as disembarking, and thankfully nothing had happened to our stuff during our absence.

Just a little behind schedule, the Eastern Dream steamed out at sunset, executing a neat three-point turn in the harbour. Unfortunately, the seas had picked up, so after I’d eaten noodles and sushi, my time in the onboard sauna was cut short due to the fun, if ultimately dangerous, amount of sloshing going on in the pool. Still, I was clean and soon shaved, and in as good form as I had been on the entire trip. Sadly, the seas were having an effect on many, so I was far from alone when I hit the hay early, to be rocked to sleep by the sea of Japan.

Unsurprisingly, I woke early and to lighter seas. 3.30am, to be exact, when sleeplessness drove me onto the decks in the warm night, to stare at the stars for a while. I returned to the bed to snooze, then back to the deck at 5.30am, for the serious purpose of watching the sun rise and catching my first sight of Japan. It was nothing short of spectacular, and I was joined by Mitra, though not Eric, who preferred to sleep.

Before long, once breakfast had been taken, we were steaming past wooded hills and docking in Sakaiminato. There, immigration and customs hurdles were overcome, and I said farewell to Mitra, as well as to Clement and Pierre and their bear. Eric and I took the free bus to Sakaiminato, with its many manga statues, and then the train from there to Yunago. After a ride through quiet villages and gardens, we too parted ways, him to his studies and me to Kyoto, via Okayama, paying a fairly eye-watering price for the Shinkansen service from hence to thence. Happy birthday to me.

And that’s where I am at the moment – on a train making its way through Japan’s central mountains to Okayama, delivering stunning vistas every few minutes. I’ve only been here a few hours and I’m already half in love with this country of mountains, trees, and streams. A week won’t be enough, but there’s no rule saying I’ll never come back.

Ryokan Hagaiwa, Kyoto (24/9/11)

Switching from the express to the Shinkansen – the super-express “Nozomi,” as it turned out – was fairly straightforward. I even managed to snag a seat.It was just as fast as the stories tell, though the small windows meant that I had a poor view of the landscape as it whizzed by. Nonetheless, I was dropped off in Kyoto (after almost getting off in Osaka by mistake) by 3pm, and I was soon helped to locate some accommodation by the Kyoto Tourist Information Centre.

That accommodation was Ryokan Hagaiwa, about midway between the station, the central district and the temple sites. It took about 15 minutes to walk there, whereupon I deposited my bags, oriented myself and watched some sumo. Then it was time to walk – first across the river. I walked up to Gojo-Dori, followed it to Higashioji-dori, which brought me to the Yasaka Shrine. I pottered around there for a bit and then followed the Shijo-Ohashi back into town. The crowds were getting heavy, especially around the main shopping arcade, and when I tried out the Junkudo bookshop, there was nothing there I wanted that was in the right price range.

At this stage, I was getting hungry and noodles sounded good, so I headed to Misoka-an on Fuyacho-dori for some very tasty Nimachiudon—herring and udon noodles, washed down with beer. Another drink sounded good, so I checked out the Dublin Bar (nah) and the Pig & Whistle, where I had a Suntory malt beer. Then more strolling, all the way to the shops and down the Kawaramachi-dori, picking up some items along the way and checking the Internet before some Doctor Who and sleep (as well as a bath).

Now it’s morning and I’m up. It’s time for breakfast, then a day of touring. (And maybe booking some accommodation ahead this time too.)

Hotel Fujita, Nara (25/9/11)

Two straight days of walking have brought me to Nara. Not that I walked the whole way, but the ground I’ve covered would have contributed a fair chunk to the distance. At breakfast in the Hiraiwa, I picked up travel tips from other guests and then headed out. First off I headed up the Goji-dori and the Chawan-Zaka to the Kiyomizu-dera, perched on a hillside. There I descended into the darkness of the Taina-meguri and drank water from a sacred waterfall.

Heading out from there, i descended by the Sannen-zaka and Nizen-caka, enjoying the impossibly pretty streets and their array of vendors before wandering around the Kodai-ji temple, up on its own hill, pretty in the daytime but better at night.

I paused for a rest and a drink in Maruyama-koen before heading into the massive Chion-in, the use of which was divided between ceremonies and construction. Beyond lay the altogether more serene Shonen-in, guarded by huge trees and a great peace to pause and contemplate.

I turned up Sanjo-dori, taking the opportunity for a much-needed 2,000-yen haircut, confusing the poor barber with my bald spot before continuing through a tunnel into the grounds of Nanzen-ji. There, rather than pay for the attractions, I went exploring, first following a canal, then hiking up into the hillside for a while before turning back.

