All posts by akaakw

Avid traveller, horse rider, photographer, word-smith - well, just avid really.

Looking for more

Asakusa shrine strikes my fancy, and there is a cherry lined park along the banks of the river. Hubby has caught a lurgy – in my most optimistic fashion, I say “Good it’s on the last day, not the first?” I leave him slumbering, miserable. I figure out where various things cherry blossom may be: Kuritsu Sumida Park by the river shows promise, and the Asakusa shrine and district are not far from there.

Two stops on the Ginza metro line and one on the Skytree line and I am disgorged from the subway along with a million others. I try to stay out of the way while I orient myself: difficult to do with the masses going in one of two directions, but working my way diagonally whenever a space opens allows me to find a spot to park myself. Round the corner to the river, to be greeted by the sight of a giant golden – something… The locals apparently refer to it fondly as the golden poo (T**d actually), and I must confess, whoever decided this was an objet d’art has a scatological sense of humour. It’s decorating the Asahi Tower, the Japanese beer empire, but I don’t think it says much complimentary about the drink.20170329-IMG_6418-10

Next to it is the Skytree – another phallic homage to the erections of man. I sometimes wonder, if women rule the world would we out-do each other with great holes in the ground? Sorry – I do have some strange thoughts sometimes – no offence intended boys or girls.

Anyway, I figure if I follow the flow, I’ll manage to arrive at Asakusa shrine, and so it is. What can I say? It’s a Buddhist shrine dating from 684. To enter, you go through the Hozomon gate, protected by some fierce guardians, though they are safely contained behind a fence – safe from pigeons that is. As with any place of worship, the approach to the shrine is full of merchants, anything from worship tokens to food to collectables are on show in Nakamise st. The temple complex is brilliantly colourful, as are the ladies clad in kimono, celebrating the weather and the season.

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Last minute decision before we leave is to see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Well, not the palace itself, that’s the Imperial Family’s domain. T’would be a bit like going to London and wandering about Buck Palace while the Queen’s at home: wouldn’t happen!

Anyway, the gardens may be worth viewing, and maybe a glimpse of the imperials themselves? No, but as I am entering the garden, having been vetted by the guards outside, I hear some rather vigorous battling going on behind a screen of shrubs, accompanied by the sounds of blows and “OOmphs” Intriguing to speculate what all that is about, and I guess it’s ninjas in the employ of the emperor whacking each other with sticks and swords. (Not the turtle kind – the human black-garbed kind). I’ll never know.

The East Imperial gardens are vast, and beautiful, like all Japanese gardens.

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I only get as far as the Koi ponds, and then I’m entranced. As I’ve said before, I’ve fallen in love with Koi as a photographic subject: so tricky to get right, but so rich in colour and diversity. Meet the Koi.

Once more I’m blessed: this time with a white swan in the moat outside.

 

And then reluctantly I return to collect my husband, pack my bags, and ready myself for the Claytons Business class that is Jetstar: to be affronted when I get to Queensland, because I have too much carry on baggage for my next domestic leg in economy. Business class, schmusiness class, this is Jetstar here, and NO allowances will be made. We have to check my precious plum liqueur contained only in the satchel that W has been carrying – if the bottles break in transit the leprechaun is getting it in the ear!  Tired from my sleepless overnight flight, I swear NEVER again, no matter how tempting the fare.

 

 

 

Last Legs

Well, we’re on the home run (literally) we’ve ditched the bags again, and are travelling light to Tokyo. Man – the Japanese have efficiency covered!! I swear, I always want to send my bags ahead from now on.

We arrive in Tokyo to rainy and COLD, it’s only 9 degrees (balmy in comparison to Hakone!), and I think the weather pixies may have done their last favour. But no, over our last three days, the weather goes from cold and wet, to balmy and sunny – in fact, our last day is cloudless and 14 degrees – so warm I have to take off multiple layers. Bless you weather pixies.

