Day 10

We woke up at a stupidly early time to pack up and get ready for a 7am breakfast so that we could make the train for Kyoto.  This was our first authentic Japanese breakfast of the trip.  As with all the ryokan meals, there was no choice in what we ate, we simply got served our breakfast.  It was a lot of fun and rather tasty.  We had a mix of fish, rice, soup, some components to roll our own little sushi rolls (but with hot miso paste inside) a poached egg and numerous small dishes of accompaniments.  We then had a slightly nervous wait for a late taxi (nice to see something in Japan can be late though) and got onto the 8am train to Nagoya.  At Nagoya we switched onto the bullet train for Kyoto and relaxed at we sped across the countryside.

Kyoto subway isn’t nearly as comprehensive as the one in Tokyo.  There’s only a few lines and they’re only good for reaching a few places.  We weren’t ready to figure out the buses so we jumped in a taxi to our hotel, The Royal Park Hotel, to drop off our bags.  We then immediately headed out to explore and try to find the Aritsugu knife shop in a nearby old market so I could indulge in a little souvenir shopping.  They offer to engrave the knives when you buy them with your name (converted to Japanese) and I had to explain that I wanted mine to have “Kyuubi” and “Hachibi” which mean “9-tails” and “8-tails”, two animal spirits from Naruto, one of my favourite anime and manga series.  The young staff in the store were also big anime and manga fans (as most Japanese are) and we had a long conversation whilst the engraving was taking place all about what shows we all liked and how I got into it all.  They were really lovely and had very good English.

We then tried using the subway (with the help of a local who explained how we use the machine to buy tickets) to get over to Nijo-jo Castle.  This is a very large, single-storey castle in the middle of Kyoto.  It is famous for the entire building having “Nightingale” floors between the outside and the interior rooms.  The purpose of the floors is to make a noise when anyone walks on them so that even the most silent assassin may not approach and kill the Shogun.  You might expect a squeaky floor when you step onto it but you really understand how they got the name.  It’s a quite magical sound and the smile rarely left my face from walking on it all the way round the rooms.   As we walked through the building we got to see the initial audience chambers, then the chambers for more important guests, slowly building up to the Shogun’s own room.  All the rooms were devoid of furniture and were large tatami mat rooms which could be used as necessary.  As all the walls were made of sliding doors you could open up both the exterior walls and the interior room dividers and turn the whole castle into an open air room if needed.  It must have been quite something on hot days if they did that.

After the interior we toured the extensive gardens of the castle before making our way back to the hotel.  We’d eaten at 7am and not yet found lunch and it was nearly 3pm.  We buckled immediately and near ran for Burger King over the road.  We then checked into our room and had a short rest, reveling in the feeling of a proper bed before heading out to Samurai Kembu, a short walk away.  I’d signed us up for a 3 hour session where we’d watch a performance of kembu and then be shown some samurai basics ourselves.  Kembu is like a performance art of samurai abilities using a sword and a fan.  Samurai would traditionally do it  before a battle to build courage or during celebrations and they would practise to hone their ability.

This all took place in the basement of a building on one of the larger streets east of the river.  For the first out the crew of 4 performed many great short pieces which showed different styles and told stories from old samurai history.  They then got us dressed into kimono that we had chosen so that we could look the part of samurai and gave us each a sword.  We were joined for this by 2 other young tourists visiting from Australia but it was just the 4 of us.  We were then taught the basics of drawing the sword and a number of different strikes.  After a further hour the Australians left and we had a bit more time.  We were taught some use of the fan for kembu and then some further (very tiring) sword techniques.  We then had to practise a small kembu routine and each perform it separately on a stage.  There is video footage, I do not know if it will ever see the light of day!

My knees were just about as bruised as could be after the session so we rested at the hotel for a short while before seeking a very late dinner.  The hotel gave us instructions on finding a bento shop that made it hot and fresh to order.  Unfortunately the shop had no English signs and all we had was the name, but the logo was just about enough to make an educated guess that we had the right place.  The tonkatsu bento was rather delicious and we ended up getting to bed much too late given how much sightseeing there is to be done in Kyoto.  At least the pillows were comfy!

