Well it's nearly time to hit the road again and head far east to Tokyo. The day before setting off was a bit of a blur, and seemed to vanish before my very eyes. Last minute tweaks to my back-pack, sorting stuff out, putting things away etc. It was nice that folks rang to wish me Bon Voyage. Lovely to know people care. Was also nice to spend most of the last day with my mum, who is very special to me. The weather was a bit poor with rain throughout most of the day, so a good excuse to just stay indoors and get sorted.
Had a lovely evening with my friend Belinda over a glass of wine, who has helped to make my time in the UK very special.
Early to bed as up at 5:40am......
Thu 19th Jun - Well, it's finally here and time to go. Back-pack on and a tearful goodbye....this is the part I hate. Love my mum and don't like to see her upset :-(
Nearly at the Burscough bridge railway station and wow...blown away by Belinda appearing to see me off! Totally unexpected and amazing surprise. I am so lucky to have such a wonderful friend.
The train to Manchester airport was smooth as expected and spot on time. The airport is organised and easy to navigate. I'm on a Lufthansa flight LH4861 to Munich leaving at 11:15 then onwards to Tokyo with them, so my luggage goes straight through. Easy passage through check-in and then time to relax in departures after getting through security checks.
Exchanged all of my remaining pounds to japanese yen as don't need any money here, then hang around waiting for boarding. Amazes me the complexity of departures nowadays, with every form of shop to strip you of your cash. You always seem to get the oppounity to win a Ferrari or some other flash car in a competition. Plenty of people buzzing around the red beast, dreaming of what they would do if they won and taking photos. Hardly anyone takes the gamble of course.
Short flight of 1hr 45min to Munich plus 1hr timezone change. Had a glass of red wine to wash down the sandwich they provide to get the journey off to a flying start (sorry for the pun)....
Arriving at Munich airport seems a smart place. Like many airports, a massive space with few people wandering about, so empty. I'm on a connecting flight so don't have to go through any passport procedures, and go straight to level H departures for flight LH714 to Tokyo. A bit of time to relax ahead of boarding. From being surrounded by german speaking passeners in Manchester, I am now surrounded by Japanese. A quick way to get into the mood.
The usual impeccably turned out staff on board and similarly good service. This section of the flight jumps forward another 7 hrs making Japan 8hrs ahead of the UK. Didn't do much on the plane other than listen to music and read up on what to expect in Japan and try to grab some rest as it's been a hectic time recently and feeling shattered. Landed at 11:20am and greeted by warm (24 deg C) drizzly weather - Yuk!
Everything smooth at the airport, with Japan being the first stamp in my brand new passport. Have booked in to a hostel in the nearby town of Narita for a couple of nights to get myself acclimatised before deciding were to go next. The railway links are connected to the airport and easy enough to use. There are two companies, Japanese Rail (JR) and Keisei. I wanted the Keisei line which has a blue ticket desk in the rail area. 250¥ (Yen) for the journey, which is only a couple of stops. Out of the very smooth train and into what I should expect....not a single english sign to work out where I needed to go. Fortunately, I had printed a map and headed for a young guy on the street, who are always firm favourites to speak at least a little english, and found I needed to be on the other side of the station, which I wouldn't have otherwise known. Only 10mins walk (in the rain) from there to the Azure International Guest House. On the 3rd floor of a mixed building and very tidy (shoes off at the door as normal). Sharing a dormitory with six beds. First note...they drive on the left here...hadn't realised that. I was so tired that I went straight to bed for a few hours...zonked out....ZZZZzzzzz
Fealt better after a few hours sleep, so had a shower and shave to complete the waking up process, then off for a walkabout to explore my new surroundings. Chatted to the guy on reception before setting out as had seen a notice on the dormitory wall about what to do in the case of an earthquake....they get about 300 or so a year, mostly minor fortunately. There are sensors all over the area apparently, that link up to give advanced warnings.
Stopped off at the local Yaoko supemarket for some dinner. Funnily the first restaurant I saw on the way there was an indian...Namaste above the door. It was fascinating to wander through the supermarket with hardly a word I could recognise. The japanese are spotless in the way they do things. Surgically clean floors and eveywhere constantly being tidied.
As i'm in Japan, what better way to start my culinary adventure than with a tray of sushi...eaten with my own chopsticks! Not a big fan really, but willing to adopt their ways to see if I take to it. A good sized tray of mixed sushi was 378 Yen (work on £1=200¥ for easy maths), plus a bunch of good bananas, a large yoghurt and a bottle of cold tea came to 792¥....Cheaper than expected. Got a lovely service at the checkout, with a gracious bow, hands folded at stomach level and and really sweet saying that I wish I could have understood. I bowed in return....domo arigato gozaimas (thank you very much).....sayonara (goodbye). Very swish eh!
