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Entries about castles

Onwards to Osaka

Japan day six


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Modern Japan – with a touch of history

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Waterfront in Osaka at sunset

For a slice of modern Japan you could do much worse than visit Osaka. It has some striking modern architecture, a vibrant nightlife scene and tasty local cuisine.

Osaka is Japan's third largest and second most important city. It might even have become the capital had Tokugawa Ieyasu not moved the government to Edo (now Tokyo) when he came to power in 1603. While it has some historic buildings, the main impression it left on me was definitely of modernity when compared to the other places we visited in Japan – even Tokyo. But there’s nothing wrong with modernity!

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At Shin-Osaka Station

After our two nights at the cosy Fuji-Hakone guesthouse in Sengokuhara we said farewell to our friendly hostess and took the bus back to the station at Odawara to catch the bullet train to Shin-Osaka station.

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Bento box bought at
Odawara Station

Although we had been on the Shinkansen (the proper name for the bullet train) from Tokyo to Odawara, this was a much longer ride (2.5 hours) and it was the first time we had experienced the train getting up to full speed. Everyone says how smooth the ride is on a bullet train and they are right – you would never know that you are going as fast as you are. Of course, the landscape outside rushes past, but inside it is hard to accept that you are travelling at 170 mph (270 kph). I had thought that there would be displays in the carriages showing the speed as I have seen in (much slower) Italian express trains, but there was nothing – so you just have to have faith! Actually, it’s easier to appreciate the speed if you watch one of the trains flashing past, as we did while waiting on the platform at Odawara – maybe my short (very short) video will demonstrate this better than I can describe it (although I think the trains slow down for the stations even when not stopping).

Shinkansen passing through Odawara

Travelling on this route meant that we were on the original Shinkansen line, which was built in the early 1960s to link Tokyo and Osaka - the so-called Tokaido line (named after the ancient route of the same name).

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Umeda OS Hotel

When we got to Shin-Osaka we took the regular JR line the single stop to Osaka Station which was near our hotel. The reason for the two mainline stations so close to each other is that in several cities, Osaka among them, the introduction of the Shinkansen necessitated the construction of new a station to handle the faster (and I think longer) new rolling stock.

From Osaka Station it was about a five minute walk to our hotel, the Umeda OS. It was only late morning, and we weren’t able to get into our room, but we could store our bags in their luggage room which already held the larger suitcases we had sent directly from Tokyo using the excellent luggage forwarding service offered by Japan Rail.

Leaving the hotel we headed back to the station to catch the JR Loop line to Osakajo Koen Station. From here we had a fifteen minute walk to our first Osaka sight, the castle.

Osaka Castle

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Osaka Castle

The first thing to say about Osaka Castle is that it is not as old as it looks. This is a concrete 1930s copy of the first Osaka Castle, which was built in 1585 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. This was considered the finest in the country and was a powerful symbol of Hideyoshi’s supremacy – it was he who brought an end to the wars of over a century, thus unifying the nation. He was succeeded by his son, Hideyori Toyotomi but the latter was challenged by Ieyasu Tokugawa (Hideyoshi’s former retainer) who, in 1615, vanquished the Toyotomi family and destroyed Osaka Castle. Tokugawa moved the shogunate government to Edo (present-day Tokyo).

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Osaka Castle from the moat

In 1620 the castle was rebuilt by the Tokugawa shogunate who held it until 1868, although the main tower was struck by lightning three years before that and destroyed in the ensuing fire. The remaining structures were also destroyed in the battle between the Tokugawa shogunate and the New Government Army. Under the Meiji Restoration the castle precincts were requisitioned and in 1931 the main tower was reconstructed according to the original 16th century design, as it had been under Hideyoshi Toyotomi. It was used as a military base and arsenal, and during World War Two 60,000 workers were employed in the armouries here. It was targeted repeatedly in the bombing raids and badly damaged, with a particularly bad attack on August 14, 1945 destroying 90% of the arsenal and killing 382 people working there.

The main tower was fully repaired in the 1990s, and despite being now made of concrete, externally retains its historic appearance, although inside there are modern touches such as lifts. Meanwhile the 1620s boundary walls came through these various disasters relatively unscathed and are still today pretty much intact, made out of interlocked granite boulders without mortar.

