Tune in Tokyo

Feels weird to be opening my blog and realizing I haven’t written a single thing here since I was last travelling. Life has been pottering along, work, home, school, puppies, short domestic trips to Hobart and Canberra etc … <insert some variation of domestic bliss here>. But here we are back on the road, or rather back in the air, and I feel compelled to write something so I can look back on these memories of busy and heady travel when I’m old and stuck in a nursing home and unable to go anywhere under my own steam.

This year, Mr K and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary… it’s rather a weird thing to be celebrating really. It’s not like we did any special to achieve it or at any point thought we wouldn’t make it. Time marches inexorably forward so it was really just a matter of ‘time’, I suppose (Did you like that one Mr K? That was for you.).

We had always planned to be spending our 20th anniversary in France, wandering the streets of Paris, tootling around the countryside in a tiny silly car (a la Absolutely Fabulous), surrounded by vineyards and chateau, eating too much cheese (as if there is such a thing!?) and testing out my dodgy highschool French – ‘Ou est la plume da ma tante?’ … However, one thing led to another and work being always tricky when you’re self employed, we decided we could only really spare two to three weeks away and there’s no way I would put myself through the agony of a long haul flight to Europe for such a short trip – which is how we ended up watching Notre Dame in flames from our hotel room in Asakusa, Tokyo, rather possibly being there in person. It’s a weird thing to watch a historical event like this unfolding and realizing that sticking to your original plan or making a different decision, or perhaps a slight change in schedule might have seen you in the middle of something like this. It’s like the massive explosion that happened in Tianjin the day after we left the area or the military coup that occurred in Turkey the day before Aunty Mary was due to fly there. A day either way and who knows…

 

So Japan it is. I had seen a nice deal on a cruise and QFF points for the relatively short flights, and here we are. The Plan – arrive in Tokyo two nights before our cruise departure, spend one very chill day in Tokyo doing nothing but looking for cherry blossoms and Pokemon, sake and sashimi (roughly in that order!), then make our way to the beautiful Diamond Princess in Yokohama for a short 8 night cruise before spending a week in Osaka, then some time in a traditional ryokan/onsen before coming home with a few days downtime before heading off to May Crown.

Our transit day was delightfully uneventful, we even had a spare seat and a bit of extra room on the flight on the way here. I learned a very important lesson – embroidering on a plane during turbulence is… well, it’s rather stupid. I must have stabbed myself at least half a dozen times, but persevered because there was nothing else to do.

We arrived at Narita around 1830 and then did our usual not-fun dance at Terminal 2 trying to figure out the train to get us to Asakusa. The trains in Japan are phenomenal; fast, clean, efficient, regular, easy to navigate… all except for trips from the airport. There are three different options to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo. The Narita Express for which you need two different tickets, only one of which is purchasable from a machine, the Skyliner for which you need only one ticket also purchasable from a machine, or you can take a JR line train on your Suica card which can also be topped up from a machine – but, (hint for new players!) all these machine service options only take cash! So it’s always a bit of a cluster to figure out which option is going to suit you best depending on where in the city you need to go and which option is going to be quickest based on your potential departure time and kinda annoying that you end up dropping a pile of currency the moment you get to country. This is my third time in Japan so I’m ready for this one now… it’s going to be a cluster no matter how good you think your planning and timing is, so just let the chaos flow over you is my advice. If you get to the city in an hour or so without dropping $300 for a taxi, you’re doing great.

We made it to Asakusa just after 8pm, stepped out from the train and were greeted by a lovely clear evening with a slight chill and our first sight of a famous cherry blossom tree under a warm street light, and the smells from a nearby curry restaurant. I immediately smiled and felt this was going to be a great trip.

We checked into our hotel, admired the view and how spacious the room was (for Tokyo), before heading out for a wander for a late dinner. We found a quaint little restaurant (not a noodle bar, not a sashimi restaurant, not a teppanyaki grill?) that served various soups, stews, grills and general Japanese fabulousness. Enjoyed a lovely meal of yakitori and broiled eel washed down with a nice junmai sake before heading back to the hotel to decompress after our transit day.

The following morning, in accordance with The Plan, we skipped breakfast and took a train to the traditional Japanese gardens in Shinjuku in search of cherry blossoms. We strolled among the gardens for a few hours admiring the gorgeous trees, with their plentiful blossoms in tones of white to deep pink. Hundreds of locals were in the gardens with their picnic blankets enjoying small hanami parties – which is a tradition of sitting under the trees and eating a small meal while watching the petals float down from the blossoms. I can totally see the appeal for these workers in their business attire, or the somberly dressed grandmothers grouped together with their tea and rice cakes… outside the gardens is surrounded by skyscrapers, retail hell and screeching trains, but here under the trees is a serene tranquillity and an unusual sort of gentility just pausing for a moment to enjoy some good company, share a drink and soak in the beauty of the cherry blossoms. It must be doubly wonderful to be outdoors under the cherry blossom trees if you had just had a few months of very cold, possibly snowy winter weather. Everything about the gardens was just gorgeous, and we whiled away a few hours here, just gently strolling the paths and remarking on the beauty of the flowers.

