It’s the end of our trip as we know it…

iPhone alarm failure aside – we needed to be up and out by 5:50am to insure we made the Shinkansen. We made the foyer by 5:55am, still dark, and found the taxi waiting in the narrow street outside. It was -1˚C and this was our first taxi in Japan. Japanese taxis are strange vehicles. They’re almost enigmatic in the modern Japanese context. Usually Toyota Crowns or Nissan Cedrics, they have lacy, crocheted seat covers, antimacassars and wing mirrors on the far ends of the front fenders. They have suited, capped, white-shirted (with tie) and gloved drivers who doff their caps and bow low as they dart around to load your luggage into the boot. The rear doors open and close automatically and driver will open the front door if required. Our driver had no english but luckily responded enthusiastically to my ‘Shinkansen’ request.

We were delivered to the station after a ride through a dark and empty Kyoto and quickly found our way to the crowded platform. Unsurprisingly, the train was right on time and then left before we’d finished stowing our luggage. Then it was back to sleep and back to Tokyo in 3 short hours.

Harajuku back streets

It took a while to figure out where we would need to be to catch the train to the airport and then which tickets we would need, but eventually through a combination of drawing, miming and broken english/japanese, we got it sorted and found some lockers to leave our luggage in while we headed out into Tokyo for one last day. We accidentally went to Ginza first, largely because I said let’s go to Ginza, when I actually meant let’s go to Harajuku. Ginza was a quiet and mostly closed, given it was not yet 11am and we amused ourselves by roaming around the smaller side streets. We wheeled into a cafe on the main street and had two terrible coffees, an iced cocoa and three small cakes for about $40, while we realised that this was not where I meant. Twenty minutes on the subway remedied the situation and we got to Harajuku and were funnelled into an overflow exit with thousands of people heading toward a temple in a park. The crowd eventually flowed through and onto the main drag where we quickly headed for Harajuku Street, off the Chanel/Bulgari/Ralph Lauren avenue and into the funky back streets with the retro and vintage clothes, the young designer stores, the skate shops, hat shops and even a shop filled with only Hawaiian stuff, naturally called Alohaha.

Banksy’s in a Harajuku Store

These streets kept us amused and intrigued and amazed for hours. We had lunch at an Italian restaurant – all pasta and chopsticks, then cruised our way back up towards the station. We stopped a couple of times – once for a Vivienne Westwood only vintage store; once for a dessert crepe – but eventually wound up back at the subway and heading back to the Tokyo Station and then on to Narita Airport. Our flight left at 9:20pm, so we had time for another quick bite, a small duty-free liquor purchase and a slight change of clothes. We were tired by the time we sat on the plane and we all of us had a reasonable sleep before we arrived in Cairns at 5:45am.

Our flight to Brisbane wasn’t till 10:15am, so sleeping in the terminal seemed reasonable.

My thoughts on this trip: 
I never expected to enjoy Tokyo anywhere near as much as I did. I don’t think even Pip expected it to be so interesting and engaging. The diversity we experienced over the time we were there – the number of times we were literally stopped in our tracks with amazement – the weird and I think futuristic mix of modern and ancient; of retro and space-aged; of eastern and western – made this a memorable trip and probably more a taster than a tour.

It’s hard not to compare Tokyo with the city I live in, Brisbane. Apart from the obvious difference 33 million people make, Tokyo is a cleaner city despite having literally no bins on the street. Tokyo’s citizens behave better in public – sure there must be a seedier underside, but it isn’t on display like in Brisbane. I was thinking Tokyo was more expensive than Brisbane and that may be true about some areas and some things – parking and public transport are cheaper in Tokyo and the bulk of restaurants are about the same. Public Transport is amazing in Tokyo, but this IS about the numbers of people and the size of the city. People are more respectful of others and others’ property in Tokyo – of the millions of parked bicycles we saw only a handful were locked; beautiful plants in parks weren’t trashed or stolen; restaurants just put a cover over their outside furniture and signs when they close; people pick things up off the street. Maybe they know that if they don’t play the community game it would all be chaos.

I know there’s an awful lot of people working for minimum wage and that minimum wage is really minimal – but there are no self-service checkouts and stores have staff to serve you and there are people to stop the traffic for buses to pull in and out and information staff everywhere and I understand that Japan has close to full employment. 

