A Very Brief History of Japan

  • Evidence for human inhabitation of the Japanese archipelago dates back to the Palaeolithic, around 38-40,000 years ago.
  • Around the 3rd century BC, the Yayoi people from the Asian continent immigrated to the Japanese archipelago. They brought with them iron technology and agriculture. overwhelming the native Jōmon hunter-gatherers.
  • Between the fourth and ninth centuries, kingdoms and tribes were formed and gradually unified under an Emperor. This imperial dynasty continues to this day, although now the role is almost entirely ceremonial.
  • Power gradually passed first, to great clans of civilian aristocrats – most notably the Fujiwara – and then to the military clans and their armies of samurai warriors. The Minamoto clan, under Minamoto no Yoritomo, emerged as the strongest Yoritomo set up his capital in Kamakura and took on the title of shōgun.
  • Their rule lasted until 1333, when it was toppled by the Muromachis. This was the time of the regional warlords called daimyō and eventually, Japan descended into civil war.
  • During this feudal period, wealthy Japanese lords built homes with deliberately squeaky floors (known as Nightingale Floors) as a defence measure against ninjas. The highly trained, legendary mercenaries of feudal Japan were so steeped in myth and folklore, they were said to be capable of walking on water, turning invisible and controlling natural elements. That’s got to be motivation to put down some new flooring.
  • Samurai would offer tangerines or melons to their shogun as a token of appreciation. So,, these precious fruits play a large role in the country’s gift-giving culture today and are specially cultivated, by hand. They can cost up to 200 USD.
  • In the late sixteenth century, Japan was reunified under the leadership of the prevailing daimyō Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was followed by another shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. by the emperor. The Tokugawa shogunate, governed from Edo (modern Tokyo), , and was a prosperous and peaceful era, with Japan cutting off almost all contact with the outside world.
  • Portugal managed some limited interaction, in the sixteenth century introducing firearms to Japanese warfare. The American Perry Expedition in 1853–54 more completely ended Japan's seclusion, contributing to the fall of the shogunate and the return of power to the emperor.
  • The following Meiji period transformed Japan into an empire which more closely followed Western models. Democracy developed but Japan's military remained powerful and invaded Manchuria in 1931, leading to a prolonged war with China.
  • Japan's joined the Axis powers in World War II, attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. Emperor Hirohito finally announced Japan's surrender on August 15, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
  • The Allies occupied Japan until 1952, leaving behind a constitutional monarchy. Japan prospered and became a world economic powerhouse.

Facts and Factoids

  • The western word Japan actually derives from the Mandarin for Japan - Cipan. The Japanese call themselves Nippon. Japan is known as the Land of The Rising Sun, as the sun seems to rise there, from the west (China).
  • Japan is an archipelago of nearly 7000 islands (421 of these are inhabited)
  • Around 70% of Japan is made up of forest and mountains, which aren’t suitable for farming or habitation. Hence the pressure on land, to house the population, the propensity for small rooms and the embarkation on World War II, in an effort to expand territory
  • Japan is on The Pacific Ring of Fire. There are over 100 active volcanoes, and its tallest mountain is the famed Mount Fuji, (3,776 feet). Japan experiences around 1500 earthquakes every year.
  • The number four (‘shi’) is widely avoided in Japan -it sounds too similar to the Japanese word for death
  • The traditional Christmas Eve meal here is KFC
  • In Japan, people don’t have signatures – they have their own seal, known as a Hanko.
  • Life expectancy in Japan is 84, the second highest in the world (after Hong Kong). It's highest in some of the islands of Okinawa, where the seaweed diet is being studied.
  • Japanese Kongo Gumi is the oldest operating business in the world, established in 578.( It specialises in the construction of temples and shrines).
  • Japan produces half the world's zips. They are mainly made by YKK (Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha of Tokyo). They manufacture about 7 billion zips each year.
  • Japan is well-known for its weird and wonderful TV and festivals non-stop festivals, At Hadaka Matsuri, for example, thousands of Japanese men strip naked, in public, to secure a fortune-filled year.

What to See in Japan?

  • Japan is an utterly fascinating country, overwhelming on first impression, but actually very easily navigated alone. You buy a train pass at a very reasonable price, (only available to foreigners). The trains arrive on the dot (the average delay is 18 seconds) and there are a multitude of apps which tell you exactly which platform to go to and where to stand. Walking directions on Google are given in minute detail. It's difficult to get lost. and even if you do. the reserved Japanese will help, willingly, once approached.
  • Eating out is expensive, but feast on sushi (and assorted fried goods) from the many corner shops (mainly 7-11s) and booths or vending machines (one for every 24 people). The food is probably the most alternative, in the world, for a western palate. when properly explored. There are, of course, the widely travelled noodles, sushi and sashimi and Yakitori barbecue or Tepanyaki grilling. But how about tea or eel flavoured ice cream, sea urchins, pickled jellyfish and other slimy beasts from the ocean, or basashi (raw horsemeat slices with ginger and onions)? N.B. Slurping your noodles is a sign of enjoyment and also cools down the noodles as you eat.
  • Stay in ryokans, Japanese traditional inns with paper walls and tatami mat bedding and sample a hot spring (onsen) at least once.
  • Amazing scenery, historic cities, vibrant technology, blossom (cherry, wisteria and more), monkeys and more. Read about what I did:

