Kyoto, 2016

On the train from Kanazawa to Kyoto I snacked on an immaculate take away bento box while we passed a huge lake.

The warehouse apartment that we were staying at in Kyoto was near Goo temple opposite the Imperial Palace Park.

Also known as the pig temple, the Goo temple was a shrine to 300 boars that saved a lord from death. It was an interesting little place.

The Imperial Palace Park was walled with entry gates, long gravel walkways and huge trees that looked pretty in the afternoon sunlight. We saw some cranes and the Tsukushima Shrine surrounded by water.

To get inside the palace itself you need to book ahead and children under 20 aren’t allowed into this, as well as other palaces in Kyoto.

We found a local supermarket that was so bountiful with fresh prepared food that we didn’t need to go out for dinner.

On our first day in Kyoto we went to the two main things I wanted to see here- the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Fushi Inari Taisha Shrine.

The Tenryu-ji temple marked the entrance to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The grove itself was very green, cool and peaceful. The trees were truly very high and bent into each other. A couple were getting pictures at the end of the walkway, her red dress a stunning contrast to the bright branches.

Our next stop was the Fushi Inari Taisha Shrine. Thousands of red gates in rows of varying closeness dotted with statues of foxes. We entered through the impressive decorated two-storied gate at the entry, past the main shrine and the place where good luck charms of little red gates are hung.

Where the gates were most close together was the Senbon Torii- 1,000 shrine gates, which led up the mountain to the inner shrine. We stopped just past this point as the road got steeper and the gates more spread apart. The place was one of my favorites in Japan and more than lived up to expectations.

On the way back down we stopped for a tasty kebab, orange juice served inside an orange and a tiny toy fox to take home.

In the afternoon we went back to the Imperial Palace Park. My daughter had spotted a large children’s play park there the day before and wanted to go back. I think she had started to miss playing with other kids, or maybe just being a kid and having a swing.

Related posts: Takeyama, 2016Samurai and Shidax in Kanazawa, 2016Seeking Geisha and Gardens in Kanazawa, 2016Kanazawa, 2016Tokyo, 2016: MiraikanTokyo, 2016: Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market and YanakaTokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and ShibuyaTokyo, 2016: Ueno and HarajukuJapan, 2016

 

Takeyama, 2016

The train to Takeyama wound through rice fields and rocky rivers into the pine forested mountains. The beautiful autumn leaves began to emerge the higher the train went.

We walked around the pretty little town with its wooden houses and an alpine feel. The river water was so clear that you could see koi swimming against the current.

After a little searching we found the Karakuri Museum. This puppet museum showcases acrobatic puppets used on floats in a festival that the town is famous for.

There was a rolling puppet that served tea and one that wrote calligraphy, from which my daughter was lucky enough to be given writings from. The museum also had a huge collection of lion masks.

Takeyama is also known for sake breweries, so we went into a local shop with the cedar ball hanging above the door signifying that the spirit was served there. After a tasting, we purchased a bottle to take home.

We had some rice dumplings on a stick, followed by lunch in a local restaurant. It was a family owned establishment where we had baked curry and a special kids meal with an origami of a flying crane on beautiful patterned paper for my daughter.

The day trip to Takeyama was one of my husband’s favourite days and it definitely made for a lovely sojourn.

It was dinnertime by the time we arrived back in Kanazawa, so we retested the theory of the best food being near train stations with a nearby sashimi restaurant that definitely delivered.

We also purchased our Japanese souvenir- a striking red kimono doll with the unique style of lacquer and woodwork combined.

The next morning we were back at the train station, leaving Kanazawa for Kyoto. While we were waiting for our train, the local TV station interviewed us about why we had come to Kanazawa, what we had done and what we liked. It was quite a thrill to be filmed and even nicer to be asked again at the end of our stay.

Related posts: Samurai and Shidax in Kanazawa, 2016Seeking Geisha and Gardens in Kanazawa, 2016Kanazawa, 2016Tokyo, 2016: MiraikanTokyo, 2016: Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market and YanakaTokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and ShibuyaTokyo, 2016: Ueno and HarajukuJapan, 2016

 

Samurai and Shidax in Kanazawa, 2016

As my daughter’s choice of activity, we went to a Japanese phenomenon- Shidax karaoke. As we sang along to Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and my pick Iggy Azalea, I thought, these people really know how to have fun. Singing, dressing up and playing games for beer. Why not?

