Trip to Japan, May 2005

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Going to Kyoto
View to Hotel GimmondOn Sunday May 22nd we left Tokyo. We made our way to the Tokyo station on the subway and we took the Shinkansen towards Osaka and Kyoto. I think that the ride from Tokyo to Kyoto took us about 2 hours and 45 minutes. And after a short taxi ride we were at Hotel Gimmond where we had made reservations for 5 nights. The location of the hotel was not bad. It is located on a street called Oike-Dori and it is only about 5 minutes walk away from the Karasuma Oike subway station and only like 5 minutes away from the “downtown” area. We arrived in the evening so there first night we just checked out the neighbourhood and had some sushi to eat :-)


A walk on the wild side with Johnny Hillwalker
Johnny Hillwalker guiding us aroundOn our first morning in Kyoto we got up early. We had read about a tour on foot with a guy called Hajime Hirooka or better know as Johnny Hillwalker. So we pitched up near the Kyoto Station and we were not the only ones that had that bright idea :-). In the end there was a bunch of people from all over the world waiting for Johnny to start the tour. View to the city. Higashi-Honganji temple is on the left hand sideAfter paying 2000¥ in cash per person we started the walk and the first stop was at Higashi-Honganji temple. Unfortunately the temples exterior is being refurbished so instead of seeing a nice temple there is just a big white tent with scaffolding. The gate to the temple is one of the first things you will notice as you drive out of the Kyoto Station area. We were taken for a tour inside of the temple and we were given a bit of information about the religion of Japan and how Buddhism and Shinto lives hand in hand. Toyokuni shrineJohnny’s tour continued for about 5 hours and we were taken to crafts areas (e.g. fan production), Japanese gardens (Shosei-en), to where Nintendo started their business (did you know they started the business by making playing cards?), to Shinto Shrines, to the geisha area etc. When we stopped by places where stuff was sold (like fans) we never felt that we needed to buy anything (unlike some of the tours that we have been to in China and Thailand). Kiyomizu temple areaThe walk was fun but 5 hours were a bit long…even if we got a bit of snack on the way we were still starving by the end of the tour. The snack we got was a inari sushi by the way and we also stopped by a pastry place. So my recommendation is that you bring along some food in order to keep the energy levels up on the tour :-). Even if it was a large group it was still easy to hear Johnny when he was telling stuff. The tour ended in the vicinity of the Kiyomizu-dera temple. But it started pouring down when we were there so our tour of the area was a bit amputated.


Geisha spotting – Gion district
A beautiful Geisha in a street in KyotoAccording to Johnny Hillwalker the number of geishas in Kyoto has dwindled over the years. We were walking in the Gion district in Kyoto one evening when we saw some tourists with cameras and they were all just standing around waiting. So we assumed that there was something going on and we walked around in the area. And it didn’t take long before we saw several geishas walking fast to their destination. Some of the tourists were stalking the poor girls and stopping them to take pictures of them. We had seen several girls in the kimono before we saw the geisha girls but the geishas were something else with their pale faces, extravagant hair, colourful kimonos etc.


A-bomb dome in HiroshimaI have always been interested in world history and the Second World War is an important part of our history. Hiroshima became infamous on August 6th 1945 when the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city and killed thousands of civilians. With our train pass we just got on the Shin-Osaka Shinkansen once again and we changed trains at Children's peace monument HiroshimaOsaka train station and continued for Hiroshima. The 1 ½ hour train trip was a bit boring as quite a lot of the line is put in tunnels so there is not much of a view. But at noon we came to Hiroshima without really knowing how to get into the Peace park. Once outside the train station we just started asking bus drivers and people how to get into town :-). In the end we met an Australian lady with her two daughters and she guided us to the right street car. Later on we found out that we had gone out of the train station on the “wrong” side. If we had gone out on the opposite side we would have found the tram station that would’ve taken us directly to the Peace Park :-)


