If you ask anyone you know to describe Japan in a few words, you may get a plethora of different answers. Japan is a hi-tech country that built a powerhouse economy after the second world war and still continues to lead the market in technology. It is also a land filled with tradition and ritual, as many Shinto and Buddhist temples can be found all over the country, and many Samurai castles and Geisha districts can be found just around the corner. It has a deep love for arts and crafts, but is equally a commercial giant. Japan has a wealth of entertainments to serve the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic of her people, but still remains deep in societal tradition. A code of ethics keeps people from behaving badly to service providers, and yet alcohol is freely available from vending machines on the street. It’s no nanny state, but it will give a disapproving glare if one is out of line. I could go very deep into the differences here, but I don’t want to make this report all about the fact that they are very enlightened about some things and in other cases, not so. All I know is that the people I met were warm, cordial and friendly and that our similarities were greater than our differences and leave it at that. Also, their transport system is amazing, and though confusing at first, is surprising easy to navigate.
Sunshine 60 Observatory Skyline
To start with, when I picked this trip, I was motivated by value for money, of course, but I was up for seeing as much of Japan as I could. I particularly wanted to spend some extra time in Tokyo as well as visit Hiroshima and Kyoto. Flights to Japan seemed quite reasonable, but the tours I’ve seen for Japan were quite expensive. I now know why this is the case. Most of them include quite a bit of travel by Rail. If you intend on seeing the most of Japan and JR Pass is essential. This allows you unlimited travel on Japan Rail (JR) trains for up to two weeks, and costs around £350.00
I went to Japan with a friend this time. This was a destination he had intended on visiting and after seeing the photos from some of my other trips, felt he would really enjoy a group tour around Japan. We booked some extra days in Tokyo and either end of the tour, and this gave us the opportunity to become acclimatised to the humidity and get over the jet lag before the tour began. Preparation for Japan was easy, as no VISA or inoculations were required. We got some foreign currency out and decided to rent a Wifi hotspot from the airport, and this came in very handy indeed. We also picked up some Metro passes for our extra days in Tokyo to make getting around much easier.
After a quite cramped flight we made it through Haneda airport and collected our bags, Wifi hotspot and attempted to navigate the public transport system. However there was an information desk who helped us in getting tickets for the monorail, railway and our metro passes with little fuss. We got to Ikebukuro and found our hotel after some initial confusion. We went for a wonder and to find somewhere to eat, and soon we discovered Tokyo’s secret. In order to see the city properly, you have to look up. Many eateries and bars were located inside what appeared to be floors above the retail ground floor level. We had a look in on a backstreet arcade, and found a few bars, most of which were closed until later in the day. We found a large retail plaza called Sunshine City and stopped for a while to catch up against the humidity. Here we discovered they had a city view sky deck, and went up to the top floor for a look. The views were breathtaking, and we got there just as the sun was beginning to set. As well as informative panels describing the landmarks we could see, there were a number of interactive displays and a room which seemed to contain mirrors and constantly swirling patterns of light. Dinner was spaghetti-like ramen noodles and an ice-cold beer, and boy, was it needed, but sadly sleep was needed too, and we called it an early night shortly afterwards. This was our first day of many, and we had a lot of ground to cover.
Day two, and we had to check out of our single rooms. From now on we’d have to share, or at least for the next two weeks. We left our bags with reception and popped out to get breakfast and make a plan for what to do that day. It was only 10am but it was already feeling a little warm. After pastries and iced coffee we headed out towards Shibuya and Harajuku on the Metro. We were aware of the incoming typhoon that was to hit mainland Japan later that day, and the skies were already a little dark by the time we hit Shibuya Metro station. After some disorientation we found ourselves outside in a torrential rainstorm. Huddling for cover on a shop step that was still too hot to sit on, we took a direction and ran with it. We emerged from a stream of people at a crossing and upon seeing a large Torii Gate I went over to have a look. As the rain stopped, and the sun came out, the wet turned almost instantly to steam and sweat, and even my DSLR camera suffered with the humidity.
