All Oddities Must Come to an End

As time goes on, I’ve successfully (and largely by accident) managed to fill up another blog.  From Macedonia to the UK, to a tour of the US, to a foray to Colombia, a jaunt in Alaska, a job in Hohhot, China to a vacation in Japan and finally a rest in Vietnam with a year and a half in between, Leftfadetrails2 is now retired.

As such, I’m faced with the usual option: Purchase more space for this blog or nudge on and make a new blog for space and convenience.

And I am extraordinarily and consistently cheap.  So new site launch it is.

Henceforth, my travels can be found and likely used against me in legal disputes in the future at

Leftfadetrails3.wordpress.com

Getting creative with those names, no?

Thanks for reading this far and I hope to someday browse my old adventures and scoff at that pale whippersnapper and his incorrigible wanderlust and numerous typos.  This rendition of the site will remain up for your browsing or picture-acquiring pleasure.

Anyway, see you on the new platform.  Until then, wander well.

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

The Gradual Escapist

Following the end of my visa to Japan, I headed to Hoi An, Vietnam, where I would have a chance to recuperate and plan at almost zero expense.  Indeed, my private hotel room overlooking the pool outside of Hoi An’s main city was only $185 dollars for the entire month and food bought at the haggling market is cheap enough for me to tread water financially simply by working online 20 hours a week.

This turned out to be an excellent chain of logic, as my company contacted me with no prior warning, firing me with impunity.  Well, almost impunity.  I was almost done there, but the lack of notice and the fact they’ve done this with another staff members has made me wary. It’s important to note that the Chinese government essentially passed a law guaranteeing teacher payment over the viral shutdown.  Rather than pay me, they decided it was easier to sever without notice.  In a couple of weeks if there are no replies to my bi-daily pleas for information, I’m going to spend a bit of time essentially starting arbitration.

I recommend having an airtight contract if one plans on working with Our World by National Geographic in Hohhot, China led by Ms. Zhu.   I have not had a absent day in my entire 7 months working there and worked above contract hours the entire time, sometimes up to 6 days a week and this counted for nothing.  Several other teachers and one Director of Studies has met a similar fate to me.

Not a bad job, by the way.  Great students, wonderful atmosphere, fun lessons and ruthless management.

However, I’ve been expecting this for quite some time, and as a result, I’ve been saving aggressively since getting out of debt several months ago and my largest expense, a vacation to Japan, has been put to bed.

I’m going to stay in Vietnam until I can cement a different career path going forward.  Teaching English is a great way to see the world, but it’s essentially a gap year job, without enough of an earning statement to viably make it back into the US, European, Irish, UK or Canadian job markets.

I couldn’t have picked a better place to relax and plot, however.  Hoi An is a famous destination area full of tourists that helped put the area on the international map about ten years ago.  Hoi An isn’t just one central area, but rather the rather sporadic townships spread across a peninsula cut by numerous rivers, deltas and swamps.

My villa, the lovely Rural Scene Villa is located away from the main action on Cam Nam Island (for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to be using the unaccented English letters for many of the names of places during this post to save time copy and pasting everything).

My villa boasts a narrow pool shaded by a banana grove, off the main road and complete with a stately room and a large drip shower that I use twice daily (it’s hot here and after so long in chilly places, I tend to sweat and drip like a drainpipe in the monsoon season).

The weather is almost uniformly sunny and beautiful, thanks to the brutal rainy season just clearing out before the true heat of summer arrives.  Occasionally, a wickedly powerful storm blows through, but then they die out nearly immediately.  January to March is considered the best time to visit the entire area.

Hoi An’s biggest draw is the large Old Town area, which has a lot of colonial influence.  Impressive canary yellow buildings line the river and make up huge shopping and tourism districts primarily for walking.  Shops show off clothes, cheap tailoring shops, the normal tourist trinkets and some truly impressive lantern making workshops.

Speaking of lantern workshops, Hoi An is stunningly impressive at night.  The lines of tourists thicken but their hectic nature calms down, making the entire process calmer, more tranquil. Whole streets are alit with lanterns of every varying shade, strung across shop windows, street posts and ever tree available.  If one listens carefully, there is usually a serenade of violin or harp music playing throughout the entire shopping district at night.  Heading to the riverside reveals numerous boats studded with even more lanterns, floating peacefully on the water.  People try to lure tourists on for expensive photos or cheap little rides up and down the river.  As Valentine’s Day draws near, the crowds of romantic tourists on the water has increased dramatically, though public displays of affection aren’t very acceptable in Vietnam.

The rivers are also alive with small floating candles sent out to sea, eventually doomed to be snuffed out by the brackish currents.  But for the time being, they drift brightly.  If one looks down into the water, there are also loose swarms of needlefish lethargically spearing through the water, occasionally turning hopefully to a person’s wavering form, looking for a handout.

Shops and restaurants absolutely dominate the waterfront and the number of tourists around here is staggering.  The further a person gets away from this area, the better.  That being said, I’ve discovered a few culinary delights I’m very fond of.

Miss Ly has some very enjoyable food.  I’m also fond of the famous White Rose Dumplings found specifically at Tran Tuan Ngai (533 Hai Ba Trung Street).  Bistro Street has the well-made and affordable coffee in town, though coffee shops everywhere here are pretty good.  The restaurant Vietnamese Chopsticks (Dua Viet Restaurant) is my favorite place for cheap food and beer on the way home and I have trouble passing by without stopping for a snack.  Nu Eatery was an accidental, though very famous find that makes amazing smoothies and has great (very cute) service.  Hola Taco has an odd assortment of Mexican options, but I really like their pumpkin tacos, which seems like they shouldn’t exist, but I’m grateful they do.  I recommend against eating on An Hoi Island, which while boasting beautiful river views and wonderful food options, is nearly three times as expensive as dining elsewhere in the city.

The other most common feature of Hoi An includes numerous, notoriously cheap massage shops that exist on almost every corner.  I stopped at one for a very pleasant evening and visited again the next day while a couple of the employees tried to show me how to eat snails.  You take a long thorn and jab into an extremely small snail shell, roughly the size of a fingernail, and pry out some of that amorphousdeliciousness.  I actually like the flavor quite a bit, but didn’t care for the texture much.  I tried eight before decided that was plenty of culinary adventures for the moment.

Also unique to Hoi An are numerous temples absolutely blanketed by flowers in full bloom.  Temples in Hoi An and the surrounding area don’t have to be big; one out in the rice fields is a mere three steps tall.  But they are all uniformly splashed with powerful primary colors and tend to catch the eye beyond anything else in a given area.

My favorite little sight so far is actually a small workshop that offers classes in bamboo-shoot-carving.  Tiny faces are etched into bamboo’s surfaces, the root-work taking on the appearance of a tangled beard or thick shock of gnarled hair.

However, Hoi An isn’t completely dominated by the Old Town Area.  A person can range much further out and find some far more interesting things.  Most famous is the series of beaches on the Eastern Coast.  Bai Bien An Bang Beach Area is the best known, but has suffered from enough erosion to make the shoreline rather narrow.  It doesn’t have many people swimming, but tons of sunbathers that have purchased an umbrella for shade.  A bit more interesting is Cua Dai Beach further to the south, which has large sandbags and lots of areas for swimming as well as some nifty little shaded palm-windbreakers along the shore.  A person can range all the way to the tip of that particular peninsula accompanied by a refreshingly cool ocean breeze until they reach Tram Hai Dang Cua Dai, a miniature lighthouse with cool drinks, a small bay area and lots of hastily netted hammocks perfectly placed to absorb ocean breezes.

The common tour in Hoi An is oriented towards large bicycle routes, most of these cutting through the vast green rice paddies to the north.  They stretch for acres, bordered on all sides by narrow white houses with pinkish-tiled roofs.  The people tending the field use, through convenience or tourism inclinations the famous round woven hats associated with the region.  Other farms usually founded on more solid land are located around Tra Ques Vegetable Village, a quaint culinary and farming tourism experience on an island north of Old TownBaby Mustard is my favorite restaurant in that area, munching away while watching people swing twin watering cans off a shoulder beam to care for their cultivation.

