A Travellerspoint blog

Hiroshima and Yokohama

semi-overcast 33 °C
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After a fantastic 5 days in Kyoto we headed to Hiroshima. We stayed at Roku Hostel, a fantastic hostel which is run David's friend's sister. This time also marked the start of Obon week, the main summer holiday in Japan so if we thought it had been busy before it certainly ramped up another notch!!!

Fortunately we had booked seats on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto to Hiroshima.

When we arrived we learnt that there was a firewors display on Miyajima, a pretty island near Hiroshima that night. We decided to squeeze in a trip to the Peace Museum first though. The Peace Museum was PACKED!!! It was a very sobre experience to see pictures, damaged items and hear first hand accounts of the people of Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb was dropped. I thought the museum was done extremely well, it painted a poignant image of how the people were affected but didn't get into the 'why' of the bombing which would have detracted from the purpose of the peace museum. It almost felt like a natural disaster was being described at times rather than a war.

We took longer than intended at the peace museum and weren't really feeling up to tackling the huge crowds on the ferrys to Miyajima so we watched the fireworks from the shore. Interestingly a lot of people were wearing yukata, summer kimonos, as they have been at a lot of events around Japan. I had assumed this type of attire was more a dress up / ceremonial thing than everyday wear.

After that we went back to our hostel. We got one free drink each night with our room so thought it best to make the most of it. A lot of locals come to the hostel to practice their english and meet the guests which was really fun, and Mako our host was amazingly energetic.

The next day the weather was a bit rubbish with showers so we postponed our planned day trip to Miyajima. Instead we took it at a slower pace, enjoying the slightly cooler weather. We went for a walk around town, looking at Hiroshima castle, the various memorials and the hypocentre of the bomb.
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We then took a minor side trip to a small town called Saijo, which is famous for its sake brewerys. Due to Obon week only three were open but that was plenty for us to sample some drinks. The people in the information centre were incredibly nice and even gave us umbrellas to use for the day and drop off at the train station once we were done!

I have been boring David throughout this trip by pointing out the cool manhole lid designs they have in Japan and finally found one in Saiko which even David agrees merits inclusion in the blog.

We had okinomoya (Japanese pancakes) for dinner at Mako's recommendation. They do them slightly differently in Hiroshima, with the ingredients layered rather than mixed together. They were delicious.

Mijayima and Yokohama

The next morning we got up early to get a ferry to Miyajima before our midday train to Tokyo. The weather had marginally improved from the day before and we enjoyed the island, with its torii (large Japanese entranceway) submerged in the water at high tide, the temple, pagoda and the world's largest rice scoop!!! We also watched the deer which inhabit the island and tried the maple leaf cookies which are an island specialty. The other island speciaties are oysters and eel but we both decided to skip those as neither of us particularly like them.

The world's largest rice scoop!

Instead of getting the train to Tokyo as we had originally planned we decided the day before to stop in at Yokohama, Japan's second largest city which is only 20 minutes south of Tokyo on the bullet train. This is a bit embarassing to admit but the main drawpoint of Yokohama was that I had read online that they had a number of special Pikachu dancing shows. I actually really liked Yokohama as a city, it had a really nice waterfront area which we spent a few pleasant hours wandering around.
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The place we stayed won the prize for the weirdest toilet we encountered. Even in a land where toilets spray water, have controls to raise and lower the seats, require a change of footwear and often play bird noises or running water, the heated carpet seat stood out.

The next day was my birthday!!! We went to the cup and noodle museum which epitomised Japanese weirdness. The museum was dedicated to the inventor of instant ramen, which was so cheesy, encouraging the kids to do what he had done, i.e. overcoming adversity to change the world!!! Again, it was packed and so we decided not to join the huge queues for the extra priviledge of designing your own flavour of instant noodles.

Then we spent ages trying to find the pikachu dances, which was pretty difficult as they moved around the city and we hadn't been able to find anything in english online - this is probably an event which is generally targeted at Japanese rather than tourists!! We ran into a couple of pikachu dancers, and visited the Pokemon centre. It was a bit busy and crowded for my taste though. All in all an extremely Japanese start to my birthday.

Trust David to know, Yokohama has the largest stadium in Japan, which hosted a number of football games during the 2002 world cup including the final and is likely to host a number of the 2019 rugby world cup games too. We had a fantastic tour, with our own personal guide. She showed us all through the stadium, including into the changing rooms which Brazil used, let us kick a ball around in their warm-up area, and we got to run onto the pitch with the same music playing that they used in the world cup. Even I enjoyed it, although part of my fun came from seeing David act like a little kid he was so excited.

