Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tokyo again, Food and Review

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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Takayama - into the countryside?

10 October, Nagoya

Takayama was one hell of a long trip. It was close to 5 hours total time on the train and this time a local rattler, rather than the Shinkansen. To make matters worse, on our return trip, because of booking problems, we tried our luck in the non-reserved carriages. Bad call. After about two hours rocking about, standing outside the toilet at the end of a carriage with a dozen or so other losers, we managed to grab a couple of seats as people left the train.

Takayama is famous for its old, traditional Japanese houses. The best-presented were those that had been taken from within the region and then re-built inside a cultural village just outside town. The remaining old houses in the town itself, as is common with these attractive, historical areas, are now mainly tourist shops with the usual, over-priced, 'traditional craft' and souvenir shops. Sake breweries and restaurants complete the streetscape. We might have been tempted to sample some of their wares were it not for the thousands of others who strolled these streets and alleys on this Monday of a long weekend. As it was, we ambled along with the masses for a while, then high-tailed it for the station, to beat the inevitable rush back to Nagoya. As it turned out, we were not alone in this clever thinking!

For the first time, this trip took us through some rural landscapes, or what we assume passes for such in this densely populated region. The rice harvest must be close. Small plots of golden rice filled in more and more space between houses. Most plots were smaller than an average Australian suburban block, but we assume farmers own several plots slotted in amongst their neighbours' homes. About the only livestock we have seen has been a few chickens.

The climb up to Takayama was through some splendid mountain scenery, with some of the trees just showing the first glint of autumn colours. The railway followed swift-flowing, clear mountain streams for most of the route. Sadly, although understandably, some of this natural beauty has been spoilt by numerous hydro-electric stations and dams. Their associated towers and cables were draped over almost every slope.

Being a holiday weekend, local tourists were out in force. Sadly for the Japanese economy, foreign travellers were few and mostly backpackers and low end types like ourselves.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Photo Special - Japan Weird Stuff

Language and cultural differences provide us with an enormous amount of amusement while travelling. Japan is a treasure trove of weird stuff.

Here are a few of our favourites!

Harajuku - 'Dress up girls' parade the streets in weird outfits.

Cartoon signs advertising slot machine parlours.

Slide at a pre-school. A munckhin escape route, or just a way to get them home in the afternoon?

Lost in translation.

Ticket machine in a large train station. The blur is because everytime  I pointed the camera, the guy in the window ducked. Does this mean Japanese mastery of mechanized ticket dispensing is a myth?

Street parade. Samurai piper?

Balcony in the kitchenware district, Ueno.

Platform markers indicating where to line up for entry to your train. Took us ages to figure it out.

Don't fly one of these without a licence.

Apparently one should only drink lesser quality water?

Parking for a two car, one bike family in a single garage.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

More trains and Japanese culture

9 October, Train to Nagoya

A 14 day Japan Rail Pass cost us just over $1000 for both of us. At the time we were a little unsure that we would get value out of it. How wrong we were. One thing that still is relatively expensive in Japan is long distance rail travel, so, with all the trips we've done, and still plan to do, we have probably got $2000 value out of the pass. Not only that, getting on and off trains and making connections is so easy when you don't have to figure out where and how to purchase tickets. We just flash our pass and walk on through. We quickly learnt the value of making reservations. Trains are well patronised, particularly on holiday weekends like this one, so a quick trip to the ticket office for a free, reserved seat has been well worth the effort.

One of the advantages of using local transport is that you get up close and personal with the locals, away from the uniform, Western/European world that seems to surround major tourist areas world-wide. Australians were exposed to negative aspects of Japanese 'culture' during the war years. Our parents and grandparents had good reason to have some strong prejudices against the Japanese. However, over the past few decades, millions of Japanese have visited Australia and many thousands have stayed on to live and work.. Japanese cuisine has found its way into supermarkets and our homes. Japanese movies have become blockbusters. The world of telecommunication has allowed Australians to become familiar with more positive aspects of the Japanese psyche.

Our observations and experiences have been only positive. People are respectful of each other, honest and courteous to the point of being embarrassing. Japanese, especially the young, have a marked sense of fun that sometimes borders on weird! Just watch a couple of hours of Japanese television to get the idea.. Respect for individuals seems to extend to institutions and the law. In the 1980's and 1990's the mutual loyalty of employers and employees meant that jobs were fairly much for life and generation after generation worked for the same corporation. Some of this has gone in these leaner economic times but the same principles seem to hold society together today. How this peaceful, ordered, respectful society relates to the outright barbarism of the Japanese that our parents and grandparents knew during the war years is difficult to understand. Our only theory is that the strong sense of loyalty, honour, and respect was in some way refocused by the militaristic government during the 1930's. Still, it is difficult today to imagine that this is the same society that, in the lifetime of many of those walking the streets and riding the trains with us, was capable of committing so many atrocities in the past.

