Akihabara again, shabu shabu, and finally, Hiroshima!

We slept in – hooray! And boy did we need it after last night. But we also had another reason to stay at the hostel this morning, and that was the mountain of sweaty washing we had accumulated in the short time we’ve been in Japan. We made use of the hostel washing machines, and our stuff was dry within an hour, just from hanging it on the terrace. The heat did not let up today.
We then walked to the station to take the train into Akihabara again, and bumped into three of the four Danish tourists staying at our hostel – Mads, Rasmus, and Karina – also going to Akihabara! When we exited the station at Akihabara, we instantly found Michael, our American friend from the walking tour and karaoke. We bumped into him completely by chance, and in a city of 12 million people, I think that’s pretty impressive.
Mads, Rasmus, Karina, and I went to have lunch – okonomiyaki again, yay! – and Michael and Sean went exploring around Akihabara. We joined up with Sean later, and Reiko joined us soon after. We wandered through different shops and huge crowds, playing arcade games, shopping, and looking at the maid cafes, though we didn’t get a chance to go in one. A guy approached us on the street and asked where we were from, and then showed us a photo album of him at all these different maid cafes, which, while friendly, was a bit weird. On Sundays, they block the roads off in the main part of Electric Town so you can walk everywhere without worrying about cars.

We had a drink and a rest – I’ve been having so many glasses of umeshu (plum wine) with ice, the perfect remedy to the heat – and then met Julie, the other tourist from Denmark, and all went to a restaurant for shabu shabu! Shabu shabu is Mitch’s favourite food, so I was interested to try it. It’s an enormous hot pot, where they give you really thin slices of beef and pork that you drop into the hot pot for a few seconds to cook before you dip it in sauce and eat it. It was perfection – completely delicious, and confirming what I have always known: Japanese pork is a million times better than Australian pork.

Our tower of meat. We ate the whole thing.

On the train home we said goodbye to Reiko, who I will miss insanely, and when we got back to the hostel we all went up to the terrace with drinks and stayed up way too late chatting. Learning about Denmark was brilliant, another reason to add Scandinavia to my travel itinerary!

 
This morning we navigated the trains like a pro. Peak hour on the Tokyo metro wasn’t quite as horrific as it was two years ago, and I think it’s because this week is the Obon festival which means more people were on their summer holidays. We were at our Shinkansen with plenty of time, and I spent the trip reading, eating my bento box for lunch, and mucking around on the computer. Our change at Okayama was only 4 mins, so I was nervous we would miss it, but we literally only had to cross the platform, so there was no trouble! 


Once we arrived at Hiroshima station, we got pretty lost trying to find our Airbnb. But Sean and Google Maps saved us, and we collapsed inside our tiny, tiny apartment, put the airconditioner on, and promptly fell asleep (me, not Sean). After a nap, some reading, and a shower, we hit the town. We went to Ippudo for dinner, an excellent EXCELLENT ramen restaurant, which did not disappoint. Then we went for a long, meandering walk. We found a tiny English language section in a bookshop, had chocolate slushy sort of things, and ended up at the A-Bomb Dome and the Peace Park, which was incredibly beautiful in the night. The cenotaph was still covered in flowers from the 70th anniversary commemoration a few days ago, and it was really peaceful – a welcome change from the craziness of Tokyo!

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Imperial Palace, Shinjuku, okonomiyaki, and karaoke!

We had a HUGE day yesterday (hence me posting this in the morning rather than last thing at night). We headed to Tokyo station to sort out our JR passes, and then met my fabulous friend Reiko in time for a walking tour of the Imperial Palace gardens. The walking tour was free, but we tipped at the end (the only time in Japan it’s really acceptable to tip – because they said it was okay) and it was quite informative and entertaining, though we had lots of trouble hearing the guide unless we were right up close.

It was slightly less hot than the day before – blissful – and we picked up a new mate from America, Michael, who came with us afterwards to meet Reiko’s friend, Shogo, and his mate, Motoki. The six of us spent the rest of the day together, starting with drinks in a blissfully cold cafe in one of Tokyo’s many massive shopping centres.

We then headed to Shinjuku, and I didn’t think it was possible, but I found it even more awe-inspiring than Shibuya OR Akihabara. Walking around Shinjuku on a Saturday night is like White Night in Melbourne. We went into all different shops and arcades, and took photos at those crazy booths and played more Initial D racing games (Dad, I picked a Honda NSX!).