Also immensely touristy is the presence of basket-boats.  These colorful, perfectly round instruments of water transport are hilarious to watch, since you can’t paddle them without tipping them forward like a lopsided hat on a drunk.  However, they are great for small river-ride and tourists are accompanied with loud music echoing over the water when they pile in.

Speaking of Hoi An’s music scene, it’s important (though generally warned against) to hear a residential area at night.  Aside from the garish neon lights that often decorate temples, family shrines and villas, there’s an immensely available Karaoke culture.  However, instead of performing like Japan or China, where quiet, sound-proof rooms are reserved for performances, Vietnam takes it another direction.  Speakers are stacked outside and family gatherings of free-flowing drink and food accompany solos and duets by people performing as loudly as humanly possible in the wee hours of the night.

It usually cuts off around nine or ten PM, but it’s still an interesting sight to behold.

Overall, Hoi An is a beautiful and diverse area filled with many interesting activities.  Most of them are tour-oriented, which I personally loathe, so I’ve only done what was available to me through person-to-person interactions or random encounters.  The weather is gorgeous, the streets are dangerous, the food and lodging is cheap and the rivers are an astoundingly pleasant feature to look upon.

Anyway, I’ve actually just wrapped up my first week here in Hoi An.  Or at least I will have in a couple of days.  I’ve been more active than usual on account of just not knowing what to do and feeling a bit… drifty.  The result has been a wide range of activities usually accenting general wandering.  I’ve biked virtually everywhere for simplicity sake (my villa provides one free) but I recommend most other visitors to rent a scooter.  They’re wildly dangerous and no matter how cautious you are on the road here, you’ll be running a considerable risk, but there’s really no other way to get around and range far.

On that happy note, I’m signing off to watch more of Lupin III (which I adore and didn’t know Part V ever came out).  I’ll spend the rest of the month shedding the pounds I gained in Hohhot and Japan while filing my mess of taxes (5 jobs, 2 of them abroad).  Furthermore, I plan on exploring other options of potential employment.  I’m limited by the rather… inept nature of my current electronics, but I hope to remedy that upon going back to the states.

From lovely and active Vietnam, I’ll post again when I’ve spanned a bit further and wander a bit farther.

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

Funny Thing, Departure

Time to shuffle out of yet another country, leaving Japan for greener (cheaper) pastures.

My final three days in Japan returned me to Osaka.  Originally, this is where my flight would have returned me to China, depositing me in a plague zone.  But without a home, job or even most of my friends awaiting me back in Hohhot, I failed to see the appeal of returning “home.”

Thanks Coronavirus.

My company agreed with my assessment, mildly recommending a few hours before my supposed flight time that I should exit the airport if I had already arrived.  Don’t come back.  Stay away.  Most considerate.

Regardless, I do need to go somewhere.  My Japanese tourist visa wasn’t going to hold up much longer and I had neatly finished off every day on my JR Pass.

So I picked Vietnam, based on the recommendation of a young lady whom I write content for.

I’ll be flying to Hoi An on the 10th, bundled into another rocket tube, listening to music on a bootleg iPod while breathing through an ineffectual white mask that ensures I carefully brush my teeth, lest I keep rebreathing my own morning breath.

Which nobody deserves, least of all my poor mask.

I was really happy to return to Osaka, as I’ve spent more time there than anywhere else in Japan.  It was easy and comfortable and I returned to Yolo Hotel Museum drowsily snuggling into my bed, running through a checklist of things I still wanted to do in Japan.

The next morning, I made good on my list, mostly handling small errands.  Replacing an adapter, purchasing a new sleeping blindfold, downloading offline maps and languages, and converting some money for a Vietnamese visa.

Afterwards, I ticked off a few items that were lurking on my checklist. First I found an odd dish that I had been wanting to try, which I affectionately call Ramen-Seafood-Pie.  It’s a strange concoction of seafood ramen sealed inside a fried outer layer and drizzled with a sweet sauce.  It was a fantastic little treat.

Next I made a point of visiting a Starbucks, picking up a “traveler’s mug” for Japan and sending it back to the states, as requested by Jynelle.  It’s very likely it’ll take two or three months to arrives with the Chinese shipping line shutdown and resulting backup, but there ya’ go.

Next, I used the last bit of juice on my JR as, which was good for another twelve hours, and stopped by Umeda Tower.  They have a nice little garden, a sub-level with a pianist and a very unique and interestingly designed building in a rather quirky section of the city.  I enjoyed wandering around, but I didn’t bother taking the elevator up.  Japan is kind of spread out with low-level buildings sprawling in every direction.  It doesn’t have a consolidated skyline in most cities, like say the Bund in Shanghai or the New York Skyline.   As a result, once you’ve seen a Japanese city from an overlook, you’ve seen them all.

Moving on, I ended up back at Dotonbori to check off the last few things I had blatantly missed or skipped over due to crowds.  Here, I got to try more of the exquisite octopus doughnut balls (Takoyaki) promptly burning myself three times before they were cool enough to scarf down.

I crossed the canal to find, of all things, a person in a full wolf mask with a strange wind-based keyboard.  A tube dipped into his mouth and he was playing timeless classics, like the Mario theme and bits from the Legend of Zelda.  The instrument sounded a bit like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion.  A box to his/her right identified the individual as Wolfen or Okamisan, Dotonbori Entertainer.

I was entertained.

Satisfied with this, and slightly tipsy from some unidentifiable street drinks, I stumbled onto a Taco Bell and had that unforgiving craving.  It was actually good, I’m just a little bummed that intoxicated me angles for Taco Bell on a culinary street in an exotic country.

Following my third dinner, I went looking for Pachimon Wars, a Star Wars themed bar in northern Osaka.  This narrow bar is loaded with bootleg Star Wars trinkets and toys.  I thought it was interesting, but it didn’t really speak to me.  However, wandering around the corner put me at a place called “The Aquarium Bar” a small bar absolutely brimming with fish tanks showing tropical and oceanic swimmers wobbling around.  Beta first flashed behind the glass, tiny guppies with florescent blue stripes darted through the water and jellyfish did their mesmerizing expansions and contractions around their tanks.  Smooth jazz played through the speakers and service was prompt and in English.

I’d recommend the Aquarium Bar on atmosphere alone, but then I tried the plum line.

Now I have a crippling plum wine addiction and I’m mostly okay with that.

Satisfied with the night, I stopped at a Pachinko parlor, and immediately lost five dollars not knowing what the hell I was doing.  Supposedly Pachinko is pretty easy to play once you get in the swing of it, but I really should have researched prior to trying.

It was a flash of random silver balls firing around the inside of a flashing machine haranguing a person in exited mechanical Japanese while yen is eaten at a terrifying rate.  I never stood a chance.

The following day, I slept in, knowing it would be my last chance to do so for some time.  I sorted out my visa stuff, repacked my clothes, did laundry and chatted with my hostel roommate, who had just had a rough time in SE Asia before returning to Japan to rally.

Afterwards, I decided to continue whittling down my list.  I visited a place called Kawaii Café, as I had seen it from the outside the previous night and was curious, but a blinding flash of pink and lofty prices veered me away.

Much more entertaining, I had made a full-fledged reservation at the Pokémon Café, entering the bright, utterly packed little restaurant to be battered with nostalgia.

The food, of course, is entirely Pokémon themed.  I got a Snorlax bowl of rice, but there were more elaborate features as well.  Purple drinks in the shape of Gengar.  Colored rice molded into the shape of the most recent generation’s starter options.  Lattes with the original 250 Pokémon drawn on them.  The whole nine yards.  Waiters and waitresses walk around in red and white Pokémon attire, providing guests with iPads to order their meals.

Décor was nice a well.  A huge, glowing white Pokéball design is embedded in the ceiling. The far wall has a comic of Squirtle doing dishes.  Plushies of Pokémon line the walls and, of course, Pikachu.  Entire walls are filled with images of Pikachu in various attire cooking, prepping desserts and struggling humorously with large frying pans.

If a person waits long enough, Pikachu comes out for a little performance, including photos and a dance as well as handshakes.  There’s a hostess who gives a funny series of announcements as well, though it’s entirely in Japanese, so only the locals and their children had the chance to laugh.

