nick\’s my name

October 17, 2007

Our Big Japan Trip

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — nicksmyname @ 9:10 am

On the way to Dublin at the end of June we visited Japan for 10 days. We had a briliant time. So here’s the story:

So first stop Osaka , but not before JetStar had punished us for being overweight (our bags that is) with a bit of excess baggage. The flight was fine. Rory and Luke got masses of attention from the other passengers; particularly a large group of schoolgirls who each HAD to have their photos taken with Luke. (more of that later!)

Kimiharu was one of our fellow walkers in Vietnam and has since travelled around most of the world on various trips, keeping us up to date with emails all the time. I had told Kimi many times over the years that we would visit him in Tokyo and a few weeks before we left I emailed him to meet us in Tokyo . Yes, he would meet us, he had replied, and he would get his friends to show us around Osaka too. Fab.

So after a night in the airport hotel we met up with Yuji who was to be our guide. He did a great job of showing us around Osaka over two days. It’s not that Japan is not tourist friendly. It is amazingly so; people are friendly, railway stations are well signed in English and have lifts to almost every platform (if you have pushed a pram you know why this is good), and generally you feel very safe when you are getting around. But still when it comes to working the ticket machines, knowing the best line to catch etc. you can’t beat having a local along. Plus we had two huge suitcases, a full rucksack, a sports bag, Rory, Luke, a pram and Rory’s fire engine bag to get around. The extra pairs of hands were wonderful. Biggest highlight of Osaka ? Probably the aquarium. Sydney has a great aquarium, but for sheer size, slickness and variety, Osaka beats it hands-down.

The boys and the Penguins in Osaka Aquarium

 

It was a busy day when we went, but there was hardly another overgrown European to be seen. At times Luke and Rory were getting more attention than the animals behind the glass.

We spent one wonderful night in a traditional Ryokan (Japanese Guest House) called Carpe Diem, which has rooms centred around a beautiful garden. Hard to describe. You need to see the pictures to appreciate. Truly a unique experience.

Our room with a view at Carpe Diem in Osaka

Next stop Kyoto . A bit more than an hour on the train North East from Osaka . You’ve probably heard of the Kyoto Protocol but not much more. Neither had we but it was supposed to be a great place to visit so there we were. We kind of expected a city full of wildly growing trees, houses made of recycled toilet rolls and rare animals sitting on the bonnets of Toyota Prius cars eating Macrobioticly controlled wildflowers. Well we didn’t see any of these, but there were a lot of temples. When I say a lot, I mean a lot. Too many to even try and see, so we settled with seeing a couple. The other great thing about Kyoto was the covered shopping streets / markets. Loads of them selling everything from Tofu, Seaweed and Chillies to trendy t-shirts and second hand Birkenstocks.

Luke meets the locals in Osaka

We had four days in Kyoto and we got quite used to the place. Our tiny hotel had a good sized Japanese-style room; which means you sleep on Futons on top of Tatami mats on the floor. Perfect for Luke and Rory as there was nothing to roll off.

We ventured a few times into the local baths. These places have to be experienced. There are two doors at the front; one for men and one for women. You walk in, pay your money and straight away separated from the street only be a single door and a piece of handing fabric you are in the changing room. You get undressed, put your stuff in a locker with a wooden key and go into the inner room. There you have a choice of about six baths. Before you go anywhere near them you have to wash yourself thoroughly with soap and rinse any grime off completely. Baths are not for washing!!!

So looking at these six baths I thought you might have very cold, cold, warm, warmer, hot, very hot. No chance. You have one very cold bath and you have 5 very hot baths. Anything else is for wimps. Oh, and one of the baths also provided a little bit of electricution in case you were getting too comfortable. I got straight back out of that one. You could actually add cold water to some of the baths, but there was so much hot water about it really didn’t make much difference except to help convince Rory to put a toe in. And like the little legend that he is, after a few visits he got in right up to his chest. Now this water was hot. Really hot. What a legend!

On the other side of the partition a gaggle of women kept Luke amused pushing him around the room in a clothes basket while Jannene dunked herself. Love the Japanese people.

One of the first things I did in Kyoto was to wreck my back hoisting the rucksack onto my back. Not surprising after carting all the bags between the hotel, onto and off trains, to the station lockers, around the streets etc. I really hurt it quite badly so for the next week or so I was a pathetic creature as we moved between places; pushing a pram piled high with bags, while Jannene pulled both suitcases and carried Luke in the Baby Bjorn on her chest. Rory did his bit by pulling his fire engine bag along. I am sure the locals wondered why this wimp was getting his wife to do all the heavy lifting.