Day 9

We had a very odd western breakfast in Matsumoto with a really bizarre array of dishes, but at least we had good views out over the city from the top floor restaurant.  Afterwards we were a little rushed to get to the station but the hotel minibus driver was shouting to us to indicate that it was free and she’d get us to the station, so we had time to relax before our train at the station and pick up some bento boxes to serve as lunch on the journey.  The train took 2 hours, very slowly rolling through the Kiso valley to the west of Matsumoto and into the mountains before we got to Tsumago.

Tsumago is a village located on the Nakasendo Highway, an old postal and trade route that covers all the way from Kyoto to Tokyo and was used in Samurai times.  Tsumago was a post town and even now retains the very traditional appearance that it would have had back then.  It is the equivalent of a National Trust village, but exceptionally authentic aside from some of the old buildings operating as souvenir shops and a small number of cars parked nearby.

We got a taxi to the Daikichi ryokan on one end of town and dropped our bags off and got shown around.  This was by far the most traditional accommodation of the trip.  Our room was a small tatami affair and we shared a bathroom and toilet down the hallway with the 3 other rooms on the lower floor.  We quickly threw on some hiking gear and packed up a bag and had them call us a taxi to Magome, the next post town in the valley so that we could walk some of the Nakasendo Highway.  We were a little nervous because of the light rain and the rolling thunder from deeper into the valley but we were determined to have a go.

The taxi dropped us near Magome pass, making our journey a little shorter than if we’d gone all the way into Magome.  Initially this was an annoyance but within seconds of arriving the drizzle turned to rain and then the rain turned to an almighty thunderstorm.  I’d never been walking in anything quite like it, let alone on some slippery and unfamiliar paths that I’d heard were badly signposted.  Luckily for us we were pretty well prepared and the signage turned out to be pretty reasonable.  We had some waterproof sacks in our bags that we loaded everything into but even these were damp by the end of the walk.  We bailed out our rucksacks a couple of times along the way too.

The walk took us just over 2 hours and went through some tiny villages in the valley and passed a couple of waterfalls.  You could really get the sense that you were walking a very old route that many people would have had to undertake over the years, and they wouldn’t have had light waterproof jackets and trousers!  At the end of the walk we slowly strolled through Tsumago which itself was bigger than we’d expected and incredibly authentic.  We then changed out of our wet clothes, surveyed the soaked cash that hadn’t been stuffed away and lamented what happens to an iphone screen in the pocket of a waterproof jacket.  We then shared a hot bath and got into our yukata for dinner.

We had high expectations for the food as this was meant to be one of the highlights of the trip and it didn’t disappoint.  Along with a variety of dishes, we ended up eating grasshoppers, a whole trout (including head and tail) and some horse.  I asked the Japanese gentleman dining near me what fish the red meat was.  He explained it was horse.  I then asked what the white fish was.  Also horse.  The white portion was the fat from the back of the neck apparently.  We ended up sharing a lot of conversation with him over dinner about what we’d been doing in Japan, why we had come and about the food and his own history with visiting England (Milton Keynes no less!) as he had excellent English and was a lot of fun.  After the meal we headed back to the room, lay our futons out on the tatami mats and got an early night.

I was pleased at this point to think that I’d not only survived the food in the ryokans where I’d have no choice in what I was given, but I’d also enjoyed a large amount of the food and some of it was truly wonderful.  Google street view had shown me that once we got to Kyoto afterwards that there would be a Burger King opposite our hotel should it come to the worst (well, the worst is actually McDonalds) and that we’d finally be back in the land of fall-back options.

 

Day 8

We got up early to head over to Kamikochi bus station and hop on the bus back to town, along with some chocolate mochi that I then left on the bus.  Even though it was about a 70 minute drive back to Shinshimashima, the bus arrived on time at the station to the minute.  The more this happens, the more disillusioned I get with trains at home.

We hopped on a local train to Matsumoto and then walked through town to the Buena Vista Hotel to drop our luggage, and it did have some pretty good views!

After 4 days of staying in ryokans we wanted a change, so we went to a Hawaiian burger joint by the river called Hula-la and had some outstanding food.  Even the fries were some of the best I’ve eaten.  We ordered a couple of cokes and ended up with bizarre white drinks that were easily tasty enough to make us forget to mention the mix up.

We walked further north until we came across the castle.  Matsumoto is famed for its castle, the largest of its kind in Japan.  To tour the castle we had to take our shoes off and carry them with us in a little bag.  There were 6 storeys  to explore and the steps were absolutely gigantic.  They were so steep to the top couple of floors that it was a little bit challenging with a bag, shoes and camera dangling about.  From the top of the castle we had commanding views in all directions and the whole place was in excellent condition.  By the end of the walk round my feet were done with steps  and we headed out to explore the rest of the town and see an array of shrines and wells.