To temper expectations, the food isn’t very good.  To be clear, it’s alright and fairly well prepared, but the entire point of the café is aesthetics and presentation.  Taste just isn’t their biggest concern.  Additionally, everything is gouging expensive and tax bumps up the price even further.  It’s best to look at the online menu when making reservations, so impulse buys don’t clean a person out.

Overall, great experience.  I don’t think I need to go more than once, but the nostalgia is really nice.

Moving on, I went to Silver Ball Planet Pinball Arcade.  Located on the fourth floor of a shopping mall, right in front of rising escalators, this impressive little arcade is, frankly, awesome.  There are dozens of vintage pinball machines, ranging from Star Wars, a New Hope to Baywatch.  Kiss, Tron, Godzilla, Marvel heroes, Mario, Adam West’s Batman and LOTR all have claims to the themed machines.  There are also a ton of 70’s and 80’s icons I’ve only vaguely heard of and barely recognized that I’m sure some people would find transcendent.

The machines are kept in beautiful condition and each game costs 100 yen.  Even with my paltry pinball skills, 300 yen earned me a solid hour of entertainment, so I would definitely recommend stopping here.

Following my pinball enthusiasm, I ducked into a jazz bar for a drink, lounging quietly for a bit.  My night was nearly ended.  I stopped at a Don Quixote tax free shopping center, which is a really interesting visit.   It’s crammed with all sorts of odd trinkets and the vast majority of the store smells vaguely of dusk.  Things are cheap and if one wanted to procure Pokémon plushies and socks, as seen at the Pokémon café, they’re much cheaper here, tucked amongst the bike locks, suitcases and sex toys.

I also got to visit Tokyo Hands, which is kind of a multi-level shopping mall.  They have some interesting things as well, but the quality and expense is much higher.

Finally done for the night, I walked back home, losing another 300 yen not knowing how to play Pachinko to save my life.  That night, I packed up my last few things, called Tyler and Valeria, two friends visiting Austin and wished Valeria a hasty Happy Birthday (since my phone was hemorrhaging battery power in the outside cold).

And that was the show.  I’ve just arrived an hour early at the airport where I’m typing this, counting the number of people with face masks and assuring customs that no, I haven’t been to China in the past fourteen days.  There are a half dozen sparrows in the rafters here, their chirps cutting over the sound of jet engines.  I spent the last of my Japanese change on a seaweed wrapped rice-triangle and the remaining 0.57 yen was subtly hidden in a vending machine change trey for the next lucky person to purchase something chocolate.

And there we go, my Japan month is closed.  I’ll likely be retiring this rendition of the blog as well.  Leftfadetrails2 is the inheritor of Leftfadetrails, and I don’t have the energy or desire to continually pay for more blog space.  As such, this blog is nearly full and the birth of Leftfadetrails3 is on the horizon.  Because I’m just that original.

Anyway, off to Hoi An, Vietnam for exercise and handling my taxes.  I have to compile the three US jobs I had last year (firefighting, substitute teaching and working in a cookie factory) alongside my regular online work.

Should be fun.

Until then, best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

Seeking Woods and Other Haunts

As I finally left Takamatsu, I was ready to begin a slow, wind-down victory-lap in the relatively small city of Matsuyama.

I’ve been pushing for hard, almost-constant travel for my time in Japan.  There’s so much to do and see and even slowly whittling down the features list still gradually results in burnout.  I was rather braced for this prior to the beginning of my trip, so I handled the influx of activities fairly well and hit most of my major item itineraries.

That being said, I knew I would appreciate a slower last few days in the country.  I had originally planned to head to Sapporo to immerse myself in the snow and ice festival, but housing was scare and I was sick of the cold.  Plus, the huge crowds of people, many Chinese currently on holiday, made me leery of the entire prospect when considering the coronavirus.  It hasn’t been so much a conscious decision, but I’ve decided to forgo places with heavy population density while people are still so worried about the virus.  On top of that, I’ve already been to the famed Harbin Ice Festival.  I didn’t think this would be a new-diverse experience for me.

So overall, I was looking for something quieter and selected Matsuyama.

Not that Matsuyama is quiet, per se.   It’s a large city and municipality with a vibrant shopping scene and lots of interesting icons scattered about.  But it’s nowhere near the same low-key stress and cost of a place like Osaka and Tokyo.

The hostel I attended was super nice, known as Guesthouse Miso Soup.  Very communal with lots of music on Chinese and tempura instruments and a very cozy kotatsu.  (A kotatsu is a low table attached to a heavy blanket.  Underneath is usually a lowered bit of floor to place a person’s legs and a heat source).  Unfortunately, the majority of the guesthouse isn’t heated, meaning I was trapped each and every morning underneath my warm blankets, unwilling to summon the energy to throw them off, banishing my accumulated body heat.

But I did get up.  Eventually.

I spent my first day in Matsuyama wandering the city and getting the larger tourist contraptions out of the way.  I visited the covered shopping streets that are so beloved by Japan and rode the cheap tram throughout the city.  I managed to find the truly delightful Dogo Onsen on the far east of the city, which is a popular tourist spot that includes a nightly light show foretelling the story of the hot springs.

I also managed to hike onwards and upwards through Dogo Park, hoping to see Yuzuki Castle Ruins.  Sadly, the ruins are not visible to the best of my knowledge, though there are numerous plaques discussing features discovered, such as an iron forge which crafted nails and a hefty stone faucet that pumped out hot spring water now directed to Dogo Onsen.  The view atop the park’s carved up mountain is nice enough to see the entire city, but nothing to write home about.

I found a nice little pizza place known as Positano Restaurant, which I think is pretty splendid.  Their fruit and berry cheesecake did wonders to win me over.  Afterwards, I started checking out the Dogoyunomachi shopping area before angling downtown towards Matsuyama Castle.

More interesting than the castle, in my opinion, is Bansuiso, a fully French-style chateau located in a fantastic garden space near the base of the green-space hill.  I fully intended to wander over and take a picture before heading home, but the director of the building came outside into the brisk chill when he saw me arrive, and directed me to a corner spot which was supposedly the best angle for pictures of the beautiful structure.

Afterwards, he regaled me with numerous tales regarding the history of Bansuiso.  The architect and original owner, Count Sadakoto Hisamatsu, was a fantastic military man of Japanese-feudal-lord descent who spent fifteen non-consecutive years of his life living in France.  The man lived apparently, and stories bubbled forth.  Stories of the Russian-Sino war, tales of a pre-WWII spy operating in European territories, tales of the following occupation, which resulted in several crystals being stolen from the grand chandelier inside and a particularly impressive set of stained glass and a mirror from Belgium which hasn’t warped in nearly a century.

However, among the main impacts of this Count Hisamatsu (and his son who was eventually elected governor) involved oranges.

See, Matsuyama has a compelling focus on the citrus fruit, having imported it and cultivating numerous shades and flavors.  There are entire stores dedicated to treats regardless of the season.  His son is credited with coming up with the word “Pomology,” which is the study of fruit cultivation.  (Of this, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s a nice and interesting thought.  When I was studying botany, I was given the impression that “pom” was a distinctly Latin root, but that sort of linguist history isn’t really my area of study).

Anyway, following my enlightening visit to Bansuiso, I ended up checking out the enormous Okaido shopping allies for a couple hours, window shopping to my heart’s content.  Afterwards, I returned to my hostel, just in time to see the Botchan Karakuri Clock come to life.  Normally a red, glowing structure near the Dogoyunomachi entrance, this clock transforms on the hour.  Mechanical puppets fold out, the clock face spins round, and the entire structure expands from two to four stories as traditional music plays.  I was aware the clock had some interesting properties, but seeing it grow like a curious sunflower was an unexpected treat.

Anyway, following my little jaunt through the city, I went to the Dogo Brewery, determined to try the chicken meatballs and some of their famous craft beer (both excellent).  Also, infused with my new knowledge of Matsuyama’s citrus orange heritage, I stopped for some orange sherbet gelato-like food at a legitimate orange shop found in Dogoyunomachi.

Finally, I wandered home, determined to at least pretend that my time “off” in Matsuyama was relaxing.

But… ah, no.

