Kyoto -Two days is not enough !

Kyoto, Japan

April 2023

Our journey from Hiroshima to Kyoto was much longer than expected!  Instead of a less than 2 hour journey on 1 bullet train, it turned in to a much longer journey on two trains. The only explanation being that the shorter trip more expensive – surely that is what we paid for when it was in the itinerary? When we finally arrived in Kyoto, the guide suggested everyone have lunch but I for one was not prepared to waste another 1-2 hours faffing so after leaving our bags in the hotel (back to small bags only), a few of us headed straight out to visit the Nijo-jo Castle. 

Built in 1603, Nijo-jo Castle was the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (one of the lead characters of the Age of Samurai) and when his Shogunate ended in 1867, the castle became the Imperial Palace.  It was then donated to the city as a historical site and in 1994 became a UNESCO world heritage site.

You enter the castle grounds by crossing the moat and then entering the main walls of defense through the East gate before reaching the inner or secondary circle of defense and entering through the beautiful (and apparently Chinese style) Karamon Gate.  The attention to detail and stunning colours and carvings were breath taking.

Inside the second defensive walls, you finally reach Ninomaru Palace.  You could not take photos inside the palace but we were given an information leaflet and there were signs in English that gave brief information about the rooms as we made our way around the various buildings, connected by corridors and “nightingale” floors, that “sang” as you walked.  It was really more like squeaking!  Some say this was a security measure to warn of intruders, however I also read that this is actually just through wear and tear of 100 years of feet!

Either way, the singing floors and the beautifully decorated ceilings and sliding walls were well worth the visit.  As were the beautiful gardens surrounding the palace.

We then walked back to the train station and caught a train to one of the most iconic sites in Kyoto – the Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its thousands of red (actually a colour called vermilion) torii gates. The Shinto Shrine (dating back to 794) is one of the most important shrines dedicated to Inari , the God of Rice, whose messenger is a fox (lots of fox statues around), but despite that, the main reason crowds flock here is to see the torii gates and explore the mountain paths up Mt Inari, which are lined with rows of the gates – called Senbon Torii (“thousands of torii gates”).

The lower gates around the Shrine itself were beautiful, but also packed with people.  The higher you get, the less people there are, but also the less perfect the gates became.  I guess it is much harder to do the continual maintenance required up there.  We continued up until we reached the “beautiful view” noted on the trail maps and it was definitely worth the walk.  We could even see as far as Osaka in the distance but we didn’t stay long as dusk was beginning to fall and insects were beginning to come out.

Today was Day 7 of our JR pass that has got us around the country this far, so it was time to say goodbye to it, and rely solely on our trusty sucia card which makes travel on most public transport so easy (as long as you have enough money on it)!

Despite already being a long day, it was not over yet as there was still more to see.  So we were soon back on the train, heading to Hanami-koji Street in the Gion area, the most famous geisha district in the city, lined with old wooden machiya merchant houses.  Of course, we were hoping to be lucky enough to spot a Geisha (or Gieko as they are called in Kyoto) as they were on their way to work.  And we were!!  The first was spotted as just a glimpse from behind, but we then were in the right place at the right time to have 2 pass right by us as they rushed to their appointment. 

By this time it was after 6pm, and of course we had missed lunch, so we went on the hunt for food.  We crossed the river and walked down numerous lanes in the hope of finding somewhere open and with space and finally ended up in a German Beer house!!  Not really the ideal spot for dinner in Japan, but the food was good, as was the beer so I can’t complain. We finally made our way back to the hotel to check in at 9.45pm and of course my roommate was already asleep!  It was a long but great day.

Our first morning in Kyoto and I was keen to get up and out early. I had agreed with “the Irish” that we would meet in the lobby to leave at 8am. Not surprisingly one of them came down at 8.05 and then is going to have breakfast 🤦🏻‍♀️! As much as I enjoyed their company, and I really do, sometimes it is easier just to do things by yourself lol.

After a couple false starts finding our train platform in the huge station, we traveled out of the city and followed the crowds to the Arashiyama Bamaboo Grove (probably 1.5 hours later than I would have liked to have arrived 🥴).  There was lots of people and didn’t really look much like the photos you see – I definitely think there is some photo editing going on there!

Now I had read a bit about the forest online, including statements such as “serene and dreamlike” and the sound of the rustling wind through the bamboo being named as one of the”100 soundscapes of Japan”.  If you dream about crowded pathways through bamboo forests or if lots of people talking, well this “soundscape” is for you lol.  Honestly, it was nice, but I would not rate it highly amongst other things I saw in Kyoto. 

After walking through the busy forest, we managed to find a lovely quite suburban street to walk back on.  A nice contrast from the crowded paths and an opportunity to see how people lived.

On the map, our next destination did not seem far away but there did not appear to be any direct transport, so we had to take 2 buses to reach Kinkakuji, better known as the Golden Pavilion.  With the top two floors of the Zen temple covered in gold, it definitely lived up to its name, and the building, and its reflections in the small lake in front of it were stunning. 

The temple was most recently rebuilt in 1955, but it started life in 1408  as the retirement villa of a Shogun before becoming a temple after his death.   You cannot go in the temple itself, but the views and the gardens are a lovely distraction from the busy streets outside.

Before our next bus we stopped for a delicious, decadent crepe and after the bus, we found a cute, and very small restaurant where we had some tempura mochi and a beer.  It was a very local place with low tables though I think we got the western version, with more leg room under the table lol.

We were now back in the Gion area, we were looking for the Yasaka Pagoda, and stupidly thought it would be at the Yasaka Shrine …. It was not lol.  So after a quick look around the shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, we walked through the historic Higashiyama area to find the elusive pagoda. 

The Yasaka Pagoda is the last remaining structure of the 6th century Hokan-ji Temple complex.  At 5 stories tall, it towers over the narrow cobbled streets and other nearby shrines and temples of the Higashiyama area – including Yasaka Koshin-do, a temple popular not for its history but for its colourful aesthetics. 

Instead of small wooden tablets that are normally used for wishes or resolutions, this shrine uses kukurizaru, small round colourful balls and they are everywhere, making great backdrops for everybodys photos. Apparently it is very popular with locals in their yukatas for photos – we spotted a few striking a pose or two lol.   Speaking of photoshoots – as I have the best phone and the only one with data I have become the photographer and navigator in these self guided days —- it’s exhausting 😂

Despite having already walked so far, the day was not over and our next temple was the Kodai-ji temple.  (Sooooooo many temples and shrine in Kyoto).  Just behind the Yasaka Shrine, the Kodai-ji Shrine was established in 1606 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the stars of the Netflix programme “Age of Samurai”.  Both he, and his wife Nene are enshrined here.  Unusual for the time, he was very close to his wife and she acted as somewhat as an advisor to him. 

Apparently, his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu helped pay for the temple which has beautifully decorated interiors and beautiful gardens around it, including a lovely little bamboo forest.   Whilst enjoy the temple gardens we spotted a giant Buddha which we had to go and check out. 

It turns out it was called Ryozen Kwanon, a tribute to “The unknown Solider WWII”.  It was built in 1955 and is described as having a “merciful dave that was modelled on its famous sculptor” and is 24 metres tall.

The area in front of the statue is considered a place of peace and good luck and here they have a large spherical “wishing precious stone” or power spot.  To have a wish come through you place your right hand on the sphere and walk around it 3 times.  We will see how that works out lol.

We stopped back by the Kodai-ji temple for an ice cream, and to spy what may have been a geisha on a video call.  Or at least it was someone all dressed up as a geisha, with geisha movements, tucked away in a corner on a call lol.  She looked beautiful either way.

We trudged back to Gion, and beyond, across the Kamogawa River to the Pontocho area to find a spot to rest our weary feet and have something to drink.  This area is one of the city’s most popular area for eating and drinking and is full of lovely narrow alleys with small resturants.  We were lucky enough to find a small place to fit us in and enjoyed some snacks and beer.  I should probably mention that often when you sit at a table in a restaurant, you are often given a small plate of something – sometimes pickled vegetables, in this instance endamame beans.  You will get charged for these, whether you ask for them or whether you eat them.  They don’t cost a lot, may 300-400 yen but I am sure it catches some people out. 

