Tag - Japan

Japan: Final Farewell Thoughts

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” – Lin Yutang

Sitting at my desk, on my last day of school, I can’t help but recall all the major ‘lasts’ from my life; Uganda, Placement Year, University, and how recent, yet distant; big but now small they all seemed.

It’s been a quiet end to my time in Japan, what with my last Monday and Tuesday having no classes since 1. 3rd graders finished school last week, and 2. most of my classes being on Wednesday/Thursday/Friday. The teachers not being in the room as I write this probably adds to the calmness.

The quietness, the stillness, and acceptance of moving on is quite unnerving! After the rush of Sunday, of clearing out, packing, cleaning, Gas, Electricity and Rental people all coming round to have these 2 days of not doing much but blogging and looking up things for back at home is a gift and a curse.

It’s been great to finally clear out all the crap from my desk and apartment, I wish I had done it sooner! Far too many possessions in my life, even now as I try and get my suitcase under 20 kilos!

It’s been quite cathartic to write farewell letters to the teachers, give out presents. It feels like it’s time to move on, much like finishing VIth form, or the last few days of Uni before moving out. There’s a sadness, an ache, a sense of nostalgia for things not done, for things that must end now.

Did I achieve what I hoped to do in Japan?

Largely, I learnt the language, enough to get by, or throw together an impromptu speech, solve the problems I encountered, but not the mastery I desired, but neither did I put in the effort that required for that.

I travelled, and saw many beautiful things, experienced some crazy moments and had adventures with friends, and new ones I made on the way.

I made new friends, not as many Japanese friends as I hoped, but some, and saw past the techno-chic everybody imagines of Japan, and probably saw a more ‘normal’ side to Japan than I ever experience in the UK.

No doubt, as with any major trip undertaken, the true repercussions, the true lessons learnt and changes to oneself can’t be realised until one is away from their source for a great length of time. Away from the people whom also are growing and being shaped by similar experiences, one can really see the impressions left behind, and shudder at how they might now be had they never taken off on their foray into distant lands, and become themselves the foreigner.

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Kyoto – Gion

I think, without doubt, how I will come to view visitors to my country has been immensely shifted, and as such I shall be fair kinder, more receptive and encouraging. Whilst Uganda taught me about myself, Japan has taught me about how it feels to be a foreigner, in a foreign land.

I quote myself, who at London Pre-Orientation quoted Mark Twain,

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”

– Mark Twain

Will I return to Japan? Maybe someday. I have thoroughly loved the place, the people and everything I have done here. It’s attitudes, beliefs and design are all unique and fascinating, opening the doors to so many ‘why’ questions, so many of which are unanswered. It is a fascinating place, and I encourage all those that wander and wonder, who wish to be lost to really explore it outside of the major cities and to immerse yourself in a place that to the casual visitor is impenetrable.

But at the same time, the other-worldly strangeness, of being surrounding by indecipherable symbols, of unusual customs and palatable sense of adventure, that I remember from my arrival and journeys through Asia as a teenager, as been lost, I think summed up by Paul Fussel.

“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.”

– Paul Fussel

The trying to recapture something that can never be fully recovered is something that keeps me from returning to Uganda, to be in the same place, at a different time, and have those 2 moments compete and create lack, almost tainting each other, would be my main reason for not returning, despite how much I would love to see those I leave behind again.

And just like in the song Moon River, “there’s such a lot of world to see”.

The Final Countdown

Farewell Dinner

MIE48/TKT48 Farewell Dinner at Yumeya Curry

Yesterday we celebrated my farewell with curry in my favourite restaurant in Miemachi, with today’s dinner being a massive carb load ready for tomorrow’s チャレンジロード – Challenge Road.

Ah yes, tomorrow I run 30km with the male students through the Mie countryside – well I hope it’s the countryside and not a circular route!

I’m excited to have the experience and opportunity to see the countryside one last time, but soooo nervous for the distance – the Oita Half marathon was a challenge enough and that was 21km! Hopefully loads of carbs and a slower pace will right the wrongs of that day!

The flight home could be another story though :/

This morning I gave my farewell speech to the teachers – a 20 second improvised Japanese piece for the win – and received a farewell お餞別!

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Farewell present from the teachers of Mie Sogo

On top my final paycheck – I hope the rate falls even more in my favour by the end of the week!

Then wednesday see my farewell dinner with my Oita friends, conveniently backing onto a National Holiday on Thursdays so that we can have a lil party at PEI afterwards.

Thursday sees a slow start to get to Oita airport, to fly to Tokyo, with a 7 hour layover so that I can kick the shit one last time with Tay-chan before hitting the 25 hour trip home – I hope the films are good!

Then I kick-stage my new life at Comp-A-Tent with founder Amanda’s 24th birthday party, and have a Bro-Valentine’s watching Deadpool, before starting at Comp-A-Tent on Monday morning!

After all,

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all”

– Helen Keller

 

Kuju: Climbing 久住山

Kota had the wonderful idea of meeting at 9am at his work office somewhere in Taketa – this off the back of a night in Mie trying to finish off all the alcohol in my apartment before moving out the next day!

By 8am we were off, checking in the Everyone konbini for some hiking snacks – like pot noodle and ramen! By 9am we had met, and at 1015 we were setting off up the mountain!

Ten minute later and we had stopped on the side of the tracks.

Rika and Kota had had the wonderful idea to use spikes on the boots – alas your poor narrator had no luck, nor the frivolous cash to expend on such luxuries a week before returning to the UK, and us such would spend most the mountain hike squattedly baby stepping his way up the mountain and especially on the way back down!

In all honesty, it didn’t make all that difference going up, and if anything, I was looking safer, especially after we cleared the made-made concrete paths and got out onto what I suspect was the frozen mud track.

Initially the walk set along easy going hillside, with a few ups and downs, before we hit the first peak of the day. The views of the mountains were intermittent at best, à cause de clouds and mists a passing overhead at such alarming speed, taking us from dull, scattered glow, to luminous sunlight in a just a few seconds, for perhaps only a few tens of seconds before becoming engulfed by the gentle greyness.

Climbing down the scraggity first peak, it gave hint of the fear that was in store later in the day coming back down from the peak, but fortunately the gods smiled favourably, and no accidents were had at this early stage!

The ground levelled out a few more times with only minor inclines, as our surroundings became incresingly white and wintery, snow sticking to the plans to create intricate white brains!

Kuju

The plateau before the lunch hut

After a couple of hours, the ground leveled out and we hit a kind of plateau between the mountains, Mt. Kuju hidden in the distance by cloud cover. It felt almost as if we were hiking through a Scottish valley, or around Hogwarts, and I was almost disappointed not to see any sheep on the hills.

In the distance was a small, thick stoned building, with a flurry of hikers coming in and out of it – it was time to lunch!

Pulling out the kettle from my bag, Rika got the gas fired up and we were moments away from our cup noodles! Alas, we had to wait a further 3 minutes for the water to penetrate and make delicious our noodles, but oh boy were they satisfying after a long hike, sitting in the cool, white interior of the hut.

Where we were headed

Where we were headed

The final accent was a head of us, and as proven so far, snow spikes weren’t really necessary for climbing up! Following the scattered path of rocks dotted with yellow splodges, we were occasionally afforded the sight of the peak were climbing for a seconds at a time as the weather broke and a blue sky appeared.

Gonna bop, bop, bop, bop to the top!

Gonna bop, bop, bop, bop to the top!

A final ascent along the narrow, rocky ridge, the breaking mist showed the summit marker was in sight, as we raced to the top – we had done it!

Rather fortuitously, the weather took a rest from its grey mystery, and gave it near perfect views of the surrounding areas, and we even got some blue sky and blinded by sunlight as we posed for the obligatory photos at the 1786m sign. It had taken around 4 hours to get up to the top.

Kuju Peak

Reads – “Mt Kuju, 1786.5m”

Kuju peak pano

The old pano from the top

As quickly as the weather took to change, we were heading back down the mountain again, and so began the bit I was dreading; descending without spikes…

Things started off well, getting to the lunch-lodge with no real difficulties. Passing by and through rocky outcrops I had my first slips, landing squarely on my arse, but luckily on a fairly flat region of ground and so we continued, trekking through the relatively flat plains, the mists reducing visibility to only 15-20m forward and behind, with no sign of the clear blue skies we had seen at the peak.

