Castle Himeji

I headed out to castle Himeji on boxing day morning, heading to Himeji mostly on the Shinkansen and changing 3 times on the way. Himeji is unsurprisingly another boring town though it has it’s good points. Firstly they rent free bikes to allow you to explore the town. This wasn’t that useful but did enable me to speed up to the castle (and to be a complete hypocrite I even went on the pavement like the other Japanese.).

The castle itself was actually amazing and was typically very cold. We got to explore the princesses rooms as well as the main keep and it was all very impressive. It could probably do with an update of the décor however as it was mostly pretty boring plain wood – espeically in the princesses quarters which were supposed to be very beautiful.

The main keep was well worth exploring too and it was pretty tall as well. Overall I believe the castle is being done up in January for three years now which will undoubtably fix my complaints. The guidebook also states the guided tours are good but these weren’t available today.

After seeing the castle I went to the nearby Japanese garden which was included in my ticket. This was also excellent and at ¥300 (£2) it was the cheapest as well as by far the best Japanese garden I’ve been to with 8.5 gardens in 1. All of which were relaxing, beauitful and different from each other. After this I zoomed over to the art museum on my bike but it was closed so instead I caught the Shinkansen back to Kyoto. When there I ran into a guy from my hostel and we went to the 1000+ tori walk up a mountain which is where you walk up a 1.5km path that is completely enclosed by tori and was amazing to see. It just kept going on and on and although we only went for 30 minutes it went up a lot higher into the mountains. After that I had another McDonalda before return to the hostel.

Osaka

On Christmas day I had a lazy morning (it’s Christmas after all) and then headed to Osaka. First I had a slow walk around the exterior of the castle before having some lunch. At which point I decided I was going to see the more impressive castle Himeji a little later so I gave it a miss and instead headed to the new museum of the history of Osaka. Unfortunately the displays weren’t in English but there was an excellent audio guide that covered more than enough material to satisfy me. Osaka seems to have been a city for a very long time now and it showed the cities development from an ancheint capital into the modern bustling city of today.

After that I went to the excellent aquarium though it was really cool and gave you a good look at the fish, the only problems were that given that it was Christmas day at 5pm it was rammed and the whale-sharks which were the star attraction didn’t really have enough space.

After that I was pretty tired so I haven’t had much of a taste of the city in one day but it seems to be quite a pretty and modern city from what I’ve seen so far.

Kyoto and Nara

So I arrived into Kyoto late on Sunday and in the evening I uploaded a whole bunch of stuff to Flickr which carried on after midnight and so in the morning I had a lie in and got up pretty late too. First I had a wander around town and went down one of the back streets that still had a traditional appearance (most of Kyoto seems to be an ugly concrete jungle.) and amazingly saw women in Kimonos on the street – unfortunately I didn’t ask them for a photo but it was good to see. After doing that and buying some water I had lunch and then headed over to the railway station to pick up something from the tourist information located there. The railway station building is actually quite pretty and has an enormous entrance though overall it reminds me of a half baked London Paddington. After I left the station I went to a camera store as my “developing world” camera is showing it isn’t well built and is already not working well this led to several surprises – first the Panasonic Lumix range is the same here in Japan as it is in Chile and the UK. I believe the same is true for the Canon range though they have different names here. Secondly there are some cameras with “new” features like autopicture taking when the target is still or smiling or something though it doesn’t work that well which seems to be like the barcode feature on Japanese phones. Thirdly a lot of the cameras seemed to be pretty difficult to use and unintuitive. Only the Lumix and Canon passed this and the Canon is really the better of the two.

After my visit to the camera shop I went to the imperial palace to arrange my palace tour for Wednesday before I headed over to the International Manga museum which was truly excellent. All the signs were in English and even if you aren’t really a fan it was still very interesting to see. They also had an exhibtion comparing Manga with French comics like Asterix. It seems that Manga has been around for several hundred years but came to life in the 19th century and it was influenced by English political cartoon Punch. The museum also currently is running as special exhibtion on the 1000 year old novel Tale of Genji which I really want to read.