I was exhausted after such a long day, but not too tired to walk around the corner to join the queue at the Maccha House, a café chain that is famous for its extensive selection of matcha based drinks and desserts, in particular its matcha tiramisus that we had come for.  They were delicious and well worth the short wait. 

One last bus back to Kyoto station and another 10-15 minutes getting lost in Kyoto station (how many times have I been lost in Kyoto station 🤔 probably fair to say every time I have been there 😂 but at least each time we find some amazing architecture) before I could final relax after another 18,000 step day!  My Sucia card for public transport also got a massive work out today! 

On my final morning in Kyoto, I woke super early so decided to go an find one of the many coffee shops in the station (just a few minutes walk from the hotel).  Yet another opportunity to get lost of the train station 😂 but at least I got my coffee.

We were not leaving time till early afternoon so we had time to head to the beautiful Kiyomizudera, translated as “Pure Water Temple”.  Founded in 780, the temple sits in the hills in the east of Kyoto surrounded by forest, with amazing views out over the city.   It is a UNESCO world heritage site and probably my favourite temple we visited in Kyoto, if not in Japan.

As we left the temple it started raining but we still had to explore the beautiful cobbled narrow streets of the historic Sannenzaka and Ninen-zaka areas.   Sadly my photos just show streets full of umbrellas lol. 

Apparently, legend has it, if you stumble and fall on Ninenzaka, you will die within two years and if the same thing happens on Sannenzaka, death within three years!  Now, in the rain, some of the cobbles and stairs can be pretty slippery but we were all lucky to all stay on our feet. 

We continued down Ninenzaka to find one of the most famous Starbucks in Japan, maybe the world.  It is situated in a 100 year old traditional wooden Japanese tea house.  It is easy to walk straight past it’s subtle signage on the outside and inside, it has also maintained much of its original charm.  Low ceilings, dark wood, lots of small rooms, some with tatami mats and silk cushions.  There is even a small Japanese garden outside.  It is probably advisable to check that this is somewhere sit before ordering to drink in, as it is normally very busy.

Time was almost up on visit to Kyoto but we did have time to experience lunch at one of the small restaurants in the train station.  You ordered and paid for your food at a machine at the end of the restaurant where you got a ticket and then took a seat.  Your food was quickly bought to your table though we had no idea how they knew who was sitting where.  I had gyoza and beer and it was cheap and tasty. 

Kyoto definitely needs more than a couple of days. Such a beautiful city with so much to see and do.

Haunting Hiroshima & Shrine Island

Hiroshima & Miyajima, Japan

April, 2023

Today’s train journey took us from one side of the country to the other.  First train from Takayama to Nagoya, just over 2 hours through beautiful mountain towns along the Hida river.   There was a quick stop over in Nagoya in which we had to join a long queue to get some food from the small convenience store in the station before boarding our second train, a Shinkansen or bullet train which took us 1 hour to Shin Kobe.  (I discovered later, a station with the name Shin … means the Shinkansen train stops there.)  I am pretty sure the bullet train was not going full speed, but it was hard to know as we did not know how fast we are going!

The third and final train for the day was another bullet train and it took around 1.5 hours from Shin Kobe to Hiroshima – our destination for the next few days.  This train definitely went faster but no idea how fast 🥴 (The fast train in Uzbekistan had a speedometer in the carriages so you could see the speed.) From the train, we transfered to a street car (or tram, all decked out in support of the local baseball team, the Carps) for a 10 minute journey to our hotel where we dropped our bags and immediately went out to explore.

Hiroshima is the capital of the Hiroshima prefecture and today, has a population of just over a million people.  Starting as a castle town in the 1500’s, Hiroshima is one of the few Japanese towns that is more known for its more recent history, in particular August 6th, 1945 when an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first atomic bomb over the city. 

The explosion killed an estimated 80,000 almost immediately and tens of thousands were to die later due to their injuries and/or radiation exposure – a total of around 220,000 deaths.  It took a second bomb being dropped on Nagaskai three days later before Emperor Hirohito surrendered, effectively ending World War II.  (Thankfully the second bomb missed its target but it still managed to kill around 40,000 people.)

Our hotel was just a few minutes’ walk to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.  Covering over 120,000 sq metres in the heart of the city, the area that once was the commercial and political centre of the city, hence the target of the bomb.  It was interesting that the memorials and even the park itself are focused on peace rather than the atrocities of war.  That said, there are signs of the atrocities all around. 

Within the park there are a number of monuments, including the Children’s Peace Monument, the Cenotaph arch (below which is a stone chest holding a register names of those who died) and the Peace Memorial Museum, but beyond that and across the river is the most prominent feature – the A-Bomb Dome. 

The A Bomb Dome, is also know as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  The building was the Prefecutural Industrial Promotion Hall and despite being at the epicentre of the explosion, it was one of the few buildings left partially standing.  Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and stands as a reminder to the history of the city.

The benefit of having a guide stood out today.  We wandered around the park whilst Rinrin queued for our tickets to the Peace Memorial Museum so we could just walk straight in when we were ready.   The museum tells of the city pre and post bomb, and includes person stories of the human suffering the bomb caused.  It was a very intense but necessary education.  There was also a really interesting exhibit on nuclear weapons, the dangers of them and what is currently being done to remove them from any future conflict.

Leaving the Peace Park we walked back across the river and stumbled across a large covered, pedestrian shopping street called Hondori Road.  It was lined with shops including a shop selling only socks – normal socks, big toe socks, five toe socks, frilly socks.  Whilst the others shopped, I enjoyed the Abba’s greatest hits being blasted out in the shop lol.  From here we came across a glasses shop, with an upstairs performance area, where an odd John Lennon/Yoko Ono singing duet where performing.  It was all very weird and something I am sure you can only find in Japan.  lol

We then made a beeline to the Okonomimura – described as a “Hiroshima style okonomiyaki them park”!  A building housing 24 okonomiyaki restaurants.  Okonomiyaki can be translated as “as you like it pancake” and is a popular dish consisting of batter, lots of cabbage and then a selection of toppings which can include thin strips of pork and green onion (which I had), or cheese and garlic or even intestines.  It is available all over Japan but is particularly popular in Hiroshima. 

We were lucky enough to find room for the 4 of us at one of the 24 small “restaurants” and found ourselves sitting next to someone who could explain to us what it was and how it worked.  (Yes, we had come this far without really knowing what we were doing!)  The cooking was done on the teppan, or iron griddle, right in front of us and was a performance in itself.  The finished product was huge and tasted great, and the whole experience was well worth it and a great end to the day.

Next morning (and day 10 of my trip), I took advantage of the beautiful brisk early morning for a quiet walk around Peace Park (it was only 5°).  Surprisingly there were still quite a few people around.  Mostly local people have some early morning exercise, all stopping and bowing or praying at the Cenotaph as they passed it. 

Crossing to the other side of the river, I learnt that the t-shaped Aioi Bridge is thought to be the actual target used to drop the bomb.  Surprisingly, like the nearby A Bomb Dome, the bridge partially survived and with some repairs was used for another 35 years before replacing it.  This morning I walked along the other side of the river, reading the signs about the different spots along the riverside and admiring the morning bird life and beautiful azalea hedges lining the pathways. 

Lots of countries sent plants and trees for the peace nearby Peace Park and I found a plant that looked suspiciously like a New Zealand kowhai – perhaps it was??  Also along this side of the river was lot of small monuments specific to buildings and people that died on those sites, such as one for the Hiroshima gas company.

