Sunday 4 August 2019


Our hotel in Tokyo, the Metropolitan, was a short walk from Ikebukuro Station, one of the busiest in the city. When we got off the train from the Mt Fuji area, it was a bit daunting for us as we tried to work out which exit to take to get to the hotel. In hindsight it would have been ok if we had done a bit more research but as so often happened to us in Japan, a friendly local, who saw our bewildered looks, took us under her wing and walked us to the appropriate exit. There are probably half a dozen huge shopping centres located in the area around Ikebukuro Station so if you are into  shopping (and most of it is high end like our Myers stores), then this hotel would be great. And I have to say that the hotel itself was excellent. The staff were more than helpful and the ease of access to the trains was definitely a plus. However for us, we found the area was rather boring after dark, and we probably would opt for somewhere closer to the south east of Tokyo like Ginza.

We originally thought that our JR Passes would not be of use in Tokyo, as the rail system there consists of both private railways and JR lines. When  we took a closer look at the system, we discovered that JR has a circular rail line in Tokyo which runs both clockwise and anticlockwise. Since our passes were still operational, we just have to decide which direction was closest to our destination. Of course we could then take any of the private lines to get to our desired destination.

Research before we left told us that our first day in Tokyo was the very last day of the Kabuki performances in the Tokyo season. After checking in at our hotel we asked the concierge for some more information about the Kabuki theatre. We learned that if you want to just buy a walk-in ticket on the day, you have to turn up at the theatre and line up for a ticket. If you get there early you can get in first and get a good seat at the back of the theatre. We arrived at Ginza at around 8.30 and ended up waiting in line outside Kabuki Za, Tokyo’s kabuki theatre, for several hours. It’s not so bad if there are two of you as one can save your spot while the other goes for coffee or to the loo etc. You have to decide whether you want to stay for one, two or three performances. Although the first story was not the best, we decided to only stay for it, as several hours in the rather cramped seats would probably not be so enjoyable. We found it a really good intro to kabuki. Perhaps if you lived in Tokyo, buying the more expensive tickets would be worthwhile. But if you only want to see what it is and gain an initial insight into Kabuki, one session is enough.

Kabuki Za

The cast
After the show, we walked down to the Tsukiji Markets. Only the outer part of the markets remain as the Inner market where all the seafood is sold has now been relocated  further away on the waterfront. We enjoyed strolling through the markets though and found some lunch and a few gifts to take home. Then it was back to our hotel for a break before heading off again to the busiest pedestrian crossing in Japan, Shibuya Crossing outside Shibuya Station.

Even though it's really busy, nobody hassels anyone else.
We saw a couple of these craxy cart tours in Tokyo. Looked like fun
but I'd be scared of getting lost in the traffic or run over.
Some claim this is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. It is said that over 1000 people cross here in peak times and it is easy to believe it. We enjoyed strolling around the streets and were hoping to find a club with live entertainment but the couple we did find wanted about $30 just to get in. We explored the rather seedy area of narrow alleyways known as Omoide Yokocho or ‘piss alley’ but found the whole area rather uninviting. Many of the bars clearly did not welcome foreigners and most were empty. We opted not to venture into any of them and slowly made our way back to the rail station and home to our hotel.

This lovely mural is at the Shibuya Crossing entrance to the station.
On our last day we were up bright and early and spent the morning exploring the area around the hotel. It was just one big shopping precinct and although there was a wide variety of shops, if you aren’t keen on shopping and you don’t like spending ridiculous amounts of money for things, then it can be a bit ho hum.

We then caught the train to Tokyo Station, which is a charming old historic building a short walk from the Imperial Palace and gardens. We would have spent more time in the area but rain threatened so we decided to head back to Ikebukuro. It was disappointing as the area is renowned for the beauty of the gardens.

Tokyo Station
Part of the Imperial Palace and gardens.
Before returning to our hotel, we visited some of the other popular markets and found some beautiful second-hand obi which were very reasonably priced. There are lots of small stores in Japan selling second-hand silk clothing including jackets and kimonos. New ones are very expensive so if you want to buy these items, don't rule out the pre-loved ones.

