Off the Bus and Into the School

Following on from the Atheist Bendy Bus comes news of a sister donation site. This comes as a relief to me, as mentioned in my earlier post, there is only so much money you can spend on posters and billboards before some opponents begin to ask, 'well, why didn't you use it for something more needy?'. As was raised in some of the comments to that post, it wouldn't be fair or right to redirect that cash when the donating parties did so in good faith that it would be spent on spreading the word and being a voice for change.

The original fund-raiser has slowed down now but still gets the odd couple of quid added to it. It's a very healthy £110,000 as I write, and like many comments on the page have said, further donations should start to be channelled elsewhere for this momentum to keep going.

Don't let the URL put you off, the British Humanist Association is behind it once again, this time raising money to support a campaign representative to lobby and fight for the right for our children to go to secular schools which, although teaching about the various faiths (and Atheism and Agnosticism as well) would leave it for the children themselves to decide whether to follow them or not. They will act as a voice against the divisive notion of faith schools and instead try to promote an educational environment where kids can grow up with one less reason to find differences with each other. A more informed generation that is not under the 'guiding hand' of funded religious influence is surely a good thing and should be encouraged as much as possible. If you enjoyed what has become affectionately known as the 'most expensive pay-as-you-go forum' on the internet, please do your bit and pledge.

Also: if you might be wondering about where all the basic ingredients for the major Abrahamic faiths come from, you might want to take a look at this site, and particularly this page, which was posted on the bus fund-raiser page several times. It goes through a theory of how and where the various story elements of Christianity may have come from. The site doesn't quite qualify for a Web 2.0 award, but the content is sound, (the experiments the author has used to come to his/her conclusions can be recreated by anyone) and I found it compelling reading.

Japan 18 : Secret Garden

After a long snooze I awoke with sand in every crevice I could think of. A shower the previous night would have been a good idea but I had just flopped onto the bed and spent quality time watching crazy people do stupid stunts on giant greased logs for no discernible prize on the telly. After a good wash and some time hitting the hell out of my shoes to rid them of the last of the sand, I went downstairs and checked out.

Strictly speaking, I should have woken up in Osaka rather than Himeji, and given the size of the former it would have warranted the two day stopover I had originally allocated. However, things being as they were I found myself caught short when booking time in Osaka (there were no available rooms in any hotels near the station) and the best I could get was one day in each. First impressions were not great; Himeji was awash with last nights rain and it hadn't stopped there, it was still going: Sometimes you can go out in the rain and barely feel as if you're getting wet. This was the other kind, the kind that made you very, very wet as soon as you stepped out into it.

Despite this, I had decided not to spend the first half of the day travelling to Osaka in the hope that by the time I stepped out at the other side it had stopped. My interests had been piqued by Himeji Castle and surrounding Koko-en gardens, and thus thought it was only fair to split things 50:50. I went to the train station and stuck my bags in a locker there, and then got some brekky. I then in a succession of mad dashes between covered markets, overhanging roofs and whatever else I could find to shelter under, approached the castle entrance.

Himeji castle was easily spotted through the dark clouds, rising up from the flat expanse of the terrain the city had used as its foundation. I bought a dual ticket (one for the castle, one for the gardens, which were on separate land to the side), and figured inside might be the best idea first to give the rain chance to stop.

Across a square and then a busy road, the bustle of modern-day Japan was left immediately behind and was replaced by the relative quiet of the entrance; a beautiful Japanese moat bridge - the Sakuramon bridge (a good panoramic pic is here) - spanning the wide outer moat followed by the large Otemon - the main gateway - beyond which the huge outer courtyard began.
Himeji Castle is one of the largest and the most visited of all the castles in Japan, and despite the foul weather, the crowds had not abated today. I dread to think what it would be like in May at the height of the tourist season.

I started in a general direction towards the castle, perched high up on its walls as many of Japan's castles are. In fact, it was very reminiscent of Matsuyama a couple of nights before in its size and shape and the iconic curved supporting walls that made up its base, although Himeji had definitely turned the opulence meter up another crank; here were people who wanted to flaunt their wealth and power so much more - and they were good at it too.

Sensing an opportunity to get away from the crowds a bit, I hooked a left up the side to see some of the gardens in the courtyard. Though the Sakura was well and truly out now, there was very little else other than some scraggy grass that was still recovering from the previous summer, so I brushed my way past the empty branches and onwards, rejoining the crowds around the corner. There followed a series of increasingly more internal alleyways and openings, where I could get a few good pictures of the castle looming large in front of me, all well signposted with some nice external 'exhibits' and commendable English support.

The insides of Matsuyama Castle were also quieter and less prone to death by slipping down steps. As I entered the castle I had to do the now familiar switcharoo with a set of (outsize) flip-flops, only this time I had to do it in a steadily moving and pulsating queue, where I had to make my own seating arrangements. Fortunately they provided plastic bags or else I'd have never seen my shoes again. Unfortunately, these flip-flops were more like slippers that had no backs on them and so threatened to fall off at the raise of either foot from the ground.

