Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Thursday 9th May 2013: Matsumoto

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We dropped the car off at lunchtime in Matsumoto to give us time to have a wander about and also to post back to Martin and Tilly the spoon we had stolen to eat our yogurts on Monday. The people in the post office were so helpful and charming it made us embarrassed on behalf of anyone having to use the post office in UK and Spain when they can’t speak the language.

Flower clock, Matsumoto

Flower clock, Matsumoto

The castle, ‘Matsumoto-jo’ is one of four castles designated as ‘national treasures’, but it was closed by the time we got there. Still, from the outside it was quite lovely:

Beautiful Matsumoto Castle

Beautiful Matsumoto Castle

Lovely Helen and Randall at Matsumoto Castle

Lovely Helen and Randall at Matsumoto Castle
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The castle gate. Knobs and knockers jokes.

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Castle grounds, and Randall

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Castle gates

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Matsumoto nightlife

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Dirty burger, Aloha Hawaiian burger joint.

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Tuesday 7th – Thursday 9th May 2013: Bessho Onsen and Nagano Snow Monkeys

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We loitered in Matsumoto on Tuesday longer than planned as we had to wait for our luggage to arrive from Sumiyoshi – luckily we were able to track its progress online, so as soon as it arrived in town we had the hotel call the post office and summon our luggage thenceforth. Once we had rather relievedly received our luggage (despite reassurances from the guidebook and t’interwebs we were somewhat nervous about signing it over to some guy in a convenience store on Sunday) we headed across the road to the Nissan car rental where we had a reservation as they were the only rental place in town that dealt in Engrish.

Our pink chariot - Nissan March (we think it was a Micra)

Our pink chariot – Nissan March (we think it was a Micra)

Our plan was to visit the Snow Monkeys in Yudanaka, but by the time we arrived it was raining and almost time for the park to close, so instead we headed back to our ‘experience’ for the night, a stay in a Ryokan in Bessho Onsen , an ancient spa town mentioned in The Pillow Book .

Our ryokan for the night was Uematsuya Ryokan – not especially traditional or historical but reviewed as being friendly to non-Japanese with some English spoken. As the Onsen /Ryokan experience was billed as being very typical Japanese and not ‘touristy’ ie non-Japanese tourists, we thought this would be a gentler experience. We were right, as when we were just getting a bit concerned about finding the place and had pulled up to consult a map, we had a knock on the car window to find the lovely Wan-chen out to look for us in her car as we were late! She spoke great English and checked us in and explained how everything worked – a good thing as it was all rather complicated and we would have been exceptionally confused otherwise!

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Me in my ‘Yukata’ cotton kimono/dressing gown.

We had a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats, so all footwear to be removed before entering. They provided slippers as well as the yukata for moving around the ryokan, and even managed to find a biggish pair that weren’t too tiny for Randall.

As we’d arrived late-ish, dinner of traditional Japanese ‘haute-cuisine’ was served almost immediately in our room.

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Randall marvelling at what turned out to be just the starters!

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Helen getting into the spirit of things.

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Local wine, sashimi, and all sorts of goodies!

Really, it was the kind of meal where we couldn’t identify half the items, and very possibly ate the garnish in more than one case, but it was mostly very tasty – the sashimi was fantastic and the roast fish was pretty good too.

After dinner it was time to bathe – separate baths for men and women that get swapped over each evening so everyone gets a go in each of the indoor and outdoor baths.

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Changing room for baths #1

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Changing rooms for baths #1 (women’s in the evening, men’s the next morning)

The onsen are *not* for washing – you have to clean yourself thoroughly (so everyone can see you have!!) before getting in for a soak.

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Ablutions area for baths #1 (women’s in the evening, men’s the next morning)

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Indoor bath #1 (women’s in the evening, men’s the next morning)

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Outdoor bath #1 (women’s in the evening, men’s the next morning)

I had a beautiful solo bath in the outdoor bath, reading my book. It was dark at the time (these photos were taken the next morning) so there were lovely views of twinkling lights over the ceramic-tiled rooves of the houses in the town.

I am sooooo going to buy some yukata – they are so comfortable!

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Outdoor bath

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Wooden octagonal bath.

This reminded me of THAT Ewan McGregor scene in The Pillow Book (the 1996 Peter Greenaway film, not the original!)

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Outdoor bath on the other side (men’s that evening, women’s the following morning)

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View from our balcony down the valley the next morning.

Breakfast was served communally but very Japanese-style, on the floor on tatami mats – fish, seaweed, rice and pickles.

