Sayōnara, Nihon

That was a very enjoyable five weeks in Japan. We’re now on our way to the next exciting destination: Fiji. I’m writing this at Narita Airport, Tokyo, before we hand in the Pocket Wifi. Then, we’ll be offline, set adrift, out of touch with the outside world.

Our last full day in Naha entailed a spot of shopping, first at the local arts and crafts shop and later at a more conventional shopping arcade. We could have spent far longer here in Naha, in wider Okinawa even, but I think we agree, it’s been a nice relaxing final week in Japan. Liesel knows how to plan a trip, thanks!

Selfie of the day in front of the chip shop

Liesel enjoyed a bag of cheesey chips at a shop devoted to potato chips, but not as we know them, Jim: there was a tomato flavouring too.

We passed a Monkey Bar with Monkey Girls inside but didn’t go in. There are, apparently, spider monkeys to play with while you eat your meal. Somehow, we’ve managed to avoid dining with and/or petting monkeys, dogs, cats, hedgehogs, owls, and otters since we’ve been here, and we’re not too sure about the place with dead snakes outside in jars, either.

Sadly, not girls in monkey suits

We went up to the roof garden of the shopping arcade which was ok, apart from, this was where the smokers gravitate. There were instructions on how to become a smoker, what skills are involved, and a bin for the dog ends.

Holy smoke!
Best view from the roof garden, Naha

We had a meal, a Japanese one, and again, it was disappointing. I showed the lady my crib sheet saying, “I’m a veggie, no meat, no fish”, she appeared to understand, but my noodles were still polluted by meat. I thought the dish smelt meaty but Liesel convinced me that it was just strong cabbage.

On the other hand, here in Narita Airport, we’ve just had a lovely vegan meal, Japanese in style, but no animal products.

Many restaurants display their offerings in the window, the plastic food often looks quite realistic.

Plastic food

Usually in restaurants, Liesel and I sit opposite each other. We’ll be given one copy of the menu to share, so we both read it sideways. It’s great that often, we are given an English version: I can’t imagine English restaurants going to the trouble of producing separate, say, Japanese menus. Some staff have a basic grasp of English, certainly superior to our Japanese, but not all: maybe 50-50.

If it weren’t for the fact that most food here is fish or meat based, I’m sure we would have eaten in Japanese restaurants more often. But even a basic meals such as pasta, mozzarella and tomato sauce came with free lumps of bacon in it. And, not that I am an expert on pig meat, not very nice looking bacon either, mostly fat, maybe 25% actual meat.

Usually the bill is left on your table when the meal is delivered. If you order dessert or coffee, you receive a second bill. It’s all added up at the till on the way out. I wonder how often the second bill is ‘forgotten’?

One thing we like is that tipping does not take place. Top service is given all the time, it’s what they’re paid for. If you try to tip, for exceptional service, the implication is that they usually don’t give such good service, and that is considered insulting.

Sometimes, it’s quite a long wait before you’re served and then another long time before the meal arrives. But so what? Just because we expect instant service at home doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn to be more relaxed and patient here. Equally, we don’t get pestered to vacate the premises as soon as we’ve finished the last mouthful to make room for the next customers.

The streets of Naha are very narrow, not wide enough for pavements in some cases. Not even wide enough to paint a white line to separate pedestrians from vehicles!

Narrow street in Naha at night

And so to bed for our final time in Japan. We videoed a bedtime story for Martha and William and proceeded to have a restless night.

I’d lightened my bag by throwing away all the unnecessary paperwork, but it was still hard to zip up. Again. Our host had requested that we leave our bag of rubbish by the door of the flat below. I hope this was a mutual arrangement, and that we haven’t inadvertently contributed to generations of conflict and strife between two rival families.

Today is the day of the annual Naha Marathon. This is Japan’s biggest with about 30,000 runners coping with 25°C at 9am! We wished them all good luck as we set off on our own, easier marathon.

Early leaders in the Marathon

They were supported by Darth Vader and some Startroopers which seemed strangely appropriate. One thing we’ve noticed in Japan is that, if there are marshals telling you where to walk to avoid roadworks, or where to park in a car park, they’ll often be using sticks that light up. I don’t know if they’re, strictly speaking, ‘light sabres’ but I bet they have a good time when they return to base!

Stormtroopers
A man with his light sabre

At Naha Airport, there is a moving walkway, a travellator, that confuses some people. Well, me. If there’s nobody on it, you can’t tell whether it’s moving or not, because it’s not split into individual segments, it’s just one very big rubber band. That’s a tip for you: beware joke travellators.

Is it moving? Can you tell?

It was good to see that the Marathon was being covered on TV, but during the few minutes I watched at the airport, I didn’t see any non-Japanese runners. Mo Farah may have been here, but I didn’t see him.

The plane was half an hour late taking off due to excess traffic at the airport. That’ll be all the buses taking passengers to the aircraft from the departure gates, then! I boarded before Liesel because I had the window seat and window seat passengers board first, here, today. Always different.

