Category Archives: Japan

Travelogue Japan 4: Kyoto

KYOTO
07-11 January 2015

While there wasn’t much pressure to catch any specific train since we’d pre-bought 7-day rail passes, the 1,2km trek in the snow with all our luggage was decidedly unappealing so the commitment came in pre-arranging the transport to the station. Our host in Yuzawa, Gabriel, had thus kindly booked 2 taxis to fetch us on the morning of departure to get us to the Echigo Yuzawa station in time for our planned 09h16 train.

The whole exercise went off seamlessly and we were soon (literally) bulleting off back to Tokyo, from where we would connect to Kyoto (since there are no bullet trains any more direct for our flight path).

Tokyo Station is HUGE. Since we had an hour between trains, we had a wander around and even surfaced to street level to get our bearings. The shops in the station are predictably mostly food and travel supplies, although as with everywhere else it wasn’t food you’d readily recognise so there was lots to pore over.

We bought echiben for the journey: beautifully prepared and presented lunch boxes composed of a variety of elements that are sold at stations and on the trains. With 20 or more options at our stall alone, we were spoilt for choice.

The one we eventually chose was divided into 2 compartments. The left had 2 rashers on a bed of sticky rice covered in light egg shavings. The right had hire katsu (like pork schnitzel) and battered beef meatballs accompanied by little cupcake cups respectively housing a floret of broccoli, a floret of cauliflower, pickled cabbage and a small portion of spaghetti bolognaise decorated with fresh peppers. It is all so pretty that opening the box feels more like opening a present than a lunchbox!

On arrival in Kyoto we were spared the usual game of “where in the world are we?!” by our host’s precise and accurate directions (which had been automatically delivered alongside our travel itinerary on confirmation of our booking – Airbnb is great!).

It was not even a 5 minute walk from the station to our house (for the next 4 nights) and it was easy to navigate even with our bags even though our road has no pavements thanks to Kyoto’s ingenious road markings, with painted lanes for pedestrians on the outer edges, bicycle lanes next and a single car lane in the middle. Japanese are so compliant and obedient that everyone sticks to where they’re supposed to be and it’s a wonderful experience for all concerned!

Our landlord, Jesse, was at the house when we got there and was really friendly and helpful and a wealth of advice on what to do and where to go. Fortunately, his suggestions matched the majority of items on our existing Awesome Detailed Itinerary and the new additions fitted in easily with our plans.

The house itself was incredible. A 3 bedroom with 2 Western double beds in one room upstairs and easily space for 4 or more futons in the other 2 rooms, 1 upstairs and the other off the entrance hall downstairs. We had a cosy living room with tiny couch and a few low rattan button stools around a little coffee table, modcon iPod deck and a sliding door leading onto a charming tiny zen garden.

The main bathroom was off the lounge, cleverly with the basin area doored off from the bath / shower room (which wasn’t much taller than me and housed a wall-mounted handshower and weird little 1m x 1m zinc knee-deep sunken bath) so we’d be able to get ready in the mornings in tandem. The loo was off the entrance hall where we’d come in, that was big enough to house a dining room table and be the storage area for the bicycles that came with the rental.

Our kitchen was little more than a narrow passage that ran from the front door to the bathroom alongside the dining room and lounge. It wasn’t wide enough to have two people pass each other!

First item on the gameplan as Geisha-spotting. We’d read that Gion was the place, but Jesse narrowed our search to a small alleyway just before the river. Our house was so conveniently located that it was a “left turn along the main shopping street until a left into the alley before the river; if you get to the river, you’ve gone too far.”

True’s nuts we spotted a Geisha within minutes of meandering in the assigned spot! Truth be told, we spotted one Geisha, followed her and saw her exchange words with another coming directly towards us… and got a (surreptitious) photo of her as she passed! Granted, she looks like a ghostly blur in the background, but still…

Excited from our Supreme Touristing, we set about finding a dinner spot. Easier said than done with literally hundreds of restaurants to choose from – and all look equally unattractive! We eventually homed in on a beef and leek restaurant for dinner. We had the special, which was exactly that! A rice bowl with tender strips of beef and leek, so full of distinct flavours.

Since our house was so comfortable, we were keen to initiate it so walked back along the main road, Shijo Dori, doing some window-shopping en route. The area is very upmarket and picture-perfect with wide covered pavements and uniform illuminated name boxes outside each store. The city has gone to a lot of trouble to create ambience, decorating the eaves of the pavement roof with stylish banners and lanterns. They also pipe music onto the streets (plinky-plonky classical Japanese).

Our trusty 7Eleven provided us with beer and snacks for the night and breakfast supplies for the morning (which promises to be complicated to maintain since bread comes 6 slices to a pack, cheese 7 and ham 8).

Thursday was allocated to walking touring and sightseeing.

Our route took us first to Higashi Honganji, the mother temple of Shin Buddhism, one of the largest Buddhist denominations in Japan. The Founder’s Hall is one of the largest wooden constructions in the world (at 76x58x38 metres with 175,967 roof tiles, 927 tatami mats and 90 pillars!) and was renovated in 2011 for the 750th memorial service of the founder, Shinran. The temple complex is big and awesome and was a good induction to Kyoto, noted for being Japan’s cultural hub.

Nijo Castle was next on the list and 600 Yen (R60) gave us access to the compound to view the exhibits in its 2 palaces, various support buildings and expansive gardens.

The castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun (bearing in mind Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan). It is one of the finest examples of the early Edo period and Monoyama culture in Japan because of the style of its building designs, lavish paintings and carvings that Iemetsu generously commissioned. In 1867 the castle the castle became the property of the Imperial family, who donated it to the City of Kyoto in 1939, whereupon it was renamed Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle).

By contrast, lunch was a quick and efficient affair at a diner we walked in to by chance where you order from a vending machine that issues a little ticket which you present to the server who was stationed on the inside of the u-shaped seating counter.

