Tag Archives: Japan 2014

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!