Kanto Maigo – Foreword

One would think that after so many trips, planning for a trip would be a matter of going through the motions and things would no doubt go smoothly.




It’s actually the other way, I think. The more experience one has the more one knows how things could go wrong and begins to consider all of the factors. Overthinking, is just much a headache as ignorance.




That’s how things ended up being quite messy for this trip’s planning. A lot of back and forth, a lot of indecisions, and way too much shifting around.




Initially the trip was prompted by the Shinkai Makoto exhibition, a celebration looking back at the road which the director took over the decade from the humble debut of Voices of a Distant Star to the phenomenon hit Your Name.




The exhibition was touring around Japan, starting from the Z-Kai Kotoba Museum which had hosted the previous Shinkai World exhibit, to Koumi Museum near Shinkai’s hometown in Nagano, Tokyo in Nov-Dec then to Sapporo in Jan-Feb 2018.




The Sapporo date overlapped with the Sapporo Snow Festival so the idea came about. Why not hit the snow festival and the exhibition at the same time, can also throw in the penguin parade at Asahikawa zoo.




Planning initially went smoothly. The trip would either be Sapporo in-out, or Hakodate-Sapporo in-out. Or if time permitted, perhaps even enter via Tokyo or Sendai.


I really miss that milk curry ramen in Aomori.






A friend Y also indicated an interest in being dragged along which I happily agreed to. Travelling by oneself was very exhausting and sometimes demoralizing. Having a companion would help keep things interesting and keep from slacking off back to the hotel early as I had done several times before.




There was always a nagging problem though. Hokkaido is really hard to plan in winter.




Hokkaido in winter is cold, the daylight short, and the weather unpredictable. Since it’s the off-season many tourist spots either don’t open at all or has shortened hours. Combined with the long travel distances between the main towns, it makes planning meaningful trips a headache.




Since daylight is limited, travelling during the day is really not desired, problem is most locations do not have enough attractions to warrant a full day. Otaru maybe just over half a day, Asahikawa however long one can spend in the zoo, Hakodate has enough for a day except one would want to arrive early enough to see the nighttime scenery which either means giving up one morning or one afternoon travelling to/from Sapporo.




Within Sapporo itself it’s not much better, outside of the Sapporo Beer Museum and Shiroi Koibito Park, there’s shopping, eating and… that’s more or less it.




What are at best C list tourist spots in other areas ends up on the B list for Hokkaido, and there just aren’t that many A grade spots in Hokkaido. So one either force oneself to spend too much time at one location to make the most of the day given how long it took to get there, or spend less time at each place and waste most of the trip on the trains.




Extra considerations also had to be built into the schedule in case blizzards stopped the trains or worse flights. There had to be a few flexible days that could be shuffled around for the Asahikawa zoo day trip, and the first and last night had to be in the city.




Nevertheless, planning continued and hotel bookings were made with a few additional days on either side to be adjusted closer to the date.




Then I started looking at flights, and it was clear that it was going to be too difficult.




Despite still almost half a year away, the tickets prices were getting high and the seats getting few. Unless the flight could be locked down within a week or two it was quite possible for the more suitable dates to be sold out.




The decision was made then to scrap the idea of going to Hokkaido and bring the trip forward to visit the exhibition in Tokyo.




That caused its own sets of problems. Namely I’m not particularly fond of Tokyo – too much shops, not enough other stuff. Some people can spend an entire day (or days) doing the strip at Omotesando or Shinjuku. Something that will barely last me two hours.




The other thing that Tokyo had plenty of are places to eat. Problem is they all tend to require queuing up. Something again I am terrible with.




So I decided to aim for either the Christmas lights in early December, or the autumn leaves in late November.




Two set of plans were thus drawn up, targeting the different periods. More lights, or more leaves.




Things started looking up. The Shinkai Makoto exhibition was going to take half a day, maybe a few hours doing the pilgrimage around Shinjuku visiting spots that appeared in Your Name. Throw in a day in Hakone, a day in Kamakura, a half day out to the west to visit a sake brewery followed by half a day being healed by penguins in the aquarium plus some sightseeing/snacking in Ginza. Fits in fairly well for a 5-6 day trip.




In fact, Tokyo had changed quite a lot since I visited in 2011. There were a lot of new spots to visit, such as the Skytree, the Daikanyama T-Site, the Manseibashi complex beneath the former station platforms, even Asakusa had changed quite a bit (not that I did it justice the last time).




Then Y mentioned that only 2 days off was possible, meaning including weekends at best 4 days.