Back at the hostel, the guesthouse owner invited me out to a small music event happening at a friend’s bar.  Charmed, I joined her at a place called Wani To Sai, easily identifiable by the bathroom door used out front, complete with a metal hand reaching out from where the doorknob should be.

Inside, I met the charcoal cat “Sumi” downed a considerable amount of sake fulfilling an impromptu promise I had made to Ben back in the states and munched on a sinful amount of kimchi.

So, as far as relaxing, low key off days go, I dramatically failed.

As such, I swore to myself that the following day I would go to a more obscure and smaller town and just… chill.

My favorite option was Uchiko, a small village that was once a prosperous producer of wax and paper production.  As such, the next morning I got myself a bowl of boar meat ramen, hefted a nice dose of coffee and departed by train to my chosen destination.  Of course, I timed everything rather poorly, so I ended up in a bright, loud and flashy Japanese dance and video arcade.  Can’t believe the US stopped supporting the arcade culture.  I’m all for the retro places, but man, those Japanese arcades are something else.

Anyway, on to Uchiko.

It was chilly, but I was delighted by what I found walking around.  The scent of bok choy found from all the house-side gardens/farms was prevalent on the air.  I picked my way to the “Preserved Historic Town” and only passed a couple dozen cars the entire walk.  Old town was nice enough, with a few tourist shops half-heartedly open and pretty old buildings with distinct, canary orange walls decorating the place.  But I was married to the idea of leaving the majority of that behind in the hopes of doing some legitimate hiking.

My opportunity came when I made my way to an obscure temple observation deck under a Japanese name so faded I couldn’t read it.  The great thing about this little gem wasn’t the pretty temple, but the oddly well-maintained trail leading behind it, into the forested mountain.  The path had been well-carved, but clearly devoid of recent use as evidenced by the thick layers of autumn leaves settled deeply atop it.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed a long, meandering hike, taking special care to stack stones at split in the trailhead.  The trails go back really far and they seem functional, not touristy, meaning that identification was scant and getting lost was a real threat.

Regardless, I enjoyed the hike a lot and one of the trails spat me back out at a water cistern and secondary temple overlooking the city which resulted in the excellent picture above.

The entire process was an enjoyable one, and I ducked back into Uchiko for other chances to meander.  I eventually made it to Ryuow Park, which is a gem I’d have never expected to find.  It has a tower overlooking the sunset, cherry blossoms just beginning to bloom on the riverside-slope, a large baseball field, a dense bamboo grove and, best of all and adult slide at the top of the mountain.

Now when I say adult slide, I mean a long, sheltered chain of impressiveness gradually going down the staircase proper.  This slide is multicolored, different hues indicating slide speed and is composed of a safety cage and a long-long-long string of rollers to “slide” down.

I had a lot of fun.

Anyway, following my little hike, I saw night was falling and wound my way back to Matsuyama.  Lovely little town, very peaceful.

Tonight it my last true “vacation night.”  I was supposed to end my trip at this stage and scurry back to China to begin work on the 10th.  Since my JR rail pass is finished the day after tomorrow, I would have likely lodged myself in Osaka for the duration of the time.

Except due to the Coronavirus, I don’t have work or lodging readily available to me in China.  Meaning the plan has changed and I’ll be scurrying to Vietnam instead.

So until then, best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

A (Wrong) Day on Art Island

I’m on my last week of my Japan tour, slowly working my way through the country with gradually declining steam.

I’ve hit all of my major points of interest and landmarks.  I did the tourist loop of Osaka, Toyko, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Fuji.  I’ve checked out mildly more obscure portions such as Kobe, Toyama and Okayama.

And now it’s nearly time to wind down and handle the last few things before heading… somewhere.

Not China, of course.  The country Coronavirus lockdown has made the cities an endless chain of ghost streets and house arrests.  Nothing about it screams: “Return home for a life of happiness.”  There’s also the matter of an extended Spring Festival Holiday, which has effectively slashed my paycheck into a mere third of its former amount if the rumor mill is to be believed.

I’ll have to head back to China eventually.  I left a lot of stuff there.  But for now, I’m in no hurry to return to the rapidly closing nation.

As such, I plan on transitioning to Vietnam for a short time to rally and figure out my next few steps.

Anyway, Takamatsu was supposed to be a rather long day spent mostly visiting Naoshima, a famous art island located near Okayama.  However, true to form, I happened to sail into town on a semi-national Holiday.

Setsubun, which is the lunar calendar’s seasonal division between winter and spring isn’t strictly a national holiday, but it meant that the majority of Naoshima’s famed museums were closed.

With this in mind, I puttered around the city, sampling various foodstuffs and generally being a bum.  I occasionally ducked back to my hostel where I flirted (poorly, in English) with the hotel desk manager and continued to take period naps in my wooden cubby bed.

That being said, there are some nice places to grab a bite in Takamatsu.  Firstly, and I sadly can’t supply the name as it’s fully encoded in Japanese lettering beyond me.  But they make a mean seafood noodle option and they have unlimited, fresh baked bread for just over three dollars.

I gorged myself, grabbing two still-hot culinary options every time the trey was passed.  There was matcha, breadsticks, chocolate chip, scones, flaky pastries, unleavened and a half dozen other types of carbs all waiting for me to scoop up.  The only lettering in English that I could find was by the name Hokuroku, located down the main shopping street near the kaleidoscope ground artwork, but that might refer to the restaurant located above.

Right across the street from that was a fantastic bubble tea shop, which again, defies an accurate English name.  The address, however, is 4-2 Marugamemachi, Takamatsu, Kagawa.

Ta-da, directions somewhat supplied.

Moving on was a three quarter day spent of Naoshima island.  I had been recommended to visit by my friend Alysha, and that’s something I take on a fair amount of faith.  On that note, I might have been… lax about keeping up my research.

I got to Naoshima expecting it to be fairly walkable, which it is, but it’s a huge time sink.  A bit of nosing around allowed me to discover a bike shop.  I opted for the cheapest option, which didn’t include any gears.

I forgot to gaze out the ferry windows at the oncoming land.  If I had, I would have realized that Naoshima is very… mountainous.  And a no-gear bike is a struggle to traverse that kind of terrain.

But I had made my ill-prepared bed and it was time to lay in it.  Gritting my teeth, I peddled away, first stopping at the famed Chichu Mesueum, which opened at 10 AM.

Immediately my favorite quote was granted to me at the bicycle stand.  It said, and I quote “Please keep your baggage with you because crows may take them away.”  This wasn’t a metaphor or insult for thieves.  Crouched nearby there were indeed three crows, winging around, giving the scarf in my bike’s basket beady little glares.

I like crows, but they’ve got a lousy reputation in Japan for a reason.

Regardless, I secured my supplies and milled around the front of the museum until it opened.

Chichu is designed unlike any museum I’ve ever seen.  With grey slat walls and long, narrow corridors at odd angles, it felt more like a military bunker designed to prevent angles of entry than anything else I’d ever seen.  There were relatively few exhibits, but the ones available were impressive.

First were the creations of Monet, left inside a nearly void room.  I don’t think Monet is one of those painters a person can really experience until his piece is taking up your entire visage with no distractions.  They have a pacifying effect that’s not quite serenity that I’m hard-pressed to accurately describe.

Nearby was an optical illusion red room, which required a staircase to enter and various shade of red light making the room seem longer, shorter, or with more angles than my brain actually knew existed.  Truly bizarre, especially since I thought it was a glass wall for long minutes before being told I could step inside.

Next included the space-defying room filled with a single massive black marble by Walter De Maria.  The building itself had numerous contributions by Tadao Ando, who created the narrow passages and perplexing angles of the entire structure.  Certain rooms, oddly built were empty except for geometric shapes being entirely open to the sky.

Finally, there was a café available that granted an unobstructed overlook of the sea.  I left the compound feeling… bewildered, I guess.  Chichu Art Museum is a bit unlike any other museum I’ve frequented.  Not in a bad or good way, just in a jarringly altering expectation.

Sadly, as with all museums on this island, I was forbidden from taking photos in the interior.

Regardless, I continued on my way, eventually forced to leave my bike and hoof it while visiting the Lee Ufan museum which I… I…

Did not get.  Like at all.

