A little update to the blog with our recent visit to Japan. Jo wrote most of this so most of the credit goes to her.
Our flight from London to Tokyo was fine. We flew direct and overnight so James slept most of the way, although at one point Jo did lie on the floor. We had bulkhead seats and James had a little cot - though naturally he wanted to lie on us instead. ANA have a very cool video system, so you can watch films from the start on demand, instead of the normal loop that planes do (where the programme of films is on a 2 hour loop or so). I was pretty tired so only managed 1 film on the way out (Dr Parnassus).
Then when we arrived we got Suica cards for travelling around Tokyo (like London Oyster Cards) and caught the Narita express into Shinjuku in central Tokyo. I was prepared to find that the stations were enormous, but they really were enormous! We got a taxi to our hotel which was very nice – like a mini studio apartment with a kitchen so that was good. http://www.citadines.com/en/index.html
On our first day, we went to Shibuya crossing famous for it's manic diaganol crossing and You tube stormtrooper dancing – we went to the Tokyu Hands department store (selling all sorts of interesting and unique things & mandarake manga store (wlaking down 4 dark sets of stairs - didn't realise there was a lift) and later we went to the food hall in Isetan http://www.isetan.co.jp/. I absolutely loved Isetan! Great shop - a huge incredible floor devoted to its food hall selling an incredible variety of interesting looking food. We didn’t really get a lot of time to go shopping as there was so much to do in Japan. Then in the evening we went to the Tokyo metropolitan government building and looked out at the view. It was a bit difficult at first because we were jetlagged and were getting up at midday (hotel had very good blackout blinds) and then all the temples would close by 4-5pm and shops closed at 7pm.
On our second day, we went to Shinjuku Park which was right near where we were staying. The cherry blossom was out and it was an absolute picture. We saw people having cherry blossom viewing parties (Hanami?) under the trees.
Then we went to Asakusa and went to the Nakamise Dori and senso ji temple.
We were going to get the water bus back down the river but it had already closed, so instead we went to Akihabara to see the Tokyo Anime Centre in the UDX building, and Tora no ano – another famous manga shop. We got the overhead JR line back to our hotel. It was rush hour and it was busy, but nothing like I had feared after seeing videos on YouTube of people being pushed onto the trains.
On our final day in Tokyo, we went to Harajuku and walked down Takeshita Doori. This is the famous area where you can expect to see lots of kids dressed in really outlandish clothes, particularly on the weekend. Gwen Stefani has filmed a couple of videos here, and has even named her perfume Harajuku Girl. It was in the middle of the day on a weekday so we didn’t see too many strange people around. Also living in Brighton I don’t think you have to go a bit further to register on our strange people radar! But it was a nice interesting insight into youth culture.
Then we got the train to the Imperial Palace expecting to spend a long time there, but I think we were a bit disappointed when we got there because we couldn’t see much. But I later met Jo's Japanese friend and colleague – Chitose – and she explained that the palace was supposed to be hidden from view and kept private. Then we went to Ginza and had a look around the Sony Building and 3D TV before walking back to near the royal palace to meet Chitose at her office. She showed us around and showed us the view of the palace and the city from the office on the 14th floor, and then we went for a walk around Ginza. It was much better having Chitose to guide us. She took us to the Kabuki theatre they are about to knock down. Then Chitose took us to a very typical Japanese restaurant for a meal, favoured by "salary men" who will go for a meal and a drink after work.
We sat on the floor, drank sake from a square wooden cup and ate nice food while James slept on the cushions in the corner. I must say I really liked Ginza and I thought it was one of the most impressive areas we went to.
The following day we caught the bullet train – shinkansen Nozomi to Kyoto. All of the trains were extremely orderly and spacious so it was a pleasure to travel on them. They felt a bit like air travel, even having little shuttered windows.
In Kyoto we were staying near Shijo Omiya station which seemed quite central. On the first night there we went out for a walk around Gion, which was very cute seeing Pontocho alley all lit up with lanterns in the early evening and watching many people being entertained in the tea houses.
We went for our first Okonomiyaki (a pancake/omelette thing) at an eatery recommended by lonely planet. It was very nice, although quite a challenge eating with chopsticks whilst also holding James in the sling!!
