Week 4 – Japan

This post marks an important milestone… we’re one month into this adventure of ours. It feels like it has passed so quickly, but upon reflection, we’ve seen so much. We’re still excited about what the next 11 months has in store for us. This has been our second week in Japan and it still continues to surprise us. The culture, the food, the housing, the food… the food. We’ve definitely jumped at the opportunity to explore all of Japan’s culinary offerings. From the ultra expensive to street food. I’m becoming nervous about fitting into my suit for Gerrit & Amy’s wedding next week. I think elastic waisted suits should be standard.

We decided to stay a night in Kobe because it was on the way from Hiroshima back to Kyoto. The extensive rail network here makes it so easy to go anywhere without the need to hire a car. Upon arrival we took the gondola up the mountain to visit the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens, which provided fantastic views across the city and the port. The gardens had a cutesy village feel and you can imagine they would be a local favourite on a sunny spring day to escape the city. We were a touch too early and therefore the gardens weren’t quite blooming. Regardless, we enjoyed the stroll through the gardens. We also decided to make the long hike back into town rather than catching the gondola back down. Whilst tiring, it did prove to be fruitful with us stumbling across the Nunobiki Falls.

Now when most people think of Kobe they think of Kobe Beef. This is a type of wagyu beef specific to the area that is infamous. There are tales of the cows being played soothing music and massaged by hand, however it seems like that’s all bogus. Regardless, I was determined to try some. After some searching online, we were torn between 2 options: 1. Traditional steak cooked teppanyaki style or 2. A big dirty burger. Rather than flipping a coin we decided that we should just try both. After all, the teppanyaki steak was around AU$140 for 180g which would hardly touch the sides. The burger was the Wanto special: Kobe beef patty, slices of roasted wagyu, bacon, garlic flavoured egg and sauce. It was epic. It was also the most expensive burger I’ve had at $30! The steak was cooked the traditional way by a chef who knew about 5 words of english. The steak definitely had a high marbling content and melted in your mouth on the first bite. Kobe beef… tick.

We headed back to Kyoto for another 2 nights in the same hotel and we were reunited with our large packs. We headed out to Fushimi Inari Taisha which is famous for the one thousand red gates that lead from the shrine up around the mountain. At first it wasn’t quite what we expected as the place was packed and it was near impossible to get a clear photo of the gates, but once we climbed up the mountain the crowds thinned out. I’m not sure about the number of gates though, because we saw some had rotted and were removed. After this we headed back to downtown Kyoto to the Nishiki Markets. This is a narrow undercover lane that specialises in local delicacies. It had a genuine feel to it as it was packed with locals buying ingredients, but some of the stuff was so foreign we had no idea what they were purchasing. We were a little adventurous and bought random things to try. We had some pleasant surprises like the tempura cuttle fish and rolled omelette, but we’ve decided that Japanese sweets aren’t the best. After so much food sampling at lunch time, we decided to split an instant noodle bowl for dinner. So backpacker…

After several recommendations we decided to do a day trip to Nara to see the Todai-ji temple and to stroll around the park filled with deer. The Todai-ji contains the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan and its grand size is very imposing when you first step inside and look up. We then walked a loop of the park where we watched tourists feeding the deer these crackers that you could buy. Feeling a bit peckish ourselves, we decided to buy a snack and found some street vendors selling roast sweet potato pieces. We approached the cheapest one and ordered a serve. When the other vendors were 500 yen and this one was 200 yen, that should’ve raised an eyebrow. It turns out that this one was 200 yen per 100g. And that’s not diced up pieces either… we received a whole sweet potato that was nearly half a kilo! In order to save face we sat there and ate the whole thing between us, with locals walking by and giggling. We’re still not sure if it was meant for the deer or if we were just those crazy foreigners eating a whole vegetable in the park.

Funnily enough we weren’t that hungry that night, but our workmate Little Joe recommended we check out Pontocho alley and the surrounding area. The alley itself was really cool lined with glowing lanterns marking out a mix of restaurants, bars and BROTHELS! Joe never did say whether he came here for dinner, but I think it’s best if we run with that assumption.

A trip to Japan isn’t complete without seeing Mount Fuji right, so we slipped a little one night stopover at Hakone on the way to Tokyo. One of the appealing features of Hakone is that you get to try so many different types of transport. We rode mountain trains with switchbacks, cable cars and a gondola over to Lake Ashi. Due to recent volcanic activity, the gondola wasn’t open the whole way, but we could take the bus to the last section. This was where we caught our first glance of Mount Fuji, although it was in disguise with its snowcapped peak blending in with the neighbouring clouds. We decided not to take the sightseeing cruise and opted for the bus to take us to the southern side of the lake. This was motivated by cost but turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the bus wound its way up the Ashinko Skyline drive which housed a number of lookouts for Mount Fuji. The bus driver pulled into one to allow us to take a couple of snaps. Once we reached the lake we realised that the cloud was too low and visibility was poor. We were lucky to fluke that one.

