Mini Japan Trip 2009

December 26, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Posted in General, Japan, museum, Out and About, Tourism, Travel | 1 Comment
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I relocated to the UK a few years ago, coming via Japan. At the time I did a bunch of touristy things.

This trip is only brief (with only 1 non airport related day) and so I spent most of the time hanging out with a few friends. Part of which was a return to Kamakura and the not so nearby – unless you have a car – Restaurant Marlowe. Which offers a range of interesting custard and non-custard cakes. The green tea one had a strong after taste of tea and the other flavours around the table were equally nice. The restaurant has a clear view over the Pacific and on a warm day you’d be able to sit outside and enjoy the moment.

All this eating and commuting didn’t stop me adding a few new additions to the list.

Miraikan – The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – This is one seriously cool museum. At least for the geeky amongst us. If you’re interested in health, food, robotics, the environment, space or new materials they’ve got you covered and there are probably other things I’m missing. These permanent exhibits cost 600Y and there is an additional fee for any other exhibitions.

There are lots of hands on activities but this could pose a problem during peak hours as I could imagine people getting frustrated at not getting the chance to play.

The information panels are almost all bilingual (Japanese and English) so learning could never be easier. Having said that I did not get the most out of this visit because I’d come straight after dropping my bags after a long sleepless night. So fatigue was definitely affecting my care factor. Nonetheless I could definitely see the value of this museum and all of the cool future tech.

Take the Yurikamome line (790Y one-way) from Shimbashi station and cross over the Rainbow Bridge (which also affords a nice view of the city).  About 15 minutes later you’ll get to the Telecom Center station and a 5 minute walk will have you at the museum. Unfortunately there’s not much else around (other than the Maritime Science museum that I didn’t go to), so if you’re pressed for time you may have to miss this one.

Mori Art Museum – is located in the new gleaming mixed use complex Roppongi Hills. Entry is 1500Y (varies on the exhibit) which is a bit pricey for an art gallery that is until you realise that you now have access to an almost 360 degree view of the city. It’s a magnificent vista with the chance to look out over the bay, the diminutive Tokyo Tower and Mount Fuji to name but a few highlights. Of course this will be influenced by the weather and the pollution levels.

For an additional 300Y you can go outside but unfortunately I was running a touch late so forgo this. I’m still quite happy with my view from the inside – except for the glare on a few pics.

The gallery itself has a rotating collection of special exhibits. Rather humourously when I visited they were looking at medicine and art, which included a large number of items on loan from London’s Science Museum and Wellcome Collection! So I’d had the chance to see many of these before. Did I get the most value for my money, probably not but you probably will. Make the most of it and grab a drink at the bar (no idea of the price – sorry!) and enjoy the view!

General Nogi’s Residence – One reason I was a bit pressed for time at the Mori building was because on my walk there I stumbled across the shrine for General Nogi (and his wife). They committed ritual suicide on the day of the Emperor’s funeral in 1912. The grounds are relatively small but well tended and it’s a nice break from the surrounding city.

All in all a quick and tiring (jet lag related) trip but it was good to come back, it felt almost natural and certainly great to see friends again!

Tokyo photos at Flickr.

Day 9 – Meiji University, Imperial Gardens, Metro Towers, Meiji Shrine, Ginza and Roppongi

June 11, 2007 at 4:00 am | Posted in Japan, Tokyo, Travel | 2 Comments
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Day 9, Wednesday, was hectic as I ran around Tokyo trying to cover off the last items on my list. Although my first item was a new entry – the Meiji University Museum. I’d only heard about this museum quite late as it didn’t appear in my Time Out Tokyo guide book, however in the Lonely Planet Pocket Tokyo guide Karen gave me it is given a brief description. The pitfalls of relying too much on one guide I suppose, thank you Karen! My main reason for going was to check out its crime section but I was pleasantly surprised by the range of archaeological content, including ancient Jomon period artefacts and belatedly post-Sakai kofun materials as well. Additionally they had some handicrafts but I skimmed through that area. The crime section largely focused on torture and misuse of official power during Japan’s medieval period and ended with a small cross comparison against similar means of coercion from Europe (for example Iron Maidens and the like). The latter element seemed a little defensive in nature but for the small space and the period of history it’s discussing it was a reasonable display on crime. I was disappointed that there wasn’t anything more recent in the collection – not in terms of torture – but rather the state of crime in the post-medieval period. At any rate there is a reasonable amount of English and these descriptions help to place the items into a broader context which was very useful. Given the space available, its lack of crowds and that it’s free mean it would be worth a visit – in many respects I feel I gained a better historical perspective of Japan after visiting this university museum than after going to the much hyped Tokyo National Museum. Although I’ve already complained about that institution.

After an early lunch I hopped back on the train to Tokyo station and the Imperial Palace East Gardens. These free gardens in the middle of Tokyo are a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle and are fine for a wander around or to look at some of the old fortifications but honestly I didn’t think they were particularly fantastic, just another garden (albeit large) to look through. I only hope that the Royal family’s private gardens on the other side are of a higher quality. In my humble opinion this is not a “must do” rather a “it’d be nice”. The Imperial Household offers guided tours (in Japanese) of the palace which you have to pre-book for, I did ponder this (despite the lack of Japanese) but chose not to due to time. In the end this was probably a good choice as I saw the tour group in the gardens and they were all old grandmas forced to wear these white plastic vest/bag things to show they were part of the official tour group.