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The final descent into the car park

Much of the journey was uneventful, careful selection of footing, combined with reasonably gentle declines ensuring no more falls. Getting closer to the peak near the start of the trail, it’s sheer vertical face wasn’t too much of a difficult climb, with Rika supporting my arse in case I fell (any excuse), and the only major difficulty was the man-made concrete ramps for the final kilometre or so, it’s concrete/gravel mixture filled in with compacted snow and ice to create a slide of terror! A rather short sighted and stupid idea that ensures the most dangerous part of the whole climb is the first/last kilometer.

Having fallen on my arse a couple of times, and knowing I was soon leaving the country, I sacrificed my waterproof trousers to turn the terror in an amusing sledging run!

Why fall, when you can slide? - Photo by Rika

Why fall, when you can slide? – Rika Onishi Enomoto

All in all it was wonderful hike, with, at times, so really beautiful views! I would love to do it again in the summer, to see the views, the nearby mountain lakes and to finish with less bruises on my arse!

The final part of the day Kota threw a yakiniku party as his house for us! After securing meats from the nearby mini super market, he lit the coals outside before transferring them to his indoor fire pit!

BBQ at Kota's

Traditional fire pit built into the floor

We had to have the doors open in order to pull out the smoke from the meats, and it was really cold, but the meats and vegetables were so delicious, it didn’t even matter!

It was a lovely weekend to finish my time in Japan.

Fancy meeting Kota and having yakiniku? Check out his Air B&B listing here!

School: Oita Sofukan High School

By At by At - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27952276

Oita Sofukan High School

October 2015 – January 2016

Oita Sofukan is a strange school, even by Japanese standards, much more like UK college than anything else here. Classes run for 90 minutes, from around 8am to 8pm and students attend if/when they can/want. There’s no uniform, there’s a canteen, you wear outdoor shoes indoors and you have your own personalised timetable.

So really, only similarity is the language and that there’s a teacher!

My understanding is that the school is a mix of kids who couldn’t attend regular high school, either for family reasons, financial reasons or behavioural reasons.

Despite having full size classrooms, classes rarely number more than 6-8, which the students generally spread out all over, and their attendances can be so infrequent that they don’t even know each other’s name – a little embarrassing when you’re playing an ice breaker game where you have to remember everyone’s name!

Oita Sofukan High School

View from Oita Sofukan High School

The level of English I found no different to that of Mie Sogo, perhaps the small class sizes facilitating learning, though equally, many classes I only taught once, never getting past self introduction, with only a few classes on WInter Vacation and two on Valentine’s Day – so not necessarily treading much new ground.

Oita Sofukan was also my only experience as a true Assistant Language Teacher, wherein I was told what the plan was, and contributed my voice and talked a little about my experiences. It made class far more improvised, and exciting, but I could see how quickly the novelty could turn into apathy, as you really didn’t need to prepare much for the class, especially compared to planning an entire class!

Even though classes were 90 minutes, I enjoyed the ad hoc nature of sometimes turning up and having to improvise a whole class, but the only downside was the hour and 20 minute or so commute in the mornings, but at least I could get a Starbucks en route and pretend to be important!

All in all, I enjoyed visiting this school. It had less pressure than Mie Sogo since I felt more like a visitor, and the teaching more laid back since I was in addition to their learning, rather than being a part of their learning.

Head Image by At by AtOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, here

豊後大野市: The Bungo-ono Guide

Situated in the southern part of Oita prefecture, in March of 2015 the city celebrated its 10 year anniversary since combining 7 small towns and villages: Mie, Ono, Asaji, Inukai, Ogata, Kiyokawa, and Chitose. While they have combined to form one “city,” they each retain their own identities as towns, including their addresses and tourist destinations.

Bungo-ono has rolling mountains covered in dense forestation, between which golden fields of rice fill the flatlands from August through September. A short ride away from Oita city by car or train, it feels like a lifetime away from the harsh concrete and business of the bigger city.

Bungo-ono really lacks a definite ‘city centre’, but Mie is the base for the JETs in the area. Most of the town is situated along the route 326/502. The northern part is home to the larger chain stores and shops, which turns into a restaurant/snack bar/entertainment district around the station area, before you pop back into the countryside.

Transport

Miemachi Station

Miemachi Station

The Bungo-ono area is connected to Oita city by train, with trains running about twice an hour. They are cute, little, local trains. Trains run from Oita to Miemachi, or Oita to Bungo-Taketa (Taketa).  There are also some local buses that run between the former towns.  A car is the best for travelling between the tourist spots, and for travel in general.​

Points of Interest

Olle Hike, Asaji – Taketa

Kyushu is home to a number of easy access hiking routes, one of which begins at Asaji Station and follows a 12 km route into Taketa. It offers beautiful views of the land, especially during fall when the leaves are turning red. Check out the routes here and here.

Izumi Stone Caves (稲積水中鍾乳洞)

This place has a series of caves that don’t really change temperature – they put that gem all over the advertisements! Has a few other bits and pieces, including a trippy, ‘back in time’ exhibition.

Harajiri Falls

Harajiri Falls

The view from the bottom of Harajiri Falls

A video posted by James Molkenthin (@jmolkie) on

“The Niagara Falls of Japan” is a common name for Harajiri falls. About a 20 minute drive from Miemachi, it’s the #1 thing to see if in the area. Conveniently, next to it sits the #3 thing to do in Bungo-ono (as on Tripadvisor) – the Harajiri road side station – which sells an array of omiyage and seasonal ice cream.

Harajiri Falls

The suspension bride across the Harajiri Falls

 

Chinda Falls

Two waterfalls with stories attached, and the ruins of old electrical power stations.

Eating, Shopping and Entertainment

 

Yumeya Curry

Yumeya Curry

The Dream, the Yumeya set

Disputably the best curry in Oita, it’s not to be missed. They offer a fine selection of curries, drinks and naans, as well as great value set menus. You can even choose your spice level. Try 10-15 on your first go, you should be fine! Facebook page here.

Cafe Paper Moon (カフェ ペーパー ムーン)

A small pizzeria cafe, you get the sense the owners have spent some serious time in Europe. It’s a great little spot for a pizza and drink in a nice, atmospheric, quirky place. Check it out here.

Random Pizza Place

Great for Friday night pizza! Offers thin crust with weird toppings, but after a while, you don’t even notice. Does take away, not delivery, though why you’d want to miss the quaint ski-lodge-like interior I don’t know! Menu is in Japanese (on the wall, on wooden planks) Address: 白木屋〒879-7125大分県豊後大野市三重町内田372−1

Peace Bar

A spirited snack bar, about 20m, in front and to the left of Miemachi station. Though there are many in Miemachi, this one is spacious with a large seating area for groups. Carries the latest songs, a few locals, and the owners always seem happy to have us visit. Rates in 2015 are 2,000円 for under 2 hours, 3,000円for 3+ if there until closing.

Kiku

A popular choice for group dinners, Kiku offers a set menu and nomihoudai for 3000円(2015). Over a number of courses you’ll get a mix of familiar and weirder dishes, with presentation from exotic to eccentric. The owner’s style is eclectic and surprising, so be sure to ask for some after dinner entertainment. Address: 喜久〒879-7111 大分県豊後大野市三重町赤嶺

Festivals

 

Obon

 

A video posted by James Molkenthin (@jmolkie) on

Normally in the second week August, Obon (the festival for the dead) is celebrated with a big carnival in Miemachi town including floats and food stalls – good fun!

A video posted by James Molkenthin (@jmolkie) on

Okonomiyaka

Okonomiyaka at Obon/Raiden Festival

Harajiri Falls Lantern Festival

Keep a lookout for this – I can’t remember where it is, but it’s some point in late summer or early fall. All the roads are illuminated with lanterns, and there’s music around the falls.

JET Life in Bungo-ono

Hoyo Hotel, Miemachi

The view from Hoyo Hotel, Miemachi

As of 2015, there are 5 JETs covering the Bungo-Ono area, all of which live in Miemachi.

