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Once again it has been too long between writing. Somehow here in Melbourne the motivation to write and take photographs escapes me. But here I sit nonetheless, and I will recall a wonderful trip to Japan as best I can.
My cousin Tyron has been looking forward to our company in Japan for many years. When living in the UK, Japan seemed so far away. Europe is at your door! So we never made the trip. Seeing as we were back in Australia, for our first trip overseas from Melbourne, Japan seemed the logical choice.
Sidenote. From the time of Rebecca’s accident, this was our first overseas trip. We were both nervous and apprehensive. We have travelled together quite extensively. This would be the first time with Rebecca’s disability.
That said we splashed out on business class on Malaysian airlines. We were worried about Rebecca’s stump swelling rendering her unable to walk. To have the room to move about freely to avoid swelling and the ability to elevate her stump was of importance. Malaysian business is one of the cheapest and not the best, but compared to economy class we have forever endured, it was heaven.
Arriving at Tokyo airport we were to catch a train to Tokyo city. After buying a ticket and contacting my cousin Ty, we had an hour wait. We finally did board the train. But just as the train doors closed and the train began to move, Rebecca looks at me and yelps ‘my CRUTCHES!!!’.
We had crutches for Rebecca to get around town with. When removing the luggage from the trolley to head downstairs to catch the train, we had left them on the trolley. (It’s not something I am used to grabbing. I usually grab the bags, and we are off). We did sit downstairs for a good ten minutes before the train arrived, neither of us having realised what was missing. First lesson on travelling with a disability – make sure you have all your gear!
Thankfully we were staying with Ty and Risa, who organised some crutches to hire, and in the mean time the physio across the road leant Rebecca a pair free of charge until the hire crutches arrived. We purchased them a few beers as thanks when returning the crutches. On return of the crutches many thanks and pleasantries were exchanged. There was a lot of bowing going on.
We are very lucky to have my cousin in Tokyo who accommodated us in his apartment with his lovely wife Risa. On arrival we had a refreshing shower in the wet room, and relaxed until the pair returned home from work.
Everything seems relatively familiar in Japan, until you enter the wet room. The room contains the bath and shower, sealed off from the rest of the apartment. The room is like a pod where you can wet everything and not have to worry about drying up afterwards. The next oddity, in which most visitors to Japan will mention, is the automated toilet. I was enjoying this so much I would greet the toilet as it opened its mouth for me to do my business. “Hello toilet” I would acknowledge on entry.
Our first day in Japan Tyron and Risa drove us around town. Rebecca’s father had made a request for a souvenir from the Okura hotel where he once stayed on business. So after our first, but not the last, vending machine coffee, we were off. Tyron was not impressed with the Okura Hotel, mainly because it has remained true to the original interior design of the sixties. My camera and Rebecca on the other hand were rather enjoying the surroundings. A bit like the Barbican in London, it has a shape and style that smiles at me, and somehow urges me to relax, all the while getting me completely lost at the same time.
Lunch in the shopping district of Harajuku was next on the list. Rebecca did some present shopping and we had Spanish for lunch, looking down on all the fashionista prancing up and down the shopping high street.
That night, it was Christmas night. Tyron cooked a wonderful meal and we sat with Risa and his friends Phillip and Gladys. We got merry, ate very well, and santa even decided to pay a visit. Risa was very fresh with santa, and Ty had suddenly disappeared!
On the day after Christmas everything is still open in Japan. Ty drove us around again. After the obligatory can of coffee from the vending machine of Georgia Max we were off.
First stop the Venusfort shopping complex. I think Tyron wanted to show us just how cheesy the Japanese could actually get. This is a large shopping complex built in the like of Venice, Italy. Fake sky included. To prove just how cheesy they could be there was an exhibition of clothes. Not just any clothes, clothes worn by some Japanese boy band. The young fashionista were lined up around the corner swooning over dressed up mannequins in their like. Lined up I tell you! We had lunch at a cheesy Italian restaurant to finish off the random cheese.
