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Published: August 17th 2006
We arrived in Tokyo on the 1st August, with a quick transfer in Hong Kong on the way. We had already booked a hotel on line, opting for a one in the area known as Shinjuku, the heart of modern Tokyo, where the nightlife, red light district, and shopping is centred. It cost a bit more than the less central hotels, but was obviously better situated for checking out the city at night. On the first night however we just went to sleep as we didn’t make it to the hotel till after midnight.
The next day was a bit of an organisation mission, deciding on an itinerary for our travels, so reading the guide, checking out dates for festivals and travel time etc we came up with a plan. Then it was off to brave the chaos of the train station to organise our Japan Rail Pass and book all the tickets to where we wanted to go. With all the signs in Japanese, and lots of hectic commuters running around it did fell a bit like being in the centre of a storm, spotting the odd other ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) looking as bewildered as us. Just walking into a
café in the station was funny, as all the staff seemed to be shouting out information in what sounded such a strange language to us. Bowing after buying your sandwich was also going to take a bit of getting used to. Even though the city was very ‘western’, or modern, it definitely seemed like we had entered a culture different to anywhere else we had been before. Naturally it was pretty exciting. Later that night we went back out but the streets were hardly any darker for all the neon lights. I went straight into the Yodobashi centre, a famous camera/computer store checking out all the wonderful techno gear I can’t afford. A bit more strolling took us to the ‘pink clubs’, where there were lots of strip clubs and other entertainment on offer, alongside designer stores, but unfortunately it’s pretty expensive, whichever your fancy! One funny thing we both noticed were the fashion trends. Particularly weird is the ‘baby-doll’ look. There are actually teenage or twenty something girls walking around the streets dressed as a cross between a doll and Heidi, with the dyed blond hair in pig tails and a sort of frilly baby ‘pinafore’ dresses. That with
yes i get bored of thinking up titles for the photos...
all the other weird and wonderful mixed fashions made for some pretty entertaining people watching.
The next day was pretty much the same, except we went for a walk to a local park which had nice oriental gardens, and our first temple sightings. Still getting our footing, and not being the bravest at trying new foods, I’m embarrassed to admit I persuaded Ruth to come to a Mac Donalds with me. Like many people I curse their omnipresent existence around the globe, but a full belly was my main desire at the time. The local restaurants also seemed a little intimidating, behind closed doors and without English menus. However even in Mac Donalds we got a bow upon receiving our burgers.
On the 4th August we got on our first ‘Shinkansen’ train (bullet train), leaving as expected on time to the second, heading for Hiroshima (pronounced Heerosheema here). It took about 4 hours, and arriving in Hiroshima we got our first and last taxi in Japan, as it was so expensive. On the way to the hotel, or ‘Ryokan’ (traditional Japanese style inn with tatami floor mats, which you sleep on), we passed a convoy of black buses
blaring out messages from their on board speakers, a group of Japanese nationalists who apparently want Japan to return to its old more isolated self, as I’d learnt from the internet. This was our first Japanese style room, and though it was fun it felt a bit of a rip off to be paying around £40 for a room with a couple of thin mattresses folded up in the corner, for you to sleep on. It was very basic but it had air conditioning and given the heat and humidity that was all that we really required.
Later after cooling down a bit we made our way to the Peace Memorial Park, and the ‘Flame of Peace’, which unfortunately will no doubt be burning for many years yet, as it will only be put out when there are no more nuclear weapons on Earth. Across the river from the park we also looked at the A-Bomb dome, a building which survived the nuclear bomb, as it was nearly directly below it, and is now preserved as a memorial to that dreadful day, August 6 1945. There were already lots of people around, and the place was getting busy in
preparation for the memorial service to be held in a couple of days time. There were lots of displays depicting what happened, much of it naturally condemning the American attack, depicting their war crimes, like how they shot civilians trying to escape, so it was pretty moving, though a little bias, given the atrocities that were committed by all nations involved in the war. In the museum we went to later it had a much more balanced description of events, condemning not just the horrific bombing of Japan, but also the Japanese Imperialism that instigated such harsh retaliation.
