A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

Essential Honshu

Japan introduction


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My Japan

The scent of incense rising before a shrine, and the rattle of fortune sticks as a backdrop ...

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In Kyoto - shrine at Kinkaku-ji Temple

The fall colours in the hills around Kyoto and the mountains of Kamikochi ...

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Autumn leaves, Kamikochi

The serenity of a temple garden even among the crowds ...

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Garden at Tenryu-ji, Kyoto

The simplicity of each room in a merchant’s house in Takayama ...

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Yoshijima-ke, Takayama

The time taken out of a busy day to extend the courtesy of a bow and to wait patiently in line ...

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On Chawan-zaka, Kyoto

The care taken to ensure that everything, from a gift box to a manhole cover, is as beautiful as it can possibly be ...

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

A tasty morsel of sushi or bowl of steaming soba noodles ...

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Sashimi at Nishi-itoya Sanso, Kamikochi

The bright neon-lit nights of Shinjuku and Osaka.

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Shinjuku at night, Tokyo

That was my Japan

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Tour leader Andrew on the train to Kyoto,
always ready with his map

As this was our first visit to Japan, and not speaking the language, we decided to take a tour. But we don't like to be too ‘shepherded’, so the tours offered by Inside Japan, with lots of flexibility to do your own thing on many of the days, seemed the ideal choice. We were really happy with all aspects of the tour, and with our own independent explorations. Our tour leader Andrew was very knowledgeable, very well-organised and, most important, great company. We had a very congenial group of travelling companions and the whole atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going, despite the intensity of packing so much into such a short trip. No one was pressured to join in and do things with the group, but we often chose to do so even when meals and tours were optional. I would say that even for those who would normally prefer to travel independently, the flexibility of an Inside Japan tour makes it an option worth considering, especially if time is short.

We opted for the Essential Honshu tour which looked like a good introduction to the country and which included Kyoto, top of my must-see list, and of course Tokyo, top of Chris's. The other destinations included on the tour are Hakone, Osaka, Takayama and Kamikochi.

And to give ourselves a small taste of travelling independently in Japan, we chose to add on a couple of extra nights in Tokyo, either side of a two night trip to Nikko. Inside Japan made these arrangements for us but we travelled alone.

This blog is a retrospective look at a trip from some years ago (in 2013) and based on what I wrote at the time for Virtual Tourist.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:03 Archived in Japan Comments (12)

Arriving in Tokyo, jet-lagged and with senses overloaded

Japan day one


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Tokyo, city of contrasts

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Tea house, Hamarikyu

Here, ancient meets modern. A tranquil garden with a traditional teahouse provides a haven among towering skyscrapers. Girls in kimono tour ancient shrines while others don cute or kitsch cosplay outfits to shop in the trendiest boutiques. Shops sell exquisite crafts and the very latest in electronic gadgets. And there are people everywhere ...

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Visitors to Senso-ji, Asakusa

Tokyo is an enormous city, a true metropolis, and its scale can be daunting. Where to go, what to see in a limited time, and how best to get around?

The solution, I think, is to slow down (hard when all around you are rushing), choose a few areas to focus on, and not beat yourself up about everything else that you have no time to see. And make sure you build in downtime – a pause to sit, look around you and take in the sounds, scents and sensations of this at times overwhelming experience of a city.

We started and ended our Japanese holiday here. For the first few days we were in Asakusa – relatively quiet, almost suburban in places, with the beautiful Senso-ji Temple at its heart. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. Although much of it had to be rebuilt following the World War Two air raids, it exudes history and, despite the crowds, a strong sense of the enduring faith that provides a stable background amid the frenzy of modern Japan.

London to Tokyo

We flew to Tokyo with British Airways on a direct flight from London Heathrow to Narita. The flight took 11.5 hours. That's a long while to be shut up in a tin box!

I'm useless at sleeping on planes and inevitably the time dragged, but the in-flight service was fine and the food served (dinner soon after boarding, breakfast before landing) also fine, if unremarkable.

The biggest challenge with this journey is the crossing of time zones. Tokyo is nine hours ahead of GMT, although ‘just’ eight hours ahead of London's British Summer Time when we travelled in early October. The timing of our flight meant that we landed a couple of hours after we would normally have gone to bed, to find Tokyo wide awake and ready to start a new day.

Luckily we found Narita Airport easy to navigate. The queues at immigration weren't too bad, our luggage arrived promptly, and we were soon through customs and searching for the counter where we were to pick up our pre-ordered wifi hub, before heading into the city. The holiday had begun!

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Subway platform at Narita

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Warning sign on the subway platform

To get to Asakusa we took the Kasei Line. We had already been supplied with preloaded Manaca cards, and with directions on the route to take. We followed the orange signs to platform 3 where we had about a 20 minute wait for the next through train to Asakusa. It arrived bang on time!

The journey took about 55 minutes. The first part was through an agricultural landscape (mainly paddy fields) before we entered the Tokyo suburbs. We had views of the Skytree on the left at one point.

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View from the train into the city

At Asakusa we decided that rather than make the 10 minute walk (with suitcases) to our hotel we would change to the orange Ginza line and travel one stop to Tarawamachi station which was quite a bit nearer - although the extra stairs involved in the change of train may have been no better than the walk as it turned out. But we made it OK and found the train to have been an efficient way to reach the hotel, given its location.

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In the Café Sunset

Unfortunately for weary travellers however, the hotel (one of the Toyoko Inn chain) had a check-in time of 16.00 so when we arrived late morning we could do little more than leave our bags and head out again to start sight-seeing. Looking for coffee to help us stay awake after our long overnight flight we came across a small cheerfully decorated cafe not far from the hotel, the Café Sunset.

The first sight that greeted us on entering was a model train set (in fact there are two here) and the second sight was the smiling owner with a helpful English coffee menu in his hand. I was warm from the journey so had an iced caffe latte, and Chris had a cappuccino. The drinks were nice and strong and were served with a small biscuit - just what we needed to revive us.

