Just Me in Japan – Wrap up

Thursday 29 November 2012

Sadly, today it is time to go back to reality, boarding the first leg of my flight home from Tokyo to Singapore. Taking to the skies, I get to see Mt Fuji (although the plane windows are dirty and smudgy and the photo shows it as a blob on the horizon) in the distance one last time – of course it would be a clear day the day I leave!

A final glimpse of Fuji

Some last minute shopping is required at Narita, and I stock up on the Kit Kat flavours I can find – so I have blueberry, wasabi, brown sugar syrup, rum and raison and strawberry/green tea.  I also find a store that stocks Royce Chocolate:

“ROYCE’ was founded in Sapporo in 1983. By gradually acquiring better techniques and enriching our experiences, we are dedicated to making real good chocolate of world quality in Hokkaido where the climate and the clean air are suitable for making confectionaries. The fundamental principle of Royce’ has been and will always be to painstakingly source for high quality ingredients, and to sell its products at prices that customers can afford for daily consumption.”

Man, if I could eat Royce chocolate every day I would be the happiest girl in the world!  It tastes divine, but unfortunately they don’t have that much stock, and some of it is the kind that requires refrigeration, which rules it out straight away! You can’t get Royce in Australia, and it’s actually quite hard to find in Japan (well in Tokyo and Kyoto). It’s usually reserved for my Singapore trips, where there are several shops with heaps of stock.

I stuff a few more last minute souvenirs in my bag (or should I say bags, cause there’s now three of them!) until they literally cannot hold anymore. Hard to imagine I will still be returning to Australia with money.

The flight is rather uneventful and seems like a really long 7 hours! I watch a movie, a couple of tv episodes of Modern Family, finish my Idiot Abroad book, listen to some music and it’s still not time to land. Flying has to be the worst part of travelling!  The plane has a lot of Chinese on board also – I can tell by the amount of hawking and throat clearing going on – why do they do that everywhere? Sounds so gross but I’m glad we’re on the plane and not in main street China, where the gobs would be landing in front of me left, right and centre!

I have a 7 hour stopover at Changi Airport, so I’ve booked a room at the Transit Hotel, which is a first for me. The transit hotel room basically has a bed, tv and bathroom facilities and it’s really a great way to spend a few hours having a proper sleep and get refreshed.

Transit Hotel room at Changi Airport

There’s also plenty of time to change my cash, grab some new books, duty free and have a some dinner at one of my favourites – the Hard Rock Cafe! Tacky I know, but as soon as I walk in, I notice Motley Crue’s song Livewire playing on the tv and I know all is good with the world.

Finally, at just after 1.00am in the morning, my plane is about to depart for home.  Just 5 more hours to go.  I can’t believe what a fantastic week and a half I’ve had. I have to say even though I’ve loved all of my trips with the people I have travelled with, people are right – travelling by yourself does have a certain freedom with it, because it’s all up to you!  And I guess the only person you are disappointing if you don’t try something is yourself!

I really feel like I’ve made the most of time in Japan. I did most, if not all the things I set out to do and surprisingly, I don’t recall having any moments of self consciousness that stopped me from doing things like I normally do.  In fact, I found that I was more willing to give things a go, which was surprising.  I found myself thinking “just take the chance, you may never get it again” and then I’d picture the worst that could happen and took a leap of faith.  Japan is a great country to visit for the single traveller.  Most hotels cater for this market with cheaper single rooms and there’s always someone around more than willing to give directions or take you where you want to go.

I loved Japan even more the second time around, and I can’t wait to go back again and explore some of the other cities.  I would love to see Japan in Winter (I can only imagine how cold it would be then!).  And then of course, if you’re going to see Japan in 3 seasons,  you may as well see it in all 4!

But it’s always good to be home – besides where else but Western Australia, do you get a sunrise like this…

Just Me in Japan – Narita

 

Wednesday 28 November 2012

 

This morning I’m back on the Narita Express, heading back towards the airport ready for my departure tomorrow morning. But rather than just stay the night, I thought I might head to Narita early so I can check out some of the sights, namely the Naritasan Temple and Park.

I arrive at the Narita Hilton, and although check in is not until 3pm, my room is ready, which is great because it gives me a chance to drop off my stuff and freshen up.  The room is large and looks really nice – and the bed looks super comfy.  I can’t wait to stretch out in it tonight.  But for now, there’s Narita to explore, so I head downstairs and board the shuttle bus to Narita.

 

 


Hilton Narita

 

 

The guide books don’t say much about Narita. I guess many people don’t bother spending time here, rather using it as a transit point for incoming and outgoing flights. And to be honest it’s not really a pretty town, until you get to the temple grounds.

It’s a miserable day today, extremely cold – 7.6 degrees upon arrival at Narita, and just as I board the shuttle bus, it starts to rain and pretty much doesn’t stop for the rest of the afternoon.  It’s amazing how rain can make a day feel miserable and set the tone for your first impressions of a place.  I recall on my last trip to Japan, arriving in Kyoto in the rain, trailing my luggage behind me, arriving at the hotel like a soaked rat – our hotel and the city itself felt crappy and grey.  Yet, I’m sure if I had arrived in the sunshine, I would have got a totally different impression.  So I’m really glad I got the opportunity to give Kyoto another go!

The town’s centrepiece is the impressive temple. The temple was founded in the 10th century. A broad variety of temple buildings stand on the spacious grounds of Naritasan, including the temple’s new and former main halls, a three storied pagoda and a huge Tahoto style pagoda, named the Great Pagoda of Peace.

Look how hard it’s raining!
The Goma rite is the most important of the services conducted in Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a temple of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. It is conducted several times every day and anybody can attend. The Goma rite is a mysterious temple service in which we pray to Fudomyoo, the main deity of Naritasan Temple, for the fulfillment of our wishes.  A chief priest burns Goma sticks with various burnt offerings, The fire, a symbol of the wisdom of Fudomyoo, extinguishes our earthly passions, which are symbolized by the sticks, and brings us to a higher state of mind to win the virtues and favors of Fudomyoo.  Fudomyoo, one of the popular Buddhist deities, is fierce-looking and wreathed in flames with a sword and a rope in his hands. The sword cuts away hindrances of passion and false knowledge, and the rope is used to draw in beings to Enlightenment. To demons he is terror, but to the faithful he is the remover of anxieties, banisher of evil and savior from oppression. Fudomyoo of Naritasan Temple has been worshiped by numerous people from all over the country for a long time.

Temple fairs are held on the 1st, 15th, and 28th of each month – but it looks like todays fair has been rained out, which is a shame. It would have made for a more lively visit.

On the grounds, is a stunning park – Naritasan Park. The park grounds are at the base of a Calligraphy Museum.  At present, the gardens are bathed in autumn colours and there are vibrant splashes of red, orange and yellow all over the place. Kyoto may have had more red koyo (autumn leaves) but Narita wins for orange!   The garden incorporates both traditional Japanese and European elements. It’s a shame it’s raining, but I still couldn’t think of a nicer place to spend the afternoon.  Though it would have been nice to spend longer here, the rain kind of takes the enjoyment out of it.  I take as many photos as I can (not more photos of leaves Michelle, I hear you scream!), but it’s difficult tryinig to hold the umbrella under my chin and take photos which are straight and not get my camera wet.  I’m obviously not the multi-tasking pro I thought I was!    

 

Heading down the steps of the temple grounds, my umbrella flies out of my hands and races off down the steps, narrowly missing a mother and her small child – oops!  I grab the umbrella back into my control and regain my dignity before leaving the temple grounds.


