Saturday, January 27, 2007
Listen to the bus guide's rap
I went along for my first ever Japanese bus tour today. It was the Year of the Boar mystery tour!
Japanese bus tours are advertised in inserts in Japanese newspapers and are a cheap way to enjoy a day out in Japan. Two adults and child came to a very reasonable 12,050 yen for the day.
A 7.30am start from Nagoya Station was a challenge after 3 hours sleep and a bottle of Chilean Red (Vina Maipo - highly recommended) from the local convenience store.
I was surprised to see about 20 buses contributing to global warming idling outside Nagoya station. Our mystery tour actually comprised a convoy of four Kintetsu buses. Once underway we headed west on the highway towards Kyoto and after a breakfast of Japanese green tea, senbei (rice crackers) and two croissants was passed out, our first port of call was a yatsuhashi (red bean paste sweet) shop in Shiga Prefecture.
The middle-aged tour guide kept up a constant commentary on the mic as we sped down the Meihan Expressway - this was difficult to take at first with a hangover and so little sleep, but as I revived, I began to enjoy her knowledgeable rap on such diverse subjects as the history of Japanese highways (now split into 3 separate regional groups, I learnt), the 1970 Osaka Expo and 19th century Kyoto politics. After a while her amped musings ceased to irritate and became a background noise you could tune in and out of if something of interest in her monologue caught your attention.
The sun broke through as we entered Kyoto and headed for the Gosho, Kyoto's Imperial Palace.
Our convoy of four buses pulled up in the Imperial Palace car park and we spilled out to take in Goou Shrine just across the road. This was after all a Year of the Boar mystery tour and the Goou Shrine is dedicated to Wake no Kiyomaru, a Heian Period courtier, who was exiled to the wilds of southern Japan and supposedly escorted and protected for part of his journey by 300 wild boars.
A young couple, celebrating their wedding at Goou shrine in traditional attire, looked suitably embarrassed as 240 day-trippers from Aichi Prefecture broke out in spontaneous applause at their appearance and joined the official photographer in snapping away at the blushing pair.
Thirty minutes and then back on the bus. Next stop a tsukemono (pickles) shop opposite Nishi Honganji Temple near Kyoto Station.
By the time the three of us had got back from the toilets, the free pickles and wine had vanished, so after buying some pickled radish downstairs, we headed out into the warm sunshine to see the Nishi Honganji temple complex.
Back on the bus, this time balancing our complimentary bento (boxed lunches) on our knees, we drove south out of town past the new, under-construction elevated highways that are spearing in to downtown Kyoto.
The guide's commentary ceased for a while as we all dozed down to Nara and the Nara Palace Site Museum.
We pulled up for 30 minutes to take in the free Palace Site Museum, an interesting insight into Heijokyo - the ancient capital of Japan in Nara from 710-794.
The museum presents a series of scale models showing the buildings, culture and clothing of the ancient capital through preserved roof tiles, pottery, tools and Nara Period money (which looks amazingly like present-day 5-yen coins). One amazing exhibit showed customs receipts enscribed on to thin wooden blocks, revealing how sophisticated life had become in peaceful 8th century Japan, as globalization set in with overseas influence from Korea and mainland China shaping Japan's cultural and political development.
There was just time to dash off to get a picture of the restored Suzaku Gate, which was the main southern entrance to the ancient Nara capital, and take a look at the reconstruction work on the huge Imperial Audience Hall, which is due to open in 2010, before it was back on to the bus for a stop at a Nara Park souvenir shop, a quick photo of the predatory Nara deer and then back on the bus once again for the drive to an out-of-town stop for wild-boar soup and a couple of rice balls.
By this time barriers had broken down somewhat among the passengers and it was fun to swap travelers' tales with my fellow bus trippers.
"The older guides like to talk and explain things, the younger ones are more taciturn."
"We chose this trip because it was on the weekend and included three meals."
"There's always a lot of stops to shop."
I have two more bus trips booked in the next month, I'll let you know how things go.
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