crellston RTW - Japan

Old May 4th, 2008, 09:41 PM
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crellston RTW - Japan

I have been remiss in keeping my post up to date and have missed out entire countries, however, rather than backtrack to far, and in the hope of avoiding too severe penalties, here are some extracts from our blog covering Japan:
Japan at last!

We arrived in Narita airport, Tokyo on our (11th) wedding anniversary from Singapore on a Japan Airlines flight. One of the best airlines we have used, ever! Very efficient and comfortable even if the seats were designed for Japanese sized people. An added extra was the nose cone camera which showed everything upon take off and landing. Taking off from Singapore at night and landing in Tokyo at dawn, was spectacular. The in flight breakfast was a bit different, rice porridge and minced pork - a lot tastier than it sounds.

Japan is somewhere we have never been to before so arriving in Tokyo was a mixture of excitement at all the new sights to see, and trepidation, at not being able to speak the language or find our way anywhere. As it turned out, when we arrived at the airport train station there was a mass of machines - different ones for different train companies all of which were in Japanese with the exception of one sentence on the wall witten in English which said"simplified charging system". This was right above a really complicated map with place names in Japanese characters and another bank of machines.....

Luckily I had researched directions to our hotel and so we found it without much trouble. The Tokyo Metro is something else and makes the London Underground or New York Subway seem like toy train sets. Once we got to grips with it, it was reasonably easy to navigate although some of the stations are enormous (Shinjuku sees over 3.5 million passengers a day!), Tokyo station sees 4,000 trains departing every day. Fortunately we managed to avoid the rush hours (all of the subway trains have women only carriages - apparently fondling on the subway in the rush hour is a big problem!!).

We are staying at the Andon Ryokan (a Ryokan is a Japanese guest-house) - and, although it is definitely the smallest room we have stayed in so far it is a really great place to stay (and very cheap for Tokyo). The Japanese measure their room sizes by the number tatami mats it will hold. This one was four mat size (one mat is exactly the same length as Carolyn so she could lie down across the width of the room with her head touching one wall and feet the other!). The place is run by a group of young Japanese who are very friendly and extremely helpful. The (English) breakfasts are excellent, and, although we have to share bathrooms, there is a fantastic Jacuzzi on the top floor which we have been using every day. The walls are thin and you can hear every sound, but at night everyone adheres to the requests for quiet and its really peaceful.

The people in Tokyo seem so friendly and will often stop in the street just to chat and practice their English and will always offer help if you seem lost (which has happened a lot so far). The Ryokan is in a local neighborhood so is giving us the opportunity to experience Tokyo life as it really is with lots of very small local restaurants all around all serving their own specialties. We have never seen cooks take so much pride in their work why anyone would consider eating in MacDonald's here is beyond comprehension - but they do! Mind you it is hard to know when the local restaurants will open as often seems like it is when they feel like for an hour or so. You really have to get in there, when see them open.

On our first day we visited Ueno Park, about 4 minutes from the hotel, to have a look at the cherry blossom. The blossom was great, but our lasting impression will be that of the masses people picnicking in the park. Virtually every inch of the park was occupied by families and groups of people of all ages eating and drinking ( a lot of drinking competitions going on involving what seemed like gallons of Sake!). Everybody was having a great time. The park has lots of street theatre and we spent almost an hour just watching one guy who was a combination of a "live statue" and a mime artist. One of the funniest sights we have seen in years and the comedy was certainly not lost in translation.

On our second day we went to the Metropolitan Centre to visit the observatory on the 45th floor. Unfortunately it was raining so the views were not that great but an enjoyable experience nevertheless. We peered in the general direction of Mount Fuji.

