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Published: September 1st 2006
Trains that run on time 03-04/08/06
We decide to head out to Nikko to see the shrines, then on to Sendai where another old PhD friend of Vernon's lives (magneticists, they get everywhere!). So we leave the bikes in the bike park under Ueno Station, having checked with the attendant that they'll be okay until Sunday, at least we think that's what we asked. The excess bags go in a locker and we take a tube to Asakusa, where we buy tickets to Nikko, the train will leave platform 3 at 4.05pm, and it does, exactly, not 4.05 and 30 seconds or 4.06, bang on the dot of 4.05 we pull out of the station.
We arrive at Nikko bang on time and get a taxi to the ryokan, once again we're in a Japanese style room, with low tables, cushions rather than chairs and futons to sleep on. We dump the bags and head out to find dinner.
The ryokan owner recommends a little café a short walk away, the menu has pictures of the food in it, so we easily pick what we want and are soon enjoying a simple, but very tasty meal of noodles and veg with
a bit of meat chucked in for Vernon. We are getting better at using chopsticks, but it's still a bit messy and we haven't got slurping our noodles sorted at all yet. The owner of the café must be expecting problems because he gives us a large wad of serviettes.
Back at the ryokan we um and ah for a while then decide that sod it, we will try out the onsen. Onsen are hot springs baths and are very popular with the Japanese; westerners tend to be a bit put off by the fact that they are usually communal and you use them naked. This one is a bit different in that it is in the ryokan and you can lock the door to keep other, younger, fitter, less wobbly people out. So we go into the bath area and start with a shower to clean ourselves before trying to get into the hot bath. Remember how we got so good at doing the "Ooooh crikey it's cold" haka in New Zealand, well this is a bit like that only "Crikey it's hot!" We finally get settled and sit around for about 5 minutes before deciding that it
really is too hot and get out again. A quick (and untraditional) cold shower later and we wander back to the room and collapse for the night.
The next day we head off to see the shrines and temples and it's all a bit mind blowing. There's a lovely little garden and carp pond to start with, then we get into the temple area, we are treated to a commentary, sadly it's all in Japanese and we quickly get bored and wander off.
There is a fantastic carving of an elephant, it's quite famous because the carver had never seen an elephant, the ears are inside out, the mouth is full of sharp pointy teeth and tusks, it has a very long skull and the feet and tail of a lion. Apart from that it looks like an elephant. Sadly we have no photos of it because cameras are banned in the temples, so you're going to have to try and imagine what it looked like.
We wander out into the grounds again and see the most amazingly carved and painted five storey pagoda, there's a photo of it somewhere on here. Near the pagoda is a shrine
which has the three wise monkeys carved on it, these are the carvings from which the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" saying started. The shrine houses a pure white horse, a gift from New Zealand, it looks incredibly bored as it stands munching it's food.
Walk down to the railway station via the Shinkyo Bridge and take the train back to Tokyo where we purchase two JR East rail passes. These allow us four days of unlimited travel on the Japan Rail East network (basically all points North of Tokyo) for Y20,000 each. We then immediately use these passes to book a Shinkansen train to Sendai to see Simon, Yuka and Michael for the weekend. Sendai is about 250 miles from Tokyo and takes just over 2 hours. Unfortunately, we are on the lower level of the train and so we get to stare at the (admittedly very fast) wall for most of the journey.
We are met at the station by Simon and Michael and take the bus back to their place. On the way, we pass lots of paper decorations hung on bamboo poles in the street. It turns out that it's
the Tanabatta festival this weekend and there will be a big firework display on Saturday night.
One of the Three Great Sights 05-06/08/06
On Saturday, we take a trip out to Matsushima and admire the bay with its many little islands, we walk across a bridge to one of them and spend a while exploring it and eating ice cream at the café, before heading back to the mainland. We walk back to the train station, stopping at a beautiful garden on the way, it really is inspiring, but I could never make the time to go out in my own garden and rake the gravel every day.
We get back to Sendai in time for an excellent Yuka-cooked dinner, then stand on the balcony and watch the fireworks for over 2 hours - WOW!
