Kyoto receives a lot of good press but except for the magnificent monuments, I found it to be a rather charmless city. Getting between these islands of beauty also required using the city’s slow and overcrowded buses, or a long, dull walk. I am glad to have seen the sights of Kyoto, but I don’t think I would go back.
On emerging from the train station in Himeji it seemed that someone had obscured the view of the famous castle with an ugly modern tower building! A minute later we realised that the building was in fact the castle encased in scaffolding for a five year restoration. It was easy to imagine how impressive it would look normally! While the main castle is closed there is an alternative tourist attraction which takes visitors up a lift inside the scaffolding for an “egret’s eye view” of the outside of the castle—it’s pretty cool to be able to view the roof tiles and sculptures from above instead of below! There was also a lovely volunteer tour guide who gave us the full history of the castle and being a mostly clear day we had great views all the way to the Inland Sea. So while we could not visit the castle in the usual way it was definitely still worth the day trip to Himeji for a unique castle experience.
One liberating thing about having an unlimited rail pass is that when you find yourself at a loose end for half a day, you can look at a map and train timetable and go for a bit of an explore.
We decided this was an opportunity to step off the standard tourist track and visit the island of Shikoku, a place the guide book claimed many visitors overlook. The crossing from Honshu island is a huge bridge which afforded some lovely views of the Inland Sea and its islands—although we only realised this on the way back when we had no seats reserved as on the way out our allocated seats were on the lower deck of a double-decker carriage and we missed out!
Takamatsu had a “small city” feel to it, there were some tall buildings around the station but also enough open space that you felt they had plenty to spare. The main attraction is the Ritsurin-kōen garden, the largest in Japan at 750000 square metres. It was probably one of the best gardens we have seen so far, and also a very relaxing place to spend the afternoon after two busy days jostling with other tourists in Kyoto.
Returning to the station we had a walk by the pleasant harbour watching the sunset behind some of the islands. There was also a funky fountain that cycled through a set of different patterns, including what seemed to be a steam mode. But the views from the train on the return journey were excellent.
A little taste of the adventure of travelling in Japan. There’s just enough English on this card in our hotel room to make me believe that I can dial 3 and coffee will be delivered, and it will probably only cost me ¥380 (which is in no way outrageous for Japan). So what is the rest of it saying?!!! The “on and off time” thing is particularly intriguing…
After the frenetic pace of all-night Tokyo it was nice to get off the train in the peaceful highland city of Matsumoto. There were still plenty of bright lights and a couple of 24 hour shops but these seemed to be confined to the area near the station, and many of the bars and restaurants seemed so quiet (even for a Tuesday night) that I wondered how they survived. The Rough Guide provided a recommendation for an excellent tempura dinner washed down with sake at a small and friendly restaurant called Kura—one of the aforementioned places so quiet that we would never have ventured in without the book’s guidance.
Our main reason for visiting Matsumoto was to enjoy the mountain scenery in the Japan Alps and we duly had a very enjoyable day’s tramping at Kamikōchi. Some of the trees were beginning to turn from green to the bright fiery autumn red which really added to the beauty of the setting, although this area is so popular that the lower trails were quite crowded with groups of camera-toting pensioners.
A crowd would also be a feature of our visit to Matsumoto’s impressive 16th century donjon (castle). This time the group was a large number of very excitable and boisterous school children but our friendly volunteer tour guide took it all in his stride and insisted on taking photos of us together in each photogenic spot—is there anywhere else in the world where you find people willing to give excellent hour-long private tours in a foreign language for no recompense?! (Japan has no culture of tipping so it was completely free.) Next to the castle, and included in the admission price, is the small and a-little-bit quirky Matsumoto City Museum (also staffed by very friendly people) but sadly we had to catch a train so could not explore beyond a quick walk around the ground floor.
Matsumoto had been such a pleasant and friendly place that I was a tiny bit sad when we boarded the train to the renowned Kyoto for the next part of our adventure-holiday.
Tokyo is a lively and slightly surreal place, full of energy but also beautifully clean and efficient.
Our introduction was in the small hours of a humid overcast morning after the 12 hour flight from London. A throng of weary-eyed all-night clubbers joined our subway train at Roppongi station, most still immaculately presented even as they promptly fell asleep in their seats. We knew we would feel the same later in the day but for the moment the plan was to find somewhere for (yet another) breakfast so we could start our sightseeing. The 24 hour cafe we chose seemed lightly patronised at first but we were treated to a steady stream of well dressed people, who seemed more likely up all-nighters than early birds, ordering breakfast before heading down to the basement smoking area.1
After checking out the impressive sky scrapers near our hotel in Shinjuku we jumped back on the metro to the Imperial Palace gardens to take advantage of the pleasant weather as the forecast for most of the weekend was a bit rainy. Still trying to get our bearings we wandered to the front of the Palace and had a close up view of the Emperor and Empress pass by in a motorcade—sadly there was too little warning for me retrieve my camera from my bag!
The forecast rain appeared on our second morning but that did not seem to deter the hundreds queuing for brunch at the Hawaiian themed Eggs & Things in Harajuku. This area is also famed for Takeshita Dori, a narrow shopping street that is the epicentre of teenage fashion, and from there we walked to the bright lights (and noisy big screens) of more mainstream Shibuya. The Tokyo Hands department store provided another cultural experience—from the 80s cassette deck boom boxes in the basement to the funky and colourful household gadgets you never realised you needed and multiple floors dedicated to arts & craft supplies—London’s branches of Japanese stalwart Muji now seem pitiful in comparison! Later, in posh Ginza, we came across a department store with a shrine, rest area and golf school on its roof—even to window shop in Tokyo is a voyage of discovery.
Based on our few days there, Tokyo richly deserves its reputation as a world city. I could, and hopefully will, write more but for now the train approaches our destination and it is time to start another adventure in pointing and sign language.
Tokyo bans smoking on the streets which is awesome but allows it in restaurants which seems odd. [↩]