Sunday, 19 October 2014

Japan Trip - Part 5: Nara

Red Torii at Inari Shrine
It was a little sad leaving Kyoto, as it was a great little city. I had hardly scratched the surface with temples and all the little secrets the city held. For example, I didn't get a chance to see the Imperial Palace, nor did I visit Gion, the Geisha area. Unfortunately, this is how it was - I had no accommodation in Kyoto for the weekend, so had to move on. On the up-side, I was off to Nara - everything I'd heard about this place was good, and since it wasn't on my original itinerary, it was a bonus.
Chillin' in Nara.
A rare shot with no people.
The Kitsune statue guarding the temple.
On the train to Nara, I decided to see one more temple sight in Kyoto before I left. Just outside the city, and easily found by following the hordes of tourists, was the Inari Shrine. This place is famous for its red gates or arches, called Red Torii, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of them leading up to the top of the mountain. The Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine to the god Inari. Inari Okami is the Japanese Kami, or spirit, of foxes, as well as fertility, rice, sake, agriculture, industry and of general prosperity and worldly success. That's one busy deity! The first thing you notice about this place are the huge red gates everywhere, and then what I thought were dog statues (which I now know are foxes!). Then, the hordes of tourists! You will have seen this place, as anyone who is in Japan and considers themselves a photographer comes here. People walk through the red arches, trying to get it with nobody else in the frame... but do they work together? Of course not. I got a few people together, asked them to wait before walking though (so that I could take a picture...), and then said that if they wait too, they can get the postcard shot. It worked - and they seemed genuinely surprised that it worked! I trudged all the way up the hill, aiming to get all the way to the top - hoping for some grand shrine, something that only the truly fit and steadfast see. I was slightly disappointed when, upon reaching the top after a hard 2 hour slog, there was a sign that said 'top of the mountain,' and that was it - no view, no shrine, just flies and more bloody red gates!

Writing on the Red Torri.
Hello Dear!
I seem to be going from busiest to most quiet - the craziness and humanity of Tokyo, to the large, impersonal buildings of Osaka, to Kyoto, a small city filled with temples, and finally on to Nara. I had no idea what to expect from Nara, apart from my bed for the next 3 days. Although quite small, it is busy enough, and feels clean and fresh. My hostel was a 5 minute walk from the train station, and I was given directions from the always very helpful staff at the railway station. I was also given a small, Origami deer by the lady - the deer being the symbol of Nara, as the place is full of them. I settled into my hotel, then headed out straight away to see those deer.

I don't believe you - you have more, I know it!
Beware of the deer.
Praying at the temple.
Just beyond the shops and houses of Nara there are many parks, temples and even more deer. Known for it's temples, these are one of the main attractions, but the deer seem to be the bigger hit really - they have been declared 'National Treasures' even. You can buy 'deer biscuits' for Y150 ($1.50), and as soon as the transaction is done, the 'starving' little creatures are lining up for their num nums. There is a sign that warns you of the dangers of the animals, which made me laugh at first (as they seem so cute and friendly), but heed this message - butting, biting and kicking are just some of the tactics employed by the little treasures to get their cookies. In saying this, the little deers are not dangerous, it's more that the tourists are just a source of food. Picnics are raided, streets and fences are no barriers, nor are shops - a deer's gotta eat!

Go on, tell us another joke!
That baby looks edible...
The hostel I stayed at was great, but unfortunately there was a snorer. I had forgotten that was a downside of backpackers - beer, late nights, and then crashing on your back = snoring. I will excuse people from a quite little snort after a few too many drinks and a ciggy or two, but a real snorer is enough to kill someone. I nearly did. The first night, I just put some music on (didn't work), tried to ignore it (while getting very angry), and had a strong coffee for breakfast. Day 2, and the same guy was at it! I tried throwing scrunched up bits of paper at him, whispering  to him to turn over... nothing worked. I was fed up of him sleeping well, and me looking like a zombie after a big night out with no brains to feed on, so I started kicking his bed and whisper/yelling at him. He woke up with a fright, looked at me for a bit (probably thinking he was still alseep) and stop snoring... for 5 seconds. He didn't turn over or apologise. Kicking, waking, kicking and eventually I was able to sleep... there should be a law that if there is a snorer in a common sleeping area, anyone should be allowed to suffocate them with their own pillow for the sake of everyone else's benefit. He checked out sometime in the morning before I woke up.

