Since November I have been, and continue to be, happily employed at a scientific institute in Auckland, New Zealand as one of their software developers. It’s a world away from the daily marathons I walked across Japan, struggling to understand and be understood. No more fascinating local customs or idiosyncrasies pick up on (though our team does cover a nicely varied background), no more hunting around for a place to sleep or comparing foods by their calories to Yen ratio. But I just heard about an oppourtunity I couldn’t let pass me by. Queensland Tourism is looking for an island caretake (read: promotional agent/blogwriter etc) to live on Hamilton Island for six months. Applications are done by way of videos and this is mine. I’d appreciate you taking the time to watch it and vote. It’s only 1min long and it’d really change my life in a crazy and most welcome way.
My name is Craig Stanton and in 2008 I walked across Japan from from Cape Sata to Cape Soya. My journey is now over but if you’re interested in the hiking side of it you can read from the start or the end. If you’re here to see how I travel around as a regular tourist then this front page is a fine place to begin.
February 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment
October 13th, 2008 · No Comments
…laughs the hardest.
Three months after I reached Cape Soya on foot, the class of ‘08 has doubled as Chris Lynch has finished his walk across Japan too. He hasn’t updated his site yet but I just spoke to him on the phone and he’s already heading back south to Tokyo. It’s cold up there on the northern tip and after 190 days in that tent he deserves a good rest. I last saw him in Beppu when he went north and I crossed over to Shikoku. Since then he’s been taking the smaller back roads and really getting to know the place, like I had planned, while I hit the highways and powered through.
That’s my biggest regret about Japan, just going too fast and not taking enough side trips. It wasn’t supposed to be about breaking any records, it was about discovering Japan. So big-ups to Chris for reaching his goals, physical and mental. I hope we’ll cross paths again, and that we’ll both smell better when we do :-)
September 20th, 2008 · No Comments
My last week in Japan found me winding down. After 5 months of traveling I’m exhausted. We took an all-day bus from Kyoto to Tokyo, considerably cheaper than the bullet train and thus much slower. The hostel we’d booked wasn’t hard to find and for the price I think it was a reasonable deal. Khaosan Ninja it’s called and it was modeled after the famous capsule hotels of this city. We’d hoped to stay in one of those but they are mostly just for men. The ones that do let in ladies, only let in ladies and what’s the point of being in Tokyo with your girlfriend if you have to stay in different buildings? Khaosan’s bunks were each walled in with chipboard and had sliding panels to make each one into a box.
I’ve been to both Disney World in Florida and Euro Disney near Paris, but that was over 10 years ago so we thought it was high-time I had a top-up. Tokyo Disney is apparently modeled on the one in California, which I’ve never been to, but I think it fits well into the chain. Maybe it’s that I am 10 years older now but the lack of proper roller-coasters was a bit of a let down. Space Mountain was fantastic. So good I rode it twice. Thunder Mountain, the run-away mine train, was ok for all its tight twists and winds. Splash Mountain, the log-flume, was a good laugh too. The other rides were either kids’ float-along ones like Pirates of the Carribean, or motion simulators like Star Tours, neither of which appealed to me. I think Tania felt the same for most of these, but she did get into the spirit a bit more than I did by wearing her Princess Minnie hat all day, even back home on the subway :-) It’s interesting what people can be persuaded to do if everyone else is already doing it. I saw many otherwise normal teenagers wearing Tigger tails or other cartoon regalia.
Neither Tania nor I are big drinkers. There are plenty of people who come to Tokyo just to party, and it’s a good city to do that, but we prefer a more laid back approach most of the time. Roppongi is one of the night-life centers of Tokyo and towering over the district is Roppongi Hills.
Built to be a city within a city it has almost everything you need in one go, if you’re super rich and just need bars, expensive shops and a skyscraper. It sort of reminded me of one of the buildings you get at the later stages of SimCity 2000. There were fancy apartment blocks, an indoor up-scale mall and a strange spidery sculpture that followed Nivi around the world last year.