After this, we popped down to Tokyo Station to check out the new Pokemon Centre. On our last trip, we went to the Pokemon Megastore in Sunshine Plaza, but this place has only just opened and has a crazy overpriced Pokemon Café and everything. But we just wanted to have a sticky beak and see if there was any cool stuff here we could take home. The shop, as anticipated, was full of merchandise of all different Pokemon of varying degrees of utility – the Japanese seem to love confectionery and cookies in over-packaged Pokemon themed tins and boxes, there was heaps of it! And of course, loads of plush, which takes me back to my Disney Store days and I had to resist the habitual urge to start tidying the Pikachus. We picked up a few knickknacks but found nothing particular to take home before heading back to Asakusa .

 

 

Detective Pikachu comes out a few days after we leave Osaka – but Mr K is still hoping to find an advanced session in English or something.

It was around 4pm when we got back to Asakusa and decided to have a short wander around the markets. We stopped at a sake cellar for some tastings and bought some nice sake to take on the ship with us, and popped into a restaurant near the hotel for a bit of a snack – sake tasting after skipping breakfast and lunch was maybe not so wise. Some sashimi and some more sake later, we went back to the hotel to make use of the footbath for a while as the sun set. The hotel has a public bath available for use – for ladies from 10am to 8pm and for men from 8:30pm until 1am. Nudity is compulsory. I would have enjoyed popping up for a soak, but given that the timings are somewhat inconvenient and Mr K and I could not go together we opted for the open air footbath on the rooftop. For some reason, nuding it up with strangers in Japan feels weird compared to stripping off in Iceland, which I had no problem with??? No idea why… I’ll have to think on that one.

After a relaxing hour or so with very red and very shrivelled feet, we went back down for a bit of a rest before heading out to dinner. We had decided to find a good sashimi restaurant that served the famous fugu and research told us there was a place not far from where we were staying in Asakusa that has not had ‘a fugu casualty’ in over 75 years, which was comforting until we did the math and realized the restaurant had been there for over 90 years! J The staff were so friendly and polite and helpful and neither of them spoke a lick of English! Our server had a small translator that she spoke into to welcome us and try to help us through the predominantly Japanese menu, and between that and Google Translate, we managed to order dinner and make pleasantries.

Our meal consisted of a fugu jelly appetizer, a large sashimi platter to share which had mackerel, two different tunas, mackerel and kingfish, octopus, prawns and of course, some fugu, followed by some deep fried fugu and all washed down with delicious Kiku-Masamune sake (from one of the breweries I am looking forward to visiting near Osaka). The meal was delicious – I would highly recommend this tucked out of the way, little suburban restaurant if you happen to be in Asakusa. Unsurprisingly after an afternoon of sake and sake with a sake motif, I slept very well!

The next morning we had nothing on the agenda but to transit to the ship via Ueno Station to trade in our vouchers for JR passes for use after the cruise. We only had to get ourselves about an hour from Tokyo to Yokohama to board onto our ship, so we decided to go find the new Hokusai Museum for the morning. We packed up and checked so we could take our time at the museum and trotted over the river to Sumida.

 

The Hokusai Museum is brand new and was only opened in October last year, so we were really keen to see it. Entrance was only 700Y so I wasn’t really hopeful that it was be an extensive collection – and I was right. We saw more Hokusai works at the NGV exhibition last year. So it was a little disappointing in that regard, but there was an enormous collection of his sketch books which were very interesting and they have on display the famous 7m long lost Sumidagawa Ryogan Keshiki Zukan landscape scroll that was hidden in some private collection in France somewhere for nearly 100 years before surfacing at auction in 2008. The scroll was created in 1890 and was believed to have been taken to France and sold to a private collector in 1913. The piece is simply stunning and details the river that runs through this area of Tokyo… we could make out the bridges that we crossed to get to the museum, and the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa and roughly where our hotel is located! It ends, as all good things should, in the pleasure house district which is lavishly detailed. No photographs were allowed in the museum so I have pilfered some common license images from Wikipedia.

and of course…
*I wonder how many times that damned Wave has been posted to this blog…

After the museum, we made our way back to the hotel to collect our luggage and onto the trains. We had quite a long delay switching our vouchers for JR rail passes – there is something about the Japanese love affair with paperwork, like actual paperwork with hard copies of everything and officiously stamping everything, that makes transactions like these take much longer than you would think they should in this day and age. But we eventually got our rail passes and stopped for a quick lunch before boarding a train to Yokohama.

Much quicker than anticipated, we were in Yokohama, bundled into a taxi and at the Oshimbashi cruise terminal boarding the Diamond Princess. This is my third time on this ship and she is as lovely as I remember. Our muster drill took much longer than it should, but once that was done, we found went to watch the traditional breaking of the sake barrel and then settled ourselves into the Skywalkers Lounge with a Mai Tai and watching the sunset over Yokohama as we sailed away.

Canada, here we come!

