Jules on Tour

Japan, China, Laos 2014


hot springs – you’d be on-sen not to!

So I’d seen the pictures before I got here of the monkeys snoozing in hot springs but I dont think I realised that onsen, as they’re called here, are everywhere. And they seem to be quite a big part of community life.
Japanese inns and guesthouses often don’t provide en suite bathrooms. Instead you go to the public bath, which often as not gets its water from some spring bubbling up below. The locals all go there too.

It costs between 1 and 4 quid, depending on how fancy they are, but an average one has hot, warm and cold pools, washing facilities, a dressing room and once you’re done, a room where you can just sit and chill, read, watch tv or whatever for as long as you like. Many have a sauna too, and those outside the cities often have an outdoor pool too.

The one I went to this morning was surrounded by trees – japanese maples just coming into leaf and blossoming cherry trees hanging low over the pool. It was raining, but that doesn’t matter if you are wet already and in a toasty warm bath. It was really quite magical.

This is all done completely in the nude of course, but there are separate sections for men and women, tastefully screened off, and since everyone goes there, from the oldest to the youngest, it is hard to feel self conscious.
You wash before going in, sitting on a teeny stool facing a shower hose, tap and soap etc, and then you spend as long as you like going from pool to pool until, in my case anyway, you become extremely red in the face from the heat.

I’ve been onsen-ing as much as I can and will soon be heading for some hills where there are historic onsen. One is 1800 years old apparently.

Travels-wise, I spent a day in kumamoto last week, where I learned an important thing, for me anyway. This is to avoid the designated tourist places as much as possible. Whatever meaning they once had is long gone, replaced by ersatz meaning channelled through the medium of the gift shop.i went to look at a famous garden and was really disappointed. I know it’s only March but it was dry and dead and still. I wandered around humming ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ (Dolly Parton does a great version). I decided to walk back to the hotel rather than take the tram, and found a beautiful river with public gardens down one side that were much lovelier than the one I’d been in. Flowers everywhere, people out enjoying themselves and birds all over the place. I even saw a kingfisher.

Still, the next stop was Hiroshima, where you pretty much have to do the designated places. Interesting, sobering. The waiters in the restaurant I went to that evening introduced me to sake, which counteracted the effect a little. I am won over to sake now, it’s nice. I don’t have to comment on the serious stuff do I? “Dropping atom bombs on people is so wrong!” (cf Band Candy, Buffy season 2)

I didn’t have much time in kyoto. I can be quite slow to catch on sometimes, as you may know, and it took me a while to realise that accommodation needs to be booked well in advance here. I thought the spring equinox holiday was a one off, but it seems spring is just generally busy.

I put some hours in, though, and am now sorted for places for the rest of my time in japan. And not much time in kyoto fits with my new tourism avoidance philosophy. It is very pretty tho.

After that I went to a very touristy resort on the coast, but as every single other person was japanese it doesn’t count. I enjoyed being the only gaijin in the village!
People I chatted to there included a 6 year old girl, a retired primary school teacher and a student who managed a Japanese rock band. He still loved Paul McCartney tho. Everyone does. Luckily no one has asked me what British people think of him.

Ithink they love him almost as much as they love cherry blossom. It’s just coming out and there is great excitement. There are cherry blossom forecasts on the news, stories in the papers and it’s the first thing anyone mentions. A woman who I chatted to over dinner this evening, who was on holiday from tokyo, was on her way to kyoto to see a particular type of small cherry blossom tree with pink flowers that only grows in a certain area. There are over 100 kinds apparently. Who knew?

Incidentally this woman was wearing a shirt with a William Morris print on it, so we had a great chat about that.

Only one more week in japan!



riding up and down japan on bullet train

Nah. Found a hotel in nearby Kumamoto city to stay, and had the rest of the day free to go up and look at the crater of mount aso. The weather was cold, but sunny and clear for the first time in days. It was worth waiting for. Perfect viewing conditions for the only active volcano crater in the world that you can look into directly.
Try as I might I just cant get photos to appear on this site – a combination of my technical shortcomings and those of this galaxy tablet, which I’m beginning to think is little more than a toy.
Photos are on http://www.snapfish.com/snapfish/thumbnailshare/AlbumID=11119647006/a=142900789_142900789/otsc=SHR/otsi=SALBlink/COBRAND_NAME=snapfish/

