There are tons of options for getting between Japan and Korea without flying. Well, four anyway, which is four times more than from Russia to Japan.
Three different ferry companies ply the Hakata to Busan route at various speeds, and you can also get a longer overnight ferry from Osaka to Busan. (FYI: Hakata is the same place as Fukuoka, where we went to the sumo. They used to be separate places but they fused, so now both names are used.)
We nearly plumped for the ferry from Osaka, since we finished our trip in Kyoto, but with the Willer Express bus pass it worked out cheaper to head down to Fukuoka on the bus and get a Camellia Line day ferry from there. Partly it was cheaper because, wait for it, we got BIRTHDAY DISCOUNT. Hello Korea. The list price for a second class ticket is 9000¥ each, about £60, but we paid about £40 because we were sailing in the month of our respective births. Alas, this seems to have been a one year only offer. It was good while it lasted.
Getting the ferry was fairly easy, if a little labyrinthine. We booked online, and after one last Mister Donut breakfast, arrived at the port on a city bus directly from Hakata station. Easy peasy. They even had a big sign in the port with the timetable and price of the bus into the city, complete with ‘how to catch the bus’ instructions. Nothing left to chance.
We checked in at the Camellia Line counter, where we had to pay a fuel surcharge (I think this happens with all the ferry companies). Then, as if Japan wanted to wish us farewell in style, we were directed to one last vending machine.
We made the mistake of letting a Korean tour group get ahead of us in the queue to board the boat. Starvation might have set in during the wait, if it hadn’t been for the corn stick.
On board, we were directed to a rather flashy cabin, with a view out the front of the boat, and only two other inhabitants. They were very excited that we were from England (saying Britain or the UK generally provokes polite bewilderment), but the conversation sort of died after that, so we had a nap. The second class cabins are tatami mat rooms with roll out mattresses that accommodate about 12 people, most of them seemed a lot fuller than ours, and windowless. Perhaps it was the birthday cabin? Or maybe we got special treatment for being foreign, this definitely happened in Japan and Korea a bit.
We watched Japan disappearing from view in a Russian doll procession of islands, getting smaller and smaller until there was nothing but sea.
Trapped inside because of rough seas and wet decks, after our nap we had ample time to explore the boat. Unfortunately it didn’t take ample time, there being not all that much of it. We were tempted by the karaoke booths but they were a bit pricey, so instead we engaged in Asia’s second favourite pastime: taking selfies. Clearly we weren’t doing it properly though, because a lady intervened and moved us to a gaudier backdrop, while enthusiastically gesturing that we should make a heart with our arms. Her art direction was better than her photography.
I had a quick onsen, with several Korean ladies who all wanted to borrow my soap, then there was just time to watch the Korean news before we arrived. As would become a theme, this was quite similar to in Japan (the hosts bowed deeply to their viewers at the start and end), but shinier and brasher, and somehow a little more hard faced. Korea has all the politeness of Japan, but feels a little sterner.
Soon enough the bright lights of Busan twinkled into view, and we were there. Another country, and the start of another adventure, this time with more pickles than ever before…
Our second day in Kyoto started earlier, much much earlier. We arrived on a Willer Express night bus, and this time it was running early, so it tipped us out into the bright morning sunshine well before 7. But there was sunshine! Today was the day to look at some of the big sites Kyoto is known for: temples and gardens (mostly temple gardens).
We used three Willer Express night buses while we were in Japan. They were ridiculously comfortable. The seats lean way back, and the bus is fully dark at night. You even get a blanket, and a little personal seat visor which shields your face from any light that does seep in. The buses we took were actually some of the more basic ones. We used a bus pass, which restricts you from going on the (extra) fancy buses which have big squashy super-reclining seats with gaps between them.
The Willer Express bus pass worked really well for us. We used a three day pass, which gives you three travel days that don’t have to be consecutive. It cost about £50, which saved us a third on buying individual tickets. They’ve since expanded their pass options to offer three, five or seven day passes, with weekday only options, but it seems to have got a bit more expensive. The pass is only available if you’re in Japan on a short term visa.
The only problem we had with using this pass was not being able to sit together. Because you can’t select your seat, and you book each ticket individually using the code for your own pass, we were always seated separately. At first I thought this was because the buses are gender segregated: women on one side of the aisle, men on the other. But on one of the buses another couple were sitting together, so it must be possible to do this, perhaps if you book together. A quick web search suggests that this is possible when using a bus pass, but you’ll have to try and book by emailing rather than using the booking system on the Willer Express website.
Actually, sitting separately was a bonus on one of our trips because we got two seats each, and on one of the journeys the driver gestured that Arthur could move to the seat next to me. The gender segregated seating did trip us up once though: we successfully booked me onto a bus, then went to book Arthur on and found we couldn’t because there were no male seats left. Gah. Which meant we had to cancel my seat, then find another bus by searching separately for male and female seats and compare the results. Fun times.