Civil engineering side coming through again!


We bought some beer, wine and bento boxes and sat on the Yokohama waterfront watching the cruise ships come and go and the sun set, which would have been a very peaceful end to the evening. However, I had planned some ridiculous sleeping arrangements in Tokyo that night which will be a great story to start the next blog with.........

Posted by nzdora 16:25 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Time to reflect from Kyoto

sunny 36 °C
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Our six day stay in Kyoto has afforded us time: time to unpack our bags, time to do our washing and time to update the blog with some of the more unexpected trends we've noticed while travelling in Japan. Oh, and I forgot to mention the temples. Time to visit dozens of world heritage sites situated here, in the country's former capital.

In line with the change of pace which we have had since our second blog post, we aim to not only describe all the wonderful experiences we have had in the intervening days, but to also highlight some of the weird and wonderful truths of travel in the land of the rising sun.

Recurring themes in Japan
1. We're tall (or at least not short). This is our Ryokan door in Nagaoka. This is particularly noticeable with the older generation, who generally stand well below our shoulders. Having said that, quite a few young men are a similar height to us.


2. The Japanese love to queue. The picture below is the queue for Otowa Watefrall, a three-pronged fountain at Kiyomizu-dera temple (meaning "clear water"), from which you can choose to drink from one or more of the streams. The three streams are said to confer longevity, scholarly scuess and love-life sucess. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy. Drinking from three streams certainly would have slowed the line down even more - not that it stopped the crowd from waiting in the sweltering sun.


3. To streamline the queing, the Japanese authorities have devised many tourist attractions which follow a very prescriptive layout. You buy a ticket, walk in, follow the signs with the crowd around a specified pathway and take photos at lookout points. It is very effective, but it does make me feel like a sheep... Baaa. Two examples of this format are below, the Golden Shrine Kinkakuji (just a few minutes walk from where we are staying) and Nijo Castle (the pictures where we are wearing the goofy audio tour sets).



4. As mentioned above, there are a huge number of world heritage sites in Japan and in particular in Kyoto. I have found this interesting for two reasons - firstly, for every crowded tourist space or every world heritage site, there are several "unimportant temples" around the corner. We even saw one beautiful building being used as a carpark. Secondly, there have been a number of stunning cultural landmarks of which we have been forbidden from taking photos. Here are some photos from the internet of Rengeoin Sanjusangendo (a temple with 1,001 unique golden buddha statues, each five foot high). In truth, not being able to take photos was a blessing which forced us to enjoy the sights. 9-12824219..oto-japan-1.jpg

In a blur of temples, we have visited (in order): Tenruji (ancient and beautiful gardens), a Bamboo walk, Kinkaku-ji (golden temple), Nazen-ji (shrine, gardens), Philosopher's walk, Ginkaku-ji (Silver temple and there was a thunderstorm in the distance while we were there), tea ceremony, Gion district, Fushimi Einari shrine (walk up hill with 1000 red Torri gates), Sanjusangen-do (1001 Buddha), Kiyomizu Dera (shrine with lucky waterfalls), Nishiki markets, Amanohashidate (ferry across estuary, chairlift up the hill for a view, bicycle across the tree covered sand bar, swim on beach), Nijo castle, bathed at ancient Onsen at Funaoka.

5. Every car is Japanese (aside from the really nice European sportscars) and less than about 15 years old. We have an advanced viewing of the New Zealand in the year 2030.

6. The food is amazing, and relatively cheap. We've generally both been fed for NZ $15-20. Here's what $19 buys you in a mall in Kyoto:


Having said this - and we love Japanese food - fruit and vegetables are very hard to come by at a reasonable cost. The meals have generally had much less meat than "Japanese" in New Zealand, and any meat is either chicken, pork or fish. As everything is tasty (and much of it deep fried) we have been well fed, albeit with a lot of rice and noodles compared to food in NZ. It's difficult to understand how the Japanese avoid obesity given that they eat loads of carbs. Perhaps it is the low levels of sugar in their diets and the fact you are forced to eat relatively slowly by having chopsticks? Eating on the move is virtually forbidden, Masatoshi said that when he came to NZ he was surprised to see someone walking down the road eating an apple.

Being a coastal country, there is an abundance of fish. Seafood made up the majority of the wares at Kyoto's Nishiki markets, which we wandered through in the Gion district (a fashionable area in which we have seen both trendy youths and geisha).


