So Japan - The land of ice cream flavored like salt (its not just called salt it tastes like it!), Taxi doors that can open themselves, women walking around in stockings / suspenders as an acceptable day time fashion, lots of flashy lights, some good and some strange foods, and basically a real highlight of my trip so far!
It all started with another stamp in the passport....actually this time it is a sticker...but still a good souvenir of Japan :)
We landed and after some initial confusion we had a chat to tourist information, they suggested a few places to stay...many of which were fully booked.....we attempted the cheapest place to stay as a last resort and it was available...The New Koyo "Hotel" and it was two separate rooms, not a dorm...nice change :) After figuring out how top buy a ticket we hoped on the first train ...all good so far. Next was a subway...both of us sweating in the 27 degree heat at 10pm with our backpacks on and chaff-age setting in.....it was not a good sight to see a super packed subway car pull up when carrying our big bags but we managed to squeeze in for the ride and made it to the correct station. We followed our directions that led through some back alleys on the edge of the city....my heart racing a little not knowing the safety of the area..... we struggled to find the hotel and at one point we were matching up the symbols (Japanese writing) on the piece of paper we had to the street signs. We started down a semi-lit, dodgy looking alley that seemed to be correct on the map and i heard a strange noise, as i pointed it out to zo to see if she could hear the same as me i realized it was someone snoring.....looking through the darkness i noticed about 10 - 15 people wrapped up in blankets sleeping on the street. I immediately stopped talking as loud as i was and we re traced our steps with chaff-age now in full swing and dying for a shower. Further on past a beer vending machine the next alley over we were relieved to see the hotel (the guy at the desk nice enough to stay up until 11 to wait for us and let us check in as we had called ahead from the airport.) The room... a large cupboard, it was a good price though and we had a cupboard each to sleep in with a futon on the floor and a TV...loverly.
The second day started with an early morning seeing as we had decided to hardcore Japan and make the most out of the country with the short time that we had. We jumped on the metro and headed for Akihabara AKA electric city....and well named it is too seeing as it is full of shops selling the latest toys technologies and gadgets....personally i was really looking forward to this and it did not disappoint.
We started with a department store 8 floors high stacked with the latest tech. The first floor was purely for phones and different types were on display as far as the eye can see. The TV floor was impressive but by far my favorite was the toy floor.... so many anime models, computer games, gadgets it was heaven. Had fun watching some tiny kids play a Pokemon arcade game...they had their own set of chips that looked like Pokemon balls and when they chucked them onto the playing board The characters would appear on screen, with separate controls to make them attack etc. If you wanted to move the characters on the screen the kids would move on the chips on the board.....fun to watch. Me and zo picked up some anime key rings of our favorite character Naruto (we were on about episode 360 when we left) its about a young ninja called naruto growing up :) Anywayzzz back on the subway we headed to Ryogoku and through the muggy heat we found our location the sumo arena.... after some umming and arring we treated ourselves to some good seats for a few days time and continued to explore Tokyo. Next was Yo-yogi park, we managed to get off at the wrong subway station but decided to walk the rest of the way using my top notch navigational skills! Through the backstreet's we hit a forest with a huge wooden gate and i thought it was Yo-yogi park...it was not, we had stumbled on the Meiji Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the divine souls of the emperor and his consort empress shoken.
They had both passed away by 1914 so to commemorate their virtues and to venerate them forever the people donated 100,00 trees from all over Japan and Overseas (the forest we walked through) Emperor Meji = 122nd Emperor of Japan (great grandfather of the current). We plodded through the forest, Zoe getting bitten to hell and happened upon the main shrine.
Gorgeous architecture and lots of people praying to it. Also a prayer wall that allowed you to attach prayers written on pieces of wood.
We continued in search of Yo-yogi park along the way seeing some nasty looking spiders and huge spider webs..... i glanced to my left at one point to see a large green snake raised up from the ground...after jumping out of striking distance we watched it climb a tree and continue on (after all of oz with no snakes and one spider....we had beaten that on our first full day of Japan!) Through Yo-yogi we seen some good BMXers, some extreme fashion, cool graffiti and randomly a Shri Lankan festival....headed through the maze of a subway and enjoyed a beer and some noodles before bed.
