Japan Revisited


At the Maejima home in Numazu, Shizuoka-ken, at foot of Fuji, 17 October 2017, after 4 hour bus ride in rain, including long traffic jam in Tokyo. Passing thru Tokyo on a freeway was marvelously impressive: swirling over/underpasses, soaring bridges, astounding architecture.

Tokyo.JPG Makes the Turcott project- a 5-year multi-billion$, project hopelessly tying up Montreal traffic- look like a cow path…

Only surprise on arrival at 10 pm ( 32 hours on road) was Yoshiko’s sister Sonoko aka Anna was not expecting us- she thought we had cancelled the trip! That was my fault because of my great failure 3 days before our departure. Over dinner at home Y(oshiko) asked if I had received the Japan Rail passes, the crucial element in her elaborate itinerary. Ooops, gaping mouth: I had totally forgotten to order them. And they had to be organized before leaving Canada. If we had not been eating with chopsticks I would have been stabbed to death. The look almost did me in anyway. Instantly deep in doghouse  (though the company in our doghouse not bad at all).


Accustomed to recovering from otherwise fatal blunders, in a flash I discovered the passes could be bought in Canada and delivered to a Japanese address. Done. Temporarily out of dogdung pit. Passes would arrive in Numazu by 18th; we needed them 20th. Spared to see another day…

Fortunately the system comes through. FedEx delivers on 17th, saving my neck or other anatomy.

Rail Pass

Meantime, very rainy and cold, worse than Montreal. The Maejima homestead largely unchanged over the 44 years I have been visiting it, a relic from the past in a changing neighborhood, is sadly only of great value to us.

hoemstead.JPGStill like second home.

Like all the Japanese towns and cities we visited, Numazu displays Japan’s considerable wealth in elegant new buildings, modern housing, excellent roads and superb services, though central Numazu is somewhat in decline with the closing of major retail stores like Seibu ( probably went downhill after my two girls, 7 and 9 at the time, goose stepped their Mr. Faulty impression thru the central mall during our visit in 1991).



Numazu has a marvelous location, at the end of the very large Suruga Bay which frames one side of the Izu peninsula, a relatively pristine area known for its natural beauty, wild monkey colonies, and the site of the U.S. Navy’s attempt to bust open the Japanese market in 1854 (incidentally, an inspiration for the opera Madame Butterfly). On the other side, the iconic Mount Fuji, visible on a clear day from the Numazu sea wall and even from the Maejima homestead.


Numazu’s other claim to fame is its fish market, reputedly one of the best in Japan. Accordingly, the fishing harbour has been developed in recent years into an attractive tourist centre. Nfishmarket.JPG In the good old days we often enjoyed the freshest sushi possible, delivered by bike from the harbour.

Anyway, we were having fun, walking about town in light drizzle, Sonoko cooking fine meals from rudiments. Yoshiko now had 20 Japanese TV channels for perpetual enlightenment- though to me they suffer excessive sameness. I had The Japan Times, an excellent national paper in English, now with a NYTimes insert.


With some rest we were preparing for our great trek with the train passes.

On day 3 we took advantage of beautiful weather to do a side trip before the main event began. Good practice for disaster mitigation…

On Yoshiko’s advice, we went to Odawara, a large seaside city halfway to Tokyo, intending to visit the graves of her parents. Fortunately we started with an excellent fish


lunch in a charming pub (nomimiya), then started search for the graveside- by asking passers-by, even other tourists, if they knew about a cemetery on a hill somewhere…not quite GPS-quality specifications.

The only clue Yoshiko proffered was the word Belge. A Japanese cemetery with a French name? Not very likely. In fact, correcting for the Japanese tongue (B=V, l=r), I discovered that Vierge is the prominently displayed name of a big department store in Odawara. Probably no graves there…

OK, next clue, ‘On our only visit to the grave me and Sonoko walked along a railway.’ I located a small railway on a map donated by some tourists. We started uphill along small paths towards a raft of shrines and graveyards, inquiring at each one about other possibilities. No luck.

Next clue, ‘ we could see the sea’. More climbing. No good matches among many shrines as we struggled ever higher.