On Wednesday I first had some admin and at 10am I headed off to Nara for the day. Once there I heads through the, frankly ugly, town centre to reach the interesting parts of town. First I had some lunch and then went to see the amazing temple complex Kofuku-ji. There was a small section of faded statues which you had to pay for which was disappointing as it was fairly expensive and technically you weren’t allowed to take photos. I’m not a fan of those rules as you are at some sites with seemingly no real reason and if its prevented they are usually the only sign in English at the site – maybe it’s a cultural thing though as there are never signs asking you to not use flash – even though disabling flash on every digital camera I’ve ever used is straightforward. After that I headed to Naras main sight the temple of Todai-ji which is the worlds largest wooden building and contains a similarly amazingly large giant golden buddha statue which takes your breath away. It is even more amazing that it comes from 800AD which makes the UK look like a young country in comparison. After seeing I explored the rest of the surrounding temples (at least from the outside) which were also beautiful before heading to the Nara national museum which contained further Buddhist statues and metalwork (much of which is actually of Chinese design) as well as a gallery on some of the ceremonies performed in Nara for the new year. I actually managed to pick up a local volenteer guide in one of the galleries who told me about the symbolism of the statues. Those with armour are guardians and that the Buddha statue had his hands in a certain pose compared to the Buddha in training to show he was boss – though the easiest way to tell was that the Buddha looked more confident. After this I returned on the train to Kyoto as it was dark and also very cold – I’ve been wearing my hat and gloves a lot here.

The next day I headed to the palace for my 10am palace tour. Even though I left 40 minutes ahead of time I only just made it on time for the tour but we had a wander around the palace grounds and the guide pointed out the sites in excellent English – I have lots of photos too. After that I headed into East Kyoto to see some more great temples and walk along the philosophers path to another temple which I didn’t visit as I didn’t feel it justified the standard ¥500 entry fee. I then walked onto the train station to head south to my second last stop of the day which was to an amazing temple called Sanjusangen-do this was probably the individual best temple in the city. It had loads of explantion in English and contains 1000 man sized gold statues as well as the 28 guardians of Buddhism including the 4 kings (the guardians of the east, west, north and south of Buddhism). To put the 1000 statues into perspective they are 6 deep and there are 5 or 6 along the front for each of the 28 guardians which are spaced about 2 metres apart. The only bad thing was that I only had 30 minutes before closing which wasn’t enough to do the place justice. I also didn’t get a photo of the whole hall as photography is banned.

Finally I went and picked up my “Christmas present” a new digital camera. This is my fourth camera of the trip but fortunately this time the camera just stopped working properly, the Lumix dwp-fs3 (developing world product and the model number fs3) isn’t up for the rigours of real-world use by me and didn’t “disappear”. I also changed allegence from the Panasonic lumix to the Canon Ixy 20 (I’m sure it’s also available in Europe though under a different model number) – down to Panasonic selling models with the same model number as those in the rest of the world but with only Japanese software -even though my Lumix does Japanese. In the evening I went to the hostel Christmas party which was OK but not that great.

Sendai and Nikko

After leaving the railway museum I caught the Shinkansen north to Sendai. The journey was uneventful and I made my way to my Japanese style accommodation. There I had a relaxing evening aside from heading out to Mosburger for a small Japanese burger that was too small so I had a second supper afterwards -these small meals do mean the Japanese don’t have obese people; aside from the sumo wreslers of course! The Japanese style accommodation was good but not a new experience as actually I’ve been in Japanese style accommodation all week in Tokyo.

After that the next day I caught the train down to Nikko (I was planning to go north of Sendai which is why I stopped there in the end it didn’t really make sense.) and had a look around the temples in the complex before it got dark – unfortunately I didn’t have time to see quite all of them – that had to keep until the next day. The temples were very ornate and made of painted red wood with oriental style finishing on the outside and beauitful interiors as well which sadly you were unable to photograph.

