After saying our farewells to Brian at Matsumoto Backpackers, we head to the train station to catch our Limited Express train back to Tokyo for our final three days in Japan. On the way we have more great views of Mount Fuji – though this time it has much more snow on its peak. The scenery changes from lovely lush hillsides and valleys to flatter land with more settlements and industry. Japan’s countryside is definitely more interesting for us than the cities.
We are staying again at Asakusa Toukaisou Ryokan for 1 night (room not quite so nice this time) before moving across to a hostel, Khaosan Tokyo Kabuki, for the last 2 nights, where we have a nice en-suite room on the 4th floor (with a lift thankfully!). The staff are very bubbly and helpful here though we find the atmosphere not the same as other hostels for some reason. Unfortunately they also have problems with their Wi-fi which is a pain as we have loads of stuff to finish before heading to the Philippines.
We’re lucky with the weather over these few days – it turns out warmer and sunnier than forecast which
makes a pleasant change. So we finally get to see Sensoji Temple which is right next to us in Asakusa. As its sunny and Golden week (holiday time in Japan) it’s packed! But in some ways this adds to the experience as there’s a real festive feel. The temple complex is much bigger than we realised – we’d seen the 5 storey pagoda and Kamarimon gate, but there are several shrines, smaller temples, gardens and away from the main event it’s quite peaceful.
We also go for another wander around Ueno Park, It’s very different from the last time, now that all the cherry blossom has finished. As it looks like it’s about to rain we decide to walk quickly back to Asakusa via Shitaya Shrine near Inaricho Metro station and notice that all the shops along this main road are selling small shrines and religious artefacts; Y90,000 for a small wooden shrine for the home – wow.
Last time we were here the Sky Tree Tower was generally in cloud but this time as it’s sunny we go there twice (once using the free Hop on Hop off Panda Bus operating in the district) – not up
the tower though (too busy and expensive) but to the Town shopping mall at the bottom which has loads of eateries and souvenir shops. The Tower itself is vast looking up at it from the ground – and pretty impressive. As we’re taking photos, virtually lying on the ground to get it all in, a local guy lends M his fancy wide angle lens. The Japanese really do go for it on the generosity stakes! The main draw for us though is Kua ‘Aina (Hawaiian Burger joint made famous by Obama eating at their branch in Hawaii). Their avocado burger is awesome even if expensive (Y1080). They apparently operate in London now as well. The walk back by the river is very pleasant on a lovely sunny day.
The other big sight we hadn’t visited last time was Meiji Jingu Shrine near Harajuku, the biggest in Tokyo. According to Shinto tradition & belief the souls of the Emperor & his wife are here. When we visit, there are also the living souls of several thousand grockles (tourists)!! It’s packed. It’s also wedding season and we see four wedding groups just in the hour or so while we are there.
It’s a nice place to visit in large parkland grounds though the shrine itself is fairly simple.
We then go for another spell of people watching in Harajuku as this is the high fashion area where the young Japanese strut their stuff in clothes that vary from chic to frothy to downright bizarre! We also can’t believe that there is a queue of young kids round the block for the latest craze – Chicago’s Garrett’s Sweet popcorn. They have been waiting for at least ½ hour we guess. This could only happy here!
The other piece of news we pick up – rather random really, is that Japan and Russia have never really signed an agreement to say that WWII has ended between them. The Russians actually still occupy 3 Japanese islands in the north – weird or what!
Somehow, Tokyo doesn’t quite seem the glittering place we thought it was when we first arrived here. Perhaps it was the total contrast with India and being a new and different place made it seem slicker, cleaner etc. In fact it has all the issues of any big city including smelly drains when it gets hot, miserable people,
mad cyclists etc.
Or perhaps we have just had enough of Japan! We even struggle to find food we can really enjoy – there’s only so much Sushi and Noodles one can eat. We go back to a noodle place we had enjoyed first time around, and it seems quite ordinary this time round. So we end up going for beef and chicken Doner kebabs for lunch (nuts or what!) just for something different – served with oodles of yoghurt and chilli sauce which made it tasty but messy to eat, followed by Baskin and Robbins ice cream – Strawberry Cheesecake & Jamoca Almond Fudge – not as good as in London (tasted like rubbery gooey mush says M).
For our final night we had planned to have a splurge at one of the fancy joints in town. But we can’t quite muster the enthusiasm so end up at Matsu ya – one of the cheapest chain restaurants in Japan after a few sakes back at the hostel! Rice with chicken and a spicy beef; pretty good actually. Nikko – another Unesco world heritage site
Our plans for our last few days in Japan had included
a visit to Nikko, about 2 hours by train north of Tokyo. It apparently has some beautiful shrines and temples, as well as the famous red bridge that features on LP’s front cover. It is also a Unesco world heritage site. We didn’t make it!
We’d heard that the main temple (Rinno-ji) was under reconstruction though the fabulous Toshu–gu and Futurasan shrines meant it was still worth visiting. But just as we completed the credit card transaction for the tickets (Y7200 for the day return) C spotted a small sign saying renovation works had started on Toshu-gu in April’13 for 6 years! The staff at the Tobu line office seemed surprised that we wouldn’t want to go and see a sight where 2 of the main events were covered up!! Oh well, freed up another day to relax. Hakone
Before we left Tokyo the first time around we had bought a 2 day Heritage Pass on the Odakyu Line (Y5000 each) to visit Hakone. This is a huge area – almost a theme park but much more natural, where you can go for great views of Mount Fuji – if the clouds permit! We hadn’t realised we’d
get such good views from our train to Nagasaki and from Matsumoto or we might not have come here.
