Fukui to Osaka

My recently-retired dad came to visit me for four weeks this spring and in true Walker-style we ‘planned’ a mammoth cycling adventure. I think our initial conversation went something like this, “Dad, I’ve got a good bike now.” “Great! So shall we go on a ride?” “Yeah! I’ll look up some good places!” Six months later, he turned up at my local station with his bike in a bag and four panniers strapped over his shoulders, ready to ride.

A ‘ride’ turned into travelling with our bikes from Honshu, across six bridges to Shikoku, taking a ferry to Kyushu, riding up Mt. Aso an erupting volcano, then taking another ferry to the subtropical island of Yakushima, and circumnavigating that as well. Neither of us pay much attention to details such as distances, elevation or whether volcanos are erupting. This makes for a surprising trip. I hope you’ll enjoy my account of it.

Here was our preparation:

Buy/borrow bike bags – essential for putting bikes on trains in Japan.
Bike knowledge – mainly Dad’s part.
iPhone navigation and Nihongo skills, booked hostels and trains along the way- my part.
A sense of humour – essential for everyone involved.
Day 1, March 22, Fukui to Osaka

Our first challenge was getting our bikes on a train. We dismantled our bikes (taking the wheels off, and strapping the handlebars to the main frame) for the first time, put them in our bike bags and had four panniers to take with us as well. Bikes go for free on trains, but you have to make sure they are all covered up in a bag. We got told off for having just a handle-bar sticking out of the bag!

Waiting for our first train!

Waiting for our first train!

At my local station, the Thunderbird Limited Express train pulled in. We had just a minute to get on the train with our two bikes, before the train pulled off again. Once on, we slid the bikes behind the last seats in a carriage, and put our panniers on the overhead rail. Other passengers moved so we could sit together and generally were very helpful. Then we enjoyed the ride to Osaka! We were on our first train with our bikes, hurray!

Getting off was a little more difficult. It was our first experience of carrying our heavy bikes and gear any distance, and our stuff was heavy. Japan’s great though, just when you are feeling the heat, getting in people’s way and not knowing where you’re going, someone dressed as a giant stuffed penguin greets you with a “Konnichiwa” and a wave! There is always something to make you laugh in these situations!

Once out of the gate, I went to the Left Luggage Room, took the heavy panniers so I could drop them off there and left Dad waiting with the bikes. Five minutes later I waddle back past past him saying, “Well, it’s not that way.” Another laughing point.

As my dad says, “You could convince anyone with that smile!” and by the end of the trip I believe is it true. I convinced the men in the left-luggage room in Shin-Osaka station to hold our bikes for us. And by the end of the trip we got through the ticket gates with our bikes fully together, so we could dismantle them on the platform and not have to carry them in the cumbersome bags very far. A smile goes a long way, as does Japanese service.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFree of our bags and our bikes, we made our way to Osaka to watch The March Grand Sumo Tournament. This was the second time and most exciting sumo tournament I’ve watched, because two lesser known players defeated some of the big-name fighters and the crowds went wild for the underdogs. Spectators threw their seat cushions forwards towards the ring and people stood up and cheered the winning players! This made for an exciting afternoon!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI love the energy of Osaka; the neon lights flickering on the canal, people mingling around Dotonbori and the shops open to late. It’s something you appreciate after you live in a town that only has pachinko parlours as entertainment!

Yet, this time I noticed the seedier side of Osaka. In a revealing documentary about host clubs, The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (2006) the film maker interviews the hosts and their female customers and uncovers the reality of these sad spaces. The female customers are usually prostitutes, looking to become flirty friends with a male host. The male hosts have to play along with their role and pretend to like the women. The better the men are at lying to the women, the more they get paid as the women keep returning to the clubs and spending their hard-earned cash on overpriced drinks. Watching from the Starbucks overlooking the Dotonbori, it’s easy to spot the hosts; leather jackets, big belts and straightened, dyed hair are the give-aways.

The commodification of intimacy in Japan is something that is becoming more and more common. It’s not just in ‘soaplands’ or host or hostess clubs, that people are buying sex, intimacy or friendship. A cuddle-café has opened in Tokyo, and ‘rent-a-friend’ agencies are becoming more popular. This side of Japanese society symbolises the breakdown of face-to-face relationships, and something that is sad and shocking at the same time.

That night we had an awful night sleep at the Asahi Capsule Plaza. It was hot, noisy and because the female dorm is in the basement, this makes it even more claustrophobic! Do the ‘capsule experience’ elsewhere. Or have a few drinks before you climb into your box, as then it may not seem so bad! But they did have some funny Engrish signs that Google Translate probably has something to answer for!



Decision made

Every January on the JET programme you have to decide whether you want to re-contract for or not. If you prove you’re a great ALT, you can stay for up to five years. Most people stay for two or three. 

I had initially planned only to stay two years, but I have been enjoying my life here so much that I nearly signed on to stay a third year. The JET community, my friends and a stable pay, as well as another year to explore Japan and other Asian countries were all reasons to stay. However, on the other side were the frustrations of the job, the declining rate of the yen against the pound and my desire to spend more time with my family. It was a really tough decision that kept me awake many nights. But one snowy January night, my friend and I were talking about all the other places in the world we could go, all the other places we could work if we wanted to, and we both decided that we’d sign the Going Home form.

Every day I question my decision, but I know that the next adventure is just around the corner. And I still have six months to enjoy Japan and all the friends I’ve made here.

What I do when I return from Japan is another question. The thought of having no responsibilities is exciting and daunting at the same time. I could do a Masters, I could teach English in another country, or I could go travelling until my money runs out! Like they say, ‘the world is your oyster’, but when you don’t have any direction as to what to do, this can be a curse as well as a blessing. It all depends on your perspective.

