Japan 2010: 15 - Where I Visit a Secret Millionaire

Someone enjoyed a bit of light porn, it was clear. Each of the claustrophobic and slightly suspicious-smelling pods were equipped with their own TV, most of the channels pointing towards a smattering of nubile flesh and - thanks to the conservative views in Japan towards pubic regions - a generous helping of pixillation whenever things got remotely interesting. I really wanted sleep rather than titillation, but it was clear that others didn't share the tiredness of my aching limbs, as another pod some cells away was keeping me awake to sounds of oohs and aahs.

Hotel Review: Hotel Riverside Okayama (2280 yen/night, 1 night)
A creepy-looking man runs a male-dominated hotel. The storage space was minimal, the rooms a bit smelly, and you couldn't have a secure, comfortable, quiet night. I wouldn't go as far as saying I would never want to try a capsule hotel again, but there have to be better ones than this knocking about. Not recommended except if everything else is taken, especially if you are on the tall side. 4/10

Somewhere into the early hours the TV went silent and I could get some sleep. By half past seven I had given up and raised myself before it started getting busy. I had a wash in the basins, and because there was no plug points in the pod to charge my camera, I took the opportunity on finding a seat next to the lifts that had a socket next to it. Lounging out as if I were a guest at a luxury hotel, I pushed my luck as far as I dare to get some sneaky electric juice into the thing, and then got my things and checked out.

I walked back to the train station with my things and found a 300yen locker, and stowed away the large backpack, and then got on the tram at the nearby stop. Today I would be spending a bit of time in Okayama, and then heading to Kyoto and finally taking a train north to my stop for the night, Amanohashidate on the coast. Interestingly, this was my third visit to Okayama, having passed through it very briefly twice on my way round in 2008, but this was the first time I had found the opportunity to explore it to any degree. The most obvious place to go according to my ever faithful guide, was the castle and neighbouring park as there seemed to be several things going on.

I missed the stop I should have taken and so had to walk back from the next one along, which was not too much hassle as the morning was pleasant and I happened upon what seemed to be an indie cinema, which was showing various films (such as Micmacs) that wouldn't have looked out of place at Hyde Park in Leeds. Shortly afterwards, the bustling city streets came to an abrupt halt and the scenery opened up in front of me.
A wide, sweeping river curved around in a recessed valley, separating the castle grounds from the Kōraku-en Gardens, which could be accessed by sturdy but out of place bridge spanning the river. The distinctive black and white castle with gold finishes looked striking sticking out of the trees against the cloudless sky, so it was that I went to first.
As with some of the larger castles in Japan, you don't just walk in through the entrance; many had a number of outer gates to negotiate, each taking the tourist (or historical attacker) into one of several open spaces around the castle perimeter before you can finally reach the innermost sanctum. In this particular case, each open area steadily increased in height until I reached the entrance, probably a few stories higher than the outer grounds.
800yen was the price inside, although I was disappointed by what I was greeted with. Okayama had been one of several cities that were victims of the second world war; it escaped a nuclear fate, but did face a particularly harsh firebombing, and predictably the primarily wooden buildings, including the original castle, were burned to the ground. This new castle was rebuilt in the late sixties, and although it is very beautiful and authentic-looking from the outside, it had been built to a depressingly modern design on the inside. Consequently, the up-to-date lift that took me to the top, the comfortable carpets instead of ice cold floorboards, and the foot-friendly (rather than narrow and dangerously steep) stairs back down through the floors meant that any period charm whatsoever had been all but lost.
It was nicely put together, and well engineered, but it just didn't look right, kind of like if you had bought an antique cabinet and got it home to find the drawers opened and closed by remote control. What remained was restricted to the exhibits on each of the floors; a couple of Mikoshi, and a selection of some of the more well-known Japanese prints, including the Great Wave off Kanagawa, and this rather disturbing depiction of a giant Skeleton being summoned from the earth. An accompanying guide in pretty good English explained it all.

Leaving, I noticed a strange plant that I must have ignored on the way in. A chrysanthemum of some sort, had been painstakingly trained along an almond-shaped frame, and was just about to begin its flowering phase. It reflected an innate desire within the culture, also found in several other aspects of Japanese society; such as the cultivation of finely-controlled bonsai, and the need to extend the neat and tidiness of their homes into the natural world. I would soon be seeing many more.

