Part One- Tokyo, Kanazawa , Takayama and Shirakawa-go
After much planning and three postponements for various reasons, this actually happened. With so much anticipation I was afraid we might be disappointed, but far from it. Japan turned out to exceed our expectations, and certainly was weirder than I thought in some ways. The weirdness expresses itself in an obsession with technology, and lifesize doll mascots for everything amongst other things. It was definitely cleaner, ( ah Japanese toilets!) , incredibly organized and efficient. So buckle up and prepare for the (probably long) ride. A 24 day trip to multiple cities will need a lot of words. Please feel free to skip the boring bits. If you are not actually researching your own trip you may find some of the practical info not to your liking, so I shall not be offended if you ignore those bits.
We specifically picked November to see the autumn leaves about which we had heard a lot. They did not disappoint and the timing of the route worked out perfectly. We were rewarded with mostly crisp warmish days and blue skies, with cooler evenings and only a couple of days of rain towards the end. On arriving back in Tokyo for the last few days trees were already bare, and rain falling, so I felt the timing was great. Our route was as follows: 4 days in Tokyo, then fast train to Kanazawa for 3 nights, bus to Takayama for 2 nights, then a long train ride to Kyoto (5 nights) , a 3 night stay in Hiroshima, 2 nights in Hakone (another VERY long trip) and return to Tokyo for a final 5 nights . Here we go!
WE flew LOT Polish airlines via Warsaw. Not much to report except that they inaugurated the direct flight Warsaw to Sri Lanka that day, and were giving out free Indian food at the press opening with the Sri Lankan Ambassador! Yay for free food.
On arrival at Narita Airport Tokyo at 8.30 am we traded in our Japan Rail voucher for our wonderful JR pass, which would give us free rides on the JR railways for 21 days. Since our trip was 24 days we activated it from day 4 , as the first 4 days we would remain in Tokyo. This worked out very well. The whole process took 5 minutes, and we got our first taste of Japanese politeness and efficiency. We then hopped on a Keisei bus which took us to Tokyo central station. To say that the station is huge would be an understatement. It is massive and you could easily get lost in it for a week or so. Anyway we eventually got out and walked to a subway that took us to our wonderful Red Planet Hotel Asakusa. This fabulous place is located in the heart of Asakusa neighbourhood (not to be confused with Akasaka) near the famous Senso-ji Temple the oldest and most important temple in Tokyo. The little pedestrian streets around the temple are full of tourists and locals coming to pray, and also with little shops and restaurants.You can also go to an owl cafe, or rent a kimono for the day. At night the neighbourhood was quiet and had an old world charm.
The next day we walked to the Sumida River and got on a cruise down to Hamarikyu Gardens. On the boat with us were a whole class of school kids and their teachers. A guy started talking to us, and turned out to be the school principal. Talking to the kids was a lot more interesting than the cruise as the buildings along the way were mostly pretty boxy and modern. There were a lot of nondescript bridges. We all got off at the gardens which were quite lovely.
After that we took the metro to another neighbourhood called Akihabara, known as Electric Town or Geek central. This is where all the gamers and punks hang out, streets of gaming parlours. There are also the famed Maid Cafes, which are rather hard to describe. Let’s say they are where the very formal Japanese businessmen can let their hair down and indulge their fantasies. There are girls all along the street advertising these establishments, so it isn’t hard to find one. The waitresses are dressed as maids, and do all kinds of odd things like miaowing and singing in high pitched voices. On the spur of the moment we decided it was an “Only in Japan” moment, so for 500 Yen we entered the weird world of Maid dreaming Let’s say it was a one time experience. Most of the time we had no clue what was going on, and we just laughed at it. It was simultaneously hilarious and disturbing. We went home both amused and baffled.
Next day we had arranged to meet Nobuaki Fujii, a friend from Servas, who said he would pick us up at our hotel and take us around the neighbourhood. We had a fantastic day with him as follows. First he took us to a Japanese pharmacy full of all kinds of weird and wonderful “natural” treatments some of which we got to taste (hmmm). Next we went walking around Kappabashi, the centre of kitchenware. That may sound kind of boring, but was in fact fascinating. Firstly the Japanese take their knives very seriously (think Samurai swords). Secondly, most restaurants and hotels display plastic versions of the food so you know exactly what you are getting (down to the correct number of peas) So there are shops that specialize in this stuff.
