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Think I'm turning Japanese

semi-overcast 27 °C

Having left China, where the word and associated behaviours of manners must have been left out of the dictionary, I arrived in Japan...home of cleanliness and etiquette (Even the staff at 7 eleven convenience stores bowed as they served me budget sushi snacks). The place I landed was called Saga city, and despite its name no Dame Thora Hird stair lifts or Werther's Original toting grandparents were in sight. The beard also has to go, I knew the Japanese were skeptical about tattoos due to their links with the Mafia or Yakuza as they are known in these parts, but with this look, I was it seems, guaranteed the royal search treatment at the airport. It was the politest and most apologetic bag search to date, but it didn't stop them searching through absolutely everything....brave chap going through that dirty washing bag! Ello, ello what do we have here then? We have found some contraband....ah no just a very suspiciously packed bag of Sichuan peppers officers...as I'm there doing my best spicy food impression - after all these months of practice I'm going to clean up in the annual new years charades! Half an hour later they were done with me and sent me on my way. Next mission get some cash and get to the train station..... what's that, there's only one ATM at the airport and it doesn't work with international cards....luckily I still had just enough Mao money left to exchage.

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I arrived to the station in Saga, collected my rail pass for the next three weeks and booked onto the first train to Hiroshima. A quick mention to the rail pass, which is a great idea for people travelling to Japan. It essentially gives you unlimited rail travel across the country, meaning you get the chance to feel like one of the older generation back in the UK with their bus pass, just riding on transport because you can. It would also seem that half of Europe is here on holiday booking up every train and hostel in sight....well the Mediterranean countries at least and in particular Spain, taking full advantage of their month long shut downs back home...no wonder their economies are on the blink, get back to work! (I am fully aware of the hypocrisy in this statement and before anyone says anything, my days of being a floppy haired lay about are nearing an end....well the floppy haired part anyway, the next hair cut/shearing session is pencilled in)

I borded my first Japanese bullet train and before I knew it had arrived to Hiroshima. The city, having recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped which flattened it and helped end World War Two, was on first impressions a very normal place...pretty remarkable considering its history. The only real evidence of its past being the 'A-Bomb dome', a building that miraculously survived that day and the droves of tourists that probably like me only knew about the places existence for the events 70 years previous. For my first night I'd unknowingly booked into a traditional guest house, which basically means you sleep on a roll out bed on the floor...IKEA can't have made it over here, as for less than £50 for a Billy bookcase and bed combo, their days of sleeping on the floor would be numbered. I also went out to eat the local delicacy called okonomiyaki, which is basically a fry up containing noodles, cabbage, egg and bacon, covered in an incredible sauce and all cooked up in front of your eyes, in my case by Japans answer to Delia Smith (without the drunken outbursts of course). At first I was the only non local in there, but as other tourists saw this bearded wild westerner having such a great time, I was gradually joined by a few others. This included an Italian couple from Milan, who were to pass on a few words of wisdom on other places to visit, as well as share a second round of food with me...if the Italians like it, you know its good!

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The chef on the second night. Delia smith, where are you?

That night I slept surprisingly well on the straw matt floor (maybe they're onto something) and set off back into town to go to the peace monument museum....a very harrowing display of the after effects of that day in 1945.
Aside from the museum and eating my own body weight in the local speciality there wasn't that much to do here, so when I bumped into the Italians and they proposed that I join them on a trip to a local island I jumped at the offer. What a great decision, as following a short ferry ride and wander through an old style village we climbed to the top of a small mountain - although for the diminutive locals it may have been more like Everest - and the views were sensational.

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The view was equally good at the bottom that evening, my best impression of a certain celebrity walking on water also coming off....no not the big mans son...Dynamo the magician!

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No perspex walkway in sight and as for feeding the 5000, better move fast as this lot have got a taste for fish...

The next morning I carried on heading up the country by the ever impressive bullet train, my destination Kyoto, the ancient capital of the country and packed to the rafters with temples. On arrival I headed straight out to one of the many shrines, where it would seem the locals are keeping traditions alive by donning the traditional attire and walking everywhere in clog style flip flops...a lot of the temples were painted orange as well, maybe a bit of Dutch influence...all I know is I was glad to be in my trustee walking shoes and not dragging half an oak tree around with me.

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Temple seen the hunger pangs started and I'd almost given up on finding a restaurant that wasn't full of package holiday folk, when I found a small place that looked very local and sold anything you could think of fried and on a stick. Beer ordered and plate of fried goodies in front of me, I started 'chatting' with the guy next to me who had just finished work by the looks of him. Now the locals English over here is limited at best, which led to entire conversations being played out through sign language, saying well known celebrity's names (notably Mr Beckham), saying or singing well known songs and lots and lots of laughter and this was no different. What was different though, was this guy clearly liked his syrup and wanted to make sure that I got to try the full complement of local spirits with him. 4 bottles of sake (a local spirit) and a few beers later, along with another new found friend, I couldn't believe he would be able to get up for work the next day. This cued the other guy to proclaim...'Japanese-a strong drinka'. You couldn't have timed it better as within 2 minutes the business guys eyes rolled backwards and he snuck off to the toilet to sleep it off, leaving me and the other guy to converse through the medium of Oasis song singing. Before leaving I did let the owner know he had someone snoozing in his toilet...I'll let you imagine how that mime went...

