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Showing posts from March, 2013

Osaka: Last day in Japan

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So I had to do the whole bus/cable car/train combination again, and it felt decidedly longer this time around. Eventually I arrived in Namba Station at about noon.

I am so proud of the prescience I showed when I booked the Dotonbori Hotel. I had a vision that by this point in the trip I would have neither the energy nor the will to look for a place in a map, or take several subways, so I looked for something that was so close to the station that I could just throw my bags out of the train doors and into my room.

And indeed, this hotel is in Dotonbori street, which itself is two blocks from Namba Station, so already that's my transport and the main sightseeing spot all together in one place. It's a pretty nice hotel, too -wifi and LAN, breakfast included, Western style, neko-map of the city, and for those staying longer they have free bike rental. If you check out their website -yes, the front really does look like that!

So I dropped off my stuff, rested a little bit, took the c…

The Pillow Blog: IV

Guys! Guys! I forgot to write about this. I found a place that serves REAL hot chocolate in Japan. It was called Café Ciao Presso and it was in Nara Station. Eat your heart out, Paris (that's the second time I use that sentence in this blog). I assume because it was in a station that it must be a chain, but I haven't seen any other since :(Kazuyo had warned me in advance that in Osaka people stand on the right side of escalators, like in London, whereas in Tokyo and Kyoto they stand on the left. This often leads to the humorous conclusion that there must be a frontier somewhere, a fabled escalator that marks the territories of right-standing and left-standing. Well, I found it!! I saw an escalator in Shin-Osaka station where the people going down stood on the left and the people going up stood on the right. That must be it!Foreign travellers in Japan quickly learn that our credit cards only work on 7-11 and Post Office ATMs, which requires advance planning to have cash ready. …

Okunoin

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Last night I took Ekoin's night-time tour of Okunoin, Koya-san's famous cemetery and Unesco World Heritage Site. It was a good idea to leave my own visit to the cemetery until after taking the tour, as I later had a better idea of the history of the place as I walked on my own.

It was freezing, of course, but I had thrown on everything I had, so it wasn't so bad. Learning about the history of the place, and about Kobo Daishi, one of the founding fathers of Japanese Buddhism (and also a master calligrapher and poet, we were told), who is believed to still be meditating in his cave, since he locked himself in it in the 9th century. The monks still carry breakfast and lunch to his cave every day. Our guide combined explanations of Okunoin's and Koyasan's history along with a brief summary of the tenets of esoteric Buddhism, which really helped to put some of the sights in context.

It was a moonless night, it was pitch black, and in the dimly lit path I suddenly unders…

Koya-san

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So! Time to travel! I woke up early this morning to bid farewell to Kyoto, say goodbye to Liza and begin the journey to Mt. Koya (or Koya-san in Japanese). Koya is a small sacred town, 820 m high in the mountains, notable for being in essence the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism.

I was dreading the journey, in a way, because of all the exchanges you have to make to get from Kyoto to Koya: first you take a shinkansen to Osaka, then the subway to Nanba, then a train to the base of the mountain, then a cable car to Koya, then a bus to wherever it is you're staying.

However, it turned out to be much better than it reads on paper. The shinkansen ride to Osaka takes barely 15 minutes, and although the train is the longest part of the journey clocking in at about an hour and a half, the train-cable car-bus combination went as smooth as it gets: although they aren't very frequent, they are timed to coincide with each other so the cable car will be waiting for you when you get off the …

Last day in Kyoto

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Today was my last day in Kyoto, so it's been pretty much a day of tying up loose ends. On the one hand, I felt pretty satisfied of having seen the most important landmarks, and on the other, I was a bit tired of temple-hopping (especially as I'm leaving tomorrow to stay at a temple), so I decided that any temples that I have left to see here will have to wait until my next visit.

I had a very slow morning, just catching up on some sleep, blogging about yesterday, and so on, and then left for Arashiyama to see the Bamboo Grove. I had been warned that it was a second-tier visit, and it's true; it's waaay too far from the centre to warrant the trip. The bamboos are beautiful, and it does get a bit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at points, but unlike the Philosopher's Path, it doesn't really have anything to spark your interest as you walk along.

Riding the train back, I noticed it stopped near Myoshinji, a big temple complex I had heard about, so I got off and too…

Nara

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Yesterday was Nara day!

We headed to Nara from Kyoto first thing in the morning, where we met with Liza's friend, Yoko, who kindly volunteered to show us around. We began in Nara Park, a pleasant, forested park with lots and lots of deer. The deer are smaller than those you might see in the West, and they are so used to people that they have literally no reaction to tourists walking around them, taking their picture or even petting them! They're hilariously cavalier about the whole thing.

The park has a beautiful lake, surrounded by cherry trees (so you can imagine what a sight it must be in sakura season) and a big gazebo right in the middle.

Afterwards it was already time for lunch, so we went somewhere nearby because Yoko "knows a restaurant". That turned out to be Edo-san, an amazing inn/restaurant that doesn't occupy one building, but a set of small houses, one of which had been accommodated to be our dining room. It was an extraordinary experience, sitting …

The Pillow Blog: III

I went to a Japanese bakery today and found the experience to be very... deceptive.

