Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Of Caves and Nukes and Volcanoes

Since the last post went on a bit longer than I'd expected, the last little bit of Matsuyama got shoved into this one. I didn't want to scrimp too much on this part, because on the morning of my departure from Shikoku I visited what has got to be the weirdest temple in all of Japan - Ishite-ji, number 51 of Shikoku's 88-temple pilgrimage.  

Well - that's not quite accurate. The temple is a little unusual in that it's more cluttered and sprawling and less organised than most others I've seen - but that wouldn't in itself be enough to  write about. 

What was cool, however, was the surrounding area. Ishite-ji is nestled at the foot of a tall, forested hill, with my access route being a path over said hill. In fact, the hill was crisscrossed by a spiderweb of little unkempt tracks, so it was purely by good fortune that I happened to follow the one that went past the hilltop. From here, I got some very pretty views of the city...

...and of a huge Buddha statue someone built on a nearby hill for no discernible reason other than that it never hurts to have one more Buddha statue. 

Then, of course, there was the random golden sphere which seemed to serve no particular purpose - it was completely deserted apart from a few builders, and I'm not sure what exactly they were doing there. I couldn't figure out whether the whole place was derelict or unsafe to enter or anything - the path leading up to it was pretty overgrown and the inside looked pitch black, so I gave it a miss. It was only later that I found out that this place is packed with disturbing statues which would have been worth a visit. 

Now what makes Ishite-ji really weird is one of its least-known entrances. Matt at my hostel had told me of a tunnel-like cave which led to this temple, and this was what I was originally looking for when I meandered around the hill and eventually reached the hilltop instead. The cave mouth turned out to be a little further down the road, right by the roadside but cleverly hidden by some carved stonework so that at first glance it wasn't apparent that there was anything behind it. 

I had imagined a short passageway, maybe 20m long but not much more than that - I could not have been more wrong. I'm not embarassed to admit that this tunnel creeped me the hell out. It was some 250m long, low enough that I had to stoop and lit only by tiny lamps at intervals which left 90% of it in near-complete blackness - just enough to let the dozens of little 2-foot tall stone statues cast some seriously eerie shadows. It didn't help that these statues also all wore clothes like the ones pictured in the first photo of this post, which moved in the breeze to add an extra bit of realism to the shadows. There were also a few larger alcoves which were guarded by 10ft statues staring grimly out of the blackness. 

Here's the exit at the temple end of the tunnel. Here's a taster of the inside, though rather better lit than when I was there. In conclusion - yes, I'm a massive wuss...

And on that note, onwards to Hiroshima! This is one of those places that will only ever be famous for one thing. Trying to promote Hiroshima for its pretty rivers or anything else is a bit like seeing Daniel Radcliffe/Elijah Wood in any non-Harry Potter/Frodo role: it just doesn't work. They will always be those two characters, and Hiroshima will always be the city that got nuked. 

That said, Hiroshima is a very pleasant city to while away a few days in. Aside from everything being named "Peace..." - pagodas, parks, boulevards, everything - I can't really think of anything unpleasant about it. There are no signs at all that this city was a nuclear wasteland less than 70 years ago - except for the A-bomb dome, a powerful ruin right in the city centre. It is almost exactly below the hypocentre of the bomb (which exploded above ground level for maximum effect), and by some freak incident the framework of the structure remained standing. During the cleanup efforts in the 50s it was decided to keep the dome as a memorial, and it's a pretty haunting one. A nuclear blast is one of those things it can't be possible to imagine unless one's been affected by one - watching them (e.g. here or here or here) never fails to fill me with a mixture of awe and horror. 

A pillar warped in the heat of the explosion.
Right next to the A-bomb dome is the Peace Park, which covers an island in one of Hiroshima's four rivers and is packed with memorials and monuments to all imaginable population groups and minorities affected by the bomb. It also houses the "Flame of Peace", which will be extinguished once all nuclear weapons on Earth have been destroyed. 

