A Travellerspoint blog

Neon lights and 2000 temples

Osaka and Kyoto

sunny 20 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

After Nikko we had decided that it was time to go to Kyoto and have a look at its famous temples. However, being the cherry blossom season and the week-end we struggled to find accommodation for the first night. We therefore chose to spend one night in Osaka before heading to Kyoto. A great decision as it would turn out.

Osaka is a big city west of Tokyo, famous for its food and night life. There is also lots of sightseeing to be done but we decided that there would be plenty of that done elsewhere in Japan; what we wanted was a proper night out.

Getting to Osaka from Nikko means passing back through Tokyo. Our tickets left a connection time of precisely 7 minutes in Tokyo between Shinkansen trains; this would seem very optimistic anywhere except Japan.  But of course we were deposited from one train perfectly on time, followed the signs to the next platform, and hopped on our connecting train with a couple of minutes to spare. It's things like this that just make Japan so easy to travel in.

After having checked in at our hotel (which was an entirely automated process by the way), we headed to the Minami area which supposedly is THE area to spend a night out in Osaka.  So it proved to be. Neon lights, floods of very trendy people, noise, restaurants, bars... It was more like the "crazy", "Bladerunner" Japan we had imagined before. It was great wandering the streets just taking in the atmosphere.  

Saturday night in Osaka looks something like this

We decided to try the local speciality "okonomiyaki" for dinner. It's like a huge pancake with different fillings, covered by something that resembles British brown sauce, mayonnaise, and a fried egg for good measure.  Reading our description now, we should maybe clarify that it was delicious - as is everything else that we have tasted in this country. We've only had sushi - something we both love - a few times - we've been too busy trying the different specialities. There is so much more to Japanese food than sushi, sashimi, tempura and teriyaki!

Okonomiyaki is an Osaka culinary speciality and Chibo restaurant is a long standing specialist in making them

After dinner and a few drinks at a bar we ended up where any good night out in Osaka (or anywhere in Japan for that matter) should end up - a karaoke bar. It was the kind of place where you get your own room with a TV screen and awesome speakers. Included in the fee was unlimited drinks, ordered by remote control and delivered by a smiling waitress.

We decided to go for one hour and got started - ABBA being the obvious choice to warm up! Then it just went on. Suddenly the staff came and told us we had ten minutes left. Without hesitating we asked for another hour. This was just too much fun. An hour later, with barely any voices left, we gave up our booth, happy. Highlights? Probably Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way", Oasis' "Roll with it" and Roxette's "Joyride". Bon Jovi's "Living on a prayer" brought us back to our wedding... (and by the way, we've just had our five year anniversary!). 

A few shots from the karaoke booth

We left Osaka really liking the place.

Let's face it, there can be such a thing as too many temples

Kyoto is much more than a failed climate change agreement. It's home to more than 2000 temples, several of them so spectacular that they have been UNESCO world heritage listed. Unlike, for example, Nikko, the temples are spread out over a big area all around the city and public transport is a must to get around the different sights. 

As mentioned a number of times, this is cherry blossom time and peak season in Japan. This means that we were not alone when we embarked on our Kyoto temple spotting tour on Sunday, after having left our stuff at the hostel. We visited these incredibly beautiful temples (we'll let the photos speak for themselves) but unlike in Nikko, we couldn't really get a feel for the spirituality of the sites, as we were too busy dodging out of people's photos and trying not to step on Japanese children (second objective achieved, not so successful on the first one).  Maybe with hindsight, choosing a Sunday at the height of cherry blossom madness to see Kyoto was bound to be a little overwhelming...

We were not alone on the streets of Kyoto

A funny thing about Kyoto is that many Japanese tourists dress up in kimonos  before going on their temple tour.  We got some photos of that and of a geisha (real or fake, who knows) who was on a break from a photo shoot. 

If you're a Japanese tourist, the thing to do in Kyoto is to dress up in traditional costumes


First temple of the day, Kiymizu-dera

And more temples...


Pensive moment at the path of philosophy

Biker and dog, out for a ride. Nice to see that pooch not only had a helmet but  said helmet was Harley Davidson-branded as well

The geisha show was cool

On Monday morning our primary objective was to get tickets to the Miyako Odori, a geisha dance show. Kyoto is the "geisha capital" of Japan (anyone who has read "Memoirs of a geisha" might remember that it is set in the Gion quarters of Kyoto). Only, the geishas here aren't called geishas, rather they prefer to be called "geiko". Throughout April you can watch a geisha dance show (because of - you guessed it - cherry blossom).  We had read great reviews and were really keen to go. Luckily, we managed to get a couple of tickets.

Waiting for the fun to begin at the Geisha show

The geisha (or geiko) show was really special. The theatre was very tastefully decorated and nicely lit up. At 12.30 on the dot the music and singing started, performed by an all female orchestra sitting at the either side of the stage. It's the kind of music with a very distinct type of  singing you may remember from old Japanese films. And then in they came, the geishas. All beautifully dressed up in amazing kimonos, with the distinct make-up and hair you associate with geishas. For one hour, different dances were performed by different groups of geishas, some of the dances being more like a piece of theatre (some geishas even played men). It was really beautiful and graceful and by far a Kyoto highlight.

