Hiroshima Memorial, Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima Castle

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Hiroshima Memorial, Genbaku Dome and Hiroshima Castle were my agenda for the day, my last full day in Japan before flying out to Sydney the next day.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki have lingered in my brain since learning about WWII in high school.  Learning about WWII as a teenager was a task taken on purely to pass exams, with little to know understanding of real significance. The impact and outcome of WWII reverberates strongly today…in some instances the resolution seems a lifetime away.  My interest in history started when I was very young and grew slowly over the years.  So many years living in Europe just added to this passion…being surrounded by history helps!  Hiroshima Castle was an afterthought, whilst in the area I may as well go see it too.

Going to Hiroshima was my chance to experience one of the most decisive and destructive moments in recent history.  The atomic bombs paved the way for tension and peace ever since they were dropped.  I won’t sit on the fence on this one, I would prefer a world with no nuclear nor atomic bombs!  My visit to Hiroshima was a self-serving one. Call it my pursuit of attempting to comprehend the gravity of an atomic bomb.  Throughout my travels I’ve been luck to visit quite a few WWII sites, including battle grounds, a concentration camp, fortifications etc.  This visit however felt to carry more gravitas than that others…maybe the current political climate gave it more weight.

Genbaku Dome

Genbaku Dome – Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Getting to Hiroshima

Without doubt I got my money’s worth with my JR Pass – taking the Shinkansen to Hiroshima via Osaka took me one hour forty minutes.  I’m still peeved I can’t find my photo of the platypus looking Shinkansen.  It was one of the warmer days I had had in Japan, and I remember walking the 3 odd kilometres from the station to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  I don’t know what I was expecting, certainly not such a built-up and thriving city!

My First Thoughts

I’ve thought long and hard about my visit to Hiroshima, and I’m still not comfortable in expressing just how I feel about my time there.  Wondering around the town my mind was a flurry of thought and contemplation.  My dichotomy of feelings stems on the one side frustration/disappointment and the other admiration.  Why would I be frustrated or disappoint about visiting the site where an atomic bomb was dropped?  Such a catastrophic event could be used as the perfect reminder to past, present and future generations of the consequences of these bombs.  Instead, true to Japanese resolve (my admiration), they have built Hiroshima up from the ashes only to leave a sliver of its past.  Now, you can walk through the city and wouldn’t even know it was the scene of a most horrific destructive force.  That is why I say my visit instilled frustration and admiration.

Genbaku Dome

Genbaku Dome hiding behind the trees – Hiroshima Memorial

Hiroshima Peace Memorial / Genbaku Dome / Atomic Bomb Dome / A-Bomb Dome

Before the bomb, the building was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall.  These days the building is most commonly referred to as the Genbaku Dome or Atomic Bomb Dome.  Now, it’s the main memorial and the only visible remains of that fateful day.  In its current setting it could easily be mistaken for an old burnt-down building, nothing more, nothing less.  However, this structure in any other place would be converted into industrial loft apartments or bulldozed to build a glass façade tower block.  Instead, it is left as a small poignant reminder of the devastating effects of man’s potential for annihilation.

On the morning of 6th August 1945 at 8:15am, a B-29 Bomber named Enola Gay dropped the first ever atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  The bomb, ironically called “Little Boy”, had the equivalent power of 15 000 tons of TNT.  Missing its intended target, Aioi Bridge by 240m, it detonated near Shima Hospital 580m above the surface about 150m from the Genbaku Dome.  Because of its proximity to detonation the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall took most of the force vertically not horizontally, this save it.  Forty-three seconds after the bomb was dropped it detonated.  In the blink of an eye more than 70 000 people were instantly killed.  Between 90 000 – 146 000 more people would succumb to injuries over the coming 4 months.

Genbaku Dome

Genbaku Dome – Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Genbaku Dome

Genbaku Dome, now surrounded by lush green greens that hide its bleak past – Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

The city is on the coast encompassing a web of estuaries leading to the Ota River.  These tendrils form a few large islands at the heart of the city.  One such island forms the large Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, opposite the Denbaku Dome.  An area of monuments, information and displays; which the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Memorial Cenotaph (some people call it the Peace Flame) forms part.  A sombre veil fell over me enveloping me deeper and deeper as I strolled through the park reading every display.

What got to me the most was the local newspaper clippings of the time; covering stories about individuals, families and the community.  In war people die, but seldom, possibly never, a whole community of such size is wiped from the face of the earth instantaneously.  Obviously I know about the bomb, but my knowledge of the aftermath especially the radiation, was limited.  Horrific is an understatement.  Accounts written at the time unlike any textbooks I had read. These stories and opinions cast a different perspective on the “victorious events” of the bombings which lead to Japan’s surrender.

Genbaku Dome

Memorial Cenotaph, Pond of Peace, Peace Flame and Genbaku Dome in the background – Hiroshima Memorial Park

Hiroshima

Flame of Peace, Memorial Cenotaph with the Hiroshima Peace Museum in the background – Hiroshima Memorial Park

I’m no advocate for Japanese imperialism during and prior to WWII.  History is written by the victors (I don’t know who’s quote that is), rightly or wrongly.  Yet there are always two sides to any story.  From being instilled with one perspective of the story most of my life, here I had the opportunity to learn the other side.  I’m confident in saying that Japan’s outlook on the world is drastically different now compared to its conquering ambitions of the past.  Reading their perspective at the time and shortly afterwards put the need to use the atom bomb into question.  In short, Japan was capitulating.  Russia was about to join the Allied Forces in fighting Japan, and the Western allies didn’t want communist influence over more of Asian.  The solution to put a prompt end to the war and not involve Russia was to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, then Nagasaki. My blog isn’t a political one, so I’ll leave things at that.

Going back to my earlier statement, my visit left me frustrated and filled with admiration.  It takes a special kind of human endeavour to recover so successfully after such a cataclysmic event.  Maybe it’s in times of total adversity that jolts the human condition to truly reflect and change course.  So, taking a step back.  Looking at what Japan and the residence of Hiroshima have overcome is inspirational, I have the utmost admiration for them.  There is always a “but”!.  But, the reminder of the consequences of such bombs has been diminished by the fortitude of the Japanese people.  That is the source of my frustration.  I wouldn’t expect Japan and the rest of the world to wallow on its mistakes indefinitely.  Sometimes we forget to learn from our past mistakes.

Hiroshima

Peace Bell – Hiroshima Memorial Park

Hiroshima Memorial

Memorial Cenotaph, Pond of Peace, Peace Flame and Genbaku Dome in the background – Hiroshima Memorial Park

I spent hours walking around, my head filling with thoughts and contemplating current times.  Now the memorial area is a pretty place, unfathomable to look at the pictures just after the bomb.  I didn’t even take many photos; not that I forgot to, I just didn’t feel like taking many.  Truthfully, my visit to Hiroshima was moving, and gave me food for thought about my own life and my actions.  Along with Hiroshima, my visit to Dachau Concentration Camp (much later in my travels, which I’m yet to write about) have been the most sombre.  These days a visit to either you walk in the footsteps of the dead.  Only difference today, is that these areas are surrounded by gardens with only our imagination to envisage the horror that’s been grown over or cemented away.

Hiroshima

Flame of Peace – Hiroshima Memorial Park

Hiroshima Memorial

Peace Memorial Statue – Hiroshima Memorial Park

Hiroshima Castle

In need of something light-hearted I made my way the short distance to Hiroshima Castle, it too was destroyed by the A-bomb.  Hiroshima Castle was actually secondary to why I headed in its direction.  Primarily I was looking for the three trees that survived the blast.  Coincidentally these trees are in the grounds of the Hiroshima Castle complex.  More about the trees later.  Hiroshima Castle was rebuilt in 1958, now it houses a museum on the city’s history prior to WWII.  It took ten years to build, starting in 1589 in what was then called Gokamura, meaning “five villages”.  Mōri Terumoto built the castle, he was one of the Council of Five Elders, which was headed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  See my previous post on Himeji Castle for more on Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Hiroshima Caslte

Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle main keep

At the entrance of the castle complex a performance was going on.  Nope, I have no idea what it was about, nor what they were singing, but the act was interesting.  The trio may have been a boy band’esc of sorts, or at least a want to be boy band.  Scroll down to the bottom of this post for the video.  Thought I’d include it in the post, considering it’s not as morbid as what I’ve written above.

