A Travellerspoint blog

Knowing Mie, knowing you ...

The main reason we chose Japan as one of our targets for my sabbatical was the invitation to visit Yugo Narita in Mie. I first met Yugo, a consultant neurologist, during the Motor Neurone Disease Annual Symposium in Yokohama 3 years ago. We have kept in touch ever since and I was interested in learning more about his work as well as seeing more of his beautiful country. He and his wife, Nabuko, had been to our home briefly last year and we also looked forward to seeing their daughter, Yoko, who had also been to visit Dorchester and the hospice to further her interest in palliative care nursing.
Mie is on a peninsula which juts out into the Pacific about 5 hours south of Tokyo by train. Compared to the strip of industrial coastline on the mainland, Mie is relatively rural. Ranges of wooded mountains rise up steeply from the sea. Much of the interior is relatively inaccessible with networks of roads using viaducts and tunnels to cut through the land.

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Mie University Hospital

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If you look carefully, you can see the Pacific Ocean from Yugo's office

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Nurses staions are the same the world over

Yugo and his family live in the city of Ise. His place of work is the University Hospital in the provincial capital, Tsu.
He took us to see his office in the School of Nursing and the neurological wards in the hospital next door. As well as his clinical duties, Yugo has responsibilities for medical and nursing education. We met with members of his department including the lead nurse and pharmacologist in palliative care - very progressive appointments for a provincial neurology department.

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In the grounds of the University, there was a garden in memory of those animals and humans who had donated their bodies over the years to medical research. The inscription in Japanese on the memorial stone reads “The Foundation of Scientific Progress.“
The other feature I noticed was that, on retirement, senior members of the university had a pre-humus memorial stone placed in the grounds alongside a tree of their choice. I am thinking of suggesting the same where I work. My personal choice of tree would be the monkey-puzzle variety.

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During our visit to Mie, we were taken on a wonderful walk along an ancient pilgrim route. Paving stones, first laid down in the 10th century, led up a steep route through beautiful woods to a spectacular viewing point looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Along with other walkers, we picnicked in the sunshine at the top. It was easy to imagine in these unspoilt natural surroundings the thousands of pilgrims who had travelled the same route over centuries gone by.

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Ise has one of the most famous shrines in Japan which all Japanese try to visit at least once in their lifetimes. In another remarkable example of Japanese culture, we learnt that, every 20 years, the shrine is completely dismantled and a new one constructed nearby in its place. This is so that the skills used are not lost to successive generations. We walked across the beautiful new wooden bridge which had been consecrated only a week previously, replacing the one built 20 years before.

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Yoko (aka Penelope Pitstop) and her Mini Cooper

On our final night in Mie, we had a lovely evening in the company of Yugo, Nabuko and their 3 daughters at home. Much sake was imbibed and stories exchanged. As we have experienced elsewhere, such generous hospitality from people in their own country is a great privilege.

Posted by dikansu 00:33 Comments (1)

Miyajima, Kyoto & Nara


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Just south of Hiroshima is the island of Miyajima. Reached by tram then ferry, it is a beautiful wooded island rising out of the Pacific with a stiff walk to the top. One of the iconic photographic scenes of Japan, the vermilion-coloured gate to the shrine of Itsukushima-jinja, rises out of the sea as you approach the island. There are more shrines and temples on land. The island is inhabited by thousands of tame deer which harass tourists for ice-creams, Rail Passes, children and other edible items.

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Reunion with Yoko

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We headed back up north by bullet train to Kyoto. Here, we had a rendezvous with Yoko, the daughter of a Japanese neurologist who I had met when in Japan 2 years before. Yoko subsequently came to visit us in Dorchester. She and her boyfriend, Susumo, spotted us in the huge station concourse in Kyoto and took us to see some of the many tiny craft shops for which the city is famous.

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Modern Japanese take on the old Wolseley Hornet

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People waft themselves with the smoke from the inscence burner at the entrance of every shrine to bring about good health
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From Kyoto, it was a short train hop on to Nara. Like Kyoto, it too had been the capital of Japan in times gone by with many beautiful shrines in a relatively small area against a backdrop of wooded hills. How lucky we were to be seeing the autumn trees in all their glory.

