12 October, Oak Hotel, Tokyo
Back at our starting point in Tokyo, the good old Oak. This place has almost a cult following amongst bargain basement travellers. The location is great, the service is fine (they speak English) and the rooms are clean, if SMALL. The nouveaux poor of the travelling set, the Europeans and the Americans join the regulars, Kiwis, Aussies and a few Japanese backpackers in what must be the best value hotel in Tokyo, $60-$70 a night.
Today we hit the tracks early to Nikko, one of the must-do areas of central Honshu. It was an interesting trip through some farm land, different from the urban gardens we've seen to date. We actually saw a few cows! We must be well 'templed and shrined-out' now. The thought of paying $15 to see the inside of yet another one kept us moving past the lovely exteriors to enjoy, instead, the forest walks of the Nikko National Park in which the shrines are sited. As one of the the major sights, Rinno-Ji Temple, was encased in an enormous industrial building during refurbishment, we felt somewhat justified in our tight-waddedness.
So, back in the familiar neighbourhood of Ueno, we are just about ready to go out for dinner. Eating in Japan is one of the best parts of the travelling experience here. The food is good, but not the best cuisine we have experienced in our travels. What is different is the enormous number of options available and the application of technology to some of the eateries.
Remember that we are bargain level travellers, so we are looking for value, and sometimes just looking for sustenance. At the top end, the sky is the limit in Japan. You can pay $ 100 for a steak dinner, or $1000 for specialist menu items like, dare we say it.... whale meat.
At the more realistic end of the market, there are a multitude of options that will provide a good experience of Japanese food and not see you swimming home. Our lunchtime favourite is the ubiquitous convenience store, places like 7-Eleven or Lawsons. Here you can buy good quality sandwiches, packaged salads and traditional Japanese foods for very reasonable prices. If you are so inclined, you can add a beer, sake or wine to take away, find a low wall or a bench and sit and people watch. Every major station in Japan offers beautifully packed lunch boxes. No cheese and piece of fruit boxes these. Small portions of a mixture of meats, vegetables, rice and pastries are a must- do treat for the long-distance train traveller.
Later in the day, there are the Izakaya, a bit like pubs in the UK or Australia, but much smaller, with beer, reasonably priced food and some interesting characters. You can recognise them from the red lantern outside. English menus are mostly not available, but pictures may give you the idea of what you might get, or just watch what the other patrons favour.. On the issue of language, most people in eating establishments speak a little English, and even if they don't, they are very helpful in assisting us make choices.
A step up from the Izakaya are the coin-in-the-slot cafes. These are not vending machines, but fast food places that operate on a ticket system that requires you to pick your meal, pay at a machine and take your ticket to the counter or your table, depending on the 'class' of the establishment. In our experience, the quality of the food is quite good and the numbers of locals that patronise these places is testament to their value.
A step up again from the 'mechanised cafes' are the places that have plastic models of the food in the window. Usually these places have the price on the model so you know what you are paying for. Disconcertingly, the models in the window don't always match the pictures on the menu once you get inside.. When that happens, you grab the waiter, take him/her outside to the window, point and all is well.
All in all, eating out in Japan complies with the basic rule of you getting what you pay for.
13 October, Ashinoko Ichinoyu Hotel/Ryokan, Togendai
Never heard of Togendai? Neither had we. It is a small tourist town on the edge of Lake Ashino at the centre of the Hakone area just south-west of Tokyo. It’s the spectacular views of Mount Fuji that most people come here to see. On a clear day, the reflection of the mountain in the lake is one of the most photographed sights in Japan. Not today. A heavy mist and cloudy skies gave us a white-out.
All was not lost though. Ever since we first rode the London Underground in 1976, we have been fans of trains and other forms of public transport. Japan has been the pinnacle of our experiences so far from this point of view. This trip's other attraction is that it is somewhat of a pentathlon of transport. A few trains to start with - Shinkansen, a local 'rattler' and then a steep-climbing switchback started the day. Then there was a funicular and what the Japanese call a ropeway, to us a cable car. To get the big five, we take a boat up the lake tomorrow, then a bus to catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo in time to pick up the NEX express to Narita for our flight home.
Japan in Review
We had originally planned to stop over in Japan for a couple of weeks on our return from South Africa and the UK in May this year. In mid-March, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit central eastern Honshu. More than 35,000 people were killed, whole towns and cities were washed away and a nuclear power plant was damaged and began leaking. Naturally, we put off our trip. Things settled down by mid September and we took advantage of a ridiculously cheap fare to Japan. So, it was with this background that we lumped our carry-on only luggage into Tokyo about 2 weeks ago.
Our expectations were probably that Japan would be a very crowded, Asian version of the US or Australia. Not far off as it turned out. As we have mentioned in the blog, the size of cities and their expanse has startled us somewhat. Six hundred kilometres of solid city is interesting, but a little frightening as well, not because it is threatening, quite the contrary in Japan. This is probably the safest country we have ever travelled in. It is more because this may be some indication of what a very crowded planet may look like in a hundred years or so.
What has to be said of Japan's crowded cities is that they work. Delays in moving about are minimal, traffic on the roads is moderate and it is often possible to wander about in even the biggest cities at certain times of the day and see only a few people.
Travel costs in Japan have been a plus for us. Japan isn't cheap but, with care, it can be good value, even for the bargain bracket traveller.
Gaining a better understanding of Japanese history and culture has been a great benefit for us, but it is easy to get 'culture overload' if you hit all the temples, shrines, castles and museums. It is the other aspects of Japanese life and custom that never cease to amuse and interest us. People-watching is a great past-time here. Often we don't understand what is going on, but that is part of the attraction. It must be said that getting about in Japan is extremely easy. People are just fantastic, polite and helpful.
We always try to be honest in these reviews. So we will be honest about Japan. On a one to ten scale it probably hits a high seven. We would probably come back at some time to explore the less populated areas in the hope of seeing something different, but on what we have seen in the areas we have travelled, this rating seems fair.
The final verdict, Japan is a must-do at least once in a lifetime, but a return visit would be a bit low on our list at the moment.