Kyoto, Cycle City

Life has just been so busy; I am in shock that it is August and I am reflecting on my holiday to Japan in March.  I really have saved the best until last however, Kyoto was truly amazing.  I knew from the moment we started planning Japan that Kyoto was a must do and that I wanted to spend a night or two extra here and I am so glad that we did.

Again we used Airbnb for our accommodation and had a great apartment located near Kawaramachi, just a few train strops from the centre of Kyoto.  The apartment was again simple but served our purposes brilliantly.  The real winner for this accommodation was the provision of two bicycles that really made our trip to Kyoto.  If you are going to do Kyoto I could not recommend enough that you do it by bicycle.

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The day we arrived we set out on our bikes for the afternoon to two must see sites, Tofuku-ji Temple and Fushimi-Inari.  Cycling from our accommodation to Tofuku-ji Temple was both exhilarating and nerve racking at the same time.  It’s been years since I’ve been on a bicycle and I would never dream of cycling the Australian streets in the manner that we did in Kyoto.  Without helmets, ducking and weaving between cars – parked and oncoming, other cyclists, up footpaths, across bridges, around poles and pedestrians.  It took me a while to get my cycle legs back, but once I did it was just brilliant.

Tofuku-ji Temple, the first stop for our afternoon is a Buddhist temple and considered one of the five great Buddhist temples of Kyoto.  The stone gardens were beautiful and well suited to a quiet moment of reflection before heading off again.

Kyoto-7899 Kyoto-7908 Kyoto-7911Next stop on our cycle tour of the area was Fushimi-Inari, probably the best known attraction in Kyoto.  The orange torii that lead the way up the mountain are spectacular.  One of those experiences that aren’t exactly how you first imagine it to be however, whilst Tofukuji Temple was quiet and reflective, the walk at Fushimi-Inari was far from that.

The photos that you see of torii stretching as far as the eye can see, free from people is far from the experience you will have.  Damian and I had a lot of moments where we would run up ahead to get photos before a group would come through, we were trying desperately to create the illusion that we were the only ones on the pilgrimage at that time.

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We arrived too late to make the pilgrimage all the way to the top, which was a bit of a regret but we knew that if we tried to push ourselves to the top we would lose the light coming down and we still had more of Kyoto that we needed to try and squeeze in that afternoon.

We made it around about the halfway mark where we stopped for some photos before beginning the descent to the entrance again.  At the entrance there are a number of stalls selling food and souvenirs, we picked up some fried chicken on sticks (2 stars) and jumped back on our bikes for the afternoon.

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The rest of the afternoon we cycled around Fushimi and followed the river back north to our accommodation.  Cycling along the banks of the river with Damian whilst the sun set over our first night in Kyoto is my most treasured memory of the entire trip to Japan; Kyoto is exceptional.

We still hadn’t really mastered the art of finding places to eat, but we did find a great little dumpling restaurant which kept us happy.  After dinner we were looking for somewhere for a drink and settled on the backpacker bar across the road from our accommodation.  This ended up to be a great choice and we knocked back a few gin and tonics and made friends with Jules, Enzo and Corinne siblings from Manila who had also been travelling through Japan.  We shared a few stories, a few laughs and a few more drinks.  It was a great way to end our first night in Kyoto.

Our second day in Kyoto was an epic bike ride across town and back covering around 30km.  First stop on our list was the Nazenji Temple, which was a bit of an “it’s on the way so we may as well” type trip.  So thankfully, when we got completely disorientated, lost and started off our bike trek with a heated exchange around who knew which way to go more than the other and ended up kilometres past where we needed to be, it wasn’t that much of a big deal.

Our first stop ended up being Ginkaku-ji, or better known as the Silver Temple.

Kyoto-8057 Kyoto-8063 Kyoto-8081Again, getting photos of any of the sites was hard work with the amount of people visiting.  We figured out that not only were we visiting on a Saturday, but it was also some kind of national holiday weekend as well so tourist sites were extra busy with national tourists.

The garden was well curated and quite pleasant to walk around, but we didn’t stay too long in this area after seeing the main sites, we had quite a bit of ground to cover before we would make it to our next stop which was Kinkaku-ji, or similarly better known as the Golden Temple.

