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Author: Maria Zehentner
Beitrag vom: 03.02.2018

The last Samurai!

Japan – December, January, February 2017/2018


Around 4 p.m, Leander was able to drive Akela on the deck of Camellia Lines. We bridged the waiting time until people boarded in the port terminal together with Remo, who was going to Japan too.
We shared the booked Second Class cabin with nine other travellers, which unexpectedly turned out to be extremely quiet and pleasant. A tatami mat as a base and a thin blanket acted as a bed. Shortly after we dropped off ,we grabbed our towels and used the small spa area for a much-needed shower. The ship itself looked modern, well-kept and clean. While Lennox was greeted and gifted by the ladies in the cabin, we had a beer in the lounge together with Remo. We did this only out of a purely precautionary measure to compensate for the possible swell. But despite all the precautions, the crossing was extremely smooth and relaxed.

Earlier than expected, at 6:00 a.m., Leander was woken up by a staff member to unload our oldie. Everything worked smoothly and was well organized! A short time later we were able to leave the ship and were one of the first to arrive at the person control. There, we were allowed to smile into a camera and leave our fingerprints. Within a few minutes we had the entry stamp in the passport. Now it was time to keep your fingers crossed, that the truck worked just as quickly. 
In the entrance area, a gentleman from the competent authority was already waiting for us. He was super nice and polite, but unfortunately the information and prices of his documents did not comply with ours. But behold, a few phone calls later, all inconsistencies were resolved. Next step, truck inspection. Our entrance ladder to the cabin was unfortunately defective, as at every border, therefore it could not be extended, trick 17 ;-). And it worked here, too. Because often the physical stature of the inspector prevented a sporty boarding in the truck. As in this case. The official briefly put his nose in the container, that's it! We could not confirm the often held opinion, that the Japanese authorities would be very arduous, when foreigners were entering the country.

The next step was visiting the Japanese Automobile Club, or short JAF, to apply for the allowance to drive on Japanese roads. There we had to have our Carnet de Passage checked for its authenticity. We had never doubted the authenticity of our CdP, but what's the point. Confidence is good, control is better. Japanese were the inventors of controls. It took an hour to check our documents, et voila? They actually turned out to be real. The editing of our CdP's was free and the staff acted extremely politely. Common was just as so often, the pointless loss of time due to laborious bureaucracy.

We were taken back to the port, where Akela's customs papers had to be processed. The just-starting lunch break in the office delayed our start by another hour. But after that it went really fast.

Our first meters on Japanese ground, incredible! Just notice left-hand traffic with narrow roads. We hadn't eaten anything all day and were supposed to find very quickly a place where we could sleep , because it was already dark. After a felt eternity looking for a parking space, we virtually parked Akela in the pedestrian area of Hakata, and jumped into burger restaurant to eat. Afterwards, Lennox and I climbed back into the truck to be ready in case there were problems with residents or the police. Leander, meanwhile, sprinted into a large electronic store and tried to get to affordable internet, which according to our Belgian friends, who had been on the road in Japan for several weeks and kept us with information, should be very complicated. But not for Leander. Some time later he came back smiling with a local Sim card.

Now we needed a place, where we could sleep. At first glance, I would say that the topic of "parking space search" in Japan will be a major challenge. We searched in vain in the city center, that`s why we drove on despite the coming darkness on to the outskirts. Again, it did not seem to get any easier. Although there were many large and free-standing parking areas, but to our chagrin they were locked by barriers. Until we passed a restaurant, that offered enough space. The owner allowed us to spend the night without hesitation. Thank goodness, because we were pretty tired, and fell immediately into our beds.

Hakata is located on Kyushu, the most southwestern one of the main Japanese islands. Although there was a largely subtropical climate, we should not forget that it was still winter, which meant it was cold and windy. We had devised a rough plan for the island, which consisted of a healthy mix of history, nature and culture. Japan was one of the few generous countries on our trip, that granted us a 90-day stay without visas. Which allowed us a relatively generous window of exploring this country.

In order to avoid expensive tolls, we became familiar with overland roads on our first kilometers. However, we quickly gave up driving on these roads, it was too exhausting. We organized a written confirmation from Nexco, the main operator of the Japanese toll roads, on which was confirmed, that Akela was a car, which is officially according in his Austrian papers. This confirmation made driving on toll roads a lot easier, because there was no need for longer explanations, and at least we saved money.