We will definitely go back to Tokyo – hell, I could live there if I had half an excuse – but I would like to have a bit more understanding of the language. There’s also the rest of Japan to contemplate – our brief time in Kyoto felt similar to Tokyo and there a number of mega cities in Japan that I guess are similar in feel – maybe some places in the country would be nice to visit.



I go where the "in" crowd goes

Now, I haven’t slept on a futon since I lived in London in 1986 and I now remember why – I no like. Pip and Eams professed comfortable nights’ sleeps, but I kept losing my pillows over the back and losing my feet out the end and being uncomfortable on my side and snoring too loudly on my back. (Perhaps I reveal too much!) Still, we rose at a reasonable 9-ish and headed into the streets of Kyoto armed with a photocopied map from the hotel desk with 3 highlighted areas on it. Yellow was the covered shopping district. Pink the restaurant zone and a pen-circled area called Gion across the river.

Temple off the shopping street

Firstly though, we needed to follow the breadcrumb trail we laid last night back to the Cafe we spied with the espresso machine. Found it – Yes. Found it – Closed. Doomed to roam the streets decaffeinated. We followed the covered shopping road down toward the major streets and found that several doorway openings off the arcade led to beautiful temples, kind of like how wardrobes often lead to wintery kingdoms. They offered little oases of relative tranquility amongst the retail pandemonium in the arcades outside. Eventually, our need for coffee drove us to select a cafe with a Starbucks like logo, called Choco Croc on one of the major streets. Nice pastries and reasonable coffee; tiny seats and tables…

Okonomiyaki Stall

The streets were crowded. No, really crowded. We moved along toward the bridge across the Kamogawa (Kamo River) as part of a human tide – the only escape was to perform a kind of spin out into a shop doorway. Despite the surge of people, there was no suggestion of  danger or worry about pick pockets – just a fear that someone might bow and bring the lot of us down. We made it across the bridge and along the street for a short distance before spinning out down a side street into the relative calm of an ordinary crowd. Just round the corner was a food stall selling what I’ve subsequently discovered were okonomiyaki, the making of which held us spellbound for a good 10 minutes. (Re-commenced breadcrumb trail to enable return at lunch)

Gion District

Our innate sense of direction was serving us well as we had followed our noses and ended up in the highlighted Gion area without once referring to the map. The Gion district is a preserved area with traditional buildings dating from the middle ages. You can feel your ninja senses twitching and the urge to leap backward onto a roof is hard to resist – I did though – only a real ninja can resist those urges. Mixed in with the beautiful traditional buildings are also a smattering of uber chic designer small buildings which create a fabulous mix. We traversed the Gion up towards a very large temple on a hill overlooking the city – Chion-In. Lots of pedestrian traffic and lots of traditional dress heading up the path to the huge temple gate. But alas, after the climb to the temple, those okonomiyaki were calling- steps were retraced and a course set. We ordered two (Eamon wasn’t too sure) and sat on tiny stools set in the street near the stall. These are rice pancakes with salady bits, two eggs, pickled ginger, bit o’chilli, fish flakes and more – major yummy thing. Eams could not resist after a tentative taste of ours.

Gion District

We were getting tired of foot by this stage and decided to head back to the hotel for a rest before the challenge of finding a evening restaurant. We did a spin back into the MOSH-path and were swept back over the bridge into the city. We swung by Cafe Lucca just on dusk, around 5pm and discovered it open. It was only down to 2˚ C so we naturally chose the outside seating for our several short blacks of high quality and delicious taste. We then chose a different street back to our hotel and found a long, narrow street filled with beautiful upmarket stores and, The Tin Tin Shop! Also of interest was a second-hand shop filled, and I mean filled, with pyrex of all descriptions and colours. We cast aside these distractions, eventually, and returned to the ryokan for a short rest before laying on an extra layer or two and hitting the street again.

Same story as last night – all reserved only. However, there was a chinese restaurant behind a rather large queue, that only had a small queue, so we jumped at it and found ourselves seated within 15 minutes. Chinese food in a Japanese context. Pointy chop sticks and wasabe. An excellent meal later we headed back out into the cold, crowded streets and home via the 7-11 for an ice cream to take back to the hotel.

