Monday 17th saw us driving up to Settle to rendezvous with my brother, Peter and his wife, Hilary. They began walking the Dales High Way back on Saturday at Saltaire and were due into Settle that evening. Having booked into the rather charming King William IV hotel just off the market square, we got the call; they had arrived and were re-hydrating in the pub next door. So, we joined them and Hil's old school friend, Jill, who had walked with them that day. Sadly, Jill had to catch a train back home, so it was just the four of us who ate together that night.

Tuesday 18th. Another splendid day of weather. Rather too splendid, really. At least for walking, as I could have done with having words with His Nibbs and getting Him to turn down the heating a couple of degrees. Junko accompanied us to the edge of town, but didn't feel able to attempt the whole walk, which was 16 miles long and also included climbing Ingleborough.

The walk initially followed the River Ribble, along shady banks and through cool woods and was quite lovely. At one point, we met a young French lad pushing a heavily laden bike. He'd started from his home near Dunkirk and was going to Ireland. He was pushing because he'd damaged his pedal and asked us if there were cycle shops in Settle, about which we were able to reasure him and wished him 'bon voyage'.

We had a morning tea/coffee in Elaine's Tea Room in Feizor. Considering the place is in the middle of nowhere and boasts about only 4 other buildings, the place is obviously very well known, as the cafe was packed with walkers and cyclists. Onwards and (eventually) upwards. Although it was lunchtime, we were trapped on a narrow track with high walls along both sides. It was agreed, "As soon as we get to somehere to sit, we'll have our lunch." Which we did. On setting forth again, we'd gone barely 100m before we came across a brook deep enough to bathe in and a grassy area well known as a picnic place. Although we knew of its existence, we had not realised we were quite that close.

Shortly after the brook we hit the fell below Ingleborough. Although we could see it clearly enough, the actual route there was not at all obvious, so a few queries of other walkers were needed to set us on the right track. Our track took us to within about 20m of the summit where two tracks met. It was also hair-raisingly windy. Having had barely a gentle zephyr (is that a tortology?) all day, the ferocity of the wind took us all by surprise and both Peter and I nearly lost our footings.

We had not actually planned on scaling the hill and to attain those final 20m of elevation involved a fair lateral treck. So, as time was now pressing, we started our descent. This turned out to be the most awesome part of the walk, and I choose my words carefully. Everyone we had met near the summit had said it was steep. One Geordie had said he only managed in on all fours and standing at the top of the path it was easy to see why. It was scalable, but you did need your hands to steady yourself as you balanced on one leg to lower a foot onto the next level. Anyone with anything less than the balance of a mountain goat would have been in serious trouble. Once down, the rest of the journey to Pete & Hil's bed for the night was a short, easy stroll with the Ribble Viaduct as our constant companion to our right. However, one very pleasant surprise was the vista to our left; right out to Morecambe Bay, about 30km away. Hil and I were ahead of Peter and when we told him we could see it, he initially didn't believe us.

After a quick drink in the hostelry, I left them to return to Settle and join Junko for the evening. Ribble Head station was 2 miles away, but I gave myself plenty of time for the journey. Even so, on the rare occasion a car did pass me, I stuck out my thumb, but none stopped. However, after about a mile a car coming the opposite way stopped and asked me where I was heading. He told me to hop in, did an 8-point turn in the road and took me to the station. However, he did carry on in the same direction, so I can only assume he was one of the cars that had passed me, done what he had to do and come back to check if I was still in need of a lift. A lovely gesture.

Wednesday, 19th. Settle is a lovely town. I believe it is the resting place of certain Mike Harding, but we didn't spot him. They do a rather nice little leaflet of interesting sights and buildings of the town, which is how we entertained ourselves for the morning, including the oldest, continuously operational Music Hall in the country; the Victoria Hall, built in 1852. Junko had wanted to visit the restored Water Tower, just outside the station and we strolled into its grounds. We were met by a gent painting some trailer wheels outside a work shop who proceeded to tell us a little about the place. What I hadn't realised until then was that this was a home; his. However, it had a little trail around the outside with information plates, so visitors were not only allowed, but encouraged. Quite what it's like to live in, I can't tell you, but it is definitely quirky.
Well, we're now safely back in the familiar surroundings of Junko's mother's apartment. Another lovely day, we came back via Imabari. Although we saw the first link in the famous chain of bridges to the mainland, the Shimanami-Kaido (https://blog.gaijinpot.com/riding-shimanami-kaido/), we couldn't cross them, as we didn't have time. In fact, when we asked the sat-nav for a time to the rental depot, we didn't have time for that either. Unless we used the toll motorway. Given that the cost of an extra day's hire was more expensive than the tolls (just), we chose that option. I have to say that, after negotiating snail-paced traffic and being held up by every second set of traffic lights (the good folk of Shikoku REALLY love their lights), being able to cruise at speed was a welcome relief.

In fact, after 2 weeks of incident-free motoring, the last couple of km were the most stressful. Coming off the highway, we hit a traffic jam. We crawled past another rare sight: an accident. This was between a small car and a truck. But do not worry, all I saw was a dent in the car's rear bumper about the size of a football. However, the traffic still crawled. Accurate though the sat-nav was, the cluster of roads around Nishi-akashi Shinkansen station caused it to struggle. Usually, it would give you 300m warning, then tell you to turn and finally give a 'bong' right at the junction. However, when roads were barely metres apart, we kept missing our turning and I ended up executing a U-turn in a busy lighted junction and possibly risking losing my deposit in the final 50m. However, everything worked out fine, the car checked out dent-less and we were on our way home.
In the city of Matsuyama is a famous onsen (hot spa), Dougo Onsen. So famous that it had an extension built especially for the Emperor; and the author, Natsume Souseki set his most famous novel, Botchan, in the city in which the onsen played a major part in the story, almost becoming a character in itelf. However, its most famous and recent role as muse was for the animated film 'Spirited Away'. Studio Ghibli sent its animators to spend time in the onsen, absorbing its atmosphere. And it shows.

From the outside it's a fabulous building. Having been extended and modified over the years it's a fabulous hotch-potch of roofs and sticky-out bits. Once inside, the labyrinth of passages and stairs really do give a sense of the maze that the onsen in Spirited Away so beautifully conveyed. The bath I was in (boys and girls most correctly separated) was made of a stone that looks like polished granite, so has a rather gloomy interior. However, not in a depressing way, but entirely in keeping with the atmosphere of the place.

