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Dateline: November 22, 2008

Early Trains

Purple Banners by kepibear, on Flickr
First thing in the morning we grabbed breakfast to go at the Vent et Lune bakery in the train station. We had a 70 minute ride ahead of us so we just packed it aboard the train. Though we had to wait for a bit since the staff were still prepping it for departure, which includes things like flipping the seats around inside and a last minute cleanup.

Once in Hiroshima we transferred to a local line headed to Miyajimaguchi where we’d catch the ferry to Miyajima — actual name Itsukushima — famous for (among other things) its large floating torii, part of the Itsukushima Shrine.

Miyajimaguchi

Just outside the front entrance of the train station at the first intersection there were no crosswalks, even though it was quite a small intersection. Instead, on each of the four corners was a glass-enclosed entrance that took you underneath the street. This was the crosswalk system! It was actually quite a nice underground tunnel with a small display in the one corner and what looked like marble along the walls. I’m not sure why it was built this way because it wasn’t a very high-traffic area, but it was definitely interesting. The tunnel stretched beyond just that first intersection, too.

There are two companies that run ferries to the island. Naturally, we took the JR-run one because it was included in our rail passes. The name of our ferry was the Misen Maru and we got primo spots on the main deck so there was no glass to get in the way of the view or photography opportunities. As you approach the island, you notice that it’s completely covered with trees. You also see that during the day when the tide is out, you can walk right up to the massive torii, and many people were taking advantage of that opportunity.

On the The Island

After our ferry arrived at the island’s dock, we were almost immediately greeted by a swarm of small deer. They’re part of a herd of Sika deer that lives on the island and were all about the size of a North American fawn.
Pickpocket by kepibear, on Flickr
Even though there were signs posted as soon as you left the ferry terminal warning about how the deer will likely bite you and they can be aggressive, every single deer we saw was surprisingly calm. Though there were other signs that warned visitors to steer clear of any deer with antlers, and considering we were there during their rutting season, it seemed like sound advice. But the deer that were hanging around would stand while kids — who were usually a fair bit larger than the deer themselves — would run up and pet them. Though the gentle treatment of the deer on the island by people is probably due to the fact that deer are considered sacred in the Shinto religion as they are viewed as messengers of the gods. And the deer likely enjoy all the attention since they get fed, even if sometimes it’s just a tasty magazine left on the ground.

Big Red Pagoda by kepibear, on Flickr
We walked along a waterfront that reminded me of Stanley Park’s sea wall but with storefronts along the one side for part of it. When circling around one of the buildings along the path, I came across an artist capturing the view the old-fashioned way painting at an easel. At the end of the waterfront walk the pathway meets an abrupt end (with a helpful sign telling you that the wall five feet in front of you is indeed a dead end) and diverts you inland. After passing through a large stone torii you come to the Omote-sandō shopping street, so named because the Japanese word sandō is used for a road that leads to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, such as the ones here on the island.

I walked out along a sandbar as the tide was slowing rolling in to get a better shot of the torii sitting in the water while I still could. And from out there, you get a great view of the Itsukushima Shrine. The crowds were sure taking advantage of the slowly disappearing land and at about 1pm the spot I had taken a close-up picture of the torii from was under almost a foot of water.

We looped back up the hill slightly to check out the Senjyoukaku shrine. It was by far the most weathered-looking shrine of all the ones we’d seen on the trip (especially when compared to the ones in Kyoto). The large red pagoda standing nearby provided an interesting juxtaposition between old and new, at least in terms of outward appearance.

Heading back down to the shopping street we stopped at a small vendor stall and had some freshly-cooked yakitori (grilled chicken skewers). It was really, really good and it seemed the deer knew this as well since one kept trying to nibble on my skewer as I sat on a small stone wall. The deer just stood there quietly and intently in front of me waiting until I lowered the skewer from where I was hiding it up above my head in order to take a bite (remember, the deer weren’t that big so simply holding it up in the air, even in a seated position, put the skewer well out of its reach).

Mossy Lantern by kepibear, on Flickr

Momijidani Park

Next up on our wandering of the island was the fantastic Momijidani Park, well know throughout Japan for its veritable forest of maple trees. And since we were there in late November, they were all right in the middle of their fall colour display. The crowds were heavy here as well.

While it wasn’t part of our itinerary for this trip, one of the best ways to check out Miyajimaguchi is to stay on the island overnight. Once all the tourists leave at the end of the day, you’re left with just the locals and the island more or less to yourself. Inside Momijidani Park was a nice ryokan that was nestled in amongst the trees. The area behind the ryokan was a small valley and featured a faint trickling stream; it was quite picturesque. The stream was fed by the small pond further up the hill.

The Floating Itsukushima shrine

Torii are the gates to shrines, and the Itsukushima shrine is a big one. Due to the tide that rolls in and out, the whole structure is built upon wooden piles so it gives the effect of floating on the water during high tide. On the approach to the shrine from the one side you walk past strings of stone lanterns that would be lit up in a short while once it got a little darker (and in fact these small lanterns stretched most of the way back along the sea wall to the ferry building).

Visitors enter from the one side, meander their way through the winding structure and exit on the other side of the bay in which it stands. Most of the passageways are barren, but there was one length decorated with (empty) 18L canisters of Kikkoman soy sauce, among other things. The sun was getting low which made for some nice views when looking across the shrine. Nearing the far end of the shine was a separate pair of buildings that people couldn’t get to, and they didn’t have the same orange-red paint job as the rest of the shine. They appeared to be very old, similar in appearance to the weathered shrine back on the one hill. The walls partially enclosing the two buildings made it look like it was possibly an area used for ceremonies.

There are a few spots along the rear of the complex where the shrine is connected to the land (it’s not just on either end, however they were all blocked from access in order to keep an orderly flow of people through the shrine), and one of these connections was a very steep bridge arching over what would soon become a waterway. It appeared to be there more for decoration now than any practical purpose, since once you got up close to the bridge you realized just how steep it was. Without good grip on your shoes, it would’ve been difficult to cross the bridge without hauling yourself up and over using the handrails.

