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Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

I explored most of Takayama on foot, walking up countless hills to different temples, nothing was particularly spectacular, lots of smallish temples on the hill side.  There were also several cedar groves by certain temples, the two must go together here…  I found some souvenirs to buy here though in one of the multitude of local craft shops here, also had some fantastic tempura for dinner.  That evening I had a very interesting conversation with a pilot from Bangkok who I was sharing the dorm with.

Next morning I took the scenic train ride back down to the shinkhansen line and caught one for Osaka, my final destination in Japan.  The weather was absolutely horrendous upon arrival there, due to the latest typhoon going by the Japanese coast.  After walking to my hostel in the pouring rain, I met the other people staying in my dorm room and a group of us went and got dinner, some beers and decided to do some karaoke.  The first place told us no, Japanese only but the second one let us in and we stayed until 4…

I took a break from sightseeing in Osaka, spent most of the time getting stuff together for my flight and hanging with people from the hostel.  From what I can tell the biggest sight here is the Universal Studios Japan which isn’t really something I was interested in doing anyway.  I did get to the harbour, walked through a few downtown areas and went up their view tower for a great shot of the city at night.  The hostel is very quiet tonight, despite being fully booked, almost everyone is at the radiohead concert here tonight.


My 3 weeks in Japan could hardly have been better, it’s been fantastic.  Next up, flight to Seoul tomorrow…


Sunday, September 28th, 2008

I spent the day exploring Kobe, and wandering randomly through parts of town.  Pleasant city, in a nice setting, between the bay and the mountains.  After walking around the central district and then down to the docks, I wandered through chinatown and did some window shopping in an arcade, that is fascinating here, there’s no super walmarts or equivalent here, just individual shops, they actually have bakeries and corner fruit and veg shops here.

I took a train into the Western suburbs where they have the worlds longest suspension bridge and went to their observation deck which is kinda cool, but you can’t walk over the bridge.  The bridge was completed in 1998 and it still looks new.

Akashi-Kaikyō Bridge

I decided that for dinner I was going to go all out and try the famous Kobe beef steak.  Found the place that the guidebook recommended and walked in.  Fancy upscale dining.  Nicer looking than the Japanese steakhouses in the US but the same basic layout.  They cook the steak and vegetables in front of you while you are eating the appetizers, in my case: smoked salmon, soup & salad.  The steak was the most tender I have ever eaten, it practically melts in your mouth.

After dinner I went up the hillside on one of the cable cars for a quite stunning overlook of the city and surrounding area.  It’s not just Kobe, you can see Osaka too, and across the bay to the urban sprawl there, it’s built up the entire way around the bay and it looks like it’s never ending from that vantage point.

Kobe at night

After that I walked around some more and played around with my camera…

highway downtown at night

Next morning I decided to get some more use out of my rail pass before heading to Osaka for my flight to Korea and head inland into the hills in the Hida district, specifically Takayama.  Booked 2 nights staying at a zen temple in a dorm room, the zen master speaks impeccable English.  A total of 3 1/2 hours on trains, the last hour or so of was very scenic along a small river with great rock formations and waterfalls.

Takayama has a population of nearly 100,000 but it feels like a small town, lots of Sake breweries and handicraft shops here.  The beef from this region is supposed to be excellent, similar to the Kobe beef.  So for dinner I decided to try some, in a slightly different way than in Kobe.
The restaurant is on the 2nd floor, above the butchers shops.  I ordered one of the set menus, they bring you the pieces of meat and vegetables and you cook them yourself on the grill in the middle of your table, no complaining about how well the steak is done here!  It tastes fantastic, if slightly different than what I had in Kobe.  A fraction less tender, but I think I actually liked the flavour of it a little more.  Both were excellent, the best two steaks I’ve ever.

me cooking Hida beef

Himeji castle

Friday, September 26th, 2008

After getting up substantially later than I had first planned as a result of the previous nights awesomeness I checked out of the hostel, unfortunately and headed out to the Himeji castle.  It’s supposed to be one of the best castles in Japan, and one of the few that survived intact from the middle ages.  I wasn’t that impressed to be honest.  Now it looks cool from the outside, all fancy and unpenetrable etc. 

Himeji castle

But inside it’s like a shell, mainly uninteresting.  It’s worth seeing from the outside to take some pictures but that’s about it in my opinion.  Doesn’t compare to the great castles I’ve seen in Europe.  Now I want to go to Warwick castle, lol.

