Month: October 2016

Himeji Day 2, part 1: Kokoen Garden, adjacent to the castle

We woke up late on Tuesday, and read for a while in bed. It was so nice not having any particular plans for the day. We had a few things short-listed: 

  • a mountain temple, accessed first by bus then cable car
  • a toy museum 
  • the art and history museums in the castle grounds
  • the 9 consecutive gardens of the castle (accessed separately)
  • a sake distillery
  • and a couple of errands: arrange reserved seats on the next day’s train, visit the tourist office, shop for hats

When we were finally ready to leave, we went immediately to the tourist office. We learned that the mountain temple would take most of a day (and was therefore probably already no longer an option), and that the art and history museums were closed today (because they are usually closed Mondays, but yesterday was a holiday, so they had been open). We decided to start with the gardens and see how the day treated us.

Near the gardens, we snacked on some sweet castle-shaped cakes then breakfasted on conger eel and lotus root “burgers” on a toasted ricecake “bun,” prepared by a ninja. He was very silly, and put hats on us to pose with.

The gardens were gorgeous. The fall colors are beginning. They will be spectacular very soon, but the promise is already there. 

There was a tea house on the grounds, so we decided to have tea and sweets. We struggled a little with what we were supposed to do. The instruction pamphlet was both too much info and not quite enough to know what we were doing. 

The tea was matcha. If anyone who bothers to read this is unfamiliar with matcha, it is an intense green tea. I do not like it. I like green tea. I really really dislike matcha. I remember being able to get green tea ice cream, for example, that was not matcha. Not anymore, apparently. It’s all matcha. Anyway, Matt laughed as I drank it all down. Our instruction manual insisted that every last drop much be finished.

Anyway, we finished our tea and continued our meander of the gardens.

For the rest of the day, see the next post! 

Monday travel to Himeji: 600-year-old wooden castle

Today was the first day of our few days without fellow travelers. We said our goodbyes to Laura and Denis at the gorgeous villa we had rented in Nara, and made our way to the train station.

I’ve enjoyed the view from trains. Other than landscape, Japan is like any other first-world country. There are city centers, shopping areas, historical sites, suburbs, industrial areas, small towns, agricultural areas, and countryside. The biggest difference is the terrain, which rises very abruptly up into steep mountains, which are lovely, and the obvious inspiration for generations of scenic painters.

It wasn’t a long or difficult trip to Himeji, and Hotel Dormy was near the train station. Matt had chosen it for all the facilities it has available for the price, and it was an excellent choice. We checked in, but immediately left again for the castle, as it was already mid-afternoon.

The first view is from the train station viewing platform.

When you get much closer, there is a well-organised conveyor belt system taking you to the top of the keep. It is very crowded, so we took most of the photos on the way down. 

These giant fish are a protection against fire (probably wise for giant wooden castles).

In this hall, another tourist actually waited for me to take this picture, holding up a whole line of people. I should have lined it up better, but I couldn’t very well do a second one. Check out those weapon racks!

Matt started a trend among little kids, after doing the limbo through this low gate.

Himeji castle is both very old and very new. Because it is built of wood, it is very susceptible to weather. It needs regular renovations, which are done according to ancient techniques. The most recent renovation has just been completed earlier this year, so everything is very fresh and new. 

Inside the moat but long before you reach the castle, there are some displays of flower gardens and bonsai trees. There are also a good number of cats, which people had brought food and toys to play with.

I loved the UFO flower props here!

And the artistic shadows of the bonsai trees.

We were continuously fascinated by the juxtaposition of ancient and ultra-modern all over Japan. One of the other buildings in town, as we walked back to our hotel that evening (the lights changed colors, too–it was gorgeous):

Our hotel was kind of amazing, although not much to look at. It was called Dormy Hotel, which is a chain we’ve seen around. The services are excellent. In all the time in Japan, they had the nicest hotel onsen (hot springs) I’ve seen, very beautiful. They also had pyjamas to wear around the hotel, free laundry (you had to pay for the dryer), free midnight ramen in the restaurant from 21:30-23:00 (not really midnight, but sweet), an excellent massage therapist (you bet I got a massage), free coffee all the time in the lobby, and no smaller of bedrooms than our fancier one in Kyoto, but cheaper. We were very impressed. For travellers, though, I must add: don’t expect big hotel rooms in Japan. They’re tiny. Hard to find a space for suitcases!

We used all of those services that night.

Exploring Nara, part 2: Temples and Parks

As mentioned in the previous post, we took off on bicycles to see some sights before they closed. Our first stop was Todai-ji Temple to see the Daibatsu (Great Buddha), but of course we got distracted a bit in Nara city park by the semi-wild deer who want crackers.

And by the beautiful old wooden Nandai-mon Gate.

