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Asia » Japan
October 12th 2010
Published: October 17th 2010
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The latest instalment of our blog comes from Japan, a place of extraordinary contrasts and completely different from any of our previous destinations. One of the things that is likely to prove most memorable is the friendliness of the people and (refreshingly) their courtesy and respect for one another. Here people queue patiently for public transport (and do not use their mobiles whilst on board), wait for the green man to cross the road, greet and thank customers profusely for visiting their cafe or shop and smoke publicly in designated smoking zones. At the same time, they are incredibly into their fashion (for those who are interested, Chanel-esque jackets, trenka leggings and shorts are big news for the ladies, teamed with the ubiquitous LV, Prada or Coach handbag - while boyband hair and shiny suits seemed to be doing it for the men...at least in Osaka!). They also know how to let their hair down and enjoy a very diverse range of food, drink and entertainment.

From our monastry in Koya-san, to a world of pachinko and giant crabs in Osaka, public bathing in Hakone to narrow streets and geisha in Gion, we have had an awesome time!

Sunday 3 October

We arrived tired and jet-lagged at Narita International Airport with a 5 hour journey to Osaka still ahead of us. We weren't quite sure what to expect in terms of how easy it would be to travel within Japan, but were pleasantly surprised. Aside from the Narita Express train into Tokyo, which is obviously tourist-friendly, we found generally during our trip that most modes of public transport contain plenty of information in English and travelling around is straighforward so long as you know which line you need.

Anyway, back to our first day. Once we had picked up the Japan Rail Passes we had booked in advance, we hopped on board the shinkansen "bullet train" for our first experience of superlative Japanese efficiency, arriving at Shin-Osaka station mid-afternoon before making our way to our hotel in the Namba entertainment area (not far from the famous Dotombori Street which supposedly inspired parts of the film "Blade Runner") with a little help in negotiating the subway from an English-speaking ticket inspector. To brave the rain we decided to hail a cab from Namba subway station and were unexpectedly paid for the ride by our inept (but very pleasant) taxi driver who thought we had given him a 2,000 yen note rather than a 1,000, giving us approx 1,500 in change! As they don't tip in Japan, when Simon tried to explain the error, he brushed him away and jumped back in the cab.

We didn't venture far for dinner but managed to find a little place close-by, where we perused the plastic food models outside, before selecting our meals using a vending machine and then waiting to be poured green tea at our table. Feeling worn-out from out journey, we made it an early night - switching the Japanese beanbag-type pillows on our bed (Alex described the beans as "gravel") for the westener-friendly soft ones in the wardrobe.

Monday 4 October

After a few sleepless hours overnight, we ventured out down Dotombori Street mid-morning following breakfast at the hotel. Simon tasted some tako-yaki - battered octopus balls, a specialty of Osaka - with his, but Alex found it a bit early for such an experimental assault on her palate. Craving a decent hot drink to give us a well-needed caffeine hit, we made an early stop for some interesting people-watching at Starbucks across the road from one of the many giant crabs marking a seafood restaurant and then meandered through the endless covered arcades in the direction of Umeda. Here we decided to ascend the Sky Tower, wandering into a lift on the 3rd floor (where we were expecting to pay for the privilege) and unexpectedly shooting up 173m to the top in a glass elevator - leading to a touch of vertigo for both of us! On the observation level, we walked the ring suspended between the two towers with stunning panoramic views across Osaka and towards Kobe.

We returned to the hotel in the early evening to meet our tour guide for the next 9 days, Steve, and our Gap Adventures group: Suzanne and Nishma, from Leicester and London respectively, Sinead from Dublin, Lorraine and Jennifer from Boston, Massachusetts, Tim, Erich and Peggy from Newcastle (Aus), Brisbane and Melbourne respectively and Natalie from Switzerland. The final member of our group, Brandon (from LA) was late arriving to the hotel and so we didn't meet him on the first night. His tardiness was not to prove out of character - see further below.

