Kyoto – My last day

The last day arrived way to fast. I had the train booked back to Tokyo at 3pm and the flight back home at 8pm. Soo, plenty of time to get a full day of sight-seeing in. Right?

Since I had since recovered almost entirely from my foot and the jet lag, I was motivated to hop on the bus and visit yet another temple. The Nanzen-Ji temple that i had missed on my first day due to left-righ-issues. It was a good decision, even if I had seen plenty of other temples over the last four days, this temple from the 13th century, is still very nice. The “highly recommended” little shrine at a source a bit up in the mountains, turned out to be totally oversold. But the path up was quite cute and I was happy to have gone, even though not particularly because of the shrine. It showed me, once again, that the Japanese have a very relaxed relationship to their old holy buildings. Resting their red plastic shovel, against an old lantern or leaving the blue plastic bucket in the moss covered fountain. Another “first” for me were the steaming roofs. Due to the rain the night before, the roofs were completely soaked and the sun hitting them now, made steam rise into the air. At first I was a bit concerned, but I quickly realised that it must be normal. 

The next visit was  going to be a temple I had already seen. The Yasuka-shrine. The previous evening we had had dinner at a very lovely, small, Japanese bar with great staff and customers who wanted us to experience as much Japanese culture as we possibly could. They started by serving us Ginko nuts. They were delicious! Finally something these smelly trees are good for.

Then they told us, that the next day was culture day. That’s right. Japan has a national holiday that promotes culture, the arts and academics. I think that’s awesome. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn honor of this day, there would be plenty of cultural activities throughout the city and, in particular, there would be a traditional dance on the plaza of the yasuka shrine at noon. I couldn’t miss that!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo I was on my way to the Yasuka-shrine and I was running late. Almost 20 minutes and I was starting to worry that I would miss the spectacle. But the most incredible thing happened (for Japan) and the presentation ran late! I arrived at half past noon, just in time to see the celebration start. Of course, I had to stand at the back and I was a bit sad about that, because I wasn’t sure I would get a good look. Until I realised that I had a completely clear line of sight..

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Sometimes it’s good to be tall!

 

The national holiday also brought out the beautiful kimonos, of course, and a lot of street food. One last chance to try octopus on a stick, the fish shaped pastries and the little balls filled with octopus. I wanted to try it all, but I couldn’t possibly eat more.

A bit sad, but also very satisfied with all I had seen and lived, I boarded the bullet train and started my way home.

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Kyoto – Fushimi Inari Taisha

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the pulsing life in Tokyo it took me a few days to truly calm down and get the mood (of some) of the zen temples. The first one where I really felt relaxed was, ironically, not just a buddhist temple but also a shinto one. Unfortunately it was also my second to last day in Kyoto.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I think a part of it was also that I felt like I had to hurry to see it all and this day was more of “let’s check what’s left on the map and go look at” that day. Unfortunately it was also the only day where it was really raining, so I found out the hard way that neither my (winter) shoes nor my (rain) jacket are actually water proof. Luckily, it wasn’t very cold, so being soaked wasn’t a life threatening or even health threatening problem.
In actuality the day started of quite poorly. I had organised to meet a friend in front of Fushimi Inari Taisha, the large shinto shrine on a hill in southern Kyoto. Unfortunately my internet access was sketchy and I didn’t get his email from 2am that he wouldn’t make it by 9, let’s meet at 9:30. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAQuite the contrary, I was up early and arrived 15min ahead of time at the train station. After waiting for 45min, I decided that he wouldn’t be coming and made my way  from the train station to the temple. Effectively missing him by 1 or 2 minutes. The wait did pay off in so far as I could, once again, watch the temple workers leave their prayer hall and walk through the rain to their buildings. Sheltered by pretty bamboo umbrellas. The shrine itself is very similar to other shinto shrines you may have seen, and as all these places in Japan, it’s bustling with life (and tourists) even when it’s raining. After having taking a tour around the buildings, I attacked the climb on top of the hill. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the true attraction of Fushimi Inari Taisha. The path up the hill takes roughly 40min and leads to thousands of Tori gates. Smaller and larger ones and several occasions the paths split up. As the path is uphill, it is a bit tiresome to walk it. This means that the further you go the fewer people you see. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe further up you go, the better the view onto Kyoto is as well and so it came that I was standing on a step looking out over Kyoto and, surprisingly, my friend who had correctly figured that if he walked up the hill fast enough he would eventually catch up to me!