Spent our last morning in Tokyo doing some creative packing – we hadn’t exactly gone mad on the shopping, but seems quite a bit of the stuff we did pick up was just irregular in size and shape and hard to square away, so even though the Packing Gene runs in my family, it took far longer than I anticipated.

Once we had our bags all sorted we jumped the subway into town to pop into the Odakyu Department Store to hunt for homewares (of all things).  Odakyu is a 16 floor department store with an amazing food hall in the basement and plenty of fancy restaurants on the top floors.  In between is just about everything you might find in an enormous Myer/David Jones but with a Japanese flavour.
I love the plastic food outside of restaurants – there should be more of it in western countries, I say.  🙂  The fresh food hall was amazing – and the seafood looked incredible.

Eventually, it was that horrible sad time to start our transit and head to the airport.  We took the NEX (Narita Express) train which like all trains here was clean and comfy and well appointed.  We arrived at the airport just in time to deal with the overly officious Japanese love of paperwork… passport presentation at the self-check-in kiosks, and again at the actual bag drog/check-in counter – I swear we were effectively checked in again at the ‘bag drop’ counter as the passports were all inspected, boarding passes double checked, baggage tags issued and the whole thing took longer than the self-check-in. Then of course, the security check where I got a thorough frisk down because of the underwires in my bra (and the security chickie was not shy!), then customs and immigration and it was passports again, and by the time we went through all this, the two hours early at the airport turned into 10 mins to find our gate!

Nevermind, we were there in plenty of time for a quick whip around they duty-free (only to discover nothing we actually needed) and a few minutes to charge a phone and then it was onto the plane with more officiousness… passports, scanning and stamping of boarding passes?!  The Japanese LOVE their official stamps – even going into a tourist attraction or a museum, you will buy a ticket and then two minutes later another employee is putting a stamp on it to double check your ticket?? No idea why.

In the end we boarded our Air Canada flight without a small delay but without too much hassle.  The fight was about… oh 15% good -largely due to the plentiful sake which just seemed to keep multiplying thanks to a friendly flight attendant. None of us fared particularly well on the flight – being 8 hours of overtired, announcements in three languages and a few too many unhappy babies on the flight.  But we arrived on time in Vancouver and were happily greeted by an unexpectedly smooth customs/immigration* and then transfer through to our smaller flight to Victoria.

*There is an epic administrative clusterfuck omitted here about how Canadian immigration processes for dual citizens have recently changed and Canadia citizens holding multiple passports are no longer eligible to enter Canada on their non-Canadian (in our case, Australian) passports using the very simple and cheap eTA visa system, but instead are expected to get their Canadian passports renewed (even if they haven’t had one for 20 years!) in order to be allowed back in their native country for a holiday.  Which of course we were unaware of until about four weeks prior to departure, and passport applications were hastily submitted, but demand at the consulate was leading to inevitable delays and they weren’t going to be processed in time, leading to ‘Emergency eTAs being issued on the original Australian passport the hapless ex-pat Canadians wanted to use anyway! Details omitted because the huge time sucking drama and expensive of it all, has left those involved somewhat traumatised – though having just written this truncated version of the entire saga means it’s not really ‘omitted’ anymore, doesn’t it?  #showerthoughts

Where was I? Oh yes, Vancouver International transiting over to Vancouver Domestic to find out our plane to Victoria (BC’s capital) looked like this… propellors.  I hate small planes. Then we were delayed for about an hour, because they needed to put ‘snow tyres’ on the plane.  😮  Now, we could see this little plane on the tarmac the whole time we were delayed, and no one went anywhere near the tyres while we were waiting for that hour.  Personally, I think the pilot was just running late…  Probably off having a shag and lost track of time or something. All good, we eventually took off, survived the rather bumpy short flight to Victoria and picked up our rental car and before you know it we were driving across the Malahat Highway towards Duncan.  Now, when we booked this trip, we were aware that we were coming to Canada for a White Christmas that was unlikely to be white at all due to Duncan and surrounds being not far off sea level and hardly ever having snow… .but Mr K’s Parking Fairy seems to have kicked it up a notch and the further we got from Victoria, the more of the white cold stuff we saw!  Seems the region had a very unseasonal snow dump on Tuesday and was scheduled for even more to come!  It is currently even predicting it to be actually snowing on Christmas Day too – so we are expecting a White Christmas after all!  The kids are so excited… oh screw it – I’m excited!  And from the reactions of some of the Canadian relatives, they are pretty excited about a White Christmas too.  🙂 TIL snowy and speed landscape photography out the car window, do not mix. We pulled up to Mr K’s uncle’s house and were greeted by this tree… which I had to double check was actually real, because it looks like something out of a store.  But yes, apparently it’s real. As night fell, it started to gently snow some more and the front yard looks like something from a movie.

So all up – not too horrid a transit, and being greeted by the prospect of an actual White Christmas made for a bucnh of very excited Aussies bouncing around last night trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour to turn in.

Akihabara Cat Cafe, Shibuya and Robot Restaurant, oh my!

