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En route

Changi Airport

27 °C

Here we are at the end of April Fool's Day at Changi Airport. So far, nothing "foolish" has happened and in the remaining 50 mins of today, I hope it stays that way. It's only been 9 months since we were here last, returning from the USA 2012 trip. And much has happened at home, but this place is unchanged.... needless to say I have nothing to report here. I am trying VERY hard to fight off a head cold (or those onimous "flu-like symptoms" that mean nothing but have the potential to spoil plans).
The next leg of travel is to Narita Airport which is about 7 hours away. After the immigration and bag collecting rituals, we will be met by the "Green Tomato" bus chauffeur and the journey to Tokyo takes another 2 hours. We'll probably arrive about lunch time and check in is at 3pm. Pual has hired a PuPuRu which is a mobile wifi device. This means a blog every night (energy permitting!)
I hope you enjoy reading my blog.
Readers of the USA2012 will know that I was fraught with earworms to do with US destinations. I sense that this may not be the case on this trip..... "Big in Japan", "Turning Japanese" are all that spring to mind just now. I shall be looking at teh real Birds of Tokyo too.
Must sign off as I don't want to lose my typing.
See you on the other side!

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Posted by fay_bee 08:10 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)


Taxi with doily. Wandering for 6 hours. Sanitation fixtures and making oneself be understood.

overcast 16 °C

I can't sleep on planes. My joints lock into place and my neck becomes stiff. So I am sleep deprived.

We landed in thick white cloud and a continuous drizzle. There's no wind so it's ok, not too cold. It was a bumpy last half but no scary air pockets.

All airports start to alike when you travel a fair bit. The outside of Narita reminded me of Brisbane airport, but without the tropical touch. We were met by a neatly dressed chauffeur complete with his white gloves and cap. We were the only passengers so no Green Tomato coach for us! No, we were driven in an immaculate old Toyota, huge windows with neat little wind protectors. The inside was festooned with pure white doilies over every horizontal surface..... All smooth surfaces gleamed. Welcome to Japan.

Welcome weary sleep deprived, headcold fighting traveller.... Try to stay awake as we travel along the motorway with a noise barrier that curves over to contain traffic noise. At 9am traffic was flowing well until it approached the metropolis. The motorway stays 2 lanes and clogs up but it is still moving and like the El train in Chicago is raised above ground level. Quite a few storeys as it happens, enabling me to look into windows of large office blocks and see many people working in their cubicles. High density living and working is what you do here.

The B Ikebukuro Hotel is an unglamorous place but nice and clean and quiet. It's not too cramped either. However they were not ready for us until check in at 3pm.... 5 hours to wander about in a bit of a daze. It's quite good, you really don't need to go far at all to see anything. The local train station is the second largest in Tokyo, it seemed like rush hour all the time, so I want to avoid it at the peak times if we can. I have a fear of being swept away from Paul and I have no phone. Plus I don't fancy the groping that happens in the crowded trains.

We found a totally monstrous sized department store called TOBU which sells just amount everything. It is a huge place and labyrinthine too. There are two storeys just for restaurants. The lower levels has a food hall to rival Harrods or Lafayettes. PERFECT food. In fact Tokyo EATS Hong Kong and Singapore!

We found a little place to eat tea and buttered toast. Tea was too strong, now that's saying something because I love my strong tea, being half Irish.... Not every day does your honey and toast come with a salad garnish where the number of vegies on each plate is identical.... We both got the same number of olives, cherry tomatoes and pickles. All served on gold trimmed Noritake. This is in an average department store! I'm beginning to think I live in the wrong country.

Fashion not so noteworthy in this district, just salarymen and many women in fawn coloured coats. MANY of them. Stand by for other updates as they come to hand.

I had my first encounter with an automated toilet. Not the German type, which seem to make sense, no these Japanese ones are baffling. In this particular restroom, there was a choice of toilet: disabled, accompanying children, traditional squat style, style with hose but no paper, Western or automated. So with my deed completed I try to find the button to simply flush. How about this button? Oh, this one just makes the flushing noise only and has a volume setting. Obviously for gassy visits or number twos.... No I don't want to spray my cheeks or have a bidet function. Finally I locate the flush. It is a small unobtrusive chrome button behind the lid. Doh!