 

 

Part of the fun of visiting Naritasan is its store lined approach, the Omotesando. Stretching over the entire one kilometer distance from the railway stations to the temple, Naritasan’s Omotesando is a lively street lined by numerous restaurants and stores, that have been selling traditional crafts, foods and souvenirs to pilgrims and tourists for centuries.

 

 


 

 

I buy a couple of local snacks to try. One is called Taiyaki. It’s a delicious snack that is shaped like a cute little fish and filled with sweet Azuki red bean paste. It is very sweet, but the pastry breaks up the sweetness a little. Another is a peanut shaped sweet, called Peanuts Monaka, which is made from Chiba’s renowed peanuts, ground into a sweeet paste and in the shape of a peanut. This is also nice. But nicest of all is a ganache/cake type chocolate bar which is divine.

Unagi (eel) is the speciality dish of Narita and it would have been great to have a bowl of it with some rice, but I was full and looking forward to dinner tonight.  Besides I have tried Unagi before anyway, so there was no challenge there!

There doesn’t seem to be much more to do here in Narita for the limited time I have left this afternoon. If I had another day, there are quite a few things to do around the area, but I’ll leave Narita with the memory of those beautiful colours.

I grab the shuttle bus back to the hotel and settle in for an evening of room service and blogging. I’m going to be sad to leave Japan. I’ve seen so much more of it this time, but it’s just made me realise there’s soooo much of it left to see. One thing is for sure, I will be back – definitely.

Just Me in Japan – Tokyo Day Tour

Tuesday 27 November 2012
  
There were a few things I didn’t get to see on my last trip to Tokyo. So today I’m going to do the touristy thing and sum them all up in one Tokyo day tour and a night tour of Shibuya and Shinjuku.
 
I manage to find the first tour meeting point at the Keio Plaza Hotel without too much hassle, which is more difficult than it sounds, because you need to work out how to get to the other side of the train station without going through the fare gates.



The ‘other side’ of Shinjuku

Our guide for the day is Kaori – “but don’t worry about pronunciation”, she says, “just call me Curry cause I love curry!”  The tour is supposed to end at 5.00pm, which should leave me just enough time to head on over to Shibuya to start tour number two at 5.50pm.  But the opening sentence out of Kaori’s mouth is that the tour finishes at 5.30pm – phwaor that’s gonna be tight!  Within the next half an hour she’s revised it to 6.00pm.  Boy am I panicking!  There’s no way I want to miss the night tour, and I can’t even call them or email them to let them know I might be late because I have no internet connection!

However, within an hour, Kaori’s going through everyone on the bus, checking where they would like to conclude the tour, and I overhear her telling some of the other women they could get off the bus at Ginza, which is closer than coming back to the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal, so I let her know my plans and she agrees that will be easier and give me more time.  Panic averted!

Our first stop on the tour is Tokyo Tower, reminiscent of a red and white barber’s pole.  Taller than the Eiffel Tower, the 333m structure, completed in 1958, was designed as a transmitting tower.  There are exceptional views of the city and today has another surprise in stall – it is clear and there set against the blue sky is Japan’s beloved Mt Fuji.  I was so glad to be able to see it after missing it on my last trip and also on the train the other day.  And the Japanese are right, there is something magical about Fuji.

And now making a rare appearance on the skyline, the one, the only, the AMAZING Mt Fuji!!!


Quirky fact:  the good people of Tokyo will have you know that your love will last longer if you watch the lights of Tokyo Tower get turned off with your partner.

Tokyo Tower has now been surpassed, in height anyway, but the new Tokyo Sky Tree which opened in May 2012.  The new building is double the height of the Sky Tree.
 

 
Kaori is a great guide, she speaks English really well and has loads of interesting facts and stories peppering her tour spiel, including many interesting toilet tales about automatic seats that remove all domestic arguments and the need for flushing sounds to hide embarrassing noises.
 
Back on the bus, we head to Happoen Gardens to participate in a traditional tea ceremony.  The tea ceremony (sado: “the way of the tea”) is a ceremonial way of preparing and drinking tea.  The custom has been strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism and nowadays, is a relatively popular hobby.  Many Japanese, interested in their own culture, take tea ceremony lessons.  The ceremony itself consists of many rituals that have to be learned by heart, with almost each hand movement being prescribed.  The matcha green tea is first prepared by the host, and then drunk by the guests.  Prior to drinking the green tea, guests are invited to eat sweets – these sweeten the palate, to balance the bitterness of the green tea.

 

The ceremonial building is situated in beautiful garden surroundings, and is also home to some very old bonsai.

 
 
 
 

Kaori tells us that 60-70% of Japanese are Buddhist and 80-90% are Shinto, meaning that the Japanese are kind of flexible when it comes to religion and that a lot of people practice both.  Then of course when Christmas rolls around, everybody is a Christian – cause Santa’s coming!

She also asks whether we’ve noticed people walking around with masks on their faces – which of course we all have.  She thinks the Japanese are a little obsessed with masks and says that if you go into a drugstore, you can how many types of different masks there are – there are ones that make sure your makeup stays in place and even ones that are scented and have benefits for your skin.  Apparently when it is exam time, lots of people put on masks either to stop themselves from passing on bugs, or to stop themselves from getting any colds going around.

Lunch time is beckoning, and we head to Chinzanso Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel.  The grounds of the Four Seasons Hotel are stunning and we are lucky enough to see both a traditional wedding and a coming of age ceremony.

Two new life chapters – a wedding…
 
…and acelebration of the coming of age.
 

Seated in groups around grill plates, we await our barbecue lunch with anticipation.  First up is a small salad of lettuce, carrot and red onion with a sesame tasting sauce.  Then a selection of thinly sliced pork, chicken and beef, along with vegetables including capsicum, carrot, onion, asparagus and some type of potato, which has the restaurants name ingrained into it)  are grilled on the hot plate and served along with rice.  I’ve been dying for a plate of vegetables for the last couple of days, so I’m delighted.  A small bowl of vanilla icecream rounds the meal out.  It’s a really nice lunch in wonderful surroundings. 

Back on the bus, Kaori tells us a bit about the New Year in Japan.  The end of the old year and the beginning of the new year is a big deal in Japan and on New Year’s Eve, the Japanese attend Buddhist temples to hear the tolling of the joya no kane (bell).  The bell is rung 108 times, one for each cardinal sin in the Buddhist universe and which is said to purify sins and allow the new year to start afresh.  The hefty list of sins includes ostentatiousness, ambition, stinginess, know-it-all, self-denial, humiliation and jealousy.

But people are busy these days, and apparently there are a few temples that have web sites so you can ring the bell “virtually” and of course there are mobile apps too!

The Imperial Palaceis home to the Japanese Emperor and his family, the world’s longest unbroken line of monarchs.  The impregnable moats and stone walls occupy a 110-hectare expanse of green – its innermost folds the habitat of rabbits and pheasants, its outer ring of moats and bridges the home of turtles, carp and gliding swans.  The Imperial Palace is totally closed to the public, except on New Year’s Day and the Emperor’s birthday on 23 December, so all you can really see is a watch tower and the front gate.  But nevertheless, it’s a nice stop.  

