Monday, 21 July 2014

Taste of Japan: Hakone & Takayama

Second Bite:

We had an easy train trip to Hakone and on arrival were encouraged to buy a two day Hakone pass. We bought one each not thinking we would get great value from it, but it turned out to be worth it.

First use for our pass was the bus trip to our accommodation. We had booked a Ryokan, not top draw but it was OK. We were lucky to get directions as to where to get off. It seemed in the middle of nowhere but we soon found it just off the main road and conveniently located to the bus stop.

Mt.Fuji from Lake Ashi
We booked in then caught the bus to Moto Hakone town which is situated on the picturesque Lake Ashi, which from one location you can just see Mount Fuji peaking over the mountains in the distance.

We had lunch, then took returned boat trip across the lake (Hakone pass) then went to the delightful Narukawa Museum of Art. There was an exhibition modern Japanese painting as well the interesting kaleidoscope display. The coffee shop provides a wonderful view over the lake. After some refreshment we then walked along the cedar path.

It was getting late-ish and as we hadn’t ordered dinner at our accommodation we looked for a place to eat. All the eateries we saw around lunchtime were closed. We finally found a funny little place some sort of steak café. I was sure there was something else around but not knowing where to look we decided to eat there. Obviously it was a pretty ordinary meal. When we finished and left the placed closed.

Back to our ryokan and we had booked a private onsen, which proved to be very relaxing.

Jinja Shrine Hakone
Next day we set out again for Moto Hakone first we walked to the Jinja Shrine via a tree lined path around the lake. We walked up to the shrine Sametomo Minamoto prayed for victory here and he must have been successful as a statue to him has been erected. We walked down to the water’s edge where the shrine’s signature red torii rises from the lake.
Then back on the boat to cross the lake onto to ropeway (cable car) to Owakudani is a volcanic cauldron of steam, hot pools and strange smells. We walked along the various walkways, but the gaseous smells were quite overpowering, as well as being poisonous. A black egg was a must, actually you have to buy 5, they are normal chicken eggs cook in one of the hot pools and the chemicals in them turn the shells
black. They are just boiled eggs!

From here we took the cable car to Hakone Open Air Museum. This is a wonderful and surprising place with an impressive array of 19th and 20th century sculptures which include works by Henry Moore, Rodin and Miro. There is also an excellent Picasso Pavilion. It is certainly well worth the visit as there is much to see. It was getting late but we decided to go to Miyanoshita as they
Hakone Open air Museum
have a number of antique shops there. Unfortunately by the time we arrived they had all closed, in fact it is quite a small town and everything was closed, however Japan’s finest Western-heritage hotel, the Fujiya Hotel is there. It opened in 1878 and has played host to some famous people. It is very elegant but we were a bit late for afternoon tea so went to the bar for a drink. Lucky for us it was happy hour. After our drink we decided to look for a place to eat. Actually could see very little on offering in the main areas of the town so treated ourselves to dinner. We then caught the bus back to our accommodation.

We left early and caught the bus back to the station to catch the train to Takayama.

Our hotel was across the road from the station, which was great. Then we went to explore the town which has retained its traditional charm. Its present layout dates from the 17th century and there are a huge museums, galleries and temples, too many to do justice to in such a brief visit.

Our first stop was Hida Kokubun-ji was originally Takayama’s oldest temple which was constructed in the 8th century. This was later destroyed by fire and the oldest present building dates from the 16th century. In the courtyard there is a three-storey pagoda and a very impressive old gingko tree 1,200 years old. We wandered in and out of the interesting ‘old’ streets. There are quite a few sake breweries in the town.
Typical Takayama street

That night we decided to go to a Hida beef restaurant, the beef is like waygu as it marbled. On our way there I managed to trip over, and not only hurt my dignity but my hand. I had blood pouring from my finger. We were passing a pharmacy so popped in to get some band aids. Not only did I get those but the chemist bathed my hand, applied antiseptic cream and attached the band aids. I was most impressed.

The meal turned out to very enjoyable. There are many Hida beef restaurants to choose from and suspect they’re all much the same.

The next day we went the morning market a mixture of produce and crafts, markets like this are always interesting. We then wandered to the hill behind the town to what we thought was Teramachi & Shiroyama-koen where there is a marked walking path, unfortunately we lost our way, but found some interesting shrines behind which was the cemetery.

We returned to town and stopped to have a coffee at Tsutaya Café, a wonderful little coffee shop which had old vinyl records, reel to reel tapes and played wonderful old jazz. Coffee was served in quality china cups. It is run by a husband and wife and also sells leather goods made by the man. Altogether a really it is delightful place to relax and a drink coffee or tea.

