Thursday, February 19, 2009

Land of the Rising Sun

Well finally a travel related blog. When in school you read about the 'land of the rising sun' and imagine that it is where the day starts first! beeeep Wrong. Actually Japan is two hours behind Melbourne and that makes it 3 hrs behind NZ. Anyway now about Japan and its people.
Well the Japanese are known for the extremely courteous culture and efficiency. We found this even in the flight there. We were on JAL flight (code share with Qantas) from Brisbane to Narita. The service even in 'cattle class' was excellent. Always on the look out for our needs, like giving us water bottles as soon the last one finished etc. The special vegie food was quite edible and we reached Narita by about 4:20 PM. This is when the efficiency and helpfulness hit us. We were out of immigration in 5 Mins flat and out of customs in about another 20 (our luck with bags held and ours was one of the last :-()
Then it was to the tourist centre where they gave as all necesasry maps detils we asked for, and infact came out of the office to show us the way to the ATM. Loaded with the Japanese yen , next stop was the Japan Rail office to covert our Japan Rail pass voucher to the tickets. There, the person who did the exchange also helped us get equipped with the SuicaNex card, that gets you into Tokyo in the Narita Express, as well as has a auotmatic debit card with some money for the travels within Tokyo on their Subways etc. All this done we were out on our way in the Narita express, in a flat 1 hr from the moment we landed. How is that for a friendly efficiency, given we had to go to few different areas of the airport, and the signs (while available in english) is not very obvious all the time.
That night we checked in and walked out for dinner. This we found was not going to be easy! Went to a couple of places, to try out local cuisine that is vegetarian, and went through the usual say a couple of things from the phrase book (the people start peering over your shoulders into it) lot of charading and then find out 'sorry no bejetarian food' shtock is fish... ( fish stock) or 'oil is pork' ( use of lard for oil) etc, found a nepalese place and ended up having dhal and subji. Have to find local vegetarian food....
Next day trip was Nikko This is a world heritage city, with many old temples that survivied the world war.

This was nice, but a bit touristy. Good news was being a temple town we managed to get 'Shyojen ryori' the budhist temple cuisine. This meant we had a really lovely ( believe me this bean curd was deliciaous) bowl of noodle soup with tofu in a really delicious melt in mouth form, and some vegie pickles etc.

