What I Did On My Holidays

Chapter 5

Lake Ashi

Day 3

Breakfast was fun. Apart from the surprise of ham and lettuce being breakfast foods, our dining companions (breakfasting companions?) spoke as much English as I spoke Japanese. They were most impressed that a Westerner (me :) could manage to eat a lettuce leaf with chopsticks, carefully folding the leaf into a bite sized piece first. So was I, but I wasn't about to tell them that, not that I could. (I had been expecting to get two folds in before I slipped letting it unfurl with a small spray of soy sauce) The rest of the meal passed uneventfully with idle chit-chat about people looking like Koala's noses...

Lake Ashi is amazingly picturesque. It has highly unruffled waters of the deep blue look surrounded by steep hills, heavily wooded with trees half way through the whole Autumn colour deal. Really breathtakingly beautiful. Then you see the tourist ferry approach. Bright red and yellow fake pirate ship. Judging from the shape of the hull, the number and arrangement of pretend masts, this was a kitsch.

Lake Ashi

Sort of sums Japan up. Peace, beauty, tranquility, tackyness, neon ads and garish jingles.

Lake Ashi also has a walking track around it, so we walked. This was a good plan. For the first time in Japan, we escaped the fumes and traffic noise. As a bonus, we got some nice views.

Some way along the trail, the varied vegetation of maples, bamboo and other sorts of trees stopped to be replaced by an area of purely pine trees (or at least to my layman's eyes, a monoculture of some sort of conifer). And we stepped straight into an X-files scene.

The birds stopped*, all outside noises were muffled, it became dark, cold and damp. Spooky stuff that can probably be all explained as the effect of densely packed pines and a deep ground cover of pine needles.

In the midst of this, there was a rock. Not just any rock, but a big solitary one pointing towards the sky. I could possibly risk using the word obelisk here.  This rock has a flat front and back. On the front were carved three large characters and a whole essay was on the back. There were little containers at the base which could hold flowers and a few coins scattered in the pine needles. This was clearly a shrine of some sort, but given my ignorance of Japanese, it could have been a shrine to Fox Mulder for all I knew.

Next we came to a fenced off area, but not just any fence, an electric fence complete with warnings not to electrocute oneself. The two puzzles are: One, why fence off an area that looks exactly like everywhere else, and two, why have an electric fence so low that even a short person can step over? Feral pixie problems?

Getting to Ueno.

Our next night's sleep was to be in Ueno, close to the centre of Tokyo. The plan to get there was a bus back to Odawarra and a train to Ueno station and a short walk from there to Katsaturo Ryokan.

The bus trip was uneventful, simply the reverse of the trip up to the guest house. At the station, it was also easy to buy a ticket to Ueno and catch the right train to Tokyo. Tokyo station is huge but finding the right platform for Ueno was also easy.

At Ueno station, we pulled out the two maps we had for the area and set off in what we thought was the right direction. This is where uncertainty started to creep in. The two maps were different. One was the  Lonely Planet Guide with lots of Ueno landmarks shown with what looked like a decent level of detail. The other was on the brochure for the Ryorkan which seemed to display a higher quotient of artistic licence. However, they both roughly agreed, so the directions seemed clear.

Ueno was an unexpected part of Tokyo. It has a large park with fountains and a substantial scattering of museums, art galleries, and even a zoo. Very nice, very cultural, and getting dark.

So we wander through this park along twisting paths in the dusk, trying to match map and reality and not being 100% successful. 'Museum of Modern Art' and 'Art Gallery' are similar, but are they the same thing? We reached the other side of the park, a T intersection and the question, "Left, right or straight ahead?"

This was also the point where both maps started to look useless. We knew where we wanted to be and where we started from, but without any landmarks in sight, and no street names (clearly a quaint Western tradition that one), we had no idea where we were. The backpacks started to feel heavy.

We chose right. A few hundred metres later, and a few previously uncharted landmarks, we arrived at the National Science Museum. One map also knew where this was. We knew where we were! We were in the wrong spot! It would seem that twisty curvy paths in parks can lead you further north than desirable, particularly in twilight. We plotted a new course to our accommodation, this time using relatively well defined streets rather than the untrustworthy park. The fact that it was now dark and full of vampires and werewolves, or at least large lizards with complexes about whether size does matter, was not a factor. It was one thousand metres to Katsaturo, we had a full pack of clothes, half a pack of muesli bars, it was dark and we weren't wearing sunglasses.

We followed the streets and it agreed with the map. A left, another left, a right, a left, and it should be just here. Here where there are all these non-ryokan like buildings. We walked walked up and down the target area - nothing. There were some guys unloading a truck. No English, no idea where this place was. One just laughed, one pointed vaguely down the hill. So we went that way. Out of blind faith and hope, we went down a little lane to the next street along, looked up and down and yea verily, it was there. Some relief was noted.

It had taken one hour to walk the eight hundred metres from the station. We might not have been so happy to find this place had we known that we had found a cramped room smelling of old cabbages or something.

* No, the birds didn't fall out of the sky, they just ceased making bird noises. (back)


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© Copyright 2000 Andrew McIver

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