From the Manga Kissa
Don’t know who’s interested in yet another Tokyo trip report but here goes. I’m paying for my trip in Australian dollars ($A1=¥84 approx) – saved from an Australian teacher’s salary so the budget is a tight one. This is my second trip on my own and my fourth altogether (the others I was part of a study group). I’ve tried to strike a balance between being well organized and flexible. I did get to do most of the things I planned, messed some things up and did some things on the spur of the moment. Two weeks was not long enough!
I left home by Qantas for the overnight flight direct to Tokyo, arriving at 10 a.m. I was quickly though customs and immigration and set about exchanging my voucher for the JR pass to begin the following day. There was a long queue for this but once done, I made it to the limousine bus counter with five minutes to spare till the departure of my bus. I’ve obtained yen at home (my daughter works in foreign exchange office and got me a good rate) so I didn’t have to find and use the ATM
The bus dropped passengers off at various hotels - you could see the beautiful gardens through the lobbies and soon enough the bus arrived at the Westin Hotel. I set off to walk to the Hotel Excellent Ebisu through a modern development of Ebisu Garden Place and along many moving walkways to the station and across the other side of the railway line. I couldn’t make much sense of the map I’d printed from the hotel website – I blame my printer - so I asked at the koban and there it was, right across the street from the station. The hotel is your standard business hotel but the position was handy and there was a variety of fast food places and a konbeni right there next door. I dropped off my luggage and off to explore the locale. I went back to the Garden Place and up to the 39th floor for the views then back to the more downmarket and affordable area near the hotel for a gyuu-tamadon lunch. By then it was time to check in and freshen up and rest before meeting up with my friend.
She arrived soon after 4pm and we caught the subway to Roppongi Hills, another new shopping complex. My friend doesn’t get to this part of Tokyo too often and enjoyed browsing the shops as much as I did – in fact she bought a very cute little top.
We then went to a restaurant called Gonpachi which I had read about. The decor was said to be the inspiration for the restaurant in Kill Bill. We sat at the counter and had yakitori of various types and a very cool shrimp dish with spiky batter all washed down with umeshuu plum wine. We then had special soba noodles - we had seen them making the noodles as we came in. You dip the cold noodles in sauce and later they give you a pot of the water they cooked the noodles in and then you use it to dilute the sauce and drink that. It had a great ambience.
We then went and browsed some more and went to the 56th floor of the Mori Tower – a great view by night and especially interesting to see Tokyo Tower and the various ferris wheels as well as all the red lights atop the buildings. We followed up with
the exhibition at the Mori Gallery which was about Berlin. Afterwards we had tea at the museum café. I was horrified to be served a teabag in a paper cup, especially at the prices they were charging. I was fading fast, we caught different subway trains and I went back to hotel and a good night’s sleep.
In the morning I went to NakaMeguro just to fill in a bit of time and to stroll along the canal but as suspected, the sakura along the river are very much past their prime. I then went to Harajuku but it was raining so it was all a bit of an anticlimax – there were more tourists obedient to their guide books than there were cosplay kids. I strolled Omote-Sando , but I wasn’t in the mood for shopping, especially at this stage of the trip. I went on to Yoyogi Park but there was still no action so I went on to Shinjuku. I found a manga kissa so I could email back home. What a place! You could have lived there - they had showers, snacks and drinks available with microwave etc, and each cubicle had an armchair, TV and DVD player, slippers etc as well as the computer-I negotiated the labrynth of cubicles but the keyboard kept reverting to Japanese input and caps lock could not be turned off so it was very frustrating. I stopped off for lunch at a kaiten sushi place and had, amongst other things, tiny squid. Each piece had three tiny squid on top. On a whim I decided to visit Shinjuku Gyoen, which is a haven in the madness of Shinjuku. They may be the later blooming and less favoured types of Cherry blossom but there were plenty still blooming and for me - the Wow factor was certainly there. I treated myself to a maccha tea and traditional sweet at a tea house overlooking the garden which was served by a kimono-clad waitress. Just lovely.
