Sunday, October 09, 2005

Kyoto is a Nice Place

I almost finished an entry about my further adventures in Takamatsu, then clicked the 'Back' button on the browser and that was that. no more entry :(

I'll retype that one later. The short of it was that I ended up using the magic rail pass to get to Kyoto, arriving on Saturday afternoon. On the train I figured out a hostel that sounded good - and has indeed turned out to be rather lovely, not to mention cheap! Its called "Tour Club" and at 2300 yen a night (dorm accom) is worth every teeny little aluminium 1 yen coin.

Shower was bliss after two nights camping, and a lot of cycling around. Ate big, slept like a log and woke up ready to check out Kyoto.

I headed out north along the Kamo River aiming to wander up to a couple of Rinzai zen temples northwest of the city, but in no rush. it was only 8am, so nothing much was open, and the city was relatively quiet. Riverside is wonderful - a whole little scene of its own - by day fishermen gather to fish and chat - under one bridge they literally have a kind of cafe set up - chairs and tables theyve brought along, and an amazing collection of plants and bonsai! they just stay there at night - noone touches them.

I headed through the Imperial Palace gardens, which were lovely, and filled with people playing sports or games or just wandering. I watched a friendly but serious baseball game, which was fun. Lots of laughing and yelling "Play Baaa". Saw the best petanque player ive ever seen - beware the One Armed Man - he's deadly accurate with a cannonball.

My incredible good luck continues, and I wandered into Koto-in completely at random. Well, not totally - the surrounding bamboo forest looked good from the outside - But I certainly wasnt specifically looking for it. It turned out to be the most beautiful, serene and inspiring place ive yet been to in Japan. Its a 'subsidiary temple' of Daitoku-ji which is a large Rinzai Zen temple. I wandered in and felt immediately comfortable and open. I wandered around, but eventually returned to the wide porch, clearly a spot designed for sitting and contemplating the garden. The garden itself, at least the view from the sitting spot, is a masterpiece. Ive never seen anything like it. Designed by a famous tea-master who's name eludes me, sitting looking at it induces a very deep serenity. I just sat for about an hour and a half. When time came to move on, my legs had completely gone to sleep and I had to massage them before I could actually stand. Photos of it fail miserably to do it justice, so I havent included any of the 'sitting spot'. You'll have to make do with my description and the other photos of the temple grounds.
In fact this one will have to be communicated in person when I get back home. E-communication just isn't up to the job. :)

After Koto-in, I visited Daitoku-ji proper - which, to be honest wasnt worth the admission fee, especially after Koto-in, which was free. The one thing it did have that was great was squeaky floorboards. Almost musically so. It must be deliberate. I have a recording which I'll get up on the web some time. It was interesting sitting and listening to how people walked and interacted with it. Some people were completely oblivious. Clomped around with their heads full of other things. Others, perhaps more open to their immediate environment, trod lightly and with curiosity. Others walked as if they were playing a musical instrument :)

Next, I rode on to Ryoan-ji, another Rinzai temple with a very famous rock garden.

The grounds of which were also very beautiful. Japanese maples have to be one of the most beautiful trees. Soft layers of leaves that seem to have their own internal glow when backlit by the sun.

I got to hear zen nuns singing and playing bells at another temple as I wound my way through the back streets towards the city centre again. There really is a temple garden or shrine on every street in Kyoto.

Some gift shopping amongst thronging but happy crowds, then back along the river - At night, the scene is mostly young people strolling and spending time with friends and loved ones, watching the city lights refected.

Thats Kyoto so far...

I do however continue to get a lot of amusement out of the fact that the Japanese, who love rules and regiment, also love nothing more to ignore the same when it suits...

Friday, October 07, 2005

Camped under an orange tree...

In Takamatsu again today. Tried to ride to the top of a nearby mountain last night, but it has a tollroad leadin up to the top, and the gatekeeper said emphatically NO BIKES. :( So I found a nearby orange grove and camped under an orange tree. :)

Saw the most gorgeous little buddhist temple at dawn this morning. The gatehouse especally had the most extraordinary attention to detail, and patina of age and use.

