Sunday, October 28, 2007

Days #15 and #16 - Homeward bound

Having been beaten by the weather in our quest to see Mount Fuji, we spent our last few hours in Hakone in the toy museum. Lauren whizzed through the museum very quickly, showing little interest until I pointed out the Playstation 2 set up with a port of Galaxians, after which she was, of course, hooked.

We got back to Tokyo without any dramas, and spent the remaining hours of daylight wandering out Shinjuku once more, firstly in search of a kimono for Emily (she rather baulked at the ¥750000 price tags though), secondly in search of an iPod Touch for me (they were all sold out, and I hadn't thought to jot down the address of the local Apple Store), and thirdly somewhere to have coffee (preferably one which offered soy milk). For once, there wasn't a Starbucks on every corner, so after walking around in circles for an hour or so, we settled for Cafe Espresso, whose sign outside looks suspiciously like Starbucks', at least from a distance.

After dinner with our hosts, it was time to pack for our flights back to Australia the next day. The only excitement at Narita was trying to get through security - Emily had the usual problems with liquids in bottles (gotta watch out for that highly dangerous exploding soy milk), and for once I had a problem with my camera tripod; then we just had enough time to spend our remaining yen, before getting on the plane.

This time our stopover in KL was a mere 90 minutes, barely enough time for to find the Starbucks there and to spend the last of our Malaysian currency. I, of course, had to keep away from the many TV sets which would have given the game away as to who won the Chinese Grand Prix.

Monday morning saw us touching down once more in Sydney - with Monica waiting at the airport to pick us up, I was at work in time for our usual 9:30 meeting. It took a while to get over the urge to bow to everyone in sight - I might have gotten looks...

Day #14 - In search of Mount Fuji

How hard can it be to spot a 3778m high volcanic cone? That was the question that plagued us on our journey down to Kyoto and back up from Tokushima. Each time, I would get a seat on the north-facing side of the train and sit with camera in hand; and each time, the clouds would descend, the mist would roll in, and Mount Fuji remained obstinately invisible.

So for our last few days, we thought that we could go to one of the more favoured spots for Fuij-watching, up in the mountains to the west of Tokyo. Hakone is a popular destination for Tokyo's population at the weekends, either because of the views of Fuji, or the large number of hot springs. Most of the hotels have their own private baths fed from these springs, so we thought that it was time for us to strike out on our own and stay in a traditional hotel and experience the pleasures of Japanese bathing.

View from the cab of the Hakone mountain railwayThe Hikari shinkansen, charmingly but inaccurately called the Romance Car, took us from Shinjuku as far as Hakone itself; after a quick stop for lunch (and at the only place that we'd been to which actually gave us miso soup - eating out in Japanese restaurants in Sydney, you get the impression that the Japanese have miso soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day), we hopped on to our next train, which switchbacked its way up the mountains, gaining some 1000m in elevation before dropping us off at Ohiradai, where our hotel was.

Hot springs at Owakudani, seen from the cable carWe dropped off our bags, then hopped back on the train to continue the ride up to Gora, where we changed rides again, getting on to the funicular that runs up to Sounzan, which signals yet another change, this time for a cable car. This then takes you up to Owakudani, where you see the first real indications that you are in hot spring country. You're also supposed to be able to smell the sulphur in the air, but I can't say that it was that noticeable. From here we were also supposed to be able to get our first real view of Mount Fuji, but who would have thought it, Fuji-sama was once more hiding behind the clouds. From Owakudani, the cable car descended a bit to Lake Ashi, and we crossed to the other end on a very kitsch mock pirate ship. If there's a reason for those ships, I'd be interested to know it. With the sun now setting, we continued our quest to use as many forms of transport as possible in one day, and got on the bus back to Hakone, then back on to the mountain train up to Ohiradai and the hotel.

By now we were quite used to sleeping on tatami and futons, but this was the first time that I experienced the low ceilings -when it came to dinner time, I had to stoop continually to avoid braining myself on the roof beams. Fortunately I was able to turn those stoops into polite bows to the other guests, so I didn't look too much like a chicken scratching for corn.

After dinner, it was bathtime. This meant same-sex communal baths, so if you feel embarrassed about being naked in front of strangers, then it's not for you, and you're greatly missing out. As it happened though, I had the male baths at the hotel to myself. The baths themselves are not for washing in - you're supposed to have cleaned up first; instead, you just sit there, enjoying/enduring the heat and whatever company is there. I was worried that I would come out looking like freshly cooked lobster, but actually the water was just about the perfect temperature for me, so I was able to soak in solitude.

