The Japan Rail Pass was grossly expensive to someone used to meagre 1980s Australian animation wages but I forked over my hard earned cash anyway, for a chance to explore the length and breadth of a country I’d long wanted to see.
Only available for purchase outside Japan, The JR Pass is valid on ferries and trains (even snazzy Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’) for up to 21 days. In 1986 it was almost as expensive as an air ticket to Asia, and was an exorbitance for a 22 year old who barely payed his rent, but its bargain-value was proven upon seeing crazy Japanese prices. While thoroughly exploring Tokyo I hatched a travel-plan; head north on the main island of Honshu, catch the last snows of Winter up in Hokkaido, travel back down Honshu to the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, and end my grand tour in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto.
However, when trying to validate my JR Pass at Tokyo Station I learned it was invalid with the type of visa in my passport, and could only be refunded outside Japan at the office where I’d bought it. Thoroughly deflated I sulked around Tokyo while deciding what to do. I could no longer afford the itinerary I’d set my heart on, tried to find work (without any luck) and considered heading to Korea or China instead. An enterprising traveller at my guesthouse urged me not to give up on the JR Pass, reasoning that its rules might not be common knowledge. The officious bureaucrats in the JR main office knew them in detail, but somebody in another station might not. Sure enough, I eventually found an employee who saw a ‘foreigner rail pass’ held by a foreigner, and cheerfully stamped my JR Pass without checking my visa status. BINGO! With a start-date of March 6th, 1987 I had 3 weeks to see as much of Japan as I could.
Leaving Tokyo, with my JR Pass and a small bag (containing clothes, camera, guidebook, rail-timetable, & sketchbook) a map of Japanese Youth Hostels was my second most useful possession. These days I can book accommodation anywhere in the world from my cellphone, but in the pre-internet age it was daunting to find lodging in countries where you couldn’t speak (or even read) the language. The Youth Hostels Association provides a network of budget accommodation, and in 1980s Japan it was extensive. Typically, bathing was in the Japanese communal style and beds were in dormitories, giving you a modular posse of like-minded travellers if you wanted it. Breakfasts were usually a raw egg in a bowl of rice and seaweed to wrap it in, a strange concoction initially, that eventually I looked forward to. My first stop was Nikko, to see the Tosho-gu shrine (burial place of the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate) and countless other shrines and temples in a beautiful mountain setting. In subsequent visits to Japan I came to realise that I’d not seen Nikko at its best that first time (my favourite season is Autumn) even so, I was floored by the beauty of the place and the wealth of things to see.
This trip was where my enthusiasm for travel began, kicking off a several-year period where I lived out of a bag and put many miles under my feet. However, I was a meandering traveller and rather lazy about it at times. That was soon to change, due to the influence of a local dynamo:
JOURNAL ENTRY, MARCH 7, SENDAI: “The blistering pace in which I have surged up and away from Tokyo is in part due to the itinerary of a diminutive local known, to me as Matsunaga-san that I have been travelling with since Nikko, where we met in the youth hostel. His idea of travel is to zip from one site and onto the next. The best example of this happened this morning when we arrived at the railway station with half an hour to go until the next train. We jumped into a taxi and sped to the very next town to a museum. He said “please hurry we must leave Museum at 11 AM for train!” It was 10:52. Slightly disgusted but amused also, I declined to shell out (money) to blast through what was potentially an interesting museum in eight minutes. Rather, I waited outside and took photographs. He emerged breathless and hurrisome as ever, and our waiting taxi driver sped us back to the train station where we just caught our train. Once again we zipped to another site, This time a Castle, (Aizu Wakamatsu) with barely enough time to pause and take a photo.”
I recently found a bag of maps, tickets and tourist pamphlets from 1987, including my youth hostel cards. Each hostel in Japan recorded a stay with distinctive stamps, with rewards if you collected enough. Perhaps Matsunaga-san was obsessed with these, or maybe he was simply one of those goal-focussed types.
