Two days after mum left I made my way over to Kyushu and found myself in familiar haunts on a night out on the town in Fukuoka city, almost as though I had never left. I caught up with old friends, and later did the same again back in Saga, where my journey first began more than 6 months ago. And yet, after spending so much time with other people, I found myself yearning for the solitude that I had enjoyed for much of the trip. And so I set off again for a few days to travel around Kyushu.
Back in Saga for a few days to catch up with old friends and trying to sort out the process for selling the van, I was camped out in my normal spot at Kinryu park. A friend recommended a service to me whereby you input details of your vehicle online and various car company representatives will come and look at it for free and give you a quote for how much they are willing to pay you. Though I expected them to suggest a very low value, there didn’t seem to be any harm in giving it a go, so we lined up a couple of people. When the first guy arrived, he had a look around the van, and then started the engine. I noticed that the oil lamp was lit on the dashboard and was rather surprised, since I had not seen it at all before, let alone when someone was inspecting the car for sale! So I bent down to look under the car, and to my horror there was oil pouring out from the vehicle.
After I sent mum home from Yamaguchi prefecture, I had an opportunity to check out one of Japan’s top 3 caves nearby before heading back to Kyushu. I had previously visited another of the top 3 caves – Ryusendo – in Iwate prefecture about a month before and it blew my mind. As a result, I thought I should probably see a second one to be able to compare! I mean, I have been to some other limestone caves before that were honestly a little underwhelming, so it was a big decision for me to visit Ryusendo in the first place, since most of my activities revolved around using very little money. In fact, I had passed up the opportunity to visit the other of the top 3 caves earlier in my journey because I thought ‘how good could caves really be?’… but I’m here to tell you that I was wrong.
Sharing the camping car with mum for 3.5 weeks was, in a word, tough. Not only had I established a routine and well-structured living space over 5 months that was now very different, but there was also now someone else in my personal space 24/7. And as someone who likes to spend a lot of time alone, this was quite a change for me and took some getting used to.
Still, it was manageable, and we had a wonderful time together sightseeing around Japan (see earlier posts for more specific details). Nevertheless, I would recommend to other people travelling in this way to start the travel together from the beginning, so one person is not coming into an already-established space and work together to develop a routine. I’m sure if you were travelling as a couple then it would also be a little easier, but especially since I had to sleep in the narrow top bunk, on a pretty hard surface, (while mum slept in my usual bed) I was also not particularly well rested over the period we were travelling together.
As I left the Tohoku region and made my way south, white snow gave way to the gorgeous pink of sakura as I wrote about some weeks ago. However with their fleeting season now over, even in higher mountainous areas, Japan’s scenery is once again changing as the warmth of spring and summer take hold: All around us are countless shades of green that simply cannot be captured on film.
Sometimes Japan seems like an impossible array of colour: Their flowers are often brightly coloured to the point of almost hurting the eyes, and in late spring the new growth in the forest also seems to glow a brilliant green that would be hard to replicate artificially.
Particularly along Japan’s west coast, where there are less cities and people than the more travelled Seto Inland Sea side, there is more open natural environment, and that means an abundance of green.
Coming from a dry environment like Australia with a bushland made up predominantly of Eucalypts, these are the colours like I have never seen before. I’ll never forget my first summer in Japan when I was blown away by the bright green of the hillsides surrounding my town. Eventually of course the seasons will change again and the green of the forest will give way to equally amazing yellows, oranges and reds of the autumn foliage. But for now, please excuse me as I head out to marvel at the gorgeous greens that I see all around.
A few days ago mum and I went to one of the most anticipated places on our trip together – a part of Japan that I had not really heard about until a friend of mum’s recommended it: The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine (pronounced ‘alpen’) Route between Toyama and Nagano prefectures. The Alpine Route is a travel section between the two prefectures high up in the mountains, which is not accessible to private cars, and which is closed completely over the winter months. Altogether, the Route includes 7 different types of transport – one for each section, though you don’t necessarily have to go right from one end to the other.
The main attraction is the towering walls of snow on each side of the road on the Toyama side of the route that become visible once the road is ploughed in early April. Before this, the road is completely inaccessible due to the huge volume of snow that falls in the area. Come mid-April, the road is cleared for the dedicated Hybrid buses that cover this part of the route and people are able to visit this awe-inspiring attraction and also walk alongside the walls. Naturally, the snow begins to melt, but the snow walls are still visible for a couple of months; when we visited they were over 15m high!
A few weeks ago I wrote that I had spent so long in a white winter wonderland, that I wasn’t sure what would come next as the snow began to melt away and I headed further south. And yet how could I forget Japan’s distinctly beautiful changing of the seasons and perhaps its most iconic natural representation: Sakura (cherry blossoms)?! These delicate little blooms, in all shades of pink, are synonymous with spring in Japan and hold a special place in the heart of most Japanese people. They are revered as a seasonal and cultural asset and celebrated all around the country.
On April 19th, after leaving my latest WWOOFing spot in Gunma prefecture, I took a long and rather stressful drive into Tokyo city and had a wonderful dinner with my old Japanese teacher from high school. We caught up over a delicious Italian meal, and then I found myself driving right across the city to find my rest stop for the night. In fact, I drove right over the Shinjuku crossing – one of the busiest stations in all of Tokyo! Thank goodness it was late on a Sunday evening and there wasn’t too much traffic!
However there was good reason for my craziness [and it was indeed craziness to drive through the big complicated roads of Tokyo] – I had to get closer to Narita airport so that on the morning of the 20th I could go and collect my mum, who had just flown in from Australia!
My most recent WWOOFing was a little unusual though thoroughly enjoyable experience with a young family in the rural town of Takayama, in Gunma prefecture. The parents (34 and 30 years) lived with their two young children (1.5 and 7mths) in a lovely little wooden cabin just around the corner from their mother & father = the grandparents’ place, where an elder brother also lived. The whole family seemed very close and were incredibly friendly. Both the grandparents and the young family are farmers; the latter grow all certified organic produce, and they sell their wares at small markets and stores around the local area.
The reason I say ‘unusual’ about the experience is that there was unfortunately not a lot of work to do during the week I stayed with them due to a fair amount of rain. Winter is only just ending in this region, and although all the snow has melted, there is still a chance of frost in the weeks to come. As a result, most of the season’s planting is yet to be done. And with a reasonable amount of rain around the time I arrived, the fields were still too wet to plough and plant.
The other day I managed to get along to see my third of Japan’s best three gardens: Kairakuen in Mito city, Ibaraki prefecture. I would have to say overall that it was pretty disappointing compared to the other two (being Kourakuen in Okayama and Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Ishikawa pref).
While I have no doubt that season and weather must have an impact on how one perceives each garden and the overall experience, having been to Kourakuen twice in different seasons I can also say that for a really top class garden, that shouldn’t make that much difference. And in essence, at Kourakuen it doesn’t – partly because they have such a huge variety of different plants and flowers, so that there is something interesting to see (and in bloom) at nearly any time of the year. In addition, it is a large sprawling garden with a large pond and many meandering paths.