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Narita and Matusyama

We've gone through the city of Narita so many times, never stopping to take a look. When I arrived at the airport most of the facilities were still closed and I had about six hours before my next flight. So I thought, why not Narita?

The private Keisei line is by far the more frequent service to Narita, so I caught the commuter train past the verdantly green fields. Already I could feel the summer humidity.

The area around Keisei's Narita station was not particularly attractive, but the path to the main attractions is well signposted and attractively decorated with stone statues of the Chinese/Japanese zodiac. Omote-Sando is lined with small shops selling souvenirs and local delicacies, including unagi, or eels. It was too early and all the shops were closed, unfortunately for me.

It's a bit over a kilometre to walk to the Narita-san Shinsho-ji temple complex. There are so many temples across Japan that it's easy to become blase about them. But just when you think you've seen it all Japan has the power to surprise you.

The red and white Daito pagoda is easily visible from the train when travelling from the airport to Tokyo, but the complex is far more than that single building.

Entrance is under a huge red lantern and gate, then up very steep steps. A variety of different architectures is visible among the halls and pagodas, but the real magic is to be found in the gardens. These are no simple strolling gardens. Tall cypresses line a valley around the ponds, statues and stone monuments emerge out of the forest around the steep edges. You can either take a path around the top or wander down near the ponds, each has its own surprises - a stone pagoda rising out of the vegetation, shaped branches framing a stunning view across a pond.

It was a strenuous walk, but oh was it worth it. Eventually I made it up to the Daito, and discovered more temples, aged, stilted, covered with inscriptions.

But I was also hot, hungry and tired, so after finishing the loop I returned the city. I thought I'd catch a JR train back, but it took a different path to a rural station with little around it - no shops for one things. I waited half an hour for a train back, then returned to Keisei station. No matter, I had plenty of time to spare.

Back at Narita Airport I rented a portable LTE wifi router from the Global Data desk, then wandered around the airport for bit, took a look from the observation deck. Eventually it was time to go catch my very first Japanese domestic flight.

Jetstar only started flying to Matsuyama last month. We were bused out to the tarmac to board via stairs in spitting rain. Unlike the retirement age aircraft of my last few trips, this A320 was brand spanking new and equipped with "sharklets" at the ends of the wings.

I found the aircraft very comfortable with decent legroom. I don't remember anything between the doors shutting and us straightening up on the runway as I fell fast asleep.

Then we took off into the cloud, which only disappeared once we were over Shikoku. There were some magnificent views of the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. I greatly enjoyed the hour long flight. It's interesting that all of the cabin and landside announcements were in Japanese, yet the pilots communicated in English, despite them being Japanese themselves.

Unfortunately, the local bus transport doesn't yet match the Jetstar arrival times, so many of us had a hot and sticky wait for the bus to the city to arrive. I prepaid tickets from a machine at the stop, unlike the sole other westerner, who got himself confused at disembarkation time.

My hotel, the Kajiwara, is opposite the JR Matsuyama station. It's the same one that we (including Alex in Mummy's tummy) stayed at during our only other visit to this city. Though there was much to see I was feeling absolutely dead on my feet, so let myself have an hour's sleep in the tiny room.

When I awoke it was already late. I wanted to pack in as many sights in Matsuyama as possible, though I was also tempted by a festival in Uwajima. One of the things I like most about Matsuyama are its trams. Many of them are old fashioned with wooden floors and a lot of atmosphere. I thought I was catching one to near where the chairlift carries you to Matsuyama's castle. This one, however, dumped me in front of Takashimaya. Though it would have been easy to change trams and continue I thought that I'd walk instead.

So I passed through the two covered arcades, the Ginten and the Okaido. I was surprised by the range of shops in the former. Lots of interesting and quirky fashion stores and less of the staid and dying arcade stores found in so many other towns across Japan. That said, quite a few stores were shut and even the big Laforet department store was boarded up.

The area is famous for its citrus products and I tried some citrus flavoured gelato that went down a treat in this heat. When I got to the chairlift I realised that it was almost closing time at the castle and that I'd have to leave it for tomorrow. Oh well, plenty else to do here.

I continued walking until I came to a different tram line. Eventually I gave up walking an caught a tram a few stops - with a day pass it doesn't matter. When I arrived at the Dogo Onsen terminus another of my objectives was sitting there at the station - the Botchan Ressha train.

These were tiny steam engines that transported people around the town of Matsuyama in the 1800's. Botchan was the name of a book written by Natsume Soseki and read by many Japanese students. Like the author, Botchan was a school teacher from Edo (Tokyo) who began his career in Matsuyama, running into conflict with other teachers and students. He really isn't very complementary about Matsuyama, but the city has taken him into its heart and now there's a Botchan everything here.

So I paid the 100Y ($1.10) supplement and jumped aboard this diesel rebuilding of a Botchan Ressha. It was a little fun, and then I caught another tram all the way back to Dogo Onsen.

My feet loved the soak in the free foot bath opposite the station. Then I watched to commemorative Botchan clock which, on the hour, lifts up and recreates scenes from the book.

Though it was definitely not the right weather for a hot bath, my body felt the grime of long flights and a sleepless night, so I decided to give Japan's oldest and most famous onsen a go, this time picking the shared Kami-no-yu (bath of the gods) rather than the more private and expensive Tama-no-yu which I tried last time. I did feel a lot better and cleaner afterwards.

Next problem - dinner. I caught a tram back to Takashimaya, but the underground eat street was mostly closed and the department store restaurants were probably expensive. I just wanted a small, friendly place with cheap, but unconfusing food.

I walked and I walked. There were a couple of Italian and French places off the Ginten arcade that had potential, but eventually I found myself walking beyond the private station under Takashiyama. I settled on a small, but trendy looking, noodle house. I just pointed at one of their specialities, not knowing what it was.

Turns out that maze soba is delicious. All these ingredients, with only a small amount of sauce and lots of different textures, mixed in together. Wasn't certain what the flavoursome crunchy bits were until my phone translated the crackers as "squid heaven".

Tired, I wanted to go back to the hotel, but discovered that I'd caught the tram going in the clockwise direction - ie the long way round. Yes I could change, but hey, I'd get to see more of Matsuyama and have almost done the entire tram network.

That's the difference when travelling by myself. I can take a wrong path, a long path, and nobody but me suffers, and there's no point complaining to myself.

But I don't wish to keep Matsuyama to myself. It really is one of my favourite places. It's interesting with lots of sights to see, quirky, got a range of services and shops and has the most fantastic light. It glares, but at the same time lends the city an almost dreamy air about it.

Alright, finally time to sleep.


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