Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Japan October 2016

3 October 2016, APA Hotel, Ueno, Tokyo

As our flights had been very cheap, we had treated ourselves to seats with extra leg room (poor man’s business class). Thus, the flight was quite comfortable, plus we found our hotel easily, always a bonus when arriving late at night.

The weather has been a different experience for us from previous visits to Japan in October. It is rainy and hot today, with a typhoon threatening in the south. We slipped back into the “Asian shuffle” to avoid the oppressive heat and to settle in, did the rounds of a few of our favourites - Harajuku, the Meiji gardens and temple and, of course, the bright lights of Akihabara (Electric Town).

4 October, APA Hotel, Ueno, Tokyo

Having done all our favourite Tokyo things yesterday, we were a bit over the city so decided to visit Yokohama, 30 minutes away by train. We had stopped in Yokohama on a previous trip, just for a bit of a walk about and were left a bit non-plussed. Perhaps we should have given the city more of a chance.

Yokohama and nearby Kawasaki were local trading ports up until the arrival of the “Black Ships” of Commodore Perry in 1853. The use of the word “Black” does not necessarily have anything to do with the intent of the US Fleet. Ships of that era were wooden and sealed with tar. As well, the steam ships pumped black smoke into the air. However, within a few years, the good folk of Yokohama and indeed, Japan as a whole, were probably ascribing darker meanings to the term “Black Ships”. By then, the usual flock of Western traders had arrived and virtually colonized the port of Yokohama. It wasn’t all bad though. Condensing several decades of history into one sentence; the port prospered, land was reclaimed, a war was fought over opium and Japan was rapidly modernised.

The legacy of this history and the more modern destruction of the city, firstly by a major earthquake in 1923 and then by an air raid by 517 B29 bombers on 29 May 1945, has been the spacious, well-planned city that is present day Yokohama.

We had planned several museum visits, but were foiled by the fact that Tuesday is the closing day in Yokohama of many of its museums. Serious disappointment! Our highlight was to have been the “Cup Noodles” museum. While we did score the fantastic Museum of Modern Art and the Maritime Museum, what would have been a great day by the bay was sheer hell weather-wise. The sun shone, the wind was calm, the temperature hovered around 32C and the humidity was a killer. The port area attractions are well worth the trip down from Tokyo and easily accessible by foot. There is a circle bus, but buses are difficult to manage without Japanese language skills, so we staggered on through the seriously tropical heat. It is October!! What the…!

5 October, Wing International Hotel, Nagoya

We are starting to wonder whether we just keep coming back to Japan because we like riding on fast trains. We have spent much of our time so far on this trip riding the rails. The Shinkansen route south to Nagoya is one we have taken before, but we still marvel at the almost constant string of cities that line the 300 plus kilometres from Tokyo to Nagoya. The Shinkansen on this line leave every 8 – 10 minutes. They are always packed with up to 1500 passengers. Some of the fools back in Australia who think they can build efficient high-speed railways between east coast cities, need to spend some time here in Japan or in China to see just how great a population density is required to make such an enormous investment viable.
Nagoya is Japan’s third largest city. It also has the world’s largest railway station by area. Not as daunting as it may sound, because most of it is shops!

The typhoon remains a threat, so the hot and humid weather is still with us. We have stayed here before and we think we visited its castle, but we are really only in Nagoya because Kyoto’s hotels are very expensive this weekend. With an afternoon to kill, we visited the Nagoya Science Museum and Planetarium. Great decision. We hadn’t ever been to a planetarium, so we forked out the extra 300 yen for the experience. Even though the commentary was in Japanese, we got the general drift and the visuals were spectacular. The rest of the afternoon we played with the exhibits on the six floors of this great museum.

It is five years since our first visit to Japan. Then, English was not widely spoken, except in hotels and tourist attractions. That wasn’t a major problem for us as we have learned the value of the point and smile method of communication. Progressively over the years and three more trips, a lot of this has changed. Most Japanese we encounter speak enough English to help us get by. As always, we feel guilty, being unable to speak only a few words of Japanese, but it is so relaxing not to have to worry about communicating.

6 October, Wing International Hotel, Nagoya

Still hot today, but the humidity has dropped away from the South-East Asian levels we have had so far. Today was one of the clearest days we have ever experienced in Asia, with the bluest of blue skies and almost unlimited visibility.

We are still treading over old ground, attempting to see anything we may have missed on previous trips. We couldn’t remember which of Kyoto’s many temples and palaces we had visited before so we just headed off on one of the Tourist Loop buses and hoped for the best.

Kyoto has a magnificent bus network which, once you get used to it, is cheap and efficient. A day pass is 500 yen (about $7 at current rates). There is a subway as well, but the buses seem to better serve the major sights. As it turned out we managed one new sight out of the three we selected - the beautiful Kinkaku, Golden Temple. Paul had made a model of the temple on his Japanese-themed railway layout, but we had never seen it.