On the move in Tokyo's subway

We caught the bullet train up from Kyoto to Tokyo . Yes, the train went very fast. Playing “I spy” was hopeless as before anyone had a chance to guess; the piece of scenery in question was long gone. We saw a lot of paddy fields. Many many many paddy fields. The Japanese love their rice and really don’t like anyone else’s. So every spare bit of land is a paddy field. Even in the suburbs of Osaka there were paddy fields jammed in between the houses. Out in the country there were of course even more paddy fields. The sheer greenness of all the fields was startling. It was coming to the end of the rainy season too I suppose everything was about as green as it gets.

In Tokyo we put our big bags in the locker and styed in a cute if a little shabby hotel. I laid up on my back watching bizarre Japanese TV while Jannene and the boys went out to find some dinner.

The next day we were back at the station catching the private “Romance Car” train to Hakone; an area in the mountains outside Tokyo that is a very popular tourist spot for Japanese. Once up there it was all about transport. We caught a bus to the town we were staying at. We caught a pirate ship (!!) across the lake to the cable car. The cable car took us up to the top of the mountain where there were hot springs . At the hot springs they dunked cages full of eggs into the boiling sulphurous water to produce black hard boiled eggs. Which we (and just about every Japanese tourist on the mountain) bought, cracked, peeled and ate on the spot. Stinky but delicious! Then we were back on another cable car. Then a funicular railway down the other side of the mountain, and we got back on the bus to the hotel. Along the way there were a lot of beautiful views. There are supposed to be views of Mount Fuji from the lake, but all we saw was a haze from our pirate ship.

Back to Tokyo next and it’s Kimi and Singha’s turn to show us around. I had asked Kimi to show us “the real Tokyo ”. We had seen a fair few temples already and some contemporary Japan was in order.

First stop; Akihabara; Tokyo ’s electronics district (or as Kimi called it “Nerd Capital”). We hit a few huge electronics shops; whole departments stores full of electronics selling everything from music players to motherboards to Linux books in Japanese. I picked up a few things for my camera but resisted the tiny, sexy laptops. Jannene and the kids went off to look at another shop and Kimi took me to look at one of the local specialist shops. You’ve probably seen Japanese cartoon characters which are young girls in short skirts, maid costumes etc. Well this shop had a whole floor dedicated to plastic models of what the Japanese call something like “Mowaye” girls. Thousands of plastic models of them. Holding weapons or just bending forward in their short skirts. You get the picture. It’s quite disturbing to think of thousands of Japanese men buying these underage characters. Kimi did warn me before that it would be weird and he swears he’s not into this stuff. I believe him. Really!

Then we met up with Jannene again and went to a “Maid Café”; an above-the-board place where you can go and have lunch, coffee, ice-cream etc. All very normal. Except the waitresses are all wearing Manga-Style French Maid Costumes. It probably sounds a little weirder than it was. There were Manga cartoons playing on large screens on the wall and it really felt like pretty harmless fun. Beside us a very geeky looking man was having lunch with one of the maids and talking about his favourite cartoons with her. Which he would have paid to do. OK so perhaps still a bit weird. By the way all the girls were from “PinkLand” and they were all 17. Really.

On the floors above you could get a back massage from a Maid, get your ears waxed by a Maid…

For lunch we went to a place called “Akiba Noodle”. Brilliant idea. They have a few thousand types of instant noodles. You pick one and they cook it for you; adding extra meat and vegetables if desired. Then within minutes it’s ready. So cool. The website is here; www.akiba-noodle.com They even have a blog that seems to feature a new noodle every day. Here’s google’s translation of one of the blog pages:

http://translate.google.com/translate?u=http%3A%2F%2Fblog.livedoor.jp%2Fakibanoodle%2F%3Fblog_id%3D2385399&langpair=ja%7Cen&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&prev=%2Flanguage_tools

Later on we went to Harajuku where Japan ’s young and disaffected get dressed up in costumes, meet in huge numbers, hang around looking unJapanese in a very Japanese way, and buy crepes. It was fun, but not really what I expected. It had a vibe a bit like the Temple Bar in Dublin in the eighties, but with shops like a suburban mall. The sheer volume of young people was amazing though. Plenty of teen spirit.

