Archives for the month of: November, 2015

We set off to “Oshino Hakai” next which is a another very popular tourist spot with many busloads of Chinese tourists. There were eight ponds of the clearest water from Mt Fuji and one pond was 8 metres deep.

From there we continued to Hakone to see a shop with very beautiful marquetry woodwork and where we bought a few items. We stopped for coffee in Hakone at a bakery/cafe where you could sit and overlook the lake with your feet in a large foot bath below the large bench table. We just opted for normal seating on the first floor.

Our last two nights were spent in Yokohama in the guest appartment of the block where Maurice’s son Craig and his wife Yuko live. We slept on futons with quilts for most of our stay in Japan and found them very comfortable. Even the bath had push button controls which spoke to us.
From Craig and Yuko’s appartment you could see Mt Fuji on a clear day. We walked down the road to a small “Okonomiyaki” pancake style eatery and ate delicious thin pancakes filled with lots of cabbage and seafood.

Our last full day was spent shopping and a trip to the Nissan headquarters to see their latest cars.
We always enjoyed looking at the goods in the supermarket and it was interesting to see prices of various items like a rockmelon which was nicely packaged and cost about $130! On the road we saw many trees where fruit had been individually wrapped in white paper.

We had lunch on the 70th floor of the “Landmark Tower” with Yuko’s delightful parents and had spectacular views of the Yokohama port and harbour. After lunch we drove to the old area of Yokohama and the cruise terminal whch was a unique building with interesting wooden walkways which afforded great views towards Yokohama and the old part of the city.

Craig and Yuko went to so much trouble organising train tickets and accommodation and giving us good tips and directions to make travel in and out of Tokyo and Kyoto so easy. They even got us very useful “Suica” cards which are a rechargeable card for use on the metro, in some shops and at some snack machines. I was surprised when I bought a can of coffee from an automatic dispensing machine that it was hot and Craig told us that in winter all the drinks bar water and beer were hot.

We drove to near Yokohama station where we met up with Alison and Ryuma to have another good “Izakaya” meal where we had a great variety of dishes.

We detoured on the way home to see the English language school that Craig and Yuko run. It was interesting to see that they were working at the same profession as my mother and Maurice’s mother had chosen many years before.

The next morning We farewelled Craig and Yuko at the train station before taking the Shinkansen back to Narita airport for the 6 1/2 hour plane trip back to KL before flying home to Perth the next morning after a few hour’s sleep.

It was wonderful to see so many snapshots of Japan from two of the largest cities to the lovely countryside and mountains and smaller towns in Honshu. Japan now has about 120 million people living in 47 prefectures. We will go back to Japan to see Craig and Yuko and who treated us to such a wonderful stay. We would like to explore more of that lovely country.

The people we encountered in any service industry were so helpful, polite and courteous in a formal way not found in any other country we had visited to date.

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We arrived at the wonderful Yarimikan-shin Hotake hotel, part of which had been relocated from another part of Japan and which had 8 different “onsen” or hot spring pools where you could soak at any time. You first had to go to the shower room and wash and then you could either dip into the onsen inside or choose one of the other eight located along the hill close to the river.
The hotel only used the thermal spring water for all it’s heating and cooling and even to cool the drinks and boil the eggs, very eco-friendly.

The staff were very professional, welcoming and efficient and there was an enormous variety and amount of Japanese cuisine at it’s best. We enjoyed every minute there. They even had an honour system for buying drinks – you just took them out of a large hollowed out log filled with cold running water and write what you had taken on a sheet of paper on the desk. I couldn’t imagine being able to do that in many countries.

The food was all very fresh including the twitching fish which was given to Maurice. It was taken away rather quickly and replaced with another variety which had been well cooked. The variety and quality of all the food was astounding.
The next morning we had have a go at pounding rice into “mochi” which was delicious eaten with sweet bean paste.

We reluctantly left the hotel the next morning and continued on to Lake Suwa, an area known for making precision tools. Long winding roads with forests interspersed with lovely autumn colours took us to Matsumoto castle where we climbed the several storeys, some with their very steep wooden steps up to the top for a wonderful view of the moat and surrounding area.

The lovely autumn colours continued and we reached Kawaguchiko Lake where from our hotel Konan-su we had a wonderful view of Mt Fuji from our room and a private hot tub on the balcony. We chose an early dinner and had another wonderful array of many beautifully presented dishes.

The toilet in our room was the most high tech one we had seen. The light came on when you opened the door and the toilet seat automatically was raised. The seat was of course heated and a panel on the wall allowed you many functions including rushing water noises. We were lucky to see Fuji that day and in the early evening as it was clouded over the following day.