Hoyo Hotel Miemachi

Hoyo Hotel Beer Garden in Miemachi, during Summer

Four ALTs support Elementary Schools and Junior High Schools across the region, and are contracted by the Bungo-ono Board of Education. There is also one High School ALT at Mie Sogo High school, who visits schools in Oita and Taketa.​

Miemachi

North end of Miemachi

JETs can choose their own accommodation, though usually inherit their predecessors. BOE JETs require a car to travel between schools, though Mie town is spread out such that all JETs have cars regardless.

Miemachi

From MBox apartments, you can see Moody-machi!

 

大分市: The Oita City Guide

Oita City. The name has a certain grandeur to it. But to for all intents and purposes, Oita city is a city by name, and not much else, when compared to its neighbour Fukuoka.

But nevertheless, being my home for 18 months, I’ve decided to pull together a Molkie-Specific guide on how to pass your days in Oita.

Scroll to the bottom to read about my ‘Escape the Room’ experience!

By Day…

Amu Plaza

2015 saw the final upgrade to Oita station which has brought it kicking and screaming into the 21st century and rivals the quality stations like Fukuoka and Osaka, though a little smaller. This addition was 3 or 4 floored shopping mall, including food court and cinema, as well as roof top garden and a fancy new hotel and onsen.

Oita Station 2016

The revamped North side to Oita Station 2016

From bakeries to wineries, clothes to stationery, Amu plaza has certainly added a lot of convenience and life to the area.

City Spa Tenku

For the days when you feel more like treating yourself, the rooftop onsen of the Blossom hotel attached to the station should suffice. After slipping your shoes into the lockers, receiving your bag of linen and wrist dongle, you enter a world of premium onsen, high above the city. Both indoor and outdoor pools offer a bizarre, but pleasant, oily-soft water, whilst the carbonated pool grows tiny little bubbles all over your body! The sauna, steam room and cool pool are also worth a visit for the brave!

When you’re done, use your wrist dongle to purchase a nice milk, and feel free to blow dry your hair, or clean out your ears with cotton buds.

Holt Hall

A modern city hall complex, it offers meeting spaces, as well as gym and dance studio and most importantly for my experiences – a large kitchen space! I’ve had JET meetings, dance classes and 2 Turkey Day/Thanksgiving Dinners, which have been super delicious, thanks to JT and pals.

Atami Onsen – A local onsen, for local people

Onsen is a fantastic quirk of Japan, and super convenient for the party lifestyler, wherein one may need, at short notice, a place to spruce up and clean off the memories of the night before. One is therefore always advised to have knowledge of a few in the area’s one frequents.

A short 3-5 minute walk west out of the North side of the station, this no frills onsen offer the basics. A man and woman doors which lead straight into the changing area, and beyond that, a few lines of showers and 2 piping hot baths, one of which nobody could sit in. At a few hundred yen it fulfills purpose without showing off.

The Arcade

Leading from the North side of the station is main arcade. Before the station upgrade, this was Oita. A covered arcade with a number of shops, from 100 yen stores, to designer boutiques, to cafes and restaurants, it must push a kilometre in length, and provides great rain cover on an otherwise sodden walk to PEI.

Purikura Oita city

Purikura Pals!

Along its length, starting from the station is an arcade (great for dates), which has purikura, Dance mats and air hockey! A cafe which sells super kawaii coffee cups with steam-milk art, the Starbucks, the 100 Yen shop, a bar where you can buy a drink, a Family Mart and a chicken wing restaurant that offers nomihoudai and steins of umeshu (Japanese plum wine). As you can probably tell, there isn’t much for me here, but it’s well worth exploring, especially some of the offshoots that are home to a number of small restaurants and hangouts, such as MilkBoy, which does French toast breahfast and some other, wouldn’t-look-out-of-place-in-the-trendier-parts-of-North-London/Hipster cafes.

It is also home to Forus, which was THE mall in central Oita, which consists of mostly clothes shops, Starbucks, a record shop in the basement and I think I’ve heard rumours of a bookshop!

The Castle

Oita Castle Funai

In the middle of the city, lives Oita Castle

Funai castle ruins are right in the centre of the city and unlike most castle ruins (of which nearly every castle is one in Japan) there aren’t really any ruins. From the outside, an impressive moat gives way to an impressive white wall, built on a high, sloping boulder base. Alas, inside is mostly a wide, open, gravelled courtyard, occasionally used for hosting Expos (I went to a health/gardening and home one once!).

The area’s saving grace is the beautiful cherry blossom park along one side of the moat, often used for wedding photos and is exceptionally busy during the wonderful 花見/hanami/cherry blossom viewing period (which really is the best time to visit Japan!).

Don Quixote

A magic shop. Not a 100 yen shop, not quite an electrical shop, it sells ALOT of shit. Foods, personal products, thousands of electronics, seasonal goods, watches, and even has an adult only part, if ya know what I mean 😉

It’s all pretty cheap, ranging from known brands, to chinese imports, you can probably fid it here. Check it out for a limited range of import beers, or their special music DVDs set – Billboard 100 from 1995-2015 really set off my NYE party!

Ethnic Bros – $$$

Ethnic Bros Oita

Birthday merriment! They love to get you to pose! – Shalley Duarte

Our resident Mexican restaurant, its biggest selling point? A picture menu, alway welcome when you’re not 100% on the what Mexican names for things are anyway! Worth booking ahead as it get busy, or pre ordering food if you’re big group, it’s a small, quirky restaurant, with a lot of Mexican themed dressings! It’s portions should leave you filled and with an extensive array of cocktails, a wide menu choice, it’s good for when you really have a craving, but perhaps not a place you would highly recommend if it was back in your home country.

Redwood – $$$

Nothing like the taste of homegrown, American classics… Redwood is an American-food restaurant, offering burgers, steaks and even Mexican food. It’s a tad expensive, but the extensive menu means I haven’t gotten to try to much of it yet! The vanilla shake is a definite highlight, but my suggestion is to stay clear of the ribs. The mexican food was delightful, I wish there had been more. Once again, it’s kind of small and gets busy, so book ahead.

Park place

The opening of the mall at the station must have really impacted the Park Place and Wasada Town retail parks.

Nevertheless, I still enjoy a good trip to Park Place, perhaps because it’s in between Mie and central Oita.

A very modern complex, the indoor mall opens out into an external area with numerous water features and pools, around the edge of which feature a number of prominent international brands – Gap, H&M, Uniqlo (Admittedly Japanese) and Zara – yes! A Zara!

Watch out for Niko and… if you’re watching your wallet, as it sells awesome home furnishings. Village Vanguard offers a range of strange, popular Japanese culture and design pieces – good for Xmas presents – as is チャイハネ/Cayhane which sells, dare I short-hand it…. Alternative, hippy clothes and wares, which is similar to Marika, which sells a lot Arab and Indian influenced wares and accessories.

The pet store on the 3rd floors has many cute puppies and kittens to yearn for, and is also where you’ll find the cinema – always read the poster to check the language/subtitles!

Surprisingly, there’s an HMV still going strong and a Lush body shop. ABC mart overs a range of shoes, some which go up to a UK size 10, and the massive Sports shop sells all sorts of sports equipment, and you can buy Oita Trinita FC shirts!

Wasada

So close to the fictional African nation of Wakanda from the Marvel Universe 🙁

Having only been here once, my knowledge is somewhat limited. It is definitely an older, more run down retail park, offering similar shops to Park Place. It definitely has a sports shop, and that my friends, is my knowledge.

…by Night.

Bistro Shun

Judging by Google Streetview, Bistro Shun was being built in Dec 2015 – so I was lucky to find it at the end of January 2016! Really close to the station, in the same building as Hotel Smart Sleep, it’s located under the stairs and maybe could host 10 people at a push! He only sells Heineken and wine, and in his little cubbie he has a kitchen – hence the Bistro!

Very friendly, reasonably priced, it makes a cool little place for a quick beer, or maybe a date!