Currently under some renovation (at least when I was there), and far from its former glory and size, the castle was interesting to visit.  Given that I’d visited Himeji Castle the day before, Hiroshima Castle had a hard act to follow!  Nonetheless the displays were interesting, especially their collection of ancient Samurai swords.  These were the first real Samurai swords I had seen in Japan!  They are works of art, sadly no photos are allowed GRRRR!!!

Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle moat and restored ninomaru

Hiroshima Castle

View from the top of the main keep of Hiroshima Castle with the moat that surrounds the complex

Survivor Trees of Hiroshima

Called hibakujumoku in Japanese, the word stems from two words.  Firstly, “hibaku” which means “bombed, A-bombed, nuked”, and “jumoku” meaning “trees/woods”.  Nature has a way of overcoming anything humans can throw at it, these trees are a testament to that!  This area is 740m from the hypocentre, it was obliterated by the A-bomb, leaving nothing of the castle.  Considering three kilometres from the hypocentre heated up to 6 000 degrees Celsius, how anything survived is a marvel.  Finding the trees was like playing hide and seek; there are no signs leading you to them.  By that I mean I had to wonder around looking for them, there was no signage except for at the trees.  Looking around for thirty minutes I only found two, and it’s not a large area.   Such a pity the trees are not demarcated, why they aren’t baffles me.  These true survivors deserve more attention and recognition.

Hiroshima

Giant Pussy Willow; a survivor tree or hibakujumoku – Hiroshima Castle grounds

Hiroshima

Giant Pussy Willow; a survivor tree or hibakujumoku – Hiroshima Castle grounds

Of the two I found, they stuck out like a sore thumb.  Warped and distorted, they look dishevelled and easy to spot when walking by.  As beaten and battered as they look, they are still standing.  Why we still question, and test mother nature dumbfounds me!  One of the trees I found is a Giant Pussy Willow, the other a Eucalyptus.  Both have supports and harnesses, which I was glad to see they have not been forgotten or neglected.  Once I had seen the trees, sorry to say I gave up looking for the third, I had a smile on my face.  It was a nice way to end the day with hope.

Hiroshima

Eucalyptus Tree; a survivor tree or hibakujumoku – Hiroshima Castle grounds

Hiroshima

Eucalyptus Tree; a survivor tree or hibakujumoku – Hiroshima Castle grounds

My time was up in Japan

Heading back to the station and back to Kyoto, I was very glad I had come to Japan.  Two weeks seemed to fly past, even with the bumpy start I loved my time there.  Only seeing a smidgen of what this beautiful and diverse country has to offer, I enjoyed everything.  Next chapter off my journey would start tomorrow, heading off to Sydney.  Getting to Sydney was eventful, but that story will have to wait for my next post.  If I ever got the opportunity to go to Japan again, I’d do so at the drop of a hat.  It reminded me somewhat of Switzerland, super organised, extremely friendly people surrounded by stunning scenery.  If you include the history side of things, Japan has everything you could possibly have on your wish list!  Good bye Japan and thank you for the beautiful memories.

 

Genbaku Dome

Picture taken from and courtesy of one of the displays at Genbaku Dome. Picture taken two months after the bomb went off – Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Genbaku Dome

Hiroshima

Just an interesting fountain I passed from Hiroshima Memorial Park to Hiroshima Castle, aptly called Fish Fountain – Hiroshima

Hiroshima Castle

I couldn’t find out what this was called or representative of, just a pretty statue, pond and flowers right by Hiroshima Castle

Himeji Castle – majestic stunning castle

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Like so many of the places I found in Japan, Himeji Castle was found by chance.  Frankly, I could have stayed in and around Kyoto for weeks as I’d had only scratched the surface of what to see and do.  Feeling guilty I’d only seen two locations in Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto), I decided to look around for day trips.  Nevertheless, I have no regrets staying in Kyoto for as long as I did, if only it could have been longer.  My guilt drove me reluctantly to explore further afield.  With my original plan (before arriving Japan), long blown out of the water, nevertheless things turned out perfectly.  The only part still in tact was going to Hiroshima, I’d be doing that tomorrow.

My previous post was my last on Kyoto (Gion, Geisha anecdotes), this post will be followed by my last on Japan, Hiroshima.  Following Japan I headed to Sydney, New Zealand then Peru (Bolivia, Bogota etc. etc.), the latter another on my wish list since I was a child (of course Machu Pichu!).  I’m dreading to write about my time in Peru, with so many places and highlights not forgetting a few hiccups thrown into the mix too!  First things first, Himeji Castle, a fairy-tale looking castle fit for any Japanese fantasy movie or dream!  Suffice to say I saw a picture of Himeji Castle, it looked too perfect to be a real castle hence my decision to go take a look.  Something you would expect to see on a postcard or cover of a book advertising a Japanese version of Disney World.

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Getting to Himeji Castle

There are a few options you can use to get to Himeji; I used my JR Pass, jumped onto the Shinkasen taking just over 40 minutes (limited frequency service to Himeji).  Other options are to take the normal trains, the express train (limited service), bus or buy a ticket for one of the other Shinkansen’s (not part of the JR Pass).  Alternative routes are longer (bus, normal train) taking up to 90 minutes, so even these are good options; JR Pass access.

Arriving at Himeji

Himeji Castle is possibly one of the easiest places to find.  Arriving at Himeji, you exit the train station which leads onto the main road running through the town.  Look to the right and castle bares down at the city from its vantage point on top of Himeyama hill (which is 45m high).  All that waffle is my way of saying, the castle towers over everything, watching the town like a guardian samurai warrior.  No doubt the main road was built (my guess), to showcase the towns star attraction…make no mistake, it is well worth showing off!  It was one of Japans first UNESCO World Heritage Sites, registered on 11th December 1993.

Even from the distance of the train station, first impressions, WOW!  Looking like an elaborate five-tiered samurai helmet, each tier finished off with crested tops and flared bottoms.  The whole structure perched on top of a gargantuan plinth with flat sides of stone walls.  From ground level to the roof is 92m!  There have been many comparisons to the castle resembling a bird taking flight, I can see why.  With its spectacular positioning, colour and movement created by architecture this is a masterpiece of art and not just a building.  No wonder the castle is often referred to as Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō (“White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”).

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle viewed from near the main train station

Himeji Castle

By the main entrance to Himeji Castle complex, part of the remaining exterior moat

Far from being a pretty princess, Himeji Castle may look like a paper tiger or the lavish spending project of some power-hungry King or Prince.  Himeji Castle isn’t the Versailles of Japan either.  Oh no, Himeji may look like a delicate flower, it is in fact a purposeful stronghold and has been tested through time…many times over.  It’s a sprawling complex, with a circumference of 4.2 kilometres.

Some facts and figures about Himeji Castle

Returning to the nature of the castle, it was built as a stronghold and residence of powerful clan members – I’ll get into that shortly.  Little has changed from the original design, the main changes are the moats.  With the outer moat now covered, the middle moat partially exists, only the inner one is still intact.  These moats served two purposes; first, as a defensive mechanism (they range from about 20m-34m wide and 2.7m deep).  Second, as a fire pool; considering how many ancient Japanese buildings have burnt down (many several times!) this is a prudent addition.  To give you an idea of size, the inner moat covers an area of 2,500 meters square.

A windy maize takes you from Hishi Gate (main entrance) to the main keep, taking you through gate, upon gate, upon gate, 21 to be precise – there used to be 84!  This maze increases the direct distance from the gate to keep from 130m to 325m.  The pathway irregularly changes elevation, direction and width, which would funnel and control the pace of any invading force.

Himeji Castle

The “Three Country Moat” (sangoku-bori) in the centre of the complex – used for water storage and fire prevention –

Viewed from the outside you’d be forgiven for thinking the keep has five floors (that’s what I thought) – in fact it has six and a basement.  Floor two and three (from the top) are made to look like one when looking from the outside.  The keep, it goes without saying, is the centre piece of this magnificent structure.  It’s a huge complex with 83 buildings, 74 of which are designated as Important Cultural Assets, including 11 corridors, 16 turrets, 15 gates, and 32 earthen walls

Honda Tadamasa made some major additions to the complex, mostly purpose built for his daughter-in-law, Princess Sen.  These additions included 240m of corridors as part of the Princess living quarters.  These living quarters offer some of the best views of the main keep, yet still offer privacy and the best of luxury of that era.