Finally, we arrived at the Temple, and it was indeed a beautiful sight. 

Afterwards, we headed upwards to see the sunset from Nigatsu-do Hall, past more deer, of course.

And then there were more deer! After dark, and maybe in the area where we were, they got quite aggressive. Laura and I immediately walked away, while Matt and Denis attempted to interact with them, but we heard a shout shortly afterwards, and then they guys joined us.

We had dinner at a sake & udon restaurant owned by a friend of our host, then finished up with baths back at the villa and sake around the table in our matching yukatas.

Kanpai! (again!)

Sunday travel to Nara, part 1: Gardens & our beautiful lodgings

The Order of the Sushi split ways Sunday morning. Although Laura, Denis, Matt and I would all be together that night, they wanted to make another stop along the way. Matt and I left first, on a normal train from Kyoto to Nara. Max & Guido were off to Osaka, and would meet us in a few days back in Tokyo.

Nara is famous for its parks full of relatively tame deer. After dropping off our luggage in the station storage and lunching on delicious okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), we made our way first to a lovely little formal gardens, passing through the park with most of the other tourist attractions, including many deer. 

Although the route had been quite busy with tourists, we were happy to find that the garden was a tiny oasis of peace. We had such a nice time wandering it and goofing off. 

We finished up the garden, and hurried back to the station for our luggage, and to check into the villa that Denis had booked for the night. It was beautiful!

Denis and Laura arrived shortly after us, and we took off on bicycles to explore further (next post, because so many pictures)!

Kyoto Day 3: Manga Museum and sea urchins!

At dinner Friday night, I had lamented to Denis, who also likes them very much, that I had missed out on eating sea urchin straight from the case at Nishiki Market, so Matt and I started our day there with lunch.

And then, of course, we admired many many of the other lovely things there.

But eventually, it was time to go meet up with our friends at the Manga Museum. We were so excited!

In truth, the museum was more of a library, with rows and rows and rows of manga. It occurs to me that maybe not everyone knows what manga is. Basically, it’s comic books, but that’s too simple. You can think of them more as graphic novels (comic books in long form), but even that’s not entirely accurate. Manga can be fiction but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just that it’s a book, but in comic book form. It is a very common thing in Japan, and you will see all types of people reading manga. 

Since there wasn’t much of an exhibit if you weren’t already very knowledgeable, it was a disappointment to some of us. I’ve been interested in manga for a very long time, but had no idea how long it has been going on. So I found the shelves by year going back to the 30s very interesting. More interesting, in fact, than the shelves organized by series or intended audience (housewives, for example). 

At the end of our visit, Matt and I posed for a portrait at the portrait stand. We requested a motorcycle for a prop. It was great, but they apparently see me as blonde, and my eyes were more turquoise than they really are. Matt’s eye color was perfect. I think maybe they are more accustomed to dealing with darker tones?

After the museum, we wandered past more shops, and stumbled upon a wonderful one specialising in pigments and brushes. I wasn’t supposed to take a picture, so this is from my hip as I browsed, hence the quality.

Matt really wanted to go to the palace grounds, and promised me gardens, but by the end of the day, everything but the large grounds outside the palace and gardens was closed. It was nice, but disappointing in the heat. We took a taxi back to the hotel.

When our taxi dropped us off, I recognized the sign for the cafe I’d just seen Max check into on Facebook, so we went in to see if he and Guido were still there. They were, so we joined them for a beer. 

Later, Laura and Denis also joined us, and we ate there as well. It was a relaxed environment, with good food. Laura and I both had fish and chips, which were delicious. Matt is in love with the lamp terrariums, so that’s in fact the only picture I snapped that night. 

The next day, we would all be departing for different directions. It had been a whirlwind week and a bit more, and we were headed for various slightly calmer places!

Kyoto Day 2 part 2: Shopping!

‚ÄčWhen we parted ways, Matt and I took the train back into town, where we had a shopping day. First stop was a washi store. Washi is the traditional paper made in Japan, and it has a wonderful texture. Matt was in love, and I had to drag him out of there eventually.

As we wandered through the streets, we managed to find the Nishiki market, a very pleasant food market. At that time in the late afternoon, it wasn’t very crowded anymore, and we enjoyed looking at most everything.

The market exited out onto a small Shinto shrine within the shopping mall where our hotel was located. I received another omikuji, this time from a robot monster puppet.

And then we went back to the hotel for a rest and refresh before dinner out. 

Dinner that night was an excellent sushi place, preceded by a specialty whisky bar and followed by a specialty sake bar.

It was a long day, and we all had various plans for the next day, so we stopped after 1 round and made our way back to the hotel.