The food was served super-quickly but was, as always in Japan, excellent quality and very tasty. Even this cheap and cheerful diner served us complimentary tea and a small bowl of soup on arrival – the Japanese are supremely hospitable! Unbelievable that again the whole restaurant was run by one person in the kitchen and one server – and there’s still enough time for the little extras, sincere smiles and all the please and thank-yous that come with any exchange in Japanese.

Vowing to try another vending machine diner within the remainder of the trip, we set off to see how the other half lives, at the Imperial Palace.

The complex is a stately affair with looong wiiiide gravel driveway leading up to the Palace gates. That were shut. Tight. Fail.

Still, the gardens and water features were nice. And we ticked another sight off our list.

We took a long walk along the Kamo River, me mostly entertaining myself with Japan’s most prevalent soundtrack: traffic light signals. The Japanese government seems to have put a lot of thought into the less fortunate by incorporating ridged tiles into their pavements. Striped tiles run along the centre of the pavement for general walking in a straight line and dotted tiles indicate where there’s an intersection to turn off the path (eg at a traffic light mid-block) or where the pavement ends (eg at an intersection). They combine these tactile signals with audio ones at traffic lights, with a different tone for east-west crossing versus north-south and different sets of tones for each intersection. Thus, a blind person would presumably be able to track their journey using the audio tones instead of road signs (of which there are precious few, mind you). The result for the sighted tourist is a great game of “bing-bong, bing-bong”, “doodooladoo” and my favourite “pew, pew-pew!” which may very possibly have made a long walk feel longer for my comrades! 😀

Our route deposited us at a beautiful temple and pagoda in Gion. This must be a local sight of popularity too since there were several couples dressed in traditional regalia, slip-slopping (with socks!) about in their kimonos and shogun robes, taking lots of photos of themselves. The kimonos are mostly quite spectacular and the shogun outfits look quite comfortable being multi-layered loose-fitting robes… but it’s a big victory for tradition that they’ve retained the slops and socks part of the get-up.

The socks all seem to be the same: white, mitten-style with a pocket for the big toe and another bigger pocket for the other 4 and they seem to be sewn from cotton rather than knitted. The men’s slops – tatami-style straw ones with fabric thong – look comfy enough, but the ladies ones all seem to be misshapen and ill-fitting. They narrow at the front, so almost everyone has foot overflow on both sides and the thong seems impractically tight so the wearer is constantly shuffling to get into and stay in the shoe. We surmise that this is tactical to maintain the ladies’ weak and vulnerable facade, shuffling along with tiny little steps. I think it might force me to pull a Malory and demand to be carried everywhere!

En route back from Gion, we did see our 3rd Geisha. She was crossing the bridge across from us and turned down the same little alley Jesse had told us about. He obviously really knows his stuff!

Apparently you can still hire a Geisha to come and entertain you, but it costs a small fortune. Then she pitches up just after dusk, with a little beautifully wrapped gift and sings for you or recites poetry or some other artisanal song and dance. Not one for our itinerary or budget!

Since we’d planned a daytrip to Hiroshima leaving early the next day, we foraged for dinner at our trusty 7Eleven and Christian finally got to try a Japanese curry and rice (tasty but unremarkable).

On returning from our Hiroshima daytrip, we were surprised by Lixi and RoRo with some quality sake and nibbly bits of melt-in-your-mouth-fresh crusty French loaf with genuine Wagyu beef (which is the same as Kobe beef but not necessarily from Kobe. Qualifying as Kobe beef requires parentage and grandparentage on both sides to be from Kobe for the sacrificial cow to qualify). Lix lightly fried the beef and it was everything it’s been made out to be – soft as butter and full of flavour!

They had sourced the goods from a local premium food market, which they told us was the mecca of all things imbibable and promised to show us the next day.

Our plan for the evening was to find a place that Jesse had recommended because it’s a bottle store by day, but at closing time they wheel in some keg barrels to act as tables and serve directly from the shelves and fridges. The old lady owner even tallies up your bill using an abacus, which is a nice touch!

We found the place, but got turned away because it was too full, so spent the evening at the wine bar across the road instead, people-watching and keeping an eye on a Japanese game show that had girls competing ferociously in a combination of events that would fit anywhere between Pop Idol and a toddler’s birthday party.

On the advice of one of my friends back home, we spent our last day at Arashiyama, a little suburb out west of Kyoto in the Sagano district.

What a great decision!

Our Pasmo passes got us there quickly and cheaply and deposited us in a charming sleepy little town that had a buzz of activity on the main drag from the station to the town’s famous wooden bridge.

The main attractions – besides the bridge, of course – were a temple / gardens combo and a bamboo forest. Both sounded too challenging on an empty stomach so we sourced donburi for motivation. Donburi is a bowl of rice and beef strips with a partially cooked fried egg on top that completes cooking in the bowl from the heat of the rice alone. We operated on instinct with when to break the yolk and when to fold the egg into the rice and seemed to do quite well, turning the gelatinous beginnings into a yummy mess quite quickly. The table had the traditional spice block and a sprinkle of the sesame and chilli salt on top made for a pretty and zesty overall effect.

Even though everything in the town is very close, we managed to get lured in by the shops and spent an hour or 2 happily wandering in and out of the shops, inspecting knick-knacks and buying gifts and souvenirs.

The temple and gardens are quite lovely.
Tenryi-ju was established in 1339 on the grounds of a temple that had been there since the 9th century. The temple has been ravaged by fires 8 times in its existence, most recently in 1864, but each time the gardens survived, maintaining the 14th century ambience and making it one of the oldest gardens in Japan.

On our way from the temple to the Bamboo Path, we stopped to sample another local delicacy – croquettes! Delicious crunchy potato with beefy bits in it. Mmmmm! But then again, I never have met a croquette that I didn’t like.