A Torii Gate leading to the Meiji Jingu Shrine
The Torii Gate sat in front of a wide path lined with trees, and we later discovered this was the Meiji Jingu shrine, the first of many shrines we would encounter on our trip was very beautiful with lots of ornately carved wooden rooves and doors. There was a cleansing pool just before the altar, with the long-handled wooden cups for drawing water out and tipping into your hand. The cool running water was a welcome relief after a long walk through the grounds. The shrine itself is free to visit but there were donation boxes and you could buy tokens and paper that you could write your wishes on, and leave on a tree. There were a couple of Wedding Processions that visited as we happened to be there, and the attendees were all traditionally dressed. Moving on from the shrine we got a little lost on the way back around, and after a really long walk, so much so, blisters were beginning to rub on my feet, but we found a nice noodle restaurant in Harajuku on the way back to the station.
Continuing on, it was just a short few Metro stops to Shibuya Crossing, to see the large pedestrian crossing in all its glory. Also referred to as Shibuya Scramble, it was as chaotic as you can imagine with hundreds of people all wanting to get to a different corner. In one such corner was the monument to Hachiko, the dog whose owner, a Professor at Tokyo Imperial University would meet him at the station after work ever day, until one day the Professor died. The dog continued to wait every day at the station, patiently waiting his master’s return until the day he died himself, nine years later.
We went back to our hotel in Ikebukuro to collect our new room keys and our luggage and had a short rest before our meeting in the Lobby with our G Adventures tour leader and our travel companions for the next two weeks. I knew from looking at the list of names on the meeting sheet that we had more men than women on the tour, but what I didn’t realise was that many of the people on the tour were over fifty; although quite a few of the group were single, or at the very least, unmarried. We were encouraged to mix up and find out what we could about someone else in the group as an icebreaker before we were given our itinerary by our ‘CEO’ Satomi. We then went on a short orientation walk which included showing us where certain places were, where to get tomorrow’s breakfast, where to get cash from, (as only a certain few ATMs accept foreign bank cards), and a department store where we could find numerous eateries on the top floor. We would normally have had a group dinner together, our CEO explained, but she had to rebook train tickets for the group in light of the incoming typhoon.
A few of us settled on a place that did something called ‘Omurice’, which seemed to be an omlette on top of rice, though we were told we would have to be quick as businesses were looking to close for the night, not sure of what would follow we all opted for an early night, where we weathered the storm up on the 14th floor of our hotel. We were woken in the middle of the night by the emergency system as the electricity in the building did go out and the lifts stopped working, but other than some powerful winds and torrential rain, we make it through the typhoon unharmed.
Discovery Japan 14 Day Tour G Adventures
Though carnage was apparent and some businesses remained closed from the damage, including the bakery we went to just the day before, there were still some places open. We had breakfast at Wendys, went back to check out of the hotel and met the others in the lobby. Our CEO had waited patiently in long queues the day before to get new seat reservations, but we had to take a different train so she had to do that again for us. We spent a few hours on different trains, including a Shinkensen, or bullet train, but made it to Kanagawa for the early afternoon, just slightly behind schedule.
Kanagawa was clearly a smaller town, but was very easily navigated using the two circular buses that went pretty much everywhere and terminated at the bus station, which was handily next to the train station. So, too, was the hotel we were staying at. It felt very warm in the early afternoon, but walking a short distance took us to the local fish market, Omi Cho, which was undercover and offered a breeze; though with it, came a strong smell of seafood. The market itself was similar in scale to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but the market here was almost exclusively food, with some restaurants and street food places here and there. As it was lunchtime a few of us opted to get sushi at a place in the market. It was my first proper taste of sush… let me explain. I’d had sushi from a Tesco Express, which was eight seaweed-wrapped rice and raw fish creations with a little tube of soy sauce. That, I have been told, is not sushi, and boy were those people right! The sushi I had at Omi-Cho fish market was fresh, delicious and so healthy, the way good food should be. Following on from the fish market we had a walk around one of the town’s Geisha districts that featured an old tea house that had been turned into a museum. We had to remove our shoes upon entry, and there were a few nice exhibits, and next door there was a shop that specialised in gold leaf, which was quite an industry in Kanazawa. After this, we caught the bus back to the hotel, and had some time to freshen up before we had to go out for our group dinner.
A Geisha District in Kanagawa
At first sight the restaurant we went to looked like we were to dine cross-legged on the floor, but upon closer look, the tables we had were sunken into a trench in the floor, meaning we had to dangle our legs in the gap underneath. This was very welcome given the amount of walking we had done all day, and I don’t think I would have been very comfortable cross-legged for any more than about three minutes. Satomi had ordered some food for us to have a taste of a few different things, but said we could always order more of something if we felt the need. As it transpired, the meat dishes were very popular, and went very quickly, and the beer went down surprising well too.