I mean, I’m reasonably intelligent and I confess, I don’t know much about the mechanics of art. But Lee Ufan was doing a large amount of something with negative space and natural objects and it just went straight over my head.  I wandered through for a few minutes and, with a self-serving shrug, decided it was beyond me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pompous asshat who takes a considerable amount of pleasure in pretending to be cultural and moderately sophisticated.  But I’m not so much of one that I’ll pretend to see meaning where my brain just doesn’t latch on.    In short, Lee Ufan is probably brilliant and compelling and completely beyond me.

Next I checked out a series of small ponds dotted by tiny Buddhist statues that were interesting features of the ancient island.  They were fun to look at before continuing on my way, checking out wide, walkable arches peering into the sea.

I should mention that the cliffs and foliage and long golden grass of Naoshima make it a beautiful walk.

I continued until reaching my favorite museum location, the Benesse House.  This was a bit more my speed and I eagerly went inside, passing a portrait of crushed, colorful kettles and a neon sign that mixed the verbs “live” and “die” with other random actions.  “Smell to live.  Talk to die.”

I loved Benesse House.  I loved the rock and driftwood circles, the splash of circular wheel paint on the walls, the army mirror of red action figures worshiping in the center of a circle and the odd structures found outside on precipitous ledges.  My favorite two pieces included a kinetic sculpture of standing, featureless men with their jaws on a rotor, making it appear that they were jabbering endlessly.  Indeed, there was an audio recording that spoke “Yada, yada” in a garbled, endless monotone.  Occasionally it would break and be replaced with male choir music, which I adored just a much.

My second favorite piece was sand art in small glass cases featuring flags from nations across the world.  The real gem to this was the odd, seemingly random distortions.  On closer inspection, the distortions were tunnels and the flags were connected with tubes.  I was looking at a 26 by 7 panel massive ant colony.

I really enjoyed it.

I next planned to visit the Ando House when I pulled up short with a small problem.  Naoshima is expensive.  Every museum costs coinage to enter and I had already nearly blown through my daily budget.  Somewhat reluctantly, I pulled away, deciding to stick with the free exhibits from then on.

Which wasn’t bad.  I hiked across the island, ducking down to seaweed-slick rocks and admiring deathly dropped cliffs cased in golden grass.  I snapped photos of low Tori gates and bright abstract creatures across the grounds.  Of course, I took my photo of the most famous notable outdoor pieces, including “”Cultural Melting Bath” by Cai Guo-Qiang.  “Seen/ Unknown Known/ Unknown” by Walter De Maria.  My personal favorite “Drink a Cup of Tea” by Kazuo Katase (A blue bowl atop a square well).  And finally and most famously, “Pumpkin” the yellow spotted gourd overlooking the sea by Yayoi Kusama.

On that happy note I turned around and headed back home.  I was tired from walking and biking and I had made numerous wrong turns that took me on enormous tangents.  I knew I wouldn’t be done for the night, as when I got back to my hostel, I would need to continue my journey to my new hostel in Matsuyama.

So until then,

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

Unswept Snows

I really love Japan’s train system.  I know that hardly an original reason to appreciate the country, but it’s a fantastically smooth and comfortable way to get around.  With that, the numerous Wi-Fi hotspots and the heated magic toilet seats, I’m going to have trouble readjusting to the rest of the world when all this is over.

But another step is finished, as I made my way to Toyama for the usual array of activities.

Now, Toyama is most famous for hosting large bays of bioluminescent squid, which appear in breeding bays during the spring.  Unfortunately, I’ve arrived too early for that and needed to find other ways to occupy my time.

The first thing I did after dropping my gear off at the hostel, was explore some of the downtown area, which interestingly has a modernist building known as the Glass Museum.  Entrance to the exhibition is about 1,000 yen and very much worth it.

The building itself is a network of escalators and lined wood all opening towards the airy open center of the museum.  Resources, books, cafes and lounging museum folk lounge around in the various halls.  But the actual exhibits are fantastic.

The lower levels consist of creative and abstract pieces, many of them in the shape of colorful and textured vases.  The delicate necks often spin off at unlikely and elegant angles and the colors that glow within the glasswork are stunning.  Unfortunately, the lower levels of the museum have a strict no photography policy, so I cannot provide photos here.

The sixth level is the most compelling.  Glasswork crafted by visionary Chihuly shows glass blown shapes in twisting spirals of iridescent color on perfectly black surfaces intermittently spaced with large, planetary globes speckled with slashing patterns.

This section of the Museum did allow for photography, but only for personal and educational uses, strongly requesting that photos taken not be posted online.  This is fine with me, as this kind of exhibit is quite immersive and doesn’t translate well into pictures.  But the experience there was my favorite in the city.

There were relatively few points of interest I had in Toyama.  The Toyama Castle Ruins are not ruins at all, but a completely repaired structure with the bare ruins shown inside.  Kencho Mae Park is a rather bland but quaint little park that is lit up very well at night with colored lights.  The Toyama Hall Observation Tower has a great view of the city and can peer into the mountains without any other skyscrapers obscuring the visage, but its best at night when the quiet city rolls out like a glittering carpet, creasing lines split by canals and rivers.  Further time spent at Iwasekoshimachi Beach was excellent, with mountains in view above the waves while wet-suited surfers tried their luck on near the breakers.

 

But the real reason that I went to Toyama is access to the idyllic Japanese village of Shirakawa.

Shirakawa is a village with numerous structures designed in a distinct traditional fashion, with strong wooden walls spearing into a sharp angle, all of which is covered by a thick roof of layered straw which sheds heavy snowfalls.

I was fortunate to arrive during a warm snow day, when thick wet flakes sunk in, dusting rooftops and laying thick on unpassed ground.  This was proper packing snow, the stuff snowmen are ideally made of.  Great clumps would gather on Shirakawa’s thick rooftops, rolling down in heaping snowballs as the day wore on.  There was no wind, making walking through it a pleasant experience, and despite the snow sticking thickly on the ground, it melted from the heat of the earth.  Numerous streams and rivers were alive throughout the mountains, even as bare branches bent thickly under the weight of sticking snowflakes.

It was a gorgeous setting.

Honestly though, I wish I hadn’t bothered.

Getting to Shirakawa is extremely expensive, not matter which route or serves you take.  In the end, a two way bus ticket is eventually required, which usually runs about 4,600 yen total.  Taking a car is cheaper, but parking prices are fairly expensive as well.

The village, while gorgeous, has all the telltale signs of excessive tourism.  There are warning signs against smoking in a wooden-and-straw village plastered everywhere.  Houses are usually shored up with sheet metal barriers to prevent voyeurs from peaking in.  Every building that allows public access comes with a fee.

300 yen to look inside, 600 yen for a coffee cup, 400 yen to climb a hill.

Worst of all were the hoards.  There are a lot of tourists here.  Normally, I would just walk to the more obscure or higher sections of a town and quickly escape the thralls as they marched around, jamming up roads with their selfie sticks.

But Shirakawa drops off roughly fifty people with every bus.  And they do so from two separate staging areas on opposite sides of the village.  The result is just… people everywhere.  It’s noisy, crowded and frankly disappointing.

My point being, Shirakawa is a beautiful area full of great points of interest.  But don’t bother, regardless of the season or beauty.  It’s just a really effective and oversaturated tourist trap.

Sometimes I think I should be more tolerant of tourists, seeing as I am one.

But there’s a vanity in me and I like to consider myself a person apart.  I’m not going out looking for pre-packaged experiences.  The idea of going to a place for the sake of a bragging-rights photo doesn’t appeal to me.  Trials, novelty unexpected life, adventure appeal enormously to me on my journeys.  Conveniences and crowds do not.

Perhaps I’m deluding myself.  Many of my travel experiences are simple to replicate, often just slightly inaccessible while the tourism industry catches up.  But damn, do I hate feeling like a simple, shuffling tourist crowding up a place for the sake of some bragging rights.

Shirakawa is beautiful.  And my presence among my detracted from that beauty.

However, if a person is still interested in Shirakawa and what it has to offer, I recommend looking at Gokayama.  It’s less accessible, but also not a complete tourist trap while boasting all the same beautiful features.

