Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Travels in Japan - Kyoto

I'm getting steadily worse at keeping up with our adventures, aren't I. My excuse is that it's a pain in the butt to write this all on my phone, plus I've been spending most of my time on the Shinkansen napping or staring out at the scenery.

Anyhoo. We spent four nights in Kyoto, and managed to pack quite a bit in. The train station there was incredible, and came complete with a giant Christmas tree. 

On our first night, which was Christmas Eve, we met up again with our Kanazawa housemate Seigo, who had done the hard work before we got there and found a couple of good bars. There is a street/area full of restaurants and bars called Pontocho*, which is a kind of laneway. 

Apparently Christmas Eve is quite a big commercial thing here, and a sort of couples' night out, and the streets of the shopping area near the Gion bridge* were absolutely crawling with people. We found a small bar with a dragon fly as its logo, where we encountered oragami-folding bar tenders, drinks with LED ice cubes, and Santa enjoying one last drink after a night of hard work. 

And then suddenly it was after midnight, and therefore Christmas morning, and ALL of the Santas went off duty!

G bought me some Christmas flowers because I love Christmas and miss not having the big traditional thing, and we turned them into a Christmas tree. 

Christmas Day was spent visiting the Silver Temple (a UNESCO world heritage site) and strolling along the nearby canals. Even in winter it was a pretty walk but I imagine in spring it would be spectacular with the blossoms. 

We also came upon an old viaduct and another temple complex*, but we had left our run too late in the day and it was closed to visitors. The gatehouse was still pretty impressive though. 
And then it was time for Christmas dinner. We wandered about Pontocho* until we found a place with just enough English on the menu to be not completely flying blind... and then we ordered the chef's menu mystery bag anyway!
There was also dessert but I was so excited by it that I forgot to take a picture. It was easily the fanciest meal we'd had since arriving in Japan - mostly we've been having $10 counter meals or ramen - but it was pretty good value, at least compared to Melbourne. All the above, plus dessert, plus three alcoholic drinks each. Altogether we had a very merry Christmas!

Boxing Day included some more spectacular sightseeing. First up was the famous bamboo grove*, which I imagine would be more spectacular with no people around, but was still quite pleasant. 
We also paid ¥1000 to get into a garden* that had been built by a movie star at the top end of the grove, and had a view over Kyoto. The entry included tea and a sweet, which normally go for about ¥500 anyway, and the serenity and lack of other tourists was probably worth the other ¥500!

Next stop was the chaos of the money park*, where you spend twenty minutes hiking up a hill, and then you can feed monkeys from inside a human cage. Apparently the monkeys don't like being looked at or approached, so it was surprising that they seemed to spend quite a bit of time looking at and approaching humans. Although perhaps less surprising given how many people were feeding them!

Next stop was the golden temple*, and I've got zero pictures of it on my phone, so I may add them from my computer when I get back to Australia. But anyway, the golden temple was infinitely more spectacular than the silver one, so if you come here you should definitely visit the silver one first so you're not let down by it!

Lastly we stumbled upon the world's oldest Zen garden*, the ones with takes gravel and rocks. Again this was UNESCO listed and I had expected something a bit bigger or more spectacular. But it was still quite serene,if not entirely what I had expected. I guess the significance is in the history more than in the garden itself. 
Our third full day began with a trip to nearby Nijo castle

where we saw this sign. I have included it here as I had no idea that stick figures could convey the concept of lounging casually so articulately...but apparently they can!
Next up was a hike up Mount Something*, through the famous torii gates. Like the bamboo grove, it's hard to take a good photo, but the higher up the mountain you go the easier it gets. 

Our last stop for the day was the temple/shrine??* that kind of hangs off the side of a mountain on a pier-like structure, and watched the sun set. 

Apparently it's spectacular with the cherry blossoms in spring, and in Autumn when the leaves turn red they are open at night and have lights shining up from  the ground to illuminate the leaves and make the whole thing glow. 

Last stop was the pottery shops running down the road nearby - apparently this is a good place to pick up Kyoto pottery, and although a little pricey in places you can get some very beautiful things. 

So that was Kyoto. I'm exhausted just writing about it - you don't really realise how kick you've packed in until you sit down and record it.

Next stop - Hiroshima!