All around the shrine — and the nearby pagoda and shrine up the hill — were very tall lightning rods. Given that practically every structure around there were made of wood (not to mention all the large trees covering the island) they were a good preventative measure to have in place. While taking a walk around the back side of the shrine, I spotted the same guy for the third time in last two days; guess he had plans similar to ours.

Nestled between two buildings I came across a set of stairs that led far up the hillside. After climbing by a very old, gnarled tree with a hole clear through the trunk (that itself to have been six feet across at its widest), I arrived at a pagoda in the tahōtō-style. From the vantage point up on top of the hill, you could see the coast of Miyajimaguchi off in the distance with the floating torii right in the middle.

End of the Day

The Floating Torii by kepibear, on Flickr

After coming down the hill from the small pagoda I met back up with my brother and we started heading towards the ferry terminal. We stopped partway back around the sea wall and waited for it to get dark. There are large floodlights mounted on opposite sides of the bay which illuminate the floating torii. It’s quite a sight. While waiting for the darkness we got to watch some bug-eating jumping fish having a feeding frenzy in the water right in front of us.

We took a different ferry on the way back — JR runs three ferries the island route — and unlike to the Misen Maru that we took to the island, this one had a plush finished cabin area on the main deck. Back at Miyajimaguchi Station we had to get across the tracks to the far platform in order to grab our train to Hakata. This station didn’t have an elevator, but what they did have was a really cool stair-climbing robot that my brother wheeled onto. We had seen smaller versions of this kind of robot back in Tokyo being used for shuttling cargo and supplies around the stations there, but not one this big nor one for moving people.

Our Rail Star arrived and we were on our way back to Hakata; the electronic scrolling sign at the front of the car said we were cruising along at 285km/h. It was time for a good night’s sleep as the following day we had another big excursion planned with Ryo.

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Dateline: November 21, 2008

Morning

Three in a Row by kepibear, on Flickr

We jumped onto another Hikari Rail Star Super Express for the journey to Hiroshima. It’s likely the same one we’ll be taking on Monday when we go to Osaka since that’s this train’s terminal station.

After arriving at JR Hiroshima Station, we took an underground passage to the tram platform to make our way over to the Peace Memorial Park. It was raining that day in Hiroshima. Right next to the tram area stood a butt-shaped fountain, which was … different.

The tram platform was structured with separate loading and unloading areas. When a tram comes into the station it would go right to the end to let the current passengers off. Once the tram was empty, it would pull back the way it came to an earlier part of the station to load up the new waiting passengers. The tram system, which is run by Hiroshima Electric Railway (Hiroden), is quite old — established on June 18, 1910 — so there are lots of different car types in service from old to really new.

Since the older trams all had steps in them, we had to wait until one of the newer low-floor models showed up on line 2 or 6 (the ones that go towards Peace Memorial Park).

Peace Memorial Park

We got to the A-Bomb Dome just before a big group of school kids arrived so we managed to get some good pictures even though it was still raining lightly. The dome is now called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial but it’s original name (and purpose) was Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition when it was completed in April 1915. Because the bomb exploded almost directly above the building — 600 meters up and 150 meters to the southeast — some of the walls remained; most of the building was completely destroyed, however.

From the Back by kepibear, on Flickr

Just inside the one edge of the park is the Zero Milestone of Hiroshima Prefecture which its plaque describes as what once was “the intersection of main overland traffic routes” and “a main stop in water transport on the Ota River and formed the center of the Hiroshima Castle town”. It’s just a small concrete post off in the shrubs nowadays.

There were large trees everywhere in the park and a little further on we came across the Children’s Peace Monument. Inside the small glass “rooms” that ran across the monument were strands of thousands of tiny folded paper cranes that get brought to the site by various school groups and anyone else who happens to stop by. There’s even a sign that encourages visitors who bring cranes to register with the Paper Crane Database which is run by the Hiroshima International Peace Promotion Department.

In another area of the park is the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims which is a very solemn place. Outside the building is a fountain in the shape of a clock set to 8:15. This is important for two reasons: 8:15am was the time the bomb exploded over the city so most watches and clocks were “frozen” at that time, but also during the aftermath when people were horribly burned by the blast’s heat wave and resulting fires, they would stagger around begging others for water. To this day, on the anniversary of the bombing some residents of Hiroshima will place a glass of water outside their homes in a symbolic gesture to all those victims.

The building itself is quite modern in design. Once you enter, you head down a long spiral walkway which has inset into the outer walls illuminated plaques detailing the lead up to the bombing (political and otherwise) and the effects it had on the area and its people. At the bottom of the walkway you arrive at a sign with a solitary guard standing beside it. This is the entry point to the Hall of Remembrance; the sign reads:

The walls in the Hall of Remembrance that you are about to enter are covered with approximately 140,000 tiles, the number of A-bomb victims who died by the end of 1945. These walls symbolically express the profound tragedy inflicted on Hiroshima.

The scenes depicted on the walls are a panoramic view from the former Shima Hospital, which stood at the A-bomb hypocenter approximately 200 meters northeast of this Memorial Hall.

Inscribed below are the names of the neighborhoods as they were known at the time of the bombing.

You walk into the circular hall and it’s just very still. The images of destruction encircle the room and placed in the center is another example of clock & water imagery. I went to one of the small benches that ring the outer edge of the room and just sat for a while in silence taking it all in.

8:15 by kepibear, on Flickr

After you exit the Hall of Remembrance you come to a room with a wall full of screens that cycle through images and profiles of people who were killed in the aftermath of the bombing. There are even standing terminals where you can search the Atomic Bomb Victim database.