So, we arrived in Kyoto for the second time reasonably well rested, and with enough time to stow our luggage and cram in a quick Mister Donut breakfast, before meeting up with our friend Emma from our Tokyo hostel. As a side note, Emma has written an excellent post about our day in Kyoto here. I’ll do my best not to copy her too much. She’s also written about many many other interesting places, and made it all very organised and lovely, you should have a look if you’re in the mood for some arm chair travel.
By about 8.30 we were ready for some sightseeing. (Sorry we were late! We lost track of time when a man started talking to us over donuts, I can’t remember for the life of me what about…)
Firstly, Emma and I headed over to a five-storey pagoda near the station, which was surprisingly difficult to find given its height. We didn’t go into the pagoda gardens, saving our pennies for the flashier temples later, but wandered round the outer temple grounds. Predictably, everything was beautiful.
It was also spectacularly uncrowded. There were a couple of other tourists there, and these guys…
So we practically had the place to ourselves. Honestly, wait ’til you see how busy the temple we visited later on was…
Arthur tried to go to an Anime museum while we were at the pagoda, but it was closed, so he went for tea instead.
Reunited, the three of us hopped on the bus, one day city bus passes in hand (£2.50), and headed across town to a couple of the TOP SIGHTS. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, until the late 19th century. They lay this Kyoto Ancient Capital stuff on thick, and lo the tourists come (us included). First stop off the bus was Ryoan-ji, a world famous rock garden. You’ve heard of it right? Me neither.
This place is considered one of the finest examples of a rock garden there is. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a classified Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto. In the book I was reading about Japan while I was there, the author questions a rock garden expert on what’s so special about this particular example. His answer: the space between the rocks.
I actually much prefer this aesthetic to the sugary style of some of the other gardens, with fiddly arched bridges and nature looking too neat. A tidy garden makes me sad, but somehow in taking neatness to this extreme it almost becomes rough and raw again.
However, I’m not sure what the hype over this garden in particular is about. It’s some rocks in gravel. To be fair, I think the impact of such an understated space is its calm. Experiencing it with a rabble of tourists and kids on school trips is unlikely to do it justice.
Outside the walls of the overcrowded rock garden were some of my favourite views of the day. This is the kind of Japan that filled my head and my pinterest board before we came. (This notion is totally stolen from Emma’s post by the way, I lied.)
I might even pin this photo…
The whole Kyoto experience is very photogenic, which I suppose is why it’s so popular. We got into the spirit with a jumping photo shoot.
Jumping in the air in front of it aside, honestly, I didn’t find much of the Ancient Kyoto stuff all that compelling. I think the appeal is a feeling of stepping back in time in these very stylised places, unchanged over the years, where you can imagine the ritualised life of the past lives on. For me it felt more like a theme park. However, in that there was some interest. As a social phenomenon, watching people dress up in kimono to clip clop (and ride the bus) around the sites is intriguing.
Likewise observing (and joining) hordes of people in a just-barely-civilised scrum to get That Temple Photo at the second TOP SIGHT we saw, Kinkaku-ji. This one is a National Special Historic Sight and a National Special Landscape and a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site. So it was busy.
I found the crowds at the golden temple much more interesting than the temple itself. By interesting I mean fascinatingly disturbing. I’ve never seen such an intense feeding frenzy for a photo opportunity before. It was worse than the Mona Lisa.
The modern always seemed to interest me more than the ancient in Japan, or perhaps rather the way that the two sit side by side. In discussing whether to go to the Anime museum Arthur proposed that I’m not interested in culture if it’s modern (e.g. anime). But I don’t think that’s true, I just find anything hyper-stylised and (to my mind) so far removed from reality difficult to engage with. This disinterest covers old and new. I can’t get on with opera either, for example, or most literature from before the 20th century. I don’t know if I lack the imagination to find it relevant, or if relevance isn’t the point at all.
Having read the above, Arthur says relevance isn’t the point, and maintains that I’m not interested in modern culture. Agree to disagree? Maybe I’m just not interested in culture, since this old stuff wasn’t doing much for me either. Arthur on the other hand claims to have found it all very interesting and evocative. I think he thinks I’m a philistine.
Shiny things tend not to be my cup of tea, and this big block of gold was no exception. I found it a bit tacky. I keep coming back to the idea that these places seemed too sanitised to feel historic or even meaningful for me. In more natural settings like the Kumano Kodo I found old shrines intriguing, but not so here. I loved the tickets though, so our entrance fee wasn’t totally wasted.
This was our last full day in Japan, so after riding an extremely cramped bus back into town, we went to tick one final thing off our to-do list: conveyor belt sushi.
I think we did it justice.
After that there was just time for a beer (phew), and then it was goodbye to Emma, goodbye to Kyoto, and very nearly goodbye to Japan.
Pretty much whenever I asked a fellow traveller “Hello fellow traveller, what was your favourite place in Japan?” They would say something like “Gosh, that’s a tough one Kirstie, but I would probably have to say Kyoto”. (I think it’s best if you imagine this exchange is occuring on Blind Date. I’m Cilla, obviously.)
Having been there, I must admit this wouldn’t be my answer. Hakone, Tokyo or the Kumano Kodo would be. You may say I can’t pick three, but hey, my blog, my rules. I’ve gone mad with power.