Driving through Ginza, we head to Hirode Pier to take a cruise up the Sumida River.  During the Edo Period there was little to suggest the sartorial elegance and good taste the name Ginza now conjures up. Back in the day, it occupied a rather undefined area between the feudal mansions of the Outer Lords and the newly reclaimed land of Tsukiji. The word Ginza means “Silver Mint”, and the suburb was so named after the silver coin mint which was established ther ein 1612 during the Edo period. Now it’s an elegant and exclusive suburb, and a world famous shopping destination.

The Sumida River is a river which flows through Tokyo.  It branches from the Arakawa River at Iwabuchi and flows into Tokyo Bay.  What is now known as the “Sumida River” was previously the path of the Ara-kawa, however towards the end of the Meiji era work was carried out to divert the main flow of the Ara-kawa to prevent flooding.
 
I was all lined up to do the Sumida River Cruise on the last trip, but unfortunately I underestimated the crowds, and by the time we got there, there was a massive queue and an even longer waiting time (the Japanese love to queue – I’ve heard stories about people queuing for up to 8 hours to go into a new shop without even knowing what they sell!), so we had to kiss that plan goodbye.

Sumida River bridges guide

Thankfully I get to do the tour today and also get to see the space aged river boat “Himiko” which I wanted to see last time.

 
The space aged Himiko river boat

Disembarking from the boat across from a view of the new Tokyo Sky Tree and the Asahi Building, we walk a brief way to the Asakusa Kannon Temple and the Nakamise shopping street leading up to it.  Along the way Kaori points out the beginning of the Ginza line, which I need to catch to Shibuya, and I decide that as I’ve already seen the Temple, I’ll browse the Nakamise and then head to Shibuya early. 
 
Tokyo Sky Tree on the left, and the Asahi Building on the right

The Nakamise shopping street stretches over 250m from Kaminarimon to the main grounds of Sensoji Temple and is lined by shops offering all kinds of local specialities and tourist souvenirs.  This includes cherry blossom flavoured ice cream and although it is freezing cold, I can’t resist it’s call.
 
Nakamise Shopping Street
Unmissable Sakura (cherry blossom) flavoured ice cream.
 
Straight afterwards, I jump on the subway for Shibuya.  I arrive early, but that’s a good thing considering how dark it gets early and that I still have to find the meeting point for the Lights on Tokyo tour.
 
Arriving early also gives me the opportunity to watch the “Shibuya Scramble” in action at Shibuya Crossing.  Shibuya Crossing is probably one of the world’s most visually famous four-way intersections where the green light given to pedestrians releases a timed surge of humanity.
 
Shibuya scramble
You can see in the picture above a big billboard advertising Johnny’s World.  Let me tell you about Johnny and why he holds not one, but two Guiness World Records…
 
Johnny is Johnny Kitagawa.  He is the founder of Johnny & Associates, which is a production agency for numerous popular boy bands in Japan.  He is regarded as one of the most powerful figures in the entertainment industry and has held a virtual monopoly on the creation of boy bands in Japan for more than 40 years!
 
But it’s not all good clean cut fun in Johnny’s World.  In the late 1990’s, Johnny was the subject of a number of claims that he was taking advantage of his position to engage in improper sexual relationships with boys under contract to his talent agency.  Johnny denied the claims and was awarded an 8.8million yen judgement against the magazine that published the allegations.  An appeal was launched by the magazine, which resulted in a partial reversal of judgement.
 
Anyway, he was presented with two Guinness World Record awards, which make him not only one of Japan’s richest men, but also one of the most successful music producers in the world.
 
The first award was for the most No. 1 singles produced by an individual.  He has accumulated an astounding 232 chart-topping songs between 1974 to 2010.
 
The second was for the most concerts produced by an individual.  Between 2000 and 2010 Johnny produced 8,419 concerts! 
 
Anyway, looking at the billboard, my guide and I decided that none of the boys look remotely like Ken Watanabe, so we lose interest and move on.
 
Johnny’s a busy boy…
 
 Shibuya is also known as home to Hachiko, a life-sized bronze statue of a dog by which millions of Tokyoites have been arranging to meet since it was first put in place in 1934.  And it’s this statue that is the meeting point.  So why a statue for this pup?
“Well, from early 1924, an Akita dog by the name of Hachiko used to accompany his master – a professor at Tokyo University called Hidesamuro Ueno – to the train station in the morning, and would be there in the afternoon to greet Ueno’s return from work. All was well until one day in May 1925, when the professor suddenly expired while giving a lecture. Unaware that his beloved master would no longer be returning home, Hachiko continued to wait at Shibuya Station for the following decade. (The station’s employees were apparently quite fond of the mutt, giving it food, water and somewhere to sleep while presumably making sure that it didn’t poop in the ticket hall.”
 “A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan”, Ben Stevens
 

Hachiko
If you want to watch the whole story from go to wo, get out the DVD of the same name, slightly ruined by the fact that Richard Gere, who played the professor, is not actually Japanese, nor is the story set in Japan.

I meet my guide for the night, and I’m ashamed to say I don’t catch her name. I think I’ll have plenty of opportunity when the other people on the tour arrive and she introduces herself, but then she tells me I am the only one on the tour and I’m too embarrassed to ask now. She is a tiny little thing and absolutely lovely, I can tell the tour is going to be a good night out right away.

First stop of the evening is a small izakaya for a yakitori dinner. The Izakaya probably seats about 15 people, with some table seating and a small lot of bar seating where you can watch the yakitori being prepared. Yakitori are skewers of grilled chicken and vegetables and it is a great accompaniment with beer or sake. First we are served a small bowl of mixed vegetables including mushrooms and lotus root, sauted in some kind of sauce, which is really, really nice. Then we have about five small serves of different yakitori dishes including chicken, and green peppers. The food is really lovely and I thoroughly enjoy the visit and having a chat. Oishi des ne!

Heading down the steep narrow staircase, back out into the night, we wander around the streets of Shibuya, looking at the different sites, before heading via train to Shinjuku. This is where I get my first taste of the crush on peak hour Japanese trains. You think, surely no one else can get on, but they do. I was ok, if not hot, but I felt really sorry for my tiny guide, who’s face was squashed between the backs of two men standing on either side of her. She said sometimes when the train is busy and people want to read on the train, they put the books on her head! Nice!

We survive the train ride, and head over the the Metropolitan Government Building to get a glimpse of Tokyo from the night sky. The 243 meter tall twin towers and surrounding buildings contain the offices and assembly hall of the metropolitan government of Tokyo, as well as observatories on the 45th floor of each tower. The view from the southern tower is considered slightly more interesting. I have been to this building before, but during the day, so it was good to get a view of Tokyo by night, and my guide even manages to track down the Domo-kun merchandise I’ve been trying to find for the last two days.

Twinkling Tokyo 
Golden Gai by day…
…and by night!

Golden Gai is a ramshackle area in Shinjuku consisting of six tiny alleys and it’s right behind my hotel. There used to be over 200 bars and eateries crammed into this area, most of them seating only a few people, but its now estimated that are about 140. The buildings have miraculously remained through war and earthquake, though they are now dwarfed by new high rises. I wanted to visit Golden Gai on my last trip to Japan, but just didn’t get around to it, and looking back probably just didn’t feel confident enough to tackle it.  Despite feeling quite comfortable staying in Kabukicho, being the fraidy cat I am, as much as I would love to just go out and take a trip down Golden Gai – I would never be able to make myself do it. Why is why I have booked the Backstreet Guides to take me there tonight! 

It’s said that many of these miniscule bars do not welcome westerners and/or non-Japanese speakers, but my guide thinks this is not true, and wandering around I can see a lot of signs saying “English welcome”, so maybe you shouldn’t always believe what you read!

