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Published: October 22nd 2009
Shrine a light
I thought I'd get you started on a nice Japanese image, a shrine to cats no less.
Japan, Land of the Rising Sun. Karaoke, karate, sushi, sashimi, ninjas and noodles. What rot, it’s the land of the constant bing-bong! On the trains, the subway, in the shops or on the streets, wherever you go there is some form of noise to accompany you. So with a bing and a bong and a bow from immigration, the Japanese adventure began.
After a nice flight with JAL (naturally good service, bad films) we disembarked a bit dishevelled at Narita airport and headed off to the Japan Rail offices to pick up our train passes ready for some efficient times ahead. Well, maybe once the rail crash had been cleared up, delays already Japan, not so good!
Finally we took the ‘express’ in to town (ahem - slow) and pitched up at Shinjuku station and our first port of call, the Park Hyatt hotel. Film buffs amongst you might recognise the hotel from ‘Lost in translation’ where Bill Murray enjoyed a few ‘Suntory times’. After a 12 hour flight and dragging cases for 15 minutes from the station to the hotel, our arrival wasn’t quite in the film star category. Still, they bowed a lot and let us in,
Lost in Tokyo
Our hotel was spread across the top of these three towers, the Park Hyatt as seen in 'Lost in translation'.
with a room of the 44th floor the views did not disappoint, neither did the hotel, pure luxury I shall be on the miso and water for some time to come to pay for it. But you can’t put a price on electronic curtains and bing-bong lifts.
Shinjuku has a lot of high rise office buildings but as you head towards the rather large station the true nature of Japan appears. Bright lights, tiny sitting room sized bars and the wonderful world of the pachinko parlours. How to describe pachinko? Hmm, you sit in deafening sound at a mutated pinball machine; chain smoke and watch ball bearing after ball bearing drop down in to a hole. There is a small element of participation by rotating a small barrel but for some reason they seem to love this. Bing-bong!
Back to the hotel for a drink in the rather nice New York bar at the top of the hotel, fantastic views and toilets which raise the seat as you open the door of the cubicle. And of course, a jazz band to add to the atmosphere. It seems the Japanese are very fond of jazz, I think in just
I thought this was a bit similar to our very own gerkin here in London town.
about every bar and restaurant we went in, they played jazz. Nice.
Next day after a quick swim on the 47th floor (I was hoping there wouldn’t be an earthquake at this point) it was time to head down to where the kids are hip and the clothes are cool, Harajuku. Unfortunately this was a Monday and all the cool kids were in school, but you still got the impression of the crazy clothes the Tokyo teenagers like to wear. There seems to be a fondness for Alice in Wonderland style dresses and the boys have fancier hair than the girls. I felt rather dull in comparison.
Next up Shibuya, famous for it’s road crossing (I’m not joking) and of course the sad story of Hachiko, a cute doggy who waited by the station for his dead master…sniff, sniff, it’s no good, I can’t go on, I'm too upset.
Time to leave Tokyo and a trip to visit to get some Fuji-viewing. I’d been looking forward to heading off in to the mountains for a couple of days for a bit of ‘Zen’ time and some communing with Fuji-San. But wait! What was that the bowing newsreaders were
Tasty looking isn't it, but don't be fooled, this is not for eating. It's the done thing to have plastic food outside the restaurants, handy to point to if you have a three word vocab in Japanese.
saying, typhoon Melor heading for Japan, hold the bing-bong!