Somehow I found everything a bit too clean and packaged. Shiny shopping streets with Christmas lights twinkling away, perfectly manicured temples and gardens, plenty of tourists. Everything was just a bit too nice. Not to knock it though. I mean, we had a nice time during our two whirlwind days there, and more importantly, we ate. A LOT. In fact, on our first day that’s all we did.
Sandwiched between luggage storage trouble after the train in from Nara, and a night bus out to Tokyo, Kyoto part one was really only a half-day adventure. It was raining, so we gave up on seeing the temples and gardens the city is famous for, and instead focused on on the covered arcades in the centre of town. One of these, Nishiki, houses a food market…
We spent a very happy few hours slowly making our way down the arcade, looking at all the weird and wonderful things on offer, buying snacks and tasting samples as we went.
Those slimy looking things are uri (a cucumbery squash) pickled in sake lees (the yeasty residue from brewing). We tasted some in Nara when we went to a sake brewery, and contrary to appearances they’re actually very nice.
There weren’t too many veggie snack options, so I mostly had sweet treats. Poor me. This meant glutinous rice balls, a chewy rice-dough snack that’s usually stuffed with or coated in something sweet. We had barbecued ones served with ginger syrup, warm and soft with tasty crispy bits, and black sesame ones stuffed with sweet black sesame paste, yum.
I did find one savoury veggie option: a cucumber on a stick.
The sign proclaimed COLD!! CUCUMBER ¥100 IT’S verry nice! And it was. It was genuinely just a cold cucumber on a stick. Fair enough.
Arthur had more luck with interesting eats.
That is an octopus with an egg in its head. Genius.
Once the market began to wind down it was time to think about dinner. We wound up in a casual, mismatched furniture sort of place, above a vintage clothes shop. The menu was veg heavy and they had organic beer, you know the kind of place. I had a fusiony salad plate with tofu patties, and a black sesame ice cream milkshake, which is the best thing to have happened in the history of good things that have happened. Arthur had a curry and a beer. Yum, yum and again yum.
The milkshake was so good that the keyboard just started typing in Taiwanese in excitement, and I didn’t get round to taking a photo of it. It was kind of grey.
After dinner we wandered round some of Kyoto’s older streets in the rain. It was raining so hard that a man popped out of a restaurant and insisted we take his umbrella. His fancy, black, giant, wooden handled umbrella. We tried to protest but he was having none of it. This very polite and good natured, but rather desperate, debate went on for several minutes, and ended with him pressing the umbrella into our hands and backing off bowing. We bowed lots too, and took our new umbrella with us over the river, to Gion.
Gion is the best known geisha district in Japan, so I suppose in the world. You may know it from reading (or watching) Memoirs of a Geisha, which is set there.
Geisha are called geiko in Kyoto dialect, and trainee geisha are maiko. These terms mean something like ‘child of the arts’ and ‘dance child’ translated literally, while geisha means ‘person of the arts’.
I was surprised to learn that there are still practicing geisha in Japan. Though there are far fewer than in the past, it’s still a world that’s very much alive, albeit exclusive and illusive. Gaining access to an evening with a geisha usually involves an invitation from somebody already part of the circle, and also a very large amount of money.
Geisha work mostly at evening parties in traditional tea houses, playing instruments like the stringed shamisen, dancing, and generally providing civilised company. Not selling their bodies, a rather pernicious misconception, which may have resulted from women calling themselves geisha selling sex to American GIs in the years after 1945. The Americans couldn’t tell the difference.
I was intrigued to see Gion, though I thought it would take a lot of imagination to see it as in years past, with geisha hurrying between tea houses and wealthy patrons clambering into cyclos after an evenings entertainment.
There I was wrong. It was rather more subdued than all that, but isn’t everywhere dampened by rain? The rain even made the whole experience a little more movie-dramatic, after all it was heavy enough to drench you in seconds, which only seems to happen in the movies. More importantly, the key elements were still there. The narrow two-storey tea houses, dark wood and traditional Japanese split curtains hanging in the doorways. The hushed street that you could somehow feel was alive with merriment, behind its closed doors. No cyclos in sight, but we passed two groups of men in suits exiting tea houses into waiting taxis. As they exited the (female) proprietor came out and bowed deeply to her customers. I mean touch your toes deeply, and she remained thus positioned until they were safely in their cab. The second time she was accompanied by several other members of staff who looked like waiters, and joined her in her back breaking bow.
But that was not all. As we turned back towards the station side of the river, and our night bus to Tokyo, a kimono clad lady ducked out of a tea house in front of us. Beautifully dressed, hair fixed elaborately, clutching a cased musical instrument, and clearly in a rush, she was unmistakably a geisha.
I felt like a twitcher who’d spotted a beautiful, famously shy, and critically endangered bird.
Also, like a bit of a creep for staring.
I didn’t try a photo, apparently snap-happy tourists have been bothering geisha in recent years, and who wants to be paparazzied while commuting?
So we slunk out of Gion with no souvenirs, but rather overwhelmed by our luck. And then, as a finale, we had a beer.