All that gave me a hunger though, so after winding through some back streets, I had a curry for lunch. After that, I found my way to the canal-side Path of Philosophy, which brought me first to the sedate Honen-in and then to the famed (and packed) Ginkaku-ji. I followed the path around the site, but the time had come to turn west along Imadegawa-dori. I had three places to see but only a little time in which to see them. I reached the first, the Imperial Park, after a long walk, but went there second, as a 59 bus showed up fortuitously, taking me right to the Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion. This was also crowded, but less so than it might have been if closing time were not approaching.

Full buses made me walk back to town via side streets, bringing me back to the park, which was mostly deserted as I wandered through. Ieyasu’s Nijo-jo castle was closed when I got there, but I got to see the massive outer walls at sunset. After that, a long walk brought me to the shopping district, where I had a snack and failed to connect to the Internet, then returned to the Ryokan and washed off the day’s sweat with a much-needed bath.

I wasn’t wholly done though, and headed out in search of Tadg’s Pub, where I had a burger and made the acquaintance of Jason and Kame-can. Together we headed to the tiniest rock bar that I’d ever seen, then to the Pig & Whistle, before I peeled off, halting a fun but expensive night while I still had some money left.

Amazingly, I was up on time this morning, albeit slowly, and left my bag behind after checking out. A smaller loop than the previous day’s brought me to the massive Hogashi-hongan-ji, a good chunk of which was under repair, then the the tallest temple in Japan, Toji. After that, I swung back through the train station to the ryokan to grab my bag, then across the river to the Keihan station, which I navigated to grab a train to Uji.

The trip was swift enough, and I was soon treading across the Uji River, swollen in flood, and dropping my bags in a locked at the JR station. That done, I returned to the river and the ancient Phoenix shrine in Byodo-in. On the way, I scarfed a green-tea ice cream. Although it was warm, it was also overcast and humid. U tracked back and forth along the river, coming to the Ujijinja Shrine before turning to ascend Ashahi mountain on my way to the foreign-friendly Tale of Genji museum. A visit to Usigumijinja Shrine, where more Buddhist ceremonies were under way, and another curry lunch with a honey and lemon smoothie wrapped things up in Uji. I retrieved my bags from the station and hopped on a local train to Nara.

The trip was swift again and the city easy to navigate. I passed a political demonstration on my way to the Hotel, which is fine, save for Internet iffiness. I’ve had a bath and I now need food and money. The plan is for a quiet night though.

A Hikari Shinkansen, East of Kyoto (27/9/11)

My first night in Nara was quiet, if more expensive than planned. I had dinner in a booth restaurant, enjoying chilled Sake, snow crab, cheesy rice and chocolate pudding, served by staff who weren’t sure what to make of me. After that, I wandered for a while before enjoying an early night.

Despite that, getting up the next morning was tough. I had a noodle breakfast, then headed out, lightly burdened. Up first was Nara-koen, passing by the Kofakuji Temple with its great pagoda. Part of it was under repair, as seems often to be the case. I fed the persistent deer before entering Todaiji Temple to see the huge Daibutsu Buddha. It was grey and damp outside, but no one seemed too bothered.

Shadowed by a bunch of schoolkids, I climbed the hill to Nigatsu-do and poked around the forest filled with shrines and spiders. A little further on, I climbed all the way to the third summit of Wakakusuyama Hill, enjoying amazing views over Nara and the countryside around. On descending I picked up some presents, then toured the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. My path out of the park, past many stone lanterns, took me to Ukimido Hall in the centre of Sagi-Ike pond, then past Gangoji Temple to the Sweet Soul Cafe, where I had a tasty Tonkatsu lunch.

I rested awhile in my hotel room, then headed out again, this time west along Sanjo-dori before turning north to the burial mounds of ancient emperors, enclosed in protective lakes. It was a short walk from there to the Heijo Palace site, with its mix of ruins, meadows and reconstructions. I wandered through and around it before turning back for the walk to the hotel as the sun set.

Another rest followed, then I headed out once more, first across the road for some tasty sake and a ball-and-cup game, then to the Doo-Doo Cafe for a pointless beer on my own. There were a few people wandering around, but where they were going I don’t know. Nara seems to be a very quiet town. I poked around in the dark, then headed back to the hotel, spending a few hours culling the photos that I’d taken.

So to bed, then to rise, arrange myself and pack. I checked out at 10am and caught a lucky local (cheap) train to Kyoto at 10.22. I was back in Kyoto at 10.35 and on a Hikari Shinkansen bound for Tokyo 21 minutes later. So here I sit, a midmorning snack of cookies (Korean), mandarin (Japanese), Bombay mix (Irish), and lemon, lime and mint drink (Russian) half devoured. I should get to Tokyo at 2.30pm or so. Enough time to find my hotel and check in, then explore Ueno-Koen in the evening. Sounds pretty nice.

