2003 - Japan

Saturday 12th April

Following a fairly brief sleep on the flight we felt a little overawed by Japan especially in view of the comments in the guides to Japanese customs and the megalopis nature of Tokyo, as well as our total ignorance of the language.  The hotel staff said we could not have a room till 2pm, it being 10 at the time.  In the end they offered us use of our room from 11am for payment of 40.  (When we checked out they did not in fact charge us).  Much of the day was spent sleeping although we did take a walk out to the shops and to the e-mail.  Emailing was an experience in itself as the keyboard was largely Japanese and everything was wiped after Jill had spent ages typing it.  Then, without warning, all appeared with a dotted line beneath it and everything was copied and inserted after the original.

We did not yet feel able to tackle a restaurant and bought "Bento boxes" from a corner store. 


Sunday 13th April

We took a taxi to our new hotel which would be used in connection with our tour.  Immediately we felt happier as there were a good number of Europeans and the staff were fluent in English (unlike the previous hotel).  We had more strength and set out to explore.  Near our hotel is Kitanamaru Gardens, part of the Imperial Palace grounds.  On our way we say a traditional large gateway (like a football goal).  Going through this we say a row of carved stones reminiscent of something we had seen in China.  Then we noticed a small market like a car boot sale but without the cars.  In a toss up between an iron tea kettle and a blue and white plate, the plate won. 

The park introduced us to an aspect of Japanese life we had read about.  Passing through huge wooden gates in a high stone wall we reached the park and a martial arts centre where children in traditional dress were assembling for some contest.  This was cherry blossom time.  The blossom was just past its prime but the people were out in force celebrating the passing of winter.  It must have been thousands gathered in groups having picnics and enjoying the warmth of mid 70s sunshine.

We then visited the Science Museum (still in the park).  As the book says it is an excellent, hands on museum but with no explanations or instructions in English.  Indeed, one of the impressions we have is that there is extensive use of English words but not enough to actually convey useful information.  The clearest example was at the Martial Arts Building where there was a solitary English word:  "open" but no indication of what the building was and what was going on there.

With tiredness setting in we walked back to the hotel, buying more food from the corner store with our non-existent Japanese, just mumbling incoherent sounds in response to a stream of unintelligible sounds from the staff.

After a sleep we had a very good meal (a buffet) in the hotel, a browse round the hotel bookshop and then an evening making up the diary!     


Monday 14th April

Our pre-booked 5 day tour had already shown itself to really be just 4 days.  Today was the first element and proved to be a Gray Line half day tour of Tokyo.  There will therefore not be a permanent guide nor the continuity of customers that we had hoped for.  We met a wealthy American industrialist from San Diego with his14 year old son.  That proved very interesting as discussion ranged over many subjects.

We set off on a drive round of parts of Tokyo.  As much of the buildings are modern there was not a lot of interest.  Our first stop was an imitation Eiffel Tower - Tokyo Tower, a radio mast built 1958 and 30 metres higher than its French counterpart. 

We then visited the Meiji Shrine.  Shrines are Shinto, a religion of 3 elements: nature, hero worship and ancestor worship.  Temples are Buddhist and have statues on each side of the entrance unlike the gateway (Torrei) that mark a shrine.  Then a short stop to photo the gateway to the Imperial Palace together with the outside of the Shogun castle a white building appearing in our photos.

We were then taken to the Ginza shopping area (billed as Regent  Street) and left to find our way back to our various hotels.  The guide did give us a subway map and brief directions if we asked but no guidance on how to use the system.

We lunched in a department store Mitsukoshi where we first selected the dishes from the plastic replicas outside.  In fact the staff spoke enough English.  Few are very good but we can get round with absolutely no Japanese.  We did learn the pronunciation of thank you in Japanese from our waitress who was very friendly.

Lonely Planet said that Sony had a showroom where new products were shown on a hands on basis.  Once again, there was a token acknowledgment of English with a leaflet with basic details but again all equipment and software was in Japanese.

Then we made the great move and tackled the subway.  For Adrian the difficulty was not the route but how to buy the tickets.  The books explained that there are different privately owned lines and that tickets for one are not accepted on others.  In the end we just picked a machine and Jill calculated how it worked.  We then picked our way through the maze of tunnels and turnings and found the right train.  We had to change after 2 stops and again we negotiated this, each time putting our tickets in the machines and receiving clearance.  Success!!  We emerged at the right place.

Jill was still wanting the kettle we had seen the previous day and so we went back to the place of the market but it was now again just the entrance to Yasukuni-jinja shrine, the market being just a Sunday event.  Still we saw the shrine which followed a very similar design to the one we saw this morning.


