Archive for February, 2007

Day Fifteen – Matsumoto to Tokyo (Narita airport)

February 8, 2007

Up early and out of the Enjyoh Bekkan, thanking our host for a pleasant stay. He makes us think, with his excellent English and old world style, that he must be a lost prince of Japan, or the last of the samurai, living out the days in a sleepy motel in the hills. Breakfast in the station, then down and out of the mountains to Nagano on the Shinano train (9.05am). The Japanese alps seem to have layer upon layer of alternating ranges and plateaus: going down, as with coming up, each time you think you’ve reached the bottom, there turns out to be another descent and then another plateau, about three times over from Matsumoto.

Caught the Tokyo shinkansen (10am) and were thrilled once more by the speed of these trains. You can feel a soft tug of acceleration, and the land outside starts to whip past in a smooth flowing torrent. Once on the shinkansen, the green and pink apple orchards lining the track were replaced by concrete barriers on either side, forming a sort of train canal across Japan. We sailed on, whale song beneath us, through thick mist and clear, hot air at times, into the concrete and rectilinear landscape of Tokyo.

In the underground concourse of Tokyo station we bled our way, like two slow-spinning platelets in the blood stream, through the rushing vectors of rush hour people, and boarded the JR Narita Express (1.33pm), which for some unexplained reason arrives in two halves and connects at Tokyo station (probably something to do with service from each terminal, I expect). McDonald’s lunch at the airport – much higher quality than in the UK, including a prawn burger with actual whole prawns in it, and a chicken burger that was blatantly a single piece of chicken breast, with tasty sauces – and caught the Holiday Inn shuttle bus (3.36pm). Arrived at the hotel, after a detour to the other terminal, checked in, and finally dumped our backpacks in our room at 5.02pm.

We’re turning in relatively early, feeling tired and ready to go home (but in a good way). Need to be up at 6.30am to catch the 7.30am shuttle bus to catch the 10.50am flight to be home in London at 2.55pm the same day.

The end.

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Day Fourteen – Matsumoto (JUM)

February 8, 2007

Took the bus in from Utsukushi-ga-hara Onsen where we are staying and caught a oneway train to Oniwa. From here we walked to the Japanese Ukiyo-e Museum (JUM), a glass and concrete block standing in an open plot in a very flat suburb of Matsumoto. Ukiyo-e are broadly defined as woodblock prints on the subject of ‘the floating world’, which was the name given to the ancient pleasure districts of Japan; portraits of actors and courtesans, scenes of nightlife. There are also a lot of glorious designs of the natural world, the most famous exponents of these being Hokusai (the famous wave picture, or the red Mt. Fuji) and Hiroshige, who made his name from views of Edo (Tokyo), Mt. Fuji, and the pilgrim routes (my favourite picture of his is of pilgrims crossing a bridge in heavy rain). It took us a while, and a bit of faith, sans map, to find the museum, but we were sure it was the right place when we got there, being the only likely candidate for at least a mile around.

Inside, and for the price (most expensive entrance fee we paid in our two weeks), this is a meagre museum – so much less than you might hope for. Based on the literature about the collection, I had rather expected to see a great multitude of ukiyo-e but there were only two rooms of displayed items, and a run of prints around the walls of the lobby/entrance hall, including up to and beside the toilets and under the stairs. It was enough, though, to get us both excited about the colours, designs and subjects, and was certainly not a wasted effort, albeit slightly disappointing. There was also a slide show with a mostly Japanese commentary, and brief English descriptions of the telegraphic and mysterious sort. For example, about two minutes of commentary in Japanese about a portrait was translated, in the rushed, strangled tones of the commentator, as ‘Famous kabuki actor! Hai!’ The hai/yes at the end of each description was the signal for the lady operating the machine to move on to the next slide.

The odd location – decidedly uncentral – and the half-hearted exhibition space, suggest to me that the JUM is some sort of elaborate tax dodge for the Sakai family who own the valuable collection. Perhaps they get tax relief on purchases of new works, or the value of the collection, by going through the motions of making it available to the general public. I don’t know – forgive me for being a bit cynical.

We trailed back along the route between the museum and the train stop (station being too elevated a word for this one). Along the way we popped into a grocer’s shop and bought two of the glorious Matsumoto apples that we had seen hanging from the trees beside the railway line. All the fruit up here seems to be giant sized – the grapes were double or triple the size we’re used to seeing in Britain, and were very fragrant, their scent filling the shop with a heady perfume.

We sat quietly in the little train stop waiting room – a plywood box with bench seats – tackling our giant apples. I felt like a child, unaccustomed to a fruit so big that my hand can’t wrap around it, and my biggest bites look like nibbles. From here, the mountains have gone all blue again, like they were left out in the cold, and this little part of town has a surpassingly sleepy feel to it. In time, the train arrived and we returned to Matsumoto proper.