In the morning I got up, packed and had breakfast in time for the 8.30am bus from the railway station up the valley. Once nearly at the lake I got off the bus with an American couple staying at my hostel and we went to a beautiful viewpoint over the valley below. There was supposed to be a walk down over to the lake but it was shut in Winter – I guess the ground gets icy though it could be Japanese paranoia on safety. When waiting for the train if you stand over the yellow line they honk – even if the train is stopping to let you on.

So then we had to go back down and back on the bus to the lake where we got a view of the lakeside (which was mostly a bit ugly and overdeveloped) as well as a nearby waterfall.

After that I headed back to Nikko and ate in a delicious restaurant which served Japanese vegetable “chow mein”. After lunch I headed up to see the parts of the complex I had missed including a couple of interesting museums which contained artifacts from the complex and about it’s history – it was built for the first Shogun who after his death became a god to watch over Japan. It also had a great Japanese Garden. After this I headed to the far side of the complex to the building I didn’t have time to explore the day before and like the others it was big, red and in a typical oriental style. Even though it was arguably garish it did also fit in with it’s surroundings very well; something that can’t really be said of modern Japanese architecture (though in fairness the centre of Tokyo looks great in my view, it’s the country towns which don’t. In England Nikko would have to have stone (or fake stone) houses and thatched cottages – here that wouldn’t be suitable but they could have been in traditional Japanese style – Hoi An in Vietnam which is a similar style place (though not in the mountains) had prettier modern buildings so the Japanese should be able to manage it. Maybe the Vietnamese should send the Hoi An planning people to Nikko in exchange for the “Shinkansen” the Japanese are helping with between Ha Noi and Sai Gon :p.

After that I went quickly back to my hostel to pick up my bags and I had to run with my big backpack to get the train I wanted to catch at 3:20pm so I could get the Shinkansen to Kyoto. All in all the journey took 5 hours which is incredibly quick.

I should also mention how (aside from pushing to get on commuter trains) the Japanese are incredibly considerate on public transport. Every carriage is quiet and people go out of the carriage when they want to make a telephone call or have a crying baby which is great for the rest of us and makes travelling much less of a chore.

Marriage in “the West”

I was having an interesting coversation with the mother of the Japanese family I was staying with in Tokyo about marriage. She was talking about how the divorce rate in Japan is rising. She was shocked when I mentioned that the divorce rate in England was currently approximately 50% (update: just checked the government figures, they don’t give figures per marriage but comparing the number of divorces this year to the number of marriages this year and the average since 1951 gives a probable divorce rate of between 40% and 50% – of course this only counts official marriages and not couples who live together unmarried.); I’m sure the situation is just as bad in the US and the rest of Europe. I suddenly realized that the reason for this is the lack of available advice about whether the person you are with is really “the one” or not. Given the vast quantity of stuff we were officially taught about relationships is less in amount to my knowledge of Vietnamese. For something that is so important; children who grow up with only one parent perform worse in all sorts of ways. And ancidotally children of parents who stayed together “for the children” wished their parents would split up.

Of course the sensible solution at this point would be to ask someone older and wiser who has had more life experience and who knows you well. So for the majority of young people without older friends to turn to that would leave their parents (of course this depends on your parents not being keen to marry you off to formulate an alliance or for power or something like that.) or other members of your family but asking for their approval of a relationship isnt really something you would do.

Of course you can always base it on the relatively small amount of life experience of long term relationships that you and your friends have (and the longer you wait the more likely that your friends have that experience.) or the media. But they will say practically anything to sell their publications on something that is fairly subjective, and obviously popular to discuss, like relationships.

So the current western model doesn’t seem to work that well but I suppose it is better than arranged marriage as at least you are free to make your own decisions. Thoughts and comments?

