Queen Elizabeth - Japan

Journey                 # 16

Time:                      3rd March 2018

Beryl and I had decided to take our first cruise for this holiday. The Cunard Line's newest ship, the Queen Elizabeth, was chosen for our first cruise. We could have left from Sydney Harbour, but decided to fly to Brisbane and save $2000 on the fare and as it turned out, we got a much bigger and nicer cabin with a big balcony. We left Brisbane and sailed off into the night, headed for Rabaul, in New Britain, Papua New Guinea. We were assigned a table in the Brittania Restaurant, where we met our fellow dining passengers for the trip. They were a great bunch and we got on very well with them. Dinner was adventurous for me and I tried Frogs legs and monk fish, a first for me. We settled in to our cabin for this stage of the cruise, expecting to make landfall in Rabaul on the 7th March, four days hence.
The following day we had breakfast in the Lido Restaurant, where the choice was a huge buffet. I had pancakes with hot blueberries and sauce - just like mum used to make. During the day, the ship had to divert and head back towards the coast off Gladstone, Qld, to meet up with a helicopter and take a medical emergency patient off the ship. It was all handled very professionally and we were soon back underway. As it was Sunday, we attended the church service, conducted by the Captain, Inger Klein Thorhauge, Cunard's first and only female Captain. She is very good at her job. We walked around deck three for about 6 laps each day, which was close to 3klm, to work off some of the calories we had eaten.
As you approach Simpson Bay a still active volcano greets you with a continuous spew of ash, smoke, and small rocks. Depending on wind direction the ash and smoke will cover you and stick to any sun cream you have put on. The Rabaul caldera, is a large volcano on the tip of the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea, and derives its name from the town of Rabaul inside the caldera. The caldera has many sub-vents, Tavurvur being the most well known for its devastating eruptions over Rabaul.
In 1937, Vulcan and Tavurvur erupted simultaneously, killing 507 people. This event led to the founding of the Rabaul Volcano Observatory, which watches over the many active volcanoes on Papua New Guinea. One eruption over several days in March 2008 released a plume of ash and water vapour that drifted northwest over the Bismarck Sea. The streets and paths of 'New Rabaul' are covered by ash and the gigantic eruption that occurred in 1994 spewed ash, rock and lava from the twin peaks again, covering Old Rabaul with layers upon layers of volcanic debris and turning their once thriving village into an eerie dwelling of abandoned relics and destroyed homes. It erupted again in 2006 and in 2014 but without the devastating effects of the 1994 explosions. While the mountain is completely unpredictable, it is estimated that the next big eruption will be in the 2050s. The new Rabaul lies on the edge of the Caldera in Kokopo
After breakfast, we were marshalled on deck two and then shoehorned 12 persons at a time into small, non air-conditioned mini buses. It was very crowded and almost unbearably hot as we made our way up lava ash roads to a local village selling goods. They were happy people but to our culture, living in 3rd world conditions. The men and women had bright red mouths from chewing betel nut and terrible teeth but the men entertained us with singing, before our feisty tour guide had us all bundled back into the shoebox for our next stop at Simpson Bay and the slopes of Mt Tavurvur. Scalding water bubbled out of the fissures and ran into the sea. The thick carpet of pumice and ash made this area look barren. Next stop was the volcano monitoring station, which overlooked the harbour and had ongoing seismic machines monitoring this volatile area. Last stop was the Japanese, submarine supply tunnels which were cut into the cliffs during WW2. About 30 metres from shore, the water dropped abruptly on a sheer face, to around 300 metres depth, making it an ideal place to resupply submarines. Back to the ship and the relief of air-conditioning.
We all boarded from our particular tour, in time for lunch. Afterwards, I had a nap and Beryl went to the movies. Rabaul has often been called 'The Pearl of the Pacific' and as we sailed off around 5.30pm, we could see why. It is a beautiful island.

The Rabaul caldera, with the sub vent Tavurvur smoking away in the background

Leaving Rabaul on a heading for Okinawa

After leaving Rabaul, we had a lovely dinner and then took in a show featuring the Cunard singers. Most enjoyable as was every show and talk we attended each day or evening. A great line up of talent. The following day, there was an initiation ceremony for a selection of 'pollywogs' who were passengers or crew who had never crossed the equator at sea. They had to kiss a dead fish and were plastered with foods and liquids before finally being allowed to jump into the pool to get cleaned off. It was a funny affair and memorable for those involved, no doubt. I remember seeing it in 1956 when we came to Australia by ship. Same deal.
We had six sea days coming up, but they went very quickly as we went to the large theatre each night to watch shows by talented musicians, dancers and singers. An aussie singer, Roy Locke, who grew up in Port Macquarie and went to school with our daughter's music teacher, sang a series of songs from musicals and operas. He played the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, in Stuttgart, Germany and had a powerful voice.
There was a bit of excitement on day 11, when there was a freshwater leak between decks 7 and 6, which caused water to be shut off for several hours until maintenance could find and repair it. The afternoons were spent in a beautiful lounge, where white jacketed waiters with white gloves served afternoon tea in china cups and included finely cut sandwiches, scones and cream with strawberry jam as well as a selection of cakes and pastries. No wonder people put on weight. I think our six daily laps of the ship, should have been 60.

