[top Nara

We started the day as we had the previous one, with breakfast at the dingy restaurant near Dobashi tram stop. Hiroshima is a little like Melbourne - it has a network of trams and wide boulevards. Of the cities we visited in Japan, it was the one which held the most affinity for me. The others, particularly Tokyo and Osaka, were too much like ant mounds to someone from little Adelaide. They had a sameness and a sense that everyone was rushing somewhere purposefully. Hiroshima (at least the parts we visited) had parks, trees and trams. We caught one of these to the train station, once again lugging our bulging bags. Me with the backpack and large bag, Jacqui with her oversize shoulder bag, folder of woodblock prints and doll.

At the station, we learned that the Shinkansen we had intended to catch back to Kyoto was fully booked, as were the next two. The first one we could get on was at 11.53 and it was only 9.20. Eventually, after much commuting on my part between the ticket seller and Jacqui, we settled on a Kodama leaving at 9.47 and arriving at Shin-Osaka at 12.20. The Kodama, although still very fast, are the oldest and slowest Shinkansen and are only used now for "stop at all station" services. This added an extra 50 minutes to our journey over an express trip.

The passing view on the train is much the same throughout Japan. The whole stretch we had travelled, from Nikko in the north to Hiroshima in the south, is pretty much built up. The "countryside" was characterised by slightly fewer houses and slightly more paddy fields. After some initial interest, the view soon becomes a bit of a blur at Shinkansen speed. I passed the time by choking a darkie at 200 kph. Now, here's a curious fact. The men's urinals on these trains had little round windows on the doors, presumably so that the people passing by in the corridor could check to see that you weren't getting up to anything you shouldn't. This wasn't the only occasion in Japan that the contents of the men's room was open to the full view of passers by. Japanese men must be very uninhibited urinaters.

We changed trains and had to sit in an unreserved smoking car from Shin-Osaka to Kyoto. The Japanese are prolific smokers, both men and women and they seem to draw on the whole cigarette, rather than leave it dangling in their fingers the way Australian smokers frequently do. They take about two drags to strip the cigarette in an astounding display of lung capacity. We changed trains again at Kyoto and caught a local line to Nara. The train stopped at all stations and we didn't get to Nara until 2.30 in the afternoon - a gruelling five hours after we left Hiroshima. After all that, we decided to catch a taxi to our hotel, for about $10.

Our accommodation, Ryokan Matsumae, turned out to be the best we had in Japan. The room was Japanese style, with a tatami matting floor, a little entrance porch for your shoes and another tiny bathroom, but with paper screen windows and plenty of cupboard space. I wouldn't hesitate to stay at a Japanese style place again. I would probably also choose places that didn't have private bathrooms, because the shared ones are bigger and there seems to be no problem with privacy - we certainly didn't have to share the bath tub with anybody!

Photo: Ryokan room, Nara: tatami mat floor, roll out mattresses

Once we had checked into our room, we went in search of food - it was 3.00 and Jacqui was feeling nauseous. We found a little shop with attentive staff which served us a set lunch of noodles and fried crumbed pork with egg. Then we set off for a bit of a temple-tramp. Nara used to be the capital of Japan, back in the 700s. However, no sooner had the Imperial Family set up shop there than all these priests came along building temples across the road from them and generally giving the emperor gratuitous advice that he didn't need. So, he waited until they had all put down roots in Nara, then moved up to Kyoto to get away from them, and that stayed the capital until 1868, when the emperor moved on to Tokyo.

The main attraction in Nara seemed to be the Todaiji Temple, a huge structure (supposedly the largest wooden building in the world), with a small window half way up so that the gigantic budda inside can see out. It is set in the middle of a large expanse of deer infested parkland. There were deer all over this part of Nara; not only in the parks but also in the streets. The way some Japanese drive, there must be a few accidents. Perhaps the deer get used to the cars and learn to avoid them. For Y150, you can buy some biscuits to feed them and they constantly nuzzle up to you in search of something to eat.