The innards of the castle lead the tourists on a winding path, splitting the already narrow stairways in half for the steady and continuous up and down flows of feet. On each floor, there were a selection of artefacts from the various periods of the castle's history, the original structure dating back to the 14th century and the castle as it is now from the 17th Century. On the compact top floor (there were 5, and this one was about as big as a large attic) the crowds became queues, forming to pay their respects to the shrine located in the centre of the room and taking up a good portion of it. Once through the shrine and having taken some pictures of the fantastic views I made my way carefully back down the stairs (the flip-flops were doing a lot of flopping. Mostly off.) through the exhibits of scale models and structure of the castle, and out into the courtyard again. It was nice to get my now freezing feet back into some relatively warm shoes and I half walked, half hopped out as I tried to stuff my ice cube toes back into them without anything snapping off.

After a little more ambling around the courtyards, I decided it was time for the gardens. It hadn't stopped raining much but the skies were pretty universally grey so they wouldn't be doing any time soon anyway. Unlike the castle, the gardens were almost empty, although that could have been because most of the plants were still asleep and a bit grumpy when you tried to look at them. Some of the larger trees were still bound up in their protective winter sheaths and many hadn't burst from bud yet. I was feeling like there was going to be little to see until I crossed a gently curving wooden bridge and emerged into the central area - a quad of walled-off sections of garden with a central pond and streams shared between them, absolutely full of multicoloured Koi. The first - and most beautiful - section contained the largest pond, complete with waterfalls, weeping willows, firs of all shapes and sizes, and even a bit of Sakura for good measure. There was also a covered viewing platform for just such a day, and I happily spent time watching the writhing of fish under the water as they revelled in the constant spit-spotting of the raindrops on the water.

I spent a little while strolling through the various areas, I was quite surprised at the amount of recognisable plants around, although the general not-quite-woken-up look of the rain-soaked twigs and buds could only be interesting for so long, there was little beyond some spring bulbs and some unknown but very delicate flowers actually putting on a show. Heading back to the entrance, the heavens opened once more, so I sat for a while next to the ticket office. An elderly guy named Charlie from London appeared and sat down wearily next to me. He decided to wait for his wife and her Japanese guide to finish going round the gardens with him. They had just come over from Aukland on a round the world trip, and were in the country for a few days. We sat and chatted for a while about where we had both travelled and where to go next (I recommended Hiroshima to them for the impact of the area and its history, and Kyoto for its temples) until his wife picked him up and they went on their way. By this point it had stopped raining, so I made my way quickly back through the market areas. After yet more Italian food (a nice lasagne with 'pizza toast' and some more proper tea!) in a very pleasant and cosy little restaurant tucked away in the corner of one of the covered arcades, I headed to the station to get my bags.

Osaka station was pretty close, so the intervening trip was short and largely devoid of sights. I arrived about 4pm in Osaka with the intention of doing a couple of things before nightfall. First thing was to find the hotel, which was no mean feat as the station was massive, and when I exited it was into a solid flow of people going about their business with robotic efficiency. After negotiating some underpasses and over busy streets with only my watch-compass and an increasingly damp map to work with (fortunately there were some walkways to get through the worst of the traffic) I finally got on the correct street and arrived at the hotel Hokke, situated on the back streets amongst ..ahem.. businesses of liberal repute - offering professional massage services. The hotel was perfectly respectable (with a.. lovely view) but it felt a little seedy being in the district even so.

No matter, I ditched the bags in the room and headed out. As I retraced my steps through the city, I tried not to gape too much at the enormity of everything around me for fear of ending up under a bus or slipping over and giving a poor native some unwanted personal contact. One attraction I did know about in Osaka before starting out was the Umeda Sky Building, an enormous glass structure in the shape of an inverted 'U' that contained a circular viewing platform at its height. Once on the other side of the station it was easy to spot, but getting there would be more difficult. I passed a post office just as it shut - too late to get any cash out, then headed past a shy Big Issue seller, under the train tracks and out the other side where things looked very much more industrial. Following the road down with grand buildings to the left and empty trainyards to the right, I was on a heading 90 degrees to the sky building and it was getting increasingly dark. A good 5 minute walk allowed me to cross at a level crossing and backtrack to the sky plaza, located in the Umeda district - a large coming together of business and retail blocks. The commercial structure is home to several banks and on the lower floors were several ATMs, though again none would take my dirty foreign card. I would have to wait until the next day it seemed, but I had enough cash to be going on with for now so it was OK.

Relieved that the building wasn't closed, I reached the entrance as the day was turning to night. The layout of the building was a bit stuffy to just have a single lift to the top, so partway up you transfer from the lift to an enormous escalator which straddles the two sides of the building, with a smaller escalator that takes you into the top dome on the 40th floor. Lit up at night it was something special to go in, not overly flashy, just enough to give a quiet sense of awe as you were taken into it. Between escalators was - predictably - a souvenir shop, which I largely ignored as I was light on cash, there were some nice trinkets but I ignored them on the basis of cash shortage and the lack of packing room.

