Osaka

As Moon Tan’s last hurrah before heading back to Oz, we took a trip to Osaka and Nara. Osaka has a different feel to Tokyo. The people really do seem friendlier, and there’s a nice buzz about the place without the slightly stressed vibe of Tokyo.

This is Moon Tan out the front of the Osaka Aquarium. It lives up to the hype: it’s massive, and interesting, and there’s penguins, both real and electric.

Moon Tan loves penguins.

I love these guys. And as an added educational bonus, we learned how to tell the difference between boy stingrays and girl stingrays! (It’s not as straightforward as you’d think.)

For the life of me I cannot remember what kind of animal these guys are. I think they might come from Indonesia? Perhaps Moon Tan can enlighten us in the comments.

Did I mention that there were penguins? Luckily they were behind glass, so Moon Tan couldn’t steal one.

Okay, I have to stop myself from posting a million photos of fish. But suffice to say there’s a lot to see, and the cool thing about it is that the tanks are quite deep, and are arranged so that the path spirals down around them, so you get different perspectives on the same group of animals as you descend.

We did other stuff in Osaka (sampled some okinomiyaki and some excellent kobe beef, walked the old quarter at night), but the aquarium was probably the highlight.

Osaka: it’s okay!

Autumn in Ueda

In November last year we took a quick trip north to Ueda, Nagano, and I’m just now getting around to uploading the photos…

We were very lucky to have a local guide with us: my Japanese teacher, who lives in Ueda. She set us up in a great Ryokan for the evening, and then took us to see the local sights, including a beautiful shrine up in the hills that was off the beaten path and that few tourists would ever see…

Hokkaido Part 3

Furano is a farming area smack-bang in the middle of Hokkaido. It’s also one of the most picturesque places in the world. It’s hard to take a bad photo here (although after I mucked around with the white balance settings on my camera, somehow I managed). These are a few that turned out okay.

Moon Tan and I have been bad bloggers recently. Further updates soon, including the final Hokkaido installment; autumn leaves in Nagano; under the sea at Osaka; and getting eaten by deer at Nara…

 

Hokkaido Part 1

Hokkaido is my new favourite place. It’s like the Tasmania of Japan. All delicious food and stunning countryside. Made me almost sad to come back to our urban cave in Tokyo (almost — but then I remembered Tokyo is where computer games live).

The photos below are from our first day, which we spent driving down to Lake Toya.

If you like really long tunnels, then you will love Hokkaido. Also if you like crabs:

Moon Tan spies a delicious-looking goat in yonder field. Lunch!

Luckily for the goat, Moon Tan then spied an even more delicious-looking ice cream.

The goat is safe… for today.

This shetland pony was seriously grumpy. Maybe it was hungover from drinking with Wild Horse? He didn’t say it, but I could tell that he really wanted to bite my hand.

Lake Toya is actually a gigantic caldera, and there’s still a lot of active volcanoes in the area.

We stayed in a backpackers hostel right on the bank of the lake (near the house with the red roof in the photo above). The hostel was clean and quiet, and the only slight complaint was that we both had the unshakeable feeling that we were going to be murdered in our sleep by the owner. In the event, of course, we weren’t. Still, even the inspiring the feeling that guests will be murdered in their sleep is something that an accommodation provider should try to avoid, in my view. I give the hostel a rating of 7/10.

Lake Toya is a nice place.

I’m alive

Sorry to keep you in suspense so long, gentle readers. Yes, I did survive my perilous bike adventure last weekend. I have emerged older, wiser and much, much sorer than I was before I left.

Riding up that first mountain (the first of three we scaled on the Saturday) was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and certainly the most strenuous physical activity I’ve ever attempted. And that includes my short-lived stint in Little Athletics that one summer when I was nine and rather portly.

Childhood issues notwithstanding, recently I’d come to fancy that I was in reasonably good shape, or at least not positively unfit. I was disabused of that notion fairly quickly. Part of the problem was that my riding companions were extremely impressive physical specimens, each of whom made Tony Abbott look like a couch potato. Their idea of a fun weekend includes 160km runs through the Sahara Desert, and Iron Man events. Traditionally, my idea of a fun weekend might include a LAN party and eating some chips. So there was a slight mismatch in attitide and ability.

