Japan 2010: 19 - Where I Have a Rude Awakening




I opened an eye. Everything was dark, the merest hint of moonlight filtering in through the thin curtains.

'Click...... slurp',

I rolled over and lifted my body, narrowly missing the air conditioner unit just above my head. It was three in the morning, and I was at the hostel. I had acquired the top bunk in the corner next to the air con. Maybe it was that.


My disoriented mind woke up enough to realise that the noise wasn't coming from above my head, it was from down below. I rolled over and peered through the gloom. Everything was still, from what I could see. The bunk below me was occupied but motionless, and the one across the room had a single figure on the bottom under a duvet. Someone further into the darkness was also sleeping in the third set of bunks, but nothing seemed to be coming from there either. In fact, the noise had stopped. I turned over and closed my eyes again.


Oh for heavens sake. I turned and looked again. Was it the heater? There was an oil filled electric heater sat across the window. Maybe it was just chugging and glugging into life? But again, the noise had stopped. Oil-filled heaters aren't sentient. Not even in Japan.

I turned over and it began again. This was no coincidence.


Oh no. My brain was becoming increasingly confused and thus interested in the situation, and because I have an analytical mind, it was trying to imagine what would be making such rhythmic sounds that stopped whenever I tried to see what it was. It didn't take my mind long to come up with an explanation.

Fully awake now, I slowly peered over as the clicking and slurping became increasingly squelchy and the tempo began to increase as if reaching a crescendo. There weren't many things in life that require such repetitive movements, so when I looked over to where the sound was coming from - the bottom bunk across the window - I was expecting some furious duvet movements. Strangely, there were none. In fact, I thought I could see one of the guy's hands sticking out of the duvet looking innocent and quite motionless.

I was getting annoyed. I got up, padded down the bunk bed stairs and headed off to the toilet. Partly because I had a call of nature, but partly to let the little git know I was onto him, and people were moving around in his presence.

The rest of the hostel was silent and dark. Automatic lighting came on as I entered the communal bathroom area. It was about half past three in the morning according to the clock. I sat on the loo and pondered. What sort of masturbation makes such noises? And how did he manage to do it one handed without any visible movement? Was he some sort of octopus-man? I didn't want to think about these things, but my mind had already followed a train of thought and it wasn't going to stop until the situation had resolved itself. I headed back again none the wiser, but maybe my moving around had put him off.

An hour or so went by, and just as I was dropping off,

'Cliiiiiiick............. sluuuuuurp',

Slower and more laboured this time. He was trying to hide it. And by doing it slower, the slurping became more disgusting, and there was some squeaking of plastic on plastic mixed in. Did he have.. a device?

My mind unhelpfully conjured up such a device. An image of a tube onto the end of which was a rubber pipe, and attached to that was a squeezy ball thing to give some sort of pumping effect. That would have explained about everything. He was a mucky little perv trying out his new Oriental sex toy when no-one was awake to hear him, except I was awake and by now pretty angry. Purposefully mid way through a click-slurp cycle, I thumped the sturdy wooden bed strut next to my head, and then glared over it to see what reaction it had.

No pair of beady eyes stared back at me, but it had stopped the noise. For a few minutes.

Again, I thumped the bed strut and stared. Again, it stopped.

At the third strike, I had had enough.

I still wasn't 100% sure this guy was the culprit, or even if he was doing what I thought he was, but I was ready to chance my arm. As soon as it began, I was bolt upright. I flew down the bunk steps barely hitting a rung, and stooped over his duvet, which had now gone very silent.

'PLEASE. STOP. WANKING!', I semi-shouted.

There was a nervous rustle under the sheets and a face popped out. There was a very large and angry looking foreigner staring back at him with wild eyes and the nasal respiration of an angered cartoon bull.

'...sorry', he said feebly.

'Thank you', I said, without really expecting to. I turned around and stomped up to my bed. The remainder of the night (now the morning) was thankfully peaceful.

I woke properly at 7.30. The duvet across the room was motionless and nothing was visible. He was clearly embarrassed about the whole thing, and probably suspected the others had heard the situation as well. After a quick wash I packed up all my things and went downstairs. The reception opened at 8am, and I asked the guy behind the counter to put my bags in their locked room rather than leaving them in the dorm. I didn't want wanky device guy attacking my stuff in my absence out of resentment or malice.
Hotel Review: K's House Backpack Hostel Mt. Fuji (2700 yen/night, 1 night)
Ignoring the night antics of some visitors, K's House is a really nice hostel to visit and perfect for going sightseeing around Fuji (although a bit far if you're thinking of climbing it). Friendly staff, lots of info about the area and a load of facilities - and now it even has it's own bar. It's pretty cheap even for a Hostel, but you can pay a bit more and get a more private room. Internet: free, Towels: 100yen, Laundry: 200yen. Ring them for pickup from the station (10-20min walk depending on baggage) 8/10

Out of everything I could have done at Fuji, time had put some pretty strong restrictions on me. I would have to do whatever I was going to do before 11am, which is when the bus went to the station. I didn't fancy lugging my things up that steep hill (I'd remembered how bad it was when I did it before) so the bus wasn't going to be missed. I had put my name down the night before. This left really only one thing to do - go get a decent picture of Mt. Fuji, and the best place to do that, was at the top of Mt. Tenjo.