Heading back up to the main floor of the memorial you find a small collection of artifacts as well as a fairly substantial library wing where you can watch video interviews with survivors, browse massive photo libraries, and read written accounts from people who witnessed the bombing. In one section there was a 14 minute video playing on loop that contained the memoirs of three people who survived the bombing.

Kosei Mito

By the time we left the memorial, there wasn’t a cloud left in the sky; a nice change from the past few days! While making our way towards the museum, a man randomly walked up to us and introduced himself. His name was Kosei Mito, and his mother was 4 months pregnant with him at the time of the blast. She arrived in Hiroshima on August 9, three days after the blast. He had a bunch of old pictures with him and told us a lot of interesting information. For example, his mother is still alive at 92 years of age. He’s part of the 4th Survivor’s Group and has an official card indicating this. He also mentioned how the Makurazaki Typhoon that happened soon after the explosion cleared out much of the radiation from the area.

He would hang around in the Peace Park giving impromptu tours around the area. This turned out to be a great happenstance since he showed us some of the “off the map” things that most visitors to the Park don’t see. For example, he took us to the blast’s hypocenter which is actually about a block away from the edge of the park. Very close to the hypocenter is a small graveyard which gave a great example of one of the effects of the blast, namely that any stone surfaces directly exposed to the blast wave became rough while those that received more glancing blows remained smooth.

Here’s more information about his story as well as a short video interview with him.

Cenotaph and Museum

Bridge Streetlight by kepibear, on Flickr

Once we parted with Kosei Mito we continued on to the museum. Out front is the memorial cenotaph which contains a flame that when lit was decreed to only be extinguished once nuclear weapons no longer existed.

We managed to get into the museum for free (it’s only ¥50, otherwise). There were many interesting exhibits including scale models of a large section of Hiroshima showing what it looked like before and after the blast. There was even a (slightly smaller) replica of the dome from across the park. The museum offered not just information about the after effects of the bombing but also a tremendous amount of history of that events that lead up to it from both the Japanese and American side of things.

The balcony on the upper floor of the museum provided for a great view of the Memorial Park looking straight on towards the dome.

Heading Back

The Hiroden has the usual handy digital signs at the stations showing which trams were coming when, but more helpful for us was that they included which ones were accessible.

Back at JR Hiroshima Station we stopped for dinner before our train to Hakata arrived. On tonight’s menu: okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). All the teppanyaki tables were full so we got to go into the private reserved area which was very nice. Pork, cabbage, egg, cheese, noodles; yum! It was really good and better than I was expecting given that one of the main ingredients is cabbage. Wikipedia describes Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki as follows:

Cozy Restaurant by kepibear, on Flickr

The layers are typically batter, cabbage, pork, optional items (squid, octopus, cheese, etc.), noodles (yakisoba, udon) topped with a fried egg and a generous dollop of okonomiyaki sauce.

I also tried a Mitsuya cider, though it was listed on the menu as a soda (it actually is a soda and not a true cider, which probably explains that). It was quite tasty with sort of a light flavour similar to Sprite.

After dinner we wandered around the station a bit, but not before stopping at the big model train store right across from the restaurant! I bought an N-scale Shinkansen N700 engine and a short piece of display track for it, but wanted to buy so much more.

We picked up tomorrow’s train tickets before we left as we’d be coming back through Hiroshima on our way to Miyajima. Then once we arrived back in Hakata we snagged our tickets for heading to Osaka on Monday which was the next major stop.

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Dateline: November 20, 2008

An Unexpected Trip

We met Ryo in the lobby of our hotel and headed for a Sonic train to start the 2 hour trip to Nagasaki. What we were expecting to be a day spent checking out the sights — including the bomb memorials — ended up being entirely different.
The Sonic
As before, the train streamed passed more power lines scattered all over the place. Ryo let me try some little cheese bites he picked up that morning. They smelled like the inside of a pumpkin and tasted like pumpkin-flavoured processed mozzarella; not bad, but not great either.

Halfway through the trip, the previously-clear sky was clouding up. Off in the distance, there was a freeway going up and we could see the high spans over the numerous valleys being built.

The clouds started clearing about 20 minutes after the midway point of our voyage. Unfortunately, another 20 minutes later and we were back into the clouds! Along the way we passed a schoolyard with all the little kids doing their morning calisthenics. I’d seen it lots of times in various videos from Japan, but never “in person”.

After passing through several more tunnels, we were back to the blue sky. I think the weather was taunting us. On approach to Nagasaki Station, the wheels hitting the gaps in the track sounded exactly like the beginning of the Terminator theme, all the way down to the pacing.

New Friends

After disembarking, we met up with two guys that Ryo knew outside Nagasaki Station. Julien has lived in the area for four years, but used to live in Toronto. Ponte (pronounced PAWN-tay), as he asked to be called, is a doctor and rented a Honda STEPWGN with a wicked power middle seat for disabled people that swings out of the van and down to the ground. This is when we discovered we weren’t touring Nagasaki; rather, Ponte was going to chauffeur us to a volcano that buried some houses and killed many people in 1991 by way of a pyroclastic flow.
Treed Hills
Nagasaki has a great, old-fashioned looking streetcar system. Everything from the cars themselves, to the power poles, and even the brick pathways surrounding the tracks. We also found out why there’s hardly any garbage cans to be found out in public: terrorism. Instead of providing places for bombs to be hidden, all public garbage cans were removed.

On the way out of town, we stopped just beyond some potato fields (ash from the volcano makes for very fertile ground) and took some shots over the ocean.

Once we got to the shorefront town named Obama, we parked near an onsen and a course for playing gateball to do some wandering around for a bit.

Aside from nice views of the ocean, there were many rows of old Suntory whisky barrels at one end of the park that had been repurposed as flower pots.

Mount Unzen

We headed up a narrow, winding road toward the volcano. Many hairpin turns awaited us amongst the switchbacks that brought us upward. There was even a 10% grade at one point in the road.
Golf Course
The town of Unzen was the next thing we went through; no stopping here, though, as the volcano awaited! The area became the first national park in Japan. Mount Unzen is actually a volcanic group, not just a single volcano as the name would suggest. We turned onto Nita Pass, a single lane road heading further up the side of the mountain.

