Saturday, 7 June 2008

Sunday 8th June 2008 - Train Lag

Travelling isn't always fun. Having spent two and a half weeks taking our time getting to Kagoshima, we now need to get back to Tokyo to catch our flight to Indonesia on Thursday. At some point a long train journey was inevitable. We left Kagoshima at 09:52 this morning.

As we're writing this we're speeding our way north on the second leg of a mammoth 12-hour journey. We're on the Relay Tsubame 4 which is similar to UK and Finnish inter-city trains (running on time). As we travel along, the final link in the Shinkansen network
is being built next to this track. The network will cover most of the country from the north of Honshu to the south of Kyushu. There's mile after mile of raised concrete towers and bridges upon which the track will be laid.

Parts of the lush green Japanese countryside are starting to turn to shades of brown, as the crops in the paddy fields are nearly ready. Every so often, the train disappears into a mist of smoke, as farmers burn the remnants of this year's corn harvest in the fields alongside the track. We speed past anonymous commuter towns, memorable only for their empty station platforms. High rise buildings punctuate the urban landscape -
from their balconies the Sunday laundry flies like flags.

The journey continues...

...We change trains in Hakata, boarding the Hikari 462 Railstar, and then change again in Himeji and Shin-Yokohama. Our high speed journey ends here. Eight and a half hours into the journey, we transfer to local trains.

At 21:37, our journey is over as we arrive in Kawaguchi-ko just by Mt Fuji (or 'Fuji-san' as it's affectionately known here). We've travelled a total of 1,500 km, made seven changes and we're on time to the minute - no engineering works or shuttle buses and we were travelling on a Sunday. The rail pass is certainly good value. Check out the before and after shots of our journey and the one train we didn't catch. It's a tough life!!!!

Saturday 7th June 2008 - Ibusuki Sand Baths

A rather long and arduous train journey finally took us to Ibusuki - a small spa town around 40km west of Kagoshima. Ibusuki has just one highlight - sand on some of its beaches heated to 50 degrees by geothermal vents. These are used for sand baths where you get buried alive wearing only a yukata (a cotton robe).

During your allotted ten minutes you can feel the blood pulsing around your body. It's surprising how such a small amount of sand can feel so heavy. That said, it's still a very enjoyable and special experience! Following the sand bath, you can soak in the onsen spa with hot and cold baths. There's also a high tech sauna with a TV screen on the wall - so you don't miss any of the daytime quiz shows.

Friday 6th June 2008 - Kirishima National Park

Kirishima National Park is about 40km north east of Kagoshima. It's home to an impressive ridge containing a number of active volcanoes. The highest point on the ridge is Karakuni-dake (1700m). The five hour ridge walk, starting at Takachiho-gawara, included four peaks and some impressive forest. This time around we were equipped with a bear bell - a welcome new addition to the kit list. No sign of any snakes or bears on this trip so it was obviously working. Being a Friday when we did the walk, there were a high number of older 'mountain goats' (pensioners) doing the walk too.

See the video below for the daytime forest wall of sound.

We managed to get a last minute stay in a local hotel in Kirishima-jingu. Its an interesting place from another era.
The hotel owner and his wife were very friendly. Our room was fitted with its own TV, VHS video player and retro phone (see photo below). There was also an onsen bath to have a soak in - big enough to push off and glide in. Dinner was a stunning nine course affair showcasing the best of local japanese food, including kibinago sashimi (a sardine-like silvery fish arranged in a flower head). Breakfast had seven courses with a fish tempura as the highlight. Mine was quite tasty but Jen's was a real surprise - a female full of fish eggs. Yum yum!!!

Thursday 5th June 2008 - Kagoshima and Mt Sakurajima

Kagoshima, a city of around 600,000 inhabitants, lives in the shadow of Mt Sakurajima - one of Japan's most active volcanoes. Indeed, the volcano has been active as recently as last weekend.

It's a short ferry ride to the former island, now connected to the mainland by a lava flow following a massive eruption in 1914. The island of Sakurajima is a pleasant half day trip from Kagoshima, and has some spectacular lava scenery. However, we declined the 5,000 yen taxi fare to the 'observatory' - a chance to see the mountain from a different angle, rather than see a bubbling crater.

The island is home to some interesting plants and wildlife, including the voracious Japanese Knot weed. It covers the ground like a blanket, suffocating other plants like a 'green weed', crawling, crawling, crawling... The same plant is also causing problems in Scotland.

Our evening meal was particularly special. Fresh sushi at Edokko Susi, made in front of you. The sushi chefs were very chatty and we spent a couple of hours soaking up the atmosphere. The chefs did some funny tricks with a sea snail - not repeatable here, and it brought home what we were eating when the shrimps were plucked out of the tank, 'twisted' and then placed under the grill. The manager came over to chat with us at some length. There was also a raucous belly laugh from the clientèle at the request that Jen's sisters might come to Kagoshima to find a husband.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

A Scottish hill day in Japan

Today we tackled our first ever volcano - Naka Dake. A whole school outing wearing identical blue track suits had decided to walk the 8km from the nearest town. Some pupils we're clearly enjoying it more than others. Meanwhile, we decided to take a taxi and a cable car to 1,200m. We felt like royalty as we passed them - and they took pictures of the taxi!

