Posts Tagged ‘Asaksua’

Tokyo Sky Tree (東京スカイツリー)

On our autumn trip to Japan in October 2010, we arrived at Narita airport and took the train to Kyoto via Tokyo. On our train journey, we noticed a half formed tower being built on the east of Tokyo. We stayed in Asakusa for the second half of our trip that year, and saw the incomplete tower in the distance as we wandered around Nakamise market.

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In 2012, we noticed that the tower was complete. We discovered that it is called the Sky Tree and was due to open the following month. Built mainly as a broadcasting tower to replace Tokyo Tower, Sky Tree also has two observation decks and a restaurant. At its foot is Sky Tree Town, a shopping complex and entertainment district.

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At 634m high, it is the tallest tower in the world, and only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a taller structure. Ever with the eye for detail, the reason the tower is 634m tall is because the number can be pronounced “musashi”. Musashi is the old name for the historic province within which Tokyo falls, and it is that expanse of land that can be seen from the observation decks.

We took the chance to visit the Sky Tree on our May 2014 trip. We were staying in Akihabara, and I decided it would be a great idea to walk to Asakusa and then on to the Sky Tree. That’s a lot of walking. I find translating distances from how they appear on Japanese maps into how they actually are on planet Earth difficult. I pretty much always get it wrong.

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When we arrived, we went straight up to the 4th floor to buy our tickets for the Tembo Deck, but were advised that there was a half hour wait. After all the walking we’d done, I was too hungry to hang around in a ticket queue, so we headed back down to the restaurants and tried to find the Moomin themed café that I’d read about. I was keen to sit at a table with a giant Moomin stuffed toy, so it was disappointing to discover that there was no vegetarian food on offer. There were three dishes on the menu – beef curry, salmon, or chicken cutlet. No Moomin repast for us, then.

Across the way was an Italian restaurant. I asked for (thought I’d asked for) the tomato and mozarella spaghetti, but what arrived was the spaghetti pomodoro with egg and bacon. Ah, the joys of trying to find vegetarian food in a touristy part of Tokyo! At least it was easy to pick the bacon off the top of the pasta, and there wasn’t much. If I’d done a bit more research before heading over there, instead of being fixated on Moomin cuteness, I would have known that there are restaurants on the upper floors of Solamachi that have vegetarian options. D’oh!

After eating, we headed back to the 4th floor of the Sky Tree, where we had only a 20 minute wait for tickets. We travelled up to the Tembo Deck in a space-age lift that travelled at 10m per second. We only felt it as the lift slowed back down and our ears popped. Otherwise, it didn’t feel like we were moving at all. It was a strange sensation.

Tembo Deck is 350m from the ground and the views across Tokyo are spectacular.

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Tokyo really is a huge city. At ground level, you don’t really get a sense of how immense it is. Seeing it stretch away from you in all directions from 350m above ground really brings it home to you.

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We spent about an hour wandering around the observation deck, taking pictures from every angle, including down through a section of glass floor that my husband was happy to stand on but that my vertigo wouldn’t let me try!

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We found the café on our photo tour of the observation deck and made sure we fitted in a portion of Sky Tree ice cream with fruit vinegar. I had the apple vinegar on mine, which was pleasingly sweet and then pleasingly sour. At the bottom of the ice cream was a sprinkling of cornflakes, as well. Yum!

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It was great up the Sky Tree looking out over Tokyo and worth the 2,060円 entry fee. If you speak good enough Japanese, it’s possible to book timed tickets online in advance of your visit, so that you can avoid the queues, but we had no problems buying day tickets. The waiting time was fine for us. We went on a Thursday, though. I’d imagine it gets a lot busier at the weekend.

We decided not to buy the second ticket up to the Tembo Gallery, which is the observation deck at 450m. The additional ticket can only be bought on the day while you are on the Tembo Deck. It costs an extra 1,030円.

We visited the shop on the Tembo Deck, but weren’t grabbed by any of the souvenirs. We like a bit of tat, but the gifts were too kitsch even for our taste!

We were tired from me forcing us to march around east Tokyo, so couldn’t find the energy to mooch around the four floors of shops at the base of the tower. Not even for the Medicom store.

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Taikokan (太鼓館) the Drum Museum in Asakusa

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On our second trip to Japan, in October 2010, we spent the second week of the holiday in Tokyo. The week was a pretty wet one. One day in particular, it was raining pretty hard when we got up, so we decided to swap our day-trip to Kawaguchiko to see Fuji-san for a day of popping in and out of museums.

We were staying in Asakusa, and not far from Ryokan Toukaisou there was a drum museum. The Taikokan is located on an upper floor of the Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten Co headquarters in Asakusa. The building isn’t very obvious, but we knew from the local map that it was on a street corner two blocks down the main street from where we were staying.

We went into the building. It was very confusing. The ground floor is a souvenir shop and salesroom for drums and drumming accessories. There were all kinds of things on display, from hachimaki and happi coats worn by the mikoshi teams during the Sanja Matsuri, to drumsticks and all shapes and sizes of drum.

We went to the sales counter and negotiated ourselves a ticket to the museum. We were directed towards the lift and told to get off at the third floor, where someone would meet us and we could look around the collection of over 300 drums from around the world.