From high above Shimbara, the town that got hit by the pyroclastic flow in 1991, we could see the path of destruction stretching out to the ocean. The museum near the shore was built over top of some houses that were buried in lahar, almost two stories deep. They now stand as part of the exhibits of the devastation.

From the viewpoint, we could see that it was indeed still an active volcanic group. The steam coming through the rocks on the face was evident.

Ponte lent me an official Urawa Red Diamonds jacket to head to the nearby summit in a gondola as it was going to be much colder up there than it was where we stood at the first viewpoint. He was joking that, because I was wearing it and was a foreigner, people might think I was a member of the team.Other Trail Entrance It sure seemed like it when some people saw me in the jacket!

It was only 1 degree at the upper gondola station, so I was happy for the Urawa jacket. There was a lot more snow on the ground up there than down below. Ponte and I walked up the series of stairs along the trail to the very top and got some amazing views of Mount Unzen and Shimbara. We were up at 1,333 meters (4,373 feet).

Branching off from the trail we were on, was another that travelled along a nearby ridge, but we didn’t have time to check it out as the others were still waiting down in the parking lot.

On the road down, the van was stopped many times for picture taking, including at the artificial lake in Unzen which we could see earlier from the top of the mountain.

As we made our way back to Nagasaki, Ponte stopped at a small bakery and picked up a tasty snack: thin Japanese cookies. I still have a box of them sitting at home as a memento. Not only did he get the cookies, but he got a few extra bags of “scraps” for us to munch on in the van. The cookies are circular and get cut out of a large sheet of dough. All the leftover pieces get tossed into bags and sold as well.

Finishing the Day

Once we got back to Nagasaki Station, we bought our tickets for the return trip to Hakata and for our planned outing to Hiroshima tomorrow. Ponte grabbed some gyoza for all of us while we waited to get our Shinkansen tickets.

The group went to a ramen place near the station for a really late lunch (7pm is late for lunch, right?). There was a ¥2,200 (around $30 CAN at the time) pitcher of ice cream sundae on offer! I got to play with Julien’s Dell Mini 9 for a bit, which was a new thing at the time. I polished off a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen (a specialty of the area) and some more gyoza; both were excellent.

After saying our goodbyes, we hopped onto the train at 8:25pm to head back to Hakata.

Setting Splendor

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Dateline: November 19, 2008

Rail Rage

What an interesting term: Rail Rage. Thankfully, we weren’t in for the kind of experience that might immediately jump to mind. Rail Rage is what hirosan uses to describe a whirlwind tour of parts of Japan by way of multiple trains in a short period of time. They’re something he does for people that stop by to visit, and we were lucky enough to be on Kyushu when he had time to take us out.

Starting the Journey

Finally today we’d put to use all those tickets we’d purchased two days prior! It was raining when we ventured out of the hotel for our 6:29am train, so I got to pull out the umbrella for the first time. It stopped about a minute later…

When we got to the ticket desk in Hakata station, we surprised the attendants with all the tickets we had. As mentioned before, the station staff like to be prepared with all the pre-planning and contacting of stations ahead of time so they’re Inside the Tsubameready with the portable ramps and whatnot for when we arrive, and since we were doing a rail rage, there was suddenly a bunch to do. The one gentleman had initially asked if our first stop was where we were ending the trip, and I said no while passing him the rest of the tickets (for a total of 10). The look on his face was classic; poor guy.

Our first train this morning was a Tsubame. It was quite nice inside and there was boatloads of legroom, as I’d come to expect from trains in Japan. The interior had this great 1950’s retro look to it, too. My brother just about fit through a decorative wall partition* on the right side so first they tried loading him from the other door of the car, but that didn’t work as the entranceway on that end of the car was too narrow. I ended up moving him into his seat with a weird “hug” maneuver, which was good practice as we had to employ it several more times during the trip (and something I got stunned looks for from train attendants who offered to help me get my brother settled several days later when I just picked him up and deftly moved him to his seat with one arm).

hirosan had planned out the tickets so he’d join us two stations into the trip allowing him to avoid coming all the way down to Hakata station just to meet up. And speaking of trains, for quite some time we ran parallel to the new raised deck being constructed for a Shinkansen line due to open in two years time. There was even some photo dueling (here’s the reverse angle).

Out of Service

My Sony DSC-W80 point-and-shoot fell off the window ledge* — it was a surprisingly rough train ride, much more so than any thus far — and bounced hard off the lower ledge. I picked it up and physically it seemed fine; no scratches or new dings to be found. I was relieved, that is until I hit the power switch to make sure I hadn’t broken the internals of the LCD: nothing happened! It refused to turn on. I even quickly borrowed the battery from my brother’s new DSC-W300, which happens to use the same type of battery, to no avail. Nothing I did would cause it to turn on. After much frantic fiddling, I declared it dead at 7:25am JST on November 19, 2008. It had served me well since I got it on April 17, 2007, and yet it seemed like it was too early for it to need replacing.

I was particularly bummed* about this due to the fact I used my Sony for quick pictures where hauling out my Canon was too cumbersome or time consuming, and in low-light situations where I didn’t feel like configuring my Canon to get the best shot possible. All the night and low-light shots I took to date were with the Sony. Today was only about the mid-point of the trip, and suddenly my “primary” camera was in a coma. Boo-urns, says I.

Leg Two

We arrived at ShinYatsushiro station for the first switchover and walked across the platform into the next train which was already there waiting. The Kyushu Kyushu Shinkansen Tsubame 800Shinkansen Tsubame 800 was a swanky new train, again with tons of legroom, that runs at up to 270km/h and sits low on the tracks. And hey, another ferris wheel!