After a brief introduction to our tour and filling out a couple of forms, Steve took us back down Dotombori, pointing out the celebrated "Glico Man" before shepharding us into one of the many Izakayas (pub eateries) for an enjoyable, if overpriced, evening meal - once an unexpected 5,000 yen (approx £35) table tax had been slapped on the bill. Steve had left us at this point to go and make our tour shinkansen reservations, so with that sinking feeling that comes at the end of a group meal when the pot doesn't quite tally, we were left to fend for ourselves in trying to sort it out with the waitress.

Tuesday 5 October

Beginning to get over our jet-lag, we made one of many early starts decreed by Steve the next morning to get to our monastry in Koya-san, a few hours from Osaka by subway, rail, funicular and bus. Some group members took the option of sending most of their luggage direct to Hiroshima, as quite a bit of bag carrying was involved! However, the journey itself was pleasant enough and allowed the group further opportunity to get to know each other.

On arrival at Koya-san, we checked into the Sekishoin monastry/ryokan (temple lodgings) and had a delicous noodle/rice cake lunch before setting out on foot to visit the nearby Kongobuji temple, the headquarters of Koya-san Shingon-shu Buddhism. The Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism (one of the major sects of Buddhism, which is practised by most Japanese alongside Shinto) was founded by Kobo Daishi (or Kukai), who established a religious community in Koya-san as early as 804. Kongobuji contained our first experiences of the beautiful screen door paintings which feature in many temples (unfortunately, photography of these was generally prohibited), a zen garden (apparently the largest in Japan) and some of the rituals practised by those on pilgrimmage, such as hand and mouth washing at the main entrance and stepping over the wooden base of the gate, in order to avoid letting in evil spirits (an example of an element of cross-over between the Buddhist and Shinto faiths). After exploring the temple, we were served green tea and rice cakes, before making our way down the road to the Garan complex comprising several several halls and pagodas, including Dai-to (the Great Pagoda), which is said to be the centre of the lotus-flower mandala formed by the eight mountains around Koya-san. Here we tried our luck on a giant rotating wheel beneath a small pagoda - said to give good luck to travellers if they can complete a revolution, which we just about managed en masse!

Returning to our temple lodgings, we changed into yukata (light kimono) supplied in our rooms and rested before dinner, which consisted of shojin-ryori, the local culinary speciality of Koya-san. It's fair to say that the cold vegetarian dishes with different types of tofu challenged most of the group's taste-buds, but Sinead found the going particularly tough and went through several bowls of rice without feeling able to sample more than one or two of the dozen or more dishes on offer.

After dinner, Simon and I took a short night stroll in the nearby and atmospheric Oku-No-In Cemetery where Kobo Daishi is said to be "meditating" in his tomb. However, not having taken a torch, we didn't get too far as even though lit at regular intervals by lamps, it was pretty spooky! Others in the group decided to sample the small on-site Onsen (public bathing).

Wednesday 6 October

We rose at around 5.45am to pack in time to join the monks for their morning prayer - along with a throng of Japanese on pilgrimmage who thankfully seemed to understand a lot more about what was going on than we did (it involved plenty of incense and chanting). After this we had breakfast, which seemed to consist of broadly the same fare we had had the night before. It was a bit early for Alex's sensitive stomach (she was missing her shreddies), but Simon managed to polish most of it off. Sinead and Nishma didn't make it at all...

After a brief wander round the Cemetery by daylight, we returned to Osaka the same way we came and made a swift change onto the shinkansen to travel to Hiroshima for the next leg of our trip. After checking into our hotel near the station we went for a brief look around Hiroshima-Jo (castle), which was originally constructed in 1589 - the current version having been rebuilt in 1958 following total destruction by the A-bomb on 6 August 1945. Alex managed to leave her camera there (leading to much anxiety later in the evening before a relieved retrieval mission the following morning).

After the castle, we browsed the commercial hub of the city and then joined the group for a delicious supper of okonomiyaki, said to be the Japanese version of pizza, where pancakes were made in front of us on a tepan grill then filled with vegetables and pork before being drizzled in soy sauce - yum!

