Sunday, October 21, 2012

Back to Tokyo

17 October, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Scored a great deal on a very flash hotel a block from the station in Sapporo. You have to love some of the online booking sites! Agoda got us into a very nice **** room in the Aspen Hotel for just on $100 a night, a reduction of over $200 a night. We are normally happy with ** or even less but this was just too good to pass up. So next time we come here we'll bring a cat, because this is the first hotel we have stayed in where you could swing one!

We had planned a train trip to a small town in order to do a 10km walk through the Hokkaido countryside, but the forecast wasn't good so we wandered about the city for the day instead. Good call. By early afternoon, the rain had started and the wind came right in behind. Apparently Sapporo can get bitterly cold in winter. If today is any indication, we can believe it. 13C felt like about 5C in the wind and rain.

While wandering around the fish markets, admiring the enormous crabs and bewildering array of shellfish, we spotted a restaurant featuring a local fish delicacy that we had read about on the train. Somehow we managed to pick the wrong set of stairs and found ourselves trapped in a fairly swish sashimi place. Before we knew what we had done, we had ordered something complicated off the set menu. We waited in horror, more concerned about the bill than what might appear on the plate. Our worries were ill-founded. The meal was fantastic and, once we worked out some of the etiquette involved and established that what looked like soup was, in fact, soup and not the finger bowl, all was good. The bill was a tiny $20 for both meals and enough Japanese tea to have a wash in.

Our last effort for the day was a rather water-logged trip to the famous Sapporo Beer Museum. Hmmm - just another one of those things that looked great on paper, but ended up being just ok!

21 October, Hachinohe, Honshu and Shinkansen bound for Tokyo

Back on the main island after our few days on Hokkaido. What a difference! Hokkaido is far less populated than most of the parts of Japan we have visited on this or our previous trip. Rolling hills and farms predominate the further north you go. We took a trip a couple of days back to the small town of Kuromatsunai in the hills of southern Hokkaido and did a 10km walk through the hills to the tiny village of Neppu. Autumn leaves were turning on the hills and even though the clouds were a little dark at times, we stayed dry. As usual, we adapted the recommended walk, just because we got lost, and finished off the last couple of kms with a very brisk walk along a major road, with no footpaths, in order to make the train. Lucky for us, the traffic was light and the drivers very polite.

Once we get started on the rail network in Japan we just can't stop! Following our long trip to the southern hills yesterday, we jumped a local train from Sapporo to Otaru, on the coast, north-west of Sapporo. This is an old port town, with a bit of an historical twist. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Commission to Determine the Russo-Japanese Border on Sakhalin Island sat here. Few locals come here to visit the site of this historical event, but it does represent a major turning point in world history. This was the first time that an Asian power had defeated a European power. The room where the Commission sat has been restored to its original state.

Much is made of the warehouses along the waterfront canals in Otaru, but to tout it as the Venice of the east is a little over the top. One short block was beautiful in the autumn sun, but much of the rest of the area is very run down. Far more attractive was the coastal scenery that we sped through on the train. Hundreds of fishing boats out to sea operating in what appear to be marked off areas divided by lines of orange buoys.

Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and the original ski jump is still in use today as an all year round venue for the crazies who enjoy launching themselves off a ramp higher than a TV tower. A few of these devoted souls were jumping during our visit. No snow of course, but they seemed quite happy landing on the synthetic surface provided for off-season jumpers.

Our journey out to the jump and its associated museum was a bit of a challenge for us, as it included one bus leg. Buses in Japan are way more challenging than trains and, away from the tourist path, the number of English signs decreases alarmingly. Never fear though, we just wander around looking lost and sooner or later a friendly local emerges from the crowd to assist. Often these are older folk, our age or greater, who have some English and the confidence to speak it. Today's 'white knight' was a charming older gentleman who had been an English teacher and enjoyed speaking English to keep his hand in. With his help we managed to get on the right bus, but the problem with buses is where to get off! In a bit of a panic, we asked the driver, who promptly stopped the bus , jumped out of his seat and bowing from the waist, asked his passengers where the our stop was. Enlightened, he resumed his seat and all was well.

