Japan 2010: 14 - Where I Meet Pastawoman and Sleep in a Coffin

After the slightly dull day yesterday, I vowed to make more of today. A quick look around the sights and sounds of early morning Kokura, and then off to the Akiyoshi Plains and their cathedral-like caves, and finally journeying on to Okayama where I would be spending the night.
Hotel Review: Blue Wave Inn Kokura (3900 yen/night, 1 night)
A pleasant enough hotel five minutes walk from the station (look for the blue sign). The downstairs sections are very flash-looking and the rooms were clean but small and had the standard things in them, including the usual cramped bathroom. No internet unless you bring your own laptop. 6.5/10

In order to fit all this in, I woke and checked out at quarter past eight. I found a 300 yen locker at the railway station to store my large bag, and then headed off to find City Hall. I followed the monorail above my head down the main street of Heiwa-Dori until turning right at the major intersection of Komonji-Dori. Then it was just a case of following the road to the Nakano river bridge to find the hall building.
The bridge had been decorated with what seemed to be a random mosaic pattern of blues and oranges and browns, but even stranger were the small statues that dotted the pavement on raised platforms. Elf-like figures with lightly feminine curves stood on one leg, a ghostly white form, with a tube of pasta for a head. It looked like they were lit from underneath at night and at some point they would turn like a ballet dancer on a music box. Ah, Japan. You do like to mess with my head and I love you for it.
Over the way I saw a number of buildings that stood as candidates for the City hall, many of them painted with gaudy colours and/or given weird shapes, but I knew from my book which was the correct building - the dull, featureless square one that blocked out the view of the castle behind it. My only reason for visiting city hall was the fact that it had a free observation platform on the top floor.

Walking through the car park into a government office building, when there was no signs or helpful receptionists to tell me I was doing the right thing felt rather racy and dangerous. As un-suspiciously as I could, I got into the lift in front of the various business-suited types and headed for the fifteenth floor, and then the stairs up to the observation platform. To my relief, the doors at the top were open as I had arrived just past 9am, and I found myself in a square room around the perimeter of the various contraptions that powered the place and kept it air conditioned. The low humming noise was ever present from the vast array of machines just behind the walls, making the casually stacked sunbeds look even more out of place.
The view around the building to the sights below would have been ideal, except for the fact that the maintenance guys forgot the place had a sixteenth floor. The glass was greasy and slimy in places with a green tint, with only a couple of places that were clean enough to snap through. Even the most popular bit that pointed at the castle was grubby.
From the top one thing was clearer however, the random mosaic on the bridge was actually a pair of elongated sunflowers, and the crazy multicoloured buildings off to the other side made up the local NHK complex. Round the inside wall were a number of cartoon educational posters featuring a professor character and a potted history of 20th century Kokura for the kids to learn about, including the bridge (1992) and the monorail (1985). Unfortunately professor Kokura couldn't speak English so my understanding ended with the pictures.
The novelty of height wore off once I had taken pictures all the way around, so I left for the castle. Just outside the grounds I had seen a pleasant looking Japanese garden with a traditional house overlooking a quiet pond. When I got down there, an ajar gate inside gave me the impression that I was getting in for free around the back way, but it just led me to the proper entrance and sheepishly, I paid my 600yen and went in.
Again, I was pretty much by myself aside from a few sparrows chirping in the trees and some feral-looking cats in the bushes. It was true that the garden had seen better days, the year was drawing to a close and those plants that didn't have their leaves battered off by mischievous birds were looking as if they were about to shed them anyway. The garden, covered on all sides by a blanket of trees contained a traditional Japanese house house which overlooked the pond and jutted out over it on long stilts. At the side was the entrance, an alcove where a woman was waiting patiently for me to decide what I was doing. She motioned me to take off my shoes before I could enter.
Inside, the place was bare. Room after room of simple tatami mats and slide doors, which had limited appeal so I left and headed down to the pond. A couple of crows seemed to enjoy darting into the trees high above my head to make them shed their leaves quicker. I looked into the pond and was surprised at the lack of Koi, given just about every stretch of water I had come across so far larger than a puddle had contained at least one. My concerns were answered a moment later when a sound of a door being unbolted within the lower reaches of the house was followed by a small group of yellow Koi emerging and swimming towards me in the hope of some breakfast.