The next stop was Ginza shopping district. We wandered down the main street that is at times closed off to traffic enabling you to walk on the road and shop to your heart’s content. The architecture was of most interest to me, while Beck found a paper shop in the base of a building which Tyron tells me is the most expensive piece of real estate in Tokyo. If I was to shop in Tokyo, I would probably go back there. Of all the shopping streets it was the most casual and visually stimulating.
That night we had Korean BBQ. We enjoyed tongue and liver to go with the regular beef. And yes Ty, Risa does drink beer.
The following day we let our feet do the walking. The Tokyo underground was our mode of transport. A word of warning for those taking the Tokyo underground; there are two companies that require two separate ticket types. Ty neglected to mention this to us due to the fact that he did not know. How long have you been living in Tokyo Ty?
The Tokyo underground and overall train system is impressive. Not only is it efficient, but it’s clean, warm, and you do not get people with loud music or chatting loudly on their phones. Why? Because it’s rude! You are permitted to do these things, but discreetly. What bliss. Oh and those warm seats on a cold day. Heaven.
Our first of many temple visits was the Sensoji Temple. A small walk from the station, but Rebecca’s leg was playing up, so it was rather a long walk in the end, with a few rest breaks on the way. The temple was crowded as it’s holiday season, but remarkable all the same. The construction of the temple fascinated me most; the huge overhangs and intricate shapes of the timbers.
Another source of fascination was the ritual. You pay your money, and you grab a large container which contains several sticks. You shade the container and a stick will find its way out. You read the stick and go to the corresponding drawer where you will find a piece of paper where I gather your fortune is written. Fortune a plenty I suppose.
Lunch was in a little cafe down a side street. A lot of old time locals inside by all accounts. This was the first chance to get Japanese food as Ty does not eat Japanese! While we found it difficult to order, we managed and had a great authentic Japanese meal.
With Rebeccas leg sore, we returned to the apartment. Dinner was had at a little Japanese restaurant down the road. (Which we later were told was featured in a Japanese TV soap). The menu was simple and once again a little difficult to order. The meal was as good as the meal earlier in the day, it was cheap and satisfying. A very homely atmosphere a bit like your grandmother was waiting, and grandfather was in the kitchen, cooking away.
Rebecca and I always like a good garden, so the next day we visited the Rikugien Garden, or ‘the six poems’ garden. In a city of rush and bustle there we found natural beauty and peace. Being winter the colours were not so striking, but a great place for the colours of Autumn.
We had time that day to venture to the National Museum area just outside of Ueno station. The Museums were closed. I did though admire some architecture.
That night for dinner was shabu shabu with Risa and Tyron. Risa proceeded to stuff herself silly so much so she felt sick. This meal was delicious and fun. Beck, Risa and I had a variety of different parts of the cow again. Big fan of the tongue I am. Dipping and cooking n two broths in a big yin yang pot. Great fun.
Next day we took the train to the Imperial Palace with a view to wander the gardens. It also was closed due to the public holiday. Rebecca’s leg was once again grieving her so we headed home.
That night we met Risa’s family for dinner. Her mother, father (Ken, not Keng Beck!) and brother treated us in one of Ken’s restaurants, where we had some great conversation, and brilliant food. By the end of the night, Risa was all translated out. Such a great time was had, we were invited to dinner once more before we left Japan which we dually accepted.
Before heading off to Kyoto, our last day in Tokyo, Ty once again drove us around town. His big idea was to visit the fashion central of Tokyo, Shibuya 109. While I am no big fan of Chapel Street in Melbourne or Oxford Street in London, these places must be seen to be believed. And the Japanese, always take it one step further.
In Shibuya , and more of interest to me was the famous scramble intersections. I most remember it from the film Baraka, when time is accelerated. With Beck in tow, it was a little daunting crossing, but we managed. Ty told us the trick is not to look anyone in eye, just walk straight through.