Posted by dikansu 13:07 Comments (2)

Beware the monster lurking in Japanese bathrooms

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Looks innocent, doesn't it. But it's the white electric cable and arm-rest control panel which give it away ...

The Japanese must have the most pampered bottoms in the world. This is due to their obsession with hi-tech toilets. These multi-function marvels of waste-disposal wizardry are found everywhere. However, for unsuspecting newcomers, one’s first encounter with them can be somewhat unnerving. On entering the bathroom, the toilet seat, hitherto closed, opens automatically, like the jaws of Jonah’s whale. You gingerly sit down on its spring-loaded heated seat and the thing flushes before you’ve had a chance to do anything - a sort of “pre-wash.” On high-end models, there’s a button which, when pressed, emits the sound of further flushing but without any more water being imparted. This can be used as a smoke-screen for embarrassing noises but also to help male users of a certain age from occupying the seat for any longer than necessary, so risking the acquisition of third-degree burns. Such branding leads to several thousand A&E admissions every year, almost all foreign males. There is an electronic arm rest to the side with a control panel. This contains buttons for activating the bidet and blow-dry facilities. The symbol for the former looks disconcertingly like a person being levitated by water - similar to a ping-pong ball in a shooting gallery.
Once one has completed one’s performance, standing up releases the pressure on the spring-loading and the thing unexpectedly flushes again. Make sure you fully clear the seat within 3.25 seconds as the lid will close shut again. Foreigners, slow off the mark, have also been caught out by this, resulting in serious collateral damage. In A&E departments this is known in the trade as “being caught at third leg“. Don’t say you haven’t been warned ...
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In the event of things going pear-shaped, make sure you know where the orange button on the left is

Posted by dikansu 23:57 Comments (1)

Hiroshima by bullet train

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It was time to use our Japan Railways Passes and head south for Hiroshima. This was our first experience of the iconic bullet train. At Tokyo Central Station, people were forming up within lanes marked on the platform indicating where their specific coach would come to a halt.
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When it did arrive, the train was not disappointing. With a huge aerodynamic nose like a duck-billed platypus, you could tell this was in a different league to Thomas the Tank. There didn’t appear to be any visible space between it and the track, so perfectly was it designed for reducing air resistance and drag. Entering on board, the carriages were more akin to airline cabins but with bigger windows - appropriate for what was effectively low-level flying at an altitude of 5 feet.
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Before taking off, platform staff go through a strictly choreographed routine of checking that the signals, doors and all other safety essentials are all in place - just like a flight crew would. They point to the item they are checking whilst voicing out loud its state of readiness. Only when all is in place is it thumbs-up and chocks away. Despite the huge technological advancements in the 40 years since bullet trains first appeared in Japan, most of the safety systems are still manual rather than computerised. This, and the natural Japanese adherence to discipline might explain the exemplary safety record of the railways there.

By the time the last carriage is clearing the station, it has already reached 90 mph. Speeds of up to 180 are achieved between stops. Speeding down the south-eastern coast and past Mount Fuji, the track hardly ever seems to leave the succession of cities squeezed into the narrow plains between the mountains and the sea. Housing is cleverly packed into every available space. Exquisite Japanese gardens typify the way this country excels at miniaturisation. Even in cities, where gaps in buildings do appear, there are rice fields and tea plantations tended by farm workers in wide-brimmed hats working by hand. It is this paradox of traditional and ultra-modern co-existing side-by-side which makes Japan so fascinating.