Thunderstorms forecast this arvo, so will find a spot in a hostel here tonight. Hopefully tomorrow down the coast to a place called Naruto, where the narrow Naruto Straits have famously large tidal whirlpools. This afternoon, off to see Ritsurin Park.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ben-san de Takamatsu ni ikimashita...

but unfortunately, Ben-san no jitensha de Okayama ni ikimashita!

Warning: putting your luggage and yourself in different train carriages is a very bad idea. Seems like common sense, doesnt it.

Lucky for me I was blessed on Miyajima the other day.

After an utterly incredible 2 day bike ride from Onomichi, on 'mainland' Honshu, to Imabari on Shikoku, via a chain of bridges and islands across the inland sea - an experience that was absolutely unforgettable, and will get a blog entry of its own, once I get the photos off the digital camera, and some decent net time - I ended up taking the train to Takamatsu this morning.

Train platforms in Japan have a series of numbered signs along their length to indicate the carriage numbers of the train. My seat was in Carriage 1. So I line up under the number 1, and board the train with my bike. I stow the bike in the luggage spot of the carriage, and try to find my seat. 6D. hmm... this carriage doesnt appear to have a seat 6D. Aha! it appears this train, for some unfathomable reason, has the carriages numbered in opposite order to the platform markings. I appear to be in carriage 8. We are already underway, and there's no way I'm going to carry the bike through 8 carriages of people. So I leave it in "carriage 8" and go find my seat in carriage 1.

A scenic but otherwise uneventful trip. We stop at a number of stations. Then, about 2 stops short of Takamitsu, we stop. For quite a while. I get an uneasy feeling...

I make it to carriage 4, to see the back of carriage 5 just starting to pull away... I look at the guard who was waving off the half of the train containing my bike, tent, sleeping bag, trangia and thermarest. Its immediately obvious, with no words necessary, what the story is. "Doko?" I say... "Okayama" he responds sympathetically. Okayama. The place that just won't leave me alone. Site of my first day blues trying to find Metho for the Trangia, and lugging the bike in and out of the train station repeatedly.

Not much I can do now :) So back to my seat, to rehearse in my head the Japanese I would need to muster to explain the situation to the station staff in Takamatsu...

With the aid of clever diagrams, and the slightly off-white belt in Japanese awarded me by Michiko-sensei, I manage to communicate the situation. The heroic station master springs into action. He makes the call to Okayama. Asks me what the bike looked like. Luckily, I took a photo of it, folded up ready to go, on the platform in Imabari. I show him. He gets off the phone, points to some seats and tells me "please to wait". I wait. 15 minutes later, he waves at me, and it appears that the bike has made it safely to Okayama, and is in the hands of the station staff. :)

He then points to a train sitting on the closest platform. "That train, Okayama." The gratitude I feel is tangible. "Domo arigato gozaimasu!" I reply as I dash for the train.

It seems the blessing from Miyajima appears to have worked.

A wonderful train ride on an old train with lovely curved glass windows, across an incredible bridge - or series of bridges joined together end to end - and 40 mins later I am in Okayama. Again. Lost and Found. The bike! w00t! but the torn sidewall from the earlier island hopping has blown out. Puncture, and a dead tyre. Well - my plan was to find a new tyre in Takamatsu anyway, so I ask at Information if there is a nearby bike shop. Near station's west entrance, Im told. This means carrying the dead bike up and down flights of stairs and taking the station underpass. Okayamagoe... (shakuhachi in-joke) But I find the bike shop. no 20 inch tyres. "Any other nearby bike shops?" I manage in Japanese. The bike shop guy tells me maybe at the giant shopping mall down the street a ways. So off I go. 3 doors down is another bike shop that the guy somehow has never seen. they dont sell parts tho. even spare tyres. another 2 doors down, there is a small shop that appears to be, and in fact is, the nearest thing i've found to a bicycle service station. The first bike shop guy must be blind. 2000 yen and 15 minutes later, I have a new tyre and tube, expertly fitted, brakes adjusted and chain lubed ready to go, Sir! Waved at the surprised first bikeshop guy on my way back past :)

I'm really starting to wonder about that blessing. That priest was *good*.

