Dateline: Japan, 2004. My second visit to the Land Of The Rising Sun, as The Belated Birthday Girl and I run around Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Matsuyama, Takamatsu and Hiroshima in fourteen days: an undertaking so mammoth it requires two pages to cover it. Part Two: Takamatsu to Fukuoka, plus links.
Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/03/2005
5. Sunday 14th - Tuesday 16th November 2004 – Takamatsu
The ANA Hotel Clement is the only one of our hotels we don't have a decent map for, so it's both reassuring and alarming to discover when we reach Takamatsu that it's actually signposted from within the station. Not that it's necessary - it's a huge 21 storey monster visible from halfway across town. As The Belated Birthday Girl notes, the Patio Dogo was more like a superior Japanese business hotel, but this is the full-on Western luxury bollocks - everyone speaks perfect English, there are restaurants catering for most of the major continents on the planet, and everything's glitzy and lush.
After dumping the bags, we look around the new Sunport development for a bit, then get a bus out to Ritsurin Park. It's another one of those interchangeably lovely Japanese parks, but we seem to have got into the habit of making sure we're outside and elevated when the sun goes down, and the observation platform fits the bill nicely. We walk the two miles or so back towards the hotel, swinging via what's apparently the longest shopping arcade in the country (or at least a chunk of it). Once back at the hotel, we juggle with the various food options available inside before plumping for the strange combination of French food and Italian wine served by Japanese waiters on the 20th floor restaurant, Fiore. The view makes it all worthwhile (though to be fair the food is fine too), and we finish off with a couple of cocktails in the bar on the floor above, as we celebrate The BBG's actual B.
Next day we take the ferry to Shodoshima island, which to be honest is the only reason why we're in Takamatsu in the first place. The island's famous for a number of things, and the souvenir shop in which we have to wait for our bus advertises all of them apart from, curiously, the first thing on our tour: the Monkey Park. It starts with the much-touted Monkey Show, which turns out to be literally just one performing monkey and his trainer. Then it's off to the part of the park where about a hundred or so wild monkeys roam free. We're told to keep hold of all our belongings as they're likely to rummage through our pockets and nick stuff, but in the end they're comparatively well behaved. At least, they are until we reach the place where tourists are sold monkey food for a hundred yen, and the monkeys are driven into a frenzy, fighting each other to get at the grub. It's the one irritatingly exploitative bit of the operation, because it looks like for the most part they're allowed to get on with their lives.
The other main attraction (skipping over theme parks dedicated to peacocks and olives) is the 24 Eyes Eigamura. 24 Eyes is the film that made Shodoshima's name back in the fifties - the story of a schoolteacher and her twelve pupils, and the various problems they faced during wartime. The film was remade in the eighties, and they made a big set for it on Shodoshima, which is now a huge museum dedicated to both versions of the film. Actually, there are only a couple of buildings in the village set related to the movie - one displaying a small exhibition, the other showing the film itself. Everything else in this recreation of wartime Japan has been turned into a tacky souvenir shop, selling all the same stuff that the other shops on the island sell. Most unforgivable of all, there doesn't seem to be any way you can buy a copy of the film there. Our tour guide does sing us its theme song, though, which appears to be a standard feature on Japanese bus tours.
After a fast boat back to Takamatsu, and a half hour or so catching up on the sumo on telly, we head into town for the evening. We start at the Soleil complex, consisting of a bookshop, a library cafe (where we pick up a quick snack) and a two screen cinema. It looks like screen one is the one for Japanese films (Blood And Bones now showing), while screen two is for foreign muck like Tube, the Korean film we're seeing tonight. There's initial confusion when The BBG is charged 1800 yen, while I'm only charged 1000: it turns out that Monday night is Men's Night, when the mere possession of a penis entitles me to a cheap ticket. The film's a Speed ripoff set on the Seoul equivalent of the Circle Line: it's in Korean with Japanese subtitles, but is sufficiently crammed with shooting and explosions to make it enjoyable enough. In fact, I only realise afterwards that for its whole running time, I have no bloody idea why the bad guys are shooting and blowing up stuff in the first place. It's liberating to realise that the Macguffin isn't all that important, if you're prepared to accept it's just the excuse for a series of big action scenes.
Afterwards we eat at Tenkatsu, which all the guide books agree needs to be done. This is mainly because of its counter surrounding a large pool full of live fish, which theoretically you can choose your dinner from. In practice, we end up just grabbing some tempura from the menu and enjoying the surroundings. Then it's back to the hotel to investigate the Dogo bath salts we were given as a present, to see how they work in a Western-style hotel bath. Quite well, would appear to be the answer.
