View from Mount Misen

On my 2nd full day in Hiroshima, a Friday, I decided to visit Itsukushima, an island a short distance to the south-west of Hiroshima, which is popularly known as Miyajima (Shrine Island).

Getting there was not so difficult, there is a ferry port called Miyajimaguchi and regular trains there from Hiroshima Station. The ferry trip only takes about 10 minutes.

One of the best-known attractions of Miyajima is the famous “floating Torii” – a giant red gate constructed on the tidal zone that, when the tide is in, appears to float on the sea. It is very prominent from the ferry. Unfortunately it has been under renovation for quite some time and was covered in scaffolding and semi-translucent tarpaulins when I visited. It is part of the Itsukushima Shrine, a very old wooden red-painted shrine constructed on stilts across the bay.

It was a scorching hot day when I arrived, and I already had some mild sunburn from touring Hiroshima the previous day, so I sought to stay in the shade and utilised my umbrella as an emergency sunshade when necessary. There wasn’t a lot of shade outside the ferry port, so I quickly hurried inside an air-conditioned cafe, where I was the only customer. I ordered cinnamon toast and lemonade, and I have to say it was delicious!

I skirted along the coastline in the direction of the shrine and soon found a shaded area with a small grove of trees and trellises on what seemed to be a main shopping street, bustling and full of tourists and deer. Deer? Yes, there is a thriving population of small deer on Miyajima (think Bambi) and they are absolutely NOT afraid of tourists, if anything it’s the other way round!

They were partially attracted, like me, by the shade of the trees, but also seemed very interested in the tourists’ food. You thought deer were vegetarians? Well they apparently will eat anything that smells nice and is left unattended. And by unattended, I mean you’re holding it in your hand but looking the other way. They also seemed quite interested in the ice creams and shaved ice – I guess deer need to cool down sometimes too. And if the tourists wouldn’t share their actual food with the deer, then they were happy to just eat anything made of paper. I saw tourists wrestling with deer to get their maps back several times!

The cheekiest deer I saw came across some food apparently left sitting on a wall, still wrapped up in paper. It was probably a local seafood and rice combination in a bread wrap, I’m not sure. But the deer just picked it up in its mouth and started chewing. Moments later a young Japanese teenager came back – I presume the owner of the food – and saw the deer wolfing down his dinner, and the expression on his face was priceless, I can see where the phrase “his jaw dropped” came from! He skittishly dodged round the unfazed deer and picked up the other food packets. I suppose it is possible it wasn’t his food and he was just concerned about the deer eating something dangerous, but he did seem very surprised.

There were lots of signs around the island saying “Do not feed the deer, they are wild animals” but for some reason the deer were just deliberately ignoring them. Some of the deer (the boys, I guess) had antlers, I couldn’t resist finding out what sort of hardness and texture deer antlers have. They felt a bit like liquorice sticks.

The deer were dotted all along the coastal area, mingling with the tourists or just resting in the shade. There were many shops selling the products with which Miyajima is strongly associated. Lots of oyster shops. Some confectioneries selling maple-leaf cakes – Miyajima is proud of its maple trees. Lots of deer-shaped toys. And rice spoons. I bought a rice spoon – I really wanted a regular wooden spoon as mine had snapped a week earlier (after years of dedicated cooking) but this was the best alternative I had seen to date.

I stood on a beach for what seems the first time in a long time (I suppose the Rinkai Park beach counts, from a year ago, but Tokyo beaches are just volcanic mud). Then I climbed a mountain. Well, when I say climbed, I took a free minibus, then two cable cars to near the top of Mount Misen. The actual summit was another 30 minute uphill walk (well, 10 minutes down, 20 minutes up). I got through the downhill part and 3 minutes of walking uphill decided this might be a challenge too far. I had to get back for the last cable car within 45 minutes otherwise I would be walking down.

Even though I didn’t reach the very top, the views from near the top were quite spectacular. You could see the whole of central Hiroshima laid out in its cauldron of hills, and just imagine what you would have seen if you had been standing here on August 6th 1945. In the other direction there was island after island, disappearing towards the horizon, filling the Seto Inland Sea.

On my return to ground level, I made my way further along the coast, past the Itsukushima Shrine towards the Aquarium. They have whales, apparently, but by the time I got there, the aquarium was closed.

I took one more walk back towards the ferry port, past the five-story pagoda (I had done enough climbing for one day), and through the main shopping area. I bought a drink of lemon squash, which had some jelly in it, which was weird but not unpleasant.

Finally I headed back to the ferry port and bought my ticket back to Hiroshima. Miyajima is a beautiful island, the deer are friendly, the views are spectacular, and there is lots to see and do here. It was very busy even in the midst of a pandemic, I can imagine in normal times, with tourists from across Japan and internationally, it might get very crowded. Perhaps I was lucky to come at just the right time?

Photos on Facebook


On August 6th, 1945, 75 years and 6 days before I arrived in Hiroshima, an atomic bomb dropped by an American B-29 bomber detonated about 600m above the Shima Hospital. It completely destroyed (almost) everything within a mile radius, obliterated the island district of Nakajima, instantly vapourised hundreds of people, killed thousands from the blast and subsequent firestorm, and tens of thousands more from injuries and radiation poisoning over the subsequent decades.

Many of the dead and injured were mobilised children, working in Nakajima district to demolish buildings to create firebreaks.

At the time, many people predicted that plants would not grow in the blast zone for 70 years. However the rebuilding of the city began almost immediately. With the war over, displaced people returned to Hiroshima to help with reconstruction, and people from elsewhere in Japan came to help with the relief and reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately many of them were also exposed to the effects of radiation, but this danger did not prove as long-lasting as initially feared, and now Hiroshima is a vibrant, thriving modern city.

One of the few buildings to (partially) survive the blast was the Prefectural Office Building. The outer structure was largely destroyed but the central column and dome survived, and this “Atomic Dome” has become the focal point and symbol of Hiroshima’s horrendous experience and its durability. Close by, taking up most of the space where Nakajima used to be, is the Peace Memorial Park containing the Peace Museum, which contains artefacts, photographs, drawings and testimony from survivors.

Modern Hiroshima is a baseball city, and its team is the Hiroshima Carp. They were playing a match in the Mazda Stadium the evening I arrived, which you can see from the train as it approaches Hiroshima Station. Throughout the evening I saw groups, couples and families decked out in Carp uniforms, carrying souvenirs, making their way back from the game.

I picked an APA hotel, the same chain I used when I first arrived in Tokyo, because I knew it was good value, and I knew what I would get. This was bigger than the one I stayed in in Tokyo, I was on the 11th floor, and it had its own restaurant and spa. It was next to a river – Hiroshima has three main rivers and various connecting sections, creating a series of islands like Nakajima. In fact the name “Hiroshima” means “wide island.”

The rivers stopped the fires spreading and also appeared to be a source of sanctuary from the heat. But as more and more people jumped in the river, the number of bodies increased. In the days after the blast, men were using hooks more or less continuously to fish body after body out of the rivers.

I had two full days in Hiroshima and booked a guided tour on the first day. I was greeted at the meeting point by a young student called Momoka, who said I should call her “Peach” (Momo in Japanese). I was her only customer today, in fact I was her first customer since the state of emergency was declared in March. She was studying English but I reassured her that her English was very good.

We walked down a main street and she pointed out a former bank building to me. This was one of the few buildings that survived the blast, she told me, because all the top floor windows had been blocked. Not much further down the road, we arrived at the Peace Museum. Momo got me my ticket and said she would be waiting outside – she was not allowed to do a guided tour inside the museum. But I could take as long as I wanted.

The museum was largely the result of work by Shogo Nagaoka, its first director, who took it upon himself to research and collect debris from the blast area to demonstrate exactly where the blast was centred and how it caused the effects it did. The city ultimately commissioned architect Kenzo Tange to build a museum to exhibit some of this collection. Survivors and relatives of victims then began to make their own donations, of clothing and personal objects, photographs and stories. Many of these are very powerful and moving.

There was an ID wallet from a 15-year old boy called Kijima Kazuo. He had been trapped in a building but his rescuer was unable to get him out from the rubble as the fire burned stronger. “I can’t save you, please forgive me!” the rescuer said. “Thank you” said Kazuo. “Please give this to my family on Miyajima.”

There is also a section of the museum focusing on the Manhattan Project and the decisions to build, and deploy the atomic bomb. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that it was a political decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan. The war could have been won without them. The main concerns were Japan’s ideological unwillingness to surrender and bring shame upon the Emperor, and the risk of a Soviet invasion resulting in a post-war communist satellite state in Japan. The USA needed to end the war quickly and decisively for its own political convenience.

I met up with Momo again and we walked through the Peace Memorial Park. We found a tree that had withstood the blast and was still alive and growing. This tree had its own song which you could hear by pressing a button. It was not a good song. We then walked on to the fountain and the Peace Memorial, inspired by traditional Japanese houses, and representing a safe haven for all the souls of the victims of the bomb to find shelter and safety. A big theme is water, as most of the victims were desperately calling for water as they died – to stop the fire, to soothe their burns, to quench their thirst and clear the ash from their mouths and throats.