The next day we got a train to Miyajima, about an hour away, and then a ferry across to the island, site of a famous torii gate, a Shinto gate through which all people visiting the island previously had to pass (no commoners were allowed back then as the island was considered holy). It was nice to be out site seeing as we had done little in the Philippines, and we spent a few hours wandering around the port, looking at a nice pagoda, a few temples, and the obligatory souvenir shops. That evening, after returning back to Hiroshima, Ruth had
decided it was time to brave some Japanese cuisine, and we headed into a local style food mall. Sitting on stalls with the locals, around a hot iron plate counter, the chef cooked your order in front of you, which for us was the local speciality, okonomiyaki, a pancake stuffed with noodles, bacon, egg bean sprouts and veg. Washed down with a lovely local draft beer it was very tasty and great fun, though I need a bit more practice with the old chopsticks before I’ll be catching flies Mr. Miyagi style.
August 6th, the anniversary of the bombing, we went to the Peace Park again, where they were packing up the chairs from the mornings speeches, but it was still really busy. In the evening we returned to sit by the river bank and watch as many people lit lanterns to be floated down the river, in memory of someone or as a wish for better times. Anyone could buy their own lantern, but enquiring if the money went to a charity, which it seems it wasn’t, we didn’t bother. It seemed a bit ridiculous that someone was making a profit out of the whole ceremony (though I’m
and they say size isn't important...
not positive about this, the chap selling them simply replied he didn’t know where the profit went). It was nice though watching the lanterns float by, and attempting to photograph them. There was more expensive camera gear on show in one place than I’d ever seen before.
On August 7th we got back on the super trains and headed back up towards Tokyo, into the mountains to a place called Nagano. Our room was in another Ryokan, a place called Shimizuya Ryokan, which ended up being our favourite of all the places we stayed in Japan. It was owned by an elderly couple who were really friendly, and bought us some Japanese green tea to our room, which we had around the typical low table in our room.
The next day we went and checked out a lovely temple in the town, with lots of Buddhas outside, including one holding a baby which was a first for me. That night we went to another Japanese restaurant, this time opting for pork and noodles in a thick broth. Fortunately the restaurants often have plastic replicas of the food they have on offer displayed in their window, or pictures on
the menu, so you just point at it and hope for the best, not sure what exactly you are going to get. Though at first it was tasty, and the atmosphere of the restaurant fun, it soon became pretty greasy and fatty so it was something we weren’t going to order again.
August 9th we headed off for a day trip to the famous wild monkey park (Jigokudani Yaen-Koen), where the local monkeys have taken to relaxing in the onsen (hot springs) as the humans do. Having seen them on National Geographic it had always been on our intended list of Japan, and it was really entertaining watching them fight and play, as they were completely unconcerned about our presence. It didn’t quite have the setting of the famous pictures, taken in winter with a layer of snow, but was still an enjoyable challenge to try and get one in a good frame and focus. We were also lucky in our timing, arriving as the keeper gave them some food, thrown into the onsen so the tourists could watch them go for a swim. In a revealing parallel to human behaviour perhaps, at times of plenty, when the food
was there, they all got really aggressive, chasing each other over bits of apple, screaming and howling and fronting each other. By the time we left an hour later, when all the food was gone, a peace had descended and they were all busy grooming each other, as if to apologise for the previous outbursts, making friends again!
August 10th we left for a place called Takayama, stopping on the way at Matsumoto, where there is an old Samurai castle, one of the four remaining ones in their original wooden form. It was perhaps the most interesting building for me, something out of a Kurosawa film, where you could walk up through to the 6th floor, imagining all the samurai running around within back in the 16th century. On the ground level there was also a ‘moon-viewing’ platform, added on later in more peaceful times, and surrounding it a moat filled with carp.