With that covered I had just two more things to see in Japan. Not that I’ve seen everything here, but there is a limit to what one person can absorb. The Meiji Shrine is reputedly the best in Tokyo, so despite torrential rain and darkening skies I trekked over to see it. For a mega-city like this I was amazed how quickly the footpaths were swallowed into the forests. The canopy above, and admittedly the heavy rain clouds, hid all signs of the metropolis outside and I was suitably impressed by the low-rise buildings in the middle. The shrine was built to honour Emperor Meiji. Under his rule Japan ended its self-imposed isolation from the world, but was destroyed during WWII. Not exactly a good omen for dealing with other countries. Anyway, they rebuilt, true to the original design and imported massive cyprus trees from Korea rather than doing a slash-dab fero-concrete replica like some of the ‘restored’ castles.
On the morning we left I mad an early diversion to the Tsujiki Fish Market. It’s where the daily catch comes in and gets auctioned off to restaurants. Apparently it’s a frenzy of flying fish when it kicks off at 5am, but the subways aren’t open then so I missed that part. What I saw was the stalls chopping up their seafood and scooting them around on specially-made carts that featured a strange vertically mounted engine that swiveled a full 360 degrees and was accelerated by a circular handle on top. It’s almost like a fairground bumper-car, if pressing the steering wheel made it move. Hundreds of these things were weaving in and out as I, and many more tourists, meandered between the piles of frozen tuna, bleeding eels and some fish that were still twitching.
September 17th, 2008 · 2 Comments
This is the second time I’ve been to Kyoto this year and I’ve covered a mix of familiar and new things.
Nijo castle, apparently the site of my first steps some 27 years ago, is still looking fine surrounded by its carp-filled moat. The floor still squeaks there, but since my last visit I’ve found at least two other buildings with the same effect (which is done on purpose to make sneaking in very hard). On the recommendation of The Lonely Planet, often referred to as The Good Book, we when off to Funaoka Sento, the best public bath in Kyoto. It was pretty basic by some standards, but had some interesting points. I didn’t try the tub of dark brown water. Compared to the other clear pools it looked positively unsanitary but I’ve since discovered it to be the mineral pool. There was an electric pool too, like the one I found on the outskirts of Nagoya many moons ago. I experimented with that for a while, fighting the unseen force that contorted and deformed my arms, and the cold pool too. But the most interesting thing about the experience was how I felt in the changing room. No-one else was there. I was worried I was in the wrong room and I just couldn’t start getting undressed until there was at least one other semi-clad man in the room to prove I wasn’t in the lobby or corridor :-/
Oh yeah. We went at night, the best time for a hot bath. At some point the bus driver spotted us in the mirror and came back to check if we knew where we were going, which we did. It was then I looked around and noticed we were the only European faces on the bus. I guess we stood out to him, assuming tourists just stick to the main night-life district, but it was nothing new to us. I’m glad our traveling has been like this, independent enough to see the little places.
Arashiyama, on the western side of town, was great. For weeks I’ve been making fun of the way Tania fell for the small furry animals of America. Squirrels, chipmunks, whatever. She wanted one and yelped with joy when a new one ran across our path. Sadly I never caught this on camera, but trust me it happened. I claimed immunity to this but at the top of the hill she found my weakness. Baby monkeys. I love them, I love them, I love them. What a shame they’re not really house pets and NZ wouldn’t allow them anyway.
Kiyomizu was pretty cool. We saw a festival/dance with long thin dragon held up on poles. The temple on the top didn’t stand out much from all those we’ve seen, but the massive beams underneath, holding it up on the hillside, were impressive for sure.
