Saturday, October 20, 2012

Japan Part 2: The Japan Alps

After 3 exciting days in Tokyo it was time to head into the central mountains of Japan - the Japan Alps - via 2.5 hours in trains including a speedy bullet train to Nagano. Our first destination of three for this area was Matsumoto, a small and charming city with an old castle as a highlight.

Matsumoto castle (featured heavily in the photos link at the end) is Japan's oldest wooden castle having been built in the 16th century. Quite a feat not to have burned down in all that time! It comes complete with moat and is quite beautiful. For a bit of fun there was even a guy dressed in actual samurai armor. Hokey? Nah, pretty cool actually.

You are able to walk around inside the castle including going all the way up to the top level of the tower - very interesting indeed. And as with most historical places in Japan you can't wear your shoes inside while walking around. So you remove your shoes at the door, slip them in a bag to carry around with you, or leave them in a cubby. Sure they provide one-size-fits-all slippers to wear instead - but as you can imagine my feet came nowhere close to fitting in them. Quite comical, really. So if possible I just walked around in socks. :-)

The jovial samurai?
A highlight of our two nights in Matsumoto was using the free bicycles our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) had for use. We rode all over this very bike-friendly town and it was a handy way to get to and from the ryokan since it wasn't right in the town center. We were skeptical about it at first but it turned out to be really fun and an unexpected delight!

While in Japan we wanted to be sure to have a little bit of time out in a remote, beautiful area so we chose Kamikochi, a national park "village", but not really a village, about an hour and half by train and bus. Just a few places to stay and eat. Our "onsen hotel" (with traditional Japanese baths) was right on a river surrounded by mountains and was a lovely place to stay. And it's not often that one can be in a place with both black bears and monkeys, but this is such a place! Very strange. We did see some monkeys - so close in that one walked right by me on a trail - but thankfully no bears.

We had such a nice time walking the trails and enjoying the wonderful, warm weather. There is no shortage of other visitors here - almost all Japanese - so at times it can feel a bit crowded. But it doesn't take much to get on a trail with no one else around. Not surprisingly, that is where we saw the monkeys. And everyone you pass on the trail offered a cheerful "konichiwa!" or "ohayo gozaimas!" (good morning). So friendly.  And since no cars are allowed in this area (you can only get here by bus) it makes it a very enjoyable place to be.

One side effect of seeing a country by train (and the occasional bus) is hauling one's luggage on and off the trains and to/from the train station on foot. Yes they have taxis shut up. Wheeling a suitcase for several blocks in Tokyo? Not too troublesome actually. Finding nooks and crannies on the train cars to stick the suitcases? Sometime tricky. (It sure seemed like we were the only ones with bags bigger than carry ons!) But the most unusual was toting our bags a half a mile through the forest on walking trails to get to our Kamikochi hotel from the bus stop. Can't say as I've done that before...

After our one night in the wilderness we hopped back on a bus for an hour and a half ride to Takayama, another charming little city in the mountains. Our first night we stayed at the most wonderful little ryokan that was impossibly charming and wonderfully traditional. It felt like stepping back in time. And the host was a very funny and delightful older woman who spoke a little bit of English and made sure we really enjoyed the Japanese breakfast and dinner she served us in our little room - complete with tatami mats (socks only!), low table, antiques abounding, and a futon she rolled out on the floor after dinner to sleep on.

Takayama is full of lovely street markets, lovely shrines and temples, and traditional Japanese architecture. It's easily navigated on foot and there is no shortage of places to see and things to do. Very photogenic, and very Japanese. And no shortage of funny little things like this oddly worded hat and the sugary vitamin water bottle with "Let's Vitamin!" on it.  I laugh.

We wanted to stay in that perfect little ryokan for our second night in Takayama but...they were already full. So we found another one that, while also really lovely and traditional, suffered only from following our first one so it just wasn't quite as awesome. But the food was good (as always) and they were so very, very nice. Even gave us a ride to the train station when we were ready to go to Kyoto!

These five days in the mountains, whether actually in the mountains or in the charming cities surrounded by mountains, was a highlight for me. Spectacular, perfect-as-can-be weather helped I'm sure, but I really loved the places we stayed, the beauty of the mountains, and the people we encountered. Lots to do yet easy going and relaxed pace. Just lovely.

The place we went next - the last three days of our trip - was Kyoto. And that will be the topic of my next blog entry. Just as soon as I get those photos done. :-)

In the mean time, click here to see some more photos from Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Takayama.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Japan Part 1: Tokyo

Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo
After returning from our 11 day adventure to Japan I thought it would be best to blog about it in three parts - one for each of the main areas we visited.  Since our first three days were in Tokyo, that seems like a good place to start.

