Japan 11 : No, I would not like to marry your daughter.

Today brought a lesson that a week and a half's worth of train journeys should have spelled out pretty comfortably - don't rely on train timetables that were out of a book rather than those from a station. Doing so might make you a bit late.

So it was that my train out of Nagoya to Taki was at 8:08 rather than 8.15 as I had presumed, and consequently at the point I was heaving myself through the labyrinthine maze that was Nagoya station said train was leaving. The next train along would not be until 9.30.
I spent the intervening hour or so making up new swear words and trying them out in the hidden flower garden that I had accidentally come across (up the escalators located in what appeared to be the central station plaza). It was quite nice there, in fact; the insane bustle of a thousand hurrying feet blended into the background and was replaced by the cool morning air of the outside. The beds themselves shielding the smattering of other fellow commuters from the hubbub going on outside the station too. A small tranquil oasis in the middle of the insanity of a busy Japanese arterial node.

As I sat there munching a sandwich and swigging a drink, I reviewed my decision made whilst in bed - instead of staying in Nagoya (of which by now I had had my fill), I would use the time today more wisely and visit Ise, and the great Ise-shi, what is perhaps the most popular of all the shrines in Japan, and one of over a hundred in Ise alone. Hugely frequented year round by many Japanese, who if were going to visit one shrine per year, would make it that one, Ise-shi represents a spiritual pilgrimage for six or so million Shinto-worshiping visitors per year that has survived in a society which increasingly has not had the time to fritter away on such things. The train journey times suggested there would be plenty of time to get there, look around and head back to Nagoya, then take the bullet train direct to Kyoto.

The journey to Ise-shi involved travelling into Kansai round the Ise Bay to Taki, then a change to the Ise-Shi train that would take me to the outer gate. Fortunately, now and again a Mie train departs and this goes direct to Ise without having to change. A slight pain on the journey is the stretch of track between Suzuka and Tsu, which is privately owned by the Ise Railway and anyone who travels on it has to pay an extra surcharge of 800 yen (about £4). The train inspector was pretty uncompromising as he went down the carriage and made sure no-one was hiding in the crapper at the time, so there was nowhere around it.

Once past Tsu, the landscape once again started to improve as the high-rise residences and industrial buildings petered out and the hills and valleys and the Ise bay showed itself now and again. Once at Ise, I put up my large pack in one of the station lockers and walked down the main street. Even though there weren't many signs, it was quite obvious which direction Geku (the outer gate) was, given the paved roads lined with faux-traditional lanterns.

Geku outer gate was more of a woodland walk punctuated by shinto shrines than a gate in itself, and once past the gravelled car park area, became a relaxed pleasant walk along dappled dirt paths. Every so often there would be a building or shrine, often accompanied by 'no camera' signs and an ever-alert guards, but I did manage to get the odd pic, so a few souls stolen there and squeezed onto my SD card.

After following all the paths around that I could find, (including an overlooked one that ended abruptly at an ancient tree with a miniature shrine at its base) I exited at the other side and joined the increasingly large bus queue to Naiku, the inner shrine. Buses arrived every few minutes and had as many people squeezed onto them as was physically possible. Quite aware of how my clothes had become well worn in by now, I was not enjoying the claustrophobic ride there hanging onto the straps above me whilst keeping my backpack between my feet. Mercifully, there were not many tight corners and the journey was not long.

Alighting at the other side, the amassed rabble of worhippers carried me along to the entrance, which was surrounded by row upon row of motorbikes, some of which still had leathered-up hairy Japanese bikers on them. Working my way through those I arrived at the entrance gate, a large wooden Torii guarding a large, ornate Uji bridge that spanned the Isuzu river.

Between the gate and the shrine area itself was an open stroll garden made up of a wide central path with grassed areas either side containing trees, shrubs and typically well-maintained hedges. Here and there were cockerels scratching about for food, ignoring completely the steady influx of people. Fortunately there were also plenty of seats, and still craving a sit down from the bus ride I took advantage of the nearest one for a quick breather.

No sooner had I sat myself down was I approached by an eldely gent whose self-imposed job it seemed was to show random people around the area; he wore no uniform, so I guessed he did it to get out and about and enjoy the company, and given that I was the only westerner around for probably 20 miles, I might have stood out a bit. Though my feet were complaining, I felt I couldn't refuse the opportunity for a personalised tour and so we set off at a gentle pace towards the inner area.