To get to the Metropolitan Center we had to go through Shinjuku Station, the busiest and biggest station an all Japan and indeed the world! It was truly amazing and massive. So busy !@- apparently, over 3.5 million people pass through this station every day. So big! - there are 200 exits from the station. So confusing ! - there are 16 different rail companies, all with their own ticket offices/prices/train lines and all with multiple platforms. So glad we didn't hit there in the rush hour! Finding our way around was mind boggling but with a little help from some Tokyoites who pointed us in the right direction we managed O.K.

One one the strangest things is the silence on the subway. It was so incredibly quiet! No one spoke (or at least they whispered) three quarters of the passengers were sleeping, some standing up! So different from my daily commuting on the London Underground.

From Shinjuku we visited a department store to pick up some sushi for a picnic in Yoyogi Park where we visited Meiji-Jingu Shrine and garden. This is one of the most important Shinto shrines in all of Japan. The park, the shrine and the gardens are all incredibly beautiful and so peaceful. For 500 yen you can write your prayers or wishes on a wooden tablet, hang it on a display and the priests will pray for you. Most were wishing for health for themselves or others, world peace etc. However, some were a little strange e.g. 'Red Sox to win the World Series' (Baseball)(was gpanda here before us???), 'I want 100,000 yen and to pass my driving test', and, 'Good Luck to Obama for the Democratic nomination'!

Next day, we are up at 5.00 am to visit Tsujuki, the biggest fish market in the world. At least at this time the subway is fairly quiet but it is pouring with rain and a gale is blowing and we had problems finding the market (how can we not find something this big??) Eventually, again with some help form the locals, we find the market. It is massive with row upon row of stalls with a massive variety of fish, shellfish, crabs, squid and the most enormous tunas we have ever seen (in or out of the ocean). It is 6.00am and the place is absolutely buzzing with activity with the stall holders, who having bought their fish at the auction are busy preparing it for the restaurants and sushi bars all around the country. It is incredible to watch these guys with there giant knives dissecting huge tuna into more manageable chunks. The gas powered trucks they use to transport the fish around the market buzz up and down the alleys between the stalls at high speed so you really have to keep your wits about you, so as not to end up on a sushi slab yourself!

We were too late for the main auction, which is mostly off limits to visitors anyway, but we did venture into the small public area of the auction where they were sorting out the last of the giant frozen tuna using a dumper truck. Just as we arrived the driver, who had 4 giant (approx 8 ft) tuna in his shovel, tried to execute a handbrake turn at speed and lost one of the tuna which came sliding across the floor towards us! - nearly accident no. 6!!

After an hour or so of looking around the market, we headed to one of the many small sushi restaurants surrounding the market for breakfast. Again, only Japanese menus so we order from the pictures behind the counter and, being in Japan, we use a laser pointer to indicate our choices. As you would expect, the fish was as fresh as it gets (without it still moving!) and the taste was simply out of this world! Without a doubt our best breakfast ever!

We moved on to visit the Sony building in Ginza, Tokyo's high end shopping area (and reputedly the most expensive real estate on the planet!). This place is also amazing! The TVs, cameras etc. are so much more advanced than anything we had ever seen (I can now understand why Japanese tourist spend so much of their time glued to their video cameras). The new technology was fantastic. How about a combined robot MP3 player/speakers which is a cylinder about 6 in long with ears, which wanders around the floor changing direction and colour, playing songs as well as any stereo? I definitely want one of those when they are available!

Believe it or not, one of the highlights of our visit to Sony was a trip to the toilets where the high tech theme is continued in the form of the toilets which, in addition to performing all the usual functions, plus automatic wash and blow dry facilities! All with variable temperature and pressure settings! Water music is played as you enter the cubicle and the seat is prewarmed to 38degrees. It really has to be seen, or rather experienced, to be believed.

From the centre of Japan's consumerism, we move on to one of its most important spiritual sites, Senjoji Temple, which, although partially destroyed by bombs and earthquakes has been rebuilt and is spectacular. It was raining but even so we decided to walk back to the Ryokan and with some help from the locals we set off on the 20 minute walk. An hour later, having got very lost (the street have no names - if ever I come to Tokyo again I will bring a compass!), we made it to the ryokan. So much for our earlier complacency about our ability to find our way. A long but exciting day.

