Japan 103: all things weird and wonderful

Blogged by Anne (again because I had to split the post into two)

Two hours of train rides from Kanazawa and we were in the town of Takayama. Our first night was spent at the local J-Hoppers hostel, part of a chain of Japanese hostels. If the Takayama one is any indication, we can definitely recommend the chain (http://www.j-hoppers.com/). We had our first Japanese beef experience (the area is famous for Hida beef, same type of cow as Kobe) which involved braaing little pieces of meat over a tiny barbecue and then mixing them with a delicious fermented soybean sauce warmed up on a leaf over the coals. Takayama doesn’t really have much night life but does have some tiny little bars which get quite lively. The town of Takayama is mostly used as a staging point for trips into the mountains but there is a well laid out walking trail called Higashiyama which takes you around some of historical parts of town and up onto one of the hills.

Hida beef
Sake!!
Beer with tomato juice at the Red Hill pub
The tiny Red Hill pub
On the Higashiyama trail 
Takayama town

From Takayama, the World Heritage sight of Shirakawa-go is about an hour by bus. These beautiful mountain villages are built in a traditional thatch style with very steep roofs to be able to withstand the 15 odd meters of snow which fall every year.  Some of the houses are still occupied and some have been converted to be shops and museums. We booked a good bus tour with Nohi bus which took us to the atmospheric Ainokura village as well as the main Shiragawa area and included a fantastic lunch and free entrance to the excellent museum near the Shiragawa buss stop area (https://www.nouhibus.co.jp/hida/bustrip/?lang=en). It’s really not necessary to pay to enter any of the other houses if you visit this museum. It is possible to visit these villages independently or do a cheaper tour which only visits one village and excludes lunch and the museum but we felt the Nohi option was good value.

Looking out over Ainokura 
Ainokura from above

View over Shiragawa

We spent an extra night in Takayama in order to experience a night in a traditional ryokan so here’s a brief overview of accommodation options in Japan. The country has the usual variety of accommodation ranging from budget hostels to very high end five star hotels and resorts but it also has some unique Japanese options. The most common of these is the ‘Japanese style’ room which has a futon rather than a bed, which is folded up during the day to make space. Many hotels and hostels offer a choice between Western and Japanese style rooms. Something to specifically watch out for is bathroom arrangements – shared facilities are common in budget places and even the more mid-range places might have shared bathing facilities which are only open at specific times and offer no privacy. Other unique Japanese accommodation include capsule hotels (where you sleep in a tiny capsule rather than a room), love hotels (which are booked at short notice in the cities by business men or couples) and nap cafes (where you check in for a few hours of sleep and maybe a bath). We didn’t stay at any of these because we used AirBnB in the big cities.

The most traditional style of Japanese accommodation is called a ryokan. These days there are many modern ryokans which are really just Japanese style guesthouses but staying at a real traditional ryokan is a quintessential Japanese experience. Many ryokans are VERY high end, costing thousands of dollars, with gourmet food, impeccable service and often with private outdoor baths but we opted for the more budget-friendly Sumiyoshi Ryokan (http://www.sumiyoshi-ryokan.com/englishfacilities.html) in Takayama  which was around USD250 per night for both of us including dinner and breakfast (still well above the USD80-USD100 without meals we paid everywhere else). Sumiyoshi is situated in a heritage building along a canal in Takayama town. The rooms are small but quaint and ours had a view over the canal. Dinner and breakfast were served in our room with our futons being laid out and packed up in between. Baths are shared, but you lock the door and use them “family style.” The highlight of our stay here was definitely the food. Dinner was a massive multicourse affair (mostly all served at once), including sashimi, octopus, herring roe, river fish, various vegetables and pickles, beef cooked at the table in broth, miso soup and tempura and all absolutely delicious. Breakfast was more delicious small dishes including Japanese style coddled egg, fermented soy beans and grilled salmon.

