I'm in Ishigaki Jima, one of the Yaeyama islands, Okinawa prefecture. Basically, this is about as far south as Japan goes, which is quite a long way. Japan here doesn’t seem to be as high tech as I remember it to be, but that was 15 years ago. Yes, everyone is toting their gadgets, but the stores are utilitarian and piled high with oddments, plastic toys and confectionery, which is annoying, as I've already lost my universal electronic charger. I left it on the last of the three planes I travelled on to get here. It took two days minus the time difference of eight hours and I was too drowsy to notice. The Japanese man next to me didn't sleep well either. I accidentally kicked my bag onto him during the night and he threw it back shouting ''Over there!' Surprisingly un-Japanese, as everything here is so calm.
There's also more English script around than I remember, which is helpful, as very few folk down here in the sticks speak English. The hotel manager was really surprised to see me. He says westerners don't come to visit these parts. The only Japanese word I could remember before I set off was yes. It's already been pointed out to me that no might be a safer option.
I feel like a gentle start, food wise, so I go for the Chinese restaurant. The smiling waiter brings me pickled jellyfish, as a surprise appetiser. And so it goes on. One of the strangest meals I’ve ever eaten, Everything is either slimy or bitter or spiky. It seems that Japanese Chinese food is not remotely like English Chinese. Or Chinese Chinese for that matter. And OMG is it expensive. The set menu is £40 and the man at the desk told me that this was the cheap restaurant.
Now a barbers’ quartet of waiters have brought out a ‘cake’ and are singing Happy Birthday, to the family group at the adjacent table. The waitress says it's their wedding anniversary....
Back in my room - it's like a fridge - the air conditioning is so over zealous. The bath plug is spherical and the toilet, with its gadgets and heated seat, is the warmest place to be. It's quaintly called a shower toilet.
This was designated my Blossom Tour, as after Ishigakijima I'm travelling north via Tokyo and my next stops are all arranged around Japanese flower festivals. However, I’ve had to extend the title to include Battleships, as I’ve discovered that Japan is involved in a skirmish with China, over some of the small islands close to here. The Japanese fishermen have been chased out and Ishigaki Harbour is bristling with coastal defence vessels. The newspapers say that tourists are staying away because they don’t want to get involved in the fighting. And my next stop after Japan is planned to be North Korea. Donald Trump has sent an aircraft carrier fleet, the Chinese are massing on the North Korean border and the Japanese are drawing up plans to evacuate their citizens from South Korea...
I wake with appalling jet lag and it takes sometime to orientate myself (see what I did there), but the sun is persistent and I decide to step out and explore. I manage to acquire a ferry ticket and arrive on the tiny island of Taketomi. Well, I thought I was disorientated before, but now I'm completely discombobulated. Everything is signed in Japanese script and there are a crowd of men with vans and unfathomable chalk boards. Some pictures would be helpful. I eventually find a wall map and work out how to walk into the central village, which takes ten minutes. There, I hire a bike and obtain my own map, which I can't read. And I discover that the vans were there to transport tourists to the bike hire shops.
The island is charming and well worth the trip. It is remote and traditionally Okinawan, with red terracotta roofed houses and grey stone walls (these are the ishigaki of the island name). although apparently thatched roofs are even more traditional and the red tiles crept in last century. Bougainvillea and hibiscus spill over them, in rampant abundance. Stone lanterns are pleasingly littered around and pop-eyed baby dragons and lions roar from the tiles. Delightfully atmospheric. The other local transport possibility are the water buffalo carts. The huge beasts lumber along surprisingly rhythmically, heads swaying and the Japanese passengers vie for inclusion in the photos I'm trying to take. The buffalo need little guidance as they traverse the narrow coral sand lanes. I wish I was as sure of my route.
Fortunately, the Japanese are helpful and polite, as finding my way and returning my bike to the correct shop, involves stopping at least a dozen different people. My vocabulary has expanded to yes, no, hello, good-bye and thank you and I'm already bowing my head automatically, with the best of them.
Taketomi is small, which is just as well, as my first foray involves me emerging on completely the wrong side. Eventually, I visit a beach famous for minuscule star shaped shells (I am happy to view the findings of others) and two other beaches renowned for their views over the reefs. This is a coral atoll, surrounded by reefs. The water is not emerald, as promised, today, but it's still pretty.