After a leisurely breakfast, we use our Japan Rail Pass (what a bargain!) to get to Tokyo station to catch our Shinkasen (bullet train) to Kyoto. This is definitely the way to travel in Japan. We had reserved seats and arriving at the platform we waited at our alloted space on the platform to board the train whilst the guards (very smart - complete with white gloves!) organised the train and its passengers. It is more like boarding an aircraft than a train and on-board there are even airline style hostesses serving drinks and food. En route we caught our first sight of Mount Fuji.

I traveled every day to work on England's version of a high speed tilting train but this really was something special! So fast and so smooth. 2 hours and 20 mins later having topped speeds of 270kph we arrived in Kyoto. The train left and arrived exactly on time. Apparently, the punctuality is such that delays here are mesured in seconds (rather than the hours in the UK).
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Old May 4th, 2008, 09:52 PM
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Moving quickly on to Kyoto:

We arrived at yet another immense railway station, this time the most modern in Japan. A massive glass and steel building, very high tech and very impressive. We had booked our hotel, Ana, on a special deal with Expedia prior to leaving the UK, as April is obviously a very busy time because of the cherry blossom. Good job we did as the first thing we saw as we popped into the information centre was a sign saying "no rooms in Kyoto". We jumped on the hotel bus and arrived at the hotel to be greeted, not by the usual hotel doormen and receptionist but by Japanese women dressed in beautiful pink Kimonos. It was a bit strange seeing a tiny Japanese woman, hoist our backpacks onto the luggage trolley. A few minutes and lots of bowing later we were in our room and looking at the spectacular view of Nijo-Ji castle.We decide to chill out in the room and plan our sight seeing for the next few days.

It is very grey and looks like it will rain so we choose to visit Nijo-Ji just accross the street this morning. The castle was built by the first Tokugawa Shogun as his Kyoto pad. It is massive and photgraphs simply do not convey its size. In the ground are are 430 Cherry trees in full blossom, plus many orange, pear blossom, camelias etc.. These are without a doubt the most beautiful gardens we have ever seen (so far!).
The castle itself is a single storey building surrounded by a moat and stone walls which must be at least 10 metres thick. The wooden floors around the building are designed to squeak when walked upon so as to warn of intruders and assassins. Quite imppressive when being walked on by hundreds of tourists.

Lunch was very noisy as we visited an Udon noodle shop. We at our lunch sat at counter between to young guys who seemed to be having a competition to see who could slurp the loudest! - The guy on the right won by a mile! Apparently it is quite acceptable, even polite, to slurp loudly when eating noodles and the best way to choose a good noodle restaurant is to stand outside and listen for the loudest slurping.

It was raining by now but undeterred by this we headed out by train to the outskirts of Kyoto to a place called Arashiyama on the edge of the mountains. If we could choose a place to live, this would be it! The houses and gardens are not large but incredibly pretty. But we had really come to see the temples shrines and gardens and were following a circular walk of the area (walking is really the way to see the best of this place). First stop was Tenryu-Ji , a major Zen temple and again the Zen gardens were amazing, complete with the obligatory, gravel raked into very neat lines.

It is now raining quite heavily and we have been out walking all day and so decide to not to try and see everything but go for a walk through the bamboo forest (think "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon"), again incredibly beautiful, On ward then to Ghi-ohji a very small but very pretty temple used as a nunnery. It was unused for many years until Chishoni, a Geisha became a nun and began rstoring the place. One of the more impressive things to see, beleive or not, is the moss! (and very proud are the gardeners of their moss cultivation skills).