At the back of Golden Gai, hidden from the main streets, is Hanazono Shrine. It is one of the important Shinto Shrines found in Tokyo. Hanazono Shrine was first established in the middle of the 17th century, during the early Edo period. Over the hundreds of years there’s been various redevelopments to the current buildings found at the site. A number of fires had destroyed the buildings including sever damage and destruction during World War II. Hanazono literaly means Flower Garden. The land surrounding Hanazono Shrine was once part of the Imperial Gardens, now developed with the many tall buildings of Shinjuku.  

Because it’s only me on the tour and we are going well for time, I’m guided to Omoide Yokocho, or Memory Lane. This is another place I wanted to check out last time, but didn’t get to, and I wasn’t expecting to see it this time either. It’s a small network of alleyways dedicated to yakitori and combination restaurants. I use the term restaurants loosely as they are more like little wooden sheds, most seating about five people.  

Entranceway to Omoide Yokocho
Omoide Yokocho is situated on the west side of the Yamanote Line tracks. There is a tunnel under the tracks near the entrance to Omoide Yokocho which is nicknamed “Gokiburi Yokocho” (cockroach lane) or the slightly more (?) endearing “Shomben Yokocho” (piss lane). I’m not sure if its the kind of place I’d eat in because I can see a number unidentified animal parts being served up and I’m just not that game!
 
 
I’m guided around the streets of Kabukicho, getting a look at the “information booths” (rather a disguise for girly clubs), pachinko parlours, capsule hotels, internet cafe hotels and japanese host clubs, the boys out on the street, with their perfectly coiffered hair trying to drum up business.
Interesting conversation anyone?
Kabukicho sure is an interesting place!  I’m so glad to have been able to get into its veins and see what makes it tick.
 
 
 
Now my final thing to try today is drinking Pokari Sweat.  Sounds disgusting right?  Well, I asked my guide tonight and apparently its just a kind of sports drink, so I track down a can and give it a go – the result?  Lemony.  Not a hint of sweat.  
Pocari Sweat – for a heavy thirst!

I’m absolutely freezing cold now, and though I’m sorry that my fabulous day of touring the city is over, I’m really looking forward to a glass of red and a warm hotel room.

I can’t recommend either of my days guides enough. They made my time in Tokyo so interesting and memorable and helped me to understand and fall in love with Japan that little bit more.

Just Me in Japan – Taking to the Shops in Tokyo

Monday 27 November 2012

Today I am taking time out to do something dear to my heart, something I didn’t do enough of in Japan on my last visit…get out the credit card and go shopping! Shinjuku – get ready!

The shops in Japan don’t open until 10/11am, which is VERY late for someone like me. And unfortunately Monday seems to be the day that all the other interesting places that I might like to check out to fill in time, like the Tokyo Edo Museum, choose Monday as their day to be closed. So I kind of drift around the streets until 10am when Isetan opens.

 
 

Isetan is a really expensive department store, Even their gloves start from about $50 a pair! But the main attraction Isetan holds is its basement level food paradise. You have never seen such a place! It’s a shame you aren’t allowed to take photos in there because it’s a sight to behold. There is wine, fresh fruit, fish, pickles, cakes, breads, sandwiches, gyoza/dumpling stores, pattiserie’s and ready made meals of all kinds. The apple I paid $7 for came from here, but it was double the size of the apples back home, and with not a blemish to be seen. And it tasted like heaven!  And they don’t just bung your goods in a bag and go ‘see ya later mate’.  They put anything delicate in a little box, with special little chiller bags are frozen and stay cold for up to 2 hours, along with an eating utensil and a napkin.  The Japanese know service and they do it so well.

I’m dying for a sandwich today, just a good old fashioned normal sandwich, and I eye the perfect place, but it’s not time for lunch yet, so sure that I’ll find another awesome looking sandwich somewhere else, I head back out into the rain in the direction of Top Shop. Top Shops range is a disappointment. Of course, it’s heading towards winter here (as if it’s not freezing enough in Autumn), so the stores are full of jumpers, jackets and coats, but the range is just not very exciting. I leave empty handed and decide to try my luck in Zara. Their stock, whilst a little better, is still not fabulous. But I do leave with a bag full of clothes in any case. One thing that impresses me about Japan – is they are on the ball with everything – wet weather? well we wouldn’t want your new purchases to get wet – here, lets fix that – 

Ta da!  Ingenius!
I wonder around the streets in the rain, really not having very much luck finding anything. I usually have no end of options when looking for things for Lola, but I just can’t find anything here!

I am drenched to the bone, having chosen not to wear my Dr Martens out today (really stupid move), so I decide its time to head for Kirin City for curry and a beer. Well I thought I ordered a beer, but it turns out I must have ordered a beer soft serve, because that’s what it came out looking like!
I wonder the streets a little more until the only true option is to go back to the hotel early and have an arvo rest and get ready for my tour this evening.

Unfortunately it is raining so much and so constantly that my tour planned for tonight was cancelled. I was so disappointed as I was really looking forward to it. The rain had better smarten itself up because if tomorrow nights tour is also cancelled, I will be REALLY upset!

So what do I do with an empty evening looming? Well, seeing as I didn’t make it to Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi last night, I decide to give it another try. I was obviously too tired to tackle it last night because I have no dramas working out how to get there tonight.


The light show, when I find it, isn’t really that impressive – obviously it’s much more impressive than any Christmas displays we have in Perth, but maybe it was the rain that made it seem less special.

Afterwards, I am still looking for that elusive sandwich, so I bite the bullet and head to Isetan’s food wonderland. I find the sandwich I eye off earlier and because of the miserable weather, decide to treat myself to a bottle of red and a spectacular looking nectarine dessert. Check this out! A right way to spend a miserable rainy night!
 
I sure hope that rain stops overnight cause I have a double-banger tour day lined up and it better not get cancelled!

 

Just Me in Japan – Nara

Saturday 24 November 2012

After another sleepless night last night (with a baby down the hall that seemed to cry ALL NIGHT!), I’m keen for a slow start today.  Pulling myself together, I pop down the road to visit Nijo Castle. I’m a bit castled/templed out now, but Nijo is special…it’s known for its nightingale floors. And I’ve just got to walk on them!

“In his black-walled fortress at Inuyama, the warlord Iida Sadamu surveys his famous nightingale floor. Constructed with exquisite skill, it sings at the tread of each human foot. No assassin can cross it unheard.”

Across the Nightingale Floor, Liann Hearn.

Nightingale floors (uguisubari), were floors designed to make a chirping sound when walked upon. These floors were used in the hallways of some temples and palaces, the most famous example being Nijo Castle. Dry boards naturally creak under pressure, but these floors were designed so that the flooring nails rubbed against a jacket or clamp, causing chirping noises. The squeaking floors were used as a security device, assuring that none could sneak through the corridors undetected. Very cool.

Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle’s palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep. After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994. The entire castle grounds are surrounded by stone walls and moats.

Moving on from Nijo, I really want to try and get to Kiyomizu shopping street today, but for some reason it is illuding me. I wanted to try and get there the other night when I mistakenly followed the Philosophers Path (wrong phillosophy). Again today, I just can’t seem to get it together to find it! So, as my time is limited because of this afternoon’s trip to Nara, I head to Shijo-dori, which could be called the main street of Kyoto. With a history dating back to the Heian Period, this street is mentioned in ancient records as Shijo Oji. The largest business district in Kyoto extends north and south along this street.