Done with the gardens I jumped on another train, this time back to the other side of the city and Shinjuku and the Tokyo Metropolitan Towers. Getting to the towers from the station is remarkably easy with an underground path virtually the entire route, lots of English and quite a few travellators to ease your journey. Realistically, the only reason to go to the towers is for the free observatory floors (one in each tower). I chose the North tower (although you can do both if you’re particularly keen). Presumably on a rare clear day the skyline would be absolutely glorious but on a more normal overcast / polluted day it is merely excellent. You freely walk around the windows, comparing the view with the information board in front that shows prominent landmarks. To an extent I think it was a good idea to come here at the end of my trip to see all the places I had been (plus many I hadn’t), it helped to put the geographical experience into perspective. On the other hand at the beginning I wonder if it would have provided a sense of anticipation to all that my trip may offer. Perhaps next time I should go to the South tower upon arrival and return to the North tower on departure? The observatory deck also had a live singer, coffee shop (awful) and gift shop in case you got bored looking at the view.

Now done with the Towers I rushed back to Harajuku and my other Meiji of the day, the Meiji Shrine. Determined not to be beaten by a simple inability to read a map a few days ago I made it a mission to return and actually reach the shrine I had been to so many years ago. After leaving the station I made the two right turns that landed me almost at the entrance to the park and on the path to the shrine. So easy! I walked purposefully across the gravel and under the shaded and cool branches of the surrounds (a completely different atmosphere to the Imperial Gardens from earlier in the day). I ignored the other tourists but did stop occasionally to ponder whether something was a new addition or not. In any even I found my way to the Meiji Shrine without great difficulty and took the requisite number of photos, now feeling somewhat vindicated I walked quickly back to the station to get the next train to Ginza.  

There were two important reasons to come to Ginza today, the first was to check out the Sony Building and the other more important reason was to meet Miki for coffee and cake. First off, the Sony Building does not look particularly cool or innovative but that’s ok it was probably built in a different era. According to the official site and wikipedia it’s from the 60s. Last time I was in Tokyo it was closed so I was adamant I’d get in the door this time around and of course that was done without difficulty. Myself and a number of other interested foreign tourists (ie none of us had any intention of buying) walked through the various floors that made up the showroom. Much like in Akihabara I was oblivious to any new technology beyond what was obvious from the exterior and honestly I was surprised by the limited space and the lack of any “concept” items. Another oddity was the almost complete lack of presence for Sony’s own Playstation range. Is that an ominous sign?

At any rate the lack of anything momentous at the Sony Building meant I could get through it very quickly and try and find Miki. After a few phone calls back and forth we managed to meet and head towards this small French cafe, “Quil fait bon” and the 10 minute wait to be seated was well worth it. While the coffee was fairly average the cake was absolutely delicious. I had a green tea cake that was so light and easy to cut I am still drooling over the thought. One of my London goals is to find a bakery that equals or exceeds my Tokyo experience. While I will probably gain weight it will be well worth it and if you have a suggestion please let me know!

Saying farewell to delicious cake and a very cool friend I made my way to Roppongi to meet up with another awesome friend – jjag80 – where we ventured into the district and got some dinner before heading to a local pub for a few drinks and saying final farewells.

All in all a very busy day that ended rather satisfyingly with good food but also somewhat sad as I said goodbye to both Miki and jjag80.

At any rate my final full day in Tokyo was rapidly approaching.

Day 8 – Yokohama

June 10, 2007 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Japan, Travel, Yokohama | 2 Comments
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Tuesday had arrived and I took the train to Yokohama for a day trip to explore the city but more importantly to meet up with the awesome Miki. Unfortunately I had dressed for summer on a less than summer-y day. At any rate this did not deter us from hanging out and catching up. Admittedly, I am counting on Miki to point out when I’ve forgotten or made something up (hopefully you’re reading this despite the delays).

We made our way to the Minato Mirai 21 district from the station in our quest for that staple – food! After a bit of indecision we settled on a diner that specialised – if one can say that – on Yokohama’s cuisine through its various historic developments, with different parts of the restaurant themed to look like, for example an 19th century parlour. Feeling full after our meal we delayed heading outside due to poor weather and opted for coffee and people watching. While the atriums seem quite empty apparently this is anything but the case on weekends.

The sky now a little clearer we walked towards Yokohama’s famed Cosmo Clock Ferris Wheel. Unfortunately, due to bad weather it was not open. Instead we wandered down to the bay and checking out some of the shops along the way before looking out over the water.

Now it was onto some of Yokohama’s museums starting with the Port Opening Memorial Hall (Yokohama was one of the first ports forced open by Westerners). Not a lot is going on at this free venue (which appears to be largely used for conventions/meetings etc) but you can wander around and see some of the work that went into restoring the building after the great earthquake of 1923.