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We met up with Maurice’s son Craig and his lovely Japanese wife Yuko at Takayama station. They had taken some days off from their English teaching school in Yokohama to show us around some lovely old traditional towns, one being Takayama with it’s specialty shops of quality souvenirs and Sake shops where I bought a small Sake cup and tried half a dozen different Sakes and which I could later keep.

Our first night was spent in Shirakawa-go at the Nodaniya Ryokan which is part of a local owner’s house. Check in times were about 3pm but breakfasts were served very early at 7.30am up to 8.30am and some had a time limit for breakfast. Check out times were also very early, one at 9am and one at 10am.

Shirakawa-go is a very popular tourist destination especially during the day with busloads of local and foreign tourists wandering around the quaint town with it’s thatch roofed houses. A concrete covered suspension bridge brought the bulk of tourists into the town. We took pictures from a hill high above the town and had a coffee in a very quaint shop in the middle of town. After the tourist buses left for the day it was lovely and quiet and an old style rural village.

We drove further into the mountains where we caught a double storey cable car up the Shin Hotake Ropeway to over 2000metres where it was a cold 1 degree with a cutting wind. The views over the mountains and down to the valley where we were to spend the night were however spectacular. At the higher altitudes a lot of the trees had already lost their leaves and below the trees were still changing colour.

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We took a taxi to the north side of Kyoto station to the “My Stay” accommodation which was a more compact and modern hotel. It did have extras such as a heated part of the bathroom mirror which didn’t fog up after a shower. Other more expensive hotels could learn from that.
We decided to do a reconnaissance of the station we would use the following day to go to Arashiyama, a popular tourist spot around the hilly western side of Kyoto. Half the day was gone by then so we
opted to take the train to the Fushimi Inari Shrine with it’s more than 1000 red poles set in a lovely tiered garden setting. Back at Kyoto station we took a bus back to the hotel, had a rest and then set off on foot to Gion (the historical part of town)where we had dinner and wandered around the atmospheric alleyways. Many young girls and some older women were dressed in Kimono but we didn’t see any of the fully made up Geisha who work in that area. We had walked many kilometres that day and staggered back to the hotel after dinner.

We caught the 8.17am Randen Saga tramway and then took the Torokko scenic train (with views of the river below)to the Arashiyama area with the white gloved station staff waving us off. We transferred to a bus for the 1/2 hour journey to the Hozugawa river at Komaneka where we boarded the flat bottomed river boat for the 1/45minute ride down the river with it’s gentle rapids and the view of the forest displaying a few lovely autumn colours. We were the only foreigners on the boat and unfortunately missed out on the lively commentary by the three boatmen who were jolly fellows and who had the passengers in fits of laughter. A drawback not knowing the language.

The boat took us to the centre of Arashiyama with it’s many temples and tourist shops.
We found our way to the Tenryu-ji temple and walked around the gardens before having a delicious lunch (which Yuko had booked for us, given it’s popularity)at one of the temple buildings sitting cross legged on tatami mats.

The main street was bustling with many tourists, mainly local and we found a cheerful “Rikisha” or rickshaw driver who took us to the amazing bamboo forest about a kilometre away and then dropped us at a bridge near the river where we were interviewed and filmed by Kyoto tourism who just happened to be where we had stopped. The rickshaw ride was pricey at $70 for 20minutes but it was a Japanese experience and the young guy had to pull us all the way. We apologised for being heavier than the average weight of his passengers but he told us that the rickshaw could take 250kilos but that he could only manage 200kilos – I forgot to ask if that was for two or only one passenger but it was a fairly snug fit for the both of us.

The JR train took us back to Kyoto station where we caught a bus to the historic Nijo-jo castle,an enormous one storey series of wooden reception rooms and residence to the ruling Shoguns. The huge grounds full of plum trees and a large lake were surrounded by a very thick stone wall surrounding the moat. Walking around the castle and gardens took us a good two hours.

We caught the bus back to Gion where we stopped for dinner before making our way back along the main brightly lit shopping streets to the hotel for an early night.
When walking on the wide footpaths we had to continuously dodge bicycles which seemed to have no
defined route (left or right). This seemed so strange to us as most things were done in such an orderly fashion.

We left the hotel at 7am to take the bus to Kyoto station and boarded the Shinkansen to Takayama with a change at Nagoya to the “Hida” wide windowed scenic train trip through the hills and river below. We passed many fields with bright yellow rice crops and many persimon trees laden with fruit. They seem to be a very popular fruit here in Japan and many have been grown into a square shape. Rockmelons are a perfect shape and a fantastic price packaged mainly as gifts.

Buses were entered at the back of the bus via a sliding door and passengers paid when leaving the bus either with correct change or with pre paid cards. There are change machines on some of the buses and all stations are displayed on a screen and announced in Japanese and English.