Photo: Todaiji Temple, Nara

Photo: Deer crossing a Nara intersection

After strolling around the parks and shops of Nara, we returned to the hotel to do some washing. I approached the innkeeper for directions to a laundromat. This is not as difficult as it sounds, since luckily an ability to speak English also gives you a bit of Japanese. For instance "tour" (tsur) and "mineral water" (mineral water). The Japanese word for laundromat is "coin raundery". No kidding. The lady drew us directions to the nearest coin raundery, which was some distance away. Armed with her mud-map and our bag of washing, we trudged off into the dusk. The coin raundery was up what by our definition would be a side alley, but which in Japan ranks as a regular residential street. The average Japanese street would be about 3.5 metres across. There is no guttering or footpaths on these street, with many houses opening directly onto the bitumen. The pedestrians take their chances with everything the rest of society can throw at them - bikes with no lights ridden at top speed, motorbikes, and worst of all, taxis, which have no regard for anything on two legs. Don't ask me what happens when two taxis meet on one of these streets. I guess one of them has to back up.

The map was wrong and it took us considerable time to find the coin raundery. There was not one English letter on any of the signs in the place, so we had to buy some powder from a dispenser and start a machine by instinct. The dispenser swallowed Jacqui's first Y100 coin, to her extreme chagrin. Her second was more successful and we managed to get a machine going. During the washing, Jacqui started reading a magazine/comic which became increasingly pornographic as she progressed through it, ending in full frontals. That's if you were Japanese and read it from the "back" to the "front". For Europeans, the magazine started with a spirits ad on the front cover, the first few pages were titillating, then it increasingly failed to live up to its initial promise, as it descended into high-school standard manga. I switched on the TV and found a comedy show, set in a "Love Hotel". These are places where businessmen take their secretaries for a bit of slap-and-tickle. A sketch in the show went like this: a secretary chickens out and flees from their hotel room, pursued by her naked boss. Finding himself locked out of the room, he has to use two plate covers he finds in the corridor to conceal his privates while he furtively tries to leave the hotel. He gets into a lift, only to run into another guy in exactly the same predicament. Classic Benny Hill. If Benny was still alive, he could have sued for plagiarism.

For dinner, we settled on a place that sold both pizzas and these curious looking pancake objects, with various toppings. It turned out that the pizza bases were made of the same thing - a mixture of flour, water, egg and shredded cabbage. This is cooked at your table on a built-in griddle. We later found out from Mich that this is a local Osakan specialty known as "Okonomiyaki". The pizza style is just a modern variation, topped with cheese and cooked by means of placing a saucepan lid over the whole kit- and-kaboodle while the base fries. On the standard, original, authentic version, the pancake is smeared with tomato sauce, some other unidentified sauce (teriyaki?) or mayonnaise. The waitress asked us which sauce we wanted.1 We gave her our stunned mullet look, so she went off to seek the advice of the head waitress. She returned and smeared all three on top! This was then topped with bonito2 and something which might have been dried parsley. It tasted better than it sounds. I thought this was one of the most interesting meals we had in Japan. Jacqui's verdict - interesting, yes, but she wouldn't come back for seconds!

The evening brought on the first rain we had encountered in the whole trip. The Japanese seasons are like this - winter: freezing cold and snowing; summer: one month of rain followed by stifling humidity. The bits in between can be quite nice. The people we met commented that we were lucky we had missed the rainy season, which starts in mid June. However, from that night onwards, it didn't stop drizzling.

Back at the ryokan, we laid out our beds. My pillow (stuffed with rice, not foam) was fairly full and felt like sleeping with my head on a soft rock.

My first act on waking up was to switch on the TV as usual. The television in Japan seems to consist almost exclusively of game shows. There is usually a panel of celebrities, who have to answer questions in a madcap manner that helps the viewer take their mind off their long hours of pencil re-arranging. These game shows usually have some sort of educational component. For instance, they might screen a segment hosted by some other celebrity about travel in Italy. The compere will stop the film at a particular point and ask the panel of celebrities what the specialty is of the restaurant the travelling celebrity is about to enter. The panel will conjecture about this for about ten minutes of witty repartee. Sounds riveting? You betcha. Talent scouts from the ABC saw these shows and created Good News Week. The really "cool" game shows were hosted by this middle aged bodgie in sunglasses, who would get a group of male contestants to do really embarrassing things, like approach girls in the street asking for a date, while he filmed it with a hidden camera. Yes, the Japanese do call this entertainment. Occasionally, there would be a dramatic show or some dubbed American dreck like X-Files. Mostly it was game shows. Anyhow, the particular show I switched on that morning consisted of the usual panel of celebrities enthusiastically interviewing two even more enthusiastic transvestites, who seemed more than willing to disclose every aspect of their lives. At least I think so.

