Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 3: Kinosaki Onsen.
This series of articles has been dragging but I need to make an effort and finish it, especially because I have had such a great feedback.

Our original plans for Kinosaki Onsen were to go to the beach to the north of it but it was raining a lot and we decided instead to start the trip to Takayama but it was just too far away so we chose a point in the middle of the route to stay: Nagoya.

Nagoya

I had read on our guide that Nagoya didn’t have much to see and it was right. We found a ryokan to stay by choosing one from the list we got at the tourist information office at Nagoya’s train station and calling them to check for the availability.
This ryokan, which I cannot really remember the name (and I don’t have my notes here unfortunately) was a bit cheaper than the others but of course, it wasn’t half as good as the others.
The room was big and with a Japanese garden in a patio but while it looked nice, the garden turned out to be composed of artificial plants and the tatamis, futan, etc. also didn’t have the same quality as the other ryokans we stayed at.

Our room's plastic garden in Nagoya

Zen fake: always green, never ending relaxation

On Toilets

The worst though, was the toilet. In the previous article I forgot to tell you how cool the toilet was in Morizuya ryokan. Yes, it was one of those high tech Japanese toilets. When I opened the door to the toilet’s cabinet, the toilet opened it lid automagically! It also included a heated seat but there was no toilet paper… Instead, I had a control pad mounted in the wall next to it, illustrated with pictographs of what the buttons did. See, one doesn’t need toilet paper in Japan… think water jets. I can tell you that you’ll feel very fresh! In comparison, we’re in the dark ages of hygiene here in the West. I could go on about how I think they got smart computer vision algorithms who can find the exact spot where to point the water jet but I’m not.

Hi-tech toilet controls

Hit the right button and you’ll feel reborn!

Anyway, this was not the case in Nagoya’s ryokan. You would think that with such advanced technology in fields for which innovation isn’t the first thing we think about, I expected the “beginner’s” level to be a regular, western toilet but it was in fact a squat one. I still tried to utilize it but my lazy, western body doesn’t have the balance required. Luckily there was a 7-Eleven around the corner with a regular toilet and very clean (as everything in Japan).

During the evening we didn’t know what to see so we just took a walk until the Nagoya Noh Theater which has a nice samurai statue outside.

Japan 2012

Nice Samurai statue outside Nagoya Noh Theater

Hikone Castle

The next day, we headed to Takayama but we did a little detour to visit Hikone Castle. I love Japanese architecture so I wanted to visit a Japanese castle during our trip but we discarded the famous Himeji Castle because it is under restoration until 2014. Hikone Castle was the alternative we chose, it was conveniently located on our way to Takayama.
Hikone Castle is a small one but is one of the few which hasn’t been destroyed in any war or any other tragic events throughout history. I also kept thinking “I think I sneaked into this place in Tenchu“!

Hikone's Castle

The Magnificent Hikone Castle

Hikone's Castle

Simply beautiful

Hikone's Castle garden

Relaxing at the garden on the back of Hikone Castle

Since our backpacks were very heavy, it was crazy hot&humid and there were too many steps to climb, we kindly asked for the tickets office to keep them, which they kindly did even though it couldn’t fit any of the lockers.
We had to queue for a little while at the entrance of the castle and chatted a bit with the guard there. He was very nice and knew some Portuguese words (there are a lot of Japanese immigrants in Brasil and he had family there) and said that Helena’s eyes looked a bit Japanese. So far she’s been told that she looks Turkish, American (someone said it was because of her freckles… go figure) and now Japanese! She’s a citizen of the World for sure, let’s see when they say she looks Swedish or African 🙂

Hikone Castle was very nice and quick to see but the ticket also gave access to the gardens behind the castle which were very beautiful and relaxing. The town’s mascot is a cute samurai cat called Neko-nyan, be sure to take a picture with it if you go there.

Hikone

Neko-nyan loves taking pictures with Western tourists!

After Hikone, we finally headed to Takayama, the Japanese Alps. I will hopefully not take that long to write about it so stay tuned and enjoy some more pics meanwhile!

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 3: Kinosaki Onsen

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 2: Kyoto.
It’s been a while since I wrote the previous article in this series but I’m determined to continue writing these articles and finishing the series.