The ropeway to the beginning of the Kachi-Kachi trail up the mountain was out of action the last time I had visited, so it seemed like the ideal thing to do in the time I had, especially as it was so close. It wasn't the most exciting thing to do but the most achievable. My mind was made up.

According to the flyer, the first trip up would be at 9am, so I had a little time. I got a cup of tea and sat in the communal area once more. Before long, another guy came in who I recognised from the night before. He was Toby, and he was in the bottom bunk in the darkened corner of the room. Conversation began light about where we had been and where we were going, before Toby segued the conversation towards the antics of the previous night. Turns out both Toby and Wanky had been staying at the hostel for a few days, and each day he had been hearing the 'click-slurp'-ing every night. And he thought it was the air con too. I said goodbye and I hoped my outburst would put paid to things.
Outside, the air was cold, it had been raining, and there was fog. Lots of it. I couldn't see the majestic Mt. Fuji last night because it was dark. Today, it was completely hidden from view by fog. I took the long way round to the ropeway, across the Kawaguchiko bridge and round the lake coast, taking some moody mist-dominated pictures as I went. The summer had ended and the autumn was fast running out of steam. I passed by beds of dying flowers and greying grasses, their seeds wet and drooping from the rain.
Rounding the curve of the lake, I peered on the ground and saw a fabric camera case. It was thoroughly wet from the rain the night before and thus it's owner was long gone. It wasn't big enough for my new camera I had brought with me, but my old one should fit OK. I looked around furtively and no-one was about. Despite my conscience telling me to place it on a nearby post in case it's owner re-appeared, I squeezed the worst of the water out and pocketed it.

The ropeway entrance was up a small track off the main road, nestled snugly between a couple of hotels. Annoyingly, I had just missed the first car, which was now heading up to the summit, so I got my ticket and waited in the second one for it to leave. After about 10 minutes, it was clear that I was the only punter, so they let it go.
The trip up only took a couple of minutes, and gave nice views of the lake below, except for the dirty great cables in the way. And Fuji was still hiding.

At the top, I was greeted by a raccoon and a rabbit. The raccoon was wearing a heavy backpack, and the rabbit was stuffing yet more things into it. The raccoon seemed happy to shoulder this burden, but I don't think we're getting all the information on the relationship here.

Climbing up a set of steps I reached a plateau. A large platform covered in wooden decking, with an observation tower and some toilets. A love heart shaped frame provided a perfect photo opportunity for tourists as it would have framed Mt. Fuji perfectly, had it been there. Around the place were several other statues of the same raccoon and rabbit pair in a variety of japes, seemingly the character ambassadors for the area, trying to enthuse the kids into going exploring. However, each successive statue started to tell a darker story about their unhealthy relationship.
Over near the picnic area, poor Raccoon sat lonely, his rabbit friend disappeared off somewhere else, leaving him with his thoughts, and maybe some bruises. An expression of deep loneliness and regret lay behind his eyes. Over by the observation platform, Rabbit was treating Raccoon to what I can only describe as an aggressive sexual act, the pained and tearful expression of Raccoon saying it was not consensual. As if to bring the torture to an end, poor Raccoon ends up tied to the ceiling by his legs in the toilets. If I were still a kid, I'd be scarred for life by the story they were telling me.

I abandoned my search for more chapters in their sordid relationship, not wishing to look any more for fear of coming across a scene where Raccoon exacts a bloody and fatal revenge by bludgeoning the damn Rabbit to death with a lump hammer, posing forever over the mangled body letting out a primal scream of long-dreamt freedom. I took the trail up from the platform which was headed by a picture of them both happily about to start the climb themselves, best of friends as ever they were.
The ground was slippy underfoot, the trail heading steeply through the trees, the gnarled roots threatening to loosen the dirt steps and trip you up on the first opportunity. A little way up, the canopy above disappeared and an abandoned building - maybe a shop/museum mix - emerged out of the fog.
Carrying on upwards, the forest reappeared. Snaking my way up still further slippy logs and roots and through leafy mud, I eventually reached what appeared to be the summit. A small stone shrine sat waiting for someone to take notice of it.
All around was dead silence. There were no birds singing, and there wasn't even any wind. The mist created a spooky gloom, through which the darkened branches of the trees cut a shape, it was atmospheric and beautiful, and reminded me of the opening forest scenes from Princess Mononoke. But it was hard to convince myself that the trip was worth it.

I turned round and slip-slided back down to the observation deck. Still Fuji refused to show itself, so I sat down on the platform steps and waited for a bit, in the hope that it would peek out and I'd get some pictures before I had to leave. It was about a quarter to ten, so no chance to do anything else. I was stuck.

Slowly, some people made their way up on the ropeway, and populated the deck. Many were the older guard, who had come out of season to get a view without loads of kids running everywhere. A couple looked up at me and shared some amusing observations about the missing mountain in commendable English.
For the next half hour I scrutinised the shapes that came and went in the clouds and fog, trying to decide whether the constantly morphing shapes within were the outline of a mountaintop or not. In the end, I came away disappointed. My time had run out and the clouds had beaten me. I took the half past ten ropeway back to ground level.

