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The Kilt Nihonside Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "kiltnihonside" journal:

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April 20th, 2008
06:50 pm


Trip report -- part ten (Monday 20th August in Onomichi)
 Next morning I was up early again, around five a.m. I breakfasted on doughnuts and milk bought the night before then I headed out again. Temples -- gotta do them all. Well, not all of them but most of the more accessible ones. By accessible, I mean they weren't all the way up in the hills, but if you're temple touristing in Onomichi staircases are going to be a big part of the experience.

 The first small temple I visited, it was just gone six a.m. and in Japan that means "radio exercises" (rajio taisō). The radio plays appropriate music while an announcer cajoles the listeners to perform gentle exercise. Temple grounds are popular places especially for elderly folk to meet up, natter, drink green tea and do the exercises communally, at least when the weather allows. I didn't join in, as I was planning to get lots of exercise during the rest of the day.

  Saikokuji Temple is famous (in Japan) for its gate decorated with sandals. They come in all sizes... A source of drinking water is a common feature in a temple complex and in this case the basin was a spectacular piece of sculpture in its own right. The water tasted good too; as early as it was the promise of heat was in the air. There were other groups of statuary here and there, some of them with obvious connections to Hinduism and non-Japanese Buddhism.

 Further up a series of stairways and past assorted grave markers is the Saikokuji temple itself, an impressive three-roofed pagoda visible from many vantage points around the city.

 I spent most of the morning wandering around the area, all of it uphill or so it felt. The temples are mixed in with housing, shops and schools with carefully-tended wilderness and bamboo thickets filling in the gaps. Fire is an ever-present hazard especially in the summer and smoking is a common habit in Japan, hence the rather folk-artish admonition I encountered telling people to watch where they threw their butts.

 Back down in the town things were a bit busier, it being a weekday although some places were still closed for the Obon holiday. I went back through the main shopping arcade, picking up a two-litre bottle of off-brand isotonic juisu at a 100yen store while resisting the imprecation of the oyaji ("old guy") in charge to buy some beer instead -- "Iie, mizu mizu mizu!" (No, water water, water!). Further along the arcade I fell into Hog Heaven, a large store selling second-hand manga. The next couple of hours were a blur.

 After dropping off my booty (including a bundle of cheap laserdiscs) at the hotel and grazing at the convenience store I went back to the temples but it was getting hotter and the hills steeper so I eventually headed back down towards the waterfront to cool off for a bit while watching rush hour go by. I had spotted a couple of familiar city-centre landmarks, familiar that is from the anime series, Kamichu! that had originally sparked my interest in Onomichi. A bridge across the road and railway line gave me a vantage point that seemed very familiar for some reason... Other landmarks reminded me of Kamichu!, including the iconic school gate (in reality, not a middle school but an elementary school). I had actually spotted this school (complete with swimming pool) from the hilltop viewpoint I had visited the day before without realising what it was.

 I spent more time wandering around the town, looking at stuff. I know a lot of fans coming to Japan spent their time in a more regimented manner, visiting the regular tourist places to a fixed timetable with hotels booked long in advance. I decided early on I wasn't going to do that, and for me (a single guy) it worked out. A couple of times I had problems finding a hotel room but I never had to sleep in a hedgerow or under a railway bridge.

 One store selling medicines and health supplies made it clear that I wasn't at home when I suddenly realised what the anthropomorphic stuffed toy in the window was actually meant to be. Of course, when I did comprehend what it was, I wanted to buy it...

 Dinner beckoned -- I tried out the Italian restaurant close to the hotel, just for the experience, but it was nothing special and not cheap. This was my last day in Onomichi -- tomorrow I'd be heading off to Hiroshima a couple of hours down the coast, for the history and internet access. I had never actually found an internet cafe anywhere in Onomichi, but i was sure the big city would fulfil my craving to get wired again.  I was sure that I'd visit Onomichi again some day, though.

Current Location: Leaving Onomichi
Current Mood: Sadly Sayonara
Current Music: Fond farewells

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April 18th, 2008
12:42 pm


Trip report -- part nine (Sunday afternoon/evening 19th August in Onomichi)
After my trip up to the top of the hill by cablecar and down again I decided I wasn't that tired so I went for a wander around some of the local temple complexes near the waterside.

As I've mentioned before Onomichi was a favourite place for rich visitors to build holiday homes and such in the previous centuries (a bit like Brighton in England) and they also endowed temples and shrines there too. Many of these have fallen into disrepair somewhat (especially the smaller standalone shrines like the one down by my hotel) but several of the larger complexes have maintained their grandeur while still, in an odd way appearing quite rural and everyday compared to the manicured perfection of locations like Kyoto.

Trees. I'm not knowledgeable about green stuff generally, but even I was impressed by this one. My camera's wide-angle setting wasn't enough to capture its complete majesty side-to-side sadly... It's traditional to have a tree like this in temple grounds, and it's regarded as sacred and important to the wellbeing of the place. It also offered some pleasantly green shade on an otherwise scorching-hot day. The main temple building was accompanied by other smaller shrines, some traditional and some using more modern materials. Land is at a premium in Onomichi like most other places in Japan, so even venerated holy places are overlooked by domestic housing.