After the baths, there was enough time to watch a few incomprehensible Japanese game shows, then off to bed.

Day #13 - House of Mouse

One of the secrets of our success on this holiday was bribery; knowing Lauren's predilection for complaining about the food in front of her, we'd promised her a trip to Disneyland Tokyo before we left, if she managed to avoid sulking through every meal because it wasn't chicken nuggets and chips. Well, Lauren managed to deliver (and we managed to get through the whole holiday without having to go near a McDonalds), so it was time for us to deliver.

IMG_8440We thought that going midweek might save us from the usual crowds; if midweek crowds mean queues of 90 minutes for the Haunted House and Space Mountain, I'd hate to think what they're like at the weekend. There's not too much else to say about Disneyland Tokyo - if you've been to one Disneyland, you've been to them all. So here's a picture of Lauren by the Magic Castle, although the magic was partly spoiled by the scaffolding at the front; and quite why the Japanese have to be subjected to Halloween, I don't know.

Day #12 - Culture vultures


After the hustle and bustle of Asakusa, we reckoned it was time to go somewhere a bit quieter. We had just about had our fill of shrines, palaces, and castles, so instead we headed to Ueno, and the Tokyo National Museum, the Japanese equivalent of the British Museum, for a day's wander around exhibits of artifacts such as ceramics, weaponry, clothes and art from throughout Japanese history.

With Rie and Yoshiko once again playing guide and interpreter, we took a stroll through Ueno park, where Lauren and Emily wasted no time in finding the local stray cat population.

Natural Disaster Evacuation AreaWe did try to get into the local shitamachi museum, for a look at what Tokyo used to look like before earthquake, fire and the US Air Force destroyed most of it. Unfortunately we got there about 5 minutes before they closed, so they waved us in for a whirlwind wander round, before they politely ushered us out again.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Day #11 - Shinjuku and Asasuka

Our first full day in Tokyo began with an initiation into the ways of the public transport system. Packing in with the last of the morning's commuters, we headed out to Shinjuku to meet up with our friend Noriko, who was in Sydney a few months ago. We caught up over coffee and a bit of shopping, then met up with Rie and Yoshiko for lunch, having our first real experience of okonomiykai, Japanese-style pancakes.

Honzonmon gate outside SensojiAfter lunch, it was back on the trains to Asasuka and the Buddhist shrine of Sensoji, one of the more touristy of Tokyo's sights. The between the outer gate, Kaminarimon, and the main gate, Hozonmon, is packed with stalls set up for tourists, selling fans and sweets and kimonos and ninja suits. Yes, apparently all girls want kimonos and all boys want ninja suits. I'm glad we have a girl...

Local ladies dolled up for a night on the townAs night fell, the crowds of tourists started to make way for the locals. This group of ladies came out of this shop just as we were passing - one quick introduction and request from Rie later, and they were happily lining up for me. My favourite has to be the lady in black, third from left - notice that while the others were all wearing traditional tabi and clogs, she was wearing bubblegum pink Converse boots...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Day #10 - Tokyo once more

Monday saw us back on the shinkansen again, heading for Tokyo. Lauren managed to bring a few souvenirs with her, in the form of a dozen or more mosquito bites. Emily and I obviously don't taste as good to the ka palate, as we got away with one or two apiece; and they're vicious-looking so-and-sos.

We managed to get to Tokyo just in time for the rush hour, so we got a good opportunity to enjoy sitting in traffic, and a brief view of the bright lights of Shinjuku.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Day #9 - Getting on down

As with KL, we spent the Sunday morning with the church at the Lord's Table meeting. Lunch afterwards was a question mainly of eating things which we could not identify, fortunately with fairly pleasant results. We then broke out the guitar for a cross-cultural jam session - fortunately, the Japanese can read English a whole lot better than we can read Japanese.

After lunch and the obligatory photo-call, we wandered round the local zoo, which was rather small, with a number of rather morose inhabitants, of which the reindeer looked the least happy with his plight. A monkey. And a squirrel monkey.The most interesting section was the monkey house, where we were let right into the home of the squirrel monkeys. They obviously relished the attention, especially from the smaller kids.


Dinner was at the local sushi train, where Lauren let the side down by asking for sausages and chips (which were actually on the menu, although the sausages were served sushi style, fortunately cooked). We finished the day by going to a display of Awa Odori, the local traditional dance style. Awa Odori There's a big festival at the end of August, with dancing in the streets, but these sessions allow the various teams to practice in between. The girls in particular get the hard part, as they wear the traditional wooden clogs, complete with inch-high wooden blocks, while the guys get a form of tabi. After the main display, it was time for a little audience participation, with the best dancers being given small awards. Emily was one of the lucky recipients.

