Category Archives: Japan

Around the bases and headed for home

Thursday 27th November – Sunday 30th November
Tokyo, Japan to Gateshead, UK

Tsukiji Fish Market, Ginza
Thursday was our last day in Tokyo and, fortunately, the weather was much better.

We got up early to go and explore the Tsukiji Market, where huge amounts of fish are bought and sold every day. Although it’s in all the guidebooks as somewhere to visit, its main purpose is definitely not as a tourist attraction. It’s still very much a working fish market, used by everyone from wholesalers to Tokyo’s chefs, to the general public.

The walk from the subway station took us past a few food stalls and cafes. The cafes were tiny, most consisting of a kitchen that could barely contain one person, and a counter facing onto the street for their customers to sit at.

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Once you get past this you reach the market proper, with more traffic and people than the space can comfortably contain.

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All in all, it was a fascinating place to visit, and a unique Tokyo experience, though not one we’d necessarily recommend to vegetarians!

Tokyo Sky Tree and Senso-ji, Asakusa
After visiting the fish market, we headed over to the Asakusa area to see the Tokyo Sky Tree, which, on its completion in 2012, became the tallest broadcasting tower in the world (and the second tallest structure in the world) at 634m (2,080 feet). It may not look that much taller than the surrounding buildings in this shot, but that is just a matter of perspective – it is *much* taller than the other buildings!

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Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, was also nearby – a juxtaposition of new and old that is very typical of Japan.

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Last night in Tokyo
We celebrated our final night in Tokyo (and the final overseas night of our trip) with a drink in the bar on the 36th floor of our hotel, where the napkins did double-duty as a guide to the view! (The square building in the centre of the picture below is the National Diet Building, the home of Japan’s national legislature).

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The journey home
We flew from Tokyo to London Heathrow the following day, enabling us to spend Friday evening and Saturday morning with our lovely friends, Ed and Dave, who kindly let us sleep off our jet lag in their spare bedroom before our train back up to Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.

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Back in Gateshead
Once home, we took advantage on Sunday of the admittedly-short daylight hours to pay a visit to our beloved local icon, the Angel of the North. It’s one of our favourite spots in the North East – we even visited it for a photo shoot on our wedding day.

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It’s good to be home, and incredible to think that we’ve actually been all the way around the world in the last three months.

Sounds of the day
One of our biggest memories of Japan will definitely be the background music and other sounds you hear everywhere you go.

Overall, Japanese people seem keen not to disturb each other with too much noise – putting their mobile phones on silent (or off completely) on the subway and train for example.

But there’s still plenty of noise. Almost all restaurants and cafes we visited had background music, with a preference for classical string music or light saxophone jazz (imagine Kenny G playing wherever you go!). In the main shopping streets in Kyoto it was even being piped into the streets.

Subway stations in Tokyo seemed to each have a jingle that played as the train doors opened. Bus stops in Kyoto had a little tune for when buses arrived (or that seemed to be what was going on!). Some subway stations even had birdsong sounds Рwe never quite worked out what this was about, but it seemed to  be something to do with helping blind people navigate their way around the stations!

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Back to the Future in Tokyo

Tuesday 25th November – Wednesday 26th November
Tokyo, Japan

Tuesday and Wednesday were wet days in Tokyo, so we were on the lookout for things to do that kept us indoors.

Akihabara Electric Town
Akihabara is geek-town, where electronics stores meet manga comics. We spent a bit of time on Tuesday exploring the area.

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The Mandarake store specialises in manga – a style of comic created in Japan. Manga is incredibly popular here and not just with kids – we’ve spotted a few businessmen on the trains and subways reading manga comics, and there are versions for men and women of all ages. Mandarake was definitely geared up for the manga aficionado, from action figures to comics.

The electrical store we took a look round was huge and included everything from the very latest gadgets to toys and household electronics.