We needed to check out and arrange a cab for 10 to 5 in the morning before we headed to bed. Thankfully I decided to play with the hotels auto wake-up call system ’cause our iPhones decided their alarms would not be ringing any more. The tatami treated me a little kindlier that night.

I think I will travel to Kyoto

After accommodation and airfares, the single most expensive part of our trip was the train to Kyoto. Grade 6 social studies taught us all about the wonder of the Bullet Train, shooting down the tracks picturesquely – Mt Fuji in the background and rice fields in the fore. The reality of the Shinkansen is surprisingly similar, although I was a little disappointed with the absolute lack of rice paddies as promised by my school books. We had determined to  catch a level 3 Bullet, known as Kodama, which stops at every station and was considerably cheaper than the Hikari or the top-notch Nozomi versions. It was all to do with number of stops and travel time…

Our research told us to book the train at least a day before we travelled so we had gone to the Shinjuku station a couple of days earlier and discovered that due to public holidays and huge numbers travelling, we had a choice of only 4 trains for our return and only 1 that fitted with our timeline for returning from Kyoto  then making it to the airport for our flight. Sadly this was at 6:42am. Our second discovery was that the Kodama and the Hikare were the same price – about $330 each return.

Tatami time…
So we had the tickets and we had a normal departure time from Tokyo. Our trial run to Tokyo Station proved mighty canny and we managed to pack our luggage, check-out of the Hilton and be in the subway to the Metro well on time. January 2 is a day on which the Japanese choose to travel on mass. The Tokyo Station was jam-packed. Queues for toilets (even the mens!), queues for food of any description, queues for information, queues for ticket vending machines, and people as far as you could see in every direction. We needed to follow the the signs to the Tokaido line and eventually found ourselves on an extremely long platform surrounded by extremely long, extremely aerodynamic, white trains. We watched our train arrive and who’d have thought there’d be a show! These trains are 16 cars long, each car with two doors, so right along the platform, at the door points were pink suited cleaners standing at attention, all facing the oncoming train. As the train approached they all bowed. As the train stopped, they all turned and moved to their doors and waited for the passengers to alight. Once the train was empty they all rushed in and raced through the carriages turning the seats and changing the antimacassars. All the seats are brushed; all the bins are emptied; all the ledges are wiped; all done a running speed till the train is ready again in about 4 minutes. 

We managed to purchase a few food items for the trip, most notably a box of cakes delightfully named, Tokyo Banana. These are immaculately packaged sponge cakes filled with a banana-ey custardy creamy muck. Americans would prob’ly call it a twinky. I say one is enough. Our journey was also blighted. Blighted by the presence in our carriage of a pair of Australian families en-route to the ski fields with their 4 loud, spoiled children and too much luggage. We did a majestic sweep past Mt Fuji and a rush through some quite snowy areas before we arrived at Kyoto.

I had written down directions to our ryokan last night, and we found our way from the Shinkansen to the subway easily enough. Getting off at the correct stop was also easy, but I’m sharp enough to have realised after about 15 minutes that turning left or right was entirely dependant upon which exit you take. Our instructions nominated a seemingly non-existent exit and we were lead by a lovely woman with some english to another exit notionally in the right direction. Still not really sure about the street naming and numbering system and a half hour’s walk revealed nothing of any help, so against everything I hold to be male, I was forced to ask directions. The first shop girl pointed me in a vague direction and to a street that had a similar name to the one we were looking for, but the second shop girl, in a very flash suit shop, raced off and photocopied a page from the Kyoto UBD and marked a couple of X’s on it. Now these X’s roughly coincided with my re-interpretation of the directions I had, so we set off down a footpathless streets into the heart of Kyoto. About 20 minutes and we were really ‘warm’ (in the sense of close). We had lost count of the number of blocks traversed and were debating the merits of 5 or 6 when another kindly Kyotian stopped to help, and another. After a few minutes discussion, I thought I’ll just put the name of the ryokan out there – Watazen? Oh, Watazen they said – that’s just there (all pointing to a sign that said ‘Watazen‘ about 10 metres down the street.