On check-out we had a photo with Wan-chen for their blog pages as they don’t have many western guests:

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The delightful Wan-chen and us in reception.

She also very kindly drove us to the next ryokan we were going to stay in (even though it was technically ‘the competition’) as she was concerned that no-one there spoke English and she wanted to ensure that everything was set up for our arrival, including leaving our bags there while we went off for the day. What a star – we highly recommend Uematsuya Ryokan to anyone.

So, now it was time for take 2 of the snow monkeys experience. This time we managed to get onto the highway instead of the local road, and Randall decided to be outrageous and ignore the 80km/h speed limit (usually I would object, but I could see it was doing bad things to his blood pressure) so we arrived in just over an hour with a stop for second breakfast (pickles and fish hadn’t really hit the spot).

On arrival at the monkey park (TERRIBLY signposted, in case you are ever considering it!) we paid 500 yen for parking and started the walk to the  Snow Monkeys , duly warned:

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Do not feed the monkeys!

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Randall and some geyser.

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Monkeys!

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Hot pool, with the river running alongside.

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Monkey contemplating his reflection in the hot water pool.

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Biggie and littlie drinking hot sulphurous water from the pools.

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Grooming.

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Bathing monkeys

Snow Monkeys!

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Bathing monkeys.

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Monkey!

Post-monkeys, we went for a short drive and hike around the Shiga-Kogen area (1998 Winter Olympics site).

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Cryptic map.

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We were a little concerned in case this sign – at the start of our walk – said ‘beware of the bears’.

Then it was time to head back to Bessho Onsen fo some more hot water action:

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Hanaya Ryokan

The beautiful, historical and traditional Hanaya Ryokan has been serving travellers since the 17th century. It was a wonderful experience although we were glad we had warmed up at Uematsuya Ryokan the night before, as very little English was spoken and it would have been completely baffling otherwise!

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Hanaya Ryokan

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Carp pond, Hanaya Ryokan

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Gardens, Hanaya Ryokan

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Unfortunately they didn’t have Randall-sized slippers…

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But they did have rather marvellous toe-socks!

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and splendid yukata!

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Love that one is expected to walk around the hotel in your dressing gown and slippers.

Our lovely little house, with private onsen:

Hanaya Ryokan

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Our little house / suite

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Snug, view over the gardens

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Super-retro phone

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Our private hot-spring bath in our suite.

The gardens were stunning – all fantastic levels of trees and shrubs, koi carp pools, little wooden bridges and walkways – just gorgeous:

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Beautiful gardens of Hanaya Ryokan

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Beautiful gardens of Hanaya Ryokan – and Helen

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Lost in the woods…

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Prease reave shoes.

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Outdoor baths – red curtain for girls, blue for boys.

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Changing rooms for one of the two indoor baths (the ‘Marble baths)

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One of the two marble baths.

We didn’t manage to photograph the outdoor baths or the ‘Observation bath’ as they were populated but both were absolutely lovely, however we didn’t use them as we had the luxury of our own private one in our suite!

Dinner was served in our room as is traditional:

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Uh oh…so much unidentifiable food!

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While we were out having a post-prandial stroll. the magic elves laid out our futons.

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Love the gargoyles!


Monday 6th May 2013: The Alpen Route, Japan Alps.

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The plan was to do the supposedly spectacular Alpen Route , leaving early from Martin and Tilly’s on Monday morning and arriving at the other end in time for the last train to Matsumoto, having seen some spectacular views and done some short hikes along the way.

When we took the first two modes of transport – the train from Toyama to Tateyama and then the ‘cable car’ (funicular to us) for the first 500m up the mountain – this still looked reasonable.

Waiting for the 'Cable Car'

Waiting for the ‘Cable Car’

However by the time we were at about 1500m, about halfway to Murodo on the bus, a heavy mist had rolled in and the snow was starting to fall as we drove through the famous snow corridor:

Snow Corridor

In Murodo, at 2500m, we’d been planning to hike around the pretty lake there and maybe even visit the ‘Hell Valley’ , although we saw a sign that the latter was closed to walkers because of dangerous gases released by recent increased ‘fumarolic’ volcanic activity. However there was such a white-out at the top that walking really wasn’t on the cards:

Snow!

Snow!

So we took the next three means of transport; the electric ‘trolley bus’ through the tunnel, followed by the spectacular, over 1000m single-span cable car / ropeway and then another funicular down to the Kurobe dam:

Looking down from the top ropeway staion

Looking down from the top ropeway staion

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Warning sign on the funicular

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Kurobe Dam (1962)

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Kurobe Dam

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At Kurobe Dam

From the dam the final means of transport were another electric trolley-bus, then a local bus for half an hour, then finally a JR train to Matsumoto to check in to our hotel for the night.

