Ah, Japan, you crazy, wonderful country…

One thing I’ve discovered about myself on this trip is that I love cities. I always thought I was more of a country boy (and don’t get me wrong, I love to get away from it all), but some of the cities we’ve visited on our trip have blown me away. Bangkok is a brilliant full on attack on your senses; Saigon was as friendly as a big city gets; Hanoi is dripping in fascinating, tragic history; Hong Kong was in equal measures infuriating and amazing. But there’s a new daddy in town, and his name is Tokyo…

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Godzilla on the loose, yet folk still patiently wait to cross the road πŸ™‚

We landed in Tokyo quite late and, having collected our bags, headed to one of the trains into the city itself. Initially the Japanese rail system can be pretty baffling – there are different companies that operate on different lines, but once you’re used to it, it’s pretty simple to navigate (if, like us, you’re using a JR Pass, I’d recommend planning journeys using the Hyperdia website – just make sure that in the ‘More Options’ bit you uncheck the ‘Nozomi’ Shinkansen (bullet train) option and the ‘Private Railway’ and it’ll bring up routes you can use the JR Pass on. Confusingly, you’re allowed on some bullet trains but not others – the main ones you can’t use are the Nozomi ones (which are the fastest, grrr!), but you can use lots of the others like the Hikari, which are still impressively-fast (more info here on what the pass allows you to use). One last hint about the JR Pass is to MAKE SURE YOU BUY IT BEFORE YOU ARRIVE IN JAPAN! Currently you can’t actually purchase it once you arrive in Japan (though I believe they’re looking at changing this) and you have to have a physical purchase voucher in your hand to exchange for the pass once you arrive in Japan. Oddly, you can’t have this voucher emailed to you; you have to have it delivered, or (as I did in a mad dash across Hong Kong on the morning of our flight to Tokyo) go to purchase the voucher direct from an authorised agent. This system is something JR should really look at updating & they should also make it so you can use your pass in the automatic station gates, rather than having to show it at the gate everytime.Β These are small niggles though. The JR Pass is expensive (our 14 day ones cost the equivalent of approx US$440 – luckily we purchased before ‘Brexit’ so it didn’t feel even more expensive to us Brits!), but it still easily saved us money on buying individual tickets.

As soon as the airport train arrived, I really felt like I was in Japan…

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Photo credit: http://www.blog.gaijinpot.com

Yes we were riding our own private (no-one else aboard!) spaceship! It whisked us into Tokyo in double quick time and before we knew it we were squeezing onto an insanely-packed city train to our last stop.

I’d heard stories of Japanese rail staff being employed to actually stuff people onto trains and now I believe it. There were no ‘stuffers’ on our train, but we did have the entertainment of a pretty drunk local bloke taking a running jump onto the train as the doors closed πŸ™‚

Once we arrived, we quickly got lost trying to find our hotel. It was gone midnight and we were really struggling until a local lad asked us if we needed help, then found the hotel on his phone and walked us all the way there – what they say about Japanese manners is true: I’ve never been anywhere so polite and welcoming.

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Welcome to Tokyo!

We had a brief day in Tokyo before jumping on the brilliant Shinkansen to Kyoto. Travelling by bullet train is a revelation – it’s fast, quiet (no chatting on the phone!) and you have masses of leg room – airlines could seriously learn something here. Before we knew it, we’d arrived and were jumping into one of Japan’s immaculate taxis. Most of them seem to be pretty old Toyotas, but they seem to be in the same condition that they must have been when they left the factory. The drivers are unfailingly polite and wear suits, ties and white gloves – it’s like having your own chauffeur!

If you like temples, then Kyoto is the place for you – it’s packed full of beuatiful old buildings. The two places I really wanted to visit were Fushimi Inari Shrine and the famous Bamboo pathway. We did these on two seperate days, getting to both early and it was really worth it to beat the crowds (which later on were huge) and have the places pretty much to ourselves…

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The gates at Fushimi Inari – each one is owned/sponsored by a family or business.

