The Shinkansen took us to Shinagawa station. Shinagawa is a district in Southern Tokyo and almost a city in its own right. The area surrounding the sprawling station is home to a massive modern complex of hotels, shopping centres and offices. We stayed at the Strings Hotel, occupying the upper section of a huge tower block (Shinagawa East One Tower) just a couple of minutes’ walk from the station.
We weren’t too sure what to do with our limited time in Tokyo but Alex had told us we had to visit the district of Harajuku, although he didn’t exactly explain why. It was though bound to be something to do with young people’s culture or fashion or he wouldn’t have come across it.
We guessed he wanted us to do some shopping for him. So off to Harajuku we went. I worked out that Alex was interested in Takeshita Dori, the famous Goth fashion street, but we had some trouble finding it at first and found ourselves on Omote-Sando, a wide rather non-Goth shopping street. Lots of Western designer brands.
We liked the Goth kittens advertising h.Anarchyism for Plus, clearly a very popular brand in Japan.
Some of the shops were nice but nothing remarkably different from what you mind find in a major European city. While there though we did at least take the time to buy Alex a genuine Japanese Pikachu.
Eventually we managed to find our way to the famed Takeshita Dori, looking like a latter date Goth Carnaby Street, and duly bought Alex some fashionable gear.
We spent our last evening in Kyoto wandering the characterful Ponto-Cho area and alongside the Kamogawa river. No shortage of enticing bars and restaurants, but extreme shortage of menus in English. Well, we could still ingest the atmosphere. And we did buy some ice cream and sat by the river to enjoy it.
Next morning it was taxi back to Kyoto station to pick up the Shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo.
No slouch this one. The fastest Shinkansen, the Nozomi.
It still takes around 3 hours. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji along the way but somehow managed to miss it. Had I been paying attention at the right time, it might have looked like this. Or this. I guess it depends which Shinkansen line you’re on.
The train was fairly empty. I did like the way the guards on the train bowed on entering each carriage. On reaching the far end they would turn to face back into the carriage, bow again and then turn back to the door to exit. There is a brief example about 10 seconds into this clip. Formality and ritual is very important to the Japanese, or at least it has been and we still see the legacy.
Our trip to the Far East took in extremes of lavatorial experience, from China’s stinking holes in the ground to Japan’s hi-techiest loos.
Our hotel in Kyoto, the Hyatt Regency, gave us ample opportunity to sample the latter. The room itself was modern, smart and clean as you might imagine.
But the control panel on the wall by the loo reveals more about the hi-techery at ones fingertips.
The toilet itself, manufactured by Toto, features a spray device just below the rim at the back. At the touch of a button it sprays you intimately for deeply personal cleanliness with a variety of options for spray force and pattern.
There is a sensor to ensure the toilet is occupied before enabling the spray function, which makes perfect sense, but Naomi and I were curious to see the spray mechanism in operation and fooled the sensor by putting a hand in front of it. Pressing a button on the panel resulted in the emergence of a miniature canon, its sliding motion reminiscent of the Alien’s ominously dripping jaws, followed by the release of a thin powerful jet which, in the absence of any human anatomical structures to offer a target, left a small but very damp patch on the wall. Woops. Oh, well. It dried soon enough.
If you want one of these, Toto electronic loos are available outside Japan, but they are not cheap.
We had been worried about loo trips in Japan because the traditional design is the squat toilet, but western sit-down loos are gradually taking over. They do love their electronics though. In one restaurant we came across a loo that has a button for generating a flushing noise even when you are not flushing. I’m sure there is a really good reason for this but I’m not sure I’ve thought of one yet.
Kiyomizu-dera is one of the oldest temples in Kyoto. It is also at the top of a steep hill, accessible only by narrow alleys, something we hadn’t appreciated when we asked a taxi driver to take us there. He of course took us as close as he could get, which was Gojo-dori, not far from the entrance to the Otani Mausoleum. He waved in the general direction we were supposed go. He meant we should take the lane up the hill but being clueless we wandered into the Mausoleum imagining it might be the famous Kiyomizu-dera.