Anyway, I would be negligent in my writing if I didn’t mention Miss Jackie, who joined me for many of my wanderings through the city.  A family friend of my extended family and sharing roots from my birthplace in New Jersey, my aunt recommended I contact her while in Toyama.  She was a delightful travel companion and I have her to thank for my food choices during my stay.

Santoshi is a fabulous and very filing curry restaurant I highly recommend.  Likewise, I was introduced to a fantastic ramen restaurant which I can unfortunately not write here, as my computer struggles with Japanese characters.

Overall, Toyama was a nice little side trip filled with a lot of recommendations from friends.

Speaking of recommendations, I’m off to the southern portion of Japan, where hopefully the weather is slightly warmer and the sun rises without the impediment of clouds.  I’m going to the famed Naoshima, the art island based on a recommendation from an old friend, Alysha.

So until then,

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

Sloshing in the Rain

Following my time in Tokyo, I strived to get away from major cities.  Partially due to simply having enough of trying to navigate busy streets and crowds of people, and partially because of the Coronavirus.

For those of you unaware, coronavirus is a new viral epidemic currently sending all of Asia, especially China into a tizzy. China, a traditionally health-minded and naturally disease-wary population heavily consolidated in major cities, is the pseudo-victim of this outbreak.  The coronavirus thus far has shown to have a very high infection rate (since people can infect others while the virus is still in its incubation phase) but a thus-far low mortality rate.

None of that has calmed anyone down and since the virus appeared during Spring Festival, when Chinese citizens are prone to excessive travel, quarantines and lockdowns at airports and cities (especially Wuhan) have put everyone on extremely high alert.

As such, my plans to return to China are uncertain if not downright canceled.  Which means, in the coming month when my Japanese vacation has ended, I might be out of a job.

Which makes me gratuitously happy.  I didn’t much like my job and I was planning on leaving the ESL field soon anyway.  While I’m apprehensive about that last paycheck, I don’t intend to fly into a plague zone for it.

Anyway, the ideal location to get away from the majority of crowds was to visit Mt. Fuji, the iconic peak of Japan.  Like everyone else in the world, I’ve seen cards, posters, videos, poems and advertisements displaying the lofty and legendary peaks.

But I sort of arrived in Kofu at an inopportune time.  Rain hammered down in a steady, lasting torrent for two days, shrouding the mountain from view.

That being said, I wasn’t deterred completely.  I walked around a lot, visiting shops and browsing through the wooded areas around Kofu, though I didn’t make the long trip to Fuji for a while.  Instead, I puttered around town, hiking up into the speckled mountains on occasion.  Umbrellas, rain boots, a multitude of socks, a backpack cover and warm-weather clothes brought from Hohhot kept me relatively comfortable unless heavy winds slashed in.

I found a breakfast café I truly adore called L’heure Vide. They make a magical series of breakfast and dessert crapes, both of which brought me a considerable amount of joy.

Finally, however, the rain was due to break and I found a bus to take me to Lake Kawaguchi and Fujiyoshida, both located on the northern sides of Fuji.

I should mention that the bus rides can be a bit expensive, and the most popular viewing position of Fuji is Hakone.  However, Hakone is pretty busy and there are a lot of Chinese tourists there this time of year, factoring into my decision.

I first saw Fuji in the early morning, rising above the edge of Lake Kawaguchi.

Majestic and magnificent, there’s not much to say about Fuji that people don’t already know from pictures.  The volcano has a remarkably even peak spearing far higher than the other mountain ranges surrounding it.  It’s a lonely structure, dwarfing everything around it with gentle slopes and a rather pristine cap of snow.  Low clouds swirl around the base like a white skirt while higher ones can vanish the mountain entirely.

All around town, there were viewing points, photo overlooks, cable cars and more.  Every shop seemed to have a Fuji icon somewhere on it, claiming relations to the mountain itself.

However, a person can only stare at a distant mountain for so long.

I made sure to do a bit more wandering around and quickly found myself mired.  There was a hefty layer of melting slush everywhere.  Every footstep left a crater and every stride slurped behind me.  A lot of snow was no longer white, but a slat grey which bogged my feet and defied traction.

But I travel with clunky waterproof footwear for a reason, and I was soon clumping along, squinting against the dauntingly bright snow.  I sloshed through the Kawaguchiko Music Forest Museum, which is a pretty little property playing movie-background carnival tunes.  I also hiked up and down the Maple Corridor, marveling at the torrent of water the snowmelts had created.  Indeed, most of my hike was accompanied by the sounds of rushing water wherever I went, either off of rooftops, past gutters, under concrete drainage or down mountain ridges.

I hiked across Kawaguchiko Ohashi Bridge and made my way to the Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway (which I don’t really recommend) before turning my attention further south, nearly past Fujiyoshida.

I should mention that Fujiyoshida is a nice little town, but not very walkable in a lot of places.  Fortunately for me, it presses right up against the woods that ring the base of Fuji’s gradual slopes.

I strove toward these, squelching liberally and stopping at Kitaguchi-hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine.  This is a beautiful building area and the dichotomy of green bamboo and moss on the red temple grounds against untouched snow made an impressive contrast.

I kept wandering up the roads, going further and further into the great pine woods.  The trees carried from a rough brown to an oddly vivid reddish hue.  Some of the trees has white prayer ropes, thicker than my arm, tied around them.  As did several boulders, rounded and graced with white folded charms.  Some of the most impressive trees actually had their interior bark decaying, but in a typical Japanese-botanical fashion, new bark had been pressed on where rot had taken hold, bolted in by shiny steel pins.

Finally, exhausted and wet, I went back down.  My few glances of Fuji inside the woods weren’t clear and I was using unaccustomed muscles to handle the awkward footing.

I ended up taking my rest at a place called Coco’s Restaurant, which is sort of a Denny’s style diner.  The food was okay, but the beverages were fantastic.  A person simply goes up to the machine and pours in whatever they fancy.  There’s coffee, hazelnut cocoa, strawberry cocoa, caramel coffee, strawberry milk mix and a few dozen others I liberally sampled.  Overall, nice little place.

I made a couple more laps of town, threw some snowballs around and toyed with the idea of visiting Arakurayam Sengen Park, but I was tired of pagodas and my boots, while performing their task well, were finally succumbing to the endless puddles I kept soaking them in.

My next day was my last in Fuji before taking the rail up to Tokyama, so I ended up waking up extremely early, attempting to beat the sunrise.

See, my friend Chad had recommended a hot spring onsen in the mountains, one with an unobstructed view of Fuji during a sunrise.  It was cold and brisk outside and the journey had to be made in the wee hours of the morning to make it, but I arrived easily enough.

Unfortunately, there are no rails heading to Hottarakashi Onsen, so one must hike for a little over an hour uphill to get there if no vehicles are available.  But it is definitely worth it, and I enjoyed my mountainside soak and view.

Tourism done for the day, I went back to my hostel and loaded up my gear for my next stop, pausing to buy some new sunglasses (mine broke), transfer some cash (Chinese yuan) and slather on some aloe vera (snow-burns).

Anyway, off to Toyama.

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

The Counter-Definitive Metropolis

After leaving Osaka, I gathered my things in a poorly packed backpack and rode the Shinkansen line to Tokyo.

Tokyo has more going on than any person can reasonably unearth in a week or two.  It’s a massive hodgepodge of unrestricted architecture, layers of underground points of interest, a secondary world of hidden shops are bars squirreled away as buildings ascend with numerous tourist attractions rooted across the city.

Tokyo isn’t exactly what anyone expects, since it varies so wildly from zone to zone.  Around major train stations and night shopping centers, it following the Hollywood norm of legions marching through neon streets in a jumble that defies the eyes.  But a ten minute walk in nearly any direction results in a quiet, quaint neighborhood with narrow roads, mismatched buildings and people walking dogs dressed in tiny sweaters.  A further examination leads to offshoot alleys with bars, restaurants, girlie clubs and theme cafes within the third story of an old building.  Naturally, there are also islands of Japanese traditional culture, including moated parks, old towns and sequestered temple grounds.

