So we’d come to our last full day in Japan. We decided to head back to Tokyo and tick a few things off the list that we didn’t get to do last time round.
First on the list was the Tokyo Fish Market – the Lonely Planet’s top pick. An auction takes place at 5am whereby all the top restaurants bid for the best quality fish caught that very morning. You can view this from a gallery then tuck into what is apparently the best sushi in town.
We were told to get there before 5am as the queues can build up. We’d missed it first time round due to a public holiday so this time we were determined to see it and got there before 4am to be safe.
I think some divine force didn’t want us to see the fish market that day or any other day – some eager beavers had got there at 3am and all of the 120 available slots had gone by the time we got there!
Jess remained fairly sanguine about it whereas I got a little grumpy… We retreated back to our hotel and woke up feeling like our second fish market disappointment was all a bad dream.
Thankfully the rest of our final day in Tokyo was great – a quick trip to trendy Shibuya and an authentic Japanese meal called a ‘cheese burger’ to round things off 🙂
Japan was fantastic from start to finish and we both wished we could have stayed longer. But our flight to Nepal would wait for no man (or woman) so onwards we march.
Across the world, Hiroshima is known for being the target of the world’s first atomic bomb. The name instantly conjures up those black and white images of the mushroom cloud that hovered over the flattened city, almost exactly 70 years ago.
At 8.15am on 6th August 1945, the USA dropped the A-bomb (as the Hiroshians call it) which detonated 600 metres above the centre. The entire city was virtually levelled; the blast demolished almost everything in a 3km radius from the hypocentre. Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed, because the after effects of the bomb are still being felt, but around 140,000 had died by the end of 1945. So, we arrived on the bullet train with some trepidation. But seven decades on from the devastating event, Hiroshima is now a vibrant, buzzing city, with tree-lined boulevards and welcoming people.
All the sites commemorating those who lost their lives are pretty much directly below where the bomb exploded. We wondered straight to the Memorial Park, which is beautiful; full of poignant shrines and statues, dotted in between gorgeous trees and flowers. In the centre of the park is the eternal flame. The plaque explains that it’ll keep burning until all the world’s nuclear weapons have been destroyed. Just across the turquoise river is the A-dome. It’s one of the only buildings that remained semi-intact following the blast and it now stands, charred and hollow – a stark reminder.
However, although the events of seventy years ago won’t ever be forgotten, there is a positive and happy vibe in Hiroshima that makes it hard for you to be sad for long. As we left the Memorial Park, there was a guy on a bridge with a sign offering free hugs (we politely declined). The rivers that run through the city are all lined with cherry blossom and the locals seem to spend most of their free time picnicking in the sun.
On our first evening, we ended up at a rock & metal bar called Kobe, run by a guy called Bom (yes, that really is his name). He gave us some tips about where to eat and when he found out we were on our honeymoon he gave us free Sake!
He also showed us a rock magazine from the year I was born, featuring a blonde Ozzie Osbourne on the cover. Surreal.
Hiroshima’s most famous food is its own style of okonomiyaki. Imagine a noodle and cabbage pancake. I know – it sounds awful but it’s actually delicious! Searching for a well-reviewed place called Hassei, we came across another more ‘local’ eatery, where people were queuing to get inside. Once sat down at the counter (where you essentially get your own hot plate to finish your okonomiyaki exactly how you like it) we realised what the fuss was all about. If you find yourself in Hiroshima you must try this dish!
The Peace Museum opens at 8.30am and the next morning we were pretty much first in line. Although it’s totally harrowing and shocking, you feel compelled to read all about what happened to the city and the people living there on 6 August 1945. The photos and accounts from survivors are pretty graphic but the information is well presented and I’m glad we went. We were both pretty sombre when we left, and I couldn’t help thinking how and why did they rebuild everything? Seeing the photos and models of the area after the blast really hammers it home that there was literally nothing left. How is it that humans can be so unbelievably cruel to one another, yet also find the strength to move on and create something good following such a terrible event?
