Japan, 2010

Prologue (written 18th Feb, 2018)

Only hours after my final university exam, my boyfriend at the time Michael and I caught a cheap Jetstar flight to Japan.  We’d been learning Japanese for over a year, but unfortunately my engineering study meant I’d forgotten most of it. Undeterred, we were off, my first international travel experience, all thanks to an idea that Michael came up with.

I wrote the following journal with pen and paper in a tiny little book and reproduced it here, unedited. This is our story as written by the 21-year-old me.

Hostel in Tokyo, 22nd November

As soon as the plane landed it was all audio messages and trains. A long walk down the airport ended with a quick train ride across the airport on a shuttle with no driver. Five minutes in and it’s already obvious they’re way ahead of us.

Once on the main train, from the little you can see at night, is apartments that stretch high and wide. While lights were scattered in the scenery during the ride, I felt I was getting a taste of what is to come. I did see a HUGE undercover parking area for bicycles and mopeds which was packed! Cars are clearly not the way to get around.

We didn’t get any trains wrong and checked into the hostel at 10pm. It became clear that slip-on shoes would have been a great idea since you have to take them off everywhere and hiking boots aren’t ideal for quick dismounts.

Had time for a quick walk to the convenience store for some water where we didn’t understand the price that was quoted but paid with a large note that got us by. Breakfast tomorrow will be boiled eggs and toast.

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Dinner in Ginza District, 23rd November

I avoided the boiled eggs because they looked cold, but am determined to suck it up tomorrow and give it a go.

After first arriving, I was very wary of using the language, but now we’re having fun with it. Was ready for action at 7am today and unable to sleep after 5am due to a snorer within the hostel dorm. Akihaba was the first stop and specifically “Electricity City”. It consisted of multi-levels of multi-level stores each with a floor dedicated to a certain type of technology. The main feature was the gaming arcades and gambling centres. We were attracted to the gambling centre by excruciatingly loud music and bright lights. Inside, poker machines were themed to an anime series and instead of using money in the machines, players exchanged their mula for small balls like what you’d find in a ball bearing to play the games.

After being all “lighted out” it was off to Tokyo central station to get our JR rail passes. Left my umbrella in the office but after remembering I left it there twenty minutes later, I found it exactly where I’d left it. But of course! It’s Japan.

Had our first real meal out at the station. I had a mince salad with rice and Michael a beef patty in an onion sauce – with rice! Very nice. From the station we headed to Ginza where we hoped to find the information centre. We did, without too much trouble and learnt some very good things. We’ve decided to go to Disney Sea since Disneyland is a spitting image of the fun park in California which wouldn’t be much fun for Michael since he’s already been. The ladies at the tour centre told us about two things we were unaware of. 1, Cirque de Soleigh was on very near to Tokyo Disney. We tried to fit it in, but scheduling was too hard. 2, Roppongi has a light show for Christmas. Armed with multiple brochures and maps, we set off to explore.

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We visited the Imperial Palace, was very impressive (see photos).

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After oohing and aahing we head back to Ginza for a browse at the high-priced shopping district. Stopped in at a beautiful lit-up rooftop garden. Had a great dinner in a small place with a nice upbeat atmosphere. After that, we went to Roppongi via the subway to see the light show which was breathtaking.

Starting to feel the pain in our knees there was still one thing left to do. We climbed (in a lift) the fifty-two floors of the Mori Art Museum (after paying 1500yen each) to see Tokyo City. It was the most amazing sight I’d seen. Tokyo Tower and lights that stretched out forever.

It was now freezing and train time. Got home at 10:30pm, after buying honey to have on our toast tomorrow.

Tokyo Disney Sea Theme Park, 24th November

Was a fantastic day.

Had trouble with our wizard card this morning but should be resolved by tomorrow. See photos, absolutely pooped! Oyasumi!

Nikko, 25th November

Lazy day today (compared to our first day). Needed a bit more rest after our Disney adventure. Still trying to adjust to going to bed many hours after it gets dark.

We left the hostel around 10am, got to Tokyo station and visited the post office to discover our money problems had been solved. All moneyed up, we went to scout out the bus station where our Fuji tour will be leaving from Saturday, which was a successful mission. From there, we caught a Shinkansen to Utsunomiya, then a local train to Nikko. Took around two hours total. The views went from city, to houses and houses and houses, eventually turning into hills and trees of the orange, red and green colours of late Autumn.

In Nikko we dropped our bags at our accommodation, which was a bit of a walk, but the town is just gorgeous with houses and shops surrounded by huge tree-covered mountains.