In addition to the great department stores and the enormous number of small shops and specialty stores, there are major arcades. The arcades are covered roads from which cars and vehicles are banned – making it easy to walk and window shop regardless of the weather. You can buy just about everything (from a wide range of budgets).

Shijo Street, like everything over the last couple of days is packed. I mentioned that yesterday was a public holiday, but because the public holiday preceeded a weekend, everything is just so much busier. It’s kind of a pain, because the Japanese just shuffle along, and not on one side of the path or the other either – and they seem to have an inate sense for when you are trying to overtake them, because they suddenly move over to close the gap.

I have just enough time to stop at a tonkatsu (bread crumbed dishes) restaurant for some lunch. Though the place seats no more than about 20, and there is no English staff, I bite the bullet, having looked at the plastic food models out the front, and walk in to order my meal and a beer. Success! I have just enough time to pop back to the hotel before I head to Kyoto Station for the tour.

“In 743, Shomu, the 45th Emperor of Japan, ordered an urgent meeting of his foremost trusted advisors. ‘Look,’ he told them, ‘things can’t go on like this. Recently we’ve had a smallpox epidemic, widespread crop failure, and – stone the crows – even an attempted coup. I’m beginning to get the feeling that someone up there doesn’t really like me, you know what I mean?’ One of Shomu’s advisors awkwardly cleared his throat. ‘If by “someone” you mean Buddha, master, then I have a plan…’ he declared cautiously. ‘Oh aye?’ yawned Shomu. ‘Let’s hear it then.’ As he spoke, the advisor warmed more and more to his idea. ‘Why don’t we build an absolutely flippin’ humungous statue of the Buddha, say around 16m tall, with its fingures alone each the size of a human being? It will use up almost the country’s entire stock of copper, but you wait and see if any more droughts or whatever occur after we’ve erected that little effort at Todaiji temple in Nara…master’. ‘You mean like a dedication, right?’ said Shomu. ‘Sounds great – get cracking, lad’.”

“A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan” by Ben Stevens

And that’s exactly what did happen. Nine years later, the statue was completed. And that’s what I’m off to see this afternoon.

Nara Park (Nara Koen) is a large park in central Nara. Established in 1880, it is the location of many of Nara’s main attractions including Todaiji, Kasga Shrin and the Nara National Museum. The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Nara’s deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be rather aggressive if they think you will feed them. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors asking to be fed.

 

 

 

 

 

Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples. Todaiji was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple’s influence on government affairs.

Todaiji temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and many Sika deer, which are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, roam the grounds freely, terrorising young children trailing bags of food behind them.

 

 

 

Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size. The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. 

 

 

 

Kasuga Shrine is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. It was established in the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. Kasuga shrine was periodically torn down and rebuilt every 20 years for many centrures. However, that custom was discontinued at the end of the Edo period.  Kasuga is famous for its lanterns, donated by worshippers.  Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches.
By the time we finished at Kasuga, it was turning dark again. The ride back to Kyoto only takes about 1hr, but it seemed eternal. I can’t believe my time in Kyoto has come to an end. I’ve fit so much in, but feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface again. There’ll always be next time…


 

 

 

 

 

 

Just Me in Japan – Tokyo Lights

Sunday 25 November 2012
This morning I leave Kyoto for Tokyo. I grab a taxi and head for Kyoto Station. Japanese taxis are a treat – immaculately clean with antimacassars on the headrests and chairs, the backdoor opens automatically for you and the drivers always get you to your destination safely. I’m way early, but I can sure fill in some time shopping for snacks. Did you know you can get Green Tea flavoured Kit Kats? Well you can and they are delicious! The Japanese have a knack for presenting things and it makes you want to buy snacks just cause they are wrapped pretty! 

Quirky fact – On May 5, 2011, Tokyo’s Shiodome Nihon TV Studios witnessed one of the greatest human feats of all time, when 21 members of the Caless Dance School squeezed into a Mini Cooper. The reason? Quite simply, to see if 21 women could squeeze into a Mini Cooper. Why else?



This is how fast the Shinkansen goes…
The trip takes about 2 hours via Shinkansen and this time I’m lucky enough to have a spare seat next to me so I don’t have to contort myself for the trip. Can I just say, that some Japanese girls spend an inordinate amount of time prepping themselves and looking at themselves in the mirror! Brushing and rebrushing their perfectly straight hair – it’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it!

About 15 minutes out of Yokohama Station, a couple of old ladies across the aisle start cooing – I’m wondering what the hell is going on, when I see people start to get their cameras out. Apparently Mt Fuji is clear today, and of course I’m on the other side of the train so I miss it. Hopefully I’ll be able to see it from the Metro Govt Buildings in a couple of days, because I missed it last time also.

I have to change trains at Shinagawa and I have 2 minutes to do so. Two minutes! That’s near on impossible to get from one platform to another in these public holiday crowds. I get stuck behind a crowd on the escalator and I’m wondering what happens if I miss the connection, but up ahead there it is, the exit I need to get onto my train. Coming down the escalator, I can see the train is there. I can hear the chiming noise indicating that the doors are about to close, but I’ve got too much in my hands to pick up my suitcase. In seconds, I reach the bottom of the escalator and fly across the platform, leap onto the train, with my suitcase flying behind me and I make it onto the train JUST before the door closes. Talk about a leap of faith – must have been pretty amusing for the other passengers to watch!

You’re probably well aware that Shinjuku Station is officially the busiest station in the world. In 2007, it registered an average of 3.6 million passengers per day. On a more peculiar note, however, it also has more exits than any other station – over 200 at the last count. It’s a massive complex which includes shopping centres and department stores and is so large that part of it actually lies outside of Shinjuku Ward and into Shibuya Ward. Nonetheless, I arrive at Shinjuku, and I don’t even get lost.



Welcome to Shinjuku
I’ve chosen to stay where I stayed last time I visited, at the Best Western Astina Shinjuku….in Kabukicho. Yes, I know it’s a red light district, and No I haven’t chosen this location for my love of naked karaoke. I just really liked the hotel last time and I wanted to feel comfortable that I would know my way around a bit, so Kabukicho is it (not to mention that I have since discovered Zara and Topshop are both about a 6 minute walk from the hotel, which absolutely sealed the deal!). Anyway, its apparently now rare to see Yakuza wandering through Kabukicho.  So no worries.

As today is Sunday, this is the day to head to Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine. Sunday means people watching day, and that’s exactly what I want to do – rockabilities, goth lolitas, bands and mostly likely some of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls – all sorts of people gather here to hang out.

Meiji Shrine is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Located in Harajuku, Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The shrine was completed and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken in 1920, eight years after the passing of the emperor and six years after the passing of the empress. The shrine was destroyed during WWII but was rebuilt shortly thereafter.

This weekend at most of the shrines I have visited, there have been small children dressed in traditional robes, which I think is part of the 3-5-7 Shinto ritual to bless the children for good health, but it doesn’t always occur on the actual day, because people are so busy, they choose a date around the usual date?  Not sure – so don’t quote me on that – all I know is there’s lots of adorable looking little kiddies around!
 
There was also some kind of vegetable and fruit thing going on – not sure what that was all about, but check out this fruit and veg boat!
And there was also what looked like the remains of a chrysanthemum festival, which occur at various locations around Tokyo and Kyoto at this time of the year.  I thought these ones below were particularly stunning.
 