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The next morning I woke with only a mild feeling that I'd drunk enough sake to wipe out an entire department of salary men. My mission for the day, see as many temples in this place as possible. The highlight of these had to be the golden temple, that was policed by this indimidating chap...

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Shotgun policeman for the YMCA themed Christmas party.

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I made it back to my hostel happy with what I'd seen, only to be shown pictures of another must see place...tomorrow was going to be an even earlier one.

This place reminded me a lot of South Korea, with one important exception.... there is actually stuff to see here! This led to me working out in my three weeks here I would have to speed around the country at a pace similar to Ben Johnson, at the point in his career when his eyes were bulging from his steroid infused body. So with this in mind I rose at 5:30am the next morning and had virtually the whole of the must see temple to myself, bar a few local dog walkers. Stunning diversion seen, I headed on to my intended day trip destination a place called Nara, famed for its Chatsworth-esque free roaming deer and you guessed it more temples. Once again I had the place largely to myself, and got to soak up the spiritual atmosphere (not the local spirits this time), before the hoards of tourists arrived. The early start and associated sleep deprivation nearly caught me out though as I had to be stopped by an elderly security guard before accidently joining a religious procession.

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It was also here in Nara I witnessed a new phenomenon, something becoming far to familiar in this part of the world...lots of miserable people getting to a good view point, extending a small metal pole which their phone is attached to, this then has the miraculous side effect of their mouth muscles contracting to what look like smiles, they take a quick photo before the stick retracts and then they go back to not speaking to each other and wishing they were back home eating tapas followed by a 'hard' earned siesta. Another phenomenon I was now starting to be skeptical of was the extreme levels of politeness the locals exhibited...the politeness almost seeming a bit robotic at times....wait a minute, isn't this the country that always appeared on Tomorrows World, with robot drivers/nurses/cooks...you heard it here first, Phillipa Forrester would never lie to us!

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Another child is spawned from the tree of politeness.

In this short time I'd really come to like Japan, the food was incredible, the people/robots the friendliest I'd met to date and they drive on the correct side of the road, making crossing the road much less hazardous for us European island dwellers. What does make the roads hazardous though are the mad cyclists, bad enough are the locals but even more scary is when you have Juan and Juanetta bearing down on you. 'Wiiiich side of the road?' 'Que?' And on arrival to Takayama in the Japanese Alps, I was still very firmly on the tourist trail. I can't blame them though as once again the place was littered with ancient temples, this time with a mountain backdrop. Alas the number of tourists meant I had to press on again after just one night, they really need more accommodation here, my next stop, home of the winter Olympics in 1998, Nagano.

Nagano was intended purely as a stop off and a chance to recharge the batteries but once again I got a useful tip on something to do in the local area... I really need to stop being so inquisitive. This time it was a chance to see the snow monkeys of planet earth fame, and do my best David Attenborough impression, these chaps enjoying a warm dip in their local hot spring, apparently unique behaviour amongst monkeys. I think I need to enlist their help in beard grooming...

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'You're next in line mate. Would you like a wash and rinse too?'

The next stop on my charge through the country was a town called Matsumoto, known for its castle, second only in fame to the fictitious Takeshi's castle from the cult 80s TV show of the same name. No mad Japanese TV here though, just a fine looking fortification and a chance to finally have a relatively easy day before the main physical challenge of the trip...climbing mount Fuji. My base for the next two days was a hostel in the shadow of the mountain, that's if you could see the thing....

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Insert mountain here.

On arrival I could just see the top slither of the mountain, which soon disappeared behind yet more cloud cover (unfortunately in Japan the summer coincides with the wet season...hang on, sounds like an English summer). I decided that to seek inspiration on the decision to climb or not I would go to a local restaurant/bar and see what wisdom the locals could impart. What a place! I was greeted by the four female staff, with their fists full of meat skewers and yet more incredibly friendly locals. The guy next to me explained that it was a happy day for him as his wife had just had a baby that day...'You've had a baby mate and your down the pub talking to me? Fair play, I just hope your Mrs is as understanding!' He then also said that meeting a man with such hair on his chin had further improved his mood, so much so that he was going to pay for all my food and drink, and on leaving (after a few more shared whiskey and sodas) left enough money behind the bar for me to have two more...what a guy! Whether it was the mood in the air, the smell of the delicious food, another guy shouting at me 'Japanese Crazy' or the alcohol starting to flow through my viens, the decision was made...clouds or no clouds, Fuji was getting climbed in the morning!

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I rose early the next morning, was it cloudy....yes, was my head sore....a little, was I ready to complete this Japanese right of passage....