What you probably didn’t know about Hiroshima is that it’s surrounded by great places to visit and we spent the rest of the day at the nearby island of Miyajima. It’s a short bus-train-ferry ride away and is well worth it. The island is beautiful, with pretty beaches, green and wooded mountains and cheeky deer who love to pose for the camera! However the star attraction is the Floating Torii which marks the entrance to the Itsukushima-jinja shrine. The ‘gateway’ is completely surrounded by the turquoise seawater, and frames the mountains behind. We hiked up the island’s tallest mountain, Misen (530m), where you get a fantastic 360 degree view. It was boiling hot, especially for March and we were pretty sweaty by the time we reached the summit. However it was definitely worth it and we headed back to Hiroshima feeling very relaxed (absolutely nothing to do with the beer on the beach).
For a second night we attempted to go to the elusive Hassei restaurant, but ended up in a completely different place by accident! It served rather fancier food and there was a bit of an awkward moment when the waitress plunged her tongs into the serene-looking fish tank, picked out an unknown spiral shellfish and then minutes later presented it to us as our final course….! It was all a bit too much, but I suppose that’s what happens when you can’t speak Japanese and you have no idea what you’ve ordered! It was definitely a case of Lost in Translation 🙂
Still buzzing from the best skiing we’ve ever experienced, Jess and I started the lengthy journey to Kyoto – the cultural capital of Japan and home to some 2,000 temples! Our timing to visit Kyoto was both good and bad – the cherry blossom is arguably seen at its finest in Kyoto but as a result attracts hordes of locals and travellers to its streets. Finding accommodation was a nightmare and we ended up paying an exorbitant amount of money to rent an entire house through airbnb. Writing this blog as we’re about to leave Kyoto I am relieved and happy to say it was well worth it!
You could spend weeks in Kyoto and not take in everything it has to offer – apparently even the Japanese themselves journey to Kyoto to learn about their culture. In order to keep this blog entry below novel size, I will focus on the highlights.
No trip to Kyoto is complete without a trip to Inari Taisha and its series of approx 2,000 torii gates that wind their way up through a forested mountain. The sunlight plays through these gates making for an amazing sight along with a cracking view from the top earned after a sweaty hike.
After taking in another temple (Kiyomizu) we walked along two gorgeous streets called ‘Ninen-zaka’ and ‘Sannen-zaka’ – these are lined with old wooden houses, cherry blossom trees and food stalls to satisfy any culinary desire. Jess and I managed to pick the smallest restaurant in town and waited 1 1/2 hours for our food – thankfully the portions were enormous and the tempura prawns to die for.
Our next stop left us a little disappointed – we were reliably informed that a certain park in Kyoto (Maruyama) is THE business when it comes to cherry blossom viewing. However, as we experienced in Tokyo, we were just a little early for the blossom AND once again we saw no uninhibited behaviour on display 😦
Thirsty after a long day on the tourist trail Jess and I headed into the entertainment district (Gion) in search of a cold Asahi. Many of our best travelling experiences have happened totally by accident and this evening was to be no different. Jess stumbled (not due to the Asahi beer) across a theatre which was soon to be showing a world famous Geisha dance. The Geisha are for all intents and purposes entertainers. They have observed rituals such as dances, flower arranging, tea preparation, plays and musical performances for hundreds of years. Watching them perform some of these was incredible – mostly the dancing but even the flower arranging (yes, the flower arranging) had a serenity to it. They are so meticulous in every movement and facial expression they make – it’s unlike anything we’d ever seen.
The following day featured more temples but without doubt the highlight was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. If any of you have ever seen ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ you will remember scenes in a bamboo forest – well it is even better in the flesh. The bamboo towers above you and again the light plays through the trees and is beautiful. It’s also a short walk from there to a house, formerly owned by a samurai film star, with incredible views from its gardens back across Kyoto.
Our experiences of Japanese cuisine to date have been nothing but delicious – this was however until Jess and I sampled eel for the first time over lunch that day. Jess coughed, spluttered and damn near spat the offending eel out across the table. Unless you like something that resembles white rubber and tastes like it has been marinated in vinegar for 10 years, we’d suggest you steer clear.
Recovered, we went for a lovely stroll along the Kamo-gawa river and watched people run, cycle and booze on the river banks as the sun set. A great day all round.