Stay tuned for Kyoto part 2, in which gold glistens, we jump in the air, sushi is conveyed, friends reunited, and time is spent appreciating the space between the rocks.
After two months of living in each others pockets, it was time to spend a day apart. Well, perhaps not a whole day, maybe ten hours?
Travelling with one person for extended periods of time is a particularly intense examination of your relationship. After all, when else in life do you share almost every waking moment with someone, without the time apart afforded by jobs, hobbies, separate friends? Even when you happen to be married to your travel buddy, this is highly unusual. Indeed, at home we deliberately kept some separate interests, if nothing else just to give us something to talk about! Along with our different work schedules (Kirstie’s Monday to Friday, mine…ahem…variable), this enabled us to successfully avoid seeing each other sometimes for days on end.
Whilst divorce was never really on the table, nevertheless we both felt like we needed some time apart to decompress, and bitch about each other to random Japanese people in dingy sake bars (the fact that they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Japanese being a useful aid to privacy). Due to time and price constraints in Japan, this was scaled back from two full days in separate hostels, to one daytime (with a meeting in the evening to pursue our most important shared interest…beer).
Tokyo, bounteous Tokyo, provided the perfect venue to begin my day of flying solo: Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market.
Apparently this market has its origins in 16th century traders from Osaka selling their off-cuts after delivering fresh fish to Edo castle, having been invited there by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate and seemingly a seafood conoisseur. After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the city council of what was now Tokyo decided to replace 20 severely damaged private markets, including the old Tsukiji market, with three municipal markets, and Tsukiji as it is today was born.
Tsukiji is home to a large wholesale area, including an auction area, an even larger retail area, and a periphery with sushi restaurants, a vegetable market, and innumerable small shops selling tourist tat (though somehow still in a classy Japanese way). The auction area is the main draw for many tourists: watching the frantic, polite, ordered bidding process in the daily tuna auction features highly on many guidebooks’ top Tokyo sights. To see the tuna auction, it is recommended to arrive at the market not long after 3am, as visitor places are strictly limited to 120 people per day so as to not disrupt the work of the market. The actual bidding takes place from 5:25am to 6:15am, so this involves a lot of waiting. Once inside, visitors are treated to an obscure ritual of mysterious hand gestures and arcane tuna wisdom, with the frozen tuna (weighing up to 300kg) being sold off to market wholesalers, restaurants, national chains, or anyone else with a special license. Price equals prestige (in press and public perception), so overpaying can sometimes make good business sense. In January 2013, in the first tuna auction of the year (which is particularly prestigious), a new record was set when a 222-kg tuna sold for around $1.76m to a prominent sushi restaurant chain (not Yo! Sushi).
3am is very early, and I wanted to have some beer the night before, so I had to ‘research’ all this info. I went around 9, when the wholesale area had largely wound down, but there were still lots of oddly shaped sea dwellers hanging out in poly boxes in the retail zone, as well as a good deal of tuna slicing (mostly with bandsaws). Trying to avoid getting run over by the super-stealthy electric buggies that flit about the market, whilst dodging fish-water as closing sellers hosed down their stands, was about as dirty and disordered as Japan ever got for us.
Of course, there had to be sushi. If you really want, you can queue round the block for sushi within the market complex, as recommended in all the guidebooks. Queuing is something of a ritual in Japan, as previously noted, frequently precisely controlled by painted lines on the ground, telling you exactly where to queue for your train, bus, etc. Maybe the waiting adds to the final experience? As a Brit abroad, you would perhaps expect me to enthusiastically join with my Japanese comrades in pursuing this noble art. But why, when you can go less than a block away, and have some of the freshest sushi you are ever likely to get, freshly-assembled by grizzled sushi veterans, without queuing? It was fine. By which I (and they) mean delicious…
The ordered chaos of the market (emphasis on the order) was echoed by my experience at Shibuya crossing that evening. When you think of Tokyo, you probably think of Shibuya (helped by it featuring in literally every movie set in Tokyo for any length of time, excluding perhaps period costume dramas). Bright lights, busy pavements, manic yet polite and perfectly synchronised, like urban ballet. Everyone waits for precisely two minutes while the traffic lights cycle through, then suddenly all the cars are stopped, and it begins. In contrast to Kirstie’s experience the next morning, when 8am was far too late for any sort of on-the-way-to-work rush hour, at just before 6pm the crossing was rammed with shoppers and commuters. This isn’t even quite peak time.
This is frequently called the busiest crossing in the world. Apparently, up to 100,000 people use it per hour (that’s 3333.33 people per crossing cycle), and the Starbucks with a 2nd floor view of the drama is their highest-grossing store.
Between my early-morning fish fest and my early-evening crossing fun***, there was just time to go back to Harajuku to eat another massive crepe, buy a ceramic lucky cat, and drink a bubble tea. If you’ve managed to avoid this so far, it originated in Taiwan, has engulfed Asia and will soon conquer the world. Be afraid. It’s delicious.