Ishikagi to Tokyo

I've decided to wait for the airport at Ishikagi to eat, as food will almost certainly be cheaper there. There's a sentence I never thought I would write. Purchasing nourishment in Japan is still a mine field. The departure lounge looks a bit like a supermarket, with stands and huge garish signs. Trying to find something that looks vaguely recognisable is the first problem, let alone ordering it. Eventually, I discover that some of the stalls have little picture book menus to point at. Though I still end up with pickled vegetable sushi,rather than the salmon or tuna I was fondly imagining. It's got sugar on it too. So much for healthy eating.

The boarding calls are made by a little man in a Hawaiian style shirt, shouting through a megaphone. He’s bowing and smiling as he does it. And you are allowed to take water though security. They have a little machine to check that it really is water. How civilised is that?

Haneda Airport

I get views of Mount Fuji in full sun setting glory from the plane and I can still see the cone peeping round the corner of the control tower from my airport hotel window, at Haneda, in Tokyo. This is tomorrow’s destination - I'm going to a flower festival called Shibasakura – phlox blossom. Sakura is cherry blossom and the act of blossom viewing is called hanami. You’re supposed to have a party under the trees. This festival promises hot pink carpets, all round the bottom of Fuji.

Meanwhile, I'm in search of more airport food. Forget cosmetics or designer bags. It’s all comestibles in the airports here. A fragrant bowl of ramen noodles, with vegetable tempura for three pounds - that’s a bit more like it. I'm not quite full, but the smiling young ladies touting their wares give me free tastings of the huge variety of rice and ground bean based sweets and waffle cakes on offer. So that’s sorted that. Now, I have to choose my pyjamas - they supply them in all the hotel rooms here. The Japanese wander round the hotels quite happily, wearing them.

Long Distance Bus to Kawaguchigo - Mixed Blessings

Today, I'm trying out the long distance bus system. This time, men with microphones wearing surgical face masks shepherd us into tidy numbered lines and onto the correct bus. (A large proportion of the Japanese wear face masks - sometime the women have blue ones. It’s ostensibly to prevent spreading or acquiring infection, but it’s also a good way of avoiding social contact.) I'm able to see something of the many canals around Tokyo harbour and the scrapers of high tech Shinjuku. It certainly seems far more sci-fi here and the elevated sections make London’s West Way look decrepit.

Finally, out of the city, the alpine scenery is extraordinarily pretty. There are wide valleys, with little chalet houses, just like Switzerland. The mountains are covered in feathery greenery, in a ravishing palette of fresh shades, the whole liberally sprinkled with sakura. But the efficiency of the transport even puts Switzerland to shame. Everything leaves on time, to the second, the microphone men bowing to the drivers.

Kawaguchigo

Things go downhill, when I arrive at Kawaguchigo. I dip into the tourist office, as I am not sure which bus to get to the festival and the lady there just looks at my waving leaflet and says don't bother; there are no flowers. She takes great delight in showing me pictures of the site, which resembles a huge mudslide. It’s a glorious clear day. There are already tantalising views of Fuji towering above the station, so I decide to go to my hotel,drop off my stuff, walk round the lake and search for sakura instead. I wait 45 mins for the hotel bus, in the right place, as instructed.

I finally get to the hotel, to be told I‘m not booked in there. My itinerary says one thing, the tour company booking another. So Fuji View Hotel gets Fuji Lake Hotel to send a mini bus to pick me up - all very annoying and time consuming. Especially, as the Fuji Lake bus had come much earlier, while I was waiting, and the Fuji View is set in the most beautiful gardens, with all the cherry trees in flower and great views of Fuji. I run around madly, taking pictures and leaping in the lift, to visit the panorama lounge, before they throw me out.

Fuji

My hotel proper thankfully also has Fuji views, though it is pretty dated in style - like a typical beige English caravan. And it’s also very Japanese. There are bedroom slippers, plastic toilet slippers and a tea set in a glass and wooden box. As with many of the lavatories here, you can set this one to make flushing or lapping noises while you are in there, to ‘cover your embarrassment’.

So, not all is gloom and doom. Moreover, there is sakura, a memorable jaunt round the lake, though it’s a little blustery, and great views of Fuji, who has obligingly draped herself in fresh snow, for the iconic souvenir photographs. Once you manage to navigate your way past all the tourists taking selfies and group pictures, all along the path. Most of the blossom is creamy white, but from a distance, in the sun, it takes on a pinkish hue.

