Japan: Photos & Notes

My day-by-day for our InsideJapan Tours: HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! tour is a little different from the usual account. Rosa and I sent emails to the family most evenings, so I’ve gathered mine here into a set, done a little light editing (no writing needs that! many! exclamation! marks!) and added in some Japanese place names and links.

I took photos on my ancient iPhone which I emailed ‘home’ too, and uploaded to Flickr where you’ll find them in my Japan, August 2017 (iPhone/iPad) album. Not great quality, and not really very representative of what we did each day, but it was a novelty for me to have wifi internet access everywhere.

The photos I took on my camera are on Flickr too, in my Japan, August 2017 album. Where my iPhone photo was better than my camera photo, you’ll find the iPhone snap in there too.

So, here’s what we did.

Thursday, 03 August 2017: Tokyo (photos)

We’re here!

Rosa and I are relaxing at the Hotel B Ikebukuro, in a compact twin room with a v compact bathroom complete with Japanese style loo – warmed seat and sprays and all 🙂

Having a cup of tea before heading out for a bit of a wander and to find somewhere for dinner. It’s coming up to 6.30pm here now.

Our flight to Brussels was v late leaving, and I did get worried it might be an overnight in Belgium, but the air crew were super blasé about the timing for our connection (in a good way) and there were lots of people with shorter connections who needed to do passport control as well (which we didn’t).

The air stewardess told us the Tokyo flight goes from the same terminal we arrived into – and there it was waiting at the stand next to the one we parked up at. An ANA man was waiting with a sign for people on the flight and confirmed it was the adjacent gate. PHEW!

Rubbish in-flight movies but otherwise super – Tom picked seats for us when he booked (which I hadn’t realised) so we were in an emergency exit row with loads of legroom.

Speedy immigration etc and baggage when we landed at Tokyo Narita Airport, and the Green Tomato man and his minivan were waiting for us and whizzed us into central Tokyo (東京都).

Right – off to explore!

Written on Friday morning:

We had a good explore of the neighbourhood last night – nothing quite like it in London. Lots of shops, lots of little places to eat and lots of people – a bit like Oxford Street / Seven Dials merged together. The buildings on the main streets are tall and shiny, but things get smaller once you turn off into the side streets. Some manga shops and cinemas and shops selling arrays of cute things. Even a rabbit cafe (we decided they’re ones where you get to pet a rabbit while you have your cup of tea, rather than eat it…)

We found a lovely conveyor belt sushi restaurant for dinner – easy to work out what you’re getting and endless free DIY green tea, with the sushi chef making all the pieces from scratch there in the middle. Super!

We finished off with a mooch around the shops which resulted in Rosa buying her first souvenirs in a cutesy gift shop full of Hello Kitty type trinkets.

All in all a successful first foray into the bustling streets of Ikebukuro (池袋).

I’m gradually getting used to the warmed loo seat 🙂

Friday, 04 August 2017: Tokyo – Ueno & Nishi-Nippori (photos)

Sleep was a bit fitful and we both agreed on a bit more of a snooze after the 7am alarm (Rosa’s suggestion. We were in bed by 10pm).

The morning got off to a very good start as we bumped into Charlea, our IJT tour guide, in the lift on the way to breakfast and she came and joined us. Lots of useful info, and our IC Cards (aka ‘Oyster’ for Japan).

A bit of a weird breakfast set up – it’s in the bar cum pizza restaurant, so we sit surrounded by shelves of wine eating our breakfast.

The plan was to head out for more of an explore and our first expedition on the metro. Charlea’s advice was to head to Ueno (上野) for the day, which we did – Rosa googling for manga/anime stores on the area, which led to us spending almost 2 hours in one of the mega manga shops which was just across the road from the train station. Luckily there is more to them than I’d expected – whole floors of craft and modelling kits of all sorts, jigsaws and gadgets like the polar bear we have in our fridge. That said, I can see the novelty is going to wear off for me way before it does for R!

More purchases, then a stroll around the side streets and into the park, past lily ponds, shrines and the Tokyo National Museum (東京国立博物館). We focused on one floor starting with the kimono room and the National Treasures. Very manageable.

Culture done, R and I got the metro back to base and then I headed back out on to do some more sightseeing around Ueno. Found “fabric town” [The Nippori Textile District] and the cemetery where the last Shogun is buried [Yanaka Cemetery (谷中霊園)] amongst other things.

Out for another conveyor belt dinner (different place this time) after another hour, on just one floor of the big Animate anime store…..

Saturday, 05 August 2017: Tokyo – Asakusa & Ryōgoku (photos)

Rosa went back to Animate again this morning while I went to Asakusa (浅草) to the big Buddhist temple complex there [Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺)]. Lots of young women and couples out in their best kimono, I think because it’s a Saturday. Lovely. Went back to check on R for lunch and then headed out again to the Edo-Tokyo Museum (江戸東京博物館) and the memorial to the people who died in the big 1923 earthquake (which I didn’t know about) in Yokoamicho Park (横網町公園), a short stroll away.

Back at the hotel now, and the group meeting at 7pm…. The anticipation ……

We’ve definitely got to grips with the metro system – albeit not the free wifi on them.

Sunday, 06 August 2017: Tokyo – Shibuya & Harajuku (photos)

Rosa and I are (literally) chilling out back at the hotel after a whole day out on the hottest day so far. We headed out en masse at 9am to Shibuya’s ‘Scramble’ Crossing (渋谷区). It has 1 million people per hour crossing on weekend afternoons – but not nearly so many at 10am on Sunday 🙂  There were lots of people there, but a fair proportion were tourists –  all good for photos mind you.

