Alphadog's Travels

Joined September 2017Living in: Sydney, Australia
  • Day11

    Time to go home

    August 19, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Today we were heading home but the flight wasn't until 10pm so we still had a bit of time. We decided to have a look at some of the shops in Tokyo as we still had some Yen to spend which wasn't going to be much use once we were back in Sydney.

    We have found the shopping in Japan to be about on par with Sydney shopping in terms of prices. All the big brands are here including some I had never heard of so the range is better but it is not what you would call cheap. Even for electronics it wasn't outstanding.

    That said we were more interested in Japanese stuff like ceramics and antiques. T had heard of an interesting place to shop called Kappabashi Street so we headed off on the Ueno train to check it out.

    Like I said on our first day we bought Suica cards to use on the non-JR lines in the subway. These are the rechargeable cards that you use to pay your fare except mine had run out. I had to visit one of the rather scary looking vending machines to recharge it with a few hundred yen. Trouble was T had gone through first so she was stuck on one side of the barrier and me on the other. Not to worry the recharge process was actually pretty quick and easy and we were reunited soon after.

    Like any city certain suburbs are known for certain things like Ginza was the high-end shops whereas Kappabashi Street has all the ceramics and cooking items. It was interesting to look around. There were shops selling Japanese plates, cups, vases, etc others selling the plastic models of food, others selling pots and pans, and others selling antiques. A real mix.

    We wandered around for a bit, offloaded a few yen and headed back to the station. It was getting really hot and humid so we checked out the area around Ueno Station and found a nice park with a couple of drink vending machines so we sat and people-watched for a while.

    We then headed back to Shinjuku as it is rated as one of the best shopping districts in Tokyo. Once you get past the seedy sections there are some very large department stores like Isetan and Lumine which had huge food-halls in the basement and these were interesting places to look around and see what you could find. They sell everything like dumplings, tea, sake, sweets, cakes, bento boxes (small box with different types of Japapnese food), fruit, and loads more.

    Eventually it was time to collect the bags and head towards Haneda Airport. One last journey on the Tokyo subway using 3 trains - Shinjuku to Kanda, Kanda to Hamamatsucho, and Hamamatsucho on the monorail to Haneda. One last work out for the Japan Rail Pass! The
    monorail is amazing as it flies along and goes out over water for long stretches.

    The nine and a half hour flight home was direct by Qantas, a pretty good flight on a 747-400 except it was obviously a pretty old plane. It's nice to be finally back to some cooler weather.

    Overall it was an excellent holiday. The best bits for me were the food, the culture, the trains, and the people. My favourite places would be Hiroshima and Kyoto. It is worth doing a your home work before you go to make sure you have some idea of what to expect (like navigating the subway) but overall it was pretty simple. Would definitely go back again.

    So thanks for reading and until next time - Sayonara!
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  • Day10

    In search of a mountain

    August 18, 2016 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 24 °C

    Today was the first day in a while where we were spending the whole day in one place. We decided we would aim to see Mt Fuji. Being summer the days are very hazy combine that with the fact there has been a lot of cloud around meant we haven't been able to spot Mt Fuji from the train or other places where it is meant to be visible.

    We have been very lucky with the rain, some areas in northern Japan have been flooded over the last few days but apart from a 1 minute shower in Hiroshima and going through some rain on the Shinkansen we have had dry weather the whole time.

    There are a number of ways to get close to Mt Fuji so we decided to go the way that involves riding the Shinkansen - just one last time! We had a quick breakfast and headed to Shinjuku station to get the subway back to Tokyo Station. We booked ourselves some return tickets to Odawara, about 70kms out of Tokyo so still very much in the suburbs, and headed up to the platform. This one was a Kadama Shinkansen most of the others we have been on were mostly Hakaris. There are different types or classes of Shinkansen, they all do the same thing just slight differences between each.

    The trip took less than 30 mins and we dropped into the Tourist Information office in Odawara for some suggestions. The very helpful lady suggested we head up to Lake Ashi in the Hakone area which sounded good to us. She also managed expectations and said it was unlikely we will see Mt Fuji anyway given the cloudy weather. We bought the tickets and headed to the first of the 2 train stages.

    Then the wheels fell off. I blame poor signage at the station and the fact a train was there ready to go but we hopped on the wrong train. This meant we made a short detour to Matsuda before getting another train back to Odawara and try again. That was the first and only time in the whole trip we messed up our trains - just goes to show how easy it is to get around.

    Anyway no harm done and we only lost about 30 mins. At Odawara we double checked this time and boarded the train up to Hakone-Yumoto where we changed trains to go up into the mountains. We could tell the whole time the train had been climbing but when we boarded the next train the climbing really started.

    The second train was a little 2 carriage electric thing that ran from Hakone-Yumoto to Kawakidani and climbed about 450m in the process. The views out the windows were really beautiful with deep river valleys and really high peaks. The little train had to go through 3 switchbacks where the driver and the guard would get out and slowly swap ends and we would proceed on our way. It was only 1 lane going up so we had to stop at some stations for the train going down to pass.

