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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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