We walked up the remainder of the stairs together and inspected every shrine and cemetery on the way in detail, though I only figured out on the way back down that the cemeteries were actually cemeteries when my friend pointed this out to me. I was just looking at them as mystical places which gained their beauty from the contrasting bright red of the gates and the dark green of the wet moss. They needed no more reason to exist.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent the entire morning in the areal of the temple and took way too many photos.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Afterwards we had to decide what to do.. I had had my mind set on visiting an Ontsen, relaxing in the hot water, doing nothing. But there’s little fun in going to an Ontsen together, if you’re not allowed to actually be in the same bathtub afterwards. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo we looked around. There was one temple close by, that was being recommended as “not so overrun, but very pretty”. The Tofuku-ji . We decided to stop by and it was a real treat. The vast complexed offered several large buildings and three beautiful raked gardens. Some of the prettiest that I had seen in Kyoto, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApossibly because they were actually quite new and modern, only a hundred years old. They were quite modern in a certain sense, incorporating some stone steles and a check pattern in moss and gravelstones. Possibly, however, it was also due to the somewhat more creative raking in the gardens. I don’t know if this was due to the rain or just coincidence, but most of the gardens showed the concentric circles overlaid on top of the straight lines. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor me this clearly symbolised rain and I thought it a very nice touch. The last thing in the temple compound we visited was a long, covered bridge, from which you could look down onto a tiny streamlet of water and the autumn foliage turning red. After spending many hours in temple relaxing and gettnig in touch with our inner self, we decided that the next thing to do was some more shopping.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Our street ended in the small streets of the food-quarter of Kyoto, where we took a look at the nice lanterns and then walked 20min straight away from it, to leave this high-class foot quarter and find something that we could actually afford. In the end we found a small, very lovely restaurant that made it their task to have us try local specialities recommending us the seasonal items, such as ginko nuts that I’ve never seen on a menu for and likely won’t see again either.