We arrived in Tokyo full of eager anticipation yet also with a bit of trepidation. Although we've been to places where English wasn't the primary language, most of the time the locals did speak English so it was never a hardship. This would be different, though, since only a small number of Japanese speak English and even more so the fact that the writing, unlike say Spanish or French, is completely unintelligible to the likes of us.

So we did our best to learn a number of Japanese words and phrases to help us get by.  And wow was that ever a good thing. Not only do they appreciate the effort of saying "thank you", "hello", "excuse me", "good morning", and even "do you speak English?" in their own language but I really think it helps establish an instant rapport. We found every single Japanese person we encountered to be friendly, kind, and helpful - even if we could barely communicate.  So great!

Tokyo is massive in every sense of the word. Huge in size and huge in population - the biggest city in the world with 35 million people. Wow! So would walking around Tokyo be like the "Girl in the Red Dress" scene from The Matrix? Shoulder to shoulder masses of people everywhere?  Well no.  But sometimes yes. :-)

It's not hard to find areas with the quintessential neon, skyscrapers, packed subways, and masses of people that visions of Tokyo conjure up.  And we immersed ourselves in some of that. Could hardly say you've visited Tokyo without doing that! But it's also quite easy - QUITE easy - to find parks and temples and small quaint streets with just a handful of people around. At no time did the city feel overcrowded to me. Very unexpected! And quite lovely.

Of course another fun aspect of Japan is the part of the pop culture very different from ours (and often quite kooky) and how it manifests itself in everyday things. And of course the often comical translations into English for many things including products and slogans.

So many things are just so happy and jovial like this sign for an electronics store. Or the little sing-song electronic melodies that play when your train is about to depart.

And then there is my favorite name for an ice cream bar ever (and corresponding candy bar) - Crunky. I can hardly stop saying it out loud. So for things that were written in English it was always fun to see how the translation manifested itself or the names they came up with.

The subways and trains in Tokyo are remarkably efficient and always on time (would you expect any less?) and because the signage is always in both Japanese and English it meant getting around the city was a snap. Well OK it really helped having a pocket map, but still - it sure made getting around one less thing to worry about.

One often difficult thing was finding a restaurant listed in a guidebook. Sure, there are 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo (!) so finding one isn't ever going to be hard. With Anne's gluten-free needs, though, there were times we wanted to seek out a particular place because perhaps they had gluten free soba noodles or something and were highly regarded. Since Japanese addresses are very different from ours it's hard enough finding a place - but then factor in that if a building is kind enough to put the address up well it's written in Japanese of course so no help there.

The guidebook would tell you the English name of the restaurant, the description, and a dot on a crude map. So off we go, we manage to find the street and general location, and of course every single sign for every single business is guessed it...Japanese.  Ugh.  So the best we could hope for was someone coming out of where we thought it might be and asking in very rudimentary Japanese if this was so-and-so. And did actually work! Or one time there were so many other restaurants around that we threw up our hands and said, "Let's just choose this one." And then after being seated we saw in tiny print their website URL and lo and behold it was the one were actually looking for! Nice.

Tokyo is known for being expensive - and it certainly can be. Hotels especially. But it's actually not too hard to find very reasonable yet lovely places to eat. Or to find things to do/places to visit that cost very little.  So that was really nice.

The marvellous differences in age and feel in different parts of city was fascinating. Our hotel, for example, was in a very modern area with a very sort of "futuristic" vibe - levels upon levels of walkways, trains, and roads. Then walk for 5 minutes and you feel you are back in time with charming streets, lanterns, and cafes. Pretty cool.

How was it being so exceedingly tall in a land of generally short people? Not too different, really. Ducking wasn't needed all that often. I fit (barely) into the subway cars. I got some looks but you know, there are plenty of taller Japanese people, too. None as tall as me, but then that usually seems to be the case. So it didn't really feel all that odd or different. Or maybe everyone was taking surreptitious photos of the "freaky Caucasian". Hard to tell.

The weather as a whole for our entire trip was AMAZINGLY good. Just wonderful, warm, pleasant sunny summer days with highs around 80F/27C most days. However there were 2 days where we got wet (both were Sundays oddly enough) including one day in Tokyo. It literally rained all day but we made the best of it for as long as we could. We still saw a lot but by 2pm we were soaked through and had enough. That's OK - the next day was idyllic and it was a good excuse to visit a Japanese version of an English pub and have a nap.

Tokyo gave us a great introduction to Japan and I enjoyed it quite a lot - certainly more than I might have thought. And there was much more to come. Next up would be three different locales in and amongst the Japan Alps, about 2.5 hours by train west of Tokyo. Small charming cities and no-cities-around mountain immersion. More on that in part 2.

In the mean time, you can see more photos of Tokyo here.

And here is a short clip highlighting Shibuya - an area that does in fact have LOTS of people, all the time. Plus a little bit of Tokyo Dome and neighboring middle-of-the-city roller coaster. Very Japanese. :-)