The more astute amongst you may have noticed Kirstie and I ended up doing somewhat different activities on our day apart. It turns out, we do have quite different interests, but at the end of the day we still enjoy each other’s company. It was a refreshing change, but we haven’t actually taken a full day apart since. Oh, and I can’t remember where the tumult was, in case you were wondering.
Ahh, Tokyo. It’s big, busy, and full of people. 37 million of them in fact, which is more than Canada (gosh). The whole Tokyo area is the most populous in the world, though I’m not sure all of this is strictly part of the city. So it’s really more like 12 cities rolled into one.
In Shibuya staid business people in understated suits move en masse across acre wide pedestrian crossings, or onto rush hour subway trains, squashed into each other and the windows and walls, but remaining politely quiet. Teenage girls in sugary sweet make-believe outfits flock to Harajuku’s clothes and candy shops, queuing up for sweet treats. Akihabara is bright and in your face, full of teenage (and not so teenage) boys stocking up on manga and anime, or on their way to a maid cafe to be served by obsequious girls in bunches and short skirts. In Ginza the well to do cruise down the over clean streets in impossibly swanky cars, stopping off to drink tea that costs more than a pair of shoes.
And so, so much more. The never ending spread of the brightly lit cityscape at night, bustling temples fogged with incense but fringed with commerce, absurdist architecture and sleek sky scrapers next to old wooden shop houses, old timers sat drinking sake on plastic crates, who’ve lived here since before the city began climbing into the sky.
Tokyo (or Edo as it was then) first topped the biggest city chart in the early 18th century, though it swiftly lost its spot to Beijing, London, and then New York. It was only in the 1960s, recovering from the second world war, that it began to grow into the metropolis it is now.
We stayed in Ryogoku, the home of sumo. Tokyo’s sumo stadium was just across the railway line from our hostel, and most ‘stables’ where sumos live and train are in this area. On our first night a sumo on a bicycle passed us on our way to the supermarket.
Our hostel had bar seating looking out on the street. which was always busy with people flocking to and from the station down the road. Perfect for people watching. The railway tracks on the other side of the road were made cheerful with murals (spot the sumo) and bike parking.
After a morning chilling (and blogging) at our hostel, we spent our first afternoon checking out the streets around Harajuku. This is where teenagers show off, and shop for, the super stylized street looks you might imagine when you think of Tokyo. It was all a bit kitsch on the main street, with candy shops and dessert cafes taking up most of the space, alongside the occasional shop flogging anything and everything kawaii (cute). Think Hello Kitty, ankle socks, baby animals decorating anything, and lots and lots of pink.
Obviously we had to eat one of these ‘crepes’ that every second shop was selling. Stuffed with cake, ice cream, chocolate sauce and mostly whipped cream, they were sugary sweet and devoid of any real substance. Unsurprisingly.
The side streets were calmer, and reminded me a bit of the lanes in Brighton. Lots of vintage shops and the occasional designer place. We weren’t shopping, so we tired of it pretty quickly, but enjoyed the vibe none the less.
Next day we took a day off from each other, and I headed to Ueno for a walk through the park and some older parts of the city. In the park I checked out a temple, ambled past the amusement park, wandered by the zoo with its panda post box. While I sat merrily eating a giant custard filled profiterole in the autumn sun, nearby a lady with a balloon animal on her head enthusiastically banged out Hey Jude on a massive xylophone.
As I left the park an army of boiler suited men swarmed up and swept leaves into sacks, clearing a huge area in no time at all, like so many leaf eating ants. Organised, well equipped and eye wateringly fast, the contrast with the slow and futile street sweeping in Russia was stark.
Next I rambled through some older streets, past a museum housed in an old sake shop (closed, as it was Monday), then through a huge graveyard, where I found several cats basking in the sun.
The children’s playground nestled amongst the graves didn’t seem incongruous. The cemetery was a sleepy oasis of calm in the frenetic city, not creepy at all.
On the other side of the cemetery I followed the railway tracks a way to Nippori station, then turned down into Yanaka, a district known for its old time atmosphere of a Tokyo long gone elsewhere. On the main pedestrianised street shops sold baskets, ceramics, fruit and veg, and all manner of random tat. I had a great time browsing and choosing some gifts and souvenirs, and nabbed a giant bag of grapefruits for a steal.
I enjoyed the hubbub of an old fashioned market street so much that I brought Arthur back the next day. We grabbed ourselves some street food and a plastic crate outside the sake shop, and ordered some drinks.
On our last day in Tokyo I got up early to catch the mayhem at Shibuya crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world. The lights stop all of the traffic at the junction at once, and people flow across in all directions. It’s pretty famous, it was even in Lost in Translation. Alas, it wasn’t all that busy at 8 am on a Wednesday morning. Too late perhaps? Or maybe the evening is better, when workers and shoppers are both on the move. But I had a nice chat and a coffee with my fellow Shibuya adventurer Emma, who we met at our hostel, so all was not lost!
The rest of the day was a bit of a mad spin round the city, first to Asakusa to check out the Asahi building and Sensoji temple. The headquarters of Asahi brewery were designed by Philippe Starck in the 1980s, and are topped with an enormous gold… thing. This adornment is supposed to resemble a frothy head.