Back at our second rate hotel (it was a flash back to the 70s) I had a second rate breakfast, although the “breakfast curry” was pretty good, and I had time to grab a decent coffee from the local Starbucks before meeting the group for our day trip.  Streetcar, train and then a short ferry took us to the small island, and UNESCO World Heritage site of Miyajima (translated as Shrine Island). (I should note that one of the two ferrys that go back and forth to the island, is run by Japan Rail and therefore is free if you have a JR pass.)

The island is one of Japan’s most popular tourist sites and one of the first things you see when approaching is the famous floating torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine. It is probably one of the most icon images of Japan, when at hightide it looks like it is floating. 

The island has been a place of religious significance for centuries with many Shinto shrines and buddist temples all around the 30 km sq island.  A few of us ditched the rest of the group to walk down to see the torii gate as the tide was in, before walking up towards the cable car.  Not before stopping to admire the wooden Five-Story Pagoda in the Daisho-in Temple complex.  Built in 1407, it is over 27 metres tall and is another one of the iconic sites of the island.

The walk to the first cable car station took us through some of the forest that covers much of the island.  The cable car system up Mt Misen started with a circulating ropeway, with gondolas seating 8 people.   From the end of the gondola rise, we transferred to the funicular ropeway which operates 2 large gondolas that took up to 30 people.  There were great views from both gondolas across the island and out in to the Sea of Japan.

At the top gondola station, there is a great view point and then walks up to the top of Mt Misen, 535m above sea level.  On the walk up there are many other beautiful temples and we were lucky enough to spot a couple of the island’s famous deer. I should mention, that it is possible to walk all the way up (or down) the mountain, rather than take the cable car, but as always we were on a mission to see as much as possible in the few hours we had on the island!

Back down by the water front we discovered the tide had gone out, and we could now walk right out to the torii gate.  It was really cool to be able to see it close up and even touch it.  We then stopped for a long overdue drink (a local beer) and to sample some of the local delicacies from some of the many food stalls.

Deer are scared in the Shinto religion and there are over 1000 Sika deer roaming freely around the island.  I was surprised that we actually saw more in the town area then in the forest in the hills, but I guess they must get fed in town – they were certainly tamer there. 

I would have loved to have had the time to spent the night on the island, but sadly not this time, so it was back on the ferry, train and streetcar to the hotel.  Another 12km + under the belt and my feet refused to move again 😂 great day though

Torrential Takayama

Hida Takayama, Japan

April 2023

After another great breakfast we braved the rain for the short walk (actually a run today) back to the train station.  Our big bags were getting forwarded again to Hiroshima and we were definitely grateful not to be having to carry/drag those through the heavy rain.  After almost a week in Japan, this was our first day of rain – and it rained and rained!

Two trains today, back through the alps, first to Toyama where we had a very short transfer and then to our final destination of Hida Takayama, population approximately 90,000.  It was another beautiful journey through the mountains with the low cloud and waterfalls.  (You will have to take my word for that as the train windows were pretty dirty and so any photos are terrible photos (see above for examples lol).

Hida Takayama (often referred to as Takayama) is in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture and the “Hida” in the official name is used to distinguish this town from other Takayama’s in the country.   This Takayama is known for its good quality timber and skilled carpenters as far back as the feudal times, when the rural town prospered.  The historic area of the town is well preserved and full of beautiful wooden buildings and after dropping our bags in lockers at the station and set off on foot, into the rain, to explore. 

The old town sits on the east side of the Miyagwa River which flows through the town.  At this time of year, the rapid running river is lined with beautiful cherry blossom.  We started at the Kusakabe Mingei-kan or the Kusakabe Heritage House.  A traditional Meiji-era merchants house (the current building was built in 1879) that gives you an insight into a middle class family’s life with both the architecture and the artifacts on display, some of which have been passed down through the generations.  The classic architecture involves high ceilings and air vents that allows cool air in and hot air to escape out the top in the hot and humid summer months.   

We are clearly in the countryside now and the standard of toilets that we have come accustom too is just not the same  🤦🏻‍♀️.  They often appear to be squat toilets with no fancy buttons to push.  I guess there is no need for a heated seat lol.

After a short break for some lunch (traditional ramen – which I have decided that I am not keen on, as more often than not is made from fish stock), our next stop was Sake tasting.  Did you know, the word “sake” apparently just refers to alcohol in Japan, and in fact what you want to say is nihonshu which is the fermented rice drink we normally refer to as sake.

There are seven sake breweries around Takayama but apparently, 300 years ago, there were 56 sake breweries in this town!  During the Edo period, rice was a form of currency and was given as payment, tax or tribute.  Some of the wealthy merchants started using their “tributes” to make sake. When the price of rice was low, they would sell it as sake, making a profit!

I am not sure which Brewery we went to, but it was very busy!  Thankfully we had a small seating area, around a lovely little fire pit and got to sample a sweet “Sakura” themed sake, along with a spicy one.  I must admit I am not sure I am a fan of sake drunk cold, but I don’t mind it hot (as we had a couple of times). 

The rain was still coming down and I was extremely grateful that I had invested in a pair of waterproof trainers and was enjoying having dry feet and socks! Those with soggy feet were happy that our next stop was inside – the Takayama Jinya.  A historic municipal building in which 25 generations of provincial governor lived and carried out their provincial duties from 1692 to 1868.  The building is the only one of its kind left and is now a designated national historical landmark.  It has been beautiful preserved and/or restored, and in fact was still used as a government office up until 1969!

The beautiful building was as stunning inside as it was out and there were a few key features that were pointed out:

  • Waves patterns appear frequently and are an auspicious pattern called seigaiha (sometimes written as sei-gai-ha).  It was very popular in the Edo period and it was thought that as waves spread out indefinitely across the ocean, they contain wishes for peace and prosperity that lasts forever. 
  • Almost all of the traditional buildings have nail head covers or decoration, often in the shape of the seal of the clan.  In the Jinya, they are mamuki rabbits.  Rabbits were considered the protective deity of fire (pretty important when the building is made entirely of wood and paper) and their big ears represents someone who listens well – to govern well, you must listen to the people. On top of that they are pretty cute lol
  • Beautiful Tatami mats cover the floors.  As I have mentioned before they are very expensive and very precious.  In this case, we can not even walk on them, with or without shoes on they are so precious – great for flooring 🤦🏻‍♀️
  • The architecture and space throughout the building, defines status and power i.e. different doors for civilians, shogun, monks etc
  • Tea rooms are traditionally small as they are humble and inside everyone is equal.  The doors are normally low so people have to bow when they enter and the small space inside meant Samurai could not unsheathe their swords without getting caught on roof. 

The Jinya complex also contains large, newly restored Onkura or Rice store.  It was built around 1600 making it one of the oldest of its kind in Japan.  It is also one of the largest in the country.  As I mentioned previously, rice was used as currency.  The more land you had, the more rice you had, the richer you were, and therefore the more tax you paid in rice!  These buildings housed some really interesting displays about the history and the jinya, the town and the region.

Speaking of tax, I was interested to see a large number of small boxy cars around country.  These are called “kei” cars and are made by most major Japanese car brands but are rarely seen overseas.  They have become a culture in themselves and were designed to fit in the smallest car category.  There are also limitations of size, engine capacity and power output – all in an attempt to get taxes and insurance costs down. They also fit better on the narrow streets and small car parks! Apparently more than one in three new passenger cars sold in Japan is a Kei car! 

We had a quick convenience store stop to get lunch for tomorrows journey before having an early dinner at a Hida Beef restaurant.  Hida is the lesser known cousin of the world renown Wagyu or Kobe beef.  It is specific to a black haired Japanese cattle breed that have been raised in the Gifu prefecture for at least 14 months and is known as some of the finest quality beef. 

I was not particularly hungry so chose just to have a small skewer of meat and a piece of beef sushi. It is a signature dish of the region and was basically a thin slice of rare Hida beef, laid over a mound of sushi rice, topped with a sprinkle of salt and served with a small side of pickle vegetables.  It was simplicity at its finest and may have been one of the best things I have ever eaten!!  Yes, you heard that right – ONE OF THE BEST THINGS I HAVE EVER EATEN!!!  It was so good, one was definitely not enough and I had to order two more. 

