A couple of weeks in Japan (May 2015)

St Kilda - Tokyo (May 8, 2015)

Over a couple of weeks in 2015, we fell in love with  the strangeness, the efficiency, the cleanliness, the politeness and the physical beauty of Japan.
One impression that we kept returning to (particularly after our last trip to Rajasthan) was the sense that fresh clean water was constantly washing everything and everyone in Japan.  The sound of flowing water seemed ubiquitous whether we were in the countryside or in an urban street.

Left St Kilda virtually at our front door on the airport shuttle bus and flew to Sydney. Transferring to the international terminal was nothing compared to the 2 hour delay on the tarmac after boarding with engine problems. Delay was annoying, but lack of air-conditioning and waiting for the inflight entertainment to be turned on was worse !  Then followed the usual drinks and dinner. Libby only managed Atonement before entering restless sleep.  For Stephen, it was more drinks and movie, movie, movie, movie until a descent into a bad breakfast choice (scrambled eggs) followed by the final landing in Tokyo....

View annotated Google Map of our trip in seperate window

Tokyo (May 9, 2015)

Narita Airport shone like most airports, but unlike our last international arrival in Kolkata, the shine did not end at the door.  The limousine shuttle bus was pristine and the bus staff stood at attention and bowed as the bus arrived and departed.  Our first introduction to the exceptional politeness that we found so commonplace throughout Japan.

Impressions along the 60km drive into Tokyo: Overcast; 18 degrees was readable among the strange characters on the bus TV;  lush spring vegetation of bamboos, small rice paddies; nondescript buildings and then out of nowhere ... enormous modern office buildings in the expected shiny characterless design; a glimpse of Tokyo Disneyland's spectacular resort hotel; a maze of overpasses..

Stephen had not yet activated his data SIM, so we were without Google !!!  A short walk was extended by various attempts at communication with locals as we showed our map and hotel booking details and they tried to interpret it.  At last, we found the "Sotetsu Fresa Inn Nihombashi-Ningyocho", where we stashed our cases and waited.

A few weeks before our trip, we had contacted Tokyo Free Guides and other similar organizations in cities we were visiting.  It was perfect that Chizuru offered to guide us in Tokyo as this was our first encounter with Japan. Chizuru very kindly met us in the foyer of our hotel and advised, explained and guided us all day.  Her organisation insists that there is no payment or tip, but paying all transport, entry fees and meal costs is expected.  Chizuru, was an arts graduate in her late 30's writing a PhD on European Art History.  We had expected an Chizuru to select a gourmet restaurant for lunch, but we enjoyed the BBQ chicken, battered pork and miso chicken soup at a small restaurant close to the Metro.

Purchasing daily metro pass seemed complex until completed, and soon became an easy daily routine.  Off we went to the Kanda Shrine because Chizuru knew the Matsuri Festival occurred yearly on this very weekend. We walked straight into throngs of people streaming past food and religious trinket sales. Very like the Indians, the Japanese complete a multitude of superstitious rituals - buying "fortune" messages, tying then onto trees and rails to form bright displays, performing hand and mouth rinse ceremonies outside the temple and far more. Hundreds formed orderly queues to pay, rinse, bow, pray and enter the shrine.   Chizuru explained seriously that a common Japanese attitude was "Born Shinto, Die Buddhist" and in between complete as many rituals in either system as much as you feel the need to !

Next stop was Ueno Park, where we walked around a very ordinary lake surrounded by gardens, temples and museums.  The Shitamachi Museum contained a recreation of a traditional home that we could sit within and a streetscape that we could wander down to get the feel of a past cluttered tinderbox Tokyo.   Chizuru valiantly tried to explain the significance of the Ueno Tōshō-gū. Information on past Emperors seemed to be missing from most signage and tourist information as if that imperial past was too closely associated with Hirohito and WWII

Ducking back underground, we emerged inside the famous Mitsukoshi Store and walked out onto Chuo Dori right on time to see the 400th year Kanda Street Parade along with thousands of Tokyo citizens.

Great timing Chizuru ! Floats, costumes, theatrical performances and the concessional response of massed bows and clapping. After and hour or so, over 30 hours without sleep took its toll and we asked Chizuru to take us to a bar for a final goodbye drink.  Despite instructions, we gave her some Australian gifts and used our knew metro awareness to get back to our hotel.

On walk from the metro, we walked past Siddique, an Indian Restaurant and the lure of a familiar cuisine was irresistible after so much that was foreign.  And so to bed !