A little refreshed we felt able to get out and see some sights, starting with the nearby Senso-ji Temple. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. We had a fascinating couple of hours of wandering here and in the vicinity, despite the inevitable tiredness that comes with an eleven hour overnight flight plus eight hours’ worth of jet-lag!

Senso-ji

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Hozomon, Senso-ji

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Fishing the Kannon from the river

Senso-ji was founded in the 7th century and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. According to legend, the temple was founded after two fishermen pulled a golden statue of Kannon from the Sumida River right by this spot. The sacred statue is apparently still housed in the temple, carefully preserved inside three boxes, but never displayed.

The approach to the temple is an experience itself. You enter through the huge Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate. Unfortunately for us, this was under renovation when we visited and largely obscured by scaffolding and hoardings, so I didn’t get a good look or a chance to take photos of it. The gate was originally built in 942 in a different location south of Asakusa in Komagata and was moved here during the Kamakura period (1192-1333). It has been destroyed numerous times, most recently by fire in 1865. It was only 95 years later that it was finally reconstructed by Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic (who are now sponsoring the renovation work, I noticed).

The gate is guarded on each side by fierce statues of the guardian gods Raijin (the god of thunder) and Fujin (the god of wind), and has a massive red lantern hanging above the entrance. The gods are there to guard the temple and people would pray to them to protect it against natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and fire. Over time however people came to pray for their own needs too – a bountiful harvest, good health and for peace in the world.

From here you proceed along a street lined with shops, Nakamise Dori. Nakamise means ‘inside shops’ and I assume the street takes its name from the fact that the stalls are inside the temple grounds. There have been vendors selling their wares here since the late 17th century, and many of the stalls have been owned by the same family for generations. But just because you’re inside a temple’s precincts, don’t expect the items on sale to have any religious significance. This is consumerism living side by side with worship in a way that everyone seems comfortable with here, perhaps because religious practice seems so integrated with daily life.

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Nakamise Dori

So the stalls sell a range of items that just shout ‘you're in Japan’! Super-cute dolls, lucky cats, fans of all descriptions, hair ornaments, cheap polyester kimonos, parasols, chopsticks ... Nothing is very expensive and some of it looks as cheap as it costs, but there are also plenty of eminently purchasable souvenirs and, on our very first day in the country, I had to resist the temptation to buy!

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Stalls on Nakamise Dori

There are also some stalls selling edible treats at very reasonable prices. We snacked on some soy bean jam buns (one with pork which was good, one with sweet potato which was less so, being a little too sweet for my taste) which cost just 170¥ each, bought from some very friendly ladies.

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The soy bean jam bun stall

From here we arrived at another gate, Hozomon, the Treasury Gate. This also has its ferocious guardian gods and red lantern, and on its far (northern) side, a pair of huge straw sandals (O-Waraji) which should be taken as belonging to one of these gods, showing their great size. A sign on the gate explains:

‘This pair of huge straw sandals called O-Waraji had been made by 800 citizens of Murayama City in a month and devoted to Senso-ji. O-Waraji is made of straw and 2500 kilograms in weight, 4.5 metres high. They are the charm against evils because they are symbolic of the power of Ni-Ou. Wishing for being goodwalkers, many people will touch this O-Waraji.’

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Hozomon, and one of the giant sandals

At the top of the gate are storerooms, complete with modern disaster-prevention equipment, to hold Senso-ji's treasures and Buddhist objects.

Hozomon, like Kaminarimon, is thought to date from 942, and also like Kaminarimon has been destroyed many times by fire and rebuilt. The current design reflects its 1649 incarnation which had stood for 250 years until being burned down again in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two. This version is an exact copy of that, and very impressive.

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Five Storied Pagoda

As you pass through Hozomon you will see the Five Storied Pagoda to your left. This, like other buildings in the complex, dates originally from 942 but has been many times destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Most recently, fires from the World War Two Tokyo air raids raised it to the ground, and it was rebuilt through donations made by faithful Buddhists from all over the country. In 1973, the pagoda was further restored to include additional facilities such as a room for mortuary tablets. Relics of the Buddha are kept on the top floor.

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Burning incense at Senso-Ji

In the area in front of the main shrine you’ll see a large incense burner. This is where worshippers ‘wash’ themselves in the smoke to ward off or help cure illness. Either side of this are the fortune telling drawers. For 100¥ you can shake one of the wooden boxes until a bamboo stick slides out of the hole. The stick will have a Japanese number on it, which corresponds to one of the numbers on the set of drawers. You then take the fortune, written in both English and Japanese, from the drawer of that number. I had read that the English translations were pretty obtuse so we didn’t try our fortune. In any case, if you don't like the fortune you get, you can conveniently cancel it out it by tying it to one of the wires provided for this purpose nearby!

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Fortune telling at Senso-Ji

Beyond the fortune telling are some stalls selling prayer cards and amulets. And then you arrive at the shrine itself, Kannondo Hall. This too is a 1950s reconstruction of an older building lost in the March 1945 Tokyo air raids. Though it mirrors the original style, the current building features a solid reinforced concrete structure with titanium roof tiles – the Japanese are rightly taking no more chances.

According to legend, the hall was originally built in 628 to house the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two brothers. At the heart of the inner shrine or naijin is the gokuden which houses this statue, or so the believers say – it is never ever seen and cynics might question its existence. It also houses a duplicate statue and this is seen on occasion – once a year to be accurate, on December 13 when it is taken out for public viewing. Either side of the gokuden are the Buddhist protector deities Bonten and Taishakuten. You can’t enter this inner shrine but you can approach to view it through a grille, taking off your shoes to do so. I couldn’t see any signs prohibiting photography so I took one, respectful, picture.

