Category Archives: Japan

Kyoto

August 2015

Kyoto, the old capital. Its name in Japanese simply means ‘capital metropolis’, as opposed to Tokyo, the ‘eastern capital’. The two are even anagrams of each other, so I don’t know why I was expecting a small place full of old buildings and little development. It certainly is not what I got.

Both the centre of town and the main station are full of imposing ultra-modern architecture and this is what you are met with when you arrive. I turned up late in the evening, having caught up with a friend from training in Nagoya for an afternoon drink on my way from Shizuoka. I found K’s House easily enough, a place I had chosen after a great stay at their historic onsen building on the Izu Peninsula.

The place was full, but it was so big and busy that I failed to find anybody I wanted to start a conversation with: a few families, groups of Chinese, a load of Dutch people playing a drinking game and speaking Dutch (didn’t want to make 20 people speak English), lots of French in their own cliques and a few kids on GAP years who, from a brief listen to their conversation, would not have had much in common with me.

That wasn’t a problem, since it meant I could get up early to have a crack at the city on foot. I started off with a walk to Southern Higashiyama and Kiyomizudera. The crush of people going up was too much for me, though, and by the time I got to the entrance gate I decided to just turn around and leave. There were an awful lot of other temples and I doubted they’d be as busy.

Down into Gion I went, where I espied my first geisha. She was having photos taken with a tourist on some of the most historic streets. I watched the proceedings for a while, admiring her practised movements and elaborate attire. Then I continued on through Maruyama Park and up to a couple more shrines, one of which had a ceremony going on at the time. The monks inside were chanting at great speed to the ritual beating of a drum and the timed striking of wood blocks. It was wonderfully atmospheric and a far cry from the push and shove of earlier in the morning.

With the aid of the GPS on my phone, I navigated my way via a few more temples and shrines to Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. This was not anywhere near as crowded as Kiyomizudera and I could enjoy the gardens at a more leisurely pace. Japanese gardens are so perfectly manicured that they almost appear unreal. If the Japanese were a mythical race, I think they’d be elves, such is their ability to harness the beauty of nature.

Receiving a last minute recommendation from a friend on my phone, I chose to walk the Philosopher’s Walk back south. It’s a wonderful path following a stream with overhanging cherry trees, which must look amazing during Hanami.

Near the end of the trail, I took the metro and then a train across town to Arashiyama. I’d come to see the bamboo forest, but a lot of other people had had the same idea. I ended up spending so much time dodging group photos, selfies and selfie sticks that there was no room for any peace or tranquility at all. After almost being run over by a human pulled rickshaw, I headed back to the station to catch a train towards perhaps the biggest tourist draw in town of them all.

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, is a wonderful sight. I arrived just before closing time, so it was relatively peaceful. The best view is immediately after entering, as you come out on the other side of the lake to be confronted with the temple at its most picturesque. There follows a brief walk through gardens. Some girls in yukata were trying to hit a target with coins in some kind of game as I passed through.

Kinkakuji is a very long way from the main station, but I decided to just wander through town in that general direction to see what I came across. There were many atmospheric old streets bereft of tourists and a big complex of empty temples which I had all to myself. After passing through the busy, modern centre, I reached my accommodation again. I’d covered over 50km on foot (in flip-flops) and taken three train rides, but could not pretend to have even approached seeing all of the city.

Still, my visit to Taiwan was imminent and I was staying with a friend in Osaka the next night, so I had to move on. I realised afterwards upon being quizzed by various Japanese people that I had missed a very key sight, the Ryozen Kannon. Next time.

Osaka

August 2015

Osaka is a huge city. You can’t really understand how huge it is until you get here and see the map of stations and all the different public and private lines for yourself, then board train after train flying over endless big city landscapes. It’s all quite daunting, but it somehow connects up and with the aid of a site like hyperdia.com, you can just about make your way through it. Coming from Nara, it came as quite a shock to me.

My visit was just a short one before catching a flight to Taiwan the next day, but I had decided I’d like to see the bustling centre around Shinsaibashi and the American Village (amerikamura). Shinsaibashi was a massive, crowded arcade that seemingly went on for ever. I got a delicious cold (tsumetai) ramen from a vending machine place there and that combined with about ten minutes of pushing through crowds passing designer shops I’d never dream of going into was enough for me.

The American Village was a little quieter (but still busy) and not under cover, with Triangle Park ‘square’ as its centrepiece. Skater and baseball fashion rules here, but I wasn’t wearing the right uniform, so didn’t linger too long. That left me with some extra time, so I remembered what everybody had advised me to do before coming, which was to visit the aquarium.

