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Author: A Potato in a Rice Field
Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Year ’13
Note, this is a long journal so there’s an easier, downloadable eBook option over there on the sidebar>
I take no credit for this itinerary. It was 100% Fanfan, from start to finish, and I was happy to join along, eating, drinking and indulging in the weirdness of Japan along the way. I think her itinerary would be best described as ‘extreme sightseeing’ where we’d travel ridiculous distances to photograph stuff only to travel ridiculous distances back again. The first day is an early example where we travel 1,200 km, to the northern parts of Japan, to photograph trees in a park, then return back to Tokyo. To be fair, the trees did have flowers on them. So this would set a precedent for our travels on a 2 Week JR Pass and, as I was slightly concerned by the extensive travel plans, I do add my own tick-list to complete along the way including local and cultural experiences. They are here:
I can say in total, I complete 9 of these experiences, in what turns out to be a harmonious journey of local culture and far-flung sightseeing. Note, this is a long post so there’s an easier, downloadable eBook option over there on the sidebar>
For the two weeks we stay in Japanese business hotels; smart, compact and convenient to almost every transit route. A favourite with the city’s salarymen. They are also, in many ways, identical, with a squashed double bed, Japanese toilet facilities and just enough space to get to and from the door out. If you’re not messy they’re perfect. Starting with the bathroom: every facility will be fitted with electronic toilets (washlets) with water sprays to take care of ‘anal and genital cleansing’. Occasionally these toilets come with heated toilet seats (warmlets) and optional running water music, to help you on your way. The bathtubs are a bit like one-person plunge baths, tall and square where next to them you’ll find all the essential and non-essential toiletries such as shampoos, disposable toothbrushes and the lend of pajamas and slippers. Water from the tap is good for consumption and the kettle in the room makes the perfect pairing for late night, instant ramen. Rooms include keycard access, air-conditioning, flat screen tv’s, video on demand and humidifiers, whatever they do (humidify my guess). I spend each night slurping instant ramen and watching overzealous cooking shows “oishi, oishiii!” Considering we spend only $60 / per night (on average) this is fantastic value for money. We do mix it up on occasion, but this tends to the gist of it. Away from these business / salaryman hotels we find very few, cheaper hotel options. I’m guessing it’s because there’s no demand for them. Japanese people have both money and high standards, and backpackers are next to none. Also, check in often is at 3pm, and checkout is normally around 10am. Ideal Salaryman times and with a packed itinerary we barely notice. Throughout the post I will link nearby hotel lists for anyone considering similar travels. As with the rest of Asia we use Agoda for booking.
Arrive to Japan, without a JR Pass, and you’re doing it very wrong. For travel to further parts of the country, the JR pass is indispensable and unbeatable in value. Where we pay around $380 US pp for a 2 week JR pass, we travel close to 10,000 km. This is the equivalent of one quarter of the world’s circumference and on the first day alone we travel 1,200 km. I do suggest weighing up your travel plans with the cost per ticket etc. but the better option maybe to just get the JR pass, then push it to its limits. For two weeks we’d hop from train to train, destination to destination, hotel to hotel following the JR rail networks. We’d nip between major cities on the Shinkansen bullet trains, then, for shorter stretches, we’d use the local JR lines. In all we found very few limitations to our travel and on the occasions where JR lines don’t cover journeys, we’d pay the extra for local metros, train lines, buses, and the occasional taxi. I will outline them all throughout this post. Also, a great website to pull together a schedule is Hyperdia (in no way sponsored). Note, JR passes can only be obtained outside of Japan.
Cities are hard to set apart when rattling along the backs of houses, on dimly lit train lines. Arriving to Tokyo it feels no different, and were it not for the alien neon lettering at junctions, we could have been in any city of the world. “It reminds me of China” Fanfan mutters at a time I was feeling the same. It is at this point where I realize just how little I know about Japan. My first impressions? It’s not as grainy as Akira Kurosawa movies, and nowhere near as animated as Manga or Studio Ghibli productions. This is how I know Japan; through movies and animation, with samurai and smiling eyes. I would soon go on to know and love Japan for many other reasons, expected and unexpected during our 2 week JR pass journeys. But it didn’t start great, where, from the beginning we are muddled, as we board a two hour journey from Narita Airport along a local line to Tokyo’s city centre. At Tokyo junction we mess through our connection to find ourselves lost at Bakurochō Station next to where our hotel is based. But we did arrive well prepared. We had screenshots, and Google maps, with directions from each station to our reserved hotels. Unfortunately Google maps forgot to tell us which station gate to start at, east or west, or which of the six exits to choose from. With limited options to us we climb back to street level and go it alone, trailing our bags through the empty back streets of Tokyo. It’s barely 9pm at the time and there’s not a soul in sight. The only signs of life come from brightly lit vending machines and hanging lanterns which front the late night izakaya sake bars. I can’t help notice the lights gleam, on streets so pristine, clean, that you’d happily serve teppanyaki from them. After roughly 10 mins lost, we harass a passerby for directions and he points us back in the opposite direction we came from. We eventually find the hotel and ready ourselves for the following morning’s journey.
Our first day on the JR Shinkansen Japanese bullet trains is, again, sloppy. Arriving for our first journey, from Tokyo to Morioka, we find the train ready and waiting. We jump on and go search for our designated seats to get comfortable before our departure in 20 mins. When we find the seats, we find they’re taken and we’re left scratching our heads, confused. We soon realize that Japanese trains are world-renowned for their punctuality, and meticulous timing. They arrive, and leave on the minute. If there is a delay of more than 5 minutes, there will be a public apology. If 20 minutes it will likely make headline news. So we find ourselves on the wrong, earlier train, travelling 540 km north, on a 2 hr 16 mins (approx. 245 km/hour, amazing) forced to sit on the floor beside the toilets. After too long of numb ass we decide to jump off, at the city of Sendai, to wait for our reserved train which lags 20 mins behind. So our travels today are to Morioka, the north of Japan, where we are chasing the last of Japan’s revered sakura blooms. In central Japan, Tokyo etc, they had been and gone in early April so now, closing in on the start of May, we are forced to colder, northern territories. Arriving to Morioka station (nearby hotels here) we planned to then bus to Takamasu-noike, where from here we would search for Takamatsu Pond. Trickier than expected. The local buses in Morioka have no English, whatsoever, so we rely on three eager bus employees to point out us to the right bus (E01, 220 yen). One of the highlights of my day had to be the bus driver, who announces in his oddly camp and cartoony voice, that it was our stop to hop off, and points back, across the road, to a lane which leads towards Takamatsu Pond. We follow his path to find a picturesque lake with sakura blooms, birds, wildlife and snowy peaks behind. Fanfan gets photos, I get drunk under sakura blooms, then we start back to Morioka for our next destination.
Finding the bus station was easier than expected as most buses passing are eventually going to get there. We find a bus shelter then hop onto a couple on passing “railway station?”. The second takes us. Japanese buses are slightly different to buses I know where you board in the middle doors, take a ticket on the way in and show it when you get off. Pay the fee. The fee will coincide with the stop you hopped on at and is displayed on a digital board at the front of the bus. So we did have other plans for Morioka but I could only think of food by now. Since arriving we’ve eaten only konbini (convenience store) snacks; instant ramen at the hotel on arrival, then extra-long sushi rolls and random onigiri (rice balls) on the go. At the mall food court next to the station we go exploring and fail to see past the Kare (Japanese curry) restaurant. Entering we are greeted with smiling eyes “hajimemashite” (nice to meet you), a greeting we would hear throughout. People are unbelievably friendly in Japan; albeit in a robotic and impersonal manner, at times. “Arigatou gozaimashita” is the polite reply of thank you but we lazily shorten to “arigatou”. Leaving again “hajimemashite”. Next up is Beard Papas “Fresh and Natural Cream Puffs” and a favorite of Fanfan’s when living in Bangkok. The popular filling here, after cream, is matcha (Green Tea) which is an option on almost every dessert and drinks menu throughout Japan. Green Matcha Kit-Kats are well know. In short, Japanese love green tea.
