A Travellerspoint blog


Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Osaka Again


sunny 15 °C
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As soon as I arrived in Fukuoka, I knew it wasn't going to be terribly exciting. The main reason I had planned on going to Fukuoka was to see some sumo wrestling. There are four main sumo tournaments in Japan every year and one of them was being held in Fukuoka. Unfortunately, even though I was organized enough to book some accomodation, I was too late to get some tickets which had sold out the day before. Not a huge disaster because I had to go through Fukuoka on my way to Nagasaki anyway.

I stayed in a five bed dorm at a guesthouse, it was located behind and above a small Udon restaurant. The dorm in the guesthouse was Japanse style, which meant futons on tatami mats. The dorm had five futons almost side by side separated by tiny partitions that only went as far as the pillows. The futons were extra thin and the tatami mats didn't offer much cushioning either, so it was almost like lying on the ground. I had to fold my douvet in two and use one half as extra cushioning. On my first day I only explored the immediate area around the guesthouse and there really wasn't much to see. On the second day it was pouring rain outside so it drained any motivation I had to see the rest of the city, not that there's much to see in Fukuoka apparently.

Decorated trees along the side of the road in Fukuoka

Originally I had booked three nights there, but I cut it short by one and booked an extra night in Nagasaki. I have to say, I'm not much of a fan of guesthouses. They are so small and intimate, it feels like you're intruding in someone's house and because they don't have many guests as opposed to hostels, some tend to charge for everything, like soap, towels, coffee, tea, etc. Also, if there aren't many other people staying there, it can be a bit quiet and boring which is always a risk when it is such a small place and you're there during the low season. The very first day, I only saw a French girl the whole time, and we got off on the wrong foot right from the start when she accidentally took my ipod that I had temporarily left on the hostel's counter. After I pointed out her mistake, she showed me her ipod which did look like mine on the outside so I didn't blame her, but in the translation I think she thought that I thought she was a thief and avoided me the rest of the day, either that or I smelled funny.

By the second night I was lucky to meet a group of young foreign students travelling around Japan for a week during a break from their studies near Tokyo. They provided some entertainment and a few tips on good places to visit in Europe. At the end of the night one of them found out I was a computer geek and she excitedly asked me if I could fix her virus ridden laptop. It was a little difficult trying to fix a computer when all the dialog boxes and links were in German, so I had to get by using my memory and her direct translations of all the technical computer jargon, which was rather comical. She was quite pleased in the end when I did fix it considering she'd been having problems with it for the last three months.

It was quite a relief arriving in Nagasaki, the weather was perfect and the city is relatively small and quite pretty.

Nagasaki train station from the pedestrian bridge over the main road

I decided to walk the 15 minutes from the train station to my hostel, which turned out to be a bad decision because I took a wrong turn and it ended up being around 30 minutes. I think a combination of sleeping on a hard floor the previous two nights and carrying my pack for such a long time contributed to the dull pain I developed on my left shoulder. This together with my sore toe that I badly sprained while running up the stairs in Hiroshima while wearing socks has left me a little bruised and battered but still surviving.

River in Nagasaki with one of the many stone bridges crossing it

Night time view outside my window from Nagasaki hostel

Spectacles Bridge in Nagasaki - Built in 1634, this is the oldest surviving stone bridge in Japan

The river was absolutely teeming with Japanese koi of all different colours, but I never got a decent photo of them.

For some reason, even though I paid for a single room, I was given a double room which meant I got a large double bed (first time in Japan). The bathroom and toilet were even in separate rooms so this ended up being my favourite hostel in Japan, at least in terms of location and sleeping arrangements, but other hostels had more people staying so they tended to be a little more fun.

My private double room in hostel Akari, spacious and comfortable

My bathroom in hostel Akari, it wasn't spotless like a 5 star hotel but it was all mine and not the size of a porta-loo

On my first full day in Nagasaki, I went to the Peace Museum and Memorial Park. It was of course very similar to Hiroshima but structured differently. The aftermath of the Atomic bomb begins right at the entrance with several displays of actual bent and torn structures as well as damaged personal belongings and many photos. Then a few video screens showed survivor's testimonies with full and graphic accounts of what had occurred. The most disturbing item I found was a helment displayed upside down still containing several large fragments of human skull fused to the inside. The last part of the museum was dedicated to the education of the dangers of nuclear weapons.

There is a really long wall split horizontally which shows the timeline of the worlds nuclear history (on top) and the anti-nuclear movement (below). The top part is kind of like a wall of shame and the bottom part is the wall of hope. It was quite nice to see New Zealand mentioned in an entry at the January 1985 mark, shown in the photo below.

Entry in anti-nuclear movement timeline, Nagasaki Peace Museum

Even though you are allowed to take photos inside the museum, I hadn't even thought of taking my camera out until the very end. The place isn't exactly conducive to taking tourist snaps.

When I left the museum, light was fading fast but I still decided to go the hypocenter and the Peace Park only a short walk away. The hypocenter (ground zero) in Nagasaki is marked more prominently than in Hiroshima. It's located in a small park and the exact hypocenter is marked by a large black stone monolith surrounded by brick paving arranged in concentric circles.

The Hypocenter in Nagasaki. At 11:02 am, August 9, 1945 a 21 kiloton Plutonium-239 atomic bomb exploded 500 meters above this spot

There were several feral cats hanging out in this park, in fact, in most parks in Japan you will find a clowder of cats. They all look well fed and it's not surprising because quite often you see people (usually elderly) sitting in benches putting food down for them. It's almost like the Japanese version of going to the park with stale bread to feed ducks or pidgeons. Luckily, you don't ever see homeless dogs wondering the streets which is good to see. One thing that is disturbing, is the American trend that the Japanese have adopted with much enthusiasm, and that is the "small dog accessory". You see lots of people, mostly women, carrying their little dogs in their arms, handbags and bicycle baskets.