The Memorial Park is lush, verdant and full of different beautiful shades of green, far greener than anything in Tokyo. It is as if the plants are gleefully defying the predictions that nothing would ever grow again.

Our next stop was the Atomic Dome itself. All fenced off, and carefully strengthened to prevent further collapse, it is a potent symbol, but a controversial one. Many voices in the city wanted it demolished as a painful reminder of the destruction. But it survived and has become perhaps the most iconic image of the city.

Not far from the Dome is the new Shima Hospital. Built on the ruins of the old hospital, its current director is the grandson of the founder, Kaoru Shima. On the day of the bomb, Dr Shima was out of town assisting with a complicated operation. His hospital was completely obliterated, all his patients, and all his staff died instantly as the bomb exploded directly above the hospital. The hypocentre is therefore the location in the air where the bomb exploded, but the hospital site can be considered “ground zero” – the greatest impact of the blast.

Momo then took me to the new Orizuru building. Orizuru is the Japanese word for “paper crane” – the very common origami construction that you often find in Japanese hotel rooms. We had dinner there – Nama chips and a delicious strawberry smoothie, sitting in the rooftop garden overlooking the city. Just below the rooftop is a room where you can make your own paper crane, which I did – it wasn’t perfect but it was serviceable. I then got to drop it into a huge glass column climbing the side of the building, where 16,000 orizuru had already been dropped before mine. They are planning to fill the whole column with paper cranes. The paper crane is another symbol of peace because of a girl, Sadako Sasaki, who was a victim of the bombing but managed to fold 1000 orizuru before dying from leukemia.

My crane. I named it “Frazier.”

I didn’t know about the black rain. Some time after the explosion, it began to rain in certain parts of the city. The rain was black and sticky. It was highly radioactive, but the people of the city did not know that. They were hot, they were thirsty, they were wounded. So many just opened their mouths to the sky and drank the poison that would kill them. Some of the clothes in the museum still have black raindrop stains on them.

Hiroshima had a long history before the bomb. It was a castle city in the Samurai period, after the Meiji restoration the castle grounds were repurposed as a military base. One of the reasons Hiroshima was selected as a target was because of it’s key military importance. The other main reason Hiroshima was selected was because it was wide, flat, and surrounded by mountains that would contain and focus the blast for maximum destruction.

The wooden castle tower and grounds were completely destroyed by the blast, though it did not catch fire. In the years of reconstruction, a faithful replica of the castle tower was created. This is a five-story pagoda on a hill, offering many pleasing views of the city. It is also now a museum, telling the story of Hiroshima’s history with the focus on the castle.

After my tour finished and I said goodbye to Momo, I continued exploring on my own and made my way to the castle. It was very hot, very sunny, and I was worried about sunburn and heatstroke so I needed to find something indoors. The castle is surrounded by a protective moat and again there were a couple of trees in the grounds (a willow and a eucalyptus) that pre-dated the bombing and survived it. There are no elevators in the castle, so to get to the top I had to climb the hill and five flights of stairs. I took my sweet time about it, and took plenty of rest breaks!

Photos on Facebook

Eventually I started walking back to my hotel near the station. It was about a 20 – 30 minute walk, maybe 1 or 2 miles. There are pictures at the station showing that the devastation reached that far at least. I tried to imagine what this walk would have been like 75 years ago, no buildings, no roads, no traffic, fire and smoke everywhere, burned and blinded people crying for water, bodies and body parts strewn haphazardly.

Nobody knows how many people died in Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. Many victims left no remains. Many victims died with their entire families, so there was no-one to look for them. Many people had been displaced by the war, and records of who was living where were sparse. And many such records were destroyed in the blast anyway. Soldiers, Korean labourers, even American prisoners of war, all died, mostly unaccounted for.

Seeing the place where this happened, reading the names and stories of victims we know about, and the horrific photographs of unimaginable injuries, maybe it can begin to give an idea of the kind of horror that people experienced that day. But only a beginning. I hope no-one ever gets to learn the full extent of such horror.

One survivor said “There were only three colours in Hiroshima. Black, brown and red. When I was young I used to visit a temple and see pictures of what Hell looked like. At least in Hell there is a little green. In Hiroshima, there were only three colours.”

Life Post-Lockdown

Abenomask – the free masks delivered to all households on Prime Minister Abe’s instruction

I have been lax with my blog updates, mainly because since my last one in March I have had very little to write about. Notwithstanding my use of the word “lockdown” in the title, Japan has never had a formal lockdown, but a few weeks after my last post, the Prime Minister declared a State of Emergency, initially in a handful of prefectures around the capital but subsequently nationally. This was kind of an “advisory lockdown” where people were requested to stay at home except for absolutely essential purposes. Travel outside the region was strongly discouraged. Many public attractions and amenities were closed or drastically limited, shopping centres remained open only for the supermarket sections. My own school closed its doors for the whole of April and May and I stayed at home for two months, though still on full pay.

By and large, most Japanese people adhered to the advice. I later learned from my students that many had switched to working from home. In Japan, an advisory instruction is probably far more effective than mandatory orders have been in other countries. The Japanese have experienced their fair share of disasters down the centuries, and still face regular emergencies like floods, earthquakes and typhoons, so they know the importance of, and are well drilled in following public safety announcements.

This, and the pre-existing familiarity with wearing masks to prevent the spread of illness and protect yourself from allergies, probably kept Japan’s infection rate at one of the lowest in the world. There was no mass testing, but equally there was no overwhelming increase in hospital admissions.

The two months of semi-lockdown were very frustrating for me. I caught up on a lot of TV shows and discovered some new anime series, but it was annoying having so much time off work but being unable to travel and see things and explore. I was stuck in a small, not particularly comfortable room with only my laptop for entertainment. One small consolation was that I qualified for the 100,000 yen special payment – a stimulus payment available to all residents. But I’ve only just got my application sent off (with the deadline approaching!). I also had the awareness that at some point, I was going to have to work a lot of extra days to justify getting the full pay during this idle period.

Eventually, after 2 long months the government declared the lifting of the state of emergency, and my school set a date for re-opening. Things began to creep back towards some semblance of normalcy. The school’s timetable was in havoc – many teachers had returned home during the emergency, and recruiting new teachers with all the travel restrictions had been impossible. In addition many students had paid in advance for lessons which would have to be made-up, and the usual school calendar which started in April was completely out of synch. Because the school had been closed a couple of weekends before the full closure, weekend classes are lagging behind, which causes a lot of confusion when, for example, a Saturday student has an extra lesson on a Monday, and jumps ahead 6 pages in her textbook! And of course lots of students were having extra lessons, because the school owed them for the cancelled lessons during lockdown.

There was also confusion about the “full pay” issue – initially the school completely rewrote the calendar and wiped off almost all the pre-arranged holidays, but then because of a legal loophole they realised they had to offer teachers the option of continuing to work to the old calendar (with holidays) but with the teacher refunding some of the lockdown pay. I am sticking with the new calendar – even so I still have to work one extra day every month to make up all the days I was paid for. But there are now two streams of teachers working on different calendars with different holidays!

There are still occasional scares about the number of infections and cases, particularly in Tokyo, and they still recommend not travelling outside the Kanto region. I suspect a lot of infections are happening in bars and restaurants where people eat and drink without their masks around other people in the evenings. But the predicted “spike” or “second wave” never quite reaches serious enough proportions to lock everything down again.

Meanwhile summer is here now. The rainy season came and went (there were some terrible deadly floods in Kyushu, the southern island), now the cicadas sing loudly all day, and temperatures are continually above 30C. The air-conditioning in my room still hasn’t been repaired so I look forward to going to work and spending time in a cool room. Oh, and I became a Yen-millionaire!

The only scheduled school holidays before December (on my calendar) were three days in mid-August. So I decided to recklessly ignore the travel advice and get out of the city for what might be the only summer holiday I get this year. And that story will be my next post…


Having survived earthquakes, typhoons and stairway accidents, Japan is now trying to kill me with a viral epidemic. In fairness, it’s not just Japan, this is a problem all over the world now, but because of Japan’s proximity to China and the economic and personal ties so many families have, and of course the fact that Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area by population in the word and especially vulnerable to epidemics.

Just in case you are reading this article in the far future, some context. The Covid-19 virus, known as Coronavirus was first identified in January 2020 after an outbreak centering around a market in Wuhan, China. Since then the number of cases in China has skyrocketed, and gradually cases are being identified in other countries with some (like Iran, Italy and South Korea) spreading very fast with numbers of cases increasing exponentially.

To date, Japan has the second highest incidence but the majority of those were from one unfortunate cruise ship that just happened to dock off Yokohama harbour when they started counting. Considering the usual amount of travel between Japan and China, the number of instances outside the cruise ship has been relatively low. The only area where there have been a significant number of cases is the northern island prefecture of Hokkaido.

There have been some effects. Tourism has been down – particularly at Hokkaido’s annual snow festival. Most of Japan’s tourism is from Chinese tour groups, so that is understandable.