The volcano came with massive emergency shelters and warnings of sulphur dioxide poisoning. We felt very at home though when the Scotch mist surrounded us for most of the day. One part of the volcano had a disorientating black sand plateau, whilst other parts had some interesting rock formations.

The Naka Dake Crater (below) hasn't erupted since January 2004, when it produced a mud eruption (more info and more images of the volcano).

Next to the summit of Naka Dake is the summit of Taka Dake, the highest point in the caldera at 1593m. Here's us on the summit taken by a fellow Japanese mountaineer. I wonder what he thought of us in our shorts and linen trousers. (Note to self - I promise not to criticise foreign tourists wearing trainers on Scottish mountains again).

On the way back down we met this very kind gentleman - Hiroshi Kikuchi from Aso City. He informed us that the local ski centre (in the background) hadn't been operational for ten years. A similar fate to many lower level ski centres in Scotland.

For fans of Andy's caterpillar watch (there's at least one member of the club - me) here's a couple of sightings from today. The brown one moved very quickly!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Aso Caldera

We left Hiroshima behind today to journey to the south island of Kyushu. Our trains got successively smaller and slower until we eventually arrived at Aso within the world's biggest caldera.

We're pleasantly surprised by our accommodation here (costs less than a Travelodge) and the fancy dress is included too. Our bathtime was strictly limited to fifteen minutes - and you had to remember not to add bubble bath or pull the plug out. (Everyone uses the same tub although not at the same time).

Aso is a surprisingly small place. Smaller even than Jen's home town of Paimio! I guess living in the shadow of an active volcano isn't everyone's cup of tea. However, it has all the facilities you could want - tourist information, a taxi to the cable car station and left luggage at the station. The local frog population seems to outnumber the townsfolk here, judging by the deafening noise outside the restaurant tonight.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Going ape in Miyajima

Today we had a day trip to Miyajima, an island about 20km away from
Hiroshima. In Miyajima we stopped for a bite to eat and got this
picture of two young ladies enjoying some slush puppies. I don't know if
they managed to finish them but I'm sure they got an icecream headache.

We then tackled Mt. Misen (530m), the highest point on the island.
Conditions today were slightly damp and required some additional
technical equipment, not commonly seen on the Scottish hills. On top
were some big lunar rocks, whilst the path down had suffered some
typhoon damage.

Feeling lazy, we descended via the cable car station, or ropeway as they
are known here. The ropeway station had a number of friends as you can
see in the video - our first time where we were lucky enough to see
them. The baby was 8 weeks old. Other wildlife today included some fresh
water crabs and lots of tame deer.

Miyajima is most famous for its floating torii gate (which doesn't actually float and sits of piles driven into the sea bed). It's always good to get a picture of the gate in sunshine and at high tide. I think you'll agree we succeeded at neither - it was getting cold (below 20degrees) and the ferry home was ready to leave the island.

NB: We may be away from the internet for a couple of days as we're off
to Aso, home to the world's largest caldera. A caldera is formed when a
volcano empties all its lava and collapses in on itself. Stay tuned for
further news.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Hiroshima Peace Garden, National Peace Memorial Hall and A-Bomb Dome

We had a harrowing day today, visiting the horrors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The city was entirely destroyed in the blast and cost the lives of 140,000 people by the end of 1945. We visited the very moving Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, which gave moving accounts of the people who died in the initial blast, those who died of the after effects and those who survived.

We then went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which gave an informative history of the events leading up to the bombing which was sanctioned by the UK. America was apparently keen to use the bomb so as to gain a strategic advantage over Russia by the end of World War II. A total of two billion dollars had also been spent on developing a nuclear bomb, so there was a political wish that this money should not be seen to be wasted. Indeed, to justify this spend, America was keen to link the bomb with ending the war with Japan. Following the bloody battles for control of Iwo Jima and Okinawa which had cost 12,000 American lives, America was also keen for a quick end to the war. It had estimated that a further 40,000 American soldiers might die in a assault on the Japanese mainland.

Pictures below from the peace garden. Left - the cenotaph with the A-Dome in the distance. Centre - The Children's Peace Monument
for all the children who died as a result of the bomb. The girl on the statue is based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki who was just 2 years at the time of the blast. She later died of leukaemia as a result of the radiation. Whilst in hospital she made over a thousand paper cranes which she thought would make her better. To this day, children from all over the world send paper cranes to be displayed by the memorial (photo right).

Hiroshima was chosen as the primary target as it had not yet been bombed by the Americans, thus allowing for the damage of the atomic bomb to be fully measured. The city was also big enough for the full effects of the explosion to be seen. Clear skies on the day sealed the city's fate.

Pictures below - the A-Bomb dome, 260m from the hypocentre of the blast.

This evening Jen broke first from eating Japanese food, and we found a Indian/Nepalese restaurant. I ordered a mild seafood curry - which turned out to be hotter than Jen's hot potato and chick pea curry. Both curries were extremely saucy, to the extent that we thought the chef had not visited the wholesaler for ingredients for over a week. The price and cigarette smoke for afters rounded the meal of nicely. Needless to say, its back to Japanese food again.

We also ended up in the basement of the very posh Fukuya department store. Check out the cake selection below! Yum Yum!!!!!