JOURNAL ENTRY: “While in a temple I may become distracted by an old lady sweeping the stones, or a photography session going on by the gates. Matsunaga-san is hopping from leg to leg with impatience while I stand to observe these things. Thankfully I have not tried to sketch anything yet; that would certainly cut into his schedule.”
My tendency to dawdle, or sit in a coffee shop and look out the window was automatically corrected by the 21 day time limit of the JR Pass. Sloth was already being mauled by frugality without the extra bustlings of Matsunaga-san, and we amicably parted at Matsushima. Supposedly one of the ‘3 great views of Japan‘ back in the days of Basho, and by 1987 it had clearly been a tourism mecca for quite a while. After checking out the great view, you’d turn 180° for the great view of the crowds looking at the great view, and beyond them the great view of the shops selling views of the other view. This was perhaps my first trip where I reflected on the absurdity of being a tourist who was annoyed by the ravages of tourism. Something about seeing a place changes that place itself (quantum tourism mechanics) and in Japan, where there are so many people doing the seeing, such realisations are quickly brought into focus. Celebrating my freedom from the hectic scheduling of Matsunaga-san, I luxuriated in a daylong walk along The Bay of Matsushima, famously dotted by hundreds of tiny islands.
24 years later these islands shielded Matsushima from the full force of the 2011 tsunami, and places heard in the news leapt from memory as towns I’d stayed in long ago, including wave-pounded Ishinomaki. Nearby Onagawa was devastated by quirks of its geography when a funneled inlet amplified the tsunami’s force and 10% of its citizens were washed away. This fishing village (where I long ago transferred from train to bus) became a site of tragic heroism when Mitsuru Sato, the manager of a fish canning plant, rescued all his trainees but was swept away himself. I remember an early morning bus ride, winding through rainy valleys and past misty factories, strangely beautiful the way such places can sometimes be. That looming industrial shadow may have been heroic Mitsuru Sato’s factory, but internet maps reveal another candidate; the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. Though much closer to the epicentre than the failed Fukushima plant, this reactor withstood the destruction. The difference was building on higher ground, choosing higher safety over lower cost. The foresight of engineer Yanosuke Hirai saved Onagawa’s reactor, and the building became refuge for a community whose homes had been washed away.
I was passing through this area to see Kinkasan, a tiny island at the the end of the Oshika-hanto peninsula. With a population of 32 people, 240 monkeys and 600 deer, it had been called ‘one of the holiest places in Japan‘. Half expecting a holy site ringed by trinket shops selling tea-towels of the holy critters, I arrived to a good news/bad scenario. Kinkasan was every bit the serene island of scenic beauty I’d heard about, but I’d not done my homework and its infrastructure shut down November to March. Accomodation was closed and there were only 2 daily ferries, so I contented myself with ambling about the misty island and barely took a photo, let alone sketch. The island was so pretty that I considered sleeping rough outside, until a fall of light rain brought me to my senses. It would be unpleasant to be out all night and cold and rained on.
Wistfully, I got on the last ferry and plotted my next move. Retracing my ferry/bus/train steps got me to Ichinoseki well after hostel curfew. Sleeping in a bus stop held no allure whatsoever, and in fractured Japanese I enquired at the railway station about hotels. A worker understood my plight and walked me to a nearby minshuku where I got a room, and spent the rest of that evening in a lounge squatting at a kotatsu drinking with off-duty rail workers, already several beers into a good night. Their jovial companionship briefly convinced me that I was conversing in Japanese, whereas it was simply that such conversations follow the same pattern anywhere, and misunderstandings are smoothed over by good spirits (and spirits).
