Chuugoku 2: Akiyoshido and Motonosumi shrine

Although Yamaguchi itself felt like a very small town in the middle of nowhere, I was about to venture further into the Japanese countryside. About one hour by bus from Shin-Yamaguchi station are the largest and longest limestone caves in Japan. The bus ride takes you high into the hills, passing the rice fields, valleys and trees, and far from any heavy civilisation. Admittedly not many locals would make the journey up to the caves, but there were only 3 people on the bus who made the hour trip, and leaving in the other direction I was the only passenger for the whole journey!

Being in the country, I found that anyone who knew even a smidgen of English wanted to practice with me. One gent started talking to me coming back from the toilets in front of the cave entrance about a Scottish girl who was doing a homestay with his family for a year, and about the band her father plays in. Absolutely fascinating I’m sure, but not when there were caves to be explored.

The Akiyoshido caves were indeed impressive! Prepare yourself for some expert geological analysis. Just inside the entrance, the roof stretched up to a height of about 40 metres, and must have been a similar distance across. There were lots of stalactites, although fewer stalagmites, which is all you want from caves really. At one point there was an area called the 1000 plates, which were flat limestone deposits (in the shape of plates) which also looked nice. And closer to the other end was a really thick column of limestone which must have been one of the oldest parts of the whole cave system.

I would be spending the night in the town of Hagi, about another hour bus ride north of the caves. The following day, I planned to visit my friend Hanako and her family who live about 2 hours from Hagi in Hamada, and it was on the bus that I checked the train schedules for the following day. What I hadn’t anticipated was that being right in the countryside, there were only 2 possible trains to take from Hagi: one leaving at 8.30am, and the other at 5pm. I had been planning on leaving around lunchtime, so this threw me into a quandary. On consultation with Hanako, she had made lots of plans for us the following day so we decided that I would get the earlier train.

This, however, led to a sudden change of plans for that afternoon. Not now having the following morning as I had expected, I decided to bump forward visiting a really cool little shrine by the sea, which was about an hour from Hagi in the opposite direction to Hamada. The bus dropped me off about a 10 minute walk from Hagi station, about 30 minutes before the train left. Again, being the country, the service was more akin to a Sunday service in the UK and the next train wouldn’t be for another 2 hours, so I didn’t have time to drop off my bag at the hostel so that would be coming with me too.

As I had a little time to kill at the station, I was dawdling around a bit when a station worker shouted out to me “Bus? Train?”. He was taken aback when I replied in Japanese, but took the opportunity to explain about a Hagi citizen who was one of five Japanese people sent to UCL in the mid-1800s to learn about foreign culture and technology at a time when Japan was just opening itself to the world after centuries of seclusion. Luckily, he knew the train timetables inside out so knew that I had plenty of time to show me the little exhibition inside the station building about the famous five, and he seemed really proud of them, especially when I said that yes, I had heard of UCL, a big university in London.

Eventually, the train rolled in and I rolled out, heading one change and an hour away to Nagato-furumachi station. From the station, it was a further 15 minute taxi ride to Motonosumi Inari shrine, a picturesque shrine with a series of red gates right on the sea front. It was easy to capture some great photos, as the shining sun clearly brought out the distinction of red gates, green foliage and blue sea. It was definitely probably the most remote and challenging-to-get-to shrine I’ve been to, but I feel the effort was well worth it and highly recommend it.

I headed back on the train to Hagi, ready for an early start the next morning.

Things I’ve loved about Tokyo

So this is it then! My time in Tokyo is at an end, so what better way to celebrate with the things I’ve most enjoyed about my time living in this great city? Hopefully I’ll be able to return sooner rather than later.

The trains
Quite simply, the trains are fantastic. Quick, regular, and on-time. Compared with the London Underground (what is it, £4/480yen a single journey these days?), also pretty good value, being able to get pretty far on even 200yen on the JR lines. Added to that, heated seats in the winter, which although when you first sit down feel like a sweaty, fat guy must have just got up, and air con in the summer.

I should say, off-peak travel is fantastic. Rush hour travel can be a bit of a nightmare, and thankfully with my job I don’t have to ever use the trains first thing in the morning when it’s at its worst, but breathing space is often at a premium! But all the Japanese I’ve spoken to are utterly bewildered at the thought of peak/off-peak pricing; different prices for the same journey? You must be having a laugh!

The train guards on the platform
Simply for the hilarity they continue to bring me every time I see them point along the platform at the train leaving the station, before turning and pointing in the direction of the arrival of the next train. Sometimes they even point both ways down the platform when a train’s not even close. I have no idea why they do it, but it constantly makes me smile.

Staff in shops
The difference in service between Japan and Britain is simply staggering. When you enter a shop, all the staff welcome you in. When you go, even if you don’t buy anything, they all thank you for having a look around anyway. The assistants seem genuinely pleased to help you, and go above and beyond the call of duty (especially in games of charades when something’s been lost in translation). Compared to England, where it often seemed to me the assistants seemed to prefer you to be in any other shop but theirs, it’s something I’ll miss immensely.

Accepting money
Sort of coupled with the last one, no one bats an eyelid if you pay for anything with a 10,000 yen note. 10,000 yen is about 80 quid, and even if you’re just buying a chocolate bar they don’t care whatsoever. Buying a paper with a 20 in England will get you, if not a comment, then a disapproving condescending look. And don’t even consider buying anything with a 50 back home.

Izakayas
Japanese style pubs. Focused more on the social side, rather than the race to get pissed. Order lots of small dishes of food (edamame beans, sushi, sashimi [sushi without the rice], fried chicken, random parts of chicken or beef on a skewer, chips) to nibble with your beer.

One downside is the lack of smoking ban, which I never really realised I’d appreciated so much. It was strange coming home with my clothes stinking again due to people smoking around me; restaurants do have no-smoking sections, but it’s often just the end of the restaurant nearest the door.

The food
Delicious, fresh, completely different from everything in England. Still get cravings for pie and sausage rolls every so often though!

The girls
Say no more.

The quirkiness of the supermarket packing system
No trolleys, no conveyor belts, no self-service checkouts. Everything’s basket-based: use one to do your shopping, when you pay the assistant takes your food, scans it and puts it in a second one, you take this second one to a table away from the checkout to pack your bags at your own pace. In Seiyu supermarkets, they even have different coloured baskets for each function!

Convenience stores
They’re so bloody convenient! Open 24 hours, buy drinks, snacks, if you’re Japanese spend all day in them reading comics for free. Pay your bills, pay for bus tickets, gig tickets, train tickets. If you don’t have a credit card, buy something off the internet by printing out the voucher and pay for it at the convenience store. Photocopying, ATMs, the list goes on and on.