We walked from the Memorial Hall to the Yokohama Archives of History for some education in Yokohama’s and Japanese history. Using the former British Consulate building the Archives offers a good opportunity to learn about the city’s role in the opening of Japan through gun boat diplomacy and the subsequent impact of foreigners in the city during a turbulent period in Japanese history. There is quite a lot of English – to the point where I must admit I got bored of reading and started skimming. Nonetheless a very good effort on their part to explain the Japanese position to a non-Japanese.

By this stage we were on our way to Yamashita Park but decided to rest our feet and grab a coffee at the similar to but not quite Starbucks – “Excelsior Caffe“. This ended up being a good call as it started raining, luckily by the time we were done it had cleared up and off to the park we went. There were plenty of other people (mainly students) doing the same and everyone (us included) took many photos. While in the park we stopped by the Statue of the Girl with Red Shoes (follow the link and scroll down/ click the on page hyperlink to read the story).

From the park we walked into Yokohama’s extensive ChinaTown, sampling some street vendor food which helped top up our energy (earlier coffee aside) as we walked into one of the city’s tree-lined shopping streets (Miki when you get the chance let me know it’s name), later that evening it looked charming with the lights on throughout the leaves. At the end of the street while pondering the best route to the top of the bluff so we could look out over the bay we were approached by an old Japanese man who knew some English but spoke mainly to Miki and advised a suitable route. So off we went up the steep hill and arrived at the historic bluff (where the foreigners used to live during the period of unequal treaties) just before dusk settled. On the bluff’s main street you have historic European style buildings on one side and the foreigner’s graveyard on the other. During the day you are free to wander around the cemetery. Instead we detoured slightly to look at some of this historic buildings before retracing our steps to the lookout at the bluff. At this stage daylight was almost gone but this afforded the opportunity to view the twinkling neon and other lights from the skyline and bay area.

After making our way from the bluff we stopped by the massive Don Quixote discount store that sells everything from TVs to  shampoo and after stocking up on some essentials we walked back to Minato Mirai for some food. By this stage we were both pretty exhausted from all the walking and dinner consisted of us staring at food and languidly consuming it as we fought to stay awake. Of course eating a big meal helped enormously with this struggle. Nonetheless we pulled it off and managed to get back to the station and head our separate ways.

I know I would not have had as much fun in Yokohama without a local tour guide and friend but the city has plenty to offer the casual visitor as well and I know I have only touched the surface of what it has to offer, for example you may be interested in its Doll Museum.

Thank you Miki for a great day!

Day 7 – Shibuya, Asakusa, Ueno (again) and Roppongi Hills

June 10, 2007 at 8:30 pm | Posted in Japan, Tokyo, Travel | 1 Comment
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Monday had arrived and it was time to get back out there and explore Tokyo, starting with Shibuya. I left my luggage at the capsule hotel for the day and took the train to Shibuya station. Once again got a bit lost (clearly a pattern has emerged) and eventually found the right starting point for exploring the district: Hachiko – the statue of the dog that so loved its master it returned every day after his death until he too died several years later. Reminds me of that Futurama episode. Hachiko is the meeting place in Shibuya and near the station entrance and the main intersection you can understand why. The intersection is reportedly the busiest one in the world and even if not it is nonetheless teeming with people crossing every few minutes.

Shibuya is well known for its fashion and walking around and through the fashion stores its easy to see why but if Harajuku has a more alternative inclination then Shibuya could be described as more elitist, more, how should I say, in a Paris Hilton vein of clothing and well vanity. Very glossy, shiny and expensive. I hadn’t intended to spend too much time here but I ended up spending quite some time as I waited for my phone to be recharged at a SoftBank I stumbled across (I had left my charger in Osaka).  So I explored some more, which turned out to be a good thing as a few more stores were opening now that it had reached 11, including a very large anime/mange store – Mandarake. It was very popular with more foreigners in this concentrated space than I’d seen through all my traipsing in Akihabara’s manga shops the previous evening. Afterwards I ate at a random hole in the wall got my phone back and began navigating my way to Asakusa. Shibuya is excellent for fashionistas and for the rest of it’s great to sit down and people watch.

With a more rustic or traditional feel Asakusa may be the closest you’ll get to a ‘traditional’ Japan in Tokyo, well that and loads of tourists, shops selling to tourists and the giant Asahi beer factory. But besides all that it is nice and relaxing to wander amongst the stalls and through the Sensoji temple. Apparently the temple had recently had some sort of event (possibly related to those I’d seen in Akihabara) and as a result there was a great deal of dismantling and other clean up activity going on, however this did not deter me or the other tourists from checking out the large temple at the center, the tall imposing pagoda or the assorted shrines set up in the grounds.

Asakusa is a pleasant place to wander around but at the end of the day the throngs of people put a real dampener on any real enjoyment. Additionally, I don’t intend to write so little on the temple or the district but honestly, I wasn’t overawed by the complex per se but the combination of temple grounds and shopping streets does create an atmosphere and it is this atmosphere that I as a tourist savoured the most from my experience in Asakusa.