The next day we had planned to go to Takeyama, but all the trains were booked out. So we booked for the following day and headed to the Nagamachi Samurai quarter instead.

Narrow, quiet, cobblestoned streets and long walls hid amazing tall wooden slat houses, some of which were open to the public. We found one with stables and a pretty garden.

The best one was the family of Nomura Samurai House. Samurai armour greeted us at the doorway to the house, which had two levels. The bottom level had detailed walls and a prayer room all set up. There was a translated thank you letter written during war and wooden carvings near the celling.

A winding stone staircase led to a teahouse on the top level, which had a view over the beautiful garden with water features, lanterns and koi.

Outside, we couldn’t find the Murakami candy tree mentioned in the guidebook, though we did find a lolly shop with lollies made in the shape of mushrooms. There was also a local eating a gold leaf ice cream. They are expensive, but lucky.

For lunch we had honten and Japanese curry at Full of Beans– a very funky café. Then we wandered around the shops including The Loft which had strange appliances.

It occurred to me that the best things about Kanazawa had been the unplanned parts where we slowed down, like the teahouse in the gardens, just wandering around town finding local restaurants and people watching. How does everyone stay so thin here with so much yummy food to eat?

Related posts: Seeking Geisha and Gardens in Kanazawa, 2016Kanazawa, 2016Tokyo, 2016: MiraikanTokyo, 2016: Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market and YanakaTokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and ShibuyaTokyo, 2016: Ueno and HarajukuJapan, 2016

Seeking Geisha and Gardens in Kanazawa, 2016

From the Omi-cho Market, we walked to the Higashi-chaya geisha district. On the way we passed many interesting buildings and more temples. Why are there so many shrines and temples in one place? Perhaps so there is always somewhere to pay respects.

As we crossed the river, we were mesmerised by the sight of lots of eagles hovering, swirling and occasionally diving into the clear water for fish.

The geisha district had lots of pretty alleyways with wooden slat houses and a view to the mountains behind. My favourite were the red coloured structures and one famous street in particular which had the perfect angle for a classic photo. The only question was, where were all the geisha girls?

Inside the Higashi Chaya Krukeikan Rest house, we saw vast living areas, a strange contraption for making tea that was hung from the ceiling and a cute little Japanese garden. My daughter had fun trying on a pair of geisha style wooden block shoes and getting a big stamp of the rest house from the staff there.

Next we picked up some lunch as a local bakery and went to the vast Kanazawa Castle Park for lunch. Many school children were there, also eating. Here we saw our first beautiful orange autumn leaves on trees.

Inside the castle gates, we went into one of the guardhouses that had views over the park and to other parts of the castle. It was a room of golden floorboards and we got our second stamp of the day.

In the grounds of the castle we found two very friendly ladies dressed in kimonos who were more than happy to have their photo taken with our daughter at the castle and wanted a picture for themselves as well. We learnt the word for cute in Japanese- Kawai. It was one we were to hear more as we journeyed around Japan with our daughter.

The highlight of the day was the most beautiful gardens that we went to in Japan- the Kenrouk-en Gardens. It was easy to see why they were heritage listed. The gardens were spectacular with bridges, ponds and views over the town.

We saw the well-known Rainbow Bridge that is depicted on manholes around the town with the Kotojitoro Lantern. The Horaijima Island was in the middle of a pond surrounded by pine trees hanging over the water and the Flying Wild Geese Bridge, made of stones in a point, was aptly named.

Our favourite part of the gardens was when we slowed down and took a seat in a traditional teahouse over the water of Hisagoike Pond. We had green tea that was actually green and muddy and a sculpted Japanese sweet.

As the sunlight bounced off the roof making pretty patterns on the ceiling and we could hear a waterfall trickling in the background, I got a glimpse of the peace that a Japanese garden can bring and didn’t want to leave.

Related posts: Kanazawa, 2016Tokyo, 2016: MiraikanTokyo, 2016: Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market and YanakaTokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and ShibuyaTokyo, 2016: Ueno and HarajukuJapan, 2016

Kanazawa, 2016

The next day, we caught the fast train to the ‘small town’ of Kanazawa, which had less than 500,000 people. How is that considered a small town? Small by Japanese standards I guess.

