Sunday, April 03, 2016

Japan: 1

Fair warning: long and not very together post about our trip. Ramblings for me to look at in old age and reminisce about.

• Just back from a week in Japan, Land of the Rising Sun, Sakura blossoms, Sushi & Sashimi, kimonos and so so much more
• As a child I had a two story 'world cultures'  book - one story each about a Japanese family and an Eskimo family. I've harboured an irrational desire to visit Japan ever since. 
• Some good advanced planning and actually booking meant that our school term break would coincide exactly with the due date of the cherry blossom blooming.
• For a change, with very little prompting, V booked his leave, our flights and hotels, all within days of our initial discussion on what to do for the break.
• Then it was my half of the bargain - figuring out what to see and do and whether to Japan Rail pass it or not.
• Armed with knowledge from a friendly neighbour that just moved here from Tokyo and various internet sites (including marvelous FB) I got to work.
• This is what we knew thanks to our tickets: fly in to Narita, Tokyo and fly out of Kansai, Osaka. Hotels were 4 nights in Tokyo and 3 in Osaka. 
• All my research confirmed that unless we were doing a bunch of day trips out of either city and willing to travel between the cities on the slightly slower than bullet train then a Japan Rail pass made no sense. 
• People kept saying 'why haven't you got your JR pass', 'it was so useful to have the pass/ you are fools for not getting it etc'....
Thankfully I didn't listen to them. 
• We bought Narita Express tickets from the airport. We purchased Suica cards (much like Oyster/ Octopus cards) which allowed us to use subways, buses and JR lines. We bought Nozomi (bullet) tickets to Osaka. We purchased an open day return to Kyoto and we saved nearly 1/3rd on the cost of the JP pass.
Enough about travel.
• Tokyo: Narita airport was functional but shabby and a bit run down to look at but even then you could see the innovation, technology, design and discipline. Example: luggage carts that go down and up escalators into the train station. 
• Narita express was fast and efficient and the red bricked (recently renovated on the outside) Tokyo station was a manageable maze. Saw my First Lady in Kimono in the line for the taxi!!!
• An evening wandering around Roppongi, crowded and neon lit, but industrial and residential in equal measure was a good introduction to Tokyo.
• Spent half a day exploring the Imperial Palace. Beautifully laid out gardens amidst large stone walls and moats. Pine trees, old guardhouses, enormous gates, bamboo groves, orange trees and of course flowering Sakura trees. 
• Joined at lunchtime by a Japanese friend that moved back from Singapore to Japan over a year and a half ago. So nice to catch up and see her adorable little boy. Missed seeing R who had to be at Girl Scouts...
• Spent half a day wandering around Ginza. Went to the largest Uniqlo in the world and bought Lego Tshirts amongst other not needed but much cheaper than HK/ Singapore stuff. V and Kid went to the Hakuhinkan Toy Park with floors of toys and again the Lego was so much cheaper that indulgent father bought 5 boxes of it much to Kids delight. 
• I spent my afternoon gazing at the beautiful shop windows and wandering through the amazing multi stories paper shops: beautiful handmade paper products, desk accessories, chiyogami paper, origami earrings and other stuff a stationery junkies dreams are made off. People watching from a coffee shop while trying to delicately eat my way through the beautiful confectionary section. 
• A morning at the Meiji shrine where despite the tourist hoardes there was enough peace to enjoy a morning ritual and the calm of the 100,000 Japanese trees. A walk along the fairly glossy Otomesando area with a stop for lunch and ice cream.
• Then an explore of Maranouchi before heading back to Roppongi for sushi dinner at Pintakona.
• Hot chocolate and croissants in the sunshine while exploring Otemachi, before heading the way of the Sky Tree Tower. Endless line almost put us off but we found a shorter line for International travelers and within 10 minutes found ourselves on the first deck 345 ft up. What a sprawling and densely packed city Tokyo is! We then went to the next Gallery up and the views were even better. Lots of oohing and aahing over places we could identify and gazing longingly in the direction of Mt. Fuji which remained obscured by fog despite the sunny day. A real treat to get a real sense of this awesome megapolis with a birds eye view. 
• Spent all afternoon watching Kid play in the bouncy castle and inside the plastic ball on the water - both part of a mini games carnival at the base of the Sky Tree. Yes we could have convinced him of a more historic or tourist worthy site but he had been a wonderful trooper chalking up in excess of 10,000 steps per day and truly deserved the break to do what made him laugh. Sensoji is left to next time.
• Detour on the way back to the hotel to see the crazy road crossing at Shibuya. Pretty amazing that over 1000 people cross using the 6 paths with no one bumping into anyone. 
• Last morning in Tokyo: short walk in local park followed by exploring Akasaka. Lunch at 511: recommended for Kobe Beef. This was the only meal we had booked. Absolutely without a doubt the best most succulent steak I have had in my entire life! Not a memory I will forget in a hurry.
• Dizzying journey to hotel and then on to Tokyo station for our reserved seats on the neat and efficient Nozomi Bullet train to Osaka. 2.5 hours of high speed train - more than the speed it was the sheer smoothness of the train that amazed me. No dhuk- dhuk motion of a usual train, just a near silent whooooosh as the train glides at great speed along the track. 

I'll follow this post with another few. Observations, pictures and of course Osaka/ Kyoto.

I'll leave this post with just one picture: of the first Sakura tree I saw up close. Of all the brilliant trees and bursts of color and varieties on offer this white entirely blossoming spring Sakura will always be my first.