The place was awash with visitors and hordes of buddhist monks in dark robes. No signs or leaflets in English. No obvious person to ask. There was a counter with three queues; I joined the middle one hoping the person behind the counter spoke some English. I never found out because, in the meantime, Naomi had alighted upon an information sheet in English which identified our whereabouts as the Otani Honbyo, mausoleum to Shinran Shonin (the founder of Shin Buddhism) and thousands of other dead buddhists. This explained all the scurrying about by thousands of not yet dead buddhists.
We came to the realisation the temple we sought was up the hill, but as we had missed the conventional thoroughfare we found ourselves climbing a narrow lane skirting a hillside graveyard. This was the Toribeyama graveyard.
There was a small group around one of the graves, engaged in what might have been the buddhist equivalent of an unveiling. Not pictured – I thought that would be disrespectful.
In contrast to the hubbub of humanity at Nijo Castle, we were quite alone as we climbed the steep lane. We really kidded ourselves we’d beaten the crowds and found a secluded spot. That is until we gained the top of the hill and met up with all the sensible tourists who’d come up by the right road. Kiyomizu-dera was as crowded as any other must-see sight in Kyoto, if not more so.
A side view of the gateway to the temple.
The main hall of the temple has a veranda or “stage” overlooking the hill.
As explained here by Asia Travel:
“The Main Hall at Kiyomizu has a huge veranda with 139 support beams underneath it. The Japanese language has an expression: “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu.” The nearest English equivalent is “to take the plunge.” Tradition in Old Japan held that if you jumped from the terrace and lived, a wish you had would be granted. The practice is now illegal, but during the Edo Era (1603 to 1867) some 234 people made the 40 foot leap and about 200 of them lived. The main hall is dedicated to the goddess of mercy.”
It might have been fun to eat in the traditional way at this restaurant near the temple but there really was nothing there we could eat. Dining in Japan was a great antidote to the pounds we put on while on the cruise.
Within the Kiyomizu area, up some steps, is the Jishu shrine to the god of love. It is rather cheesy, with lots of good luck charms to buy at tin-pot stalls.
No doubt the deity in question will have looked favourably upon the entreaties of these young ladies in traditional dress visiting the Okage-Myojin shrine, in the Jishu shrine area.
We found the correct route back down the hill, via Kiyomizu-zaka, with shops and restaurants on both sides. This is where we bought Jonathan’s kimono dressing gown. There was also a shop with an automatic cookie making machine, which reminded me of the automated donut machine at the Blackpool pleasure beach.
Next up in an action-packed day was Nijo Castle – or Ninja Castle as Naomi and I called it, but then we would, wouldn’t we? Nijo Castle was the home of the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1626. The complex covers a massive walled off area near the centre of Kyoto and contains a moat and expansive gardens.
This is Ninomaru Palace:
Next morning we set about some more serious must-seeing, starting with the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji. As we stepped out of the hotel entrance to claim our taxi the doorman asked where we wanted to go. I said we wanted to go to Kinkakuji. “Ah, the Golden Pavilion. Not Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion?” I hadn’t appreciated there were two sights with similar names. I could understand why he double-checked.
It was quite a long taxi ride towards the north western part of town. When we got there the place was a massed throng of tourists, nearly all Japanese. Apparently we had come in Golden Week which is when Japanese get time off and go to visit all the temples.
You cannot go inside Kinkakuji, just look at it and the surrounding lake. Although the original, a noble’s home, dates back to the 14th century, it looks pristine because it was the victim of arson in 1950 and rebuilt in 1955.
There is a Chinese Phoenix on the top.
We did then find the Kodaiji Buddhist Temple. The site is quite large and boasts some extensive gardens as well as the various buildings, such as the Ihoan (teahouse). The teahouse has its own picture on Wikipedia. I think mine’s better composed, but then I would.
More pictures of the temple:
The gardens include an unusual “bamboo forest”:
We were there till closing time in late afternoon then made for the exit.
There is a large buddha in the complex but we couldn’t get to it because that section was then closed. All I could do was snap the top half over the fence. There is a picture of the whole buddha here (taken by another visitor 4 days later).
A Geiko outside the temple complex was kind enough to give her permission to let us photograph her.
In the evening we caught a show at the Gion Corner theatre. It is strictly for tourists, but offers up bite sized demonstrations of classic Japanese entertainments, neatly packaged up into a one hour show.
