It’s funny, I was just thinking back to where we last left you. We were in Unawatuna and about to head back to Colombo. That train ride along the coast was pretty painful. 3 hours standing in the sun to make the 125km journey. The train was packed. Then we transferred to a local train to take us to our hotel out near the airport. Another hour standing on a packed local train.
Now as I start to draft this post we’re sitting on the Shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Hiroshima. We’re flying through the countryside at 300kph and the train is hardly swaying at all as it rounds the banked curves. It’s been quite a change for service and standard of living in the last week, unfortunately that comes at a cost though.
Our arrival to the land of high-tech toilets was very tiring. We flew into Osaka via Kuala Lumpur but we only had about half an hour of sleep on the red eye flight. Let’s just say we were a little grumpy that day and coffee was in high demand. We only had 2 nights in Osaka and we were determined to make the most of it so we had to push on.
The accommodation was a funky hostel with traditional sleeping mats which were surprisingly comfortable. It was a good introduction as it taught me some important lessons about Japan. Size 13 slippers don’t exist and internal doorways cannot be trusted. I must’ve banged my head at least 5 times in that place. The best part about the place was a hot shower with high pressure. A luxury that we haven’t had for some time.
We hit the pavement and made up for the lack of walking in Sri Lanka. We walked and walked and walked. We headed up through the main city centre along the main shopping arcade. It must extend for a couple of kms at least. We tried local delicacies along the way and browsed through different stores. The Dontonbori area is a must – full of bright lights and cheap restaurants. The most noteworthy dishes are the Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) and Takoyaki (deep fried octopus balls).
The Umeda Sky Building was particularly impressive. It comprised of 2 towers that were linked by a 3 floor platform called the Sky Garden. The weird part was that you caught an elevator up to the 36th floor and then an escalator across to the other tower – Not for the faint hearted. The observation deck helped put the size of Osaka into perspective. There were so many bridges. The worst part about Osaka was the cold. One night we were out and it got below zero. We planned to avoid winter for the 12 months so it came as quite a shock. I only packed one warm sweater, so apologies for the repetition in photos. Fortunately it’s started warming up now with 20 degrees forecast for tomorrow.
Next we headed to Kyoto which is the Mecca of traditional Japan. Everywhere you turn there’s another shrine or temple. It’s easy to understand why it’s popular with tourists. Our accommodation was very flash, a modern 1 bedroom apartment with kitchen and laundry. We even had a bathtub! It was only AU$45 a night and 8 min walk to Kyoto Station. It’s the shoulder season at the moment which has been very helpful for saving money. The vending machines are also helping with the budget, as an 500ml Asahi can for AU$2 can’t be beaten.
Our first day in Kyoto was spent getting acquainted with the station and the surrounding area. This might not sound like much, but the station is 11 storeys tall housing a department store and a hotel. With several shopping and dining areas we went exploring. We found a Ramen restaurant where you ordered the meal from a vending machine then sit in the restaurant to eat. Unfortunately the Ramen was quite greasy and didn’t really sit well with both of us, but that’s all part of the adventure. We went to the very top of the station for views of the city and I even found the Happy Terrace where I used to hang out with my school mate Lawsie when I was here back in 1999. Considering it was a school trip, it was a good place to hide away from the teachers. Only during daylight hours of course 🙂
We branched out a little further and visited some palaces, castles and temples. Unfortunately the Imperial Palace Gardens didn’t quite live up to their “must-see” status but both Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji were impressive temples that were free to visit. We did manage to find a couple of blooming plum blossums, but it seems we’re a little early for the Cherry Blossum season. Nijo castle was also noteworthy with its mote, high walls and Shogun palace. There are 17 world heritage listed sites in Kyoto so there is no shortage of attractions. Anna had read about a bamboo grove at the base of the mountains so we decided to catch the train out there to take a look. I think we’re excelling at understanding the rail network here. They have different companies operating different train lines so sometimes 2 different stations have the same name. Seems to make sense to the locals though.
The bamboo grove was well worth the journey. The Arashiyama area has a very cutesy village feel with cringe romantic couples being taken for rides in man-drawn rickshaws. Anna wasn’t having any of that though, “couples are the worst” apparently. We walked… very unromantically mind you. We frolicked through the groves and then took a stroll along a river as the sun went down. Still not romantic apparently (sigh).
On a whim we decided to take a 2 night excursion from Kyoto to visit Hiroshima and then Kobe. The hotel agreed to mind out bags so we could travel with our small packs. It is possible to do Hiroshima as a day trip, but we figured it would be better to have a more relaxed visit. We’re also making the most of our 7 day unlimited Japan Rail pass. This pass also includes buses and ferries run by JR, and is proving to be great value.
We were booked on the first train for the day so we had an early start. I took preventative measures and woke up 10 mins early so I could wake Anna with coffee in hand. I’m not the fastest learner but I’m getting there. Upon arrival we boarded the sightseeing bus (included in pass) and rode through the city until arriving at the Peace Memorial Museum. The detailed accounts of the atomic bomb blast and the subsequent effects were very confronting. Each artefact included a description about how the owner went about starting their day before the blast. The devastation was so extreme it’s surprising that the city was ever rebuilt. From the museum we walked down to the eternal flame which will continue to burn until all nuclear weapons are destroyed. Unfortunately I think it’ll be burning for some time as there are some 16,000 weapons around the globe. We visited the atomic bomb dome which is one of five buildings that were somewhat standing after the blast.
We headed to Miyajima which is a 30 min train ride and then a 10 min ferry from Hiroshima. The island is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine and the floating gate. Some people visit at low tide so they can walk out and touch the gate, but we decided to go for high tide because the pictures look better. We also hoped to catch a few photos with sunset lighting. We were very fortunate that on a primarily overcast day, the clouds parted for the bulk of our visit. Miyajima is more than just the gate and shrine, but also includes a touristy village, wandering deer and a gondola up the mountain. Anna did a great job of capturing the beauty in her photos.
Tonight we’re in a cheap city hotel that looks like the kind of place that seedy middle-aged businessmen stay at on their work trips. Anna found this one, but there’s no pay by the hour rate advertised. Perhaps it has fallen from its former glory.
Tomorrow we’re off to Kobe for the night, then back to Kyoto for 2 nights. Then we’ll make our way to Tokyo for a week of adventure. I can’t wait.
Fail of the Week
Not a major one this week but a little frustrating at the time. We booked our hotel near Colombo airport on Booking.com and I checked out the map to see where it was located. After our long train journey described earlier, we walked to where the pin marker was and there was no hotel to be found. We walked up and down the main road looking (remember we’re walking on the road as they don’t do sidewalks) and we can’t find anything. Fortunately a nice man could see we were in need of help and called the hotel for directions. Turns out the marker wasn’t too far off, but it was down a side alley not the main road. The funny thing was that we actually walked straight past the place on our way to the main road! I suppose it didn’t help that the sign was 20cm x 10cm on a gate post, but still we did feel rather stupid! But lesson learned… always go off the address, not the map marker.
Cheers & beers