Around the same time I also realized that it was possible to book what was called open jaw flights, that is a return flight to Taiwan cost the same as a flight to Japan then a return flight from Taiwan, I only had to book an additional single flight from Japan to Taiwan. This meant compared to what I had done before, booking a Taiwan return from Sydney, then a Japan return from Taiwan, doing a triangle flight of Sydney->Japan->Taiwan->Sydney saved an entire day and the cost of a single flight.




This presented me with a different problem. I was suddenly presented with additional days compared to what I had previously planned for. Whereas before it might have been Tuesday to Sunday, I was now looking at Sunday to Sunday.




The trip became two halves. The first half I would be on my own, then meet up with Y for the second half.




The exhibition was of course moved to the first half, then I had the vague idea of doing the kanto area using the Kanto Area pass. Kusatsu Onsen maybe, since I always wanted to visit it but never did find the time, at this stage not sure about the rest.




The sudden opening up of options aside, I decided to aim for the early 20s of November for the later half, a bit of a gamble between autumn leaves and Christmas lights. It turned out to be a good choice too as came December comes the off peak season and many shops would have been closed in Hakone and Karuizawa.




Ideally a week earlier would have been better for autumn leaves in Hakone, but that risked being too early for Christmas lights in Tokyo. By picking the 20s, I figured even if I missed out on the autumn leaves, we’d get to see the ginkyo leaves in Tokyo at least.




Tiger Air offered a red eye flight with arrival in Haneda at 4am, so thankfully Y’s first day can be a full day, if a very tiring one. Since I wanted to keep day 2 and 3 flexible for Hakone in case of weather, I allocated the first day for the trip to the sake brewery as its english guided tour required advanced reservations.




With a vague timeline drawn up, I moved on to securing accommodations.




The usual places to stay in Tokyo was either west side (Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya), or east side Ueno/Akihabara or area near Tokyo station/Ginza/Nihonbashi.




Shinjuku was discarded as I had no desire of risking Kabukicho. If I was on my own it might have been fine, just had to skirt around the edges and stick to the main road when getting to and from the hotel, but I was responsible for more than myself on this trip. Outside of Kabukicho the hotels tended to be some distance away from the station, not to mention expensive. Shinjuku station is also a nightmare to navigate.




Tokyo accommodation prices have really gone up since I last visited.




Ikebukuro and Shibuya I saw little reason to stay at, since they were a little out of the way for the places I had planned on visiting.




That leaves the east side, which had better access to airports anyway.




Last time I had stayed at Ueno, looking at it now with more experience, it was surprisingly poorly situated if one wasn’t heading to the north east. Yamanote line was slow, to access the west side it was generally much faster to take the Chuo line or pick one of the metros (which Ueno had especially poor access to). Akihabara was well situated but hotel choices were few.




Kinshicho, which I had never even heard of before, stood out as a place that’s surprisingly convenient despite being outside of the central areas. It has access to both Chuo and Sobu line meaning it can access Shinjuku and Tokyo station without transfer. The metro Honzomon line north south through it giving it access to Skytree and Shibuya and easy transfers to other lines. For the cost of 10 extra minutes getting into Tokyo central, one could get some really cheap hotels.




The other focus was along the Asakusa line, which has direct access to both Haneda and Narita airport now that there is through service to the Keikyu and Keisei line.




During the search I also ran across the Shin-Nihonbashi/Mitsukoshi-mae area, which while not having access to the Asakusa line, did provide decent rail access if usually requiring transfers. It traded some convenience for cheaper prices.




The focus though, really fell to Shinbashi. It’s very much an office area and not a shopping area, which is probably why it doesn’t usually rank very high on people’s radars. The hotels here were slightly more expensive, more than places like Ueno but cheaper than Shinjuku/Ikebukuro/Shibuya. It does however have amazing access for what I had planned.




Yamanote line. Via the Asakusa line direct access to both airports and of course, Asakusa. Ginza line gives it access up the Ginza strip and out west to Shibuya and Meiji Jingu Mae. A short walk to Shiodome and we get the Christmas lights at Caretta and the Oedo line goes west to Roppongi and Shibuya and east to Tsukiji.




The Shinbashi/Shiodome combination gave access to Yamanote and JR main line, 3 metros, 4 if one counted the Mita line which is also within walking distance. Outside of Ikebukuro it had direct access to every location I had potentially planned. There is also the Yurikamome line to Odaiba, providing the option of going to the Oedo Monogatari Onsen early morning on Y’s arrival if the situation called for rest and recovery.




Access to the airport is of particular importance. Since Shinbashi is so near to Haneda it allowed me to go to the airport to pick up Y and allowed dropping off the luggage as soon as possible. On the last day we can make use of the morning without checking out, returning only when it’s time to go hop on the train directly to Narita.


