Day twenty-five – Harajuku again

We’d been a bit slack on laundry so Friday started with washing and drying clothes, so that I’d have clean underwear. It seemed a little odd to do laundry the day before we left the country, but it was also nice to do such a small load.

I used the time to write blog posts and some of my new novel (NaNoWriMo started on the first, and my goal is to write 50k words in the month of November). Anna used the time to repack her suitcase and work out what needed to go in the planned new case.

Once we had clean, dry underwear we went out into the world. The plan was to visit the shiba cafe again and see if we could get in. The return time was within an hour so we booked in, and spent that time on Takeshita St buying some gifts, checking out the Disney store and trying not to buy too much.

The shibas were just as adorable the second time around, if not more so as this time we weren’t awkwardly rushing for it, and because of the early afternoon sun, the pups were all very sleepy.

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We did have a moment of shiba drama. One little one had been asleep under the table when we arrived, and I guess another dog woke it up, and there was barking, and every shiba in the place gathered around the table. One of the staff intervened and picked up the little one, and all the dogs just followed like ‘put him down, what’s going on??’

It was quite exciting. We went for Macdonalds for lunch again, because I have a serious french fry habit apparently, and was craving them. After that we headed back to Shinjuku and went shopping at Biqlo, which is a Bic Camera and UniQlo sharing a building. I wanted some more of the super comfy singlet I’d got in Hiroshima, but they didn’t stock the exact style, we both picked up a few things though.

At Bic Camera we got a medium sized suitcase from a very enthusiastic salesperson and then we went back to our hotel to rest and nap. It had got to a very particular level of sleepy and exhausted, like I was saying the wrong words and neither of us were any good at making decisions, but we got there. The suitcase was on sale and is very nice, a Japanese made brand.

After the nappening, we went back to Itamae sushi which we’d liked at the start of the trip. I didn’t want to order something very big, so I went with lots of smaller things. Hokkaido oysters, mackerel sashimi and tuna nigiri. They also gave us miso, green salad and a little bowl of something we couldn’t identify. It was like very tender meat, and it tasted fantastic. Anna thinks it could have been kidney.

Also I ordered a small beer, and they didn’t believe me. The Chef double checked ‘small?’ when I ordered, and then the waiter brought out the glasses to show me the sizes before pouring. They were right, I wanted medium, the small was very small. It was a really, really good meal. Excellent quality of everything.

After this, we celebrated with an hour at a karaoke place, where we belted My Chemical Romance, some Broadway hits from Les Mis and Cats, and Anna’s favourite belt top hits. It was a place which insisted you also bought a drink and their cocktails were really, really nice.

Back at the hotel, we got all our extra stuff into the new suitcase and some extra from our bags and had a rough time getting to sleep. Anxious about heading home, sad about leaving Japan, all the ‘return to the real world’ things.

Day twenty-four – Tokyo

Anna’s birthday.

Maybe because it’s a hotel we’ve been in before, or maybe just because Shinjuku is so familiar now, but I had a fantastically good sleep and woke up feeling perky.

We headed out to Shibuya to find Loft – a store I’d read about on pinterest which was touted as Tokyo’s best stationery store. Now, it was pretty good, but I don’t think it beats Tokyu Hands, honestly.

The sign was neat though, it’s all made of cogs which rotate and sometimes stop to spell out the store name.

Having stocked up on some more paper goods, we had lunch at Doutor and cringed as a group of  four tourists made more noise than anyone else in the packed cafe. Read the room, people! If everyone else is speaking in soft tones, you should too. It’s not that hard.

From Shibuya we caught a local subway out to the other side of town and went to Skytree. When I first visited Japan, Skytree was about a month off being completed, and we didn’t make it out there last year because of time constraints. I was determined to get there this time! Skytree is primarily a broadcasting tower and was for a while the tallest building in the world at 634.0 metres. There’s an observation deck at 350 metres, which we paid to get to.

The lifts from the fourth floor ticket counters to the observation deck go terrifyingly fast. They’re very smooth but just the fast changes in altitude meant my ears popped multiple times in the half minute or so the ride took.

