Thursday, 8 March 2007

Trip Update

So I have decided to get off my backside and upload some photos from the Japan trip here. Unfortunately, I have a lot of photos on my sister's laptop, so will need to wait before I can get all of those photos off as well.

Japan was definitely a really good experience - from the great food, the really polite people and the presentation of everything.

Day 1
The Japan trip was a quite a lot of fun - my sister and I got to Narita at around 2pm and it took as till around 5pm to get to our hotel in Akasaka! We went out for dinner and that was just some really, really good food at Gonbachi (?). Yum...can't forget the melt in the mouth beef and awesome duck. We then ended up at Shinjuku for some late night shots, but amazingly, there were still heaps of people around!

Day 2
The next day, was exploration of Tokyo, so managed to head out to Ginza for some Kyushu ramen, before heading into a toy store and finding some really cool items! I can't believe we spent 2hours there! Following that we ended up going to Akihabara to check out the electronics - there was definitely a lot to see and we managed to eat some takoyaki off the street (which was delicious) and then to a Japanese restaurant where we tried a whole heap of skewers and a sashimi boat.

Day 3
The third day was a killer - having to wake up at 4am to get ready to go to the fish markets. Not only was I tired, but it was cold. The fish markets were a beehive of activity, even at 6am. So was the fruit market - where we got lost trying to search vainly for the fish market. After some pointing and walking we found it! From there we found a sushi store in the fish market area which was PACKED at 6:30am (a majority were tourists though). There, we had a sushi breakfast which was unbelievably good. The fatty tuna just melts in one's mouth (not many people eat salmon over there) and I have to admit, I have never had sushi for breakfast....
This was followed by a quick rest before heading out to watch a tea ceremony where we were treated to two cups of tea and a very intricate ceremony. Thankfully, the lady performing was ok with us taking lots of photos and so this did not break her concentration.

Although other attendees at the tea ceremony decided to go soft and rest up, my sister and I decided to power on to Shibuya (where we picked up our JR rail pass) for some shopping and head through to Harajuku. We walked and took photos where we could, stopping only once for a quick bite to eat at a Danish pastry store in Shibuya. The streets seemed to always be busy and alive with people walking along. After powering through the two destinations, we headed over to Shinjuku and went to the free observation deck whereby we took photos of the sprawling metropolis. It was amazing to see buildings as far as the eye could see. As the sun was slowly setting, the bustle of the city was continued with the gently glow of the night lights which merely accentuated the sheer size of the place. At this point, it had been a long day, so I was very much moved by the idea of a cheeky beer - and boy did it taste good. At 500Yen, I thought it was better than reasonable.
We went back to Shinjuku station to wait for more party members and watched the traffic of the east exit. It was astonishing to see the flurry of people passing through that section of the station - it was much busier than Central on a busier day. I swear there must have been at least a few thousand people who walked past.
The day had not ended and so we decided to have a strange dinner - one which involved eating cheesecake first, followed by a Gyoza city where we sampled a myriad of gyoza types but by the end of it, the music was so annoying, I just wanted to hurt something. Not content with finishing, we then went to the ice cream city to have ice cream - of which I could only fit in a single (but massive) ice cream.
As we tried to search for an elusive ramen store, we ended up on the streets and found an video games parlour. Due to the large ratio of males in the group, it was democratically decided that a stop here would make the group happier as a whole. The drums, Time Crisis 4 and Street Fighter were on the cards, with some challenges thrown in for good measure.
As it was getting late, we decided to head back to the hotel and some of us decided to go out for a few beverages and possibly a ramen. This sounded like a good idea at the time, so out we went to Roppongi for some beverages - and lo and behold, we found the ramen place we were trying to find before - and realised that it was a chain store. Deciding which one to do was not an option - satisfaction was achieved through doing both. We downed some local beers and decided to eat some ramen which was rather unique in that each individual sat at a private booth and there are lights at the front of the place to indicate which seats are available. After buying tokens from a vending machine, one takes a seat at their secluded booth. A piece of paper is on the table with a variety of options such as strength of soup, chilli in the soup etc. Due to my entire lack of understanding of Japanese, I went for "medium" on all options and was duly presented with one of the best bowls of ramen I have ever had (Or perhaps I was really hungry). A meat an noodle refill only cost a total of $10 all up, so I was pretty pleased and decided to call it a night at 3:30am. At this point, I had been up for almost 24hours an the effects were definitely started to hit me.

