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Arriving in Tokyo, jet-lagged and with senses overloaded

Japan day one


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

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 (8)

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)

Magnificent!

Japan day fifteen


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

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Detail, Toshogu Shrine

A famous Japanese saying proclaims:

‘Nikko wo minakereba "kekkō" to iu na’

‘Don't say "magnificent" until you've seen Nikko’

And with some good reason. Its shrines are a wonder to behold, especially perhaps Toshogu, arguably the most flamboyant building in Japan. We had only a day and a half here, but this was enough to give us a great insight into the best of Nikko’s glories which shone despite some gloomy drizzly weather.

Getting to Nikko

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Train to Shimo Imaichi

We started the day with breakfast at our hotel in Tokyo, the Ibis Shinjuku. The buffet breakfast was included in our rate there, with both Western and Japanese options available. I have to confess that after several days of very traditional Japanese breakfasts in our ryokan in Kamikochi we both fell on the cereal, croissants and bacon and eggs with some relief! The coffee was good and there was also fresh orange juice, so we breakfasted well.

It was then a short walk to the huge Shinjuku Station. Our journey to Nikko from here involved two trains (although there a very few direct services if you prefer not to have to change). Firstly, we took a Limited Express service to Shimo Imaichi, which took an hour and 45 minutes. There we had just a couple of minutes to transfer to the local Tōbu Nikko line for the short (eight minute) ride to Tōbu Nikko, one of two stations in the town. Luckily we only had to cross the platform so the short transfer time here was no problem.

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From the train to Nikko

If you too are planning a visit to Nikko it’s worth knowing that you can also travel between Asakusa in Tokyo and Nikko on the direct Tōbu line, but as we were staying in Shinjuku before and after this side trip, that was less convenient for us. It does however make a day trip to Nikko more practical if that is all you can manage (but you really should try to fit in an overnight stay if possible!)

Also there are, confusingly, two stations in Nikko just a few minutes’ walk apart. We used Tōbu Nikko for both our arrival and departure. The other is the JR station just down the road, which is served by JR trains from Tokyo and Ueno stations, changing at Utsunomiya. This costs more than the Tōbu line but is worth considering if you have a JR Pass (ours had expired by this point in our travels).

Arriving in Nikko

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The Turtle Inn Annexe

Arriving in Nikko we decided to take a taxi to our accommodation as we knew it was about 40 minutes’ walk away – a bit far with luggage even though we had left some in storage back at the Ibis, where we would be returning in a couple of days.

We had booked two nights at the Turtle Inn Annexe - Hotari An, a traditional ryokan on the western edge of town which had been recommended by Inside Japan. It was an excellent choice – one of my favourites of the many places we stayed on this trip. It has a pleasant location right beside the river. Our Japanese style room overlooked this river and we could hear its waters clearly as we lay on our cosy futons.

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Two views of our room

The room was en suite but the guesthouse also has an onsen (indoors but overlooking the river) which can be used privately for a 20 minute spell – ample time for a soak in the hot waters. There’s no booking system; you simply wait for it to be free and then hang an ‘occupied’ sign on the door. After a day spent seeing the sights in the rather chilly weather we experienced here, this was a great treat.

The only drawback to staying here was the distance from the main part of town. I’ve already mentioned how far it was from the station, and although nearer to the shrines these were still about 15 minutes’ walk, and the top end of the main street about 20 minutes. But on the plus side it’s very handy for the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, as we were about to discover. For us the quiet and pleasant location, and the pleasure of walking Nikko’s residential streets, more than made up for the distance from town but it’s something to consider before booking.