Tokyo (May 10, 2015)

When we awoke, the warnings that Stephen had read regarding "shoebox" hotel rooms seemed rather exaggerated.  True the room was small, but easily manageable and very clean, and full of well organised functional features. The tiny bathroom had a very small bath with overhead shower and the toilet was a marvel of electronic options including a heated seat, bidet, bottom shower and even musical accompaniment!  Stephen was grateful for a 6th floor window even if it looked out onto another building.

Up and out on a warm sunny 23 degree day, into streets completely free of rubbish or graffiti and see well groomed people who are scrupulously polite and friendly. No slobs, tattoos, or body piercing here, but many people look alien to us through the use of mouth masks. Chizuru had explained that this could be to reduce the chance of spreading disease as often as to prevent infection.  They are also used to prevent allergic reactions to pollen which are high at this time of year.

Into Tokyo Train Station to activate our JR Pass for train journeys and reserve as many journeys as possible.  The staff are a model of efficiency.  Stephen's impression is that systems in Japan are a analog of origami - delicate and designed with a love of complexity.  They are also supported by triple the staff that would be found in an equivalent Australian business.  This abundance of help combined with Japanese politeness results in superb service everywhere.   He felt naked without data access, and the Docomo staff helped for over 30 minutes while he used their phone to get instructions from the NTT Communications company that sold him the SIM.  All was solved by a new interpretation of the English instructions.

Sky Tree
Happy and connected, we used the superb Hyperdia transport information app to plot our trip to the Sky Tree. being a warm sunny clear Sunday, there was a huge line and a 3 hour wait.  Stephen was all for skipping this destination when Libby discovered that there was a paid fast track available only to foreigners !  Ah, positive discrimination is so seductive...  Stephen loved the superb 360 degree aerial view provided the next rich layer of reality over the Google satellite views perused at home.  He tries to retain and build on that mental map in all subsequent travel.

Lonely Planet led us into a delightful guided walk around the Yanaka-Nippori Old Town district, dispersed with temples such as Enjuji and cemeteries.  The old gates and buildings seemed to be very desirable as most cars in the driveways were expensive BMW's and the like.

After a few kilometres of wandering among the maze of we ended up at a charming small bar 乱歩.

Yanaka-Nippori Old Town district
On again by metro to Shinjuku where the neon environment came alive as night fell and we enjoyed a yummy dinner of seasonal chicken and vegetable stir fry with sake and wine.

Trains in Tokyo were very clean with soft velour seats and no graffiti. Paper sheets hang on overhead sliders and around handles gaily advertising a variety of information and services.

535m to the platform !!!
Mistakes are inevitable in complex foreign transport systems and in Tokyo they can cause a half kilometre walk or more !  Luckily on our weary trek back to the hotel we passed the familiar site of an Indian restaurant/bar where we enjoyed a much needed 'top up' dinner and drink.

Tokyo (May 11, 2015)

Waiting for access to Tsukiji Fish Market Fish Auction
Woken by our 3 am alarm we jumped into a pre booked taxi and arrived at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market at 3.50 am to view the early morning Tuna Auction.  As early birds, we were escorted into a portable classroom and issued with one of the 60 green vests available for each tour. If you come later you get a blue one with fewer access privileges - or if you come at 4:10 you get none at all !

As the tour took us towards the tuna auction, little gas powered tray back trolleys attempted to run us down as they took fish back and forward from stalls to trucks.
Inside the auction area we saw the buyers checking out the frozen tuna lying in lines, picking with a tool like an ice pick, rolling flesh in hands and checking filleted pieces.

When the auction started we had to be very quiet as it was very serious business.  In less than 30 minutes the shouting was over and the tuna was sold !

The public fish market didn't open to the public till 9 so we enjoyed coffee, egg and toast then went underground again.

Everyone on the train looked exhausted this Monday morning (in contrast to Sunday when everyone was happy, chatty and colourfully dressed and lots of young families with 1 child).  People, mostly in black or subdued colours, were sleeping or reading from mobile phones (talking is frowned upon).

We arrived at Harajuku shopping centre too early to see many of the goth-loli girls (think zombie Little Bo Peep) that make the neighbourhood famous.  The shops were all very upmarket - Chanel, Dior, Ralph Lauren etc.