Back in my hotel room, I have top floor views of the mountain. I can even see Fuji, while I'm sitting in my bath. Well I could if they had thought to illuminate it. Filling the little tub is another aptitude test. The taps are on the windowsill and the shower is on the wall, wet room style. Needless to say it spouts all over me, as soon as I turn on the taps. And I'm not undressed yet. When I finish my bath and pull out the plug, the water spurts out of the drain, all over the floor – and any part of my clothing that wasn’t already wet.

There is a Spartan resonance to this place. The wind has got more blustery all day and now it's a howling gale. The bar area is chilly to say the least, but they resolutely refuse to light the fire that is set. The Japanese tourists have all donned the kimonos and over jackets that are provided in the rooms, so they all look as if they are in grey and maroon uniforms. Or prison garb.

Unexpectedly, I'm finding it very hard to get fed. Breakfast notices announce that no-one will be allowed entrance after 8.30 a.m. Eating other meals is another challenge. I didn't get any lunch because of all the kerfuffle and thought I would wait till dinner to save some time, so I could go walking. But you can't have dinner here, unless you reserve in advance and it's a 10 course Japanese extravaganza anyway. The bar only does sandwiches in the evening and there isn't anything else open in the vicinity. The staff speak hardly any English, so can't be any more helpful, though they are trying. So, my main meal for today is a toasted ham and cheese! Maybe I will end up as slim as all the Japanese. The Japanese women are so elegant, with such beautiful porcelain skin.

Fuji to Sendai on the Train

Breakfast today makes up for yesterday’s paucity on the nutrition front. It is a grand affair, offering a conglomeration of everything Japanese and Japanese western. You can even have ice cream. Now, I'm off to try my luck on the trains for the first time. The initial leg is easy enough, though it’s called an express (for which I’ve paid an extra 400 yen) and it chugs its way sleepily along the valleys. The scenery is so lovely it’s impossible to mind. Perhaps the driver is admiring it.

The second leg, back to Tokyo, in a proper express, also goes off relatively smoothly. I’ve even worked out how to stand in the right place for my reserved carriage. The first and second lines painted on the platform alongside all the assorted carriage markings are a little misleading, until I realise that they signify the order of the trains and not the class of travel. There is plenty of room in the carriages, and all the seats face forward. They swing them round at the termini. The next stage is Tokyo, for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Sendai. The carriage attendants here, male and female, have flowers in their caps and they even bow to the mighty engines, as they sweep gracefully along the platform.

However, I should have known better than to write how wonderful and punctual it all is. Tokyo main station is in chaos. All the trains are delayed, because there is something stuck in an overhead cable. I ask some little men where to go for my train and they haven’t a clue, fobbing me off with a guess at the wrong platform. Eventually, I work it out for myself and I end up on a train that will get me there earlier than my planned itinerary, even taking into account the delay. It’s just like London.

On the train, I'm writing my blog, checking the weather forecast and trying to remember not to blow my nose. It’s considered very rude, especially when you’re eating. So everyone sniffs all the time, which is much less irritating, of course. The train has just slowed right down through Fukushima - site of the earthquake and nuclear leak. I'm wondering if I should hold my breath…...Out of the left hand window I can see the snowy peaks of the mountains that form Japan’s spine. On the right, there is still blossom on the little trees in the orchards. Fingers crossed. I'm heading north, in search of sakura.

Sendai Sakura

I'm based at Sendai for three nights and here the sun is a little more elusive. It’s what we Brits would call chilly. It’s a very modern city, home to about one million. As Wikimedia says: "Sendai is not too big and not too small, it's very convenient and it's close to both the sea and the mountains."

I scurry along the long avenues, between the parks, searching for sakura. There are lanterns in the trees, gay stalls and plenty of stalwarts out on blue plastic sheeting, conducting hanami. It seems to me that for many of the men this means consuming as much beer as possible. But it’s all very good natured and everyone appears to be having fun. Some parties have gone to a great deal of trouble to pack hampers and even lay out coordinating place settings. The pinkish white blossom at Nishi Park has partially fallen. But two miles in the other direction, at Tsutsujigaoka Park (try saying that after a beer), the candy floss pink weeping cherries are in full bloom, with their long flailing tresses. The setting sun and the crowds make good photographs difficult, though you can’t help but smile at the antics under the trees.

I'm exhausted after tramping everywhere with my camera and getting up at silly o'clock to catch the trains. Back at my hotel, the travel company have treated me to dinner tonight, to make up for yesterday’s problems - Japanese Italian. It’s surprisingly good, as is the Negroni. Maybe I won’t be losing weight after all.

Everything is still organised to the nth detail. My toilet seat lifts itself up when I enter, though my capsule room is so small I probably couldn't bend over to lift it up. No room to do your asanas in here. When you go to breakfast you are given a place card to reserve your space at a table, while you get your food. You return it when you leave. Even the lift reads your room key card, to take you briskly to the correct floor. Society goes to great lengths to make sure that everyone behaves fairly and politely. And no-one would dream of crossing the road before the little green man blinks. Is this overdoing things I wonder? Repression or the highest form of society?