After refreshments we went Takayama Museum of History and Art which has 14 themed exhibition rooms relating to local history, culture, literature and the arts. No all exhibits have English labels but overall it is very informative.
Hida Folk Village

Then out to the Hida Folk Village, I hoped they would have an eatery within the precincts but I was wrong. It is worth visiting as it features dozens of traditional houses and buildings as well the demonstration of traditional crafts. We left here very hungry and we decided to walk back to town, again I was sure we would find a place to eat. We eventually came to the Hida Takayama Museum of Art. We had a good lunch at the rather ritzy Mackintosh Café and then decided to view the absolutely amazing art deco collection housed there, wonderful glassware and furniture
One display in Art Deco Museum
which include a magnificent glass fountain designed by Lalique.

We continued our journey back to town and quite surprisingly offered a lift by an Indian who was involved in selling heavy machinery in Japan. Dinner that night was sushi in a wonderful little sushi bar not far from our hotel.

Next stop Kyoto.

Monday, 7 July 2014

A Taste of Japan - Tokyo

First Bite

An almost spur of the moment decision I decided we would have a short trip approximately 2½ weeks in Japan. I researched what was possible to do in that time without just jumping from place to place trying to see too much. A friend gave me an itinerary which she and her husband had followed earlier in the year, she had gone for a similar time but I was sure that we wouldn’t be able to do all they did; it just seemed too full on.

We arrived in Tokyo early afternoon, we had no trouble negotiating the train into the city and were in luck as our accommodation Tokyo City Hotel was on the Yamanote line, we got out at Shin Okubo station and across the road to the left was our hotel, very convenient. However by the time we arrived it was early evening so we just walked around our area which has been dubbed ‘Korean Town.’ We looked for a place to eat, there were many to choose from and most had plastic samples of the dishes on display which made the decision easier. After dinner we walked back to our room, on the way we bought some supplies for breakfast.

Ema -votive tablets

The next day we were quiet refreshed and ready to explore the city. We first went to the Meiji Shrine which is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor (1868-1912) and his consort Shoken. It is a typical example of understated Shinto architecture. Unfortunately the original was destroyed in an air raid in 1945 but the reconstruction is exactly like the original. The ema (votive tablets) are still popular today where people write petitions or gratitude on them. It is a very peaceful and beautiful place to wander around.

From here we made our way to Ueno Park, all made easy bywhizzing around on the subway system which is very easy to negotiate. We discovered the delightful Peony Garden, with the most magnificent display of peonies some which didn’t look real and others with blooms protected by umbrellas. From here it led into the Toshogu Shrine and Kara-mon Gate, this is very ornately decorated not unlike some Chinese Temples. The shrine is dedicated to the memory of the first shogun, Ieyasu. The rows of copper and stone lanterns which lead to the shrine were donated by warlords eager to curry favour.

A beautiful Peony

We planned to go to the National Museum but unfortunately it was closed for the day, though it was meant to be open. We had a delightful lunch at one of the garden restaurants then jumped on a train to Asakusa to go to the Senso-ji Temple. The temple has been rebuilt many times since its founding in 628 and is the oldest temple site in Tokyo. The Kaminari-mon Gate is flanked by two gods, Fujin and Raijin. It is a very lively place with many people coming to pray. The two giant sandals hang on the walls of the Hozomon Treasury Gate are made for deities with feet of mythic size and they also symbolize the traditional footwear of the Buddhist pilgrim. On the street in front of the main gate are market stalls selling souvenirs and food. It’s a good place to buy gifts as well as the arcades which run off from this area.

There was a small Craft Museum in the area which we eventually found which was quite interesting. There were plenty of places to eat around this area so we had dinner here.

Sushi Bar near Fish Market
We didn’t get up at 5.00 am to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market, but we did arrive at a reasonable time considering it was across town from where we were staying. All very interesting plus our sushi breakfast in a little hole in the wall place. We looked around the general market then walked back towards Ginza. We were passing the Kabuki Theatre and decided to check out if we could see one act (1 hour) with English translation. We were in luck we could get in straight away (standing room only). Kabuki is a very stylized form of theatre. Originally the women’s roles were performed by prostitutes, and then young men took the roles but due to the bawdiness of the plays and various goings on the roles had to be taken by men of a certain age. Kabuki is still performed by males and now young men take the female roles. The act we watched was humorous and quite bawdy. It was definitely worth seeing.

We had lunch then off to the Imperial Gardens which were beautifully laid. There is a craft shop around the area, but could we find, no. We wandered around and ended up in the area of a number of beautiful government buildings.