We picked up some ice creams at the corner shop by the hotel and crashed for a little while before heading out to a very small, traditional Japanese restaurant for chicken katsu curry.  It was very tasty but it also helped me realise that the ones I can get back in the UK are very similar!

We strolled a little more around town to walk off a bit of the food before calling it a night.  Originally the purpose of the day in Matsumoto was mainly to provide a break in the ryokan food (in case I wasn’t enjoying it) and to allow us a bit of a break whilst seeing the castle.  In truth, we had some fantastic food and saw a lot more than just the castle.  It was well worth being an overnight stay.

Day 7

Double futon is entirely the way to go!  Though my back was still a little stiff, I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I’d slept with a single thin futon.  We got up before 7 for an early breakfast and were met with the same food as just about everywhere else.  They certainly do tasty bread here and croissants have been everywhere.  Aside from that though it’s usually just some scrambled eggs and just awful looking sausages.  At the very least they are civilized enough to have some Heinz ketchup.

I can’t make my way through this hotel without doing a lot of tripping over.  When you arrive at a traditional Japanese hotel or ryokan you’re expected to leave your shoes near the door (or in this large hotel, in some footlockers just after reception).  They then provide you with slippers to use when you’re inside, but they have to be taken off before entering the room!  There are even special bathroom slippers to be used for sitting on the toilet.  So at the Shimaya I got by in tiny slippers, probably 5 sizes too small for my feet.  This place took pity on me and gave me big slippers.  It turns out that they fall off my feet even more and some of the floors have slopes on them that are very deceptive due to carpet.  Just walking around the hotel becomes an adventure.

We headed out after breakfast to walk south along the river to Tashiro pond and then Taisho pond.  We were early enough not to have to fight against too many day-trippers, but they were still flocking in.  The views of Mt. Yakedake (an active volcano) were exceptional across Taisho pond, itself created by an eruption 99 years ago.  The channel down the side of the mountain taken by the molten lava can still be clearly seen.  We then took a different path back to loop round to Kappabashi bridge and our hotel, getting back at around lunchtime.

We tend to think that British people are pretty friendly walkers and we’ll often give a polite nod or “Hello” as we cross paths.  The Japanese put us to shame though.  It became unusual for us to pass any walkers without them smiling and greeting us (and it wasn’t just because we were foreigners as we saw them do it to each other).  Most often it was a “Konnichiwa” and the older the walker, the more gusto went into the “Kon nichi waaaaaaaaa”.  Aside from this we got the other typical Japanese greeting of “Ohaya gozaimasu” and then a lot of “Morningu”s and “Hello”s.  So often with such a big smile that it just helps your day feel that bit better.  They’re always having fun and laughing about things.  This is probably what makes them seem so like us.  They’re an extraordinarily polite people and they can be reserved too, but they don’t take themselves seriously at all and it always seems like the happy, innocent laughter of childish fun.

After a break at the hotel and rice balls and potato wedges for lunch we headed back up to Myojin bridge, taking the path in the opposite direction to the night before.  This time we found Myojin pond and saw some wonderful views of Mt. Oku-Hotakadake, Japan’s 3rd highest mountain.  Tonight there were no monkeys at Myojin bridge and we guess we just got incredibly lucky the previous day.  Signs were telling us that there had been bear sightings nearby just a few days earlier but they were keeping out of our way.

Dinner was a bit of a disappointment.  It was as if someone told the kitchen that they wanted it to be just like the night before, but not that.  Each plate had the exact same amounts of food as the night before with the identical crockery and placement.  It all looks quite fancy, but the taste isn’t there to back it up.  This is in stark contrast to the previous ryokan where just one woman was cooking us up a superior 9 course feast that was far more different between the 2 evenings.  I certainly wouldn’t call the dinner tonight bad as we still got to try a large variety of small dishes and some of them were very nice, it was simply poor by the standards of our trip so far.  The valley and scenery did not disappoint however and have been a welcome break from the urban sprawl that covers much of Japan.

Tomorrow we start several days of travel, beginning with returning to Matsumoto where we should have the chance to see one of the best examples of a Japanese castle before spending the night on a proper bed and being able to choose what we have for dinner.  The heathens may even let us keep our shoes on!