Getting a place to stay

Three days after we arrived in Kyoto, we left and headed to Kinosaki Onsen, in Yogo Perfecture. Kinosaki is a small town famous for its Onsen (natural hot springs) and we were in the mood for some relaxation time.
As we got there, we headed for the tourist info center because we hadn’t reserved our lodging in advance… Big mistake. There was an old lady at the counter which spoke very limited English but was very nice and we were told that every place in town was full so we only had a couple of expensive options left. Around 115 €, she pointed to a calculator, after converting the currency. Well, comparing to the ~50 € per person per night we had paid in Kyoto that’s not a big increase I thought so I said okay but right away my “spidey sense” told me I was missing something… The lady hadn’t specified whether it was per person or per room. It was per person. Whoa, now that was a big inscrease so we said we couldn’t take that one. After making another call, she told us the only remaining alternative left was a ryokan called Morizuya for ~75 € a person. That would be the most expensive hotel we had ever paid (and the most expensive in the whole trip) but there were no other alternatives so we took it. After all, the entrance to the hot springs was included so we kind of considered it the “glamour” moment of our trip.

Our room in Morizuya ryokan, in Kinosaki

Our room in Kinosaki Onsen

As you can see in the photo, the room in the Morizuya ryokan turned out to be huge. It was actually bigger than our first apartment in the city we lived in at that time (Coruña). We had our private sink but the toilet was shared. Still, as I have mentioned in previous articles, this wasn’t a problem because everything in Japan is neatly clean.

Going to the hot springs

After dropping our backpacks, we went to a food supermarket for lunch (they had plenty of nice food like tempura and even tables for seating outside) and then it was time to go explore the Onsen! For that purpose, at the ryokan, besides the common yukata (a traditional style, light clothing), both Helena and I were given a (very feminine) wooden handbag (which had a towel inside) and a pair of very Japanese wooden flip-flops. Since it had started raining a bit, we also took a traditional style umbrella. We had a map of the hot springs’ places and the one we were going to was about 5 minutes walking from Morizuya’s so we headed out. Walking with those wooden flip-flops isn’t easy and those 5 minutes turned easily into 10. The rain wasn’t helping either and I kept thinking, the yukata, the umbrella and the wooden handbag and flip-flops… My old University friends would love to see me dressed up like this. Luckily we had left our phones and camera at the ryokan so there are no evidences for an eventual mockery.
We also realized that we were the only Westerners in town so let’s say we felt very special 🙂

Fireworks in Kinosaki

Fireworks in Kinosaki


The public baths are divided in two (for men and women) since people bathe naked. I felt a bit awkward, not precisely because of being naked, but because I was the only Western in there and, to keep it simple I’ll just say that bodies differ a lot. Adults behave like adults and acted natural in the face of difference but kids are always less influenced by society’s etiquette and would stare 🙂
Helena and I met after half an hour at the entrance and she told me she also felt like that but it wasn’t so bad so we went for our next public baths. This second one was a longer walk and short after we left, it started raining a lot… We got there with our feet and part of the yukata soaked.

I liked this second Onsen a lot. It had less people and a larger outside pool. In this pool, the water was a bit too hot for me so I sat on a rock, naked, with only my legs in the water, getting the hot vapors from below and the cold rain falling from above. I will never forget how great it felt!

Traditional japanese breakfast

Me, enjoying my Japanese breakfast


After getting back to the hotel and changing into our clothes, we went outside for dinner. We ended up (mistakenly) entering a Korean place which was expensive and not good at all but after we left, the rain was gone and everybody was out in the street watching the fireworks in the night sky and murmuring sounds of awe.

The next morning we had a traditional Japanese breakfast (needs to be ordered the day before) served in our room. I liked it but Helena didn’t find it very funny to have fish for breakfast.

Traditional japanese breakfast

Helena, not enjoying her Japanese breakfast

After we checked out, the owner asked us where we were heading (the train station) and told us he’d drive us there, no extra costs or anything. People are nice in Japan.

