Lanterns hanging at Nara, Japan

Japan - Classic Tour - Eastern Hemisphere Part 1

Author: Sue
Date: 9th October 2001
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Tokyo, Enormous Capital of Japan

Japan is quite frightening when you first arrive - all modern and overwhelming and Oh My God how do I know where to go? Until you realise there are little English signs in most places under the Japanese script. And the locals, though shy and blushing, are helpful, when asked. I've acquired a first day guide to Tokyo on the plane on the way out. He's called Richard and he's so exceptionally good looking. I forget to take any photos.  

Tokyo is huge. This is the most populous urban area in the world, with an estimated 37 million residents. The city proper is home to 14 million people. Tokyo is on Honshu, the largest Japanese island. It started life as a fishing village named Edo, but grew rapidly, as the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate. By the mid-18th century, Edo already had a population of over one million people. Astonishing, for the time. It became the imperial capital in 1868. Before that time, Kyoto had the honour.

Exploring Tokyo

So, it takes forever to get across the city on the metro. Everyone sits very quietly. Some have their eyes shut. I wonder if they’ve fallen asleep or if they are meditating. It's all fascinating, especially Akiharbara, the literally pulsating electronics district, where huge stores packed with goods compete for custom via song and dance in the street. I buy a very cheap memory card for my camera. Close to the station, at Ginza, you can peep at the emperor's palace, though you're not allowed into the inner grounds. But you can wander in the East Palace Gardens. and pop into Ueno Park.

Throning Takeshita Street, in Harajuku, is advertised as 'the heart of all things trendy and weird in Tokyo'.The young Japanese are very fashion conscious. Hair dyed blonde and legwarmers seem to be the thing, even though its summer.

My Travel Companions in Japan

This is a group trip. It’s run by an Australian company, so unsurprisingly most of us are Australian. There’s a newly married English couple, Sara and Craig, who lug a huge Miffy rabbit everywhere and Swiss Bettina.  I’m sharing with another Sue, from Melbourne. There's thirty-ish Peter and  an older Australian guy, Lindsey, who seems very frail and perpetually unhappy. All he does is frown and complain, mostly about his constipation.

My hotel is toy-town - tiny doors narrow corridors and miniature rooms.

On the Shinkansen

Japan is well known for its bullet trains - the shinkansen network. The first high speed track was built out of Tokyo in 1959. There has never been a fatality. We travel by train everywhere – everyone does, queuing two by two on the platforms as instructed. Sensibly, the seats rotate so you always get to face forward. It's very comfy, and so well designed there's no real sense of speed. Which is somewhat disappointing, except in the Japanese style toilets. Hanging on, as the train speeds round the curves, is good for my ski muscles. Miffy even gets his own seat on the train. (It was a doting husband present.)

As we are waiting, at one station, we see Nozumi go by. That's the really fast (and expensive) train. The whole platform trembles as it shoots past.

Nikko

From the skyscrapers and hustle of Tokyo to first, the damp mossy shrines, hotsprings and waterfalls  at Nikko. We're staying in a ryokan (traditional inn with futons, paper-thin walls and tatami matting, on a very hard floor.). We're even given cotton kimonos to wear and the toilets are voice activated.

At Nikko, attractions include the Shinto Futarasan Shrine, (767 AD) and the mausoleums of Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu (Nikkō Tōshō-gū) and his grandson. It seems odd to read that a mausoleum is an attraction. But they are so often extraordinarily ornate. The UNESCO listed shrine is divided into three sections and it possesses two swords that are designated National Treasures of Japan.

We've caught the edge of a typhoon and the rain is pouring in torrents. We scramble around with plastic umbrellas and get soaked. We have to recover in an onsen (hotspring), followed by meatballs and rice and hot sake. But the river is rising, the shops are flooded, we're all soaked and marooned. No trains today. More dangerously slippery waterfall clambering and a visit to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. This is a gorge, along the Daiya River, lined with 74 mystical statues. No-one is quite sure of their origin or what they are for.

