Posts Tagged ‘Trains’

Suzhou

February 11, 2009

I spent my last full day in China in the city of Suzhou, 45 minutes west of Shanghai by express train.

Suzhou was founded some 2,500 years ago as the capital of the state of Wu, during China’s “Spring and Autumn Period” (when separate kingdoms formed as the Zhou Dynasty gradually lost control, leading in turn to the Warring States Period).  Suzhou remained the cultural center of the region until Shanghai overshadowed it in the last century or so.  Today, a visitor might be tempted to call Suzhou a town rather than a city, as it doesn’t have any high rises, but it has over two million residents.

The Grand Canal passes through Suzhou, and the city is crisscrossed with many smaller canals.  Marco Polo called Suzhou the Venice of the East, and although it isn’t nearly so magnificent today, it still has charming spots.

Suzhou Canal-W

The canals vary in size and character.  This one is cleaner, if perhaps less interesting.

Suzhou Canal-C

Another small canal.

Suzhou Canal-N

But as picturesque as its canals can be, they aren’t what brought me to Suzhou.  The city’s real draw is its collection of old gardens.

Like Yuyuan in Shanghai, Suzhou’s gardens were urban homes landscaped into private paradises and sanctuaries.  At one time, Suzhou had over 200 gardens.  Unfortunately, far fewer remain today, but nine of the best preserved gardens are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.  I managed to visit five of these.

The first garden I saw was the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence

This is not the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

On accident, I entered Suzhou Museum, which is right next door.  I had known that the museum was next to the garden, but I was tricked because the museum has two entrances – one for the museum proper and another for Prince Zhong’s Residence, an old mansion that’s now part of the museum.  I soon realized my mistake, but only after I’d bought a ticket and entered.  Still, two good things came out of screwing up.

One was that the residence is a fascinating historic site, although the English signage was limited. Prince Zhong was a rebel commander in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).  I’d never heard of the rebellion, but apparently its leader claimed to be the younger brother of Christ.

And so the residence has a chapel.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence Chapel

The Taiping Rebellion took place following the First Opium War, whose humiliating outcome left many Chinese people disaffected with the imperial government.  The rebellion gained many supporters and escalated into a brutal civil war that killed over 20 million people.  You’d think that would warrant mention in a history class, but then again, I don’t think I learned any Chinese history before college.

The second good thing about accidentally entering Suzhou Museum was that the main museum building was brand new and had really nice, clean, modern bathrooms.  That’s not something you can take for granted.

Anyhow, my time was limited, so after taking a very quick look at the most interesting parts of the museum and enjoying the beautifully sanitary restroom, I moved on to my intended destination.

At all the gardens I visited, the crowds were heavy – it was the Saturday following a national holiday after all – and the best views were constantly blocked by domestic tour groups.  There were occasional lulls in the flow of people, and I took pictures when I could, but the breaks didn’t necessarily happen when I was in a good place for a shot, and my digital camera still had the problem of randomly flipping its image (which began in Hong Kong and which I didn’t fix until I was back in Japan), so I don’t have many good pictures.  I’ll share what I can.

This is the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Humble Administrator's Garden

It presents a nice example of the borrowed scenery technique, using the pagoda.

I bought a book on the gardens of Suzhou while I was in the city, and it says that the Humble Administrator’s Garden was built in 1530.  The book then goes on to note that the garden was later divided into three sections with different owners for each part.  Before being reunited centuries later, the different sections experienced very different treatment.  The central part mostly kept the original Ming Dynasty aesthetic, the western section changed to reflect late Qing Dynasty style, and the eastern section was in ruins before getting a renovation in the 1950s that didn’t really adhere to any classical style.

Maddeningly, the book never explains any of these styles.  It just says that such and such a garden is an exemplar of such and such an era’s style and then leaves it at that.  And since I haven’t found much information elsewhere, I can’t offer any illumination. Bah.

The next garden I visited was the Lion Grove, built around 1340.

Suzhou Lion Garden Lion

Rock collecting was a popular pursuit among Chinese literati and the owner must have been thrilled to find this lion-like formation.  I don’t know if the rock inspired the garden or if it was added later, but apparently the garden’s builder was a Buddhist monk, and Lion Grove was the name of a mountain monastery.

