Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Japan : May-June 2024
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Japan is a densely-populated island country in the north-west Pacific Ocean. It comprises over 14 000 islands, the five largest of which are Honshu (the "mainland"), Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa.
Japan was governed in dictatorial fashion for centuries by a succession of warlords and emperors, culminating in the ill-fated decision to attempt to become an Asian superpower during World War II by invading the surrounding countries and declaring war on the USA and Great Britain. After being defeated in 1945, a democratic constitution was drawn up and since then Japan has been a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. Japan has emerged from the ruins of the war to become a global leader in technological development and boasts the third biggest economy in the world (after the USA and China). Tokyo, Japan's capital city, is by far the most highly populated metropolitan area on Earth.
This page describes a trip by Paul Kilfoil and Karen Gray-Kilfoil to Japan in 2024.
Check out my travelogues page for details of other trips we've done.

If you enjoyed reading this, please send me an email. All correspondence is appreciated!

 Last updated : 20h59, Saturday 18 May 2024 
 Location : Tokushima, Shikoku Island 

[Wednesday 8 May 2024 : Cape Town, South Africa] A long, hard couple of days was our introduction to Japan. Ethiopian Airlines took us across seven time zones to the other side of the world via three flights, three ever-bigger cities and three countries - first it was Cape Town to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (six hours), followed by Addis Ababa to Seoul in South Korea (eleven hours) and finally Seoul to Tokyo in Japan (two and half hours). Our memory of Addis Ababa was of a blurred transit zone in the airport as we sprinted to the departure gate for the flight to Seoul; it was touch and go whether the 40 minute layover would be enough time, but we made it in the end, sweaty and breathless. Seoul at 4 pm the next day looked like a smoggy cesspit of grey-brown sludge ... hardly surprizing given that it is one of the world's most polluted cities.

[Thursday 9 May : Tokyo, Honshu] Tokyo's Narita Airport at 8 pm was calm and orderly. Our concern over how the eVisa system would work proved to be groundless - when we'd applied for a Japanese visa online, the system had displayed stern instructions about how we would need to display the visa's QR code on our phones at Immigration, via the Japan eVisa web site. At the time I thought that was odd - why should WE display the visa when the Japanese government had already digitally linked our passports and could tell whether we had valid visas or not? As it turned out, I was correct - the lady at Immigration did not say a word (barely acknowledging my konbanwa) and I offered no information other than my passport. She scanned it, stuck a stamp on a blank page and waved me through in the formal way that the Japanase do.

The only delay at Immigration was because we each had to fill out a paper entrance card (paper? In 2024? To get into Japan?), a fact that Ethiopian Airlines and the eVisa site had neglected to tell us. So we lost our place in the queue that we had strived so hard to get by hurrying off the plane, and filled in the wretched card before re-joining the queue again. That minor hiccup meant that by the time we arrived at Baggage Reclaim, our bags were already on the carousel (thankfully not still in Addis Ababa, Seoul or routed to Nome, Alaska). The next step was to buy multi-use cards for the Tokyo Subway/Metro/Train/Bus system, and for this there was another long queue. But finally, and 3000 Yen later, we had two Pasmo cards, valid for all trains and buses in Tokyo for the next 28 days - the exact length of time we needed them.

There are a bewildering number of different ways to get from Narita Airport into Tokyo, but at 8:45 pm on a Thursday night the options were reduced to a couple of very expensive ones, three via a longish walk to the train station at Terminal 2 and one that (fortuitously) involved no changes of train and left from the station at Terminal 1, right where we were. Unfortunately our various delays caused us to miss the train at 8:35 pm, and the next one was only at 9:13 pm. But at the appointed time the train departed with Swiss-style precision, and hurtled through darkened suburbs for ages before reaching the Asakusa district. After some momentary confusion on the streets outside Asakusa Station we found the APA Hotel no more than twenty metres from the steps leading down into the station. We finally dumped our bags with massive relief in a small (very, very small) room at 10:30 pm, nearly 29 hours after we'd left home. Amazingly, after all that we even had the energy to take a walk to the nearby Senso-ji Temple and buy some biscuits at the all-night 7-Eleven on the corner! We hit the sack battered, knackered and shattered.