A cat taking a free drink from flower vase at the Nagasaki hypocenter monument.

Just at the edge of the hypocenter park, there are some steps leading down to a stream and part of the actual ground level at the time of the bombing can be seen behind some protective glass.

Ground level at the time of the atomic bombing, Nagasaki hypocenter.

The Peace Park entrance is about a 2 minute walk from the hypocenter. The park houses several memorial monuments and statues, some were gifted by other countries to the city of Nagasaki. I happened to stumble on the New Zealand "sculpture" by accident, it was apparently unveiled by Phil Goff in October 2006, at the time he was the Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control. Some nearby monuments were memorial statues gifted by Russia, Hungry and the Czech Republic.

The New Zealand memorial sculpture "Cloak of Peace" dedicated to the victims of the Atomic Bomb in Nagasaki

The centre piece at Nagasaki Peace Park, the huge Peace Statue - As impressive at it was, the statue seemed very "European" to me and didn't quite represent anything Japanese

The Fountain of Peace at night

The rest of my time in Nagasaki consisted of chilling out at the hostel and lots of long walks around the city. Nagasaki was probably the prettiest city I visited in Japan, in particular the little cobbled streets near my hostel were quite nice to walk through. These streets were a mixture of residential streets with traditional Japanese houses as well as shopping streets leading to a large covered shopping arcade.

Residential street in Nagasaki. Apparently in Japan, Santa climbs up your balcony instead of using the chimney. This was not the only house where I saw Santas climbing over balconies.

The hostel was also very near a large hill from which you could get excellent views of the city.

View of Nagasaki from hill near hostel. The Peace Park is situated in the valley just to the right of center in the background

I left Nagasaki a few days before leaving Japan because my departure point was Osaka. To be honest Osaka was not one of my favourite cities in Japan and I would have stayed in Nagasaki until the day before leaving but unfortunately my JR train pass was about to expire.

In all of my travels in Japan, I never had to book or reserve any seats on any trains. The beauty of having a Japan Rail (JR) pass was that you could hop on a JR train at any station, go anywhere and get off whenever you wanted. The JR pass has got to be the best tourism incentive that Japan offers, apart from its actual tourist attractions of course. Sure it was expensive to get, but nothing compared to how much I would have ended up paying if I had bought individual tickets. Especially for someone like me that used trains all of the time, not only between cities but also within them. The only catch is you have to buy the JR Pass before you enter Japan so you need to be prepared.

Even though I tried booking a better hostel in Osaka about two weeks in advance, the best ones were all booked - I still blame JetStar with their cheap flights for flying over half of Australia all at once. Not that I have anything against Aussies, it's just that they were booking all the good hostels! So I ended up staying in the south side of Osaka once again in a cheap hotel. This time I chose a different hotel to the one I stayed in my first visit, but it was in the same area. This is the area I talked about in my first Osaka blog which appears to have accumulated the entire homeless and alcoholic population of Osaka. Unfortunately, this hotel was worse than the first one I stayed at in Osaka. I was given a Japanese style room with yet another thin futon on tatami mats (even though the booking I made on the net made no mention of this). The bathroom was shared and the hotel was next door to the train station, this meant there was little chance of sleeping in.

So this is pretty much the end of my adventures in Japan. Hard to encapsulate the experience in just a few sentences, but I'll try anyway. Here are my favourite things about Japan:

  • The People
    It's early on in my travels, but I can quite confidently say that Japanese people are probably the most respectful and polite people on earth. Always happy to help, even when they don't understand what you are saying. The staff at the hostels and guest houses were always friendly and helpful. Even convenience store staff always greeted me very politely.
  • Safety
    Not once did I feel unsafe or if someone was trying to hustle me, well except for the smut peddlers in Roppongi, Tokyo, but you could see them coming a mile away. It's amazing how safe you feel even if you were on a deserted subway platform late at night.
  • The Transport System
    Having a JR pass definitely helps in this area, nevertheless, travel between and within cities is extremely easy. All the train, tram, bus and subway stations that I used were marked in both Japanse and English and there's always someone to help you if you do get lost and confused.
  • The Sights
    I only saw a tiny fraction of the country, but most of what I did see was fantastic.
  • Heated toilet seats
    ...enough said.

I don't really have anything I didn't like about Japan but there is one thing that I wish had been different and that was all on me - I wish I knew more Japanese. You definitely feel cut off from things after a while when you don't speak the language. It would have been nice to have more indepth conversations with Japanse people. Also, it would also have been nice if I could have been more specific when ordering in restaurants instead of relying on what looked best in the photos or plastic food models.

My travels so far...

Well, that's it for now, but the adventure continues, so stay tuned!

Posted by joshuag 00:35 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hiroshima and Miyajima - A Bomb and the Deer


all seasons in one day 14 °C
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On my way to Hiroshima, things didn't start so well at the Osaka train station. I arrived at the platform tired and a little hung over which led to me accidentally hopping on the wrong train. The train was heading to the right destination, Hiroshima, but the type of train was a Nozomi shinkansen. These particular types of bullet trains are the fastest in Japan and tourists using Japan Rail (JR) passes (which is what I have) are not allowed to use them unless they pay for full price tickets. I didn't realize my mistake until the train started moving so I spent the first 15 or so minutes nervously wondering if they would come around checking tickets, which they sometimes do. Luckily for me nobody was checking on that train and I was spared the embarassment and the extra cost. This was officially the fastest I have ever travelled on land, at around 300 km/h. The next fastest trains that visitors with JR passes are actually allowed to use, are the Hikari trains and they go as fast as around 285 km/h, hardly much slower.