 

Day 6

Today we got up, had a western style breakfast at the Shimaya ryokan and then said our goodbyes.  Both the owner and his wife saw us off and wanted a few photos with us and they gave us some ribbons tied through 5 yen coins to tie to our packs for good luck.

We then hopped back on the “Limited express Snow Monkey” train to Nagano to start our journey into the mountains.  From Nagano we got a local service to Matsumoto which had to stop several times to reverse onto a different line to let an oncoming train pass.  It felt like it was unplanned at first but this was Japan, and trains do not run late.  We hit Matsumoto a minute ahead of schedule.

From Matsumoto another local train into Shinshimashima and everyone on the train seemed to be headed out into the mountains.  A group of about 25 teenagers (maybe 17 years old) were on board, as were a flight crew of 5 from Switzerland.  The 2 Swiss guys were bald and ended up with the girls stroking their heads and exchanging sweets all around.  Jealousy is an ugly feeling!  The kids were so cute and everything anime had told me they would be.  All of us ended up on the coach from Shinshimashima into Kamikochi.  The total journey taking just over 4.5 hours.  The coach had little flip down seats that went into the aisle and meant that even when full, nobody extra had to stand.  I spent a while chatting with the Swiss about their travel plans and mine and had the funny background noise of all the girls on the coach exclaiming whenever we’d try to squeeze by another bus on the tiny roads (Sugoi!  Sugoi!).

Japanese seats aren’t always very forgiving any by the time the coach pulled into Kamikochi we REALLY needed to walk about a bit.  After a little gap we grabbed some Japanese curry in a little cafe then made our way to the Shirakaba-sou Hotel.  The hotel is on the banks of the river running through this mountainous valley.  It’s all very lush and green at this time of year and a really pleasant setting.  It was a little overcast, but that’s pretty normal in the mountains and in Japan as a whole, not unlike England.  The hotel here was like an upmarket ryokan, with us staying in a traditional Japanese tatami room.  Much larger than in Yudanaka and much more like a regular hotel than a guest house.

We dumped our bags and headed out to walk north in the valley to the next bridge and back down the other side of the river.  Some of the walk was through thick forest and other parts along the bank of the river, sometimes on raised wooden boardwalks.  The highlight was the bridge crossing as many monkeys, probably thirty or forty were using it to cross over to our side of the river.  Whilst the monkeys at the park in Yudanaka were very cool, it was special to see these out in the wild.  Almost all the tourists had departed in the late afternoon and we were about the only people around.  We eventually left the monkeys and ended up walking by torchlight to get back to our hotel in time to get changed into our yukata for dinner.

Dinner here was in a large room and served as courses one after another in a western style rather than all at once as had been normal so far.  There was no English menu and when I did ask, although the waiter spoke some English, he seemed more interested in what I thought the food was.  We had 9 courses, some of which contained up to 4 individual dishes and most of it was very tasty.  There was a wide variety on offer, from strips of near raw beef, some kind of sea creature with suckers and clam chowder to a mushroom risotto and berry panna cotta.  Having this many small dishes is a fantastic way to eat and enjoy food.  If we don’t like a dish (and this has been rare) then we don’t eat much of it and there’s plenty of other ones to have.  We only tend to finish the better dishes because there’s so much food on offer and we have to pace ourselves!

Our room had been switched over from a table and chairs to having bedding out whilst we’d been at dinner.  Beds hadn’t been terribly remarkable on the trip yet but after a little while of lying down and getting people to hit other people on the head with pens thousands of miles away I tried to stand up.  Pen karma kicked in and gave me a few seconds where my back did not consider being upright a reasonable proposition.  The futons here are about 3 inches thick, sitting atop a hard tatami mat floor.  On the futon is a very thin blanket to lie on and I really hadn’t considered that most Japanese people would press a bit lighter on these than me and be more used to them.  So as I go to bed, I have 2 of them stacked on top of each other and we’ll see if double futon is the way forward here.

Day 5

Today was our first cultural failure.  We forgot to set an alarm and were late for breakfast!  We hurried into our Yukata once more and waddled downstairs for our western style breakfast.  We’d opted to go for the easy route here as 3 meals with rice and miso every day is still a bit much.  So we had toast, scrambled eggs and frosties in the basement whilst being serenaded by an electric pianola (pianos that play themselves).