Tuesday 15th April

Another 8am start but this time a cold and wet day.  This is our trip to Mt Fuji. We were to go to station 5, the highest the road goes - 2,400 metres.  As we got higher so the cloud thickened until it was a thick fog.  In addition snow appeared in odd pockets and this too increased until at the edge of the road it was several feet thick.  We duly reached the station which comprised a shrine and a couple of gift shops.  At one stage we could see the outline of the sun in the sky and just a few yards up the hillside, but this disappeared leaving the rain and thick cloud.

Our next stop was lunch at Hakone which is situated on a lake, or strictly a caldera.  Apparently Japan has 10% of the world's volcanoes.  The rain continued.  Our next event was a cable car ride but the cloud was now so thick that we could not see outside the car!!  At the top was a "boiling valley" - an area of steam vents - but how do you see these in thick cloud!  We looked at the postcards and those of Mt Fuji instead.  We had met 3 Chinese people on the trip and one was studyi9ng in England.  She told us that some biscuits we had seen were a particular Japanese favourite.  They turned out to have a strong mustard flavour and so we bought some sweets to take away the taste. 

The next highlight of the tour was a trip on the lake in a Disney type pirate ship!  Again we could see very little. No doubt the whole thing would be fantastic in the sun and with views, but we had neither. 

We were several different tours all combined and at this stage we started to split up.  Some were returning to Tokyo by the coach, some by train.  We and 4 others were going by train to Kyoto.  Alan and Heather were visiting their son and had their own train arrangements both to and from Kyoto.  Another couple, Marcel and Elizabet also have a son here but they were doing the same trip as us.  This gave us company and courage as the tour guide explained in broken English how we should get to Kyoto and then caught a train to Tokyo with some of the returners.

The bullet train (Shinkansen) is highly impressive even though it was first run in 1964 for the Olympics.  It travels at up to 270 kmph.  We had a slow, stopping one to complete our day!  After changing at Nagara for a faster connection we arrived at 9.20 and were met by a rep who walked us out of the station and across the road to our hotel.


Wednesday 16th April

In contrast to yesterday, the morning dawned bright and sunny and started with a very interesting tour of Kyoto.  The first stop was Nijo Castle.  This was built in the traditional Japanese style with sliding screens between rooms and paper screens over the windows.  The house dated back to 1603 and had wall paintings in traditional style.  This had been the shoguns' home and included an unusual security device.  The floors were devised to emit a squeaking sound like a nightingale when walked on so that the shogun could tell if there were intruders.  The traditional Japanese garden reminded us greatly of the Chinese ones we had seen.  It was very beautiful and made4 great use of rocks, water and trees.

The tour moved swiftly on to a very crowded Kinkakuji.  This was a Buddhist Temple that had been built in the 14th century. It was covered in gold leaf and sited at the far side of a reflecting lake. It was beautiful in its own way. We then were moved on again, this time to the Imperial Palace, used now only for ceremonies.  The same designs and architectural features that we had seen at Nijo appeared here.  This was very elaborate in some of the carving and the applied gold ornamentation.

Our lunch was at a craft centre which we really did not have time to visit in its own right before moving on with another group to Nara, about one and a half hours away.  This had been the capital in the 8th century before Kyoto took that role.

The city is much smaller, 350,000 as against 1.4m. and has many old buildings,  Our particular targets were Todaiji Buddhist temple and Kasuga deer park and shinto shrine.  I must confess that buildings of other religions do little for me, reeking of so much superstition although these had some interesting features. (We were given in the morning a good luck piece of paper, guaranteed to give good luck for one year. A few hours later a deer snatched it from Jill's bag and chewed it leaving half as we tried to regain it.  So much for the good luck it guaranteed!  The temple had been built in the 8th century and rebuilt twice but still had a gateway from the 12th century.  The temple is the largest wooden building in the world with the largest bronze Buddha.  The building is in fact only 60% of its original stage4.  Apparently it took literally half of the Japanese population to build it - 2.5 million out of the 5 million of the 8th century.  The place was heaving with visitors especially schoolchildren.  We learned that 14 year olds come here from all over Japan for part of their cultural history.

The deer were incredibly tame and in fact were verging on being a nuisance with their scavenging.  One stole our brochures from out of Jill's bag and ripped one in two.  Indeed the calligraphy designed to "bring good luck" were both torn so our luck was clearly at an end there!

A visit to another shinto shrine completed our tour.


Thursday 17th April

This morning we are left to our own devices.  We had borrowed the French couple's guide book ( A,. having left ours in Tokyo) and decided on an areas in which to walk.  We checked first with the Tourist Information on how to use the bus and then set off. 