6. Tuesday 16th - Thursday 18th November 2004 – Hiroshima
The train ride to Hiroshima takes about two hours in total, including a half hour change in the middle. First impression? Probably the most westernised of the cities I've visited so far, emphasised by the high gaijin presence - I see more of them in our first hour in town than in all the rest of the holiday so far. Second impression is that it's the coldest city - the thermometer says 15C at around 5pm, which is what I was expecting a Japanese autumn to be like all along. We drop off the bags in the station, then wander round town for a couple of hours, grabbing lunch in Okonomi-mura, a building that has around thirty stalls selling okonomiyaki (the local pancake-style speciality) scattered across three floors. We finish up in Tokyu Hands, and spend close on an hour exploring its seven floors full of all manner of crazy stuff.
Our accommodation at the Minshuku Ikedaya is, to be frank, basic: but we get a ten per cent discount for paying in cash upfront, and our room has the biggest selection of cable TV channels I've seen so far in Japan. We spend the early part of the evening glued to music channel Space Shower TV, watching bands called things like Soil And Pimp Sessions and Dogggystyle, and taking notes. Eventually we head out into town and take the guidebook's recommendation of Suishin for a restaurant - inevitably, we're stuck on a table across from a white guy with a Rough Guide. The meal is very good, one of those kamameshi rice stew deals they specialise in here, and with a free miso soup thrown in when the waitress accidentally knocks the lid of my first one into the bowl.
Next morning, inevitably, we visit the Peace Park. It makes for an interesting contrast with the one at Nagasaki: that park was almost exclusively full of peace pilgrims, while this one is being used by half of the people present as an actual park - they're sitting around, having lunch, playing in the sun. Part of that is down to the Hiroshima bomb being dropped in a more central location than the almost-accidental Nagasaki, but it seems vaguely symbolic of the drive to rebuild both the city and the lives of its inhabitants. The attached Museum, like the one in Nagasaki, is again packed to the gills with school parties, meaning we don't get to see many of the display cases. The wall displays are rather fine, though, particularly a copy of every telegram sent by the mayor whenever a nuclear test takes place somewhere in the world - a full time job. And whereas the Nagasaki museum is documented from the viewpoint of them being victims, Hiroshima is careful to point out the long history of military buildup in the town that made it a major target, and its message of world peace emphasises that peace should start at home.
After lunch in Asakusaken, a quick visit to the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum. According to the guide books, there are two key works of art we should be looking out for - Dali's Dreams Of Venus, and Holocaust At Hiroshima by local artist Hirayama Ikuo. Annoyingly, neither picture is on display here. (Though at least they have an apology for the missing Dali, which is on loan to Venice for three months. It would have been nice if they'd said that before we'd paid the entrance fee, though.) Still, there's some interesting work on display from both Japanese and international artists - the former represented by some lovely autumnal nature paintings, the latter by a collection of typically savage Grosz sketches. The museum ticket also gives us access to the rather lovely Shukkeien Garden round the back, which takes some of the edge off the disappointment.
An epic tram journey of an hour or so after that, to get to the ferry for Miyajima. The timing means we make it onto the island just as the sun goes down over the floating tori, a lovely experience. There's the added bonus of hordes of wild deer wandering freely, even if it does mean there's a residual smell of deer shit almost everywhere. I'm a little wary of them approaching me after The BBG tells the story of her last visit here: one of the deer got into her bag and tried to eat her rail pass, and she had to virtually fight the thing to get it back. As a result, it's hard not to look at any gathering of three or four deer as anything other than a criminal gang. The ones you really have to worry about are the ones with antlers, and there's a scary moment when we turn a corner into a dark alley and see a deer with antlers waiting in the shadows like a yakuza with a machete.
Back in town, my bad back starts to kick off again - it may be down to the temperature drop while we were on Miyajima, or maybe (given that this last happened in Nagasaki) I'm just allergic to irradiated cities. Whatever, we need to find somewhere to eat close by, and we end up ducking into Kushia Monogatari, a place that promises food on skewers. In fact, it's even better than that - it's food on skewers you cook yourself. For 2500 yen you get ninety minutes to pick from a huge variety of uncooked skewered goodies, dunk them in batter and breadcrumbs, and deepfry them in one of a pair of friers on each table. We end up scoffing seventeen skewers apiece and washing them down with a couple of beers, and it's all tremendous fun. On the way back we accidentally end up on the Peace Boulevard, and it has the most outrageous display of Christmas lights you've ever seen. Huge castles and animals made out of fairy lights, and a tree transformed by blue ropelights into an enormous decoration that you can actually walk inside. It's all rather fabulous, and makes for a splendid ending to the day.
