>Going home


Morning at the Honke Bankyu.

Woke up to bright sunlight flooding the room. For a minute I thought I overslept till noon. The light looked like the morning was already well underway, but actually it was only 4am. The morning mist coated the hills around Yunishigawa onsen, lending it a rather dreamy vibe. It was lovely to sink back into the futon and drift back to sleep.

Here’s the vine bridge and the annex across the river where I had dinner the night before. Breakfast, however, was in the main building. It was a cheery affair with a generous buffet. Honestly, I had no clue as to some of what I was eating but everything tasted good! I liked the shishamo, the soft eggs and the onsen tamago. Gohan, as always, in Japan, was light and fluffy – a huge improvement over what we get in Japanese restaurants here in Singapore. Maybe its the water.

After I checked out, I left my bags in the reception area of the ryokan and went for a walk around the river. I still had some time to kill before the bus arrived.

Spring had arrived and flowers were out in bloom. Dandelions, marigold… the riverbanks were a riot of colour. With the warm breeze and blue skies, the teal-green of the water, it was one of those days when you just want to take a deep breath and feel great to be alive.

Across the new red lacquered bridge, there was a tiny shrine and small cemetery directly in front of the ryokan. But what was a great find was the tiny pool in a hollow of rocks. That was a natural hot spring where hot water gushed up from a slash in the rocks. It was just too tempting to remove my shoes and socks and soak my feet in the pool. The fact that there were rough steps carved up from rocks leading to the pool and an absence of bath/shower facilities made it obvious that this was meant more as footbath. So I sat there, feet in water, gazing at the ryokan across the river, insects buzzing around and a slight wind played with the branches above. In all honesty, I wish I didn’t have to leave, or that this moment would just freeze in time. It was a very idyllic spot on a lovely day.

But regrettably, I had to go. The shoes were waiting. The bus was coming and 6000miles away, the kids would be clamouring to go pick me up from the airport. My ‘me’ time was coming to an end. But I was glad it ended on that note, at the tiny hotspring pool, before I had to return to Tokyo, to Singapore and the rest of my life.

True to form the bus arrived exactly on time. We trundled back the same way we came and once again, my journey in reverse, I was alone on the bus ride. Back at the JR Yunishigawa onsen stop, the bus stopped its engine while the driver took a break. He sportingly took a picture of me with my pack on the empty bus. I also asked to skip across the road to take this picture of an old rail bridge and the lake. It was an incredibly scenic place.

Back in Tokyo after three hours, I had some time to kill before catching a train back to Narita. At Asakusa, I was again tempted to go to Sensoji but found the crowds overwhelming. I did make a quick round of Nakamachi dori for cheap souvenirs – in particular Owain’s request for a tiny samurai sword before I took the subway back to Ueno where I stuffed the backpack into the lockers at the Keisei Ueno station. I bought my ticket for the Skyliner and then wandered for a bit around Ueno park, seeing the Kannon temple which the kids visited. I had missed seeing this in 2007 when I had to make the long commute back to Chidoricho station and Kangetsu ryokan to search for that blasted brand new Burberry we lost!

The Kannon temple was quiet. I took the opportunity to do what I usually do, write an ema tablet and hang it up. I was in good company. Around me were ema tablets written in Korean, in Chinese, in Spanish, in French, in Russian. It was a place of hope. I liked reading the messages. A Taiwanese (presumably since it was written in the long-form Chinese) woman gave thanks and expressed her love for her husband (newly-wed) and requested for a baby to come their way. One in French asked for blessings of happiness and health (deciphered from the remnants of very rough rudimentary French that I still remembered).

I asked for health, happiness, peace for all of us and for Cait to get into the national training squad. And so far, its been more than half a year and Kannon has looked upon us favourably! Perhaps that Taiwanese lady also has the baby she asked for!

The afternoon was getting uncomfortably warm. As I stood by the lotus pond near Shinobazu pond at the Benten Hall, an Indian man asked me for directions. Guess what, the guy was also from Singapore! For a tiny nation like us, we are either an incredibly well-travelled lot or the world is really a tinier place than I realised! This journey was just full of chance meetings with Singaporeans!

I could not leave Tokyo without a last go at some sushi. I remembered a stall in Ameyoko across from Ueno. I didn’t have much time but I thought I could just make it. It took me a good 10minutes to walk into the market, past the fish stalls, the dried goods stalls, the garment outlets etc before I spotted the colourful stall front. This was a place we had seen the last time we visited Tokyo in 2009. I remembered the cheap plates of sushi-don in various mouth-watering configurations blown up in colourful photographs and was determined to have a go at this.

Oh so tempting… should it be ikura-don, or maguro-don? Or uni? I gave in to the bowl of pale pink minced toro with ikura. Sitting at the tiny stall, a paper cup of tea and gulping down the fish – this was what I enjoyed so much about being in Tokyo. Great food, inexpensive sushi, a street-side food experience in a lively market.

From here, it was a brisk walk back to Keisei Ueno, catching the Skyliner back to Narita. At Narita, I was foolishly forgetful and absent-mindedly tried to get past immigration with Owain’s tiny samurai sword still in my bag. I was stopped, bag searched and scanned several times before they realised it was the toy sword. I pointed out to them that this was plastic, helpfully jabbing myself in the arm to demo. They hemmed and hawwed and made lots of polite noises. I realised I was making it difficult for them to say no. At that point, I really wanted to just give up the sword but they were extremely helpful and apologetic. The immigration officer walked me out back to the JAL check-in counters where the staff (with more animated bowing, nodding, smiles and rapid-fire Japanese) took the sword from me, dropped it into a cardboard box and checked it in.

It was a bit embarrassing and I was vexed with myself for making this sort of dumb mistake and inconveniencing everyone. But they were very good about it and I was escorted back through immigration without re-joining the queue. So that experience really summed up why the Japanese are so polite to a fault, and so well-known for their service culture! Had this incident taken place in another country known for hostile lengthy interrogations at immigration where visitors are known as ‘aliens’ (take a guess) I don’t think I would have had such a gracious or kind reception.

So ends my solo trip to Japan. I really liked this trip. I liked being on my own and I had good experiences all round. I thank the Japan National Tourist Organisation, JAL and the good people of Tokyo Disney Resort for making this trip possible.

Now, looking forward – Japan in early spring 2011! But before that, look out for posts on Tioman and Hong Kong.

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