Our accommodation at Gora was a neat little apartment with traditional bedding and a lounge room. It was perfect as we felt like a home cooked meal and a quiet night on the couch watching a movie. They supplied Japanese style robes so we had to try them out. Anna definitely looked the part. It was a lovely evening until I banged my head on the low doorway so hard that I fell into the sliding door. I feel like Gulliver in this place! I don’t fit anywhere.

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Trying out the Japanese wardrobe at our accommodation in Hakone (Gora)

Wednesday morning we woke to heavy rain. We’d been so lucky but I guess it had to come at some stage. Unfortunately cool weather came with it, returning back to tops of 6 degrees like when we first arrived. We arrived in Tokyo and made our way to Ueno which came recommended since the station sits on so many different lines. Following a mad dash to our hotel through the rain, we entered looking like a couple of drowned rats. The staff even fetched towels for us to dry off. We ditched the bags and decided that it was perfect museum weather, so we headed to the Tokyo National Museum. This museum focuses on key artefacts of significant cultural importance. It housed many national treasures and showcased various artworks through different periods.

After passing through Tokyo station on our way to the hotel, we thought we should head back to explore the Imperial Palace Gardens. It was hard not to feel a little disappointed knowing that in just a few weeks the Cherry Blossoms will be out and the gardens will have a totally different feel. The landscaping was much more impressive here than Kyoto so we still enjoyed the walk. From here we walked down through Ginza and browsed through various stores. It’s amazing how quickly your perception of money changes when you’re not earning any, so looking at the prices in some of the stores was mind boggling. I’m sure my sisters would’ve felt like they were in heaven with all the designer brands, but we can’t afford it (financially and baggage weight).

After looking at boring things like handbags we headed to Akihabara to look at some cooler stuff… electronics! This district houses everything nerdy. Computer games, electrical gadgets, Anime & Manga (weird Japanese cartoons), arcade galleries etc. The funny thing is that the place isn’t full of kids or teens, but adults. We ventured into an arcade to check out some of the video games and there were people wearing suits fully immersed in the games they were playing… weird. I don’t know how but we managed to score a few rounds on this drumming game without putting any money in. We thought we wouldn’t push our luck and left before anyone noticed. After seeing so many centres all over Japan we decided to enter a Pachinko parlour. Pachinko is a vertical pinball that incorporates computer games into it. The objective is to collect as many of the small pinballs as possible. Upon entering we were instantly blown away by the noise. I don’t know how anyone could sit in there without earplugs. Between the sounds of thousands of metal balls bouncing around and computer game noises blaring, it was deafening. The funny thing is that gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, so they claim prizes or tokens from the parlour which they then exchange for cash at a separate business.

We headed to the Tsukiji Fish Market yesterday which one of the largest fish markets in the world. This market handles over 2000 tonnes of fish a day and primarily distributes into Tokyo. It is possible to attend the morning tuna auction, but that requires you to be there by 5am… that’s before all the public transport starts up. Needless to say we weren’t there for that. Tourists are allowed to roam free around the markets once the fish have been delivered from the wholesalers to the middlemen around 9am. It was amazing how they had no structure, protocols etc to keep us out of the way. There were forklifts, motorbikes, stock movers buzzing around and we had to keep an eye on our surrounds to ensure we weren’t in the way. It was also very surprising how non-state-of-the-art the place was. They’re moving the markets at the end of the year to another location so I guess they haven’t invested in the place lately, but there’s next to no refrigeration… just ice and styrofoam boxes. Not that it really mattered since it was about 4 degrees outside, but this is how they do it year round. It did provide an excellent opportunity to see all the delicacies and preparation of sashimi. It did smell though.

From here we headed to Roppongi which includes 2 integrated communities: Roppongi Hills and Midtown Tokyo. These developments are designed to allow people to live, work and socialise in one location. They included residential and office towers with shopping centres, museums, cinemas etc. A good concept but it felt like a cruise ship, just a bit artificial.

We have 3 more nights in Tokyo before we head to Hawaii. With this cold snap that has returned, we’re looking forward to some tropical weather. Until next week…

Cheers and beers

B & A

Fail of the week
Two fails on the same day this week. After doing so well with the trains we managed to board the wrong Shinkansen which was a little embarrassing. Especially when I went and harassed a man for being in our reserved seat. He didn’t know english but when his wife made an X with her arms we thought something was up. Fortunately the train was going to the same place but it was one of the premium trains not included with our pass. That meant that we stood out being the only non-Japanese on board. We snuck down to a non-reserved carriage and hoped that the conductor wouldn’t ask for our tickets. Thankfully we got away with it.
Then that afternoon on our way out to see the 1000 gates, we became a little too engrossed in the Lonely Planet guide and missed our station. Since the train line was quiet this cost us about half an hour doubling back. Oops.

More photos

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