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Japan - a very special country indeed!
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Japan is: very polite reception and particularly complicated car entry conditions

The afternoon sun spreads a silver glow on the sea, as we drive our Landcruiser out of the vessel "Figaro" at the port of Kobe. We park the car on the berth and hop into a waiting taxi for completing the immigration and customs papers. The immaculately dressed driver with white gloves bows deeply and opens courteously the door to his car where white laces cover the seats. It is a hearty reception in this special country about which we know so little. The complicated and apparently very costly car entry conditions caused us more than headaches during the last days of our sea journey - starting from the MOT inspection, the expensive adjustment of the vehicle to the Japanese regulations and the inevitable shut-down of the car during this time, up to the replacement of the Swiss license plates into Japanese ones. Will we ever manage to enter the "Land of the Rising Sun"? Two hours later, although without local Kobe license plates, we integrate into Japans left-hand traffic. Until today we do not know whether these easy customs formalities were due only to lucky circumstances or to the efficient preparatory work of the Japanese Wallenius agent.

Japan is: immensely hilly, wooded and subtropical landscape

It is still rainy season and it pours like in the Tropics when the day after our arrival in Kobe we cross by car ferry over to the small island of Awaji-shima. Immediately, it becomes rural. Traditional timber houses, well-maintained gardens with Bonsai trees and the fresh green of the rice fields decorate the landscape. Small, narrow sandy beaches follow the winding single-lane island road equipped with large mirrors. Tropical jungle vegetation with beautiful bamboo forests grows exuberantly in the interior and curious monkeys roam on the roadside. Obviously, the high numbers of mirrors put up along the roads are for the observation of the oncoming traffic on blind curves.

Japan is: traditional exchange of gifts

An old Japanese woman is heading with a tricycle to her overgrown garden on the coastal road. Probably she has never seen such a safari equipped vehicle on her tiny island before and obviously she would like to know more about us. But unfortunately, she cannot speak English and we speak no Japanese. She is very pleased however, when we present her with a flowering plant which was given to us by an enthusiastic Landcruiser driver shortly before. Without hesitation she disappears into her tiny garden and picks up a bouquet of colourful flowers for us. This gesture touches us, but it belongs to the century old tradition of this country, where the exchange of gifts always has been playing a large role. Also due to that special tradition so many souvenir and gift shops are apparent around the islands. It is also custom to bring along a gift to family members and even to the business colleagues left behind, how ever short the trip might have been. It brightens the others that have been left behind with their work and sorrows.

Japan is: rural enchantment and magnificent gardens
We are approaching Alma, an agricultural corner. Large racks out of timber with brown onion bundles hung up are scattered around the freshly planted rice fields and are reflected in the calm water. A woman rice farmer covered with a large straw hat is working on her field in front of her traditional house. We are totally fascinated by the beauty and calmness of this place.
Just as the setting sun changes the blue skies and the calm Inland Sea into strong red colours, we reach the impressive Naruto-Kaikyo Bridge which leads to the next island Shikoku. Here, we spend the night between the vast ocean and a greenish lake, surrounded with reed plants. Black-and-white dragonflies perform an evening dance and frogs croak in chorus, before complete darkness surrounds the sound and us ceases.
Next morning, we cross the modern, impressive bridge and leave the densely populated valley of the Yoshino-gawa Rivers behind us.
We follow the lonely road pass with flowering plants towards Takamatsu. Up to 3000 feet height, small villages nestle on steep slopes, where beans and tea are growing magnificently. It starts to rain again, as we reach Takamatsu and park in front of the beautiful Ritsurin Park, which formerly belonged to the summer villa of the Matsudaira family. This artfully landscaped garden includes bizarrely shaped trees, fruit orchards, Lotus flower gardens, small lakes, groups of rocks and the forested Mount Shiun.
Japan is: wild, deep gorges and Hot Springs

The heavy rainfalls of the last days caused immense landslides in the steep slopes near Ikeda. Extensive cleaning up work is under way everywhere. As we reach the turn off to the Iya-kei Gorge, we hesitate. What is written on that big sign? No entry? Everybody we ask, their answer consists of shaking heads. Nobody understands us. One points to the watch, another to the nose (Later we find out that the watch means hourly traffic — the meaning of pointing to the nose we never found out). Nobody stops us to drive through the untamed, tropical vegetation along this fantastic gorge. Deep below us, the brown waters of the flooded river make their way in many turns through the impenetrable forest. Everywhere waterfalls foam through steep slopes and debris and rocks of the recent violent tempest cover the road. At one of the many hot springs the road is blocked by high rubble, large trunks and a new born waterfall. We decide to turn back.