We returned to town looking for food and the bus to take us into the hills to see the Kegon Falls and our first shrine. There was a stall amongst the shops where a woman was selling red bean fried cakes. Yum, yum! Very salty fried cake, but absolutely delicious. Picked up an obento box of rice triangles too, which we’ve saved for tomorrow’s lunch.

After the windy road through the hills which the bus and driver managed exceptionally well, we were in Chuzenji. We went to see the falls, but unfortunately, it was only just visible because we were 1,400m from sea level and well and truly in the clouds. The mist was everywhere and it was very cold (5 degrees!). We weren’t exactly prepared for the freezing cold, but we did ok.

The Futarasan Shrine Chugushi was amazing. It was so tranquil and peaceful being there. We washed our hands and mouth in the traditional way, then paid 200yen to have a prayer for a safe trip.

After exploring the shrine, we walked back alongside Lake Chuzenji where small swan boats lined the shores. Tourism would be huge in summer.

By the time we got back to the bus stop it was 4:30pm and fast getting dark. It was definitely night time by the time we got back to the lodge.

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The lodge is beautiful, not many people since it’s definitely off-season because of the cold. Had dinner here (lovely spaghetti bog with cabbage salad for 300yen!) and will have brekkie as well tomorrow. We have a four-bed dorm to ourselves with an ensuite, electric blankets and a heater which is on full blast.

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Nikko/Tokyo, 26th November

We’re sitting on the Shinkansen on our way back to Tokyo. By chance I’m seated in exactly the same seat I came up on – Car 10, Seat 6B.

Today was all about temples. We had a yummy breakfast at the lodge before setting out on a chilly but clear morning. We left our bags at the lodge to be taken into town for us, to a café that the lodge owned. We had a very nice day of walking and saw around six temples/shrines all up. Five temples were open to the public for 1000yen a ticket, so we jumped on it and had a good explore. Michael took lots and lots of photos and I got many comments about my mickey mouse ears. I was wearing them to hide the sunburnt skin peeling from my forehead.

On our way out of one temple, a school girl by the name of Maihanaka and her teacher came up to me to ask if they could speak with me. Maihanaka introduced herself in English and told me a little about her school and home town, she was very quiet and apprehensive about speaking English, but did well. She gave me a brochure about her school which will go in my scrapbook. Amazingly, Maihanaka had a cleft lip like mine, which was interesting to see. I always like running into people similar to me, I only wish I could have talked to her about it. We’re heading out to Ueno tonight for dinner and shopping.

We ended up saving Ueno for tomorrow night instead and had dinner at a Japanese bar called Minami, recommended by the hostel. There were NO pictures on the menu, but we were adventurous. It was busy and loud but with a very good atmosphere. There was an American in the bar, Kelly, who came and introduced himself as we were the only other caucasions in the bar. He lived in Australia for seven months and had been living in Japan for eight years as an English teacher. Very cool guy. He gave us his business card in case we ever needed help. We had fried chicken, Italian noodles, fries and weiner sausages. I ate way too much so am now ready to sleep it off.

Tokyo, 27th November

I woke up very early this morning because of bad dreams about exams and studying that have been haunting me, but nevermind that.

We went to Studio Ghibli via a rapid train and went to the post office on the way. Found out our daily withdrawal limit is 80,000yen. The Ghibli museum was fascinating. It showed how animation was done before computers and the fundamentals behind it, which happened to look very cool. The whole museum was a bit of a play house, with child-sized doors and narrow spiral staircases everywhere. We explored over the morning and had a hotdog and ice cream for lunch at the museum.

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Michael purchased a painted cell, one of only twenty, of Porco Rosso and his plane. Cost 42,000yen but worth it in his mind. I was number two on his favourites list for about thirty minutes.

We left the museum and explored the surrounding park in Mitaka. The colours of the autumn leaves are beautiful and leaves are constantly falling, creating a serene atmosphere. Being a Saturday, everyone was out and about which was cool to see.

From Mitaka, we went to Ueno, which was meant to have many street stalls selling food and cheap merchandise. We got off the train and walked into a park to see a shrine when we stumbled across some markets, which only started today.

Lots of stoneware cutlery and crockery and weird food. We got to the temple which was in the middle of a huge pond. We didn’t go inside, but there were people cooking food at stalls so the atmosphere was good.

We heard a concert and followed the sound to find an amateur Beatles impression band, which was interesting so we stayed for a few songs, then we hit the markets. Didn’t buy anything but it was a good atmosphere to be amongst.

We had ramen for dinner, made very cheap by sharing. Got home to the hostel at only 7:30pm but we’re pooped. Need an early night for tomorrow.