Some snaps from the Miyako Odori geiko dance - taken clandestinely despite ban on photography. Dedication to the blog

We agreed to take a temple break for the rest of Monday and just wander around and do some shopping instead. It was official: we were suffering from temple fatigue after only one afternoon.

Cherry blossom...

We keep mentioning the cherry blossom but it is actually worth a paragraph of its own. This time of year the Japanese go mad (a bit like Swedish midsummer) and it's easy to see why - the country is suddenly full of trees in various shades of pink and it is beautiful. We started off quietly laughing at people taking photos of cherry blossom but it turned out the laugh was on us - it didn't take long before we were doing the same thing.

"Ahhh, check that out, so much cherry blossom, better get a photo"

"Wow, lots of cherry blossom trees along the river, hold on, let me get a photo"

"Let me get a photo of you in front of this view (which has cherry blossom)"

"We should really get a photo of cherry blossom at night"

"These guys are having a picnic under the cherry blossom (always on blue tarpaulin - why?!) let's get a photo of that!

And so on.  We have said, a number of times, that enough is enough, no more cherry blossom photos, but if you look at how many photos the Japanese, who actually LIVE here, are taking of it, we are bound to take more.

People taking photos of cherry blossom

Back on the temple track

Our last day in Kyoto we were re-energised and ready to see some more temples. Our temples of choice were a bit outside of town, closer to the mountains, which turned out to be a very beautiful setting.
First temple of the day, the UNESCO listed Tenryu-ji. The garden was spectacular.

Shoes off when you go into Japanese temples

After the first temple, we walked through the famous bamboo grove. The lonely planet describes it as "entering another world"... Not so sure about that. It felt a lot like the over-crowded world of the rest of Kyoto in cherry blossom season.

Grant couldn't see the bamboo forest for the bamboo trees

Next stop was the home, or rather garden, of the late actor Okochi Denjiro. 

Remember this guy from old samuraij films? We didn't, but nonetheless enjoyed the stroll around his garden

Nice view from the garden

Frothy green tea and cake was included in the entrance fee

We met a really nice couple from Canberra there, whom we later bumped into on the train going west the next day. They had the ideal set up - retiring early and travelling lots!

Next up was the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Around 200 monkeys live up on the mountain, which is a brisk hike up from the river. We had seen some Japanese monkeys briefly while in Nikko, but this time we were able to get really close to the monkeys - quite aggressive little critters, it has to be said - and enjoy some beautiful views of Kyoto.

Lots of monkey business up here

Our last temple of the day (and indeed in Kyoto) was the Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It's beautifully placed in the middle of the water and the surrounding areas are fantastic. UNESCO listed? You bet.

Last temple in Kyoto - it's gold and UNESCO listed

It was with a very light step we walked towards the bus stop after our last Kyoto temple. No more crazy temple crowds, at least for a while. In the evening we enjoyed our best udon noodles so far, just around the corner from our hostel. On the sign language instructions of the friendly guy dining next to us at the bar, we added generous lashings of chilli powder. Grant didn't stop hiccuping for an hour after the meal.

And just when we thought we had Japan figured out...

...we get surprised once again - a vending machine selling ties

The next day, we would board yet another Shinkhansen in search of "the real Japan"...

Posted by Grantandhelena 12:02 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Sampling rural Japan in Nikko

snow 0 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Searching for more of the great Japanese outdoors, we headed north of Tokyo to Nikko, just beyond Odewara. Nikko is a UNESCO world heritage site (yawn - not another one!!) on account of its temples, and also renowned for its mountain scenery.  Unfortunately the area has been hard hit by the Fukushima disaster, given that it is north of Tokyo - even though it is a long way from the fallout zone, many tourists simply will not travel north of Tokyo.  We were told that in 2011 Nikko had just 3% of its 2010 tourism activity level - a staggering indication of the effect of the tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Temples, temples

Straight off the train from Hakone on Thursday, we stashed our bags at the station and walked up through Nikko town to find the world heritage area. This is a collection of various temples dating in origin from the 8th century and surrounded by magnificent cedar woods on the north side of the town.  We spent a good few hours wandering from one temple to the next along wooded pathways. It was especially cool to see the famous wise "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys over the Tosho-gu shrine. 

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

We were lucky that the crowds were pretty light and also these were the first temples we had seen in Japan so we really enjoyed taking them in. We think it's best to let the photos do the talking!!

The spectacular temples in the cedar woodlands of Nikko at Tosho-gu were founded 1200 years ago

Dedication to blogging - wireless signal is a hard thing to find in Japan so when Helena found some on the street in Nikko, we had to stop in the bitter cold to post an update on Cairns. We hope anyone reading this appreciates that commitment!

Getting Zen

The place we stayed in in Nikko deserves a whole section of its own. We chose "Zen Hostel" as a rural hostel where we could enjoy the countryside and an authentic Japanese "vibe". We had to take the train 20 minutes outside Nikko's main town to a small station where we were collected by the hostel owner, Scout. We then drove about 15 minutes on twisting, narrow mountain roads, through dense cedar forestry to get to the hostel, which sat next to a quiet road among the pine covered mountain scenery and overlooking a stretch of crystal clear river.  The setting is idyllic.  The hostel used to be an onsen (the showers are in the old onsen block downstairs) but is now just a place to stay, and a very nice one at that.