We’d been told that there is a quaint old train that returns to Kyoto… we ended up catching it quite by accident. Took an “alternate route” back to the station we’d arrived at and ended up encountering the old train at another station we hadn’t even been looking for. Bonus that it took our Pasmo cards AND the end of the line was our Shijo station so we wouldn’t have to even change trains at Kyoto as we’d had to on the way out.

Double bonus was that our station has an exit right into Daimura, the Wagyu store.

More accurately, it is an emporium of delightful things and as we blissfully wandered the aisles of chocolates, baked goods, meat produce and liquors both average and special occasion, servers offered us tastes of this and bites of that.

There are no words to describe the place with any justice: Premium chocolatiers and patissieres displaying perfect wares and packing each purchase as meticulously and beautifully as a gift for a favourite child’s milestone birthday. Beautiful clinical butchery with marbled wagyu steaks carved and displayed elegantly in glass cases. Alcoves of perfectly-lit sake so that just buying it is a romantic experience. Fresh produce like you’ve never seen before – apples the size of melons and fist-sized strawberries, all elegantly displayed.

A real feast for the eyes if nothing else.

We bought wagyu and French loaf just like the night before, but triple the quantity and with an (R18 massive) onion to sautée alongside. Christian treated us to jamon and cheese tapas for starters.

Feeling as lush as the massaged cows that had provided our meal, we languished in an amazing meal in super-comfy digs with amazing friends for the last night of a spectacular holiday.

Travelogue Japan 3: Hiroshima

HIROSHIMA
09 January 2015

When we’d first started planning the trip, we’d debated spending a night in Hiroshima, thinking it to be such a noteworthy city in world history that it would be unmissable. Very watery reviews from a good proportion of travellers + Lix and RoRo’s lack of motivation to go there + an already decided-upon unlimited travel Japan Rail pass made the decision that much easier: Christian, Michele and I would daytrip it from Kyoto.

This turned out to be really easy as our house’s local subway station was 2 stops from Kyoto main station, from where we would catch a Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima. We didn’t have to pre-book anything, just up and out by 7.30, through the morning peak hour subway chaos and into the supreme calm that is the big and beautiful Kyoto Station.

The building is all stone and metal inside and even though it’s all grey, it’s neither cold physically nor perceptually. It’s only 4 floors, but the central hall is quadruple volume and each upper level is reached by a set of escalators, which run almost end-to-end up to an open-air roof garden terrace so look a bit like a metallic waterfall climbing upwards to the heavens when viewed from the bottom.

Our tickets required a train change in Osaka, but the lady at the ticket office had told us which platforms we needed for each departure and arrival so it was easy-peasy getting to the right train. It’s all such a well-oiled process and the trains are so clean and comfortable (seats similarly sized to aeroplanes, but with triple the legroom) that all 3 of us slept…

… through…

… and miraculously woke each other up in time for our arrival in Hiroshima.

The station was a bit smaller and a lot easier to navigate than the previous had been – and the tourist office were very proactive in guiding us to all the freebies that were included in our Japan Rail passes, including the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus and the ferry to Miyajima Island, home to Torii Shrine just off the mainland.

The tourist bus was a great place to start, so we hitched a ride in it to Hiroshima Castle.

Established in 1589, the castle tower was destroyed in the atomic bombing and rebuilt in 1958. Inside the tower is a museum of Samurai culture. We were relieved to discover all of this after we thought we’d failed epically after having to remove shoes and don house slippers to view 2 very average exhibitions. Fortunately these were just the entry compound and there was more beyond when we entered the Castle complex beyond.

There still wasn’t much of interest to us so, after a wander past the shrine and tower, we walked through the gardens to the castle complex rear exit.

The most effective walking tour route fortuitously meant we had to tackle an early lunch as next item on the agenda. An easy call since we already knew we had to have the local speciality in the area which had made its name.

We walked through Hondori Street (a long shopping arcade) to reach Okonomu-mura village for our okonomiyaki (described in the guide as “flat cake of unsweetened batter fried with various ingredients”).

We were very pleased that there was an okonomiyaka restaurant directly under the “Welcome to Okonomu-mura” sign. Done.

We were ushered into the restaurant and chose a booth opposite the now-standard counter alongside the kitchen which, in this case, was a wall-to-wall flatbed silver fry counter.

There were 3 guys manning the kitchen, working from the far end to our side: First guy stacks raw cabbage, onion and pork onto a pancake. Next guy flips it over to cook the pork, while he has noodles and specified ingredients frying on the side. Then he pops the ingredients onto the noodles and flips the pancake et al on top of the noodle pile. Then he cracks 2 eggs onto the flatbed grill, loosely scrambles them and shifts the noodle pile on top. The whole pile then sits for a minute while the egg cooks, he flips it to reheat the pancake and deftly chops the pancake-noodle-stirfry-omelette into 6 edible portions using cross-swipes of the flat scraper-lifter tool in each hand and deposits the whole lot on a cast iron skillet. The server brushes the top with basting, adds cheese and seasoning and serves!

Really yummy! AND we managed to double-bill with a deep-fried oyster starter (important as the city is equally known for eating inexpensive oysters in casual setting “oyster huts”).

Our restaurant was close to the historical sites, so we walked the few blocks along the river front. Everything is named Peace -Something so we walked along Peace Promenade to get to Peace Park where there are Peace Memorials and a Peace Museum.

The first sight is the A-Bomb Dome. The building was first built in 1915 as a government office of sorts and was popular for its distinctive – and considered attractive – dome. The building now is relevant as it was the only building left standing near the hypocentre (the epicentre of the blast) from the notorious A-bomb drop on 6 August 1945.

The building soon became commonly called the Genbaku (“A-Bomb”) Dome, due to the exposed metal dome framework at its apex (all the roof tiles and outer casings had burnt instantly in the blast). The structure was scheduled to be demolished with the rest of the ruins, but the majority of the building was intact, delaying the demolition plans. The Dome became a subject of controversy, with some locals wanting it torn down, while others wanted to preserve it as a memorial of the bombing and a symbol of peace. Ultimately, when the reconstruction of Hiroshima began, the skeletal remains of the building were preserved and now serve as a tangible icon of what happened and place where people come to honour the lost and commit to peace.

