Japan - 2008
Japan had been on my to-do list for ages.
After seeing various documentaries and reading numerous
travel stories I was pretty much convinced that I would love
the country. I was not disappointed - The country is
something completely different and highly civilized but
still full of fascinating everyday things.
Check out the
When I spotted the offer about cheap (500€) direct flights from
Helsinki to Nagoya it did not take too long for me to book
the tickets. Because of other commitments I had just 10 days
to explore this wonderful country but it was just enough to
give you an impression of the many faces of Japan. Getting
around was very convenient with Japan Rail Pass - after
paying a fixed fee you can use JR services for free for the
next 7 days. The railway network is very extensive - you
should be able to reach all the major destinations easily
07-08.07.2008 Helsinki - Nagoya -
almost miss my flight as I'm at the airport just 45 before
the check-in. Fortunately I have already checked in by using
Finnair's SMS service so all I need to do is to drop my
baggage. The flight is a painful daytime flight that takes
about 10 hours so there is not chances for sleeping. The
flight is totally uneventful - pleasant surprise being
Finnair's new in-flight entertainment system. Additionally my
brand new portable media player Zune allowed me to watch
several episodes of Heroes so actually it was not as tedious
as I expected.
Immigration in Japan went rather
smoothly so after about an hour from arrival I was on my
way to the downtown area of rainy Nagoya. It is not the
main tourist destination in Japan so I intend to head
straight to Kyoto (even though I have been awake almost
for 24 hours already!). It should take more than hour by
train - if you take the the Shinkansen fast train.
Unfortunately I quickly learn that the rail system in
Japan is very complicated and there are numerous
companies offering their services. I book a "Limited
Rapid Express" service which turns out to be a
combination of two local trains that takes almost three
hours. It also includes the change of trains in some
unknown location (the ticket is entirely in Japanese) so
this alternative sounds really challenging!
It seems that nobody speaks any
English in the train but somehow I get my message
through and a friendly gentleman tells me when to get
off (can't remember the name of that place anymore!). I
finally arrive in Kyoto about an hour later - totally
exhausted. I try to locate the tourist info before
heading to my hotel but it seems that it has moved. The
place I have booked should be close but as I don't have
a proper map I need to take a taxi - it is actually a
5-minute ride. After check-in I sleep for a couple of
hours but still feel dazed and confused. It is already
dark so I quickly explore the surroundings but there is
not much to be seen as it is already dark. I buy from
food from the nearby 24-hour supermarket and return to
hotel. I quickly fall asleep again...
I slept for about 10 hours and after having the
surprisingly good complimentary breakfast at the hotel
it is the time start exploring the city. There is an
Internet connection available at the lobby so after
quick googling I locate the tourist information booth -
seems that is has moved just a couple of blocks to the
railway station! So it will be my first destination
today - just to get the necessities like a proper map
and some up-to-date information about public
Kyoto is a big city
with long and wide streets. It is very easy to get around as
the street plan is basically a big grid. The free maps
provided by tourist information are excellent - especially
the one that lists all bus lines that connect major sights.
The 500-yen day pass allows unlimited traveling on most of
the bus lines.
I decide to check out
the Imperial Palace as the first thing - this turns out to
be a wrong move as there is no admission for the general
public and you cannot see anything because of the high walls
that surround the area. Fortunately it is not a long walk to
Nijo castle. It is an interesting place but completely
unlike castles in European context. The construction rather
resembles the local temples but anyway it is beautiful place
with a nice garden.
I continue to the
temple of Ginkaku-Ji by bus. I've actually made a mistake
again as there are two temples with similar names in the
town - there is also a place called Kinkaku-Ji that is the
more famous of the two with its golden roofs. So actually I
end up in wrong place but according to LP the "G-temple"
should be worth checking out as well. Again there is a
disappointment when I get to the temple gates - the main
building is being renovated and basically covered. You can
still wander around freely in the impressive Zen garden so
there is at least something to be seen.
It is already late
afternoon and temples close early so I start walking back to
downtown. I think about checking out the local Manga museum
on my way to hotel but again there is disappointment - the
museum is closed for some unknown reason for the next couple
of days! So it is time for a refreshing shower at the hotel.
It has been mostly cloudy weather throughout the day but
still it has been really hot.