The garden’s most famous feature is its sprawling artificial hill, which was meant to evoke the mountain home of the original Lion Grove.

Suzhou Lion Garden Rocks

This is just a part of the maze-like rockery, which has nine paths and 11 caves.  Those numbers have some sort of religious symbolism, but I don’t know what that is.


After seeing the Lion Grove, I stopped for lunch.

I ate at Deyuelou (得月楼), a 400-year-old restaurant.  My food was fine, but nothing impressive, and the restaurant’s huge, modern building wasn’t particularly atmospheric.  Still, I don’t dismiss Deyuelou, since it’s really meant for large groups sharing a variety of dishes.  And I did eat something that I’d never eaten before and may never encounter again:  I had a soup that included fried caterpillar fungus.  It wasn’t bad.


From lunch, I moved on to the Master of Nets Garden, built in the 18th century on the site of a 12th century garden.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Flowers

The name, my book tells me, is a tribute to another garden, the Fisherman’s Garden.

The love of unusual rocks was present here, as in all the gardens I saw.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Rock

This particular rock supposedly produces a ringing tone when struck.  I didn’t test it myself, but a Chinese kid whacked at it with a plastic bottle for a while with no results (while his parents watched, utterly unconcerned).

This is the Surging Wave Pavilion, one of the oldest gardens in the city.

Suzhou Wave Garden

Built in 1044, the Surging Wave Pavilion is rare in that is surrounded by water, rather than having a large pond in the middle.  Apparently, this was the usual layout for gardens in southern Chinese “water towns” like Suzhou, before the pond arrangement became the norm.

The last garden I visited was the Garden for Lingering (or “Lingering Garden” as the official translation goes).

Suzhou Lingering Garden Door

The site began as the East Garden in 1593 and changed names several times before becoming the Garden for Lingering in 1876.

It had my favorite rocks among the many in all the gardens.

Suzhou Lingering Garden Mountains

I think that these  evoke mountains in a much more graceful and attractive fashion than the Lion Grove’s huge mass of rocks.


So as I said, I had a hard time taking pictures.  I was mostly limited to shots of walls and corners in the gardens, which are fine in and of themselves, but only give a vague idea of what the gardens were like.  Oh well.

The next morning, I visited the Shanghai Museum.  It’s free, which was nice, but to prevent overcrowding, visitors are admitted at a slow, controlled pace, which made for a long line outside.  After the museum, it was time to make my way to the airport and catch my flight back to Japan.

For one last fun experience in China, I rode the maglev to Pudong Airport.  The German-built Shanghai Maglev was the first commercially implemented, high speed maglev train.  Each compartment has a speedometer, and the top speed displayed was 431 km/h (about 268 mph).  Whee!

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Spitting, Lines, and China

December 15, 2008

First, a few more pictures from the Forbidden City.

Dragons and the number nine were associated with the emperor, and this is one of three nine-dragon walls in China.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon Wall

Or half of the wall, anyway.

On the half that’s outside this shot, one of the tiles is wooden. It’s thought that a worker broke the original tile when the wall was being assembled and the wooden replacement was secretly made to avoid punishment.  The tile probably blended in perfectly when it was new, but as it aged, it faded more rapidly than the ceramic tiles and is now noticeably different.

This is a stage for Chinese opera.

Beijing Forbidden City Opera Stage

And for another lousy-but-possibly-interesting picture, this is one of several throne rooms in the Forbidden City.

Beijing Forbidden City Throne

The plaque above the throne says “just and honorable.”

Little figures like these are placed at the corners of palace roofs in both China and Korea.

Beijing Forbidden City Roof Figures

The more important the building, the more figures there are.


Some impressions of China.

When I wrote about my brief stay in Hong Kong, I said that among the Chinese cities I visited, Hong Kong was my favorite, because it didn’t suffer from some of the unpleasant aspects of mainland culture.

One of those unpleasant things is that people in China spit all over the place, including on the train and in buildings.  And it’s not just the rough, uneducated types; at the airport in Beijing, I saw a neatly-uniformed airport employee spit on the moving walkway.