So back on a train to Takamitsu, to pick up where I left off. 3 hours down, but the bike all fixed, and a good story to tell. Im happy with the exchange. Takamatsu felt great from the start. (Still does) I ride the wrong way out of the station - or at least I think I do - so i come back. only to run into a second hand market, and the first thing i find on the table is a near new bike bag! for 500 yen! cant believe my luck. Ive been trying to find one of these things *new* for days. Ive been using a flimsy scooter-cover for the last while, when station staff get thingy about the bike not being in a bike bag. dodgy, and now full of holes, but its got me by. But now I have a funky bike bag!

What did that priest *do*??!

tee hee. but really - its all in the mind - allow yourself to feel the flow of things and go with it, and disaster is revealed to be perfection. hard to explain, but it works. And in all this, the secret gem - I got to see a smiling stationman's unseen flag flourish.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Shika no Tone

Ive been in Hiroshima since Sunday, and today will head down the coast along the inland sea. But I've packed a lot into the last few days...

Friday night I got to see the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra play in Tokyo - when i turned up on Marty's (fellow student of Kakizakai-sensei) doorstep in tokyo friday afternoon, he said "want to go see some music? ive got some free tickets..." :)

Saturday morning I caught the Skinkansen to a place called Okayama - about a 3 1/2 hour trip west. The plan was to check out Okayama, then ride across the Kibi plain - camp that night on the plain, then catch a train back to Okayama the next day, and the skinkansen on to Hiroshima to see a shakuhachi concert that Bronwyn was performing in.

I got into Okayama at about 2pm, but while on the train I realised I had not obtained any metho to fuel the trangia (camping stove) - bad mistake. So I rode around Okayama trying to find metho. No luck. I found a camping store that sold Trangias, but according to the staff, they didnt sell fuel for them. This needed to be obtained from a Drug Store. This conversation took place in bad japanese, with a lot of pointing and gesticulation. So I visited a number of drug stores, but no luck. By this stage things were getting lateish, and I was pretty over it, so I decided to head out anyway and just have a cold dinner.

Definately the right move, and as soon as I was out of Okayama, I felt 110% better. Being on the Kibi plain at sunset was just wonderful - its more of a long, flat bottomed valley than what my Australian mind identifies as a plain, but japan is mostly mountains, so any piece of flat land larger than a postage stamp is considered a plain. Usually this means its covered in city, but the Kibi plain is mostly farmland. Rice paddies and a few veggie plots. It's networked with teeny bike-sized access roads though, and riddled with shrines, burial mounds, ruins of temples and other interesting sights.

It got dark before i found a camping spot however, but eventually I came to a burial mound - a large terraced artificial hill, and pitched the tent on one of the terraces, with a superb view out over the plain. It was still early, so i did a bit of shakuhachi practice (hee hee - I wonder if anyone though it was a ghost!) and went to sleep pretty soon after. Up early next morning, and caught the sunrise over the plain. I saw nesting cranes too! Didnt see the nests, but saw cranes, and they were swooping passers by (including me), so I assume they were nesting. They are really impressive. BIG. and when they swoop, they fly in silently and then when they are right on top of you, do a left-right zigzag that makes a big whooshing noise, and then fly off. Certainly caught me by surprise first time...

I caught a local train back from a place called Soja to Okayama, in time to catch the Hikari Rail-Star to Hiroshima. A very impressive train indeed - looked more like something about to launch into space. And it is indeed extremely impressive when you pass another one coming the opposite way, at a range of about half a metre, with a relative speed of about 600 km/hr! the whole train gets sucked sideways for an instant as the two pass. In all, the shinkansen feel like being in a plane that is about to land, with a small amount of turbulance.