Next Aki took us to a massive upscale department store ( quick glance at a temple and the public library) where we each bought a bento box for lunch which we would eat at his office. There we met his partner Mayumi who is a jewellery designer and adorable person. Aki is a freelance graphic designer. He then taught us how to make tea, did some calligraphy and we ate our bento. Then he announced we were going to a fire walking ceremony. This was simply amazing, as it was a neighborhood thing which we would never have come across if he hadn’t taken us there. The people gathered outside the temple, some priests built a fire, beat a path through it and then everyone (including small kids) walked through it, including Aki and Mayumi. We declined. It was all fascinating. They then walked us back to our hotel and we said goodnight , promising to be in touch when we returned to Tokyo at the end of our trip.
The last day in Tokyo (for this section) we got on a very weird monorail to visit Odaiba, an artificial island part of Tokyo known for its hi tech and robotic amusements, as well as various entertainments. It all felt like being in Blade Runner. We passed over lots of impressive bridges and highways, and got off next to the Statue of Liberty and the giant Gundam robot. I can’t explain so I will just show you a picture. We wandered around stupefied for a few hours, and also talked to a scarily real robot information lady. ( apparently I can’t post that as it’s a video)
In the evening we walked back to see Sensoji at night and found it enchanting, even though the streets were deserted as the stalls and restaurants had already closed.
And so to Kanazawa, a city rightly famous for its wonderful Kenrokuen Gardens, and Castle, as well as for its Edo period Samurai houses and Geisha district. We stayed in the amazing Emblem Stay, a cross between a hostel and guest house, which had a bar. This turned out to be most fortuitous as the night we arrived there was a meetup in said bar, where we made the acquaintance of a lovely Portuguese couple Tiago and Isabella and their daughter Madalena, who all spoke perfect idiomatic English. They run a museum in a place called Caramulo. After chatting with them for a while, we then sat with some local Japanese who came along to practise their English. All great fun.
Kanazawa Castle and Gardens were nothing short of stunning. I will leave it to you to judge.
We continued to tour the Samurai district of old preserved houses and the Geisha quarter before going off in search of dinner, which we found in a stunning Chinese restaurant called Mei Mei with a huge log fire, in which we were the only customers to devour a massive, delicious plate of something cooked inside a clay pot (chicken and rice?) Kanazawa also has tons of other things to see such as the Omicho Fish market , the 21st Century art museum (too packed and hot) and the wonderful Noh Theatre Museum which we visited the next day. Much hilarity ensued.
And so on to Takayama. The original plan had been to stop between Kanazawa and Takayama to visit the UNESCO heritage village of Shirakawa-go. But I could not get a bus ticket from there on to Takayama, so we took a bus directly to Takayama and bought bus tickets to see Shirakawa as a day trip from Takayama the next day. I was very excited to see the village as I had heard it was special, with thatched rooves and a traditional way of life and with wonderful autumn foliage. It was overrun with tourists but big enough to be able to stroll pleasantly around the carless village and get a sense of calm. It was indeed very beautiful. There were a few houses that you could go inside and see how the traditional lifestyle has been preserved here.
I now need to explain a Japanese phenomenon called the Onsen. Apparently the Japanese have a thing about nude bathing with strangers. They do it all over the place, in hot or cold water, outside or inside, and in any season. We were not really crazy about this idea .But I found a wonderful alternative. Some places do “family onsens” meaning you are not with a bunch of strangers. Our hotel, the Wat Hotel and Spa in Takayama had public onsens, but also 4 such private onsens where one can bathe in the open air (on the roof) in private with one’s significant other, or one’s children . People with tattoos cannot enter the public onsen, so this is also a good solution for them. We went in this onsen twice and it really was a relaxing experience after a long day of touring. Takayama was a nice small town which also had an old district full of little restaurants and shops. It was here that we met the Ramen Lady. We went into her tiny shop and she asked us where we are from. When we said Israel she immediately put on an Israeli song called Naomi’s Song by Hedva and David, which was apparently super popular in Japan in the 1980’s .She played it in Japanese and then in Hebrew! What fun.
Let’s take a break here. We still have 15 days of the trip left! So will leave them for Part 2.