On Sunday we head into the city centre to see all the decorations, it seems like the whole city has turned out as well, lots of people are dressed in yukatas, it's good to see pride in the national dress. We wander and take photos, Simon is concerned that he might lose Michael in the crowds, we lose Vernon three times, Michael is
much more sensible and stays close by. After dinner (thanks Yuka) we get the train back to Tokyo where we pick up the bags and bikes and ride to the Suzuki Ryokan. We get lost a few times on the way and have to ask directions, thankfully there are local maps all over the place in Tokyo and we are usually stood next to one when we need assistance so we can point at where we want to go and our helper can point at where we are.
The ryokan is "interesting" we are greeted by a very stern lady who warns us not to make any noise after 10pm by putting her finger to her lips and saying "shhhhhhh" then pointing at her watch and saying "Ten". We unload the bags and show her the bikes, she finds us a space in a shed kind of thing where they can be stored. We get the bags upstairs, then she says "Ten" we both put our fingers to our lips and say "Shhhhhh", we think we've got the message.
So that's it then 07-10/08/06
We are back at the Medical Centre on Monday morning, 2:Returning Patients Check-In, they send
me up to Dermatology where Doctor Mindl prods my bum again, she then says "Do you mind if my manager looks at this, he will be doing the operation" "No problem" I say. The manager is fetched, he also prods the lump, but he does it whilst holding my other buttock with his spare hand and he needs to cut his nails. The doctors confer, then the manager leaves, I get dressed, then Dr Mindl drops a bombshell: "It's a tumour, it's too deep for us to operate, it's probably associated with a nerve, if you have it operated on here it will take time, you will need CAT and MRI scans." I don't know what to say, eventually I manage "You say tumour, what do you mean?" "Oh don't worry" she says "99% sure it's benign, but it will take time to get it treated." "So we should go home" I say, "Yes" she replies, "it can be treated here, but it will cost a lot and you will be in Tokyo for quite a while."
We thank Dr Mindl and leave the consulting room, get to 16:Cashiers and pay up, we never do find out what stations 4
through 15 are for. We walk out into the heat and humidity and make our way to the nearest coffee shop to try and get our heads around the news.
We spend the rest of the day wandering around the shops of Ginza, the Sony Gallery is a particular favourite, lots of technical gizmos to play with and a camera lens which has been cut in half so we can see just how much glass there is in it. Unfortunately the Leica Gallery is shut, so we return to Ginza on Tuesday to look at the photos of Sebastiao Salgado and "ooooh" at the equipment.
We try to find presents for the neiblings; for Billie it's easy, 75% of the toy store is pink, glittery and fluffy, with Felix we have a bit more of a problem, if he was older we could get all sorts of robotic stuff for him (and his parents) to play with, but three year old boys are not catered for in Japanese toy shops. Still, we enjoy playing with the electronic whizzbangery.
On Thursday we figure that we'd better get sorted for the flight back to Britain. We have moved to another (more
expensive) ryokan, this one has CNN so we are watching the news in the morning with the added bonus that we don't have to guess what it's about, we discover that there has been a massive security alert at Heathrow. This could be a problem for getting the bikes back home, but our first concern is finding boxes for them ("Jitensha youno danbouro bako wa kudasai"), thankfully we see one outside a bike shop and, having checked it hasn't got a new bike in it we try to take it away. The owners try to stop us because it's rubbish, we manage to explain that we need it and ask if they have another one. Unfortunately, although they understand our question, we don't understand their answer, thankfully one of the owners does the sensible thing and accosts people on the street until she finds an English speaker who explains to us that they only have one box. Much "Arigato" and bowing later we are off up the road with a box. We see another one outside another bike shop and grab it, both boxes get stored with the bikes and we head off to Ueno Park to look around the
There is a large homeless population at Ueno Park, lots of blue tarpaulin tents sit under the trees, but as with everything in Japan it is very clean and tidy, the occupants leave their shoes in tidy rows outside the tents and there are lines of drying laundry between the tents.
The museum is huge and has exhibits ranging from prehistoric Korean stoneware to 20th century art. The metalwork is quite fantastic, with the most beautiful swords which I would really like to try out, I haven't fenced for years so it's probably a good thing that they are behind glass. There are some fantastic embroidered yukata and very intricate armour. We also see a collection of Japanese art which is on loan from an American collector.
Later we pack the bikes up, we're getting better at this, it only takes about two hours to pack both of them, we also put any kit we don't need for the next few days in our cargo bags and arrange for it all to be collected from the ryokan and delivered to Narita Airport.