Ginkakuji was a disappointment of my own making. Had I bothered to turn the page in the good book I’ve have discovered that though it translates as ‘Silver Pavilion’, it was never actually covered in silver as the shogun had planned. Not only that but it’s more scaffolding than pavilion right now :-(
September 15th, 2008 · 1 Comment
September 12th, 2008 · No Comments
The white sands of Shirahama have been the subject of poems and guidebooks for hundreds and hundreds of years. “As white as snow” one particularly famous one proclaims. Unfortunately the tide changed, literally, and it got washed away. What greets the visitors now was imported from Australia. They did a good job of it though and the beach is constantly being combed to remove rubbish and stuff that floats in on the small waves.
I bought a pair of googles to enjoy the really super clear water. I haven’t been to a beach like that since Egypt. Sadly no coral to investigate, no anything really, but just being underwater is good enough for me.
The minshuku we stayed in was a pretty standard deal, except the airconditioning, which some may consider a life-saving essential, was ¥100 per hour.
One night we happened upon a restaurant/bar that had a foot spa running below the tables outside, so we ate and soaked at the same time which was a novelty. We paid for it via the massively over priced drinks, and my sunglasses which haven’t been seen since :(
September 10th, 2008 · 4 Comments
My previous visit to Koya-san was just a day trip. Lorraine and I took in the Kobo Dashi mausoleum and the graveyard and left. This time, thanks to a generous gift from her mum, Tania and I stayed the night in one of the 52 temple lodgings that crowd the town. We saw the lantern hall with its dark wood interior and roof full of (now electric) lanterns, plus a few genuine oil ones at the back. They’re reported to have been burning for hundreds of years.
For the first time on our travels we chose to eat the food supplied by the accommodation. It was the full experience. First we were told to go soak in the traditional baths. The guys’ changing room was under the stairs and as I got back into my yukata I heard the dozens of new arrivals ascending above me. We’d thought it was just us and the monks until then. Dinner was served in a private room, on little black trays as is the Japanese way. A bowl of rice on one side to share, various glutenous substances of questionable origin, something that looked like a mini-omlette but stretched like rubber and an assortment of pickled vegetables I couldn’t directly identify. Dessert seemed to be a mousse of tofu with soy-sauce dressing, though it may have been the entrée. We ate what we could then returned to our room to dress before heading back to the ancient graveyard.
There were a few other people taking in the atmosphere and setting up their cameras for night photography. I would say the Lonely Planet really over-hyped it. Yeah it’s big and mossy and stuff, but it’s just a graveyard. Had they hired people to pose as statues and then leap out at tourists I’d have been more impressed.
Morning “chanting” was scheduled for 6:30am, but someone must have got the wrong information because the bus load of Japanese that arrived last night were up at 5am and continued sliding a particularly creaky door back and forth for 90 minutes. One nosey neighbour even opened the first of our two doors, then presumably saw our slippers and retreated. I stood guard for a while but they didn’t return.
At the appointed time we were called to the main hall and the chanting began. The first 10 minutes were ok, but the next 40 were kind of repetitive. I even saw other guests checking their watches. Of course it made no sense to me but I’d like to know if anyone else understood it, or if what was said is more like Latin to Europeans.
September 9th, 2008 · 2 Comments
We’re back in Japan and immediately being made to feel like honoured guests. In Nagoya we revisited Iizuka-san, with whom I stayed back in May, and her daughter’s family came to say hello. The seven of us piled into the late-model people mover, decked out with dashboard navigation system and TV. Kiyomi said drivers are forbidden to watch while driving, pointing out a car in front. The driver was alone with the TV on and as we passed we saw just one hand on the steering wheel, holding a cigarette, the other was operating his cellphone. We were heading back to the eel restaurant, the best in Nagoya, and once again we sailed past the queue outside and got our usual table. I’m glad to say Tania enjoyed the meal as much as I did.