Tokyo and Hakone

First thing on Wednesday morning I headed to Ginza as I needed to buy some socks; the mission to do this was successful and after that I headed to Tokyo station to get the rest of my train tickets reservations. After this I headed to Ryogoku and the Sumo (really pronounced with a very short u rather than a long one that I’ve always used.) area, which wasn’t particularly exciting though after a Chinese lunch I headed to the Edo Tokyo museum which described the history of Japan from the Shogun era which was very interesting and I spent 4 hours there. The only issue was that there was clearly more information only in Japanese that wasn’t in English. Spanish would have been OK too but they didn’t have any information in that either :p. After that I did some important stuff on the Internet before coming back home.

The next day I got up at 6am and after showing and breakfast I got the 7am train headed towards the mountains. It was a steam train too; though unfortunately the steam was on the inside of the carriages rather than coming out of the engine. After arriving in Odawara I got my “Hakone Freepass” (which of course wasn’t free but cost ¥3900 (£28)) and I then got the train up slowly into the mountains before changing again onto a narrow gauge railway heading up to the Fujiya hotel where I had some tea and cake. After that I went to the Hakano open air museum. As the name hints they had a lot of outdoor displays but also some indoor displays though theses weren’t partcularly great. The outdoor displays included a massive Pegasus and rider, several moderately erotic nudes and a massive climbing frame made out of segments you could climb inside. All in all I spent two and a half hours there so afterwards I had to get a move on. So I got the train further up the mountain and grabbed a sandwich before jumping on the funicular (though in Wellington New Zealand it would also be a cable car) and then getting on the cable car to the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain you emerge over a volcanic valley which had lots of steam coming out of vents in the mountain and was very impressive. I did go on a walk to get closer but I didn’t get too close as I’ve seen them before in New Zealand and Chile. I also got to see a great view of mount Fiji though there was a little cloud low down on one side of the mountain.

After that I got the cable car down the mountain the other side to the side of a volcanic lake – like Rotaruha lake but smaller. At the bottom I got the boat across to the other side. The views were good but the boat was very cheesy and even had a Lord Nelson cartoony statue. Then at the Mokihakone I got off the boat and went for a walk to the second stop. On the way I walked along an avenue of tall Cryptomeria trees before reaching a viewpoint which let me see Mount Fuji again – this time without any cloud at all which was great. As the sun set I saw the Hakone barrier built on the road to Kyoto by the second Shogun before catching the bus back to Odwara.

At Odwara my journey got more exciting as I decided to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo as it’s free on my railpass (otherwise it’d be about ¥3500 or £25) I didn’t think it’d be much slower. However in 24 minutes I had covered the approximately 75km from Odwara to Tokyo. In the UK this is approximately the distance between Oxford and London which takes 55 minutes on the fastest train. The train even stopped on the way at Yokohoma and even so it managed an average speed of 180km/h! After that I took a trip on the Tokyo loop “Yamato” line to Shibuya. When I arrived on the platform to find it almost completely full. This train was the busiest train I’ve ever been on and I nearly lost my backpack on two occassions due to people pushing onto the train. Imagine the final top banana of the year (or if you aren’t a Warwick student a very, very, busy club) and then add some more and you get how busy the train was. It even got difficult to breathe as I got slammed against the people around me completely. And they didn’t even have to get the White gloved platform attendents involved to push people on (though they did get involved later on the journey on the train from Shibuya.). Then from Shibuya station I took two further trains to get back to where I’m staying in Tokyo. Due to the speed of the Shinkansen I got back in 75 minutes rather than 95 on the way out; even though I also got lost at Shibuya station for a bit. Overall though I’m getting used to the Tokyo public transport system. Maybe I should list the ability to use public transport on my CV as a skill :p.

The next day I headed north towards Sendai first catching a couple of pretty busy local trains to catch my Shinkhansen north out of Tokyo which I just managed to catch. As my seat was by the window in a row of three and the seats next to it were already occupied I tried to sit elsewhere but it’s clear the Japanese catch trains they have reserved seats on unlike the British who often don’t. I decided to get off the train early to see the Japanese railway museum as after travelling on all these trains I was curious about how they worked. There was some information in English but that was using a mobile phone barcode reader which didn’t work particularly well. Though the information I did learn was very interesting and mostly was interesting even if like me you ride on trains mainly to get from A to B (though I admit I went on the Shinkansen yesterday purely to travel really fast.) I’m sure it would have been much better if you understood Japanese. Numbering the exhibits and providing printed information in different languages would have worked far better in my view.