On exiting the lift, we found ourselves alone. We gazed around, reading the various signs telling us which drums we could hit, and that we couldn’t take photographs, and then a very flustered woman appeared (as if from nowhere, but in exactly the opposite state of composure to Mr Ben’s shopkeeper). She apologised profusely, and then launched into a bossy run through of all the things we’d just read on the signs. Then she said, “You have a camera? I can take one picture – ONE PICTURE!” We nodded, and she said something half in English and half in Japanese, neither of which was comprehensible to either of us, so we just said, “あー、そうです。” This seemed to satisfy her, and she left us to wander around at our leisure.

The first thing we noted was that there were a LOT of drums. The museum occupies a single floor, and the drums are crammed in, arranged in a higgledy piggledy fashion. It was hard to take it all in, and we wandered around in a sort of a daze. We were a bit tentative about hitting any of the drums at first, but once we’d done a few and the tiny woman hadn’t rematerialised to scold us, we grew bolder.

There was some interesting information on the labels about the rituals associated with the drums from African and Asian countries, where drums have more meaning in social events than they do in Europe. I liked the water drums, which are hollow tubes taken into rivers and pounded through the water so that they make a glooping sound. There was also a drum carved to look like an alligator, which was used in a coming of age ritual where 17 year old boys receive tattoos and carvings all over their bodies to show that they have become men. Ouch!

After a good long while wandering around, having a go on some drums, learning about others, we prepared to leave. At the door, the tiny woman pounced on us again. In spite of what she had said earlier, she insisted on us having TWO photographs taken of us pretending to play the largest Japanese taiko drums. At the top of this post is the best of her two efforts. And that one has been run through Photoshop to try to take some of the grain out and reduce the motion blur.

We thanked her for taking the photos and tried to leave again, but she stopped us with a display of postcards and told us to pick ONLY ONE each as a souvenir. It was a lot of pressure. Then she told us to go downstairs in the elevator and then back up to the second floor by the stairs, so that we could look at the drums shown on our postcards in the showroom. We tried to, but somehow we ended up in a storage area rather than the showroom, so we scuttled back downstairs to the ground floor and bought some souvenirs instead.

It was definitely an experience. If you’re interested in drums, it’s worth a visit, and if you are on holiday with young children it’s a definite. The entry fee was 300円 for an adult when we visited, although a comment from a couple of years ago on Trip Advisor suggests that it has gone up to 500円 now. I’d say it was worth the money. The tiny scolding woman was good entertainment, too!

Denki Bran (電気ブラン)

Electric Brandy. Now isn’t that a thing to think about? We drank some when we were staying in Asakusa in 2010. Denki Bran is served at the Kamiya Bar at 1-1-1 Asakusa, on the corner of Kaminarimon Dori (雷門通り) and Umamichi Dori (馬道通り). This Japan Times article gives a potted history of the bar and its famous drink.

We went to Kamiya Bar on our second night in Asakusa. We had arrived the previous night from Kyoto, trailing my ancient overladen and broken suitcase whose handle had come adrift going down the stairs at Marutomachi subway station in Kyoto. We learned that it is hard work trying to carry a suitcase that is designed to hold a lot and be wheeled along behind you. So we were tired, you understand, when we reached our ryokan.

Our ryokan was Japanese style, with tatami floors, futon beds and buckwheat pillows. Nothing wrong with that, but when you have never slept on a proper Japanese futon with a proper Japanese buckwheat pillow, sleep can be a difficult thing to come by. Even though the futon were luxury ones, and nice and thick, at that point my body was still conditioned to lovely sprung Western mattresses that accommodate your body when you move in your sleep. I had woken at regular intervals in the night, feeling stiff and achy, as though I were sleeping in a tent without a sleeping mat. Everything ached when I got up the following day.

During the day we had taken a trip to Akihabara where we tried to find the branch of Tokyu Hands that seemed to be signposted at the station. We failed in that quest, but succeeded in stumbling upon the then new Gundam Cafe. That was a diversion, and refreshed by tea and custard filled waffles, we headed next to Kanda Jimbocho via Ochanomizu station. We walked for a while in the wrong direction, back towards Akihabara, before realising that the book shops and musical instrument shops were on the other side of the station. We retraced our steps, trying not to think that we might as well have just walked from Akihabara in the first place, and then down to Kanda Jimbocho. We wandered among the bookshops and then caught a subway train to Shibuya to see Hachiko. Shibuya was as hectic as ever. After paying our respects to Hachiko with the other tourists, we headed off to Tokyu Hands for supplies to fix the broken suitcase with. We went wrong again. This is what happens when you are tired and in Tokyo. Despite your best efforts to read a map, you will end up going wrong. We got it right eventually, though, and made a successful purchase, then headed up the hill to find the Vegan Healing Cafe. We went right, but sometime in the past the cafe had gone wrong and was closed.

Back we went to Shibuya station and caught the subway to Omotesando, where we ate at Crayon House and drank delicious Yebisu beer. Then we caught the subway back to Asakusa. The night was still young, and we were slightly beery, so we decided that we would seek out some more alcohol, perhaps at one of the izakaya near the shrine. At this time in his life, my husband was still smoking. He paused to have a cigarette, which then led to him being tapped up for a light by a man who was waiting for his wife to have her palm read. Through many gestures he conveyed to us that his wife might as well have set her money on fire for all the good the palm reading would do her. I saw the palm reader gesture towards him at one point and his wife give a sorrowful nod, so clearly he was the source of some worry and discussion. Oh dear!

All of this is a long preamble to explain why we ended up in Kamiya Bar drinking Denki Bran. After a night of poor sleep, a day of walking that included unnecessary walking, and an encounter with a disgruntled husband, we decided that we had nothing left to lose and should try the local brew.