Now raining very hard so we decide to get the train back to central Kyoto and stop en route for dinner. We take a different route back from the station and stumble accross a small restaurant that looks good. Unfortunately, no English menus or English spoken, but after a while we determine that they serve curry and order two. Very nice it was too. The two ladies who owned the place didn't see too many western tourists and, despite the language difficulties, we had a good old chat with them (about what, we have no idea!). Upon leaving one of the ladies gave Carolyn some candy and, when seeing that it was raining, insisted that we take their umbrella. Despite the langauge diffculties, the Japanese have been the kindest and friendliest people we have encountered so far on our travels.

Up early this morning to visit Higashiyama in north-western Kyoto and attempt to see at least some of the 17 UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto (more than anywhere else in the world!). We took a planned walking route recommended by the Tourism Office. Walking from the subway station it was easy to spot the start of the walk, a gigantic red gateway which is the entrance to Heian Jingu shrine. The shrine is relatively new, being built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. Again, a spectacular shrine complex (apologies for repetition but it is difficult not to run out of superlatives here!). The Higashiyama district is, like much of Kyoto, just like any other Japanese city, except that around every corner there seems to be a shrine, temple or garden each one incredibly beautiful. Spending about 90 minutes here we realise that we have to get moving if we are to see even a small percentage of the sites.

We walk through the streets which are heaving with mostly Japanese tourist (50 million visit Kyoto each year!) and walk up a steep hill in the foothills of the mountains to Nanzenji Temple which began life as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama. Again a very large and beautiful temple and is famous for its Leaping Tiger Zen Garden , very minimalist with small, almost bonsai like trees set against grey gravel, very neatly raked into simple designs. The position of the temple, being high up provides great views of Kyoto which is set on a plain within a ring of mountains.

We stop for lunch at an Okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki is the nearest Japanese equivalent of pizza. You sit at a teppanyaki hotplate and pork, fish, shellfish and vegetables are mixed into a batter, put on to the teppan to cook one side and then the other. In honour of Carolyn's Welsh ancestry, we had our topped with "welsh" onions (leeks). Absolutely delicious!

Refuelled we set off for Chion -in temple - the biggest so far and again very impressive. The floors surrounding the main building are "nightingale" floors, designed to squeak to warn of intruders (the architect obviously did not envisage the millions of tourists that were destined to visit!). The temple also contains the largest bell in all Japan (74tons) which takes 17 monks to ring it!!

We move on to Maruyama park, a beautiful park with yet more cherry blossom and, being Friday, was being set up for the weekend picnics. Wandering (lost) through the park we find Yasaka shrine and chance upon a wedding ceremony in the shrine so we hang around for the bride, groom and wedding party to emerge. The bride was dressed in a very simple white kimono but was upstaged completely by the bridesmaids in the most colourful Kimonos we have seen to date!

Walking through nice quaint lanes we find our way to Kodaji Temple with yet more extraordinary gardens (all Japanese gardens seem to mirror what you see in nature, but are more pristine and neat).

From Kodaji we get totally lost looking for the Gion district (the Geisha area). We eventually find it and walk along the lanes and streams Geisha spotting and indeed we do spot a few here and there. We also notice a few mothers and fathers that had paid for their daughters to dress up as Geishas and wander the streets having their photographs taken! Apparently this is quite a common pastime for Japanese tourists visiting Kyoto. According to the pedometer, we have clocked up 15 miles and our feet tell us it is time to head back to the hotel.

12 April - Today we attempt some shopping (unsuccessfully) for Yakutas (summer dressing gowns) and then head out again to Higashiyama. This time we walk from our hotel, through the main shopping areas and through Kyoto's very long food market where it is possible to buy just about every type of food you can eat in Kyoto.
We stop for lunch along the way at a restaurant which sells nothing but beef. The restaurant is like something out of a Japanese design book, everything is so well thought out, functional yet very beautiful, with a tiny Japanese garden right in the middle. We don't speak Japanese and the waiter speaks very little English but thankfully the menu has some pictures so we order japanese-beef-burger and what we think was "beef tendon" in breadcrumbs. Whatever it is, it is delicious. The Japanese certainly have a different take on the good old hamburger. Beef tendon was delicious, but as one would expect, very chewy.