Over the bridge is the Cenotaph memorial for A-Bomb victims. Quite austere with the eternal candle, giant flagpole, dedications and lots and lots of fresh flowers on display, the monument is the central element in a big quad and park with water features and smaller monuments dotted about.

Behind the cenotaph is the Peace Memorial Museum, offering bargain entry price of 50 Yen (R5).

The museum is a small but well structured collection of photos, exhibitions and artefacts from the fateful day, explaining how it all came to be, what happened and – refreshingly – educating on what’s happened subsequent with nuclear armament and why we need to sustain peace and avoid such an awful thing from happening again. To anyone.

Sure, we learn what happened in history at school, but it’s so “day and date” that you lose the perspective on the human element. The displays really drove home for me how utterly devastating that bomb was. A fireball a million degrees Celsius at its core, reached maximum diameter of 280m in a second. Fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction, flattening buildings within a 2 km radius and burning hundreds of thousands of people to death instantly. 85%of Hiroshima’s buildings were within 3km of where the bomb exploded, so the damage extended to virtually the entire city with 90% of all buildings destroyed beyond repair.

And yet, despite getting the magnitude of the destruction, the display that hit me the most is one of the steps of a bank that have been lifted to be displayed as they were in situ, and you can see how the stones on the wall and steps have been whitened from the heat… except the grey patch where someone had been sitting. The remnant shadow of where someone literally instantly melted.

Our little tour of the peace sights vindicated our decision to daytrip to Hiroshima. Otherwise, it’s a lovely city anyway. Beautifully laid out and pleasing on the eye. Apparently at a British junket in Hiroshima a few years ago the mayor was asked why Hiroshima is so neatly grid-style unlike other major Japanese mazes and he was quoted as saying “We had some help from the Americans.”

I would have liked to catch the ferry across to Miyajima Island to see the famous torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine, but with a 20 minute streetcar + 20 minute train + 10 minute ferry, we’d left it a bit late. Oh well, next time.

Travelogue Japan 2: Yuzawa

YUZAWA, NIIGATA
03-07 January 2015

After our exuberant last night in Tokyo, we overslept and missed our intended 10am departure for Niigata and subsequently ended up on the 12h16 train to Yuzawa (they run more or less every half hour).

The Shinkansen bullet trains are incredible – so fast, yet so solid that you don’t feel like you’re hurtling across Japan. Which is exactly what we did. East to West coast in an hour! I had slept soundly the whole way (having woken with the lurgy that had stricken RoRo on New Years Day) but am told that there was nothing to see as the train is parenthesesed by barriers, blocking the view completely.

Arriving in the sleepy winter wonderland valley of Yuzawa in Niigata, we were instantly in love. Beautiful thick snow everywhere; mountain rising up directly in front of us as we exited the station. We caught a taxi to our accommodation, mainly because it would be too hard to negotiate our bags in the snow (and we didn’t realise the journey would be so short).

We’d been told that what we’d booked was previously a hotel – and we had the whole hotel to ourselves! Our arrival confirmed it: we were to be the sole guests of 3 storeys of slopeside hotel. Quite a contrast to our Tokyo home – which could fit into our Yuzawa lounge – it was big, airy and comfortably furnished with plus-sized couches and king-size beds. The hotel has an unassuming roadside entrance, but the living area has wall-to-wall windows facing the ski slope, which serves as very entertaining live TV!

We got a quick tour of the facilities – including the 2 private basement onsen baths and a detailed review of the remote control panel to operate the heated toilet with all sorts of spray options to rinse and blowdry your bits – and settled into our rooms. Michele had been allocated a first floor room (which was described as 2nd floor because Japanese start counting from Ground), but ended up sleeping in the lounge in the living area adjacent to our room because her heater wasn’t working properly and she said the uninhabited hotel reminded her too much of The Shining. And with The World’s Most Comfortable Couch as an alternative, she was spoilt for choice.

It was a bit late (mid-afternoon) by this point to fuss with ski rentals etc, so we took a walk along our road instead to see what there was, get some supplies, scout a spot for dinner and whatnot. Even with the inordinate amount of snow everywhere, the kilometre walk to the Station was easy enough, assisted enormously by the jets of water spurting out from the middle lane of the road and running from side feeder roads, keeping the road clear of the enormous amount of snow. Our host, Gabriel, had explained that the source of this water was the underground spring – same one that fed the onsen. Very clever.

Our initial preview of Yuzawa revealed that it was different to the ski resort towns we’d previously encountered in that there wasn’t an apres ski bar anywhere to be found. Most other resort towns we’d been to had put equal energy into entertainment on and off the slopes. Also, while everything we’d read pointed to Yuzawa being a tourist town, nothing had indicated that it’s very definitely only a Japanese tourist town since the restaurants we passed were all Japanese menu only.

On returning to the house, Gabriel warned us that we’d be well advised to get to dinner early as everything filled up when the slopes close at 5pm and since the restaurants are all small with only a handful of tables, short of waiting (outside, in the snow) the next easy-access sitting wouldn’t be until around 9 o’clock.

Just after 5pm already, he and his family were on their way out for dinner and he offered for us to walk with them so he could point out his recommendations of restaurants and shops.

We were already too late for the tonkatsu restaurant he had suggested to us but, based on the queue of people waiting in the cold for a table, we assumed it must be as good as Gabriel said and noted to return there the next day, early enough to avoid the queue.

We took our chances and went into the first restaurant without a waiting list, which turned out to be a tempura restaurant. What a luck!

