A Travellerspoint blog

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Nikko

Bus trip up the mountain to Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji. The Tamozawa Imperial Villa. Being cold, being hot.

rain 9 °C

Nothing like a good sleep is there? I go to bed too late and we wake up early. This morning getting up early was good because it stretched out the day and we did lots without feeling pressured.

Breakfast was "interesting". We were seated at the same table as last night, there was a little bowl waiting of us each. A bowl containing salad. With shredded cabbage as the main component. There were two tiny and tantalising pieces of fruit in another bowl. Pineapple and orange, very sweet or perhaps that's due to the lack of fruit intake lately.... Next course of breakfast was miso style soup. Strangely I loved this for breakfast because I dislike sweet food before lunch. Next course (stomach now expanding), was scrambled egg, toast, hash browns and crumbed fish fillets. Heaven knows how, but I ate most of this, even after the huge dinner last night. I am normally the owner of a small appetite. It served us well to have eaten a lot because we didn't eat lunch and we were cold today.

We took the local bus/coach up the mountain this morning. There was hardly anybody on the bus. It was 8:30 Saturday morning and quite chilly, threatening rain all day long. The ride up the mountain was one of those with many hairpin turns and steep drops with magnificent views. I saw a monkey! The landscape was rather barren after the winter snows and as we ascended we saw chunks of solid ice still present in the ground. At this point Paul and I exchanged slightly worried looks.... Would our layers be enough? Why didn't I take my gloves that I'd packed? In the end it was all right because there was next to no wind and it didn't ever pour with rain. It was 9C so somewhat bracing....

At the first stop there was a cable car that crossed over a chasm so that you can get a good view of the area. It only took 7 minutes but it was too early/not open yet, and not worth the money and too cold, lots of reasons....so we gave it a miss.
We waited for the next bus. There was nobody around except a few motorcyclists and a few crazies who'd brought their dog up for a walk?! It was bleak and cold and nowhere to walk a dog.

Next stop was a little town where the lovely Lake Chuzenji is. It is a very big lake, bordered by mountains and probably popular for holidays and fishing, boating etc. Ordinarily, Paul and I would have gone for a long walk around the lake but the cold was just too much. We walked to see a tall waterfall called Kegon Falls. Very nice indeed, it fell over the backdrop of an enormous chunk of ice and the other icy lumps scattered about. The viewpoints for these falls are numerous so lots of photos were taken. The number of visitors was perfect. We didn't have to battle against crowds or coach loads.

Since the weather was unpleasant, we didn't stay long. I'm sad about that because some very nice nature walks are located here. Anyway by the time we returned to the hotel, it was still only 11am, still time to explore! After a hot drink from the vending machine, some origami attempts and a little rest in the lobby, it was time to head out again. This time to the Nikko Botanical Gardens, but they were closed. Sad. So Plan B was activated, we headed down the road to the Tamozawa Imperial Villa. What a gem! This was the holiday retreat of the Emperor Taisho and was built in 1899. It was used by three emperors and three princes until 1947. It has been extended over the years so we were able to see 3 styles of Japanese architecture in one place. Typically, the building materials are wood, metal, paper and lacquer. It's been restored and is perfect. Such an enormous building though, with 83 of the 106 rooms for support staff and chamberlains etc. it is possible to see how they lived and went about conducting business even though the rooms were empty. I was reminded so strongly of Frank Lloyd Wright's work, it's easy to see what influenced him. I would like a house designed like this. Everywhere is serene and relaxing and a place of simple beauty and clarity.

A stroll in the gardens revealed air raid shelters, stone mini pagodas, a 400 year old weeping cherry tree (not yet in bloom unfortunately), mossy rocks, baby bamboo used as ground over and the honourably titled Japanese Skunk Cabbage (an orchid like monocotyledon growing in water).