Toda-ji Temple which houses the world's largest bronze buddha.
Back to Nara. Nara is also home to the Toda-Ji, The Great Eastern Temple, which in turn is home to the Daibatsu - the largest bronze statue in the world of the Buddha Vairocana. Construction of the building started in 745 AD, and was finished in 751 - the construction nearly bankrupted Japan as it used up most of it's bronze on this monumental Buddha. The building has been burnt down and rebuilt twice - the current structure dates from 1709 and is immense at 57m long and 50m wide,  is actually 30% smaller than the previous one - the building was the largest wooden structure up until 1998. An interesting fact - the is a hole in a wooden beam in the temple, which is the size of the Buddha's nostril, and it is said if you can fit though it, you will get good luck. There was a huge line up (mostly kids), so I felt a little silly to line up... just have to run with my bad luck. The temple is in a huge park complex, with many other temples, most free to walk in and have a look. People still visit them for religious purposes, and not just for tourism.

Origami deer from Nara.
My time in Japan had nearly come to an end, so I enjoyed the rest of my time in this relaxing city, walking the streets and just trying to soak all the atmosphere I could. By complete accident, I found a small second hand store selling Kimonos. They were labelled as Y500 ($5), so I asked the little old lady inside, who was all dressed up in a kimono herself, 'Honto (Truly)?' and she said yes, so I bought one - so cool, my own Kimono for five bucks! Not much else to do in Nara really - it is basically parks and temples. It was perfect for my last days though, and I felt truly relaxed and felt satified with my time here, and ready to go home at the same time. A trip well done, but Japan is so big (bigger than you would think! It just looks skinny), and there is so much that I didn't see. Mt Fuji, Hiroshima and Nagoya to name a few places. Next time Japan - I know there will be.

Goodbye and thank you Japan.
The main street of Nara.
Banging out Japanese sweets.
My stopover for my flight was in Shanghai. I hate airports flying at the best of times, but this was a particularly bad flight. I have nothing against Chinese people, I love the food and have been to China myself and really enjoyed my time there, but there is something about the Chinese and queues. I was waiting to be called to the gate, cleaners were sweeping the floor (and spitting at the same time), people were yelling into their mobiles and generally being noisy and annoying. It was finally boarding time, and we were called to the desk, and all of a sudden everyone went made - pushing and shoving and so much noise! It felt like the Titanic was going down and there was only 1 lifeboat. Just like the guy in the movie who shot people at the lifeboat (I didn't have a gun though, as they even take away cigarette lighters at airports now), I raised my teacher's voice and told them to relax and stop pushing - babies in prams were being pushed even. They pushed to get on the bus which would take us to the plane, and pushed again to get off and on the steps to the plane. The Chinese love to push, and find it good sport to get to your numbered seat before anyone else... After Japan, and the absolute embodiment of politeness, this was a bit of a slap in the face. I felt there was no better time to come home!

Airports - we all hate them, but they lead to dreams coming true.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Japan Trip - Part 4: Kyoto

Fancy temple roof.
Kyoto Tower.
A crane on a roof.
So unfortunately Osaka got a bit of a bad rap from me in the last post. I'm sorry to people that live here, or to people who think it is a cool city, but I just felt that it was 'just another city' after the lively and happening city of Tokyo. Osaka is full of huge buildings, all with shopping centres, filled with wealthy teenagers buying from Western brand clothing stores, and sucking down Starbucks coffees. I felt that Osaka was trying to be something else, something western. Tokyo on the other hand is a weird mix of traditional and neo-Japanese, as well as Western fashion, music and food, and quite unique. I only stayed a day and a night in Osaka, before catching the local train and moving on to Kyoto.