We found an izakaya near the hotel for food and a couple of beers while listening to locals be raucous (well, mainly local girls be squeaky and screechy!) before crashing for the night.

Edamame, sashimi etc...yummy!

Edamame, sashimi etc…yummy!

Needless to say, the next morning the mountains were clear and the sky was blue!

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View from our hotel

Written by helenbcn

May 7, 2013 at 6:21 am

Friday 3rd – Sunday 5th May 2013: Sumiyoshi, Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto

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On Friday morning we left Kyoto and travelled by taxi, VERY crowded JR Special Rapid service to Osaka and then local train to Sumiyoshi, to stay with the lovely Martin and Tilly – old friends of Randall’s – and their two delightful 7-year-old boys.

It was a festival weekend – part of Golden Week – and in Kobe (their nearest town) there was a flower-petal festival a bit like the one in Sitges for Corpus Christi:

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Kobe flower petal festival. Tom with balloon samurai sword.

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Kobe flower petal festival

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Peculiar dinosaur/dragon type creature.

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Balloon lady who made balloon samurai swords for the boys.

Balloon woman and the twins.

Balloon woman and the twins.

We wandered up through  Kitano to the temple/shrine at the top of the hill via a small plaza where an audience of locals were enjoying watching a performing monkey – little outfit, glasses and all. Cultural differences…

Prayers at the shrine.

Prayers at the shrine.

Holy Cow!

Holy Cow!

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Kobe – Kitano shrine

At the shrine above Kitano, Kobe

At the shrine above Kitano, Kobe

View of Kobe from Kitano

View of Kobe from Kitano

I have found my spiritual home...

I have found my spiritual home…

Shrine, Kobe town

Shrine, Kobe town

The boys!

Randall and Martin

The boys had been learning how to make origami Samurai hats:

Many hats!

Many hats!

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My attempt

That evening we headed into the bright lights of Osaka, although apparently it was very quiet compared to usual as it was a holiday. Still, we met one of Martin’s work colleagues and had a great dinner and some beers in a Japanese/Hawaiian fusion place.

The Osaka Station Water Clock

The next morning Randall and I slept late, and were surprisingly not woken by a noisy parade banging and crashing its way past. However luckily there was another so we didn’t miss out:

The moving shrine

The moving shrine

The moving shrine

The moving shrine

The moving shrine parade

It was really quite spectacular, with all the local children ‘pulling’ the cart up the road on a long rope, and teenagers hanging off the roof at alarming angles waving their flags and chanting.

The moving shrine parade #2

Even better, the local fire service were supervising the proceedings and gave Tom and Jack a ride in the fire engine!

Fireman friendly.

Fireman friendly.

It was late-ish before we caught the train to Kyoto to go shrine visiting – a bus from the station took us close to Kiyomizu-dera, we walked the rest of the way up the hill lined with little cafes and curio shops.

Strange machine we spent ages puzzling over in a shop window.

Strange machine we spent ages puzzling over in a shop window.

It makes cookies!

It makes cookies!

It was early evening by the time we arrived, but as it turned out that meant that the light was just amazing.

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View down the hill from Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

Gate to Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

Bell at Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

Bell at Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

Kiyomizu-dera Shrine

The red pagoda across from the main building.

The red pagoda across from the main building.

The red pagoda

The red pagoda

By the time we got back to Sumiyoshi it was late evening and there was a festival going on around the local shrine with stalls for winning goldfish etc and most importantly great street food, so I finally got the takoyaki I’d been fixated on since reading ‘Sushi and Beyond – what the Japanese know about cooking’ (thanks Symon and Zoe for the recommendation!).

Yummy takoyaki = happy Helen

Yummy takoyaki = happy Helen

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Martin pondering whether to get a ‘sausage-onna-stick’.

On Sunday Tilly was feeling under the weather so the rest of us headed off to Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto to the famous Bamboo Forest. It was a beautiful day so we first went boating on the river:

Obelix - I mean Randall - rowing

Obelix – I mean Randall – rowing

Being in a rowing boat with Randall – particularly when you are responsible not only for navigation but also for the well-being of a sevenyear-old without a life jacket – is not the most relaxing as one travels everywhere at full ramming speed. A bit like when Obelix rows. Still, it was very picturesque and we only had a couple of collisions.

Preparing to repel boarders

Preparing to repel boarders

Scenery

Scenery

Our first attempt at taking on supplies failed – just as we were ordering from the nice lady someone leapt into their boat, shouted a command and they zipped off at high speed. The second attempt was more successful and we managed some drinks and popcorn before drifting away to make space for the next customers.