After some rest in
the air-conditioned room it is already dark and I take a bus
ride back downtown to see Kyoto by night. I spot a temple
that is very impressively lit - I spend a while to explore
the temple grounds. There are lots of strange artifacts to
be seen - for example countless mysterious scrolls with
Japanese lettering hanging on the walls. As I'm looking for
a place to have dinner I'm lucky enough to see endangered
species - namely a couple of Geishas on their way to work.
Kyoto is one of the few locations in Japan that still have a
"Geisha scene". There is lots of suspicious looking bars and
clubs around but as all signs are only in Japanese you can
just guess what is behind the closed doors - anyway many of
them look like striptease clubs. I have dinner at a place
with tatami floors where you need to leave your shoes to
special lockers before entering the dining area.
is some hassle with the hotel as I try to extend my stay for
one day still. First was requested to change my room to a
smoking room that would be 3000 yen more expensive than my
already expensive room (9600 yen). In the morning another
receptionist tells me that I don't need to change the room
and the price will be actually 6700 yen! I'm glad that I
asked again - otherwise I would have packed my things in
Today my first
destination is "the real Kinkaku-Ji" and some other sights
in the western parts of the city. Kinkaku-Ji is definitely
worth a visit - basically the whole building is golden and
as usual there is a beautiful garden surrounding it.
Unfortunately you cannot enter the actual building. I
continue by foot and visit "World Peace Museum" that is
nearby. It has some interesting exhibits about Japan's
involvement in second world war - it is interesting to see
how openly Japan acts of terror in Southeastern Asia are
I take a short bus
ride further down to south where there should be some
temples in the middle of bamboo forests. It is interesting
to see how the area resembles more a rural small town that a
city with millions of inhabitants! After some walking I
locate the temple (well - it is actually a shrine) in the
middle of the bamboo forest. There is not much to be seen
except the locals that are busy practicing some religious
rituals. There is a place called "Monkey Park" nearby but I
don't know really what to expect as the place is described
neither in LP nor in the brochures I took from the tourist
information office. Anyway I decide to give it a try as
monkeys are fascinating creatures to watch. To park is
actually on top of a high hill that offers good views over
Kyoto. It is an area where dozens of monkeys of different
species (mostly baboons?) wander freely around.
Interestingly there was a "cage" (actually a resting area
with barred windows) for humans from where you could feed
the monkeys. There were also lots of recently born little
monkeys with their mothers to be seen - very cute indeed!
As it is already late
afternoon and I'm starting to feel really exhausted I take a
bus back to the hotel. I take a little nap but still feel
tired. I don't feel like walking so I have dinner at the
nearest restaurant (place called "Royal Court") - I order a
set dinner that contains a number of Japanese dishes even
though there are some mystery ones as well. I return to the
hotel and test the vending machine that serves beer -
working perfectly as you might guess!
is the time to move on - my next destination will be Tokyo.
This time I really intend to take the Shinkansen fast train.
The first task is to exchange the JR Pass voucher at the
station - this proves to be easy and I also get a reserved
seat to the train that will be leaving Kyoto in 20 minutes.
The train itself is not much different from any other modern
trains I've used - you can hardly feel the speed inside and
it is a very stable ride. It takes a little less than three
hours to get to Tokyo so it is a very convenient trip after
Tokyo central station
is a huge and chaotic place - I locate the nearby tourist
information office after some wandering. Again the service
is very good and the friendly lady helps me to reserve a
hotel room from the nearby area called Ueno. It takes just 5
minutes by the JR local train to get there. The first
impression of Tokyo is like I expected - it is huge and
there is lots of people and traffic. But still it is fairly
easy to get around as streets are not chaotic (just crowded)
and there is plenty of English signs to be seen. Public
transportation seems to be very efficient and there is
endless number of train / metro / bus lines.
Ueno is part of old
Tokyo where there are no skyscrapers and streets are narrow.
I somehow manage to get bit lost while looking for the hotel
- it is actually very close to the Ueno station. Finally I
need to ask for directions from another hotel! There is
still plenty of time to explore the surroundings so after a
quick check-in I continue back to the station and check out
the nearby market and park. The national museum is also in
the area so I decide to pay a visit. It is actually a slight
disappointment - too many paintings that look more or less
the same and lots of badly eroded pre-historical artifacts.