Locals call it the golden turd.
There was some other nice architecture in between here and Sensoji. Tokyo isn’t short of interesting buildings.
Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. It was founded in the 7th century when the city was still a fishing village, and seems to have been packed ever since. It was very very busy, with hordes of people clamoring around the stalls which line the street inside the complex.
Once we’d fought our way in, we went to get our fortunes told. This involved a very high-tech self service station.
My fortune was good (it helpfully tells you this).
Arthur’s was bad, so he had to tie it to the rack provided.
Lots of other people were getting fortunes (mostly giggling teenagers). Others were taking the temple more seriously, wafting incense over themselves and paying their respects at the main altar, but the atmosphere was still fairly holiday-like. The temple complex is vast, it even has a tea garden, but it’s not open to the public, so we had to make do with a green tea kitkat.
From Sensoji we wandered through the surrounding neighbourhood, past catering supply shops which were great fun to browse. Who knew there were so many possible shapes for aluminium molds? Other highlights were some attractive stacks of stuff, including cars.
As night fell we hopped on a train to Ginza, the classy (expensive) district, for a quick wander through the shiny lights and cars.
Then there was just time to pop back to Shibuya for dinner, and to check out love hotel hill. Dinner was very very cheap and very very good. It was a bit of a punt, but the only reasonably priced place in the area, so we went for it. In neon lit Shibuya the tiny old fashioned shop front stood out in its inconspicuousness, with a mill wheel obscuring the view through the little window. Inside there were a handful of seats lined along each wall, one side looking across the pass into the kitchen. The room was corridor narrow. Near the door stood the portal to ordering: a vending machine with 30 or so large buttons, each labelled in Japanese, no pictures. Lonely planet recommended the noodles with sesame sauce, and gave the symbols to press for them, so we stood there for a while trying to find them on the buttons, but to no avail. Eventually a staff member took pity on us, and by reading out what we wanted, and saying beer enthusiastically, we got there.
A plate of cold noodles, with spring onion, wasabi, and delicious sesame dipping sauce (hidden under the plate of greens), and a great big cold beer, all for about £2.50. Yum.
Round the corner was love hotel hill, a (hilly) street where rooms come by the hour. This is less sleazy than it sounds, since most of the custom comes from couples who don’t have any other privacy available to them because they still live at home. It’s all very Japanese, with separate entrances and exits to minimise opportunities for embarrassment.
And that was our Tokyo finale, and very nearly the end of our time in Japan.
I could have spent weeks in Tokyo, there are so many things we didn’t see. Museums aplenty, shopping, restaurants and night life we couldn’t afford. Whole districts we didn’t get round to visiting. Alas, Japan isn’t ideal for budget travel, so move on we had to. From there we were onto a night bus and back to Kyoto for round two, then another night bus back to Fukuoka.
Our journey to Hakone was a bit of an epic, but it was absolutely worth the effort. We went to catch a glimpse of mount Fuji, and do a bit more hot spring wallowing before hitting the bright lights of Tokyo. Hakone is a mountain region about an hour and a half away from Tokyo, so it’s a popular weekend trip for Tokyo-ites.
From Nara we took a train to Kyoto, spent about 45 minutes scouring the station for a luggage locker (there were hundreds, but all were full), then had the afternoon in the city (more on this to come), before getting a night bus to Tokyo. The bus was slower than billed, so we got into Tokyo around 9.45 am. By the time we’d got a subway to Shinjuku station we were very hungry and in need of coffee, so we really wanted Mister Donut.
Mister Donut is a Japanese chain of coffee / doughnut shops. Actually it was originally American, but some takeovers happened or some such thing, and the American bit became Dunkin’ Donuts. Fun fact.
The doughnuts are really good, and pretty cheap for Japan (about 50p upwards), but the main draw is the coffee, which is also perfectly nice, but mainly they do FREE REFILLS. Heck yes. They even do a ‘morning set’ of a doughnut and limitless coffee for about £2. We tended to supplement this with additional doughnuts for a nice wholesome breakfast. Morning sets are a general feature of places serving coffee in Japan, and tend to be pretty good value breakfast options, especially given that coffee on its own can be quite expensive.
Anyway. We arrived at Shinjuku in dire need of a Mister Donut, but could see none. They’re often found in stations, so we were a bit put out. Shinjuku is the busiest station in the world, with something like 4 million people using it every day, and 50 odd platforms. It also has over 200 exits. We used one of these to venture out on a doughnut quest, but clearly chose the wrong one (silly us). It took about half an hour of increasingly disgruntled wandering, fully laden, to find our breakfast.
When we emerged, full of doughnuts and feeling much saner, we found we were right next to an entrance to Shinjuku, a good 800 metres from where we’d exited. It took us another half an hour to find our way back from this entrance to the ticket hall we needed for the next stage of our journey.
Japan’s patchwork of privately owned railway lines can be infuriating at times. It means you have to know which line your destination is on, then find the ticket office for that line. Route maps rarely show competitor lines, so if you need to change you’re left having to piece together maps and often buy multiple tickets. Gah.