W normally has a yen (hee hee – didjageddit?) for raw fish, though the temperature lends itself more to tempura. None-the-less, we’ve heard about the fish markets and it’s only about 20 minutes away on foot, so we trot off to see the fish in action: closed. It seems to be a holiday because there is no fish, nada except for empty trucks parked everywhere. It certainly is huge, but it sure ain’t bustling. It’s a bit of a relief to me – never having been a fan of fish markets or butchers shops. More recently at the Sydney fish markets, all I can think of is how soon there won’t be any more fish in the sea, because all those incredible tuna, swordfish, etc will have entered the maw of the ravenous beast that is the human consuming machine. Yeah, I said it before – cover me in moss and call me a greenie. We wander around the outer Tsukiji market, where the fish are sliced, not bartered (battered), thronging with people here to savour sashimi sliced in front of your eyes.

The one thing that appeals to me is white strawberries – I am perverse, aren’t I? We contemplate other Tokyo attractions: Sky Tower? No, not really; we’ve had a view over Tokyo from the Government building when we first arrived. Disney world? Definitely not. We (well, it’s really me that decides) settle on catching cherry blossoms.

We take a hike to Ueno Park, where the cherry blossom fever is starting. There are a smattering of trees in full bloom, with most of them budding nicely, though we will miss the full Monty – or is that the full Cherry?

It hasn’t stopped the crowds – under every blooming tree there are a million blooming tourists (well, I am prone to exaggeration), wielding selfie sticks and fake smiles. All along the promenades, tarpaulins have been spread on the ground, and there are groups of picnickers sitting under the trees already, starting their Hamami parties early. We’re going to miss the weekend unfortunately, when the locals come out in full strength in kimonos and have their cherry blossom parties.

At the lake I am diverted from blossoms by wildlife..

We carry on to Gyoen Park in our old neighbourhood of Shinkuju, a huge and very beautiful park with about the same number of blossoming trees. I spy a couple of bright red ladies having their own private celebration; 20170328-IMG_6050-54they might be Art students on assignment, since one has a camera and the other is throwing red cloth around with gay abandon; they look very funky. Of course I can’t resist, nor can the man on their other side, so I take a photo of him taking a photo of them… It doesn’t take much to amuse me…

We had intentions of following the directions of ‘Visitacity’ which has spelled out an itinerary again, but after Ueno and Gyoen parks, W is a bit worn out, and we repair to our hotel in Ginza.

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Unfortunately, hubby has contracted something, and spends the last hours in Japan mostly in bed with streaming nose and cough starting… So I have to do some late minute things on my own. He’s more or less over temples and shrines, anyway, so I leave him dosing up on sudafed.

What to do in Hakone when it’s snowing?

 

Go to an OPEN AIR museum of course.

In contrast to yesterday morning, the day arrives with snow: great fat flakes of it drifting out of the sky, great blobs of it slipping splat off the roof, pillowy drifts coating the trees, and slushy piles on the road. Soooo pretty.

We take our time, there’s no rush, and finally head off to the Hakone Open Air Museum, to check out the art. I know, I know, quite mad really, but hey, it looked interesting from the train.

The road is so slushy they have to break out the snow ploughs to move it, cars are creeping along at walking pace, and the bus is chocka-block full of people. No joy even getting on. So we take the next bus – Hakone Free Pass not valid, so we decide to hang the expense and just take it. One stop later I realise the bus won’t take us to the right place (long confusing sign language with bus driver, pointing to a map of the bus lines, with the doors open to the very cold elements while he explains to this fool foreigner. So we hop off, paying the fare. What is it with us and buses here? Anyway, you’ve probably had enough of bus stories if you’ve read my previous blog, so lets skip to happy.

The Museum is awesome, even in snow and rain. If anything, some of the sculptures look more interesting with droplets of rain dripping off their noses. I know how they feel.20170326-IMG_5899-09

In the grounds is, of all things, a Picasso museum, a well-curated exhibition of art pieces that are not so well known, but are fascinating: etchings, pottery, sketches, and some beautiful glass reproductions of some of his more famous paintings, which showcases them in luminous and three dimensional colour.

The sculptures in the gardens are abstract as well as figurative, dotted about in what in summer must be luscious, colourful surroundings. The blossoms on some of the trees hint of what it will look like in a week or so, but I kind of like them now, in the grey.

