Oct 13 2011


Or perhaps, more importantly, sono hashi ni tuitara, wattatte shimae……or “ cross that bridge when you get to it………………”
September went out on a high; a heat wave to remember, temperatures soaring into the eighties. People flocked to park and beach grasping the last vestige of summer as rumour spread of a freezing winter to come. And just as suddenly it’s all over, autumn has arrived. Blustery winds tug leaves from the trees. The sun, so low now, casts golden light through autumn colours. Icy showers prove prophecies right.

Japan and Korea seem a long way away, memories already in danger of becoming blurred. I’m so pleased I kept my little scribbled diary to help me hold the detail. We arrived in Tokyo at the end of August. A wall of sweltering heat hit us as we got off the plane; 34 degrees and 85% humidity, so very different to our damp Devon valley!
After two days relaxing with our family, nursing jet lag, walking in the park, listening to the cacophony of cicadas and cawing black crows, watching turtles playing in the pond, we were back on a plane heading for Korea. I’m not sure what I expected but Seoul was a surprise; a huge, noisy city dominated by skyscrapers reaching to heaven, roaring traffic, bustle, colour, strange smells of food and drains!

We walked through a maze of crowded narrow streets hung with huge banners, filled with street traders selling everything we could imagine and much we could not; strange street food, cheap shoes, stockings, trousers, shirts, vast quantities of peach coloured underwear, suitcases, electrical goods and much, much, more all piled high on huggermugger stalls. Suddenly the market ended and huge designer stores rose up before us; all the familiar Haute Couture of Paris, London, Milan, New York. Contrast everywhere and so much noisier than Tokyo, more colourful too.
We ate in a “barbeque” restaurant, the meat cooked on a fire at our table, a strange python-like extractor taking away the smoke and fumes. With it came a green vegetable a bit like spinach, bean sprouts, mushrooms, pancakes and, of course kimchi.

This was our first encounter with the famous staple of Korea; cabbage stuffed with dried shrimps, mustard greens, onion, radish and, most important of all, red hot chilli powder. The cabbage parcels are pickled in salt to remove the water before being stored in huge earthenware pots some three feet tall. Every region, indeed family have their own special method. It is rumoured that Korean kitchens have created more than a hundred different kimchi recipes. November is the Kimchi making season. It takes place between Ipong, the first day of winter and Sosol, the day of the first snowfall. Markets are taken over by a frenzy of “kimjang ch’ol”, people greet each other with “ are you ready for kimjang” so vital a winter staple is it. Survival depended on this humble dish for hundreds of years. Time was when it made up a half the daily diet. Unfortunately for me at least, it turned out to be something I could happily live without which, were I Korean, would amount to no less than heresy!! The Koreans love their Kimchi so much, even now few can imagine a kimchi-free day! I can.

We visited the restored Royal Gyeongbokgung Palace silhouetted against the mountain range which harbour’s the border between North and South Korea, a very chilling and poignant reminder of what lies beyond; a sight which helped me put the frenzied consumerism of Seoul into perspective.
We watched the changing of the guard inside the palace grounds. Men in vibrantly coloured robes and fantastic black hats marched two and fro waving bright flags, playing exotic musical instruments and banging enormous drums. We went to the Folk museum and learnt about hat making, basket weaving, more of kimchi, furniture, pottery, lacquer work. The latter took me back to childhood and my Edwardian grandmother’s drawing room. How she loved what she thought of as “Chinoiserie”, how she would have loved this museum, loved Korea.
Senses reeling after three hectic days, we found ourselves on the plane heading back to Tokyo. Meguro-Ku seemed so peaceful after the hubbub of Seoul! Then just as we began to relax we were on the move again just two days later; this time south to the island of Shikoku and the Inland Sea. We took the Shinkansen to Okayama then caught the local train across the bridge to Takamatsu. Here we hired a car and drove into the mountains to the tiny town of Kamiyama where a very interesting project is taking shape. In the last few years young people have flocked to the cities from small towns, villages and rural areas all across Japan leaving behind a dwindling, ageing population. Shops close, houses fall empty and communities fail.

Kamiyama is trying to address the problem by developing ways to encourage young talent to return. Old houses are rented back from families’ who no longer use them. The buildings are restored and refurbished in traditional style then rented on to those returning to work in the town.