Crossing the Equator calls for a King Neptune ceremony, which is a messy affair for the 'pollywogs' or first time travellers crossing the equator by sea

I woke early and looked out the balcony door, to see the city lights of Okinawa. The ship made a slow progression into Naha Harbour, berthing gently without a bump. Amazing manoeuvrability for such a large ship. Everybody had to disembark and get their passports stamped and visas sorted here and those going on shore excursions went to their allotted buses. What a difference to Rabaul. We had big, air-conditioned coaches and no crowding. Our tour guide, Eriko, was one of only three Okinawans acting as guides, with the remainder being made up of Japanese who travelled down from the main island of Honshu. She was brilliant, regaling us with folk songs whilst playing on the Sanshin 3 string instrument and the Sanba 'castanets'. She also played on a Tsuchibue, which is a small potato shaped flute made from a variety of materials such as bamboo, clay, a hollowed out gourd and many others. At one stage she had Beryl accompany her on the 'castanets'.
Our first stop was the Zuisen Brewery. If you enjoy wine tasting, you'll enjoy awamori tasting even more. After the tasting, they will let you tour around the place and show you a documentary on how it is made. They also have a little museum that you can check out. Alcohol content is 49% that was aged up to 21 years. Aged up drinks are expensive but worth the price, apparently. The wine is made from special Thai rice grains and is reputedly the best in the world. I must admit it wasn't to my taste. I asked Eriko about the plum wine, which I did like, and she said - yes the ladies wine. It is also good. I must be getting in touch with my sensitive side. I like 'ladies drinks'.
Our second stop was Okinawa (Shurijo)Castle was built between 1429 and 1879. It was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, before becoming largely neglected. In 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, it was almost completely destroyed. After the war, the castle was re-purposed as a university campus. Beginning in 1992, the central citadel and walls were largely reconstructed on the original site based on historical records, photographs, and memory. Although Japanese, Okinawa has much Chinese based architecture and beliefs. It is located with the East China Sea on the western side and the Pacific Ocean on the east. The southern end of the island consists of uplifted coral reef, whereas the northern half has proportionally more igneous rock. The easily eroded limestone of the south has many caves, the most famous of which is Gyokusendo in Nanjo. An 850 m-long stretch is open to tourists.
Our third stop was to Okinawa World, where we were entertained by a Taiko Drum group singing traditional songs and belting out impressive sounds on some very large drums, one of which must have been 3 metres in diameter. I was flabbergasted to hear one of our Aussie tourists say to her friend that the basic performance was what you would expect from a third world country. I wanted to turn around and ask her to compare our technology to theirs, but Beryl wouldn't let me. A great performance. We walked next door and had a buffet style lunch, before heading off on another short stroll, to the 5Km long Gyokusendo Cave, which was discovered in 1967. Although the Gyokusendo Cave totals an underground maze of over 5km, the accessible walkway only runs for about 890 meters. Walking this 890 meter pathway will still take more than one hour especially if you stop and take time to observe all of the amazing features along the way. Limestone can be damaged by the oils on a person's skin and I was yet annoyed again, to see people grabbing onto stalactites. The signs of massive damage can be easily seen, where new growth has started where tips have been snapped off. Beryl got a bit aggro and using sign language, forcefully told someone not to touch. That's my girl.
As we boarded the bus, Eriko excused herself and ran off to the souvenir shop and bought everyone some traditional biscuits and a small jar of Okinawan coral sand. What a sweet lady. She told us that the visit of the Cunard Queen Elizabeth was a big deal for Okinawa and that the news helicopters and reporters would be there to capture the departure of this big ship. A group of Taiko drummers were also there to play as we left the dock on the 13th May and there in the background, was Eriko.

A visit to Okinawa by the Queen Elizabeth was apparently a big deal and this troupe of Taiko drummers played for us as the boat departed the dock.

We arrived in Osaka Tempozan harbour about 6am on the 15th March and 900 passengers got off the ship and went through customs in groups. We were going to get the subway to our hotel, but decided to catch a cab instead. Poor driver got lost, but did turn off his meter. We eventually found the Alexander Hotel Namba, where we were staying for the next two nights and booked in. It was one of the most uncomfortable beds we have ever slept in, but these things happen. May be luxurious for Asian customers but left a lot to be desired for us. We went for a walk in the many shopping arcades around Namba and promptly got lost. Found our way back to the hotel and also located a spot to have dinner. Got back to the hotel and crashed.
It was raining, cold and very windy the following morning, but we sorted out where to catch the train from and where to change trains to arrive near Osaka Castle. I had to buy an umbrella, which was promptly blown inside out as soon as I stepped outside, but it held together.
We didn't get in the line to catch the elevator up to the 8th floor, intending rather to catch it back down. Big mistake - it didn't take passengers on the downward trip, so we walked 16 floors. Had lunch in a cafe in a separate building on the grounds and then walked around to the plum garden, which was in flower. Luckily the rain had stopped. As we were walking out of the grove, a voice called out 'what are you doing here'. It was Margaret, one of our new friends from the Q.E. Paul was a little way off, sitting down because his feet hurt. They had also bumped into Peter, another Q.E. friend from our dinner table, earlier on. We left the castle and headed back to the hotel for our last night in Osaka
Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo) was built by the hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan in the latter half of the 16th century, on the site of a temple called Ishiyama Hongan-ji. The construction work began in 1583 and most buildings such as the castle tower were completed in 1585. Its gross area is over 3,300,000 sq m and tens of thousands of people were daily mobilized in its construction. The donjon is five-tiered and nine-storied, and has large golden sea creature ornaments shining on the rooftop. It is claimed that pure gold chasings were set in the corridors. One of the charms of this castle is the beauty of its stone wall. Reportedly, there are 40,000 rocks in the wall. Legend has it that powerful daimyo from all parts of Japan competed in carrying the large rocks to display their loyalty to the Toyotomi hegemon. Toyotomi Hideyoshi intended the castle to become the center of a new, unified Japan under Toyotomi rule. It was the largest castle at the time. However, a few years after Hideyoshi's death, Tokugawa troops attacked and destroyed the castle and terminated the Toyotomi lineage in 1615. Osaka Castle was rebuilt by Tokugawa Hidetada in the 1620s, but its main castle tower was struck by lightning in 1665 and burnt down.
It is the symbol of Osaka. It was not until 1931 that the present ferro-concrete reconstruction of the castle tower was built. During the war it miraculously survived the city wide air raids. Major repair works gave the castle new glamor in 1997. The castle tower is now entirely modern on the inside and even features an elevator for easier accessibility. It houses an informative museum about the castle's history. It has five tiers and is approximately 40 m high. The castle tower is surrounded by secondary citadels, gates, turrets, impressive stone walls and moats. The Nishinomaru Garden, encompassing the former 'western citadel', is a lawn garden with 600 cherry trees, a tea house, the former Osaka Guest House and nice views of the castle tower from below. Unlike most of the rest of the castle grounds, the garden requires an admission fee. The entire Osaka Castle Park covers about two square kilometres with lots of green space, sport facilities, a multi-purpose arena (Osakajo Hall) and a shrine dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The park is one of Osaka's most popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing)spot during the cherry blossom season, which usually takes place in early April.