Next stop on the Loop Line was Harajuku (原宿) where we made a slow procession down the main shopping alley/street and back up again. Very Camden Market if you’ve been there, in terms of types of shop, clientele and density of people. Some crazy things on sale (which is one of the reasons to go there) – giant ice cream shaped ‘sticks’ of candy floss in all the colours of the rainbow, umbrellas with samurai sword handles (I was quite tempted), cosplay costumes…. and a Claire’s Accessories!

Lunch at the Kawaii Monster Cafe was actually a really good experience of a classic crazy ‘it could only exist in Japan’ concept. I’d describe it as lunch with Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas – multi coloured larger than life fibreglass/plastic scenery including a birthday cake merry go round centrepiece, twirling cupcakes and umbrellas, giant plastic rabbits and sheep, candy cane archways – with dining tables and booths in between. Periodically the kawaii (cute) dancers would come out and get everyone around the merry go round cake clapping along and then doing a simple hand jive, and then came around the tables to have photos taken, with the multi coloured monster (very Monsters, Inc) in tow. You might have had to be there. We’ve lots of photos but I’m not sure they will do it justice. I could easily have been really tacky and done on the cheap, but it wasn’t.

After lunch we went with dad and daughter San Franciscans, Granted and Skylee, to an Owl Cafe, where you get a drink and then half an hour petting 8 different owls. As I’ve said to Rosa, definitely something I would NEVER have done if I’d come to Japan on a different trip.

Then a stroll into the welcome shade of the Meiji Shrine (明治神宮) gardens and onto the shrine itself. It’s undergoing renovations so you can’t go inside the main hall. Definitely too hot for further strolling around Yoyogi Park (代々木公園). So back here for a shower and a cup of tea.

We’re heading out again in a short while to go to the Observation Deck in Sunshine City (サンシャイン60) just down the road from the hotel for a night time view over Tokyo. Then dinner – Charlea flagged a couple of places that do veggie options for me when we were out last night, so Rosa and I plan to pick one of those.

Tomorrow is supposed to start with a tour of Tsukiji Fish Market, but they had a fire there earlier in the week and Charlea wasn’t sure if we’d be able to go. She’s not mentioned it since, so fingers crossed. I might spend a lot of time avoiding looking at the dead fish, but it’s A Tokyo Must.

Monday, 07 August 2017: Tokyo – Tsukiji, Hamarikyu & Akihabara (photos)

Another hot hot hot day.

First stop Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場) where we browsed the FISH stalls in two aircon market halls (and shellfish and veg and sushi stalls too) and had a quick look around the Fishermen’s Shrine (波除稲荷神社) before walking over to and around Hamarikyu Gardens (浜離宮恩賜庭園), which were originally laid out by and for the Samurai. Really lovely, and we chanced upon a couple having their wedding photos taken at the end of our circuit of the gardens.

Then on by foot (through a lovely cool air conditioned mall) and metro to Akihabara (秋葉原) aka Electric Town where there were streets of shops selling all things electronic and anime. Rosa did some successful shopping.

Late lunch at a Japanese equivalent of Wholefoods Market, sat outside at their pavement tables and chairs, and then back to base where we are chilling before packing and going out for a final look around Ikebukuro followed by tonkatsu curry with Charlea.

Off to Hakone on the Shinkansen tomorrow morning.

We are both having a lot of fun.

(I am just back from Tokyo Hands and I can see why William Gibson likes it – it’s a mix between Muji style and John Lewis stock scope (albeit on a smaller scale). I resisted many purchases.)

A Little Later …

Back at the hotel after a curry dinner out where you placed and paid for your order at a touch screen vending machine. Definitely not a place I would have found let alone gone to on my own. It’s surprising how many places have a basic veggie option if only you know enough Japanese to recognise it….

Tuesday, 08 August 2017: Tokyo – Odawara – Hakone (photos)

Rosa and I are chillaxing here at the Fuji-Hakone Guest House after half an hour in the guest house’s private hot springs.

Very Nice.

The guest house is a traditional ryokan (youth hostel style, which is nice and relaxed) so we are on futons this evening and our windows have rice paper screens and the floor is carpeted with bamboo mats. We get traditional dressing gowns to wear to and from the bath house.

Our afternoon stroll around the outdoor sculpture park [Hakone Open-Air Museum (箱根 彫刻の森美術館)] took us past a real mixture of styles from Rodin to Henry Moore. And there was a hot spring foot bath channel staffed by a really lovely man who wiped the wooden seats dry and took everyone’s photos for them.

Then a bus ride on winding roads through the wooded hillsides to our guest house. All the public transport has stop names in English at the bus stops/stations and on board too. Very helpful.

Off out to dine on soba (buckwheat) noodles and tempura this evening at a local family run restaurant. We may be tempted to a night time visit to the guest house’s outdoor hot springs on our return …..

It’s lovely being a bit higher up (~500m) and in a cooler climate.

Off on our second Shinkansen tomorrow – destination Kyoto.

Wednesday, 09 August 2017: Hakone – Odawara – Kyoto (photos)

Left Hakone and the cool mountain climate on the local bus to Odawara (小田原市) (10m above sea level) where we had time for a quick nip to look at the castle before getting the Shinkansen (新幹線) to Kyoto (京都市), arriving just after midday.

[I did lose Rosa just before we were due to get on the bullet train to Kyoto – which almost gave me heart failure.]

HOT but clear skies so not so humid.

Left overnight bags at the Hotel Ibis just across the road from the station and headed out on the local train network to Gion district – for onomoyaki (? It’s a savoury pancake filled with tasty things) at a bar/restaurant that was popular with American troops in World War II (with saucy souvenir drawings on the walls to prove it) and then the shrines / temples and our walking tour of Gion (but no Geiko or Maiko). We did see lots of Japanese tourists dressed up in traditional dress at Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社) though, and tried our hands at ringing the ‘love’ bells… and chilled out with the dragons in the Kennin-ji Temple (建仁寺).