Later in the afternoon we caught the train to Shinjuki, the busiest station in Tokyo with up to 3 million people per day passing through its gates. By now we had become accustomed to catching the trains and even in peak times it was really easy. As with all the stations we had been in, the platforms were clearly marked as to where to line up and as always, the announcements on the trains were in English as well as Japanese etc. even telling us which side the doors would open at each stop. It was really stress-free getting around.

Lining up waiting for the train.
As this was our last night in Japan, we decided to visit Golden Gai. This narrow little lane is a collection of tiny bars and restaurants where you can eat a very diverse range foods, some of which are truly strange. Most of the food is offered on skewers and I have to say we weren’t too adventurous. After checking out the various little holes in the wall along the street, we chose one which seemed really friendly and had a tasty if not totally awesome meal in a very tiny space.

Golden Gai

The Shibuya area

We also ventured into one of the many pachinko parlors that we saw everywhere in the cities. Gambling for cash in Japan is illegal but they have a way around it. Pachinko balls won on games at the parlor can be exchanged for prizes or tokens which can be exchanged for cash at a place separate from the parlor. I quickly snapped a photo before being asked not to take photos.

Pachinko Parlor - The noise level in these is deafening.
I was also impressed with the 3 storey MacDonalds store although we noticed that most of the ones in the city had an upper level for people wanting to dine in and sometimes a third level where the toilets were located.

While in Tokyo we had hoped to visit Team Lab, Borderless, at Tokyo Light Museum. It had been recommended to us by fellow guests at Weekend Shuffle and we planned to go. Unfortunately, it was a fair way away from where we were staying so we decided to give it a miss but it would be top of my list if we ever go back to Japan. Check it out here

We didn’t fly out of Tokyo ‘til late in the night so we spent our last day exploring the big stores either side of Ikebukuro station. There are any number of huge stores to explore but as I said, they are all rather expensive. Anyway we managed to kill some time there before catching our shuttle bus to the airport where we spent the last of our Japanese yen on gifts etc in the various duty free stores. Summing up, we loved Japan and would definitely go back there. The area north of Nikko and the island of Hokkaido would be first on the list.

Saturday 20 July 2019


I don’t think any Aussie could go to Japan and not go to Hiroshima. If you haven’t been there then you really don’t know what the consequences of nuclear weapons really are. Anyway we arrived in Hiroshima and walked from the station to our hotel and for the first time we were upgraded. I don’t really believe the upgrade thing. Our room on the top floor was great. We could see the whole of Hiroshima castle and back into the hills beyond.

Hiroshima Castle and surrounds from our hotel room. Word is that the
moat is the most impressive thing about the castle.

After settling in we set out to explore the iconic precinct around the dome. 

On our way to the dome we passed this hotel, featuring the iconic origami cranes which have become synonymous with the message of peace which has come as a consequence of the bomb.
First stop was the dome itself then we slowly worked our way through the Children’s Peace Monument, the Flame of Peace and the cenotaph for atomic bomb victims, to the Peace Memorial Museum. 

The Childrens' Peace Monument features thousands of paper cranes sent from all over the world. This is just one of several structures housing the cranes.

When we arrived at the Childrens' Monument there was a school choir singing.

At the flame of peace the central stone chest holds more than
290,000 names of those who lost their lives to the bomb.

The following link has lots of information about the precinct:

It would be impossible to visit the museum and not shed a tear. The stories told about every-day people  who were killed when the bomb was dropped really reinforce the senselessness of violent conflict. After visiting the Hiroshima Memorials, it is hard not to feel a deep sense of sadness at the cruelties man inflicts upon his fellow man.

This display of clothing in the museum is all that remains of some victims of the bomb.

The Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students. Many school students were
killed by the bomb while clearing debris from previously bombed buildings.
Next morning we were up really early to catch our train to Lake Kawaguchiko, where we would spend two days exploring the lakes adjacent to Mt Fujiyama. From the station at Kawaguchiko, it was really easy to jump on a bus which took us to within 500 metres of our accommodation at Lakeside Inn Weekend Shuffle, which was only 50 metres across the road from the lake. We had to catch a private train on the last leg of our journey, so our JR Pass was not able to be used on this stretch. It was relatively easy though to catch this alternate train. Of course we were really excited when we caught our first sight of the mountain from the train, but once we got to the lake, we realised that there were endless opportunities to photograph the mountain.