7. Politeness
I had heard about this in advance but it is so true. No one has said anything during our dumb/lost tourist moments, and everyone who we have meet has been absolutely sweet. There are signs with rule about how to behave everywhere, from turning off cellphones when near pregnant ladies on the bus to not disturbing people on the long distance trains by talking loudly.

8. Public transport. Very crowded. This is the train on the way to Amanohashidate.


We went to Amanohashidate for a break from the crowds, the heat, and the temples.

"Amanohashidate" translates as bridge to heaven, supposedly how the land bridging the estuary looks from upside down. We took a chair lift (literally!!!) to the top of the hill to get an outstanding view.

We hired bikes and swam and cycled the bridge

9. The elderly are incredibly active, one man we met climbing Fuji was 79!

10. The heat. We've taken to carrying around Japanese fans gifted to us by Toshiro and his family at the fireworks. They have proven very handy during the scorching heat of the early afternoon. And despite this, the Japanese wear jeans, and long sleeves all the time, although the sun umbrellas make more sense now.

A strange benefit of the hot summer has been the relative lack of tourists (so we have been told - to our disbelief as it appears plenty busy already). In Kyoto we've had several days packed full of tours of gardens and temples, sandwiched by rides on Kyoto's regular bus system. Luckily virtually every shop has air conditioning, as this week we have had highs of between 37-39 °C!!!

11. Weird stuff
On this count, Japan comes up trumps! Even the advertisements are amazingly ridiculous. We wandered into a kids arcade centre today, which turned into a pachinko (Japanese gameing room, gambling is illegal but you can win silver balls that are exchangeable for cash) at the back. So many loud noises and flashing lights!
Last night we saw an old man walking his cat - I kid you not, it was on a leash!!


12. Tradition
One of the main things I've enjoyed about Japan is that it holds true to many of its old traditions. Even in Tokyo you wouldn't think you were anywhere other than Japan, with the traditional architecture, food, neon lights, bicycles, and all the other bits and bobs that make Japan so unique. We have enjoyed a traditional machi tea ceremony, learnt the steps to wash (purify) yourself before entering temples, and got used to changing shoes 20 times a day. We are still confused by quite a lot of what goes on here though!


13. Alcohol
What a responsible bunch the Japanese are regarding alcohol! You press a button to verify you are of age (over 20) when buying alcohol (I got a very confused look when I produced my passport), can buy beer and sake from vending machines, and I've seen lots of people will have a quiet drink in the park. I couldn't imagine the amazing fireworks display in Nagaoka happening in NZ and allowing you to bring your own drinks in as they do here.

Posted by nzdora 16:36 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Family, Fireworks and Fuji

Nagaoka and Mt Fuji

29 °C
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Wow, so much has happened I can hardly believe it's only been 5 days since the last blog post! I'm a bit worried the rest of our trip will struggle to compare to our first week.

We got a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagaoka - 260 kms in 1 hr 40 including stops. To be honest, it didn't actually seem like the train was moving that fast. In Nagaoka we stayed with old friends of David's aunt Susan, who were absolutely lovely hosts, although they didn't speak much English which made for some fun games of charades! They recommended a museum which we went to, although it turned out there wasn't a word of English in the entire museum!!!! The sympathetic staff played us a dvd which was also in Japanese and after a polite amount of time we thanked them arigato arigato and left.


We also visited the war damage museum (we were there for the 70th anniversary of Nagaoka's bombing during WW2) and found it interesting to read about the other side of the story.

That night, after a meal with our Nagaoka family, we went to a street parade which is the first night of the 3 day Nagaoka festival (a celebration of peace and the anniversary of the bombings). We danced with the festival goers in the street to local songs and Taiko drums.


The next day we went to a beautiful temple and castle with Masatoshi, our host's son who spoke a lot of English.



That night was the first of the fireworks aspect of the festival. As these are the best fireworks in the country, the town of 280 thousand swells by a million visitors on these two nights. We had picnics by the river of bento boxes and beer, taking our spot along with the official count of 570 thousand others that night to watch the most amazing fireworks we have ever seen. The photos don't remotely do it justice. We also met our host's extended family, some of whom had come to town specifically for the festival.




The next day we went to the Nagaoka museum with masatoshi. It was really good at reconstructing life in Nagaoka over the last 200 years, including life during the heavy snow season (which was hard to fathom given the heat of summer currently).