The Emperor’s Palace was nearby. After a good stroll through the park we arrive there just in time to witness a wedding procession coming through the temple. Pretty amazing. Check out the pictures. Kimi’s friend even got the bride and groom to pose for a picture with us. The brides Mother-In-Law didn’t look impressed at all. It’s probably bad luck to have wedding pictures with us ghosts.

Wedding procession in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo

That evening Kimi had organised for us to visit the Hot Baths at Odeo Onsen. This place was a huge theme park all around hot baths. After entering we were decked out in Kimonos and strolled through a sort of market / shopping / entertainment area where you could do things like throw Ninja stars (I was hopeless). After a little while in there we went in to the springs area. Males one way, females another. Kit off, wash yourselves like crazy with soap and water, rinse. Then in to the baths themselves. This was a huge area with every type of bath imaginable; baths to lie down in, baths to sit up in, salty baths, very hot baths, cold baths, outdoor pool baths…. The temperatures generally seemed a bit more reasonable than the local baths we had been to before. That didn’t mean that Rory was about to relax though. He splashed from one bath to another; always seeing another bath in the distance that looked more fun. After languishing for a while we got dressed into our Kimonos and headed back to the eating area. Rory went ballistic running around the Tatami mats, doing somersaults and generally being the Energiser bunny that he is. Dinner and beer. Yum! ????? pushed a plate in front of Jannene. “What’s this?” “Sashimi. Horse Sashimi.”. Nice. I am not really sure why our values system sees this any differently than a plate of beef sashimi, but needless to say, Jannene said no.

Sashimi...Horse Sashimi

So all in all a typical day in Real Japan; buy some electronics, coffee served by a French Maid, instant noodles for lunch, walk around in your best goth costume, quick traditional wedding, get naked with your friends, then a little raw horse for dinner.

Sunday was a little more relaxed. We started by going to the government tower. We were hopelessly late, but as per normal form, Kimi was extremely polite about it. The view was impressive. Once again, Mount Fuji was obscured by haze.

Next stop was the Tokyo Fire Department and Disaster Training. We spent the next few hours being trained in what to do in the event of a natural disaster. This included a 3D earthquake film (Rory was a little scared!) an earthquake simulator, a smoke-filled maze, setting of fire extinguishers and a hurricane simulator complete with wind and rain. It was mad and all in Japanese. Kimi and friends translated. It was just like that scene in “Lost in Translation”; the woman would talk away for five minutes then Kimi would say “she says you have to keep close to the ground to avoid the smoke”. We got our certificates and souvenir photos and headed off. I have to say it was a truly unique experience.

In an amazing bout of hospitality Kimi’s friend hosted us and a good dozen of Kimi’s friends for dinner in her beautiful house. The food was excellent, even for my Veggie appetite. Major thanks to Tommy and everyone who helped with the dinner. Much was eaten and drunk and Singha told us plenty of embarrassing stories about his travels abroad with Kimi.

Our wonderful hosts for dinner in Tokyo.

It was sad to say goodbye at the end of the night. We ended up going from last train to last train on the way home; traversing a few dodgy bits of Tokyo until we finally got home to our hotel.

The next morning we rose at 5am to make our way to the airport. As we checked out the woman said “you’re checking out a day early?”. No, we said. This is definetly our day to check out. As we waited for the bus we thought we might just check the dates. Sure enough we had stuffed up our days and we had another day left in Tokyo . Shocker! Back to the hotel looking very sheepish and back to bed for a few more hours. We made the best of our extra day and took a boat cruise down the river, did a walking tour around Shinjuku, checked out the posh Ginza shopping district and finally met up with Kimi and about a dozen of his friends again for dinner at an Indian restaurant. We had another last train to the last train episode on the way home. Somehow time really flies with these guys.

Finally with great sadness we caught our plane out the next morning. We really had a fantastic holiday in a large part thanks to Kimi, Singha and their friends who showed us lots of Japanese hospitality. I really hope we get to repay them sometime when they visit Ireland . Even without locals to show you around Japan is a great place to visit.

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1 Comment »

  1. Hi! Nick.How are you going?
    Please contact with me by E-mail.
    I want to send you some photos.

    Comment by Yuji Horiguchi — October 23, 2007 @ 8:15 pm


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