Our big expedition was to Nikko a place of temples, religious art, sacred store houses and tombs. We went to the tourist information bureau to get a map and were given two paper cranes, a lovely gesture. We then caught the bus to the start of the temple area, as we got off it bucketed down with rain; our umbrellas were sitting comfortably in our hotel room. Across the road was a shop and restaurant. We bought 2 umbrellas had a bite to eat. As we left it had completely stopped raining and the sun was shining. Oh well we have the umbrellas now. We paid to cross the Shinkyō (Sacred Bridge). It was constructed in its present form in 1636. Except on special religious events only the Emperor or members of his retinue could cross it. It was all very interesting but crossing doesn’t get one to the actual entrance so a bit of a rip off.
Shinkyo Bridge Nikko

We then followed the path up the hillside to where the temples and shrines were. There were some buildings under renovation so we could not enter but the ones we did were all very fascinating. It is definitely worth the visit. As we arrived around lunchtime we couldn’t do the whole area justice. However we were glad of our umbrellas as we left one of the temples as it bucketed down again and we would have been completely soaked. It was a good thing
Three Wise Monkeys -Nikko
we bought them before our meal rather than after.

When we returned to the town it was rather a sleepy hollow and was hard to find anything open, we eventually found a little coffee shop that barely looked open it had a gentile English décor, which seemed out of place. Duly refreshed we headed back to the station to catch our train.

The next day we went to the Tokyo National Museum it has a huge collection of Japanese art and antiquity. There is so much to see almost 3000 items at any one time. It is hard to absorb it all in one visit.

There is a market under Ueno rail lines but we thought it quite rubbishy really, just lots of clothing all much the same. We then walked to Yanaka, there is a famous cemetery there but the area itself was quite interesting. As we made our way to the station there were many food stalls lining the footpath inviting us to try their wares, which we did, very yummy.

The next day we were off to Hakone.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Tips for Independent Travel in China

 Always get the business card from your hotel as you can just show it to a taxi driver.

 Taxis are cheap always insist the driver uses the meter.

 Sometimes this doesn’t happen no matter how hard you insist. If you have travelled in a taxi previously you can sense what the prices can be so don’t accept the first and usually exorbitant price.

 Chinese do not line up for anything it is one mad scramble to get tickets, get on buses, just act like a ‘native’ and you won’t be left standing.

 Four and five star hotels are great places to get a free map of a city as well as other information from the concierge even if you are not staying there. Many are extremely helpful.

 China can be frustrating at times sometimes something that should be easy and straight forward is anything but.

 Patience is important and shouting gets one nowhere but I must admit it can be hard not to at times.

 It is always good to take a phrase book (I’ve used Lonely Planet’s) if you don’t speak Chinese fluently. Even using this can be fraught even though words and phrases have Chinese characters written next to the pinyin.

 People are generally very helpful and friendly but beware of the ‘Tea House’ scam. Someone or a couple befriends you. ‘We/ I just off to have some tea would you like to come?’ Then you can end up being left to pay an astronomical amount. (yes some tea is very expensive anyway – but this is a con).

 Always use bottled or boiled water to clean your teeth.

 Eat in places where there are crowds food turnover will be quick so there is less chance it’s been sitting around for a long time ‘gathering bugs.’

 China is relatively safe to travel independently just be cautious with your belongings in crowds as with anywhere you travel.

As with any travel go with an open mind, realize it will be very different and that everyone you have contact will not necessarily speak English. Then you enjoy your trip and have some amazing experiences.

Enjoy your trip.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Crete September 2013

We arrived a Pireaus without too much trouble, it definitely very busy around the port area. We needed to be directed to where we needed to pick up our tickets and once we crossed the extremely busy road found the Minoan Lines kiosk without any trouble. We were lucky as we didn’t have to wait too long to board, though the ferry was leaving at 9.00 pm.

It was all very organized when we were on board; we received our cabin keys and were taken down to its location. It was quite nice with the usual amenities. Once we settled in we went upstairs carefully noting the cabin’s location. The ferry was very large with a huge space for cars and trucks. We indulged ourselves at the best restaurant and had a delicious meal. I noted the ingredients of the ‘Minoan salad’ (mixed salad, pomegranate seeds, shaved parmesan, cherry tomatoes and balsamic vinegar) so easy to replicate at home.

We slept well, on waking we realized the engine had stopped so investigated by checking the corridor. There was a flurry of activity of passengers with their bags ready to disembark. There had been no announcement alerting passengers of our imminent arrival or even the fact we had arrived. We hurriedly showered and dressed and made our way to the exit. The sun hadn’t quite come up so it was quite dull. Not having much idea where our hotel was in relation to the port the only option was a taxi and luckily we did not have much trouble with this.

The Castello Hotel seemed a bit of a distance away; though early we could check in but leave our bags at reception and was able to have our breakfast there. The restaurant was very pleasant with a great view across the harbour.

We got ourselves a map of the city and set out to explore. The hotel was not central but it wasn’t too far to walk into the main part of town. We looked around then decided to go on the ‘Hop on, Hop off’ bus tour which gave us an overview of the places of interested, which included out to Knossos. We decided to visit there early in the morning to beat the hordes we saw on our arrival.