This coming weekend is a long weekend with a public holiday on the Monday. We had been alerted to this when we tried to book hotels in popular spots like Kyoto and Hiroshima. Hotel prices were through the roof, often ten times the normal rate. We dodged the problem and the additional cost, by staying in less popular cities near the tourist “hot spots”. Nagoya is just 40 minutes by Shinkansen from Kyoto. We have planned the same thing for our visit to Hiroshima, booking a couple of nights in nearby Fukuyama. We were pretty proud of our “cunning plan” until we went to reserve Shinkansen tickets for the next few days. “Sorry, Sir. All booked out!” We were not too concerned, as we knew we had some options but, on reflection, decided to try again when we got back to Nagoya. This time the booking clerk was a little more creative and, under a little pressure from us, managed to re-schedule and confirm reservations for what is looming as a very busy weekend.

8 October, AreaOne Hotel, Fukuyama

On this trip, we have been struggling to discover new places that might interest us. We had planned to re-visit Hiroshima from Fukuyama as a day trip. Instead, we opted for a day trip to the little known village of Tomo-no-ura.

The bus trip through the burbs of Fukuyama was less than inspiring. The decades-long decline in the Japanese economy is really showing in smaller cities like Fukuyama. Buildings and infrastructure are very run-down and even private houses, generally well kept in Japan, are getting a bit dilapidated here.

Tomo-no-ura was a bit of a find. Just as advertised, it was a traditional fishing village that took us back to what Japan may have been like before the war. The village smelt of fish, sea hawks swooped over the boats moored at the fish processing factory and, best of all, there were very few people about - a real “Last of the Summer Wine” experience, complete with an older gentleman sitting at the harbour, watching the world go by. After a few temples and the local Historical Museum, the heat and humidity began to get to us, so we took a bus back to Fukuyama in time for a late lunch.

9 October, Tottori City Hotel, Tottori

A long and, as it turned out, expensive day on the trains today. We decided some weeks back to visit the western coast of Honshu, partly because it was one of the areas we had not visited before and also because it is a bit off the beaten track. We have become very confident travelling in Japan and have begun to enjoy finding more isolated spots. Tottori is probably well-known in Japan, but it is well off the normal tourist route for non-Japanese. Our train journey to get here was not a terribly difficult one to organise and all was going well until the conductor on our second leg north from Okayama asked for our tickets. We had what we thought were the correct tickets but, as it turned out, part of the line from Okayama to Tottori is not JR, so our passes weren’t valid for the whole journey. No great drama, nothing ever is in Japan, but we had to fork out an extra $50 for the trip!

Both Tottori and Fukuyama are fairly small cities by Japanese standards and the usual press of people on the streets is non-existent. “Sleepy” just doesn’t do it as a descriptor in comparison to larger Japanese cities; it is more like “Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio.” Best of all, other than locals, there are no tourists.

We have been using local buses a bit lately and, though we normally shy away from buses in Japan in favour of trains and subways, we are starting to get the hang of it. The most difficult part of using buses is knowing when to get off, followed closely by how to get back to your starting point. Add to this, the issue of knowing what the fare is and you can see why we favour trains. So far we haven’t been carried on past our destination and we have found our way home. We have even figured out the interesting Japanese system of paying as you get off the bus.

10 October, Tottori City Hotel, Tottori

Just when we thought we had the buses in Japan mastered, our over-confidence brought us undone this morning. On the excellent advice of the Tourist Information Office in Tottori, we were all set for a 20 minute trip out to the largest sand dunes in Japan. It doesn’t sound too exciting, a bit like visiting the largest Shinto shrine in Kalgoorlie, but you never know.

After a quick breakfast at a station cafĂ©, we bolted out to the bus station, having noticed that the special #0 bus for the dunes was about to depart. We made it with seconds to spare. The first sign of a possible problem was that there were only two people on the bus and this was a holiday weekend in Japan. After many maze-like turns through city back streets, our phone’s GPS maps showed that we were not heading for the dunes at all. Eventually, we found ourselves back at the station. Luckily, our bus was a special 100 yen city loop bus and the driver wasn’t interested in taking our fare when he understood our plight.

Fitted out with the right ticket and on the right bus, we eventually made it to the dunes. Wow! The crowds on the bus went wild - the Japanese do get very excited. We must admit, though, it was a spectacular sight, blue skies, golden sands, camels and a few palm trees. Where were we? Standing on the top of the dunes, we were equally stunned by the natural beauty and the thousands of Japanese walking, running and climbing on the dunes. It was like a giant ants’ nest, but boy were they having fun.