Tokyo, 28th November

Coming to you from tomorrow! We got home from our Fuji/Hakone tour dead tired. We had a very shaky start to the day. We were supposed to wake up at 6:45am to make it to the bus stop by 8:15am, but the alarm clock on my watch failed, so I was woken up by Mike at 7:20am. It was rush, rush, rush! No shower or breakfast, on the run, we got to the bus with ten minutes to spare. The rest of the day was awesome and really well organised by the tour people.

A lot of time was spent on the bus with only 20-30 minutes allowed at stops, but the views were spectacular. Apparently we were very lucky it was such a clear day. We were able to see Mt. Fuji from far and wide and it was such a spectacular view.

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On the mountain at the fifth station, it was -3oC and we experienced winds of 8 metres/second. VERY COLD. But again, amazing views. After getting blown off Mt. Fuji, we headed to Hakone. We did a boat cruise of Lake Ashi which was a little cold but not too bad.

From there, a cable car up a mountain where we saw views of the lake and Mt. Fuji. On most days, Fuji cannot be seen from Hakone so we felt very lucky.

On top of the mountain taken by cable car, steam was pouring out. This was because volcanic gases are artificially leaked out to prevent any volcanic eruptions. It smelt horribly of sulphur. That was the end of our tour.

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Everyone else from the tour got on the Shinkansen but we stayed in Hakone for dinner then head home.

Forgot to mention lunch! It was traditional Japanese style with little bits of everything. TRaw fish, shrimp, fried chicken and prawns, a jellyfish omelette and rice with egg powder. Needless to say, I didn’t touch the shrimp, prawn or jelly but I gave everything else a go. I especially liked the chicken and rice with egg powder.

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Tokyo, 29th November

Last day in Tokyo and it was filled with general wandering. Apart from being plagued with a headache for most of the day, we had a great time. We started in Asakusa which was one subway trip from the hostel. There we saw a temple I think, I can’t really remember since we did so much today.

Next was Shibuya where we saw a golden terd (see photos) which is much larger than what I was expecting. The main attraction of Shibuya is the markets leading up to a temple. The markets were awesome, although you do get sick of seeing the same things all the time. The temple was beautiful. We both paid 100yen for a fortune. Michael’s was good but mine held bad fortune so I tied mine to a piece of string in the shrine, as per the custom, in the hopes that the bad fortune would stay within the temple grounds.

We walked to Harajuku and while we didn’t see any people dressed ridiculously (think it was too cold), we had a good shopping experience. I think we discovered where the Japanese girls get all their lovely clothes and shoes. We bought a few trinkets and wandered the streets till dinner. Dinner was pizza for comparative purposes and it was really nice. A little expensive but worth it.

From Harajuku we trained it to Shinjuku to go to the government building to get a second aerial view of Tokyo. It was free to go and the view was not as impressive as the museum we went up earlier because there weren’t as many windows. Still a good experience though. We made our way back to the train station via another electricity city (or street) which was very similar to the one in Akihaba, only smaller. By this time we were well and trule weary so got back to the hostel and settled in for our last night here. Tomorrow it’s off to Takayama and the more sleepy cities of Hokkaido.

Corrections:
Asakusa – Golden terd and markets leading up to temple.
Shibuya – Lunch at Yoshitaya and shopping where the girls get all their clothes
Harajuku – Meiji temple, long walk to get there and back. Before that there was a beautiful park with autumn leaves and people everywhere picnicking and flying kites.
Shinjuku – Government building

Takayama, 30th November

Today was a day of pure travel. We left the hostel at a lazy time of 10am and got on a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya where we contemplated going to see Nagoya Castle, but it was all going to take too long so we decided to leave it for when we leave and go to Kyoto.

At 12:37pm, we got on a diesel powered train that would take us to Takayama. Very comfy train. We shared a beef obento box for lunch which was yummy. The train ride was three hours and very scenic through the mountains. It followed a river all the way. The Zenjoki Inn is beautiful and the private room is quite a treat.

Takayama, 1st December

First day of our second winter of the year and boy did we feel it. The Zenjoki Inn is a temple and a traditional style house so the walls are made of paper and tatami mats line the floor. This means there is no difference between outside and inside temperature. Fortunately there were heaters everywhere and electric blankets but I’d hate to think how much everyone spends on gas and electricity.

We spent today exploring Takayama, starting at some morning markets where older women were selling vegetables, fruit and trinkets. The markets run every morning from 7am so those ladies brave the cold every day. After the markets we crossed the river that separates old from new and visited the historic part of town. Down these alleyways were lots of little shops selling local arts and crafts and a number of sake breweries. We bought ourselves a few trinkets, but it was the scenery and atmosphere we most enjoyed.