We ordered the set menu, which was an awful lot of food! A miso soup, big wedge of tofu, small plate of pickled veg (no idea what it was), bowl of rice and a mountain of tempura veg (including an enormous shitake mushroom), fish, calamari and prawns (each easily 20cm long). Everything is served at once and makes for a very busy table! There are always soy sauce and chilli flakes on the table and often another condiment or two, in this case a cellar of sesame seeds. Salt and pepper aren’t standard table items as they are in the Western world.

Our feast behind us, we returned home for an onsen and a quiet night in, enjoying the comfort of our new home with its warm and inviting living room (and the simple luxury of being able to speak out loud after being repressed in Tokyo!)

The onsen isn’t what I expected. I’d thought it would be a sort of warm swimming pool, Turkish Bath style, but its more a hot bath suited to shorter dipping. Our house had 2 onsen – one “personal” one about a metre by a metre and a half and a group one about twice the size (and the perfect width to sit back against the wall and toes touching the other side). Both follow the same format with a small reception room with wooden shelves to undress and redress, hand showers in the onsen room to clean off before entering the onsen, and the onsen itself a simple rectangular bath like the swimming pools of yesteryear when they were still tiled.

Each bath is fed by a continuous trickle of hot spring water and the bath simply overflows like an infinity pool when it’s filled to capacity, draining from the bathroom floor (probably on to somewhere useful if the cistern-basin idea is anything to go by). The onsen also has a plug, so can be emptied if the water gets icky (which shouldn’t be too often since the rules are strict about showering beforehand and there is a constant flow of clean spring water entering the bath). It is very hot so, contrary to our expectation that we’d spend hours languishing in it like a Jacuzzi, we only lasted about 10 minutes.

The next morning we went to the ski hire shop, conveniently just across the road from our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at the rates – R420 for 2 days equipment hire! – and were soon on our way with skis, poles, boot and for Christian and Michele pants and goggles too. I went to secure a ski pass (R700 for 2 full days) while the others went to find an intructor to give them a private lesson.

As promised on our “ski in/out” hotel’s write-up, there was a ski chair lift right outside our door and our pass covered not only our slope, but the whole mountain including the gondola that ran from the Ropeway Station a few hundred metres down the street to midway up the slope which had a few restaurants and shops.

Having snowed all through the night before, the powder was perfect! The slopes aren’t busy at all – not like the mayhem in Europe when I’d learned to ski – so it’s an ideal training ground and a pleasure for the already initiated.

Alex was having her turn at being ill that day so had, wisely and with remarkable restraint, stayed in for the day. I took on the mountain as a solo mission and worked out a run from the gondola station to the very top of the mountain that had me entertained for an hour at a time through a variety of green, red, black and blue routes.

By the end of the day, we’d all fallen in love with Yuzawa and asked Gabriel if we could stay 2 extra nights (conveniently, he was our landlord for our intended next stop so we simply traded properties). I guess we’ll never know what Hakone would have been like but since its main attraction was its private onsen and we had two at Yuzawa anyway, we were very motivated to stay at our lovely hotel.

After a brilliant full day’s skiing, we were at the restaurant for 5 o’clock… and were still second in the queue! Fortunately the wait wasn’t very long though and since they had taken our order while we waited, the food was served to us as we sat down. It was another set menu type thing with the standard miso soup, pickled veg, tofu and rice and the most incredible tonkatsu, which is a breaded pork fillet along the lines of a schnitzel but thick and tender and juicy, served with a mountain of shredded cabbage, carrot and watercress. Its partner condiment was a sticky sweetish barbecue sauce which matched perfectly and there was a creamy light sauce that we only realised afterwards was likely a sort of salad dressing to make a coleslaw type effect with the veg.
Since Alex was still quarantining herself, we made short work of dinner and picked up some beers and sake from the bottle shop to take home for a quiet night in. Made for a really nice evening.

Day 2 of skiing was even better because I had Lixi with me – and it was a great feeling just knowing we’d extended our stay so there would be no mad panic to pack and leave later on.

We made arrangements to all meet at the Alpine restaurant at the top gondola station for lunch and each spent our morning making the proverbial hay while the sun shone.

The slopes were brilliant, so much snow, wide and long runs and, with relatively few people, no queues at any of the chairlifts. Alex and I managed all the runs before lunch, including her first go on a (steep and narrow!) black run ever!

We were pooped by lunchtime so had a lovely long and lingering pizza/pasta lunch at Alpine, comparing notes on who had done what in the morning and watching Ski TV through the big window (although we witnessed far fewer and less spectacular bails than our house’s view).

Alex and I skiied for about another hour and caught the gondola down rather than risking the long black slope in the failing light.

Our onsen awaited and was practically a religious experience for our tired bones and aching muscles! The water was 44 degrees so it took little more than 10 minutes to get to watershed invigoration.

Lovely and clean and toasty – and in no hurry for dinner after our leisurely lunch – we settled around our lounge table, with its traditional floor cushions on 2 sides and The Most Comfy Couch in The World on the other 2, and got stuck into the bottles of local sake we’d bought at the shop Gabriel recommended.

Michele was having her turn at the flu, so decided not to brave the cold for dinner. The four of us wandered up the road heading for a restaurant called Yoshi Toshi (one of the few restaurants with English signage) which Christian had spotted and wanted to try. Unfortunately it was closed, but there was another restaurant directly opposite and a peek through the door showed it was quite full – always a good sign – so we gave it a bash.

Much like the other traditional restaurants we’d been to, it was very small with only 4 low tables and a counter of about 10 chairs facing the open kitchen. We were seated at one of the 4 low tables and given menus… all in Japanese. There was one picture, which looked like a set menu so, since we’d done well with those so far, we ordered 4.

We ordered sake too, which was served the traditional way into a small cup to the point that it overflowed and filled the saucer below. This apparently symbolises the welcoming from the restaurant and the generosity that they will display in looking after you.

The meal was excellent! Tasty miso soup and superb chicken katsu breaded cutlets.