By this time (not even 6pm) it was still raining, getting dark and almost all the shops and restaurants were closing so we walked back to the train station to pick up our bags and get a bus to our accommodation for the night – tonight it was a ryokan, or traditional Japanese Inn.  We were all cold and wet and definitely ready to get warm in the ryokan’s Sento.  This one was way hotter than the previous one and I think I only last 5 minutes but that was long enough to warm up my cold bones!

I dried off and put the Katana provided (Japanese robe) on.  In almost all the hotels we have stayed in, we have been provided with pajamas or katanas which is a tradition that started in the ryokan.  I didn’t wear them in most of the places as I was worried that the Japanese “One size fits all” would not fit.  Surprisingly they did fit when I tried them on. 

Our beds here consisted of a futon (remember this is just a thin mattress on the floor) as in the temple inn, and a small traditional sobagara pillow which is filled with buckwheat husks.  It was hard, oh so hard, and not conducive to a good night’s sleep for me. 

Finally, the rain stopped and the next morning was beautiful. Of course, I went for a quick morning walk along the roaring river just across the road from the ryokan.  It was lovely to see it without the rain.  I was back in time for another great breakfast served Japanese style, with everyone sitting on the floor at a low table Japanese style and we were soon boarding the bus for our next journey.

The Golden Marsh of Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

April 2023

We took a public bus to the train station, to catch the train 1.5 hours to Kanazawa (public transport here is so efficient and easy), the capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture. The train took us through the beautiful Japanese Alps, passed rural towns filled with cherry blossom, overlooked by towering snow-capped mountains.

Kanazawa is a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art and upon arrival I was wowed by the incredible architecture of the train station which is an interesting combination of both modern and traditional Japanese design.  It has a massive wooden traditional torii gate combined with a beautiful glass dome.  A very impressive welcome to the city.

Our hotel was just a few minutes’ walk from the station and as it was too early to check in, we dropped our overnight bags (it was here we were to be reunited with the rest of our luggage) and went out for some exploration. 

Our first stop was to be lunch and for once, the guide’s recommendation for lunch was not a convenience store, but … Gusto, a Cat Robot restaurant.  We all jumped at the opportunity.   It was just like a diner with lots of food choices (both Japanese and western), bottomless soft drinks AND, most importantly, a Cat Robot as a waiter!!   The food was not bad, and the service was fun – I for one definitely enjoyed the experience. 

From here we boarded a local bus and headed to the loop bus to Nagamachi, the Samurai district where middle to high-ranking samurai used to live with their families.  The city was once the economic and administrative centre of the Kaga Domain, making it one of the largest castle towns in feudal Japan.  The area is pretty well preserved as the city avoided the WWII bombing that other Japanese cities endured, and today you can walk down the narrow cobbled streets, surrounded by restored houses, waterways (useful to fight fires) and original earthen walls.

One of the houses is open to the public , the Nomura Samurai House, the home of 11generations of a high-ranking samurai family who served the ruling Maeda family from as early as 1583, right through to the end of the Edo period in the middle of the 19th century.  The appearance of the house has been well preserved including the beautiful rooms and the gardens which includes a 400 year old myrtle tree.

It was then a 15 minute walk across the Sai River (still lined with abundant cherry blossom and views back towards the mountains) to the Nishi Chaya district – one of the geisha districts of the city, where we visited the Kanazawa Nishi Chaya Shiryokan Museum.  The museum is in one of the Chaya houses, a traditional place of entertainment and it was interesting to learn a little more about the elusive geisha culture.  (Apparently, watching the Netflix show “The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House” gives a good insight in to the culture and traditional of the Geisha and it was next on my train viewing list, once I finished the Age of Samurai.)

By now we could check in to our rooms, and thankfully today was one of those rare days when I had time for a short rest before heading out to dinner at a nearby restaurant.  The food was not amazing as the set menu was mostly fish and nothing special in the way of vegetables or other food to try but I made the most of it by trying the local drinks (as it was all you can drink for 2 hours !) Sake, plum wine and local beer.  All of which aided a decent night’s sleep.

I was up before 6am to do something very important on day 7 – laundry. The hotel had machines that took 2 hours so trying to find the right time where I had the time and there were free machines was a challenge – for me early morning was that time.

Let’s pause for a minute while I do my washing to talk about the wonders that are Japanese toilets! 7 days in and they are always clean, always have a heated seats and various washing functions – some even have privacy sounds (played whilst doing your business) and our Kanazawa hotel one even has its own hand basin that runs water when flushing!  Despite the brilliance of the toilets, public toilets rarely seem to have anything to dry your hands with🤔, no towels (paper or otherwise) or hand driers – I wonder why??

Washing and toilet musing done, it was time to enjoy what was (and would continue to be) the best hotel breakfast of the trip.  I started with chicken cutlet with Kanazawa curry (yum) and then sweet potato and coconut milk sweet soup with Warabi Mochi, a chewy, jelly like cube made from Warabi starch (a type of fern) rather than rice starch (yum yum).

With a full belly I was ready to start another day of exploration.  There was no need for the Loop bus pass that our guide had recommended, as we discovered that most places on our list for the day were within 10-20 minutes’ walk from each other so off we went on foot towards the first stop of the day at the Omicho Market, the largest market in the city since the Edo period! 

The over 200 shops in the covered network of ‘streets’ mainly sell fresh fish and produce but you can also find a whole range of other random items such as flowers, clothes, household items …  if I was a fan of seafood (which I am not), this would be a great place to enjoy the freshly prepared delights including oysters, eel and horny turban snails!

From the market it was just a short 10 minute walk to the Kanazawa Castle Park.  Not surprisingly on the grounds of the Kanazawa Castle.   Kanazawa, grew around the castle, which was the seat of the powerful Maeda Clan, lords of Kaga, once the second most powerful clan in Japan (this is sounding more like Game of Thrones by the day!).

Much of the castle has been rebuilt numerous times, the last time after a fire in 1881.  We had decided not to go into the castle, but enjoy the beautiful park with its cherry blossom as we walked through and the Ishikawa-mon Gate (dating back to 1788) and into what used to be the castle’s outer gardens.  Today, Kenrokuen, which literally means “Garden of the six sublimities”,  is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful landscape gardens.

The “six sublimities” relates to a Chinese landscape theory of the six essential attributes required to make a perfect garden.   Spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views.  Having spent some time walking around the beautiful gardens, I can agree, that it definitely meets those criteria. 

There was a small area of shops near the entrance to the park where I decided it was time to try a local delicacy – a soft serve matcha ice cream, covered in gold leaf!  Now, the matcha ice cream is probably a Japanese wide phenomenon, but the gold leaf is unique to Kanazawa.  Kanazawa actual means ‘gold marsh’, and the city is Japan’s ‘Gold Leaf capital’, producing 98-99% of the nation’s gold leaf.  Hence the use of it wherever they can lol.  I can’t say it tasted of anything, but it certainly looked pretty lol.

Upon entering the gardens, we paid ¥500 (around NZ$6) for a combined ticket that gave us entrance to the park as well as to one of the nearby museums.  (We learnt afterwards that if you entered via a different gate there was no charge!)  The gardens were beautiful, some trees still in full blossom, others already ‘snowing’ petals.  Lots of people dressed up in their traditional outfits having photos taken (here it mostly looked like local people but that is an assumption).

One of the key attractions in the gardens is the iconic, two legged Kotojitoro Lantern (most stone lanterns have only one leg).  It is a symbol of the gardens as well as the city (even appearing on its manhole covers) and I expected it to be huge (well, it appeared huge in all the photos I had seen of it)!  So we walked around the gardens, looking for the famous “thing” – turns out we had already passed it and taken photos of it without even realising it was the “thing” lol.  I had expected it to be 10 metres tall when in fact it was only 2 (and part of that is submerged in the lake).