Later 9 October, B Hotel, Nagoya

Nagoya is said to be the third city of Japan. How anybody can determine where one city ends and one begins on this densely populated 600km long plain of eastern Japan, who knows? Arriving at the station was much like hitting any other station in a big Japanese city. People everywhere, a bit of early confusion on our part then .. whoosh, off on the subway and a short walk to our hotel. Just an afternoon to wander about here, as Nagoya is just a stepping off point for our trip to Takayama tomorrow, so we jumped yet another train and took a wander about the Tokugawa Museum. Asian art is not really our thing, but this collection was just a little different. A private collection of the Tokugawa family, there were enough historically interesting exhibits of the shogun period and pre-war family mementos from the imperial family to hold our interest.

Tomorrow, JR Line train to Takayama.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Hiroshima, trains, buses and trams

8 October, Himeji – Hiroshima

A long day today. On the Shinkansen to Hiroshima before 7:00 am, we were on a day trip from Himeji to visit Hiroshima and the island shrine of Miyajima. This is a long weekend in Japan so we had to hit the track early to get seats on the trains. Miyajima is a temple with a difference. It's said to float above the sea. The orange shrine gate is one of the most photographed sights in Japan. On this sunny day it didn't disappoint.

Taking the train, then a tram, back to central Hiroshima, first stop was the A-Bomb Dome, the shell of the building over which the atomic bomb exploded in August 1945. Although every soul inside the building was lost and fire took the internal structures, somehow the shell survived. The nearby Hiroshima Peace Park, a quiet and reflective park, well set out as only the Japanese can, contains several memorials. A well-balanced museum captured much of the real horror of that day in 1945 when the world changed forever. Photos and personal articles create stories of some of the victims and survivors. It can be harrowing.

Back in Himeji by 4:00 pm, it is probably a good time to mention the Japanese transport systems. We've been on and off trains, subways, trams and buses, with very little hassle. Tens of millions of Japanese and a few tourists, depend on this fantastic public transport every day. Our favourite of course is the Shinkansen (bullet trains). These aircraft-like miracles of modern engineering whisk us about with an efficiency that would leave even the Dutch and Germans gasping. For trips of anything up to 500 kms, the frequency of departures is unbelievable. From Tokyo to Okoyama, trains run about every 15 minutes. Subways, buses and trams right across the country are coordinated, so that it is generally possible to make connections within a few minutes.

Language is no barrier either. Numbered lines and trains assist in more remote areas, but in larger cities, all stations and stops are announced in English. Everything is so well ordered. When a train pulls into a station, departing passengers are lined up at the appropriate spot on the platform that will be precisely where the door will open when the train stops. Amazing stuff!

Stations are places of wonder. There is a constant background noise of announcements, beeps, squawks, bird-like electronic sounds and our favourite, the cleaning carts that play tunes like Camp Town Races as the white-gloved, smartly-uniformed cleaners scrub every surface to a reflective sheen. Electronic noise seems to be everywhere in Japanese cities. Street crossings feature way more than the pathetic, trapped-bird noises that we are familiar with. Some also play music tunes like Scotland the Brave. But for us, the absolute pinnacle was the electronic rendition of the Astro Boy theme that welcomed us to one of the Tokyo subway stations.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Himeji and some Misconceptions

7 October, APA Hotel, Himeji

Another quick trip on the Shinkansen today. We have now travelled more than 600kms from Tokyo through the flat plains of eastern Honshu. The whole way has been solid, wall-to-wall city. We have seen some densely populated areas in our travels, but this takes the cake.

Interestingly, from the train, the cities look dreadful. But, close up at street level, they aren't half bad. Wide streets, no more street traffic than you would see in the US, Australia or Europe and clean, clean, clean!

The smallish (550,000) city of Himeji is famous for its castle, a spectacular structure that is largely under restoration at the moment. All the same, we spent a rewarding few hours wandering about the extensive palace, one of the very few wooden structures to survive the wars and fires that have destroyed many of Japan's heritage buildings.

It's about time we commented on a couple of things about impressions of Japan. First, costs, one of our favourite topics! Japan has been in an economic freeze for almost two decades. As a result, prices have frozen fairly much at 20th century levels. So, even though Japan was outrageously expensive 10 years ago, it has come back to the pack. As a couple of examples, local subway travel is around $2.50 (US or AUD) for a standard trip, a 500 ml can of beer is around $3.50 from a supermarket and sandwiches from a convenience store at $3.60 for a cheap lunch. Chain hotels near stations can be had for $75-$80. A nice Japanese evening meal will set you back about $15 for a main course. Specials can be found if you shop around. We bought a pair of sox today for $1.30. So, as usual, if you wander into the first restaurant you see, or buy your beer in a flash bar, you can multiply these prices by 10.

