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Japan

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)

Seeing more of the city

Japan day three


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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)

A full and fabulous day!

Japan day five


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

Making the most of the Hakone Free Pass

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At Owakudani Hot Springs

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Our bedroom

I slept well on my futon in the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse – a little to my surprise as I had expected the floor to seem hard. Most of us were up early, eager to see what Hakone had to offer and with most of the group opting to join Andrew on a full day out in the region. The shared bathroom facilities meant a bit of polite juggling but we were all soon at breakfast which was served in the adjacent house just a few steps away. Although this is a traditional guest-house, the breakfast was Western in style, with fresh fruit (pineapple and banana), bread for toasting with a selection of jams, yoghurt, cereals, tea, coffee and orange juice.

The plan for the day was to make the most of our Hakone Free Pass and, guided by Andrew, take in some of the major sights using a variety of means of transport. The element that could not be planned was to see Mount Fuji. Fujiyama is a fickle lady and too often shrouded in cloud, but today the sun was shining and we hoped for the best!

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On the funicular
from Gora to Sounzan

We took the bus from Sengokuhara to the small town of Gora, where we changed to the funicular to Sounzan. Confusingly the Japanese call this a cable car, and what I would call a cable car they term a ‘ropeway’! But whatever you call it, this is a useful little service that links Gora, one of the main transport hubs in Hakone, with Sounzan where you can catch the ropeway / cable car proper to Owakudani and onwards to Lake Ashi.

The journey from Gora to Sounzan only took us about ten minutes, with brief stops at a number of stations – one serving a hotel while others seemed to be used by a few locals and walkers.

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Funicular from Gora to Sounzan

In Sounzan we changed to the rope way. This is a cable car system that links Gora to some of the main sights of the region, including Owakudani Hot Springs and Togendai on Lake Ashi. I love travelling in cable cars but a few of our group were less enthusiastic, especially one who had a fear of heights. We were able to reassure her, and all piled into a car for the eight minute ride up the mountain.

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On the way up to Owakudani

There were some lovely views as we went (though there would be better ones still on the way down, as you will see) and we were soon alighting at Owakudani. Here we found ourselves in a rather incongruous modern building with shops and cafės, but a quick look outside the picture window showed us a very different scene.

Owakudani

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Owakudani Hot Springs

Beyond the modern cable car station we were in a landscape that seemed to be from another world. The earth is steaming; this is truly the ‘Great Boiling Valley’ that the name, Owakudani, declares it to be. It also lives up to a previous name, O-jigoku, meaning Great Hell.

We started to climb the path towards the hot springs, but before reaching them we were stopped in our tracks by another sight. There is no more recognised symbol of Japan than Mount Fuji, and every visitor to the country hopes to see this iconic volcano, so perfectly conical in shape, just as a child would draw one. But the weather in this region (indeed in most of Japan) is not especially reliable, and on many days Fuji is shrouded in cloud. For several days before our visit here the talk in our group often turned to this topic - would we see Fuji? And now, suddenly, there she was – completely clear and also, unusually, devoid of snow. Andrew was very surprised by this latter sight as he had never before seen Fuji snow-free.

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First view of Mount Fuji

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Mount Fuji from the path to the hot springs

Andrew promised us an even better view later in the day, when we would, he said, be able to photograph the volcano with Lake Ashi and one of its red torii gates in the foreground. But as I have said, Fuji is elusive and does not reveal herself willingly. By the time we were to reach this spot, however, the clouds would have descended and Fujiyama be hidden from view. But no matter – we had seen what all visitors dream of seeing, a dream that only some are able to realise.

I am getting ahead of myself. For now, after taking loads of photos of the mountain, we continued up the path. As we climbed the steam rose and swirled around us, and there was a strong smell of sulphur in the air.

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Owakudani Hot Springs

The trail leads up and loops around several of the pools, but there are many more on the hillside above. This eerie landscape was created when Mount Kamiyama erupted around 3,000 years ago. Standing here you are in fact in its crater – no wonder the ground hisses and boils beneath your feet. As a visitor to Japan you will have been aware that it is a seismologically active country, with earthquakes a fact of life; here you can really appreciate what that means.

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Kuro-tamago: black eggs

At the point where the path divides to make a loop around the geysers there is a small hut and in one of the hot pools nearby a man was boiling eggs. Eating one of these eggs is said to add seven years to your life! They look black but are just ordinary chicken eggs – the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. You can buy them in bags of five but it isn’t advised to eat more than two, however desperate you are for those extra years! However one guy in our group ate three and didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, although whether he was successful in adding 21 years to his life remains to be seen!