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Above the cafe where we take a short break to thaw, is a photographic exhibition of Japanese artists pictured amongst their art. The works range from quirky to erotic, to sublime.

It takes us three hours to meander through the park, and it’s well worth the effort of juggling umbrellas and cameras at the same time.

Hindsight is such a great thing hey? We could have visited yesterday instead of chasing clouds from east to west, but there it is – we wouldn’t have seen snow-laden statues, and that’s been fun. I’m not going to do this over hindsight…20170326-IMG_6358-34

We may not have seen everything Hakone has to offer, but we’ve seen some of the best, and now it’s time to warm up the extremities back at the hotel.

Sublime to Ridiculous

Today was a day to prove that particular aphorism – spoiler alert, only one good bit, and the rest is tedious.

Hubby woke me at 7, because the morning was going to be sunny and clear until nine, and it offered the best opportunity to see Fuji-san. Now, normally I am not a morning person, but to come to Hakone and not try to see Mt Fuji would be like going to Paris and never going near the Eiffel tower….

So I dragged my sorry butt out of bed, grabbed the cameras, (yes, I have two, and no I’m not some kind of weirdo show-off: I have one for wide angle and one for narrow and distant; changing lenses on a camera to get the right shot is not optimal, especially when one shot might be a landscape, and the next instant an eagle is soaring above your head – so there.)

We took our trusty Hakone Free Pass (a misnomer, since you pay for it) and went on down with the H bus to the western side of Lake Ashi, whence our plan was to take the boat across and see if we could get to the other side of Mt Fuji, the five lakes area and see from a different angle… All the best laid plans…..

We arrived at the ferry port with time to spare, and lo and behold, the sun was shining, Fuji-san was out there in all its magnificent glory, and a giant red Torii gate provided a colourful counterpoint in the foreground. I am happy…..

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We then boarded the ferry to take us across the lake again and onward on our journey to the other end of the line; Lake Motosu.

What I don’t realise at the time is that it’s 79 km away, and even in our own car it would take at least two hours…. By the time we arrived at the other side, clouds were already moving in and Fuji-san had a pretty frock of billowing clouds.

Bus number two: the link to Gotemba, where the Fuji part of our pass kicks in. 20 minutes later, we board bus No 3, to take us from Gora to Gotemba. 40 minutes, and we pass the Gotemba Premium Outlet, the most popular shopping destination in Japan: want some Hilfiger? Gucci? Versace? All here…

We finally arrive at Gotemba, an unprepossessing place, whose only claim to fame seems to be the Outlet Stores… Traverse station, get bus on the east side. By now, it’s cold and grey.

Bus number 4: Gotemba to Kawaguchiko station, where we need to take bus No 5 to take us around the rest of the lakes.

So off we go, 1 hour in the bus, and we skirt Lake Yamanaka, pretty in summer I am sure, but at this time of the year, and with heavy cloud cover, it’s not photogenic enough for W to want to flirt with frost bite in order to let me find some good shots.

We arrive at the station, after more meandering through leaf-less forests, highway construction areas, and pockets of scenery, passing Fuji Q Highland, a most bizarre enterprise where you can be scared to death in an upside down position on the roller coaster with views of Mt Fuji – which by this time is entirely obscured by cloud. When the bus doors open, we can hear the screams of terrifyingly excited tourists on the ride – sorry, but I don’t want to be hanging upside down at great speed waiting for my stomach to erupt.

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From Fuji Q official site

So, Kawaguchico station is another of those unprepossessing places which provides a stepping stone for the beautiful scenery to come.

And it’s decision time: 13.30 pm. Do we continue on, taking another two hours on two further buses to get to the northern side of Mt Fuji, by now invisible behind the cloak of dense grey clouds, or grab a bit to eat, and return whence we came?

W opts for returning, the photographer has no complaints. So we repair across the road where there is a restaurant, decorated in a profusion of colourful artificial plants, where four harassed septuagenarians are fielding orders from the mass of tourists who suddenly all had the same thought – FOOD.