As it is getting dark
it is a good time to visit Akihabara Electric Town that is a
huge complex of shops and department stores specializing in
all kinds of electronics. I soon realize that my brand new
digital camera (well - actually 6 months old by now) is a
relic compared to the models that they are selling here.
Products are cheap compared to prices back home but as I
don't really need anything I decide to save my yens. It is
anyway an interesting area just for strolling around -
especially after dark the neon lights are a sight in
themselves. Before returning to hotel I spend a while to
explore the local pachinko place and arcades (the noise
level in there is unbelievable!).
seems that it will be a sunny day - actually most of the
days so far have been more or less half cloudy so far. One
of the Tokyo highlights recommended by LP is the nearby
Senso-Ji temple with "live action" so that will be my first
destination today. The temple proves to be a busy place
packed with people (mostly Japanese) practicing various
religious rituals. It is the biggest complex so far I have
seen and with the live action it is really interesting to
observe. The buildings are also a lot more colorful than the
ones in Kyoto. The rituals are not much different from the
ones I saw in Kyoto - even though it is still hard for me to
understand the differences between Zen Buddhism and Shinto.
Some school girls that are on some sort of excursion want to
practice speaking English with me - they are friendly but
there is still a lot to learn. I would like to ask their
teacher about the Japanese school system - it is just
amazing how poor the language skills of ordinary people in
such a highly civilized country can be!
I take the metro to
downtown. I head to Imperial Palace (yes - there seems to be
one in all major cities!). As in Kyoto you cannot visit the
actual palace but you can see it from a distance.
Fortunately the East Gardens of the palace are open for the
general public. As expected it is huge complex of exotic
trees, flowers and numerous ponds. And a beautiful and
tranquil place in the middle of a bustling capital. After
some chilling out I walk to the nearby park that should have
a Budokan where you could see some martial arts. Today this
is unfortunately not the case as some local singer is having
her concert there.
It is probably the
hottest day so far and I'm sweating really heavily. I take
the train back to hotel to take a shower and enjoy the
comfort of my air-conditioned room for a while. About two
hours later I take yet another train - this time my
destination is Shinjuku. The area is one of the places where
most of the city's night life is concentrated - even though
Shinjuku is more concentrated on the filthier side of that (ie.
striptease clubs, love hotels, sex shops etc.) But anyway it
is quite an experience just to wander around on the streets:
the amount of neon lights is blinding and just the amount of
people seeking their hedonistic pleasure is unbelievable!
The scene is very much Japanese and there are very few
western people to be seen. The touts are not even interested
in me - apart from some black guys that seem to be
specialized in luring western people in to some suspicious
looking clubs. There is a number of blocks for just "love
hotels" - places that offer rooms with hourly rates (you'll
probably guess the purpose of such visit even though it is
called "rest"). There is not really ordinary bars / clubs to
be seen - I guess they are elsewhere in the Roppongi area? I
spot the first Burger King during this trip so it is Double
is the last full day of my brief Tokyo visit. I've seen
pictures from the weekly freak show that takes place in the
Harajuku area so it needs to be checked out. It is again a
sunny and hot day. It takes about half an hour to reach
Harajuku station. The bridge near the station is the
traditional meeting place for youngsters who prefer to dress
differently - meaning anything from outfits borrowed from
manga characters to the "usual" lolita stuff. I actually
walk past the spot when I exit the station as somebody keeps
begging for money for charity. The idea is that people just
come here every Sunday to pose - seems that taking photos is
actually perfectly OK and often ordinary people just ask
some of the freaks to pose with them! If I previously
thought that some of the Helsinki youngsters are pretty
badly fucked up nowadays I would not be that much worried
In the nearby Yojogi
Park there is a lot of more action to be seen. There are
numerous local bands playing, lots of performances including
anything from 50s rock 'n roll to some weirdo who is
painting a picture and dancing at the same time! And of
course there are thousands of locals just enjoying the sunny
Sunday. Best of all - everything is free. Nobody comes to
ask for money for their performances (which are in general
very good and professional!). Additionally there is a big
flea market in the area. Another strange sight is the huge
queue on the streets - it takes a while to understand the
reason for that but it is actually the first day when they
are selling Apple's brand new iPhone here. And as japanese
are crazy for gadgets it is not a wonder that the queues are
several hundred meters!