We then went off to our first public onsen which was the “large” one in the middle of Yudanaka.  It wasn’t really very big but the other local ones are really quite tiny.  We were joined by a young japanese family (on our respective sides of the wall) part way through and I didn’t have to feel like we’d chickened out of public bathing.  This bath wasn’t quite as hot as the one the night before, though still tremendously hot by our standards.

After this we relaxed for a little while at the ryokan and then headed out again to the nearby town of Shibu onsen.  We bought a couple of cloths which name all 9 of the local onsen and walked around the town stamping them with red ink stamps found outside each one.  This involved a fair bit of guesswork as to which way up the stamp went and trying to compare them to the characters on the onsen signs.  We had a short rest at a foot bath at the top of town  and we then grabbed some chicken katsu don (with a really f**king hot mustard on a large bit of it that I got way too much of on one bite!) at the recommended place to eat.  It tasted great, as did the gyoza we had.  We then went off to use the largest public onsen in town and we didn’t get any company this time.  This onsen set a new record for temperature, even turning the cold tap nearby onto full did little to dent the ferocity.

Once we were truly broiled we grabbed some souvenirs and a couple of monkey cake things with jam in them at a local shop and walked back to Yudanaka.  We popped out to the local store and then went for another trip to the ryokan’s private onsen.  Once again I had to relearn the meaning of hot as this raised the bar, but we had lovely afternoon views out over the valley and got nice and clean (as if we weren’t already) before dinner.

Tonight we had a hotpot on the stove (and instructions to eat it once the fire had gone out) with chicken and prawns.  Rainbow trout cooked in foil with veg, mixed sashimi, tempura (a mix of sea food and vegetables), hard little things that may have been cucumber slices, some pretty raw roast beef slices with a basil sauce, tiny little rolls of mixed veg with a salad and a dish of sliced melon.  Again the quality of food was superb.  We washed it down with some hot sake and prepared for bath number 4!

The owner of the ryokan took us out to an onsen part way up a nearbv mountain, perhaps 15 minutes drive from the ryokan.  He arranged for us to have a private onsen with views down over the valley for just over an hour.  The early evening views were lovely and from here we could see the glittering lights of towns in the valley and the outlines of the alps in the distance.  We added a bunch of cold water to our little onsen and had a very relaxing time.  The selfies taken this night are the ones nobody will ever wish they’d seen :D.

The ryokan owner picked us up bang on time and then drove us back to Yudanaka for the night.  Tomorrow we make our way by a variety of trains and a bus into Kamikochi, a village in the Japanese alps on the banks of a river in a beautiful valley.  It’s a funny thing to come halfway around the world from Bath of all places and then fall in love with hot springs in Japan but Yudanaka and Shibu have been great and the owner of the Shimaya ryokan and his family (his daughter serves all our meals and is adorable) have been incredible and will not be soon forgotten.

Day 4

Today it was time to make our way out of Tokyo and into a Japan that most westerners will overlook.  We travelled north by shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano and then on to Yudanaka Onsen.  An onsen is a hot spring and the towns which feature them use it as part of their name.

The train travel was very relaxed and everything was impeccably on time, as it was in Tokyo.  We bought some bento boxes of tonkatsu and rice (fried pork, like chicken katsu) which were really tasty.  I also had some rather nice vanilla ice cream on the shinkansen.

When we arrived at Yudanaka there was a helpful volunteer at the train station who helped foreigners to find their hotel or ryokan and pass out maps.  Touches like this really warm you to a country!  We walked about 10 minutes uphill to Shimaya Ryokan.  This was our first traditional accommodation for the trip and we weren’t quite sure what to expect.  The owner had a decent grasp of English and was just a little on the eccentric side.  He gave us some strong suggestions for what to do and told us that we’d go to the snow monkey park as soon as we’d dropped our bags off.

So we drop our bags in the tatami mat room and have a quick look.  The decor is a bit tatty in the bathrooms.. perhaps very tatty.  The rest of the place is quite eclectic in the decorations too.  The walls of the stairway are like a guestbook, where previous occupants have drawn or written a poster of gratitude, suggesting everyone was very happy to stay here.  Then it’s off to see the monkeys.

The owner drives us up to the monkey park about 3 miles away and we agree to walk back.  It’s about another mile along a path to the entrance.  Once inside we’re greeted with a small park where local snow monkeys hang out and bathe in the river and hot springs.  It’s probably at its best in winter with everything covered in snow, but it was still a wonderful sight and there were so many cute little baby monkeys playing everywhere.