We went to the Historical Museum of Crete, though small was very informative. The sections include collections of artefacts from the long history of Crete as well as a section that features the Second World War involving the Battle for Crete, occupation and resistance.

The writer Nikos Kazantzakis writer of Zorba the Greek and many other novels is featured here, with a display of his study and extracts of some of the films from his novels. Lastly there is an Ethnographic collection, showing life and customs of the people.
Kazantzakis Study

After the museum we wandered down to the Venetian Koules Fortress, the Lion Gate, the old port and craft market. It was disappointing there was no access to the interior of the fort.

The next day we were up early to catch the bus to Knossos, when we arrived there wasn’t any lines to get in and though there were quite a few people there it wasn’t too crowded. It was one place I was really interested to visit as I had learnt about the discovery of Knossos when studying Greek history and about Sir Arthur Evans excavations and his interpretation of his findings and restorations of the ruins. I had recently read the book Mysteries of the Snake Goddess by Kenneth Lapatin which blew
Murals from Knossos
apart the previous interpretations. I have since discovered that there had been misgivings about the way Evans’ ideas for quite some time.

That said it didn’t take away the thrill of being of being amongst these ancient ruins of the Minoan civilization. We wandered around a number of times sucking in the atmosphere which can never be captured in photos. When we exited Knossos the number of people lining up to enter seemed endless.

Back into the city we went to the Archaeological Museum which
Concert by the Church
houses treasures from the Minoan civilization. We had a rather ordinary dinner but on our way back to the hotel we heard music we walked down a laneway into the courtyard of a church. A concert was taking place music and folk dancing. It was delightful; we hung around there for quite a while then continued on to our hotel.

View of Heraklion from Bar

Our last day in Crete we wandered to the port, taking in various landmarks and places of interested highlighted on our map. The weather was quite hot and after lunch we went back to the hotel for a respite from the heat. We indulged in another wander around the streets, had dinner and returned to the hotel, indulged in our complementary drink at the bar which had a great view of the harbour.

The next day we were leaving early for our trip home.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Naplion - Greece Sept 2013

We were very glad that we had the hotel ordered our taxi to take us to the bus station as the route was rather circuitous and through some very narrow deserted laneways. I think we would have been a bit apprehensive if we had just hailed a cab.

We eventually found the place to buy our ticket and we were on the 10.30 bus. We arrived in Naplion around lunch time. It took a little while to find our hotel though it wasn’t far from the bus station. The Agamemnon Hotel was in a great location on the coast, though we didn’t have a ‘room with a view’. After we booked in we had lunch at one of the many restaurants along the coastline. We then wandered around and decided to jump on the ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ bus which would take us up to the fortress on the hill. Fortress of Palamindi can also be accessed by 999 steps but going by road is a lot easier. It stands 220 metres above the town and was built between 1711 and 1715. It fell into Ottoman hands before it was completed. There have been many additions over the years and is built in such a way that it has many little mini fortresses within its main walls. The views from the walls are definitely spectacular.
View from Palamindi Fortress

We caught the bus coming back, it was a bit of a budget ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ bus with the commentary working intermittently, but we were able to see most of the interesting features around the town. We were using Naplion as a jumping off to Epidaurus and Mycenae.

The next day we caught the bus to Mycenae; it took an hour to get there but was worth it. I had studied Greek History when I was younger and had an interest in archeology so coming to places like this was a thrill. Mycenae was the centre of the Mycenaean civilization which dated from the 16th to 12th century BC .It evolved throughout Greece and to many sites in the Mediterranean basin. This acropolis dominates the area. Excavations of the site begun by Heinrich Schliemann in 1874 continue today. It was fascinating wandering among the ruins thinking about the history and civilization that existed here so long ago.

Famous Lion Gate-Mycenae

We were able to have a thorough look around the site we caught the next bus back, the weather was quite hot and we were feeling rather tired. When we returned to Naplion we had lunch and rested for the afternoon.

The following day it was off to Epidaurus. The most important monuments belong to the 4th and 3rd century BC. These included the temple of Asclepius, the theatre and stadium. However the theatre is a standout and is the most perfect of its kind. It has superb acoustics, a coin dropped or paper torn can be heard from the back seat. Plays are still performed there and I think it would be a great thrill to see a performance of one of the ancient Greek plays. It was fascinating walking among the ruins, sitting on the seats of the theatre imagining what it must have been like all those centuries ago.

Theatre - Epidaurus

Then back to reality and on the bus back to Naplion. We had a quiet time walking around the town exploring areas along the coast. The following day we would be leaving to catch our ferry across to Crete. We didn’t have to leave too early as it would be an overnight trip. We discovered that the bus stopped at one of Athens’ metro stations which would take us to Piraeus, this would take hassle out of getting to our ferry.