Here we are in the largest metropolis in the world where 38 million people live, TOKYO!
Selected last year as the most liveable city in the world. In no other city let alone metropolis the quality of life is as high as here. Hardly crime, huge supply of culture and public transport that is efficient and punctual. And it's clean ... ..very clean. This is not only due to the number of cleaners, the Japanese themselves are also very disciplined. They do not throw anything on the ground, respect people and the environment and are polite and civilized.
Tokyo is so huge that not one city centre can be defined. Instead, the centre of Tokyo is subdivided into 23 districts, each with its own centre. And as you can imagine, every neighbourhood is a metropolis itself.
After a 7 hour flight we arrived at Haneda (Tokyo) International Airport at 22:30. And we were not alone, because at customs we had to wait for more than 2 hours. We had already read that Japan is known for its discipline and structure and this was made clear to us, not even 5 minutes after arriving in the country. With the help of a group of seniors (yes, even in the late years they still work here) we were outside within the hour and waiting on the bus to bring us to Shinjuku Station.
Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world with around 3.6 million people using it every day. And here we also came in contact with the extensive public transport network for the first time. "Uhm ... is this line going to Shibuya now? No, no you have to take this one. Oh no, we have to go up here and then to ... ..No darling we have to turn right here and then up and take line 2 ". Again, we are lost. There are so many metro lines here and it is absolutely unclear which tram you have to take to get to your destination. In addition, everything is in Japanese. 'This needs some practice' and so we ask some passers-by who to help us to get the right metro.
Our hostel is located near Shinjuku station and is nicely situated close to the neighbourhood Shinjuku Golden Gai. You will also find the red light district Kabukicho with both very nice bars for men and women 😉. You will also find the Robot restaurant where you do not come for the good food (that seems to be bad), but for the 90-minute show with women in short skirts and ...... of course the robots.
Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world when it comes to square meters ($ 18,000 per m2). Most people live, eat and sleep on no more than 20m2 and the rooms are arranged so efficiently that every m2 is well utilized. IKEA can learn something from this. Our hostel has also mastered the art of filling in the spaces. This is apparent when we arrive at our hostel and walk to our room. At first, we think we are wrong as we end up at the broom closet. However, when we upon the door, it turns out to be our bedroom for the next couple of nights, with nothing more than a bunk bed in space that does not exceed 3m2. Our bags fit just under the bed and changing into another outfit goes 1 by 1, while the other one waits outside. Did I mention it was SMALL? Very small ... even smaller than my little finger, no even smaller than my little toe.
And now that we are talking about small spaces, there is of course one small space in a man's life where he likes to spend the necessary time. I'm talking about the only space in the house where we can read the newspaper undisturbed or play a game on the phone.
Right ... the TOILET. The Japanese have elevated this to art with their ingenious devices.
First of all, when you come in, special toilet slippers are waiting for you. Fase 2 is that the toilet seat goes up fully automatically and when you sit down you feel the warmth of the heated toilet seat. If you have to go for number 2, you can press the 'musical note' button to mask the splash. After you are done you can opt for toilet paper or you press another button and the toilet will help you spraying a warm jet of water upwards. This is total comfort where you can spend some hours. And when you're done, you just walk away, because the toilet flushes automatically.
Small spaces can not only be found in a hostel / hotel or the toilet, but you can also find them in the many restaurants and bars. The area Shinjuku Golden Gai is a great example where you can find more than 200 mini bars on 2000m2. These bars offer up space to 8 people and each square meter is well utilized with 1 long bar where one can sit. Just enough walking space has been created behind it to reach the corner at the back of the toilet. Pay attention when entering one of these bars. Most of these bars require 1,000 to 1,500 Yen (between € 8.00 and € 12.00) entrance fee.
A striking phenomenon are the many men and women in suits who go to these bars and are getting wasted. They come straight from work and are expected to drink with their colleagues. For them, this is still part of their work as here they are allowed talk about ongoing projects or problems that arise on the work floor. It is not allowed to do this during office hours, because this could disturb the harmony / unity. This is also called 'nominication' and is derived from the words; Nom that means drinking and communication.