We were meeting Mich in central Osaka after her English lesson, at 12.45. We thought she would learn much more English if she spent the morning with us, including a few expressions not in her dictionary.3 Anyhow, after our five hour journey from Hiroshima, we decided to play it safe and catch the first train to Osaka we could get. Just to prove us wrong, this lobbed us on the Osaka Station platform a little after 10.00, a full two and a half hours before we had to meet Mich.

Jacqui had decided that she had seen all there was to see in the ancient capital of Nara. She was on her last day in Japan and she was going to shop. No more @&#$% temples! If you looked up Nara in a Japanese guide-book, it would probably say, "A beautiful ancient capital, full of sights and stalls where you can buy souvenir cakes for all you extended family and friends". An entry written by the Lucases would probably state, "Nara - a suburb of Osaka". Because, to us that's what it seemed to be. There were few breaks in the buildings to be seen while travelling between Nara and Osaka. At times, the paddy fields became more prevalent, but they were quickly washed away as the train sped into another suburb. Kyoto would probably warrant a similar description - to us it seemed part of the one big metropolis, not a separate city. When travelling between Kyoto and Osaka, Mich had tried in vain to point out to us where one city finished and the other started. It was obvious to the locals, she assured us. The other curious thing was that there were still paddy fields well inside all the major cities. Surrounded by houses and factories, these tiny plots (about the size of an Australian suburban house block) were worked by maybe a single family with the aid of hand-held machinery. Compared to Australian rice farms, hundreds of hectares in size and worked with combine harvesters and the like, Japanese rice farming was a joke. The land must be worth a small fortune.

Arriving in Osaka station, we wandered around its immediate precinct for a while, not seeing too much of interest. Until we took some stairs down, not up, and discovered that the majority of shops in the area are contained within a vast underground maze of intersecting arcades. We spent the next two and a half hours down there, exploring successive arcades and travelling far from the railway station, without once emerging into natural light. As usual, most of Osaka was down there with us and we did our by now famous impersonations of salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

The highlight of our morning was finding a cavernous stadium of a food hall in the basement of one of the many department stores which surround the railway station. In one corner of the food hall was a butcher shop. The Japanese attitude to beef seems to be the exact opposite to Australians' - the fattier the better. Lean is out; fat is in. For example, at this butcher shop, normal-looking lean mince - the kind we would buy in Australia - cost about A$16 a kilo.4 However, for the sort of stuff that we used to buy for the cat, they charged a whopping A$25 a kilo! The stall had various cuts of something like rump steak, ranging in price from about A$50 a kilo (for the stuff we would pay about $12 a kilo for), up to several hundred dollars a kilo for meat that was really marbled with fat. The piece-de-resistance was something in which a few flecks of dark pink muscle tissue struggled into view between a sea of light pink fat. This cost a staggering - wait for it - are you sitting down? - A$620 a kilo!! Imagine the bull they cut this stuff from - it must have made Colleen McCulloch look like Kate Moss! I wanted to have my picture taken next to the shop's display counter, we were so bowled over by this, but Jacqui didn't want to draw attention to us.

We lined up to meet Mich at the appointed place and time. The whole of Osaka had moved with us to this spot and they all looked like Mich. Luckily, the two of us stood out like tits on a bull and so after a few minutes she found us. The first priority was lunch. You could look all day for a place to eat at ground level in a Japanese city and maybe not find anything better than "Mr Donut". This is because all the restaurants are either in basements or on the top of multi-storey buildings. Mich took us to one in the top of a building. Her favourite food was "western", ie. spaghetti and pizza, but she had gotten it into her head that we were mad for some beef after two weeks away from Australia. Jacqui encouraged this belief because she was in fact mad for some beef, so we settled on a Korean place where we got beef-based lunch sets. Mich was ever keen to please and show us a good time. She had brought what I referred to as her "Osaka Show-bag", full of things she had assembled after our first meeting a week before:

Outside again, we discovered that it was drizzling. The wet season had set in for good, on our last day. Mich took us to a department store which is just for young people, called "The Loft". This looked like an interesting marketing exercise, which could work quite well in Australia. The building had a very modern appearance inside and out, and had clearly been designed specially for the concept of attracting only young shoppers. The stock was aimed directly at people say, less than 25.