It was getting late now and I headed off back into town to find a place to eat. One of Onomichi's other features, and something that appears in the films, manga and anime series that have been set here, is the covered shopping arcade that runs east from the railway station though the built-up area of shops and houses. On a hot sticky evening (mid-30s) it was the cool route to take. Most of the stores were shut and the eating places weren't open yet. I briefly considered stopping off for a bite here but I decided I wasn't that hungry. Quite.

 I hit the doughnut shop near the station for a quick sugar-rush snack before getting back to the hotel and resting up in airconditioned luxury for a bit. I took the opportunity to back up the pics from my camera onto a spare SD card, a paranoiac practice I repeated often during my stay in Japan. After that I headed back out and found a fast-food place to load up on calories (some vegetable dish I didn't recognise with bits of daikon, green stuff and carrot in a udon soup base) along with more icewater. The sun was now down so I spent a while wandering around the waterfront in the cool(er) air while the pachinko parlour's neon strobed across the strait from where I was standing, and then back to the hotel, a shower and bed.

Current Location: Lotsa places
Current Mood: wandered
Current Music: Temple Bells
Tags: ,

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February 5th, 2008
08:36 pm


Trip report -- part eight (Sunday afternoon 19th August in Onomichi)
Back from my early-morning voyage across the Pacific, I grabbed a snack lunch at a local cafe near the station and headed back to my hotel room for a quick shower and change of socks and underwear. It was now officially Hot (mid to high 30s C) and despite drinking lots of fluids during my earlier Wanderjahr I was still feeling the effects.

After resting in my room (ah, blessed aircon) I reloaded my water supply and headed back out, moving east along the main road through the lower part of town, alongside the railway tracks from the station. I was headed for the lower cable-car station (or as the Japanese call it, a "ropeway"). On my way I passed another typically countryside Japanese feature, a tiny shrine consisting of a simple niche in the retaining wall of the railway line. Nothing much, except a small weather-worn stone Buddha a few inches high with a ragged silk scarf around his neck and a cup at his feet holding a few wildflowers. I stopped and topped up the water in the cup from my bottle (after taking a swig -- did I mention it was hot?) and I left a 1-yen coin on the shelf. I was going into danger and I felt that being a big spender might bias my chances of surviving the day.

The ropeway station was on the north side of the railway line, accessed via a road tunnel running under the tracks. In a few other locations there are pedestrian stairs coming down from the hillside that also cross the line. These stairs have featured in movies and an anime series, Kamichu! set in Onomichi which I've mentioned before now. The ropeway station building is cheek-by-jowl with yet another small temple complex. Then again almost anywhere in Onomichi is close to a shrine or temple...

I bought a ticket from the ubiquitious dispensing machine (a common feature of most attractions in Japan, I discovered). It cost 280 yen if you're going one-way and planning to walk back down on the Path of Literature, or 440 yen for the return trip. Luckily for my feet, you can also buy a one-way ticket back down when you're at the top...

Like most Japanese attraction tickets the ticket stub has a picture, with some information on the back. Sadly this is in Japanese which I can't read well enough to translate. I was able to figure out the cablecar was originally built in 1957 and it ran for 365 metres up the hill to the top, but that's about it.

So, off we went. I took some pictures of the surrounding rooftops and countryside on the way up, but it was a bit crowded inside the car, being a Sunday with lots of people spending the afternoon enjoying themselves. At the top station we debouched onto an area with carvings and statues, the beginning of the Path. In addition there was a two-storey round tower for sightseeing plus some shops selling souvenirs and ice cream. So I had some ice cream -- vanilla and mandarin. To digress, mandarins (みかん, or mikan) are a major fruit crop in the Onomichi area. Mikan are a sort-of running joke in manga and anime storylines -- mikan boxes are a ubiquitous item, used for storage by poor students living in small apartments, or stray cats will be found in such boxes, magical implements lost in them, the uses for such boxes are endless. Anyway, it was good ice cream, and the scenery was wonderful.

I took lots of pictures around the top of the hill, and from the tower itself too. In the distance I could easily make out the shipbuilding and ship repair yards that are the key industries in this area. Over on the other side of the strait I spotted the Home Center I had visited earlier that morning, situated in a cluster of housing. Around the back of the hilltop was yet another small shrine building, somewhat dilapidated looking with the traditional offerings box sitting on the front step. The sides of the hill had some sharp drop-offs from the rock edges, with pitifully insufficient fencing the only safety feature. This didn't stop some brave (and amazingly pretty!) people from venturing out onto the edge to get their pictures taken by their friends.

 On the cablecar trip back down the hill I got on board early and snagged a seat at the front where I could set up my camera for video. The result is a three-minute .avi movie which hopefully people can download and view if they wish. It is about 20Mb in size.

 More about my Onomichi visit later. I did warn you I'd be going on about this place at some length...