Denki Bran appears to be much loved by salarymen and office ladies. There were many of each within the walls of Kamiya Bar.

We decided to buy a ticket for one serving of Denki Bran each. The liqueur is 30% proof and sold like a vodka shot. You pay for a ticket and find a seat. If you’re eating in the restaurant, you can also order food. There’s a display of the food where you queue to buy your tickets. Some of the food is smiling.

Once seated in the beer hall, you wait for a waiter to come and separate your ticket deftly with one hand. He takes one half of your ticket away and then returns with the number of Denki Brans you have paid for, plus a glass of water. He then takes away the other half of the ticket, so that you can’t say he hasn’t served you. Then you drink. In some cases, you drink until you fall over. We thought that one glass would be enough. Perhaps it was the two pints of beer we’d already had, but the Denki Bran went straight to our heads. I thought it was delicious, like a smooth whiskey. My husband was influenced by it enough to roll out his Bill Murray/Lost In Translation impersonation. I have video evidence of this, but have promised never to share it publicly. I was all for having another glass until this happened. Instead we agreed that one was definitely enough and we would head back to the ryokan. Outside, I spotted the small counter at the side of the bar where patrons and people passing in the street could buy a bottle of Denki Bran and a souvenir glass. I was tempted, but Mr. Hicks had become afraid of the potency of the brew, and hurried me along before I could get any yen out of my purse. Perhaps it was for the best.

Unsurprisingly, I had a much better night’s sleep that night.

My Japan Guide

Friends of ours are going to Japan for Christmas. I’m not jealous. No.

They asked if I would give them some hints and tips. They’re going to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima – fortunately all places I’ve been to! When I sent my list of hints and tips, it was suggested that I publish it, so here it is. It’s not comprehensive, and it is highly subjective, but maybe if someone else is planning a trip and needs a bit of guidance, it will help.

General

Prepare yourself for jetlag unlike anything you have ever experienced. The first time my husband and I went to Japan, we couldn’t sleep on the flight and ended up being awake for 36 hours. This made arriving in a country like Japan, that is so different to the UK and has a totally different way of writing its language, utterly discombobulating. It took us a day and a half to recover. The same thing happened on our second trip. On our third trip, we had wised up and bought ear plugs and eye masks, so that we could shut out the aircraft surroundings and get a little sleep on our way from the UK to Narita. It helped. We didn’t feel nearly as spaced out when we arrived as we had on previous trips. It is worth building in a day at the start of your trip, too, that doesn’t involve doing much of anything at all. I know, you’ll have travelled a long way and you don’t want to miss a moment of this fantastic country, but be kind to yourself. Let your body recover. If you can’t bear to sleep off the lag, then find a park to sit in, buy some food, and chill while you take in the view.

In terms of travelling once you’re there, the Japanese train system is worthy of the word awesome. I stand completely in awe of it. I have a friend who says that we shouldn’t be in awe, that this is how a train system should work, and we should demand the same standard in the UK. Well, yes, but…

The Hyperdia online train timetables are really useful when planning day trips or working out how long it will take you to get from one major city to another. You can narrow down the train companies, if you’re travelling on a JR Pass, so that only the Japan Rail routes are shown, and you can instruct it to take you via other places you want to visit en route. You can pick up paper copies of the train timetables at major stations in Japan, but if you have a device with you that connects to the internet, why bother?

If you’re going for at least a week and planning to travel around a fair amount, then it’s worth investing in a JR Pass before you go. The passes are only available to visitors to Japan, who have a sight-seeing visa in their passport. When buying the pass, you are sent an Exchange Order which must be validated and exchanged for the pass when you arrive in Japan. You have three months in which to validate the pass, so don’t buy it too far in advance! The UK based Japan Travel Centre has useful FAQ about the pass, and is the cheapest for buying the pass at time of posting. In the UK, you can also buy the pass from My Bus. We’ve used both companies and never had any problems. It’s up to you whether you go for an Ordinary or a Green Car pass. We’ve always used Ordinary passes – there doesn’t seem to be any particular advantage to a UK resident in travelling first class in Japan, as ordinary class is better than first class in the UK!

I recommend the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook. I’ve already included this book in my post about guidebooks. I got it as a honeymoon present, it has a food index to help you decipher menus and food in shops and loads of handy phrases that you can either try to say or point at for the Japanese person to read. It gave me my first triumph at speaking Japanese and being understood (asking to send a postcard to the UK).

Money. Take some yen to cover your first couple of days. We budget at 10,000JPY per day and often have money left at the end of the trip. We take travellers cheques in yen and cash them as and when. Banks (and their ATMs) close at 6 p.m. and it’s hard to find an open one at the weekend. There are ATMs in 7eleven convenience stores that take UK debit cards. I found that buying yen before I went and using my card to draw yen out while I was there was pretty similar in terms of exchange rates and commission. Cash is still the easiest option, more places take card payments now, but it’s still quite rare.

Onigiri: the best convenience food in the world! Rice balls with various fillings, usually wrapped in nori seaweed. This is a guide to deciphering the labels, but if you’re an omnivore, just take pot luck. They are amazing! I have accidentally eaten fish ones and they were delicious…

Let’s talk about the weather. We have been to Japan in March, May and October. March was surprisingly cold. May was warm, building up to hot. October was warm but damp. In both March and October, we have experienced typhoons, so a sturdy umbrella and lightweight rain gear are both worth packing. If you’re going around Christmas, like our friends, it will be cold while you’re there. I have a friend who is out there teaching, and he dresses like a Michelin man during winter. If you’re visiting in winter, take lots of layers. Should you be unlucky enough to get ill, here’s my account of trying to find cold remedies that work (there are none) in Japan. If you’re going in summer, prepare for hot, humid and potentially stormy weather.