Being surrounded my JETs who typically have a happy-go-lucky attitude to life, my career-driven self that was fuelled at university has taken a back-seat, and now all I want to do is enjoy my twenties and experience as much as the world as I can before I am succumbed to the usual desires to settle down.

I have no idea where I’ll be in a year’s time, although there are plenty of places I’d like to be. The travelling-bug is stirring inside of me, although it’s never really left me.

Where next?

Kodo: the heartbeat of the drum

Have you ever visited somewhere which totally enchants you? You know when a place has captivated you when you are leaving and you look back at the island, city or countryside and say to yourself “I will come back someday”. Yet at the same time, knowing that you may never get the opportunity again, and the memories you’ve made there will be forever romanticised in your mind.

Last summer, some friends and I visited Sado Shima, a small island in Niigata Prefecture, off the western coast of Northern Honshu. We were going for the Earth Festival to see the internationally renown taiko group Kodo play on their home island. It was by word of mouth that we heard about this festival, and it didn’t disappoint.

Taiko in Japanese refers to any kind of drum, but it is the performance of an ensemble of drummers playing for performances that taiko is now become known as. These drums had previously been used to motivate troops in warfare, to accompany Shinto dances and as a key component of Noh and kubuki theatre. In the 1950s a master taiko drummer named Daihachi Oguchi helped transform taiko from its traditional roots in shrines and a festivals to kumi-daiko, playing for the sake of performance. This energetic style of taiko took off in popularity and soon groups sprung up all over Japan. Nowadays children learn it in elementary school although the arcade game Taiko no Tatsujin is more popular than playing the real thing!

If you have heard of taiko before, you may be familiar with the group Kodo. They have toured the world, shaking stages and impressing audiences wherever they have played. They are a group who don’t do anything by halves.slide06

Only the best taiko drummers in Japan have a chance of becoming part of Kodo. Apprentices have to endure two years of rigorous training and practising to even audition to become a performer. The daily routine for members is gruelling, starting with a 10 km run, then the rest of the day spent drumming until they are too tired, or they have two many blisters-on-blisters to drum any more. It is not just their bodies that the forty men and the seven women of Kodo that are in training. Being part of Kodo is also a training of the mind to forgo selfish desires and to make decisions as part of a collective. Watch this video to find out more of the hardships apprentices go through to become part of Kodo.

Although playing taiko is no longer associated with religion, it does still possess a deeper meaning than just a musical performance. “Kodo” has two meanings, the first being “heartbeat” referring to how the taiko resembles a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb. The second reading is “children of the drum” that reflects Kodo’s desire to play the drums simply, with the heart of a child. Yet it is certainly not children you think of when you watch Kodo play.

The men of Kodo are the gladiators of drumming. Wearing just a fundoshi, a white loin-cloth, it is not just the rhythm of the drum that will impress you. The strength and stamina of these men is exhibited in various musical pieces, and they play the drum in various positions. In one piece, three men sit reclined on the stage with an odaiko drum between their legs and their toes curled around it. They play in this half-sat-up position for over ten minutes, their stomach muscles tightened, their buttocks clenched and their quads in tension, whilst their arms swing back and forth as they beat the drum. From the shouts of passion and pain that they make, you can be mistaken for thinking you are watching a primal ritual, not a drumming performance in the twenty-first century.Kodo-5-Epworth

Yet that piece was just a warm up. The real jaw-dropper was when two men stood on opposite sides of a two metre high and three metre long odaiko and played it like they were at war. With their backs arched, their legs apart and their arms above their heads, this type of drumming is so athletic it could become an Olympic sport.Kodo12_main1

As a member of the audience you can feel the deep rumble of the odaiko reverberate through your chest, and the beat is infectious. My friends and I found ourselves dancing with a crowd of energized fans, all wanting to be part of the performance, not just the audience.

After two nights of watching Kodo, my friends and I were enchanted by them. All we talked about was who our favourite player was, the man we met who was an ex-taiko player and sightings of their van going through the town. So we visited Kodo Village, where the group live and train for the months they are not on tour, to find out more about them. We learnt about the strict rules of being part of the ensemble; no television, radio, alcohol, cigarettes, or sex. Members also have to plant rice, cook and clean together. Their sole purpose it to give their whole selves to the community and the philosophy of Kodo; spreading the spirit of the drum.IMG_1405

It was when we were leaving on the ferry back to the mainland that we were treated to an unexpected performance from the Kodo performers. They had come to see some of their members off, who were leaving on the same ferry as us. They set up a few drums on the port, and as the ferry engines revved up, they began to play. This time, they were not in their traditional outfits but were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Nor were they performing for money, they were doing it for the love of playing. Band members from apprentices to directors took part in the impromptu farewell party. As they boat was making its way out of the port, I could still see the group playing and waving goodbye. And the Kodo members on the boat were still waving their shirts in the air, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some tears in their eyes. From this farewell, it was clear that the group were very close to each other. Undoubtedly their monastic lifestyles and the long hours of practising their performances created deep friendships.DSCF1110IMG_1427

It was a privilege to see this group, and one I’d recommend to anyone. If you can visit the Earth Celebration Festival in August on Sado Shima you should visit other places on the island; beautiful beaches, century-old cedar forests and mountainous roads with vast ocean views. It’s definitely on the unspoilt, and underrated list of places to go in Japan, but one that has a lot of potential for becoming popular. Even if you just visit to watch Kodo, you may become enchanted with it. I did.DSCF1103


A wild sea

In the distance over Sado

The Milky Way