    Once at Kowakidani we switched to a bus to take us down to Motohakone on the shores of the beautiful Lake Ashi.

    This was a cute little tourist town with lots of tourist type shops. We bought a couple of souvenirs and walked along the lake foreshore looking at the sights. It was really nice.

    To take advantage of the view we bought a couple of sandwiches and a couple of beers from the 7-Eleven and went and sat on the foreshore to have a great lunch. Lake Ashi has one of the vermilion gates actually in the water, you often see it on tourist brochures.

    We walked along the foreshore through the cedar grove that was planted 400 years ago to give protection from the weather. You could imagine the area in winter being covered in snow.

    Unfortunately the mountain eluded us and we didn't get to see it. We did see where it was meant to be if the cloud wasn't in the way.

    We then boarded the R bus and headed back to Hakone-Yumoto and boarded the train back to Odawara for our last Shinkansen ride. I did a count and in the 11 days we were in Japan we did 10 Shinkansen trips, not a bad effort!

    We had dinner back at the hotel, pizzas in the cafe with a couple of beers.

    Tomorrow is our last day in Japan before we head home tomorrow night.
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  • Day9

    Someone's Birthday!!!!!

    August 17, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    Wednesday in Nagoya was bright and sunny. Appropriate given the auspicious day.

    The Birthday Girl and I were up early and off to explore the wilds of Nagoya. The ryokan didn't do breakfast so we had to find somewhere easy so we hit Starbucks and Kanamaya Station, a cop out I know but it was simple. There are a few Starbucks in Japan as well as McDonald's and KFC. Have also seen a couple of Dominos Pizza places.

    We wanted to go to a museum and garden but the issue was they didn't open until 10am and we didn't have a lot of time. So we ended up walking quite a long way into the centre of Nagoya to have a look around.

    There are a few interesting shops in Japan and Loft Department store is one of the big homemaker type stores selling all sorts of stuff you don't see in Oz. We poked around there for a while and bought a few bits and pieces before we headed out to find somewhere for lunch. Of course there was an Italian Pasta place close by so we dropped in to give it a try. In short it was actually pretty good. We have had Italian a couple of times since we have been here and the Japanese actually do a pretty good job though the language issue can make ordering a bit of a challenge.

    Nagoya has a sister city arrangement with Los Angeles so they have a replica Hollywood Walk of Fame in one of their parks.

    We then wandered back to Nagoya station, collected our bags from the ryokan and headed for the Shinkansen to Tokyo.

    This time in Tokyo we are staying in the less up market end of town, Shinjuku. Our first stay in Tokyo was in Ginza with all the high end shops so the streets were neat and very clean. Shinjuku is ... less classy. As always it is very crowded and very noisy and the action seems to go on all night. There are lots of small lanes full of various restaurants and other establishments. One thing we have found across Japan (except in Ginza) is the Pachinko Parlours. Pachinko is as close as you will get to poker machines in Japan. Gambling for money is illegal so any Pachinko winnings are given in other forms - prizes or vouchers. They are always very loud and very smoky.

    Smoking in Japan is tolerated. Smokers have their own smoking rooms on train platforms which are a glass boxes full of people puffing away, must be very unhealthy in there! There are also areas on the footpath designated as smoking areas and smoking carriages on trains.

    Another thing I have noticed is the issue around parking. As I have said streets in Japan are small. Out in the burbs you really can't have 2 cars pass each other on the average street so street parking is not an option and if there are street spots they are usually metered. This begs the question where do people park? Simple, they either park in their garage or they park in one of the paid parking lots around the place. So if someone comes to visit you they have to either park their car on your property somewhere or pay to park in one of these parking yards. I guess this is why the Japanese focus on public transport so much as most of them wouldn't own a car. Some of these parking lots can be quite large and take 20+ cars, others closer to the centre of the city are very small and may only take 4 or 5.

    Another thing is push bikes. There are loads of people riding bikes and they are really dangerous. They zoom up the footpath and don't ring a bell so they scare the hell out of you. You also get the clowns who ride a bike and text at the same time. This means there are great parking lots of bikes in some cities. Often times I noticed the bikes might have had a lock on them but they weren't actually chained to anything, very honest people.

    Anyway in Shinjuku we stayed in the Shinjuku Prince Hotel which is a bit bigger than the place in Ginza and has a view as we are on the 16th floor. In fact we can see Godzilla.

    Seriously. See the photos.

    To celebrate the Someone's Birthday we went to the nice restaurant in the Hotel on the 25th floor. Japanese food of course with some nice wine. Very good and she had a good night.

    Tomorrow ... we are at a lose end! Our last full day in Tokyo so we'll have to see where we end up!
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  • Day8

    Moving on to Nagoya

    August 16, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    We had most of the day to spend in Hiroshima so we didn't have to rush. First item on the agenda was breakfast.