Our original idea was to go north from Kinosaki and spend a day at the beach but it kept raining so instead we headed to Nagoya for an overnight stay, which was more or less half-way through the long trip to our next main destination Takayama.

Since we spent quite some time at the public baths, we didn’t take many pictures in Kinosaki but there you go:

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 2: Kyoto

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 1: The arrival.

It was the evening of August, 10th. We had just dropped our bags at B&B Juno and the owner, Ian, had given us information about the neighborhood and the main landmarks in Kyoto. Since we were very tired from the trip, we just went out for a stroll and dinner.

We had dinner at Kamon, a funny sushi place that Ian had labeled as inexpensive in the sheet he gave us. When we entered the place, it was empty apart from the employees (all of them older than 50 years) who were clapping their hands while one of them was dancing in the middle of the restaurant to the sound of some music show in the TV — priceless.
The sushi was not the best we had tasted, actually the rolls were not the perfect round shapes that are so difficult to get right but anyway, inexpensive, fairly good and friendly staff.

The next morning we woke up early to start what would become a long but pleasureful day. Given the nice location of our B&B, we had a plan: visit a few temples along the Philosophers’ Path while heading to the picturesque district of Gion (known for geisha entertainment).

Picture of Buddhist sign

Buddhist sign in Honen-in temple

The first temple we visited was Ginkaku-ji — the Silver Pavilion. This temple has a nice Zen garden and a path through the hill nearby which gives us a view of Kyoto’s landscape. Since this was our first time at a Japanese temple, it blew our minds; Japanese temples are very beautiful and do their job well: they transmit peace of mind and simplicity, we always felt relaxed in them.
After Ginkaku-ji, we visited a smaller temple called Honen-in which had the cool sign you can see in the picture.

Continuing our path we visited a shrine called Otoyo-jinja (which was dedicated to rats and had many cool statues of these animals) and we passed by Eikan-dō. The Eikan-dō temple had a really nice garden with ponds and koi fish and we could also enter some of its houses.

After such a long walk it was lunch time so we had one of many “supermarket lunches”. In Japan they have very good, ready to eat meals at any supermarket, just choose your favorite sushi box or compose your soup on the spot. Sushi boxes come with chop sticks and, in case your meal should be warmed up, the friendly shop assistants will do it for you as any supermarket has microwaves.
Last but not least, many supermarkets also have small tables outside of it for you to seat down and eat your meal peacefully. Summarizing, if you go to Japan, try the supermarket meals, you’ll save money and it is part of the experience.

Picture of a coffee can

Cold coffee can

Like most Portuguese people, I am very picky with coffee and I love a good coffee after a meal which is not very easily found at a good quality and reasonable price in Japan, hell, it is like that in most places apart from Portugal 🙂 So how did I get my caffeine fix you might ask? By drinking bottled/canned cold coffee.

These cans cost around 100 ¥ (1 €) and, since the weather was really hot, tasted good enough to me.

After lunch, we passed by the huge torii gate nearby and visited the Heian Jingū shrine which had a big open yard and two fountains and, on our way to Gion, passed by the big Sanmon gate (which reminded me of Akira Kurosawa‘s movie Rashōmon) and visited the last temple of this day, Chion-in.

The Chion-in temple was undergoing repairs which is why I suppose we didn’t have to pay. In there we could see the ongoing Buddhist ceremony and walk on the nightingale floor. Nightingale floors were created during feudal Japan and are floors engineered to make the nightingales’ chirping sound which is accomplished by a system of nails scratching against their clamps and triggered by our weight and motion when we walk on them.
It was used as an alarm for ninjas and thieves. How cool is that!?
Later we heard living nightingales and their chirping was indistinguishable from the floor’s, at least to me.

Demonstration against nuclear power in Kyoto

Demonstration against nuclear power in Kyoto

Muruyama park was all that was standing between us and Gion so we crossed it and found a small demonstration against the use of nuclear power.

Gion was a busy but nice district. We had a nice stroll along the river side together with many people dressed in traditional costumes.
At some point we saw many people lining up to buy something that resembled baked dough on a stick and looked sweet and delicious. We lined up too and bought two of those only to find out it was made of rice and tasted salty; I ended up eating both of them.