Another nice fact about Japan is that Japanese people are crazy about gambling. Everyone who is familiar with manga / anime has certainly read or seen about it, so do I. But I really did not expect that there would be so many 'Pachinko' centres where hundreds of Japanese are gambling during daytime. What they do is throw one type of ball into a machine and then press on different buttons in the hope they get back those same balls, but multiplied. And all this while enjoying loud noise. No good music or anything ... just the clatter of those balls that go through the machine. And every now and then they smoke a cigarette, because that is still allowed here. We decide to not take a risk and continue to our next highlight in Tokyo.
We walk to Himeji Temple and afterwards continue our walking tour to the Shibuya district. This is THE fashion place of Tokyo where you can also find the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Especially at the weekend it seems that all of Tokyo takes this zebra crossing to get from A to B. Do not expect anything hectic or hooting of cars, there is complete silence here. Could you imagine that while 2,500 people cross when the lights turn green.
Close by the Shibuya Crossing you can find Nonbei Yokocho, which stands for drunken alley. An alley where you, and here comes the word again, can find very small restaurants. The word small might even be exaggerated! But it is well wort it as the alley is decorated with beautiful Japanese lanterns and there are many restaurant, everyone with their own menu.
"We LOVE Sushi" and finally we can enjoy this in the country that invented Sushi. On the advice of a passer-by we walk towards a restaurant that is a stone's throw away from the busiest crossroads in the world. Before you walk in, you see all the dishes in the shop window, as you can see at almost all Japanese restaurants. These are not real dishes, but so lifelike that you want to take a bite. It is called Sampoedoe and is derived from the word sample.
In Japan this it is elevated from craftsmanship to art.
The making of food replicas started about 100 years ago and owes its existence to its foreign influences that invaded Japanese culture in the early 20th century. Foreigners came to Japan and knew nothing about local food. To avoid total confusion, the Japanese had thought of making replicas.
Because the Sushi looks so delicious, we decide to go inside. As we step inside, we hear "Irasshamase" from the entire room! We are completely in a dent because this was so in unison.
haha ... As it turns out, we are apparently welcomed and this seems to be very normal in Japan in restaurants, bars or even shops.
The restaurant is a real food shed where you do not come for a romantic dinner. Men in butcher's suits and white hats are standing behind a bar of Sushi's to put them on the conveyor belt. Locals and 2 tourists (us) sit around this belt and when something appetising is passing by grab the sushi from the conveyor belt to eat it. Free tea is served while you devour the next sushi. We ask the waiter how they can see what we have eaten and what the costs are, but he conveniently points to a sticker in front of us. We can see different coloured plates printed and each plate has its own price. At the end they count the plates and you have your final bill.
To return to foreign influences, these were not limited to eating alone. Whiskey, for example, has grown into one of the most popular drinks in a relatively short time. No American Bourbon or Scottish Single Malt but a real Japanese whiskey. You can, if you like, go to a mini bar in Tokyo (called Shot Bar), which has more than 300 different Japanese whiskeys in its assortment.
In old Japan the cherry blossom or 'sakura tree' was of great importance. It announced the season for planting rice and it was used to predict the rice harvest. In addition, the beauty of the Sakura was celebrated as a metaphor for life - and it was praised in many poems. For us, this was the main reason to come to Japan in April. And Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was a great spot to see them.
Click, click, click ...various sophisticated poses are adopted while the other is taken pictures, one after the other. Not 1, not 2 ... .nooooooo as many pictures as is takes to put this person as a cover model between the cherry blossoms. Every Japanese has come out to take a photo with the sakura.
