From Shimoyoshida to Otsuki, Hachioji, Shin-Yokohama and eventually Kyoto, my hutch has been upgraded somewhat. Regulation pyjamas and TV! Leaving a cloud covered Mt Fuji behind at 9.26, we finally arrived in Arashiyama, Kyoto around 3.45, starting on the Thomas the Tank engine and friends train and ending in our first Shinkansen bullet train, with its slightly duck billed nose. According to my maths we averaged 129mph, but whilst the exaggerated camber suggested speed it didn’t feel that fast.
Arashiyama has a very touristy vibe to it and perhaps the equinox is a celebration day because there was lots more parading by the local youffs. We took a recce walk to the bamboo grove, but it was getting dark and we got slightly thwarted by a train cutting through the middle so went and got food instead. An early night to recoup.
Another gorgeously sunny Tokyo day started with a smooth train ride to Shimbashi from Tawaramachi, followed by a 30 minute walk to Hamamatsucho Monorail to meet my travelling companion for the next 4 or 5 days. I am joining her for the beginning of her bigger trip, but for logistic purposes, went out slightly earlier.
After a slightly nervous hour, where I was actually able to offer directions to some lost tourists, she made it to the arranged spot. We’d first thought to meet in Shinjuku train station, until we read that it was the busiest in Japan and various blogs said in no uncertain terms, do not attempt to meet anyone here. Ever! And once we got to Shinjuku, we saw exactly why. It is vast and not just horizontally, but vertically too.
Navigating the subway this time though was easier and we managed to get to the Japanese Railway main lines and through the ticket queue to catch one of the slower trains to Otsuki from Shinjuku. On the way, you could just catch glimpses of Fuji-san between buildings, with even better views from the mountain train from Otsuki to Shimoyoshida. The town has a slightly frontier/wild west feel about it, with dilapidated and boutique side by side, except for the impressive sight of Mount Fuji at the end of the street!
The hostel is traditional in feel, with tatami mats and mattresses on the floor, slippers for ground floor and separate slippers for the toilet. Sliding doors, curtains, wood, white ceramic and plants create a slightly bohemian atmosphere.
Chureito Pagoda is perched on a hillside and looks across the urban sprawl of the town towards the mountain. The view from it is well worth conquering all the steps. Mt Fuji last erupted in 1707 and has become an iconic symbol of Japan, perhaps owing to its symmetrical shape and at nearly 3800m is the highest point in Japan.
….but mostly underground and mostly lost! I was far more competent the previous day on a bike!
I left late around 10.30, after some tea with a chap from the States and a Kyoto recommendation from a Japanese master of tea ceremonies and artist, and ventured underground….
My mistake was of not distinguishing between the subway and non-subway lines on the map, which led to some extensive walking between lines and losing the trails across the stations, which are simply enormous. Eventually after a longish walk overground, I finally reached Gotokuji cat temple, which was very restful. The shop sells little cat icons of varying sizes and consequently there are hundreds outside, crowded on racks to one side of the shrine.
After a tram, a train, and subway ride I reached Shinjuju Gyoen around 3pm for coffee and matcha green ice cream. These gardens are extensive and very attractive, and the green house very well laid out and beautifully stocked. It was a lovely way to spend a few hours – in daylight! Homewards, I wandered into Shinjuku admiring all the neon lights and managed to mis-time the subway for rush hour. I dismissed two trains as I simply couldn’t get on, then was collectively supported by my fellow passengers for two stops.
I re visited Senso-ji and spent some time playing around with timed photographs, since there were few people there. A young Japanese man was doing the same and I offered him my tripod, and then felt a rather silly as he had the latest all singing all dancing Sony camera, so of course had no need, but we swapped pleasantries, he was curious about what brings visitors to Japan.
A supper treat of a fish shaped sweet bean waffle. Delicious!
I felt pretty refreshed in the morning, considering. The Asakusa metro station is just around the corner and so it turns out is a bike hire office. Thus, at 0730, ‘Fromage’ and I set about getting acquainted…for eleven and a half hours!
I headed for Ueno Park and at the entrance were two cherry trees in full blossom. There appeared to be a ‘KitKat’ photo shoot taking place, making the most of some beautiful reflected highlights from a nearby building and then it suddenly got busy. Onward through Ueno and the traditional toilets, to Nezu Shrine, a red and gold building gleaming in the morning sun. This has a number of torii gates set within an Azalea garden above a carp pond and is a very peaceful setting. With preparation for the Olympics and Rugby World Cup, work was being carried out to a large section of it however.