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The egg man

Once you can get over the blackness of the shell I found these really don’t taste much different to regularly boiled eggs. The bags have sachets of salt in them if you want to add it, but the eggs seemed to me to be already a little salty from the chemicals in the water. If you really don’t fancy the eggs, or want something sweet to take the taste away afterwards, the hut also sells chocolate-covered almonds – presumably because their pale interior and dark coating mimic the eggs.

After walking the loop path round the springs it was time to head back to the cable car station and continue on our journey. Rather than return to Sonzan we continued in the same direction along the rope way, with our car ascending further before dropping down to Lake Ashi. Andrew warned us to have our cameras ready as the descent started and we soon saw why, as again we saw Mount Fuji dominating the horizon. Drifting almost silently above the mountains with that distant view of Fuji is something I’ll remember for a long while.

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Descending from Owakudani on the cable car

Cruise on a pirate ship!

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Pirate ship on Lake Ashi

The cable car took us to Togendai on the lake shore, and here we changed to yet another form of transport, the most unusual of them all. When I heard we were to travel on a pirate ship I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this! The ships are really just regular lake boats ‘in disguise’, with masts added, and with sails and even ropes moulded from plastic. The pirates are equally artificial, being just models (I think I had expected that the crew would be dressed up!) Apparently the ships are modelled on medieval sailing vessels, but once on board they are fairly indistinguishable from any modern boat.

Nevertheless this was a fun ride and the scenery around Lake Ashi is wonderful. We got one more view of Mount Fuji from here, while around the shore are wooded mountains and some brightly coloured torii. On our busy day this was a relaxing and scenic way to travel.

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Pirate ship and torii on Lake Ashi

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Pirate ship with Mount Fuji behind

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Lakeside hotel and pirate ship

This beautiful lake, also known as Ashinoko, lies about 720 metres above sea level and has an area of seven square kilometres, making it the largest lake in this area. It is a crater lake lying along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone and was formed after the volcano's last eruption 3,000 years ago.

This is the place to come for views of Japan’s most famous mountain, although by the time we were crossing the lake on our ‘pirate ship’ the clouds were just starting to creep in, and were soon to cover her completely and hide her from view.

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Lake Ashi

The name 'Ashinoko' means lake of reeds (ashi is reed and ko means lake). According to legend Lake Ashi is home to a nine-headed dragon, and to appease this it is presented with an offering of traditional red rice at the Hakone Shrine Lake Ashi Festival on July 31st each year. But no dragon made an appearance to disrupt our journey, which was pleasant but uneventful.

Hakone-Machi

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Soba noodles, Meihika

We got off the boat in Hakone-Machi, a small town on the shore with several hotels and restaurants catering to visitors. Andrew recommended one of the restaurants, Meihika, so most of us went there together for lunch. There was a good selection of dishes and the menu was thankfully in English and with illustrations. Many of the dishes were noodle ones and I chose one of these – soba noodles in a soup with seaweed. Chris had the curry rice, a popular Japanese take on that Indian staple with a simple curry sauce over the rice. Both were tasty, though my soup was so generous a portion that I didn't finish it. Another dish that proved popular with our group included the raw tuna with rice. The service was friendly and when we paid at the till on leaving we were all given a small gift of an origami fish to thank us for our custom.

Hakone secret boxes

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Craftsman making secret boxes

After lunch Andrew suggested that we visit a shop where a craftsman would demonstrate how Hakone’s famous secret boxes are made. As we approached the shop and entered I was anticipating the all too common ‘quick demo then hard sell to the gullible tourists’ that we have experienced in some other places, but this was much more than that – we saw a real craftsman at work.

The traditional craft of the Himitsu-Bako, or Secret Box, is over 100 years old. The boxes are made in various complexities, and require a precise series of small moves to open them. The difficulty of opening a box goes up as the number of sliding panels involved increases. They must be manipulated in the correct sequence, and there can be as few as two moves needed, or (so I have read) as many as 1,500! But most usual are boxes ranging from five to around 60 moves. The number of moves is one factor in determining the price; the size and (most important) quality of craftsmanship are the others.