Zen Hostel - a little slice of Japanese mountain paradise

Our room was simple and spacious, Japanese-style - i.e. reed mat flooring, mattresses on the floor and sliding Japanese door.  In the lounge were huge, wooden tables low to the ground which guests sat around on the floor. There were thick blankets running from the table to the floor that you could use to cover your legs and a heating system under the table kept your legs warm. It was just as well since we discovered that Nikko in spring is a cold place, especially when your hostel doesn't have any central heating! 

Grant sampled the river next to Zen Hostel on our last morning - he lasted about 10 seconds in the freezing water before running for a hot shower

Zen Hostel's owner, Scout, is a force of nature. He is an American married to a Japanese girl, who has been living in Japan for several years and recently bought what is now Zen Hostel. When he is not baking his own bread for guests to enjoy for breakfast, he can be found driving guests all over the area in his free shuttle bus, making delicious pizzas, diagnosing any and all computer problems, discussing his Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet conspiracy theories, oh ... and running Zen Hostel. We enjoyed hanging out with Scout and finding out about his story, the hostel and the area.  We found it particularly amusing that Scout was convinced we must be Lonely Planet reviewers or travel writers given the amount of questions we bombarded him with - when he reads this blog entry he will finally understand to his relief that we are no more than inquisitive amateurs!

We also met some interesting fellow travellers at Zen - a pair of Dutch scientists, some Portuguese sisters (one a psychologist, the other an artist) and a French biologist. Incidentally, this is a trend in Japan: it attracts older travellers, often a bit geeky (we fit right in, obviously), and with an interest in the culture of the country. It must be said it makes a very pleasant change from only meeting gap year surfer/party types on the East coast of Australia.

Grant and Scout outside Zen Hostel in a rare moment when the latter was standing still

A seriously cool eating spot in Nikko

On Scout's recommendation on Thursday night, we headed to his neighbour's house up the hill next door.  Hide Watamabe runs Cafe Seiryuin Yamagoya in his house, which sits on a hillside overlooking the river. 

It was a memorable dinner. We were the only people there, as if we were Hide's personal house guests. We sat in his front room and he explained we could either have simple Japanese food, or his speciality Thai green curry - we went for the green curry, and Hide headed into the kitchen next door to prepare it for us. The food turned out to be delicious, and presented to absolute perfection: when the cherry tomato on top of the side salad fell to the side as Hide set the plates down, he frowned and carefully replaced it before letting us start to eat.  

The surroundings in Hide's place felt curiously Scandinavian - wood everywhere, and a simple, cosy design to everything. We were admiring the beautiful wooden furniture in the room, and Hide then explained that he hand carved all the furniture himself from local wood - the chairs we sat on, the table we were eating off, even the chopsticks we were using! 

A delicious meal in the home of Hide Watamabe - not only did he make the excellent green curry, but also the chair, the table and the chopsticks!

Home made banana juice, biscuits and orange for dessert, all presented just so. Fantastic

Hide himself - a picture of sophistication and a very good cook

We enjoyed the whole evening so much, we bought a couple of sets of Hide's hand carved chopsticks as a souvenir and headed off down the hill under a full moon and cloudless sky to follow the river back to the hostel. What a place!

A chilly spot for a hike

On Friday morning we awoke to a fantastic breakfast of bacon, pancakes and toast prepared by Scout. Since Japanese people eat rice and noodles for breakfast, a good American breakfast becomes all the more appealing when travelling here.  Scout then gave us a lift to the main town and we headed off in the tourist bus up a steep, winding road to discover the Nikko mountain area which starts at around 1,200 metres altitude.  

The temperature dropped by a good 10 degrees between the town and our first stop at Lake Chuzenji.  It was absoltutely freezing and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by snow for the first time on our trip. Unfortunately longjohns and gloves didn't make the cut when we packed our backpacks in February...

Beautiful Lake Chuzenji - the temperature tested our backpackers' wardrobe to its limits!

Slightly bizarrely, several nations have ambassadorial residences at the lake side, including Italy, France and our adopted land of Belgium.  The views are spectacular but we didn't see any sign of life in them.

Helena got no response when she tried to call on the Belgian embassy staff at Lake Chuzenji - presumably they were on their "pause"?

We visited the beautiful Chuzenji-ji temple on the lakeside, with views right over the lake and on to the next door Mount Nantai.  The most impressive thing in the temple is a wooden statue of Buddha that is actually 1200 years old - not a replica as with many of the temple buildings in the area.  The statue is called Tachiki Kwannon-bosatsu and is six metres high. It has eleven faces and tens of arms and hands carved out of the trunk and branches of a single tree.  The monk who showed us around the temple told us the statue was even "living" - something we took to be a piece of religious marketing until he clarified that the single tree from which the statue was carved actually still has living roots! After 1200 years it is no longer growing but the tree statue is very much alive. Amazing!

Chuzenji temple and the 1200 year old living wooden Buddha statue

From Chuzenji lake we hiked (alright, we took the shuttle bus part of the way but it was bloody cold!) up to Yumoto, lured by the promise of onsen - Japanese hot springs - at the top.  We followed the Senjogahara nature trail through woods and open moorland passing through spectacular mountain scenery.  We saw just two other hikers the whole time and had the pleasure of making fresh human footprints in the snow on most of the trail as we went - only a fox had beaten us out that morning. 