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Kyoto – Arashiyama

               The next day I attacked west Northern & Western Kyoto.. While the main sights are all concentrated in Higashiyama, there’s still a few very nice temples and sights that are distributed all over the city. The first temple I visited was the golden pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) whose real name is Rokuonji. This led to a short moment of confusion on my part, as I had failed to realise that “golden pavilion” obviously not the name of a temple, but just a popular way to describe it.
The golden pavilion, contrary to the silver pavilion is actually covered in thin gold foil and mirrors beautifully in the lake surrounding it. Nowadays the two upper levels are covered in gold after a mad monk burnt the pavilion down in 1950 and it was decided for the reconstruction that the two upper levels would now be covered in gold, not just the upper most. It is hard to make two steps without wanting to contemplate the new perspective onto the lake & the pavilion. However, it is also hard to take two consecutive steps due to the masses stampede through the lower part of the temple. Actually, traffic must be so bad at peak times that all paths are one way streets and you’re lead on a big loop through the gardens from which you can not deviate. Luckily for me, I arrived in the somewhat early morning and while the main spot for viewing the temple was quite busy, the path itself was in no way packed (but also no way empty). The none-emptiness was of benefit to me as I would’ve been unable to identify the carp trying to swim up a waterfall in the gardens (pictured on the side) if there hadn’t been a guide conveniently standing next to it, explaining his tourists what it was. From Rokuonji I continued on to Ryoanji. There I was surprised that this temple is actually called Ryoanji as well, there’s no method to the naming at all! It is famous for its gardens, as are many of the temples in Kyoto. It is also very old, the first temple dating back to the Heian period about 1000 years ago.
Most temples have two typical styles of gardens: One being what we traditional expect of a garden, gras, trees and landscaping designed in a way that the garden incorporates seamlessly the mountains in the distance. You can’t see the temple walls and get the impression of a vast garden, even if it may just be a few square meters. Ryoanji doesn’t just have a few square meters. It has 120 acres and a giant pond in the front where the autumn colours where in full blow. The second type of garden you will typically see in a Japanese temple is the rock garden. Where a number of large boulders are placed into sand, expressing something deeper that eluded me. The sand or gravel is then raked into forms depending on the mood and day. I must admit that the traditional zen gardens did not really impress me much. I guess the deeper meaning mostly eluded me and I appreciated the ‘modern’ interpretations a lot more than the traditional ones. Another thing that was particular about Ryoanji was that one was actually allowed to take pictures of the paper walls inside the temple. Something that is forbidden in most temples or more or less impossible due to poor lighting.
From there I went to Arashiyama, where I would visit Tenryu-ji Temple, the bamboo gardens and the walk through the woods and a small village to the next bus stop.Luckily my foot was mostly recovered by then. The temple offered a lovely garden, incorporating the mountains in the background as scenery for the turquoise pond which featured some huge, hungry kois. Towards the back of the garden, grew the bamboo forest. I must admit that I was never a big fan of the bamboo forest, already when I saw it at other temples. I had been ready to skip it, in case I didn’t feel well, but I went ahead and walked through it. It was a good decision, the bamboo itself isn’t particularly spectacular, but it gives you a good idea of your own smallness, when you consider just how much this gras outgrew you. The path leading from the forest to toriimoto was also very pretty. Something that is no secret and so I was accompanied by many people along the way and, apparently, even Japanese try to take advantage of their tourists. Roughly at the half way point, I came across a sign telling us, that solicitation is illegal and waiting around until someone shows up that can be solicited as well.. I had barely passed the sign, I saw the first people waiting at a corner, trying to convince people to grab a tea in their ‘garden lounge’.
The path ended in a lovely little village consisting almost entirely of wooden houses, many of which had since turned into shops. I stopped at one and bought some chop sticks. While calculating the price the shop owner shorted himself by almost 1000 yen (roughly $10), so I pointed out that the price is wrong. The emotions displayed on his face where quite scary: First came the disbelief that I would be so rude as to point this out, then the shame at others thinking he’ would abuse a tourist, then the worry about what to do if he hadn’t been mistaken and I was going to start an argument over the price and finally the demure somewhat submissive attitude, that you find a lot in Japan. I felt quite bad to put him through such a range of emotions over a mistake that would’ve benefited me. He recalculated the price on his calculator, showing me every step and I could feel how eager he was for me to agree with everything. When he saw that the final price was higher than the original one, he gave me a broad smile and I firmly believe that the original scare was quickly forgotten.

He thanked me profoundly for pointing out the mistake (or so I assume as I don’t speak Japanese) and I left his shop to continued my shopping. This I did in Kyoto’s large central market, the historic center today still sells food in form and consistency that leave me without the slightest idea what it might have been originally. I walked past with fascination and looked at all the marinated and breaded items that I couldn’t quite identify.. I did, however, not dare to try them. Mostly because I could not make out whether the food could be eaten as it was or still needed to be cooked.

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Kyoto – Northern Highashiyama

The afternoon I went out to follow the philosopher’s path in northern Higashiyama. But first I wanted to visit the two large temples Naznen-ji and Eikando. Due to my awesome sense of orientation however, I missed Nanzen-ji and ended up directly at the Eikando temple. This was a real treat, the leaves were already changing colours and the gardens were laid out beautifully with lots of lakes and small turquoise rivers. The individual buildings were connected by small covered wooden paths, that wide from one to another. From there, I originally wanted to head for lunch, however the lines ended up being too long, so I skipped lunch and continued on to the philosopher’s path.

Unfortunately I had hurt my foot in the morning and was limping quite badly by the time I reached the path. I was also in a hurry because I didn’t know when the temples at the end of the path would close and didn’t want to miss it. This is a typical case where less would’ve been more. Instead I tried to ignore the pain and rush down the path, which certainly took my focus away from the view and onto the pain and, I must admit, I was also a bit disappointed.

The philosopher’s path came highly recommended by friends an family for its peaceful atmosphere and enjoyable views. But I think, I visited at the worst possible time, though. Most of the leaves of the bushes had already lost all their leaves, but the trees hadn’t gotten their fall colours yet. It was a mix of browns and some green mostly. In particular in the first half. If I had been able to stroll, it probably would’ve been nice still.

