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. 

Places visited:

  1. Kyoto
  2. Tokyo
  3. Shimoda
  4. Nagoya

Check out the photo gallery.

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 (and quickly!)

07-08.07.2008 Helsinki - Nagoya - Kyoto
I 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...

09.07.2008 Kyoto
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 transportation.

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.

10.07.2008 Kyoto
There 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 vain!

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 criticized.

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!

11.07.2008 Kyoto - Tokyo
It 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 all.

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!).

12.07.2008 Tokyo
It 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 Whopper time...

13.07.2008 Tokyo
Today 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 anymore...

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!

14.07.2008 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 pleasant...

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...   

15.07.2008 Shimoda
I 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...

16.07.2008 Shimoda - Nagoya
I 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 priced ryokans. 

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