機場交通對這次安排上很重要。因為新橋離羽田很近,我可以一大早去機場接Y,也可很快安置好行李。最後一天也可一早出去晃而不用check out,只要時間到了回來,跳上直達成田的列車就好了。


There is also another critical factor which led to ultimately choosing Shinbashi, that is outside of Shinjuku, this was the one location that could realistically do a day trip to Hakone.




In the end as I had often done and perhaps too much so throughout this trip, I opted for convenience over cost over most things, and Shinbashi was settled on as the place to stay for the second half.




Once the second half was more or less outlined, I looked back to the first half. Kusatsu Onsen was going to take basically 2 days since it takes 3-4 hours just to get there. The remaining day was going to be either Karuizawa or Kamakura. It was going to be a day trip and was left open ended while I worked on more pressing parts of the schedule.




Incidentally I had some air miles up for expiry and instead of trading them for gift cards, I decided to look into what I accomodation I could get for them. Turned out I could get some really good deals, about 3 times what I could have gotten with gift cards. Either they had really good discounts with the partner hotels or they bought the rooms on a fixed rate that was less subject to seasonal fluctuations.




Sunday in Kusatsu, Monday, Tuesday in a separate hotel booked using air miles, then Wednesday in Shinbashi, a day earlier than Y to check out the area beforehand and also provide a place to throw luggage on the day.




Unfortunately my manager had dragged his feet on approving my leave so not only did I miss out on the cheapest fair, I also missed out on the Saturday red-eye with Sunday morning arrival. I had to settle for a Saturday day time flight with 9pm Haneda arrival instead and had to book an extra night close to the airport. Considering possible delays I was expecting check in possibly after 11pm. Given the circumstances, I decided a capsule hotel was probably the best, despite my reservations about them.


有點不幸,我的主管在准假時拖延了好幾天,所以我不但錯過了最好的機票價格,也沒能拿到週日一大早到的週六紅眼班機。只好求其次選了週六飛白天,晚上9點到羽田的班機,需要多一晚住機場附近。考慮到班機誤點還有通關延誤之類的,check in時大概會是11點之後。考慮這狀況,我決定最好是住膠囊旅館,雖然一直對這種形式的旅館有所保留。


With accomodation and flight locked in, planning fell back into an endless loop of adding and removing, at the same time keeping a close eye on the autumn leave forecast.




An unusually late typhoon brought after it an early cold front, crashed the thermometer and started the autumn leave this year a week or two early. It looked like Hakone may be entirely out of autumn leaves by the planned dates. Worse, the typhoon blew away all the snow on top of Mount Fuji, leaving its peak barren and a sore sight.




A backup to Hakone was hurriedly planned. Centered around possibly going to Tofuya Ukai Shiba, followed by maybe a walk of the old districts of Nippori, plus several gardens in Tokyo famed for autumn leaves.




The backup plan turned out to be fruitless as I was not able to secure a booking at Tofuya, and the autumn leaves in Hakone turned out to be surprisingly resilient.




Nevertheless all the backup plans took most of the attention and I was glad that neither Kusatsu Onsen nor Karuizawa required much researching.




Let’s talk Heike Monogatari 談談平家物語吧

Let’s talk Heike Monogatari



Or called Tales of the Heike. But I prefer to say Heike Monogatari, as the word monogatari provides an extra dimension that tales fails to fully capture.

英文又翻做Tales of the Heike(平家故事)。但我喜歡稱Heike Monogatari, monogatari相較tale含意上更多一層次。


To begin, I read the English translation by Helen McCullough, which is written in more plain narrative than the original sung performance. A Chinese translation will no doubt retain more of its original colour, someday I hope to come across one.


首先,我讀的是Helen McCullough的英文翻譯本,在撰寫上選擇比較白話的敘述,而非原本來詠讀的詞語。中文翻譯會更貼近原文的韻味,希望有天能讀看看。


The tale follows the rise and fall of the Taira clan (also called Heike, House of Hei, as Taira can be read as Hei), their ascent to power enough that eclipsed the throne, to their final destruction, the very last of their blood extinguished by their long time rival Genji clan (also called Minamoto).




The book consists of 3 phases. The gradual build up to the death of Kiyomori and of open warfare, the back and forth till the last battle at Dan-no-ura, and the last third where the remaining Heike meets their end. Within each are several chapters, each a collection of passages of various lengths, ranging from half a page to 5-6 pages. Some tightly follows, others loosely related, and some travels back in time to provide context to events or characters.