A stroll along the bridge took me to the Korakuen Gardens which I had seen from the castle, where Japanese neatness was celebrated once again. The ticket was 430yen, which is unusual as most Japanese parks and gardens are free entry. However this one was particularly large and is actually one of the 'Three Great Gardens of Japan', held in the same revere as the Three Views.
The garden was vast, but you didn't get a feel of how large at the start; entering through the south gate, much of the garden grounds are blocked from your initial view by the fronds of a giant palm plant forest, which causes you to focus on the inevitable Koi ponds and neighbouring tourist shops (50yen for a strange polystyrene-like breadstick to feed them with) for a while. Eventually, by the time I had walked around to the east side, round a not particularly picturesque woodland walk, I emerged out and saw the beautiful park stretch out in front of me.
Large manicured lawns curved gently with the hills and valleys, and fit perfectly together with the paths and lakes. Large beds of tea bushes and low-branched trees added a bit of height and it had all been designed very carefully to look as perfect as it could. Every bush manicured to perfection, not a blade of grass out of place. Even the fish had been told to swim carefully as to not cause ripples on the ponds.
It paid off as the park was attracting plenty of paying patrons and busying up; and I had the privilege to witness part of a traditional Japanese wedding going on in the distance; a couple dressed in authentic period costume were stood on a picturesque bridge while a stylist buzzed around them trying to make everything look perfect for the pictures.
The central area was the best, beautiful and peaceful, despite the increasingly heavy foot traffic. It was a perfect place to forget and relax for a short while amongst the meticulous order and neatness, somehow still managing to look natural, like it was grown rather than styled from advanced plastics.
Towards the back of the park, the trees closed in and the park switched to a mini zoo. A flock of beautiful red crowned cranes were held in a large cage; clearly the flagship exhibit. I had wanted to see the cranes in their natural habitat ever since seeing the attention lavished upon them by the people in northern Hokkaido two years earlier, and though I would have preferred to have seen them dancing about in the snow during their mating rituals, it was nice to see them here. One day I will see them in the depths of winter doing their thing.
A little further along there was a flower show going on; a gravelled area was set aside in which several stalls were displaying dahlias, bonsai, and more of those almond-shaped chrysanthemums from outside the castle. One bonsai stall even had a mini castle grounds to make it look like all the trees were normal sized. Each stall had a barrier stuck politely in front to stop anyone getting sticky fingers on the petals. Clearly it was judging day as every plant looked as if it was at its best.

I looked through the exhibits for a while before starting back south again, through what appeared to be more of a wildlife reserve. Beautiful green bamboo rose high up into the sky where the trees had not blocked the view, and some artificial ponds were covered with large umbrella-leaves poking out five or so feet from the surface, although they looked like they were starting to die back for the year. Every now and then between the nature, a traditionally reconstructed house would be set among the nature, with signs explaining the lives of the people who would have lived here hundreds of years previous.

Though the garden was pleasant in the warm mid-morning sun, I was again mindful of the time and knew there were other things in the area, so I headed back out of the south gate, and walked around the outside of the garden at about 11am, following the signs for a museum about an artist whose name I had recognised from earlier in my trip.
Yumeji Takehisa was an artist and poet born in Okayama, and I had seen his work here and there on my travels. His pictures often use dainty looking women as their subject matter, and he has a light touch and gentle style, using colourful pastels to create beautiful understated scenes, mid way between traditional Japanese art and influences of a more western origin.
During his life, his lack of official art training and unusual style got him shunned from the art world, but as with many artists after their demise, his art is better appreciated, so much that he now has a museum.

The museum (500yen) is just over a bridge from the northern entrance of the gardens. They had a strict no cameras policy, which was a shame because inside they had the full size original prints of some of his most beautiful works. I bought a postcard set (pictured) from their modest tourist shop, but I don't intend on sending them to anyone.

I headed back in the midday sun to a bus stop I had passed just near the north gate. A gentle breeze made it feel like a pleasant May day rather than the end of October and shortly afterwards a bus came and for 140yen, took me the long way around the blocks until the station came back into view once more.