Leaving Morioka we return towards Tokyo on the JR Shinkansen Bullet Trains only to disembark again at Sendai, this time on purpose. At Sendai we transfer trains to a local line and travel Northeast (40 mins) through the Miyagi District (sadly unrelated to Mister Miyagi) where we arrive to the coast of Matsushima (Kaigan) just before sunset. From the station we walk back, away from the coastline, and chase towards the hills, 2km, staggering up steep slopes. On a level of 1-10 in physical fitness we would probably sit around the 3 mark. 2.5 maybe. Much of this journey would be torture for us, but ultimately worth it. In the back hills of Matsushima we are in search of Saigyo Modoshi (No Matsu Park) where a view point overlooks Matsushima with its coastline of island karsts. There were also meant to be sakura blooms at this time, but they were yet to bloom, and Fanfan was sad. I, on the other hand, enjoyed Matsushima and after the trek back down to the coastal line, I go explore the seafront and a nearby island shrine. We watch the sunset on the coast with Sapporo beer and smells of grilled squid from a seafront yaki stall. “Ponyo, Ponyo, Ponyo fishy in the sea”. As the sun dips beyond the horizon, we make our way back to the train station and start back towards Sendai on the local JR line. From Sendai we are back on the JR Shinkansen trains to where we started this day in Tokyo. On this day we travel roughly 1,200 km, around 1/33rd of the entire world’s circumference. Overland, in one day.
For now we leave Tokyo behind, as we wake early, 4:30am, to travel 400 km southwest to our next base in Kyoto. Again we travel by the JR Shinakansen bullet trains only this time departing from Tokyo’s Shinagawa station. This means means navigating two stops on the local JR lines in Tokyo via the Sobu line and the Yokosuka line. During a transfer we jump off at the station and wait patiently for our next train to arrive at the same platform. It doesn’t. The train we were travelling on in fact switched lines, which meant we didn’t need to switch trains. Dragging 20 mins behind we eventually miss our reserved seats to Tokyo on the JR Shinkansen. We scrap the tickets, and get new ones for the next departure. Simple. The JR pass makes these procedures ridiculously easy. In 2 hours 40 mins we arrive to Kyoto Station (nearby hotels here) just 40 minutes behind are scheduled time, and still before 10am. The original plan here was to drop our bags at the hotel but, running late, I am forced to lug them over to the bus station and sit with them on a local bus crammed with tourists, as we travel to Kiyomizu-Dera Shrine (bus 206, Gojozaka stop, 500 Yen day-pass). There’s a lot going on in this area but Fanfan only had plans to rent a traditional Kimono for the day (5,400 yen). She does, and together
we giggle like geisha (close enough). Still with my bags, and in an area hiving with tourists, we ignore the nearby attractions and hail the first taxi out.
Taxi drivers here are a bit like limousine drivers; smartly dressed with pressed white gloves, only they’re missing the hat. At the hotel the driver helps with our luggage then bows and says “Hai”- “Hai” a lot. Hai is just a polite term of acknowledgement “Hai” – “Hai”. Our hotel is back near the Kyoto train station and costs 1,200 yen fare. Now luggageless we walk to Kyoto train station where we would travel, on the local JR lines, to Inari, or at least this is what we planned. Rushing through the station halt we board a rapid transit on the same line, which skips past the first few stops, including Inari. What should have been a 5 minute journey takes 20 minute where we then have to back track on the standard local train. Still making mistakes but they’re all easily corrected with the JR Pass. Again, Fushimi Irani Shrine is very touristy, so we don’t spend much time. Instead we remain on the lowers tiers of Inari, beneath the postcard tunnel of torii gates, where we succeed to snap tourist free photos of Fanfan in her pink Kimono. This was extremely difficult. We then veer off track and back to the Shinto temple which we had passed at the entrance.
I have some vague idea of Shintoism, through Anime of course, where the Kami (God’s) are often visualized in Ghibli productions and whatnot. Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are good examples. In short, Shintoism believes that ‘spiritual powers exist in the natural world’ such as in animals, plants, mountains and rivers. A famous example would be Mount Fuji, Japan’s most famous Shintai. As far as religions go Shintoism is one of the more intriguing and likable so I explore. At the front of Inari shrine we wash our hands, and rinse our mouths, at the water font cleansing before moving to the prayer hall. At the prayer hall we throw coins to the coffer, and ring the bells to summon the Kami. The kami at ‘Inari’ Shrine is in the form of a fox, which is shown throughout the area. The fox is the Shinto symbol for agriculture, fertility, rice, tea and sake etc. He’s kind of a big deal. We bow twice, clap twice then pray. We bow again and leave. This is the simple respect for shintoism and can be done at any shrine throughout Japan.
With Fanfan’s Kimono due back by 17:00pm we scrap further plans for the day, including Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Also, Fanfan’s itinerary was beginning to look insane. Instead we make our way back to Kiyomizu-Dera Shrine following the same route back from Inari, then boarding the same bus in Kyoto to the kimono rental shop. By now the tourist traffic had lightened at the Kiyomizu-Dera area. Midday crowds tend to be the worst, with day trippers and tour buses. Now, leading to closing times, are the temples are a lot easier to explore. So we check out the local temples, meh, then return the Kimono to the store. We bus back to the train station and call it a night. Until now, we managed to eat nothing the entire day. We had drinks of water, Fanfan had a coke, I had a beer (Kirin Nodogoshi Nama. Crisp and full bodied ) but yet, nothing to eat. It’s now close to 6pm. On the walk between Kyoto Station we go for a quick beef rice bowl at Yoshinoya, one of Japan’s biggest chain brands. We then stock up with cheap wine and sushi, at the Lawson’s next door, then we retreat to the hotel for the night. From our 10th floor mini-suite we relax with Kyoto city views and the melody of traffic and trains passing below. On the horizon is a backdrop of hills which quickly fade after sunset, as the rest of the city, including nearby Toji pagoda, come to life with light. Kyoto is a small city but there looks to be a lot going on.
The next morning we’re up and out early in Kyoto, which is the norm for us in travel. We are quick to the train station and onto the local JR (Sagaro) line which brings us to Saga-Arashiyama Station (16 mins), a convenient starting point for exploring the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. A short, 5 minute walk finds the bamboo grove where I chase through bamboo forests as I attempt to snap tourist free photos. This wasn’t so hard this time as very few tourists had arrived. However, the groves weren’t really what I expected. From pictures I always expected them to be more dense, maybe set in deep forest. Instead we find a couple of standalone alleys in the back walks of a quiet residential area. No doubt a nice route to walk the dog. Fortunately there is much more to this sleepy area with numerous gardens, temples and shrines dotted all over. One signpost reads Rakushisha – 6 min walk, Jojakkoji Templ – 7 min walk, Nison-In Temple – 9 min walk, Gioji Temple – 14 minute walk and Adashinonenbutsuji Temple – 20 min walk. We probably should have followed but, at the time, we were happy just to poke around in the local area which is quaint, cute and quiet. We visit a couple of smaller shrines then explore the backstreets where a number of affluent houses are set. We watch as a dowager, in traditional kimono dress, shuffles through in tiny steps, closely followed by her apprentices. A tourist follows along thinking she was a tourist attraction only to be bundled out of the property by the lady’s guards. I then spend unusual amounts of time just watching trains dart past a road junction. It’s just all so charming and picturesque.
By now I am aching pretty much everywhere below my mid-back, so we again take a break. Following the same line back we arrive to Kyoto station where Google had informed me, on the 10th floor, there was a ‘Ramen Alley’. An entire section dedicated to ramen noodles. Following a network of escalators we find it next to the Sky Gardens, where rooftop views look out towards Kyoto tower. We choose one of the less busy ramen restaurants where we queue for the front ticketing machines to place our order and pay. This process is common in Japan, a bit like fast food, where unnecessary ordering services are cut out and the ticket is sent direct to the kitchen. This is similar, I guess, to the sushi conveyor belts which I also dislike. It’s the pressure I can’t take, being hurried into decisions and with queues behind, I rush my order and of course get it wrong. While I manage to pick out my favourite slabs of chashu pork belly I find it served in a clear broth, miso maybe. I wanted the tonkotsu pork bone broth, preferably thick like liquefied pig, and full of delicious Japanese umami. My ramen were still fantastic, but Fanfan’s were better, and I am jealous.