    Once again it was a traditional Japanese breakfast served in the communal dining room at the Ryokan. This means there were lots of Japanese there to watch us but we also watched them to see what order to do things in.

    We sat on the floor and hooked in. A traditional Japanese breakfast includes fish, rice, tofu, a salad, and a few other things we didn't want to ask about. It was actually pretty good.

    I forgot to mention yesterday this ryokan also had a communal bath, separated by sexes of course. We went up at night to check it out and I walked into the mens' section to find a whole lot of naked Japanese men, needless to say I had a 10 second look around and took off. T said there was 1 woman in the ladies side and it didn't look too bad. I said she could have that on her own!

    After breakfast we wandered across the road again and headed up to the Hiroshima Peace Museum near the main memorial. This Museum has lots of displays about the bombing focusing on the humanitarian side of things, meaning it told the stories of individuals affected by the bombing. Really emotional stuff. A man whose wife recognised his pocket watch, a school student whose mother recognised his lunch box (with charred lunch still inside), there were belt buckles, shoes, even a shadow burned into the steps of a building.

    Below are a couple of photos and I have typed up the explanation for each

    The tricycle:Shinichi Tetsutani (then 3 years and 11 months) loved to ride his tricycle. That Morning, he was riding in front of his house when, in a sudden flash, he and his tricycle were badly burned. He died that night. His father felt he was too young to be buried in a lonely grave away from home, and thinking he could still play with his tricycle, he buried Shinichi with the tricycle in the back yard. In the summer of 1985, forty years later, his father dug up Shinichi's remains and transferred them to the family grave. The tricycle and helmet, after sleeping for 40 years in the backyard with Shinichi, were donated to the Peace Memorial Museum.

    The two uniforms, uniform on the left - Noriko Sado was a first year student at First Hiroshima Prefectural Girls High School. She was exposed to the bomb at her building demolition site. Miraculously free of external injuries she returned to her home in Itsukaichi on a military truck that was transporting survivors. Nevertheless she died on August 22.

    Uniform on the right - Toshiaki Asahi (then, 13) was a first-year student at Second Hiroshima Prefectural Junior High School. He was exposed to the bomb at his building demolition work site in Nakajima-shin-machi along with 325 other students and teachers. Nearly all died instantly. Toshiaki, though seriously injured, made it to the river, where he stayed for some time. Later, he picked his way through the flames and about 4 hours later was found by a neighbor near Nagatsuka. His father took him by bicycle to Gion for first-aid treatment. That evening, he was taken to his home in Kabe-cho in a horse-drawn cart. Despite his painful injuries, Toshiaki talked about the bombing, the damage done, and what had happened to his friends. He even expressed concern about following the proper procedure for school absences. He endured unbearable thirst and drank almost no water at all. Despite the best care possible, he died in his mother's lap in the morning of August 9. His last words were, "Thank you for taking care of me."

    The museum explained about the research into the longer term effects of radiation and burns the victims endured. At the end they had photos of world leaders who had visited the site including Pope John-Paul 2, Jimmy Carter, Michail Gorbachev, Mother Theresa, and of course Barrack Obama.

    Like I said yesterday, the key message is Never Again.

    After the museum we headed up to Hiroshima Castle. Some sections of the Castle have been rebuilt but all that remains of some buildings were the foundations.

    By then it was time to collect the baggage and head to Hiroshima Shinkansen Station for our trip to Nagoya. We tried to get on the bus but it was rather crowded so we crossed to the middle of the road and caught the tram for the flat fare of 160 yen (about $2).

    Very simple and easy.

    Of course the Shinkansen was right on time and it was a painless trip though we did have to change at Okayama. It is about 550 kms from Hiroshima to Nagoya and the train did it in about two and a half hours including half a dozen stops along the way. Seriously love these trains.

    Once at Nagoya we transferred to the subway and made the short hop to Kanayama Station, again very helpful station staff made sure we were in the right place. Once at Kanayama we had a 10 minute walk to the ryokan.

    Now the ryokan in Hiroshima was pretty flash as far as ryokans go, let's just say the one in Nagoya was more cheap and cheerful! Hotel Iroha was clean and well appointed it just didn't have the polish of the Hiroshima one.

    Anyway it was dinner time by now so we asked the bloke at the counter to recommend somewhere as it seemed to be more out in the suburbs rather than in the centre of things.
    He steered us around the corner to a local Japanese restaurant and one of the best experiences of the trip so far.

    Let me set the scene. We walked in and there were 5 people who obviously all knew each other pretty well. There was a couple who were customers eating in the window, another bloke on his own eating at the bar (reminded me of a bar fly), the waiter (who I think was the owner), and an older lady who was the chef. Between them they knew about 10 words of english and they laughed loudly when we said we knew no Japanese. The restaurant had the Olympics going on the TV, 2 traditional tables on the floor but with pits cut out underneath so you were sort of sitting on the floor but it was a lot more comfortable, there were some sake bottles, and some beer taps.