It was now starting to get a bit later in the afternoon and it was time to return to Akihabara to pick up my belongings and check-in at my next hotel. I admit I didn’t particularly want to go through the effort of researching a new place so booked myself back in my original hotel in Tokyo – the Oak Hotel. After all it was fine the first time. I paid less than 7,000 yen and received a single room with ensuite. The room also features a TV and phone, while the hotel is accessible 24hrs (with swipe), has several internet computers, friendly staff and a small common kitchen and is located about 10-15 mins walk from Ueno station. Overall it is very good for the money that you pay. Really the only downside for me was having to lug bags there after arriving after a long international flight and train ride into Tokyo – a minor complaint that should not detract from the other advantages.

Once I’d settled back in my room I made my way to Roppongi Hills to catch up with jjag and have a wander around looking at the good side of the tracks area compared to its neighbour Roppongi – which we’ll cover briefly in a future post. There isn’t much to say about Roppongi Hills other than it is gleaming and well to do.

Day 6 – Harajuku, Ginza and Akihabara

June 10, 2007 at 5:53 pm | Posted in anime, Anime & Manga, Japan, Manga, Tokyo, Travel | Leave a comment
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On Day 6 (Sunday) I returned to Tokyo in the afternoon once again via Shinkansen and made my way to Harajuku. I was planning on seeing the Meiji Shrine and the cosplayers that make this suburb their home (particularly on the weekend). Harajuku, with its narrow winding main street is filled in equal parts funky clothing shops and food stalls on the one hand and tourists, spruikers and locals (whether cosplaying or not) on the other.

If you’re into shopping and fashion you’ll no doubt be interested in taking the time to explore all of the ins and outs of Harajuku but for me I was here to check out the people and to do it quickly. Time was ticking after all. Unfortunately, after “exploring the surrounds” (getting turned around) I found my way to a shrine or temple which was roughly in the place of a shrine listed on a Japanese language map I’d seen earlier. While it didn’t look as big as I remembered the Meiji shrine from my previous trip I put this down to the access paths were closed and not being at the main building. I wandered around a little hoping to find a big cluster of cosplayers to check out but unfortunately there were none in this area.

Of course if I’d been smarter I would have realised/ remembered that this was completely the wrong part of Harajuku but instead had to rely on Miki to tell me a few days later as she scanned through my photos.

While I didn’t get to the bridge connecting Harajuku with the Meiji shrine (where according to my guide the bulk of the cosplayers gather) I did see quite a few as I walked around but nothing amazingly outlandish. Did I take photos? No, I feel a bit weird taking photos of people, especially those who are dressing up, as I wouldn’t want to make them feel like they’re an attraction when they’re just trying to be themselves. Granted I’m saying that without knowing their individual motivations and possibly just laying my own preconceptions onto the situation.

With Harajuku done (at least in my head at the time) I was ready to move onto Ginza. Tokyo’s high end shopping district. My guide book advised that on Sunday they close the main street and it turn it over to pedestrians and (not verbatim) ‘cafes and everything spills out onto the streets in a European style’. Except not. Silly incorrect guide book.

Yes the street is closed which means you can walk at pace quite well up and down the main boulevard and there are the occasional street performers but that’s about it. There are no alfresco coffee shops just a few chairs placed in the middle of the street every so often for those weary walkers. I was glad to have gone to Ginza but annoyed that I’d bothered to go on Sunday when I could have visited realistically on any day and spent more time either in Harajuku or my next destination: Akihabara.

Akihabara is Tokyo’s technology district with every shop stocking alternatively a piece of technological gadgetry or manga/anime related products. Honestly, while I should have been uber impressed by the technology I wasn’t.  The items may have been super advanced on the inside but I was oblivious to this due to the language barrier and so I was reduced to a casual inspection of the exterior where they all looked like a variant of a TV/ phone/ camera etc. One of my stops was to the Tokyo Anime Center and it was quite disappointing. When I hear the term “center” I had imagined a variety of things, none of which were the glorified information service and gift shop that greeted me at the (small) Anime Center. It would be so much easier to just walk down the main street and wander into various shops than to bother with the anime center in it’s current size and form.

Speaking of walking, when I arrived into Akihabara I found that its streets were closed as well and this may or may not be a result of the festival that was occurring. Many, many people were working together as they paraded small shrines through the streets. I have no clue what this was in honour of but apparently there was a large festival in Tokyo over the weekend. The participants (from all ages and genders) looked like they were having a ball – it was infectious.

I checked myself into the Akihabara capsule hotel and then headed back into the area and wandered around anime and manga shops. A relatively healthy experience given the number of stairs to climb to cover each building’s floors. I was suitably impressed by the range of products in anime, manga and general merchandise. Whatever your taste there will be something in Akihabara for you – although being able to read it is another matter entirely. If I had any room in my luggage I may have bought more (as it is very cheap compared to prices in Australia/UK – although these are translated) but in the end I only purchased the latest Bleach.