Once suitably refreshed, we sat in a large tatami room (private rooms extra) and given green tea and biscuits. All very civilised and delightful.

Sadly, the weather, as can be evidenced from the photos, was awful and any further exploration of Matsuyama was prevented. However, Dougo Onsen was well worth the trip.

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On the road map we could see a small road from our lodgings towards a valley which was noted for its beauty. We very quickly discovered that 'small' was something of an understatement. As the road climbed higher, it seemed to get narrower and the curves sharper. At one point, where the road bent round a particularly sharp radius curve and had a drop on both sides, I actually got out to check that our Fiesta-sized car would actually fit. From the outside, the road was actually more generous than it felt from within. Even so, I still edged forward cautiously, just in case. As with other scenery, the road wound through heavily wooded slopes and was really quite exciting. "I don't like this." was all Junko could say - at fairly regular intervals. What was completely astonishing was that, at the top, there was a couple of hundred metre long tunnel to the other side of the hill. How in heaven they managed to get tunnel boring equipment up that road still defeats my imagination. Especially as the descending road was no better than its sister.

On the descending road we came across a robust steel cage at the roadside. At each end were heavy doors that stuck up vertically and the inner floor strewn with, I think, rapeseed plants. Surely this could only be a wild boar trap. But, how was it triggered. I had to investigate. I could see the latches holding the doors up and the spring-loaded crank levers operating them, but the trigger mechanism was invisible. Finally I noticed a small twin with a very fine black thread wound around it. It was holding a short metal bar that I realised was attached to the crank mechanism. The thread ran down the side of the cage and across the middle. Virtually invisible to the naked eye in daylight and certainly no nocturnal animal would stand a chance of seeing it.

All over this island, it would seem, are solar panel installations. At least, we've seen quite a few on our travels. Nothing huge, but big enough. How do they operate? Who owns them? I wondered. Then, the other night on TV there was a news item about the inauguration of the biggest solar array in Shikoku. This, it appears, was locally owned and operated and they sold the power to the national grid. I can only assume all these other, much smaller, arrays are also locally owned. I wonder what it would take to get such public spirited action going in the UK? Of course, I also wonder what financial guarantees are offered here, now they seem to be rapidly disappearing in the UK.

Having travelled some way down the pretty valley we spotted on the map, a comparison of our map and tourist maps displavyed in parking spots hinted that we may not be able to drive out. Walk out, yes, but not drive. Having seen no other vehicle for miles, we spotted some folk emerging from a car dressed for walking. Coincidentally, they were not local. Two Americans and their local Japanese friend. As the friend was local, she could confirm our suspicions that we would have to retrace our steps. Junko breathed a sigh of relief when we realised we didn't have to go back up the very steep windy road, but could go round. It would have been nice to go at least part way with our new-found friends on their walk in this fabulous countryside, but time was pressing and we were probably imposing as it was. The American woman had lived in Japan for 3 years and spoke the language pretty well. This was just a 10 day trip to meet with some old friends,so we bid them farewell and headed back down the valley and eventually to our next port of call, Ozu.

The guest house is owned and run by a very young couple and is quite quirky. The bit we're staying in appears to be essentially self-contained and they live in the house at the back. Whay is quirky is the interconnection. The toilet and shower area is built like the inside of any house, but it actually outside. The outside wall of the kitchen is the inside wall of this 'toilet' area and, the narrow passage beside the shower links through to the owner's own house. Still, everything required is here, so we have settled in for a couple of night's stay.

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We are now in the Shimanto River valley. When we first arrived we ate in a canoe rental cafe and were wondering why they labelled everything '40010' until Junko spotted the name written in kanji: Shi=4 - Man=10,000 (used as a multiplier, like we do thousand) and To=10. Hence Shi-Man-To = 40010. Mystery solved.

Shimantogawa (K/gawa means river) is reputed to be the last remaining free flowing river in Japan, in that there are no dams or weirs on it. It is also said to have some of the cleanest water of any Japanese river. It is certainly clear enough in places to watch the fish. It is supposed to have a good variety of species, though we didn't see that many. As I hope you will be able to see from the pictures in the link, it is probably a geologically young river, in that it is steep sided and narrow (ie it's not have enough time to erode and widen). Given the heavily wooded slopes, it is a lovely spot to while away a few days.

One interesting thing to note are the rather odd bridges you see crossing it. They are wafer thin, low and have absolutely no side rails. Consequently, they look as though they'd break every European safety regulation. As you can see in the photos, they are high enough for our little pleasure boat to pass safely under them, but the clearance is not great. The reason for their unusual construction became clear when our boatman pointed out the level of a recent flood event: about 14m above the current water level. I kid you not. The path from jetty to road was pretty steep and the road itself was higher than a willow tree the boatman said often got submerged. Beside the road, again photographed, are some of the high water marks. Any bridge built over the Shimantogawa would have to be so impossibly high it would not only be expensive, but very difficult to access, as the road level is comparitively low. Apparently, until the invention of reinforced concrete, the only way across was by ferry. Any construction of any depth, or one which included side walls or rails on which debris could become entangled, would simply be destroyed in any flood. Only by building bridges with the smallest possible area to the direction of flow will they survive. Hence their name: chin-ka-bashi = sink below bridge. Of course, there are 'proper' bridges over the river, for the trunk roads and railway and they are very high. Consequently, the height of those roads and the railway is way above the low water level of the river. The only thought that then occurs is that the locals most get a fairly regular soaking, which is a high price to pay for living in such a beautiful spot..

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Our hosts, Adam and Kaoru in Kochi, both work and were gone before we emerged from our room. We had breakfast, washed up (theirs as well as ours) then headed out towards our next stop: Otsuki. It is located on the next south-pointing peninsula, which I'm assuming also gets the full brunt of Pacific storms. However, the view from our hotel bedroom window, even on a dull day, is still pretty special. There are steep sided, wooded slopes plunging into the water, making it look like a mini Norway. Our first idea was to arrive early enough to have va bit of an exploration of the area. Unfortunately, early starts are a rarity and the speed limits on all but the toll roads are such that it was 4pm when we arrived. And it was raining.

