Railpass Rambles – Sado-ga-shima

A brief entry to update our railpass travels. From Yokohama, we cross to the other side of Honshu and catch a hydrofoil to the island of Sado from Niigata.

Niigata harbour

We arrive in the port of Ryotsu.

Vegetable seller in Ryotsu

We rent a car on arrival. Japan is the only place we’ve been to so far that demands an International Driving Permit to rent a car.

We like to name our vehicles. This one is Snowball.

The ones we left home with expire after one year. It’s impossible to rent a car in Japan without one.

In a fishing village

My sister goes to great lengths to acquire a pair of IDPs for us when we send her the necessary documents. (They are available only in your country of origin.) Then she deals with the trouble and expense of sending them to us.

Thanks a million, Sis! You’re the best!

Sado is a charming place to spend a few days. It used to be a place of banishment for unwanted people from the mainland, including at least one emperor.

Too long in exile

It’s quiet and sparsely populated.


We (almost) circumnavigate the island. Besides the usual excellent roads, there are barely-room-for-a-single-vehicle stretches as well.

Beware of giant waves

Small villages dot the island.

This is the village of Shukunegi.

It’s full of quaint wooden houses and narrow alleyways.


We see some wildlife on the island. This Japanese Striped Snake crosses the road as we pass.

Elaphe quadrivirgata

We also see some ferret-like animal scuttling under a bush.

This is a full-size reproduction of an old merchant ship, painstakingly recreated by local shipwrights.

The Japanese eat a lot of seaweed. We even buy a bag of seaweed potato chips once. (By mistake.)

Seaweed hangs to dry

Japan, needless to say, is a sushi-lover’s paradise. Great for Maria; for me, not so much. I prefer my fish thickly battered and deep fried.

Near Aikawa are the remains of a gold mine that operated for centuries and closed down in 1989.

Gallery for local artists near Aikawa

We use the waning days of our railpass to travel first to Sendai, then for one last long train journey to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido.

At the Olympics Museum

Sapporo was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. Here’s a view of the city from the top of the ski jump.

Prepare for takeoff…

Sight or Insight of the Day – Sado-ga-shima

We notice many elderly women in Japan are in a permanently-stooped-over state. Our theory is that this is a result from a lifetime spent working in the garden, which many women do while bent nearly double.

She stoops to conquer

Railpass Rambles – Yokohama

From the bucolic charms of Takayama, we return to Nagoya and transfer onto a shinkansen for Yokohama.

Modern Yokohama skyline

Though less than an hour from central Tokyo, Yokohama has plenty of attractions in its own right.

As a port, it has been involved in pivotal moments of Japanese history.

For example, many people worldwide are familiar with Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa

We learn that ‘Kanagawa’ is here – an earlier name for what is today Yokohama. Mount Fuji is now hidden by skyscrapers.

This is also where Commodore Perry landed in 1854 and demanded the opening up of Japan after centuries of self-seclusion.

Which leads to Yokohama becoming a thriving trade port. We visit the Yokohama Silk Museum. It features dozens of dazzling kimonos, each one a work of art.

Yokohama has also been in the forefront of Japanese emigration, limited as it is. There’s an informative museum about this near the waterfront.

(A noteworthy observation: Japan is the only country we’ve been to in Asia that doesn’t have significant numbers of educated people who want to move to – or at least have a bolthole in – somewhere else. Such as Australia/New Zealand or Canada/USA.)

Most Japanese emigration took place early in the last century. This ship, the permanently-docked NYK Hikawa Maru, has an interesting history.

NYK Hikawa Maru

In service between 1930 and 1960, she ferried people to Seattle in the thirties, served as a hospital ship in WWII, was used to repatriate Japanese soldiers after the war, and returned to trans-Pacific passenger duty.

Also related to the sea – a Japan Coast Guard Museum. Its most riveting exhibit is a captured North Korean spy vessel.

This ship, disguised as a fishing boat, was sunk in a hostile encounter in 2001 and salvaged later.

Secret hold for the small craft (used for dirty work, no doubt)

Suitable for use by any James Bond villain.

Serious onboard weaponry

For dinner, we drop in on the Ramen Museum.

‘When in Ram, do as the Ramens do…’

More about dogs in Japan. People with small dogs often push them around in a pram. We thought these were re-purposed baby prams, but nope; they’re marketed and sold as doggy prams.

It’s a dog’s life

We must mention the neighbourhood we’re staying in here. It’s kind of like a Japanese Skid Row. It just turns out to be where our accommodation is located, but it’s definitely a ‘quartier défavorisé‘. Lots of impoverished, older single men around. And social services. But safe (this is Japan, after all.)

Interesting to see the Japanese response to the less fortunate. This neighbourhood has many multi-storey buildings with very small rooms and communal bathrooms and kitchens. Laundromats (which also have showers in them) are plentiful. So people have a roof over their heads, a way to keep themselves and their clothes clean, and some dignity-preserving privacy.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Yokohama

More noodle-related education. We visit the Cupnoodles Museum.