We met up with Maurice’s son Craig and his Japanese wife Yuko at Takayama station. They had taken some days off from their English teaching school in Yokohama to show us around some lovely old traditional towns, one being Takayama with it’s specialty shops of quality souvenirs and Sake shops where I bought a small Sake cup and tried half a dozen different Sakes.

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We had very smooth flights from Rome to Dubai on the 18th October, a couple of nice days with our friend Alan and a lovely swim at Jumeirah beach before continuing two days later to KL for one night (well 4hours sleep) and then at 7am on the 22nd October to Narita airport arriving at 3pm, in time to exchange our Japan rail passes for vouchers, pick up our pre-ordered data sim card (which can only be rented and not bought) and get on the Narita express train to Shinjuku station – all very easy to find and everything well ordered, neat, clean and very organized with white gloved ushers showing us the way to the metro. The only difference on the metro here in Japan is that no-one offered Maurice a seat unlike in Russia and China.

The signage at the train stations and at bus stops was very good and if we needed to ask a question we found that the comprehension of English was pretty good so we found our way easily to the Central East exit of the station (one of 200 exits). The Gracery hotel in Shinjuku district where we spent three nights with an enormous “Godzilla” head as it’s feature was easily located down a couple of more or less pedestrian areas in the Kabukicho area (one known for never sleeping) full of cafes and restaurants, some open 24hours as well as girly bars and clubs. It was a very popular area especially at night with streets full of people. Outside some of the clubs were African men in suits and some colourful transvestites. We felt very safe everywhere and people very always willing to help us with directions or general information.

Some main streets were very wide with a myriad of pedestrian crossings in every direction.
We checked in (also very efficient) and made our way in the speedy lift to the 29th floor where we had quite a surprisingly spacious room with every amenity possible. There was a separate bath-room where you could sit outside the bath to shower or relax in the bath. The basin was outside, opposite the bath area. A note about many of the toilets in the hotels and department stores in Japan: They had heated seats and many made gurgling sounds when you sat down. They also had various push button functions, one was to have music playing to disguise any unwanted sounds.
That night we found a small noodle bar/restaurant just opposite the hotel and were seated in a small booth where we could close the door. The delicious soup with noodles and vegetables only cost us about $9 each. We were feeling decidedly “zombieish” so after a brief walk went back and crashed. There were thousands of eateries everywhere and many places where we could eat good food for under $10 and be fully sated.

We had a 12hour sleep after our previous night’s four hours before heading for the metro to see the Imperial Palace’s external garden with it’s topiaried pines and one of the bridges leading to the palace. The weather was very mild and we were lucky to have no rain and quite a lot of sunshine in Tokyo. We happened upon Hibiya Park near the palace where a band was playing and there were beautiful small garden and floral displays and many stalls advertising all things for the garden as well as a couple of food stalls. We tried sticky rice balls with soya sauce and delicious mussel miso soup and roasted black tea as well as a variety of sushi all of which was very reasonably priced.

We walked to the Mitsubishi building where we decided to take the Hop On Hop Off bus and do the Asakusa Tokyo skytree route which gave us a good overview of the Asakusa, Ueno and Akihabara areas of Tokyo as well as seeing the Skytree which is the second highest structure in the world after Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The route took about an hour before we left it and took the metro with a transfer back to the hotel for a bit of a break before going out for dinner to an “Izakaya” restaurant with our friend Alison who lives in Tokyo and is teaching English. This style of restaurant was used by many businessmen after working late and was a drinking establishment which served food to accompany drinks. In some one sat on tatami mats or at low tables (we opted for that) and there was usually a time limit of a couple of hours to eat and drink what you wanted. Food could be ordered to share at any time. Young green soy beans were served as a snack and were very refreshing and moorish. We ate a variety of food from cold tofu to eggplant dishes, herbed omlette and crunchy tempura style vegetables. This I washed down with a mixed sake, soda and lemon drink which had a slightly sour but pleasant taste.

A lot of the metro interchange walks were much shorter but more of a maze than the corresponding ones in Beijing and London where some transfer corridors were more than a kilometre long. They were however well signposted with more white gloved ushers showing us the way in areas under reconstruction. The whole transport system and information areas were well manned and very efficiently run. The Japanese are very safety conscious on all levels with written and verbal warnings everywhere. The order also extended to queues with a lot of lines drawn on the ground with footprints showing one where to stand at the ATM machines behind the person making the transaction.
Although Tokyo only has a couple more million people than Beijing it felt a lot more crowded especially on the streets with people seeming to move along in waves. In Tokyo we saw relatively few western foreigners but many groups of local and Chinese tourists with their tour leaders holding their flags.

