Jumping around Japan

Trip Start Jun 13, 2008
Trip End May 25, 2009

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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

OK people... this blog has taken MULTIPLE trips to internet cafes and also the hogging of a number of hostel computers in order to publish... not so much because of the text, but the pictures... No USB access, then no flickr access and many other issues... so it gives me great pleasure to say that it's finally done!! 

First things first... a small warning... as you may have gathered, this blog is a big one... We didn't get a chance to write anything while we were in Japan, so it's built up... and now I've got to get it all out... so please bare with me!! 

OK... so we only had ten days in Japan, if you don't include the first day getting to our hostel from the airport, or the last day when we got up at 4am and headed to the airport... so there was A LOT to cram in, and by George, did we try to cram it all in...  

Our trip from the airport to the hostel was fairly uneventful... our hotel was really cool and cheap - tiny little rooms, one per person, with tatami mats, a roll up mattress and pillow, and a little TV...

So... our first day in Tokyo, we decided to head to Akihabara, or Electric City.  We walked around a huge electronics store with one whole floor devoted entirely to a million different mobile phones.. but the best bit was the toy floor with hundreds of vending machines with tiny toys in them... Tom and I decided to treat ourselves and got a little Naruto key ring each... Naruto being our favourite Japanese cartoon... 

We didn't stick around for too long, as we were both starving hungry... I couldn't find anything vegetarian, so I just went into a 7-11 and got my very first curried egg dog... which is like a hot dog bun with egg mayo and a dollop of curry sauce... and it was damn tasty!!

We then got back on the Tokyo metro to go to Ryogoku, which is where the sumo centre is, and bought ourselves some tickets for when we get back to Tokyo...  As we came out of the complex, there was a little procession going on with lots of men in short kimonos (I'm sure there's a proper name for them...), some of them carrying a large gold statue on sticks - kind of like when you see Cpleopatra being carried by slaves in old movies... it was really cool...

Then we got another train to Yoyogi Park... as we were walking around we came across Meiji Kingu Shinto Shrine, which was absolutely stunning... On the walk up to it though, I was pretty much eaten alive - mental note - must invest in light trousers - shorts are not an option!!

The walk up to the shrine was a wide walkway with hundreds of trees and Japanese style lanterns lining the way, and the sound of crickets was overwhelming.  In front of the temple were messages and prayers written on little wooden plaques hung up for all to see - and for 500 Yen you could leave one of your own!!  It was a beautiful place to visit, but I found the stalls selling charms and plaques and trinkets a little bit of a shame... OK, it's a tourist trap, but they were right inside the site of the temple...

People were going up to the shrine and throwing coins into a big box with long slits as an offering, then bowing, clapping twice, closing their eyes with their hands in prayer position and then clapping again.  It was very cool to watch, but we weren't really sure what it meant!

We then made our way through to Yoyogi Park, where we came across the first wild snake of our trip - a really long, thing one, climbing up a tree...  As we entered the park, there were lots of bands playing, but some were so close to each other that you couldn't actually hear one or the other!  There were people break dancing, practicing routines, doing BMX tricks and playing drums - it was a really cool atmosphere... and nearby, on the way out, we saw the Shri Lanka Festival, which was made of up lots of food and clothes stalls and a little fashion show.

Also in the area around the park is the place where they say you can see fashion victims - lots of teenagers dressed up, hanging around just to be seen.  Me and Tom were struggling with the heat and humidity of the city, but we saw one guy in what amounted to a leather jumpsuit - madness!  Actually, the dress sense in Japan is a bit of a mystery in general.  I saw a few girls walking around in teeny tiny skirts with stockings and suspenders... that is perfectly acceptable... but wear a strappy top and you're likely to get stared at!!  Very strange logic...!

After that we bought ourselves some cheap pot noodles from the 7-11 and went back to our hostel to feast on them with a Japanese beer :)

On our second day, we got up really early and headed to the train station to go to Osaka... on the BULLET TRAIN!!  This thing goes so fast and is so smooth... it was totally luxurious!  We arrived and made our way to our hostel without any major hiccups... Our hostel was amazing - it was just a lady called Yumi's house, and she was the sweetest and most helpful person we met in Japan...  

