Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Back to Osaka and home

16 November, Toyoko Inn Juso, Osaka

Had a great night in Dotondori. This is Osaka's answer to the Ginza and Times Square. Not that it isn't great fun, but it is a long way off either in reality. Aside from the bright lights, there are the street stalls selling octopus balls, which are not exactly what we thought they were. What you get is a small bit of octopus, rolled in a fish-flavoured dough, with mayonnaise on top. Never, mind, we did again manage to chance upon another great little restaurant and as a bonus, it was happy hour, so the beer was half price!

 On our second last day in Japan, what else could we do but visit a castle? Yep, we had one more castle left in us. Osaka castle is another reconstruction. After the havoc of WWII, Osaka, like most cities in Japan, was a wasteland. Today, standing at the top of the reconstructed castle, looking out over the enormous city that it once defended, you have to admire what the Japanese have accomplished in just one lifetime.

17 November, JQ Flt 20, Osaka to Gold Coast

Our flight left at 8:50pm fairly well on schedule, as you would expect, even from an Australian airline operating in Japan. As it was our last day, we had a late start and headed off to Kobe, just a 25 minute train ride from Osaka. Kobe was about the last city in this part of Japan that we had not visited before, so it was more or less a have-to-do just for the hell of it! As it turned out, it was just that - a nice enough city, but very much like dozens of other cities we have visited. Consequently, we were back to Osaka and out to Kansai Airport well before our flight time. So what else could we do? We just had a few beers and a last taste of original Japanese food and jumped on the plane. Just 8 hours and 45 minutes to go...........



Friday, November 15, 2013

Think we're turning Japanese?

14 November, Route Inn, Awaza, Osaka

(Later same day)

Just had dinner at a little back street noodle bar. It reminded us why we love travelling. This place had space for 15-20 people at a stretch. A little old grandma, hovering at the doorway, grabbed us and ushered us in to the bar seats. When we ordered two beers she tried to explain that they were BIG beers, but we won out. Everything was in Japanese, so we just pointed at what the people beside us were just finishing up. As they left, they gave us the thumbs up on their selection, so all was good. The young guy doing the cooking spoke a little English, so we discussed the meaning of life and other stuff and drank on. The end result was a great experience that would never be found in a main street, Western style Japanese restaurant.

15 November, Route Inn, Awaza, Osaka

We've just about had enough of museums, but it was a bit wet this morning so we headed off to the Transport (read Train!) and the Ethnological Museums. As might be expected, the Transport Museum was a big hit. We even got to drive some model trains!

In spite of a fair bit of museum overload, it must also be said that the Ethnological Museum was well worth the time. It has an enormous collection of artefacts from around the world, ranging from tools to yurts, with photos, videos, statues and all manner of things. Even though English signage is limited, it is extremely well presented. An added bonus is that the museum is located in the Expo Park, accessible by monorail. It was a while back now, 1970, but the park is still a reserve and this time of the year it is in all its autumn splendour. One of the centrepieces of the Expo still stands at the entrance to the park - a huge and extremely ugly statue called Tower of the Sun.

This close to the end of a trip, we usually do a review, but as this is our third trip to Japan for a total of six weeks of Japanese experience, there isn't too much more to add, except to say that there is a lot to be said for repeat visits. Perhaps our best comment on this trip would be 'We think we're turning Japanese... we think we're turning Japanese... we really think so!'

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Shinkansen Heaven

13 November, Shinkansen Hikari 462

Our train today is due to arrive at Tokyo station at 12:40. You can bank on it! Every train we have been on has left exactly on time, to the second. Even local clunkers at the end of a 2 hour journey, will come to a stop as the clock clicks on to the scheduled arrival time.

Every few minutes, a flash of blue and white at the window announces the passing of another 16 car train travelling in the opposite direction. Closing at close to 600 kms/hr, the flash lasts no more than a second or two. We have done this trip before and so we are prepared for the amazing sight of almost solid high-rises for the remainder of our journey. Mt Fuji also awaits, an hour or so before we hit Tokyo. Good visibility in the area is rare, but it is a very clear day today, so we are hoping for a better view than we had last time.