Kinkaku-ji was exceptional, I think as far as traditional temples go, this was my favourite one in our visit to Japan.  Despite the hordes of people there to see it at the same time that we were there, there was something really serene about the entire temple setting.  The gold of the temple, (whilst this might sound really obvious) was just SO gold.  It was stunning.  The blossoms were in an earlier stage of bloom than those we had seen in Tokyo, but the budding trees were still beautiful.

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It was at this point that I realised I had neglected to charge my camera battery and I was running out of battery, fast.  There was still so much to see and capture I had to start being really selective about what I shot rather than being my usual trigger happy self.  It ended up being really good for me.  I find that when I have my camera I think about everything I am seeing in terms of how it will look photographed, sometimes it’s good to just appreciate the world you are surrounded by.

That being said, there was still one major attraction on the hit list for the day and we headed off to see Arashiyama via Ryoan-ji – a stone garden in a similar vein to Tofuku-ji.  Arashiyama was again just absolute madness.  The bamboo forest was beautiful though and the light filtering through the trees was majestical, we’d made it at just the right time in the afternoon to appreciate it.

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The long ride home awaited us and we headed off, and lucky we did when we did as we got caught in the rain not long before home.  We did manage another ride along the banks of the river before that stage and got to again see the sun going down over Kyoto, my favourite Japanese city.

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Our final day in Kyoto we spent shopping in the city.  We were intending on getting on a train early in the morning to visit Hiroshima but we needed a bit of a slow start to our last day after the massive ride the day before.  The shopping was great though and whilst it was a shame to miss Hiroshima I think it would have been a shame to rush through that whole section of Japan.  Next time, definitely.  Next time will definitely also include a return to Kyoto as well, I don’t think I could get enough of this city and as much as we saw I feel like there is still so much more to see.

Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

Kanazawa was our final stop on the rail tour of Japan before spending the final days of our trip in Kyoto.  After Tokyo, Nagoya and Takayama, Kanazawa had quite a bit to live up to.

Our first impressions of the city were fantastic, we were picked up by our Airbnb host’s uncle and chauffeured to our accommodation.  Which was just brilliant.  The place was massive – and not just by Japanese standards, we would be happy in a one bedroom apartment of this size in any city in Australia.  The apartment was modern, attractive and relaxing.  The toilet was like something out of a science fiction film and in the bathroom there was a deep stone bath basin set into the ground from which a stunning view of the garden could be appreciated.  Jackpot!

There were two main attractions that we came to Kanazawa to see, Kenroku-en – one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens and the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art.  When I explained this to our driver there was a bit of a mistranslation as I thought he kept saying “No, No Museum in Kanazawa”, but what he actually meant was the “Noh Museum” in Kanazawa, recommending the Noh Museum of Dance.  We left these sites to our full day ahead of us and spent the night wandering around the city.

There was a beautiful light display in the castle gardens where we took a few photos, before heading to Ippei Sushi, a restaurant that Damian had researched and was a real find.  Freshly made sushi and sashimi served off the bench that was betwen us and the chef whilst being entertained by the most authentically nice hostess we’d come across our entire trip.  We were happy to head back to our exquisite accommodation and jumped in the bath to drink the bottle of sake we bought in Takayama.

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The next day we set out to see the rest of Kanazawa.  We started our day in the castle gardens where we got a private tour from a very friendly local.  After walking up to the window which said “English tour guide available”, we asked the lady at the window if she spoke English.  After she responded with a “no”, she then informed us (after we asked for the English speaking guide), that that was her!  Entertaining to say the least, her English was not fantastic but she did a really good job and it was a good experience for both her and I to practice each other’s language a little bit.

After the castle tour we headed to Kenroku-En.  Now, I don’t want to sound unappreciative of Japan’s #2 most beautiful garden and maybe by this stage we had been spoilt, but unfortunately I didn’t think the garden was as enjoyable as Shinjuku Garden in Tokyo.  Kenroku-En was most definitely a stunning and beautifully curated garden, but there wasn’t really much in the way of places to relax and enjoy your surroundings.  Definitely the type of garden you walk through.