We start out at 8.30 am from the hostel, to catch the train at Shinjuku to Odawara (2 hours). It’s good to get out of Tokyo & into the countryside but unfortunately the clouds are against us so we spend almost 11 hours on effectively a travel marathon (Hakone is also famous for having myriad forms of transport to get around) with only the slightest of glimpses of Mount Fuji! So the day goes something like this: local train to Hakone Yumoto (20mins) from Odawara, bus up the mountain and down the other side to the Lake side at Moto Hakone-Ko (30 mins), grab some lunch – BBQ squid – then cross Lake Ashi in a mock Pirate frigate to Togendai-Ko (30 mins), then onto a ropeway passing Owakudani which has Volcanic steam coming out all over the place (30 mins), cable car to Gora (10 mins) and finally switch back train back to Hakone – Yumoto (40 mins).
The scenery is lovely but by this time we are ready to get home asap so we pay for an
upgrade to the Romance car (no idea why it’s called this!) only to find M has a seat at the front of the train and C at the back. Hey ho. We eventually get back to the hostel at 7-30 pm - Knackered.
M is convinced that Japan has a Civil Servant who has the knack of applying for Unesco world heritage status as now Mt Fuji apparently is going to be added to the list of the places in Japan with this status!! Or they have a guy at Unesco on the take or afraid of the Yakuza! We are not sure any other country has as many approved sites and as we have said before – some of these designations are definitely questionable – in our humble view.
And so we get to our final day in Japan. After some last minute sight-seeing and shopping we get the train to Narita airport (Y1240 per person – about 50 mins). Terminal 2 is pretty quiet considering this is peak holiday time. We head for gate 88 by shuttle train to catch our Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur where unfortunately the weather isn’t too promising so we’ll
have a long wait (13 hours) to negotiate the best we can. A few random observations on the Japanese way of life and some oddities for us
We discover that most things are presented in 3 languages – Japanese, Korean and Chinese and if you are lucky English.There are 3 main convenience store chains in Japan – 7 Eleven, Lawson station/store and Family Mart, which are pretty useful in an emergency but their food sucks and their prices are more expensive than department store supermarkets.The Japanese love their trainers. It’s really odd to see toddlers, school kids, business men and very smartly dressed parents all wearing trainers with their very smart (even silk) and expensive clothes at weekends.Japan is definitely a country which stands out in our mind for its Design & Engineering capabilities - from the smallest convenience item to major infrastructure projects – they have great design and engineering solutions, no question. (Though C still doesn’t get the need for heated toilet seats).We definitely marvelled at their patience and ability to wait (forever it seemed sometimes) for the traffic lights to change to allow pedestrians to cross a
road. However, by the time of our leaving we did wonder how many hours of their lives people queued to cross in their life time; we found it pretty tedious when there was no traffic in either direction for a mile but people were compliant with the signs. We noticed that in smaller towns and rural areas, jay walking was more common and we took to this by the last week of our trip – we confess!The plastic representation of their food dishes in eateries are quite authentic looking and displayed outside with prices so deciding on food that they specialise in makes it easier to order, though many have English menus with pictures and prices.The eateries provide hand towels (wet wipes in wrappers) to wash your hands with before meals, and cold water (with ice) to drink free everywhere.They have Coin Lockers at all stations – bus or train of varying sizes for Y300 or Y600. They even have them near shopping Malls and at most main attractions. Very efficient, clean and neat – we used on once and it was a relief rather than carry our stuff around with us on a day trip to
Takayama.By and large it is very unusual to see any graffiti around the main cities though we did see some outside Osaka & in some of the rural areas but mainly on commercial or derelict sites away from the towns and villages.Unusually all Hostels provide everything including free Coffee, Tea, shampoo, soap, hairdryer, cooking area, some basic free cooking stuff (oil/Soy) etc but no towels which you can hire for Y50 to 100. All have Wi-Fi.In some ways we feel that the Cities & Towns reflect the Japanese character – very calm, cool, reserved and reverent (almost dull) on the outside but totally different on the inside - colourful, passionate, fiery etc. We do wonder how much their complex religious Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and losing in 2 world wars impact on the Japanese psyche? Their history is full of Shoguns and Samurai as heroes or villains and constant civil wars. Also they had wars with many neighbours and finally their WW experiences – which they didn’t have to be involved in at all – all of which demonstrates a warrior type of characteristic. Now they come across completely the opposite to this; quiet, courteous, respectful, helpful,
and compliant. Interesting generational shift or is this just a façade as they literally fight tooth and nail to retain whale fishing for instance?!Shintoism is an interesting way of life, with various rituals and beliefs – being passive and respectful of all living things which the majority of the Japanese follow. It’s not a religion as such and no one knows who started it etc. However, it is very powerful in the Japanese way of life.
Finally, at this point we feel pretty tired of travelling Japan for a variety of reasons. Maybe as a friend said to us before we came that it’s all very nice but it lacks a bit of edge, which sort of sums it up for us. The countryside areas have been the best. Tokyo has a lot of variety, Kyoto was fine in parts – perhaps we had too high expectations of it as friends and locals all commended it. However, we believe we are ready to move on – Manila and the Philippines will definitely be a total contrast. Farewell Japan………….and Kumusta Philippines!!!
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