The next day Jo and I did a guided "philisophical" walk from the lonely planet book and it rained all day! Jo's mum stayed at home because her hip was hurting and she was a bit tired out. It had all been very full on during our stay.
We caught the tube to Keage station and then went to Konchi-in garden, Nanzen-ji (where Lonely Planet made us walk up like a hundred steps to get to some weird shrine at the back which wasn’t really worth seeing).
No great because we had such a big day ahead of us, carrying James and the pram around as well - we carried the pram all day because of the steps! Then after Nanzen-ji we went to a noodle bar which was lovely to get in out the rain. James tried the noodles and absolutely loved them.
We then did a famous walk along side a river towards Ginkaku-ji. We ended up carrying James in the pram around Ginkaku-ji because it was all up and down hill. But I really enjoyed this temple. As it was raining it was a bit quieter and the moss in the gardens was really glowing. Quite a magical place. Then we were eager to get the bus home afterwards, but I realised that our hotel receptionist had given me the bus directions home from Kinkaku-ji not Ginkaku-ji (a different temple)! Easily done. But we still got home okay anyway.
I was really surprised just how easy it was to travel around Japan. We didn’t have one duff journey the whole time we were there. Everything is very well signposted and there are lots of English signs around. The only place that was a bit challenging was Kyoto underground as we used the ticket machines and there was no English. But we just looked on the fare map and worked out the cost of where we wanted to go, pressed the button for two people put the money in and it was fine. Jo also learnt a bit of Japanese before we went, and a handful of phrases came in very useful – Kore o kudasai, eki wa doku desu ka? Watashi wa Kyoto e iki mas – etc etc!!
On our 6th day, we went back to Gion and Jo had a Geisha / Maiko Makeover. I took James for a walk around town while Jo's mum came into watch them do the makeup and get her dressed.
I was a bit disappointed because on their website it said that they had lots of kimonos in bigger sizes because they had Americans etc, but when I got there they said “you very big, tall – so we only have 2 kimono for you” so there were all these beautiful kimono’s hanging up but I didn’t get to choose really. They did my make up and then took me into the dressing area, the first lady wrapped me up so tightly I couldn’t breathe and I felt like I was going to faint, so I had to get her to untie me and redo it a bit looser. Then I had a quick photo session with their professional photographer.
It was quite funny really because it was in an old Japanese house and I had to keep ducking to go through the doorways as it was without wearing this big wig as well! Then I put on the geisha shoes that were about 4 inches tall which would have made me 6’3” I must have looked like a real freak! But the other tourist geisha girls were all very friendly to me and chatty. I don’t know what James made of it. I think he knew it was my voice, and I think he knew it was me, but it must have been a bit weird for him.
After the geisha makeover we caught a bus up to Kinkaku-ji. It was a really sunny day so the temple was shining beautifully, although lots of other people obviously had the same idea.
Each day after going out sight seeing, Jo and her mum would go down to the Onsen in our hotel (a hot swimming pool - segregated men & women). Our hotel in Kyoto was Japanese style too, so we had to roll out our futon beds every night. James loved our room because it was very baby friendly with everything on the floor. The toilets were funny too with all their extra functions, with a seat warmer and various sprays.
On our 7th day we caught the bus down to Kyomizudera temple. It had lovely views out over the city, and it seemed like there were a lot of people there but it was big enough to accommodate them without feeling crowded. One thing that got me in Japan was that the people were all so respectful and polite. Even in really crowded train stations we never got pushed or shoved once. We never saw any intimidating or dirty or sloppy looking people. It seemed at times like the country was just full of businessmen in black suits, and school children in their navy sailor like uniforms.
After going to Kyomizudera, we went to Choin-in were there was a big Buddhist ritual going on so we couldn’t go into the temple.
We were quite tired out and wanted to do something different from temple visiting so we went to Nisihiki food market which had lots of interesting things and we ate lots of little snack foods as we went along. A bit strange really because nearly everything I was looking at I didn’t understand what it was – everything was completely new, including mini octopus on a stick and candy in the shape of lego.