There’s certainly a lot of people strolling on the path. There’s artists sitting on the benches and bridges drawing and the water is flowing in a small canal next to it. The entire business with my foot was very unlucky, especially since I still don’t know how I hurt it, it just suddenly started in the bus. I did, however, also get lucky on several occasions that day. First, I did arrive at Yasuka shrine to see the end of a procession and all the monks (I’m assuming that’s what they were) and temple workers filing through the court yard, for me to observe and enjoy and then, on the philosopher’s path, I did a small detour into  … temple and just as I arrived a newly wed couple exited the temple, giving me the opportunity to see what a Japanese bride & groom look like. Not something I did expect to have the fortune to see.The temple itself was pretty, but not exceptionally so. What made it special to me is that I was almost by myself once the couple had left. It was very peaceful.

At the end of the path is a temple with a silver pavilion. The last of the main sights in Higashiyama. The real name of the temple is …, but mostly it is known as the silver pavilion. So, given this name, I was kind of expecting a silver pagoda. However the name is purely describing the intentions of the builder, not the actual reality. Therefore the pagoda is covered in a simple layer of white paint and the silver was deemed unnecessary. In reality the story goes as follows:

The shogun (the de facto leader of Japan, the emperor was just a puppet) Ashikaga Yoshimasa wanted to build a relaxing house for his retirements. He had a plan to cover the pavilion with a silver foil once it was finished building. Due to several unforeseen events (meaning wars) the building process was delayed and he died before the silver foil was applied. His successor did not see much of a reason to finish the expensive covering and therefore the temple today is as Yoshimasa last saw it. With no silver attached.

And finally, after that, I could have lunch. Sure, by now it was almost 5pm, but the long lines at the restaurants I had passed, had been so discouraging, that I had put off eating until the end of the sightseeing. It was the right decision (if you ignore my growling stomach), as I got a place right away in a small noodle shop, that had been recommended by my guide.

The noodle soup was exquisite and very nicely presented too in a ‘make your own soup’ kind of way: I got the clear soup, the noodles in a separate bowl and an entire plate of different ingredients to add to my soup as I prefered.

I was advised to not just make one soup, but rather put a few noodles with 2-3 ingredients into the bowl and eat that. Then repeat with a different selection. In that way I had ginger-sesame soup, eggplant-muhsroom soup, onion, sesame, radish soup and so on.

Kyoto – South Higashiyama

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From Tokyo, I took the bullet train to Kyoto. After arriving at the train station late at night, I rushed into a full day of sightseeing the next morning. My first stop was the Higashiyama district which hosts many of the best known temples in Kyoto.

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I had read that those well-known temples would be very busy during the day, so that it would be good to visit, for example, Kiyomizudera in the early morning.

Arriving at the bus stop ( After 40min of travel during rush hour.. full buses are not fun), I saw the small road leading up to the temple. While the shops weren’t open yet, the visitors sure were up.  School class after school class seemed to walk by while I stared in amazement. It would definitely not be a lonely or isolated experience.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Kiyomizudera has existed over a thousand years, even if the temple in today’s form was ‘only’ build some 400 years ago.

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The name of the temple means “pure water temple” and describes the spring on the temple grounds whose water is supposed to give you a long life. Given the line, I did not stop to drink of that water so I will never know if it would’ve brought me long life or not.

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I’ll just have to hope for the best. The most famous view onto the temple shows it from slightly below, exposing the large wood trunks that hold up the six story high terrace.

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The best view from the temple is probably from said terrace out onto a little pagoda and then Kyoto. While I did find the tempel structure imposing, I did not stay long due to the large crowds and the fact that part of the temple is being renovated and closed. From Kiyomizudera I went on down the streets of Higashiyama, into Sannen-Zaka, a very cute little street with plenty of old houses and, I got very lucky, some real Geishas, or Geikos as they’re called in Kyoto out for a stroll.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFollowing the street you cross many temples, too many to visit, but I did stop at Kodai-ji temple, built slightly before Kiyomizudera by a woman mourning her husband.

The temple is quite small, but has a nice dragon picture on the ceiling in the main hall and I saw my first raked zen garden there. It also has extensive gardens with a nice little covered path going up to the traditional house in an elevated position. On the other side of the street, there is the Entokuin temple, which is joint to the Kodai-ji temple and features more nice gardens. Though I must say that, while I enjoyed visiting them that first day, I liked some of the later temples’ gardens a lot more than these.