We travelled through a whole bunch of tunnels and there were lots of rolling hills to look at, still absolutely packed with trees. When the train stopped briefly at Shin-Minamata station, I noticed it looked similar to where we got on the train: sparse and clinical gray, but still somehow elegant due to its architecture. This section of the line sported large tube-like stations made of horizontal sections … well, they’re hard to describe and naturally I didn’t take any pictures of the others.

Our car’s attendant, Takemoto*, came in with a train-shaped board bearing the date (20/11/19, the 20 being the Japan Year), and offered to take a picture* for us. And when we got off at the end of the line, Takemoto offered to take a picture of us in front of the train* as well.

The Good Stuff (Legs Three & Four)

Now that we got to where we needed to be to start the real meat of the Rail Rage, we shed the high-speed Shinkansens for a small two-car train comprised of carriages that looked to be 60 years old.

Onto the Hayato No Kaze, an the older black train with a nice wood interior, including some bench seats facing out the windows with a big table in front.The Next Train I spent a lot of time on that bench*. To make things a little nicer, the sun had finally come out.

The train rolled along down by the ocean and we saw an active volcano (that wasn’t doing anything at the time). Along its journey, the train stopped at a number of small stations and everyone got out to take some pictures and roam around for a few minutes. The landscapes along the Hayato No Kaze’s line are fantastic and were a really nice change-up from all the city-dwelling we’d been doing.

We reached the end of the line at Yoshimatsu station where we waited for the next train, the Isaborou-Shinpei, which was basically a red version of the Hayato No Kaze. The differences were more than just the exterior paint, though. Engineer's SeatThe inside looked somewhat Victorian with high-back dark wood bench seats with dark green fabric. One of the neat features the train had was a camera mounted on the nose with a video feed being displayed inside the cars; this was especially cool when going through tunnels.

One of the interesting things about the route this train takes is the switchbacks it traverses. You get to one station and think it’s the end of the line, only to have the train double-back and take an adjacent track that lets it continue on its way up the mountain (that last picture was taken right here). The surroundings at the stations were still just as nice as they were on the Hayato No Kaze.

The Isaborou-Shinpei also stopped on the track at a large vista for some picture taking from inside the train, giving us a better idea of where it was taking us. Later on, it would stop at yet another viewpoint.

At some point during the ride, I handed hirosan my dead camera to look at. After a few moments of inspecting it, he hit the power button … and it turned on! It lives! Perhaps my declaration of death was premature. Sadly, this Death Knellwas a short-lived period of joy. I took a test picture (shown on the left) with the Sony and everything seemed ok. It died again when I hit the playback button to verify the photo was taken properly, so now the lens was stuck in its open and extended position … goody. Seemed to be a bad power connection as everything checked out when it was on. Until I could open it up and take a peek inside, it was “dead”. Over 31 months, it captured 5,623 frames for me.

The next stop for the train was Yatake station where we had our pictures taken in front of an old steam engine (with hats!*). Then another quick stop in Okoba — where I caught hirosan chatting up the staff — before making our way to the next transfer point.

Leg Five

We changed trains in Hitoyoshi to the Trans-Kyushu Limited Express. Go figure that, like before, it looked very close to the train from which we just disembarked. Lush Valley
It travelled through the bottom of a lush valley (and by through, I mean there was a lot of tunnels) that felt like being in the BC Interior.

Once we emerged from the valley, we hit a wide open area with tons of power lines heading up into the hills; more and more just kept coming as we rolled along. Plus, we caught back up to the future Shinkansen route.

The Rail Rage came to an end when got off at Kumumoto station. It was a tremendous amount of fun and we got to enjoy a a truly out-of-the-way experience. If you want to see 163 additional pictures from the Rail Rage, including my favourite picture taken of me*, you can head over to hirosan’s photoset.

Kumamoto

After much pondering*, I had a late lunch at Yoshinoya while my brother and hirosan hit up the MOS Burger next door. Sooooo tasty: ginger beef, coleslaw (which I used to mop up the rest of the sauce from the beef), rice, miso soup, and a little side of actual kimchi cabbage! I’m positively addicted to Nong Shim Kimchi (12 bowls for $8 at Costco!), so it was a treat to finally try real kimchi.

After eating, we got on the Kumamoto Castle Loop Bus to head up to … well, I’m sure you can tell by the name. The driver spent a fair amount of time trying to secure my brother in his wheelchair to great comedic effect. Part of my amusement came from the instructional images on the wall right beside Cornerhim that showed the right way to do it (yes, I’m a jerk for not pointing them out to him, but he’s the driver, he should know about them!). Really friendly fellow, though. Many things in Kumamoto are in Japanese, English, and Korean due to South Korea’s proximity to Kyushu, and that included the various brochures on the bus.

We arrived at the gate of Kumamoto Castle (first built in about 1588), but it was about to close as it has shorter hours from November through March. Still got to snap* some good pictures from the outside since the sun was starting to set*. Dejected, we rode the bus around the rest of the loop back to the station where we took a Tsubame Ariake back to Hakata. Another different train, another stylish interior. Dark gray, purple, and red. As mentioned before, since it was getting dark and my preferred method of shooting low-light was now useless, I have no pictures of it. hirosan does*, of course.

Back in Hakata

We ventured out to Yodobashi Camera Hakata (man do I wish we had some of their stores here at home) to pick up a replacement for my dead Sony. Since I was going to be there for a little over a week still, I didn’t want to miss out on all those shots (which make up a fairly big chunk of what I’d taken thus far). I found a suitable replacement that wasn’t too expensive: the Sony DSC-W170, which is a “model successor” to mine. Unfortunately, all Sony cameras sold in Japan only come with Japanese menus! All the other brands there had an option for English, but I didn’t like any of them. While using the camera in everyday situations doesn’t require English menuing, if I ever wanted to change any camera settings, I’d be fumbling around trying random selections until something happened. I decided to just suck it up and go without for the rest of the trip, relying solely on my Canon.