Back at the bottom, the tourist shop on the street below beckoned. If I didn't buy something here, then everything else would be Tokyo-related, so I popped in to see if I could find something, and then rush back in double-quick time.

They had so many different boxes of sweets and cakes and biscuits, it took me longer than I wanted to choose. Finally I settled on a couple of boxes for no-one in particular (they're good presents for when you forget about someone) and then headed out of the door at a rush.

Five seconds later, I was spread out face down on the ground, my clothes soaking up most of a handily-placed puddle. There was a graze on my hand and a rip in my jeans, and the cake boxes were out of the plastic bag and across the road. I could feel a camera-shaped indentation on my stomach and I groaned at the prospect. I got up, noticing just behind me the bump in the road I had tripped over. Fortunately my camera was in my fleece pocket rather than round my neck and had largely survived, although the screen was now covered in scratches. Maybe this was the karma kicking in for nicking the camera case.

I got up and dusted off the grit, and squeezed as much water out of the fleece as I could, then half ran, half limped back to the hostel to catch the bus.

I had ten minutes when I got back, so got into the bathroom and tried to make the best of things. I washed my blooded hands and tried to get out the gritty water from my clothes, and put a bandage on to reduce the flow. When I'd done all I could I resurrected a few ounces of dignity and headed out to get the bags with as calm an expression as I could manage.

The people carrier was empty but for me, and the driver made a little smalltalk, though I was not much in the mood. Especially when, after I said I was going to stay my final couple of days in Otsuka, (a neighbourhood in Toshima), he said, 'why on earth would you stay there, it's awful'. Well, it was too late now. I just wanted a place to stay that was cheap and on the Yamanote line, and the hotel I had chosen was both these things. I sat silently after communicating this and waited for the station to appear on the horizon.

Inside, I bought a ticket back to Otsuki station (1110yen) and passed the time before the train arrived looking through the station gift shop (again). I settled on their nice but thin Mt. Fuji photography book (1250yen), and then had a Tempura Udon (700yen), which they had in stock this time (nice but I preferred the curry one). I did my bit to point an American guy towards the hostel, and then boarded the crazy mountain train once more, although not before being burned for an extra 300yen ticket because the train I was taking was an express. Grr.
Last time I had taken the express (the one with the crazy cartoon mountains on it), it was in a poor state inside. But they had fixed the televisions this time, and it showed an airplane-style journey along the route. Fortunately, the express missed out most of the stations on the route, although it had to keep to the same speed on the track line as it was heading through so many little towns and villages, so there wasn't much benefit.

The JR trains were a welcome sight once more, and after waiting a quarter hour I was on one and heading for Shinjuku once more. Otsuka station was a couple of stops away on the Yamanote line, and then once at the hotel (apparently, only a few blocks away) I could put down my things and then not worry about them again until I was ready to leave for the UK.

Shinjuku was it's usual hyper-busy self, and it was nice to get through it and up to the relatively quiet Otsuka station, four stops clockwise around the route. My lugging time would shortly be over it seemed.

I exited the station. It was raining. The hotel was thankfully quite close, but when I got to the counter inside and checked my wallet, it was lacking in cash. I needed 13000 yen to cover my stay, and I needed to find an ATM.

The hotel had handily provided a map, but I could see no Post Office on it, so I relied on the 7/11. It was across the station and into Toshima, and quite a trek. Perhaps foolhardily, I didn't leave my backpack with them.

The rain became heavier, and my backpack soaked it up. I was tired and aching, and this damn 7/11 was nowhere to be seen. When I eventually found it and entered through the doors I was soaked and less than cheerful. I got out 20,000yen and retraced my steps back, getting slightly lost on the way. Not. Happy.

The room was small and grey, barely big enough to fit a bed in, and there was a few years of dust and debris behind the heater. But it was functional and a welcome sight given what I had been through to get here. I showered and changed, and put up my dirty clothes to drip-dry in the bath, which was a bit naughty but I was past caring by this point.

I laid on my bed writing my diary and considering my next move. It was 3pm, and if last time was anything to go by, I'd be needing an extra case soon. Tokyo last time round was an exercise in propping up the economy with large amounts of tat purchasing, and it seemed quite likely I would be doing much the same this time. After all, tomorrow I would be visiting the Ghibli Museum again, and I know how much of a hole Mama Aiuto's wares burned in my wallet last time.

There was only one place I knew would have a decent range of luggage, and that was good old Don Quijote, a chain of shops that sold absolutely everything. I had been introduced to the Shinjuku store the first time on coming over, and now I would return.
They're dotted all over Tokyo, so I decided to visit the Akihabara branch. Arriving at Electric Town once again, it was still raining heavily, so my progress was hampered by using the intervening shops to try and keep dry. In amongst the anime and electronics shops was the Sega Arcade, a multifloored plaza containing the latest arcade games, as well as whole areas dedicated to the classic stuff.

Arcades in the UK are a pale imitation of what they used to be; most of the video games have gone from them, the 20p stand-up cabinets replaced by a mixture of fruit and gambling machines, and any open areas dominated by large £1/£2 a go driving/house of the dead sorts of games. Give me back the early nineties any day.