The plum blossom grove at Osaka Castle had lots of flowers in bloom

This morning, we checked out and were allowed to leave our luggage in the hotel foyer while we caught the train to Shin-Osaka station, where we activated our Japan Rail passes and booked tickets on the Shinkansen Bullet Train to Tokyo. Michelle, our lovely daughter, was there to meet us and I'm glad she was because we were already lost in the maze which is Tokyo Station. We caught the train to Shinjuku and then changed to get to Higashi-Nakano for the short walk to her apartment. Went to bed late and got up late the next morning.
Michelle took us to the National Museum of Modern Art at Chiyoda, Tokyo where we saw some exceptional sculptures and displays. The Suzuki Chokichi (1848–1919) produced Twelve Hawks for the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Produced using the best technology available at the time, it is one of the most important pieces of metalwork from the Meiji period. This exhibition features this work after three years of restoration. The reproduced ornamental cloth on the perch that had been lost after the Exposition has revived the original brilliant colours. Truly amazing work.
We then took the short walk to The Imperial Palace East Gardens, which are a part of the inner palace area and are open to the public. They are the former site of Edo Castle's innermost circles of defence, the honmaru 'main circle' and ninomaru 'secondary circle'. None of the main buildings remain today, but the moats, walls, entrance gates and several guardhouses still exist.
Edo Castle was the residence of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. Emperor Meiji also resided there from 1868 to 1888 before moving to the newly constructed Imperial Palace. The Kokyo Higashi Gyoen Garden (Imperial Palace East Garden) was opened to the public in 1968, covering an area of approximately 210,000 square meters from the Honmaru (Principal compound in a castle complex, where the castle owner spent his daily life and government affairs were carried out), Ninomaru (Second compound located outside of the Honmaru, where the castle owner met with feudal lords) and a part of the Sannomaru (Third compound surrounding the Ninomaru) of Edo Castle. The Honmaru section contains a vast lawn, while the Ninomaru section is maintained as an Edo Period Japanese garden along with the Musashino copse, and these two sections represent the last remaining Edo Period garden in Japan. The copse, that was about to be destroyed for development in the Tokyo suburbs, was re-planted together with the entire surface soil onto a lawned section of the garden around 20 years ago, using ground-breaking construction techniques. The entire Castle complex covers a massive area of around 1.15 square kilometres.
After the gardens, we walked around Ginza shopping precinct and had dinner at a nice restaurant and went to the Apple Computer store for a piece of hardware. Four floors and each one was packed. We then caught a train to Shinjuku and booked train tickets on the Romance Car train for the following day, when we were travelling up to Hakone for a couple of nights
It was good to get back to Michelle and Cae's and go to bed.

The Imperial Palace East Gardens (Kokyo Higashi Gyoen) are a part of the inner palace area. A lovely garden

