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First time in Japan (Historical)

This year marked our ninth trip to Japan. It's difficult to remember that there was once a time when we weren't in love with this second home of ours.

B's brother was in love with everything Japanese. He'd dated a Japanese girl, been over there a couple of times and his comments encouraged us to do the same. I had also studied Japanese at junior high school, B during a summer course at university. So when we found ourselves in the second half of 2003 having saved up enough for an overseas trip, but not enough for our preferred destination of Europe, Japan suggested itself as a possibility.

B applied for her visa, getting lost in Australia Square in the process. The Sydney office of the Japan National Tourist Office was a useful resource and continues to be so. But at the end of it I really wasn't sure what to expect. I knew that I wasn't impressed with modern Japanese architecture - boxy and plain - and the appearance of their trains, other than some of the Shinkansens. I was interested in some of their traditional architecture and gardens though.

We prebooked accommodation at the New City Hotel in Shinjuku and sent faxes to book a couple of nights in a ryokan in Kyoto. We also purchased a Japan Rail Pass.

So on the night of the 4th of September we boarded our Qantas Boeing 747-300 for an nine and a half hour overnight flight to Narita airport outside of Tokyo. I couldn't sleep, watched some of the looped entertainment of the seatback screen. I felt every bump of the flight through the tropical air and was rapidly learning to loathe turbulence.

On arrival in Narita B's status as a Malaysian living in Sydney seemed to cause a bit of confusion. But we were soon on our way, having converted our JR voucher into an actual pass and boarded the Narita Express for Shinjuku. It was the start of a long love affair with that train. It's difficult to think of a nicer introduction to a country after a long and unpleasant flight, smoothly riding past rice paddies, bamboo forests and into Japanese suburbia. Fortunately, an electronic display kept track of our location.

Somehow we found the correct exit of the giant Shinjuku railway station. This was back in the day when we travelled with a borrowed Sampsonite suitcase in addition to my big brown Kathmandu backpack and it wasn't fun lugging the former around. Using streetside maps we eventually found the hotel, but it was at the other side of the Shinjuku Central Park which was filled with homeless, and quite far away from the station.

The staff were extremely friendly and helpful, but couldn't check us into until 3pm. We were both exhausted and the weather outside was unpleasantly hot and humid. I think the weather was a major disappointment of the trip.

Unable to check in we wandered back towards the station. Apart from skyscrapers, West Shinjuku also has such fantastic electronic retailers as Yobodashi. A huge selection of cameras and the best looking computers that I had ever seen. I returned to this store many times during our stay and never had enough!

We then wandered around the shopping centres near the station and in East Shinjuku, including Takashimaya Times Square and Tokyu Hands eating tonkatsu and the delicacies in a bento box. Finally, back to the hotel at 3pm for a sleep. The rooms were nothing special, but it had vending machines that introduced me to the refreshing Gokuri grapefruit juice and others that had ice cream, both welcome relief from the weather.

For dinner, we returned to the station area and found a narrow alleyway full of cigarettes and charcoal grills smoke from the tiny bars and noodle stalls that squeezed in together on both sides of the street. It was liking stepping into another world. Japanese customers sat on stools around the narrow bars eating yakitori and drinking beer. We found ourselves climbing up the narrowest of staircases of one such establishment, to be seated on cushions around a long low table. While other young Japanese smoked and watched baseball on the small television, we tried some yakitori - barbequed skewers. Tasty, but expensive!

The night sky may have been dark by the time that we had finished eating in Shinjuku, but the streets were still bright from the myriad neon lights and plasma screens that dominated the walls of the urban canyons. It was a new world for us.

The next day we visited Shibuya, more shopping canyons, the amazing Loft homewares shop, crazy 109 and had our first taste of doria (omelet with rice) in a post office themed cafe. We walked around the love hotel area, themed buildings concealing...

In the evening we caught the train across to Akihabara. I preferred the computer and camera stores of Shinjuku, but still picked up a secondhand Zaurus C700 (Linux palmtop/PDA)  from Sofmap.

Not knowing what to eat we returned to the alleyway in Shinjuku and ate a noodle stall. The proprietor seemed very excited to see a gaijin dine at his stall and kept heaping extras on to my udon until I could truly fit nothing else in. I guess that gaijins must have become more frequent visitors because he paid us no special heed during other visits over the next few years. His noodles are still as good as ever.

It was a Sunday and that meant a trip to Harajuku to see the famous cosplay kids. Much of their gear could be purchased along Takeshita St, platform soled black boots, cutesy outfits for humans and bikinis for dogs.