Himeji Castle

Part of the 240m of corridors. Simplistic but beautiful woodwork – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Thick chunky internal doors, part of the corridor system of the Eastern side of the complex – Himeji Castle

Senhime

Part of the castle complex built for Princess Senhime – Senhime

The Main Keep / Daitenshu

Constructed around two pillars which stretch from the ground floor to the roof.  Two joined Japanese cypress trees make up the Easter pillar, which used be be a single fir tree – changed during restoration (1956-1964).  The West pillar is the original, a single Japanese cypress.  Both are great chunks of wood forming the main substructure of the keep, just like the elevator shafts of modern buildings.

The main keep is 46.4m high and surrounded by three smaller keeps called, kotenshu.  The basement houses some of the functional rooms such as toilets and the kitchen.  Each floor of the keep has a set purpose, all with defensive mechanisms – at its peak, the keep had 280 guns.  Floor 1, often referred to as “thousand-mat room” because of its 330 tatamimats and has walls lined with weapon racks.  The first floor is 554 meters square, the second 550, third is 440 with the fourth floor of 240.  Floor 3 and 4 also have “stone-throwing platforms (ishiuchidana); raised platforms by the windows allowing defenders to attack wanted intruders from above.  The keep includes special hiding places called (mushakakushi); used to hide and attack intruders by surprise.

Himeji Castle

The original East pillar, a single fir tree, a huge chunk of wood! Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

The central staircase in the main keep, with the replacement Eastern pillar – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Inside the main keep; very functional with massive timbers and quite bright too – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

…another view of the beautiful Himeji Castle

Timeline of Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is a survivor.  From wars, fires, bombs, economic downturns, demolition, rebuilding and additions.  It now stands with all the history and pride it deserves.  The first known construction was a fort built in 1333 at the behest of Akamatsu Norimura.  Himeyama as the town was then known, was chosen due to its strategic position against a backdrop of conflict within the region between feuding clans.

Here is the shortened timeline of Himeji Castle (I haven’t even included everything!):

  1. In 1333 a fort was constructed on Himeyama hill by the ruler of the ancient Harima Province, Akamatsu Norimura. This was the first of many construction projects on the hill spanning over six centuries
  2. His son Sadanori demolished this fort and built Himeyama Castle in its place in 1346
  3. The Kuroda clan was ordered by Kodera clan to be stationed here in 1545. Feudal ruler Kuroda Shigetaka remodelled the castle into Himeji Castle,
  4. Work on the construction of Himeji Castle was completed in 1561
  5. In 1580, Kuroda Yoshitaka presented the castle to Toyotomi Hideyoshi
  6. Hideyoshi significantly remodelled the castle in 1581; building a three-story keepwith an area of about 55 m2
  7. After the Battle of Sekigaharain 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu granted Himeji Castle to his son-in-law, Ikeda Terumasa, as a reward for his help in battle
  8. Ikeda demolished the three-story keep that had been created by Hideyoshi.  He completely rebuilt and expanded the castle from 1601 to 1609; adding three moats and transforming it into the castle complex as we know it today
  9. Ikeda died in 1613, passing the castle to his son, who also died three years later
  10. Himeji Castle was inherited by Honda Tadamasaand his family in 1617.
  11. Honda added to the castle, most notably a special tower for his daughter-in-law Princess Sen (more about Princess Sen later)
  12. The Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) saw many Japanese castles destroyed.  Himeji Castle was left to deteriorate and was abandoned in 1871.
  13. The new occupant was the army; they destroyed some of the corridors and castle gates to make way for army barracks.
  14. Himeji Castle was put up for auction after the han feudal system was abolishedin 1871.  A resident of Himeji bought it ¥23!  In today’s money that’s about US$2 260.00!!!
  15. The new owner was going to demolish the castle to plant fields, however, he couldn’t afford the demolition costs
  16. After the feudal system the Government demolished many castles throughout Japan, Himeji was on that list.  Thankfully it was saved from destruction due to the efforts of an army colonel, Nakamura Shigeto
  17. During World War II, the city of Himeji was destroyed twice, yet the castle was left unscathed.  A firebomb hit the castle in 1945, it failed to explode, leaving the castle as the only standing building in Himeji town!

…yes I know, that’s a very long short timeline!

This grand castle has seen change and destruction across its lifetime that one could only imagine.  Including the devastating earthquake (Great Hanshin earthquake) that hit Himeji in 1995, destroying large parts of the city, the castle was unscathed.  Through hundreds of years of Japanese architectural evolution their ancient building methods have adapted, making their buildings earthquake proof.  Most of their ancient buildings have no nails, using their master carpentry skills and the natural properties of wood to move and flex.

Needless to say, I’ve become a huge fan of Japanese craftmanship in almost every category I have seen.  I’m guessing during the castle’s prime the interior would have been decorated and filled with only the best that money and power could bye.  Now, only the beauty of the structure is on display.  It needs no frills and decorations for the splendour of this magnificent structure to be admired.  I spent a few hours ambling along through its corridors and halls, trying my best to take in and observe every detail – failing dismally ?!  This is one of those places you could visit a thousand times and see something new every time.  I can only imagine how the setting changes through the seasons!  Obviously, the gardens within the grounds are beautiful, but the castle steals the show.

Himeji Castle

The main keep perched on the hill top – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

On route through the maize that leads to the main keep – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

The beautiful and elegant flared roof corners – Himeji Castle

The Princess Story

Princess Senhime or Lady Sen has become a bit of a legend.  As with legend stories it is not always know what is true, fiction or and embellishment of the truth – I’d call it a tragic love story.  Her first marriage was to Toyotomi Hideyori, the successor to the Toyotomi clan.  Together they had a son and lived in Osaka Castle until it was besieged by Lady Sen’s grandfather.  With the fall of Osaka Castle it was custom for the “looser” to commit seppuku/harakiri along with his mother and seven year old child Toyotomi Kunimatsu.  Princess Senhime was able to escape along with her stepdaughter.

Folklore says Lady Sen was saved from Osaka Castle by  Sakazaki Naomori, who was of a social lower rank.  When he heard that Lady Sen would be remarried to Honda Tadatoki, he planned to capture her and marry her instead.  Sakazaki’s plan was foiled and he was forced to perform seppuku.  It seems her marriage to Honda was cordial, they had a son and daughter.  Unfortunately her son died at the tender age of three, Honda died five years later.  As per custom of the time, Princess Senhime cut her hair short, changed her name to Tenjuin, living out the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun.

Himeji Castle

The elegant roof top tips; a flared iron fish type creature – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

View from the keep overlooking part of the castle complex and Himeji town – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Near the base of the keep, I think the construction of the building especially the roof is beautiful – Himeji Castle

If you are ever in the neighbourhood, I can highly recommend visiting Himeji Castle.  In fact, even if you are not in the neighbourhood, I’d suggest a long detour to visit it!  Next post will be on Hiroshima, a poignant visit and relevant in today’s times of conflict throughout the world.  At least this post on Himeji Castle has lots of photos, I hope you like them.

 

…..Just a few more photos! 🙂

Himeji Castle

The majestic Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

View of Himeji Town from the castle, the outer wall of the castle complex visible – Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

A model depicting the wooden skeletal structure of Himeji Castle

 

 

Kyoto, Gion, Geisha anecdotes

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I’m including Kyoto, Gion, Geisha and other “forgotten” bits and pieces in this blog post.  It is going to be a jumble of all the ad hoc things I haven’t included in my previous posts; the.  I could have incorporated some/all of these the topics into my previous posts, but that would have made them even longer!  In between all of this, I had to move hotels again.  Luckily, Kyoto Inn Gion has a sister hotel only a few hundred meters way, aptly named Kyoto Inn Gion the Second.  I underestimated how popular Kyoto is, with Kyoto Inn Gion fully booked hence the forced moved.  My new location was even better than the first (second in Kyoto), and there was nothing wrong with the first.  I combined my last two full days in Kyoto into one post, Kyoto – Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi Inari Taisha, take a look if you like.

I must give a shout out to the hotel staff at both Kyoto Inn Goins.  Moving can be a chore, as I was moving to their sister hotel, I didn’t need to do any paperwork at all.  Seems trivial, but it’s the little things that count.  Adding to their efficiency they were always super friendly, and helpful especially when I asked for help or clarification with my enunciation.  To top it off the sister hotel’s room was much bigger, the biggest I had had in Japan.  A big room is never high on my list of priorities still, a little more space is always welcomed.

Kyoto

My morning coffee in an artisan cup and saucer – Kyoto Inn Gion the Second.