Off then by Metro again to Shibuya - a bustling commercial district of steel and glass so typical of modern Tokyo.  Outside the station is the statue of the faithful dog, Hachiko is loved by so many of the hyper-sentimental Japanese.
We wandered around amongst the 'Love Hotels' where you can book rooms by the hour. A necessity for a country where so many young people live with their parents till their late 20's. The paper thin walls in the family home just aren't very sound proof !
We walked a couple of kilometres from Shibuya to Harajuku and entered the the Yoyogi Park.  We were intrigued by the number of official looking people as we made our way towards the Meiji Jungu shrine.  All was revealed as we were joined by the Emperor and the PM of Belgium ! He and his entourage walked up the main pathway surrounded by very disrespectful press contingent. The PM and poo bahs participated in a service inside the shrine and then exited via big black cars !

We then caught the train to the Imperial Palace gardens and rested in the park before having lunch in a French boulangerie - ahh the familiar BLT and pastries.

Rejuvenated we headed to Ginza to the grand Mitsukoshi Department store to have a look at the amazing food products and displays. Here we enjoyed our first real sushi meal - a variety of gourmet raw seafood which, despite very unusual sights and smells, we both felt confident to consume to the last morsel. The chef told us the name of each piece. It was so fresh and delicious.

Mitsukoshi Department store Food Display
Travelling around Tokyo is usually to dive underground and pop up somewhere new. We often felt like meerkats !

A few of the train services are above ground.  The most spectacular of these is the Yurikamome rail train which took us out to the high tech reclaimed island of Odaiba past spectacular modern architecture.  On the island, all that attracted us was a drink in an intimate wine bar before returning "home" with a bottle of wine !

Waterfront Transit Yurikamome Train
Libby felt the miles of walking felt equivalent to a tennis grand final !

Tokyo - Kyoto (May 12, 2015)

We woke before the alarm on this cool wet day. And with superb efficiency consumed breakfast in the very modest ground floor self serve area and were on the train soon after 7am ! The crowds were only gradually building at this time so all was calm and relaxed as we waited for our Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto.

As it arrived the cleaning crew, women in pink, bowed, entered the train and then cleaned it from top to toe for about 15 minutes, bowed again and left! The train took off and began accelerating with a similar feel as a plane. Stephen's iPhone app estimated our top speed at 230 km/hour ! We passed Mt Fuji but it was hidden by cloud.  Passing through some major cities along the coast we saw lots of high density housing. Between the cities were the usual rice paddies and market gardens.

The railways staff efficiently and politely checked tickets after each railway stop.  Women in uniform with pink and mauve aprons bowed and entered the carriage several times during the journey selling drinks, food and magazines.

Kyoto Railway Station was huge and ultra modern (although Kyoto is about 1/20th the population of Tokyo !).  When we found our way outside it was raining quite heavily for our walk to the Kyoto Plaza Hotel Hotel, our new home ! The 8th floor room had a view to the mountains and a local temple in the foreground.  After orientation and stowing of suitcases, we headed to the nearby Muji Aeon Mall to stock our room with fruit, snacks and wine.  Our first Japanese bus ride was easy due to the polite assistance of passengers and drivers in working out the fare collection machine in the bus.

The Kyoto National Museum has a classically European old wing only used for special exhibitions, and a modern minimalist Heisei Chishinkan wing containing a wonderful collection of ancient Japanese art and artefacts over 3 levels.

And over the road to the Sanjusangen-do temple founded in the 12th century (but suffering a few rebuilds and renovations since then).  It is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Pretty impressive collection...

Sanjusangen-do temple with 1001 statues
Back to Kyoto central for wine, saki and dinner.  Libby had her first bath in the women's communal onsen, learning the etiquette from a young woman who entered only minutes before her. Phew !

Observations: Young people do not carry personal water. People do not eat in commuter trains or in the street.  No smoking is permitted on most streets -  only in designated areas (sometimes inside a sealed glass room on the street. Very few overweight people.....

Kyoto (May 13, 2015)

Buffet breakfast in the hotel. Very Japanese ! Libby tried a lot of things. Stephen agreed as far as the good coffee, boiled eggs, white toast and squeeze packets of jam and margarine combined !

A warm, sunny 25 degrees greeted us for our train trip to the old suburb of Gion where we had booked online from Australia into a performance in the oldest Kabuki theatre in Japan.  The crowd were dressed in very smart formal wear in deference to the seriousness of the art form.  The first half was bizarre and amusing as it was a lecture/ demonstration (all in Japanese).  The second half was a traditional kabuki story in which the protagonists would occasionally freeze in a tableau and receive applause for replicating a scene from a famous painting.  The most bizarre aspect was the accompaniment which consisted of three men emitting screeches, whimpers, yells as well as playing primitive wind and string instruments.