From there toward Shinjuku and the trendy boutiques to Meiji Shrine which was busy with many foreign tourists. Walking or cycling ensures that you get more off the beaten track and I happened on a few religious sites; a buddhist cemetery and an Inari temple with foxes with red ‘clothing’.
The Government Buildings provide an amazing viewing spectacle and despite not reaching there til early afternoon, the snow capped summit of Mount Fuji was visible. The Olympic and Paralympic flags are currently on display there too, along with the Tokyo logo and mascots. Since I am not au fait with the rules, I thought that parking next to another bike meant it should be ok, but no. I had what could have been a parking ticket when I got back. A lady who asked me for directions wasn’t able to translate, but said she didn’t think it was a problem and tore it up and took it with her. Problem solved!
I started to head back around 2.30 ish and aimed for Shibuya, to experience the busiest crossing in the world; I walked it and rode it I am happy to say. From there, to Hie Temple with monkey statues and very striking flags or banners of red and turquoise each side of the steps and torii gates to the top. Onward then past the Imperial Palace Garden, as the sun dipped and the city lights properly took effect, to the food markets just before Ueno station. Here I stopped for a hot sweet bean paste donut type thing in the food market, bustling with tables and tables of locals eating and making merry, behind swathes of polythene protecting them for the elements. Then back across to the hostel.
All in all, my circuit was probably only around 20 miles, on very flat terrain thankfully as Fromage had no gears. Not wishing to take any chances however, I pretty much went straight out again to the local onsen across the road and down a back alley. There is a lot of etiquette involved with the Japanese hot baths and so I had to watch and learn, or rather wash and learn. Pretty much you take your shoes off and put them in a locker in the foyer, then pay your money via vending machine. Go through into the changing room, where you put all your clothes into a locker, then through into the showering area armed with soap, a flannel, a small plastic stool which you sit on and a washing up bowl. I had to glance across occasionally to a lady who’d entered the onsen at the same time, to make sure I followed all this in a suitable timescale. She scrubbed herself all over, had a thorough sluice down and then started again, complete with hair wash, probably taking around 15 minutes! Only once you are absolutely squeaky clean can you then enter the large square baths running along one wall, below a tiled depiction of Mount Fuji. This was bliss, but after a day outside, I turned beetroot fairly promptly and clearly didn’t have the stamina to stay in the piping hot waters for long.
A brief stopover in a very windy Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, allowed me to peruse the cheese and tulips for which Holland is renowned, although the landing was a very dumpy rollercoaster ride, with lots of whoops and urghs.
What they say does seem to be true however and travelling hand baggage only really does speed things up. I was first at the desk to exchange my voucher and collect my Japan Rail Pass after landing at Narita Airport in Tokyo.
On the platform waiting for a subway train to Asakusa, I encountered my first vending machine and bought a hot coffee in a screw top can. ‘Georgia’ is a brand from Coca Cola and seem to monopolise takeaway drinks in Japan, yet I’ve never seen anything like it in the UK.
I managed to find Bunka Hostel very easily and was slightly bemused when it was full of salsa dancers drinking beer, with lots of photos being taken and a proper party atmosphere. I couldn’t check in, so they looked after my bag while I went out to explore.
On the way out the hostel receptionist handed me lucky dip tickets for the stand just outside and I won some little wrapped sesame bites, a blue flannel (Japanese ladies carry these to dry their hands in public toilets), a 1000¥ voucher for a local shop, which I gave to the receptionist and some sashimi – two raw tuna fillets, which they kindly put aside for me for later!
I’d seen the entrance to Senso-ji on my way to the hostel, so meandered back that way. It is a huge Buddhist temple and Tokyo’s oldest. It was packed with families enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon and there were lots of youths parading in traditional dress, possibly some kind of debutant style thing maybe? Lots of them being run around in rickshaws. It was lovely just soaking up such different sights, sounds and smells on a glorious afternoon.
I ended my day by sharing the sashimi with a few of the staff in the hostel, after it had emptied of revellers, then crashed out.
My cream tea scone, adorned in the traditional ‘Cornish’ way; jam first then cream, being stabbed by a person of Devon, for frankly just not being ‘in the right order’. (You see what I did there Sue?)
I see the rationale that cream is fat so why not treat it like butter, and put it on first, but my thinking is of quantity rather than content, so spread the jam thinly first and then dollop the cream on top.
This is one of the other high altitude ancient oak woods on Dartmoor and we were very surprised at the amount of folk trapsing across from the Two Bridge’s pub to visit. So much so, that the ‘path’ is now very well worn and getting wider and wider, and the lichens and other flora for which it has been designated a special area of conservation, is getting trampled under clumsy foot.