Kyoto

My room at Kyoto Inn Gion the Second – the biggest room I had in Japan, great service too – Gion, Kyoto

My favourite parts of the city

Kyoto is a cool city with something, or maybe that’s just me…I doubt it though.  The outer areas are packed full of shrines and temples, especially at the bases of the mountains, no matter which direction.   Thinking about it, no matter where you are in Kyoto you are never far from a temple, shrine or historical site.  I cannot tell you how many places I walked past that in the very least I would have loved to poke my head into.  In the city centre Gion, Shinkyogoku-dori Street and Pontocho-dori were by far my favourite areas.

Gion – Crossing the Kamo River you could be mistaken for thinking you’re in a different city. Filled with traditional shops, the heart of Gion still glimmers with the distant past.  Gion offers up its best when you get of the main roads and into the narrow backstreets.  If you took away the paved roads, Gion is like taking a step back in time.  Wooden houses with bamboo fronts, I’m so glad I moved hotels, and lucky to have stayed in Gion for most of my time in Kyoto.

Shinkyogoku-dori – Not that shopping is my thing, but it’s a nice alternative to walking through the many malls in Kyoto. I’d say it’s a mix of market stalls with a few high street shops too, worth a visit or just a walk through.

Pontocho-dori – Running parallel to Kamo River on the West side only a block from the river, this is the second-best place to spot Geisha/Geiko/Maiko. It’s a narrow road, more like an alleyway, packed with quaintness and authenticity.  From curio shops to high-end traditional restaurants, it’s a great place to amble about at night.

Gion

The main road that runs through the heart of historical Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto

Pontocho-dori, the second-best place to spot Geisha/Geiko/Maiko (Yes I have used this picture before) – Kyoto

Geisha, actually Geiko

First things first, the differences between Geisha, Geiko and Maiko:

Geisha and Geiko:

  • They are the same thing. A Geiko is a Geisha from Kyoto, and a Geisha comes from Tokyo
  • Their hair is elaborately made up, with little and very understated accessories
  • Kimonos have less patterns, if there are patterns, they will be on the bottom half of the kimono
  • Their leggings are often pink or a light colour with no patterns
  • They were flatter sandals
  • The above are the easiest to remember and spot quickly. There are quite a few other visual differences, but I won’t get into all of them

Maiko:

  • They are apprentice Geiko/Geisha
  • Their hair isn’t as elaborately made up compared to a Geisha/Geiko, however they do have more (and larger) decorative and colourful hair accessories. Many of them have what looks like a small wind chime on their right-side of their head
  • Kimonos have more colours and patterns throughout (top to bottom)
  • Their leggings are red and often have a white floral pattern
  • Junior Maiko’s top lip does not have lipstick and is instead white
  • Their sandals are thicker like platforms

Most of the time people, including myself, mistake Maikos for Geisha/Geiko.  There I was snapping away at Maikos thinking they were Geikos.  Whether it is true or not I don’t know, but Geishas are not often seen walking to work so naturally they are spotted less.  During my search to capture them I only saw seven of them.  One two occasions, a Geisha (not Maiko) was getting into a taxi.  She was too far away, with it happening so suddenly I didn’t get the chance to take a picture.  Another two occasions I say Maikos at a distance, then disappearing into buildings, again I was too slow.

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Finally saw a Maiko coming from a distance, but couldn’t get my camera settings sorted before she whizzed past! – Gion, Kyoto

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…like I said, this Maiko whizzed past! – Gion, Kyoto

Two things I observed when out looking for Geishas.  Firstly, they walk silently.  You would think with all that clothing and those shoes they would make a noise, not at all, they are as stealthy!  Secondly, they walk bloody fast!  Living in London I learnt to walk fast, but the Maikos and Geikos walk very fast.  Considering how restrictive their clothing looks, and none that I saw were particularly tall, wow they move like the wind!  Even as they speed through the street you cannot escape how elegantly they do so.

There is a decorum to taking Geisha’s/Maiko’s pictures.  Yes, you can do so when they are out in public.  Don’t block their path in order to get a frontal picture.  Never try to stop them to ask for a picture nor talk to them i.e. try to distract them.  It may be a novelty to tourists, nonetheless they are on their way to work so stopping them would be rude and inconsiderate.  In the end I managed to capture two Maikos (ok pictures) and one Geiko one the move.  I call the latter an action shot a.k.a. not a very good photo that is out of focus ?

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Me acting like the paparazzi, snapping a passing Maiko – Gion, Kyoto

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My “action hot” of a Geiko/Geisha. The only Geiko/Geisha I was able to capture – Gion, Kyoto

Gion Corner Yasaka Hall

It’s the Kyoto Traditional Musical Foundation with the show broken into seven segments.  Each different, with a separate unrelated topic.  Cost is ¥3150 per adult, but they do have group discounts.  I tried getting in twice, on the first occasion the queue was so long I decided not to go.  A tip from the hotel staff was to get there at least 1 hour before the show starts; they have a limited number of seats meaning it’s first come first served.  The whole show only takes 50-60 minutes, something I would recommend going to see if it fits your budget.

Chado / Tea Ceremony – Watching any skilful craftsperson is interesting, and that’s exactly what the tea ceremony is all about.  Tea tasting was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhist priests during the Heian Period (12th Century).  A sombre ceremony yet intriguing, and embodiment of Japanese culture; striving for perfection, purpose and beauty even in the most mundane tasks of life.

Koto / Japanese Harp – A unique sound that reverberates the soundtrack of ancient Japan and China.  An eerie soulful resonance that penetrates the heart and mind.  It echoes and yearns for the past and found the sound to be solitudinous.

Kado / Flower Arrangement – Interesting, with the use of different and beautiful flowers.  However, this was my least favourite part of the show

Gagaku / Court Music – More of a theatrical performance with traditional music, Gagaku means “elegant music”, but includes dancing and singing.  Originating in China circa. 7th century it made its way to Japan in the 8th Century, slowly fading out of popularity in China.  Today it can be classified as authentically Japanese.

Kyogen / Ancient Comic Play – It’s amazing how comedy transcends language and culture.  Kyogen is akin to slapstick, so not knowing the language really makes no difference at all.  Alcohol often works well in these situations, and here sake plays a key role.  These sorts of plays have been popular since the 16th century

Kyomai / Kyoto Style Dance – Performed by a junior Maiko and Maiko, I enjoyed this part of the show the most.  Maybe not for the reason would think…finally get close to a Maiko without them zooming past me with their quick little steps ?.  They perform a traditional dance using slow, graceful and elegant movements done with precision and purpose.  The performance was moving and emotional, to me it had a tinge of melancholy.  I’d like to see more Japanese traditional dances, very interesting.  I’ll leave it at that.

Bunraku (Puppet Play) – Watching it made me reminisce of the puppet shows I saw in Vietnam (Hanoi and Hoi An), without the water.  I suppose it is the equivalent of watching a short Shakespeare play.  With an underlying story parallel to true accounts hundreds of years ago.  Like Romeo and Juliet, two star crossed lovers have a wedge forced between them by a protagonist.  In the end they are reunited to kindle a love which is shunned by society.

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An art instillation by Yayoi Kusama outside Yasaka Hall Gion Corner (by the theatre) – Gion, Kyoto

Restaurants and food displays

If you like steak then Japan is the place for you, especially Kobe and Kyoto.  It’s not just the top-end restaurants that get booked up, they all do!  There is a restaurant to match everyone’s purse strings, I opted for the middle ground.  With a plethora of restaurants to choose from, I sought the advice from the hotel staff at reception.  Always happy to help, they suggested a restaurant called 1596, called and book a table for me.  I’m pretty sure 1596 is not the Japanese name for the restaurant.  For some or other reason I struggled to find the address when writing this, however this link will take you to it (address for 1596).  It goes without saying, the menu for steak is quite extensive and the results was a meaty meal I had been craving!  Easily in the top 10 best steaks I have ever had, the glass of red wine (two) went down just as well too.

At first, I thought the waiters were not very good.  I kept looking up to grab their attention, except they seemed to be ignoring me.  Only after watching the people next to me did I have my eureka moment, silly me!  Waiters here leave customers alone; my guess is they see it as intrusive.  If you want help/service, you call them.  I doubt whistling or clicking your fingers would be accepted, but a respectful call out is all they need.  Once I adapted the service couldn’t have been any better – though at first, I was a little embarrassed.  Personally, I much prefer the Japanese style.  You get to eat in peace, without someone constantly coming over to ask you how the meal is…invariably when your mouth is full of food.