Day #8 - One big fish

IMG_8015 Our morning in Osaka was spent at the aquarium, which is mainly known for its biggest occupant, a rather young whale shark. Currently 4m long, when fully grown it will be 12m long. Do these things make good sushi? Its fellow inmates include a variety of marine creatures from around the Pacific Rim, including sea otters from the Aleutians and dolphins from the Cook Straight.

After lunch, we were picked up and driven through Kobe and down to Tokushima in Shikoku, just across the water from Honshu. We already knew the family we were staying with, as they stayed with us in Sydney when their daughter Ai got married earlier this year (the other two daughters, Nozomi and Rie, acted as guides/interpreters for us in Tokushima and Tokyo respectively - we would have been very lost without them!)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Day #6 - Palaces and castles

IMG_7767After two days of traipsing round shrines, it was probably about time we visited something more down to earth. First up was the Kyoto Gosho, the imperial palace. It's been burnt to the ground a fair few times, and moved around, in its history; and of course, the emperor now resides in Tokyo, so it's only really used for ceremonial occasions. This was also a guided tour, but at least this time, the guide was able to interject the occasional English explanation, although I dare say I missed a fair amount as I was often lagging behind the group, waiting for all the other tourists to move out of my camera frame!

IMG_7885Nijo-jo, built by shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at the beginning of the 17th Century, was a different kettle of fish. Here, we were able to rent an audio guide, particularly for the interior of the palace. Sadly, no photos permitted in there, but the grounds were fair game. Once again, Japan's long history with fire meant that the main donjon of the castle, which had been relocated from nearby Fujimi castle, burned to the ground in the 18th Century, but at least the major fortifications were a little more longlasting. One of the highlights of the shogun's palace is the Nightingale Floor, which through ingenious springing and balancing, makes it impossible to sneak or walk down the passageways without being pursued by a cacophony of squeaks and whistles.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Day #5 - Lost in Translation

With our hosts having to go to work for the day, we were left to our own devices, which mainly consisted of a guided bus tour of Kyoto. Due to the toilets at the bus station being located almost half a block away, we missed our scheduled bus by about a minute (curse that Japanese punctuality!), so with a cry of, "Follow that bus!", we grabbed a taxi and attempted to get to the first stop on the itinerary ahead of the bus. We were rather mindful of horror stories of how much Tokyo cabs cost, but fortunately our man came through, and we pulled up at the first shrine just as our fellow tourists were disembarking.

One thing that became immediately obvious was that we were the only foreigners on the tour, and also that no-one else spoke Japanese, the guide included. In some cases, this even included the various guide pamphlets, so there are some places that we have been to that we have absolutely no idea what their significance is.

The rear of Heian-jingu shrine Heian-jingu was the first stop along the route, built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the Kyoto. The buildings are reduced-size replicas of the Heian-period Imperial palace; the garden is also very photogenic, so we had a slightly-hurried wander around, not wanting to miss the bus onwards.

Our next stop was Togetsukyo Bridge. Unfortunately, the language barrier meant that we had no idea what we were looking at, or why we were looking at it! This also meant that I didn't take any photos of it, since at this time of year it's just a bridge. Later on we Googled it to work out what we missed - apparently it's good for viewing the cherry blossom in spring and the autumn leaves in, um, autumn - shame we missed both! On the plus side, we did get to eat unagi, although again we had no idea what it was at the time.

The Golden Temple earns its nameAfter lunch, we headed for probably the most visually spectacular shrine, at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple. This is a 20th century reconstruction of the the 14th century original (a rather obsessed monk burned it down in 1950), and the gold leaf now covers the first floor as well as the second. The gardens were equally impressive, with a few more signs of trees turning colour with the autumn.

Kimonoed ladies on their way to somewhereKiyomizu-dera required a bit more hard work to reach, climbing up the hillside along a street lined with touristy-type shops. It was obviously a favourite destination for school trips, as there were several busloads of uniformed children, many of them tying prayers to the prayer fences. There were also a good number of women wearing kimonos about. Feeling a bit worn out from all the hard slogging, we sat down for some mat-cha, the formal whisked green tea, along with some sticky sweet rice balls filled with red bean paste, then back down the hill and on to our bus to return home.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Day #4 - Narita to Kyoto

Shinkansen at Maibara station The run down from Narita to Kyoto, our first real port of call, was pretty fast and smooth, thanks to the combination of a Japan Rail pass and the shinkansen. A bus from the hotel back to the airport got us on to the express service to Tokyo, then a short walk got us on the shinkansen for Kyoto. Japan definitely seems to have got trains sorted out, something which both London and Sydney desperately need to do. The inter-city service in Australia looks like a train set in comparison.