We didn't stick around the hostel for long though, because there was so much to see!!  We went through a narrow, high covered street with lots of shops and stalls on either side to get to another train station... from there we headed to Kishiwada, where there was a big festival going on - hundreds of kids wearing something similar to  what my brother used to wear to his Judo classes, walking, holding onto a rope, followed closely by a big Japanese style festival float (which I found out were called danjiri), attached to the rope.  One person called out a word, then everything followed and sitting on the carriage were drummers and tin whistle players. When they hit the drum, the chanting got faster and the kids at the front would start running, the singing/chanting got louder and one man on top of the carriage would start frantically dancing.  It was an amazing sight and they went over and over again.  The festival is called Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, and it's kind of like the Japanese running of the bulls... apparently at least one person dies there, most years... Lining the streets were hundreds of food stalls - I got salmon skewers, which came from the biggest salmon I have EVER seen - the head was proudly left on display - and Tom got some tasty noodles.

After looking around for a while, we got another train to Namba, really close to our hostel.  The Minami area of Osaka, which includes Namba, is a maze of arcades for gamers, restaurants, food stalls and Pachinko rooms.  Pachinko is kind of like a cross between a fruit machine and pin ball - more on that later!

We spent a lot of time walking around the arcade and shopping centre, taking it all in, and then went to a hot plate restaurant, where they cooked our food at our table... which had a hot plate in the middle of it...  I couldn't tell you what we ate, but it was lush!  Mine was made from rice, potatoes and tomatoes and I swear there was some cheese in there too...

After that meal, I encountered the first of many amazing toilets... You could do a toilet tour of Japan and it would never get boring... they have really put a lot of thought into them... The best one I found had a temperature control for the seat - it scared me the first time I sat down on a nice warm toilet seat - very strange...  Then there's a console on the side that allows you to choose a fake flushing sound (to hide those embarassing noises that might come from a toilet cubicle) or a spray to clean yourself... Not only that, there's a little baby chair in a lot of them, so that mothers with small children don't have to balance them while they're trying to use the toilet... Flipping genius... British toilets are boring!!

When we got back to the hostel, Yumi gave us tea and mochi (Japanese sweet cakes) to celebrate the day before September's full moon, which is traditionally when Japanese people write Haikus.

On our second day in Osaka, we got up early again and caught a train to Nara (Deer) Park, where there is a beautiful five tiered pagoda, a walkway to a temple with 2000 stone and 1000 bronze lanterns lining the way, and the biggest wooden building in the world, housing the biggest indoor Buddha in the world - the Todai-ji temple.  The park is known as deer park because there are literally hundreds of deer living there, being fed "cookies" by tourists... 

After walking around the area for a few hours we made our way back to the train station and sat and ate some sushi on the platform. Then we boarded another train and made our way to Hineji Castle... by the time we got there it was actually closed, but we only wanted to see it, so we just walked up and had a look outside and then got back on the train... then we headed back to Namba for more wondering around the hustle and bustle, and ate ramen, which is kind of like meat and noodles in a soup... but they made me some with just vegetables... we ate it outside, with our shoes off, curled up on the floor... it was exactly what you expect from eating out in Japan!  The food ordering system was really cool...You choose what you want and select it from a machine by pressing the appropriate button, which sometimes has pictures of the dish... You feed coins and notes into the machine, and then a ticket comes out... then shortly afterwards someone comes along with your food... Japanese efficiency... brilliant!

The next day we caught a train to Kyoto... We found our hostel quite quickly - it was very, VERY basic - no showers, but discounted use of the local baths... we headed out straight away and went to a maiko (a trainee geisha) studio, where I was made up and dressed like a maiko, and then had a little photo shoot... it was absolutely amazing!!  When I walked in, I was given a little white cotton dress to change into, and some small Japanese socks (the ones with the separator for your big toe), and then lead away to have my make-up done... the lady there just pointed at me, smiled and said, 'big nose!'... I was like... cheers... haha... 

They did the make-up fairly quickly - they covered my face and neck with white make-up, with a little pink underneath on my cheeks, and then outlined my eyes and eye-brows in black and red.  Then they painted a little mouth on my big lips in bright red and put a little mascara on to finish.