Thousands of origami cranes at the children's memorial. A girl who witnessed the bomb as a baby and got leukaemia a decade later decided to fold 1000 of these in her hospital bed, hoping she'd get better. She died before she could complete the thousand, but her class, and eventually schools around Japan and the world, began to contribute. 
The A-bomb dome makes for a rather better background for the Flame of Peace...
...than the rather drab-looking museum.
Despite its squat, unattractive exterior, the A-bomb museum is pretty interesting. I hadn't known that the mayor of Hiroshima has written a letter protesting every single nuclear test that has ever occurred - they covered several walls! The other exhibits do a fair job at conveying the aftereffects of the blast - some are positively chilling, such as this tricycle.

On a rather more cheerful note, the food in Hiroshima is excellent! Okonomiyaki literally translates as "grilled 'whatever-you-want'", and while this doesn't mean an unlimited meatfest such as the more extravagant mind might conjure up, the result is still tasty. The Hiroshima version consists of yakisoba noodles, cabbage, pork, beef and various squiddy seafood all grilled with batter and egg to make a giant pancake layered with all sorts of goodness and topped with an unidentified but fantastic brown sauce. The whole thing is then served on the grill, and you get a spatula to help yourself with. Winner!

And for no good reason, Hiroshima castle's walls at sunset. I really need to get home and start straightening all these photos...
Followers of this blog will remember the Three Views of Japan, one of which I visited in northern Honshu (and in the previous blog post); the time had now come to find another one of these. Fortunately, I had the common sense to leave early and arrived on Miyajima Island at 6.45am, thus avoiding the crowds. And what crowds they were...the tour groups began streaming in around the same time I left, and they were fearsome indeed.

This island is home to the Floating Torii (the archways which mark the entrance to a shrine). I had done my homework and had even checked the tide timetable to make sure I came on the right day - at low tide, the floating torii actually stands in an expanse of mud which I imagine would be rather less photogenic. As it was, though, only a handful of other early birds were at the shrine with me and I spent a good hour and a half wandering its planks and gangways in the search for the best views. 

Now this is undeniably a beautiful affair, but sadly the Japanese ability to build the most monstrous concrete hotel blocks right in front of their greatest treasures rears its ugly head yet again. Fortunately, the Inland Sea's far shore is far enough away that this isn't too big a deal, but still - what on Earth were they thinking?! 

A fair few of the monks sported some of the most excellent minty blue kit anyone could wish for...
Gotta get those cherry blossoms in the frame!
And at long last, we get to my last stop in Japan. At the southernmost extremity of Kyushu, Kagoshima lies along a bay across which is one of the world's most active volcanoes. It is, in fact, officially currently erupting, though nobody seems to mind very much: the tourism industry (read: gift and snack shops) along its flank are thriving. I didn't have the time to actually head over there myself, but upon my 5am start to get to nearby Kirishima-Yaku National Park for a good day's hiking I was treated to a rather shapely little plume by Sakurajima.   

This set the mood nicely for the rest of the day, which was spent in a volcanic wasteland which, while cool, was no match for New Zealand's Tongariro National Park. Alas, it's truly a hard life having seen some of the world's more spectacular places (an unreasonable fraction of which seem to be crammed into New Zealand)!

Still, it was nice to get out and about once more, and the landscape provided an interesting contrast from the lush greenery of Shikoku. 

This used to be a crater lake used to film the villain's HQ in 007: You Only Live Twice.
Then the volcano erupted. No more lake... 
 My original plan had been to hike across a chain of volcanic peaks from one hamlet to another, but since the second volcano in the chain was in the process of blowing its top off the path was closed. This left me to climb Karakuni-jima, where the above shots were taken, and then wander around a nearby crater lake before heading back to complete the loop. On the way, I met another English chap named Benedict, who was excellent company and had conveniently stayed in a hotel next to the bus station the previous night. This meant that a cheeky onsen visit was on the cards after the hike, and I can confirm that there is no better way to finish a wander than a hot soak. 

And so ended the penultimate stage of my adventure. After a few uneventful days in Fukuoka which were mostly spent wandering the aisles of a 5-story camera shop but not buying anything, I hopped on a plane to Korea. More on that soon...