A shinkansen train flying past the train station at Himeji doing around between 280 and 300 km/h

At the hostel I met a nice Aussie girl called Nina who had arrived in Hiroshima the same day as me and we decided to team up on our trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park the next day. Hiroshima's best means of transport is trams, it's relatively cheap and they go everywhere a tourist would want to go. Apparently many other cities around Japan who phased out their trams, donated their trams to Hiroshima so you could end up riding on a brand new blue tram or an old ex-Kyoto tram depending on which one happened to arrive next at the station.

There was no time to get used to the idea of what I was walking into because the tram stops directly next to the Peace Park and at the very edge of the park, there stands the ghostly yet iconic Atomic Bomb Dome. Despite knowing full well what had happened in Hiroshima, it doesn't quite hit home until you see the Dome, it was an extremely sobering experience to say the least.

The first look you get of the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

It was hard to comprehend that I was standing on the spot where a little over 64 years ago a single bomb had almost completely obliterated an entire city, directly killing some 80,000 people and a further 60,000 by the end of 1945 due to burns, trauma and radiation exposure.

Close up of the Dome, you can see the steel beams inside which were added in recent years to prevent it from collapsing

The A-Bomb Dome is actually 160 meters from the actual ground zero, or as they call it the "hypocenter" and the atomic bomb exploded around 580 meters above the hypocenter. Apparently the Dome only survived relatively intact because it was so near the hypocenter so the blast came down on it's roof rather than against the sides of the walls. Even though a large part of it remained standing, the blast caved in the roof and everything inside ignited immediately by the 4000 C fireball. Needless to say, everyone inside was killed instantly.

The T-Shaped Aioi bridge to the left of the A-Bomb Dome. The bridge was the aiming point used by the American B29 bomber, they missed by a couple of hundred meters.

The A-Bomb Dome as seen from the T-Shaped Aioi Bridge

The hypocenter is designated by a single stone monolith on the side of a small back street less than a minute walk from the Dome. It is actually outside of the Peace Park and is surrounded by car parking buildings and offices and seems to be marked rather unceremoniously compared to the rest of the monuments within the park.

This is The Ground Zero at Hiroshima - the 15 kiloton Uranium-235 atomic bomb exploded about 580 meters directly above this very spot.

The sky directly above the Hypocenter

There are many other monuments and memorials in the Peace Park aside from the Atomic Bomb Dome, like the Peace Bell, the Children's Peace Memorial, the Flame of Peace, the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, amongst many others. But before we could go and see any of them it started raining quite heavily so we had to make a hasty retreat to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. The story told along its walls and passages is pretty comprehensive, begining with the history of the city before the bombing, to the actual day and finally the gruesome after effects. There is also lots of information about nuclear weapons in general, how they work, what type was used on Hiroshima, which countries have them, who is suspected of having them and how many they currently have. The museum obviously makes several pleas to the world to ban nuclear weapons and band together in peace. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to be listening.

It probably wouldn't be a bad idea if every child in the world visited Hiroshima's Peace Park. There are displays in the museum, particularly towards the end, that should make an impression on even the most desensitized of minds. For example, they have the actual stone steps where someone was vaporized but only after leaving their shadow scorched into the stone bricks. There are several personal items found at various distances from the hypocenter, such as torn, burned and bloodied clothing, children's metal school lunch boxes with charred food still inside, clocks and watches that stopped at precisely 8:15 and the most disturbing of all, aftermath photos taken of victims and their surroundings.

A wrist watch displayed at the Hiroshima Peace Museum that stopped at precisely 8:15

A photo displayed in the museum. It was taken 2,270 meters from the hypocenter less than three hours after the blast

There are four walls full of protest letters sent from the mayors of Hiroshima to the ambassadors of countries who had tested nuclear weapons, one letter for each test.

The museum also explains, using a completely objective tone, why Hiroshima was chosen as the target and the reasons why the A-bomb had been used. It definitely goes a little deeper than the story you are used to hearing, that is, "The bomb was used to shorten the war and save half a million US soldiers' lives". The museum's narrative goes a little deeper and includes the politics between the US and the Soviet Union as well as justification for spending so much money on building the bomb. Being a New Zealander, I am already a member of a firm anti-nuclear society, it's even written into our legislation, and after visiting this museum the sentiment has merely deepened.

By the time we left the museum several hours later, it was dark, cold and still raining. Despite the best efforts of the security guard at the exit to find us a "lost and found" umbrella, he was unsuccessful and we had to resort to power walking for 10 minutes in the freezing cold rain until we found a covered shopping arcade. I decided right there and then that I needed to buy a warm hat to replace the one I had lost in Tokyo and a pair of gloves too if I could find some. Nina was on a hunt for an umbrella to replace one she had lost.

My nice and warm new hat and gloves along with a puffy jacket I bought a few days later - Now I'm ready for whatever nature throws at me ...except perhaps a tsunami or an avalanche

After a successful shopping expedition, we stopped off for dinner at an Izakaya restaurant, these types of restaurants are more drinking places which offer a variety of different small dishes, sort of like the meals you'd get in a pub, but Japanese styles and more varied. Half of the menu was drinks, including various cocktails - it was a no brainer, I had to have the one called "Secret and Red Bull".

Yum ...our cocktails. To this day the other ingredient in my cocktail remains a secret. The black stirrers in our drinks looked just like straws and we both simultaneously attempted to drink out of them - silly tourists.