After the performance, we walked around the old town guided by Lonely Planet.  Libby spotted several geisha discreetly coming and going from their amazingly expensive private performances in Hanami-koji street.

We walked to the Kenninji Temple, the oldest Zen Temple in Kyoto. The Zen sect is one of the main branches of Japanese Buddhism.   Japanese architecture has a modest peaceful wooden charm so different to European grandeur.  In the Hatto (Dharma Hall) near the temple, we viewed a magnificent new painting on the ceiling of the Twin Dragons, the Wind and Thunder Gods.

More footslogging in what was now a hot day, led us to Yasaka Shrine and through to Maruyama Park where ice-cream  vendors in the grounds were a godsend.  On to the impressive steps to a huge pavilion, Chion-in where we were just in time to sneak in before closing.

In need of a rest we wandered down an alley and discovered a sign leading to...... The Gael Irish Pub where we enjoyed a drink and talk to the owner and bar tender about the place of Guinness in Japanese history.....

Train home to the Kyoto station where we found dinner in a very nice restaurant then bath and bed !

Observations: Very few women wear lipstick, they have very expensive bags and a moist face washer on hand for modestly refreshing themselves.
Organisation: Libby thinks she has finally got her bag under control: purse and camera in the front pocket; glasses in the middle; pen and paper and all the other crap in the back. Stephen, in charge of map reading, tickets and navigation, remains sceptical !  Libby is in charge of food, all beverages, washing, rubbish recycling and small change.  We share the digital camera, and Stephen takes some photos on the iPhone as well. (Later, we will have problems merging the photos due to the different time stamps in these two devices)

Kyoto (May 14, 2015) 

Another warm sunny day, so we set out for Inari train station and walked up the hill to the Fushimi Inari Taisha - the temple of 10,000 steps. Undaunted, we climbed everyone of them by 10.15 am ! The bright orange torii (gates) many of which have dedication text engraved into them on behalf of the individual donors.  The paths led us up a mountain track with many shrines, and small temples dotted along the way. The stone pathway was solid and well built making the walking safe. There were numerous tiny eating /drinking shelters with low tables and lovely fabric cushions looking as if they had not changed in a century.

Back through Kyoto to the far western Hozukyo train station. We missed our stop, and had to get off, cross the tracks and back track to Arashiyama Station. This mistake only took minutes to redress .... We love the frequency of the Japanese trains !

We caught the  Scenic Railway Train to Oiwakecho that tunnelled though the valleys beside the Katsura river.  The boats travelling down the rapids looked interesting so we jumped in the queue. It was great fun and not as scary as it looked from the train - about 15 on the boat and 3 crew. Towards the end of the journey another boat came along side us selling drinks and cooking food. Lib tried the freshly bbqued octopus ... delish !

From the boat we walked up the hill to the bamboo forest. The area was relatively small with a hedged path through the middle.  We were a little disappointed not to be walking close among the bamboo, but it was still a charming experience.

Realising the time, and Libby's new found determination to fit in Ryoanji Temple into the schedule that afternoon, we got off a train to early and had to walk even further at speed.   Luckily, we made it in good time and were immediately calmed by the studied but gentle asymmetry of rock garden and the lakeside - very Zen.

2 trains back to Kyoto and home for a few G&T's, dinner in the Mall (7Eleven has the easiest reliable cash out facilities in Japan), visit to the female onsen for Libby and bed !!!

Organisation: Using trains in Japan is complicated by the number of train companies that have limited and complex interconnections. We purchased JR 14 day passes which got us most places in comfort, but occasionally the teller would smile and refuse the JR pass and insist that we buy a ticket from his company.

Kyoto - Takayama (May 15, 2015)

28C was forecast so Stephen (who prefers to be immobile at temperatures above 30) was glad to be heading north in air-conditioned comfort.

Caught the high speed Shinkansen Hikari Express from Kyoto to Nagoya then changed lines and headed on to Takayama. Rail staff always immaculately dressed. They enter the carriage and bow before politely checking tickets. They repeat the bow before leaving.
On leaving Kyoto small paddy fields parallel the track and are dotted amongst the houses. We notice no houses on the hillsides as they are too steep. After skirting Nagoya, the train winds up the Hida River valley towards Takayama, through numerous tunnels where the train had to slow down as we climbed into the mountains and frequent dams and hydro-electric installations. The mountain sides are a rich tapestry of varied greens - great stands of cypress, cedars, spruce and a variety of deciduous plantations.