Feeling positive again we decide to squeeze in a quick visit to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) following a 40 mins bus journey towards Kujyo bus depot in the south of Kyoto (city bus 205, 230 yen). The Golden Pavilion isn’t found near to any JR route so we expect this to be a quieter excursion where the less savvy travelers fail to reach. We are wrong. Most tourism in Kyoto is domestic tourism, day trippers and big bus tours, and arriving to the Golden Pavilion we quickly find ourselves caught up with them. This would also be our first pay in attraction (400 Yen entrance fee) and while we do literally, push in one end, then back out the other, the photo-ops in between are fantastic. Arriving to the front entrance we are first directed to our left to the “photography area” with unobstructed views of the Golden Pavilion. Don’t miss this. We then follow a path to rush through the rest past smaller shrines, housing and ornate gardens along the way. As we reach the exit my attention is drawn to the trinkets stands which is a first for me. I can’t remember buying tourist tack, ever, but when I cute Japanese girl coaxes me with “sake”, “sake” I make an exception. I then exit with a 300ml bottle of floating gold leaf sake (750 yen). Even more unusual; I also learn a bit of the history while here. Through generations the Matsui brewery supplied sake to the Kinkaku family of the Golden Pavilion. Learning culture, and getting drunk. Win. Leaving the temple we then trek back to the main road where take the return bus back to Kyoto train station (bus 205). We pick up our bags from hotel storage and start our next stretch directly north to Kanazawa.
Kyoto is no doubt a top tourist destination. It has fascinating culture and attractions to explore, for weeks and longer, but it is also a hive for tourists. It’s probably a place travelers would like, a place to mingle and make friends, share notes and chit-chat in coffee shops. But it’s not for me and ultimately I am relieved to leave. In the early evening we arrive to Kyoto station with just enough time for Katsu Curry (curry with pork cutlet) at a trackside kiosk. At the time I expect to pay a premium at the station, like captive marketing, but this isn’t the case. In Japan; snack kiosks, vending machines, even the airports have similar pricing to the kombini corner shop stores. It’s almost as if they don’t want to screw hard working schmos out of well-earned pennies. Ridiculous I know, but the Japanese tend to be more honorable in this respect. So the journey takes just over two hours to Kanazawa on the JR rapid line, travelling on a train called the Thunderbird (Track 0). It’s an enjoyable journey which is partly due to gold leaf sake. After a quick two hours we arrive to an unlikely transit hub at Kanazawa Station (nearby hotels here) where we open to vast, empty spaces surrounded by little more than towering hotels and parking lots. Call me weird but this is more my thing. I am oddly obsessed with loneliness in transit. I enjoy the temporary disconnection from the world, and, where others seek like-minded travelers for comfort in familiarity, I often go the opposite, in search of that peculiar sense of otherness. Either way, it sure beats tourist packed attractions.
In the morning we fill our faces with tuna rolls at the hotel’s free breakfast before embarking on an extensive day of travel through the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. This is very much a seasonal attraction where the tops of this route become engulfed in towering walls of snow and ice. It only happens between mid-April and May and we are there for the better part of it. The journey starts on the JR Shinkansen trains where we leave our base in Kanazawa and travel 23 minutes northeast to Toyama (nearby hotels). From here we will switch between all sorts of weird, and wonderful, transport as we navigate the peaks of the Alpine Route. All transport is included in an Alpine Route ticket (9,490 Yen per person one-way) and it is all neatly connected through to the opposite end. The only additional cost comes on the opposite end where we bus back to the JR lines at Shinano-Omachi. Anyway, from Toyama we follow an hours train journey through picturesque forest scenery as we climb into Japan’s northern mountains. We then arrive to the base of a cable car line which would then pull us up to the mountain tops. Actually I find the term cable car misleading here, it’s more like a funicular tram, similar to the Hong Kong peak, or the Grand Budapest Hotel. Either way it wasn’t overly exciting. The next bus journey was definitely one of the highlights as we navigate winding roads between walls of snow, ice and pine trees before opening out to vast snowy vistas. We don’t manage to capture any worthwhile shots here as we find ourselves squashed into the fold-out middle seats in the center of the bus. You probably want to avoid these.
The bus route ends when we arrive to a 20 meter (or thereabouts) snow wall, better known as the Gorge of Snow (Yukino-ōtani). This is the postcard portrait of the alpine route and surrounding them are walkways, between and around, with fantastic views of surrounding mountain tops.
We frolic in Japanese snow. Many tourists turn back at this point but we decide to push on through and continue to the opposite end. En route we follow a number of viewpoints and travel on all sorts of transport including cable cars (funicular trains), trolley buses which are a bit like trams which bury through extensive tunneling in the center of the mountain range. Then there’s the ropeway which would be my own interpretation of a cable car. The rope way (cable car) would be the next highlight of the Alpine Route where it lowers down from the mountain peaks to the valleys below. Fantastic views. This was only made better by a Chinese tour group who rush the doors for the best window views which sways the cable car lopsided. They start screaming and the Japanese car manager grins.
The final stop on the Alpine Route is Kunobe Dam which we arrive to by cable car (funicular railway). It’s interesting enough, there’s an observation deck and viewpoint as well, but we skip on past it as we’re just too dam tired (ha) by this stage. Instead we make lots of ‘dam’ puns and make our way to the final tunnel trolley bus, bringing us to the exit. We finish the Alpine route at roughly 4:30pm but it takes a further 4 hours for us to arrive back in Kanazawa. The final route follows a bus back to Shinano-Omachi station (12,360 pp) where we stop for mom & pop ramen nearby. We would then board three consecutive trains back to Kanazawa. The first two trains follow the local JR lines with an easy transfer at Minari-Otari. The stop next is Itoigawa where we board the JR Shinkansen lines for the final stretch back to Kanazawa. The first of these train journeys follow immensely beautiful scenery of snow capped hills and mountains, cherry blossom landscapes, and über cute villages. All made perfect by the setting sun. At one point Fanfan is desperate to jump off and leave her old life behind. It was during a stop at a town called Hakuba. Love at first sight. Fanfan’s happy place, and she was serious. I only calm her with promises of a return journey the following day. Later, back at the hotel we do Google ‘Hakuba’ to find it is a well known tourist destination, and it quickly loses its charm. The 2nd section of the rail journey was at night in a one carriage train with front and back windows visible, in front and behind us. Only 3 people are on the train, and 2 are us. We clatter through hills in pitch darkness, passing intermittently the flashing red lights of station junctions and sleepy town crossings. The journey felt lonely and surreal with reflections of Chihiro and No-Face during the train scene in Spirited away (Ghibli again).
Instead of Hakuba we follow our planned tracks southeast to Takayama, via Toyama, en route to Shirakawa-go. Shirakawa-go village is a well known unesco site famous for its triangular looking houses among other things. The journey starts on a slight hangover following a night of research which began at the hotel-adjacent, kombini where I pick up Suntory Highballs and Chu-Hi mixes (I share my findings later). But this hangover would quickly cure on the journey as we follow winding tracks alongside pristine, aquamarine rivers and through forests and mountain valleys. Again, these parts of Japan are immensely beautiful. At Takayama Station (nearby hotels) we stuff our bags into a train station locker (500 Yen for a big locker) then board a bus to Shirakawa-go (4,420 round trip). We arrive to the front car parks of the village and follow a rope-bridge crossing, over rapids, to find ourselves in a sanctuary of calm. This place is beautiful and no photo will ever do it justice. Surrounding are forests rich with birds and wildlife; a woodpecker pecks, an eagle circles, swallows dart between every-color trees and the thatched rooftops of traditional gasshō housing. Tweets and twitters, leaves and blossoms, the smell of freshly cut pine. The gentle sounds of spring waters meander through, in passing from the melting snows on the hills above. I finally realize the Japanese obsession for spring. Carp in the streams, frogspawn in the lakes, scarecrows, Shangri-La. Koi Nobori (fish) flags flutter high above to signal the coming of Golden Week, and more importantly children’s day. They will begin the following day. What makes this village more adorable than it is still very much still inhabited and local where family businesses have been set-up to cater to the regular influx of tourists. Cute cafes, local handicrafts, whipped matcha ice-cream. Doing the rounds is a box shaped co-op delivery van with Parappa-the-Rapper-esque caricatures imprinted on the side.