Lunchtime

We had arrived late morning and our room wasn’t to be ready until 2.00 PM, so we left our bags and went out in search of lunch which we found just a short walk away. Just by the start of the path to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss and the Bake-Jizō is a small wooden building housing a café, the Kanman Teahouse, named for the small park opposite. There was no English menu but there were pictures to help us choose, and we both decided on the dumplings. These were cooked to order by the friendly owner (I assume) and served three to a skewer, three skewers per person. I believe having done some research since our return that we were eating mitarashi dango – dumplings made with rice flour and served with a sort of sweet and sour sauce with a soy base. This sauce was really tasty! Our meal cost just 500¥ each, washed down with a shared bottle of a local soda.

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Dumplings cooking

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The finished dumplings

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Cute table decor

Fortified, we set off to explore the nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Most day trippers to Nikko come, rightly, to see its magnificent shrines, but if you’re here for any longer you really shouldn’t miss a visit to the so-called Kanmangafuchi Abyss. While ‘abyss’ is rather a grand term for what is essentially a small gorge, it’s a scenic spot and one which you’ll probably share with only a handful of other tourists rather than the hordes who visit Toshogu etc. Certainly we passed only a handful of others on our walk here.

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Kanmangafuchi Abyss

The gorge was formed about 7,000 years ago by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. Since then the river Daiya has been carving these huge boulders into dramatic shapes as it tumbles over them. This area has been considered a sacred place since ancient times, because Fudo-Myo-O (a manifestation of the Cosmic Buddha) once appeared to people from the deep waters of the river. The name of the abyss, ‘Kanman’, comes from the murmuring sound of the river, which the Priest Kokai likened to an incantation chanted by Fudo-Myo-O of which the last word was ‘kanman’.

A riverside path (easy walking but with some steps) follows the water upstream. On your left as you walk are the famous Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi and on your right this tumbling stream. When we were here (third week in October) the leaves were turning and despite the dull weather there were some glowing colours that contrasted nicely with the rushing white waters. It really is a very photogenic spot.

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In Kanmangafuchi Abyss

But scenic as it is, the main reason to walk the Kanmangafuchi Abyss are the Bake-Jizō.

The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

As soon as I saw photos of these haunting statues while researching our trip, I knew I had to see them for myself. Commonly referred to as Hyaku Jizō, meaning the ‘100 Jizō’, there are in fact around 70 or 80 here as some were washed away in the 1902 flood. I say ‘around 70 or 80’ because it is said that no one knows the exact number. A legend says that each time they are counted, the result is different – hence their other name, Bake-Jizō, meaning ‘Ghost Jizō ‘. Of course the more rational visitor may conclude that the reason for all the discrepancies when counting is that so many have been badly damaged that they are now little more than a pedestal or pile of stones, and therefore no one can be sure whether or not to count them. But the legend is more captivating!

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

Another name sometimes used is Narabi Jizō, meaning ‘Jizō in a line’, which is self-evident. They line one side of the path, facing the river, as if standing guard over the abyss. And in fact, standing guard is exactly what they are doing. Jizō is a Buddhist divinity, the guardian of children, and in particular, children who die before their parents. He is sometimes worshipped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted foetuses, in the ritual of mizuko kuyō, as I wrote about in my Tokyo blog about the Chingodo shrine in Asakusa. 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.

According to one folk tale, the dead children must pile stones into towers to achieve karma and be released. But demons scatter the stones, and the towers can never be completed. Jizo hides children in his robes to protect them from these demons and save them.

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

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I have read several explanations for the practice of putting red bibs and caps on these statues. One suggests that this custom is primarily associated with a child’s recovery from sickness (or preserving them from falling sick) and the red colour was originally associated particularly with smallpox. But also, putting bibs and hats on these statues is a way of nurturing the spirits with whom they are believed to be imbued. Expectant or worried parents knit these hats and bibs for the statues and leave offerings of money for their children's wellbeing.

We spent quite a lot of time taking photos of the statues, though had to wait a while to get the best ones as a man with a tripod had set up right in the middle and was in no rush to move on.