We don’t have as much interaction with the Japanese as we do with the locals of most other countries we have travelled in. Not because they are rude or unsociable, just because of the language barrier. It is rare to run into people who speak enough English to converse comfortably. Every now and then you’ll find someone who speaks good English, or they will seek you out, but is a fairly rare occurrence. Japanese we have met on our travels outside Japan tell us that most Japanese speak some English but that they lack confidence to speak to foreigners. We have found this to be fairly accurate. In shops, on the streets and in hotels, whenever we have sought help, people have understood us and communicated reasonably well. We think the main problem is accent.  Not ours. No not ours! We have often been told that we have very neutral English accents. The problem is that we are not attuned to heavily accented Japanese English. After many a confusing interaction with a train conductor or shop assistant, we later realise that they were attempting to help us in English. We just couldn’t get the accent.

Another cultural observation we have made on this trip is that Japanese culture is, deep down, still very conformist, regimented and committed to group outcomes rather than individual success. These easily manipulated characteristics had a frightening impact on Asia in the 1930s and 1940s and these directions are unimaginable in the Japan of the 21st century. But are they limiting creativity and the ability of Japan to solve some of its many economic problems?

On our first visit here, we were impressed with the industry, infrastructure and economic power of Japan. Five years on, things are fraying a little around the edges. The odd rusty pole, weeds in suburban streets and the homeless on station steps at night. Don’t get us wrong. We love Japan and we keep coming back, but sadly, decades of stagnation are beginning to show.

Later (much) same night…

Went searching for dinner on this holiday long weekend in Japan. Although it was National Health and Fitness Day, we succeeded in getting smashed with a couple of locals in a local pub just up the deserted main street of Tottori. We were looking for a cheap feed but, as it turned out, we happened upon a nice little bar with a bar tender who spoke a tiny bit of English to match our even smaller Japanese vocab. As chance might have it, there was a young woman at the bar who had better English than she thought and we were able to chat away despite the fairly frightening tally of our final food and bar bill! Nevertheless, just the sort of experience we continue to travel for.

12 October, Kanazawa Central Hotel, Kanazawa

As we have commented before, “in every life some rain must fall.” Yesterday was the time for it to fall on us! Our long trip from Tottori was fairly uneventful, except for being hit up again for the extra charge for travelling on a non- JR sector of the line. There are only a few of these and they are clearly stated on the JR Pass, but who reads the detail? The real “rain” was yet to hit!

After the usual back street wanderings, we found our hotel and with the confidence born of hundreds of hotel check-ins in foreign countries, we presented our passports and smiled our best “don’t ask us anything complicated” smiles. Consternation and near panic behind the counter, which in Japan translates to apologetic bowing and many “so sorry.. so sorrys.” We had a booking confirmation, but the hotel had no booking in our name.

In the end it transpired that a technical glitch in our booking agent, Agoda’s site had caused our booking to be cancelled. Never fear. Agoda has since felt the full wrath of dissatisfied travellers. A flurry of emails finally extracted an apology and a 15% discount on our next booking. We have to give full credit to the hotel staff. In a typical Japanese way, they helped solve the problem, absorbing all the blame themselves which was not at all the case, but it is their way.

The booking debacle had one positive outcome, we ended up in possibly the biggest room we have ever stayed in in Japan!

Kanazawa is the second largest city in Japan to have been spared destruction by US B29 bombers. Sixty-seven cities were fire bombed in 1945. The largest city to be spared was Kyoto. As it was spared, Kanazawa has some well-preserved old districts which we wandered around today, walking many more kms that we have in a long time. Sadly, the castle didn’t escape destruction, not by US bombs, but by fire. Today’s magnificent edifice was reconstructed progressively from the late 1990s. A modern reconstruction it may be, but it does capture the scale and grandeur of the original.

13 October, Montagne Hotel, Matsuyama

Getting near the end of our trip, we are once again “turning Japanese.” What grows on us more than anything else is the universal politeness and fantastic service. It is just so relaxing to know that whatever problem we might encounter, we can rely on it being resolved in the most civilised way imaginable. Our train connections today went with our now customary efficiency, delivering us to Matsuyama in the mid-afternoon. We only have one night here, so we needed to get checked-in and on our way to the local castle, yes another one, in this case one of only 12 original castles surviving in Japan.

Given our dramas in Kanazawa, we were a little tentative as we approached the front desk. All was good, in fact very good. Struggling with his English, the check-in clerk finally got the message across that we were to be up graded. Ok. Oh dear! What an upgrade. The biggest room we have ever seen in Japan, bigger even that a US motel room. It was difficult to leave our room to make our scheduled visit to Matsuyama Castle.