As I was about to leave, the receptionist pointed out the so far unnoticed building to the left of the exit, which evidently many other people pass by without noticing too. Since it was covered by the ticket price I figured I'd give it a few minutes.
The building housed a kimono exhibition, and there were plenty of beautiful examples inside, using vivid colours, especially reds and blues, and luxurious silks to make complicated and expensive-looking (not to mention heavy) outfits. The building was a quad of long rooms fit together to make a square, so I did the round of them and then headed out.
I was about to visit the castle itself, but as I was walking up the gravel pathway through the enormous entrance gates, I had a change of heart; it was getting on in the day and there was much ground yet to cover, so I turned and left. I headed through the ground floor of the NHK buildings and out to the station via the Tanga market complex, one of the typical pedestrianised covered market streets you see all over Japan.

The Kodama Shinkansen left at a quarter to eleven, and after retrieving my backpack, I was able to catch it with a little time to spare. As it glided out of Kokura station, I waved goodbye to Kyushu, and looked forward to Western Honshu and what it had to offer.

At half past eleven the train pulled into Shin-Yamaguchi, and I found another locker to stow my larger pack away before getting on a local train to Yamaguchi station. As I left the station, there was a bus outside saying Akiyoshi on it's side, so I got straight on and it pulled off without delay. By good fortune, the Akiyoshi ride is one of the few routes in Japan that accepts a JR train pass as payment, so it saved me about a thousand yen each way.
The bus ride took about 50 minutes through hilly woodland scenery punctuated by the occasional cluster of houses and shops. I arrived in the sleepy town somewhere near 12:45. I went into the bus depot and took a couple of English leaflets and made a note of the times of the return buses, which headed back every hour or so until 6pm. To be safe, I figured I would begin to head back at 4pm, giving me a few hours to explore the caves and plateau without being in too much of a hurry.
Across the main road was a long paved street that led to the caves. Plainly meant to trap the unwary tourist, it was lined with many a souvenir shop. Some were care-worn and had little old women standing quietly by with cheery smiles on their patient faces, while others were clearly newer, full of more modern trinkets and staffed by uniformed men and women rushing about to the needs of some of the midday custom. I tried to limit my attentions to the hand carvings and precious stones of the traditional places as it was those that looked like they were being slowly elbowed out in favour of the newer guys. I rummaged around the various shiny stones and trinkets on the table of one such shop, and promised the elderly woman that I would return before the day was out.
Eventually the shops and the path ended, and a large toll-booth style building stood in the way. On one side was a reception window and some ticket machines, on the other was a large, lit up cross-section of the cave complex and an approximation of the road layout above that criss-crossed the plateau. I paid my 1200yen to get in, and then headed though the barrier.
The first section was a pleasant walk through light forest. A raised wooden platform took me through a semi-cleared area that slowly thickened as the trees and hills closed in. The quiet gurgling of a nearby stream and a bit of light birdsong in the warm sun was very welcome after a stuffy bus.
Eventually, the path crossed over a stream and was swallowed by the huge cave mouth, a prehistoric-looking gash in the side of the rock, decorated on all sides by hanging vines and stalactites. A covered walkway to the entrance stopped most people from being killed by falling rocks.
Inside the cave, the light was minimal; boosted here and there by strategically placed spotlights, but once the eyes had become used to the dark it was apparent just how huge the caves were and how unusual it was in such a geologically active part of the world that they hadn't collapsed with the many earthquakes. Suddenly it put a chill down the spine to think of all the tonnes of rock above my head.
To calm the nerves, I pressed a button marked 'English' on a machine highlighted near the entrance. In quite a loud voice, a woman boomed out her description of the cave complex around her, to the surprise of a few fellow sightseers in the same area. Needless to say I didn't press any more buttons and instead concentrated on the sights.
Throughout the cave, the stone pathway was fenced off so people couldn't wander off too far, and this meant that there wasn't much chance of getting lost in the dark. A large expanse of water surrounded the raised sections, and naturally occurring multi-levelled pools - much like the man-made rice lakes on oriental hillsides - tracked the progress of the water down the more gently sloping rock faces. Where the water had to traverse a more vertical route, huge stalactites hung menacingly from the roof.
I headed deeper and deeper inside, and the path headed generally upwards as I got further into the hill that contained it. By now, the occasional cave-goer had bred and the pathway was now busy with feet heading in both directions, both individuals and couples, and large tour groups, mostly heading in the opposite direction.
At the midpoint, the path split, and one way pointed to an elevator, allowing the more claustrophobic to bail out and head back to the surface, but I held my nerve and carried on. A while later, and seeing my thousandth stalactite, I found the daddy - Koganebashira (Gold Column); a sight that even after I had my fill of downward pointing rocks still managed to take my breath away. Through many more narrow pathways I walked until the route reached a peak, at which point it began to head back down deeper into the earth.
I negotiated my way through the crowds and found myself suddenly in a rather creepy tunnel. It was steep and headed upwards towards the surface. Suddenly though there was no people around, and silence, except for an ominous buzzing sound that filled the air every 30 seconds or so. The tunnel was a bit creepy and seemed to go on for ever, the noise growing louder with each step I took. By the time the final set of steps was reached, the noise was scarily loud, as if it was some sort of alarm telling me to get out.

