Thursday, May 11, 2017

No reservations: Sakura, Bento and the Japan Rail Pass

Marg and I prefer to plan our trips as we go, deciding on our destination each morning, and wandering into a likely looking hotel at the end of the day. In Tuscany some years ago, we started each day with the intention of riding to Sienna, but somehow always ended up in another interesting mountaintop town.

So I was concerned when, two weeks before we left for Japan, I found that guidebook advised "3 months before departure: book all your accommodation, particularly if you're travelling in Cherry Blossom season". And of course, we'd planned our trip to coincide with the Sakura, the iconic cherry blossoms that advance up the Japanese archipelago from late March to early May.

Ah well, we said. With the Japan Rail Pass, if we can't find somewhere to stay, we'll just hop on a train to somewhere that does. We did book a hotel for our arrival in Tokyo, gasping a bit when we realised that three nights in Tokyo at peak Sakura would cost almost the same as our entire 1970's OE.

Marg waits in a Kyoto supermarket queue, 1975
We'd visited Japan for a week in 1975, while we waited for a ship to take us to Nakhodka for the Trans Siberian Railway. We'd been very naive travelers then, on our first venture out of Godzone and trying to spin out our savings, staying in youth hostels, surviving on miso soup, and hitchhiking. Although Japan was in some ways familiar - it is a first world country after all - everything seemed to be done slightly differently. When we changed money, the bank tellers spurned the high tech electronic calculators on their desks for an abacus.

What was it going to be like in 2017? Would globalisation mean that Japan and New Zealand were more similar (would the sushi be as good as in Courtenay Place?). Could we get decent coffee?  More importantly, would extended credit card limits mean we could be less concerned about the cost of travel?


We arrived in Tokyo on 1 April, when Japan Meterological service's Sakura forecast announced the start of peak Sakura viewing. One of the recommended places was the Meguro Canal in Western Tokyo, so we headed there in the morning. It was lovely - the blossom laden branches drooped down over the picturesque canal, and we joined the crowds appreciating the Sakura on every conceivable device. At least we thought it was crowded, until we returned in the evening when the real crowds packed the surrounding streets, strolling under the special Sakura paper lanterns with glasses of hot wine and special Sakura champagne imported from South Australia.
Alastair and Marg, Meguro Canal
Sakura champagne, Meguro Canal 

In the mean time we'd visited Yoyogi Park, where hectares of Hanami (Sakura viewing) parties were sandwiched between pink Sakura above and blue tarpaulins below. Not having a tarpaulin, we acquired some cardboard from the recycling, and picnicked on oyster dumplings and iced tea and watched the fun. It had started early - at dawn we'd seen a couple of people in hard hats staking their company flag on a choice Hanami spot in an inner city park. One particularly well equipped site had security guards, couches, and rows of slippers. Some had been organised by social media, with signs identifying their Facebook or Meetup group.
Dog in Sakura themed cart, Yoyogi Park
Virtual meets the real: Facebook hanami at Yoyogi Park

Sakura season is also a popular time to get married, starting your honeymoon on a rickshaw in traditional costume. Wedding photographers work hard to get the best Sakura themed bridal shot, sometimes trying a little too hard, like the one who dangled in a cherry tree while the bride lay down on a muddy riverside path in her expensive wedding dress, and the groom fended off passing cyclists.
Wedding couple, Kamakura

Kyoto cycle path
Selfies are as popular in Japan as elsewhere - on station platforms there are notices telling you to beware of getting electrocuted when your selfie stick gets caught in the overhead lines. It's not enough just to photograph Sakura, you need to have a selfie of yourself proving that you were actually there with the Sakura. On the Kyoto Philosophers Path we saw a chap who had moved on to the next level - with two selfie sticks he could take a selfie of himself taking a selfie.
Philosopher's path, Kyoto
In Kanazawa, the Sakura have their own TV programme

The one place where our "no reservations" policy failed was Yoshino, a hill town south of Osaka and one of the best places in Japan to view Sakura. We took a blossom decorated cabin on the ropeway up to the town, and started enquiring at Ryokan (inns), but it was clear that to stay we'd need to have booked months in advance. So we became day trippers, admiring the blossom surrounding the temple where monks were preparing a spring bonfire, before retreating down the train line to Nara when dusk fell.
Monks preparing bonfire, Yoshino
Eventually we travelled far enough north to get ahead of the Sakura Front, but that wasn't a problem - a booth in Hakone photo-shopped Sakura into our selfie.