Another attraction within walking distance of the station was a new building, comprising two office towers, linked at the top by a "floating" observatory, which cost a full Y1,000 to go up to. We paid our money. It was reached by a glassed-in lift which ran up the outside of the building. This was a bit hair-raising. However, then we had to catch an escalator which ran between the two towers, across an open space a couple of hundred metres up. I asked myself, "What if a Kobe style earthquake was to strike Osaka at this very moment?" Inside the observatory, we got some panoramic views of Osaka, although it was largely obscured by mist. All the seats were taken up by young couples canoodling. Up on the open rooftop it was windy, cold and drizzly. Four attendants stood out there, forlornly peeping through the eyeholes in their raincoats.

We stopped up in the observatory until dusk, then went in search of food again. Mich suggested okonomiyaki and we agreed, Jacqui more reluctantly than I, but willing to give it a second chance. We returned to the same top level restaurant plaza where we had lunch, to Mich's favourite okonomiyaki restaurant. I liked the food, but Jacqui was less enthusiastic. Jacqui and Mich had a little struggle over the bill (as usual). I think it was most embarrassing and un-Japanese to struggle over a bill, but it was also un-Japanese not to show the utmost hospitality to your "guests", so Mich desperately wanted to pay for the food. Whenever we paid, Mich would say, "I'm sorry; I feel so guilty!"

It was time we were getting back to Nara, and Mich accompanied us as far as Tennoji Station, where we changed trains to Nara. As our train pulled out of the station, Mich stood on the platform, waving until we were out of sight.

When we arrived back in Nara, we had to walk through the rain for 25 minutes to get to our hotel. We could have caught a taxi for $8, but we were on an adventure and had to do it properly. We got to the hotel a bit wet. We took off our shoes, but even after two weeks in Japan, we still forgot our corridor slippers. Jacqui re-packed the bags for the trip home. I asked the ryokan owner to book a taxi to the train station for us in the morning.

Something got lost in the translation! There was some Fawlty-esque confusion in the morning, as we discovered that the owner hadn't booked a taxi after all. I don't know what she thought the previous night's conversation had been about. Anyway, she made the call and one came fairly soon.

We caught a "limited express" to Tennoji, but when I tried to book a "Hakura" super-express from there to Kansai airport, I was told that it was fully booked. We caught a "rapid service" instead. The airport is a massive rectangular artificial island about two kilometres out into Osaka Bay, reached by a road and rail causeway. It only opened in late 1994. Mich was already waiting there to see us off. Because we weren't on the "Hakura" train we said we were going to be on, she had probably been waiting there for half an hour, but in typical polite Japanese fashion she played this down.

We sailed through booking in, and thankfully were able to send our luggage all the way through to Adelaide, without having to collect them in Jakarta or Denpassar. Although they seemed to weigh a ton when we lugged them around Japan, we were still far under the limit, in contrast to some of our other trips overseas. An unfortunate trainee got stuck with booking our fairly complex arrangements, but Mich was able to help out. Then she informed Jacqui that there was a whole floor of shops and restaurants down below, so we were all zoomed off in that direction. First things first, we sat down for some coffee and cake. Mich had already had her breakfast, but again with typical Japanese politeness she still participated in the Lucas's gut stuffing. I commented that it was lucky we were going, as she would probably put on a kilogram a day in our company!

Coffee and cake (tiny) worked out to more than A$10 each, but Jacqui only put up token resistance this time and Mich paid. We killed some time wandering around the souvenir shops, Jacqui's Yen burning a hole in her pocket. She bought a wooden doll, then we went back upstairs to the boarding area, said extended "goodbyes" to Mich and went through customs.