The lavatory in our hotel has a heated seat which gave me a fright, and the same smorgasbord of flushing and bottom pampering options. The flush button was more conspicuously located I am pleased to report. The shower is something else too, multinozzled with horizontals and various pressures...
I bet you didn't expect to be reading about sanitation fixtures, but this is what I notice and enjoy most about travelling, it's knowing that there are other ways to do routine things. Ordering lunch or trying to buy throat lozenges (not sugar free ones please, I want natural sugar!) means that I now know the word for crab (kani) and sugar (satō). And buying insoles for my shoes, yes I did that today, was a complete success when the lady offered me sampurus to try. That would be samples in Japanese.

Now to attempt continuing the musical theme of the USA trip, I have heard a crow and a duck/goose!? from the hotel room. These are the real Birds of Tokyo.

In a while we will head off into the neon lights of Ikebukuro to find something to eat. Not sushi, that's for breakfast tomorrow!

Day One duly reported.

Posted by fay_bee 01:40 Archived in Japan Comments (2)


Tsukiji fish market. Sushi breakfast. More toilet tales. Salarymen. Ginza.

rain 16 °C

Today we were on the go go for 13.5 hours. So much for relaxation.... Fortunately the head cold symptoms are disappearing.

It rained during the night and all day until late afternoon. It makes for a pretty good Blade Runner feeling, but doesn't encourage browsing. I should have worn more layers, it was chilly at times.

The day started with close encounters of the Salarymen kind. These men are a species of their own. They are so uniform it is comical. Mandatory black suits, small bag and umbrella. Plus or minus newspaper. They travel singly, couples or in packs. A very serious facial expression is standard.
They also move in streams so at times crossing the current can be a challenge. We did this several times today. I don't understand, but they are around at any time of the day, so perhaps they are not always confined to the office doing very important business.

We decided to avoid the fish auction at the ungodly and freezing times of 5 and 5.40am and went to see the market aspect instead. That opens at 9am. There are no directions to follow, you are handed a map of the entire site, mostly in Japanese, which is pretty much useless and then you are allowed to wander around wherever you want. This means you risk being run over by trucks, speedy gas powered cargo trolleys driven by very intent men with the get out of my way look. You need eyes at the back of you head here. Managed to locate the fish stalls with no broken bones or injury.....
The most amazing thing, apart from the vast zoologically educational array of sea creatures both known and mysterious, is the absence of fishy smell. I could smell the ocean when we arrived at the nearby train station, and after getting used to that, there is no smell to mention. Noise however is a different matter. You hear the gas trolleys, the sound of business, shrieking bandsaws and the pervasive sound of squeaking polystyrene chiller boxes (Eskies for my Aussie readers!). Unlike usual markets there is not a lot of yelling. Japanese people are fairly quiet everywhere and this busy market was no exception. I was fascinated by the frozen blocks of tuna being cut bandsaws. No safety gloves or guards. Massive chunks of ice are cut by hand with dangerous saws as well. Everything is performed with speedy surgical precision. I should mention that the Tsukiji market is old and looks it. There is nothing new and it is very cramped. The sea creatures are sold from tanks, Eskies, packets, in sawdust, plastic bags or trays. After a while you start to see it when you close your eyes, it was endless.

Now to breakfast. A fluke or careful calculation got us to the little place where we had a voucher for a sushi breakfast. It was deluxe, made in front of us and so fresh it was unlike anything I've ever had. Even the raw fish, which I would usually avoid or eat with extreme caution, was superbly tasty, soft and delicate. So breakfast became brunch really. Fabulous stuff. I loved the welcome cries of each of the 6 sushi chefs when customers arrived. Each tie-wearing chef had his signature cry so it was like a little campanological experience with the last guy being the bass.

A number of train hops and we arrived at Tokyo Station to get the JR vouchers exchanged for actual tickets. These are for the journey to Nikko on Friday. Tokyo Station is one enormous station. Just imagine Central Station in NYC and multiply it by 30 and you might get it. Mind you, it's not easy to know where it starts or ends. There are tunnels and walkways and shopping arcades and food halls on and on and on..... We had a drink and cake in a tea salon there.