However, the craftsman we met is not a maker of secret boxes, yet his work is just as skilful, just as traditional and an important element in the intrigue of a secret box. Many of these are covered in intricate inlaid patterns that mask the secret panels that are the key to eventually opening the box. The technique used to make these patterns is known as Yosegi Zaiku and it originated in the late Edo Period. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees and the local craftsmen make the most of the various natural colours of woods to create these intricate designs. The one we met also made beautiful marquetry pictures known as Japanese inlay work or Zougan, but it was the Yosegi Zaiku techniques that he demonstrated to us. The patterns are created by assembling together thin sticks of wood in different colours and then shaving very thin layers off the assembly across the grain to reveal the design. By using the wide variety of tree species and colours available here, he can create complex and surprisingly vivid designs. The thin layers can be applied not only to the secret boxes but to many other items, from coasters to furniture.

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The sheets of shaved wood patterns

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Tools of the secret box trade

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Our little secret box

As we watched the demonstration the man shaved off and passed round a number of strips, enough for us each to have one as a souvenir. He also showed us how the secret boxes worked. There was absolutely no pressure to buy, but of course we were all intrigued by the boxes and we all browsed around the shop, with several of us succumbing to temptation, including us – we bought a small seven move box for which we paid about 1,500¥ (just over £9 or $14). It still sits on a shelf in our front room but unfortunately I have lost the slip of paper illustrating the moves, or possibly (and stupidly) left it inside the box when I last opened it. Either way, for now the box is sealed to me as I can’t get past the second move!

Hakone Checkpoint

Leaving the secret box shop we walked along the street to this reconstruction of a checkpoint on the Tokaido Way, the old highway which linked Tokyo with Kyoto during the feudal Edo Period. This was the most important of the highways, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. At intervals there were checkpoints like this one, known as sekisho, where travellers had to show the permits that were necessary to allow them to travel the route.

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Entrance to Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The sekisho had two main purposes: to control ‘incoming guns and outgoing women’, i.e. to prevent weapons from being brought into Edo and to prevent the wives and children of feudal lords from fleeing from Edo. At Hakone the second purpose is thought to have been by far the more significant. I found this dramatic story on a website which brings to life the harsh reality of the purpose of the checkpoints:

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In the officers' quarters

In February of 1702, a young girl was captured by authorities in the mountain area behind the Hakone Check Point (barrier station). She didn’t have legal permission to pass through the gate and so she tried to secretly cut across the mountain. After being detained in prison for about two months she was executed, and her head put on display in public. The poor girl’s name was Otama. She had wanted to go back to her parents’ home in Izu, leaving her place of employment in Edo without permission. If she had finished her apprenticeship, she could have gotten a legal pass. But she hated working there and ran away. She was accused of breaking through the barrier – a very serious felony at that time.

The checkpoints were removed soon after the Meiji Restoration, which saw the end of the feudal period. But in recent years this one has been restored exactly as it would have been, thanks to the discovery of some old records which showed every detail of the buildings here. This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of the various structures looking incongruously new. But a visit is worthwhile as the work has been very carefully done and the role of the checkpoint cleverly brought to life. We visited the reconstructed officers’ quarters and the much less spacious ones allocated to the lower ranks. Shadowy grey figures have been used effectively to show the activity that would have taken place in each part of the buildings – sleeping, cooking, checking permits and even inspecting the long hair of female travellers for hidden weapons. Apparently researchers were not able to discover enough details about the colour or design of their clothing, so the models were created like this, but I also found it rather evocative – almost as of the ghosts of the past officials still linger here.

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Checking papers

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Officers

In the open area between the two sets of quarters the tools used to catch criminals (those trying to evade the checkpoint by passing around it) are displayed, and they look pretty effective. I didn’t take a photo but you can see one on the website – nasty!

After visiting these quarters we climbed a hill to the lookout tower. It was a bit of an effort on rather large steps, but we were rewarded with a good view of Lake Ashi (but not Mount Fuji). From here the soldiers would keep watch over the lake as it was prohibited to cross it my ship and thus evade the checkpoints. We also went in the small museum which has displays about the checkpoint and about the Tokaido, but unfortunately no English signage whatsoever, so many of these were lost on me. I did however find the video of the restoration work quite interesting.

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View from the lookout point - Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The Tokaido Way

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Path through the cedars on the Tokaido Way

Just north of the checkpoint we were able to walk along a short stretch of the Tokaido Way. This was the most important of the Five Routes or highways during the Edo period, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Tokaido means East Sea Road – this was a coastal route along the sea coast of eastern Honshū (there was also a less well-travelled inland route).

The name lives on today in the Shinkansen (bullet train) line linking Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka, and the highway itself can still be found in a few places. Here in Hakone-Machi the path runs for about 500 metres, to Moto-Hakone, the next settlement on the lake. The path (which was an easy walk but a little muddy in places) lies between rows of ancient cedar trees, some as much as 400 years old. They were planted by the Edo government to provide travellers with shelter from winter snow and summer heat, and approximately 420 of them remain to this day. The trees reach up to 30 metres high, and some have a girth of over four metres. Walking here you are following the route taken centuries before by travellers to Edo. Most would have been on foot, as we were, though some higher-class people would have been able to afford to travel in a kago, a form of litter or sedan chair carried by a team of men.