Bar Brown

The only place I know in Oita that has Guinness on draught! And thus is well worth a visit for this alone. An underground bar, it has, to me, the air of what would make a cool Jazz venue. The bar offers other import drinks like Blue Moon, but Guinness, so why bother? What’s nice is you can go in just for a drink, rather than the izakaya-style food & drink menu, but it also serves some hot nibbles and food, allowing you to develop a thirst from some salty, salty, fries.

The Prince Edward Island Bar (PEI)

PEI Trivia Winners

Hey Hey We’re the Molkies – Winning Trivia March 2015

If there’s one place you’re guaranteed to find ALTs, foreign students and Japanese people who can speak English, it’s PEI. A great, ‘Canadian’ bar, North of the station in Miyako-machi, it’s a melting pot of people from all over the world.

PEI Oita

Pyuko’s Birthday at PEI – Yuko Tashiro

On a quiet night, Meg and Richie are real easy to chat to, both being native speakers of Japanese and English. The food is super delicious, my recommendation is the nachos and Oreo milkshake, and they frequently have nomihoudai offers.

Trivia Winners PEI

Moviepalooza Trivia – Winners 2016

Once a month they have a themed trivia night which always brings out the competitive spirit, and the last saturday of the month is Haze, a nomihoudai banaza, with dancing, which a huge mix of expats, University students and Japanese people – it gets messy!

PEI Trivia Winners

Around the World in 80 Minutes – Winners Sep 2015

Be sure to ask for a shot from the snake bottle!

Hotel Smart Sleep

Hotel Sleep Smart sign

Hotel Sleep Smart sign

For Y3000 a night, you get half hotel/half capsule. Though you get your own room, the doors don’t lock, nor do the walls reach to the ceiling, instead, having curtains for the top foot or so. Alongside your TV is a computer you can pay to use. The bathroom facilities have individual showers, this blew my mind! It’s 1 block from the North side of the station and allows hour access, with check-in from 1700 and check out at 1000.

It offers male and female dorms, so is one up on New Gloria (see below), however, it is further from PEI!

Hotel Area One

Either new, or under redevelopment, this place is a real hotel, so great for friends sharing. We booked a triple room for Y9750 – Y3250pppn. As small as any Japanese hotel, it offered comfy beds and a small private bathroom. It’s location is pretty central to all the nightlife and restaurants, and half way between the station and PEI, offering a quick trek back.

New Gloria (Capsule) Hotel

After a hard night partying, you may want/need/be taken to a bed in the nearby capsule hotel – so long as you have a penis, sorry girls.

If taken here, try not to panic.

Waking up in a coffin, to the sounds of invisible people snoring is terrifying. Having no memory, and the only clue being a key on a hair band around your wrist, is like waking up in the middle of an escape the room game.

“But at least I have my clothes on.” I thought to myself, “Time to get out of here… Argh shit my head”

Shuffling my arse closer to the illuminated edges of the curtain at the bottom of the bed, my legs reached out into thin air.

“For fuck sake” As I attempted to curve myself into a backwards C, so as to get my feet on the ladder, without smacking my head.

Grabbing the guide rail, I swung out, over shot, ricocheting off the bed next to me, and heavily dropping to the floor, like a hangover cat, after gnawing on the wine infused scraps of a good beef bourguignon.

This morgue of beige and brown had me trapped. I walked to one end, only to find further endless pods, like a 70s inspired, alien birth room. The other way lead to some stairs, and a number of mirrored automatic doors. With no windows, I had no idea if I was up or down.

Choosing the stairs, the hieroglyphics on the wall offered no information beyond that I was 3rd floor. There I was, with a key and a floor number.

Going down to floor 2, I found the stairs went no lower. At the end of the second floor corridor was another mirrored sliding door.

Panic set in, and I ran back up stairs.

What was this key for? What did the number mean?

I ventured towards the mirrored sliding door, at least I still looked handsome. Then it opened, the sight so abhorrent, as a naked man, caressed by gentle steams, walked out.

Walking, I sharply turned, not missing a beat, as if my aim was to walk in a ‘U’ shape all along.

Back down the stairs. But surely this door also lead to an onsen?

I ventured closer, when I an idea pushed itself forward from the back of my mind and made itself known.

Lockers.

There was a wall of lockers.

And I had a key.

Looking down, I had no shoes on!

Searching for 248, the key slid in and fitted.

Inside, were my shoes.

This had to be the entrance, so maybe it was the exit? Tentatively I made my way to mirrored door. It slide open to reveal a reception area I had once been to before, and across the room, a familar spiral staircase lead down to a exit to the streets of Oita.

I had escaped the room.

Kurokawa Onsen Village: Birthday Bananza

Another year, another year older, and as is my custom in January, I celebrated this passing with a party. But not by spending the night at a ‘Spoons, hitting on chicks called Sandra that work in HR whilst holding back Ginger Rob’s hair as he pukes, and not by working on coursework with the deadline the next day, but, by indulging in some truly Japanese past times.

Finishing school on Friday, we were off to Kurokawa Onsen Village, an hour Northwest of Miemachi. I love heading out in this direction, as you quickly enter Kuju with its steep, beautiful mountains, and rolling grassy hills. Regretfully the winery pizzeria was shut, so we headed onwards to the Ryokan.

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, with straw-floored rooms and communal bathrooms and facilities, and you can walk around wearing yukata and chat with the owner.

Man in Yukata

A terrifying sight! The Last Samurai?

This particular ryokan was a little outside the onsen village (making it cheaper!) and was built within a narrow valley, with several wooden-construction buildings and the mossy, gravelling paths that fit with the overall wabi-sabi style you expect of Japan.

Checking in and dumping our stuff, dinner was next on the list. Only 2 or 3 of the restaurants we drove to were shut… Eventually finding a little pizzeria that was about to shut up shop, but stayed open for us, the highlight being the cured ham, blue cheese and apple pizza!

Hat, beer & pizza

I think as we get older, it’s important to bring hats into a repertoire

With the night rolling on in, there was nothing to do but make use of the public onsen! At this late hour I was able to use it alone, turning off all the lights so as to lie in the outdoor pool, arse and back in the water, chest and balls being caressed by the cool night air and look up at the stairs, contemplating what my 26th year may bring.

As tradition dictates (and also the allowed onsen times) we were up early and in the onsen a little after 7am. Again I had it all to myself, allowing for this cheeky snap!

Oyado Hanabou ryokan

Sneaky spy shot at the Oyado Hanabou ryokan

This time I could actually see the forest and waterfalls, and wave to passerbys in the distance who could see into the bath house!

No birthday would be complete without a little call to the parents, who hadn’t even stayed up particularly late, as since they both retired they both regularly stay up until midnight! But nevertheless their singing and enthusiasm, despite the hour at home, was most welcomed.

Japanese breakfast

A mix of sweet and savoury breakfast snacks – rice is a given

Japanese breakfast – I think I need a few more of these to adjust my pallette – but it exciting, entering the dining room which was a warren of small rooms, partitioned by the exact image of the Japanese paper and wooden lattice doors you image when you imagine a Japanese restaurant. Plus I got to wear a Yukata as I ate – lucky I remembered to put underwear on!

Winery-pizzeria near Mt. Kuju

The winery-pizzeria around Mt. Kuju – love it!

The schedule was to meet the posse at the onsen village a little after 12, so with some time to kill between that and checkout, adventure beckoned and we followed the river up until its waterfall head, before retracing our steps back to the winery pizzeria – I love this place! – for a birthday lunch, which Sean and Jess turned up to!

Winery pizza Kuju

Rika trying to steal all the pizza

Soon we were united with our crew of 10, and under Becca’s careful lead, we walked to our first onsen of the day.

Kurokawa has a cool system whereby you can by a wooden medallion, good for entrances to 3 onsen of your choosing, and at which you collect a stamp unique to that particular onsen!

Kurokawa onsen village

Kurokawa has worked hard to prevent chain hotels from opening in the area

The village itself looks a lot like a Miyazaki film, with definite hints of Jiufen, Taiwan, with its traditional-feel buildings, built along narrow streets and aged, wood buildings, built in a wandering style.

Our first onsen was the Ikoi ryokan. A set of low buildings, with a complex of corridors and exposed wooden beams that weren’t all that removed from a Tudor building back in England.