Before we went to bed, a small few of us went to get some beer from the local Family Mart convenience store, and the staff at our hotel said it would be okay to drink them in the quiet area of the lobby, as there was nowhere else to get breakfast the next day, we all opted to pay a bit extra for the hotel breakfast, and Kanazawa’s lack of a nightlife meant an earlish night.
The next day was even hotter than the previous day, and after breakfast we had a walk around the local samurai district, which was very picturesque, but very warm. Soon afterwards we relocated to the Kenroku-en Garden and enjoyed its beautiful plants and flowers, there is a large statue in the garden of legendary hero Yamato Takeru, who represents the suppression of rebellion in Kyushu. After a lovely Tempura and Miso lunch, we made our way to Kanagawa Castle, and toured the grounds there. The castle itself was largely empty but there was an interesting exhibit explaining how the beams of the castle are intentionally bent and cracked so that if they were attacked with seige weapons or earthquakes, the beams grip together and become more entrenched, which made the structure stronger. The castle took much longer than we anticipated, but we made it back to the hotel with time to spare. For dinner, we once again went to a department store, but had Chinese food for a change, which was actually quite nice.
The next day we had to do some more travelling by train, and as I result, my friend and I didn’t bother with another hotel breakfast, but made a quick stop at a Seven Eleven again, for sandwiches, which saved us about 500 yen between us. The journey to Takayama was by local and express trains only, with a final leg by minibus, and so we got to Takayama for near enough lunch time. We had lunch at place near to the museum village of Hida No Sato, or Hida Folk Village as it is also called, but the weather looked like it was going to turn a bit wet. After a nice spicy beef curry and rice, we made our way up to the village while our bags were driven back to the Ryoken-style hotel we would be calling home for the next couple of days. The village was very rustic-looking, and while we had a bit of a deluge to begin with, it wasn’t for long and soon brightened up afterwards. The village was set around a small lake with various buildings showing a variety of industries that would have been present during the Edo Period (between 1603 and 1867). There was a mill house and a bell tower as well as few shrines, and right by the waterfront, there was a cart and some costumes for people to try on and take pictures, which of course, a few of us did. We were picked up again by the minibus afterwards and taken to be reunited with our bags at our hotel.
The hotel was a traditional style of guesthouse called a Ryoken, and it featured an onsen spa. The rooms had mattress beds on the floor and a couple of communal rooms downstairs, but the onsens were very relaxing. We met again for dinner and went to a place that did platters of food with a bit of everything that was described as a ‘set’. Takayama is famous for it’s superior and tender Hida Beef, and so most of us opted to try it as part of our set. The chef was very friendly and asked us all where we were from, when I said I was from Birmingham, he paused for a second and said “Aston Villa!” to which my friend and I replied, “Yes! The best team in Birmingham!” Most of the group elected to walk home but a few of us went with the minibus, as we hadn’t quite found our bearings yet, but it appeared that walking was just as quick as we all arrived at roughly the same time. We got back quite early and my roommate wanted to grab a shower and an onsen, so I decided to go out with some of the other group in search of a coin laundry, thinking I’d be back in an hour or so. It made for quite the adventure and I got to spend time with some of the other people on the tour by myself and I got a better feel for Takayama, and its many bridges.
A horse statue outside the Sakurayama Hachinmangu Shrine
The next day we went for a walk, first to the Sakurayama Hachinmangu Shrine, and next to the Miyakawa Morning Market where we saw the many things they had for sale. The breakfast, though substantial, didn’t stop us from getting a hida beef skewer, which was small, but every morsel was packed with flavour. Next we went to see the Sake Breweries and were invited to sample up to twelve different sakes for a small 300 yen covering charge. Of course we tried them all, and we actually bought a gift set of five bottles, so their generous marketing strategy paid off. These heavy boxes later became a bane for us as we had to carry them for the entirety of the trip thereafter. We did a bit more shopping and then went for lunch at a local place; this time we had ramen noodles, and then we went to see a traditional tea making ceremony which involved some hilarious commentary from the funny Irish man on the tour. We finished the afternoon with a tour of the golden floats that are on display at the Takayama Festival Floats Museum and walked back to the Ryoken.
Before the evening meal, most of the group met in the common area to practice our origami skills. In particular, we learned how to make a paper crane, with varying degrees of success. We then headed back into the town for another meal at a local restaurant and had a leisurely walk back. We found a late-opening bar on the way and had beer and sake before walking back across the bridge back to the Ryoken, and a peaceful sleep.