7. Thursday 18th - Saturday 20th November 2004 – Fukuoka
Back to Fukuoka again on the shinkansen, primarily to catch part of the sumo tournament there. Sumo bouts are notoriously difficult for foreigners to book in advance - we've asked Miki, one of The BBG's friends in Japan, to reserve us some tickets by phone, so the first thing we have to do is get the bus down to the sumo stadium at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center to see if it worked. We get to meet Miki's box office contact, Ms Shiga, who hands over the tickets personally and offers to see us again tomorrow morning to show us to our seats. Pleased by our success, we get lunch at the Sun Palace hotel next door. Entertainingly, it's playing host to a dentists' convention, and over lunch we spot people eating while studying laptops, discussing sales leaflets and even playing with a complete set of false teeth.
We head off to the Canal City complex, and the Washington Hotel. Not quite as insanely swish as the Clement, and it doesn't have as many TV channels as the last place - but their sumo channel, for the first time, has a bilingual commentary track that actually works. So we spend two hours in the afternoon watching and making mental notes on who to follow tomorrow. We stay in Canal City for the rest of the evening, simply because we can - it's a huge development of hotels, shops and entertainment. An izakaya called Chanto has some interestingly tasty selections on the menu (I had a prawn won ton soup and a Japanese-style seafood and veg pizza) plus the bizarre opportunity to drink Beaujolais Nouveau 2004 on its first day, thanks to some hyper-fast shipping process we still don't quite understand or trust.
So the next day is sumo day. We get there at 8.45am, and are ushered into the arena by Ms Shiga as promised, only to find we're the first ones there. The morning sessions are for trainee rikishi only, so there are never more than thirty or so people in the audience at any one time. It's a good introduction to the rhythms of the day, though - getting used to the ceremonial aspects, although they're not as drawn out as they will be later on when the big boys hit the stage. There are a couple of interesting bouts in the early stages, including one involving a skinny kid who manages to keep his footing for a good four minutes before finally giving in - in these earlier bouts, stalemates like these get somewhat eerie as you can actually hear the rikishi breathing.
By lunchtime (a bento and some sumo cookies) the place is getting more busy, although it's never more than half full by the end. Interesting to note that the people in cheap seats like us are the ones who make the most of their ticket by getting in early, while the people in the more expensive boxes or the ringside cushions are the ones who wander in late afternoon when the big names come on. There's a definite rise in aggression as the day progresses and the bouts move up the ranks. I'm fascinated by the discovery that the loos in the Kokusai Center have all the usual buttons for bidet sprays and so forth that you come to expect with high end Japanese toilets, but also have a button obligingly labelled POWERFUL DEODORISER. No reflection on the eating habits of your typical sumo wrestler, I hope.
4pm, and the championship bouts start with a parade of the rikishi. It's day six of the tournament, and a good time to be here, as the leaders and losers are just starting to become apparent. The two main stars of this tournament deliver the goods - it's fun to see a group of a dozen or so geisha arrive just in time for the first one and leave immediately after the second. Takamisakari has had the crowds eating out of his hand all week, with his wild chest beating and face slapping before a match, and his triumphant strolls out of the ring after, looking for all the world like the little girl in Totoro. He hasn't been doing that well all week, but his win here keeps people happy. Meanwhile, Fukuoka's favourite son Kaio demolishes Kokkai in a couple of seconds and brings the house down - he ends the day joint second along with five others, breaking the whole contest wide open. (Having said that, the leader Asashoryu would subsequently manage to keep that position for the next week and a half to win the tournament.)
The rest of the holiday from here on in is pretty much all comedown: buying some more CDs in Canal City (current chart toppers Rip Slyme and Japanese rapper Dabo), an okayish dinner in the hotel's Japanese restaurant. And early on Saturday morning, we head back home again. The journey to Osaka passes without incident, and without really thinking about it, we end up having our last breakfast of the holiday in Goryo: the same airport restaurant where we had our first meal, and at the same table too. Spooky. I’ll miss those cold boiled eggs and lightly toasted doorstops. Though maybe not that much. Being a monkey, and all.