The observation deck is a 360 degree view around Tokyo and Tokyo Bay, and I was very pleased to realise we could see the volcano of Tokyo Disneysea from there. Very cool. It was very busy with tourists and you could pay to have a photo taken on a plastic cloud with a little plastic skytree and the view behind you, or with the Skytree dedicated mascot, which is like a humanoid in a dress with a star for a head. They also had large interactive photo maps so you could zoom in on bits of the view and find out what they are, or it would show a timelapse of the view over a day.

It was a very cool experience. Heading down took a little longer as there was a backlog of people trying to leave. We went shopping after that. We received a little money from wedding guests for the Studio Ghibli museum, but it’s hard to get tickets to there on short notice. Instead we bought exclusive merchandise at a special Ghibli shop.

We headed back across town to Akasaka to the Ninja Restaurant, which our hotel had kindly booked us a table for. I’ve been once before in 2012, and it hasn’t changed too much, but I had forgotten some things. The menu is updated a little too, but just as incredibly delicious as I remember it being.

The Ninja restaurant isn’t just a restaurant where everyone is dressed as a ninja. It’s immersive, with the interior decked out like an ancient Japanese village, complete with waterfalls and streams. We were seated in a ‘house’, or private room for two with our own water feature.

There’s some fun surprises about this place, which I won’t spoil, but we were laughing most of the night. We were assigned our own personal wait ninja, and he was having a lot of fun telling us “ninja jokes”. Anna ordered a ninja special cocktail called Black Bubble which tasted like delicous fruit slushie and had gold flecks on it. I ordered sake and it came in a fabulous bamboo jug which I was tempted to steal.

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But aside from that, the food and drink is really, really good. We had a delicious ten course meal that was part Kaiseki style Japanse dining and part Western influenced. It was all delicious.

Grissini throwing stars and pate, ‘treasure box’ seafood salad (with jelly), escargot with garlic butter and pesto

Rice croquette, soup with black crab dumpling, ceviche and a gingery ice lolly

Meat course two options: lamb or beef, we each had a different option. Sushi course and dessert featuring a cheesecake frog and ice cream and pastry bonzai, plus a bowl of fresh fruit each.

At one point we also had a master ninja do a ninja magic show for us. Coin tricks and then card tricks and there’s two tricks we can’t at all work out how he did. Ninja magic, indeed.

Well lubricated by sake (me) and worn out from the day (both of us), we headed back to our hotel to crash out. The day was declared a good birthday by Anna, and we both felt so much more relaxed being back in Shinjuku.

Day twenty-two – Nara to Tokyo

This was another one of those transit days. I was at least comforted that it was our last time switching cities. Our last time on a shinkansen.

To get from Nara to Tokyo we took three local trains from Nara to Kyoto, because the shinkansen doesn’t go there, and we got on the local which requires a transfer, and then we got on a regular local line and after a few stops the conductor suggested we switch to a rapid. Once in Kyoto we secured reserved seats on the Mt Fuji side of the shinkansen to Shinagawa station, Tokyo.

I tried to use the 2.5 hour trip to catch up on my physical travel journal, which is somewhat neglected because of this one but I’m still keeping it all the same. But once again I got motion sickness… I think maybe I’m too old now to shinkansen and write? I’ve never had trouble before, and I was sitting right at the window, so I don’t know what else it could have been. Staring out the window helped, and I saw a collection of neat things out the window…

  • a dirt path up a low hill into the forest, with a stone Torii gate on it
  • a toddler and parent meeting school kids on the raised path in the middle of a field. The toddler was running towards a kid with a school bag, who had crouched and opened their arms
  • a daring soul who had extended their balcony washing line out over the street, past the railings of their balcony (no one does this)
  • a woman who had just got off the train doing the ‘oh god do I have my glasses?’ panic dance, patting pockets, head, sides, and then finding them in her bag
  • Mt Fuji playing peekaboo

 

By the time we got to Tokyo I was feeling pretty wretchedly tired and over it all. Too much dragging suitcases, too much trains, too much feeling grimy from travel, etc etc.

We got a taxi from the station to Ariake, and the driver got lost a couple of times and I had that ‘oh god is he scamming the gaijin?’ but when he dropped us off he apologised profusely and took a third off the price of the fare, so I think he just genuinely didn’t know the area. Tokyo is so huge, it must be easy to have places you’ve just never gone before, even as a taxi driver.