Nishiki Market
This was to be our traditional Japanese experience – tourist style. The nice man at the desk greeted us with a buddhist lucky numbers game – Pip and Eamon won biros and I won some face-blotting paper. We arrived at 2:30 but couldn’t check in till 4 so they kindly looked after our luggage while we headed off to explore the local area. Didn’t take long to reach one of OMG, Japanese moments we’ve been experiencing. Our street crossed a covered market street, lined with shops selling food restaurants, which led to another covered street selling everything else which led to another covered street which sold everything else and led to the main streets which were filled with restaurants and stores again stretching off for a couple of kilometres. And people, teeming. About every third restaurant was closed – being the holiday season, and about every fifth shop. We roamed through these market streets, munching on street food (we found a woman selling pieces of fried chicken who I think had cracked the 11 secret herbs and spices of the Colonel) for a couple of hours before heading back to check-in and have a rest before heading out to dinner. We were shown to our room by kimono-ed serbian girl named Angelique, whose job it seemed was to explain the rules (in a very nice and smiley way) while she prepared us some tea. No shoes on the tatami. The provided white lady sandals for the foyer or around the hotel. The green lady slippers for the public bath. Use the gender appropriate public bath. Wash and clean yourself before the public bath. No heads under the water in the public bath. No clothes left on for modesty in the public bath. Internet only available in the foyer. Beds will be laid out late in the evening. Charming and Japanesey I’m sure.

Hit the futon
We sat around in the chairs with no legs and watched a bit of Jap television which really just appears to be a never ending panel show based on the Funniest Home Videos format, except they never claim the ‘accidents’ aren’t set-up, until we had recuperated enough to walk out again. We had a tip off from nice hotel guy to head down toward the river for the restaurant precinct and that would have been fine except that the restaurants that were open seemed to be booked out. We eventually found a 5th floor place that said we could wait if we wanted. We wanted. We’d spent about 2 hours looking for dinner. 40 minutes later – bingo. Three older gents rolled out of an unseen room, paid their huge sake-based bill and disappeared down the lift. We were shortly ushered in and invited to remove our shoes and enter one of those tatami rooms with the table on the floor and a shallow pit underneath for legs. The waitress left the room and shut the door behind her leaving us to press the buzzer for drinks and food. Twas a Shabu Shabu joint and Pip and I chose accordingly. Eams chose some dumplings and tempura.

A lovely meal and a lovely walk home past some beautiful buildings and by a Cafe Lucca which had an espresso machine. We took note of this baby for tomorrow.

Our beds had indeed been laid out when we got home and not much cajoling was required to get us all into futon mode and out to it.

Blue Fondue a la Turk

Eams and I managed to stay up till midnight, which helped us sleep in on New Year’s Day. After a late and coffee-less start we headed to the Zozoji Temple near the Tokyo Tower, which we’d been advised was the thing to do on New Year’s Day. Coming out of the subway we were immediately side-tracked by a small, but beautiful temple in the park behind Zozoji. This tiny temple was built in the shaqde of what is claimed to be Tokyo’s oldest tree, planted by a Shogun over 600 years ago and, yes, it’s a mighty big and thick tree. Shinto temples have fire pits burning on New Year’s Day and the people who come to pay their respects bring a small item from their home, seemingly the small knotted grass decorations that have been on sale all around the city, to burn.
There was a park between this shrine and the big temple, so we set off into it and discovered the hotel next door were offering people a chance to partake in traditional games, like kite flying, stilt walking, top spinning and badminton (with small wooden paddles and a real feathered cock), This kept Eamon and Pip amused for a while and I enjoyed watching the suit and tied hotel staff running with kites. But on to the temple and into a full on fiesta. One stall staffed by monks was selling fortunes and there were some selling arrows with bells on the end and many things with rabbit motifs. Lots of food stalls (many selling the traditional New Year’s Day buckwheat noodles), the standard beer and whisky stalls, stalls selling wishes and stalls selling prayers. We watched a monkey show (unheard of at home) and kids enetering some kind of competition for which the prize was a banana dipped in icing with sprinkles. It was an excellent festival with thousands in attendance. After a lunch from the stalls, we headed to Roppongi Hills, an area of Tokyo quite nearby that, when wasn’t a public holiday, was renowned for 2nd hand goods and furniture. Beautiful streets – Paris-like in feel and yet another different area. Pip and I have been saying all week, “I could live here,” – At Roppongi, I could really live here. Poked around a beautiful, huge bookstore and roamed the streets for a good couple of hours before our feet aches came to the fore and the hotel was calling. It was specifically calling for Eamon, because Pip and I were going out and granting Eamon’s wish to stay in our room for the evening.