Floating caff

Floating caff

All that rowing (or in my case lounging in the back of the boat) had made us hungry – time for more takoyaki!

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Takoyaki stall at the riverside.

Takoyaki stall at the riverside.

From here we headed to the actual bamboo forest:

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

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Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

In rather typical Japanese fashion it was all very regulated – no wandering through little meandering paths in the forest, just a wide tarmac path along with the other tourists, the rickshaws and the bicycles. It was pretty but not overwhelming, so Martin took Caroline and the boys back via the temple while Randall and I continued walking for a little while and then found a spot in the sun for a couple of beers:

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Beer garden.

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Art gallery that the beer garden belonged to.

We headed back to Sumiyoshi in time to drop off our luggage at a convenience store for the apparently famous Japanese luggage forwarding service as the next day we were heading to the mountains for the Alpen Route where big bags aren’t allowed. We hope to see our luggage again soon.

Our stay was rounded off by a night out in Kobe with live music by The Tardy Boys – drinking, dancing and much fun!

Kobe by night

Tuesday 30th April – Friday 3rd May 2013: Kyoto

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I’d been pretty excited about the bullet trains but they turned out to be almost exactly like the AVE between Barcelona and Madrid (which is, it has to be said, VERY cool!). In fact, in business and first class on the AVE they actually feed you whereas Green Class on the Shinkansen  had a trolley service. Still, it was clean, fast and efficient, getting us to Kyoto in 2.5 hours (distance of about 450km)

Our Kyoto hotel, the Hearton, turned out to be 3 stops on the subway from the main station (thanks to Randall for carrying my suitcase up and down I don’t know how many stairs – they don’t do ‘accessible’ in Japan) and right in the middle of town, so once checked in and sorted out (free wifi in the lobby only) we were able to walk through Nijo-dori, a street with numerous cafes and restaurants, to the river. The restaurants with riverside terraces all seemed to be traditional Japanese places doing expensive set menus, but we found a café and had a bottle of sparkling wine and some Japanese-Italian fusion antipasti with delightful service.

On the way home we called in at the  Hello Cafe Bibliotec for tea and cake in my case and coffee and milkshake for Randall.

Our hotel turned out to be a mid-range one catering to tour groups and business meetings, so reasonably international while still being small-ish. It turned out to do a well-priced breakfast buffet with a mix of western and Japanese items so the next morning we indulged ourselves with bacon, eggs and coffee. Just as well, as finding the kind of cheap-and-cheerful food we’d mainly been eating in Tokyo turned out to be a bit more tricky in Kyoto.

Time for some sight-seeing. With instructions and a map from the hotel reception we managed to successfully negotiate taking a local bus to the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) temple at the start of the Philosopher’s Walk .

Map of the Silver Temple

Map of the Silver Temple

Raked gravel zen garden of the Silver Pavilion

Raked gravel zen garden of the Silver Pavilion

Randall consulting the instructions.

Randall consulting the instructions.

Beautiful trees

Beautiful trees

One of the complex buildings

One of the pavilion complex buildings

View of the pavilion over one of the many small lakes.

View of the pavilion over one of the many small lakes.

View from the paths through the trees above the pavilion.

View from the paths through the trees above the pavilion.

Somewhat hungry already, we tried the green tea cream buns on offer (not recommended)…

Green tea everything

Green tea everything

Green tea cream buns

Green tea cream buns

Not really convinced.

Not really convinced.

…before starting down the canalside walk and finding the lovely Pomme café, where a charming gentleman served us drinks and slices of cake homemade by his wife:

Pomme cafe on the Philosopher's Walk

Pomme cafe on the Philosopher’s Walk

Yummy home-made cakes

Yummy home-made cakes

Tea and cake

Tea and cake

At the end of the Philosopher’s walk we headed towards town with the idea of following the streams as far as Gion, the famous geisha district. We couldn’t resist popping into the Lake Bawa Aqueduct Museum but gave the Zoo and the National Museum of Art a miss.

Randall outside the Museum of Art

Randall outside the Museum of Art

Following the canals was a pretty journey through residential areas…

Traditional wooden houses along the canals

Traditional wooden houses along the canals

Someone's pet goldfish 'hutch' in the canal.

Someone’s pet goldfish ‘hutch’ in the canal.

