It is now 2009 in Japan, so happy New Year everyone.
I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip, but so they stay relevant I am going to do some as I go along. So I’m going to split my trip into thirds. The next logical third is the Pacific Islands including Easter Island, Tahiti, New Zealand and Japan (technically its an island chain at least mostly in the Pacific.) as well as Syndey Australia. I know I haven’t posted my final Tokyo post yet, that is still to come after this one.
Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand, Milford Sound was an absolutely stunning place to visit and it was well worth doing the excellent overnight cruise on the Fjord.
A Bomb Museum, Hiroshima, Japan, though flawed as I covered in the Hiroshima post the A bomb museum was very good and covered the important facts about the first use of the nuclear bomb. All of the signs were also in English and the audio tour covered most of it and was available in 20 or so languages.
Best tour company
Oz Trails, Sydney for managing to organise and excellent and full one day tour of the Blue Mountains in Australia for a reasonable price as well.
Tokyo, Japan for its excellent public transport, great sites and it appears to have strong nightlife as well (though I didn’t experience it myself.). It is also a modern and vibrant city.
Best non-Family accommodation
Te’ora, Easter Island, this award has been practically guaranteed since Easter Island, but Te’ora was amazing and I would definitely go back for the accommodation, unfortunately Easter Island is really the sort of place you only go once, I recommend it to all levels of traveller, whether you stay in youth hostels (well it is a little expensive) or the Peninsula.
Best food for under US$25
Creviche in the blue restaurant on Easter Island, assuming you stay at the recommended accommodation this should be enough to go on, creviche on Easter Island was absolutely delicious.
Okomomiyaki, Hiroshima, although I didn’t speak English at the restaurant this was absolutely amazing, and was better than the Tokyo version which I had today (and haven’t discussed yet).
The Lee, Mohan and Tim award for the best burger
Burgers seem to be turning into a staple on this trip and in honour of my time in Chicago when I had four burgers in six days with the guys from Chicago (including two for two successive meals.
Burger Hut at Le Petit Village, Mooera for being absolutely delicious and a bargain for Tahiti.
Honourable Mention for South America
As the award started in Chicago, the USA is exempt so it goes to the BK Argento, Argentina.
Queenstown, New Zealand, because I actually went out there, and unlike Sydney it had character and wasn’t full of non-descript hotel bars.
Shotover Jet, Queenstown for being great fun (especially the 360 degree spins), not too expensive for New Zealand and for finishing just when you wanted it to.
Honourable mention for the Americas
Mountain biking in Arequipa, Peru which was great fun on bumpy roads, and I even managed not to fall off!.
The Japanese the Japanese, especially those I have stayed with have all been very friendly, even when there is a language barrier between us.
Best Transportation Company
Japan Rail, Japan, any train company which can make you forget to photograph something as cool as the Shinkansen because it “just works” so well is incredible, every train has been virtually on time in the entire country and the transportation system here in Japan is nothing short of incredible. Japanese trains are how it should work everywhere.
The free temples in Japan for often being as good as some of those you have to pay to enter.
Tahiti for being totally overpriced for what it was. It was even a total rip-off in comparison to the utterly remote Easter Island, and Japan whose currency has gained 70% over the pound this year. This is really reflected in it only having 2.5 times the tourist numbers of Easter Island which is much harder to get to.
The Patrick Levy award for cinematography
When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.
The winner is Dan in Real Life for being the only romantic comedy I have ever seen that didn’t disappoint its genre by being a) funny and b) about real love.
The counterfeiters which was very interesting, but a little short for my liking.
So I arrived into Hiroshima at 1:30pm on Saturday after having my usual lunch of rice in seaweed. First I checked into my hostel for the next couple of nights. After that I headed to the mixed contemporary arts museum. It had some moving art on the atomic bomb in the foyer and in the exhibition they had some great exhibits including a video describing the procress of life and a video of a cherry tree growing in a mans head but it had some really weird shitty ones like a video of a guy diving (yeah that’s “art” :rolleyes:).