The train conductors in Japan are remarkably spic-and-span, looking more like pilots or generals than train men, in their military style dress hats and uniform coats, with briefcase and whistle. They enact a small ceremony to change one driver for another, officially transferring the key with measured movements and exact phrases; and then they relax and shift their weight to one foot, and chat about the weather. The shinkansen conductors stand beside the departing train and point to each end of it as it slides away, arm and white-gloved hand outstretched, spinning 180 degrees on the heel, back and forth again, blowing sharp bursts on a whistle. It’s all very formal and serious, and as with much else here, I see that as a good thing.

Back in town, we grabbed a quick lunch of chicken and tofu salad, with a ginger sauce that produced a warm tingle in the mouth. Delicious. The restaurant only had a traditional table available, meaning we had to sit on tatami mats with our legs tucked under us, eating at a low table. Many of the restaurants are divided into a Western-style section, with table and chairs, and a raised platform of Japanese-style seating, on tatami. Generally, the tables are too low to get my long legs under, so it’s all a bit awkward. We also bought a packed supper, deciding to stay in this evening and not brave the unlit streets and smoky local dinner places. I was particularly pleased with the little jars of takeaway sake, with foil lids, a bit like an alcoholic jam jar with a wide milk bottle top.

Our learning about Japanese maple trees has continued. Back in Tokyo, on day two, Shizuka introduced us to the word for the leaves – momiji. We promptly got this wrong, using ‘momochi’ and then ‘momichi’ until the couple from Hiroshima, on the train to Tsuruga, corrected our pronunciation. But it wasn’t until today, at the JUM, that we saw it written as ‘momiji’, and the proverbial penny dropped. Our volunteer guide at Matsumoto castle also told us that doting mothers tell their babies that they have ‘momiji hands’ when their small fingers are splayed out, bright pink and transluscent. It is also the motif on our favourite seasonal bottled tea.

Tonight we are planning and packing for the return trip to Narita airport tomorrow.

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Day Thirteen – Matsumoto castle

February 4, 2007

Slept late – 8.30am! – and travelled into Matsumoto proper on the bus. Had awesome maple cinnamon toast with ice-cream for breakfast (this is what being on holiday means – being free to have ice-cream for breakfast), which is somewhere between cinnamon sugar pancakes and a waffle with maple syrup and ice-cream. I think this dish would work in Britain – but perhaps not for breakfast.

Then to Matsumoto castle, the centrepiece of the town. We collected an English-speaking volunteer guide, who led us around the castle itself, and explained its history, construction and significance. Built as a watch tower, not a residence, in the 15th century, it was saved from demolition in the 19th century by a concerned citizen who gathered enough money together to buy it at auction, and was finally fully restored in the 1950s. It has been so completely restored that in fact much of the original castle material is gone and what is left if essentially a replica of Matsumoto castle (which had been crumbling and listing dangerously back in the 19th century). Something like 70% of the original wood beams remain in the current structure, but most of the walls (plaster etc.) and all of the roof are new.

On the outside, the castle is surrounded by a moat, consists of contrasting layers of black and white castleness, and sports wily fish totems on the tops of its towers, to protect against fire. The moat, likewise, brings the good anti-fire quality of water into the general vicinity. Fire, in 15th century Japan, was the great leveller, as almost all buildings were wooden. The defensive features of the castle, as well as its decoration, are designed to protect against fire, and not to use it within. So there are openings around the base of the castle to drop stones from but the defenders would never have done anything so rash as to heat oil for pouring on enemies due to the risk of sending themselves up in smoke instead.

I have a created a set of black and white photographs of Matsumoto castle, that I am quite pleased with, on Flickr.

Other crafty defence features are: sliding slatted windows for closing whilst you reload your projectile weapon of choice; a hidden floor (6 inside, but looks like 5 from outside), mostly for storage, but also for ambushing enemies that have made it inside; steep staircases dotted around in a different position on each floor, so no enemy could storm up to the top of the castle too quickly; a private place on the top floor but one, where the commander could take a moment to kill himself with honour, if the battle was lost; a very top floor with panoramic views in all four cardinal directions, so that commanders could easily survey the threats and the course of the battle. This was all in evidence in the main keep, which was also the original tower.

A later peace-time annex had been added, and showed its expectation of continued peace in its design and construction. The walls were about a third as thick as the main keep, for example, the wood was polished and carved, and the windows were ornate and fragile, instead of small, slatted and brutal. There is also, in the annex, a highly civilised and pleasant moon viewing platform. This room opens on all sides, to admit the night air and the starscape, and faces the alps, above which the moon would rise. The trick was to see the moon three times over – in the sky, reflected in the moat, and sitting neatly on the surface of your sake in your correctly angled sake cup.