Face-masks were always something you saw on trains and people generally out in public, but while last year maybe 30-40% of people on an average train carriage would be wearing them, now it is 80-90%. And I suspect most of the people without masks tried to buy one but found them sold out. I’ve never worn a mask and unless I catch the virus, I don’t intend to start.

More ominously, all the public schools have been closed for two weeks. While private schools (like my language school) are still open, we are affected. Parents have had to stay home to look after their children so they can’t come to lessons. Or, with at least some of my students, the whole families have decided to get out of the city and stay in second homes or with relatives out in the countryside. My kindergarten classes for the next 2 weeks have been rearranged for later in the month – if the schools open again.

I have heard many tales of woe from my adult clients, particularly businessmen who are having business meetings and trips cancelled, production sequestered, supply lines from Chinese suppliers completely closed and sales figures collapsing. Their only consolation is that all their competitors are in the same boat.

The oddest effect is a run (poor choice of words) on one particular product. I noticed huge queues outside all the pharmacies and drugstores before they opened as I travelled to work on a couple of occasions last week. I wondered what they could be queuing for. A new vaccination? More masks? It turns out the answer is toilet paper.

The reason is a rumour that Japan’s supply of toilet paper is one of those products affected by the Chinese lockdown, and the country is within days of running out. It’s not true – I’ve heard from different sources that toilet paper is manufactured in Japan with wood imported from plenty of countries other than China. Nevertheless a rumour can have a powerful effect – from early-morning queues that stretch way down the street, to rows and rows of bare shelves where once a flourishing cornucopia of bathroom hygiene products resided.

Fortunately my share-house has a plentiful supply provided by the managers, there is always 3 or 4 months worth for residents’ use. Although it is the hard scratchy stuff, rather than the soft velvet version.

So far no-one I know has Coronavirus and no-one I know knows anyone who has it. But the way the numbers have jumped up so quickly in other countries shows that complacency can be dangerous. Hopefully this will all blow over in a few weeks. At least we are fortunate that Japan has an advanced, functional healthcare system that takes care of everyone regardless of financial means or pre-existing conditions. I fear for other countries where that is not the case.

Snow Monkey Park

Jigokudani Yaen-Koen

Lovely though the onsen were, beautiful as the scenery was, my main motivation for coming to the mountains, to these particular mountains and this particular place, was of course monkeys. Specifically the so-called “snow monkeys” (actually Japanese Macaques) that live in the mountains and keep warm through the winter by immersing themselves in the natural hot springs. Familiar from wildlife programmes narrated by David Attenborough, my arrival in Japan gave me a chance to see this phenomenon first hand – particularly after I discovered that the monkeys don’t live in the far northern reaches of Hokkaido, but in the mountains of Nagano, a prefecture that can be reached in just 2 hours on the train from Tokyo.

So far we had heard monkeys, and seen shadowy glimpses of monkeys carousing on our rooftops, but the day we arrived had seen a distinct shortage of snow. However as we slept the heavens opened and we awoke to a literal winter wonderland. It is amazing how a blanket of snow can transform pretty much any view into something magical!

In fact, the snow was falling so hard, and in such volume that Janna talked me out of the early start I had planned. After breakfast we hung around the ryokan for a couple of hours until shortly before 11am. Then we grabbed a couple of umbrellas (complimentary for guests) and plodged through the snow to the bus stop.

The monkey park was actually about the same distance from the ryokan as the station, so we could have probably walked there, but not knowing the exact route and having so much weather to deal with, and with the fact it would be mostly uphill, we took advantage of the bus service. It wasn’t that expensive, really, a couple of hundred yen each, similar to a single trip on the Tozai line.

The bus had destinations announced in English but there were no shortage of other visitors for the monkey park, so we could have probably worked out the right time to get off. It was actually not that long into the journey. When we got off the snow was still falling steadily but gently.

We passed a Roman museum which seemed odd to me – I’m pretty sure the Romans never reached Japan – and followed the crowds up the hill away from the road. The odd tour bus came past occasionally, and there were a couple of hotels or maybe ryokans near the bottom of the hill. As we got further up we passed a restaurant with big banners outside advertising fried chicken – I stored the location in my head as somewhere to have dinner when we came back down.

Around the corner from this was the entrance. Well – the entrance to the path to the entrance. There was a gift shop, and a hiking gear rental shop – the advice on the brochures and large signs around the entrance was to wear walking boots because there had been several accidents involving people wearing inappropriate footwear. I apprehensively contemplated my boot-like trainers and figured they were close enough.

So, the path. It started off with some steps and then began winding around the mountain. It was quite narrow – only 2 people could fit side by side and had to go single file when they passed each other. On the left side, there was a pretty steep drop, albeit with plenty of tall, tall trees to break anyone’s fall. On the right side, for most of the way, there were little streams and brooks running alongside the path, and beyond that the steep slope of the mountain again, with more trees.

Occasionally there were distance markers, telling you how far you had walked and how far to go (eg half-way, and “not far to go now!”). There were also occasional signs with information about local wildlife. There was one shelter along the whole route (with some information notices inside it) and by chance I was standing under it when the biggest of several whiteouts arrived.

Occasionally, when the wind blew, or a branch high up gathered too much snow, it would give way and the snow would fall, cascading onto other branches, producing more falling snow, and starting an avalanche effect – but instead of rolling down the hillside as a solid, it just “floomphed” straight down on top of anyone who happened to be walking underneath. And it was sticky snow, it would stick to your clothes and then slowly melt leaving you damp and uncomfortable.

The first small one that happened caught me with my umbrella down, and I became snowman-ified. I spent a good 5 minutes dusting the snow off myself. Luckily I was wearing my hat. Janna had her umbrella up. The second one was bigger, but as I said I just happened to be standing in the shelter. There were a few groups in front of us and behind us on the path and they took the full brunt of it. Janna was outside with her umbrella but hastily stepped inside when we saw the white above us. Even in the shelter, enough came through the open walls that I had to dust myself off a bit, but the people outside were caught totally by surprise!

The rest of our trip we kept half an eye above us to avoid any more snow dumps. They seemed more prevalent on that particular stretch of the mountain though. The shelter was about halfway along the route. There was one other worrying part of the path where a waterfall basically poured onto the path and the slush and ice had been trodden down into a shiny, slippery surface, but it was well signposted to step carefully.

Eventually the trees to our left disappeared and we had a view of a beautiful river valley. If we looked carefully we could see a little pool on the other side of the river and through the falling snow, the shadowy figures of monkeys’ heads moving about in the pool. Further ahead there was a bridge and other figures moving about. We passed through a little village-type group of buildings but they were all closed up – perhaps this was the park’s spring and summer tourist operation? Opposite there were mopeds half buried in the snow that obviously hadn’t been anywhere for a while.

We came to another sign proclaiming the entrance – inviting us to climb up yet another set of stairs. Up we went, and at the top there was a building which turned out to be the real actual entrance – a place to buy tickets and a place to show someone your tickets to go through the gate. We went through the gate.

The path led towards a junction where you could either go up to a bridge over the river, to an area where a lot of people seemed to be gathered, or down to the side of the river. As we headed to the junction, someone hopped past us as though we were walking too slowly. It actually took me a second to realise this was a monkey. It started heading down to the river then just stopped by the side of the path. The people in front of us stopped to take its picture. I also tried to take its picture. It seemed quite shy and continually turned its head away from the camera, like Russell Crowe, or Prince Harry.

There were more monkeys up ahead next to the steps up to the bridge. Janna went and posed next to them. We didn’t try to touch the monkeys – we’d been warned not to, they have been known to bite. There were also warnings not to feed them, and not to carry anything in plastic bags. If you have a plastic bag, monkeys will assume it is full of food and try to take it.

We went over the bridge to where all the people were gathered, and of course this turned out to be the famous onsen. Not the one we had seen earlier – that seemed to be a more private, tourist-free place for monkeys to bathe. This one was anything but. A continual ring of tourists bordered the pool – there was a token fence to stop people getting too close and presumably falling in – on two sides, the other two sides being sheer drops to the river. About two dozen monkeys of all sizes were sitting in the pool. Some were sitting on the edges or moving around. Occasionally they would fight or scream at each other.

The ones in the water seemed relaxed. Some were on their own, several were mothers with barely discernible infants clinging to them. Some very tiny looking infants were more adventurous, swimming off by themselves. And there were a few groups where one individual was getting groomed by others. Sometimes whatever the groomers picked off, they ate.

There seemed to be a monkey highway from the first onsen to the second one. Part of the route was a thick cable which to the monkeys acted as a bridge, you could see them scrabbling along it and jumping over each other (my camera caught one pair getting jiggy on it). Then there were the big snow banks under a high fence – whatever purpose the fence served it wasn’t to keep the monkeys in or out, they just climbed up and down it at will. And from the snow banks they could clamber down to the tourist onsen. They didn’t have to go through the tourists, they could go round the outside and access the onsen wall, but many of them did anyway. Whether they saw us as an inconvenience, a challenge, or as entertainment, I have no idea.

A man from the park came and started throwing food down. A few of the monkeys stopped whatever they were doing before and raced to where the food fell, picking it up in continual motion from the snow, first one hand then the other. The man moved over the top of the snow banks dropping food in different locations. Before long all the monkeys were feeding and the onsen was empty. The tourists didn’t move though, they just started taking pictures of the monkeys eating.