Since the plan was to head to Nagasaki tomorrow with hirosan, it was off to bed with us!


* these are hirosan’s pictures

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Dateline: November 18, 2008

The Green Bus

The Green BusToday we rode on the Fukuoka City Loop Bus (“Green Bus for Sightseeing”) around town while hirosan was at work. True to its name, the driver shut the bus off whenever we stopped at red lights. We’d learn from hirosan a little later that this is what most buses in Fukuoka do.

The bus itself looks similar to other city buses from the outside, but on the inside it’s a very different story. The seats are curved wooden benches with green fabric covers (well, this one had them, anyway; another bus we took didn’t), and the whole interior has an “airy” feel to it.

During our first round on the Green Bus, we were the only people on board.

Canal City

After cruising along the route for about five minutes, we got off at the first stop: Canal City, a large complex — 2.5 million ft.2, 2/3 the size of West Edmonton Mall — in the heart of Hakata.Disney-eqsue

It can be best described as a large shopping complex split into two major halves with a canal and outdoor promenade running between them.

Right inside the doors we were met with by a white and metallic pink robot trundling down the ramp towards us. It’s an autonomous information robot that wanders the mall (when we came back on a later date, we found it off in another section) with a touch screen on its chest to provide visitors with directions. Unfortunately it was heading back to its charging station, complete with backup warning beeps, so we couldn’t play around.

On the first floor of one of the sections we found a bunch of different branded merchandise stores. There was a Pokémon store, a Sanrio store (makers of Hello Kitty), and even a candy-esque store that had Giant Pocky!Stage "Chandelier" There was a store full of Christmas decorations and other homey-feeling items that, to my surprise, had licensed stuff from the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer TV special.

In the center area about the canal, we found a bunch of Christmas decorations set up in the water. There’s also a large area called the Urban Theater, which is about seven storeys high. While there wasn’t anything happening during this visit, during the evenings there would be a regular water show similar to what you get at the Bellagio in Vegas. In fact, they were testing the system just before we ventured back to the Green Bus.

Back On the (High) Road

Since we just missed the next Green Bus outside Canal City, we decided to use the time to walk to Stop 3 to get the next one. There are three buses that run the loop and they come by each stop every 30 minutes during the week and every 20 minutes on weekends.

As we walked through the streets, we came upon a small temple and stopped in to have a look.

The bus ventured through more of the city and we skipped the next few stops on the way to Fukuoka Tower. The route took us over a section of toll freeway which culminated in a big section of double-decker bridge over the bay. Just on the other side of the bridge, we went past the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, which is where the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks play.

Fukuoka Tower

We disembarked at Stop 6: Fukuoka Tower. Before heading to the top of the tower to see the sights, we went into on eof the adjacent buildings in the complex and stumbled upon Robosquare. It’s sort of a cross between a mini robot museum and a showcase. There was a little display set up near the middle of Robosquare where we got to play with an AIBO ERS-7 for a while. Tissues, anyone?

Fukuoka TowerThe area around the tower looks like a manufactured business complex so while it gives the impression of being too spaced apart, it’s still a nice place.

On the way to the elevators, we caught a glimpse of a failed suicide attempt by a blue-clad Santa. The observation deck in the tower is 123 meters high and provided a fantastic 360˚ view of the city and the bay. I even managed to get a shot with the Pokémon jet in it. Plus being up so high gave me a great opportunity to play with the 75-300mm lens I borrowed from a co-worker for the trip. I even managed to find two more ferris wheels to add to the ever-growing list.

In a moment of better timing this go ’round, we got back to the bus stop right as it pulled up.

Small Detour

Next up we got off the bus to head to an outdoor covered shopping street. At one of the stores I found out scarves are called mufflers in Japan, even though most everything else in the cold weather apparel category is named the same. And, as usual, we spotted some interestingly-named businesses. While the sun was poking out through the clouds periodically, there was a very cold wind all day so we headed back to the bus to continue on the tour of the city.

Tenjin Core

Underground MallStop 12 is the central shopping district in Fukuoka. We spent most of the time in the Tenjin Core building and also in “the most beautiful underground mall in Japan”, Tenjin Chikagi. It definitely had a neat atmosphere, but some of the others we’d been in were “nicer” (marble, wide open space, etc.). It felt like being in a gothic dungeon with its dark brick and arched ceilings, which was pretty cool. The street entrances made it feel like you were about to descend into an old pub. The building itself was the basement floor of a long shopping center with a slight bend in the middle. Each half of was incredibly long, to the point you could barely see the end of the hallway.

Shrine

The last stop of the day led us to a largeish shrine complex. Shortly after crossing through the torii, a kindly little old lady came up to us and practically dragged my brother through the complex.Cleansing Water The only English she knew was “please”, which she said earnestly while gesturing to follow her; it was tremendously cute.

While my brother was being whisked away, I slowly wandered through the complex taking a bunch of pictures. Compared to most, if not all, of the shrines we’d been to thus far, this one had a significantly higher tree density. I really liked the amount of trees here because you couldn’t really tell you were still in the middle of a modern city. This shrine was also the first of a few places I found “tree grass“.

Back to the Hotel

The cold wind was still blowing on us and the fact the sun was about to set didn’t help matters. We hopped onto the second-last bus back to the depot. The poor guy kept mis-aligning the back door so he couldn’t get the ramp out. Well, he could, but the ramp was aimed right at a wall! After a few tries he got it right and my brother could get off the bus without having to hop off the side of the ramp which was reasonably steep and had raised edges (to prevent accidental sideways exiting).

We’d be going to bed early tonight as we had a 6:29 am train to catch tomorrow at the start of the rail rage with hirosan. He stopped by the room on his way to visit his uncle to do some last-minute planning and then it was into the sack for us.