We said goodbye to our lovely guide, who’d really added to our castle experience, and spent some time lazing about in the park around the castle, where people were sitting enjoying the sunshine (like us). There were also, as in Ueno park in Tokyo, a number of artists dotted around the park, many of them school children who’d obviously been set the task of drawing the castle. A photographer on the picture-skew red bridge across the moat was doing brisk business in tourist portraits with the castle as backdrop. Later we headed into the town, where we shopped a bit, had ‘brown’ lunch called curry raisu (curry rice),which is obviously the inspiration for the very popular chicken katsu curry dish that every second Wagamama’s customer chooses. Then back to the bekkan for reading, soaking in a hot spring bath, watching the sunset over a shared can of Kirin beer from one of the ubiquitous vending machines, snoozing etc., then out to another local place recommended by our urbane hotelier. This was a sushi joint where we managed to eat no sushi. Same deal as the night before: sliding door opens to reveal a couple of old men smoking and watching the terebi (TV); all stare at us as we sit and order in very halting Japanese. The awkwardness passed quickly though, and we got on with the business of sipping our sake and sucking edamame (soya beans) out of their pods – the edamame were, again, the freshest and tastiest we’ve had.

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Day Twelve – Kanazawa to Matsumoto

February 1, 2007

Early start for Matsumoto. Trains as follows: Kanazawa to Naotse, then wait for Nagano train (much comical stepping off the train gingerly and then rushing to the vending machine to buy a drink, ready to leap back on the train at any moment; got the drinks, leapt back on the train relieved… and waited 45 minutes for it to leave), then caught a limited express train (with sexy orange stripes on the side) to Matsumoto.

The first leg of the journey, to Naotse, was along the northern coastline. The Japanese alps sat, multi-layered and blue, on our right hand side, keeping pace with us; the sea of Japan, calm as a pond, was on our left. At times the train hugged the shore and the water seemed close enough to dip your fingers in. Sometimes the rails went right out over the water.

The second leg of the journey turned us towards the mountains, taking us inland; the third leg took us up and up and up again, into the northern alps, the track tilting over steep gradient as we climbed and turned, the train leaning out towards orchards of apple trees, heavy with the soft pink globes of Matsumoto apples – thousands of them, so plump and ripe and healthy looking that they made our mouths water. We rushed through tunnels, and over plateaus, always towards another climb, until three times over we’d climbed up into the mountains.

MLW has been cold-ridden and sneezy, and has had to blow her nose surreptitiously, as if digging in her bag or something similar, as it is a cultural faux pas in Japan to blow your nose in public. People prefer to sniff and snuck and cough, which can be a bit nauseating, but I suppose it’s no more distressing to us, really, than it is to them when someone marches across the tatami in shoes. She’s been drinking a sort of isotonic bottled drink, supposedly for the cold, but really for the weirdness factor of drinking something called Pocari Sweat (that even looks like sweat in a bottle – yuk).

Arriving at Matsumoto train station, we were treated to the famous singing station announcements: Matsu-mohh-tohhhhhh! (the end note rising strongly). We then set about finding the bus to take us to our ryokan, outside the city.

We had booked a place at a bekkan – a ryokan with onsen (natural hot springs) – on the outskirts of Matsumoto. Enjyoh Bekkan, near Utsukushi-ga-hara Onsen, is the Japanese equivalent of the Umtali Motel in Aliwal North, in South Africa (for those of you that have been there): all avocado bathroom fittings, turquoise toilets, and fake wood moulded chairs with brown upholstery. But, clean and quiet and the public bath/onsen is nice and steamy with a view of the garden. We’d hoped for an outdoor onsen experience, but have hit things slightly off-season, and most of the bekkans are being renovated ahead of the skiing season. Nevermind – gives us one more reason to return to Japan.

Today, spent mostly on trains, has been about people watching. Some small dialogues, asking for directions, but until this evening’s dinner place, no real chatting. Tried a local place recommended by our urbane but smoky hotelier – very tasty food in a very non-tourist atmosphere, so that it took us a while to feel comfortable (the blaring TV didn’t help). We weathered the stares from the locals, and smiled at each other through the smoke from their cigarettes, seemingly pumped into the air as if from a bellows. Edamame, yakitori, prawn donburi – all were delicious. Donburi is a Kaga regional dish of rice in a bowl, over which an omelette mix with sake stewed onions and other bits is poured; a lid is then put on the bowl and the heat from the rice cooks the egg. Hot sake for me, cold for MLW, tasting of bananas at the front, and nuts and camphor at the back of my mouth.

The waiter was patient and friendly but quiet and no-one else talked to us until we got up to leave and pay the bill, at which point the proprietress emerged from the kitchen and engaged us in our most verbose Japanese yet. She had seemed quite dour until she started talking to us but, I think, once her formal role of cooking for us had been completed, she felt free to be friendly and jokey and engaging.

We crept back to the bekkan in the dark – no torch and little street lighting – and slid onto our separate futons (we didn’t encounter a double futon anywhere we stayed) and fell fast asleep. Tomorrow, we go to see Matsumoto Castle.

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