Current Location: Onomichi
Current Mood: Escalated
Current Music: Ropeway to Heaven

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January 1st, 2008
09:57 pm


Trip report -- part seven (Sunday morning 19th August in Onomichi)
Start of my first full day in Onomichi. My hotel room overlooked the harbourside and the strait, with the local wildlife hanging about. Down below on the other side of the street was the small shrine I'd noticed the previous evening. I never did discover anything more about it -- it's not one of the important shrines or temples, just something the locals think is worth looking after, because... well, it's there, I suppose.

Well awake by six in the morning, I loaded up with water and headed out to find some breakfast and get myself pleasantly lost. Hot again, but nothing I wasn't expecting.

Police boxes. The Japanese prefer this concept of small police stations (kobans) scattered throughout the towns and cities, little offices with maybe half a dozen officers in situ rather than large centralised police stations as we have in the UK and elsewhere. Just to be odd, they then make them look... different. The one in the picture is part of an Onomichi civic building called "The Seashell" down near the railway station (the "Eki" part of "Ekimae").

This building is something Onomichi is proud of -- it's a theatre and exhibition space, and it's circular, very modern. Except, there was a teeny tiny problem when they planned it. You see, there was this ratty old shrine on a corner of the site that got in the way. So what did they do? This is Onomichi, so they cut a dent in their shiny new circular building for the shrine rather than demolish it or move it. The shrine was there before the new building, after all. An accomodation was made and everybody was happy. Onomichi.

As I mentioned before, the town has had a lot of writers and artists come by and immortalise it in various fashions. In response the town has commissioned some little statue groups and dotted them around, representing pieces of literature or artwork involving the town. Sadly I don't know the stories behind them -- the explanatory plaques are all in Japanese with no convenient English-language crib. Still nice.

After breakfast I made my way along the harbourside, taking more pictures as I went. There were more shrines, even smaller but still not abandoned by the locals. My eyes turned south, across the strait. I was finally going to get to travel on an Onomichi ferry.

I wandered down to the floating dock and waited for the ferry to approach and then drop its ramp with a clang. A few schoolkids on their bicycles (what they were doing going to school so early on a summer Sunday I never did find out) rode off and I stepped on. A hundred-yen coin changed hands and after a short wait for a couple more passengers and a small van to board, the ramp raised and we set off.

It's only a couple of hundred metres across from the mainland to the other side, five minutes at most, but it was a life achievement for me, to sail on the Pacific. An Onomichi ferry isn't exactly a blue-water craft but still, it was salt water under the keel. I didn't think much of the passenger accomodations though...

We sailed past the Pachinko parlour I had seen the night before, its garish neon switched off for the time being and then we docked. I headed off in carefree exploration mode, only to just avoid getting sideswiped by a little old lady dressed all in pink on a pink Honda step-through scooter and wearing a pink crash-helmet as she drove up onto the pavement and then back down again before disappearing up an alleyway, engine roaring. It was my first introduction to the Onomichi death-defying scooter driving technique. It would not be my last.

I wandered around what were obviously residential areas, loading up with bottles of Coke and other soft drinks from the omnipresent vending machines as necessary to keep myself from dehydrating and running out of sugar. I crossed a bridge over an inlet, noting it was low tide, and then I came across the Japanese version of Home Depot. It wasn't open yet so I paused just long enough to admire the Janglish signs then pressed on, heading east towards the road bridges. Sadly when I got there I couldn't find a pedestrian access route, so I headed back towards the ferry dock to go back to the mainland. From the ferry I could see the cablecar route that rose up to the top of a nearby hill, the start of the famed Onomichi "Path of Literature". The cablecar was going to be my next Onomichi adventure after a breather, a shower, fresh socks and lunch.

Current Mood: Sugared
Current Music: Seaside Sunrise

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October 5th, 2007
02:12 pm


Trip report -- part six (Saturday 18th August in Onomichi)
Dammit, I love Onomichi. Weird, I know -- I'd never been there, I only knew of it because of a film and an anime series and after three days there I wanted to rent an apato (apartment) and move in for good.

There isn't much to Onomichi if you read the travel guides, assuming it's mentioned at all. It's got temples but Kyoto's got more and bigger and better and shinier (and they probably don't have cats). It's got shipbuilding but Kure's bigger in that respect, not to mention Hiroshima. To tell the truth Onomichi is a bit of a backwater, a second-rate town off the beaten track, with little to recommend it.

And I don't care. And the people of Onomichi don't care either. And, so it feels to me as a gaijin visitor, the bones of Onomichi share that feeling too. Onomichi's got history, but it's a quiet second-rate sort of history. No great bloody battles, no conquests, no invasions. Instead it's had a steady stream of poets and writers and artists visiting it over the past few hundred years and they all had something nice to say about it, pretty much, and Onomichi's kind of proud of that. If you want to expend some effort there's a "Path of Literature" you can follow visiting places along a route up in the hills where those writers and artists wrote and painted, pausing to admire the scenery and the temples as they must have in their turn. It's a Japanese thing, and it's not the reason gaijins come to Onomichi. In fact, hardly any gaijin come at all. The only other western faces I saw the three days I was there were the owners of the local Italian restaurant.