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Roof detail

You can enter the castle precincts without charge and wander the grounds, from where you can get some good photos of the dramatic castle perched high above. To enter the main tower you must pay a fee of 600¥ (adults, October 2013 price), which Chris and I decided to do (having travelled here as group we split up on arrival to explore, as was usually the pattern for this trip). Once inside we were directed to the lifts as you have to start your visit on the top floor, working your way down by the stairs.

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Looking up at the eighth floor gallery

The first thing we did on arriving on the eighth floor was to get outside, where you can walk all round the tower and get some great views over Osaka. We also had an excellent close-up look at some of the detailing on the castle tower itself, including the gilded shachihoko, sometimes also called orcs – a mythical creature, a fish with the head of a tiger.

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Osaka skyline from the tower
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In the garden around the castle

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Close-up look at a shachihoko

Once we’d seen our fill of the view we started to explore the museum, which has a comprehensive collection. On the top-most (seventh) floor, dioramas tell the story of Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s life, and on the fifth (the sixth isn’t open to the public) there are miniature models of the Summer War of Osaka (in which the castle fell and the reign of the Toyotomi family came to an end) and a folding screen telling the story of the battles fought. Although not normally especially interested in military history, I found these some of the most appealing exhibits because of the level of detailing of the costumes etc.

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Model of the Summer War

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The castle moat

On the fourth and third floors there were various artefacts and models of the castle during different periods. These are the only floors where photography is not allowed – I imagine that they might be concerned at flash damaging some of the more delicate objects. The ‘stars’ of the second floor displays are the full size replicas of one of those golden shachihoko and a fusetora (crouching tiger). There is also an area where you can dress up in a kimono, wear a helmet or try on some armour (all replicas, naturally) and have your photo taken for a small fee as a souvenir of your visit.

Once we had finished exploring all of this we were hot and a bit weary, so we were very happy to spot ice creams on sale at one of several refreshment booths in the grounds. We enjoyed a tasty mango soft scoop cone (chocolate, vanilla and green tea also available) and a chat with an elderly local who stopped while cycling through the park, keen to practice his English and find out what we had been enjoying in Japan – a pleasant way to while away the last part of our visit here.

We met up with the rest of the group and Andrew proposed a visit to the aquarium. Most agreed but a few opted to go back to the hotel to rest. I was in two minds, as I was quite tired and inclined to think that I could visit an aquarium anywhere, without coming all the way to Japan to do so. But Andrew enthused about this one so much that I decided to give it a try, and I was glad that I did, as this is quite a special aquarium!

So we walked the ten minutes or so to Morinomiya station on the Chuo subway line, which we took to Osakako station about five minutes’ walk from the aquarium. As we walked towards it we saw a huge Ferris wheel which looked like fun – something for the to-do list in the probably unlikely event of a return visit to Osaka.

Osaka Aquarium

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Giant tank at the Osaka Aquarium

This very well thought-out aquarium presents the marine life of the Pacific Rim in a really effective way. At its heart is a huge tank with whale sharks, smaller hammerheads, rays and many other Pacific fish. You wind you way down a gentle spiral around this tank with multiple opportunities to enjoy watching the fish at all levels, from near the surface to the ‘ocean’ depths. The experience is enhanced by the carefully chosen background music, and seats are provided at intervals so you can sit and admire the spectacle.

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Whale shark

But there are other delights too. We loved the river otters and their marine cousins, the rainforest fish and monkeys scrambling overhead, and the huge leggy king crabs. Among other highlights for me were the penguins (I do love penguins!), who have the experience of gently artificial snow drifting down on their heads, though I felt their tank area was a bit small. And the beautifully lit jellyfish drifting against another well-chosen background track were mesmerising.

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Jellyfish

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Emperor penguin

The creatures are housed according to the area of the Pacific Rim where they live, so you will visit, for instance, the Gulf of Panama, Monterey Bay and the Tasman Sea. An excellent balance is struck between education and entertainment, with touch tanks for children (and adults!), informative displays about climate change and so on.

