Travelling through Japan

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March 7th 2008
Published: March 7th 2008
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From Australia my wife and I have travelled to many countries, usually without the 'benefits' of planned itineries.

The following article is about my travelling to Japan with my son. I have also sailed to Antarctica, and we have sailed the Queensland coast of Australia and the Greek Islands.

We have travelled through Thailand, India, Java and Bali, Fiji, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, and USA.

I have created a website for fellow travellers to list any type of holiday accommodation, vehicle, boat, or tour, so as to swap holiday time with something they have for something someone else has.

To view the following article with images, go to, click the button to "Life and Travels of a Non-famous Person" on the Home Page and select the appropriate chapter.


This trip happened in 1994. It was supposed to be work for the students as part of an exchange program. We were all billeted with Japanese families. My host was a chemistry teacher from the host school and his wife. Ryan was billeted with one of the local student’s families. After landing at Narita Airport at about 8pm we were driven directly to our hosts homes in Chiba city.

My first Japanese evening meal was prepared by Setsko (the wife), and I realised that while I was eating she and Hiroshi were scrutinising me. Hmmm. Ok. They just want to see what I like and what I don’t, as the meal before me consisted of many small portions of soups and strange delicacies. “No”, they explained later. “We just wanted to see if you could use chopsticks”. I told them that in Australia we quite often went to Chinese restaurants, so I was quite well versed in the use of chopsticks for a gai koko jin. The first restaurant they took me to in Japan was a Chinese restaurant.

Now from this you are probably thinking that there was no language barrier and we all conversed fluently with each other. Ha. My knowledge of the Japanese language consisted of some phrases we used in Shotokan karate class back home, and reading a tourist phrase book on the seven hour flight from Australia. Luckily Hiroshi and Setsko spoke much better English than I spoke Japanese. The evening ritual in the house was that Hiroshi and I would share two large bottles of Asahi beer while Setsko prepared dinner. During dinner we would partake in some Sake, and afterwards we would get stuck into his Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch Whisky. When I excused my self to my room he would put on English audiotapes and stay up for at least another hour. In the mornings when I made my way to the living area, he would be already up watching “Learn to speak English” on TV. We also had two dictionaries always within arms reach. One was red, the other green. One was Japanese to English, and the other was English to Japanese. When the conversation got stuck the call would be, “Red dictionary please”, or “Midori-no jisho dozo”.

Both Hiroshi and Setsko were school teachers, and avid learners. One room of the house was floor to ceiling books around the walls and on the centre shelving.
The house. Let me tell you about the house. Hiroshi and Setsko were probably upper middle class in Japan, as he had inherited a rice plantation in Hokkaido. The house was in the suburbs of Chiba. The 400sq. m. vacant block of land next door had a for sale sign on it.
Boarding a trainBoarding a trainBoarding a train

This is part of the process of boarding a train at Tokyo Eki. Now the passengers have to be sure all their bits are inside when the doors close.
With some mental calculation, the asking price was $Au750,000. How much was land in the Ginza??? Because most of the house building materials used in Japan had to be imported, usually from America, the cost to build this substantial two story house was about $Au250,000.

I had my video camera with me and I even filmed the toilet. There were buttons everywhere and while I was sitting on it I was not game to touch any of them. I assumed that most of the controls were for the bidet. The only ones I was sure of were the controls for the heater in the seat.

My room had tatami matting, which meant despite taking my shoes off at the front door, tradition said I had to take my slippers off to walk on the tatami. My bed was a traditional futon. Down the centre of the room there was a paper screen dividing where I slept from the other half of the room. Here was the ‘special place’ where revered hanging scrolls and a small urn were displayed in an alcove.

On one occasion the principal of the school was invited to dinner in this part of the room. We sat around a low table. Hiroshi told me later that if only he and I were sitting here, I, as an important guest, could sit with my back to the ‘special place’, because I was more important than the ‘special place’. With the school principal here, he was more special than me, so Hiroshi and I sat facing the principal, and he sat with his back to the ‘special place’. Setsko served the courses of the meal and sat at one end of the table, off to one side, to eat.

For the first few days I went with Hiroshi to Meitoku Gijuku Senior High School. Here I met other teachers in the staff room, some of the Japanese students, and Ryan’s fellow students whom I had not met before. I also met their Japanese teacher in Australia, who was French. Most of the Japanese could understand me speaking English slowly and clearly better than they could understand their own language in a French accent.

