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.

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