Toshiro could speak a little bit of broken English, and me a little broken Japanese, and as was becoming the norm, a combination of that and some exaggerated hand movements meant we were able to have a conversation of sorts. The first place he took me to see crossed the river once more (the river wound itself around the pathways of the shrine area, or perhaps the other way around) and he explained that the water of the Isuzu River is the purest in the world, that it goes by his house, and that he uses it for all its needs. (I declined to point out that he's affecting its purity by doing that.) It certainly looked pure; the water was crystal clear even from up on the bridge as if you could just go down and drink it. Heading over to the other side took us to an unremarkable-looking shrine building, though he explained with great reverence that it was a memorial shrine to the invasion of China 700 years ago. We approached the shrine and had a moment, me trying my best to look like I knew what I was doing, and then we went on our way.

As we rejoined the main pathway and entered a wooded area, I could tell there was something on Toshiro's mind - his talkative self so evident for the brief period I had met him had gone and nothing I could say would get much of a response.
Then he turned to me and asked me if I was married.
Quickly hiding my shock, I explained that I wasn't but that there was a Ms Plants back home, to which he looked rather disappointed and seemed to lose interest in his tourism job. As we started to hit the crowds near the central section, he bade me farewell and said he would wait for me there once I had been to the shrine. Taking the opportunity to split while I could, I bowed and disappeared into the melee.

I moved with a sense of relief away from the situation and with the flow of people past the trinket shops on the periphery and through the woodland trail to the Kotaijingu Shrine entrance which stood at the top of a long stepped area. The entrance itself punctured a high wooden fence you could not see through, bar the little bit you could see between the crowds who both entered the sanctum and exited shortly athrough it. I was at the bottom, and the line of people ahead of me must have numbered a few hundred. Surprisingly, quite a few western faces were dotted here and there, mostly groups of young travelers who had, like me come to see what all the fuss was about.

Maybe it was the length of the crowd, or how fast it wasn't traveling, or perhaps just the shouting that was coming from my feet to find a place to sit, but the prospect of going into the shrine was becoming less attractive by the second, and eventually I decided to move on. Moving forward at the side of the queue, and trying not to make eye contact with those people who guessed I was pushing in, I made it to the front and joined the slightly more fluid outgoing queue as it made its way to the left and rejoined the main area. Reluctant to bump into Toshiro again, I took a right up another trail which took me past an open area behind the shrines which would probably have had performances taking place in it had I been there at a different point, but it allowed me to see some of the tops of the golden grand shrine buildings from a distance.

The trail eventually brought me out at the trinket shops, and like a statue in the middle of the crowds, Toshiro was there waiting for me. It was pretty clear I had not gone into the shrine itself, and he had masked his disappointment with a smile and a wave before he turned and left to play matchmaker with some other poor guy. I chalked that down to good fortune.

Since time was a little short, I stuck a nose into the souvineer shops, then headed towards the exit, pausing for a little while at a koi pond flanked by more cockerels that I had nearly missed on the way in. I then went back over the bridge and instead of passing through the sea of bikes, headed up the very busy Okage Street, a narrow road flanked with shops and eateries that follows a sweeping left curve into a market area. Grabbing a Kushikatsu (A battered... something on a stick - seemed to include cheese) from a stall for sustenance, I headed out to the roadside and found myself a bus stop.

The map that I had picked up part way round pointed to a cluster of museum buildings not too far away, and by taking the Chokokan bus from Ise-shi I would be able to go see them en route. By now it was 2 in the afternoon, so time was starting to become tight, but I went for it anyway. Getting off at the stop outside the museum area (and passing under the biggest Torii I had ever seen), there were two signposts, neither of which were in English. One pointed along a road that winded upwards to some sort of manor house, while the other one headed down a woodland trail. In hindsight, the clues were there, but downhill probably sounded better than uphill at the time so I took the wrong one and ended up on a leisurely stroll that turned into a hurried backtrack a mile or so along.
The main building looked very western in construction, and it and the surrounding grounds could have come straight out of an episode of To the Manor Born. The grounds in total contained 3 museums, but I decided there was only time for one, so I chose the main one - the Jingu Chokokan Museum.

Once more, the no-camera signs were up in ernest, and plenty of museum guards were present so no pictures unfortunately. The museum was dedicated to a selection of ancient clothing, statues and other religious artifacts from the Meiji and Showa eras of Japan, at which point, they had been moved from the shrines as they were being rebuilt. It was all quite dark inside, relying only on what little ambient light could make it through that far and some fancy back lighting from the exhibits themselves.

