Trip to Hamamatsu

We recently took a short family vacation to Hamamatsu, a small city of around 800,000 residents in neighbouring Shizuoka Prefecture.

A visitor to Japan will soon realise that every Japanese prefecture and every Japanese town is ‘famous’ for something. Nagasaki is ‘famous’ for deep fried noodles. Aomori is ‘famous’ for apples. The fact the locals are required to tell you that, for example, the tiny town of Azai is ‘famous’ for weaving, is an irony that seems lost on most of them.

Bucking the trend however, Hamamatsu has some actual fame in the area of musical instruments. Yamaha, Kawai and Roland are all headquartered here, and just so as to remind you that you are in the “City of Music” the only skyscraper in the city is shaped like a giant harmonica. Subtle Japanese pride.

One of the city’s prime attractions is the Museum of Musical Instruments. I particularly enjoyed their selection of pianos, harpsichords and clavichords, although understandably almost all of them were not able to be played by museum visitors. Some of the more unusual items on display included a traditional grand piano with dual (upper and lower) keyboards, and a double-headed piano that could be simultaneously played by two people – one at each end.

small piano
Our small man standing next to an appropriately small piano.

We stayed at a motel situated on the shores of Lake Hamana. It was new, comfortable, clean and relatively cheap. Only one other room was occupied while we were there. Why would such a new, clean, comfortable and relatively cheap motel be so unpopular, we wondered? That was before we opened the curtains to find ourselves face-to-face with a carriage-load of train commuters. The outside track of the JR Tokaido Line passed literally a few metres from the window. Freight trains ran all night at 10 minute intervals which unfortunately made sleeping nearly impossible. But this is Japan, the land of both trains and stoics. The second night we slept better – either because we were becoming more stoical or, more likely, we were really, really, really tired!

We spend one afternoon relaxing at an onsen, and on the way also tried out a public foot bath.

footbath
A free public foot bath at Lake Hamana

One of the most interesting places we visited was the Hamamatsu Air Park, a museum and, I suspect, a recruiting station for the Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF). Given that the latter is probably the primary purpose of this place, entry is free!

I can confirm that JASDF personnel are overwhelmingly female, young and beautiful. These lovely young ladies will help you sign away your life, after which point you will be permitted to enter the actual JASDF base to discover that your real colleagues are overwhelmingly male, balding and uncouth.

Anyway – back to the museum… it rocked! It was all Top Gun and I was Tom Cruise before he became a prick. I tried out a couple of flight simulators and managed to crash just about everything they had. The boys dressed up in JASDF uniforms and practiced waiting for a war to come to them.

pilots
What, you thought this country with its famously pacifist constitution didn’t have a military? Think again.
2-year-old pilot
Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash.

Banzai!

Takayama

The main reason for the recent dearth of posts has been that we have been busy entertaining and guiding members of my family who came to Japan for a holiday.

Last week we packed the car and headed into the mountains of neighbouring Gifu Prefecture for a short break with them. We took the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway, which runs from Nagoya on the Pacific coast through the Japan Alps to Toyama on the Sea of Japan coast. This expressway is an incredible display of Japanese engineering. There are 54 tunnels along the route, the longest almost 11km in length. There are also numerous bridges spanning deep ravines, some with piers over 100m tall. The road itself tops out at 1,086m above sea level.

tunnel
One of the 54 tunnels on the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway

We stayed in Takayama – a picturesque and largely unspoiled traditional Japanese city of some 100,000 people. (Even the small cities aren’t all that small in Japan.) Takayama is a tourist mecca. It is often referred to in travel books as “Little Kyoto” because its narrow streets of traditional shops, temples and residences are similar to those that one can find in Kyoto, but Takayama is compact and easily traversed with a pair of legs and a small amount of physical stamina. Despite only having one of these two properties I enjoyed Takayama very much.