Hiroshima was our next destination and we had to spend most of the morning and afternoon getting there by train, which meant we had to eat our breakfast and lunch on the move, pretty much, so it was about middle afternoon by the time we reached Hiroshima. Luckily our hotel was close to the station, but we couldn’t yet check in, so we left our bags at reception and hoped on a bus to the Hiroshima Peace Park. Firsly we saw the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was said to be the only building standing after the Atomic Bomb was dropped. It still stands in the same state but is now a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site. We then took a walk to the hypocentre, which was the exact spot over which the bomb was detonated. One of the members of the group was 92 years old, and had been 19 when he A-bomb would have been detonated. He was quite a character, and he had served in World War Two, but he treated his time in Hiroshima with the respect it deserved.
Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall or Genbaku Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996
We then walked further around the Peace Park seeing the Children’s Peace Memorial, in the form of a paper crane, which is in linked to a child called Sadako Sasaki who died from Leukaemia in the years following the nuclear fallout in the region. As the crane is a symbol of longevity in Japanese folklore, Sadako believed that making the paper cranes would help her recover and live a long life. She reportedly made over 1,000 paper cranes before she died, and even today, many visitors leave paper cranes as a symbol of a lasting peace. We continued past the peace park cenotaph and into the visitor centre museum, which featured exhibits and accounts of those who perished during the explosion, and accounts from people who lived just outside of the hot zone who heard and saw the bright light on the horizon. There were a number of interactive exhibits up on the mezzanine level, but many of the personal accounts were difficult to read; quite a few were from children.
We got back to Hiroshima station quite late, so we opted to go straight for dinner. I felt like I needed a shower, but I was quite hungry given the amount of walking we had done. Satomi wanted us to try some Okonomiyaki, which is like a fried pancake of noodles, cabbage and syrup batter, with various toppings. Mine included pork with an oyster sauce and a fried egg on top. To eat it, you use a pair of scrapers to cut pieces off on the hotplate, and then you can dip it in soy sauce for extra flavour with your chopsticks. It was delicious, and just what I needed. We went back to the hotel for a freshen up and decided to go out for a beer or two. We had a few others join us, and found a bar around the corner by the Yebisu Beer Company. They had a good array of things to drink, I opted for a fruit beer and then a gin and tonic, but they didn’t want to be open past 10pm so we paid up and left. There wasn’t really much else to do near the station. I’m sure we maybe could have found later bars, but we had a busy day the next day, so we went to the Seven Eleven for a cheaper option for breakfast, and turned in.
We took a local train a short hop and caught the Ferry to the island of Miyajima. Miyajima means ‘shrine island’, and in fact the island’s real name is Itsukushima. There are many shrines on the Island, and it is known for its famous floating Torii Gate, which you can walk to during low tide. However, we had timed our visit to Japan badly, because the Torii Gate was undergoing maintenance repairs, and was unfortunately covered up with netting. The mountain which dominates the island is Mount Misen, and we undertook the task of climbing to it’s summit, however, we took the option of going by Ropeway car for most of the way. Along the paths we saw many deer roaming freely, approaching tourists to see if they had any food. It was uncomfortably hot the further up we went, and as it approached lunchtime. We saw a number of water bottle vending machines and made sure we refilled our water bottles before tackling the last leg, a 30 minute climb of irregular steps that first go down and then up to the top. There were no handrails and we didn’t have any sticks, and the afternoon humidity kicked up the difficulty level, but we managed to make it to the top. The view as incredible, and the achievement worthy. Along the way, we saw a couple of shrines, including the Shrine of the Eternal Flame, and we noted that there were places to buy bottled water, but the price, like the altitude, was a little steeper.
View from near the Summit of Mount Misen on Miyajima Island
We were a little behind schedule so we opted for the quick route back down. This gave us a bit of time to get an ice cream and buy a couple of souvenirs, but somehow we missed our group at the rendezvous point at the Ferry. Satomi was very kind to wait for us at the train station, and realising we hadn’t really eaten properly all day, she encouraged us to get something to eat before we boarded the train back to the hotel. As a thank you, my friend and I offered to take her out for some dinner later in the evening and she showed us some side street eateries and a couple of bars that were very interesting indeed. One was a bar that played K-Pop music and served chicken wings and cheese, and it seemed to be full of young girls out with their friends. We recognised the tune to ‘Happy Birthday’ and sung along in English as one of the girls flushed with embarrassment. We finished on Okinawa Sake, an unusual brew served in one of the smallest establishments we had been in all evening. So small in fact that we had to push past the furniture to get up the stairs.