Our stop in the town of Hachinohe was just to break our trip back to Tokyo, so we had no real tourist agenda. Hachinohe was at one time the northern terminus of the Shinkansen, but now that the terminus is further north, the town, or at least the area around the station, is in the doldrums. It was a bit like the classic John Denver song “Saturday night in Toledo Ohio”. Not a lot going on. We did manage to find a little traditional Japanese restaurant where we squatted on the floor at low tables, just like the locals. No English menu here, but we are way beyond letting that phase us. Armed with the universal word for 'beer' ie. “Beer” and a bit of pointing, we managed to order a reasonable dinner at an extremely reasonable price.

We are writing this blog on the Shinkansen bound for Tokyo for our last night in Japan. A bit of shopping this afternoon and a couple of activities tomorrow and we will be off to Narita. Given the bargain price we paid for our return fares ($500) we decided to accept the offer of a business class upgrade on the way home. That should be fun!

21 October, Ueno, Tokyo

Back in the same district of Tokyo that we stayed in on our last visit, though a little more up market and a bit closer to the station.

Feeling like locals around this area, we soon found our hotel and dumped the bags, ready for an afternoon shopping. Seems shopping is what most of the 20 million plus citizens of Tokyo-Yokahama do on a Sunday, other than their washing. Coming in today on the Shinkansen we were greeted by thousands of high-rise apartment blocks sporting tens of thousands of futons, sheets and assorted clothing, out to dry in the warm autumn sun.

We were on another train type mission. The home of the Japanese Kato model train company is here in Tokyo. It was heaven on a stick! We were lucky to escape with just a few hundred dollars worth of stuff! A highly recommended attraction for anybody who is still a kid at heart.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tokyo, Sendai and Sapporo

11 October Shinagawa (Tokyo)

After a reasonably comfortable flight into Narita, we hit the rails for Shinagawa, in the south east of Tokyo. All up, our travel and waiting time at either end of our flight was about two thirds of the actual flight time. Guess that's what you get when you depart from an airport that is close to 100km from home and choose to stay in a part of Tokyo that is at least 90 minutes train ride from the airport. Added to that (for us) was a considerable time wandering about the streets of Shinagawa looking for one of our connecting stations. In the end, all was good and we were finally set up in our typically tiny Tokyo hotel room by 10:00pm. Even the traditionally hard Japanese bed couldn't prevent us from dropping off into a well-deserved sleep.

This is our second trip to Japan and we have fancied ourselves as experts on the Japanese rail system. We were well tested today, however. For starters, we spent the best part of an hour lost on our way to our local station of Nishoi. There is always an up side to being lost and that is all the interesting back streets you see during your wanderings. It is best though if you only see each street just the once! To top things off, our return trip was lengthened somewhat by jumping on an express train in Yokohama, that hauled us way past our local station.

In between all this train drama, we had a splendid day wandering about the little known wonders of Kamakura, about an hour south of Tokyo. As we ventured further away from the city, the air became much clearer and, with the blue sky setting them off, the temples, gardens and shrines of historic Kamakura (known as “Old Edo”) were at their best.

Very few Westerners were about. In fact, we have seen only a handful of non-Japanese tourists to date. There were heaps of primary school kids about though, many with worksheets that required them to approach a foreigner and ask them to sign their workbook. Given the lack of Westerners about, we were extremely popular! Our photographs and autographs will adorn many a Japanese school kid's mantel for years to come.

On the way back from Kamakura, we made what was to be a quick stop in Yokohama to shoot up the Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan. Naturally, we got lost on the way, but we bet we've seen more of modern Yokohama than your average tourist. From the 69th floor of this iconic structure we had a good (not great) view over the twin cities of Tokyo and Yokohama. Even in the late afternoon haze, the seemingly never-ending sprawl of these two enormous cities was simply spectacular. To top it off, we were just able to make out Mt Fuji in the distance.