We whizzed past canola fields, mountainous forests and the sea. We were greeted at Kanazawa train station by a huge gate and a waterfall. There was also a robot that gave directions from an iPad and looked up at you when you spoke.

In Kanazawa, we stayed in a great traditional Japanese house in Katamachi that was made of dark wooden slats and paper windows- thankfully also with glass on the outside. It had a communal sleeping room and cushions to sit on the floor in the living room. Why do people sleep and sit on the floor in Japan?

The town had its own busy Shibuya-like crossing, albeit smaller and with more pushbikes than cars. We found the pretty Saigawa River that ran through the town and that every block had a temple. There were some cute little houses and creative signage adorning bars and buildings.

For our daugther, we found a small kids play park nearby, stone statue children outside one of the large shopping centres to pose with and a character dressed up promoting a restaurant roaming the streets to meet and greet.

The mascot of the Kanazawa looks like a fat Russian nest doll, but it has a moustache and the town is known for its Samurai and Geisha districts. We were told that the Japanese came here to relax and buy kimonos.

For dinner we went to an authentic restaurant that served pork cutlets and Oden- meat and vegetables served in soup broth. Our daughter liked the complimentary cabbage leaves that you could dip in special sauce.

Our first day exploring Kanazawa started with the Omi-Cho market. It was filled with seafood and delicious croquettes. We found an apple for our daughter to eat that was half the size of her head.

We were stopped by a group of school children on assignment to practice their English who asked a series of questions and then gave us a paper crane as a thank you. One of the questions was- where would we prefer to live: Kanazawa or Tokyo? It was only the start of our first day here, but we already knew that with its slower pace and smaller size, Kanazawa would be our choice.

Related posts: Tokyo, 2016: MiraikanTokyo, 2016: Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market and YanakaTokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and ShibuyaTokyo, 2016: Ueno and HarajukuJapan, 2016

Tokyo, 2016: Miraikan

On our last day in Tokyo, it was our daughter’s choice of what to do. She decided on the robot museum, also known as Miraikan- the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Although definitely not my husband’s or my first choice of what to do in Tokyo, it actually ended up being one of the best days we had in the city.

It’s true that half the fun of Miraikan was getting there. After surviving the rush hour train and getting pushed on by a man in white gloves (why is everyone so polite and friendly, except when you are getting pushed onto the rush hour train?), we took the futuristic elevated driverless train to Odaiba- Tokyo Bay.

We passed tall office buildings, went over Rainbow Bridge, past a strange clock with feet and a replica Statue of Liberty, to a world of artificial islands where nobody seemed to live. Some buildings were square arches, some were round balls, but they were all glassily glinting in the sunlight.

The Miraikan museum itself was very interesting. My favourite thing was the enormous globe that hung from the ceiling. Visible from all levels, it changed colour as images were projected onto it.

As promised, they had many different kinds of robots, from small pet robots, to Asimo the walking talking robot who also used sign language and an android who I actually thought was a real person the first three times we walked by it.

At the end of the Asimo demonstration, they asked the kids what kind of robot do they want to live with? and encouraged them to find museum staff and tell them. What a great way to harness the imagination of children and get them involved.

There was also a large hands-on kids activity area where they could create, play and learn. Even here, the kids were all so quiet and well behaved. How are the kids so quiet in Japan?

They had interesting displays depicting what happens to infrastructure when a volcano erupts, a great demonstration showing how the Internet works using coloured balls and a short 3D planetarium movie about the universe.

There was a dance lighting area and my daughter’s favourite of course- a stamping activity- also incorporating a digital game this time. We ended up staying the whole day and were thoroughly entertained the whole time.

That night, we tested the theory of the best food being near the train stations and went near the local metro for karajuku gyoza and ramen. The ramen water was boiled in chip fryers and a thin crust attached the gyoza’s.

They were definitely the best of either item that we had ever eaten. An older lady, perhaps a regular, seemed to agree as she came in, ordered quickly and happily slurped her noodles in appreciation.

Related posts: Tokyo, 2016: Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market and Yanaka, Tokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and Shibuya, Tokyo, 2016: Ueno and Harajuku, Japan, 2016

Tokyo, 2016: Shinjuku, Tsukiji Market and Yanaka

When night came, we headed to Shinjuku where all the neon lights are. Outside of one of the many Sanrio Hello Kitty shops that they have in Japan, I found the biggest Hello Kitty statue I have ever seen.