Perhaps it was the altitude, or all the marching, but I started to feel some rumbling below. With the air travel, I had not had a good dump in four days. The rumblings got worse. I had to descend quickly to the train station and the nearest toilet…not quite in time. No solids, but a torrent of pee. Fortunately blue jeans easily disguise a thorough soaking, and they dry quickly. It was nearly dark and time to go home, but I insisted in walking, maybe a bit stiff- legged to Odawara castle to make something out of the afternoon.


By the way, unlike anywhere else in the world, visiting a public toilet in Japan is now a real treat: comforting warm seat, a pile of accessory services like bum spray with drying breeze, a fart-disguising fake-flush. Only problem is the array of controlling buttons are labeled in Japanese only- who knows what might happen if you press any of them.

Back in Numazu we did what we should have done in the first place: ask Sonoko

‘Where is the grave?’

‘In Odawara? No it’s in the next town on the train line’.

Goes a long way to explain why we could not find it. Moral: if you go to a city of a million or more with a search mission, make sure you have better directions than ‘dead people on a hill’. And make sure you don’t come with us.

At the very end of our stay we had time to make a second stab at visiting the grave, this time with some common sense. More about that later.

All Aboard!

On day 4, to begin our rail-pass excursion we got on the Shinkansen (bullet train) without incident. Of course it was raining. After a couple of hours of zooming through the Japanese countryside, passing Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka, we arrived in Kobe, site of a world’s fair in the 80s, and a devastating earthquake in 1992. The quake started fires that burned out much of central Kobe, destroyed the main freeway and the Shinkansen tracks. Of course the city has been rebuilt, with strikingly modern architecture, and is still known as a centre of design excellence.


Through the drizzle we found our lodgings, a ‘guest house’ that Y found on the internet.


We would call it a hostel. As fits the stereotype, it was run by and full of young hip types, no doubt greatly amused by the arrival of two near-octogenarians. In fact the hip-types were still working on the place, so facilities were a bit basic. A new experience for Y, accustomed to first class accommodation (coming later). She was amused by the concept of bunk beds, actually 3 sheets of plywood formed into a box with a pair of mattresses stacked inside. Great location near station, fun and $50 for two. More my style.

We made it through the night, despite other standard feature of hostels: the drunken late-night arrivals flashing on the lights and stomping about at 3 am. Next day, weather better, almost sunny and warmer than Numazu. After a neat working-person lunch




we walked around the harbour area which has been dramatically renewed. Huge luxurious malls, spectacular buildings.




Then we got on the ‘city loop’ bus, ostensibly a tour bus that makes a loop through most of the downtown sights( several shopping areas, the old foreign quarter, upscale neighbourhoods etc). You can get on this rather modest bus and stay all day looping around. It turns most of the users are locals going on shopping trips, connecting to trains. But we saw a lot of Kobe without a lot of walking (very difficult for Y whose leg was in bad shape from a jazzercize accident. In one very attractive design shop I found a wheelchair which helped a lot).

Onward by fast train to Kinosaki Onsen,


a mountain resort near the Japan Sea, with 7 big hot springs all of which any hotel guest can use. This time our hotel met Y’s standard rather than mine



The town charmingly resembled other Japanese resort towns- it even reminded me of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies.


That’s Y trudging onward on the right…

A special charm was the life-style: hotel guests immediately shed their street garb and don kimonos and flip-flops (nothing else) and parade through the streets between spas. With umbrellas- it was raining.

We visited all 6 spas that were open before and after dinner. Baths quite hot, very pleasant, varied design typically with both indoor and outdoor pools formed with large rocks. Unfortunately segregated so only male bums on view. Sorry, no photos allowed.

Minor social blunder this time- I made the wrong turn from the un-dressing room and nearly went back to the public reception space rather than the bath, au natural. I don’t think I saw a single gaijin here, so I would have been excused as a foreign barbarian…

Yoshiko chose this particular hotel, a smaller one, based on the advertised cuisine. Dinner quite up to spec!


Similarly breakfast the next morning .


This up-scale sojourn reminded me of the really good old days, when Y and I would visit her ultra-Japanese parents and be borne off to an elegant spa somewhere in the mountains (Nikko, Izu) for a relaxing bath and an amazingly luxurious meal with maybe 80 (no kidding) small plates of delicacies among the 4 of us…alas, time passes.