 

 

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Continuing down the street leads you directly to the Maruyama park and the Yasaka-shrine, my first shinto schrine. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, in Kyoto at least. It is still a place of worhip and very busy at all days of the week. I returned to it on Tuesday, as they had special events for the national holiday and saw some traditional japanese dancing there, which was very cool but also very slow for dancing. From there, my last stop in the morning was to be Chion-in. I arrived at the lower entry and looked at the gian gate. What an impressive sight! And, contrary to Kiyomizudera, much less crowded even though it’s another of the top sights.

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I was soon to find out why,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the main temple hall and gardens are currently partially or entirely blocked due to renovations. The main hall, can’t even be seen because they’ve built a large metal box around it for the duration of the renovation. It was a bit unfortunate. The same will be true for Kiyomizudera soon. Right now, one of the neighbouring halls is already being renovated and the main hall, with the terrace is going to be renovated in the coming years. So make sure to check what’s open before you go.

Tokyo

Tokyo.. Arriving at Tokyo I found out that I’m not actually staying in Tokyo but in Kashiwa, a small satellite town of several hundred thousand inhabitants. However, the connection to Tokyo is good with a fast train taking you into down town Tokyo within almost 20 minutes. Tokyo is large and confusing, in so many aspects. It didn’t help that my smart phone died a day before I left and my constant companion gps+googlemaps suddenly was no longer available to me. When I was sightseeing with others, this was not much of an issue, I simply let them take the lead, but when I was by myself it became a measure challenge.
My first night in Tokyo was spent in Akihabara the ‘electric town’. Though I don’t remember so much the electric as the maid-bars, the casinos and hentai stores. By this I don’t mean to say it’s a shady place, quite the opposite. Literally. Akihabara is lit by a thousand neon light advertisements, which make the night bright as the day and while this is unusual for someone that comes from a country that has clear legal limitations for the brightness of advertisements, it is not what struck me most. It’s the noise. Every advertisement seems to be supported by some type of music or spoken message and, of course, you want yours to be louder than your neighbours. There’s a cacophony of noises going on that is insane and when you enter one of the gambling places it becomes unbearable. A starting air plane makes less noise than the music playing in those places.  It’s a special kind of hell. I assume the noise level is so high that it is impossible for you to actually tell whether there’s someone sitting and playing at the next slot machine or not. But it makes me wonder why people would stay there out of their own free will.
That’s another thing that I’ve been finding weird in Japan. The noises and sometimes lack thereof. Every store will play music in Japan. But not just one type, there will be at least three or four different sources of music competing with each other and while you can only hear one source in some parts of the store, most of the time you’ll have an overlay of three or four songs. For a country that’s famous for their ‘zen gardens’ this seems to be a very contradictory thing to do.
The evening in Akihabara was fun though, the forest of neon lights is definitely a must see and this is also were we got thanked for visiting Japan. It was great fun. The next day I set out to do the ‘main sights’ of Tokyo.. As it turns out Tokyo is shopping heaven but has few truly touristy spots to offer. One that’s definitely very touristy is the Sensei-ji temple in Asakusa (pronounced A-sak’sa). There’s long lines of stalls leading to it where you can buy anything from Geisha costumes to ice cream and the temples itself is completely overrun. I didn’t spend much time there, as it did not talk to me at all. The next stop was the Meiji Shrine, which touched me. It is probably the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen in Tokyo. It’s set in a large, large forest in the middle of Tokyo, the entrance is shown by huge gates, called torii. Right away at the entrance of the woods I knew what I had been missing.

This lion-dog seems to be proportionally challenged.

This lion-dog seems to be proportionally challenged.

Both in Tokyo and in Kashiwa; There’s a total lack of animal noises. No birds, no rats, no nothing. It’s eerie. It was another first for me: To be in a city so huge that the animals have gone into hiding  (because for sure the rats where there, but I didn’t see or hear them). Entering the forest of the Meiji-Shrine the birds return and sing their song. The gates are made of dark cedar wood and lead the way to the shrine itself. You walk through a forest of giant cedar trees for about 20min (if you stop for pictures a lot) before reaching the temple itself. It is the typical low-roofed temple building you would expect, with a large, open area at the front. That area is perfect to be on the look out for traditional clothing. The Japanese still like to dress up traditionally, especially when visiting shrines and there’s little that’s cuter than a tiny girl showing off her kimono there. I had a blast just watching and listening. You can’t hear the city when you’ve reached the temple. It’s just birds and trees.