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Despite this, there were plenty of opportunities for photos of the beautifully curated trees and bushes.  We learnt from our Japanese tour guide that the strings held above the trees were not as we originally thought to help shape them, but rather to help protect the branches from the weight of snow in winter.  We found ourselves to be somewhat of an attraction at one point with a group of traditionally dressed girls adamant that we get a number of photos with them.  Of course we ensured the favour was returned.

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Wandering the gardens took a good couple of hours, and it was definitely worth seeing.  Again it was one of those experiences that you couldn’t help but wonder whether it would have been much more enjoyable a couple of weeks on when the spring blossoms were starting to come out in stronger numbers.

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After Kenroku-En we headed to the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art… this was probably the only experience in the whole of Japan where we went to do something that we’d flagged as a point of interest and were actually disappointed.  Aside from a few outdoor sculptures the museum itself was not very exciting.  We paid to see an architecture exhibition which was very uninspiring and touted to be a reflection on green environmental living but was really quite unimaginative.  We really didn’t mind though, we’d had such a busy time in Japan so far we were quite happy to head back to the accommodation again and enjoy some quiet time in a comfortable space.  Final stop approaching: Kyoto.

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A Taste of the Traditional: Takayama

Our experience in Takayama was completely different to traveling through Tokyo and Nagoya; it was simply relaxing.  The train ride itself through the Japanese hills was absolutely stunning with the tracks following a beautiful blue river that flowed between the hills with varying intensity along the winding path to Takayama.  Our first experience staying in a hotel in Japan, we stayed at the Takayma Ouan and we were not disappointed.  We were greeted by the doorman who rushed over to ensure he said hello before checking our bags in.  We were far too early to head up to our room but the receptionist happily took our bags and did his very best to explain to us the rules of the hotel in English.  Being a traditional tatami hotel there were to be no shoes whatsoever aside from in the lobby and we would be provided with yukatas (traditional dress) to wear when moving around the hotel.  We hadn’t even seen our room yet and already we knew we would enjoy our time here in Takayama (and get a much more comfortable sleep than in Nagoya!).

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On our first day we wandered around the town and checked out some of the local shops.  There was a lot of authentic and traditional wares on display and we decided we would do most of our souvenir shopping here in Takayama.  I had heard Takayama was famous for Hida Beef, which is the name given to beef from short haired black cattle in the Gifu Prefecture.  I experienced Hida Beef first for lunch in the form of croquettes which were tasty, but I’m pretty sure were not the best way to experience the delicacy.  I was adamant that I would try a more traditional preparation of the dish.

We wandered around the Higayashima Track which looped around the top part of the town whilst we waited for our room to be available.  It was quite surreal to be wandering around comfortable in a tshirt while having to make our way through thick packed snow and ice.  We stopped for a snack of green tea flavoured ice cream which was quite tasty but seemed highly priced at 600¥.

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The afternoon was spent relaxing at the hotel and taking advantage of the private onsen on the 13th floor where we were able to lay back in the hot bath which was open air and overlooked the town from the top storey.  This, we decided, very much feels like a Japanese holiday.

Everything in Takayama closes down fairly early and after wandering the streets for a while unsure of where we should eat we decided to venture in to a very small whisky bar which looked to have a couple of stools free at the bar.  This was one of the best decisions we made the entire trip.  I was able to sample Hida Beef again, this time as part of Hoba Miso – another traditional dish of the area.  The beef was brought out raw and was cooked atop a magnolia leaf resting on a burner.  Mushrooms, miso and some other raw foods were added to the mix and my mouth watered with every morsel.  We capped the night off with a few whiskies in the bar before heading back to the hotel.

Having stayed in Airbnb accommodation until this point, we had been fending for ourselves for breakfast.  It was extremely nice to be able to enjoy a full Japanese (and Western) buffet breakfast.  I filled up on miso, fish, egg and rice and I think that I could definitely have gotten used to this type of eating at breakfast time!