The express train from Narita Airport into Tokyo

[Friday 10 May : Tokyo, Honshu] We forced ourselves up at 7 am in an endeavour to get our body clocks adjusted to the seven hour time difference. Despite the ordeal of the past two days we both felt fine, and were even more invigorated when we found a cafe near our hotel that served absolutely incredible coffee. In Japan? This was initially a surprizing find, but we quickly discovered that coffee is actually quite common in Japan, with many cafes and restaurants advertising it and a huge resident population of Westerners consuming it in vast quantities. There was even a Starbucks near Senso-ji Temple, but thus far we haven't descended to those depths of mediocrity. But coffee is expensive here, as one would expect of a drink that is sold largely to satisfy foreign tastes - the cheapest coffee we've seen so far cost 480 Yen (about 60 SA Rands), and usually it is a lot more than that.

Lunch was an interesting experience. In the quiet streets to the north of Asakusa we found an area of "Mom-and-Pop" diners, where simple home-cooked food was sold to locals. One place was full, the owner of the second apologised profusely when she turned us away because we were foreign and she only spoke Japanese, but a third welcomed us with a smiling konichiwa. The elderly woman who ran the diner understood when we asked for ramen (noodles), and served us two steaming bowls of soup mixed with noodles, bean sprouts and mushrooms. Her husband was the cook, and he observed us from the kitchen with great suspicion through clouds of steam and smoke. But they were both full of smiles when we complimented them on the food, and bowed graciously as we exited the restaurant. It was a simple yet delicious and inexpensive meal.

Tokyo's tallest building (Tokyo Skytree),
together with one of its oddest

There are a surprizing number of Westerners on the streets of Tokyo. Everywhere we go we see elderly tourists in groups, lone backpackers and middle-aged couples like us, as well as many people that appear to be living in Tokyo. We hear every possible language while waiting to cross the road and see plenty of people looking at Google maps on their phones with puzzled frowns. The Westerners are easy to spot - they generally tower above the petite Japanese. And they are LOUD; the Japanese are incredibly quiet and only converse amongst themselves in whispers when in public. In fact, Tokyo itself is a very quiet city, despite being the biggest metropolitan area on Earth. You seldom hear sirens, nobody hoots, many cars are electric-powered and loads of people get around by bicycle. I don't think we saw a single motorbike in an entire day of rambling around. So it is often eerily silent on streets that are crowded with traffic and people.

[Saturday 11 May : Tokushima, Shikoku] A leisurely, plastic-packaged breakfast at 7-Eleven proved to be rather better than we'd feared. My egg salad sandwich and coffee were both pretty good, and Karen pronounced herself happy with aloe-flavoured yoghurt, fruit and an energy bar. After that it was another long train ride to an airport, but Haneda this time, not Narita [Aside: Tokyo has two major airports. Narita mostly handles long-haul international flights, while Haneda is used for domestic flights and those to nearby international destinations]. Japan Airlines duly deposited us in Tokushima, biggest city and capital of the island of Shikoku, after a short hop of barely an hour over the Pacific Ocean. Then we grabbed the airport bus into town and walked about a kilometre to Hostel Paq, our digs for the next two nights.

Incredible - a flight of just over ONE HOUR took SIX AND A HALF HOURS in total, from the time we left our hotel in Tokyo until we walked into Hostel Paq in Tokushima. That's how time consuming air travel has become. There is usually a long trip to get to the departure airport, huge delays due to elaborate security checks and identity verification, followed by baggage check-in and ages wasted sitting around waiting to board the aeroplane. Then, at the other end, you have to wait to collect your bag, find your way into the city and then on to your final destination. The train trip from Tokyo would have been quicker! Unfortunately long-distance trains in Japan are horrendously expensive, the Shinkansen especially so, and when we were planning this trip we found that flying to Tokushima was cheaper than the train! But the train would have been far more pleasant.

Shinkansen Trains in Japan
Japan was one of the first countries in the world to develop high-speed passenger railways in the 1960's. Japanese railways always used Cape Gauge (1067 millimetres between the rails), but the dedicated tracks that are needed for high-speed trains were built to Standard Gauge (1435 millimetres). The trains themselves were so streamlined that they looked like bullets, and thus earned the nickname "bullet trains." However, the formally correct name for these trains is Shinkansen (which means "new main line"). Shinkansen trains now cover most of Japan at speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour. They are fast (obviously), frequent, invariably on time and have become the de facto means of inter-city travel in the country.