Alighting at the top, there was a fantastic panoramic view of the city at night, and the inner wall of the dome was decorated with tall photographs of other notable buildings from around the world - although I was most interested in the views out of the window. The pictures were going to be difficult - the lack of ambient light meant my little camera would need a long exposure time per photo, and from experience I knew I wouldn't be able to hold myself still enough to take anything that didn't look like an earthquake was happening. I solved the problem by standing the camera on a windowsill, slightly angled downwards with whatever papers I could stuff under it without falling over. I then set a 5 second timer so I could press and not be part of the vibration when the picture was taken. My fleece was used as a cover to minimise the reflection of the light from the inside of the room. A bit make-do-and-mend I'll grant you but I got some cracking pictures through the rain-dashed windows.

I spent a while at the dome, it was very relaxing watching the city come alive with light and movement, yet be so far away from it in complete peace. I finally left about 8pm. Leaving the building and looking up, the circular dome had a beautiful flickering green-blue glow to it, making it look like a landing UFO and lighting up the rest of the building in with metallic blue hues. It's definitely one of the most striking buildings I've seen and better still for visiting at night. As I headed back I passed the post office again, and inside through a door I could shout through was a guy sorting some mail. I took a chance and asked about the ATMs I could see in the barricaded off area, and after what I thought was a shooing off, I realised he was telling me to go round the outside to another bank of machines - which had been available all the time - doh!

Getting out 40,000yen (about £200) I immediately spent some in the adjacent Italian (yes, again) which was very busy but expensive. I had myself a sausage pizza with mango juice and a choc and banana sundae which was yum. At about 9pm I went back to the hotel and spent a little time uploading things on the free internet downstairs, which made me completely lose track of time and I went to bed around midnight.

All Aboard the Atheist Bus!

Although I am in the privileged position to not be subjected to them, the thought of living in a part of the UK such as London where every day I would be shown advertisements for various religious outfits would become very annoying, very quickly. Most Abrahamic faiths have been caught on the back foot of recent, whether it be down to a dwindling church attendance, or negative vibes caused by some of the more nutty of the flock blowing people up, and have resorted to proclaiming and suggesting things such as 'follow us and be content and all-knowing' (the positive spin), 'follow us and not burn in hell' (the negative, threatening spin), or 'follow us, and secure your place in the afterlife' (the bribery spin).

Many slogans have apparently appeared on billboards, buses and trains in and around London, to add to the message already pushed down our throats by the megaphone-aided street preachers you get in most city centres. I have been quite fortunate in that the religious presence round my way rarely reaches beyond the church perimeter (although Jehovah' Witnesses do occasionally knock on my door, to which they get a good debating with about various issues). As a 'practising Atheist', it was with some joy that I found there was finally something being done about it. The British Humanist Association has launched a campaign to provide a balance to these posters. They started a justgiving site on 21 October to fund an alternative campaign to be placed on buses around London for a couple of weeks.

The slogan goes 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life', intended clearly as a positive response to the 'should I believe? - what if I don't and then burn in hell?' insecurities that many people will have suffered from time to time.

Though their target amount was quite a modest £5,500, the Christian Voice people (clearly a little threatened if you look at the wording of the piece they wrote) appeared and decided to scoff and mock and pour water on the little flame they saw, deriding the idea (claiming that atheism is dangerous, like bendy buses) and saying that atheists/humanists would never stump up such cash because they are tightwads. Spokesman
Stephen Green went on Radio 5 to do most of the heckling, and along the way proclaiming that he knew God existed, even though when pressed he couldn't find any proof to back it up. His exaggerated guffaws and over-egged put-downs were a psychologists dream to study.

A little over an hour after the launch of the site, the target was reached. As I write, the amount raised has exceeded £95,000 and I expect it will pass the ton by the end of the day, and it's one of the most life-affirming statements I've experienced in a long time. From an initial target of a few buses around London, the posters will now be seen nationwide and be also featured all over the place. I have donated some cash myself as I think it's a very good cause and have been playing the refresh game on the justgiving page for some days now, giggling like a schoolgirl as the total reached higher milestones. It's even more impressive when you consider the fear that has grasped people of recent about the 'credit crunch', you'd think it would be a lot less when people haven't got so much to spare.

The point of this post? Well, partly I wanted to help rub the smug noses of the Christian Voicers in the large amount of zeroes they are seeing raised in a very short length of time, but also it seems that there are a few points raised with religion and belief in general that need straightening out. I'm not the person to do the straightening - it can't be done by one person and one blog but by gradual shifts in global social conscience - but I'll have a go anyway since blogs are all about unqualified people like myself making qualified decisions.. :)

I am not against the notion of religion and belief per se. It is part of the right of every human in our society to believe in what we wish, be that God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or nothing at all. My problem arises when people of one denomination decide to push their assumptions about the world onto other people who do not share that belief. That's how wars start.

The Newly found Voice of Reason

I would hope that the sheer amount of support drummed up against the religious cause has woke the religious representatives up a bit. Until now, there hasn't really been a large focal point for all atheists, humanists, agnostics and whatever other labels people choose to place upon themselves, to jointly make their opinions known on the subject. At least, not one that has stood up from the pulpit, to take a religious simile. I hadn't looked into the Humanists before this because it sounded quasi-religious and therefore out of my field of interest.