Reihi-Kaku

Part way along the abyss is a small building, Reihi-Kaku, formerly a Buddhist Gomadan (Alter of Holy Fire) which a priest, Kokai, built at the time of the foundation of the nearby Jiunji Temple. It was used to burn a holy fire facing a stone image of Fudo-Myo-O, located on the opposite bank. The Reihi-kaku was washed away by floods in 1902, and today's building is a 1971 reconstruction. The fire no longer burns here however.

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Reihi-Kaku in Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Beyond Reihi-Kaku and the Bake-Jizō the path ascends some steps past a small graveyard and through trees to emerge just below a main road. There are a couple of stone seats here but the views aren’t as good as from lower down, so we decided to turn back and retrace our steps for another chance to marvel at and photograph the Bake-Jizō. But eventually we got all the images we wanted and were ready to move on and explore the area around the Turtle Inn Annexe.

Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple

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Dragon fountain at Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple

On the western side of Nikko, tucked away among the streets of small houses, we came across this small temple, Jokoji or as it is sometimes transcribed, Joukouji. A small gate, a dragon water fountain for purification, a row of small statues including a couple of contemplative Buddhas ... And beyond, a cemetery with ancient and more recent grave markers packed in on the hillside overlooking the Daiya River.

This temple has stood here since 1640. It has a bell that is even older, dating from 1459. The most famous of its many statues is the Jizō-Do which sits in front of the main hall of the temple. Unusually it is portrayed wearing a stone hat – a Suge-gasa (a Japanese hat made from sedge grass). But the stone hat has not prevented people from adding the customary red cap, as you can see. It is believed that if you pray to this Jizō for something to be fulfilled by a certain date, your wish will come true.

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Jizō-Do

In 1902, the Daiya River overflowed its banks and two of the big Jizō statues that stand beside it were washed away in the floods. Later the head of one of these, the Oya-Jizō, was found in the riverbed and is now installed in the Jokoji Temple. Unfortunately we didn’t see this. But we found plenty of small Jizō in the atmospheric old cemetery behind the temple, as well as many interesting old gravestones.

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At the Jokoji Temple

The stone cups

On leaving the Jokoji Temple we took a short stroll around the nearby streets, partly to get our bearings and plan where to eat later. These streets have channels on either side, filled with running fresh water making its way down to the Daiya River below. My attention was caught by some unusual looking stone structures that sat on the edge of these channels at intervals. A nearby information sign, in English as well as Japanese, helpfully shed some light on their purpose:

‘They are water pipes, built in the Taisho Era, to bring water from the nearby spring. Linking the pipes are bowls carved out of individual stones.
In summer the water is cold, in winter it is warm. Let the water run through your fingers and experience how it makes you feel.’

Well, I let it run through mine and on a chilly afternoon in October it felt pretty cold! But the sound of running water and the frequent sights of it make this part of Nikko a pleasure to walk through, giving the town a sense of freshness and reminding you that here you are among the mountains.

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Stone cup

There are apparently eight of these cisterns, known locally as ‘stone cups’, still remaining in the town, although we only spotted a couple. They provided water not only for drinking but for many other purposes such as washing vegetables and splashing water on the road to settle the dust. The water is no longer considered safe for drinking however.

After exploring this area for a short while we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to warm up before coming out again to seek dinner. We settled into our traditional tatami room and enjoyed the sound of the river outside while sorting our many photos of the Bake-Jizō and writing up journals, before heading out again into the drizzly evening.

The Bell Coffeehouse

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Cosy interior, Bell Coffeehouse

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Soba and yuba at the Bell Coffeehouse

We had asked the friendly owner of our guesthouse about nearby places to eat and she made a couple of suggestions, of which this was one, about 10 minutes’ walk away. We sat in a cosy corner near the bar, with Japanese baseball on the TV, and were given an English menu to choose from. I wanted to try the local delicacy, yuba - made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. It sounds a bit odd but the result is not unlike pasta or noodles in consistency – maybe a little chewier.

