Kampai to Tokyo

We are beginning to feel much too much like locals here in Tokyo. We were even stopped in the street today and asked for directions, of which we could provide straight away. Probably better than I could for the Sydney CBD. I think it must be time to leave soon…

After being fortunate enough to spot Mount Fuji from the top of the SkyTree on our first day in Tokyo, we decided to try our luck again and see if we could catch a glimpse of it a little closer up by taking a trip to Hakone, a small village about an hour and half trip out of a Tokyo. Rising earlier than we have generally been getting up on this trip (it has been too cold!), we managed to navigate our way to the station and get on the right Shinkansen, headed out of town. Unfortunately for us, the weather was not looking as clear as the train station signs, helping us seamlessly change lines, and as a result when we arrived at the ticket office in Hakone we noticed the live camera showing Mount Fuji was just a bunch of clouds. Determined not to make the trip a waste, however, we took the opportunity to visit an onsen (traditional Japanese public bath) – an absolute must do on a trip in Japan.

If our nerves weren’t already getting the better of us at the start, we almost accidentally walked into the men’s change room before a very sweet staff member came chasing after us. Once pointed in the right direction, and shown a list of the rules, we very awkwardly giggled our way to the baths. Once submerged in the beautifully hot pools, the awkwardness soon washed away and we were able to enjoy the experience and marvel at the steam rising from the water and ourselves as we chilled outside in nothing but our birthday suits. It felt ridiculous putting all our layers back on while we still felt boiling after the baths, and we quickly understood why onsens are still so popular in Japanese culture today. Plus whatever was in the water managed to clean all our silver jewellery and make it really shiny! Added bonus!

As we headed back into the centre of Hakone with red faces and most of our jackets and jumpers in our hands, we decided to give Mount Fuji a shot. A forty minute bus ride through the mountains later, and we arrived to a view of clouds. I was at least pleased to see snow piled up on the side of the road – a small taster of what is to come in Sapporo and a chance to practice making snowballs and snow sculptures. Bring it on Sapporo Snow Festival! After grabbing some food we reluctantly headed for the bus stop, good thing I looked up as we crossed the road, because Mount Fuji had decided to pop out behind some clouds and we quickly snapped a few pictures before it disappeared again! I left feeling much more satisfied than I think my bowl of noodles alone could have made me. Thanks Fuj!
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Once arriving back at our hostel, we were informed by the staff, who know us all too well by now, that we were being upgraded to a private room as a treat, and once we dumped our bags in our new ‘penthouse suite’ we decided to hit Shibuya and Harajuku to celebrate. After getting a bit lost at first, we eventually turned the right corner to be hit by an assault of sights, smells and sounds. We’d found Shibuya. *Shibuya yeah yeah, Shibuya!* Overwhelmed and in awe, we watched the famous crossing, the busiest in the world, from the safety of a second storey Starbucks window with our hazelnut and whipped cream frappa-mappa-crappa-chinos. Hyped on a dangerous mixture of excitement and caffeine we hit the streets to explore Shibuya and all it’s craziness, and even got a chance to cross the intersection along with a few hundred others.
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A quick subway stop away and we found the colourful and kawaii-ful Harajuku. Full of young Japanese hipsters and shops selling retro 90s getups and some of the wackiest accessories I’ve seen, Harajuku was definitely a fun area to walk through. Famous for its people-watching (dress ups and cosplay are very popular in this district) I’m afraid the cold weather meant we missed seeing some of the crazier outfits. Just another excuse to come back though I guess!

Back on the train, the 30 minute ride from one side of the city to the other flew by as I was busy laughing at the lady sitting next to me whose head kept bouncing around like a bobble-head as she dozed off. Little did I know that would be me the next day, although I wouldn’t be as skilled as her and walk up just before my stop. Thank god I have Hannah.

Another early morning, though not as early as the tuna auctioneers that start at 4.30am, we rose and left for the Tsukiji Fish Markets. Getting off the train it was easy to work out where the markets were – just stepping onto the busy sidewalk was like being picked up by a current and swept away like, well…like a school of fish I guess. How appropriate. Deciding to leave the outer market for later, we hit the serious part, and while a lot was already sold out, we managed to see heaps. Huge tunas being sliced and diced by huge knives or bandsaws, crabs that were still crawling, the biggest prawns I’ve ever seen, sea cucumbers, something I’m not sure what, clams for miles, fish in all shapes, sizes and colours, octopus, squid, and most importantly, some of the freshest, most delicious looking sashimi ever.
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Once we couldn’t deny our sashimi craving any longer we hit the outer market where I got a BBQed scallop and Hannah tried a sweet egg roll again (still doesn’t like it, but kudos for trying) before we sat down for some serious sushi. The first for the day but definitely not the last; we ended up having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner that day.
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After buying some pretty sick looking handcrafted knives from the fish market, we headed to Roppongi, a district known for it’s partying but also home to 21_21 Design Sight. Paying me back for my mistake at the Imperial Palace, Hannah hadn’t checked to make sure it was open and it wasn’t until we got there that we found out it was closed for three months to set up a new exhibition. She still managed to take some cool photos of the exterior of the building though, so make sure you check her out on Instagram for some awesome spatial designer wank no doubt. Just kidding. Or not. We’ll leave that to the pros, they know who they are. *insert creepy winky face*