I saw monkeys playing. One was on top of a tree and was using his body momentum to make it bob up and down like a swing or a seesaw. I saw monkeys bullying. We were watching three monkeys happily eating together on one little spot on a wall, when suddenly one of the “alphas” appeared, and all three scattered, leaving the alpha with the area all to himself.

The monkey park opened in 1963, but the monkeys had been coming for many years before then. I imagine that their numbers were smaller but because the park now offers them a free source of food throughout the winter, they are thriving and the population is growing. This is good for the park as it means there are more likely to be monkeys around when the tourists come. The monkeys are under no obligation to come and bathe in the onsen and eat the food, but in winter, when food is scarce and a warm bath is so very tempting, it is no surprise they are there pretty much every day. This is the only population of monkeys in the world that is known to thrive in cold temperatures.

We decided to head back down the mountain – all the monkeys were just sitting there eating now anyway. I checked out some of the information in the tourist building, but it wasn’t in the best English and I was put off when it described chimpanzees and gibbons as “monkeys.” We bought a couple of fridge magnets.

We managed to avoid any whiteouts on the way down, and very much enjoyed the fried chicken at the restaurant. We walked back down the mountain to Shibu Onsen, it wasn’t that far and had stopped snowing.


In the evening we put on our yukatas and geta (wooden clogs) and went to try some of the 9 public onsen in the village. It was snowing a little again, there was some ice on the ground, but it was fine to walk the short distance from ryokan to onsen. They were all numbered, and each had a male and female entrance accessible by the master key provided by the ryokan. After I put Janna in the first one I realised I had forgotten my towel and had to go back to the hotel for it. When I came back Janna was ready for the next one. She hadn’t been too impressed, it was pretty basic, just one room for undressing and another room with a pool in it.

We went for number 9 which was the biggest one. It turned out to have a sauna in it too, which was much more familiar ground for each of us. Initially I had the place to myself but while I was in the sauna another man came in. Janna shared both her onsen with a group of Japanese women. Eventually I left the sauna and (after rinsing off of course) I immersed myself in the pool. The other man suggested I could cool it down by adding cold water, but it was just the right temperature for me.

I must have stayed half an hour or so – it turned out Janna left just before me from the womens’ side. While I was curious about the other 8 onsen, I didn’t want to abandon Janna (because I had the onsen master key she must have gone back to the ryokan) and I guessed they would be largely the same. So that was it for my onsen experience!


The following day we headed back to the station, but en route we popped up to see the Kannon Buddha. It turns out the path to enlightenment is a covered stairway, so it was relatively easy to reach the top. At the top was a courtyard, a museum building, and of course the 25-metre tall Buddha himself towering above us.

With time to kill before our afternoon train back to Tokyo we decided to enjoy the refuge of the museum against the cold weather, and learn a bit about Buddhism. To be honest, I didn’t learn very much – the museum staff could barely speak a handful of English words. There was a big drum, and to bang the drum brought good fortune. We banged the drum. There was a room with 33 bronze bowls representing the 33 Kannon statues in Buddhist temples around Japan. We went around the room and tapped each bronze bowl so it made a satisfying soft ring.

We went up to the base of the Kannon Buddha itself, which was on top of the building with the bronze bowls. We couldn’t open the door because of the snow. In any event, the slippers provided would have just gone straight into the snow leaving us with wet socks for the rest of the day. A little old lady who had been doing the bowls before we did was heading up as we were heading down. I tried to explain the issue with the door but I don’t think she understood.

We made our way back to the station and got the train back to Nagano. With lots of time before our train to Tokyo (I thought it was better to be safe than sorry) we explored the mall and had something to eat. Janna bought a variety of Japanese chocolate. I bought a tea-towel with the Hiragana characters on. Night fell as our train headed back to Tokyo, there would be no encore this evening from Fuji-san. There was no drama on this journey, and all we had time for in the evening was a little clothes shopping before Janna’s last night in Tokyo.

In the morning, I took her to the airport and she flew away. We had had an eventful week, we saw in the New Year, we saw emperors and samurai, monkeys and monorails, fireworks and dragons. Now I had 3 days of vacation left before it was back to work with another training day. However I am already thinking about where my next destination in Japan will be…

Photos on Facebook.

Shibu Onsen

We bought what I thought was the right ticket for the journey we wanted to make but it turned out I had overpaid. There was an express option but it left a lot later, and we would arrive at our destination sooner with the local option which was leaving within 20 minutes or so. Unlike the smooth, machine-operated system in Tokyo, I had to show my tickets to a human being who explained the error and refunded me the difference (and printed out new tickets!).

The train was waiting for us on the platform and we got on the first carriage. Other passengers were getting on, most of them foreign tourists but from all over the world. Many had suitcases and ski gear. We were travelling quite light by comparison. One elderly man with a cane fell flat on his face as he was getting on the train (was our journey cursed or something?) – a large, white-haired tourist who happened to be getting on at the same time helped him back to his feet before retreating in the face of profuse thanks. Meanwhile a Japanese girl – maybe a trainee nurse? – was sprinting up the carriage to see if she could be of assistance. It seemed the elderly man was fine now, but she stationed herself next to him, perhaps to keep an eye on him for the rest of the journey.

We took a succession of increasingly older and more clattering trains to our destination. The first few stops were underground, city central stations, then we emerged into a more suburban landscape, and then the streets began to give way to vineyards and fields. The nurse got off but the elderly man stayed on to the end of the line – dozing off at one point to be rudely awakened, along with a few others on the carriage, when his cane crashed to the floor. I was keeping half an eye on him but there were plenty of other people around who were better positioned to offer him further assistance should it be required.

The stations got smaller and more remote, often just a raised platform and a sign, and we got closer and closer to the taller mountains that ringed the horizon. We started spotting unmelted patches of snow in the shady areas of the ground speeding past us, which increased in frequency until eventually it was pretty much all snow. Our train came to the end of its line and we were all instructed to get off, with those of us continuing to Yudanaka changing to another shuttle. Again it was waiting for us at the platform, only the first set of doors were open so the same set of passengers filled up the first carriage again. The elderly man with the cane didn’t join us, I saw him as far as the platform elevator and after that he was on his own.

This second train was noisier and perhaps a little less comfortable, but still heated inside, but the blast of cold air every time the doors opened at each station was not particularly welcome. We also found ourselves getting used to the wah-wah-wah sirens of the railway crossings that accompanied every station, and a few other parts of the route.

Despite the proliferation of snow, we could see fruit and vegetables still waiting to be harvested, or if we were lucky, actually being harvested. There were trees still full of apples, and rows of what might have been onions or radishes, half taken, half waiting to be taken.

We got higher and higher, closer and closer to those mountains, and then all of a sudden we were once again at the end of the line, this time our destination, Yudanaka Station. Everyone trooped off the train and then scattered to their various destinations, be it ryokans, ski resorts or the monkey park. There was a bus service, there were taxis, but by our calculations Shibu Onsen was about a 30 minute walk and without heavy luggage, or any time constraints, it seemed a shame not to take the opportunity to explore. We weren’t too worried about getting lost, we were following a river and pretty much one main road.

Out here, the snow was less ubiquitous. There were some large piles at the station, and a few traces in the shadows behind walls and trees, but generally the ground was dry. The sky was clear too. It was chilly, but the kind of chilly that a brisk walk can easily mitigate.

We got our bearings, located the river, checked the map app on Janna’s phone, and started along the road to Shibu Onsen. From Yudanaka Station, a large welcome sign indicated we were entering Yudanaka Onsen, and it didn’t take long to spot the first signs of onsen activity, a stone pillar with a pool of steaming water at the base which appeared to be some kind of footbath.

Onsen is the Japanese word for “hot spring” and refers to the geothermal waters which are so common on this volcanic Pacific Rim archipelago, and which have been a part of Japanese culture for many centuries. Whether natural (or man-made) outdoor pools for bathing comfortably in the winter, or the plumbing of this springwater into customised buildings, the tradition of bathing in the natural warm waters is ancient, and a deep part of the national psyche. Because the available places to bathe are limited, bathing is always public and communal, although in the last couple of centuries gender segregation has become the rule rather than the exception.

As we walked along the street through Yudanaka and Yamouchi, we could hear the constant gurgling of water beneath our feet. The river was a few hundred metres away, this was the drainage system, meltwater from the mountains, perhaps, or even the heated springwater fresh from its journey underground. At points we could see steaming vents on the street.

Yamouchi Onsen was the second town we passed through, though there was no real break between the two designations. Despite being a (largely) one-street town, there were plenty of amenities – restaurants, schools, a ping pong club, hotels. The road was paved – like a pedestrianised street – but vehicles occasionally rolled up behind us or ahead of us, pressuring us to hug the margins of the street.

We took a slight change in direction at this point which gave us a view over the river we had been following, albeit out of our sight until then. It was a very wide channel, with the flowing grey-blue-white river occupying only a narrow part of the channel. No doubt in the Spring melting the channel would become a torrent.