One of Okinawa’s 363 islands

Two hours or so later, we landed here at Narita. I was hoping we’d fly over Tokyo, or at least see it and of course, I was hoping to see Mount Fuji one more time. But in the end, the approach to Narita was pretty good to look at.

Looking good, approaching Narita
Tee time

We posted some items at the post office and then left our big bags in the coin lockers while we ate our late lunch. Coin lockers have been a very useful facility at airports and railway stations, for leaving heavy bags while we explore. Well worth the money, so it’s worth keeping some loose change when you’re in Japan. Somehow, we acquired some Chinese and some American coins in our change. I think these must have been given in change from a vending machine, grrr, I’m pretty sure people in shops wouldn’t give us the wrong coins like that.

We’ve found the public transport systems here in Japan to be fantastic: yes, we’ve made a couple of mistakes and been frustrated by not understanding the system fully, but the service itself has been terrific. Trains, Shinkansen, buses, Yui monorail, ferries, even internal flights have all been a positive experience.

The trains run on time. They employ people at railway stations to adjust the clocks according to when the trains arrive. No, not really, but they could. We’ve only encountered a couple of delays, and one of them was due to an accident. The signage is is several languages, including English, which is good for us: but without that, maybe we would have been more diligent in trying to learn some of the language, written at least.

One thing we did have a problem with was that if you’re going to a particular destination, you really need to know the final stop for that train, because that’s the name you look out for. In some places, there is a rapid service, a semi-rapid service and a local service, one which stops at every station. So you also need to check that you’re on the correct type of train.

Platforms are marked out to show where the train doors will be. If you have reserved seats on car 3, you know exactly where to stand. On the Yui Rail system, there are footprints painted on the platform to show you where to stand while waiting, and which way to face. If you follow the instructions literally, you would bounce onto the train à la kangaroo.

Don’t trap your claws in the doors!

The buses like their announcements. So much so that occasionally, you hear two voices at the same time, one man, one woman. It’s like the worst possible radio breakfast show combo, except we can’t understand what either of them is saying and the lady isn’t cackling at the bloke’s hilarity. Sometimes, the battery runs down, and it sounds like a dalek is talking to you.

The best announcement was on the long bus ride to Emerald Beach. It starts out with birdsong, turns into music and then the lady tells you what the next stop will be. I tried to record this but, you know, sod’s law, after more than five minutes, she just lurched straight into her vocals without the birdsong preamble. Very disappointing.

Travelling on buses with backpacks on our backs was an experience not to be repeated if we can avoid it. On airport shuttles, it’s probably accepted, but I dread to think how many elderly Japanese ladies I’ve backpacked off a bus merely by turning round. Actually, I find it hard to wear a backpack in the first place. Some muscle in my neck really doesn’t like being stretched in that way.

At Kagoshima and Naha airports, for domestic flights, the check-in baggage is screened before you see it disappear behind the scenes. So, if there is an issue, you can discuss it with an officer at the time. You don’t see your bag disappear on the conveyor belt only to have it searched by a sweaty TSA officer who won’t repack it correctly. What a great idea. So it will never be adopted by ‘wastern’ airports.

It was good to see signs assuring us that the X-rays won’t damage camera film up to ISO 1600. Those were the days, when you had to worry about X-rays fogging up your film and messing up your photos.

Most of the country is very clean, not much litter despite the shortage of rubbish bins in many places. Sadly, on Okinawa island, we saw more litter than anywhere else. We also encountered our first lump of discarded dog shit. Very close to a children’s playground. Very sad to see, but I can live with one disgusting, antisocial dog owner every five weeks, rather than the dozens we encounter each day at home.

In Tokyo, most of the vending machines had litter bins close by. You’re supposed to consume your product straightaway and discard the packaging. Or, take it away completely. Eating and drinking while walking along is frowned upon and very rarely seen, probably just us foreigners, out of habit.

Walking along the pavements, or sidewalks, is very usually very pleasant. Smoking is prohibited while walking, and you’re unlucky if you pass too close to a designated smoking area. I remember the first discarded cigarette butt I saw at a train station a couple of weeks ago. In Tokyo, the rule was to keep left, but that’s not universal. You share pavements with cyclists and nobody’s bothered. Except when a teenage boy comes hurtling at you out of the blue – but this only happened once.

It is sad to see so many American shops here: McDonalds, Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Hard Rock Café, useful though they sometimes are, and a lot of American and European fashion shops. Which is strange, because Japanese clothing is so much more elegant than ours. Maybe it’s just the novelty. But we’ve seen very few locals who we would describe as scruffy. Liesel has more of an eye for that sort of thing than I do, but she hasn’t really mentioned scruffy dressers. Some people’s shoes are funny though. The sumo wrestler with his platforms. Actual platforms, like little wooden pallets.