This morning, we caught the Odakyu Romance Car train to Hakone-Yumoto station. Hopped onto a bus, which was packed within minutes and climbed up the steep mountain road to Hakone. A warning came across the speaker, to keep luggage secure as we were going up a meandering road. Well, it was hairpin after hairpin on a narrow and slippery road. The rear wheels of the bus were spinning on each left hand, off cambered turn and sliding across the road. Maybe our driver was a drift car racer in his spare time. We got off along the way and went into the Amazake Chaya Teahouse, which is an Edo period inn open since 1603. We had a cup of hot Amazake, which is a thick drink made from fermenting rice and some sour plums and then back out into the wind and rain to wait for the next bus< br /> On arrival at Moto-Hakone, it still looked a bit dreary and overcast and sure enough it got windy and then the rain came down. It was very cold, with the wind whipping off Lake Ashinoko, but we walked the short distance to the Tori Gate, only to find a busload of Chinese tourists queueing up for photos. We stood in line and waited to get a phot. Sure enough, lining up the shot and some oblivious person stands in front of you to take their own photo. We walked back to the ferry terminal, got something to eat from the convenience store and stood in line to catch the last ferry across the lake to Togendai and then a bus to near our accommodation. We found the $200/night place, which was inaptly named 'Ritz House'. Maybe it was named after the cracker rather than the famous hotel. It was a very basic two room 'house' but Beryl and I got the beds whilst Michelle and Cae got the futons and converted sofas, which turned out to be very uncomfortable. Poor kids.
After showering, there was nowhere to put clothes or towels in the wet room, so I had to get dried off and dressed in the kitchen. Lucky the rooms had doors which could be closed. It rained all night and was still raining in the morning as we headed off to the bus stop about 1klm away and caught it to Gora Station, where we then hopped on the Hakone-Tozan (zig zag) train to Hakone-Yumoto. The train travels on Japan's oldest mountain railway. The small trains wind themselves through a narrow, densely wooded valley over many bridges and tunnels, stopping at small stations along the way and changing directions at three switchbacks. The 35 minute train ride from Gora to Hakone-Yumoto is especially beautiful in June and July when thousands of hydrangea (ajisai) are in bloom along the tracks and are illuminated during the evenings.
We had a look around town for a coffee shop, but unfortunately the one Michelle likes was closed, so instead we opted for a light lunch at the Yumoto Fujiya Hotel. Beryl and I shared a Club sandwich, I had a waffle and ice cream and she had a slice of apple pie and cream plus 4 coffees (Michelle and Cae had lunch elsewhere) for us all for a cost of $95. Hmmm, expensive? After lunch we walked alongside the Hayakawa River and took the usual photos from the Ajisai-bashi bridge and walked up to the Tamadare Falls. All very pretty - and busy. Caught the bus 'home' and it was turning very cold and foggy. Nothing around the area where we were, as far as dining out, so we had convenience store food again. A hot cup of noodles for Beryl and me, before turning in for the night.
Early the next morning, I was awoken by a rumbling noise and the house shook. This happened about three more times during the next hour and Beryl looked out of the window and excitedly told me to look. It was white and heavy with snow outside and still coming down strongly. Michelle was awake and I asked about the rumbling and shaking of the house, to which she explained that there was an active volcano only a couple of klms away and it always rumbles. Great. Just then there was another tremor, so I opened the front door and had a look outside. A ton of snow slid off a roof a couple of doors away and that was the rumbling sound I had heard. As it hit the ground, the house trembled, so that explained it. I would hate to be standing just outside the roof line when that lot came down. The snow was the lightest, fluffiest, squeakiest that I had ever seen and it showed no sign of stopping anytime soon. We were due to book out at 10am, so Michelle got online only to find that all the buses had been cancelled due to the conditions. The owners of the house were contacted and we were told that it was booked for that night and we had to leave. How? Michelle got a return call an hour later and was told that someone would pick us up and take us to the station at Odawara, about a two hour trip.
There was no way a car could get down the laneway and back out, due to the snow, so when there was a knock on the door, we all piled out under umbrellas and had to walk to the convenience store where he had parked his little van. As we left, there was a bit of sliding but we took off with no chains on the tyres and started off downhill. We came across cars which had slid off the side of the road, stopped in the middle of the road and with people pushing their cars as the wheels were just spinning as it slid off the road. Our driver couldn't afford to stop, so just weaved past the cars. We passed only a couple of cars driving up the mountain and none appeared to have chains. There was about 1 metre of snow off to the sides of the road. It all looked really postcard pretty, with the pine trees white and a carpet of snow without any sign of footprints. When we finally got off the mountain an hour later, we hit a freeway which had a lot of slow moving traffic and big trucks travelling on it. Several times we appeared to drift very close to trucks and the roads were mushy black snow, but obviously icy. Finally we got to the station and wanted to pay our driver for his time, tolls and fuel but he wouldn't hear of it. He spoke no English at all and we felt sorry for him having to drive all the way back up the mountain. Hope he made it.
We booked our reserved Romance Car tickets and had a couple of hours to kill, so walked around the shopping precinct. Beryl and I had put plastic bags over our socks before putting our shoes on and walking in the snow and hers were poking out and squeaking as she walked, so they were removed as soon as she could as people were probably thinking, 'what the heck are these tourists wearing'. It continued to rain but the temperature was 2C, so no more snow this far down the mountain. We hopped on the train and found we had a private saloon booth, so that was good. After a couple of train changes, we finally arrived back at Michelle and Cae's place about 6pm. A great adventure for us.

The most inaptly named Ritz House. Ritzy it was not, but we were happy to have somewhere to stay. This is the Before shot

What a surprise the After shot turned out to be

The 22nd was a relaxation day for us and we just caught a train to Shinjuku, did some shopping, had lunch in Times Square and the returned to Higashi-Nakano. We didn't have keys to the apartment and Michelle was at work. Cae had a meeting but was supposed to be done by around 4pm. As it turned out, we sat in the park until about 6pm before he got out and it was freezing cold and dark by that time. We made sure that we got Michelle's keys from then on, just in case.
Michelle was still working on the following day, so Beryl and I decided to go to Shinjuku Goyen Park for several hours and see if there were any cherry blossoms out. We decided to walk the underground route from the station and soon got lost. Headed up to street level and got back on track, thanks to Google Maps. The entry gate lines were congested and it seems that everyone else had the same though as us. Had a wander around the Japanese section of the garden and there were a few early blossoming trees around. We had lunch in the park and then headed back. Of course, we got lost somewhat and ended up doing a big loop before finding the station again. At least my fitbit was happy. Takeaway sushi from the convenience store for dinner. Everything revolves around takeaway or eatery dining over here. I am missing a home cooked meal.
Today, the 24th, Michelle was off work so we three went to the Meguro area to look at cherry blossoms. Caught a train to Ikejiri-ohashi station and found a great coffee shop to kick off the walk. There were lots of cherry blossoms along the river (canal) and also lots of people. We took an elevator up to the Meguro Rooftop Gardens and had a great view over the city and freeways of this area. The gardens on top of the buildings were very nice as well, but we soon headed back to the river. There were hordes of people and it was shoulder to shoulder shuffling for many kilometres. It is a festive season during Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) time and vendors were busy selling food and champagne to the multitudes. Finding enough space to actually eat or drink would have been the problem. We figured it would be less crowded if we walked to Gotanda Station, a few kilometres further on, but I have never seen so many people squashed into a train. We managed to get on and still more people crammed in. I would have taken a photo, but my arms were pinned. Somehow, the doors closed and off we went. Michelle got out a few stops before us as she was going to a party in Yoyogi Park and we continued on to Shinjuku, being old hands at finding our way around there - right. At the station, Beryl and I got separated in the crush as I was herded towards an exit I didn't want to be at. Luckily she found a pillar to stand against and wait until I got back to her. We put our name on the waiting list for a nice cafe, Mr Farmer, to have lunch/dinner. It was funny, because Japanese people cannot pronounce our names so I wrote Bee for Beryl. The waitress looked and said in a questioning voice, 'Bee?'. Turns out she had studied in Australia, quite close to where we live, and could speak English very well. We all had a laugh. Today was the most people I have seen on any of the previous times we have been here. Huge numbers of Chinese tourists, many Italian and Slavic countries this time too. A few Aussies as well. Michelle heard a couple with a disgusted look on their face, say in Japanese 'so many aliens'. You never know who can understand you, so if you have something to say, make it something nice, I say.