The next day, and still a little sore from walking, we caught a couple of trains to Kyoto. Breakfast was on the go again, but we managed to find a Starbucks after the first stop. Our hotel was again, very close to the train station, and after we dropped bags, once again, we had a short orientation walk, and had just over an hour to get something from one of the many eateries on the basement level of a large department store.
After lunch we caught a local train to Fushimi Inari Shrine, recognisable for it’s thousands of torii gates. Once again we were faced with a big hill and quite a few steps, but we made it to the half way point past the small lake to where we could see the city below. There were quite a few tourists on the paths, but there was always space to take a few photographs of the iconic gates. It was another very humid day though, and with the hike we did the day before, we decided to head back to the meeting point a little early so as not to miss everyone. It gave me the opportunity to refill my water carrier and pick up a couple of souvenirs. Along with the many torii gates, the shrines were decorated with stone foxes. The fox or kitsune, symbolises the messenger of the gods and are always present at Inari Shrines. For this reason, I picked up a couple of purses with little foxes on for my friend’s daughters, and then had a matcha tea ice cream in the shade.
Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto is known for it’s Torii Gates, numbered at over ten thousand!
We then caught a train back into Kyoto and headed to our hotel to check in. It was an Ibis Styles Boutique Hotel with an included breakfast, and a laundry room, but the rooms were pretty small. We were told that there was a post office nearby if we wanted to send anything home, and that put is in the mind to think about our luggage weight. So we decided to visit the post office and it was a comedy of errors. We found a box and decided what we were sending back, and packed it, taped it and completed the paperwork, but when we came to filling in the customs declaration, we were told we couldn’t ship home alcohol, at all. Needless to say it was the two boxes of Sake we were most worried about, and so we had to scrap the whole thing.
We arranged to meet up with the rest of the group at one of the many food courts but we got lost on the way, (you’d have thought we’d have worked it out by now), but we had a good Samaritan not only tell us where we had gone wrong, but also show us the way, which as it turns out was quite away from where we were. Everyone had pretty much eaten by the time we got there but some of them stayed while we got our orders. I settled on Mexican food this time, although I should have ordered a side or two with it as I was still a little bit hungry after the meal. Back at the hotel I decided to do more laundry, and although the washer was great, the dryer was pretty pathetic, and I ended up drying my laundry in the bathroom, thankful I’d remembered to pack my travel washing line.
Our second day in Kyoto had us meeting early after breakfast, and we caught a bus to the Golden Pavillion, and it’s lovely gardens. We then visited Nijo Castle, the former residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Kyoto was the original capital of Japan. The castle consists of two palaces and interconnecting gardens, but sadly the second palace building was undergoing major reconstruction, and so we could only visit the first palace. The floors creaked as we walked through the various rooms, this is an intentional feature of the castle, and was designed to give away the presence of intruders in the castle. Some of the rooms were designed to intimidate guests or relax them. One such room featured a giant painted tiger, and was considered unsettling for visitors looking to meet with the Shogun.
The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto
After more walking, we got back on the bus and headed to the Nishiki Market, where we had the opportunity to get some lunch and do some shopping. There were lots of nice places to buy souvenirs, and there was a nice Kimono shop, although sadly I couldn’t find anything I wanted in my size. We had a look around the Takashimaya Department Store, which showcased some very expensive luxury goods, and then we took a walk over the bridge to another area well-known for Geisha spotting, known as Gion District. Gion District featured a theatre where they put on nightly performances of traditional Japanese theatre and performances.
The German couple that were part of our trip asked about a particular restaurant and Satomi managed to get them a reservation. We walked them to the place and Satomi was kind enough of put something towards their meal as well. The three of us found a local place on the way back and had a meal together, ordering a number of dishes and sharing them. My mate and I decided to pay forward her kindness to the German couple, and pay her contribution to the meal between us, but of course she had to give us something back, and introduced us to the wonder of Peach Flavoured Ice Cream Balls. These are a snack you can get from most Seven Elevens, and was so refreshing. If I can pass on a bit of wisdom to newbie travellers in Japan it would be; you must try the ice cream balls. We had another long walk back to the metro stop, and a short hop on the metro back to the hotel, but at least my washing was now mostly dry, and I again slept like the proverbial log.
