The Shinkansen has been moving people around Japan at high speed since the 1960s, and throughout that time the network has continued to extend, with new, ever faster and more futuristic-looking train designs appearing every few years.
The latest development, which opened in March 2015, extends the Hokuriku line to Kanazawa and Toyama on the Sea of Japan coast. The journey from Tokyo to Kanazawa is reduced from 4 hours to 2 and a half, in the stylish comfort of the new E7 series train.
This morning we took the local train to Shin-Osaka station, where we reserved seats in the Shinkansen for our journey to Tokyo and for the onward journey from Tokyo to Sendai. The JR pass entitles us to unlimited travel for one week on the JR rail network. This represents excellent value as the cost of the pass is equivalent to that of one return journey from Osaka to Tokyo.
The trip to Tokyo took just under 3 hours on the Hikari service, which reached a top speed of 285 km/h and made several stops en route. Punctuality is extraordinary, with departure and arrival times accurate to within a few seconds over the journey. The reclining seats are spacious and comfortable and have electric sockets and seat-back tables to facilitate use of laptops.
The faster Nozomi service covers the same distance in 2 hours and 25 minutes but is not available with the JR pass.
When we arrived in Tokyo station it was time to think about buying lunch. Japan has a tradition of 駅弁 eki-ben, lunchboxes sold in stations for eating on the train. eki means station and ben is short for 弁当 bentou meaning lunchbox. You can buy a lunchbox in the shape of the new E7 train.
My lunchbox commemorates the opening of the Ueno-Tokyo line.
Each of the 9 little compartments contains food typical of Ibaraki prefecture, with a wonderful variety of ingredients, including melon jelly for dessert.
This is the train that took us to Sendai. It was the first time I had seen the E5 train, with its cartoonishly long nose cone.
The train information board shows where to find your carriage when you go upstairs to the platform. We were in carriage number 8 on the 12:36 train. Needless to say, it pulled smoothly out of the station at exactly 12:36.
This blog post is being written at 280 km/h as we speed through the countryside in the 新幹線 Shinkansen train from Osaka to Tokyo on Easter Sunday morning.
Our destination today is Sendai, in Japan’s 東北 touhoku (north-east) region. Even at Shinkansen speeds, it will take 5 or 6 hours to get there. Sendai is much cooler than Osaka right now (about 14°C difference), so we had to pack winter clothes for Sendai as well as short sleeves for Osaka.
Yesterday morning we decided to visit Osaka Castle Park to see the 桜 cherry blossoms. They are earlier than usual this year so we expected that we would arrive in Japan too late to see them. But in fact our timing was perfect: the flowers were 満開 mankai—fully open when we arrived. The blossoms were beautiful against the backdrop of the castle and the blue sky.
One little difference between Japanese and English is that when we urgently need to warn someone of danger, we call out something like “Careful!” or “Watch out!”, whereas they say “Dangerous!” (危ない abunai). (I’m talking about the spoken language here, rather than warning signs.)
Similarly, where in English we say “Be quiet”, or “Shut up”, the Japanese will say “Loud!” (うるさい urusai). A Japanese person might exclaim 邪魔 jama, meaning “in the way” or “nuisance” (for example if the dog is under our feet) where an English-speaker would say “move over” or “out of the way!”. On one occasion I heard the boss at work telling a subordinate to speak up by saying “small voice”.
In other words, the Japanese tend to say a word that describes the unwanted situation, whereas in English we tend to prescribe the remedy.
This minor language difference caught me out once on an early visit to Japan. I was at the barber, getting my hair cut, and I wanted him to cut it very short. My Japanese was not good enough at that time to be able to say “Please make it shorter”, nor did I know the word 丸刈り marugari to describe the hairstyle I wanted, but I did know the Japanese word for “short”: 短い mijikai. I thought, wrongly, that this would be enough to make my intentions known, so while the barber was cutting, I repeatedly called out “mijikai”, trying to encourage him to cut it shorter. What I didn’t realise was that a Japanese-speaking person would interpret this as “too short!” The poor man became increasingly distressed as he tried to tidy up my hair without making it any shorter, and I kept yelling (as he thought) “too short! too short!”