As a treat on our last night in Okayama, we took ourselves off to a sashimi restaurant. A mixed plate of seafood and red meats, including horse, arrived at our table – after we had convinced our waiter that we understood what we had ordered was, indeed, raw. Enjoyable, but far from filling. Our emergency supply of snacks was raided as soon as we got back to the hotel. Food prices, at least where we have been eating, are extremely reasonable. $35 for last night's delicacies included two beers.

Sadly, cloud obscured our view of Mt Fuji. Maybe our return journey will offer a better view?

14 November, Hikari Shinkansen 473 to Shin-Osaka

Given the number of these blogs written on trains, readers could be forgiven for thinking that we only come to Japan to ride on trains. Not true, but it is a big part of the fun.

Our hotel in Tokyo last night was a bit further out of town than we had expected, if there is such a thing as 'out of town' in Tokyo. As a result we just ate locally rather than having a big night out in the city. We spent the morning wandering about Akihabara, the district of Tokyo know as 'Electric Town'. Just after the war, this area was the home of a large black market in radio parts. It has grown into what can best be described as 'geek central'. Electronics stores and electric component stores are still here, but the dominant business is now in the popular Japanese culture of anime. Multi-storey stores feature thousands of models of fantasy characters. Other stores have rack after rack of computer games featuring the same characters, but the weirdest of all are the comic book shops where grown men in business suits and raggedy teens stand side by side, browsing fantasy comic books. And of course, the roar of the Pachinko Parlours floods the streets every time one of the doors to these houses of “fun life” opens.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Okayama Day Trips

11 November, Shiokaze 5 Train to Matsuyama

Yesterday, our first truly wet day saw us on a five hour return train journey through the mountains to the western Honshu city of Matsue. We left Okayama in the rain and it just got worse as the day progressed. A bit of a shame, as the autumn colours increased as we ventured further into the mountains and small villages emerged from the mist. Matsue boasts a fine castle with one of the few remaining original castle keeps. We elected to take the tourist circuit bus to avoid the rain and so were treated to an extended tour of the back streets of Matsue!

Okayama itself is quite a nice city with wide, tree-lined streets and, of course, a castle. We have based ourselves here for a few days to do a few day trips that are a bit off the regular Western tourist trail. As we write, we are crossing the enormous bridge that island hops between the main island of Honshu and Shikoku. It's a much nicer day than yesterday and we are amazed at the mile after mile of heavy industry which seems to be creating almost no pollution. The air is clean and the sky clear. Yet again, we are the only Westerners on the train. Yesterday, amongst the thousands of locals out for a miserable rainy jaunt to Matsue, we saw only one other Westerner the whole day.

Away from the coast, Shikoku opens up to intensive farming. Late crops of vegetables and rice are ripening in a race to beat the encroaching winter chill. Farms are extremely small, with most plots looking to be no more than an acre or two. Yet the farming villages and the individual houses are indicative of a fairly wealthy life style. Food prices are not unusually high in Japan and export is not a factor, so there must be a fair bit of heavy government subsidising going on.

After shoving our bags in a luggage locker on arrival at Matsuyama, within minutes we were on a connecting train to the small town of Uchiko, another 25 minutes away. What a pleasant spot! Walking about a small Japanese town is a real pleasure, especially today (Monday) when most of the usual array of tourist stalls were closed after a hectic weekend. All we needed to do here was walk around a street that has been preserved in all its 19th century grandeur. Because we had the place fairly much to ourselves and it was an extremely nice day, this was a relaxing highlight to a long, but interesting train trip.

