GW 2017: Chichibu

It’s the first week of May, and once again there are several public holidays in a row to form what is known as Golden Week, the time where almost everyone except the poor souls in sales jobs can have five days off in a row, or take a couple of days paid leave to extend their time off to a whopping 9 consecutive days.

This year, I decided to take a trip an hour and a half north of Tokyo to take a look at the shibazakura, or as they’re apparently called in English moss phlox. A 10 minute walk from Chichibu station in Saitama prefecture is Hitsujiyama Park, home to more than 400,000 moss phlox plants of nine different colours (but mainly pink).

An easy day trip from Tokyo, you can reach Chichibu by limited express train from Ikebukuro in 70 minutes, or as I found out when arriving at the station to find all the express tickets sold out (bloody Golden Week!) about 110 minutes by local train. 

In the park, there were plenty of stalls for food and drink, selling traditional festival fayre like yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), and udon (noodles).  However, as you can see in the park shade was a little scarce, and although there was a small shaded area to eat there wasn’t much out the back either, so be careful with the sun!

Chuugoku 3: Hanako

To help practice Japanese, I’ve been using a language exchange app, which allows you to send messages to native speakers of the language you want to learn, who can then correct what you say or suggest a more natural phrase, that kind of thing. Basically working as a bilingual Facebook, users can post pictures or talk about what they’ve been doing, or ask about a particular language point and anyone on the app can comment on or correct your posts. Before my trip, I made a post asking for locals’ recommendations of the best places to visit in the area, or things I should try to do if I can, most of which I managed to squeeze in.

One of the people who I’d been talking to on there who read my post, however, was a girl called Hanako. When she heard I was coming towards where she lived, she immediately enthusiastically offered to show me around near where she lived, and a few days later went even further and said that upon consultation with her parents, I could stay with her family in their house if I so wished. Slightly overawed, and quite apprehensive of an almost complete stranger’s unabashed invitation, I accepted.

And so I found myself nervously pulling in to the town of Hamada in Shimane prefecture, where Hanako and her dad would be waiting to take me to their home. After a slightly awkward introduction, we went down and got into their car; the realisation that contrary to the advice given to all young children, I was willingly entering the vehicle of a stranger I met on the internet, not knowing where on earth I was being taken. I let it play out. I didn’t really have a choice at that point anyway.

The journey took about seven or eight minutes, during which we made awkward small talk in Japanese about the weather (beautiful today isn’t it?), and how tall are you? (yes, over 185cm), and how this part of Japan felt bang in the countryside compared to Tokyo (yes, we know!), and thank you for coming to collect me from the station (no problem!), and about how few trains there were (that’s because we’re in the countryside!), and how far from the station do you live (we’re almost there now) and oh look now we’re here.

On arriving at their house, the father departed back to work and I met the mother.

The mother was just as friendly and welcoming, and within seconds of walking through the door had me drop my bag, take a seat and gave me some tea. We repeated many of the small talk questions from the car, in what was turning into quite a surreal situation.

Hanako took a note of the fridge, showing the plans that she’d made for the day. For some reason they also had an array of local travel brochures to hand in their kitchen, and they showed me one of the places that we would be going to later. I didn’t realise that at the time, however, as the mother was speaking very excitedly and in very quick Japanese and I couldn’t really pick out everything (or in fact much) of what she was saying.

Before long, it was time for a lunch. According to her plan, Hanako and I would be going to a restaurant around the corner which she’d never actually been to before, but her dad goes to quite a lot, and which has some local delicacies. When I asked her what they were, she said it was just hamburg and fried shrimp like literally everywhere else in Japan.

It was slightly more relaxed over lunch, away from the barrage of questions from her mother. We could talk about things we’d previously spoken about on the app already, so safe ground, and could fill the hour or so it took at the restaurant relatively pain free.

Upon finishing up and paying, we walked a short way to the bus stop to continue our journey around Hamada.

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.

Sumidagawa Fireworks

Rather than the welcome to winter that fireworks are back in the UK, in Japan they are a summer affair. The hat, scarf and baked potatoes are shunned in favour of shorts, beer and intensive sweating in the stifling summer humidity. In Tokyo, there are three big firework festivals on consecutive Saturdays at the end of July/beginning of August, and this year we cycled to the one 10 minutes from our house along the Sumida River.

People come into the streets to try and get any possible vantage point they can, and usually bring out picnic blankets and chairs to sit at by the side of the road. Like when the cherry blossom comes out in spring, it’s a very social occasion with friends and family meeting up, drinking beer and generally having a jovial evening.

The Sky Tree all lit up

The Sky Tree all lit up

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People sat by the side of the roads looking for a good vantage point

People sat by the side of the roads looking for a good vantage point

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Through the trees of Sumida Park

Through the trees of Sumida Park

All entranced

All entranced

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Prime position under the motorway

Prime position under the motorway

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