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Posts Tagged ‘hostels’

The garden at guesthouse toco in the Iriya/Uguisudani neighborhood of Tokyo.
Now I’m trying to remember where I stayed in each of these cities, during this crazy journey.

I’ve already touched upon my lodgings in Naha, Kagoshima, and Fukuoka for this trip. Two great hip hostels/guesthouses, and one crappy boring-as-hell ordinary business hotel.

In Himeji, I ended up staying in a business hotel again (Himeji Green Hotel Tatemachi), because I couldn’t find anything else. It was fine. Served the purpose, on a basic level. But, honestly, really, nothing impressive or positive about the experience. I really do think I’m going to try to avoid these places as much as possible from now on.

I didn’t stop in Ise overnight, but ended up staying that night in Nagoya. Actually, I didn’t really have a plan for where I was going to stay that night – didn’t book anywhere because I didn’t know if I’d end up in Nagoya, or all the way back in Tokyo, or where, by X hour of the evening. So, using Agoda.com (or perhaps some other app; I don’t recall), I found at the last minute, late that night already, a place just outside Nagoya Station. EcoHotel Nagoya. Since I was arriving late at night and leaving the next morning, it certainly served my purposes. But it was the most absolute basic arrangement. The one staff guy was pretty much only there for check-in, and the entire arrangement was just basically here’s a room. Shared showers in the basement. Elevator didn’t go to the ground floor, so you had to lug your bags up the stairs. I’m not sure if it was converted from day laborers’ dorms or what, but it was just really small rooms, a place to lay your head. One towel. A big trough with pipes flowing over it, just the most basic thing you could image that allows for the basic needs of brushing your teeth and washing your hands without having to go all the way downstairs to the showers. I don’t even remember what the room looked like, just the hallway, entranceway, stairway, which looked completely un-renovated, like no one made any effort whatsoever to make this look nice/clean for visitors. But I guess that’s okay, when you’re paying #20/night or whatever it was.

At least I got to have a room to myself. Didn’t get that one night in Tokyo, at Tsubame Guest House, which was not only rundown-seeming, with a faint sense of mildew or the like, and with no elevators, and with multiple beds in a shared room, but also it was quite a bit of a walk from the nearest station; not a convenient location at all.

Still, I’m glad I got that place to stay in Nagoya at all. It was already 9 or 10 at night by the time I booked it, using the wifi at the Starbucks at Nagoya Station.

Returning to Tokyo, I spent one overpriced night at FirstCabin Azabu, but also managed to score a few nights at a cool guesthouse called guesthouse toco. FirstCabin is a chain of glorified capsule hotels. I guess this “cabin” thing is getting big now. Unlike a capsule hotel (which I’ve never tried; too claustrophobic), you get a space with a more normal height of ceiling. But otherwise, it’s still less like a full proper room than it is a whole row of over-large capsules (or “cabins”). There’s no door to lock, and indeed for whatever reasons you’re not allowed to lock it at all. There’s a sort of curtain to pull down, like a garage door, and inside your little box, you have just the bed, and just barely enough space to keep your luggage, and like a small bedside counter. Anyway, I didn’t mind this; it was private enough, and comfy enough, for my purposes. But, I don’t know, I can’t quite put my finger on it, there was something just too impersonal, too depressing or dystopian about the aesthetic somehow, it just really put me off. The main lobby was like a hotel lobby – unnecessarily fancy, and generally impersonal and off-puttingly over-professional (i.e. unlike a hostel/guesthouse where the young cool hip staff might be more friendly). And the whole rest of the place felt empty, even more inhuman, like being on a spaceship or something, disconnected from Earth. I know, it’s a funny thing to say, but there just really was something about the sterile, antiseptic, high-technology, dark-colored decorating scheme that just made me feel this way. Sure, there were other people around, but it’s not like we talked or anything. The whole hotel was the 9th, 10th, 11th floors or something like that, with only one elevator, and guestroom cards that were required for accessing certain areas (e.g. the showers) but which wouldn’t get you into other areas (e.g. the women-only floor). Which is fine, it makes sense, but it also gave me a sort of dystopian, space station, too high-tech HAL 9000 sort of vibe.

The entrance area at guesthouse toco.