By now in need of refreshment, we had green tea and a red bean jelly "thing" in a small cafe on the grounds. The last stop on today's adventure was at a very old graveyard where the stones are so old that the inscriptions are almost gone and moss rules over everything. There were Buddhas and obelisks and upside down mushroom shapes. Those belonging to children had 2 animals holding balloons.

It is nice to be sitting here in a cosy hotel room, getting my blog done early, listening to the rain outside. Tonight we'll have another dinner here at the hotel, then some interesting packing decisions need to be made. In Japan there is a luggage forwarding service. You use it to send your bags ahead if it is difficult to carry them. We were advised to send our bags to Kyoto because the journey from Nikko to Takayama will take about 7 hours and a lot of train changes. We need only take enough for Takayama, but this means we have to forecast weather and anticipate activities...... Not looking forward to that. I guess it can't all be serene perfection.

Posted by fay_bee 01:11 Archived in Japan Tagged nikko Comments (0)

Takayama

Four trains and a ryokan.

overcast 4 °C

Today involved mainly 2 activities. Travelling and eating.

This morning, we packed up the suitcases and entrusted them to the forwarding services. For $30 both our cases were sent to Kyoto. We, on the other hand have distilled our requirements to a daypack each for two nights in the very cold Japanese Alpine prefecture of Gifu. That takes some serious foresight and precision packing. I think I have packing down to a fine art. Anyone needing packing advice, I can helpyou. :)

Breakfast was another gut expanding affair, with the now perfuncturary salad, soup and cooked fare. Couldn't quite do it justice this time.

Took the bus for the last time down to Nikko JR station and just managed to board with 5 mins to spare, if that! Basically the first two train rides were the reverse of those on Thursday: from Nikko to Utsonomiya, then the bullet train to Tokyo. The next bullet train was to Nagoya. Quite a distance but the speed meant we were there in 2 hours. Bit worryingly, there were power outages on the tracks to Gifu, but they were fixed when it came for us to leave. We had 2 hours in Nagoya, so we found a nice place to eat that was not much wider than the train itself. Had some most delicious food again. Some earnest slurping happening in all directions right there. My slurping is quite pathetic. It's more like a sucking noise and pretty feeble at that.

If you are ever at Nagoya train station, remember to wear arctic style clothing. It is windy and freezing there. It is also mad busy, worse than Tokyo Station.

Along the way, I made the following observations from my view out of the train windows......
Japanese houses are pretty drab. They can be high rise apartments, traditional style with pagoda roofs, blocky boxes with neutral colours or modern which is just a bit odd. Most people park their cuboidal vehicles (they are in love with all small cars like Rukus which hasn't taken off in Perth) outside and their newness is a stark contrast with the surroundings.

There seems to be a huge abundance of arable or subsistence farming. There are allotments, wood chopping,and market style gardens and fields everywhere even within a few metres of the giant corporations such as Sony, Panasonic, Fujiy and Meiji, all of which I saw today. Not only do we have a blend of garden, house and factory, but throw in the odd shrine and burial area in the corner of the field and you pretty much have all aspects of life covered. I suspect some of these little burial areas are ancestral. The pervading grey and mist and dampness put me in mind of parts of the Balkans or parts of Ireland.

The last leg of the journey, from Nagoya to Takayama was picturesque. We began to go up into the mountains, so travelled through valleys and over wide gravelly rivers and though numerous tunnels. There was an alternating pattern of forest and towns but the common thread was the water ways. I glimpsed a few waterfalls in the forests and the river changed from wide and slow to fast flowing and hydroelectric related. The ride to Takayama was soporific, and we arrived a bit tired, some 8.5h after we set out this morning. The temperature at 5pm as 4C. The taxi took us to our Ryokan which is a traditional Japanese inn. Here the authentic experience began. The inn is just so lovely, there are collectibles in cabinets around every corner: glassware, glasses, ceramic and pottery, tiny glass figurines, antique clocks etc. This place is big but our room is small, consisting of just a square room with minimal cupboard space. The floors are tatami mats so you cannot wear shoes or put bags on them. The windows are covered with wood and paper instead of curtains. Our room door is the same. There is a low table and legless chairs in the centre of the room and a thermos of water plus green teabags. At 7pm, two people arrived to set up the futons. From the cupboard, they whipped out the mattress, sheets, eiderdowns and coverings and with lightening speed and snappy precision executed a karate chop style bed making performance. Paul and I stood aside watching and speechless. Please come and make up our bed at home, I thought....