    The first issue was getting a couple of beers, luckily that was pretty easy. Working out what we were going to eat was a little harder, luckily it was Google Translate to the rescue! All 5 of them were involved in the discussion with a lot of laughter on both sides. After a bit of fiddling we managed to get some tuna sashimi (which was actually pretty good). The bloke at the bar had an interesting dish so we pointed to it and we ordered a plate as well. He told T what it was and I quickly told her not to tell me, it was one of those don't ask don't tell dishes. It was actually OK if a little chewy on some parts.

    We finished that and had another beer while chatting through the smart phones. Google Translate works OK if you keep what you say very short, make it too long and it gets funny. They were interested in where we were from, where we had been, and what we thought of Japan.

    Anyway it was a really excellent night with lots of laughs. At the end we took their photo the bar fly is on the left, the chef in the middle, and the waiter on the right. The other couple had left by this time. I said to T afterwards the whole evening reminded me of something out of the TV show Cheers.

    By this time it was late so we headed back to the ryokan to crash.

    A couple of things I had over estimated about Japan:
    1. How long it takes to get somewhere. The trains make it very easy and very fast to get to places plus of course the country is not that big.
    2. How big an issue the language was going to be. Most people can speak a few words and will try and help if asked. A smile, a nod, and an arigato (thank you) go a long way with the Japanese.
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  • Day7

    A sobering place to visit

    August 15, 2016 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 28 °C

    Monday morning at Naoshima was fine and warm again. So far this trip we have been blessed with great weather and no rain.

    Breakfast at Benesse House was excellent, just like everything else about the place. The hotel runs shuttle buses around the island each time one rolls up to the front of the hotel the 2 porters bow deeply to the bus and to each passenger as they get off. Once in the hotel they can't do enough for you. Even when the bus leaves the porters bow as it drives off. People here are very polite.

    After breakfast we went to the Chi Chu Art Museum I mentioned yesterday. No queues and it was really interesting. They have 5 Claude Monet water lily paintings so they have created a small garden out the front that was inspired by the paintings. The gallery itself is cleverly designed so the paintings are actually displayed using natural light. There were artworks by a couple of other artists in the same building. One was an illusion where you are admitted in groups of 8 people, you have to take your shoes off and are shuffled into a room with a flight of 8 steps going up and a blue coloured box projected onto the wall at the top. The guide asks you to climb to the top of the steps and to 'keep going'. Only when you get close do you realise the blue box is actually a room you step into, very clever.

    Another artist had a highly polished ball of granite about 6 ft in diameter but the arrangement of the skylights made for some incredible reflections on the surface of the stone. Once again very well done.

    We finished at the museum and went back to meet the shuttle bus back to Benesse House. By then the queue of people was a hundred metres long so very glad we went when we did. We collected our bags, checked out and headed for Miyanoura Port to catch the ferry back to Uno. The ferry was no where near as crowded as it was the day before so we grabbed a seat near the window and watched the Seto Sea go by.

    It was a pretty uneventful trip and we made it across to the train station at Uno in time to catch the train back to Chayamachi and on to Okayama.

    Once at Okayama we visited the JR office to finish booking some of the Shinkansen trips and for the first time we couldn't get on the train we wanted but no problems we just get the same one 30 mins later - gotta love the Japanese!

    Anyway we sorted out our bookings and headed for the Shinkansen platform. We were standing on the platform at Okayama waiting for our train when a guard came along and asked us where we were from and gave us some origami paper, very friendly bloke. As always our train was on time.

    We were going to Hiroshima.

    I always wanted to visit having been to Pearl Harbor and seen where the war in the Pacific started I wanted to go to Hiroshima and see where it ended.

    The trip from Okayama to Hiroshima took less than an hour and the very helpful lady at the Information counter directed us to the bus where we could use our Japanese Rail pass to get to the hotel ... or as I should rightly say Ryokan.

    A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese guest house so it was shoes off as you came into the foyer. The staff were very helpful taking our bags - though there were only 2 very slight Japanese ladies on the desk and despite their protests I couldn't let them try and lift our suitcases. They explained the rules about shoes and how things work in a guest house.

    We were taken up to our room and it was a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats on the floor, a very low table, and the traditional screens. It was fantastic, T and I both wanted to experience traditional hospitality and this was it. We booked in for dinner and breakfast and went exploring.

    When we were in Kyoto I talked about a stunning gold building in a centuries old garden. Hiroshima's building was equally stunning but there was no gold and no centuries old garden. Just a ruin.

    The Ryokan was just across the road from the famous dome where the A-bomb was dropped. Walking around looking at the building brings home the scale of destruction, most of the city was flattened. The dome building survived because the blast was pretty much directly above so the roof and all the floors were obliterated but most of the walls remained standing.

    The dome building is on a river and just across the river was the Peace Park with memorials to various groups. One of the most poignant was the Childrens Memorial. Sadako Sasaki was two years old when she was exposed to the blast but was largely uninjured. She developed leukemia at eleven years of age and while she was sick started folding paper cranes as there is a legend that anyone who folds 1000 paper cranes will be granted a wish by the Gods. Unfortunately she passed away aged 12 but since then the paper crane has become the symbol of peace in Hiroshima with thousands of them being sent there from children all over the world. Now the Childrens' Memorial has a metal version of the paper crane and a bell visitors can ring.