In any case, the other place, guesthouse toco, was great. I mean, it wasn’t some super amazing special experience like I thought it just might be based on the fact that the place was featured on Nippon.com, as if it was really a unique special place worth knowing about. Based in a repurposed Taishô-era (c. 1910s-1920s) house, it definitely has character, in a good way. When you first walk in, there’s a nice little bar/café area all in wood, with a bunch of tables and a little bar towards the back, which in my experience I found to be a very friendly collegial, fun place for conversation. I almost never hang out and talk to people at hostels – I’m no backpacker, I’m usually a fair bit older than most hostel-stayers, and I’m usually much more experienced with Japan, being here not for some wacky once-in-a-lifetime adventure but for, well, something else. But, at toco, at least those particular days, it just seemed like a really good mix of people, and people willing to talk and just chat and be cool. I dunno. It just worked.

A staircase in that first room is painted all rainbow, and leads up to some of the guest rooms. Then, you cross out the back of the bar and cross a small outdoor garden sort of area, into the somewhat more traditional-design older house. Two (or more?) big main rooms are taken up by six or eight beds; I don’t like sharing a room, but it worked out fine. I basically just hung out in the bar area until I was fully ready for bed and then just went to sleep. It’s tough not having any full-on private space to yourself for a few days, but it was only for a few days. Sliding doors, wooden veranda planks, a nice little garden to admire out the window, the whole deal. Very nice.

One more downside of the shared room and bunk beds – nowhere to put your luggage. I suppose I was being kind of entitled and obnoxious to keep my luggage outside of the room, but, seriously, I’m not going to go through my luggage right in front of someone else’s bed, and then try to shove it under that bed… Even if I am comfortable enough with having just a bed and not a whole room to myself for sleeping, I need a little space to sort myself out. I don’t know if I’m just getting too old for this, or if that was never my kind of thing to begin with. But, really. I’m flexible, I’m easy-going, I can manage a lot of different living/sleeping conditions, and I certainly did on this trip. But I really would prefer having a bit more space to myself, if only for basic logistical purposes of not making noise and taking up space directly around other people who are trying to sleep!

In any case, behind these main sleeping rooms was a kitchen & common area, with bathrooms and showers, and a little outdoor garden area with laundry machines and clotheslines. I feel bad that I did laundry and then left my stuff out all day – and it then rained – such that my stuff was taking up almost all of the clotheslines such that no one else in the whole guesthouse could hang their stuff out to dry for a day or two. But I guess maybe that’s just how it is? .. And the staff also cook you breakfast in the morning, which is really nice and also provides another opportunity for chatting and hanging out. Again, I wasn’t really looking to make friends; I had my own things to do and wasn’t going to find/make a traveling buddy. But, still, it was nice to feel a little social interaction after so many days of traveling on my own.

So, yeah. There’s my short run-down of a few more of the different sorts of places I stayed during this trip. All in all, I think my favorites were places like &AND HOSTEL AKIHABARA and the Abest Cube Naha, as well as WeBase Hakata, all very clean, sleek, hip, white aesthetic sort of places. Small rooms on halls with shared showers or whatever, but still, private rooms, which makes all the difference to me, and with a nicer aesthetic than business hotels. Even if I have to share a bathroom with others, I still prefer that to the sort of “box” bathrooms in these business hotels, which always feel too small to me, and just somehow never feel clean enough. Quite frankly, if my bedroom and bathroom are going to be that small, I don’t want them to be so close to one another. Even if I have to go all the way down the hall to a shared bathroom, that’s better than feeling like I’m basically in the same room as my toilet, as if it were a camper van or a prison cell or something. I don’t feel that way in normal-size hotel rooms; only in the tiny Japanese ones.

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8/9 Friday

Today was my last day in Okinawa :(

I started out by heading for Shikinaen, the one truly major sightseeing site in Naha that I’d missed on my previous trip to Okinawa, on account of them being unexpectedly closed on Wednesdays. (Many museums, around the world, are typically closed on Sundays or Mondays or Tuesdays, or even Fridays, I guess. But Wednesdays? Took me completely by surprise. And was not the most pleasant end to a rather long walk from Shuri castle.)