After a few days I got a little more adventurous and would take the suburban trains into Tokyo city, or out into the country, or along the beach. Tokyo Eki has over 1,000,000 train commuters per day. At all the railway stations, if I stood in the yellow lanes on the platform, a train would arrive and open its doors right in front of me, and at the exact time on the timetable. Going into the city was easy. Signs were in Romaji (western script) as well as Japanese characters, so I knew what each station was. I visited Asakusa with its temple and markets; Akihabara, or Electric City as it is known, where I heard the Disneyland Street Parade theme at just about every turn; the Sony building; the Ginza, where at that time the real estate was the most expensive in the world; the Imperial Palace; Yokohama city; Ueno city; and Kanagawa prefecture, where I visited the Great Buddha of Kamakura.

Most of the time if I had a language difficulty, my little phrase book helped me out. If I wanted to ask something more complicated, I followed the advice of the teachers from the school and asked a high school girl. Still in Japanese culture there is a sexist structure. Most boys will automatically get a job. Girls have to have more qualifications to guarantee employment, and one of the best skills is to know English. Although it is strange to hear so many young Japanese speaking English with a New York accent.

If I went out of the city, things were different. There was no Romaji, and no one spoke English. To use the trains I would count the number of stops on the electronic notice boards and memorise how many stops until my destination. I would ask the ticket seller for a ticket and ask how much.

Now, has anyone ever been in a foreign country where no one else speaks your language, and you have used your best phrase book learnt skills to ask a question in their language? They think you can understand whatever they say back!

I would show the ticket seller a piece of paper on which I had printed the Yen sign, and ask the seller to print the number. After payment and tickets were sorted I would ask which platform the train arrived on. Very important.

Somewhere between Ichinomiya and Katsuura my counting must have failed me. The train stopped, and it seemed everyone but me had gotten off. I did not move because I was sure I had another stop to go. The train did not move either. After a while a conductor came through the carriage end door. He saw me and said something to me in Japanese. “Wakarimasen”, I replied, meaning, “I do not understand”.

“Get off train! Get off train!” he said to me in English, getting slightly agitated.

I got off the train. About ten seconds later the train moved off in reverse, back in the direction we had come from. Luckily I was able to check on the electronic railway station board and switch to a train that was going to my destination, Awa Kamogawa. Between Ichinomiya and Awa Kamogawa are some of the best surfing beaches in Japan. They probably don’t rate alongside world standards, but there is an underwater observatory and a ‘sea world’ to visit in the district.

For three days I went up into the mountains with the Australian students and one of the Japanese teachers from the school. We visited the Kusatsu Onsen resort, and bathed in the hot sulphur springs. Anyone who wants to recreate the feel and smell is able to buy plastic bags of the dried sulphur mud for use in their own home bath.

When the snow skiing season is finished, some of the slopes are opened up for grass skiing. The actual skiing was not as difficult as catching the ‘chairs’ and rolling on the wheeled grass skis up the bitumen path to the top of the slope.

In a small teppanyaki café, we were assisted by the Japanese teacher to cook our own Okonomiyaki. We all sat around the table, most of which was taken up by the BBQ plate. We prepared our own mixtures, and then spooned them onto the hot plate to cook. Okonomiyaki is a fritter, and when cooked correctly, it is crunchy on the outside, and moist in the middle. The ingredients can be some, all, or more than the following: Chinese yam, ground pork, cabbage, onion, squid, prawns, eggs, and sauces. Recipes are available on the internet, and they vary greatly, even within Japan.

On the bus ride back we stopped at Onioshidash Park at the base of Mount Asama. Mount Asama is a still active volcano, and the park is a field of lava which has been turned into a tourist attraction with temples and souvenir shops.

Now I got really adventurous and booked a ticket on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and went backpacking. The teachers at the school thought that I would get lost for sure, especially with my limited Japanese language.

My first piece of education was how to board a suburban train into the city at peak hour. There is an art. If you are not near the head of the queue, you are best to turn and back into the open doorway with your hands against the edges of the doors. This way you can exert considerable pressure on the mob when you bring one foot up onto the carriage and push backwards. When you are sure you have all of yourself inside the carriage you hold that position until the automatic doors slide shut. It’s not a bad idea to suck in your tummy as this happens.

On the Shinkansen my first destination wasn’t that far away when the speed of the train is about 240k/h. To really appreciate that, think about having one flash past your window going the other way at the same speed. Three hundred metres of train go past in two and one-quarter seconds.

I was trying to see Mt Fuji. Apparently the most common and publically used photo of Mt Fuji that most people know, of a conical mountain with the tip covered in snow, was taken about 40 years ago. Most of the time the mountain is covered by cloud or fog, and when it is visible it is a fairly unflattering lava colour. I thought I saw it, but did not shoot any video because I was not certain. I noted my watch and the time to the next station and promised to film it on the return. I saw nothing else that looked like what I expected Mt Fuji to look like, so I assumed that had been it. On the return trip at about the same location all I saw was fog and cloud.