Strangely, the central city area of Yokohama is not at all crowded. All the port area buildings look as though they have been constructed within the last 10 years. There are wide streets, vast open spaces and landscaped mall areas.

Tomorrow we have an appointment at the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo. We are expected at the office of the Imperial Household at 9:50am. An honour indeed?

13 October, Shinagawa, Tokyo

If there can possibly be an upside to the carpet bombing of Tokyo and surrounds towards the end of World War II, it would have to be the re-development of the city centre as a modern, well-designed and extremely spacious city. Wide boulevards, enormous parks and some quite stunning modern skyscrapers give the central city areas of Tokyo and Yokohama a strikingly different landscape to some of the outer areas of the cities that were not so devastated by bombing and where most of the old street patterns have persisted, creating a crowded jumble that has a totally different feel.

In the heart of modern Tokyo is the enormous Imperial Palace, the home of the Emperor of Japan. After almost sprinting the 1.5 km from the newly restored Tokyo Station to the designated gathering point for our tour of the Palace, we were marshalled into small groups and led off into the Palace grounds for an introductory video, in Japanese, and some very serious-sounding rules about how we should conduct ourselves on the tour, also in Japanese. To be honest, for us, the palace was less than inspiring, having been constructed mainly since the 1960s. Our Japanese fellow travellers were, however, far more impressed, as demonstrated by the frequent 'ahh-so's' and serious head shaking that followed much of the commentary of the tour leader. One suspects that some older Japanese still harbour the belief that the Emperor is, indeed, divine.

Having accepted an offer from Jetstar to upgrade our return flight to business class, we now have the potential to take home significantly more luggage than the small carry-on bags that we came with. Sadly, our wardrobes are fairly full following a recent trip to the US, so our afternoon shopping was a fairly fruitless affair.

13 October, Shinagawa, Tokyo

Took a day trip out to the north west of the city today to the 'town' of Kawagoe, about an hour's train ride from the centre of Tokyo. The town is oft visited by locals because of its fairly original old warehouse district which now forms part of the main shopping street of this 'town'. The inverted commas are due to the fact that the town could easily be considered a fairly large city in most countries of the world! It was a great day and we saw yet more of what remains or has been constructed of the glory days of the Japanese Empire. All good fun and mostly interesting, but it is the exposure to the never ending wonders of this fantastic culture that is always the best part of days like this.

The great thing about Japanese culture is that it works! Millions of people move about Japan's cities every day on trains, buses, cars, bicycles and on foot. It is a crowded, often hectic and potentially volatile environment, but it just works. A couple of simple examples might illustrate why it does.

Waiting outside one of the many kids toy shops yesterday, I noticed that a stuffed toy had been knocked down into the aisle near one of the entrance. And I did just what any Westerner would do. I looked the other way, assuming that someone would steal it, or someone from the store would arrive in time to pick it up. Oh no. Not in Japan. Within seconds of it hitting the floor, a woman passing by noticed it on the ground. No, she didn't grab it and do a runner, she picked the toy up and replaced it neatly on the display rack inside the shop before continuing off down the street.

Walk down any narrow footpath in most western countries and you will constantly confront couples walking towards you who 'own the footpath'. Oblivious to anybody else, they will chat on, refusing to yield half the path to oncoming pedestrians. In Japan, someone is more likely to jump out in front of traffic than deny you your half of the path.

Spend more than a few seconds staring at a timetable board in a station and some well-meaning local will pop out of nowhere offering help. Often they have little or no English but they want to help.

Some Westerners (notablyAustralians with a strong dollar) are beginning to return to Japan, following the devastation of the 2011 tsunami, so maybe it's time to dispel a few myths.

Myth 1. Japan is very expensive.
Not at all. In Australian dollar terms, Japan is way cheaper than travelling in Australia. Sure it is more expensive than much of south-east Asia, but the quality is far higher. A few examples might help to illustrate. This trip we have paid $70 a night for a small, but very clean, quiet and comfortable room in Tokyo. Today our lunch of sandwiches from a convenience store was a total of $5.20 all up. We carry our own water, as most locals do, filling up at any tap you can find or at water coolers at most attractions. Dinner tonight was about $30 for two large servings and two beers. Entry to most attractions is about $4-5, the more expensive, like going to the top of the Yokohama Tower, being $12 each. Sure travel costs can mount up on the trains, but with a JR pass ($500 for 14 days) you can keep even these costs to a minimum. The simple message is if you want to travel 'high on the hog' in Japan, you will pay dearly. Travel like a local and it is cheap as chips!