The next day we were left to our own devices pretty much as it was a free day, but we had already pre-booked our activity for the daytime, a Spirit Kembu lesson at the Samurai Kembu Theatre in downtown Kyoto. We were a little bit early but found a nice little traditional coffee shop next door, and treated ourselves to a nice cold brew iced coffee before went into the theatre. The lesson was taught by Master Auga Houga, who was a short, quiet spoken man, but he English was perfectly well. He would demonstrate each move and have us copy it. There were five of us in the class, and we were given a Katana pretty much straight away – shown the correct way to hold the scabbard, twist it outward to draw it, and stroke the dull edge along our thumb and forefinger to present the blade back into the scabbard in one fluid motion.
We also got to dress up in the traditional garb of a Samurai, and we all looked amazing. We were taught a full selection of moves and then some moves with the fan. Traditionally the Kembu, or sword dance was a way for Samurai to practice their techniques, but the medium has been used to tell stories and to keep fit. The martial art was a privilege to learn, and the photos we took make for a wonderful souvenir, and it made it a highlight of the trip.
After the lesson, we realised that we were too late to meet the others for the boat trip. We headed back to Kyoto station, had a bit of a mooch around, got lost in the labyrinthine maze that was the various interconnecting malls, but found a really nice restaurant with a great view of Kyoto Tower. The rest of the day we decided to go back and repack our luggage, as we were told we could pay a small fee to have our big bags shipped to Tokyo, saving us carrying them around.
View of the Kyoto Tower from the Restaurant on the Ninth Floor of the Mall
In the evening we decided to go back to the Gion Theatre and enjoy the cultural show, and the German couple came with us. It featured some comedy, some music, tea making and puppetry, so it had a bit of everything. It was a pretty good show, and afterwards we met the others at one of the nearby shrines, to see the lanterns lit up at night. We then went for an all-you-can-eat hotpot dinner, which was delicious, although you had to cook the food yourself. The Irish couple told us about their day, and said the boat ride was a bit too long, and they had no respite from the sun, which explained their tanned complexion. On the way out of the restaurant, it appeared that some local school children had made some masks and left them by the lift, and of course, I pick up one and put it on, and then so did everyone else and we had a couple of hilarious pictures taken.
We brought our heavy bags up to the lobby after we got back to the hotel and after a couple of skype calls home we called it a night.
The next day after breakfast we checked out and headed to the station to start our commute to Fujikawaguchiko, where we intended to spend a couple of days in a valley below the splendour of Mt. Fuji. However, the day was much cooler and soon enough the clouds came in and we had a bit of rain. The last train to our destination was a bit of an upgrade, and was a special museum train with various books and artefacts around the carriage, and a running commentary throughout the journey.
Our hotel for the night was another traditional room in the Ryoken style, and had a much larger Onsen Spa, which we took advantage of ahead of dinner. For dinner we were told to come down in the Yukata robes we were given when we checked in, and sat at a grand table, we had a traditional Kaiseki Dinner. There were so many courses, and each one meticulously crafted using different techniques. Following on from the dinner a few of us decided we’d do some Karaoke for a couple of hours, and going up to our rooms to change, we noticed that they’d reconfigured the room and made the beds. The Karaoke was a lot of fun, and it was definitely on my ‘must do’ list in Japan. I sang some Duran Duran, my mate chose Springsteen and even Satomi gave us a tune. One of the Irish guys was massively into Bon Jovi, and sang about three of four of his tunes – and what he lacked in vocal range he more than made up for in enthusiasm.
The next day I got up early and saw the clouds had gone and the view from our window was of Mount Fuji in the distance. After breakfast we had an orientation walk down to the lake and up to the Kachi Kachi Ropewalk, which gave us a fantastic panoramic view of Mount Fuji. We got there just in time to take photos of the summit because soon after lunchtime a light cloud descended, obscuring the view of the peak. The rest of the afternoon was ours to do with as we liked, so we opted to take a boat ride around Lake Kawaguchi, which came at a discount because we’d used the ropeway already. We took the 92 year old veteran with us, to give Satomi a break from looking after him, and the ride didn’t look too choppy. He really enjoyed it, and we got a great view from the water. We found somewhere for lunch right on the waterfront, got a couple of souvenirs and finally a coffee before we checked out.