Arrived in Hiroshima, with about an hour to find the concert venue. Found it, after a bit of riding up and down, and went in to wait for the concert. Anne Norman was the featured performer - another Australian (Japan seems to be *full* of us) who has been playing for about 30 years. Though an amateur concert, the standard was great! Anne played some solo pieces, and there were some ensemble pieces with a bunch of other local shakuhachi players. She also did a duet with Bronwyn, called Shika no Tone, which is about the calling of the deer. Afterwards I was invited along to the after-party/dinner which was a hoot! first time ive had a chance to interact with the japanese in relaxo-mode over a huge meal and plenty of beeru. When it was discovered that I had no accom sorted, I was invited back to Mende-san's house, where Bron and Anne were also staying.

Mende-san was largely responsible for organising the concert, and the hospitality shown by him and his wife was really extraordinary. Lovely people. He finds it baffling but wonderful that foreigners would spend their hard earned money and spend extened time away from loved ones, just to learn an obscure Japanese instument and be interested in Japanese culture. It moves him quite deeply, and as a result he goes way out of his way to help us. In this photo, we have, Right to left, Mende-san, Bronwyn, Anne, Keiko (Mende-san's wife), Fuji-san's wife (whose name I cant remember - terrible, since she was so lovely and I had a great conversation with her in Japlinglish), and Fuji-san.

Monday, he took us all sightseeing, to Miyajima island. Fuji-san, one of the other players in the performance had organised with the (famous) shrine on Miyajima, to have us all blessed, and for Anne and Bronwyn to be able to perform Shika no Tone at the shrine.

Quite an amazing experience. The piece was especially relevant, since Miyajima has a population of wild deer, that wander at will through the whole town/temple complex, eating people's guidebooks and both enchanting and terrifying small children (and adults!) in equal measures. The shrine itself is built on pylons out over the water, and has the famous 'floating' Torii (gate) out in the water.

After Miyajima, we were taken to visit the Peace Park and A-Bomb Dome, which was an extremely moving experience. Just standing in front of the memorial, looking through it to the A-Bomb Dome is extremely powerful, and just thinking about it again I am close to tears. The strength of feeling was quite unexpected, and I'm still digesting the experience. I think it was also magnified by the fact that our hosts all had relatives whose names were written on the registers housed inside the memorial. Fiji-san's wife told me that they were happy that the names were there.

I parted company with the group after going through the museum, deciding that I didnt want to impose on Mende-san's hospitality any further - I cant repeat enough how wonderful his generosity, especially with his time, was. After visiting the train station and checking out routes and times, I decided that I would rather spend the night in Hiroshima, so got a room at a hostel near the peace park, dumped my gear, and took the bike out for a look around town.

Peace Park, once the centre of a devastated city, is now a lovely and indeed peaceful place. At night, people wander around it, sit by the river with friends, or just play. I saw three girls practicing their dance routines in the reflective windows of the museum. People playing guitars and fishing under a bridge. Homeless and travellers alike sleep quietly and undisturbed on some of the benches.

The A-Bomb Dome at night is a quiet and beautiful place. Lit quite minimally, it radiates a kind of easy stillness that is simultaneously extremely welcoming and quietly thought provoking. Peace Park really is a wonderfully peaceful place.

The photo at the beginning of this blog entry is a moss stain on the wall of Okayama castle. Painted by nature and circumstance, and as beautiful (I think) as any Japanese landscape painting ive seen - it seems to me to be the scene of a moonrise over the forested mountains.

Time for me to head off and see the inland sea... but ill leave you with one last photo...

Saturday, October 01, 2005

we apologise for the disconnection...

My Laptop died. Just like that. Using it one minute, turned away, turned back... black screen. :(

Which is why the blog has been quiet of late.

Im in Tokyo at the moment, after staying at a friend's house so i could get an early start on the Grand Tour, which begins today :)

Beginning with a 9:30am Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to a place called Okayama, which is an hour this side of Hiroshima. about 4 hours on the train. I'll probably sleep most of it - had a late-ish night last night after being unexpectedly taken out to see the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra - which was a real treat... AND I got to ride the longest escalator in the world! w00t!

anyway - heres a pic of Shinjuku at night - the raw image is very large - straight from the camera. no chance to edit it to a more reasonable size - so dont click on it unless you have broadband, or time to spare :)