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Main shrine, Senso-Ji

You can easily spend quite some time wandering around the grounds of Senso-ji, as we did, as there is so much to see here. To the north east of the main shrine is another, known as the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians). Unlike Senso-ji, which is a Buddhist temple, this one is Shinto and their proximity to each other mirrors the way in which these two religions coexist peacefully in Japan and often interact. In this case, the Shinto shrine serves as protection for the Buddhist temple.

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Asakusa Jinja, Senso-ji

It was built in 1649 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Tokugawa shogun, to commemorate the two fishermen who found the statue of Kannon in the Sumida River, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, and to their village chief, Hajino Nakatomo. According to the story of the discovery, it was the latter who realised the importance of the statue and who built the first temple on this site to house it. The three men seen as the founders of Senso-ji and indeed of Asakusa are themselves now worshipped here. The shrine is built in the architectural style known as Gongen-zukuri, which we were to see two weeks later in Nikko at the Toshogu Shrine. This is one of the few original structures in the complex, having survived the numerous fires and the air raids of World War Two.

Near here is the Nitenmon gate, named for the two Buddhist deities (known as ten) that flank it. Like the Jinja Shrine, this gate is an original structure. It dates from 1618 although the deities are a more recent replacement for two that were desecrated in the late 19th century when Buddhism and Shintoism did not live so harmoniously together. The present statues were taken from the grave of Tokugwa Ietsuna, the fourth Edo shogun at Ueno Park. For some reason I seem to have omitted to take any photos of this gate – possibly because it started raining as we reached this point in our explorations.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Meanwhile to the west of the main temple is a lovely garden area with some smaller shrines, statues of the Buddha, attractive planting and a stream with some large carp. There are a number of quiet corners and great photo opportunities. We spent some time relaxing on a bench here, still fighting sleepiness and jet-lag.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Chingodo Temple

After leaving Senso-ji we explored some of the surrounding streets, soaking up the atmosphere.

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In Asakusa

We came across a tranquil tucked-away shrine devoted to the deity Otanuki-sama, the Chingodo Temple. Tanuki means raccoon-dog and the deity is thought to protect people and their homes from disasters such as fire and theft and is also, according to a sign I saw here, a god of ‘the art of public entertainment’.

Also here is a statue of Mizuko Jizo, the Buddhist monk guardian of aborted and prematurely dead children. Mizuko Jizō is often depicted as a staff-wielding monk with children in his arms or, as here, under his robe. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.

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Mizuko Jizo statues, Chingodo shrine

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The children at the Chingodo shrine

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Water fountain at Chingodo

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The Toyoko Inn Asakusa

By now it was late enough to check into our hotel, the Toyoko Inn, and we were weary enough to need a rest, so we headed back there to relax for a while before dinner. We got a friendly welcome, some soft drinks and toiletries as ‘gifts’ (including a gel that claimed to be able turn my ‘ugly body’ into one fit to be seen at celeb parties - yes, really!) and even the offer of a sterilised nightgown! Our 10th floor room was on the small side (as is common in Japan), but had no view other than of the wall of the next-door building. It was dominated by a large, comfortable bed, and we had everything else we needed for our stay too, including a bathroom with shower, washbasin and fancy Japanese toilet (heated seat, spray washes etc). There was a mini-bar, TV, hair dryer, kettle for tea-making and even slippers.

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Compact bedroom at the Toyoko Inn

As we were so tired we didn't want to venture far from our hotel that evening, so found a small restaurant on Kokusai Dori a block or so north of Tarawamachi Station. We had no idea what the name was as the sign was in Japanese only, but they did have an English menu and various set dinner options, which made choosing easier. Service was friendly, and although, as the only non-Japanese in there, we caused a small stir on entering, we felt comfortable and welcomed dining here. There is both western-style and traditional seating; the latter was all taken by a group of what I took to be local businessmen, and we were offered a choice of the one free table or eating at the counter, and chose the former.

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Futuwama

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Tempura set at Futuwama

We both had tempura meals which came with miso soup, rice, sauce for dipping the tempura, pickles and a small salad. We liked the tempura and the dipping sauce but I found the miso soup saltier than I am used to (and I like salt!) and Chris didn't take to it much at all. This was our first meal in Japan so hard to judge at the time, but looking back later in the trip we both agreed it was probably the least good meal we had. A shame, but possibly our tiredness had contributed to that impression, and at least it was good value and convenient for our hotel, so we could tumble gratefully into bed soon afterwards!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:22 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo japan culture temple hotel restaurants city shrine customs street_photography Comments (6)

First full day in Tokyo

Japan day two


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Exploring the city

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On a festival float at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

On our first full day in Tokyo we woke early, excited to get out and explore, although no doubt our jet lag would have been helped by sleeping a little longer. We ate breakfast in the hotel; it was served in the lobby area and consisted of a small but adequate buffet of mainly Japanese items (miso soup, rice) but also small pastries and slices of cake and decent coffee which we supplemented with juice from the inevitable vending machine.

Leaving the hotel we walked south to Kuramae station on the Toei Oedo line which would take us directly to Ryoguku subway station, just one minute walk from our destination.

Edo Tokyo Museum

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Museum entrance

This modern museum, which opened in 1993 in a rather striking building, is devoted to the history of Tokyo from the Edo Period which started at the end of the 16th century) to the post World War Two reconstruction and recovery. Displays include original artefacts, models and large-scale reconstructions. Despite suffering from considerable jet-lag that day (the worst I have experienced) I still found it absolutely fascinating – one of the best museums I have visited anywhere!

We bought our tickets on the 3rd floor concourse and took the striking red escalator up to the 6th floor where visits to the permanent exhibits begin. From our first arrival in the main exhibition area, with its replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge which you cross to reach the first Edo period displays, I could tell that I was in a museum that takes pride not only in its collections but in their presentation and curation. This early 19th century bridge was the gateway from Edo to such places as Kyoto (to the west) and Nikko (to the north). The original was 51 metres in length of and 8 metres wide. This replica is of the same width as the original but half its length.