[Sunday 12 May : Tokushima, Shikoku] Our first day of walking the Shikoku Henro was fairly successful [Aside: The Shikoku Henro is a Buddhist pilgrimage route round the island that visits 88 temples over a distance of some 1200 kilometres. We plan to walk about two weeks of it]. Hostel Paq sent us on our way after a self-service Western-style breakfast (in terms of food) with Japanese-style rules - ONE egg, ONE slice of cheese, ONE slice of ham and TWO slices of bread per person. No exception! But coffee was unlimited, which was rather nice.

At Tokushima Station we bought tickets for the local train to Bando, nearest stop to the first temple on the pilgrimage route. After a short ride through the city, some straggly suburbs and rice paddies, we followed a few other pilgrims up the road to Ryozenji, temple number one. We bought the distinctive white jackets that pilgrims on the Henro wear, saw the temple then walked on to the nest two, Gokurakuji and Konsenji. The temples were similar - immaculately maintained and squeaky clean, mostly wooden and set in beautiful gardens of stone-flagged paths, koi ponds and ancient trees.

Temple 1 (Ryozenji) on the Shikoku Henro

But at 1 pm the sky clouded over and it started raining. We decided to call it a day and head back to Tokushima. The nearest station to temple three was Itano, so we walked there and tried to decipher the automatic ticket machines - the ticket office wasn't manned at that time on a Sunday afternoon. We eventually figured out we had to buy a "fare ticket" for 430 Yen, because that's what we'd been given at Tokushima earlier that morning (although for only 330 Yen because Bando was closer to Tokushima than Itano). Unfortunately it appeared we had a wait of nearly two hours for the next train. So we sat on the platform, getting colder and colder in the wind and rain, and were flabbergasted a couple of minutes later when we heard a train approaching. How could that be? Japan Railways (JR) was efficient to an extraordinary degree, and if they said there was only a train at 15:41 then you could be sure that would be the case. Yet here was a train, going in the right direction and large as life. We climbed on board, and immediately noticed that the carriage was far more luxurious than the one we'd been on earlier. A ticket collector appeared and we showed him the tickets we'd bought. He looked at them and instantly jabbered at us in Japanese. Then he showed us his phone, on which appeared the number "450." Did that mean we should have paid 450 Yen rather than 430? Did we thus have to pay in 20 Yen extra each? Or was it 450 Yen extra? Mystified, we offered some coins but they elicited nothing more than further jabbering. Eventually Karen gave him a 1000 Yen note. He was happy with that, and promptly issued two tickets for 450 Yen each and gave us 100 Yen in change.

What? So now we'd paid 880 Yen EACH? The new tickets said "Tokushima Limited Express," and I recalled seeing an option with this name on the automated ticket machines, separate from the "Fare ticket" option. I belatedly realized that the train we were on was a luxury express train and it seemed to require a different ticket from the ones we'd originally bought. But surely if we had tickets that were for the correct destination but the wrong class (or something), we could just pay in the difference? Apparently not ... The guy insisted we buy completely new tickets at the full price. This was confirmed when we exited the train at Tokushima - the ticket collector at the turnstile wasn't interested in the original tickets, only the ones we'd bought on the train. So the original tickets were a complete waste and remained unused in our wallets. Japan Railways, what gives? Your system is so complicated, how is anybody supposed to figure it out?

We were bedraggled and soaked after we'd sloshed through Tokushima's wet streets to Hostel Paq, and holed up with coffee and a good book for the rest of the afternoon.

Karen on the trail between rice paddy fields

[Monday 13 May : Kamiita, Shikoku] Steady and persistent rain fell during the night and continued without respite the next morning. We packed our hiking gear into our backpacks and our precious few spare clothes into Karen's wheelie suitcase, which Hostel Paq graciously agreed to store for us for the next two weeks (not an unusual request - the hostel was full of Western backpackers starting, finishing or busy with the Shikoku Henro). Our train to Itano, nearest station to where we'd finished walking the previous day, was at 10:26 am. We checked out of the hostel at 9:30 am, pulled on our raincoats, backpacks and ponchos and headed for Tokushima Station; luckily it wasn't far, and we dried off in Vie de France coffee shop, a most un-Japanese place which was nonetheless full of Japanese people enjoying French confectionary. Two South Africans sipping coffee added to the confusing international mix of the joint.