Next. Language is often seen as a problem for travellers in Japan. Not at all. Transport systems are set-up to deal with English speakers, most people speak enough English to help you out and people are so obliging that nothing is a problem. We do feel for non-English speakers though. They would have a problem. As far as the Japanese are concerned, there are only a two languages they deal with, apart from their own - English and Chinese.

The last misconception leads us to a far more serious issue. Japan is a very rich country. As discussed above, Japan is highly westernised and fairly affluent. However, things have changed for Japan in the last couple of decades. Yes, prices have held, to the advantage of the foreign tourist, but for the Japanese, the first decade of the 21st century has been an economic nightmare. The stagnation of the economy has left Japan in a situation not dissimilar to Europe and the USA. To their credit, the Japanese have applied their strong cultural precepts to the problem. Jobs are maintained at the cost of corporate profits. A sad sight for us amongst all this, is that of very elderly people out working to support themselves, instead of enjoying what was probably planned as a comfortable retirement. Old, yes simply old, women sweeping the streets and parks with straw brooms and men in their 70s working as security or traffic guards. There is obviously a program of employment creation in place because, even with all the technology employed in Japan, wherever people can be used to do a job they are employed rather than some technology-based system.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Kyoto Enough Temples!

4 October, APA Hotel, Kyoto

What a day of contrasts. From the madness of rush hour in Tokyo station to the peace of being totally alone in the enormous Nishi Hongan Temple in Kyoto. That's what Japan is all about. Turn a corner off a street full of skyscrapers and enter a clean, but shambolic, typical old Asian street. Sure, most of the country has been rebuilt since the War, but there are still a few small pockets of 'old Japan' that are rewarding for those of us who get lost so easily!

Our reason for being in Tokyo station in peak hour was to catch the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), down to Kyoto. As lovers of train travel, this was a trip we were looking forward to. Our previous experience of super-fast trains was limited to a trip on the TGV from Amsterdam to Paris. On average, the speed of both trips was probably much the same, although we felt that the TGV moved a lot faster at peak speeds. Mind you, 2 hr 45 mins for 550 kms through one of the most populated areas on the planet was pretty flash. On the way, we were adopted by a nice old Japanese gentleman, or at least Janita was... you can't leave her alone for a minute! He explained a lot of what we were seeing as we flew through eastern Honshu. Most of the 500kms or more through which we travelled is densely populated because many of the largest Japanese industries are located here. Toyota, Honda, Sony and many other household name manufacturing giants call eastern Honshu home.

Kyoto is a much smaller city than Tokyo, a bit like Brisbane compared to Rockhampton. But, to put it all into perspective, Kyoto city is about the same size as greater Brisbane. These comparisons become a bit ridiculous when you look at the countryside around cities like Kyoto. By Australian definitions, the whole 500km strip from Tokyo to Osaka would be considered to be one city. Rarely were we out of sight of tightly-packed high to mid-rise apartment blocks and tightly-packed detached houses. It all sounds horrid, but the air is clear, the roads are lightly trafficked and the streets spotlessly clean, very safe and uncrowded. These aren't pretty cities. They are just big and awe-inspiring. We have often wondered what Japanese tourists find so fascinating about the thousands of empty kilometres of the Australian Outback. They probably wonder what we find so interesting in their cities and what makes them tick.

Our Kyoto hotel has no English channels, so we have spent our after dinner TV time watching a bit of Japanese television. Bizarre just doesn't do it justice! The fascination with people hurting themselves, strange, large, furry animals, odd cartoon characters and people screaming at bananas (true) while extremely brightly coloured text flashes across the screen, has us bemused, to say the least. Yet, step out the door and walk up the street and we could be anywhere in any western city in the world.

6 October, Kyoto

Rain yesterday, so we did our washing and took a long bus trip out to yet another temple. You may judge from the tone of that statement that we are a bit “templed out”. The first couple were interesting, but in the rain yesterday, it was just a drag.

Kyoto was the old Imperial capital of Japan before the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s. Consequently, it is home to a number of historically significant monuments and palaces. Probably the most impressive for us has been the Nijo Castle. Unlike many other important Japanese buildings, it wasn't destroyed in the War or burnt down in the feudal struggles that preceded the modernisation of Japan. All ancient buildings in Japan were wooden. Consequently, very few survive today. The wall paintings in Nijo are 17th century and some of the best preserved in Japan.

Earlier in the day we did a tour of the gardens of the Sento Palace, part of the Imperial Palace Complex. Just beautiful, but one of the disadvantages of this time of the year in Japan is that the colours that come out in spring and autumn are not there to highlight the meticulously designed gardens.

Now masters of the Kyoto bus system, we jumped a number 207 and headed to the west of the city, where narrow streets lined with traditional houses, now tourist shops and restaurants, wind up to... yep, some more temples. To be fair, this time, the more rustic setting and some fairly spectacular pagodas made for some interesting views.