The photos below include life size models of the largest Nagaoka firework and the huge pipe required to let it off.


Then we had another night of fireworks, as the festival runs for two consecutive nights. It was similar to the previous night but the fireworks were a bit more creative, with hearts, smiley faces and the Hello Kitty logo!

The next morning we headed to a relatively small town called Kamakura which has temples and a beach. We arrived hot and tired and had virtually run out of yen. We spent a frustrating hour looking for an atm which would accept our cards, and then visited the beach. It was PACKED, and the water was a bit dirty and warm. Sorry Japan, but this didn't compare to New Zealand beaches, although it was lovely to dip in the water. What was more interesting was the antics of the beach goers including guys doing flips in the shallow water to impress their mates and even a man with a dog following down the river outlet!


The next day we headed up Mt Fuji! I was worried we hadnt packed enough warm things as it is 3,780m above sea level and taller than Mt Cook. We brought ALL of our warm clothes, although at the last minute I changed my merino top for a light tshirt as it was so hot in the city. We got a lot of warnings from the information Centre, who were concerned we were unprepared ignorant tourists. We reassured him that the tshirt and shorts we were wearing weren't the only clothes we had and lied about having a head torch as he thought we would be coming back in the dark if we took the usual 5 hours up, 1 hour Summit walk and 3 hours down.

We set off at a pretty decent pace, although some of the climbers seemed quite elderly, maybe 70 or so. We overtook at least 100 people. The terrain was steep, with a lot of loose scree, but it wasn't as crowded as i had expected. We reached the crater rim in about 3.5 hours, and rewarded ourselves with the beer and plum wine we had carried up. Then we went to the summit, which not many people seemed to bother about surprisingly. We stayed in tshirt and shorts the whole time, although i'm sure it could have been a very different story if the weather had changed on us.


We realised we had didn't have long before the next bus left, and wanted to make it to kyoto at a decent hour so we ran/slid down the mountain in 1.5 hours, arriving at the bus less than a minute before it left.

We then got another bullet train to kyoto, arriving smelly, sunburnt and exhausted. A lovely girl came up to us on the train and gave us some bread as a gift. The Japanese have all been absolutely lovely!!!


No absolute promises - but we'll aim for another blog after our four or five days here in cultural Kyoto. It's very rewarding to have one place to open up or bags for a few days!

Bye for now, David & Laura

Posted by nzdora 18:59 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Ohayou gozaimasu to Tokyo

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Congratulations. You've made it. We've made it. The blog and our trip are underway. The format will be slightly unusual - with intermittent access to Internet and with a two person p.o.v. Here we go...

We had a 3am start to make our flight, and Ricardo and Sam were kind enough to drop us of at the airport. This was followed by a long but uneventful flight to Tokyo via the Gold Coast with Jetstar. We had a little but of trouble finding the right (cheap!) Train to Tokyo from the airport but finally made it to our accommodation at 11pm tokyo time (2am NZ time).

We stayed at a place called kimi ryoken which has been amazing. It has some traditional elements and is clean and very close to one of the major Tokyo stations. We're wearing kimonos. Right now.


We have really struggled with the heat here which has been a bit of a shock after coming from a NZ winter. The overnight low was 26 °C and it has been in the low 30's for most of the day. Thankfully our room is air conditioned which is a godsend.

The first morning I woke up at 5:30, but David managed to sleep until 7:30 when I ran out of patience and woke him up so we could get started for the day. We wandered some alleyways before settling on a location to have breakfast. It turned out to be delicious and around $12 nzd for both of us! Our first stop was the Tokyo National Museum, which was a beautiful building which had a lot of historic Japanese art etc. We were impressed with the samurai armour and swords but to be perfectly honest the art wasn't really our thing.


We then went to the Sensoji shrine next which was amazing. Totally touristy though, and unlike everywhere else we actually saw other non-Japanese people. There were some cool markets outside too, which have been going for over 200 years! We bought ice creams, I tried a black sesame seed one which I didn't like much as it tasted quite a lot like the red bean desserts you see in some places.... Don't know what I was expecting really.


Then we went to Akihabara, the tech district which was all neon and anime. David beat me at a street-fighter type game in one of the SIX storeys of video games in just one of the sega buildings!


The food has been amazing, and everyone has spoken reasonably good English, so I would say Tokyo has been a nice gentle introduction to this trip. We head off tomorrow but I am already looking forward to seeing the rest of the city when we come back before flying on to Mexico.

Laura (and David)

Posted by nzdora 05:18 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

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