Given that Kanazawa is the city of Crafts & Folk Art, we thought it only right to visit the small Museum for Traditional Arts and Crafts, just on the edge of the gardens. The museum houses beautiful examples of local handcrafts include gold leaf (of course) and dyed silk.

We exited the gardens and walked down a beautiful street where the cherry blossom was snowing and blowing around in the breeze and head towards one of the other geisha areas of the city – the Higashi Chaya District.  This is the largest of the preserved Geisha districts in the city and apparently Geisha culture still flourishes here. 

To have a “tourist” Geisha experience, it is necessary to book months in advance, so we just enjoyed a Tea House experience in one of the preserved Chayas.  With a menu only in Japanese our choices were a bit hit and miss but I managed to get a coffee and a pretty, if not particularly tasty traditional confectionary.

After another huge walking day, I was ready to head back to the hotel so left the others back at the market to enjoy a seafood dinner and made my way back home. 

(After thought – another great quirk about Japan is their adherence to rules.  They will stand at a crossing waiting for the ‘green man’ even if there is no traffic in sight!  I made the mistake a couple of times of just crossing and got some odd looks from other pedestrians who were waiting patiently lol)

“Snow” Monkeys & Temples


April 2023

Today was a day I have been waiting for my whole life (well most of it anyway) and in fact, it was the reason I chose the tour I am on as it visited this area. It started with a 50 minute train journey which took us through more picturesque rural villages with snowed capped mountains behind them to Nagano, the capital and largest city of Nagano prefecture.  The area, also known as the “roof of Japan” was the home of the 1998 Winter Olympics and they are still very proud of this.

From the station we jumped on a minibus for a one hour drive in to Jigokundai Monkey Park where the famous Snow Monkeys of Japan live.  As early as 1964 the wild Japanese Macaques were observed soaking in the natural hot springs and the park was established where visitors could see the monkeys without cages or fences.  They feed the monkeys daily to keep them in the area and to stop them pillaging neighbouring farms, a habit that was getting them killed. 

After a beautiful 1.6 km walk through the quiet forest and along the Yokoyu River into the geothermic area of “Hells Valley” (the meaning of Jigokundai) we arrived at the man made onsen (or hot pool) where the monkeys like to hang out.  There was a troop of around 20 or 30 monkeys hanging around and even though it was not particularly cold, a few of them jumped in for a soak. 

Most kept their heads above the water, whilst one was keen to swim around underwater, apparently looking for some kind of water weed that it was eating.  As well as the water dwellers, there were babies playing all around the place and others just chilling out in the sun and grooming each other, all of them completely ignoring us and the handful of other visitors. 

I was prepared to be disappointed by the park as I was so excited about seeing the monkeys, but thankfully I wasn’t.  Of course, it would be more picturesque if there was snow around and perhaps, I will just have to come back again in the winter. 

Having spent maximum time watching the monkeys, I was one of the last back down to the cafe area for lunch (and to purchase the local Kit Kat specialty – apple, as the area is known for growing some of the best apples in the country) before jumping back in the bus for the return trip to Nagano (passed lots of apple trees) and to our temple accommodation for the night. 

The temple inns, or Shukubo as they are known, were created to accommodate pilgrims travelling to the nearby temples for blessings and we were to follow in their footsteps.   The Inn was beautiful, with tatami mats on the floors (hence no shoes inside as these woven grass/rush mats are very delicate and very expensive) and sliding doors.  The rooms were basic, right down to the bed, which they called a futon, but clearly the west has adapted that word to include an actual bed base, whilst in Japan it is literally a thin mattress on the floor.   That said, I had expected it to be way more basic than it was.

As is normal in accommodation like this, the Inn had a small Sento (an indoor, non-natural version of an Onsen), a traditional hot tub, that is very popular in Japan. They are generally communal (sexes separated) and in almost every Sento, you must be naked to jump in for a soak!  As typical Westerners, we were not that keen on the idea of naked communal bathing so we worked out a schedule so we could all enjoy the experience. 

I was first up and was careful to read the instructions.  First undress in the small changing room and leave your clothes there. Then move into the hot tub area (which is already hot and steamy) and wash thoroughly using the soap and shower head provided in the corner of the room – it is important to ensure you have washed off all the soap!  Then submerge yourself in the hot tub.  We were all allocated 30 minutes but only lasted around 15 minutes in the water as it was very hot but it was still a nice experience.

Perhaps it is worth noting, that most public Onsens or Sento’s do not allow tattoos, due to there presumed links with the Japanese gangs.  Given that you have to be naked, you may need to cover any tattoos with plasters or tape.  If you look around, there are some that cater more for tourists and allow tattoos.

Out of the hot tub and dressed, I joined some friends for a walk around the town where we came across the beautiful Zenkoji Temple (where we would visit the next morning), and a beautiful 400m pedestrianised temple approach, lined with shops and small restaurants.  By this time it was already 5pm and many of the shops were closing up, but thankfully there were a few food places that stayed open till 6pm so dinner was to be early.

We started with delicious grilled Oyaki, a Nagano prefecture specialty, of a buckwheat dumpling stuffed with something (I had one pork and one mushroom).  Further down the road we purchased a Mahoraoba-no Tsuki, a famous (?) confectionary of the Shinshu Zenkoji temple.  The English translation is “Beautiful Moon of Fertile Land” with a whole chestnut in the middle of chestnut paste and dough.  This was not my favourite so I had to follow it up with a beautiful ice cream with apple and an apple and custard pie for later lol

A particular observation on some of the shops here, in particular the Chestnut sweet shop – there were 3 ladies working in the shop and they passed the 1 item from one of them to another in a basket, each seeming to have their own little job to do to wrap it beautifully before it went back down the line to me at which point I place my money in another basket which is then passed between them.  This was not the first time we have seen this kind of thing, but this case was extreme, I have no idea how they make any money. 

With a full belly and the shops now closed, we soaked up the early evening atmosphere along the now quiet street, admiring the small temples, cherry blossom, small dressed up dogs going for their evening stroll and the muscular, fierce looking guardian statues alongside the large Niomon or Guardian Gate and of course the local take on manhole covers.   

I decided to have an early night (although not a particularly good night of sleep) as we had an early start in the morning as we set off to the nearby Zenkoji Temple at 5.50am.   Finally, we had a couple of local guides, and if we listened carefully to their very accented English, we got lots of interesting information about this important temple complex.  Zenkoji temple was established in the 7th century, Zenkoji and is one of the most important temples in Japan and Nagano, the city that formed around it. 

The reason for getting up so early was to be blessed by the priest as part of the temples O-asaji or morning service. So, after a short walk around, we passed the many Buddha statues up through the Sanmon gate (built in 1750) and into the main temple forecourt where we joined others (mostly locals it appeared) on our knees as we waited for the procession.  As the priest passed by on his way to the ceremony he blessed us – basically by tapping us on the head with his rosary.

Once blessed, we followed the procession into the main hall (which was most recently rebuilt in 1707) for the O-asaji itself, which happens every morning around sunrise and is open to people of all faiths.    Inside there were no photos allowed, so you will just have to trust me when I say that it was beautiful. 

The ceremony began to the beating of drums and the chanting of sutras by the gathered monks. We spent about 20 minutes watching the ceremony, at which point our guides took us to the inner chamber and down into an underground chamber in search of the “key to paradise”.  The chamber is pitch black and you need to feel your way around the corridor but putting your right hand on the wall, until you find the “key”.  Doing so provides you with additional blessings so it was truly a blessed morning.

The temple complex is actually a non-sect temple, which means it is not affiliated to any specific Buddhist sect – it is believed this is because it was built before the individual sects formed. Therefore, it is popular amongst people of all religious backgrounds as a place to come and pray.

We spent some time walking through the vast complex which was so peaceful at this time of day but it was time for us to head back to our Inn for a traditional (and beautiful) monks’ breakfast consisting of lots of different things including miso, rice, salad, tofu, sour plum, fermented soya beans … most of which was pretty nice.  It was then time to make our way back to the train station and on to our next destination.