I’ve often said, only half in jest, that when you go to a foreign country, your IQ immediately drops by 50 points. A task as simple as buying milk in the store has pitfalls for the unwary. And so it was on our recent visit to France, which featured several instances of idiocy, fortunately none of them calamitous.
On our first night in the gîte, I was struck by the amazing clarity and multitude of stars in the pitch blackness of the night sky, and I called Yuko outside to share the experience. The glass door was fitted with wooden shutters, so I pushed them closed to reduce the light coming from inside the house. Then I heard a tiny, horrifying, “click” as the shutters latched closed behind us, and all thought of stargazing was instantly dispelled. Anxiety rose as it became clear that we really were locked out of the house, in short sleeves, at night, miles from civilisation. I tried to force the shutters open, applying more and more force, but to no avail.
Then it occurred to me: had I left the car unlocked? I had! Which meant I had access to tools. A minute later I had succeeded in popping the shutters open, with no discernible damage, and we were safely inside once more.
One of the pleasures of staying in France is that you can buy very good wine at very low prices, and I enjoyed a glass (or two) of red wine with my dinner each evening. The second gîte had a fancy corkscrew that looks like this:
Obviously, the screw is intended to turn freely when going down into the cork, then to “lock” and pull up without turning to lift out the cork. But whatever skill or technique was required to achieve this simple sequence eluded me. No matter what I tried, the screw remained in “locked” mode, pushing the cork ever further down the neck of the bottle. By the time I admitted defeat and resorted to a simpler, no-moving-parts, idiot-proof corkscrew, it was too late. I only succeeded in pushing the cork the remainder of the way down the neck, forcing the now-pressurised contents to spray all over me. Good wine or not, it stings when you get it in your eyes. My white shirt was ruined.
Lait Ribot is a Breton fermented milk product, like buttermilk. I did not know this. When randomly choosing a container of fresh milk from the supermarket shelf, I just assumed that “Ribot” was the brand name.
Granted, had I read the label more carefully, I would have seen the words “lait fermenté” written right there. In red. But it went into the supermarket trolley without that level of scrutiny. I discovered my mistake when I poured it into my coffee that evening and it curdled unpleasantly.
Well, when life gives you fermented milk, what do you do? You make crêpes! And that’s how we came to have crêpes for breakfast every morning for the last 4 days of our stay. For 10-12 crêpes:
- 200g of plain flour
- 300 ml lait ribot (or buttermilk)
- 300 ml fresh milk
- 2 eggs
- a pinch of salt
Put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the beaten eggs. Mix a little. Beat in the milk and fermented milk in stages, continuing to beat until the batter is smooth. It doesn’t need to rest but can be used immediately.
Serve hot with butter, jam, fresh fruit or compote. Delicious!
We stayed in a really charming gîte (holiday rental) in Upper Brittany.
These gîtes ruraux are usually in quite remote countryside locations; typically they are former farmhouses that have been renovated and converted for use as comfortable holiday homes. It’s not unusual for the gîte to be located around 4 km from the local village, so a car is really a necessity.
This gîte, however, was particularly remote, set among cornfields at the edge of a vast forest, with the nearest house over 1 km away (straight-line distance) and the nearest shops 8 km away.
You can imagine how peaceful it is, a beautifully-tended acre surrounded by farmland and wilderness, the only sounds the sounds of nature. And the stars at night, far from streetlights and the lights of habitation, were a breathtaking spectacle. Not twinkling dots, but hard steely brightly-coloured points of light in the deep blackness, on either side of the great overhead sweep of the Milky Way.
