Shinkansen (新幹線)

A much needed break as we left the wet and cold British shores behind and flew out to Japan for our yearly visit. We usually head out just before Christmas and stay through the New Year period but The Son was busy with exam preparation so we had to delay our trip until the Easter holiday.

The journey from Heathrow to Narita is a gruelling 12 hours followed by an immediate 1 hour coach journey to Haneda Airport where we fight the disorientation brought on by lack of sleep, then finally take a 1.5 flight down to Ube. We have made the journey so many times that the pattern of ‘watching movies’ -> ‘dozing on the coach’ -> ‘fighting Sandman at Haneda’ -> ‘snoring loudly on the final flight’ is like embracing an old friend. The first glimpse of the in-laws waving at us as we exit Ube baggage claim always brings a smile to my face and I feel lucky to have such a welcoming family waiting for us in Japan.

I have only ever been to Japan during winter so it was fortuitous to arrive during the cherry blossom (sakura) season. The trees were in full bloom as we travelled between Narita and Haneda airports and some of the areas local to Ube were truly beautiful as the tree lined avenues flowed with the light pink flower. Sakura is a serious business in Japan and the local news stations broadcast the latest areas to blossom so people could plan their flower viewing (hanami).

Sakurajima (桜島) – an active volcano

The New Year holiday is a traditional time for families to gather together so Mrs Dan’s brother and his family drive up from Kagoshima to stay for a few days. This time we arranged for the 3 of us to make the two-hour shinkansen journey to visit them in Kagoshima where The Son would stay at their house while we stayed in a hotel nearby. It’s been difficult for The Son to maintain his Japanese language skills since his move from the Japanese school to a local English primary school so we wanted him to fully immerse himself into the Japanese environment. He loves playing with his cousins and he had the time of his life staying at their apartment for three nights.

Volcano Heated Water

The views from Kagoshima are dominated by Sakurajima, which is an active volcano located in a part of Kagoshima Bay known as Kinkō-wan. I was sitting in the hot spring bath at the hotel admiring the view when I realised that the small cloud sitting on top on the volcano was actually the plume of smoke and ash cascading out from the many small eruptions that take place throughout the day.

We took a ferry from the mainland across to the former island (a power eruption in 1914 filled the narrow straight, turning it into a peninsula) where we spent some time at the visitor centre. It was disconcerting to watch the live video feed from the active crater where a counter increases every time an eruption takes place and the ash spews up into the air. The ground has a layer of dark ash around and the surrounding area and city are geared up for a major eruption in the future.

The visitor centre has a bank of hot springs to soak your legs, where the water has been heated by the nearby volcano. We sat and soaked our legs in the sunshine before making the short drive to a local children’s park that provides great views of the volcano and the nearby city. From the viewing area you can see some of the measures taken by local authorities to limit the impact of any future lava flow. A great concrete path has been built down a section of the volcano so that the lava would flow down into the sea without (hopefully) passing through the populated areas.

Kagoshima is a lovely place to visit but I am not sure how comfortable I would be living in the shadow of an active volcano that will experience a major eruption at some point in the future. We were also told that great dust storms hit the area during spring as high-speed wind brings in dust from northern China, a phenomenon only increasing in size and frequency as the industrialisation of China continues.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

The rest of our stay was more of a rest and relaxation visit for me while Mrs Dan and The Son spent time with the in-laws. There were plenty of local trips to shopping malls so we could stock up on staple food stocks and for Mrs Dan and The Son to replenish their Japanese wardrobe (Mrs Dan has a much easier time getting the sizing correct in Japan). I am always happy to accompany them as their bag carrier and spend most of my time reading on my kindle as they shop away.

No trip to Japan would be complete without the many, many trips to local restaurants. I absolutely love sushi but the quality in the UK just pales in comparison to the much cheaper sushi restaurants in Japan.The Japanese appear to be obsessed with food and every tv show seems to incorporate some sort of food tasting or restaurant visit. I am a huge fan of Japanese food and urge any visitor to go as native as possible.

After 16 years of visiting Japan I now completely comfortable with the national pastime of visiting hot spring baths (onsen). Whenever I meet up with British men in a relationship with a Japanese woman then the shared horror of facing the early onsen visit is always a topical bonding experience. The idea of wandering around naked in front of Japanese men, most probably involving their prospective father-in-law, is enough to scare the beejeebers out of anyone. For the Japanese it’s just the norm and something that they have done since early childhood but for us reserved British it is a form of torture. However, go through the process enough times and suddenly it becomes the norm for you and soaking in the hot baths becomes an incredibly relaxed experience.

Sakurajima (桜島) – that’s not a cloud…

The rest of our stay passed by in a relaxing blur of sunny days, shopping trips and visits to local parks and towns. Unfortunately my running was curtailed by the ongoing problems of a thigh strain on my right leg. I ventured out for a gentle 3 miles of running and walking along the beach with Mrs Dan but the pain and soreness returned to my leg so I hung up my running shoes for a week. I went out again for 4 miles by myself and my leg felt better but with some fresh soreness appearing the next day, I decided to leave things alone and that was the end of my holiday running.

It was a real shame that I picked up the injury so late into my marathon training. I had one final 23 miler scheduled and it would have been a fantastic run through the cherry blossom lined paths around a local lake. In the end I quietly passed into my taper with less than 7 miles under my belt and a silent prayer to the running gods that my leg would be ok for the Richmond Park Marathon.

Kagoshima (鹿児島市)

As always we had a great time in Japan and my in-laws were as warm and welcoming as always. The Son suddenly remembered all his Japanese language skills once he was sat firmly in the all Japanese environment, which was one of our main aims for the visit. Each day he would go with his grandparents to the local supermarket and help with the shopping. For him this was a good way to enjoy himself but he was also practising his language skills at the same time.

We’re still not sure whether we will be back in December but we are considering sending The Son out by himself and asking his grandparents to meet him at Narita airport. He is changing schools in March and will have a much longer end of term holiday in December so we may send him over early so he can stay with his grandparents and his cousins for a couple of weeks before we fly out and join everyone before the 3 of us fly back to the UK together.