All the Ks - Kakunodate and Kitikama

I'm on a super express heading for the north of Honshu - mainland Japan - today. I’m still in search of cherry blossom, today combined with samurai houses at Kakunodate. It's over 240 kilometres, so it sounds mad for a day trip, but it's only an hour and a half on these ultra efficient trains. This is the fastest shinkansen line in the country and it runs at up to 200 miles per hour.

I catch a glimpse of a cherry blossom festival in an orchard, with trees in full bloom, but I can't see which town we are in. I think it might be Kitikama, where I'm due to go tomorrow - wow that was quick. The train is zipping along and most of the scenery is a blur.

At Morioka, the train splits in two. One part heads northward to Hokkaido. My bit turns east and skirts the mountains all the way to my destination. They are white capped, the sky is blue and there are gushing streams and waterfalls. There are patches of snow right up to the line. It all promises a good day. But I’ve been tantalised again.

Kakunodate

There is a bank of cloud hovering over Kakunodate and the much anticipated weeping cherries are nowhere near ready to flower. There are tight buds on some of them and just two trees in blossom, outside the heritage centre. And naturally, this whole walkway is full of tourists taking their photographs under them. There are posters everywhere, taunting me, depicting the carpets of blossom and flower tunnels, when the sakura is in its full glory. The townspeople however, are acting as if the blossom is already here. There are stalls lining the road, sprays of plastic blossom and car park attendants with batons ready for the onslaught. It will be glorious during Golden Week, the national holiday, in a fortnight's time.

Meanwhile, the row of three hundred year old samurai houses and the heritage centre are both worth a wander. The Kakunodate Samurai District, which once housed about 80 families, is said to be one of the best examples of samurai architecture and housing in the country. Six are open to the public, the most notable are the Aoyagi House and the Ishiguro House.

Then, I saunter down the river walkway, imagining how lovely it is going to be when the flowers appear. Every so often, I am besieged by groups of local school children excitedly carrying out surveys and practising their English.

Kitikami

The forecast for tomorrow is less promising, so I change my ticket and take the slower train 100 kilometres back to Kitikami. I’m hopeful that was the place where I saw the cherry blossom on the way up. The city is famous for the sakura that bloom in Tenshochi Park. And maybe the sun will come back. In any case it will free up tomorrow.

The sky is indeed properly azure at Kitikami and there is a two kilometre avenue of snowy cherry trees coming into full blossom along the banks of the river. I pop over on the ferry and join the ranks of the revellers taking carriage rides or boat tours. there's a mini fairground and a rammed car park. The sky is just clouding over as I finish, and the first spots of rain pursue me back to the station. You win some and you lose some.

The Nihon Sankei

There's a patch of clear sky wafting around Japan and I’ve been trying to match my expeditions to its presence. Today, the weather map says it will be above Matsushima Bay. It’s half an hour on the train from Sendai and the guide book informs me it's one of the three scenic must-sees in Japan (the nihon sankei). Selected several centuries ago, they consist of Matsushima, Miyajima and Amanohashidate. Why isn't Fuji on the list I wonder? Anyway, here I am.

Matsushima Bay

A proper tourist today. I cruise round the bay admiring the 260 odd little limestone islands, amble round a temple or two and up an imposing avenue of cedar trees, enjoy a very pretty zen garden with a samurai mausoleum and a temple or two and cross a traditional red bridge to another of the islands. Exceptionally pleasant - and it's sunny as promised. There’s even sakura. The Japanese tourists forgo the oohing and aahing at the islands. I'm not sure they even look at them. They spend most of the voyage rearranging themselves for group pictures against the rail. Then they go into the saloon, drink tea and look at their photographs.

There's also a temple, with gardens and a small castle, - you have to go over a bridge to reach them ,in the more built up area, away from the dock.

This probably sounds crass and obvious, but this is such a unique culture. There are very few recognisable western brands. The food is unlike anything anywhere else. There's a faint whiff of sour frying (or is it sake brewing?) as I pass the restaurants. It's not entirely pleasant.

Restrooms (as they are called in American fashion) are plentiful and even most of the public facilities are kitted out with all singing, all dancing, bowls and wall panel controls. It's a peaceful warm place to sit and organise myself when I'm tired.

Oyama

I'm saturated with Sakura now, so I'm off in search of other blossom. A shinkansen back down south to Oyama and then a local train, which trundles along excruciatingly slowly, through low lying hills and paddy fields. The plants are very young and the shoots poke through the water, in neat geometric patterns. There is still some ploughing too, the miniature tractors throwing up lines of spray.

The local trains are driven from the last car, by earnest young men who act as guards, checking into electronic controls, on each platform and also inspecting and issuing tickets. It crosses my mind that I should offer them work on the Brighton line. I'm still being kept in order. There are frequent announcements saying that mobile phones should be kept in silent mode.