Even 30 years ago my next stop was reputed to be overly touristed, but I was pleasantly surprised by GeibiKei gorge. Even a tourist trap can be charming if you’re the only tourist in the trap; I had a barge all to myself, poled up the river by two bargemen, a glass roof allowing me to admire the gorge while sitting by a heater, sipping tea. It was another misty day, serene and beautiful and the bargemen were cheerful. Seeing as there was only one tourist, and him a foreigner besides, the lads stopped at a few shrines along the river to gather money. I doubt they’d have openly raked this loot in front of your typical praying Japanese punter tossing coins for good luck, but with only me, they figured what the hell; “Oi, Kenji, save us a trip and hop out and grab the dosh.”
Next, I hopped the Shinkansen to Morioka where it terminated (in 1987) and transferred to Aomori, catching an early ferry next day to Hakodate on Hokkaido, where I met two American Mormons on their ‘3 year mission‘. In contrast to frosty Tokyo Gaijin, these missionaries were eager to talk, and not simply to proselytise (I got the impression that they were lonely). Hakodate had a great atmosphere, helped along by its old wharf area buildings, wooden trolley-cars and whimsically musical pedestrian lights (playing ‘comin’ through the rye‘). At the end of my whirlwind 1987 tour of Japan, Hokkaido was one of the places I’d wished I’d lingered longer (eventually travelling all around Hokkaido in 1989).
Back on Honshu, I was eager to see Hirosaki Castle, which I’d read was the real thing rather than a postwar reconstruction in concrete (as at Aizu Wakamatsu) but it didn’t fill my expectations. I’d eventually realise that Japanese castles couldn’t top memories of childhood visits to British castles, with their foreboding silhouettes, dungeons, murder holes and torture chambers, setting my morbid little-boy imagination afire. The aesthetic of Japanese castles is completely different. Rather than projecting ‘menace‘, they’re ‘pretty‘, and these cake topper cuties are better compared to a chateau, another building made to impress but in a completely different way. Show pony rather than war horse. Japanese castles were lacy confections made of paper and wood, meaning that few survived the 1945 exertions of General Curtis LeMay (and his OddJob; Robert McNamara). Any castles not destroyed in WW2 had already been flattened countless times by typhoon, quake, or fire (or all of the above). Truly ancient castles just don’t exist in Japan.
A long train ride on The Gono Line took me along Honshu’s northernmost Japan Sea coast, where the tracks were very close to the sea, revealing stunning vistas of bleak grey beauty. I’m not a train-nut by any means but enjoy countries with well-developed rail networks for the simple reason that I can’t drive, making countries like Australia or the USA problematic to navigate in anything but the most perfunctory fashion. Japan’s extensive rail infrastructure gave me scope to explore, and I enjoyed switching from high-tech Shinkansen to dinky trains (with only 2 or 3 cars) to see remote parts of the archipelago.
Staying in a tiny coastal town called Fukaura, I walked further along the coast the next morning, before another long train ride took me inland to… a dead spot in my memory. Unsure of which route took me to my next remembered destination, no maps jog my memory, nor is there any ticket stub, photo, or sketchbook-doodle that clarifies those lost days of my 21 day journey. Such voids are a reminder how frail memory can be. Without photos, letters, or conversation to keep neural pathways alive, our experiences wither. Moreover, the memories we do have are often exaggerations or simplifications of what really happened. Several trips, conversations and people become consolidated over time, and who said what gets jumbled around. Crosschecking photos and documents from that time reveals a sequence that differs from the memory I’d been carrying for 30 years. I’d forgotten visiting some towns, even though I’ve proof that I’d been there. These inconsistencies are part of the motivation to write memories down, before they curdle or evaporate entirely. Which is a long winded segue to my next remembered stop;
I arrived by twilight to a snow covered hostel run by a cheerful family near Tazawako, a beautiful lake in snowy Akita prefecture. The woman running the place cheerfully urged me to have bath before dinner, and I was led to a bathhouse a short walk away by a little boy holding an umbrella, to shield me and my toiletries from the thickly falling twilight snow. It was a beautiful night as he chattered at me happily, led me to the ‘sento‘, gave me the umbrella and scampered back to his Mum at the hostel.
