We arrived in Hangzhou after a bumpy flight on the 7th april to hot humid weather. The streets and cities in China are pristine compared to those in most of India.
In the seven years since I was there the city has expanded considerably but the beautiful West Lake is a world away and a quiet haven with large parks and trees surrounding the enormous lake. We stayed in a small local ‘MK Inn’ where the bed was very comfortable and the room had all mod cons.
We spent four peaceful days there walking around the lake and taking a trip back to the university to visit a lovely waitress Ting Bing Hong who looked after me seven years before making sure I had a good seat and who always brought me a boiling hot glass of water when I was in the cafeteria.
The inn seemed to be run by a couple of very efficient girls and one of them took us down the road to show us where to catch the bus. We used ‘Wee chat’ to communicate as they had no English. They were nonetheless very helpful.
We purchased a Sim card with much sign language. Again the staff were keen to help us and even showed us down the street to a vegetarian restaurant.
The department store nearby was beautifully appointed and the fruit and vegetables in the basement supermarket were top quality and expensive.
The public transport system was cheap and very efficient and the infrastructure there was excellent.
Nearly all the bikes and scooters in the cities are electric so you have to watch stepping out from the pavement as they are so quiet. Most of the motorbikes and scooters had duvet like covers over the handle bars and down to the base to protect riders from the weather. They looked a bit incongruous.
I would suggest anyone visiting China to take t-bags or leaf tea because it is very expensive to buy a cup around $12-15. Coffee was cheaper but mostly only Starbucks which I don’t like. We did find a lovely little coffee shop in the main tourist area of Hangzhou with real Italian style coffee with a good barista who gave us a good recommendation to a local restaurant near Hefang St. Some of the diners were amazed we were there and a woman who spoke English came up to us and congratulated us for eating at a local place. The food and unlimited tea there was very good.
After a couple of days the weather turned cold which was good to preserve the beautiful Cherry and plum blossoms all around West Lake.
We only saw a handful of foreign tourists but there were many local tourists which was very evident at the music fountain in the evenings at West Lake where thousands would gather to watch the wonderful waving fountains to lovely music.
The weather changed with torrential rain and a change from 29degrees to 13degrees.
Taxis were cheap where a half hour trip only cost $10.
I had purchased tickets on the fast train from Hanghzhou’s east station to Shanghai online and the tickets were waiting for us
at the inn. ‘Real China’ provide a great service. The station is enormous and extremely well organized so that you can only access the platforms from the main concourse about 15minutes before the train is due to depart and passengers are well organized into two groups depending on which carriages you are taking. The system is extremely efficient and easy to find your way.
We arrived at the central station in Shanghai which is a bit daunting as there are so many exits. Edwina (Maurice’s cousin who we were staying with) sent her driver ‘Mr Chen’ who eventually found us. He had very limited English to we communicated with
wee chat which would translate our English into characters and vice versa from him. It worked very well.
Maurice had unfortunately started coughing in Hangzhou but we managed to have a good day’s sightseeing in the old ‘French concession area’ in Puxi and along the Bund in Shanghai with it’s beautiful old buildings before he came down with pneumonia.
That night we caught a taxi from the metro and had great difficulty finding the house as it was dark, I had the main address which was not the gate near the house and the taxi driver was getting very agitated. I jumped out of the car several times to ask the secu
Edwina and her family lived in an Expat gated community in Jinqiao and you could be forgiven for thinking it was in the USA. A US architect had specially been commissioned to make it look like that to make the expats feel at home! There was also an Italian area, a Spanish area and many other nationality areas. Each gate was guarded 24hours a day and gates closed at night.
There were many international schools dotted about the area.
While Maurice was receiving IV antibiotics at the well equipped expat clinic around the corner for three days, I took the metro which is also very efficient and cheap into the city of Pudong opposite the Bund to visit the historical museum in the amazing Pearl Tower and the ‘Aurora’ Porcelain and Jade museum. Edwina and I and a friend of hers also went to the quaint small water town of Yinchang where we again were the only foreign tourists. Edwina knew of a good cafe there owned by a film director who appreciated good coffee.
One of Edwina’s ‘Brits Abroad’ people had organized a walking tour near the Bund so Edwina and I joined that for an interesting three hour walk seeing some of the old dance halls and hotels and from where some of the more infamous drug lords of China lived.
We flew after two weeks in China from Shanghai to Tokyo and took the Tokyo Express from the Airport to Yokohama and the area of Totsuka which took about 1 1/2hours. Craig and Yuko met us for a meal before heading back to their apartment.