So by the time we’d got our tickets for the next leg it was well after noon. Then it was two more trains, requiring separate tickets, to get us to Hakone-Yumoto, where we popped into tourist information to grab a map of the area. Actually, you can get straight to Hakone-Yumoto without changing, but you have to pay more to go on the special ‘Romancecar’ train, which didn’t seem like our scene.
We were starving again by this point, and the only readily available food was more baked goods, so it was carbs and sugar for lunch too. I was getting grumpy (again). Finding enough savoury, relatively healthy, vegetarian food to keep me out of hunger/sugar slump induced foul moods has sometimes been a challenge on this trip… Poor Arthur.
Hakone’s USP is the ‘Hakone circuit’, a route around the area using several different modes of transport, starting and finishing in Hakone-Yumoto. I think the idea is you just ride round the route for the day, catching views of mount Fuji and the local volcanic scenery along the way. Here’s the route:
It sounded kind of fun, but also kind of expensive, so we decided to skip it in favour of hiking up some hills to catch a Fuji view. This turned out to be a good call, because the cable cars at the top of the circuit were closed, and had been for several months. The volcanic fumes coming out of the mountain beneath them had got too intense.
We were staying in Gora though, so we got to ride the first bit of the circuit to get to our hostel. The little mountain train zig-zagged up the hillside, reversing direction at switchback stations along the way. When this happened the driver got out, locked up his cabin, and strolled to the other end of the train to install himself at the controls there. The frustrations of the journey receded as we climbed higher and higher. You can’t not have fun riding up a mountain through tunnels and switchbacks on a little red train.
The sun was setting on us as we arrived in Gora, a little village with a few hot spring inns and not much else. The steam drifting from the springs wrapped the whole place in a mysterious haze. Our home for the next two nights was Hakone Tent, the classiest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. An array of soft slippers welcomed us in, and the crotchety day getting there became a distant memory.
We picked out our futons in the tatami mat dorms, popped to the village shop to get some supplies, and cooked up some noodles in the kitchen while sipping a beer.
After dinner we went for a soak in the onsen. Yep, a hostel with an onsen bath. Life was good. Two baths actually. The one we chose was a little square wooden pool in the cave-like lower ground floor, a space that seemed carved out of the rock.
The water was hot and minerally. We sat cocooned in the steam, muscles and brains relaxing into happy stupor. After our soak I did a yoga class, as you do. Then we had a giant mug of ice cold beer at the cedar shingled bar, and went to our squashy, warm futons.
Next morning dawned bright and cool, and we set off to hike. First we crossed the valley below the hostel, passing some interesting buildings amid the greenery.
Then it was up, up, up the other side, to a ridge that led off towards Fuji. We were so busy debating whether to stay here forever, that we didn’t notice Fuji creeping into view between the trees.
After this its snow capped cone was more or less our constant companion, as we hiked along the ridge through autumn leaves and bamboo groves. The sun was warm, but the mountain air icy cold in the shadows. Across the valley back towards the hostel we could see steam flowing out of the mountain.
Around lunchtime we got to a particularly good viewpoint, and met a Japanese lady who took our photo for us. We began to meet more people after this, mostly older Japanese hikers, but usually we had the path to ourselves. A bit further down the path we stopped in a patch of sun to have a lunch of onigiri and fruit.
Following the path through thick bamboo groves, we finished off by climbing a mountain that has a view straight across the valley to Fuji. It was steep in places, and the sun was beginning to set, the temperature dropping, but the view was well worth the chill.
At the top was a little ramshackle cafe shop, which we took to be closed for the winter. But as we left, an old lady emerged, shouting excitedly. She wanted us to sign her visitor book. When we were done she gave us an orange*, and disappeared back into the dark building. It seemed like she must have been living alone up there, on top of a cold mountain, only accessible by a very steep, rough footpath. Perhaps she had family there that we didn’t see.
The light was nearly gone by the time we’d descended back to the valley, and hopped on a bus back to the hostel for another evening of hot baths and cold beer.
Having breakfast on the roof terrace the next morning, we seriously considered stopping here longer… or possibly indefinitely. The idea of spending the winter there, bundled up in the snowy mountains, was almost enough to drag us away from travelling on. Also, they had deckchairs.
Tokyo beckoned though, so we eventually managed to leave, and headed first to Hakone Open Air Museum, an art museum a couple of kilometres down the road. Entering through a smooth concrete tunnel, you’re met by a broad mountain view, and sculptures dotted about into the distance. You could tell from the natty outfits on display that the Tokyo hip had joined us for a weekend day out, mostly young families with toddlers in minimalist trainers.
The museum was excellent. It’s mostly a sculpture park, but also has a building of Picasso’s work. The Picasso was very interesting, especially because they’ve got so much of it in one place, you can see some ideas and obsessions running through. There was a great mix of media too. I didn’t realise Picasso had done so much ceramic work. Some of it was pretty cool, though much of it looked like something you’d do at one of those paint your own plate cafés.