Another Akhabara staple are maid cafes. I’d vaguely heard about these cafes where the staff dress as maids without knowing too much about it or doing additonal research and had considered going in just to check it out but while in Osaka I happened to watch a game show that shed a little extra light (as well as ick) on the cafes. This game show (no idea of the name) pitted various foreign otaku against each other in the struggle to be named biggest otaku. I was quite impressed by these foreigners (from a number of countries) as they had to speak and understand Japanese. After one of the challenges the contestants ended up at a maid cafe where the ‘maids’ dutifully spooned ice cream into their mouths. From what I have since gathered this maid/master relationship is the standard and honestly it doesn’t work on any level for me – even to just check it out and say I went. So I didn’t. For those more interested there are plenty of maids on the street handing out flyers. I didn’t see any cafes on street level but there are numerous signs pointing the way.

After all that walking it was time to head back to the capsule hotel. For those of you not in the know or not wanting to click the link a capsule hotel is basically a single futon in a rectangular box, it features a tv, reading light and alarm clock and the ‘entrance’ has a blind. It is quite high, lying on my back I could not touch the ceiling. The capsules are stacked two high and on this particular night I was on the lower capsule. They are highly affordable at 4000 yen per night and are often used by late night revellers or businessmen who have missed the last train home. Going on a Sunday night was a good option as there seemed little chance of drunken idiots. Men and women are segregated to different floors and there is a gender plity communal (Japanese style) sento bathing. In your little gift bag you receive toothbrush and towels as well as the Japanese yukata. I had a good experience, sleeping quite well but if you were quite tall or claustrophobic it may be a challenge. At this particular hotel the reception was 24hrs which allows for lots of sightseeing. I met a British traveller here who’d spent the past 4 nights at the hotel and had no problems and enjoyed his time.

If you’re coming to Japan and are on a budget then the capsule hotel is a great alternative, conversely you may want to give it a try before they become too old hat and are available in every airport and train station.

Day 5 – Kyoto

May 27, 2007 at 3:17 pm | Posted in Anime & Manga, Japan, Kyoto, Manga, Travel | 1 Comment
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In all honesty I was feeling just a tad delicate the morning (oh all right, the mid morning) I set out for Kyoto. I wasn’t entirely looking forward to doing anything but a long day in Kyoto turned out to be an excellent cure.

From Osaka station I took the rapid to Kyoto, although with memories of Sakai still fresh, constantly worrying whether this was indeed the correct train. Fortunately it was. At Kyoto station I made my way through the throngs of tourists (both local and foreign) to the main concourse where a pop group marathon of some sort was taking place where different bands played all day (and were still playing upon my return at the end of the day). I have no idea if they are big names or not but the photos are already online and will be posted again here eventually.

At the tourist office (as I came sans map) I was confronted with a queue of foreigners before I got my map I also picked up a leaflet on walking tours which looked quite interesting. I went down to the food court to read their suggestions and fill up on okonomiyaki – a word despite repeated prodding from Miki and Justin I still can’t say properly. I thought that the Philosopher’s walk looked fun and would provide an opportunity to check out a different side of Kyoto, this would be particularly useful as I was already down to half a day. Basically the walk is along a canal linking a variety of sites, notably Ginkaku-ji (or the Silver Pavilion). The down side is, according to the guide, you take a bus to the Pavilion but due to traffic congestion it took about an hour. An easier approach would have been taking the subway (it’s non JR for those with the pass) and connecting with a bus further out of the city and thus beating the snarls. At any rate that’s my tip for future travels.

Now I had arrived at the street to the pavilion a very idyllic cobble path lined with shops selling various wares to the tourists. Of course it would have been a lot more charming without so many people but that’s what happens when you go on the weekend to a top destination. I had assumed being a UNESCO listed site and all that it would take a considerable amount of time walking around but in fact this was not the case. Granted I did power-walk through it but even so the path you are on leads you around the side of the pavilion and into the extremely well manicured garden (they sweep the moss) and back out again. 

Well with that checked off I began to walk and philosophise along the canal. While there were some tourists it was considerably less than at the pavilion. It is a pleasant experience and presumably during cherry blossom season it is packed with people. On the route you can duck into a number of the local shops, shrines or temples. I probably should have gone into some of these but I wanted to head back into the city and check out other aspects of Kyoto.

Unfortunately, it appeared the only way back was the way I’d come and being impatient and a little over busses I chose to walk back. It didn’t look so far. Well of course it was but on the way I saw some sort of children’s sporting day which had 80s music playing, notably “Girl’s just want to have fun” and more importantly a sign saying “Bushido“. Thinking that this may related to kendo and a chance to see kendo being played in its native Japan I followed.

I did not find kendo but I did find one huge shinto shrine – the Heian Jingu Shrine. An impressive complex of red buildings on white pebbles. While standing and pondering whether to go in I was approached by a girl sporting an ID badge and confident English asking if I wanted a free tour. Apparently the city has numerous free volunteer guides at various locations throughout the city (and not just in English). Wanting to get back to town as quickly as possible before the museums closed I asked and received a very trimmed down version as we went up to the shrine to the former Emperors and I heard how families used to come for blessings. If you’re in Kyoto try and track a volunteer down as they’re very useful for local content.

Now back to walking. Past a large canal with people hanging out and relaxing on the banks and into the centre of Kyoto. I walked along city hall where they were having some sort of launch. I have no idea what it was other than it involved marching bands and cheerleaders.