The river in front of our ryokan
Traditional bathing 
Partial dinner 
Ryokan breakfast 
These fermented soy beans seem weird but they were one of the best things we ate

Our next and final stop was Tokyo for another 5 nights of AirBnB. Tokyo is next level crazy with 13 million people living in the city and something like 37 million in the wider metropolitan area making it the most populous area in the world. The sheer number of people along with the masses of shops, bars and restaurants can be overwhelming. It is a great city for experiencing some of the crazier sides of Japan and, of course, amazing for food, including the famous Tsukiji market for a sushi breakfast. We spent most of our time just wandering around the city (and hunting for restaurants and queuing for food) but we did do a day trip to Nikko. Nikko is most famous for a very ornate temple complex (most of Japan’s shrines are quite austere), complete with lashings of gold paint. The main attraction is hellishly busy (even on a random Monday) but you can escape into the nearby forests. We would have liked to stay a night so that we could explore the areas higher in the mountains but couldn’t schedule it in.

We were lucky to see Fuji from the train from Takayama because it was cloudy the rest of the time we were in Tokyo
Tokyo streets
Shinjuku gyoen garden
View of the city from the gardens
The famous Shibuya crossing. Ready…… 
And GO!!!
We were fortunate to see this interesting wedding party at the Meiji shrine. Thank goodness, because the place is tourist hell.
Rock n roll club practice in Yoyogi park on a Sunday afternoon (we also saw various other music and dance groups, a mime, tai chi, yoga and pizza tossing. Obviously.) 
Japan never stopped believing…
The (free) view from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku
Shinjuku at night
Bullet train
Chaos at Nikko 
More chaos (this was a Monday, don’t even want to imagine a weekend in full autumn foliage season) 
Elaborate pagoda at Nikko
Waterfall hunting in Nikko
Nikko’s famous red bridge 
Nikko forests

Japan has been a mind blowing experience. It is a fabulously civilized country while managing to be completely foreign at the same time. Here are some of the weird and wonderful things we loved:

  • Cute little jingles to announce the arrival of trains, lifts, the golf cars in airports etc. etc.
  • Technology in all kinds of weird places, like automatic change at supermarket tills, ordering machines at restaurants and coin laundries that can automatically wash and dry an entire load in 50 minutes.
  • Almost completely cash based economy, with accompanying weird customs like putting your cash in a tray instead of handing it over directly.
  • Helpful instructions and crazy signs everywhere
  • Absolute silence on trains, you don’t even hear a text message beep. There are signs asking you to limit your ‘keyboard noise’
  • Extreme politeness at all times
  • Queuing, for everything, but in such an orderly way. Train stations in rush hour are a sight to behold.
  • Obsession with all things animated from cutesy characters to x-rated manga. With matching figurines and other paraphernalia
  • Turntables in tight parking garages. And multi-layer parking machines.
  • Complete refusal to eat or drink while walking (or even standing somewhere like a station).
  • Carrying all your rubbish home so that the cities don’t have to provide public bins.
  • An extreme obsession with Halloween, aimed mainly at adults
  • Fancy dress tourism – Japanese tourists love to tour in costume, most often shuffling around in rented kimonos and wooden clogs. To be fair, people also wear proper kimonos when visiting sites for religious reasons, but you can generally tell the difference.
“Character street” under Tokyo main train station
Watch out for evil monkeys on your travels
Halloween based dessert (pumpkin)
Orderly platforms
Another helpful poster
Fancy dress tourism
More helpful signage
The dangers of traveling in Japan are not to be underestimated 
Best. Halloween costume. Ever.
Sure. Whatever you say.
Bring our laundry basket back, we have you on camera
Misuse of toilets is clearly a bigger problem than one would expect
Love the matching cardboard hats
Resources
I guess because of the historical language difficulties and the way Japan seems to capture people’s imaginations, there are some really good online resources. The Wikitravel pages for the various towns and cities are excellent and there are plenty of posts on eating and drinking. You can even google something like ‘coin lockers at Tokyo station’ and find a step by step guide including pictures. Her are a few links we liked:
And one random final tip: if you find yourself needing change with no change machines nearby, you can buy a ticket at a JR ticket machine with a large note, get change, and then return the ticket for a cash refund using the same machine.
Our wallets and our waistline are feeling a little strained but we’re very sad to be leaving, thanks Japan – we’ll be back!!!
Next stop – scuba diving in some remote parts of Indonesia
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