Whilst waiting we realised that they wait till the bus is full and then start loading another 50 or so people on board.  The same happened with us and we were jammed in far more tightly than sardines.  The big fear was how we would know the stop.  I knew it took about 10 minutes and I had the Japanese characters for the stop.  In fact they announced in English one or two of the major stops and this included ours.  They also had the system that you throw your flat rate fare in a basket by the driver as you exit and this calculates what you have paid - like road tolls.

We duly passed more temples and pagodas and ended in Maruyama Park, a large and beautiful park with graceful trees and a lovely lake with rocks and a bridge.

We watched the groups of children that we found were everywhere in Kyoto.  Several decided to practice their English - to the extent of "Hello" and in one case "Nice to meet you.

The park was near a shrine which had some priests in robes which we had not seen before.

Then the bus back again, this time much less crowded.

We then investigated the four year old huge Kyoto station that is also home to a theatre, numerous restaurants, a departmental store and innumerable shops.  Not having much time we ate in the food court and had octopus dumplings and mixed fruit crepes.

Then back to the hotel and our guide took us over the road and put us on the right platform for the bullet train.  About 2 hours 50 for around 500km.  The scenery initially was very flat and almost non stop city.  However, after an hour it the buildings eased a bit and there were increasing hills and trees - unfortunately this also meant long stretches of tunnels. We had been told to look for Mt Fuji about an hour out of Nagawa.  Suddenly as we emerged from a tunnel we saw the snow-covered top of the mountain seeming to hover in the air.  We could not really see the rest, whether through sheer distance, mist or lack of contrast with its surroundings.  So we had seen Mt Fuji after all.

Arriving back at Tokyo at 5.20 we said goodbye to the French couple and set out to find our way by subway to our hotel. 


Friday 18th April

The last day of this incredible holiday. What a time we have had and what a vast array of different experiences.  This morning presented yet another - a walking tour of Tokyo!  We had set out to find a tea kettle like the one we had seen on Sunday.  We had consulted the guide books and found a locality that should offer some.  Taking the train from Kudanshita (next to our hotel we found our tickets would not work.  A Japanese man who spoke English helped us and talked us past the staff and onto the right platform before he set off in another direction.

We came out of the subway at the wrong exit and walked a fair distance before an Irish lady on a bike stopped and kindly redirected us.  She also told us that the Japan Crafts Centre that we were seeking had moved but there was an 0riental Bazaar about 10 mins away.  We set off and found in the bazaar more westerners than we had seen in our entire stay!  We also found a tiny kettle that was an ornament.  Undeterred we thought we would track down a street described as on the left on the way to Shibuyu.  (Very helpful Lonely Planet).  Again we walked for about 15-20 minutes and then a Japanese lady from a shop asked if we wanted the Crafts Centre and gave us a map of where it had moved too. We continued our search and another lady asked if she could help - she gave further directions and finding it we found no antique shops.  In desperation A asked another shop keeper - he confirmed it was the right street but in our long walk we had found none and could not face walking it again.  We walked back to the Oriental Bazaar and looked again, only to find a bigger but more expensive one which we bought.

Then back on the road to find lunch.  The Elephant Cafe seemed a fair choice and we found ourselves in a large cafe decked out in Indian style.  A set lunch Indonesian spicy dish plus soup and salad.

Our final fling was to be a boat ride.  So we set off in the wrong direction for the subway, corrected ourselves and took a train to Shin bashi station.    Confusing 2 similar names we set off in the wrong direction for 10 minutes before another kind Japanese man stopped and redirected us.  Again we struggled with inadequate maps but eventually reached Hama-Rikyu Gardens in time to find all the return-trip boats had left as it was now nearly 4pm.  Talking with the ticket man who had virtually no English we took the last boat bound for a single journey to an unknown destination.  However we were armed with a sketch map in Japanese as to how to find the nearest metro!  The boat ride was not exactly beautiful but it was a smart modern boat and gave us a good view of many buildings, high rises, bridges and roads.  We got off when we thought it was the end and set off to find the station.  Again we walked about 15 minutes before feeling totally lost and not even knowing where we had landed.  An elderly man stopped and pointed to a lady with him who knew some English and directed us to Asakusa station about a quarter of a mile away.

Jill had wanted to try the attractively named Pocari Sweat drink which we found in a machine.  This gave us the energy to make it to the train on the Ginza line, 7 stops, change to the Tozai line, 3 stops, exit 7 and the hotel.  We had both shrunk by at least 3 inches after such a day, but at least all objectives had been achieved, we had seen a lot and had been helped unsolicited by so many people.