It’s not even a dichotomy, since that would require a consensus of differing parts.  At best, one can call it a meticulously planned and designed hodgepodge sloped with natural societal-growth.  So no, Tokyo isn’t what anyone expects.  You’re there for the ride and everyone leaves with a wildly differing impression.

I arrived in Tokyo to stay in Taito City, a district on the roughly eastern portion of the city, next to a large tourist street.  Enjoyably enough, I stayed at the Nine Hour Asukusa Hotel, which is a capsule hotel.  I was given a locker for my things in a downstairs area and the rest of my stay was spent sleeping in a narrow, white cubby with a drop-down screen.  People tuck themselves into these nooks for nights at a time, enjoying a fairly cozy amount of space.  My only concern is that there’s no temperature control in these capsules, meaning that body temperature quickly makes the small space toasty.

For the rest of my time in Tokyo, I was very fortunate to not be alone.  I joined a high school friend named Chad, whom I had seen back in Dallas after I left during my last visit.  We caught up on the opposite side of town, munching down on Japanese tofu blocks in a tiny, cramped restaurant where Chad provided his fractured understanding of Japanese to navigate the city.

Chad’s a great guy, and compelling conversationalist in general.  He’s immersive with his thoughts and engaging in conversations.  However, when we met up, his eyes were slightly sunken and cigarettes vanished from his fingertips hourly.  Chad had been working for an architecture firm in Japan that demanded an obscene amount of time and energy with slashing-low pay.  The company appears to have taken the Japanese culture of overworked salarymen and combined it with the Western cut-throat business model demanding meritocracy to simply stay afloat.

When I caught up with Chad, he was exiting Japan.  This was his last week, work was done and he was just beginning to replenish his reserves of energy.  As a result, we did my favorite travel activity, one that I have a particularly hard time finding companions for.

Endless, meandering walking.

We strode through the city for eight hours each day, bopping around locations with only the vaguest tourism goals in mind.  Chad had a series of architectural wonders in Tokyo he was interested in, so we ranged widely checking these out.  Tokyo’s zoning laws are partially sound based, meaning that noisy areas face a certain tax.  To limit expenses, Tokyo structures naturally have the places with more noise pollution press together, such as train stations, clubs, night bars etc.  On the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo doesn’t have a style-standard for the buildings in the city.  So an architectural tour involves the oddly mechanical-tank structure of the Disney building, followed by a walk past the curving arcs of a shopping center, split by the solid cookie-cutter shapes of a resident neighborhood looking exactly like a Halo 1 urban map all separated by a building made of interlocked recycled wooden jacks and punctuated by the uneven diamonds of the Prada building.

Tokyo, man.

Anyway, we got to see a lot.  On the first night we passed most of Shibuya city, doing wide, pointless loops to obscure architectural icons.  Chad explained most to me and the things he pointed out (which I would have bypassed unknowingly on my own) were really interesting features of design.  I truly believe he adore architecture as a field, but his job has simply wrung the passion out of him for the moment.

We also passed through the more foot-traffic-heavy parts of the city, commenting on Goth-Japanese band advertisements, hunting down pastry shops, lounging around specialized indoor smoking shops (for Chad, not myself ) and standing on street corners where a camera displays pedestrians with filters as they wait for the light to change.

Anyway, I retired to my miniature capsule and woke up early to do normal ridiculous things.  Visited Senso-ji, a temple and the final resting ground of the legendary 47 Ronin Samurai.  Heading south I bought a specialized Bento from Ekibenya Matsuri, a great little bento-box store inside Tokyo’s metro system, but a real struggle to find.  Meandering further I passed by Omoide Yokocho, also sometimes called the Blade Runner Alley, but locally known as Piss Alley.  All names have merit.  I stopped by a couple of cafes, a pinball arcade and a Denny’s for breakfast.

Tokyo is just so hectic, I spent a significant amount of time reeling.  I finally made it to a place called Akihabara Electric Town, which is an electronic shopping district.  Here, my brain short-circuited.  Crowded, crammed with endless products, alight with noise and sound, plastered with advertisements and mined with life-sized models of movie characters, I simply couldn’t process everything I was seeing.   It was cool, but I was relieved when I finally stumbled back onto the street, little spots swarming in front of my eyes.    I tried to make it to the Kite Museum (located on the third floor above a diner), but it was closed on a Sunday.

Needing a bit of breathing distance from people, I headed toward the Giant Ghibli Clock, a marvel of gears, metallic chicken legs and ticking parts that seemed to drop straight out of Howl’s Moving Castle.

Godspeed Studio Ghibli.  Keep up all that you do for you do it well.

Heading toward the coast, I had the chance to see Hamarikyu Gardens, which is a pretty little section of the city portioned off by surrounding skyscrapers.  They have some historical duck-blinds as trapezoid earth mounds and a 300 year old pine tree that is consistently advertised.

Following this detour, I agreed to meet up with Chad again.  He had been out with his companions the previous night and was ready to meet up with me for a late lunch.  Our selection was Gyukatsu Motomura, a very nice, typically cramped restaurant in the Chou City where one cooks delectable slices of pork cutlets on a candle with a stone wedge atop it.

What a world.

Anyway, after food we made a point of looping up towards Chiyoda City, an impressively large green space.  We spent a lot of time ducking into Japan’s numerous, famous convenience stores for Wifi and whatever else we needed at the moment.  We weren’t exactly touring around at this point, just wandering.  We had vague plans to meet up with Chad’s ex-coworkers that night, but where and when was anyone’s guess.  Eventually, Chad steered us to Shinjuku City.

And blam.

Shinjuku City is one of Tokyo’s designated night life zones and it’s a bit on the seedy side.  The number of people on the street trying to coax others into bars, clubs or sex-services is daunting.  There’s a cool Godzilla head peering out over all the flashing lights and numerous shops dedicated towards Japanese people’s specific kinks and preferences.  Numerous girls in French maid outfits shiver on the streets and gentlemen in dark finery often make sweeping gestures towards massage locations or arcades.  There are also lots of bars as well as some really interesting restaurants. Many of these places have an odd symbol above them, the number 18 folded over symmetrical arrows.  This indicates that the services a place offers is only for Japanese people, foreigners and gaijin shouldn’t bother trying to enter.

If you’re looking for authentic oddities, I recommend checking out Golden Gai, which is a whole mess of small, poorly lit food and liquor places crammed into a tight network of alleys.  I advise against going on a crowded weekend, as it’s the sort of place that fills up quickly, but the foreigners lounge around there and seem quite happy.

Chad and I looked around for a jazz bar, including the Old Blind Cat, but unfortunately none were empty enough to merit staying.  Instead, we ended up in a confusing maze of ninja houses that served us literal buckets of light beers while people smoked fields of cigars in thatch-walled rooms adjacent to us, creating a thick layer of perma-smoke throughout the labyrinth-like establishment.  I wish I knew the name of the place, but we sort of just… stumbled in.

Now, one of the issues with Tokyo is the metro system is done at midnight, with very few five or ten minute exceptions.  So a lot of people who get caught outside drinking at 11:45PM either have a very long walk home, a friend who lives nearby or they’re forced to check into a love/romance hotel.

Chad managed to get us to a subway station on the second-to-last train, which was great as I didn’t fancy walking much more (my feet are still tender a day later) and we tipsily headed our separate ways.

I’ll have to say hi when I see him stateside.

Regardless, I went back to my capsule, spent the next morning checking out a sword shop and anime arcade (which are expensive beyond belief) before finally checking out and gathering up my things.

Tomorrow I’m heading to Fuji.  It’s been a hectic, stride-oriented few days in one of the largest most description-defying cities on Earth.  I’ll be very happy to be in a forest where none of the trees are planted tomorrow.

Until then, ‘till next time, Tokyo.

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin

Occasional Dots and Days in Osaka

To be clear from the start, I have been lodging in Osaka for about a week now.  But that being said, I have not stayed in Osaka for the majority of those days.  Indeed, using my rail pass, I usually spent every other day outside of Osaka exploring other cities.  However, when considering pushes and shoves, Osaka is where I’ve spent the majority of my time.

