The Gardens of Kanazawa

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Japanese gardens are landscapes in miniature.

Rocks symbolise mountains, streams represent rivers and ponds stand in for seas; water cascades from one pond to another in allusion to mountain waterfalls. Every stone is carefully chosen for colour, shape and size, and placed with precision in clusters.

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Just as much thought goes into to the placement of suteishi (‘discarded’) stones, which are meant to seem random and express spontaneity, for even the spontaneous is meticulously planned in Japan.

On the backstreets of Kanazawa, there are old Samurai houses with gardens no bigger than you would find behind a modest house in the English suburbs. Yet, without seeming cramped, they incorporate streams filled with koi carp, lanterns, pagodas, mini-boulders, arched bridges, cedars and firs.

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They are not gardens in which you could kick a football about or set up a barbecue and have friends round for burgers and beers on a hot summer’s evening, but the idea would assuredly horrify in Japan, in any case. They are gardens to gaze at, gardens to cheer the soul.

Kenroku-en is just a few blocks away but on a wholly different scale. It is a public garden – once part of the grounds of Kanazawa Castle – which undulates over 114,000 Sq m and is reckoned one of the three most beautiful in Japan. The name means something on the lines of Garden with Six Attributes, a reference to an ancient book which posited that the ideal garden would have the six attributes of “spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas”.

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At the highest point, there is a view through the cherry blossom across the city and the hills to the mountains; fish eagles soar overhead. Nearby is the pond known as Kasumiga-ike, which stretches over 5,800 Sq m. An old wooden tea house sits over the pond on  pillars.

The path spirals down the hill, named Sazae-yama – or Turban Shell Hill – after the pattern on the shell of a type of sea snail which is a popular local delicacy. The ground either side is carpeted in moss and dotted with fallen blossom.

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It leads down to another pond, Hisago-ike, fed by a six-metre-high cascade from Kasumiga-ike which tumbles down through the trees and rocks with a soothing hiss. Mallards glide across the surface, smearing the reflection of the deep green fir trees and soft pink cherry blossoms. Herons take to the air with a little jump from a rock. Koi carp teem at the edges. Bees buzz the blossom.

The path meanders through the gardens, ushering you into secret spaces, opening out into vistas (spaciousness & seclusion), past fir trees with their roots exposed, and wooden props under the branches of the oldest and biggest to stop them breaking in heavy snow, and cherry and plum blossoms and Japanese maples and stone lanterns and pagodas thickly coated with moss, which is welcomed for the impression it gives of great age (artifice & antiquity) over humped-back bridges across streams lined with iris and azaleas, offering glimpses again of the mountains (water-courses & panoramas).

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Every rock, every tree, every lantern seems so perfectly positioned that to move any one would ruin the harmony of the whole garden. It is a profoundly peaceful place: a place where anxieties melt away and you feel a rare lightness of spirit.

© Richard Senior 2016

Cycling the Shimanami Kaidō

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I set off too late from Hiroshima, then got the wrong train, and it was going on for lunchtime when I reached Onomichi. But I decided to skip lunch because I wanted to cycle at least some of the Shimanami Kaidō between the eight islands, from Honshu to Shikoku, across the suspension bridges over the Inland Sea.

I have since read about travellers planning and training for the ride for weeks and basing their trips to Japan around it, but I am too spontaneous, too chaotic for anything like that. I had found out about the Shimanami Kaidō by chance a day or two before when looking for something else in the guidebook.

It is a 70km (43 mile) route, end to end, and my guidebook reckoned it would take somewhere around eight hours to ride, which to me seemed too pessimistic. I reckoned four or five.

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The rent-a-bike point was hidden in a car park but I found it eventually and chose a cheap ‘mountain bike’ over a selection of old ladies’ shopping bikes. I revised my estimate to five or six hours when I saw it, dropped my daybag into the basket and rattled along the waterfront to the ferry across the Onomichi-suido Channel. I had picked up a map of the route but it was, in any case, marked with blue and white lines on the road. It would be hard to get lost.