She’s got diamonds on the tops of her shoes

Some behaviours that I thought were just British turn out to be more universal. Like standing around and chatting in doorways. Like getting off a moving escalator and stopping dead to decide where to go next. Like not walking in a straight line along the pavement. Girls especially do like taking pictures of each other and there are some facial expressions that have caught on here too, duck lip pouts (not sure of the technical term), V-fingers at various angles. It seems that using a mobile phone renders the user unable to walk in a straight line, even though there’s a nice wide yellow stripe on the pavement to follow. And sad to say that even here, it’s mostly little old ladies who queue for ages in a supermarket, wait for everything to be scanned, see the bill and then, and only then, start fishing in the depths of their bags for the money.

Kawaii, the idea of Japanes cuteness, is adorable. Usually. Little 3-year olds being blessed look really cute in their grown-up outfits. Grown-up ladies look fabulous in their kimonos. Some of the cartoon characters can only be described as cute with those big old Asian eyes. Pastel colours will always remind us of our childhoods. But sometimes, just sometimes, it goes too far. At one place, we had a very nice kettle. It was half white and half pastel pink. The shape was very curvy. Very cute, But the spout was wrong. A proper spout points away from the kettle so that it pours without dribbling. To give a more aerodynamic, cute shape, the spout of this kettle bent inwards towards the top. So, you had to tilt it further than normal to pour water out, and then, when you put it upright again, it dribbled. Water dribbling? That’s not really a problem in someone else’s house, you might be thinking. But this is boiling water, remember and it’s dribbling down my leg. Looks cute, but zero points for usefulness.

Airbnb places here are a bit hit and miss. They’re great for a few days but not for a longer period. Imagine a kitchen without running hot water, or without a draining board, or without a work surface, or without cooking utensils or cutlery. We’ve had all those. Imagine a toilet with a seat that wants to toast your derrière rather than just warm it up a bit. Or a small useless bathtub. We’ve had those. Places with little to no storage, no seats to sit on, no tables or shelves to put stuff on. We’ve been there. But I think everyone has had a TV set. Everyone has had an air con/heating sytem, which we’re just getting used to being able to control after several weeks, as the controls only have Japanese text on the buttons.

Hotel rooms are smaller here than anywhere else we’ve been. I think every hotel bed has had one side right against the wall. Again, very little space to spread out, no wardrobe, no worktop, no chairs.

Toilets in Japan, well, I’ve written about them before. And yes, the second-worst ever invention (after car alarms) is the little ‘lid’ they have above the toilet roll. What’s it there for? The paper is perforated so you don’t need a straight edge to tear it against. (Yes, the perforations aren’t that good sometimes, so you get most of the sheet but then a long trail of thin toilet paper is left behind.) It just gets in the way when you can’t immediately see the edge, so you have to lift the lid, roll the roll around and around until you find the edge again. All this while you’re sitting there, business complete, trying to be quiet because the door between you and the person in the next room is very thin and might even have a grill in the bottom half. And as for all those controls, bidet, front wash, back wash, harder, softer, heated seat, hotter, cooler, auto flush or not, all that technology built in to a toilet that’s squeezed into the smallest possible space. We’ve made notes on what we need should we ever remodel our bathroom now we have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

And so here we are, waiting for our flight to appear on the board so we can retrieve our luggage, check in and then look forward to an eight-hour flight, overnight. We’ll reconnect with a Fijian pocket wifi device as soon as we can.

Over and out, for now.

To Takatsuki

Our time in Tokyo is over. That went fast. We saw about 0.01% of what was on offer, including some of what we’d planned to see. But after more than 40 years, there is still a lot of London for us to see, so what chance did Tokyo have?

We packed, ate most of the rest of our food for breakfast and left a few bits in the fridge for the next people. Our final walk back to Yamagome station with full bags this morning was hot and sticky.

This shopkeeper hasn’t quite got the hang of the 24-hour clock

Thank goodness we chose to travel light! But everything is relative, and we could both do with travelling lighter, that’s for sure.

Interestingly, we noticed that on the stairs to the platform, we were supposed to ‘keep right’. The ‘keep left’ ‘rule’ doesn’t even apply to the whole of the railway system never mind the whole of Tokyo or the country in its entirety.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, our lovely Martha and William were enjoying preparations for Halloween. Thanks for sending the pictures so we can stave off homesickness!

Martha and William being spooky
Martha (behind) and pumpkin (front)

The main task today was to validate our JR (Japan Rail) Rail Passes. The assistant was very helpful and very thorough, but what a palaver. We had vouchers and expected to be given real Passes. We didn’t anticipate that so many pieces of paper would have to be printed, annotated, highlighted, dated, stamped, signed, stapled, filed and when she started processing a Filipino’s form with my passport, I think I was quite justified in becoming a little worried. But, being British, I kept my mouth shut, of course.

Our Passes were subsequently stamped, that is to say validated, by the first ticket inspector we saw. We can’t use the automatic barriers, we have to show our Passes to a real person each time, in and out of a station.

The first, crowded, train took us to Tokyo Station. We then reserved seats for the second train, as this would be a three hour long ride on the Shinkansen service, the world-famous Japanese Bullet Train.