I've often commented on differences I see between UK and Japan. Visiting the toilets in a supermarket today, I spotted something that exemplifies some of those differences. In the cubicle there was a shelf, on which were neatly stacked 4 spare toilet rolls. In the UK spare rolls are locked away inside steel reinforced containers. Just imagine, for a second, how long they would remain neatly stacked in a UK toilet? 10 minutes? Five? They would be tossed about the cubicle, torn to shreds, dumped into the toilet and attempted to be flushed away or simply nicked.

Tomorrow, we head down to the tip of the Ashizuri Peninsula and, depending on the mood of the weather, we will either explore it a bit or visit the Manjiro museum.

Manjiro, otherwise known as John Mung to his rescuers, has a quite remarkable story. He was born in the early 1800s and was a fisherman from this area who was hundreds of kms south of Tokyo when he and his comrades were shipwrecked on a tiny island. There they survived for 4 months before being rescued by an American ship that happened ot be passing. This was, at a time Japan was still cut off from the outside world. Rather like in the USSR, attempting to leave the country could be punishable by death and even moving to another province needed permission. Manjiro and his comrades ended up in Boston, where they stayed for many years. Manjiro himself learned navigation and other skills, along with fluent English, of course, and appears to have been well received by his hosts. Some years later they were given the chance to return home. Fearing the consequences, some of the party remained in the US, but a few, Manjiro included, dediced to risk the return. Fortunately, although arrested on their return, they were not punished and Manjiro became an advisor to the Shogun on naval matters. When, some years later, Commander Perry arrived with 4 war ships and demanded thast Japan open at least her ports to passing ships for trade and re-supplying, Manjiro found himself in the essential role of chief interpreter; presumably both for his language and also behaviour. For the isolated Japanese, dress, manners and even global references would be quite uncomprehensible, so Manjiro's time in the US must have been essential.

The view from our hotel (Bellreef, Otsuki) looks out on a mini-fiord, with wooded slopes plunging into the crystal waters of the bay. Quite superb. We've not yet been able to discover whether there are any navigable paths through the woods, but it would be lovely to find out.

We drove towards Ashizurimisaki, but got diverted by some lovely spots on the way. One in particular was Tatsukushi. The rocks of this peninsula are a conglomerate of soft sandstone with harder stones embedded. Over the years, the sandstone has been eroded making quite unearthly shapes and occasionally exposing the embedded rocks and stones. One formations has been called "Big and Small Bamboo" and I can see the resemblance. However, for my money it looks more like the fossilised spine of some huge creature. I think it should be renamed "Nessie's Ancestor".

Another diversion was Ashizuri Kaiteikan Underwater Observatory. Looking rather like some odd spaceship stranded on the shoreline, it's a tower built on the sea bed with portholes and a spiral staircase access. Though not quite a tropical reef, there are still plenty of interesting and curious fish to watch, as well as some lovely corals. We also saw a few of the famous 'fugu' fish; those that are edible, but will kill if not prepared correctly. Sadly, most of the photos are a little disappointing, but I'll load the one of the fugu to Facebook.

In some places I commented that it sweemed a nice sort of place to live. "But it regularly gets hit by typhoons." Junko countered, "I wouldn't want to live here." Finally, we got to the tip of the peninsula and parked the car. The walk back to the tourist centre took us along a cliff path under a canopy of camleia trees. Sadly, most of the flowers had fallen, making a crimson carpet in places while catching an occasional glimpse of one still thriving on the bough. Looking down onto the boiling see I confess I was thankful for the barriers the Japanese are so keen on. A steep descent to the beach and we stood in front of Hakusan rock arch. Rather like Dorset's 'Durdle Door' this one is topped by lush venetation. Back up on the road, we found a hot foot bath, where we were able to sooth our weary feet in warm water overlooking Hakusan while nibbling on snacks; at least until we spotted the sign forbidding eating near the water.

Some photos here:
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Kochi city

Mar. 22nd, 2017 01:11 pm
Having left our previous lodgings we tried visiting the Monet Garden here. "Monet?" you ask. Well, we visited Monet's garden in France last year, which included a Japanese garden. The house was also full of Japanese art. Monet was a big fan, it seems. That said, I'm not quite sure of the connection with Shikoku, but there is a Monet garden here too. Sadly, though, it turned out to be closed on Tuesdays. Who'd have thought? We certainly hadn't. So, we drove up to Kochi.

En route, we stopped for coffee and cake in a restaurant overlooking a rather wild sea. Then to Katsura-hama, a beach near Kochi where the national hero, Sakamoto, loved to spend time. It's a wild bit of coastline. Whether anyone swam in the old days, but you are strongly advised not to these days.

Sakamoto was a local lad, born in the mid-1800s. As a low class Samurai, he became disenchanted with the rigid hierarchy of the day. Also, while practicing martial arts in Tokyo (then called Edo) he witnessed the arrival of Commander Perry in his US war ships. Along with many others, Sakamoto was shocked to realise just how backward Japan was in comparison to the 'West'. He then conspired with others to change the system. Though they succeeded, Sakamoto himself was assassinated before the old Shogunate gave way to a more modern form of government. However, he is still remembered as a national hero.
Muroto peninsula is reknowned as one of the wildest places in the country, getting battered by Pacific typhoons on a regular basis. Fortunately for us, it wasn't today. It is known as being the place the Budhist monk, Kōbō Daishi, achieved enlightenment about 1000 years ago. Consequently, there are places labelled his 'living cave', 'meditating cave', 'bathing pool' etc. What is particularoly striking is the geology. Or rather, not so much the geology itself, which has analogues in the UK, but the timescales. When geological explanations are offered in the UK, you read about timescales in the millions of years. Here, they show geological timescales ranging from 1000-2700 years. The reason is that there is a subduction fault just off the coast and there are sections of the coastline that were raised a metre or so only back in 1949 and even the most striking bit of geology barely makes it further back than 1000BC.

There is a well made footpath along the coast with explanation panels at important items of interest - and in English too, which was nice. Then we had a stiff climb up to a temple and lighthouse before returning to the main road via a rather spectacular switchback road, at least half of which was out in mid-air, supported on piers. As we descended the thought struck that now would be a very bad time for an earthquake to hit. High enough to avoid the inevitable tsunami (for which there were many warning signs and advice), but possibly risky if the piers decided to give way. (I'll try to give a link to Facebook photos.https://www.facebook.com/mark.kuramotoheadey/posts/10208206597460727?pnref=story)

Back on terra (a bit) firmer, we drove back to our lodging where we'd organised a trip to a local restaurant with our host. One story he told was accompanying the Olympic torch in 1964. Not actually carrying it, but part of the procession through this part of Japan.
Arriving at the car hire depot in Nishi-Akashi, I was asked for an international certificate for my driving licence. We hired a car last year (and on other occasions) and were not asked for anything more than my licence. Consequently, I had not come prepared. However, the woman must have thought we looked trustworthy, because we got the car.