Then we went to this FANTASTIC okonomiyaki place Motoki found, where we made our own on the grill at the table!! And I drank heaps of umeshu, it being my new favourite thing. We had okonomiyaki with squid, okonomiyaki with beef and ‘devil’s tongue’, and Tokyo-style okonomiyaki which was almost liquid-y. Really delicious, each and every one! Finally, to top off a truly Japanese evening, we ended up at an awesome karaoke place, drinking Japanese whisky sodas and belting out classic hits such as “Let It Go” (Frozen is everywhere, Frozen is life, you can never escape Frozen, no matter how far you travel), “Seasons of Love” (I got the high note, shit yeah), “Space Oddity”, “Love Story”, “Part of Your World”, “Empire State of Mind”, “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing”, “The Lazy Song”, and a bunch of others I can’t remember, including a brilliant Japanese number that Reiko, Shogo, and Motoki performed WITH dance moves. We still managed to be home at about midnight, but spent some time up on the terrace, which is the perfect place to be at night, when it’s still warm, but not too hot, with a cold drink before bed. And then I slept until 10.30 this morning.

Harajuku and Akihabara

I love sleeping on tatami mats! So comfy! Though the sun came smack bang through our window first thing, so it was not easy to sleep in as much as I wanted! Simple breakfast is offered downstairs, and I got chatting to some tourists from Denmark over cocoa flakes, before we piled on the sunscreen and headed out into the oven that is Tokyo.

Last time I visited, I had wanted to go to Harajuku and had run out of time. This morning we purchased a travel card and jumped on the Joban and Yamanote lines, on wonderfully air-conditioned trains, before alighting at Harajuku station. Instantly, Takeshita Dori (birthplace of many a Tokyo trend), comes into view. It was crazy, filled with approximately 2 billion souvenirs I could have purchased purely for the cute factor. It was crowded and noisy, playing a crazy mix of J-pop and Western music (including some classic Bon Jovi), and looked at first glance as though a hyperactive toddler had gone crazy with a paintbrush. The sheer volume of colour and textures and advertising was fabulous – similar to the effect of Shibuya at nighttime. The real treasures were the things to buy. Imagine the weirdest thing you could put on a t-shirt, and I guarantee you’ll find weirder in Harajuku. Also, they love Disney. And Barbie. And Totoro. I mean, who doesn’t?

Just on the other side of the station, is a completely different experience. The Meiji Shrine was probably about 5 degrees cooler, seeing as we were walking through a canopy of trees. It was beautiful, quiet, and quite busy despite the heat. For 500yen we were able to enter the Inner Garden and admire the Kiyomasa well and the fishing pond near the teahouse. Little tortoises came up to say hi, and there were plenty of places to sit and rest – a little oasis from the heat and noise.

We jumped back on the JR line to get home, revelling in the cool train carriages, and have stopped for a rest and a shower at the hostel before we go out for the evening.

Okay, so it was a long rest and shower! And then more chatting with hotel guests. And THEN we got on a train to Akihabara, famous tech/anime/game district, which looks like Shibuya only MORE CRAZY. We wandered around forever to find some dinner (which we bought with the handy vending machine ticket system they use a lot over here), and then went into one of the massive, multi-storey arcades. SO MANY WEIRD AND COOL GAMES! I have precisely zero interest in games, and genuinely surprised myself with how much fun I had. I can see why these places are so popular! (Also, sorry for being a game snob.)

Home now, nearly midnight, and I want to be asleep soon so we can enjoy our day with Reiko tomorrow!

Konichiwa

We are HERE. And it is wonderful. We even managed to sleep on our flight over! I have already decided I am never, ever coming to Japan in August again, as this heat and humidity is positively unholy, but I have also decided not to let it ruin the holiday for me either, so onward and upward!

We arrived at Narita this morning and the heat hit us in the face as we took the stairs to the tarmac. I collected my bag from the luggage carousel and it was wet from the humidity. We breezed through customs, took a shuttle to Terminal 2, and grabbed something to eat from good ol’ 7/11. Australia needs to take a leaf out of Japan’s book. I grabbed a not-too-suspicious looking salad and it was delightful, with a spicy, peanutty sauce and yummy noodles. Then we sat on a very long train ride into Ueno station, fiddling with our SIM cards and looking at the scenery.