Ah, but first I headed back to Gekkôsô / Tsukinowa for breakfast. I skipped out on posting about them in my previous entries, but the short version is, it’s a rather ramshackle-looking youth hostel located at the end of a back-alley off Okiei-dôri near Miebashi (in central Naha). I was introduced to the place during my Naha Machima~i walking tour of the Miebashi neighborhood; I’m not sure I’d ever stay there, but it was a really fun place to hang out at night, and to go back to for breakfast. Very friendly, very real. The staff aren’t professional staff, like at a corporate hotel, who are there just to provide professional service, but, rather, are young people hanging out and enjoying living in Okinawa for a few years – they’re friendly and open and honest, and in short, just very real. And the guests as well, mostly college kids from mainland Japan, here to hang out and just have fun in Okinawa for a few days… I never did manage to get invited to join any locals in hanging out and singing folk songs or playing sanshin or whatever, like I did five years ago, but I did bring my sanshin to Gekkôsô late one night, and just hang out, sharing in their food and drink, and singing along and just generally having a good time, in that particular sort of youth hostel / beach house sort of way. Though it is a hostel, they welcome people who are not staying overnight to join them for dinner, or drinks, running a cash bar in the hostel’s common rooms, and they prepare breakfast too. A nice, cheap, filling breakfast, including an amazing banana milkshake (nothing but fresh bananas and local Okinawan milk, or so the menu says), and some nice conversation. Life in a normal hotel can be quite isolating and lonely, as you explore the city alone each day, and whatever – visiting Gekkôsô at night, and again in the morning for breakfast, brings in the social element. I’m not sure I’d ever stay there – it’s quite cheap, but also quite ramshackle (I didn’t actually see the guest rooms, but…), and, well, maybe if I were younger, but, I’d definitely recommend at least dropping by one evening, and/or in the morning for breakfast, for a taste of that backpackers / beach bums side of the Okinawan experience.

On my previous trip to Okinawa, five years ago, I walked to Shikinaen from Shuri castle – a pretty logical way to go, or so it seemed at the time, given that the Kinjô ishitatami (cobblestone) walking road suggested in all the tourist guidebooks seems to lead towards it. But, as it turns out, it’s still a really long walk beyond the end of the ishitatami road. Today, instead, I took a regular public city bus from right in front of Mitsukoshi (on Kokusai-dôri), and it dropped me off more or less right in front of the gardens.

Shikinaen was the bessô, or second residence, for the Ryukyuan royal family, a sort of relaxation pleasure garden. Is there a standard English-language term for this sort of thing? I see that the British royals have “London residences” and “country residences”… Shikinaen is only a couple hours walk from the main royal palace at Shuri, so I don’t know that I’d call it a “country residence,” but, then again, it’s certainly at a remove from the city proper, and a few hundred years ago, the urban areas would have been even smaller… In any case… In some respects, Shikinaen is quite similar to a lot of the other historical mansions I’ve visited elsewhere in Japan – such as castles, or the former Hotta clan residence in Sakura that I’ve yet to post about. You pay a small fee to get in, wander around along a set recommended path (順路), take lots of pictures, read the signs, learn a little something, maybe stop and sit for a bit and just enjoy the garden.. and maybe wonder what it was like in the time of the kings. Sure, it’s a pretty nice, pleasant, place, and a nice escape from the city, its own little self-enclosed green space, with a pond and a nice residence, but, god, what did people do for fun back then? Was it really so enjoyable just to have a garden, and sit there, and look out over the garden? .. Now that I think about it, it seems perhaps really not so different from our summer homes or country homes today. We escape from the city, and go spend the weekend, or a few weeks, in a rustic-looking home up in the mountains, surrounded by woods, maybe with some deer, and it’s all quiet and cozy, a very romantic getaway…

The residence at Shikinaen, similarly, is quite simple in comparison to the luxurious furnishings of Shuri castle – or, at least, those parts of Shuri castle that we most strongly associate and think of. Yet, it is still a royal space, and so I was surprised at its simplicity, and at the relatively unassuming scale of the gates, and of the house itself. While certainly larger than a typical vernacular home (such as the one on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum), like the Hotta mansion it’s basically just a larger version of a very standard basic form: wood construction, tatami flooring, red ceramic tile roof. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity and craftsmanship, and the simplicity helps make it feel all the more relaxing and cool, breezy, like a vacation home should. But, still, this is a royal residence?

I wonder if our 20th-21st century American lifestyles, the large houses, the consumer culture, have perhaps skewed our (my) appreciation of what luxury looks like in other places and times. The house I grew up in, a three story Victorian (two floors plus attic and basement), with a front and back yard, total something like 3/4 of an acre, with a garage, two compact cars, no pool, no extra-fancy furnishings, no second vacation home, based on my upbringing, compared to the people around me, I thought (and still think) was pretty average, pretty typical middle-class. But, even putting aside that people in the past didn’t have electricity or cars or cable TV etc etc., and just talking about the size of the space, the comfort level, and the sheer amount of stuff we own (including things made of precious materials and/or fine craftsmanship) even our (my) notion of a typical, average size home is apparently pretty large, if not explicitly “luxurious,” compared to, for example, the middle-ranking samurai homes I saw in Sakura. Even at Shuri castle, despite the Seiden (main audience hall) being all done up in red and gold and everything, I wouldn’t be surprised if the royal residence was relatively plain, like this garden villa. It just goes back to what I was saying in previous posts about our assumptions about the past based on examples of the most lavish, the most luxurious clothes and architecture from that period or culture, and how this, apparently, skews our visualized understanding of what was typical/standard, very much.