Then they moved me over to the dressing area where I was allowed to choose from a massive array of beautiful kimonos... Then they put a long sarong on me, over the top of my little white dress, and then the kimono, which they tied up with strings.  Next they put the obi around my waist (the only part I do know the name for!) and added the bit at the back, which made me stand up really straight, and a decorative string on top...  Then they found a wig, that was more like a hat made of hair, and put it on, and last a pair of traditional Japanese wooden sandals....  Then I was lead into a studio, where Tom was also being taken... he didn't actually recognise me, which was pretty funny... haha...!!  The photographer made me look this way and that, and turn this way and that, and hold a variety of Japanese objects... and then Tom was allowed to take one or two...

After I had taken off all the maiko stuff, I went back into reception and they gave me a test-sheet with 18 pictures on in, from which I was allowed to pick 3... I ended up picking 4, and they will be arriving in the post at my mum's house in about a month - so look out for those, mum!!

After all that excitement, we headed to downtown Kyoto, where we checked out the Nishiki food market, which was unbelievable!  They had every kind of Japanese delicacy you can imagine (and all the ones you can't) laid out to see, as well as lots of little tasters...  We also ended up treating ourselves to a nice set of chopsticks each... It was a major splash-out for us, but we were pretty restrained really, because there was a lot more we wanted to buy!!

Then we headed to the International Manga Museum.  Most of it was actually a giant library where you can take out Manga books and sit in a reading area to get lost in them for a few hours, but they were all in Japanese... so we just looked around.  In case you don't know... Manga is the name for Japanese comic books and it's a real art form...  I haven't read too much, but I love Anime - the cartoon/movie form - so it was still really interesting.

We saw some excellent art work of early Manga and some new ones too.  Apparently the first cartoon magazine in Japan was printed in English by some English guy... but the idea originated from political satire, and the earliest example of Manga shown dated back to the 12th century...

From there, we headed back through the food market and I picked up a couple of tasty treats... we managed to find a stall that not only had English explanations of all the food, but was almost entirely meat-free... BONUS!!

We then headed up into the Gion area of Kyoto, famed for it's geisha and made famous by 'Memoirs of a Geisha'.  At this point I should explain that I've had a real interest in geisha history for years and have read quite a few books on the subject, all of which focused on Gion, so I was incredibly excited to see it all come to life - hence me playing dress-ups the moment we arrived in Kyoto :D

As we walked up the main street it wasn't long before we saw our first real, live geisha.  She was gone pretty quickly, making her way from one appointment to another, but I was SO excited!!

The streets of Gion aren't quite what I imagined - very modern and neon, but there were some smaller streets that lived up to the image in my head - lines of small old-style Japanese wooden buildings with lanterns outside and then a maiko hurrying down the street, greeting all the shop owners on her way past...  By this time it was getting pretty late, so we headed back to the hostel, where we were given whiskey, sake and rice wine and a few snacks, and chatted to our fellow hostellers, a Spanish guy called Javier and a Japanese girl called Ria (I think!) learning a few Japanese phrases along the way :)

The next day, once again we were up early (do you see a pattern emerging here??) and made our way across town to Rokuon-Ji Temple - also know as the Golden Pavillion.  It was absolutely breath taking - a huge golden, shimmering structure, surrounded by beautiful gardens and a reflective pool... we went on a great day because the reflections were gorgeous... 

We had a nice little walk around there and then hopped on another bus to visit the Ryoanji Temple, which houses a zen garden made up of 19 (I think) rocks and a lot of gravel... it doesn't look like much, but it's very peaceful there, despite the children running around... and you can just sit and stare at it for hours... they say that the longer you stare at it, the more you see...

After that it was time for the third temple of the day - this one is really famous and right in the heart of Gion - the Kiyomizu temple - it kind of overhangs a hill and has several other little turrets sticking up from the surrounding woodland...  As we were walking up the hill to get to it, Tony (of Tony, Steve and Kev - the Aussies) spotted us from a balcony so Kev came running after us to say hello and we got to have a look around the temple together....  which gave us ample opportunity to arrange meeting up later in the evening to grab some food and check out the Kyoto nightlife... 