We got back to the hotel around 7.15pm and after a speedy shower each, nipped out for take out from one of the station kiosks. All a bit Russian Roulette on the veggie front. Indeed, the only real area where things have been tricky so far has been meals out. It’s fine when Charlea is around but when we are completely DIY there have been a more misses than hits.

My feet are v tired, and we’ve another long (hot) day out and about tomorrow.

Thursday, 10 August 2017: Kyoto (photos)

Started today early with a group meditation lesson – I couldn’t get beyond 3 in my attempt to count up to 10 whilst thinking only about my breathing. Spent the rest of the day hopping on and off buses sightseeing – two shrines and the castle. Hot and sweaty work.

[We started off with Ryoan-ji (龍安寺)’s tranquil rock gardens, then back tracked to the Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺). Lunch at a local udon noodle cafe, then back on the bus to Nijō Castle (二条城)- and its blissful water spraying leafy pergola arcades.]

Chilling out back at the hotel now before we head out for Teppanyaki dinner – tour leader Charlea has organised a veggie one for me. Yum yum.

Off to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen tomorrow – we spend most of the day on an island and at the shrine over the water there (I forget the name), and we go to the Peace Museum later in the afternoon.

Will need a holiday to recover from this one 🙂

A Little Later …

Teppanyaki this evening was great. We are both *stuffed*.

Friday, 11 August 2017: Kyoto – Hiroshima (photos)

Rosa and I are relaxing in our Hiroshima hotel after a day that got off to an exciting start on our 7.20am bullet train from Kyoto – it’s a big holiday weekend here in Japan and the tour company hadn’t been able to reserve seats for us beyond Osaka which meant we were all spread out in different carriages when we left Kyoto, and then half the group got off our train at Osaka to try and find unreserved seats and couldn’t get back on again!

Luckily Charlea was with them, and they all got on the next train to Hiroshima, with was only 30 mins later. They got seats; we’d stood, squashed like sardines. Another stroke of luck was that the family of four who are on the tour were split between the two trains / groups and were texting, so we all sort of knew what was going on.

Once we’d rendezvoused in Hiroshima (広島市), we dropped off our bags at the hotel and headed off to the nearby island of Miyajima (宮島) for the day. It’s famous for the Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) with its wooden walkways that stretch out over the waters of the bay (when the tide is in at least) and its red/orange wooden Tori gate a little further out in the bay. Really beautiful. We took lots of photos.

After some BBQ street food for lunch (corn of the cob on a stick for me, takiyaki (octopus balls) for Rosa), we went DIY for a couple of hours: Rosa explored the souvenir shops and Julia and I headed up into the hills in search of the “Buddhas with knitted hats” that Charlea had mentioned lined the way to another temple. We bumped into Skylee, Granted and Andrew, and the five of us soon found the first of many Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. The outside stone ones all have knitted hats, and some even have scarves.

We ended up spending an hour or so there exploring the beautiful Daishō-in (大聖院) temple complex – lovely wooden halls, pathways through green glades, prayer wheels, peace and quiet, in a valley stretching up into the wooded hills above the Itsukushima Shrine.

One of the highlights of the trip for me, Although it’s a sad story behind the hats and scarves.

We all met up at the ferry pier at 3pm, took the ferry / train / tram back into Hiroshima and then on to the Peace Memorial Park (広島平和記念公園) in the late afternoon. A good time to visit.

Dinner was Okonomiyaki pancakes again, this time Hiroshima style and cooked on a hot plate in front of us, in a tiny place, one of many on the 4th floor of a city centre building. All a bit ramshackle and market stall-like, fab food, lots of fun – and a very welcome cold beer served in a glass from the freezer. NICE. Tram back to base, shower and chillax.

Off to Osaka first thing tomorrow (8.10am departure from the hotel, which is a luxurious late start compared to the past week), for sight seeing, lunch and then the stage sword fighting workshop and a night in a capsule hotel…..

But now, bedtime.

Saturday, 12 August 2017: Hiroshima – Osaka (photos)

So after our speedy Shinkansen ride to Osaka (大阪市) we took the metro to Namba (aka party town) where we checked in to the Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi and put our overnight bags into lockers.

Then off on a speedy tour of Namba’s main sights – food street [Dōtonbori Street], kitchen kit street [Doguyasuji shopping arcade] and Kuromon Ichiba Market (another arcade complex) – where we sampled strawberry topped mochi (glutinous rice balls) with various flavours and fillings. I went chocolate, Rosa went strawberry.

I’ll look up the names of the streets / arcades later [done] – I’m currently in Namba’s airconditioned underground mall, about to tuck into a veggie rice burger and fries at Mos Burger. Rosa is at karaoke, with my camera for video and photos.

More to follow after my burger.

…… Burger break ……

We returned to “food arcade” for lunch on the go. I had a boiled tofu parcel filled with assorted veg. Very tasty.

In the afternoon we headed into the Namba side streets to a dance / fitness studio where we spent a fantastic hour learning the basic moves of Samurai sword fighting [courtesy of Japan Tate-do Association’s Quick Samurai Experience]…. and got to dress up and then act out a short fight scene each. Another highlight of the trip for me. Lots of photos …. I was a Samurai, Rosa went for Ninja.

We had the rest of the afternoon free to DIY, so after sorting out plans for tomorrow’s free day, Rosa and I hit the “normal” shopping arcades (for shade, air con and clothes) then back to the capsule hotel for a shower. It’s pretty much a youth hostel in terms of shared facilities – and the men’s capsules are two floors up from the women’s, with reception in between.

A stroll on search of pre karaoke dinner for Rosa resulted in a riverside picnic feast courtesy of Lawson‘s (a 7-11 type convenience store), and at 8pm the karaoke-ers set off for two hours of epic singing (and photos I hope).

