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!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Travels in Japan - Tokyo

Hey y'all! 

Well the last time I updated this poor, neglected blog was more than a year ago, and I was midway though my trip to India. Just FYI, I survived it! Barely. I caught pneumonia in Amritsar, suffered some mild fever-induced hallucinations at an amazingly gaudy Buddhist temple there, stumbled around the golden temple trying to focus on spirituality while running a temperature, and rallied just in time for the amazing evening flag ceremony on the border with Pakistan. And I ended up with pleurisy when I got home. Which, ouch. But the take-home message is that India is pretty awesome, and Delhi was infinitely more positive an experience the second time around, and I'm alive!

Anyhoo, now I'm alive and in Japan for the 2015-16 Christmas holidays. We're freestyling it a bit, and seeing where the wind blows us. We're currently in Kanazawa so I'm going to try to catch up, and then keep up!

So Tokyo. 

We stayed in Yoyogi, at an undisclosed community accommodation booking facility, which was (without consulting a timetable) about 30 minutes on the JR Yamanote line from Tokyo. Our accommodation was ridiculously easy to find, and also super tiny for we two giants, but at the same time was all we really needed. 

Yoyogi was a pretty good base - affordable accommodation, accessible public transport, and only a few stops from the likes of Shibuya and Harijuku, and straightforward to navigate to other parts of the city on the Yamanote line. 

We flew Jetstar thanks to the cheaper prices. We paid extra for exit row seats because we're giants, which were totally worth every penny, especially as I had no qualms about reclining my seat because the person behind me was a tiny Japanese person who threw a blanket over their entire body about five minutes into the flight (and I say their, as I have no idea of their gender due to the comprehensive blanket coverage!) and stayed that way for the duration. Huzzah! Altogether Jetstar gave remarkably good service Melbourne to Tokyo, especially  compared to the appalling service they provide both landslide and airside in Australia on domestic flights. Disclaimer: Jetstar has no idea I exist. This is a completely unbiased positive review of their international service. Everyone knows their domestic service is sh!t so no biggie mentioning it here (even though I have friends working for them, sorry guys!). 

So. Tokyo. 

On the day we arrived we grabbed our first Japanese vending machine beverages (hot tea for me. HOT! AMAZING!)

then stashed out luggage at a train station and wandered around Shinjuku until the check-in time at our nearby accommodation. We managed to figure out how to order udon noodles and cold tempura vegetables and "tube fish" (basically a fried crab stick but hollow) for lunch without actually being able to speak any intelligible Japanese besides "thank you". Good to know we're not going to starve!

After mucking around getting some wifi (hot tip: sign up for Starbucks wifi BEFORE you get to Japan, cos you need email access to verify the account, which is an infuriating catch-22), we headed out for some dinner at this little fast food-ish place by the station. You order and pay  by pressing buttons on a machine by the door (top right hand corner of the screen sometimes has an English option; otherwise, just wing it based on pictures), then hand the person at the counter the tickets the machine dispenses, and they bring you pretty darned good value for money food. 

Next, some fairy lights caught my eye, and you know how I love Christmas! So we followed our noses until we found quite an amazing display. Who says Japan doesn't do Christmas!

And then we discovered the Tokyo Hands department store. OMG! So take my obsession with cute little homewares to a new level, and that is Tokyo Hands. Aluminium drink bottles shaped like old-fashioned  milk bottles. Insulated lunch bags shaped like handbags. Honestly, I'm beginning to suspect I was a Japanese person in a previous life, because *head explodes*!

Day Two: the forecast was cold and clear so we made a beeline for to Tokyo Skytree first thing to get the best possible view and avoid queues. We caught the metro (subway) and arrived at the back of the line around 9:30-10am. We were in line for around half an hour, and by the time we had our tickets the line was right out the door. So be sure to arrive early! Cold weather is apparently also better for views of Mt Fuji, which is an unexpected perk of having to take your leave during the Southern Hemisphere summer. 

Next stop: Asakusa. Pretty sure it was on a metro line, maybe a pinkish-brownish one, but who knows! There are kind of touristy markets, good food (not sure what this is but it was sweet and yum, and in the cup is some kind of hot sake mixed with rice pudding (I think?? It was nice, anyhow)) and a shrine. 

Last stop of the day was an Intrepid Urban Adventures night food tour. 

I've travelled with Intrepid in Africa and India and they seem to have their sh!t together. Again, a disclaimer that beyond having travelled  with them before they have no idea I exist. Anyway, the food tour was great as we learnt a few things (mostly, hint: around larger train stations you'll often find yakitori bars under the tracks; curtains down means bar is open; and you often have to pay ~500 yen cover charge unless otherwise specified, so try not to be shocked by that). The guide was knowledgable and friendly. I wouldn't say it was truly excellent value for money, except that we visited places we otherwise wouldn't have necessarily found, so I guess it (begrudgingly) kind of came out alright in the end. And we were full at the end, so I guess it was like having a expensive-ish dinner out in Melbourne, but more experience-oriented.

Also, vending machine offering of the day: hot aroma milk tea. 

Day 3: the parasite museum in Meguro. Because Japan. 

This is an 8.8m tapeworm, btw. In the CAME OUT OF A HUMAN section of the museum. Grossssssss. 

And then we stuck our heads into a supermarket, just for kicks, and discovered that a bottle of Jim
Beam costs about $10. Not that we drink that sh!t. 

And that you can buy glass whisky shots!

And then the Tokyo Station, which is very pretty. On the outside. Inside is equal parts hectic and amazing. 

And then the Imperial Palace Gardens (free!) where I had my vending machine offering of the day of a hot lemon vitamin C drink:

And then the science museum. Go to the top level first and work your way down. We did it the other way, and word of warning, the lower floors are more
oriented to school groups. Three cheers for nuclear power!

And then the fountains!

Next stop, the famous Shibuya crossing  
and a smoky little yakitori bar in Shibuya for dinner, where they thoughtfully provided a chicken roadmap and found out that Coke is only about 20% cheaper than beer. 

We ate all of the things (that came from conventional parts of an animal) and drank sake, beer and shochu, and saw several drunken salarymen passed out on train platforms with vomit on their faces. I guess that'll happen when it's ¥1500 (AUD$18ish) all you can drink for an hour!

But I think my very favourite part of Tokyo  was seeing a girl assume that the toilets at the train station were more automated than they actually were, and tried pressing on five different things just to close the door, only to realise that it was actually just a normal door that required closing by hand. Hilarious.  

Next stop - Kanazawa.