Tokyo: Japan experience comes to an end

Tokyo is a city that is also different from the other places I have visited in Japan. It is absolutely huge and can take a while to get from one side of the city to the other – not too different from London, I suppose. Spending seven nights here, with a couple of day trips to escape the hustle and bustle has been great and it has been nice to base myself somewhere without constantly having to take my bag everywhere. The hostel was pretty decent and quite close to Tokyo station as well as a metro station and the Imperial Palace and gardens. I walked through them and they were quite pretty in parts. After working out the Metro, I found myself at Shibuya where the big and famous pedestrian crossing is. ​​​It was such a busy district full of colour and noise. The tall buildings with screens on were quite imposing initially. Lots of billboards climbed up the buildings. I walked up to Harajuku which wasn’t too far away and this was another shopping district known for its trendy fashions which engulf the youth. There is a street called Takeshita Street which was very very busy and full of random shops selling odd things – I even found some Percy Pigs in a sweet shop!There are some places to eat where you choose and pay outside in a little machine and then hand a voucher over inside at the counter when you sit down. Then got a train to Ebisu which was fairly close and had some lovely dim sum at a place called Le Parc but it was a little expensive. A day trip to Kamakura was next which is about an hour out of the central city. This was a lot quieter and had a lot of temples and shrines, as well as a big bronze Amida Buddha (Kotoku-in temple) which was constructed over ten years in the mid 13th century, You could climb inside him and have a look at the construction of the metal work. It was originally located inside a large temple hall, but this was destroyed during a natural disaster. It has been standing in open air since 1495. I found a great little sushi place to grab some lunch in where it was made directly in front of you. I was brave and tried sea urchin – tasted very much like the sea. I also tried some squid crackers which were tasty. I found a temple called Hasedera which was fairly close to the Buddha. It had the largest wooden statue of Kannon (over nine metres!) as well as a pretty garden with lots of different coloured hydrangeas.I also did another day trip to Hakone which was only half an hour away from Tokyo. This was very scenic – lots of lovely lucious mountains. Managed to get to Lake Ashi which took a few trains, a cable car and a bus replacement service (that’s right, they have them here too!) past a clearly active volcano and through some hills. I took a sightseeing boat over the lake with the intention of catching a glance of Mt Fuji but I didn’t see it. I got off the boat and had another look at the lake from the shore. The clouds were low in the sky, but the sun was out and shining nicely. Then, all of a sudden, I saw the top of the mountain! Then went through a nice cedar avenue.

Back in Tokyo and I visited Sensoji Temple (which is Tokyo’s oldest temple), Meiji Jingu Temple (where there is a lovely garden full of irises and ponds), the Tsukiji market and the national museum, as well as a few districts. The Tsukiji market is famous for its daily tuna auction at 3am. Somehow, I didn’t have the will power to witness this although I did go down one rainy morning and sample some of the goods on offer.Barrels of sake (above)I enjoyed getting my feet nibbled by fish – ticklish at first, but then it was ok!Had some lovely tempura and ramen too!Vending machines selling alcohol and cigarettes are on most streets (also in other places around Japan). I found this odd as the legal drinking age in Japan is 20. I see a lot of business man drinking beer on the way to work on the train. Highballs are also a popular drink here – mostly containing whisky – I’ve seen a lot of highball specific bars.There was a place to eat which was run by robots (I didn’t go in because the entrance fee was 8000 Yen – which is £60) and that was not including food….I’ve really enjoyed visiting this varied country. Getting around has been really easy. I still find it odd that smoking is allowed inside certain places, as well as train carriages. Everything is very clean – there are no litter bins on the streets or graffiti. There’s no one eating on the street or chewing gum. Jay walking is something that just isn’t done – everyone waits at the crossing for the green man. The people are all very friendly and polite. Although I came across some travellers from Belgium who had said they were waiting for their friend who was in a Japanese prison cell for letting off a fire extinguisher while drunk. Anyway, next stop – China! 