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1596 steak restaurant in Gion – Kyoto

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Part of the steak menu at the restaurant 1596 in Gion – Kyoto

Again, another recommendation of my hotel, a soup and noodle restaurant called Musoshin; around the corner from Kenninji Temple.  Considerably cheaper than the steak restaurant, yet just as tasty and a different experience too.  As a rookie to Japan I didn’t know what to do when I arrived.  It’s a very small restaurant, more like a café in size; with only two employees, including the chef.  In order to make a convoluted story succinct I’ll summarise.  Before taking a seat there is a ticket vending machine at the entrance; you select what you want, including drinks, pay and it prints out your order and receipt.  You give this to one of the employees when you sit down, and they get one with preparing your food.  If you want something else, you go back to the ticket machine and repeat the process; you cannot order &/or pay to anyone.

To make things more interesting, the ticket machine is entirely in Japanese, except for rice.  The confused look on my face caught the attention of the non-chef, thankfully he helped me order.  There were a few pictures of dishes that looked interesting, I pointed to which one and he in turn showed me which buttons to press.  For the price, and I honestly cannot remember how much it cost, it was a full heart delicious meal (and beer) and cheap!

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My dinner at the restaurant Musoshin in Gion, ordered from the vendor waiter machine 🙂 – Gion, Kyoto

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The “vendor waiter” at Musoshin – Gion, Kyoto

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Might not seem like much, but Musoshin is a great little restaurant with excellent prices – Gion, Kyoto

I ate at a few other places, a suchi restaurant which was fantastic, just cannot remember the name.  Another restaurant was just like eating at a family member’s house, not far from the hotel too – heap as chips!  Although Kyoto (Japan as a whole) is expensive there are many cheap ways to eat out without breaking the bank.  Looking back, I can’t recall every having a bad experience with the restaurants or food.  Ah yes, almost forgot!  Many restaurants have window displays of their food.  Only thing is, the displays are plastic moulds!  Most of them look extremely realistic, they can really help know what food is sold without needing to read Japanese.

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Plastic food displays in the windows of some of the restaurants in Kyoto

Kyoto

I think this was a green tea matcha latte (may have been a keto). I had mine with no sugar, tasted excellent – Kyoto

Black Kites

Kyoto surprised me in many ways. For a city of such size and population you are never far from nature.  Whether it’s the beautiful gardens at shrines and temple to the surrounding mountains.  Even inside the city there are canals full of fish and ducks (click on the link and scroll down to the second last picture).  The Kamo River cuts through Kyoto from North to South, with many bridges frequented by tourists and locals just taking in the sites.  One thing you are almost guaranteed to see every time are Black Kites.  I tried my best to get some clear pictures, a rather challenging task with a moving target in the sky…if only they would keep still for a second or two! ?

Kyoto

One of the many Black Kites flying over the Kamo River right in the city centre. They seem to hang around near the bridges – Kyoto

Vending Machines

Kyoto and Tokyo are full of vending machines one the pavements/sidewalks.  Tokyo surprised me by the sheer number of them, I reconciled this with the fact of it being such vast and populated city.  Seems vending machines are the norm, with Kyoto no different.  In Gion they seem to stick out like a sore thumb.  Gion for most part is very traditional, from restaurants to architecture. It even has a different vibe to the West side of Kamo River.  Anyway, I just found it interesting at the number of vending machines, most of which sell drinks…of any and every kind you can think of.  Why so many vending machines, I don’t know?  It’s not like there aren’t any shops around, and with so many machines it’s unlikely you’ll die of dehydration from one road to the next.

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Random I know! There are so many vending machines throughout Tokyo and Kyoto, these were in Gion – Japan

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Yup, another vending machine in a random place, they are everywhere. This was over the road from the Kyoto Inn Gion the Second – Kyoto

Haircut

Another quick shout out and thanks to Koichi Ikemoto, the owner of Yoshida Barber shop Kewpie.  Around 100m from my hotel at 434 Minamisaikaishichō, Higashiyama-ku, 東山区 Kyōto-fu.  A real Japanese barber with a Rock ’n Roll/Rockabilly styling.  Koichi was super cool, his English considerably better than my Japanese, which is near nonexistent.  Even so, he cracked up a conversation and the haircut results were excellent, even if I say so myself.  No, I didn’t take a photo, pity.  You may have guessed I’m not one for selfies, a shame not to have shown off Koishi’s stylish work.  Thanks Koishi!

Toilets

I imagine it’s not to often to have a section in a blog about toilets. Come to think of it if I include all my experiences, I could easily write a whole blog post on toilets.  Don’t worry, this will not be a crass paragraph.  I’ve included the photo below, which was the simplest toilet device.  From heated toilet seats, different types of sprays and strengths, they do almost everything.  I even had one that blows air (various cool to warm settings) to dry you off instead of using toilet paper.  At my first hotel in Tokyo, the toilet must have had close to 10 buttons!  That, along with Wi-Fi and power to plug your phone into…why leave the bathroom at all! ? Ps. at all my hotels in Japan the bathrooms mirrors were heated so they don’t steam up, love that!

Kyoto Inn Gion

My on-suite at Kyoto Inn Gion the Second. Small, compact but with everything and more than you need. Spotless too! – Gion, Kyoto

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Love the toilet controls in Japan, this one was the least sophisticated – Kyoto, Japan

Transport

Arriving in a new country or city can have its challenges, especially if the local language is different to your own.  What can exacerbate the anxiety, is if the written language has no resemblance to your own.  Getting around Japan was a doddle, I’d go so far as to say pleasurable.  Google Maps is a godsend, but if your mobile/cell phone doesn’t work overseas it doesn’t matter – mine was.  My hotel was always willing to help &/or give guidance and suggestions.  The JR Pass was definitely cost effective for me.  Had I not bought one my travel would have been close to double what I paid!

The customer service and help from staff at the Metro’s were always very helpful, the language was never much of a problem.  And, within the major/large towns/cities the signage is in Japanese and English.  I think I many have mentioned (a few times ?), that the busses, trains and Metro’s are spotless – the cleanest public transport I have ever used.  On one occasion I got onto a bus on the wrong side of the road, really no harm done, losing 30 minutes of my day…hardly the stuff to write about.

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Public transport is super efficient and spotless! – Kyoto

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The Shinkansen (bullet train), with plenty of leg space even with my lying at an angle. Grrrrr don’t know where the rest of my photos of the Shinkansen are – Japan

Manga Museum and Samurai Museum

For me there were only two disappointments in Kyoto, firstly the Manga Museum and secondly the Samurai Museum.

  • Manga Museum – This is in all probability because of my expectations instilled by Western “Manga”. Manga is huge in Japan, but “my style” of Manga is more the warrior type.  At the museum it covers all the spectrums of Manga, which I’m not as au fait with.  If Manga is your cup of tea, don’t let my opinion deter you
  • Samurai Museum – It’s not a museum per se. I’d say it’s more like a tourist attraction, where you can dress up in samurai clothing and get your photo taken.  I was very keen to find out more about the samurai, finding it odd there was little to nothing to accommodate it – except for the “museum”.

That’s the end of my mix-match Kyoto blog post.  I know the photos are not cool or unique, but they hold fond memories for me.  Sure, seeing the popular sites is great fun, yet it’s all the little moments that are special and leave a lasting memory. Kyoto was awesome, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute, just wished I had seen more.  I learnt loads about Japan, the Japanese people, their history and religion, but only scratched the surface and would love to learn more.

Additional random pictures from Kyoto

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Shijo-dori (street) – Kyoto

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Back streets of Gion a little deserted during the rain (I was out looking for Geisha/Geiko – Kyoto

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The narrow back streets of Gion – Kyoto

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One of the narrow alleyways in Gion. These are one of the best places to experience Gion – Kyoto

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Entrance to a house in the historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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One of the narrow streets off the main road in the historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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Historical quarter of Gion – Kyoto

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In the historical quarter of Gion, this type of shopfront is common – Gion, Kyoto

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Rickshaw rides are common in Gion and any of the main tourist attractions – Kyoto

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A typical side street in Kyoto

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Walking back from 1596, stomach full after a great meal! Don’t know why I like this photo, just do – Gion, Kyoto

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Some random photo of a shop in Gion – Kyoto

Tokyo, Akihabara – Travelling throws up challenges – Part2

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Tokyo and the most expensive night I’ve ever paid at a hotel

As I alluded to in Part 1 about my time in Tokyo, it got of to a slow start.  Next morning started off with a bang!!!  Just to recap, I booked for one night at APA Hotel Kodemmacho Ekimae, a much better location than the first.  After my first proper day in Tokyo I had decided to extend my stay for another day, I let the hotel know when I got back from Edo Castle.