Thursday 7 October

After retrieving Alex's camera and thanking our stars for Japanese honesty, we rejoined the group at the A-Bomb Dome. Built in 1915 it served as a municipal building until the bomb exploded almost directly above it. Because of this, essentially giving it some protection from the huge outforce and then subsequent inforce of the blast, it was one of very few buildings left standing anywhere near the hypocentre - although we were told that another building we could see nearby had also survived, along with a man who had been working there that morning! Extraordinary. He had been in the basement looking for something and was shielded by the concrete from the 3000+ degree heatwaves pulsing above.

At 9.30am we met our guide Michiko Yamaoka, a volunteer whose mother survived the bomb and who now takes visitors around the site in her honour - her mother is now 90 or so years old and so can be forgiven for no longer being up to the task. Michiko gave us a potted history of what had happened (in the knowledge that we would next visit the Peace Memorial Museum), showing us the T-shaped "target bridge" over the river alongside the A-Bomb Dome, the site of the hypocentre, where the bomb exploded approx 600m above ground-level and some nearby granite gravestones which bear the mark of survival, with rough and smooth sides evidencing the direction of the heatwaves, which melted certain minerals within.

After speaking to Michiko, we were also given the opportunity to meet Mito Kosei, an in-utero survivor of the bomb. It was incredibly moving hearing his account of his childhood, having suffered exposure to radiation, and about those family members and friends who had perished. His blog is available at http://blogs.yahoo.co.jp/mitokosei/folder/911078.html.

We left Mito at the Dome and followed Michiko across to the Children's Peace Monument, inspired by a child victim of the bomb: Sadako Sasaki, who developed lukaemia at the age of 11 and decided to fold 10,000 origami paper cranes - convinced that if she could achieve that target she would recover. Around the Monument were large glass containers full of paper cranes folded by children across the world and as we stood, Japanese school children milled about, with their paper crane offerings ready to add to the collection. Saying goodbye to Michiko, she gave us our own small paper cranes as a souvenir and again expressed her fervent wish that there will never again be another Hiroshima.

Following this, we split up as a group to further explore the Peace Memorial Park, which contains a number of other memorials, including a cenotaph that contains the names of all the known victims of the bomb and frames the Flame of Peace - lit from a fire burning on Miyojima Island (see below), said to be started by Kobo Daishi - and which will only be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon on earth has been destroyed. The Park also contains the excellent Peace Memorial Museum, with extensive (and harrowing) exhibits including preserved clothing and personal items from some of the many schoolchildren killed by the bomb - having been evacuated to the countryside during WWII, they had been recalled to the city to clear rubble in order to create channels that would prevent the spread of fire following incendiary bombing. Needless to say, the visit was slightly overwhelming and we made our way back into the sunshine at around lunchtime to begin our journey to the small island of Miyajima, a short trip by train and ferry from Hiroshima.

On our approach to the island we could see the vermilion torii (shrine gate) of the "floating" Itsukushima-jinja shrine, which has traditionally been ranked as one of the three best views in Japan. After docking, we had a closer look from shore and then a wander through Momijidani Park, where there were plenty of the island's extremely tame "sacred" deer, before splitting up - Simon, Tim, Peggy and Natalie to climb to the top of Mount Misen, which rises 535m above sea level; the rest of the group (bar Alex and Brandon) to take the cable car part-way up and Alex (in inadequate footwear for the climb) to have a closer look at the O-torii from the beach and a wander around nearby Daisho-In temple. Brandon, in his wisdom, also decided to climb to the summit - separately from the main group - and as the rest of us enjoyed a beer having rejoined to watch a stunning sunset over the O-torii, he wasn't back. As darkness fell, he still wasn't back and we had just become concerned enough to send Lorraine and Nishma to the police box when he thankfully appeared at the end of the street nearest the downward footpath. Apparently he had missed the last cable car down and had been forced to jog most of the way in the falling gloom! We were all glad to see him safe and sound, but also relieved that we had not been delayed enough to miss the last ferry back to the mainland, much as we had enjoyed the island.

We ate again at an Izekaya on our return to Hiroshima and this time managed to avoid any table tax - enjoying the doorbell-type buzzers on the table that alerted a waitress to come and take fresh beer orders.

Friday 8 October

Friday saw us back on the shinkansen to travel to Kyoto, which is where some of Japan's most famous sights are to be found. With no less than 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites, hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, it's probably the sort of place you could spend a fortnight or longer with no trouble at all. As it was, we had 2 days.