Our train arriving at Tokyo station

The seats are in groups of 3 and 2 separated by the wide aisle. There is plenty of legroom too.

Inside a bullet train carriage
Scrambled eggs, oh my darling, you’ve got lovely legs*

The ride was smooth and very comfortable. The highest speed we saw on my little phone app was 280 kph, about 175 mph.

Google Maps plus Speedometer

I think we were hoping to see more countryside once we left the metropolis of Tokyo, but the whole country seems to be pretty built-up. In some places, I had to look away from the window as the flickering of the fast passing buildings was making me feel a bit ooky.

We were hoping to see Mount Fuji, of course, but the train passed through a long sequence of long tunnels. The lady sitting behind pointed out Fuji, now way behind us, and while it was exciting to see it at last, in the flesh, it was too far away and I was too slow to take a picture. So, I had to make do with a photo of an advert at the next station!

(A poster of) Mount Fuji

We saw the sea for a a brief moment and eventually, we did see some actual rural scenery.

Fields whizzing by at over 100mph
Hills near Yasu
The sea at Atami-shi

In the station earlier, I’d used another app to translate the labels on some of the snacks in the shops. For some reason, the English translation was displayed upside down. And of course, the phone is so smart, when you turn it round, it turns the image round too, so it’s still upside down. But we were glad to have snacks, as the on-train service was hard to pin down. At least two crew members pushed a trolley through the carriage, but so fast, it was impossible for us to flag them down. What was cute though was that every member of the crew who passed through the carriage turned round and bowed before they left.

As we approached Kyoto, the densely built cityscape became more dominant again. Amongst the ordinary structures, we saw the beauty of an old shrine standing proud.

A shrine near Kyoto

The train was quiet and peaceful. There was nobody shouting the odds on their phone, nobody playing loud music through inadequate earphones, it was all very civilised. In fact, it’s normal here to turn your mobile devices to silent, and not to use them as phones while on board. So imagine how mortified I was when my Google Maps app started telling me where to go while we were on the train. It’s not like I was driving and had any control over where we went. Some apps are just a bit too up themselves.

Three hours on a bullet train and we duly arrived at Shin-Osaka station.

Shinkansen at Shin-Osaka
Escalator does a whoopsie

The escalator thinks it’s a staircase. It goes down for a bit, then it levels off and then it goes down again, as if it has to pause for breath halfway down. (Or, indeed, up.)

In the stations, and outside, we noticed that many people were dressed for temperatures far colder than we were experiencing. Did they know something we didn’t? I’m still in t-shirt and shorts and I feel fine. Liesel feels cold well before I do, so her cardigan was on and off almost as fast as a pulsar.

The third train ride of the day was only about 20 minutes duration. We went back from Osaka towards Kyoto, as the new Airbnb is halfway between the two cities.

At Settsu-Tonda station, we were met by our host for the week, Masako. She actually gave us a lift in her little car to our accommodation and of course, on this occasion, we hadn’t had time to buy flowers to thank her for the lift! Oh well.

Our pink Airbnb home for a week

The house was easy to find from the station and it is pink: it reminded me of our old house in Peterborough. Masako showed us round: we had the choice of downstairs or upstairs. We went upstairs as it seemed more private. Plus, we’d be further away from any karaoke activity taking place next door.

We have much more space here too: it’s good to be able to sit and relax on a sofa. There’s a decent kitchen with cooking paraphernalia. The cutlery drawer is mostly full of chopsticks, but I’m sure we’ll get by.

We had a quick walk back up the road to the convenience shop, 7-Eleven. Not convenient enough to sell fruit and veg, though. So I walked further along to a greengrocer where I was able to procure apples, bananas and grapes. No tomatoes, though. And yes, I did ask for English tomartoes and for American tomaytoes.

Our evening entertainment was the start of a sequence of Slow Sunday programmes from last Sunday on BBC 6 Music. Cerys Matthews, Russell Crowe and Guy Garvey all played some fantasic, relaxing music.

Our beds are components from an old bunk bed, so it’s quite hard to get out of them with sides higher than the mattress thickness. At least we won’t fall out. And we won’t be struggling to get up from the floor, either! We’re here for a week, hooray!

* Scrambled eggs, oh my darling, you’ve got lovely legs… apparently these are the original lyrics to Paul McCartney’s song, Yesterday. No prizes for finding another Beatles song title here somewhere.

Wandering around Bunkyō

After two days walking pretty much solely on concrete, we thought we’d do something different today.

We went for a walk, but we kept to the area close to our Airbnb. It has the feel of a village about it, you wouldn’t really know you’re in Tokyo.

Rikugien Gardens has manmade hills and a manmade pond. We walked around the park slowly, making us of the many benches on offer. We passed the tea house, resisting the temptation to have matcho tea.

Weeping cherry tree

The weeping cherry tree would of course have been prettier earlier in the year. The large American commented ‘oh shoot, this is like being outside’, purely because the toilet had no door and no windows.