We stopped off at a cafe by the exit for some ice cream and drinks (turns out apple ice cream shouldn’t really be a thing) and then walked back to Yudanaka via Shibu onsen, another local onsen town.

We had a short time to relax at the ryokan then we changed into our Yukata (the traditional dressing gowns, tied at the waist) and went down for dinner.  Dinner at a ryokan is 9 courses (all served at around the same time in small dishes) and it features a real variety of food.  I’d been wary of this experience but it was truly one of the most wonderful meals I’ve ever had.  The wife of the owner does all the cooking and she’s very talented.  We had some slices of beef that we cooked for just a few seconds on a stove in front of us (we each had a stove), some veg already on the stove, grilled rainbow trout, a selection of sashimi (raw fish), stuffed aubergine (this was amazing), a lovely little mixed seafood salad, pickles, steamed vegetables in broth, rice, miso soup, tea and a selection of fruit.

After dinner we were immediately taken (still wearing yukata, and wooden sandals) to the ryokan’s private onsen.  It was just after sunset and we had lovely dusk views of the valley and moon for our bathing.  Visiting an onsen is a quite elaborate amount of first washing yourself and then once clean, bathing in the very hot waters of the small pool.  Swimming costumes simply aren’t done, so be it a private or a public onsen, you do it naked.  In public onsen at least there are usually separate areas of men and women to preserve modesty.  Very hot doesn’t really do them justice and you don’t get used to it in the same way as cold water.  When you’re in the hot water, if you move then every little bit of searing flesh lights up again.  We eventually learned that you can modify the temperature usually via a cold water hose but it feels a bit like cheating (until you see a local do it!).

After this I had the best sleep of the trip so far.  Apparently being boiled alive is good for getting relaxed somehow!

Day 3

We’d actually seen more than planned during the first 2 days and we were as tired as you might expect as a result, and with the lack of sleep I was getting.  So the goal today was a bit more sedate.

We headed out in the morning to see the Meiji-jingu Shinto Shrine and it didn’t disappoint.  Set in a park south of Shinjuku you had no idea you were still inside Tokyo.  The noise from crickets and birds is so loud, there’s nothing comparable back home.  The shrine was large but relatively simple, but that’s kind of the point with Shinto.  Was a lovely area to stroll through though.

We then walked south into Shibuya to get lunch.  The recommended suggestions from the guide book no longer existed so we went for more tempura, this time a mix of vegetarian and sea food.  It was again very tasty.  Despite coming to Japan wary of sea food it has been some of best food yet.

We then hopped onto the Yamanote line to Akihabara to do a little shopping (and finally find an example of a vending machine selling underwear!) and then returned to the hotel.  We headed out for the evening to the Park Hyatt Hotel, featured in Lost in Translation.  We went to the New York Bar, used in the movie and had cocktails and some food.  I had a gorgeous Wagyu beefburger and the views from the 52nd floor over the night skyline of Tokyo were just fabulous.  It was truly worth me getting an eye test and buying glasses a few months back just for that one view.

We grabbed a taxi back into Shinjuku but I didn’t mind where they dropped us off, so I told the hotel porter to request Shinjuku station north exit.  The look on his face was priceless.  I realised that the station must not have a north exit (I did know it had west, east and south) but it seemed like I was putting the poor man in a terrible position of having to tell me that I couldn’t go there because it didn’t exist and that just seemed culturally unacceptable to him.  I think he probably considered building a north exit before I put him out of his misery.

From the station we walked back to the hotel via Kabuchiko, the “pink” light district of Shinjuku but it didn’t seem to be too bustling yet.  I then found some time to start writing these!  Tomorrow we head out of Tokyo by bullet train and go north to Yudanaka, an Onsen (hot spring) town up towards the mountains.  We’ll then have a largely relaxing week travelling across the mountains before getting back into sight-seeing mode for Kyoto.

Day 2

Today the aim was to keep up the pace of sightseeing in Tokyo.  After a pretty lacklustre amount of sleep we then got up slightly late and grabbed breakfast at the hotel.  Very nice little apple danish things but nearly everything else was a bit mediocre.  I filled up on scrambled eggs and bread and got ready to head out.