Having said all this, I have to acknowledge that these beautiful creatures are captives here and their lives would be better lived in the open seas where they belong. In particular, the main tank, while huge, is still a very confining space for the larger fish that are kept there. It is wonderful in some ways for people who will never get the chance to dive or snorkel to see and appreciate these magnificent fish, but the animals pay a high price for our education and entertainment.

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Standing on the right

Chris and I left the aquarium a little before some of the others in the group, keen to have a little time back at the hotel to settle into our room and freshen up before a planned group outing to see something of Osaka’s famed night-life. So we took the subway back to Higashi-Umeda station right next to the hotel. As in Tokyo, we found it easy enough (with the help of a map) perhaps because we are so used to the London Underground system. We were surprised though to spot one difference from Tokyo. In Japan, the general rule on escalators is to stand on the left, the opposite of what I am used to in London. This surprised me a little as the Japanese drive on the left just as we do in Britain, and I thought that like us they would also climb their escalators on this side. But no – you stand on the left and walk on the right. And being the Japanese, they all stick to the rule. But when you get to Osaka, suddenly it’s all change. In Osaka they like to do things differently, so here you stand on the right and walk on the left!

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Our bedroom at the Umeda OS Hotel

Back at the hotel we retrieved all our bags from the luggage store and settled into our room. This was on the top (17th) floor with a great view of some of Osaka's skyscrapers – particularly good at night. The room was small (as is usual in Japan) but comfortable, with everything we needed. Two large twin beds, a sofa, small desk and large TV were all neatly fitted into the space, while the bathroom had a good shower over a 3/4 size tub. A good range of toiletries, hair dryer and sundries were provided, as well as light dressing gowns and slippers, and there was free wifi too.

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View at night

But there was little time to make use of the wifi or to take photos, as we had arranged to meet up again with most of the group in the hotel lobby for an evening out together. We took taxis from our hotel for speed and comfort, after the very long day’s sightseeing, and were soon in Dotonbori.

Dotonbori

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Entrance to Dotonbori

Osaka generally is known for its nightlife, and in Osaka one of the best places to spend an evening is Dotonbori. This single street draws both locals and tourists in their thousands to eat, drink and play, and has done so for centuries. First built in 1612 as part of a development programme in this part of the city that also saw the construction of the nearby canal of the same name, it was declared the entertainment district of Osaka in 1628 by the newly established Tokugawa Shogunate. Within 35 years the avenue offered as many as six Kabuki theatres and five Bunraku theatres, plus the unique Takeda Karakuri mechanical puppet theatre. Many restaurants and cafés sprung up to cater to the hordes of people who thronged here nightly.

But interest in these traditional forms of entertainment declined and with the interest, the theatres themselves. The five that were left at the time of the Second World War were all lost in the bombing raids. The restaurants, bars and cafės however remain. In Japan, Osaka is famed for its cuisine, and Dotonbori is the main destination for food travel in Osaka. You can get anything here, from local specialities through fast food to high-quality meat and fish.

We were heading for a restaurant recommended by Andrew which serves an Osaka speciality – okonomiyaki. But first we took the time to stroll along the street and observe all the action and bright lights. Many of the establishments here have become known for their extravagantly large decorative features that aim to lure diners, such as the giant crab of Kani Doraku. I also spotted giant sushi, a huge dragon and a rather fierce looking chef. There are neon lights everywhere and a real buzz in the air from all the people out to enjoy themselves. This is definitely a great place to see Japan at play!

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On Dotonbori

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Cooking takoyaki
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Our takoyaki

We stopped at one of the food stalls to sample takoyaki, another Osaka speciality. These round octopus dumplings are sold by street vendors and stalls in Dotonbori and elsewhere. The octopus is chopped and mixed with other ingredients such as spring onion, covered in the batter and cooked in special takoyaki pans. A sauce is added (typically a brown sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce) and other flavours such as green laver (a seaweed) or bonito (dried fish flakes) sprinkled on. The ones we bought also had some cheese inside which added to their deliciousness and also to the challenge of eating them – they are served piping hot and are quite liable to burn your mouth if you bite into them too soon, as of course we did!