Next morning, in my daze turning my phone alarm off I noticed Monzo had sent me a message.  I didn’t think much of it at first; they send me a message any time I spend or deposit money, getting a message from them wasn’t unusual.  Through my blurry eyes I saw it was a charge, hmmm no surprise, it was likely for the hotel through hotels.com.  I turned back to snuggle under the covers.  Uhhh, the amount didn’t seem familiar, or was it my brain and eyes still in dream land?  I turned to check my phone, no, it can’t be!  I had just been charged £7 378.46!!!  In an instant I was as awake as if I had drunk a litre of espresso!  What the hell!?!?!?

Throwing on my clothes whilst checking my Monzo app, I saw it was for the hotel.  Adding insult to injury, Monzo had frozen my card too.  Monzo is a cash card, I only keep a few hundred pounds at most in it at most, topping up when needed – it is the day to day card I use; if it gets stolen at least not much will be taken.  Now, I was over £7000 overdrawn!  Just, to clarify, the hotel cost was ¥10 999.00 (which is around £73.00).  Bolting downstairs to Reception, eyes like saucers but looking dishevelled.  Having already tried calling Monzo, because of the office hours (Japan being 8 hours ahead) I got no answer – I left a message through the app.  The hotel staff were very helpful and efficient, I also thought is must be the hotel’s fault too!

Within an hour they had confirmation, and proof, from their accounts department that they had charged me the correct amount.  ARGH!  Who the hell’s fault was is, it could only be Monzo or Hotels.com.  During the hour of waiting for the Hotel to get back to me, I had left more messages, voicemails and emails for the bank and Hotels.com – the time difference was frustrating me – I had a problem yet had to wait patiently for that part of the world to wake up.

Time was ticking by aimlessly, it was near lunchtime.  Monzo was the first to get back to me.  After a few calls and many messages (calling from UK mobile/cell phone from Tokyo to the UK, costs were adding up!), they agreed to credit my account for the full amount; with the caveat that when Hotels.com corrected their error they would then deduct the money again.  Obviously, I had to prove to Monzo the actual cost of the hotel before they offered the credit.  Nonetheless, Monzo were brilliant from start to finish!  Hotels.com on the other hand were not!

What actually happened

The hotel reception at one stage even let me call Hotels.com from their phone, free of charge, they (the Hotel staff) gave Hotels.com their accounts department details too.  I had already spent over 2 hours on the phone to Hotels.com, it was like talking to a brick wall!  To give the short version:

  • The room cost ¥10 990.00
  • They charged me ¥1 099 000.00. Doesn’t take a genius to see the error!
  • Monzo had sent me all the details of the transaction, including reference numbers and all the banking jargon with what happened when and who did what – this I forwarded to Hotels.com

I had spent over two hours on the phone to Hotels.com alone and sent many emails.  They just used the old empathy card without resolving anything or taking ownership.  I was a little concerned about the whole saga, but mostly frustrated and angry – Hotels.com’s lack of responsibility was the most irritating.  I was reluctant to move on to my next destination in Japan without resolving this so agreed with the hotel to say an additional night.  This is when keeping an additional bank card for emergencies is worth a million dollars!  Thought it best to not use my Monzo card, at least until all this was resolved.  It felt like I was farting in the wind with Hotels.com, the day was wasting away, bugger this I’d go out and try to enjoy what was left of the day!

Things I started to notice about Tokyo and Japan

My plans for the day were out the window, today I’d go freelancing – head to town and cruise about with no plan at all…not much time left of the day too.  I had to get out the hotel, my frustration levels were peaking, almost lost my tempter with Hotels.com a few times.  I had my phone with me (I had already incurred a lot of cost so a little more at this stage wouldn’t matter) so throughout the day I made a few calls and sent more emails, to Hotels.com!  Starting off near Tokyo Station, head towards Ginza then Nihonbashi

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I like this photo, near Ginza, Tokyo

Most of the roads were closed to traffic in Ginza, the shopping centre of Tokyo, making it enjoyable and easy to get around.  I’ve mentioned it before, the roads in Tokyo are the cleanest I’ve ever seen.  Considering it’s one of the biggest and most populated in the world, the place is spotless!  Wandering about, I noticed how calm the people seemed to be.  Groups of people were talking to each other, however quietly, not whispering just very in obtrusively.  Almost no one makes eye contact either; again, not in a dismissive or unfriendly manner, no, more a reserved and respectful demeanour.

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Clean streets of Tokyo (near Tokyo Station)

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Closed off streets in Ginza, Tokyo

Nobody smokes in the open, roads or pavements; there are designated smoking areas – normally slightly out of sight and away from the crowds…even these areas are clean.  In almost all parts of the world shopping areas are diluted from the country’s identity.  Here it is similar, with the signage very different, the people are dressed modern with an unmistakable Japanese twist and identity.  I like it. I can’t really elaborate much of the day, it was short, my mind preoccupied too.  Another thing that stood out to me was the number of very high-end shops I saw.  In a small area 5 Tiffany’s & Co stores, three Prada stores with many other examples – just odd I thought.

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Ginza, Tokyo – Nice building

I came across an outdoor restaurant, come courtyard, come outdoor tea/coffee area I have no clue what it is normally used for.  A band of sort was playing, very oddly dress for the music they were performing, more so for the majority of the audience who were listening/watching.  Adding to the unusual ensemble was them singing 80’s pop (Jackson 5), in English.

I carried on wandering around into Nihonbashi.  An area that used to be the main fish market for Tokyo for over three centuries.  Now, only a small monument next to the Nihonbashi river a reminder of the importance of the area and its historical importance.  I couldn’t help noticing just how obedient people are to road/traffic laws, especially when crossing the road.  Even if there were no cars, not even visible in the distance, if the pedestrian crossing was red, nobody crosses.  I’d notice many nuances throughout my time in Japan, I’ll come to them in a latter blog.

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Nihonbashi river, used to be one of the busiest river networks in Tokyo for 3 centuries – Tokyo

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Nihonbashi bridge with motorway above. Stylish lamppost flanked by two Kirin at the base – Tokyo

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Monumnet to the Nihonbashi Riverside Fish Market. The market was relocated in 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake – Tokyo

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one of the narrowest buildings I’ve even seen, just as you cross the Nihonbashi bridge – Tokyo

Akihabara

The day was uneventful from a sightseeing perspective.  I was already back at the hotel, knowing that I had a LOT to see and do the next day.  My head still a little preoccupied with the unresolved circa. £7300!  I could stay at the hotel and get more frustrated, with no positive impact or change in circumstances, or do something to distract my thoughts – after many calls and emails throughout the day there was nothing else I could do, I was now waiting for Hotels.com to get back to me.  Akihabara is around 1.5km away from the hotel, why not go, so I did.

The name Akihabara originates from the word Akiba, a deity who controlled fire.  Whose shrine was in the area, however destroyed ironically (or not) by fire in 1869.  Akihabara, colloquially is known as Akihabara Electric Town.  When you get there, especially in the evenings, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why it is referred to as Electric Town!