For lunch today, we did as we have done every day on our three trips to Japan, hunted out a Lawsons Station. Lawsons is, in Western terms, a convenience store. 7-11, Family Mart and a range of smaller players offer convenience store services all over Japan, and in some parts of China. Unlike their Western counter parts, their prices are not as high in comparison to the larger supermarkets. In Japan, convenience stores offer a much wider range than we experience at home. In addition to what we would normally expect, these shops offer all of the more basic survival needs as well - sandwiches, packaged salads, Japanese food, hot food, coffee and, most important, beer. We usually grab a packet of sandwiches and a salad or a tray of sushi for between $2.50 - $3.50. The really amazing thing about these stores is that their fresh food is delivered every day all over Japan. To get some grip on what a logistic miracle this is, you need to know that Lawsons alone has more than 10,000 outlets across Japan.

Settled in the APA Hotel, Matsuyama, right across the road from Matsuyama Castle, we are all set for a castle visit and a trip back to Okayama tomorrow. For the princely sum of $77, we have a great view of the castle as well.

12 November, APA Hotel, Okayama.

Back in Okayama after our overnighter in Matsuyama.

The Matsuyama Castle was probably the best we have seen in Japan. Mind you, the weather always helps. It was another beautiful day, though the autumn chill is biting more each day. The castles that we have been visiting have all been mostly rebuilt or significantly restored since WWII, but the restoration work has always been faithful to the original. The Japanese have a great commitment to preserving their culture and, as with everything they do, it is done to the highest standards.

On a much less grand scale of workmanship, the hotel we stayed in last night had a tiled bathroom, a little unusual in the sort of hotels we stay in where most bathrooms are 'drop-in' pre-fab cubes. The trade work was near perfect. We have stayed in hotels in Europe and especially in the US, where the equivalent work looked like it had been done by highly skilled monkeys.

We are not averse to dramatic changes of plan on our travels. In a large motorhome, travelling through Germany in 1987, with three young children in tow, we made a spur of the moment decision to go to East Berlin. It was the depths of winter and well before the Wall came down. Our recent choice was nothing so dramatic. With a few days up our sleeves, we have decided to make a dash north to Tokyo for lunch and a dinner. Not too sure of the distance, but it is close to 4 hours on a Shinkansen travelling at close to 300 kms per hour.

And.. just never miss a Decoy Smork! 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

8 November Sukara Shinkansen

Yesterday we travelled to Nagasaki to visit the Peace Park. Nagasaki was only the secondary target on that fateful August day in 1945. Cloud over the primary target, Kokura, sealed the fate of the city, resulting in the death of close to 200,000 people.

Historically, Nagasaki had been an early trading centre, boasting two foreign enclaves, one Dutch and the other Chinese. Despite centuries of persecution, Christian denominations have managed to survive in the city through to the present day. It was directly above the Catholic cathedral that B52 Bockscar dropped the second atomic bomb on 9 August.

Today we are barrelling along at Shinkansen warp speed towards Kagoshima, the southern-most city on Japan's main island group. Like Nagasaki, Kagoshima has had a long history as a centre of trade with China and the West. This southern-most part of Kyushu is a long way from Tokyo. Centuries ago, the journey could take months. This isolation encouraged a certain degree of independence in the good folk of Kyushu, and not just with respect to trade and religion. Well before US Commander Perry's 'Black Fleet' sailed into Tokyo Bay, forcing an end to Japan's isolation, the Shimazu Clan of Kagoshima was smuggling students out to the West to study science and engineering. The clan went on to play a significant role in the political and military development of modern Japan.

Heading back to Hakata this afternoon, we were able to grab an early train and avoid the crowds heading into town for a Sumo competition. We were a little naughty because we had reserved seats on a later train, but we took a chance on grabbing a non-reserved seat.

We have consistently said that using the rail network in Japan is easy. However, there are a few complexities that can confuse the novice. To begin with, there are several different kinds of trains. Subway trains are probably the easiest to understand, they generally operate the same as anywhere else. Then there are Local, Limited Express, Express, Super Express and of course the Shinkansen. Adding to this complexity are the different seat types. Shinkansen trains have a First Class, known as Green Class. Many Express and Limited Express trains have reserved seats. The cost of the reservation can sometimes be greater than the ticket price. Some trains are reserved seats only. While all this sounds daunting, it is all extremely consistent once you come to grips with it. Some may also find the process of actually getting on a train a puzzle on the first few attempts and there are some fairly serious protocols to be observed as well.