On the train the digital message reads: Please switch your mobile off when you are near the priority seats ( old, disabled, pregnant ) and switch to silent and refrain from talking while on the train. And for the most part people obey ! It's great. You don't hear phones ringing or people's inane conversations as you travel.

Arrived at Takayama and walked a short distance to Takayama Ouan Hotel with very nice room on the 5th floor. Off to discover the town. Walk along the streets, lined with lovely restored old houses now shops selling to tourists. Stopped for Stephen to try a beef bun and beer in new business. Yukky bland mince but he liked the sweet bun !

Visited the Takayama Jinya, which was a branch office of the government from 1692-1868. It was a fantastic building with offices, waiting, court, resting and conference rooms. The rice store house was very interesting.

Takayama Jinya
On to a bizarre eclectic Shōwa-kan Museum (map), recommended by the Lonely Planet filled with the most eclectic collection of the mundane to the weird from the 20th C. Well worth the visit.

Shōwa-kan Museum (map)
Libby visited the Yoshijima Heritage House, a traditional town house architecture of Takayama, built in 1907 by a master carpenter. Very restful and beautiful.

Then onto the Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall, a museum that houses fabulously ornate vehicles used in the local parades. Adjacent is the Sakurayama Hachiman-gū Shrine - a temple beautifully perched over looking the town so we had a look around and enjoyed the view.

A delicious meal in a great Japanese restaurant 千年の宴 高山駅前店 where we sat at the bar and ate a lovely stir fry and tempura, accompanied by lots of sake then "home"!

Takayama (May 16, 2015)

Gourmet breakfast at our hotel restaurant and then a short walk to the bus stop to join our only organised tour for this trip: a day in Ainokura and Shirakawago. We had a sweet Japanese guide with good English and display diagrams !
The Tōkai-Hokuriku Expressway has many tunnels - the longest, the Hida Tunnel is 11 km !!!   The Expressway followed the Shogawa river, and was very picturesque with the mist on the mountain slopes speckled with such a variety of green trees in the gentle drizzle of rain.

After passing 17 hydro electric dams we arrived at the very small National Historical village of Ainokura.  The 20 gassho-zukuri houses, built in the period from the end of the Edo period to the Meiji period, (100-200 years old) the oldest date back to the 17th century.
The area is also famous for its Sarubobo dolls. Women make them during the winter months, different colors representing fertility, fortune, good health, wisdom, wealth etc.
We walked around the village, visited the Folklore Museum and then a panic run - before the bus left - up the hill to get a view of the village. 
The bus then wound through the valleys and then delivered us in front of Syokudo and Teishoku Restaurant. where we hasd a delicious lunch. The table looked superb and as we entered they lit our individual burners to cook our fish and a selection of beautiful and tasty treats.

The restaurant location is selected for its superb view over Shirakawago.  The bus then took us down the hill to a museum village of about 30 buildings. We watched a video of house construction methods used in these villages. Crossing the cable bridge over the Shogawa river, we wandered through Shirakawago and were lucky enough to see a house being re thatched by about 60 men. Re-thatching is only needed about every 15 years due to the immense thickness of the thatch. With shared community labour they can usually complete it in a couple of days.

At the end of the day, we got back "home" to our Takayama Hotel and raced to the 13th floor for the private roof top onsens. Stephen did NOT enjoy the experience ! He lasted about 2 minutes in the very hot water, unable to enjoy the view of the city through the window ! Both the mens and the womens onsens have communal bathing and an outdoor pool as well. Libby loved it ! G&T's then back to last nights restaurant.  When you're on a good thing - stick to it.  As returning customers, we were rewarded with our own cubicle and a privacy blind.