After breakfast we headed out to explore the Takayama markets.  There were two of note, the Takayama Jinya was the first we visited and was really quite small, it only seemed to sell vegetables and a few spices and the like.  The Miyagawa Market however was really great and stretched along the river through Takayama.  We wandered the stalls, sampled miso soup and other local made delicacies.  The locals were more than happy to stop and have a chat to us, we spoke to a few market goers (mostly the ones with dogs) and also spoke to some of the market stall holders about their wares.

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After the markets we bought some souvenirs and then made for the next activity as part of my must do in Takayama (and in Japan) and found ourselves a Sake tasting.  We went to two places, the first of which charged 150¥ per tasting (at about $1.60AUD totally reasonable) but wasn’t really the best environment, I think we had perhaps wandered into the shed of a distributor.  We then found another brewery (easily found by the big balls of yarn hanging outside the doors to denote they are a brewery in stock of sake), which had a cute little fire set into the floor with stools around it.  We asked for a tasting and were advised for 150¥ we could taste 12 sakes.  Jackpot.

We tasted away for the rest of the afternoon and were definitely feeling a little inebriated by the end of our experience.  We enthusiastically told other English speaking tourists of the arrangements (and value) of the tastings and chatted to visitors from Italy and the UK while we were there.  One backpacker by the name of Marko who was on a sabbatical from Sweden pulled up a spot by the fire with us and we chatted for a couple of hours.  As it happens we was staying at our hotel and was on our train out of Takayama in the morning.  We told stories of our holidays so far before parting ways for the evening with our free souvenir sake glasses when the brewery shut up shop.

Takayama-7599 Takayama-7609For our final night in Takayama we experienced an Izakaya for dinner, which was again another great must do Japanese food experience.  We were led down to our private booth where we had a buzzer to continually order delicious food delivered back to us in a timely fashion until we had eaten our fill.  I could not recommend doing an Izakaya dining experience enough for someone travelling to Japan.  You can really imagine the hidden world of Japan taking place behind the screens where other diners were laughing, eating and drinking.  It’s a world that you would most definitely never be invited into.

Feeling very refreshed after our time in Takayama we were sad to leave but excited to go on to the penultimate destination for our holiday: Kanazawa.

Nagoya and the Kiso Valley

Two things I’m very thankful that we organised for our trip to Japan:

1. JR Pass
2. Reserved seating on the longer train trips

On our last day in Tokyo we plotted out our train journey and decided that we would visit one of the information booths in the Tokyo train station to determine whether we had picked the best trains to take us to our destination(s).  Luckily – being the complete over-planner that I am, I had written down not only the times, but the names of the trains and the stops that we wanted to get off at.  Despite the information booths professing to have English speaking assistants, the conversation was still a bit of a struggle.  That being said we were able to organise reserved seating on all our trains with printed tickets which meant we knew exactly where we needed to be and when.  I even managed to ask in Japanese to put us on the side of the train that would give us a view of Mt Fuji. Had we not have taken the time to organise this, what can be a very stressful experience navigating train stations and transit maps would have been so much more difficult.

Mid morning we left Tokyo via Shinkansen Hikari Carriage; riding the Shinkansen for the first time was certainly an exciting experience.  Very comfortable and very quick however unfortunately the weather was rather overcast and we missed out on views of Mt. Fuji.  We arrived in Nagoya around midday and navigated our way through the underground labyrinth.  I couldn’t help but notice just how grey everything was.  It seemed like all the people were wearing were different tones of black or grey, there didn’t seem to be any colour in sight.  Everyone moves in unison, as one but yet so singular.  Perhaps this feeling was amplified by the weather which was for the duration of our stay in Nagoya quite overcast and grey.

Again, we had an Airbnb accommodation sorted which was a couple of train stops away from the CBD.  This apartment was a little less pleasing than the first which bizarrely included (without mention in the description) a glass box that took up more room than the bedroom which included a shower, bath and toilet – on full display.

We headed out to explore the nearby Nagoya Castle.  The gardens here were not as far along as those in Tokyo, with most spring plants yet to begin budding.  We wandered throughout the garden and some of the reconstructed outer castle buildings.  The castle itself was absolutely stunning.  Walking through the main gates and seeing the ornate detailing of the roof took my breath away.