After that I went to the prefectural art museum but it was shut so I just had a wander around town. I tried to find a cinema that was “close” to the city hall. After I found it was actually several metro stops to the south which is hardly close so I didn’t find it. The city looks nice but it’s basically like any other Japanese city. After that in the evening I had a Hiroshima pancake dinner which was delicious, ordering it was an experience too as their were no photos and the menu was only in Japanese. After this I returned to my hostel for the evening.
On Sunday morning I got up bright and early at 7:30am and headed over to Miyajima for the morning. I managed to get the 8:50am train from Hiroshima station west on the Sanyo line to the short JR ferry over to the island. This worked well and first I went to the floating shrine Itsukushima-jinja the island is famous for.
That was pretty impressive and as it was only an hour off high tide it was completely covered in water below it’s base making it look like it was floating. After seeing this I headed up to the temple Daisho-in which was very beautiful and also didn’t have an entry charge which was a refreshing change. The temple was also one of the most attractive I have seen here in Japan. After this I headed over to the cable car to head up the mountain. This was expensive at ¥1800 (£13) but worth it. The views at the top of the inland sea were absolutely stunning and it was well worth it. There was even a walk for the final distance to the very top of the mountain for an amazing view as well. After that I headed back to town on the train to take a look at the Peace Park and the museum there. That was very moving and had stuff on the leadup the war in the Pacific as well as why Hiroshima was picked and the aftermath. They also had the 1,000 paper cranes made by the girl who wanted to cure her Lukemia which was probably the most moving thing in the museum. All in all approximately 140,000 people died in the A-Bomb at Hiroshima.
There were some notable emmissions of the history though. They probably should have gone into more detail on the Rape of Nanking rather than quibbling about the number of people killed, the number is probably at least 100,000. They also failed to mention that American bombing before had been pretty hurrendous and that 100,000 people had been killed in three nights bombing in Tokyo which puts the deaths in some perspective. There was also nothing on the Americans land invasion of Okinawa where 260,000 Japanese and 13,000 Americans died in the invasion of that island chain because the Japanese fought to the death which adds a lot of weight for the justification for the atomic bombing.
I got up at 7am on Saturday to head on the train to Hiroshima. It’s clear at this point that the New Year which is the Japanese equivalent to Christmas has begun and there is a lazy atmosphere in the air. First I headed to Kyoto station to leave my baggage before catching the slowest express bus I’ve ever caught which took 35 minutes to get to the shrine. The shrine was very beautiful and well set with a pretty lake in front of it however after a quick look around as there really wasn’t much to see I rushed back to Kyoto station (I got strange looks for walking at commuter speed through the rest of the shrine – hey I had a train to catch!) so I could get the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. I seemed to have bad luck with public transport today as I missed quite a few trains by a minute or less. I did even experience my first late train in Japan as well which was a whole 5 minutes late. The one behind was even worse at 15 minutes late! Outrageous. The Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima was also even full in the unreserved section so I didn’t get two full seats to myself like I usually do and had to make do with only a single seat.
To avoid hypocracy I’m going to criticise the Indian trains in the same way that I critised the Japanese ones but so I don’t bore you like I did with bus-movies in New Zealand I’m going to do it in advance now. The Indian trains all suck for being at least 5 minutes late, it’s a disgrace.
Now I have something else to say about Japanese trains that the British actually do better. I’m deadly serious too.
Now you’re over the shock that Britain isn’t actually that bad with it’s trains I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the automated route management software that the ticket office access which doesn’t seem to easily allow you to compare train changing points on the Shinkansen as well as even a paper timetable. This means they didn’t recommend the fastest train yesterday and on Monday my journey back to Yokahoma will be 30 minutes longer than necessary. Oxford also does better with their automated display boards telling you which train to catch so you get to see what is the “next fast train” to your destination. This would be very useful at Kyoto for Shin-Osaka and Osaka for example.
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.
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.
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.
Well it’s 12:03 on Christmas day here in Kyoto. So happy Christmas everyone.
After arriving on the bullet train into Kyoto I sat down and uploaded some more photos at my hostel these are now online on Flickr and named (some not very well though), enjoy, but now I’m off to bed as its midnight here.
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.