After taking in the old Tokyo, I wanted to see some of the new Tokyo as well. For that I went to Shibuya, well actually, I went to Shibuya first and walked to the Meiji temple and from there to Shinjuku. In retrospect I can recommend everyone to please, please, please do it the other way round. Shinjuku is Tokyo’s largest railway station with an estimated one million passengers DAILY. It has over 30 exits and three separate “southern” areas alone (not to mention the western, northern and and eastern regions): “New south”, “south” and “south west”. It took me over two hours to find the subway line that was supposed to get me out of there. But there’s on thing one should definitely do in Shinjoku and that’s the sky scrapers. They are amazing, from the Metropolitan Government Office one can have a look out onto the city from the 45th floor and gaze at the other sky scrapers that have cropped up around it. It’s all very new and modern and chic. It’s absolutely worth a visit, even if it’s hard to grab an adequate picture because you are behind windows that reflect a lot and that’s pretty much all I had time to see in Tokyo. If I had had more time I probably would’ve picked a different day for the skyscrapers, as the covered sky makes them look pretty drab. From what I’ve seen it’s an interesting city and you can probably spend anything from a day to a year visiting sights there!

Nikko

Nikko.. well the title is a bit misleading because this post will hardly be about Nikko. Instead, it will focus on the surrounding events. We made a big mistake, but we didn’t know it was one until we were in way too deep. Way way to deep. We booked a tour to Nikko with a Japanese tour organizer. It advertised some Ut-carving in the morning and then an afternoon in Nikko. Nikko is really most famous for the mausoleum of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, he also built the predecessor of the highway leading us there that day. But the site is much older than that the first shrines and temples were supposedly built there almost 1500 years ago. We visited only the mausoleum, which itself contains at least three temples and the world famous three monkeys that hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. It’s one the list of UNESCO world heritages and, there’s no denying it is pretty. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


Nikko.. The trip to Nikko began at 7:00am with a pick up bus, so far so good. We want to get their early to make the best of the day. Once we had everyone collected we set off towards Nikko, about 180km away and roughly two and a half hours by bus according to the guide. Then the guide said the first confusing thing “We’d be stopping every hour to get out and move a bit”. Personally I would have preferred to just drive through, make it a 2h drive and be done with it, but ok. So we stopped for 20min at some abandoned fuel station to ‘move our feet’.
After this information was dispensed the lady set off onto a non-stop monologue. It was hilarious, infuriating, unique and depressing all at once. She talked to us (not with us) about her marriage, rice crops, the water cycle, Japanese river and, eventually, also some things about Nikko itself. By that time it was 10:30 and we were meant to arrive to the Ut-carvings. Ok, none of us had been eager to do this, but we were willing to endure it if it made us get to Nikko and, in fact, it was quite fun. After a short introduction on how to hold the device, we started carving out the lines which had been drawn onto the plates for us. I’m obviously very much not gifted, but at least I tried, no?
Then came the first big disappointment of the day. At 11:30 we were done with the carving and eager to get to Nikko. However, our guide veto’d this. The plan said two hours wood carving and we would be doing two hours wood carving. Those who no longer wanted to carve could go outside and look at the foliage of the trees. Finally the time arrived at which we were to go to Nikko. From here earlier ramblings we knew that the restaurant was just ten minutes from the site itself, so we had high hopes to be able to sneak in early and get a bit more time at the site itself. No deal. There was a set menu deal which we were supposed to eat and only after we’d done that would she go to get the tickets. Finally at ten to two we were standing in front of the large areal and she informed us that she was going to give us the tickets now and we’d all meet again here at 2:45 to drive back home.
This caused a minor revolt among the Europeans who’d come to see the shrine, not just wave at it from the distance and after my attempts to mediate for a later departure time failed sinister plots were devised in which we’d jointly return one hour later than supposed to. In the end we did rush though, because we’re not as sinister as we’d like to believe ourselves and while we did take the time to see everything we did not take as much time as we’d have liked to and arrived back 10min late at the bus. I think 90min would’ve been good to visit the mausoleum (without looking at any of the surrounding temples, which would’ve been fun as well), 50min definitely wasn’t enough. Our Japanese guide was a bit besides herself when some Chinese tourists did not return. They took much longer than us, though not because they decided to visit the shrine extensively, but because they got lost in the town while buying souvenirs. Finally we all were back in the bus and arrived home before 4:30. A full two hours before the schedule said we would be back.
This was the first and will be the last time that I take a Japanese guided tour. I think my interests and the average Japanese sightseeing don’t go well together.