This morning we head off into Akihabara to hunt for anime and expensive plastic.  No seriously, this seems to be what Akihabara is all about.  Plastic figurines of famous anime characters line the walls of every store here and I have no idea how or why they sell – but they obviously do.  Mandarake is one of THE biggest and most well known anime/manga stores in Akihabara – it is 8 floors of collectables, anime, manga, DVDs, CDs, figurines, collector cards and lord knows what else.  It is a veritable rabbit warren.  Back out on the street, even your regular little corner agift store is packed to the gills with merchadise in every nook and cranny.  Everyone is a bull on the china here, there’s no avoiding it.  They have so much merchandise all crammed into such tiny little stores that you can’t help but knock half the products… which is why they are all secured to shelves using clips and hooks and everything swings and moves as you walk through the store.And of course, EVERY store has its adults-only upstairs areas (which are sometimes as many as three or more floors bigger than the floor of Dragonball Z toys and Pokemon plush that attracts people into the place!  So much porn! When I wondered out loud, ‘Who actually pays for porn in this day and age?’, the Teenager replied, ‘Well, if you want something specific, you have to pay for it.’ 😮 Gaming and vending machines are everywhere… throw in your yen, and manouvre the dodgy gaming controls for a chance to win an enticing soft yellow squishy thing!  🙂  Or throw in slightly more yen and get a chance to win this off license Pikachu.  🙂 Racks and racks of toy dispensing machines line the streets.  They usually take between Y200 and Y500 and dispense a random little plastic toy-in-a-ball.  They must be profitable, but I can’t help but wonder who is buying all these toy-in-a-balls? They’re obviously designed to be collectable but still…
This one is a corker – there are five plastic wearable badges in this machine, with one of five cute anime girls on each button which you will get at random… …and on the bottom of the machine are pictures of a man having a sad/tired rough time.  We used the Google Translate over the text and basically, it was saying that if you buy this badge, you can escape the drudgery of your everyday life and be happy! Happiness!  This little machine is selling escapism and happiness… that’s one helluva badge! Manga stores everywhere. Even more floors of porn… Mr K lost in the back of the porn floors… I didn’t go up, but he said, the higher up the floor the more ‘extreme’ the content gets.Phew after all that searching through figurines and anime and dodging the porn, we stumbled onto the Mocha Cat Cafe. Now I am not a cat person as many of you will know, but the whole concept intrigues me somewhat.. why would you pay to go hang out in a cafe full of cats?

Being a thoroughly modern and quintessentially Japanese experience, we thought we should add it to our day of quintessentially modern Japanese pursuits.  A lovely lady helped us with some hand sanitiser, slippers and of course, the Rules (rules? for being around cats?!?) and explained the cost – Y200 for every ten minutes you stay, and you must buy a refillable drink for Y350, so a minimum of Y550 per person to go in and ‘relax with cats’.Inside was a space with a lovely decor, delighfully Japanese’d Christmas Carols playing quietly in the background and a huge anime library where you could sit down and watch some tv while you cuddle some kitties.The anime library – with a huge selection, no doubt designed to keep you in the kitty cafe as long as possible.Cats chillin in their weird little hanging birdcage things… very well fed cats btw.  You can feed the cats for an additional Y500.
For 1pm on a Wednesday, it was amazing well patronised.  There were quite a few people there, even one lady on her laptop who had obviously settled in for quite a while to get some work done. After, oh I’d say about eight and a half minutes of quality looking-at-cats time (Nope – didn’t pet any, me and cats, meh), we went looking for somewhere for some cheap and cheerful brlunch.  It was pretty cold today so we went looking for some small Japanese curry bowls which we thought would fill the bill given we were planning a very late dinner tonight.  We came across this place down the road from the cat cafe that looked perfect – nothing on the menu but curry.  So in we went. From the pictures on the menu, portions looked perfect for lunch and it was chicken, pork or prawn curry… order your curry and biru from the little machine and go take a seat. We were right about this being a great curry restaurant but not so much on the polite portion sizes.  We got huge plates of curry, which I have to admit did not look so appetitisng… but once you tried it, absolutely delicious.  Probably the best katsu curry I have ever had.  The Teenager was very happy with his wash, probably the first meal we’ve had that filled him up!After I was waiting outside and found out from the signs that this place has prize winning curry in 2015 for some big curry conference/competition – so no wonder it was good.  I have no idea what the place was called though.  Couldn’t fathom it for love or money. After lunch, we went for a wander into Shibuya, just because we could – to do a bit of shopping and have a look around. Oddly, this slick black store is a Disney Store… and no, I didn’t go in. The retail pain of working the Disney Store over Christmas is still altogether too raw.
Then it was back to Shinjuku for our booking at the Robot Restaurant.  When we were in Tokyo two years ago, we had booked tickets to take the then, Small Child, to go see the Robot Restaurant as we thought it would be quite the spectacle for a kid.  Unhappily at the time, it was closed for renovations the week we were here. Now, we come back and I thought he’d be over it, but unhappily he still wanted to go.  So we duly went and bought tickets.