Anyway it is very
hard to describe this afternoon by words - you need to see
the photos to get an understanding of the feeling there.
Fortunately my camera has also a video option - otherwise it
would have been difficult to capture the atmosphere of the
live performances. I would say that this afternoon was one
of the top 10 moments in my traveling history - did not
quite know what to expect but it turned out to be such a
fascinating day with so much weird things to be seen!
Actually I managed to get my camera's memory card full for
the first time ever - this should also tell something about
the amount of sights and attractions in Japan...
Later in the
afternoon I move to the nearby Shibuya area. It is yet
another downtown area (in Tokyo there are quite a few) - the
main attraction here are the endless shopping centers and
fashion stores. It is again an area that is utterly crowded.
One of the main attractions is the world's busiest
pedestrian crossing - it is really impressive to see endless
hordes of peoples working in 5 directions at the same time.
I'm not in the mood for shopping (except for the new memory
card) so I think it is the time to return to the hotel. I'm
too tired to do anything else than having a tasty yakitori
meal in a nearby restaurant. A very good day indeed!
Tokyo - Shimoda
My final destination during this short tour will be the
small coastal town of Shimoda. It should about 150 km
southwest of Tokyo on the peninsula of Izu-Hanto. The main
attractions should be a decent beach scene and hot baths ("onsen"
as they call them in Japan). There is a direct (but slow)
train connection there from Tokyo Central Station - it takes
almost three hours as there are frequent stops.
Shimoda turns out to
be really idyllic place surrounded by dramatic mountains -
there are no signs of the hassle from Tokyo to be seen and
the overall atmosphere is really laidback. The first task is
to find a place to stay - my intention is to stay in a
japanese style ryokan hotel. I ask for directions from
tourist information office - unfortunately they don't speak
any English but they give me a map with locations of some
local ryokans. I choose one recommended by LP but finding
the exact location turns out to be a challenging task as
there are no English signs. I even accidentally knock on the
door of some private apartment and get some vague directions
but I'm still unable to locate the place. Fortunately there
is a very friendly old lady that actually takes me to the
correct location (on the opposite side of the block).
Another lady with equally poor English welcomes me.
When entering a
ryokan you need to remove your shoes and put on kind of
slippers. Rooms have tatami floors and you sleep on a futon
bed. There is usually shared bathing facilities - the
specialty of this place is the hot bath that uses water
coming from the local hot springs. I'll try the bath later
in the evening - the water is almost boiling so it is not a
very pleasant experience! I wonder how a sauna with the
temperature of 100 degrees centigrade feels much more
As it is again a
sunny day it is the time to go to the beach. It is only a
10-minute bus ride to the nearby Shirakawa beach that is
actually a quite decent beach. Not too crowded and there
seems to be some kind of surfing scene there. The water is a
bit chilly but it is always good fun to enjoy the sunshine.
After two hours it starts getting cloudy so I leave and
check out the nearby village. There is yet another
interesting temple - the most peaceful so far as there is
nobody except me there.
I take the bus back
to Shimoda and continue my experiments with japanese food. I
have some sushi for starters in a traditional local place. I
have never been a big fan of sushi but this time it is
really good (maybe because of the fresh fish?). And here it
is not such a trendy thing as in Europe. After sushi tasting
I have a set meal in a nearby restaurant- lots of tasty
seafood including tempura for the first time but still
several unidentified mystery dishes. Again I don't quite
know how to eat my food - only after my meal I realize that
the black sauce was meant for tempura (not for rice!). I
return to ryokan - it is the first place I'm staying in
where there are no locks on the doors. All my things seem to
be there still...
sleep really well - actually it is the most comfortable (and
cheapest) room so far on this trip so I decide to stay for
another night. My intention is to spend the day by exploring
the local beach and onsen (bathing) scenes. Unfortunately it
is a bit cloudy weather but still very hot and humid. My
first destination is a small beach in a nearby lagoon. It
looks actually pretty much deserted - all the restaurants
and vending machines (of course there are some!) are closed.