Now here I must mention, the Japanese are obsessed with all things French. I was amused to see that Engrish is not unique. There is also widespread misuse of French: made up words, meaningless phrases and spelling/grammatical errors. Would I be wrong in suggesting that despite all this the Japanese might be more French than the French themselves? I've never in my life seen such perfect cakes, pastries, confections or displays..... The bread is fabulous, the food displays are so pretty. Paul thought we had walked into the cosmetic section of the store. The lighting and counters not being dissimilar. How about a nice costume ring with a massive gemstone ..... Made of SUGAR? I had to ask the lady at the counter if I'd read it correctly (and that's not because it was in French).

We walked up to see the Imperial Palace, but there's not much to be seen. But the best thing was, it stopped raining!

Humorous interlude related to toilets... Not only is there an array of buttons, but today I experienced the thoughtfully supplied electronic automated tinkling sound of water in a bowl as I went about my private business in the cubicle. This is supposed to hide embarrassing sounds. Ok....... I have yet to see the deodoriser function (Sheri, thanks for the warning).

Ginza. Everyone recognises the famous intersection here. It is really awesome at twilight and night, which is when we were there. I couldn't help but remember Times Square last year. I didn't feel as safe there and it wasn't easy to look around there because the crowds were too big to stop and look. Ginza was different.

We looked in the Sony store. Some very impressive TVs in there. Paul spent big. He bought a pair of earphones. LOL!

It's late now. I had better get some sleep. Another big day tomorrow and our last in Tokyo. Will I find the toilet deodoriser, get stuck in a swarm of salarymen or find something else made out of sugar?

Posted by fay_bee 06:03 Archived in Japan Comments (0)


Asakusa. Ueno. Harajuku. And a lot of walking to cover this ground.

all seasons in one day 21 °C

This morning we had breakfast in a dimly lit cellar-like restaurant. Yes, surrounded by expensive wines from around the world. Not the best selection of food, but it filled a gap. It's not often that doughnut holes and salad are found on the same table in the morning.... Still there was toast, hard boiled egg and Japanese tea so that was ok. And eating to the dulcet tones of Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights is not too bad a start to the day is it? We were given breakfast vouchers for 3 mornings but I think that we won't return tomorrow and we didn't eat there yesterday either.

The ceilings in this hotel are rather nice. If I stand on tiptoe, I can touch them. I can get a sense of tall :)

Today began like yesterday. Setting off for Ikebukuro station, only this time, NO RAIN! Sunshine instead. I was too warm and needed my sunnies. So hard to get it right sometimes. The subterranean rush was alive and well. We took the train, now like real pros, to the Asakusa area which is north of Tokyo centre. Here is the Senso-ji Temple and about half the population of a large country town. As is usual for these places, there was a lot of incense burning, bell ringing, lanterns, veneration and bowing. Unlike these places, the approach was lined with Royal Show style food stalls serving interesting snacks and mementoes. We bought and ate freshly made rice crackers, made in front of us! We did the fortune telling thing where you "politely" shake a tin of sticks while making a wish or prayer, until a random stick pops out. The number on the stick corresponds to the drawer number you must open to have your fortune revealed. Mine was bad fortune which was rather distressing, considering the purpose of I'd wished for, however Paul's exactly negated mine. We wished for the same thing. To leave my bad luck at the temple, I followed instruction, and tied it to a wire thingy. Later on, they burn all the bad luck. The one thing that Paul's fortune didn't negate for me, was that it was a bad time for travelling and I need to be careful. Gulp!

The temple site originated in 628, but nothing very original remains. I am never impressed by tourist attractions, they are overrun by too many people. During the day, Paul and I found several smaller temples that the locals visit. Much better. And no chocolate covered bananas on a stick being sold outside.

Random things to report. At intersections, when it is safe to cross, a recording of a tweeting bird is heard. This same bird was also heard in the deepest levels of one subway station today. There is no litter and very few rubbish bins. The ambulance sirens are almost apologetic in their pitch and volume. People of all ages cycle and some go like the clappers. On trains, many people do not hold on to anything. They balance well, a handy talent in the event of tremors I would imagine. To rent a teeny tiny 2-3 room unit in northern inner Tokyo it costs ¥140,000 per month.