Picture of girls dressed in traditional costumes

Girls dressed in traditional costumes

We visited a bit more of Gion and found a music store at a mall where we listened to some CDs from artists unknown to us. I had about three Japanese bands in my music collection before going to Japan (MUCC, Maximum the Hormone and Mad Capsule Markets) and discovered a new one I liked by going to this store: Nothing’s Carved in Stone.

That night we ate at a nice resting area inside the mall — yes, with tasty food from a gourmet supermarket — and walked back to our B&B for about an hour.

The next day would be our last day and night at Kyoto so we had a tight schedule.
We started with a visit to Kinkaku-ji — the Golden Pavilion. This temple is definitely worth a visit. As the name suggests, it is really a golden temple; it is so scenic that it looks like something from a movie, just look at the following picture.

Kinkaku-ji -- The Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji — The Golden Pavilion

At the Golden Pavilion we also were impressed to see that there was an employee dressed in a guard’s uniform whose job was picking every little piece of paper flying around with the help of wooden tongs.

The next stop from the temple (by train) was the bamboo grove. Everyone who watched any anime show about ninjas or samurais remembers some scene about people fighting in a bamboo grove. This was the kind of scene that came to my mind when visiting Kyoto’s bamboo grove. Despite the awful hot weather, it was a really nice place for a walk, there is a forest and a river nearby with pleasure boats to rent but it was really hot and it was lunch time so we didn’t try them.

Me with Japanese cosplayers at Kyoto's Manga Museum

Me with Japanese cosplayers at Kyoto’s Manga Museum

Since that day was my birthday, the next “appointment” in our schedule was actually my own birthday gift, a visit to Kyoto’s International International Manga Museum. Ian had warned us that the museum was more like a library but I still wanted to go there. He was right, it had big book shelves everywhere and unsurprisingly most of them were in Japanese but I could still see some Manga techniques and get a good grasp of the evolution of styles in Manga.
Part of the museum’s attraction to me was seeing the many cosplays in there and they were more than happy to take a picture with a western so there you go.

The Manga museum was 800 ¥ (8 €) and, although I did like it, it was not that awesome so you should just go if you are really into Manga.

Helena and I at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Helena and I at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The last attraction of the day (and the last temple we visited in Kyoto) was Fushimi-Inari Taisha and it is impressive! We visited its temple but the really magical part is the path through the countless torii gates across the mountain. The place is easily reached by train and definitely worth a visit.
We didn’t stay long though because it was already dark and bugs were eating Helena alive so we had to quickly escape and reestablish our strength with another tasty dinner.

Back to Kyoto by train we hoped off at Kyoto’s Station where I noticed some funny messages in English written in a mall’s entrance sign like “I’m in a good mood full of joy” or “Things I want to have-there are a lot of them here”.

Kyoto was a very nice place with many beautiful things to see and a fairly relaxed pace. Like most Japanese cities we visited, it was extremely clean and safe: bikes parked without a lock, people in the bus leaving their belongings in the seat while they went to the front of the bus to exchange money, etc.
Many of the temples have an entrance fee that does not usually go above 500 ¥ (5 €) and the city is also a good base for visiting areas out of the city in day trips. The three nights we spent in there weren’t nearly enough for so many great landmarks so if I ever go back to Japan I will try to stay a few days in Kyoto again.

The next day we were heading to Kinosaki Onsen, a small village known for its many hot springs but I will mention all those funny adventures in the next article. Meanwhile, check out the photos we took in Kyoto:

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 1: The arrival

Ever since I can remember, I was always fascinated by Eastern Asian cultures.
Like most kids, I loved martial arts movies, but I was also a fan of many other things. Before I had an internet connection at my parents’ home, and information was not promptly available, I would relish any movie, documentary or book about Eastern Asia; it didn’t matter if it was China, Korea or Japan. During Expo ’98, in Lisbon, the 13 years old me forced my parents to wait in line for several hours to visit the pavilions of Japan, Korea, China and Macau. Even nowadays my father mentions it (in a friendly “you owe me” tone 🙂 ) whenever we talk about those countries.

