Continuing with my bucket list of countries I want to see, this year in October our travels took us to Japan and Hong Kong. The long flight was not something I was particularly looking forward to, however a couple of films and a meal and I slept most of the remaining time to Hong Kong, where we were to transfer; much to my husband’s disgust as he was too uncomfortable to sleep!
The first part of this blog will describe Japan whilst the second will deal with Hong Kong.
We arrived late in Tokyo; so on arrival at our hotel, spent the evening pawing over the maps having extensively devoured the Lonely Planet guide on the connecting flight from Hong Kong. Japan is somewhat of an enigmatic destination that many people desire to investigate. It is a paradoxical country with the latest in gadgets juxtaposed with centuries of culture and tradition. As is usual we found ourselves wanting to do far more than our 5 full days allowed and so ensued many long days of rushing from sight to sight, wanting to experience each of the wonderful attractions.
We feared that food may be a problem and we weren’t far wrong. Neither of us fancied the idea of raw fish and my husband is quite particular about what he will and won’t eat. We were however saved, due to the arms of globalisation reaching right around the world – there was a TGI Fridays, McDonalds and many a Starbucks! My idea of being forced to lose weight clearly faltered despite the desire for the perfect body being all the more great, seeing the beautiful, skinny Japanese women.
The first day we began with what may seem to some as a rather strange; we visited a cat café. I had read in the Evening Standard that one was soon to be opened in London and knew that the idea, which originated in Taiwan, had blossomed in Japan. The popularity is due to cramped living conditions in Japan which often makes owning pets difficult. You pay an hourly charge to sit and enjoy the company of cats. Drinks are extra as is food to feed the cats. It was a very pleasant and relaxing experience and I was really impressed with the hygiene standards of the place. All I can say is don’t knock it until you have tried it.
Continuing with the gentle start to the day we then visited the Shinjuku-gyoen, a park where there was a beautiful pagoda and a greenhouse full of traditional plants. The autumn colours were truly beautiful – with the green leaves slowly turning a rich golden colour. We were lucky enough to get a sighting of the cherry blossom – a rarity in this season but an icon of Japan.
We then spent most of the afternoon, trekking halfway across the city looking for the designated pick-up point for the tour we had booked the next day without success; however we did go up the Metropolitan Government Offices building for some views of the Tokyo skyline over some much needed refreshments.
We ended up returning to our hotel room and changing the pick up to somewhere more recognisable.
Shibuya was our next stop. Coming out of the metro, it reminded me very much of Piccadilly Circus with its lit up billboards. Two must see sights are the famous Hachiko dog statue outside the station and the well-known crossing.
Hachiko was owned by a professor who commuted to and from Shibuya station. Every evening the dog would wait at the station for his master. One day his master didn’t return as he had died. The dog however continued to return each day to meet what had been the master’s train until his own death some 9 years later. If you ever needed proof of what loyal animals dogs are, there you have it.
The crossing is an intersection of pedestrian crossings that has to be seen to be believed; you have never seen so many people and yet none collide with each other. The best place to observe this crossing was from a Starbucks that overlooked it.
I then dragged my reluctant husband into some of the shops in the area and found a stunning pair of shoes but unfortunately they were too small despite supposedly being my size. I guess all Japanese people have nice narrow feet, sadly a quality I don’t possess.
Once darkness fell we headed to the Tokyo Tower, which bears a great resemblance to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, from which it took inspiration when built in 1958; however it stands taller than its muse by 13m, at 333m.
The following day was an early start to assemble at the bus station for our pre booked Viator tour pick up. After an extensive bus journey, the first stop was a traditional Japanese lunch. I opted for vegetarian to be safe but my husband didn’t and I was proud of him that he actually tried the raw fish. To be honest I was left with egg on my face as the vegetarian wasn’t that appetising either, tofu anyone? Guess it’s an acquired taste.
Next stop was a ropeway ride up Mt Kachi Kachi. The mountain has been made famous by a Japanese children’s book called Kachi-Kachi Yama in which a rabbit triumphs over a Tanuki in avenging the Tanuki’s past wrong doings. There are statues depicting the story and also rabbit shrines.
After this we began our ascent of Mount Fuji – the main point of the tour. They stopped the coach on the way up to allow us to photograph the brief glimpse of the summit we got as the cloud momentarily cleared. Once we arrived at the 5th station – the cloud or mist never cleared again so this first sighting was the best we got. The temperature up Fuji was markedly cooler than those we had so far experienced in Japan. The trip finished with a short cruise on Lake Ashi as the sun set.
On our return to Tokyo the coach dropped us by the Sanrio store, a mecca for all Hello Kitty fans. I couldn’t resist a photo with the giant statues outside and of course had to purchase a souvenir. Japan’s obsession with the Hello Kitty character even extends to using them on road work barriers!
Our final stop of the day was the Tokyo sky tree which opened in 2012 and has now severely reduced the viability of keeping the Tokyo tower open to the public. We went up to the viewing gallery but not to the highest point you can.
Our final day in Tokyo took in some of the more cultural aspects of the modern city. We rose early to visit the Tsukiji fish market. It was a photographers dream with the fish on display for shops and restaurants to purchase all fresh. I never realised quite how big a tuna was before this visit.