Let the tacky tacky Japanese game-show/restaurant/cafe thing begin! Right from the front door you get an inkling of what you are in for – more glitter, sequins, neon and mosaic mirror tiles per square inch than you would have thought humanly possible. We were then welcomed into the Guest Waiting Room whereupon it took my eyes a full ten minutes to recover from the visual assault on the senses. It’s like Versace and Las-Vegas-Fat-Elvis had a litter of tattooed, vajazzled love children, and they vomited all over the place in here. This is his, ‘somewhat overwhelmed but trying to be blase about it look’.  😉  Neon ceilings floors and walls, golden seashell glass-topped tables, gilded rose embossed chairs, massive tv screens and oh, so so many mirrors just on every surface. Even the bathroom was a sight to sore the eyes. Then the bell went and it was time to descend into the basement of the building for the show itself.  We were treated to quite a few Christmas Carols in the waiting area while we sipped on our freebie sake (which tasted nothing like sake…?) and I was getting concerned that we may actually have been stuck with an entire Christmas themed show… I definitely would NOT have signed up to sit through that. Upon being shown to our seats – the first thing wheeled in front of us?  The souvenir cart swiftly followed by a drinks cart.  Then it was a few safety rules (keep your hands in, don’t touch the robots, no flash photography) and it would soon be on with the show. 

The show was performed in three acts – the first of which involved a lot of drumming, a lot of neon, scantily clad warrior girls and a LOT of screaming at full volume.  I have no idea what it was about… but have the vague idea it was some sort of welcome? We then had a fifteen-minute interval where, you guessed it, they tried to sell us more souvenirs and drinks.  🙂  The next vignette appeared to have some sort of post-apocalyptic theme running through it – robots had taken over the earth but the humans were fighting back or some such.  It was all a bit obscure, to be honest, and passed in a blur of lights and loud noises.

You may think these photos are out of focus or dodgy, but I like ’em!

Then another intermission/selling opportunity, before a slightly Christmassy themed intro and a feathery jumping birds/tropical bonanza of a finale.  I’d stay it doesn’t get weirder than this, but we’re  in Japan… and that’s probably way too big a call.  🙂

And yet, through all this noise and lights and pyrotechnics and craziness… these two beside us slept through the lot!
By the way, if anyone is interested in going to this overpriced tourist trap, err, I mean unique Japanese cultural experience – there is a Tourist Information centre at Shinjuku bus station that has tickets for about Y2,000pp cheaper than you can buy online or at the RR.  It’s well worth a couple of bucks on the subway to head down there to pick up discount tickets.

After the show, and still reeling somewhat from the experience, we went for a last wander through Shinjuku all lit up and found a late dinner.  Of course more sake and another magnificent sashimi platter.  *sniff sniff*  I’m going to miss the food when we leave.

Fuji-goko the Five Lakes District

Fuji-Goko is the collective term for the district containing five large lakes that are situated along the northern base of Mt.Fuji, which towers at the border of southern Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures. The lakes are Yamada Lake, Kawaguchi Lake, Saiko Lake, Shoji Lake, Motosu Lake. The largest is Lake Yamanakako, the smallest is the Lake Shoji, the one with the highest surface attitude is Yamanakako Lake, and the deepest is Motosu Lake. The town of Fuji-Kawaguchiko surrounds the lake of the same name, and this area offers the best viewing of Mt Fuji.

We were headed to the Kachi-kachi Ropeway to go up to view Mt Fuji.  🙂

The Kawagauchiko Ropeway takes travellers up Kachi-kachi Yama, which translates roughly as ‘Fire-crackle Mountain.  The ‘kachi-kachi’ bit being an onomatopoetic word for the sound a fire makes, and ‘yama’ meaning mountain.  The cute little hiking rabbit and his tanuki (Japanese racoon) companion are a cutesy little theme that run through the complex.  Lake Kawaguchiko and the town of Fuji-Kawaguchiko. Mt Fuji.  On our last trip, Aunty Mary, Mr K and the Teenager all hiked to the top of Mt Fuji, but this is the first time they have actually seen it!  The weather was so poor they climbed the entire mountain in raid and clouds and fog, so they never actually saw the peak of the mountain after their arduous journey.The Usagi shrine dedicated to the rabbit from the Kachi-kachi Yama myths… must have been one special rabbit! It is said that if you ring the Bell of Tenjo while watching Mt Fuji and make a wish,  your wish will come true.

The Kachi-kachi Ropeway is named after the story about the antics of a rabbit and a tanuki (Japanese racoon) who were said to have lived on Kachi-kachi Yama… the rabbit looks like he is trying to put out the fire on the tanuki’s pack. The rabbit helping the poor, crying tanaki. No idea what is going on in this one… The two friends looking off the mountain, farewelling guests. They’re so very Japanese and so cute!  Anyway, this morning I thought I’d go looking for info on the legend of the rabbit and the tanuki… and found this, copied directly from the Wikipedia article on Kachi-kachi Yama:

The trouble-making tanuki
As the story goes, a man caught a troublesome tanuki in his fields, and tied it to a tree to kill and cook it later. When the man left for town, the tanuki cried and begged the man’s wife who was making some mochi, a sweet rice dish, to set him free, promising he would help her. The wife freed the animal, only to have it turn on her and kill her. The tanuki then planned a foul trick.