Kyoto Day 2, part 1: Fushimi Inari temple and grounds

Denis and Laura had a very ambitious day of temple visits planned, but the rest of us were feeling we needed a little more sleep. Matt and I were having coffee across the street from our hotel when Max & Guido came down.

While there, I talked with an interesting older Belgian man who has been living in Japan something like 35 years. He had approached me to ask about my awesome folding keyboard (Microsoft), and we’d continued our conversation. It turned out that we had a lot in common.

First Matt, then Max & Guido joined me, and the four of us went by taxi to Fushimi Inari, the most famous temple in Kyoto, hours behind Laura and Denis, who had already gone on to several other temples. It is famous for the extremely long tunnels of red gates. They are stunning, and we all took a ton of pictures. The pictures do NOT do them justice.

There were also lots of good luck or wish totems. Here are a few types:

This one is a magnet to put on your car, for safety while driving. I will try to attach it to my motorcycle, because it’s cute, so why not? 

We also loved the clothed statuary, mostly foxes:

Gratuitous backwards shot of gates:

Outside the temple, of course there were food vendors and some cafes, so we enjoyed both. Special note: this is one of the very few times EVER that I have enjoyed matcha as a flavor. It was kind of gummy starchy patties, grilled then doused in a sweet teriyaki sauce. 

Max enjoyed some takoyaki (octopus poffertjes), which I have loved for years, since they are also very popular in Chiang Mai street markets.

After some food and drinks, we split ways. Max & Guido wanted to explore that neighborhood and others a bit more, and Matt and I were headed towards some things we’d seen on our way to the hotel from the train station the day before.

Kyoto day 1 explorations

Kyoto is the imperial capitol, and famous for its grandeur and many beautiful temples. Matt, Laura, Denis and I started out pretty easily, walking from our hotel in the direction of the Gion district, a tea-house neighborhood where real geishas still work and train. On the way there, we were happily distracted by many things, such as sweet potato-filled fish-shaped cakes and the very delicious senbei, which are many types of flavored crackers.

Before we left, I had marked up my Google map with several points of interest. However, although I could find them by searching in English, they were labeled in Japanese, and I sometimes make mistakes when I click on what I think is the right one. We got off track a little, so by the time Max & Guido were making their way to the same area, we had to come back around where we had walked to get to where we were going. It was a nice walk, though!

We didn’t see any geishas or trainee geishas (nor did we expect to), but there were many very nice-looking restaurants and many very nicely-dressed people, some looking very formal in kimonos. And the area itself was lovely.

Max & Guido were coming in from another direction, so we met them on the other side entirely, and everyone was hungry. We ended up in a delicious tonkatsu specialty restaurant. I really like tonkatsu. It’s basically wiener schnitzel, but so delicous. Schnitzel is also delicious. The waitress came through with a basket of shredded cabbage, and we could have as much of that as we liked. 

Photos from the restaurant search:

After dinner, we tried to go see Shouren-In Temple, which has a lovely lights display, special in the fall, starting in October. This one was my idea, and I am embarrassed to say that, like with Tsuta Soba, I should have read the information better. It starts in the last week of October, so wasn’t open yet. Matt looks disappointed in this picture, even though we didn’t even know that yet. We found this well on the way.

Here is the gate of the Shouren-In Temple… closed.

Still, our group enjoyed wandering that neighborhood, eventually arriving back into the Gion District.

As we arrived in the area near our hotel, we decided to have some drinks at a Scandinavian-themed bar not far away. Denis and Laura left earlier, but the 4 of us remaining began a new glass-clinking tradition. I’ll just have to show you sometime!

Stay tuned for tomorrow!

Thursday travel to Kyoto via Shinkansen (bullet train!)

Days later, as I write this, I am sitting on another Shinkansen, this time from Himeji to Mimisha. We watched trains speed past the platform while we waited. At the first transit stop, passing trains shook our carriage, causing the group of school children at the front of our car to hoot and holler. I wondered what the speed is.

On the Nozomi and Mizuho service lines of the Japan Shinkansen network, the fastest speeds are reached. However, the “normal” shinkansen trains are basically equivalent to the Thalys, the TGV, and other high speed trains. So I think that my romantic notions of the so-called bullet trains are in fact a remnant of my American upbringing, where we are stuck with Amtrack. The TGV (France) has been running since the 60s, and I’ve ridden it and the Thalys many times. On that trip from Tokyo to Kyoto a few days ago, although we were certainly moving quickly, the view out the window didn’t seem any faster than riding one of those, and it turns out I was correct to think so.

Now, back to that journey. After a few days in Tokyo, which is certainly full of wonders, it was really nice to be getting on the move to somewhere else. Our group was able to get 6 seats all together, and we all settled into our various tasks. I mostly worked on writing previous posts for this blog. And took pictures out of the window (my friends were kind enough to let me have one of the window seats).