This time round we made no mistakes with the train, and stepped onto Itano's rain-soaked platform at 11 am. A short walk through the streets brought us back to the Henro route just west of temple three. The trail towards temple four led us along narrow roads through rural towns, under a huge, elevated freeway and into a bamboo forest. We negotiated some confusing turns with the help of Google Maps, the Henro guidebook and signs affixed to street lamps. Temple four (Dainichiji) proved to be exquisitely beautiful, the most photogenic of the temples we'd seen so far. Neither an errant weed nor a stone out of place spoiled the serene perfection of the gardens surrounding the temple buildings. A young girl was tending an area containing bonzai trees, and looked up with a smile as we rang the bell at the entrance gate to announce our arrival.

The Henro guidebook promised a bakery between temples four and five, but despite being absolutely sure we were on the right path and scanning every building on the way we saw no sign of it. Before we knew it we were at temple five (Jizoji), famished and thirsty. The main temple building was covered with scaffolding for major roof repairs, but the temple's other claim to fame was proudly visible in front of it - an 800 year-old Gingko tree, its roots cordoned off with red traffic cones in order to protect them from careless (or uncaring) people.

Temple 4 (Dainichiji) on the Shikoku Henro

We spent the night in a minshuku for the first time. A minshuku is a traditional Japanese-style guest house, usually run by a family, and includes all meals, an overnight stay in a room kitted out in traditional style and a shared bathroom. Our room was immaculate and spacious. The floor was covered with tatami mats and the only piece of funiture was a long low table. We obeyed our hostess's instructions, relayed via Google Translate, as to when we should shower and enjoyed a delicious meal of multiple small bowls of different kinds of food. I was expecting to have to sit on the floor cross-legged while we ate, but as it turned out we sat on chairs at a Western-style table with four other Henro hikers, all elderly men on their own. Nobody in the house, guests included, could speak a word of English, so communication was difficult.

When we returned to our room after supper we found that our beds had been rolled out. These were simply mattresses on the floor, and were a trifle hard for Western bodies grown fat and lazy after years of sleeping on soft beds.

[Tuesday 14 May : Awa City, Shikoku] Rice, tofu and some unidentifiable pickled stuff for breakfast at the minshuku didn't quite hit the spot as much as the superb dinner the night before had done. But right at the end our hostess asked if we wanted coffee. Coffee! At a minshuku? I gladly responded with hai (yes) and enjoyed a surprizingly good brew produced via a packet and boiling water that was basically a single-cup filter device.

More to follow ...
A typical Japanese minshuku. Our bedroom (above)
and eating supper wearing a yakuta (robe)

[Wednesday 15 May : Yoshinogawa, Shikoku] We had been unable to book anywhere to stay, so we left our rambling but spacious digs and retraced our steps back to temple nine (Horinji). There we picked up the path again and followed a succession of minor roads through closely-packed yet rural houses, interspersed with fields of rice, cabbages, onions and the newest (yet most valuable) crop - solar panels. We saw thousands and thousands of solar panels in fields. No wonder Japan doesn't have power shortages - years ago they had the foresight to realize what a problem this was going to be and began harvesting the free power provided by the sun. Now they have a countrywide network of millions of solar panels and power points are available everywhere, usually free. Bus stations, train stations, in fact virtually everywhere there are free-to-use power points. People use them all the time to charge their cellular phones. Is anybody at Eskom (the South African national power producer) listening? Not likely - Eskom are as keen on solar power as vegetarians are on roast beef sandwiches, perhaps less so.

Temple ten (Kirihataji) proved to be at the end of a long uphill road, followed by several sets of stone steps that seemed to go on forever. Eventually we reached the top and found the main temple hall and the Daishi hall. But further up the slopes, poking through the treetops, we could see the pointed roofs of other temples and pagodas. They proved to be a bridge too far for tired legs and we gave up on them.

The trek back down the road took us through similar terrain. We climbed up a grassed embankment, wondering what was on the other side, to find a small river and an enormous flood plain. The extent of the flood plain, and the size of the embankment built to protect the houses behind it from flooding, did not add up. Surely such a minor river could not overflow so disastrously? But an information board provided the answer - the flood plain was actually an island between two rivers, the second of which was huge. We were only at the smaller of the two rivers.