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Shrimp and yuba gratin

Here at the Bell it is served in many ways, including a ‘yuba feast’ in which it appears in a number of dishes. But that looked like more than either of us wanted. So instead I chose a dish of yuba and soba noodles (my favourite Japanese noodles with the extra bite that the buckwheat gives) in a broth with vegetables, which was served with a side of inari sushi. This is usually a pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice, but here I think was made with more of the yuba in place of the more usual tofu (an improvement as far as I was concerned, not being a fan of tofu). Meanwhile Chris had a shrimp and yuba gratin dish that he really enjoyed. We both had a large beer with our meals and later found room for dessert – chocolate cake for Chris, cheesecake for me, coffee for both of us.

After dinner we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to make use of their lovely onsen. The next day was to be a long one …

Posted by ToonSarah 08:13 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes waterfalls food water monument japan culture temple statue hotel restaurants shrine customs Comments (4)

The perfect winter sun destination?

Gambia day one


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina Lodge view

We’re not ones for lazing on a beach or by a pool, but during the English winter we do crave a bit of heat and sunshine. Ideally, we want somewhere completely different from home, and yet not too challenging to travel to, especially if we can’t spare the time for a lengthy break. We want time to relax, and time to explore. Hopefully we’ll find cloudless blue skies, hot sunny days tempered by fresh breezes, and temperate evenings blessed with dramatic sunsets.

Such a place, we discovered, is The Gambia.

In early 2014 we spent a week relaxing by the sea in Fajara, at the wonderful Ngala Lodge, and also managed to get out and about from there to see the local area.

We then had four nights inland at the equally wonderful (but very different) Mandina Lodges in the Makasutu Cultural Forest, among the mangroves on the banks of the River Gambia.

This series of blog entries is compiled from the reviews I wrote for Virtual Tourist after our return.

Flight to Banjul

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Leaving rainy Gatwick Airport

As (unusually for us) we had booked a package with The Gambia Experience, our flight was a charter one, flying with Monarch from London Gatwick. It was a sort of semi ‘no frills’ experience - we didn't pay for meals, but we did for drinks (even soft drinks). Service throughout, both check-in and on board, was well organised and despite limited leg room, the plane was modern and not uncomfortable.

The lunch that was served was reasonable too, with good marks for including some fresh fruit in particular (grapes, pineapple and mango).

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Landing at Banjul Airport, in bright sunshine!

We landed just a little later than scheduled and stepped off the plane into temperatures more than 20 degrees higher than at home. The sky was blue, there were palm trees and white cattle egrets - we had arrived in the tropics!

The queue for immigration was not too bad, although the luggage carousel was mobbed and someone else nearly walked off with Chris's bag! But soon our luggage had been screened and we were being greeted by The Gambia Experience rep and directed to our buses. The holiday could now begin.

If you travel with The Gambia Experience you can if preferred book a private transfer but we were happy to go in the group buses and found it to be relatively hassle-free. The main downside was that we had to wait until everyone was through customs and ready to leave, but we were given a bottle of cold water and a straw fan, and there was plenty of activity to look at outside while we waited the 15 minutes or so for everyone to board the bus.

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Waiting buses at Banjul Airport

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Roadside drinks stands near the airport

The drive to our hotel took about 30 minutes and took us through Serekunda with its markets and local shops. I was able to grab some photos in passing - children in a school playground, women and children shopping for dinner, a sponsored walk that looked more like a protest march and more snapshots of local life.

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School in Serekunda

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Shop in Serekunda

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Sponsored walk or protest march?

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Serekunda scene
~ all the above photographed from the bus

The journey passed very quickly and we didn't regret for a moment not paying the extra for the private transfer - especially when another couple arrived at the hotel shortly after us in their private taxi that had run out of fuel en route!