It took a couple of attempts to find a hotel with an empty room but I succeeded eventually (one of the hazards of going commando on this kind of trip). I dropped my bags, showered and changed (it had been another hot day) and then headed out for a wander in the evening dusk. A man on a bike cycled past me and shouted "Welcome to Japan." I shouted back "Onegai shimasu" (wrong, but the first thing that came to mind). He waved as he went round the corner. This never happened to me in Tokyo. Nice.

It felt very pleasant, after the hustle and bustle of Ueno and Tokyo to be somewhere that took its time about things -- the traffic lights, for example, seemed to be on a very slow cycle but that was OK, I wasn't in a hurry. If I had been in a hurry I'd have hired a scooter.

Scooterists in the big cities obey the the traffic regulations mostly. In Onomichi, not so much. That thing about sidewalks being only for people on foot? Not so much. Pedestrian shopping arcades? Not so much. One way streets? Not so much. Staircases? Bumpety-bumpety not so much. After a few close misses I tuned into the way things were done in these parts and it wasn't a problem for the rest of my stay.

There's something about the boundary between land and sea that I personally find very soothing. Onomichi lies on the mainland, with a sea strait only a few hundred metres wide separating it from a group of islands that connect it in a daisychain to the south-eastern Home Island of Shikoku. It's still sea water, part of the western Pacific Ocean and that makes it different in feel to lochs and rivers and other inland waterways. I spent quite a lot of time just hanging out along the harbour wall where the fishing boats were moored.

That's not to say it was peaceful... a couple of miles to the east of the town centre a pair of bridges cross the strait carrying vehicular traffic from the mainland to the first of the stepping-stone islands that connect Shikoku to Honshu. Before the bridges were built there were the ferries, small roll-on roll-off flatbeds shuttling backwards and forwards the few hundred metres across the strait carrying cars, cyclists and pedestrians at 100yen a trip. After the bridges were built? The ferries are still there, still doing their job and still carrying quite a lot of traffic.

The strait also carries quite a lot of other shipping, everything from jetskis to coastal tankers. The ferries duck and dodge through this with an expertise only matched by scooter riders in a shopping arcade. In fact I suspect that's where the ferry pilots get their initial training...

As it got dark the shops closed and the streets got quieter (although they were never very busy to start with). No night-life, no noise and glaring neon lights, not in Onomichi. The only pachinko parlour I could see was on the other side of the strait. There was an occasional dog-walker (with plastic bag to hand) and some optimistic fishermen out on one of the piers but that was it, pretty much. At 11:00 p.m. the tobacco vending machines blinked off and I took that as a hint to wander back to my hotel, curiously satisfied with my first evening in Onomichi.

Current Mood: Sublimated
Current Music: Ferry Cross the Seto

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October 4th, 2007
06:03 pm


Trip report -- part five (Saturday 18th August, travelling to Onomichi)
Anyhows, Saturday morning I finally left the First City hotel and Ueno behind (after staying three days longer than I had originally planned to) and headed for the train station, up to the Tokyo shinkansen and finally onto the fast trains I had heard so much about. I was finally going to Onomichi.

On the way I passed a Bloodmobile bus parked on the Ueno station forecourt with a megaphone-wielding front man exhorting passers-by to donate blood. I saw this going on at a couple more stations during my travels in Japan.

The shinkansens run on their own trackways and are served by their own passenger areas and platforms in the big city stations -- in some cases they operate from separate stations some distance away from the regular JR stations. Shin-Yokohama station is one example, and indeed Shin-Onomichi station in the town that was my final destination for today. I was going to cheat though, and use a faster train to get from Tokyo to Okayama then catch a local train from there to the Onomichi JR station which is more centrally located down near the waterfront. The Onomichi shinkansen station is up in the hills and quite some distance from where I actually wanted to get to. In addition, Onomichi is only served by the Kodama shinkansens which stop at all of the stations on their route -- the faster Hikaris only stop at the bigger stations which makes them quite a bit quicker point to point. The Kodamas sometimes also have to stop in a station for ten or fifteen minutes to let a Hikari or Nozomi overtake them on the main line.

I got to Tokyo station in plenty of time for my 12:40 Hikari reservation. I took some pictures on the shinkansen platforms and observed the Pink Lady Army in action.

Tokyo is the terminus station for most of the south coast shinkansen trains. A few minutes before a train is due in, a little half-hidden door in the platform stairwell opens and a platoon of pink-suited ladies appears, armed with brushes and mops and spare garbage bags. They march up to the platform and take their positions at the doorway markers, standing to attention and ready for action.

Digression -- the platforms have marks where the shinkansen carriage doors will be when the train comes to a stop. Not "might be" or "plan to be" but "will be". I don't think I noticed a mismatch of more than five centimetres in all the shinkansen trips I took during my stay in Japan.