I dont like technology and I think technology knows that
No disrespect to technology editors of course. Niall – what a lovely area you taught in. I didn’t make it as far as takamori but was in Minamiaso, nearby. Lovely rural area of pretty houses, vegetabe patches and rice paddies. I went strawberry picking the other day. They were in greenhouses, but delicious, and I had a hilarious time with the people running the place trying to chat about ichigo in japanese.
sorry this post is all over the place. I need a subeditor!
Anyway, the volcano was amazing. You could see steam and gas gushing out of the ground in huge amounts. The best thing was the noise it made – a very deep booming, hissing, rumbling sound. I chatted to one of the guys standing at the edge making sure conditions were safe and he said it’s when the noise and steam stop that you have to worry. Like if you had a kettle with no exit for the vapour. Sooner or later it goes boom.
A lot of the time the viewing spots are closed because the air is not breathable, and the whole place is on constant alert to evacuate at a moment’s notice if anything changes. It was rare not only to be there at all but for conditions to be such that you could see the bottom of the crater and the gases coming out of the ground. Definitely worth waiting for!


what will happen?

It is Saturday morning, 7am. I am sitting in the hostel in the Mount Aso region, in the middle of the most southerly of Japan’s main islands, wondering where I will stay tonight. I have been caught unawares by a huge holiday weekend. Who knew, apart from everyone, that all the accommodation would be booked out, from the lowest bunk to the top of the range hotels? I have a tense few hours ahead of me, but my plan is to get the tourist information centre to do the work. That thing with not being able to speak or read Japanese gets tricky at times like this.

Plus, surely not everywhere is a holiday destination? Perhaps today will end in an ironic reverse in which the tourist goes to the business area while the businessman comes to the resort. And I could go anywhere on the excellent rail system. Have Rail Pass, will travel. I wonder if the bullet trains run all night? I suppose I could get a sleeper train to Hokkaido and maybe even back again. Arrive here tomorrow morning as if nothing happened.

I could stay in an internet cafe in some city somewhere. I went to one in Tokyo that has little booths with mats on the floor to lie on. You hire the booth for 12 hours at a time, there are tea and coffee facilities and a machine dispensing pot noodles. You can even get slippers and blankets at reception.

I don’t think it will come to that though.

Aso is a spectacular region, scenery wise. It is a giant bowl, about 25 kilometres across, which is the crater of a vast, ancient volcano. There is a ring of mountains around it, and in the centre another cluster of peaks where the volcano continues to spew gas and lava. The flat grassy area in between is where all the houses are. I have been hoping to go up and look at the relatively small crater that still exists, but various things have prevented me up to now. I have a feeling it might be one of those things I am just not going to get to to.

Still, as the old lady who ran the bar down in Kagoshima said: their volcano, Sakurajima, is much stronger. It has erupted 67 times this year alone. What has Aso done in the time, pouffed a few bits of gas? Pah! You can walk all over Aso. If you try to go over Sakurajima you will die.

She was a tech-savvy old lady – she told me all this via the voice translator on her smartphone -and keen to advertise the merits of “their” volcano. Everyone in Kagoshima is proud of it, showing me photos of their cars covered in ash, youtube videos of eruptions and so on. On the streets, though mostly swept spotlessly clean, and in the parks, you can see piles of volcanic ash. It makes up all the soil. Aso is covered in grass. So hey, it can go and whistle!

Find out soon where I end up…


Royale with cheese

It’s the little things that make it different, like toilets.

I can safely say, Rob Stainsby, that a heated toilet seat does not feel like someone else has just left it, but more like sitting on a radiator at the perfect temperature. On a cold day – and some have been freezing – it is very welcome indeed, I can tell you.
In fact, Japanese toilets are the friendliest conveniences I have ever encountered. One yesterday opened its lid when I walked in… as if to say “Well, hello!” Some of them flush themselves when you get up to save you the bother. Many politely play background noise in case you make any embarrassing sounds, and if the signs on the control panel (yes, there’s a control panel) are sufficiently legible you can not only get either a jet or spray of warm water over your nether regions, but also a blow dry afterwards.

Other little differences: everyone but everyone waits at the road crossing til the green man appears, even if there are no cars coming. No one jaywalks, not even young lads.

Smoking is allowed indoors, but only in certain places. And the same goes for outdoors. Smoking on the street is not really done; there are allocated smoking areas.

There isn’t any petty crime. People sort of lock their bikes, with a bracket over the back wheel that a child could undo, but that’s all you need, cause no one is going to make a serious effort to nick it. Admittedly they mostly have crap bikes – no one seems to care about the latest model or composite frame or whatever – but still. In tokyo the police have little houses with cute roofs to stand around in.

It’s one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, yet crap bikes, they dont go big on credit cards you pay by cash mostly, cafes dont have wi-fi, cashpoints only take Japanese cards by and large. Loads of stuff like that. The cars are pretty square too, quite often.