Then this attraction for Eastern Asia was “specialized” more in Japan mainly because of anime. I had access to the most known anime series in Portuguese TV. I was particularly a fan of Dragon Ball (like everybody else), Evangelion and Rurouni Kenshin. During those times, the magic of internet entered my parent’s place, with the nostalgic connection noise of dial-up, and I could search everything I wanted about Japan and eventually learned a bit of Japanese (most of which is now forgotten in some hardly accessible part of my memory).

During that time, I always thought that one day I would go to Japan (not discarding, at the time, living there).
This visit finally took place during two weeks in August, 2012.

Off to Japan

As I wrote before in an other post, Helena and I had planned to visit Japan during our honeymoon in 2011 but due to the Tōhoku Earthquake, this destiny was replaced with Turkey whose series of articles you can read here.
Finally, early this year we decided that this year’s trip destiny would be Japan and here is the first of the articles about this trip.

Since Japan is an expensive place and people always ask about the prices, I will try to mention prices more than in other articles. When we went there, the Japanese Yen value had risen in comparison with the Euro so 1€ was worth less than 100¥ but we kept this 1 € — 100 ¥ rate in mind for the simplicity sake.

We got our round-trip plane tickets in the end of May for around 850 € each (together with insurance), which means they could have been cheaper but still they weren’t much more expensive than their early purchase price. We flew from Barcelona as in Coruña there is only one international flight but we took this chance to visit Catalonia’s capital so the domestic flight’s cost was compensated this way.

The Flight

Image of our flight's progress screen

Our flight’s progress screen

We flew with Alitalia so the trip was Barcelona > Rome > Narita (Tokyo).
Needless to say, it was a long flight, the longest I have ever taken: about 15 hours since we left Barcelona. We were excited for being in such a big plane for the first time and I was surprised that the small screen in front of my seat had video-games that could be played against other passengers. The only bad thing, apart from the time, was that my seat’s head cushion kept me in an uncomfortable position, making my back hurt.

The Train

We arrived at Narita on August 10 at 10:30, passed the passport control and, since we took our huge backpacks as hand luggage, readily proceeded to validate our JapanRail (JR) passes. We acquired our JR passes from the very efficient website JRPass.com; in 3 days we had our passes. We validated our passes at Narita Airport and asked the assistant how to get to Kyoto (our first destination in this trip), he was very quick, nice and helpful, and told us that we should change trains at Shinagawa Station instead of Tokyo’s because it was smaller and less confusing.

Picture of Narita Express

Narita Express

This was also the first time we witnessed the Japanese Railways efficiency. Many trains were cleaned as soon as they arrived at the stations. It was funny and impressive to see that the trains’ seats can be rotated so passengers always travel facing the destiny. Of course, the trains were very punctual, if it said that a train was arriving at 17:07 it would!
Like everything in Japan, trains were neatly clean, no written tags, no scratches, no stains, no lost chocolate wrapping papers, the trains seemed like they were coming right from the manufacturer.
Another nice thing is how silent the trains are, even moving between the trains’ cars, which usually is noisy, was much more silent than in most trains I’ve taken in Europe.
Summarizing, I love to travel by train and JR trains are the best.

No Plastic Money

Picture of sushi Lunchbox

Our first sushi lunchbox

At Shinagawa Station, we took the first of many sushi lunches, from one of the station shops for about 500 ¥ (~5 €) after our first visit to the ATM to withdraw money. We didn’t take Japanese Yens from Spain and we also do not like to get money at currency exchange offices as usually withdrawing it from any ATM will give us better rates. In Japan one needs to carry money as many places do not accept cards so what we did was to withdraw a large amount every once in while. The ATMs that work with our VISA cards were the Japan Post (JP) ones, do not bother with trying others.

Kyoto

Around 16:30 we arrived at Kyoto. We were staying at B&B Juno which is a 30 minutes bus ride from Kyoto’s JR Station.
The buses system is different from most of the places where I took city buses. Luckily, there was a “western” person in the bus and after exchanging the first couple of words in English with him, we realized he was Spanish and switched to this Romance language. He was from the Basque Country and asked us if we were Galician which is always funny when this happens to us; anyway, he explained how the bus system worked: In Japan, you hop on the bus through the back door and you pay when you leave the bus, not when you are entering. Also, the bus driver will not do the change for you, there is a machine next to the driver that will exchange money for you and after you got the right coins, you pay the exact amount on a different slot in the same machine. In the case of Kyoto’s city bus, a single trip was 220 ¥ (~2.2 €) and a whole day ticket was 500 ¥ (5 €).