As I sat in the lovely Japanese style tub, soaking in hot water up to my earlobes, I thought of the wholesomeness of the ‘bathhouse’ concept in Japan, made all the more beautiful by the snowy setting. Growing up in Australia, I had seen snow laying all around only once or twice, and even then it was patchy slop. My plunge northward to Hokkaido was partly an attempt to find deep snow, but the snow in Hakodate was slush. At Tazawako, snow was piled thickly and there was nobody around but me, as early the next morning I walked partway around the lake, before heading onward by local train to connect with a bullet train back to Tokyo, spending the night before heading onward the next day by Shinkansen.
The most beautiful of the many castles I saw on my first trip to Japan, Himeji Castle loomed on a hill in the centre of town, finally delivering the skyline-dominating profile that I associated with a defensible castle. I spent a day walking around Japan’s largest castle, taking photos in misty rain, until night fell and light finally failed. Atypically, Himeji Castle is largely authentic construction from the early 1600s (though the site dates from the 1300s). Though the city around it was firebombed in WW2, the castle survived when the firebomb dropped on it failed to detonate.
The next day I went onward to see the sobering Peace Memorial Museum at Hiroshima, a reminder of the further industriousness brought to bear on the Japanese after those fire-bombing missions ended. A people long-pounded by typhoons, quakes and tsunamis had developed a resilience that is hard to overestimate, but Oppenheimer’s crew finally broke Japanese wartime tenacity, at terrible cost. The information within the museum wasn’t presented hysterically, and didn’t need to be. A simple statement of the ghastly facts of 1945 was enough to set mental wheels in motion, extrapolating frightening destruction if the latest generation of slaughter-tech (proudly crafted by our best and brightest) were ever unleashed. Coming out of the museum, I was hollowed out by the experience. Hiroshima was the only time I saw money gathering in Japan, and the people soliciting donations were from a charity for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every person coming out of the museum gave generously.
After visiting beautiful Miyajima nearby, I rode the Shinkansen to its westernmost terminus, which in 1987 was in Fukuoka, Kyushu. The timetable indicated my arrival would be mere minutes before departure of the local train I needed. Bigger Japanese train stations can be overwhelming (a statistic that stays with me was that Shinjuku station served 3 million passengers daily in 1986) and I doubted I’d be able to get my bearings and make my connection in time. Normally this wouldn’t matter as trains were so frequent, but I needed to connect to a local train, and from that to another, to get to my intended hostel before curfew. Time was of the essence. Arriving at Hakata Station, I took the easy way out, simply doing my by-then standard pantomime of a confused foreigner, hoping to find a sympathetic soul.
Remarkably (and typically for Japan) I did. He was an average Japanese ‘salaryman’ in suit and brief case and no doubt had his own connections to make, but when barraged with questions delivered in broken Japanese (and frantic pointings at maps with circled destinations, and timetable connection times) he immediately grasped my situation. Snapping into action, he bustled me through the crowded station, urging me to follow him with all haste, down stairs; Hai, Haiyaku! along a corridor teeming with people; Oide! up some more stairs, and along again. He got me to my train and seated, with time to spare. After thanking him profusely and waving our goodbyes, he reappeared at my window a moment later with a simple meal he’d bought for me from a platform vendor, just as my train departed. I’ve often thought how lucky I was to have my first solo travel adventure in Japan. I later learned that in other countries throwing yourself on the goodwill of the locals can be to paint a ‘fleece me‘ sign on your head, but in Japan the people were always gracious, helpful, generous and honest.
One of Kyushu’s many scenic railway journeys took me past views of early Spring blossoms to Aso-San, one of two active volcanoes on the island. As the train came within sight of the volcano I was awestruck to see red lava flowing down the mountain! When I checked in to the nearby hostel I was told that the ‘lava‘ streams were actually thousands of people bearing flaming torches in a fire festival. Wonderful! I couldn’t wait to attend, but discovered that this distant spectacle was in the process of ending. I became shrill; Surely there must be a taxi service or something? Can’t I just walk there? But as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to get to this spectacular culmination of the month-long ‘end of winter‘ celebration before it ended. Dame Desu! I suspected the truth was that hostel staff didn’t want the kooky gaijin wandering off into the night to play with fire, after he’d signed in and become their responsibility, but I had to make-do with watching the fire orgy as it climaxed from a few miles away. The next day I went up to the crater, in the company of other young travelers from the hostel who’d been up there the night before and assured me that the festival was utterly sugoi!