On our left side where there had been buildings there was suddenly a steep embankment. Part of the pathway in front of us was closed off after a landfall but we skirted our way around it, living dangerously. Beyond that point we were in Shibu Onsen.

The buildings had been still relatively modern – definitely 20th century, and it could have been any suburban street in the outer districts of Tokyo, but for the constant gushing and gurgling noises beneath us. But now, gradually, the nature of the buildings began to change. There was less white plaster and brick, and more aged wood. Everything just seemed to become more – picturesque. The street seemed to get narrower, or maybe the buildings just leaned closer to each other to create that illusion.

The modern vehicles that – more rarely now – intruded on this scene from another time, seemed out of place and wrong. It also seemed like some kind of mistake that the only other people we encountered were other tourists. We were in a little snow-globe world, the only thing that was missing was the snow.

Suddenly the buildings on our left were interrupted by a wide staircase to the heavens. Our eyes followed it upwards, and at the top, standing serenely over the village, was the top of what must have been a very tall green Buddha statue. We made an informal agreement that we would come back and investigate this further once we had settled in.

On we walked and the buildings began to become familiar from the pictures I had seen when I was searching for a ryokan – traditional Japanese guesthouse – to book. We probably passed my first choice which had been fully booked. The one I had ended up booking was called Ikariya. It occurred to me that none of these ryokan had their names prominently displayed in English and I had neglected to memorise either the Kanji form of our ryokan’s name, or how it looked from the front.

We did nearly walk past it – well I did walk past it, but Janna spotted the name in English – in fact they had even put out a little welcome sign name-checking us – but our task was made easier by the numerous signs around the village displaying where each onsen and ryokan was located. We managed to get into the front door but then the rows of clogs, slippers and shoes in various groupings gave us a sharp reminder of how very different traditional Japanese culture is.

An elderly man came out to meet us. He spoke no English at all. I remembered from the reviews of the ryokan that it was run by a very friendly old couple. He indicated we should take off our shoes – we did – and put on some slippers – we did (although even the largest ones were still just a little too small for me!). We were to ignore the clogs for now, they were for another thing. He got us a key, and led us up the stairs to our room.

We had questions, he couldn’t really answer them, so he went to fetch another member of staff, Emi, who was much younger and much more fluent in English. She showed us into the room, which was exactly what you would expect a traditional Japanese ryokan room to be. Weave mats – check. Tatami mattresses – check. Paper screens – check. Low wooden table – check. Floor-level seats – check. There were even special clothes in the cupboard for us – yukatas and accessories.

Fortunately there was also a helpful information folder explaining all about the customs and traditions of the clothing, the ryokan and the villages’ onsen. There were also a few concessions to modern life – a heater, a tv and a fridge. We had a window – not much of a view, mainly the back of the adjoining building, but there were some trees and mountains to the left and the right. Emi left us to settle in for a while but said she would be back shortly to serve green tea.

I’m not a tea-drinker, and I’m wary of strange cakes and confections, but Janna assured me the tea and special cakes we were served were delicious. In fact she later bought a Japanese-style teapot – with the extra conical funnel – as a souvenir. Emi also showed us the Onsen Key – a small key attached to a huge wooden fob, which would give us access to all 9 of the public onsen in the village. It was supposedly good luck to visit them all. We asked her about Janna’s tattoos – we had read (in fact the information binder said) that these were frowned upon, should be covered up where possible, and it was possible onsen managers could ask someone with tattoos to leave. This is due to the historical association of tattoos with organised crime and gangsters (the Yakuza). Emi reassured us that most onsen were happy to accommodate tourists and their tattoos, and it was unlikely anyone would get upset.

We went out for a walk around the village and found most of the onsen without going inside any at this stage. We were mainly just killing time before dinner. We went to the river and crossed the bridge, and mainly just got our bearings. It wasn’t a very big village at all, really.

We also took time to freshen up in the ryokan’s own onsen. These were in fact the only washing facilities provided, there were toilets on the residential floor but if you wanted a bath or a shower you had to do it in the onsen with whoever else might happen to be there. They were divided into men’s and women’s onsen but the division consisted of 2 feet of wall, 5 feet of frosted glass, and at the top, a gap of about 2 feet over which you could hear what was going on next door.

I can’t say anything about the womens’ onsen, but the mens’ had 3 shower stations, with soap and shampoo provided, and little basins you could sit on, or fill with water to throw over yourself. At the far end of the room (away from the frosted glass) was the onsen pool, maybe 6 feet by 4. On the left side was a rubber tube obstructed by a wooden pump which jumped at regular intervals whenever the water pressure built to a sufficient degree, with a satisfying clack. This continual clack… clack… clack… was the soundscape in which people had bathed here for decades. The arrangements might not be everyone’s cup of tea but for Janna and I it felt invigorating.

There was a bit of a mix-up over dinner-time – Emi had told us the correct time but the information binder had a different time and we ended up trying to go down too early. So we had a bit of down time in our room for updating social media and so on. I was a bit apprehensive about dinner, as I knew traditional Japanese food wasn’t at all something I could handle, and ryokans are the most traditional Japanese places you can imagine. While ryokan owners are in general very accommodating and helpful, there is an expectation that guests have come to immerse themselves in this culture and they aren’t really set up for Plan B.

Dinner turned out to be a very communal affair, all the guests eat together and can talk to each other if they so wish, and we met a couple of Australian tourists who were doing a much longer tour of various Japanese destinations. They were very pleasant company. The food, however, from my point of view was as unappealing as I had feared.

We were presented with a tray with an arrangement of 9 different dishes – a mix of sweet and savoury. Most of them seemed to consist of some sort of fish – some caramelised, some raw, some shredded – and various combinations of mushrooms, vegetables and tofu. We each had a little solid-fuel grill to boil a foil dish of water and make our own soup, into which we could add thin strips of raw beef. In addition we were each given little round bowls containing rice and soup. Later on the staff brought in another individual dish for each of us with tempura shrimp on a salad bed.

Janna tried everything. I left everything untouched – bar some of the fruit – apple, I imagine – that was ok. It did not go unnoticed by the staff (much as I wish it had!) and they asked if I was ok and if there was anything they could do to make the food more palatable for me. In the end they took my beef and fried it up, which I have to admit was quite tasty.

Anyway, to cut a long story short this situation was replicated at breakfast the next morning (I had the bananas and yoghurt and left everything else!) and by dinnertime they did a special chicken steak just for me – it was a little dry but I wasn’t in any position to moan and dutifully ate it.

The first night, we heard howls outside, I was certain they were monkeys, and eventually we got out of bed and went to the window to look outside. It was too dark to really see anything but eventually our eyes adjusted and we realised there was an adult monkey making its way across the rooftop right outside our window! As it headed off to our left, we briefly saw the silhouette of a little baby monkey against the light from another window.

Our plan for the second day was to visit the Snow Monkey park. But it seems the monkeys had pre-empted us with their own plan to come visit the Human Village.


Finally the day of our journey to the mountains arrived! I had bought the tickets on the Shinkansen (bullet train) weeks in advance because I had been told they fill up quickly. Our first challenge was getting to Tokyo Station early in the morning when the Tozai line is notoriously busy – fortunately we were travelling light and quite happy to squeeze together among the salarymen and women.

We arrived with plenty of time to spare and wandered around the shops in the central station for 45 minutes or so before heading through the barriers. This required using two tickets together which momentarily halted us but not for long, I’d fortunately purchased all the correct tickets.

We still had plenty of time before the train left and we sat in a waiting area facing a bakery that was selling luxury fairy cakes. The urge began to build and eventually I knew I had to buy one for Janna. I gave her the money (about 500 yen) and said she could go and pick one she liked. She came back with an intriguing paper box, but wouldn’t let me see her cake as she was saving it for the train.

We made our way to the platform and edged along to the place our carriage would stop. The train leaving before ours was just being cleaned before loading. I spotted our door (or where our door would be on the next train!) and outside it something strange happened. A man threw his hands in the air and started shaking, like he was doing a crazy new dance. The line of people waiting to get on the train were looking at him oddly, and then all of a sudden he fell flat on his face onto the platform. A train attendant realised something was wrong and immediately started shouting, pushing people back and ran to get some help. We realised there was blood on the platform.

Over the next 10 or 15 minutes, more and more station staff appeared around him, and when they had enough they made a little cordon to separate him from the lines of passengers still waiting to go in our door. Then the doors of the train opened, and the lines got on board, leaving only the little huddle around the injured man, and us.

The train pulled out and we took our place where the platform markers indicated to line up for the door. A handful of other passengers appeared and came to wait behind us. We were now right on the shoulder of the “cordon” and could clearly see the injured man, who must have had some kind of convulsion or seizure. They had turned him on his side, and he was moving a little, but there was still blood on the platform near his head. He had been given a pillow and a blanket to keep him warm.

Soon some proper medical staff arrived with a stretcher, and began to measure and medicate the patient. Also around this time, our train arrived and passengers were streaming off the train around the little medical oasis. After the platform cleared a little, while they were cleaning the train, the man was maneuvered onto a stretcher and wheeled away, and the medical team were replaced by a cleanup team to scrub the unsightly stains off the platform. And then the doors opened and we were invited to embark.