A single-lane bridge crossed the river [Aside: Single-lane roads and bridges are very common in Japan, where land is scarce and road users are disciplined. Why waste vaulable space on two lanes when one will suffice? When cars approach each other from opposite directions, one of them simply waits at the nearest passing point to allow the other to pass before proceeding. The system seems to work very well]. The road across the flood plain wound its way through fields of rotting cabbages (most un-Japanese to allow that; perhaps they were diseased?) until we reached a line of trees. On the other side we came to the Yoshino River, a wide and major watercourse that was the reason for the flood plain and the two embankments on either side. Again there was only a narrow, single-lane bridge, and while walking across it we had to step precariously close to the edge several times as cars swept past.

Across the bridge we spied a pilgrim shelter. These are roofed wooden huts, usually open on one side, that contain seats and benches for Henro hikers to rest in. This one was particularly nice because it overlooked the river and had a shelf under the window ... so we sat there, eating the food we'd packed for lunch and contemplating the sluggish flow of the Yoshino River. Then it was onward, through more suburban streets. Things were getting monotonous when I spied a small sign next to the road that read "Key Coffee." What? Coffee? Here, in this nondesript semi-industrial town? I looked more closely and saw a building that was no different from any of the houses we'd seen, except that it had another "Key Coffee" sign high up on the wall. The door of the place was made of glass and closed; we looked inside but could only make out vague shapes. What the hell, I thought, I want coffee, let's find out what's heppening here. I pushed the door open and stepped inside to find a cosy (but typically neat) coffee shop. There was a counter on one side with an old-style coffee siphon on it, trays of biscuits and a cash register. Three tables were on the other side. Two of the tables were pushed together, and several tiny elderly ladies were sitting there drinking tea and nattering. They stopped talking when we entered, and stared with wide eyes at these two giant Westerners filling the room with their tall bodies and bulky backpacks.

A statue of Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded the Buddhist temples on Shikoku Island
in the 9th century (left), and Karen points to a typical stone Henro waymarker

An elderly man detached himself from the ladies' conversation and came over to us with a wide smile of welcome on his face. "Konichiwa," I ventured. "Coffee?" I pronounced it "cohee" in the Japanese style.
"Hai," he replied, and bustled off to the third (vacant) table. He cleared it of a few things and gestured that we should sit. Karen managed to order green tea (or simply tea, called ocha) and I watched in fascination as the proprietor fired up the coffee siphon. He lit a burner beneath a spherical glass bowl containing water and then ground some beans. I looked away and didn't notice where he put the coffee grounds, but a couple of minutes later I saw rich, dark coffee dripping down a glass pipe into the spherical bowl. When the dripping stopped he extinguished the burner, poured the contents of the bowl into a cup and brought it over to me. Milk, as always in Japan, was provided in small plastic sachets such as the ones you get on a plane.

I took a sip and was immediately impressed. It wasn't espresso (nothing can top the taste of espresso-based coffee) but it was close. Better than filter coffee, certainly. So there I sat, in a nameless Japanese coffee shop on the outskirts of the unremarkable city of Yoshinogawa, enjoying excellent coffee. The Japanese ladies, none of whom could possibly have been even as much as five feet tall, resumed their gossiping with many sidelong glances at us. We exited the coffee shop with much bowing, scraping and utterances of origato.

We arrived at temple eleven (Fujidera) just after 3 pm. We had nowhere to stay, but we'd been told that a chap who lived a hundred metres down the road from the temple had set up a bunk-bed hostel for pilgrims. Hoping for the best, we turned up at his place to find him working in his garden with a wheelbarrow. The sign outside said "Vacant rooms." That was hopeful, and he confirmed that he did indeed have space for two that night. We grabbed them, and he kindly helped us plan and book our next two nights' accommodation as well. This chap, whose name is Henro no Sato, is a legend on the pilgrimage, and our experience with him and staying at his neat-as-a-pin hostel confirmed everything we'd heard about him. He was incredibly helpful, and I recommend most strongly that you pop into his place at temple eleven if you are doing the Shikoku Henro. His bunk beds were more spacious and comfortable than many hotel room beds I've slept in.