We found our transfer to the next line without too much difficulty, and walked to our hostel, Aizuya Inn, from Minami-Senju station. It’s a lovely hostel – small, quiet, but very clean and pretty, with lots of friendly staff and helpful tips. It was too early to check in, so we dumped our bags, took advantage of the free wifi and air-conditioning, then ventured out into the heat once more in search of food.

 

 

We ended up near the station, taking a punt on an all-Japanese menu and just asking for things that looked nice, without knowing what we were getting. It paid off.

Yes, yes, and yes again.

We also walked past one of the CRAZY pokies machine places, where you go through the doors and are assaulted by a wall of noise, completely unexpectedly. I swear, all the gamblers must be stone deaf.

Then it was back to the hostel. COLD SHOWERS ARE MY FAVOURITE THING. Feeling approximately 200% more human, now that I was fed and clean, I lounged in our room, stretching out under the air-con and reading my book while Sean snored (he didn’t get nearly as much plane sleep as I). By the time we were ready to venture out again, we were in fresh clothes, with fresh energy and a borrowed umbrella, which definitely helped combat the heat.

The rare bearded geisha

We went to Tokyo station, to meet my gorgeous friend Kristina, who is traveling with her lovely godfather. They have been in Tokyo a day longer than us, and were marginally more accustomed to the heat. We swapped stories and went in search of food, ending up at a restaurant with dishes larger than our own heads.

 

We pressed on through our exhaustion and headed to Shibuya, to see the famous crossing, the Hachiko mural wall, and the general craziness. I love this part of Tokyo because it feels so…like what you expect Tokyo to be like. It’s like Times Square, but crazier. We picked up ice creams and basically just went for a long walk through the district, checking out the crowds and the many, many shops.

 

Sean’s favourite club

 

Would you care for a Pacific Rim or Avengers cocktail?

It wasn’t long before we said our goodbyes and headed back to the hostel. There is a lot of sleep to catch up on tonight! First though, we went and sat up on the hostel terrace, with lovely views and a peaceful atmosphere, to enjoy a drink before bed. Now to attempt the sleep. We need to have all the energy for tomorrow!

Trains and Takayama

This morning we got up early to make sure we arrived for our train in plenty of time. This involved taking an earlier train to Tokyo station from Ueno station, which we ended up taking during peak hour. Not our smartest decision. Dad was lifted off his feet by the amount of people squashing themselves into the carriage with us. Marnie and I were terribly uncomfortable – in tears of laughter, but trying not to make any noise. The trains in Tokyo are very silent and respectful – no one speaks loudly and everyone keeps to themselves. Marnie and I were trying to adhere to this, but the situation was so ridiculous and we kept glancing at each other and setting each other off. We finally – miraculously – managed to get off at the right station, and bought a quick breakfast before catching our train to Nagoya. After a brief panic because they had changed the departure platform, we were off. I just watched television shows for the next couple of hours, but at our stopover in Nagoya, I bought a chicken bento box for lunch – delicious!

Rice, chicken, vegetables, mushroom. Mmm.

The train journey from Nagoya to Takayama included some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen by rail. I was also extremely tired and slept through a lot of it, but Dad got some great photos. We got to Takayama at 3pm – plenty of time to wander around and sightsee, despite the damn rain.

Our accommodation, Zenkoji Temple, is the most gorgeous place. There are sliding screens to get into our rooms and Buddhist prayers at 9.30 every morning in their beautiful temple, which we are going to try and catch tomorrow. Yukina, our host, took us on a tour of the facilities and she had fantastic English, in the softest, sweetest voice. The temple is quiet, with slippers for guests to wear instead of our shoes, tatami mats instead of beds, and low tables to sit on the floor (a bit hard for some of us with dodgy hips and knees but we get by). It is a truly authentic experience and is the most charming place. If I come back to Takayama, which I plan to, I will stay here again.

Zenkoji Temple

 

Entrance hall

 

Heated table to keep us warm

 

Room decoration

 

Tatami mats with futons

We set off for a walk around Takayama and found ourselves in the old town, a stunning collection of streets with handicrafts stores and sake breweries. We spent quite a while wandering up and down, taking photos of little canals and shrines and flowers decorating the streets.