After joining the masses and falling asleep on one of the overheated trains, we decided I could probably do with a coffee from our mate Sol. Plus we used the walk there as an opportunity to stock up on some chocolate for the 7-Eleven convenience stores that are on every corner. Literally.
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Buzzed and ready for more activities, we headed out to a top secret location where we were put through our ropes in ninja training. With some weird stares and a lot of questions, we basically just ran around a department store in ninja costumes. I can’t tell you much though, or I’ll have to kill you or something ninja like that.
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Back at the hostel for our final night we were very generously treated to a hand roll sushi party by the staff. We each got to make our own sushi rolls, eat soba noodles, and drink sake and plum wine. Plus it was a great opportunity to chat to people from all over the world and we got some very helpful insights into both Sapporo (Japan) and Seoul (South Korea) which are our next stops.
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IMG_0229 I’m very excited about seeing the Snow Festival in Sapporo, and have already promised countless people photos so will try to be on top of that. Hannah is still not convinced about the negative degrees yet, but fingers crossed we survive! If worse comes to worse we might just become ice statues ourselves. Could be worse things!

Bye for now, a long train ride awaits me!

Kyoto also spells Tokyo

It has hit that point, as it does in every trip, where you suddenly realise how fast the time has gone, and how little you have left. As the cold seems endless, the race through train stations never ending, and the new faces familiar, the days begin to blur into one and you lose track of how long you’ve been traveling for. But if you ask me, these are the greatest days. The days you don’t have internet connection, but don’t even realise. They days you forget about time-wasters like makeup and planned outfits. The days you just want to lose yourself in a city in order to truly find its treasures. The days that challenge you, change you, but stay with you forever.

This week started with an end. On our final morning in Kyoto, we vowed to find the large Buddha we had spotted on the edge of town while we were up the Kyoto Tower. A true test of how well we knew the streets, we managed to find it after going in a few circles (however that was most likely due to us getting lost in conversation). The monument, we learnt on arrival, was called Ryozen Kannon and is a tribute to all the unknown soldiers who bravely fought and died in World War II. The 24 metre high compassionate Buddha is a symbol of peace, both for the state of Japan, and for those who died fighting for it. Not mentioned anywhere in our guidebook, I was particularly pleased with our discovery. It was an interesting and un-touristed little complex with plenty of temples, memorials and shrines – some for luck, marriage, peace and even blessings for miscarried foetus.

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After our walk back to the hostel, the falling snow made it all the easier to jump on the toasty-warm Shinkansen train for three hours, headed to Tokyo! As we laid back in our spacious seats, we watched the world literally fly by – the dense city centres to the sparse rural villages, all looking as though someone had lightly dusted them with a fine icing sugar. All going too perfectly to plan, we were two stops out of Tokyo when the cabin crew realised we were on the wrong train (our JR pass did not cover super express Shinkansen, only the express) and asked us ever so politely to get off at the next stop and get on the next train. While ordinarily this sort of mistake could have been disastrous to a tight schedule, the next train came in a measly 5 minutes. Nice one, Japan!

Once arriving in Tokyo City, we found Hiroko, after a kind gentleman helped us decode a confusing pay phone, much to both ours and his amusement. Hiroko is a friend of my grandmother’s who hosted me when I first visited Japan, some 19 years ago. She had kindly offered to have us stay at her house for the first night we were in Tokyo so we could see her perform in a traditional drum concert to be held the next day. She was more than hospitable while we stayed with her, more than we could ever have asked for or expected. She treated us to the most amazing sushi train experience I have ever had (they filleted the fish before your eyes), the chance to cook our own okonomiyaki, a real crazy Japanese experience at a Ninja restaurant, cakes, cats, and most of all an insight into a side of Japanese culture we could not have got through guidebooks. She even introduced us to her friend Emi who, with her husband, kindly took us up the Tokyo SkyTree to 350metres above Tokyo and treated us to a lovely lunch while Hiroko practiced her drumming.

One of my favourite things I discovered while staying with Hiroko was the technology. Her toilet can be put through a range of strange motions such as spray, heat, dry, mist, etc (you can work out what for), her bath heats and fills itself up and tells you when it is ready, and her washing machine will weigh your load of washing and tell you how much soap to put in and how long it will take. What are we doing in Australia!?

All in all, we could not have thanked Hiroko enough for her immense generosity, and although all she would accept was a bunch of flowers and some chocolates, we are eternally grateful for all that she did for us and can’t wait for her to visit Australia to repay her for her hospitality.

On our second night in Tokyo, after a delicious dinner, Hiroko was kind enough to drop us to our hostel (quite literally to the door, any closer and her car would have been through the front window) where the second half of our Tokyo journey began. But more on that later…

Good night for now. I hope you are all smiling just as much as me.

IMG_0203 Our sushi plate stack – we tried Tuna, Sea Urchin, Salmon, Bloody Clam, Scallop, Red Fish and many more…

IMG_0207 Hiroko and I

IMG_0202 View from the Tokyo SkyTree

IMG_0204 Lunch with Emi and Hero

<a href=”https://emmabreislin.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/img_0205.jpg”>IMG_0205 Hiroko’s traditional drum performance

IMG_0206 Making our own okonomiyaki