Department stores: Tokyu Hands in Tokyo for all sorts of stuff (it’s part hardware store, part IKEA, part Woolworths), Yodobashi Camera everywhere for electronics, Loft for house-type stuff, Daimaru in Kyoto for the food hall, Isetan at Kyoto Station. We’ve been to an Isetan in Ginza, expecting it to be as lovely as the Kyoto one, but it was geared very much to the shopping clientele of Tokyo’s answer to Bond Street, and not to the likes of us! This blogger has written a guide to the best デーパート in Kyoto, including how to get a tax refund if you’re buying something over 10,001JPY in price.

Tokyo

Get hold of a copy of the Tokyo Lonely Planet Encounter Guide. Again, I’ve already blogged about this little gem. It has a good map of the main tourist areas in Tokyo and useful info on places to eat and drink.

It’s worth downloading a Tokyo Metro Subway map, but you can also pick them up at any of the stations. As with having a London Underground map, it’s useful to have something to hand while you’re travelling around so that you know where you need to change lines when crossing the city. There is an overground loop line, called the Yamanote Line, which you can use your JR Pass on, but sometimes the subway is more convenient. If you don’t have a JR Pass, or you prefer the convenience of the subway, we were advised once to buy a Tokyo Metro One Day Open Ticket on days when we would be doing a lot of hopping around. Priced at 710JPY, it gives you unlimited travel on the Metro subway lines. If you know you’re also going to be using the Toei Subway Line, get a combined One Day ticket for 1,000JPY. As well as saving you a little bit on individual journeys it means you don’t have to queue to buy a ticket for each journey you make. There’s also the PASMO card, which is similar to the Oyster card in London, and enables you to use Tokyo Metro Subway trains, JR trains and buses, as well as pay for goods in some stores. It doesn’t save you any money, but it does mean you really don’t have to think about what sort of ticket you need to buy to travel.

In the past when visiting Tokyo, we’ve always stayed in Asakusa, which is in the old Edo part of town. Even if you don’t stay there (and there are reasons for and against doing so), it’s worth a visit. The Sky Tree is there, and the area has a whole lot of history.

Ueno isn’t far from Asakusa and has a huge park, loads of museums, and an old street market near the train station.

Ochanomizu/Kanda/Jimbocho are fun for a half day’s wander around the guitar shops and book shops. It’s a boho kind of area, with a university town feel to it.

We made our first trip to Odaiba in March 2012 and loved it. We wished we’d given ourselves more time to explore, as there is lots to see and do. We made a return visit when we stayed in Akihabara in 2014, visiting Miraikan and seeing Gundam again. It can get a bit cold and windy, as it’s a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, so take a coat! We took the JR Yamanote line to Shimbashi station, then rode the automated Yurikamome elevated train over the Rainbow Bridge. We chose to buy the one day open ticket for 800JPY, so that we could hop on and off the train when visiting different areas. When we arrived at the ticket machines, we had a struggle to work out how to buy the ticket – there were lots of different coloured machines for different types of ticket. Eventually, we worked the colour coding out, mainly by following instructions that said 800円 on them!

We love Kabukicho and Shinjuku. Kabukicho because it’s so garish and there are Taito Stations to while away the hours and the Yen on arcade games, Shinjuku for the skyscrapers and the photography opportunities late at night. Plus it’s where the taxi scene that opens Lost In Translation was filmed – Bill Murray’s face is a perfect depiction of the effects of jet lag.

Shibuya has an iconic pedestrian crossing and the Hachiko statue. It also has the Starbucks where a scene in Lost In Translation was filmed.

Harajuku and Yoyogi Park/Jingu bridge are no longer the Cos Play magnet of old – partly because of the number of tourists turning up to photograph the teens in their finery. It is still a great place to shop, and experience the cutting edge of Japanese fashion, along with Omotesando and Aoyama.

Atmos vs Hello Kitty Reebok trainers in La Foret, Harajuku

Crayon House (delicious food and delicious Yebisu beer, with a bookshop on the ground floor level) is also in the Omotesando part of town. The first time we went, it was exclusively vegetarian, but more recently has changed to vegetarian friendly, with more meat and fish dishes on the menu. They do still have a monthly Vegetarian Buffet night, though.

Bon  serves traditional Buddhist food. It’s quite expensive, but well worth it – this is my blog post about it.

On our 2014 trip, we discovered two more good places to eat when you’re veggie/vegan – Brown Rice Cafe, near to Crayon House, and Pure Cafe in the Aveda building behind Omotesando.

Kyoto

Kyoto’s subway consists of two lines – the Karasuma line and the Tozei line. The Karasuma line runs north-south, and the Tozei line runs east-west. Kyoto is a walkable city, but sometimes you’ve had enough walking and need to use the subway! There are also City Buses that you can ride on a loop around the city for a flat fare of 220JPY – just remember to pay as you exit the bus, try to have the right change before you get on or use the change machine in plenty of time before you’re due to exit the bus. Buses can get crowded, and not being prepared to pay as you leave can cause irritation! There’s a brief guide to how to use Japanese buses on Japan-Guide.com. There are a few overground railway lines as well, that will take you to places of interest just outside Kyoto, including Arashiyama, Nara and Fushimi Inari.