Scenery on the Senjogahara trail to Yumoto - bitter winds and snow made sure we did not hang around

We stopped at the impressive Yudaki waterfalls just before Lake Yunoko and the Yumoto Onsen area.  Perhaps even more impressive than the waterfall was the noodle soup we enjoyed in the restaurant there - made with three different types of mushrooms, one of which was tempura style, and great balls of the local speciality, yuba - the skin that forms when making tofu. Man, those were some good noodles!

Yudaki waterfall was great...

...but the noodles were spectacular!

After the exertion of the hike, it was time for some Japanese relaxation when we reached Yumoto. We paid into one of the many onsen hotels in the town and enjoyed wallowing in the hot natural spring water.  The area was so dead that we practically had the place to ourselves. Coming in from the cold to a hot, sulphurous bath is hard to beat. They also had an outdoor rock pool that was extremely hot so after 5 minutes or so you could jump from the hot water out into the fresh air and let the falling snow cool you off before jumping back in again. 

Readers will be relieved that there are no photos of this part of the proceedings!

After all that we headed back to town with the bus and to Zen Hostel for another night in the country. For the mixture of temples and the beautiful countryside, Nikko is definitely one of our favourite places on the trip so far. From here, Osaka and Kyoto beckoned. 

Posted by Grantandhelena 22:03 Archived in Japan Comments (4)

Meeting Fuji-san

Japanese style tourism in Hakone

semi-overcast 11 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Leaving Tokyo it was time for our first experience of Shinkansen, the Japanese high speed train. We were heading to Hakone, following the recommendations from Japanese people we'd met in Valparaiso and Sydney. Before getting started on Hakone, however, let us talk a minute about trains in Japan (this may be the first, but definitely not the last time this features on the blog). The beauty of our Japanese railpasses is that we can travel as much as we want all across Japan for two weeks, including on the very fast and very cool Shinkansen trains - that's bullet trains, for those who don't speak Japanese.

Waiting at the Tokyo central station, we were very excited when our train came into the platform. The train stopped and the passengers came out. The next step, however, was not us getting in. Instead an army of women in pink uniforms, equipped with brushes and vacuum cleaners, entered the train, one team for each car.

Firstly, they turned around all the seats so ALL the passengers could travel facing forward (which of course made us question why this isn't the case in Europe). Secondly, they vacuumed, wiped and brushed and replaced the head rest covers with new ones (which reminded us of Eric's recent experience with Aeroflot and their not so new head rest covers...). Thirdly and lastly they went to inspect their respective car once more and once satisfied, it was time for us to embark. Do we even need to say that the train departed on time?

After only around half an hour we reached our first stop, Odawara. Here we got our "Hakone free pass" which would grant us unlimited travel in the region for the next couple of days.

Hakone is a beautiful mountainous area south west of Tokyo. Its main draw is its many onsens (hot springs) and great views of Mt Fuji. Another attraction is the various modes of norimono you get to use with a freepass, including train, boat, "rope way", cable car and bus. You can do a nice loop using these different norimono - more about that shortly.

We arrived at Hakone-Yumoto (almost all villages in the area are called Hakone-something, very confusing) in the pouring rain and set off to our guest house. Our place was the only reasonably priced place that wasn't fully booked, an indication of how popular the area is. We had moreover read a few reviews which weren't exactly full of praise of the place. We didn't have much choice other than to take our chances and hope for the best.

Our place turned out to be very simple but not half as bad as we had feared so in the end we were positively surprised. Our room was traditional Japanese style hence very simply furnished. No sooner had we arrived before a lady came in with a big thermos of hot water. She showed us where the green tea and the cups were, bowed and then left. We were thrilled, a cup of tea was exactly what we wanted.

Another significant and unexpected treat was the fact that our place had its own onsen (hot spring), which guests had unlimited access to. With horrible weather outside, there wasn't much else to do than to go and soak in the hot water. It could be a lot worse.

The onsen

And voilà, the beds are out!

The next morning we woke up early, having a long day of sightseeing ahead. We were very happy to see that it had cleared up overnight but only dared to be cautiously optimistic, knowing that Mt Fuji more often than not is covered in clouds. Rather than taking the bus or train to our first stop, we decided to walk along the Old Hakone Highway towards Moto-Hakone situated by the lake Ashino-ko. We could see clouds rolling in over the top of the mountains and could only hope that this wouldn't mean that Mt Fuji would be covered.

Walking the meandering hills of Hakone

We stopped in the village Hatajuku to have a look at the local woodcraft. The local speciality is to glue together different types of wood in different colours and hence creating intricate patterns. Very beautiful - and not cheap. They can glue the different wood types together to make complex picture blocks; they then take a plane to the block and shave off layers, every layer being an identical wood picture.  It was pretty amazing but far too expensive for a souvenir.