Of course, it was nothing as ominous as I had thought, just a 2-stage door system that opened and closed the inner and outer doors automatically, presumably as a safety precaution in case something went wrong in the depths of the caves. I didn't want to know what afforded such a precaution, and was just relieved to be greeted by a young gent who offered to take my picture, mainly because the nearby bus park was empty and he had nothing else to do in the meantime.
I caught my breath and surveyed the large map on a billboard in front of me. I say map, I mean barely accurate depiction. The bus park was clearly the source of the tourist groups heading back through the other way, and the connecting road snaked up into the woods beyond. For people on foot, there was a pathway through into the trees. I figured that the next place to seek out was the plateau, and necessarily any self-respecting plateau was going to be at the top of a hill rather than the bottom, so I pressed on.
The path was steep and consisted of several sets of chunky steps made from concrete, and then as I got further into the woods, logs and dirt which had a habit of moving under the feet. The spindly pine trees blocked out much of the light and the sights and smells meant I could have been on any British woodland walk, except for the large amounts of bamboo that as I gained altitude took over from the trees. Higher still, it looked like only recently that the path had been cut away from a large amount of overgrowth.

Suddenly, and with a few final steep steps, the path ended and a road began, just in time for me to be almost knocked down by a bus heading up towards a building at the peak a few hundred feet away. A group of elderly Japanese men had disembarked from it by the time I arrived, and they stood there encouraging me to make the final few yards to the top, which appeared to be some sort of observation building for the plains beyond. I bowed and said hello in as best a spirit as I could muster and headed through and up to the peak.
The clouds were gathering and it was a little cold, but I had made it to the summit. Checking and rechecking my photo of the map from the cave entrance, I surmised that I had reached the Kurotani Information centre, a closed-looking building at the peak surrounded by a large open space, which during the busy season looked as if it might have been busy with holidaymakers - plenty of grass verges for taking picnics on although no-one seemed interested today. A few lonely cars sat in the car park waiting for their owners to return from the lavs.