Exploring Kyoto on Foot is a good guide book, even if you don’t follow the trails.

Nishiki Market and Teramachi Dori are must-see places in Kyoto. Nishiki Market is a covered market with food stalls, craft shops, clothes shops and 100 Yen shops all mixed in together. You can try some of the food on offer, or buy a snack to eat as you browse, as well as gasp at the exorbitant prices in some of the high end greengrocers. We once saw a basket of mushrooms at 98,000JPY. That’s about £700/$1100. Teramachi Dori is a very long street stretching north to south. A mid section of it is a covered shopping arcade. It gets its name from the temples relocated to this part of Kyoto in the 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Shin Kyogoku is another covered arcade that runs parallel to Teramachi Dori.

As recently revealed, Nijo Castle  is my favourite Japanese castle. You don’t need to see another one when you’ve seen this one, in my opinion.

A trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without a look around Gion and Maruyama Park. You’re more likely to see a Maiko Henshin than a genuine Maiko or Geiko, but if you time it right, you might see some on their way to work, or you could go to Gion Corner or time your visit to coincide with the Kitano Odori in spring.

Kiyomizudera is also a must-see, particularly if you are in Kyoto during the cherry blossom season or the autumn leaves season. The temple is iconic, built into the mountainside and protruding over a deep valley on stilts.

Gion and Kiyomizudera are part of Higashiyama district, which has lots to see and do if you have plenty of time in Kyoto. We have been three times now, and still haven’t exhausted its delights!

To the north west of the city centre are two of my favourite places, Kinkakuji and Ryoanji. We got there by bus as it was easier than taking the subway and then having to walk. Some people arrive and leave in a taxi, though!

For cheap views across Kyoto, head to the top of Kyoto station. The station is full of shopping opportunities, and the area around the station has some temples worth visiting, including Higashihonganji.

For traditional homemade Buddhist food, that is amazingly good value and extremely tasty, try Mikoan. Mikoan has now sadly closed following a fire. Other vegan/veggie places to eat are Hale in Nishiki Market and Matsuontoko Obanzai (Obanzai is now also closed). In 2015, we discovered Mamezen in the Shimogamo area north of Kyoto. Mamezen specialises in soy ramen – the broth is made with soy milk instead of dashi and the lunch sets we had featured yuba and tofu. It’s a little hard to find but is on Google maps, so not impossible. The staff were really helpful and made sure that I was safe from harm with my mushroom allergy! For the omnivores reading this, here’s someone else’s guide to places to eat in Kyoto!

Hiroshima

We’ve only done a day trip to Hiroshima so far. We’ve now stayed in Hiroshima for a few days and seen more of the sites, including Miyajima and the Peace Memorial Museum. I love Hiroshima, because it feels really chilled out.

If you’re doing a day trip, choose to either do the A-Bomb dome and Peace Memorial Park or the boat trip (covered by the JR Pass) to Miyajima. In my opinion, you can’t do both in a day and do them justice. We chose to focus on the Peace Memorial Park on our day trip in 2009. The castle is also worth a stroll around, and is doable with the Peace Memorial Park.

Hiroshima tourist guide.

The first time we visited the city, we ate at the fabulous Otis! tex-mex food and music bar, so good that I could have moved in! We’ve tried a couple of other places since then, including places we found through Happy Cow. Our favourite place was Shanti, which unfortunately closed in April 2014, but Namaste at the train station was also good, and Otis! continues to serve good food, of course.

Osaka

Osaka Castle is my husband’s favourite Japanese castle,  and for me is the best thing about Osaka! Definitely worth it for walking around the grounds and the views from the top.

If it’s views that you are after, then the Umeda Sky Building is also worth the short stroll from Shin Osaka station.

We’ve also ventured into the Nipponbashi, Dotonbori and Den Den Town areas of Osaka. I liked Den Den Town, but found Nipponbashi a bit too crowded.

 

To be honest, I’ve not had brilliant experiences in Osaka so far – the castle was nice, but trying to navigate the shopping areas and trying to make myself understood was a bit stressful for me. It seems a bit brash, as cities go. Other people I know love it, though.

So, that’s my basic guide, covering the things I think are important, and the places our friends will be visiting. There’s loads of information out there to help you prepare for your own trip, so happy searching!

Bon, Taito-ku: a Shojin Ryori delight

Our second trip to Japan in the autumn of 2010 was planned around my 40th birthday. I didn’t want to turn 40 in cold, wet Britain. So we went to Japan – where it was cold and wet for a lot of the time! My first experience of a typhoon, that sort of cold and wet.

My big treat was a meal at Bon, near Asakusa. We’d read about it on the wonderful Happy Cow website and, based on previous experience of wanting to try somewhere we’d seen on HC and then coming unstuck when trying to find it on a Japanese map, we wisely decided to find out where it was located the day before my birthday.

There is a map on Happy Cow and also on the restaurant’s own website, but it still took a lot of wandering around side streets before we found it.

For anyone thinking about going, the best way to get there is to take the Hibya subway line to Irya station and leave the station by exit 3. With the nearest traffic lights behind you, walk up the main road (Showa Dori/昭和通り) to the next set of traffic lights and turn right. You’ll know you’ve gone too far if you walk past a Toyota showroom. From the traffic lights, walk 7 blocks and you should reach a small junction with more traffic lights. Go across this junction and walk another 2 blocks then turn left. Bon is about halfway down. If you miss the left turn, the next road you’ll hit is Kokusai Dori (the big dual carriageway that runs along the west side of the shrines in Asakusa), so you’ll know to turn round and go back a block. At the north end of the street that Bon is situated on is the Saitokuji Temple.