Almost a perfect picture of the cenotaph...apart from the guy who walked into the pictureThe Peace Park is located more or less at the site of where the atomic bomb exploded. Most of the houses near the epicentre were wiped out and the only building still left is the A-bomb dome. The whole area that was once a busy part of the city has now been turned into a park where the main message is peace. The first thing we saw when coming from the street was the a-bomb dome and it is of course scary to see the marks of war. Hiroshima before the bombIn the park itself there is a Children’s peace monument, an eternal flame that will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons are destroyed etc. Thousand of school kids were running around in the park and they were all taken pictures of each other with disposable cameras. But it was the Peace Memorial Museum that gave the strongest impression on us. Hiroshima after the bombWe got an audio guide and walked around in the museum and listened to the explanation of how the city was before 1945, why Hiroshima was picked as a target, how people experienced the blast, how people died etc. There are several artefacts in the museum that shows the tremendous force and heat that the bomb had when it went off. e.g. melted bottles, iron shutters that have been bent by the shock wave etc. We left the park marked by all the information that we had gotten in the museum. Let us hope that no one in the future has to experience another atomic bomb.


The strange dish okonomiyakiWe didn’t have much time in Hiroshima. But we had to try a local specialty while we were there :-). Hiroshima is known for something called okonomiyaki. When I first heard about it, it was described as a seafood pizza. But I’m not sure that this is an accurate description. The one we had used green onion as a base and in it there were squid, shrimp, bacon, egg, noodles etc. So I guess you can say that it was a combination of a pizza and an omelet. It sounds strange but it was quite tasty :-)


The real deal or not? - Kobe steak in Kobe
Nikki having what we think was Kobe steakOn our way home from Hiroshima to Kyoto we decided to stop by Kobe to hunt for the Kobe steak. Kobe was struck by a big earthquake a few years back we didn’t see any signs of that as we jumped of the Shinkansen and used the subway to get to the downtown area. So what is the fuss about the Kobe steak? The meat comes from steer that has been massaged and fed beer and this is supposed to make the meat both tender and tasty…and expensive :-). According to our guidebook there was a place called Sanda-ya where they served Kobe steak at affordable prices. Eventually we found the restaurant – the sign outside is only in Japanese). The meal at the restaurant was a pre-set menu at it cost 6200¥ per person and it included ham for starter, soup, red wine, the Kobe steak and ice cream and coffee for dessert. I found it a bit amusing that the red wine was served chilled but the meat was very good and it was one of the most tender steaks that I have ever had – and I can honestly say I’ve had my fair share of tender steaks to compare it to. When we left the restaurant we talked to a French guy who worked at a restaurant next to the Sanda-ya. He asked us if we enjoyed the steak but he also added that it was probably not real Kobe steak. His theory was that when the restaurant got their name in the guidebook they changed the meat to make more money. I’m not sure if it is true or not…it doesn’t change the fact that the meat was really, really good.


Just cruisin’ – Biking around Kyoto
Kyoto Tower seen from Kyoto station in the eveningKyoto is not really that big so we decided to rent a couple of bikes to see a bit of the city on our own. We went over to Kyoto station and since the skies were clear we went up Kyoto Tower to start with an aerial view of the city. This is a combined hotel (the lower levels) and a look out point at about 100 meters. We paid about 770¥ and got into the elevator and got a great view of the city and the surrounding hills. Our ticket also included access to a public bath(?) but we didn’t have time to check that out :-). The bike rental idea came from a pamphlet we found at the hotel Finding the place was a bit of a mission - we didn’t expect it to be located inside a department store. We rented the bikes at the price of 1000¥ per person plus a 3000¥ deposit. Scene from the Imperial palaceThe bikes were pretty nice…with good breaks, a few gears, a basket in the front, a lock etc. We started out by biking past the Nijo castle and it seemed to be pretty chaotic with tour buses and even a parking fee for bikes :-). So, we headed for the Kyoto Gyoen National Garden and the Imperial palace located inside it instead. We had read that there was a tour there and we decided to join in. The tour was free I think but you have to remember to register at the Imperial Household Agency first. The tour took about an hour and we were taken around (not inside) different imperial buildings such as the main gate, ceremony building etc. Kyoto was the capitol of Japan and home of the emperor for more than 1000 years but in the end the power shifted towards Tokyo and that is where the current emperor lives. The tour of the Imperial Palace was OK but once again the group of people that joined the tour was a bit big and it was a bit tricky to hear what our guide was saying.