After a bath before breakfast and another afterwards, we were off to Kyoto in midst of a serious typhoon, and a national election, both likely to stir things up. The route took us through low mountains smothered with the typically very intense Japanese foliage, and flanked by now-raging streams. River levels visibly rising. The typhoon threatened up to 500 ml rain and 50m/second winds. Second one in a week!



Kyoto, a city renowned for its beautiful buildings reflecting its central place in the history of Japan.


Even the train station is a design masterwork.




Guess what? It was raining! Nonstop, second straight day, and typhoon not quite arrived. We holed up in the Hana hostel,


5 min from Kyoto station, with beer and snacks to sit out the storm and the election. Back to my life style


This place was more business-like, run by some rather strict women. Not far away, the charming river-side neighborhood of the wonderful K’s Hostel, part of the chain of hostels I stayed in during my 2009 trip.


Our tour of Kyoto started  indoors, in malls, underground walkways and the station itself, quite spectacular. That night Y did not want to venture out in rain so I swam to a trendy resto called Tomato


where I had a fine yakisoba and Sapporo draft, then picked up a load of o-den for Y from a 7-11 on the way back. Soaked despite umbrella. We expected to be wet for next two days.

But no, the weather was better next morning, maybe due to landslide re-election of Abe government… Mix of cloud and bright passages all day ending in warm sun in afternoon, so we took advantage to sightsee. I got us bus passes, about $5, good anywhere on city buses- and there are dozens of lines in a very comprehensive system. Bus meant seeing a lot of city and its people with minimal stress on Y’s bad leg. I thought I might have to do surgery with depanneur chopsticks the night before, but the leg was better by morning.

Anyway, we spent an afternoon on about 25 different buses, wandering about all of central and suburban Kyoto, past most of the renowned shrines and castles. Because we had already visited them all, we stopped at a little known but very ancient shrine on the outskirts.  The typhoon had past through overnight, but it left mementos in the form of many ancient pines around the shrine broken and uprooted.







More adventures

After our bus tour we went back downtown to the station a couple of hours early for our 18:00 train to Kanazawa on the Japan sea. Good thing, because I quickly learned that all trains to Kanazawa had been cancelled due to storm damage.

So- the logical thing to do?

Instead of a 200km trip in straight line between Kyoto and Kanazawa, get on the bullet train back to Tokyo, a 400km trip, then switch to Kanazawa fast train on an undamaged line, another 200km , completing the other two sides of a triangle. Only possible with the enormously pervasive and frequent train system in Japan. And at no cost, with our train passes!



We finished that 5 hour gig at 22:30 in Kanazawa. Fortunately we very quickly found the ‘Good Neighbour hostel’ ( or our taxi driver did), close to the station.


So we were soon in a cosy hutch with other rabbits.




Quite charming, looks like the whole place was poured in one go into cement forms, then the cement decorated in colourful way.

As usual some fun incidents that day. On one of the Kyoto buses I accidentally turned my change purse upside down, so dozens of coins rolled all over the place. Several pathologically helpful Japanese passengers scrambled about on hands and knees to get them for me. Later, on the bullet to Tokyo, we were sitting behind 10 old guys, looked like a bunch of fishermen returning home. Judging by the load of booze they were downing, more likely the end of a smuggling run.

Anyway, as they got progressively jollier, one says

‘Look, somebody left a watch on the seat behind’

‘Maybe, says another, to save the seat’

Says the first guy, ‘No one leaves an expensive thing to save a seat’

‘But looks cheap to me’ says second guy.

At this point I strained forward to see what they were talking about. ‘Hey, I said, ‘that’s my watch!’

Stupid thing had fallen of when I took off my coat.

Y giggled about that almost as hard as when she offered me the last two of our prunes that she was already chewing…


Next day fine weather in this charming town.

KanazawaStn.JPGKanazawa Station





Bright sun but cool wind necessitating warm wear. After another delicious breakfast of o-den (healthy winter stew of veggies, tofu and fishcake) from a 7-11 depanneur, I got Y up on a good little bike, and off we went across town to Kanazawa castle. Castle no longer there actually, but some walls and gates reconstructed with exquisite skill to form a lovely park.