More shopping at an outdoor flea market, where we bought a decorative obi (kimono belt) that we still have not mounted eight years later. It wasn't cheap.

Hoping to experience some beautiful Japan, we crossed back into Yoyogi-koen, a large park and home of the Meiji-jingu shrine. Yoyogi-koen is more of a western green park that an ornate Japanese strolling garden, which is what I had in my mind, and Meiji-jingu is a big paved shrine rather than an intimate place where temple buildings suddenly appear between the trees. As such, it was a disappointment.

We did catch a traditional wedding party and enjoying the showiness of the cosplay kids near the bridge to the train station.

Omote-sando road took us past big shopping centres and crazy boutiques. We passed jolly brigades of men and women carrying portable shrines as part of a competitive/religious ritual.

I loved the following poster from one shopping centre. Look at where the people are emerging from in the side panels...

We went looking for traditional souvenirs at the Oriental Bazaar along Omote-Sando, but most were too expensive for our budget. Pity, as some of those woodblock prints would have looked nice in the house.

B decided that she wanted a haircut. For some reason we selected Fizzi. Their English was limited, but they were friendly. They also had an open wifi service, which I used to check emails on my original Zaurus. While I waited one of the hairdressers sat next to me and we chatted in my broken Japanese and him using Yahoo's online translator software. Strangely enough, that time in the hairdressers was one of my highlights of this trip.

The next morning we planned to get up early enough to view the activity at the famous Tsukiji fish markets. The reality saw us reach there later on. We still got a decent view of assorted sea creatures put out for display as we trudged across the wet floors.

The surrounding markets were full of a fascinating range of foodstuffs and cooking tools. We ate very fresh sushi from one of the famous restaurant chains in the area.

Following lunch we took a stroll past, but not into, the luxury goods stores of Ginza.

Then a subway ride to Asakusa, the old part of Tokyo. Finally, walking through the Kaminarimon gate, through the rice cracker market and into the Senso-ji temple I had a feeling that we were somewhere exotic.

Smoke, supposedly good for your health, wafted up from a burner in front of the temple. A six story pagoda towers over the attractive temple gardens, while goldfish swam underneath the stone bridges.

The area around the shrine felt like a slightly seedy hangout for locals. We passed an old looking amusement park with it's Funky Duck ride towering over the adjacent buildings.

Naturally, we had to get some plastic replica sushi from the amazing restaurant supply shops along Kappabashi-dori, overlooked by the giant chef's head.

It was time to see somewhere other than Tokyo, so the next day we caught a shinkansen to Tokyo. Boy was it fast, but I found the scenery outside fairly boring, mainly green rice paddies and grey factories.

Kyoto's station was a wonder of glass and steel. It didn't prepare us for the view outside. Rundown Kyoto Tower and grey boxy buildings. I was not impressed by modern Kyoto. We dragged our cases from the station to our ryokan, stopping by the tourist office to book a tour of the Imperial Palace for the next day.

The route to the ryokan took us past the big Higashi Hongan-ji Buddhist temple and streets of old shophouses where they still made local crafts, sweets and crackers. As we neared the ryokan the clouds briefly started to rain big tropical drops. We sheltered under an awning until it stopped. The weather was hot and humid, rather unpleasant.

As we checked in at the ryokan we discovered that I had got our days wrong and that we should have arrived the day before. No wonder the clerk at the New City Hotel was so confused. The old lady who ran the ryokan was rather upset with us, but eventually excused us with the face saving "must be the timezone difference that has you confused." Actually, Australia and Japan have a standard 1 hour difference.

After leaving our bags we returned to the station area to explore and get some dinner, which we ate on the upper levels of the station building.

Our first stay in a ryokan was, like much of the trip, a bit of a disappointment. The scent of the straw tatami mat was lovely and has always stayed with me, but the room was very hot and we were not supposed to leave the noisy airconditioner on. The bath was deep and hot, but just a single person affair and stank of kerosene from the heater, though the view out to the garden was nice.

It was raining the next day. We ducked into a convenience store to purchase an umbrella, then walked to the Kyoto Imperial Palace for the compulsory tour of the grounds. Despite the wet weather I enjoyed the striking bright orange buildings, the thatched roofs and the ornate garden, which was more in keeping with expectations than previous parks.

After the Imperial Palace it was a long stroll through the covered arcades and the Nishiki markets. These arcades must be for local people as there never seems much for a tourist there.