In addition to the 1000 photos that are taken, you also see many Japanese lunch under these trees. This is also called a 'hanami party' (means 'to view flowers') that was already held centuries ago. The Japanese believed that the sakura trees contained spirits, so wine and rice were offered. This grew into the hanami party tradition - a feast of food and drinks that originated in the Imperial Court of Emperor Saga and from there slowly found its way to the Samurai class. It has become a tradition, loved by all the class in Japan.
The blossom is short-lived and often does not last longer than 10 days a year in full bloom after which the leaves fall from the tree.
We can happily say (this is of course thought out really well) that we have experienced this wonderful spectacle.
Kedekedeng kedekedeng oeh oooeeeh !! We are sitting in the fastest train of Japan as we travel through the country at no less than 300 kilometres per hour. We are going so fast that it does not even make sense to look outside. How cool! And the look of this train is even cooler. It is a beautiful white streamlined train with 16 wagons. Oh no, I have to say gates. The train is divided into gates (train section) and these are also clearly indicated on the platform. When the train stops at a station the doors are perfectly lined with the indication where you have to wait to get on to the train. Not even a mm of difference. The train also comes and leaves at the exact time indicated (if the train is delayed then this is no more than an average of 18 seconds). Furthermore, the interior is luxurious, fully equipped, super clean and when the train moves it feels like it is floating over the tracks. as we do not feel bumps or are thrown from left to right as we are used to a train ride in the Netherlands. And to top it off the staff are well dressed with their tight suits, white gloves and cap. They just look like pilots.
Within 5 hours we arrive in Kitakyushu which is located about 1,100 km south of Tokyo. The reason we decided to go to this place was to see the Wisteria Tunnel in the Kawachi Fuji Gardens. A tunnel that is full of purple flowers which are so brightly coloured you think it would be fake. This should have been very beautiful, but you probably already feel it coming, this park only opens next week. Of course, we did not want to stay at home because there is so much to see on this southern island that we continued our journey to Youfin. A small village in the mountains, with old houses, nice shops and many Onsen (A hot spring which are very popular in Japan).
We continue our journey from Kitakyushu to Kyoto where we will stay for the next 5 days. Before we get there, we make a stop at Himeji Castle, a beautiful castle that has been on the UNESCO world list since 1977. It was not bombarded by the Americans during the war and therefore belongs to one of the oldest castles in Japan.
The castle, also known as the White Heron, is for a large part made of wood. Large thick tree trunks ensure that the castle remains upright. Inside and outside the castle you will see many striking details. One of them are the dragons at the castle with a body of a carp (which can also be found on many temples and other important buildings in Japan). It is believed that if you put it on the roof it can cause rain and, in that way, protects the castle against fire. Fortunately, they also installed sprinklers, if the dragons had a day off 😉.
Kyoto means capital and is located in the central part of the island of Honshu in Japan. It was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, until the emperor moved to Tokyo. It is also the most important cultural centre of Japan with numerous special historical monuments, many of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are beautiful shrines, temples and cultural facilities that annually attract 50 million tourists.
Kyoto is not only known for its numerous monuments, but art also reached its peak in this city. The traditional Japanese drawing art Shunga is perhaps the most striking. It is about sex and the pleasures of life. They were made because they had nothing to hide. Sex was no taboo at all, as is the case now. 'Shun' means spring in Japanese, but it also refers to sex. And 'ga' means 'print'. It is antique and expensive and some even date back to 1788. Shunga also brings good luck.
That’s why Samurai put Shunga art in their protected clothing to protect their lives with the power of sex.