…but when we finally arrived in Gion it was something of a disappointment. On Shirakawa street, tipped as ‘one of the most beautiful streets in Asia’, only a few of the original tree-lined streets with wooden houses remain…

Shirakawa street, Gion

Shirakawa street, Gion

Shirakawa Street, Gion

Shirakawa Street, Gion

Shirakawa Street, Gion

Shirakawa Street, Gion

…and they are surrounded by concrete monstrosities full of what seem to be essentially brothels. As it was now after 3pm we couldn’t get food anywhere (everything seems to close between 3 and 5 or 6) despite walking all the way up Pontocho so we headed back to Café Bibliotec for a snack and a bit of a sit-down with our books.

Hungry again, we headed down to the Sanjo-dori covered shopping arcade in search of a recommended Kaiten-sushi place. This time we were actually successful! While it wasn’t the most stylish and sophisticated sushi, it was fun and cheap and we ate loads before staggering back to the hotel for an early night.

Kaiten sushi

Kaiten sushi

Yum!

Yum!

On Thursday, after intending to have an early start and pack in loads of things, we ended up not leaving the hotel until after midday – oops.

We headed to the station to check out the architecture and view the city from the top of the Kyoto Tower…

The Kyoto Tower

The Kyoto Tower

Kyoto Tower, reflected in the station building.

Kyoto Tower, reflected in the station building.

Kyoto station building.

Kyoto station building.

Kyoto Station Building

Kyoto Station Building

Kyoto station building.

Kyoto station building.

From the top of the tower.

From the top of the tower.

The station from the tower.

The station from the tower.

From the top of the tower.

From the top of the tower.

…before taking a bus back into Gion to see one of the other areas that is still apparently well-preserved, ‘Hanami-koji’ which turned out to be much more extensive than the area we’d visited the day before, with traditional wooden tea houses, and merchants houses now turned into very expensive restaurants. We saw a few geiko and maiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha and trainee geisha) tiptoeing purposefully around in their amazing outfits and wooden shoes, presumably on their way to appointments.

After wandering around looking for somewhere we could just have a drink instead of a full-on 15 course set meal for thousands of yen we gave up and headed back into the main bit of town across the river.

The view across the river from Gion.

The view across the river from Gion.

We decided not to go for the more formal dining atmosphere of Pontocho and instead wandered up Nishikiyamachi-dōri which is more studenty. We eventually settled on a slightly more upmarket spot that, to my delight, had a ‘summoning bell’ for the staff:

The summoning bell.

The summoning bell.

Sunday April 28th – Tuesday April 30th 2013: Tokyo

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We arrived at Tokyo Haneda airport at about 5am on Sunday morning and it was already light. Customs and immigration were extremely efficient so we found ourselves with over an hour to wait for the next ‘limousine bus’ (1000 yen per person) to Shibuya. Given the choice of that or an 8000 yen taxi ride we bought our bus tickets and settled down with a coffee.

The bus service was great even before we got on it. We noticed the people waiting  for the bus before ours forming an orderly queue to get on. There was a luggage handler to put luggage into the underneath of the coach (which is what a ‘limousine bus’ turned out to be) and he bowed to each person in turn before finally bowing to the driver as the bus doors closed. Fabulous.

Many of the main roads into Tokyo seemed to be elevated above the main street level – our bus journey gave us the sensation of swooping into the city while peering down at the various streets and waterways and staring up at the vast residential tower blocks.

The bus helpfully stopped for its final stop at Shibuya Mark City, on top of Shibuya station and directly underneath our hotel, the Shibuya Excel. We really had chosen a fantastic location; not just because of the great transport links from the station, but also the crazy district of Shibuya right around us.

After dropping our luggage at the hotel and ascertaining that we couldn’t check in until midday we headed out for a wander. The streets were pretty quiet apart from groups of young and totally hammered Japanese youth staggering around presumably on their way home from clubs and bars in the area. We meandered all the way up to Harajuku where we marvelled at the hilarious shops on Takeshita Street Takeshita-dori

Plastic food outside a crepe stall, Takeshita-dori

Plastic food outside a crepe stall, Takeshita-dori

and I spotted a random slogan t-shirt in a closed shop that I coveted immediately. Unfortunately we were still too early for Harajuku Sunday Madness at Jingu Bridge so we headed instead into the nearby park to visit the Meji shrine.

Randall at the entrance to the Meji Shrine park.

Randall at the entrance to the Meji Shrine park.

We had a delightful walk in the park around the shrine along with early morning walkers, joggers and cyclists. The shrine itself was fairly quiet and unassuming although there were obvious preparations going on for a wedding, which would have been fun to see if we’d arrived a little later.