Eating in Japan

Today's compensation is delicious sushi in a diminutive husband and wife bar. I’ve quickly got to grips with sushi, which is melt in your mouth delicious. Now I can navigate both the conveyor belts and the tiny corner bars where the fish is carved by the chef, dressed in appropriate sashed garb. Anything not just out of the water fresh is shunned, though some very odd and slimy things are included. There are good hot dishes too - the stone cooked tepanyaki, bread crumbed katsu and various broths and curries, but I’m determined to eat sushi at least once every day.

Fuji - Hakone

Next, back to Tokyo on the shinkansen and then lakeside Hakone. Here, it's gorgeous weather and we can see the iconic perfect  cone of Mount Fuji.  We take a scarlet pirate boat, across lake Ashi to another ryokan. This one has an outdoor onsen. We sail past the Hakone Shrine, a Shinto shrine with a “Torii” gate, which is also scarlet. A gondola lift up the side of the mountain, over the boiling sulphurous fumaroles of Owakudani Valley. Lunch is boiled eggs, enterprising vendors are cooking in the mud.

Takayama

Back to Nagoya and then Takayama. Past paddy fields and mountains, with a bento box for lunch. The narrow streets of the Sanmachi Suji historic district are lined with wooden merchants’ houses, dating to the Edo Period, and a sprinkling of  tiny museums. Men in black singlets and patterned bandannas ferry the tourists around in rickshaws. It's raining again and we're drenched at the morning market.

There are two strange bronze statues, on the Kaji-bashi Bridge in Takayama. It seems that they are characters from Japanese folklore. Tenagazo has long arms and Ashinagazo long legs. Together, they make the prefect fishing party. Long Arms rides on Long Legs’ back, so he can reach for all the fish, as Long Legs wades into the water.

There's also the Open Air Museum, the Hida folk village, to explore. But it's raining again now.

Hiroshima, Japan

Honshu is banana shaped. So, east now, to Hiroshima, almost on the southern tip of Honshu. This modern city, of over a million people, was of course, largely destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War II. It's a sobering visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which commemorates the 1945 event. In the park, are the ruins of Genbaku Dome, one of the few buildings which was left standing, near Ground Zero.

Miyajima

Just a little further south, in Hiroshima Bay, the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, on the island of Itsukushima, better known as Miyajima, which means shrine. This is the Holy Shinto Island. It's reached by ferry and is considered to be one of the three most scenic spots in Japan. as it's famous for its "floating" torii gate. Though frankly it could do with a lick of paint. The first shrine buildings here probably date back to the sixth century. The present scarlet shrine dates from the 12th century.

Also on the island is the Daishō-in, a temple complex on Mount Misen, the Holy Mountain on the Holy Island. The Japanese integrate worship of nature, in this case, the mountain along with worship at the temple. There are statues - dashi, some with knitted hats, arranged along stairs, in groups and all around. Its a bit like being in a garden gnome centre.

Swiss Bettina, Megan and I find a Hello Kitty karaoke chapel, complete with stained windows and spend the evening  singing badly. Only in Japan.

Himeji Castle

We visit Shogun picture book Himeji Castle, travelling back west again, on the way to Kyoto. Hilltop Himeji Castle is the number one castle in Japan, built in 1333. It started life as a fort and has 83 rooms.

Sara and Craig argue about what to do with their rabbit. Miffed about Miffy. 

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto was the old imperial capital of Japan, from as far back as 794, up to 1869. This is a great city. Temples and shrines abound. Seventeen of them form the UNESCO heritage site. Though I'm now almost templed out. One of the most popular is Buddhist Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), or officially, Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple), both for obvious reasons.

