Wakayama with friends

Last year we hosted a Japanese high school student, Miyu, for two weeks and one of her teachers, Machiko, for the second week. They were both the most delightful of guests and we really enjoyed both getting to know them and sharing a bit of Australia. A return visit provided the excuse for this trip to Japan. Today we had the opportunity to spend time with Machiko, the English School’s principal Mayumi and Miyu and her family.

Machiko met us at the hotel and we took the Hankai Tramway down to the Ayanocho stop in Sakai. That’s another Japanese tramway for me and it’s quite a long one, running down main streets and narrow roads, behind buildings and across a river. Fun, as always.

Mayumi was waiting outside her new English school building, attached to her family’s knife shop. The Jikko family has been making knives since 1901 (see this article in the Japan Times, photos of the shop) and we watched her brother putting the handles on some of these fine blades.

The ELS21 English language school teaches around 150 students ranging from 2 years old and up into high school. One of the two year olds was Mayumi’s niece Non who chased Alex all around one of the classrooms while the rest of us sipped tea and ate traditional Japanese children’s day sweets.

Talk was of Japanese education and the strictures placed upon students. According the Mayumi all Japanese students need to pass an exam in order to get into high school. No pass, no high school. But high school is compulsory. Thee are also thousands of dollars of costs associated with attending high school, not to mention paying for cram schools to enable the kids to get into good schools.

But Mayumi says that Japanese students are very self motivated and don’t need the constant pressures from parents to get them to study, as seems to take place in the west. She doesn’t have kids herself, so I’m not sure how true this is.

Are the outcomes better from this than the alternatives? I’m not so sure. I’m a big fan of learning for curiosity’s sake and of creativity, but also of self-motivation.

Afterwards we drove to Sakai Station to catch the Nankai Main Line down to Wakayama. The first part was familiar, having passed this way many times en route from Kansai International Airport. Then the line splits at Izumisano and we continued further down the coast.

There were some water views, but the most interesting spot was just before Misakikoen (Misaki Park) with rollercoasters, water slides and a big Ferris wheel visible from the windows of the train.

Wakayama is where Machiko resides and shares its name and location with of one of the last three prefectures I have yet to visit or transit through in Japan (the other two being Miyazaki and Okinawa). So that’s now 45 out of 47 prefectures in my list, something that caused much amusement all day.

From the station we walked the quiet streets to Wakayama Castle. It must be quite a sight when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, but they were starting to wane now. A group of musicians played kotos in the park, the famous “Sakura” tune audible as we entered.

There were 79 steps up to the castle, or so the sign said. At the base of the walls was a rest area where we ate our lunch of bakery products purchased at Sakai. Then up into the castle proper. It is a ferroconcrete recreation, which in this instance was rather good as it meant that we climbed up steps to the top of the donjon rather than steep ladders.

No photographs were allowed of the suits of armour and weapons on display inside the castle, but there were no such restrictions on the view out from the top. The castle is worth it for the view alone.

Back down at the base is the Ohashi Roka, an enclosed wooden bridge that slopes at an 11 degree angle and has slats inside to (hopefully) prevent slipping. There was also a very pretty garden nearby.

We returned to Wakayama Station and by train back towards Osaka. The hazy grey sky outside looked so familiar from other trips to Kansai Airport, the region has its own light. After changing to a local service at Izumisano we changed again further up to a different line and got out at Mikunigaoka.

There were met by Akiko, Miyu’s mother. What followed was a reasonably long drive through fairly industrial looking main streets before we reached the tightly packed and very narrow winding streets of Habikigaoka. I have no idea how Akiko navigated! It was fascinating to see this suburban area up close from the perspective of a car.

Miyu was still at volleyball when we arrived and didn’t return until late. She’s the captain of her team. Her father Toshiyuke, a designer of industrial machinery and brothers Naoto and Haru were home to greet us. They seem an absolutely lovely family. Their English skills were better than they believed too. Certainly better than my disappointing level of Japanese.

We had a meal of takoyaki (octopus balls, though some had sausage instead) straight out of the takoyaki cooker that every Osakan is reputed to own, oden (fish cake and konnyaku stew), sushi and karaage. It was pleasant to eat home cooked food after a week of eating out.

Afterwards the seven year old Haru played Wii and toys with six year old Alex. Despite the language barrier they communicated in their own fashion. After Miyu finally returned she joined them – after cleaning up and showing Alex her room.

She is the only occupant with her own room. The other four share the other bedroom. It’s so different from the generally large Australian homes, but I have to admit to a fantasy of living in a tiny apartment furnished with all the wonderful things from Japanese stores. It would certainly make the vacuuming easier on weekends.

Akiko and Miyu farewelled us from Fujidera station. When Miyu left Alex had tears in his eyes. I think he considers her like a big sister, despite the brief stay with us. That’s how much impact she had on our family. I hope she will return next year. It would be lovely to reciprocate with her whole family in Australia, but leave is limited and rare in Japan, six days a year and public holidays when everyone else travels and prices are highest.

The visit reinforced that, despite our frequent trips here, we are rather fortunate in Australia.

It was wonderful to catch up with Mayumi, Machiko and Miyu and her family. In the process I also managed to tick a couple of other items of my list – a ride on the Hankai tramway and a visit to Wakayama prefecture. And if my love of Japanese trains seems strange then consider a program I caught on television later of a man wandering a disused railway line, the tunnels used to store sake and a lonely diesel rail car rusting away in the middle of nowhere. So sad.

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