Driving to Harajuku, we walked through forest like gardens to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Along the path lines of Sake barrels were in waiting for the coming festival. A peaceful walk and magnificent shrine.
The next day was New Years Eve, and Beck and I took off for Hiroshima. Being a public holiday, every person and their cat was in a rush for their train. Surprisingly, for the amount of people that were in the station, we had very little grief. After finding our train and waiting back from the allocated entrance point, people began lining up next to us. We were first to arrive. So polite! This is a first. I am used to people pushing in, not give a rats ass about anyone else. It was not only surprising, but relaxing. How much stress do we apply by not being simply polite? Also, I have never understood people’s impatience to board any form of transport where your seat is allocated. What is your rush? You are going to sit down, and it is not going to leave without you. Calm the f*&k down!
Before boarding the train a brigade of little ladies in their pink uniforms boarded the train, cleaned it, and turned all the seats around into the direction the train was headed. Pure gold. We passed Mount Fuji on the way to Hiroshima, and several towns blanketed in snow, but fortunately for us Hiroshima’s snow had melted. The last thing Rebecca needed was to navigate slippery slushy streets.
Hiroshima had a slow still feeling like the respects were still being given to this once devastated city. It was the holidays but all the same felt rather subdued. I came down with the flu and spent New Years Eve in bed while Beck surfed around on the internet. New Years Day we made our way to Miyajima to see the gate, as many other Japanese would on their day off. It is also known as the Itsukushima Torri Gate.
I almost enjoyed the journey over to the island more than the gate itself. It is rather a grand and interesting structure, but rather pale in comparison to some other structures. That night not much was open but we did finally settle on a great restaurant, after convincing Rebecca she could get down the stairs, we had a great meal with good sake.
The following day was dedicated to the Hiroshima Memorial Museum. The place is a must go. You can not only feel the needless devastation, but wonder why we bother continuing to build these weapons. If you go to Japan, this museum is a must. Spend the time, soak it all in, and get with the program.
That night we ate at Hiroshima train station on our way to Kyoto. The station is bustling. It is equipt with shopping and restaurants. Before we left we had the two dishes that Hiroshima is famous for, Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) at one restaurant and oysters at another. Although full from the okomiyaki, the oysters were a must.
The train to Kyoto was superb as usual. We made our way to the hotel, where we were greeted with a room that was not disability friendly. The Japanese are only just coming to terms with catering for the disabled. The next day we were moved into the disabled room, and the last night we got upgraded to a suite as the disabled room was booked. Rebecca had booked the room but the agent had stuffed the booking up. All’s well that ends well in the end. (Rebecca now has a leg she can use in the shower, so thankfully we do not need to book the disabled rooms.
Kyoto is a temple slash university town. Thinking back now I think I enjoyed this city more than the others. Tokyo was all together too big to take in, but Kyoto was just the opposite.
First temple, Kinkaku-ji.The golden temple. It was another day the Japanese had off, and we had to compete with the crowds. With the Japanese crowds are not a problem, there is no aggravation and everyone waits their turn. I managed to get some good shots, even with the crowds surrounding me. It was alluring. One had the urge to jump the fence and get closer and touch the walls, but I feared concrete walls were in my future if I had chosen this path. Green tea and cake was once again delved upon with a little break in the mini forest. Tranquil.
Ryoan-ji Temple was ventured to next. Once we made our way through the gardens and up to the temple, Rebecca had assumed that she could not proceed inside. Large steps and the wearing of shoes not permissible she had given up. But when I came out, and told her of my fondness for the place, she asked permission to wear the grip sock Ty had given Rebbecca earlier. Permission granted, we like many others sat and took in the serenity. In the end she was glad to have made the effort.
That night we headed up someplace in a taxi. Rebecca had a street in mind, a famous lane way with restaurants. We did find the street, but it was dark, cold, very little light and there was not a soul in sight. We found places that had menus displayed, but they all looked closed, as if we were a little too late. We finally went up an alley where Rebecca spotted a street sign, and a light. As hungry as I was and with Rebecca a little frustrated from walking nowhere and having no clue how to get a taxi back to the hotel, I proceeded through the unopened door. A bell chimed. Another door slid open and we were welcomed in.