The original name for Kyoto, when it became the capital, was Heian-kyo. The Emperor then was Kanmu (the fiftieth). To celebrate the city's 1100th anniversary, at the end of the nineteenth century, they built a partial reproduction of the original Heian Palace. They couldn't buy enough land to complete it full size, so this replica is 5/8 of the original. After the Exhibition ended, the building was kept as a shrine in memory of Kanmu. The shrine is ranked as a Beppyō Jinja (the top rank for shrines) by the Association of Shinto Shrines.

The Ryoan-ji Zen Temple has fabulous gardens, classic Japanese, with water lilies (just like the Monets) and a bridge and a dry rock garden. Absolutely what you imagine, when you say Zen Garden. They are all turning autumnal; the classic Japanese red maples are lovely. Ginkaku-ji, is another Buddhist complex. And the five tiered Toji Temple (also Buddhist), founded in 796), was one of the only three Buddhist temples allowed in the city at the time it became the capital. (There are definitely more than that now.). It has a lucky stone turtle to rub. We're able to catch the flea market at Toji too. It's held on the 21st of each month. Then, there's the Ryōzen Kannon, a war memorial, commemorating the dead of the Pacific War. It's a 24 metre statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

Nijo Castle

Now palaces and castles. We manage to get permission to tour the Imperial Palace. (I don't think you have to do that any more.) This building only dates from 1855. Nijo Castle is older (1601). It was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, who ordered all the feudal lords in western Japan to contribute to its construction. The castle was designed as a residence, not for defence. Just to be sure, however, the shogun installed, special creaky floorboards.

Kyoto has an incredible amount to occupy us for several days. Next, the Philosophers’ Walk along a cherry tree lined canal. It must be gorgeous, when the sakura is out. We peep at the geishas hurrying along in in the Gion district.

Nara

We're not done with Kyoto yet. A day excursion to Nara, an hour away on the train, for more temples and shrines and deer. There's a Deer Park (which doesn't stop the deer wandering into the shops), round the old Imperial Palace - Heijo (the emperor doesn't live there any more - too busy in Tokyo) and another castle with lots more gold on it. Nara, was Japan's first permanent capital, established in the year 710, when Nara was known as Heijo. Prior to that, the capital was moved to a new location whenever a new emperor ascended to the throne.

Tōdai-ji (752 AD) is a Buddhist temple complex, which was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, located in the city of Nara, Japan. And there's a wedding ceremony for us to watch.

More to Do in Kyoto

Back in Kyoto, there's shopping. of course. There are artisan demonstrations in the Kyoto Handicrafts Centre and trying on of Japanese costume. Sannenzaka, is an atmospheric sloped and stone-paved pedestrian road, lined with traditional buildings and shops, and is often paired with the similar road, Ninenzaka. The Kyoto Tower reflects the modern elements of the city, literally - in the plate glass Station Tower. This is a mall too, with 10 escalators in a continuous row. and geisha, female entertainers often found.

More sushi; I’m not bored with it yet and it’s cheap in the 7-11 convenience stores. AND I think I've lost weight! Finally, another onsen (no clothes and a string of thermal pools, one of which carries an electric current) with the local mafia wives and Megan.

How to Deal with Complaints

Lindsey maintains his complaints throughout. Eventually, when he is in full throttle, as we are trying to traverse a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, leader Megan deals with him in very Australian fashion. “Here’s a token, go call someone who cares”. I bid goodbye to the group over tepanyaki, onamayaki and hot sake. I navigate my way back to Tokyo, on my own.  A last trip on the Shinkansen. Japanese signs don't seem nearly as intimidating now.

Back in Tokyo

Back in the capital, a  very good (and very expensive) Italian meal with Richard. It seems a funny way to finish a trip to Japan, but I let him choose. And the world is now a very different place. We have watched 9/11 unfold on Japanese TV.  We thought it was a movie that they kept repeating at first. I  feel very flat, leaving the group and setting off on my own again, into an uncertain world, unsure even whether there is a plane to catch. But Brisbane here I come. (Read more about Japan here.)

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