View from the window of the shinkansen The view along the way was fascinating, albeit rather blurred. It seems like almost every almost flat piece is terraced and farmed, even small areas a couple of meters across will have rows of rice planted in them. Sadly, a view of Mount Fuji was not on the cards, staying hidden behind the low-lying clouds.

Ginkaku-ji templeOur hosts in Kyoto picked us up from the station; we went back to their home in the west of Kyoto, and dumped our bags, then headed in search of Ginkaku-ji, the closest of Kyoto's major temples.  Our timing was rather good, as we got there in the late afternoon, with the setting sun adding a golden hue to the scene. I'd rather been hoping that autumn had set in a little more, so that we could see the beautiful colours of autumn in the maples, but summer appears to have been quite warm, so only the first few leaves are starting to turn. Quite why New South Wales's schools can't have their spring holiday to coincide with Japan's autumn better, I don't know...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Day #3 - Babies

Many congratulations to Cheryl back in England who had a baby girl last night in what has to be one of the fastest unassisted deliveries that we've heard of.

Meanwhile, it's still dark in KL, and we're off to the airport. Hope I can find a few wireless access point or two...

Day #2 - KL once more

Lauren having lunch with some new-found friends We spent Sunday morning in KL doing what we do every Sunday morning in Sydney, at the Lord's Table meeting. In fact, since the meeting was spoken 50% Chinese and 50% English, it was very much like Sydney, although with a little less Korean. We felt very much at home, and the brothers and sisters were very warm and open. Lauren, of course, fitted right in, happy to meet new friends, even if she was the only one without black hair and brown oval eyes!

The Eye of Malaysia, with the Petronas Towers in the distance After a typical Malaysian lunch, one of the brothers took us for a quick drive round part of KL, starting with the Eye of Malaysia, a rather poor relation to the London Eye, built on the shores of Lake Titiwangsa as part of Malaysia's celebrations of their 50th year of indepedence. The weather was once again very hot and sticky, which made for rather poor photographic conditions, but it also meant there wasn't much wind, which makes for good reflections!

Lauren wonders why butterflies like to nibble her finger

Next stop was Lauren's choice - presented with the options of aviary, planetarium or butterfly park, she went with the butterflies. At first, the butterflies showed remarkable sense and kept their distance, but it didn't take long before they were landing on her hands, arms and clothes - I don't know, maybe she does wash in ambrosia... Even the chamber of horrors, which contained the sort of spiders that would send Australia's biggest and hairiest running for mummy, was a success, no mean feat when both Emily and Lauren loathe nearly all forms of the six- and eight-legged varieties of God's creation.

We wrapped up the day with a return to the Petronas Towers, this time in daylight, for a few more photos and dinner, then back to the hotel for an early night, as tomorrow's start is going to be an early one.

Malaysia/Japan Holiday 2007, Day #1

Here we are in Kuala Lumpur, on the first day of our two week holiday. We stopped off here for a number of reasons: firstly, to visit old friends from our university days; secondly, to visit the church in KL; thirdly, we've never been there before; and fourthly, because it breaks up the lengthy flight to Japan, our ultimate destination. We took the overnight flight from Sydney to KL, which got us in before dawn; then a taxi to our hotel, and then straight to bed (definitely the ultimate remedy for upset body clocks). Up again for lunch, we met up with Penny and Oliver, and headed out in search for food and somewhere to chat. The searing heat and wilting humidity outside meant that we'd be spending the rest of the day in air-conditioned shopping malls or by the pool at the hotel, so there's not too much by way of touristy photos of KL. However, we did go out for dinner at the rather trendy Traders Hotel, which is directly opposite the Petronas Towers. We were rather outnumbered by the local Muslim population breaking their Ramadan fasts, but the food was excellent; a small shame that the rather snooty staff at the club on the observation deck upstairs wouldn't let us in because some of us were wearing open-toed sandals... By this time, Lauren was about to collapse with exhaustion (and had passed into her grouchy phase), so back to the hotel and drinkies in the lounge downstairs, while being serenaded with some live music - a rather eclectic mix of local Chinese pop favourites, Boney M medleys and ABBA. We might as well have gone to the karaoke bar across the way.