Up at 6:00 on day three, after a couple of line swaps on the metro we hit the JR line (Japanese Rail) and the super shiny bullet train :)
and off we set for Osaka, moments into the ride the ticket collector bowed to the carriage reciting a speech and then bowed to us. Zo was asleep almost instantly and i enjoyed the sights. We found the hostel down some backstreet's and it was very quaint. Basically someones house, a young, friendly Japanese girl called Yummi.
We dropped off our bags and Yummi informed us of a festival that day that happens once a year in Osaka....30 minutes later we were in Kisiwada enjoying the said festival. Not sure what to expect we were greeted by market stalls selling a variety of foods...noodles, pancakes, octopus in dough....Zoe got some salmon on a skewer that had the head of a salmon bigger than mine on the side. After some time following the crows the police via megaphone ordered us to the side of the road....the beating of a drum could be heard in the distance and a large group of Japanese came running down the road all dressed in black followed by more pulling a rope, as the drum beats sped up so did they until they were in almost full sprint. They were pulling a festival float that carried drums, a man on a flute type thing and guys dancing. The guys pulling the rope were motivated by bigger guys shouting and running alongside them...amazing to watch!
We found out that this was one of Osaka's wildest festivals a kind of running of the bulls except with Danjiri (festival floats)the festival being called Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri. The danjiri are hauled through the streets with 100's of people carrying ropes and in the excitement there are usually at least one death a year! From the festival we headed to Namba station, the biggest downtown area in Osaka, we enjoyed our food cooked in front of us on a hot plate.
Watching people playing pachinko...a kind of gambling game where you pay for a load of ball bearings and using the machine you fire them at different speeds onto a vertical board...depending where they land a standard fruit machine wheel is spun and you can win more ball bearings....these being cashed in when you are done for prizes or money, fun to watch , very noisy, very smokey, sweaty, bright and some people have stacks of ball bearings from their hours of play! Wandering around namba you can walk forever, you stomp down one street of arcades, restaurants, bright lights and as you do there are more the same shooting off in different directions, picking one of these you arrive at even more....we found ourselves wandering and soaking up Japan for a few hours! i loved it, the colours, the people...i would definitely love to visit Japan again for longer. :) Back at the hostel the owner informed us that the moon was special that night because it was the night before a full moon, and in September they celebrate this (i remember a couple of Japanese friends celebrating this when i studied in America) So to celebrate Yummi invited us and some others onto the roof to look at the moon and enjoy green tea accompanied by Japanese sweets. After this Yummi told us about the ...as she put it "traditional Japanese whore houses" only 5 minutes walk from the hostel and asked if we wanted to see, so a few of us wandered down there. It is a few long streets lined with red lanterns, and traditional style houses with the sliding doors, as you walk down little old ladies AKA Pimps invite you in as a Japanese prostitute waits on the mat. So you look at the girls...most very beautiful and if you decide to partake you haggle with the old lady. Quite sad, and Yummi told us there is no trouble as it is protected by the Yakuza (Japanese mafia.)
Early start and straight onto the trains we headed for Nara. Here we wandered Nara park, Buddhism first flourished here and it was once known as the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. We saw a stunning 5 storey pagoda from across a pond full of terrapins, then walked through forests and field s full of tame deer to Kasuga grand shrine - founded by the Fujiwara family (the most powerful imperial court nobles in the 8th century), the shrine being famous for its 1000 bronze and 2000 stone lanterns it was a stunning sight. Through the forests once more stroking deer on the way we entered the huge Todaiji temple, founded by Emperor shomu to enshrine the image of Buddha, originally built in 752, it was revamped due to fire in 1709...scaled down to0 2/3 the original size it is still the largest wooden building in the world (it was bloody massive). The statue of Buddha inside was amazing standing at over 20m (71 feet) tall. An hours trip and some sushi later we were at Himaji castle a massive ancient castle.