Takayama - Shirakawago (May 17, 2015)

On our last day in Takayama, we walked through town to the daily market along a canal where about 100 stalls sold fresh and packaged foods and simple crafts.
On our way home Libby's search for trinkets that would fit in the suitcase was rewarded with some sweet little dishes and ceramic spoons !
After checkout, we took the normal commuter bus back to Shirakawago.  Repeating the journey was not a waste as the day was warm, sunny and clear so the greens of the forest glistened down the valley views.
Again over the iconic cable bridge - this time with suitcases - to our hosts gassho-zukuri house called Furusato.  (Booking this accommodation had required the help of a Melbourne Japanese acquaintance because the website communication was almost completely in Japanese.  It was well worth the effort !).  The house interior had the feel of an ancient ski lodge.  The rooms were traditionally basic and clean (as everything seems to be in Japan). Sliding doors and walls of paper panels; woven floor mats; a lovely wooden table with a traditional tea setting and 2 flat cushions. One very low chair sits in the corner as if a concession to European inflexibility.  We settled down to soak in the ambience with green tea for two and a rest.

Walking around the village and the forest behind the village up the slopes felt completely different and so much more peaceful and unhurried as "residents" rather than day tourists.

At dinner time, we were invited into the communal eating area where all courses of each guests meal were arranged precisely in a tray before them. It looked beautiful and very inviting. So many small bowls filled with tastes of mostly local produce. Rice, tofu, salted fish, tempura vegetables; octopus, pickled tofu and vegetables, miso soup, cold cooked vegetables, fresh ginger and pickled radish and a burner cooking beef, sprouts and mushrooms. All washed down with a bottle of sake and green tea ! Could not have been better !  Again, the scrupulous cleanliness of the Japanese gave us (especially Stephen) the confidence to eat things that would not have been touched in another time and place.

An after dinner sunset walk to the river before learning how to sleep on thin futon style mattresses, two doonas and a very weird pillow filled with pieces of short plastic tubing.(which we assumed was the health department replacement for ancient rice husks )

Shirakawago - Takayama - Toyama (May 18, 2005)

Up at 5.30 for a peaceful, cool walk around the village as it awoke. Hardly a soul in sight as the contemplative sound of the Bonshō bell drifted down the valley.  Back to bed for a pre-breakfast nap needed after a night of futon learning activities.

Breakfast was a different but also delightful feast of many things that we would have never thought of eating: a different miso, cold poached egg, cold pickled vegetables, tofu, a burner cooking a mix of soya bean paste, bean shoots and little tofus, sweet yogurt, a little pattypan of sweet bean and seaweed, tiny fresh croissants, green tea ..... such a smorgasbord !  Another difference was the TV rather incongruously chirping away in the corner.

Checked out and walked up the hill to the restaurant with the view that already felt like such a distant experience !  On our way back, we passed a funeral in progress and paused for a time soaking in the strangeness.

Bus to Takayama. Swapped our booked seats for new ticket on an earlier train (JR passes can often make train travel so easy !).
The train journey down the mountains along the rivers gave us a rich variety of views: lush vegetation; fruit trees propped up by umbrella like structures, rich textures of the varied tree species; vibrant spring annuals and perennials on the sides of roads and rail - daisies, aquilegias, hollyhocks, forget-me-nots, snap dragons, poppies, many self seeded in veggie patches and along the road side. Many people were busy planting summer vegetables: tomatoes, aubergines, onions, beans in the rich soil. As we went down towards the northern plains, the rice in paddies and the vegetables in gardens were more developed than in the colder alpine weather.
Toyama houses look bland and suburban, most with individual plots of veggies. The city centre is a hub for business people and tourists going to A to B just like us. There was no standout "must see" so we rested in our room in Toyama Comfort Hotel, which is very close to the station. Toyama is a coastal town famous for seafood but the first 3 restaurants would not admit us as we didn't speak Japanese ! We ended up eating in the Dragon Red River Chinese Restaurant above the train station. Libby had a tasty dish of garlic soft shell crab and prawns, all covered with a topping of crispy breadcrumbs ... very weird ! An exciting experience in Toyama was losing each other for about 30 minutes and realising the limitations of having only one phone.

Toyama - Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route - Matsumoto (May 19, 2015) 

Up and at the Dentetsu-Toyama Station by 5.40am, ready for our mountain crossing on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route !  Unfortunately, the weather was raining lightly and very foggy.  We sent our cases on ahead via rail and caught the train to Tateyama where we started our journey across the mountains using many types of transport.  The first leg was a steep 10min cable car ride to Bijodaira.

Then an hour in a bus snaking up hairpin bends. (Not for the travel sensitive stomach !) The climate had changed to mid-winter with snow at least a metre deep and beautiful tall cyprus, birch and spruce trees.  The short distance was mysterious and beautiful, but the mountain views were blocked by cloud and sleet.   We did spy the Shōmyō Falls in the distance, the largest waterfall in Japan. A colour video played constantly on the bus showing us what we were not seeing out the window !