    One of the more moving things as we were walking around was watching and listening to a man pray before the mound where unknown victims' ashes are interred.

    The main memorial where Barack Obama laid a wreath a few years ago is close by along with the flame that will only go out when nuclear weapons no longer exist. The main memorial, flame, and dome building are all in a line.

    The underlying message in Hiroshima was not about who was right and who was wrong rather it was simply Never Again.

    We wandered around some of the streets of Hiroshima encountering a friendly local who startled us by saying 'Have a good day' as he walked past. Not sure he knew any other english.

    We headed back to the Ryokan for dinner. As I said it was a traditional Japanese dinner in our room. A lady in a Kimono laid out all the plates and food - there was a lot of food so T and I got comfy on the floor and hooked in. We didn't know what everything was and in what order we should be eating it so we simply decided the order she brought them in was the best idea.

    After dinner T rested up while I went for a walk around the Peace Park again and by the time I made it back the staff had cleared up dinner and made our beds. Traditional Japanese beds of a thin mattress on the floor with a light quilt. It was quite comfortable.

    Tomorrow were are off to the birth place of Toyota.
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  • Day6

    Japan's Inland Sea

    August 14, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    We left the salubrious Hotel Izutsu early on Sunday morning and headed for the subway. It was an easy 20 min trip to the main Kyoto train station and headed up to the Shinkansen platform. We wanted something for breakfast and there weren't a lot of options open at that hour so egg sandwiches washed down with fruit juice had to do.

    The Shinkansen arrived and departed right on time (of course) and it was a smooth hour or so trip from Kyoto to Okayama. To us Aussies when we say we go from one city to the next we imagine long stretches of country driving with few towns and houses to be seen along the way. Japan is nothing like that. Kyoto and Osaka are sort of merged into one big metropolis with only a few more rice fields appearing when you get out of the central suburbs. There are always houses, roads, and people.

    We were roughly heading west from Osaka along the shore of the inland sea. Okayama is what you would call a regional town with a population of just over 700,000. It also has an important train line connection which is why we were headed there.

    We changed to the Chayamachi train and 20 mins later changed to the Uno train. It may sound scary changing trains so many times in a country where you don't speak the language but really it is pretty easy. The guys on the gate are very happy to help tourists and most signs are in Japanese and English.

    We were heading for the island of Naoshima on Japan's inland sea for our night of indulgence on our holiday. Naoshima is a really interesting island. T found out about it from Catherine and thought it would be a great place to go and it was (thanks Cath).

    Once we arrived at Uno we made the 10 min walk across the road to the ferry to Naoshima. The ferry was actually a car ferry and loads of Japanese were looking to take their cars to Naoshima and the other islands. It was only a 20 minute trip before we arrived at Miyanoura Port on Naoshima and made it off the ferry.

    We found the shuttle bus to our Hotel - Benesse House - and sank into the air conditioning for the 15 min drive.

    Nayoshima is a small island that was barely supported by fishing back in the 80s when it was decided to create a centre for arts and bring tourists to Nayoshima and other islands in the vicinity. Based on the crowds we saw this has been an outrageous success. We happened to be there for the Setouchi Triennale Festival which happens every 3 years and sees hordes of people come to the islands to look at art galleries and generally form queues. One of the most popular galleries, Chi Chu Art Museum, has 5 Claude Monet paintings and there was a 2 hour queue to see it on the day we arrived, luckily one of the ladies at the Hotel recommended we go at 9am the next day and there was no waiting.

    Part of the Art program on the islands includes taking old houses that otherwise would have been left empty and using them for artists to show their work. This meant you would walk down small lanes and find an art gallery happening. Really interesting and a great use for old houses.

    The yellow pumpkin on the water is one of the most famous images of Naoshima.
    One of Japan's key architects, Tadao Ando, designed a number of galleries and buildings on Naoshima in the Brutalist style so the buildings were just as good as the art. More info on the broader festival is here suffice to say it was very impressive.

    As well as taking in the art we went for a trip to Honmura, one of the towns on the island, and stumbled across an Hawaiian style burger joint. We didn't stop for a burger but did stop for one of their craft beers. They had 2 on offer, one was 'Alcohol of Wheat' and one was 'Alcohol of Barley', we opted for Alcohol of Barley which was alcoholic ginger beer and very refreshing as it was easily pushing 40 degrees.

    Benesse House is THE place to stay on the island and the building was designed by the same architect that designed most of the other galleries, it was very nice and luxurious. Happy hour on the deck was definitely one of the highlights, drinking beers and watching the lights of Takamatsu across the sea come on. Dinner was a 5 star event and definitely one of the culinary highlights of the trip so far.