Daimyô in audience with the shogun, as represented by mannequins, in the Ninomaru Palace at Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, and I am sure there are other very valid arguments against having such a display, but, these totally empty rooms (sometimes only largely empty) at so many historic houses only go so far to help us really imagine what the spaces looked like, and how they were used, in their time. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think I’d like to see, one of these historical homes more fully set up, with all the furnishings, and other objects, maybe even mannequins showing how the space was used, how full and lively and formal or elegant these palaces were. And maybe include pleasure boats floating on the pond, palanquins, and mannequin horses in the stables, because otherwise the whole place just feels so plain, and empty. (The Shinsen-en in Kyoto includes a reconstruction pleasure boat, and it adds so much to the impression of the place as an Imperial/aristocratic pleasure garden.) Admittedly, Shikinaen does display quite a few old photos, allowing us to see how the space was furnished – and now that I’m looking at these, and seeing all the lacquered furniture and fancy plaques (扁額) hung on the walls, it’s certainly looking more luxurious than the empty rooms themselves attest. I suppose it would be difficult and expensive to obtain, and maintain such furniture (read: conservation issues, climate control, etc.). Still, it would be nice to see. Of course, all that said, I enjoyed Shikinaen very much and was very glad to have gone. It certainly helps provide an insight into the aesthetic or style, and lifestyle, of the Ryukyuan royalty.

Departing Shikinaen, I considered what to do with the rest of my day. I’d been thinking of doing more shopping – either for used books, or more Okinawan clothes – but my bags were already quite full, so I decided to pass on that point. Plaques and guide signs at Shikinaen indicated that many famous historical Ryukyuan officials – such as Tei Junsoku and Nomura Anchô – were buried nearby at Shikina-reien (Shikina Cemetery), but, as it turns out, unlike Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo, or Green-Wood in Brooklyn, there are no maps or guides to these famous graves. Guess they don’t get many tourists. And I absolutely was not going to go traipsing around in the hot sun across a cemetery with no idea of which section to look in, or where I was going. But! The office at Shikinaen sold these nice little pamphlets of guides to walking around Shuri & Naha. The maps inside aren’t the greatest, and the info about each site is in a separate pamphlet, but each one was only 100円, and they did include a number of sites I hadn’t been able to find, or hadn’t known about, previously.

So, I set out to fill in the gaps of some of the places I’d missed the first time around. First was Kume and the old town of Naha, known simply as Nishi and Higashi (West and East districts). The public bus from Shikinaen let off just near Fukushûen (“Fuzhou Gardens”), a Chinese-style garden built as a gift from the city of Fuzhou and as a replica of a garden located there. This was built in the 1990s, and so it’s not strictly speaking a historical site at all, but it’s representative of the long history of Kumemura as the center of classical Chinese learning & classical Chinese high culture in the kingdom. I saw the garden last time, so I didn’t bother visiting it again. But, I found to my surprise a Confucian temple behind it, looking quite shiny and brand new. Turns out it was built/opened this year.

A nice statue of Confucius now stands on the original site of the historical Kume Confucian temple. Meanwhile, two reconstructions, revivals or recreations, of that temple can now be found in Kume – one which I visited five years ago, in the Naminoue neighborhood, right near Naminoue Shrine and Gokoku-ji, and the other newly established here right behind Fukushûen – both with extremely similar names, layout, and appearance. Not that I’m complaining. I wonder if there’s some kind of political or sectarian divide between the two that would spark the construction of a second one…

I pulled out my map, and moseyed over to Nishi, from Kume, and found a plaque marking the former site of the zaiban bugyôsho, the office of the Satsuma samurai official who oversaw matters in Ryûkyû, on behalf of the daimyô. There’s nothing at all to see on the spot today, but this whole street would have, in the 17th-19th centuries, been all homes and offices of the small contingent of samurai stationed in Ryûkyû. Kind of like the earliest Japanese version of the US military bases now occupying so much of Okinawa’s land.

