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!

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Travelling home: Part I

I’m now in Haneda Airport in Tokyo, waiting to fly back  to England  and meet my family whom I haven’t seen for a year. Seeming as I have a few hours to spare, I thought I’d share my journey.

From the train window

The train from Fukui goes through hidden forested valleys, past shining Lake Biwa before arriving in the higgledy-piggledy urban mass that is Kyoto. It is a route I know well, but every time I appreciate something new as each season is so different; from watching fluffy snow whizz past the window in winter, to seeing sailing boats on the lake in summer.

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Today Kyoto looked hot and muggy, but from the air conditioned carriage of my train I still romanticise the small streets and the old houses, like they were in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Some people I know can’t stand this romanisation of ‘old’ Japan, as if it takes something away from the modern Japan today, but I see them as a continuation of each other. For example, no longer do geisha’s walk the streets, but hostess clubs provide the same experience for men wanting to be doted on in exchange of money. The narrow streets, with water running down one side and lanterns hung on the houses, are still beautiful, even if a girl is walking down them with platform heels, pink hair and an anime outfit on!

The train terminates in Osaka; the hub and heart of Japan, where people conform less to traditional values, and more to the rules of fashion. I still see fragments of an older Japan, one which hasn’t changed in decades. Taxi drivers wearing white gloves, more people wearing hats than don’t wear them, and older women sprinkling  water outside their houses for some reason. Stone tori gates mark the entrance to a shrine, in a forested corner of a street, a haven of reflection between the busyness of the city. Japanese people embrace change; older salary men with grey hair, dressed in perfectly tailored suits, now have the latest smart phone. Girls ride on the back of their boyfriend’s bike, even though they have 5 inch heels on and short white skirts. Everyone looks stylish, like they’ve just rolled out of bed with perfect hair, flawless skin and a stunning outfit. I wonder how this will compare to the fashion in England.

From the airport lounge

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I take the randomly named ‘Salad Express’ bus to Osaka Itami Airport and continue people watching. Airports can seem like sterile places, with thousands of faces passing through each day, but if you look a little closer you’ll see they’re emotional places too. The arrival lounge is like the opening scenes of ‘Love Actually’ with families being reunited, and on one floor higher there are people crying as they say goodbye to their loved ones. I know the ecstasy and the sadness of going through both. As I fly so infrequently, I enjoy waiting in airports, seeing people crossing paths, moving homes or just going on holiday.

Some anthropologists call airports homogenized ‘non-places’ (Auge,1992) characterised by global brands and similar procedures, which is true to an extent, but you can’t forget you’re in ‘Japan’ in a Japanese airport. The annoying sounds from a TV blare out at you, shop keepers welcome you with a warm ‘irasshaimase’ as you walk past, and salary men share platters of food and beers whilst waiting for their flight.

From the plane window

I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the excitement of taking off. The wait as the plane makes its way through the myriad of flashing lights on the runway slips, the firing up of the engine and then the sudden acceleration as the plane picks up enough speed to take off. Tonight, as we lifted off the lights of Osaka looked great, with green baseball fields lit up and roads looking like white snakes criss crossing across the black earth. The cloud layer was low, and the full moon lit them up from above. We touched down in Tokyo an hour later, and I braced myself for touch down, my least favourite part of the flight.

In the next airport

Tokyo Haneda airport’s international terminal has done well in creating an old Japanese street to house its various eateries. It also has beautifully decorated areas, using flower displays, and paper hangings in keeping with the latest Japanese festival. I see there are ‘shower rooms’ but why has no one thought of putting an onsen within an airport? Weary travellers like me, who have to wait all night until their next flight, would love to soak in the silky waters of an onsen.

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Between 1am and 6am there are no flights and the airport changes into a busy bustling place, to one of mood lighting and soft music. Half-sleeping bodies are sprawled over long seats, trying to sleep before their flight. I am one of the lap-toppers, sat using the wifi of the airport, wasting the wee hours of the night surfing online. Cleaners polish the floor until it shines, a group of immaculate looking flight hostesses walk past happy to have finished their shift, and a group of friendly policemen remove a slightly odd woman from disturbing the sleeping layabouts.

For me, airports symbolise freedom. The possibility to jump on a flight to anywhere, making the world seem so small. Maybe when I’m on my 12 hour flight in a few hours, the world won’t seem so small. I hope I get a window seat.

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You may want to read Part II, to see what happened just after I’d written this post.