But Japan is different; their arcades take into account the desire for the old and the new, and they often sit together; the old JAMMA boards stuffed into a generic large-screened sit-down cabinet, or even better, a 1001-game compendium where all but the most obscure titles can often be found. I spent a good hour or so catching up on some Super Mario Bros, Gradius 2, R-Type, Parodius and Ikaruga, and if I hadn't have run out of 100yen coins, some more besides (although I was quite annoyed I couldn't find Raiga anywhere).
On the upper floors, past the photobooths and trinket vending machines stood the latest cabinets. The future, it seems consists of networked cabinets where players actually log in with accounts so they can build up stats.
Huge arrays of multiplayer cabinets with queues stretching back, and high-definition monitors set up around the walls showing the action from a spectator's view, often huge arenas where player mechs were fighting it out in a sort of Japanesey-fied Call Of Duty situation. Some cabinets (such as the Square-Enix Lord of Vermillion machines) were so new they were guarded by staff and I wasn't allowed to take pictures.
I managed to somehow tear myself away and got to Don Quijote's Akihabara store. It was in a block of buildings that I hadn't explored up til now, so I'd missed it at the start of the holiday. The first five floors were your typical DQ fare - stuffing as many things as possible into every available corner. On the 6th floor was another arcade, and floors 7 and 8 were host to some ticket-only event which the likes of me could not possibly attend, as was suggested to me by the polite but firm attendants at the top of the escalator.

I descended back to the shop and found a few things, including a suitcase for 4990yen, (which was bloody expensive compared to last time), plus some bags of sweets, an Akihabara Station towel and mug, and an Evangelion-themed box of chocs for friends. I was already down another 11000yen and I'd not even been to the money sink that was the Ghibli museum yet!

As the rain battered down still further, I flitted between shops and returned to Super Potato once more, and since I'd received requests for them, I bought a couple of reconditioned N64 pads (about 2000yen each) and a mint copy of Pilotwings 64 for 50yen (they had stacks of them)!

As the shops began to close down, I flitted between the ones still open, as the rain continued to batter downwards. Model shops, anime, arcades, souvenirs, and more. But by 10pm I had had enough and was on the train back to Otsuka, the rain finally abating. Rather annoyingly I headed down the wrong road back to the hotel and was greeted by.. a post office not more than a block away from where I was staying. I could have got my cash there instead of trudging through the rain. Sure enough, it was on the hotel map, but some genius had decided to take the post office sign and integrate it into a smiling face for me, thus making it less apparent. Thanks.

I sat eating pringles on my bed, grumbling and leafing through the dog-eared Tokyo Film Festival brochure I had picked up on my first day, trying to work out which I would be seeing tomorrow. My new suitcase had been given a trial by fire as I had moved all the souvenirs collected thus far into it. The backpacks were breathing a sigh of relief, but the new case was 95% full. Would all the inevitable tat that I would be powerless not to buy fit in tomorrow as well? Only time would tell. I looked at my grazed hand and rued the way this day had turned out. It had been a mixture of bad and worse. Tomorrow could only get better, couldn't it?

Japan 2010: 18 - Where I Model Ladies Kimonos

The downstairs onsen-style bathroom was mine, all to myself. A single pre-wash booth with stool and bowl, and a small, square mosaic tiled bath, enough for two people who don't know each other, or four who are quite open minded.

It was early in the morning. Beyond the steam of the bath, the air was fresh and cold. The gap in the window promised a foggy start to my day. I washed off the final tiredness and achiness if the previous nights' kerfuffle and went back to my room just as the other residents were filing out of their rooms.
Hotel Review: Ryokan Seifuso (4500 yen/night, 1 night)
The price is a little high, but it is completely worth it. It's the personal touches that make it. Mrs Taeko and Mr Okuhara run a beautiful, well run and clean ryokan, which is much more accessible to foreign tourists than your average traditional guest house. They both speak really good English and have been the most helpful and friendly owners I have stayed with, which if you have read my other posts, is pretty damn high praise. Their hand-written tourist and eatery guides are super useful. Just make sure you get the bus there from the station (or ring for a lift), as it is a long, long walk along the riverbank. Internet: free when working 8/10

At 8am sharp, the Mrs Taeko had arranged for her hubby to take everyone who wished to off to the station. Mr Okuhara asked me to sign the guest book and put a pin in the world map, and I got a free apple for my troubles. I was the only one heading to the station this morning it seemed, and after saying goodbye and getting a picture for the album, I piled my things in the back and myself in the front, and we set off.

The people carrier scooted nimbly down the narrow riverside road, crossing over many busy roads coming over the river with a bump. Mr Okuhara gave a me a cheeky smile as he caught sight of my concerned look, and my fingernails dug into his dashboard. Eventually, the road ran out with a good old queue to slow things down, and the light traffic ensured that the rest of the trip would be relaxing. At least I had been thoroughly woken up.

Mr Okuhara popped the boot and I retrieved my things, and after a final goodbye, he drove off. Matsumoto station was a few yards away, but I wasn't planning on travelling yet; I would stick my bags in the station lockers and then see a little bit more of what Matsumoto had to offer, before heading off to Mt. Fuji in the evening. But first, a bit of brekky. There was a patisserie outside the station so I headed in for a sandwich, and because it was there and sounded nice, an 'angel soft' apple cheesecake. Yes, it was nice.

