Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Diving into another world: Japan, Part 4: Kyoto

Still tired from marching through Kanazawa we took the evening train to our next destination. Again, well organised and easy to hop on, again almost impossible to miss. We are more and more versed in doing travels in Japan. When leaving the train and the station and while getting some sort of orientation we were surrounded by people trying to get from A to B – hectic and chaos everywhere. The so well-known structure and systematised atmosphere got lost. F or us, it felt like being stones in a river and the water was just swirling around us.

The hotel was only a few blocks away and easy to reach. Lucky, as we were not in the mood anymore for a long fully packed walk through the city. The breakfast the next morning was typical: rice balls with diverse fillings, miso soup, sea grass and green teen. Doesn’t sound that much but somehow it keeps you full for quite some time.

Ready and prepared we hit the town, took the train from the main train station (yes, again thousands of people) for one stop and arrived at the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Rich in colour it seems to be one of the most interesting temples in Japan. So I heard. The Shrine was beautiful, mostly in red colour, but even more impressing were the tracks and paths leading up the hill. For several kilometres, wooden gates all over the place, you walk through them where ever you go. It’s mystical and, somehow, throws you back in time. The first 1000 metres has got 1000 of them. The (sun) lights turn them in deep shiny red colour. A picture everybody wants to ban on their cameras which makes it nearly impossible to get one without any persons on it. The further you walk uphill, the less people were there.

At some point, we needed to go on. The next must see – the Golden Temple Kinkaku-ji, literally "Temple of the Golden Pavilion". Located almost opposite from the place we’ve just been. It seems school classes were having the some idea, or they just had some kind of excursion day or something. Different classes marked with hats in different colours. All moved around in bunches – us in the middle. The temple is a Zen Buddhist temple. It’s got 3 levels, each of them constructed in different ages and therefore in a specific style which are shinden, samurai and zen. But one thing they do have one thing in common – the thin layer of gold at the surface. I’ve never seen such a building like this.

The next thing on our list has been the Bamboo Garden. Unlucky with the weather, we’ve been running around in rain. Positive side effect: less tourists. I mean still enough to bomb pictures. But we had some tourist free moments. The trees were massive, maybe 20 metres or so in height, dipping everything in fresh greenish colour and that just made it look so unreal.

On the way back we were stopping by the old town. Tiny streets and traditional houses have thrown us back in time. Shops in the basements offered things for all needs. Mostly food and regional things, as well as hand crafted goods.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Diving into another world: Japan, Part 3: Nagano to Kanazawa

Time to go more north, again by train, this time with a little bit more luck getting some reserved seats for us. In Nagano, we needed a few moments to get back the orientation. Somehow we didn't know where to go and the guesthouse we have picked was more or less hidden than obvious located. A free drink (Sake, of course) helped to cool down a bit. Nagano itself didn't offer that much from the touristic point of view. However, the Zenkō-ji Temple is worth a visit, built back in the 7th century and therefore, it still looks so much alike. I felt like thrown back in time. The small street leading to the temple is packed with shops offering traditional goods for all interests.

The dinner was adventurous too. The first challenge was finding an appropriate restaurant which is serving not too fancy food, neither too cheap nor too overprized. An undertaking not that easy - we usually walked through half of the city before making the decision of entering a specitic restaurant. You never knew what to expect when checking through the window from the outside or overlooking the menu pictures. Basically, it goes how it always goes with those things. You finally choose the first available. The restaurant was crowded - couples and some bigger groups were arguing and discussing vociferously. We were guided to a table, barefooted, and not really surprisingly, it was getting more and more complicated because no one was capable of the English language. So here they come, the problems of misunderstanding and miscommunication, I thought. Not in Japan, they have a solution for everything. The waitress pulled out her mobile phone, typed something in and showed the translation - our way to communicate. As we had no idea what to eat we ordered the same dish all other guests had by pointing at a metal bowl in the middle of our neighbour's table. It contained hot water and additionally, they served some plates with vegetables, raw ham, noodles and hot broth. We looked at each other and had no clue what to do with it. Luckily the waitress noticed our overextension and she tried to explain gesticulating in Japanese. It helped a bit. I am still not sure if we did it the right way by furling the veggies in the ham and boiling it shortly. Quite a procedure, but with a certain fun factor.

The journey continued, again by train, again more north. We headed to Takayama, located in the Gifu Prefecture. It's still well known for its sophisticated knowledge in carpentry. It's said their carpenters have worked on the most famous temples in Kyoto and surrounding. The inner city is famous for its wooden buildings. Loads of tourists promenade through the streets day-in, day-out, but it's getting noticeably less crowded in the evening hours, especially after dinner time when people have tried the world famous and high-class Hida Beef. One highlight was the overnight stay in the Hodakaso Yamanoiori Hotel. Shoes had to be left near the entrance. Elsewhere, only slippers were allowed. The room offered coziness, and two single mattresses placed on the floor. Best thing and a not-yet-known experience: "Onsen" bath! The Japanese way to relax and free the mind. With 40°C it's quite hot and you can't stay in there for too long.