At Kansai Airport, the planes actually dock at separate buildings, accessed by a monorail which run between the buildings every couple of minutes. Our plane turned out to be a fairly old DC-10. My seat kept slowly reclining and my table didn't sit up straight. An overhead locker door near us was a little bit warped, so that it looked as if it didn't close properly. A couple of flight attendants fiddled with it, pushing it closed, then holding their hands gently under it, as if to say "stay" to a snarly dog. I thought this was a bit optimistic, given that we were just about to bounce along a runway at 300 kilometres per hour.

The plane sounded like it was actually powered by a pair of truck engines. When it climbed, I half expected the pilot to change down a gear.

After the plane had taken off, Jacqui studied the new June in-flight magazine to see what movie we would get. "If we get "Sense and Sensibility" again, I'll be so furious", she said. The in-flight magazine said the movie would either be "The Juror" or "It Takes Two", so she cooled down. Then an announcement came over the PA that there was to be two movies - "Kissing Miranda" (which we had seen on the way over to Japan) and "Two Bits". Jacqui spat the dummy and imperiously summoned the flight attendant, demanding to know why they were showing LAST month's movies, not those listed in the flight guide. The poor girl's English was limited to "coffee" and "tea", so she rushed off to get the purser. I buried my head deep in my book. He came up and said to me, "Is there a problem, Sir". Jacqui leaned over and said in that forceful tone that she didn't have when I married her, "He hasn't got a problem, I've got a problem". I buried my head deeper in my book5. The purser apologised and said that he didn't know why they were screening last month's movies, but he only screened what he was given and those were the only ones he had. Jacqui demanded that they turn the plane around and pick up the right movies6. The guy apologised again and left, Jacqui still grumbling. Really, what is more amazing is that they would show two English language movies to a planeload of Japanese! Not only that, but movies which were difficult for even an English speaker to understand. As far as I could tell, we were the only two people on the entire plane who paid the slightest regard to the movies!

About an hour and a half after take-off, they served lunch (beef or eel). They had barely cleared this away when they served another round of food, this time Japanese style cold noodles. After this, it was time to drain the spuds. I confirmed that the toilet's "occupied" light was off , then made my way over to it. I opened the door, to be confronted by a Japanese woman on the throne, with her pants around her ankles. I pushed the door closed again as fast as she pulled it! She then decided that it might be a good idea to lock the cubicle!

After a while, a guy came through the plane to do some sort of pre-immigration checks of the passengers. When he came to us, I tried to explain to him that we were headed for Australia and would not be entering Indonesia, only transiting there on the way.

"Australian citizen?", he asked.
He jerked his thumb at the chattel of the female gender I had brought on board with me. "What about this?"
"She's also an Australian citizen", I replied.

Instead of announcing the flight information over the PA, or screening it over the video, on this plane it was written on a piece of paper, which the passengers passed around among themselves along the length of the plane.

We arrived in Jakarta about 9.30 in the evening and wandered around the same transit lounge which we had been in two weeks before. After an hour's break, we flew on to Denpassar. We had another couple of hour's transit stop. All the other passengers on the plane were Japanese tourists whose destination was Denpassar. The airline's ground people were on the lookout for the two of us and they steered us away from the rest of the cattle. After checking our passports, one of them took us through a labyrinth of corridors and stairs until we entered the waiting area. Jacqui wandered around the shops, trying to get rid of her last few rupiah, which she had carted all around Japan with her. After we had done the shops twice over, it got very boring and we spent the remainder of our time (and rupiah) in a cafe. The flight to Adelaide left at 12.40 in the morning. It was full of noisy yobbos and we didn't get any sleep. The hosties woke us at 5.00 anyway!

1 in Japanese, of course. I'm just assuming that's what she was asking us.

2 shaved dried fish.

3 At one point, Jacqui said "Ta!" and Mich said she hadn't heard "Ta!" for years, since she was in Australia. Alas, the poor girl was probably learning her English from Americans!

4 Not bad - only about two and a half times the Australian price!

5 Knowing how Basil Fawlty felt, just as O'Rielly the incompetent builder smiled at Sybil and said "I like a woman with spunk."

6 No, not really.