26 December 2009 (Matsue, Tottori): It is not fun to wake up to the sound of rain outside. This happened today, so I decided to sleep in. For japanese breakfast, Yoshitaka-san I just realised is their name, made grilled Kare fish and rice. A little bottle of yakult yogurt tops it all off.
Took a kilometre walk to Matsue-jo castle this morning, passing by the lake for another crack at shooting the little island by the art museum. Again it started to rain little hailstones. On the way across the main bridge, the hail storm intensified and mixed with a little snow. Once that quickly cleared, the sun was out in full force.
Matsue-jo is on top of a hill. It is just after a large hospital, and you know you are there when you see a hill and a moat going around the area. The entrance of the castle is on top of the hill, accessible by going up a few flight of stairs. A cub baseball team was training on the grounds the morning I was there. Made to run up the staircase.
Matsue-jo requires an entrance fee to get in, and if you are a foreigner, it is 280Y and half the original price local pay. It must be a limited time promotion. There is nothin special about the garden although it is a nice little stroll and has nice views being perched on top of a hill. To enter the castle it is necessary to remove shoes and there are ample lockers with locks to store them too bad they are not made for shoes sized 11 or more. I had to get creative to fit my shoes into the locker. There are about 5-6 storeys in this castle and the interior has a rustic feel to it. It is quite clear they did replace some wood here but generally the original interior stayed intact. The most interesting part for me is how they take a bunch of wooden pillars and staples them together with a giant piece of steel brace to form a larger pillar. The wood is darkish in colour and on the outside the mortar is all bright white, which kills the exposure on my camera, you have pure white and black wood, so impossible to get details in both. Back to the interior, on the first floor is the storage area and this is where they store the original building materials when they are renovated, and also a really deep well to get water in times of a siege. Second floor is a museum with a nice collection of samurai costumes and hats. The other floors are empty which explains why I lost count of the floors after the third.
After Matsue-jo, I went out through the back of the castle to the northern exit towards the home of Lafgadio Hearn but I don't intend to enter it. The street directly circling the castle moat clockwise from the home is quite interesting. The houses here are constructed in the style of the olden times and it is just charming. I passed the preserved house of a Samurai but I have to get back to Terazuya's Ryokan to pick up my items and catch the train to Tottori. I would say Matsue is a nice walking city.
Continuing with the nice train names, after lunch, I'm on a Super Oki train to Yonago. At the time I wanted there are no express direct train to Tottori so I will have to spend 1 more hour on the train by going to Yonago and taking a non reserved local train (more like a metro!). Considering the next available direct train from Matsue to Tottori leaves 2 hours later than Super Oki, I will still get to Tottori an hour earlier allowing me to visit the dunes before sunset.
All towns in Japan begin to look similar. They all seem to be built around a JR train station where all life seems to happen. After checking with the tourist center at JR Tottori, I picked up the bus timing to the sand dunes and based on the first couple of bus back tomorrow morning, proceeded to book an early train and Shinkansen back to Tokyo Shinagawa station. This will allow me to have some time shopping in tokyo before I return on Sunday. So, train tomorrow leaves before 9 am.
Then its time to go look for the bus terminal just in front of the JR station and berth 4. The bus ride to the dunes is not too far, 15 to 20 minutes at the most and costs 310Y by the meter. Only worry is that now the sky is starting to get dark and it is not even 4 pm yet with sun setting almost 5 pm. I get off at the cycling terminal entrance and proceeded to look for a hostel to stay for the night among the stars and dunes. I start to have a sense that here no one seems to understand a single word of english, and being able only to count in Japanese surely does not help for me.
After checking in, and finding out that in this off season, no meals are included in the room rate as the restaurant is closed, I lighten my load and brought only tripod and camera and it is time to explore the dunes. As Murphy's law would have it, just after I left the hostel it started to rain,and not just rain, being pelted by ball bearing sized rocks of ice was not fun, which is all I can say. Gore-Tex hood on, and rain cover comes on; on the camera bag and it just wouldn't stop. As I got closer to the beach on the sand dunes the wind started to be gale force and hail stones travelling almost horizontally. I couldn't face windward without getting battered by ice rocks. No desert for me today it seems, the sand is now compact and starting to have a snow buildup on it, accents of white snow building on the throughs in the sand dune ripples. Just as I had hoped, the wind and snow then stopped all of a sudden and I set my camera bag down and took a series of photos with the 17-35 f2.8 mounted on my camera and thereafter switched to the 28-70 f2.8 before quickly packing everything up as the snow, hail and wind picks up again. Saw a really nice scene with half the sky bright and puffy clouds and the other half dark and moody, but I couldn't shoot with the hail stones hitting the lens front element at this rate. When it died down the scene was gone.