Back at the port, I wander in search of replacement chargers and find a warehouse, with every possible gadget known to man, in every possible shade of pink. I note that the Japanese are still keen on Hello Kitty. Ishigaki 'city' is very different to Taketomi and more the modern Japanese norm, a cluster of hotels and shops. I've already learned that the Japanese, like the Chinese, love shopping. ‘Why go somewhere if you can't buy anything?’ someone says on the boat. I can't work out how to get back to the hotel but a kind young man gives me a lift in his van. No charge, no strings. Well that wouldn't happen in England.
Dinner tonight is ostensibly a western buffet. But it's Japanese Western. Sashimi, rice curry and various stir fry. And if my bedroom is a fridge, this restaurant is the freezer.
I'm supposed to be snorkelling all day, lunch included. I'm hoping the trip will involve views of more of Ishigaki as there are supposed to be mantas and some beautiful bays. But the dive instructor tells me that they aren't running day trips this season. And we head out for Taketomi Island…..
The reef is sadly all but dead, but the fish are pretty. There are some gleaming shoals to swim with and a few clownfish spats to observe - Neemo re-enacted. We have wet suits issued (I’m grateful no photos are taken), but even so the water is unpleasantly cold. It's still cloudy and early season and it doesn’t help that the instructors are very professional in their approach and want to keep everyone together, so it's slow going. I reflect that a whole day might have been challenging.
There is a triathlon taking place in town and we weave our way through the runners, back to the hotel, where the sun has made a welcome resurgence. There are signs next to the pool, forbidding people with exposed tattoos. (I read that body marking is associated with the Mafia here and is generally frowned on.) A sun bed seems a good option for a snooze. Except that a group of triathlon participants has arrived and are ear splittingly exuberant. They clearly haven't tried hard enough, if they are not exhausted. And I note that they all have their race numbers stuck on their forearms. It's a shame the tattoo rule hasn’t been applied.
The hotel is very big on weddings. It has its own chapel on the shore, complete with stained glass. A considerable portion of the main wing is devoted to accoutrements. There’s a bridal suite to change in and a bridal salon to choose all the clothes
Lunch is again astronomically priced. Fish and chips turns out to be three bread crumbed and deep fried fingers of fish, wrapped in ham and mint, accompanied by a mound of tortilla chips. I've discovered that the convenience store in the hotel sells beverages at one third of the price at the pool bar. So I run upstairs to buy my refreshments.
I’ve also discovered all the local shops and almost succumb to MacDonald’s, as an easy option. But I'm deterred by the possibility of burger with more corn chips and cut price sushi from Hotto Motto (great name) prevails. When paying at the stores here, you have to put your money into a little plastic dish and the cashier very painstakingly counts out all the change, to ensure that it is correct. And doesn't have to touch you. The more upmarket places, like the hotels, utilise a leather version, on which to pop your credit card.
I've been told that Kabira Bay, in the north, is incredibly beautiful. The bay forms part of the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park. and has been designated a Place of Scenic Beauty. I'm up for a little more adventure, so I hop on a bus. It's all very civilised. You remove the proffered ticket from the little machine as you get on and an electronic board tells you how much each stage travelled so far has cost, running taxi meters for each passenger at the same time. The unfolding panorama as we traverse the island is typically tropical, lush green mountains surrounded by banana, sugar cane and pineapple plantations.
Finding the way to the sightseeing spots is a doddle, as I just follow the streams of cruise ship passengers emerging from the lines of coaches and the bay lives up to its reputation. A host of leafy small karst islands ringed with white sand and floating in water, which really is emerald green today. Well, in patches. It's windy, and dark clouds are scudding across the bay, but there is enough intermittent sunshine to get the idea. I pile onto a glass bottomed boat with one flurry of tourists for the view from the sea, as well as a look at some blue staghorn coral and a few fish as a bonus.
I will probably regret saying this, but travelling alone with no Japanese isn't that difficult, as everyone is so helpful. It's not all sweetness and light, however. Japan isn't as modern as anticipated in other ways. This is still definitely a nation where women are secondary to men and are expected to defer to them, and it is women who do most of the helping. The men like to operate the buttons in the lifts, especially the close-the-door one. They race to hit it first. It’s also a place where smoking remains the norm. Cigarette stands are situated next to most of the general store and supermarket cash desks. The stations and airports all have glass smoking rooms and it’s another race to pile into them, as the passengers disembark from trains or planes.
The forecast is confident it's going to rain all day tomorrow, so I postpone packing and faff for some hours before opening the curtains in the morning. And discover that, perversely, the weather is glorious. It's been hot, overcast and humid so far. I've given up trying to style my hair - bushy is in. The chapel bells are ringing. There must be another wedding imminent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.