Then I caught the Chuo and subway across town to Asakusa. I briefly visited Sensoji temple but the arcades of little shops are more fun and I was so long there I gave the river cruise I had planned a miss – it was still raining on and off and getting late and quite cold. So I moved on to Akihabara to find an internet café and finish the emails I had given up on in the other place. The first cafe I tried turned out to be a cosplay cafe with nerdy maid waitresses. I thought it was an internet café because there was a @ in the sign. They all wore librarian glasses and frilly aprons and it must have been a popular place because the queue went down the stairs quite some way ; didn’t join them. After finding the right place just a few doors up, I completed my emailing, blogs etc and returned to Ebisu where I had an ebi furai dinner at a Hawaiian restaurant near the hotel.
Hello Kitty Koinobori - Hello!!
As Hotel Excellent does not do takkyubin, I went around the corner to the konbeni (AmPm) in Ebisu and left my big case to be forwarded to my Kyoto hotel while I departed with my backpack for Shinjuku station - at 8.30 in the morning! Yes it was quite busy.
In no time I was on the Azusa limited express train bound for Matsumoto. This was one of the few times I reserved a seat. Gradually we left the outer reaches on Tokyo and were soon in the mountains. Its nearly three hours to Matsumoto but the train was very comfortable and I enjoyed the ekiben that I had purchased, though I couldn’t tell you what I ate. I know there was a quails egg and various mushrooms and pickles etc on a bed of rice. I even caught a glimpse of Mt Fuji. As seemed to be the case on this trip, as it was a travel day, it was sunny!
The reason for going via Matsumoto was soon justified because the sakura were in full bloom around the castle and overhanging the moat etc so it was a worthwhile diversion. Many families were having a picnic under the trees. I walked back to the station via the old town. In the little street where , when I visited in January 2004, they were selling hinamatsuri dolls in preparation for the Dolls festival in March, now they are selling all the stuff for Children’s Day in May. To my surprise, since it’s largely a festival for boys, they had Hello Kitty koinobori for sale. They are the large carp kites that families with boys display. I bought a set for my school. On the trip here, there are quite a few houses already flying their koinobori.
I gat back to the station and had to wait about twenty minutes for the Shinano limited express and it was about another hour to Nagiso. This is a very small station with country town atmosphere. Here we discovered that it was an hour till the bus to Tsumago so the American couple who has also got off the train and I agreed to share a taxi. Cost only a couple of dollars more than the bus for the three of us so it was lucky for me that they were there.
Tsumago is an old post town - like walking back in time and you feel a bit like you’re in a samurai movie especially later in the afternoon when the tour groups have gone. I got a bit lost finding my ryokan but the second time I asked directions, the old guy escorted me right to the door and then it was obvious why I couldn’t find it on my own! There were no signs and it was a tiny place up a path between buildings.
I had a tiny tatami room overlooking the river - quite noisy sound of water rushing by. After doing the bath thing I went down to dinner. A huge tray with 10 little dishes of various things, plus soup and rice and then after dinner I went for a short stroll through the town which is all lit by lanterns, There are no power lines or modern signage but unfortunately the odd car to spoil the authenticity. But it is an actual town, not a theme park.
Once again, breakfast was an array of tiny dishes and after that I set to explore the town again, including the Tsumago-juku Honjim where the VIP’s would stay when they were passing through – their retainers would sleep in the outer rooms to protect them. I walked a short way along the Nakasendo - the old road from Edo to Kyoto etc. My original plan was to do the walk to Magome but as I was alone, I gave up on the idea of walking the whole way. I only went a short way but it was very pretty. I lost track of the time a bit here so didn’t catch the bus to Magome that I meant to, so rather than wait for the next one and be rushing for the rest of the day, I got the bus to Nagiso and then two trains (changing from the local to the rapid along route towards Nagoya. This is one part I wish I had done better. I think the bus trip would have been more picturesque than the train was as there were a lot of tunnels. At Nagoya jumped on the shinkansen (unreserved seat) with five minutes to spare and as it was a super Hikari, I was soon at the next stop Kyoto.
