Wednesday 4 September 2013

Day 11 - Kakunodate (Akita) - Niigata by train.

In the morning we said goodbye to Eiki,the lady who runs Fuga guesthouse above her Italian restaurant, and her 3 excited dogs, to visit the largest and oldest of the occupied Samurai residences and were lucky to be shown around by a descendant of the original Samurai.

He showed us his grandmother's silk kimonos, all beautifully embroidered with cherry blossom or autumn flowers and all with the family crest of two linked holly leaves.

The house had at least 4 entrances: one for the Samurai and anyone of equal standing: one for women & children: one for staff and a main entrance that was only used for visits by dignitaries or for ceremonies, or for the arrival of the landowner who ruled the area and planned the grid of properties and roads in central Kakunodate.

A waiting chamber held visitors until they were ready to be received in one of the main rooms, all with tatami mats but one with them running parallel throughout as officials would sit in a row, each on his own mat.

High level panels were intricately cut with fretwork turtles - symbols of long life and good luck - with wood grain resembling water ripples. The shadows cast by lighting apparently made the turtles dance across the walls at night.

The chambers behind originally had wooden floors with sunken fireplaces where charcoal was burnt to avoid smokeand pot hangers suspended from the ceiling.

In the well-kept garden dotted by stubs and rocky outcrops surrounded by moss, a 35m fir tree stood, planted by the first Samurai resident. Again a symbol of long life.

With more typhoon warnings and yahoo local weather predicting 80% likelihood of storms for the rest of the week, we decided it was time to move on.

Catching the express train in Kakunodate mid-morning, (not the bullet train, sadly) we changed at Akita after a speedy 45minute trip and took the limited express (not sure what was limited exactly) arriving in Niigata another 3.5hours later.

We discovered seats that swivelled round on a central post to allow everybody to face the way of travel, or turn to have clusters of 4. Very clever, and we immediately turned the seats in front to face us, spreading out our bags and maps, but we wondered what would happen to your book and bits hung on the back of the seat in front if this passenger decided to swivel. This clearly needed consensus and forward planning, and we predicted chaos should it ever come to England.

In Niigata we found the tourist information centre by the station and asked for a good bike shop.

We were running out of plastic liners for Coca's bike so wanted to try again to buy another rinko bukeru- the lightweight bike bags for use on the train.

The idea of the rinko bag is to transform the bike into carry-on luggage and avoid paying for big package tickets (actually only ¥240 ~ £1.70 each so not exactly a problem apart from on the bullet trains where it has to be packed small)

You remove the front wheel (and sometimes the back), strapping them to the sides, turning the front forks through 90 degrees and then sliding the whole into a draw-string bag made from ripstop material.

Pedals and gear teeth are a bit of a problem, so it's still better to wrap these and tape them, but a rinko bag is a lot easier and quicker than the bin bags and packing tape we had been using so far.

The friendly lady in the tourist office directed us to Furumachi Bicycle - a specialist bike shop in cool downtown Niigata. We lucked-out! The owner, Arata, runs a stylish design shop (also supplying London's Twentytwentyone) as well as Furumachi Bicycle, and speaks very good English. Moreover, Don, the manager and mechanic is a Kiwi, adventurer and all-round good bloke.

The bike bag was dealt with in a few minutes, but we stayed on to chat.
Don, we discovered, had among other things spent several months cycling across northern Thailand as well as a number of years in the South Island of New Zealand building 'ordinaries', penny-farthing bicycles, for a living. Quite a niche market. He showed us a sepia photo of a man in tweeds standing with a penny-farthing in front of the pagoda in Sado island, our next stop. "That's me!" Under the brim of the tweed cap you could make out a familiar grin.

We explained we had made a tentative reservation with one of the hotels, but Atara had a better idea- "it's your honeymoon- you've GOT to stay in a Love Hotel!" A couple of phonecalls later we were ready. You can't actually book in advance, it appears: check-in is from 8pm to 10pm and on a first-come-first-served basis. We arrived after a huge bowl of ramen from one of the oldest noodle shops in Niigata, also recommended by Atara, and went to reception. An empty desk and a phone greeted us. A phone call and we discovered that its all automated- a screen displays rooms available with photos and you choose by selecting a button. A receipt is printed out with directions to the room and there you are. Almost.
Atara explained that we were fine as long as we didn't want to leave before check-out. (Before 10am)
Otherwise you would need to phone reception to ask to be let out- you haven't paid yet and this is done by a vending machine slot in the entrance lobby of the room before you can leave.

You can order pretty much anything from the room, from drinks to baby-doll night dresses, and the film menu caters for all tastes, including videos of Japanese women playing golf in bikinis slightly too small for them... Whatever turns you on, I suppose. "Four!"

We tried the Star Trek lighting console by the bed which gave multiple mood effects, as well as the jacuzzi feature in the rose scented bath, before falling asleep, both still fighting off colds from the typhoons we'd cycled through the week before.

We understood from Atara that, despite the possibly seedy connotation of a 'Love Hotel' it was actually introduced to serve a simple purpose- many Japanese adults still live with their parents, a reflection of accommodation costs, and so a place where you can take your girlfriend or boyfriend for time together was eminently sensible. For a very reasonable cost you were given a good sized western-style room with big ensuite. A range of room sizes at higher prices allowed you to upgrade to rooms the size of some London apartments.

Of course businessmen and women still take their lovers there, and a suited couple discreetly entered as we were unlocking our bikes outside, perhaps for a more thorough business meeting, but as a comfortable and economical alternative to standard hotels, it's worth braving the Japanese instructions, so long as you have someone to explain for you. This really isn't designed for foreigners though!

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