Our hotel in Ariake was gigantic, it had a convention centre in it, two different restaurants, a big konbini and a package sending service. We had dinner at one of the restaurants, and made use of the giant bath in the room.

I got to the ‘overtired and emotional’ stage when I couldn’t get to sleep instantly, but thankfully Headspace for sleep sorted me out eventually.

 

Day twenty-one – Nara

We slept in today. In part because our room at our Nara hotel basically doesn’t have a window. I mean, it has a window, but its view is to the wall of the building next door and very little light comes in. Also Anna didn’t sleep well overnight, and needed as much rest as possible. We had a quick breakfast at our favourite, hit a post office for more stamps and went back to Nara Park.

Unlike Sunday when the deer were overfed and bored of people, today they were excited to see us and very, very keen for biscuits.

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When they realised we had deer bikkies, they’d mob us. Some of the males would get quite rough, giving a butt with their horns or shoving against you. Some would bite at our t shirts or try and get in pockets in case there were bikkies there. My plushie Pooh Bear and Tigger from Disney which have been steadfastly hanging on my backpack since Disney got nibbled and deer slobbered.

We quickly learned that the deer understand that an open palm with spread fingers means ‘none left’. Even though I’m sure they could smell the bikkies in my backpack, they took the hint and would leave us alone if we made that gesture. (You can see Anna doing it if you scroll through the instagram photos above.)

Deer are such big animals that it did get a little scary when they’re all coming at you, especially when it’s the males with the new horns coming through, but we also loved it. The deer would put up with a bit of an ear rub or a neck scratch while you were eating, and most of them bow to you to ‘earn’ a biscuit, so that was neat too.

Once we’d spent a little more on deer biscuits than we intended to, we walked further through the park and tracked down the big bronze Buddha in Tōdai-ji, or the Eastern temple.

I find it really hard to grasp the age of ancient objects. We saw a lantern which dated back to the 8th century and I look at it and go ‘yep, that seems old’. Maybe it’s because I never studied classics or history, but it’s also in part I think because of growing up in New Zealand where stuff just isn’t that old. We don’t have the same history, we’re a very young country, especially in terms of human settlement.

Still I was happy to tourist it up in front of the house of the great Buddha.  Because I’m a nerd.

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The Buddha was great though. I’m not religious, but I did feel a kind of awe, or desire to be quiet around him. Something like that. He’s very, very big. There were also some other really neat statues and stuff around, possibly of Gods? but the signs were all in Japanese so we weren’t sure what was what.

I was really glad to have done it, anyway. It was something new, and something Nara is known for besides the deer.

I bought a really great Nara t shirt on the way out too. We walked slowly back through the park and got another soft serve (I had mango and vanilla, it was delicious), and sat down next to an older lady who smiled and nodded when I asked if it was okay. She asked us a couple of the standard questions ‘where are you from?’ and then launched into ‘have you read the bible?’ and tried to sell us on … I dunno. She gave me a postcard with a bible verse on it in Kanji. There were a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses around Nara for some reason, maybe she was one of those. Thankfully Anna saw her reaching for something else from her bag and suggested we needed to get going.

We went back to the hotel and rested for a couple hours, then went out for dinner to a place called The Terrazo opposite our hotel. It was Italian, and really really good. We had some beef and it was so tender and so good, and then a pasta main each.

After that we went to Karaoke for the first time in our trip, and it was amazing. The range of My Chemical Romance songs was off the chain.

(having some wifi patchiness so more photos to come)

Day twenty – Kyoto to Nara

Both feeling somewhat the worse for wear, waking up with stiff calf muscles and various aches we had hotel breakfast and checked out to head to Nara.

I wanted to travel in the morning after the horror of Hiroshima to Kyoto the other day and how much it stressed me out, and it worked out relatively well. Nara is close enough to Kyoto that we took a local express train rather than a shinkansen. Unfortunately as it was a Sunday, a lot of other people had the same idea, so the train was quite busy and we had to stand the whole way (45 mins or so).