Day 4
After a hectic Day 3, I was ready to sleep in a little. I missed breakfast and tried to sleep, and got up at around 11am before packing my bags to take to my sister's friend's place as we were checking out the following morning. However, we left the hotel at around 2:30pm and lugged our luggage through to Harajuku to get the JR to our next destination. For those of you who have ever been to Japan, the stations were not designed for carrying heavy luggage (30kgs) nor really designed for anyone with any form of walking disability. Hence by the time we got to my sister's friend's place, it was 6pm. So our plans were canned and we decided to eat at a cheap sushi train - 105Yen per plate. Between the three of us, we managed to fit in 29 plates which only worked out to be around $10AUD each, which was great value. As ramen had been a staple for me over the last few days, I felt a craving so we decided to have a 600Yen ramen which was awesome (but at this stage I was feeling a little bloated). In any case, I knew something wasn't going well when I had developed a cough and a bit of a runny nose. We decided to call it an early night at around 11pm as we had to get out to Hakone the next day.

Day 5
Running late (again), we missed the train but managed to catch the next train to our next destination. By this point, I was coughing almost non stop but I still pushed myself around. It was rather foggy, so visibility was poor, but we managed to see the old cedar walk (which was from Kyoto to Tokyo) and hired a little swan boat which we could use peddle power around Lake Ashi. Following this, we took a pirate ship (I kid you not!) to our next destination. We went up the mountains where the hot springs were. The sulphur absolutely stank but we managed to make it up to the steaming pools of water where eggs were being sold and eating by many. Not wanting to lose out, we also ate some eggs which apparently "postpone" one's life.
As it was pushing 4pm, we decided to head to our Fuji-Hakone guesthouse which was a small guesthouse in traditional style (aka "ryokan") where one sleeps on the floor. Luckily, this place has an "onsen" or hot spring which each room can book, so we enthusiastically booked two consecutive half hour slots - one outdoors and one indoors. After a quick dinner, we headed outdoors and took a shower. The hot water was not very hot and when I came out of the shower, there was still a fair amount of distance between the showers and the actual hot spring. Shivering and wondering how long hypothermia takes to set in, I practically ran to the hot spring and immersed myself in there. It didn't take too long before the heat of the hot spring countered the cold chill of the night and made me feel like I was in a very uncomfortable sauna. "Don't move," my sister murmured as she was trying to enjoy the hot spring. My small pain tolerance was making me get in and out of the hot spring every 5mins, as I found it almost unbearable. As we finished up, I noticed that our bodies were steaming in the cold night as we headed back to our room. Looking at our skin, we realised that it was a bright red colour and in some places, it was peeling! Gross. I didn't realise how draining a hot spring can be, so we decided to forgo the indoor hot spring and call it a night - one of the best night's sleep I had.

Day 6
I hate being sick. I was sick as a dog. As much as my sister wanted to go to the spa resort, I was definitely at an all time low. The running nose and the cough were enough to make me want to just call it quits. However, being such a long way from home I realised that I could not let such a great opportunity go, so I soldiered on. We got up late and had a hurried breakfast before asking the guest house attendee (Yoko) where we could go to see Mt Fuji. She suggested a place and we decided to catch a bus there. So we trundled along in the bus and then went through a small tunnel before emerging on the other side of the hill and there were gasps from people in the bus. I turned and saw Mt Fuji and it was H-U-G-E compared with the surroundings. People were just pulling over on the roadside to get photos and there was even a little restaurant there. I think we spent a good forty minutes there taking shots of the one mountain!
We then headed back to the guest house to pick up our shoulder breaking bags (but not before my sister asked them about a Hello Kitty doll - which they proceeded to give her!). We pretty took the same route back (albeit on a different pirate ship) and to Lake Ashi where this time, we took a couple of snaps with Mt Fuji in the background.
After getting lost a little, we managed to get onto a bullet train heading to Kyoto - and also managed to take some Mt Fuji photos along the way. In all honesty, I don't think that the photos do it any justice - the presence and majestic way it just stands alone is amazing). Getting into Kyoto, I realised how modern looking the train station was. We heading towards the place we were staying at and it was surprisingly clean (except for the unventilated front area where everyone takles off their shoes to swap for stank a little in there, and not just from my shoes).
After a quick dinner, I decided that I had had enough for a day and proceeded to go to sleep - at around 10pm. I was pretty much out of it.