Bridge over the pond
Constant reminder that there’s a city outside the park

Komo-maki is the fine art of putting straw belts around trees to catch and remove harmful insects, as they climb down looking for a warm place to stay for the Winter. Even these purely practical items are turned into works of art.

Straw belt – the original debugging tool?

This hut is about 150 years old and it unusual structure includes pillars and beams made from rhododendron wood. You could almost imagine kicking the central pillar over, it looks so fragile, yet it’s obviously doing a great job.

This hut is more robust than it looks

While we’re pleased we got away from Anchorage just in time (it is now snowing there!), we do miss the Autumn colours. Tokyo hasn’t quite got that far yet, so when you see a red tree, you know it’s special.

Autumn colours

There were, of course, plenty of fish in the pond, many of them hanging out by the bridges, presumably waiting to be fed. But it was a delight to see a couple of turtles in the water and one sunbathing. I hope he was sunbathing and not just starnded on the rock because I would feel terrible about not having helped him back in to the water.

A fish out of water, well, not a fish
Fishes and turtles

We thought about walking around these gardens again but instead, decided to move on to the next one.

On the way, we stopped for a coffee and, as with most cafés and restaurants, there was a box underneath the seat in which to place our bags.

Liesel’s pumpkin latté

Some of the roads in this area aren’t wide enough to accommodate pavements, but those that do, just like in Shinjuku, have a tactile strip, presumably for visually impaired people. Follow the yellow brick road and you will be taken straight to the pedestrian crossing or another hazard.

The yellowbrick road

In Kyū-Furukawa Gardens, we walked on more large boulders, some gravel, up and down steps, much better for Liesel especially than all that flat concrete.

The birds here were quite a bit louder and there were no ravens to drown them out.

Birdseye view of the rose garden

As we crossed one bridge, there was a splash in the water. No, not one of us, probably just another koi hoping for a hand-out from a human. Being later in the day, there were many more people here, and passing them on some of the steps was quite challenging The ‘keep left’ rule didn’t always work.

Autumnal reflections

It was here in the shade that I did some typing. No distractions other than the birds, some clanging over there where some construction was taking place, the sight of elderly couples and of young couples enjoying their time together. (I typed too soon. The raven is over there, cawing louder than a Deep Purple concert.)

Here is a 15-stone pagoda, but I think it weighs a lot more than fifteen stone.

A fifteen stone pagoda, count ’em

This English looking house was designed by and English architect, and even though we’ve only been in Japan for a week, we felt it looked out of place. It’s funny how quickly different things, sights, buildings become the norm.

A house in the English style

Even the rose garden could have been plucked from Hampton Court – apart from the Japanese text on the identity cards.

Roses

Number plate of the day, possibly the first car ever manufactured.

Number 1 car

So far, we’ve avoided all Japanese TV, apart from a dodgy game show they had on the flight into Tokyo. But we had a treat in store. The evening entertainment back at our b&b was provided by David Bowie. His 2000 Glastonbury performance was broadcast last week on BBC4 last week and Jenny and Liam recorded it and sent it to us! I could have waited until we returned home, but thanks for sending it!

Number 1 rock star

If you’re having problems with image sizes, sorry, you’re not alone, we’ve been having problems with the WordPress app: it’s been crashing a lot, lately and it doesn’t always accept our changes to images, so some pictures will appear huuuge while others may seem way too small. We can only view the blog on our phones right now, so we have to hope for the best, to a certain extent. Here ends the public service announcement.


Disneytime

So you’re thinking, ‘Disneyland, really, you went all the way to Japan to go to Disneyland, and you dragged your poor husband with you? Why, when there is all of Japan to see?’

Well we just couldn’t come here and not go, we’ve been to all the other Disney parks. I am a Disney fan. I love: rides, shows, characters, wearing Mickey ears, eating frozen chocolate covered bananas, et cetera. Luckily for me, Mick happily came, I think on the basis that he knew he would get coffee, ‘steps’ in without prodding me along, and ample toilet facilities.

Inspired design for Disney Train hangers and windows
So excited

Seriously though, we did have one tough decision to make; Disneyland or DisneySea! What would you do if you could only do one? Go with what’s comfortable or something new? We chose DisneySea, and it was great. Favourite attractions were Turtle Talk, Nemo & Friends SeaRider, and Mermaid/Tritons theatre. They were all in Japanese; we didn’t have a clue what was said but it was all kawaii, too cute for words. There were rides that we didn’t make it on, as the queues were over two hours long, or we weren’t sure our backs would survive. Instead we took rides which we wouldn’t have done ten years ago, like Jumpin Jellyfish and Jasmine’s Flying Carpets.

A fairly gentle roller-coaster
Liesel and Mick in front of the Jellyfish ride

Halloween: Disney has a policy that you can come dressed for Halloween but only as Disney characters, and they must be wholesome, no altering your costume to get your boobies and bootie out there. The Japanese took this to heart and we have never seen so many princesses, chipmunks, Donalds and villains in one place. Smiles plastered all over our faces just watching strangers all day. However, I must say, going to the extreme of putting coloured contact lenses in was just creepy, but then it was Halloween.

