Land Cruising in Japan 1






We arrived back on ‘Sunstone’ in Tannowa just not in time for the major Japanese winter holiday, New Year’s. However, Yoshida San brought us a small traditional token of the new year with bamboo, evergreen and red berries – and there were still plenty of parties!


At the Yacht House there was also the traditional mochi celebration in which rice dough is vigorously pounded into submission with large wooden mallets in huge mortars and then formed into biscuit-sized cakes, sometimes with sweet bean paste inside.









We had had no time for exploration before we left for New York and so made a start on our return by taking the train into Osaka. In doing so, we started to learn a bit more about everyday life in Japan. The rush-hour trains are packed so tightly that anyone standing can hardly fall down, as there is neither the space nor the freedom to do so.  As we neared Osaka the random architecture of one and two-storey dwellings in the suburbs gave way to higher rise blocks, some of eccentric design. Virtually all buildings in the cities are post WWII because of the extensive bombing, but outside the centres there has been little obvious attempt at coherent development. Despite their conformity in many things – such as pedestrians waiting interminably for lights when there is no traffic – the Japanese go very much their own way when it comes to house design.







Nevertheless there are some more striking examples of architecture. As it happens this included the Osaka Maritime Museum, which we visited. It is a dome set in the harbour and entered through an under-water tunnel. Though it looked like something from Startrek on the outside, inside it was full of light and interesting displays.




The largest and most striking of these was a full-size replica of a traditional Japanese trading vessel of the kind which was in use right through until the mid-19th century. The vessel had been constructed almost entirely in the traditional manner and in 1999 was sailed on Osaka Bay. Amazingly it was actually capable of some windward progress as we witnessed on the video display. However, these were only coastal vessels. The Shogunate, which ruled Japan through the 17th – mid-19th centuries, was determined to keep the country isolated and free of foreign influences. As part of this policy, no vessel was allowed to have more than one mast and development of genuine sea-going vessels was prevented.












Virtually all cities of any size in Japan have a long, covered arcade. The shops are an interesting mix of international up-market brands and distinctly down-market shops and fast food joints. These arcades contrast sharply with the narrow and colourful streets nearby. There seems to be little or no control over signage or advertising.


Through the mass of pedestrians, weave cyclists, often window-shopping or chatting to companions as they go. You could swear that they would run someone down, but we have yet to see that happen, despite the fact that cyclists seem to be the only road and path users in Japan who obey no rules but their own.









As we cycled the around Tannowa we got to know more of the area. We got to grips with the mysteries of Japanese supermarkets, making sometimes very inaccurate guesses at just what we were buying. We cycled the coastal path and confirmed that there is hardly any stretch of the inhabited Japanese coast which is not lined with concrete and punctuated by small harbours for fishing boats. In his determination to familiarise us with Japanese culture Yoshida San introduced us to sea cucumbers (namako), giving instruction on preparation and delighting in telling us that we should extract and eat the intestines separately. We ignored the last piece of advice.





During January the cold weather set in, in earnest and we were delighted to have our Dickinson fired up for most of the day. We also got acquainted with the high tech, heated Japanese loo seat, though we never mastered its intricacies as we couldn’t read the instructions and dared not press any buttons. Ironically, the alternative to this extreme of modern technology is usually a keyhole shaped squat-pit with foot pads either side.


Similarly Japanese futons are the simplest of sleeping arrangements, but the once simple low-level table has now also gone high tech, with a heated foot-pit underneath.







The glory of the famous Golden Temple, Kinkakuji, contrasted to the simplicity of the reed and cypress bark thatch on the traditional teahouses nearby.





In early January we gave a talk at the Yacht Club and soon thereafter Ichikawa San, the Commodore, kindly invited us to stay at his house and to take us touring Kyoto and Nara for two days. With Junko San and Aika, his wife and daughter, we had a wonderful time and managed to take in the scenic highlights of both these remarkable cities. At the same time we also picked up further aspects of Japanese culture. At one of the shrines Aika bought a fortune. As it happened it was full of good prospects, so she kept it to take home. Apparently if the prophecy is a bad one, you can tie it to one of the nearby frames and thus leave the bad fortune behind!











In Kyoto we saw quite a number of women in traditional kimonos and later Junko showed us some of the beautiful kimonos which had been passed down through her family for wearing on important occasions.


Ichikawa San and Junko San were the kindest and most generous of hosts. One of the highlights of our days with them was the ‘kaiseki’ dinner which we had in Kyoto. This consisted of numerous courses of small, exquisite dishes, naturally accompanied by a good deal of beer and sake. The dinner was elegantly and graciously served in a small shoji- enclosed dining room.











Though it was cold, we were blessed with beautiful weather for our tour and the cold also kept away the hordes of other tourists who would normally crowd these sights. Though by no means the most attractive, Todai-ji (below right) is by far the most striking, both for its sheer size - for a wooden structure it is colossal – and for the enormous Buddha which it houses. Even the gate which leads to the temple (below left) is huge, though the sacred deer which infest the park don’t seem especially impressed.
















As a bit of light relief from what we came to think of as ‘shrine fever’ (brought on by over-indulgence in shrines and temples) Vicky decided that she would attempt to demonstrate her readiness for enlightenment by crawling through the well worn hole in one of the pillars of Todai-ji. This hole is said to be the same size as the great Buddha’s nostrils and passing through it ensures the reaching of enlightenment.


As you can see Vicky had no problem. But we always knew that. Tom knew there was no point in proving his deficiencies.






By way of contrast to our urban sightseeing, our next excursion was a hike in what passes for countryside in southern Japan, a country about the size of New Zealand or the UK, but with a population of 120 million. The track wove along the hillsides just above the plain. The urban development below was almost always in sight, but the track itself was mostly though agricultural and lightly wooded areas with a few small villages. In the latter there were quite a number of traditional buildings of wattle and daub on lath, sometimes covered with rough wooden planks.













We returned from our hike to find that Yoshida San had left us another Japanese cultural challenge. Apparently it was Setsubun, 3 February, the day on which Japanese cleanse their houses of bad fortune and try to usher in good fortune for the coming year. To do this one puts on a monster mask, scatters soybeans about the house and garden and chants, ‘Devils out, good fortune in!’


This was obviously extremely effective as the weather changed miraculously for a few days to a warmth great enough to get varnish on the sadly ignored port side and to give the bottom a bit of a clean.