Oh, slippers. There’s a whole thing. This is generally known, I think, but they really take it seriously. You simply dont ever go into a house with your shoes on. Quite a lot of other places too – restaurants, bars etc. You remove your shoes and before you go up a little step you will have put your slippers on. And when you go to the bathroom you take off those slippers and put on the toilet slippers, which will be sitting there waitng for you. Obviously it’s a huge faux pas to forget to take off your toilet slippers. In the place I was staying in tokyo, there was a little balcony. Sure enough, there was a pair of outside slippers there for the purpose. Absolutely no slippers or anything but socks or bare feet though, if you are in a room with tatami matting. A lot to keep in mind, and it can get difficult when you are trying to communicate with someone at the same time. I have slipp(er)ed up a few times, walking out of restaurants with slippers still on, for instance.

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Okinawan life

To look at Okinawa, you would think: hideous. It is quite a big island, and a large proportion of it is covered in an unplanned sprawl of concrete buildings. Driving up the one main highway it feels claustrophobic. There is no open space, no thinning out of development into countryside, just pockets of thick forest crouching between roads and ugly urbanity. Even when it starts to thin out further north into sugarcane and vegetable patches, it is thick with vast resort hotels and tourist stuff.

And yet, it is a wonderful place. The nature is there, it has just been pushed into a thin line around the coast. There are countless beaches fringed with tropical plants and coral reefs, and all the “cliffs” are made of former coral reef. Because the resorts concentrate tourists in certain spots, there are any number of deserted beaches to explore. And there is lush forest everywhere, it’s just that people can’t get into it. But that’s ok.

Everyone says hello and smiles when you pass, at least outside the cities, where I was. It doesn’t matter that you can’t speak Japanese. All that stuff they say in the guidebooks about a shy people who are unwilling to use the little English they know for fear of losing face is just not the case in my experience – or to clarify, there are shy and extrovert people in exactly the same proportions as everywhere else. No one expects you to be able to speak Japanese, and most folk are only too willing to use whatever words they can dredge up in order to make friends.

I was befriended the other day, sitting in a small cafe by a harbour, by a retired english teacher. His family had lived on Okinawa for generations and, having nothing much on that day, he showed me round the area where he was brought up. I went and had tea at his house and met his wife and we all had a right old time.

Seems like everyone has a story to tell about the war, though it’s not like everyone is chatting about it. The battle of Okinawa devastated most of the island and tens of thousands were killed. I met a woman, who has a high-powered job and is very elegant, who also happens to come from a long line of shamans of the island’s religion. Noro, I think is the correct name, a kind of priestess/goddess, and these woman are the big cheeses on the island.

Well, towards the end of the war, this person’s grandmother was hiding from the Americans in a cave by the sea, along with some Japanese soldiers. During this time, she gave birth to a baby. But the baby wouldn’t stop crying and the soldiers told her to go outside with a hand grenade and blow herself and the baby up, so as not to betray the others hiding in the cave. She did it, but the grenade didn’t go off. Managed to escape somehow, and that’s the only reason the line of shamans still continues today.


now in okinawa

It was freezing in tokyo so I decided to head south, and got a flight down to the island of okinawa, which is actually closer to shanghai and korea than mainland japan.
The island is about 70km long, sub tropical and seems kinda polynesian. I met up with a friend of my lovely colleague Valerie Jamieson, and he has proved to be equally lovely and very hospitable. He said I could stay at his place, and when I discovered how close to the sea his place is, it was hard to refuse. Photos, well, I have tried and so far failed, but in words, we are about 20 metres from the lagoon of a coral reef, which my bedroom window looks out on. Spent the day walking along gorgeous coral beaches and bits of forest in between that are thick with tropical plants end butterflies. People are if anything even more friendly than in tokyo and have been practising some very limited Japanese on them. Its warm enough for shirt and sandals, and I am hoping to do a bit of snorkeling in the next few days. I have to mention the food of course, which is out of this world. Jet black squid soup doesn’t look or sound nice, but tastes amazing! They also do some crazy things with seaweed.
Neil, my host, is keen on birdwatching, I was delighted to discover, and I had hardly been on the island for ten minutes before we had seen a type of kingfisher and an exciting looking thing called a Chinese bulbul. Wooo….
There is another side to the place, which is that there are some huge US military bases here. Only evidence of them so far has been an occasional fighter plane overhead.
there was a big earthquake here last week, but seemingly no damage done. Am annoyed I missed it! There are signs along the coast warning that if an earthquake happens you should get to higher ground in case of a tsunami.
All the houses have a kind of temporary look to them, essentially because that’s the way it is here. Every few years a massive typhoon will hit, so you have no guarantee that your place will last longer than that