Sometimes this casual disregard for cleanliness in public spaces was really bad.  In a modern shopping district in Guilin, a small child needed to pee, so his mother helped him with his pants and had him relieve himself on the sidewalk.  She could have at least had him do it by a tree or in the gutter, but nope, right on the sidewalk.

But as much as these things made me cringe, they’re not terrible, relatively speaking.  The worst problem on the mainland was that the vast majority of people had little concept of waiting one’s turn.  Most of the time it wasn’t noticeable, but it became infuriatingly apparent when I used the subway in Beijing and Shanghai.

I can say from experience that in Japan, Korea, and Thailand, people waiting for the metro form lines where markings on the platform say to, and when the train arrives, they let the disembarking passengers get off before they themselves board.  In China, I saw signs telling passengers to do this, but that’s not what happened.  Sometimes the people waiting on the platform did make lines (or were forced to by station attendants), but when the trains came, everyone would just crowd in front of the doors, and then they’d push their way on without letting anyone get off first.  There was no meanness in it, but the basic consideration for others embodied in waiting your turn was neither shown nor expected, and it made an utter mess of the already crowded subways.  The government had signs and posters everywhere laying out all sorts of etiquette, from “no spitting” and “wait in line,” to the practice of using one side of an escalator for standing and the other side walking, but while the escalator thing seemed to be catching on, the rest will probably be a long, uphill battle.

Speaking of government-sponsored ads (and to avoid ending on a negative note), it was four or five months before the Beijing Olympics when I was in China, and I saw a lot of billboards and TV spots not only hyping the Olympics, but also explaining them.  Most educated Chinese were thrilled to be hosting the Games, but evidently a lot of people (the “Zhou Six-Packs” of China, perhaps?) didn’t know much about the Olympics – I even saw a cartoon explaining footraces (why there are lanes, why runners start from a crouch, etc.) – so the government was doing its best to get people informed and excited.

Beijing: Day 1

October 4, 2008

After visiting Xi’an, the next stop on my 12-day trek through China was Beijing.

When I made the trip, Google Maps didn’t display any detail for China, with the exceptions of Hong Kong and Macao, but it seems that the Chinese government relaxed and cooperated in time for the Olympics, and now there are full street maps and the satellite images zoom in all the way.  That would have made traveling much easier, but oh well.

I arrived in Beijing by overnight train at around 7:15am, not well rested, but not a mess either.  I’d paid the $56 for a bunk in a “soft sleeper,” which is a good price considering that it combines lodging and transportation and is cheaper than a plane ticket.  A “hard sleeper” goes for $36, but those sell out quickly and are, of course, less comfortable.  They have triple bunks, no doors, and thin mattresses, whereas soft sleepers are in lockable 4-person compartments, with somewhat better beds.

My three bunk-mates, two men and a woman, were traveling together, and amazingly, were also English-speaking foreign residents of Japan.  They were university students, and like me, they were on a spring break vacation. One guy was from Kuwait and the woman and the other man seemed to be from Southeast Asia, maybe Malaysia.  We compared our experiences in Xi’an and I mentioned that I really liked the Great Mosque.  The Kuwaiti said that the three of them had also visited the mosque, and at the gate, he said hello in Arabic and was greeted with a “Welcome, brother!” and had his entrance fee waived.  But his two non-Muslim companions had to pay, which he viewed as discriminatory.  I thought that it spoke well of him that he felt that way, but I can understand the mosque’s policy.  If non-worshipers didn’t have to pay, then the mosque would have constant problems with vendors, beggars, and scammers, and it would be difficult to maintain the tranquility that I admired so much.

After arriving in Beijing’s South Station, the three students and I parted ways, and I headed out into the gray and drizzly morning in search of breakfast.  Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, was the only restaurant in the bleak area around the station (which, like much of the city, was under heavy construction), so that’s where I had my first meal in Beijing.  I would rather have eaten local food, but at least it was cheap and filling.

After breakfast, I found my hotel, dropped off my luggage, and then went back out into the city.

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I spent the rest of the morning at the Temple of Heaven.