The man-hole covers here were probably the prettiest we saw.

For dinner that night we decided to walk the short distance through rice paddies and houses to a little restaurant where we were treated to one of the nicest meals we had in all of our trip and it was probably the best value as well. It was a tiny little restaurant in a private house, recommended by Tepe at our B&B. The meal was huge and cost next to nothing.

These ingenious little machines are used to plant rice in the paddies.

Probably the easiest way to get around in the Mt Fuji area is by bus. It was a short walk from our B&B to the bus stops and you can buy a full day pass which allows unlimited travel around the three lakes in the area. It can be a bit confusing because there are three different routes, which take you to various areas. Click on the following link to learn more:

We bought a one day pass and jumped on the first bus going past our hotel heading west to the end of the line at Oishi Park. From here there are lovely views of Mt Fuji across the lake as well as a beautiful garden featuring seasonal flowers. There is always some colour here and if you are there at the right time you will see large beds of lavender. We were a bit late for that but it was still lovely and the views of Mt Fuji were beautiful.

After Oishi Park we jumped back on the red bus and rode it back to a stop where we could change to the green bus which would take us across to the next lake, Lake Saiko. The drive around the lake was really scenic and we were surprised at how many people had set up their tents at the campsite beside the lake. There are lots of different tourist attractions all around the lakes up here and it is a good idea to sit down and plan where you want to get off and on. There are some loops which only go one way so you need to check you are jumping on the right bus. We managed to get on one going the wrong way but it was no drama to get off and wait for the next one going in the opposite direction.

At the north-western end of Lake Saikp is the heritage village called Saiko 'Iyashi no sato Nenba. It is a reconstructed ancient village netled at the end of a steep valley. Several years ago most of the village was destroyed by a landslide after heavy rains. It has since been rebuilt.

This is the fire bell. Only problem is you have to climb up the ladder
and grab the hammer at right before you can ring the bell.

Once again, the fish are used to help protect the buildings from fire.

Fuji looked different from this side. There was less snow visible.
We noticed a reduction of snow too when comparing these photos
with the ones we took from Tokyo airport when we arrived.

A stroll through the village gives you a good insight into how people lived in earlier times. There is also an eclectic collection of crafts produced in the buildings which you can purchase and you can also dress up in traditional costume. Near the carpark there are several food outlets so this is a good place to be around lunchtime.

We encountered the mischievous fox-god here too only this time he was real.
Couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor little bugger.

After a small glitch with the buses we next travelled a little further west to the Saiko Wild Bird Forest Park. While the park itself is very small by Aussie standards, the man who runs the park is passionate about birds and his display of photographs is quite beautiful. We took a quick stroll through the surrounding parklands before jumping back on the bus and heading back to our B&B. If you wanted to spend more time in this area there are plenty of other things to do. We really enjoyed our stay at Weekend Shuffle because it is located in a quieter area where we could take a stroll around the quiet backstreets.

Our host, Tepe, drove us to the local bus stop next morning so that we could catch a cheaper bus to the rail station. We were able to just tap our Suica card to pay the fare. We were now on our way to Tokyo, the last stop on our trip.

Tuesday 9 July 2019


MAY 18 – 22

It is really difficult to choose a favourite city from all of the places we visited but we found Kyoto full of character and there was definitely no shortage of places to go and things to do both in the city itself and within reach as a day trip. 

The foyer of Kyoto station was impressive.
We stayed at a terrific hotel in Kyoto both because of its location and because they were so helpful. No matter what we asked them, they had a pamphlet or printout with all the information we needed, be it buses or trains to catch or things to see. We stayed at Kyoto Inn Gion which is right in the middle of the geisha district and again, within walking distance of lots of local attractions as well as the bus stops to take us to train stations etc. It was also reasonable value at around $155 a night including a cooked breakfast.