Examples of Hatajuku woodcraft

After that we took the bus down to Moto-Hakone where it was freezing. We took a quick walk along the cedar tree avenue, through Hakone Sekisho, an ancient check point (and one of the best preserved in Japan). Back in the day (when Tokyo was still known as Edo), people traveling had to stop at these check points and present their tegata, a wooden plaque serving as passport, and subject themselves for inspection. Luckily this was not needed today as we were so cold and eager to get going.

Luckily nobody stopped us at the check point

On the way to Hakone-Machi we suddenly saw it coming out from behind the clouds - Fuji-san. Would we get any better views before the end of the day..?

You never forget your first glimpse of Fuji-san

In Hakone- Machi it was time for our first exciting mode of transport - a pirate ship. Only in Japan! While Ashino-ko is a nice lake, it's main reason for being a tourist attraction is the views of Mt Fuji. Still we appreciated the opportunity to go on a proper pirate ship!

The ship was called Vasa, but unlike the original, this one had obviously survived its maiden voyage

Posing with plastic pirate...

...only to later discover the real deal below deck!

Helena, Fuji-San and Red Torii gate

Sister pirate ship

With the first exciting type of attraction out of the way, it was time for number two: "the rope way". In no way did could we ever get lost or not know how to get to the next access point. The whole Hakone loop is just so convenient, in lack of a better word. You step off one piece of crazy transport, and straight on to the next. There are signs, arrows, time tables, photos, staff and various helpers everywhere so you always know where to go. And did we mention that everything leaves on time?

We stopped half way at Owakudani to check out both the splendid view of Mt Fuji and the volcanic activities. Owakudani is an area around a crater which was created in an eruption 3000 years ago. Today the volcanic activity is limited to hot springs and sulphurous fumes. We decided to ignore the smell and check out the springs. They were obviously smelly but very impressive nonetheless. The whole place has a doomsday feel to it.

Owakudani with its sulphurous fumes - for once it wasn't Grant!

Another thing we couldn't resist while there was to have some eggs. Yes, that's right. For 500 yen you can get five eggs that have been boiled in one of the pools of sulphurous goo. They are black on the outside but apart from that they seem very much like regular eggs. With the exception that these will prolong your life by seven years! If not, you can claim a refund. Er...

We did not envy this guy his job - boiling eggs in sulphurous hot springs...

This seems to be the closest we get to Easter eggs this year

Egg frenzy

While the eggs were good, we still needed some more sustenance and ventured to the footstalls inside for some local sweets, including ice cream with bean jam. Surprisingly tasty.

What better dessert after an egg lunch than a bun with bean jam filling?

And here, some more photos of Fuji-san, we were obviously very happy with the clear weather!

Fuji-san, again

Next it was time to get on the rope way again, after which it was time for a cable car and train back to our guesthouse. And what better what better way to reflect on a great day than to soak in the onsen...

Posted by Grantandhelena 17:00 Archived in Japan Comments (10)

A very enjoyable culture shock


sunny 10 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Coming to Tokyo was a daunting prospect. We imagined heaving crowds, complete confusion and generally feeling very lost. In fact, we found to our surprise that Tokyo is a very pleasant big city and one where it is almost impossible to lose your way.

One of the most striking things about Tokyo is that it does not feel crowded. There are lots of people - 35 million in the greater Tokyo area! - but the streets are calm, the traffic respectful, and the air does not feel polluted.  The buildings are huge but they are spread out (in large part as a precaution in case of earthquakes) so there is plenty of natural light and greenery in between them. It is also a quiet city - cars move about without honking horns, pedestrians bustle without shouting on mobiles, quietly waiting for the green man before crossing the street, and things just feel generally serene.

We spent our first day in the city walking around the city centre, something we never expected to be able to enjoy doing in such a huge city.  We found it surprisingly easy to navigate in Tokyo: all signs are translated into English and there are very accurate street maps every couple of hundred metres throughout the city. When we did eventually use the subway, it was also incredibly simple: each line has a letter, each station a number, meaning even if you can't pronounce the station name you can simply use the codes to navigate. Why is every metro not like this?!!

Cherry blossom spotting officially on! in central Tokyo at the Imperial Palace gardens

Taking a taxi in Tokyo is a treat as well. The doors open and close automatically so all you have to do is climb in and sit down on the beautiful lace-covered seats. The lace is invariably beautifully pressed and spotless as if the taxi were prepared just for you.  The driver wears a suit and tie, of course. If the driver needs to check his GPS to find your destination, he will use a little handheld remote control rather than having to touch the GPS itself, possibly for fear of getting a mark on his impeccable white gloves.

Taxis in Japan complete with impeccable lace interiors

Arriving in Tokyo is such a culture shock (in a good way) that we can't possibly note everything we saw down here. But here are some of the most important points about our two days there.

Great food and happy meetings

We thought we knew a bit about Japanese food before arriving, but the array and diversity of food in Tokyo is astounding. On our first night we headed out to our local noodle bar. We were confused by the lack of table service, then a friendly chef showed us what looked like a cigarette vending machine in the corner and made us understand that that was where we should order. We put in some coins, hit a couple of buttons with Japanese characters on them and hoped for the best. The order was sent direct to the kitchen and bowls of thick noodles appeared before us within five minutes. They were really good, especially after an eight hour flight from Cairns on Jetstar with only our modest packed lunch to sustain us.