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Stall selling takoyaki

The takoyaki were a great appetiser, and now we were ready for the main course. Andrew had called ahead to reserve a couple of tables at Warri-Wa which specialises in okonomiyaki (most of the restaurants in Japan serve only one style of cooking). These are often described as Japan’s answer to pizza, but we found them to be more like omelette. The base for the dish is a batter made with flour, eggs, grated yam and shredded cabbage. Various ingredients are added to this to give the different flavours, just as you add toppings to a pizza or fillings to an omelette. These can be seafood, meat (usually thinly sliced pork), vegetables or cheese. In Osaka the ingredients are all mixed together before grilling, while in Hiroshima, where the dish is also a major culinary tradition, they are cooked in layers.

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Enjoying a beer in Warri-Wa

Our tables were upstairs on the first floor. Okonomiyaki are traditionally mixed and grilled on a hot plate at the table by the diner – you order your fillings of choice which are brought separately to the batter for you to mix to taste and cook. But in some places they come ready-made, and Warri-Wa is one such, so although our table had a large hot plate in the centre, this was just intended to keep the okonomiyaki hot as we ate.

My okonomiyaki, with a filling of pork and squid, was delicious, though I'd have welcomed more squid (I found just three pieces!). Chris had a similar one but with pork and shrimp. The okonomiyaki come topped with a special sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker) and sometimes other toppings are added – we had dried fish flakes (bonito) at the table to add ourselves, and some of the options on the menu had salad leaves on them too. They were very filling and tasty – one of my favourite of the various Japanese delicacies we tried on this trip.

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Two variations on okonomiyaki

After dinner we wandered around a little more before again choosing to take taxis back to the hotel. It had been another long but fascinating day in this most fascinating of countries.

Posted by ToonSarah 05:40 Archived in Japan Tagged night osaka castles fish streets japan history restaurants museum aquarium Comments (2)

Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


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

A certain beauty

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When the skies cleared

It had rained for a day and a half. Kamikochi did have a certain beauty in the rain, but it had meant that the mountains we had come to see were hidden from view. But on the previous evening, our last here, we had been summoned outside by a member of the hotel staffto see ‘the white mountain’. There we found that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

And when we awoke it was to crisp, still, cold air and to a deep blue sky; to bright white mountains standing majestically around the basin that is Kamikochi; and to a heavy frost. We hurried breakfast and grabbed our cameras and warm jackets, rushing outside to make the most of our final hour or so here. The scene was transformed and wherever we looked there were beautiful views to be marvelled at and captured in our photos. We were so glad we had been granted a short time at least in which to experience this very different side to Kamikochi.

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Clouds rolling away

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Yakedake visible at last

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The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

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Mountain views

But all too soon it was time to leave, crossing a very different-looking Kappa-bashi to that on the day of our arrival - a little slippery with frost and surrounded by stunning mountain views. At last we could see why they call this the 'Japanese Alps'.

Leaving Kamikochi

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Kappa-bashi, early morning

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Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

We left Kamikochi as we had arrived, by bus, but this time bound for Shinshimashima. The journey took about an hour and the scenery was wonderful throughout. Unlike the day of our arrival, the sun was shining, the snowy peaks were visible and the views at almost every turn magnificent (apart from in the many tunnels).

But these tantalising glimpses of Kamikochi in sunlight left several of us yearning to stay, myself included. And my new friend Sue was so captivated by this place that when we left she wrote a beautiful song inspired by our time here:
'Kamikochi Mountains’ performed by Jim and Sue - lyrics and music by Sue Lee-Newman.

The bus took us past Taisho-Ike where we had been the previous day. How different it looked! Yesterday’s low cloud and the atmospheric mist that had shrouded the dead trees had lifted, and in its place we saw the glory of the surrounding mountains, Yakedake and Mount Hotaka, reflected in still waters. I was very pleased that I had a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and was able to grab a photo of a very different Taisho-Ike.

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Looking back at Taisho-Ike

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Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

The bus took us directly to the station in Shinshimashima. There we had a 20 minute wait - just time to buy a drink and some fruit (wonderful Hida apples!) from the stall outside the station.

Then it was on to the small local train bound for Matsumoto, a journey of just 30 minutes. Matsumoto has a direct connection to Tokyo's Shinbuka Station, but we dropped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and took a few hours to explore the town before continuing our journey.