Tokyo: First few days

So after arriving late in the evening to the Japanese family with whom I’m staying in Tokyo on Sunday I went to bed fairly early and set out into the city just before 9am. First I had some admin to complete and then I set out to explore the city. First I headed to the nearby Ginza district where I first went to GAP to get a new tshirt to replace one that is damaged and jumper for the winter. The prices in GAP weren’t actually that high and were about the same as in the UK. After that I had a wander round the district to get a feel for it and vaguely looked for the Apple Store and it’s free WiFi as mentioned in the guidebook which meant I got a feel for the district. Ginza was very modern with lots of tall buildings. As the roads are also very wide it seemed like a place with a very big scale and as it was about 10:30 in the morning it was actually quite quiet as the shops had only just opened. I headed West to Tokyo station to get my Shinkasen tickets for later in my time in Japan. After that I went downstairs into a shopping centre to grab some lunch. It was actually surprisingly cheap costing only £4.50 including a drink. You must remember that the currency has risen by 60% over the past year due to bankers repaying low interest loans to Japan so it used to be only £2.80. Even against the US dollar it has increased by 30 or 40%.

After lunch I headed to the imperial palace to take a look around there. Unfortunately it is closed to the public and the building itself is inside a massive park so you can’t easily take a look at the building itself and have to make do with looking at the very traditional Japanese buildings around the edge. There is also a park next to the Palace but as it was Monday this was closed – the Japanese seem to shut a lot of their museums and attractions on Mondays.

After that I returned to the subway to go to Asakusa. Asakusa is the site of the famous Buddhist temple Senso-ji. There is also a Market in front of the temple which I walked through to get there. The temple itself was red and built in old Japanese style though behind it there were modern buildings – it was strange to see it in that position. After that I headed west into the narrow streets around the temple which were full of people walking down the middle of the road. The streets are narrow and remind me a little of Cusco though without being on a hill. That area of the city is where a lot of new parts of Japanese culture started so it was full of strip clubs and gambling dens – though it wasn’t a dodgy area like it would be in Europe. After going there I got the subway to Shinjuku which is the district that is supposed to represent the whole of Tokyo. First I headed for the Tokyo metropolitan building which is very attractive and supposed to represent modern Japanese architecture. This building also has viewing platforms at the top so you are able to look over the whole area and it is supposed to be particularly good at dusk which is when I arrived as you got to see the lights come on in the city. The view from the top was amazing and you could see the city completely covering the land in all directions. Tokyo is absolutely massive! The nearby lights of the building and neon that you could see from the top were impressive too but after I thought I should get a closer look. After a wander round the district where I managed to get lost as they have maps with different directions other than North at the top of the map which was very confusing. As the district is dominated by a massive train station it isn’t as big an issue as it could be though! Even so I still managed to see two branches of the high-end jewelry chain Tiffany and Co which seems more than excessive for a single district. I think that this along with vast numbers of other high end branded retailers is due to the Japanese being very keen on them. After this I went back to where I was staying and had some supper.

The next day I again got up fairly early and headed to a nearby flea market with the people I was staying with. On the way we passed their local temple which was more subdued than the one I had seen the day before and was also much quieter. This was very interesting as there were a wide variety of goods on sale (they even had Peruvian hats) and for a market the quality was very high. On the way back we went via a nearby University which was very modern and we had some cheap lunch there which cost about £3.