Ikoi ryokan

Men’s bath at Ikoi ryokan. Check out the waterfall shoulder massager

The onsen was cosy a courtyard, with an upper and lower pool, with a small cascade that connected them both, a wee sauna that us boys had a wee chat in, without the risk of the girls over hearing.

Yamamizuki ryoken’s onsen was next, reportedly one of the best in the whole of Japan! I could understand why! It was one of the most open, and close to nature onsen I had ever been to! After a quick shower, and a series of small pool just wide enough for 4 gaijin guys, with small windows over looking the river below, we moved on what was essentially a large pond, right next to the waters edge, with views of the waterfall a little upstream. The low lying rocks made a wonderful bed which you could kick back, enjoy the bare trees against the bright blue sky, and relax with the water lapping at your bare gooch – it was so relaxing, and so part of the surrounding nature, that it more than justified the 20 minute up hill walk to it; plus it served delicious soft ice cream!

By this time it was almost 4pm. With one onsen left, and an hour drive home, two of our friends had arrived in Miemachi and were wondering on our ETA… Oops!

Getting back into the central part of the village, we chose to take our guys from the car park to the parking at the final onsen of the day – big mistake!

In hindsight, trying to find space for 5 cars in a small village perhaps wasn’t the best idea! And after getting within sight of the onsen, only to find the car parks full, so began our tour of the onsen village! Leading the pack Rika and I searched high and low, narrowly avoiding the laissez-faire pedestrians who moved like cattle – without a care to their own safety – only to end up passing the first onsen we had visited, exiting the village having to loop back to our original car park!

So our final onsen was chosen to be the one that faced the carpark, Ryokan Nanjyouen! It was small place that told us to be quieter as soon as we entered!

We ventured down stairs after stairs until we ended up a in small changing room, with signs pointing in opposite directions. This one had the air of a Hogwarts common room, I think because the ryokan was situation on a steep hill, so the semi-opaque windows had the light of being high up in the air, like the top of a castle tower!

To the left were 4 showers and a little bath barely large enough for 4 people – I think this added to the bedroom dormitory/Hogwarts feels!

Then downstairs was the “Star-gaze pool”, which was a small garden that had been flooded and converted into an onsen! Complete with mini hot tub at the top of some rickety stairs, and a couple of ‘man caves’ you could retreat into!

Alas, after 4 onsens in a day, I was quite content to go a little quicker this time, merely exploring, before washing thoroughly and heading out. Thankfully everybody felt the same, and we were soon headed back to Miemachi, just in time to arrive for a curry reservation at 7pm.

Dropping overnight stuff at my place before curry, there was still one drama to come as we bundled into Windsor’s car, only for it to refuse to start! After much umming and arring, we went to get jump leads, but thankfully, one last ditch attempt and she jumped to life! We were curry shop bound!

Miemachi's Yumeya Curry

The tribe at Miemachi’s Yumeya Curry House – a dream come true!

No Japanese-style celebration would be complete with a little karaoke, so obligingly we set off from the curry shop, for the 3-hours of karaoke and dancing to close off an awesome 25th birthday.

Peace Bar in Miemachi

Snack time at our so called “Peace Bar” in Miemachi

How2: A Brit driving in Japan

Many people are oftern concerned about driving in a foreign country. Luckily for British people (and many others) Japan has made the right decision of driving on the left hand side of the road.

Similaries

  • We both drive on the left hand side of the road!
  • By virtue of this, you won’t embarrass yourself like your American friends and try and get into the driver’s side, when you’re the passenger.

No the similarities end, and the differences begin – 頑張って下さい!

Roads in Miemachi

Uptown Miemachi

Differences

These range from trivial, to down right strange – but who’d want to traverse a country easily? Maybe you should just stick to trains?

Indicator and windscreen wiper

“Shit, left! NO! Windscreen wipers – We’re gonna have to loop back round”

Easy to deal with when everything is going smoothly – a nightmare in a panic.

Everything is automatic

That one friend who got an automatic license – the fool! Unless you’re in Japan, then that’s fun. I think I saw one car with a manual gearbox. The downside is I’m sure my left leg has gotten a lot skinnier in the last 18 months…

Kei car vs regular car (and boxiness)

Japanese Kei car

My little Kei-car, River Phoenix

Not content with ‘cars’ Japan has two classes of car; the super-weak, squarest thing you’ve ever seen Kei-car, and the Toyota style Car-car which we know back home.

The Kei car is cheap, lightweight and cheaper to send for the MOT equivalent. They are pretty low-powered, hideously fuel-inefficient at more than 60kph, and will struggle up hills.

No round-abouts

“Pa-papa-paa paa…”

No magic dogs to see here! Yep, that most British of road-invention is (practically?) non-existent and instead is replaced with…

Red flashing light/Orange flashing light

American style flashing red and orange lights. At this point in time, I believe;

  • Red = You must completely stop for a few seconds
  • Orange = You must slow down and look

And you maybe pull out in order of who arrived when? Though sometimes it feels more like people going straight have right-of-way – proceed with caution.

Crossing train tracks

You must stop, completely, before crossing the tracks.

“But what if I can see for a kilometre each way and there are not trains?”

“You must stop”

Because Japan!

Police traps

One officer hides in a bush, or behind a sign with a speed camera, whilst another waits a 100m up the road to pull you over.

They can also park they’re car back from a junction, behind a hill or bush and watch people not stop at the ridicously far back stop line, from where you can’t see any cars coming, but must stop any…

Manned Petrol stations/No shop attached

Something your grandfather might remember next – manned petrol stations, they’ll even clean your windows and offer you a dashboard cloth. Remember it’s “man tan” for a full tank!

Self-service also does exist, with uncanny parallels to self-service tills in supermarkets in the UK (which certainly don’t exist in the inaka of Japan). They’re touchscreen, offer a number of options, from which I can pick out ‘cash’ or ‘point card’. Weirdly though, to get your change you take the receipt to a machine, and it scans a barcode on your receipt!

Cyclists

A law unto themselves, they cycle where they please – on the pavement, in the road, or most harrowingly, on the road, towards oncoming traffic. I’m pretty sure a cycling proficiency test doesn’t exist here.

Pedestrians crossings

Like some of our European siblings, pedestrians crossing on a green man need still be warying of cars turning left or right onto the road. Equally, just because you have a green traffic light, doesn’t mean you can happy turn onto a road, but have to look out for stupid children, or worse, people wearing all black on a dark autumn night.

Zebra crossings

The pedestrian’s rock to the driver’s scissors. An island of safety for pedestrians in the UK, where they have God-like power to command cars to stop. In Japan, it’s an opportunity to cross a road where there are no lights, but without committing the felony of jaywalking – God I hate jaywalking laws – gives us some credit for being able to safely cross the road!?!

In Conclusion

Driving in Japan is the same, yet very different! What are some differences you have noticed, did I miss anything big? And remember, driving is a serious business, so use some commonsense!

Yakushima: On a Quest for Princess Mononoke

Cut off a wolf’s head and it still has the power to bite.” Apparently, but alas I was unable to test this hypothesis during my recent trip to Yakushima, aka, the scenic inspiration for studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke/もののけ姫.

Setting off from Oita city with my travel companions, R & L, we didn’t depart until nearly 1830 – with a 4.5 hour drive ahead of us! We were traveling the length of Kyushu, from Oita down to Miyazaki, across towards Kumamoto, and sweep back down to Kagoshima. From there we’d take the ferry in the morn to Yakushima. Arriving around 2300 L made great time.

Saturday – Oh we’re going to Yakushima, da da da daa da da!

Awake at ridiculous o’clock, we packed and in the car with over an hour to spare to the ferry departed, so stocked up on snacks and headed down to the port.

Using my best Japanese we located the car entrance to board the vessel, but poor L had to remain with the car as R and I headed into the terminal. A cheeky ticket raffle saw me win a free draught beer on the ferry – what a good omen!

The ferry is the cheapest way to Yakushima, with the alternative sea-based alternative costing near double, though in half the time. So we stuck with a 4 hour ferry that departed once, each way, a day.

Despite having an onsen, it was out of service, so mucked around on deck, made friends with a German couple and took sweet-ass photos!