As with most new cars, it comes with a sat-nav, though we're still trying to work out how to drive the beast. It did at least get us to our AirBnB host tonight, so I can't complain.

The start of our journey was across the Akashi-kaikyo bridge. It is (at least was) the longest suspension bridge in the world but, at the time of construction, the Kobe earthquake struck in 1995. They were still building the deck and discovered it was then 1m too short. So, quite a story. It's a good drive, but not that different from crossing the Humber either.

Once in Shikoku, we left the toll road to go down the southern coast instead of inland. Mile after mile of uninspiring urban sprawl. "If this is what all the coast is like this is going to be a very disappointing trip." I thought. However, the scenery did eventually change and we found ourselves travelling through some pretty spectacular countryside. The slopes were vertiginous and thickly wooded. However, we did pass some areas of felling, so they are clearly managed for proffit.

We stumbled across a beautiful, secluded little cove; Tonomuino-hama (hama=beach). Though only a km from the main road, the road dropped quickly and we found ourselves staring up at the underside of the roadway that seemed to be miles above us. (Photos here, I hope. https://www.facebook.com/mark.kuramotoheadey/posts/10208206492138094?pnref=story)

Although the #55 road goes right down to the tip of Muroto Misaki (peninsula), we plan to go there tomorrow. So, we opted to cut across country on a tiny winding country road that climbed right into the hills before dropping down again to the coast. It was here where we saw the logging. Amazingly, they had some pretty hefty machinery and I simply cannot imagine how they got it up that road.

Our sat-nav got us to within a couple of hundred metres of our lodgings, but we had to phone our host for the very last bit. He was close enough to walk tp us and guided us back to his house, squashed between a steep hillside and a narrow road. Not quite that quiet, though, as the main road is still barely 10m away.

Our host is something of a musician. I spotted a rack containing 2 Telecasters, a Stratocaster, an Epiphone Les Paul along with sundry other guitars. I spent an amusing half hour or so jamming with him before we had to wash, eat and go to bed.

Tomorrow, Muroto Misaki. Although today's weather was beautifully sunny (albeit a tad chilly), tomorrow's is forecast to be cold and damp, which will be a great shame, as the peninsula is supposed to be beautiful. Still, we shall see.
Having arrived at Manchester Airport in very good time, I checked in and got my boarding passes for the Amsterdam and Osaka flights. However, it was not long before I realised that the need to get up early was rather futile, as my flight had been delayed. Looking at the new departure time I did wonder whether I'd make the Osaka flight and, justifying my suspicions, connecting passengers were called to the information desk to check. It seems the plane had not been able to leave Amsterdam because of poor weather and would definitely not get back there in time to make my onward flight. For some reason, they could only issue me with a new boarding pass for Amsterdam and another for Shanghai, not for the final leg to Osaka. "Don't worry," they assured me, "your luggage is booked all the way through to Osaka. You just have to get the ongoing boarding pass for a Japan Airline flight to Osaka when you get to Amsterdam."

When I arrived in Schiphol I searched out a transfer desk and asked about the final flight. I was given number and flight times, but they couldn't, for some reason, give me a boarding pass. Still, the flight to Shangai was not full and I was able to move to a seat by the emergency exit with infinite leg room, a luxury I don't think I've had before, so that leg of the journey was rather satisfactory.

In Shanghai I had a couple of hours before my flight left, so wasn't worried as I made my way to the transfer door. However, just before I entered, I asked a man with a computer screen if he could confirm where I was going. I handed him my passport and the schedule sent by KLM. "This says 'Osaka'. Why are you in Shanghai?" I told him the story and he typed a few keys. "OK, you need to go to the JAL check-in desk. Not this way, go to the other end of this hall." So I went. There were passport control desks but, right at the far end, a 24-48 hour Transfer queue. Although only hoping for an hour or two, not 24 hours, I joined the queue. I think I had a trainee, as there was a man standing behind the young woman offering advice as she scanned the documents of the folk in front of me. Progress wasn't quick, but I still had time. Eventually she got to me. "This says 'Osaka'. Why are you in Shanghai?" I told her the story and she handed my documents to her colleague and asked me to wait, so she could deal with other passengers. Her colleague then disappeared for about 10-15 minutes. On his return, she stamped my passport with the requisite Temporary Entry Permit and told me to go to the 3rd floor and find the JAL desk, which sounded straightforward enough. Past the baggage claim then out via an X-ray security check and up to the 3rd floor.

Thankfullly, this queue was short. "Ticket please." I explained that I didn't have one and presented my documents. "This says 'Osaka'. Why are you in Shanghai?" So, once again, I related my story. "So, where is your luggage?" I told them it was booked through to Osaka and I didn't need to collect it. "Oh no," she patiently explained, "you do. You must go back to baggage claim and bring it up here." So, back down 2 flights of stairs and escalators to try and find a way IN to the baggage claim. "Speak to the woman at the staff entrance." I was told. Fortunately, entry was not a problem but, as expected, no suitcase. The conveyor was practically empty by this time, but I waited until the identifiable case desappeared and reappeared to confirm that my case was not there. A quick peek at the pile of cases in 'Lost Luggage' and I headed towards the exit. Again. "It's me again." I called cheerfully to the women at the X-ray machine. Either they remembered me as the only passenger without a case, or they were past caring, but I emerged unmolested. And back up the the 3rd floor.

This time the JAL check-in queue was huge. I tapped the shoulder of the woman in last place, "Are you going to Osaka?" I asked, hopefully. No, she wasn't. Neither was Osaka on any of the information screens. Begining to panic a little, I had to barge to the head of the queue, catch the eye of the check-in clerk I'd seen before and said, "No bag." She called over her colleague who looked at my passport and tapped a few keys on the keyboard. "Oh, you missed your connection and were diverted via Shanghai." she said, almost surprised. Finally the penny was beginning to drop. "And you don't have your luggage?" I assured he I didn't and would have to board anyway and hope it had made it onto the flight. So, finally I got my boarding pass and made my way to Osaka without further complications.