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The replica Nihonbashi Bridge

As we crossed the bridge we could see below us the replica Kabuki Theatre, or rather the entryway into the Nakamuraza Playhouse where Kabuki Theatre was often performed. On this occasion some museum staff were busy setting up some musical instruments here so we lingered on the bridge and eventually were able to hear the start of a lovely performance on the koto (a traditional Japanese instrument) and some kind of flute. I made a short video of the koto player while we watched, and later the music followed us as we started to explore the rest of the exhibits in the Edo zone.

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Part of the playhouse

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The koto player

Koto performance

These included some very good models of Edo period buildings, both town houses and rich Samurai homes; a row of replica town houses from various periods; a fascinating display about wood-block printing (showing how each differently coloured layer of the image is built up one by one); and lots of artefacts from the time.

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Model of a street in the Edo period, with town houses

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Another Edo period street model

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Samurai mansion from the mid 17th century

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Replica of a print shop

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Replica of a print shop

The Tokyo zone which portrays the city’s more recent history is also very well done, although by the time we reached it jet-lag was kicking in and my body was screaming at me that it was now 2.00 am and I really should be in bed and asleep! Nevertheless, I was interested to see how European influences gradually crept into building design and shocked to see the devastation caused by the Tokyo fire bomb raids of World War Two. I was in this area when a guide was giving some American tourists a tour and I stopped to eavesdrop on what he was telling them – apparently more people died in these raids and in the fires they caused than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a result of the atom bombs – horrific. More positively, a small section near the end describes how Tokyo recovered and rebuilt, and how Japan as a whole embraced a technological revolution that led to its current strong position in the world economy.

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My coffee set

Once we had seen as much as we could take in we went back to the ground floor and got coffee and a bite to eat in the coffee shop there – a coffee plus a cake 'set' for 650¥. I chose ice cream with rice dumplings and a sweet bean sauce, and Chris had pancakes with chestnut puree. This revived us and we were ready to tackle some more sightseeing.

Sky Tree Town and Sky Tree

I had wanted to go up the Sky Tree as soon as I read about it when researching our trip, and had planned to do so this afternoon, but the light rain that had been falling all morning was becoming more persistent and any chance of views from the top seemed remote. But we decided to head over in that direction in any case, optimistic that the clouds might lift. We were becoming more familiar with the subway system so the short but slightly more complex (two changes) journey to Oshiage station was easily accomplished, but we emerged from the station to find that the top of the tower so lost in the clouds that visibility would have been close to zero.

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Sky Tree

So we had to content ourselves with snatching glimpses from below, and with exploring the bustling modern shopping centre that sits at its foot, Sky Tree Town or in Japanese, Solamachi. This apparently has over 300 shops and restaurants, and I can believe that! On this Saturday afternoon it was packed with locals, mostly young, and was a fascinating place to watch young Tokyo at play.

We didn’t shop but we did enjoy seeing the range of goods available and the different displays. We were struck by how cutesy much of the clothing and the accessories were – we’re used to seeing Hello Kitty at home, but she looks positively sophisticated next to some other Japanese trends! There are also a lot of food shops and we were offered some free samples as we browsed.

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Chocolate cake in 100% Chocolate

We stopped off for refreshments at the appealingly-named 100% Chocolate cafė, where I had an excellent iced mocha and Chris a regular coffee and small chocolate cake. The cafė also sells tablets of its own chocolate in a wide range of flavours (56 of them to be precise). I was tempted - but buying chocolate gifts so early in our trip seemed a bit impractical (they would never have made it home!)

Soon after this it was time to head back to the hotel; our Essential Honshu tour was to start officially that evening and we were meeting up with our tour leader and travelling companions for a briefing and to go out for dinner.

Meeting the group

The group briefing took place in the lobby of our hotel, where we had eaten breakfast. By now my jet-lag had subsided and I was able to enjoy meeting everyone and hearing a bit more about the plans for the next couple of weeks from Andrew, our tour leader. There were also some practical details to attend to – he needed copies of our insurance documents and also took our passports as he had offered to go to collect our JR Passes the next afternoon, leaving us more time for sightseeing.

Andrew was to prove an excellent tour leader. An American, he had lived and worked in Japan for quite a few years – initially in a Japanese company and more recently for Inside Japan. This gave him great insights into the culture while ensuring that he understood what we would find most puzzling and/or intriguing. He was also good company and very flexible – happy to lead people around but not at all bothered if anyone preferred to go off and do their own thing, and full of helpful advice to assist us in planning our individual explorations.

After this initial meeting he invited us to join him for dinner, and nine out of our group of thirteen accepted. While this meal wasn’t included in the tour price, it seemed to us a good idea to benefit from his local knowledge and also use the time to get to know our travelling companions a little better, so we were among that nine.

Andrew proposed one of his local favourite spots for dinner, one of the Watami chain of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) on Kaminarimon Dori, about ten minutes’ walk from the hotel. On arrival we all removed our shoes and put them into the lockers provided. We had a large group table on the third floor with semi-traditional sunken seating (much easier for Westerners than sitting on the floor!)

Andrew suggested a selection of dishes and as we were all still pretty new to Japanese food we were happy to go with his ideas. A good decision, as everything he picked was very tasty, including spicy udon noodles, delicious pork dumplings with hot sauce to dip them in, and chicken minced and formed around cheese on skewers. Most of us had dessert - I chose the ‘citrus sherbet’ (sort of like a lemon sorbet) and Chris had a really good chocolate fondant. We both drank draft beer (Santory) which was very good too. The whole meal, with the drinks, was excellent value, and we had a great evening out with our new friends.

