Saturday, 7 January 2012

PanJapanter - Episode I: "The Gambit" (27th December 2011)

Ever in search of Japanter, ever in search of the Japan-I-wanted-to-see, I, along with Henry-san – who’ll form a large part of the coming blog entries – took purchase of a “seishun ju-hachi kippu”: a national rail ticket which allows for five non-consecutive days’ worth of unlimited rail travel. The catch is that you can only travel on “futsu” trains (普通), that is, infuriatingly slow ones that stop at every single stop in every arse-end of every nowhere.

Still, the plan was this: on the 27th December, three of us (Henry-san, Robato-san and little ol’ me) would set out into the freezing morning from Cambridge House and be in Kyoto by nightfall. Then, on the 30th, we would head up to Tokyo and stay there till the 3rd January. Henry-san and I would then come back home, with a stop-off in Osaka. Robato-san was going to go to Nara, instead of Osaka. That, more or less, is exactly what we did.
The boys had arranged hostels/capsule hotels and the like, but I planned to couchsurf because I have experience of it being an excellent way of meeting interesting, sympathetic and, most importantly, local people.
I’m not sure whether it’s my advancing age or the fact that consuming nothing but rice and tea is ripping my once commendable belly blubber from me, but it must be said that this winter in Japan, though not numerically any colder than the UK, has been bloody freezing. Cambridge House is to blame first of all. The heating is diabolical if something that doesn’t exist can be diabolical, just like the insulation. I didn’t realise single glazing was still a thing. In any case, the day we set off was – I might be exaggerating, but it must have been – sub-zero, and so bloody cold. Japanese trains have a weird system of having heated seats but no atmospheric heating so that you end up with a very warm bum, but a freezing everything else. The commuters in Kokura, (a city in northern Kyushu) were too polite to stare at us as we danced around on the platform shouting “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” and “jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus”.

The journey to Kyoto, across Kyushu and then half way up Japan’s main island Honshu, took, in all, around 13 hours. That’s about the same time it took to fly from London to Fukuoka. At first sight, that seems very arduous. And yet, once you resign yourself to the inevitability of the never-ending series of nowhere stops, you begin to appreciate the slowness of the travel, the rhythmicity and the gentleness of it all. Having stocked up on snacks, and having loaded my kindle up with out-of-copyright classics, the endless shaking and beeping and buzzing became pleasant and tolerable. The slower pace of travel allows you, moreover, to appreciate sounding scenery and changes in weather: it was a spectacular moment when we realised that we were chugging along about five feet from the lapping waves of the Inland Sea and the cold and sun-kissed pale sands of the bay curving round to Hiroshima. You don’t get that on a Shinkansen. Wow, I sound like I should be on "Excess Baggage", Sandi, if you're reading...

The three of us arrived at Kyushu’s big and black and looming train station at around 6 in the evening. The place is utterly enormous and very sleek. Like all Japanese train stations, it’s full of places to eat, spend too much and by your seldom seen offspring expensive souvenirs: sweet or fishy are the only two types. The three of us climbed to the top of the station to see the view which was spoiled somewhat by the fact that the glass surrounding the viewing deck is tinted so that, at night, you can see very little. Still: awesome.
We had dinner in a shopping mall underneath the station, this being the only safe bet for Robato-san who is a vegetarian. We had tempura and udon (oishiiiiiii!) though my main memory is of something that is extremely annoying about older restaurants and cafés in Japan: they have this weird habit of having tables with an extra plank of protruding wood at about knee height, perfectly located for you to smash your shins sitting down, painful to say the least. I’m shuddering thinking about it. There’s a café near Hakata where I refuse to go because of a similar injury they inflicted upon me!

Suitably sated, Rob went to bed (a theme of this trip I should warn you), and Henry-san and I had a wander. We checked him in to his hostel and then went to meet my host for Kyoto. We had a drink with him and some yakitori (grilled skewers of meat), before heading home. As my mother perhaps should have said to me growing up, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t day anything at all and I shall endeavour, in the next few posts to avoid bitching about the guy who hosted me in Kyoto. Let’s leave it at: he wasn’t pleasant.
Tired and excited, I looked forward to seeing Kyoto.

(For more stories from this holiday and some photos (!), please visit the other guys’ blogs: Henry-san’s, on his beautiful new website, and Robato-san’s