We celebrated our success with a visit to Swing Bar, which still appeared to be the only bar in town and advertised on its signage that its operating hours were 8pm to 3am daily. How odd.

We soon made friends – or rather, in this case, were made friends with – a trio of young US Marines. They told us that their deal is 5 years in the Corps and in return the Marines pay for 3 years university education for them. Seems like a great system. Must rack up since there are apparently 5000 marines on their ship alone!

A couple of rounds of beers and Jagers (the killer mammoth tumbler “shots”) and it was hometime. It was so awesome surfacing to the crisp night air, with all the pretty snow and mountain backdrop for the short walk back to the hotel. Such simple pleasures we miss out on at home.

Our last day was taken very slowly with all efforts concentrated on relaxing. It was raining lightly so nobody was keen on skiing and it was an indulgent day of napping, chatting, slothing and of course onsen, all set to the rhythmic “bing-bong” warning chime that the ski station outside our window made every few seconds as each chair arrived.

The first time anyone left the house was close on 6pm, to return ski equipment, do a spot of souvenir shopping and source a place for dinner.

The first 2 were easy, the third not as much so. We wanted to try something that we hadn’t yet eaten and the task is harder than you might think when the display menus are Japanese only and the 1000 words that the accompanying pictures speak are clearly Japanese as well!

The answer came to us in the form of a glowing billboard opposite the station: Kenchin Soup.

The restaurant looked like such a good find. With a charmingly rustic entrance complete with the traditional sliding paper doors, the inside was warm and comfortable but more ‘functional’ than a lot of the places we’d been to. With wooden floors and normal chairs and tables, we surmised this to be more of a canteen for the locals.

As with most places we’d been to, there was only 1 person working the floor (doorman, waiter and bussing functions) with 2 people in the kitchen. Our server was an old man, who was delighted to see us and ushered us into the back into a private dining room with traditional straw mat floors, low tables and cushions. As had been our lure, he pointed excitedly at the picture of the Kenchin soup in the menu, clearly recommending it to us.

Unique to the local area, Kenchin is a thick Japanese stew containing more than 10 different vegetables, soy sauce and miso paste. The picture on the board looked like a hearty beef or lamb stew but, even though all veg, Kenchin is just as hearty and delicious and there are some of the more exotic veg that you’d swear are meat from their texture and flavour.

We had ordered some side dishes too, including tempura prawns (as big as the monster ones we’d had the first night), hire-katsu (crumbed pork cutlets) and negitoro (minced tuna sashimi served as a tartare-style meatball in a bed of Japanese spring onion). Everything is so tasty; really fresh with sharp and defined flavours.

It was snowing properly by the time we left and we all looked like snowmen by the time we got home.

Our evening round-up (“clearing the stocks from the fridge that would be too cumbersome to carry”) had us in complete agreement that staying in Yuzawa had been a genius move that might just have ruined all future possible skiing holidays for us!

Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 3)

TOKYO (Part 3)
02 January 2015

Jetlag had set in and all of us were rustling and stirring by 4am. Way too early to do anything constructive though, so everyone stayed nestled with Kindles, phones and tablets for entertainment, dozing on and off until 7.30.

Our shower rotation was less traumatic than anticipated and actually helped prevent our pinhead living area from becoming too crowded (with our mountain of electronics on chargers, let alone our 5 Western bodies).

RoRo whipped us up some heavenly scrambled eggs for a light brekkie and we hit the road just after 9 – almost an hour ahead of schedule.

The roads were quiet and nothing was open yet – a surprise to us seeing as we’d only yet surfaced into the Tokyo afternoon.

We’d plotted and planned the day’s itinerary the previous evening (at – yet another – Hub pub) while we were out, so we had a good idea of what we wanted to do and how to get there. We did however change course on our first stop, Kappabashi, which is famous for being where all the plastic food displays (commonly found outside most restaurants to illustrate their menu) are made. Challenge was that we didn’t know *exactly* where to go and feared getting disheartened if the first sight was a wild goose chase.

Directions in Tokyo are fun at the best of times with a complicated address notation system thanks largely to buildings having been numbered as they were built, rather than having predefined numbers. This has resulted in an awkward retro-fitted address format allocating 3 numbers to each address: block, building, residence. For example, the address for our digs is 3-4-7 Yanaka, Taito.

We caught the Asakusa Line to Higashi-ginza where Exit 3 surfaced us directly outside the Kazibuka-za Kabuki Theatre. Our plan was to get short tickets, which allow access for a single act. Unfortunately, it would appear that half of Tokyo (plentiful donning traditional kimonos, socks and slippers, and umpteen in fur coats) had the same idea so the first act was already sold out and it would be an hour’s wait in the queue to get tickets for the 13h00 act. We satisfied ourselves with taking photos of the building and promising to take in a show in Kyoto instead.

We were just around the corner from the famous Tsujiki Fish Market, where we’d planned to lunch after Kabuki. No problem though, lunch at 11am was game on!

Most of the market was closed for the holiday, but we still got to see some shop owners preparing fresh seafood for their customers – some quite elaborate, like one involving grilling a fresh scallop in the shell, topping it with tuna strips a d salmon roe and then blowtorching it to lightly sear it. Not expensive, but too much of a wait for the make-one-at-a time chef to get to us.

By pure chance we stumbled in Sushi Sen, which had been recommended to us by a local at The World’s End pub on New Years. No queue, so we were in and seated at the counter in no time. We opted for a few platters so we could sample more things. Everything was so fresh! And the soy sauce (like all of them we’ve had so far) so light and tasty you can practically drink it on its own! Sadly, a few of the things we ordered didn’t come, but we chalked it up to “lost in translation” and wrote it off as not to be.

Getting the hang of the spaghetti of subway lines, next stop was digital town in Akihabara, known for it’s megastores of electronic goods. All we wanted was a portable speaker to use with the party iPod we’d brought (and clearly not been able to use anyway in our complete-silence holiday house), but we were unprepared for the FOUR AISLES of options! Luckily it was Christian’s choice or I’d still be there!