14 October, Unizo Inn, Nagoya

Japanese castles are a lot like European Cathedrals. Once you have seen a few you get the general idea, but still they always seem to pop up on the “must see” list. To be fair, both the cathedrals and the castles seem to offer something slightly different each time, mostly very slightly different!

Yesterday and today were devoted to castle chasing. Matsuyama castle, visited yesterday, has actually been partially rebuilt, but is quite spectacular nevertheless. Inuyama Castle was less exciting, but, as with many things in Japan, getting there is half the fun.

We decided to stay in Nagoya on our way back to Tokyo simply because hotels here are way cheaper than in other cities in the area. So today we spent many hours on trains. Matsuyama to Nagoya is one of the most scenic trips we have done in Japan. Most of the journey was through spectacular mountain scenery with small valley villages reminiscent of Switzerland. Rice harvest is in full swing and fields alternate between pure gold and straw coloured stubble. There is an early autumn tinge in the trees with the yellow capturing the bright sunshine.

Looking for something to fill in the afternoon around Nagoya, we happened upon the Inuyama castle, like Matsuyama, a National Treasure. To get to Inuyama we had to make a couple of local connections through Gifu, then Unuma, from where we walked to Inuyama to find the castle. Not a difficult task as it turned out, as it dominates the whole plain from a hill easily spotted from the station. The climb looked like a bit of a challenge from the station, but it turned out to be a gradual slope and a pleasant walk of a couple of kilometres through the near-deserted town and provided a fantastic view of the broad valley that it was built to dominate.

Back in Nagoya by 4:30pm, we had expected a major crush on the subway connecting us to our hotel. We had left our bags in a locker at Nagoya station, always a bit scary in big stations, not because of theft, but the worry of not being able to find the correct bank of lockers. All was good this time because we had spent a couple of nights here a few days ago and knew our way around the station and subway.

18 October, Home

Our last stop was the Kawasaki City Hotel, Kawasaki. Not because we had any great longing to visit the home of the motorbike of the same name, but because it had cheap hotel rooms. We dropped our bags at the not so fabulous Kawasaki Central Hotel and spent the afternoon exploring the city - read “window shopping.” While there don’t seem to be any major tourist type attractions in Kawasaki, it is an interesting city to people watch and it obviously has something to offer for young folk who were flooding into the city as we headed back to our hotel to do our final pack before heading off to the airport.

The “not so fabulous” Kawasaki Central wasn’t really that bad, just an average business hotel, but there was an upside for us, as it was Sunday, breakfast was served until 10:30 and checkout was 12:00. Just the thing to help kill our time before our 8:30pm flight.

We always seem to be in this position on our last day in Japan. Not game to travel too far away and right out of local things to do. We had read that the town of Narita was worth a visit for those transiting through the airport. The trains were a little tricky, but we took the NEX to the airport, dumped our bags in a locker and went back to Narita. What a great spot to kill an afternoon. The main street is full of old style Japanese shops and houses, most of which have been converted into restaurants, specialty and gift shops. There were heaps of traditional “street food” style places to grab a snack but sadly, we had had lunch. The focus of the town was a fairly large temple complex. Narita town is a highly recommended spot to kill time on that last afternoon in Japan, or on a long transit stopover. It took us roughly two hours all up from the airport and back, including a long slow stroll to the temple. The trains leave on the same line as the NEX, but they are not as regular as inner city trains, so we paid particular attention to the timetable. Anybody considering Narita as a stopover visit should have at least five hours, or for more comfort, a six hour stopover.

As usual we had left ourselves several hours’ leeway for our flight, but we were able to find a Lawsons in the terminal that dispensed beer at normal city prices and a great food court in which to consume it. We had again treated ourselves to “poor man’s business class seats”, so our return flight was also fairly comfortable.


This was our fifth trip to Japan and we are perhaps a little over it at the moment. While it is still a great place to visit, we have just about seen and experienced everything that we think would interest us. Having said this, we did find several new and exciting places and had some new experiences and really, that’s what travel is all about. One of us is more “over it” than the other, but there must be still a few hidden places yet to find and other grandchildren to treat to a Japan trip, so there is a high probability of yet another visit sometime in the future.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Who can resist a cheap flight?

After four trips to Japan over the past 4 years, we had no intention of returning. However, being weak and prone to sudden decision making, we snapped up the cheapest flights EVER to Tokyo, $400 return out of the Gold Coast. Add $50 each way for 'poor man's business class' ( extra leg room seats) we yet again find ourselves spending a good part of October in Japan.

This trip we have even less of a plan than usual, a couple of days in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima then, who knows? With a typhoon threatening southern Japan and Tokyo under an extreme temperature warning, (30C + and 90% humidity) it is probably a good thing that we are able to be a little flexible.

So, JR Pass in hand, backpacks loaded to the 7kg limit we are, as always prepared for almost anything...