Japan is: bizarre coastal regions and nostalgic fishing villages
The first sunbeams shine through a dark cloudy sky, as we follow the coast to Cape Ashizuri-misaki. We pass Ohki Beach at Tosashimizu, which contrasts like an endless yellow half moon against the deep-blue sea. From the strange shaped rock formations stacking out of the sea, we can only get a glance now and then, when the deep jungle thins out. But the beautiful Kongofuku-ji temple at the far end makes up for the small disappointment. Later, we spend the night at the lovely gravel bay of Tatsukushi between polished reddish sandstone rocks, orange coloured wild lilies and dense bamboo bush and we feel happy. We watch two large birds of prey sitting on a branch, fixing their eyes on the catch of a solitary fisherman. We enjoy the multicoloured butterflies circling around a shallow water pool and listen to the noisy chirping of the crickets.
The western coastal strip of the island is very traditional. We enjoy the mixture of the faded fishing boats, colourful buoys and crates piling up in front of the simple houses of the fishermen. Hundreds of black and white buoys and floating bamboo rafts decorate huge parts of the protected bays. They are a great sight and show that the Japanese have a close relation with their surrounding sea.
Japan is: Sex museums with exhibition of sex customs of different races

Our final destination in Shikoku is the Taga-jinja Shrine in Uwajima - a rather unusual museum. There, an oversized penis carved from a tree trunk decorates the entry to the three-storey sex museum — a remnant of earlier times, where many Shinto Shrines had a connection to fertility rituals. Sculptures of many sizes, fading photographs and tools of sex customs of different groups are shown in a great disorder in glass showcases from the bottom to the top. Particularly amazing are the tiny temples where doors open to a phallus. After seeing all the phallic sculptures, we drive the last miles to the westernmost tip of this Island, to Cape Misaki.

Japan is: extremely high transport and living costs

An old ferry transports us from the harbour of Misaki in one hour to the southern island of Kyushu. We calculate that we have to pay for this short passage US$ 1.10 per minute. The outrageous costs of the motorways of $ 0.35 per mile are out of bound too - a fact that makes us decide later to drop the visit of the northern Island of Hokkaido. Also the cost of many toll roads to scenic places add up considerably, charging up to $ 10 just before reaching the tourist destination. Fortunately, we could keep low the costs of living, as we stocked-up our Landcruiser in Dubai with inexpensive food. Thanks to the low crime rate in this country, it was possible - except in Tokyo — to camp in the wild and sleep in our Landcruiser, thus saving the extremely costly expenses of accommodation.

Japan is: active volcanoes

We drive the toll road to the gigantic volcanic area of Mt. Aso, one of the largest of the world. An extraordinary sight is the lush green, perfectly formed cone of Mount Komezuka (translated as rice mound). It surrounds, together with four other recently formed volcanoes, the fertile planes and small villages of the large caldera, 15 miles in diameter. Mist rises from the valley up to these 3000 feet height. It bubbles between the volcanic cones and the smell of sulphur from the close caldera penetrates into our noses. Here, we spend a wonderfully cool and calm night, before we decide to head down into the scorching heat of the plains again and visit the beautiful gorge of Takachiho, which is surrounded by many myths and reveals lovely waterfalls, overhanging, moss-covered stones, giant ferns, sheer walls and narrow passages. It is a wonderful place to enjoy, until large noisy tour groups arrive with their megaphones and destroy the magic moments.

Japan is: a wide system of artificial lakes, white sandy beaches and beautiful shrines
It becomes increasingly deserted and wild, as we drive for hours through a lonely rugged mountain road with steep gorges and artificial lakes from Shiiba to Saito. Often, the single-lane road becomes so narrow and dark from the advancing jungle that we fear getting stuck at any moment.

The next day, we are again in populated areas, as we drive towards Cape Toi, the southernmost point of the main islands of Japan. White sandy beaches alternate with bizarre pinnacles rising up out of the sea, flowers bloom on the banks, first palms emerge. The main attraction of this coastal region is the wonderfully orange coloured Udo-jingu Shrine in a superb setting.