2 businessmen enjoying an ice cream after visiting a temple.
A cool cafe in Kyoto.
Chef at your table.
Kyoto was the Imperial Capital of Japan for more than a thousand years until 1868, when the Japanese Government and the Emperor moved to Tokyo. It's nickname is 'The City of Ten Thousand Shrines,' and although I didn't count them, I think the name is pretty well deserving! Home to 1.5 million people, Kyoto feels a lot smaller than it actually is - walking around the city you don't get the feel of a large city - Glasgow, for example, is only 600,000 people and feels much busier. There are small streets just off the main roads, and you feel like you are in rural Japan - traditional houses, people of bicycles everywhere, and it is quite peaceful! A recent law here in Kyoto was enacted and it restricts the building height to 15m and 31m (or 10 storeys) in the centre, as well as a total ban on rooftop advertising - and you see the difference! This city was a wonderful feeling about it - no huge shopping centres, busy crossings, but parks, small craft shops, and an open fresh feeling - you can actually see the mountains from the city too! No noisy adverts or huge screens on buildings here, but there was an earthquake early warning system on the street - although a good thing, it made me a little nervous!

Okonomiyaki and beer!
A man and his cat.
Crossing the road in style!
First night out in the city called for a local specialty - Okonomiyaki - Japanese Omelette. I say 'local' but to be honest it is made all over the country, but everyone does it differently, and I was told it is the best in Osaka,and since I blew that popsicle stand, this was the next best thing! I sat down in the restaurant, and 3 other foreigners were there. Great, I thought, this is the place for tourists, and not the real deal. Oh yeah of little faith! The chef cooked the meal right there in front of you, tepanyaki-style (even a 'warm' hotplate that you eat off!), and he was making several things at once, all with a smile! Beers came, meals were diced and flipped on the hot plate, and when it was served it was a masterpiece! It took a good 10 - 15 minutes to make my omolette, but a lot of love went into it - including the sauce that was applied using what look like a big fat paint brush (I'm sure it wasn't...), and then sprinkled with shredded tuna so fine that half of it blew off before I got my chopstick near it! It looked small, but it was so tasty (even more so when mayanaise was slopped all over it), and very, very filling! There are a few choices you have have (the actual translation of it is: OKONOMI = what you want, and YAKI = cooked) and I think I had a beef one, but you as the name suggests you are spoilt for choice!

Kinkaku-ji - The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion.
The Zen gardens.
Walking around the temples in the shade.
After a not-so restful sleep (I forgot how noisy backpackers are... and someone was snoring for most of the night!), I headed out on a hired bike (Y800/day) with a Dutch guy I met at the hostel. The plan was to cycle as much as possible, and take in the temples around the city. With so many temples and shrines to choose from, the typical ones had to be done. It was also Friday, and with no accommodation in Kyoto for the weekend (apart from sleeping on a temple lawn somewhere), I only had 1 more day in the city, so the well-trodden path it was. The first temple on the list was Kinkaku-ji Temple, or the Golden Pavilion, and boy was it gold! The building dates back to 1397 (not a typo!), but the original building was rebuilt in 1955 following an arson accident in 1950 by a monk. The monk tried to commit suicide after the incident, but was caught and thrown in prison, and released 7 years later because of mental illnesses. The building that stands today is supposed to be as it was, but some people say that it is more 'golden' that it used to be... all the better I say! While snapping away, and enjoying the serenity of the temple, the gardens and the lake, we were approached by a group of Japanese school kids, who, reading off their notebooks in perfect unison, asked us to complete a survey, and then "let's take a photo" at the end - how could I say no!

A real Geisha!!
Reach for the sky!
After visiting a few more temples, including one that had a 30m long stone Zen garden, we headed off for the bamboo forest, the Arashiyama. Free to get in and walk around, you follow paths through huge bamboo that really do reach for the sky. The sun is mostly blocked out, and the way through is filled with soft light, and the quiet swishing of the bamboo. This is one of the most famous sites in Kyoto, and so the crowds were here, and also packing the town that had become a tourist trap - selling ice creams and various tourist junk. We happened across a wedding, and more than a dozen girls walking around in hired Geisha outfits - and even 1 real Geisha, who saw me and my camera and run off, her 'bodyguard' telling me "no, no!" and leading her away. They really are scared of tourists! The forest was a pleasant break from the 30c heat, and was quiet and relaxing, but not much to see. With the sun going down, and plenty of cycling to do before getting home, we headed off, stopping off at a few more places on the way.