At about half past twelve I got to the front of the queue for the train tickets and bought one for the next train to Kyoto which left in just under an hour (in other words I'd just missed it) and then from Kyoto to Amanohashidate, or at least part the way there, as the JR line stopped partway and it became a private run line, meaning there would be a vigilant ticket inspector coming around and asking for some extra cash. That would be leaving about half past three, getting me to the coast about two hours later.

So I stuffed my face in a Vie de France. A woman behind the counter, who had been efficiently serving customers with flair and zeal until I came along, handled my several pastries and crepes (I had forgotten about the whole eating thing) and went to the back for a mango smoothie. She came back with the drink and a flip-book of coupons, but couldn't explain to me what I did with them, so to avoid the wrath of the queue behind I gathered my things and went out to the open air part of the station to munch them on a seat. I surveyed the now-sticky pieces of shiny paper; maybe they could be redeemed at another branch.

The deceptively large station hid Shinkansen track 24 right at the back, and though I found it alright, I somehow managed to not notice a dirty great train when it arrived, and consequently very nearly didn't get on it in time.
The ride from Okayama to Kyoto was not particularly picturesque, so I settled for munching a few more of my snacks and considering the path ahead. Kyoto station was pretty packed, and it's massive scale was just as jaw-dropping as before, except this time I could appreciate it more without my stomach performing cartwheels. Given the size of the building and its maze-like structure of tunnels and shops, some of which led to train platforms while others to flaming pits of alligators, I quickly made a note of where to go to get to the correct platform for Amanohashidate. Turned out to be #31 (a measure of the sheer size of the place). There was just enough time for the odd external picture or two and a quick look round the shops on the lower floor (I wasn't missing anything in town as the following day I would be coming back to stay a night), and then I headed for the train.

Several spritely pensioners were aboard in my carriage, clearly excited that they were leaving the bustling city for a break by the sea. They were gathering round each other like giddy teens, showing off pictures and texts on their mobile phones. It was a pretty joyous sight.
Once the train had got out of the city limits, the greenery started to return and the line burrowed through mountains and strung itself over valleys. Towards the end of the journey, I was in the sort of country not dissimilar to the landscapes around the Aso caldera some days before. Mr. Ticket inspector came around and viewed my ticket and went on, making a small note in his book, and I thought I had got away with it until he came back and stung me just before my stop with a sizable 1480yen surcharge for the private line. Ouch.
By the time I had arrived, it was almost dark, which was surprising as I had expected to get a little of the daylight to survey my surroundings. Amanohashidate is the name of a thin stretch of land connecting the town of Monju in the south (where the station is) and Fuchu in the north. It is one of the Three Views of Japan, and since I (unknowingly) visited one of the Three Gardens of Japan in the same day, I am in retrospect pretty chuffed.

I relied upon the dim street lights and the map I had printed out from the web. It was by pure luck that I had knocked on an un-marked wooden sliding door and a woman answered positively to 'Ryokan Maruyasu'.

She ushered me and my large bags inside, and motioned me to wait there as she took into the back room my printed out Rakuten receipt. It was clear she spoke no English, by her arm movements; which was puzzling, as the advert said that the owners spoke good English.

A middle-aged man came in out of the night behind me, maybe he spoke English. But he bowed and handed over his tray of goods to the returning lady, and quickly left without much of a word. She attempted to communicate something to me, but it was at about a hundred miles an hour and I had no chance; I was too pre-occupied with her repeated touching of her hand to her nose. Maybe she was asking if I understood? Maybe it was a comment on my sunburned complexion. However, I didn't care: she eventually managed to tell me my receipt was valid and she motioned me to follow her up the steps to my room.
The place was deceptively large. Spread over two floors, it was a while before I reached the back rooms where I would be staying. The woman pulled back the door to reveal a spacious room in a very traditional Japanese style. Tatami mats on the floor, a central low table for drinking tea, and the whole thing was finished using heavily lacquered slabs of wood. A large widescreen television sat in the corner, and the whole opposite side of the room was taken up by a window and overhanging veranda. As ryokan rooms went, it was pretty unbeatable and a contrast to the iffy conditions of the previous night.
The lady said some other things to me while again touching her nose, and I smiled and nodded. She led me out of the room and down the nearby steps to show me the shower room, bathroom and towels, and then we went back up. Eventually after more instructions and a few questions to which I could only say that I didn't understand, she gave me a cheery wave and left, which I was rather glad about as I was a little sweaty and smelly. I needed one of those showers.