I’m not sure if I’d ever been to an aquarium before (perhaps as a small child, perhaps not), although I had definitely seen dolphins in a dolphinarium in Lithuania. The ‘Kaiyukan‘ is definitely worth a look, with its wonderful tanks of seals, dolphins, whales, penguins, sharks, jellyfish, otters and other sea creatures. One of the highlights was the fish of the Great Barrier Reef area and I lay on the ground with others to peek under the water in hypnotic amazement as the colourful schools swam by. Then there are the whales in the main Pacific tank. Watching them move is something difficult for your brain to fathom, their massive size hard to comprehend. At the end you’re allowed to touch baby sharks, but not on the mouth.

Afterwards, I met up with a friend from an amazing hostel in Malaysia I had stayed at a couple of years previously. He was kind enough to put me up for the night in his spare room/classroom. Unfortunately, he was just getting over jet lag from a trip to the States, but he still found the strength to take me next door to his mother-in-law’s bar for drinks and food. This had the feel of real small town Osaka, even though Tennoji was not that far away and it was great to get a taste of life in this little pocket of town and to hear the differences between people of the region compared to others. Osaka residents are thought of as the most gregarious, friendly and outgoing of the Japanese and it was clear that this was the place for him!

After breakfast I headed off to the airport to catch my outrageously cheap flight to Taiwan. Thank you, Peach. Next time I hope to make it to Shinsekai, which means ‘New World’ in English, but is in reality anything but. It sounds a fascinating part of town.

Update (2018): The castle is also well worth a visit if you have time. I stopped there on the way back from the Philippines.

Nara

August 2015

Deer are to Nara what beef is to Kobe or the castle is to Himeji. A few moments after you leave the Kintetsu station on your walk up towards Nara park, you pass clusters of them on the pavement with tourists snapping photos (selfie + deer seems to be very in) and feeding them deer biscuits. There are warning signs everywhere that they could be dangerous, but the ones I saw were all very passive and having them ambling around certainly adds a certain charm to the place you can’t find elsewhere. The only downside is naturally the mess they leave, a very rare sight in Japan.

The day I visited did not start out too auspiciously. Thinking that the 5 pieces of paper I got for my Seishun-18 ticket were all tickets and not just one ticket with 4 information slips, I foolishly had thrown the top part away in Kyoto. I asked many times to get a new one in Namba, Kyoto and Osaka Airport, but was politely turned down on each occasion. Understandable I suppose, but frustrating to lose 4 days of ‘free’ travel with such a careless error. Still, these things even themselves out in the long run.

Nara is easily walkable and you can cover the main sights in a day at a leisurely pace. The main attraction apart from the deer is the ‘Daibutsu‘ (Big Buddha), who is very big indeed. He also has a very nice house, as tends to be the way in this part of the world. In fact, I found this building to be the most striking thing in the whole park. On the inside, there were two elements more intriguing to me than the massive statue itself.

The first protrudes out of the back wall and seems to be a Buddha hand with middle finger upraised, I’m not exactly sure what for. Maybe he’s just sick of the deer. A little further along there is a hole in a pillar that is supposed to bring you good fortune if you can squeeze through it. Most children got through while I was watching, as well as a rather lithe young Japanese fellow. Most of the others got stuck and I think it would definitely have gone the same way for me had I tried. Not wanting to have firemen tug me out of a holy piece of architecture, I decided to give it a miss.

Nara is a mini Kyoto plus deer. There are still plenty of tourists, but not in the same overwhelming numbers as Japan’s tourist mecca and I probably enjoyed my day out here more. Make sure to have it on your itinerary if you’re in this part of the world!

Kobe

August 2015

According to my pre-trip reading, this was supposed to be one of the most, if not the most livable city in Japan for expats, but lacking in major attractions. On reflection, I’d say that was a fair call, although it was hard to judge the standard of life here on just a flying visit.

The station in the centre of town is Sannomiya (although the Shinkansen arrives at Shin-Kobe) and since I had the cheap JR Seishun-18 ticket, it was here that I alighted. A short walk up the hill brings you to a strange district known as Kitano, which contains various examples of western style houses from France, Italy, England, Denmark, Austria etc.

Having grown up in Europe, these houses looked remarkably normal and unimpressive to me, although it was admittedly a little intriguing to see the Japanese eagerly snapping photos of them. Naturally, I did not fork out the steep entrance fees to go inside the buildings, but I did climb up to the Shinto shrine at the top for some nice views out onto Osaka Bay.

I may have had some beef with the houses, but I had no beef with the beef. Kobe is famous across Japan for its marbled meat and I purchased a little of it (a proper serving at a restaurant would have blown a few days’ budget) in the souvenir shop at Shin-Kobe station  to eat at the nearby waterfall.

Well, that was the plan. I was a little blasé reading the instructions to get there and went over the station instead of under it and ended up following a completely different road uphill.

After climbing for about 30 minutes, drenched in sweat, I decided I had probably gone the wrong way. By this time, I was way up in the mountains by a stream all on my own, which was, as it happened, a perfect place to stop for food.

I descended then ascended again, this time the right way. Nunobiki Waterfall was fairly impressive, but full of Japanese tourists and a few noisy children. I was not too disappointed I’d gone the wrong way earlier for my lunch.