From Tokyo to Hiroshima is about 500 miles - the distance from London to Aberdeen. Our train covered this effortlessly in just under 5 hours, including stops, and the super-quick services do it in just over 4.
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We came out of the station to the bright lights of modern Hiroshima which has risen from the ashes of the devastating atom bomb detonation of over 50years ago. We spent the whole of the following day going round the wonderful memorial park and museum which tells the story of this horrific landmark in mans’ destructive powers. It was a mixture of awful stories, as told by the survivors, and the miraculous way in which Hiroshima in particular, but Japan in general, picked itself up and overcame such terrible adversity.
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A-bomb Tower - preserved as one of the only buildings left standing after the blast
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The Japanese authorities, failing to admit that the tide had irretrievably turned against them, refused to surrender to the allied forces in early 1945. This gave Britain and America the opportunity to put to the test the A-bomb which had evolved from atom-splitting German technology. Three potential Japanese targets for this “experiment” had been identified. All had been deliberately spared the bombing dealt out to other similar cities so that an accurate assessment of the effects of the A-bomb could subsequently be made. On the fateful day, 10th August 1945, Hiroshima was chosen for mainly two reasons. One - there were no POW camps in the area; two - reconnaissance flights over the city showed the skies to be clear over the city that day for more accurate targeting. A B29 bomber from one of the allied-occupied Pacific islands to the south of Japan took off in the early morning carrying the bomb, ironically code-named “Little Boy.” It was unleashed just before 8.15 am and exploded a few minutes later at an altitude of 1500 feet. Most city inhabitants were already at work or on their way there. A radioactive fireball vaporised almost everything within a kilometre directly below and caused devastating damage to structures and people for some distance beyond. 80,000 people died instantly. It’s this spontaneous factor which separates the A-bomb from any other form of man-made slaughter, even though many more died elsewhere in Japan over a longer time.
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Someone's watch - stuck at the time the A-bomb struck
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The museum told graphic accounts of survivors’ experiences of literally seeing the city disappearing in seconds and the awful aftermath of those who survived, who either succumbed quickly from horrendous injuries or years later through radiation-induced illnesses such as leukaemia. More powerful than any verbal or photographic evidence were the drawings and paintings which, some years later, survivors were encouraged to produce as a form of art therapy.
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A-bomb survivor

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Despite the forecast that no living plants would regrow for years afterwards, shoots and buds began to appear the following spring, mirroring the regrowth of the city into the modern thriving one it is today. The museum and Memorial Park were packed with schoolchildren from all over Japan visiting the place as a reminder of what happened and could easily happen again. They were the future and, hopefully, their leaders wouldn't ever contemplate using such weapons. Living survivors talked to them about what it was like first-hand. Seeing our western faces, they would cheerfully greet us and practice their English, saying "Hello- how are you?"

That the museum kept us absorbed all day is testimony to its brilliant conception. Despite the awfulness of the story, it portrays human dignity and adaptation to a remarkable degree. But it also leaves you wondering how anyone could ever have contemplated such an act, whatever the provocation.

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Posted by dikansu 15:12 Comments (1)

Tales of the Orient

How the weather in Tokyo is.

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Our sojourn back home after Part 1 of our travels included a christening and two funerals - such is life. It was nice to catch up with friends and family and appreciate our own house and surroundings again.
The next stage in the sabbatical was to be Japan. I had been to a conference in Yokohama several years ago and found the experience fascinating. There, I had met some lovely Japanese people including Yugo, a neurologist from the middle of Honshu Island, several hours south of Tokyo. His daughter, Yoko, a nurse, came to visit the hospice in Dorchester the year afterwards and Yugo and his wife came to our house last year. We were keen to take up their invitation to see them again in Japan.

On the flight with Virgin Atlantic to Tokyo, the plane was less than a third full - possibly somthing to do with us arriving in Japan on Friday 13th? The crew were mainly Japanese so we had an early introduction to their great hospitality and politeness. Flight food was either European or Japanese and was a good opportunity to become accustomed to things like seaweed soup for breakfast. It doesn’t sound very appetising at that time of the day but is really quite nice.
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"Are you sure this is the right way?"