Arrived in Kobe where I’ll be for a couple of nights, found the hostel here which is fine but not conveniently located at all.  Nothing in the area at all, it was late and I was hungry so I went to the 7/11 and bought some fine take out japanese noodles and tofu and ate them back at the hostel.  Even the 7/11 food here is good, and there’s one everywhere.

Miyajima + party in Hiroshima!

Friday, September 26th, 2008

My second day in Hiroshima I had to change hostels because the one I was at the first night was full.  Turned out to be the best thing that happened to me, but I’ll get to that later.  I decided to go to Miyajima and see the famous “floating torii” there.  The torii (entrygate to the temple) is there because back when it was built, peasants could not set foot on the island, only the monks could, they had to enter the temple directly from the water, sailing through the torii in the boat and right up to the temple.  Now that is only possible at high tide, I was there at low tide when you can walk around the torii on the sand/mud.

view of the torii from the ferry

It’s a pretty cool and unique temple and torii, the view would’ve been better if it would’ve been high tide but then I wouldn’t have been able to walk up to it.  They have deer in this town to, like Nara, it must be something in old temple districts.  You couldn’t feed these though and there were warning signs up about people being bitten, from what I could tell they were just ignoring the people.

I ate lunch at a variety of street vendors on the island, fried cuttlefish, a conger eel bun and some little sponge cakes with custard in them to round it all off.  There is a mountain on the island with a cablecar going up it that is meant to be a great lookout but the clouds were so low I couldn’t see the top of the mountain so I didn’t bother with it.  All very good, then it was back on the ferry, and train to Hiroshima.

Now back to the hostel.
I noted in my Kyoto entries how the hostel there was the best I’ve ever stayed at.  Well it’s a small chain in Japan, and they were just opening one in Hiroshima.  On this very day, so I booked it the night before and showed up at 11:00 in the morning before my day excursion to drop off my bag and check in.  I was told that I was the first customer, no one else had arrived for the night yet and that there was going to be a party that night in honor of the opening.

Party meant, for the 10 of us that decided to join the staff, free dinner with sushi and okonomiyaki, sake and beer.  There was one Italian, one Norwegian a group of Irish girls, a couple of English guys, three Americans and a French guy who took it upon himself to make sure no ones drink was empty.  The owner of the hostel was there along with the entire staff of this hostel.  Fantastic evening, which ended up with the owner taking us down the road to the local karaoke place.  Karaoke is huge here, they are very into it, seriously into it.  We were there until 3ish.  Fantastic evening with some great people, a perfect example of how great staying at a hostel can be and how after a couple hours a group of people who have never met each other before are acting like they’ve known each other for years and all singing What’s the story Morning Glory together…  One of the best parts about travel is meeting people and having experiences like that, wherever you are traveling to.

Thanks K for a great night, your hostels are the best!
K's House Hiroshima

Nagasaki Pt2 – Hiroshima

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

I spent a second day in Nagasaki, to check out the downtown districts, away from the A-bomb memorial.  Changed from the boarder line ok hotel (guidebook recommendation) I was at to a very nice hostel in a much better location (not in guidebook, long live internet hostel sites) for less money…

part of the zen temple

After getting that formality out of the way I explored the old Dutch district, ate lunch there and went on to the old chinese quarter, the current chinatown and what they call “temple row” here, where there’s literally a street with temples lining one side of it for quite a ways.  After all that walking in the oppressive heat and humidity here I went back to the hotel to cool off and regain some energy.  I found a upperscale looking place for dinner, orders 3 items, good as always here, filled me up and it was a grand total of $12.  Including the shochu….  I stopped on the way back to the hostel and got a tetrapack of shochu from the corner 7/11 for $1.  mmmmm.

Overall, Nagasaki isn’t the most exciting place in Japan.  It has a good nitelife district and a nice harbourside area.  Other than that it doesn’t really hold up to the standards of most of the places I’ve been here.