Kyoto is a perfect city to explore by bike. And if you, like grandfather Chris and grandmother Inge, opt for an electric bike, you can cover a lot of kilometres in a day. And that works perfectly for us, because we (perhaps the culture barbarians that we are) do not want to stop at one temple, castle or garden for too long. There is so much to see and to do and so we plan our days as full as possible. To give you insight into what our day looks like, here is a list of all the locations we visited on this day: Temple unknown (we met on the way), Togetsukyo bridge, Tenryu Shiseizen-Ji Temple and garden, Bamboo Groves, Seiryo-Ji Temple (made entirely of wood), Nip-mon Gate (perfect place for the cherry blossoms), Daishogun Hachi Shrine and the area around it known for weird creatures in front of shops called Yokai (Yokai can be animals, people or an object that comes to life. The belief is that they will protect the shops), Kinkaku-Ji (full temple of gold leaf), Nara-Jinja Shrine and lastly the Enko-ji temple. We stuff all this in 6 hours a day and for lunch we have our sandwiches with us to save time. In the evening there is time to eat and if you can believe TripAdvisor, there are more than 13,000 restaurants in Kyoto.
We have used TripAdvisor a lot in other countries, but because the less touristic places are nicer, just as tasty and cheaper we decide to go to restaurants spontaneously. This is how we ended up in the Nabeyacho street. A small side street/alley where more than 100 bars and restaurants can be found. To make the bars and restaurants more they have put out signposts, because from the outside you have no idea what is behind it. For us, it is in any case difficult because none of the signing is readable due to the Japanese texts. But it is a super fun and a big surprise where you end up.
A nice side trip from Kyoto is the town of Nara where thousands of deer roam freely. They are mainly found around the two most important temples: Kasuga-Taisha and the Todai-ji Temple. The train takes about 45 minutes to get there and this can be booked free of charge if you have the JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) in your possession. The JR Pass is designed for tourists to travel cheap, comfortable and easy. Train tickets in itself are extremely expensive. For example, a return to Kyoto - Tokyo is just as expensive as 1 week with the JR Pass traveling throughout the country. This pass can only be ordered abroad and can only be used with a foreign passport. Japanese people are not allowed to use this.
The Todai-ji temple was built in the 8th century, but fell prey to several arson attacks. The current building was completed in 1709 and despite its enormous size - 57 meters long by 50 meters wide - it is only 2/3 of its original size. Nevertheless, it is still one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. The temple also houses the largest sitting bronze Buddha in the world that is about 16 meters high. It took 28 years to build the picture and about 2.6 million people have worked on this. This Buddha is not cheap, by the way. The total costs are estimated at about 3.8 trillion dollars.
The Kasuga Taisha is another important building in Japanese history. It was the most important sanctuary for Fujiwara, Japan's most powerful clan during the Nara and Heian period. Contemporary, it is best known for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns hang from the buildings, while just as many stone lanterns point the way to the 'shrine'. Unfortunately, the lanterns are illuminated twice in the year, in early February and mid-August.
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Tonight we sleep in a Ryokan, this is sort of hotel/hostel where you can sleep in a traditional way. A ryokan (旅館) is a Japanese form of a family hotel or guest house. Traditional Japanese ryokans date back from the Edo era (1603-1868). They offered travellers a room with tatami mats (plaited mats on the floor), a communal bath, and other public areas, where visitors could relax in their 'yukata', a kind of bathrobe related to the kimono. The rooms with their mats may not be entered with footwear. Shoes are taken outside the hotel and placed in special cupboards. There are slippers for the guests ready, but when you enter the rooms must also be removed. Sleeping is done on a futon, a thin comfortable mattress folded in the corner of the room. We say comfortable, but only if you have put a few on top of each other, hahaha. If you go to Japan, try to book a night in a Ryokan. And certainly, the traditional ones that are provided with an onsen and take care of meals, which make the experience all the better.
From Takayama we make a day trip to Shirakawa-go (白 川 郷, Shirakawagō) in the Shogawa River Valley between the remote mountains that run from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures. The town is within an hour distance by bus and to reach it you drive through one of the longest tunnels in the world (11 km long). That means, little sightseeing on the way. In the town itself, however, there is plenty to see and you can even spend a night here. There are traditional gassho-zukiri farms to be found here, some more than 250 years old where you can stay overnight. It is not without reason that this has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1995 and attracts around 1.5 million visitors a year.