Using its shapeshifting abilities, the tanuki disguised itself as the wife and cooked a soup, using the dead woman’s flesh. When the man came home, the tanuki served him the soup. After the meal, the tanuki reverted to its original appearance and revealed its treachery before running off and leaving the poor man in shock and grief.

Enter the rabbit
The couple had been good friends with a rabbit that lived nearby. The rabbit approached the man and told him that it would avenge his wife’s death. Pretending to befriend the 
tanuki, the rabbit instead tortured it through various means, from dropping a bee’s nest on it to ‘treating’ the stings with a peppery poultice that burned.

The title of the story comes from the especially painful trick that the rabbit played. While the tanuki was carrying a heavy load of kindling on his back to make a campfire for the night, he was so burdened that he did not immediately notice when the rabbit set fire to the kindling. Soon, the crackling sound reached its ears and it asked the rabbit what the sound was. “It is Kachi-Kachi Yama” the rabbit replied. “We are not far from it, so it is no surprise that you can hear it!”. Eventually, the fire reached the tanuki’s back, burning it badly, but without killing it.

Yikes!  Yeah, really cute, hey!  😮

I couldn’t tell you what they are exactly, but apparently, there are a smattering of references to this myth in Super Mario Sunshine.

The video game depicts Mario in a tanuki outfit and he goes adventuring in a mud boat (the longer version of the myth has the tanuki make a boat out of mud which sinks), and Mario’s boat will only stay afloat for so long as it disintegrates in the water and when it bumps into things, or something like that.

At the base of Kachi-kachi Yama is the world famous Fujiyama Cookie shop!  Where, you can buy all manner of Fuji styled cookies and candies. Camembert cheesecake… sounds amazing.  Amazingly suspicious!Also – the widest variety of weird KitKat flavours known to man… Wasabi flavour, Strawberry Cheesecake flavour, Sake flavour, Apple flavour.   Nearby was the Ide Sake Brewery, unfortunately, we spent too much time up Kachi-kachi and missed the last brewery tours, but we made a mental note to make up for it this evening.After this, it was back into town for a little shopping and then the bus trip back to Shinjuku bus station, whereupon we did a little more shopping 😉 and then went hunting for dinner.

Meals here have become a bit of a point of contention… Mr K and the Teenager are not fond of seafood and would prefer noodle or ramen every night, whereas I am in sushi Mecca and would happily eat sashimi until the cows come home (or the tide goes out – dunno mixing metaphors, whatever) and am not a fan of the soggy noodle.  Most small restaurants here seem to be one or the other – they specialise in sushi and sashimi or they are a noodle bar/ramen restaurant. So finding a place that serves both is actually harder than you might expect.  Tonight – we hit the jackpot with a little place not far from Shinjuku station.

The restaurant was called Sakusui – and we will definitely be back!  To quote their own website:  “Delicious and cheap and filled with stomach!”

Ordered the large sake, and my cup was running over *and* it came with a bottle to keep it refilled… for Y350

Saw this on the menu. Obviously, we had to order it to find out what it was… turned out to be a tasty tasty Martian alien octopus thing.

And the most delicious and affordable sushi platter ever, Y990, which at the moment is around AUD$11. Fabulous food in a busy little restaurant – I would highly recommend hunting this place out if you are in Shinjuku.Another wonderful day in Japan over it was back to our shoebox hotel room for… another soak in the tub.  🙂  This time with extra sake!

Jigokudani Monkey Park Nagano

I’d be apologetic about the multitude of photos I am going to include in this post, but I’m not really known for insincerity, so I shan’t insult anyone’s intelligence with that.

Today we were up at 0530 to get ready for our Shinkansen bullet train ride to… the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano – better known as just Snow Monkey Park!  I have wanted to see the snow monkeys for as long as I can remember – probably thanks to National Geographic magazine covers in doctor’s waiting rooms. We are staying in Shinjuku and the Shinkansen leaves from Tokyo Station, which meant we had a 30 min commute to get to the 90 min train ride that would take us to Nagano Station.  

In spite of our inability to get a cup of tea onboard, the train ride was amazing.  Comfy, fast, clean and reliable. What’s not to love.  Australia really needs some of these bullet trains – we have the distances to cover but unfortunately not so much on having the population to support such services. Once we arrived in Nagano, an immediate change of scenery was apparent – snow everywhere.  They had had recent snowfalls the previous few nights and the landscape was beautiful as we made out way to Yamanouchi – the little village close to the Jigokudani park.

Highspeed landscape photography isn’t really a thing, but you can get a bit of an idea of what the countryside looks like. After a 40 minute bus ride, we reached our destination, the entrance to the park.  Unsurprisingly, the few restaurants and inns out here seem to use monkeys in their logos. The park entrance leads the way to the 1.6km walk to the thermal pool that the Japanese macaques congregate in during the winter, and it is the only way to access the area. Jigokudani means, ‘Hell’s Valley’ due to the steam and boiling water that is found in the geothermal valley.  It is surrounded by steep cliffs that in winter make for a formidable and hostile landscape.