Takayama street
A sleepy street along the riverside in Takayama
boys in Takayama
Unusually cooperative with the parent-photographer.

takayama museum

The mountains of Gifu are onsen territory. (An onsen is a public bath supplied by a natural hot spring.) If you stay overnight in the region I highly recommend booking a hotel that has an onsen. That way you can enjoy bathing naked with strangers of the same sex and then creepily sit next to them at the breakfast table the following morning. Our hotel had a completely natural onsen – the water was not treated in any way, nor was it artificially heated. It included indoor and outdoor baths. Our party visited the hotel onsen every evening and most mornings too – they are a great way to relax and ease those muscle pains we all get from time to time. They also magically make beer taste better.

Takayama features daily morning markets with gnarled farmers selling lookalike gnarled vegetables. Right behind the markets is the Takayama Jinya Historic Government House which was in official use by the prefectural government right up until 1969. It has been beautifully restored and is now open to the public.

Some of our group visited the Hida Folk Village which features traditional steep thatched-roof houses once common in this area due to the volume of winter snowfall. Nicewife and I had already visited the UNESCO World Heritage site at Shirakawa-go which is the same kind of thing, so we gave it a miss this time.

government house
Part of the Takayama Jinya Historic Government House. Not a bad spot to be a public servant, provided you can deal with the occasional violent farmer’s revolt over excessive taxation.

On our final day Nicewife and I took the kids to the Hida Daishonyudo Caves. They’re a 30 minute drive east from the centre of Takayama. They were truly bizarre. Coloured lighting, piped “music box” melodies, rusting infrastructure, and loads of shinto idols. Every stalactite formation was classified as a god, and there were numerous small shrines including a bizarre fertility shrine at the furthest cave exit. If you decide to visit the caves, be sure to get a discount coupon from their advert in the local tourist brochures.

caves
Nature meets religion meets tacky cheese.

Self-serving Self Service

It’s taken a long time for self service petrol stations to take hold in Japan.

When I was last living here some 7 years ago they were still the exception. Filling up at a full service petrol stations became something that I quite enjoyed at that time, which is surprising considering the sentiment most people hold when paying for a cartel-controlled overpriced daily necessity. At Japanese full-service petrol stations not only do you not have to get out of your seat, but the service extends to cleaning your windows and side mirrors, filling up the tank, emptying your ashtray and taking any other rubbish off your hands, taking payment and giving change without leaving your seat, and even safely directing you back onto the road when there is a gap in the traffic.

Fast forward 7 years – the economy is down and cheap self service is king. But in typical Japanese style they haven’t done it half-heartedly. Today I stopped at a self-service station. There is a touchscreen terminal at the pump at which you place your “order”, pay in advance and fill up. After the machine determined that my tank was full it forced me play a slot machine game. Three wheels started spinning on the screen and the only option was a large “stop” button. I touched it and the wheels slowly span down (wasting valuable time while the person behind was waiting to fill up) and stopped on 777. They ALWAYS stop on 777. My prize was then announced: a discount, not for today when I actually need it, but for when I come back next time. Hmph.

After the mandatory slot machine you are then presented with a receipt with a barcode. You take that to another machine located literally 2 metres away from the pump where you paid, and you scan the receipt for your change to be dispersed into the tray underneath. The whole process takes far too long – but the mandatory slot machine is what I think really makes this Japanese self-service petrol stations absurd.

Slot Machines
This photo is only vaguely related to the post, but it gives me an excuse to include some Engrish. The “Slot Machines” referred to by this sign were actually vending machines. They can be found right next to the ravatory.

Small Boy Arrested In Front of Bullet Train

Small Boy and Bullet Train
Source: Nagoya Police Department

If you can read a Japanese date you’ll realise that this photo was taken back in February, when we spent a very enjoyable and appropriately geeky day at the Linear Railway Park – a new railway museum in Nagoya. If you’re visiting this part of Japan and have even a passing interest in trains (heh heh) I definitely recommend paying a visit. At ¥1000 a ticket it isn’t the cheapest day out, but you get plenty of trains for your money. If you’re lucky you might even get to try out the bullet train driving simulator.

Watch out for hardcore train geeks with huge cameras. They have little patience for mere mortals who obstruct the view of their precious trains!

Capsule Reconsider Your Choice of Hotel

A few weeks ago I went to Osaka to catch up with my friend from Takarazuka, Crazy K.

