A Travellerspoint blog

APRIL 2007-kaleidoscope of ancient and modern Japan -part I


sunny 16 °C
View Seoul to Japan part I on Bulls's travel map.

Under the famous cherry blossom tree


When we decided to come and live in Korea for a year it wasn't because we had any particular interest in the country itself but mainly for the opportunity to live abroad and travel to other "nearby" places.We also thought that it could have been a chance to boost up our finances -but so far we have only enriched ourselves with photos and the great experiences of places we have been to while away from the UK...not that we are complaining

Anyway the idea of coming this way excited us very much, especially because of its location -Korea is very close to Japan. And Japan has always been somewhere amongst the top countries we wanted to visit!

So Japan here we come!

Our adventure with Japan began in Tokyo where we flew in on friday night.
We took a taxi to our ryokan located in Asakusa -the old part of the city.

The taxi ride was pretty cool. To our suprise there was not much traffic and entering Tokyo via the express way snaking amongst some very impressive buildings, it felt as if we were flying just inches above the city. And the views of Tokyo at night were stunning as expected.The city was buzzing with colourful lights and neons but we were mostly impressed with the red twinkling lights on top of a few buildings that seemed to be coming and going to/from nowhere as if the echo of light was drawing us deeper and deeper into the city.

However short our stay, while in Japan we wanted to have the ultimate Japanese experience. We decided to spend most of the night in ryokans - traditional Japanese inns dating back to XVII th century - somewhat equivalent to the guesthouses except there are no beds in the rooms but futons that spread out on tatami floors, the bathtub is more of the "squat in it" size but taller then bathtubs we have in our bathrooms and there is usually a beautiful tea set with some green tea. Once in the ryokan you take your shoes off at the entrance and you're supposed to change your clothes and wear "yukata" which is a casual form of the kimono and was originally worn after the bath (simply - a dressing gown or "around the house" clothes). Depending on the size, location and the price, ryokans tend to offer a variety of facilities such us hot spring baths, delicious home made food prepared out of local and seasonal ingredients,karaoke bar etc.
The best and most authentic ryokans are often located in scenic places on the outskirts or outside towns.


In Tokyo -having chosen one of the cheapest ones and conveniently located on the back streets of Asakusa - Tokyo's oldest part of town -we didn't have very high expectations. And right we were to do so as with its old carpets in the corridor, tiny rooms and a musty smell the place resembled more of an old youth hostel although still in japanese style. Considering it had all the basic works -the tatami floor, futons, yukatas and tea set were all there, the staff were all very friendly and we were out in town throughout the days and back totally knackered late evenings,the place did the job of providing a very cheap and basic Japanese sleeping experience!

We fully dedicated our first day to Asakusa -the old part of town, with some of the greatest temples, markets and where some of Tokyo's old folks live and carry on with their daily routines as if the world around them hadn't changed. It is not suprising it is packed with people -its old, traditional Japanese atmosphere attracts not only foreign but also Japanese tourists but somehow you're not bothered by the crowds who seem to be an integral part of it all.


We followed a long street lined up with tourists and market stalls selling Japanese crafts and souvenirs to Senso-ji -the biggest and most significant temple in Tokyo. We not only visited the temple but were able to discreetly observe other people who came to visit and pay their respects to yet another incarnation of Buddha (the one of Mercy) and receive "blessings" by burning giant insence and bathing their faces in its smoke in front of the gate to the temple.


It was a nice place to be and walk around although felt a little strange lacking the knowledge of what the place is really about and what different things symbolise but we learned more as we had travelled further on.

There was another way we could have done the tour around the old town but at the time we somehow didn't fancy it...now I wish we did....it is cheesy and touristy but hey ....at the end we are the tourists!


Having paid our visit to the temple, we decided to walk to the pier to take a cruise on Samida river. As we walked along we saw people gathering all along the river and suddenly we found ourselves looking at "backstages" of what was to be a show of a traditional archery competition performed on the horseback or foot, with its form going back as far as XII century and handed down to the present day.