A few hours in Matsumoto

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

Matsumoto lies in the heart of the island of Honshu and can be seen as a gateway to the Japanese Alps which surround the long valley in which it lies. For us however, it was more of an exit point.

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Monument in the town

And with only a few hours to spend here, the main sight we focused on was naturally the castle, which is one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and one of relatively few original castles in the country, most having been lost to fire. It’s an impressive sight, surrounded by a wide moat and with a striking black and white colour scheme.

We also spent a bit of time browsing the quaint shops on Nawate-dori, visiting its tranquil shrine and grabbing lunch at a Western-style café that originates from Seattle USA. But there was no time for the well-regarded Museum of Art or any of the other museums in this culturally-minded city.

I left with fleeting impressions of a city that is well looked-after, with attractive street art, wide clean pavements and a laid-back air compared to the bustle of the large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It seems Matsumoto would make a good base for touring in this region at the heart of the country.

Matsumoto Castle

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle lies about 10/15 minutes’ walk from the station and we all walked there as a group, before splitting up to explore at our own pace.

This is one of relatively few original castles in Japan; as they were built mostly of wood they often burned down and were rebuilt, some many times. This though is one of just four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and is the oldest castle donjon still standing in the country.

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle was built at the end of the 16th century on the site of an earlier fort by the Ishikawa family. It has a striking black and white colour scheme, and three turrets. It is sometimes called 'Crow Castle' because of the black walls. Both the wooden interiors and external stonework are original. It is known as a flatland castle or hirajiro because it is built not on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a wide moat which makes for lovely photos, although some of the best I think would be from the far side of the castle (as you approach it from the ticket office) where a red bridge crosses the moat – an area of the park that was closed when we visited for construction work. So for us the best views were probably those from the park that surrounds it, as seen in my three photos above.

You can get these outside views of the castle for free but to get closer or to go inside you must pay the admission fee of 600¥, which we decided to do. We were given an informative leaflet in English and if you want can also get a free English language guided tour from a volunteer guide. We didn't do this as we only wanted a quick look round, but we did chat briefly to one of the guides whose English seemed OK and who was interested to chat about the differences between Japanese and English castles.

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Roof details

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Warning sign inside

Once inside the castle's precincts you can see some displays about its history and of course go inside. To do the latter you must remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided. Note that the stairs are all very steep and of polished wood - I found it tricky going in just socks! Various artefacts are displayed (swords, costumes, building materials etc) but very few signs are in English. At the top (six floors up) you get good views of Matsumoto and on a clear day, of the Japanese Alps in the distance – or so I understand. We gave up part way, deciding that the slippery steps weren't worth the trouble for relatively little reward when we had such limited time in the town.

But even if you don't want to go inside I reckon it's worth paying the admission to get a closer look at the castle and see the historical displays, and the guy dressed up as a samurai who I gather is usually there.

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Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

We also visited the gift shop as I had been advised by Andrew that this was one of relatively few places to buy wasabi chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s a white chocolate flavoured with the hot Japanese condiment. I rather liked it – but it won't appeal to everyone I suspect!

When we had seen enough of the castle we retraced our steps to an interesting street we had passed on our way here.

Nawate-dori

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Sign on Nawate-dori

This is a quaint, if slightly (but only slightly) touristy street not far from the castle. This street once formed the border between the Samurai residences and the commoners’ homes in the Edo era (1603 – 1868).

The name means ‘Frog’ street. It acquired this name at a time when the nearby river became so polluted that even the frogs died. The city managed to clean up the river, and named the street nearby after the frogs that returned to its waters. The name is also related to a pun on the Japanese word for ‘return’ kaeru. The mountains that surround Matsumoto could be treacherous, so frogs were given as a charm so that travellers would return safely.

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Nawate-dori, with giant frog

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Frog shop

We certainly would have found it hard to miss this street, as there is this very large fibreglass statue of a samurai frog by the entrance on Daimyocho Street. This was created by students from the Tokyo University for the Arts. The street is pedestrianised and not long – if you don’t stop to shop or browse you can walk it in about five minutes.