There is a demonstration of the famous tea ceremony. Far too fussy for my liking, not my cup of tea at all. The Gagaku court music was unlistenable. The Geishas playing the koto was interesting, more for the instruments themselves than the music. The koto looks like a log that has been cut in half and then strung. The Geishas sit on the floor to play it.
The section I found the most interesting and enjoyable was the bunraku. It’s like a cross between the Black Theatre of Prague and Julie Taymor’s staging of the Lion King. It’s puppet theatre where the puppets are large (although not quite lifesize) and the puppeteers are fully visible on stage. Some puppets need three or four puppeteers to work them. The piece we saw was an excerpt from the play where Oshichi climbs the fire tower, as mentioned in the Wikipedia link above. The way the Oshichi puppet is made to move in a lifelike way is utterly fascinating.
Actually, I found some video (someone else’s) on youTube (where else?) of the bunraku show at Gion Corner, featuring the Oshichi puppet:
And a bit more for luck – Oshichi’s getting quite agitated about her boyfriend in this one:
From the Umeda Sky Building we took a taxi back to Shin-Osaka station, retrieved our luggage from the “check room” and headed off to the part of the station dedicated to the Tokaido Shinkansen, the bullet train.
We followed the colour-coded displays to the right platform and boarded our Kodama Shinkansen for the relatively short journey to Kyoto. Once there we found there was a courtesy taxi service to our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. After checking in we decided to get straight into some serious shrine-visiting, starting with the Yasaka Shinto temple in the Gion district of Kyoto.
We found our way through the surrounding park to the back-streets of Gion, looking for the Kodaiji Buddhist temple. We came across a courtyard with a couple of shops in it, including an ice cream counter. It was a sweltering hot day and there were little Japanese kids running around licking the green tea flavoured ice cream cornets. The ice cream seller was doing a roaring trade. Naomi held my cornet as well as hers so I could take this picture.
The courtyard contained a drum (Taiko) which I assume has some religious significance because, as we sat on a bench enjoying our ice cream, a monk entered and proceeded to clatter the drum fairly ferociously for a few minutes before departing just as mysteriously. Maybe a call to prayer?
Naomi bought a lace hankie and we headed off, still in search of the elusive Kodaiji temple. The geisha girls were out in force, either in the back of rickshaws or on foot, in the latter case usually in the company of a Geisha Minder. Geisha girls in the Gion area prefer to be known as geiko (woman of art) rather than geisha (artist).
Our cruise came to an end at. We were sad to be leaving the Statendam, but we still had a few days in Japan to round off our holiday. Our immediate priority was sorting out transport to (we had a hotel booked there for that night and the night after) but now we were hampered by our two hulking great blue suitcases and a smaller suitcase. How quickly you forget how convenient it is to be living on a floating hotel as you explore the world, but now we were back to having a different hotel at each location.
We took a taxi ride to Shin-Osaka, the vast railway station from where we would take the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. For a Thursdsay morning the city seemed almost deserted. Compared to Beijing gridlock, the traffic was surprisingly light. It dawned on us that the cars in Japan drive on the left, like in England. Should we have known that? I had never heard it mentioned.
The taxi driver was very courteous, gave us a pack of tissues each. All part of the service, well it was a hot day. There were pretty lace antimacassars over the seats. Shin-Osaka was heaving. We found our way to the machines to buy our Shinkansen tickets. There are three “speeds” to choose from. The expressest Shinkansen is the Kodama train, departing lunchtime., then the Hikari, but we booked on the slower
This left us enough time for a little sightseeing in Osaka, but only if we could get rid of the bags for a bit. Nowhere, but nowhere could I find the left luggage department. No English signs I could make sense of, no helpful pictures. Naomi fastened on one sign – “check room”. Could that be it? Maybe an Americanism? Anyway, we followed the signs and it was indeed the left luggage department.
The one attraction I had wanted to visit in Osaka, even before leaving Britain, was the Umeda Sky Building. This is Japan’s answer to the Grande Arche at La Defense in Paris, although very different in style. Still, it is in the nature of two tall buildings joined by a spanning structure, like a lid, at the top, and lots of external glassy lifts. This is a model of it, on display inside the “bridge” at the top.
See the blue, red and yellow sculptures at the bottom? They are just as bright in real life:
Looking up at the bridge from ground level:
There is an external lift that goes part way up, then you take an escalator in the sky.
