Shinkansen to a Ryokan

Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
Trip End Apr 04, 2006

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving

- Lao Tzu

Faster than a speeding bullet? Not quite
So after 4 nights in Tokyo we used the first day of our 7-day Japan Rail Pass (a bargain of a pass only available outside Japan that gives unlimited access to all lines of the Japan Railway system for a specified period) to head north to a little town (little by Japanese standards but still large by our standards) called Nikko. It was good to get out of the city, although the suburbs of Tokyo seemed to go on forever, even traveling at over 280km per hour. Which brings me on nicely to the major thrill for me of our first trip out of Tokyo - the trip on the Shinkansen, better known to you and me as the bullet train (so-called for the smooth, rounded design of the earliest trains). A trip on the bullet train is an eagerly anticipated part of any trip to the country. It was certainly something I was looking forward to well before I got here. Boys will be boys. It's hard to believe that it was 1964 when the first bullet trains hit the tracks in Japan, just in time for the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo. 1964! Hey, I don't wanna be dissing home but we in Ireland, a supposed first World country and the present economic envy of Europe, pay extortionate amounts, with no guarantee of a seat, to travel small distances in diesel locomotives (bullet trains are all electric) some 40 plus years after the first bullet trains entered service in Japan. Makes you wonder. Anyway, you won't be surprised to hear that everything you hear about bullet trains is true. Honestly. They are frighteningly punctual; you could really set your watch by them (I did) and if you're unlucky enough to be ten seconds late on the platform you'll be waving goodbye to the back end of the train. They are reliable; only the severest weather conditions and earthquakes stop them, and they are so smooth-running that you'll barely notice the speed, which on the top-of-the range trains averages 265 km per hour.

Turning Japanese?
So we got to Nikko in warp-speed time (excuse the Star Trek pun there) and made our way to our pre-booked accommodation - we are so organised its embarrassing. Although where we stayed in Tokyo would be classed as traditional (maybe semi-traditional) it would be safe to say it wasn't a real bells and whistles 'ryokan' experience. If you're thinking 'ryokan what?' then let me explain. It's basically Japanese-style accommodation that consists of a bare room, with just a low table sitting on a pale green tatami (rice-straw matting) and a hanging scroll decorating the wall. You know the type; rice paper sliding doors, scrolls on the wall etc. Within your room bedding is stored behind sliding doors during the day and only laid out, on the tatami, in the evening. A yukata (a loose cotton robe tied with a belt) is provided which can be worn in bed, during meals, when going to the bathroom and even outside. Just inside the front door of the establishment there's usually a row of slippers for you to change into for walking around the ryokan but you slip them off when walking on the tatami (some fancy places provide traditional wooden sandals called geta rather than bog standard slippers). The aforementioned places would also provide meals in your room but with an average price of upwards 20,000 per person, per night (about €150) we were quite happy to sample the experience at a fraction of that price (10,0000) and eat elsewhere. A big part of the ryoken experience, and indeed the whole Japanese experience, is bathing. Japanese ryoken provide bathing rooms where one can soak in hot mineral water baths to ease weary muscles. Think a jacuzzi without the bubbles. The more expensive places may have private baths in your room but where we were it was communal. Again one is expected to exercise the right etiquette when using the bath (most important is to wash before getting into the tub so as not to 'contaminate' it) but we found it very straight forward as it was almost identical to the bathing experiences we have had previously in Korea (although there it is in public bath houses). No pictures of our bathing experience will be posted here however. Actually, I will post one. Feast your eyes on the pictures attached to this entry for more.

It was a good way to end our day in Nikko which we spent traipsing around an impressive complex of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples (Shinto and Buddhism being the two main religions of Japan). I've been lucky enough to see quite a few Buddhist temples in various parts of Asia but the whole Shinto thing was new to me. I've since learnt it's the indigenous religion of Japan consisting chiefly in the cultic devotion to deities of natural forces and veneration of the Emperor as a descendant of the sun goddess (so there). Shinto shrines are called jinja (kami-dwelling). These terms, and the torii gates found in any Shinto complex, are the easiest ways to distinguish between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples (again, see the attached photos). The shrine provides a dwelling for the kami, who are felt to be present in the surrounding nature, and it is also a place to serve and worship them. Though there are many styles of shrine architecture, they are traditionally built from unpainted cypress wood with a grass-thatch roof.

Still with me? Good. Another highlight in Nikko was the Hippari Dako (no idea what that means) restaurant. Lovely food served by a delightful old lady who is obviously very adapt at dealing with the hordes of foreigners who must pass through the place (it's in both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide guidebooks). The usual travelers rest type of place, more commonly found on the well worn tourist trials of say Vietnam and Thailand, where each patron is compelled to leave a little memo, thus negating the need for the owner to decorate. It shouldn't be missed should you find yourself in Nikko of an evening and feeling a bit peckish. Hey, stranger things have happened.

So tomorrow we're leaving the relative quiet of Nikko and heading west to Kyoto (via Tokyo). The adventure continues. Now should I sleep with this yukata on or not?
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