I needed a shower. There is one (just one) shower here because normal people do the nudie bathing. But I needed to wash my hair today. I got the key from reception for the shower. The shower room was Right Next Door to the banquet room where there was a lot of raucous carry on and waitresses scurrying in and out with trays of food...... Here's me with my bathroom bag and towel ducking into the shower next door. Truly one of those great holiday moments when you can't actually believe what is really happening. And no the shower wasn't 100% normal either. There is always a challenge when you are myopic. I have to work everything out before I remove my glasses. After showering, I wore the traditional pyjamas and yukata provided. Very comfy. I want some!

Dinner here is authentic. We sit on the ground, we are served by the "mothers" who wear the traditional clothes. The meal can only be described s a feast. Fortunately everything except dessert was on the table at the same time so there were no ongoing surprises. The vegetarian message had not been transmitted by the trip organisers, but there was absolutely no shortage of food. I wasn't very hungry today but the meal was too amazing to not try what I could. There was sashimi, tempura, rice, prawns, fish, soup, pickles, vegetables, a pastry topped seafood soup and a stewpot (not for me) which was raw but cooked over a flame on the table. Dessert was a type of agar blancmange with fruit. I was full but not to the gills. I want to be able to sleep tonight! Presentation of food is famously beautiful and yes it was.

This inn is full of staff, mostly "mother" cooks. Everyone seems busy and happy. Perhaps this banquet is making them seem even more so. We shall see tomorrow if there is not another banquet.

I was surprised to find we have one of those godawful electric toilets annexed to our room. I was expecting to find the hole in the floor. They don't bother me unless I am teetering over one with a heavy daypack on my back, a swinging handbag in front of me whilst gripping my trouser legs up from the ground and scrabbling for the toilet paper...... As happened today in Utsonomiya station. This is nothing people, I've been to possibly the worst toilet in Eastern Europe and THAT was my benchmark for bad toilets.

Since we cannot work out the heating on the AC contro (all in Japanese) we are sitting in a cosy corner on the ground floor, to do our relaxing and blogging. There is a lovely gas heater, comy couch and hot drinks close by. We can hear the kitchen "mothers" clattering in the kitchen and the party revellers outside. I think one man in particular has had a bit too much sake.

I hope I won't freeze tonight and I might end up wearing everything I stuffed into my daypack tomorrow.

Signing off from Takayama, good night!

Posted by fay_bee 04:47 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Takayama

The old Japan. The other side of Japan. Sake and soba.

sunny 11 °C

Sleeping in a futon was like being the filling in a soft white bread sandwich. Wrapped up and cosy. Futons (and sandwiches) don't squeak or move or bounce.

OMG breakfast. We sat in the same dining room, on the floor and faced the biggest breakfast ever... Traditional Japanese plus a mini croissant. So that meant a smoked fish fillet, rice, miso paste and some radish?flakes cooked over a mini burner, pickles, poached egg in a ramekin, yakult (!), green tea, red beans, and various mysterious but delicious things. Possible one item was bamboo shoots. We didn't need lunch today.

After ruggung up against the cold, we set off to explore Takayama. It is really nice here, I like it heaps. There are lots of small shops and cafes and residential buildings that are traditional and old and quaint. Most people put beautiful perfect pot plants outside their steps. Bikes and belongings can be left out too. I tried to buy some shoes today, but the store was shut. The display was left outside unattended for the next day?!