After my first visit to Nagoya this year I walked north a few days towards Tsumago and the night before I arrived I was given ¥10,000 by a stranger to stay in a minshuku when I got there. I thought that was a bit extravagant for just me so I saved the note until now when I could share my good fortune with Tania. We stayed at Magomechaya, in the old post town of Magome. We had been planning to walk the trail that day but thick grey clouds were flowing over the pass and thunder began to toll the end of the walking day. The cracks became louder and were approaching from all sides when the rain finally came, so we wisely sat out the afternoon in our new, and rather charmless accommodations.
We walked the 5 miles of postal route (the Nakasendo) in the morning. No interesting Australians this time, hardly anyone actually, until the very end when we reached Tsumago and heard the tinkling of bear bells on some walkers. Bear bells? Here? It’d be like wearing your anti-moa spray when walking in the Waitakeries.
Still not eligible for a JR Pass, we’ve been traveling by local trains so far. They’re neither comfortable nor fast but at ¥10,000 for five day-passes we’ve saved a lot. Emi said she paid that much for a single Shinkansen ride from Nagoya to Tokyo. 1/3rd of our time but five times our cost. We took the slow route to Nara and checked into the youth hostel. It’s got a similar feel to most other JYH buildings, that it’s from the 70s but still holding together by virtue of tough materials. As soon as we could we headed back to my favourite Nara restaurant, Kotaro, on the road north of the Women’s University. Ohashi-san was sitting inside and the slow realisation of who was standing at his door was priceless. He’d read my last blog entry and expected me to still be be in America.
So Tania and I sat at the front and we talked with him a little. My Japanese has not improved as much as it should have done in the time since I was last here and there’s nothing I can say in his language that he can’t say in mine.
A friend of his turned up, perhaps called in on request. Yoshimoto-san was introduced to me last time as being ‘the boss’ of the area. Not in a mafia way, more a village elder. He spoke a little English too and asked where we were staying. He was strangely insistent that we were in room 23, eventually I showed him the key and he accepted we were indeed in 21. I say accepted but he immediately set out to change it. Calling a contact at the hostel and having us upgraded to a room with a view. Then suddenly he was gone and when he reappeared he was holding two museum tickets for us. I’ve no idea how he got these at 8pm at night but they were a gift we could not refuse.
In the morning we met Ohashi-san outside the Daibutsuden building which you may remember is the largest wooden building in the world but only 2/3rds of its original size. It houses the largest enclosed Buddha and is a good change from many of the other temples I’ve seen so much of. On the way out of the complex we looked in a building I had missed other times to see statues from the 8th century. The paint had faded on a most of them, and no photography is permitted. Then we headed south to Horyo-ji, the oldest temple in Japan. Featuring buildings from 607CE that are reportedly the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world, and we’re not talking huts here. Yoshimoto-san had used his considerable influence here too and we picked up our passes from his sister at a nearby shop saving us 1000 yen each.
Ok that’s enough for one day. We had to say goodbye to Ohashi-san, promising to visit again, Tania got mobbed by deer in the park, we found a great lake that was lantern-lit at night and we ate good ramen. The end
September 3rd, 2008 · 1 Comment
Our journey up the Pacific coast was quicker than expected. The first night ended at the roadside after finding five campsites were full and expecting the holiday weekend would mean the same story elsewhere. Technically the first and last places we tried weren’t full. There was one spot left at the lake, but after we checked in we were told the lake was out of bounds and the swimming pool was $2 per hour, and it closed at 5pm, and showers were extra. We sold our spot to another guy about to be turned away and searched further up the coast until getting turned away from Lake Lopez because we only wanted one night and not three. But it was a free night and no cops came to check on us in the wee small hours of the morning.
So we drove the Big Sur coastline back to San Francisco a few days early and used the time to catch up with quite a few friends. First Ayumi and Paul (last seen in Gotemba after we all climbed Fuji together) came out and we enjoyed good ice-cream and the wiggliest street in the world. Another night was with Lucky Joe and a friend of his in a Greek restaurant. Amazingly after loaning his car for weeks he still wouldn’t let us buy him dinner so we owe him a bunch. We’ve since learnt his hiking trip was ruined as he had to use his less reliable vehicle and blew a head gasket on the way to the mountains, while we were busy driving his truck all over the place.