We head on up a very steep hill, lined with shops and souvenir stalls to Kioymizudera temple another very large temple built on stilts on the mountainside. This is the busiest site so far, not surprising as this is a Saturday in the height of the cherry blossom season. We spot more Geishas (or their apprentices) and mostly, they all seem very happy to pose for pictures. Unfortunately, some people were abusing this and were very rude. We saw a couple of fat bearded Germans manhandling two Geishas in their quest for the perfect photo. Their attention was clearly not welcomed by the women and thankfully they quickly moved on - some people really should not be allowed passports!! On our way back down the hill we pass through the hundreds of shops lining the street. We stop at a few and one in particular stands out as unusual, a shop that sells nothing but black sweets and ice cream. We try some of the sweets, but really haven't a clue as to what they are made of. The ice cream looks especially weird, being a dark grey colour, but very popular nonetheless.

For more of the blog and some photos -
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Old May 5th, 2008, 02:30 AM
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Wonderful report, crellston. I enjoy the detail and seeing some of my favorite places through another's eyes.
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Old May 5th, 2008, 03:40 AM
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Clive-really good report. Well worth waiting for. However, don't think that you can escape reporting on the other segments of your journey. That is required. Penalties have switched to Euros so they don't lose their value.

Of course, there was a prayer for the Red Sox. Our plight is universal.
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Old May 5th, 2008, 09:37 AM
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clive, outstanding!
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Old May 5th, 2008, 11:52 AM
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Very entertaining! rizzuto wrote above my exact sentiment.

Re:black icecream

I can think of black sesame or sepia ink flavour. Black sesame is a popular ingredients for food preparqation in Japan and being in Kyoto, the thing you saw was more likely to be this. Sepia ink flavour is a bit weird but heard they sell such ice cream in Tsukiji-market area in Tokyo and in Hikkaido Island. Have you tried all popular gree tea (matcha) ice cream?
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Old May 10th, 2008, 06:02 PM
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Many thanks for you comments - I am now posting a few more episodes;

Kappa - thanks for the info re black ice cream - that really has been bothering us. Have not tried the green tea ice cream and I am not sure I want to try the "sepia ink" I am usually open to all new experiences but that is just too weird!!

Gpanda - switching to euros is really too harsh for any Englishman. Could some other form of penalty be considered - say attending a Red Sox game next time we are in Boston??
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Old May 10th, 2008, 06:13 PM
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Our last day staying in in Kyoto and we decide to visit Himeji Castle, 55 minutes by Shinkasen from Kyoto. Again, the train departs and arrives exactly on time. Being used to the U.K. train system, it seems bizarre watching the white gloved train marshals on the platforms, constantly checking the second hands on their watches before pressing the button and blowing their whistles to send the train on its way.

Himeji is a relatively small city, dominated by its castle which is absolutely huge, and was used in the James Bond film "Never Say Die". After walking around the castle grounds and outer ramparts, we climb the 7 storeys of the main Tower . Fortunately we left Kyoto early and so arrived before the crowds. The castle is a masterpiece of defensive design which was effectively built to house the Shogun and his family plus the thousands needed to support him. There are many secret rooms where Samurai hid in order to protect the Shogun and many square, circular and triangular holes in the wall from which teh Samurai would fire their guns and shoot arrows at invading Samurai. Nastiest of all were the slanting holes through which they poured boiling oil on anyone trying to scale the walls! On balance, we felt it best to pay the entrance fee like everyone else and enter by the conventional route!

Moving on from the castle we visited Kokoen gardens, almost next door and again very beautiful, but different from others we had seen, as they were divided up into smaller gardens each in a different style and period. We were followed around the gardens by three ladies dressed in their Sunday best Kimonos which made for some great photo opportunities!