As I silently removed some of my clothing in preparation it dawned on me that there was no bedding in the room; where was it? I had fortunately had enough experience with ryokan to realise that the room you get serves several functions including being a bedroom; somewhere there would be a futon and duvet, I would choose a spot and that would be my bed for the night.

I was semi-dressed, and the woman returned without knocking! After both of us got over the shock and had a giggle, and I re-applied my jeans, she opened a disguised cupboard in the corner of the room and showed me the futon and bedding. She had brought in a tray with some steaming green tea, and then left me to it.

One quick shower later as I was sorting out a towel, the older woman arrived with a younger and more enthusiastic one, calling my name and waving a piece of paper with my details at me. I was relieved to see that she spoke some English, and that I was okay to stay the night without being kicked out, although heading up the steep steps back to my room wearing only a light dressing gown, (and the belt wouldn't stay tied) I felt more than a bit vulnerable. She had been out with some friends (possibly drinking) and missed my arrival. We talked about my journey and what I was going to do, translating for the other lady. When the questions had finished, rather than leaving me to it, they proceeded to make up the 'big futon for westerners' bed with the sheets that they had brought, which was very nice of them. I stayed in the corner smiling modestly while trying not to show any more flesh to them than was absolutely necessary.

Eventually they left to let me get dressed and sorted out, but before they went they told me of Chie no Yu, an Onsen that I had passed at the station and noticed in the guide, and told me to ask if I was interested as they had some vouchers. I figured that even though I had just showered, it was basically a pre-wash, and that I might not get to have another go in an Onsen in a while. Besides, rather than the large and commercial Fukuno-yu in Nagasaki, this was a small family-run affair, and would be much more authentic. I threw on some clean things and headed downstairs.

The voucher took a hundred off, meaning I could get in for 600yen. The enthusiastic woman handed me a large towel as well as a little one, and a pair of Japanese clogs with which to travel there! It looked as if the clogs were not optional, so I dropped off my shoes and socks and then headed out in them, rather clumsily and slowly down the street ask they kept slipping off.
The onsen was right next to the station, so it was only a couple of hundred yards of stumbling. When I got in, the procedure was pretty much the same as before; put my sandals in a locker, swap for a key for the inside lockers, and then head inside. The male half was quite busy with tired souls relaxing from a busy day, some coming and some going as I got out of my things. The bath area consisted of a main tub a few feet deep made from stone with a wooden surround, which was set about 40 degrees. Through a small door was the outside section, which consisted of a couple of individual round tubs topped up by a bamboo feed, and a strange circular hut. After getting used to the inner bath and enjoying the cool air in the outside tub, I ventured into the hut.

Inside, it was a little like a sauna but not as hot. A large circular bath took up much of the room, and it was purposely overflowing with water, into a pool below. Seats for six people were around the tub, allowing you to put your hands in the tub and your feet in the pool. Two middle-aged men greeted me on entry, and they enjoyed the opportunity to practice a little English on me, and vice versa for me with some bits of Japanese. We talked about the place and where I had come from and was going, and it was all very pleasant. I'd completely forgot we were all naked strangers in a small room together.

In time, they left me on my own and I relaxed for a while in the light steam of the room before returning out into the cool air once more. I would miss this sort of thing a lot once home.

I headed back an hour later, but not before stumbling around a convenience store, getting whatever looked edible from the mostly empty shelves, and then I ambled back nicely relaxed.

I ate in my room, but the place had one final surprise. I had been consistently impressed on how these elderly women had managed to afford such a prominent place and decorate it so well. A quick toilet break gave me my answer:
They were winners of the Japanese version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, as evidenced by their official certificate that they had framed and hung on the toilet door. Not just a couple of thousand mind you, but the top prize of a cool million yen. No wonder they were always smiling.

I settled down on my futon, and watched 'The Cat Returns' which happened to be on the telly that evening and settled down somewhere around ten. I figured an early start would be a good idea tomorrow; it would involve a lot of walking.

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