Muir Woods is just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. Donated to the forestry services by some kind folk back in the early 1900s and named for their friend John Muir (renowned naturist, also having Muir Pass and the JMT named after him). It’s a grove of redwoods with easily accessible paths and lots of wildlife. The deer were so calm in their environment that the small group of people that had gathered to take photos of them feeding eventually got bored and wandered off before the deer was done. Tania was still more interested in the chipmunks. We saw and walked on the Golden Gate Bridge. It was quite an assault on the senses. Thought the temperature wasn’t too cold, and the fog was still far out to sea, the wind was blowing and the traffic streaming along near the footpath made both of us feel pretty uncomfortable. Driving into the center of town didn’t help me relax either. It’s so much more intense than anything in New Zealand. So much more is going on and the sheer number of crossroads make me constantly nervous that I’m about to go through a stop sign or a red light. Things are in the wrong place for me to notice them and I’m sure I must have annoyed any drivers behind me as I slowed for each side street. Eventually though we parked under Union Square and met Christian and Heather for dinner. The Schnitzelhaus we went to was great, close enough to authentic that I’d believe it and it set the mood for a great night of general chat. I can’t even remember what it was we talked about, but I know that when we finally had to wave good bye and walk off in our separate directions I was in a much better mood and loving San Francisco again.
A large branch of my family live around here, Tania and I have been lucky enough to stay with Margaret and Fred (my dad’s cousin and her husband) who are always putting up the New Zealand branch when we see the States. A couple of hours east is another enclave and Ian, whom I met 10+ years ago at his brother’s wedding, made the trek with his two children to catch up for the afternoon. Also in for the ride came Rodney and Bo. Rodney is Ian’s nephew on his wife’s side and by this point there are no terms to describe the connection we have so we all decided “cousins” would suit just fine. Something I think many polynesian families have been wise to for a long time.
And so after a fashion everything was done. We packed up and set off early to return the car to Lucky Joe, hopefully just as clean and full of petrol as he gave it to us. He dropped us at the airport and soon we were flying to Japan in a plane straight out of the 80s. Seriously, who doesn’t have in-seat tv sets? United Airlines on the San Fran->Tokyo route apparently.
P.S. Going Postal
Oh yeah, The Post Office. I had a package to send to England, not a hard task you’d think, but it’s harder, or more expensive, since they decided to do away with seamail altogether. When I got to the front of the queue I was told to stand aside while I filled out the customs form. All I needed to write was “contents = jacket”, but I had no pen. So I queued for that two, eventually the teller got sick of me hovering and asked if I was finished.
“I haven’t started, I don’t have a pen”
She motioned to one that had fallen down between the scales and the counter next to her. It was dead. So was the one she gave me a few minutes later when she saw I was tearing the paper to shreds using the blunt pen. Eventually I used the one at her desk, where I’d been about 10 minutes earlier, and returned to the front of the queue. That’s when the other lady called me over, weighed my package and tried to charge me $2 more than the scales had said earlier. I protested and she bumped me back to window #1 which now also showed the higher price. I begrudgingly accepted that I’d have to pay that and window #2 leaned over to say, in the snarkiest, nastiest tone I can imagine
“I thought you said it was $11.95?”
It was about that time I vaulted over the counter and staple-gunned her head to the scales. Weighing it for customer service and general intelligence I found it un-surprisingly light.
Actually I just paused for a couple of seconds to imagine her trying to apologise with her face was mushed up against the scales, I stared back as cold as I could, utter contempt rushing in her direction, then returned to the lady I was dealing with, paid and stormed out of there. The other 20 people in the line could take it out on them if they wanted to. And I expect they all wanted to.