We’d been rotating our shopping, having commandeered a table at Starbucks to combat the fatigue from our unintentional early rising but decided that, since we’d done almost everything on the list for the day, we’d head back home for an afternoon nap before dinner (planned to be at Ninja restaurant, themed as just that, where you get ambushed at the door and served by chaps in ninja suits).

When we got back home, Michele and I decided to forego the nap in favour of a quick walking tour instead. We loaded Kappabashi (the plastic food place) into Google Maps and headed off.

We had no trouble finding it at all – clearly easier on foot than by underground as it’s easier to get your bearings. Pity though, when we got there, most of it was closed. A few kitchenware stores were open but, while the Japanese are pretty famous for their quality knives, it held little interest for us. Still, the walk had been worthwhile and even I – navigationally challenged as I am – was starting to recognise landmarks and find my way around.

When we got back, the others were ready to head out – and we’d worked up quite an appetite with all the walking on only a few bits of sushi – so first order of business was dinner, at Ninja in Akasaka.

The restaurant lived up to its name, being quite elusive to find… and then (allegedly?) closed for the holidays. Not the end of the world though; there were so many options around the station.

We had a false start at a tempura restaurant, which looked amazing from the illustrated menu in the window. The restaurants are so small and narrow that it’s not uncommon not to be able to get a single table that seats our group of 5. We ended up having a leisurely dinner at a restaurant that very possibly could’ve been more Chinese than Japanese, but the food was great and plentiful (we ordered about 10 different things – including tempura prawns to assuage our initial disappointment) and really cheap at R900 for all the food and beers for all of us!

Kenny had made contact stating interest in meeting up with us, so the rest of the evening was easy for us, leaving him to play tourguide again.

Kenny did a masterful job of showing us how diverse Tokyo is. We connected at an English pub called Hobgoblin in Rappongi, changed atmosphere with a hip-hop style dark ‘n dingy pub called Geronimo’s, popped in for a beer at a fancy supper club lounge bar and eventually parted ways again when he deposited us at an awesome place called The Train Bar, not so imaginatively named as it is literally a bar in a refurbished train caboose.

The last was the coolest by far – small and fun, excellent staff and a wall of CDs which you could give to the bartender to play. We had a raucous time there entertaining ourselves and others until all hours… and felt compelled to literally get the t-shirt to commemorate the experience!

Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 2)

TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo travel card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our inaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through Roppongi – the really upmarket area – past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hordes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancé than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

The pub gave every table a bowl of (cold) noodles on the house to welcome in the new year. A nice touch, but an awkward dish to share.

We left World’s End to go TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our unaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through the really upmarket areas, past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hoardes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancé than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

We left World’s End to go to The Hub, one of a chain of English pubs… but we must’ve gotten our wires crossed as the bartender was cashing up when we got there. Ever-courteous though, a waiter escorted us the few hundred metres to the next branch, which he obviously knew to still be open. It was still full-scale pumping!

A few nightcaps, some bleated classics and a handful of new friends later, we called it a night.

Last stop in at our trusty 7Eleven for supplies for the morning. The bread is so funny – packed as “loaves” of 2, 4 or 8 slices. Presumably this is because space is such an issue with little to no storage room. Kenny had been telling us that there is a very strong culture for eating (almost all) meals out because restaurants are cheap and excellent, and groceries are relatively expensive (and bulky to store).

It was easily 5am by the time we got in – and we were likely not as quiet as we should’ve been, crinkling crisp packets, giggling and stage-whispering.

It didn’t last long though and we were all off to bed very soon.

Where we stayed until mid-afternoon on New Years Day.

Poor RoRo was man-down with his cold, so we left him sleeping and went off to our usual Taito area around Ueno Station for a spot of dinner.

We decided to try something (else) authentic so did a barbecue restaurant. Each table is fitted with a chimney and the waitress brings a small circular braai with fitted grid ready coals to the table along with whatever raw ingredients you’ve ordered.

We struggled with the Japanese menu as the pictures were small and blurry, but the English one wasn’t much more helpful as there were no pictures and the descriptions were unfamiliar (like yagan and urate). We ended up ordering by pointing at the pictures on the Japanese menu and did a pretty good job, ending up with some pleasant cuts of beef, pork and chicken. We did have one fail in a portion of chicken cartilage that looked suspiciously like coccyx and had no meat at all. Clearly a delicacy that we don’t understand. We’d also ordered a soup hotpot to share, which was a delicious rich broth with cubes of beef, ramen, egg and sprouty things in it. Delicious.

But quite small, so we ended up at McDonald’s about a half hour later ordering a Quarter Pounder.

Most of the shops were still open so we spent a few hours wandering up and down the rows of stalls, prodding and browsing and buying all sorts of stuff. We’d thought Japan was going to be really expensive, but it’s turning out to be a trove of bargains! We bought ski gloves for under R90, Adidas track tops for R100, Chris got 2 pairs of Adidas crosstrainers for R230 each… we’d probably still be shopping if it wasn’t for luggage concerns!

Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 1)

TOKYO
30 Dec 2014 – 03 Jan 2015

After a disproportionately exuberant farewell gathering at the Baron all afternoon on Sunday, there was the usual up-at-4am dash to the finish line to get last minute ducks in rows – and perform other essential activities like packing (which had been procrastinated over for days because of the complexity of the warm vs bulk trade-off of winter- and ski-wear options).

Miraculously, everything was done and ready by our agreed-upon 10.30 collection time. Michele, accompanying us to Japan, was to leave her car at the airport while we’re away, which made life very simple thanks to the long-term carport parking across the road from ORT International Departure entrance.

Coup de gras was the radio dedication of Turning Japanese by The Vapours (“I really think so!”) and Big In Japan by Alphaville, that Michele had smsed in to her DJ mate to wish us a bon voyage on-air.