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In Watami

Our tour had officially begun and the next day we would explore more of Tokyo together ...

Posted by ToonSarah 04:01 Tagged tokyo japan history restaurants city museum music Comments (7)

Seeing more of the city

Japan day three


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

We spent the following day in Tokyo exploring in part with our Inside Japan group and in part on our own, setting the pattern for the rest of this very flexible tour. Most of us left the hotel together after breakfast and walked with Andrew in the direction of the Senso-ji Temple which Chris and I had already visited on our first afternoon in the city. We were happy to return however, as on that occasion our weariness from the journey had meant that we had missed seeing, and photographing, some parts, including the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians).

It was interesting too, to hear Andrew’s commentary on the sights. While the role of tour leader on an Inside Japan tour is rather different from that of guide (you are warned that he/she is there to help with logistics rather than provide detailed information on history etc.), having lived in Tokyo for some time he was very familiar with the temple and could tell us quite a bit about it to supplement our own reading. It was he who told me, for instance, about the practice of tying an unappealing fortune to a frame to cancel it out!

The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

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The Asahi Flame

From the temple we walked east towards the Sumida River. Here we had a good view of the Asahi Flame. Apparently the building it sits on was designed to look like a beer glass, as it is one of a small complex housing the headquarters of the Asahi Breweries. But very few people look at the building itself as the eye is inevitably drawn to the structure on its top. The Asahi Flame is said to represent both the ‘burning heart of Asahi beer’ and the frothy head to be found on a glass of it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if the company was looking to get noticed and talked about!), the thing that most people consider it resembles is rather more prosaic. Hence its nickname, ‘the golden turd’ or kin no unko!

The flame is hollow but still manages to weigh 360 tonnes. It was designed by the prominent French designer, Philippe Stark, and apparently made using submarine construction techniques. I read somewhere that it was originally intended to stand upright but that this proved impossible to achieve; that may be an urban myth, however, as I haven’t been able to find it substantiated anywhere. Whatever the truth of it, it certainly can’t fail to attract attention and must be one of the most photographed modern buildings in this part of the city.

The building to its left, by the way, is meant to resemble a giant beer jug complete with a foam shaped white roof. I’m not sure it achieves that, but at least it doesn’t remind me of anything else! The complex is built on the site where Asahi started brewing beer over 100 years ago, and although we didn’t go any closer than these photos suggest, you can visit bars and restaurants here to enjoy some of that beer.

Sumida River cruise

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Sumida River boat

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On the Sumida River
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Tokyo Tower seen from the boat

Reaching the river we boarded a boat for a short ‘cruise’ to Hamarikyu Gardens. The ride took about 45 minutes to journey down river. As we travelled we had a commentary in both Japanese and English which seemed mainly to be about the various bridges we passed under (12 of the 26 in total that span this river in the city), but as the volume was set quite low on the English version and there was lots of chatter on the nearly full boat, I may have missed some bits.

We didn’t see much in the way of views of famous landmarks and historic sights on this trip, apart from a glimpse of the Tokyo Tower through the haze, but it was interesting to observe life beside the river. There were some modern apartment complexes and some nicely landscaped green areas where people were jogging or simply relaxing (it was a Sunday morning). Just before arriving at Hamarikyu there was one other famous sight, the Tokyo Fish Market, although this was silent and inactive by the time we sailed past (mid-morning). We then turned into an inlet to moor at the gardens’ dedicated pier.

Hamarikyu Gardens

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

I was really pleased that on our first morning of the tour we were able to visit these traditional Japanese gardens in the heart of modern Tokyo. The gardens were originally built as part of the Tokyo residence of the Tokugawa Shogun during the Edo Period (1603-1867). They are of the ‘strolling gardens’ style – large gardens with ponds, islands and artificial hills that could be enjoyed from a variety of viewpoints along a circular trail. They were first laid out in 1654 by the brother of the fourth shogun who had part of the Sumida River shallows filled in and built a residence on the land thus reclaimed, with strolling gardens and duck hunting grounds by the river. Over time various shoguns made changes and developed the garden, and it was finally finished under the 11th and has remained more or less the same since then. After the Meiji Revolution the residence became a so-called Detached Palace for the Imperial family. It and the gardens were badly damaged in the air raids of World War Two and after the war the gardens were given to the people of Tokyo and reconstructed, opening to the public in 1952.

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In Hamarikyu Gardens

So today the gardens retain much of their original appearance despite serving more as city centre park than anything else. For instance, there are several reconstructed duck hunting blinds and you can still see the remains of an old moat. There is even a ‘duck grave’ created in 1935 to console the spirits of the ducks that were once killed here.

One style often employed in these traditional gardens was known as ‘borrowed scenery’; in this, surrounding scenery was incorporated into a garden’s composition. Of course today the surrounding scenery is of city skyscrapers but for me the contrast they create only served to emphasise the tranquillity of this green haven.

As I explored I found it hard to believe that every hill here is artificial – it all looks very natural. The pool at the centre of the gardens is an obvious focal point and is very pretty, with some traditional looking bridges, lovely trees and a teahouse on a small island.

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Nakajima Teahouse

This is the Nakajima Teahouse, and as we didn’t get to attend a full tea ceremony while in Japan, I was pleased that we had the chance to drink tea here. Our visit included many of the main elements of a traditional ceremony – the formal offering of the tea (though the preparation was done elsewhere), the style of the utensils, the accompanying sweetmeats and the detailed instructions on how to drink our tea.

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In the tea house

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a very prescribed ritual for the ceremonial preparation and offering to guests of matcha, or powdered green tea. It has its origins in Chinese traditions and in Zen thinking. There is a specific order to the events, and responsibilities for both host and guests to follow the particular actions laid down by tradition, from arrival, through the preparation and drinking of the tea, and the clearing away of the (often very precious) utensils.