Yuko and I went back to Tokyo (about 1/2 hour) and booked all of our Shinkansen (bullet trains) for the week of moving around Japan to see the cherry blossoms and wisteria blooms. We had a delicious ramen meal with her parents at ‘Nagoya’ a very traditional Japanese restaurant. We walked around a lovely park in Yokohama with them and had afternoon tea at their house.
We had a surprise late dinner on the 70th storey of the Landmark hotel with a beautiful night view of Yokohama and Tokyo bay.
The following day we visited Kamakura, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, a very popular shrine with a lovely peoni garden. We ate in another traditional restaurant specializing in soba noodles.
Maurice who had not yet recovered really from the pneumonia decided that a whirlwind tour of Japan was not on the cards for him so after cancelling the flight and train tickets I ventured off on my own up to Kitakami half way up the main island of Hokkaido. The town itself is quite small and quaint but it’s crowning glory was the very long band of Cherry trees on the opposite side of the river to where I stayed. The trees were in full blossom and a real sight to behold. I caught the 5minute ferry across first thing in the morning so as to wander along the avenue of trees before the masses got there. The following morning I did the same and also climbed the hill behind the trees to see a wonderful folklore village of Michinoku. Climbing up another hill in the village gave me a wonderful view of the cherry trees from that side of the river.
I took the Shinkansen from there in the afternoon up to Hirosaki via Morioka in the far north and stayed at a lovely little local hotel located very close to the train station and in a pedestrian street lined with small cherry blossom trees. I took the bus from the train station to Hirosaki park which was just covered with cherry blossom trees again in full bloom. I spent the day wandering around the park and went up into the castle on precariously steep narrow steps to the top. Although it was cold there were many mostly local tourists picknicking in the park. I stayed until nightfall to see the trees lit up on both sides of the canals in the park which was a spectacular sight. Many thousands of local tourists did the same. I was surprised to see very few foreign tourists. There were many foodstalls selling everything from okonomiyaki to steamed potatoes with butter and a range of roasted chicken, meats and seafood. Known for bonsai, there was a small display in a covered building and I decided to play dress ups again with much help from the photographers. The Japanese tourists found it interesting that a foreigner would dress up in Kimono.
The next day I returned to the park and walked around the town of Hirosaki some of which appeared quite poor. Iwaki mountain which had a cap of snow loomed behind the town even though it was warm and humid that day. I walked back to the hotel and the following morning caught the airport bus to Aomori (known for its apples) airport for the JAL flight via Tokyo Haneda airport down to Fukuoka in the southern island of Kyushu.
After a metro ride from the airport to Hakata station I took the train to Kokura and stayed in the excellent Kokura hotel above the station which was very convenient and I had a lovely view of the vibrant city with it’s many alleyways full of shops and restaurants. Not much English was spoken but a very helpful young man shut his shop to take me to a good very small noodle restaurant down an alleyway. On the way we passed a man famous for taking his many cats for a walk in an adapted pram. A very unusual sight! The soup was delicious so I managed to find the place the following day much to the pleasure of the proprietor who told me in reasonable English that they had been operating for over 30years.
An early morning took me on the 7am train to Yahata station where I caught the free bus to the Kawachi Wisteria gardens about 20minutes away in the hills.
Yuko managed to get me a ticket for the gardens months before but then one must pay more again at the gate dependent on how full the wisteria blooms are. I paid another yen500 about Aud10 on that day.
I was one of the first into the wonderful gardens which comprised of two levels of archways covered with various wisteria as well as a bank of different coloured wisteria along by the entrance and a huge area of wisteria which had been trained up and along a vast framework. There are about 17 different colours of wisteria and they range from single to double varieties. It is planted on the side of a hill and there was a magnificent view of the canopy of wisteria from the top of the hill.
From Kokura a couple of hours on the Shinkansen took me to Hiroshima and then on a local train to Miyajimashina a small town opposite Miyajima island with it’s Heritage listed Itsukushima Shrine. After a night at the Miyajima Coral hotel overlooking the island I took the early morning ferry across before the crowds arrived. Deer roam freely on the island and it is a very quaint touristy place with the lovely shrine and Shinto temple and many cafes,grilled oysters, souvenir shops and restaurants. A helpful man at the tourist office in Miyajimashima recommended for me to walk up to the Buddhist temple of Daisho-in. I was not disappointed. It was a beautiful set of temples in a very tranquil area on the side of a hill. Many small statues of children with knitted or crocheted hats adorn the gardens. Parents who have lost their children take good care of Jizo images, as though they were their lost children.