We came across a food stall where a woman was making pancakes in the shape of fish, all with different fillings. We bought some chocolate ones and she gave them to us straight out of the cooker. A wonderful treat, yum yum!

After visiting all the shops, we paid 500yen each to look inside a heritage Japanese house. It was two stories and huge. It had so many rooms. It was called Kusakabe Heritage House and they served us tea and crackers. It was a good experience but I don’t think it was worth the 500yen. From there we went to the Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall. Here we saw four of the twelve floats the locals pull and push through the town during a spring and autumn festival. I won’t try to describe the floats, the photos will explain much better than I can.

We visited a temple next to the exhibition hall where we saw people getting ready for a wedding. The bride wore a beautiful white winter kimono that looked a bit like a doona, but still worked. At the hall was also a museum full of models for each of the temples and shrines we saw at Nikko. It was interesting seeing models of what we had seen in real life, the attention to detail was unbelievable. We were also able to read a bit more about each building.

We had lunch at a free lounge, which was basically just a small room that anyone was free to use. We ate some sandwiches we bought in Tokyo and left over fried rice from last night’s dinner. After lunch we did the Higashiyama walking course and went through about ten temples. Despite the number, I was still impressed by each one. The last part of the walk took us through Shiroyama Park. It was approaching night time and there were so many different paths that we had a good chance of getting lost but we went for it. On top of the mountain was a flat clearing with a few benches and a floor plan of a house that used to sit there. The house was called Honmaru and looked positively grand from the floor plan. It was nearly sunset when we reached it and it was dreamy imagining what it would have looked like. We could see snow-covered alps in the distance. The park consisted of a mountain so it was a fair hike.

We head back to town for dinner where most things had closed, but we found a nice restaurant, had a beer with dinner then went back to our temple accommodation. Before bed, we tried a “Buddha Walk” which lay under the main alter of the temple. It was basically a pitch black corridor in which you trust and walk through. Inside was a key that if you found, you were supposed to find satisfaction and make a prayer. It was a little eerie but I’m glad we tried it.

PS We had Hida Beef Buns on one of the main streets. It’s the local cuisine and it was absolutely devine. It was a cold night and they were hot and yummy. Just what we needed.

Kyoto, 2nd December

Mostly travel again today with a touch of exploration thrown in. We caught the train out of a very cold morning in Takayama at 9:30am and arrived in Nagoya at 12noon.

We had lunch in the basement level of a huge building. As soon as anybody got up to leave, each of the waitresses would chime “Arigato Gozaimasen” (hope you enjoyed your meal, thank you come again type thing). We put our hiking packs in some coin lockers at the station and ventured out to explore Nagoya Castle.

It was a fair walk there so we ended up taking the subway back. The castle was very impressive. The 500yen we each paid to get in was well worth it.

There was so much history to learn as if the amazing architecture wasn’t enough. Most of what was within the castle grounds had been burnt down during an air raid in WWII, but rebuilt in its former structure. The main palace was being rebuilt when we were there and that will be continuing on for a number of years considering the amount of detail in Japanese architecture.

By the time we’d subwayed back to Nagoya I was well and truly under the weather with a sore throat and shocking headache. I think from all the hot-cold-hot-cold in Takayama. We had a nice dinner up the road from the hostel called Mazone and dessert at Macca’s. Now going to sleep off the sickness.

Kyoto, 3rd December

 

Today was our temple tour of Kyoto. We got on the bus at 8:35am and returned at around 6:30pm. It was a long day. We saw six places in total and each was very impressive. The highlight was probably the temple with 1,001 statues of Buddha. It was just amazing to see them all. The last place we visited (the blue picture on the sticker) was also impressive being at the top of a hill with busy markets below. I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it more, but the day’s activities had my sickness intensified and it was very, very cold up there. We made a wish at a sacred well where we drank the sacred water and I asked the Gods to please take my sickness away but I’m not expecting much.

On the way home, a tiny, old, very chirpy Japanese man talked with us for a while about Australia, rock paper scissors and Santa Claus. He had some English sentences written down that he wanted us to check, but it was perfect English. That was a good encounter, I’m just annoyed that I can’t really talk to people since my voice is pretty much gone.

Tomorrow is a new day!

Kyoto, 4th December

Empty day today with minimal plans. We knew we wanted to go to the long gate walk and decided to fill the rest of the day with a bamboo grove. The bamboo grove was north of the city and six JR stations away. Being a Saturday it quickly became obvious that it’s a favourite weekend activity for Kyoto locals. The bamboo groves were very impressive and I’m sure they’d look even better at night lit by small lanterns. Around the groves were heaps of walking trails and temples. We went into two temples, which both had very pretty autumn gardens. Basically, we walked and walked and walked.