Japan Rail

A Shinkansen is given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
The cost of travel was partly addressed by the Japan Rail Pass - for $700 each we got 3 weeks of unlimited travel on Japan Rail's network of trains and ferries, including most of the high speed Shinkansen trains. It was value for money - we covered about 6600km (almost as far as Auckland to Tokyo), which would have cost around $2300 without the pass. The efficiency and reach of Japan Rail means that it barely makes sense to use a private car or even fly, and with the Rail Pass we didn't have to worry too much about following an efficient route, and instead found interesting detours as Margaret mastered the Japan Rail Timetable
Marg checks that the signboard agrees with the Timetable

When we first left Tokyo it was a fine day so although we were heading an hour south to Kamakura, it seemed a pity not to hop on a Shinkansen that went past Mt Fuji to the west. The train was actually going to Nagoya, so in three hours we did the equivalent of going from Wellington to Waikanae via Tauranga in order to get a look at Ruapehu.
Fuji San from Shinkansen
It was worth taking a rail journey in order to enjoy a Bento box meal of delicious tit-bits, each in its own compartment, and available in a vast range at every station. At Tokyo choosing lunch took as long as the journey.
Major train stations were enormous - it's rumoured that 5% of tourists arriving by rail at Kyoto never find their way out of the station. "There weren't as many temples as I'd expected" a Kiwi backpacker said of Kyoto "but the ramen noodles on the 11th floor were delicious."

Japan Rail has a culture of staff pointing at the clock or timetable to confirm that the train is on time. The train driver has a list of checkpoints in front of them and at each checkpoint points to the list and to the clock to register that the train is on time. The guard at Niigata station had been studying Billy Bowden videos, and gave a brilliant display as she confirmed that the train had arrived on time, and dispatched it within microseconds of the scheduled time.
Platform guard, Niigata
Japan Rail also preserves the Japanese culture of bowing. Staff make a point of bowing whenever they enter or leave a carriage. Before a Shinkansen starts a run, a team of cleaners swarms aboard, and when all is ready, line up to bow to the waiting passengers.
Cleaning staff wait for an incoming Shinkansen
Shinkansen are only part of the joy of Japan rail travel. We had a leisurely day on the Resort Shirakami train from Akita to Aomori, following Honshu's north west coast, very like the pre-earthquake Kaikoura Coast. On particularly scenic sections the train slowed to let us take pictures. One of the stops was at Noshiro, famous for its basketball team, so a net had been set up on the platform so we could practice our skills under the eyes of a local coach, and the station staff lined up to farewell us. On the last stretch, traditional musicians gave us a concert in the observation car.
Station staff farewell us from Noshiro

On the Resort Shirakami

On the private Wakayama line we travelled on a cat themed train to Kishi, where some years ago a stray cat, Tama, was appointed stationmaster. Tama passed away in 2015 but her successor, NiTama, ensures the smooth running of the line from a glass enclosed lair. To ensure she doesn't suffer from overwork, she has Wednesdays and Thursdays off. As a marketing strategy it's worked - the train is crowded, and the station does a roaring trade in Tama memorabilia. Could Wellington's Metlink emulate this by appointing a kaka as honorary station master on the Johnsonville line?
Marg has an audience with NiTama

There's a special magic about sleeper trains - waking in the morning to see a new landscape passing by your window. But in Japan the shinkansen are so fast that overnight trips are becoming obsolete. We travelled back from Takamatsu to Tokyo on the last surviving overnight service, the Seto Sea where our compartment came with complimentary Yakuta dressing gowns.

From Takasaki to Minakami in the Japanese Alps, we were concerned that we'd chosen the wrong train. The service didn't appear on the regular timetable. The carriages were old and wood panelled, and unusually there was no romanji (western) script on the notices. Then clanking and puffing announced the arrival of the engine - a heritage 1940 model. As we steamed out of  Takasaki, savouring the coal flavoured air, rail buffs with telephotos and tripods recorded our progress from every roadside vantage point. Gradually we worked out that this was a special service that runs only a few times a year, rated number 6 of "10 gorgeous steam locomotives in Japan", and fortunately covered by our rail pass.
Photo opportunity with the Minakami steam train
Of course the Japan Rail system isn't totally unfamiliar. From Hakodate Japan Rail exploits wormhole technology to provide a connection to Lower Hutt.
Departure board, Hakodate station

The Joy of small places

While Tokyo and Kyoto were impressive, we enjoyed getting to more out of the way places.