It tells the inspiring story of Momofuku Ando, the Father of Cup Noodles.

It started in 1958…

Without Ando-san‘s wonderful invention, where would the world be today? It’s like the Kraft Dinner of the East.

…and grew into the rich treasure-house of cup noodles we enjoy today

Railpass Rambles – Takayama

After a brief overnight in Osaka again, we head for Takayama, in a region of  Central-north Honshu (Japan’s main island).

The view from the (non-shinkansen) train is more rural than usual.


It’s in the mountains. They don’t call these the Japanese Alps for nothing.

Clear, unscaleable ahead,
Rise the mountains of Instead…’
‘ …From whose cold, cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams
‘ – W.H. Auden

Takayama has streets full of old wooden buildings.

I sample a local specialty – grilled soy-sauce-soaked rice balls on a skewer.

Goodness gracious, great balls of rice

Some kind of festival is going on in the streets.

Nice hats, guys

Little girls also get into the act.

Sugar and spice

The cherry trees are still in blossom in this cool climate.

Nakabashi bridge

Many people have small dogs here. We stop to pet the friendly ones. The owners always say ‘Thank you’, as if we do them a great favour by honouring their choice in canine companions.

Everything Reminds Me of My Dog…’
Men relax after the procession

We indulge in a meal of wagyu beef.

Pure ambrosia for carnivores

We rent bikes for the day.

We visit the Hida-no-sato (Hida folk village) a few kilometres away. This features old traditional farm houses relocated from the area and preserved.

Woodchoppers house

It’s good to be away from the big cities for a few days.

We like these carp streamers. They’re called koinobori.

We stop to rest at a small shrine.

There are bears here. They can be dangerous.

It’s lovely out in the woods today, but safer to stay at home…’

This is the largest koinobori we’ve ever seen.

It was this big

Sight or Insight of the Day

We see this sign when the laundry facilities are not working one day.

Take a bow

The figure in the sign is bowing. The Japanese bow a lot.

For example, on trains, when the conductor reaches the end of a car, he turns and bows to the people in the car. Then he moves into the next car and repeats.

A bow is a sign of respect, not servility. That people take their jobs seriously, no matter how humble, is a refreshing change from elsewhere in the world, where people’s attention can’t be pried from their cell phones with a crowbar.

Railpass Rambles

While in Hong Kong, we bought a 21-day Japan Railways railpass. (These must be purchased while outside Japan.)

Our first stop from Tokyo is Fukuoka.

Old Fukuoka

We learn a harsh lesson: never travel during Golden Week in Japan!

The entire country seems to be on the move. Transportation is crowded. Hotel prices can quintuple, believe us. All attractions are swarming with visitors.

Shrine to founder who imported zen from China into Japan

It’s easy to forget how close we are to continental Asia. There is a ferry that runs from here to Pusan, Korea.

Today is a rainy day in Fukuoka.

Break out the raincoats

Zen temples mean zen gardens.


At least the rain keeps the crowds away from this temple complex.

A stray kitten shelters from the rain

Fukuoka is famous for its ramen. (Many cities in Japan make this claim.) We have lunch in a bustling noodle bar.

Room for two more?

A self-confessed non-foody, this is what I think of when I think of ramen.

Four for a dollar at the supermarket

This is the real deal.

That’s more like it

Next we travel to Kagoshima. On the way, we pass Minimata Bay. This was the site of serious industrial mercury poisoning in the sixties, I remember.

Kogashima’s most outstanding feature is an in-your-face active volcano, Sakurajima, just across the bay.

Smoke on the Water – photo courtesy of Volcano Discovery

We don’t get to see this, because it is rainy and misty our entire time in town.

Sakurajima under cloud cover

We take a ferry over to Sakurajima and enjoy the free thermal footbath.


One result of living near a volcano that regularly spews clouds of ash over town – the city council organizes to pick up the ashes after they are swept up.

We thought these were sandbags at first

Kagoshima is also well-known in Japan for its outstanding local pork. The locals raise Berkshire pigs, producing what is essentially the ‘Kobe beef’ of pork.

We wait in line at the Aji No Tonkatsu Maruichi restaurant. We are rewarded with the best panko-encrusted pork ever.


Next stop is Hiroshima.

Formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now called the Atomic Bomb Dome

Besides the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, we visit a few museums in nearby Kure. One is the Japanese Imperial Navy
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Museum, with its decommissioned submarine out front.

JDS Akishio

This is the third submarine we’ve been in on this trip. (One in Sydney, one in Perth.)

Interesting that the museum concentrates on post-WWII activities: mine-sweeping and UN peacekeeping duties.

Less constrained is the nearby Yamato Museum.

You sank my battleship!