There were market stalls and food stalls everywhere, as well as lots of people. Michael was entertained when he saw the Nikon photography club – basically a group of about twenty people on a photography excursion all holding huge Nikon cameras. We shared a rice curry in a small restaurant run by an older couple which was nice. We ended up staying in the area until about 3pm. So onto the gate walk.

I can’t remember the name of the temple, but the building itself was under construction. The gate walk was definitely awesome. Big highlight. The number 1300 was signposted everywhere but I’m sure there were more than 1300 gates. Each one had a different Japanese inscription. There were so many routes you could take with lots of side paths etc. We took the route directly up the mountain.

There were three shrines along the way. We made a prayer at one. The amount of written prayers up there was astounding. They were probably all to do with uni entrance exams since it’s that time of year. We got to the top of the mountain at 5pm.

On our way out, we reached one of the rest stops just after the sun had gone down and had a perfect view of Kyoto city. After fiddling with all the settings I think we ended up with some good photos. So we walked the last section in the dark, the path was dimly lit by small lanterns. It was good to experience it in both day and night time.

We tried to find a restaurant near the temple where Michael had been before but had no luck finding it so we went back to Kyoto for dinner below the train station. Michael ate a prawn which we though was sweet and sour pork. Back to the hostel after Baskin Robbins ice cream (cost 620yen for a double cone!).

After all today’s walking, I’m sure we’ll sleep well.

Hiroshima, 5th December

From Kyoto to Hiroshima. K’s house, where we stayed in Kyoto, was awesome so I was sad to leave there. It was just the place for getting me over my sickness though it still lingers and worsens at night when it drops to 7oC suddenly. I’m starting to struggle with the cold but I think that’s because I can see the end and the hot Australian summer.

Our original plan for today was to visit Himeji Castle. We knew it was under construction before we left for Japan but thought it would still be worth it for the gardens and interior. After talking to a few tourist information centres and people in general, we got turned off the idea. Instead, we looked at the map and lonely planet guide and a few brochures for good measure and decided to visit Fukashiki. The main attraction was supposed to be a canal and there was a Honda museum. We got there at lunch time, found a restaurant and had noodles and fried rice. I don’t think the noodles went down too well with me.

Over an ice cream we went looking for the Honda museum. But even with the help of a local, it was nowhere to be seen, so we just wandered up the canal. It was sided by shops full of trinkets and toys (as usual) and was very beautiful. Being a Sunday, everyone was out and about and it was a gorgeous sunny day.

We visited the surrounds of an art museum which had a cute garden and then to Ivy Gardens where we’re seen lots of snappy turtles in a brochure. It obviously wasn’t the right season because there were no turtles to be seen, only massive fish. After exploring all the shops, we climbed some stairs (again!) to see a temple that looked out over the town. Very pretty. It’s interesting to see a place you feel is a sleepy little town from above, where you can see all the high rises.

Although we planned to get to Hiroshima before dark, we left as the sun was starting to think about setting and arrived in Hiroshima well past dark. We got on a train, or “streetcar”, anxious about how to pay but simply paid 150yen each when it came time to get off. We checked into J-Hoppers hostel which is very small and cramped compared to what K’s House had been.

We went searching for dinner at a place recommended by a tourist map. It was closed and that was the start of a long search for something to eat. We ended up walking all the way into town where Christmas lights lit up the street. Very pretty. They had made so many shapes and figures. We eventually found a restaurant, which happened to be completely empty. It’s a Sunday night and I think Japanese must be late eaters.

Walking home we got breakfast stuff from 7-Eleven. Very hard to find bread! It was freezing walking home, but we’re now safe and sound under a blanket. I think we’ll have a lazy start tomorrow morning.

PS In Fukahiki, on our way back to the train we got some red bean pancake sandwiches. Yum! Yum! Yum!

Hiroshima, 6th December

With two full days to spend in Hiroshima, we had one day for wandering the city and seeing The Peace Park and another day for a trip to Miyajima. The original plan was to do the wandering today, but the internet told us there was rain developing tonight, so we went to Miyajima instead. We caught the train out there and since we decided to go on the ropeway for Mount Misen, it worked out to be the best to buy a two-day train/ferry/ropeway pass.

We were greeted at Miyajima by a deer and her baby. They were very interested in the fresh crop of tourists visiting their shore. There were deer everywhere and they were all  very blazeigh about people and didn’t seem to mind the odd bit of attention.