All aboard the Konichiwa (Hello in Japanese) express, in the land where its polite to be polite I felt it necessary to say hello to everyone on the way up the 6km mountain trail...it felt like being back at home, and I don't mean London where people don't know their own next door neighbour, but like I was on a stroll in home village Wingerworth, everyone responding and waving....the higher I got though the less enthusiasm I was met with, often receiving a grunt, followed by some Japanese which probably meant 'Why is that English twit so damn chipper? This is horrible'. The robotic politeness switch must have some altitude issues, much like me when I did reach the summit after a blistering 3 hours 30 minutes (the recommended local time was around the 7 hour mark, they do only have little legs though). The view on the way up was otherworldly, however with just 200meters to go I was in no doubt I was on this planet as the heavens opened...the typhoon lashing I had been warned about the night before had arrived. Despite the biblical downpour that welcomed me at the top I still found time to amuse the sodden onlookers and pose for the ultimate tourist snap, looking about as Japanese as Sean Connery in his disguise in Die Another Day...another one for the scrap book!

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The writing on the bandana says Nippon - In this instance both the name the locals give the country, and a form of local Derbyshire colloquialism that described my current temperature. Time to get off this mountain!

Fuji conquered I returned to the same bar as the night before to inform my fan club. All four members were suitably impressed and despite my friend from the previous night not being present (I'll assume his Mrs didn't think going out the night your child is born is a good idea) I was treated to yet more local delicacies and a glass of pop on the house. The next morning I decided to head north in search of better weather (not often you here that) as the recent typhoon was making its presence felt, first up a stop over in a town called Nikko just north of Tokyo (where I should add the religion of consumerism is alive and kicking. Inside the most famous temple in the area a 'priest' used some wooden blocks to make a big echo sound in the main hall. He then dangled some shiny gifts in front of us in a hypnotic manner, and in true Derren Brown style mind control, led us over to his alter of cheap tat) and then onto the top island Hokkaido.

For the island of Hokkaido I had pencilled in a week, the first two nights in cities and the rest out in the sticks. I spent the second night in the largest city up here, Sapporo, home to the best ramen noodles I've ever tasted and my home for the night, a capsule hotel. Roomy, spacious, cavernous...these are all adjectives that would definitely not describe the place, however what it was, was the ultimate man hotel. Think Men Behaving Badly but without the two women to distract you from completing your man tasks...drinking beer, reading comics, watching sport, having a dip in a huge bath...all whilst wearing nothing more than a robe and pair of fluffy slippers. And when your done being the ultimate bloke for the evening, you get to retreat to your own little man den/cat box and sleep it all off. The only hair in the ointment (aside from the actual hairs in the ointment) the snoring symphony that played out through the night, from the highs of the young tourist, to the basey lows of the drunk salary men.

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I spent the following three days further inland at the spa town of Sounkyo Gorge. The lack of young people in Japan in clear evidence in the 'youth' hostel, the average age being a sprietly 70. They were all incredibly fit though, and on scaling the local mountain and in the process completing my own version of the Japanese 3 peaks challenge (South - Mount Misen near Hiroshima, Middle - Mount Fuji, North - Mount Kurodake)...no hairing about in 24 hours here, much more civilised...I was greeted by a tide of them at the top. I was also after 20 minutes greeted by a different form of tide, as once again the heavens opened. Michael fish must have been back at the met office, as the predicted wall to wall sunshine turned into the heaviest rain I'd seen in months. Luckily the views on the way up were clear and on the spectacular side....

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Big woodpeckers around here....the effects of Fukishima in full swing...

What better way to round off my trip in the north than to soak my aching bones in the local public hot springs. Again another blokes club, this time with the unmissable opportunity to share a bath with the locals and in other circumstances disconcerting, but in this one normal, discuss my trip to date with a naked old bloke in the tub next to me...his golden advice in broken English...'In Tokyo you could sleep in a park to save money, but a bad man could come and get you...I give you no assurances'. He did also say I had a pirates beard right before nervously grabbing his stuff and hot footing it for the exit. Suitably rested and relaxed, it was time for the last stop on my asian adventure....Tokyo!

And what a last stop it was. The city wasn't much of a looker, but once you got under the skin of the place it was something special. I spent my three days here in typical style seeing as much as I could in the capital of weird. This included watching some fat blokes grapple in their underwear, sitting in a cafe surrounded by cats, more crazy Asian baseball, crazy Asian rugby (after failing to get into even more crazy Asian baseball), a 5am trip to the worlds largest fish market to watch chaps chuck around a bunch of frozen fish and then eating the same fish for breakfast, watching one of the worlds busiest road crossings and to help smooth it all out a few glasses of the local tipple. By the end of my few days here, much like Paul Gascoigne when he was turning out for the likes of Boston Utd, I was a spent force. Thanks Japan for a great ending to the trip, or as the locals would say Arigato!

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How do you pronounce Arigato like a local, Japanese Alan Partridge?
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Simple, 'Harry Gateaux'. Thanks to everyone that's read the blog over the last few months, I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it and living it. See you soon England!

Posted by stuhutchuk 18:32 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo kyoto nikko japan travel train hiroshima backpacking hokkaido fuji matsumoto sapporo takayama sounkyo gekkoji

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Great going Stuart :)

by Siva

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