Sydney to Japan

Journey                 # 11

Time:                      November. 2014

Shinjuku Railway Station is the busiest in the world, claiming 3million plus people passing through daily.

Tuesday 11th November - Day 1
Our daughter Michelle and her fiancé Cae, decided they wanted to get married in Japan, so after some reluctance on my part, we booked our tickets and nine family members flew across to the land of the rising sun.
Youngest daughter Sarah and her husband Owen couldn't come, as they had just been blessed with a newborn son, Jacob, and the flight would have been too much for them to endure.
Michelle planned an excellent itinerary and we mostly achieved everything on it. We, Beryl, Klaus, Jannene, Luke and Vanessa, arrived at Tokyo Narita airport around 7pm on the 11th Nov 2014 and found our way to the Narita Express where we had seats booked for Shinjuku Station.
Shinjuku railway station has in excess of 3 million people pass through it on a daily basis, has over 200 exits and is an easy place to get lost in, as we found out. Luckily, Michelle met us on arrival and led us into the chaos which is Shinjuku in rush hour. I reckon rush hour happens during at least 16 hours of the day.
We walked a couple of blocks and registered at the Best Western Astina, which was 'home' for the next couple of nights. Bought some food at the convenience store and ate a meagre meal that night before turning in.

The famous Shibuya Station intersection can become very congested and hectic in rush hour.

Day 2
Breakfast was included in the booking, so it was a pleasure to get a choice of some western cuisine as well as Japanese to start the day off.
Michelle and I walked up to the station to meet Alison and Chris, who had arrived on the morning flight from Australia, and got them settled into their room.
We had a walk around the area, as a family group and visited the Hanazono Shrine, which is from the Shinto religion. It was interesting to see people from all walks, ring the bell at the temple, deposit money in collection receptacles and maybe light incense and pray. The main religions in Japan are either Shinto or Buddhism or a mixture of both.
We all caught the train to Shibuya to do some shopping and look around the busy hub. I was looking for fishing tackle shops and found three multi story stores loaded with tackle. The price was more expensive that that in Australia, so I was a little disappointed.
Later that evening, we had dinner at a nice restaurant in the Takashimaya Times Square building, much to the amusement of the Japanese to see a large group of 9 westerners sitting at a table for a meal. The waitress was very pleased to hear me tell her that her English was very good. Next day we arranged to leave our luggage at the Astina and packed an overnight bag each for Hakone.

View of Mt Fuji, across Lake Ashi, at Hakone-Moto area.

Day 3
On Thursday 13th we travelled to Hakone via Odawara, on the shores of Lake Ashinoko. This area is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than 100 kilometres from Tokyo. It is famous for its hot springs, natural beauty and the view of nearby Mt Fuji.
We booked into the Hakone Hotel and were shown to our rooms. A big, luxurious area compared to the Big Western in Shinjuku. The big window opened up the view of the lake and Mt Fuji, and in the bathroom there were big barn door shutters that you could swing open, to give you the same view as you lay back in a steaming bath.
We got rugged up and walked to the ferry wharf only a hundred metres away and took the cruise on the 'Pirate Ship'. It was bitterly cold on the lake but the scenery was spectacular. An old Japanese man sat next to me on the top deck and asked if he could practise his English. He was a nice polite man who was on a school reunion. I gave him a chocolate Oreo biscuit and he pulled out a gift wrapped box of chocolates and insisted on opening it and giving me a few. His history of his life and experiences during his 80 odd years, was fascinating.