Speaking of which, my next destination was Omono-gusuku (O: Umungusuku), a storehouse located at the end of an earthen embankment, jutting out into Naha harbor. Like Mie gusuku, it survives, in a form, with more modern buildings established atop its ruins, for modern official purposes. I was a bit surprised to find the site completely inaccessible, but then realized that it’s not so unreasonable for major port shipping facilities to be closed off to general access, to people just wandering in amongst the trucks and shipping containers and all that. Not only would tourists be a major nuisance, and danger, but in this post-9/11 world, there is a need for a certain degree of security in and around shipping.

Ah, but, as it turns out this is no civilian shipping facility. Nope. A US Army Facility sign on the barbed wire fence – sadly, not an uncommon sight on Okinawa – means that no one, regardless of Japanese or American citizenship, is getting in there. Oh well. I got some good pictures from afar, and, in fact that’s better for depicting the site as a whole, and its location in the harbor, rather than taking pictures on/at the ruins themselves.

I then turned around and returned to Kume, in search of the former site of the Tenshikan, a sort of guesthouse maintained by the Ryûkyû Kingdom for housing and entertaining Chinese investiture envoys who came to the islands to formally invest the Ryukyuan king with the position of king, as officially recognized and acknowledged by the Emperor of China. According to my maps, it was right around the corner from the Tenpi Shrine site I’d found a few days earlier, but, in the end, I didn’t manage to find it. I imagine there’s likely nothing there but a marker or a plaque anyway, unlike the Tenpi Shrine itself, of which only one gate survives today, but that gate is sure a lot more than nothing.


I then returned to the Tomari Foreign Cemetery, as the maps I obtained at Shikinaen now indicated that had I simply gone the other way around the cemetery, I would have found Ameku Shrine right quick, rather than wasting an hour or two wandering pointlessly all the way around that stupid “Ameku Greenspace” in the hot sun unsuccessfully looking for any kind of indication as to the direction to the shrine. Following my new maps, I found the shrine very quickly and easily, along with the small temple Seigen-ji associated with it, and then returned to the cemetery. Still very tempting to just hop the wall. A sign in the cemetery said something to the effect of “if you’re interested in cleaning up your ancestor’s grave, please notify the City Board of Cultural Affairs ahead of time,” and gave a phone number. So, thinking that the Board of Cultural Affairs had some kind of authority over the site, I decided to call them. I don’t think my Japanese has gotten any better since my last time in Japan – if anything, it’s gotten worse – but, somehow, I just never really thought of using the phone before. I guess I was nervous it would be too difficult, navigating the formal Japanese used by any kind of customer service phone-answerer, dealing with trying to understand someone based on sound alone (no facial or bodily indicators of meaning), and, I guess, just being nervous that I was bothering people who were much too busy to deal with a foreigner who can’t express himself perfectly. But, actually, numerous times this summer, whether it was something like this, calling up the Naha City Board of Cultural Affairs, or whether it was calling a museum to ask about ordering an exhibit catalog from them, it all went really smoothly, and was so effective compared to not calling at all; I obtained a number of museum catalogs this way that would have been very difficult to obtain otherwise. Anyway, I called the Board of Cultural Affairs, and explained simply, “I’m here as a tourist, and I thought I’d visit the cemetery, just as an interesting historical site, no real serious reason or serious business, but the gates are closed, and is there a given day or time that they’d be open?” He told me, “oh, the gates are closed, but they’re not locked, so let yourself in, and just be sure to close the gates again when you’re done.” … Really? Okay. Thanks. So, now bearing official permission, I let myself in, and poked around the cemetery, finding the graves of a number of members of Commodore Perry’s crew, as well as a few of missionaries from various European countries, and other foreigners resident in 1840s-50s Ryûkyû for a variety of other reasons.

What a way to leave Okinawa. Look at that sky. Just gorgeous.

And that was it. Time was up. I made my way back to the hotel, collected my bags, and set off for the airport. Flying the budget airline Air Asia was a bit of an adventure, as they’re located not in the Domestic Terminal, nor in the International Terminal, but in a converted cargo shipping terminal space. lol. And I was afraid for a moment that they might not allow me on with as many bags as I had – it’s only a 2 hour flight from Okinawa to Tokyo, and if they were using a smaller plane, then my sanshin case might be too much. Thankfully, in the end, that wasn’t a problem, and the flight itself went just fine as well.

Back to Sakura for just a few days, and then, my summer adventure in Japan was all over. Back to CA for the school year. Cannot wait to go back to Japan again.

For more of my adventures in Okinawa, check out my Flickr page, Tumblr, or the Samurai-Archives Wiki, where I will continue to add content from my trip.

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