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Edo-Tokyo Museum, Ryogoku
We started the day on Wednesday with a trip to the Edo-Tokyo museum, a fascinating place that really put the history of the city in context.

The story of the city started as early as 10,000 BC, when the first settlers arrived. The museum tells the story of life in the early days and as it developed. Until the 1860s, social structures were perhaps best described as feudal. (The eagle-eyed among you might notice that the walls in the illustration below are from the now-ruined former Imperial Palace – see the picture of me from our last post. There is a new Imperial Palace these days.)

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Initially called Edo, the city was renamed Tokyo in 1868, as previous social structures were swept away and replaced with one country and centralised (imperial) rule. This was due , at least in part, to increased links with the West and the desire to become more westernised.

Suburbanisation in the 1920s and 1930s saw more people commuting into the city for work. Consequently railway stations like Shibuya – of “Shibuya crossing” fame – and Shinjuku started to become increasingly important.

In 1932, a number of suburban towns and villages were subsumed into Greater Tokyo, which at that time had a population of 5.3 million. In 2013, roughly the same area was inhabited by about 9 million people.

However, the wider metropolitan area of Tokyo today is home to almost 35 million people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in the world, with more people than the combined populations of the last two countries we visited (Australia and New Zealand)!

The exhibition finished with plans for the future, and Tokyo’s plans for hosting the 2020 Olympic Games.

Shopping in Shinjuku
After finishing at the museum, we went for a change of pace, and took the subway to Shinjuku for some shopping! Shinjuku is the world’s busiest railway station, with some 2 million people passing through every day. It’s an incredible place, with shops, restaurants and department stores all intertwined with the station itself. We managed to find a sushi restaurant in the depths of the station for some lunch, then headed into one or two shops.

Joanna found a beautiful yukata, which is a simpler, cotton version of a kimono, traditionally worn in summer, particularly in the spa towns that the Japanese love to visit. Meanwhile, I was excited to find out that Tower Records still exists in Japan (it went out of business years ago back in the UK!) and to discover some only-in-Japan music to take home.

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Okonomiyaki, Minato
We finished the day with a fantastic dinner at a place close to our hotel that specialises in okonomiyaki (meaning, roughly, “grilled as you like it”). This is an informal style of dining in Japan, apparently often accompanied by a post-work beer or two, which we first learned about on “The Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure”, a UK cookery programme.

Okonomiyaki consists of an egg-based batter with cabbage in it, to which meats, seafood, vegetables and even noodles can be added. It’s then cooked on a hot plate and different toppings added: something a bit like HP sauce is brushed onto the top and green nori flakes, though other variations seemed to have things like spring onions and mayonnaise. We have heard it variously compared to pizza or pancakes, but we thought that it most closely resembled an omelette.

Each table has a hot plate in the middle of it and in some okonomiyaki restaurants you actually cook the ingredients yourself. In the place we chose they had chefs to do the cooking, though we sat up looking into the kitchen, so we could see how it was done. It was absolutely delicious, and the Japanese are quite right – it is even better washed down with beer!

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Toilet of the day
When we came up with the ‘…of the day’ feature, we didn’t expect it would include toilets, but I’m afraid it has to be done!

The majority of toilets in Japan have electronic panels providing a range of different options while you…erm…wait. The most basic ones offer jets of water for cleaning. The more complex ones we’ve seen offer seat heaters and the option to elect for continuous flushing sounds (to cover up any unpleasant sounds – volume buttons usually provided). There also seem to be additional buttons beyond this, labelled only in Japanese – I think some have dryers, but not sure what else they could be for! Sometimes it’s tricky finding the flush!

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Soccer, sightseeing, shopping and slurping in Tokyo

Sunday 23rd November – Monday 24th November
Tokyo, Japan

Shibuya
Sunday, our first full day in Tokyo, dawned bright and sunny, as can be seen in this view from our hotel room. We decided to head for the Shibuya area, where young Tokyoites hang out at weekends.

