Today was a big travel day. We had to take three trains and a boat to get to Naoshima, which took most of the afternoon. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back to riding trains at home after traveling here for a month. Even the local trains are clean and run impeccably on time, and the shinkansens are on a totally different level.
We woke up groggy before 8 to get downstairs for breakfast. Regretting adding breakfast a little, even though it’s interesting, both because sitting on the floor is hard and because it’s early and a lot to eat immediately after waking. We tried to go back to sleep after, but around 9:45 we were woken up by the owner, who was tersely saying we had to check out by 10. It said 11 online, but she was insistent, so we got up and Jake showered while I paid her. There was no way we were getting out by 10 so we just threw a lot of sumimasen’s and took our time getting ready and packing up.
I walked outside to discover that it was snowing! So joyful. We dropped our bags at Emma’s and walked up through the snow to the other side of the railroad tracks, where we hiked (walked)? up behind the town through the woods to a chapel in a clearing. It was dedicated to Christians who were tortured and killed during the period when Christianity was banned in Japan. Somehow, holy sites seem to have more meaning than in other places. Shrines and temples and even the odd church seem embedded in the earth, somehow, with an aura of importance. It’s kind of hard to explain and I’m not sure whether that’s true, but I think I feel it.
We kept walking through the woods, up a narrow path with tall trees to either side and dense forest, but turned back after a while to get down in time to eat. Food always comes first. We walked down through the truly sleepy town to the river, which Emma told us was voted the cleanest river in Japan. It looked clean, if shallow and a little industrial. The snow was falling heavily, and the snowflakes were huge. I kept catching some and admiring the patterns, which were big enough to see.
We walked up to Tonomachi and saw the koi fish one more time, and then stopped at Tsurube Udon for lunch. The noodles were flat and thinner than usual, kind of like a linguini, but the portions were generous (unusual for udon) and the food was good. I had wakame udon, with seaweed, for some green vegetable, and Jake had a curry udon that was really good. The Japanese love curry, and it’s been an important part of the cuisine here since the British ruled India and brought it here.
We collected our bags and walked to the station. The sky was just starting to open up and we caught a streak of blue. Tsuwano was beautiful in the winter, especially today with snow-dusted hills, but I imagine it’s absolutely breathtaking in the warmer months.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to ride the steam train that goes from Yamaguchi to Tsuwano on weekends and seems to be a big tourist attraction. We boarded the Super Oki right at 1:55, one of three trains each day. I was glad to have reserved seats as the two-car train was pretty full. We wove our way through the farmland and hills, and the snow was heavy and mesmerizing. We switched trains at Shin-Yamaguchi, where we had a bit of a wait between trains.
The station seemed to be another main transfer depot, but had more shops and food options. I enjoyed looking at the sake, which I’m slowly learning a tiny bit about, and the desserts, which are always elaborate and decorative. I got some onigiri and some fried chicken (karaage) and rice, which I was in the mood for, to eat on the Shinkansen. The clerk at the conbini heated it for me. I also found a couple great train souvenirs in the station.
At Yamaguchi, we were just climbing the stairs to the platform when we heard a whooshing sound and looked up just in time to see the Nozomi (the fastest Shinkansen), speed by, all 16 cars almost faster than you could see, in a blur. It was the most amazing feeling, and time almost slowed down as the sight and sound of the Shinkansen held my entire focus and my head swiveled to follow it pass.
We sat in the same seat on the train, facing the other way. It’s so cool that the seats turn around instead of the train. I ate my food and then reclined maybe 40 degrees and looked out the window as towns and hills and suburbs sped past. In Fukayama, the stop after Hiroshima, the castle is right next to the train station and as the train pulls in, you get this magnificent glimpse of the main castle tower.
We got off at Okayama and transferred to the JR Uno line train to Uno Port, where you catch the ferry to Naoshima. I walked past the Marine Liner, a double decker train with big windows that goes to Takamatsu, on Shikoku, across the Great Seto Bridge. I wanted to take it and also see Takamatsu, but it didn’t make sense given that it’s dark anyway and farther, so maybe next time. We got on the train to find lone riders taking up all of the seats. There seemed to be an unspoken convention to not sit next to someone occupying a two-seater, so we stood and hoped that someone would get off soon. It’s kind of sad that people on trains are silent here, just alone and on their phones. Even people traveling together don’t really talk. Jake and I do, but mostly in whispers or low voices, and hardly at all on the more open and cramped local trains. Every so often, you get a group of giggly schoolchildren or people around my age cracking a joke or two, but for the most part, that’s just part of the train culture.
We experienced our first brief delay at one of the small stops between Okayama and Uno, but still made it to Uno with time to spare in order to catch the last ferry to Honmura Port, the closer ferry terminal to our hotel (the other, bigger port is Miyanoura, on the west side of the island). There was such good signage to the ferry, which is less than a 5 minute walk from the station. They really have made everything here so convenient. I find that it’s been easier a lot of the time to navigate than in much of the U.S., especially when using public transit.
We waited in the cold for the ferry with some fishermen for company, with their poles off the side of the pier, and then hopped on the ferry for a quick ride (it says 20 but was more like 10) in the darkness to Naoshima. We got off at Honmura and walked down the main road by the water towards our hotel in almost complete silence and darkness. We rounded a bend and saw the water gleaming to our left. You can actually see the stars here, which is pretty sweet.
When we got to our lodging, Episode 1, it was just a building with three doors leading to rooms, but no clues how to get in. There’s a sign on the ground with check in and check out times and a phone number. The big house next door looked unrelated, so we decided to eat at the restaurant on the corner and figure it out after. The restaurant was just a counter with a few tables, but the owners were friendly and there was a table. We had big, steaming bowls of miso ramen, fried chicken (kara-age) which didn’t satisfy my craving but was totally fine, and I also had a plate of stir-fried vegetables, which turned out to be mostly bean sprouts, cabbage and onions with a couple carrots and pieces of broccoli, but was still badly needed.
We asked the restaurant to borrow their phone and they tried to help us call the owner of the hotel (which is really just a guest house with three rooms), but we couldn’t understand him. Jake stayed to try and get help while I went back over to see if the owner would appear, and luckily, he came out of the house next door that seemed separate! He was very gruff and immediately asked for payment, so I went into his house to pay him I’ve done all kinds of things here I wouldn’t do elsewhere, like walk through a dark graveyard at night, leave my bag unattended for even a second in a station, or enter a strange man’s house to give him my credit card to pay for lodging. But everything here feels so safe and secure.
Jake came back—the restaurant owners were so nice and had been trying to help—and the gruff old guy let us in to our room, which was totally fine, just a normal room with a little kitchen and bathroom. We didn’t think we’d find anything outside so we did some planning for the next few days and got to sleep at a reasonable time.
Relieved to have a roof over my head,