    I've been noticing some of the materials used to build Japanese houses. Being such an earthquake prone area there are very few houses made of bricks. Most seem to be wood which is then scorched to give the blackened look in the photos or some type of fibro. There are some concrete block buildings but these aren't very common.

    Tomorrow we move on from Naoshima and head further west to Hiroshima.
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  • Day5

    Golden Palace in beautiful Kyoto

    August 13, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    Today was our only full day in Kyoto so we were out early to make the most of it.

    We had a few things on the list and first was a trip to Arashimaya to see the famous bamboo grove. As we all know taxis are for wimps so we hopped on the subway in a north westerly direction to Uzumesa Tenjingawa and then walked a few hundred metres to Kaikonoyashiro.

    We knew this was a different line but not much else and it turns out it is a tram line. After a few minutes a small, bright purple tram clanked around the corner and we climbed on. I didn't realise Kyoto still had trams as there are none in the city centre but is seems a few areas still have them.

    The tram followed a road for a bit and then went off on its own line behind houses. The tram was small and the tram corridor it ran down was small, in some places it was 1 line so we had to wait at a station for the tram going the other way to pass us before we could proceed. People's houses backed onto the line and often they had pot plants growing right next to the track. They had gates so they could get out and water the plants - a prime example of every speck of space being used - no worries about Health and Safety, common sense prevails and you just don't get run over by the tram! The stations were also very small, usually a metre or so wide and only as long as the tram. Another interesting aspect was the level crossings, they were tiny. Often only 1 lane wide - a lot narrower than Allan Street!

    We reached Arashimaya and walked up past another temple to the bamboo grove. Really pretty and even though it was only 8.30am and the day was starting to heat up it was very cool in among the bamboo. The grove goes for some distance so we ended up back in Japanese suburbia. On the walk back to the station we found some cinnamon soy donuts which of course we had to try, not quite as good as the donut truck in Berry that's for sure.

    We hopped back on the tram and headed to the next stop Kitano Hakubaicho which is close to the Buddist Temple called Kinkakuji. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. There are a lot of temples in Kyoto and 'temple burnout' can be an issue. Anyway we walked up the hill from the station, cut through a few back streets and found where the rest of Japan was hiding - well everyone who wasn't at Nikko anyway.

    There were thousands of people. We paid our 500 yen (about $6) and went through. I can tell you now I am never going to forget this garden. The Temple is famous for 2 things: its gardens and the Golden Pavilion.

    The photos below don't really do it justice this building is stunning. It is covered in 24 carat gold leaf and sits in a centuries old garden that shows it off perfectly. There were thousands of people there but I managed to take photos without getting too many of them in. We all had to follow the same path and being a bit of a giant my arm was longer than any selfie stick - and aren't those things deadly to us normal height people?

    We wandered up and around the rest of the garden and decided it was time to head back into town. We weren't keen on walking back down the hill to the tram station as the day was really warming up by now so we caught the number 12 bus back into the city.

    Once back in the city it was time for lunch and we made our way into the Nishiki Markets where just about everything was sold - clothes, food, spices, etc etc. While T was in a shop I decided to try some Kyoto street food, a soy and okra fibre croquette, it was pretty good, followed by a potato and butter thingy. Next it was some sweet potato on a stick (they like food on a stick here) which also wasn't bad. But to cap it off we had a cinnamon pancake with ice cream and a creaming soda spider - all traditional Japanese food of course! The pancake shop was a bit of a surprise but very popular with the locals and really stood out from the other shops. They took us up to the first floor and for those of us of normal height it was a tight squeeze up the staircase.

    We made a pit stop in the Hotel to cool off and work out the afternoon's activities. We wanted to see the vermilion gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine which is to the south east of the city. We walked across the river another subway line and headed for Fushimi Inari station. A short walk across a canal and another train line brought us to the temple.

    Once again there were loads of people but the gates are impressive. Would hate to have the job of painting them all as there are a few hundred of them and they go right up a very big hill.

    By now it was mid afternoon and really hot so after finishing at the gates we headed back to the hotel to cool down. It's great you can buy beers (and just about anything else) from the local Lawsons convenience store, dunno why they are called Lawsons, there are a few 7-elevens around but not many.

    We headed out for dinner and found another small restaurant with helpful staff so we tried one of their set menus - chicken hearts and gizzards included - washed down by a glass of sake which is not bad at all.

    We then had to head back to the hotel to pack as we head to Naoshima tomorrow.

    Final impressions of Kyoto are very positive. Really loved this town and wished we had more time here and less in Tokyo. It is a lot more relaxed and really friendly to foreigners. Having said that at no time has the number of foreigners at a particular place been more than about 10 to 15% it is mostly locals or other Japanese. I should point out last Thursday was a holiday in Japan which explains why there are lot of people out and about at all the tourist sites.

    Tomorrow we get a little off the beaten track to an island in the Seto Inland Sea called Naoshima. Really looking forward to it, it is a luxury hotel so we are spoiling ourselves.
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  • Day4

    Hello Kyoto!