Places are not easy to find in Japan. Turns out that houses are given a number by the order they were built, not by their place in the street which means that house #1 can be incredibly far from house #2, this explains why B&B Juno had such detailed instructions to get there. I brought all this info in my phone, so I asked the driver to tell us when to hop off the bus, followed the instructions as if we were on a treasure hunt and so it was easy to find the place in the end.

Picture of our room at B&B Juno, Kyoto

Our room at B&B Juno, Kyoto

B&B Juno was the best place we stayed during our entire trip in Japan. It is a Japanese house run by Ian and his wife Sybilla. Ian is a Canadian who moved to Japan more than 20 years ago to teach English at Kyoto’s University. He speaks and writes Japanese and was also the editor of a tourism/culture magazine in English about Kyoto so he kindly helped us plan our trips. During breakfast we would talk with Sybilla about different countries and cultures (she is Austrian and has lived in a number of different countries) which made things even more interesting.
The house was very nice, located close to the Philosopher’s Path and many temples, it was also the first time I slept in a traditional Japanese room.
With affordable prices (for Japan’s standards) of 5000 ¥ (~50 €) per person, if you are staying in Kyoto, I advise you to stay in B&B Juno, especially if it will be the beginning of your trip and you might appreciate the help of an English-speaking person.

Kyoto is an amazing city, with many things to see and to talk about so I will leave those for the next article.

to be continued…

GUADEC’s over, time for Japan

GUADEC

The last couple of week were very busy for me.
Apart from having organized the GUADEC‘s keynotes (with the much appreciated help of Dave Neary and Karen), I gave two talks as mentioned in my previous post.

For the Skeltrack one I was happy that I changed the format of the talk: back in LinuxTag I talked mainly about the technical side of the library, how it worked on the inside; for GUADEC, however, I preferred to give a higher level overview of Skeltrack and other neat things we do in Igalia‘s Interactivity team. The live demo worked very well (considering it had fresh code from the previous night) and people seemed to have enjoyed it (surprisingly live demos are cooler than talking about graph stuff, go figure…) 😀 .

The already much praised organization was really like that. The GPUL guys know how to pull it off. So much for the European joke where “Germans organize, French cook and Spanish entertain”, huh! Congrats guys.

Vacation: BCN > Japan

In a few hours I’ll be traveling to what may very probably be the trip of my life: Japan.
Ever since I was a little kid I was very attracted to Eastern cultures. Later, when I was a teenager, I was really into anime, manga and all that stuff. Back then I already knew I wanted to work with technology but I wasn’t sure if this was something more like an artist (yes, I drew/painted and I sometimes still do it) rather than a more hardcore role like a programmer.
Thus, this Japanese “pop” culture and mainly computer games had a strong influence on why I did a CS degree and earn my life today as a programmer.

For these reasons, I am more than excited to go to Japan. I’m also staying a couple of days in Barcelona before the main trip, it’ll be my first time visiting the city as well but with all the excitement for Japan it feels like I’m just passing by some random and regular city 🙂 Still, I’m sure tomorrow I’ll come to my senses and enjoy this beautiful Catalan city I’ve wanted to visit for a long time as well (I’ll be also stopping Igalia’s Barcelona office and I heard there is a nice roof top where my colleagues could share their beers with me).

Of course I need to mention languages when talking about traveling! Most of the Japanese I knew as a teenager is now gone but I’ll try to catch up; I got a small conversation book I haven’t read in ages but it’s gonna be a long flight anyway.

Not much in this trip has been planned in advance (picking tickets doesn’t count) so if you have some remarkable place you think I should visit, apart from the obvious ones, let me know (I’ll start off in Kyoto).
I will also probably blog about it afterwards like I’ve done for most of my main trips.

See you in Japan!