Hitachi Seaside Park

Today's destination is the Hitachi Seaside Park. Me and half of Japan. (I read that the population of Japan is reducing rapidly. It was 128 million, but the birth rate is reducing so rapidly that it is projected to fall to 88 million eventually, with an ever ageing top end to finance.)

It's a sunny spring Sunday and a whole hillside covered in blue nemophila is advertised. The site is swarming and the lines for food tickets and toilets alarming. The good news is that the flowers are almost completely in bloom and very pretty. There are four and half million of the ‘baby blue eyes’ spilling over the slopes. I'm not sure they are any more attractive than the fields of flax or lavender found closer to home, but somehow the ant like hordes crisscrossing the slopes add to the interest.

There's a good view of the sea at the top and a bell, which the locals are queuing up to ring. A surfeit of standing and waiting going on here, but it's all very orderly. Added attractions are an egg forest that has flower beds of gorgeous tulips - a huge variety of species and colours and a narcissi garden, that is still very fresh in parts, a sea of bobbing fried eggs. The advertised forest eggs I hasten to add, are metallic and large, designed for children to scramble in (sorry I can't resist it). The Japanese seem very fond of small dogs, but the pampered canines seem reluctant to walk and are carried in arms or baskets. I’ve even noticed several being trundled in tartan prams.

Organising Your Travel in Japan

My luggage is waiting for me when I get back to Oyama. This is yet another really neat piece of organisation. You can send your luggage on ahead, to save hefting it on the trains, for about ten pounds a time. So far it’s found its way to the correct location. So have I; I'm using a seven day tourist rail pass that is excellent value - as long as I don't lose it. I've also now learned to use Google maps to plot all my walking, even in Japanese, Google translate to ask for what I want and a nifty app to plan all my train travel. I'm carrying a little router I rented on the internet to make sure I stay connected. So I'm weighed down but not lost.

Eating in Oyama, Japan

Oyama doesn’t promise to be the most exciting place I’ve ever stayed at; it was chosen for its convenience. The hotel is very brown, verging on dreary, with opaque bedroom windows and the streets are extraordinarily empty when I arrive. Maybe everyone has gone to the Seaside Park. Things have improved when I venture out for dinner. There is a main square around the station and some little spurs off it. These boast some tempting little bistro type places lit, with Japanese lanterns and decorated with banners. It’s all rather chi-chi.

I'm still at sea, when it comes to knowing what to order in Japan. Purchasing edibles on the go is easier, I just buy sushi from one of the many convenience stores. At times I can be a little more adventurous, though it’s still fraught. There are usually cabinets of fried objects in batter, so I point at three of those at random. Consumption reveals: a very spicy piece of chicken schnitzel, some chicken on a stick in crispy batter, which is tasty, and the piece de resistance - a frankfurter in a balloon shaped very sweet batter, which is interesting. Toad in the hole on a stick.

My cider turns out to be a very synthetic fizzy soft drink, with no apple in it at all and my sparkling mineral water is lychee flavoured. I'm still puzzled as to where the healthy bit comes in, but back to dinner. I can only work out what type of restaurant it is,if they are kind enough to display photographs of the food and these can be misleading. Tonight, it turns out to be Japanese Indian.

Another interesting tiny bathroom to grapple with. In this one, the same tap feeds both the bathtub and the sink. So I have to remember to swing it in the correct direction, or there are consequences.

Ashigake Flower Park - Wisteria Hysteria

The Japanese are such delightful considerate people - unless they're taking photographs and then they’re schizophrenic. They dive in front of everything and everyone and pose. It's really difficult to get an uncluttered view of the attractions, however insignificant.

Today, I've followed the good weather to Ashigake Flower Park, which is world renowned for its wisteria. The gardens are absolutely exquisite, if a little over manicured at times. Thoughtfully organised, with delightful seating areas in the midst of the banks of flowers, on little islands in ponds, by cafes with no queueing. There's even a large ‘resting field’ with neatly lined up tables, chairs and parasols. It's all incredibly relaxing, despite the photo bombing; there’s even Bach and Chopin tinkling away in the background. (The Japanese have piped classical music almost everywhere, including the restrooms).

There is more sakura, azalea, masses of annuals immaculately arranged in beds and fantastically tiered islands and two toned lupins in layered cones. How have they managed to get them all to grow to the required height like that?

Wisteria is called Fuji in Japanese and there are wisteria trees in blossom: pearly white, baby blanket pink and a little purple. There's even a Monet style bridge with a pink fringe on top. One ‘but’ today is that the famous giant trees, which provide the trellis blossoms are not yet in bloom.

I brought a selfie stick with me, but I haven't had the confidence to try it out yet. Though if I can't use a selfie here where can I? When in Japan..... where's the best wisteria tree?

