Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6: Tokyo vol. I

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 5: Takayama.

On August 17, 2012, at around 5pm we finally arrived in Tokyo for the second half of our trip. We stayed in a western style hotel in the Ikebukuro district which was the cheapest of the entire trip but it was in the basement, with a very tiny bathroom (I had to lean in order to shower without bumping my head).

Best rāmen in Tokyo!

We found the best rāmen place while exploring Ikebukuro in our first night. For the first time we used the machine at the door for ordering. You put the money in, choose the dish and it returns a ticket that you have to give to the waiter. This way waiters don’t have to handle money. Pretty smart!
In this place, I ordered a different kind of rāmen. The noodles didn’t have any soup but there were rather two extra bowls with a different sauce each. Since I didn’t know how to eat that in the beginning, I asked a man that was sitting nearby how to do it and he explained and invited us to join his table. He was maybe under 50 and could speak a bit of English; as most of the Japanese people we met, he was very curious to know about us, where we came from, etc. and then he said something like “Tokyo is very expensive! It is a shame my cousins are staying with me and my wife and I have no extra room for you but I give you my number and the next time you come to Tokyo you can stay at my place! By the way, I can drive you around after dinner if you want, my car is nearby…”. This could be seen as creepy from a Western point of view but I truly believe he was sincerely being nice. We were tired anyway so we kindly declined and went to the hotel as a new intensive week was about to start.

Shinjuku

Tokyo is a HUGE city. It’s more like a set of cities so we decided to explore one or two districts each day if we could. Thus, the next day was a very big one! We decided to go to the Shinjuku district and visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building with the purpose of seeing the landscape from the top. The view was impressive: buildings and more buildings spread until the horizon, giving us a good idea of the dimensions of the city.

They rebuilt fast after Godzilla!

After coming back down from the Metropolitan building we had to wait for a while because of the thunderstorm and the heavy rain that had formed meanwhile. Luckily we found that there were what seemed to be underground streets so we proceeded to our next destination: the Square Enix Store!

While we were looking for it, another very Japanese thing happened. I couldn’t find the store so I asked a young man who was entering a restaurant (it was lunch time) if he knew where it was. He explained where it was but then postponed his lunch a bit and walked with us for a while until we were at the store! Go to a city like London and ask someone where something is and you’ll see the difference.

Harajuku and Shibuya

After visiting the Square Enix Store we headed to Harajuku, the young and hip district known for its Gothic Lolitas. We took some photos of street artists and funky things we found in the streets and walked further south to Shibuya.

Harajuku’s street art!

Whenever you see videos of Tokyo, there is a good chance you will see Shibuya Crossing, supposedly the world’s busiest crossing. Our first impression was that we expected it to be somehow bigger. It is indeed packed. It’s amazing the number of people crossing when the pedestrian traffic light is green and then give way for the cars. It was also amazing to see the scene in that same cross in Resident Evil: Afterlife after we had been there. Luckily we didn’t experience a zombie outburst.

Next to the crossing there’s the statue of the famous dog Hachikō. Being the good tourists we are, we took the typical picture next to it 🙂

Next to Hachikō!

Kabuki-Chō

After that we passed a bit by Kabuki-Chō, the red light and yakuza district where we saw many love hotels and other funky things but the craziest thing I managed to do was to be able to change a pair of sneakers that Helena bought in one store in Shibuya by a different color in another branch of the store in Kabuki-Chō. Pretty bad-ass!

And that is all for the first day in Tokyo! I will try not to take too long to post the rest of the trip…

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”Tokyo”]

to be continue…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 5: Takayama

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone.

After Hikone we headed to Takayama, it was August the 15th, 2012. The scenery was beautiful, you will read in guides that Takayama is located in the Japanese Alps, that means beautiful dense forests, creeks and mountains. Bullet trains in Japan were very comfortable and fast but it was actually nice that the train that took us to Takayama was not a high-speed one, this way we could better appreciate landscape.
Our seats were right after the driver’s cab, he wore white gloves and we were intrigued with these gestures he did: about four times per minute he would raise his hand, point it to a railway sign and then to some of the panel’s instruments which looked like some kind of ritual…

Japan 2012
Driver waving: a mystery to be solved!
Japan 2012
The Japanese Alps

When we arrived at Takayama, it was already night and we had to walk about 20 minutes to our ryokan: Sosuke. The room was about 50 €/person/night, it was much nicer than the one in Nagoya but less fancy than the expensive one at Kinosaki Onsen.
Since we had waken up early, walked all over the castle area in Hikone, and ridden the train for more than 5 hours, all with a smothering heat and humidity, we decided to grab dinner at a supermarket nearby and eat at our room. After that I just laid back and watched Japanese TV as they have quite some interesting TV shows there!

The next morning we went to a local street market. It wasn’t as impressive as our Lonely Planet Guide mentioned so we walked all over town, visiting some temples, traditional stores and even a small museum. Wood craftsmanship is a traditional art in Takayama so there were really beautiful wood carvings but we also entered a very interesting shop with the most original figures hand-made with bolts, nuts, washes, etc. We ended up buying a small donkey figure which we named Giló (just a funny sounding Portuguese name).

Takayama
Our donkey Giló doesn’t look this dangerous but it is also awesome!
Takayama
Beautiful bridge in a temple in Takayama

Hida Furukawa

During the evening that same day, we also took the train to a small town nearby, called Hida Furukawa which has some canals going through it with giant Koi fish. There were small wooden boxes in front of the canals with small bags of pieces of bread. Each bag 100 ¥ if I remember correctly and since it’s Japan and everybody is honest, there was no security mechanism whatsoever in the boxes to guarantee people paid (and yes, in case you’re wondering, we did pay). I love Koi fish, so I really enjoyed this small trip.

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
Koi fish are great!
Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
It’s a beauty!

After a visit to some of the Hida Furukawa’s temples, we headed back to our ryokan in Takayama only to find some kind of ceremony in the entrance of a fancy hotel nearby. People were playing traditional songs and dancing in a circle with a strange participant: someone with a costume of what looked to be Godzilla… 🙂

Takayama
I thought Godzilla liked Tokyo, maybe he retired to Takayama for the relaxed environment!

Hida No Sato

The next morning we went to Hida No Sato (or Hida Folk Village), an open air museum about 20 minutes walking from our hotel which turned out not to be so easy to make because we took a wrong turn and it was freaking hot!
Anyway, we eventually got to Hida No Sato and it was totally worth the walk and the price (about 10 €). It had many traditional houses which belonged to several parts of the region and had been reassembled there. Inside the houses there were texts and pictures showing how the villagers used to live. We saw pictures of men carrying tree logs (which looked bigger then themselves) down a snowy mountain; it was a very hard life.

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama
Us, passing as locals in the museum!
Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama
A traditional house of the region
Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama
A gate in Hida No Sato

After Hida No Sato, we took the train to Tokyo. It would be the 2nd half of our trip and we would spend an amazing week at this great city but that is the subject of the next post.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”Takayama”]

to be continued…

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!

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”Nagoya,Hikone”]

to be continued…