We explore the walking tour which took us around so many wonderful shrines and temples, gates and statues that it was ridiculous. Per square meter this was the most densely and quintessentially Japanese place I've seen so far. Everywhere you look was a photo opportunity. There is a backdrop of a snow capped mountain range, cedar trees, cherry blossom and the view is from a height so you also get the vista of the town itself.

There are 2 morning markets here and we found one. It is situated along the river and the stalls sell handicrafts, fresh produce and knickknacks. There is a plethora of vacuum bagged mystery foods, some in liquid, others not. Freshly cooked rice crackers and other savoury snacks are made and sold, as well as some sweet oddities like a cube of egg omelette outer with a marshmallow interior. Not nice.

I found a shop selling handmade traditional pants, nice threads, materials and buttons. I bought some buttons, it was a humorous experience in the communications department but I really enjoy interacting with local people and usually try whenever the chance arises.

The fact that I only have a daypack on this cation of the trip was a bit annoying, I don't have the space to buy much so I stick to buttons and small flat things or edibles etc. Am hoping that in Kyoto I can shop with less constraints. Not that I like shopping, I like looking at new/different things and feeling inspired.

It was opportune to get the train tickets reserved for tomorrow's journey while at the JR station. We caught the bus to Hida Folk Village which is up a bit of a hill. This village is we're they have preserved traditional buildings from the region. Most of them a original and restored but are very old 1700-1800's so that is just amazing in itself. These buildings are very big wooden monstrosities with thickly thatched roofs, paper windows, beams that are merely slashed together with a type of straw rope and earthen floors. The layout inside didn't vary much over the years. A stable/animal barn featured at the front of all of them, plus a prayer room, central living area and bedrooms. It was so cold inside them today, I can barely imagine being in one with 2m snow on the roof..... Shoes had to be removed for walking on wooden floors and pretty soon my feet were ice blocks. Each house showcased a traditional craft e.g. Paper making, straw weaving, rice preparations, carpentry, sledges, etc. the tools of the trade are displayed inside.

After Hida Folk Village, the local bus took us back to the station and the search for a place to eat dinner began. Surprisingly, the place was quite deserted and looking rather like a steamed bun might be all we would have, but then like a beacon there was a nice big warm sake brewery serving fresh hot soba, tempura, Hida beef stew, and sake! Nom nom.

It was getting colder and darker by now so time to find our ryokan. This place is very homely and friendly. So much nicer than an impersonal chain hotel. You get to talk to the kitchen staff, the lady at reception, the people in the baths.... They make up your futon and leave you fresh green tea and tasty treat when you come back after a long day. LIKE!

And now we are sitting in the cosy cove, wearing our traditional gowns, heater on, watching people walk by, surrounded by cabinets of lovely antiques. This ryokan won a trip advisor award for last year, it is very easy to see why. It is called Yamakyu and is on Facebook. We had our photo taken and might be on there..... I am going to check that out right now.

Posted by fay_bee 04:06 Archived in Japan Tagged takayama Comments (1)

Takayama to Kyoto

Bento box on the Shinkansen. A pointless taxi ride. The machine that goes psh.

semi-overcast 14 °C

Woke up in the futon sandwich and got ready for action. Had breakfast again in the dining room, some more mysterious food, like these gelatinous translucent white cold noodles with a dob of wasabi. The hot miso paste on rice, more pickles and miso soup, a croissant and a tiny pot of plain pot set yummy yoghurt. Green tea of course. We left behind piles of nougat as thank you gifts: in the room, the dining room and at reception. These are called omiyage and are tokens of appreciation. Ours were nothing like the omiyage they sell in the department stores.....