My next stop was the city museum and I finally found it down one of the side streets. Once again there was an exhibit of European art but the main display floors were available. Apparently there is the option to have an English guide but with the clock ticking closer and closer to 5PM when the museum closed I decided to ignore this offer. A good call as I paced quickly through the exhibits I heard a volunteer talking to a group of foreigners. He was definitely passionate about the city but his English lacked the confidence of my earlier guide and if you want to look at the city in a relaxed environment then that’s fine. As for the museum itself, it lacks a great deal of English (hence the guide I suppose) but does attempt some multimedia by having various TV sets around the floor that with the press of a button you can enjoy a brief clip.

If you can’t tell I was getting a tad fatigued but I wasn’t done yet. On the bundle of maps I picked up at the tourist office I had a standard tourist map and a transport map. On the latter it pointed to the Kyoto International Manga Museumbut the former did not. Somewhat odd. At any rate this is a gem. The museum is built inside an old school building complete with an astro turf lawn. Inside there a walls lined with bookshelves filled (and ever increasing) with manga you are free to take and read anywhere in the museum – including on the lawn. There are also exhibits on manga, occasionally special events, artists drawing live and a brief history of the project and school that existed beforehand.

Once you’re done with manga you can visit their small gift shop and head right next door (within the same complex but outside of the museum) to a coffee shop to rest your feet. Kyoto definitely has a coffee culture with coffee shops dotting the landscape and not all are Starbucks. This particular coffee shop – despite average coffee – is worth a stop because it (at time of writing) relatively blank walls are a canvas for visiting manga artists to sign and perhaps draw a bit.

I sat for a time and generally chilled out before walking back to the nearest subway station and returning to Kyoto station and finally Osaka.

Kyoto is a nice city – even with my brief interaction – I can tell you that. My only real complaint is that the transportation system really isn’t built for a day/ half-day trip experience. I will have to come back and get a fuller picture of this ancient city. Possibly by bicycle.

Day 4 – Sakai – or why I would lose at the Amazing Race

May 22, 2007 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Japan, Osaka, Sakai, Travel | Leave a comment
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I wanted to visit the Sakai areaafter reading about the kofun (or tumuli) located in the city. Emperor Nintoku’s kofun is apparently the largest in Japan with a base larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza. According to the city’s excellent tourist website (seemingly the only real information about the area) they also have a few other museums of interest to me – including a general city museum and another for Henomatsu Human Rights. For the sporty they also have a bicycle museum. Of course getting there was my first and only obstacle.

After arriving at Osaka station I rather dumbly said I wanted to go to Sakai rather than Mozu station. Mistake number 1. While on the train I looked at the route map to see if we were just skipping Mozu because it was an express but no and upon arrival at Sakai instead of asking a guard I decided to explore. Which is fine. To a point.

Later I’ll determine that I should have been able to take a local train to get towards Mozu.

So I decide to walk and quickly see a map (in Japanese) of the area – including the outline of a kofun – figuring I’ll check it out I begin to walk. For a bit. At an intersection by complete chance I spy hidden in the bushes a handy English tourist guide advising me to follow a particular path and see the sights. I do wonder how a tourist would find this sign and path without earlier ones to lead them here but I was in no mood to backtrack. Ahead was the plan. The path is allegedly marked by signs.

Unfortunately I’m not 100% on what these signs are and this leads me to wander aimlessly for quite some time and even the novelty of being the only foreigner for a change and walking around a town to just see wears off. Luckily at almost that very moment I spot a mound, thinking it might just be a kofun I head over to take a photo. Walking along its side though I come to the awful realisation that this is indeed some sort of historic land mark but not to Emperors but to sewerage and water control.

Fortunately I have spotted some of these tourist signs and begin something of a “Where’s Wally” hunt to continue my journey. At one point I do spot a big hill behind a fence and figuring that this may indeed be my kofun take a few snaps through the bars and forlornly follow the signs – now quite plentiful.

After some more walking I have made my way to, what I shall call the Sakai City CBD but for all I know was Osaka, and by pure chance came across their tourist/job office. While it looked like it was still under construction I was still able to go in and try my luck with the staff.

Presumably because the top floor was the job hunt section (while the touristy stuff was still being finished) they didn’t have any pamphlet maps to give me. Rather they went and photocopied a few pages from their local UBD and kindly highlighted where I was and where the city museum was situated. Now the hard part was the Henomatsu museum (this museum covers the out-castes from the medieval caste system period and the ongoing discrimination they face in Japan, it was a subject I was unaware of before looking up the Sakai city web-page while investigating the kofun). Apparently, it was also a topic the staff were unaware of as they sought to look it up in Japanese and eventually I convince them to let me show them the Sakai City English web-page (they seemed quite excited… like they’d never seen it before). Even so they only had a very vague idea of the museum and said it was not on the photocopied UBD maps they’ve given me.

Unfortunately, while the sun was still shining brightly it was getting on in time before the museum closed so taking their advice I went to the train station. I promptly arrived at the station and got on the train – only to find it was taking me in the wrong direction. So obviously it took some more time to get on the right train and arrive. Although now that I had actually arrived things went smoothly.