Very cute
Not often seen together: Jack Sparrow and Snow White (not sure about the guy between them)
Very cute princesses

In the end we walked over eight miles and stood in queues for at least three hours. We ate our way through the park: chips, dumplings, Indian curry, ice cream, tiramisu cake and coffee (not all at the same time, frozen bananas must just be just an American thing). We were exhausted by the time Mickey showed up for Fantasmic and fireworks and found it difficult shopping at the end, but you’ll be pleased to know, we did survive, it was a bloody brilliant day.

Liesel’s green dumplings
Fantasmic!
Mount Fuji (well…)

Bunkyo

Lazy Sunday afternoon. Hah, not really. Today was the day we moved out of top class hotel accommodation and on to where we’ll be for most of the time from now on: much cheaper Airbnbs.

We took advantage of the laundry facilities at the hotel, conventiently located next door to the smoking room, so that we could move on with a full bag of clean clobber.

The laundry cycle was quite long, so we partook of the hotel breakfast, a buffet, in which we only made two trips to the counter. I went out one last time to say hello to Godzilla, he said something nasty and I said, ‘alright, no need to snap my head off’.

Mick (front) and Godzilla (behind)

Packing was as usual, a bit of a struggle. There’s always that last thing that won’t go in. (Well, why don’t you put that thing in first? suggested my subconscious.)

We took a train from Shinjuku Station north-east to Bunkyo. The host’s name is Hideyoshi but it was her mother who met us at Komagome Station. While waiting for her to turn up, I went for a wander and bought some flowers to say thanks for the lift. Only there was no lift. We walked to the house along a narrow street, nowhere near as busy as Shinjuku. Mother (whose name I’m embarrassed to say, we don’t know) invited us out to lunch. We had half-made plans, but this was an opportunity to speak with a local for a while. She took us back on the train to a wonderful Buddhist, therefore vegetarian, restaurant, Saishokukenbi.

Saishokukenbi – five stars
A very happy and satisfied Buddha

Who wants to see an elephant made from balloons?

Welcome to Takeshita Street

There was one at the top of Takeshita Street which our new friend had recommended we visit. What a busy street: we thought we’d never make our way through the crowds, but somehow we made it. Lots of people dressed in, let’s say, unorthodoix clothing! They’re very fond of their cosplay around here and of course, inspiration from animé characters is very popular.

Lots of people here
Happy to pose for us
The shoes, though
Hairy little ones
Even the candyfloss is colourful
Not a universally popular president, it seems
He was singing too

We walked round the block to Yoyogi park, partly to get away from people, but also because there’s a shrine that we wanted to visit.

Not too bad a selfie by the gate

We noticed that on the paths, most people were keeping to the left. This fits in with our observations elsewhere. In Shinjuku, even on a pavement on one side of the road, most people keep to the left. This is disrupted when a cyclist comes by, but they’re mainly on the left too. On the escalators at railway stations, you stand on the left, which feels wrong and naughty and rebellious when you’re so used to standing on the right on London Underground’s escalators. But yes, here in the park, you walk along the left side of the path. Mostly.

Keep left seems to be the custom (mostly)

The Meiji Shinto Shrine itself was very peaceful, far fewer people than we’d seen at the Buddhist Temple yesterday. I paid respects to my lost, loved ones: money in the offertory, bow twice, clap twice, bow again.

Meiji Shrine

We found our way home OK, remarking on how cheap the train fares are compared with at home. Of course, our mental currency conversion might be totally wrong, and maybe we’re spending a small fortune on public transport, here. Mind you, we don’t often get a seat because all the trains are pretty full, even at the weekend.

On the street where we live

So back to our b&b, such a contrast to the hotel! We’re sleeping on a mattress on tatami mats on the floor. That’s OK, but getting up is really hard for us old’uns, it’s such a long way. The cooking facilities are minimal, but we’re only here for a few days. The toilet seat is heated and there’s another clever innovation: you can wash your hands in the water before it refills the cistern after a flush. (Just for those viewers who were wondering where today’s toilet news is.)

It’s a quiet street, just the odd domestic sounds from nearby.

Dynamic Tokyo

Our organised tour of (some of) the great city of Tokyo began early. But since we’ve been waking up early anyway, it didn’t matter. The bad news was that rain was forecast for much of the day. In the end, we were extraordinarily lucky: dry and sometimes sunny, our day was very enjoyable even if, at the end, we were very tired.

Low clouds – a bit worrying to start with

We picked up the first bus close to Shinjuku Station. This is the busiest station in the known universe, with 3.6 million people coming and going each day through its 200 entrances and exits.

It’s pretty much surrounded by retail opportunities (shops) but the coffee shop wasn’t open that early, not even with that many potential customers.