The Amasake Chaya Teahouse

Sulphur mining at Gora

Day 4
The following morning we got up and packed our luggage, leaving it at the hotel for storage until we returned from site seeing later that afternoon. We took the 30 minute walk along a part of the Old Tokaido road, through the cedar forest down to Moto-Hakone on the shoreline of Lake Ashi.
Had 'breakfast' at the 7eleven store and then caught a bus to the Amasake Chaya teahouse. It is run by Satoshi Yamamoto and has been in his family for 350 years. The building is not totally original but the thatched roof and atmosphere can transport you back to Japan's Edo period.
From there we caught another bus along the 'meandering' (I have never been on a narrower, acute bending, steep) road to Hatajuku to check out the Kanazashi woodcraft shop. Amazing and precise workmanship. We continued on to the Hakone Yumoto station to change buses for Kiga-Saskashita and then another bus change to Gora Station. I am glad that Michelle spent so much time organising the itinerary and being so efficient.
We had a walk around the hilly town, climbing up steep roadways that seemed to offer no exertion for the elderly Japanese residents, but had us puffing. The Gora gardens were lovely and overlooked the town and surrounding countryside. The town had sulphur mining in the vicinity and the strong smell rose out of the water drains in clouds of steam. The entire area is volcanic and unstable to some degree.
We lined up with the multitudes, to catch the cable car to Sounzan and then the gondola, or Ropeway as it is called, over 'Hell Valley' and finally down to Togendai and the Pirate Ship for the ride back to the hotel.
Hell Valley is a desolate looking area where sulphur is mined and hot, gassy steam rises out of fissures and bubbling springs. At one of the stops, they sell 'black eggs' which are boiled in the hot water of one of the many springs. The water turns the shell black and it is said that every black egg you eat will add 7 years to your life. Alas, we all got relegated to our allotted lifespan, as the line to buy eggs was hundreds of metres long and we had to get back.
We arrived later than anticipated and just made the last bus back to Odawarra, where we boarded the pre-booked Shinkansen (bullet Train) back to Tokyo and then another train to Shinjuku for a further night at the Astina hotel.

Two budding millionaires at the Bird Cafe, Mitaka.

Day 5
Today, we caught the train to Mitaka and walked through the beautiful Inokashira Park to the Ghibli Museum. Beryl and I decided to give the museum tour a miss, and walked through a portion of the huge parkland, seeing wonderful autumn colours and bright shrines.
We decided to have coffee in a quaint little 'bird cafe' which was run by a couple of young, pretty Japanese girls who did not speak or understand a word of English. We managed to order a Latte which came in a cup with a plain biscuit. The coffee tasted just like the latte satchel you can buy in Australia and without trying to sound like a coffee snob, it was forgettable. We got a shock when the bill came, showing an amount of 1,800yen or just over $Aud18. A couple of young entrepreneurs in the making.

Shibu-Matsuya Ryokan. Our traditional Japanese guesthouse. Chris and Alison getting into the culture.

The Japanese Macaques enjoyed the hot thermal springs, as did the babies.

Day 6
Next morning was a 6.30am and a quick walk, with all our luggage, to Shinjuku station where we had to catch a CHUO EXPRESS train TOKYO, find the correct platform and board the Shinkansen bullet train. We had time to grab some snacks, which mainly consisted of sushi rolls or junk food. From there we headed off for the speedy run to Nagano where we had to get off, go to the local line and buy a one-way ticket to Yudanaka.
The local train ride was about 70min. On our arrival there, we caught a bus to the Shibu Matsuya Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn and our next evenings stay. We had to leave shoes outside and observe the customs, which included an encouragement to wear the traditional Yukata robes and the wooden Gheta thong type footwear.
We checked in to our rooms and then got rugged up for the short trip to the Snow Monkey Park. The owner of the Ryokan kindly drove us there, up a very steep and narrow road. Very interesting when meeting a car coming the opposite way on the one lane road, with hundred foot drops into the valley.
The Macaques were there in big numbers and so were the tourists. The dominant male monkey made his presence felt as each time he came to the pool, other monkeys made a dash for places unseen. A few of the old females remained in the pool with him, but the others paid him a healthy respect.
We were all pretty worn out and then had to face the long walk back to our Ryokan. We got there in time for a walk around the town and some of our group had a dip in the Onsens. These are public baths and can be as hot as 50 degrees C, straight out of the ground. Lots of minerals and salts, but refreshing in the end. Males and females are separate, as it is public, but nudity isn't optional.
Keiko and Tomi are the owners and the Ryokan has been in their family for 12 generations. Keiko was helpful in showing us the proper way to wear the Yakuta and Tomi let us draw the Katana sword for some photos. A lovely couple who spoke English very well.
We all enjoyed a traditional Japanese feast that night and after our long walk, it was tough sitting or kneeling on the floor to dine. We got up in time for breakfast and then a quick rush to catch the bus and make our train connection for Takayama.

The ancient cemetary and temples behind the Ryokan, were fascinating. Signs were posted to watch out for bears. A couple of months back, a bear attacked a number of people waiting in a bus shelter not far away, so we kept an eye out.