When the train arrives and the doors open, the Pink Ladies bow to greet the alighting passengers. Once the carriages are empty they secure the entrances with a polite sign hanging from a chain across the doorway before moving in, sweeping all before them. Tables are wiped, the seats rotated to face the direction of travel with a practiced motion and an expert foot on the locking pedal, headrest protectors swapped out, garbage bagged and all made pristine and new in less than five minutes because that train is on a schedule and will be leaving *real* *soon* *now*. After they finish they bow again, this time to the fresh load of passengers getting on, then they disappear down the stairs and into their little doorway and they're gone, until the next train...

I found it a little funny to watch but I knew that it was part of the reason the shinkansens have the reputation they have for efficiency and operational capability. A small thing maybe compared to the engineering and the tracks and the locomotives but it spoke of an ethos that said "Everything is important, everything must be done to the best of our abilities". I should mention here the drivers and conductors wear outfits that airline pilots would admire and seek to emulate, carrying smart leather briefcases in kid-gloved hands.

Another digression -- I had planned to be on my way a bit earlier but the 12:40 Hikari was the earliest I could get a seat reservation for. In fact I could have and should have gone without a reservation and just found an unreserved seat on the next available train. All shinkansens have two or three carriages with non-reserved seating and I never had a problem after this just hopping on when I travelled. Remember that shinkansens are expensive and most Japanese people pre-book their trips since it's a special occasion for most of them. JR pass holders are a special case, able to hop on and off shinkensens on a whim, basically. The only exceptions are the sleepers (including the nobinobi which I'll mention later) which do need to be pre-booked.

The platform signs (in kanji, katakana and romaji) changed to read "Hikari 12:40 373 Okayama" and my train awaited me. I boarded, dragging my damn suitcase behind me and found my reserved seat. First impressions -- was I in a Green Car (first class) by mistake? Nope. Big wide seats, a wide aisle, big picture windows and this was the standard class. I settled in, observing the platform clock. Ten seconds to go, the doors closed. As the second hand hit twelve, we were moving smoothly, accelerating hard enough to push me noticeably back in my seat. Wow.

We kept moving at a good lick out through the Tokyo conurbation, stopping at a couple of stations on the way but it wasn't until we were well clear of the suburbs that the train really piled on the coal (so to speak). After that it was a bit of a blur.

The run down the southern coast to the Kansai region cities is quite sparse, with only a few stops before Osaka, Kobe and Okayama. The scenery consisted mainly of rice.

"Rice is important". I had heard that phrase before but a shinkansen trip drives it home to you. It's not just the fields of rice, the landscapes of rice on every flat surface as far as the eye can see but the little half-acres of rice in the middle of a small town between the houses where otherwise there might be a playground or a park. This is a country that has had famine kill millions in living memory. Rice is important. It doesn't matter that the Japanese, as a country and a people are rich enough to import all their food if they wanted to or needed to. If it's flat enough and they can flood it, they'll grow rice on it because it's important to grow rice.

We arrived in Okayama station on time (of course) and I quickly found the local train that snakes along the coast towards Hiroshima, next stop (for me) Onomichi. It took longer than I expected, stopping at a lot of small stations on the way. It was also slightly worrying in that there was no convenient multi-lingual signs or announcements as there had been on the shinkansens, but I was able to pick out the word "Onomichi" from the speakers although I nearly got off a stop early at Higurashi-Onomichi station which is several miles to the east of the town centre.

Onomichi. I'm going to have a lot to say about it in the next part of my report and I'm going to sound weird while I do so, but bear with me. I'll try not to bore the pants off everybody and I'll try to dump my fanboi obsessive lurve for the place on you in small doses.

Current Mood: Well-travelled
Current Music: Runaway train

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September 29th, 2007
11:46 pm


Trip report -- part four (Friday 17 August and Comiket)
I had been forewarned by the tales of other visitors to Comiket about the enormous queues and the extended wait to get in so I loaded up with a couple of litres of water before I left my hotel in Ueno and headed for the railway station.

 A digression here -- if you visit Japan and stay in the Tokyo area don't bother hiring a car. There's nowhere (or at least hardly anywhere) to park. Well that's not strictly true; there are lots of tiny little coin-operated 4-car carparks that sprout up in niches between buildings here and there in the urban landscape as well as the rather oddball 8-storey vertical carousel carparks. The cost to park though is eyewatering and that assumes there are empty spaces to be found.

 What you do in Tokyo is use the trains and subway like everybody else does. It's fast, convenient and clean and only crowded at peak times. There are some rules to riding the Tokyo trains, though -- you must never give up your seat to anyone and you must text your friends on your mobile phone while the train is in motion. If you don't have any friends you can buy dummy phones cheap in Akihabara and just pretend you're texting them. Talking on phones in the trains is forbidden to avoid disturbing other passengers, and since this is Japan everybody complies with that rule, pretty much.