We had the good luck to be able to meet up with friends from home both on the Sunday and Monday nights in Tokyo to enjoy different types of food together.  On Sunday we met Mårten and Eric, old friends from Brussels who were in town on a diplomatic (beer drinking/karaoke) mission to play football for the week with "Sweden FC".  On Monday, we met up with Grant's boss, Mark, who was in town for the Easter break with his wife, Delia, son Thomas, and family friend Giovanna.  It was a chance for a belated celebration with Mark of his recent, significant birthday, and to catch up on the Brussels White & Case gossip.

Sunday night - dinner in Roppongi with Mårten and Eric of Japanese barbeque where we cooked over hot gas ovens set into the table. The food was delicious. Unfortunately a rogue piece of meat meant Mårten was bed-ridden the next day. Ouch.

Grant and Eric out and about in Roppongi

Monday night - Mark treated us to dinner in an excellent sushi restaurant under the tracks next to the Tokyo train station.  The tuna fish was outstanding and washed down with plenty of good Japanese beer.

Was it the jet lag, the beer, or Grant's chat? Thomas was struggling by the end of Monday's dinner!

Amazing views

We enjoyed a couple of great views of Tokyo while there. The first was during the day on Sunday when we climbed to the Mori Gallery on the 50th floor of the Mori Tower in Roppongi. We took in a cool exhibition by Lee Bull, a pretty outlandish South Korean sculptor, and then went up to the roof terrace viewing gallery on the 54th floor where you can circle the helipad and take in the city view. From up here, you can really see how immense Tokyo is - you can see all the way east to Tokyo Bay and then in all other directions all you can see is city to beyond the horizon (or at least the haze).

On top of Mori Tower for an awesome view over Tokyo

Then on Sunday night after a couple of beers with Mårten and Eric, we decided to take a taxi to the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku to drink in their rooftop "New York Bar", immortalised by Bill Murray as his jetlagged drinking hole in "Lost In Translation". It's on the 52nd floor of one of the top hotels in an area outside the centre of town, which means you look back from it onto the skyscrapers of central Tokyo, each of them topped with a blinking red light. Being up there at night looking out over that sea of shimmering red lights was pretty powerful. Throw in some generous "old fashioned" 's and it is an experience not to be missed.

No sign of Bill Murray in the bar, but the view made up for it

Extraordinarily helpful and polite people

On the train in to Tokyo from the airport we were offered drinks by a young lady with a trolley, who passed by us at least six times in the space of 40 minutes. She never raised her voice but quietly and politely informed passengers as she passed them of what they could buy from the trolley. Before exiting the end of the carriage each time, she turned back to the passengers and bowed before moving on.  We watched this several times in amazement: no passengers were ever watching, but she nonetheless turned and bowed to our carriage every single time. It turns out that bowing and extreme politeness are Japanese traits you see everywhere, especially in shops, restaurants and on the trains. What a great habit for an entire nation of people to have - it even rubs off on the tourists here!

On Monday we went with Eric to the Iranian embassy in Tokyo to beg for visas so we can visit Eric there in June as part of our world tour. Surprisingly, it all went very smoothly (well, as smoothly as one could expect perhaps. Having Eric there showing off his Persian skills obviously helped - a lot) up until the point we had to pay. No cash was allowed to change hands; instead we had to make a bank transfer. This turned out to be very complex as we moved from an ATM that didn't work to a Post Office that also could not carry out the transfer. With time ticking to closing time at the embassy, a Japanese lady who was in the post office queue overheard our predicament and told us in broken English we would need to go to a nearby bank to make a transfer. Seeing the confusion on our faces, she then proceeded to lead us on a 10 minute tour around the block and delivered us to the door of the bank, which we could never have found without her help. She then handed over to a helpful bank attendant who stood with us at the ATM and walked us through the entire transfer process.  We got the money transferred and made it back to the embassy just in time to get our visas. We wondered if people in Europe would ever take that much time and effort to help two lost foreigners. 

Celebrating getting the visas - but for the kindness and patience of strangers we would never have made it here! Here we parted with Eric but agreed to meet up in Tehran later

The early bird doesn't always catch the worm

We got up super early on Tuesday to go to the famous Tokyo fish market. We were down there by 4.30 to get in the queue for the tuna auction, which is THE attraction. However, we were told when we got there that all the places had gone. We wandered the outer market for a bit and then weighed our options: we could stay and have a sushi breakfast or beat a retreat to the hotel and salvage another couple of hours of sleep. Sleep won hands down. Probably the best two hours of sleep we've ever had.

Our brief impressions of the Tokyo fish market

Incidentally, it seems that hotel staff in Tokyo work very hard. The two front desk attendants at our hotel helped us book a place to stay for our next stop the day before we left Tokyo. They made the booking by phone with us around 16h00 on Monday. When we left for the Tokyo fish market at 4h00 the next day they were still working at the front desk. When we checked out at 9h00 they were still working - at least an 18 hour shift!!

What's with the face masks? Why is this toilet seat warm?

A couple of other random observations. Surgical face masks are a common accessory in Japan- many of the airport customs officers wear them, but also people in the street from taxi drivers to joggers and businessmen.  It seems to be both a way of keeping germs out and containing germs by people who have colds. While people who use these seem to keep them firmly strapped to their face at all times, we did laugh at one man in a suit we passed who had lowered his mask to his chin in order to have a smoke. So much for keeping out bad air...