The clouds were gathering a little overhead when I returned, and it started to rain. I reached into my bag for my umbrella. The one I had bought over in Okinawa and was rather chuffed with. I was looking forward to causing mild curiosity with my fellow commuters once I had got back home as I unfurled it to reveal the Naha Castle logo. Maybe one of them would be curious enough to enquire and a new friend might be found. But my scrabbling about in the bottom of my bag was not coming up trumps. Then I remembered, it was back at the Ryokan. I'd stuck it in the umbrella bin shortly after staggering through the door and forgotten about it. Dammit.

Well, I wasn't going to repeat that journey again. It would have to remain there for some lucky traveller to pick up. So I got in the station and put my large bag into a locker, and then had a look at the map.

The closest and most obvious thing to check first was the castle. A little way from the station and promoted vigorously by the blurb, it sounded like a natural choice. I passed through Frog Street on the way there, but it was still to early, so I headed on. The tight roads opened out and a castle wall ushered me towards the entrance. Throughout my journey I had noticed various themed manhole covers in each city. Kyoto had ones with the Golden Pavilion, Okayama had Peach Boy covers, and Matsumoto had.. some balls. The multicoloured covers were dotted around the route to the castle and had the word (てまり) 'Temari' on them. It seemed to be the Matsumoto city cultural export although what they were for was at the time unknown.
The first thing that strikes you about Matsumoto castle is it's resemblance to the one in Okayama, the 'crow castle'. In fact, Matsumoto's own is also given that name, but the difference is that whereas Okayamas' is a well made but rather character-less shell of a castle, a facsimile to replace the original which was burned down, Matsumoto's is the real thing.

But before I went over there, another building caught my eye. Past the necessary souvenir shops and before the entrance to the outer gardens, stood a rather ugly and functional concrete structure, straight out of Bradford town centre circa 1985. Outside, up an access ramp were parked several bicycles, each with a number on the side. I checked the map; there were a load of places dotted around that walking couldn't reach in the time. I headed in through the double doors.

Inside was a reception booth, a few barker-ends of tourist leaflets and a smiling member of staff, who crucially, said an English hello to me. I asked about the bikes outside and sure enough they were available for rent, surprisingly for free. All they asked for was a few personal details and an approximate time when I would be back. It was 10am, I figured that a couple of hours should do it. Then when I returned I could do the castle before heading to the station.

Unlocking the #3 bike with my key and mounting the steed, a thought occurred to me. Not only could I get around some extra tourist spots, I could also retrieve my brolly. The river was nearby, so all I had to do was leave the grounds and head back the way I had gone the night before.

The bike was in good working order, and the three little gears were more than enough to get me up to a fair speed. In Japan, cyclists travel on the pavement, and consequently all the sidewalks are ramped and are usually split in two by a line of ribbed pavement. I revelled in the ability to put walking pedestrians slightly on edge as I emerged around tight corners much as they had done while I was walking around, although the constant road-pavement-road-pavement bumps as I hurtled along took it's toll on my bum, event through the generous spring-loaded seat.

Curious about the main bus road that I had decided to ignore in favour of the riverside walk, I decided to head up that, knowing that when I eventually pass Rugger Alice I'd be somewhere close.

Ever since my first day in Ueno, when I had lost my DS stylus, I had been on the lookout for a replacement, and the Tsutaya across the road put it back in my mind. I'd call on the way back.

Mrs Taeko was dutifully sweeping on the road outside. I squeaked up on my bike and got off, my thigh muscles unused to ten minutes repeated sit-down cycling. She smiled a surprised smile and came over to greet me. A little out of breath, I explained about my umbrella and she disappeared indoors, and returned a second later with the offending article. I thanked them and set back off again.
Heading back down on the riverside road, the daylight gave up a couple of curiosities that the previous night had hidden from my gaze. Above the line of the quiet neighbourhoods stood a curiously colourful ornate roof. A shiny gold spire stuck prominently out of a multicoloured lookout tower. I took the nearest road over the river to investigate.

Working my way through the maze of back streets, I finally reached the temple, which surrounded on two sides by a graveyard. Feeling a need to respect the dead and the dead silence, I dismounted the bike and crunched as quietly as I could up the gravel track.
At the entrance to the Choshoji Temple, twin intricately carved Nio demons greeted me inside the gate towers, with only a thin veil of chickenwire to stop them carving me into pieces with their wrath. Beyond were the more recognisable and cuddly Buddha statues, although these were as tall as a house, just so you knew who was boss. It all felt a bit creepy with these large figures dotted about, some with angry looks on their faces and knives in their hands, and since the place was like a ghost town, I paid my respects at the shrine and quickly left.

I looked at my map to get some bearing as to how far off track I had wandered, and wouldn't you know it, I was in the middle of temple central. However my wheeled transport meant I could cover plenty of ground now, so I called at several of the closer ones, before reaching the main east-west road and heading back to Tsutaya.