We found our seats – very spacious, and reclining, with power outlets. We tried to put the drama on the platform out of our minds and look forward to our journey. The whole carriage seemed quite empty – just a handful of other people besides ourselves, but the train had a couple more stops before leaving Tokyo city.

When we were underway Janna opened her box and showed she had bought a little white mouse fairy-cake. The cream frosting was very tasty, but the fairy cake had some indeterminate fruit filling I wasn’t keen on. Janna enjoyed it anyway.

Outside we watched the city flashing past as we picked up our final passengers and started to leave the central part of Tokyo behind. Very quickly mountains became visible, and it suddenly occurred to me we might be able to see Mount Fuji – it was a clear day and we had a good panorama of the landscape around the city.

Sure enough, the ghostly figure of the snow-covered volcano was hovering on the horizon, barely visible against the sky. As our train turned from a northerly to a north-westerly attitude the mountain took centre-stage in our window and it was hard to see how we might not have noticed it earlier.

Soon the land around us became more hilly, and instead of city-wide vistas, we found ourselves more often cutting through dug-out troughs where we could only see high embankments on either side. Occasionally we would go through a tunnel. The character of the land changed – fewer buildings, more fields, more trees, and the occasional dramatic river rolling under a bridge beneath us.

In no time at all we were looking at views of mountains – ski slopes lightly dusted white, carefully and deliberately cleared of trees and made safe for resort guests. We stopped at another station and the people joining us seemed to be carrying more luggage and wearing warmer clothes.

Finally, less than 2 hours since our train had set off, we pulled in at our final stop (though not the train’s) in Nagano station, Nagano City, Nagano Prefecture. The barrier ate our tickets but let us out, and we were in the city in the mountains. It was colder than Tokyo (but still nowhere near Russian-winter temperatures), but it was clear and there was no snow on the ground. Perhaps a few drops of rain were falling, but barely enough to go to the trouble of getting out the umbrella.

We found the local train station but decided to grab something to eat in the city before heading out into the potential culinary wilderness of the countryside. We walked around looking for likely places – they had a ubiquitous station mall, but the usual food shop chains I recognised from Tokyo weren’t here, barring the odd coffee shop.

We started wandering down the streets leading away from the station and it seemed the “touristy” parts of town dwindled away pretty fast. We saw a sign for an Italian restaurant and thought “why not?” It was up some stairs and not very busy for a lunch hour, but the lady attending the tables was pleased to see us and showed us to a table. There wasn’t much of a menu – I ended up going for garlic pasta, which was served without even tomatoes, but was quite tasty nevertheless. Janna had a salad and a coffee. Just what we needed to warm us up and prepare us for the next stage of our journey.

Chiba Castle & the Tokyo/Edo Museum

On the 3rd day of January I offered Janna the chance to see a Japanese castle, almost on our doorstep (no, not the pretend one at Disneyworld!).

There are only 12 original Japanese castles surviving from the Shogun period and none of them were around Tokyo as many were dismantled around the same time as Edo Castle to prevent warlords building new power bases. The most famous by far is Himeji Castle but it is a long journey out of Tokyo.

However there are also a lot of reconstructed castles – built to illustrate what the originals would have looked like, and one of these happens to be situated in Chiba, the main city of the next-door prefecture with the same name. I had done a little research and knew it now housed a folk museum. And I had never seen it – in fact I had never stepped out of Chiba station, only passed through it. It was another sunny day and the journey was not too far and heading away from the crowds of central Tokyo so we decided that’s where we would go.

The route is very familiar to me – every Monday I teach on a company premises in the Chiba area and get off at Inage, two stops before Chiba. Chiba itself is not very familiar to me. I know they have a monorail – a hanging overhead light transit system – because I have seen it on my bus route to the company where I teach. So I was quite keen to ride on that too, as the castle seemed to be a short monorail ride from the station – 4 or 5 stops.

Janna was fascinated by the monorail, and filmed it arriving in the station, then after we got on, filmed the urban streetscape as it passed below us. We passed a large central square where an ice-rink had been set up and people were skating around happily in the sunshine. The monorail seemed to wind between buildings, twisting and turning as if added to the city as an afterthought (it probably was). And then we arrived at the stop we needed – the Prefecture Office no less, and the headquarters of the Prefecture Police.

We went down to street level on a rusty, mottled elevator with harsh buzzing alert sounds, far different from the smooth futuristic elevators we had seen all over the Tokyo transit system. Worryingly, there were no signs for the castle, and little in the way of tourist information. We eventually found a sign in Japanese which had a symbol on it that might have been a castle, or a temple, or a historical building of some description, so we headed in the direction it suggested.

It seemed just like a regular provincial city street. Unlike Tokyo with all its chain stores and convenience stores, there were just a handful of shop fronts some of which so obscure I couldn’t tell you what service they provided. But like Tokyo it was clean and well looked-after. We might have walked too far if I hadn’t spotted a distinctly castley sort of shape sticking up over the rooftops. We changed course to head towards it.

We came to what looked like the entrance to a park on a hill. A set of steps led upwards, but on each side of the steps there was a small shrine, which had recently received some attention in the form of offerings. A family were passing by the entrance of the park as we approached, the parents were showing the child the shrines and as they passed both gave a respectful bow.

We went up the stairs, along a flat piece of ground and came to a larger temple. This one had an actual wooden building you could go into, with the shrine inside. There were other stone structures outside in the courtyard around it, and a Torii gate across the entrance.

We carried on along the path, with plenty of plants and trees defying the depth of winter by defiantly displaying colours and beauty more reminiscent of autumn or spring. The sunshine too served to remind us of warmer seasons, and only the cool-but-not-too-cold temperatures disturbed the illusion.

We passed another stone structure – this one seemed more like a memorial, but there was no English signage to help us understand better. And then across a pebbled courtyard in front of us, there was the staggered, triangular outline of a Japanese castle. In front of it, a huge statue of an angry man on a horse.

Our hopes of going in to the museum floated away quickly as we spotted barriers obstructing the bottom of the staircase. We took a few pictures of the building and the statue and then walked a little way around it, finding another set of steps with another barrier. I snuck past it because I wanted to read the sign on the door. I couldn’t, of course, but my phone could a little – it turns out the museum was closed for the holidays on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January. It would be open tomorrow.

Such a shame. We weren’t the only ones hovering round the castle, and clearly we weren’t the only ones disappointed it wasn’t open, as a pair of young men followed the wheelchair ramp all around the back of the castle to find another closed door. A few other people were strolling around enjoying the sunshine and scenery and didn’t seem to alarmed that everything was closed.

We took the rear exit, which actually turned out to be the front exit, and went past another shrine and a couple of cemeteries. And we headed back to the station. Janna quite liked seeing a less touristy, more everyday side of Japan, away from the bustle of the capital. We’d had a nice day out even if we hadn’t seen the museum.

We headed back to the station and I engaged on a fruitless search for the tourist information office to see what else was worth looking at in Chiba. Perhaps we could go to the waterfront? We found ourselves walking through another shopping mall when we heard music – traditional Japanese music – and following the noise, we found some kind of street performance.

There were two or three musicians, two dancer-puppeteers, and two dragons. One of the dragons (a person in a dragon costume, but with the head on top of his own head so the dragon looked taller) had a line of people queuing up for him to kiss (bite?) the tops of their heads. Each one thanked the dragon for this blessing. I guess Janna and I had the same thought, and she went in the queue and I stood by holding the camera! Another example of my having no idea what’s going on but that whatever it is is clearly authentically and typically Japanese!

Eventually we decided to head back into Tokyo and do something there, without any clear idea. We hopped on a train, I scanned the stations it passed through, and spotted Ryogoku which rang a bell – that was the stop for the Edo-Tokyo museum. Maybe we could see a museum today after all? I suggested it to Janna, I’m not sure she was too enthused about the idea of heading to a museum now with half the afternoon gone, but she went along with it. I had a vague idea that there were some nice gardens somewhere around Ryogoku too.

It was a long ride but nice to see a different part of the city in daylight, and when we got off at Ryogoku it wasn’t too busy there either. The first thing we spotted was the Budokan – and this one IS the one that the Sumo wrestlers fight at! However, this was closed today, interesting though the Sumo Museum would have been.

Behind the Budokan is a huge raised concourse, and hovering over the concourse like a squatting robot is the building of the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It really is a strange, unusual shape. There were ticket stalls on the concourse, but no queues, we weren’t sure how much the tickets would cost or if it was worth it in whatever time was available before it closed. Rather than go over to the stalls and check, we rather just hopped on the escalators which snaked their way up through tubes in the “robot’s” legs to the museum on the upper levels.

I had joked on the way up that it would be a shame if we went up all these escalators only to find we couldn’t get in without a ticket! There had been an attendant at the very bottom of the escalator, but he had just nodded us through with a welcome. When we reached the top we did indeed face manned gates, with signs on them saying “Tickets not sold here – purchase tickets on the concourse.”