We squeeze in next to a Chinese couple and child, and have a good meal of Wiener schnitzel Japan-style (the pork is 8mm thick instead of 2) and chicken McJapnuggets, real chicken, thank you very much. A hot sake to warm our fingers, and we’re done.

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Nothing to do with the trip — just some sustenance to take you to the end

Just for something totally different, we decide to take the Shinkansen train for two stops and exit before it takes off to Tokyo. Now for bus No 5, back to Gotemba. Traverse the station to the east, and catch bus No 6 – to Gotemba Premium Outlet, in order to catch bus No 7 to Gora.

Bus No 7 takes us to the hotel: it’s now 12 hours since we got up to see Mt Fuji sparkling in the sun. And despite the fact that we have spent most of the day on our butts, we’ve managed to rack up 6,458 steps – or was it 2,345 steps, and the rest bumps on the road? Who cares, we stop in at Fuyama Hotel and enjoy a couple of happy hour cocktails to toast our big day out in the very old fashioned (warm) bar. And then? Hot onsen, and a meal in the room, warm up and fall into bed, having passed the Hakone Glass Museum, various golf courses and driving ranges, and the Kintoki shrine.

A Minute in Himeji

20170323-IMG_6245-09Our onward journey is interrupted by a stop at Himeji, where the castle is one of the few in Japan that remain in its original state. It’s a short walk from the station, and we ditch our remaining case in one of the lockers at the station for our visit to the UNESCO site. I’ve allowed us two hours between trains, even though we are advised that a visit can take up to three.

The parks and paths leading to the castle are lined with cherry trees, but alas, we are probably about a week too early for the blossoms. It must truly be a magnificent sight, but the downside of the blossoms is that the castle becomes a tourist magnet with queues for the 15,000 numbered tickets that are issued each day.

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For us, today, there are no queues, so we enter the inner grounds and climb up two of the levels of the interior. It’s an extraordinary construction, massive beams of whole trees supporting each stage. I wonder that they have any trees left in Japan, between the castles, temples and houses, not to mention the disposable chopsticks and toothpicks, wood is ubiquitous. Maybe it’s coming from Australia, not that we have that many trees ourselves. That’s right, cover me in moss and call me a greenie….

Taking leave of the guardians at the gate, we canter back to the train station with enough time to find our locker: no mean feat since we have to navigate the maze of shops, people and escalators to retrace our steps and find the right storage area. Phew, we manage it, and have enough time to buy a takeaway meal – a seafood bento box.

Our JR pass is getting a good workout – three different high speed trains to take us from Hiroshima to Himeji to Hakone and the Mt Fuji area. The total distance is about 730 km, but the Shinkansens hit speeds of up to 320 kph, so each leg is over quite fast.

Torii, High Heels and Okonomiyaki

We’re in luck again with the weather – the next day dawns sunny and clear, the sunshine hitting me straight between the eyes as soon as I open the curtain.

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I’ve checked the tide table: the Giant Torii gate doesn’t actually float, rather it stands on the beach, its weight holding it in place; when the tide is low you can walk straight up to it, so the more picturesque time to take photos is at high-ish tide. Low tide is at 11.53 am, so we are in no great rush to go there. Getting there is easy, and free for us (or rather included in the overall JR pass we’ve paid for). The JR train takes us to the station of Miyajima-guchi, and a short stroll to the pier and we’re boarding a JR ferry to take us across the water to the island.20170322-IMG_5841-59

The shrine is truly massive standing 18 meters tall just opposite a large buddhist shrine. As we traipse through the temple we are privy to (we think) a wedding ceremony. A young woman in what looks like a bishops hat is sitting in one area in the main shrine, lined up on a table next to her is her/his family, complete with squirming children bored with the procedings. Three monk/musicians play various instruments, a couple of young women in pink kimonos (I assume are the ‘bridesmaids’) are standing off to one side. Needless to say the crowd of tourists are arrested by the sight, and many of them stop to take pictures (I confess I do too, when I see there are no ‘no photo’ signs – shameless).

We troop on through the shrine complex, wading through tourists of every shape and size.