Two extendible DS styluses (stylii?) with rubber grips for 315yen (about £2.30) sounded pretty good, so that was a long-standing niggle ticked off. Planning my route to catch a couple more small temples on the way back, I returned to the outer castle grounds about 90 minutes after setting off. Not wanting to let go of my steed of freedom just yet, I took it for one final trip, north of the castle to the Kaichi school building.
The current Kaichi school sits prominently in front, a modern building filled with the chirruping of excited kids. The original building dates back to the 19th century and stands as one of the first examples of a western-style building tailored for an education system modelled on the western example. Today it stands on a slight hill behind the operational school, restored and relocated. While still an operational school building, it was close to being lost, the victim of the adjacent Metoba, a river whose banks eventually collapsed in the 1960's and was starting to take the school with it (you can see pictures of the old damaged building inside, and what was restored is only a small portion of the original building).
Now it earns its keep as a museum to the history of the education system.

I locked the bike up at the car park round the back of the building and walked around through the modest and well-maintained outer gardens. Strangely, the tickets are purchased at a small window in another building rather than at the entrance, something I didn't realise until I heard the trampling of high heels on gravel and the call of a woman trying to stop me entering before I'd paid my 400yen and got my ticket.

The building is split over two floors and it's a shoes-off trip. From the inside, every wall feels like it is three feet thick, and the chunky floorboards feel like half-trees beneath your feet. Everything has a sense of being made for long-term fight against entropy, and for once I'm not sure that entropy would eventually come out the victor.
The tourist route heads through rooms off the main corridor one by one, each containing different details about school life at the turn of the 20th Century. One classroom was just as it would have been back then, old fashioned desks and chunky chairs, a blackboard and an altar for the teacher to give the lessons of the day. An old clock, like the ones I'd seen in the timepiece museum hung up in the corner to remind the kids just how slowly time passed when you didn't want it to. Other rooms were themed by events in the school history (such as the flood), or contained glass cabinets containing relics from the time, such as books or toys, or uniforms. Fortunately for the English-speaking visitor, it was mostly dual language.

At the entrance, I had a quick nosey at their modest tourist shop, set in one of the spare rooms. A couple of (Japanese language) books, a DVD tour, and some of those Temari balls. Seeing them up close for the first time, I could get an idea of what they were about. Decorative balls around the size of a tennis ball which seemed destined for use as ornaments rather than toys (although that was their original purpose), they were patterned with a handful of different coloured silk threads, wrapped around the ball over each other to create intricate patterns, often making use of the natural diamond shapes that would emerge. The ones at the school were nice, and came in a few sizes, although none of them looked like they were worth the few thousand yen they were asking, especially the ones that had been handled a few times, whose threads were coming frayed a bit and were a bit grubby. I passed.
I mounted the steed and returned to the castle, this time for proper. I gave back the bike and headed into the inner castle grounds, getting my castle ticket (600yen) at the outer booth. Much like at Okayama, the outer gardens were playing host to a flower show, with many of the same sort of stalls - bonsai, dahlias and those almond-shaped chrysanthemum frames were all present under covered stalls. I walked quietly between them, now an expert in these sorts of things having seen others like them a few days ago. With the castle in the corner of my left eye, I made movements in it's general direction.

I passed an innocuous stall with a couple of middle-aged ladies behind it as I drew nearer to the castle, and beyond making eye contact and smiling, I didn't think much of it until one of them sprang up and rushed around to stand in front of me. 'Are you a tourist?' she said, in pretty good English although I considered the answer too obvious to respond with more than a smile, to her visible delight. Without taking no for an answer, I had myself my own guide around the castle, whether I liked it or not.

'I am an English language volunteer guide' she said, as she beckoned me forwards. The diminutive but feisty woman (who must have shorter than me by a couple of feet) clearly had a spiel prepared, guiding me to a spot in front of the castle ideal for an introduction. Pointing up at the whitened lower walls, she picked out the arrow holes used to defend the castle from insurgents, and the holes under the overhanging floors for dropping stones on anyone who got near the entrance. Then, with eager pace, we went inside.

Being a traditional castle, it was shoes and socks off time, so we heaved off our footwear and put them in the provided bags. Also being a traditional castle, the user-friendly interior of Okayama was missing in favour of traditional cramped rooms with low ceilings and hard wood floors, connected by steep, narrow stairs, again to hamper the process of intruders.
My guide waited patiently at the top as I puffed up them, sometimes becoming stuck with a fellow tourist trying to come down the other way.
On the fourth floor - one from the top - my guide was at her most knowledgeable. Four sturdy concrete poles rose up from ground level and ended here. Originally wood, these critical beams had become rotten over the years, and by the 1950's, the castle had actually begun to lean. Several sturdy ropes had been tied to the beams that weren't coming apart, and disappeared out of the window to the securings below. The whole castle was being stopped from crashing down by a couple of guide ropes. Fortunately in the '50's, restoration work with minimal destruction to the period details was undertaken and the concrete pillars put in, although you could still see the attachment holes in the roofbeams, and ingrained friction marks at the window.

Descending the floors along the one-way tourist route, my guide filled me in on the glass cabinets filled with period weaponry, such as some of the first matlock pistols to make it into Japan from Portuguese traders arriving by boat. The sliding windows and other aspects of the castle design reflected the feudal time in which the castle had been erected.

Getting down from the 4th to the 3rd floor was the worst, because it was a 'hidden' floor. The stairway was super narrow and steep and quite painful to walk down in bare feet. The headroom was minimal as we walked around the perimeter to the next exit. As my guide explained, the hidden aspect was to further confound the incoming intruders by making them think they'd reached the top floor when they hadn't.