First we went to see the Otori Floating Gate and main temple. We got there right on high tide so the gate and temple were surrounded by water about 1.5 meters deep. When we got to the temple, a man dressed in a bright orange and exuberant outfit was performing a traditional dance for a wedding party. The bride (dressed in a white winter kimono and hood) and groom sat directly in front with the family members surrounding them.

After walking through the temple, we saw a few shops then headed through a park to the ropeway. The ropeway offered beautiful views of the ocean, Hiroshima city and alps off in the distance. At the top station we fuelled up with Udon noodles for lunch then hiked up to the top of Mount Misen (535 m above sea level). Along the walk there were a number of temples, one of which housed an eternal flame, which was a natural fire in a pit. It heated a huge stone pot. An older Japanese couple poured us two cups of whatever was inside (tasted like hot water) and we drank. We had ice cream at the top observatory which offered magnificent views all the way round. It was such a beautiful, clear day.

We head back down the mountain after a solid two hours of walking and wandered through the shopping arcade and eventually back to the gate to see it at low tide. We could just walk under it and following what had already been done, we jammed a coin inbetween the barnacles on one of the columns. Pretty sure ours was the only Australian 20c coin there!

We ferried it back to the mainland and decided to take the tram back into the city instead of the train, just for something different. It was a long ride (50 minutes) but it was a cool night (not too cold like last night) when we got off to head to a Mexican restaurant Michael had found on a map. It was a bit more expensive than what we’ve been having but it was worth every cent.

On the way back to the tram, we stumbled across a bowling alley and just thought, “Yes!”. The atmosphere was great. The place was filled with company people, obviously hanging out after work for some team building. My very first bowl was a strike – pity it was only the warm up bowl and didn’t count towards my score. Michael turned out to be much better than me, beating me considerably in each of the three games we played. Still, very cool experience. Cost 3,900yen.

We did some laundry when we got back which will hopefully dry by tomorrow afternoon. That should get us back to Aus cleanly if it does. We’re planning on having pancakes and a very lazy start tomorrow.

Hiroshima, 7th December

So very cold. Cold, cold, cold. I am still sick and getting miserable. We visited Peace Memorial Park and the museum this morning. It is very heavy stuff. It was well laid out and we were able to learn a lot about the first atomic bomb. I was interested to see the perspective of the Japanese, them having been the “victims” of the bomb, but there was no blame laid, no hate propaganda towards America, just the conclusion that war is a terrible thing and society should do everything possible to prevent such a thing happening again. There were school children everywhere throughout the museum.

After having a small lunch and getting a quick bite from a French bakery, we hopped on the train for the Mazda museum. Once we got there we found out you need to make a reservation to see it, so we’re going to squeeze it in tomorrow morning. We head back into town and wandered the shopping district and picked up a few souvenirs. Miraculously, we found steak for dinner at a cheap price and I overate the buffet ice cream.

Matsuyama, 8th December

Got up at 7am this morning so we could get to the Mazda museum by 9:30 for the tour starting at 10. After having breakfast, checking out, catching a tram to Yokogawa train station, a train ride to Hiroshima station, putting our bags in coin lockers there and waiting for a train to take us to Mukainada, we ran to the Mazda building because we got off the last train at 9:45am. It was funny because at Hiroshima station there were two other pairs of tourists. They kept checking their watches same as us so we suspected they were also going to Mazda and we were right.

The tour was totally free and very cool. We got taken by bus to the museum where they had a few cars and bits and pieces on display. It was especially interesting to examine a rotary engine up close. We walked along the running production line which was awesome. Seeing the cars moving along the line, the workers along with them. They were very good at what they were doing. There was a group of primary school kids (about fifty-strong) that were also doing a tour and were constantly about five minutes behind us. Whenever they saw our group they would wave and yell “Hello!” Very cool. At the end of the tour, we all got little Mazda 2 keyrings.

After the museum, we went back to Hiroshima station and bought an obento box and some fruit for lunch, picked up our bags and got on the tram for Hiroshima Port. We had the option of a 1hr 10min fast boat ride at 6,200yen per person or a 2hr 40min slow boat option at 3,200yen. We took the slow option and had lunch while waiting for the boat. There would have been a maximum of ten people on the boat which would probably take one hundred. We watched a movie to entertain ourselves, Mike slept through most of it.

At the port we walked to the local train station along a road that ran along the coast. Needless to say, it was windy and cold. We got off the train and onto a tram and it looks like Matsuyama isn’t really the sleepy isolated town we thought it would be. We got to our guest house but nobody was around so we had dinner at a Yakitori place then returned. Better luck this time, we got a key from a guy but the manager is not around so no payment yet. They’ll come for us if they want our money.