Cherry Blossoms at Ikejiri-ohashi

Can you spot Beryl and Michelle

Headed off today, to Asakusa to have a look at the temple and the shopping arcades. We were going to catch a ferry from Asakusa wharf, but the lines were insane, so we walked for a while and came to the temple. Senso-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple. It is Tokyo's oldest temple, and one of its most significant. Formerly associated with the Tendai sect of Buddhism, it became independent after World War II. The crowds here made it impossible to walk other than a slow shuffle, so we abandoned that idea and hopped on a train to go to Venus Fort shopping outlet, at Odaiba. We went across the harbour bridges and stations in an automated train - no drivers. Wouldn't want a computer glitch happening.
Crowds were everywhere and there is no getting away from them really, at this time of year with cherry blossom time. We did go up to a rooftop cafe which didn't have the crowds and wasn't particularly well advertised. Thank you Wahoo's and the tacos were pretty good as well.
Walked around Diver City and saw loads of 60's style arcades full of pinballs and Super Mario etc arcade games, many movie type stores and displays including the almost 20m tall, 45 ton Unicorn Gundam. It moves and different parts light up every half hour. Big scale is big business over in Japan.
We walked across to the Venus Fort buildings and had a look at some beautiful classic cars, including Chevy Corvettes and even the Delorean. Never seen so many people in a shopping centre with their dogs. Most of them are dressed in clothing and are carried or have their own prams. No walking around for Japanese dogs. It was dark when we eventually left for home. A long, tiring day.

Japan loves their movie characters. Here is a massive Transformer. They make everything big over here. Pretty amazing really

Michelle had to work this entire week, commencing 26th, so Beryl and I planned our own itinerary but it wasn't as exciting as those planned by our lovely daughter. We went to Shinjuku and Beryl found more little nick nacks to buy and then we hopped on the train and met Cae at Shibuya for coffee. Heard the buzz of many engines coming down the road, and about ten go carts came flying around the corner, driving on the main road amongst other cars and trucks. Apparently you can go on these 'Mario Carts' tours and get dressed up as Mario characters. Would be a bit of fun. We walked back through Yoyogi Park, where Cae saw us to the station and then left us to fend for ourselves. We found an American style burger place in the Lumine East building in Shinjuku (we always seem to end up in Shinjuku) and had a filling lunch/dinner. The waiter had also learned to speak English in Sydney, where he went to Sydney University. Walked around a bit more and then caught the train home.
Next day, Beryl and I caught a train to Idabashi and walked to the historic Koishikawa Korakuen which is one of Tokyo's oldest and best Japanese gardens. It was built in the early Edo Period (1600-1867) at the Tokyo residence of the Mito branch of the ruling Tokugawa family. Like most traditional Japanese gardens, Koishikawa Korakuen attempts to reproduce famous landscapes in miniature, using ponds, stones, trees and man-made hills to replicate both Japanese and Chinese scenery. Despite many modern buildings and the huge Tokyo Dome in the background this garden remains a beautiful natural escape from urban Tokyo. We hopped on the train and back to 'our town' (Shinjuku) for lunch, then off to Nipori Textile (or Tomato) town to look at endless fabric stores. I helped a poor old bloke pack bundles of fabrics which his wife had bought, into a carry bag and he left, only to return with a packet of cookies for me. Nice man. Beryl didn't buy too much. Back on the train to buy Shinkansen tickets for Saturday's trip to Kyoto. Went fairly seamlessly - I think meeting Michelle there and letting her organise it, helped.
Today, we both hopped on the subway system train to Akabanebashi to have a look at the Tokyo Tower. Standing 333 meters high in the center of Tokyo, Tokyo Tower is the world's tallest, self-supported steel tower and 13 meters taller than its model, the Eiffel Tower. A symbol of Japan's post-war rebirth as a major economic power, Tokyo Tower was the country's tallest structure from its completion in 1958 until 2012 when it was surpassed by the Tokyo Skytree. In addition to being a popular tourist spot, Tokyo Tower serves as a broadcast antenna. We had to pay to get an elevator or climb the 600 stairs, so we just had a look around the gift shops and the outside. Michelle's workplace is only a block or two away, but we weren't going to try and find it on foot. We hopped back on a train and got off at 'our town' to book tickets at the JR office, for our day trip to Kanazawa, the following morning.

The red coloured copy of the Eiffel Tower is 13 metres higher than the French one. Impressive.