Even better than the Picasso though, was wandering through the sculptures in the last of the autumn sun, mountains ranged around us. Occasionally the little red train would chug past the edge of the park. Otherwise it was quiet and calm, but for the happy sounds of kids playing on the interactive sculptures. It was busy, being the weekend, but not crowded, and we passed most of the day there, enjoying another picnic in the sun.
Quite a lot of the work is big scale stuff you can walk around in, or play with in some way. There’s a maze-like concrete warren sunk into the earth, and a tower of stained glass you can climb. The most fun one, a pyramid of clear plastic balls you could clamber through, was off limit to adults though. Sucks to be a grown up.
We rounded off the day with delicate sweets and an elegant pot of powdered green tea in the tea room, which was all glass and pale ash furniture, followed by a free foot bath. For some reason the hot spring water was full of lemons and oranges. The kids were having a great time chasing fruit up and down the bath.
All good things come to an end. Eventually it began to get cool again as the afternoon drew to a close, so (somewhat reluctantly) we dried our feet off and plodded off to Tokyo, down the mountain to our next adventure.
*This was at least the second time this happened in Japan, after we gave the American an orange on the Kumano Kodo. When we were leaving the campsite we stayed at that same night, a pair of bikers from Yokahama gave us an orange as we sheltered from the rain together under a porch, and they packed up their bikes ready for the long drive home. It happened after this too, but I’ve lost track of the times. Perhaps this is an aspect of East Asian hospitality we’ve never heard of before, or perhaps it really was Karma.
Nara is on the map for two things: temples and deer. The Japanese are big fans of both of these, so the place is packed with day trippers.
The deer were very friendly, possibly because there are stalls all over the place selling ‘deer crackers’ for the tourists to feed to them.
Nara’s home to the largest bronze Buddha in the world, which was pretty impressive, but perhaps not worth the rather steep entrance fee. It’s 15 metres high, and was cast in the 8th century, about the time Britain was being invaded by the Vikings, which makes the artistry and technical skill involved pretty awe inspiring.
Apparently it nearly bankrupted the Japanese economy at the time, because it used almost all of the bronze there was.
The hall which houses it remained the largest wooden structure in the world until the 1980s, despite being rebuilt on a smaller scale after a fire in the 16th century. The original complex also included two pagodas that might have been the highest structures in the world at the time, rivaled only by the Egyptians pyramids.
So, you know, it’s pretty big.
Some of the other statues in the complex were pretty cool, especially the chap in the photo at the start of this post, and the massive gate guardians you pass when you enter. These huge figures were in a style that seemed Indian to us. Perhaps imagery was still being borrowed from the source of the religion when Buddhism first came to Japan. Modern Japanese Buddhism has definitely developed its own aesthetic.
We had a nice wander through some of the shrines and gardens that are dotted around Nara park too, navigating our way through the flocks of tourists snapping autumn leaves selfies.
Group portraits with the deer were also going on.
The guy with the stick was herding the deer in front of the school kids for the photo. Not sure how this fits in with deer being revered as sacred messengers…
In the evening we stopped by a local sake brewery, and tried four of their brews. You could definitely taste the difference between the types, and I thought one of them was really nice. Perhaps I need to give sake more time, but I still find most of it a little harsh for my tastes.
I guess the deer on the wall wasn’t one of the sacred ones.
My favourite thing about Nara was the guesthouse we stayed in, run by a couple with a toddler. It’s called guesthouse makura, which means ‘pillow’. Coming through the curtain and sliding door out front, we were met by the owner sticking his head through a little window from the back room. Their front room was the bar, and upstairs were two tiny dorms and one double room. It was a proper old Japanese house on a little street full of sake bars, tiny restaurants, and secret Karaoke clubs. The inside was all lovely Japanese textiles and tatami mats, and the traditional bed rolls were squashy and cosy.
As well as the cute toddler, the owner was very nice, and we enjoyed chatting with him over a sweet plum wine in the front room bar. The only other guests were a Taiwanese couple who’d left their four week old baby at home to come on a two week holiday. I think holiday time is hard to come by in Taiwan.
Hearing this made me eminently glad that we’ve taken the course we have with our time on this Earth. Having a couple of years rather than a couple of weeks on our hands means we’re travelling slower than most, but if anything I’d like to slow down even more. (Spoiler: we’ve recently given in to this urge and started travelling by bicycle. Coming soon!)
Leaving everything behind may not be for everyone, but I haven’t regretted it for a moment so far. We miss people of course, and after four months I’m beginning to miss having a kitchen. I WANT A COFFEE POT! (ref. Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert*) But it’s nothing compared to all the new people and places we’ve been able to meet, and more than anything, having the time to absorb these experiences and let them change us a little bit.
Of course there are lots of ways to do this whole ‘life’ thing, and there are shades of grey between selling everything** and a life with two weeks holiday a year. But for us, I’m sure we picked the right way, or a right way.
It’s scary leaving everything behind: family, friends, jobs, a home, your accumulated life, having savings…
All I can say is that I’m so very glad we did it anyway.