But there are plenty of interesting shops selling antiques and bric-a-brac, and others with gift items (one of which has only frog-related items!) I was very tempted by some antique sake cups but persuaded (probably rightly!) by Chris that we had already bought more than enough souvenirs.

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Shop window, Nawate-dori

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Nawate-dori book shop

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Garden on Nawate-dori

There are also some quaint corners likely to catch your eye if you’re a keen photographer, and several places to eat, both stalls selling local snacks such as soy bean dumplings, and more substantial sit-down places. We decided to have lunch in one of these.

Sweet Bakery

We had mostly eaten (and for the most part enjoyed) Japanese food on our travels, but there are times when you really crave the food of home - or at least of another country! So when we spotted this cosy bakery/café, with a menu of pizza, toasted sandwiches and soup, we thought it looked a promising spot for a more Western lunch for a change. And so it proved to be.

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Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

Sweet appears to be a Matsumoto offshoot of a Seattle bakery, and has been on this spot since 1924. It claims to have been the first shop to sell French-style baguettes in the region, a claim I find easy to believe!

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Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

Inside we found a pleasant space, with old photos on the walls reflecting the bakery's establishment in 1924. There are also a few seats and tables outside, where smoking and dogs are permitted (neither is allowed inside, and after finding some Japanese cafės too smoky for my liking, I was pleased about this). Looking at the clientele, this place seems popular with local young mums. Chris found one of his favourites on the menu, a Reuben sandwich, and I had a bowl of clam chowder. We both enjoyed these dishes and they were just the right size for lunch.

Yohashira Shrine

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Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

The main sight we found on Nawate-dori (in addition to the appeal of browsing the small shops) was this tranquil Shinto shrine. I haven’t been able to find out much about it, as the only website I could find was entirely Japanese, but if Google Translate was doing its job properly, the shrine was built in 1924 to replace an earlier one (1874?) that was destroyed by fire in 1888.

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Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

It seems to be something of a haven in the city for locals, several of whom stopped briefly to pray while we were here – I enjoyed seeing the little boy who was being shown by his mother how to ring the bell that draws the attention of the spirits or kami to the presence of the would-be petitioner.

It also seems to be a popular spot for pigeons – one man was feeding them here when we came, and there are several references to them among the brief descriptions of the shrine that I’ve been able to track down.

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Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

We took a few photos here and enjoyed the tranquillity for a while but moved on when a small group arrived, armed with a set of metal steps, to set up a group photo in front of the main shrine. In any case, it was time to head back to the station to continue our journey to Tokyo.

Return to a very different Tokyo

We left Matsumoto on a limited express train service to Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. This journey took about two and a half hours, making Matsumoto just about do-able as a day trip from the capital. I learned that this train service is called the ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ limited express, named after the river we had enjoyed walking and staying beside in Kamikochi!

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Arriving in Shinjuku at night

We emerged from Shinjuku Station to a rather different Tokyo from the one we had experienced when staying in Asakusa at the start of our trip. There we had found relatively tranquillity in the almost suburban streets that surround its atmospheric shrine, Senso-ji. Here everything was modern and frenetic, constantly on the move. This is the Tokyo we so often see – a truly 24 hour city.

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Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

Our base here for the night was the Ibis Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We found the bedroom small, as they seemed to be in all the standard hotels in Japan - and, again as everywhere, we had everything we might need to make our stay comfortable: tea-making, TV (with, rare here, BBC World News channel), hair dryer, toiletries, robes and slippers, good free wifi.

We settled in but didn’t bother unpacking, as we would be leaving again the next morning. The bright lights of Shinjuku awaited!

Udon noodles galore!

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Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

This was the final night of our group tour and everyone was keen to have dinner together. Andrew proposed a visit to one of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo, Mentsudan, an unpretentious and great value udon joint. There are no frills here, but you can get a filling bowl of udon noodles in a wide range of styles for less than 1,000¥, and they are tasty!

It is self-service, but with the noodles cooked to order, and according to Time Out Tokyo ‘are handmade in-house by expert noodle makers from Kagawa, where the dish originates’. The first thing we saw on entering was the cooking area on the left, with the chefs hard at work and a small counter where we placed our orders. I didn't see an English menu but there were pictures to help us make our choice, and of course we had Andrew along to advise. On his recommendation we all chose a large portion, which for dinner I think is probably good advice.