After our stop there we continued on to Takayama, a town famous for its remaining old wooden merchant houses, in the classic Japanese style with all the latticed windows, and Japanese signs out front. It was a very pleasant place to stroll around, though there
were far more tourists here than anywhere else we’d been. It is also famous for having the best beef in Japan, and that evening we splashed out on a dinner where they bring a hot coal grill to your table, and we cooked the tender meat, dipping it in a soy type sauce, mixing it with rice and veg., all very tasty, but rather expensive for us.
The next morning we got up in time to catch the end of the morning markets, and strolled around some of the wonderful shops. In one art shop the price of the paintings was marked with a 20 or 30, followed by a Japanese character. The owner didn’t speak English, so I was guessing it was 30,000 yen (£145), but to make sure I copied the symbol and asked the lady downstairs who spoke English. Turns out the character was a million yen, so the simple paintings a mere £145,000. Not buying one of those then! They really did have some beautiful things, Japanese screens, antique wall hangings and tea sets, but there seemed little middle ground, it was either really pricey, or tacky souvenir.
On August 12th we were on
the move again, this time to Kyoto, a modern large city with over a couple of thousand temples or shrines interspersed throughout its centre and suburbs, so largely considered a must for anyone going to Japan. Arriving at the station there was a lot of commotion and a crowd gathering, around a man threatening to jump from a high ledge as it turned out. Moving quickly on, after taking the obligatory photo like everyone else watching, including a television crew, in macabre fascination (will he or won’t he?), we checked into our Ryokan. The room was really tiny, (it was the only one available as it was Japanese Buddhist holiday and Kyoto was busy), with barely enough room for us and our luggage, and the owner, though friendly in a way, had a really bossy nature. There were also lots of rules for those staying, including the frustrating fact that everyone had to be out of their room from 10.00 a.m. until 3.00 p.m., the hottest part of the day.
That evening we took a walk to the famous area of Gion, which in previous centuries was the scene of many pleasure houses and Geisha wondering the streets. There
are still some around and we were hoping to spot one, but had no luck that night. It reminded me of doing a tiger safari in India, though this time it was an urban jungle and the rare species everyone wanted to spot of course the Geisha. Still there some lovely old narrow streets, full of exclusive and expensive old restaurants and tea houses, and of course lots of red lanterns and Japanese signs.
The next day we went and checked out one of the most famous temples in Japan, known as the Golden Temple (or Kinkaku-ji in Japanese). Unfortunately it started raining when we were there but it was still very beautiful. In the evening we had booked to go to Gion Corner, a show put on for tourists which gives you a crash course in various aspects of Japanese heritage and ceremony, like flower arranging, tea ceremony, harp playing, Maiko dancing (apprentice Geisha), a comic play and a puppet play. Noisy Italians in the back row were a bit off putting, and though it was very touristy it certainly gave us an idea of what it must have been like (and still is in diminishing circumstance). On
the way there we went for a quick wander around prime Geisha spotting streets, and this time were fortunate enough to spot one. Asking to take a photo, she politely said no, but her patron for the evening quickly said something to her in Japanese, and then told me to go ahead, so I got the shot I wanted of a genuine posing Geisha. Arigato and a bow from me! A nice noodle, pork, bean sprout dinner with the locals and then back to our box room in the Ryokan.
On the 14th August, we got our last bullet train back to Tokyo, checking into the same hotel in Shinjuku, where with the free internet access in the room we spent half of the day trying to organise our upcoming trip to Hong Kong and China. Finishing off our online booking and research on the 15th, in the evening we had our last meal in a boisterous and atmospheric Izakaya, a Japanese style pub.
On the 16th August we had to get up early to make it to Narita Airport in time for our flight to Hong Kong.
I had always been looking forward to coming to
Japan, something about the culture and the history mixed with the modern aspects, and though some things were pretty expensive, (the worst deal we experienced being a bunch of grapes for £17 - which we promptly returned for a refund!), the costs were generally pretty comparable with England. We both really enjoyed it and it would be great to return sometime and check out other areas of the country with more money and more time.
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