Cherry blossom & castle


April 2023

This morning I woke early again (but at least it was 5am and not 2am 🥴).  It didn’t help that my roommate decided to turn on a light and read in the middle of the night, my sleep so far has not been great!!  I wanted to go up to the roof terrace for sunrise but for some random reason it is closed till 6.30am.  Now of course I could have run down to see it at the temple but that would have involved getting dressed which I was not quite ready to do 😂

By 8am we were out the door of the hotel and on the walk passed the local temple (for the last time) to Asakusa station to catch the subway and then a train before boarding our Japan Rail train to Matsumoto – easy to find with the markings on the floor!  For many Japan Rail trains, you need to reserve a seat in advance, so we soon settled into our seats and I set up to do some Japanese research … by watching the “Age of Samurai” on Netflix.👍🏻 (FYI it was actually really interesting and gave me some good background to things we were to see in the coming days.)

As the train travelled out of central Tokyo we travelled though small suburban areas, then small farming areas, passed tree covered hills and snowcapped mountains in the distance.    We managed to catch a glimpse of Fuji, popping up from behind the other mountains 🎉so happy to see it.  (Luckily, I did not make the effort to go out of town yesterday to see it as it had been covered in cloud 🥴).   The little rural towns were lovely with cherry blossom everywhere and oddly there were no farm animals to be seen.  There were however fields of solar panels lol.

It took just over 3 hours to reach our destination for the day, the small city of Matsumoto and from the train station it was a short walk to our hotel.  I was suitably impressed when I went to use the toilet in the hotel lobby and the toilet lid opened automatically – toilets here really are next level!  

To be honest, Tokyo overwhelmed me, and I was glad to be somewhere smaller (Matsumoto has a population of around 240,000 compared to Tokyo’s almost 14,000,000).  That said, writing this after the trip, I would have liked to have had a couple of days back in Tokyo at the end of the trip when I was more comfortable and confident with Japan and all its quirks.

Matsumoto is famous for its iconic castle – Matsumoto Castle or “Crow Castle” because of its black colour.  It is one of five castles in Japan designed as “National Treasures” and is the oldest original castles left in the country (most temples and castles that we see are reconstructions).

The walk to the castle took us through part of the very walkable city, past a couple of sites I planned to head back to, and I enjoyed noting the nice little local touches such as the Samurai lamps on the street and the beautiful manhole covers with local handicrafts on them.  (Manhole covers became a bit of a theme of the trip with each city/region having their own local design.  I will need to make a collage to show them all!)

When we arrived in the castle grounds, Rinrin (our guide) gave us some time to have lunch – as she directed us to the nearest convenience store!  I decided not to waste so much time eating and set off to walk around the outside of castle.   The gardens were beautiful and filled with cherry blossom, in fact some of the blossom here has not even peaked yet!  With the blossom and the snow capped mountains in the distance and the fact that there was nowhere near as many people as in Tokyo, I loved it.

Along the outer castle moat, the cherry blossom was particularly pretty, with the castle turret in the background.   In fact, the castle complex use to be vast, but in 1872, the Meiji government ordered the destruction of all feudal fortifications!  Most of the castle structures were destroyed but thankfully the locals rallied together to save the castle.  Today the foundations of these other buildings in the complex are only visible by them being marked out on the grounds around the castle.   

Having completed my walk around the entire complex, I meet up with the others as they finished their lunch.  I still had time to have something to eat before joining everyone to go across the moat and inside the castle walls to have the obligatory group photo with ‘fake’ samurai and ninja before entering the castle itself.  (I should note you can enjoy the castle garden.) for free and only have to pay to go into the castle itself)

The beautiful five storey medieval castle was built in the late 16th century when one of the main ‘characters’ from my Netflix series, Oda Nobunaga ruled the area.  Although from the outside, the castle looks like it is five stories, on the inside it is actually six stories with a hidden or secret floor inside. Apparently, it’s black colour represents loyalty to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another samurai who stared in the Age of Samurai (that programme really was great research lol) and who is credited with unifying Japan.

Whilst we waited to go inside the castle (sometimes the queues can be hours long, for us it was only 15-20 minutes), we were warned that inside there were “steps as tall as a small child” – it was true.  😂.  We walked through the one way system, up through the 5 (or is it 6) levels, each with small exhibits of items found on or near the castle grounds such as early guns and other weapons, armour and coins.  Always looking through the small windows used for soldiers to aim their arquebus guns or bow/arrows out of, or larger ones for throwing rocks out of.  

As I touched some of the old worn timber beams, I could not help but think of the samurai who touched the same beams before me.  Being immersed in history like this makes it so real, and I love it!

From the beautiful castle we split up and I walked with my crew to Nawate Dori, often known as Kaeru Machi or “Frog Street’ as it is dedicated to all things frog!  Apparently, this is because there used to be a lot of frogs along the banks of the Metoba River that runs alongside the street. They left for higher ground after a flood in 1959 and have never returned so have been replaced with stone frogs including the three very large stone frogs are positioned at the main entrance to the narrow brick street which has been a shopping hub since the 1500s. 

Frog Street is lined with small food and gift shops, many of which are frog themed.  Unfortunately, by the time we got there, many of the shops were starting to close (we are soon to learn that shops and even restaurants do not stay open late in Japan) but I did get a chance to buy a small frog trinket (which would be the start of another odd collection of quirky Japanese things) from a lovely old man who was keen to share the history of the street with me.

From Nawate Dori we crossed the river and walked a little down Nakamachi Dori.  Another narrow street lined with preserved buildings, this time white warehouse type buildings which once housed many of the city’s merchants.  We clearly missed the hype as most of the shops were closed and most of the restaurants were not yet open! 

Back on the main street, we decided, for the sake of research to visit what appeared to be a British pub (the “Old Rock”) advising beer from the local Matsumoto Brewery.  The local brew was pretty good, and we asked a local guy sitting on his own, to join us.  Tomo, a doctor from Tokyo did not seem to mind that his quiet dinner for one, turned in to a loud drink for 5 lol.  One of the things I love about travel – a Pol, an Irish, an American and a Kiwi sitting in a random bar with a Japanese guy … 

Whilst enjoying our drink, time got away from us, and we had to rush back to the hotel to check in and meet the group for dinner – which ended up being cancelled as the place the guide was going to take us was closed!  To be honest this was fine with me as I wanted to prioritise exploring over eating, as we were visiting on the last night of the 10 day long Corridor of Light. So we headed back to the castle to see the lights around the cherry blossom.  There were actually more people than there had been during the day, but it was beautiful and worth the second visit. Reflections are something I love and these were perfect.

But, by this time it was 8.40pm and almost everywhere we are trying for dinner was closing at 9pm and would not serve us!  I decided to give up head back to the hotel whilst the others continued to keep trying.  All in all, it was a lovely day.

Day 4 started off well.  I managed to sleep until 6am and then had an amazing breakfast spread, offering English and Japanese options. I had the weird combination of pineapple, French toast, dumplings, soba noodles, which apparently this place is famous for, fried chicken.   All very random, but all very nice.

Awake, packed and breakfasted more than one hour before we left, I decided to go out for exploration.  I found another shrine on the map and headed to it – Fukashi- jinja Shrine.  It was a beautiful more, cold at around 4C but the there was blue sky, and it was sunny, and the shrine was so peaceful, and I was ready for the day ahead. 

Titanic Tokyo

April 2023

Thankfully I had no headache for day 2’s early rise, so took the opportunity to go for a walk whilst it was quiet. Even after one day I was definitely feeling more confident, so took the little back alleys around the local area.  I have said it before and I will say it again, I love exploring in the early morning when the local people are going about their morning business.  All those I passed were very friendly, despite the language barrier (including this lovely lady who was happy to pose for a photo).

