Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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A Voyage to Japan - 1st April

On the morning of April Fool's Day I had a few hours to kill before my luggage arrived, so I went to take a quick look at Akihabara, the otaku paradise, to sample the place and maybe pick up a couple of Madoka souvenirs – if a programme that aired way back in 2011 wasn't altogether forgotten by now in such an up-to-the-moment district.

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Akihabara is reputedly Tokyo turned up to 11 in terms of its infatuation with the shiny, but it's probably at its least garish at ten in the morning, which is when I arrived there, especially if the morning is a cloudy one. Still, it's full of electronic and gadget shops and maid cafes, and is also where you can buy everything manga and anime related. I wanted to explore far longer than the time I had available. Luckily, it didn't take too long to track down what I was looking for, and though the box was a little bulky (and the whole thing a bit pricey, to be honest) I couldn't resist…

Sayaka figure

This model of Sayaka comes with three different faces: a laughing face for when she's happy; a "tee-hee-hee" face for when she's putting up a front to hide her embarrassment or fear, or to spare the feelings of others; and an angry face for when she is outraged by one of this world's many injustices. What's not included (perhaps there wasn't room) is her face of world-cursing despair, but of course in the world of Madoka that one is already implied in the others.

Round the corner, I came across this shop front, which gave me great pleasure:

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Japan – still basically a Madoka-worshipping country?

Yes, I had arrived just in time to see the first Madoka slot machines! Normally slot machines hold no interest for me at all, but on this occasion I naturally went inside and upstairs where a long row of seated men were earnestly shoving coins into slots. There were quite a few free Madoka machines, though, and this is what they looked like:

Madoka slot machine

They're rather nicely designed, with integral soul gems, parts of the opening episode showing on the display, and of course the possibility of ringing up three grief seeds (would that be the jackpot?). There are several other less visible features, too: for example, the three cherries are draped with Kyoko's soul gem, and one of the cherries (typically) has had a bite taken out of it. Given that a contract with Kyubey is a gamble where the house always wins, the whole conceit liked me well.

I could happily have stayed a lot longer in Akihabara, but I had to get back to be reunited with my luggage, which duly arrived shortly after. It was an emotional meeting…

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This precious moment of togetherness was to be tragically brief, for much like Odysseus on his return to Ithaca my suitcase had another voyage to undertake, this time to Kyoto, while for my part I was to spend the night at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) in the mountains of Hakone, south-west of Tokyo. I'd been advised that it was not practical to travel with large bags there (which proved to be true) so I took advantage of the excellent luggage-forwarding service and set off, once again, encumbered only with guide-books, toiletries and self-consciousness.



On trains I've been reading Natsume Soseki, as recently recommended by sovay. I couldn't find quite the same edition she mentioned, though this one does have the piece on learning to cycle in London, which is great. I thought it would be interesting, as an Englishwoman staying in Japan, to read the reflections of a Japanese man staying in England, albeit a century or so apart, and indeed there are some ways in which Soseki's experience (as revealed in his letters as well as his essays) finds an echo in mine. If I'm worried about being big and galumphing, he's very self-conscious about being small – he has yet to meet a man who is smaller than him, he laments, and even many of the women are taller – and when he catches sight of a funny little man walking towards him, it invariably turns out to be his own reflection. Having said that, there are many Japanese women taller than I am.

As I travelled further from Tokyo, first on the shinkansen, then on a local line, and finally on a two-carriage mountain railway into the Hakone interior, my conversational encounters were less and less marked by people slipping automatically into English. Indeed, I began to worry whether it would get to a point where people didn't know any English at all and I would be forced to rely entirely on Japanese, in which case I would soon wish my cake dough. At Odawara, for example, I absent-mindedly showed my JR Rail Pass instead of my Hakone Free Pass, a mistake enough people before me must have made for them to have found it worth producing a laminated sign in English, which the guard waved before me as if warding off the evil eye. I was reminded of that wonderfully economical passage in The Hobbit that describes the stages of Bilbo's crossing out of the Shire:

At first they had passed through hobbit-lands, a wide respectable country inhabited by decent folk, with good roads, an inn or two, and now and then a dwarf or a farmer ambling by on business. Then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before. Now they had gone on far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse. Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees.