The lack of measurement of the atheistic viewpoint has led to a certain amount of complacency on the part of various religious leaders and spokespeople, who had no barometer with which to predict where they stood on public matters. Complacency which I hope has now been tempered by a sudden and unexpected response by the quietly simmering rational subset of people in both the UK and beyond. No doubt people like Stephen Green will laugh and shrug off this vote of no confidence in the notion of religion in all our lives, but it will hopefully go some way to correcting the perceived ratio of religious types to atheists.

Why Preaching Doesn't Work

Gotta be careful here since this is a preach of sorts - but one point made by the venerable quote machine that is 'National Director of Christian Voice' Stephen Green lit up a warning light marked 'hypocrite'. His assertion was that 'People don't like being preached at. Sometimes it does them good, but they still don't like it.' is rattling when we see what he implies - that it does them good only when they get a preaching from the 'good book' and not by nasty heathen druid non believing hell-lovers. Of course, he is correct in that sometimes people need to be told things and other times to be left the hell alone, but what constitutes a valid time to do that is a very uncertain topic.

Unfortunately, the central assumption held by religious types - that their particular God definitely exists - is at the top of their ethical tree, affecting their every action and the words that come out of their mouths at all times. What believers don't understand, is that by shaping sentences with this central assumption within them, they are just putting non-believing peoples' teeth on edge. Thus when they choose to preach - through the medium of a poster, a flyer or some bloke in a town square with a megaphone - many people just turn off, leading to the slightly silly situation where the only people listening to them are the ones who already believe.

Why 'Probably'?

Some questions have been raised by the use of the word 'probably' in the title of the proposed posters. As atheists, aren't we being more like agnostics by leaving a little wiggle room?
Perhaps that is the case, but I believe that the word Probably should stay in. In the same way that I would consider a religious type an arrogant git if they proclaimed that they knew God definitely existed without then being able to prove such an assertion (surely if someone knew something they would have irrefutable proof), I would also consider an atheist to be equally arrogant and wrong if they asserted the opposite. No-one knows for sure whether a god, many gods, or no gods exists or not. We can speculate, and take from the sum total of human knowledge a cherry-picked set of facts and assumptions and make conclusions from them, but we can never be sure either way. Religious types have it easier, since as soon as their God pops down and taps us all omnipresently on the shoulder and says hello, that's case proved in their favour, whilst atheists have to wait to the end of infinity before they can say 'right well we did all that and God wasn't anywhere, so nerrr'.

So I think atheists should sidestep the pitfall that catches out so many religious types and say 'on balance, looking at the world, the information available to me and the experiences I have had, I have come to the conclusion that there is probably no God.' It's more accurate, and it's (presumably) not offensive to people who do believe. After all, it is considered opinion, not fact, whichever side of the fence you happen to be on.

Should we spend so much on posters?

The original target of £5,500 was not trivial, but small in comparison to the eventual haul, so should it all go just on an alternative poster to look at in tube stations? 100k can be used for a few things, and it would be ideal if the association used a lot of it for more positive things. Just for the sake of argument, how about the first £50k should be used on a national poster/billboard campaign, with perhaps even a TV advert or something. The rest should go to a handful of children's hospitals such as Great Ormond Street, or cancer charities like Macmillan. The humanist view is, after all one that seeks to make a better life for people. They should show that that truly is the case. The stick that we would use to beat the message of another choice into people should not be so big as to become comparable to those used by the various religions to do the same.

Will it convert anyone? What happens if I don't believe - and I go to hell?

I'm not sure that the point of the campaign is to convert people, rather to give a voice to the group of us that choose not to believe.
There will be some people who wrestle with the idea of adopting a belief on a daily basis, affected by whatever happens to be on the evening news, that may find the poster message to be either liberating or befuddling.
A major worry held by fence sitters regards their fate if they make the wrong decision. A certain Jesus-themed site deals with plenty of fire and brimstone in the event of non-compliance with their religion to put fear into the hearts of those unsure whether to commit. Here is my counter rationalist view:
  • We live on a huge planet. The planet is one of billions in the universe. We are far too small and insignificant for a God to be bothered with unless we were to do something mental like blowing the whole world up. The easiest way to achieve that is to [just as an example], have a divisive factor such as religious leaning pit person against person, and nation against nation in a battle to see who goes to heaven first.
  • I made my decision to not believe based upon the information available to me. If God is all-forgiving as we are led to believe, then he will forgive me for coming to the wrong conclusion as I wait at the pearly gates, since my only mistake was missing that elusive piece of data that proved or pointed at his existence. Thus it makes no difference to the outcome of my life whether I choose to believe or not, so long as I live my life well and am a good person.
  • The good aspects of religion (a set of moral guiding values, a community spirit, a voice to be heard with) can be decoupled from any religion and survive and prosper on their own. You do not need to have a faith in order to be a good person.
  • No matter which God you choose to believe (and the notion of 'choosing a religion' is a ridiculous one) there will always be all the others which you choose not to believe in. If they turn out to be the right one, you're buggered anyway.
  • If God is all-knowing, made the earth, stars and sun, fashioned Adam and Eve from bits of plasticine or whatever and still had time off for a kip on Sunday, that makes him a pretty intelligent being. I know that if I were to hear the same things daily, weekly, monthly over and over again, I'd get pretty annoyed, so imagine how pissed off a creature of infinite wisdom gets at hearing prayer and worship and hymn in his name EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY.
  • Good things that happen are often attributed to God. Similarly, when a bad thing happens, the devil is often blamed. God and the devil seem to exist, but despite God being all powerful, he either cannot, or chooses not to stop the actions of the devil and all his little pitchforked minions. Either God is not strong enough to stop these bad things happening, or they have an agreement going, or he just enjoys watching the outcome. Or perhaps existence is just one enormous celestial game of table football between good and evil.
  • A rejection of the belief in a god doesn't imply worship of the devil. They are equally fictitious. Good things happen because of good circumstance and/or good people. Bad things happen due to unfortunate circumstance and/or bad people. Bad people happen because of ignorance and lack of education and thought. The idea of believing in a religion hinges on not thinking about things and instead accepting unquestionably what you are told instead. This is the conclusion reached by Dawkins when he states that 'thinking is anathema to religion'.
There. One massive soapbox for one massive subject. I hope the humanist association gets as much money as possible and that they spend it wisely so there is just enough to highlight a choice, but not so much to become a liability. Then lets leave each other to believe or not believe based on what we can see from the world around us, and an intelligent, rational interpretation of those things, rather than from a nutter on a street corner or a sign on a bus.