As we reached the first floor once again, the trail included the option to step out into the 'moon view' turret. This section was added at the end of the feudal period when the primary function of the castle changed from fortress to imperial residence. The wide moat below would cast a double moon into the eyes of the princess in residence and is a beautiful addition. I wish I could have been there at night, when the garden would have been sprinkled with the glow of a thousand fairy lights below.

We arrived back at the exit and re-applied our footwear, and looked up once more at the castle in pretty much the same position we started out in. My guide explained that the remaining moat was one of three originally, and we would have been stood in one of them, the other two moats were deemed an extravagance once the bad guys stopped coming and were turned into the gardens. Only the inner sanctum remained as it was back then. Once my guide had run out of facts I bid her goodbye, and I received a couple of sweets as a tour souvenir. They were yum.

I was on the verge of passing the ticket booth, but decided to double back and check out the adequate tourist shop. Those Temari were intriguing me and if there was anywhere I would be able to peruse a decent selection of them, it was there.

Sure enough, among the many themed cake and sweet selections, samurai swords and papercraft models, were Temari of various sizes and patterns ranging from simple pingpong ball-sized ones for a couple of hundred yen, to some about twice the size of a tennis ball with intricate silken patterns for several thousand. Not knowing quite whether I was purchasing for myself or as a present for someone else, I bought a pleasant blue and yellow patterned silk ball for 1600yen, plus a couple of sweet boxes, as it was time to start thinking seriously about souvenirs for other people.

Leaving Matsumoto castle behind, and giving some friendly Koi a tickle in a pond next to the road, I had one more quick stop to make. It was about half past one, and Frog Street would be as open as it was going to be. Unfortunately it was a monday, when many places in Japan are traditionally still closed for a half day, but thankfully there were still quite a few stalls open, although business was quiet with only the odd punter flitting between shops.

The first place I headed to was a used Kimono shop that I had seen on the way there. I was short on ideas what my mum should receive, and I figured it might be fun to turn up on the doorstep with a kimono. Inside the small wooden building - a long single room with a gloomy interior barely visible through glass windows - were a hundred or so kimono dresses hanging from the walls. Many of them looked rather plain and made of cloth hewn for longevity rather than style, as if they were worn by the lower orders back in the olden days, while the daughters of the richer members of society wrapped themselves in silken robes.

Outside the shop was a raised basket containing several second hand items. As I began leafing through them, the woman in the shop came out with a curious look on her face. Even though the shop sign was in English, it was clear that she didn't speak much herself, so I used some broken Japanese to explain the situation to her.

Her hands dived into the pile, and pulled out a dark green kimono. 'How tall?', she asked, and rather annoyingly I explained that mum was shorter than me by roughly the same amount that she was taller than the woman. A second, younger woman (possibly her daughter) sidled up with a smile, and shared the same look of enthusiasm. They both had a glint in their eye that suggested I was no longer in control of the situation.

They closed in, and suddenly I was being asked to remove my coat by use of faint tugging motions on my sleeves. I felt the rasp of functional fabric around my collar, and saw a pair of arms around my waist. I was being clothed in a womans' kimono by two strangers, and all I could think to do was to hold my arms out and make it seem like I had requested the service. A middle-aged couple passed by, the husband flashed me a smirk, while the wife adopted a look of mild shock. Suddenly, there were all too many people going up and down Frog Street.

Naturally, a kimono for a small Japanese woman isn't going to transfer so well to the frame of a 6ft yorkshireman, but they did their best to stretch the fabric over and around, although I was still glad I had decided to keep most of my clothes on. I did a twirl for them, and the small group of young girls that happened to pass by at that moment, giggling and pointing. Mother and daughter stood with the Obi sash in hand, discussing how best to attach it since it clearly wasn't going to go all the way round. By now however I had decided this was not going to be for me. Mum would have to make do with something else. I removed the kimono carefully but with haste, and declined their offer to try on some of their other dresses in as polite a way as I could. I thanked them for the experience and moved on.
By good fortune, there was an old antiques shop just a couple of doors down. I say 'antiques', the tables arranged in rows outside and the cramped space within was packed tight with just about every ornament or trinket you could think of stuffing in a house. Vases, toy cars, ornaments, records, musical instruments and a tonne of tiny trinkets under a glass counter.

On a cursory glance, it looked like a pile of old junk accumulated from a thousand house clearance sales ranging from the last possessions of an elderly person to the contents of a tin box of toys belonging to a young child fifty years ago, and it was fascinating. Simultaneously recognisable and different from the contents of junk shops back home, it described the hoarding habits of a culture both foreign and familiar to me. Though the items have perhaps passed through several homes, these sorts of objects couldn't be bought at your usual tourist stop-off - these were authentic pieces of Japanese history, and as such were to me much more valuable.

The old man inside was talking with a customer, but his wife seemed to be starting to pack things away, so I assumed they (and the rest of the street) were getting ready for a half-day close. I perused and picked as long as I dared, leafing through the musty items before settling on a couple of ornaments. For mum, I found a couple of bronzed wolf casts, and for dad - well he got a little glazed pottery Tanuki statue to guard the fireplace and bring him luck. (I still haven't mentioned the testicles to him yet). 800yen each was a bargain, although I had to ask for my 400yen change when they disappeared with my two notes and didn't return.