The playing field to the east gives an idea of how big the place is.

Built in the early 1400s, the Temple of Heaven was visited yearly by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, who performed rituals here to pray for good harvests.

Appropriately enough, the main building – the northernmost dark blue mark on the map – is known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

The blue roof tiles represent heaven, as do circles.  Earth, on the other hand, is represented by squares.

Following the long path south of the Hall of Prayer leads to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which holds imperial ancestral tablets.

The vault is surrounded by the Echo Wall.  Supposedly, two people standing at opposite ends of the courtyard can hold a conversation in normal speaking voices, thanks to the acoustics of the wall, but it was too noisy with visitors when I was there.

Just south of the Imperial Vault is the Circular Mound Altar.

The number nine is associated with the emperor, and the flagstones forming the top of the mound are arranged in nine rings around a center stone, with a multiple of nine stones in each ring, so that the inner ring has nine and the outer ring has 81.

This is the view back to the north.

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Lunch was a bit of a disaster.

I wanted to eat Peking duck in its home city, but I picked a lousy restaurant.  After I ordered, restaurant employees sat down nearby and had their own lunch while I waited half an hour before getting any tea, and another 15 minutes for my food.  And when the food finally came, it was pretty mediocre.  I had better Peking duck in Yokohama.  So if you’re ever in the neighborhood just south of Tiananmen Square, don’t bother with Jinzhengyang Restaurant (金正阳酒楼), eat somewhere else.

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I spent the afternoon at Yonghe Temple, commonly known as the Lama Temple.  As the name suggests, the Lama Temple belongs to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism.

The temple’s name plate is written in four languages.

From left to right:  Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Manchu.

The Lama Temple was originally built as a residence for court eunuchs in 1694.  In 1711 it became a prince’s palace, and when the prince became emperor in 1723, he converted half of his former palace into a lamasery.  The other half was converted following the emperor’s death in 1735.  It became the city’s largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist temple and was given imperial status, marked by yellow roof tiles.  The temple was spared during the Cultural Revolution – which saw many other temples destroyed or made into factories – purportedly due to the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai.

The buildings in the temple are packed closely together, making them hard to photograph.

I tried (too) hard to fit this one in the frame, but it wasn’t happening.

Inside, by the way, is the world’s largest statue carved from a single piece of wood, an 18-meter-tall figure of Maitreya, the Future Buddha.  Alas, no pictures were allowed in any of the buildings.  But here’s a neat guardian lion.

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Dinner was much, much more successful than lunch.  I ate at Luogu Dongtian (锣鼓洞天), whose English name is Drum and Gong Fusion Restaurant, although the characters literally mean “gong-drum-cave-heavens.”

The restaurant says it serves fusion food, but I’d describe most of the menu as Chinese home cooking with a Sichuan bent.  In any case, the food was inexpensive and very good.

I returned to my hotel with a happy stomach and collapsed into bed.  The next day I visited the Great Wall.

Home with the Flu

December 6, 2007

I’ve been really busy lately. I took the level two Japanese Language Proficiency Test last weekend. 9:45am-2:40pm. Holy crap, that was hard. I have no idea if I passed, but I’ll find out in February. School, meanwhile, has been crazy. To give one example: There is a elementary school next door to my current junior high school. A couple weeks ago, one of our 8th graders brought an air gun to school and shot an elementary school student. Now seriously, that’s not okay.

Speaking of the elementary school, it seems that I’ll be teaching classes there every Thursday. I did that last week, which is probably why I’m now sick with the flu. Taking sick leave here is a hassle, by the way. We have twenty days of sick leave, but we can’t just use them as we like. One day of leave requires a receipt from a doctor’s visit or from a pharmacy. For more than one day (like my current case), you need an official, sealed doctor’s note, which costs about $30. What a racket.

Upside: I have time to write a post for my poor, neglected blog.

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The last stop in my big summer trip was in Nagoya, the home of Toyota. I don’t really have much of interest to say though. Well, I don’t want to say nothing, so here’s one thing.