We started our tour in the city of Kumamoto. She was primarily known for its "Kumamoto Castle," a former samurai house. Around the building were two large parking lots, which were sealed off with barriers and security men.

In Japan, mostly older men are familiar with the role of park attendants. Many are forced to supplement their barely-available pensions in their well-earned retirement, to contribute the family budget. Like in South Korea, the Japanese pension plan is still in its infancy.

We tried both parking lots and got the same result for both. Already at the entrance, the men ran towards us and hit an X with their arms, which meant for our oldie "stay outside". After lengthy discussions, both parking attendants allowed us to drive in. The one wanted to charge us € 50 per day, the other one € 25. We took the cheaper one and turned off Akela. Of course the outrageously expensive fee hurt very much.
We walked the last meters to the castle by foot. We walked around the moat and searched in vain for an entrance. Upon closer inspection, at least we realized, that countless scaffolding and barriers were around the castle. We asked A passerby told us, that a severe earthquake in 2016 almost completely destroyed the building and, that the renovation would continue for the next 16 years. Leander`s and my eyes crossed, and we both started laughing at the same moment. 16 years were clearly too long to wait. But the disappointment was not too bad, during our stay in Japan we should definitely get the opportunity to visit more impressive buildings like Kumamoto castle. Due to not visiting the castle, we did not exhaust the parking time and got our money back after laborious negotiations.

Since it did not mean much detour, we visited the Takachiho Gorge. A gorge formed from the lava of Mount Aso, in the middle of the mountains of Kyushu. The last few kilometers to the small canyon were uncomfortably difficult. On narrow Japanese roads, the truck had to torment through several steeply downhill serpentines. Both were no longer used to such needs, neither Akela nor Leander. However, the two were now a well-rehearsed team and rarely lost their nerves.
When we arrived at the parking, we had the same discussions like always, parking lot negotiations. But we were able to convince the men and got the green light. It was already dark and we had to hurry, to take a quick look at the Manai waterfalls, that was just around the corner. They were beautiful and mystical at once. The loud rippling water was additionally set in scene by colorful lighting. During the day you could go with a rowboat through the canyon. Due to the winter temperatures, we canceled this romantic project.
In Japan, there were overland service areas named Michi no Eki. Equipped with small supermarkets, restaurants and toilets, they were founded 20 years ago, to ensure a safe road environment. At one of these we set up our camp. During our play afternoon in the truck we noticed, that the parking lot was well frequented. Especially at night we made the painful experience, that Japanese trucks were apparently not equipped with auxiliary heaters. We were surrounded by trucks with running engines. But we also got used to it over time.

It was a day before Christmas Eve and we did not want to spend it on the side of the road or in a city. As often as possible, we wanted to stay out in nature. In a half-day drive we reached the volcanic region of Aso.

The caldera of Mount Aso extended over an area of ​​25 km in length and 18 km in width. In this crater were again five other volcanoes, of which the Naka-dake (1592m) was the only one, which is still active. At his last outbreak in 1957, 12 people were killed. Furthermore, over the years people have died again and again from poison gas leaks. Last 1997, 12 persons succumbed to gas poisoning. After this last catastrophe, the government decided to close the hiking trails and the cable car to the summit crater for tourists.
On the way up to the Caldeira we stopped several times and looked for a suitable Christmas tree. There were no conifers. Finally, our choice fell on a thick branch with green leaves. But it does not say in vain: "Oh Christmas tree, how green are your leaves". Since there were few tourists in thjs area it was relatively easy, to get a good parking space on one of the viewing platforms.

We did not want to waste time, because the weather was great. We slipped quickly in our hiking boots and marched off. The clear sky allowed a fantastic view over the volcano area. It consisted mainly of black, rugged lava through which the plants, flowers and shrubs had fought their way through. The main magnet in this magnificent landscape was, of course, the Naka-dake, from whose crater incessantly rose clouds of smoke.
Happy about some movement, we adorned the christmastree after dinner together and went to sleep early. Violent pattering on the roof woke me up early in the morning. Oh no, it was pouring rain. The weather app had already prophesied similar, but the hope died last. It was still early in the morning, with luck the weather mood looked more confident after breakfast. But the inevitable rain, and an incoming storm made the situation worse and worse. At first we tried to pass the time with parlor games, which became boring in the long run.