We have a single room place to ourselves. It has a small bathroom and kitchen in one room and a tatami-floored square room with mattresses for beds and a TV. We’ve been watching ridiculous game shows for a while now, still don’t understand what’s going on!

Between Mazda and the Makainada street was a woman with a fruit and vegetable stand. Remembering that Kazuko, our first Japanese teacher, had said strawberries were much sweeter in Japan than Australia, Michael bought some. Sensei was right, they were very sweet, enough for me to like them.

Matsuyama, 9th December

Today we had a day of exploring the coastal city of Matsuyama. The guest house we’re staying at is right across the road from Matsuyama Castle so that was our first stop. Because it sits on top of a very tall mountain you could take a ropeway. To that we said, “bugger it!” and walked. Lots and lots of stairs. At the top of the ropeway an old man came up to us and offered a tour (I think he was a volunteer). He didn’t speak much English but he did very well. As we got up to the castle it was very windy and cold.

We paid 500yen each to go in and the architecture and layout was really interesting. There were lots of gates leading up to the castle designed to confuse and slow down any enemy trying to invade. The castle buildings all had cavities for guns and bows and arrows to be used through them in defence. In the castle, you were allowed to try on a samurai’s armour. Michael just tried on the helmet. The view from the castle expelled any thoughts we had about Matsuyama being a small town. It is just as built up as everywhere else we’ve been to.

We took a windy path down the mountain and found a garden which was supposed to have a lot of water in it but it was dry. Still, pretty cool. We walked from there to the JR train station for the info centre because we needed to fill in our afternoon before going to the Dogo onsen. The lady there told us we should go to the castle and the onsen which we knew anyway, but no matter. We had a pizza and pasta lunch and I treated myself to a hot chocolate.

We went back to the guest house to pay our bill and decided to have an afternoon nap. Think we both needed it. Feeling very refreshed and energised afterwards, we used our one-day tram pass (400yen) to get to the onsen park which was on a mountain and very nice. It was starting to get very cold. We made our way to the Dogo and wandered the shopping arcade that lead up to it, then explored some of the surrounding temples. One temple was at the top of 135 very steep stairs. We both got fortunes at the top. Mine was good but Michael’s not so much so he tied it to a tree.

Back down the hill and to the onsen. Here, there procedures are set in concrete so we’d studied the brochures beforehand to prevent embarrassment. I was very apprehensive about bathing naked with other people but no one else was in the bath I went to so it turned out to be very relaxing. We had tea and sweet crackers after our soaks. The tea was horrible but the crackers were yum. Michael met a very talkative Japanese doctor in his bath so came out way after me.

Feeling thoroughly warmed up, we had a feeble look for food then decided we’d head into the main part of town for dinner. Unfortunately the steam train that runs on the tram line had stopped for the night so we caught an ordinary train. After a long search, we found dinner in the basement of the main shopping arcade. Starting to feel like we’re always eating the same thing, but was still nice!

Walking down the arcade towards the guest house we soon discovered Matsuyama is in fact a sleep town. All the shops shut at 7 or 8pm! We spent a while in a music store where Michael was determined to find some J-pop, but couldn’t quite find the right sound. Instead, I stumbled across a remix album which is full of lots of songs we know and love so that was a purchase. Can’t wait to listen to it.

We watched some silly TV when we got home, then Porco Rosso through the iPod. We’ve got a big travelling day on tomorrow to Nara, our second last destination.

Nara, 10th December

When I said “big travelling day”, I didn’t know it would be seven hours of travel. It was our initial plan to wander the shopping arcade that had closed last night before getting on our train, but we decided not to in order to save us waiting around for it to open at 10am and also it meant we wouldn’t arrive in Nara too late. That was a very good decision.

Our first train went from Matsuyama to Okayama. Got on at 10:20 and arrived at 13:11. Stopped off for ramen lunch, then got on the Shinkansen at 14:30, heading for Osaka. At Osaka (arrived at 15:20), which is actually Shin-Osaka, had to transfer to an Osaka local station and finally made it to Nara at 5pm.

The guest house is really nice here. We had a quick wander of the streets and now we’re settling in to our rooms.

Nara, 11th December

We had our latest start of the whole trip today, out the door around 11am. We spent the day wandering the main park of Nara that is riddled with temples and deer. The deer here seemed a little worse for wear than those at Miyajima. Their coats were not as smooth and they seemed a lot older, but were still cute. One was quite determined to get at Michael’s cookies.