Kyoto Inn Gion
We arrived at the hotel around lunchtime and our room wasn’t ready. But there was no drama as the concierge spent quite a bit of time explaining to us which places within walking distance we might like to visit to pass the couple of hours and he even gave us a detailed map outlining what was where. Our room was cosy but that wasn’t really a problem as we didn’t spend a great deal of time there. While our room was being prepared we walked to two nearby temples and a pagoda. There is also a major shopping street nearby so we found plenty to do.

It was not far to some of the local temples so we took a stroll just down the road to Yasaka Shrine and the surrounding park. 

A little further on is Hokanji Temple, a five storey Buddhist pagoda nestled tightly in between houses and shops. Maruyama Park contains several shrines and it was here in Kyoto that we discovered the difference between a shrine and a temple.

In the simplest terms, temples are Buddhist, while shrines are Shinto. The easiest way to tell the difference, however, is to look for bells, incense and cleansing waters at a shrine.  You will go through a torii (a sacred barrier made of stone or wood) to enter a shrine. It is said that a torii acts as a gate between this world and the world of gods.

Shinto is considered the religion of earthly matters and shrines are often used to host weddings and are where one would go to pray for success in life or business. Buddhism, on the other hand, is considered the religion of spiritual matters and temples usually host funerals. You would normally go to a temple to pray for your ancestors.

After a couple of hours we wandered back to our hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon familiarising ourselves with what was in the near vicinity and getting our bearings so that we could plan what to do over the next few days. The reception desk provided us with excellent details of transport, maps etc for each of the places we planned to visit.

Gion district is full of contrasts, with modern buildings like the hotel above and quaint little shrines such as the one pictured below.

Later in the afternoon we walked to the local laundromat where we did our one and only lot of washing for the trip. While I watched the washing, John went exploring and discovered a great little shop that sold second-hand kimonos and other old items. We found a lovely old print and an old okina mask which we bought as our souvenirs of the trip. That night we opted for a 7-11 dinner and early to bed so we could be up and off to Nishiki Markets first thing in the morning.

You would think we would have learned from our time in Kanazawa that most shops and markets in Japan don’t open until at least 9 a.m. In the markets it is unusual for them to be open before 9.30 so despite arriving at the markets at around 8.30 we had some time to kill. We opted for a stroll through some of the narrow alleyways where there are the usual shrines as well as some interesting niche cafes.We then walked back to the main shopping street and indulged in a coffee at Maccas.

Nishiki Markets have all of the seafood that you would usually expect e.g. baby octopus on a stick but these markets had lots more to offer.

Even at the markets there are temples and shrines nearby.

On the way home we strolled along the riverbank and then through the backstreets of the Gion district where there are lots of interesting shops and some lovely little shrines. One of the staff at our hotel conducted tours of the district, focusing on the Geisha culture and we spent the early evening learning lots of really interesting information about the teahouses and boarding houses where the girls live and work as well as lots about the philosophies and rules that they abide by.

While the term Geisha is commonly used, there are actually two distinct names in the world of geishas. When a girl commences her training she is known as a Meiko. She  will spend 4 years training while living in a boarding house with a number of other meiko. Boarding houses can be recognised by a timber board by the front door which contains smaller timbers slats, each of which has a name on it – one for  each meiko in the house. Meikos do not earn much but are looked after by the boarding house. When they finish their time successfully, they become a Geiko, or fully fledged Geisha. She can then work independently and will earn considerably more money.

Our guide took us to a theartre called Geisha Central where nightly shows are performed. We waited outside until about 7.45 and managed to see several meiko leaving the theatre. People seem to hold geisha in high esteem here and are certainly very respectful of them.

We were up bright and early next morning and on the train headed to the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, probably one of the most photographed shrines in Japan. It is no wonder either, as it is quite spectacular, with over 1000 torii gates winding up Mt Inari. We managed to walk all the way to the top (I had lots of breaks along the way) and it was well worth the effort. Of course it was hard to stop clicking away with the camera.

Inari is the Japanese kami of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake and of agriculture and industry.