After checking into our hotel, again handily near the main station, most of the group visited a sushi train restaurant for some wonderfully fresh sushi at 192 yen a plate. Everyone (Sinead, Lorraine and one or two others had instead opted for pasta) tucked in with enthusiasm, but Steve took the record for the most sushi consumed - nine plates. Feeling nicely full, we walked through the futuristic rail station - complete with Astroboy statutes outside, which detained Peggy for a while - to catch a bus to the Fushimi Inari Taisha, a sprawling shrine best known for its so-called "ten thousand torii gates". After a good stroll around, together with some charming Japanese ladies in full kimono, we headed downtown to explore the Nishiki food market and commercial district then returned to the hotel for a quick change before dinner in Gion, the entertainment district and best place to spot a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). While hunting for a place to eat with the group on Ponto-Cho, a narrow alley bringing to mind the Japan of "Memoirs of a Geisha", we were fortunate to see one from close-up, but (probably fortunately) didn't have time to gawp too much, as some other tourists jumped around in excitement and quite possibly blinded the poor thing with flash photography. Having separated from the bulk of the group who eventually decided to go to an all you can eat BBQ restaurant, we ate at a nearby yakitori (grilled meat) joint overlooking the river and polished off a few cold beers each.

Saturday 9 October

We awoke to heavy rain that was to persist for the entire day and went to pick up new bus passes for our sight-packed morning, taking in Nijo castle, Kinkaku-ji temple and the zen garden at Daisen-In.

Nijo-jo was originally built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu. It showcased impressive wooden construction, splendid screen paintings, gardens, concealed bodyguard chambers and "nightingale" floors which squeaked, or rather sang, when we walked across them owing to the placing of nails beneath the floorboards - as a method of detecting intruders. As we wandered through, Steve filled us in on some of the history of the Shogunate and samurai culture. He had already dispelled the popular romantic image of samurai enshrined in films such as "The Last Samurai" by telling us that most of this warrior class were in fact homosexual.

Kinkaku-ji (or Rokuon-ji) temple and its famed "Golden Pavilion" is one of Japan's best-known sights. Unfortunately by the time we got there, the rain had turned almost torrential and this, combined with the fact that the place was still teeming with tourists, meant that we were only really able to have a quick dash round before seeking shelter and a bit of peace away from the hubub. From Kinkaku-ji we headed to Daisen-In, where we went on our own guided tour of the zen garden's expression of the "essence of nature", charting man's journey through life, and were then entertained by the rather eccentric resident monk who patiently inscribed our names in Japanese on a postcard set that we bought.

After udon noodles with Nishma in a nearby restaurant, we headed back to Gion for Alex to have a geisha experience at a small shop offering maiko-henshin (geisha transformation). This involved changing into a basic yukata-type form of underwear, selecting a kimono, being made-up in white facepaint and a full (and extremely heavy) wig and then being parcelled-up in the many layers that make up full kimono. After the transformation process, which was operated like an efficient conveyor belt between rooms, having paid for the basic package, Alex was given the opportunity to take plenty of photos along with other (mainly Japanese) transformed maiko, as well as one professional shot.

After returning to the hotel we ate in a cosy Japanese restaurant in the station complex and then browsed the shops with Tim, Erich and Brandon, picking up a few souvenirs and gifts (and admiring Tim's shankensen chop-sticks).

Sunday 10 October

Another early start saw us making our way north from Kyoto to the Hakone region, a national park in the vicinity of Mount Fuji. Following an initial spell aboard the shinkansen, we changed to a local train at Odawara to take us to Hakone-Yumoto, where we again changed to a bus to take us to our ryokan (traditional Japanese lodgings). After a short rest, we were back on the bus up to the lake at Ashino-ko, where, on a good day there are splendid views across to Mount Fuji. Unfortunately for us, Fuji-san was shrouded in low cloud, but it didn't stop us enjoying our pirate boat trip across to Togendai and gondola up to Owakudani, where we had a brief climb up to some sulphurous vents, in respect of which a little shop was doing a remarkable trade in hard-boiled eggs, turned black by the sulphurous waters. We were told that eating one extends your life by seven years, so of course had to give it a go. With a little salt, they were surprisingly tasty.