I started back at the local temple (for the third time lol) and although it was nice to be able to take some photos without crowds of people, I was surprised by just how many people there were around at 6.30am! From the temple I found the lovely little Sumida Park along the river.  Locals taking their dogs for a walk, old people doing their morning Taichi under the cherry blossom and of course social media influencers having their photos taken lol.  Sadly, the sky was not blue but it was beautiful and peaceful amidst the Tokyo chaos.

From the peace of the park, I stumbled across a big super store called Don Quijote.   Apparently, it’s well known for selling pretty much everything, including lots of flavours of Kit Kats.  Now I will admit I went down a bit of a Kit Kat buying rabbit hole! 

Now I do like a Kit Kat, the regular one, as well as the couple of different flavours that we have in New Zealand, but Japan takes Kit Kats to a whole other level.    Apparently there have been over 300 seasonal and regional flavours of Kit Kats in Japan.  The reason for it’s success is its like to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katus” which means “you will surely win” so they are often given as symbols of good luck.  I was not entirely sure why I was buying them on day 2 of the trip as I would have to carry them for almost two weeks, but I was unsure if/when I would see the same flavours again  – so I snapped up a box of Sake and the seasonal Sakura (cherry blossom) flavour of Strawberry cheesecake. 

One of my favourite things about this early morning walk was the paintings on the shop shutters.  Many were painted with Japanese designs and it was something you would not see later in the day when the shops were open.

After breakfast I met up with Suzanne and Ania (let’s just call them “the Irish” even though that is not entirely true) and we set out for a day of independent exploration in Tokyo.  Our first stop being the Harajuku area which is known for its narrow shopping streets and Japanese “Harajuku” fashion.

Before braving Takeshita Street (the main shopping street) we headed to the beautiful Yoyogi Park to visit the Meiji Jungu, a Shinto shrine.  Established in 1920, the shrine honours the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who are recognised for leading Japan through a rapid period of modernisation in the 19th century.  After they passed away (in 1912 and 1914 respectively), the Japanese people wished to commemorate their “virtues”.  With donations of trees from all over Japan, and hours of voluntary work, the manmade forest was created and the original shrine as built.  As is already becoming a common story, the original building was destroyed in WWII bombing raids and was rebuilt in 1958.  Thankfully the forest survives and is still thriving.

We took a beautiful walk through the forest, passed towering arches or Torii gates (in fact the biggest wooden Torii gate of its kind) and passed their stock of sacred sake (offered every year by Sake brewers to the enshrined deities) and into the Shrine itself. We were lucky enough to time our visit with a beautiful wedding ceremony in all their traditional finery through the grounds.

From the peace and quiet of the forest, we dove headfirst in to crowds of the shopping street, stopping briefly for a coffee and yummy Sakura themed cake (Japan does cakes well!) before making our way to the infamous Takeshita Street. It seemed everyone and their dog were also walking down this narrow 400 metre long street (including the Kardashian’s from reality TV fam), lined with cutesy clothes and shoe shops and cult food shops.  There were long queues for things like Crepes and “Strawberry Fetish” (think “toffee strawberry” rather than “toffee apple”).   The street was packed, but apparently it was not so bad!  Sometimes, there are so many people it can come to a complete standstill!

As we walked further down the main road, the crowds and quirky shops turned into design stores and fancy buildings.  We were looking for what was supposed to be a lovely garden and it was either closed or we completely missed it (or possibly both).  Of course by now we were ready for a rest and some food and of course we could not find anywhere.  And so we kept on walking and ended up back at Shibuya Crossing (where I had visited the afternoon before).  It was here we finally ended up in what looked like a noddle restaurant, but it was actually a pasta place – I had lost the will to live at this point so was grateful for anything.

It seems that most restaurants/bars are not at street level, they are either down a narrow flight of stairs (as this restaurant was) or upstairs on various levels.  It is hard to judge from the narrow street level door and signage if it is a “suitable” place so it is a bit of a gamble!  Thankfully the Japanese Pasta place was great. 

Energised from food I headed out solo to go to the KitKat shop (yes, I was on a mission to find more KitKats).  Unfortunately turns out it was not a shop but a small stall in a department store that had lots of other sweet shops in it, but I got what I wanted which was another random selection of individual flavours such as Passionfruit, Ruby, white chocolate, Cassis etc.

Having made that detour, I had to change trains at Ueno Park station on the way back to Asakusa – and decided that it was worth a visit. The large park was once part of the Keneiji Temple, but after the temple was destroyed during the Boshin Civil War in 1868, the temple grounds were converted into a western style park.  Today the park houses many museums, a zoo and is a famous spot in the city for cherry blossoms with more than 1000 trees lining the main pathway.  Despite being past their prime, the trees were still lovely, particularly as it got dark and they were lit by lanterns hanging amongst the trees.  The park was busy with tourists and locals alike, picnicing under the trees and eating food from the near by stalls and I was glad to have made the stop.

I could not resist another walk around my neighbour temple to get some more beautiful nighttime photos and by the time I made it back to the hotel, I had walked over 18km and my feet felt it!   But before I could go to bed, I had to rearrange my bags and pack for 2 days in my day bag.   As efficient as the train service is, there are two reasons why you don’t want to travel with large bags if you can avoid it. 

Firstly, the trains often only stop for a short amount of time and transfers between trains can involve a fair amount of walking and stairs so it can be difficult if you, and others around are trying to manhandle large cases on and off the train (believe me, I saw people trying to do it and was grateful not to be one of them). Secondly, if you can manhandle your bag on to the train, there is very little storage for large bags.  If it does not fit in the overhead rack, you may end up having to share your leg room with your bag! 

Because of this, many hotels offer a luggage forwarding service that means to leave your bag, and it is delivered to you in a day or two, at you next main destination.  For us, this meant that when we left Tokyo the next morning, we would not see out main luggage until we arrived in Kanazawa, in 3 days time.  As long as you can plan in advance like we did, it definitely made our Japan Rail experience more enjoyable.

There was really so much more to see in Tokyo and 2 days is nowhere near enough, but, it was time to explore other parts of the country.

Welcome to Japan

Tokyo, April 2023

Japan has been high on my bucketlist for a long time now, and this trip started as all good trips do – with an early start.  In this case with a 3.45am wake up call. It could have been an hour later, but my cautious side likes to ensure I have plenty of time for my transfer in Auckland.  It’s lucky I did, as the airline lounge in Auckland was incredibly busy and I had to wait 30 minutes for a coffee (first world problems I know, but problems nevertheless lol).

I had little sleep on the 11 hour flight from Auckland to Tokyo. Being a day flight, that was not too much of an issue as I wanted to be able to sleep not too long after I arrived in Tokyo, despite the 4 hour time difference.  We flew over New Caledonia, which looked beautiful from above and then over the Solomon Islands, the deep blue ocean and skies spotted with clouds were beautiful. I had a laugh to myself when lunch was served.  Not even halfway through the flight and the meal was served only with chopsticks 🥴 it’s going to be a fun couple of weeks!

Finally, as we neared Japan, I got my first view of the iconic Mt Fuji.  It was glowing in the hazy, orange sky as the sun had started to set in the west as was a long river winding across the land.  It was beautiful and any photos I got do not do it justice. At the same time, my excitement turned to nerves – did I have all the right paperwork? would I find my pickup? … I seem to get more nervous about these things the more I travel … or perhaps the older I get 🤔!

The arrival process was rather long winded but thankful my research into the constantly changing entry requirements ensured it all went smoothly.  First the quarantine check, I had already provided all info online so showed that page and was waved straight through.  Probably worth noting here that it was also helpful to have a mobile data connection – this was my first time using an e-sim (via Airalo) and this was the first of many times I would be grateful for it!

Next was the long queue for immigration, but again I had filled everything online and had QR code for it so when I finally made it to the front of the line 45 minutes later, the entry process went smoothly.  All that took so long, the bags were already off the belt waiting to be collected and finally, having done the customs check online, that process went quickly.  Note to anyone travelling to Japan, use the Visit Japan website and be sure to fill it in in advance to save time and hassle (until they change the rules again of course lol).