After a hard day's work, you deserve a 'sweat' drink!
Yummy Ramen! And beer of course!
After a hard day of cycling and slight sunburn, I thought I deserved a hot bath - or a Japanese Onsen! Although not the outdoor traditional ones you see in the Lonely Planet and on travel programs on the TV (and there weren't any monkeys either!), it was still an experience! Getting naked in front of a room full of blokes is not the most comfortable thing to do as a Westerner - it's just not natural to see Grandpa waddling around in his birthday suit! First thing you need to do is get buck naked (the towel I was giving wouldn't wrap around my wrist let alone my waist!), then put your things in a locker room (where you can also smoke completely naked too), then go into the second room and sit on a tiny plastic stool and soap up and scrub yourself. I couldn't help laughing out loud - you had a mirror in front of you, and the whole thing seems so strange and so undignified at the same time you just have to laugh and love it! In the baths I got, including one with purple water, and every single one of them was far too hot for my soft skin! Although it wasn't really busy, I wanted a tub for myself, so picked one with nobody else in there - and soon found out why. At first, I thought the water was far too hot (again!), and my feet went a little numb - much like a monkey bath (you know, when you put your big toe in and screech EH EH EH!!), but as I got half-way in, I knew there was something wrong with this tub! It was electrified!! All of my muscles tensed up completely, and I nearly dropped in like an electrified rock... luckily I managed to pull myself out - either no one saw me to help me from drowning, or it was just too funny to see a Gaijin (foreigner) nearly do himself in while completely naked... The sauna was also too hot, so I just decided to call it quits. I did try the 'special' pool again (just in case I liked it this time...), holding on tighter this time, and still was not impressed. Overall, a strange but relaxing experience!

Be at peace!
I had one more day in Kyoto, and I have to say that 3 days in this cool little city is far too short. With so much to do, so much to see, I had to make sacrifices, that and I couldn't find any accommodation in the whole city for the weekend, even the expensive Ryokans were fully booked! I had a good sleep, after the bath and dinner (and a snore-free room!), so I grabbed my backpack and jumped on the train to the Inari Shrine.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Japan Trip - Part 3: Osaka

Oli doing his set.
This guy was awesome too!
So my time in Tokyo was up, and time to move onto the next biggest city in Japan - Osaka. My last night in Tokyo was spent with my mate Oli at the Ruby Room in Shibuyu. It was Open Mic night, and Oli played a great set, including an old favourite of mine "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash, and there were also a few other guys playing that did really well, and helped make my last night a little special. As I watched the bands playing, I though "I'm in Tokyo, in some tiny, brick-walled, red-velvet sofed bar, watching locals get up and hammer out songs in English, alongside an Englishman singing an American Country and Western song. It was a little strange, but fantastic as well - a great night out!

I've always liked a 'strong' nose.
I didn't know much about the city before getting there, so I didn't have anything really to get my hopes and expectations up. That's a good thing, as I was not impressed. I won't bore you with why it was such a let-down, as I would much rather concentrate on the good things - there are a few!

The cleaners dutifully lining up to clean the train before departure.
Downtown Osaka.
Teaching the new generation.
The first cool thing was, of course, the Shinkansen trip! The Bullet Train, which celebrated it's 50th birthday this year (yes it is incredible!), is something that needs to be done whilst in Japan. A marvel of engineering, the first train was built and ran in 1964 between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka (the same line as I took), and has since taken nearly the world's population around the country - with a total ridership of 5.3 billion. In the 60s, the trip took 4 hours (which is the time taken from home to Bondi Beach on a hot Sunday afternoon), and has been shortened to 2.5 hours with the new faster trains that run at 270kms/hr and carry 140 million people a year - or 390,000 people A DAY! As the big-nosed, white bullet-thingy pulled up at the station, shivers ran down my spine. The excitement of getting on a train that is nothing like anything else, and then hurtling along so fast through the countryside, that I needed to use the loo straight away. Before boarding, the cleaners lined up in perfect unison, then got on and cleaned before we could board - everything is so efficient here, and we even has lines on the platform telling us where to stand. No advertising on this train, nor telelvisions, so it was quiet and relaxing - not even a sound from the rails - and of course a small smoking room for those that can't wait 2 hours to pollute their lungs. Although it was just a quick train trip, I was still impressed at how it all runs - and it runs every 20 mins!!