After disposing of our shoes, and wandering past a table of people eating dinner, we were ushered into a room opposite. We were seated on the floor at the sunken bar. Over the most authentic Japanese meal we have ever had we discovered that grandma was behind the bar cooking for us, ably assisted by her daughter, in turn assisted by her daughter who would interpret some English and Japanese via the internet. Those persons we passed in the opposite room were her family sitting down to dinner. I cannot think of anywhere I have been on my travels where such an experience could be had, in such a modern city. With all the laws and paperwork that would have to be trawled through and money spent to arrange such a venture here in Australia, no one would bother. But there we were, in somebody’s house, being cooked for by their grandmother, as perfect strangers, hardly understanding a word each other spoke. The night that at one point looked bleak and isolated, to our surprise turned out to be warm, inviting and delicious.
The next day Beck wanted to go shopping. I tolerated this for a limited amount of time before reminding her of why we travel. Enough said.
That days temple was Kiyomizu-dera. This temple was more of a challenge for Rebecca. There was some frustration shown, but in the end we climbed the hills, travelled up and down the stairs and admired the view of Kyoto and the magnificent structure. A little shopping was done down a street Rebecca had initially refused to go down, where we purchased some unique sake cups and container, as opposed to the main street where all the touristy crap was.
That night we travelled down Pontocho to find a good traditional restaurant. Upon finding one we lowered our expectations, assuming the meal to not be as authentic as grandma’s version the night before. That said we had a surprisingly good meal. It was a Kaiseki or kaiseki-ryōri which is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal. Highly recommended. The alley is very aesthetic, which makes a slow stroll for a photographer’s keen eye a must.
On the walk back to the hotel I spotted some Belgium beer bottles in the window of an izakaya. So in we go. The beer menu had no such beer. As I had already viewed the bottles in the window I asked the girl about the Belgian beers in the window. She indicated for us to wait and disappeared. English was limited in this establishment. A guy appears with a badge sporting the name Jack. I mention the word Belgium and beer and his eyes light up. That night we spoke the universal language of beer. Love for Belgian beer in particular. Low and behold, the Belgian beers appeared. In addition to the Belgian beer we were treated to some of the back room sake straight from the barrel. Thanks Satoshi .
Our last day in Kyoto we visited the small monastery complex, Daitoku-ji. Getting there can be a little hard. We took a bus, got off at the right stop, but took a while to find the entry. It’s not obvious. The visit was well worth the time. You need half a day to look through all the temples. Because of the time of year some were closed, so we did not stay too long.
Along our travels through the complex we did find a little restaurant. It was very traditional and sitting on the floor was required. The staff found Rebecca a seat that was very low, and although she sat awkwardly, Rebecca was able to sit with me and enjoy the meal. Probably our second most traditional meal next to grandma’s cooking. If you can find it, I suggest you drop in for a meal. It was reasonably priced if I remember rightly.
Having some spare time we then took a taxi to Ginkaku-ji. It was getting on but we did not want to waste our last day. We just made it before closing time. Perched up on the side of a hill, there was still a lot of snow, and we were able to follow a little path reaching up in to the forest where a view of Kyoto was to be had.
That night we went back to Satoshi’s bar. A little drunk we did get. Very happy to see us he was. Very sad to leave him we were.
Back to Tokyo the next day and spent the last night in the company of Risa’s family at another fine restaurant. Although this time not much translation was going on as Risa was quite tired. It was great to see them again before we left. Big hugs and pleasantries all round. Next time we visit we look forward to spending New Years with the family.
So there you have it. Our first visit to Japan but by no means the last. We are booked to go again this Christmas and New Years Eve. Yes it has taken nearly two years me to write this. Next task will be to write about the trip to Hong Kong and Macau last October and India last January. I have promised myself that these will be done before we set off once more for Japan.