To his credit, my mate who’d half-tricked me into signing up was very patient and stayed with me as I crawled up the mountain, watching the rest of our party sprint off into the distance. He murmured words of encouragement each time I stopped to throw up (which happened 3 times on that first “hill”), and politely suggested that I didn’t look upwards towards the summit, lest I realise just how much further we had to go.

By the time I got halfway up, my legs were shaking, my vision was greying out, and I had several periods where I kind of lost some time, “waking up” to realize I was still climbing this blasted mountain without being able to remember what had happened during the last few minutes. It was agony, and the worst part was that all I could hear in my head was Shannon Noll singing: “I know you’re hurting / Seems like you’re learning / ’bout life the hard way / And it ain’t working…

Once we finally reached the top of the first mountain, things got better. Don’t get me wrong, the second and third mountains also presented some challenges. But by then I’d learned to handle the bike a bit better, and my companions were travelling at a more sedate pace. When we stopped for lunch I was able to eat some rice and I managed to keep it down during the next hill climb. Good times.

I started to notice the amazing scenery we were passing through. We were in Nagano prefecture, away from the coast and any big cities, and the mountain ranges seem to run forever. I can’t wait to get back up here for some skiing in winter.

This was taken in between my second and third spew, which explains the slightly disoriented look...

The downhill sections were also a lot of fun. There were few cars and the roads were well maintained for the most part, so we could really get up some speed on the way down.

Overall, we rode more than 100kms on the Saturday, including more than 2,000m of vertical ascent. By the time we’d reached our ryokan (Japanese-style inn), we were ready for an onsen, some beer and some excellent food, all of which were provided by our gracious hosts (who happened to be my mate’s parents-in-law).

This week, I’ve been slowly recovering from my ordeal. I can now walk up a flight of stairs again without my legs turning to jelly, and I can sit down without wincing. I guess I feel a sense of achievement at having survived, but really it’s more like relief. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know if I’m keen to repeat the experience in a hurry. This weekend I’m looking forward to a sleep in, some computer games and some quality time with Moon Tan.

Hardcore cycling in Japan: two and a half stars.

On communal nude bathing

For those of you who are waiting for Tamago’s life and death update I can put you out of your misery. He did in fact survive and came back in one piece. As to the details of the trip, I feel that it would be wrong of me to describe it second hand. You’ll have to wait til he gets around to his own blog post.

I, however, am here on an entirely different mission. To share with you all the communal nude bathing experience.

Tamago and I recently took a lovely trip up to Kusatsu Onsen which is about a four hour bus trip away from Tokyo (see here for travel guide). It’s a village in the mountains that we had heard from various sources, mainly students, is a nice place to go if you want to experience onsen (hot springs).

Once we arrived in Kusatsu and located our ryokan – Tamago and I set out to get naked with some Japanese people in extremely hot water. But first we had to check this out:Also known as Yubatake, it’s a hot water field where water from the hot springs bubbles up and is diverted down these wooden channels in order to cool it. Then it’s distributed to the numerous public baths and onsens in Kusatsu. It’s smack dab in the middle of town, only a five minute walk from the bus station. There’s a free foot bath nearby which is a plus. Oh and it REAKS of sulphur but you get used to the smell quickly!

Not to be distracted, Tamago and I continued on to the Sainokawara National Park where the most famous outdoor onsen in Kusatsu is located. For obvious reasons we couldn’t take photos in the actual onsen (if you want to see what it looks like click here) but this is what the walk looked like:

Most onsen have seperate bathing for men and women so when we got to the bath, Tamago and I nervously said goodbye and went into our separate change rooms.

In retrospect, you really only need to bring a towel with you. Or you could buy one at the onsen. Many Japanese people make do with a very small towel which they fold and put on their heads while they bathe.