I found the kofun – with English information boards – and was impressed by it’s general size (although really it does look like a mound). With the exception of natural events the tomb has never been opened because it houses the Emperor’s remains – presumably an advantage of an unbroken monarchy. If I didn’t feel so weary I would have done the 3km walk around its base but I’ll leave this in this instance to go to the city museum located quite close by. For 200Y the entry fee is quite reasonable and they provide a very brief English guide. The content in the museum is all in Japanese and I was only able to discern a bit but generally it seemed interesting. I was able to rush through very quickly. 

Without knowing specifically where the henomatsu museum was and running out of time I gave up any hope of finding it and consoled myself that it would have probably been all in Japanese and by the looks of that map quite small as well.  I took this opportunity to walk around the park lands near the city museum and at 4:40 found myself at the, of all places, Japanese gardens. The ticket and guard person seemed concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see it all before 5 when it closed but I assured them with hand signals and simple Japanese it was doable. And doable it was, as I power-walked through the gardens I took numerous (possibly shaky) photos and left (to their surprise) before closing. If I had more time I would have enjoyed the garden and found it (more) relaxing.

Now back to the station and Osaka.

Despite my own ineptness I thought Sakai has a lot of potential for future tourist growth – particularly if they can capitalise on the kofun, my only real complaint is that the city website does not have a street level map or ideally a PDF with all of the sights listed and much easier to find/ ask for directions.

I was quite bored during my early wanderings and as a result my Flickr page is quite slanted towards Sakai photos. I know I promise this a lot (it is really dependent on Internet cafes/ pricing) but I will put photos up on Wordpress at some point and those that are already on Flickr will get descriptions and rotated correctly soon. 

Day 3 – Osaka

May 20, 2007 at 3:36 pm | Posted in Japan, Osaka, Travel | Leave a comment
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Somehow I managed to wake up with enough time and make it to Tokyo station and get on my Shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Osaka. It took about an hour and is nice and fast with a trolley lady coming by fairly frequently if you feel like snacks.

Besides sleeping and doing the normal commuting thing there isn’t a whole lot to say about the rail journey – it is after all just a train trip.

After arriving in Osaka I had some time on my hands before checking in and as I had only brought a small bag for the few days it was no big hassle. My first objective was food and luckily there are no shortage of restaurants and street vendors in Osaka. Osaka also features a large underground network of pedestrian malls which are almost as bewildering as the above ground covered street alleys. But more on that later.

Once I’d been fed by some very tasty cold soba noodles and I think tempura fish I returned to the station got on a local and headed towards the famed Osaka Castle. By this stage time was starting to run out so I set a bit of a pace to walk through the (scenic) gardens to the castle, bought my ticket by vending machine and headed inside.

The museum is distributed across all the floors of the castle and features topics about the era the castle was built, about the builders and the great battle that led to the destruction of the original castle and its rebuilding by the victors. Apparently only a few unearthed walls remain from the original. On the top floor you can walk along the balcony and see all of the city and out towards the mountains. Unfortunately for me it was a windy day and at the slightly increased altitude it became at times just a tad gusty. Luckily there is some netting so I didn’t feel like I would plummet to my death immediately.

After heading outside and taking some more photos I began walking out of the park towards the Osaka Museum of History. The museum is spread over several floors starting on the 10th and working downwards and this provides another excellent vantage point to look out over the city. The museum is structured to provide 2 types of interaction: overview and detailed. In overview you basically walk on one side and look at street scenes or mannequins in costume to get a sense of the period being discussed. In the more detailed approach you also get historic artifacts (not just pots and pans). This is understandably mainly in Japanese but there were sufficient primers (in Chinese and Korean as well) spread over each floor that I wasn’t bored or completely ignorant by the end of my mad dash to get through the museum.

Both the Castle and the History museum offer something that the prestigious Tokyo museum lacked. Context. Which for me is quite pivotal in my need to appreciate a country and its people. While I’m not an aficionado of Osaka history I do feel as though I can appreciate it better now.

Not to mention see the classic rivalry between two cities just a little clearer now!

If you do come to Osaka these are worth the visit.

Afterwards I thought I would go to a station on the Castle pamphlet. Granted it wasn’t one they said to use but it was shown right, how far away could it be? Well, I think you know the answer to that one and if you don’t here’s a hint. Plenty far. And it rained.

Although, that’s ok afterall I got to see a part of Osaka I never would have before (granted near a main road but that’s not the point). Frankly, getting lost and turned around becomes a bit of a theme for the rest of the trip but that’s really part of traipsing around.

Once back at Osaka Station I try and find my way to the hotel (above ground) and over shoot as the map on their website says to pass a fountain but all I see is roadways. Later I find out that the fountain is underground and is part of the under-city shopping complex.

The hotel is located near the station and apparently so is the Osaka sex district and a myriad of confusing covered shopping streets where one wrong turn will send you to other side of the district. Leading to frantic last minute phone calls to the hotel not to lock you out at curfew (apparently for security reasons). Given the area it’s somewhat understandable. Although it is Japan so I never felt concerned but then perhaps I should be…

Day 2 – what?