The Vista of Mount Fuji
We got back to Ikebukuro in Tokyo for about 5.30pm and collected our cases, checked in and then went for a quiet Ramen meal nearby, just me, my travel buddy and Satomi. We met with the other travellers and headed out to explore Shinjuku at night. We found some busy side streets with lots of small restaurants, big shopping malls and some interesting plazas, such as Godzilla Street, where the original Toho Cinema was built. Now nightly there is a giant Godzilla head which lights up and makes the famous roar every hour on the hour until 9pm. The rest of the group hadn’t eaten so myself and my mate excused ourselves over dinner to go bar hopping to see if we could find Tokyo’s Rock Scene. We found a place called Bar Psy, which was a lovely little bar that played rock music, in a darkly lit room and served Jack Daniels Bourbon, so it was definitely what we were looking for. We made friends with some Canadians who were there for the week. After a couple of drinks we hooked up with the rest of our group and they said it their meal started out badly, but it was a really nice place to eat once the food arrived. We had a walk back to the train station together and a couple of us went to the seven eleven again, as by that time my mate and I were craving a cheese sandwich after the beer and rum. We also looked online for accommodation as we had yet to book a hotel for our last few days in Tokyo, and decided we wanted to be based in Shinjuku rather than Ikebukuro as it seemed closer to where we wanted to be.
Our final day with the group loomed, and we headed out for breakfast before our meet up in the lobby. The bakery that we saw had suffered from the hurricane was as pristine as our first visit, and their coffee was just as good. Our first place to visit was the Anime and gamer culture haven of Akhibakara. We visited an arcade, passed by the Gundam cafe and saw the flagship store of electrical giant Yodobashi Camera. With a lot to get done we moved on and took a train to Ginza. Ginza is home to the Nissan showroom at Nissan Crossing, and it is home to some fantastic showpieces of the future of motoring and technology. We saw some fantastic looking cars, and some incredible tech, including a robotic dog that responded to sounds and touch. The cafe was also technologically advanced – you could order a coffee with a printed picture on the foam. Very gimmicky, true, but it was still pretty cool.
The Cars of Tomorrow at Nissan Crossing
In the afternoon the group were heading to Shibuya, to do the things my friend and I had already done prior to the tour, so instead we headed back to Akhibukura to try and and pick up some souvenirs from Yodobashi Camera. I was on the lookout for something for my partner’s little boy and for my business partner’s little boy, something Mario related would do for the former, but for the latter, it had to be Godzilla related. I managed to achieve the first goal, but not the second. Still I also picked up a wooden puzzle which I would put into a charity auction, and saw some really retro tech, a playable version of Outrun on the Sega Mastersystem. On the way back to the hotel, my mate picked up a trolley case which gave us a bit of breathing room for luggage weight and when we got back, we found that the group had also returned, and some were in the lobby trying to sort out their next steps. We met a girl who was just about to start her journey on a tour doing the Backroads of Japan, and she had so many questions.
Our last meal together as a group was to take place at a very cosy Yakatori place, but before that, we went for a beer at the Kirin City bar, to try one of their beer ices, which wasn’t as nice as it sounded, but was still an experience. Getting to the restaurant was a bit of a mission, as we got in the wrong lift to start off with, but we got in, and sat on the middle table. Ordering was all done via the tablets on each table, and it all got emotional once we gave our thanks and speeches to Satomi and to each other. Veteran John was so overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity on the tour, he told us we could all come and stay on his ranch in Illunois, which was very kind of him.
We didn’t want the party to end so we went onto a bar afterwards that was a bit like an English pub, except you couldn’t stand at the bar and drink, and you ordered and paid for your pint with different people. It was more like a Subway, I guess, in hindsight. This bar also happened to be showing the opening games of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and it was Japan playing against Russia. Japan had an excellent game and the locals in the bar were happy to celebrate with us, but sadly it was also time for goodbyes and bon voyages. Ikebukuro wasn’t really the place for late partying though, so we ended our night shortly after midnight.
The next day were weren’t really in any rush to move on immediately, so we checked out, but asked if our bags could be kept in the lobby for us to collect later. We saw a few of our new friends waiting for taxis, and Satomi was busy making arrangements for a couple of other people before she was due to depart herself back to Kyoto. My mate and I accompanied her for lunch before she went to get the train. We took a final look around Sunshine City for souvenirs, which included finding the famous Pokemon store, and had a closer look at the shops appealing to Otaku (fanboys and girls) culture.