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The Donjon, the main structure of Nagoya Castle was open with exhibits on various levels.  Damian and I found the experience quite hallowing but also quite uncomfortable.  Much of the castle is under reconstruction after it suffered an immense amount of damage through fire bombing during World War II.  The thing about Japanese tourist locations is that they are extremely popular first and foremost amongst Japanese tourists.  To be a westerner viewing the damage caused by the western world amongst a crowd of Japanese people was certainly an experience that I won’t soon forget.

The top floor of Nagoya Castle had views across the city from every angle.  Despite the grey quality of the day, it gave us a great opportunity to appreciate the city and get a feel for how this centre of 2 million compared the the 13 million we had just experienced in Tokyo.

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On the way back through Nagoya we checked out the shopping district called Sakae, here I could start to get a sense for what Nagoya was really like.  The area of Sakae was thriving, there were people everywhere and it felt much more like a little hive than we had experienced in Nagoya so far.  The evening included exploring the city, checking out some of the amazing architecture in the city and experiencing quite possibly the worst restaurant based faux pas we will ever experience.  It’s really too funny not to try and explain…

We found a restaurant by the name of Torikai on one of the top floors of a building in the city.  We had great views of the city, a great looking menu and were already enjoying our first round of “Japanese Ciders” (…beers).  Damian had picked what he wanted already from a picture and tried to explain to the waiter what he wanted.  It seemed simple enough and the table behind us had the dish also.  There was much confusion from the waiter and from us as he tried to explain something in broken English.  I tried my best, but my Japanese knowledge was going to be useless.  Thinking it a brilliant idea Damian asked the table behind us to explain to the waiter that we wanted what they were having, which they seemed happy enough to do and gestured to the waiter to bring two plates.  Pleased with ourselves for overcoming the difficulty, we sat and had a few more swigs.  It was then that the waiter returned with two plates and went not to us, but to our neighbour’s table and began to carve the dinner off their plate to give to us, because, as we could now understand they were completely out of the dish we had requested and Damian had been adamant that he wanted what they were eating.  We almost died.  They wouldn’t take it back… at least we agreed it was delicious…

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We headed back to the apartment for a very uncomfortable night’s sleep on a mattress that may as well not have even been there.  We managed a few hours sleep before arising early to head out of Nagoya on a day trip into the Kiso Valley.

By train to Nakagatsugawa and then bus to Tsumago so began one of my top 3 experiences in Japan.  The walk from Tsumago to Magome was an easy 9km, but it was simply beautiful.  We started in the little town of Tsumago where we trekked up to the top of a hill, all along the cobblestoned path through the town were souvenir stores and little eateries.  We stopped at one where an elderly woman was preparing little steamed buns which we took inside and had with green tea.  I love how everywhere you go in Japan, it doesn’t matter what you order, tea just comes with it as standard.  The buns were fresh and delicious and made a warm start to our morning walk.

The walk follows the old postal route through valley linking Tsumago with Magome and it was a beautiful day to explore and experience the first real exposure we’d gotten to the old world of Japan outside of the metropolitan centres of Nagoya and Tokyo.  Not only was the weather great for the day, but for almost the entirety of the walk we were the only people we saw on the path.  Apart from a few fellow walkers, a shiba-inu and the birds we were alone in the middle of the Japanese valley.

At the midpoint between Tsumago and Magome a tea hut with tea by donation brewed over an open fire was a great rest spot.  We chatted to the friendly man and I managed to have a bit of a conversation in Japanese about the snow and the weather in this area in comparison to that in Tasmania.

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I’m not sure if the threat was real or not but all throughout the path there were a number of bells to ring to ward off bears that may be “wandering through the area”.  I sincerely doubt that there are many bears that frequent the area, but we didn’t want to be those naive travellers who were eaten by bears simply because they laughed in the face of a bear bell.  So ring the bells we did and loudly.

We headed back to Nagoya in the early afternoon and picked up some take away (Japanese street style food – not dirty burgers) and headed back to our room to have a night in with food and a few drinks.  The walk through Tsumago and Magome only gave us one full day in Nagoya but I really think that we made good use of our time in the area.  When I think back on the trip now the walk is definitely still one of the highlights of the two weeks.  Next stop, Takayama.