We enter the small mystic cave through richly carved arches and are overwhelmed by the beauty of the main temple in red and gold, which looks like a precious treasure box. This outstanding sight is one of those unforgettable moments one would like to keep in memory forever.

Later, towards Kagoshima with its impressive Sakurajima volcano, the densely overpopulated areas increase more and more. So we decide to forgo the cultivated West Coast of Kyushu and take the expensive motorway back to the main island of Honshu.

Japan is: place of first atomic bomb in Hiroshima

On that dark morning we are filled with a flood of emotions as we enter the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. It was August 6, 1945, 8.15 a.m., at the start of normal daily activities, that the first atomic bomb exploded approx. 2000 feet above this lovely town with its many bridges. The consequences of the incredible explosion were tremendous: 75’000 people were killed immediately and by the end of December 85’000 humans died from radiation exposure burns. The death toll has probably now reached 200’000 as people continued to die from the radiation. The impressive, three-storey Peace Memorial Museum shows the tragedy in dramatic films, models, family scenes and descriptions.

20’000 tons of TNT was the power of the Atomic Bomb, which flattened all buildings in a diameter of two and half miles from the epicentre. The ruins of the dome of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce at the bank of the river Motoyasu-gawa are a symbol of destruction. Its burned out dome is visible through the arch of the Monument to the Victims. No one of the many visitors leaves this dramatic place untouched. Their agitated faces reflect their deep feelings.
Japan is: cosy restaurants and perfectly organised service of tourist masses
We proceed to Osaka. Once more we are driving through never ending cities and heavily congested roads. The nice reception by our friendly Swiss consul and his invitation to a Japanese lunch in the heart of the downtown make our spirits rise again. We find ourselves in a cosy, miniature place with space for only about a dozen of guests sitting around a counter with a hot iron plate in the middle and are greeted with a hearty welcome. Immediately, a cup of tea is served, followed by a hot towel for wiping our face and hands. Out of the long list of delicious food, we chose the days’ menu and we are first served soup, a bowl of rice, salad and soy sauce on a tray. Meanwhile the chef prepares spicy pieces of beef, mushrooms, pumpkins and bamboo roots on the hot iron plate in front of us. It tastes delicious.
After a few days in busy Osaka, where we tried unsuccessfully to get a Russian visa for the planned continuation of our journey through Siberia, Mongolia and further to the Caucasus, we head Northeast to the tree-lined sandy landspit of Ama-no-hashidate. According to our guidebook it is one of the three most scenic places in Japan. One tourist bus after the other arrives and releases hordes of people. We watch them walk straight away to the first floor of a souvenir shop, where on a long table rows of colourful bowls with food are already waiting for them. Everything is perfectly organised: Before they sit down on soft cushions around the table, they get a blue plastic bag for their shoes to be taken off. The next moment, they are eating with their traditional wooden chopsticks, which are always used only once and then discharged. Only thanks to this systematic, thoroughly organisation is it possible to serve such an unbelievable crowd of people in the shortest period of time.
Japan is: where the customer is (still) the king
Next morning we stop at a supermarket just as the doors open, right in time to take part at the refreshing, traditional reception of the customers. With the sounds of music as background, the employees stand parade on both sides of the entry and greet everyone with an enchanting smile and polite bows — it is a tradition that makes us feel so welcome.
Japan is: large fishing fleets and preference of fresh fish
It is a cloudy Sunday morning as we approach the rugged Echizen West Coast. Diving schools, crab and fish restaurants and shops spread all over. The diversity of fresh fish displayed is incredible. There is everything available the sea is offering and the heart desiring, from sea bream, shrimps, salmon, squid, shells, seaweed to expensive giant crabs which cost around US$50 a piece and leave the shop neatly packed in white polystyrene boxes.
Money obviously is not a big issue. More important is that the fish is fresh, preferably still wiggling. Looking at the wealth of seafood and the numerous fishing fleets laying in the picturesque harbours, we automatically ask ourselves how long the sea will be able to provide this enormous daily demand of fresh fish.
Japan is: sense of comfort and beauty

A very special experience is the visit to a restaurant wash room on this rocky coastal strip. Each toilet is placed in the middle of an individually landscaped exotic garden with Bonsai trees, flowers and attractively carved stone monuments. Water is running through bamboo sticks into a tiny fountain, the sound of singing birds fills the air — a perfect feeling of being out in nature. There, where no real water is murmuring, a button can be pushed and this noise can be heard over loudspeakers.