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Dateline: November 17, 2008

Teddy BearTravel day! Checkout was at 10 am but our train didn’t leave until 1:11 pm (we sure planned that one well!) so we had some to kill. We wandered down to Nagoya Station and found a place in the shade on the second floor balcony of the JR Towers where some of the light show stuff happens. Later on we moved inside to the Shinkansen waiting area.

While up on the platform waiting for our train, we chatted with a lady from Sweden who was with a big group of folks. She had been working with assistive devices for 35 years so she and my brother had a discussion for a bit about things ranging from all the wheelchairs Sweden exports to what it’s like getting around in Japan.

The Ride to Hakata

Traveling from Nagoya to Hakata takes you a good half-way across the country, and involves crossing between the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. The trip took us past the Solar Ark again, and my brother got video and a good picture (the fact I was facing backwards led to me not getting anything as by the time we realized it was there, I didn’t have time to get my camera out of my pocket). The video capture came from pointing the high-def camera out the window and letting it record for a while in order to get some “traveling footage”.

We also went past a few Shinkansen yards with many trains lined up side by side, like so.

Series 700 Shinkansen at Shin-KobeRail Star Series 700This leg of our train travels marked the first time we had to transfer trains with all the luggage, which we did at Shin-Kobe. The small image on the left is the train from the first half of the trip, a Hikari Super Express. The small image on the right is what we transfered onto, a Rail Star Hikari Super Express. They’re the same train — a 700 Series Shinkansen — but they have different paint jobs are are owned by separate branches of Japan Railways; the former is from JR Central while the latter is from JR West, thus making Shin-Kobe a figurative handover point. We weren’t able to get the private cabin in the second train when we booked the tickets, but this had some benefits. For one, we got beverage service for the first time on a Shinkansen, which is similar to what you get on airplanes.

Shin-Kobe TunnelShin-Kobe Tunnel
The neat thing about Shin-Kobe is it’s a station between two tunnels and at the base of a hill full of trees. There’s also a gondola going up the side of that hill, though we aren’t sure where it goes.

We sat in two of the single seats in the rear of the car which were surrounded by luggage due to the abundance of open space back there.

There were lots of tree-covered hills along the route which are incredibly densely-packed. We went through numerous tunnels, as well, including one that took us between the two islands. Nestled in between the lush greenery were towns on the ocean and the occasional massive refinery installations.

Hakata

Outer Lobby, Nishitetsu Inn HakataHakata is a ward of Fukuoka, home of hirosan. As part of the trip planning, hirosan had offered to book our hotels during the stay in Hakata because he knows the area well. He got us a room in the Nishitetsu Inn which is right beside Hakata Station (bonus!). This place was gorgeous. The surprising thing was that while this was by far the fanciest hotel we would stay at while in Japan, it was the second cheapest!

An interesting thing about the hotel is the main lobby is on the second floor. This is because the first floor is a large public bath. Because the escalators from the main entrance to the lobby are single-person width, we were at first concerned my brother wouldn’t be able to get in! That is, until we noticed the wheelchair access door off to the side. Public BathsThe sign beside the door, a frosted glass sliding door, instructed us to hit the buzzer which would alert staff at the front desk who would open the door only after checking us out on the closed-circuit cameras mounted on either side of the door. We had to do this each time on the way out too.

There were more chip-and-PIN credit card terminals at the hotel, like at Gohan Dining in Nagoya. It’s a good thing I received my replacement credit card with chip-and-PIN less than a week before the trip. Nishitetsu uses the card key to turn on the power in the room, though the hotel in Nagoya only used the long plastic fob which, if you remember, I managed to simulate with a toothbrush.

Reunion

We met up with hirosan in the lobby that evening, and one of the first things I said to him was “We’re finally here to visit you!”. We’d hung out with him on multiple occasions during his trips to Canada, and we even had him over for Easter Dinner at our parents’ back in March. After comparing gadgets, we were off!

Rail Rage PlansDinner was had at MOS Burger while we planned for the next few days’ activities. There would be a “rail rage” on Thursday; Nagasaki on Friday. I tried a spicy burger topped with chili and a strip-beef burger with a “bun” made of rice.

We then went to book the tickets for the upcoming rail rage. hirosan handed over the planning sheet, seen in the photo on the right, which was way easier than trying to explain it all. We received some raised eyebrows from the ticketing staff, but I guess that’s to be expected as we were picking up 16 tickets, after all. We also got day pass tickets for the Green Bus which is what we’d spend our time doing tomorrow while hirosan was at work.

Having had our fill of MOS burger goodness and acquiring all necessary tickets, the three of us headed up to the hotel room to finish planning stuff for the rail rage and dole out the tickets accordingly. We gave Ryo his presents: some candies and syrup from Summerland Sweets which I picked up this past summer.

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Dateline: November 16, 2008

Today we’d be doing a day trip to Kyoto. But, before we left Nagoya, we stopped off at the Station Master’s office to grab our written instructions for our tickets to Hakata that we’d requested the night before. As you may recall, we had a similar issue getting today’s Kyoto tickets and since we’d requested the Hakata ones later in the evening, we had to come back the next morning to get the final confirmation. Since we had a train to catch, we kept the instructions with us and planned to get the actual tickets once we returned from Kyoto.

The forecast for today said rain so I figured it would be prudent to pick up an umbrella. Last night I bought a compact umbrella that fit in the upper pocket of my camera bag so I didn’t have to haul it around in my hand the whole time.

Kyoto Station Atrium

Kyoto Station

On the ride to Kyoto, I noticed an interesting visual effect. Some of the trains go fast enough that when passing another going in the opposite direction, you can still clearly see through it to the landscape on the other side. If you’re busy staring at something out the window, your line-of-sight doesn’t get blocked.

Kyoto Station is a big building sandwiched between two 11-storey department stores. It hosts 34 platforms (numbered 0 through 33) as it is one of the main terminals in this part of Japan. As we wandered outside into the rain (good thing I bought that umbrella!) we noticed an informational sign with Astroboy on top. Upon closer inspection, we found there was a small “museum” focused on Tezuka Osamu! I loved Astroboy when I was a kid, and it wasn’t until several years after getting hooked on the series that I learned what anime was, and that the show was my introduction to it.