I was lucky to catch the high speed ferry (45minutes and yen 2000) from Miyajima island to Hiroshima. The possibility of catching the ferry depends on the tides – too low and they can’t travel and too high and the ferry won’t fit under the bridges.
The ferry docks very close to the remains of the Hiroshima Prefecftural Industrial building, a sad remnant of the atomic bomb. I went to the museum but only lasted 5 minutes. There were throngs of foreign tourists, many American lined up to see the horrific photos of the aftermath of the bomb. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough so decided on the hop off hop on bus. I got off and asked a man walking a dog (decided he would be local) where I could get a good Okonomiyaki for lunch. He pointed me in the direction of a couple of them and I chose a small one which was extremely busy and the food was delicious even though there was a long wait. Back to the vast station to pick up my bags from a locker and then take the Shinkansen Mizumo (an especially fast train) to Nagoya where I met up with Maurice and Yuko’s parents who accompanied him from Yokohama. They took us to a wonderful restaurant overlooking the impressive Nagoya castle set amongst a vast area of forest.
Although Yuko’s parents speak virtually no English we managed to communicate very well.
Craig and Yuko arrived the next morning with a hire vehicle and we set off for Tenagawa park, another Wisteria viewing point near a lake. The wisteria were another stunning display along a canal with particular double blooms. We enjoyed special macha tea and mochi (sticky rice balls filled with bean paste and decorated with a wisteria flower). We drove to Nagoya castle where Yuko and I walked around and saw many people lined up to have a photo with the written symbol of the new Japanese era of Reiwa. We happened to be there with the abdication of the last emperor and the installation (their word) of the new emperor. We ate in a park restaurant where many of the women were dressed in Kimono for the special day before all catching the Shinkansen back to
Yokohama where we farewelled Kazuo and Yoko. Craig had left his car at the station so we set off for the Ashikaga Flower park on the other side of Tokyo (about 1 1/2 hours away). As we neared the park about 8.30pm we saw a terrific traffic jam with thousands of cars entering and leaving the park. Craig dropped Yuko and me so we could walk in and see the park lit up before it closed at 9.30pm. We walked to the train nearby and went to a neighbouring town where we had a late dinner at a typical bar/restaurant (the only think open) with many merry Japanese having a good time.
We found the hotel and Maurice and Craig and the next morning we took the train (1stop) back to the flower park to see the absolutely stunning displays of every kind of flower in bloom. There were many thousands of local tourists enjoying the park which was well supplied with eating spots, chairs and tables. After a couple of hours we continued into the mountains to a wonderful old Onsen hotel where we enjoyed the thermal waters and had a fantastic long dinner with many courses including abalone, West Australian Steak and a great assortment of other food. We experienced the only rain that we had had in almost a
month and it was very foggy so we made our way back to Totsuka and packed, ready for our flight the next day to Singapore via Bangkok. I went to see the new ‘Jewel’ at Singapore airport which is an enormous five storey structure in between the Terminals with an amazing vertical waterfall amongst beautiful vegetation and five storeys of shops, cafes and restaurants.
A few noteworthy points in Japan: An extremely organized country with very polite people. Not many of the older generation speak English but are very helpful. There are many public toilets but very thin toilet paper and many benches on which to rest all over the country however very few rubbish bins. They have a policy of taking your own rubbish home to be recycled which was a bit inconvenient as I carried rubbish around for a long time before I eventually found a bin. Good to know in advance. There is far too much plastic used with many food items double or triple wrapped. Every packet opens easily unlike many at home.
The JR rail pass is expensive but very easy to use and many local trains and a few ferries are included in the price and the Trains in a station are easy to find with very good signage and explanations in English once you are on the train.
The signs are a mixture of English and American – with Elevators but lavatories and toilets not bathrooms. Most toilet seats are heated and some padded which made the ones at home look primitive. The only perplexing thing if you don’t read characters is where to stand on the platform for an approaching train as they only stop for about a minute so if you cannot find your carriage you need to walk through many carriages when the train has left the station. This luckily only happened to me once. There is no checking of your ticket once on the train and the conductors who seem to walk continuously up and down the train bow on entering and departing each carriage.
The train stations in China were enormous and also extremely well organized.
I would recommend a trip to China and Japan in early April if you want to experience the amazing displays of cherry blossoms, wisteria, rhododendrons and other flowers.

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