Kagoshima/Yakushima Ferry

All aboard to Yakushima!

Coming into port was easy and soon we were on the hunt for some grub, before setting off round the island anti-clockwise.

It’s a pretty small island, 132 km in diameter and so we endeavoured to loop the entire thing during the weekend. It was still early afternoon, so we set off, stopping and exploring everything of interest we saw en route.

Eventually we crossed the threshold into UNESCO World Heritage park on the West slide of the island – suddenly it was darker, the roads narrower and monkeys and deer were every few hundred metres – not a good thing when you need the toilet!

As evening pressed in, no day would be complete without a lil onsen! We checked out one built into a luxury hotel built on a short headland, with large windows that looked out onto the darkening sea, it was pretty cool.

We rocked up to the hotel around 7, lucky we weren’t much later, as the reception come konbini was closing and god knows how we’d have checked in.

We had conveniently arranged ourselves to stay on the East side of the island, since this was closest to the start of the trail head.

Sunday – Old Grampappy Jomon

Of course this wasn’t a convenient trail head, oh no! We awake around 0430 and head down to the Sugui (Cedar) Museum, the meeting point for catching the bus to the Arakawa trail head. These buses only run between 5-6am, and since it was within ‘the season’ there was no public access to the roads.

After a short nap on the bus, we arrived around 0630, just as the sky was quickly lightening. We hurriedly pooped and peed, and set of along the train tracks.

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Oh what a beautiful morning! Near the start of the Arakawa trail

The first hour of the trail follows along the old rail tracks. What were the tracks used for? I don’t know! But it offered high up views of the valley below, and criss-crossed over wide gorges gouged out by rushing torrents and populated with such giant boulders, that between spending so much team watching your feet on the tracks and looking out at the view, the sense of scale was entirely lost, and I could no longer adjust my eyes to take in the entire view without feeling a lil nauseated. So bizarre!

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It’s as if someone just decided to dump all these rocks here!

We passed by the stone remains of a former school that had been used until the 1970s, shortly after which the rail tracks began to fade out.

What we eventually learned was that the whole area had been home to a logging industry, the cedars in the area having grown old and tall due to their difficult accessibility. Up until around the 1600s, logging had been largely unnecessary, thanks to the cedars natural  longevity and immunity to insects, as fallen trees could be harvested and the wood used for building.

Those running the business had set up shop with a long term perspective.

They would harvest an area, bar a few select ‘mother’ trees, would would then go on to seed their surroundings. Many of the new trees would go onto grow up on the stumps of the previous trees, resulting in cool looking trees, stacked a bit like wedding cake, and twisting root formations.

Logging official stopped in 2001, with all products made from sugi nowadays coming from trees fallen in typhoons or from age, making them domaiboku, or buried trees in the ground.

From here the next highlight is Wilson’s Stump. Whilst I had hoped someone had gotten lost, and carved a home from a giant tree stump, it turns out the name is simply because Ernest Henry Wilson was the first person to introduce it to a Western audience. But with its 32m diameter, there is plenty of room to throw down a bit of tatami, lay down a futon and make a comfortable little home.

Getting here around 10am, we were quite hopeful we’d be at our goal, Jomon Sugi in no time!

We were wrong.

Following the path away from Wilson, it didn’t look far at all on the map, and we set off at quite the pace. The steep mountain steeps soon put pay to this.

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Up and down we went – thankfully somebody had the foresight to build stairs

The rain set in, causing mist to wipe out whatever view there was between the tress, and we continued our uncertain walk/climb with and down, in and out of gullies and between trees, briefly pausing for lunch in a nice ravine.

Shortly after 12 we made it Jomon Sugi, and its viewing platform.

Jomon sugi is estimated to be between 2000 and 7000 years old, depending on your testing method, but it definitely made it our sempai! It sits on the north face of the tallest mountain on the island, at an elevation of around 1000m, and no matter what route you take, it’s still a 4-5 hour hike to reach it!

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He’s small for his age. Clearly dangerous since we couldn’t get up close to it

After posing for a number of photos, it was time to head back the way we came! Ever-conscious that the buses only ran between 1500 and 1800, we headed down the trail, and made it back in good time and we back to the hostel before 1800!

What else was there to do but check out an onsen!

This time we checked out the local onsen, a short distance from the premium onsen of the previous day, though it felt more like a world away!

The onsen was a large room, with a few taps and stools around the edge for you to wash, with your own soap, and a large bath that was little under half the room. Along the floor were a number of older Japanese men, contorting their bodies into a variety of shapes along the floor, presumably stretching.

The bath was extraordinarily hot, but after a number of sharp, short breaths I was submerged, and trying to stretch under water, before abandoning all hope and getting dressed. I’ve never finished in an onsen so quickly! But at least I was able to watch anime as I waited for the girls.

For dinner we checked out a lil sushi bar around the town, then being so tired, decided we ought to get a relatively early night.

Monday – To see a Princess

Choices had to be made, and we sacrificed visiting the tidal pool onsen in order to visit the heavy-moss covered forest of Princess Mononoke fame. This in turn afforded us the luxury of lying in until 7am, and then setting off around to the north of the island, and thus completing our tour of the perimeter of Yakushima!

Arriving at the tourist centre, we had survived the scaling, dizzying heights of Yakushuima’s mountain roads, and sought to traverse the 2 hour walk to the Mononoke Hima no Mori in about an hour.

Success! We were soon at our destination – it was ridiculously green and moss covered, but definitely looked like the film!

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If you look carefully, you might be able to spot a Kodama, or tree spirit

The walk back we took a lil slowly, giving us time to play by the river crossing, and take in the nature, before heading back to our comparatively urban lifestyles.

Back on the ferry, the time passed a little more slowly – alas no free beer this time for Molkie, and I spent most of the return on my back, feet on the wall, like a baby, thankful that somebody had designed the ferry with carpeted sleeping areas, because, Japan!

Thanks to Labour Day, we had been able to cram our holiday into a 3-day weekend, and so the girls needed to head back before school on Tuesday morning.

I, however, had taken an extra day off to allow me to visit Kagoshima, and so we parted ways in down town Kagoshima, just as the clouds parted and a torrential storm hit.

Instincts kicked in, and as a Brit, naturally I headed to the nearest pub. Online, labelled as an Irish Pub, the name Big Ben, coupled with Union Flags said otherwise, but all I remembered is that they did a lot of beer, including a good Guinness, and that Justin Bieber had A LOT of tracks in the UK Top50 as MTV played in the background.

After a good 5 or so hours, I set out with new bartender friend Luke for a night of adventure. Unfortunately Japan wasn’t so ready for us, it being a Monday night and all.

Unperturbed we set off from the pub and onto the streets, where by luck or design, we bumped into the very same German couple we had seen on the ferry on the way TO and FROM Yakushima, and suddenly we had a party on our hands!

After asking a number of drunk Japanese business men, we found ourselves a snack bar, and I introduced my new friends to the joys of Umeshu, shochu and my singing for a full 90 minutes.

When the show was over, I was still left the task of negotiating my way to my Tatami Time-share bed I had requested (a JET run network of people offering beds to fellow, but travelling JETs). Thankfully she had left the door unlocked, I crawled into my futon and welcomed some rest.

Tuesday – Home James, and don’t spare the horses

Obviously my host had school the next day, and so I was up at 7am and out the door not long after. What a prime opportunity to capture some sunrise photography I thought to myself as I sat in Starbucks munching on a panini.

On the itinerary for today – the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. This covered an interesting period of Japan when it was uncertain of its future as westerners forced Japan to open its doors to the world, bring with it new ideas and methods. That being said, this was still a turbulent Japan, with political and social tensions and divisions, merely added to by the adoption and rejection of foreign ideas.

Next stop? Kumamoto! Home of Kumamon!

This 170km journey would be completed in under an hour thanks to the ridiculously expensive, but oh so cool shinkansen! With its spacious seats it sure beat an aeroplane!

Turns out Kumomoto is a lil quiet and empty – either that, or the shinkansen stops a bit outside the main town – i’m not sure… But there was a temple!

Final leg of the journey was the 170km from Kumamoto back to Miemachi – an easy 2.5hr ride… WHY?!?