I've done it before and quite why I'd forgotten, but I'd put my address book in the suitcase. So, when I arrived at Japanese passport control and had to fill in an entry card, I realised I didn't have my address in Japan. Still, I could remember part of the address and it looked passable. However, I had to admit, when the officer asked for the telephone number, that it was in the suitcase in baggage claim and he let me through. As I was one of the last off the plane (my hand luggage being placed in a locker a good few rows behind me) the baggage claim was almost deserted. And my suitcase was nowhere to be seen.

So, another half an hour was spent in the company of a delightful young woman who filled in the appropriate forms. "Your address in Japan?" Er, that's in the case, I rather shamefacedly (is that a word?) admitted. However, I was able say that the address was written on a label on the outside of the case. Having handed her the luggage tag, she was able to tell me that the case had never left Schiphol airport and wouldn't get here until Monday evening. So, armed with a copy of the claim form and a promise to phone them and supply both address and telephone number, I finally left Kansai Airport.

I had told Junko that, on arrival, I would telephone her so she could meet me at the bus stop and accompany me back to the apartment by train. Obviously, I couldn't do that, so I got the airport bus to Kobe Sannomiya Station and hoped I'd see her at the bus arrival stop. No. I tried the bus departure stop. Not there either. Just in case she was keeping warm inside a shop and I'd missed her, I crossed over once more to the arrival stop. Nothing. Still, I'd done the journey dozens of times last year, when attending the language course, so made my own way.

I had been able to contact Junko in Schipol and give her the JAL flight number, which landed at about 16.45. "Half an hour to get out, he should ring about 5.15-5.30." she'd thought. In fact it was almost 6pm when I finally got on the bus and more like 8pm when I finally rang the Kuramoto mansion door bell (and yes, they do call them mansions). "You forgot the telephone number." Junko said on greeting me. Guilty as charged, sadly.

Still in the greater scheme of things, this is the first time I've had any real trouble in the years we've been coming to Japan, which only goes to highlight just how good the service usually is. Besides, when you think of people who have been bombed out of their homes, paid everything they have to a smuggler for a failed attempt to cross to Greece or beyond and languish in a Turkish refugee camp, my little difficulty is really nothing much to complain about.
We've just spent the afternoon with, Mariko, a friend of Junko, which included a visit to a shrine in Osaka for the Ebisu Festival (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebisu_%28mythology%29). The size of the crowd was impressive and it took a small army of police to marshall us into the shrine. As we entered the shrine building itself we were funnelled past Shinto priests shaking what looked like white paper streamers on the ends of sticks. Apparently, this was to cleanse our spirits. We then made our way to the steps of the shrine where, among a huge crowd, we tossed a coin into the trough and said a short prayer to ask what we wished for in the coming year. (Mine was not to be struck on the back of the head by a flying coin.)

Along the route to the shrine and inside the grounds were stalls selling snacks of all kinds and entertainment stalls you might see in a British fairground. On our way out we bought a small pottery fish containing a scroll. This told you your fortune for the coming year. When Junko translated it for me all I could think of was 'Love Hearts' and astrology pages. An awful lot of thought had gone into these things and I couldn’t help but wonder just how sincere the people who composed them were. Which gets me thinking rather heretical thoughts.

At New Year, today, but also other times of the year, Japanese people go to the shrine to pray; for departed loved ones, good fortune for the coming year, success in forthcoming exams etc. While many of the rituals can look wholly alien to Europeans, they are also familiar. There are priests presiding, you pray, there is a collection, there is reverence. The question that always comes into my mind is how deeply held are people's beliefs? After all, you will find Hindus and Buddhists in India all following their beliefs as sincerely as Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Given that Shinto believes in multiple spirits, how does that sit with monotheistic religions? If the Japanese believe a prayer to a Shinto God can be effective, does that mean the Shinto God is the true God? But, Muslims will claim that of Allah, Jews of Yahweh and Christians of God. Though I grant that all the latter are supposed to be one and the same. Can they all be True? If one is True then it surely follows that the followers of every other religion are all deluding themselves. Or is everybody delusional? Is the purpose of religion then simply to create inner peace by whatever means? And if someone wants to believe in an omnipotent deity, as long as it achieves inner peace for them, then all is well. But it does beg the question whether all religion is simply human made to fulfil a human need.

In which case, wouldn't it be nice if the followers of all religions simply approached their own beliefs in this regard? It would mean they'd be able to respect the religions of others as being an equally valid, if alternative, path to spiritual fulfilment and calm.
7 Dec. After a few dull, wet and positively chilly days, today was a complete contrast. The sun was out, I did not need to wear a coat and the scenery was fantastic.

We took our little hire car over the bridge from Hirado island to Ikitsukishima, which is an even smaller one just off the NW corner. Once we got through the one town on the island, I could fancy myself pottering around one of the Western Isles. Heading north, we decided to stop at what was, quite frankly, a rather shabby looking cafe. Entering the door we were presented with a scene I had not expected. Most Japanese places are very neat and tidy, almost to the point of being clinical. This wasn't.To our right was a log burner with some rickety old sofas covered with drapes of cloth, behind which was a piano. On the piano was half a clarinet and various records and CDs. Then, just beyond the sofas was a small stage, with a drum kit, a genuine, but battered, Rickenbacker guitar, various acoustics and a bass. Behind the guitars was a VOX AC30. Near the tables were various scrap books and Beatles memorabilia. The owner was clearly an ageing 60s rocker who was not going to grow old gracefully. I did chat to him briefly, as he did have some English, having played for American bases in his past. They have a music might on the last Saturday of every month, sadly we won't be here to witness it.

From there we found a footpath, so decided to walk the 3-4km to the northern point of the island. The island was so narrow at this point, in some places we could see both coasts. Barely 50m from where we'd parked the car was a rock formation that mimicked the Giant's Causeway, in that it was made of vertical hexagonal basalt rocks. Walking along this path, which was actually well paved with flat stones most of the way, we saw evidence of some serious digging, with fresh soil strewn across the path. We concluded that it was probably wild boar. A short while later I heard a distinct grunt and the sound of something crashing through the undergrowth. Fortunately, there was a dry stone wall beside me because the beast couldn't have been more than 10m away. Sadly (or maybe luckily) I didn't see it. The path was not often used, it seemed, because we came across a huge web across the path and a magnificent multicoloured occupant in its centre. Its leg-span must have been almost the size of my hand. By some careful ducking under threads, we were able to pass by without causing it any disturbance.