The ryokan shuttle took us to the JR station where our day packs were locked away while we had the last 2 hours to look around Takayama. It was still chilly but the sun was out. There seemed to be a lot more tourists today, but the place still has a very empty quiet feeling. Which is fine.
And so we had another train ride in reverse, this time returning to Nagoya to connect with the Shinkansen for a short ride to Kyoto. The trip to Nagoya is very pretty, there were so many cherry blossoms out and people working in the fields, it's all so idyllic really until you see a monstrous big factory.

At Nagoya, there was 20 mins until the connecting train, so we grabbed two bento boxes as you do, from the shop. These lunch boxes are works of art. It starts from the outside, with amazing packaging, that you feel bad about throwing away. Inside is a chocolate box style arrangement of tidbits. Carefully fashioned piles of pickles, vegetables, sushi rice lumps, mystery jelly things and mystery round things plus the essential tofu product, all placed in plastic or paper patty pans. There are even flower shaped garnishes. Each bento was about $9.50. The ride in the bullet train was only 35 mins, scarcely time to finish admiring, photographing and eat the artwork.

(If anyone has read the Japanese murder story called "Out" then it will bring more meaning to how these boxes are made and presented).

Being such pros with public transport, we caught the subway straight away to Shinjo station, near the hotel. However. . . . . The map we had, and the maps on the streets were not helpful at all and street signs are not in English. Wandered around up and down back streets for 10 mins. Decided to hail a taxi. The driver didn't speak English but when he saw the address Paul showed him, it was the universal facial expression that said, "You cannot be serious, but ok if that's what you want". He drove around the block so that he was facing the correct way on the one way street, then drove 100m from where he collected us and delivered us to the front door of the Mitsui Garden Hotel. I don't know if I was amused or annoyed or embarrassed.

The hotel lobby is shiny and big and modern. The hotel room itself is a whopping 22msq and you can hear your neighbours. Several times I thought that our door was being opened. Paul went on a salad seeking mission while I sorted out my stuff. He returned with lots of nice salad, strawberries and whole meal bread. I am starting to miss my home diet but it is actually better to eat here than a lot of places we've been to overseas. At least Japanese food is light, fresh, easily digested and not greasy. I just miss my green smoothie for breakfast....... :(

The hotel room has a machine to clean the air. It makes a lovely soothing pth sound.

The tour guide rang this evening to find out what we wanted to do tomorrow. She is showing us around for 8hours. It was bad timing, because we were in the middle of a study up of the guide book and it is just overwhelming the number of things to do and see here. I guess it is easier to say, we don't want to be stuck in queues, we don't want to waste time. We like gardens, out of the way local things, handicrafts, artisans and some bargains. She said she will come up with something. That will all be revealed in tomorrow's blog entry. In a way, it's nice to not be planning and leaving it up to somebody else instead. :)

Sayonara.

Posted by fay_bee 04:58 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Kyoto

Temples, shrines, castles, kimono man, sushi experience and the Y100 shop.

semi-overcast 15 °C

It's late and it's been such a long day. I want to write a lot but the bed beckons.... I shall try to be concisely descriptive.

Breakfast was not great. Tomorrow we will BYO fruit. Why don't they out out fresh fruit?! Grrrr!

Today we had 8h with our own private guide at our disposal. We didn't know really what to do. We took the bus to see the Nijo Castle. It is old like Versailles, but completely different of course. The highlight was most definitely walking on the nightingale floor. Just like in the book Crossing the Nightingale Floor! It doesn't squeak, no, this floor chirps and tweets like birds. It was designed to warn the emperor and those inside if there was an intruder. Some very magnificent large rooms and corridors here. It is on the world heritage list along with

After this we had a reservation at a kimono design and dyeing office. We had a personal presentation, just us! The entire process was explained, how they come up with designs, how they are at the beck and call of the "Producer" who is the middle man between customer and designer. The design is transferred from small scale to full size by the hand of a talented human, no machines, computers or lasers etc are used. The silk panels are then dyed by hand using a deer hair brush on a stretched out frame. The deer hair was plucked in spring apparently when very soft.....