In Kamakura, really a seaside suburb of Tokyo, the woman at the information centre was delighted to hear where we came from "I've got good friends in Newtown, and really miss Wellington coffee". (Although we did find some excellent espressos, I decided that had WWII geopolitics worked out differently, and Japan been occupied by Italians, they'd have had better coffee.) She found us a place a the New Kamakura Hotel, a "Scenically Important Structure" close behind the station, where our room had won a TV redecoration contest being modelled on a Scandinavian theme using recycled materials. The hotel is associated with the writer Kanoko Okamoto, a Japanese Katherine Mansfield, who wrote her story The Dying Crane at the location.

The idea of a rail trip through Japan had been partly inspired by seeing Hirokazu Koreeda's Our Little Sister where characters clank through Kamakura on the local train, the Enoshima Electric Railway, which also features in a children's picture book. In the evening we took the Enoshima out to the beach where fishers prepared their boats, and a local aviator prepared his powered hang glider for a sunset flight.
Enoshima train picture book
Kappa Tengoku Ryokan in Hakone Yumoto an hour or so west of Tokyo was very convenient to the station, and a good base for a day circuit of the Hakone area. We started on mountain railway that zig zagged up through forest, a bit like a grown up version of Barry Brickell's Driving Creek Railway, to Gora, where a Kelburn style cable car took us up to the first of two ropeways that traverse the mountain range. As it happens, the first ropeway had a bus replacement, But the second ropeway, starting from a location famous for its sulphur mine and black preserved eggs, swooped us down to Lake Ashi. Our fellow passengers included a delightful multicultural family: dad looked Caucasian and spoke with an American accent, mum looked Japanese but spoke home counties English, and the children swapped effortlessly between Japanese and English.
Ropeway to Lake Ashi
In theory Lake Ashi has a stunning view of Mt Fuji, but instead we had ethereal views of cloud wrapped mountains as we voyaged down the lake on a replica of HMS Victory, complete with cannon and a rather oriental looking Lord Nelson posing for selfies. At the end of the Lake we toured the restored Hakone Checkpoint. In the 1700s feudal lords had to leave their families as hostages in Edo, and the checkpoint ensured that noblewomen didn't sneak away from the Shogun's control. From here we walked for several hours on the old Tokaido Highway, overlooked by avenues of ancient cedars, and including a restored tea house where walkers clustered by warming stoves and sipped smoke flavoured tea. Eventually the ancient highway became a busy modern road and we hopped on a bus back to Hakone Yumoto to soak (separately) in the hillside rock pool baths above the Ryokan.
Lake Ashi ferry

Lookout, Hakone Checkpoint

Sign on the old Tokaido Highway

Getting into hot water

I've never quite acquired Marg's enthusiasm for long soaks in a hot bath, but I did learn to enjoy Japanese communal hot baths (onsen). Even city hotels had onsen, sometimes on the rooftop, and supplied yakuta (dressing gowns) to pad to and from the baths without the bother of having to put on clothes.

In the mountains north of Tokyo, after our adventure with the Minikami steam train, we got the bus to the isolated Takaragawa Onsen. The bus driver looked a bit concerned, and went off tapping kanji characters into his smartphone, returning to show us a question in English "You're staying up there, aren't you?". His was the last bus of the day, and he didn't want us to be stuck there.

Fortunately we had a booking at the rambling Onsen hotel. After settling in, we walked through the forest up the river gorge for a couple of kilometres, getting our shoes wet and muddy in the spring slush. At the hotel entrance we swapped shoes for the slippers that are de rigeur in Japanese houses - next morning the shoes were waiting for us, miraculously clean and dry. We changed into Yakuta, and crosssed the short bridge to the snow surrounded hot pools, which were in the open by a rushing alpine river. Unusually, the pools were mixed - women were issued with a mother Hubbard style bathing dress, while men scuttled between pools strategically holding a small towel. Like the other guests, we wore our Yakuta to the delicious buffet dinner (avoiding the bear soup). I suspect the dedicated onsen goer doesn't change back into ordinary clothes until it's time to check out.
Marg conforms to the dress code, Takaragawa Onsen

Onsen aren't just for humans. In Hakodate, a troop of Japanese snow monkeys have their own hot spring next to the botanical hothouse, and spend the winter soaking and occasionally throwing snowballs at each other.
Hakodate monkey onsen

The three finest views...

Great store is put on the three finest views in Japan, the "Nihon Sankei",We saw at least six of the three finest views. Every location agrees that theirs is one of the three finest, but differs about what the other two are.