The other ‘but’ is that the rich wisteria scent, which pervades the park, has attracted some enormous hornet like insects, that look identical to killer bees. They are gliding down the paths, hovering in and out of the ducking visitors. It could make for some interesting pictures.

And who knew that the iPhone automatically creates an album for your selfies?

Fukuoka - Bloom and Gloom

More famous last words. My Brown Hotel staff inform me, on inquiry, that the highly efficient luggage transport service will take two days to send my luggage ahead to Fukuoka. Fair enough, I think it’s a long way, it’s on another island. Send it to Haneda Airport instead, I suggest. No, that will also take two days. It’s projected to take me just under two hours this morning I hope, so the logic defies me. I suspect it may take me longer than two hours and some bad language, now I have to propel my large case onto the trains and buses.

On arrival in Fukuoka, I'm told that the bucket list wisteria tunnel I’ve come all this way to see is not yet in bloom and it’s raining hard. I still have to go to Kokura tomorrow, near the wisteria garden, as my hotel has been booked. I’ve not heard anything about my North Korea trip being cancelled, even though Trump’s aircraft carrier is now in position. It’s a little stressful. Also disappointingly, it seems that the Japanese do not pronounce Fukuoka anything like the way I have been saying it - with some relish.

One compensation is that I can have another Japanese massage. Little ladies wearing nurse style tunics turn up at my door, kneel on the bed and give all my pressure points a good pummelling. It’s all very proper. I’m not even allowed to take off my clothes.

A Watery Finale to Japan

It’s still raining whatever the Japanese equivalent of cats and dogs is, and it’s set in for the day. Nevertheless, I feel I should see something of the city. Fukuoka sits on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island. It’s known for ancient temples, beaches and modern shopping malls, including Canal City. and the ruins of 17th-century Fukuoka Castle. I'm in the central Hakata district which contains the Tōchō-ji Temple, home to a 10 metre wooden Buddha and the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.

So, I set off for a Shinto shrine that’s dedicated to sailors. It’s early seventeenth century, the oldest and first of its kind in the country and its theme seems appropriate for today. Like most Japanese shrines, it is rewardingly colourful and peaceful. The red walls are almost orange. There seems to be some equivalent ceremony to a christening going on – a baby wearing its best clothes is held by a robed priest, surrounded by adults, and drums are banging.

The shinkansen speeds me the 30 odd miles to Kokura in just over 15 minutes. My last night is to be spent in a fancy tower block hotel and my room has extensive views across the north of Kyushu, over the harbour and up to Honshu. I can just make out the connecting suspension bridge in the distance. The green pin cushioned mountains are visible through the clouds, forming a backdrop to the high rise blocks and I can see the trains arriving below me, like a Hornby OO railway. This is more fun than going out and getting soaked. A final Japanese buffet and breakfast. I’m still grappling with my chopsticks. Using them to eat scrambled egg and bacon, like the Japanese, is beyond my capabilities.

Next stop Beijing. I am very sorry to leave Japan. (Read more about Japan here). But it will be good to sit on a toilet that doesn’t make me jump by flushing ‘to prepare itself’ .when I'm trying to relax.

Tokyo, Enormous Capital of Japan

Japan is quite frightening when you first arrive - all modern and overwhelming and Oh My God how do I know where to go? Until you realise there are little English signs in most places under the Japanese script. And the locals, though shy and blushing, are helpful, when asked. I've acquired a first day guide to Tokyo on the plane on the way out. He's called Richard and he's so exceptionally good looking. I forget to take any photos.  

Tokyo is huge. This is the most populous urban area in the world, with an estimated 37 million residents. The city proper is home to 14 million people. Tokyo is on Honshu, the largest Japanese island. It started life as a fishing village named Edo, but grew rapidly, as the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate. By the mid-18th century, Edo already had a population of over one million people. Astonishing, for the time. It became the imperial capital in 1868. Before that time, Kyoto had the honour.

Exploring Tokyo

So, it takes forever to get across the city on the metro. Everyone sits very quietly. Some have their eyes shut. I wonder if they’ve fallen asleep or if they are meditating. It's all fascinating, especially Akiharbara, the literally pulsating electronics district, where huge stores packed with goods compete for custom via song and dance in the street. I buy a very cheap memory card for my camera. Close to the station, at Ginza, you can peep at the emperor's palace, though you're not allowed into the inner grounds. But you can wander in the East Palace Gardens. and pop into Ueno Park.

Throning Takeshita Street, in Harajuku, is advertised as 'the heart of all things trendy and weird in Tokyo'.The young Japanese are very fashion conscious. Hair dyed blonde and legwarmers seem to be the thing, even though its summer.

My Travel Companions in Japan

This is a group trip. It’s run by an Australian company, so unsurprisingly most of us are Australian. There’s a newly married English couple, Sara and Craig, who lug a huge Miffy rabbit everywhere and Swiss Bettina.  I’m sharing with another Sue, from Melbourne. There's thirty-ish Peter and  an older Australian guy, Lindsey, who seems very frail and perpetually unhappy. All he does is frown and complain, mostly about his constipation.