And back in time for curry!

Oh what a strange and beautiful holiday it was!

How2: Konbini Design

Konbinis are the lifeblood of Japan. Seldom can you travel more than a few miles without seeing one, and so common are they that in towns and cities you can often stand outside one and spot another in the distance.

They offer food and drink, emergency supplies like spare underwear, electronics and magazines, as well as hosting ATMs, taking delivery of your amazon buys and act as a place to pay for bills and buy tickets. Most are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And they are all laid out in the same way – seriously!

There is even a chapter in an English textbook that talks through the rationale and reasons why…

All Konbinis are the Same

Outside

A lovely array of bins – occasionally moved inside in particularly busy or urban areas.

Inside

Around the entrance sit many services; like the hot water heater for cup-ramen, photocopier, ticket machines and ATMs etc.

Inline with the entrance is the counter, perhaps to give would be shoplifters a harder route of escape? Or simply to make you enter more into the store, like how…

Drinks are ALWAYS at the back/furthest corner

What do people buy more of than anything else in a konbini? Why drinks of course! Hence why a wall and a half is given over to cool fridge displays, with booze being in the very furthest corner.

Consumers have to walk past a number of other tempting goods on the way to the drink and to the paypoint.

Along this wall often the freezer section with bits of food, ice cream, and somewhere here lives the toilet.

Toilets in Japan

Firstly, you can never be sure if you’re going to get a squat toilet, a plain sitting loo or a fancy, musical butt washer. Second, they can be a single mixed toilet, separate toilets, and some even have a single small room with a urinal!

A nice thing in Japan is that toilets are considered public spaces, ie. you can use the facilities even if you’re not buying something! Though perhaps this is why they are at the far end of the konbini – so that you have to pass lots of tempting goods!

First Aisle

Magazines are always displayed along the external window wall – why? So people can watch people read the animes in the window? I don’t know! But this will occupy the full length of the window row N combined with chester freezers with on-the-go ice creams.

On aisle’s other side are a number of medical/hygiene goods – special recovery drinks, toiletries, clothing things you might need if you’re a busy salaryman who didn’t make it hope last night!

Second Aisle

Electronics are kept closest to the counter – presumably because they are high value items. These consist of charger cables, charging blocks, batteries, alongside other household goods products. Facing these are on-the-go meals – cup ramen, canned goods.

Third Aisle

Your nibbles – Crisps, potato snacks, popcorn, some chocolates, biscuits, cookies cake line either side of this aisle. This can also house some liquor or drinks that don’t need to be or aren’t drunk cool. The pay counter at the end of this aisle is the one most commonly opening, if the konbini isn’t so busy. Why? To pull consumers looking for drinks down the snack aaisle and pick up some en route.

Forth Aisle

What could probably be described as baked goods/fresh-ish food is sold here. One side is refrigerated, stocking coffee drinks, fruit juices, some fruit and vegetables that gives way to salads, sandwiches, ready meals, before hitting the bento boxes, onigiris and hot drinks as we move closer to the counter.

The other side has dessert-bread goods, meaty bread goods, weird burgers and sandwiches that don’t need to be chilled goods. Closer to the counter there may even be a desserts section!

The Pay Point

A minimum of two counters, between which sit the hot foods – fried chicken, sausages, chips, Japanese delicacies simmered in hot tea all day… Some on sale items sat in front of this.

Behind the staff live the cigarette stands, with their marketing campaigns on colour screens, and promo boards with cool looking graphics.

Many konbinis offer cafe style drinks, made with fresh-ish coffee beans, and often soft serve icecream!

Predictable, yet Unpredictable

So finding your favourites in the konbini is easy, right?

Well, Japan, with its belief of Wabi Sabi, the appreciation of impermanence and the transitive nature of things, you’ll often find that something new and delicious is only available for short, limited run.

Or that things are seasonal – when it reached the end of winter – no more Lawson lasagne for me!

So even an enterprise as commercialised as konbinis, with their psychological games and manipulation, has running through its veins, a thread of Japanese philosophy, that is hundreds of years old.

Kyoto: A Step Back in Time

Kyoto – The cultural capital of Japan. Spared by the Americans during the bombing of Japan, today it is a throwback to traditional Japan and home to thousands of shrines and temples.

From Mie to Oita, Oita to Osaka, Osaka to Kyoto took nearly the whole day! It was funny running into the other Oita Jets heading off on holiday for ‘Silver Week” – a 5 day holiday caused by 3 consecutive National Holidays.

Our hotel was a little house down some back streets in Western Kyoto, but well connected by buses, trams and trains!

Walking around, what struck me most was the low-ness of everything. There was not a skyscraper, or massive apartment blocks or hotels. Nearly everything around the hotel was no more than 2-3 floors, and even in central Kyoto, buildings were still nowhere near as tall as Tokyo or even Oita.

Around the hotel most houses were kind of old looking. Thinly constructed, looking as if from the 80s/90s, much like the buildings in Mie, only much dense. In fact, dense is a great way to describe Kyoto; low-rise, but dense.

As we walked Eastwards into Kyoto, thoughts turned towards drinks and dinner, which obviously gave rise to the thought of finding an Irish bar! And boy! There were about 6 to choose from.

After a few pre dinner drinks, we made it to the bar, ordered fish and chips, and as always, as the drinks flowed, so did my French with Solene!

Thankfully, a well connected hotel, combined with 4G mobile internet meant we had no problems getting away back to the hotel via the tram!

Tourist Trap: Sunday

Our first day’s plan was to hit the big tourist spots and to ‘get them out of the way” before going AWOL off the beaten track for the following 2 days.

We journeyed a little further west to check out the Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama, and to head into the Tenryu-ji Temple. You’ll have seen the bamboo forest on the front cover of Lonely Planet Japan (2013). It was super cool beneath the bamboos, and pretty despite the flocks of tourists.

The temple offered a beautiful lake and landscaped garden, and made great use of the unimpeded views of the mountains behind – aka ‘borrowed scenery’ as it was translated frequently in every temple! I think Japan invented ‘landscaping’ in the ‘Groundforce’ kind of way.

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The lake at Tenryu-ji Temple was stunning

Next up was Gio-ji Temple. Not one of the main sites, but a delightful little temple 20 minutes walk away! En route were number of golden rice fields, people in two wheel carriages being pulled by men and more delightful 2 storey houses, around in complex and dense layout, right up against the sides of the roads – personal gardens clearly not a big thing in Kyoto/Japan.The temple was so cool, and damp, and the floor was just covered with moss, it looked and felt like fur!

Gio-ji was a super mellow place to visit

Gio-ji was a super mellow place to visit

Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji

Despite how the photo looks, this place was SUPER busy

Ah, the Golden Pavilion, one of the most iconic spots in Japan and used in so much media that you probably know it without realising! Originally a garden or something, it was then given to monks which made it much more important. Then something like after it accidentally built down, they rebuilt it, and gold-leafed the 2nd and 3rd floors – or at least the outside of those floors – but you don’t care – here are the pics!

Kinkaku-ji

Cheeky backside

Ginkaku-ji Temple – The almost as popular, Silver Pavilion

The Silver Pavilion is unfortunately not covered in silver-leaf, so the name I don’t understand. It does have a massive stone-raked garden, and a carefully shaped gravel mound that represents Mt. Fuji? I don’t get it either. Here are the pics;

Ginkaku-ji

Ginkaku-ji has some beautify grounds to it

Ginkaku-ji

More trees

The Path of Philosophy – Or is that Philosophers?

Well, maybe it doesn’t matter since we missed about half of it – lol! Damn google maps and its efficiency!

Eventually our back lane lead onto the path, and we walked along the stream in the glowing light of the lowering sun, to Nanzen-ji Temple.

Nanzen-ji Temple

Looking North-West over Kyoto

Nanzen-ji Temple: What a massive san-mon! You could even climb to the top of it! (For a small fee) It was delightful having the setting sun warm us up and the evening was starting to cool, and you could see out over Kyoto.Next was to the cafe inside the temple that offered a beautifully meditative view of a waterfall – oh wait, it was shut – noooo!

The temple had a small, walled, stone garden, behind which the mountains grew steeply upwards.