With a lengthy journey ahead to Tokyo we stop in at a local cafe opposite Takayama station. At first glance the cafe is nothing out of the ordinary, but I am quickly loving their menu of local and regional sakes, shochus, beers, fruit liquors, an entire drinks menu of locally produced Hida Takayama liquors. Of course I’d normally be all over these but, having just killed my highball hangover, I am forced only to indulge in the food. “Enjoy the traditional tastes of Hida.” I start with kei-chan a local specialty of the Hida and Okumino region. This is hands-on eating, similar to Yakiniku, where a plate of marinated chicken and vegetables are served to the table, alongside a portable barbecue skillet. I am then to cook it. On the side is a soy sauce side broth (miso also optional) and together they are incredibly oishi! Next, because a chicken barbecue to myself isn’t enough, I sample the Hida beef sushi, a lightly cooked beef sushi with amazing texture and flavor. I quickly feel guilty for the smotherings of wasabi, which in Japan would probably be like eating marbled wagyu steaks with tomato ketchup. Anyway, Fanfan goes with the standard ramen which she now claims to be the best ramen of our 2 weeks in Japan (I can’t confirm as she refused to let me try). For desserts we explore vending machine Cornettos, before retrieving bags from the station lockers, and hop back on the trains.
Our next journey was back to Tokyo travelling first North, from Takayama to Toyama, then, boarding the JR Shinkansen trains, we travel east to Tokyo. After a 4 hour stint we arrive to Tokyo station (nearby hotels) just as the city comes to night. Fortunately, for the first time we won’t be rushed in the morning and we can finally relax and explore the city. Again we bumble through another hotel search, this time at Hamamatsuchō station (nearby hotels), before we arrive to our hotel which from first impressions, is grim. This was my fault. When Fanfan ran through the reservation options for that night I didn’t hear past the words “Tokyo Ninja”. To be fair they are, undeniably, more awesome than “Always Pleasant Amenity” (APA) which was our regular choice of business hotel. I may have pestered her “Tokyo Ninja, Tokyo Ninja” and she books the Tokyo Ninja. So it turns out we’d booked a twin room, in a hostel, with a shared bathroom. Our room with no toilet or tub, no toiletries or pajamas, no TV or late night cooking shows, not even a kettle for our noodles. All we have is an empty room with a sign showing us how to fit our own bed sheets, and our usual amenities were apparently replaced by the fire escape ladder which is intended for rescue of our entire floor. Did I mention there’s no elevator and no towels, for towels we would have to rent them at 50 Yen a pop. Normally I would advise others to pay the extra, for the added luxuries of nearby business hotels. But they are both similarly priced. The walk-in prices here are in fact more expensive than many of our past hotels. I always thought backpacking was supposed to be cheap? Anyway, uncomfortable, irritated and annoyed we escape to the city where we drown our sorrows in more curry at the nearby CoCo Ichibanya Curry House. “Good Smell, Good Curry”. I can’t agree more.
We hadn’t planned on Tokyo today where our original plans took us to Hirosaki in the far North of the island. These plans were however scrapped on the day we arrive to Japan. While arranging ticket reservations at the airport JR offices we find the JR Shinkansen trains are fully booked for this part of the itinerary. While unreserved cars are available on the day, we couldn’t risk 5 hours of numb-ass. Not only was today a Saturday, but it was the first day of Golden Week which is the longest holiday period of the year for most Japanese workers. Inevitably it sparks a mass exodus of the major cities and we’re in no hurry to join them. Instead we do as most tourists do and make our way to Shibuya the iconic backdrop of the city. As we do, we find ourselves distracted by an exhibition flyer where kids get to meet Sumo wrestlers. “I wanna go, I wanna go”. We go. It was only one stop over from where we stand and is easily found directly next to Ryogoku station. It was worth the risk of a wasted journey. When we arrive to the sumo arena we find the event had already taken place and with condolences we are handed free tickets to a talk show taking place in the stadium. “You might get to see the Sumo Wrestlers in practice”. Sumo is kind of exclusive, it happens only twice a year in Tokyo, and the seats for the coming tournament (early May) were almost all sold out and those which remained were going for as high as 68,000 yen a seat. We follow along for the talk show, intending to bail if we miss out on the sumo. Once through the doors we are ushered through the stadium corridors arriving to a packed sumo hall, where we spend the next hour cross-legged watching big, fat, sweaty man-on-man action. Sumo practice is not so different to the real thing. With numb-ass we bail before the end.
Again we hop back on the trains and begin towards the central Yamanote circle line which links to all the popular tourist spots of the city. We start with the obvious backdrop of Shibuya and the iconic ‘scramble’ crossing set directly next to the station exit. In total we cross the Shibuya crossing 8 times snapping each other as we cross from opposite directions. Tourists. So we rub shoulders with Tokyo’s salarymen on Shibuya crossing who today are very few given the start of the Golden Week holidays. So Shibuya, and its relevance to Tokyo, was how I expected it; robotic and impersonal just the way I like it. It hadn’t really changed from my original, ultra digital, impression of the city although, with much of Asia developing and modernizing at rapid rates, Tokyo now feels almost retro in comparison, maybe a little bit kitsch. Like a well cherished toy town with bright light billboards and matchbox cars. Anyway, travelling to Shibuya to do little more than cross a road, is a wasted journey so we go in search of the cute Pokemon cafe nearby where we hoped to find all sorts of Pikachu going on. “Pikachu, Pikachu!” This was a disaster. The cafe no longer exists and we’re both left distraught. We drown our sorrows again in curry at Coco Ichibanya: “Good smell, Good Curry”. We then prepare ourselves as we travel north to spend the night in Sendai. (Note, the top scramble junction photois from later in our journey. It looks much better at night).
Our original plans for Hirosaki had us travelling back via Sendai where we would stopover to shorten the return journey. With a hotel booked and paid, we continue with this route although we are a bit iffy on what exactly we’re doing. “What’s in Sendai?” We have no clue. When we arrive to Sendai Station (nearby hotels) it’s just before 7pm and leaving the station we find ourselves elevated on platforms and walkways which lead to brightly lit malls and entertainment arcades. For convenience, Sendai works well for this short visit. We quickly check-in to our comfy business hotel with square plunge baths, ridiculous tv game shows and a warm toilet seats for my tooshie. “I missed you robo-toilet”. Again, cheaper than the previous night’s hostel yet absolute luxury in comparison. Free breakfast, complimentary use of the hotel sauna, and two 14 day wifi cards for use on wifi points throughout the country. The mind boggles. To make the most of our short time in Sendai we are quick out and as Fanfan goes shopping for essentials (new clothes) in the malls and arcades I drink Kirin Beer “Brewed for Good Times” on the elevated mezzanine floor sat next to the station. We soon meet again to go explore the arcades and to mingle with Sendai’s Golden Week revelers. After pulling Fanfan away for the ‘UFO catcher’ claw crane machines “they’re sooo cute” we find ourselves drawn to a seemingly endless stretch of arcades chock-full of salarymen playing pinball. Pachinko Parlours. A game of little more than luck, with metal balls bouncing around in a machine before dropping to the holes in the bottom. If the ball lands in the winning hole the player wins the ball. These balls are then collected and cashed-in for prizes of alcohol, toys or more-than-not tokens. The token option can then be swapped for cash at shops outside the parlour. This makes a loophole for gambling which is otherwise illegal in Japan.
Sendai is pretty much void of tourists and unlike Kyoto, and other touristy spots, there is next to no English writing on anything. We therefore use this opportunity to get even further lost in unlikely and awkward scenarios. We start this at a 2nd floor izakaya sake bar by taking an elevator from the ground floors of the sheltered arcades. Confusion and pointing ensues. As we enter through the hanging curtain dividers of the izakaya we are kindly greeted in Japanese and ushered to a table for two, found in a small side room. Ordering food is in fact easy in Japan and when there’s no plastic food replicas to point at there’s always big pictures on the menu. We point to the big pictures on the menu; a sashimi set (1,290 Yen) and a 300ml bottle of their cheaper sake (650 Yen). Sashimi was in fact a first for me, and while I’ve probably eaten my own weight in sushi over the years, the delicate raw fish flavours alone, never really appealed to me. So we talk loudly over the surrounding rabble of Japanese banter, and indulge in raw fish. The sashimi is delicious, but I can’t help tell myself on each bite “that salmon would be better smoked” or “that tuna would be better in a sandwich”. “I want wasabi”. The sashimi as expected, didn’t fill us, so we order extra sushi (730 Yen) to the table and smother them joyously in soy and wasabi. Classy. The final bill comes to 3,370 Yen which includes an ambiguous 700 Yen (2 x 350 Yen). Things become more confusing as we question the charge which turns out to be a “Table Charge” (otooshi) which is normal with many izakaya. They waive the charge and I feel guilty for my lack of understanding.