On our return to the car - along the road this time - a local woman shook her head at our intention to walk back to our car. It's getting dark, she informed us, and the wild boar will become active. Do be careful. Fortunately, it didn't take us long, it was still light and we saw nothing to alarm us.

But, what a day. With the sun on our backs, it felt like a nice summer's day in Britain. The sea was clear enough to see the sea bed, there were lots of kite-like birds circling lazily overhead and with the other close encounters with the local life, wild and otherwise, it was possibly the best day of the trip thus far.

I loaded some pictures into Facebook;
https://www.facebook.com/mark.kuramotoheadey/media_set?set=a.10205081416493156.1073741842.1175796181&type=3&uploaded=6
There are 6 of us in the class, now that the young Chinese lad, Ho, has re-joined us*. Ryu is a painfully shy Chinese girl of 15 and our teachers are forever getting her to look at the person she's speaking with and to speak up. Ho is also Chinese and will be 19 this Friday. He's still struggling, but making valiant efforts.

Astrid is from Germany and in her 50s with school-aged children. Christine has a very mixed history. Her mother is Chilean, father Hungarian, whose language of communication is German. Christine married a Swiss man and describes herself as Swiss, though she was living in the USA before coming to Japan 2 years ago. She too is in her 50s with children. The trouble is, Christine and Astrid are terrible chatterboxes. More than once a teacher has asked them to pay attention or 'switch into Japanese mode', only for them to carry on whispering to each other within seconds of apologising. Granted, I think they're talking about Japanese, but I still feel it's impolite. I'm sure that, if one of their children's school teachers reproached their child for talking in class, they'd round on their own child and tell them off royally. Yet, as students, they must be the bane of our teachers' lives.

Finally, O-en. Another Chinese student who is in her early 30s and a 'model' student, in that there's little to remark on; she's attentive, answers questions clearly and does her homework.

Not forgetting me, of course, the 6th member. I'm the teacher's favourite, as I'm just so good and so polite. But, then you knew that anyway.

In the break we got chatting with another member of the intermediate class. I didn't hear her name, but she is Finnish. I think she did the beginners class in April and has graduated to the intermediate class. She seems to be able to converse relatively freely with the Japanese-Norwegian woman, which bodes well for the rest of us. What is humbling is that I have gone right through the text book she went through, yet don't have a cat in hell's chance of understanding a tenth of what she says in Japanese. Let's hope the oral practice we are getting will make the difference. She said she is a missionary. I didn't ask for which religion, but I guess that would give her a pretty good motive to learn.

Speaking of missionaries, yesterday I saw a woman in town standing next to a table on which were, what I took to be, The Watchtower and Awake. I don't know whether or not she is allowed to evangelise, but she simply stood there, holding up the copies with a wide, fixed smile on her face. I'd give her full marks for perseverance, because it must have been pretty dispiriting.

* Ho was with us on the first day, but, as a complete beginner against our slightly advance standard, was taken off into a class of his own.
Fri, 28 Aug

When we returned to the car park at Koitjarv, Aya went in Shingo's car to their hotel and left us to go to ours. We followed Shinigo towards Tallinn. However, there was some doubt as to whether we should follow him all the way or diverge somewhere. In the end, we lost him and found ourselves in an area unknown to us and unable to discover where we were. However, having questioned some locals (one pair of young men did not have much English, which surprised me) we eventually found out hotel right at the terminal of the Helsinki ferry. When Junko went into the budget hotel to check we were in the correct place, she was told we'd been upgraded to the 'posh' hotel just around the corner. Nice. Sadly, it was rather late by this time, so we were not able to avail ourselves of the free use of their swimming pool or spa.

In the morning, after an excellent feed, we drove out to the open air museum (http://evm.ee/eng/home), which contains a collection of old buildings transported there from all over the country. In the first complex, there was lots and lots of information and,true to form, I wanted to read it all. Consequently, it was almost 1pm when I emerged from that first exhibit and Aya & Kohe had arrived to join us. Having said that I spent an inordinately long time reading the exhibits, none of the other buildings had quite that level of information. Even so, there were still things we missed by the time we had to leave. I drove Aya and Kohe back to the middle of the city, to their hotel, said our farewells and drove out to the airport. We arrived just on the specified time of 7.30pm and the car rental bloke was there to meet us. A cursory check of the vehicle and we went on our way. Mind you, the thing was very dirty and will have to be thoroughly washed. I hope they don't find the scuff under the rear bumper or, if they do, just treat it was acceptable wear and tear.

We had quite a few hours to kill before our flight left at 11pm, but we could sit overlooking the nearby lake and browse the internet and nibble the snacks we'd bought earlier.

And, so back to Manchester, arriving only a few minutes late and took one of the black caps to our hotel. £11. This morning, we were told that, had we gone with this second company (unfortunately a phone call away, so we'd have to have known) it would have been a fixed fare of £6.

We got into bed around 2am and were up again at 6.30 to get a taxi back to Terminal 1 and our flight to Frankfurt and Osaka. All went smoothly. Even the excessive amount of luggage (usually 23kg, double that, this time) was received without a murmur.

Contrast our experience of security control at Manchester with Frankfurt airport; the latter had 15, yes 15! lanes open and staffed. When we were going through it was obviously between flights, as there were many standing idle. Poor planning or actually the reverse; getting ready for an influx? I suspect the latter.

The flight from Frankfurt was delayed by 3 hours, which was a bit of a drag, but nothing serious, and we left around 4.30pm local time instead of 1.30. The flight was fine. Actually, had I moved quicker, I might have got a row of 4 empty seats to myself, but others got there first. I dozed a little, but basically watched 3 films back to back.

We landed at Kansai at around 10am into glorious sunshine and, to be perfectly honest, rather warm and sticky air. Mercifully, it was not quite as hot as it has been of late.