Japan is: mystic Mount Fujisan and deep blue crater lakes

As we get closer to the region of the five Fuji lakes, a concentration of clouds surround the dormant volcano and makes its appearance change continuously — once a dark cap surrounds it, then a white circle. From our isolated camping spot we admire in the darkness the lights of the mountain path leading to the volcano that attracts approximately 3000 visitors every day in the two months of its climbing season. Nowadays, there is not much wilderness remaining, as on each stop there are the popular beverage dispensers, which can be found for the well being of the people on every corner in all Japan. Of course, on the top there is the convenience of a telephone to let the relatives know about the arrival on the summit, and the inevitable gift shop is open.

We feel absolutely no desire to join these crowds and prefer to look at this magnificent mountain from always changing new viewpoints. This region on Tokyo’s doorsteps becomes our favourite place when we want to escape the scorching heat of the capital filled with the waste heat of its uncountable airconditioners.
Japan is: extreme densely populated coastal regions, 40 millions inhabitants in Tokyo’s suburbs
An acute lack of space is the main problem of Japans 125 million people. No new car can be registered without the proof of a parking lot. At home probably a room has to be sacrificed. The short-term solutions for parking in cities are rotating platforms in high-rise buildings, working like elevators! Multi-storey roads have been built as an attempt to absorb the dense traffic, and luxury underground malls are available for shopping.
We are allowed to park and sleep in our Landcruiser in the parking lot of the residence of the Swiss embassy’s employees, right in the heart of the lively quarter of Shibuya. During nine wonderful days, this exciting town with its 12 millions downtown-inhabitants becomes a fascinating, unforgettable experience. We travel at any times of day with the efficiently functioning underground and rapid trains, which carry in three-minute intervals daily two millions extremely disciplined commuters in the area of Shibuya. We spend hours watching the people waiting for the pedestrian light to become green and then invade the animated streets like an army of busy ants.
We get never tired of admiring the flood of neon tubes and gleaming red lanterns in the evenings, which transform the streets into a colourful festival of lights. We watch women, dressed in traditional bright silky kimonos, mingle gracefully with correctly outfitted business men in coat, jacket and tie and the youth scene in their fashionable look - in mini skirts, striking make-ups and red or white tinted hair, stalking on eight inch high-heeled cork shoes.
Japan is: quiet oasis of National Parks with outstanding nature and sensuous shrines
Not far from the hectic capital Tokyo lies the large temple and shrine complex of Nikko, surrounded by green forest walls. 15000 artisans from all over Japan contributed to this unique architectural masterpiece. We admire all gold splendour, woodcarvings and paintings, the richly decorated arches, shrines, bell and drum towers and the five-storey pagoda. Only when the many school children start to invade the quite place and get on our nerves do we flee to the quietude of the nearby Yumoto and Chuzenji Lakes within the Nikko National Park. As we are driving through the great natural beauty of the Ginzan Lake, we adventure for the last time our feeling of happiness in such beautiful surroundings. We adventure also for the last time our miserable time in violent rainstorms, as we visit the mountains in Hakuba near Nagano. Right were the 1998 Olympic Games took place, we pass on August 17, 1999 the 500´000th kilometre of our journey around the world.
Japan is: safe world and its attempt to preserve it

On September 9, 1999 our last day in Japan has approached. We say good-bye to Nippon, to a country, where we always felt comfortable and safe. But we say good-by also to a world which in their way of living and thinking is so different from ours, where due to language difficulties we were not able to communicate with people — with the taxidriver, who opened us politely the doors, the modest farmer on the foot of Mount Fuji, the young lady in the silky kimono in Hachido or the correctly dressed business man in a suit and tie, who showed us the right way. They all contribute to the fact that this special Asian country will remain in our thoughts and hearts as a very special country.

As Mandarin Airlines takes off to its flight via Taiwan to Vancouver in Canada, we are also on board. Our faithful Landcruiser is already sailing with the vessel ´Bright Stream´ of the Japanese Eastern Car Liner on free transport towards its new destination.

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