Day 7
I woke up later than usual, but was pretty keen to get the most out of the day. Still feeling tired and sick, we had a quick breakafast before heading out to do some sight seeing. We kicked off the day at Nijo Castle. One of the interesting aspects was the paranoid "nightingale" floorboards which squeak like nightingales when walked upon like a modern day alarm. Different rooms had different purposes and some even had trapdoors where guards/bodyguards would hide. The grounds were well kept and it was really serene just walking through (or rushing through as we were doing).
Next up, we decided to head to the Golden Pavilion. As this was around 3pm, we decided that we were hungry and spotted a MOS Burger chain store on the way. After hearing so much about this Japanese food chain, we knew we could not go to Japan without tasting one. The burgers were quite good and there was a fair bit of variety in the store. I ended up having a meal and downed it in record time.
Off we went to the Golden Pavilion and there were so many people taking photos and posing. Everyone was really polite though so asking people to take photos for us was not a problem. The way the light shone on the place was incredible and definitely something I had not seen before. Again, this place was immaculately kept (esp for a place with no entry fee).
By this stage it was getting dark and we both were not feeling 100% (sorry!) and we headed back to get some rest. The bus trip took forever and I was falling asleep in the packed bus a number of times.
We rested till around 8pm before heading back out to Gion to see whether we could catch glimpses of a geisha. Apparently, this district was a huge geisha district, which was the setting for "Memoirs of a geisha". After walking around and finding the right street we were disappointed to find that the place was rather deserted! To our dismay, many of the shops had closed. We ended up walking down the main strip and feeling dejected we walked back.....only to spot a random geisha sending off a client into a taxi! Unfortunately, we did not get many photos at all and we later learned that it is hard to spot a geisha so we were in luck! By this stage, we were both pretty hungry so we headed off to the recommended eating spots in the area but ended up walking in circles! We ended up at some place where I had a $10 chirashi don which was really nice before calling it a night.

Day 8
This was our last day in Kyoto so we checked out but left out bags there to go off to visit more shrines and check out the tori gates. I don't think I can articulate the sheer number of these gates, but take a look at the photos - enough said.
One of the suggestions we had for a place to visit was a sake brewery, but unfotunately, we had no map with us (or at least our map did not really stretch that far). After asking at the JR station, we headed to our destination stop only to find that it was not "close to the station" as we thought it was so had to ask for more directions at the JR Station. After some sculling hand movements and repeating the words "SA-KE" to her, she ran and got a brochure for us which had a handy map! Thankful for our new found talent in lingustics, we headed off in the general direction of the place. Unfortunately, the map was not so accurate but we managed to find some helpful people who knew where to go. So late in the afternoon we found the sake brewery (which was one of the oldest - since 1600's) and managed to buy some "souveniers" as well. Obviously there was some try before you buy, so that really helped (but did not go too well with the cold and flu tablets I had been taking).
We rushed back to get our bags (but not before some souvenir shopping) and then caught the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.
It was good to be back at our hotel, and we were so buggered we went out for some ramen and called it a night. I didn't even go back to Akihabara to get the joystick I wanted (and I was also sick of lugging so much luggage around).

Day 9
Our final day in Japan. I was feeling slightly better than days 5, 6 and 7 but was rather pleased to be back. We headed off to meet my sister's friend and collect our luggage. We went out to get some realy nice katsu and that was the first time I had known it to be graded. It was definitely very tender.
From there, we repacked our bags to ensure that we could carry things a lot easier without killing ourselves as we had done in the prior days.
As we caught the Narita Express, I was sad that the entire trip had come to an end. As brief as it was, I was impressed with Japan and would definitely go back to see more.
One of the most interesting machines I had ever seen was at the JAL lounge where the beer dispensing machine actually dispenses the beer as well as the head with alarming accuracy.
The plane was packed and so I braced myself for the long flight home.