*I'm too lazy to check all the names of these places and provide links from my phone, but they're all in easily-identifiable pictorial form on the bus/public transportation map, available at the information centre at Kyoto station. You can also pick up one and two day bus passes from the ticket machines in the main bus bay at Kyoto station (but apparently nowhere else that we could find), which I'd recommend doing if you're planning to see a few things

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Travels in Japan - En route to Kyoto, aka nuding up in public

The most important thing about this leg of our adventure is that we nuded up on our way down to Kyoto, and it was FABULOUS. If you don't want to think about me or retirement-age ladies naked, best you click away now. 

Upon a tip from our Kanazawa housemate, Seigo, we stopped in Kaga-onsen, a station near to a hot spring area. All we knew was the name of the nearest JR station, and that the Lonely Planet said you could catch a bus to the Yamanaka Onsen. Very helpful, LP!

So we got off the train, locked our luggage up at the station, and wandered around until we found a sign for buses going in approximately the right direction and hoped for the best. The bus was pretty confusing to begin with, never having used a Japanese bus before and also not speaking the language, but we figured it out. Basically you take a ticket at the middle/back door when you get on, and when you get off the bus you pay based on how far you travelled, which is lit up on a board at the front. As it turns out the LP was useful for something - it listed the journey price as ¥410, and so watching the price board go up gave us confidence we were getting off in the right place. 

The lady at the bus stop was also enormously helpful, and gave us a map to the onsen, which was a ten minute walk up the road. The town, once you hit the onsen, reminded me of a ski village crossed with the likes of Daylesford outside of Melbourne - lots of mid to high end gift shops and cafes.

As a side-note, something Japan does very well is manhole covers, and the Yamanaka Onsen village showed us our first situation-appropriate urban design feature/art:

But I digress. The important part is that WE GOT NAKED IN PUBLIC!!!

It was my first onsen. I've skinny dipped when camping, and also when I lived by the beach, and gotten my kit off in many a hot tub (in a purely non-sexual way, because hygiene), but all were under the cover of darkness or water. I'm a fairly practical person, and as the daughter of two nurses and having trained in biology myself I'm very down with human anatomy. But I don't have the greatest of body confidence to begin with, and knowing I wasn't going to blend in at all, in any way (not that I really do at home, but here I'm definitely not going to blend in!), was a bit nerve racking. Especially knowing that you have to actually scrub yourself pretty thoroughly before you get in, and I mean the whole personal shooting match rather than the cursory "splash, splash!" you might do at the local pool. 

I mucked around a bit in the locker room until someone else started to undress, and I took that as my cue, and pretty much followed their lead. But not in a creepy way! So if you're curious, and hopefully I have this right - 1. Take your shoes off at your gender-appropriate onsen; 2. Pay; 3. Get any soap/towels/etc. you need from the vending machine; 4. Find an empty locker in the locker room (the key will still be in it); 5. Strip off, stow your kit, lock your locker and take the key which in this case was attached to a piece of elastic for putting around your wrist; 6. Walk through to the baths and wash yourself thoroughly with soap at the shower heads/hoses along the sides, being sure to wash down the little stool and the little tub before and after use; 7. Onsen time! Some people were pouring water on their feet before getting into the baths and some weren't so *shrugs* 8. get out and wash yourself again 9. Dry down as much as possible before leaving the wet area 10. Go back to your locker, get dressed and get out of there. 

The verdict: despite my initial reservations, it was amazing. Being surrounded by women of all shapes and sizes was a very positive experience for me, especially realising that, despite what the media would have me believe, I am actually somewhere quite near the middle of the bell-shaped curve of body type/how much fat I'm carrying/how muscular (or not) I am. 

And breasts! My goodness, they're all so different! I'm familiar with my own, my mother's, a couple of friends from changing at swimming pools etc., and pretty much anyone I've seen breastfeed, but when they're all lined up together, I was blown away by the diversity! I know I sound very sheltered right now, but if you think about it, women have less opportunity to look at them than men. So that was interesting.

I think at least in the portion of Australia that I've been exposed to, there isn't really an opportunity like that to see so many body types in one place. As a teenager or young woman at the pool or beach, I was mostly concerned with how I looked, if I was being judged by other girls for being overweight, or whether I was desirable to the opposite sex in my swimwear, and I always felt a bit funny about looking at other people's bodies and seeing what there is out there, because I don't like being stared at so why would anyone else? But when you're all naked, and it's about getting clean, it's somehow different. Not that there was any staring really going on, but it was different. And very positive. A younger me may not have felt so good about it but I guess I'll never know. 

I've realised that this entire post is about being naked and body image rather than travel. I guess the long and the short of it is that if you ever have an opportunity to visit an onsen, you should definitely do it.