We walked up to Ueno Park (a long way!) we passed a very inviting crockery shop. Beautiful and so cheap for cups, bowls, platters, but not able to cart them around all day, so had to resist. We saw the teacup building! Followers of Pinterest might recognise it. So I was very chuffed to see that.
On one side of this long road to the park, was a lengthy representation of what would be the equivalent of coffin shops. Shops selling shrines to honour late loved ones at home, complete with special other ceremonial adornments like receptacles and vases. Very intricate carving and woodwork involved here. It seemed like most of the salesmen standing at the door were old enough to be interred themselves.

Ueno park is the city's big green space, like Central Park, Hyde park, kings park or Phoenix park. It is replete with cherry blossom and other trees, a shrine, swan shaped paddle boats on the lake, turtles, fish, swans, picnicking families, old people exercising and playing croquet, extensive recycling bins, more food stalls and a view. Not forgetting to mention a grotto.

Ueno was a freak out for me. I was in my own google search. Why? In 2011 the holiday we'd planned to Japan would have started here and I had googled the area so as not to get lost and to readily locate the hotel. We walked past all those landmarks today, including the actual hotel. I had a massive sense of deja-vu.

By now, feet are getting tired, so we took an order land train to Harajuku. This district is known for the Lolitas and other weird Japanese fashion of the youth. We didn't see very many but they were there.... Takeshita St is not for the faint hearted. We were faint hearted, no not true, we couldn't be bothered actually. It was like a sea of black headed insects bobbing down a narrow, very narrow alley, unable to see much on either side (let's imagine a mosh pit) only to emerge at the other end..... Google some images and you might see what I mean. Sitting at the intersection of 2 main roads was good for people watching and furtive photo opportunities. In Harajuku we had a couple of WTHell moments. It is considered normal for boy or girl pop bands to advertise their latest record by having a truck drive around the streets blasting out their sickly sweet pop tunes. The side of these trucks feature larger than life posters of said girl or boy band.... There was also viewed today, a truck/float arcade style ride thing that totally defies description. I shall try to upload a a photo. There is simply no other way. Then you too, can share the WTHell moment.

After Harajuku and all the excitement we returned to our base in the now, ordinary Ikebukuro district to pick up some dinner to eat in the room while repacking and getting ready for a change of base and pace tomorrow.

We've walked about 22-24 km in two days. Sore hamstrings from steps....

Posted by fay_bee 05:40 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Tokyo and Nikko

Rush and crush. Shinkansen. Shrines and noodles....

semi-overcast 18 °C

I forgot to report that yesterday there was a culinary highlight: takoyaki. These are octopus balls and no I'm not talking about mollusc testicles. They are hot, shall we call them spheres, of octopus, vegetable and some kind of creamy batter in a crispy outer shell. We saw these being made at a kiosk near Ueno Park. The ladies in the window were cooking them there and so they were super fresh and very nice. Takoyaki at home will never match up. Very memorable.

Unlike breakfast this morning which was half a banana wrapped up in a slice of whole meal bread. Anything to avoid that cellar breakfast, and everything to hit the train track early. Ha! Early meant nothing. We hit start of peak hour at 7.30am and had to squash into the carriage with our suitcase and day packs. Quite an experience and not for anyone prone to claustrophobia. Up close and personal with the locals and salarymen...

Somehow managed to extricate ourselves and luggage and tumble out onto the platform at Tokyo Station, but it's not over yet. The next stage was to find and board the Shinkansen (the bullet train). We had reserved seats, but it wasn't full. It is so amusing to watch the preparations before we board. Firstly, a troupe of cleaners line up one outside each carriage door. They wear elf like uniforms with a sprig of plastic cherry blossom in the hat. Then one at a time, like synchronised swimmers, they make a signal like a salute, then hop into the carriage to begin a lightning fast cleaning and chair swivelling process. The chairs are swivelled to face the direction of travel, the window ledges and table tops are briskly disinfected and then we are allowed to board. I was wondering if any of these elves would like to clean our house.
While this is all happening, the train stewards arrive with little carts of snacks for on board snacking. Of which we didn't partake.