Almost at the top and the view of Kyoto is great.

From Mt Inari we walked back down the hill to the railway station and caught a train to Nara, which was about an hour away. Nara is famous for two things – deer roaming the streets and parks, and the largest Buddha in Japan, housed in the largest timber building in the world. On the way we called into a couple of other temples just off the main street, including Kojukuji Temple which was established in Nara at the same time as the capital in 710. At the height of Fujiwara power, the temple consisted of over 150 buildings including a five-storied pagoda which is Japan's second tallest wooden pagoda.

Even though it was a week day, Nara was still crowded. We noticed that in Japan students regularly visit places of cultural significance and Nara is definitely a popular destination. As with all of Japan though, people are polite and considerate. 

Entry gate to Todai-ji Temple, home of the Great Buddha

The great Buddha is flanked by two golden Buddhas.

Everything in the temple is big!
Two fierce warriors stand guard at the rear of the temple.

This delightful buddha sits outside the temple proper. Theory is that you make an offering then if you have a sore right knee for example, you touch his right knee then your own and you will be cured. Seemed to work for a day or two!
We saw these statues everywhere. They are another take on the fox deity, thought to be mischievous and lucky. I thought they looked more like bears.

On the way back to the station we visited one of the many gardens which are open to visitors. Check first however as some have quite expensive entry fees.

Despite the crowds, we really enjoyed Nara and getting there and back on the train was really easy.

That night we strolled around the corner to a great little bar that John had come across the night before. It was called Silver Wings, and each night it featured up to five local musicians and bands, giving them a platform to strut their stuff. It featured a very eclectic selection of artists and most of the patrons seemed to friends of those performing. While most of the acts sang in Japanese, we really enjoyed the atmosphere, and returned here on three occasions, enjoying Japanese beer and saki. Only drawback was the thick cigarette smoke.

On Tuesday, we had another busy day. First up we jumped on the bus and headed to the north-west of the city to visit the Golden Pavillion, one of Kyotos iconic royal buildings. Like all of the royal buildings we had visited, the gardens surround ding the building were very beautiful and of course the Golden Pavillion itself was impressive.

Next it was the nearby ‘stone garden’, on of Japan’s most famous artistic Zen gardens in the grounds of the Ryoanji Temple. I must say though that while it is very tranquil and I’m sure has great significance to the Japanese, I was a bit underwhelmed. We found the gardens in the outer area much more aesthetically pleasing. Guess we’re not quite Zen enough yet.

The gardens in a nearby temple seemed a lot more attractive to us.

In the evening we wandered back across the river to Ponto Cho, a street reknowned for its bars and nightlife. I guess we must have been far too early or it was the wrong night to visit, as it was a bit quiet and most of the bars were empty. Walking along the river was lovely though and again we really enjoyed wandering through the Gion district back to Silver Wings and another group of great entertainers.

Saki barrels on Ponto Cho

It was up early again next morning and off on the train again to Arashyama. We initially set out planning to take a rafting trip down the Hozugawa River. Unfortunately there was some confusion about where the trip started so we ended up back at Arashyama. If you want to do the trip you have to go two stations past Arashyama to Kameoko where you just follow the rest of the tourists down to the river and book your seat.

Arashyama is a busy little town, most famous for its bamboo grove and gardens. Again we just followed the signs and the other tourists down to the river and then to the extensive stands of huge bamboo. Across the river there is also a monkey forest but to see the monkeys you have to climb almost to the top of the mountain.

The river at Arashayama.

That's one big bamboo shoot!
We discovered more lovely gardens in Arashayama.

Okonomiyaki is a type of Japanese omelette and on our last night we headed to a little restaurant near the canal not far from our hotel. We had seen several people lined up there the night before and our hotel staff had recommended the place to us. We were lucky that we got there early as when we left, there was a long line of people waiting outside. The dinner was delicious and very reasonably priced. Before going back to our hotel we went back to Silver Wings for a quick drink and some more entertainment. Yes we really liked that bar and admission is free for foreigners.

Next morning we were up very early as we had quite a long train journey to Hiroshima.