At one point on the path you can apparently get the classic view of Mount Fuji, with the red of the Hakone shrine in the foreground, Lake Ashi beyond, and the mountain rising majestically above them both. I say ‘apparently’ because, having been blessed with great good fortune earlier and some fantastic views of Fujiyama, by now our luck had turned and she was hidden in the clouds. But we had nothing to complain of, and did not. We knew that many come here to Hakone and never see her at all, so we were all simply grateful that we had been honoured.

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Torii seen from the path

At the end of this stretch of path we walked down to the boat landing in Moto-Hakone. There we caught another pirate boat back to Togendai where we caught a bus to Sengokuhara and to our guest-house there.

Koto music and kimonos

When we got back to the guest-house our hostess there announced that she had been able to arrange a treat for us. She had invited a local woman, a retired teacher who has been playing the koto for a number of years, to give us a demonstration. This is a traditional stringed instrument, played horizontally on the floor. The 13 strings sit on moveable bridges which can be adjusted to change the pitch.

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The musician

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Koto detail

The musician had set up a small area in the lounge with a screen as backdrop and fabrics to create a sort of stage. She started by explaining something about the instrument and the different styles of playing, both traditional and more modern – she herself plays in a traditional style. She then told us the story of the song she would perform – a cheery piece about a general who kills a young boy fighting on the opposing side despite realising how much he reminds him of his own son, and afterwards feels such remorse that he renounces warfare and becomes a monk. Then she played and sang.

I think you maybe need to have grown up listening to traditional Japanese music, or to have had your ear trained over many years, as to most of us it seemed very strange, even discordant. If you want to hear what I mean, check out my short video. It certainly didn't have the haunting quality of the koto music we had heard a few days previously at the Edo-Tokyo Museum -maybe that was the more modern style, although that seems unlikely in a museum devoted to history.

But the performance was certainly interesting, and the musician couldn't have been more charming. As well as singing and playing for us she had brought gifts for each of us of origami figures, little dolls which she asked that we take with us on our journey and remember her as we travelled. I have carried mine ever since in my travel wallet!

She also brought some kimonos and with the help of the guest house owner and one of the staff offered to dress a few of us up in them so we could find out for ourselves what it was like to wear one. I volunteered and loved the experience of wearing such a beautiful garment, though it was a revelation to see how much binding, padding and clipping goes into the dressing process.

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Group photo, with some of us dressed up

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Zen garden, Hoshino An

After the performance it was time for dinner. There were no restaurants within an easy walk of the guest-house so as on the previous evening we all agreed to Andrew’s suggestion that we go with him to one of his favourites, this time Hoshino An, some way out of Sengokuhara. Because of this isolation the restaurant arranges pick-ups from local hotels if pre-booked, so we piled into the cars that had come to collect us and set off.

The setting of the restaurant was lovely, with a pretty Zen garden. We ate in the first floor area, where the seating was that perfect compromise between traditional and modern – low tables but with a well for your feet so no need to sit cross-legged.

There was an English menu, with photos. Most of the dishes came as part of a set meal with soup, pickles and an oddly salty egg custard dessert. The soup was a DIY affair; we were all brought a bowl with a few small mushrooms and spring onions, and a larger one over a flame with steaming miso soup. We waited till this was hot enough, then ladled it into the bowl of vegetables and tucked in!

The main course dish I chose was of salmon with steamed rice, while Chris had a similar one but with chicken. Also in the dish were a few vegetables - carrot, peas, radish, and a large tasty mushroom. I rather enjoyed my salmon dish though some of our group who aren't keen on fish were a little disconcerted to find that even the non-fish dishes tasted fishy (we think because the rice here may be cooked in fish stock). And as mentioned, the dessert was weird!

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DIY soup and chopsticks, Hoshino An

Still, all in all this was a good experience. The service was friendly, the beer cold and the meal tasty enough and reasonable value. Afterwards it was all back to the guest-house and over the road to stock up on evening treats (plum wine in my case!) at Lawson’s before relaxing in the cosy lounge and later in the outdoor onsen, as on the previous evening.

It had been a long but fabulous day!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:10 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains lakes boats restaurant japan history hot_springs cable_car funicular crafts hakone Comments (4)

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