Nagoya Atsuta-jinguu Kusunoki

This camphor tree was planted around 1,200 years ago by the monk Kūkai (better known by his posthumous name, Kōbō Daishi), who was the creator of Shingon Buddhism. He founded dozens of temples, including one I saw in Fukuoka. This tree isn’t at a temple, though, it’s at Atsuta Shrine, which is said to house the sword that is one of the three imperial regalia. The real sword was probably lost a long time ago, but they have a museum that includes an impressive collection of swords received as offerings.

Alright, that’s it for Nagoya.

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The weekend before last, I made a trip to Matsue, a city near the Sea of Japan (map pilfered from http://www.japan-guide.com).

Matsue Map

Matsue is a nice place, although a bit short on attractions in and of itself. My reason for making the journey was to see the Adachi Museum of Art and Izumo Grand Shrine, an hour to the east and west, respectively.

The Adachi Museum was built in 1970 by Adachi Zenko, then 71, a self-made businessman with a large collection of 20th century Japanese art (FYI, the museum’s English website says 1980, but that’s a typo). The art is quite good, but the museum is more famous for its garden.

Adachi Museum Garden

The design of the garden often feels like a painting, and a few windows in the museum explicitly create that effect.

Adachi Museum Picture Window

The white gravel usually represents water, but this section looked like some strange desert landscape.

Adachi Museum Pines

The museum was my first stop in the area, but when I moved on to Matsue itself, heavy rain moved in, so that was it for the day.

The next morning I headed for Izumo.

Izumo is known as “the home of the gods” and tradition has it that in October all the gods of Japan gather in Izumo, so for the rest of the country October is the month without gods (except for the god Ebisu, who is deaf and doesn’t hear the summons).

Izumo Taisha

The shrine’s history says that the original main hall was much taller than the current structure and the recent unearthing of the remains of huge pillars supports this. Supposedly it looked something like this.

Izumo Taisha Original

At shrines, you can get “omikuji,” which are slips of paper with your fortune written on them. They don’t predict events, rather they simply say things like “great luck” or “bad luck.” If you get a bad fortune, you are supposed to tie it to a tree.

Izumo Omikuji

After looking around Izumo, I returned to Matsue.

Matsue Castle.

Matsue Castle

Sunset over Lake Shinji.

Matsue Shinji-ko Sunset

And this is in the wrong place chronologically, but for one last picture, here’s the bullet train arriving in Kobe.

Kobe Shinkansen

Ise Shrine

July 21, 2007

Bah. I was on a roll for awhile, but this post took forever. I’ve just had too many things going on. For one, I’m in charge of the three days of orientation for the incoming JETs, who will arrive in the beginning of August, and preparing for that has kept me occupied. I’ve also been busy planning a summer trip. The spring term ended on the 20th, and I’m spending the following week and a half traveling around Japan. Of course, while school doesn’t resume until September, Japanese teachers don’t get any time off in the summer. But fortunately, I have a lot of yearly vacation days to use, and so use them I shall. I’ll be going to Tokyo and up into the mountains. I imagine I’ll come back with a lot less money, but with all sorts of experiences and pictures to share. But before that, I still have at least one old excursion that I’ve wanted to talk about.

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A few months back, I made a day trip to the town of Ise, east and a little south of Osaka, on the opposite coast. My reason for traveling to Ise – like everyone’s reason for traveling to Ise – was to visit Ise Shrine, whose official name is simply, The Shrine (“Jingū”).

Ise Shrine is dedicated to the kami Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ancestor of the imperial family, according to Shinto belief. Or more precisely, Jingū’s Inner Shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu, while the Outer Shrine is for the goddess of food, shelter, and clothing, who is also charged with caring for Amaterasu. The “inner” and “outer” labels are misleading though, because the two shrines are in entirely separate locations, some four miles away from each other.

Before heading to the shrines, I had lunch at Daiki, which is famous for being frequented by the Emperor when he is in town.

Ise Daiki

The restaurant is very relaxed and unpretentious, and serves excellent sashimi and other Japanese food. With my belly filled, I headed to the Outer Shrine. This bridge is the passage between the shrine and the outside world.

Ise Geku Bridge

And this is as close as most people are allowed to get to the shrine itself.