Osaka skyline seen from the outside viewing gallery at the top:
After Nagasaki we had a day at sea including some cruising between Japanese islands. It was typically hazy (or polluted?) but warm and sunny, so many passengers were out on deck enjoying the view.
I did wonder at one point if the captain had messed up his navigation. Could we really be off the Venetian coast? Well it is a passable facsimile of the Campanile in St Mark’s Square. St Mark’s Basilica alongside is less convincing.
For comparison here’s a flash-forward to the real thing, taken when Naomi and I returned to Venice in June after a twenty-five year absence.
As my camera sadly lacks GPS I can’t tell exactly where the Japanese mock-Venice is. If anyone knows what it’s in aid of please leave a comment.
Back to Japan’s waterways …
When we returned to the Statendam we spotted a tall ship moored nearby. Later on it set sail and I took this photo. It was a long way away and this picture is heavily cropped, which is why it’s a bit grainy.
Any must-seeing activity in Nagasaki must include the famous Meganebashi, or “spectacles bridge“. It is a double-arched bridge over the Nakajima river which can look like a pair of spectacles due to the reflection of the arches in the water.
Unfortunately the light wasn’t good enough to produce the effect properly when we were there.
We did spot this interesting stone in the wall on one side of the river. Clearly a labour of love.
Not far from the bridge is the famous Tera-machi-dori (“temple town street”) famous for its shrines. From there we made a short detour to see Sofuku-ji, a Chinese temple dating from 1629.
We noticed this space-saver car park near the temple.
We managed a bit of shopping in Nagasaki’s main shopping district before returning to the ship. Naomi had been smitten by a purse she saw in a shop in the Hamano-machi arcade. Kept going back to look at it but reckoned it was too pricey, even though she loved it and her old purse was falling to bits. While she was window-shopping elsewhere I went back to the shop and bought it. She found it in her heart to forgive me.
It’s somehow fitting that on 9 August 2007, 62nd anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb which devastated Nagasaki, I’m blogging about my visit to the city. It does though bring it home how far behind I am with this blog. I started this series of cruise-related posts so the kids could follow us on our holiday, but I’m still writing it even though we were in Nagasaki on Tuesday 1st May. This has become an “I’ve started so I’ll finish” job. At least there will be a record for posterity, made while the trip is still fresh (or freshish) in my mind.
After the atomic bomb museum we returned by tram to Oura-kaigan-dori station close to where the Statendam was docked, then took another tram for the short journey to Glover Garden.
Glover Garden is named for Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish industrialist who came to the city as a young man to seek out his fortune when Japan opened its borders to foreign traders in 1859, ending a long period of self-imposed isolation. The garden features the western style homes from the period, including Glover House.
The garden is on Minamiyamate hill overlooking the harbour, with panoramic views of the city.
It was inevitable that the first thing we’d do on arriving in Nagasaki would be to take a tram to the area where the atomic bomb dropped in 1945.
There is a park there, and a monument which marks the hypocentre – the spot directly below where the bomb exploded, at 11:02 on 9 August.
There is a statue to the women victims, who accounted for 70% of the dead.
We visited the atomic bomb museum but weren’t allowed to take pictures. There were a number of bomb-damaged clocks on display all stopped at 2 minutes past eleven.
Before visiting the museum I didn’t really have a clear picture of the Japanese perspective on the bombing and it’s aftermath, but I can now sum it up as:
“Using an atomic bomb is a terrible and evil thing. We have suffered a terrible fate that should never have been inflicted on anybody. War is a terrible thing. We do not seek retribution, we seek an end to war so that no-one should ever have to suffer this again”.
This is understandable because the impact of the bomb, on the ground, was clearly a horrific and terrifying event that shattered them and shocked them, and they have continued to suffer the effects for decades.
However, their closeness to the direct effects of the bombing means that they have been denied the outsider’s perspective – a preparedness to consider the possibility that the bombing might have prevented a worse calamity. Whether such a viewpoint is reasonable or not, it seems to have been closed to the Japanese to the extent that their Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma was forced to resign last month for suggesting that the bomb was an “inevitable way to end the war”.
Next to the bomb museum is a Peace Memorial building containing the names of all the people who died.
There is also a Peace Park which contains many statues or other works of art presented to Nagasaki by various nations to express their sympathy and sorrow.