The Yamato Museum has more exhibits about actual naval activities during the war. Sometimes exhibits have descriptions in Japanese only. My theory is that these are of the more militaristic and hectoring variety, better left untranslated for sensitive foreigners.

We notice that any mention of the domestic wartime experience in Japanese museums severely glosses over any context whatsoever. Blithely indifferent to numbers like these. Every place we’ve been to on this trip that suffered Japanese occupation – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Honk Kong – tells an unvarying tale of brutal oppression, torture, starvation, and enslavement. Yet the (brief) portrayal in museums here speak of a nation mystified by the rain of Allied bombs and utter destruction of the country and subsequent occupation. ‘The people were saddened’. Strange.

Anyway, back to the present-day Japan of gentle ways. We visit the small-but-excellent Hiroshima Museum of Art. Some kind of geisha class is underway in the courtyard.

Repeat after me: ‘More tea, vicar?’

Among its collection is a Van Gogh we’ve never seen before.

Next stop is Himeji, with its castle. Our train is a special pink-themed Hello Kitty shinkansen.

Hello Kitty is, of course big in Japan, having been invented here. But she’s also popular elsewhere in Asia. We remember an entire ‘Hello Kitty’ lounge at the Taipei Airport, among other things.

Bye-bye, now

Because it’s Golden Week, Himeji is heaving with visitors.

Most castles in Japan are restorations. Himeji is original.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?‘ – Matthew 7:1-5

You get a nice view from the top.

A lot of Japan looks like this – a heavily-urbanized area surrounded by mountains.

Overlooking Himeji

Sight or Insight of the Day – Railpass Rambles

As we leave Tokyo on a brilliant sunny day, we spy the iconic Mt. Fuji.

From the window of a bullet train…

It’s a challenge to take photos from a shinkansen because of their high speed. Maria manages to get a more tranquil shot.

Mount Fuji

Kyoto 京都 to Tokyo 東京

As mentioned, in Kyoto we pass this awesome temple several times a day.

Higashi-hongan-ji temple

One afternoon, we attend the Miyako Odori geisha performance.

Outside the Minamiza Theatre

Nearby is a statue of Izumo no Okuni, the woman who originated kabuki theatre.

All the world’s a stage…

I think it’s interesting that Okuni and William Shakespeare were alive and active at the same time. Just on opposite sides of the globe. Two people of humble origins that changed the world of theatre.

Crossing a bridge on the Kamo River, we see this bird on the rocks below. We research ‘water birds of Kyoto’, but can’t find a description that fits with his prominent crest.

Unidentified Flying Object

We walk around the Gion district.

House in Gion

This is Shinbashi Street in Gion.

Bridge over the Shirikawa
Picturesque Shinbashi Street

The Kennin-ji temple is nearby. It’s the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.


On the ceiling of the main building is this marvelous painting of twin dragons.

Come not between the dragon and his wrath.‘ – King Lear

Of course there are Zen gardens in the courtyards.

The Zen Rake’s Progress

There are banks of chrysanthemums peonies at this time of the year.

Zen and the Art of Peony Maintenance

As per the anagrammatic title of this entry, we take the shinkansen to Tokyo.

Duck-billed shinkansen

The first of many (we have a 21-day Japan Railways railpass.) These trains travel at over 300 KPH. They are spotless, frequent, comfortable, and go like a rocket.

Our neighbourhood in Tokyo, Ueno, is a good mix of ‘lively’ and ‘quiet’.

The lively side of Ueno

The owner of our hotel is a former sushi chef. One evening, the guests enjoy a free feed of fresh sushi.

Sushi party

We continue to stumble onto landmark art exhibitions. There is a special exhibit on Gustav Klimt at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park.

Strolling with the locals in Ueno Park

The museum, like many places here, has a free umbrella locker. The Japanese are admirably civic-minded.

Umbrella locker

This tendency keeps us on our best behaviour. We try not to act like barbarians.

In the same park is the Tokyo National Museum.

It’s a treasure house of Japanese and other Asian articles.


This is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It has great views over city from its free observation decks.

Also the home of the ‘Tokyo 2020’ Olympics organization

On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji.


Today is not a clear day.

Another view of Tokyo

A café at the top has a piano that anyone can use. A very self-possessed little girl puts on an impressive performance.

‘How do you get to Suntory Hall?’ ‘ Practice, practice, practice!’

This is Shibuya Crossing, in one of the busiest parts of Tokyo – a hectic place at the best of times.

‘Mind…Keeps on…Ringing like a fire alarm...

Japan has its examples of minimalism and simplicity. It also has a lot of visual pollution.


Sight or Insight of the Day

We have to mention the impressive working garb of Japanese taxi drivers. This one is typical, with his dark suit, crisp white shirt, tie, polished shoes and white gloves. Just like in Ottawa.

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Sharp-Dressed Man

This has been the norm everywhere we’ve been in Japan so far.