Moving right along, we didn’t really plan much for this day, it was the day before Emmy’s birthday and my original plan was to head north to Sanzen-in and Enkoji for the day as the weather was good. But we decided to take it somewhat easy and just head to Kyoto station in the morning before spending the afternoon at Himeji Castle. I planned Himeji Castle to be a whole day trip but under advice from Emmy we decided it was only a half day site. We didn’t visit Himeji on our first trip because it was still being renovated at the time.
We gave ourselves about three hours to spend at the castle (plus one hour each way on the shinkansen) which we hoped would be enough to also visit the garden, but it turned out that we only had time to visit the main keep and the west bailey. The garden was closed by the time we finished wandering the main keep so we just had a stroll through the west bailey instead. It’s a nice castle but having now seen three of the national treasure castles of Japan (Hikone and Matsumoto) I think I can safely say that I’m over visiting castles. I really think Matsumoto is a more pleasant experience and is more photogenic with it’s large moat. The inside of the castle is largely the same and only the views are different, perhaps the castle might have looked nicer from the garden, we’ll probably never know.
We didn’t get a chance to see anything else in Himeji aside from the station and the wide boulevard from the station, it seems like a nice town and even has quite a few shops to keep the ladies interested. Don’t quote me but I’m pretty certain that this was the last castle that we’ll ever visit (as in buy the ticket and go up to the top of the main keep), but it was a nice one to go out on. You never know we might stop by in cherry blossom season or something but all the views would definitely be from the outside. It was also a bit unfortunate that the weather was so clear because some dramatic clouds would definitely have spruced up the pictures.
That’s it, it was a pretty easy day, next up, Emmy’s birthday which I’ll split into a couple posts because we did some cool things that need their own articles, really fun stuff.
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Welcome to the second instalment of this series of blog posts about our trip through central Japan (with a 14-month old baby no less). After making our way from O-Tsumago to Nagiso by bus, we got on a train for Matsumoto, partially as a transit stop, but also to see the castle. This train was really busy and I’m not sure if they had reserved seats or not, but we only got non-reserved seats, and with all our luggage we only managed to scramble a few empty seats right at the back of the train after pulling luggage through several carriages (as we weren’t sure where the non-reserved carriages were).
It was a pretty smooth ride as most train rides in Japan are, and we arrived in Matsumoto a little after 1pm I believe (about two hours or so), we stayed at Hotel Matsumoto Yorozuya which was again a bit of a business hotel (I guess they’re cheaper than normal hotels), it was pretty close to the train station, and pretty close to the castle, halfway in between each I would say. Convenient and efficient, otherwise a pretty forgettable experience (in terms of I can’t remember it or the breakfast at all) but a perfectly fine hotel since I can’t remember anything bad about it.
On to the castle, what a marvel, we weren’t able to see Himeji last time because it was being renovated (we didn’t want to see it in those conditions) and had to settle for Hikone Castle (which is also a national treasure and an impressive castle but not on the same scale), I’ve seen pictures of Matsumoto Castle before and was really looking forward to this, it was the main reason I wanted to come through Matsumoto. I can honestly say that it didn’t disappoint, what a magnificent castle and in such great condition, never having been attacked certainly helped protect its beautiful façade and surrounds. There was even a free English tour guide (the program apparently runs from April to November) which was a very nice addition. Unfortunately with a young baby we did not have the opportunity to visit the castle at night (nor did we get a chance to visit the museum, there’s also a woodblock print museum which I would recommend having bought some prints but not having actually seen the museum, the prints were very nice), so maybe if we ever come back this way (skiing? Probably not) we can see it in all its illuminated glory at night.
Matsumoto is also apparently well-known for having very fresh wasabi and they also eat horse meat sushi (basashi) as a delicacy. Well, when in Rome, we went to a soba restaurant just a couple blocks south east of the castle (they had English menus) and tried the basashi set as with some fresh cold soba. The soba was great, the wasabi was a real fresh thing that you grate onto your food that isn’t anywhere near as tear-inducing as the packaged product, the horse meat sushi was okay, but nothing special (a bit tougher than beef) give me fatty tuna or salmon any day.
Other than that we didn’t spend much time in this place, a pretty small city, I planned to use it as a transit to Takayama as the bus from Matsumoto only takes a couple hours, and the castle was a bonus (which I totally recommend 100%). Next stop, Takayama.
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Originally I was going to post a few separate posts of our trip to Japan but having completely lost the motivation, I’m just going to post one overview with the whole gallery of photos selected for this site (photos for Flickr will continue to go up at the normal rate). Tokyo was crazy, just consumerism gone mad, millions of people going everywhere all the time, endless concrete and steel, girls in short skirts/shorts (though not revealing tops), millions of umbrellas (different coloured), shops with absolutely every thing you could ever need (and a million different colour and style options), no rubbish bins, weird and unusual shops, and an amazing train system. We spent most of our time in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku, though we did make our way to the Tsukiji fish market for lunch one day where we had some amazing sashimi. We also visited Roppongi Hills to go up the Mori Tower, went to Meiji Jingu, but didn’t see too much else in Tokyo. We decided not to try and climb Mount Fuji and instead just stayed nearby at Kawaguchi-Ko before heading to Hakone for a night in an onsen ryokan (which was bloody great) that included a kaiseki dinner. Hey, we also got some clear views of Mount Fuji so that’s something.