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Completely accidentally, we came across the Blind Football World Championships, being played close to the Yoyogi national stadium, which was built for the 1964 Olympics and will also be used for the forthcoming 2020 Olympics.

We popped into the stadium to watch the second half of a semi-final match between Spain and Argentina. There was some amazing skill on show, with the players relying on the rattling sound of the ball and on shouted instructions from their coaches and from the sighted goalkeepers.

The match ultimately went to penalties, for each of which the coach behind the goal would tap something metal (possibly his keys) on the goalposts before the player took his shot, to give the striker an indication of the position of the goal.

Argentina were victorious, and they celebrated very passionately, which was unsurprising, given that the reward for the ultimate winner of Monday’s final would be a place in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unfortunately for Argentina, however, we later learnt that they came up against their great rivals, Brazil, in the final

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Next, we visited Takeshita Street, which is the Tokyo equivalent of Camden – i.e. a place for “alternative” fashions. It was completely packed and totally crazy – in other words, very Tokyo!

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Lunch was some delicious gyoza (Japanese dumplings), in a tiny place that served pretty much nothing else, and had punters queueing around the block!

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Imperial Palace East Gardens
On Monday, which was a public holiday here in Japan, we visited the very beautiful Imperial Palace East Gardens.

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Although Simon is definitely the principal photographer in our partnership, I have got more into taking some snaps myself on this trip, albeit only with my phone, rather than braving Simon’s very advanced camera!

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We also looked around a free exhibition in the park, focused on the current Emperor’s first overseas trip in 1953, when he was only 19 and the Crown Prince (he did not become Emperor until 1989). He spent around a month in the UK, attending the Queen’s coronation and also visiting Bamburgh Castle, close to where we live. The exhibition included a couple of paintings of the castle that were given to him as gifts, and even a photo that he himself had taken of it.

Tokyo Station
Next, we walked through to Tokyo’s main train station, in search of a uniquely Japanese shopping experience – Tokyo Character Street! This is a collection of shops in a passageway under the station, which specialise in merchandise relating to various cartoons and comics. As mentioned above, Monday was a public holiday, so the area was buzzing with costumed characters and over-excited children!

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We finished the day with dinner on Ramen Street, also in Tokyo Station. The process for eating in these “hole in the wall” places is a little unusual (kind of like “if Argos did noodles…”).

1. Decide what you want to eat (with the help of pictures and English descriptions on the menu, in our case) and calculate the total cost.
2. Proceed to a vending machine, insert money and press the buttons (thankfully also with pictures) associated with your choices. Collect a ticket from the machine.
3. Join the queue to enter the restaurant.
4. On being shown to a table (shared with others), hand your ticket to the waitress (who, rather alarmingly, was wearing wellies…).
5. Receive your food.
6. Slurp.

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Video of the day
One of the interesting things about being in Japan is the huge differences you see in things like music and TV. In the USA, Australia and New Zealand much of the pop culture is very similar (for which read: Taylor Swift). While that’s certainly here too, there’s also a lot of stuff we wouldn’t see or hear back home. So, to give you a taste, this is go!go!vanillas.

Faster than a speeding bullet (train)

Saturday 22nd November
Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan

Shinkansen journey, Kyoto to Tokyo
We’ve been on quite a few train journeys, both during this trip and on previous ones. Not that we’re particularly train geeks. We just think it’s an easy, enjoyable way to get around. However, in many countries (including the USA and New Zealand) the experience might politely be described as…’leisurely’.

But the shinkansen, otherwise known as the bullet train, is a very different matter. These trains reach speeds of up to 320 kilometres (nearly 200 miles) per hour. They are also very frequent – around every ten minutes between Kyoto and Tokyo when we were travelling (on a Saturday lunchtime). This was definitely the way we wanted to travel between Japan’s old and new capitals.