In the old days the shogun himself encouraged it as a necessary accomplishment for a samurai and in the present day the event is held by the head of the family that has been an active master of archery and horsemanship and inherited the shogunate.


It was a great show as we didn't known about it beforehand and came across it simply wandering down the river.

Next was the cruise on the Samida river, nice and relaxing, offering not the most beautiful but an interesting overview of the city and Tokyo's bay.We passed under quite a few bridges, some old as well as modern buildings, the famous Asahi Beer tower, a XVIII centrury traditional Japanese garden and a fish market.



We ended the day in a local restaurant in Asakusa where Nick had some traditional Japanese dish of egg, pork and noodles and I went for the chef's sushi plate of the day that had a wide range of sushi samples and I really enjoyed it except for the sea urchin roe one which had a very strong taste and was literally repulsive ....

Our second day in Tokyo we spent by travelling in between different this time modern and happening districts of the city but first we went to Ueno Park


filled with galleries and museums that unfortunately we didn't have the time to visit but at Maja's request we stopped at the Ueno Zoo to see the giant panda. For some reason panda's enclosure seemed to be the least pleasant one. While other animals seemed quite happy and kept in good condition, the panda looked a bit miserable and depressed.


After enjoyable time watching the animals, we went to see peonies garden filled with all the colours and sizes of the flower!It was beautiful and I absolutely loved it -peonies have always been my favourite flowers -my grandma use to grown them in her garden and I remember poking my nose to smell them just like Maja did here:



In case you like peonies or are a fan of crosswords -its name comes via Latin from Greek and belong originally to the physician of gods.

As it's been a while ago since we had accomplished all this, I can't remember in what order we did things, but we decided to walk the streets to get a bit more feel of the city instead of jumping on the subway getting on and off at major sights and attractions.
Looking at the map, city looks very compact and places we wanted to go to seem quite close to each other but once you start walking (with a 4 year old who wants to look and touch literally everything) it takes a bit longer then expected. Still we walked through very beautiful Hibiya Park with a large lake filled with spotty, red, white and black carps and turtles sitting still on the rocks as if they were statues to the Imperial Palace gardens as the palace itself is not open to the public.


Just across the road was the busy shopping district of Giza


with the expensive shops and the Godzilla statue somewhere within. We walked for ages looking for it and expecting it to be respectfully a big size and we nearly missed its ironically small statue although standing face to face with it, it could still send shivers down your back and it took few minutes to persuade Maja to come close to it and have a picture taken:


Next we found ourselves on electric powered streets of Akihabara -famous for its many electronic shops and Mecca for games', manga and animation lovers.


We only wished we had more time to dive into some of them as it looked fun and do some people watching as this is apparently place to be but all we had time for was to rush through the streets and visit the Anime Centre located in one of the higher buildings there which also gave us a good panorama of the area.


Then there was the time for dinner and saying good-bye to the city from the 250 metres high observatory of the Tokyo Tower.

Standing there and watching the city at night with its neon lights blinking in all colours and in every direction, Tokyo felt like a very cool city to live in offering a big choice of neverending and sometimes the weirdest enterteinment there is! It felt like all we had done here was having a quick peer at it through the keyhole not having enough time to turn the key and open the door. Definetely a place to go for the youngsters out there with spare time on their hands....
Not a very sharp snap of the night view but gives an idea:



However sad we were to be leaving Tokyo behind, we were very excited and looking forward to the rest of the trip and the next day on the slopes of Mount Fuji!


We booked a day tour to the mountain, with a cable car ride and a boat ride on one of the nearby lakes.
The clouds had hung very low this day and although we came half way up(by bus) to the 5th station, which is not always possible due to the weather conditions,the mountain still wouldn't show itself.



Slightly dispappointed, we got the fridge magnet from the souvenir shop and went on the cable car but all we could see all up the way were other traveller's disappoited faces.


Next was the lake and again as if cruising in the clouds, we couldn't even see the lake -never mind Mount Fuji! At least we felt relieved we hadn't gone ahead with our original plan of spending 2 days around the mountain, soaking up in the hot springs and enjoying the view ......