At 2450m, we reached Murodo Station and alighted. The short walk to the "snow wall" in the driving sleet was a great challenge - but worth it.  Sought the comfort of the tea room of the 5 star Hotel Murodo Tea House, the highest hotel in Japan and had an expensive but delicious 'sandwich and coffee set' allowing us to make the place our home for an hour hoping for the weather to clear.

Eventually, we gave up on the west side of the mountain and jumped on the 10min trolley bus through the Tateyama tunnel to the other side of the mountain.  Then onto the Tateyama Ropeway from Daikanbo to Kurobedaira took only 7 minutes and the decline was impressive. We decided to wait here and took photos looking back up the mountains and down to the dam, hoping the clouds would clear AND THEY DID !
After about an hour the visibility had really improved and we reshot lots of photos before a 5 minute cable car ride to Kurobeko Station   beside the Kurobe Dam wall.

The roads, tunnels and cables we used that day were mainly created for the construction of the hydro-electricity scheme based on the Kurobe Dam. 171 people died during the construction of the tunnel.

The sun was shining now and the mountains looked really beautiful. We walked across the dam wall and Stephen walked up to a really high observatory point that Libby was unable to cope with ! Too scared Debbie !

The final leg of our "Roof of Japan" trip was a trolley bus to Ogizawa Station.  We then bought bus tickets to Omachi where we rejoined our cases, bought gin and caught a train to the metropolis of Matsumoto and checked into our room at the Richmond Hotel. Big Day! - but fun.

In Matsumoto, we were rewarded for following Lonely Planet advice with dinner at Robata Shōya (Izakaya) Restaurant: a lively robatayaki, that grills a wide range of seafood, chicken, meats and mountain delights right in front of you. We selected chicken, fresh fish, leeks and potatoes for the young chef to cook for us and sunk some sake and wine while we watched. A delightful and entertaining meal.

Matsumoto (May 21, 2015) 

Woke up to a beautiful morning gazing out to the seven great peaks to the west from our room.  Complimentary breakfast in the cafe next door and home to wait for our washing to finish before we start work.
First call was Matsumoto Castle, the oldest wooden tenshu (donjon tower) in Japan. We accepted the offer of a Goodwill Voluntary guide, a retired engineer with excellent English and a very engaging style. Although the original castle has been destroyed, much time, money and effort has gone into the restoration. The magnificent three-turreted donjon was completed around 1595, in contrasting black and white, leading to the nickname Karasu-jō (Crow Castle). Steep steps lead up six storeys, with impressive views from each level. Lower floors display guns, bombs and gadgets with which to storm castles, and a delightful tsukimi yagura (moon-viewing pavilion).  A tranquil moat full of carp surrounds the castle with the occasional swan gliding beneath the red bridges.

Despite the 28 degrees, on to the Former Kaitchi School, built by Seijyu Tateishi who was the president of the carpenters association in Matsumoto. It was used as an elementary school, a junior high, a women's school and a technical college for teachers. The original building was located on the Metoba River but relocated in 1963/4 to its current location in town and is now a museum and a great example of Meiji period architecture.

It was so hot we decided on a taxi ride to the Museum of Art, a very modern building with an interesting collection of Japanese artists, many from Matsumoto depicting scenes of the surrounding countryside. Highlights included the striking avant-garde works of Yayoi Kusama, especially the Infinity Mirrored Room. Her work is amazing !

Home for a rest. We were unable to find the restaurant Libby had chosen for dinner so decided upon one close by that turned out to be Korean ... worst meal ever ! We left ASAP and walked home via a convenience store and purchased some cakes and chocolate to have with coffee in our room !

Matsumoto - Hotaka - Matsumoto (May 22, 2015) 

Off to Hotaka to visit a Wasabi farm.  First came the train, leaving the suburbia of Matsumoto and travelling north into flat rice paddies.  The valley narrowed as we went north so the mountains get closed and more beautiful on each side.  We could see the mountains that we had crossed a couple of days before ! Mid twenties and sunshine completed the idyllic picture.

We hired bikes just near to the station and after a careful start relaxed into the slow rhythm of bike tourism along suburban streets; past small houses with healthy little vegetable plots and lots of self sown spring flowers; snow capped mountains making the perfect back drop. One of those occasion when we were continuously smiling and chuckling at our good fortune.