We were joined by about 10,000 school kids, all in their yellow caps, swarming like busy bees. Quite impressive. Then we hit very large market, fish and fruit and veggies. Fish part quite extensive, great variety, from 3,000 yen crab to mini fugu fish.








We bought a bunch of stuff, maybe 2 doz raw oysters for $4, fried sole, some kinds delicacies favoured by Y. We hauled it all home for lunch in the sun on our patio.



Back to rain overnight, but slowly clearing in the morning. However, we decided to move on rather than do more biking. Next stop another onsen, Unazaki, in the foothills of the Japanese Alps near Kurobe, close to the Japan Sea.


Up at 6 am and into the modest hot spring in the hotel- then a sumptuous Japanese buffet breakfast in the hotel,


Unazaki breakfast


then immediately off on a comical little train unazakitrain2.JPG slowly up a mountain valley, 20 km of fabulous scenery.














At the top, near the snow peaks, I hiked along the river while Y soaked in a mini outdoor hot spring. Just to prove I was really there, here’s a low-tech selfie.


At the end of my hike I joined her in the hot spring ( not literally, the pools were segregated here too). However I was joined by a wizened but athletic geezer who was finishing a couple of days of hiking in the back country. He deserved the rest…

After our baths we went back down the mountain on the minitrain for lunch before getting the bullet to Tokyo. This was our last trip on our passes, thousands of km for $300 each. We really made the passes work (especially the mad trip to Kanazawa via Tokyo which cost us nothing and saved our stay at the Good Neighbours hostel).


Uneventful fast trip on the bullet between Kurobe and Tokyo through largely flat terrain bordered by low mountains.


With some marching we located our next hostel, the Iza Asakusa , on the other side of the river from Asakusa shrine. In contrast to the bright lights and bustle of Asakusa, this side of the river is dead black,  a mix of residential and light industrial- undoubtedly the reason a low-budget hostel can exist there. However, right out the front door, one spectacle: Tokyo Tree, the most recent monster tower in Tokyo.


The Iza Asakusa  is quite cute, full of kids like the others we stayed in.


That’s Y, the dim light on the top floor- her in our room, I mean). Y likes the price, maybe less the austerity. The private rooms tend to be on the upper floors so once she gets up there she does not come down easily. Once again she did not want to venture out for dinner, so after some searching I enjoyed a workingman’s meal in no-frills diner in Asakusa- pork liver or something, really tasty.

We had two nights in Tokyo so we dug up some excitement before heading back Numazu. First day, beautiful weather again, bright sun roasting us by 8am. After our basic ‘organic’ breakfast in the hippie house we at some length figured out how to buy a day pass for the metro. Thereafter we wandered about Asakusa shrine, amongst the thousands of worshippers/shoppers. For a nation of hard workers there are a lot of people out on the streets all the time.




Next, passes in hand, we headed out to Ryoguko ,


where the sumo tournament in Tokyo occurs- despite me telling Y that they were not recruiting at the moment.


Inside, an interesting museum following sumo back 400 years (no photos allowed), then lunch in the place that prepares food for the sumo guys ( got to be ready when recruiting does start). Y had a huge piece of fish done with that sweet sort of soy sauce- tasty- and I had a bowl of sashimi direct from tsujiki market, tasty too.




Back on the metro, we went to Kanda station to try to find the book stores I used to haunt. We got this wrong, and on the advice of a passer-by had to get back on the trains to get to another part of the Kanda ward called Jinbocho, which happened to be having a used book fair- hundreds of people pouring over stacks of books on the sidewalk.



We did find a foreign book store I used to visit. Now it has a coffee house and kids books on the main level, but on the upper floor shelves and shelves of dusty collector’s items in English, for example, a history of medieval theatre for 35,000 yen (100 Japanese coffees).


We acquired some lesser treasure- kids’ books and curiously a history of the role of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain by the famous legless pilot Douglas Bader. Not for everyone, these tomes.

Subsequently, a trip across town to Shibuya, the massive shopping hub, just for a look. Hundreds of trendy young girls all dolled up, just in case.


I noticed curious looks from some of them at this old foreign guy with the trophy wife (hmmmm…what was that competition about, again?). Unlike the trendies searching for the latest fashion, Y sniffed out a ‘dollar’ store. I think she found every one along our entire route.