The other thing that Kobe is known for is the devastating earthquake that struck here in 1995. I can still remember seeing images of the damage on TV in England as a 13-year-old. I witnessed no lingering effects during my visit and the town seemed to have confidently moved on.

Kobe. It was nice enough for a day out, but all in all nothing spectacular.

Wakayama

August 2015

Wakayama Prefecture is not high on the list of many traveller’s itinerary priorities in Japan; the city of Wakayama even less so. I certainly never intended to come, but I left my booking of a place to stay on my return from Taiwan until the last minute and all of the cheap accommodation in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and Himeji was booked out. Thankfully, there was a bed still available in Wakayama, about 40 minutes away from Kansai airport, so I eagerly snapped it up.

A young lady from the city working in Tokyo on her brief summer holiday came to chat to me on the train worried that I might be lost, when I was merely wondering why the train was so slow and kept stopping. Apparently, not many people used the connection any more. The limousine bus would have been much quicker. She told me about her work in Tokyo as an engineer to help stabilise buildings during disasters in surprisingly fluent English. She had worked in Singapore for a few years and was worried that she might be using ‘Singrish’. I couldn’t detect any.

This friendliness extended to the hostel where I stayed.There was a fun-loving bunch of Japanese and foreigners mingling at the big table in the common room when I arrived, many of whom had found themselves in the same predicament as me. The hostel itself was comfortable, albeit fairly basic and a little cramped. After ten, we had to move to the rooftop, so as not to disturb the other guests who were sleeping. It was fairly pleasant up there, but I soon headed on to investigate the surrounding area.

Arriving at night, the atmosphere of the town was reminiscent of Shizuoka. Not too big and not too many tourists, but still with a great hidden set of bars to be discovered for those with a sense of adventure and a smattering of Japanese. People were on their holidays, so most were fairly lively.

After a quick stop in the morning at the castle, whose employees rushed out to douse me with water after climbing up the hill, I continued my journey on to Kobe.

I would have happily stayed longer here. There was a good, relaxed atmosphere, most of the Kansai region attractions were within easy day trip reach and there also seemed to be a good selection of onsen close at hand, which an Australian pilot guest on leave seemed to be ticking off one by one, possibly to let off steam after a harrowing landing in Taiwan during a typhoon.

Himeji

August 2015

There’s pretty much one reason that people come to Himeji and it stands there right before you at the end of a long broad avenue as you exit the train station. On the steamy hot (mushiatsui) summer’s day I came here, the six white storeys of the castle’s main keep set against a backdrop of majestic blue skies and white clouds were simply breathtaking.

On the long train journey back home to Shizuoka afterwards, I kept looking with almost religious reverence at the photographs I had taken. This was a building it was possible to entirely commune with in mind, body and soul. In fact, it was so perfectly conceived it was barely of this world, seeming to exist on another plane entirely, perhaps halfway to heaven. If you only see one castle in Japan (a highly improbable occurrence), make it this one!

As uplifting as the views of Himeji Castle were, the actual sightseeing was more of a hard slog. Visiting during Obon, the impossible number of visitors meant that the whole trip into the castle, up the wooden floors to the small shrine at the top and back down again consisted of one massive queue. The best part of the trip was, in fact, at the very end, when the attendants were no longer urgently ushering you on and it was possible to enjoy the edifice in (relative) peace.

The hostel I stayed at was Himeji 588. It was reasonably priced by Japanese standards (2700 yen) and had free coffee, tea and water, a godsend in hot weather. The beds in the dorm were Japanese style mattresses in small cubby holes one up one down and the showers had free soap and shampoo. There was a bar downstairs and a small area to meet other guests, which I did. The one downside was that guests are asked to leave from 1000 to 1600 for the staff to do cleaning, not so great if you were partying the night before.

For dinner, on the recommendation of the hostel manager, we headed down to an area just northeast of the station where there was a cluster of izakayas in one of the colonnaded shopping arcades. I was joined by some other hostel guests and after being told they were full up in most places (it was Saturday night), we finally went down a random set of stairs and found a great little underground cavern bar. The menu was only in handwritten Japanese, one of the hardest things in the world to decipher, so I just asked the staff if they had this or that and what they recommended (‘osusume’) in Japanese.

We then went looking for another place and came across a Latino bar with a suitably cheesy name, ‘Bar Tropicana’. Drinks were not free. I had a chat in Spanish to the friendly Peruvian owner from Cuzco, who had married a Japanese lady. There weren’t too many people there, but there was one young Japanese guy, who for some unknown reason was keen we took our shirts off. The Swedish fellow I was with happily obliged, despite or perhaps because of his massive girth.

We left as soon as we’d finished our drinks, but the owner said it was his birthday the next day and encouraged us to return. I was sceptical as to whether that was actually true or not, but my holiday had come to an end. It was time to get back to Shizuoka.