The night was ended once again in Namba getting lost in the streets. I really enjoyed eating ramen cross legged on a tatami mat watching people pass by. One thing i really enjoyed about japan was the lack of tourists allowing you to feel more submerged in the area around you.
From Osaka we headed to Kyoto a city famous for geisha's, and the setting for the recent movie about geisha's. The hostel was like staying at someones house (recommended by Yummi), good to meet people and included in the low price is breakfast plus as much whiskey, sake and rice wine as you can drink at night but there was no shower! You had to use the local Onsen (like a public bath, but no swimwear is allowed....you get naked , sit on a stool and wash / shower yourself then get into the warm water....you are allowed a small flannel to cover yourself up slightly but that is it!)
The day was started by Zoe getting g a makeover to look like a geisha (maiko to be exact) and she looked spectacular...we both had a good laugh.
We then headed down a street famous for the different types of food being made and for sale...meats, fish, sweets...it was really nice to stroll and i bought some fancy chopsticks :) From here it was the manga museum and i was excited to see original drawings on a scroll that had been passed down since the 12th century! Also found out that the first cartoon magazine to be published in Japan was actually British ! We whizzed off to the streets most famed for geisha's in Kyoto (actually the world) an area called Gion....Rows of wooden houses lined with lanterns, and we were super lucky plus super excited to see 2 actual geisha's moving from different appointments at tea houses :) The night was spent with Javier from Spain and ria from Japan...i really enjoy chatting to people with little English when i know little of their language....its interesting how you still manage to have a laugh and a conversation working around the language barrier.
Next day we bussed it fancying a change from the subway, it was easy enough and the first stop Rokuon-ji temple (the golden pavilion), a beautiful pavilion surrounded by a large pond.
The gardens and and buildings built by Yoshimitsu the third shogun of Ashkogen. The three floors of the building demonstrating different architectural styles....ground floor - palace style, 2nd floor - samurai style and the top floor zen temple style. Next stop Ryoanji Temple, it contained a world famous Zen garden, 25m x 10m with white gravel and 15 stones - The longer you gaze at it the more varied your imagination becomes...i found it very peaceful.
The day was ended with Kiyomizu temple, a gorgeous temple that overhangs a cliff surrounded by tall trees. While at the castle we bumped into 3 Ozzy guys we had met in Osaka...Kev, Steve and tony.
We met them for dinner by the river, they also brought along 2 girls from Holland. After lots of drink and a brief beer stop at the vending machine we did what had to be done in Japan and went to one of the many Karaoke places!
A long list of English songs, your own room and the option to rent a tambourine we drank and sang from Eminem to the white stripes, from the spice girls to Zip a dee do dah (Disney)...singing over we spent the rest of the night (or morning) in a real random Japanese club, where most people were copying the guys on stage dancing (kinda like aerobics crossed with a club)
The next day and with a slight hangover we missed the train we had booked and caught a later one to Matsumoto. We had decided that we wanted to see something other than the big cities, something more in the country side and a little traditional. To fit into our dream we checked into a slightly expensive Japanese style Ryokan complete with onsen (bath), sliding paper doors and a pot of green tea waiting for us in our room :)
A quick wander through the markets later, plus a castle and some large coy carp we headed for food. A cool little restaurant with a wide open front so you are basically sitting outside at the bar looking in to the kitchen, with just some cloth covering the entrance. It would have been perfect but i accidentally ordered pig throat soup!
Attempted to eat a couple of pieces, but the texture, thought and taste of the rubbery dark meat was not for me. Back at the ryokan we had a traditional bath then up to the room to don the supplied pajamas while wearing the supplied slippers (common in a lot of hostels and hotels in Japan) we drank green tea, played some cards and then had some well needed rest.