But I can’t find the cool kids, so I leave it for the day and spend some time shopping at Oriental Bazaar, Kiddyland, Mango and Zara. Despite thinking Kiddyland would be a one stop shop for all things doll-like (well it is if you like the bare-breasted manga type dolls), its the only one of the shops I come out of empty handed! Back to the drawing board for Miss Lola. I’ve got so many shopping bags, people are staring! I swear it’s only because I got a huge bag at Mango for a new winter coat that I bought – on sale of course.

At this point, the best thing to do is to head back to the hotel to drop off my purchases, and hopefully it’s time to check in, which it is. I’ve booked a single room and it’s really cool, complete with my own chaise lounge! Such a good value hotel!
Best Western Astina Shinjuku
So what to do with the afternoon. Well of course I need fruit, so it’s off to Isetan’s basement, which is basically a massive food fest of all sorts of fresh, baked and pre-prepared goods. I don’t think there’s anything you can’t buy here. I spend $20 on fruit – an apple, a small container of diced pineapple and a punnet of raspberries. Yes I can hear you – $20 for that! But you have never seen such awesome looking fruit as this! Truly! The apple itself is worth every penny of the $6 that I paid for it.

Leaving the fruit aisle, I head to Tower Records to pick up some CD’s from a couple of Japanese artists that I like. One of my favourites – Headphones President – put a new album out this year, and whilst I could have ordered it online, I thought it would be far more awesome to get it from Tower Records.

Checking out Shinjuku Gyoen Park is also on the cards. They have just spent months renovating their greenhouse and I’ve heard that it’s another great spot in Tokyo to see the Autumn leaves, so when in Rome…



Families enjoying the autumn leaves


The new greenhouse
 


From inside the greenhouse


Joy of joys – a late flowering cherry blossom

The greenhouse is a little reminiscent of the inside of the new Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, but on absolutely nowhere near the same scale.
The plan was to go to Roppongi to see the Christmas lights at Tokyo Midtown but I couldn’t (couldn’t be bothered) trying to work out how to get there without transferring trains.  I actually got on the train, and then turned around a couple of stops later, cause I was tired then, and started imaging trying to find my way out of the station when I was beyond the point of thinking (though I have noticed that it doesn’t seem quite so hard to find my way around as last time – I haven’t had to carry my suitcase so much either).  So I stuck to the lights of Shinjuku instead.
Dinner was at a little place of Yasakuni Dori, which pretty much specialised in wine and pasta.  My serving of Gorgonzola and Walnut Penne was tiny, which was probably a good thing, because it meant there was room left for a blueberry crepe at Crepes Marion, which looked good and tasted good for about the first 2 bites, but then it was all just too much!  Gotta do it though!
P.S – check out Shinjuku after dark (ie. that’s any time after 5.30pm!):
 
 
 
 
 

Just Me in Japan – Kicking around in Kyoto

Friday 23 November 2012

I don’t know if its the location of the hotel or just my luck, but it seems to have been a really noisy night with sirens and street cleaners (?) all over the place. I awake early – still not out of work mode yet – and take a peek out the window. In the pitch dark I can see it is raining.

That’s not fun – as today I am supposed to be heading off with the Kyoto Cycling Project Tour to visit the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Gardens, Hirosawa Pond and Arashiyama by bike. Well, it’s supposed to be by bike, otherwise I read if it rains, you walk instead – and I don’t want to walk, I want to ride – and lets face it – it’s not like I didn’t do enough walking yesterday!

Anyway, I buy a Kyoto sightseeing pass for the buses and subways from reception and head off to catch the bus from outside Nijo Castle (oh yeah, I have a castle just down the road) to the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion) area to meet the guide and pick up my bike.

It’s cold again outside today, and I’m not sure I’ve dressed approproiately. It’s hard to tell, because you know when you start cycling you’ll warm up pretty quick and won’t want to be lugging a jacket around, but then if the plan changes and we have to walk/catch public transport, then you’re gonna need a jacket.

My trusty steed for the day

I arrive early, so even though I’ve had breakfast, I find a little cafe next door to the KCTP shop and order a coffee and cheese and ham toastie to fill in time. Closer to time, I pop next door and meet my guide Yoko, and she’s kitted up in wet weather gear – yay we’re cycling! The rain has reduced to a light sprinkle in any case and is unlikely to bother us.  Yoko tells me that other people are less in love with the rain than me, and a lot of people have cancelled their tours for today.  My bike is green and has a little basket on it, cute.  It’s very easy to ride and looks well maintained.  And you don’t even have to wear helmets in Japan!

First stop of the day is Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), which is just literally down the road from KCTP, a 30 second ride.   Mum and I visited the Golden Pavillion 2 1/2 years ago when we visited Japan in spring, but it is a stunning building and I’m looking forward to seeing it in the change of seasons.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.

Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.

The Temple is stunning, the autumn colours reflected beautifully in the surrounding pond and it was great to get some background knowledge and be able to ask questions about it from Yoko.


Back on the bikes, we take the back streets of the neighbourhood, including one large massive hill (I made it all the way to the top on my bike, but Yoko had to push hers up the last few metres – Mel would be so proud of me!), we arrive at Ryoanji Garden.

Ryoanji Temple is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden and attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 and belongs to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, whose head temple stands just 1km to the south.

As for the history of Ryoanji’s famous rock garden, the facts are less certain. The garden’s date of construction is unknown and there are a number of speculations regarding its designer. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.

These gardens are also stunning, particularly the pond in the middle of the grounds.

We continue cycling on towards Hirosawa Pond, located in the Sagano area of Kyoto. This pond was constructed in the Heian period, as part of a temple garden built by the grandson of Emperor Uta. The temple was abandoned but the pond survived. This pond has been widely adored, and featured in many Japanese poems. The beautiful pond became the theme of a lot of Japanese poems “Waka” from ancient times. 

It had been well-known since ancient times as a place for enjoying moon viewing. Lying at the foot of a range of gentle hills stretching to the north, the area is surrounded by rice paddies and vegetable crops.  The rice has been harvested for this season.

Hirosawa Pond
Kuan Yin statue
The rice paddies in Sagano
From Sagano, we head to Arashiyama to take in the autumn colours.   Unfortunately today is Japan’s National Thanksgiving day and everyone in Kyoto has the same idea. So we try to avert the crowds and given we’re already ahead of time, we visit some places that weren’t on the guide.
Daikakuji is a large temple originally built in the early 800’s as the detached palace of Emperor Saga, who thoroughly enjoyed spending his time here. Thirty years after the Emperor’s death, the palace was converted into a temple and has since been one of the highest ranked temples of Shingon Buddhism. It has had a role in several significant historical events, including being featured in The Tale of Genji and being often used for filming historical dramas. Today though, it is host to a chrysanthemum display. Something I found interesting about the building was, if you have a look at the covered pathways that lead from building to building, you’ll note how low the rooves are – this is so that the samurai could not raise their swords in old times!
Lastly, and at the top of our last incline for the day, which is a street of preserved buildings, we arrive at the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple.
Street of preserved buildings
Bathed in the glow of a ray of sunshine and set totally in amongst the yellows and oranges of the autumn foliage, this place is stunning.


 

 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a Buddhist temple founded by Empress Shotoku in the middle of the eighth century. It was destroyed by the flooding of the Kamo River, but was rebuilt as an offshoot of the nearby Enryaku-ji temple. 

In the 13th century, it was again destroyed during a civil war. It was moved to its current location in 1922, and then suffered typhoon damage in 1950.