From Owakudani we got back on the gondola and descended to Soun-zan, where we took a funicular on down to Gora before boarding a switch-back train back to Hakone-Yumoto - in total using seven different modes of transport since we set out in the morning!

Returning to the ryokan, we changed into yukata and relaxed before dinner, which, as at the monastery at Koya-san, was served in many different small dishes and featured a significant amount of cold silk tofu. Apart from the tofu, which Alex couldn't stomach, we pretty much finished the lot this time, including some yummy unagi - Japanese style eel.

Having agreed at dinner amongst the group to pay a communal visit to the Onsen, some of us decided to have a stiff drink (well, a beer at least) in advance and met in Sinead and Suzanne's room. The boys then disappeared down to the ground floor of the labyrinthine ryokan and the girls to the first floor, where blue and red hangings respectively marked out the two onsen areas. Using an onsen is a fairly ritualistic affair requiring a bather to leave their clothes and large drying towel in an ante-room, before proceeding to the room containing the baths with only a small thin towel to cover their modesty. Here, one must wash, seated on stools around the edge of the baths, before getting in to soak. Cue excited squealing from the girls, none of whom lasted long in the 40 degree or so waters. The boys lasted a lot longer - having the advantage of being able to sit only waist-deep without blushing. It was a great experience and all the better for the whole group having taken part.

Monday 11 October

Our final day of the tour saw us leave Hakone and take our final trip on the shinkansen back to Tokyo. It was a beautiful morning and we were optimistic that we may get views of Mount Fuji from the train, having been deprived the day before. We were not disappointed and for ten minutes or so, albeit at high speed (shinkansen cruise speed is 300 kmph) we got wonderful views back towards the mountains and Fuji-san rising high above them, swathed to one side in cloud.

On arrival in Tokyo, we disembarked at Shinagawa, where we were staying in a huge hotel complete with half a dozen restaurants, cinema, karaoke venue, 80 lane bowling alley (on two floors), aquarium, swimming pool, spa etc. etc. Positioned on the thirtieth floor we had amazing views over the city (although wouldn't have liked to have been stuck up there in the event of an earthquake).

With the rest of the day as free time, the group (some of whom only had two days in Tokyo) split to take in the city. As we had the rest of the week ahead of us, we decided to take things at a fairly leisurely pace and first to take the train to Shinjuku, where we were in easy walking distance of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and its free observation decks. The views were once again fantastic, although Mount Fuji was by this time once again concealed by cloud. Returning to Shinjuku, we took the JR Yamanote line (a bit like the circle line) down to Shibuya to people-watch from Starbucks, with a vantage point directly over the world-famous crossing.

In the evening, we had a final group meal in the hotel and thanked Steve for everything he had done to make the tour so enjoyable. We had hoped to do some bowling and then possibly some karaoke, but by the time we had finished some beers outside the hotel the bowling alley was closed and the karaoke venue was close to doing likewise. Despite our best efforts at sweet-talking the karaoke staff (especially Sinead), the best we could hope for was 20 minutes of karaoke, albeit at a knock-down price. As it was, when our time was up we just ignored the phone call from reception and tried to drown it out at the tops of our voices - "Na, na, na, nanananaaaa, nanananaaaaa, hey Jude! Na, na na nanananaaaa......" We then headed back out through the train station to find another watering hole, without much joy - Monday is not a big night in Shinagawa. Eventually we resorted to some more karaoke, which was also good fun despite a few miscommunications with the staff touting for trade outside and those inside.

Tuesday 12 October

Keen for a laid-back day, we decided to do a day-trip out of Tokyo to Kamakura, a short train journey away using our JR passes. Kamakura was the capital of Japan from 1185 to 1333, but these days it is a fairly sleepy little place with a pleasant enough beach and a number of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. After wandering through the town, down to the beach and back we enjoyed a light picnic lunch from the supermarket and then took the train up to Kita-Kamakura, where we visited Tokei-ji, a charming temple with adjoining cemetery in which impressive spiders' webs looked to have stood long undisturbed and everything was covered in moss. At one time the temple served as a women's refuge, where a woman could be officially recognised as divorced after three years' service as a nun. Nearby Engaku-ji was less charming but had an impressive bell standing at the top of a long flight of stairs and cast in 1301.