The next day the weather was perfect so Nina and I teamed up again for a day trip to Miyajima, an island to the south west of Hiroshima. The island is famous for several things, three of which include a giant shinto O-torii Gate sitting over the water near the shore, the nearby Itsukushima Shrine which appears to float on the water and the wild yet friendly deer that wander around the island. Nina was most interested in the deer and I wanted to check out this famous O-torii gate.

Bambi and I just kickin' it at Miyajima

A couple of deer relaxing by the shore at Miyajima, you can see the very southern part of Hiroshima in the background.

A little girl patting one of the dozing deer, there are a couple of signs telling people not to pat them, but they are just too cute to resist.

The "floating" O-torii Gate at Miyajima

Nina with the "floating" Itsukushima Shrine in the background - We weren't there at high tide when the effect is supposed to be much better

There are lots of stores in Miyajima which make and sell momiji manju, these are flower-shaped pancake buns which consist of a double layer of pancake with various flavoured fillings, such as chocolate and soy paste. Most of these stores have a little factory attached to them and you can see exactly how they are being made and packaged in mini automation lines.

The mini factory at the Momiji Manju store

A small pond full of huge koi behind one of the Momiji Manju stores - I thought the koi were fake because they were so big and appeared lifeless until one of them started moving.

In retrospect, the deer were probably the best part, they were everywhere and they weren't at all scared of people, in fact they seemed to congregate around the biggest crowds, though it wasn't hard to figure out why. If they saw anyone carrying anything that looked like food or food wrappers, even a map, about three or four of the deer would start hounding them trying to snatch whatever the person was holding. They are all quite small deer so they are hardly dangerous, plus they could be shaken off quite easily.

The next day, I made a return to the Peace Park to check out the monuments that I didn't get a chance to see the first time because of the rain. This time I went alone since Nina had left for Kyoto the previous evening. This is where I got tricked for the very first time in Japan. In my previous three weeks in Japan, I had been stopped several times by people of all ages keen to talk to foreigners and practice their English, and I have been quite happy to oblige. So when three sweet looking old ladies walked past me and asked "Could we talk English?" I didn't think anything of it and I gladly stopped and started chatting to them. One of them spoke pretty good English while the other two didn't say much but appeared to understand everything I was saying. After the usual, "Where are you from?", "How long are you in Japan?", etc, etc, one of them started to reach for something in her bag as she asked, "Could you read this for me?". Subconsciously I knew immediately what was happening, but I must have been in denial because as she pulled out a bible and said, "We are Jehovah witnesses", a wave of dread swept over me and I let out a loud laugh, and said "Snap! You got me!", to which they didn't react. Out of all the countries in the world I didn't expect to be bible-bashed in Japan. In New Zealand I would have easily said "No thank you" and walked away without another word being said, but this is Japan, everyone is so polite and it's kind of catchy, so I politely told them it wasn't for me, that it was nice to meet them and I had to go. They didn't resist as much as I expected but they wouldn't let me leave without me taking one of their pamphlets.

A Jehova Witness pamphlet - How ironic I thought, with one more of these off the street, technically I was probably the one that saved somebody that day.

Anyway, I finally got to walk around the park in peace (no pun intended), and I got to see the other monuments more closely.

School children at the Peace Park's children's memorial

Children ringing the Peace Bell at the Peace Park

The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound - contains the ashes of 70,000 unidentified A bomb victims

The Peace Flame, Cenotaph and Museum in the background.

The arch of the Cenotaph, the Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome all line up perfectly along the park (the museum is directly behind me in this photo)

A Jizoson statue exposed to the bomb. It was located in a cemetary a few meters away from the hypocenter - you can still see the shadow left by the bomb flash

So I will move on now, the population of Hiroshima definitely appear to have done so. Once you leave the park, it's not too difficult to put the dark history out of your mind and just appreciate this city for what it is today. The Peace Park is really the only visual reminder of what happened, the rest of the city is, not surprisingly, just like any other Japanese city.

One of the guys that works at the hostel has a Chilean wife so he spoke pretty good Spanish, probably better than his English so whenever we had a conversation we ended up talking Jaspanglish, it was strange but quite useful. If anything got lost in translation in one language, we just switched and everything was suddenly clear, either that or even more confused. His name is Masa and since I stayed there for six nights I got to know him and Mayumi, the manager of the hostel. One evening, Masa took me along for a bike ride to his favourite supermarket where you can buy cheap food after 8 pm when prices on sea food and ready-made meals like lunch boxes and sushi are discounted between 30-50%. We got back to the hostel with a few bag fulls of food, he absolutely refused to let me pay for any of it. We ended up having a huge feast at the hostel followed by a couple of rounds of his favourite drink, Souchu, which is a like a spirit fermented from wheat.

A couple of nights later, Masa and I headed to his favourite haunt in Hiroshima, a bar called Mac's. It's out of the way up some stairs in a quiet narrow street but it was actually quite a nice and popular joint, and it sells relatively cheap beer too. Behind the bar there were racks and racks of CDs and anyone could walk up and request a song or two, it was like a live juke-box. The guy that owns it was behind the bar that night and he is obviously an old rocker. He had long grey hair in a pony tail and he just looked plain mellow. He reminded me of the old stoner hippie dude from That 70's Show. If you're ever in Hiroshima I recommend the place if you can find it. We stayed there until quite late speaking Jaspanglish while enjoying a few half pints.

Just when I was just getting settled, it was time to leave Hiroshima. So on the Sunday I hopped on a shinkansen (the right type this time) to Fukuoka City in Kyushu. So that's where I leave this extremely long post, if you made it this far I'm pretty impressed.