Nikko - again 11-14/08/06
We have to leave the ryokan today, they are full
tonight, so we decide to revisit Nikko. We leave the bikes and cargo bags by the front desk and are assured that they will be collected by the couriers and delivered to the airport. We then get a train back out to Nikko again and get a bus to the ryokan we stayed at last time. In the evening we go to a Bhuddist restaurant and have the most incredible meal, it has about ten courses, each with a number of small dishes for us to try. There is rice, noodles, miso soup, tofu, tempura vegetables, mushrooms in agar gel, yuba and loads of other stuff, plus, of course, green tea which we have got used to now and it's beginning to taste okay.
We spend the next morning looking around Nikko town, then walk up to the woodcarving centre, we try looking around the shop there, but we get told off every time we pick anything up to look at it. Having been encouraged not to buy anything we leave and walk up to the Jizo, Bhuddist guardians of children and travellers, although we only have to fly to Britain we leave an offering to them.
we get the train back to Tokyo and head back to Ginza where we have lunch at the Lion Beer Hall before taking a train to Narita ready for the flight tomorrow. A quick check of the Virgin Japan website tells us we can take one item of hand luggage onto the plane, we are going to push it a bit tomorrow by trying to take our bar bags and our helmets into the cabin.
So, at 6.30am on Monday morning we are on the bus to the airport, all the check-in desks are surrounded by 4ft high screens and there are x-ray machines at the entrances to the check-in areas. There are also queues to get through the first security checks. We collect the bags and bikes and aim for our queue only to discover that check-in doesn't open until two hours before take-off, so there is no queue yet. Not wishing to negotiate our incredibly wide loads around any more than we have to we park up next to where the queue will be and take it in turns to guard the luggage while the other person wanders off to go to the loo, get coffee etc.
Everything has to go through the x-ray machines, that includes the bikes and they only just fit, but it is fun watching the x-ray of them and, for once, we don't have to explain what they are and why we have them. They also get checked in like our other luggage, we don't have to take them to the "stupidly oversized" department, one of the airport staff will do that for us. Nobody says anything about our helmets so we carry them with us; we get through the metal detector without setting it off and spend a while browsing the duty free shops before boarding the plane. Nobody bats an eyelid over the helmets and it makes a pleasant change to find space for our hand luggage in the overhead lockers.
We spend the flight playing with the Virgin Entertainment Centre, there's a huge choice of films, TV programmes, games and music, it keeps us occupied for the 17 hour flight. We reach Heathrow at 3pm, get through passport control and collect our belongings, the bikes come out on the conveyor belt with everything else, taking us by surprise as we were expecting then to be in the "strange
and stupidly shaped" luggage department. The woman who keeps trying to stand in front of us at the conveyor belt is remarkably fast on her feet when a huge cardboard box heads her way, she's got the message by the time we grab the second one.
Again, we are ready for loads of questions at Customs and are definitely not expecting to push all our luggage through a deserted hall and out into the arrivals hall. We find a space and build the bikes, load up and push them down to the Heathrow Express. When we reach Paddington we are dependant on me remembering the route to Euston, it's been a while (21 years) but I manage it and we roll into the station by 5.40pm. This is where we hit a brick wall, we cannot put bikes on Silverlink trains out of London before 7pm and not even explaining that we have just flown in from Japan and have been awake for nearly 20 hours makes any difference, there are no exceptions. We sit on the floor with pasties and orange juice watching bikes being rolled off trains into London and eventually we are allowed onto the platform and
get a train to Northampton (and it's 5 minutes late).
We ride out of Northampton station towards mum's place and within 50 yards I am lost - good grief! We finally get to bed at 10pm, we've been awake for 24 hours and it feels like it.
It's now two weeks later, we do want to complete the ride and intend do so once the lump has been sorted, we are job hunting at the moment, but will be returning to Portsmouth fairly soon so that I can visit my doctor and set the medical stuff in motion. It's ironic that we survived cracked ribs, a fractured skull, dodgy knees, even dodgier drivers, being bitten by dogs (and fish 😉 ) and bits falling off the bikes only to be brought down by a small lump. If it was any place else I would ignore it, sadly as I sit on it whenever I get on the bike I can't.
We'll restart this blog when we get moving again, or if we have anything interesting to tell you all in the meantime.
Bye for now,
Clare and Vernon
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