Leaving Sendai we are already back on the JR Shinkansen lines by 06:40am with a return journey south to Tokyo. Yes, we travelled 700 km to Sendai and back, to do little more than explore arcades, and eat raw fish. It was fun. From Tokyo Station we would then travel east on a second JR Shinkansen line for a further 500 km. The journey takes roughly 5 and a half hours in total when we arrive to the city of Osaka at Shin-Osaka Station (nearby hotels). Here the trains, and lines confuse me so I won’t bother trying to explain them (update, I will, Shin-Osaka – Osaka station – Shin-Imamaya). We would spend the night in the Shin-Imamiya area of Osaka (nearby hotels) which is an area we chose for its convenience, not it’s local charm. However, we didn’t expect it to be so grim. At midday homelessness is apparent and almost every shop and business has their shutters down. Finding no nearby restaurants we are forced to shop for snacks at the Lawson’s kombini store. Even here the staff look disheveled and the shoppers smell like alcohol. The shop front also smells like pee. This was no doubt a stark contrast to the somewhat utopian feel experienced to date, gliding from one squeaky clean transit hub to the next. So here we would stay in a capsule hotel for the night, intentionally, and for two pods we pay similar to the previous nights at business hotels (and that grimy hostel). The capsules are slick, fitted with TVs and gadgets, and each comes with a connecting room to store luggage. To freshen up there are bathrooms on each floor, and on the top floor is a communal spa for the men. For now we are quickly out to explore Osaka, starting at Osaka Castle next to Tanimachi 4-Chrome Station.
We do reach the base of Osaka Castle but we skip going inside. No doubt its awesome if you’re into castles but we find ourselves sidetracked by the merriment of Golden Week. This is normal for me. Put me in a park, anywhere in the world, and I quickly become engrossed in people watching and when it comes to people watching, there are few places better than Japan. In Japan you’ll find all sorts of oddballs, unique characters who defy Japan’s workaday obsession to uniformity, and who express themselves in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. The park is full, not only with oddballs, but with the more clichéd sub-cultures of punk bands, J-Pop girls and occasional cosplay. There’s also an expansive baseball field in the park. Apparently baseball is so popular in Japan that they’re surprised to hear Americans also consider it their ‘national sport’. So we do arrive late to the park to find every inch of shade beneath trees already taken. Groups gather on blankets to cook noodles, drink beer and eat off the underside of upside down boxes. Some have tents. Then, when 5pm comes, the park empties almost instantly partly due to the coming rain. We leave at the same time passing stragglers of teenage drunks left in all shapes. Fun.
Our next stop is Namba (nearby hotels) travelling on our first non-JR train since our arrival (150 Yen pp). From Namba we would then navigate a maze of underground malls and sheltered arcades as we search for the Glico Man an iconic Osakan billboard found next to Ebisu Bridge and the Dōtonbori Canal. After 20 minutes of purposely getting lost we emerge from the sheltered arcades to find a towering junction of bright and brash billboards and our first spell of rain since arrival. The area is surprisingly busy, not with tourists but locals, who dash between arcades while sheltering themselves under transparent, plastic umbrellas. Osaka to me feels more alien and gritty than Tokyo, a bit like the backstreets of Bladerunner where flashing barges pass on the canals below, and the neon walls come plastered with food and more food. This is often what Osaka is stigmatized for, its food, its greed and its glutton “Osaka wa kuidaore” (Osaka people eat ’til they drop). I of course regret not having time to join them with this. What I do have time for is their tacoyaki where Osaka is the birthplace to this hugely popular street food snack. To be honest I’ve never been fussed for Tacoyaki in the past, octopus dough balls with mixed fillings of tentacles, tempura scraps, spring onions and pickled ginger. But I grudgingly buy a ‘boat’ at a random street vendor and am blown away. They’re hot, gooey and ****ing delicious. So I really deserve a night out here someday, with more of them Takoyaki.
The following morning we follow the same route back to Shin-Osaka (via Osaka station) then travel onward to the very southwest regions of Japan and Oita, found on the island of Kyushu (4 hours via Kokura). From here, we quickly move again to Tsurasaki Station (nearby hotel) and our base for travel to the Eight Hells of Beppu. Tsurasaki is not a very convenient base but options were limited / expensive during Golden Week in Beppu (nearby hotels). With some last minute itinerary changes we are again forced to rush the unreserved cars of the JR Shinkansen bullet train, with no trouble in finding empty seats. Arriving to Tsurasaki station we rush to leave our bags at the hotel next door then are quickly back on the trains to Beppu. This is where we’d start our tour, which by now would be extremely hurried. The tour takes in 8 different, multicolored volcanic pits, which are dotted through 2 different locations in the back hills of Beppu. The 8 Hells of Beppu. We arrive to the train station ticket office and purchase 2 day tickets which follow the local bus route (980 Yen pp) on local buses. Not ideal but it works. It is now 2pm, and the 8 Hells close at 5pm. The ticket woman tells us to scrap at least half the hells because we have no chance of seeing them all. Challenge accepted Mrs. To keep it short, we win, with all eight hells and an hour to spare. This even includes a 2o minute wait at a volcanic geyser which only erupts every 30-40 minutes. This geyser can apparently hit heights of 20 – 30 meters but it has been closed off lower because it was ‘too dangerous’. Spoilsports.
So if you skip all the touristy stuff then 2 to 3 hours is possible. 40 minutes of this will be spent on the bus to, and between the two geothermal areas. We skip past the zoo exhibits, hippos or whatnot, we do the same with the cafes and restaurants, although eggs boiled in spring waters were tempting. We skip past the souvenir shops and it is only at the last hell do we bask in smug victory with our feet in the geothermal foot spas found throughout the attractions. This is where we bump into doge, that adorable Japanese dog (Shiba Inu) from internet meme fame. He kind of pokes fun at Japanese’s seemingly deliberate use of broken English. The owner lets me rub Doges face. Wow! So fur. Leaving we’re back to Beppu where we find the actual hell of Beppu. Turn 5pm and everyone is turfed out to the kerbside. We then spend 30 minutes squashed against the window of the local bus on our way back to Beppu station. So we did plan to explore Beppu, which looks to be an attraction in itself. It is a coastal town with seafront promenades, restaurants, bars, but we fail to make it further than the train station burger restaurant. Travel is now taking its toll and all one my mind was a seat and a burger. We find ourselves in Lotteria one of Japan’s largest fast food burger chains and I go with the signature Zeppin burger which is good, but no Big Mac. What is.
We have trouble finding hotels on this night so we are forced to book two separate single rooms at a business hotel, next to Tsurasaki train station. These rooms are no different to the typical doubles we’ve been staying in until now and, had we known on booking we’d could have snuck two into one. Either way Fanfan was due a break from me so I leave her to pamper herself in square baths and robo-bathrooms while I go poke around the local town. It was already dark by this time so I find myself alone on unlit streets looking as I go in search of a convenience store. There’s very little going on in Tsurasaki. The only sign of life in the town comes from a neon billboard with “Wing” lettered on it. I follow it like a beacon to find a tower of Pachinko, slots and amusements. This would likely be the epicenter of town and from here I follow the adjoining main road past a number of quaint and quirky eateries. Restaurants are easy to spot as they’re almost always fronted by Tanuki, a ceramic, cartoon-like raccoon dog with ginormous balls. These statues are set outside restaurants and bars to coax people in to spend money. They’re similar to the more common ‘lucky cat’, only more ewokish and with bigger testicles. They also feature in one of the less known Ghibli productions, Pom Poko. If I were here with Fanfan we’d definitely have followed their summons but, being alone, I continue walking. Also following this road is a steady flow of through traffic which make the town feel like a stopover spot for snacks on their way home from Beppu. Finding the Familymart kombini, a minivan pulls up and a rabble of hyper kids storm out screaming like they’ve just been to Disneyland.
