Summer 2004 in Japan

20 August 2004

I had originally planned my summer vacations for May, then July, and finally, in an effort to match my summer vacations with those of friends in Japan, ended up shuffling them back to August. Aside from the scorching heat, August is a fantastic time of year to visit. The heat this summer was more than a little bit scorching though, it was the hottest summer in ten years.

It turned out, however, that I would have something more pressing than the weather to keep my mind busy though. In the middle of the night, somewhere over the Pacific ocean I woke up from my sleep in a cold sweat. My heart was pounding. The airplane cabin was surprisingly silent; everyone around me had dozed off to sleep and all that was left was the low drone of the jet engines and the gentle hiss of the air vents. Slowly, I reached for the back pocket of my backpack. My hands trembling, I unzipped it and slowly pulled it open. With a huge sigh of relief, I pulled out my wallet. I hadn’t forgotten it at home after all. Dropping it back in, I turned back toward the window and fell back asleep. It wasn’t until the next day in Osaka, as I opened my wallet to pay for my hotel that I realised I’d forgotten my bank card at home.

This would not have been a problem, except that in a flash of brilliance, I had decided to forgo the usual traveller’s cheques and use post office bank machines to withdraw from my accounts back home. This had worked fantastically last year and would save the hassle of cashing traveller’s cheques at a bank. Fortunately I had a credit card on me. Unfortunately, Canadian credit cards can’t be used to withdraw more than 20,000 yen a day, and then only at special Visa bank machines which tend to be incredibly hard to find. Or, as I would find out, impossible to find outside of Osaka or Tokyo. Fortunately I was able to get hold of Mum on the phone relatively quickly, and she FedEx’ed the card to Yasuko in Tokyo. By my math, I had just enough cash to buy Shinkansen tickets to Shizuoka, then Tokyo. All I had to do was ensure that I reserved a hotel in Shizuoka that accepted Canadian credit cards. No problem.

I spent the first night in the Umeda ward of Osaka, mostly because it’s so close to Osaka station, and I was planning to catch the train first thing next morning out through Kyoto, then Otsu, to Imazu-cho to meet Annie. Aside from spending most of the next day in Osaka desperately seeking out Visa ATMs, I can’t say I had that bad a time. Well, the weather was alright anyway.

Annie put me up for a few days in Imazu-cho, where I had the chance to meet up with some friends from last year, and do a little exploring of nearby bits of Shiga-ken. Caught the ferry out to Chikubushima, an island just 30 minutes out from shore into Lake Biwa. The amazing thing about Chikubushima is the temples and shrines you find in this remote location. The wood for the buildings did not come from the island itself, but was ferried out by hand hundreds of years ago. Chikubushima is one of several locations in Japan where the godess of artistic inclinations, Benzaiten, is worshipped. Benzaiten, or Benten as she is more often called, is the only female among the Shichifukujin¹ and is often depicted as a woman carrying a lute. As she is a river godess, temples and shrines dedicated to her often appear on lakes or near water.

After a few days in Imazu, I decided to head to Shizuoka. The best way to get there was to catch local trains to Maibara station, on the other side of the lake, then take the Shinkansen from there to Shizuoka. As I was running a little late, I ended up sprinting through Imazu, suitcase in tow, to the train station. With 100m to go, I saw the train pull into the station, so I threw it into high gear. I quickly bought the 900 yen ticket from the ticket agent, who told me to run for track 3, and remember to change trains at Nagahama station. I sprinted up the stairs, and threw myself headlong through the train doors seconds before they closed. 20 minutes later, the train driver called Nagahama station over the crackly radio, and I hopped off. I was the only one. The train pulled away, and I was left standing on the train platform with nothing but the scorching heat and humidity, and the chirping of cicadas. It was then that I read the station name: Nagahara. I’d misheard the name. There would surely be another train in ten minutes though, so I staggered down the stairs and noticed the utter lack of automatic ticket gates.

An old woman sat in the station-master’s booth. She looked up at me with a half-surprised, half-worried expression and asked me for my ticket. I handed it over. Noticing the apparent discrepancy in train fare she asked, “where are you headed?” I answered “Maibara.” She said, “that’s on the other side of the lake. You’re at Nagahara.” I said “I know. I’d meant to change at Nagahama…” at which point she started laughing. ”The next train’s in three hours.” Three hours. I asked when the next train to Oumi-Shiotsu station was. It was one station to the north, at the junction of two train lines, so there’d be a much better chance of catching an earlier train. She said ”That’s the one. The next train anywhere is three hours from now. There’s a bus in two though. Or I could call a taxi, if that would help.” Maibara had to be at least 80km from here. No way I could afford a taxi. But I could probably get a taxi to Oumi-Shiotsu, which I did. And was laughed at some more over my mistake.

Turned out I wasn’t the only one. When I arrived at Oumi-Shiotsu, I was greeted by three Japanese backpackers from Kyushu who’d apparently gotten off at Nagahara the day before, and decided to stay the night at a nearby hotspring and continue on to Maibara the next day. We sat for an hour, jumped on the train, and eventually arrived at Nagahama, changed trains, and completed the journey to Maibara. From there, it was the Kodama Shinkansen to Shizuoka.