Posted by joshuag 23:41 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Osaka - Castles, Big Fish and Depressed Monkeys


semi-overcast 15 °C
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On my first few days in Osaka, I stayed in a single room in a budget hotel just so I take a break from the snoring I'd been subjected to in the hostels so far. As soon as I exited the train station at Shin-Imamiya in the south of Osaka I knew I was going to experience a whole different side of Japan. It felt a little shabbier, the buildings looked worn down, the people were noticeably poorer and the Pachinko (gambling) parlours appeared far more frequently. Until this point I had only seen two homeless people in Japan (under a bridge in Tokyo) but here they could be found around almost every corner. But this being Japan, I still felt pretty safe, even as I walked down the shady alley ways on the way to the hotel. My room at the hotel was quite tiny with only a single bed, a table with a tv on it, an empty mini-fridge and a stool. It did have an en-suite but it was the size of a portaloo with a tiny shower attached to it. But all of this was expected, not only because this is Japan, but because it was so cheap. As long as I had a bed, air-con and no snoring people four feet away from me I was very happy. Needless to say, I took a long nap within minutes after walking through the door.

The hotel entrance, not a bad place considering its location.

The following day I took a day trip to Himeji just under one hour south west of Osaka by shinkansen. This is the location of the famous Himeji-jo castle. This is supposed to be Japan's most impressive looking castle. Built in the 14th Century, parts have been restored but it stands largely as it did when it was first built. Best thing about the castle is that you get to walk around the inside and all the way to the top of the tower.

Himeji-jo castle from main gate

Himeji-jo castle tower from inside castle grounds

Himeji-jo castle tower roof arches

I didn't have much trouble climbing the tricky narrow wooden stairs between each level, it was the elderly people in front of me that concerned me, alas I reached the top without a scratch. Each level of the tower has open air windows through which you could get some decent panoramic views of the town of Himeji as well as the surrounding areas.

View of the town of Himeji and the main street leading to the train station from the top of the Himeji-jo castle tower

Once you reached the very top level of the tower you got to stamp your little tourist brouchure with the official "I've made it all the way to the top of Himeji-jo castle tower" stamp.

Quite proud of my red stamp I was

All in all it was a nice day trip despite the cold. Unfortunately, I had lost my beanie in Tokyo and I was always on the brink of hypothermia, particularly in the tower because the windows were wide open on each of the four sides on each level so they acted like mini wind tunnels. On the way back to Osaka, I slept on the train for the first time in my trip. There is hardly any danger of sleeping through your destination because before each stop, you are awakened by some gentle elevator-style music just before the next station is formally announced. The Japanese have made snoozing a true art form. On trains, trams, buses, benches, coffee shops, it doesn't matter, everyone does it. They probably nap while sitting on the toilet. When I was in Tokyo on a late night metro train, almost everyone in the carridge around me was snoozing. They are obviously not in a deep sleep because there's no snoring, drooling or falling on eachother's laps and as soon as their stop is announced, they perk up and leave the train. I even saw a woman riding her bike through Himeji with two kids sitting in small baskets, one at the front the other at the back, and they were both fast asleep. It's a shame I couldn't get my camera out fast enough, otherwise it would have been a priceless photo.

The next day I decided I might visit Tennoji zoo just because it was literally around the corner from my hotel and I heard it was quite cheap (500 Yen). I'm afraid this was the biggest mistake I've made so far in Japan. I should have known it wasn't going to be pretty because of the zoo's location, the same poor area I was talking about before. The zoo first opened in 1915 and it shows it. Most of the animals looked only slightly more depressed than how I felt. The paint on some of the walls was peeling off, some of the ponds were dirty and scummy and the cages and enclosures were definitely too small. Certain big cats (like cougars and leopards) were kept in tiny cages hardly bigger than my hotel room. A few animals were pacing from side to side and I saw at least two monkeys rocking backwards and forwards (the classic signs of animal depression). Also, I swear the solitary polar bear looked like it was trying to drown itself as it swam slowly towards the wall in the meager pond with no apparent purpose. I walked through the place as quickly as I could just so I could get out of there. What makes it worse is that this is the only zoo in Japan that has kiwis (the birds that is). They have two brown kiwis and I had to visit them. I felt like the Red Cross visiting tortured political prisoners. They were kept in a dark enclosure (as they should be since they are, after all, nocturnal) and to be honest, they didn't look too sad. They were even walking around digging their beaks into the soft dirt looking for food. But I still felt like breaking the glass, placing them one under each arm and saying, "Common fellas, we're going home". I only took one photo in the zoo and it was of the front gate which really says it all.

The front gate at Tennoji Zoo, Osaka

The next day I continued the animal theme by visiting the Osaka aquarium "Kaiyukan" which is quite a big attraction in Osaka and in a completely different part of the city so I was quite hopeful. This aquarium houses sea animals from around the ring of fire, that is, the waters bordering the pacific ocean. The layout has quite a clever design with the entrance at the top of the building followed by a clockwise spiral passage leading you around the main central tank. Several smaller tanks are housed on the outside of the main passage.

Looking back along the passage, the central tank on the left with a smaller outer tank on the right

One of the outer tanks, it was circular with an artificial current flowing around the central rock formation.

It was quite crowded in some areas but never so much that you couldn't get a good look if you waited a minute or two. Though taking photos was difficult not only because of the light but because someone was bound to walk right in front of you just as your target fish swam into focus, what's the phrase, "Never work with tourists or animals", it's something like that anyway. The only issue I could have with the place was the relatively small enclosures for the seals, penguins, dolphins and sea otters, but all in all it still felt much better than in the zoo, well worth the entrance fee.