Morning arrived on day 8 along with our traditional Japanese breakfast..... a whole sardine smiling at me, cucumber, carrot, seaweed wraps, rice, satay peppers, tofu, miso soup, green tea, omelet and the all important chop sticks! I played a cool arcade game on the way to the train station, where you attempt to beat it at paper scissors stone for the chance to win a hand held games console.... i lost a few times! Back in Tokyo somehow we ended up the most of this day with our bags on our backs looking for a hostel that was not full, we were also informed of an incoming typhoon (i didn't see it). The hostel we did find was cool though, if not a tad expensive with cabin style rooms in them...almost like a capsule hotel with a light to read, a shelf and a curtain by your feet for privacy. We attempted to watch taxi driver but the copy messed up just as it was getting good 1 hour 40 Min's in bugger!
Day 9 we were up early -> 2 trains -> 1 bus -> no mount Fuji (clouds!!!) -> walk around the lake -> back to the hostel -> a night of back to the future 2 + 3 ..classics!
Day 10 was like waking up at Christmas as sumo time was here!! We arrived early for a full day. The day started with junior sumo's (not young but new to the sport i guess or just amateur), and as the day progressed so did the muscle and skill of the sumo's in front of us (not necessarily the size as there were some real big lower level guys but they were flabby big not muscular big ) For lunch i enjoyed Chanko (the soup sumo wrestlers eat) basically meat, lots of veggies in a bowl of tasty soup.... i had to join a massive Que, got shuffled into a room, paid my 2 quids and sat with some random Japanese enjoying my yummy soup. The wrestling was amazing, people cheering, very surreal being that close to it. After sumo we got drenched (the tail end of the typhoon) and at the hostel with our clothes in the dryer enjoyed a film called lost in translation....very relative to our trip to Japan...we also recognized a few streets that we had been to. (good movie...watch it)
Early rise on Day 11 for the fish market....we got there and it was super hectic and slightly stressful. You are trying to dodge the trucks, the fishermen trading and motorized buggies whizzing around while being a tourist. There were some huge Tuna and massive fish heads lying around (didn't know they got that big) we were also lost for about 30 Min's trying to find our way out!
When we finally got free we headed to a hotel that offers rests...usually with cool stuff inside such as play stations, big TVs..all that type of jazz. We settled on a 3 hour stay at a music themed room that included tea and coffee, slippers, robes, and a private onsen....had another loverly soak in the tub! On the night we arranged to meet up with the Ozzy guys we had seen in Kyoto and Osaka and enjoyed a tasty curry plus an all you can drink club to say goodbye...inevitable we once again ended up at Karaoke :)
A hung over day 12 consisted of another wander around Akihabara AKA electric city...we had been there before but i was happy to wander around it again, mainly checking out the cool toys but also the tech. We wandered until we could check into our capsule hotel, but before this i had a go on pachinko....couldn't really work out what was going on ....you could speed up or slow down the release of ball bearings and attempt to navigate them into holes that would spin the wheel...anyway it was bloody noisy, Smokey and a bit crazy,so i lost all my balls and we headed to the capsule hotel.
The capsule hotel was cool, the rooms were similar to a coffin but equipped with a TV and radio, there was also a rooftop onsen. We had our last Japanese meal in a standard food place.... basically order your food from the ticket machine, sit at the bar facing the kitchen and chef and get your food...mine was yummy ramen (noodles in soup) with rice and a ham croquette.
Day 13 started early at 4:30 am and i headed to the onsen...after a shower sat on the stool and a loverly soak in the super warm water i went out to the balcony and greeted Japan for the day naked....with excellent views and nothing on, it was fresh awakening to the day. we headed to the airport and said goodbye to Japan :( I absolutely loved it.... i was really looking forward to the visit and i was not disappointed, I'm even excited thinking about it... i would love to go back and spend longer......... i think i will.
As always i have not uploaded all of our photos here.... mainly because i took a load of em.....you can view the rest at:http://www.flickr.com/photos/discozo/sets/72157607747879904/
China here we come!
Have not been able to write my blog for a while ....the reason 12 days in Japan, and 12 days of getting up early, going to bed late and seeing as much stuff as possible in the short time that we had.