Day 7
We arrived at Takayama and it was raining. The bus from the Yamakyu Ryokan was there to pick us up and drove through the narrow, winding streets to deposit us at the inn. It was traditional Japanese again, so off with the shoes in the entrance foyer and step up onto the wooden platform to get into a pair of slippers and then check in. Shown to our rooms and luggage stowed. The tradition is to have a hot cup of green tea or Japanese tea on arrival, and this we did, before having a look around the Ryokan.
We met up in the foyer again and went for a walk through town, using the same colour umbrellas which were handed out for us. It would be a beautiful town to explore in fine weather. Back to base for dinner and then out again to visit a Sake brewery, where we had a 'tasting board' of local sakes. The Plum wine was wonderful.
When we got back, Chris and I had a bath in the Onsen, so I experienced the cultural thing to do. We each had a story to tell about the bonding experience and it made everyone laugh. My version was the true one. Water was a little bit sulphurous, but pleasant enough.

Dining experience at the Okonomiyaki restaurant

Day 8
Next morning, before breakfast, we went for another walk to visit the street markets and it was freezing cold and drizzling with rain. Had a look at some produce and then hiked back to the inn for brekkie. We went upstairs to pack and brought our luggage to reception, where they stored it for us so we could walk around town for a few hours. Our train wasn't leaving for Kyoto until the afternoon, so we had some time on our hands.
We collected our gear after a few hours and then caught the train to our next stop, which was Kyoto and walked to the Koto-An Hotel. We had a townhouse to ourselves, but it was not star rating. We had a place to stay, at least, and Michelle and Cae's wedding day was drawing very close, so we were happy with what we had. We dined out at a local restaurant, where we experienced a 'Japanese Pancake' called Okonomiyaki. It was actually very tasty and we were also happy to be able to sit somewhere you could put your legs under the table.

The entrance to Shunkoin Budhist Temple, where the wedding took place.

Thursday - Day 9
Today we rushed around getting ready to catch a couple of buses to the Shunkoin Temple, where the marriage ceremony was to take place. The boys got their suits on and the girls got into their pretty dresses, but yours truly only had jeans and a dress shirt.
The transport is always packed in Japan, and we got a lot of looks from other passengers, as Michelle and Cae were dressed in their wedding clothes and Michelle had a bouquet of flowers in her hand. An old lady asked me, in Japanese, what was happening, or I guessed that was what she was saying. I said, 'marriage'. She said something to the person next to her and so on, and in a minutes lots of passengers clapped and nodded respectfully.
We arrived at the temple site and it was huge. Had to ask for directions to find the Shunkoin but we made it on time. It was a beautiful temple and we were all served tea before the ceremony began. The ceremony was lovely and the pure tones of the bells during the lead up, were amazing for such a small 'bowl'. It was a cold day and Michelle would have felt it, only having her light clothing on.
After the wedding we all hopped on a train to Arashiyama for some lunch and ended up at the Sagano-yu cafe which is a beautifully restored old Japanese bath house which is now a cafe and shop. No English spoken here, but we had Takuto and Kaori who are friends of Shell and Cae's and came down for the wedding, to assist us. Pancakes all round for 11 of us. Took a while to seat us all though as the place was very busy. From there we made our way back to Koto-An and got changed. We were all pretty tired and I vaguely remember some laughter and drinking going on in another room of the house but I fell asleep. Beryl and I gained a new son-in-law and inherited more family. A good day.

Persimmon slice for dessert.

Day 10
Packed our bags this morning and walked to the main office, a block or so away, where they kindly let us store our luggage for the day. The younger ones hired pushbikes and rode along the river for several hours, whilst Alison, Chris, Beryl and I went to the Nishiki Market and the Teramachi, Shinkyogoku shopping arcades.
We arrived back at the office and retrieved our luggage to catch the bus to our next destination, the 5 star Yazuya Ryokan in the Gion district of Kyoto. This was the location Michelle had chosen for the reception and it is a very opulent hotel. Strict traditional rules applied and we had a wonderful meal served by lovely ladies. They explained what each dish was, as it came out. The food looked like artwork on the plates

The Prince Hotel at Hiroshima.