I flew into Osaka from a questionable flight from Manila, where I did a lot of waiting and an equal amount of griping.  Finally, once I arrived in Osaka, I made my way to my Hotel, known as Yolo Hotel Museum.

It’s a nice little place.  My accommodations aren’t too shabby and the water pressure in the showers is divine (my last residence was essentially a warm faucet).  The food downstairs is pretty overpriced though, so almost every day I left the hotel early to do… well, things.

My first night I went to Namba to exchange money, which is a hectic series of tourist streets and shops.  I ate some takoyaki, some crab legs, downed a bowl of ramen and did some shopping for drinks and razors at a Don Quixote shopping outlet (which is blessedly tax free and already cheap).

The following day was my first real day exploring the city, and I didn’t have my JR pass yet.  So to save money on the admittedly expensive Osaka transport system, I walked.  Everywhere.

I passed the Hozenji Temple (with the Fudo Myo-o statue blanketed in several layers of moss).  I made a point of wandering around Dotonbori for snacks and eventually visited Mitsu Mini Park.  I ducked into a pachinko and slot parlor and promptly lost money by not knowing what the hell was going on.

I stopped at several small shrines on my way, including Ikasuri and Namba.  Eventually, I walked all the way to the Osaka station, where I went upstairs to the Pokemon Center for a nostalgic visit and finally picked up my JR Pass.

Ah, the JR Pass.

It has thus far been a godsend of transportation, working in a wide range of cities.  Now, this little trinket didn’t come cheap and I bought the 21 day version.  But I tallied up how much I would have had to pay out of pocket in Japan without this thing, and within the first week I would have already paid a little over $800 USD.

Instead, I just flash my JR pass like an agent showing off a badge on the inside of my jacket pocket and continue walking, real smooth-like.

After a little more time out of Osaka, I returned to check out some other portions of the city.  I’m lodging very close to a food and novelty item location called Tsutenkaku, a famous little niche with lots of treats and a fantastic sushi place open nearby.  It’s impossible to miss at night if you’re in the area, since the Hatachi tower blazes above anything else in that area.  Rokusen makes a mean meal of sushi right around there and there are plenty of great dessert options to follow up.

Striding on, I made it to Isshinji Temple, just north of Tennoji Park.  I should mention, this temple, while overlooking the city is also filled with numerous and gorgeous tombstones and carefully carved statues.  It’s a good place to see and treat lightly.

Heading further out, and far to the north, I visited Osaka Castle.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous building, but I came at the wrong time of the year.  The grounds were barren and often brown.  According to most of the pictures, spring brings a slash of bright cherry blossoms on every corner, while summer leaves the castle grounds a vivid emerald green and the autumn splashes everything in unyielding colors.

I should mention the castle is always worth a visit.  The interior has numerous artifacts and interesting lessons on Japanese history and walking the castle grounds alone is a good hour or two affair.  Just be careful when reading some of the local maps, as they are oriented sough on top and north on the bottom for whatever reason.  Go figure.

I left for another day, only to return swiftly and a bit early.

I next tried to visit the Pokemon Café and a Maid Café, but I learned that you need to book these kinds of things well in advance.  I’ll be sure to try visiting both next time I’m in Osaka (since this is my point of departure back to Hohhot.

Finally, on a slower morning, I made a point of visiting Shitennoji, which is a lovely and impressive structure of religious significance and valid culture.

However, after this (and visiting the numerous temples of Kyoto) I find myself on the usual verge of religious-icon burnout.  It’s hard to keep visiting temples, churches, mosques and giant Buddha statues after a certain amount of time in a country.  They’re always beautiful and seeped in history, but there comes a point of diminishing returns when visiting the same style and structure over and over again.

However, that about sums it up.  There were a couple nights out at some jazz clubs and a truly lovely evening involving lots of food and convenience store snacks on the way home, but I was finally winded and wiped out.

It’s time for me to get to sleep.  I’m heading to Tokyo early tomorrow to raise mischief, but I wanted to record everything Osaka before I went.

Until then,

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean

A Nightly Walk

During my last day staying in Osaka, I decided to put some serious miles on my JR pass by making the trip out to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima wasn’t actually on my locations to visit during my stay in Japan.  But it was only a two hour train ride and I wasn’t in a hurry anywhere else, so I decided to make a bit of a trip.  Besides, my hostel isn’t nice enough for relaxing and lounging, so going out and about has become my most active pastime.

I woke up around five and made my way to the train station, where I switched lines until I was on my way to the location of the first nuclear bomb strike.

I got off the train and had my usual infusion of coffee, still trying to ward off sleep.  Blinking a bit, I started walking around.

Hiroshima isn’t what I expected.  Not that I expected much, but Hiroshima is a kind of sleepy city with a wide range of deltas snaking slowly throughout the city.  After getting my breakfast, I worked my way to Hiroshima Castle.  It’s a really pretty building tucked away in a surprisingly quiet corner of the city.

However, the majority of Hiroshima wasn’t quiet this particular day.  In the area I started my little hike, there were more police than I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’m assuming it was a training exercise.  There were about an eight to a dozen officers in various uniforms on virtually every street corner surrounding the central park area.  I stopped to ask a few (of the non-busy ones) what was going on.

But translation barriers stalled me, and I was mostly asked to keep moving on.  I’ve noticed that when Japanese people point or direct a person a certain direction, they don’t use a finger but their whole hands.  It creates a very polite, slightly martial effect when giving directions.

Anyway, none of the cops really inhibited or stopped me, although we gave one another a lot of side along glances.  All of the police were dressed in mostly SWAT attire in the Japanese style, which meant lots of black body armor with interlocking segments, slightly reminiscent of samurai layered plate.

I ended up dawdling around central park for a while, kicking water around with my boots and finding “The Police” on my ancient, bootleg iPod while I walked around.  Humming Roxanne, I continued south until I reached the A-Bomb Dome, at which point I respectfully unplugged.

This area of Hiroshima is, well, mostly depressing in my opinion.  The monuments (and there are many) are very stark and slightly harrowing, especially considering what happened on these very grounds.  That being said, the messages alongside most monuments are extraordinarily uplifting.  Each and every one, no matter the story tied to it or the deaths that are anchored to it, strongly advocates a peaceful, war-less future.  It is not a unilateral statement, nor an empty platitude aspiring to an ideal.  It holds a hint of desperation, of understanding the sheer, unpayable cost of the alternative.

So that was my solemn afternoon: Hiroshima Castle, Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, the Children’s Peace Monument and the Monument of the Soldier.

I ended up wandering for a while after that, doing nothing but following one of Hiroshima’s many ponderous rivers.  Eventually, however, I made my way back to the train station and took the JR loop to get to Miyajimaguchia.

Miyajima is a great little island sitting off the coast of Hiroshima, slightly south of the main city.  The island is most famous for a Floating Tori gate, which usually sits bold against the city skyline.  Unfortunately for me, the gate is currently undergoing restorations, and I wasn’t able to view it.

That being said, Miyajima has some other interesting aspects.  First, there is an old, wooden shopping town which is pretty enough to walk through.  Much like Nara, there are herds of tame deer that wander through the city, calmly picking their way past tourists.  Unlike Nara, however, in Miyajima, people are discouraged from feeding or petting the deer, making them way more chill and way lees pushy.

Also scattered around the island is a five story pagoda and a series of floating temples with stakes drilled into the ground.  It was low-tide when I arrived, but normally the entire temple structure appears to skim over the top of softly churning waters.

My personal favorite aspect, however, came from hiking my way up the mountain.  There are a series of overlooks, hiking trails and small shrines dotting a very soft incline as a person continues to ascend.  At one point, a person can reach the cable car system climbing up the rest of the mountain, where many of the more famous features of the islands exist.  Getting up and back is about a 20 USD round trip.

And that was about it.  Hiroshima isn’t an active or exciting city, at least not by the standards of the other places I’ve visited: but it is a lovely side trip and the mountains are fairly peaceful.

To be honest, all of Japan is a lot quieter than I was expecting.  Not that there isn’t a lot going on, but I’ve become so accustomed to Chinese chaos, I feel like I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And since I’m going to Tokyo tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll have the chance.

Until then,

Best regards and excellent trails,

Sean M. Irwin