After that I headed out to the nearby Meiji-jingu shrine which was fairly typical but large. What was really good was it’s location in a large tree filled park. It also had a small garden which you had to pay to enter and that was very quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

After that I headed out of the south gate I entered the young persons district of Harajuku. It contains the Ota Memorial museum which is a small art museum with traditional ukiyo-e paintings and prints. They have 20000 works but only two rooms so they rotate the stuff once a month. This time they had work relating to the famous Japanese work Genji Monogatari (tale of Genji) written about the Japanese imperial court 1000 years ago this year. There was also artwork based on the 19th century parody version of this based on the imperial court of the time. This is the traditional art with the white faced Japanese and was well worth seeing. After that I went past H&M which was so full of people it had a queue outside. For a Tuesday it was like an Apple Store in the UK or USA. Apparently H&M is popular and there are only two stores in Tokyo so they are both busy. In comparison Tiffany who I mentioned earlier have at least four stores (with two in Shinjuku alone) and they are far more upmarket. After leaving H&M I wandered down towards Shibayu station via the tree lined Omotesando which was full of a huge number of branded stores and bright lights in the dark. On the way I passed a mobile phone store and thought I’d take a look. The only phone that I recognized from Europe is the iPhone – though it didn’t seem to be recieving much attention – most of the phones were square looking flip phones which the Japanese seem to love.

Aside from the mobile phones another thing I saw when wandering the streets was people dressed up in strange costumes. Apparently this is cosu-play and is to get away from the conformity of Japanese life. I didn’t get any pictures of this unfortunately. I also saw a large number of single women walking around; much more than in Europe or the Americas. It was interesting to see that they didn’t feel to be in relationships as much; whether this leads to better relationships (i.e. a lower divorce rate maybe) or not would be interesting to find out. They were also generally very pretty. I get asked this everywhere I go but as there were lots of pretty women at university (and secondary school before that.) I have fairly high standards so they are usually average but that isn’t true here.

After returnng back to where I was staying in the evening I had a French potato pie (which I ate with a knife and fork rather than chopsticks for a change.) and some traditional Japanese dessert before sitting down after dinner to watch Hull play Liverpool on Japanese TV. Even though I don’t normally like football this match was great and had a nailbiting finish. After that I watched a Japanese antiques program which went into the history of the time/pieces in great detail so would be great if you spoke Japanese.

Journey to Tokyo

I took the train up from Wellington to Auckland on Saturday which was pretty good and the train left early on Saturday morning for it’s journey first along the coast and then through the mountains. Unfortunately the windows are far too shiny to really get a good photo and there is too much pollen on the viewing platform for me. We did stop at lunchtime which gave me a chance for a quick walk as I’d already had some sandwiches on the train.

We arrived into Auckland in the evening (though 1.5 hours late which I wasn’t at all happy about – the reason was that the track was too hot.) and once there I went to sleep before my early 7.30am flight to Brisbane. For this flight I got up at 4.25am which is ungodly and then as the airport bus was early (4:40 not 4:44 as it was supposed to be.) I had to run up a 1:4 hill to catch it before collapsing on the floor of the bus (you try it with a 18kg rucksack – I’m not in the army.). I did manage to get a shower at the airport in Auckland. The flight was uneventful except that I had to run for my plane at Brisbane and JALWAYS gave us lots of food and drink though the films were all absolutely terrible. The best one was about a playboy bunny and solority houses and I’m not even kidding. It was also followed by the worlds longest taxi into the airport.

After that I made my way through the friendly and efficient security checks (the other airport staff and people around the airport were friendly too – male and female :p) to get my Japan Rail Pass and train ticket to Shinjuku station. I should also mention how insanely reliable the Japanese trains are. The 18:10 rapid train that I didn’t catch shut it’s doors at 18:09:5x but was still standing in the station when my iPod touch went over to 18:10:00. The track is also insanely smooth as it’s dark outside it doesn’t feel like the train is actually moving at all, ok it had stopped but I hadn’t noticed.

Further on on the journey we passed houses with garish Christmas lights though in general Tokyo is a lot darker with far fewer lights visible than in a Western city. The centre is still very bright though.

The other thing I’m immediately interested in discovering aside from the general culture is the technology. Japan has a reputation of being the most technologically advanced country on the planet, yet most of the most successful companies for 100 years have been American; from IBM to Microsoft to Apple and Google today.