Day 11
Next morning, we caught taxis back to Kyoto Station and were lucky to find lockers to store our luggage in. Michelle searched for an empty locker and saw two on opposite sides of the passage which she managed to secure. She got yelled at by others wanting a locker, but held her ground.
Luggage stowed, we looked around a bit and then walked down to the Kobo-ichi, one of the largest flea markets in Kyoto. It is held on the 21st of each month, inside the grounds of To-ji Temple and was very, very densely crowded.
Back to Kyoto and then the bullet train down to Hiroshima where we were booked into the Prince Hotel for our next leg of the journey.
We had asked for non smoking rooms and ours reeked of cigarettes, so they upgraded us to a bigger, better room with wonderful views of the harbour and surrounds. Michelle and Cae came to visit, and also complained of cigarette smell, so got an upgrade as well.
Their room wasn't as nice as ours, so we swapped them. In hindsight, I thought that the smoke smell may have filtered through the air conditioning ducts. The Japanese seem to be heavy smokers and there is no issue with smoking in dining areas.
We had to ask to be seated in non smoking areas, but they were only divided by a few feet so it only helped a little bit. We had dinner in the hotel dining room that night and planned the next day's outing to Miyajima Island.

The Torii Gate at Miyajima Island.

The ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall, Peace Park, Hiroshima.

The centuries old, five story pagoda on Miyajima Island

Day 12
Chris, Alison, Beryl and I decided to get up early to catch the private ferry from the Hotel jetty to the island, as it got there a couple of hours earlier than the JR Line one and saved us a shuttle ride to the train station, a train to the ferry terminal and then the ferry to the island.
We walked out of the terminal and headed off towards the Torii Gate, along with the multitudes. There are lots of Sika deer on the island and they have become over friendly with tourists, to the point of being annoying. I saw one bump an ice cream cone out of a kids hand, gulp it down and then try to get the fathers one as well. Another deer had a tug of war with a lady over a magazine or similar. She got it back, chewed over, and put it behind her back only to have a second deer grab it as she was squealing at the first one. Looked funny, but they do warn tourists not to have any paper or loose items in pockets or hands. Michelle had eaten some corn off a cob later on and was wondering where to put the rubbish, when a deer snatched it out of her hand. Problem solved.
We walked past the centuries old five story Pagoda, which is an imposing site, as is the vermillion coloured Torii Gate, sitting out in the water. The O-Torii (Grand Torii Gate), which stands in the sea about 16.8 meters in height, is among the most well known structures of Itsukushima Shrine. The present O-Torii construction is based on the Ryobu-torii style, which is a wooden Shinto gate design marked by four supporting pillars. Its roof is thatched with Japanese cypress bark, and the entire body coated with vermilion lacquer. The four-pillar torii style is said to have been adopted when the torii was rebuilt in 1547. The main pillars are approximately 13.4 meters tall and 9.9 meters in circumference, and the crossbeam is approximately 23.3 meters long. The O-torii is approximately 212.7 meters from the Haiden (Main Worshipping Hall) and 173. 4 meters from the Hitasaki (Front Lantern), and is supported by its own weight. The current torii, which is the eighth, was erected in 1875. Torii gates are said to be the gateway between the human and spirit worlds.
We kept walking up towards the ropeway, where a gondola ride takes you up to Mt Misen. The autumn colours as we walked through the virgin forests were truly spectacular and inspiring. If you could walk through before the crowds arrived, it would be doubly so. They really packed the cable cars to maximum, so catching the view was almost impossible. The view from the top was fantastic, only being spoiled by the haze on the day.
We headed back down and prepared to travel back to Hiroshima on the JR Line ferry. We met Michelle, Cae and the rest of the family as they came out of the terminal. They had just arrived, several hours after we did, and wow, did they have a crowd to contend with. Beryl and I were talking to them for a couple of minutes and noticed Chris and Alison were not there. We headed off to the ferry, only to see them waving goodbye as it left the dock. Another ferry left 10 minutes later, so we caught them up as they waited for us at the other end.
From there, we wanted to go to the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, so caught the train to Miyajima-guchi Station and then the tram to the A-Park stop. The park is just across the road and it is where the atom bomb was exploded during WW11. The A-Bomb Dome is the skeletal ruins of the former Industrial Promotion Hall. It is the building closest to the hypocentre of the nuclear bomb that remained at least partially standing. It was left how it was after the bombing in memory of the casualties. The A-Bomb Dome, to which a sense of sacredness and transcendence has been attributed, is situated in a distant ceremonial view that is visible from the Peace Memorial Park's central cenotaph. It is an officially designated site of memory for the nation's and humanity's collectively shared heritage of catastrophe. The Children's Peace Monument nearby is dedicated to the many children destroyed by the bomb and welled up deep emotion in me. I was reduced to tears when I saw an old man sweeping away leaves from the foot of the memorial and then step into the bushes to weep. I couldn't stay there, as many Asian tourists were laughing and joking, not necessarily at the incident but the atmosphere didn't hit them as it did me. From there we walked through the large parklands to the museum, where pictures and artifacts of the horror were displayed. Again, I couldn't stay in the museum as it was unbelievable crammed with humanity and was hot and stifling. I had to get out and wait outside for the others. My back was also in severe pain and spasming. Caught the tram back to Hiroshima station and then the shuttle bus back to the hotel. It was a long day, so we were happy to finally get back to the Prince Hotel and relax a bit before dinner.