A tiny noodle placeWe continued on our bike trip and we crossed the river to find the so called Philosopher’s walk. But biking makes you hungry of course :-) We stopped by a tiny noodle place and we asked to see the menu and the old couple behind the counter pointed at a poster on the wall behind us…all in Japanese of course. But with some pictures from the guidebook, sign language etc we were able to get a couple of portions of noodles and it was pretty tasty. We found the Philosopher’s walk at the slopes of the hills on the east side of Kyoto. Nikki on her bike outside the Imperial palaceThe little path follows a tiny canal and it is lined with cherry trees. I guess it must look amazing in the cherry blossom season. The path is named after a philosophy professor at the Kyoto University that used to take daily walks here. We didn’t have that much time for philosophy unfortunately as we had to get back to hand in the bikes. If you have time you will find temples and shrines along the route. We managed to get lost for a while too but in the end we found our way back to the river and back to Kyoto Station where we handed in the bikes at like 5 minutes to closing time. Having bikes was nice and we were able to see more of Kyoto. But beware that the sidewalks are crowded with unobservant pedestrians and more experienced impatient cyclists.


Kyoto Station – more than meets the eye
Kyoto stationWhen we first came to Kyoto I thought that the station was pretty nice and modern. There was even a hotel in the station building itself. During our stay we went into the station several times to take the Shinkansen to different destinations. And slowly we found out that the place was actually much larger than we thought. There is a big Isetan shopping mall in the building but the coolest thing was the Great stair case at the station. Great stair case at Kyoto stationThis was an open air stair case which goes all the way from the ground floor I think up till 11th floor. On the top floors there are a few restaurants, as with many department stores in Japan. We ate at one of these places one night, I think it was an Italian place called Wansa Kansa . We were quite surprised when no one spoke English and they didn’t have an English menu. I guess we just assumed that there would be many tourists stopping by restaurants at the station. Fortunately they had the traditional window display so it was not a problem to point and order :-)


Entertainment in Kyoto
If you want to have some basic fun in Kyoto you can go to an entertainment centre. We went into one place located in the main street Kawaramachi-dori called JJ Club 100 one night. We had to be registered members to enter the building with many floors. Inside there was everything from bowling, arcades, table tennis, dart, some sort of squash/racquetball, karaoke etc. I’m not really sure how the payment worked…we played a couple of rounds of bowling and we played some arcade games and when we left I guess they just calculated a price based on how long we had been there.


Himeji Castle
Himeji CastleIn our guidebook we read about Himeji Castle and that it was the grandest of the 12 remaining feudal castles in Japan. Seeing as Himeji is not that far from Kyoto we decided to put our train passes to good use again to get to Himeji. It only took us like 45 minutes before we reached the small town of Himeji and we were wondering how we were going to get to the castle itself. Once we got out of the station it was staring right at us less then a kilometre away, so we just walked there in the nice weather. We had to pay 700¥ per person to enter and unfortunately there were no tours in English. Himeji CastleWe got a brochure with a map in English and there were also notices, in English (even though they were a bit hard to read), at places of interest. If you stick to the path you are lead towards the main tower where you can enter (after taking your shoes off) and then we were able to climb to the top of the tower and enjoy the view. The castle is called the ultimate samurai castle and it looked like the walls of the castle could take a beating. The place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site I enjoyed the visit to the castle and it was breathtaking to see the main tower against the blue skies.


Umeda Sky Building in Osaka...see the two suspended escalators in the middleOn our way back from Himeji Castle we decided to jump off the train at Shin-Osaka on our way back to Kyoto. We didn’t really have that much information about Osaka but we managed to take the subway to the downtown area (Umeda). We decided to go to the Umeda Sky Building to visit the Floating Garden Observatory. It only took us 10-15 minutes to walk to the building from the station and it was easy to recognize the Sky building because of its unique shape. We paid 600¥ per person for the entrance and once again we were taken to the top of a building by a woman in a nice uniform. When we got out of the elevator we had to take a long suspended escalator from the one building to the other and it actually made me a bit nervous (and normally don't have that much problem with heights). View from the Umeda Sky BuildingI asked the woman in uniform if there was a problem with earth quakes in the area but she just laughed. Well, at the top we were about 170 meters above the ground and it gave us a great 360 degree view of the huge Osaka city. We also stopped by a place near the train station which was more or less electronics heaven. I spent a lot of time looking at cameras at the first floor before I moved to the next floor. There I found even more cameras and equipment. It was photo heaven because you could get all sorts of equipment from camera, lenses, flashes, tripods etc. And what about the prices? Well, a PSP was about 20.000¥ and a Canon EOS 20D was about 190.000¥.