[Thursday 16 May : Kamiyama, Shikoku] We had prepared breakfast the night before - apples, bananas, nuts and yoghurt, all purchased in a supermarket down the road from our lodgings. We gulped it down at 6:15 am and by 6:45 am we were on the trail. We left at this unseemly hour because the walk between temples eleven and twelve is the toughest on the entire route of 88 temples and 1200 kilometres, largely because temple twelve is sited at the very top of a mountain. It starts with a severe climb of three kilometres, followed by a section that meanders up and down, then there is another climb which leads into a steep descent to a river, which (of course) means that the most brutal climb of all is after that. The total distance is only 11.6 kilometres but it took us seven and a half hours (including several breaks).

The entire route was in thick forest and very beautiful. The trees were mostly pine and juniper, but mixed among them were several other species we could not identify. Every now and then there would be a break in the trees and we would be rewarded with stupendous views. But most of the time it was a case of screaming thighs and straining lungs as we inched our way up the slopes. Often the incline was so steep that steps had been cut into the rock or built into the path. Finally I saw a line of stone columns ahead. It was the rather grand entrance to the temple, and meant that the end was in sight. At last! We dragged ourselves up the steps to the temple, dumped our backpacks on a bench and sat for a few minutes in a state of numb exhaustion.

But our problems weren't over. There is nowhere to stay near temple twelve because it is on a mountain peak. There were a few ryokans several kilometres down the road, but all were fully booked. The kindly chap who owned the bunk-bed lodge where we'd slept the night before had phoned around, and the best he could arrange was for us to stay in a luxury spa hotel about 12 kilometres away. There was absolutely no way we would be able to walk to there, so he had advised we ask the temple office to call us a taxi. Of course, the person at the temple office could speak no English, but the word "taxi" is universal so we managed to make ourselves understood. He had to phone three taxi companies before he found one that was available, but eventually he succeeded and at 3 pm we found ourselves in an immaculate cab winging our way down the mountain. I watched with mounting alarm as the price on the meter rose and the driver showed no sign of pulling into a hotel. But the distance we drove was such that we knew we would never have made it on our tired legs at that time of the afternoon.

Four thousand Yen (five hundred SA Rands) later we climbed out of the taxi and walked into the foyer of Kamiyama Hotel & Spa, and five minutes after that we were revelling in the luxury of a HUGE room (by Japanese standards). The rigours of the day were forgotten as we showered and prepared for our first visit to an onsen.

More to follow ...

[Friday 17 May : Tokushima, Shikoku]

[Saturday 17 May : Tokushima, Shikoku] Another Japanese-style breakfast sent us on our way again. There's a limit to how much rice, soup and tofu I can eat before 8 am ... but I will admit that the fish they served (haddock) was absolutely superb. No coffee either. Green tea just doesn't do it if you have a long day of walking ahead of you. Luckily the going was easy as we meandered our way through rice paddies and narrow, winding roads, despite already being within the Tokushima City limits. The temples were very close together, and by 11 am we had visited four more: numbers 14, 15, 16 an 17. Thereafter it was a long slog on tired legs in the hot sun from the outskirts of the city into the centre, the afternoon broken by a superb lunch stop at a 7-Eleven. That sounds ridiculous, but in Japan this is quite normal. The coffee at convenience stores is self-service out of a push-button machine and is invariably excellent. You buy a cardboard cup at the counter, make your own coffee then sit there and drink it. In addition to coffee, we had egg salad rolls and apple danish pastries, all of which were plastic-wrapped but delicious. And cheap! The food at convenience stores costs way, way less than what you'd pay at a restaurant, even a fast food joint.

We finally checked into a postage stamp-sized room at the Washington Plaza Hotel at about 3:45 pm. I had rather expected a tried, budget-style place, but in fact the hotel proved to be quite fancy - twelve floors of rooms, a spacious reception area and soft carpets on the floors. Business people (which in Japan means business men ... sorry, ladies) abounded in black suits, white shirts and gleaming leather shoes. Our backpacks, boots and sweaty clothes did not enhance the hotel's appearance, and the receptionist hurried us into the lift as fast as his excessively polite bowing would allow.

To be continued ...
© Paul Kilfoil, 2024