Osamu Tezuka Character StatuesTezuka Osamu is the guy behind Astroboy, Black Jack, and Jungle Emperor (known in North America as Kimba the White Lion), among others. Off at one end of the large station building you’ll find Tezuka Osamu World. He also holds the distinction as the man who started the “large eyes” trend in Japanese manga and anime. There was a large schematic poster of Astroyboy in the gift shop which I wanted to pick up, but I couldn’t figure out at the time a good way to get it back home without destroying it.

First Temple

Wandering off from the station, we made our way to Higashi Honganji, a very large temple complex. The Goei-do (Founder’s Hall) is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and was currently undergoing a massive restoration, accentuated by the large exo-skeleton building surrounding the hall.Front Steps The prayer room of the smaller hall (which due to the restoration project is currently the “main” hall) was beautifully ornate and the entire inside was lined with tatami.

Between the two halls there were artifacts from the history of the buildings. One was the sled that was used to move the massive trees down from the mountains to be used in the construction of the temple’s main pillars. Another was the 69 meter-long rope made of hair donated by followers of the temple. Hair was used because it was significantly stronger than the regular rope available at the time.

Within the Goei-do, restoration work was proceeding. Even with all the construction materials laying out, the interior was impressive.

Having spent a fair bit of time in and around the two main halls of Higashi Honganji, we decided to take leave from its encircling walls and search out what else there was to see.

In the courtyard of the complex, there was a flock of pigeons frequently surrounding visitors, and at least once, taking flight above the temples.

Back at the Station

Big StaircaseOne thing I wanted to make sure we saw while here in Kyoto — even though we were planning to be back several more times throughout the trip — was the big staircase at the station. It covers the gap between the two department stores and runs from the fourth to the eleventh floor, from which there’s a separate small staircase to the rooftop garden on the twelfth floor. The view from the top is pretty nice, especially at night!

Before heading out from the station again, we decided to check out the department store to scrounge for souvenirs. In the Isetan building we had some fun with the elevators while trying to head up to the tenth floor, where a bunch of the restaurants are, for lunch. To get to the big staircase, you have to go up to the fourth floor in the Isetan building, which is where we were.High Up Kyoto Station In order to get up or down from the fourth floor in a wheelchair, you have to also take the elevators; this is assisted by the fact there are seven elevators in the store. Good stuff. The problem is that this is a very popular department store. We must have waited for at least 20 minutes for an elevator that wasn’t packed to the teeth with people, going up or down! It seemed for a time like we were trapped on the fourth floor. It was about this point that I was getting rather irked at the people for being so lazy and not taking the stairs.1

Finally, an elevator heading down had enough room that my brother could squeeze in. I told him to just stay on and ride it back up to the eleventh floor (which was my mistake, I meant the tenth) and I’d meet him up there. Into the stairwell I went and waited on the tenth floor outside the elevators. Several minutes passed with no sign of my brother. Thinking he may have taken what I said literally, I hopped up to the eleventh floor; nothing. I spent the next five minutes bounding back and forth between the floors searching for my brother.Skyway I figured by this point I may as well go back down and look for him, even though I was hesitant to do so because if we started playing floor tag, it might be a while before we found each other again (what if we both stay put and wait for the other, what if we keep passing each other, etc.). I jumped on an elevator on the eleventh floor (and since this is at the one end of the floor list, it was easy to get on) and went down to the first where I found my brother. Turns out staying on the elevator/getting back on it was easier said than done — he was right at the doors, after all, and had to get out to let all the others exit. People; can’t live with ’em, can’t kill ’em.

Second Temple

Main BuildingsWith that mess behind us, we decided to forgo lunch and venture out from the station again. Next up was Nishi Hongwanji temple, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The wall surrounding this temple was much more than just a simple wall (as at Higashi Honganji) and had a dry moat separating it from the sidewalk. As Nishi Hongwanji is the mother temple for the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha sect of Bhuddism, there is a large administration building on the grounds, styled to match the original buildings.

Like so many of the places we’d been to on the trip, this complex was under construction and restoration as well, resulting in a large section remaining inaccessible to us. At least the sun was starting to peek out between the clouds while we were here.

Kyoto Tower

Now that the sun had gone down, we decided it was time to head up to the top of Kyoto Tower which is just across the street from the station.Kyoto Tower at Night On the way there, I spotted some garbage cans on the street! The first ones I’d seen since we set foot on Japanese soil. We’d learn several days later the reasons behind why this was such a rare occurrence.

Up in the observation deck 100 meters over the streets below, we got a great nighttime panoramic view of Kyoto. I was a little surprised by how small the observation deck was, especially since at first glance from the street, it seemed pretty big. Though to be fair, the last observation deck I was at was the Stratosphere in Vegas, which is quite sizable. There were 30×120 power mounted binoculars all around the perimeter of the deck which I used to get some “spy shots” of the city.

From this vantage point, we could see down into the Higashi Honganji complex from earlier in the day, and spotted the light from Kiyomizudera. Plus you get a better sense for just how organized the taxi lines are at stations.

The Ride Home

Heading Back

Before departing on our homebound train, we stopped at Mister Donut in the station for a quick snack. I tried the Angel French (a chocolate dipped, twisted, torus-shaped eclair) and a Honey Churro (no sugar or cinnamon on it!).

We got to take a ride on a Series 300 Shinkansen back to Nagoya, where we went to the ticket office to pick up tomorrow’s tickets to Hakata. It will be our first inter-hotel trip that includes a transfer (at Shin-Kobe).


  1. For those that don’t know, my office at my job is on the tenth floor. I take the stairs both ways six times a day, so I didn’t feel like much of a hypocrite for thinking this.

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