Next stop: Kanazawa ("march of gold", when, according to the legend, farmers found flakes of gold while digging for patatoes). Geisha areas (Higashi District) still exist, however, we didn't see any. The traditional houses are still made of wood with its common sliding shutters. The Kenrokuen Garden is well known and one of the most beautiful gardens in entire Japan filled with various trees, plants, flowers, ponds and waterfalls. Nagamachi, the ancient Samurai area, was on our route before it was time to catch the train.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Diving into another world: Japan, Part 2: Aomori

Cherry blossom full bloom in Aomori

Time to leave Tokyo for something new. Fully packed and the Japan Rail Pass in the hands, we went to the ticket office in Tokyo's main train station. We presented the screenshot, indicating precisely the train, the time and the destination where we wanna go, to the employee behind the desk. Well prepared, I'd say. And it made things a bit easier and faster. Unfortunately, all seats have been fully booked. Anyways, we've got a ticket - standing tickets in the doorway, for three hours only.We grabbed a coffee and pulled the book outta the backpack, so that helped.

A couple in a rowing boat surrounded by cherry trees

Right on time we approached Aomori. Trains in Japan obviously never run late. I don't know how they do it, but they somehow get it to work. As we walked through the city to the hotel we already noticed we won't see the cherry blossom here. There were some trees scatteredly, in their high bloom too, but that cannot be all. And soon it was clear. The place to go was Hirosaki, taking another train for one hour. The local train, starting on time again, offered no signs of English language anymore. It was more try and error than being sure picking the right train.

There have been some snacks available

The cherry blossom itself was awesome. We luckily picked the first day of full bloom. The park was massive, with thousands of trees shining in white and pink-ish colour. Tourists everywhere tried to get the perfect picture. I was one of them. Japanese families gathered under the trees to celebrate the "Hanami" with tons of food and drinks. We, as well, tried some regional specialities called "Oden". Can't be that bad as almost everyone ate at least one joyfully. The first bite went to Antje, and her face revealed deepest disgust immediately. She tried to chew a bit, shoving the thing from left to right and vice versa and, finally, decided to get rid of it, choosing the way where it was coming from. My turn then. And I have to admit the texture and taste was not something to get used to. First bite, second and a third one, but it was not getting better and thus, both of us were not able to finish it... We got back to business and continued our tour through the cherry trees until dawn before taking the same train back to Aomori.

Yellow-glowing balloons everywhere

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Diving into another world: Japan, Part 1: Tokyo

Planning? No need! Making a schedule month before? Not needed! Listening to travel agencies? Never done this! While I had a business trip to Finland (happens quite often lately) it was on Antje’s shoulders to get the main things done. The Japan Rail Pass arrived surprisingly quick, express delivery from London, the flight was booking just one week before departure. Although it was said it’s gonna be tough to find hotels during the cherry blossom, we gave it a try. And there still were some, luckily.

Via London Heathrow, we took the flight to Tokyo. Two meals, an half-finished movie was enough to sleep the rest away. It took us a while to orientate, money was needed and we wanted to change the Japan Rail Pass voucher into the official one which is set to a specific starting date. After that we obviously bought the right train ticket at the counter, and thus, after another 1 ½ hours we reached the Kanda station, from now on we had walking. We shuffled through the streets and somehow found the right hotel. I didn’t really understand what the receptionist was wanting, but handed the keys over to us after a 10 minute phone call to somewhere or someone, just to confirm if my credit card would be accepted. It looked like it would.

The “room” was small, like really small. With our luggage on the floor, there was almost no space to move. With an huge step, we were able to enter the bathroom. One person fits in there quite well, the other one had to stay outside. Luckily there was an instruction provided on how to use the tab. In Japanese language of course. I would have been so helpless without. But the best thing: The full-automated toilets! The seat was heated, two levels available. All kinda water spraying functions as well.

After a short nap we decided to explore the area we are staying in. Buildings have been in constructed in skyscraper manner. As we were walking through tiny narrow streets, there was another thing quite different to what we are used to. You basically cannot dehydrate, there are various refreshment vendors available on every corner. They directly guide you to them by shining in every colour imaginable.

We ended up in the Imperial Palace Garden where Eric Clapton was giving his concert. As it seems, Japanese like his music. We decided to walk on, checking the street restaurants and their specialities. Which is quite an endeavour. An English menu is apparently not available, in most cases. We had to decide by pointing on pictures. That worked well, but doesn’t give all the information needed for choosing wisely. But people are very patient and willing to help.

The next three days have been fully packed with the main tourist attractions. The Imperial Palace & Gardens, the Hamarikyu Gardens, the Tokyo Tower, which is a copy of the one in Paris, but of course it needed to be higher. The World Trade Centre offers spectacular views over the cities’ skyline. Mostly we took the metro which was an unexpected challenge. You really had to look closely where you actually are and where you wanna go. There were just too many stops you possibly get off, and different metro companies as well, covering different metro maps. It’s just crazy.