Hurried back to the hostel and left my camera bag there and decided to take the bus to Tottori JR station for some seafood but once in the bus realised I forgot my wallet so its going back again. Once back I had no mood to take the bus again so decided to hike 20 minutes to the nearest convenience store along a road I have not gone before.
So for 10 minutes, the road goes through a dark woods, and here I am, hiking in the dark, with only a slight moonlight as my only source of illumination while listening to a Melvin Braggs podcast on science of time. This road could be haunted for all I know but I was hungry so nothing will stop me. After passing the halfway point, the road starts to pitch downhill and there right in front of me was an excellent night view of Tottori city.
27 December 2008 (Tottori and the trip back to Tokyo): Ah, it had to end like this. Woke up early at 0530 this morning to have morning coffee and wait for the sun to come up, hoping for a dry and sunny morning but it was not to be. It snowed overnight. It stopped raining by 0700 but taking a stroll on the sand dunes only yielded compacted sand, dark in colour. As the skies doesn't seem to be clearing anytime soon, low hanging clouds dampening the mood early in the morning and all hope is lost. Its time to make it back to JR Tottori and to hope for better luck next time.
Taking the 0853 Super-Hakuto 4 train to Himeji where I will switch to the Hikari shinkansen to Tokyo. Along the way on the Super-Hakuto, the countryside was all white from the heavy snow fall overnight. In large fields it was possible to see small tracks of little 4 legged animals going through it. Too bad a moving train presents a difficult shooting environment for DSLR so I took snapshots with the point and shoot and mobile phone. As the train weaves through tunnels and tightly spaced valleys and hills, in some area there are low hanging clouds which will make for good photo mood but only if I was outside the train. So I could only look this time. At Himeji there will be a 30 minutes stopover before the train I am supposed to take arrives. It seems that Himeji has a nice large castle in town, and has its own festival, a float being displayed inside the Shinkansen terminal waiting area in JR Himeji. Maybe next trip.
Passing through Kyoto, it was clear that the snowfall overnight was quiet heavy. All the buildings in the city was blanketed with heavy snow and for a while the sun was out giving a nice glow to the whole city. I wished I was out there with my camera. It was not possible to do it from the train and hope for a photo nice enough for publishing, at least technically. If only it was like this in the morning in Tottori sand dunes, and my trip would have been 100% perfect!
The rest of the journey was quite uneventful. For the first time I didn't sleep in the bullet train. It took another 3 hours to get to Tokyo, and for me the stop was Shinagawa as it is closer to Shinjuku, my next destination. For a country that prides it self with being green, the trains seem to be very heavily heated. At least for me, it was impossible to feel comfortable in the Japanese trains with any jackets on. The temperature has to be cranked up to at least 25C! I think they can save a lot of energy reducing the temperature by at least 5 C and still make commuters feel comfortable.
Once I got to Tokyo, it was time for a last minute shopping. As this is already Saturday, my flight back is on the next day and one of the first flights out of Tokyo. So in short, a shopping spree that started with Shinjuku, then on the Chuo Rapid service to Nakano (Fujiya Camera!), and back to the Chuo Rapid/Yamanote JR line to Akihabara (had to visit the large toy section at Yodobashi Akihabara, Yodo Akiba in short, for my little niece), and then back on the Yamanote JR to Ikebukuro to visit BIC Camera's original store, and then back to Shibuya to spend the night.
And suddenly, as fast as it started, it was time to end this week long trip. It is my first time moving around multiple destinations in Japan. I have been spending quite a lot of my time in 2008 in Tokyo for business, and this only allows day trip trekking in the mountains and forests around Tokyo, but it is always back to the hotel in the evening. This time I was able to move around from town to town, staying in tatami floored room. What do I think about the traditional Japanese way of being comfortable? I actually love the tatami floor and it is extremely comfortable, if you have the right heating for the room of course. And the room is a lot more neat when after getting up, basically everything seems to be chucked into the cupboard leaving a clean and neat straw mat floor. For sure next time I am in Japan I will insist on being given a Japanese style room and not a Western one. Japanese style toilets are another thing. I dont like squatting when carrying out my business. I get cramps when doing so.
And while looking at the Map of Japan at the end of my trip, it looks as though I have conveniently covered Hiroshima, Shimane and Tottori prefecture, majority of Western Honshu. Thoroughly enjoyed the trip and language was definitely an issue in this part of Japan, but gives me more incentive to at least learn some Japanese before I return next time to cover other region. As usual, I love the food here, and especially the fresh and light taste unlike more western stuff. Like I said, nothing like a hot bowl of soba in the morning. Or natto. Wrapping up this blog posting, its amazing I have managed to typed so much in a week on my Nokia E71, and still only scratching the surface of how I really enjoyed this trip.