Of course, it being Japan, there is etiquette that goes with onsen bathing. If you’re really interested this is a very cute guide. The overall rule is: never do anything that might remotely get the water dirty. This means that you can’t wear bathers in the bath, if you have long hair you should tie it up, and you should always always wash before you get in. Usually there is a shower or in the case of Sainokawara there is a basin with bowls for you to splash yourself. Basically just copy what everyone else does! If you do it wrong, the Japanese will very gently help guide you back to the correct way of doing things.

The bath itself was large and the water is about thigh height on a tall gaijin. You have to get in VERY slowly as the water is VERY hot. Once you’re in you can walk to a submerged bench and ease in up to bellybutton height. When you’re feeling ok with that, you can sit on the bottom of the bath up to your neck!

Needless to say, it is super hot and you can’t help but feel a bit like you’re a frog being slowly cooked. I had to dip in and out a couple of times becuase it’s soo hot. It did feel great though. The water is silky smooth and there’s probably nothing more peaceful than a hot bath amongst the trees. Surprisingly it’s very social and there were several groups of young women chatting and laughing but also plenty of others just sitting back and enjoying the serenity.

I know what you’re all thinking. Seriously? You bathed nude with a whole bunch of strangers? Yes. And yes it was confronting for my upper middle class Aussie/British upbringing. I’m really not comfortable with public nudity but the cliche is true. It’s very liberating and if everyone else is doing it, it’s not so weird. Once you’ve undressed there’s no turning back! And the plus side is that even in Japan, land of the size 6 woman, there is always someone who has more wobbly bits than you, and who cares less about them than you do. Excellent.

One of the best experiences I’ve had so far in Japan. Hands down.

Onsen: highly recommended

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

[Part II of our Golden Week travel blog extravaganza…]

Following our trip to Miura, we came back through Tokyo and continued North to Nikko. It was a glorious day in the mountains. We explored the temple area having obtained some amazing walking tour instructions from one of the friendly staff at the Nikko Park Lodge where we were staying (highly recommended, though one of the other dudes there is quite grumpy).

At dusk, we arrived at the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a gorge that runs down behind the Imperial Villa. We had the place almost to ourselves, and it was breathtakingly beautiful.

 

These are the bakejizo (ghost statues). It’s said that if you count them as you walk along to the gorge, and then count them as you return, you’ll never get the same count — one of them will have ‘disappeared’ for the return journey. We counted 76 on the way in, then realised that we hadn’t actually taken in any of the amazing scenery because we were too busy counting. We didn’t bother checking on the way back, so we can neither confirm nor deny this myth. Our Mythbusters assessment: “Plausible”. (It’s a pretty spooky place, and a lot of monks are buried there).

 

The Kanmangafuchi Abyss: highly recommended to get away from the Nikko crowds, and spectacular at dusk.

Kyoto

Hello loyal readers!

Our sincere apologies for being so absent recently! In the last month or so Tamago and I have both gotten new jobs so it’s been really busy here in the land of the rising sun.

However, I have finally found a spare afternoon to compose a long overdue blog post on our March trip to Kyoto!

Kyoto is the ‘old capital’ of Japan and is generally acknowledged to still be the cultural capital. Unlike Tokyo, which was bombed to smithereens during the war (which we don’t mention), Kyoto was spared by the allied forces, probably because it is so rich in history. This means that Kyoto is filled with beautiful old buildings and shrines that are hundreds of years old and when you wander the streets there, you get a sense of what old Japan would have been like.

Tamago and I had three and a half days in Kyoto which was enough time to do a whirlwind tour.  We hit up all the major tourist spots including the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is famous for these red gates called torii:

 

 

 

 

Needless to say they make for some pretty special photos. The shrine is located on a small mountain and you can either do a short walk up and back or you can choose to walk around the mountain which takes maybe and hour and a half total if you don’t detour (which Tamago usually insists upon). As you can guess we elected for the scenic route which was well worth the extra time.