Here and there are deer, opportunistically sniffing each and every tourist for the scent of food. One professional photographer clearly has a deal with some of the deer: they stand obediently in a line in front of a group tour, and in return they get some food. The woman with the food is mobbed by deer who canter after her as she tries to evade their wet noses.20170322-IMG_6198-0620170322-IMG_6199-43

There are people in the water by the gate, trousers rolled up above their knees, who probably have lost the feeling in their feet, the water is so cold. But hey – anything for a selfie? And don’t mention the young sweet thing walking on the shore in her pristine white stilettos – no wonder ankle injuries are the most common ailments for young women in Japan. And don’t get me started on smartphone-induced neck chiropraxis.

We decide to forgo the cablecar (ropeway in Japan) to the peak of the hill: the day has turned hazy and the earlier blue sky is now grey and hazy. And having seen plenty of deer we don’t feel like walking up to visit more of them. We do stop for the oysters, though, managing to get into an oyster restaurant before last orders. I am not a fan of oysters, but they are cooked, so I don’t have to deal with the slippery consistency of the raw ones. The mixed meal comes with oysters deep fried, steamed over a barbecue, preserved in oil and smoked, along with some token green stuff. For the most they are delicious, though I let W eat the ones that most closely resemble their native state.

We head back to the station, managing to bag ourselves a seat on the train for the 30 minute trip back.

For dinner W is diverted from the Okonomiyaki by some cooked beef tongue, the memory of previous experiences proving too much for his own tongue. I choose the omelette, (I don’t eat anything from the inside of an animal) which is a very thin pancake topped with noodles, garnished with bean sprouts, pork and squid, topped with an egg spread paper thin on the griddle, and covered in a dark brown sauce. Delicious, and decidedly the better choice; W has to smother his tongue (as well as the beef) with the same dark sauce to improve the flavour of his dish.

And then, after a good day out in Hiroshima, we slip into our beds in the tiny room at Hotel Granvia and return to the land of nod.

Leapfrog Nara

The day we thought we’d go see the big Buddha dawns grey and rainy. It’s been raining pretty much all night, and it doesn’t take us long to decide that traipsing around a deer park in the rain won’t be much fun. Though it’s a shame to miss one of the biggest Buddhas in the world, and the first one that arrived in Japan, with one umbrella between us to cover our heads, it is a quick decision to skip Nara and go straight to Hiroshima.

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Last Building Standing

It turns out to be the right call, since by the time we arrive, the rain has cleared and it’s actually sunny. We only have one full day, so I am grateful that we’ve taken advantage of a hotel above the station – the day after tomorrow we just need to roll out of the bed, the hotel, and onto the train. We’ve made use of the concierge service in Kyoto, which has sent our bags to Hakone while we take our day trip. Judicious re-packing has allowed us to use the designated camera bag to pack our necessities, while I carry the cameras. Cool huh? And it’s only cost us ~2000Y, around $25. We’ll do that again; it’s such a blessing to reduce our burden by two full size cases.

We arrive in Hiroshima with enough light left to visit the two key places in the city: The Atom Bomb Dome, and the Castle. Oh, I am sure there is more to see, but these two are key for me.

Getting about is relatively easy, we take a street car to the Dome, which used to be the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall. It was built in 1914, and was destroyed in 1945. The blast flattened pretty much everything else, but the building remained standing at the epicentre of the bomb, and it now stands as a testament to man’s inhumanity: not just the bomb, but what led to the dropping of it.

Sigh – when will humanity stop fighting? I know, I know, I’m an idealist…. I have to remember that mankind is really no smarter than the average yeast cell: we consume everything and die in our own excreta. Anyway, I digress – again.

On a brighter note, we make our way to the castle, located a short distance from the A bomb dome. NO, it’s not the original – that was flattened along with everything else. The restored construct is small but attractive.

We have three more things we must do here; visit the island of Miyajima and see the floating Torii gate, eat oysters, and eat the Okonomiyaka, a Japanese pancake speciality of Hiroshima.

I’m happy to say we’ve accomplished all three, and in that order.