The temple is known for its more than 1200 rakan – stone statues representing the disciples of Buddha. These statues, in keeping with rakan traditions, are generally humorous and kawaii (cute). The sculptures were donated in 1981 in honor of the refurbishment of the temple and most were carved by amateurs, taught by sculptor Kocho Nishimura.

 

 

 

It’s all downhill from here now, as we head to the Bamboo forest. We stop briefly, but we don’t ride through because the pathway is choked with people and taxis (it’s not even a steep climb to reach this spot but some people are so lazy, they take taxis which can barely squeeze up the path!). Down alongside the river, where the Hozugawa river boats come into dock, we wheel our bikes towards the Tokugetsu Bridge, again crammed with people. There’s no point in even trying to cross it, so we head towards the bike return area and the tour is officially over. Yoko and I stop for an icecream at a little shop that won a 3rd place medal for its pistachio icecream. And I think it should have won first, because it taste divine! I wonder if this is the seasonal icecream for autumn – a lot of the icecreams I’ve seen around have been green in colour, so it’s either that or green tea.

Today’s cycling tour was a brilliant way to get around, curving through all the local backstreets, freezing cold wind in your face. It was a great way to see the sites, and if I ever make it back here, I’m definitely doing another one of these tours, or at least hiring a bike to get around. I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone who is thinking of coming to Kyoto. It was hard work in a few spots, but that was mainly because we changed the itinerary and I was up for it – I’m sure the group behind us (way, way behind us even though they left before us) certainly wasn’t doing the hill climbs! Just don’t go when it’s so busy, cause you may not get the most out of riding.

My original plan was to have some lunch and then fill in a couple of hours browsing the shops, but Arashiyama is so crowded, everything is full of people and its not enjoyable so I head back to Kyoto.

With extra time up my sleeve, I decide to try my luck at finding Grains de Vanille, a delightful French patisserie I’ve been reading about. Located down a backstreet near my hotel, I’m not hopeful, but there it is, a tiny little shop hidden back from the street. I walk in and it’s clear you need to be early to have your pick of the cakes, cause there’s not much left. I go for the Meringue Grosielle and a Tarte Fruits and then stop by the 7-11 for a small bottle of champers to take back to my room for afternoon tea.

Back out on the streets and its time to put my transit day pass to good use so I head out to the Silver Pavillion (Ginkakuji). Unfortunately the remaining people of Kyoto that weren’t in Arashiyama are here. It is so crowded and you can see the hordes shuffling up around the gardens and the side of the mountain, step by step, a million cameras flashing from different directions. It’s madness!

The Silver Pavillion – which is not silver at all!
The silver comes from the sand gardens

I can see why they have come though, there is just something about the riot of colour from the autumn foliage. You just don’t see this in Perth.

Ginkakuji is a Zen temple along Kyoto’s eastern mountains, Higashiyama. In 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today’s temple, modeling it after Kinkakuji, his grandfather’s retirement villa at the base of Kyoto’s northern mountains (Kitayama). The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490.

As the retirement villa of an art obsessed shogun, Ginkakuji became a center of contemporary culture, known as the Higashiyama Culture in contrast to the Kitayama Culture of his grandfather’s times. Unlike the Kitayama Culture, which remained limited to the aristocratic circles of Kyoto, the Higashiyama Culture had a broad impact on the entire country.

Today, Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden and a unique dry sand garden. It is enjoyed by walking along a circular route around its grounds, from which the gardens and buildings can be viewed.

I take the photos I want and quickly head on out to escape the crowds, by wandering into the crowds following the Philosopher’s Path.

 

10 minutes later and it was dark!

The Philosopher’s Path is a pleasant stone path which follows a canal that’s part of the Lake Biwa Canal. Approximately 2km long, the path begins around Ginkakuji and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. 

Restaurants, cafes, and boutiques can be found along the path, as well as a number of smaller temples and shrines which are a short walk from the canal. At twenty to five, the sky started darkening, and the path, which I’m sure is way longer than 2km, seemed never ending. It was at this point, that I was glad for the crowds, cause it meant I was going the right way.

I finally made my way back to the hotel, exhausted from all the riding and walking. I am not walking anywhere tomorrow!

Just Me in Japan – Kyoto and the Gods of Inari

Thursday 22 November 2012

Today I get my first look at Narita in the daylight.  It’s still a bunch of overpasses and flyovers.  But I’ll get another look before I leave next week.

I grab the first shuttle bus back to the Airport to catch the Narita Express to Shinagawa, and then the Shinkansen “Nozomi” onwards to Kyoto. The top speed of these trains is 300km/hr (yet their stopping time is 3 minutes, 45 seconds!). There has never been a major accident in all their years of operation, which commenced in 1964. The average delay for the shinkansen (bullet train) for the entire year of 2007 was 30 seconds.


Waiting for the NEX, I came across this vending machine.  Spying a can of coffee, I press the button, thinking it will be something like a cold choc milk – I’ll be darned if it didn’t come out of the machine hot!

The Nozomi bullet train which I will be travelling on from Shinagawa to Kyoto, is the fastest train service running on the Tokaido/Sanyo line. The word nozomi in Japanese means “hope” or “wish”, and I’m on this train (as opposed to a cheaper one) cause I wish to be in Kyoto ASAP. The trip takes about 2.5 hours and it’s at this point that I wish I’d learnt to say “excuse me, but there’s 3 seats here and only two of us – would you mind moving over the end seat so I can move my suitcase a little and my legs stop going numb?” in Japanese.  But I didn’t, so I have to endure.

Most shinkansen trains in Japan offer seats in two classes, which are typically found in separate cars, these are ordinary or green. Not much difference except maybe more footroom – unless you bring a big suitcase and have a numbskull sitting next to you. 

I arrive in Kyoto around 11.30am and decide to brave the luggage delivery service. For Y750 (~$9) per piece, you can have your luggage delivered direct from Kyoto station to your hotel. I am a little concerned when there are no English speaking staff available, but I think me and the guy who served me had quite a worthwhile conversation (no Japanese from me and no English from him) so I hope my luggage will turn up to the right place.

I grab some sandwiches from the station before boarding another train, this one to Inari, about two stops out of Kyoto.  My plan for today is to climb a mountain – Fushimi Inari – half way if that’s what I can manage, all the way if my hard efforts over the last six months have paid off.

“In any part of Japan, you’re all but certain to come across an Inari Shrine. you’ll recognise it instantly by the pair of stone fox statues that are stood guard either side of the entrance or main torii – the particularly ‘oriental’ – looking couple of pillars (commonly painted red or orange at an Inari shrine) that are joined at the top by two cross pieces. So, what exactly is Inari, and what’s with the stone foxes? The first thing you need to know is that Inari is the kami (or god) or rice. Therefore, keeping Inari happy is pretty darned important to the Japanese, given that rice is an absolute staple of most meals. In times gone by, a successful rice harvest made the difference between survival and starvation. It had the same importance to the Japanese as a good potato crop had to the Irish. But what about Inari him-, her- or (and I mean this with the utmost respect) itself? Can we put a face to the name? Well, in this case it just so happens that we can, although when it comes to many Shinto kami, you won’t always be so fortunate. Inari is commonly depicted in one of two ways: either ‘he’ is an elderly man, usually bearded and carrying a couple of bundles of rice, or else ‘she’ is – and here I quote my Buddhist head-priest brother-in-law – ‘a beautiful fox-faced young woman’. Next question: what’s with the foxes? Well, foxes are good for the rice harvest, y’see – they eat other animals that would otherwise damage it, like field mice and birds. In fact, a long, long time ago, a group of foxes went to see Inari to pledge themselves as his servants. I can only imagine that working for a kami was a hell of a lot more exciting than scratching around in dustbins at one in the morning. ‘Keep an eye on the rice crop,’ Inari told them, so that’s just what they’ve been doing ever since.”
 