As always the Japanese affection for English produces some inscrutable signage . This one possibly referred to the ‘scramble-corner’ at Shibuya centre, where the masses wait for the ‘walk’ light then scramble in all directions .


Another sign seemed to anticipate my typical condition, given our excessively vegetal diet.


We beat the unbelievable rush hour on the train, to have a rest before supper. As a surprise I took Y to visit the last place I stayed in Tokyo, on my 2009 trip, the K’s House hostel .




This time I was able to find it in less than 2 hours because I looked it up on Google, and I was not jet- lagged. Y was impressed by K’s superior quality. Maybe she won’t give up on hostels. K’s House is in fact a chain, with maybe 5 locations in 2009, maybe more now. I stayed in the Tokyo, Kyoto and Fuji locations in 2009- they were really great.

That evening we found an earthy local diner, full of lone young working people ending their working day around 8, and grossed out on grilled mackerel and hamburg patty. At the very end I figured out how to get to the metro without a long walk so we had a quiet limp over the Sumida river on 3.5 legs, back to the Iza.


There I indulged in a tasty if ridiculously expensive local microbrew. Tokyo is not a leader in absolutely everything!

Finally, another marathon train day, starting about 8:30am, ending nearly 12 hours later due to train delays (yes, a train-delay in Japan!). Nostalgically we took the ‘Romance Car’ from Shinjuku to Odawara- fittingly for 28 October, our anniversary. When I commuted to Tokyo during my sabbatical year (1980-81), I always tried to take the Romance Car (no particular significance then, other than faster than the Japan Rail milk-train). During our 1991 trip, the girls and I tried to take it, just off the plane and greatly jet-lagged. We missed it and ended up on the slower normal Odawara train. I forgot that the train divided in two at some point, with the front end where we were sitting heading off in another direction. After while I noticed we were off course, so I had to backtrack to the point where the train split, dragging the dozing girls.

This time the Romance Car, our luxury express, was delayed half an hour by signaling problems. However, I was entertained enroute by two really cute identical twins.


Y claimed the father was abusive; he probably had custody for the day. So we were going to seize the twins as a matter of child protection…but we could not complete paperwork before the train stopped. Opportunity missed!

Logistical expert Y decided since the Romance car ended up in Odawara we should mount another search for her parents’ gravesite. This time with better info from Sonoko, including the correct town as starting point. But first we wandered around Odawara, a charming city centre, then went back to the neat nomiya we ate in on first graveyard shift. This time the visit coincided with our 45th anniversary (45? how is this possible?). I managed to rise to the occasion. While Y burned some cash in another dollar store, I visited a florist and proposed.


No, that was 45 years ago…anyway you have the evidence of good intent and follow through. Y thought the flowers were for Sonoko…

After, we took a short train trip to the small town of Kosu, hiked for about 10 minutes, and behold! More evidence.


Finally we got on the ‘slow’ train to Numazu…not just slow, dead. Stops in every cow town. Oh well, I have seen more of Japan than almost all Japanese, up close. All the while toting a massive load, all you need to do Everest except the oxygen. We started out with absolutely crammed backpacks and repeatedly picked up random stuff. Apparently still short something, Y rifled Numazu station while I chilled out. Too much chill. I needed a hot bath!

Y planned one more excursion, taking Sonoko to an onsen on the nearby Izu Peninsula, something they had done on several previous occasions. However, Sonoko, ailing, was not up to it. On another fine bright morning we jumped on a local bus running around the edge of Suruga Bay, and eventually into the centre of Izu, where I sought out a geology museum I had seen advertised in Numazu harbour.

We found this delightful little museum apparently a local initiative, on the lower floor of an office building in a small town at the end of the IzuHakone train line. It mirrored another really delightful geology museum, also a local tourism development, in another small town, Itoigawa, on the opposite side of Japan on the Japan Sea. In fact, Itoigawa is linked to Numazu in an ominous way by a huge geological fault creating the sort of knee-bend one sees in the middle of a map of Japan. Popular culture contends that ‘The Big One’, a massive earthquake, will occur along this fault some day.

Well, lots of things happened during our eventful two weeks in Japan, but not ‘The Big One’. We’ll have to go back for that…


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