Luckily the Sumo Stadium was only a 20 minute walk from the hostel and it was easy to get a ticket in the morning. The ticket gets you all day access but the more experienced fighters didn`t arrive until 2pm so I headed down to the imperial palace to have a squiz. The palace itself is only open for 2 days around New Year so I couldn`t get in (or even see it over the trees) but some of the extensive grounds and gardens were open for a wander. The modern Ginza area was the backdrop to the palace and had some of the better looking architechure in Tokyo. I made my way back to the Sumo Stadium in time for Chanko serving at 2pm. Chanko is the stew that Sumos eat and it proved to be pretty good. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed in the stadium with Sumos wandering around in the hallways getting much kudos from the punters. They`re big feckers but it was a struggle not to point out how silly they looked wearing tight kimonos and wooden shoes which meant they had to shuffle along at a snails pace. For those of you unacquainted with the art of Sumo - you get a maximum of 4 minutes to physc out your opponent (mainly by performing bizarre legs akimbo squats and clapping at them) before launching your huge bulk at him and forcing him out of the ring or on to the floor. This usually takes about 20 seconds and the result is almost always funny. Watching fat men slap each other and try to hurl each other about by grabbing what is essentially an oversized jock-strap is difficult to take too seriously.
The next day I wandered around some other areas of Tokyo. The view from the 50th floor of the government buildings in West Shinjuko suddenly makes clear just how vast an urban jungle Tokyo is. A huge expanse of concrete as far as the eye can see in every direction. It`s not pretty. A trip to Roppongi hills proved a let dwon - billed as an ultra modern shopping and entertainment development it was in fact a much smaller version of the Manchester Trafford Centre.
On Wednesday I checked out and began the procedure to get to Kyoto. I had to trade in my Exchange Order (which I had bought in Bangkok) to get my Railpass. This could only be done in a certain office in Tokyo station so I had to get a train there from Ueno station which of course I had to pay for since I hadn`t got my Railpass yet. Genius eh? Once that was done I was free to get any train to Kyoto. Hooray. I jumped on the Shinkansen Hikari. This is what Japan is famous for. The trains arrive on the minute, have quality seats with a shedload of leg room, go amazingly quickly and don`t make that stupid ba-dum ba-dum noise that they do in other countries. Also, there`s loads of them and the notice boards are in English too. So there I was in Kyoto - the home of Japanese culture. My first impression was - what a dump. Unfortunately, this was also my second and third impression and continued to be so. If Tokyo was London without the historic buildings, Kyoto is Bradford, with some historic buildings. The place is laid out like a typical small grid town with a bundle of temples scattered around the outskirts. Admittedly, the temples are nice (much better than those in Tokyo) but the town itself doesn`t have much to offer. Having to wait until 3pm to check into a hostel, I made my way to the closest temple - Kiyomizu Dera - constructed in 1633. The temple itself is an attractive building but the setting is spoiled by the plethora of tat stalls that surround it. Back at the hostel I met some people who were interested in getting a fugu dinner. Fugu is the highly poisonous puffer fish which is considered a delicacy in Japan when prepared by specially trained chefs who can safely remove the poison). After wandering around town for ages we eventually found a restuarant willing to serve us the jumped up kipper. A whole 5 course fugu dinner was in the order of 50 quid so I opted for a smaller version just to try the beastie. The verdict? - minging.
Thusday was spent visiting Nijo castle and palace. Now I`m no housing expert but making walls out of paper may look pretty but it does not seem to me to be a good way of keeping the heat in - as proved by the blue-faced tourists that were swearing their way around the palace in an average temperature of 7 degrees. This lack of any heat lagging unfortunatley applies to all Japanese buildings - no double glazing, no cavity walls, no nothing. Oh, and they don`t have any central heating either. This means that it`s actually colder inside the buildings than it is outside. Families huddle around small gas heaters in one room in the winter and the heated toilet seats are the only thing that stops your arse sticking to the bog when you go for a dump. While I`m on that subject - the heated toilet seats are brilliant. And they have all manner of other buttons that spray water and hot air. Quality. Despite this, the palace is an attractive building and the gardens aren`t bad. From there I walked 5km to one of Japan`s most famous temples Kinkaku-ji - the golden pavillion. Originally built in 1397 it was burned down by a lunatic monk in 1950 and reconstructed 5 years later. It`s basically a small 3-story building covered in gold leaf and looks fairly tacky. I couldn`t see what all the fuss was about. Later in the evening we headed into downtown Kyoto to try and find some nightlife but the streets and bars were empty so we gave up. This convinved me to sling hook so the next morning I hit the railway again towards Hiroshma.
On the way I stopped in the city of Okayama to see one of the best gardens in Japan. Was it better than any garden in England or Ireland? No. It certainly wasn`t on a par with Muncaster gardens in Cumbria. The overly manicured laws and miniscule trees that have been shaved to wtihin an inch of their life just doesn`t fill me full of Zen I`m afraid. Let a tree be a tree instead of trying to prune it into some sort of abominable midget tree of death. That`s always been my motto anyhow. Back on the train to Hiroshima with Japanese gardens filed under R for Rum.
On Saturday I explored Hiroshima`s Peace Park and was very impressed. There are two large museums dedicated to explaining the facts behind the world`s first nuclear bomb attack on the 6th of August 1945. The museums are excellent and don`t pull any punches or seek to gloss over Japan`s role in WWII. Also in the park are a number of cenotaphs and memorials and the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now known as the A-bomb Dome, which was one of the few structures which, though badly damaged, was left standing after the attack. The whole place is a superb monument to peace and the campaing for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima itself is a much more attractive city than Kyoto and has a good buzz about it. Back at the hostel I met some Swiss guys and they kindly cooked octopus balls (that`s balls made out of octopus, not the balls of an octopus) for dinner.
I had to stay in Hiroshima until Monday becasue I wanted to do the Mazda factory tour but I found out there was an archery festival in Kyoto on Sunday. Due to the fact that trains were free I decided to head to that on Sunday. It was a big affair with huge numbers of young kimono cald girls carrying huge bows and taking turns to compete shooting arrows 40 metres into targets. The spectacle would no doubt have been even better if I could have actually seen any archery but the organisers had set up an immensely small platform which held about 5% of the spectators. After trying to elbow my way in for 20 minutes and getting nowhere I made do with wandering around taking photos of posing groups of archers before training it back to Hiroshima.
So what can I say about Japan?
1. Heated toilet seats - there ought to be a law inforcing their use.
2. The trains and public transport in general.
3. They do make an outstanding effort to understand what you want when you can`t speak Japanese.
1. The word “gaijin” which means you`ll always be labelled as an outsider.
2. The lack of building insulation or heating.
3. The cost - bare minimum 20 quid a day just for food and bed.
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Dwyer Rooney's excellent blog from our London to Sydney Adventure