“Everything will go smoothly. You are a lucky lady.” I was told, not for the last time, by my fortune telling friend. The Japanese are very interested in fate and fortune so it was no surprise that I had my fortune told at the Tokyo National Museum on my first afternoon in Japan.
I used to be very into that sort of thing: palm reading on Blackpool Pier, horoscopes and the like, but of late I have come to understand that I make my own luck. My fate is still my fate, but I can influence it in one way or another. Still, the sentiment could do me no harm on the eve of my very big adventure around Japan.
My good fortune had begun the minute I stepped off the plane. I was collected from the airport by an English-speaking driver who took me the ‘long way’ to the hotel, giving me a quick guided tour (for free) that helped me orientate myself in that vast city. The following day I met a guide who became a friend, who showed me around the city in all its glory. I got into the cat café just before they got full and started turning people away. I saw two traditional wedding parties at the Meiji-Jingu shrine, which is rare. I managed to get a ticket to watch an act of Kabuki that evening, which was very lucky considering it was Golden Week, a very busy holiday in Japan. I even successfully navigated the chaotic looking transport system with surprising ease; I tended to arrive just in time for the next train and I didn’t get lost!
My greatest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat in the evenings but after a few attempts, I’d just walk into a place and eat whatever was on offer. In this way, I got to meet some very interesting characters, like the waiter who credited Sarah Jessica Parker as his English teacher, and ate some very delicious food, even if I did have very little idea what it was I was eating. Lucky really!
My use of the Shinkansen also went well. Advanced bookings were made with ease; all the stations were clearly signposted and the trains were on time, clean and comfortable. My only problem was motion sickness from the smoothness of the ride and my tendency to gaze out of the window at the passing landscapes. Luckily, I found my old sea bands in one of the pockets of my rucksack, forgotten since Peru I think, and used them for the other journeys with great success.
My exploration of Kyoto sometimes revolved around my tendency towards accidental tourism. I hadn’t really researched it properly so I would just pick a name from the guides I had with me and go. That way I got to see the 1001 kannons at Sanjusangendo, an amazing building containing 1001 (obviously) carved statues of kannon; 11 headed, 1000 armed, thousand eyed bodhisattva, that I hadn’t even known existed 30 minutes before. I tended to arrive at temples or gardens just in time to view them before they shut and even if I got to places early, before the hordes, I often discovered amazing treasures I hadn’t anticipated, like the cloud dragon on the ceiling of part of the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which watches you wherever you are in the room.
Places rarely disappointed me. In fact, the things I knew nothing about were often better than the sights I wanted to see. A case in point was the iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I got there early, just before the hordes, and was able to experience some of its otherworldliness; something that was quickly lost with the mass arrival of coach tours. Instead, I felt the true magic of the place at Gio-ji Shrine, a moss-strewn haven of Buddhist/Shintoist tranquility that made me believe Rivendell could be a real place. It’s not an easy place to find, but sharp eyes, a good sense of direction and competent map reading skills ensured I found it. Or maybe I just got lucky!
I certainly felt like I had something on my side in Hakone. Glorious weather and a happy afternoon playing in the Hakone Open Air Museum (I tend to become very childish when surrounded by art in nature) had made me count my blessings the day before. Free cheesecake for visiting Woody’s, the café next door to it, a gloriously kitsch café decorated with Toy Story memorabilia and playing the Frozen soundtrack in Japanese in the back ground, twice in one day, was certainly a lucky moment. I wasn’t sure my luck was holding though.
The following day my unplanned wanderings met some roadblocks. All I wanted to do was see Mt. Fuji. The ropeway (what we could consider a cable car) route to a classic scenic view of Mt. Fuji was closed due to level 2 (out of 5) volcanic activity so I had to retrace my steps and battle with the rather confusing transport system until I reached Moto-Hakone. Convinced I had missed the only possible view of Fuji I walked along the Old Tokaido road and discovered a lovely tea house that served a tasty amazake rice drink instead. Then I caught the bus back to Moto-Hakone to try and find the second scenic viewpoint on the map. Having wasted my morning going in the wrong direction and sitting in traffic jams, I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d see the iconic mountain. So, I stopped for a street snack of corn on the cob and wandered moodily beside Lake Ashi. Then, low and behold, I rounded a corner and there was Mt. Fuji, peeking out at me from behind a fluffy wrap of clouds. As I watched, she emerged more fully and from then on, wherever I looked from, there she was, getting clearer and clearer as the afternoon progressed. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at the view, marveling at the famous shape and snowy streaks I had previously seen in paintings and drawings. Now, I was seeing them for myself. Truly a fortunate moment.
Ironically, my best view of Fuji-san came on my final train journey back to Tokyo. I managed to look up from my book at the perfect moment to see her, in almost cloudless glory, right there next to me. I glanced around the cabin to realise that no one else had noticed, I had her all to myself, and I truly considered myself blessed at that moment.
In Hiroshima I discovered my hotel was right next to the Peace Park. I simply walked a short way along the river to visit the museum and visit the A-Bomb Dome. That evening I found a great little place to eat okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima specialty that is essentially a noodle pancake with layers of cabbage and seafood, and even better, got a seat at the bar where they were cooked right before me, so I could watch the chefs at work. Brilliant!
My visit to Mimojima also went well. My journey to the Island was simplified by a brilliant visual breakdown provided by my hotel (lucky I asked), I walked a lovely mountain trail and saw great views of the Inland Sea before the rain came, and as I got to the bottom of the mountain the tide started to come in so I could get a clearer sense of the floating Torii Gate it is so famous for. When I’d arrived that morning the tide was out, so it, and my luck, turned while I was on the mountain. Or it may have had something to do with the lucky white cat offering I purchased at the shrine at the top of Mt. Misen!
Even when my luck seemed to run out with the heavy rain in Osaka, I did manage to see the more Bladerunner style aspects of the town that I’d actually been disappointed not to find in Tokyo. Blazing neon, narrow streets and oily reflections on the stones evoked the futuristic feel I’d imagined before I visited, and thought I wouldn’t see as I got to know the real Japan.
By the time I returned to Tokyo I think I had exhausted my run of good fortune, and while nothing went wrong I had stopped finding surprises around every corner, or maybe I’d just become more used to them. But before you roll your eyes, I will say I don’t believe I actually got around Japan simply on luck. I had the support of a very good tour company whose arrangements for a self-guided tour suited me down to the ground. I also believe that the Japanese culture has evolved to enable anyone with a bit of common sense to take advantage of its fluent, organized and logical society and participate in its efficient way of life. Signs may be small and rarely translated but most of them rely on symbols that anyone can interpret. Measurements are given in time and distance so you can estimate how far you have to go. Things are logical and consistent if you think about them. I also know that travelling solo allows me to do things my way but allows me to stop, watch and learn and then go with the flow when things occur unexpectedly, so I never feel like I’ve missed out but that, actually, my adventures are bonuses instead.
So, thank you for your co-operation Japan, I came to love your quiet, well-mannered ways and found everything I wanted and more during my trip. I might not believe in luck but I do consider myself a very lucky lady.