Two weeks after Japan was struck by that devastating earthquake, we visited our daughter who has been working in that country for the past year. Our visit had been long in the planning, and because our daughter was in an area far removed from the disaster area, we decided to go.
Our visit attracted a great deal of interest .We had many phone calls prior to our departure which included a fair bit of admonishment about our decision to go. Well we are back now, and the interest continues because we have been honoured by being invited to write something about our trip for the Scenic South website. What follows is a pot-pouri of personal experiences and some hopefully interesting “hard facts” about Japan.
We used Kansai Airport as our point of entry and exit into and out of Japan. This airport was one of ten structures given the “Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium ’’award by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is sited on a man –made island 4km long and 2.5 km wide and has the longest airport terminal in the world at a total length of 1,7 km end to end. Some 21 million cubic meters of landfill was required to create the island and 3 mountains were excavated to obtain this. The landfill was transported using 80 ships. This was probably not a big issue to the Japanese as they are the world’s largest shipbuilders.
The island is 3km from the mainland and is connected to it by a road/railroad bridge. The last earthquake to strike Japan was at Kobe in 1995.The epicentre of this earthquake was about 20km+ from the airport. Due to the earthquake engineering applied to the structure, the airport emerged unscathed and even the glass in the windows remained intact. Kansai Airport is just one example of the extreme engineering prowess we witnessed in Japan.
Why would the Japanese build an airport in the sea? The flippant answer is because they can! They have in fact constructed a further two airports in similar vein and have helped Hong Kong with one of their own. The real answer is that there is a great shortage of land in Japan. Did you know that South Africa is 110 times bigger in Japan? Japan is also the ninth most populous country in the world with a population of 127 million people. South Africa’s population is well below half of that. However the Japanese population is fast shrinking and if the current trend continues, the prognosis is that it will be around 50 million by 2050.
But back to the engineering prowess of Japan. We experienced it using their trains. There are a number of different types of trains, but we only used Japanese Rail and the “Bullet Train” or the Shinkhansen as it is known in Japan. The Shinkhansen runs on its own tracks and cruises around 300 km per hour. The tracks are frequently on elevated structures and tunnels abound. The trains are spotlessly clean and meticulously on time. We were told that once when the trains did run late by a couple of minutes, the head of the railways had to apologize to the nation on television.
Whilst travelling on a train, a ticket inspector visits each coach. Before inspecting the tickets he stands at the front of the coach and bows deeply’. On leaving he repeats the process. We were amused by this ceremony.
Travelling by train was a comfortable and pleasurable experience. Travelling by bus was the opposite. The buses were always very full with standing room only. The buses are entered at a door at the side and exited at the front where the driver is paid. Nobody cheats by getting out of the door at the side.
Then of course there are the cars. Did you know the Japanese drive on the left hand side of the road? Their cars, like their trains, are immaculate. The Japanese have very strict motor vehicle licensing laws, and the upshot of this, is that most cars are “retired “before they are four years old. Parking is very expensive and with land space being at a premium,some of the apartment blocks have “double- decker” carports which we found to be interesting.
Alongside all this sophisticated engineering the common bicycle proliferates as a mode of transport and is ridden by young and old alike. Maybe the Japanese count this commuter cycling as their exercise, because we did not see any serious cyclists or for that matter any joggers in the areas where we stayed.
Baseball is big in Japan and nearly every town has a baseball diamond. We watched the tail end of a baseball game on TV, and were intrigued by the end of game proceedings. The two teams line up facing each other. They then remove their baseball caps in almost military precision. Then comes the obligatory deep bow, and then the umpire declares the winning team.
The Japanese are passionate about golf, but very few golf courses exist. However in major towns we saw a number of golf driving ranges .These structures predominate the skyline. They comprise of tremendously tall poles-at least nine stories high- with netting between them. The grass on the ranges was always luminous green and is probably astro turf.
Talking of colours, the places we passed by train or bus were a little drab. Grey and brown is the lingering impression. No big trees were in evidence in the towns and villages. However, the country was just emerging from winter and of course not always the best vistas are gained from a train or bus window. No trappings of great wealth was seen, but certainly there was no squalor. Not one iota of litter was observed in our ten days of travel, despite the fact that the Japanese are not great on providing litter bins. The houses are all very small and mainly double storey dwellings. It was interesting to observe they were not terraced, and each house had its own roof structure albeit that it was only about a foot away from its neighbouring one. We stayed in a mixed bag of places but one thing common to all of them, was the very tiny bathrooms. Two outstretched arms in length and one outstretched arm in width was the average size.
Our daughter lives in a rural area where forests, rice paddies, and pristine rivers abound. This was right up our alley. In some parts it was like driving through the Newlands Forests on a good tarred road.
Japan is an archipelago of some 3000 islands. We visited two of these, the one being the well known Miyajima Island. This island is a World Heritage Site and spectacularly beautiful. We took a cable car up to the top of the mountain on the island and were able to look back on the beautiful city of Hiroshima. There is a wonderful museum in Hiroshima which of course centres on the A-Bomb tragedy of 1945.We spent an absorbing afternoon in there.
We dined well on our trip and sampled the local fare. Generally it was tasty but in essence rice and spice. After a few days, all we wanted was some good old fresh fruit and vegetables. Vending machines abound in Japan and one can get hot coffee and cold beer from the same machine.
A lot more could be described but here ends our mish-mash of impressions. For the record we spent time in Kyoto, Nara (this place is overrun by tame deer and has the biggest wooden structure in the world), Hiroshima and Okayama and as already mentioned we passed through Osaka on our way back to the amazing Kansai Airport.
Dennis and Jean Clark