Sunday, June 29, 2014

And another trip to Japan winds up..

I write this from a high speed train heading Tokyo to Narita airport, as I now have some time to reflect on what has been a super trip. I've spent the last 9 days in Japan, primarily for my friend Justin's wedding, but was able to take some extra time and do a bit of touring, and this time decided to get out of Tokyo and the major cities for a bit and see what the Japanese countryside has to offer. 

Following on from my first Ryokan experience in Tokyo I jumped on a train towards Hakone (station Hakone-Yumoto  about 2 hours west of Tokyo), then a bus up to my B&B in Kowaki-en. The B&B was a bit of a rushed booking, and turned out not all that crash hot, but it was in a great location in the mountains and along the route that most people take through Hakone. This route ses you riding the train out from Shinjuku to Hakone Yumoto, then a bus through the mountains to Moto Hakone-ko which is situated on Lake Ashi, from there its a boat trip (on a 
pirate-themed boat) across the lake to Togendai-Ko, then onto a aerial cablecar up to Owakudani and Kamigora, then a cablecar train to Gora, and finally a train from Gora back to Hakone-Yumoto to board the train to Shinjuko. And you do it in 2 days (or one if you leave Tokyo early). Phew.

A pretty interesting trip and great to see some nature in a land where I've only really experienced the big city (apart from snowboarding adventures up in Hokkaido). Lake Ashi is quite spectacular. Mt Fuji is normally visible on a clear day, but unfortunately the clouds had moved in. Owakudani is a rather active part of this volcanic region and has thermal vents ejecting heat and gases all day, with a strong smell of sulphur in the air. A highlight here was the 'black eggs' which are cooked in some of the thermal pools at the top, and the eggs adopt a black colour from water. You can hike up to these pools where there is a better view of the surrounding area, and watch the cooking in process. There is also a cable-egg-transport-system carrying fresh eggs up, and black eggs down to the visitors center. You get 5x eggs for 500Yen, with salt of course. The eggs taste just like normal eggs, perhaps tastier because of the experience.

After all of that I met up with Justin in Tokyo and we headed up to Nikko (about 2 hours north of Tokyo). The Nikko region is home to a large number of Onsen and near Tobu-Nikko is the World Heritage Area which has two shrines and one temple. The Toshogu Shrine is where the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate is enshrined. Nearby is the original three monkeys sculpture (see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil). A short walk away is the Rinnoji temple, founded by priest Shodo in 766AD. A number of the sites here were undergoing significant preservation works, with the Rinnoji temple completely inside a larger structure whilst large swathes of the timber was removed, inspected for damage/infestation, and replaced. A lot of walking was followed by some well received onsen time. Justin returned to Tokyo for further preparations and I stayed an extra night and ran up a local hill, and visited Lake Chuzenji before my return to Tokyo for the big day.

I've never been to a Japanese wedding before, and it was an experience to remember. The bride and groom wore kimono for the formal ceremony after which they did a dress change during the reception, after which the groom wore a suit and the bride a traditional white dress. DUring the ceremony there is also an exchange of letters from the parent of the bride to the bride and likewise for the groom, with advice for their future together. We were also treated to an insight into how they met with a video put together by the bride and groom. One of my friends was the Kampai master, tasked with leading the toast with "Kampai!" after the breaking of the Sake barrel. So many things with specific meaning happened during the ceremony and reception, it was very enlightening and enjoyable. I made it through the 3-4 questions I was asked about the groom by the MC on the microphone, after which I was able to relax. Very impressed with how Justin and Shigeko went, they had clearly put in a huge amount of effort in organising the day and it all went very smoothly.

After the wedding reception we indulged in further chilled beverages into the night. During my last night in Tokyo I saw Paul Gilbert doing a album launch at Empire Records, followed by drinks with the gang at Hooters (of all places).

And my flight will shortly be boarding, so I will leave it there for now. Pictures will follow.

Monday, June 23, 2014

3am running, plane trips, and Bunkyo-ku

And onto Japan, this time with a new attempt on sleeping on the plane. So a friend called out for ppp4spa over at Maroubra sports clubs, a 24 hour running event to raise money for Suicide Prevention Australia. Silly me thought doing 3am-5am would be a good idea. Well it wasn't so bad, but I probably should have taken more than 3 hours sleep that night. Bedding down at 2330 for a 0230 rise didn't feel super awesome. Arriving at almost 3am to see 8 runners on treadmills on a stage, a DJ and MC, plenty of bananas, it was actually quite fun, but bloody warm under the lights. Big shout out to Ben for providing a comfortable sleeping couch and transport to Maroubra sports in the wee hours. And Laura for getting people onto it, great work and good effort keeping the treadmill stacked - hope everyone made it through the 24 hours.

So after almost 2 hours on the tready, quick shower and off to the airport for the 8am flight. Flying JAL this time around, never been with them, but it was pretty good. The route SYD-NRT was on a 777-200. Economy class cabin is showing its age but had good entertainment options on a small screen, and the meals were good (but no Japanese options - hoping for this on the way back out of Tokyo!). After eating, I did manage to sleep for a good 3-4 hours. So if you need any tips for sleeping on the plane, get absolute minimum sleep for a night or two leading in, do a long run right before your flight, and you should be fatigued enough to kip out on the plane. Or just fly business or first, thats probably easier.

Enough about sleep. Following a quick border control check in Narita, and the customs officer suprised/amused at my small amount of luggage for a 10 day trip (refreshing to see after hauling around a snowboard bag on every other trip), I began navigating to Bunkyo-ko to find my Ryokan for the evening. Each other time I've been here, I've stayed in a hostel, but thought it best this time to upgrade, and the Ryokan is the traditional japanese hotel. Think low-rise traditional building, shoes off at the entrance, host escorts you to your room and a quick tour of the place, traditional futon on tatami floor in room, green tea and hot water at the ready, traditional yukata robes and downstairs a separated male and female bathing space where you strip down and seated-shower then relax for a short time in an large onsen-temperature bath.

That is if you can find the place. Luckily my human compass was somewhat calibrated, with some basic mapping saved on my phone from the last wi-fi experience, it was an easy 15 min walk from the station (after a quick 5 min turnaround when I realised I was walking the wrong way), guided by the expanse of Tokyo University campus on my right hand side. After checking in, plugging in all my devices, picking up a meal, I donned my robe and took a quick bath and felt the stresses of the week melt away with the warm heat. 

Japanese Style Room with Futon
Unplugging from 24/7 internets has been good. You start to realise how much of it you rely on during the day to day, when flung into a new unfamiliar downtown area. Where do you eat and sleep? How do you get where you need to go? You start to rely on the hardcopy materials more, maps, handwritten directions. Its refreshing and somewhat liberating, as you try new things without checking a review first, go a new direction without necessarily knowing where it will lead, ask people for directions (rather than google) and are forced to be much more in tune with your surrounding environment. I was wondering earlier what it was like travelling before the internet was born, alas an experience I will never have (other than the well organised trips planned by my parents, which I didn't take any role in organising). My guess is that you would lean on the guidebook more, and the telephone or the hope that the 'no vacancy' sign is not lit up. Or carry a swag.

Ok enough for one night, time to finish the suntory premium malts and hit the 'western style bed' in my Hakone pension for my second night, its no Ryokan, cheap, and I'm missing my futon on tatami already...