 My JR pass got me to Shimbashi station where I changed to the non-JR Yurikamome line for the run out to Big Sight where Comiket is held. This urban rail line consists of unmanned rubber-tyred railcars travelling in a concrete guideway. The overhead track shoots out over Tokyo bay where it turns in a complete descending circle along with a highway down towards the waterline then continues along the waterfront. I made a mistake and got off a couple of stations too early at a maritime museum (built in the shape of a cruiseliner) and its accompanying waterpark. I soon figured out what I had done wrong, took some pictures of notable landmarks such as the Fuji TV building, hopped back on the train and finally arrived at the Big Sight station at around 10:30, about 30 minutes after Comiket opened its doors.

The long queues at the entrance had evaporated so I just strolled in.

 Meanwhile on *this* planet, what I actually did was stand in line. I stood in lines to join other lines. And more lines, and more...

 I joined the mob streaming towards the Big Sight building only to be diverted off in the opposite direction by the Comiket marshals. I ended up walking past a long mob of people standing patiently, some carrying parasols, some with folding seats. I ended up at the back of the mob. I stood patiently. Comiket staffers marshalled us forward at intervals as lots more people joined in behind me. After about an hour in the company of 100,000 close friends I got to the point -- where I could join the real queue. This led slowly but inexorably to the famous Big Sight staircase. My feet hurt and there was no shade and the two litres of water I had started with ran out just as I got to the main doors around noon, ninety minutes or so after I got off the train.

 The marshalling was exemplary, with the busy Comiket staff keeping the hundreds of thousands of attendees moving smoothly towards the Big Sight entrance without crushing or mobbing. Worldcon lift czars could take lessons from these guys.

 Comiket wasn`t that interesting, in the end. It was as gigantic as I had been promised, with all of the exhibition halls in use, with something like 12,000 exhibitors holding down tables and selling their wares and that was just on the day I was there. But... There was a lot of bad manga art on show and very few good pieces, too few to make the effort to visit and browse really worthwhile if I had only been there for the doujinshi and not the experience. What I found more interesting was the odd slipstream stuff -- the game creators working with third-party game engines for stock machines like the PSP, the cyber-porn merchants using Poser and similar 3D-modelling packages, the train otakus who had fitted computer control to Z-class rail models. The best hack I saw was the Bluetooth controller, running the train from a mobile phone. The rest, bleh mostly.

 I still wouldn`t have missed it for the world.

 I gave up around three-ish after hitting all of the halls and giving most of the circle's tables a quick glance if nothing else. I had been prepared to buy buy buy but in the end I left empty-handed. I grabbed a plate of beef and rice and loaded up with more water from one of the concession stands, noting with some relief they were not price-gouging their captive market -- a 500ml bottle of water was only 120yen, what I would have paid from a vending machine anywhere in the Tokyo area.

 The queues to get to the train station were smaller, but not by much. Again the Comiket staffers were on hand to prevent crushing and mobbing, making sure people had tickets before they got onto the train platforms and regulating the numbers getting onto the escalators to prevent crowding and accidents.

 Back in Ueno (I nearly said back home -- I`d been there too long, methinks) there was a festival going on along the street in the courtyard of a local school, probably Obon-related. Ueno is a very urban built-up area but they were doing all the festival-type things the small towns traditionally do, with drumming and lanterns and folks dressed in summer yukatas and happi coats. It was a local Ueno thing and I foolishly assumed they wouldn't want strangers, gaijin muscling in so I didn't go, something I now rather regret. Next time, maybe...

 Warning -- 4-year old girls in matsuri yukatas and goldfish obis are way too cute for words. Sadly in this modern witch-burning world taking photographs of them is verboten.

 That was it for the day. I was truly exhausted and after grabbing something to eat I went back to my room, repacked my stuff and prepared to leave Ueno the next morning. It was time to boogie, Onomichi my destination. Shinkansen here I come!

Current Mood: Knackered
Current Music: County Fair

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September 28th, 2007
08:05 pm


Trip report -- part three (Thursday 16 August)
 The next day I woke up really early -- this became a theme during the trip. It might have been my Scottish penny-pinching gene poking me in the ribs about wasting expensive paid-for touristing time, or the excitement of *BEING* *IN* *JAPAN* but I was usually up and about by six most days. Of course, this morning the earthquake (a Richter 5, it later turned out) might have been enough of an incentive, but I still got a couple of hours more sleep after being woken up by the hotel shaking from side to side for about ten seconds or so around 4-ish.

 I wandered off into Ueno and picked up a snack breakfast at one of the local convenience stores -- there are three or four interchangeable chains like Lawson Junction, AM-PM and classic 7-11 which were either 24-hour or opened really early, and I often frequented them for staples like milk and soba pan (a standard feature of lunch at many school-based anime series). I didn't eat much in restaurants while I was in Japan; I'm not that adventurous about food and grazing from convenience stores and the occasional grocery section of big stores kept me going for most of the time.

 I reverted to wearing trousers today, retiring the kilt until the Worldcon. "The nail that sticks up gets haammered down" and all that. It didn't make any difference in the perceived temperature -- it was still hot (30-plus), and still only about 9-ish.