General: Japan Airlines were responsible for both our international and domestic flights on this trip. (Note that internal flights can't be booked over the web, so you'll need to phone JAL in Japan for those.) Most of our internal travel was done via Japan Rail, with the invaluable assistance of the Hyperdia transport timetable site. Welcome Inns and Japanese Inn Group are terrifically useful for English-speakers looking to find traditional Japanese ryokan to stay in. Rough Guide and Lonely Planet continue to be the guide books of choice for myself and The Belated Birthday Girl respectively. The Unpleasant Moblog Of Spank The Monkey is where you can find some more of our holiday snaps, linked to directly at the end of each of the following sections. (It's updated a bit more frequently than this site is nowadays, but please don't read anything into that.)
Fukuoka: We stayed at Kashima Honkan on our first visit here, and the Washington Hotel in Canal City on the second one. We visited the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Mandarake and Robosquare, ate (and drank Beaujolais Nouveau) at Chanto, and bought CDs by Rip Slyme and Dabo. Fukuoka Now and Go Fubar are two excellent English-language guides to what's on. Sumo can be seen there every November. Fukuoka City's official site has more information.
Spank's Fukuoka pics: Kashima Honkan, food stall, Kushida Shrine, station menu, Washington Hotel, Canal City, sumo
The BBG's Fukuoka pics: Kashima Honkan, sumo
Nagasaki: Nishikiso Bekkan was our base at Nagasaki. We visited the Peace Park and Glover Garden, and ate at the Hustle Heart Cafe [dead link] and Kairakuen. Further information is available from the official sites for the city and the prefecture.
Spank's Nagasaki pics: Nishikiso Bekkan, Glover Garden, fun fun fun, Spectacles Bridge
The BBG's Nagasaki pics: Chinatown, Glover Garden
Kagoshima: Mr Nakazono has a fine ryokan and a fascinating website. There's plenty of information available for tourists, including a visitors' guide, a city living guide and a prefecture home page. We ate at Tokyo Shokudou On The Table, and saw Blood And Bones [dead link] at the Mitte Cinema, part of the T-Joy chain. (Hover your mouse over the tabs until you find a URL with the word 'mitte' in it: I can't do a direct link to the Mitte page because they change its URL every week.)
Spank's Kagoshima pics: Nakazono Ryokan, Sakurajima
The BBG's Kagoshima pics: Shinkansen, Kagoshima-Chuo station
Matsuyama: Hotel Patio Dogo is an incredibly slick bilingual business hotel, which makes the cheerfulness of its homepage seem even more incongruous. Find out more on the official city home page, and discover what's going on in, er, What's Going On? While in Matsuyama I picked up records by Ringo Shiina, Yuki and Nicotine, as well as the two compilations Rock 'N' Roll Summit [dead link] and 100 Flowers In Bloom 2 [dead link].
Spank's Matsuyama pics: Hotel Patio Dogo, Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama Castle
The BBG's Matsuyama pics: Matsuyama Castle
Takamatsu: The enormous Ana Hotel Clement Takamatsu was where we stayed: the only way we found to book it was via Webtourist. The Sunport development is close by. Shodoshima is just a ferry ride away for all your simian and multi-ocular needs. The Soleil complex was where we saw Tube [dead link]: sadly we were there a few days too early for The Calamari Wrestler [dead link] and its corrosively addictive theme song. Official sites are inevitably available for both Takamatsu City and Kagawa prefecture.
Spank's Takamatsu pics: ANA Hotel, hotel toilet, Ritsurin Park, monkey feeding, Tenkatsu, walking my dog
The BBG's Takamatsu pics: autumn leaves, 24 Eyes Eigamura, view from Takamatsu Castle
Hiroshima: We stayed at Minshuku Ikedaya, and watched lots of Space Shower TV there. If you want to go out and explore, Get Hiroshima will tell you more about what's on, as will the handy restaurant site Japan In Your Palm. We visited the Peace Memorial Museum and the Prefectural Art Museum, shopped at Tokyu Hands, and ate at Kushia Monogatari. See the City of Hiroshima homepage for more suggestions.
Spank's Hiroshima pics: Minshuku Ikedaya, A-Bomb Dome, Shukkeien Garden, Miyajima tori, deer warning, Xmas tree
The BBG's Hiroshima pics: River Ota, Shukkeien Garden