We continued our walk with the idea of getting a coffee (it was now approaching 9am and definitely coffee time) in Shinjuku on the other side of the park. On the way we found a huge group of teenagers – at least 200 – mostly dressed in robes and/or school uniform looking as if they were preparing for an archery contest. It would have been great to see what happened but they looked as if there was still a great deal of milling about to be done before actually getting down to anything interesting so we headed onwards.

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Looking towards Shinjuku from the park.

Next up we crossed a bridge and spent about 20 minutes looking at the most beautiful Koi carp and terrapins swimming around the pond and stream we were crossing before finally reaching the exit of the park on the Shinjuku side.

Koi Carp pool

Koi Carp pool

At this point we were obviously looking a bit dazed as we peered at a streetmap because a kind Japanese gentleman asked if we needed help (at least I assume that’s what he said as it was in Japanese). He insisted on accompanying us as far as Shinjuku where we said goodbye to him at the station and headed up to the ‘sun terrace’ between Yoyogi and Shinjuku stations, a mini- food court and outdoor mall serving the hotels and office blocks exiting on to the raised terrace above the road. The best we could manage at that time was Starbucks which at least gave us an insight into local differences (green tea frappuccino anyone?) and a sunny outdoor spot for people watching; notable examples being the girl dressed and made-up as a Dresden Shepherdess and the whole group of people out two by two with one blindfolded and the other not.

Somewhat refreshed we wandered back the way we had come

Street vending machines, selling the famous 'Pocari Sweat'.

Street vending machines, selling the famous ‘Pocari Sweat’.

and through the park again

Sake barrels for 'tribute' to the shrine. Opposite were loads of barrels of French wine for some reason.

Sake barrels for ‘tribute’ to the shrine. Opposite were loads of barrels of French wine for some reason.

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all the way to the Harajuku Bridge  from where we took a different entrance into the park, this part – I had been informed – being ‘where people from Tokyo go to be weird’. We spotted teenagers practising dance routines, groups of musicians practicing pieces, a yoga class or two, some strange game involving about 40 teenagers in a big circle that we could not figure out at all, and a kids’ baseball practice session. This was on top of the walkers, speed-walkers, joggers, dog-walkers (dogs all in little jackets / sparkly jumpers etc) and lots and lots of blind runners and their Achilles Guides. Oh yes, and the Free Hugs.

Sun28-10Free Hugs!

After soaking that up for an hour or so we headed back to the hotel for check-in and a nap. The hotel really *was* in a great location and our room was even a decent size with free wifi (we’d been warned that both were hard to come by apart from the very high-end places):

View from our window

View from our window

The famous Shibuya crossing, directly below us.

The famous Shibuya crossing, directly below us.

Shibuya crossing is a ‘Scramble Crossing and took a bit of getting used to, but quite an experience (especially watching it from 18 floors up!)

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Waking up in time to be really hungry, we took advice from ‘Time Magazine’s Top 10’ and headed one stop along the train line to Ebisu where the area around the station was apparently lined with izakaya  or traditional ‘hole-in-the-wall’ informal eating and drinking joints identifiable by the ‘noren’ or plastic strips over the doorways. After wandering about for a bit soaking up the atmosphere and rejecting various establishments (too many tourists / not enough people / too modern) we found our perfect izakaya; full of Japanese people, wooden and slightly ramshackle, with a table having just become free in the ‘front’ – the tiny plastic-enclosed veranda outside the izakaya proper so with a view of the street as well as into the place. We’d been resigned to using ‘the pointing finger’ but it turned out that their hand-written menu had mostly been translated, possibly by a friendly customer, into scribbled almost-English so it wasn’t too tricky at all. The two phrases I’d copied into the front cover of the phrase book: ‘Osusume’ (whatever you recommend) and ‘Nama biru onigaishimasu’ (Draft beer, please’) seemed to do the job and we ended up with an amazing feast!

Outside the izakaya

Outside the izakaya, we’ve just spotted our table!

Handwritten menu with varying degrees of translation.

Handwritten menu with varying degrees of translation.

HUGE oyster!

HUGE oyster!

Amazing sashimi

Amazing sashimi

Quite stuffed, we walked it off by following the railway tracks back to Shibuya through surprisingly low-rise residential areas, then ended with a nightcap at a buzzy hole-in-the-wall bar run by an expat Turkish guy.

Having had a long and action-packed day on Sunday, on Monday we got up somewhat late (okay, lunchtime) and after the inevitable 10 minutes or so playing with the toilet settings:

Complicated toilet-ness

Complicated toilet-ness

…we managed to get out of the hotel and go in search of food. I’d had my heart set on a kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi place described in the guidebook but we couldn’t find it so settled for what looked like a popular-with-the-locals diner sort of place and turned out to be a fun ‘cook at your table’ canteen with a helpful English menu including cooking instructions:

How to cook your own...