The address is “Lieu-dit La Feutelle”. Lieu-dit literally means “place called” or “place known as”, but it has become a common noun in French to refer to these remote rural places. Lieux-dit are somewhat equivalent in concept to “townlands” here in Ireland, in the way they are used for rural addresses.So for example you could say (despite the apparent redundancy) un lieu-dit nommé «La Croix Rompue» — A lieu-dit called “La Croix Rompue”.
The hierarchy of places in rural France goes something like this:
- lieu-dit: a rural location that may have one or two houses, or may be completely uninhabited;
- hameau: a hamlet, a cluster of houses with (typically) no shops or services;
- village: a village with a church, and shops such as a café and a bakery;
- bourg: a larger village with a market-place and a weekly market, often the administrative centre of the commune.
- ville: a town big enough to sustain local industry, services and administration and not focused on agriculture.
All of these are faced with a challenging future as young people migrate to cities for educational and employment opportunities, and rural France becomes increasingly empty. Hamlets are deserted, village bakeries close and towns struggle to find a future. Farmhouses become holiday homes for Parisians, permanent homes for retired English people or gîtes ruraux for weekly rental to visitors like us.
After one week in that area, we moved to another gîte in Lower Normandy, in the Val de Saire. One thing that was very striking in that area was the unusual place-names.
Some of the place-names come from the local Norman dialect. For example, the address of our gîte is Rue du Plat Douet, where douet is a local word for a stream. The sign in the picture above indicates the hamlet of Hamel ès Ronches, which looks exotic but is just a local version of hameau des ronces — the hamlet of the brambles. Placename elements are shared between this part of Normandy and the Channel Islands: for example names ending with -hou such as Tatihou and Quettehou in France and Jethou, Burhou and les Écréhous in the Channel Islands.
But many of the placenames in the Val de Saire turn out not to be Norman French at all, but Danish. After all, the Normans were originally Northmen, Danes, Viking raiders, before they settled, adopted the local language and went on to conquer England and Ireland, as well as more far-flung places in sunnier climes. And they left reminders of their original Germanic culture in the local toponomy.
For example, the nearby beach in Cosqueville was called Plage de Vicq (vík meaning harbour); Clitourps is klíf torp (cliff village) and the tôt in the village name Tôt de Haut is also a variation of the word for village (topt). Even the names that appear French in form are often actually Scandinavian in origin. The fleur in Barfleur is not a flower but a river; the many places with tour are not French towers but Scandinavian villages. L’Anse du Brick is not the cove of the brick but of the brekka (coastline). La Mare and La Houe are not native French (“the pond” and “the hoe”) as they appear but Nordic names in disguise (“the salt-marsh” and “the holt”). And finally, one name of Irish origin: Néville is not “new town” but “Nial’s town”; one of our Viking settlers may have come from Ireland.
We’ve been in France for the past two weeks; last week in Upper Brittany and this week in the Val de Saire in Normandy.
The countryside of north-western France is full of standing stones known as menhirs, dating back to the Neolithic period more than 4000 years ago. They carry no markings, nor any clues as to the beliefs or intentions of those who went to tremendous effort to transport them and erect them. One suggestion is that they may have served as grave markers for important people or families.
Near our gîte in Brittany we came across such a standing stone, called the Pierre de Richebourg.
Like many such standing stones, it is on private property, and in fact this one is behind a chain-link fence.
It’s a somewhat rough-hewn piece of schist about 2.5 metres high.
Menhirs are popularly associated with Brittany, partly because of the huge concentration of stones at Carnac, and in fact the word menhir itself comes from Breton (Celtic) words meaning “long stone”. But in fact they are to be found all over Europe, especially north-western France, Britain and Ireland, and long predate the Celts. Fans of the Asterix comic books (set in Brittany soon after the Roman invasion of Gaul in 50 BC) will remember the character Obelix carrying a menhir around on his back. This is a humorous anachronism, as the people who raised the menhirs were as distant in time from Asterix and Obelix as the Gallic Wars are from us.