Shrine

 

Miya-gawa

 

Takayama old town

 

Takayama old town

 

Takayama old town

It got quite cold, and once the rain got heavier, we headed to a supermarket and stocked up on breakfast food before finding something for dinner. We ended up at an Italian restaurant – not very Japanese, but the place we were looking for turned out to be shut on Wednesday. In my limited experience, I have found that the Japanese do Italian cuisine quite well, and the porcini risotto was lovely on a cold night.

We have come back to the temple now, and are planning our day for tomorrow. I hope sleeping on the mats is not difficult, but I think it will be easy to get to sleep after such a long day. It really is a beautiful city.

More Tokyo!

Okay! So last night Dad and I headed to Akasaka station to meet Keiko and her sister. Keiko was the tour guide who took Dad’s first tour in Japan. When he returned with the Honda Car Club, Keiko took their group around as well. She is incredibly knowledgeable and a passionate traveler, as is her younger sister. On the way, we meet a lovely guy on the train who we managed to communicate with in broken Japanese and English. He asked where we were from and when we told him, he responded that he had been to Australia for his honeymoon. When he got off at his stop, he waited at the window and waved and bowed to us as the train left. Little moments like that are why I love traveling. Even when you can say very little to each other, enthusiasm, interest and a smile go a long way.

Before we met with Keiko, Dad wanted to take me to Shibuya crossing, a very famous and busy intersection in Tokyo (sort of like Times Square, but a bit smaller). We took plenty of photos from the elevated windows of the train station, but then we got down to ground level and walked across it. It was chaotic and noisy, and heaps of fun. Shibuya station is also famous for an akita named Hachiko that used to come their every day to see his owner, a professor, off to work. Then he would come back in the afternoon to meet his owner’s train. One day the owner died at work, and obviously never arrived home on the train. Hachiko then came to the station every afternoon for nine years, waiting for his master. Sort of like the Japanese version of Greyfriars Bobby.

Shibuya crossing

Hachiko mural

While we were waiting for Keiko, I found a bookstore with an English-language section, like the homing pigeon I am. They had a group of children’s books in English with a word guide at the back to help people learn the language – books like Snow White, Grimm fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland etc. And I found a copy of Peter Pan. Some of you might know I collect editions of Peter Pan, so of course, I had to buy one. Only 800 yen (about $8)!

We met Keiko and her sister and they took us to a restaurant in Akasaka, which is a more business-y district – not so many tourists. We walked for ages past all these restaurants that normal tourists would have gone into, then went up to the sixth floor of this random building and went into a traditional restaurant which I can’t tell you the name of because it was written in hiragana. We were, I think, the only Westerners there, and the menu was completely in Japanese. Keiko and her sister ordered for us, asking us what we would and could not eat, but we pretty much said we would try anything. The advantage of these multi-course meals is that usually if there is something you can’t stomach, there is so much else to try. However, there was not one dish last night that I didn’t enjoy. Highlights included tiny scallops with the skin of tofu (a nutritious delicacy), sea snail (whelk) in some kind of spicy, tomato-y sauce, seaweed broth with eggs, tofu, minced fish, tendons (of what I don’t know) and a potato-y vegetable marinating in it, Japanese radish salad with cherry tomatoes, tofu, lettuce, tiny dried fish and plum sauce, fresh grilled bamboo (in perfect season – tasted a bit like roast potatoes), bonito (a type of raw tuna that is seared slightly and dipped in soy sauce) with clams, and beef sushi, which was rice wrapped in beef that was cooked with a blowtorch at our table. Then you add ginger and vegetables (and wasabi and garlic if you like), dip it in soy sauce, eat it and cry because there isn’t any more. Abso-friggen-lutely delicious.

Sea snail

(From left) Keiko’s sister, Keiko, Dad and I

Grilled bamboo (you peel back the big leaves because they are too tough to eat)

Waitress cooking our beef sushi

Amazing tasting beef sushi!

Talking to Keiko and her sister was wonderful. They both have amazing English and are prolific travellers. They told me some highlights of their favourite holidays, and I have now added salt lakes in Bolivia to my bucket list. We talked a bit too much and lost track of time, so we didn’t leave the restaurant until about 11pm, by which time Dad and I were so tired we struggled to stay awake on the train back to Ueno. But we succeeded, and crawled into bed and fell asleep pretty much instantly.