Our hotel didn’t seem too far from the train station, but can I just say that dragging your suitcase over artistically uneven cobblestones makes everything a hundred times harder? Sure, cobbles are pretty, maybe the rough marble ones adds a certain something to the pedestrian walkways, but mostly they create a ton of resistance for little suitcase wheels and make your tourists have to work extra hard and get cranky in the afternoon sun.

Nara was busy on a Sunday afternoon, lots of tourists and locals on a day trip. Anna navigated us to our hotel and we left our bags, but it was a late 3.30pm check in, so we had some time to kill.

We got lunch at the Doutor conveniently across the street and decided to check out the deer park while we had time. Last week in Pokemon Go there was a community day but they’d had server issues, etc. They made up with a replacement community day which hit just as we were looking for something to do.

Thus, we wandered up the deer park and caught a lot of beldums on the way.

The park is full of deer. Considered to be messengers of the gods by the Shinto religion, they’re considered a National treasure and there’s over 1200 wandering freely in the park. Deer Cookies are on sale for 150 yen and the deer are into them. It being Sunday afternoon on a clear sunny day, the deer were largely over it. Many were just sitting or sleeping, and although we managed to feed the deer a packet of cookies each and then just wandered looking at the shrines and things in the park.

It’s a very beautiful place.

We had a delicious soft serve and then wandered back to the hotel via some touristy shops for postcards and souvenirs. We also got dinner from the konbini, lots of drinks, onigiri, edamame and sushi. I know it doesn’t sound like much to get food from the convenience store, but it’s very high quality food and super delicious.

The rest of the day was just resting. We both needed it.

My self care included a meditation, a nap, changing into my softest clothes, drinking lots, a face mask, cuddles and telling myself I didn’t *have* to do anything. That last one is the hardest.

After a while I did perk up some and got a lot of postcards written so they could be sent. I don’t know if any of the postcards I’ve sent have made it to New Zealand yet, but at least they’ll have the Japanese post mark on them. Hopefully some of them will arrive home before we do.

Here’s some fancy portraits of deer by Anna

Day nineteen – Kyoto, Fushimi Inari

We had one mission: get to the top of Mt Inari, via the thousands of Torii gates that make up Fushimi Inari.

To get to Mt Inari, we went on the local subway and then a train line to right by the entrance of the shrine. It was Saturday, so very very busy at the shrine. The main shrine is a short walk from the train station and has a tea house and garden nearby as well as lots of little shrines. Behind the main shrines are the trails heading up the mountain, which are lined with Torii gates.

It’s hard to explain how weird and cool the experience is. The gates are packed densely enough that it’s quite dark in the tunnel as you walk, but you can see between them that there’s bright sunshine, or beautiful forest. Here and there along the path there’s little shrines, stones and guardian statues. Lots of foxes, as they’re messengers of the Gods. Anna took some beautiful portrait mode shots…

It’s not an easy climb. Some of it is slopes, but a lot of it is steps, and they’re not regular, even steps. They’re old steps which have been paved over many times, and some of the paving stones are cracked or otherwise askew, so I found I was watching my feet quite often.

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We took breaks on the way. Saw a young family with a toddler who flatly refused to walk and insisted on being carried. An American tourist asked me to take a photo of her with the gates. We saw some giant bee things, and some round shiny black beetles. And shrine cats. Lots of cats on this mountain.

A lot of people stop walking at the crossroads, so as we made our way to the summit, there were less people around. This allowed for photos like the above where there’s no one else in them. It was still busy though, I think some people walked down the hill right after I took this photo.

Even though it was hot, and we were tired and in various pains, we made it to the top. At the top of the mountain is a shrine and a gift store, so we didn’t stay too long before heading back down on the other side of the walking loop.

Down felt a lot better, although sore in different ways.

After that, we picked up some souvenirs and got back on the subway to get back to the hotel.

One thing which isn’t immediately obvious about Japan (or at least, the big cities with the subway systems) is that there’s another city underground. I don’t just mean a couple of shops, like, entire malls with food courts and banks and things. Kyoto subway station is made up of multiple malls and we got slightly lost in them yesterday.  If you turn the wrong way, you’re in a whole different mall. The signs are generally useful assuming you can find them.

I did find a uniqlo and bought some comfy, comfy clothing though.