Caw, what a racket this guy made

We watched the people and especially their shoes. This would have been enough entertainment for the day. Everything from flat, almost ballet, shoes to thigh length boots with stiletto heels. One girl must take her shoes off a night and put them in front of aeroplanes to stop them rolling away.

And if that wasn’t enough fun: the bus seats had these cute little attachments in case we fancied a game of bus basketball en route.

Little basketball hoops

Not cute enough for you? How about this dragon?

Baby dragon on the side of a building

We arrived at the bus station where we met up with our tour party. I’m not saying all Americans are loud but you can pretty much guarantee that in any mixed group of travellers, the loudest speakers will be the Americans. And we had a couple. You probably heard them too.

Hato Bus is named for the white dove of peace and I have to admire the clever logo: a combination of HB and four doves.

Clever Logo Award – prize winner

The first stop on our tour was Tokyo Tower, where we met Hello Kitty and had a view of the city from high up. Again, Mount Fuji eluded us.

Tokyo Tower

Yes, that was my first thought too: it looks like an Eiffel Tower knock-off!

The view showed buildings old and new. We learnt a lot about Japanese history, samurai warriors, the Shoguns, the emperors.

Old buildings and new ones

In fact, our guide, Atsushi, was very funny as well as very informative. He told us what to expect at the tea ceremony. We only had time for the fifteen minute version, not the full four hours, but it was an interesting experience. The little sweet was very sweet and the green tea, by comparison, was quite bitter. And as briefed, we told the the host that the tea was excellent, with lots of bowing.

Two teas, please
The bowl and yes, that is Mount Fuji in the middle

The venue was Happo-en, a popular location for wedding ceremonies. There were at least three taking place today, and we nearly got caught up in a couple of processions. I don’t think we ruined too many wedding photos, though.

Number 1 in a set of surreptitious wedding photos
Number 2 in a set of surreptitious wedding photos
Number 3 in a set of surreptitious wedding photos

The gardens are very peaceful, and the bonsai trees are amazing. They really are little old-looking and gnarly trees, so much moreso than any we’ve seen at home.

Kuromatsu – bonsai at the front, full-size tree behind

Umbrellas are an important accessory here but would you want to take yours inside a building? Lockable umbrella racks are located outside some venues.

A rack for your umbrella, ella, ella

We visited the Chinzanso Hotel for a Japanese style lunch. The meat and vegetables were cooked on on hot plate on the table. My veggie meal was prepared behind the scenes, in the kitchen. We were given an apron to wear, and the waiters (is that the word?) tied them for us. Only the Australian lady needed it when she dribbled her ‘special sauce’.

This really was proper Japanese fare. My soup bowl was small, with tofu and vegetables. Then a bowl of rice, some salad items and more vegetables. All served with a certain amount of ceremony.

At this hotel, we encountered more weddings! And we saw a couple of young ladies wearing fabulous costumes and they were happy to pose for us, arigato.

Cute kimono, and very polite
Also very polite and friendly
Sacred Tree over 500 years old

After lunch, even I managed to stay awake for the ride to the Imperial Palace gardens. We were greeted by this Samurai warrior, who would give Stirling Castle’s Robert the Bruce a run for his money!

Samurai warrior

In another first, I purchased a hot can of coffee from a vending machine. Yes, hot, almost too hot too handle. It was alright, too sweet if anything. We’re hoping to find vending machines selling items other than drinks (or cigarettes): after all, that is what Japan’s famous for!

We were taken along the Expressway to Tokyo Port.

Beautiful boat on the river

Unfortunately, our cruise along the Sumida river was not aborad this delightful looking vessel. Instead, we spent about 40 minutes down below and inside a normal, common or garden river cruise boat. Oh well. We lost count of the number of bridges we sailed under, with no two alike.

We walked along Nakomise Street with, apparently, 90 shops, mostly selling food items that we couldn’t identify. But we did try a couple of snacks. The deep fried, hot rice cake was surprisingly crunchy after beinmg dipped in soy sauce. The sweet bean paste filled cakes were different, but we probably didn’t need five for just the two of us.

We wandered around the Senso-ji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa but couldn’t really appreciate the peace with so many thousands of people around.

Our old friend, rickshaw
Buddhist Temple
Pagoda next to the Temple

The bus took us back to Tokyo Station from where we took the train back to Shinjuku and our hotel. We were glad we’d booked the extra night here, we were ridiculously tired. We were meant to be carted about all day on buses and boats and yet somehow, we still managed to walk over eight miles. That’s OK for me, not so good for Liesel with her piriformis isssues.

We found a fast food restaurant where we had Japanese curry for supper. It was quick, it was tasty and only a five-minute walk back to our room.

All Blacks and Black Scones

We rose early with the Sun, ready for a long walk.

Sunrise from our hotel room window

Poor old Liesel was in a lot of discomfort pretty much from the start, but despite this, she pushed through and we ended up with 8 miles under our belts. Just don’t tell her physio.

The view from our hotel window, as you can see, isn’t very green, so we thought a walk to the park was in order. And my goodness, how busy the streets are at 8am. Everyone’s on a mission to get to work.