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Matcha and sweets

For us, drinking matcha here, there were only a few suggested rules. These involved eating the sweets before drinking the tea, as the sweetness is intended to counteract the bitterness of the tea (I’m afraid I disobeyed and ate part before, part after); and holding the bowl in a particular fashion, turning it a quarter turn before drinking. This latter custom relates to the sharing of a single bowl in some parts of a traditional ceremony I believe.

Matcha is rather different to regular green tea and is something of an acquired taste I suspect. For me it was a bit like I imagine drinking grass would be, were that possible! It was certainly interesting to try it, and the traditional setting and sense of occasion made for a great experience which I can certainly recommend even if you aren't too keen on the drink itself.

Elsewhere in the gardens one of my favourite spots was on the north side where a large area is devoted to a sort of wild flower meadow, the Flower Field, which changes with the seasons. When we were there in early October it was the turn of the autumn planting of cosmos – beautiful!

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The Flower Field, and statue of Umashimadenomikoto

Umashimadenomikoto was the god of war. According to a sign next to the statue, it won a contest organised by the former Ministry of War to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor Meiji in 1894.

Other features include a peony garden and wisteria trellises (sadly we were here too late in the year for these), a 300 year old pine that has needed to be considerably propped up (said to have been planted by the sixth Shogun in the 17th century and apparently the biggest pine tree in Tokyo), and several pavilions. I loved my time taking photos here and could happily have spent longer, were there not so much more to be seen in this amazing city!

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300 year old pine

Shiodome

After our relaxing time in the Hamarikyu Gardens we emerged on to the busy streets of the Shiodome area of the city. It was a Sunday however, so while there was a lot of passing traffic, the precincts around the skyscrapers were for the most part eerily quiet – very much like visiting the City of London on a Sunday, I thought.

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In Shiodome

Shiodome is a very recent development (2002) and it shows. The glitzy modern towers accommodate offices, shops, cafés, restaurants, etc. etc. They are separated by elevated walkways and footbridges that allow pedestrians to stroll undisturbed by city traffic. It is all slightly reminiscent of Blade Runner. But Shiodome wasn’t always like this, naturally. The clue is in the name – Shiodome literally means ‘halt the tides’. This was at one time a tidal marshland which separated the Imperial Palace from Tokyo Bay. During the Edo Period (1603-1867) the marshes were dried out and developed into residential land for feudal lords. Later this became the site of Shimbashi Station, the Tokyo terminus of Japan's first railway line. When the railway tracks were later extended to Tokyo Station, Shimbashi was moved to its current location a little to the west, and the Shiodome area was converted into a freight yard. It remained like this into the 1980s when the yard was demolished to clear the site for the development we see today.

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Plastic pub food

We only passed through the area on our way to Shimbashi Station, but there was time to stop for photos and to get a bit of a sense of what was here. Some of the bars and restaurants looked good and seemed popular as a Sunday lunch destination with locals. I spotted a very incongruous-looking bar that styled itself a Victorian pub, the Rose and Crown, but which could not have looked less Victorian, or less English – at the foot of a modern skyscraper block and with a typically Japanese display of plastic food to tempt you into its equally plastic interior!

One sight worth looking out for here is the amazing clock on the side of the Nippon Television Tower. Its official name is the ‘NI-TELE Really BIG Clock’ (yes, really!) and it was created by a famous manga artist and anime director Hayao Miyazaki over a period of four years.

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The NI-TELE Really BIG Clock

Its design reflects his enthusiasm for what is known as ‘steampunk’, a term coined in April 1987 by the American writer Kevin Wayne Jeter. He defined it as a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history and speculative fiction characterized by worlds which use all kind of steam-powered machines, from trains to airplanes and even computers. In addition to steampunk stories and movies, fans of the genre have created real-life steampunk objects, some of them totally functional, and this is apparently one of the best-known examples, though I had never heard of any of this when I was brought up short by the sight as we passed by. The clock is made mainly of copper and lives up to its ‘Really BIG’ name, being ten metres tall and 18 wide. At certain times of day its 32 mechanical scenes come to life – the various human-like robot figures spin wheels, turn levers, work the smithy and perform other operations. But unfortunately, our timing was wrong for seeing this all happen, so I can only go by what I have since read when I say it must be quite a sight. If you want to time your visit better than we did, the ‘show’ happens at 12:00, 15:00, 18:00 and 20:00 every day of the week, with an additional performance at 10:00 on a Saturday and Sunday. The show starts 3 minutes and 45 seconds before each hour so get there a bit early!

From Shimbashi station we took the subway to Harajuku on the JR Yamanote line. Here our group split up, with Andrew going off to collect our JR Passes for tomorrow, when we would be leaving Tokyo to start our journey around Honshu Island, and the rest of us fanning out to explore on our own or in smaller groups.

Takeshita Dori

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Entrance to Takeshita Dori

Harajuku is known as a focal point for some of Japan's most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, and Takeshita Dori is the epitome of this. Its narrow pedestrians-only (thankfully!) length is lined with uber-trendy clothes shops interspersed with the kind of refreshment stops likely to appeal to its mainly teenage market. This is a great place to come, and in particular on a Sunday, if you want to see Tokyo’s youth at play.

The most eccentric and colourful fashions will be those of the so-called ‘cosplay’ aficionados, cosplay being short for costume play, in which fans of animė, manga etc. dress in the costumes of favourite characters. While this started as a practice for fan conventions and similar gatherings, today it has extended into life on the streets and the range of costumes widened. As well as these costumes you’re likely to see Goth, punk and many other styles – often several combined in the one outfit! And the shop windows of course display fashions in the same vein. I wasn’t surprised to read later that Lady Gaga apparently shops in at least one of these!