Another good reason for finding the restaurant a day or so before you intend to go there to eat is that you really do need to make a reservation. The meal takes 2 hours to serve and eat. It’s a Buddhist set meal in the fucha ryori (普茶料理/ふちゃりょうり) tradition. Depending on which day you want to eat, you’ll need to arrive at least 2 hours before closing time. We went on a Sunday, when the restaurant closes at 8 p.m., and the only reservation time offered for an evening meal was 5 p.m. Unless you are confident enough to speak Japanese on the telephone, it is better to make the reservation in person to avoid misunderstandings!

We didn’t know at the time, but we could also have told the restaurant owners about my allergies, and they would have prepared a meal that catered for these.

Fucha ryori is a Chinese-influenced form of the Japanese shojin ryori (精進料理/しょうじんりょうり). Shojin ryori literally means devotion food and is a buddhist style of cooking usually served in temples. Fucha ryori is a shojin ryori meal eaten in the Chinese style, beginning and ending with tea. Fucha translates as “everybody drinking tea together”, and the style of the meal centres around people eating together in friendship and peace.

Detail from the menu at Bon, explaining Fucha Ryori

Shojin ryori is most commonly encountered in the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, while fucha ryori has its roots at Manpukuji temple in Uji.

And so, to the reason why I think everyone, vegetarian or not, should eat at least once at Bon in Tokyo. The experience is out of this world. From the moment you are greeted at the door of the machiya in which the restaurant is situated, you are transported away from the 21st century to a place of peace and fellowship. Neither my husband nor I is Buddhist, but the feeling of being among friends who were strangers was wonderful.

Inside the restaurant are individual tatami rooms, raised from the floor. You leave your shoes outside the tatami room and, if you’re having trouble taking them off (as I was!), one of the staff will help you. At the centre of the tatami room we ate in was a dark wooden table with a footwell beneath it. As we sat down, we were directed to look through the window at the small rock garden, and also to enjoy the flower arrangement (生花/いけばな) and scroll in one of the alcoves, as well as the blue-stained bamboo in a gourd shaped vase in the other alcove, while we waited.

The small garden outside our tatami room at Bon

The table was set with a square lacquer box at each place, with chopsticks/hashi on ebony rests. Next to the box was a small sugar sweet on a square of paper. On top of the box was a detailed menu – all in kanji! Before we could panic, our waitress arrived with an English version of the menu, explaining the 12 courses we were about to enjoy.

The list on the left is of the 12 courses that made up the meal

The waitress started to explain the meal to us in Japanese, which was too advanced for us! I apologised for only being able to speak a little Japanese. She admitted to knowing a little English, and between us we managed to make sense of each course! When she knew that she would struggle, she sent in her husband who spoke more English to explain the more complex dishes to us.

The meal started with a cup of tea, accompanied by the sugar sweet, and followed by a glass of plum wine. The tea was crystal clear and slightly salty. I had never drunk plum wine before this meal, and the one we were served was delicious – sweet and plummy, without being too sweet, and with just enough alcohol to warm us up!

The waitress returned to take away our cups and glasses, and explained that our first course was inside the lacquer box. It was a steamed water chestnut, a piece of potato, some fruit and some fu.

It was almost too beautiful to eat, and we spent a while looking at it before taking the plunge. It was absolutely delicious – very delicately balanced in flavour and texture.

Second course was a clear mushroom soup with a segment of Japanese plum to squeeze into it. The next course was brought in by the husband, who explained each element to us: seasonal vegetables arranged with autumnal leaves, consisting of sweet chestnut, ginger root, a timbale of chinese leaves and tofu, a condensation of miso, a fruit compôte of apple and purple chrysanthemum, a slice of tofu and a pot of something orangey.

Fourth course of the banquet

Next was a thick Chinese vegetable soup, then steamed vegetables, then chilled sesame tofu (served on a plate I wanted to bring home – it was decorated with a grey and cream swirl like the crest of a wave). The next course was tempura, which was a work of art, with light as a feather batter and pefectly cooked vegetables.

We then received a surprise dish – a special course that wasn’t on the menu. I’m still not sure whether this was a standard thing, or whether our attempts to speak Japanese and our clear delight at the food had endeared us to the restaurant owners, but it was amazing. A charred chilli, a piece of yam and a piece of tofu spread with natto snuggled into a persimmon leaf that rested on a plate decorated with gold.

The special/surprise/unexpected course

I think we had been taking too long, savouring and admiring our courses, and chatting with the restaurant owners as they brought the food, because our final courses came all at once, with miso, pickles and rice sprinkled with green tea.

The final courses of our meal

We thought we had finished, but then plates of fruit appeared and finally more tea – oolong this time, strong and dark and bitter.

We were then presented with two lucky bells as a souvenir of our meal, and the waitress chatted with us about where we were from and why we had come to Japan. When she heard that we were from Manchester, she told us that the room where we had been eating was the very room that John Lennon and Yoko Ono always used when they came to eat at Bon.

Now, if Bon was a restaurant in England, that little fact (with pictures) would feature heavily on the website! I love it that, instead, it was just dropped into a conversation as an aside, because we came from somewhere near to where John Lennon was born.