When we got back to our hotel that night, we found out about the volcano & ash. A bit freaky really because I was asking the receptionist when we should send our bags by courier to our final hotel at Narita Airport explaining that the bags must be there because we were flying to London. She said “oh no, European airport closed – volcano” and I thought what are you talking about? We don’t have any volcanoes in England! And then she got the laptop out and we looked on BBC news together. It had happened 3 days ago. She said to me, “I can’t believe you do not know?” and I said “Well we have no internet in our room, and the TV is all in Japanese” - we didn’t have a single English station, not even CNN or BBC World. So I hired a laptop that evening and kept an eye on it everyday. But it sort of threw me a bit because I thought we might be stuck there another week – although there would easily have been enough to do in Kyoto. Also I couldn’t arrange a courier for our return journey which was a bit worrying as the stations were so big and we had James, the buggy and my mum in tow.
On our 8th day, we got the Kintetsu train to Nara. As soon as we walked up the road we came to a lady selling “Bambi Cookies” to feed the deer that live in the big park - there was deer everywhere.
We went to Konfuku-ji and then walked up to Todaiji Daibutsden which really was a sight to behold. I love the Buddhist temples anyway with their incense burning as they reminded me of being in Indochina when we were travelling. We did quite a lot of walking around the massive park!
We visited Nigatsu-do Hall and Tasuga Shrine and got an ice-cream from a vending machine on the way! It was all very enjoyable and nice to be in a park setting. Thankfully we go the bus back to the station though as we had walked about 5km and we were carrying James as well – who now weighs nearly 12kg!
On our 9th day we went to Osaka Aquarium. It was a bit of a trek to get there – bus, train & two underground trains – but we really wanted to go there to see the whale sharks and it was like no other aquarium I had ever seen. In the middle of the aquarium they had an almighty tank with 2 whale sharks, a couple of manta rays, a tiger shark, hammer head sharks and a sun fish among others.. all of which I had never seen before. Then we walked around the corner and they had a very eerie tank full of giant Japanese spider crabs. They were huge! They also had these weird dolphin like things called finless porpoises. When I couldn’t look at fish any longer, we made our long journey back to Kyoto.
On our final day in Kyoto we went to the fortnightly market in the grounds of Toji temple. This was a nice experience as it was very busy and more accessible in a way than the food market had been. I would have like to have gone to Arishayama on our last day and seen the bamboo forest and the monkey park, but we did not know whether or not this would be our last day until we got back to the hotel and found our flight was running as planned.
The following day we got the bullet train and the narita express out to Narita and found our hotel – the Richmond hotel. The hotel itself was very comfortable but it didn’t look like there was much happening in Narita, so I am glad we didn’t get stuck there. ANA were amazing, when we got to our flight they put us straight to the front of the queue because we had James with us, they offered us an ANA pram to use in the airport, they had a nice soft play area for James at the gate, they gave him baby meals on the plane and toys, and when we arrived they brought our pram right up to the gate and unfolded it for us. James was fine on the flight even though it was 12 hours. He had about 3 naps so Jo got to watch a film – District 9 (I managed 4 films - Lovely Bones, Vampire's Assistant, Young At Heart and Serindipidy). Then he had some food, he watched a bit of Pingu and Penelope which he likes, I walked him round the cabin holding his hands and we went and talked to the other babies and he was fine.
The only thing was when we landed it should have been the middle of the night to us and it was bright bright sunshine, so he started freaking out on the M25 a bit because he would shut his eyes to go to sleep and then open them and freak out as if to say – why the hell is it so sunny I should be asleep!
Then when we got home, he kept waking up at 2.30am each night – and when he wants to get up, he is literally up and out of bed, so it was quite a challenge to keep him in bed. But after a week we are now thankfully back to normal. So all in all a very nice trip - we were worried about how different it would be and how we would cope, but I couldn’t have asked for more. Now that I am home I will miss their standards of order, politeness, helpfulness and cleanliness.
A couple of random observations:
1) Straw boater hats are very big with Japanese girls right now. Wherever you would go, you'll see one.
2) Japanse TV seems to consist soley of live entertainment shows, with a massive panel of hosts/ guests (10-sih) for no discernable reason.
3) The TV shows always feature "live reacion shots" in the top left hand corner of the screen when they show some video footage. Seemingly regarless of any relevance to that person, for very long clips - at one point they seemed to show an entire film, with silent reaction shots of the studio panel viewing it.
So - tpical show - Massive panel lauging about something or other - and cue VT of some other team of presenters looking at something wacky - reaction shot of in studio panel in top left - cut between different panelists, and after a few one of them will be a girl in a straw boater hat.