It was still a good trip, the guide on the bus was brilliant, sharing interesting facts of the country helping himself with self made pictures and lots of humour. If it wasn't for him we would never find out an interesting fact that Japanese almost NEVER say "I love you".....and that the headquarters of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult (responsible for chemical warfare conducted on the Tokyo subway using sarin gas) were located very near, by one of the lakes near Mount Fuji.(if interested - see more info at the bottom of this trip's entry)

Maja made a good friend with an American/Iranian boy and although they had only spent a few hours together, both found it difficult to say good-bye to one another.
Here they are with Maja's favourite Japanese cartoon character -cuddly, smiley, magical and mysterious Totoro :


The best view we got on this trip wasn't unfortunately of Mount Fuji but this beautiful tree came to the rescue:


This was the only organised tour we had joined during our travels through Japan All the the rest we have tailored ourselves.
So next we made our own way to the train station and bought some dinner to have on the way.


This must have been the best dinner and the best train ride we have ever had.
While in England we would generally grab a sandwich or pasta/salad box (well I'm not mentioning Mc's and KFC's and all that lot) ,Japanese have all this too but what seems to be traditional and very delicious are the boxes packed with plenty of little things inside: a piece of fish, variety of pickles (oriental style), fragrant rice, little omlettey things and lots of other sometimes hard to identify bits and pieces!There is also a choice for seafood and meat lovers. Conveniently packed, fresh, healthy and with great variety of choice -it was definetely a winner for me.

As for the train -no need to comment -clean, spacious, cool looking, comfortable and fast as the bullet in its name, little expensive but definetely worth the money pleasantly transfering you from one place to another(worth buying Japanese Rail Pass if that's the way you're going to travel)!

This month we liked:

words by Caskie Stinnett
"I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine."

2 books by Haruki Murakami:

"Underground" -already mentioned while writing about Mount Fuji, this book is a collection of interviews the author had conducted with the people who lived through the catastrophe including the victims, not affected passers-by and the members of the cult -the ones who had quit the cult since and the others who remained the members. Very interesting read!

"Kafka on the shore" - absolutely fanastic book, it starts a little slow but once you're "in it" there are two things you are no longer able to do - put it down or understand just as the words:

"In the place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment"

Murakami's state of the art website is definetely worth visiting if you decide to read him, music plays a significant role in some of the plots and characters life and you can listen to what they had listened to in an instant -loved it!


Jonathan Ross "JAPANORAMA" series

"carp flags" (which brought my some memories back from my kindergarden years when I was chosen to read out the greeting (in English)to the Japanese comitee visiting our town's factory - it was my first (and last) public performance, I must have been 6 and scared to death lying to teacher's 5 mins before the big event that I had stomach cramps hoping to get away ...the same flags were flying over our heads ....now I know that generally the carp stands for good luck and prosperity in Japanese tradition although originally The Carp is a symbol of boyhood courage and strength -"In Japanese tradition, a boy’s family flies a carp shaped streamer to encourage him to achieve his goals in life through unrelenting perseverance. In this way, the boy emulates the Carp, that fights its way up stream against formidable opposing currents to reach its destination."


Monchhichi- yet another childhood memory and a funny story:


I had one when I was small and haven't see it since. I had to buy it FOR MAJA :)
She liked it straight away but unfortunately lost it during the day and was pretty upset about it. We kept looking for another one but typically couldn't find it.
While we were at Mount Fuji -they had some in the toys shop , so Nick secretly got another one (looking as close to the lost one as he could)and brought it back to Maja with the story that Monchhichi wasn't really lost, he just went to say g'd b-ye to his friends...Maja seemed to buy the story although she commented "He must have had a big dinner as he seemed to grew a bit bigger overnight"...

Recycling in Asakusa:


And of course:


And special thanks to: Dominik for sharing his experience and throwing in ideas

Our journey through Japan continues soon in the next entry in the meantime greetings to all our families and friends!

Posted by Bulls 15:40 Archived in Japan Tagged family_travel

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Hey! Thanks for credits! Your trip to JP had to b fun!!! Great pics! Eh I have to wait to go back there till next year ... (x_X)/ matane!

by haya_buza

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