So after two days of country-ish life we headed for Kyoto where we would spend the majority of the next six days, this was certainly a very good decision in hindsight. Kyoto is a reasonably small city with an abundance of world heritage listed sites and a great selection of food options, and is also near many other beautiful and significant tourist sites. We loaded up our JR passes and used them every day we were in Kyoto (except one when we travelled around on the bus), visiting a bunch of temples and shrines including Kinkaku-Ji, Ryoan-Ji, Tofuku-Ji, To-Ji, Kiyomizu-Dera, Fushimi Inari, we spent a day in Nara wandering around the sites there and saw the Daibutsu at Todai-Ji as well as a few others. We also went to Osaka for a day trip as well as Kobe, where we sampled Kobe beef teppanyaki style, which was bloody sublime! Osaka wasn’t particularly interesting, like a smaller Tokyo, while Kobe was at least a bit less frantic. After all that, and some shopping, we headed back to Tokyo for one more day before flying back home (via Singapore where we visited the Gardens by the Bay near Marina Bay).
The weather was as you would expect at the end of Summer, start of Autumn, pretty warm and a bit humid, it seemed like every second day it would rain (even though the rainy season had already passed), but it was at least warm. The bullet train was something else, fast and comfortable to sit in, and exhilarating to watch fly past. The food was amazing, I think we had one bad meal during the whole trip which is a pretty amazing hit rate, the portions weren’t as small as everyone (not sure who, but that seems to be the stereotype) says, and you gotta love the plastic food displays outside the restaurant looking exactly like the meal that was served. Favourites? I don’t know, udon of any kind, sashimi (super fresh), Mister Donut custard donuts, tempura, katsu don, white peach sorbet, they don’t seem to eat any vegies we noticed, next time I think I will try some different stuff, non-traditional stuff like Japanese burgers, pizza and/or pasta, just to see what it’s like there, as we ate (except for one meal where we were tricked into Korean Nabe) Japanese food for every meal. I would be remiss not to mention the amazing people, so polite and so neat and so nice, I have to add strange as well, but I’m sure that comes from living on a remote island, and it’s not like they’re really strange, just a bit peculiar, very funny. Any way, I’m sure I’ve missed a million things here, but let’s let the pictures speak for themselves, I wish I had more pictures of food to post here, but I already put them on facebook.
In Tokyo for our first go-round, we stayed at Hotel Villa Fontaine in Shinjuku, we booked it online before going, I think it was a book early special price, and because we booked for four nights we got a discount for that too, it was ok, had breakfast included (a sandwich delivered by the staff), an awesome bathroom, and a nice enough bed, a cosy room. We stayed at K’s House in Kawaguchi-Ko for just one night, and stayed in a private tatami room which was nice, and had free wifi so that was good, nice enough place and it’s a chain throughout Japan so I think you’ll be safe with them throughout Japan. We stayed at Fujimi-en Lodge (the onsen ryokan) near Hakone for one night, the onsen was hot, but had a view of Mount Fuji (when it was clear), every room had a view of Mount Fuji, no breakfast but I would recommend to book with the kaiseki dinner option as the dinner was absolutely super! In Kyoto we stayed at Capsule Ryokan, pretty close to the train station as well as the two (free admission) big temples (Nishi Hongan-Ji and Higashi Hongan-Ji) near the station, pretty reasonable pricing, with free wifi in the lobby and a nice shower :D. Also had a nice free kimono dress up which is nice for the ladies :). We didn’t stay in any ultra-budget places, and I’m not sure there is anything that is really cheap in Japan, but all the places we stayed were very clean, neat and tidy.
We used the train system in Tokyo solely (as well as walking), and fount it pretty easy to work out after our initial apprehension, although not super cheap to be buying tickets all the time, perhaps the SUICA card might have proved better value. We got a bus from Tokyo to Kawaguchi-Ko, and then a bus from there to Hakone, from Hakone, we got a bus to Gotenba, and then one more bus to Odawara station, before we pulled out our JR passes to use the train for the next week. With a JR pass travel is reasonable between big cities (and fast), and also on the JR services within the cities it is very useful. Transport is super safe and clean in Japan so you never have to worry about any of that, just making sure you get on and off at the right stops/stations and on the right buses/trains of course.And that’s it for my lame Japanese overview, now for the pictures, also remember to keep an eye on my flickr stream as I’ll be uploading (around 70-80 I’m guessing) pictures there over the next few months.
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