 

Tamago and I stayed two nights in a hotel in the main part of Kyoto which was really conveniently located and had very helpful staff. I would definitely stay there again, however the true highlight of our trip to Kyoto was staying in a Japanese ryokan (guesthouse). We booked our stay at Uronza with a small amount of trepidation, probably because there is a list of rules for guests a mile long. Notably if you are ‘weak to cold’ it is recommended that you don’t stay there as the heater has to be switched off at night, seeing as it’s a wooden house and all. When we got there we had a modest but beautifully kept traditional Japanese room complete with tatami mat floor, surprisingly comfortable futons and funky Japanese windows. The building is over a hundred years old and is looked after by the English speaking proprietor who I really wouldn’t want to cross but who was very helpful and lovely to Tamago and I. It did have shared bathroom facilities but these were really nice and very clean so it wasn’t a problem at all. Especially for under $60 a night!

At the entrance to Kiyomizu Dera.

While in Kyoto we also visited Kiyomizu Dera (or Kiyomizu Shrine), another hugely famous shrine in Kyoto which dates back almost a thousand years. The present structure was built in the 1600s. Here’s the kicker about Kiyomizu – there is not a single nail used in the entire building. And it’s a 13m high wooden structure. Fairly impressive. I recently discovered that there used to be a practice of jumping from the main temple stage and if the jumper survived they would supposedly have their wish granted. Apparently this practice is now banned. Go figure.

Kiyomizu has a natural spring nearby from which it gets it’s name and the streets nearby are bursting with pottery shops (some good and some not so good) selling some exquisite pottery. Tamago and I did some serious shopping here and bought a tea set and a sake set. It’s worth noting that most shops will post your purchases home for you or you can take them to the main post office in Kyoto where they will be wrapped unbelievably carefully and posted home for you.

Girls dressed up as geisha near Kiyomizu. We’re pretty sure they weren’t ‘real’ geisha as it’s incredibly rare to see proper geisha. We did however go to Gion one night, a district in Kyoto famous for geisha spotting and we saw a Maiko, or geisha apprentice, on her way to an appointment!

 

Unfortunately we were a couple of weeks too early for cherry blossom season in Kyoto however we did catch some plum blossoms which were just beautiful. Blossom viewing is an extremely popular activity in Japan, particularly cherry blossoms which are called sakura. The sakura is the national flower of Japan and for the two weeks when the flowers are in full bloom, hanami or cherry blossom parties rage in parks and shrines around the clock. People get together to have picnics and drink sake under the beautiful flowers. Tamago tells me that the junior employees of companies are often sent out in the mornings to stake out a good spot and they have to sit there all day saving the space for the senior employees. All I can say is that I can think of worse ways to spend a Friday!

 

Tamago and I also went to the Golden Temple or Kinkakuji and we’re sad to report that we didn’t think it was worth the trip out there. Even though the original temple dates back to the 1300s, it burned down in the 1950s so the current temple isn’t especially old and it seemed pretty gaudy to us. However, it’s still one of the most visited temples in Japan so maybe we’re just Philistines.

We also spent a really nice day visiting some museums in central Kyoto including the International Manga Museum (for the uninitiated, Manga is Japanese comic books) and the Museum of Kyoto which were both excellent. A highlight was seeing an exhibit of works from Manga artists from around the world done in response to the March 3 earthquake and tsunami last year. Some of the pieces were just stunning.

This is a photo of the new Kyoto train station. If you catch the shinkansen from Tokyo (like Tamago and I did) this is where you’ll end up. It’s pretty bloody impressive and HUGE. Tamago was particularly enamored of ‘Ramen Alley’, a collection of about 12 ramen shops selling ramen from all over Japan. Yum!

In terms of logistics, Tamago and I booked our shinkansen through japanican.com, a website specifically for non-Japanese people which often has special deals on accommodation and transport to places all over Japan. Included in our ticket was a ‘one day pass’ which allowed us to take unlimited rides on subways and buses for one day. These can also be purchased from the Tourist Information Centre located near Kyoto Station (see above). We took buses to Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu but to get to Fushimi Inari Shrine you need to take an above ground train. The museums we went to were in central Kyoto so they were either walking distance or subway rides.

Trip to Kyoto: very highly recommended!