My hotel is toy-town - tiny doors narrow corridors and miniature rooms.

On the Shinkansen

Japan is well known for its bullet trains - the shinkansen network. The first high speed track was built out of Tokyo in 1959. There has never been a fatality. We travel by train everywhere – everyone does, queuing two by two on the platforms as instructed. Sensibly, the seats rotate so you always get to face forward. It's very comfy, and so well designed there's no real sense of speed. Which is somewhat disappointing, except in the Japanese style toilets. Hanging on, as the train speeds round the curves, is good for my ski muscles. Miffy even gets his own seat on the train. (It was a doting husband present.)

As we are waiting, at one station, we see Nozumi go by. That's the really fast (and expensive) train. The whole platform trembles as it shoots past.

Nikko

From the skyscrapers and hustle of Tokyo to first, the damp mossy shrines, hotsprings and waterfalls  at Nikko. We're staying in a ryokan (traditional inn with futons, paper-thin walls and tatami matting, on a very hard floor.). We're even given cotton kimonos to wear and the toilets are voice activated.

At Nikko, attractions include the Shinto Futarasan Shrine, (767 AD) and the mausoleums of Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu (Nikkō Tōshō-gū) and his grandson. It seems odd to read that a mausoleum is an attraction. But they are so often extraordinarily ornate. The UNESCO listed shrine is divided into three sections and it possesses two swords that are designated National Treasures of Japan.

We've caught the edge of a typhoon and the rain is pouring in torrents. We scramble around with plastic umbrellas and get soaked. We have to recover in an onsen (hotspring), followed by meatballs and rice and hot sake. But the river is rising, the shops are flooded, we're all soaked and marooned. No trains today. More dangerously slippery waterfall clambering and a visit to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. This is a gorge, along the Daiya River, lined with 74 mystical statues. No-one is quite sure of their origin or what they are for.

Eating in Japan

Today's compensation is delicious sushi in a diminutive husband and wife bar. I’ve quickly got to grips with sushi, which is melt in your mouth delicious. Now I can navigate both the conveyor belts and the tiny corner bars where the fish is carved by the chef, dressed in appropriate sashed garb. Anything not just out of the water fresh is shunned, though some very odd and slimy things are included. There are good hot dishes too - the stone cooked tepanyaki, bread crumbed katsu and various broths and curries, but I’m determined to eat sushi at least once every day.

Fuji - Hakone

Next, back to Tokyo on the shinkansen and then lakeside Hakone. Here, it's gorgeous weather and we can see the iconic perfect  cone of Mount Fuji.  We take a scarlet pirate boat, across lake Ashi to another ryokan. This one has an outdoor onsen. We sail past the Hakone Shrine, a Shinto shrine with a “Torii” gate, which is also scarlet. A gondola lift up the side of the mountain, over the boiling sulphurous fumaroles of Owakudani Valley. Lunch is boiled eggs, enterprising vendors are cooking in the mud.

Takayama

Back to Nagoya and then Takayama. Past paddy fields and mountains, with a bento box for lunch. The narrow streets of the Sanmachi Suji historic district are lined with wooden merchants’ houses, dating to the Edo Period, and a sprinkling of  tiny museums. Men in black singlets and patterned bandannas ferry the tourists around in rickshaws. It's raining again and we're drenched at the morning market.

There are two strange bronze statues, on the Kaji-bashi Bridge in Takayama. It seems that they are characters from Japanese folklore. Tenagazo has long arms and Ashinagazo long legs. Together, they make the prefect fishing party. Long Arms rides on Long Legs’ back, so he can reach for all the fish, as Long Legs wades into the water.

There's also the Open Air Museum, the Hida folk village, to explore. But it's raining again now.

Hiroshima, Japan

Honshu is banana shaped. So, east now, to Hiroshima, almost on the southern tip of Honshu. This modern city, of over a million people, was of course, largely destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War II. It's a sobering visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which commemorates the 1945 event. In the park, are the ruins of Genbaku Dome, one of the few buildings which was left standing, near Ground Zero.

Miyajima

Just a little further south, in Hiroshima Bay, the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, on the island of Itsukushima, better known as Miyajima, which means shrine. This is the Holy Shinto Island. It's reached by ferry and is considered to be one of the three most scenic spots in Japan. as it's famous for its "floating" torii gate. Though frankly it could do with a lick of paint. The first shrine buildings here probably date back to the sixth century. The present scarlet shrine dates from the 12th century.

Also on the island is the Daishō-in, a temple complex on Mount Misen, the Holy Mountain on the Holy Island. The Japanese integrate worship of nature, in this case, the mountain along with worship at the temple. There are statues - dashi, some with knitted hats, arranged along stairs, in groups and all around. Its a bit like being in a garden gnome centre.

