I was browsing through the pictures posted by my sister-in-law in her Facebook profile recently. She posted some beautiful photos of the autumn season in Epping Forest, located north-east of London.
When I was a student in the UK, of the four seasons, I loved autumn the most. Apart from the colourful sight of the falling leaves, this particular season always give me a calm and relaxed feeling.
I managed to experience this season again when I was selected to attend a course in Japan in 1990, courtesy of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The course started in late August and ended in December. The training was held at JICA's International Centre in Kitakyushu and was made up of only eight participants from different countries.
The overall course was very well structured, with a combination of site/factory visits in addition to classroom lectures. We were also provided with optional classes to study the Japanese language. Towards the middle of November, there was a one-week break in studies followed by a guided tour cum factory visits to the capital of Tokyo. The official schedule was for the whole class to travel by train from Kitakyushu to Tokyo and put up at one of JICA's training centres in the capital. Since there were some free days before the official Tokyo trip, me and three other coursemates (Tino from Argentina, Malou from Philippines and Wipa from Thailand) decided to seek permission if we could travel ahead and meet up with the rest of the class in Tokyo at the designated time. Our intention was to go for some sightseeing on our own.
The first time we forwarded our request, our course coordinator Mr. Manabe, was very reluctant to give permission. He didn't actually turn us down but since the Japanese find it difficult to say a flat-out `No', Mr. Manabe was giving this and that reasons why we should not venture out on our own.
When word got back that our request was not likely to get approval, my friend Tino was a bit cheesed off and was about to blow his top (Among Tino's words - Who do they think we are?! Kids that have to follow their every rule?!). I managed to calm him down by saying that I'll try to negotiate with Mr. Manabe in person.
I arranged for a suitable time to see our course coordinator and explained to him our intentions and hear his concerns. I told him that we wanted to visit the cities of Osaka and Kyoto because we've heard so much about them. Our training here was sponsored by JICA and it was highly unlikely that any of us would be able to come to Japan again on our own. We wanted to see as much of Japan as we can before flying home. Mr. Manabe understood my reasoning but he was worried that we could get lost in Osaka or Kyoto. Osaka is a huge city, second only to Tokyo.
I helped put his mind at ease by saying that my basic Japanese (gained from those optional language classes) has been passable so far. I could count quite well, so asking about train/taxi fares or prices of items is not a problem. Asking for directions should also not be difficult because the Japanese are very helpful people. I probably clinched the deal by adding that Japan is the safest country that I've been to. I can walk alone at night without the fear of getting mugged.
At the end of my pitch, Manabe-san looked at me and smiled. Okay, he said, but let us help you book the hotels at Osaka and Kyoto so that you don't get sent to the expensive ones.
And so, at this time of the year in 1990, me and three friends went traveling on our own to visit Osaka, Kyoto and a few other places around those cities. We took the so-called bullet train (Shinkansen) from Kokura Station in Kitakyushu to Shin-Osaka. I can't recall how fast the train went.... but it was very fast!
It was my idea to visit Osaka because I very much wanted to visit Osaka Castle, having been much influenced by watching the telemovie, Shogun (Richard Chamberlain acted the leading role). The castle is located over a large sprawling park right in the middle of the city. Walking through the castle park reminded me of scenes from the many samurai movies that I watched over the years.
After Osaka, we made a stop at the town of Nara before heading to Kyoto. My Thai friend Wipa, wanted so much to see this place because she read about a beautiful buddhist Golden Temple. I cannot describe the beauty of the Japanese gardens and parks in Nara. As it was autumn, the changing colour of the leaves on the trees was breathtaking. We spent a whole afternoon sightseeing in Nara before taking an evening train to Kyoto.
Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan. It is a very historical city with many gardens and old Japanese architecture. If you want to have a feel of the old Japan, then Kyoto is the place to be.
After exploring Kyoto for a day (hardly enough, I assure you), we took another bullet train to the busy city of Tokyo. The highlight of this train journey was when we reached an area near the foot of Mt. Fuji. The train track passed an area about 20 to 30 km from the mountain and the view of this dormant volcano from our train window was awesome. The mountain is near conical in shape with its peak covered with the white of snow. Having previously seen this mountain only on postcards or pictures, the first-hand view was something else. If not for the plans to visit Tokyo, I would've made a stop right there and spent more time exploring the towns at the foot of this famous Japanese landmark.
We reached Tokyo a few days earlier than when the other half of our class was scheduled to arrive. We had planned it that way because we wanted the opportunity to tour the city on our own. We visited so many interesting places : Shinjuku, Akihabara, Tokyo Disneyland.... but those stories are for another day.