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Four Days in Tokyo

I have talked about going to Japan for no less than ten years and finally, in March 2015 the pilgrimage was completed.  Being the complete over planner that I am I had spent months organising the trip and even brushed up on a bit of Japanese after having a 6 year break from studying the language.  That was a wise move.  I hadn’t fully appreciated just how much of a barrier the language was going to be while we were away.  Thankfully, I could read quite well and could (almost) always make sense of where we were and where we were meant to be (and in most cases what we were eating).  Before leaving Australia, I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to speak the language a little, but that confidence was completely shot when we landed in Tokyo.  Even when the locals could understand what I was asking, I had no hope of understanding their response which was much faster than any taught Japanese and sounds completely different when spoken with a native tongue.

Despite the language barrier we managed to find our way to our Airbnb apartment in Harajyuku.  This was not without incident however and may have involved a bit of a panic attack when the phone battery (with the directions) was reduced to 3% and my inability to ask for directions effectively resulted in my disappearing on Damian through fear of returning without knowing where I was going.  The apartment was great, albeit small, but hey, it’s Japan.  The quality of the accommodation was much higher for the price than staying at a hotel and given it was part of a residential complex allowed us to really feel like we were staying in an authentic Japanese apartment.

After relaxing for a couple of hours in the apartment in the afternoon, recuperating from our overnight flight from Australia without much sleep we headed out to explore the nearby area.  We decided not to venture too far from the apartment on our first night and went for a wander around the iconic Takeshita Street in Harajyuku.  The sheer volume of people in Takeshita Street was mind blowing.  Harajyuku girls, anime cosplay costumes and the simply bizarre litter the streets and could keep a camera wielding tourist happy for hours.  Everywhere we looked were girls eating ice creams, donuts, waffles – anything you could possibly think of that you could top with cream and sugar.

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We got a variety of chicken skewers for dinner and had a beer in a little restaurant called Kushisuke.  I think it was here that it became clear that in terms of alcoholic beverage there was not going to be much around for Damian who doesn’t drink beer; here we renamed Asahi “Japanese Cider” and were happy to indulge – regularly.

A couple of cocktails at Bill’s Omotesando and a view of the city at night from the rooftop garden was a perfect way to cap off our first experience of Tokyo and Japan.

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Our first full day in Tokyo was a massive day of walking and exploring.  Walking became a bit of a theme for the holiday, my pedometer tracked upwards of 20,000 steps most days that we were in the country.  First on our list of places to see was the nearby Yoyogi Park, conveniently located within walking distance of Harajyuku Station.

Walking into Yoyogi Park we saw a fashion shoot taking place by the gates and some Japanese teenagers practicing a street dance routine.  It became quickly evident that Japanese people, young and old have a great respect for their environment and really appreciate the availability of inner city parks to get outside and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

Here in Yoyogi Park we saw our first cherry blossoms, which was a huge relief as I’d been getting concerned that we were going to completely miss the season altogether and there would be no colour in any of the trees.  Even in the early stages of the cherry blossom season in Japan there is such reverence for nature and awe of the beauty that could so easily be taken for granted.

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After wandering the grounds of Yoyogi Park, which included checking out the local dogs in the dog run, we headed to the first of what would be our many shrine viewings in Japan – Meiji Shrine.

The Meiji Shrine was a short walk from the entrance to Yoyogi Park and looked to be a popular destination.  We must have just missed some kind of ceremony there as there were quite a number of traditionally dressed Japanese women walking back from the shrine as we were walking there.  I washed my hands at the purification fountain and following the locals threw a coin into the offering box and clapped and bowed as they did.

On the way back we paid 500¥ each to wander around the Meiji Shrine Garden.  It was quite beautiful with a teahouse overlooking a still body of water full of carp.  The gardens themselves were beautiful and offered a few good photo opportunities.

Tokyo-6718 Tokyo-6723Having wandered all morning we jumped on the train at Harajyuku and using our JR Pass (couldn’t recommend getting one enough) we headed up to Akihabara which is basically electronic town in Tokyo.

We had our first experience ordering from a vending machine in Akihabara where we selected our ramen order and waited for the chef to cook for us.  The streets of Akihbara were quite confronting in how busy they were and the number of young girls in school girl or maid costumes was a little disturbing.