This morning we slept in until about 9am, and then after a quick breakfast in the hotel, we headed back to Ueno station and organised our Japan rail passes, which we are activating tomorrow to get to Takeyama. We then took the train to Tokyo station to suss out where our Takeyama train would leave from and we were going to take a Hato bus (tour bus) around the city but they were sold out. This was mostly because it rained all day! Unusual for this time of year, but it didn’t ruin our day. We took Marnie and Margaret back to Shibuya crossing so they could see it, and stopped for lunch. I had heard about this cafe somewhere in Tokyo, where you have your cup of tea or coffee and can play with a bunch of cats that are in the cafe. It sounded completely adorable, but I kept forgetting to google it when we had wifi. Seeing as this is our last afternoon in Tokyo, we thought we’d take a chance and ask someone. We discovered that the cafe was right here in Shibuya, 5 minutes from where we were having lunch!! Extremely pleased by this coincidence, we tracked down a tourist info office to get exact directions, and Marnie and I went to Happy Nekko (hapineko?). For about 10AUD you get 30 minutes in the cafe with a complimentary drink. There were probably about eight or nine cats, but half had pink and white collars on which meant we couldn’t touch them. I think they do this to give the cats a few rests from being picked up and cuddled. They were all very sweet-tempered and pampered cats, and it was really hard to refrain patting the pink and white collared ones when they rubbed up against you. But we made friends with one particular tabby who was snoozing near the door, and had delicious chai lattes.

Afterwards we met Margaret and Dad who’d been for a shop, and took the train back to Ueno. The others are going for a walk in Ueno Park, but I came back early to Skype with Sean and update my blog. Tonight I think the dinner plans involve ramen, which makes me happy beyond belief. I’ll update soon!

Cherry blossoms

After a lovely sleep (which was broken off too early because Dad forgot to change his alarm from Cairns time), we headed out for a quick walk to orient ourselves. We found some beautiful little houses and businesses close by with the prettiest miniature gardens out the front – usually just a few pot plants, but incredibly colourful. We then had a very Western breakfast at the cafe attached to the hotel – toast with eggs and bacon, slathered in too much kewpie mayonnaise. It was quite delicious!

Mmm.

Then we met Kinjiro, who had come all the way back into the city to spend the day with us. He was a superb guide. Japan has had unseasonably warm weather which meant the cherry blossom bloomed about two weeks earlier than usual. We were panicking back in Melbourne because we thought we would miss it, but our fears were instantly allayed at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. This is a massive and beautiful park, right in the middle of one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world. It is an oasis of beauty and calm.

There were many families out today – it was beautifully sunny and is also school holidays. We took our time wandering up and down the park (it’s enormous and we didn’t see the whole lot), particularly through the Japanese traditional garden. We bought bento boxes for lunch, and Margaret bought some sweets that were scented like cherry blossom. We stopped to eat out lunch in the pergola overlooking the pond, filled with ducks and turtles and colourful carp.

This blog is fast becoming food porn.

It was a truly surreal experience. Because the cherry blossom has been in bloom for a while, the petals were falling constantly. It was like walking through a fine, pink snow. There wasn’t even a proper breeze – the petals are lighter than air and just float to the ground very peacefully. We saw these amazing bald cypress trees that are jutting out of the ground and look like twisted hands. Or fairy castles. Or something out of Lord of the Rings.

Afterwards, we headed to a traditional Japanese handicrafts centre. The things in here were so delicate and finely crafted, with such painstaking care. They were quite expensive, but I still bought up big. It would be easy to find cheaper knock-offs at the markets, which look just as good, but buying from the handicrafts centre means I know they are genuine, and you get a little information slip with the items that tells you a bit about them. Meanwhile, Dad ran off to the Honda factory and had a lovely time. After a quick rest and a drink, we then headed off on the train again to the Tayasu Gate, one of the gates to Edo Castle. This is another beautiful place, filled with cherry blossom, and we went a bit snap-happy, as you can see on my Facebook album.

People had rented boats and were going up and down the river, surrounded by the petals on the water. By this time we were pretty tired, so we headed back to the hotel for a coffee and bid goodbye to Kinjiro, without whom this day wouldn’t have been nearly as wonderful. I am truly touched by his generosity.

Now I’m sitting here resting and updating my pictures, but Dad and I are going to head off soon for dinner with Dad’s friend, Keiko, and her sister. I’ll write again soon!