Our final day in Kyoto featured 3 brilliant things:
1 – We went to Nijo-jo castle, notable for the fact it’s not a temple (trust me there is such a thing as ‘temple fatigue’) and it has ‘nightingale’ floors, built above bits of sharp bamboo that when stood on emit a bird like chirp – assassins trying to kill the emperor were heard before they were seen.
2 – We met Mika, the sister of Mami (who lived with Jess and family in Devon for 2 months) – much like Mami she was sweet, funny and very kindly bought us lunch!
3 – We went to Kyoto’s most famous onsen (hot bath) for some naked time (separately I might add) – nothing like it after a long day on your feet.
Kyoto was really special and our little house the perfect base to explore – even if it did cost ONE BILLION YEN (doctor evil laugh).
The incredibly accessible snow in Japan feels like the country’s best kept secret. We left Tokyo at 6.30am and by 11am we were on beautiful mountains covered in heaps of the white stuff. We headed to Nozawa Onsen, and our first bit of excitement involved the Shinkansen (bullet train). It looks like the Bloodhound (the supersonic car being developed and built in Bristol) when it pulls into the station and it feels like you’re riding in a plane rather than a train! They go up to 320km/h (!) but they feel super smooth. We were in love.
We stayed in Villa Nozawa, run by an Aussie called Mark, who moved to the small mountain town 24 years ago and never looked back. The place is super friendly, comfortable and provided us with excellent breakfasts (especially the banana pancakes). Mark’s got a great set up and also runs a hire shop as well as several other hostels. We booked a quick lesson (more for me than for Rob) as soon as we arrived and within an hour we were on the slopes with our guide, Jerry. We were both a bit nervous as we’d never skied alone together and are at very different levels, but Jerry was pretty laid back and we soon found our feet on the mountain. We skied for 4 days and the snow got better and better. One morning at breakfast, a guy from the hostel announced we’d had half a metre of snow in the past 24 hours! It was without a doubt the best snow either of us have ever experienced. They don’t seem to really treat (piste bash?!) the pistes much in Nozawa Onsen and the result is that they often feel more like off-piste. I almost disappeared coming down one steep slope (with Rob in stitches at the bottom). We also managed to find a Japanese girl’s phone buried in a snow drift! I heard it ringing as we whizzed down a slope and we dug it out and managed to return it to her. Good deed = tick 🙂
Rob is an excellent skier anyway, but the amazing snow and the incredible scenery helped my confidence no end and by the last morning I even tackled a few black runs (Kim & Belinda you would’ve been proud)!
As the name suggests, Nozawa Onsen is an Onsen town! They’re essentially public baths where all the locals (and a few brave tourists) get naked and get scrubbing. The water is piping hot and it’s meant to be frightfully good for you – in a sort of bracing British walk kind of way. The main rules are: take your shoes off at the door (and don’t put them in the same locker as your clothes, as Rob got sternly told off for doing), then leave all your modesty behind, make sure you’re completely naked and scrub yourself vigorously while sitting on a little plastic seat. Once sufficiently clean, plunge into the scolding hot water and sit there for as long as you can bear, before having a rinse, drying off (BEFORE you step back into the changing area) and leaving feeling tingly and relaxed.
There are 13 Onsens in the small town and we went to a little local one just round the corner from Villa Nozawa. It was pretty rustic and clearly didn’t get many tourists. The male and female baths are separated by a high wooden panel, so you can’t peak but you can hear what’s going on. I heard Rob tell the 8 other men in the male bath that he was on his honeymoon and they all went wild, cheering loudly. He told me afterwards they’d all stood up and shaken his hand – completely naked, obviously!
The food in the town is also excellent and we ate a lot of great Gyoza (dumplings) at a place called Sakai, washed down with Sake (rice wine). It was tiny and we sat at the bar, which separated the ‘restaurant’ from the kitchen. The couple that ran it epitomised the local people and were really sweet and friendly. Our lunches in the mountains were also really tasty. They serve Ramen (noodle soup) everywhere and it’s the perfect skiing food! French Alps – take note. We would’ve loved to have stayed in Nozawa Onsen longer and we definitely could’ve got used to the amazing snow, followed by steaming hot Onsens and delicious dumplings. What a life!