    August 12, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ☀️ 34 °C

    We were up early, watered and fed, and at Tokyo Station to catch the 8.30am Shinkansen to Kyoto.

    I know I keep talking about these things but they really are fantastic. No travelling out to an airport, going through security etc etc etc just get to the centre of town, get on, and go! Same when you arrive you aren't at some airport somewhere out whoop-whoop you are (in our case) 3 subway stops from your hotel.

    The Kyoto subway is a bit smaller than Tokyo's so it is a little easier to get around but there are still multiple subway lines so you need to know which ticket to use - Suica or JR. They have a tourist information desk there so we were able to sort out how to get to our hotel and found it very easily (taxis are still for wimps!).

    We arrived just before lunch and booked into the Izutsu Hotel. Not much to look at from the outside but it is very central and the room was actually quite large. Still has a toilet with a remote control though!

    We went for a wander and found a cheap and cheerful udon restaurant close by. Udon is Japanese noodles kinda like really thick spaghetti, and tastes absolutely sensational. We then wandered up Teramachi Street and spent some cash. This is where all the really nice arts and crafts shops are so we took our time.

    Kyoto is famous for its temples and shrines and there are loads of them. We headed across the river to the Heian-jingu Shrine which was fantastic. It has a huge courtyard area, some very impressive buildings, and a huge garden around the back. It actually featured in a write up in the Sydney Morning Herald's Travel section a few months ago. The centre piece of the garden in the lake with the covered bridge but all of it was very impressive, see the photos below.

    We spent a while walking around the gardens and stopped for a cool drink at the tea house in the middle of the gardens.

    I don't want to jinx us but the weather has been brilliant if a little too warm. It has been in the mid 30s everyday.

    We then headed out of the shrine and south under the massive gate before going back into the main city looking for somewhere to eat. Like I said it is a bit of a lottery as to what type of restaurant you walk into but tonight we really did well. The food photos looked pretty good, it was full of locals which is always a good sign, and the bloke serving was very helpful. We took a couple of stools at the counter and worked out what we wanted. They did lots of food on a stick - beef, pork, chicken, capsicum - but also some offal like liver, tongue, heart. We kept it pretty simple and stuck to what we knew. As the sticks came out they were put on the steel section in front of us (see photos). All the time the cooks and waiters were shouting and calling out, some of the time it was a customer's order, or greetings to new customers, the rest of the time I have no idea they were just yelling. I said to T we should call out Aussie Aussie Aussie and see what happens. Anyway it was great fun and the food was brilliant.

    After dinner and a beer we stumbled across a lane that runs parallel to the river that was full of people and restaurants. Really amazing and it went for a couple of hundred metres.

    Kyoto is a lot more chilled than Tokyo. It is quite common here for people (men and women) to get around in the traditional kimonos right down to the wooden sandals. It is also better set up to deal with tourists as there were a lot of restaurants with english menus available and it just had a more friendly vibe. Interestingly there seem to be a lot of French style bakeries around, not sure where that influence came from.

    Really lucky the Olympics are on at the moment, can watch something interesting on TV that doesn't need commentary!

    Tomorrow is going to be spent exploring Kyoto.
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  • Day3

    Getting out of Tokyo

    August 11, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    On Thursday we decided we would get out of Tokyo and see some of the countryside, plus I wanted to have a go on the Shinkansen. So we decided to head north to the small tourist town of Nikko.

    We organised the Shinkansen tickets and plunged into Tokyo Train Station to find our platform. Like I said before there are a lot of rules in Japan but once you understand the basics of how things work it kinda all makes sense - YouTube was a big help here! The Shinkansens are huge trains, some are 12 carriages long,some are double deckers, and they run to various locations every few minutes so you need to be organised and know the name of the Shinkansen route, the platform it leaves from, your carriage number, and the time it goes.

    The JR gate officers are very helpful and used to directing lost tourists so they pointed us to the right platform where we knew we would have to line up. The platform has lines marked out called 'First' and 'Second' this refers to the order of the trains leaving not the class so if your train is next you line up in the First section if the one after then the Second section and you move to the First when their train leaves.

    When the train pulls in and the people have exited the cleaners go through to turn the seats around, get rid of any rubbish (never much), and make sure all is clean again. Once they are done they get off the train and bow before moving off to their next assignment. They are very fast and very efficient.

    Our JR Pass gives us unlimited access to JR Shinkansens and local trains. We were advised to buy the slightly more expensive Green version of the JR Pass as Green Shinkansen carriages have better seats and you can reserve seats whereas other carriages it is first on first seated.

    We found our seats and settled in for the ride. While it was in the 'burbs of Tokyo it wasn't going that fast - mind you it would have left the all stations to Revesby on the East Hills line in its dust! Once out of Tokyo it really started to move and wow it is fast. We had to change at Utsonomaya to a smaller local line to go up to Nikko. This train had a lot of Westerners - well about 15% were non-Japanese the rest were locals. It was a pleasant journey up into the hills to get to Nikko, all up it took just under 2 hours.