Kyoto: Temples, Geishas and rain

Well I could hardly expect to come to Japan in the rainy season and not get some rain. The day of travelling from Nara to Kyoto was a washout! My hostel was quite close to a subway and bus stops which was appreciated during the rain. I caught a bus and went off to see Kinkaku-ji, also known as the ‘Golden Pavillion’. Even in the rain, the Zen Buddhist temple was a spectacle from the other side of the lake. You aren’t able to enter it though. Again, this was a temple that has been rebuilt a few times since its construction in the 14th century. I’m getting used to the buses – luckily, the stops are read out in English and you can see a bit of a map on a digital screen so you don’t really have the opportunity to get lost. Like the bus in Koyasan, you get on at the back and exit at the front, paying your fare in a little machine at the front on the way out. If you don’t have the exact change, then there’s also a little change box. In Kyoto, it was just one fare per journey within a zone. You can also get an all day bus ticket for 500 Yen which I did on the second day as there were a lot of things that I wanted to see which were quite spread out. Another good place I visited (and confess that I came back to for lunch on more than one occasion) was the Nishiki market full of independent stalls, mostly selling food. Yes – this is pickled cucumber on a stick….The variety was amazing and there was lots of things I had not seen before. The amount of different types of pickles and seaweed you could taste was phenomenal. It sits along one long street under cover which is parallel to the street my hostel was on (which was basically Kyoto’s version of Oxford Street – it had all the nice shops on. Even a L’Occitane!). I spent a lot of time here trying a couple of things – a lunch based on free samples is alway a good idea. I had the most amazing gyoza in a little place not too far from my hostel called Tiger Gyoza Hall. I liked to watch the chefs work. They were all drinking pints of Asahi on the job as well.The second day was mostly spent getting from place to place by bus. It had meant to rain all day as well (but didn’t in the end) so I thought it would be a good idea. I had checked to see the temples that I wanted to go to the night before, and with the help of Google Maps, I knew which buses to take. They were quite regular as well which helped. I started the day off by getting to the Heian Jingu temple which is north east of the city. It was quite big and there was a nice garden with ponds of water lilies, and is a popular spot for cherry blossom during the spring. It’s not as old as some of the other temples, but still quite grand. Then went to the Yasaka Shrine which is in Marauyama Park. This was fairly big and tranquil and had a lot of lanterns. It was founded over 1350 years ago. The park is also a famous spot for cherry blossom.The next stop was Sanjusangendo temple which houses 1000 statues of Kannon (the goddess of mercy) all standing in a row, as well as one big statue of the same goddess in the middle. The length of the wooden hall make it the longest wooden structure in Japan. The statues are flanked with some bigger statues in front which are meant to be defenders and protectors. The temple was initially constructed in 1164. Another temple visited was Kodaji temple, as well as Entokuinteien temple. Kodaji is a Zen temple and was built in the 1606 by Kita-no-Mandokoro in memory of her late husband. They are both enshrined there in the memorial hall. Here you have to walk around the cylinders and rotate them with one hand as you go round. It is meant to be good luck. I ended up walking down Matsubara Dori and Matsubara Kyogoku which are pedestrianised shopping streets full of unique shops. It was fairly crowded and it was easy to see why. There were little different coloured soaps which were squishy and each colour meant that a different ingredient would be in each soap depending on whether you wanted moisturisation or something else. Squidgy soap (above)Yummy confectionary! Each triangle filled with something different – strawberry etcRice cakes in soy sauce (above)Green tea ice cream! I was not such a huge fan…Below gives an acurrate representation of how I felt…I still don’t like green tea. And I’ve been fed it a lot….I found the street where the Geishas are meant to be found. This was just off the main street. The buildings were quite pretty. I treated myself to some nice sushi after a long day from a place called Chojiro which had had good reviews on Trip Advisor.The next day, I was up and out early to see the bamboo forest in Arashiyama and the Japanese garden with an amazing view. There was also a temple called Tenryu-Ji which I visited and it is a grand Zen temple. It was originally built in 1339, but has been rebuilt over the centuries, like so many other temples. Then finished Kyoto off with seeing Fushimi Inari-taisha which was amazing. The 10,000 red torri gates were all donated by worshippers and their names and the dates they were donated are inscribed on the gates. You can climb up the many steps to get to the summit of Mount Inari. It took a couple of hours to do the big loop and had a couple of great views. The mountain reaches an elevation of 233 metres. It is a Shinto shrine. There are a lot of stone foxes with a red cloak surrounding certain shrines at certain points as you are climbing up. I really enjoyed my time in Kyoto – a big place full of things to see and lots to eat! A buzzing city working with its traditional roots. There’s a real sense of respect for religion and others. Onwards to Tokyo!