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On Takeshita Dori

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Shop window, Takeshita Dori

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A face in the crowd, Takeshita Dori

Chris and I squeezed ourselves into the crush of people walking along Takeshita Dori and wove our way between them. The shops here are mainly independent ones, clearly targeted at the young people who flock here to shop for cute accessories and the latest fashions, but there are one or two chains among them, including 7-Eleven and McDonalds for refreshment breaks. We wanted something more Japanese than the latter so, despite feeling a little out of place in this youthful crowd, decided on lunch at the Caffe Solare which had both Western and Japanese light meals (I had a great toasted sandwich with avocado and cheese – so not so Japanese after all maybe!) We managed to get a table by an upstairs window which gave us a great vantage point from which to watch the passing crowds.

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Shopping on Takeshita Dori

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In the Caffe Solare

After lunch we walked a little further down the street and grabbed some more photos. But we are clearly not in the target market for these shops, so relatively soon we retraced our steps and crossed the road by Harajuku station to enter Yoyogi Park.

Meiji Jingu

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Meiji Jingu: torii gate

The main draw in Yoyogi Park is the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. It was originally built between 1915 and 1921 but was destroyed in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two, so what we see today is the 1950s reconstruction.

Emperor Meiji was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867 as the first emperor of modern Japan. His accession brought an end to the feudal shogun era and ushered in a period known as the Meiji Restoration, during which Japan modernised and westernised herself to join the world's major powers. This shrine celebrates that achievement so is a significant place in the country’s history and sense of itself.

The shrine is surrounded by an evergreen forest that consists of 120,000 trees of 365 different species, by people from all over the country. We strolled through these trees along wide paths, following the crowds of both Japanese visitors and tourists. The first thing we saw was a large number of sake barrels displayed by the side of the path. These are offered every year by sake brewers from around the country to show their respect for the souls of the Emperor and Empress in recognition of the encouragement given to the growth of this and other industries under the Meiji Restoration.

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Sake barrels

Near here we passed through the first of several torii or shrine gates. This one is the biggest of its style (known as Myojin) in the country – 12 metres high with a 17 metre cross piece spanning its 1.2 metre wide pillars. It was made from 1,500 year old Japanese cypress or hinoki in 1970 and is an exact replica of the 1920 original.

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Torii at Meiji Jingu

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Part of the main complex

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The temizuya

Passing beneath this the path continued to the main shrine which we entered beneath another torii. Just before this on the left is the temizuya or font where the faithful purify themselves before entering the shrine.

Once inside we found ourselves in a large courtyard surrounded by several buildings and with the shrine itself in front of us. People were milling about, and there were amulets for sale and prayer plaques, known as ema, on which people were writing prayers and wishes before leaving them hanging for the spirits to read. Around two sides of this courtyard we saw hundreds of dolls and soft toys lined up in rows, with more being added even as we looked. I wasn’t sure whether these are given in gratitude for prayers answered or as offerings to ensure a positive response to entreaties.

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The ema or prayer plaques

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Soft toys and dolls

Perhaps because it was a Sunday, we were lucky enough to see several weddings in progress while we were here, and no one seemed to mind us watching and taking photos. The bride in the photo below had an especially beautifully embroidered white kimono and a striking headdress, but all were lovely.

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Wedding procession

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Wedding photo

After some time wandering around and taking in the sights I was a bit weary and wanted to rest. We sat on the steps near the entrance but were asked to get up – this is sacred ground and it seems sitting on it is not allowed. So we headed back to the visitor centre area beyond the outer torii. Here there is a self-service café selling light meals and drinks, a restaurant, shop and also a treasure house where you can see personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress, including the carriage which the emperor rode to the formal declaration of the Meiji Constitution in 1889. We decided to skip the treasure house however, as time was getting on, so after a cold drink we headed back to our hotel to rest up for a while before dinner.

The Asakusa Grill Burg

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The Asakusa Grill Burg
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Burger with egg

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In the Asakusa Grill Burg

In the evening we decided to try the Asakusa Grill Burg restaurant, almost opposite our hotel on Kokusai Dori. The menu (there was a single English one, which we had to wait to see) suggested a fusion of Western and Japanese cooking styles, which we thought might be interesting. The decor appealed to us too, with an interesting mix of art work displayed on the walls.

To start with we shared some crudités, and for mains both chose burgers with cheese and egg topping and soy sauce with wasabi. These came with a few vegetables (including bean sprouts and broccoli) and rice. We drank two small, draft Asahi beers each. The meal was OK although nothing special, but the beers were good and the service friendly, with a little English spoken, so we had a good evening.

The next morning we were to leave Tokyo after breakfast, but return eleven days later to a very different part of the city.

But that is for a future entry!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:06 Archived in Japan Tagged skylines people tokyo shrines parks architecture flowers japan culture temple restaurants city garden customs street_photography Comments (6)

There’s more to Hakone than Mount Fuji

Japan day four


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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General view from the Open Air Museum, Hakone

The best known landmark in Japan, and indeed one of its most iconic sights, is Mount Fuji. There is however no guarantee that you will see it, as the weather is unpredictable and the mountain often shrouded in cloud. We however were to be among the select band of lucky ones. But even had we not seen Fuji at all, our couple of days here would have been among the most pleasant of the whole trip, made more so by the friendly welcome we received at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse. We spent two nights in this small family-run guest house in Sengokuhara, and travelled the region by bus, funicular, cable car and even pirate ship!

Although I had enjoyed our time in Tokyo, it was in Hakone that I first started to really feel that I was getting closer to Japan.

Getting to Hakone

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Odawara Castle seen from the bus station

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Hakone Free Pass

To get to Hakone from our hotel in Asakusa we first took the subway (Ginza line) to Ueno, then the JR train to Tokyo station. Here we boarded a bullet train to Odawara (about 30 minutes). From here we took the bus, using our Hakone Free Pass.