You see, when you walk into a Japanese rice cracker shop, you see rice crackers. That's what they are. But, when you walk into a Japanese bakery, you see Western breads and buns, but that's not what they are at all! I walked down the aisle seeing all this bacon bread and pizza bread, thinking, fair enough, there's that in France too, and then I see this beautiful, soft, golden bun, looking delicious, and I decipher the Japanese tag enough to read -"fish bread"? What? No. No! Fish doesn't go in there!

My goal, anyway, was to have melon pan, something that piqued my curiosity back when I gave Yakitate Japan a try (I dropped it because the Japanese was just too difficult to me, but the manga itself is hilarious). It's a regular bun, with a greenish layer of frosting on the top (it looks like frosting, at least, but it's not too sweet), and filled with a very light melon-f…

Kiyomizu, The Philosopher's Path, Ginkakuji

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Well, this is better! Today it was still cold, but it was sunny and the sky was clear -it was a pleasure to walk all over Kyoto today, and I did!

I started my day with a healthy Kyoto-style breakfast, which includes three different types of tofu (a Kyoto specialty, Liza explained), fish, an assortment of pickles, and rice and miso soup, of course. Seeing all the little cups and dishes arranged so beautifully can be deceiving -I ended up so full!

My first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, an impressive temple notable for its wooden deck suspended above a hill; it was assembled, without nails. It has an amazing view of the forest as well as the city of Kyoto itself. After being in the flat, dense urban jungle that is Tokyo for a week, it's refreshing to see hills and mountains. They provide a visual limit to the space you inhabit, and the uneven terrain offers great sightseeing opportunities.

Apart from overlooking the forest, there are a number of things to do at Kiyomizu. One is a pitch-bl…

Kinkakuji, Nijo-jo

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What happened?! Yesterday was all sunny and warm and wonderful and today was all gray and rainy and cold and windy and marathonian (more on that in a bit). Can we go back?

I had a moment of choice paralysis this morning, when I sat down to draft my itinerary for the day and saw all these wonderful sights asking to be explored, spread out all over the city, and virtually no idea of how to better transport myself from one place to another. In the end, though, I thought it better to start from the top and go to Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion. I got myself a One Day Bus/Subway Pass as soon as I left the hotel. I'm sure it saves you money, but really what I wanted was to spare myself having to fish for exact change every time I took a bus. The JR Pass isn't super useful in Kyoto!

So I got to Kinkakuji, eventually, and it was gorgeous. My guidebook said you have to visit really early on a weekday to avoid the constant crowd, but this early in the season there were actually very few…

Arrival in Kyoto

Early this morning I left Sawanoya and Tokyo altogether -for good, because I'm not departing from there to get back to France. I was certainly a bit sad to leave Sawanoya, because it was such a nice place to stay, but I was also more than ready to move on. I saw so many different places in Tokyo that I feel satisfied of my visit.

I took the shinkansen to Kyoto. As I had been told to expect, travelling by shinkansen is quiet, it's fast, there's lots of room for your legs and your bags, it's scrupulously punctual, it doesn't shake or sway... The only disappointment was to find that I had been given an aisle ticket. Egads!

After I arrived in the gigantic Kyoto Station, the hardest part was to make the transfer to the subway -there were literally entire classrooms of children sitting on the hallways. From there, getting to Hotel Sugicho was very straightforward. The place itself looks fairly old, but it's well kept, my room is enormous, and not just by Japanese sta…

Last day in Tokyo

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Yesterday, my last day in Tokyo, was mostly about tying up loose ends. I began the morning peacefully enough, by doing laundry. A little Ueno housekeeping to start the day on the right foot! Sawanoya has a washing machine, a dryer and an iron, and the whole thing adds up to only 300 yen.

At around noon, I went down to Ueno Park to visit the Tokyo National Museum, which I'm told is the Japanese Louvre/British Museum. Unlike those two institutions, this museum is spread out over four or five buildings around a central square. The main building holds a very informative "Highlights of Japanese Art", about 8 or 10 rooms on the second floor that summarises the main developments of Japanese history through pottery, clothes, calligraphy, and other traditional crafts. It's a very well curated exhibition; with a manageable amount of objects, they manage to display the main characteristics of each period.

Already in the afternoon, I went to Shinjuku, the last must-see on my list…

The Pillow Blog: II

The other day, here in Ueno, I crossed two old ladies on the street who were walking an enormous brown bunny rabbit O_O For real. With a leash and everything.Walking here feels like driving a police car with the siren on. Girls will literally shove their friends out of my way. I like being able to walk in a straight line, sure, but it's not like I'm going to run you over! I can step around if necessary!

Kamakura

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After five days that have been pretty much all urban madness, today was a day dedicated to reflection, introspection and contemplation: day trip to Kamakura, city of shrines and temples!

There are a lot of shrines and temples to visit in Kamakura, so it takes a lot of walking and a lot of fishing for change (since they all have an admission price of 200 or 300 yen, €1,60-2,45 at the current rate), but the good news is that with the notable exception of the Daibutsu, most of the shrines can be visited as you walk along the road from Kamakura station to Kita-Kamakura station, or vice versa.