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

With neon lighting up advertising boards covering nearly every inch of every building, this part of Tokyo hardly needs street lights!  Aligned to the “difference” of the people of Tokyo/Japan, Akihabara, is a combination of adult and childlike Las Vegas….centred around otaku.  Otaku for short, is an obsession predominantly with anime and manga – it does include video games, computers etc too.  Japanese’ used to use the word otaku as a negative reference, these days not so much so.  With the word spreading internationally, it is now used as a descriptive of a fan (more fanatic) of anime and manga.  Though the word is less derogatory now, in Japan is it still used as a reference to “nerd/geek” and a person so indulged in the anime & manga world that they have lost sight or reality.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Walking around Akihabara, I was only there for about 30 minutes, the area really is “different”.  Japanese cartoons are a world apart from Disney, ranging from kawaii (I’l explain shortly) to 21st samurai esc.  Akihabara is what some would describe as a town of arcades.  Anime & manga are big business in Japan, with avid cult followers of these characters and genres.  The area is also known for its maid cafés. Kawaii is a reference to cute/lovable, a culture in Japan of “cuteness” with a touch of vulnerable, childlike and shy.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Girls, dressed to look younger than they are (like young school girls), fronting these cafés handing out pamphlets and enticing people inside…mostly men, older men.  I didn’t go into any of them.  I was going to take a photo of some of the maid girls, but couldn’t; it just felt wrong, sleezy.  I appreciate cultures are different, but this didn’t sit well with me.  I’ve read that the government is cracking down on these maid cafes, god, I’m glad.  I cannot see how this couldn’t result in sexual exploitation.  What makes these cafes so odd (cringeworthy), is that is seems so at odds with how the Japanese people present themselves; reserved, law-abiding and have a very strong ethic of honour.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

I’m not saying the whole of Akihabara is filled with maid cafes, there are a few, they area a small part of Akihabara.  If you like anime, manga, arcades etc. this is the area to be.  I liked it just because it is so different.  Akihabara isn’t just an adult playground (taking away some of the questionable cafes and animations), though heavily weighed to attract men.  There is something for all ages and sexes to enjoy, if not only just to go see the Electric Town that is Akihabara.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Wow, having read this and my pervious post of Tokyo it seems so negative, when in fact it really wasn’t.  Like I said, my time in Japan got better each day, I can confidently say it was one of my most enjoyable countries to visit….sounds contradictory when reading my post ?.  The next day, I like to think of as my first real and full day of Tokyo.   The more you travel the more likely “things” will happen, somethings good, sometimes bad….the good far out weigh the bad.

Tokyo, Cherry Blossom, Edo Castle – got off to a slow start – Part 1

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My journey to Tokyo

My time in Tokyo was limited, because I only had 10.5 days in Japan; self-imposed as a result of how I booked my round the world ticket with Star Alliance – later on my travels regrettably, finding out just how easily it can be changed (I’ll get into that during my time in New Zealand). As per my usual modus operandi, I hadn’t put much thought into what I wanted to do and see in Japan, except hopefully to be in time to see the cherry blossoms.  As with a few of my destinations, Japan and Tokyo started off rather slowly, then there were a few interesting challenges, however afterwards it went from strength to strength…Japan turned out to be fantastic!

Booking my accommodation in haste whilst on Gili Air, the night before flying out to Japan; my rationale was to get a place close to Tokyo centre for two nights, in the hope that this would be enough time to suss out the location, if good stay, if not then move.  One thing I didn’t fully appreciate was just how expensive Tokyo and Japan accommodation is, wow!  It seemed even more so because of what I had been paying the previous few months in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.  Yes, it is expensive, but compared to places like London, New York etc. it is about the same, but with very few lower end types of accommodation.  It seems that for a reasonable place prices start at around £70 per night – there are cheaper, but honestly, they seemed very low-end and not places I would like to stay.  Another option is to stay in a “pod”, these are a-plenty!  I know you can get them in other cities, but here, oh my, there are loads of pod-hotels and seem more the norm that normal hotels.  Reminiscing about my time in Japan I really should have tried a pod-hotel, even if it was just for one night – some of them are very fancy, and expensive too, more so than some of the places I stayed in.  Reason for not doing so was quite simple, my criteria for choosing accommodation is a simple formula, 1. Private bathroom, 2. Wifi, 3. Location (preferably a central location so it saves me time and cost on transport when site seeing.  I still mildly regret not at least trying a pod hotel for one night.

My first hotel was APA Hotel and Resort Tokyo Bay Makukari.  Arriving at Tokyo Narita (4th April) airport just after 8:00 am, immigration was stereotypical of what I thought it would be like in Japan, swift and efficient, from there a bus to the hotel within 45 minutes after landing.  Airport information was great too, I had no idea how to get to the hotel and would have taken a taxi (airport taxi’s throughout the world in my opinion are a bloody rip-off); with the help of airport information I was on the bus which would stop about 1km from the hotel, at a fraction of the cost of a taxi – I must have got to the hotel just before 10:30, bloody tired!

Not to labour on about it (but I will ?), I was tired.  I caught the first public ferry (only 25 minutes at most) from Gili Air to Lombok Bangsal at 7:15, leaving my hotel at 6:30. From the ferry I had a 2.5 hour taxi ride to Lombok Mataram airport to catch my flight at 12:15 arriving at Kuala Lumpur at 15:20.  My next flight would be to Bangkok but only at 20:55 so, I had lots of time to kill (at an airport that’s extremely boring), I would arrive at Bangkok at 22:05.  From there catch my flight to Tokyo at 23:50 landing at Narita airport at 8:10am.  It felt like I was constantly busy though not very productive, and I didn’t sleep on any of the flights!  All this rambling just to say I hadn’t slept properly for over 24 hours, so arriving in Tokyo I was out on my feet.  In addition to that, arriving at a hotel so early it is seldom they let you check – there was no way I could muster up enough energy to leave my bags and go see any sites!  Thanks to the hotel I was in my room by 11:30. I got to my tiny room (more about that later), put my head down and crashed!  That about sums up my first day in Tokyo!

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Ueno Park, this is a fraction of what the parks and Tokyo would look like durig peak cherry blossom season

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There were still a few trees blossoming in the city – Tokyo

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Tokyo’s oldest temple Kiyomizu Kannon-dō inside Ueno Park

I was out of kilter with time having slept for an entire day, things weren’t helped by the fact I had turned-off my phone’s auto time adjust, meaning I was two hours behind – I did think it was odd going for dinner at 8:30 finding almost everything deserted (it was actually 10:30); I only realised the time difference the next morning when I missed breakfast, getting there at “9:00” when in fact it was 11:00. Having missed my first day sleeping I had now shortened my second day by mistake/error, grrrrrr.  With what felt like lead strapped around my ankles I headed into the city.

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Interesting first dinner in Tokyo, don’t ask me what it’s called….I call it delicious

Now, I totally miscalculated the location of my hotel in relation to the city/tourist centre, an hour on a semi-fast train to get remotely into the city centre.  The area of the hotel was an odd one, lots of formal style commercial buildings everywhere, no sky scrapers, at most 6 storied buildings, but all very big (width and breadth), the hotel was the highest building, in itself a huge hotel.  What struck me was how quiet the area was, even though it seemed surrounded by companies, a university and tucked away small wholesale shops/malls.  The roads were near dead quiet, there was almost no people; it almost felt as it the place was deserted but it couldn’t be.  Deserted of people yet still full of buildings and everywhere was very well maintained, signage on buildings (of well known companies) – the whole of Japan seems to be.  The only thing I can compare it to, is Canary Wharf (London) on the weekends; the difference here was it was even quieter, no high-rises and isn’t the finance/banking centre of Tokyo…..hmmmm….still puzzles me today.  Most things are not new, but they could be as everything from buildings, streets, pavements etc. is extremely well maintained and clean, therefore everything seems to be in good condition.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean pavements, there are signs on the walkways for bicycles, pedestrians and no smoking signs too.  I’ve thought back on the area of the hotel many times since and can’t put my finger on “what” the area is, absolutely safe, as it felt everywhere I went to in Japan.  It’s not an industrial area, it was more like a massive commercial area….except I saw hardly anyone…very strange.

Cherry Blossoms & Ueno Park

I headed to Ueno Park, famous for cherry blossoms.  I’ll keep you out of suspense, I missed peak cherry blossom season by about 1 week to 10 days, such a shame.  Even so, there were still plenty of blossoms to give me a faint idea of what the place must look like during peak season.  It must me other worldly, fantasmal (I know that’s not a real word, but you get the idea), that’s no exaggeration!  Swathes of the city and parks taken over by delicate flowers ranging from white, faint translucent pink, right through to deep blood pink and all the variations in between.  Tree trunks looking like barren stems void of foliage leading up to an impenetrable blanket of dainty flowers.  This parasol of colour, a ceiling of flowers casting shade for everyone wandering below all who are looking skyward to take in this floral spectacle.  I’ve never seen a city with such colour; these elegant and delicate flowers juxtaposed within a concrete jungle.  One of the most densely populated cities in the world, yet you feel as if you are walking through the pages of a Disney story.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think what this place must be like in full blossom, I would love to see it with my own eyes though.