Ngala Lodge

Most people who come to The Gambia do so in search of sun, sea and sand – especially winter sun. For northern Europeans especially it offers a guarantee of good weather at a time when their own country is cold, dull and dark. So most hotels are located on the short stretch of Atlantic coastline that runs south from the capital, Banjul. There is something for every budget, from basic guesthouses through budget hotels to all-inclusive resorts. We wanted a bit of a treat, but don’t particularly like large hotels which can be a bit soulless and which often offer (and charge for) facilities we have no intention of using. So we were glad to discover the boutique Ngala Lodge in Fajara.

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In the grounds of Ngala Lodge

This is a quiet adults-only haven perched on the low rocky cliffs a little away from the main tourist areas but still within easy reach (by taxi or on tours) of some of the main sights. It is a tranquil place and won’t suit everyone. No children are allowed, and you don’t find any organised entertainment beyond low-key music provided by local musicians each evening. There are no pool games, beach sports or other activities. If you want to be continually busy and urged to ‘join in with the fun’, you need to go elsewhere.

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In the grounds of Ngala Lodge

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But if you want to relax, recharge the batteries and be just a little bit pampered in an understated way, this is the place! We had a wonderful week here and will choose it again for sure if we return to The Gambia.

First evening at Ngala

On this first afternoon we settled into our room. All rooms here are suites, some more luxurious and larger than others, but we had chosen one of the standard ones and were very happy with it. It was a first floor (second for US readers) corner suite, with a large private balcony, huge sitting room, bedroom with king-size four poster and good-sized bathroom with a shower. We had views through some trees towards the sea.

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The bedroom

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Balcony

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Lounge area, looking out to the balcony

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Lounge area

We’d been invited to meet with the rep from The Gambia Experience along with the other new arrivals that afternoon. As I said, we don’t normally take package holidays and weren’t planning on booking loads of tours but there was one I was keen to do, to the villages associated with Alex Haley, author of Roots, which are hard to get to independently in a single day, so we went along to sign up for that. It was also a chance to get some advice about changing money and to meet one of the resident cats, Rasta, who was to become a firm friend over the next week!

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Rasta

After the meeting we took a walk through the grounds down to the edge of the cliffs, where a path leads down to the small beach, covered at high tide. The sun was starting to sink over the rocky shore.

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Ngala Lodge sunset day one

It’s possible to book half-board at Ngala but we were keen to have the option to eat elsewhere on some evenings at least, so we’d opted for bed and breakfast. However on this first evening it made sense to have dinner here, and a delicious meal it was – preceded by a drink on the terrace outside the restaurant and followed by a night time stroll through the grounds before heading to bed, grateful that there is no time difference between the UK and The Gambia and hence no jet-lag to overcome!

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Pre-dinner drinks

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Spring rolls starter

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Butterfish carpaccio starter

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Cajun tuna

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Restaurant terrace at night

Posted by ToonSarah 08:55 Archived in Gambia Tagged planes food sunset coast hotel flight airport garden africa cats gambia street_photography Comments (16)

Settling in

Gambia day two


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The beach at Ngala Lodge

We spent our first day in The Gambia settling into our accommodation at the beautiful Ngala Lodge, enjoying the pretty gardens, refreshing pool and the small but attractive beach.

The grounds were very nicely planted and decorated with lots of art pieces. Paths wound between the bushes leading to the restaurant, pool and down to the beach.

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Bougainvillea

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Hibiscus

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We wandered around for a while, with me taking photos of, and trying to identify, the birds, many of which were new to us. Everywhere we went in the grounds we were greeted with a smile. The staff here are well trained, and we got the impression they genuinely enjoy their work and meeting the visitors who stay here.

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Laughing Dove

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Laughing Dove

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Senegal Coucal

The pool wasn’t large, but I found it more than adequate and it was well supplied with loungers, shade umbrellas, towels etc, and surrounded by pretty bougainvillea. Since our visit they have added a cliff-top infinity pool, as well as a few more rooms, but it remains very much a boutique hotel.