Left this morning to link up with the Shinkansen bullet train, leaving from Omiya station. Found it a lot easier to find our way around the station, compared to Tokyo station and we were soon flying across the country at almost 300kph. Some of the tunnels we went through were very long and one was 22.25klm long. Didn't take too long at 260kph though. We saw ocean views, countryside and snow-capped mountains en-route and it wasn't long before we arrived at our destination. It was a nice surprise to find that our JR passes worked on the bus as well, so we hopped on board for the ride to One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gardens.
Kenrokuen Garden is a beautiful Japanese garden with an area of 11.4 hectares located on the heights of the central part of Kanazawa and next to Kanazawa Castle. The Maeda family, who ruled the Kaga Clan in feudal times, maintained the garden from generation to generation. From its scale and beauty, it is regarded as one of the most beautiful feudal lords' gardens in Japan. There is a stone lantern designed in the image of the Japanese koto (harp) by the pond, which becomes the symbol of Kenrokuen Garden. There is a fountain created using the natural pressure of water flowing from the higher pond. It is indeed a lovely garden.
From the garden we crossed the bridge across the highway to enter the Kanazawa Castle. The castle has burnt down several times over the centuries, and the most recent fires of 1881 were survived only by two storehouses and the Ishikawa-mon Gate. The gate dates from 1788 and faces Kenrokuen. The first buildings to be reconstructed were the two turrets (Hishi and Tsuzuki Yagura) and a long storehouse (Gojukken Nagaya) that connects the two turrets. The buildings were rebuilt to their original 1850s appearance using traditional techniques and materials. They were opened to the public in 2001 and contain excellent displays on traditional carpentry. It is the only part of the castle where an admission fee is charged. Reconstruction of the castle's former main entrance gate, the Kahoku-mon Gate, was completed in spring 2010. Its upper floor can be entered free of charge and contains some displays about the gate's history and construction. In 2015, the Hashizume-mon Gate and the Gyokuseninmaru Garden were added.
We were going to buy an ice cream cone where the ice cream was covered in gold leaf, but at $10 each, we decided against it. It was still cold and windy, so we waited for the JR bus to eventually arrive, before heading back to the station and the run back to Michelle and Cae's. We arrived back there at 7pm, pretty worn out.

Kanazawa Castle

We woke up this morning to the house shaking, walls creaking and pot plants swaying as earth tremor number four, since we arrived in Higashi-nakano, hit Tokyo. The quake was a magnitude 5 with the epicentre just north of Yokohama, a few hundred klms away. Looking at the information App, this was number 38 in the past 30 days, so it pays not to overthink the consequences of living in an unstable geological area, too much.
Michelle was working today so Cae took us to Ropongi to meet up with her at lunchtime. We walked around the area and then walked a part way through the Aoyama Cemetery, which is quite historic and had lovely cherry blossom trees, which were in flower.
When thinking about Tokyo's top points of interest, a cemetery is not likely the first thing to come to mind. While the Aoyama Cemetery may not be the most obvious choice for sightseeing, it provides an impressive link to Tokyo's past. Beneath its quiet and peaceful atmosphere lies a place that is rich with Tokyo's history and culture. It is the final resting place of many notable people. It was named after the Aoyamas of the Gujo Clan, a prominent family during the Meiji Period, who originally owned the 263,564 square meters of land on which it was built. Officially opened in September of 1874, it is known for being the first public cemetery in Japan, with the actual grave area spanning an impressive 128,019 square meters, making it the biggest cemetery in all of Tokyo's 23 wards. One of the most noteworthy Japanese citizens you can find in Aoyama Reien is Okubo Toshimichi. Born in 1830 in Satsuma, Kagoshima, Okubo became a samurai who helped overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate. It was January of 1868 that Kyoto Imperial Palace was seized by the Satsuma and Choshu forces. During this time, Okubo became known as one of the Three Great Nobles that led the Meiji Restoration, paving the foundation of modern Japan. He encouraged the establishment of technical schools, and also supported the granting of loans and subsidies from the government to private businesses. Okubo accomplished some ground-breaking reforms during his time as Finance Minister in 1871, including a Land Tax Reform, an end to official discrimination against the Japanese social outcasts known as 'burakumin,' and the prohibition of wearing swords in public. Okubo travelled to Europe and the United States as part of the Iwakura Mission, which sought to study the modern political, military, industrial, and educational systems of foreign countries. He returned to Japan in 1873 with the new knowledge he had acquired. However, not all were pleased with Okubo's modern ideas, and in 1878 he was assassinated by samurai from his homeland of Satsuma. The coachman of the carriage that was carrying Okubo was also killed during the time of assassination, and was buried together with his horse in the cemetery.
We walked through the park, where picnics and celebrations of Hanami were going in full swing. Every gust of wind caused a storm of white and pink petals to cascade around like snowflakes, so it is easy to see why the blossoms only last such a short time. If you are a week or two late, it is all over for each area of the country. Michelle went back to work and we left Cae and did the usual walking and window shopping until it was time to go back. We were all heading off to Kyoto in the morning, so bags had to be packed for the week.

Cherry blossoms and Ayoyama graveyard near Michelles work at Ropongi

Got up early this morning in order to make it in time for our reserved seat Bullet train leaving from Tokyo station. The station is massive and the subterranean precincts just go on and on. Lucky for us that Michelle knows her way around, although I noticed she had her google maps out. As it was, we had to ask which shinkansen platform our train was leaving from, because the signs were a little confusing. Wall to wall people, even at this early hour, were starting to annoy me already. Good thing I am such a mild mannered, placid person. We were soon on our way to Kyoto some 2.75 hours away by bullet train.
We hopped onto a subway train for the three stops to Karasuma-oike station and found a locker for our luggage, as we couldn't check in until 3pm. Michelle and Cae went off to hire a couple of bicycles, while Beryl and I did some sightseeing around the area. We kind of remembered the layout of this part of Kyoto from our last visit, so didn't really get lost. The cherry blossoms were starting to end here, having bloomed earlier than expected, but there were still plenty of flower laden trees. We found a big food hall on the top floors of a shopping complex and had an Okonomiyaki, which is a grilled, savoury type of pancake with the main ingredient being either cabbage or noodles. They are quite tasty and filling.
We continued our walk along the river, which was immensely crowded, and came across a ceremony, either Buddhist or Shinto, with much chanting and drumming. They were leaving a shrine area and hoisting palanquins onto their shoulders for the procession along the streets. It must have been an important procession, as streets were closed off as they approached and transited their way along, amongst the melee of crowds. The first five palanquins each had a young girl in them, dressed in traditional clothing and made up (to my way of thinking) as a Maiko or Geisha. Very ornate and beautiful. Wish we could find what the ceremony signified. At the tail end of the procession, the porters hefted a very heavy looking shrine and followed the leading palanquins down the roads, chanting 'Hoitto, Hoitto' to the beat of a drum as they toil along. It was really quite impressive.
We walked back to the Kyoto Karasuma Rokkaku Starbucks, which looks onto the lovely Rokkakudo Buddhist Temple, to enjoy sitting in the leather armchairs with a hot coffee and free Wi-Fi, whilst waiting for 'the kids' to finish their bike rides so that we could check in to the apartment. .