It was a great challenge for us being patient on a living area of 12m2, together with a six-year-old who still deeply believed in the Christ Child. When Leander turned on Wham's Christmas classic "Last Christmas", it came over me, and I began to cry. It was our second Christmas away from home. I missed my big son and wanted to go home. Right now!
In order not to fall completely into the tribulation, we put on rain gear and waded around the block to cool off. And believe it or not, it was exactly this short time window, which the Christ Child needed, to put presents under the tree. I took a deep breath of relief and was glad that after some initial difficulties, we managed to make a nice evening.
The second night in the Aso region was one of the most bumpy and stormy I could remember. At times I was really afraid, that a gust of wind would tip over Akela.
With a heavy heart we packed our things the next morning and left the volcanoes. We would have liked to stay another day to explore the area. But the weather was against us. Storm and rain did not subside, and promised no improvement for the next few days. We decided to continue towards Kurakowa. Because there should be the most famous and popular Hot Springs of Japan.

At an altitude of 700m along the Tanohara River, we were spoiled and needed to decide amongst all these beautiful springs.
The Japanese call their hot springs "Onsen". In general, this is a place with hotels, that have several natural hot spring baths, mostly separatet between men and women.
Scattered all over the country, there were numerous natural sources, which were only partially accessible with a truck of our caliber.
Locally, we bought an "onsen pass", that allowed us to become familiar with Japanese bathing culture at several hot springs. Basically, onsen came very close to our wellness thoughts. There were different tempered pools to relax body and mind. If mixed pools were present, rarely a woman got lost there. After relaxing in the hot water, the body was scrubbed, whitened and brushed, much like in Korea. But to be honest, the Korean Jimjilbang's were more likable to me, because they were heated. Japanese women did not seem to care to freeze, or were just not as squeamish as me.
It was nice, but Leander and I were not big fans of wellness. Maybe it was because we never had the opportunity to use the rest room in all the facilities. Our son felt that resting after a hot bath was wasted time, and did not realize the meaning behind it, much to our regret.

Kyushu pleased us extremely well. Now we were looking forward to Honshu. While the smaller of the main islands had much nature to offer, the largest island should surprise us with history and tradition. And a lot more as it turns out!
Early in the morning we started our day's stage and drove north towards Honshu. The two islands were connected by a bridge, which could be crossed for a fee.

After spending the night at a rest stop in the Middle of Nowhere, we reached the town of Iwakuni. Actually, no stop was planned, but no one was in the mood to keep on driving, so we decided to stop.

The most spectacular building in the city was the Kintai Bridge. First built in 1673 made out of wood, its five arches had become a symbol of the region. The small Iwakuni Castle, which you could easily climb on foot or by cable car, was well protected on the top of a hill, and sprayed out a hint of ancient Japanese traditions. Thus, the unplanned stay in Iwakuni was definitely worth it. After a quiet night we said goodbye with a last look at the bridge and continued towards Himeji.

The city's high level of fame was mainly due to its impressive castle, which has been shining in new splendour since its complete renovation in 2015, which took several years, and had reopend its doors for tourists again. Himeji Castle was one of the most beautiful examples of Japanese castle architecture. Despite its architectural beauty, such as the white exterior walls, curved roofs and spiral floor plan, its fortifications were highly developed so, that the castle was considered practically impregnable. The more than 1,000 different cherry trees scattered in the castle garden, which included very rare specimens, would probably make the heart of every botanist beat faster. Unfortunately, we were a few weeks too early for the famous cherry blossom.

We reached the city in the late afternoon. After we circumnavigated the castle for more than an hour, and also the surrounded side streets, we ended up with our "parking latin". Chased, too big or too expensive! These three components followed us at every step in Japan. We didn't know where to go with Akela until we saw an unblocked area at a building. There was no one to spot, whom we could have asked. That`s why we parked ourselves cheeky in the place. We closed the shutters, locked everything off and strolled to the castle. It was now closed because of our perpetual search for a parking space, which was not too bad. We had planned several days in Himeji and would still have enough time for a visit. When we got back to the truck everything was quiet. Akela shouldn't have caused a stir. We felt save least until the next morning came.