Pip and returned to Electric Street and found a floor 3, 4 and 5 yakitori restaurant. Yakitori is basically barbecue at your table. Plates with all manner of meat keep arriving and you chuck them on the grill (a bucket of charcoal that fits into a slot on the table) and cook them. Most interestingly, a little foil pie tin filled with cheese and mayonnaise which was to serve as the fondue for the basil garlic chicken pieces. Despite the inherent dagginess of fondue, who could resist? Fondue good!
Eams in cleansing mode
Yakitori Restaurant

Roppongi Hills

Big Day Out at the Temple

Bananas in pink pyjamas

Well dressed and flying

The Chalice from the Palace

Major Architecture

New Year’s Eve is a quiet time in Tokyo – not quite a public holiday, but most things are shut from 28 Decemeber to 4 January. There’s enough action around the place though, you gotta expect that in a city of 35 million. Our hotel concierge did explain though, that it is customary in Japan to celebrate New Year’s quietly with family – so no big communal fireworks and the like. In keeping with the quietish pace of the day, we decided to forgo the hotel shuttle bus and walk to Shinjuku which isn’t actually very far and passes through some rather major architecture. We also wanted to check out an area we’d seen from the bus stop. This is an area we now know to be known as Electric Street, as opposed to Electric Town, which we visited yesterday.

Electric Street, Shinjuku

Electric Street is small time compared to the Town version – it’s also filled with little restaurants and Pachinko parlours. We roamed around the 2 or 3 blocks that make up the zone for a while – I have to say at this point that I could roam around this city’s prefectures for months it’s so damn interesting. We all of us love it.

Marinouchi Centre

Our main aim today was to chart our course to Tokyo station so we’d know where we were going on Sunday (our train to Kyoto). While we were there the tourists’ code demands a visit to the Imperial Palace. Tokyo Station is in the Marinouchi business district of the City and was particularly quiet on this holiday day (it was also cold so not many burghers on the streets). On spec we headed for the Marinouchi Centre, a large building near the station, which housed on it’s lower floors a number of stores including a department store with the inevitable food hall in the basement. The street level presented us with a full orchestra and choir performing Beethoven’s 9th which was a pleasant and unexpected diversion for a trio of Imperial Palace hunters. The foodhall also presented us with a little chinese deli nook we could sit in and enjoy some lunch – chicken noodle soup for me, dumpling soup for Pip and egg fried rice and pork buns for Eams – just the shot for a chilly day.

Eamon at the Nijubashi Briodge

Back to our quest and we continued into the outer palace gardens and followed our noses to the Nijubashi Bridge and our glimpse of the Palace, which was preparing for it’s one open day of the year on January 2. Our feet and legs were asking for respite at this stage, so back to the nearest subway station and home to Shinjuku Station where the hotel shuttle would carry us home for a rest before we needed to head out to dinner.

Food Vendor in Electric Street

We decided to try our luck back in the Electric Street area for dinner and liked the look of the sign outside one of the hundreds of restaurants that you never actually see because they’re either up on the 4th floor of a building or down in the basement. This was a basement one, so down a narrow, winding flight of stairs we trooped. We’ve learnt by now that there are rewards for those who dare and this stairway was no exception opening into a lovely, dark, smoky room. We weren’t clear on the type of cuisine – barbecued meat with a selection of small side dishes and sauces and rice and beer and wine and the inimitable egg-ey, cheesey saucey stuff, that the kind lady who was sitting next to us explained we should pour onto the rice a little at a time. All delicious. All full. All stupidly tired and footsore. On our return to thotel, the Marble Bart in the lobby had been transferred into a Countdown Salsa Party, complete with salsa dancers, salsa DJ and salsa vibe. Of course, my white suit was still at the cleaners…