Sumo Spectacle

Seeming as most people in Japan are of small stature, you can’t miss a two metre tall man, weighing about 200kg walking pass you on a pavement. So after passing a few of these giants, my friend and I knew we were getting close to my destination, Osaka’s Prefectural Gymnasium for Osaka’s 2013 Sumo Tournament.

As well as their heavy build, a sumo wrestler is given away by his long hair tied up in a top knot, oiled and pinned down. Outside of the gymnasium, when they are picking up a snack or something from a combini, the wrestlers wear a yukata and Japanese flip-flops, keeping their money and mobile phone tucked in their sleeves. Once they are inside the gymnasium and are getting ready to fight, the dressing-gown comes off to reveal a body shaped like no other athlete. With bellies rippling with fat, bum cheeks the size of award-winning pumpkins and thighs like tree trunks, the men are not your average body-builder shape. I imagine getting a hug from a sumo wrestler is as close as you’d come to a real ‘bear hug’.

As my friend and I made our way to our seats, we watched a sumo wrestlers warm-up away from the crowds. The floor vibrated beneath us as he raised one his leg high, only to thump it down again as to threaten his opponent. I had to dodge one wrestler as he came down the corridor towards me and at half his height, and a quarter of his weight, I was dwarfed by him. I can’t even imagine the adrenalin rushing through the wrestlers bodies as they eye each other up at a beginning of a fight.

From our seats, which cost about £30 and were furthest from the ring, the wrestlers looked in proportion to their surroundings. The action takes place in a raised ring, one metre off the ground, meaning that if a wrestler is thrown out of the ring, he often falls down and lands on some official looking person’s lap. So I was glad I wasn’t in the front row!

It’s possible to see the whole variety of sumo wrestlers when they parade into the ring, stand in a circle and throw their arms in the air to start the tournament. During the ceremony, the men wear ceremonial colourful sashes which match their thong-like attire. Once all have been introduced, the men in unison lift their hands high to symbolise respect for the rules and fair play. Then, the fights begin.

First, the lesser-known wrestlers, then the famous top wrestlers in Japan take to the ring. By the time the best wrestlers were fighting, the gymnasium had filled up and the crowd were enjoying the spectacle and shouting “Gambare yo” (go for it!) A man in front of us who was happily drinking ‘One cup sake’ and munching on some disgustingly smelly dried squid. He excitedly told us that there were no weight categories in sumo, so a 200kg man can be matched against a 100kg man. Yet weight, we found isn’t everything and the most exciting matches were when two different sized men were matched together. Agility, speed and quick-feet usually won over strength and sheer force.

Nearly all sumo wrestlers are fabulously obese, but one man looked very different. He was from Estonia and had well-defined muscles and zero-fat, the ‘David’ of the tournament. We waited with anticipation for his match, and when we saw he was against one of the heavier Japanese wrestlers, we didn’t rate his chances. Yet as soon as the fight began it was clear that he was playing a different game, moving quicker than his giant-bellied opponent ever could. With quick pushes and then a pull to the side, he made the ‘Goliath’ off-balanced enough to step outside the ring. Foreigners and Japanese fans alike cheered for him, the underdog of the tournament who had defeated someone twice his size!

The afternoon breezed by and soon it was time for the final match. Just like western wrestlers in UFC or WWF competitions try to psyche each other out with threats and arrogant remarks at the weigh-in, sumo wrestlers play mind games too, but through completely different means. The two men are allowed four minutes to prepare for the fight and this is often the most exciting part of the sport. The men enter the ring, squat low and do a hand signal that again symbolises fair play to the referee. Outside the ring they rinse their mouths with water and roughly rub their face and bodies with the flannel. Next they grab a handful of salt, meant to purify the ground, and throw it across the ring. They then commence in slapping their thighs, bums and even faces as they prepare to battle with their opponent. This is all leading up to ‘toeing the mark’ where they face each other and squat down, with their fist on the ground before slamming into each other. Just before they sat, one of them will turn away and start the whole commotion again, gearing the crowds up with their mind games and warm-ups. A match often lasts only twenty seconds, stopped when a man steps out of the ring, or puts any other body part but their foot on the floor. After this, the champion does not put their fist in the air, or any such behaviour seen in western wrestling, but squats down to receive the judge’s indication of his win, with ceremonial humility.

After the last match, the final winner of that day’s tournament is given a two metre long sword to perform a ceremonial dance with. He swirls it round, twirling it above his head and behind him. He then is given the job of finishing the tournament by raising each leg in turn and slamming it to the ground as the crowds shout “Yasho”. He will have to defend his title the next day, as the tournament comes to a finale on the 14th day.

Sumo wrestling is definitely something I can recommend as a spectator sport, I’ll be going back next year!