Nara: feisty deer and lots of lanterns

After Koyasan, I headed to Nara for a couple of nights. Landed myself in a nice hostel again (Oak Hostel Nara) as it had fairly good reviews on – it was clean and the dorm again was similar to what I’d stayed in before – there were about 16 people in this one. It was good value for money. After making my way to the station with a few changes, I arrived at around 12, dumped the bag off and went straight out again. I grabbed some gyoza at Nara station en route to Horyuji where there was a massive temple complex. This housed the oldest wooden structure in the world – 1400 years old. It was amazing considering so many of Japan’s temples had been lost in natural disasters over the centuries. It was fairly grand and also contains some of the country’s most treasured Buddha statues. I travelled back late afternoon on the train and did some much needed laundry at the hostel. I found a little place near the hostel to grab some food. I had tuna misoyaki which was yum and some edamame beans. The next day was spent exploring Nara park which is what Nara is primarily famous for. There are a lot of tame deer who will nip you if you’re not careful and haven’t fed them some “deer crackers” which you can buy from vendors for 150 Yen. They are feisty! There are signs around warning you that they will bite and possibly charge you to get what they want. I did get chased by a couple, but you have to manage them before there is a chance of them eating you alive. No where near as nice as the chilled out deer in Richmond Park. I didn’t realise, but they are meant to be messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. There are a lot of temples to see in the park, as well as a couple of pretty gardens. I walked to Todai-ji temple where the famous big Buddha is. It is one of the world’s largest bronze Buddha statues (called Vairocana or Daibutsu) and the temple is the largest wooden structure in the world (and this was one that is now smaller, after a previous one was burned down). There was a museum nearby, so saw a lot of 7th and 8th century Buddha statues which were very ornate and in good condition – you can imagine how colourful and bright they would have been. The detail of the expression on the faces is incredible. These statues are often referred to as protectors of the Buddha in the temple – I guess that’s why they look so fierce and imposing. To give some sort of perspective – the hole in this pillar is the same size as one of the Buddha’s nostrils. Apparently, those who can climb through it will be granted enlightenment in the next life. So, a lot of children should be ok then!This statue is meant to represent Binzuru-Sama. You rub the part of his body that you is giving you pain on yours and it is meant to get better.After seeing a couple of other temples which housed important national treasures, I found myself at Kasuga-Tanisha shrine. The first thing that struck me was the amount of stone lanterns on the way up to the shrine mixed with the free roaming deer. There were also a lot of golden and bronze lanterns inside the shrine hanging from the ceilings. These have been donated by worshippers. The structure of the shrine was quite big and square, and it was completely red. Red is an important colour in Japan – it is meant to prevent evil spirits from entering. There was also a darkened room full of hanging lit lanterns which was very sombre and atmospheric – a place to contemplate and pray. I then walked all the way to the Heijo Palace remains in the west of the city. There wasn’t too much to see but you could certainly get an idea of the size of the place. Lots and lots of walking completed so far. Average walk of 11 miles a day! Had some more amazing food at a little place I found. I could get used to this! Also went to a traditional tea house and tried some green tea. I still don’t think I’m a fan of tea, although I am trying! 