Swiss Bettina, Megan and I find a Hello Kitty karaoke chapel, complete with stained windows and spend the evening  singing badly. Only in Japan.

Himeji Castle

We visit Shogun picture book Himeji Castle, travelling back west again, on the way to Kyoto. Hilltop Himeji Castle is the number one castle in Japan, built in 1333. It started life as a fort and has 83 rooms.

Sara and Craig argue about what to do with their rabbit. Miffed about Miffy. 

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto was the old imperial capital of Japan, from as far back as 794, up to 1869. This is a great city. Temples and shrines abound. Seventeen of them form the UNESCO heritage site. Though I'm now almost templed out. One of the most popular is Buddhist Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), or officially, Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple), both for obvious reasons.

The original name for Kyoto, when it became the capital, was Heian-kyo. The Emperor then was Kanmu (the fiftieth). To celebrate the city's 1100th anniversary, at the end of the nineteenth century, they built a partial reproduction of the original Heian Palace. They couldn't buy enough land to complete it full size, so this replica is 5/8 of the original. After the Exhibition ended, the building was kept as a shrine in memory of Kanmu. The shrine is ranked as a Beppyō Jinja (the top rank for shrines) by the Association of Shinto Shrines.

The Ryoan-ji Zen Temple has fabulous gardens, classic Japanese, with water lilies (just like the Monets) and a bridge and a dry rock garden. Absolutely what you imagine, when you say Zen Garden. They are all turning autumnal; the classic Japanese red maples are lovely. Ginkaku-ji, is another Buddhist complex. And the five tiered Toji Temple (also Buddhist), founded in 796), was one of the only three Buddhist temples allowed in the city at the time it became the capital. (There are definitely more than that now.). It has a lucky stone turtle to rub. We're able to catch the flea market at Toji too. It's held on the 21st of each month. Then, there's the Ryōzen Kannon, a war memorial, commemorating the dead of the Pacific War. It's a 24 metre statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

Nijo Castle

Now palaces and castles. We manage to get permission to tour the Imperial Palace. (I don't think you have to do that any more.) This building only dates from 1855. Nijo Castle is older (1601). It was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, who ordered all the feudal lords in western Japan to contribute to its construction. The castle was designed as a residence, not for defence. Just to be sure, however, the shogun installed, special creaky floorboards.

Kyoto has an incredible amount to occupy us for several days. Next, the Philosophers’ Walk along a cherry tree lined canal. It must be gorgeous, when the sakura is out. We peep at the geishas hurrying along in in the Gion district.

Nara

We're not done with Kyoto yet. A day excursion to Nara, an hour away on the train, for more temples and shrines and deer. There's a Deer Park (which doesn't stop the deer wandering into the shops), round the old Imperial Palace - Heijo (the emperor doesn't live there any more - too busy in Tokyo) and another castle with lots more gold on it. Nara, was Japan's first permanent capital, established in the year 710, when Nara was known as Heijo. Prior to that, the capital was moved to a new location whenever a new emperor ascended to the throne.

Tōdai-ji (752 AD) is a Buddhist temple complex, which was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, located in the city of Nara, Japan. And there's a wedding ceremony for us to watch.

More to Do in Kyoto

Back in Kyoto, there's shopping. of course. There are artisan demonstrations in the Kyoto Handicrafts Centre and trying on of Japanese costume. Sannenzaka, is an atmospheric sloped and stone-paved pedestrian road, lined with traditional buildings and shops, and is often paired with the similar road, Ninenzaka. The Kyoto Tower reflects the modern elements of the city, literally - in the plate glass Station Tower. This is a mall too, with 10 escalators in a continuous row. and geisha, female entertainers often found.

More sushi; I’m not bored with it yet and it’s cheap in the 7-11 convenience stores. AND I think I've lost weight! Finally, another onsen (no clothes and a string of thermal pools, one of which carries an electric current) with the local mafia wives and Megan.

How to Deal with Complaints

Lindsey maintains his complaints throughout. Eventually, when he is in full throttle, as we are trying to traverse a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, leader Megan deals with him in very Australian fashion. “Here’s a token, go call someone who cares”. I bid goodbye to the group over tepanyaki, onamayaki and hot sake. I navigate my way back to Tokyo, on my own.  A last trip on the Shinkansen. Japanese signs don't seem nearly as intimidating now.

Back in Tokyo

Back in the capital, a  very good (and very expensive) Italian meal with Richard. It seems a funny way to finish a trip to Japan, but I let him choose. And the world is now a very different place. We have watched 9/11 unfold on Japanese TV.  We thought it was a movie that they kept repeating at first. I  feel very flat, leaving the group and setting off on my own again, into an uncertain world, unsure even whether there is a plane to catch. But Brisbane here I come. (Read more about Japan here.)

Newsletter Subscription

Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.

I keep your data private and only share your data with third parties that make this service possible. Privacy Policy. No spam I promise. Unsubscribe any time.