We had bought bus passes and caught a slow bus service up to northwest Kyoto to see the famous temples. It was again hot and humid and there was plenty of walking to be done. As we strolled up the hills past jungle I wondered if there were any bears lurking there.

The first of the temples was the modern symbol of Kyoto, the golden Kinkaku-ji pavilion. This was a pleasant sight, until the crowds of Japanese tour groups with megaphones came through and destroyed the ambiance.

From Kinkaku-ji we walked up to Ryoan-ji, a temple complex which houses the famous Zen stone garden. Taking off our shoes and just sitting down on the wooden steps of the temple to admire the rock and moss islands in a sea of pebbles was in itself very relaxing, despite the noisy school kids also touring the complex.

The moss gardens and pond area around the temple are also very attractive.

Another bus drove us towards Ginkaku-ji and the start of the Tetsugaku-no-michi. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to visit the Ginkaku-ji temple, but I was determined to walk the evocatively named Path of Philosophy. As we strolled along the stone path under the green cherry trees giant carp swam languidly in the Biwa canal to our left. Either side of the canal were houses and small cafes and galleries, people going about their evening business. The Tetsugaku-no-michi remains as  my favourite part of Kyoto.

After a lot more walking and another bus ride we reached downtown Kyoto and the narrow Pontocho street alongside the Kamogawa river. This street is lined with many traditional restaurants and we spotted a maiko (apprentice geisha) strolling along it. Most of the restaurants do not welcome non-Japanese speakers, but we eventually found one with an English menu that served modern versions of traditional Kyoto cuisine.

It was expensive and I can't say we really enjoyed the meal, but chalk it down as an experience. Then back to the ryokan for another bath and sleep before the curfew kicked in. Being used to staying out exploring late while travelling the imposition of a 10pm curfew at the ryokan was not really welcome.

There was enough time for an exploration of Higashi Hongan-ji before our departure from Kyoto. The main building was under renovation, but we listened to the bells and chanting of the morning service.

Rather than return directly to Tokyo we were first going further south to Himeji, site of one of Japans largest and best preserved castles. First, however, we had to stop at a convenience store to buy some black duct tape for one of B's shoes from which the sole was starting to peel off.

It's quite a hike from Himeji station to the base of the castle. There seemed to be preparations for a concert in the surrounding park with the erection of a big tent stage and a number of trucks parked around the place.

The walk up through the castle and up to the top of the main keep was hot work but fascinating. There are many English descriptions posted around the castle with some static recreations of the life inside. Himeji-jo is still made of wood, rather than a concrete reconstruction as is the case in so much of the rest of Japan.

As we walked back towards the station we spotted what appeared to be a pet skunk on a young Japanese man's scooter.

Another Shinkansen returned us to Tokyo and the Shinjuku New City hotel that evening. We had one last wander through the neon lights of Shinjuku. This was one area that I would miss when returning to Australia, the multicoloured bright lights, the noise of the busy electronics shops.

Our final day in Japan was spent around in Shinjuku. We wandered through the park opposite the hotel, past throngs of homeless Japanese with their cardboard boxes and suits. Then ascended to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building towers to the free lookout. Shinjuku is one of the more stable areas of Tokyo, enabling the building of these tall skyscrapers.

We then went shopping at Takashimaya Times Square and wandering through the amazingly diverse Tokyu Hands. By the time we got out we had to run back to the hotel to have enough time to collect our bags and catch the free, but infrequent, shuttle bus back to Shinjuku station.

At least we could relax in the Narita Express back to the airport. Then another bumpy overnight flight in a Qantas 747-300 back to Sydney.

When we arrived at the airport our black Samsonite case was missing from the luggage belt, along with the $5 umbrella from the convenience store. It appeared that one of the other passengers had mistaken our case for his own. At least they were probably Japanese and I had great confidence in their honesty.

It was not misplaced and Qantas delivered both to us, though the umbrella came separately. The courier delivery must have cost them more than the umbrella itself!

Our first trip to Japan was a case of having high expectations and preformed impressions that differed from the reality. I just didn't "get" the country on that trip, didn't get the food, the architecture, the climate. It felt too urbanised, where was the spiritual side of Japan?

With hindsight I know now that I didn't know how to look at Japan in the right way, how to identify the beautiful vignette in a scene which may otherwise seem ugly. Had we caught a train into the mountains or stopped at a small town we would have seen a very different side of Japan. That journey will be told in a future post.


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