This small girl, along with around four others in similar palanquins, were carried through the streets of Kyoto in a ceremony of some sort.

Michelle and Cae still had their bikes for the day, so Beryl and I decided to catch a bus to Ginkaku-ji (The Temple of the Silver Pavilion) from Karasuma. Well, we couldn't even find the bus stop - thanks Mr Google Maps. There should be an instruction booklet, Google Maps for Dummies. We had been walking for around 30 minutes and a friendly Japanese guy asked if he could help us. We told him where we had walked from and he promptly informed us we should have been walking in the opposite direction. Not to worry, he walked us to a bus stop and told us which bus to catch and where to get off. The ride took another 40 or so minutes, but we got there in the end. We didn't go up to the Temple, as the crowds were too daunting. Mostly Chinese tourists, apparently, so we decided to do the Tetsugaku-no-michi (Philosophers Walk) to the Nanzen-ji Temple.
The trail was quite pretty and peaceful and is a narrow street that runs along a small canal surrounded by cherry trees and is about 1 km and a half long. Its name comes from the Japanese philosopher who taught for several years at the University of Kyoto and it is said he used to walk along this street during his moments of reflection. Making small detours along the way, you can also visit various temples and shrines.
The Nanzen-ji is one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in Japan, it covers a large area with beautiful gardens. You can have free access to the temple, while the entrance to some buildings has an entrance fee, in particular to the entrance gate (Sanmon, 500 YEN) and to the main building (Hojo, 500 YEN). There are also several small temples, also with admission fee: the Nanzenin Temple (300 YEN), the Konchiin Temple (400 YEN), the Tenjuan Temple (400 YEN). There is within this temple a portion of a red brick aqueduct, part of a system constructed in 1890 to carry water from the nearby Lake Biwa to Kyoto, which is still used today and to which belongs the channel that runs along the Philosopher's Walk. It is very curious to see a building like this in Japan, it looks like a Roman aqueduct of those found in many Italian cities. We met up with Michelle and Cae here, before once again parting ways as they continued their explorations by bike.
We were both pretty worn out and my back was killing me, so off to Karasuma Starbucks again to impose on their soft armchairs. We walked up the long hill to Keage station and caught the train back. We thought it would be packed, but amazingly, we got a seat.
The kids took us out to a vegan restaurant they were fond of, near Nishiki Market, where we all enjoyed a nice meal. It was a fair wait in line to get a table though and it was just about last orders before we got to sit down.

Philosophers walk in Ginkakuji area.

Today Beryl and I caught a bus to Gojo-zaka, where we had 20 minute walk up a hill, to see the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of Kyoto’s must-see attractions.
Presiding over the Southern Higashiyama Sightseeing district, with a brilliant view across the entire city, Kiyomizu-dera Temple is just about everything a temple shouldn’t be. It’s noisy, crowded and gaudy, but it somehow manages to transcend all of this to become one of Kyoto’s most worthwhile temples to visit. Start by climbing Chawan-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi to get there and you’ll soon see the brightly painted entrance gate and pagoda. The main hall of Kiyomizu-dera is presently being renovated. Construction is slated to finish in March 2020. During renovation, you can still visit the temple and even enter the main hall, but the exterior might be covered with scaffolding.
Kiyomizu-dera is composed of several Buddhist temples. Kiyomizu temple was founded in 798 AD and it is named for a waterfall on the grounds, 'Kiyoi mizu' which means pure water. As you climb the stairs to the entrance on your left is the Uma-todome, a set of wooden horse stalls from the Edo Period that was used by visiting samurai. Kiyomizu Temple is entered through the Nio-mon Gate, a two-story structure guarded by two Deva statues or Nio and two koma-inu (Lion dogs). The next gate is the Sai-mon with a cypress-bark roof held up by eight pillars. The gate is decorated with carved elephant heads. The original Kiyomizu Temple dates from the eighth century A.D. when the Shishinden Hall of the Imperial Palace at Nagaoka was moved here. The present buildings were re-erected in 1633 on the orders of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu. A two-storey gate to the west serves as the main entrance, with statues of Kongo-Rikishi standing in niches on both sides. The main image of the Shishinden is an 11-headed statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, believed to have been carved by the priest Enchin in the 7th century. The image called a Juichimen-Senju-Sengen-Kannon, is only displayed every 33 years. Close by is a belfry (Shoro) with the bell cast in 1478 and a fine three-storey pagoda, Sanju-no-to, dating from 1633, while to the east are the Scripture Hall and the Founder's Hall. Asakurado or Asakura Hall was built by Sadakage Asakura (1473-1512), a Buddhist devout and son of the emperor Temmu. As well as being a World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu was recently submitted as a candidate as a New Seven Wonders of the World.
After visiting the temple, we wandered around Sannenzaka shopping street and had lunch on a first floor restaurant. We then followed this road as it wound its way down past Nene no Michi, Kodaiji to Gion - the traditional pleasure and geisha quarter of the city. On the way is Yasaka Gojonoto, a five-story pagoda.
We slogged on until we reached the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Arts, but found it was being used today for a graduation ceremony for 8,000 students at a time. It was packed as they just filed out of both entrances for about 30 minutes. We managed to get in and have a look around, but it will be set down for another visit next time. As we left, the streets were filling up with thousands more coming in for the next ceremony. I was not looking forward to getting the train from Higashiyama Station (which translates as East Mountain, as a young female student informed me) because a continuous line of students were heading to the same station, but it wasn't too bad. A long day and a tiring one.