I strolled back down food street and into some of the side streets – all packed with people and decorated with neon signs and giant food-related models. Ended up here in Mos Burger where the lady on the till was able to check which of their rice and soy burgers were veggie. Brill!

Everyone is sat here with phones / iPads using the mall’s free wifi – so I don’t look odd 🙂

We plan to visit Osaka Castle tomorrow then return to kitchen kit street for some more in depth exploring. It’s DIY for getting back to Tokyo on the final Shinkansen of the trip.

A Little Later …

My return to the Capsule Hotel coincided with that of the Karaoke crew, who had had a fab time. Everyone had done a song or two. Retiring for the night to capsule F414 revealed that I was in a “top bunk” – it was quite an achievement getting up/down and in/out. It all felt very “mission to Mars”….

Sunday, 13 August 2017: Osaka – Tokyo (photos)

Slept surprisingly well in my capsule, and didn’t break anything clambering in and out (and down and back up again) when I needed a wee in the middle of the night. Awake around 6am, partly because that’s about the time we’ve been getting up on the tour, and partly because someone’s phone alarm was going off on an endless loop of polyphonic joy.

Breakfast was better than expected too. The two Japanese options featured a lot of fish so I opted for ‘American’ – a doorstep of white bread, margarine and strawberry jam, a cold boiled egg, ham slices (declined), a cup of sweet corn soup, a small salad and a coffee.

A little after 9am, Daniel, Owain, Rosa and I headed out into Namba and caught the metro to Morinomiya station (森ノ宮駅) where there is an entrance to the park that surrounds Osaka Castle (大坂城). Blue skies and hot already – but lovely walking on paths between the trees. Daniel spotted some dead cicadas near one of the trees and on closer inspection we found lots, and the empty shells of the “lava” stage too (looking a lot like giant fleas / lice).

Strolling through the park alongside joggers, Sunday cyclists and the tourist toy train we got super views of the castle, solidly sat high above its moat (water filled and dry) and big stone walls. It’s free to get right up to the base of the main castle – so we didn’t join the queue for tickets to go inside. After ice creams (Daniel and Owain), and a mountain of multicoloured shaved ice (Rosa), D, O and I did a circuit of the castle while Rosa headed back to the park entrance to wait for us. More great views of the castle, Osaka, and Samurai-clad volunteer litter pickers.

Back onto the metro for a return visit to food alley. Quieter than yesterday but still busy, and with lots of choice – and not so many people to squeeze between. Sushi and chicken on sticks were selected. I ended up getting a couple of rice triangles from a Lawson a little further on – the English labelling makes it possible to find veggie options. Still not a huge choice; it has been hard to find veggie food when we’ve had to DIY.

A stroll along kitchen tools street, but few purchases even though the boys left us to browse at our own pace.

Rosa wanted to return to the figurine shops she’d seen somewhere near the giant crabs of Dōtonbori, and we got there via the Daiso-sort-of-100¥ shop, and a bit of tired tension. I stayed ratty for the rest of the afternoon.

Back to the capsule hotel to collect our bags, left there when we’d checked out this morning – ¥200 for up to 24 hours was £1.40 well spent. Our main bags had travelled from Hiroshima to Tokyo courtesy of ‘The Two Black Cats’ aka Yamato Transport. Owain and Daniel were at the hotel too, so the four of us made our way on the red M line to Shin-Osaka.

Very busy on the metro and in the station, so we decided to make use of our reserved seats on the 17:43 rather than get an earlier train and have to battle for seats in the unreserved carriages. It also meant we were able to hook up with Charlea to be guided to the Ibis Shinjuku, rather than trying to find it from the map and address in the trip notes.

The hour or so’s wait in Shin-Osaka station passed quickly and gave me plenty of time to find another convenience store with some veggie options; it was three Inari, a v small salad and an apple for dinner ….plus some snacks and a beer.

Slept on the Shinkansen – Granted was spot on when he observed that Rosa had worn out her aunt – as far as Shinagawa Station (品川駅) where Charlea led us to the JR Yamanote line, allowing us to use our (free) Rail Passes all the way to Shinjuku (新宿区).

A short stroll to the Ibis, where our luggage and room were waiting for us. A shower and the straight to sleep.

Monday, 14 August 2017: Tokyo (photos)

Updates petered out after this point as Rosa and I tried to squeeze as much out of our remaining time in Tokyo. What follows is a summary of what we did.

The alarm had been set for 7.30 am for breakfast at 8 am and a 9 am departure, and our last full day commenced with grey skies above. We took a local train on the JR Chuo line from Shinjuku to Kichijoji station (吉祥寺駅), and walked under dripping trees and brollies to and through Inokashira Park (井の頭恩賜公園) to the Ghibli Museum (三鷹の森ジブリ美術館).

The museum was superb, and we spent a happy couple of hours poring over the details in the various rooms and taking photos up in the roof garden with the Iron Man [(aka the Giant Robot)].

Back to Kichijo-ji station with a detour via the Atré food hall for sushi snacks and back to the park to sit by the lake for our last lunch in Japan.

I had planned to do my own thing in the afternoon, taking in the view from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (東京都庁舎) which was close to the hotel (and FREE) and heading back to Ueno and/or browsing the ¥100 shops for souvenirs. Instead I ended up on the metro to Akiharbara for Rosa to do some final anime etc shopping.

The Robot Restaurant show was much, much better than it sounds, and – bizarre coincidence – I bumped into one of the few people I know relatively well at LW.

Heavy rain followed us from the final group meal at another great izakaya to the Ibis, where farewells and packing before bed made for a late night.