Given a brief window of opportunity I catch up with my love for booze. Until now I have been systematically trolling through the convenience stores liquor shelves, but this was the first time I could sit down, to relax and sample a few. First I should mention that alcohol isn’t a big deal here where it’s legal to drink on the streets and parks, and it’s not unusual to see salarymen skulling a beer before their commute to work. Considering the availability and acceptance of alcohol in Japan I’ve yet to see much alcohol abuse other than that brief stint in Osaka, and those teen scamps in the park. Beers will be sold at every convenience store, train halt kiosk, and even on-board the trains. They’re almost always the same price everywhere. So starting with beers. Sapporo does tend to be the big name internationally but in Japan it sits lonely on the shelves next to an extensive range of Asahi and Kirin Ichiban beers. The shelves next door to the beer will be home to the ‘highballs’ and an extensive range of Chu-Hi; a Japanese shōchū alcohol mixed with carbonated water and all sorts of flavors (lemon the favorite). The leading Chu-Hi brand is aptly named, Strong, and all sit around 9% alcohol. Both beers and Chu-Hi are similar in price, between 100 and 200 Yen. This is for the big tins. Directly opposite the fridges will likely be the whiskey shelves which, due to early starts and need for brain, I skimp on with this journey. Suntory “for relaxing times” Whisky is the big name brand and they do a premium “Suntory Highball” which is worth checking out. Beneath the Whiskys is the sake where I often go for the one-cups (small jars). Note, sake is actually a generic term for ‘alcohol’ where the sake we know is in fact ‘Nihonshu’ a Japanese rice wine, with around 14% or so alcohol content. Distill this further and we have Shochu, with a higher kick of 25%-ish. This is the same alcohol as mixed in the Chu-Hi highballs. So my conclusion is that they’re all kind of fun. Mix them up a bit. I sleep well that night and wake early for the next leg of our JR journey.
I’m kind of savvy with alcohol where I know, just how much I can drink to feel okay in the morning. I normally wake at around 5am and, with a hangover, it will quickly fade as I get busy. Anyway, I go over this slightly knowing we have an easy day ahead. With a 6am start, and a long train journey back to Tokyo I can enjoy a relaxed day with maybe some sleep on the trains. Along the way we have a brief excursion to Kawachi Fuji Garden which is found nearby in Yahata. This would break up the 7 hour journey ahead. Things don’t start well. Reaching the Yahata train station we find just one medium sized locker to fit our bags. We squeeze in the backpack, and Fanfan’s handbag but are left dragging the roll-on cabin baggage and a laptop bag. When Fanfan goes to lock it she inserts the 500 Yen payment and turns the key. “Is that it?” She turns it again, managing to lock, and unlock it. 500 Yen gone. Annoying. We add a second 500 Yen, lock it and join the queues for the bus to Kawachi Fuji Garden (local bus no. 56). After 10 minutes of easy riding through the town, we arrive to an abrupt stop as we join a seemingly endless tailback which goes nowhere for half an hour. The bus gradually empties, to continue by foot, and we are forced to do the same. After 20 minutes clambering up steep roads with our luggage we arrive to some fantastic scenes over lakes, reservoirs, leafy green hills and yellow bamboo forests. At the same to we find a sign post signalling 2.5 km ahead to the gardens. I want to give up here, but we push on. After, what feels like 2.5 km further, we come to the next sign post pointing a further 2 km ahead to the gardens. I’m pretty sure someone’s screwing with us. The stationary traffic watch on in amusement as this foreign chump with cabin baggage (me) sweats up the hillside.
The Wisteria Tunnel is the type of place you’d find on Mashable or Distractify, citing “15 awesome tunnels you never knew existed”. Unfortunately, now everyone does and it would appear that half of Asia had turned up to snap their latest profile pic for Facebook, or Mixi, or whatever they use. Only once a year these flowers bloom, at the beginning of May, and we arrive on the busiest day of the bloom. Prices charge by the stage of bloom and we pay the highest possible fee of 1000 yen to see them. It’s also children’s day, during Golden week, and outside it’s proper picnic weather. Bring them together and we’re back in hell. I won’t deny it, the Wisteria tunnel is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. If they were in my backyard I’d likely skip through them every day, feeling fantastic. But here I am miserable. I just walked 6km upwards, trailing my luggage, and now I’m squashed in a tunnel, being pushed along by a continuous stream of tourists. On the plus side Fanfan loved it, and I, am the bestest husband in the world. Leaving, we couldn’t bare queuing for a bus, so instead we hail a taxi and laugh our way out as we pass a never-ending line of traffic still trying to get there. We grab our luggage from the station and start back to Tokyo, lagging just two hours behind our original schedule. Again we pass Yahata, then Shin-Osaka, for our final stretch to Tokyo. Again we get lucky with the unreserved seats on all.
This was to be our lazy day with little more planned than poking around in Tokyo and eating in cafes. Actually, a lie-in was planned yet we find ourselves on the streets long before breakfast. Fortunately, Tokyo is a 24 hour city in parts and to pass time before breakfast we call in at a 24 hour noodle bar to go halfers on a katsu don set. Fanfan takes the pork rice bowl, while I shlurp on the cold soba side with dippings of mentsuyu sauce. If all had gone to plan for today we would have been touring Studio Ghibli, but but being Golden Week etc. etc. the tickets for the entire length of our stay were booked up long ago. Instead we go for second best with a Totoro Café found in the Setagaya neighborhood of Tokyo’s suburbs. It’s a bit of a hike for a bakery but Fanfan was itching like a kid on Christmas and I do enjoy getting lost in quaint suburban backstreets. The highlight for me here was the friendly pensioner we ask for directions, as he sits outside his driveway. “Totoro café?” – “To-to-ro?” – “To-to-ro” – “Totoro”. Just hearing him say the words Totoro was oddly adorable. So, he signals us lefts, and rights, and we eventually arrive to the Totoro café. It is said this cafe is the only to have an official license from Studio Ghibli, and coincidentally the owner’s second name is Miyazaki e.g. Hayao Miyazaki the man behind Studio Ghibli. As expected the café is adorably cute with all sorts of memorabilia from Totoro and other Ghibli movies. The main attraction would be Shirohige’s Totoro Cream Puffs which come available in 4 flavors; strawberry, custard, chocolate, and caramel banana. Tough to choose so we order all 4. We take lots of photos then I smash their faces with my fork. The final bill for one hot tea pot, a cappuccino and 4 Totoro cream puffs comes to 2,590 Yen.
Passing Shibuya on our way back we take another visit, pushed by Fanfan who realised H&M and Forever 21 are “Super Cheap” during our stopover in Sendai. Woulding rather put pins in my eyes I leave her to it as I go eat. Fanfan promises to pick me up at the Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden and we part paths. Knowing ramen was likely on the cards for later, I stick to burgers for lunch, this time at Mos Burger Japan’s best known global fast food brand. Again, nothing special, probably fancier and fresher than Lotteria but again, it’s no big mac, but what is, I think Mos to Lotteria would probably be the Burger King to McDonald’s. Anyway, I don’t recommend travelling to Japan to eat burgers. After burgering I make my way back to Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden to indulge in overpriced beer (700 Yen per pint). It is expensive but it’s also in a prime people watching spot on a Shibuya street corner. So I go poking around, looking for the front entrance to the beer garden, only to find myself trapped in a circular room with the doors closed behind me. I stand with 8 other randomers, around a circular bar, to watch a bar cheer girl make a presentation about ‘worts’. The presentation is of course in Japanese and no-one acknowledges me whatsoever, so this makes the awkwardness easier. After 5 minutes, or so, pretending I’m invisible, we get to sample two of what I am guessing are ‘worts’. A new door opens and our group is ushered through to the next room. I finally find the beer counters. I buy my beer, ignore the overpriced food, then scurry to safety at a seat near the edge of tables. I drink slowly while I wait for Fanfan to collect me. When she arrives we go eat ramen in a Shibuya backstreet before hopping on the trains again and back to take a rest at the hotel, before the the night.
I don’t normally do nightlife when travelling, due to brain-mush, but with all the flowers and cuteness over the past few days I was desperate for something different. Plus I thought I’d demonstrate to Fanfan how I feel when might forced to stare into to many cute cream puff eye. Again in the Shibuya area (it’s convenient) we find ourselves at Alcatraz ER for a romantic night, locked in a cell, drinking cocktails from blood transfusion packs and out of dead people’s skulls (Brain Shock). Fanfan had originally ordered the ‘soul charge’ but she quickly backtracked when they translated the special ingredient of an actual ‘slap in the face’ (the menu is in Japanese). We of course go with the nicer options on the menu where beer comes served in urinals, and food in bedpans. Ever had a drink stirred with a vibrator before? In total we spend around 3,671 Yen including 500 Yen table charge per person. This includes 1 drink each and sides of karaage chicken, and edamame green beans. Admittedly there’s more giggling here than screaming but we do leave quite quickly anyway as Fanfan felt “weird and uncomfortable”. Plus there were no Totoros.