    Nikko is north of Tokyo and is viewed by many locals as a nice day trip, kinda like Sydney people going to Berry in NSW. The station was a classic old style and there were loads of people around. Nikko is popular because one of the original Shoguns is buried here so there are some very old bridges, temples, pagodas, and other buildings. We caught a bus up the top of the hill (along with a couple of hundred locals that were jammed in with us - real crush loading) and had a look around. We came across the red bridge in the photos below, really impressive. Then we wandered up to the main temple Rinno-ji (Buddist). Unfortunately the centuries and earthquakes have taken their toll and so the temple is in the middle of being restored. It has a big shed built over it and they have literally pulled it apart and replaced or repaired anything that needed to be. The best part is that this whole area is known for its cedar trees which these buildings are all built from so the smell of the cedar was sensational.

    We also visited the Japanese garden and generally wandered around with everyone else - see photos below.

    We then wandered back down the hill to look at Nikko itself. We wanted to find something for lunch but it is always a bit of a gamble as you aren't sure what type of restaurant you are going to walk into - we ended up having cake and coffee at a really neat little coffee shop but we really wanted some lunch!

    Anyway we finally sorted that out and after wandering around a bit more headed back to the station for the trip home.

    Nikko is well out of the City so we went through what we would call farmland. The Japanese are very good at using every possible speck of space. Their houses are usually double story and on small blocks, their cars are usually very small (Margaret's Yaris woud be considered a mid-sized car here), their streets are very narrow, their yards either don't exist or are used to grow veggies, and on a farm all possible space seems to be used to grow rice.

    Dinner was a low key affair followed by packing as we leave Tokyo tomorrow.

    Our hotel in Ginza was the Unitzo Ginza Hotel. The room was typically Japanese - very neat, very clean and very small. In all seriousness if you put 2 double beds in the room (it already had one) then you would have completely filled the room. As it was the room had a bed, TV on the wall, small desk, chair for the desk, small table, an ottoman, upright ironing press thing, and a document shredder (as you do). We had to pile some of these things up to give us room to open our cases and move about. The bathroom was similarly small but functional.

    Which brings me to an interesting topic, Japanese toilets. There are a couple of different types: the squat type and the western style. While the Japanese squat style are common there is usually at least one Western version as well. Even the western style can be rather odd, the one in our room beeped when in use and had a flush button as usual but it also had a remote control. Neither of us were game to try this out for fear of causing some form of biological or mechanical plumbing incident, not sure our travel insurance would cover us for any injuries. A photo is below.

    Tomorrow we move on to Kyoto.
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  • Day2

    Imperially Speaking

    August 10, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 26 °C

    Today was our first full day in Tokyo.

    We headed up towards the Emperor's Palace to look around at the gardens to see what we could see. First thing we noticed was the moats and walls around the Palace. The moats were about 50m wide and only 50cm or so deep but the walls were quite high. The intention here of course was to keep out those pesky Ninjas and other undesirables that might try and mess with the Emperor. These gardens are in the centre of Tokyo just near the main train station, about a 15 min walk from the hotel.

    We wandered around a bit and were impressed by the buildings and the gates. Of course the Emperor still lives there so the grounds aren't open to the public BUT as luck would have it a very helpful man came up and gave us some tickets to a free tour of the gardens that was happening in an hour's time. A bit of big deal as they limit the numbers so we tagged along.

    The then Emperor moved here in the late 1800s, prior to that Kyoto was the capital of Japan. The Palace and grounds were originally set up by the Shoguns but of course there have been many wars and fires so there have been a lot of changes over the centuries. The Palace was destroyed in WW2 so the current version only opened in 1968. A number of gates and keeps were also destroyed so it isn't as spectacular as it once was but still it is very cool.

    While we were wandering through there was a reception for a visiting dignitary as all the motor bike escorts, police cars, and a big limo turned up. We couldn't get very close so couldn't really see who it was but I think it was Beyonce and Oprah. Maybe not.

    Anyway the photos below show what the Palace and Gardens are like.

    After the Palace we decided to get a bit more contemporary and caught the subway over to the very trendy area of Harajuku. There is a lane called Takeshita-dori which is where you go to get your pop-culture fix. This means there were Pokemon on t-shirts, pants, cups, etc etc as well as Japanese pop stars, cartoon characters, all kinds of food, and anything else. And the place was packed. A few more Westerners but still definitely a minority.

    We headed up a street called Omote-sando where there were more Ginza-style up market shops and then headed down to the next suburb along from Harajuku, Shibuya.

    Shibuya is very famous for 'the Scramble'. This is supposed to be the busiest crossing in the world and I can see why, even on your average Wednesday afternoon there were thousands of people crossing the road each time the lights changed. There are a few photos below.

    We then caught the train back to Tokyo Station and headed back to Ginza to find somewhere for dinner. As they say, when in Japan eat like the Italians ... yes we found an italian restaurant and it was actually really good.

    Tomorrow we nick off to Nikko!
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