How to cook your own…

The unusual sight of Randall cooking.

The unusual sight of Randall cooking.

My ENORMOUS scallops teriyaki

My ENORMOUS scallops teriyaki

Yummy! also Messy!

Yummy! also Messy!

Randall's bacon and cheese mochi

Randall’s bacon and cheese mochi

Opposite the diner was a huge DVD and book store amusingly called ‘Book Off!’ – we loved this sign outside:

Engrish!

Engrish!

After lunch it was time to make some train reservations. As we were travelling on JR Pass  but during Golden Week we’d been advised to reserve, however some of our chosen trains turned out to be local trains and non-reservable. Still, we had our Tokyo-Kyoto Shinkansen reservation sorted for the next day, so all good.

Then, after buying some socks (I forgot to pack any) in a local Uniqlo and going on a bit of a mission to find Randall a ‘Venti’ coffee, we headed to Akihabara ‘Electric Town’ to try and find a way to get Randall’s 3G hub working on a local SIM card. This proved to be tricky which we found surprising as it has been straightforward in all the countries we’ve travelled in before. We didn’t really have time to explore Akihabara as we were quite tired and it was very busy Golden Week but suspect we may go back, even if only to buy some crazy manga-character key-rings or something.

Back at the hotel we changed into slightly warmer clothes (socks!) and headed out into Shibuya to Nabezo which was recommended by Lonely Planet as the place to try out Shabu shabu , a kind of Japanese meat fondue. For a fixed price we could eat as much as we liked for a 90 minute period so we stuffed ourselves with the vegetable buffet whose contents we tipped into the boiling broth on our table and the delicately sliced pork and beef that we cooked by dipping it briefly in said broth:

Broth and veggies boiling away on the table, with the thin slices of meat ready to go.

Broth and veggies boiling away on the table, with the thin slices of meat ready to go.

Fishing out some seaweed (yum)

Fishing out some seaweed (yum)

Randall cooking, again!

Randall cooking, again!

Happy and messy.

Happy and messy.

Yum!

Another walk was called for so we wandered into the streets of Shibuya…

Randall with shouty neon billboards.

Randall with shouty neon billboards.

…almost immediately coming across what looked like an informal jam session but on the street (not busking – no money being collected) with a group of really great young musicians playing and singing a jazz/hip-hop fusion: Sanabagan

Street music

Street music

Finally we took a little self-guided tour of ‘Love Hotel Hill’:

We think these are instructions on how to enjoy your Love Hotel!

We think these are instructions on how to enjoy your Love Hotel!

Where to pick up supplies for your 'rest' at a Love Hotel

Where to pick up supplies for your ‘rest’ at a Love Hotel

Pink and alarming entrance to shop.

Pink and alarming entrance to shop.

On Tuesday we managed to get up early (5.30!!) in order to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market – the main wholesale fish market in Tokyo and thus for most of Japan. We didn’t bother trying to see the tuna auction as you have to be in the queue from 4.30am, but after a few false starts trying to find the correct entrance to Shibuya station to be able to get onto the Ginza subway line, we managed to catch the 6.01 train out of Shibuya. We’d planned to get out at Shinbashi and walk rather than changing to the line that goes right to the market. As it happened, as we were leaving the train I spotted a chap in wellies carrying a wicker basket so cunningly suggested that we follow him. He scampered out of the station and onto a waiting public bus indicated Tsuikji so we decided to do the same. It turned out that we didn’t have change, but the bus took notes up to 1000 yen; I say the bus took notes as the whole money/change thing was carried out by a mechanism with no input from the driver. Very civilised.

The market was as manic as the Bombay Sasson Dock Fish Market but in a different way; very much more mechanised, with porters zipping around on propane-powered mini-trucks/carts at great speeds. We’d had a good look around and seen (amongst assorted slithering and flopping aquatic life) a chap slicing up a huge tuna, before a market security guard spotted us and showed us a ‘no tourists until after 9am’ sign. By this time it was still not quite 7 but we felt we’d seen the best of it so we graciously bowed out.
We’d intended to have a sushi breakfast but as all the recommended places were inside the market we thought we’d wander into the centre of Ginza – the nearby business and retail district – instead. This proved to be somewhat disappointing; we thought that Japan being all industrious etc there would be things open at all hours, particularly in the business district, but as it turned out there was very little going on and nothing open. We finally found a Starbucks (free wifi) open from 7am and managed some breakfast there.