At the beginning of our JR journey I felt there were too many long-hauls on the itinerary. Now, coming to the end, I’m itching to disappear again. In many ways the journey now feels over, yet there is still so much planned ahead. Much however is within the Tokyo area and today it is Lake Kawaguchiko roughly 100 km from the city. It still takes a good 2 hours to reach leaving Tokyo’s Shinjuku station as travel first to Otsuki (60mins) then onward on the Fujikyu train line (non-JR 1,140 Yen 1-way). We would then arrive, 50 mins, to the Fuji Five Lakes region (nearby hotels). Arriving to Kawaguchiko Station we drop our bags in at our lakeside hotel and go search for food. Mount Fuji now sits across from us, but can only be seen from its crotch down. The top half of the mountain is covered in a seemingly endless stretch of thick cloud and our luck had finally run out. Down in the dumps we console ourselves in food where we find a handful of tourist focused restaurants nearby. The first focuses on its specialty of raw horse sashimi, nope. The next comes with yakiniku grills, perfect. We order one beef set, and two pork sets and get to grilling them on our built-in table grills. The side dips come with a light soy based barbecue sauce, and a not-so-hot chili sauce. “Can we mix them?” – “No don’t mix them.” We mix them anyway. Rebels.
So our luck came through in the end and, checking in at our Ryokan hotel, the skies clear and the Fujisan views are perfect. That’s them above from our hotel window. Na-na-nana-na. So this hotel, the Ryokan, was expensive ($250 and it’s not included in our hotel average) but it is value for money. It is more than just a hotel stay, it is a bundle of awesome Japanesee experiences which we had close to 24 hours, to take advantage of. Our stay is in a traditional Japanese suite with floors of tatami matting and sliding door partitions made from native woods and paper. The tatami mats feel kind of spongy, then in the center of it all is a sprawling shin-height table set with traditional teaware where we can swig on some high-end green teas. The seats surrounding the table are legless, and we sit just above floor height, which is surprisingly comfortable. By the window is a small seating area with unbeatable views over Kawaguchiko Lake and the snowy peaks of Mount Fuji. In the wardrobe we find a matching pair of yukata, casual summer kimonos which are used to visit the onsen. This is what sets ryokans apart from the bog standard Japanese hotel. At ryokan hotels there is unlimited use of onsen baths with waters sourced from the surrounding hot springs of the region. I go into more detail below. Also, two traditional kaiseki set meals are included in our stay one for dinner and the next at breakfast. When we leave the room for our evening kaiseki we return to find our room rearranged, the central table set against the back wall and in its place lay two futon beds spread across the tatami flooring. At night the views of Fuji disappear into darkness, but come first light and they are unmatched when the lake sits still, and untouched with reflections of mount Fuji above.
There are two onsen baths at the hotel, one on the ground floor, and a second on the top. They are then split during the day where women use the top in the morning while the fellas use the bottom. Come midday and they flip vice versa. Both have their own perks the bottom with a spring water jacuzzi and the top with views over Mount Fuji, albeit through steamy windows. The one rule you should be aware of is ‘no towels allowed’. Also no swim wear. You have to enter the onsens butt naked. All that is allowed is a tiny facecloth which is meant to be set on the head. Also, obviously, no cameras so I am forced to sneak in my GoPro hidden within the palm of my hand. I get naked in the onsen. Opening the door, my bits dangling lopsided between my legs, it was relief to see only one other bloke who barely notices me. He arrived just before I did and now sits on a plastic chair on the perimeter of the room, scrubbing himself down at the taps. You also need to shower before entering the pools. So I following his lead and take a seat at the perimeter showers just as he stands to walk past me, his little bits swinging side-to-side, it’s hard not to notice. He goes to sit at the Jacuzzi section of the onsen with the towel on his head. I finish showering before sitting at the furthest seat possible. After a quick 10 minutes of awkward relaxation I give up. I throw on my yukata and scurry back to the room. I’d go back to the onsens throughout the stay but leave the camera behind. Anyway, by coincidence (or maybe not) we would then bump into the same guy at dinner that night, on the hotel shuttle bus the following morning, and again at the attractions the following day. Maybe he took a shine to me. Each time passing I would point to him “baby, I saw his junk”. Fanfan’s not amused.
Back in the tatami suite we sip a cheap bottle of red wine from green tea cups, being classy as always, before we prepare ourselves again in yukatas for our evening kaiseki meal. These two meals we ordered in advance; Fanfan with the pork shabu-shabu, and myself with the beef suki-yaki. Both quite similar, served as mini hot-pots at the table, only with different broths and ingredients. Mine was better, but they both weren’t overly exciting, or maybe they were just overshadowed by the rest of the banquet. The kaiseki brought all sorts of weirdness, but to name some of the more obvious, it includes; sushi, sashimi, tempura, miso… the rest I’m pretty much clueless to. Either way I eat it and it all tastes surprisingly delicious, although I do continue to tell myself “these raw octopus tentacles would be better in tacoyaki”. I was a tad squeamish with much of it, but I see it as a one off experience…. until breakfast arrives the following morning. That night I do go out to explore in the local area to find little more than tourists strolling around in yukatas. The local kombini was full of them. As expected the area is very tourist orientated.
“More flowers?” – “No it’s moss…” – “Same difference”. Today takes us to the Fuji Shibazakura Festival, another annual bloom celebration, found in a further part of the Fuji Five Lakes region. This attraction was actually planned for the previous day but, due to lousy cloud cover, we rescheduled to today. Fortunately the skies this morning are much clearer so we checkout from the hotel and go locker up our bags at the train station. We then take the special Fuji Shibazakura Festival bus (3,800 Yen return) directly to the gardens. On the way we find ourselves playing cat and mouse with the clouds as we chase towards the gardens at the base of Mount Fuji. We lose in the end, and we arrive to beautiful gardens of pink phlox moss beneath a backdrop of Mount Fuji’s crotch. The top again covered in cloud. Our luck had run out this time, but I do my best to feign enthusiasm. This was hard considering there’s pretty much nothing else to do here other than look at flowers. The surrounding food kiosks are also pretty lousy and we soon find ourselves conceding defeat and walking back to the bus. “Baby, I saw that guy’s junk”. We bus back to the train station and begin our return journey to Tokyo.
For the remainder of our stay we would be based in the Shinbashi Station area (hotels here) which is again found on the convenient Yamanote circle line, for easy access to the central Tokyo stops. We check in to the hotel and start flicking through TripAdvisor for things to do; shrines, parks, monuments, meh. I find enthusiasm in none of it. There’s a statue of a dog named Hachiko at number 8… seriously? I think we passed it before in Shibuya. Anyway, for me Tokyo, as with any major city, is all about the street life so we instead search out some izakayas which we’d passed beneath the railways of Shimbashi. The area looked intriguing, a bit more rustic and gritty and it is well known as salaryman territory. This inevitably brings a mix of pink parlors, adult entertainment, cheap sake bars and yakitori grills. A statue of a dog was at number 8??? So we pull up a stool in one of the street’s many ramen bars and are served ramen bowls bigger than my face. My sides of beer and gyoza look skimpy in comparison. As I pick away at humongous pork slabs the sound of cheer and celebration echoes through the alley next to us. Intrigued I am quick out to watch a parade of Shinto revelers banging drums and carrying a makeshift shrine through the Shinbashi backstreets. The salarymen barely bat an eyelid, it’s just another night in Tokyo for them.