It seemed odd, but we didn’t want to cause trouble so we hopped in the escalator and went back down to the concourse. I told Janna to wait and went over to the ticket boxes, and saw a much more friendly sign advising that the museum was open for free to the public all day on 2nd and 3rd of January! That was why the escalator guy just waved us through, and the people on the gates would have done the same too, if we had tried going through them!

I explained the situation to Janna, in the circumstances “value for money” had just been yanked off the table – we had an hour and a half in one of Tokyo’s best museums for free! So up we went again.

The museum seems to be a curious mix of dioramas of buildings (in miniature and full scale) and more traditional exhibits. There are also several interactive exhibits, and there was a musical performance going on on the floor below us (we were on a sort of mezzanine level). There’s a faithful recreation of the original Nihombashi wooden bridge, displays of what town houses looked like for rich landowners and poor tenants, as well as commercial buildings, and charts and diagrams revealing insights about all aspects of Edo/Tokyo life, from water supply and sewerage, fire protection, trade and currency, and some particularly troublesome descriptions of how women were treated before and during childbirth!

We spent so long looking at the Edo period exhibits that we ran out of time before we had a chance to look at the growth of the city in the 20th century. There were some fascinating clockwork dolls that we just had time to see, and Janna made a couple of purchases in the gift shop.

The museum emptied and we went past the JR station to look for the nearby subway line. As usual we were keeping our eye open for meal opportunities too, ideally something where Janna could try something weird and crazy and Japanese but the menu would also have something I could eat – surprisingly difficult to find. But we decided to try out a little restaurant between the stations.

It seemed to be predominantly a shellfish and sushi place, but they did chicken too which suited me fine. They gave us electronic tablet pads to order on, which was a novelty to me, and I noticed other guests had grills on their tables to make their own soup. Less welcomely, a couple of men on a table behind us had ash trays and cigarettes on their table. I’d forgotten about that aspect of Japanese dining.

Janna tried the sushi and was quite pleased with it, my chicken was ok in the Japanese style, but I regretted not ordering the chips as they looked really tasty on other peoples’ tables! The smoke wasn’t too disturbing but the idea of it was unpalatable to put me off eating. We paid up and found the station and headed back to the hotel to make our final preparations for our journey into the mountains the next day.

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The Emperor’s Greeting

Deciding what to do on 2nd January was much easier. Every tourist visit to Tokyo must include a visit to the Imperial Palace – the central apex of the city, the epicentre, the palace within the garden within the moat within another garden within another moat within the Downtown district within the ever increasing circles of subway lines, malls and apartments that makes up most of Tokyo.

Of course you can’t go into the Palace grounds, you can only walk around the moats and explore the Eastern Palace Gardens. Usually. There are two days in the year where the gates are opened and the general population are allowed onto that sacred land. One is the Emperor’s Birthday (February 23rd, if you’re interested). The other is the date of his New Year Greeting to the Nation – January 2nd. Today.

Janna and I got up relatively early and were on our way to the station around 10.00 am. The emperor would make 5 public appearances between 11am and 3pm. It was expected (based on previous years) that over 100,000 people would be passing through the Palace grounds through those 5 precious hours. Obviously this needed to be a precision operation by the police to marshal and protect so many people and keep them moving in an orderly fashion.

Indeed, there were plenty of police on display, but not the huge numbers I would expect in a similar event in the UK or Russia. The Japanese people – and today it truly was the Japanese, not just those from Tokyo – are generally very placid, patient and well-behaved. There was a significant smattering of foreign visitors like ourselves in the queues but they took their lead from the locals and waited patiently.

There were lots of loudspeaker vans parked in the vicinity – whether commandeered by he authorities for public order, or simply waiting to take the opportunity to reach the kind of numbers of people usually unavailable to them in one spot, I don’t know. For now they were all parked up.

We almost erroneously joined the queue for the Apple store. I don’t know if there was a new product available or if it’s just a very popular store but the line for it was the first big line we saw after coming out of the station. However, the scale of such a mistake quickly became obvious. As we got closer to the palace, there were more and more people around us. A group of scouts handed out little paper Japan flags – we took one each. All the people were heading for the same place, we just went with the flow. The security checkpoint was surprisingly free-flowing – I didn’t have a bag, Janna’s was checked in an instant. I was stopped briefly by two men and a women in security uniforms who asked to let them pat me down – of the three it was surprisingly the woman who did the job (I’m not sure Janna noticed though!).

Then we saw the queues. There were 7 or 8 lanes marked out, about 70 metres each, and the first four were full of people. We were guided (politely) into lane 5. When we got near the front we saw 6 more lanes set up for people approaching from the south entrance, which all appeared full. And then there was the snake of people, stretching from one of the lanes (or sometimes two, one from each entrance filtering together), into yard in front of the Nijubashi gate (which I visited with Nick and Dee).

Behind us – far behind us – at the back of our queue, we could see a stream of people flowing out of the Palace grounds exit. Clearly the Emperor had already made his first appearance! We waited – watching other lines gradually empty, and getting excited when the lines adjacent to us also began emptying, but then getting impatient when it took so long for them to all make their way through.

We tried to work out the average speed of the snake. I spotted a pair of flourescent hats on the Nijubashi stone bridge – green and orange. We watched them bob their way along the bridge, then up to and through the gate, and then we waited to see how long before they reappeared on the iron bridge behind. Sure enough they both reappeared, close enough to each other to rule out coincidence or error, and less than 5 minutes after going through the gate. This line was moving pretty briskly.

And then suddenly almost without warning the line next to us was moving, and before long we were too! We snaked our way towards the bridges, like everyone else trying to pause just long enough to get a couple of pictures before the police told us off for dawdling. And then – very unlike my last visit – we were on the bridge, through the gate, and in the palace grounds!

Nijubashi is actually two gates, the stone bridge is the nearer one, but beyond the Nijubashi gate, the pathway pretty much just curves back on itself to the higher, further away iron bridge. The huge public area – a marshalling ground? – is in front of a relatively flat looking structure. It doesn’t look like a palace, or a castle at all from this angle, if anything it looks like a row of executive boxes at a sports stadium.

As we entered the huge yard – absolutely packed with people – the Emperor was already on the platform and speaking. I could only make him out by using the zoom of my camera, and that was only when I was able to stand still for a few seconds – the mass of people behind me was always pushing me forward – and avoid all the paper flags being waved by the people in front of me!

As the Emperor finished his remarks there was a huge rustle – something like 15,000 paper flags simultaneously being enthusiastically waved – and some cheers and shouts of “Banzai” (which, I have been told, means “1000 more years!”). It seems the one thing that can make Japanese people lose their calm, patient demeanour, it’s their Emperor. Well, him and sake.

The Japanese still believe their Emperors are descended from the gods. Their lineage can be reliably traced back to the 5th or 6th century beyond which there is no correlation in the historical record for the legendary figures with their divine origins. The Imperial family continued unbroken throughout the Samurai period even when they were token figureheads with no real power. After World War II, one of the conditions of armistice was that the Imperial family relinquish any claim to divinity to prevent the kind of god-like cult which led to suicidal soldiers laying down their lives for the glory of their ruler, one of the reasons the war in the East had been so difficult to win.

I didn’t want to try telling this audience that the guy on the platform wasn’t a god.

Gradually the far end of the yard began to thin out and we managed to maneuver ourselves right in the centre. By our estimate there was another 40 minutes before the Emperor was due to come out again, and I thought it would be a shame if our only glimpse of him was from so far out. I found myself standing behind a European looking man with a neck brace – taller than me which is generally unusual. Behind us were a couple of shorter Japanese women – I felt quite guilty at being so tall for a moment. Also in our vicinity was a policeman – they were spaced out among the crowd at regular intervals.

The reason for this became clear while we were waiting. Ahead of us I could see another policeman holding up his arms, and before long a couple of other officers were pushing through the crowd towards him. Some shouts went up and like the Red Sea, the crowds parted to form a pathway. After a moment of confusion as everyone bobbed up and down to see what was going on, one of the police officers came back up the pathway pushing a woman in a wheelchair. Behind her a couple of other less mobile older people were taking advantage of the express route.

It was quite a mild, sunny January day. There were clouds in the sky but every so often they would part enough that we were bathed in warm sunlight. There was certainly no mood of impatience in the crowd, just anticipation. Next to me was a man with several photographic devices trying to line them up to get the best shot with each. That was nothing compared to the huge bank of press photographers lined up on platforms at the back of the crowd.

There was a big screen off to the right which was showing a view of the crowd. A handful of people were waving flags around. I tentatively raised my flag to see if I could spot our position. To be absolutely certain, I raised both flags, then moved them in a rhythmic kind of semaphore dance. It seemed everyone around me was looking at me, or looking at the screen, and worked out what I was doing, and were quite delighted (because I had also spotted their positions). One guy even gave me a playful punch on the shoulder with a huge grin! Of course it helped that I was taller than almost everyone in the crowd, so my flags were easier to spot.

Suddenly the screen changed to tell us that the Emperor’s arrival was imminent. The crowd began getting excited by every glimpse of a subordinate scurrying along the glass-fronted corridor. The Imperial Family themselves would emerge from a doorway behind a screen in the centre – right in front of us.