I caught the Karasuma subway to the Palace Side Hotel and was relieved to be reunited with my luggage. Having checked in, I walked into Kyoto through the Imperial Place grounds (The hotel is of course, next to the Palace!) and along the Teramachi shopping street to explore Gion - I didn’t see any geisha but all the sakura are losing their petals and it was a pretty site in the dusk along the river and canals. I had dinner in a tiny little restaurant in Pontocho – a tempura set. Then I walked the long walk to Shijo station, just one block on the map but what a long block, and back to hotel by subway.
Momotaro, Momotaro and his kibidango
It was with the words of this song echoing in my brain as I visited the supposed home of this folk tale character, Okayama. I was up early and with the miracle of JR pass, walked straight from subway station and jumped on the next available Shinkansen to Okayama. Within 15 minutes we’d sailed through Osaka and no time at all (well, an hour forty minutes), we’d arrived in Okayama.
Well every trip has to have something go wrong! I had the choice of walk, catch the tram or bus to the castle and Korakuen garden My Lonely Planet said to catch the Number 5 bus and there it was, closer than the tram station, so on the bus I jumped. Shades of my trip to Pisa, it wasn’t long before I felt the bus was taking a rather indirect route!! And when the fare and the time suggested by Lonely Planet had doubled, and the semi industrial area looked quite unpromising, I felt it was time to bail out. And where was I?? I came upon a taxi fueling at a gas station and he took me by a most interesting route through tiny narrow lanes and along the river side. It looked like a scene from a Beat Takeshi movie -the kind of place the Yakusa dump their victims. But eventually I was at the gardens. One of Japan’s top gardens and it’s easy to see why. It was extremely beautiful and one can only imagine how spectacular it must have been last week with the sakura at their peak. I was there for two hours and used up my camera battery and more than one memory card. At midday they played the Kimigayo over the PA system and the cranes joined in.
There were many groups there enjoying their obento picnics with cherry blossom petals scattering down on them like snow. I had kibidango and fresh tea (as in the tea is grown right there) and I saw a wedding group in Shinto regalia.
I then had soba for lunch at a little restaurant overlooking the river and the castle. I crossed the river for a closer look at the castle which is called Crow castle because it’s black but chose not to go inside. I then caught the tram back to the station and then was on the local futsu train to Kurashiki. This is a small town/city about 15 minutes from Okayama known for a row of old houses along a pretty canal. The cherry blossoms here were pretty much over and the place was swarming with school groups. It’s very pretty but very touristy. I stocked up on Momotaro memorabilia - various trinkets and sweets etc. I enjoyed the stroll back to the station along a long shopping arcade of regular shops, and bought a few fabric pieces in a ¥100 Plus shop.
I was able to catch an express train back to town and then as there was still something left of the day I had the bright idea “Why not go to Shikoku?” You know, just so I can say I’ve been and crossed the Seto Ohashi bridge! Once again the train was waiting at the platform and I jumped on, hoping it was going to take me where I assumed it was! It was a very interesting journey to the coast through suburbia, semi rural areas and then a few towns before crossing the Inland Sea. The bridge actually passes from island to island and you saw many smaller islands (shade of Sweden though small fishing villages rather than holiday homes.) Then it got quite industrial. I got off at Utazu and waited for the return train. Had to wait gasp, twenty minutes and then I nearly missed it because the station master said five two and I thought he said five to. There was also a train at 4.51 which was a Shikoku train, It went and the next train was smaller, so I didn’t see it further up the platform and heard the sound of doors closing and ran madly up the platform and they let me on. I was right at the front so you see through the front windows as it went across the bridge. I easily made it onto the next available Hikari and back to Kyoto. Unfortunately it was still light so I didn’t see Akashi bridge all lit up which is apparently quite a sight and why it is called String of Pearls bridge. I left my memory cards to be stored on CD and went in search of dinner. Once again I had a tempura set meal but this one included chawan mushi and a few other dishes besides the pickles, miso soup and rice.
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From the Manga Kissa