First stop today was  a subway trip to Tokyo central station.  We rooted around in the basement layer (it makes the london underground seem positively simple) until we found the Jump Shop.  This is a small store selling merchandise for the mangas which appear every week in a large comic collection called Shonen Jump.  I’ve been reading a few of the biggest mangas since university and I wanted some toys.  Sadly, the shop was pretty tiny and didn’t have much that would be a good souvenir so we gave up and headed out to the Imperial Palace.

You can’t actually access the Imperial Palace but you can look at a few bridges and walls and get a feeling for the bits they aren’t letting you see.  It’s big, lots of trees, but it wasn’t that great.  From here we headed towards some gardens but slightly overshot and ended up crossing back over Ginza and into Tsukiji market where all the fish is sold daily for Tokyo.  We then walked round to Hamarikyu gardens which feature a sea water pond with a lock controlling the water flow into it from the bay.  The gardens were very pretty and you could see where the Shogun used to board ships when heading out of the city.

From here we hopped on to a river tour to take us north to Asakusa.  The main attraction here is Senso-ji temple and a five-storey pagoda which both look superb.  The streets nearby have a lot of stalls selling tourist items and food.  We grabbed a couple of fried pork and vegetable fritter things that tasted great.  We also offered up a bit of change at the temple in exchange for the hope of a good trip.  We stopped in a sushi place not far from the temple and ordered a variety of food.  Little did I know that in ordering 4 salmon maki rolls, I had actually ordered 4×6 rolls, along with some other food!  Lunch then became an exercise in man vs sushi and we gave it a pretty good effort.  Luckily for us the sushi tasted great.

We then made our way to Akihabara, known the world over for its electric town selling just about any kind of gadget you could imagine.  It was actually quite a small area but there were still a lot of maid cafes and girls dressed up as maids trying to entice you inside.  Then there were the shops selling maid outfits!  We browsed some hobby stores selling loads of figures and toys related to gaming and manga and then headed off to Tokyo Dome City.

The Tokyo Dome is where baseball is played in Tokyo and there’s also malls and theme park rides.  It turns out we arrived just in time to see some giant queues for Smap, a japanese pop group who were playing that night.  We were really here for the bigger Jump Shop so I could find some Naruto stuff (and I did!).  We also hopped into a Sega arcade nearby and I blew 500 yen on trying to score as many points as possible throwing basketballs into a hoop on a time limit.  It was really quite tiring but I got a score I could be more than happy with.  From here we headed via some unmentionable american fast-food back to the hotel for the night.

Day 1 (and a bit) – Fly to Tokyo and explore

Headed off early on a Tuesday morning to Heathrow Terminal 5.  We planned on a relaxing lunch before hopping on the plane.  Didn’t really intend to eat at Wagamama but it just happened.  It’s better than the other options!  Once aboard our plane the good news was that there were quite a few empty seats so we could relax with a bit of space.  The bad news was a software error that delayed us by nearly 2 hours.  I didn’t get any sleep but I did watch the new Godzilla movie, The Lego Movie and some pretty funny Billy Crystal thing.

The first thing I noticed about Japan was how orderly the fields are.  Now we know a thing about a nice orderly field in England, but they were like city blocks.  So many rectangles for fields.  Had our fingerprints scanned to keep us out of trouble and then we were assisted by Akiko with booking our trains for the trip and getting to the train into Tokyo from Narita airport.  That was a very relaxed 80 minute ride through built up areas and some countryside.  We skipped the slightly dodgy looking trolley food.  We negotiated Shinjuku station, switched to the metro and then checked in at our hotel around 2pm.

Determined to see as much of Tokyo as we could, we did a very short turnaround and headed out to the Ginza district where we found some especially tasty tempura in the giant Matsuya department store.  Ginza is a lot like Oxford Street but with a bit more of a mix of businesses and food in with the shopping.  From here we headed to Odaiba, a bit of a modern area in the bay where there’s giant malls and some attractions.  The views from the train were amazing but there wasn’t too much to do there for us.  We did see a giant Gundam statue, a fake Statue of Liberty and some good views of Tokyo’s skyline.

We ended up on a train back that was going through Shibuya.  Despite us both being nearly ready to drop, we jumped off and grabbed a drink in the Starbucks above Shibuya crossing.  It looks exactly like it does in movies or on tv and it was great to see it at night.  We then continued back to Shinjuku, failed to find any street food vendors and then slowly walked back to our hotel, grabbing a bite to eat at Subway en route.

Very, very long day!