整本書可分三大段。慢慢鋪陳到平 清盛之死,戰火燃起。雙方來回爭戰到最終的壇ノ浦之戰。最後一段為剩下的平氏成員最終的下場。每段有許多章,內另細分許多小節,有的只有半頁到有的五,六頁。有的間故事直接延續,有的有所相連,有的則回朔到過去,解釋當下事情或人物的緣由。


It’s an epic tale that not only depicts some of Japan’s most iconic historic characters and events, but more significantly for me, it illuminates the culture of the time when the tales are performed.




I started the book expecting it to be similar to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms which I am well familiar with. Gradually I came to the opinion that perhaps the Water Margin is the more apt comparison, with a wider cast of characters, the focus on martial prowess. But even that is drawing a loose line, there is nothing in Water Margin akin to the expertly crafted short passages which while not adhering to one tight narrative nor structure, yet at same time harmoniously fits together thematically. Heike Monogatari is very much its own style, comparisons cannot be drawn easily.




What really struck me was not so much the tales and characters, but how much references to Chinese there are. The courtier would cite Confucian ideals, the three sovereigns and five emperors, and of the Emperors of Tang as precedent. Or draw analogies to Liu Ban and Xiang Yu, of Wang Man of Han, of the rebellion of An Lushan. There was even included an entire passage of the story of Jing Ke’s failed assassination of Shihuangdi of Qin.




I had always known Heian period was strongly influenced by Chinese culture, but never thought it to be to this degree. The book would have been an incredibly hard read for foreigners, not only having to face unfamiliar Japanese names and locations, but also characters and events of a place different than the one currently being read about. Infact, I wonder how much of the Chinese references will be understood by Japanese.




Given the incredible amount of Chinese references, it is surprising, and also unsurprisingly, that there aren’t any to the Three Kingdoms period. Probably the best known Chinese period in modern times thanks to the popularity of the aforementioned Romance of the Three Kingdoms in related media if not, sadly, the original book.




It makes sense of course, when one consider that Romance of the Three Kingdoms was not written until the Yuan-Ming period ~1300. And Heiki Monogatari had taken shape in some form in the Kamakura period, also around ~1300, likely predating the books. Without the Romance it was likely that the period did not hold enough influence to be considered iconic events to be referenced.




The book is interesting in that there are no protagonists to speak of. The Romance had the three brothers, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, after their fall the lead was taken up by Zhuge Liang, then his protege Jiang Wei. And the Water Margin strictly followed the core heroes of the 108.




While Heike also passes focus from Kiyomori to Koremori, Yoshinaka and Yoshitsune, the narrative does not treat them as favourites. It does not paint the Taira nor the Genji as being in the right (as Romance does for Shu), nor wholly wrong. Even the imperial house under Go-Shirakawa could hardly be considered pillars of righteous virtues. The story is about them, but also not about them. It is this air of impartiality that differentiates it from the other novels.




As the monogatari begins in its very first sentence. The sound of the Gion bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.




The story can best be characterized by a fatalism of fate and fleeting nature of things. An almost tranquil, matter of fact stating. Rather than brought to cheer for or dislike any particular characters, one is led to pity and worry, for in defeat speckle of honour and bravery shines, and even in triumph an air of sorrow permeates.




Kiyomori, the tyrant of late Heian court. The narrative paints a dark image of the man, as a man full of anger and bereft of humble sense. His wanton acts led to the death of his son and hope of the people Shigemori. Without Shigemori’s restraint on his father, Kiyomori’s full fury is laid bare. His last dying words, instead of some longing for his family or retrospection of life, were ones wishing for death upon his adversaries.




The weight of his sins were carried by his sons. While they, too, were party to the Taira’s indulgences and cruel acts, towards the end I was moved to feel for their suffering. Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers. Poets, musicians, scholars. People of qualities, courageous, skilled, masterful. Who amongst us is not human. Frail people caught up in the fortunes given.




And what of Yoshinaka? The Genji that first defeated and drove the Taira out of the capital? A masterful tactician whose sin was being an uncouth man from the countryside. The man fought to the end and died bravely with his brother Imai who killed himself by leaping off his horse with holding the sword in his mouth.




Or Yoshitsune? A small man who destroyed the Taira and brought order to the country, then driven to rebellion by his suspicious brother.




So many deserved death yet lived, so many deserved life yet died. Some are rewarded by their compassion, others died by the very those they spared. Some found peace before their ends in the buddha, others laughing as they went in storms of glory.

The world’s nature is one of fleeting beauty, life is but an illusive dream. The flowers of spring after a night’s rain carpets the earth. The red of autumn after a gust welts and scatters amidst the mountains and rivers. Such is the essence of Heike Monogatari.