Fast food in Osaka - out of a combi!
A room with a view!
Cold floors - thing of the past!
I hit town, and then it hit me that I was alone in a huge city and unsure of where to go and what to do! I hadn't read about the city, booked accommodation, or have friends here. Exciting to some, a time worthy of a panic attack for others, but I took it in my stride, not stressing or jumping for joy, and headed to 7-11 for breakfast. I know what you are thinking, a convenience store for food, but here (like many, many things!) they are different! You can grab fresh, yummy (and salmonella-free) sushi and meat products, ready to eat and also cheap. Get this - you can buy a nori roll from 7-11 for Y150 ($1.50), and it is wrapped so that it stays fresh - you unwrap the plastic, and the seaweed is separate from the rest, then you re-wrap it with the seaweed... so yummy!! So, back to being lost in a city... yes, eat first then find a place to crash! So, I hailed a taxi, the door opened automatically for me (as they do), and I said "kapusuru hoteru, arigato gosaimasu!" and in 10 minutes and Y1000 later, I was in my very first Capsule Hotel (sometimes called a 'Coffin Hotel').

The 'rooms' of a Capsule Hotel.
Hot foot spa... on the street!
Traffic wardens in Osaka.
Now, let me tell you about this 'hotel.' Only men are allowed, you had to wear their branded pants and top around the place and you can't wear your shoes anywhere. By this stage, I was getting better at being able to take my shoes off, balancing my camera and bag, and keep the 'clean' area shoe-free. It's not easy for a Westerner to do this for some reason - it makes me feel so fat and uncoordinated! For Y3200 ($32) you get a 2m long x 1.5m wide 'room' that comes with a TV, radio and reading light. I had been looking forward to this since I heard about them, so when I finally crawled into my coffin (I mean room!), it just felt right. There was plenty of space, the bed was comfy, and let's face it - how much room do you need in a hotel - I mean, when travelling alone you only use them to sleep in after a night out on the town. The bathroom facilities were winderful - apart from naked men wandering around. Self-pasting toothbrushes, shavers, moisterising creams and aftershaves were all provided, everything a 'salary man' would need to get himself back in the corporate rat race after a boozy night out! The whole place had a weird feeling to it though - it seemed a place for lonely, single men to come and stay as they have nowhere else to go. It evcen had a 'relaxing' area upstairs, where you chill on a bed/sofa and watch TV with speakers fitted into your headrest, and a massage service. Strange!

The walls of Osaka Castle.
View from the top of the castle.
The largest stone in the castle - 59m2.
After a lovely sleep, I made my way to Osaka Castle. Construction started in 1583 and finished in 1597 - and was attacked and taken by Tokugawa in 1615, and he became the Shogan, or military ruler of Japan, and his family ruled for the next 250 years. In 1868, the castle fell during an attack, then became an army arsenal, then restored in 1928, then nearly completely destroyed during the Second World War. In 1995, the Japanese government decided to restore it to it's former beauty, and was finished in 1997. So although it is a concrete reconstruction, it is still very impressive, and looks like what it did all that time ago. 8 storeys high, it stands out from quite a distance, sitting on its hill amidst 15 hectares of land and huge stone walls and filled moats. Crossing the moats and seeing the huge angled walls, it is hard to imagine how anyone could capture this castle, even with gunpowder - sheer walls set with massive stone blocks (the biggest stone is 59m2 and 108t and about 6m tall!) and a 50m wide moat. After buying a ticket (from a machine of course), I entered the castle proper. 8 flights of stairs and 50,000 screaming children later, I reached the viewing platform at the top, and got a wonderful view of Osaka.

Osaka Castle.

The re-built Osaka Castle.
A battle scene.
Unfortunately there wasn't much else to see in Osaka from what I could tell. I met up with 2 friends from Australia, and they couldn't help me out either. I did have a wander around the city for a bit, but it was just all huge skyscrapers with large shopping centres inside. Feeling slightly annoyed by the lack of anything to do, I jumped on a train to Kyoto -  on Y400 ($4) and 1.5 hours away by local train. Sitting on the train, I thought about Osaka - although it was disappointing after Tokyo (how can you compare to that!), I had stayed in a capsule hotel, seen the castle, met up with friends, and done it all by myself - I call that a success! Kyoto on the other hand, was everything I had hoped it would be. But, you'll have to wait!

A battle scene from the taking of Osaka Castle in 1620.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...