This being Japan, it will come as no surprise that queueing is a serious business. We had some real problems with this initially. Queue markers are printed on the platform. Seems simple enough, but the queue locations vary with the number of cars in each train. Not only that, but on some platforms where trains leave for multiple destinations, queues have to be made for multiple trains. Different queues are designated by shapes - circles, triangles and squares. Woe betide any punter who joins the wrong queue! They will feel the silent wrath of hundreds of fellow travellers, which is a bit like ... well nothing at all really.

The over the top politeness of the Japanese was again demonstrated to us this afternoon. As we lined up a photo of a monument across a main road, we were astonished when a bus driver slowed up his bus to avoid spoiling our shot. If you want to test this out sometime, just put one toe on a pedestrian crossing. Traffic from all directions will come to an immediate halt and will remain so until you leave the crossing.

9 November, Shinkansen 456

Just a travel day today, back on the train, headed for Okayama, so it is probably a good chance to comment on some 'weird stuff'. Japan abounds in weird stuff, at least weird to us. For example, toilets here never cease to amaze and mystify. We thought we had seen all the weird toilet stuff Japan had to offer, until we came across the little gem below. When the toilet is flushed, the cistern is refilled from the top by a spout that runs into a small bowl. The bowl has no plug, so the water runs directly on to fill the cistern after each flush. Our best guess is that this is some water conservation device that you can use to wash your hands, so using the soon to be flushed water twice?

Pachinko is a weird Japanese gambling game that has millions of Japanese of all ages addicted! The game is played in multi-storey 'Pachinko Palaces' with names like “Fun World Just” or “Wild Happy Land”. We have tentatively explored several Pachinko joints. The first thing that hits you is the noise. Thousands of machine tunes blast you as you open the doors. Hundreds of earnest, serious and totally focused adult Japanese sit transfixed before these machines, throwing fistfuls of small silver balls into contraptions that look like poker machines on steroids. Anime characters on the screens respond to the numbers of balls won by doing little dances or in the case of more adult versions, progressively dis-robing. Good players are not just rewarded by the various on screen anime antics, they also accumulate veritable buckets of little silver balls. What they do with these is still to be determined.

Weird signs abound throughout Japan. To those of us who don't read Japanese, their meanings will probably always be a mystery. From time to time though, we do manage to get the general idea.

One special sign was explained to us in Hagoshima in southern Kyushu. High on a hill side, on an enormous rock, the Chinese characters for Sanjingan are visible for miles around. The characters were carved into the rock in 1814 by 3900 workmen who laboured for 3 months to complete the job. So what was the important message conveyed by the characters? Sanjingan means, “Very Large Rock”!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

5 November, Hearton Hotel, Osaka.

Travelled out to Nara today, only 50 minutes from our hotel in Osaka, but another world. Once we were past the usual tourist-y streets that take you from the station to the local attraction, Nara Park opened up to some tranquil open fields and forests that were just turning to their autumn colours. Thousands of deer roam the park, stalking tourists for food or just lounging in the warm autumn sunshine. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan. Before then, the capital was moved with the death of an emperor. Many of the temples and other buildings in the enormous park are reminiscent of Kyoto, the other major ancient capital.

Crowds of school kids attempt to terrorise the park's deer. But the deer have their measure. Signs throughout the park warn children to beware of deer butting, kicking and even 'mounting' unsuspecting young folk!

Now that we are able to find our hotel from any point of the compass, we are due to leave tomorrow. We are off on our first Shinkansen trip of this visit to Japan, to Hakata in the north of Japan's southern island of Kyushu.

While on the point of compasses - awful pun- we noticed a very simple, but extremely useful, little inset in the footpath as we left the subway yesterday. A North direction marker - simple, but effective. There is nothing, short of a carnival ride, to disorientate one as absolutely as a subway station. Your directions or map might say go north-east from the station, but how useful is that when you emerge from its nether regions?