As I looked out of the window after getting up, I noticed a man walking up and down the fence. I imagined I had seen him the day before. Well, to cut a long story short! This caring passerby had informed the executive officers of the substation, before we apparently parked and alerted the gentlemen, that a vehicle with a foreign license plate was on the premises. Three employees of the company rushed to have a look. Since they probably did not see any danger in us, they allowed us to stay and visit Himeji Castle in peace. After that, however, we had to clear the field. Thanks to the overzealous citizen for telling the security that we parked infront of the building, and thank you to the substation for allowing us to park there!

It was New Year's Eve, December 31st, and we stood at the entrance gates of the castle. Already on the way there we could see, that many tourists, mostly locals, were on their feet. We bought three tickets and started the sightseeing tour. I found the building very impressive. Especially the wooden roofs, which ended in big turns, stabbed in our eyes. These curved roofs, often richly decorated, played an important role in Japanese architecture at that time, just as they do today. We strolled through the extensive garden and were surrounded by numerous cherry trees.

From the moment we entered the interiors of the castle, however, it was no fun anymore. Block handling was the order of the day. We had to take off the shoes and put them in plastic bags. As a replacement, we got sloppy to cover. Then, we were smuggled step by step, in row and limb, floor by floor, and the same at the other when getting out. Every attempt to dance out of line was immediately reprimanded by the security. Sometimes I panicked, that the wooden stairs that connected the floors could collapse under the strain.

All three of us were happy, when we were back in the fresh air. It was like whole China, Korea and Japan had agreed, to meet at Himeji Castle on New Year's Eve, to slither into the new year.
Many Japanese celebrate the Turn of the Year on the same date as we do. But they celebrate totally contrary to us. No fireworks, no bangs, no parties, nothing! But we celebrated a hot party in the truck.
After the sightseeing tour, Leander was so slain, that he wanted to lie down for a moment, but he fell asleep. Around 9 p.m., he woke up and climbed out of bed crumpled. In the meantime, I had become so tired, that I only wanted to go to bed, which I couldn't stop myself from doing. Lennox has been sleeping for quite some time anyways. Happy New Year! We had lots of fun.

On New Year's Day, Japanese traditionally visited a temple to ask for happiness and blessings. We did the same and chose the Engyo-Ji temple therefore. The building was located outside the city of Himeji, on the summit of Mount Shoshazan and had more than 1000 years of history. Engyo-Ji also served as the film set for the Hollywood blockbuster "Last Samurai", with the famous actor Tom Cruise. After a busy day was coming to an end and Lennox was already slumbering deep and tight, we pressed the play button of our home cinema, and watched the movie „The last Samurai“.  
After the strenuous New Year's Eve celebrations we went to Kobe, 60 kilometres away. The city was known for its Kobe beef, which in the western world is traded for more than 600€ among gourmets . A tick too expensive for us. But we were not only in town because of the steaks, the main reason was the family, with whom we could manage a meeting. Finally we met the Belgian gang in Mongolia. It was a huge hello when we saw each other again at a parking lot next to the sea. While the children were having a good time on the beach, we adults had time to share experiences and tips. It was good to talk to like-minded people, because we didn`t meet others since Korea.

The meeting was short, because everyone had different plans. Ours took us to Osaka, where we had made an appointment with a shipping agent at 09 am the following morning.

At this point, I would also like to say "thank you" to all the Overlanders out there, always trying to help. Like in our case. For more than three months, Leander and I spent much of our evening hours finding someone suitable to ship our truck to Borneo. More or less unsuccessful! The tide turned when we got the contact from Mr. Nakanishi from an Overlander.

Mr. Nakanishi made us a fair offer for the ship passage Osaka - Kota Kinabalu (capital of Borneo). The personal appointment with him was promising, and we made nails with heads. With a handshake, we sealed the deal, which was actually unusual in Japan. With this addition, a huge stone fell from our heart, because the shipping problem almost caused stomach ulcers.

Good things we marched back to the truck, started the engine and left the city behind. Sadness did not spread around us, because Osaka was a big port city and economic metropolis, and did not necessarily arouse the desire to stay longer in us. Kyoto tempted us more.

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  1. GOPS
    Excellent blogs. Really liked your name 'Akela'. Did you know that akela in Hindi means 'Alone' ?!
  2. Maria Zehentner
    Maria Zehentner
    Hi Gops,
    sorry for the late reply. I don`t know how, but I missed this message.
    Thank you for your kind words. No, I did not know that Akela means "Alone" in Hindi.
    We named our Truck after the leading wolf in the "jungle book".
    I hope you enjoy reading our blog.