We also found the infamous Robot Restaurant and climbed a stepladder for a photo with one of the robots. The area was lively and we stopped in a restaurant that served whale bacon and made soft serve ice cream instantly. We declined the former, but my daughter enjoyed the whole process of the later.

Most of the locals were playing a betting game where they betted on rolled dice for free beer. I think my husband wished he knew how to play.

The next day we woke later, exhausted from all the walking and almost overloaded with sight seeing.

We went to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, part of which is set to close in early 2017. There were enormous slabs of tuna everywhere prepared in any fashion you desired. My husband had raw fish and sea urchin for breakfast, followed by eel skewers for a snack. I couldn’t quite stomach it and had omelette instead.

I liked the huge mushrooms of many shapes, the paper-thin sheets of Nori seaweed and the lollies that were made to look like a tray of sushi. One question we never had answered was where is the inner market and how do you get there?

Next we went to Yanaka old city. It was small and hard to imagine that this was once the centre of Tokyo. The main street had tiny shops. My daughter enjoyed reading the Japanese manga fairy tale books and we liked looking at the houses, both small and grand.

We went back to Shinjuku in search of one of the Alice in Wonderland restaurants. Finding one of these themed places was a little bit of an obsession for me. After a lot of searching, I thought, why is an Alice restaurant so hard to find? But I suppose that’s the whole point.

Eventually we found it, down the rabbit hole elevator in the basement of a non-descript building. It was closed.

Instead, we went to Omide Yoko Cho memory lane for a tasty traditional lunch with Japanese beer and went shopping in one of the many Uniqlo’s- the Japanese brand that has now taken the world by storm.

Back in our neighbourhood, my daughter played in the block courtyard park before we went to dinner at one of my husband’s friends places. The local lady of the house served Daiwa Sushi (make your own) and the thinnest and tastiest slices of Kobe beef that we had ever eaten.

Related posts: Tokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and Shibuya, Tokyo, 2016: Ueno and Harajuku, Japan, 2016

Tokyo, 2016: Imperial Palace and Shibuya

In the morning we went to the Imperial Palace, surrounded by a great moat with a swan in the water. While we waited for it to open, we breakfasted on takeaway squares of fried rice from the 7-Eleven. It was much better than any food you can get in the chain back home.

When opening time struck, not a moment before or after, we went through the outer gates, past the dolphin statue and in through the inner gates. We found the last blooming cherry blossom tree, but half of the flowers had already fallen off.

We walked through some large stonewalls, past various traditional guardhouses to a field of green where my daughter enjoyed running around. There were tall topiary trees, tea bushes and bamboo stalks. From the top of one bastion we spied the beautifully mosaicked music hall.

The best part was the water garden where we saw our first koi fish in Japan, a waterfall and a large pond. It was another beautiful oasis of green in the busy city.

For a change of pace, we then went to the busiest intersection at Shibuya Crossing. There were lots of tall buildings, many cars and people trying to cross multiple roads. Why do they play that funny tune when people cross the road? I guess it’s better than a beep. The most expensive real estate overlooking the crossing was a Starbucks.

I took my daughter into a cat café. I had heard about these strange places and thought it would be a quirky experience that she would like. Why cats and hedgehogs? There were many rules inside. We had to wash and sterilise our hands, wear special slippers and not touch the cats unless they came to you.

Being cats, of course they didn’t come to us, until we bought a small jar of cat pellets and then one bossy cat was all over us before any of the others could get in. After that, my daughter decided she needed to buy some cat ears in one of the nearby costume shops.

On the way back, we saw people closing off one of the roads in Shibuya and putting down flooring for an event. The efficiency with which this took place was amazing to watch. It turned out to be a Paralympics demonstration of wheelchair rugby and trampolining which my husband was very happy to watch.

After the display, we had one of our best meals in a local restaurant down an alleyway where you had to put coins in a machine and press the button for which Tsu Rutonton Udon noodle soup that you wanted. Sometimes the simplest meals are the best.

For a treat, we took our daughter to Kiddyland, which had every kind of kids toy you could want, from Hello Kitty to Disney, on four levels of fun. There were some very strange characters in there, including the latest toy which was a chicken that was born out of an egg. My ulterior motive was that there was also a Desingual in the area for me to peruse.