Various species in central tank

The main attraction is undoubtedly the two whale sharks swimming around in the central tank along with various other species like hammer head sharks, giant tuna and sting rays.

The whale sharks

Scuba-Santa waving to the crowds

My favourite were the jellyfish which are housed in smaller tanks towards the very end. Their tanks were illuminated by flourescent light which made them look amazing, it was quite popular so I only managed to get a few decent photos without a head or hand appearing in the middle of the frame.

Jellyfish - They looked even more amazing in person.

Jellyfish backlit with flourescent light

Brings a whole new light to the question of finding Nemo

After the aquarium, I went a couple of blocks east to the Suntory museum which also houses an Imax movie theater. I had been to the Imax theater in Auckland, but here they were showing a deep sea documentary movie in the new 3D technology format. I couldn't pass up the opportunity so I went along bought a 2-in-1 ticket to tour the museum gallery before catching the 5 pm movie session. The gallery had a special exhibition on Klimt, Schiele and other Viennese art from around the turn of the 20th century. I'm not much of an art lover, in fact I usually avoid art galleries because I find a lot of art, particularly paintings, a little pretentious, but it was nice to walk around and some of the paintings were quite impressive, plus it was old so that had me convinced.

I rushed the last couple of gallery rooms so I could head over to the theater entrance to grab my headphones (for the English translation) and the 3D glasses. The 3D glasses used for the new 3D technology are not the old kind where one lens is blue and and the other red. The new 3D movies are shot with special cameras which capture scenes simultaneously from slightly different angles and the glasses simply bring these images together. If you watch one of these 3D movies without the glasses it just looks slightly blurry. The English narration was done by Jim Carrey of all people, but at least it was in English so I didn't just have to watch and guess what was being said in Japanese. It took a little while to get used to the 3D picture because even though the screen was an enourmous 20 meters high by 28 meters wide, it felt like it had been shrunk because the it appeared to shift towards you which also meant it covered your entire field of view. I do have to say that the 3D images were quite amazing. It doesn't feel like you are watching the movie, it's more like you are actually inside the movie. Will have to watch out for 3D horror/thriller movies when they start coming out. I quite enjoyed it, but more for the novelty of it being 3D rather than the content. Heck, it could have been about the history of locomotive engines and it still would have been good (no offence to train enthusiasts).

By the time I left the theater it was dark outside which was actually rather fortunate because I got to see how the Japanese decorate their tourist attractions during the christmas season.

Xmas decorations outside the Osaka aquarium

The rest of the week in Osaka was quite leisurely, I caught up with Roddy (UK) once again before he left Japan on his way to Vietnam. We took a wander in Dotonbori which is the main centre in Osaka for shopping, restaurants, bars and of course neon lights.

This glowing start of Dotonbori, Osaka

Me in front of the neon covered buildings in Osaka

We had dinner in a Japanese restaurant where you can cook your own food, I think the style is called Gyu Kaku but I could be wrong. Mine was ok, though it had more fat attached to the meat than I would have liked (even by Japanese standards). After dinner, we grabbed a few pints from a couple of bars in the area to toast our future travels before I headed back to my peaceful private room bed... aah, bliss.

Funny photo of the week - sticker on door of hostel in Osaka, the caption reads "In this area don't take a woman who is smashed out. Play fair to advance to a women"

Next up, Hiroshima.

Posted by joshuag 03:42 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Kyoto - One Thousand Buddhas, Sake and Magical Cheese


rain 14 °C
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Having visited all the popular temples and shrines in Kyoto, I had but one last sightseeing spot to visit on my last day and this was the Sanjusangendo temple containing 1000 Buddha statues. It was only a 5 minute walk from the hostel so I waited until 2 pm to go hoping the crowds would have diminished from the early morning rush. Alas, it was still pretty crowded but I'm getting used to it now.

Sanjusangendo is a 12th century temple (partially rebuilt in the 13th century after a fire) and it contains 1000 identical life-sized buddha statues arranged in 10 rows by 100 columns. In front and around some of these columnns there are also 28 unique statues of guardian deities. Directly in the centre of these 1000 statues there sits an impressive giant buddha statue covered in gold.

The very long Sanjusangendo Temple in the middle of Kyoto

This was one of those places that when you first walk in, all you can think is "WOW", well it was for me anyway. Sometimes I'd stand and admire an interesting statue for a couple of minutes, reading the description and fully appreciating it, other times I'd stand and look at another statue for a couple of minutes just waiting until the loud western tourist would move along, you know the type, the one who pressumed everybody in a 100 meter radius wanted to hear their profound comments about the statues. I'm not naming nationalities but it was obvious to me where they were from.

I couldn't take photos in this place, even sneaky shots were out of the question, but to give you an idea here's a photo from wikipedia. It's an old photo and you can't see any of the guardian deity statues nor the giant buddha statue. That's probably a good thing because personally I've enjoyed more discovering the things that I haven't already seen a hundred times in books or on the web.

Sanjusangendo Temple (1000 Buddha Temple), Kyoto (borrowed from wikipedia, copyright expired, now in the public domain)

So anyway that was a nice way to finish off sightseeing in Kyoto.

Later that night, I caught up with Roddy who I had first met in Tokyo. After going in different directions after Tokyo we basically bumped into eachother again as he happened to be staying at the same hostel as me in Kyoto. We ended up at the bar beneath the hostel talking about our travels with a couple of Aussie girls that were there on holiday.

We all decided to try some sake (my first time) at a little "Beer and Sake" joint just around the corner. This was officially the smallest bar I had ever been to. About five stools in front of the bar about 1 meter away from the front (sliding) door.