All in all the evening was a fantastic way to end our trip to Japan.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017: Tokyo – London (photos)

The Express Airport Bus got us to Haneda Airport in less than an hour, travelling out from Tokyo under grey skies and rain. Easy, speedy check-in and security (keys seemed to cause the most concern), and wifi, loungers and a small Uniqlo awaited us in Departures.

Lufthansa LH715 got us to Munich in 12 hours or so, LH2480 brought us back to Blighty – our descent providing beautifully lit late afternoon / early evening views of Walton on the Naze, the Barbican and St Paul’s School.

Tom and Jo were waiting for us at Terminal 2.

Home Sweet Home.

Japan: We’re back!

Japan was great – and I’d heartily recommend Inside Japan Tours. Lots of emails / calls / info before we went (Not too much! But more than I’ve ever got from other operators), and a very capable, and likeable, tour leader who spoke Japanese and knew the itinerary inside out plus plenty of varied places for eating, shopping and seeing.

The trip was non-stop which meant we saw and did lots. We had a really good group – 16 of us in all, with a mixture of solo travellers (generally in their 20s) and ‘grown ups with their kids’ (like me and Rosa), from the UK, the US and Italy. Everyone got on together, mixing at meals, on the train journeys and out and about on the tour.

Our HyperJapan Group (photo by Andrew Purin)
Our HyperJapan Group (photo by Andrew P)

It wasn’t expensive at all if you’re used to London prices (I didn’t spend anything like the £50/day budget suggested), and trains / tube are no more complicated / intimidating than London’s system. All signage is in English as well as Japanese. Their equivalent of the oyster card works in all their big cities – everywhere we went to. The Shinkansen bullet train is as speedy and efficient as people say (but not really that different from getting a train up the East Coast Main Line….).

It was HOT, and humid – around 30C every day, until our last full day when it got a bit cooler and rained a bit (still shorts and T-shirt weather though). And it rained more on the day we left – sad to see us go 🙂

In our two weeks, we really only scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer.

Tokyo was buzzing – lots of shops and sights to see, all easy to get to on the tube and the train. We did lots of sight seeing at the start of the trip – from the teen hotspot of Harajuku to the Meiji Shrine right next door, the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Shibuya Scramble Crossing (without the 1 million people per hour!), the electronics and anime emporia of Akihabara, Ikebukuro and Ueno – where we also pottered around the Park and Tokyo National Museum.

I made it to Asakusa and Sensō-ji, the 7th century Buddhist temple there, and across the river to the Edo-Tokyo Museum and Yokoamicho Park which has memorials to the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 and the air raids of World War II. Back in Ikebukuro, our base at the start of the trip, we went up to the top of the Sunshine 60 skyscraper for fantastic nighttime views out over Toyko, followed by a successful late night shop in one of the 100 yen shops – everything and anything, for 70p!

Twilight Tokyo from the Sunshine 60 Observatory, Ikebukuro
Twilight Tokyo from the Sunshine 60 Observatory, Ikebukuro

Hakone was a complete contrast – home to hot springs and Mt Fuji (who kept herself hidden in the clouds), and the Hakone Open-Air Museum which is a sculpture park set amidst the trees and hills of the national park. Nice and cool up at 500m, and the park was lovely place to walk around – and half way round there’s a stone channel fed by a hot spring where you can sit and ‘cool’ you weary feet. Smashing! The guest house we stayed at had its own private indoor and outdoor onsen, hot spring baths. Think of a smaller version of the baths at Bath, without the Roman / Georgian grandeur and you’re pretty much there.

"Symphonic Sculpture" by Gabriel Loire, Hakone Open-Air Museum
“Symphonic Sculpture” by Gabriel Loire, Hakone Open-Air Museum

In Kyoto, even with 2 days, we only saw 4 of their temples/palaces and the old area where the geisha live and work, which is just a few small streets really, set around a small river. Lots of Japanese tourists there too – many of them dressed up in traditional outfits, which made for lots and lots of photos….

Japanese tourists in kimono, Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto
Japanese tourists in kimono, Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto

Hiroshima was a complete contrast to the busyness of Tokyo and Osaka. We spent most of the day on Miyajima Island, with its high, tree-covered hills at the centre and temples scattered around the slopes and stretching out into the bay. Beautiful.

Me and Rosa, Miyajima Island, Itsukushima Shrine
Me and Rosa, Miyajima Island, Itsukushima Shrine

In the afternoon, back in Hiroshima, we went to the Peace Memorial Hall, and then through the Peace Memorial Park to the Peace Memorial Dome and the Children’s Peace Monument. All very moving, and peaceful.

To lift the sombre mood, Charlea – our tour leader – took us for okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki are pancakes cooked on a hot plate and in Hiroshima we had them made right in front of us, with all 17 of us squeezed into a tiny Okonomiyaki place. We filled it up, and we filled up! We had okonomiyaki in a few other places – the concept is the same, but the fillings vary. And they’re always yummy.

Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style
Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style

In Osaka we stayed in Namba, aka ‘party-town’, which has a very holiday feel with the ‘street of eats’, lantern-lit riverside walkways, covered food markets and lots of airconditioned arcades where you could shop and stroll and shelter from the sun. Osaka also offered karaoke and a Samurai stage sword fighting workshop too, where we got to dress up as samurai, ninjas, princesses and soldiers. I loved it! And in my ‘room’ in our ‘capsule hotel’ I felt like I was on a mission to Mars!

My 'room' at the Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi, Osaka
My ‘room’ at the Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi, Osaka

Back in Tokyo at the end of the tour, we had a super morning at the Studio Ghibli (animation studio) Museum, and time to shop before our final evening as a group when we went to the amazing Robot Restaurant Show – think a high energy carnival parade inside a relatively small dark room, with seats on either side of a central aisle. Then add giant robots, some carrying people dressed as mermaids or forest animals, or drumming on big kettle drums or playing guitar (like the best air guitarist ever) and with other people dressed up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or neon light strip sporting creatures, all performing a series of short plays. Some of which came with fireworks! Really, really fun. Followed by dinner at a izakaya (Japan’s equivalent of a tavern), it was the perfect end to a great trip.