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Ueno Park, what was full of blossoms now filled with fresh light green foliage

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Taken from the porch of Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple – Ueno Park

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Ueno Park, something about parks that calms the soul, the floor a blanked of dead blossoms

Yes, I was disappointed to have missed the peak season, but my main downer was my state of mind; a combination of being tired, oversleeping, my hotel location gave me the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, the weather wasn’t bad i.e. cold, yet a low hanging blanked of grey reminded me of winters in London.  All in all, I just felt a little down.  When this feeling comes about I find the best way to change the paradigm is to change what I have control over and accept what I can’t change.  I wondered around Ueno Park station for a bit for the sake of “site seeing” then thought to hell with this, I’m in one of the greatest cities in the world, there should be no reason to feel like this.  First things first, head back to my hotel (it was late afternoon and it cost me less to when using wifi), eat, do a little searching and find a new hotel is a better location…….and have a normal night’s sleep.

Ueno Park

A small fraction from the latter end of the cherry blossom season – Ueno Park

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Don’t know why but I just like this photo, taken from Ueno Park – Tokyo

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Part of the market area by Ueno Park Station – Tokyo

Moving to a better location in Tokyo

Coincidentally, my next hotel was the same chain of hotels, APA Hotel Kodemmacho Ekimae, still an odd location (I’ll explain a little later), but much better; at least I felt like I was surrounded by people and occupied buildings; an area mixed with residential and office buildings (maybe akin to Dalston in London, however more developed and a millions times more orderly and clean).  Another good thing about the new location was the transport, easy access to three Tokyo metro stations (I’ll get into the metro later too).  I can’t say my head was totally in a right state, without doubt I was feeling more positive – I had booked for 1 night; at this stage I wasn’t liking Tokyo (not liking cities seemed to be becoming a trend)  Both APA hotels had tiny rooms, the smallest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, even so they are designed exceptionally well, like a compact Japanese car.  The rooms have everything you would expect and more, considering the size – Massive TV, ¾ bed, bath & shower in one (1/2 the size of a normal bath), nice toiletries (better quality and lots of it compared to a normal mid-range hotel), an all singing and dancing toilet (built-in bidet – with temperature setting for the water and toilet seat, various spray setting etc. etc.), bathrobe with slippers, a separate gown/pyjamas with slippers (I saw a few people walking around the hotel wearing the latter), a torch on the side of the bed (I guess this is for is/when the electricity goes off caused by earthquakes or storms – I guess), desk, heated bathroom mirror so it doesn’t steam up etc. etc. basically the rooms are bloody small yet packed with everything you could want or need – I’ve stayed in a lot more expensive hotels that have far less!  Aggravatingly I don’t have the pictures, again, I’m sure I took pictures of the room but I cannot find them….I must have deleted them by mistake ARGH!!!!!

Early check-in at the hotel went smoothly again and I was heading out back into the city centre to see Edo Castle.  Tokyo Metro map is one of the more complicated metro maps I’ve seen, likely the most complicated, made more so by the writing!  It looks like such a mess, with so many stations is can get confusing, thankfully all the metro employees I spoke to were fantastic, with a good standard of English making it even easier.  Like all metros/underground systems you only need to use it once of twice to get the hang-of-it – all the major stations I went to also have signs in Japanese and English.

Edo Castle / Chiyoda Castle

I wondered around town for a bit before heading to the castle, now this was more like Tokyo compared to the day before!  I was feeling better already.  Tokyo Station is up the road from Edo Castle, a wide paved walkway runs perpendicular between the too.  Just like everywhere else the place is spotless, as if the pavements were installed recently, parks are pristine and manicured, very impressive – later during my time in Japan I’d see parks and public spaces making the gardens in and around Edo Castle look less than average!

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Tokyo Station, Spotless clean walkway between the station and Edo Castle behind

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Some of the park area near Edo Castle and the Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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I like the juxtaposition between the city and nature – Tokyo

The first major structure was built by the warrior Edo Shigetsugu some time in the early 14th century.  The Edo clan ended in the 15th Century due to the uprising in the Kantō region, after which Ōta Dōkan who worked for the Uesugi clan built the castle in 1457.  Edo Castle, is also referred to as Chiyoda Castle, as it is now in the Chiyoda suburb of Tokyo, the former area used to be known as Edo.  Ōta Dōkan himself is also known as Ōta Sukenaga; taking the former surname after becoming a Buddhist priest, he was a samurai warrior, military strategist and poet amongst other things.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle dōshin-bansho (guardhouse) is where samurai guardsmen would have been stationed (there were a few guardhouses) as protection for the castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Some of the impressive stone walls leading from the guardhouse into the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

As with many of these types of structures/areas within history its ownership changed hands a few times.  The Later Hōjō clan took over in 1524 after the Siege of Edo, then the castle was abandoned in 1590 because of the Siege of Odawara. After that Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo Castle stronghold base after he was offered eight eastern provinces by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  He later defeated Toyotomi Hideyori, son of Hideyoshi, at the Siege of Osaka in 1615, and emerged as the political leader of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of Sei-i Taishōgun in 1603, and Edo became the center of Tokugawa’s administration (a lot of this paragraph came straight from Wikipedia – it was easier for accuracy purposes).

Edo Castle

What remains of the foundation of the main castle tower – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle

The gardens inside the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle is surrounded by a moto and part of a much bigger complex including a few huge gardens and Tokyo Imperial Palace (the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan) – visits to the palace are allowed by specific prearranged guided tours….I didn’t go because of the waiting list.  Very little remains of the original Edo Castle and the vast complex of the grounds.  The area used to have waterways, many motes and canals with a circumference of nearly 16km.  Construction started in 1593 and completed in 1636 by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu; the Tokugawa shognute (clan) rules from 1600 till 1868 when the Meiji Restoration happened; restoration of imperial rule

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Some blossoms in the gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Chiyoda Castle

Edo Castle gardens (yes, similar the one of the other pictures, but I also like this one 🙂 – Tokyo

The area was totally transformed, from pushing out the coastline in some parts to bringing the sea closer to enable boats to dock close by.  With ramparts as high as 20m, 12m high inner walls and 34 massive entrance gates, this was like a town created from almost nothing, however it was a castle/palace complex.  Considering the population of the near vicinity was only 150 000, a small population for such a massive undertaking.  To resolve this people who fell under the ruler either supplied money, resources &/or people to undertake the construction – at its height there were 300 000 construction workers. 

Edo Castle

Gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

The Fujimi Yagura (A Turret of The Edo Castle), 1659 – Tokyo

An interesting story that happened in the castle, made famous to the Western world by Hollywood (embellished to the extent of making it fictional fantasy), is the true story of the forty-seven ronin.  At the beginning of the 18th century within the Great Pine Corridor of the Edo Castle, Asano Takumi-no-kami drew his short sword and attempted to kill Kira Kōzuke-no-suke for insulting him; it is said Kira wasn’t the nicest of people and had been spreading rumour and lies about Asano.  This action resulted in him being sentenced to commit  seppuku, furthermore his samurai warriors were banished.  These ronin plotted revenge for the honour their lord Asano, two year later their plot was put into action and succeeded.  These ronin’s actions were against the law, as with their lord Asano they were sentenced to commit seppuku.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Edo Castle from the outside, massive walls and mote – Tokyo

If I’m honest to myself, and anyone that reads this, Edo Castle is ok, I can imagine the Imperial Palace must be a total different kettle of fish.  As most of the castle is not longer there, what remains is some of the layout, ramparts, foundations, some motes and walls – what remains is impressive though a tad underwhelming.  What remains of the stone construction is impressive, with huge stones at perfect angles and flattened sides.  Of the motes still functioning, they are some of the longest I’ve seen anywhere.  Their retaining walls could have been built yesterday, that’s how well they were made and have been preserved.  Considering their size and length, they are an impressive feat of engineering.  At it’s prime, this place would have been amazing, today, the gardens are more the main attraction, as beautiful as they are, like I said, I was a little underwhelmed.

After walking through Edo Castle grounds, I made my way to the main entrance of the Imperial Palace.  The Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) leads to the main entrance gate of the palace called Nishinomaru-mon with the Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi) in the background.  Both bridges used to be wooden arch bridges replaced during the Meiji period with what we see today. 

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Main gate to the Imperial Palace with the Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) in front – Tokyo

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The Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi), Edo Castle, Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th-century samurai who fought for Emperor Go-Daigo in the Genkō War – Tokyo

Tokyo had got off to a slow start, that is obvious.  From my state of mind to what I had seen wasn’t spectacular, the up side was my mind was moving into the right space, so I was optimistic for the days to comes.  The next morning started off started with a bang….not a good one – I’ll get into that in my next blog post. 

 

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Near Ueno Park Station, a small prelude to what I’d see later on during my time in Tokyo