After lunch consisting of yakitori from a street stall we made are way by bus and cable car to Mount Shosha, where there are a number of temples on the mountain top including Engyoji temple which was use for some scenes in The Last Samurai. There were lots of smaller temples, but it was a little difficult to find our way around as none of them seemed to correspond with the map we were given! We walked for miles around the mountain top and took in some great views of Himeji city an the surrounding mountains. This made us realise that every city we have visited, seems to be situated on a plain surrounded by mountains.

A cable car, bus and Shinkasen and we are soon back in Kyoto where we end up in a Spanish restaurant owned by a Japanese guy who, in a previous life had run the Barcelona operations for Panasonic. We chatted with him for quite some time and ended up having a terrific Paella, accompanied by a bottle of Rose!

Checking out from the hotel, yet another surprise. When I entered my pin no. the credit card reading machine spoke to me. Weird!
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Old May 10th, 2008, 06:17 PM
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Getting to Nara from Koyasan entails another logisitical exercise in travel, this time involving a train to Wakayama on the JR Line

Eventually we make it and arrive at our "Minshuku" - a small guesthouse. This one is called Yougendo and is run by a guy called Chris (from Bradford, England!!) and his Japanese wife Shu (who studied English in Brighton (sensible) and Wolverhampton (why?). Orginally an old private house, they had lovingly restored it over 18 months and is a real tastes of what it must have been like to live in the old Japan. Lots of nice touches all around the place, including a pleasant bar which has been unusual on our travels, and is a great place to test a few Sakes. It is situated in Oji, a small town about 15 mins from Nara city by the JR Line. It is nice to stay somewhere a bit local and and added advantage is that we are close to a super market so we can stock up on Sashimi, Yakitori and Sake for our dinner in the Yougendo kitchen.

The next day we spend in Nara, partly looking around the shops, but mainly to visit the Nara-koen area, Which, apart from its many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is also famed for its tame deer. These guys are like Bambi on speed! No fences anywhere as they have the freedom of the city and really have no fear of humans, indeed quite the opposite. As you can see from the photos on our, they are not above a bit of "mugging" the odd tourist for food! They may look sweet but they do stink!

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Old May 10th, 2008, 06:25 PM
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We reluctantly leave Kyoto for Koyasan in Wakayama prefecture by train, our most complex journey so far. We get the bus to Kyoto station, the Super-Express to Wakayama and then a local train to Hashimoto. From Hashimoto we get another local train to Gorigushi and from there very steep trip on a funicular railway to Koyasan station and a bus into town. Amazingly we get there without getting lost, and on time! The final stages of the train journey were spectacular as the train wound its way through the mountains travelling up incredibly steep slopes and winding through lots of really sharp bends. We have never been on a train that goes around so many sharp bends and up such a steep track (beats Birmingham to London any day). The views are spectacular!

Koyasan is a complex of 117 temples set in a mountain tableland which is surrounded by eight mountain peaks. It is the primary centre for Shingon Buddhism. living in the town are 5000 people, 1000 of whom are monks! We are staying at Eko-in, a temple which takes guests and is run by a group of friendly young monks. In addition to seeing the sights we are also required to attend the morning services - at 6.30am each day! The first service of each day consists of 30 minutes of chanting in perfect harmony (he monks, not us!) and is incredibly soothing, This is followed by walking to another small shrine for the fire ceremony which basically consist of one monk building a fire of 108 sticks of wood (apparently representing the 108 mortal sins) and then setting fire to them thus absolving everyone of their sins. (N.B.We are still trying to work out what the other 39 sins are!). All of this was accompanied by the sound of another monk beating the ceremonial drum (This guy could give Ginger Baker a run for his money!).
The resulting fire is a welcome 30 minutes of warmth as it is freezing up here in the mountains. Then its back to our room for our (veggie) breakfast.