Kirsty, Me, Cate and Roddy at Sake and Beer bar.

The woman behind the bar was very friendly and welcoming, obviously very used to the hoards of backpackers summoned in by the promise of "Beer and Sake". She was probably in her late 50's or early 60's and she didn't speak a word of English but she certainly knew what we were after. She provided us with sweets, a variety of pickled vegetables and glasses full to the brim with cold sake. To be frank I'm getting quite fond of pickled vegetables, they go really well with alcoholic drinks. The sake wasn't too bad considering it was 17% alcohol, having pickles and a cold beer to chase it down with definitely helped.

Sweets, Beer, Sake and Pickles

After we were asked to leave (closing time, not disorderly behaviour) we ventured another block away to check out another place called "Magical Cheese" - how could you not be curious with a name like that. It was actually a classy bar (leave your shoes at the entrance) that offers Fondue as its main attraction. At this place we decided do things properly so we ordered some warm sake this time.

Warm sake at Magical Cheese, it is quite a classy place actually

The bar tender was also friendly but didn't speak a word of English either (it's a recurring theme in Japan) so a woman sitting behind us volunteered to be our translator even though her English was also lacking.

Friendly Barman at Magical Cheese

Fondue Set and Various types of Sake, we had the sake with the white label.

Kirsty, Roddy, Me and Cate at Magical Cheese

What can I say about warm sake, basically it wasn't something I'll try again voluntarily. I didn't have too many problems finishing my glass but it took some guts and determination. The cold sake was much better, perhaps it was the type or quality of the warm sake that made it so bad.

Drinking warm sake - Roddy's face says it all

Of course we had to try the fondue - it was really good!

We left the place at around 3am, or it could have been 4, I forget. Had good times anyway. Luckily the walk back to the hostel was only about 2 minutes.

The next day I barely made it out of bed at 10 am with enough time enough to pack, have breakfast and check-out of the hostel. This hostel has been my favourite so far, "K's House Kyoto" has hit the nail on the head with what backpackers need and want, thumbs up to them.

So I waived goodbye to Kyoto and hopped on the next train to Osaka.

Kyoto Tower in front of train station - Goodbye Kyoto

Posted by joshuag 05:15 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Kyoto - Geishas and Chocolate Icecream


rain 20 °C
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Last few days have been a blur.

A couple of nights ago, I met three girls from Kyoto at the bar beneath the hostel. They come to the bar to meet foreigners and practice their English. I said I hadn't seen Gion (a famous suburb in Kyoto) and they offered to take me out to dinner and give me a quick tour the following night. Gion is full of shops, bars and traditional Japanese restaurants. It also has the famous back alleys where, if you are lucky, you can spot a real life Geisha or Maiko girl (Geisha apprentice) rushing to a cab or to meet one of their clients. So the next day, we met near a Japanese theater in Gion and took a small walk before dinner, sampling Japanese sweets and different types of pickled vegetables. I was quite fortunate that at the very end, we turned a corner and right in front of my eyes there was a Geisha standing near a corner with her client. I had to be a shameless tourist, walking right up to her like a paparazzi to take her photo. She didn't even flinch, must be used to it by now.

Geisha in Gion, Kyoto (photo was a bit blurry as I was still moving when I took the shot)

So now I can cross "Geisha" off my list, all I need now is to find out where the ninjas hang out.

We had dinner at a small restaurant that specialised in udon noodles and tempura, it was quite delicious actually. I'm getting the hang of Japanese food, and it's not all about sea food, there's lots and lots more to choose from. The hardest part is when you just want a snack and you have to go searching for something that you can just heat in the microwave or pour boiling water into, but all the instructions are in Japanese so it's a bit difficult unless you can find someone to translate (so far so good).

Last night I had to move to another place for one night because my hostel (and almost every other in Kyoto) was all booked out. I stayed in a guesthouse rather than a hostel which was, as the name suggests, more like a bed and breakfast. It felt really homely with a traditional Japanese look and feel. Some of the walls were made out of paper (girls dorm) and the shower was shielded from the hallway door with bamboo. It was nice staying there and the guy who runs it was really friendly and spoke near perfect English. I did however experience a first (and probably a last) whilst in this guesthouse and this was only revealed to me the next morning as I looked out the window from the top bunk on which I had just slept (see photo below)

Never thought I'd sleep so close to someone else's final resting place (at least not until I become a vampire)

Today I visited Iwatayama park in the far west of Kyoto. This place is very popular with the locals and it was packed with people enjoying their Saturday afternoon, sort of like Mission Bay in Auckland but with a large river instead of the ocean.

Bridge at Iwatayama Park, Kyoto

It was a nice and sunny day so on my way back to the train station I decided to buy an icecream cone. Unfortunately I overestimated the structural integrity of Japanese ice cream and within half a minute of it being in my hand it was flowing freely down my wrist. I didn't even try to fight it as the flow was far too much for the flimsy servillette to cope with. Luckily by the time I finished it I was only two blocks from the train station where I could wash my hands. I thought I must have looked like a messy gaijin (foreigner) during that short walk with a hand fully covered in icecream - but actually it was much much worse; As I looked up and into the restroom mirror I noticed two thick blots of chocolate icecream on the tip of my nose and chin. Oh well, the beauty of embarrassing yourself in front of hundreds of strangers in a foreign country is that you'll never have to see them ever again.