Izakaya Dinner, Tokyo
Izakaya Dinner, Tokyo

And I do want to return to Japan – next time to the mountains, in the winter time, for some trekking….

Japan: Prep

The excitement is building….. IJT’s InfoPack for their HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! tour arrived today for Rosa’s 18th birthday trip – a manga / anime / J-pop themed tour of Japan – kawaii!!

It's here.... IJT's InfoPack for HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go!
IJT’s InfoPack for HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go!

There’s a map of Japan, a more detailed itinerary booklet with names, addresses and maps of each of the hotels. Our tour leader is Charlea Jefts and she will already be at our start hotel – the b ikebukuro – when we arrive, so we should be able to meet up with her to get tips on what to do on our two extra days at the start. Other than get through the jet lag.

Rosa and I spent a lovely afternoon looking through the trip itinerary and what we could do with our extra time, and talking through what to take. Here are the main things:

Money

The trip notes recommend taking ¥‎100,000 cash for a 2 week trip, for food, drinks and entrance fees (some are included, others aren’t, and we’ve got 2 extra days of Doing Things). That’s about £700, which works out at about £50 a day. We have to buy lunch and dinner most days.

So I’ll be keeping an eye on rates on offer at FairFX and Thomas Exchange Global.

I’m going to take some GBP in cash for emergency funds, and my debit/credit cards too.

Wifi/Internet

There’s wifi in most of the hotels and the tour leader has a portable wifi base station (might not be the right term but you know what I mean!) . That’ll do me.

Packing

There’s a packing list in the itinerary. The main things I’d not anticipated were:

  • long trousers & long sleeved top/light jumper – for air con train and restaurants
  • mosquitoes – so I’ll be packing mozzie repellent and take a vvv light long sleeved cotton top as cover up too
  • umbrella
  • overnight bag – our luggage gets forwarded twice, and we’ll need a small overnight bag for those nights. I’ve just treated myself to a navy SPAHER Ultra Lightweight Packable 20l Daypack courtesy of Amazon.
  • water bottle(s) – to avoid buying plastic bottles. I’m taking an empty 0.75l Volvic-type one. Maybe a couple.

My packing list for this trip is a bit different from the usual one!

We need to be able to carry our own luggage on/off public transport and from stations to hotels. I’m taking my 40l rucksack – last used in Libya – but then I do pack little and travel light.

A long weekend on Skye: The Caledonian Sleeper, Shorefield House, (Some) Sun and Strolls

Phil and I are back from a lovely few days on Skye. We caught the Caledonian Sleeper train up to Fort William, leaving London on Wednesday night and arriving Thursday morning, returning to London overnight Sunday/Monday.  We hired a car from Practical Rental – Fort William to get us to and around Skye.

Here’s what we did.

Wednesday 17 May 2017: London Euston – Caledonian Sleeper

A pre boarding glass of wine at Gino D’Acampo, then off to Platform 1 to walk the length of the train to find coach Y. Next time we’ll know that the old hands have their pre departure tipple in the dining coach… and that it’s a very, very long train.

As the train trundled north we settled in to our berths. A good night’s sleep.

Thursday 18 May 2017: Caledonian Sleeper – Fort William – Loch Lochy – Kintail – Dornie – Plockton – Broadford – Edinbane

Two cups of coffee and a pack of shortbread accompanied our wake up call at 8am as the 6 carriage train made its way through the Highlands. Green glens and hills gliding by, the gorse in bright yellow bloom, rivers and lochs and morning mists.

Caledonian Sleeper: looking back
Caledonian Sleeper: looking back

Our arrival into Fort William coincided with The Jacobite getting up steam, and the lovely gent from Slipway Autos was there ready and waiting with a sign and and our Practical Car Rentals Citroen C1. Super speedy admin – the first time I’ve used the DVLA / GOV.UK online service create a ‘check code’ to share my driving record with a car hire company and it worked like a dream. The only bit of paperwork was the Vehicle Rental Agreement! Done and dusted in less than 5 mins.

I tell a lie, there was one more bit of paper – a handy map of the Fort William & Lochaber area which made our drive to Skye super-easy: North up the A82 to Invergarry then west along the A87 all the way to the Kyle of Lochalsh and across the bridge to Skye.

En route, a leg stretch and photo op at Loch Lochy, a late elevenses / early lunch at the Jac-o-Bite Inn in Kintail (in a downpour), and another photo stop at the stone slipway at Aird Point (Dornie) with its views across Loch Duich to Eilean Donan Castle. A detour north towards Stromeferry and around the peninsula brought us to Plockton for a stroll around the village and harbour.

Then across the sea to Skye.

Broadford was our first stop on Skye. Easy (and free!) parking (hark the Londoner) looking out over Broadford Bay. Another stroll, via the scattering of small shops to the old stone pier then back through town and out the other side and onto the stone beach. Crystal clear waters, fiery seaweed, bluebells and trees in bud. Beautiful.

Phil at Broadford harbour, Skye
Phil at Broadford harbour, Skye

Continuing north along the A87 we skirted sea lochs and scurried under looming mountains, veering north west at Portree and turning onto the A850 at Carbost/Borve, the scenery shifting at every turn.

Our destination – the small village of Edinbane and Shorefield House, our B&B for the next 3 nights. Both bed(room) and breakfast definitely merit their 4 stars.

After a warm welcome from Hilary and Peter, we settled in and took up the offer of a refreshing pot of tea and the decidedly superior selection of biscuits before heading out on foot to explore the village and for a pre dinner stroll along the banks of the Abhainn Choishleadar.