We returned back to Kyoto at about 11 pm. Our Hikari Shinkansen was cancelled to I guess we looked a bit lost because a Japanese guy stopped and asked us if we were OK. At first we were a bit sceptical because in many other countries this means that you will be ripped off. But this was a guy that just wanted to help out and he took us to the right track and he guided us to the local train to Kyoto. I guess this episode sheds some light on why we felt so safe in Japan.


Back to Tokyo
On Friday May 27 we took the subway in Kyoto to the Kyoto Station for the last time. After a breakfast at Starbucks we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo Station and stayed at Hotel Akasaka Excel Tokyu. We used the last day in Tokyo to get around Tokyo a little bit and we stopped by Harajuku, Shinjuku and Shibuya. We decided to go for Western food for the last dinner and we ate at Outback in the Shibuya area. I like this restaurant chain and we’ve had meals there in both Bangkok and Beijing before. Our meal at the Outback was about 7000¥ for starter, main dish, and a glass of wine each. Maybe it’s time we tried real Outback food in Oz?


Pachinko parlor in TokyoDuring our trip we had noticed all the pachinko places around the cities. We ended up trying this Japanese…eh…gambling. Pachinko is a game where you buy some steel balls and then you use some sort of wheel to shoot these balls into the machine and if you are lucky they will drop into a hole that wins you the jackpot. We bought some balls but we didn’t have any luck :-). We even got kicked out because it was closing time at 11 pm. The Pachinko parlours are easy to find…they are extremely noisy.


Going home
Airport Limousine bus taking us to the airportWe took the Airport Limousine bus out to the airport since it departed right outside the hotel itself. We paid about 3000¥ each but at least we didn’t have to drag our suitcases around on the subway. You will notice how big Tokyo is when you drive out to the airport…it takes a long time to just get out of the city. According to the guidebook there would be a 2000¥ departure tax so we withdrew some more money from an ATM. But we were never charged a departure tax so we used our last money on shopping for gifts at the airport. The 12 hour trip back to Amsterdam went pretty fast due to the games on board the JAL flight. Nikki and I had our own little competition in the Tetris game Volcanix…Nikki set the standard with 52850 points but after hours and hours of playing I was victorious when I got 58.000 points…let me now if you can beat that :-)


Buddha figure at Senso-ji templeWhen we came to Tokyo we were not sure what to expect. We had read and heard that it was expensive, that people didn’t speak English etc. But as usual we managed to get around on our own and the cost level was not as high as we had feared (well, we live in Norway so I guess we are used to everything being expensive). We found a huge city with more than 12 million people that actually seems to work far better than many other smaller cities that we have been to. People were polite, seemed to have respect for each other, the city is clean, it feels safe etc. Sato even mentioned that if we got lost we should ask the police for directions because they didn’t have much to do anyway. I’m not sure how true this is but it was quite different walking around in Tokyo compared to New York City which seemed a bit fortified when we were there last summer. Even if Japan is quite a wealthy country we did see signs of poverty but I guess that is just like in every other big city. Tokyo might not have world famous attractions like New York, Paris etc but it was still great fun to travel around in the city and watch people. In some areas Japan is just like Norway and in other areas it is completely different and that made it quite interesting. I guess what amazes me the most about Japan is how far they have come since the end of World War 2. After the war ended they rebuilt more or less everything and they were able to become leaders in many areas.


So what will I remember from the trip? Well, I think the sumo wrestling will stay with me for a long time :-) But I will also remember things like seeing the Hiroshima Peace Park, travelling on the Shinkansen, seeing the neon lights of Tokyo etc.


Meiji Jingu Shrine in Yoyogi ParkWe had a great trip to Japan but as usual it is not enough with only 2 weeks to see a whole country. But we did get a taste of it and I hope that we have been able to share some of this with you in this trip report. If you are going on vacation for just relaxation I think it is better to go to e.g. Cape Town/Thailand. But if you want a city vacation combined with a historic journey then you can head for Japan. I hope that the trip report has been of some use to you. Please get in touch if you have any questions or comments about our trip to Japan.




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