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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