Japanese toilets are bewildering. The one in our hotel room in Tokyo has a heated seat and some kinds of shower function that we were unable to work out. But it turned out this was a poor man's Japanese toilet: in a restaurant we visited on our first day, Grant opened the door to the men's toilet and the toilet seat lifted to greet him. The toilet was expecting him. That's just weird.

Aaah - which one is "flush"?Control panel on typical Japanese toilet

Posted by Grantandhelena 03:34 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

If the crocs don't get you, the stingers will

Adventures in Cairns

sunny 33 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

"Come on, I haven't got all day!"  The last two backpackers look startled and the rest of us are struggling not to laugh. We are in the shuttle bus that will take us from Cairns' airport to our respective hostels. It's almost midnight and it's obvious that our driver has had a shitty, long day that he just wants to come to an end. Any passenger who doesn't throw his or her bags in to the trolley behind the bus and jumps into the bus get just adds to his frustration and he does nothing to conceal it. We and the other passengers just can't believe that he's for real and giggle quietly. He calls out half to himself and half to us on the bus "well the ones who are left can just get a taxi!" We don't really say anything, thinking that whoever is left probably pre booked their shuttle just like us and most likely are just waiting for their luggage to come through.  It doesn't, however, seem to be the time to mention this to him.

The shuttle starts to drive and the driver spots two more people walking across the parking. He squelches to a halt and calls to them through the window "Where are YOU going?". The man and woman look startled but manage to compose themselves enough to say the name of their hostel. They are in luck - this is their shuttle too. Our driver sighs and yells again - you guessed it - "come on, I haven't got all day!!!". These guys aren't even allowed to put their luggage in the back, not to mention taking  a seat. As soon as the door is shut behind them, the driver takes off, resulting in the two backpackers lying on the floor, fighting with their massive bags, wondering where the hell they have ended up and if everyone in Cairns is like this. The rest of us are struggling even harder to hide our giggles. 

An Irish guy starts chatting to the driver asking about his day. It comes as no surprise to us that it has been "shit". The driver somehow recognises that the Irish guy is making small talk and engages in conversation but without letting go of his angry tone. When he asks the guy where in Ireland he's from it sounds more like he's yelling an insult. The Irish guy handles it in the trademark good natured/cheeky Irish way. 

The journey through town begins. Our driver is obviously eager to get home and is racing through roundabouts at high speed and we are holding on for our life.  One after the other, backpackers are dropped off outside their hostels. We estimate the time spent at each stop to be something like 3.5 seconds. At the end there is only a Sri Lankan guy and us left. He looks at us nervously and says that he hopes he won't the last one left. He's in luck. His last words as he disembarks is "Good luck". We mouth a thank you. We might need it.

However, maybe it's the call of home or the fact that he sees our efforts to get the hell out of his bus when we finally have arrived at our hostel. He says "Very nice hostel this, you'll enjou it. Have a nice holiday". And off he drives. We look at each other, still can't believe what a strange start we've had to our stay in Cairns and head in to find our room and go to bed. It's time for our last adventures in Australia to begin.

Cairns is the capital of North Queensland and it's main claim to fame these days is the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, both UNESCO world heritage sites. There is a tremendous amount of things to do on land and in water. Cairns itself is quite a nice small city sitting on the ocean and surrounded by lush green hills.  It has a disproportionate number of bars and restaurants to cater for the tourists who flock here from all over, especially Japan.  You can't swim in the ocean in northern Queensland unless you want to risk being stung to death by box jellyfish, or being hunted by saltwater crocodiles, but the town has a pretty cool artificial "lagoon" where people can hang out, swim and tan. We spent a bit of time down there.

The marina in Cairns and the bizarre sight of hundreds of bats flocking through the town just before dusk on our last day

We knew we wanted to visit both Daintree and to do some diving on the reef and had a chat with our hostel the next day after our arrival. Our hostel obviously makes a lot of their money from commissions from booking tours but we didn't feel the need to be cynical about it as they clearly knew their stuff and presented us with lots of alternatives, pointing us to the benefits and drawbacks with each option.

Having been on a few tours we decided to discover the Daintree rainforest ourselves and booked a car. Due to the recent rain it wasn't guaranteed that we would be able to go on the coastal roads as parts of the road had been washed away in the flooding. We could get an update at 7 in the morning of our drive, i.e. the following day. Fingers crossed.  

The next morning we got the good news from reception "the road is open!". We were obviously delighted and headed to "Thrifty's" to collect our Ford Focus rental motor.

The coastline north of Cairns on the way up to Daintree is beautiful. We were eager to get up to Cape Tribulation (or "Cape Trib" as they say up here) but did stay at the Rex lookout for some photos n the way up.

Eager to get started!

Nice view from Rex lookout

After a couple of hours we arrived at the cable ferry that would take us over the Daintree River, into the rainforest.  Felt strangely old school!

Grant waiting for the ferry

Crossing the Daintree River

On the other side it was time for the winding roads of Daintree. Clearly only tourists really come up here because the highway stops and it just becomes a twisting B road through the rainforest. On both sides there was thick rainforest and we stopped a couple of times for a closer view on the way up to "Cape Trib".