The city with it’s 14 million people was vast so we took the hop on hop bus again as we still had half a day’s validity on the tickets. We just made the bus by a couple of minutes running the last few metres. We knew that if we were a minute late it would have been gone. The “Odaiba” route took us past the Tokyo tower and on the expressway over the river to the Ginza area past various other districts. We got off and after a good cup of coffee in the “Doutor” cafe we wandered around the streets of the Ginza area, one of which had been blocked off on the weekend and set up with tables, chairs and umbrellas.
We went back on the metro to Asakusa where we found the Senso-ji temple and it’s myriad of souvenir shops which lined the way to the temple.
Many worshipers were taking wooden sticks which had a slip of paper inside. If the message was one of good fortune they would tie the paper on a rack and if it was not one of good fortune it was thrown away. A good way of avoiding bad fortune!
There were many restaurants in the area and we chose a soba noodle one for a bowl of soup and tempura vegetables. This was fairly pricey but apparently usual for that tourist area.

We took the train back to the hotel for a rest and a bath with bath salts that had been given to us with the written instruction “Do not eat”.
Refreshed we took a JR train ride included on our Japan rail pass (which had to be purchased prior to arrival in Japan)to the Shibuya district. We exited at the “Hatchiko” exit, complete with statue of the dog Hatchiko who was owned by a university professor and who used to accompany him to the station every day and wait for him to return from work. The professor died unexpectedly in 1925 and the dog returned to the station every day for 10 years waiting for his owner. Street vendors fed and cared for him until he died in 1935.

We met Alison and her Japanese boyfriend Ryuma at the station and had a look at a multi storey shop with all sorts of weird and wonderful clothing and accessory items for young girls. Some of the shop assistants and customers looked like they were ready for a fancy dress party but it was their “normal” clothing. Some excessively gaudy costumes were a prelude to Halloween which is widely celebrated in Japan for several weeks.

We ate at the top storey of a large department store adjacent to the station. There were many restaurants all with their popular plastic food displays. We chose an “Udon” noodle restaurant.
I asked Ryuma why there was a need for these replicas for locals who could read Japanese menus and he told me that Japanese people like to see what the actual dish would look like and are attracted if it looks appetising. A bit like a recipe book with photos. Most of the actual dishes did also look like their plastic replicas so I too thought it a good idea. Some plastic food looked very authentic but some looked as though it had already been eaten. The plastic food manufacturers (a whole street in Tokyo as well as in some other cities) can charge many hundreds of thousands of yen for a complete menu in plastic. There were approximately 90yen to the Australian dollar.

The following morning we checked out of the hotel using a machine not unlike an ATM machine and caught the JR line to Tokyo station where we changed for the “Shinkansen” or bullet train – one of the slower ones at only 300kms an hour for the 2 3/4h hour trip to Kyoto.

The dense low rise housing near the city was very stark with virtually no trees but this gave way to more residential housing with more greenery and then low hills. It was a beautiful warm and sunny clear day and we got a good view of Mt Fuji on the way down to Kyoto. We found our way to our traditional “Ryokan” but were early for their 3pm check in time so we left our bags (the large bags had been left at the hotel in KL and we were glad of that as there were many stairs to climb at some of the stations) and went across the road to the Higashi Honganji temple which was undergoing a large restoration project and they were also celebrating the 750th anniversary of their founder.
We found a local coffee shop which specialized in coffee where the beans had been individually roasted or that’s what it said on the door. Unfortunately for one who was used to espresso coffee this was more like milk with a dash. The coffee was brewed and was very weak but at least I tried it. I did manage to get them to add a little more coffee so that it had some flavour.

Back at the ryokan and were served green tea and given a tour of the lovely traditional inn which had been operating since 1839. The calming nature of the inn and scent of wood with the traditional rice paper doors and tatami mats made it a very atmospheric and authentic old world Japanese experience. A complete Japanese breakfast was included but as the B and B experience was very pricey we dared not eat our evening meal there so we opted for another department store where there were several restaurants on the top floor.
We found one which served the gyoza (delicious vegetable dumplings which were steamed and very lightly fried)and noodle soup and a nice waitress helped us to pay for the meal by putting money into a machine with pictures of each dish. Once we had bought our tickets we were directed to sit outside to wait for a table. Once we were seated inside the tickets were then taken and food prepared. It saved on waiters and if a mistake was made it was made by the customer.

There are simple restaurants galore and also an abundance of vending machines selling every conceivable kind of drinks and snacks. Maurice’s son Craig sent us “Suica” cards which were a rechargeable debit card for use on the metro and at some food stores, cafes and vending machines and which saved on buying bus and metro tickets each time we travelled.

The Ryokan gave us bath kimonos and cute kits similar to ones on planes with socks, toothbrush, comb etc. We luxuriated in the enormous bath which had been run for us. The house comprised of only 8 rooms and was very quiet (given the paper thin walls)and we had a wonderful night’s sleep.

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