To save money we looked for a cheap hotel. Because Japan’s urban areas are some of the most densely populated in the world, the main way hoteliers can reduce their costs is to reduce your space. In the case of our particular hotel they reduced it to this:

Capsule Hotel
Our hotel "rooms". Believe it or not, these are the extra wide capsules - we paid $2 more for that little piece of relative luxury.

It was a bizarre mix of high-tech and high school. After checking in at reception we were given keys to our metal lockers where we could stash all of our stuff. We then refreshed ourselves in the communal baths, bought drinks and snacks from the onsite vending machines, watched TV in the 1980s communal lounge, and then retired to our $25 coffins to die sleep.

The capsules were actually surprisingly comfortable, and I would’ve slept quite well if I hadn’t foolishly consumed caffeinated coffee at 11pm, and if drunken salarymen hadn’t entered loudly at 3am triggering a half-asleep and justifiably grumpy capsule occupant to start shouting “Oi”, “Ooi”, “Ooooiiii”. How considerate.

The next morning I witnessed a quintessentially Japanese sight. A crumpled businessman emerged from his capsule, got dressed outside his high-school-style metal locker in a shirt, cufflinks and a fine business suit, and styled his hair for a power meeting, thereby transforming himself from a shrivelled drunk to a successful business professional in just 5 minutes. It was like I was witnessing the accelerated metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. Well maybe not a butterfly… perhaps just some kind of ultra-efficient grey moth.

This is Japan.

Kobe Illuminare

Last weekend we visited close friends who live in Takarazuka.

Because we’re cheap we made this trip using the wonderful seishuun 18 kippu, and because we’re heartless we took only one of our two sons, leaving the younger one to fend for himself amongst the mountains of toys and sweets and loving grandparents. Poor boy.

The quality of rail service in this country is superb, but rail travel over long distances isn’t cheap. This makes the seishuun 18 kippu is one of the few rail bargains of Japan. This special ticket, which can be bought by anyone but is only available during school holidays, allows unlimited travel for a whole day for 2,300 yen (about $30). The only catch is that it is only valid for local and basic express services. No bullet trains or special express trains. The trip from Nagoya to Takarazuka took just under 4 hours (including 5 transfers) and it was an enjoyable way to see some familiar countryside. The line passes right through Shiga Prefecture, where I used to live.

Takarazuka
Takarazuka from our friends' apartment balcony
Admiring Takarazuka from a nearby hill
Crazy K, Nicewife and ID admiring the city from a nearby hill

Something I love about Takarazuka is the convenience of its location. It is 30 minutes away from the centre of both Osaka and Kobe, yet is not as crowded as either. It is a hilly town with narrow streets and relatively few cars. It features small shops full of character that spill out onto the street. Everyone gets around locally either by bicycle or on foot, and people mostly commute to the larger cities by the privately-run Hankyu railway that has frequent services and is cheap.

Although our friends’ apartment is small by Australian standards, it is 8 minutes walk to the train station, 1 minute to the school, 3 minutes to the supermarket (and the all-important 100 yen shop) and 5 minutes to a street of coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Until recently they have not needed to own a car.

multi-story bicycle parking
Multi-story Bicycle Parking near the Obayashi train station.

We took the opportunity to visit Kobe in the evening to see the famous Kobe Illuminare. This magnificent display of lights and music is an annual commemoration of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Because of the national emphasis on saving energy this year, the duration of the Illuminare was shorter than usual. This led to intense crowding, even by Japanese standards.

Kobe Illuminare 1
Kobe Illuminare 1
Kobe Illuminare 2
Kobe Illuminare 2

I once again fell in love with Kobe. It is in my opinion the most beautiful of the large Japanese cities. It is also, for Japan, surprisingly cosmopolitan. There are plenty of restaurants offering food from around the world, it has a Chinatown (something of a rarity in Japanese cities), it features tree-lined European streets, and, as Kobe has a relatively high population of expatriates, it’s not unusual to see other foreigners about the place.

It’s not all beauty and tranquility though. Kobe is also the home of Japan’s most infamous Yakuza organisation.