The walk into to the monkey’s thermal pools is fairly flat with only two steep-ish areas, though in these conditions it is very slippery with ice.  We all had decent hiking books on but more than one of our party went arse over (including me) on the ice.  Ice or no, it sure is beautiful to see the valley covered in a layer of fresh snow.

Back in the 60s, the monkeys were problematic.  They were encountering a reduced habitat due to farming, the installation of ski lifts in the Shiga Kogen area in 1952 and the permanent installation of onsen bathhouses in the area.  As a result of this habitat loss, they were migrating into Yamanouchi during the winter months to forage and being come quite a pest as they were destroying crops, invading the onsens and being aggressive with humans over food resources.  Farmers had been culling the monkeys until a man named Sogo Hara, (who was employed at the Nagano Electric Railway – Nagano Dentetsu) hiked the area in 1957 and apparently fell in love with the monkeys and decided they needed their own onsens in the valley, and he built them a thermal pool and started feeding them every day to encourage them to stay out of the village; creating the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Now, no tourist brochure for Japan is complete without the obligatory images of the Japanese macaque monkeys sitting, looking somewhat forlorn in their onsen, and they have become a world-famous tourist attraction.

I took so many photos of the monkeys, they’re very interesting with their almost human mannerisms and expressions.  It was approximately -3degrees celsius and I can easily see why the monkeys choose to come to the valley to sit in the thermal pools, but occasionally you see one jump out and go run off into the snow, which must be excruciatingly cold.

Icicles!  Which are pretty ordinary if you come from Michigan or somewhere, but if you’re from Brisbane, Australia.. how cool are icicles? The drive back from the park afforded some beautiful views of the mountains in the Nagano area.  The Winter Olympics were held here nearly 20 years ago, but the locals like to keep showing that one off with souvenirs still available and signs to the event sites. After visting the snow monkeys we made out way to the Zenkō-ji temple, one of the most famouse Buddhist temples in all of Japan. The original temple was built in the 7thC AD and the city of Nagano which was established in 1897 was effectively built up around the temple area.  HIstorically Zenkō-ji is famous for it’s use as a staging point in the battles between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shngen in the 16thC.  It is also one of the few temples which serve as a pilgrimage site in Japan.

The main entrance gate.

Zenkō-ji temple was founded before Japanese Buddhism split into different sects, so it is one of the only temples in Japan that belongs to more than one sect of Buddhism.  At the moment the Tendai and Jōdoshū schools co-manage the temple, and it takes twenty-five priests and fourteen priests/priestess respectively to run the temple.  According to legend, the temple was built to enshrine images of the Amida Buddha, which had caused a dispute between two warring clans and was allegedly dumped into a canal.  It was rescued by someone named, Honda Yoshimitsu but it is now called the hibutsu, or hidden Buddha and is not available to be seen by the public. A replica was made of the hidden Buddha, but guess what? This one too is not available for viewing by the public! There is however, a replica of the replica and it IS available for the public to see.

This hibutsu hidden Buddha, is rumored to be the very first Buddha statue ever brought to Japan and it is by ‘commandment’ of the temple that the absolute secrecy of the statue is maintained.  Even the chief priest of the temple is unable to view it. The first replica however, (not the one above) is shown publicly once every six years in the spring time in a truly bizarre special ceremony called Gokaichō.  Nearby is the Scholar’s Shrine – students will come here to make offerings to pass their exams. They will give their coins, write on a stone their desire to pass their tests, and then strike the gong using the rope.  Passing exams in Japan can mean the difference between a happy life of lifelong prosperity working for a good company, and a life of destitution floating from job to job.  Obviously, the pursuit of a ‘life-job’ is become less of a goal in the fluid modern job market. A very sad monument to children and babies that have died. People who visit this shrine all have a very heart-wrenching story to share.  There are two shrines dedicated to this purpose in the temple complex.

The Niōmon gate contains two impressive Niō guardians, which are supposed to protect the compound from enemies of Buddhism. Both statues were reproduced in 1918 after a fire.  Fires seem to have plagued the town since it’s inception with the main temple having burned down no less than 12 times.  Until it was finally moved further away from the town centre to protect the surrounding buildings. Pilgrims sandals hung on the outside of the Niōmon gate hung when pilgrims set off on their journeys to give them good strong legs for their endeavours.  Also hung here can be found pairs of ballet slippers for aspiring ballerinas who also want to have good strong legs for their careers.The interior of the Sanmon gate is covered in plastered on papers or stickers bearing people’s names.  While it is illegal to place these stickers, it is said that the higher you place your name, the higher you are towards enlightenment.  Some very determined individuals have their names as much as 6m off the ground.  Oddly (given you are literally leaving evidence of your crime) no one is ever prosecuted for leaving a name sticker due to Japanese naming protocols leaving so many people with identical or similar names. Another shrine, this time dedicated to long life and good health.  This shrine is the ‘reason’ that the people of Nagano are known to live the longest lives, of all the Japanese people.  Nothing to do with healthy living and good diets, it is this little shrine which brings them longevity. This bronze oxen has a special house to himself and he has come to represent ‘Unexpected Good Fortune’.  The story of the oxen includes a washerwoman who did not believe in spending her time going to the shrine to pay her respects to Buddha.  While the rest of the townsfolks would go to the shrine, she instead would go to the river to wash her clothes.  Buddha was annoyed by this, and one day he turned himself into an ox and ran through the washerwoman’s clothes collecting them on his horns.  Away he ran, with the washerwoman following him, to the shrine, whereupon he turned into his proper self and showed himself to the washerwoman wearing the clothing she had been washing.