The “Where to have dinner?” decision was easy – the excellent Edinbane Inn is a couple of minutes walk away from Shorefield House. As it turned out, lots of other people had the same idea, but our hour’s wait turned into 20 minutes and that gave us time for a pint and some crisps, both Skye-made, before tucking, slightly tipsily, into a tasty, tasty meal.

Then back to base. Still light at 11pm.

Friday 19 May 2017: Edinbane – Coral Beach – Neist Point Lighthouse – Portree – Scorrybreac – Trotternish Peninsula – Portree – Edinbane

The sunniest day of our sojourn on Skye.

A feast of a breakfast* at Shorefield House then off, driving west along the A850 to Dunvegan, past the castle and turning north along a single track road running along the shores of Loch Dunvegan to Claigan. First stop – Coral Beach, which came complete with seals leaping in the bay and a cold wind. Back in the car, back to Dunvegan and onto the B884 heading west across the the Duirish Peninsula to Neist Point and its famous lighthouse. A steep path / steps down – better views from the cliffs close to the parking area, and you can see the sea birds nesting on the cliffs too.

After retracing our road to the A863 we continued south east to Struan where we turned left onto the B885 to take the short cut across the island to Portree.

A potter around Portree and then the Scorrybreac Circuit. A pleasure in the warm afternoon sun; the wind had died down completely.

Green hill, blue waters. Scorrybreac Circuit scenery
Green hill, blue waters. Scorrybreac Circuit scenery

The lovely early evening light saw us complete the drive around the Trotternish peninsula, with several stops for photos of the Western Isles. Beautiful.

Evening light over the Western Isles, from the Trotternish peninsula
Evening light over the Western Isles, from the Trotternish peninsula

Our plan to have dinner somewhere in Uig was foiled by all the possible pubs’ car parks being too full, so it was plan B – back to Portree and the Lower Deck Seafood Restaurant down by the harbourside.

Back to base and the wifi to work out a plan for tomorrow, which looked likely to be damp….

* juice, muesli with plain yoghurt and fresh raspberries, oatcakes and cheese, granola and blueberries, veggie fry up – two veggie sausages, scrambled egg, fried mushrooms, fresh fried tomatoes, clootie dumpling – toast and tea. And that was just me.

Saturday 20 May 2017: Edinbane – Carbost / Talisker Distillery – Broadford – Elgol – Edinbane

I was a bit more restrained in my breakfast order this morning – mushrooms on toast (after muesli with yoghurt, prunes and water melon) to allow room for at least one triangle of toast and jam/honey (which I just about managed) and a nice big cafetiere of coffee between us. That set us up for a somewhat damp day, driving around the west of the island.

Taking the A850 west and the south east again, we detoured off onto some of the map’s “white” roads, via Harlosh and Vatten, around Loch Bracadale. Really lovely, even in the grey.

We were heading to the Talisker Distillery, on the shores of Loch Harport. Busy on a drizzly day, so we had an hour to while away before we could join the first tour of the afternoon. Easily done strolling along the waterfront and pottering around the small display in the Visitor Centre. A bit heavy handed with the history and The Brand – you could tell there was a big business behind it.

The tour was interesting, and there was a tasting at the end. As driver, I was given my wee dram in a small takeaway pot. Very Good.

The weather hadn’t improved, and didn’t, which made for an afternoon’s drive – east to Broadford for coffee and cake at Café Sia, then west along the B8083 to Elgol, almost at the end of the Strathaird peninsula. Very picturesque, and an opportunity for a photo of some free ranging Highland cows.

Highland cow, Strathaird peninsula
Highland cow, Strathaird peninsula

Then all the way back to Edinbane for dinner at the Edinbane Inn. Not nearly so busy as on Thursday – but we had booked a table in the restaurant Just To Be Sure.

Sunday 21 May 2017: Edinbane – Armadale – Invermoriston – Fort William – Caledonian Sleeper

Farewell to Skye and another damp day. So I started with a full veggie breakfast (including potato scone) to make up for it. As well as muesli and fresh fruit. And toast. Coffee again.

East and then south to Portree and south again along the A87. Through Broadford and onto the A851 – to Armadale and the CalMac ferry terminal. The next sailing to Mallaig and the mainland was docked, but we resisted temptation (and the risk of a dint or a scrape on the hire car) and returned to the mainland via Broadford and the bridge.

Looking across the Sound of Sleat from Armadale
Looking across the Sound of Sleat from Armadale

East along the A87 all the way to Invermoriston, where we stopped at the superb Glen Rowan Cafe for the best coffee and cake of the trip. Highly recommended.

Then the A82 south west, along the shores of Loch Ness – not a Nessie in sight – and onwards through the Great Glen, arriving back in Fort William with a couple of hours to spare before catching the 9pm Caledonian Sleeper back to London.

That gave us time to tour around the ring road and one way system before parking back at the station, to stock up on dinner treats from Morrisons, to walk the length of the High Street and down to the shores of Loch Linnhe and back to the High Street again for a pint and some crisps at The Grog & Gruel.

A painless car key drop at the ticket office, then down to coach Y and into our cabin for a picnic dinner watching the Scottish scenery roll by…..

Caledonian Sleeper at Fort William
Caledonian Sleeper at Fort William

We were back in London Euston by 9.15am Monday morning, in time to join the commuters on the Circle line heading east to the City.

Dolpo Expedition: Packing

I’ve spent today packing. Even though it’s a week or so before we fly to Kathmandu, today / tomorrow was my only chance before Steffi and Sam arrive from Far West Wales.