To put this celebration into context we do stumble upon it earlier in passing. At the time it was yet to begin and we wait to follow proceedings. The celebration is known as a ‘matsuri’ annual Shrine festival where the kami of the shrine is taken from its building and paraded through the local streets. When we arrive the kami had just been placed in its ‘mikoshi’ temporary housing and it now waits for followers to gather. The leader of the procession climbs to the top of the mikoshi, claps together two pieces of wood, and the celebration begins. He jumps off as the Shinto followers haul the supporting poles of the mikoshi to their shoulders and the parade begins, or at least it is meant to. As soon as they lift the mikoshi to their shoulders, the pedestrian crossing turns red. Instead they bounce around on the spot, shouting and cheering, while they wait for the green man to arrive. To amuse and entertain the kami they shake the shrine vigorously, from side-to-side, while shouting “wasshoi”. At this point we leave the procession to go eat some sumo sized ramen. In many ways I’m glad that Tokyo’s not just another multicultural city; like New York, London or Bangkok. Yes it has its Micky Ds, and the global brands, but ultimately culture, and daily life is uniquely Japanese. Our experience at Hibiya Shrine was a reminder to this.
Much of my excitement on this journey came on the arrival to new destinations with nothing planned but snacks at the local kombini, and a browse of the local streets for my next feed. The whole tourist stuff, to me, is more of an obligation than anything. This is why I am thankful to have Fanfan as she forces me out to explore some truly fascinating places. At the end of the night however, I will always escape back into the hotel and reflect on the day. This night, as I sit at the hotel window drinking sake from what looks like a mini chocolate milk carton, I take note of the extra-large pylon on the nearby cityscape. In fact it’s been there during almost all of our hotel stays in Tokyo to date. “What’s that?” – “Tokyo Tower” – “Fine I’ll go see it”. A handy marker and an excuse to sneak down back alleys and explore the city at night. Tokyo Tower is a bit like the Eiffel Tower, only less romantic, and more red and white. The surrounding park is quiet where I sit to people watch over the night time traffic.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for oddballs, but when it’s trendy / fashionable to be an oddball, then it just becomes annoying. The meaning of individuality has become mute. This is how I always felt for the Harajuku cliches, hence, I wasn’t overly excited to be on Takeshita Street. Fortunately, we don’t see much of it despite it being a busy Saturday day. There were more tourists than oddballs. Originally we came here for tax free shopping but I quickly find myself entailed in an obscene amount of ‘kawaii’ cuteness. Before visiting I do a quick Google to see what I can take from the visit, nothing really. The only thing remotely close to my interests was the crepes, which I find to be surprisingly addictive. In total I eat three all chock full of ice cream, sweets and freshly whipped cream. What happens next I blame on a sugar rush as I find myself whipped down back alleys and force-dressed into ridiculous hats and glasses. I am then bundled into a purikura photo-booth and I am trying to forget the rest. It was humiliating, I am ashamed, and I am now sharing it here to put it behind me, so I can get on with my life. The resulting photo stickers are shown below.
This cafe visit now feels tame in comparison and I really don’t know why I’m including this experience in my blog. The chances of anyone here, reading this, being the slightest bit interested in the Pom Pom Purin Cafe, are next to none. For those considering it; expect to wait 30 minutes, maybe an hour, with an advance ticket, to even consider being seated at a table in the Pompompurin Cafe. When we arrive we are given a ticket with a time slot to return, yet we are forced to wait a further 30 minutes outside, until we are seated. When we do it’s a bit like walking into a doll’s house where the clientele would be best described as uber-cute. I am the only male in the restaurant while the rest are preciously cute doll girls. I tiptoe carefully to my table, almost expecting to trip up, and break one of them. Now I know how Godzilla felt. Meals start at around 1000 Yen. I go with the beef stroganoff and Fanfan, the Mexican taco meal. “Godzilla still hungry”. I still have no idea who Pompompurin is.
In the end we find ourselves back in Shibuya for the tax free shopping. Prices are better here, and there’s a number of tax free shops dotted round the train station and scramble junction area. They’re easy to find. With tax free shopping you just show your passport, fill in some quick documentation and all your good comes tax free. Simple. After spending a butt-load of cash on presents for other people we’re back again on the Yamanote line as we travel out to the Shinjuku area found just 9 minutes down the track. When we arrive to the main street of Shinjuku I am kicking myself for not checking the area out before. It looks to be the perfect spot for food and night life and more food. It’s similar to Shibuya I guess, in that it’s flashy and high rise, but it felt more Japanesee, with less international brands plastered across its front. Mount Fuji is also visible from here at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (45th floor observation deck) but we arrive late, and I’ve had enough Fuji. At the time we are in Shinjuku only on passing as we soon find ourselves sat in a ridiculously glitzy waiting lounge, drinking ninja lagers and listening to robots perform cabaret music.
The Tokyo robot restaurant is quite possibly the most marvelous show in the world. Honestly. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend our last night in Tokyo and only in Tokyo will you find something like this because, who else would dare try? So I suspect this show was originally geared toward Tokyo’s nerds, the Otaku, where there’s a load of nerd fetishes; from scantily clad cosplay girls to anime and gaming references. At times it feels like a mix between a Beat ’em up fighter games and fantasy RPG combat scenes where epic battles unfold summoning gods and beasts to take down the armies of machines. Then throw in a panda riding a cow for good measure. Fanfan, as expected, goes into this experience begrudgingly cynical, “stupid robots”, then ends up grinning like a joyous totoro for the entirety of the show. It no doubt hits a wider audience with its sheer outlandishness and fun of it all. It’s actually extremely hard to describe in writing so watch the video below to get a better idea. Apparently the money spent on this was close to 10 billion yen which makes me wonder how many times the creators sat down, round a table, to ask themselves “what the **** are we doing”. Anyway, I finally get to
party with robots. On leaving expect overzealous tourists talking loudly “what just happened?” “did I really just see that?” “I must be dreaming”, “pinch me”… If you do one thing in Tokyo. Buy tickets in advance at around 6,000 Yen.
“We should do a runner? Jump on a train? Hokkaido?” For what felt like the first time in my years of travel I was eager, desperate even, keep going. In past destinations I’ve always been itching to escape at around the 5 day mark but with the comfort and ease of travel in Japan, I could keep going continuously. Anyway, this was wishful on the last day of our 14 day pass. Instead we make do with the same Yamanote line in Tokyo where we’re back again to Harajuku to find the entrance of Yoyogi Park (oddly not at Yoyogi station). This was a Sunday when the park is supposedly at its busiest with performers and wackiness. On our visit we don’t find any. Not sure why. Entering we find Yoyogi to be more of a forest park with tall tree lines and scenic walks, something we didn’t expect in one of the most built up areas of the central Tokyo. Instead of wackiness we find peace and serenity and to top it off we walk in on a Shinto wedding at Meiji Shrine. We really did have great luck on our travels, not only with in timing of sakura blooms and alpines snows, but with local culture and ceremony in the sumo tournament, then the Hibiya Shrine Festival, and now this wedding procession, all unplanned and found on passing. Japan is a truly unique and beautiful country to explore and this let us leave on a high note.
By now we were long overdue a station dash and today we are given one. To start we were running late after Fanfan forced a last minute Totoro binge in Harajuku where she managed to accumulate 7 more stuffed toys to her evergrowing collection. This includes Totoros, mini Totoros, Catbusses and Sususawari Sootballs. “You realize you’re near 30?” – “Maybe I’ll start a Totoro café?” We then find ourselves rushing for to the N’ex Narita Express train to the airport. Normally we’d be fine with the unreserved seat option, or even standing but, for the first time, today of all days, we don’t have this option. No boarding without tickets, and we realize this as we stand on the platform waiting. My last gasp dash begins, first to the ticket machines but they don’t work with JR passes. Next I’m back to the front gates, sliding under barriers and hurdling luggage, like Lloyd Christmas (not quite but I was ready to). I rush through the queue at the ticket office and at the window I am offered an additional ticket for the train after, because I’m going to miss it. Challenge accepted. My physical fitness after all this travel was now closer to 3. 3 and a half maybe. I’m whizz out from the ticket office, and sprint back to Fanfan who waits with the bags on the platform. We jump on the waiting train and the doors close behind us. Sayonara robo-toilets, sayonara salarymen. Sayonara one cup sake. “Hajimemashite” (it is the first time).
Japan turned out to be cheaper than expected, which meant we spent more. I know this is contradictory but… food. Everything proved good value for money so we made the most of the opportunities while we had them. From our planned budget we replaced instant ramen with ramen bars, konbini sushi with izakaya feasts, and then the cafes and nightlife were all added. A quick roundup of our spending over two weeks is shown below, for 2 people, and not including flights.
Also, we removed all spending on clothes, shopping and of course Totoro binges.
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