Also went to one of the 'onsen' attached to a hotel. Onsen is a natural spring bath that Japan is famous for. These are segregated (women/men) for good reason. Typically you go through the door, and enter the area where there are lockers for your valuables. Then you go into the first room, that has racks of luandry baskets. This is for your clothes and towel Take those off and walk thorugh in your b'day suit with the tiny hand towel that you can use to cover your privates to the bath area. Here the 'spring water' pool is in the middle. Around it is this series of shower stations. These stations have a small plastic stool and bowl (where the japanese scoop out water from to rinse themeselves). It also has hand held showers. the idea is you scrub ( Imean a squeky clean scrub) and wash out all traces of dirt and soap/shampoo, before you ehad out to the pool. It was quite an experience especially the outdoor one that was next to the main pool with high fence all around, so that you see the trees and mountains around you while you lounge in the bath.
The friendliness and the 'cant do enough for forigners ' attitude was seen in our train journey back . This guy heard us making plans, and sopke to us. He was in the hospitality industry and asked us for our plans. We were at that stage planning our hakone trip ( the mountain resort area close to Tokyo) and said we wanted to stay in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) . He made a couple of phone calls and organised a place for us, and told us to give him a ring if we needed it.
The next day was spent in Tokyo checking out the modern Tokyo, with its 'young throngs' in Shinjuku, with the techno fevered japan, with all the glory of neon lights, big screen TV in every street corner and such things. Vegie food today was a very expensive Quizno sub (regular size was 8cm, that means a tiny two bite sandwich) of about $6.00 each (US dollars) The evening again chickened out of 'local food' and went in to this restaurant that claimed to have southindian food (dreaming of dosas) and had yet another very ordinary indian meal. The good news was we managed to book the 'Fuji Hakone Guest House' all on our own (well with a bit of help from the hotal staff to understand the japanese message we got intially on caling the place, turns town we had thw rong number and the hotel guy looked it up for us and found the correct number). Then it was a 'no thank you' note to the man on the train.
On sunday was our first trip using the Japanese Bullet train 'Shinkansen' This was really great and we covered the 100 + distance to Odawara in 45 mins. Journey was very smooth and comfy. The Hakone free pass was great , and the whole trip was brillaint. 'Fuji San' was very cooperative and the view from the cable car incredible as was the view on the ground in Owakudani. The sulphur smell here reminded me of Rotarua in NZ. We did buy the famed 'Kuro Tamango' (hard boiled in the boiling springs that turns the shell black) and had one each for lunch that day! So we have an additional 7 yrs each to our lives :-)
From here we went on to Togendai. here decide to do the de-tour to visit the Fuji-Hakone Guest house and dump our back pack. (the big ones where left in locker at Odawara, another plus about a safe society you still have these in train sttaions) So after a 45 mins de-tour got back to Tgandia for a cruise on the Ashi Ko (lake ashi) for one of the most crwoded lake cruises. There where mre views of Mt Fuji from the lake side villages. WE had this incredible weather to help us see this majestic view. Apparently it is invarably shrouded by clouds and you ened to be lucky to see it! The venign in the gust house wes great, with a prvate onsen experince (they had a small outdoor onse, for guests attha you could book half hour slots) and a vegetarian japanse dinner at a lcal resturant This time with a stir fried vegies (ginger flavoured) and egg palns and tofu friend and spiced. She did not serve us the soup (part of the set meal) as it had fish shtock!
Next day was another experience of the 'hikar' experss to Kyoto. In Kyoto, went to the tourist office and managed to bok in to the local ryokan at off season price. So for a cost of just 7500 yen per night we got this spacious rom with prvate facilties. the catch was we had to roll out and roll back our own futons that were stacked in the cuboard. The room was very comfy, and as long as you were happy to sleep on futons on teh floor, it was great! This meant, in the mornings we had room to do our stretches etc. so we loved it. I loved Kyoto. Made a visit to the costume museum to check out the japnase costumes and even got dressed like a 'japanese royalty' over there. Its a real mix of tradition and high teck. Food was also easier since it has a great choice of internation cuisine ( like pasta/pizza etc , albeight abit expensive) and vegetarian Japanse, given its a temple town. Loved the 'negi okanamiyaki' where they come to your hot plate laid table and cook the japanse style cabbage/vegie pancake with a choice of fried egg to make it a bit more filling! Again the japanese temple cuisine was bean curd in other forms (all of them with a very different/smoother/fresher texture). The highlight here was Kiramizo Dara temple where there is this pure waterfall, whose water is sacred and poeple drink it. Here to get the water they have these little copper bowls attached to sticks. Abviously for hygiene reasons these need to be washed/disinfected. Here is where technolgy kicks in. Next to the waterfall is a UV disinfecting unit, into which these bowls are pushed in, and 'voila' we have clean cups for the next person!
The other highlight was a trip to Hiroshima. This was very touching and made you really feel the ponitlessness and cold blooded political/economic decisions that should be treated as 'war crimes' I really believe that every army officer who makes major decisions should be forced to see this museum. I have always been for 'destroying' of all nuclear war head in the world. Visiting Hiroshima hightened the need for this. Again the museum also helped appreciate the ruggedness of the Japanese poeple to have survived and recovered from such devastation (everything for a 10 KM was flattened out and everything within about 60KM had major impacts) However after this level of damage they had trams running within a day! Hats off to such a race, that recovered from this and are actively practicing and working towards world peace.
Lets hope and pray for World Peace.

Other highlights
Osaka - the place with KMs of covered street malls thronging with young people
Asakusa - A crowded temple area with hardly enough place to move and all kinds of street food (could not eat many of these...)
Hakata - A so called cosmopolitan city with minimal english exposure in Japan
Narita Airport - Local staff serving Jetstar where efficient and opolegettic and took great care of us when the flight got delayed to next morning. Much better than the way we had to run around in Cairns(Jetstar is Australian!)
Public Toilets - Cleanest ever anywhere in the world, and the most technolgically advanced....
Would highly recommend a trip as long as you can afford it. Its worth the money to see Germanic Efficency with a very personal and friendly attitude.


Fantasies of a Lifetime said...

Awesome :D . . . . And loved the pics . .

Preethi said...

Sounds like a fun trip.. loved the pics!!

Jhoomur aka JB said...

Hey there,
another Melbourne blogger here, on your blog through IndiBlogger. Was wondering if you'd be interested in attending a blogger meet? I am NOT on the IndiBlogger team, but definitely interested in meeting fellow bloggers in Melbourne.
Do let me know.