Taking the strangely named ‘Romance car’ to Hakone, it has big windows and rather cool revolving seats so they don't have to turn the train around for the best views, we left Tokyo and headed off in the rain to the hills. Our destination was the Fujiya hotel, well known amongst ‘heritage buffs’ as one of the first western hotels in Japan. John Lennon stayed there once, not that they reminded you…
The hotel is a colonial dream, the Victoria bar is furnished with dark wood, leather, jazz and perfect for the English who need to sit out a typhoon. The President of Japan even turned up for a quick visit whilst we were there, one keeps good company dontcha know. The Hakone area is a popular destination for viewing Mt Fuji, a series of small trains, funiculars and cable cars over the hill to Lake Ashi allows the visitor to take in 'merverrous' views of Fuji-San, as promised at the Japan Rail office in Tokyo. That is if you are there when there isn’t a typhoon. Instead we got 36 hours of heavy rain and some mist, great,
Down the rabbit hole
Some of the strange fashions on sale in Harajuku, they seem to be fond of Alice in Wonderland type fashions, very bizarre.
back to the bar.
The next day the rain abated as Melor headed north, so back up the cable car and there he was in all his glory, Fuji-san finally came out to say ‘konnichiwa’. My work here is done.
The following day and with JR passes in hand we headed down the valley to catch the mighty Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. Arriving at Odawara station a series of mini-earthquakes signalled the passing overhead of the Shinkansen every couple of minutes. The Nozomi 700 rushed through the station at great speed, sadly with our passes we had to take the less impressive but still rather fast Hikari trains, but they still beat anything the UK has to offer. So in my best train spotter mode I settled down and enjoyed the trip to Kyoto, passing by Mt Fuji along the way.
The pace in Kyoto is a lot more sedate than that of Tokyo, it is famous for the Gion area where many Geishas still reside and of course it has its fair share of temples and shrines for the lucky tourist. It also has a rather good shopping area called Teramachi for all your tourist
One for the niece, this cat is rather popular as is Miffy or any other cartoon character which looks slightly similar.
tat, chopsticks anyone? Near the river is a small street called Pontocho which has lots of interesting bars and restaurants including the classy sounding 'Sent James bar', me thinks they got that a little wrong. Further east is the area of Gion with geishas galore, a touch of old Japan still survives here. Very frustrating for the gai-jins though, so many interesting establishments but not for the likes of us!
Taking the well worn tourist path we took in Nijo castle, former residence of the Shogans (clearly not the cars) which has the coolest nightingale floors, being so light myself the floors didn't squeak (a-hem), a clever device to keep out intruders but I guess the ninjas just climbed over them, but who would ever know? Unless they were rubbish ninjas. Then over to the Kodaiji temple, Ryozen Kannon (it has a big Buddha) and then the Ninenzaka area with lots of old merchant shops. The trail ends at the rather impressive Kiyomizundera temple built on a series of stilts on the side of a hill, very popular with the locals on the weekend, but then with so many people, everything seems very popular.
The Rough Guide to
A sad tail
The Japanese version of Greyfriars Bobby. Hachiko went to the station each night for 10 years after his owners death, at the same time his train due in. So sad, sniff.
Japan says 'avoid Nara on a Sunday', so naturally we headed off to Nara on the Sunday to take in the sites. Nara is a beautiful city close to Kyoto with a selection of shrines and temples of course, what else? It was the capital of Japan for a few years between 710 and 784 and was modelled after another of my old haunts, Xi'an. I'd been told to hire bikes to cycle round Nara and after seeing so many people cycle round lovely flat Kyoto on bikes, thought this was a great idea, I wasn't warned of the rather large hill for about 2km from the station though! Still, easy on the way back down. All the famous sites are in a big park with lots and lots of friendly venison, opps I mean deer, wandering around. As all the tourists feed them they are very tame and you can stroke them as much as you like.
The main attraction is the Todai-ji temple, the largest wooden building in the world apparently and of course its got a Buddha in it. It is rather impressive and was big enough to contain the masses of Japanese who visit to
There be a storm a coming
The brollies were out in Shibuya as the typhoon approached Japan.
try and climb through a hole in one of the pillars at the back of the temple to give them some blessing or other. I didn't join in but think if I breathed in hard I might have made it through, most people looked like they could make it but there were a few in the queue who might be being a bit 'optimistic' about their chances, some good youtube footage in the offing perhaps!