Next morning it was on to Hiroshima, 3 hours of train travel including the change in Fukuoka.  One train had leather seats, never seen that before.  I found the hostel easily in Hiroshima, then went off to see the peace park and A-bomb memorial dome.  One of the buildings that was still standing after the blast was left up as a memorial and that’s now part of the peace park.

a-bomb dome

I tried the local speciality for dinner here, a Japanese style pancake (already one of my favourites) with Hiroshima oysters, very good.  Stumbled across a very nice looking Irish pub so I walked in and had a couple pints, best Hoegaarden I’ve had in a long time.  Walked back to the hostel and right there, in the common room, is an acoustic guitar.  Sat down, got out one of the picks I brought with me for times like this and played for a good hour or so, my fingers do not thank me, but I didn’t care…


Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

I left Fukuoka and headed to Nagasaki, no shinkhansen on this route, just a normal train this time unfortunately.  Nothing wrong with it, but just doesn’t go nearly as fast…  Nagasaki was one of Japans original trading points with the West, mainly the Dutch apparently, so it’s an international city to today.  You wouldn’t know that an atomic bomb was dropped here by looking around.
view from the pier


After spending a good 45 min walking in circles trying to find the hotel due to faulty directions in the guidebook (thanks a lot LP!), I resorted to asking a random person on the street.  She confirmed that I was on the correct street, and then when I told her the name of the hotel, she looked unsure, stopped someone else walking down the street and asked him, then they both start looking up and down the street reading the signs until he spots it.  Then, she proceeds to walk me to the door, not just point it out, and goes inside and gets the hotel keeper!  All that just to be nice!  I cannot get over the people here.


Once the hotel was sorted out, I headed off to where the bomb exploded and the museum/peace park in the area.  You would really never have a clue by walking down the street that anything happened here, you walk into what just looks like a small park, there’s a black monolith in the middle of it with a plaque dedicated to the victims of the atomic attack here.  The museum is partially about the bomb here, and what happens after an A-bomb goes off, and partially about the history of nuclear weapons etc.  Not an exciting part of the trip but a necessary one just the same.


Then I wandered down to what used to be the main port used when the Dutch traded here, found a cafe that had guys with guitars out front.  I ate there, while listening to this guy warming up on his acoustic guitar playing Jimi Hendrix, while the sun was setting in the background over the bay, very nice.

guy playing guitar on the pier


Sunday, September 21st, 2008

Well I’ve been in Japan a week now, loving pretty much everything about it.  Tokyo was modern and fast, then Nikko felt like I stepped back in time.  Kyoto was great with it’s fantastic restaurants and temples popping up everywhere, and Nara was another step back into ancient times walking through stone lantern lined pathways through forest to get to 1000 year old temples.  


The next few days I’m making up as I go along, no real plan for 3 days, then I have a basic idea of what I’m doing the rest of my time here.  Today I left Kyoto and took the shinkhansen down onto the South island of Kyushu to Fukuoka, my rail pass is saving me a ton of money, the trains I’ve ridden so far would’ve cost me about 3/4 of what the pass cost me, and I still have 10 days left on the pass!


I got to Fukuoka in the afternoon and checked in at the hotel, then went off to explore the town.  Very modern, lots of skyscrapers and high rise shopping complex’s.  It didn’t seem like there was a whole lot going on here until after 6:00 when the restaurants started to open, most of street vendors all over the place all of the sudden the place came to life.  Most active nite-the bars/restaurants have opening hours like 5pm-5am, or 6pm-8am.  They party late here.  I had some of the local speciality, ramen, first.  Then walked around some more and stepped into a corner bar, with a friendly waiter (almost goes without saying here, but this guy was particularly nice), had some sashimi, yakitori, shochu and sake.  I love dining in Japan.


river at night


Sunday, September 21st, 2008

I decided to go to Nara as a day trip from Kyoto, about 50 minutes on the train to get there and the weather had suddenly changed after the last few days of cloud and rain.  Sunny and hot, and that was 9:00 AM…


Nara is home to a large number of old temples, 8 of which are world heritage sites.  The main attraction here is the Todai-Ji temple, which is the largest wooden building in the world.  It houses a giant bronze buddha inside and is guarded by huge lifelike wooden carved statues by the main gate.  This is the coolest temple I’ve been to yet, the sheer size of the buddha is astounding.  On the way to that I passed a couple pagodas, one five stories, is the 2nd highest anywhere.  

me at Todai-Ji


Most of the temples in Nara are in this quite large park, which is inhabited by (according to the guidebooks I didn’t count them) more than 1200 deer.  There have been deer there since ancient times and now they are apparently official national treasures.  You can buy biscuits to feed them, I refrained, though watching people get scared by them while holding the biscuits was entertaining.  Some of the park is through a wooded area, lined with more stone lanterns than I’d seen anywhere yet, really cool vibe to it.  After walking around pretty much the entire park all afternoon and checking out the main temples, abd the best Japanese garden I’ve seen yet, I found a noodle shop and had some udon noodles with shitaki mushrooms, the mushrooms were the best tasting mushrooms I’ve ever eaten.  