If I wanted my deposit back, I would have to return the bike to Onomichi before 6pm, but the deposit was only ¥1000, or £5.89. (The hire cost was half that, which made it a cheap afternoon’s entertainment.) I saw when I skim-read the back of the map that I could drop off the bike at the end, or at points along the way, and take a bus back; and that was all I needed to know, for the moment.

The bike was too low-geared to go anywhere fast, but the route was flat – or at least so it seemed after the merciless hills of northern England – and the sun was hot and it was a perfect day for cycling. The route took me through a slice of Japan which you rarely see as a tourist, neither the sleepy towns of old wooden houses, nor the bustling cities of neon-lit skyscrapers, just workaday hamlets with a few houses and shops, a filling station, then nothing until a big-hammer factory, and nothing again for the next ten minutes.

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I tracked diagonally across Mukaishima Island and came out at the waterfront and followed its contours round towards the Innoshima suspension bridge. The blue and white lines led under the bridge and round a corner and then twisted back on themselves up a steep hill which spiralled to the cycle lane of the bridge suspended beneath the roadway.

Two hours in, I had worked across Innoshima Island and traversed the Ikushi Bridge, with orchids lining the approach road and big barges trundling underneath and the sun glinting off the water. I was on the fourth island of eight and seemed to be making good time.

There is apparently a temple worth seeing on Ikuchijima Island but I was too focussed to detour to it, and in any case I had been to Nikkō, Nara and Kyoto already on that trip and would not feel cheated if I never saw another temple. There were, as well, a few curiosities at the side of the road: an old bus in faded psychedelic paint in the style of Ken Kesey’s Furthur and a group of life-size dummies seated in a row as if they were waiting for a bus.

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It took me somewhere around an hour to get to the next bridge, 36 kilometres from Onomichi, a little over half way to Imabari. I had, it seemed, been wildly optimistic to think that I could finish the route in four hours but about right with the more conservative six. I was not sure why the guidebook thought you needed eight, but then the map said eight to ten and I have since read that some travellers spread the ride over a couple of days.

I could still, just about, have turned the bike round and headed back to Honshu before the rent-a-bike terminal closed, but I was enjoying myself too much for that. The other terminals, I saw when I read the back of the map properly, closed at 5pm. There was an outside chance that I could get all the way to Imabari on the edge of Shikoku and find the terminal in time, but it was no more than an outside chance.

There were three other terminals along the way, so there was no need to give up just yet. It was a lovely ride along the waterfront on Omishima Island and across the arched bridge to Hakatajima, where I caught up with a group of serious cyclists with sprayed-on lycra and bikes made from carbon fibre and fresh air and passed a couple of them; but there was too much face to be lost in being overtaken by a tourist in street clothes on a pig-iron mountain bike, so they clunked down a gear and streaked past me.

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I decided as I snaked through the national park to the west of Hakatajima Island to drop off the bike at the next terminal, just before the Hakata-Oshima suspension bridge, the last but one before Imabari. I only had 20km left to ride to the end of the route, and plenty of energy, but by then it was clearly too late to get there before 5pm.

I imagined the bus interchange to be a big building with helpful things like timetables and an information desk, but it was actually just a turning circle with a few wooden shelters. There was no one else around. In a few of the shelters, there were photocopied sheets with bus times on them but the destinations – naturally – were only in Japanese. The last bus going anywhere seemed to be at half-past five.

At somewhere around twenty-past, a bus pulled in but the driver denied that he was going to Onomichi.

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Of course I had no contingency plan and I thought I would be lucky even to find an English-speaker within reasonable walking distance, let alone a hotel or a taxi firm. If it came to it, I supposed I would just have to walk back to Honshu.

But then, at something to six, the bus turned up.

© Richard Senior 2016