As we left, both of the owners (our waitress and the chef who explained the more complex dishes to us) wished us a happy life. We realised that we were the very last to leave, and had been allowed to stay later than we should have. The lady followed us out into the street, asking if our hotel was far because she thought it was raining slightly. She waved to us as we walked away, calling “おやすみなさい” (Goodnight) as we went.

It was the best birthday meal I have ever had, and possibly the best meal out of any that I have ever had. If you have looked at the website and thought “That seems expensive”, then please consider that you will eat the freshest, most delicious food of your life, served to you by charming and delightful people, and will come away feeling as though you have had a special experience. It is 20 months since we went to Bon, and the memory of it is still strong. I’d say that was worth the price, wouldn’t you?

Hanami (花見)

Hanami (花見), or flower viewing, is a big deal in Japan. It usually refers to the cherry blossom (sakura/さくら/桜) season in late March-April, but can include plum blossom in February/March. Hanami can take a couple of forms – you can simply stroll through a grove of trees, enjoying the blossoms and taking lots of photographs of them, or more traditionally you can have a picnic under the branches. Hardcore hanami participants camp out to ensure they secure the best spot ready for when the blossoms open.

For those who don’t want to camp out in the cold, another option is to tape your family name, or the name of your company, onto your tarpaulin and trust that nobody else is making use of your spot when you want it.

On our first trip to Japan, we visited in early May, by which time the cherry blossoms were all but gone and the wisteria was beginning to come into bloom. This year, we decided to visit at the end of March into the start of April to make sure we got to see some blossom. 2012 started out very cold, so the cherry blossom in Japan was late in coming out. Most of the blossom we saw while we were in Kyoto was plum blossom. It took us a while to work this out! For anyone else unsure of how to tell if you’re looking at plum or cherry blossom, plum blossom comes in lots of shades of pink – from almost-white to deep cerise – and the petals are rounder. Plum blossom often has multiple petals as well as a lovely scent.

 

Cherry blossom is more delicate in appearance, and the petals are more oval with a small nick at the tip.

 

In Kyoto, we visited Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮) in the north west of the city. This shrine is famous for its plum trees, and we saw plenty when we went to the monthly flea market in the shrine grounds. In the plum orchard in front of the main shrine entrance there are around 2,000 trees, and then there are more inside the shrine grounds as well. As with cherry blossom, there were plenty of people taking photographs of the blossoms and of each other standing beside the trees.

 

The best cherry blossom viewing sites in Kyoto are Maruyama Park, Kiyomizudera Temple and Nijo Castle. We visited all three, but without much luck. At Nijo we did a night viewing, and there were only a couple of trees with blossom on them. It was difficult to tell if they were plum or cherry. Most of the trees were still ghostly skeletons in the night air.

 

At Maruyama Park, although preparations were well underway for the Hanami Matsuri (花見祭り) that was to be held on March 30, including park wardens sawing off stray branches so that revellers would avoid injury, very few of the trees had blossoms on them.

  

 

There were a few trees in bloom at Kiyomizudera (清水寺), but not the riot of blossom that we had been hoping for! Most of the trees within the temple grounds were stark and bare.

 

We had a little more luck when we moved on in our travels to Kamakura (鎌倉), where the cherry trees along Dankazura, in the middle of Wakamiya Oji Dori, were starting to come into bloom. Dankazura leads up to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Jinja, where one cherry tree in particular was attracting the attention of lots of visitors!

 

By the time we reached our final destination of Tokyo on our recent trip, cherry blossom was busting out all over the place. We stayed in Asakusa again, and the trees leading up to Sensoji were frothy with sakura.

 

We also took an evening stroll along the Sumida River, where preparations were being made for another Hanami Matsuri, and the trees were doing their best to be ready on time while a few brave souls were risking the wind chill factor to have a picnic!

 

A trip across to Ueno was very rewarding. Ueno is Hanami central in Tokyo. Along the main avenue of cherry trees in the park were taped down tarpaulins, very organised picnics, and plenty of recycling stations for people’s picnic rubbish. We saw a news item while we were in Tokyo that showed tech-savvy picnickers making the most of an app for Domino’s Pizza and having their picnic fare delivered by GPS.

  

We also tried to visit Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑) while in Tokyo, but foolishly went on a Saturday when it was almost impossible to cross the road at the entrance to the park, let alone get through the gate. So we missed out on seeing the national collection of 1,500 cherry trees.

We did see plenty of cherry blossom, though, including at Shibuya Station at night.

So as well as the more traditional and popular places to view cherry blossom, there are always opportunities to enjoy a quiet moment contemplating sakura as you go about your daily travels in lots of Japanese cities. One such opportunity for us was Sengakuji, near Shimbashi, where in the quiet serenity of the temple grounds we saw this beautiful tree:

Japanese literature

As well as being a Japanophile, I’m also a bit of a bibliophile.  You might have guessed this from my post about Ochanomizu and Jinbocho.

The first Japanese novelist I ever read was Haruki Murakami.  I was idly browsing the shelves in my local Waterstone’s and came across an attractively white book with a picture of an LP on the front and black and red typeface.  It was Dance, Dance, Dance.  After I read it, I immediately wanted to read more by the same author.  Thus began my obsession.