Leaving the museum, I trotted back down the driveway to the bus-stop just as the next bus arrived. By mustering 'sumimasen, Ise-eki?' and getting a nod, I was relieved to see it went to the station and so hopped aboard. Just hitting 3pm, the next train left at 3.07 with the next one an hour away. I rushed to the lockers, picked up my big bag and just about got onto the train before it left for Nagoya once more.

Nagoya's familiarity was almost welcome as I passed through to the outgoing station to Kyoto. Ise was quite an intimidating place, not just because of the Toshiro's of the world trying to hitch up their daughters with potential suitors, but because it was off the beaten track, which meant no English, few people understanding English, and lots of bus routes that might not take you where you want to go. This handy PDF shows the layout of Ise and I wish I'd had it with me at the time.

The station bigness continued when I got to Kyoto - a huge black-windowed monster of a building rising perhaps 30 storeys high. The station levels themselves are a few levels up, and are accessed either side of the structure via long, steep escalators. On the levels below and to the side were the now-familiar department stores and shops, and the whole thing fit together like a giant block puzzle. First stop - find the hotel. Fortunately, the Apa Hotel was just down the road to the left of the station, and considering the location and size of the thing, was pretty cheap (7700 yen - about £38) per night. Very plush, and with some useful 100yen/10min internet kiosks downstairs, I reckoned I'd done pretty well for myself. I even got some paper cranes left at my bedside.

I'd over-compensated with getting out of Ise, and this left me with a little bit of time left in the day. It was 5pm, and there was only one place to go - Osamu Tezuka World. For those who don't know, Tezuka is the granddaddy of both manga and anime, best known for the long-running childrens series Astro Boy (otherwise known as the Mighty Atom) and Kimba the White Lion/Jungle Emperor Leo, which has often been cited as the inspiration (some would say more than that) for Disney's The Lion King), but was also responsible for a great many other characters both in manga, anime and live action form (such as the unofficial surgeon Black Jack anime, and the gritty, sometimes sexual Buddha manga), showed that he was more than a childrens storyteller. Also, its location was ideal - actually in the station building itself, and would just remain open long enough for a decent visit.

Now free of both backpacks, I trotted light-footedly back to the station entrance where I had seen a statue of Astro Boy, which thanks to several such characters, pointing, flying or walking in the general direction, was not hard to find. Inside the plush building was an open-plan sort of affair, consisting of a few life-size models, the predictable souvineer shop, and a film room which opened every so often and showed a cross-section of the films. Since that was about it, I decided to bide my time in the shop for a little while until the next screening. The shop was predictably stuffed with all sorts of tat, such as Astro Boy cups and keychains, BlackJack cards and various sweet tins with an obscure Tezuka character on them, but also one or two things that would have been more worthy of purchase: DVD boxsets of some of the more obscure works (unfortunately English not catered for) and some artbooks, including one particularly thick one chronicling his entire works, a dogeared copy left for people to leaf through.

Heading back to the cinema section in time for the final screening of the day, I was surprised to find no queue whatsoever inside, and was ushered into a small room containing comfy backless seats and papered with mock-filmstrips. At the front was a large flat screen monitor, which after a short while boomed into life. First up was (predictably) a 20 minute section of an Astro Boy film, followed by some of his live action work, and ending with one of his more mature works, a realistically depicted period piece about a samurai swordsman in the midst of a burning town fighting against his enemies. For its age, it was very fluid animation, and though the clip was only about 10 minutes, demonstrated the range of the artist.

I left, and consulting my trusty book, decided to scout out a free internet cafe that was listed at the other side of the station. Heading through and out to the other side where it was much quieter, I headed through the car park and over the road to Shiokoji-Dori, the street it should have been on. After considerable searching I could not find it, only a Tops Cafe. However the robbing baskets charged a fortune to stop there (200yen membership, then 120yen for 15 mins!) so I made it brief. To round off the day, I went into a nearby fast food joint, this one serving cheap, quick Japanese food in a McDonalds stylee. I opted (read: pointed at) a bowl of pork with rice and spices (I believe it was Tonkatsu), with some green tea to finish with. Despite not using chopsticks for several years, some of it did go in my mouth and it was pretty good.

By the time I had finished my meal, it was late into the night, I was tired, my tum was still doing somersaults, and tomorrow would be a big day: I was in the shrine capital of Japan, and I was going to see them all, so I ambled back to my hotel for some much needed sleep.

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