Japanese Gardens


Good day in Nara, and now I’m sitting back at the hostel (which is the best I’ve ever stayed in), waiting for laundry to dry and deciding where to go tomorrow.  I’m leaving here, but I have no idea where I’m going yet…
Kyoto by moonlight

Kyoto pt2

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Second day in Kyoto.
Kyoto by moonlight


It looked like rain when I left the hostel (possibly because of the typhoon that was fast approaching the Japanese coast closest to Kyoto) so I took one of the hostels umbrellas with me… Good thing.  I thought I would start off checking out the castle here, then on to more temples.  As soon as I got off the bus to the castle it starts to rain, by the time I got in the entrance it was pouring, so I walked around the castle grounds in the rain for a while.  The castle was ok, but mainly uninspiring, but then I am hard to impress when it comes to castles…


After I left there the rain let up, and I continued my temple walk where I left off the day before, saw too many to remember or list.  They have temple complex’s here, with the one major temple, and numerous smaller temples and shrines surrounding it.


After I had wandered around enough temples for my liking I went to one of their arcades that had a food market in it.  Mostly fish and related products, but you could buy almost anything there, with restaurants scattered in between the shops. 
food market  

The fish shops were the most interesting, trying to guess what half the stuff was, looking at the pile of fish heads on a tray of ice just like all the other items with a price tag on them…  Farther on in the market I bought some japanese candies, I have no idea what they are made of, but they have some kind of fruit flavoured filling in this soft triangle shaped pastry, it doesn’t feel or taste like pastry but that’s the only word I can think of to describe it.  Very good.





Friday, September 19th, 2008

Left Nikko this morning, train back to Tokyo where I caught a shinkansen, different train than the previous one I was on, faster this time, and I was on this one a lot longer, nearly 3 hours this time from Tokyo to Kyoto.  They have these shops in railway stations selling “lunch boxes” here.  It’s basically a meal in a box, complete with chopsticks and soy sauce, of traditional Japanese food costing anywhere from $5-$10 depending on the size and contents.  I tried one of these today, I have no idea what I ate, several kinds of fish I think, but it was good.  I posted a pictures of the lunch box on flickr.


Got to Kyoto in the afternoon and checked in at what seems to be the best hostel I’ve ever seen.  Wireless internet access in the rooms, the showers almost look like hotel showers, everything is very clean.  They also have a bar with any drink you want for $3.60!  So much for expensive Japan!


I spent what was left of the daylight hours walking by some temples and parks, this city has a great feel to it.  Much smaller than Tokyo, but still a good sized city at 1.5 million people.  I decided very quickly that I like it a lot, more than Tokyo, which I liked.  

shrine with paper lanterns


After wandering by quite a few various shrines and not even scratching the surface of all the temples and shrines they have here, it started to get dark so I decided to look for dinner.  Went to the Ponto-cho area, which according to the guidebook was a traditional nitelife area.  The guidebook nailed it.  It’s narrow streets, lined with restaurants with Japanese lanterns hanging outside of them.  Absolutely fantastic setting, so I walk up and down these streets for a while and discover that I have problems picking where to eat because so many things sound so good!  I finally picked a place, deciding I was going to spend more on dinner tonight and eat somewhere that looked more upscale, to see if there was a difference in food quality.


Oh yes.


I ordered Yuba (tofu skin), their “special” Okonomiyaki (Japanese style pancake), garlic fried rice and with some Shochu to wash it all down (distilled alcohol from sweet potatoes).  The Yuba is served with peppercorns, and it is quite tasty.  The fried rice was amazing, pieces of shaved garlic and scallions in it, probably the best fried rice I’ve ever had.  Then the main course of Okonomiyaki came, I watched the chef take 10-15 minutes cooking it in front of me while he asked me where I was from and how long I was in Kyoto, everyone is so friendly here!  

The version of Okonomiyaki I got had in it:  Cabbage, Pork, Squid, Scallops, Beef and Bonito flakes.  Absolutely brilliant!  Amazing food!  



Today was great, I love Kyoto already and I haven’t really started exploring it much yet, I met some cool people and had a few drinks at the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in, all after a great meal.  Can’t wait for tomorrow now, so I’m off to bed…