We returned to Tokyo in the late afternoon and relaxed at the hotel before meeting a few members of our group who were yet to depart for dinner, which we had near the station in a New York-themed restaurant where all the staff were dressed as witches, vampires etc. The Japanese are apparently crazy for Halloween! After dinner we went bowling, having missed out the previous night, and had a good two-team game in which Simon managed to get four strikes in a row, thrashing everyone else with a score of 183.

Wednesday 13 October

We started early on Wednesday by taking the train first to the Akihabara district, known as "Electric Town" and more commonly "Akiba" by manga and anime fans, who come not only for shopping but also to visit so-called "maid cafes" and take part in cosplay (costume play) and street performances. After a look around one of the main electronic gadget shops, which on its own seemed to contain more choice than PC World, Comet and Currys combined, we bumped into a few maids from a nearby cafe, but decided against paying it a visit.

From Akihabara we headed to Ueno, which is said to be one of the last areas in Tokyo where the old Shitamachi feel still permeates. Shitamachi - meaning "low city", or essentially "downtown" - was an area home to the merchants and artisans of old Edo, as Tokyo was known until 1868 when the emporer's power was restored. Here we spent a while strolling around Ueno-Koen park, which boasts many of Tokyo's museums and a lake partially covered in huge round lotus leaves and full of wildlife. We also came across a statue of Saigo Takamori, who was involved in the movement to restore the emperor. Whilst he initially supported it, he ended up switching his loyalty and committing seppuku - ritual suicide by disembowelment - in opposition (surely one of the most unpleasant ways to go).

After Ueno we continued across to Asakusa, a bustling tourist district with a lively commercial atmosphere, seemingly most strong around the temple Senso-ji. After briefly exploring the temple precincts and stopping for Simon to pick up a yukata in the market, we hopped onto the subway towards Ginza, said to be Tokyo's equivalent to New York's Fifth Avenue and featuring all the big designers. From here, after a snack of some fresh sushi, the Tokyo Tower was our final stop of the day.

Thursday 14 October

We had been recommended to pay a visit to the Ghibli Museum before we left and we headed out there early, hoping to miss the crowds. The museum features the Japanese anime work of Studio Ghibli, but is not laid out like a normal gallery or museum, with a peculiar design and no particular set route through it. The theme is "let's lose our way, together".

Neither of us were visiting Japan with a particular interest in anime or manga, but we really enjoyed the museum and its kooky style, in particular an exhibit which used models of well-known Ghibli characters, each in a slightly different pose, arranged in a circle on a spinning table. When activated, the table spun in synchronisation with flickering lights, illuminating each model at the right time to create an illusion of movement - just like animation. We also enjoyed watching film about sumo mice, uniquely screened at the museum, notwithstanding that it was in Japanese.

We caught the train back into Tokyo and headed for the trendy area of Harajuku, where we wandered through part of the Yoyogi park. Feeling tired we decided to relax with a green tea and chestnut ice cream each to re-energise before browsing the shops in the area, including a department store called Omotesando Hills, where we managed to find some fine looking sake to sample at home. We then headed to Roppongi for dinner at a tower complex called Roppongi Hills and a brief look around the Grand Hyatt to see if we could spot anything we recognised from "Lost in Translation", which was filmed there.

Friday 15 October

For our final day we decided to return to Ginza for a look at the Sony Centre, to walk around the Imperial Palace grounds and gardens (which unfortunately we found to be closed) and then to browse the department stores in Shinjuku, with their endless floors of high end fashion at eye-watering prices, before a further wander around Shibuya.

Feeling that we had had ample opportunity to soak up Tokyo's atmosphere, we were hoping to round of our holiday by meeting a former work colleague of Alex's who now lives in Tokyo with his wife and two daughters. Unfortunately, however, he got stuck at work. We had dinner at a little Japanese place near Ebisu station before returning to the hotel to pack for our 11.30am flight home.

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