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When we returned to Kyoto station to catch the train, we found ourselves in a completely different part of the station that we hadn’t seen when we arrived. It was already the biggest station we’d ever seen and it turned out we’d only experienced part of it! The main corridor is filled with restaurants and shops, some selling very tasty looking treats. The versions in this photo are actually plastic models, showing what the shop sells. This is very common in Japan – the majority of restaurants have fake food on display outside, presumably because Japan is very much a country where presentation of meals is taken seriously. In fact, plastic food is one of the major souvenirs that tourists like to take home from Japan!

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You then go through the ticket gates to find yourself in….another huge corridor filled with shops! This time the focus is on food to take on your journey with you, so we took the opportunity to grab a couple of bento boxes to take with us, before heading to the platform.

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The 2 1/4 hour journey itself was great. The ride is smooth but definitely quick, and the scenery races by: we saw a couple of cities and plenty of urbanised areas, but also the Japanese countryside, including fantastic views of Mount Fuji.

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On arrival at Tokyo station, our first challenge was navigating the Tokyo subway system….

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However, despite it looking immensely complicated, the system is actually fairly easy to navigate, thanks to fantastic signage and a free smartphone app for tourists. It’s also cheap, clean and incredibly pleasant to travel on (apparently talking on your phone is considered very rude, particularly close to the ‘courtesy seats’ reserved for the elderly, so it’s very quiet!).

Shibuya
Having checked into our hotel (definitely the biggest we’ve ever stayed in – 844 rooms, a mini shopping mall, several restaurants and bars, all spread over 37 floors), we agreed there was only one place to start our visit to Tokyo.

Shibuya is probably what you think of when you think of Tokyo, with neon and people everywhere you look. Music is being played in many of the streets (One Direction’s ‘Steal My Girl’ on a loop, when we were there). Shibuya scramble crossing is the point where Shibuya station intersects with the area’s shops, restaurants and neon. At peak times they reckon that over 1,000 people cross here every time the pedestrian light turns to green. Quite an introduction to this huge city.

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Shaky Isle of the day
Japan, like New Zealand, has its fair share of earthquakes (in fact, it apparently accounts for around 20% of the world’s ‘quakes!). This is something we got first-hand experience of on Saturday evening, when the walls of our hotel room started creaking and the blinds swaying from side to side.

It turns out that what we had felt was actually a magnitude-6.7 earthquake centred in Nagano, about 200 km away. It’s a very strange experience to feel the floor moving, especially when you’re on the 23rd storey! However, we’re told that the building we are in, like all buildings in the city, is designed to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake here in Tokyo, so they’re definitely prepared. Some of those closer to the epicentre on this occasion were less lucky.

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Kyoto’s temples and shrines

Thursday 20th November – Friday 21st November
Kyoto, Japan

‘Path of Philosophy’ walking tour, east Kyoto
Kyoto is absolutely packed with beautiful and historic Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. As well as being beautiful themselves, many of their gardens are a big draw in November for their autumnal colour, so it was difficult to know where to start.

Fortunately our guidebook included a range of ideas for self-guided walking tours, so we decided to kick things off on Thursday with a walk around the east of the city.

[photos, from the top: walking through Konchi-in temple grounds; the crane and turtle garden, Konchi-in; walking into Nanzen-ji temple; visitors burning incense (osenko) at Nanzen-ji; leaves and roof at Nanzen-ji temple; walking along the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku-no-michi); Hoshokan Gate at Ginkaku-ji; view of Ginkaku-ji (the ‘Silver Pavilion’)]

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We finished the day off at Ippudo, and possibly the best bowl of ramen (noodle soup) I’ve ever had – delicious!

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Kinkakuji Temple, West Kyoto
On Friday we decided to focus on seeing the Kinkakuji Temple (otherwise known as the ‘Golden Pavilion’) which is located on the other side of town. The temple itself is eye-poppingly beautiful.

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We then headed back into the city centre for some time in the lovely shopping arcades.