We went from Akhibara to the Tokyo Sky Tree for a view of the city from the height of the tower.  It was absolutely mind blowing, buildings as far as the eye could see in every direction.  I’ve never seen anything like it, it was up here that I truly got an appreciation for just how big Tokyo is and what a city of 20 million people actually means.

Tokyo-6771 Tokyo-6780The day didn’t stop there though!  After the Sky Tree we went in search of the Golden Asahi Foam (Giant Turd) which we had spotted from the top of the tower.  We snapped a few photos and then I demanded a beer stop.

The walk from the Sky Tower to the Golden Turd and then around Asakusa was potentially one of my favourites in Tokyo.  It was really great to walk around a very residential area of the city and see the way the inner city dwellers live.  The use of every available space to grow plants, on footsteps, window sills, anywhere and everywhere is just something you don’t see in Australia.

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We had dinner in Asakusa in a little restauarant where we cooked our own Okonomiyaki and Monjayaki on hot plates insert into our table.  We were the terrible westerners who forgot to take our shoes off before heading up to the tatami room and then when the table next to us sparked up a little conversation I decided to try and use my Japanese a bit… they were Vietnamese… but they were good sports.

In hindsight, we should have called it a day there but we tried to squeeze a visit to Shinjuku in at the end of the night and really we should have left it for an evening where we weren’t so exhausted.  The flashing lights, the noise, the number of people, the spruikers for strip bars, it was all just way too much for us by the end of the day.  We decided we would come back and make a night of it another night but unfortunately our schedule never allowed it.Tokyo--4

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Part by deisgn, part by necessity our third day in Tokyo was a little more relaxed than day two, which had tried to fit so much into it.  We started day three with a garden again as we discovered this was a nice relaxing way to start a day of sightseeing.  This time we headed to Shinjuku Garden which was larger and more visually stimulating than Yoyogi Park.

Again it was so nice to be able to take a break from the city and be around such serenity without having to take half a day to get there.  Shinjuku Park was great.  We saw a number of cherry blossoms starting to bud and there were crowds of people milling about the newly opening flowers.  The colour of the grass, which was surprisingly yellow/brown (I expected a lush green) made for a beautiful contrast of colours between the pinks of the cherry blossom and the yellow of the ground.

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We headed to Ginza next which in all honesty I could have left out of the itinerary.  It was fascinating to see the high society folk milling about in their designer brands and flaunting their style, but there was no way I had the budget to shop in the area and there wasn’t that much else to see up there.

We headed into Shibuya to catch up with a friend of Damian’s for dinner.  We had to stop and get photos at the iconic Shibuya crossing. I have never seen something so busy in my life.  The fact that the intersection fills up every 90 seconds or so is simply astounding.  We had a few drinks in Shibuya that night, but kept a lid on it to get the most out of our last day in Tokyo the next day.

The Hive

Our final day in Tokyo was spent heading to the north end of the city to have a look at (wait for it) Ueno Park.  I think the park would have been more impressive if we’d have been there two weeks later when the blossoms were in full bloom, as it was most of the trees were quite barren.  We wandered around the Tokyo National Museum which was worth the visit being in the area, but I probably wouldn’t make a special trip for it.

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By the time we headed back towards Harajyuku the sun was setting.  It made for a beautiful walk back to our apartment and showed us the area in a completely different light.  We could not have been happier with the apartment.  It was just perfectly located and made such a fantastic base for our four day exploration of Tokyo.

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For our final night we headed back in the direction of Shinjuku to have a wander around Roppongi Hills, a giant shopping centre encompassing a number of blocks.  The developer slowly acquired all the land over the course of a number of years, it was very impressive.  After a sushi based dinner (and more Japanese ciders) in a little sushi restaurant by the name of Edome Gatton Sushi we wandered back to our apartment to pack our things and prepare to head off on the shinkansen in the morning to discover Nagoya.

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We could have stayed a week, but I think we managed to get a great tour of Tokyo into our four day itinerary.  I think if we went back we would definitely try and see a bit more of Shinjuku by night, and perhaps do a day trip to Hakone.  Next time!