Please donate if you agree with this cause of redressing the balance, or if you like, donate to the site that has been set up in defiance to the atheist buses, which set itself a familiar-looking target, but doesn't look like its quite there yet.

Japan 17 : Threesome

Things were going well since Kyoto. Every day I was feeling stronger and was able to achieve more. Though my time on Shikoku island was rapidly coming to a close I was feeling positive.

I had made another change to my schedule. Originally, my plan was to head directly from Takamatsu to Osaka via Awaji Island, a small elongated stretch of land tethered to both Shikoku and Honshu by long road bridges. The original route would mean traversing this route, and it would require most of the day, most of it involving buses, and possibly another expensive ferry.
I still had a day in hand, and I had not yet set up my accommodation for the next stop of the journey, so I made a choice. Instead of the Awaji island route, I decided to head back to the Great Seto Bridge and cross there to Okayama. From there, strike a blow in the face of my prior invalided state and go north to Tottori and pay a visit to its famous beach, before finally taking the train back south-east to Himeji where I would stop for the night.

The JTB I had passed the previous evening would be the first stop, and after mooching around one of the less glamorous inner city blocks at 7.30 on a cold foggy morning, I decided to swing by. Unfortunately it was still closed and wouldn't open until ten, so I headed over the road to Chuo Park, a small open area accessible via an underpass bisecting a busy crossroads. (The underpass, like many others in Japan was beautifully decorated and spotless, this one containing expansive murals made from stone and glass with miniature spotlights giving them an eerie glow. The pictures I took don't do them justice.)

There was little in the park worth looking at, and because there was only an hour to spare and I had no guide book with me, there was little point in venturing further into the city, so I perused the statues to baseball heroes and the stone Tanuki who was clearly enjoying the airy feeling a life devoid of underwear would provide. I ended up sat with a rabble of scraggy pigeons on the steps of a small amphitheatre until the target hour came around.
However, it was so unremarkable and nothing was happening that I got bored and nipped into a Lawsons and grabbed some breakfast (sarnies and choccy) and then went back to the hotel to check out, using their internet to check the various train connections I would need to make later on in the day.

When JTB finally opened, I had been sat for a while shivering in the cold morning, munching away on the last of the choccy, and was glad to sit down and parlez with someone in a relatively warm room, although it was a bit of a struggle as the woman behind the counter knew little to no Japanese. However after a lot of diagram drawing and flipping backward and forward in my now pretty dog-eared phrase book, I managed to get booked into Himeji, Osaka, Hammamatsu and Shinjuku, which meant no more advance booking was required. The original plan was to spend 2 nights in Osaka, but it was clear by this point that the 300-mile journey to the next destination (Mt. Fuji) was going to be too long for one day, so by spending one of them in Hammamatsu midway between, the pressure would be lessened somewhat. Shinjuku was the most expensive so far, as it was right in the middle of a fashionable, bustling city, weighing in at 9300yen (about £47 - although that is still miles less than a night in London).

Pleased that I had no more of that to do, I retraced my steps back to the station and bought a ticket for Okayama. There was a little time before it went, so I took the opportunity to at least get an arial view of the city I was largely ignoring. I went to the Symbol Tower, placed right next to the train station, which has a viewing platform. Floor 30, where the main views are taken from, was closed for some reason, but the one below still had some reasonable views of Shikoku's most populated city, particularly those looking out to Takamatsu Port and the Inland Sea. Shikoku Island has much more going for it than I had given credit for, and now I was leaving, but I will be back one day and will spend some time exploring in more detail.