What makes Daintree rainforest extra special is the fact that it is one of the world's oldest rain forests. The species here are unique. 30 of the world's 90 types of mangroves grow here. Just to mention a few things. We didn't get to see any tree kangaroos or animals, apart from giant spiders, but still found it very cool.

No tree kangaroos here but plenty of things that bite...

Our last stop before turning south again was Cape Tribulation. Again, the name was given by James Cook when he noted the navigational dangers in that area. We took some photos and went for a stroll. This was as as far north we would get in Australia on this trip.  Beyond Cape Trib is miles and miles of dirt road up into Cape York.

We did NOT fancy going for a swim at Cape Trib!

On our way back to the ferry we stopped for some locally produced ice cream. We couldn't linger, however, as we were rushing to make the 14.00 crocodile cruise on the Daintree River. We took off and raced to the ferry, and once we were over, continued our frantic drive to Bruce Belcher's crocodile cruise. Just in time, we got on board for an hour of crocodile spotting.

Bruce is apparently something of a northern Queensland legend and it was easy to see why. He has been running these croc tours for 20 years and his knowledge of crocodiles and the other wildlife in the area didn't disappoint us and neither did the number of crocodiles we saw!  However, Crocodile Dundee Bruce is not; he loves the crocodiles but keeps a safe distance away from them at all times.

Can't go wrong on a cruise with Bruce

Baby croc, born just a few weeks ago

Crocodile, around two years old


As it is breeding season we were not guaranteed to see much so we were really pleased to see quite a few crocs. There are apparently around 70 crocodiles in the Daintree River - not as many as you might imagine. It must be strange living so close to them and not to be able to go for any swims in the river.  On the other hand, locals seem to be pretty relaxed about the whole thing and some of them, like Bruce and his wife, are making their living from  it.

We learned some interesting things about crocs.  Females lay over 20 eggs each year and of these perhaps half will hatch. However, young crocs are very vulnerable to birds, fish and other crocodiles. From the age of 1 year their mothers leave them to fend for themselves. Up until at least 2 years old they are small enough that they a vulnerable to fish/bird attack, and they are not fully grown until well into their teens.  That means that of the multiple eggs laid, it will be a good result if one crocodile infant makes it to adulthood. Amazing to realise these tough killing machines are so vulnerable for so long.  However, we shouldn't feel too much sympathy for the crocs: when we asked Bruce if he thought the risk from crocs was maybe exaggerated, he made very clear he would never ever swim in the Daintree river. 

Before going back to Cairns, we had one more important stop - Mossman Gorge. A beautiful watering hole with amazingly clear water (and guaranteed to be crocodile free because of the cold water!). 

Going for a swim in Mossman Gorge

After a day of kicking back, on the Friday it was time for what we were hoping would be one of the highlights of our Aussie adventure - the Great Barrier Reef. Here we had decided to spend more Aussie dollars in order to go to a better site (out on the outer reef), with a better and faster boat and with good snacks and lunch served on board. We weren't disappointed. The boat was ace. 

Once on board, the crew warned passengers that it would be pretty choppy with winds around 30 knots and that they highly recommended getting seasickness pills. Neither of us had ever taken that before but we quickly agreed that this probably was a good time. Having spent quite a few dollars on this excursion, a few dollars more wouldn't make a difference. It was probably the best 3.5 dollars we ever spent. It was very choppy on the way out and the paper bags handed out by crew were going like hot cakes.  The crew obviously had lots of experience of dealing with seasick people and brought them all outside, placing them with a paper bag in their hands. Honestly, we have never seen anything like it (those who have seen "Stand by me" and the lard ass story  might get an idea). Of the maybe 80 passengers on the boat, at least 20 vomited. People's faces really go green when they are sick. 

We both managed to keep our breakfast down but kept our eyes on the horizon, not taking any chances.

Being out on the reef, the risk of stingers (or box jellyfish) is very small. However, we were nonetheless required to wear stinger suits just in case (regular wet suits no required when the water is 28 degrees). We quickly liked our new outfits..l

In the stinger suits - ready for the reef

We were relived to see that we were diving in quite small groups, with most of the people on board going for the snorkelling. We had two great dives in two sites, both on Flynn Reef. We saw green turtles, white tip reef sharks, sting rays, Napolean Rass  and of course Nemo (clown fish) to name a few. It really was like diving in an aquarium with so much amazing fish around. On the last site we snorkelled, being required to leave at least 24 hours between diving and our flight the following day. It gave us the chance to explore the shallow reef just a metre or so under the surface, which also was pretty impressive.  

We could really see  that the "Great" in its name comes from more than the sheer size of it (over 2000 kms long). It was just awesome and so full of life in all shapes and colours. And yeah the lunch on the boat was great too. The next day on our flight to Tokyo we were treated to awesome views of the reef from the plane- amazing to see the scale of the reef system and realise that we only saw one tiny piece of one section of this reef.

Views of the Great Barrier Reef from our plane - you can see that in fact it is made up of thousands of individual reefs that form a band running for 2000 km down Australia's east coast

Posted by Grantandhelena 00:31 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

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