Ise Geku Veil

Generally, only priests and members of the imperial family get to see the central shrine. But from the right spot, you can see its roof.

Ise Geku Heart

The architecture predates Chinese influence, and is thus very different from Buddhists temples or even most other Shinto shrines.

And while I’m talking about age and architecture…

Ise Geku Alt

This empty square is right next to the central shrine. All the shrine buildings and even the bridges are completely rebuilt every twenty years, only using traditional methods, and the new buildings – exact replicas – go in the adjacent site (the bridges don’t move). When construction is complete, the kami are ceremonially transfered to the fresh shrines and the old ones are taken down. The white post on the left states that the 62nd reconstruction will take place in 2013. With a few missed cycles, Ise Shrine has been reborn in this fashion for 1,300 years. The shrine was founded earlier than that, though. The official history says 4BC, but most scholars think it’s probably a couple centuries younger.

Moving on, this is the bridge to the Inner Shrine.

Ise Naiku Bridge

As you can see, it’s much larger and busier than the Outer Shrine.

A little past the bridge, there was a stage where ceremonial dances and music were being performed.

Ise Naiku Stage

Unlike the shrines, the performances and even the stage itself showed definite continental influences.

Past the stage, a path leads to the river, where pilgrims make ablutions to purify themselves before heading deeper into the grounds.

Ise Naiku Isuzu

In the forests around the shrines, woodcutting has been forbidden since the shrines’ foundation. The trees are mostly hinoki and sugi.

Ise Naiku Trees

The large quantity of timber needed for the reconstruction comes from an expanse of forest beyond the untouched center.

And this is the center of the center.

Ise Naiku Roofs

One more picture from the Inner Shrine’s grounds:

Ise Naiku Bridge 2

This bridge leads to a quiet sub-shrine.

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After visiting the Inner Shrine, I headed to a nearby shopping street, where the buildings are in Edo period style (1600-1868). It’s terribly touristy, but many of the shops do actually date from that time.

This is a standing bar (is that the name?), run by a sake brewery called Hakutaka, “White Falcon,” founded in 1862.

Ise Oharai Sake

In addition to their ordinary business, Hakutaka also makes ceremonial sake for Ise Shrine. If you look at the picture of the Outer Shrine’s bridge, to the right are barrels with their name (白鷹). I had a cup of one of their expensive brews and it was quite good.

The other highlight of the shopping street was the head shop of Akafuku (赤福), a confectionary founded in 1707.

Ise Oharai Akafuku

They are famous for Akafuku mochi, which has sweet red bean paste on top, instead of inside. I stopped to have Akafuku mochi and green tea inside the shop. So now I’ve eaten at a 300-year-old restaurant (Imobō, in Kyoto) and a 300-year-old cafe.

This picture from their website shows the shop minus the crowds.

Ise Oharai Akafuku Honten

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My final stop around Ise was to see the famous Wedded Rocks.

Ise Meotoiwa

Trivia: The rice-straw rope weighs over a ton.

On a clear summer morning, the sun rises between the rocks and Mt. Fuji is just visible on the horizon. Alas, it was cloudy, spring, and late in the day when I visited, but at least the tide was in. Apparently it’s much less picturesque when the tide is out.

After visiting the rocks I headed home, but I had a shock on my return trip. The train station near the rocks is just a few stops east of Ise, but it’s very rural. It doesn’t even have ticket machines or proper gates, just a drop-box. If you depart from there, you have to pay at your destination. Anyway, I returned to the station at about 6 o’clock to discover that trains only come once an hour after 5:30, and the station was even unattended. There was a taxi stand outside, but it listed the price for going to Ise station as ¥2,640, versus ¥200 for the train. Obscene. I resigned myself to the 40-minute wait for the train and had a further shock in that when it arrived, it was just one car. The train was on time, but other than that, the whole experience was nothing like what I’ve come to expect from the Japanese train system. I guess that’s when you know you’re really in the sticks.

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Alright, that’s it for now. Tomorrow morning I’m getting up at or before 5 to catch a flight to Tokyo. I’ll be back late on the 31st. Until then.