On the way to the park, we saw this triptych and we briefly thought how exciting it would be to watch Japan play the All Blacks while we’re here. Sadly, we have plans for that day and in any case, as the website says, ‘all packages are sold out’.

Japan v New Zealand All Blacks

Among other adverts, and there are thousands, we saw this one. Someone, please tell Louis Vuitton that there are millions of gorgeous Japanese girls here, you wouldn’t have to look too far to find one for your billboards.

The perfume probably smells like old socks, anyway

Then we turned a corner.

Look: trees!

Shinjuku Gyoen National Park has a long history, and is very popular both with locals and with visitors.

We saw some interesting animals, 0-, 2-, 6- and 8-legged.

Little Jesus bugs walking on the water’s surface tension
I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more
Koi waiting to be fed
Humans spoiling the view of a lake and its bridges
A pigeon dressed up for a day out

Finding our way around was easy. The map we picked up included coordinates where any two or more paths met. These coordinates matched the descriptions on the posts at the relevant junctions. So easy and such a contrast to the bright, colourful maps you get at UK attractions which are useless for actual navigation purposes!

I think because we’ve been through Autumn once already, the trees appeared, to us, to be ridiculously lush with leaves. The flowers were gorgeous too.

White flower (no prizes for telling us what it is)
Pink flower (no prizes for telling us what it is)
The giant Tulip Tree, not in bloom this time of year
Pretty, speckled flower (no prizes for telling us what it is)

The roses in the rose garden were blooming lovely and some, such as the New Zealand rose, were strongly aromatic.

A gorgeous but aromatic rose

[click here to smell the roses]

Yes, the park was very photogenic. And when it was time to wander back to the real city, it felt slightly anticlimactic.

Time for a snack.

A packet of Oreos fell into the cake mix by mistake
Black Rock Scone – we got one just to make sure it was meant to be black and wasn’t just burnt

We visited the Tokyo Municipal Government Buildings where, from the 45th floor, you can see the whole city. Well, nearly all.

The twin towers of the Government Buildings
The Cocoon: reminds us of both Beijing’s Bird’s Next Olympics Stadium and London’s Gherkin

I was hoping to see our hotel, and in particular, Godzilla, but unfortunately, we couldn’t see anything in that direction without paying to eat or drink something in the (expensive) restaurant.

One of the sights we want to see here is, of course, Mount Fuji. And today presented the first opportunity.

On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji
This is the view today

There’ll be more chances later on, of course.

On the way out, we stumbled across an exhibition about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. We thought we might come and watch, but we’ll have to decide nearer the time: it’s quite expensive.

The medals will be made from recycled metal
Say hello to the mascots, Miraitowa and Someity
The actual Olympic and Paralympic flags (small version)

At the top of the tower, I used one of the ubiquitous vending machines for the first time. I tried the Boss Coffee in a can.

Can of coffee – I’ll try anything once

We walked back towards our accommodation and passed this rather moving appeal for peace.

Love and Peace

We wanted to see the Hanazono Shrine. Without realising it, we’d walked right by it yesterday, but it’s really well hidden, which is a shame for such a beautiful building.

The bells
Buddha
The Shrine

In total contrast with this elegant structure, here is something really unusual: graffiti.

Ugly graffiti

Back at the hotel, we had a rest. Liesel had a bath and I went out for another walk, to buy some apples (XXL only) and to confirm where we’re supposed to be early tomorrow morning.

In the process, I noticed how fast sunset is. I went into a shop during daylight, came out and it was twilight.

For dinner, we went to Solah Spices Tokyo where I had 16 vegetable curry and Liesel had aloo gobi. Typical Japanese fare. But, it was located conveniently close to the hotel! And, it was very nice food: very nice, very tasty.

If you’re not interested in today’s toilet-based section, please scroll down to the picture of a little boy standing on a dolphin.

I was suprised and delighted by the number of toilets we saw in the park this morning. And I saw one of the legendary Japanese toilets, which are at floor level, so you squat, do what you need to do, then try to stand up afterwards. I imagine you need strong thigh muscles, but at least there’s a rail to help. I will give it a go, sometime, should the need arise.

Most of the public conveniences I’ve used have no hand towels nor hot air dryers, so I come out shaking my hands dry. It seems most people carry hankerchiefs with them to dry their hands.

The toilet seat in our hotel room is heated. The first couple of times, I just thought the plastic seat retained the warmth of the previous buttocks really efficiently. But no: it’s heated. The control panel on the wall is not as complicated as Asa and Gideon’s X-Box controllers, but very nearly so. The first night when I had my surprise bidet moment? I now realise it was because I’d pressed the wrong button by mistake: I totally missed the large ‘flush’ button.

Boy and dolphin: no idea what the story behind this is, either

Today’s general observation: we thought many more people would be smoking here in Tokyo. There are a few smokers, and we’ve smelt them inside a large games arcade but on the whole, we haven’t felt the need to wear surgical masks at all.