I really liked viewing all the different scenes. I have already written about this (in a later, to come, post), so I’ll leave it where it is, instead leaving some of the images here.

It was a fast trip, so we arrived in Kyoto with plenty of time to explore. That will be the next post!

Tokyo Day 5 redeemed: Yanesen

Later Wednesday morning, Matt left for the Google offices and Dick woke back up from his attempt to recover some of his sleep from the night before. My inability to sleep had paid off in plenty of time to research things to do and see in Tokyo. I had decided to scrap my previous ideas of looking at manga or antiques or visiting major shrines, and direct our attention instead to Yanesen, a larger designation for the neighborhoods of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. Dick approved, so we set off.

This turned out to be a perfect plan. 

Now, I’m going to apologize for the changes in font sizing that’s starting to crop up. I can’t seem to fix it on my phone, so it will have to be dealt with when I’m home in Amsterdam.

Out of the station, we skirted a lovely cemetery on our way to Yanaka “Ginza” (Ginza is the major shopping arcade, so calling Yanaka’s local shopping street “Ginza” is kind of funny, since it’s nothing like it). We planned to eat something there. 

I liked the atmosphere already. Locals and a few foreigners like ourselves browsed. It wasn’t crowded at all. There were specialty shops and small food places. We ordered various things from stalls to snack on as we wandered, then settled into a lovely cafe for sweets and tea. The sweets were all chestnut-based, as it’s chestnut season. The tea was a toasted rice tea, and delicious. I loved the tiny ceramic pot that the chestnut syrup was served in for the dessert.

After the sweet shop, we were near the end of the market. I had marked a few places of potential interest on my map, so we drifted in the general direction of a few of them while exploring.

The first thing we stumbled upon was a sign about puppets. I love puppets, so we followed it down a winding street and came upon a workshop and tiny theater. The artist puts on a 30 minute performance every hour if there are at least 2 people to watch it, and we were just in time. 5 of us watched him perform a very funny series of vignettes with his clever small puppets. Although there were many signs requesting “no photos,” he told us afterwards we could take some pictures. For the record, he also custom-makes puppets from life or pictures, and had a great number of them on display. I think he was very gifted. Here’s his website:

We were very pleased with ourselves after that for having been so lucky, and wandered further through the charming streets of this neighborhood. We stopped in miscellaneous shops if they were interesting, mostly just looking around. Known for cats, there were images of cats everywhere, including a store specializing in maneki neko, the beckoning cats. It felt like a Jordaan sort of neighborhood: mostly residential, quiet, older, with shops and schools and tiny gardens in front of houses. It was like a picturesque village in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. We loved it.

One of the shops I’d most wanted to stop in was Amezaiku Yoshihara. Amezaiku is a traditional candy, where they shape fantastical figures from a gooey candy mass that they color as they work, and harden with flame. I chose an octopus, and the artisan made it to order while I watched. It was fascinating. 

They also had their special Halloween ones on offer, and I resisted the urge to order a black cat, since packing the octopus was likely to be difficult enough. In the end, it was packed in a sake box alongside some other delicate things Matt bought elsewhere later in the trip.

There were many temples, shrines and graveyards in the area. We were walking in one tiny graveyard when the worker cleaning graves thought we were trying to get to the giant golden statue in the next one over. We were not, but did go, in the end. That cemetery, at Tennouji Temple I think, was the final resting place of a famous swordsman and poet, Yamaoka Tesshu, whose name Dick recognized and was very happy to have stumbled upon.

I love the wooden sticks beside all the graves. Dick looked it up, and we think it’s like a sort of message calling spirits to where their bodies are. Please do correct me if I’m wrong.

We were getting tired and receiving messages from Matt and the gang by that point about dinner plans, so determined that with a final meander to visit the cats of Yanaka Cemetery, we would head back. They were absolutely everywhere, and loved attention. A great orange beastie was purring like a tiger while I petted him on his grave marker. 

We took the JR Yamanote line back to our ryokan, where we joined up with Matt before going again to Shibuya crossing to meet up with everyone.

Shibuya crossing is a crazy intersection beside a train station, where when the light turns green, the entirety fills up with people going in all directions. (Actually, diagonal crosswalks are all over Tokyo, which surprised me.)

The gang was camped out in the Starbucks (you can see them in the window), so we went to a robot sushi place around the corner before meeting up with them for a bit of a wander and then drinks.

The bar was actually pretty great. It looked like a temple entrance going down into it, and had a huge wooden table, then another section with sunken tables. We sat at the huge wooden table.

It started raining heavily as we exited the bar, and I really enjoyed all the umbrellas against the lights. Poor Matt, though: he had missed out on most everything through the day, and was really feeling like he wanted to do some wandering and shopping. The rain made that less appealing.

What a great day!