When we met up in March, Val had given me a holdall of LED* stuff (including a box of donated eye glasses and 10 or so of the inflatable LuminAID solar lights) to take out, and last Tuesday I’d picked up a large suitcase and a big M&S Christmas Carrier Bag full of clothes donated by Sonal and her friends. Getting all of that into my 75 litre Karrimor rucksack, and handbaggage, was looking like a Herculean Challenge…

But with the help of 3 of those vacuum storage bags which you put clothes in and then suck the air out of, plus (wo)man power from Silver Surfer Jean and (vitally!) her hoover, I’ve managed to compress a bunch of the warmest coats/jackets/fleece tops etc so that I can fit as much as possible in, and still have room for my own kit.

So. Kit. What am I taking? We’re away for 31 days, it’s a portered trek and the weather’s wintry:

  • Update from Val today: OK there is heaps of snow and we’ve had lots of rain so I’m hoping that with your arrival it will all start to clear up and be good normal weather.
  • Mark Horrell’s blogpost about his recent Langtang trek: The 3 curses of the Himalayan snow
  • Yr.No weather forecast for Dolpā (Altitude: 4857 m)

    Dolpo Expedition: Long term forecast for Dolpā, Mid West (Nepal)
    Yr.No Long term forecast for Dolpā, Mid West (Nepal)

Well, I took photos as I packed:

Dolpo Expedition: Packing
Dolpo Expedition: Packing

And used my trusty kit list spreadsheet, which translated into this packing:

Documents & paperwork

  • Passport
  • Insurance Policy
  • Tickets / Flight confirmation email
  • Vaccinations log book
  • 6 x passport photos for park permit & tourist visa (on arrival)
  • KTM contact details
  • Emergency family contacts
  • Photos of home
  • Travel diary & pens
  • Envelopes + postcards for tips

Money

  • GBP
  • USD
  • NPR
  • Credit card
  • Debit card

Travel clothes / KTM & Pokhara

  • Cargo trousers, T-shirt, Grey zip top (plus trek boots and socks I don’t mind walking around the aeroplane in)
  • Orange check shirt
  • Long sleeve T shirt

Trek clothes

  • 2 pairs of trekking trousers
  • 2 x microfibre trekking T-shirts
  • 2 x T-shirts
  • 1 Fleece zip top
  • Thermals: leggings + long sleeved microfibre top + thicker Icebreaker top
  • Down jacket
  • Gloves (1x mittens; 1 x red fleece)
  • Warm hat
  • Buff
  • Goretex jacket
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Gaiters (new ones, an early birthday present from TJBR)
  • Windproof / showerproof jacket
  • Sun hat
  • Sunglasses (1 x normal for KTM/POK; 1 x Julbo for snow/sun/altitude)
  • 16 pairs pants
  • 3 x bras
  • 4 pairs walking socks
  • handkerchief x 2

Sleeping

  • Silk sleep sheet
  • Sleeping bag fleece liner
  • PJ bottoms x 2 (1 x trek; 1 x KTM / POK)
  • T shirts x 2 (1 x trek; 1 x KTM / POK)

Footwear

  • Trekking boots
  • Adventure sandals
  • Yaktrax (and planning to buy some spikeys in KTM/POK if the conditions still look super snowy)

Plus

  • Trekking poles
  • 2 x Muji metal water bottles
  • Head torch + spare batteries (3xAAA)
  • Watch with alarm
  • Swiss Army knife

Toiletries etc

  • Flannel & soap in ziplock bag
  • Hair brush & comb
  • Elastic hair bands & hair clip
  • Travel towel (microfibre cloth)
  • Hair towel
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste
  • Deodorant (stick)
  • Tampons & disposal bags
  • Shampoo & conditioner (3 sample sachets of each)
  • Sunscreen & lip screen
  • 8 hour moisturising cream (always!!!)
  • Normal moisturiser
  • Antiseptic handwash
  • Wet wipes (biodegradable)
  • Loo roll / tissues
  • Ear plugs
  • Laundry liquid
  • Washing up gloves

Bags

  • Rucksack (to leave in POK)
  • Nisamax holdall (Val’s)
  • Daypack
  • Black travel bag
  • Money belt
  • Plastic carrier bags (always more than I think I’ll need, in all sizes)
  • Travel purse x 2 (GBP / Nepali Rupees)

First aid kit (in plastic grab bag)

  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Paracetamol (headaches)
  • Diamox
  • Antihistamine pills
  • Diarrhoea stopper (Immodium)
  • Rehydration sachets
  • Ibuprofen gel
  • Compeed
  • Plasters
  • Aspirin (3 tablets for the  journey home, vs DVT after 3 weeks at altitude)

Electricals and gadgets

  • Camera, cables, battery recharger, plug adapter
  • Spare camera batteries – charged
  • Mobile phone (no charging kit – I’ll turn it off once we’re in KTM)
  • Earphones

I’m borrowing a sleeping bag, thermarest and (I hope!) kit bag from Val, who’s also providing travel scrabble and dice for Ten Thousand. I’ll buy a map out there and I’m hoping I’ll be able to squeeze in a couple of books, just in case Etihad’s in flight entertainment fails me. Plus we do have hours in Abu Dhabi in both directions.

And this list doesn’t include all the stuff I’m taking for Val/LED.


Feeling less stressed now that I’ve got my bags packed.

So that just leaves sorting out a birthday present for Rosa before I go…..


Packing List Update: 04 April 2017

  • 1 x pillow case (to turn spare clothes into a pillow)
  • 1 x nail clippers and nail file – usually on the list. I shall make room.
  • Elastic washing line. I am going to need to do some washing….

Light Education Development, the charity Val runs to bring affordable, sustainable solar light, education supplies and basic medical care to the Manaslu, Tsum, Solu and Humla regions of northern Nepal, yak herders in highland areas of the Himalaya, and the high mountain villages of the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash in Northern Peru. I’m a trustee.