The Daio Wasabi farm started in 1917 and now has 15 acres of wasabi under shade cloth cover. It is free and open to the public with lovely paths, shrines, sculptures and quaint kiosks dotted around the property. The wasabi needs to be constantly washed by pure clean water so water from the local river is diverted right through the farm beds which are arranged on mounds in a herringbone pattern to allow the water to spread the flow.  The plant stem is eaten. Even the wasabi ice cream was delicious !
We rode our bikes back along a different route and eventually returned to town reluctantly parting with our bikes...
The train returned us to Matsumoto where we enjoyed a lunch of lovely quiches and pastries at Vie de France, a chain here in Japan. The quality of food within railway stations continues to delight us. Yum !
Walked around Matsumoto visiting the Genchi Well, the Timepiece Museum (barely worth a visit) and Nakamachi Street which features very attractive black and white geometric designed architecture and gorgeous shops. "Home" for rest and relaxation.

Last Meal in Matsumoto returning to Robata Shōya (Izakaya) Restaurant varying the choice to squid, leeks and aubergines. Stephen stuck to more familiar chicken skewers and potatoes. A charming Japanese local bought us a grilled asparagus dish as he couldn't bare to think of us leaving without tasting it.  libby thought it was delicious.

Matsumoto -Tokyo (May 23, 2015)

Breakfast of eggs and toast, juices and coffees in the cafe next up the hotel followed by the 3 hour train trip back to Tokyo.  At last we had a glimpse of a distant Mt Fuji through the windows. More lush vegetation, paddy fields and lots of grapes fruit trees with their branches proped up like umbrellas. Wide flat fertile valleys enjoying a warm sunny day.

Booked into the Grand Arc Hanzomon enjoying a lovely view of the river, the Tokyo Tower and the Emperors Palace's gardens from the 10th floor.  Confident in the Tokyo transport system and in the iPhone Google Maps, we went to the rather obscure The Omiya Bonsai Village Museum in the very outer suburb of Saitama, using about 5 different trains.  Stephen's navigational skills are amazing. The bonsais were fascinating and some of them truly beautiful. Indoor photography was restricted for some silly reason!
Back to our hostel for a drink and rest.

We then returned to Harajuku but there were again no great collection of weirdo adolescents that we had hoped for.  A Chinese restaurant close to our hotel caught our eye.  The food was delicious but we were a little shocked by the raucous and loud behaviour of the Chinese businessmen compared to the very reserved Japanese we had most frequently been dining with.

Tokyo (May 24, 2015)

We returned to Tsukiji Fish Market, after a leisurely and elegant breakfast in the hotel.  At about 10:30am the market was in full swing.  We were not disappointed.  It was just fantastic, weird and wonderful produce, much of which was still alive, mostly contained in polystyrene boxes. The diversity was amazing. In many ways this more accessible part of the market is more fascinating than the brief tuna auction many hours earlier in the day.

A comfortable 25 degrees encouraged us to make the most of our last hours, and we subwayed north to the Museum of Nature and Science.
The displays were beautifully presented, very well lit and easy to understand even with very little English explanations. We chanced upon a a trio playing 3 beautiful pieces in an open space in the museum - a harpsichord, a viola and a lovely young man playing two different recorders. It was a real serendipitous treat.

Next on the list was the Imperial Palace East Garden which is free to the public. The gardens are HUGE and while Stephen rested Libby raced around trying to to soak in as much of the beauty as possible ! It was a real treat.

Back to the hotel, collect luggage and our final train trip to the Narita airport.

Purchased our duty free grog and then had a celebratory drink to a wonderful trip.

Farewell to:

  • modest, well groomed, polite, helpful people often wearing face masks
  • weird but interesting food that is beautifully presented including the bento box and a multitude of high quality pre-packaged food at every railway station and convenience stores
  • to the literally hundreds of shops we saw that sold beautifully packaged sweets and biscuits that seem to be a very common and courteous gift for family and friends for ANY occasion
  • to taking off our shoes numerous times each day in shrines and museums etc
  • every toilet being clean, always with bidet/ wash function and the possibility of an electrically heated seat and even musical accompaniment - whether it be at a railway station, a tourist venue or the middle of nowhere
  • the pristine lush country side that is uninterrupted by useless signage, litter or graffiti
  • a very punctual, although somewhat tricky to navigate railway system where many people sleep or play on their phones but RARELY talk. They leave carriages and restaurants to speak outside.
Japan we love you.

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