The results are astonishing; there are artists in residence, filmmakers, a noodles shop, holiday complex, a flourishing rice crop, a school and a large grant to restore the theatre Above all there is a new energy.
For more information about the wonderful Kamiyama go to www.loopto.co/magazine/bluebearoffices scroll down and click on “Green Valley”
We left lovely Kamiyama and headed back to Takamatsu, onto the ferry and over to the tiny island of Shodoshima.

We stayed in a little traditional hotel Moriguchiya overlooking the water. We ate the best sashimi I have ever tasted; fish must have landed straight into Mrs Moriguchi’s kitchen!

She had never had Gaijin guests before and her anxiety to look after us properly was really touching. And, oh my, did she succeed! We felt like Royalty!

We visited the Soy Sauce maker,

a magnificent olive grove twinned with Greece, herb gardens, a Kabuki rehearsal, rice fields recently visited by the Emperor; we spoke to wild monkeys by the roadside, drove through the mountains, ate huge bowls of noodles.

And then the rain started.Relieved at first by the falling temperature we set off to the ferry leaving plenty of time to negotiate our tickets in our limited Japanese. How strange we thought that the ferry terminal doors are all taped up and piled high with sandbags.
Our tickets secured, we drove aboard, settled ourselves down below with a fine view of the Inland Sea ahead. How strange, we thought, to see so very many ships anchored in the bay and fishing boats too, firmly tied up alongside the harbour walls.

The ferry trundled across the flat water. Slower and slower it went, until we hardly made headway, wind on the bow holding us back. We crawled into Takamatsu and drove off the boat with some relief. Car safely returned to hire company, we walked to the railway station to await our little train across the water back to Okayama. As we waited we laughed as we watched umbrellas turning inside out.
Once on the train we congratulated ourselves for finding the right seats in the right carriage of the right train; no mean feat in Japan. The train left on time as all Japanese trains do and we reminded each other we had just twelve minutes to find and board the Shinkansen in Okayama. We sat back.
First station and the train stopped. We waited, nothing. We looked at our watches, we’d missed our connection. Announcements were made. We didn’t understand. Then a man beside me explained in English we could go no further. The train could not cross the bridge.
I went to the front to the driver’s cabin to see if I could glean anymore information when a little voice behind me spoke in English. I spun round to see a young woman clutching a suitcase and smiling. “I’ll find out what’s happening” she said “stay near me” We will, I thought and we did.
The train returned to Takamatsu, off we all got and Winnie led us to the ticket office where, to our amazement we were all given all our money back; quite simple, no train, no journey, so refund.
The typhoon was at its height by now; wind and rain lashing the pavements, trees bending double in the middle of the street. “We need a hotel” said Winnie ushering us into a taxi. The airport was shut, bridges closed; there was no way off Shikoku. We simply had to wait.
Next morning at breakfast Winnie had a plan. It was Saturday. She had to be back at work in Seoul on Monday and we too were due to fly out of Japan then too. So she hailed another taxi and asked the driver if there was a bridge open anywhere. He thought the bridge to Hiroshima right down south might be open, maybe.
In driving rain and howling wind we crawled through suburb after suburb, all expressways closed. For three and a half hours we drove round the edge of the storm praying all the time that the southernmost hashi would indeed be open.
“Look for trucks” said the taxi driver “if they’re coming towards us the bridge is open”
Suddenly there it was. “Hashi, hashi” we all shouted. We crossed not one but four bridges from island to island until at last we were on Honshu.

At the railway station, our Guardian Angel, Winnie, left us to go south to catch her plane. We boarded the Shinkansen going north for the four hour trek back to Tokyo, through the typhoon once more. Just after Okayama the great train suddenly slowed. We held our breath as slowly, slowly we crawled past swollen rivers, flooded fields, wind lashed towns and villages. We drew into Kobe then onwards to Osaka. Gradually we picked up speed around Kyoto and sped with relief through Nagoya to Yokohama finally stopping in Shinagawa. Our son met us trying to hide any anxiety. “Glad to see you” he said “just heard on my car radio on the way here, 20,000 people have just been evacuated from Okayama”. A very strange forty fifth wedding anniversary indeed!
And I just can’t stop wondering if Winnie is, in fact, an angel.

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