 This was the day I finally started travelling on my horribly expensive JR Pass. Since I had decided to stay in Tokyo/Ueno until after the first day of Comiket on Friday, that meant today`s trip was only a day out, so Yokosuka it was. I was able to get my JR Pass voucher exchanged for the pass itself at Ueno station -- it was a simple folded-sheet booklet with the dates of validity printed on the inside. I simply flashed it at the attendant in the enquiry window beside the automatic ticket barriers as I went through. The regulations attached to the pass meant I had to keep my passport to hand for further identification but in the two weeks I used the pass I was never asked for it.

 I made my way on the Yamanote line up to Tokyo main station and after solving the Minoan Maze therein found the Keihin Kyuko line platform and a train that would take me to Yokosuka. It took a bit over an hour for the journey, passing not far from Minato Mirai 21 in Yokohama where the Worldcon was going to be held. I caught a glimpse of the Landmark Tower and the orange-segment hotel (Shin Imperial? I can never remember its name) on the way.

 Despite Yokosuka being Japan`s largest Naval base plus the US Pacific fleet using it as an auxiliary port, the railway station was pretty tiny. Adjacent to the station was a small waterside park dedicated to the memory of a Frenchman, Leonce Verny who had been instrumental in developing Yokosuka as a major Naval arsenal and dockyard in the 1860s.

 I spotted a group of JMSDF submarines moored up with a USN Aegis destroyer (identified later as the DDG-82 USS Lassen) close by getting some tender loving care from a floating crane. My target today though was something a bit older and cruder, the "Mikasa". This was the Japanese flagship for the IJN during the battles of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. It is now a permanent museum piece, like HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Oddly enough, it had been built in Barrow-in-Furness by Vickers to a British design although the canny Japanese ordered more expensive Krupp armour to be fitted. It was a transitional model of first-rate battleship with reciprocating engines and coal-fired boilers, obsoleted in 1906 by the launch of the all-big-gun turbine-powered Dreadnought. Unlike its successor designs, the Mikasa only had two big-gun turrets fore and aft, retaining a broadside capability with many smaller six-inch guns in individual compartments along each side. These were supplemented by bow and stern chasers -- the latter guns providing odd decoration to the senior officer`s quarters and the admiral`s luxurious private suite (complete with kitchen and bathroom).

 I got lost wandering around Yokosuka -- despite the Mikasa's supposed historical importance its location was not signposted very well and I ended up spending a couple of hours in a blessedly-airconditioned shopping mall just around the corner from Verny Park. After a while (and some icecream) I finally found my way to the Mikasa.

 The entry fee was 500yen, and to a Naval history buff like myself well worth it. The ship is nowhere near being in the same condition it was when it was finally decommissioned in 1921 -- after the war the US Occupation government disarmed the museum-piece, confiscating its guns in what seems now a somewhat paranoid overreaction. Today its interior is configured for visitors and the magazine spaces are now a small cinema and general exhibition space. Sadly the engine rooms were not open to inspection at all. I took lots of pictures, both inside and outside.

 After the Mikasa I wandered around Yokosuka, just avoiding getting caught up in the 5 o'clock commuting rush from the USN dockyard gates. It's a town very much geared to the American military presence -- I saw my first Volvo "station wagon" of the trip here. There are lots of accomodation bureaux around the base entries offering apartment-finding services and such for the transient population of US servicemen and their families.

 I headed back up to Tokyo and Ueno in the evening and after picking up dinner I got an early night. The spectre of Comiket on the morrow loomed before me. Would I survive the gruelling experience? Tune in next time for the next bloodcurdling episode of "The Kiltnihonside Trip Report"!

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September 27th, 2007
09:08 pm


Trip report -- part two (Wednesday 15 August)
Day 2 (in Japan)... timezone shifts and the "missing day" got me into a fencepost error situation so I'm now numbering the days from my landing at Narita in these reports. As far as the wallclock and calendar were concerned, it was Wednesday 15th August despite some not-very-vigorous objections from my internal body clock.

Theory said I should have been travelling by shinkansen to my "hobby" town of Onomichi by now. Theory is a wonderful place; I want to live in Theory. Nothing is impossible in Theory. I was in Tokyo, not Theory and in Tokyo I stayed, like a limpet. A very tired limpet.

More wandering around brought me back to Ueno Park, where I took more photos of the surrounding area. I took more pictures of statues and pictures of temples too. I even took pictures of Ueno railway station for some reason... I was still suffering from the travel and took it easy but the heat was intense.

 That evening I met up with an American guy who lives in Japan who I got to know via odd and arcane ways over the Internet. We went out drinking (beer and sake) and eating (okonomiyaki) and he kindly loaned me a prepaid mobile phone for me to use during my stay in Japan. Thanks Dag!

 The combination of beer, food and the heat slabbed me out and I was asleep soon after I got back to the hotel. End of day three two ah whatever.