We had read that this market was the best place to eat sushi and so we decided to give it a proper go. I have to say it was nowhere near as bad as I imagined but by the same token, I don’t think I will rush to eat it again.
We visited Senso-ji, one of the most popular temples in Tokyo which has wonderful stalls leading up to it, selling all manor of Japanese crafts and trinkets as well having a five story pagoda in its grounds. At temples and shrines you can get your paper fortune for a small fee. You pay the fee, and then shake the silver box until a stick falls out which has a number on it. You then look for the drawer with your number on it and retrieve your paper fortune. If it is bad, you can tie it to the rack and pray to the Gods for better luck next time. Mine said moving was a very bad idea which was poignant as we were moving less than 2 weeks after returning from holiday.
We quickly visited the Meiji-jingu Shinto shrine, built from Taiwanese Cyprus, which is the grandest shrine in Tokyo.
We then took a taxi to Tokyo central station where we picked up a bullet train to take us to Osaka. We were just congratulating ourselves at how well we had navigated the public transport systems when a guard came along checking tickets and told us that our Japan Rail pass wasn’t valid on this particular high speed train (no we hadn’t read the terms and conditions) and so he put us off at the next stop. Thankfully we didn’t have long to wait for another train that we were allowed on and upon arrival at Osaka found that their subway system was just as easy to navigate as Tokyo’s had been.
Too tired and stressed out to venture far we ate in our hotel that night in a marvellous Teppanyaki restaurant where we had a personal chef who grilled all our food in front of us. We sampled an Osaka delicacy called Okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake, garnished with Worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise and dried bonito flakes.
The following morning we headed back on the bullet train into Kyoto. This was an absolutely stunning city and really made you appreciate the rich culture of Japan; apparently even the Japanese visit here to learn about their culture. I would go as far to say that this was the highlight of the Japan trip for me.
Upon arrival, the station is a marvel of modern architecture, larger than most London stations and spread over numerous floors, which is in direct contrast to the city, which is heaped in tradition and was at one time the capital city. The tourist information centre was a life saver and we were given a local map and purchased a city day bus pass which took us round some of the sites and the rest were reached by local train.
Kinkaku-ji, otherwise known as the golden pavilion was an amazing sight, its gold leaf glistening in the sun and reflecting off the water around it.
Next we travelled to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The path through is lined continuously with bamboo canes and the sunlight through the canes gives the walk a kind of magical feel which a photo cannot possibly capture.
On the way to the entrance to the grove we passed a place, which dressed me in a traditional kimono and allowed us to take photos for a fee. It was a stunning outfit that proved far more difficult to put on than you might imagine.
Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine complex was the next site we ticked off. This is a collection of five shrines with the most awe inspired being the corridor of bright orange shrines.
Our final stop was a Japanese tea ceremony at Camellia tea experience. It is really quite amazing to watch the intricacies of the ceremony that are all performed with precision. We then got to do part of the ceremony ourselves and try the tea.
We travelled back to Osaka and went out for dinner locally in Dotombori, a lively nightspot by a canal of the same name, which is lit up by billboards. The most famous of these billboards is the running man, originally installed in 1935, which is an advert for Glico candy. This is the sixth version of the sign, now with LED’s.
The next day we headed on the bullet train to Hiroshima and travelled by tram to the Atomic Dome. This was such a moving experience. The dome of the building, originally built in 1915 stands restored to the condition it was left in directly after the atomic bomb in 1945. It’s very eerie and I of course signed a petition to ban the use of nuclear weapons. We walked through the memorial park to the main feature which is the cenotaph, listing the names of all those killed. At the cenotaph, you can see the dome through the middle. There is a flame of peace that will burn until there are no more nuclear weapons in the world.
Following a train ride and a short boat trip, we arrived on the small island of Miyajima. The island has lots of deer – happy to eat anything – it was really funny to see a man being chased by one. The most photographed site of Japan is here, a shrine gate, which appears as if it is floating at high tide. Unfortunately it was low tide whilst we were there.
The final site of Japan that I wanted to tick off our list, meant paying for a faster bullet train to Himeji to see one of Japan’s finest castles. It is set on a hill and its white plastered walls can be seen for miles. Built in 1580, it is one of the few remaining original castles in Japan.
We had dinner in restaurant near the Umeda area of Osaka that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide, called Robatayaki Isaribi. You sat on semi circle shared tables with a chef grilling to order and passing dishes to you on a large paddle. It was a lovely evening and on the way back to the hotel we looked at the Umeda Sky building; built by the same architect as Kyoto station and consisting of twin towers, linked by an observation deck. It is supposedly one of the world’s top 20 buildings.
The following morning marked our departure from Japan. It had been a hectic week but a really enjoyable one. Japan is such a vast country with so many wonderful sites and some truly welcoming people. I absolutely love the order of Japan with people neatly queuing to get on the Subway trains. Before we went everyone said how expensive it was out there but we found it comparable to Britain although that maybe because the pound is strong against the yen at the moment. I would definitely love to visit again but if I don’t get the opportunity, at least I can say I have seen as much as was humanly possible in the time we had.
Look out for part two of this holiday blog, which will take you through Hong Kong.