I headed back to the station avoiding some sort of publicity event going on in the concourse, and was intrigued to find myself booked on a double-decker train. Any hopes of decent views were dashed when it became apparent that I was on the bottom bunk and my journey would be made up of the views of ankles and train wheels. Not wanting to put up with the situation for long, I waited in my seat until the ticket inspector had done his rounds and then sneaked onto the upper floor, where I met an American couple who were clicking away happily with their perfect view. The chain of bridges that spanned the Inland Sea seemed to go on for ages, and there was no land left undeveloped on the small islands that marked the end of one bridge and the start of the next.

By Okayama - home of Peach Boy - I had made the decision that I was going to go to Tottori, as up until then I could make a guess by the hours remaining in the day. Entering the ticket office, I managed to get a ticket after some confusion with the times (my initial one set off a minute from when I was given it, but luckily a fellow ticket buyer helped me out to get it exchanged for a ticket for the next train instead). Since there was another half hour to wait before the train departed, I went over the pedestrian bridge from the station to the Okayama Digital Museum (situated next to an NHK building, complete with furry Domo representative to greet me!). It was dead inside, and there was no English on the signs, but it was quite interesting to mooch around for a while, studying the gorgeous hi-res digital pictures and restored early art prints. There was even an exhibit where you played virtual tram tours around Okayama on little pushcarts, although it would have benefited from more than just me beeping and screeching around.

The Okayama-Tottori journey came around and seemed to take forever, heading from the southern to the northern coast, although the scenery was nicer here, with less of the typical defacing of the natural surroundings with buildings and roads and industry, this section of track conveyed a feeling more of a symbiotic relationship between man and nature. It was all very nice to look at, although I was clock-watching - I could make Tottori and back again, but there wasn't much wiggle room to use if things went wrong. (I was told that the JR train went over a private line, much like at Ise, and so there would be a surcharge, although no-one ever asked for one on the journey.)

When I arrived at Tottori Station, it was still quite some way from the beach; I had been expecting to step out of the carriage and see something akin to Blackpool Front, but there was no immediate sign that this was a coastal town at all. In fact, it was a sizeable city I had just arrived at, and one that for the first time, seemed genuinely and completely foreign. I have mentioned a general lack of English signs before now, and Shikoku was quite bad for it, but Tottori was worse. As if shunned by the tourists who head straight for the more interesting parts on the south coast (or perhaps they had all skipped to Hiroshima like I had due to dikky tummies and awful hotels), Tottori made no attempt to welcome the foreign tourist whatsoever. After much symbolism at the ticket office, I got myself a ticket for the last train to Himeji which left at 6.40pm. I left my larger backpack in a locker in the station and went to the bus park across the road, spending a little time searching fruitlessly for signs for the beach. The people behind the desk were not very useful either, they spoke no English at all and had no translations of the timetables. Typically, my phrasebook also decided that there was no need to include the translation of the word 'beach' either.

Not having much of a clue, I headed outside to the bus terminus and was relieved to see a cartoon drawing of a beach with a bucket and spade over the #0 bus. I got on and 20 minutes and 360yen later, after climbing a small hill to a parking area, departed. Out beyond the buildings surrounding me was the distant sound of waves and the salty smell of sea air. There was a ropeway down to the beach, but the guy seemingly in charge of it was babbling at me and I wasn't too keen on the swaying seats in the sea breeze, so I headed down a sandy track containing what I hoped were camel tracks (they are available as rides, it said in the book), then crossed a main road and started to hit dunes.

Tottori beach is very large, consisting of an inital flat-ish area that leads down into a valley, on the other side of which is a huge dune, which I had now challenged myself to climb. The sun was becoming ever lower in the sky by this point so I had to hurry if I was going to experience a Japanese beach. By the time I was in the valley it was clear this was a popular spot; there were dozens of people clomping about in the sand, writing rude words and generally expelling energy. I worked my way through the streams of manic children and started the ascent up the steep dune, each step in the sand sank down half of what I had reached, but I eventually made it to the top.

The sun was getting low on the horizon and the sight of the sea opened up in front of me. The tide was just on the turn and the sunlight shimmered over it as my eyes tracked the beach from the west as far as I could see, rounding a cape to the east. It had taken two attempts to get here, and it was worth it. I stumbled down the other side towards the sea and dipped a hand into the water to symbolise my journey from south to north sides of the country. After days and days of towns and cities and rails, it was nice to experience a completely natural sight for once and stroll along the shoreline.

After a while though, I became a little bored and more than a bit hungry, so I started to make my way back. It was only 5pm, so I had plenty of time. I was just about to cross the road for a shop that might have sold much-needed tasty treats, when a bus appeared at a stop that was different to the one I had come in on, but was heading in the right direction. Figuring I might be best getting back to the station earlier rather than later, I checked it went to the station and got on.

What followed was one of the most worrying trips I have taken. Leaving at 5.15, I thought I was going to be fine, but an hour later, the driver was still happily pootling around Tottori, stopping at every place imaginable on his route. I was getting very fidgety when at long last we arrived at the station at 6.35 - 5 minutes before the train left - and sped quickly to the train, only just remembering to retrieve my backpack from the lockers.