In my case, I got on the train in Tokyo Station, skipped Kita-Kamakura and got off at Kamakura Station, because that's where the Tourist Office is and I wanted to get a map first. A very kind lady there took the time to give me some recommendations on my itinerary; my guides mentioned the most famous shrines, but she pointed me out a couple of lesser-frequented ones that had blossoming plum trees…

The Pillow Blog: I

Some random thoughts:

For something that costs hundreds of euros, the Japan Rail Pass could stand to be a little more attractive. It's a piece of paper with a train ticket taped to it. Honestly, I expected Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket.What with standing out like a sore thumb everywhere I go, if Japan wasn't such a safe place I would have been pickpocketed ten times by now...This trip is a gastronomical adventure, as you would expect, but what the cafés here call "hot chocolate" makes even Starbucks' hot chocolate look good. Japan, you still have a week and a half to make amends. Do not let me down.

Ghibli Museum; Nezu Shrine

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This morning I went to the Ghibli Museum, the hometown of all things Totoro in Japan and, consequently, the world. Tickets are sold out months in advance, and although the entire journey there didn't seem very busy at all, once inside the museum it was indeed a full house.

I was most charmed by the building itself, a beautiful house with winding staircases, little child-sized corridors, a roof garden... The collection comprises all kinds of material, from the early drafts to the finished celluloid (the ticket is a piece of one, in fact!). I loved checking out the actual storyboards for My Neighbour Totoro. They're drawn with such detail that some frames could have been painted over and included in the film.

I was very disappointed, however, to find that there were no English explanations to be found anywhere in the museum. The room that reproduces an animator's desk is probably fascinating, but without being able to understand the numerous panels detailing the creation pr…

Kabuki and Tarantino

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For the afternoon, I had tickets to see a Kabuki play at Shinbashi Enbujo, near Ginza. While Kabuki-za is still being renovated (set to reopen later this month or April, I believe), Shinbashi has apparently picked up as the main Kabuki stage in Tokyo these past few years.

Once again, I thought I was hopelessly lost (can more streets please have names? Just a few?), but in reality I was right next to the really unremarkable building. I was about to walk away when I saw two middle-aged ladies in beautiful kimonos walking by, so I made a screeching U-turn on my heels and stalked them for a few minutes -indeed, they were going to the theatre.

The play I saw was "Ichijo Okura Monogatari", about a married couple from the Genji clan who infiltrate themselves in the Heikei clan to spy on its leader and a Genji widow. As it turns out, the former's madness and the latter's debauchery are just a façade and they remain loyal to the cause. There's a bad guy who threatens to …

Ginza

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Today was shopping day! I headed down to Ginza to check out the shopping heaven of Tokyo. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and it was just a pleasure to be out and about.

This is where the flagship stores of Muji and Uniqlo are located. The former is at least moderate in its hugeness, but Uniqlo occupies a massive 12-storey building that exhausted me just by getting to the men's section. As in other Uniqlo stores around the world, the clothes are... very Japanese. I tried a couple of things, and nothing fit. Like the H&M in Stockholm, it's all just cut for different proportions!

Luckily for me, I had come down to Ginza extremely well recommended. Kazuyo had advised me to check out Loft, a huuuge store selling everything from travel accessories to cooking utensils and more crazy Japanese phone accessories than you can shake a stick at. That was great, but what really engrossed me was a section they had at the entrance with stuff featuring what looked like a rotating set of l…

Akihabara

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Since I had time to kill after concluding my visit to Yokohama, and the 30 minute train ride had given me some illusion of rest, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to check out Akihabara, which at 2 Yamanote-line stops is relatively close to Ueno.

Akihabara is the electronics town, although nowadays the otaku business is just as, if not more, prevalent there as well. That's really what I was looking for, because all the compatibility issues really take the fun out of shopping for videogames here.

All the buildings in Akihabara seem to be tall and narrow, as a result of which most megastores have 7 or 8 small floors rather than 2 big ones. I had to adapt quickly to the routine of walking onto a floor, peeking around, going up to the next one and repeating the process.

If I didn't have an epileptic seizure today, then I know I never will. The place is everything you've heard people say, and then some -there are TVs playing loud anime, at the same time they'…

Yokohama

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Today I poked my nose outside Tokyo and went to Yokohama! I had to ask for directions to three people in each station I transferred to, and all went smoothly until the lady at Yokohama Station and I hit a dead end on my pronunciation of Tourist Office (I needed a map). "Tourist Office" "Nani?" "Tourist Office" "...?" "I need a map" "Aaaah, Tourist Office!". Well, everybody's a critic!


Apparently there had been an accident of some sort with the local trains, so I couldn't transfer and had to walk across the MinatoMirai 21 District. It reminded me so strongly of Canary Wharf that I half-expected English bankers to start pouring out of the skyscrapers in any minute. Like the Docklands the few times I've visited, it was eerily empty, with wide, cold, traffic-less avenues between the huge glass buildings. Since the few people who were outside this morning were often wearing masks, the whole thing had a very 28 Days Lat…