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Place your order

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Rolling the noodles

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Udon noodles with tempura side

Once we’d ordered we sat on a bench opposite the counter to wait for our noodles to be prepared. I enjoyed watching the chefs in action as they rolled and cut the dough and cooked the noodles before topping them with our chosen sauces. Both Chris and I opted for cheese, again on Andrew's recommendation, and it was very good (a bit like macaroni cheese!)

Once we had our bowl of noodles we took our trays and proceeded along the counter choosing any additional dishes we fancied, all of which were priced at around 50-200¥. I chose a vegetable tempura dish, and Chris some potato salad. Others in our group had rice, other salads and different tempura including octopus and even a tempura bacon rasher! You can also get drinks - beer, sake, soft drinks. A few items are priced at 0¥ and can be added for free - I sprinkled some sliced spring onion onto my bowl of noodles and had some ginger paste on the side with my tempura. At the end of the counter we paid, took our trays to some available seats at one end of a long wooden table in the centre of the room, and tucked in. Yummy!

Oh, and also very cheap – for our two large cheese udon bowls, a couple of side dishes and two large beers we paid just 2,400¥ (about £15).

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Farewell group shot

After dinner we went back to the hotel and most of us had a drink together in the bar before taking a final group photo and saying our farewells. The next day most would be leaving Japan, but we still had a few more days to explore on our own while another couple were staying on in Tokyo. Some had to get up early the next day for flights home, but our train to Nikko wasn’t until mid morning. The night was young and the bright lights of Shinjuku were calling! So we went out to explore and take some photos.

Shinjuku at night

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Shinjuku at night

This is one of the most vibrant night-life areas of the city, and was a real contrast to Asakusa where we had stayed at the start of our trip – and even more to beautiful Kamikochi where we had been for the previous two nights. We wandered through the streets near our hotel and took lots of photos of the neon lights and all the activity. In some ways we could have been in any major city; in others, it was uniquely Japan.

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Shinjuku at night

I was especially intrigued by the narrow alleyways north of the station, known variously as Omoide Yokocho (which means ‘memory lane’), Yakitori Alley or more crudely, Piss Alley. They are lined with a myriad of the tiniest restaurants I think I have ever seen, most with just a counter and a handful of stools. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, udon) bubble on the stoves and yakitori skewers are lined up on the grills. Fragrant steam rises on the air to tempt diners. Unfortunately we had already eaten so we just strolled through and took in all the sights.

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On Omoide Yokocho

A less appealing area for many will be Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red light district, which lies to the north east of the station. When we passed here I spotted several men obviously out to tout for business so we gave it a miss! It’s probably safe enough with so many other people around, but there were plenty of other streets to explore and bright lights to photograph.

82 Ale House

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Entrance to the pub

After we’d spent some time wandering around the brightly lit streets we decided it was time for another drink. We had spotted the narrow frontage of this bar and thought it looked welcoming so decided to give it a try. It was quite an interesting experience! The aim here is to recreate a British pub in the heart of Tokyo and I imagine for Japanese visitors it could feel very exotic and foreign. Certainly there were plenty of them there – the small space was almost full and mostly with Japanese drinkers though there were a few Westerners too. In appearance it has managed to create a fair impression of a UK pub (we were chuffed to see old pictures of Northumberland on the walls) and they have also replicated the custom of ordering and paying for your drinks at the bar. But it was very odd to be greeted at the door, after descending the short flight of steps to the basement, and seated as if we were in a restaurant – ‘Table for two? Over here please’!

Once settled at our table (which we were lucky to get) we found that there was a decent selection of drinks including some British ales, naturally, but also local ones. Chris had a Kirin while I was persuaded by the pub’s Jack Daniels promotion to try a cocktail based on their Tennessee Honey whiskey which was rather nice. We also shared a bowl of mixed nuts and rather enjoyed our experience of a Japanese take on a British night out!

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Japanese take on a British pub

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In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:45 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains night trains tokyo castles food streets architecture japan temple hotel restaurants pubs city shrine national_park matsumoto customs kamikochi Comments (4)

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