Both of our (Emirates, obviously) flights were very full and our online check-in the day before had warned us that we weren’t sitting together on either flight. We managed to negotiate to be in a row of 3 together on the flight to Dubai, but only Christian and I were together on the second flight (a minor detail since most of that 11 hour flight was spent sleeping, thanks in some part to our Dubai Airport splurge on R130 pints of Heineken).

Arriving in Tokyo, Narita International Airport was a bit overwhelming… especially since Lixi and Roro’s flight from London had been delayed so they’d missed their connection to Tokyo – and it was Lixi who’d done all the major prep (including a 38-page itinerary!) thereby earning unofficial Group Leader status.

Nonetheless, English and helpful people were aplenty so we soon had a plan and a train ticket for the Airport Express that would take us to Ueno Station where we could catch a taxi for the short ride to our digs.

Except we managed to get on the wrong train!

Fortunately, our error only had minor consequences as the train we were on did the same route as the Express, but stopped. At. Every. Station.

Our mistake had been pointed out to us by a lady sitting next to us on the train, who then asked to see our travel arrangements and gave advice on the subway vs taxi options for getting us from Ueno to our local subway stop (from where we had on-foot directions on our accommodation booking itinerary). Thinking we’d reduce our risk by taking a taxi, the lady guided us to the taxi stop and hailed a driver for us.

I’d been warned by our host that our (“truly Authentic! Live as the traditional Japanese do!”) house was off the grid when I’d asked (on Lix’s instruction) for Google coordinates for our Awesome Itinerary, but hadn’t considered that our driver wouldn’t be able to find it either. Plugging the address into his GPS got us close enough, but we ended up trawling the neighbourhood with his Japanese GPS lady sounding increasingly frustrated as she tried to convince us our destination was a park!

500 Yen later and no closer to home, we decided to get him to drop us at the local subway and call our host to come and get us. Turns out we were only a couple of hundred metres from the station, and located in a small alley parallel to the park.

Relieved to be nested, we happily removed our shoes (on instruction) in the little entrance hall and bowed to enter through the small sliding door and into the house. The small lounge is spartanly furnished with straw floor mats, a low coffee table, several cushions and a floor lamp. The lounge leads onto a tiny kitchen with barfridge, single utility table, double hotplate, small sink and, entertainingly, the house’s only shower! …which made more sense when we discovered that the “bathroom” (a loo with a basin cleverly designed on top of the cistern so that water used in the basin automatically gets used to flush the toilet) was also in the kitchen! The whole living area is about the size of my dining room at home and you can touch the ceiling on flat feet.

Up the steep and narrow staircase took us to the sleeping area: a long room with 5 futon mattresses laid out in a row. The room could be subdivided into 3 rooms using the curtain between bed 1 and 2 and the shoulder-height sliding door between bed 3 and 4. Most walls had the same sliding doors, so it was fun sliding them to see what hidey-hole treasures lay beyond. Interestingly the house is an almost 1:1ratio of living:cupboard space. Disappointingly, most were cupboards with bedware or empty for us to store our stuff.

Our host – whose name we’d already forgotten so we’ve renamed him Jeff – lived in a small room off the lounge and reminded us that we were to be very quiet in the house. The house’s owner had told me that several times on Airbnb,  which I’d interpreted as “no loud parties”, but Jeff advised that we were to keep so quiet that in fact pure silence was to be observed upstairs. Turns out that the authentic Japanese paperthin walls combined with the authentic Japanese grumpy old man neighbour and the very-real prohibition on subletting in this traditional Japanese neighbourhood had gotten out landlord into some hot water already.

We assured Jeff that our intention was to use the house for little more than sleeping and to illustrate told him we were heading straight out to experience Tokyo. He gave us advice, directions and a map, setting us off toward Ueno, where we were apparently destined to find food and drink aplenty. So, feeling rebellious at our flagrant disregard for the no-strangers-in-our-hood rule, we hit our streets and discovered that it was an easy walk to all the action.

We kicked off with a celebratory beer (“The Brew”) from our local 7Eleven, next to the subway station entrance where we’d met Jeff. The challenge was juggling the icy cold beer between hands so as not to get either hand too cold, since it was a crisp 3 degrees Celsius out. Easy task for us, so we rewarded ourselves with another from the next 7Eleven, trying a Kirin this time.

Jeff had certainly advised us well; there was loads of life in the few blocks he’d pointed out. We had a bit of a wander, pouring over the big pictureboard menus outside most of the eateries, considering our dinner options… and, predictably, were lured into an Irish rock bar (The World’s End, opposite Ueno Station) for a Guinness (and a tot of Japanese whiskey for Christian and Michele). Great pub, bigger than many we’d passed but still little more than an inflated passage with about 50 seats.

We ended up only eating at around midnight, having struggled to choose what and where to eat among the countless little restaurants that were still open and pumping. Deciding to try lots of things, we ordered shrimp dumplings, fried basil dumplings, barbecued pork and a noodle hotpot. Everything was amazing! Christian ordered a second round of dumplings and Michele a “Magic Pudding” creme caramel dessert and, with drinks, the whole lot came to R328!

Delighted at our feeding, we went on the hunt for a celebratory Jagermeister. Beside the road-level restaurants and bars, there were loads more upstairs, with stacked neon sign markers outside the stairwells to indicate what was where. We soon learned that, presumably since space is at such a premium, “sitting charges” often apply, which will act as good as any other filter to help us narrow the options moving forward in a city where we’re so overwhelmingly spoilt for choice.

We found the Jager – at a ball-busting 1000 Yen (R100) each, (sort of) softened when it turned out to be a veritable tumblerful, easily a triple or quadruple shot each! A good nail in the fun coffin of an unintentionally extended welcome night in Japan, we started heading for home and (one more nightcap en route later) were in bed by 4am (a very respectable 9pm home-time), with many stories under our belt for our travelmates’ arrival, due for around lunchtime.