Japan – wow…! Himeji and Osaka

Japan, you have thrown me. Completely. From the heated toilet seats to the endless warm flannels and taking off/putting on shoes. I’ve only been here 5 days, but it’s enough to see a stark contrast. From Miyajima, it was a train ride back to Hiroshima to catch a crowded Shinkansen to Himeji, en route to Osaka. I was able to dump my large bag in a locker in the station – I was definitely not going to carry it around with me all day!  I went to Himeji castle which was built originally as a fort in the 14th century and completed as a castle in 1609. The structure has withstood all natural elements, although there has been some restoration work done from time to time. It is quite imposing as it stands alone on top of a hill. You can climb to each floor and see the inside structure. A scale model was made to illustrate the detail in preparation for restoration. There are racks that weapons were stored in and a couple of slits in the walls that were used for defence. I also visited a lovely little set of gardens close by which were very pretty and peaceful. From Himeji, it was another bullet train to Shin-Osaka, and a local train to Osaka station. This rail pass is so great – it’s getting me everywhere! It even got me on the ferry to Miyajima island. My hostel in Osaka was fairly close to the station, but I still managed to get lost. I ended up walking for ten minutes in the wrong direction because I came out of the wrong exit. Drop Inn hostel was fairly decent. In a 10 bed dorm with individual cubicles was nice although it did mean I slept with both of my bags for company at night as there was no bag storage area – just a little cupboard in the cubicle to lock your valuables in. It had a screen so there was a fair amount of privacy. 2 nights here was fine. After some sorting, I headed out to explore. It was late afternoon by this point so there was no need to do anything too much, I ventured into Dotonbori by metro (a challenge in itself – almost got quite lost) which was the Leicester Square of Osaka, although much more colourful, large and noisy than London. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.My bed for a couple of nights! The dorms are actually quite nice – the beds are quite private.Big objects on the walls above food places illustrate the main selling point (I assume, anyway) e.g. Crab/squid. There was lots of shops in arcades too. There were so many food places to choose from. Especially down little alleyways off the main drag. There was one little street which was meant to be the oldest street and there was a temple nearby. This temple was called Hozen-ji Temple and was just off the Main Street in Dotonbori. You get this a lot, I think, in Japan where you can turn down a little side street and come across a small temple or shrine. This was tuna that I had in a sushi place on the main street in Dotonbori. It proved to be fairly popular as there was constant queues.Above: prawn tempura. Below: gyoza – pork, I think. They were so yummy that I had some more the next day!Below: an assortment of sushi – salmon, tuna and some rolls.Below: Salmon sashimi which is basically raw salmon. Fairly decent, and healthy!Eventually found something to eat after wandering around for ages. It was a little place down a side street which wasn’t too crowded and decent food. I went back there the following day. I’m still walking around 10 miles a day on average. The next day, I got up early and headed out to Osaka castle. My alarm went off which I really hated, but I wanted to make the most of the day. Had a couple of coffees before heading out. I caught a JR train, so I could use my pass, from Osaka to Oskajokoen and walked through the park. I was still feeling tired which was annoying. I’ve noticed that there are trains with women only carriages – apparently this was to ward off lewd conduct. The castle was imposing, although not as much as Himeji. It sits in the middle of a park surrounded by gates and moats. The construction was started in the late 16th century. Inside was a series of exhibitions about the history of the castle and you can climb to the top for an impressive view. I then took another JR train to Teradacho where I could walk to Tennoji which is a big temple complex. One of Japan’s oldest temples is here (called Shitennoji).  I was able to go to the top of the pagoda and have a look around the many temples. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take many photos around the religious sights. I then wondered back to Dotonbori via a different path. There was a bit of town which was the ‘gaming’ part. There was a Namco store so I had a peek inside to see how it compared to the one in London. I expected the usual sort of thing – air hockey etc, but I was very wrong…..It was amazing. There were so many teenagers in there (and smoking was permitted upstairs) and they appeared to have some sort of loyalty card or a pre paid thing. The way that their fingers moved around the screen when they played the musical games was so quick! I walked into another arcade and had a quick massage on a chair and then found a little tribute to Alice in Wonderland shop. I did some research about how to get from Osaka to Koyasan the following day using some free wifi. I was still knackered so I was looking forward to some peace and quiet! After a bit more food, I headed back to the hostel early to sort stuff. Early night required for another early start!