Also, if there are any men reading, G had a similarly positive experience, and noticed similar diversity. 

Go forth and onsen!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Travels in Japan - Kanazawa

Famous last words - "I'll keep up with posting". HAHAHAHA. Oh, Nessie. You so silly!

Anyhow, we arrived in Kanazawa on a dreary, wet afternoon. Our apartment was visible from the train station, which was awesome given the rain, and when we got to the apartment we discovered they had provided umbrellas. Winning! I guess it must rain quite a lot in Kanazawa. 

Kanazawa is on the northern coast of Japan, and from memory was about two hours on the Shinkansen from Tokyo via Nageno. It's a little off the standard tourist route (there were some Asian tourists, I believe mostly domestic ones, but very few westerners) but is a nice little old town, with traditional tea and samurai districts, a castle, and some nice gardens. They also have a relatively new train station with a cool wooden sculpture out the front (which I believe is meant to represent a traditional Japanese drum of some kind), and free wifi in lots of places, hosted by the tourism board. The trees around town all had hemp rope on which initially confused us, but then we realised it was to support the trees in the snow, and it actually looks quite pretty in its own right. 

We only had an hour or so of daylight left once we got our act together, so we headed out to the nearest, driest point of interest on the tourism map, being the local produce markets. This is where we discovered that Kanazawa is pretty big on seafood, which momentarily freaked us out as we're not especially big on seafood. But as it turns out, it wasn't a problem as there were plenty of other foods on offer.

So we wandered around the makets for a while, grabbed some strawberries and pineapple on sticks - pretty amazing, especially as fruit seems to be a less common part of a diet here, although perhaps I've been looking in the wrong places?? - and I selected my vending machine offering of the day: Hot matcha tea to warm a freezing cold hand. 

Then we splashed about town briefly before throwing in the towel (haha! See what I did there?? Wet? Towel? Hah!). Luckily tori gates do look quite striking in the rain. 

Eventually we found our way to a yakitori bar for dinner. They thoughtfully provided enough information in English to allow us to avoid eating skewered and fried pig/chicken gut/liver/cartilage/rectum/heart/etc., all of which was on the menu. 

I'm really beginning to realise how poorly Australia caters to foreign tourists, too. I mean, you could argue that we don't serve anything strange enough for it to matter that much if you don't know what you're ordering, but it's all but unheard of for menus to exist in other languages in most restaurants, as far as I'm aware. Instead of having a confusing tourism campaign starring a fame-hungry model screeching "where the bloody hell are ya?", perhaps providing menus in other languages, or actually having helpful signage on or around public transport, or encouraging residents not to act like jerks when someone who doesn't speak English well asks them for directions, or just not dropping our rubbish on the ground/graffitiing public infrastructure/showing no consideration towards others may all aid in Australia becoming a more palatable destination. Just sayin'.


Day two was spent wandering about one of the old tea districts, eating ice cream with gold leaf sprinkled on top (true story! We're so darned fancy), 
 and checking out the gardens and palace grounds (we arrived too late in the day for the tour...but on the bright side admission was free as a result). 

Oh, and eating more ice cream!
And we spotted the ubiquitous postie bike, which sounds exactly the same as the ones at home, no matter how it's kitted out. 

The next day involved a visit to a ninja temple (which sadly was completely unrelated to ninjas, but was named thusly because it is full of "tricks" (mostly secret passages and creative ways to maim enemies). Japan seems to use some words quite creatively, which can sometimes lead to disappointment. The ones I've noticed the most often are "studio" where it's more of a shop, "museum" where...it's more of a shop, or "castle/temple/palace" where is actually just some nice gardens in the location of the former castle/temple/palace, because these structures have a habit of repeatedly burning down, and sometimes they just stop rebuilding them. And in this case, ninjas where there are absolutely no ninjas and never have been. Sad face.), 
and a long walk home in the rain via another tea district, 
and through the old samurai district, and then a random dinner where we had no idea what we were ordering. But G managed to order chicken, and it came out looking like this. You cooked it yourself on a burner on the table and it was a pretty tasty dinner for a total shot in the dark. 
Oh, and of course, the vending machine offering for the day: some sort of hot milk tea, vaguely peachy in flavour. 

I should also mention that we had an awesome housemate in our Kanazawa apartment, who we later saw in Christmas with in Kyoto. But that's another story for another night.

Next stop: Kyoto!