6 November, Sakura Shinkansen 553 Shin-Osaka to Hakata

On our first trip to Japan in 2011, we purchased a JR Pass for just over $700 AUD. This trip, the same pass was just $473 AUD. These passes allow unlimited rail travel on the extensive Japanese Rail network, including the original 'bullet trains', the Shinkansen.

We are big fans of long distance rail travel, having hit the rails in Europe, the US, China and Japan. Subway systems the world over have also both baffled and enthralled us since we first climbed on board a London Underground train in 1976. But the greatest thrill of all is a journey on the Shinkansen. Travelling at close to 300km/hr in cars with seating that is superior to most economy class airline cabins, the world slips past extraordinary quickly, but you see far more than from an aircraft. Our trip to Hakata today is 640kms, two and a half hours. No trips to the airport at either end, just a 5 minute subway ride from our hotel to the Shinkansen station and a walk across the road at the other end in Hakata to our hotel. Why would you fly? There has been talk at home in Australia of building a super-fast rail link down the east coast. To quote from a famous Aussie movie - “Tell 'em they're dreaming.” Even along the most populous corridor of Australia, the population density would never support such a service in competition with the airlines.

Now settled in our hotel, just across the square from the JR station, we have planned our day trips for the next couple of days and booked our trains. Surprisingly, we found our hotel in minutes, so we had an easy afternoon scanning the web for extra information on our trip to Nagasaki tomorrow. What would we do without our technology?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Osaka, Japan

4 November 2013, Hearton Hotel, Umeda. Osaka, Japan.

First off, how about a short lesson?

How to meet Japanese people.

Meeting the locals can be one of the most rewarding parts of the travel experience, but for most, overcoming language barriers or just striking up that initial conversation can be difficult. So. Here's how to do it in Japan. Assume a puzzled look, stand on a street corner, preferably in the rain, have your partner scowl at you while you consult a map and generally look hopeless.. This also works best if you are a little past middle age and present as totally non-threatening.

We used this ploy most effectively last night, for an hour or more in both the dark and the rain, as we 'pretended' to be unable to find our central Osaka hotel!

In most other countries, following complete strangers up dark alleys late at night could be considered rather foolhardy. But this is Japan, and you just know that the older gent who suggests you follow him or the young student who knows his hotel is near yours, are just doing what Japanese do, being welcoming, courteous and helpful.

This is our third trip to Japan and there is something to be said for repeat visits. We feel perfectly at home. Everything is relaxed and pleasant. You know that the hotel will be clean. You are sure that everybody you deal with in shops, ticket offices, hotels and on the street will be polite and pleasant.

Just off the back of a couple of weeks in China, we are hit by a number of contrasts. On one hand, China is way more crowded and moving about the cities is more stressful than in Japan. The Chinese just don't have the same culture of civility that pervades in Japan. In China's favour however, everything there is brand new! Subways, city buildings and motorways are all built for the future. While Japan is still impressive, it is falling back; things are looking a little worn - always clean, but just a little shabby. What is interesting is that price wise, at least in the cities, things are just about on a par, except for public transport which in extremely cheap in China.

The threat of rain restricted our sightseeing today to indoors attractions. Aquariums are not usually high on our 'to do' list, but the Osaka Aquarium is world-renowned, so we made an exception. Good call! Despite the crowds, it was fantastic. The remainder of the day we were on the usual museum circuit, “doing” the Osaka History Museum and the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living. As with all things Japanese, extremely well presented, both featured detailed models of city life though history. However, a few more English explanations would have helped.

And,oh yes, we did eventually find our hotel. And, (sorry for the squeamish... BUT... it is so-o-o-o good to use Japanese toilets) today, in our hotel lobby, Janita was washed, dried and deodorised, all while sitting on the toilet seat. :)

Just another late night thrill! From our hotel room in Osaka, we programmed our Foxtel Box, that sits under our TV in Brisbane, to record a TV program that starts an hour from now!

It's a wonderful world...