The general lack of people didn't bode well for anything actually being open, but I took a risk and decided to head for the second cluster of places on the map, which included such things as a science museum and an observatory, plus what appeared to be a decent bit of natural scrubland and forest for taking a pleasant walk on while here. All it meant was to follow the road on my map.
Some time later after passing a derelict museum (with a cool Natajara statue outside suggesting some sort of Indian theme) and the entrance to the cave elevator, I finally happened on a sign (by luck) that pointed me to the museum back the way I came. Since time was getting on I decided to go for it but quickened my pace. It took me the scenic route, (which included a nice little picnic area complete with mini pagoda hidden away down a back road) but eventually I rounded the corner and was greeted by the sight of the Karst observatory, and just along the road, the museum.
I decided to forgo the observatory in favour of actually walking some of the trails over the plains rather than observing them. The ground was a mix of concrete and dirt trails, and the scenery could be described as pleasantly tidy moorland, even up here, the Japanese prefer to not let nature become too untidy. After a bit of walking, it was clear that the plains were large and the trails long, so I reluctantly stopped my pleasant stroll and turned round, figuring I had just time for a little look at the museum.
The museum building was just across the road from the trails start, and a little way from the observatory. Again, it was pretty deserted aside from one guy cleaning the floor until he could see his face in it. The museum contents were all in Japanese, but contained a few interesting exhibits among the pictures of native flora and fauna. In particular were the skeletons of some of the larger inhabitants of the plains, such as a large stag, and this rather beefy-looking rhinoceros skeleton made me jump when I rounded the corner and came face to face with it (not to mention that mouthy tiger skull behind).
I wandered round their two floors for a little while, and pondered whether to buy their book 'Flowering plants of Akiyoshi', which I may have done if they had an English translation, but I was always mindful of the time. It was 3.30, and the next bus went at 3.50. It seemed (by what the map suggested) that if I continued following the road past the science museum, it would loop round and I'd be back at the town in no time.
I should have trusted my doubts. I should have heeded the experience I have had every time I trust a Japanese diagram of the layout of an attraction, that things are NOT TO SCALE. To say I took the scenic route was an understatement. I walked and walked, and the road continued its downward journey (which was good) but seemed to only want to turn left (which was bad) and had no pavements (which was also bad).
Half three turned into 4pm, and still all I could see were trees and large spiders webs, complete sometimes with large spiders, who seemed to make a good living picking off the stupider backpackers who wandered down the wrong road and got lost. A mixture of pride and hope stopped me turning around and heading back up the steep hill, and finally - finally - I was rewarded by the sight of some houses, and a sign pointing to the town. As a very minor consolation, I happened across a small shrine in the middle of the forest on the way down that probably no tourist but myself has visited.
I made it back to the souvenir shops at 4.40, and they were beginning to pack their trinkets away. I made a beeline for the old woman, and quickly put together a collection of shiny stones for a 1000yen. They had some nice photosets, but I had plenty of pics so avoided them. I nosed around one of the more modern shops for five minutes or so; it was full of mass-produced trinkets and bagged sweets, so I left empty handed. As she was closing up, I got a string of chilli-shaped glass beads on a necklace from the last shop on the street to use as a Christmas tree ornament.

I ambled back to the station in the fading light of the day. The plains had tried to claim me, but I came through it and got some of it's rocks for a nominal fee. One bus came by that headed direct to Shin-Yamaguchi, but this wouldn't accept the JR pass, so I waited a little longer for the proper (ie free) one.

The light was fast fading, and for the last 20 minutes, I was the only one on the bus. And for the first time, I was beginning to feel the chill of winter. I reached Yamaguchi and got on the reasonably full train to Shin-Yamaguchi, arriving about half past six. I picked up my backpack from the locker, and got on the Skinkansen to Tokuyama, then the slower train to Okayama.

Peach Boy and his chums were still present outside of the station at Okayama, but now he was bathed in the neon glow of the night lights. I followed my map to the hotel and found it without too much trouble.

Inside, a squat old man with a strange lazy eye and an overworked expression took my details and gave me a key, but this was for a locker, not a room. This locker, one of a huge bank of them at the entrance held your shoes, and a second locker was available upstairs to stick my worldly things in. Young and disinterested guys slouched around and watched the plasma TV in the lounge area. I went up to my pod.
Yes, pod. I had decided that among my many experiences this time, I would try a Japanese 'capsule hotel'. These are dirt cheap, even cheaper than many hostels, but what you get is similarly minimum; basically you get to sleep in a 'capsule', which in this case was a moulded plastic coffin-shaped pod, just big enough to get yourself in. There were no locks on the front, just a pull-down blind to protect your modesty. Tonight would be interesting.

I crammed the small bag into the ultra-thin locker, but there was no way my larger pack would fit, so I took it out with me to try and get some food.

There was little that looked open down the streets around the hotel, but I eventually happened upon 'Skippers', an Irish pub - of all things - that sold good old fashioned fish and chips. Since the last day or so had been a bit of a washout, I decided to have a taste of home, so ordered myself a plate. The waitress latched onto my non-Japaneseness and used the opportunity to practice her English on me, telling me about her boss's obsession with my country (I'm not Irish, but I figured it was close enough), and him realising his dream to have a genuine Oirish pubbe in the middle of Japan. He hadn't been, but he wanted to some time.
I sat and took in the strangely familiar surroundings while I munched on (surprisingly authentic) fish and chips, before ambling back to the hotel around half eleven. By now the capsules on my floor (one of a dozen) were half full judging by the number of lowered blinds, so I had a bit of a wash in the communal sink area, arranged my huge backpack so I could sleep comfortably around it, and tried to get some sleep.

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