Monday, 13 May 2013

How many routes must a man walk down...

...before he has seen all of Japan?

The titles of this post and the previous one stem from the Japanese love of rules, even in their free time. As a result, all tourist attractions feature plentiful and often disruptive signage pointing the intrepid explorer towards the right "route", "path" or "track". Not that this is not usually the only way to go anyway, but the obsession with being told where to go took me aback a bit. Alas, I heartily disagree with the notion that the best thing to do when seeing something new and exciting is to exactly follow a pre-prepared fast track past all the attractions. Fortunately, the northern end of Honshu, Japan's main island, provided some welcome respite from this "beeline tourism". 

The region of Tohoku is a relative backwater dominated by rural communities and small towns. Nevertheless, it is crisscrossed by Shinkansen lines as well as regional trains which made getting around easy. I based myself in Sendai, a very pleasant but unremarkable city near Fukushima which, like its infamous neighbour, was hit quite hard by the 2011 tsunami. Fortunately, no lasting damage occurred and the city is more or less back to normal again. From here, I undertook day trips, offering a small prayer of thanks to the Rail Pass every time: without it, I would have had to pay a small fortune to get around all the places I visited. 

I particularly enjoyed this impracticably narrow house - and it doesn't even have a wider section round the back!
My first excursion was to Matsushima, which is famous as one of Japan's "Three Views". Classification of attractions is generally popular here - there are also things like the "Three Famous Castles" - which then naturally have to be supplemented by the "Three Great Mountain Castles", the "Three Famous Flatland Mountain Castles", and so on. Feels a bit like a manifestation of the "everyone's a winner" culture...but the Three Views are the original, so I figured this would be a worthwhile day trip. 

The area does boast some impressive natural splendour, diminished only a little by the haze lingering in the sky on the day of my visit. What diminished it a lot more were the innumerable cruise ships and the inevitable concrete jungle lining the waterfront. Also, Japanese town planners seem to have a knack for placing giant electricity pylons right across of the most scenic views. The area is also known for its oysters and crabs - but why they had to litter the entire bay which is home to this famous natural treasure with industrial ports and fishery buoys is beyond me. 

Anyway, I boarded a tourist ferry with fairly low hopes, but ended up having a good time. The air cleared a little as we sailed further out, and we were entertained by huge flocks of seagulls who received a rapturous welcome by the predominantly Japanese tourists on the boat. 

They must have a pretty easy life out here, with the food from snack stalls on the waterfront probably feeding seagulls as much as people...and their fearlessness meant that they made for good models. 

With hundreds of islands dotting the entirety of Matsushima Bay (matsu translates as pine, and shima as island...an almost drab name compared to the normally flowery Japanese nomenclature!), a few have eroded into interesting shapes over the years. Some of the more precarious ones collapsed during the 2011 earthquake, but given that the islands protected the shore from the brunt of the tsunami, that's not something to lament overmuch. 

Surprisingly, even the area immediately surrounding the tourist ferry dock is pretty run down - a stark contrast to glitzy Tokyo and immaculate Kyoto! 

Strong eyes.
I don't even know whether this is a customisation or whether some designer thought this would be a great idea...

The next day I headed inland to Yamadera, where a small shrine clings to a cliff in the foothills of the Japan Alps. It is still pretty chilly up here in April, so the sun was very much appreciated. I had expected a bit of a hike, but in fact climbing to the top of the shrine only took about 15 minutes. There was an inviting-looking ridge leading further up and to what looked like a spectacular outlook, but the way was closed and guarded by attentive-looking monks in one of the ubiquitous gift shops. Still, the scenery was very pretty all around and being in the hills, if not the mountains, made for a nice change. 

Yeah mountains! A return to Nepal seems ever likelier...

Strong colours under changeable skies.

My last stop up north was in the Tono Valley, an almost completely agricultural region - and one of Japan's poorest. It is marketed as a place to escape civilisation, and also as one where the stories and folk tales of old still live. In particular, they seem to make a big deal out of Kappas - small mischievous imps who live in rivers and ponds. The tourist guides and prospectuses go on about little else, but sadly I failed to spot one. Still, my bike ride through the valley proved thoroughly enjoyable despite the fact that even at maximum seatpost extension my knees were woefully bent. 