They use a resist method, much like batik but using gum instead of wax. Then the gum is washed away so that the white areas can be hand painted in a gradual manner. I really wish I could try this. Kimono-san was getting more and more animated and excited, spurred on by my intelligent and arty questions no doubt! LOL!!! I spotted a mistake and he laughed and made a comment. I told the interpreter to tell him that my job as a QA Manager is to spot anomalies and mistakes. He thought that was hilarious. Me too.

We were given tea and a Japanese sweet (the red bean pastry in a variety of shapes did colours). Mr Kimono showed us photos of Elton John wearing several of the outfits he had commissioned from them. So this guy was no small fish. His art is one of the last of its kind in Kyoto. He showed us books containing woodcuts of the kimono designs from a hundred years ago. These were preserved for generations to come. Fascinating.

When he finally stopped talking and demonstrating, he drove us to a place to eat lunch, then said goodbye. The experience was not only interesting for what it was but also culturally and socially appreciating the way Japanese people respect the past and each other and aesthetics. Certainly western people could learn a lot from that. They have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for fine things and take time to sense the quality and think about meanings, rather than rushing and grabbing and being superficial. I had that feeling again, that I am living in the wrong place.

So to lunch. In a very small restaurant, we ate noodles, rice and pickles and bean curd. We have our own hashi (chopsticks) supplied by the tour company. They always draw a comment!

Next on the itinerary was another series of temples and shrines. And to be honest, I was starting become a bit shrined out by now. They are all starting to look alike. We saw a real zen garden and learned how to properly appreciate this. We also saw the golden pavilion which is just a stunning idea. Lets just gold plate the top 2 storeys of a 3 storey Japanese villa with 24kg of pure gold! It was another historical place and this is where the guide is handy. She had the inside info and anecdotes so it is was an altogether worthwhile thing to do.

We returned to the hotel after 5pm. Ad after a brief rest and Paul working out a route for dinner, we headed off to the Karu sushi. This is a sushi train special. It's a chain of sushi eateries, but the experience is like no other you may have ever had. Firstly, nothing is in English, so starting at the beginning, we had to suss out the touch screen waiting and choice ticket machine. Randomly guessing worked and after a brief wait with all the young uni students and families, we heard the number called out and found our booth at number 7. The sushi goes by like any other keitan sushi except they have special lids that you press to release the plate on the conveyor belt. Each plate costs only $1!! Who said Japan is expensive? You can do a special order using another touch screen in your booth, but there was no need with the choice on offer on the conveyor. To make tea, you stir green tea powder into hot water you dispense into a cup from a hot water dispenser at your booth. Here is the best part - when you are finished, you put your plate down a chute also conveniently located in your booth, and they get counted. After every 5 plates the touch screen displays a chance to win a prize..... A bit like playing at the casino. Paul is now the proud owner of a plastic sushi trinket thing to dangle from his iPhone.
The noise in this place was something else, plates going down chutes, people eating and talking, the staff yelling all the time, music, ding doing doorbell sounds and general clatter.

After this supreme cultural immersion, we headed next door to the ¥100 shop which is akin to the tacky red dot stores in Perth. The music here was mad, like a deranged David Lynch score that made you want to turn tail and leave as soon as you stepped inside... Plenty of tacky plastic crap to be had here, but also some nice socks and silly stationery.

We walked home, feeling safe in Kyoto. We are foreign, we don't understand, we are bewildered often, we have never been here before, we are nearly run over by cyclists every 30 seconds, but it is nice and we feel comfortable, never threatened or unwelcome. Te best part of travelling in japan is to try the unknown, eat that weird thing, try to communicate, get on the bus and hope it's going your way, wear yukata dressing gowns, bathe, use chopsticks, marvel at the efficiency and cleanliness, the friendly people, the old buildings and the history I've never been taught and will try to learn soon.

More than half way now, we only have 8 full days left.

Posted by fay_bee 06:19 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

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