There seems to be some renovation work going on though so
maybe there will be a grand re-opening party soon?
The waters are
shallow here so it is also warmer - actually a very good
place for swimming. Even though it is cloudy skies there it
is still not cloudy enough to protect you from sunshine -
after a couple of hours I notice that my skin is slowly
turning red...I decide to leave as having a hot bath with
your skin badly burned may not be the most pleasant
experience. So after some walking back to Shimoda I make the
5-minute trip by train to the next village. There is a big
onsen at the local ryokan - the place is easy to find as the
place is really small. You don't have to stay at the hotel
to use the bathing facilities - just pay the admission fee
of 700 yens.
Onsen etiquette is
quite straightforward - just take off your clothes and put
them to a locker. Take a small "modesty towel" with you and
enter the pool. Use the modesty towel when getting off the
pool to cover your private parts. Just chill out in the pool
or enjoy the outdoor area if it gets too hot. Use the small
buckets to wash yourself with soap and cold water. The water
is warm (coming from the nearby hot springs) but not too
warm (like in my ryokan). It is actually quite pleasant
experience even though the locals seem to be staring at me.
People don't stay in the water for long - most visitors seem
spend 10-15 minutes there and then leave. That applies for
me as well - one of the reasons being the sunburns that are
gradually starting hurt in the hot water.
I return to Shimoda
and continue my experiments with sushi in the place I
visited yesterday. It is just the starters - a little later
I go to a seafood restaurant to have a big set meal with
grilled fish and a number of mystery dishes. Very good
indeed. It is the first time I'm eating a whole fish with
chopsticks - actually easier than I thought! Before
returning to ryokan I wander on the deserted streets of
Shimoda just to enjoy the peace and quiet - Tokyo feels such
a distant place now...
Shimoda - Nagoya
wake up early to catch the 9 o'clock train. For some reason
part of the route between Tokyo and Shimoda is not covered
by JR Pass so I have to pay some extra. Even though there
are only two trains leaving there is some difficulties in
finding the correct one (first I'm advised to board the slow
local train). I'm not quite sure about the connecting trains
to Nagoya - should I go all the way back to Tokyo or is it
possible to get off earlier. Based on some brochures I
received with my tickets my conclusion is that it is
possible to transfer for Shinkansen at Atami.
This turns out to be
a good move and this time there are no surprises - it takes
just about an hour to get to Nagoya. I book the cheapest
business hotel near the central station ("Flower Hotel Part
2" sounds a bit funny) - decent place with nice view from
the 11th floor for 6000 yens.
Nagoya is not the
most interesting city for a visitor - there not that many
sights in the downtown area (at least when compared to Tokyo
or Kyoto). I check out some of the more interesting ones -
including the old TV tower, a futuristic bus terminal and
the small design museum. And yet another temple. Interesting
but nothing special compared to the other wonders I have
seen during this trip. I would like to have some yakitori
and try to locate a restaurant that has a barbeque. I can't
find any of such outdoor places that I saw in Tokyo but
there is a place near the central station that is
specialized in various meat dishes. In addition to decent
yakitori they have also grilled squid that is one of my
favorites. Good stuff.
As it is gradually
getting dark it is the time to visit one of the skyscrapers
with an observation deck. It is actually the highest
building in the city and as you might guess the views are
really awesome. The timing is just perfect in order to see
the red skies slowly turning dark. Interestingly there is
some kind of light and smoke show every half an hour -
rather impressive and very Japanese... I spend almost an
hour up there before returning to ground level.
I spend the rest of
evening in the local arcade and pachinko places - I still
don't quite get the rules of pachinko. I waste a couple of
hundred yens in one of the machines but the game seems
rather stupid (all seems to be just a question of luck?) I
play some arcade games at the Taito gaming room - seems that
basic shoot'em up type of games have evolved very little in
the past 20 years.
I return to hotel
well before midnight. This is my last night in Japan (at
least for the time being) - it has been one of the most
interesting trips so far! So many times during this trip I
have been just standing in awe looking at some strange
sight, so many times I have felt like "what the f**k" when
seeing one of the endless technological innovations... I
think I need to come back some day.
And no, it is not
expensive in Japan. At least when compared to Finland. Food
is bit cheaper and you can stay in decent and reasonably