Here’s what we love about Japan so far:
1. Super friendly and incredibly helpful people (including really polite kids)
2. The history; there’s roughly one temple for every person in Japan (our guesstimate!)
3. Amazingly efficient public transport system, especially the Shinkansen (bullet train) 4. The food; especially sushi, dumplings and Ramen
5. Vending machines that serve everything, including dinner & beer 6. The awesome skiing
7. Onsens (public baths) where you can get some high quality naked time 8. The fashion; crazy patterns, impractical shoes and dogs in coats 9. The number of Samuri swords on display
10. Heated toilet seats!
So, after an unplanned but very happy 10 days or so in the UK, we boarded our flight to Japan. We had both been looking forward to it so much – a few family members and friends have been in recent years and have had nothing but praise for the place.
After a 15 hour flight (the award for best in-flight film goes to ‘Whiplash’ – check it out) we arrived into Tokyo and made our way across a truly mind boggling train/subway network to our accommodation. Trying to navigate this beast when rested would be tricky – with mind crippling jet lag to contend with it was a bit taxing. We had booked a room in a flat (an Airbnb job) on the 35th floor of this apartment building on Shibaura Island – we finally arrived and were greeted by a jaw dropping view over the city and a very sweet host (Sugu) who provided snacks and strong coffee.
The jet lag monkey woke us up ridiculously early the following day so we marched out on the tourist trail – first stop Senso-Ji, Tokyo’s most famous temple. It’s an extraordinary place where you can engage in some unusual rituals! Locals and tourists queue up to inhale and smother themselves in the incense smoke from the sacred shrines. People also seek out their fortunes by getting a number from a small wooden box, locating the correct small wooden drawer and withdrawing a small piece of paper. Apparently it’s not all good fortunes – however you are able to tie the bit of paper to a small clothes line if your fortune isn’t to your liking.
Late March/early April is cherry blossom season in Japan and our next stop – Ueno Park – is rated one of the top 2 places in the country to see this amazingly beautiful event (an event that also sees the Japanese ‘at their most uninhibited’ to quote The Lonely Planet – we were keen to see what this entailed!). We did manage to see some early blossom but unfortunately the main event is a bit delayed this year and we didn’t see any uninhibited behaviour 😦
Nonetheless we soldiered on and took in both the Tokyo National Museum (brilliant section on history of the Samurai) and the Ginzo district (think Times Square with quadruple the number of people) before eating the most delicious sushi known to man.
Jet lag does have some small benefits – for example, when one is required to get up at 3.30am to go and queue for the world famous Tsukiji fish market, it doesn’t feel quite so grim being awake at that hour of the morning. What does feel pretty grim however is getting to said fish market and being told it’s closed for a public holiday! Ouch.
Again we regrouped and headed for the Imperial Palace – the official residence of the Emperor of Japan. Suffice to say, the palace and gardens befit a man revered and worshipped in Japan – they are incredible and maintained by a legion of unbelievably meticulous gardeners and guards on bikes!
That afternoon we had arranged to meet up with a very special someone. Mami Takahashi was just 16 when she arrived in Devon on a school exchange program. Jess and her family hosted Mami for 2 months and 18 years later Jess and I were lucky enough to meet up with her in Tokyo. She and her 8 year old son Ayumu were brilliant – we had a lovely afternoon in trendy Shinjuku reminiscing about her time in England and eating cake. Magic.
Our final night in Tokyo involved a trip up to the 45th floor of a government building to marvel at the city lights that stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction. This was swiftly followed by the best ramen (noodle soup) we have ever tasted – especially amazing given it came out of a vending machine! 3 days in and we were already obsessed with Japanese food.
The jet lag monkey again decided it was time for us to wake up at 3am but this time we were full of excitement – for the day was to mark our first experience of the legendary Japanese bullet train (the Shinkansen) that would take us to the Japanese Alps and metres upon metres of fresh snow!
Thank you Tokyo – you were brilliant and surreal. Until next time.