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More bougainvillea

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By the pool

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After our initial explorations we spent much of the morning by the pool, so I could swim, but after a light lunch on the hotel’s restaurant terrace, we headed down to the beach.

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Tempura prawns for lunch

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Art work in the grounds

On the beach

The beach here is fairly small and is almost completely covered at high tide, but the hotel has thoughtfully built a substantial decking area at the foot of the cliffs that allows guests to sunbathe, or rest in the shade of a day bed, close to the sea at all times.

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View of the beach from the decking

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Chris relaxing on the decking
~ you can see the wooden steps that lead down here on the left

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Colourful pots on the decking

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At low tide a pretty cove is revealed, scattered with some rocks and a few little rock pools and surrounded by low red cliffs. We found this very pretty and photogenic, and spent some time today, and on later days too, trying to capture its charms on camera.

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The red cliffs

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The beach

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Reflections on the beach

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Rocks and shells

I also chased a Whimbrel around for a while, trying to get a good shot!

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Whimbrel on the beach

If you time your walk here carefully you can apparently go round the headland to the south and on to the much larger beach at Kotu, but you will probably have to return by road or on the footpath through the golf course as the beach route is only open for a short while each day. This does mean though that for most of the time the beach is private, accessible only to guests at the lodge and only occasionally visited by hassling bumsters. The latter are a Gambian hazard which we were to encounter several times on our explorations outside the hotel, but thankfully not really on the beach, although we saw a couple today.

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Bumster on the beach
~ you can also see a couple in my photo of the beach from the decking area above

The beach isn’t the best of places for swimming, as the waves can be large and unpredictable, and there’s a strong undertow. Some other guests at the hotel, who come here regularly, told us that a young lad died here a year or so back – a local who you might have thought would know the waters too well to be caught out. So I restricted myself to waist-deep splashing in the waves and used the hotel pool when I wanted to swim.

While relaxing on the decking area we could watch the fishermen from Bakau, the village to the north of the lodge, coming and going in their colourful boats, known as pirogues. The use of the French word reflects that country’s former colonialisation of the region although The Gambia itself is of course a former British colony and currently (2020) also a member of the British Commonwealth. Interestingly at the time of the visit I’m describing here it had left the Commonwealth, in October 2013, and only rejoined in February 2018.

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Fishermen seen from the beach

The Butcher's Shop

In the evening we took advantage of our decision not to book half board and rather than eat in Ngala Lodge’s restaurant, excellent though it was, we went to this recommended local one in nearby Fajara. It was a bit far to walk so the hotel kindly booked us a taxi there and back. Our driver was Habib and as we had already booked him for some tours later in the week this was a good opportunity to have a chat to him about the plans and settle on the sights we most wanted to see.

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The Butcher's Shop

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Chris in the Butcher's Shop

This is a somewhat unusual restaurant which started life as (as the name suggests) a butcher, branched out via deli meats into serving lunches, and today is a fully fledged restaurant with a very good reputation - the chef even has his own TV series! We ate at an outside table from where we could watch all the passing activity on the street – but also unfortunately suffer a little from the traffic fumes. Despite this, we really enjoyed our evening and I’m pleased to see the restaurant is still going strong, offering a take-away only service during the current pandemic of course.

I ate the fried Brie as a starter and the Moroccan chicken for my main course, both of which were very good. I was less impressed by my dessert of grilled fruits as there was a large proportion of watermelon which didn't really suit this way of serving, in my opinion. Chris liked his duck spring rolls, simple grilled chicken and the home-made ‘Italian’ ice cream he had for dessert.

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Fried Brie

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Grilled chicken

Habib arrived to pick us up not long after we had finished and paid for our meal, so we were soon back at Ngala Lodge for another comfortable night in our beautiful room.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:48 Archived in Gambia Tagged people birds food flowers restaurant beach hotel garden africa gambia Comments (14)

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