The train to Himeji was bathed in darkness, and I finally arrived at the station just past 8pm in the pouring rain. After winding through the covered shopping arcades and finally finding my hotel, I checked in and then headed back to an Italian Tomato and had yet another bolognaise. There was an Internet Cafe on the ground floor of the hotel which I checked into and the computer I landed with accepted my SDHC card, which many of them by this point of the journey hadn't, so I posted loads of pictures and caught up with my emails. I went to bed about 11:30 after emptying my shoes of sand (and keeping it for a Tottori souvenir).

Japan 16 : Don't Look Down

Now I had finally got to Shikoku Island, it was time to work out exactly what to do there. My expectations of the island were basically 'a bit more of Japan', which was broadly true, although there seemed to be a slight change in temperature and overall 'feel' of the place. If you stopped to try to get hold of a concrete example of the difference around you, it was near imperceptible, but it did feel like another nation. The most tangible difference was that English was very much a second-rate language here, as if the islanders had less use for it because the ebb and flow of tourists rarely crossed the waters to come see them.
No matter; I considered my options while flicking through my book. Shikoku (Shi-Koku, meaning four provinces - referring to the prefectures it is split into, Kagawa, Kochi, Ehime and Tokushima) is similar to Hokkaido in that it contains a few major cities surrounded by large expanses of rural and forested areas. Despite a large portion of island to work at, comparable in size to Western Honshu, I had only allowed for three days on the island - and one of them was yesterday. This left me with a Hokkaido-like rush on, which I didn't want to do.

Currently in Matsuyama (Ehime) on the west coast, I was due to stop overnight in Takamatsu on the east (Tokushima) side of the island by the end of the day. That left two options with the intervening hours. Either I could spend a day on the trains, taking the anticlockwise route around the south coast of the island which would include places like Uwajima, (which has a museum dedicated to sex, and who doesn't want to see that?), several famous spas (a Japanese tourist must-do which I had yet to try) and the apparently beautiful sea views round Yawatahama and Susaki. My other option was to head clockwise round the north coast on a less scenic or interesting route but on a natural collision course with Takamatsu.
Perhaps surprisingly, I decided on the latter. This was because taking the south route was probably going to be too long to take in a single day, which means I wouldn't be able to make any stops and look around. It's a route that needs at least 3 or 4 days to get around on its own, and I didn't have that luxury. Instead, I would look to see what Matsuyama would have to offer (there is plenty, as shown in the piccies here) and then head to Takamatsu near the end of the day.

I woke at about 6, checking out before 8am. Sticking both bags into the lockers at Matsuyama Station, I was free to tramp around Matsuyama for about 6 hours before needing to head back, the train journey worked out at about 3 hours, so I would try to make it before darkness fell. My Takamatsu map showed the hotel as being some way from the station, and taking into account the innacuracy of these things, there would need to be a bit of buffer room at the other end.
Just across the road from the station is a tram station, filling up slowly with the local office-goers. Exiting from the thin underpass, my worries about getting around were strengthened when the journeys board had no English on it at all. Eventually, by deducing what the symbols meant and the colour coding, I plumped for #5 of the available lines, and was pleased when the intermediate stops (which were translated into English) came and went in the right order.
I got off in the centre of the city at the Okaido stop. It seemed to be the closest one to the main attraction - Matsuyama Castle. Situated in the centre of Shiroyama Park, (a steep climb to the plateau on top of Mount Katsuyama), it is accessed at the east side via a steeply inclined path, or if you're feeling flushed, the twin transports of a ropeway and chairlift are available.
Starting up some pretty important looking steps (the steps seemed like they were enormous after yesterdays Miyajima trek and I was sick of them!), I was disappointed that it wasn't the entrance to the place I was looking for. Instead, it was the Shinonome-Jinja shrine at the base of the hill. Deflated slightly at the outlay of stair-climbing-to-reward ratio, I took a chance and headed out the path round the back, and was pleased to see both the ropeway and chairlift in front of me over a pathway that led promisingly upwards. Deciding that I felt well enough to make it up unaided, I carried on using the manual method rather than looking for the entrance to the girly easy way up.

Even though the hill was steep, it was a very nice trail to take. The city scenes I was looking at a few minutes before had been completely replaced by woodland canopies that filtered the morning sun pleasingly. The hugely recognisable curved castle walls began to appear before long, and a few ladies in traditional hakama Japanese dress unwittingly led me to the outer castle entrance.

Matsuyama Castle, like many others is surrounded by successive inner walls, each made from tightly interlocking stones curving from the base like an inverse buttress. The inner areas accessible by a single gate which is often large and imposing. This was more true here than many others, just one of the areas being a very wide open plateau containing seats, Sakura trees in full bloom (the first ones I'd seen properly open), and a couple of shops poised to take advantage of those who came up here for the fantastic views of what was now clearly a very big city.

After crossing the attendants palm with silver (500 yen) and heading through more gates, I arrived eventually at the innermost courtyards where some other tourists suddenly appeared. Shoes had to come off and go into a plastic bag, but this time they were replaced by a pair of flip-flops, although only after a long wait as the shoe guy found some 'outsize' ones for western feet.