Outside of the temple stood an impressive aqueduct, which only now do I know hides an awesome, hidden waterfall view – thanks Frenchie for saying there was nothing there!

We began walking back into more central Kyoto, keeping an eye out for interesting things. One such thing was a 7-eleven with setting outside of it! I even got id’d as we bought beverages – nothing like showing off your Japanese driver’s licence!

Kyoto 7-eleven

Why was the car park shut? Why were they tables and chairs? We may never know

We found a delightful stream, into which a number of enterprising individuals had built small platforms out to, and were offering various tea and drinking parties for small groups, and in one part, crafts fold appeared to be cleaning out long, linen banners in the flow of the stream.

Kyoto Gion stream

Such enterprising individuals!

More wandering, and as we approached Gion, we were met with charmingly rustic, low level buildings, with swooping willows, and filled with people in traditional clothes. As the sun was setting, everything was lit with a golden seam, and it was magnificent!

Gion Kyoto

More traditional Kyoto

Beer Garden

Now the hunger was setting, so Frenchie decided to check out the Beer Garden we had spotted the previous night by the river.The view was incredibly! Kyoto looks truly European, with its lack of high-rise skyline, and set along the banks of the river.

Beer garden Gion

Rooftop beer garden in central Gion

Beergarden Gion Kyoto

Looks so European with its lake of skyscrapers

Naturally the beer garden offered nomihoudai (all you can drink) and a set menu, for 2 hours – we took it! Too little food, and lots of booze meant the French and Japanese babbled from my mouth once again, and after some interesting chat, we found ourselves heading towards the Irish bar again.

Brit and Frenchie in a Beer garden

Thankfully they remove the empty glasses!

But wait? What’s this place? The thought took us into a small, empty snack bar a few floors below the Irish pub – be rude not to. So we serenaded the poor bar girls with bad English and Japanese songs, and some even worse French songs.

Naturally it was time for a nightcap in the Irish bar. Coming back from the toilet, Frenchie had made friends with 2 Japanese girls! The evening was spent conversing in Japanese, French, (and a little) English, whilst the night cap turned into burger and fries alongside the Guinness.

Off the beaten-track: Monday

Day 3 saw us go a lil more off the beaten track, picking out some of the less touristy temples, for a more, spiritual experience.

Kyoto Kitsune

Spot the fox! Or kitsune, the messengers of the gods

Shoren-in Temple was stop one, out on the east side Kyoto, it used to be a residence, so has more of a villa feel – it was pretty cool! Nice to just enjoy the pond for a bit, even if I got told off for lying down!

The Entoku-in Temple I was super tricky to spot, but as we back tracked, it turned out to be having a special event day – meaning it was packed with tourists, but had free entry! There was a small market inside the building, promoting local goods and food, which we skipped past, and began what would turn out to be a warren of small, traditional corridors.

They turned and spun every which way, giving views of other gardens, the backs of kitchens, and eventually led to a gravel garden, and room in which a dozen people were taking tea. When we left we had ended up a considerable distance from where we’d gone in! Walking down the lanes of Ishibei-koji, we spotted a small market up a few more steps, and once we reached there, we realised there was a whole plethora of tents and marquees higher up the hill! We’d found a festival full of delicious foods and booze and a little live music – it made from a great lunch time stop!

Somehow the day was starting to get away from us – off to Yasui-kompira-gu Shrine then!

On the outskirts of Gion, I felt the guide lied to us by describing this place as ‘off the beaten track’. The small shrine feels more like the intersection of two small streets, in the middle of which sits a shaggy looking, white, 90’s cartoon character.

As it turns out, it’s a relationship rock, with a hole through middle. Crawl through one way to end a bad relationship, the opposite way to tighten the bonds of a relationship – don’t get the directions mixed up! Then you glue a piece of paper with your name to the rock! The massive queue seemed to suggest there’s something to this!

Blue mountain screen at Kennin-ji

As lovely as this is, turns out it’s not the special centre piece of the Kennin-ji temple

Final stop on today’s itinerary was Kennin-ji Temple. It had bit of a lacklustre free garden, but on the other wise was a lovely complex of buildings and gardens, which contained oddly cool, painted screens.The highlight was the painted ceiling piece, the Twin Dragons. A comparatively new piece (2002) to mark… some kind of anniversary (800th anniversary of the temple). This was the final stop on the itinerary, but we still had one more place to see this day!

Black screen mountains

And neither is this one special – but I like it, so, whatever

Kennin-ji Temple garden

Garden on the inside of Kennin-ji Temple

two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku

Painting of two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku, marking the 800th anniversary of the temple

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha streets

Making our way to Fushimi Inari Taisha

The shrine of 10,000 torii gates, famous thanks to its appearances in movies, it had to be done! But before we even got to the shrine, how could we say no to a cat cafe? Way better than the one in Oita since we could actually touch the cats without them all running away from you!

Sunset at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Sunset at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The shrine was tiring, and sweaty, as we raced up to watch sunset (stupid cat cafe). We stopped part way up for a bit of a look – from here Kyoto didn’t look to be the prettiest city!

Side shrines at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The creepy off shoots of the main path

With heavy hearts we continued up to the top, and without realising it passed the summit! We’ll never know exactly where the top was… But climbing down in the dark was cool, if not a little creepy, with lights strung between every few torii gates, and shadowy shrine graveyards leading off to the left and right.The other thing left for the day was to have a traditional Indian curry! Which after a walk along the river, we eventually located – it had nothing on Mie’s curry house Yumeya!

Manga Madness: Tuesday

Our final full day on holiday! We checked out and headed into Kyoto station to dump Frenchie’s suitcase and spend some time in the down town area. Well after a disasterous 45 minutes trying to find an empty locker, we changed tack, headed out to a smaller station and managed to find a locker. To Nishika Market!

A ‘traditional’ market, I can’t help but feel a large part of it caters to a tourism market. I find places like this become a lil jaded to the live-in-Japan gaijin, with the shock value lessened by the weird things I’ve eaten since arriving here, but we did find sangria and somewhere to write postcards!

Manga selfies

Manga selfies – Manga artists can turn you into a cartoon!

Next stop was the International Manga Museum. Situated in an old elementary school, it is home to thousands of Manga, with a small number of displays, and one large exhibition that provides an overview of manga – its history, origins, relation to anime and its relation to the whole brand of a series – it was really interesting! However, this is much more of a  library than a museum. Awesomely, there were manga artists who would draw you in a manga style – an excellent likeness I think!We settled on a plan to head into Osaka for the evening so as to be closer to the airport in the morning – so adult was this plan that it even meant not going out with our fellow JETs in Kyoto!

Of course before we could do any of this we nipped into an Irish pub for a quick Guinness and fish and chips!

It took a wee while to get into Osaka, and it was dark when we arrived. We stuck our shit into yet another locker, and ventured forth into the night.

Christmas love hotel in Kyoto

Did somebody mention Christmas?

Christmas love hotel in Kyoto

In this little corner of Japan…

Osaka is a world away from Kyoto, with its high skyline, and cacophony of bright, in your face alleys of shops vying for your attention! We wondered for a bit to embrace the sights, came across the legendary Christmas themed love hotel, and settle don finding a pub to while away the ours. Around 10 o’clock it was time to find a bed for the night. We must have spent an hour wondering around the streets of Osaka looking for a hotel. Too crappy looking, too tacky looking, too expensive each place was.

We checked out a hotel called Buckingham Palace, ran out when their was a person on the reception, only to walk back in via another entrance, with a one way door and had to timidly was past the lady we had just seen in reception!

Eventually we settled on the early mentioned Christmas-themed hotel, and began a session of karaoke in the room.

Christmas love hotel in Kyoto

… everyday is Christmas!

Final Farewells: Wednesday

Awoken in the dark by the alarm, we set out early to catch a train to the airport for Frenchie’s flight at 10. It was weird how’d we both be setting off to different places, one to France, the other to Oita, perhaps even a touch sad.

Kyoto shrine

One of thousands of small shrines in Kyoto

But having said our goodbyes, I went to the bookshop to buy Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人) and Assassination Classroom (暗殺教室) in manga form – next level Japanese study, here I come!