Impressive though it was, unfortunately my imagination had been set ablaze the night before and it was hard not to smoulder.
JOURNAL ENTRY: “I saw an active volcano at Mount Aso. No big deal really. It belches out smoke while dried out old ladies sell souvenirs on the lip of the crater.”
That’s the bitterness of a thwarted 22 year old kicking himself for not researching his trip more thoroughly (and those old ladies were actually sweeties). Just one day earlier (4 hours, even!) and I could’ve participated in the fire festival rather than merely watch it impotently from afar. I realise now how lucky I was to see what I saw. To stand in one of the biggest active volcano craters in the world is no small thing, and the Aso-san crater is often overwhelmed by sulphurous fumes, or cable-car access is closed due to earthquake.
Kyushu still had another active volcano and I bustled further south to see it, via another beautiful train journey down the west coast of Kyushu. The closer I got to Kagoshima the more excited I became to see Sakurajima, the iconic volcano belching fire over Kagoshima, like a Japanese Vesuvius. But it was another case of vulcanus interruptus. Bucketing down with torrential rain, it was hard to see (or do) anything in Kagoshima. The weather still hadn’t changed after staying the night, so I kept moving, contenting myself with a few looks at colourful posters rather than Sakurajima volcano itself.
I went up the east coast of Kyushu, then inland to Takachiho Gorge. This beautiful area was accessible in 1987 via the Takachiho Railway from Nobeoka, before that line was swept away by Typhoon Nabi in 2005. In Japan you’ll often hear of destruction wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, and every temple or castle you visit has been repeatedly rebuilt (no wonder a people so often pounded by nature and science would invent Godzilla, the ultimate city-smashing temper tantrum). The train followed the river all the way to Takachiho, with town after town nestled in nooks between water and tracks. This area was another I could have spent more time in. The weather was lovely and the scenery beautiful, but with only a few days left on my JR pass I pressed onward to the Kyushu east coast and Beppu, a hot springs town where any hot water bubbling out of the ground is fenced off so a fee can be charged to look at, sip or sit, in it.
I walked through these places with a French woman I met at the hostel and neither of us were impressed, until stumbling onto a pretty spring garden with small hot springs completely ignored by the crowds and the guidebooks. Minimal entrance fee, cups of tea served by a nice old lady in a quiet teahouse. Best of all, I found round the back one of the tourist traps a wonderful boilerhouse, presumably sitting over a geyser. Marvellous thing it was; belching steam, alive with pipes and valves, all covered in mineral salts. This was often the pattern; I’d head towards a ‘destination’ that might be a disappointment, but there was usually something else around that made it worthwhile (life itself is often like that too). A quick ferry ride from took me to Yawatahama in Shikoku, the smallest of the 4 main islands of the Japanese archipelago.