In Nagoya there was a round about relative of Eileen’s who worked there for Tupperware. Finding him was a bit tricky; as I had to change trains to a privately owned line, and from the closest station to the Tupperware factory, catch a taxi. This really taxed my Japanese. Garth was employed as an interpreter, and was also responsible for the international movements in and out of Japan for the moulds that were used for the production of the various containers manufactured there.

His boss was expecting me. He was not there, but he had left for me a beautiful silk doily. He was at a function at a hotel somewhere in Nagoya. He was apparently also not in a good mood. Garth explained to me that the Japanese like everyone to know how much they earn, and how much tax they pay. It is an extreme honour to be known as the highest taxpayer in the city. Garth’s boss had been near the top of the list, but in the latest publication he had moved down several spots.

Despite knowing that I was here for only one night, Garth’s boss would not let Garth leave work until he had finished a particular job. The job was for Garth to edit an article about his boss that was to be submitted to an international magazine… about eight months time. Garth had to alter draft after draft, fax them to the hotel where his boss was attending the function, then wait until they were checked and sent back for more alterations. We got to leave at 8pm instead of the usual 5pm. Garth told me that his boss only did it to make sure that I knew that he was Garth’s boss. He said that if they weren’t paying him such good money he would have quit long ago. At that time in 1994 the cost of goods in Japan was about twice that of in Australia, but the average Japanese wage was about three times the average Australian wage, and Garth’s wage was above average.

Back on the Shinkansen, I was whisked on to Kyoto and Nara. These cities are famous for their historical temples and other buildings, and I spent days exploring. The Todaji temple is the world’s largest wooden building, despite having burnt down several times, and then rebuilt slightly smaller each time. The original was constructed in about 750AD. The Daibutsuden houses the largest bronze statue in the world, an enormous Buddha. His middle finger is longer than I am tall at 180cm.

The end of the line for me was Hiroshima, and a visit to the Peace Museum. “Little Boy” was the nickname of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8.15am local time. After being dropped from the “Enola Gay”, a B-29 American bomber, it exploded above the city at an altitude of about 600m. It was the strong winds generated by the bomb that caused most of the city’s destruction. The wind bounced off the surrounding mountains and was reflected back to again hit the city. This and radiation illnesses is blamed for the deaths of 140,000 people by the end of that year, and it is estimated that another 60,00 have died since due to long term effects.

Hiroshima has been completely rebuilt. The only building left from that time is one of the few that were not completely levelled by the explosion. It was the closest surviving building to the point of detonation, and is known as the “Atomic Bomb Dome”, a part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It remains in the same condition as immediately after the bombing, and now serves as a reminder of nuclear devastation and as a symbol of hope for world peace and the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

The museum itself is dedicated to educating visitors about the bomb. It has exhibits and information covering the build up to war, the role of Hiroshima as a major supply and logistics base for the Japanese military in the war up until the bombing, and extensive information on the bombing and its effects, along with substantial memorabilia and pictures, and mannequins depicting the effects on humans of the bombing.

Hiroshima’s rebuilt castle (nicknamed Rijo) houses a museum of life in the Edo period. It is only a few minutes walk from the Peace Museum and the railway station.

On my return trip to Tokyo I was able to spend some time at Himeji Castle near Kyoto. It is Japan’s most spectacular castle. In the 14th century, a fort was built on the current site. Various rulers enlarged it until it reached its present state of grandeur in 1609. It has never been destroyed, by war, earthquake, or fire, and is kept in excellent condition. It is both a Japanese national treasure and a UNESCO world heritage site. The castle is of all wood construction and is covered in white plaster as a fire retardant and reinforcement. The central tower is 46m high, and the entire massive structure is a labyrinth of design to confuse any enemy who managed to gain access by scaling the 20m high walls, which could be heavily defended by hidden archers and others who poured boiling oil on invaders.

The many rooms have displays of the weapons and armour that have been used throughout the castle history. It would be a great place to play Samurai. The only compensation to the modern era is the presence of seismographs to assist in detecting advance warnings of possible earthquakes. For a castle there was very little security, but I think I would have had great difficulty getting a katana and kikou through customs.

Most of my nights were spent in either hostels or Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns).
Ryokans were about the same price as a motel in Australia. I never stayed in one of the capsule hotels. Too much like getting into my own coffin. I did spend two nights in a hotel. It wasn’t five stars, but for an Aussie, the cost was. The bathroom was a donga…….in the room. “Donga” in Australia is a building made of coldroom construction materials. Foam sandwich with sheet metal outer. Larger ones are often used as site offices on construction sites.

The teachers back at the school had been told by the Australian/French teacher that Australians do not consider it a good holiday unless there is an element of adventure, so they showed no great surprise on my return. There was a sayonara party at the school where the Japanese teachers, students, and some of their parents, tried to teach us Japanese dancing, and we tried to teach them bush dancing. I don’t think that part of cultural exchange will last.


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