Gassho-zukuri means "built like hands in prayer". The roofs of these houses look very much like a Buddhist who is praying. In addition, the roofs offer good protection against the heavy snow that falls down during the winter.
Are you looking for something other than temples than perhaps the Japanese Alps is something for you. Perfect for hiking, winter sports or monkey viewing.
In a valley on the Yokoyu River you can find the monkey park Jigokudani, where Japanese macaques live. Jigokudani lies at an altitude of 850 meters, and literally means 'Valley of Hell'. It owes its name to the steam and the boiling water of the geometric hot springs in the ground. You can easily get here from Nagano, because there are direct buses that take no more than an hour to get there. From there you have to walk about 40 minutes, but the beautiful view and through the forest with huge high cedar trees is not a punishment. Keep your eyes open, because the chance that you already encounter the monkeys is present. Just do not look them straight in the eye as they get angry and can attack you. At the end of this refreshing forest path you will find a Ryokan with access to natural hot water baths. These are heated by the hot springs under the ground. Do not be surprised if you see something else than a human taken a bath.
The monkeys here (and that is the reason) are also crazy about it. Especially during winter, but even now in April you can see the animals play in the water, paddle or taken a dive.
Another attraction that can be easily reached from Nagano is the famous Tateyama - Kurobe Alpine Route. This route runs from Omachi in Nagano province through the 3.000-meter-high Alps to Toyama and is also called "The roof of Japan". The route can be taken in various ways, such as by cable car, aerial tram and bus. The highest point can be found at the very top of the town of Murodo.
Here you will find the "Yuki-no-otani", huge high snow / ice walls, up to 19 meters high, on either side of the road.
For tourists they have explained a path of 500 meters between the walls that you can travel on foot. Furthermore, you have a beautiful view over the entire valley. Another option is to make a hike to the top. You have to arrange this in advance with a guide, because you walk through the icy snow. If you have your skis or snowboard with you, then there is also the possibility to make a descent. Even now in April. Keep in mind that you have to walk up yourself.
Uhm ...did I tell you that Nagano also has a TEMPLE. Despite our temple fatigue we decide to visit a temple again. It is the Zenkoji Temple and is one of the most important and the most popular temple in Japan. It was founded in the 7th century and here you find the 1st Buddha statue that was brought to Japan, when Buddhism was first introduced in the 16th century. This image is hidden and only a copy can be viewed once every 6 years for a few weeks. In Zenkkoji's large hall you will also find an underground passage in the basement that visitors can enter. This passage is in complete darkness. It is too search for the key to paradise. The key is attached to a door somewhere in the middle of the path and it is believed that this provides relief to anyone who touches the key. We also found and touched the key and were reborn anew….we think!?
Oh, guys, our last days have arrived. We are in Tokyo as we still have a few things that we would like to see and do. For instance, sleeping in a cabin. These are very popular with business people and travellers who want to sleep somewhere quickly. You can get a cabin for 1 or 2 people. This cabin is equipped with a television, music connection and an alarm clock. In the evening you are expected to hoist yourself in a suit to create unity. The bathroom is separated for men and women. We even have a luxurious bathroom with a jacuzzi and sauna!
Another thing which was on our list is the Akihabara (Manga) area because Chris is crazy about Anime. Full of amazement he wanders through the floors that are stuffed with books, DVDs and all kinds of toys. You name it, they have it, although in my opinion it's just childish stuff. But nothing is less true, there is no child to be seen, only adult men and women who wander through departments for their much-needed addiction. You also have the Maid cafe, something you should have seen when you go on holiday to Japan. You are served by (just) seventeen-year-old girls dressed as doll, waitress, cat etc. all with a short skirt, just a little too nice and all just a little too interested. You can just have a drink and watch the play or you can have contact with them such as taking a photo, play a game, get attention for a certain time or talk to them. Of course they charge you for it.
Here's a nice fact: "Anime comics are so popular in Japan that more paper is used for this than toilet paper".