We headed back to the hotel and had a coffee before getting a taxi to Shinjuku, and our next hotel. We were a little bit exhausted from more walking and knew we’d have to find our bearings at the new place, but it was late afternoon by the time we arrived. We checked in to now separate rooms, which were small but gave us some now much needed privacy. We headed out to find the Godzilla store, as by now, I was getting desperate. We found it, again, within a large department store, and right opposite there was a nice place to buy sweets for taking back home.
Godzilla Store, Shinjuku, Tokyo
We continued back to Godzilla Road, and found a stage where some musicians were playing covers of folk and country songs, including a great rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s Desperado. We went for dinner and then went back to Bar Psy again, and bumped into our Canadian friends again. It started to get mad busy though, so we moved on. The From Dusk til Dawn bar was good, but slightly empty, but we met someone from Birmingham at the bar, which was extremely surreal. As much as I wanted to go back my mate encouraged me to try one more place and we met some more tourists in there who were friendly and good-natured. We made it back to the hotel as the sun was coming up and stopped off at a Mr. Donut on recommendation of a friend, before we crashed out.
It was late when we ventured out again, but had a sturdy brunch at the burger restaurant just outside our hotel, before we jumped the metro over to the Imperial Palace. The weather took a turn when we got there, and so we started heading back when the rain started. We knew it was the day of the Scotland Ireland game, so ventured out to find a bar showing the game. We found the aptly-named Prop Bar, not to far from the hotel, and it was a small place down some stairs but the locals enjoyed having us, even opting to share peanuts with us as we watching the game. We went for food again before opting to get a very early night, to try and catch up the rest we lost the previous day. I picked up a couple of beers and some ice from the vending machines in the basement, skyped back home and watched the women’s volleyball coverage before I went off to sleep.
Our last day of sightseeing took us to Odaiba, to take a look at the Gundam Statue outside of DiverCity Plaza. We had a great view of the bay bridge from the train on our way there, and the weather was bright and sunny once more. It wasn’t too hard to find the Statue and we managed to arrive just minutes before the scheduled transformation occurs, which is once every two hours on the hour. They had some dancers outside the Gundam Cafe dancing to some very hardcore techno tunes while a man spoke in Japanese, giving a commentary. We had a look around inside the mall, and picked up a few more souvenirs, before we made it back outside. There was a mexican festival happening out near the bay, including a wrestling ring (though no-one was wrestling), and several street food stalls. We got some great shots of the bay, and some of the miniature statue of liberty. Then my mate suggested we take a boat ride across the bay, and so we took a trip on the Himiko teardrop-shaped boat from Odaiba pier to Asakusa. The journey was a much more pleasant way of getting across the city and brought us out right by the Asahi Beer Headquarters Buildings, which are supposed to look like a pint of beer and a small bowl of savoury snacks – no, really! We got the metro back to the hotel and went out for a last meal. We opted to walk a more scenic route this time, and my mate wanted to try a ninja restaurant, but unfortunately we hadn’t made reservations and it was full. They had a cool little robot that bowed to us and looking at the menu, it appeared it was quite pricey, but it was our last night. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and we found a place close by that did Yakitori again, which wasn’t as nice as the place we went to in Ikebukuro. We had a scenic walk back to the hotel and found ourselves heading in completely the wrong direction. However we were only a couple of stops away from our Metro station, so we hoped on the Metro again.
Himiko Boat Cruise, Tokyo Bay, Odaiba Pier
We have plenty of time to get to the airport, provided we met all of our changes. There was an express train to the Airport from Toyko Station, but getting there during rush hour with big bags was problematic. We were also trying to do this using up the last of our yen notes, so as not to have to take out any more. The problem with cash in Japan is that you can only get out a minimum of 10,000 yen each time, and there’s a surcharge.
We arrived with plenty of time but still hadn’t weighed our cases. We also had to drop off the wireless dongle that we had paid for, and though it wasn’t cheap, it had been very useful throughout our trip, especially when it came to navigating cities on the go. The weight was well under so we checked in, opting for better leg-room, which was so much better, but I didn’t get very much sleep on the way home, until it came to the last plane journey over the channel, where I slept most of the way.
I will miss the weird idiosyncrasies of the Japanese. From their amazingly technological toilets, to their general politeness, great food and cultural expression. The bullet trains, and scenic lakes and mountains.