So after missing each other at the station (we arranged to meet at the Astro Boy statue - who knew there were about 5 of them?!?) we finally got together, joined by two Dutch girls whose names I just can't remember, and made our way to Gion to have dinner on the waterfront, which felt very refined and proper... We then got ourselves down to Family Mart, bought a few cans of very cheap alcohol, downed them for Dutch courage and got ourselves a Karaoke booth... In Japan you don't go to a Karaoke bar and sing in front of everyone, you have a private room where you only humiliate yourself in front of people you know... perfect...

So we got it for an hour to start with, but that turned into three hours because we were all having way too much fun... we didn't have any solo efforts at all, we all just bashed out every song together and it was bloomin hilarious!  At the end of the three hours we hopped into a taxi and went to Metro - supposedly Kyoto's hottest club...  There were loads of people on stage acting as MCs, with whistles and white gloves, leading the crowd in dance moves from side to side - it was an interesting and very funny take on line dancing!!  We got there pretty late though and it was only open for another half an hour after we arrived.

So me and Tom got in a taxi and went to the station near our hostel... I ended up cartwheeling across the station because I was amazed at how empty it was, and then Tom and I had a water fight for the rest of the way to the hostel...

As predicted, since we didn't get in until after 5, we missed the 9.30am train to Matsumoto. Despite jogging a lot of the way, wearing two backpacks in the blazing heat, we missed it by two minutes... but it's reassuring to know that if I do need to run with all my stuff, I actually can!  Our late departure was mostly due to me having knocked over a boiling cup of tea while kneeling on the carpet and scolding my knee... oopsie!  (I'm fine, by the way)  It didn't make too much difference in the end though, we just got another train ticket (our rail pass has unlimited travel around Japan, so it didn't cost anything) and got on the next train.

Matsumoto is a much smaller city and we went there to stay in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel.  After finding the vague area of the one we had chosen, I left Tom with the bags and spent 45 minutes trying to find the place in the rain... and eventually did!  It was called Marumo and it was beautiful - an old building, rebuilt in 1869 after the original burned down.  We put on our slippers at the door and were shown to our room, which you enter through sliding double doors.  The whole room is covered in tatami mats, so you have to leave your slippers behind...

At that point we decided to explore Matsumoto a little and went for a walk around the castle and nearby market, picking up a couple of little dishes on the way.  Then we got food quite early - Tom accidentally ordered pigs throat soup, which he couldn't eat, and I had sushi style fish fingers.  Then we went back for our first Onsen, which is a Japanese bath.  Most onsen are segregated into male and female, and are like a public bath, but our ryokan had a private one, so we had it to ourselves... The etiquette is that you shower sitting on a little stool and get very clean and rinse off all traces of soap, and then sit in a really hot bath and soak... it was so soothing and much needed after all our running around!  We spent the rest of our evening on our little room, dressed in our Japanese dressing gown, drinking the green tea our host had provided us with, sitting at our little coffee table...  It was a really nice little rest!

The next day we woke up to a Japanese breakfast in the dining room.  It consisted of rice, a grilled sardine, tofu soup, mange tout in a kind of satay sauce, some raw vegetables, some sheets of seaweed and some fresh pear, washed down with some green tea. :)

We headed back to the train station after breakfast and went back to Tokyo... Unfortunately we couldn't find a hostel with any space, so we spent  most of our day hunting for accommodation.  We settled on the Ace Inn - a little more expensive than most of the places we stayed, but fairly central... each room was made up of rows of little person-sized cabins stacked two-high with a curtain at the end.  We had been told there was a typhoon coming and that we should stay in that night, but we were exhausted and didn't want to go out anyway, and it doesn't sound like the typhoon amounted to much!

The next day was the last day we could us our Japan Rail Passes, so we got two trains and a bus to see Mount Fuji... unfortunately it was so overcast we couldn't actually see the mountain, but it was a nice little trip and we spend the day walking around Lake Kawaguchi, and had a quick go in a batting cage - the Japanese are mad about their baseball! 

The next day, was sumo day... we spent the entire day, from 8.30 until 6pm at the sumo stadium... It started off pretty quiet as there were just juniors wrestling and not a lot of people were very interested... Tom went off and got himself some Chanko, which is sumo soup and I got a bento box of sushi treats... mmmmm....