Here in Normandy, there is an impressive menhir in a field just a few hundred metres away from our gîte, known as the Longue-pierre (a French calque of the word menhir). It’s a piece of granite about 6 metres high, of which 4.5 metres are above ground.
I met the lady who owns the field (and, I suppose, owns the menhir, insofar as that means anything). She told me there is a second, similar stone buried in the field. This standing stone is one of three in the commune of Saint-Pierre-Église, known as the 3 princesses. There is an old belief that they each swivel around during the midnight mass each year on Christmas Eve.
In addition to solitary stones, there are dolmens known as allées couvertes, or covered alleys. A very impressive example near where we stayed in Brittany is called La Roche aux Fées (the fairy rock), in the commune of Essé (Ille-et-Vilaine). Like Newgrange in Ireland, it has a south-westerly orientation, its opening aligned with the first rays of sunrise on the winter solstice. The name comes from a legend that the fairies built the monument in a single night.
This comprises 42 huge blocks of purple schist arranged to form a covered passage 20 meters long. This structure has survived substantially intact for 5000 years. Just inside the entrance (which features a truly massive lintel) you have to bend low as the passage is quite constricted, but once inside it opens into a long chamber in which it is possible to stand up.
A similar megalithic structure can be found not far from our current holiday home, in the hamlet of la Forge in the commune of Bretteville (Manche).
This is also an allée couverte about 20 meters in length, but features a side entrance with a portal stone at right-angles to the others.
Unlike the Roche aux Fées, it is oriented northwest-southeast, and the side-entrance is near the southeast end.
Some of the capstones (roof-slabs) are missing, but the walls of the passage are intact. Near the side entrance there is an L-shaped slab forming a door that you must squeeze past to reach the main passage.
A row of smaller rocks or kerb-stones alongside the main monument mark the edge of the tumulus of earth and rocks that once covered the whole structure.
This weekend, almost exactly a year after our return from Japan to Ireland, we’ll finally be moving into our new house. Our search for a permanent home in Dublin has not been an easy one, but that’s a story for another time.
Once again, our home is piled high with boxes as we pack up all our possessions ready for the move. The same boxes we used a year ago for the move from Japan to Ireland (in some cases, battered veterans of the earlier journey from Ireland to Japan) now find themselves reconstituted, taken out of flat-stored retirement and pressed into service one more time for the much shorter and easier move from Cabinteely to Leopardstown.
Houchigai jinja in Sakai city is a shrine that specialises in house moves. At the end of our recent visit to Japan we went there on our bikes to seek good luck and success in our forthcoming move.
The shrine was built 2000 years ago at the boundary of three ancient provinces: Settsu, Kawachi and Izumi. To this day, the area is known as 三国ヶ丘 Mikunigaoka, meaning 3-country hill. The tradition arose that as the shrine itself, being at the boundary and therefore not being part of any of the 3 countries, is not oriented in any direction, so a traveller by visiting the shrine could avoid unfortunate or wrong directions. The name 方違 houchigai reflects this tradition.
The water basin and well have old-fashioned characters written from right to left. The character for “country” in 三國山 is the same as I saw used in Taiwan; in modern Japanese writing it is simplified to 国.
Although the shrine is along the main road, it is a very tranquil place. Around the car park are camphor trees and a stand of wisteria, the trunk of which looks ancient and gnarled.
The shrine backs onto a wide moat surrounding a steep wooded island, which is a keyhole-shaped tomb or kofun, off-limits to human visitors.
We brought with us a charm that we had bought on a previous visit to this shrine; a charm that had since then clocked up many air-miles and suffered much abuse in cargo holds and baggage carousels, as it travelled back and forth across the world attached to suitcase handles.
The tradition is that when a charm has done its job of keeping you safe, you bring it back to the shrine where it will later be destroyed in a special fire. For the moment it just gets dropped unceremoniously into this used-charm receptacle:
We bought an identical replacement charm for 500 yen, and then Yuko did o-mikuji.
Her fortune was good.