So, bus from the airport then taxi and were met by Junko's Mum, as cheerful as always. I began emptying one suitcase, but wound up sleeping on the floor while Junko's Mum kindly cooked us a meal. She has an aircon running in the main room, but not in our bedroom. If it feels too hot in our room, which it might, as it is quite small, we may well end up sleeping on the floor next to Junko's Mum's bed.

postscript: though hot, we were able to sleep OK. In fact, I slept for about 14 hours, more or less uninterrupted, which is unheard of. We'll have to see if it's got me over any jet-lag.
Day 11, Mon 25 Aug

After a breakfast cooked by our host, we packed our bags and loaded them into the car. However, I left the car at the B&B and we walked into the town. Our first stop was the ruins of the old cathedral, in which the first university library had been built, but was not the university museum. We climbed the old tower for a fine view over the town, then spent rather more time than we should have in the museum before heading into the town to get a few nibbling things. I returned to collect the car and we met up with the rest of our party at 1pm.

We drove to Alatskivi, where there is a schloss inspired by Balmoral. It is a very fine building and Stina posed for a photo outside the entrance. With its conically topped towers, I thought she should have been wearing one of those tall conical hats with a fine silk flapping in the breeze. The grounds were lovely too. Not as ornate as Rundale, but wooded with undulating grassy areas. We were booked in for our lunch, which was superb (though, again, not cheap).

We also visited a shore-side town on the inland sea the country shares with Russia. I even went for a quick paddle, before having to retrieve my shoes and head off to our net destination.

From there we visited a couple of ruined medieval castles, finally stopping in one of Estonias bog areas; Koitjärv bog. Estonia has about 7% of its entire land area as ancient bog, which is protected as of scientific significance. Shingo had some amazing photos of it in the early morning covered in mist.
Day 10, Mon 24 Aug

There was no rush to get away this morning, as we had to wait until Shingo got a replacement number plate. It seems, the car in front braked to allow an ambulance to pass. For whatever reason, it passed between that car and Shingo. His bumper is damaged, but still on the car and usable, but he lost his number plate, which he replaced this morning.

So, it was around 11am that we hit the road. Our final destination was the university town of Tartu. Apparently, this university ranked along with Moscow as the best in the Soviet Union and is still highly regarded. We actually drove past Sigurda again, but stopped in Cesis, which is a very attractive town and boasts a rather fine ruin of a medieval castle. However, as time was pressing, our visit was rather short and we were on our way again, this time stopping near Voru to visit another ruined castle and its museum. Again, a fairly brief visit, as they had to come and extract me, as I was contentedly reading all the information panels.

Once we crossed the border into Estonia, our impression of the generally better look and feel of the country became apparent once more. Stina thought that, during the Soviet era, Estonia was actually regarded as the most 'Western' of all the Baltic states. Shingo said Tartu provided many of he engineers who worked on Soviet rockets, so perhaps Estonia was spared the worst excesses of Soviet repression. When I asked about the difference between here and Latvia, tina thought that, while Latvia had been making strides, they had more Stalinist/Soviet baggage to remove than Estonia had.

We finally rolled into Tartu around 7pm. Having dropped Aya off at their hotel we managed to find our way to ours. No credit to myself, however. Though I'd printed out a map, it was hopelessly inadequate, but Shingo's satnav was able to put street names to the bare bones of my map.

Our hotel is really a B&B in a traditional looking wooden house, tucked away on a quiet back road just out of the city centre. The room is basic, but clean and comfortable and has wi-fi and an en-suite shower and toilet. Having checked in we did not linger, but headed straight back to town to meet the others for dinner. Having driven through lunch with only an icecream for sustenance, we were quite ready for it. Stina, who knows the town quite well, took us to one of the best rated restaurants in Estonia and we were not disappointed. I had a pike-perch (whatever that it) that was cooked to perfection and everyone said how delicious their own meal was. My fish was Eu15, so not cheap, but I guess pretty fair for such quality.

The others planned to wander the town a while before turning in, but we headed straight back to our B&B, our car parking ticket having expired.

What we have seen of Tartu, it is a very pleasant looking place. Hopefully, we'll get a better look at it in the morning, before we finally have to return to Tallinn.
Day 9, Sun 23 Aug

I had always assumed that the laws governing lorries in the EU were common to all EU countries. Lorries in the UK are limited to 89kph, sometimes lower. However, I've been struck at how fast the lorries go here, even on single carriageway roads (40mph in the UK, officially). Today, I had the rather unnerving experience of being overtaken by an articulated lorry while I was already doing more than 80kph.

Kohe wanted to roam the streets alone, while Aya wanted to head out to see a famous country house, Rundale Palace, some distance from the city. So, Aya, Junko & I set off to first cross the river then head south towards Bauska. The first bit proved trickier than expected. We missed the first bridge and I'd chosen the correct slip road for the second. However, being in the inside lane and a car hot on my tail, I wound up on a bumpy track leading to the shoreline. Even when I got back on to the main road, I was heading away from the bridge and had to make a U-turn to find my way across the river and, fortunately, on the right road.

We arrived at Rundale about noon. The signage left something to be desired, as we had to find our way into the house more or less by intuition. It is a huge place and, once again, I was left wondering whether such wealth really should be concentrated in the hands of one person (or family). That said, there were some oddities. I don't know whether it was the restoration or the original, but the detailing between the wooden stairs and the plaster of the walls looked a little unfinished. That said, the paintings and furnishings were decidedly opulent, as was the garden. On our garden tour, our guide told us it had been a school and the garden was either a tangled scrub or playing fields in 1978. It's certainly had something of a transformation since then.

We went for lunch in the cafe and were pondering the choices. We were going to opt for pasta, but were told that had a 25 minute waiting time, so we chose the soup of the day. This was a fortunate choice. I chose fish and Junko & Aya chose beef. The waitress brought in 2 tureens that could have fed 3-4 people each so, along with the bread, we had quite a feed.

Then, off to the Switzerland of Latvia. Well, truth be told, nowhere is very high, so it was just a very pleasant valley and hills near the town of Sigulda called Turaida. This actually meant we had to drive back, almost into Riga, then head NE. While Junko & Aya roamed around looking at whatever was there (I still don't know) I put the seat back and dozed. I really was feeling very tired.

On our way back we stopped in Sigulda for a pizza then hit the road just as the sun was setting. Unfortunately, we soon ran into an horrendous traffic jam which took us over an hour to clear. We could see no good reason for such a hold up. true, there were 2 lanes of a carriageway merging into one then crossing the reservation into a contraflow. Reason enough, you might have thought. However, even when we were all in a single line we were still stopping and starting until traffic eventually started flowing smoothly, for no apparent reason. Consequently, it was gone 11pm when we dropped Aya off at her hotel.