And then out they came! Emperor Naruhito and his consort, Empress Masaka. The old Emperor and his wife. A handful of princes and princesses. Perhaps this was a special moment because the new Emperor had only been crowned last year so this was his first New Year Greeting. And it was unusual – unprecedented even – to see two Emperors sharing this platform, though it is something the crowds may get used to going forward.

Once more, the entire mass of people were waving their paper flags furiously, and cheering, and some more excitable men screaming “Banzai!” as loud as their vocal chords would allow. But they calmed down to listen to him speaking. I’ve no idea what he said, it was probably a similar kind of tone to the Queen’s Speech in the UK. Taking a picture was difficult, between the flags and the phalanx of arm-high mobile phones (not to mention the tall guy with the neck-brace), but I got one or two. I tried to duck down a little to give the small women behind me half a chance to get their picture too.

And then, with a final bunch of waves, the family trooped off back behind their screen. What they were doing for the 45-minutes or so between each appearance I have no idea. My personal theory is that they had a room full of Playstations set up, but I cannot verify this. We had no reason to hang about but clearly we weren’t going anywhere fast either, so we slowly and steadily traipsed along with the crowd, down the hill to the exit gate. Among the crowd were people holding placards, some of them in English, which basically said “slowly and carefully” as the downhill slope while not exactly steep, was neither the ideal gradient for huge crowds.

The crowd was splitting between the east exit (which would take us back to where we started) and the west exit, which would give us a little more opportunity to see the usually hidden palace grounds. So we went that-a-way. Truthfully there wasn’t much to see – more walls, moats, lawns and trees. We left the palace and segued into Kitanomaru Park. It had a pond. It had some parts of what used to be Edo Castle – the castle that helped found Tokyo as a major city, and the predecessor of the Imperial Palace. Next to it was a Budokan. I thought this might be where the Sumo wrestlers plied their trade, but no, it is for more mundane martial arts like Judo and Taekwondo. It was being renovated – probably for the Olympics.

We exited into a neighbourhood called Kudanshita – known to me only as a subway station on the Tozai line that I change at to head towards Shinjuku. But it seems quite nice – it has some sort of exhibition centre in the old Emperor’s name, it has an art museum, and we found a nice coffee shop to plan the rest of our day.

That plan turned out to be going to Shibuya and the “Scramble Crossing.” This time I remembered to look for the statue of the dog, Hachika. We walked through a few more shops – we found an exhibition of smart robot puppies which were cute, and we were invited to immerse ourselves in a giant mobile-phone-operated virtual backdrop screen set in the Antarctic where, for no obvious reason, it was raining penguins. We looked in many more clothes shops. We had a tasty dinner in a curry house in the basement of a department store. And then we went home.

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Shogun Armour

Following our late night activities and the long journey back to our hotel, we had a long lie in on the 1st of January before deciding what to do with what remained of the day. The options were not great as a lot of attractions were shut – the people who work there deserve holidays too. We had two museums we wanted to visit, both in the same area of the city, but one of them – the Ninja Trick House – was closed on New Years Day. However the other one, the Samurai Museum was open.

Both museums were in the Shinjuku district, which is probably Tokyo’s biggest business district, with the largest concentration of large buildings and skyscrapers. Indeed, when we arrived at the station we had no idea where to go – usually you just walk towards the biggest concentration of lights and people, but there were lights and people all around us. I hadn’t been to Shinjuku before – I have been attending an improv workshop at a nearby station but never been into the main part of the district – so it was just as new for me as for Janna.

We knew we wanted to be on the east side of the station so we started skirting around the building next to us. It was a big department store, but it too was closed for the holiday, so there were no short cuts through it. We passed tall, very new looking buildings – in fact Shinjuku has recently undergone a lot of development which is still going on, with a few venues for the Olympics being build here.

For a while we were just wandering around blind. The leaflet I had picked up at the tourist office had a map, but the writing on it was very small and difficult to read. One of the landmarks it told us to look out for was “Godzilla head” and another was “King Kong.” We wandered down a “main” looking boulevard with many restaurants and then, looking to my left I spotted Godzilla. His claw was resting on top of a Toho cinema building and his familiar reptilian face was staring angrily over the top.

We walked towards the cinema and had our bearings on the map but I still wasn’t entirely sure of our orientation. I followed my best guess and we turned right. We started becoming increasingly aware that the nature of the buildings we were walking through was a bit different now – there seemed to be a lot more bars, adult clubs and “special” services I don’t even want to guess at. It turns out we had wandered into Kabukicho, which to all intents and purposes is Tokyo’s primary “red light” district.

It was still mid-afternoon and there were still plenty of other tourists walking round so we weren’t too alarmed, particularly when we ran into King Kong, hanging off another building promoting some sort of music venue, I think. A couple of streets further on we found our destination – the Samurai Museum. It was well labelled, but the samurai figure outside the door was the big giveaway.

We popped in to find a bunch of people sitting in the reception area and a small line at the cash desk. Listening in, they were buying tickets for 6:45 that evening, because the tours were fully booked up to then. We had a choice to make, did we want to come back in 3 hours, or write off the museum and find some other attraction to visit? And if we came back, what would we do in the meantime?

We reached a consensus that we really wanted to see the museum so we bought the tickets for that evening. I had half a mind to hop on a train the short distance to Shibuya, another business district not so far away (the other end of Yoyogi Park, basically) and visit the famous “Scramble Crossing” where we nearly went for New Year’s Eve. But Janna wanted to do a little shopping, or at least look at a few of the shops. Being New Year there were quite a few sales on and some good bargains to be had – but it also meant all the shops were very busy.

Even in the middle of Kabukicho, there is room for the spiritual world, and we stumbled across a temple, or at least the decorated pathway to a temple, festooned with lights, and proving a popular background for tourist photographs. From there, though, it was shops all the way. I can’t remember the order we looked at them all but there was Uni-Qlo, Zara, H&M, probably some others. And Janna did make some purchases for herself and her family.

As it got dark we found interesting festive light displays – lucky cats welcoming us into 2020. In the end we spent so long dawdling in shops that we had to hurry back to the museum so we wouldn’t lose our slot – assuming we could remember how to get there! Luckily we made it – just – in time, and the museum had a secure area where we could leave our shopping.

We joined an eclectic tour group consisting of an Italian mother and daughter, a couple of Dutch, and a group of young American men. Our host was very personable and knowledgeable and delighted to have an opportunity to show off his Italian. The first corridor had 4 sets of Samurai armour and he explained a little about the Samurai period which lasted from the 1400s to 1868, and was subdivided into other periods depending on the ruling Shogun family. He showed us the difference between the functional armour of the regular fighting Samurai, and the more ceremonial armour of the daimyos and Shoguns themselves, who rarely had to engage in physical combat.

Upstairs we had to remove our shoes, and we were shown several rooms featuring Samurai weapons. Most Samurai had three swords – the long katana was used for fighting, the short tanto was only used for ritual suicide, and the mid-length blade was a spare if something happened to his katana. We heard the story of the Mongol invasion of Japan – the Mongols would always defeat the Samurai because the Samurai code required them to introduce themselves before they foughts, while the Mongols were more of a “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of culture. However the invasion ultimately failed because of a typhoon that sunk the entire Mongol fleet, not once, but on two separate occasions when they sought to invade.

The Samurai also used bows and arrows – there was an authentic original quiver, which was more like a box than the Western tube style. And we learned about the icons and tokens that decorated their helmets – usually to denote allegiance or family. They looked very ornate and splendid, but were usually made out of light wood. They ranged from animals, insects and symbols to Sanskrit writing.

Most of the exhibits were authentic – some were clearly marked as replicas, such as the armour of particular Shoguns. The Shoguns fell – and the Samurai period ended – when the Americans arrived with a warship and demanded the country open up to foreign trade after 300 years of isolation. There was a power struggle between the Emperor who believed Japan needed to modernise, and the Shogun whose instinct was to resist foreign interference. But eventually the Shogun realised that if he continued on his intended course, Japan would be irrevocably weakened and the foreign powers would take over anyway. At least if he conceded, there was a chance the Emperor could retain control and protect Japan’s sovereignty. One of his aides who loyally supported the Shogun to the end is known as “The Last Samurai” and has his own display in the museum.

After the tour the real fun part was dressing up in Samurai and kimono gear and getting our photos taken. The armour wasn’t that heavy but the sword felt like it might be difficult to wield and swing without proper training. The tour group following ours had kids in it, and the museum of course had kid-sized outfits so they could also dress up like Samurai. In fact it is relatively common for Japanese children to have their own set of Samurai armour as there is a particular holiday where all the boys dress as Samurai and all the girls as traditional Japanese women.

We enjoyed the museum and would definitely recommend it as a tourist activity, but maybe it’s better to buy tickets in advance. It is a shame we couldn’t see the Ninja Trick House as well, they are quite close to each other and I’m sure a lot of tourists do both attractions in the same afternoon.

We finished our day in Shinjuku with a meal in an Italian restaurant (I know – we tried finding something more authentically Japanese but by that stage we were both more interested in filling our stomachs than experimenting!).

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