When the pro wrestlers came on there were a lot more people around and all the wrestlers came into the arena together, wearing their ceremonial (sorry, can't think of a better word) skirts over their (again... better word?) thongs and bowed to the crowd and then the bouts commenced.  We were really lucky that there was a tournament on while we were there...  Each tournament runs for a set number of days and has a champion... after that I'm not really sure what happens to get rankings... but it was an absolutely fantastic day... I wasn't sure if I'd get bored, but I never did... it was brilliant!

On the way home from the sumo we tried to walk around Shinjuku, but it was bucketing down with rain - we got absolutely drenched from head to toe, so decided to head back to the hostel, dry our clothes and watch some DVDs - Back to the Future and Lost in Translation... flipping brilliant!  Tony, Kev and Steve also popped over to say hello and we arranged to meet up again properly the next night.  In the morning, we discovered there was a metro station about 20m from our door - we had been doing a 10 minute walk from another station... that information would have been greatly appreciated the night before!!

Anyway, the next day we went and visited the Tokyo fish markets - I've heard so much about them and everyone says it's something you can't miss... but I wasn't impressed...!  I found it really stressful to be there, it was just so hectic, with cars and carts and people shouting everywhere... and at the end of the day, it was just a lot of dead fish... yes, it was the biggest array of fish I've ever seen, and yes there were some bigger than I knew fish could grow... but I wasn't impressed... maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind!!

After all that craziness, we decided we needed a rest, so we went back to Shinjuku to visit one of Japan's famous rest hotels... You can pay to stay just for a few hours... We went shopping around the rest hotel district because we'd heard about lots of different rooms with jacuzzis and playstations and stuff... but they were all pretty boring or full, so we went for the music room... which was just kind of neon lights that you could adjust, and lots of different music channels on the radio... It also had tea and coffee, (but we couldn't work out how to turn on the water heater) dressing gowns, slippers, hair gel, towels and its own onsen... so we went for another nice soak in the tub!!  Being in random Japan, on the way out the lady at the desk gave me a can of deodorant... very random...

That evening we met up with Santiago, a Columbian guy from our hostel, Tony, Kev and Steve (by now you should know who they are...), got some drinks in and went out for a curry... I had a pumpkin masala, and Tom got a garlic naan bread with his curry, which had him reeking of garlic for two days... seriously, I've never known anything like it!!  Anyway... from there we headed to a really bad nightclub, but still had fun watching the Aussies dance - seriously, they were AMAZING on the dance floor..!! - and then headed for... you guessed it... KARAOKE!!  It was pretty much the same as before, except this time we were given a tambourine and could only book in for an hour...
The next day was our last day in Tokyo, and Japan... :'(  We spent it walking around in a hungover daze in the Akihabara - Electronic City, to check out the electronics a little more thoroughly... although we spent most of our time looking in toy shops, buying Naruto key rings, swapping the ones we got (because they were lucky dip) and then playing Pachinko... 

Pachinko is a Japanese obsession and each arcade is SO loud... You put money into the machine (at least 1000 Yen/about a fiver) and get out a load of metal ball bearings.  Then the balls are fed into a kind of pinball machine, and you turn a dial to control how much force they come out with... then the ones that fall through a particular hole come back out again and you can keep them or put them back in... you can then exchange these balls for prizes... Tom's 1000 Yen went pretty quickly, so there must be some knack to it that we don't know about... but there were old men there with about twenty baskets of balls at their feet... too much time on their hands?!?  I won't judge...

Anyway... that was our last day in Tokyo... we went and got our bags and headed to Asakusa to check into a capsule hotel for the night... A capsule hotel is a lot like the Ace Inn, except that each little cabin has a TV, radio and alarm and a little control console inside... it was on our list of things to do in Japan, and we got there!!

And that's about it... I did warn you that this was going to be a stonking great blog, didn't I?!?!  If you managed to stick with it, then thanks very much!!  It's taken several sittings in very dodgily connected Beijing internet cafes to get this written up, so I hope it was worth the wait :) 

There are SO many more photos of Japan, which you can, as always, find in the flickr account - My Japan photos and Tom's Japan photos
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