A mini-bulldozer - possibly the best vehicle ever. 
Decided shortage of kappa...
White balance fail - but a very pretty forest!
Call me a scaremonger, but that doesn't strike me as the best place for a little shrine...
As I climbed a half-overgrown staircase up into the forest in search of a shrine indicated by the roadside, I made a bit of a startling discovery. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted an animal with dark grey and white fur which stood out against the brown-and-green forest backdrop. My first reaction was that it was a wolf - when I actually turned to look at it this proved ridiculous, but the fur may lend me some credence:

Upon returning to Sendai, my research revealed that this was in fact a Japanese Serow, a tall goat-like affair. Since they normally rest and hide during the day I have no idea what it was doing up and about - but it seemed similarly startled by my appearance. Clearly this particular shrine isn't much frequented...

Having exhausted the surroundings of Sendai that are accessible without a car, I set my sights further South, on Shikoku. This is the smallest of Japan's four main islands and has a reputation of being less touristy than the rest of Japan. Indeed, the Shinkansen network does not cover Shikoku and English signage and general communication is available much less here. Nevertheless, this ended up being one of my favourite parts of Japan! 

My first stop was in Takamatsu, a nondescript place just across the Inland Sea from Honshu. The two islands are connected here by a seemingly endless bridge, though this makes for a nice change from more conventional, tunnel-based means of crossing a sea. However, Takamatsu does have a stunning garden; I wish I'd taken my tripod along when I visited it!

It was also in Takamatsu that I had the pleasure of staying in one of Japan's famous capsule hotels. They sound a lot worse than they are - unlike the coffin-like images their name evokes in most people's imaginations, the "capsules" are actually pretty spacious. They are also cheap, and come with various pleasant extras like an in-house bath house, massage chairs and the possibility of lounging around in a dressing gown all evening. Most are male-only, although this is more a concession to the fact that they cater mostly to businessmen (who continue to be almost exclusively male in Japan) and to the fact that this makes bath-house logistics simpler. 

Rows upon rows...
...and the cosy inside. Plenty of headroom when sat up and comfortably wide, with a screen for the "entrance" at my feet - really can't complain, especially for a tenner a night in urban Japan! 
The real highlight of Shikoku, though, was Matsuyama, where I headed next. I suspect staying in a very pleasant guesthouse run by an American and his Japanese wife - both of whom spoke great English - helped an immeasurable amount here. Being given simple and clear advice and directions and having people to talk to cheered me up no end, and allowed me to get out there and see some really quite stunning parts of the country. But first, the standard castle visit...

Matsuyama tram fun!
Now one thing Shikoku is known for is a pilgrimage which takes the pilgrim to 88 temples dotted all around the island. Completing it on foot takes anywhere between six and eight weeks, so this is mostly done by retirees as Japanese workers are lucky if they have even two weeks of holiday a year. Pilgrims wear white vests and the conical straw hats one might expect in a 1950s comic involving Asians. Following the advice of Matt the guesthouse co-owner, I headed out of town to walk the path from Temple #44 to #45 and back again. This proved fantastic advice - after a brief stretch of walking on a road (and through a tunnel...certainly a novel experience!) the pilgrim route meandered off into virgin forest. 

Track markings for the pilgrimage.

What followed was an absolutely beautiful forest walk, punctuated at one point by a clearing where a handful of farms clustered in the sunshine. They were far from any roads, this was real oldschool stuff! 

Not sure if shrine, impromptu dining table or random stuff...
Temple #45, then, was an unusual affair - buildings were few and far between, and instead small figurines and statues were dotted along the path, which here descended a steep hillside in switchbacks, or tucked away in alcoves

This guy seemed particularly angry about something...

Right; I think that's enough for now! One more post on Japan to go, before we finally turn to Korea. It's hard to believe that I've now been on the road for well over six months - and that it's just two-and-a-bit weeks till I'm back home again!