The food here is "shojin-ryori", or gourmet vegetarian, and is both great to look at and delicious to eat. The food is served in our room on beautiful red lacquer trays and consist of about 10 different small dishes. No garlic or onions are allowed. Carolyn is amazed that I can last even two days without meat of some description, but this is really excellent food.

After, dinner the monks clear dinner and make up our futons. Seems a bit strange having all these holy men doing all the housework!

On the evening of our arrival in Koyasan we take a walk through Okonoin the largest Buddhist graveyard in Japan which winds for 2 km through a wood of really massive 50m high cedar trees, some of which are 700 years old. There are lanterns all along the way and it is really, really spooky in the dark.

The next day we use a guide from the free English speaking guide service (5,000 yen "donation"). A wonderful lady by the name of Mitsuki showed us around the town and we spent the day learning all about the temples of Koyasan and how the place came to be founded some 800 years ago - one of the few time we have used a guide but definitely worth it.

The highlight was Goyan, the main temple which also has what is apparently the largest rock garden in Japan.

It is in Eko-in that we have our first experience of an Onsen, a Japanese communal bath. There is a very precise order you must follow to bathe. First remove all clothes, shower and rinse off all traces of soap. Then pick up a very small towel andget into the very hot bath. The towel goes on the head whilst in the bath and is apparently supposed to be used to cover your bits when getting in and out (although there wasn't much evidence of that!). After a soak in the bath you then dry off using a number of those incredibly small towels. Afterward we felt fantastic, if very red-faced! As this place is some 1000m up in the mountains, it is a lot colder than Kyoto, particularly at night so the hot baths are a really welcome respite from the cold

If cleanliness really is next to godliness, then the Japanese really do have it sorted! This is the most tranquil and relaxing place we have visited on our travels and is a must see on any visit to Japan if only just to chill out for a day or two.

When we leave Eko-in and are waiting at the bus stop to get the bus to the cable car, Mitsuki, our guide from the day before stops in her car and rushes over to us. Apparently, I had overpaid the donation by 4000 yen by mistaking a 5000 yen note for a 1000 note! Not great for someone who has spent his life in the financial services industry!! But this really sums up our experience of the Japanese people, so nice, friendly and totally honest. If only the rest of the world were like this.

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Old May 10th, 2008, 07:05 PM
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Loving this report, and totally appreciating the time it takes to do it...

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Old May 12th, 2008, 12:49 AM
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From Nara we had another epic train journey which, in all took about 5 hours (I dread to think how long a similar journey would take in the UK!). The first leg was a short trip of 15 mins. on the local service from Nara to Oji and then on the Shinkansen to Nagoya where we switched over to the JR Hida Line to Takayama. This last leg of the trip was described by some of the guide books as "one of the most scenic in Japan" and we had to agree. The as the train, described as a "wide view", because of the very large windows, leaves the plains and winds its way ever upwards into the mountains, the views are truly spectacular as we cross over bridges, go through ravines & through forests. This journey really has it all!

Finally we arrive at Takayama station and a 45 minute walk later (it should have taken 15, but it turns out that I really can't read a map after all!), we arrive at the Sumiyoshi Ryokan, a traditional guest house which is absolutely stuffed to the rafters with antiques, including a full suit of Samurai armour. The Ryokan is right next to the river and comes complete with a hot springs bath with a view of the river. Our room is fantastic and we seem to have lucked out here, in that it is at least double the size of any of the other rooms here and is easily the largest room we have had so far on our trip - a full 20 Tatami mats! -not counting the surrounding corridors which are for our use only.

We have separate areas for eating and sleeping and futons once again, magically appear when it is time for bed! The walls in the Ryokan are mainly sliding screens of paper or beautifully painted lacquer ware (very "Kill Bill").