It wasn't long before I too came in sight of the mountains, where a truant sun was putting in a late appearance to illuminate the mist. We reached the ryokan an hour or so before dark, and I must say it looked the part:

Bathhouse at Hakone


Of course, I would never allow such a phrase as "Ah, here is the real Japan!" passage through my synapses except accompanied with a bodyguard of scare quotes – after all, it's all real. Hakone is mostly a retreat for Tokyoites at play, I think, so in that sense one might turn it round and say, "Here's the unreal Japan!", but play is no less real than anything else, so... Anyway, Hakone sure is pretty.

Until this point my knowlege of Japanese bathhouses derived almost entirely from having watched Spirited Away and Thermae Romae, neither of which I suspected would be much help, though when I took a stroll through the village after checking in and saw the evening fall like a plumb-stone (as can happen in the mountains), and the lights come on in the bathhouse over the bridge, naturally I thought of that marvellous scene at the beginning of Spirited Away when Chihiro is first separated from her parents…

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All it needed was a ferry-load of radish-spirits to make its appearance.

I stayed in a tatami room. All the rooms had names rather than numbers, and mine was Kintoki (which naturally I kept misremembering as Kon-Tiki). The name means "golden time", which sounds a bit like something you'd pay £30 extra for at a Stokes Croft massage parlour, but I think in this case it's the name of a nearby mountain. It was amazing. The first thing that hit me on entering was the roar of water from the river below, which went over a small falls there. (This was a boon as far as I was concerned – I love sleeping to the sound of running water.) Knowing that it would be awkward for me to attend a communal bath (by next time I hope it won't be) I'd paid extra for a room with a private hot spring bath. It was sort-of outside, a stone room with a wooden louvre shutter that opened onto the river valley. Bliss. As for the tatami room, well here I am getting into the spirit of the thing, having just made tea and eaten the okashi provided. Even here modern Japan is not far away – note the remote under the table (Et in Arcadia Cable).

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I'd been in training for some time to sit without discomfort in the traditional style with my buttocks slotted between my heels, like a foldaway travel-scissors version of myself designed for convenient storage. I knew that the ryokan would be laying on a traditional Japanese dinner, and rather hoped that it would be a good chance to try this out, but alas it was all chairs and tables after all. And I think I must have been hit at this point by a second wave of jet lag, because I had little appetite and didn't do justice to the shabu-shabu. Not that it mattered really, and I took the opportunity to ponder on the ubiquity of toothpicks in Japan (of which I heartily approve), and to wonder why they are grooved at the blunt end, as if they had been lathed by fairy mice.

And so I return to my tatami room, and lay out the futon, and all is well. Even at night the river runs with undiminished energy, such is its devotion to duty, sifting and clattering the boulders thirty feet below my head. The echoing room applauds its efforts. Ganbatte, Kawa-sama! Oyasuminasai, mina-san!

How lovely!

And how well you fit the room within the landscape.

Nine

I doubt I've done justice to it, but it's fun trying!

It was an emotional meeting…

If you ever publish a book of travel writing, that should be your author's photo.

I'd been in training for some time to sit without discomfort in the traditional style with my buttocks slotted between my heels, like a foldaway travel-scissors version of myself designed for convenient storage.

I just like this sentence.

Travels Without My Suitcase?

Amusingly, 金時豆 is a red kidney bean.

---L.

:) That, I did not know!

I didn't either till I looked it up.

---L.

SAYAKA!

My heart leapt like a bird!

A Madoka slot machine is... Japanese. Particularly so.

I've been to Hakone and loved it, but I was staying with friends. I'm not sure I'd have the courage for the traditional bathhouse - too many stories set in them, like US proms.

Perhaps it's as well that I didn't know that stories before I went there!

You can now watch All the Anime and catch up, in safety/

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