Related posts: Tokyo, 2016: Ueno and Harajuku, Japan, 2016

Tokyo, 2016: Ueno and Harajuku

It was raining, so we decided to go to the Tokyo National Museum. A museum is always a good wet weather plan and this one was top of the list as it has a collection of samurai swords and armour, which I knew my husband, would be keen to see.

The metro system was fast, efficient and we figured it out fairly quickly. The only downside was we sometimes had to walk a long way to transfer between lines. I amused myself by looking at the manga style advertisement posters on the walls and the practiced power nappers in the trains.

There was a highly organised stand outside the museum for all the umbrellas. Inside, I was drawn to the beautiful kimonos, room divider screens that told a story with pictures and the unusual tea sets. My daughter loved the kids stamping section and couldn’t get enough of it.

Outside the museum, we discovered that it was set in Ueno-Koen Park with the famous Ueno craft market that had been recommended to us. There were teapots of all shapes and sizes, colourful wooden chopsticks and other cooking pots and implements.

Next we went to Harajuku as I thought my daughter would enjoy the teenage haven. Takeshita-dori was packed and had lots of cute shops with novelty items for kids like the Paris Kids shop where my daughter got an umbrella with a rabbit head, some hairclips of fruit and sunglasses with rabbit ears.

Locals come to Harajuku for crepes and rainbow fairy floss, but we came to see the teenagers dressed up. However, not many were, just a few girls dressed in short skirts and high shoes. Which led to the question- where have all the Harajuku girls gone? Probably elsewhere to escape the tourists. The store staff at the lolly shop were dressed up the most with their cat ears for Halloween.

We had lunch at a local restaurant and then went over Harajuku Bridge to Meiji-jingu- Tokyo’s grandest shrine. The old wooden gate popped out of the oasis of green trees. It got a wow out of me- this was what I had come to Japan to see. The walk to the shrine was one of welcoming cool in the busy city.

There were lots of families in kimonos and their Sunday best, clapping when they pray. There was the massive wishing tree and the marriage trees tied together by a rope with lightning bolts. We also stumbled upon a wedding procession. The bride was still in white, but had a strangely shaped hat.

For dinner we went to the closest neighbourhood restaurant for Hantei skewers of pork. The chef of the restaurant was also our waiter. He thought we tipped too much, but it was so delicious, that it made me wonder, why is it bad manners to tip in Japan?

Related posts: Japan, 2016

Japan, 2016

I thought Japan would be more different, more like the other and difficult to converse in- a challenge.

However, it seems that Japanese culture is somewhat familiar and the locals are used to tourists, perhaps because so many Australians now go to Japan to ski. Even in the smaller places, everyone spoke enough English for us to get by.

Despite the lack of anticipated culture shock, it was still a wonderful trip with lots to see, do and experience. The people were polite, friendly and helpful and the place was incredibly safe. The thought of getting pick pocketed never crossed my mind.

Tokyo was a crazy mish-mash of so many different things in so many different areas that I could not say that I have a clear picture of the city. There were lots of people too of course.

The ‘smaller town’ of Kanazawa felt more traditional and there were some beautiful places and moments to be experienced there. From here, our day trip to Takeyama took us through lovely countryside.

Kyoto was full of temples and the top sights, but was also the place where we felt the most at home, perhaps due to our friendly daily coffee shop lady and the local supermarket close by. We also went to an onsen in nearby Nantan where there were no other tourists.

Osaka seemed like the most liveable city with a great atmosphere and our day trip to Nara from here was a surprising highlight.

Finally, the other world of Tokyo Disneyland and Disneysea, transported us to the happiest place on earth and did it so well that we almost forgot we were in Japan.

Then of course, there is the culinary journey that is Japan. Rather than trying specific restaurants, we sampled the cuisine known in each area, as everywhere had good food. I discovered that it is true that the best food we found was near the train stations and I did get a bit rice and noodled out.

Through it all, many questions came to mind that made me want to read and learn more about Japanese culture. The mixture of tradition and modernity, Asian and Western, was intriguing. Even though Japan may not be the other, I think we still only scratched the surface and there is much more exploring needed to unlock the secrets of this interesting country.

Next time: we start the journey in Tokyo.