Matsuyama castle is narrow and cramped, with several steep staircases to go up and down in. This was a problem in flip flops, and lets just say I am glad there were handrails everywhere. Getting to the top of the castle is definitely something to see; the views were more gorgeous still than those outside and the castle itself is full of artefacts with thankfully English (ish) signs to tell you all about them. You could even take a camera in.
I had by now exhausted my castle-exploring needs for a so I headed back down the way I had come and happened across the entrance to the chair lift and ropeway. Since I'd never been on a chairlift before I decided to give it a go (I was counting off the various modes of transport I'd been on throughout Japan and it was getting pretty extensive). After a little confusion with the tickets (and some helpful, patient smiling attendants pointing me at a now-obvious ticket machine) I paid my 1000yen and got on. Sort of, anyway. Chairlifts are a little wobbly at the best of times, and a moving target to get onto, but I just about managed to insert my buttocks into the scoop at the correct time and off I swung.
The netting below looked less than able to hold my weight should things go wrong, and the nasty branchy thorny brambly woodland underneath looked even less appealing, so for the first half I held on for dear life while the chair found its equilibrium with the forward motion and stopped swaying. As the ride neared its conclusion I found myself relaxing a little and enjoying the morning sun and gentle breeze, until I realised that at the bottom I would have to disembark. Fortunately there were yet more people to come to my aid at the turnaround point and I managed to unscoop myself and carry on through the entrance shop I had missed on the way up and was finally deposited back on the street I had walked up.

The day had progressed well and I had a little time left, so I carried on along the Ichibancho-dori main street until I came to the entrance of Bansui-so, a French-styled building used for various art exhibitions which unfortunately had been closed for refurbishment (you can see it here with its clothes off), so only the modest gardens in the grounds were available to look around. Aside from a reconstruction of Gudabutsuan, a house inhabited by a Shiki Masaoka, a famous Japanese Haiku poet, there was little really to do without the context of what was on show inside, so I moved on.

The main road darted to the left, and by going straight on, I travelled through a pleasant nature trail, with a hillock to the right covered in trees and shrubs and a moat to the left, keeping a bit of nature between the walkers and the main road and home to a family of swans, each with their own floating 'kennel'. It was the very outer perimeter of the castle, and gave you an idea of just how influential the ruling classes were out here. Within these bounds is the Prefectural Art Museum, in which I passed a little time looking at the calligraphy and children's charcoal drawing exhibits they had going at the time.
Getting a little bored, I looked for a building I had spotted on the map that provided cheap internet access, but typically when I had found it they were closed on the last Friday of each month, which just happened to be today. D'oh.

I headed to the nearest tram stop to head back to the station and waited. And waited some more. The trams were having to share a single piece of track at this point, and so far they only seemed to be heading in one direction - away from where I needed to be. Consulting my map again I realised that I was on the wrong line - again - and started the long trot along the line to the place I should have been at. Eventually, I arrived back at the station, although I had well and truly missed my intended train and would have to wait for an hour for the next one. I spent the time in the pleasant midday sun munching on what recognisable sandwiches I could find and one of those green tea KitKats they were flogging everywhere. Eventually I got onto the train and headed east.

For a train route that hugged the north coast, it was distinctly light on beautiful sights. What few shots of the Inland sea (the straight of water between Shikoku and Honshu) I could get were uninspiring and often polluted by the usual power lines or ugly buildings, so it was a pretty dull experience, save for the constant worry that I was not on the right train; my ticket's carriage number was 7, but there was only four carriages on my train. The attendant tried to reassure me (assuming he understood my fears) but it wasn't until another train joined the front of ours that all became clear. At Tadotsu, the train split again, half of it heading over the Great Seto Bridge, one of several to link Shikoku with the mainland. Fortunately I was in the correct half and the carriages that were left trundled to their final stop at Takamatsu.

At the other end, I stepped off and into the city of Takamatsu, although the first few steps out of the station seemed to suggest it was a ghost town; it wasn't until I was firmly outside of the station plaza that signs of life came rushing back. Wide roads split by a carriageway was the norm, often lined with trees and flanked on both sides by huge department stores and business offices. The map to the hotel showed the hotel as being several blocks away and, carefully counting the roads I crossed as I went, I was able to find the hotel, as well as a JTB office just on the corner of the same block. The hotel itself, the Takamatsu Washington, was a plush business hotel (with a sleazy looking entrance), and I was looked down upon I'm sure by the clean crisp-cut suits as I staggered in, trailing my less than clean shoes over their fancy checkerboard floor and not looking my absolute best it had to be said. No matter, I headed up to the room after checking in and dumped my items, then went back down and after a little internetting, headed out for some food.

Predictably, this would be an Italian again, which I managed to find after a little scouring of the nearby streets in a block circle around the hotel, although I would have been confident to go somewhere a little different had the opportunity presented itself. Eggplant and spicy beef spaghetti was a little different to the norm, I convinced myself, with some very vegetable-laden tomato soup for starters. The 'white chocolate cake' was actually choc-chip spongy stuff with some cheesecake on top. It was all a little pricey (weighing in at about 2000 yen - about a tenner which was quite expensive for a Japanese meal) but very nice. I ambled the long way around the streets in the darkness until I reached my hotel once more and then went to bed.