We had booked a hotel in Tokyo recommended by our friends from Switzerland who we had visited in Part 1 (see "Sins") - Richard, Hildegard & Madeleine Evans. They had been in Japan for a week already and it was great to see them again and get tips from their path-finding experiences. They also had some friends from near Tokyo, Denis and another Yoko, who showed us around the city which was a great bonus as it can be bewildering if you are on your own. We particularly appreciated their guidance across the maize which is the Tokyo underground, with multilevel anonymous passageways connecting the different track systems, thronged with people. Not the place to be if you are agoraphobic unless you were looking for a kill-or-cure experience.
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Tokyo, like the rest of Japan, is a place of huge contrasts. Symbols of the past such as shrines and temples are everywhere, usually dwarfed by the sights and sounds of modern Japan. We saw the madness of Electronic City with its thousands of shops selling cheap electronics and state-of-the-art devices which are tested on the home market before going worldwide. The bright lights, blaring music and touting shop-keepers provide a sensory overload which would probably drive you mad if you were there for more than a few hours, but in small doses, it provides a wide-eyed experience which is rare elsewhere. Parts of the city look like futuristic scenes from a sci-fi movie with overhead railways and flyovers criss-crossing over the streets below against a backdrop of multicoloured neon signs and advertisements.

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There is only one place to be in Tokyo on a Saturday night and that is in a kayoke establishment. Unlike back home, these consist of a whole block of small rooms for individuals or groups to hire and expose their musical talents in private. Our room was on the second floor overlooking a busy traffic intersection. Richard (Evans) revealed his hithertoo-hidden singing talent but despite show-boating to the crowds below with his rendition of Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, nobody seemed to take any notice and no traffic jams resulted. They had probably seen it all before.

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The other traditional thing to do in Tokyo is to have a group photograph taken in one of the many photo-booth establishments on every street. These are a far cry from the passport photo booths in post offices back home with the option of adorning your print electronically with any number of backdrops, emoticons or special effects. By holding up your mobile phone next to where the print pops out, the digital version is emailed direct to your phone as wallpaper. If this carries on, soon they will be emailing virtual sushi the same way.
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The next day couldn’t have been more different. By huge good fortune, it happened to be the festival of Shichi-go-san or “Seven-five-three”. This is where girls of seven and three and boys of five dress up in traditional Japanese costume and are taken to their local temple to be blessed with a healthy and prosperous life. We went to a beautiful park where families were gathering to enjoy the sunshine and occasion. Everyone was pleased to pose for photos in the land where cameras are ubiquitous. In addition to this, several weddings were taking place in the temple with the demure brides dressed in spectacular white robes with hoods being led through the grounds by monks in procession.
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Japan manages to retain its strong traditional and spiritual core despite all the surrounding commercialism and capitalism. This must be quite rare in westernised countries where increasing materialism generally seems to go along with less importance given to religious or spiritual beliefs.
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Traditional Japanese culture emphasises the importance of society and group loyalty as opposed to individualism but in Tokyo and elsewhere, younger people, but also some of more advanced years, break free from the conformity and dress up in bizarre ways to promenade around the streets attracting attention. Many of the outfits emulate characters from the cartoon comics to which many Japanese are addicted. The craze has developed into a money-making art in the form of “Maid Cafes” where, in a modern version of the elaborate traditional tea ceremony, you are served infantile food and drinks such as jelly and cakes with orange juice by deferent mini-skirted maids who, kneeling next to the table, get you to perform a “magic” ritual with them over the food to make it taste nicer. Very odd, and slightly uncomfortable if I have to be honest. Certainly different from your average Costa Coffee.
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Just before we left Tokyo, I got up early in the morning to visit the famous fish market on the south side of the city. Every morning, thousands of tons of fish imported from all over the world to satisfy the huge Japanese appetite are auctioned in a huge aging dockland area with an almost Dickensian feel. Once bought, vendors display and sell their wares from small stalls packed in under several warehouses. At the back of the stalls are small “offices” where (usually) women are busy book-keeping all the transactions going on. An archaic ice-crusher machine, which would be unlikely to pass UK Health & Safety standards, keeps vendors supplied with ice to keep the fish fresh. Tuna is big business and everywhere there are whole fish and the decapitated remains of frozen ones that have been sliced up by band-saw. Electric trucks hurtle through the narrow passageways between stalls supplying vendors and buyers but, despite the crowded space, and lots of visiting tourists, everyone miraculously seems to avoid colliding with everyone else.
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Well hello, sailor

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Lost in translation ?

After an exhilirating few days in the capital city, it was time to head to the south on the bullet train to the more sober venue of Hiroshima ...

Posted by dikansu 03:03 Comments (1)

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