Current Mood: knackered

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September 24th, 2007
10:54 pm


Trip report -- part one (Monday 13 - Tuesday 14 August)
This is going to be the first in a series of long-ish postings about What I Did On My Holidays in Japan. Part diary, part polemic, part opinion and mostly incoherent, based on scribbled notes, pictures and my swiss-cheese memory. Bear with me, onegai shimasu?

Day one and two -- on the road and in the air.

My trip to Japan started at four in the morning of the 13th of August with me standing in the cold grey Scottish drizzle at a bus stop wearing a leather jacket and a kilt and waiting for the bus to Edinburgh airport. The weather report said it would be about 13 Celsius around then but it felt colder. Note that temperature; it's important and there may be a quiz later. Also note the jacket. I never wore it again during my stay in Japan. If I'd known what was coming I wouldn't have bothered taking it with me.

The big blue bus came and whisked me off to the airport where I checked in and found a kind lady who took the first picture of my trip, a pictorial record of me in my kilt. When I examined it later I looked blurry around the edges; what was in store for me? I felt excited and apprehensive at the same time.

A flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in the morning light went off without problems and I hung around until about noon local time before boarding the Air France A340 that would whisk me off to Narita airport some 80km east of Tokyo. The flight was long and I didn't get much of the sleep I had promised myself, but eighteen hours after I had started moving that morning the plane's wheels contacted Japanese tarmac and we were taxiing past a sign reading "Narita" picked out in greenery on a nearby embankment. And it was still only about six in the morning even if it was a day later, on the 14th. Urkle.

Customs and Immigration went off without a hitch although my teddy-bear Berk in my suitcase triggered some sort of detector and he had to be shown to the Customs inspector before I was allowed to proceed. Pausing only to get another picture of me and the Kilt for the record, it was on to the train station!

Being a Cheap Bastard I had decided not to start up my 14-day Japan Rail pass immediately on entry to the country and so I went for the cheapest rail tacket from the airport to Tokyo, the 1000yen Keisei line train and not the expensive 4000yen Narita Express. After an hour or more of stopping at small local stations as office workers and schoolkids (scored my first sailor fuku uniform on the journey) got on and off we arrived in Keisei Ueno station in Tokyo.

Because I knew I'd end up there I'd internet-booked a hotel room in the Ueno area for the night in a place called the First City Hotel. I'd printed out a map and directions to this hotel although (with the exception of the Worldcon in Yokohama) I'd not pre-booked any other hotels as I'd had a good idea I'd be changing my plans a lot, going commando (and so it turned out).

After a bit of a wander, goggling at the buildings and the shops I found the hotel, booked in and dumped my bags and then showered the sweat off. Oh, did I mention it was hot? No? Sorry.

Remember the temperature when I left Edinburgh twenty hours before? It was now 30 Celsius and still only mid-morning. I kicked the room's airconditioning up a notch and tried to sleep but something inside me was shouting "Get up! You're wasting valuable touristing time!" Eventually I rolled out of bed and went touristing.

Ueno Park. It's well-known to some English-speaking visitors to Japan for an odd reason. It's right next to the two main Ueno train stations -- indeed the Keisei Ueno station where I arrived in Tokyo is built under the eastern edge of the park itself. The reason it's famous is because of Pimsleur's Language Teaching courses, specifically the Japanese Beginners 1 course. Around module five or six of the tapes the eager student is taught how to ask directions to Ueno Park and Ueno railway station. During this question and answer session they discover the park is located next to the station. And so it proved.

It was now just after noon and it was hot, hotter than the cooler morning when it was only 30 Celsius. I bought my first cold drink from a Japanese vending machine (I was destined to buy a lot more over the following month). It was peach-flavoured, thirst-quenching and quite pleasant although I never found another machine that sold it again. The vending machine was slightly odd, as many vending machines are in Japan. This one was built into a bamboo fence, and to camouflage it to some extent it was itself covered in bamboo strakes.

Ueno park is full of trees, fountains, statues and homeless derelicts trying to sleep on the benches despite the heat. And cicadas. The noise from these insects was loud and quite penetrating.

I also scored my first koban in Ueno park -- a koban is a small police station where a few local officers are based, their bicycles parked neatly outside when they're not out tagging badly-parked scooters and cars or flagging down speeders. The Ueno park koban was... spectacular, with big pointy bits reminiscent of an industrial metal sculpture. Somewhat disconcerting. I took pictures.

Digression -- I bought a new digital camera for the trip and you can assume if I'm describing something in detail I probably took a picture (and possibly more than one) of it. I'll sort them out and make the better ones available on the Web. Eventually.

The heat, exhaustion and hunger were getting to me by now and I was starting to hallucinate, so I headed back to the hotel where I tried their iced coffee, grabbed a snack from a convenience store and then fell into bed in the early evening and finally slept. End of day one.

Oh, the kilt? I was still wearing it as I wandered the streets of Ueno. I never saw a Japanese person react to me wearing it in any way whatsoever. Inscrutable or what? You be the judge.

Current Mood: verbose

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