I crashed the night in Shizuoka, then spent the next day exploring town. I visited Sumpu-jou, a small castle in central Shizuoka, and Sumpu-jou Kouen, a nearby park where I was invited in to try a whole series of green teas. Shizuoka is famous for green tea, and as I had been the only foreigner that week, I was treated to a detailed history of tea cultivation in the area, an explanation of the many varieties and styles of green tea, and a pile of free desserts! They asked if I had some spare time, as they’d love to take me on a guided tour of the rest of the teahouse, and show me the private gardens in the back. It was pretty spectacular.

After Sumpu-jou Kouen, I tried to find a bank machine that would allow me to do a cash advance on my credit card, but finally gave up while I still had my sanity. I bought a Shinkansen ticket for Tokyo with the plan to meet Setsuko at Tennodai station at 9pm.

On the train, I met a professor with the Shimizu Univeristy Naval Engineering school, and we ended up chatting the entire way to Tokyo. He was originally from Kyoto, but had lived in Holland for years, and half-way through the conversation, I discovered that he also spoke flawless English. He was incredibly polite and put up with my fairly dodgy Japanese the entire way. It was pretty good practice for me, though we did switch to English as the conversation got into ship-building and a few other topics I knew nothing about in Japanese.

In the end, I got to Ueno station a little bit early, stuffed my suitcase in a locker, and ended up exploring the park for a few hours. I ended up doing a huge survey on what I thought of Ueno Park, which was also great Japanese practice, and I got a free pen out of the deal, to boot. I also discovered a big festival going on at the far end of the park, near a temple that Yasuko and I had visited last year. I wandered past the booths selling onigiri² and kaki-kori³, listened to the music, took some pictures, and stopped by the temple for a bit. It sits in the middle of a large pond full of blossoming lotus flowers, and combined with the smell of incense wafting over the pond, it makes for a very peaceful experience.

Eventually, I grabbed some onigiri and headed back to the train station to catch the next train for Tennodai, in Chiba. Got there just in time, sat down and waited on the platform for Setsuko, who arrived 5 minutes later. It was crazy to see her again on the other side of the world. We headed off to the supermarket, grabbed some food for dinner, and headed back to her apartment to eat.

The next day, we did some shopping around Kashiwa station in Chiba, and I ended up ordering a hand-made traditional futon. They measured me, we selected fabrics and they said to come back in ten days to pick it up. Grabbed some chinese food for lunch and some snacks, and did a bit more shopping. Eventually we headed back, and I went to sleep. I remember being woken by an earthquake at about 2am, but falling back asleep before it was even over. I can’t stay awake for long on futons; they’re incredibly comfortable.

Yasuko and I arranged to meet at Shinagawa station early the next morning under the big clock by the central ticket gates. It was great to see her again, and we immediately bolted off to drop my gear at the apartment in Shinagawa she’d rented and head out for lunch at an Italian place nearby. The rest of the week was spent eating some of the most amazing sushi, soba, French, and Italian food you can imagine, and checking out two huge fireworks festivals. Aside from all the eating, we also visited art galleries in Ueno park, and did a bit of shopping in Jiyuugaoka and Ginza. I got to visit Apple’s flagship Ginza store which is a noble goal for any true Mac fanatic. Well, technically I also needed a new AC adapter, since I’d accidentally destroyed mine earlier in the day.

After a week in Tokyo, it was off on a business trip to Oita, on Kyushu. I’d never been to southern Japan before, and I was looking forward to meeting some of my Japanese counterparts for work after many email conversations. Not only did I get to visit a Japanese shipyard and see firsthand the incredible precision with which they manufacture their vessels, but I also got to visit a rural Japanese town, and meet Matsumoto-san and Kato-san, who treated me to some of the most memorable karaoke of my life. After the business trip to Nagasaki, we headed out for one last night together, with an amazing traditional Kyushu-style sashimi and sushi dinner, and karaoke until two in the morning.

For my final day in Japan, I was scheduled to fly out of Oita airport, arriving at Tokyo Haneda airport at 12:15. At 5pm, my return flight to Canada departed Tokyo Narita airport. In the intervening 3 hours, the brilliant plan was to jump from train to train at breakneck pace and make it to Togoshi-ginza station to meet Yasuko for lunch, then jump straight back on the train and make it out to Narita just in time for my flight. I made every single train as the doors were closing. Literally, with under two seconds to spare every time… but we did have a fantastic Italian lunch, and make it to the airport with such impeccable timing that by the time I arrived at the gate, everyone had boarded but ten people. You can’t cut it much closer than that.

Once again, one of the most memorable trips of my life. The best part is that I’ll be permanently moving back to Japan within a couple of months, so I’ll be even closer to all the places I’ve been looking forward to visiting. Thanks to everyone who put me up again this year: Annie, Setsuko, and Yasuko! I can’t wait to be back.


  1. Shichifukujin: The seven gods of good luck.
  2. Onigiri: Rice balls, often stuffed with pickled plum or fish.
  3. kaki-kori: Shaved ice covered in flavoured syrup such as strawberry, blueberry, or green tea.