Friday was our last evening in Kyoto, so we took ourselves to the Gion District and Southern Higashiyama, with beautiful streets, plenty of places for eating and entertainment and even a nighttime view of the Yasaka Shrine.

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We went to a soba restaurant called Omen Kodai-ji (it seems very common that a restaurant will focus on doing just one type of food and doing it well!). We again needed some instruction when the meal arrived in a variety of bowls and plates, but we soon got the hang of it (dip the noodles and other accompaniments in the broth little by little, slurp the noodles a lot!).

Advert of the day
Spotted outside a shopping mall near our hotel. We’re not sure if this poster is some kind of a translation mistake, or if the advertisers are already predicting a difficult Christmas….

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Arriving in Japan

Monday 17th November – Wednesday 19th November
Kyoto, Japan

On Monday morning we checked out of our hotel in Auckland and took the bus to the airport. After two flights and a stopover of a few hours in Singapore airport, we finally arrived in Kansai airport, Japan, early on Tuesday morning.

The train journey from Kansai airport to Kyoto took 1 1/4 hours, dropping us in Kyoto station. The station is huge, and incorporates a department store and two floors of restaurants.

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We took the opportunity to get our first taste of food in Japan by visiting one of the restaurants. Tonkatsu Wako (on the 11th floor in the station!) specialises in tonkatsu, a breaded port cutlet that is deep fried and served with shredded cabbage, pickles, miso soup and green tea. The waitress very kindly tried to explain which of the range of sauces on the table went with which component of the meal, but we still seemed to be causing some amusement to the older men on the neighbouring table as we tried to work it all out!

Shijo Dori Street
After checking into our hotel, we went to explore the main shopping area. Shijo Dori Street has a very wide range of shops, from designer brands to tourist shops and department stores.

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Our guidebook recommended a look in the department stores, particularly the basement food emporiums, which sell everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to sweets and takeaway food. We also took a look at the department selling kimonos, which are incredibly beautiful (and extremely expensive). It’s apparently quite complicated to get dressed in a kimono (usually needing specialist assistance!) and when you see them displayed in the shop you can see just how much material goes into making them.

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After a dinner of soba noodles in a broth, plus tempura vegetables (vegetables deep fried in a light batter), we put on the TV in our room to find…baseball! Some of the biggest baseball players from the USA are currently here, touring around the country and playing a number of games against some of the best Japanese players. Baseball is absolutely huge in Japan (some Japanese players also play in the USA’s major league). The crowd sound great – more like a football crowd at home, with lots of organised songs and chants. I’d love to tell you the final score, but I’m afraid the jet lag got the better of us before we made it to the end!

Kyoto Imperial Park
On Wednesday we got up, grabbed some breakfast in a nearby cafe and decided to take the subway to visit Kyoto Imperial Park. The first challenge was buying our tickets….

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The Imperial Park is the home of the Kyoto Imperial Palace; Kyoto was formerly the imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, from 794 to 1869. The Palace itself is unfortunately quite hidden behind high walls and can only be visited by guided tour, but the star of the show in the autumn is the park. We didn’t know this when we planned our trip, but it turns out that Japanese people flock to Kyoto in the spring for the cherry blossoms, and in November for the beautiful autumnal colours. This inspired us both to get a bit arty with our photography!

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Nishiki Market
We then walked back to the central shopping area, and to Nishiki Market – a long, covered market. It specialises mainly in food – locals call it Kyoto no daidokoro (Kyoto’s kitchen) – though there are also other types of shops there. For example, one shop specialises in knives and you can watch them sharpen the knife once you’ve chosen it. You can also see them hand-engraving people’s names into them – quite a skill.

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We finished the day with dinner at Musashi Sushi, a restaurant that had been recommended by my colleague Jenny. The sushi is crammed onto a belt and is both cheap and very tasty!

Food of the day
Spotted in Nishiki Market – octopus, on a stick, with a quail’s egg in its head. We didn’t try it, but we liked their encouraging sign!

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