From the Far North to the Far East

The drive from Townsville to Cairns was different kinds of picturesque – at one point, we were right behind a four wheel drive sporting a sticker that said ‘Fuck off, we’re full’! – but mostly we crawled through roadworks repairing the damage of 2011 Cyclone Yasi, drove over railway crossings and passed by endless cane fields. The song that kept running through my head throughout our road trip in Far North Queensland was Sounds of Then by GANGgajang: We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields…this is Australia except now with Sikh temples interspersed between the canefields.

Canefields of Far North Queensland
Canefields of Far North Queensland

After a long walk on Mission Beach, where we stayed the night, we drove up to a small town called Innisfail. This is the electorate of the infamous Bob Katter, but despite that it was quite a charming town. A local brochure took us on a walking tour of the Art Deco-style buildings on the main streets, ending with a visit to the local joss house.

Joss house in Innisfail
Joss house in Innisfail
Taro for sale at the Cairns market
Taro for sale at the Cairns market

Josh and I love stories of Australia’s Asian heritage, and we found a little bit of it in Innisfail, which used to be home to a large Chinese population in the late 1800s. Nowadays, the Chinese-Australian population is around 300 people, said an elderly man at the joss house. There was more diversity further up in Cairns, which I’d stopped over once before. This time round I spent more time there and instantly loved the local mix. It was refreshing to have lunch at a local pub with four Torres Strait Islanders (I think) at the table next to us. And we stayed with a friend I hadn’t seen in years so it was a warm reunion. I’m already looking forward to visiting Cairns again sometime.

After our two days up north, we arrived in Japan around 8 o’clock on Sunday night. The country’s busiest airport is located in Narita, but the majority of people flying in skip the town and head straight to Tokyo and other places. From what I’d read beforehand, Narita had an old town centre and seemed worth a visit. It sounded manageable after a day of travelling, and a good way to start our tour of Japan. Of course, life often doesn’t turn out the way you plan, and this is never truer than when you’re travelling. After checking into a quirky family-run ryokan (a bit like that club house in From Up On Poppy Hill), we discovered that we’d arrived in time for the closing hours of the town’s annual Gion festival. So much for a soft landing for our honeymoon!

Gion in Narita
Gion in Narita

There were thousands out on the streets and a lot of people in traditional dress waving fans – and maybe because of the heat, the festivities reminded me of celebrations in Thailand…especially all the poor quality food on sticks and rubbish on the streets. It was a very different side of Japan I hadn’t seen during my previous trip in 2008.

Gion in Narita
Back to home base

I couldn’t tell exactly what the meaning of it all was, but it seemed like each neighbourhood was represented by a float, and by certain colours and symbols. So the parade showcased each local area. Only men sat on the floats that night, though there were plenty of young women on the streets tugging the floats along with the boys.

The next morning, a few hours before we were due to catch our train to Kyoto, we decided to go back into Narita post-Gion. By 9am, most of the rubbish had been cleared and people were scrubbing the streets and hosing down the concrete to wash traces of the night away. The workers in their different uniforms were very efficient and it was clear that the town would soon be pristine again.

Naritasan Shinshoji temple
Naritasan Shinshoji temple

During the festival, the temple was off limits, and a lot of the partying happened just outside the gates. I didn’t know it then, but that visit to the temple the next day would end up being a highlight during our time in Japan. I think it would almost be worth going to Narita just to see the temple and explore its extensive grounds because the ones in Kyoto and Tokyo are so crowded with tourists that it’s hard to feel serene.

That hot morning, hardly anyone was about aside from a handful of tourists, and we saw the rituals of the monks who were bedecked in colourful clothes. The peaceful temple was a fitting last impression of the Narita, which is after all a very quiet town…except for three nights of the year, when the whole town lets loose.

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