Across the Oi River at Iwatayama Park, Kyoto

Tonight I'm back in the original hostel I stayed in when I arrived in Kyoto. The hostel is "family friendly", I thought that was quite a novelty and not such a bad thing since over the first three days a Dutch family was staying here, they had two daughters about 6 and 8 years old. They were extremely well behaved and even though the younger one skipped along from place to place she did it with really soft feet and was always smiling and super silent like a ninja (the silent part, not the smiling). Tonight, however, it's a different story. There is a Spanish woman with two boys, one must be about one (in a baby's chair) and the other is probably about four. The baby is crying constantly and the older one is running around the wooden floor in the common room bouncing a plastic ball, pressing all the elevator buttons and slipping and sliding all over the place in his "pajamas-with-feet" tripping people over and knocking over rubbish bins whilst making loud car noises. The mother just sits and chats with another woman totally oblivious to the havoc her children are causing in this normally chilled out lounge area. The poor Chinese girl sitting in front of me quietly sipping her green tea is still trying to look relaxed and unbothered but I can tell she's totally freaking out (like me). Sorry but I really hate parents like that. If you can't control your children, don't inflict their menace on other people, get a private hotel room and keep them there or better yet, don't take them with you on holiday. It's not like they will remember or even appreciate it anyway. I feel like walking up to her and saying something like:

"Perdone Señora, por favor, nos salve y manda a su pinche hijo de la puta a la cama ahorita, gracias"

It's probably not grammatically correct (my Spanish is still a bit rusty) but I'm sure she'd get the picture.

The Japanese have gone vending machine mad. They have them on every second corner, down most alley ways and even at entrances and exits of all temples and shrines. They sell mostly drinks, including beer, and some have cigarettes. They even have vending machines that sell, get this, soiled women's underwear – Now, I must confess that I haven't actually seen any of the latter variety myself, but I have been told this by more than one person (for me this has got to be the epitome of the bizarre Japanese culture). These machines must only be in certain places which I have not yet visited. Strangely enough though, they don't sell food from vending machines, the only exception that I've seen was "Kit Kat" bars and they came inside a jar! Furthermore, vending machine hot drinks, such as coffee and hot chocolate, come in a can! And you thought your standard cardboard coffee shop cup got hot, try a metallic one.

Kit Kats in a jar from vending machine

Some other Interesting little things I've noticed about Japan since I've been here:

  • Tommy Lee Jones has done a huge ad campaign for a Japanese drinks company “Boss” - his face is on all the bill boards, it reminds me exactly of Bill Murray from the movie Lost in Translation.

  • Mini skirts (and I really do mean MINI) and knee high socks or boots are way in fashion. Somehow they get away with it without even a stare of disapproval from the more older and presumably conservative adults, I don't disapprove either.

  • They have awesome automated car parks. Because of their issues with lack of space, they have to improvise and improvise they have. They drive on to a small mechanical platform in the car-park building (the building being only about as thick as one and a half car lengths) then the platform automatically rotates and lifts the car up to a designated spot in the building. Looks like a baggage handling machine at an airport and it's absolutely bizzare the first time you see it. Other small garages, have a rotating platform which means they can do a u-turn on the spot or go around a tight corner without even turning the wheel - These are the kind of things Auckland needs.

  • Most toilets are high-tech, they don't only have a bidet, but also (my favourite) a seat warmer and sometimes a button which makes a flushing sound with adjustable volume - you can guess what that is for. On the other hand, in most of their public restrooms, the toilets are like long-drops, no toilet seat, just a porcelain recepticle on the floor over which you would have to squat - I have not yet had the pleasure of using one of these, but it's early days yet.

  • In a country where almost everyone follows the rules to the letter, everyone rides their bikes (at high speed) on the foot path. If you are walking along and you wander away from a straight path, your life is in danger.

High Tech Toilet in Hostel

And now for some more sight seeing photos. The middle of the week was slightly rainy, but that didn't stop me. I took a trip to the west of Kyoto to visit two of the more famous attractions, Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Pavillion) and the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple, as well as several other smaller temples dotted around the place. I thought since it was raining, it was going to be a little quieter than some of the other temples I had visited - I was wrong.

Raining at Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Pavillion), Kyoto

The famous rock garden at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto (this is the original Zen garden). I sat and stared at this garden for something like 20 minutes, but instead of discovering the spiritual truth of Zen enlightenment, I just pondered on how they could rake all of that sand in such straight lines without leaving foot prints.

Silhouette of Buddha statue at Ninnaji Temple, Kyoto (actually that's me - This place was so Zen, even I started to meditate)

Ninnaji Temple Pagoda in background, foreground is palace garden taken from the Palace's verandah, Kyoto

Ancient statues (9th Century) in Ninnaji Temple museum, centre is the Amida-Nyorai Buddha - There were "No Photos" signs everywere, but it was the end of the day and I was completely alone in this museum - I couldn't help myself so I quickly scoped for security cameras and took a sneaky snap. All the other statues in this little museum were also impressive and very old but I didn't want to get greedy.

Palace Garden at the Tenryu-ji Temple, Kyoto - the pond had lots of huge Koi (fish) skimming the surface for food

Behind the scenes at the tranquil Tenryu-ji Temple Palace Garden, Kyoto - This is what it's like at most temples.

Bamboo Forest, Tenryu-ji Temple, Kyoto - The bamboo goes on as far as the eye can see.

Today is Sunday and it's my rest day - I really need it. I pulled a muscle in my foot yesterday while walking to the bus. I found out last night the All Whites have qualified for the world cup, Yay! So that's both Mexico and New Zealand through to the finals. I just hope they don't end up in the same group because I don't know who I'd cheer for if they played eachother. Unfortunately with both their track records, it's likely there will be double the disappointment. I just hope at least I get to see them play wherever I am at the time of the world cup, probably somewhere in Europe I imagine.


Posted by joshuag 22:03 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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