May 11, 2007 at 11:15 am | Posted in Japan, Tokyo, Travel | 1 Comment
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Bizarrely, or not really to be unexpected, but on day 2 things just went a bit wonky. I woke up hungry and groggy and not from alcohol induced slumber, so went out in search of food. I think I need a primer on Japanese breakfast / early morning food because it all gets lumped in with what I (cultural icon that I am) would consider eating in the evening. I`m not yet comfortable with eating Western style for breakfast. I`m also still adverse to eating from convenience stores.

So I wander aimlessly through the markets hoping for something interesting looking. No luck and it seems as though most shops don]t become active until much later around midday – granted they close at 8 or 9 in the evening.

Deciding to skip the food option until lunch I move onto my second task – access to the internet. While I can do this at the hotel I wanted to check out a manga cafe. Apparently there were several in Ueno and in I went and as I walked up the stairs I got the feeling that this was not your standard manga cafe. My first clue? Porn posters on the wall. Followed by porn movies for rent in the reception area (no sign of manga). So the internet led me astray in looking for places to use the internet, perhaps it really is all about sex?

Waits for hits based on the preceding paragraph….

I decide to skip the option of sitting in a leather chair and using the Internet. Until later when I`m advised on a reputable and legitimate manga cafe. Has the same booths etc but a much less sleazy vibe.

Before the real manga cafe I had some ramen noodles at a shop near the station and is always packed. For good reason it was very tasty.

Perhaps as a result of the food, dehydration (always thirsty in Tokyo), jet lag or not drinking coffee for a few days but I was exhausted and so went and slept.

Yes it is this riveting. Shut up.

Until later in the evening when I met an Aussie friend for a drink and a quick catch up before we had to go our separate ways. Him to work and me to wander around Shinjuku and all the bright shiny lights. Tonight for dinner I tried a sushi train and given there were plenty of locals I thought I was onto something but unfortunately not. I can say that I have had better in Sydney or Brisbane.

I will try more sushi before I leave and hope it`s better.

All in all a quiet day but on my way home I reserved a seat on the Shinkansen bound for Osaka and day Day 3.  

Day 1 – Ueno

May 11, 2007 at 2:29 am | Posted in Japan, Tokyo, Travel | Leave a comment
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Ueno, or wino, as I like to call it due to all the homeless, is a microcosm of Japan (so says he who has seen 0.00001% of the country). With sprawling transportation grids, parks and cultural icons, shopping (both department and market) and of course food there is a lot to offer in this locality. Not to mention a very reasonably priced hotel within minutes of the station.

My first real day in Japan I decided to be cultural and visit the Tokyo National Museum and Art Gallery. My guide book informs me that if you only have one day of museum visiting then you must go here. So off I went, first to the Art Gallery via Ueno park. Ueo park is the home of not only the aforementioned buildings but also shrines and the zoo. Oh and homeless. Don`t worry though this is Japan where the homeless don`t bother anyone. Except maybe the cats. There seem to be quite a few in the park and I`m not sure if they`re strays or pets. Nonetheless the park is large and pleasant to wander around.  I`ll insert pictures later.

Now for the Art Gallery where I was looking forward to getting a good overview of Japanese art – except that all of the galleries were closed in preparation for something or other. That is for the one special exhibit on Russian art. So I`ve now been fortunate enough to get a better understanding of 18th – 19th century Russian art and hope that when I arrive in London there will be a Japanese exhibit!

Time for the big guns, the best museum in Japan, and there is another special exhibit on, this time for Leonardo daVinci, so some of it has been closed. What I did see was a fairly traditional here are pots, pans, swords, statues, display that charts their development over `x` number of years. Fairly disappointing. I prefer a museum that provides greater context. Granted it was 5 years ago when I went but in Tokyo my money is on the Edo-Tokyo museum for that type of quality.

After the museum I wandered into Yasuka (I`m pretty sure that`s the name) and wandered aimlessly until I arrived at the cemetary – largest in Tokyo – and eventually peered through the gates at the burial site of the last Tokugawa.

I meandered back along a fairly vague path back to Ueno and headed into Tokyo station to organise a Japanese mobile (most phones don`t work here – although next gen ones may)  and had some excellent fortune. For reasons too silly to go into now I was at one shop (which had what I needed) but I preferred a different brand so they very nicely gave me a map. I promptly got turned around and when I asked a passing person for assistance was walked to the mobile shop! Great! She got my very first domo arrigato gozaimasu (unlike the usual domo / arrigato). Unfortunately this shop said it didn`t have what I wanted and suggested I go back to the other company. So off I went and made my purchase. While I waited for the activation I took the time to look around the financial centre (leaving the Imperial Gardens for another day).

After that I returned to Ueno for dinner in the market area where food stalls nestle next to shops and pachinko (Kristy I`ve inserted a link for you!).  Then off to bed.

 I know such a piker but when you`ve been an inactive office worker these things take their toll.

More shortly.  Hopefully at a PC where I can find the correct apostrophe.

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