“A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan”, Ben Stevens

See – it is cold!

This is where I manage to hit my first hitch with the trains, ending up on one that may be a direct train insted of the one I wanted, cause it doesn’t stop at Inari. Realising after about 15 minutes that I probably should have arrived 7 minutes ago, I jump off the train and catch one back the other way, this time to the right stop.

As soon as you pass through the station gates, you can tell you have arrived at the shrine, as a striking massive red torii gate greets you. There are all sorts of shops selling offerings and trinkets along the entrance way. 

Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto.  In fact, it is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.  It’s famous for its 4km hike through 1,300 vermillion torii gates, which lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari.  And there are statues of foxes EVERYWHERE!  Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in the many fox statues across the shrine grounds.  It takes about 1 hour to climb to the apex, but the view is spectacular.  And you can stop at any point along the way and turn back.  The halfway point is the Yotsutsuji Intersection, where you can also stop for a rest.

 

Front entry to Fushimi Inari Taisha
The view from half way at the Yotsutsuji Intersection

 

The vermillion torii gates that line the way – they have been donated by companies and individuals over time
 
Beautiful Autumn leaves

 

I’m glad its really cold here, because it’s hard work climbing the mountain and I’m down to a t-shirt. All the Japanese I see climbing the steps have jackets on and I can’t understand why – it’s hot work!

There are little restaurants along the way so you can stop and take a drink or some food and there’s lots of places to stop and rest also. In fact some of the little restaurants look stunning, they have little rooms with huge windows where you can sit and take tea.

But I don’t have time cause I’ve got a task to complete – I want to get to the top of the mountain. As mentioned, it is hard work and I have to stop to take small breathers (I mean photos!), after a couple of hard sections of stairs, but finally, I see it – a sign indicating the top of the mountain. I’ve made it!

TOP of the MOUNTAIN!

Task complete, I wander down the Omotesando, which is a little street full of souvenir and food shops, browsing before hopping back on the train to Kyoto.

I’ve read several times that first impressions of Kyoto can be something of an anticlimax. With everything you hear, read and see of Kyoto in movies, when you first step out of Kyoto station and into the streets for the first time and gazing around at the concrete around you, you are likely to feel that all you’ve heard and read about Kyoto is just so much tourist-literature hype. Thinking back, this is exactly how I felt the first time I visited Kyoto. Although we found lots of spots that were just beautiful and traditional, I guess I was expecting the whole of Kyoto to feel the way I’d imagined it.  The advice is to be patient, for the beauty of Kyoto is hidden from casual view behind walls, doors, curtains and façades. But if you take a little time to explore, you will discover that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of pockets of incredible beauty scattered across the city.  And, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

So instead of catching the subway, I decide to walk to my hotel. It’s quite a walk after the mountain, but it’s a good way to get my bearings.  Kyoto is actually quite easy to get around as it’s laid out in a grid pattern.

I check into the Hotel Gimmond when I arrive, and I’m glad to find my luggage has preceded me – gotta love Japan! The room is small, but really, what do you need – just a bed at the end of the night.

I quickly change and head out to the streets with enthusiasm. It doesn’t take long before I start to wane, but I hit the Nishiki Markets, which is where I wanted to have a browse to try and stock up on some fruit.

 

Nishiki Market is a narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants.  Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this lively market specialises in all things food relate – fresh seafood, produce, knives and cookware, and is a great place ot find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties, such as sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.

Some of the shops freely give out samples or sell sample dishes and skewers meant to be eaten then and there. There are also a few small restaurants and food stands selling ready-made food. The market has a history of several centuries, and many stores have been operated by the same families for generations.  So I stock up on fruit – lovely looking bananas, an apply and beautiful strawberries – and then decide to head back to the hotel.  Besides, it’s 5pm and rather dark now!

  
My original plan was to head for the night time illuminations at Kyomizudera Temple, but that will have to wait until another night – I’m just exhausted, I’ve left my glasses back at the hotel and my feet just won’t carry me anymore.
 
Despite my best intentions to eat only Japanese in Japan, I decide to head to the Italian restaurant, Daniel Bella Rosa’s, in the hotel lobby for dinner and a glass or two of red.  It’s a plan that pays off – I order a prawn and mushroom past with my red and it’s divine.  A perfect serving and it tasted awesome.  A great end to a successful day!
 

But I’d have to say, the highlight of the day would have to be whilst I’m showering and suddenly notice this sign….welcome to Japan.

 
 

Just Me in Japan – Arriving in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday 21 November 2012

It’s just dawned 21 November 2012, and I’m sitting here at the airport waiting to board my flight, a total bundle of nerves. I have been for the last week, and as anyone who knows me can attest, it’s always this way.

I’m worried I’ll miss my connecting flight in Singapore, worried I’ll miss the train station closing hours at Narita and worried I won’t be able to get back to the airport early enough in the morning to catch my train, but before that, I’ve still got to even board the plane and endure the first 5 hours of flying.

I manage to score a row of three seats to myself, which is awesome, cause I can’t explain how tired I am. I manage to sleep about 3/4 of the way there.

A beautiful sunrise dawns as the plane descends into Singapore and it seems so strange to only be spending a couple of hours in the airport instead of staying in this country I love so much.

The flight to Narita is pretty full, in fact Narita is only it stopover for after it drops me off, it is to continue it’s way onto L.A. My seat is supposed to be ‘squashed’ in between two others, but as luck would have it, the third person in our row doesn’t turn up and so we have a spare seat in the middle which provides a bit of breathing space.

It’s already dark when we land at Narita, even though it’s not quite 5pm. We decend from the air to the tones of saxophone-drenched christmas carols. After clearing immigration and customs and collecting my luggage, I head to the basement of the airport to organise my train tickets to Kyoto for tomorrow. The office isn’t that busy and I am able to book the tickets with ease. Now, all I want is dinner and a good sleep (as opposed to one with my head wedged against the side of the plane window!).

View of Narita Airport from my hotel room
I step outside Narita airport and boy is it freezing! It’s about 10 degrees, and is reminiscent of my last trip here and the day that Mum and I tried to go to Mt Fuji. A pure, plain cold. I wait a little while for the hotel shuttle bus, glad for my hat and scarf. All I can see of Narita is overpasses and flyovers but exploring Narita will hsve to wait until next week.
I arrive at the Narita Tobu Hotel and check in with no worries. The hotel also is ready for christmas with a nativity scene out the front. The hotel is nothing special, but for the $80 I paid for the room, it is well worth it. The room is large and clean, featuring the obligatory heated toilet seat, and a large window with a view of the airport (which I cannot hear at all!). I potter around the hotel, grabbing a beer and some snacks for tomorrow (~600yen or ~$7 for a large (600mL?) beer, 500mL water and an “English Muffin” for breakfast), and send off a quick email home.
My Ham English Muffin
Hmmm, not ham – but something like a chickeny, mayonaise, spiced sauce concoction – not bad!
 
Today has gone better than I imagined (panicked?) it would go. I wonder what tomorrow will hold?