The next day back in Kyoto, after the success of the cycling experience in Nara, more bikes were procured for a trip to the gold and silver pavilions on the opposite sides of Kyoto. The gold one, Kinkaku-ji, is on the west side of the city and is stunning, covered in gold leaf and is beautiful. However, the poor relative, the silver pavilion Ginkaku-ji, on the east side of town never got it's covering of silver and looks a little plain in comparison, but they have done the garden nice to make up for it (as if it does). The silver one lies at one end of the famous philosopher’s walk which is in all the guidebooks, a nice turn by a small stream.
Romancing the train
The 'romance car' to Hakone, sadly ours was the next one and it wasn't as pretty as this one. Still it did have revolving seats, cool.
But really not worth the effort unless it's cherry blossom time, the river isn't much to look at.
Then it was time to check in to our ryokan for a night, the full Japanese experience! I was a bit concerned I'd make a few etiquette errors and did almost immediately by nearly forgetting to take off my slippers before entering the room, it was almost hari-kari time! We were staying in the Hiiragiya Ryokan which is open to Westerners (not all are), being VERY expensive, one night was enough but this includes a 16 course meal in your room served by a very polite lady with great bowing skill. Firstly though you must bathe in the traditional baths in the ryokan. This was like a rather large wooden sake box with very hot water, it was a bit too hot for me so I didn't manage long. Then resplendent in your yukata the meal is brought to your room. They are all very small courses, but by the time we got to the 12th course it was all getting a bit much, and how can I describe the fermented sea cucumber and soya dish, rancid perhaps? Still it was
The freshest sushi
For some reason raw fish is popular, can't see the appeal myself, all pretty tastlest.
a great thing to do, a bit too regimented for a long stay but nice for a night.
Plans for a flying visit to Osaka the next day before our return to Tokyo went out the window and we met up with the Mighty Shinkansen for the return journey to Tokyo. This time we were staying on the other side of town, Shinbashi which is close to Ginza, a posh (i.e. dull) shopping area. Shinbashi was more fun especially near the station (as always in life). It had pachinko, bars and restaurants and by about 9pm masses of very drunk salary men in their dark suits trying to negotiate the tricky walk back to the station. If you think Newcastle is bad on a Saturday night, wait to you see the drunk Japanese business men!
And of course it has karaoke. We had to have a go, when in Rome etc. So after a few drinks and some pointing at a price list, I insisted we would only need half an hour to get it out of our system. Two and a half hours later we emerged in the early hours of the morning feeling sated. My version
It's raining, it's pouring...
The rather lovely Victoria bar in the Fujiya hotel, the best place for one to sit out the typhoon. Mine's a G+T.
of 'West end girls' would certainly win me the X-Factor.
The last few days in Tokyo were spent at a few places including Tokyo Disneyland, really don’t bother, it’s not as good as the LA one and has about a million more people there. But I had to admire the Japanese as they all loved wearing Mickey ears all day, even the coolest looking teenage boys, must be the done thing. But after the disappointment of Disney was the joy at a ride on the Thunder Dolphin rollercoaster at Tokyo Dome. Simply the best roller coaster I have been on. It’s on top of some building so you feel very high up and it even goes through a hole in one of the buildings, it’s amazing, if you only do one thing in Tokyo, do this!
Oh, and the best public toilets I’ve ever been to were in Tokyo Dome, as with all the loos they were spotless, had lots of paper, heated seats and bidet facilities and this one even had a button you can press to play a stream sound complete with croaking frogs, what a country!
And last but not least, the Senso-ji temple, the
Buffing up my heritage
The dining room in the Fujiya hotel, one for 'heritage buffs' according to the guidebooks, rather!
most famous in Tokyo and as with all good trips of mine, I found something covered in scaffolding. But they had some bing-bongs so I didn’t mind too much.
Right, this has gone on long enough I think, so I’ll take a final bow to Japan and say sayonara!
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