I have now read all of Murakami’s novels, bar the first couple published by Kodansha, and most of his short story collections, and I have managed to infect a couple of other people with my obsession for this pared down, surreal author’s works.  My favourite novels are The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore.  My husband bought me What I Talk About When I Talk About Running as a gift once.  I don’t usually like reading authors’ autobiographies.  I usually find that knowing what they are like as people gets in the way of immersing myself in their novels.  But Murakami’s autobiography is more like a novel about Haruki Murakami, the runner.

I sometimes think I’d like to find some of the locations in Murakami’s books.  The ones that can be found in physical reality, that is.  Some of them might be a bit trickier, being all metaphysical and all.  I did find this post on the Kirainet blog, about the café that Murakami used to run with his wife, but it’s not quite the same thing.

The next Japanese author I read was Yukio Mishima.  I picked up a copy of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, because we were going to Kyoto on holiday and I wanted to see Kinkakuji while we were there.  I thought that reading a novel set in the temple would be a different introduction to it.  It was great – such misanthropy, such oddness – and an interesting insight into the mind of a Japanese person.

It was also interesting to read a novelist’s imagining of the story behind the destruction of the pavilion by a disaffected monk who lived in the temple grounds.  That part of the story is true.  Mishima’s imagining of why is, I think, complete fabrication.

It was good to see the real article (or rather the rebuilt article) when we went to Kyoto.  I like the fact that Kinkakuji was rebuilt in the way it was originally intended to be built and decorated, rather than the way the original had appeared.  It’s so very, very golden now.  So the monk probably did us all a favour, in a way.

I’ve read another Mishima novel, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.  I liked that one even more, because it takes place inside the warped mind of a teenage boy who doesn’t like the man his mother has started seeing.  It’s quite psychologically disturbing.

After Mishima, I decided to try another living Japanese author and went for Ryu Murakami.  I’ve only read one of his so far – In the Miso Soup.  This book is set around the hostess bars of Shinjuku, which is an area we’ve visited on both our trips to Japan.  Not that we frequented any hostess bars there, mind you!  We concentrated on the game stations and arcades in Kabukicho instead.

Next time we’re there, though, I’ll maybe keep an eye out for plastic-faced Westerners being shown around by young Japanese men – and avoid them!  In the Miso Soup is a book of two halves, with a central episode which is violent in the extreme but, I think, necessary to give context to what goes on before and what transpires afterwards.  I’ve bought another Ryu Murakami book, Audition, which I’ve yet to read.

Haruki Murakami aside, I was beginning to wonder whether all Japanese novelists were writers with psychological problems of a violent and misanthropic nature.  My next novelist was Natsume Sōseki,  who is much gentler than Mishima or Ryu Murakami.  I started with Kokoro, a story of a student who becomes obsessed with an older man who has a secret past.  It’s a kind of allegory for the changes going on in Japanese society at the time Sōseki was writing – the Shogunate had ended, the Meiji restoration had taken place, and then the Emporer died and left a temporary vacuum in the lives of many Japanese who were uncertain about the country’s future.  The book takes place in various Japanese machiya, or town houses, and has sort of inspired me to book a machiya for our stay in Kyoto later this year.

A machiya on a street near Nijo castle, Kyoto

My husband has recently bought me a book of short stories that include three by Sōseki and a couple by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa as well.  The stories are in Japanese, with an English translation and vocabulary lists.  I haven’t started it yet (there are too many other books I need to read, plus if I’m not reading a novel, I’m studying for my AS in Japanese), but I will get round to it one day, if only because I want to read Rashōmon, which is one of the stories in the book.

The most recent Japanese writer whose works I’ve read is Keigo Higashino.  I saw his novel The Devotion of Suspect X on a display of crime books in Waterstone’s while I was trying to decide which of the non-Wallander Henning Mankell novels to buy.  It was only available in hardback at the time, but Mr. H bought me a Kindle shortly afterwards, so I got myself the Kindle version instead.  Higashino is apparently as popular in Japan as Agatha Christie in the UK, or James Patterson in the US.  I loved The Devotion of Suspect X – the characters were well drawn, the story was compelling, and the locations were places nearby to where we had stayed and visited in Tokyo.  I’ve decided that it does make a difference, when reading a novel set in another country, if you have been to the places being described and have experienced something of the culture that provides the background.  It was easier to imagine the various scenes along the Sumida river because I knew where the river was and what it looked like from having stayed in Asakusa and crossed one of the many bridges over the Sumida.

Bridge over the Sumida river at Asakusa

And that’s as far as I’ve got so far with Japanese novelists.  If anyone wants to recommend someone they’ve read who isn’t on my list above, feel free to comment and provide links for me to check out your recommendations.

Before I end this post, I will also mention David Peace, who is a British writer who takes real events and fictionalises them.  A little like Mishima with Kinkakuji.  He lived in Tokyo for a number of years and has written the first two of a trilogy of books set in Tokyo immediately after the Second World War and during the American occupation of the country.  I like the “critical perspective” on the British Council link above that says “For those who go to novels seeking comfort or consolation David Peace does not come recommended.”  I’d say that’s a fair assessment!

The first book in the trilogy, Tokyo Year Zero, is based on newspaper articles and reports about the serial killer Yoshio Kodaira.  It’s an odd book, flipping from one narrative to another, and it took a while for me to become comfortable with its style, which seemed a little contrived at first.  But once I was into it, the story was gripping.  The second in the trilogy, Occupied City, takes the story of the painter and alleged mass poisoner Sadamichi Hirasawa as its basis, and is a much easier read.  I’m now looking forward to the final part of the trilogy, tentatively titled Tokyo Regained, which is due to be published later this year.