One of the Nihon Sankei is the giant Torii gate in a bay on the holy island of Miyajima. Commoners had to access the island through the Torii gate, which appears to float on the water at high tide. The sanctity of the island is also endangered by birth and death - if you're near term in your pregnancy, or terminally ill, you're supposed to head to the mainland.
Torii gate, Miyajima
But the island has other attractions - two ropeways whisk you to the summit of Mt Misen with a spectacular view across the harbour to Hiroshima, and at the Daisyoin Temple lines of holy figures greet you wearing woolly hats and scarves.
Daisyoin Temple
Another Nihon Sankei is at the Risurin garden at Takamatsu. From a 10m hill (named Fuji San after its 3776m rival) you can look across a sculpted lake to the bush clad hills behind, and if you're lucky, a sampan will be punted across your view into the "golden third".
Nihon Sankei being photographed from Fuji San
Sampan racing for the Golden Third

Art island Naoshima

Until recently the island of Naoshima, on the Seto "inland sea" west of Osaka, was one of many based on fishing and a little farming. But then the Benesse Corporation decided it would be a good home for its art collection, meaning that now tourists are the main catch brought in from the sea each day. We'd bent our no reservation policy to book the last accommodation available on the Island - a caravan. This wasn't as down market as it sounded. The caravan was on the beach, a hundred metres from Kusama's iconic pumpkin, and a short stroll from the Benesse Gallery, one of several dotting the island. Among the artworks was Yanagi's World Ant Farm, a wall of national flags, each of them an ant farm so the insects contributed to the art work, modifying the vexillology with their tunnelling operations.
Kusama's Pumpkin, Naoshima
Over a day we walked across to Honmura, the main town with a network of small galleries and artworks, including James Turrell's faintly illuminated work that magically appears when your eyes accommodate to the dark room it's placed in.

We crossed the island passing Sakura groves and a giant ceramic rubbish bin. At the miniature Monet Garden beside the Chichu gallery a woman posed her soft toy bear, wearing his special Sakura outfit. The gallery itself, like the nearby Lee Ufan, is subtly embedded in the hillside, its multiple levels and large galleries entered through an unassuming slit in a concrete wall.
"Monet's Garden", Naoshima
Of course, by this stage an onsen was necessary to restore our tired limbs. Naoshima's onsen "I♥︎Yu" (Yu is japanese for "hot water") is itself an artwork complete with an elephant in the room.

Finding roots

In 1947, Marg's late father Mick served in Jayforce, New Zealand's contribution to the occupation of Japan. To a twenty year old from Timaru, Japan and its culture must have been an exciting but unsettling experience. They didn't know what to expect - after the bitter Pacific conflict, would the Japanese continue to resist? In the end the Japanese got on with rebuilding Japan, and the Kiwis' main challenge was combating boredom.
Mick in Japan, 1947

Jayforce was based at Yamaguchi, a provincial capital about the same size as Wellington, at the western end of the main island of Honshu. We took a train up the river valley to spend a day there. We borrowed bikes from the hotel and explored the north western side of the city where the base had been. The museum had a history section which understandably segued from the Samurai period to the modern technology era, missing WWII and the occupation. We explored a park with a striking five tier pagoda that appears in one of Mick's photos, and climbed the hill behind in an unsuccessful attempt to get a view. While I waited for Marg to return from bush bashing, I studied the map, finding an area marked "JGSDF". It dawned on me that this stood for "Japan Ground Self Defence Force" - in other words it was the army camp, and in about the same position as the camp in Mick's photos. We biked around, trying not to look like terrorists plotting a break in. Although much had changed since 1947 it was the same place. At the eastern side was a memorial to St. Francis Xavier, who'd stayed there in the 1500s, preferring it to Kyoto as a base for spreading Catholicism. The same memorial appeared in Mick's photo of the base.
Marg at the entrance to Camp Yamaguchi 

Mick's photo of Rurikoji Pagoda 1947
Rurikoji Pagoda 2017

Yamaguchi still has a link with the wider Commonwealth - in the evening we ate at an African restaurant, run by a Ghanaian who came to his wife's home city after the Fukushima earthquake persuaded them that Tokyo wasn't a good place to live.

Narita Airport: farewelling tourists from Japan has now been automated


A week or so after our return, we took the excellent Kapiti train service to Waikanae, however something jarred. The guard (without white gloves) checked our gold cards and headed through to the next carriage."He didn't bow!" whispered Marg.


  1. Wonderful photos of beautiful Japan, Alastair. And a very nice piece of travel writing, as usual. To see 6 of the 3 best views in Japan a major feat--have you rung the Guiness people ( record book not brewery). Well done .

  2. Love it! Looks like you had a terrific time – you can hardly fail to, don't you think? All those beautiful gardens, epic temples, terrific food, and oh! The onsen! Very inspiring read. Thanks Alastair.

  3. So many fine views here - certainly more than three and even more than six - and fine words to go with them!

  4. Thank you for sharing us education, please kindly visit mine :D


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