Anyway with how tired we were after the many, many steps, we found a Macdonalds and sat down for a comfort meal. Anna tried some local specials: fries with cabonara sauce over them, and a chicken teriyaki burger. I had a double cheeseburger and regular fries, plus nuggets and we both had green melon fanta with them. I needed the salt and also something familiar. It was delicious, and we sat for a good half hour just unwinding.

After we’d eaten and hydrated, Anna found us the way out of the mall and we got the local line back to our hotel.

A quiet night in, doing laundry, using the hotel onsen and complaining about how our feet hurt.

Day Sixteen – Hiroshima, Ōkunoshima

We started the day with the hotel buffet breakfast. I was pretty firmly up on the wrong side of the bed and cranky, which didn’t help when someone barged in on the line for the toaster.

The trip to Ōkunoshima involved four kinds of transport. Streetcar/tram from hotel to train station, shinkansen to Mihara, bus replacement instead of local train to the sleepy seaside town of Tadanoumi and then a 15 minute ferry to the island.

Ōkunoshima or, as it’s commonly known, Rabbit Island, has a dark past. It was a testing ground and factory centre for chemical weapons which were used by Japan in China during World War Two. The island is dotted with remains of factories, laboratories and a poison gas museum. However those were all closed up, which was good because we weren’t planning on exploring that history anyway. We went for the rabbits.

Stories vary on if the rabbits currently on the island are descended from the lab bunnies used for testing chemical weapons or if they are just other rabbits intentionally released on the island. Either way, the island is packed full of cute bunnies.

The place you buy ferry tickets from also sells bags of rabbit food, so we bought a pack each and hopped on the ferry. As soon as you get off the ferry, there’s rabbits.

They know which side their bread is buttered on. If you hang out near the boat where all the tourists get off, you will get fed. They know the sound of a paper bag rustling, they know the meaning of an outstretched human palm. They’re wild, but they’re a tame sort of wild.

The rabbis were very good at showing you what they didn’t want. If they didn’t want a pat, they’d back away. There are walking trails around the island but there’s also a lot of dense bush, so if the rabbits don’t want to be around people they have so much space to fall back to.

It was a hot day, and I learned that on hot days rabbits will dig a shallow hole and lay in it like it’s a dirt hammock. They will also seek out shade wherever it is. They will then sleep.

The bunnies generally wanted food, not pets, but if they lay down like a loaf of bread, like the one in the second to last picture above, they’d let you pat them. Their fur was super soft and the ears even more so. That one settled in for a good five minutes of pats from me and Anna before moving into their hole next to the concrete to cool down. Good bunny.

There were a ton of other people doing the same as us, including people who’d thought ahead and brought fresh greens and carrots. The bunnies loved that, you could see them munching on carrot sticks or bits of cabbage leaf very happily. They did still come over for rabbit pellets as well though. It was such a hot day I think a lot were sleeping or staying in the bush out of the sun. I know I’ve seen images of people swarmed with dozens of bunnies at a time, and I think that would’ve quickly got overwhelming for me. As it was, it was just a really nice bunny trip.

We stopped and had lunch at a picnic table and a bunny pushed past my leg, and it was like my cat rubbing by me. Somewhat startling but cute.

I had fun spotting the proper burrows as well. There’s a hotel on the island and there were some very large burrows near that.

You just can’t quite get used to how many rabbits there are. I kept being surprised by it.

It’s also a really beautiful island. There’s a swimming beach and I think I’d quite enjoy staying at the hotel, but it’s definitely on the hard to get to side of things.

We got the ferry back to Tadanoumi and had to wait about 40 mins for the replacement bus (train line wasn’t running). There’s not much to do in Tadanoumi so it was one of those liminal times were you can’t really do anything but wait. Once we were on the bus it was easier, although again we had to wait a half hour for the next shinkansen back to Hiroshima. It made for a long day.

On the way back to the hotel we went wandering, I vaguely remembered there being bars and restaurants a block away from our hotel so we tried the first place advertising okonomiyaki we found. It was a little bar/restaurant called Ichiro and it was incredibly good. Also, long hot day, lots of travel and not enough hydration means beer goes to my head very fast.

Another early to bed night 🙂