Good opportunity for some people watching from the Kaoko kitchen café, where you can eat and microwave what you have just bought. Plus there was free hot japanese green tea on tap. Virtually everyone here dresses as they would in the west, with not much distinuishing style. Some of the teenage girls wear long black stockings over their knees, which seems a bit odd, but hey it's fashion! Many of the guys wear headscarfs/bandanas, samurai style.
Sat 21st Jun - A late start following a good bit of catching up on sleep and then off to explore. The main focal point of Narita is the 'Naritasan' Shinshoji temple complex. Entrance is through the main Niomon Gate, which was built in 1830 and enshrines four deities to guard the temple. A striking feature is an enormous red lantern marked with japanese script. The mood is set quickly with a lovely garden and ponds teaming with terrapins. Up a set of steps and wow...the largest wooden building in Japan hits you in the face. Buddhist pilgrims spinkle sand into a smouldering urn in front and then waft the plumes of incense over themselves before bowing respectfully and then making their way to the main temple. To the right of the temple is the 25m high 'Three-storied temple', built in 1712 and enshrines five buddhas. My timing couldn't have been more perfect, as heard the drummers start to beat out a slow rhythm, so headed for the temple. I was just in time for the start of the 'Goma' or Sacred Fire Rite. It is conducted several times a day to celebrate Shingon buddhism. The pilgrims pray to Fudomyoo, the temple's main deity, to fulfill their wishes. This has a lot of meaning as the chief priest burns incense sticks which supposed to burn away their earthly desires and transcends them into a higher state of mind to win the favours of Fudomayoo. Shoes off and put in a plastic bag provided and sit and watch... The ritual is wonderful and colourful. The drummer who beats out the resounding rhythm at appropriate points in the service, and the main speaking priest, are dressed in purple robes tied with red sashes with large white spots. Others are dressed in bright green with sashes of black with white spots. Attendants in lilac and other amazing style robes. Stunning gold ornamentation hangs from the ceiling. Part way through the service and the drums give way to haunting japanese music that echoes around the building to eerie effect. After about 20 minutes from the start, one of the priests in green stikes a bell outside and the service is over. Pilgrims file past the altar in respect on their way out and make donations into big wooden hoppers.
There are many other temples wihin the complex. The bright orange Shotokutaishido temple, erected in 1992, is stunning, as is the 58m high Great Pagoda of peace which was erected in prayer for world peace in 1984. World leader's messages for eternal world peace have been encased in a time capsule which is buried underneath the temple.
Time to stop for some lunch at one of the traditional japanese snack-bars in the grounds. A nice shrimp tempura noodle soup supplied with copious amounts of hot green tea, fresh vegetables and pleasant service. Cross-legged at low tables on bamboo matting on the floor...the only way!
The grounds are beautiful and a great introduction to japanese style with wonderfully landscaped shrubs and trees, complemented with simply and strategically placed carved and lettered stonework or traditional characters. Makes it effortless to unwind.
Out of the complex and the rain started again, fortunately not for very long. Right onto the famous Omontesando street (bet you've never heard of it though!). This is a real beauty....packed with traditional restaurants and shops to satisfy anyone interested in japanese culture....and then there's the 'Barge Inn'. A british pub! Stands out just a bit from the surrounds, so in for a glass of Sapporo beer and watch the pretty japanese walk by....by the way....who said the japanese are small? Some may be, but a fair percentage are quite tall. No different than western women really. There are also some seriously flash cars here. Gas guzzling monsters...now many of those were driven by tiny japanese ladies....draw your own conclusions!
The shops are an experience as they display their contents like a piece of artwork. All attractive and worthy of a photograph. Omontesando is a real gem.
Back at the Guest House and a bit of relaxation to take in the day's events and got talking to the girl who is running the place. She is studying english like many people here. She was trying to translate a friend's diary from japanese to english, so helped her out a little. She had an interesting article called "10 Reasons to learn a foreign language". Won't mention the guy's name who wrote it, but it is a good reference for anyone who is unsure. Buried in the article were some good maxims. Here's a couple I liked....
'The most important trip you make in life is meeting people half way'...by Henry Boye
'Having friends from all walks of life and from different cultures, enriches one's own life's experiences and understanding of the world we inhabit'....by Barry Crisp.
Very appropriate maxims for the way i believe.
Time for a shower and clean up before heading out for the evening, back to Omontesando, where it all supposed to happen....well I suppose it does in season, but it's out of season right now....warm and wet....just how I like it. Anyway, everywhere was closed apart from the expensive restaurants and a couple of expat bars (the barge-inn and the Jet Lag bar), so grabbed a snack and headed back to do some reading. Got stopped by a group of teenagers on the way back to practice their english. They are all so sweet and pleasant. A note from earlier in the supermarket....they had Auld Lang Syne playing as background music on loop for the happy shoppers! I have heard that tune so many times on my travels...and usually in the most unexpected of places. Makes me think of home every time. Only just left!