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We loved it here at the Bamboo pathway πŸ™‚

Sadly, for much of our time in Kyoto it chucked it down, so our exploring was curtailed a little bit, but we did manage to spot a few geishas around the place (or folk dressed up as them, at least…)

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Another real highlght of our time in Japan was taking the train from Kyoto to Sonobe to meet up with Nobuo and Miyoko, who are part of a family I’d befriended while on a family holiday in York when I was a child. The families have kept in contact with cards and letters each Christmas, so it was great to be able to see them again after all these years. We had a day in Miyama, an old village packed with traditional thatched houses and also had a traditional lunch sat around a fire pit – a great experience!

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Thatched house in Miyama

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Nobuo, Miyoko, Lisa & I

The following day, Lisa and I took an altogether different trip, taking the train from Kyoto to Hiroshima. Aside from the Atomic Bomb Dome and various memorials and museums, you’d never suspect the devastation that was unleashed here. The rebuilding of the city began quite quickly as the bomb was detonated 600m above the ground, which meant the radiation dispersed and returned to safe levels very quickly. What truly shocked me was the horrors endured by the survivors, or perhaps I should say those who survived the initial blast. It’d be a good idea to force the leaders of all countries with nuclear weapons to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum together – maybe it’d knock some sense into them.

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The iconic Atomic Bomb Dome – as you can see the city has built up around it.
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There is a children’s peace memorial here too – school classes visit to sing songs of peace.

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The Peace Museum is an essential part of any visit to Hiroshima (and I’d say any visit to Japan). Its displays are in parts harrowing – scorched clothing, photographs of some of the after-effects, actual pieces of skin and fingernails that, for the want of a better phrase, ‘fell off’. No matter what you think the rights and wrongs of the attacks here and in Nagasaki, it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of the victims were civilians, with a high proportion of those being children and teenagers. As I said earlier, it’d certainly be a worthwhile exercise to gather all the leaders of countries with nuclear weapons here and make them read and listen to the stories of those who were on the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you do visit the museum, I’d really recommend getting the audio guide so that you can listen to some of the first hand accounts of what occurred here.

On a (much) lighter note – I did discover in Hiroshima a great shop where I was able to amuse myself while Lisa was looking at clothes πŸ™‚

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BEST. SHOP. EVER.

The next day took us to Takayama, a smallish town popular with tourists due to its preserved old streets. Undoubtedly pretty, I was a little disappointed with the place, although our morning spent in Shirakawago was great. The sun came out and we could explore this gorgeous village – I think the thing I liked best was the streams of crystal-clear water running along side the streets – they actually had huge fish in them, koi carp I think!

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Shirakawa = bootiful
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Us and Sarubobo πŸ™‚
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They look delighted to meet Boz

I’d love to see Shirakawago in the winter as it looks like THIS…

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Photo credit: http://www.shutupandtakemethere.com

From Takayama it was back aboard the train for some days exploring Tokyo, including a trip out to Kawaguchiko to see if we could catch a view of Mount Fuji. We were lucky: the sun came out and we could see most of the notoriously cloud-covered mountain/volcano…

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We missed blossom time in Japan, but caught lavender mania!
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Mt Fuji from outside our hotel πŸ™‚

Our final few days in Japan were all about Tokyo. I LOVE TOKYO! It’s bonkers, crazy, polite, eccentric, exciting, super-clean and really friendly. We’ve never been anywhere like it and I already want to go back πŸ™‚ Here’s some of the highlights…

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Shin-kan-sen, and the crowds say train-selecta
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I would hate this job.
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REALLY hate this job.
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Shibuya Junction – it’s famous innit.
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They’d sold out of Tamagotchis! Boz = livid. Luckily there was plenty of tat for her to buy at the Pokemon store. Pokemon 1 – Tamagotchi 0
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Just your normal everyday attire in Tokyo…

I think our abiding memory of Japan will be a blissful feeling of utter bewilderment: the place is full of contradictions. On the one hand, everyone we met was unfailingly polite, yet the subway companies often have to provide women only carriages to prevent groping. The people seem to be very reserved, yet pornography is sold all over the place (including in one shop, the shockingly-titled ‘Rape them all’!!!). As you walk around Tokyo, you’re just as likely to see a stuffy-looking businessman as you are to see someone dressed as Mario zooming around on a go-kart. That’s the thing about Japan – it just doesn’t make sense and it’s all the better for it – long may it continue πŸ™‚

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I WANT TO DO THIS! (photo credit: hungryforpoints.img.boardingarea.com)

JK

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