We passed a restaurant at 1pm, but since we’d had such a late breakfast we decided to go on to one more temple. That turned out to be a bad idea because we couldn’t find another food option until 2:30pm, by which time we were famished. Our late lunch was at a Japanese fast food place, which was similar to where we had dinner last night. Funnily enough, we had “Mos Burger” for dinner so Nara is officially the fast food capital of Japan!

After lunch, we wandered over to the five-storied pagoda which sits near town and right next to a pond. There, a stranger came up to us and asked the common question of “Where are you from?”. His name was Hideo Asano and he was a writer who wanted to escape Japan. He gave us Hokkaido poems and showed us examples of his work. He could definitely talk anyone’s ear off but he spoke of different nations and their economies, then explained how he wants to “escape this place” and lead a human life elsewhere. He was trying to save money for a plane ticket to Singapore. He said the people in Japan are zombies and nobody wants to speak. He said the Japanese language was just head bobbing. He must have talked to us for half an hour and all the while Michael badly needed a bathroom! He asked for money to support him and I offered 1,000yen. He said to make it 2,000yen and he’d autograph one of his books for me. He’d given me three and I would have liked to keep them all, but it didn’t feel right to haggle with him so I accepted his offer and now have an autographed copy of his work. I should mention he had an opened can of Japanese beer (Asahi) in his hand the entire time.

After the five-storey pagoda, we had a repeat of last night and wandered the same shopping arcades. It was earlier this time so we got to see a bit more which was good.

Osaka, 12th December

We are at our last destination before heading home to much looked forward to heat and sunshine. We visited a couple of temples on the way here (Hayogi I think it was called) and had lunch at the temple place at this fast food-ish restaurant that was a lot like the Ikea restaurants where you take a tray and pick what you want. Yum, yum.

We did all the morning’s walking with our packs on so a little weary when we got to J-Hoppers. At Osaka station, we heard music, the result of a band busking. I think they were trying to make themselves known. We explored the Dottombori district tonight, very lit up for Christmas with shopping malls that went on as far as the eye could see.

We needed help with the trains there since there are so many rapid lines that skip certain stops. A Japanese highschool student, Yuki, asked us if we needed help and was kind enough to travel with us to where we were trying to get to. Very friendly guy. We trekked from Dottombori to the river and the public central hall where there was a big Christmas lights show. The lights were very pretty and Christmas carols could be heard everywhere.

It was a very cold night and has caused my sickness to relapse so we had a hot chocolate at a café before taking the subway and a JR train back to the hostel. It didn’t quite feel like it but we did do a lot of walking so are pooped. If we keep this up I’m sure we’ll both be able to find some sleep on the plane home.

Osaka, 13th December

For our last full day in Japan it was a very wet one. It rained lightly most of the day. We hit the aquarium this morning, it was amazing and really well set up. You start at the top of the building and work your way down slowly, seeing all the different animals. We ended up getting a ticket for 2,400yen which included entry to the aquarium and unlimited subway which was useful.

After the aquarium we visited the shopping plaza next door and bought some souvenirs. Typical, but also awesome that they appeared right at the end. From there, we caught the subway to Kobe to see Illuminae, basically a light show that was supposed to be out of this world. While it was pretty good, we were in a slow moving crowd because of everyone taking photos and there were umbrellas everywhere. Since we’re a lot taller than the Japanese median, everyone’s umbrellas were at our head height so we copped a few stabs. Definitely not ideal conditions.

We left the lights and had dinner in China town at a place that did all you can eat Chinese for 1,050yen. It was pretty good but the food wasn’t very hot. I did get to have bread buns and dumplings though! On the streets of China town there were dozens of stalls, most of them selling dumplings and bread buns. It was busy, but I’d hate to see what a weekend it like in good weather.

I bought a kimono and sash (obi) from the hostel for 2,000yen which will be fun to play with at home. Now for our last night in Japan…

Osaka, 14th December

Some last minute exploring of the city before saying goodbye to Japan and heading home (to warmth!).

Sayonara!

Epilogue (written 14th Feb 2018)

Reading this account of my travels from seven years ago made me realize a few things:

  • I used to eat a lot of ice cream
  • My idea of fun has changed significantly (seriously, shopping?!?!)
  • My vocabulary has increased. I know how to describe things beyond “awesome”, “amazing” and “gorgeous”
  • I can eat cold boiled eggs, I was so fussy back then
  • It was all about “the experience”
  • Cold has taken on a new meaning since then. I can’t believe I was complaining about 7*C
  • So…. many… trains…
  • I knew nothing about car manufacturing back then
  • I had hair!

Every photo in this blog was taken by Michael Bongiorno. Thanks to his resilience in carrying around his Nikon DSLR for every step we took, we were rewarded with some great photographic memories of our trip.

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