The Sake reserves to be donated to the gods. Gods are thirsty

Taking the subway in Tokyo

Is easier than one thinks…

First the little screen shows you that the train is arriving

Then it shows you were you are and which exits are available to you

And finally it tells you that the doors are opening and reveals which station you are at and what the next station will be:

Or not, if you’re looking at the wrong screen:

(The top picture shows you where to queue for which line)

Japan

I’m going to japan. Who would’ve thought.. Not me, at least not the me three days before the scheduled flight. As always things got very hectic at work and I was considering, once again to drop it all and just stay in the safe comfiness of my bed for the two weeks that I was supposed to be travelling to Japan.  So preparation was non-existent and I’ve walked completely unprepared into a world that appears insane(ly amazing). There are so many things that are so different here, that it’s hard to grasp it all and for the first few days one feels like an alien. As if we’ve discovered a new planet and are looking at their inhabitants with amazing disbelief. At least I did. It’s been the strongest cultural shock I’ve ever had. Also because communication is very limited.

There’s the fun things, like the toilets. When we landed, my colleague ran to the toilets to have his first ‘japanese toilet experience’. I followed only to discover it was a ‘normal’ toilet. Our hotel, then, had the real deal. It even opened the lid when you opened the door. I spent a couple of minutes pondering the wonders of the toilet. In particular how it is possible that the toilet lid opens automatically at every entry if it doesn’t close automatically upon exit and why the spray thingie is different for men and women. One thing I found out the experimental way is that the waves shown don’t symbolize water, they symbolize air..  The flushing is usually a completely different interface.

Or, the other day, I bought a little rice cake wrapped in nori(seaweed leaves), upon opening, I discovered the packaging was such that you automatically removed a fine plastic sheet between the nori and the rice. Keeping the rice from making the seaweed soggy. Ok, I can see how this would be hard to pull of with a Jelly-toast, but wouldn’t it be awesome if it was possible?
There’s the strange things (to me, obviously) like the train personal bowing to everyone every time they enter or leave a train car and they pass through every minute. In general there’s a lot of bowing involved in daily life and an amazing friendliness. One of the first nights we went out, we entered a less touristy place where a group of elderly gentlemen were having dinner (and a lot of sake).

Immediately one of them jumped up, walked over to us and said in perfect English “Thank you for visiting Japan”. He then proceeded to have us try their food so we could see if we liked it (we did. A lot!) and helped us order with the cook who spoke no English at all.. Unfortunately they left soon after before we finished ordering and it got a bit more complicated. But we had great food and lots of fun.
And then there’s scary things like the notes displayed everywhere warning you about upskirting and the apparent need for ‘women only’ train cars during rush hour.

One thing that may be scary to some, but made me feel right at home is their relationship with alcohol. When they party, they part hard. At the end of a ‘happy hour’ with all drinks for free we were asked by the host “Did you drink as much as possible?”, which is quite a different concept from “As much as you wanted”. It was a fun evening though and even though I definitely didn’t drink as much as possible, I drank as much as I could enjoy!

One thing I’ve been tremendously enjoying is the fact that Japan is smoke free, smoking in public is forbidden with the exception of restaurants and bars and the smoke boxes, which look a bit like prisons. It seems weird coming from a country where it’s basically permitted to smoke everywhere except for restaurants. But it is so much more enjoyable and the smoke in the restaurant becomes much less bothering if you’re not constantly exposed to it elsewhere. There are much more rules to follow, smoking in public is forbidden, as is littering, solicitation and probably a bunch of other things I’m unaware of. However, as a tourist, you have a sort of immunity. Nobody expects you to know how to behave and people are very forgiving. They’re also very helpful, even if this is often limited by the amount of Japanese I speak (and their amount of English). Unfortunately they’re also not always prepared for the foreigners huge feet or gigantic height. I’ve been banging my head daily in the ryokan.


In the cities, things are usually very clearly labelled and you get arrows on the street or signs telling you where to go and stand. (See also the next post about the metro).