Oak Hotel, Ueno, Tokyo (29/9/11)

I reached Tokyo on time and easily hopped on another train to Ueno. The Hikari train had provided some beautiful views of Mount Fuji. The Oak Hotel wasn’t hard to find either, though my room was even pokier than the one in Nara. I stopped in for long enough to check my email and then I wandered out towards Asakusa. The day was grey but getting less so, and the weird architecture was nice and visible.

Circling around, I reached the shrines that form the heart of Asakusa, then continued along the Kappabashi shopping street, with all of its kitchenware. More of the same brought me around to the north of Ueno-koen at dusk, and I swung on a swing, watched cranes and dragonflies in the pond, and eventually headed further south, towards Akihabara Electric City. The maid outfits and the neon were disconcerting but appealing, but eventually I headed north, back to the hotel. There I spent the evening resting, connecting with the world and getting an early night.

Up at 7 the next morning, I had a noodle breakfast, then packed up and checked in online with Ronan and others. After that, it was up, out and on the train to Shimbashi. After a short walk amid the skyscrapers, I toured the Hama-rikyu Gardens beside Tokyo Bay. The fish market nearby was closed, but Ginza was open for business. Beyond lay the Imperial Palace and its gardens, resplendent in the sunlight. Wanting to walk, I headed down Roppongi-dori, in the shadow of an elevated highway, past the government district and through the shininess of Roppongi to Shibuya. There, at the famous crossing, I enjoyed a frappucino and a cookie before heading further north to Yoyogi Park—first the enticing public area, then the peaceful wilderness surrounding the serene Meiji Jingu.

Sinjuku lay further north, and just west of the stores lay the municipal government offices. The observation floor on the 45th floor left and impression with its views of a haze-bound city, but at this stage I was getting tired and returned to the station for a cross-town trip to Ueno. There at the hotel I rested my feet and planned out my evening.

First up was a nearby noodle bar. Fortified/laden down with a big bowl of Hanano-hanen ramen and some gyoza, I headed for Akihabara, lingering there only briefly before hopping on a Subo-line train to Shinjuku. There, after getting turned around for a bit, I ended up back at the Met offices for an altogether more impressive sight: the Tokyo sprawl by night, the city centre a sea of blinking red lights.

I headed back to Shinjuku station but turned south, following the Fukutoshin Metro line to Shibuya. There at the crossing I saw all the pretty young people mingling in the neon glow. A JR Yamanote train to Akihabara arrived as the place was shutting down, and a short stroll brought me back to the hotel for sleep.

(Morning now – tried and failed to call Colleen in LA. Laying plans for the day ahead.)

The train from Ueno to Narita Airport (30/9/11)

Almost out of Tokyo, taking the cheap train to Narita airport. The Kesei line oof Ueno Park. Under it too. Tired and sweaty and maybe not in shape for an 11-hour flight and a 16-hour time shift. Pray for an upgrade.

Yesterday started with a stroll through Asakusa’s back streets and another of those coincidental timing things, which saw the Himiko ferry dock as I walked past. I paid 1,500 yen for a ticket to Odaiba Island, where I walked around in the morning sunshine, bought some jeans in Palette Land, then took a simulated ride in Toyota’s Mega Showroom. After that, I passed the World Beach Volleyball competition on the beach (behind closed doors) on my way to the Rainbow Bridge back to the city.

I hadn’t meant for this to be a walking day too, but I had to walk until I found a Yamanote-line train to take me back to Shibuya. Strolling northwards brought me to the very trendy Harajuku, where I finally had some sushi. Not bad, and getting to see the preparation being done in front of me was fascinating. After that I kept on walking to Shinjuku, but by the time I got there I was so footsore that I just headed back to the hotel.

Once I was washed and rested, I headed back to Shinjuku and took a turn down a neon-lit alley, where I was approached by an overly friendly Ghanaian. He brought me to a bar where I found myself chatting to the likewise friendly Claudia (from Peru) and Nikki (from the Philippines). Thankfully for all of us, I didn’t have much money in my pockets, so after spending most of it, I went on my way, eventually turning back towards the hotel.

My last morning in Tokyo involved packing, checking out, and doing some online housekeeping. Luggage safely stowed in the hotel, I headed to the Tokyo National Museum, then hopped on a train and a metro to Kagasura (?), where I visited the shrines and alleys and enjoyed some nice pastries.

After that, there was time for more walking in the sun, around the north of the Imperial Palace and its (closed) gardens, then north to Akihabara one last time, where I found a bar showing rugby (way too late to catch any games). One last northward trip to Ueno and a gyoda rice bowl for lunch and I was checking out for good, on my way to my first flight in one month and thousands of miles.

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