After staying in Uwajima, and walking to the castle there, I went onward by local train to Kochi and looked around its castle too, which retained prewar splendour high on a spectacular hill. Although Kochi was deserving of more exploration, I moved on. After chasing elusive volcanoes and castles, I was in the mood for scenic beauty which Shikoku has in great abundance, and I wanted to get as far as the picturesque Iya Valley before my JR pass finally expired, on March 26 1987, the day I drew these sketches;
The hostel I checked into that day was a treasure. Japanese Youth hostels of the 1980s were always clean and affordable, but could be be either an ugly spartan blockhouse or a lovely traditional building, and you could never be sure which until check in. It was hostel roulette. In the Iya Valley I came up a winner, as the hostel was affiliated with a temple and the building and grounds were lovely. As I soaked in the tub of the hostel’s bathouse, I was startled by a shadowy monster emerging from the surrounding steam. This looming leviathan was the pendulous netherbits of another guest staying at the hostel (one of those beanpoles that becomes a tripod when their pants are off) entering the communal tub. He was a likeable fellow from Tennessee, and over the next few days he, I and a Canadian woman (we 3 were the only hostel guests) explored the valley. Firstly, we went on long hikes, but eventually hired bikes and took on a mountain bike course. It took us 11 hours and we were exhausted as we stumbled into the hostel way after curfew. Ouch. Next day we went on another walk, got lost again, and dreading being late again back to our hostel, we hitched a ride from a very sweet woman who took pity on us when we stuck out our thumbs.
After the Iya Valley, I took a train north and stayed in Takamatsu, visiting the wonderful Ritsurin garden (before departure of my overnight ferry back to Honshu). Later that same year in Suzhou, China, I saw many classical Chinese gardens being rebuilt after the ravages of the not-then long ago Cultural Revolution. Interestingly, consultants hired by the Chinese government to retrain the Chinese how to do Chinese gardens were traditional gardeners from Japan (which of course had learned how to garden from the Chinese in the first place) and Ritsurin supplied some of the expertise.
JOURNAL ENTRY, APRIL FOOLS DAY 1987, NARA: “Coming into Osaka Bay at 5:30 AM is quite breathtaking. The light at that time transformed an otherwise ugly harbour into something magical. I walked through Osaka fish market and the city itself most of the day, before coming onward to Nara, a pretty town with by far the largest concentration of historical buildings I have yet seen. For what it’s worth I can say that I’ve been on all the major islands of Japan.”
Doing the travel blitz is OK for a few days, but maintaining that rhythm for weeks is a drain (as snippy asides on these sketches show). Blasting around seeing a different town every day blurs it all together, and occasionally staying in one place is essential for me to really get to know a country, at even a superficial level.
By the time I arrived in Kyoto, I’d been a proactive power-tourist for long enough, and was again ready to meander and relax, spending a few weeks enjoying the cherry blossom season of April 1987. I stayed in a guesthouse occupied by both temporary travellers like myself, and longterm tenants living & working in Kyoto. Most were young, probably just out of college, and very similar despite coming from various countries, but one tenant was unlike any other I ever met in years of traveling. He was much older, possibly as old as 45 (gasp) and didn’t fit the typical backpacker profile. He was a short-haul truck driver from Tacoma Washington, with mixture of broad American mannerisms and a childlike wonder about his present situation. Always sunny and kind, I gradually inferred some sadder parts of his history, which only appeared as sidebars to the main conversation and were never worn on his sleeve. The more I got to know him the more impressed I was that this fellow had plunged into the unknown. When asked what set him on the road, his answer was very much like my own; he’d always been fascinated by far away places. He had little money, apart from somebody renting his truck back in Washington. He was under no pressure to head back home and we explored Kyoto together before it was time for me to leave.
When I’d thought the JR Pass wasn’t going to work, I’d been told that Japan was a wonderful place to hitchhike. Though the Japanese did not often hitchhike themselves, and may look askance at those Japanese who did, they were generous in picking up foreign hitchhikers. With JR Pass expired and my funds low after months in Japan, I hitchhiked from Kyoto back to Tokyo, getting rides from an outgoing truck driver in a garishly decorated truck (in the Japanese style) and a businessman whose car would PING PING berate him when he went over the speed limit, much to his chagrin (I later found out such nagging cars were standard). Back in Tokyo I picked up the bulk of my bags from storage, before heading to Korea (and later China).
My first trip to Japan had started in Okinawa (via ferry from Taiwan) then onward by ferry to explore Tokyo, before activating my JR Pass. What a bargain it had been, giving me a whirlwind introduction to a country I’ve revisited many times over the years, and love to this day.