With the entry process completed, I found my pickup and we headed down into the train station to catch the Keisei skyline train.  My first Japanese train experience took me from Narita Airport into Tokyo city, and it was so clean (they sanitise and clean it after every journey to and from the airport) and efficient.  The train takes around 40 minutes for around ¥ 2570 (or NZ$32) compared to the drive which would take around 1.5 hours and cost well over NZ$100!  From the station in the city, we then took a short 10 minute taxi to the hotel.

I had a nice chat with the based Italian guide who met me as we travelled into the city.  She was not my tour guide, but she gave me some tips for places to go and explained that companies like Explore! (who I would be travelling with) struggle to hire local guides to do trips like this as the Japanese guides prefer to stay in one city rather than move around constantly.  This is a shame as although international guides can be well informed on the trip logistics and history of the country, you don’t get the same personal insights that you would from a truly local guide. Time will tell if this is true.

After a quick convenience store dinner (this will become a bit of a theme as they are most definitely convenient and well stocked) of some random (but delicious) creamy sponge cake and an unknown drink white coloured Fanta – going by the picture strawberry and custard 🤔, I checked out the lovely view from the hotel roof top before settling in for the night – after an almost 20 hour day 😴.  In reality I could not quite go to sleep as my roommate for the trip was yet to arrive – apparently her flight only landed 20 minutes after mine so not sure where she was 🤔 (It apparently took her more than 2 hours to get through immigration, so I was very lucky!)

My favourite things in Japan are already the clean, efficient transport system and the toilets!!!  Heated toilet seats for the win👍🏻.

My first full day in Japan started with waking up at 2am, 4am (you get the idea) and with a hammering headache! After a couple of rounds of tablets, I felt a little better and managed to make it down to breakfast.  It was an odd selection of options – beef curry, blue cheese salad, eggs benedict with spam or French toast!  I got the French toast – it was ok but definitely nothing to write home about (and yet, here I am writing about it lol). 

I meet my guide (Rinrin from Singapore) and the rest of my group at our welcome meeting on the rooftop.  There are 16 in the group.  More than half from the UK, a two from Australia, two from Ireland and a lady from Canada. It’s always interesting at this time, sizing everyone up, thinking who you will align with the most.  (Turns out it was the Irish – Suzanne and Ania (who is actually Polish) and Carla from Canada.)

It was a beautiful day as we headed out on foot just around the corner from the hotel (in the Asakusa area) to the oldest and most important Buddhist temple in Tokyo – Senso-ji Temple.  As legend has it, in 628, two brothers fished a statue out of the Sumida river – it was a statue of the goddess of mercy – Kannon.  They put the statue back, but it always returned to them, so they build the temple, which was completed in 645, nearby for the goddess.  The temple was hit by a bomb and destroyed in WWII and was subsequently rebuilt and is now a symbol of rebirth and peace.

Rinrin mentioned that the temple was not as crowded as she expected it to be, but it was still very crowded for me 🥴 but I guess that is what you get when you visit Japan during Cherry Blossom season.  It doesn’t help that it is also holiday season here so there are also lots of local tourists too, some oddly taking their dogs for a walk in prams!  I definitely won’t be getting many of my perfect people free photos here lol.

From the temple, we walked down the narrow, 250m long shopping street called Nakamise-dori which dates back to the 18th century (although in its current form from post WWII).  There were amazing smells of all the sweet street food being cooked – but one of Japan’s many quirks is that eating on this street is prohibited (and it is frowned upon in general everywhere).  So you either eat gathered around the shop or take your purchases home.  This is reinforced by the lack of rubbish bins which results in carrying rubbish around all day!   

At the top of Nakamise, we came to the famous Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, the outer gate of the Sensoji Temple and a symbol of Tokyo.  Humorously, this famous historic site is now ‘sponsored’ by Panasonic 🤦🏻‍♀️

From the thunder gate we crossed the Sumida River, admiring our first view of a small part of the Tokyo skyline, including the Asahi company headquarters, with a very odd interpretation of a golden beer spout before boarding a local bus to next temple – Fukugawa Fododo Temple, just in time to watch their Goma fire ceremony.

With our shoes off (a common occurrence in Japan) and masks on (not mandatory but many people still wear them, and some private places/temples ask for it), we entered the temple for the ceremony.  It was carried out by a number of monks. The head monk lit a fire with cedar to perform the purification and blessings, whilst the others took turns at blowing conch shells, beatingin trance inducing drums and chanting.  As well providing purification and blessings, the fire is meant to fend off evil spirits.   For a wooden temple, with a history of burning down, there was clearly no smoke detectors inside! (Sadly no photos allowed of the ceremony.)

After the ceremony we had time to work around the temple complex, starting with the toilets (oddly you will find much talk about toilets on a trip to Japan as the toilets are amazing) – as you can’t wear your shoes inside the temple, they provide “toilet” shoes – sadly not in my size 😂

Within the complex there was also a large wooden Fudomyo-o statue.  It is a Buddha guardian who represents the rath of Buddha, and also a small dark room with glow-in the dark imagines and pray wheels.  Outside, in contrast to the old wooden temple, the modern main hall next to it, is covered in gold and black Sanskrit which shows part of the Buddhist sutra.

From the temple we took a local subway train to the next stop where we walked through a really nice suburban area of Shiba, passed families picnicking in parks and kids playing baseball, to a smallish (size is very relative here) local station to get our JR (Japan Rail) pass for the rest of the trip.  Apparently if you go into the main station this can take 3-4 hours and our guide thought it would be much quicker to go to a small local station. 

A JR pass is like gold – it is only available to tourists and saves a significant about of money on Japan Rail travel.   But there is no way to replace it if you lose it and paying for the trips individually will costs thousands of dollars.  Oddly, purchasing a ticket for one of the most efficient train services in the world, is one of the least efficient processes – often involving pencil and paper rather than computer!!! (Worth noting it needs to be purchased online before you arrive and then picked up once you get to Japan.)

Thankfully we were ‘released’ to find some lunch while the guide waited for our tickets.  I joined a group who headed into a small mall near the station where we spent 30 minutes waiting for a table for some lunch.  Using google translate to translate the menu, I decided to try the ‘drinkable’ wagyu burger (I think it was actually “melt in the mouth” 😂) – it was great!  This place also has the most amazing wearable napkins – I never saw them again but they should be everywhere!

Lunch eaten and the precious JR pass in hand, we caught a train to Akihbara.  It started as the home to black market sellers of electronics after WWII but today it has become a hub for legitimate electronics shops and a mecca for the Japanese subcultures/fans of Japanese graphic cartoon tv/movies (anime) and graphic novels (manga).  With all the tall buildings, lights, music and crowds – this was more like the Tokyo I expected. 

I left the group here for my first solo expedition on the Tokyo transport system and I must admitted it started with some trepidation, even more so because my phone, which I was relying on for directions (I was so very grateful for google maps that provides a full breakdown on the journey including walking and public transport) was at 25%!   Thankfully, the train system is similar to London, though on a much larger scale once you find the right entrance, platform, train, direction and then fight to get a seat, it’s not too bad.

My destination was Shibuya, one of the largest shopping areas but probably more well known for its pedestrian crossing, known as the Shubuya Scramble.  The train station at Shibuya was crazy, almost is busy is the crossing itself!

Once I had fought my way out of the station, the looming tall buildings covered in neon advertising reminded me of Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London. It is definitely a “must see” in Tokyo, but I’m sure nowadays it is busy because of all the tourists that go there!

From here it was a 45 ninute journey back to Asakusa, and I found my way back to the Temple near my hotel where we had visited in the morning. It looked amazing at night and I took the opportunity to have street food for dinner from one of the small stalls near the temple – some sort of sweet waffle stuffed with cheese that I had seen on the Internet. It was pretty good and a great end to a long day.    

It was liberating having the opportunity to spend some time on my own working things out.  That’s always part of the fun.