On the journey back, Aya took a call from Shingo. It seems he had been in an accident with an ambulance and lost the numberplate and front bumper. Unfortunately, he has a Toyota Land Cruiser, which is very costly to repair here. Some parts are similar to cheaper models, and are readily available, but not a bumper. So, quite when we will start our next leg tomorrow remains to be seen.
Day 8, Sat, 22 Aug

More wandering the streets of Riga. We took the tour bus again (no extra charge) that took us to the impressive Russian Orthodox Church. While outside, Kohe was filming and a man came out and said "Sorry." We though it was because we were in the way of their car park, as there was a Christening on. However, there was a sign asking visitors not to take photos or use a video camera. The man also stopped a man filming from the front door, so maybe we weren't even supposed to film the outside. Anyway, the inside was very ornate, though obviously not old, and very colourful.

We strolled around the Vermanes Gardens, ending up in Riga railway station. We went up one of the stairways to the platform and once again were struck by thee shabbiness of the place. However, to give them their due, this was not the main stair, which we used to leave the platform and was actually somewhat nicer than the 'back' stair. Even so, it more or less confirms the slightly poorer image this country has when compared to Estonia.

We wound up in a coffee shop restaurant, where I had a very nice and artistic cup of coffee while the others ate a meal. I abstained. Having eaten well last night and not refused the hotel breakfast, I was not hungry.

Having drunk, I eventually needed the toilet and had to use the station's. This was an odd and not very pleasant experience. Entering, one has to pay 30c to the elderly lady in the booth. You then have to take what paper you think you need before you enter the cubicles. Once inside, a shock awaited. It seems that the operators did not want users to flush their used paper away, as the nearby waste bin was full of, to put it politely, soiled paper. Nice. I have to say that I didn't follow suit and trusted to the water's power.

Actually, when I came out, two of the Babushkas were busily chatting away while water in one of the wash basins was running cheerfully to waste. I did wonder exactly what they were being paid to do.

We then took a tour on the inner canal. There are competing companies and we thought our bus tour ticket allowed us a discount. It didn't. So, as this particular tour was the most expensive, we returned to a cheaper one, only to be told that boat was now full. Anyway, we did find a boat with spare seats and had a pleasant trip going down the canal in the town's park, then out on to the Daugava River and back into the other end of the canal. Not all the route was picturesque, but it was an interesting trip.

Finally, an evening meal in a very nice Latvian restaurant. Again, I wasn't that hungry, but the light salad with sprats was extremely tasty and the others spoke equally highly of theirs.

Once again, a day of fabulous weather. Dare I say, we've been extremely lucky in that regard, not having a single poor day so far?
Day 7, Friday 21 Aug

Junko emerged from the Riga information centre fuming at the unhelpful response of one of the staff. And, I have to say that there is a general air of the grudging attitude to service that was so often reported in the Soviet period. However, today we were served tea and cake in a cafe by a waitress who should be the ambassador for the country, certainly the tourist ambassador. Her friendliness and willingness to answer questions we asked, even offering to answer a question we'd only discussed among ourselves, was very refreshing.

There are some very impressive buildings in Riga old town. Some beautifully restored. However, you don't have to look very far to see that the place is still pulling itself out of decades of Soviet neglect. They are trying, and work is still going on, but they don't seem to have gone as far as Estonia. That said, I guess Riga is a much bigger place than Tallinn.

Shingo & Stina did their own thing today, so Kohe, Aya, Junko & I wandered the town all day. We bought a tour bus ticket and rode the two lines. We believe we can do the same again tomorrow, so may well use the ticket to go and visit some of the interesting areas we only drove past today.

Our evening meal could best be described as 'hearty'. We spotted two people tucking into a meal in a loaf and thought it looked interesting, so took a seat. It was a thick stew poured into a hollowed out loaf. Kohe & I had to have a soup, as they only had 2 loaves left. However, I think our soups, also very hearty, were actually tastier. I'm still feeling rather full.
Day 6, Thurs. 20 Aug

The manager of our apartment had told us, if we had to empty our rubbish, we could do so by taking it down to the basement. Having cleared the room, I tried doing this today, but couldn't find the waste bins, so ended up returning it to the room.

Shingo, Stina and his parents arrived a bit late (they'd said 10am and we were beginning to worry), but we set off in convoy; Aya came with us, as she had phone comms with Shingo's car. The journey south took us to Parnu, where we stopped for lunch. The others went to restaurant, but Junko & I still had food, so we ate sandwiches by a little marina, which was probably more pleasant than sitting cooped up in a restaurant.

Back on the road and we soon crossed the border into Latvia. Almost from the border onwards, the road was being heavily rebuilt. While it's very gratifying to think the Latvian government is working hard to improve their roads, one does wonder whether the timing is all it could be, and did they have to have quite so many long sections governed by traffic lights? And so long? It was quite a common sight to see drivers get out of their cars and light up while waiting for the green light.

Although the rural areas are quite attractive, they don't appear to display the prosperity of Estonia. Then, when we hit Riga, the contrast was even more stark. The buildings look shabbier, dirtier and it doesn't have the light airy feel of Tallinn. By mistake, we drive into the old town, and that's nowhere near as attractive as Tallinn. It may be architecturally significant, but they've not managed to clean it up and make it look as nice.

Nor is the traffic as disciplined. Even though I was following Shingo fairly closely, cars and buses pushed their way in and we became separated. We knew the name of the hotel and roughly where it was, but drove straight past it. We then tried looping back through the old town, but gave that up rapidly. Back out on the main road, we tried circling round the old town to our starting point, but then ended up on the wrong side of the river trying to find a route back. It was over an hour when we finally met Shingo and his parents at the hotel. Perhaps it was because it was rush hour, but Riga's traffic is definitely not for the timid driver.

Having dropped Aya off, we went in search of our hotel, a little way out of the main city to the NE. The first obstacle was that, according to the signs, we should have joined the circulatory system that had swallowed us an hour earlier. Fortunately, the traffic had abated somewhat and I risked the ire of the local boys in blue by ignoring the "Right turn only" sign and swung left. Fortunately, the world didn't crash about our ears and, with only a few minor sharp words, we homed in on our hotel. Not a particularly up-market part of town, but we do have a locked car park at the back and the room is clean and adequate. We also have breakfast included. The location is near a busy road, but we can close the window without cooking, so we ought to have a decent night.
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