The bullet train is fast of course, I like a bit of speed, me. It was over in 50 mins. We had to get another train to eventually arrive at Nikko. On this train was a pack of Italians. They talked. A lot. Loudly. It's annoying. It made me realise how lovely and peaceful Japanese transportation is. Talking on mobile phones is prohibited. No reason to hear about other people's business. Again, I think I live in the wrong place.

Arrival at Nikko and such a literal breath of fresh air. A lovely town, traditional buildings, trees, quiet, mountains in the background..... We got the doilied taxi to our stop, called the Nikko Hotel Natural Garden. The manager is an older Japanese gentleman. This hotel is not a chain, it is a homely place to relax and they obviously take great pride in their hospitality.

Unable to check in, we left the luggage and day packs and took a bus back down to the centre. It is hard to know whether shops and restaurants are open here. After some wandering up and down we settled on a small eatery serving noodles and only noodles. But not just any old noodle. The speciality of the region is soba (made of buckwheat) and a bean curd called yoba. No problem asking for vegetarian this time! The noodle house was traditional and we were the only westerners. Nice! The way I like it.

After the homemade noodles, we walked around. I thought my footwear was inappropriate until I saw stiletto boots and a pair of crocs. Then I relaxed. My soft maryjanes were fine for climbing steep steps and walking over pebbles to see the many shrines and gates and towers and a tall pagoda set in a beautiful forest. This area is listed as world heritage because it is so old. Extremely ornate, colourful, intricate, sacred and tourist attracting. The shoes had to come off a few times to enter the sacred spaces. We were shown the amazing acoustics inside one shrine where a simple strike of two stone sticks lasted for a long time.

My camera battery ran out. I don't blame it really, there was way too much to take in, a veritable visual overload. The last photo I took today was of the 3 monkeys (see no evil etc). I didn't realise but there are more monkeys in that story. It's about the circle of life.

The pass we bought to see all these temples and shrines was only $10 and we couldn't finish, it all got a bit much and we were running out of time. On the way back we used one of the ubiquitous vending machines to buy drinks. Paul got a hot coffee in a can. I am not a coffee drinker but the coffee in Japan is very nice and I might even get one myself next time. Paul spotted a happy chappy in his van merrily cooking up those delicious filled pancakes that are fish shaped. Not sure what they are called, but I always order one at Jaws Kaiten sushi at home. Paul's had red bean paste, mine had chocolate custard. Freshly made nice and hot and yummy. But I am kind of craving a bit of greenery now......

Waiting at the bus stop, Paul was approached by a TV crew who wanted to interview him. He was asked about the exchange rate and why we were in Japan and if the first time etc. I got asked too, but kind of as a second thought. The camera was a bit too close to my face for my liking. I hope it was my good side (do I even have one?). Apparently it's on tv at 10pm tonight but not sure which channel. And the best part was we didn't even miss our bus back to the hotel. Now "bus" is not a fair description of the vehicle. It is a coach. The first one was lovingly decorated with the doilies. The second was not as well furnished, but had a fabulous video monitor up front, describing how to press the alight button, which one is the next stop name and number etc. It's all perfection and efficiency here.

Our hotel rom is very nice. I love having green tea available because it is my hot drink of choice and normally I have to BYO teabag. Also here, it's old fashioned in that we have to choose a dining time for dinner and breakfast. There is an onsen too (hot spring water spa). Nudie bathing only! Not made up my mind about that...... Paul of course will go.

Dinner this evening was taken in the hotel. Everything was laid out like a 5 star restaurant. Haven't seen that much cutlery since I last put away the dishes at home. We had the whole shebang: hors d'hoerves, soup, seafood, meat / scallops for me, dessert and hot drink. No idea how much that was, all inclusive! The beauty of prepaying, hey? Another highlight even though it was a western meal, it was quality and not too humongous serving sizes.

It is now time to decide whether to take that skinny dip..... Also, to rush back and see ourselves on TV! LOL!!!!

Posted by fay_bee 05:02 Archived in Japan Tagged nikko Comments (2)

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