Stuffing them into my bag, which I was sure by now had no space left within, it was time to return to the station and move on to the next place. Stopping only briefly to wonder at a tiny hummingbird (or large moth, I couldn't tell) that just buzzed straight by me and started feeding on some flowers as if I wasn't there, I headed quickly to the station building as the rain began to fall once more. I got my backpack out of the locker, and went off to get a ticket. It was 2pm, and the next train was nearly an hour away. I would have to take three legs to get where I needed. Matsumoto to Kofu would take about an hour, and Kofu to Otsuki would take another half, and then it was a case of coming off the JR lines, and onto the familiar private Fuji Kyūkō Line that went through the hills and forests and finally to Kawaguchiko station. That meant I should be at Mt. Fuji before 6pm. I watched the rain shimmering down the windows of the Vie de France as I tucked into something chickeny.
The weather continued to worsen on the way to Kofu. The skies greyed with thick cloud, and the mountains became surrounded by whisps of white cotton wool. The heavens loomed in and it all started to feel claustrophobic and close, like there was a storm brewing. In the distance, the thunder rumbled.

Otsuki to Kawaguchiko was on the private line, so I had to pay for a ticket (1110yen). The light had pretty much gone by now, so all I could do as I rode on the scary-faced Fuji train was count off the stations and watch the hundred or so crossing lights come on in the distance as we approached.

I was not used to the darkness closing in quite so suddenly, and it was by now feeling just like it would in October in the UK. Damp and foggy, and perpetually dark. I walked the long walk from the rear of the train to Kawaguchiko station building and looked out to a completely darkened view outside. Fuji had been completely hidden from view as I approached, so it would have to take my breath away tomorrow. Feeling the rumble of tum once more, I went into the station cafe and ordered their curry udon (650yen), which sounded interesting. Jumbo udon noodles with beansprouts and a spicy curry miso went down pretty well (although the curry was more like gravy), and I made sure to keep a mental note of the sister dish, the Tempura Udon which sounded even better, but was sold out.

Remembering my problems when searching for K's House last time, I walked down the road with a degree more confidence this time. Past the post office, and eventually arriving at an abandoned gas station (which was part of the directions but which was never found last time) and then down a steep hill to the hostel.

K's hadn't really changed, except now they had a bar in the adjacent building across the patio. I heaved off my bags, signed the papers and went up to my room. There were 6 beds in the dorm, of which it looked like four were going to get used. I plumped for the top bunk above a dutch bloke, who was relaxing back with a map in his hand. Across from me were two other bunks taking up the long side of the room, and the telltale abandoned bag and ruffled bedclothes on the lower two bunks suggested that the owners had been there for more than just tonight.

I rented a towel (100yen) and put in some laundry (200yen) and proceeded to get a shower to freshen up. I checked my mail (Elizabeth had emailed!) and made a good old english cuppa, then headed into the lounge with a clutch of leaflets to read through of things to possibly do tomorrow in the short time I would have before moving on. I had thoughts of covering a lot while at Fuji, but it looked as if I would have to be picky with my choices. Memories of the Saiko bird sanctuary and designs on returning there quickly became implausible, so I restricted my searches to the Lake Kawaguchi area. Especially when I noticed that the ferrybus to take me back to the station (downhill wasn't so bad - I wasn't heaving my things up that hill) would depart 11am sharp.

On the coffee table were a set of volumed A4 notepads, each of them a sort of diary book left out for visitors to fill in what they had been doing while there, or what they thought of the place. Since it went back a few years, I flipped to the point in the 2008 volume around the same time I had been there, in case I recognised anything or anyone from that time. Unfortunately, there was nothing recognisable, the most stand-out thing was a recounting by a number of visitors who had been kept awake all night by a young man who couldn't stop pleasuring himself. They illustrated it with a diagram.

Surprisingly, I was still hungry, and since it was many hours until beddy-byes I headed out to the cluster of restaurants on the south road towards the centre of town. Passing the unreccomendable 'Aladdin' restaurant, I met up with a lost-looking young French man with an enormous backpack. Gaunt and thin in the streetlit gloom, he said he was just setting off from the hostel with the aim of walking the 10km to the base of Mt. Fuji overnight, so he could watch the sunrise in the morning, and climb it through the day.

English wasn't the sticking point (he spoke it well) in my attempts to communicate why this was a bad idea. It was out of season, it was cold, and chances are there would be no-one at the summit to let him in. By the end of our short conversation I was near enough pleading with this crazy young man to reconsider his actions, as I might be the last one to see him in a pre-human lollipop state, but it was no use. He thanked me for my concern and disappeared slowly into the night.

I turned around and there was an adequate enough looking restaurant behind me. Going in, it was hugely westernised, right down to the American-style leather wrap-around seats and low lights, the large laminated menus, and the gaudy-uniformed waitresses. I got a strange spag bol with an egg on top which managed to be both under- and over-cooked, with infinite fizzy drink refills. Perfect for keeping me wide awake, but I glugged it down regardless. It was all OK but unfulfilling mass-produced food.

A five minute internet surf turned into an hour on return, and I plodded eventually back to bed sometime past eleven.