Our room opens out onto the garden and through that, a view of the river which runs through the town, the banks of which are lined with Cherry Trees in blossom. This is easily the best place we have stayed so far. The Ryokan is run by a couple of Japanese ladies who speak only a few words of English but we manage to communicate well enough using a combination of our few words of Japanese, their few words of English and an awful lot of mime and sign language! These ladies are hilarious and don't miss an opportunity to laugh at anything at all. They mimic us with "wow!" which we cannot help saying several times as the various dishes arrive at meal times.

Our first day is spent wandering aimlessly around the town looking through the stalls in the morning markets and around the many, many shops in the town. The town itself being set in the mountains of the southern Japan Alps is really quaint and is a mixture of both old style and modern Japan. One morning we set out on an impromptu culinary tour as there are so many places eager for you to taste their wares. First we try out a few pickle shops. Japanese pickles are tremendous and just about everything that it is possible to pickle, is pickled! We then move on to the Miso producers. The Hida region is famed for its brown Miso paste, upon which, much of its cuisine is based. There are many different varieties and all are absolutely delicious. This stuff is so famous throughout Japan and the rest of Asia that this particular store had around half its floor area set aside for its own FedEx office purely to send out its goods mail order! After a few more tastings of the different variations of Miso pastes, soy sauces etc., at mid-morning we end up in one o the many small Sake breweries where we test out more than a few samples - the variety is amazing, many different types,all of which are quite different. We are told that it really does not matter whether Sake is drunk hot or cold, but that the Japanese tend to drink it hot in winter and cold in summer which seems sensible enough, although, as was pointed out to us by a Japanese guy at the next table, it is not usually drunk in the middle of the morning!

Sarubobo dolls are a speciality of Takayama and are for sale here in many colours and sizes, They have no facial features. The reason for this is that the absence of a face allows the owner to imagine it - when the owner is happy Sarubobo is happy and likewise when they are sad sarubobo is sad too. Translated is Saru means Monkey and Bobo, means baby. They are unique to the mountainous area of Takayama and were traditionally made by the grandma to bring the children good luck and good fortune throughout life. Red is the traditional colour to ward off bad luck.

After wandering around the town for the day it is great to get back to the Ryokan to bathe in the Onsen. This is incredibly relaxing and, as we have now taken to taking one long bath in the morning and another at night, we have never been so clean (or chilled out!). The bath is just for soaking in and as you usually have to share it, is important to shower or wash thoroughly before getting in as, as is the case with so much of Japan, there is a strict etiquette for taking a bath - there is even a strict order as to which bits you should wash first!

Our bath relaxes us nicely for the most amazing Kaseki style dinner served to us at a low table in our room. No less than eighteen small but exquisite courses, ranging from vegetable and pickles to sashimi and tempura and, usually including 'Hida beef', which in Japan, is more highly regarded than the more famous "Kobe'' beef. We start to take photographs of the course as they arrive, but they just seem to keep on coming!

The next day breakfast has somewhat fewer courses (14) but is equally impressive. We decide to head on out into the mountains surrounding the town as it is a very clear day, sunny with blue skies. As we walk up through the forests to the top of the surrounding hills we find parks around every corner with people picnicking and all with the most spectacular views.

Takayama is one of those places we will never forget. The Ryokan we stayed in, the food we ate and the amazing scenery. As we head back to Tokyo on yet another train journey we realise that we have but scratched the surface of this amazing country. We shall definitely have to return!!

crellston is offline  
Old May 12th, 2008, 03:07 AM
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hey clive---greetings from malaysia---K/L...

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Old May 12th, 2008, 06:07 AM
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Thanks for posting as I am reading your report with much interest. Headed for Kyoto for our 20th Anniversary in 2 weeks. Appreciate this very recent report. Looking forward to enjoying some of the sights you captured.
Loving the photos as well.
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Old May 29th, 2008, 05:06 AM
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bmttokyo, Glad you liked the photos. Congratulations on your 20th Anniversary!! Have a great time in Kyoto - so much to see! I look forward to reading your post upon your return.
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