This is a great buy if you plan to spend any time at all travelling around the Hakone area. You can buy a pass for two or three days, and use it for free travel on all the varied forms of local transport – local trains, buses, the funicular railway, all the cable cars and even on the pirate ships on Lake Ashi. As a bonus, you also get discounts at some of the attractions.

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Local bus

The ride to Sengokuhara took about 50 minutes, with lots of stops, climbing gradually. We followed a pretty river for part of the time, and later the road wound through woodland with glimpses of the surrounding mountains. The bus stopped only a couple of minutes’ walk from our guest house, Fuji-Hakone in Sengokuhara, so it was a very convenient way to travel here.

These though are local buses and not geared up for bulky luggage. We had taken Andrew’s advice to make use of the excellent luggage forwarding service offered by Japan Rail, so most of our stuff went directly from Tokyo to Osaka while we brought just enough for two nights on our journey to Hakone. I definitely advise doing the same as even our small overnight bags were an effort to squeeze in.

We stayed for two nights at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse, a friendly family-run ryokan in Sengokuhara. Rooms are Japanese style, with futons and tatami mats. Chris and I had a ground floor room, Fuji (all rooms are named after places in Japan). It opened directly from the pleasant communal sitting area. Walls are thin here, so even in your room you will have only a certain amount of privacy. I hadn't been sure how I would find sleeping on a futon but it was fine – comfortable and very cosy. There are no en suite facilities but you can book either the indoor or outdoor onsen for private use (30 mins at a time per room) – we used the outdoor one on both evenings and felt wonderfully relaxed each time after our soak under the stars.

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Corner of our room at the guesthouse

But for now we simply checked in, left our bags in our room, and hurried out again with Andrew and most of the rest of the group to return to the nearby bus stop and catch another bus to the Open Air Museum.

Hakone Open Air Museum

This was one of my highlights of our time in Hakone (although looking back I can’t think of much that we did here that wouldn’t fall into that category!) Not only does it have a fantastic collection of modern sculptures, including works by Henry Moore, Picasso, Antony Gormley, Rodin, Miro, Giocometti and others, it displays them in the most stunning setting. On arriving here we first had lunch in the Chinese restaurant near the entrance, which has fantastic views of the museum and the mountains beyond (the photo at the top of this page was taken from there), and then set off to explore the collection.

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Man and Pegasus, Carl Milles

All the sculptures are beautifully displayed around the grounds, each one positioned in a spot carefully chosen to show it off to best advantage. As you wander the paths you find a new gem around each corner, and most you will see from several angles and all with these fantastic scenic backdrops. We strolled around happily, taking lots of photos, for a couple of hours.

Among my favourite works were:

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Sfera con Stera by the Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro

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Reclining Figure: Arch Leg, Henry Moore

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A series of four Grande Statues (la Force, la Victoire, la Libertė and la Eloquence) by French sculptor Bourdelle, which looked especially good in this setting - the photos above are of la Libertė and la Eloquence

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The Hand of God by Carl Milles, and his Man and Pegasus above

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Grande Racconot (detail) by Giuliano Vangi

I also liked a kinetic sculpture by a Japanese artist, Takamichi Ito, called Sixteen Turning Sticks, which I videoed for a while.

One highlight was the Symphonic Sculpture, where we climbed the spiral steps for some more wonderful views, as well as admiring its wonderful stained glass interior.

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Symphonic Sculpture

Another was the hot water spring foot-bath at the far end of the gardens, where we could slip off our shoes and sit relaxing with our feet in the warm water. While this is included in the admission fee, I did pay 100¥ to get a small towel to dry off my feet afterwards it made a great little souvenir of our visit.

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The foot spa seen from the Symphonic Sculpture

We didn’t bother to go inside the several indoor galleries, which have among other things an extensive collection of works by Picasso, as it seemed a shame not to spend all our time outside where we could enjoy the wonderful scenery as a backdrop to the art. But we did pop into the café near the hot spring for ice creams – my first taste of green tea ice cream (and last, as it turned out, as it proved not really to my taste).

After a really lovely afternoon here we caught the bus back to the guest-house to freshen up before dinner.

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At the entrance to Daichi

On Andrew's recommendation we all headed to Daichi for our first dinner in the Hakone region. This is a family-run restaurant and that’s just what it feels like. The interior isn’t fancy (bare wood tables and seating, minimal decor) but it’s cosy and the service is friendly.

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Teriyaki chicken set

With 14 in our group we were asked to pre-order but that wasn't a problem as the guest-house had menus (in English, with photos) for us to consult. We all chose from the various set dinners. I had the ginger pork (the meat is thinly sliced and more like bacon) and Chris the teriyaki chicken. All our set dinners came with a bowl of chicken soup, a vegetable dish (egg-plant / aubergine), rice, pickles and salad. The portions were very generous and although the food was good I couldn't eat all of mine. Washed down with cold sake it made for an excellent if simple meal, and great value.

It was still quite early when we got off the bus back at the guest-house, and several off us decided to check out the shop opposite, which was still open – Lawson’s. This proved to be to be the ideal spot to pick up dessert and/or a drink to enjoy while relaxing in the lounge after dinner. They had some things we recognised from home (a good range of Hagen Dazs ice creams, for instance), and many that we did not. We bought some plum wine (very nice), an odd-looking half-hollow chocolate cake (less so) and a can of hot coffee from an impressive range on display.

There isn’t much to do in Sengokuhara after dark, but with snacks and drinks from Lawson’s and the cosy lounge at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse in which to enjoy them, no wonder the watchword for our group soon became ‘We love Lawson's!’

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Hot coffee for sale in Lawson's

Later, Chris and I had our pre-booked 30 minute slot in the outdoor onsen, and found it wonderfully relaxing to soak under the stars. A lovely end to a super day.

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In the onsen!!

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And in the cosy lounge

Posted by ToonSarah 12:08 Archived in Japan Tagged art restaurant japan museum customs hakone Comments (4)