The woman saw the errors of her ways and was then set onto the path of Enlightenment and became a Buddhist nun directly after – the unexpected good luck of the story.  Now people come here to touch and caress the ox to bring an event of unexpected good luck into their own lives.  Outside the temple are statues of six Bodhisattvas (followers of Buddha), who gave up their own pursuit of Buddhist enlightenment, in order to help and provide salvation to others. The Bodhisattvas are said to represent and be able to commune with the six realms of hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings and divine beings.  The Bodhisattva on the right with his foot dangling in the mortal world is the one representing hell.

The washerwoman chasing the ox is a repeated symbol of the temple with the motif being found on headscarves, offerings and prayer plaques. This is the main temple of the Zenkoji temple complex.  Inside is housed five sacred wooden statues, which, you guessed it – are not available for public viewing.  Also inside the temple is a statue of Binzuru, a physician who was said to be Buddha’s follower. Visitors to the temple touch the statue in order to cure their ailments – so if you have bad knees you touch his knees, if you have a bad back… you get the idea.  The statue of Binzuru is made of wood and is 300 years old, I’m surprised that people are still allowed to touch a religious artefact of this age – but of course I rubbed his back anyway!  

Also inside the temple is The Key to Paradise – it is in a series of small darkened rooms, where you can pay 500Y to enter in total darkness and feel your way around the walls until you feel the Key to Paradise.  For those lucky enough to find the key, they will be further on their journey to Enlightenment.

Also in the temple is a sacred mirror that you can look into to see ‘your true self’.  If you see horns you need to repent your life etc.  Some of us took the opportunity to look into the mirror, but several more superstitious people chose not to.  I looked in the mirror myself, and it may have been the light or it may be something about the mirror – but instead of seeing my usual overtired and pained self, I saw myself looking almost luminescent.  Angelic even…  So yeah, clearly that mirror is busted.

This stone is placed near the entrance to the Zenkoji, and is called a Prayer Abacus.  Pilgrims will walk back and forth from the Niōmon gate to the Zenkoji temple saying prayers, and they use the abacus to count how many times they have walked back and forth.  There is space on the stone for four pilgrims to keep count at a time, the top line is a single walk and prayer, the second is to count lots of ten… it’s kinda like a rosary but on crack.   This prayer wheel had many characters engraved into it but over the centuries has been largely worn smooth.  Observants would touch the prayer wheel to feel the characters of their prayers and spin the wheel to pray before the temple.  Within the temple district is this one Shinto shrine – the Japanese tend to be born as Shinto, marry as Shinto and/or as Christians (they like the big white fluffy princess wedding dresses!) but they die and have their funerals at Buddhist temples surrounded by the ideas of rebirth into the next life.
At this shrine was rows and rows of little men standing only about four inches tall, that all have the names of important ancestors in history on them.  People come and search the racks for their own names, and leave small offerings (in the form of beaded necklaces for the little statues) to honour their family ancestors. The other shrine dedicated to children who have passed away – this one is much more widely used and is more popular for some reason. It is surrounded by offerings made by mourning parents who wish to send their children into the afterlife with tokens, such as toys or clothing items.  After we visited the temple, we made our way to a nearby sake brewery.  Where we were treated to a sake tasting of 6 different varieties of sake, three varieties of amazuke and some really unusual sparkling yuzu sake.  A very welcome warming of the cockles after a day in the cold.  🙂  After that it was back to Nagano Station to hightail it back to Tokyo Station on the amazing (I want one!) bullet trains.  I seriously love these trains, so fast, so clean, lots of leg room, power points, a lovely lady with a tea trolley and before you know it – you are at your destination. We then made our way back to Shinjuku for a bit of late night shopping (Shell, if you are reading this, I have stocked up on sunscreen!), and a bite to eat at a cheerful little ramen restaurant.   Found what appeared to be the Attagirl outlet store – no knee pads though… #confused Shinjuku is really quite lively any time of the day – but at night time it really seems to come alive and is transformed into the Tokyo we have all become familiar with from movies and tv.  People are everywhere, the lights of the advertising don’t just rival Times Square in New York, but completely eclipse it.  The atmosphere here at the momen is just electric – everyone is cheerful and doing their Christmas shopping and carols are steaming out of all the stores.  It’s been a huge day, so after our shopping/dinner in Shinjuku it was back to the hotel for another well deserved soak in the tub! The