Noh-Mon gate

Pagoda of Yasaka (Hokan-ji Temple), Gion District, Kyoto

Today we caught the train for the 2.5hr trip to Mount Yoshino (Yoshinoyama) in Nara Prefecture. This has been Japan's most famous cherry blossom viewing spot for many centuries. There were the usual crowds at the station but were soon cleared as buses were filled for the run up the mountain. Michelle and Cae decided to do the walking trail and we finally met near our bus stop, about 2 hrs later. The roadway up the mountain is long and steep so most tourists opted to take the mini buses which were constantly streaming up the back road. We all decided to walk as far as we wanted and then turn around and come back
It is said that the first trees were planted along the slopes more than 1300 years ago, and today the mountain is covered by approximately 30,000 cherry trees of many different varieties, especially of the Yamazakura variety. Rather than a free standing mountain, Yoshinoyama is a north-facing mountain slope. It is divided into four areas: the Shimo Senbon (lower 1000 trees) at the base of the mountain, Naka Senbon (middle 1000 trees), Kami Senbon (upper 1000 trees) and Oku Senbon (inner 1000 trees) at the top of the mountain. Visitors can enjoy the cherry trees as they ascend the mountain, passing Yoshino's touristy town with its various temples and shrines, and enjoying hanami in the parks and viewpoints along the way. All the trees were in bloom and looked spectacular. Showers of petals covered us with every errant breeze, so we were fortunate with our timing as they would all be gone in a matter of weeks.
Yoshino Mikumari Shrine is a small Shinto shrine in the upper Kami Senbon area of Yoshinoyama. This serene shrine is dedicated to Ameno Mikumari, a female deity of water and safe childbirth who is believed to bestow fertility on those that pray to her. The shrine displays several ancient portable shrines (mikoshi) and artifacts and is one of four important mikumari shrines in Japan. We stopped here and saw a ceremony taking place, which looked interesting. The shrine's current main hall was built in 1604 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's son Hideyori and features a unique architectural style of the Momoyama Period. The hall's beautiful, layered bark roof was renovated in 2011, and the structure has been designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004. This marked the return portion of our trek and we made our way back down to the bus stop. Beryl and I opted to go the rest of the way to the station on the bus and the kids rolled up about half an hour later. Booked our seats for the train and made our way back to Kyoto.
On the train, we booked a hotel room for the night, which was reduced from around $800 per night down to $300, so we took it. On arrival, it just didn't look quite 'right' and when we were shown into the room, Michelle was mortified. She had booked us into a 'Love Hotel' complete with a Karaoke machine in the room, a condom vending machine in the cupboard, reflective tiles in the ceiling where you could watch yourself on the bed if you so desired and a bedside control with a dozen or so buttons, which she was too scared to touch. The floors were tiled and it was a huge room done up to look like a Roman Lido I reckon. Cae said it was like that so that they could hose it out rather than vacuum. It was funny at Michelle's expense, but she got over it.

This house sits amongst the cherry blossoms and must be one of the most photographed on the mountain, I reckon. You can see the cherry blossom 'snow' as a gust blows through.

We checked out of our hotel and left our luggage in Osaka railway station lockers until we came back from our mountain walk. The plan was to catch a train to Namaze station and then begin the easy hike along the Mukogawa Gorge and the now abandoned JR Fukuchiyama rail line. The trains that used to thunder along the tracks are now rolling down other lines so the old track has become an interesting hiking trail. You can start the hike either from Namaze or Takedao, both are connected to the JR line and have trains to Osaka. The track is well maintained and has amazing scenery and you can catch a train at either end of it. The hike takes about 3 hours but being an old railway line means that the whole thing is pretty level, albeit bumpy, so basically anyone who can walk shouldn't have too much trouble. It doesn't take long before you come to the first of several tunnels that you have to walk through, some of which are pretty long and pitch black so make sure your phone is charged for the flashlight or alternatively bring an actual torch. As you walk through the darkest tunnels, you can hear the squeaking and chittering of roosting bats. It is extraordinary how many people just walk through and are oblivious of the wildlife in areas. I guesstimated the distance and manually set the camera to snap a few pictures. Actually captured a few bats on 'film'. About halfway along the hike, you come to a bridge over the river in between two tunnels that has great views of the gorge. The walk takes about 3 hours at a leisurely pace, so bring along snacks and drinks and remember to take your rubbish back with you. For me, this was one of many highlights on this trip and I would do it again, taking a lot longer and exploring.
Caught the train at Takedao station to Osaka and then on to Kyoto, where we booked a hotel through Agoda. Arrived at the Righa Royal Hotel near Kyoto Station, only to find that they had no record of the booking. Luckily Beryl had a receipt for her credit card booking, on her iPod. Turns out that Agoda had double booked the room and had given it to another person, so we ended up with an upgraded room for 25% less cost. Perfect. A really good night's sleep in comfort. Bonus. We were able to leave our bags in storage at the hotel next morning and Michelle and Cae went to a museum, whilst Beryl and I went to Nishiki Market where I bought myself a quality, Japanese kitchen knife. It was dark when we picked up our bags, but we made it to our reserved Shinkansen back to Tokyo and then the train back to Higashi-nakano. The kids had organised to take a pair of animal refuge cats back to Tokyo and hand them off to their new owners, so there was a lot of meowing going on in the train, despite the cages being covered by a blanket. This was essentially the end of our tripping around and we had a couple of quiet days left in Higashi-nakano before flying back to Australia from Haneda airport on the 7th April. A most enjoyable and memorable trip where we saw new things and met some wonderful people with whom we hope to continue in friendship.

Rail bridge crossing the Mukogawa Gorge


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