After breakfast we walked along the Ginza main drag to another station and through a bit of complicated public transport business (Subway then private railway managed to get ourselves to Tokyo Bay . We’d thought to take a river bus as a kind of scenic tour of the area (which is a kind of London Docklands but with more of a working port) but there didn’t seem to be any running so we instead took the monorail back into Shinbashi – this was a decent second best as it did a tour of the bay area, including a fly-by of the literally ‘ship-shape’ Tokyo Maritime Museum and the Tokyo Statue of Liberty before swooping back into the city, high above the streets between office blocks and apartment buildings. Another subway got us back to our hotel in time to check out at 11.

At this point Randall declined to join me on a mini-shopping trip to buy the t-shirt I’d spotted in Harajuku on Sunday:

Comedy slogan t-shirt

Comedy slogan t-shirt

…so he headed off to the park to chill out while I stopped at the weird vending-machine noodle bar on Basketball street for lunch, which (once I had figured out the ticketing and ordering system) turned out to be great:

Tue30-1

Ramen, vegetables and gyoza.

and then headed up to Harajuku to poke about the shops. As it turns out I’d like to come back but with quite a bit more spare cash! (hello, Bettie Page cardigan in Hysteric Glamour for £250)

We met back up at the hotel to pick up our bags and headed to the station to catch our connecting train to Shinagawa, from where we would get on the Shinkansen to Kyoto.

Written by helenbcn

April 28, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Tuesday 17th – Friday 20th April: Varanasi

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It was an 18 hour train journey from New Jalpaiguri to Varanasi (Mughal Sarai Junction); 22.30 to 16.30 the following day. This was lunch on day 2:

When we finally arrived at Mughal Sarai station we were amused by this advertisement:

And by this very stylish pink-upholstered rickshaw:

Unfortunately our rickshaw was not quite so stylish but at least he was there waiting for us, procured by the guest house we had booked.

On the way into town we spotted this rather alarming-looking dentists:

Our guest house was the lovely Monu’s Family Paying Guest House:

Charming and brightly coloured!

After an early dinner at the Dolphin, a rooftop restaurant on the riverside, we had an early night and an early start, as apparently Varanasi is all about morning on the river:

Dawn at the Ghats, Varanasi

Rubbish at the ghats.

Boats waiting to take tourists ‘for a ride’.

Despite being a hindu holy city, there is evidence of the Mughal period. The city was sacked by Aurangzeb and many of the temples destroyed.

Washing drying at the dhobi ghats.

Snoozing in the sun.

The cruel tutelage of Pai Mei

This is one of the ‘Water Treatment Works’ on the river. I dread to think how much ‘treatment’ is needed for this water!

Local goat.

Free hugs at Cafe Aum

The Aum Cafe, run by an American expat.

Varanasi is a hectic city; although it is known for silk weaving, the main ‘industry’ is pilgrimage and associated tourism so there is stiff competition for the tourist rupee. The narrow (sometimes Randall had to walk sideways!) alleyways of the old city are packed and filthy with litter, cow dung and pester-y people and the whole place is just generally grubby…all the slight cuts, scrapes and insect bites we had got infected over the couple of days, and the woman who runs the Aum cafe told us that e coli and salmonella are rife which didn’t surprise us.

For a bit of relief we headed to one of the nicer hotels to use their pool and wifi, and ended up staying until the evening, so got to see this crazy Indian wedding going on in the courtyard:

The on the rickshaw-ride home we saw several processions for slightly less grand versions – it’s the season for it, apparently:

Trumpets, drums and light-sabers seem to be the order of the day for weddings in Varanasi.

The next morning we rose somewhat later and had a leisurely brunch in the Brown Bread Cafe, a bakery and restaurant that supports the Learn for Life NGO school:

On our final day we had another early morning and, along with Tom the Australian from our hostel and another couple picked up from a different hotel, we took a boat ride on the Ganges at dawn:

We lit flower-filled paper lamps ‘for our karma’ although as a couple of them nearly set fire to someone’s boat I’m not sure how effective that was likely to be.

Along the river we passed the famous ‘burning ghats‘ where a cremation apparently frees one from the cycle of death and rebirth. We’d expected something a bit grander – they were actually pretty sordid:

Piles of wood and piles of ash at the burning ghats.

A pile of ashes. Note the rubbish and wandering animals.

The sinking temple raised a smile:

More interesting buildings on the riverside:

A Sadhu doing his makeup

Crazy busy ghats – all human life is here:

Finally it was time to catch the overnight train to Agra, leaving mid-afternoon, allowing for cow-hazards:

The rest of the photos are here.