Traditional Kimono dress isn't as common as one would suspect. These ladies are waiting for a bus.

Day 13
We discussed which time we would all leave the following morning, as we all had different destinations for the next two days. Chris and Alison were heading off to Igaueno to the Ninja Museum and then to Magome and Tsumago in the Kiso valley whilst the others were going to the Shojoshin-in Temple in Koya-cho.
Beryl and I had decided to head back to Shinjuku, so that we didn't have to race around on the last day, trying to get the tickets on the Narita Express booked and actually getting there in time to make our flight home.

Some of the Gyoen Gardens.

This old lady has quite a load on her bicycle, in Fabric Town.

Day 14
We walked to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which were very nice and spent a few hours there. Then we had a bit of a shop around, braving the rail system and heading off to Fabric Town, Nippori. Managed the maze which is Shinjuku Station and got on the correct rail system as well as the correct train platform. Beryl was disappointed to find most of the stores closed, but still enjoyed looking at many, many fabric stores. I was also beside myself with excitement.
Got back to Shinjuku and decided to book our tickets to Narita on the following day. Task accomplished, we headed off for the South East exit. An hour later, we were still trying to find our way out of the station. I was hot and flustered, dropped my reading glasses somewhere in the station and had asked a number of people how to get out to our exit, all to no avail as they couldn't understand or speak English. Finally a young bloke who had lived in Tokyo for 10 years, approached us to see if he could help. He worked out where to go and we used our passes to get onto a platform, walked to the end, caught an escalator up to the next level, walked out to the concourse, caught another escalator up a further two levels and then saw the steps to the S.E. exit up another level. How on earth did we end up four levels down is anyone's guess. Beryl suggested we go to the lost and found to see if my glasses were handed in, but I figured half a million people would have ground them to dust and besides, I wasn't venturing back in there to find the office.
Later that night, we lined up in a ridiculously long queue to have dinner at the Takashimaya Times Square dumpling restaurant. We cut the queue by about an hour, by agreeing to sit out on the icy cold forecourt of the restaurant rather than wait for a table inside. They supplied us with blankets to drape over us, so it was fine with us. We met up with Michelle, Cae, Luke, Vanessa and Jannene, back at the Astina, as they had arrived there from Shojoshin-in. Alison and Chris were due to arrive back the following afternoon, which was our initial plan. In reality, we wouldn't have made our train and flight, comfortably, had we done so.

Flying in to Mascot over Cronulla Beach and Botany Bay.

Day 15
Well, our vacation was over. Today we did our final pack and took our luggage to reception for a few hours storage. We had a last look around a few stores, as Beryl wanted to buy her mum a cardigan she had seen. I wanted to take a litre bottle of Kahlua back but we couldn't find it in the huge department store. Michelle finally made herself understood and it was a surprise to find that amongst the hundreds of bottles of wine and spirits we had been searching through, the one we were after was sold, not in the liquor store, but in a totally different building, the BIC camera and Electrical store. How silly of us not to realise that the camera store sold liquor. Shouldn't have been surprised, as the 7Eleven stores sold 400ml bottles of bourbon, whisky, Sake etc for $4.75 and a cup of coffee cost $5.50. Go figure!
We all made a dash for Shinjuku Station in the rain, and Chris and Alison had just arrived back so we got to say good bye to them before they headed back to Tennant Creek in central Australia the following day. Luke, Vanessa and Jannene were on the same flight as us and as I walked down the aisle during the flight, I was envious to see that they had all managed to fall asleep in their seats. I was just that much too tall to manage that in any degree of comfort, so it was a long flight back for me. I did do some reading and watched two movies, though. We landed at Gold Coast Airport the next day and I bought my Kahlua duty free from there. Caught the next flight to Sydney and hour or so later and got home, where jet lag finally caught up with me. I didn't really want to travel to Japan in the first place, but had no choice really seeing it was our daughter's wedding. Having now been there, I would certainly go back for a holiday to see the magnificent countryside again. The kids are moving there for at least a year, in February, so we will be going for a visit in that time. Japan revisited?



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