Myth 2. Language is a problem
Of course it will be if you let it be. The fact is that most young Japanese do speak some English. They learn it at school. But, like many of us, they never get to practise their language so it just gets lost. Most people of all ages probably understand far more English than we understand Japanese, but, like most of us, they are reluctant to speak and they have poor comprehension skills when listening to us speak (particularly Australians!). Given all of this, language isn't as big a problem as many imagine. People are very willing to help and are invariably patient and polite. Most signs in stations and throughout the larger cities are in English and Japanese. In the country, things are far more difficult, but pointing and signing will generally get you what you need.

Myth 3. Japanese don't like foreigners
This is an oldie but a goodie, and it once may well have been true, but nothing could be further from the truth today. What may continue to feed this misconception is the natural reserve of the Japanese and the reactions they might have to some of the more raucous behaviour of travelling foreigners. The Japanese do love to party and they like to have fun. Just watch some local TV if you doubt they like a good laugh. Sure we might think they are a bit 'quirky'... well, yes, they definitely are, but this is their country and they don't try to impose their culture on us in anything like the way the West imposes its culture on them. Vive la difference!

16 October, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

A long train journey today from Sendai to Sapporo, but not as long as it would be had we come directly from Tokyo. Most people fly this distance, but as we already have our JR Rail Passes and we love train travel, we opted for the scenic route.

We are really starting to feel 'at home' in Japan now. Everything is just so easy and EVERYTHING works!

Aside from breaking the long train trip, our stopover in Sendai was to visit one of the major tourist draws of Japan, Matsushima Bay. Blessed as we usually are by great weather, the bay and the small towns that surround it were at their early autumn best. Now we have to clearly state that Japan is not right up there with the world's great scenic attractions. Simply put, much that is lauded as spectacular in Japan, is good but way from great. But, that's not why we come to Japan. The cultural difference, food, and people watching are the big things, oh yes, and the trains! Matsushima, though, does deserve its place high on the list of spectacular scenery in Japan. Not only that, the seafood is fantastic.

We have headed north to Sapporo to experience what is said to be the most isolated and scenic part of Japan. If the train trip up from Sendai is any indication, it will be 'good'.

We have commented in previous Japan blogs, on the crowded urban environment. We had expected the dense settlement to thin out as we headed north, but it wasn't until we were in the very far north of Honshu that farmland and open forest won the day over densely-packed urban settlement. After crossing the Tsugaru Strait from Honshu to Hokkaido, through the 54 km long rail tunnel, including a 23.3 km stretch that is under water, the longest and deepest tunnel in the world, the countryside changed significantly. Extremely clear sky, blue ocean beside the tracks and an increasingly golden afternoon sun made for a great end to a 7hr 30 mins train journey.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, Off to 'Work' We Go

Some months back we noticed an add for one way fares to Japan for $209. What else could we do? With all taxes, food and seat selection fees, the fares worked out at $500 each RETURN to Tokyo. Add in a couple of JR-Rail Passes at $500 each (they were almost $700 last time we visited Japan!) and we were set.

So as our departure looms, we are packing our very small backpacks for our super cheap, carry-on luggage only, trip. More trains to ride, more temples to visit more great food and cheap Asahi beer.

For those who have thought (as we once did) that Japan is expensive, here are a few costs to chew on... Tokyo city hotel, 3 star, $60 per night, Sapporo, regional city hotel, 4 star, $60 including breakfast, local subway fare $2, inter-city Shinkansen trips anywhere in Japan, FREE with JR Pass, 500mm can of beer $2.70, packet of sandwiches, $3.50, cafe dinner, $12 each (with a beer!).