Friday, April 8, 2011

07/04/11 - 08/04/11 Koyasan, Monks, Pocky and Osaka

These last two days have really blurred together... Probably the lack of sleep talking.

Anyhow, after our brilliant previous day in Nara, we only had a short while in the morning to enjoy some more of Nara before we headed off to our next destination. As such, after our breakfast (once again, traditional Japanese, so it was a bit of a mixed bag), we headed out to see some more of Nara park.

Today we were off to see Todai-ji Temple, and the gigantic Buddha statue that resides within it. The building that encloses this Buddha is the world's largest wooden structure, and to say that it is large is an understatement. It is gargantuan. It fills your vision from a good hundred metres away. Much like most historical buildings in Japan, the structure had been burnt down and rebuilt several times throughout its lifespan, and as such the current version of it was only about 300 years old. Remarkably, the current version is only two-thirds the size of the original! It must have been truly gobsmacking to see the original structure in its heyday.

Inside, it is just as impressive, as the hall contains a massive statue of Buddha, as well as other buddhist-related spiritual deities. Much like most of the Buddhist stuff that I have seen on my trips through Asia, words fail to encapsulate the grandness of their scale and the sense of calm one gets when in their presence.

Soon after, we headed back out into Nara park. There, the deer were waiting. We bought one last bunch of deer biscuits and gave them a feed. Now we had noticed that the deer's manners were pretty much inversely proportioned to the tourist concentration of the area. The ones that hung around the major tourist sites, such as Todai-ji, were very rude, pushy, and would actually bite you or knock their heads against you if you weren't careful. Conversely, the deer in the quieter, foresty regions of the park were far more placid, and even occasionally shyed away from deer biscuits, as Emma and I discovered when we were leaving the park through a lesser-known exit.

Then, it was off on another confusing array of trains to our next destination - this time, it way Koyasan, a mountain in southern Kansai, famous for its Buddhist temple lodgings, and the Oku-no-in graveyard. It sounds slightly creepy to head a good two hours out of the way to visit a graveyard, but when you see it, you understand why. More on this in a little while.

Anyway, after catching a train to the base of the mountain, we boarded a cable car, that took us up a *very* steep slope. It was an interesting experience for me, as it was my first cable car ride. Not to say that I didn't trust the engineering behind the vehicle, but it does make you uneasy when you are being slowly hauled along the side of a mountain at about a 75-degree angle. Then, a quick bus ride later, and we were at our temple lodging, Eko-in.

There was another group of tourists with us, who judging by their accents, were Aussies as well. Further observation led me to believe that they were in fact Queenslanders, as they had Jetstar tickets on their bags, and those flights to Japan depart from the Gold Coast or Cairns. They seemed nice enough, but they were obviously a different type of tourist to us - they had come for the alcohol and parties. Not really my scene to be honest, but if we had all gone to the pub together, I wouldn't have minded. Not that there are any pubs on Koyasan...

Anyways, back to the blog. After being shown to our room by a very friendly monk, we set out to explore Oku-no-in. This place was incredible. A 2km path lined with hundreds of thousands of lanterns, monuments and mausoleums, set within a massive cedar forest. These stone monuments varied in age from the fairly recent, with their polished granite sheen, all the way to the moss-covered, truly ancient tombstones, with some being nearly a thousand years old. The headstones varied from tombs of Samurai warriors, all the way through to shrines of pest-control companies, devoted to all of the insects they had exterminated. There were also shrines for modern-day soldiers, both Japanese and other nations. I'm not entirely sure how I felt about those. Still, the air was cool, and at most times, not a sound could be heard.

Ok, yes it is slightly creepy to think that this is a place where people's remains are scattered, but being there really was a worthwhile experience. It gave you time to ponder the fragility of life, religion, and ultimately universal tollerance and acceptance.

At the end of the path of Oku-no-in lies the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Inside... well, as I whispered to Emma when we were standing inside "I have no idea how I am going to describe this in my blog..."

It was the most breathtaking room I had ever been in. Thousands upon thousands of lanterns hung from the roof, each projecting their faint yellow glow onto the dark timber floors below. In the center of the room, golden Buddhist monuments, with two large lamps behind them. These lamps are said to have been burning for over a thousand years. At each side of the room, monks chanted in unison. The atmosphere all of this created is indescribable. Utterly, utterly indescribable. This experience for me, was worth the whole trip to Japan.

Unfortunately, it was now getting dark, so we had to rush back to our lodging for the night. We were served dinner at exactly 5:30pm, and it was a traditional Buddhist dinner. This meant no meat, no onion and no garlic - essentially nothing that would corrupt the senses. The food wasn't actually that bad. Lots of tofu, some of which was on rival with a good dish-sponge for taste and texture, but on the whole it was pretty good.

Later, as Emma was closing the door to our outside area for the night, she slipped and put a hole in the door (it was made of paper). I laughed. She tried to fix it by dabbing it with water and trying to re-seal it. I reckon she got away with it... you could only notice it if you were looking for holes.

I then went for a chocolate run to a local store. On this run, I discovered the wonders of "Pocky" - small straw-like biscuit sticks dipped in chocolate. If you haven't eaten them before, do so. They're cheap, tasty and are fun to eat.

The next morning, at the bright and early hour of 6:30am, we attended our lodging's two ceremonies. The first was a Buddhist morning ceremony, which involved sitting in revered silence, listening to a senior monk chant from his scriptures. The second was the fire ceremony, and involved burning various pieces of wood, liquids and plants. Unfortunately, the significance of both of these services was completely lost on me, as they weren't explained in the slightest. Still, I'm sure if I could speak Japanese, that they would have explained it to me in great detail.

Now, as some of you may be aware, athletically, I'm an incredibly inflexible person. I can't touch my toes, and I have never been able to. I struggle to sit cross legged. Yes, I know I need to excersise more. Why am I mentioning this? Well, the position we had to sit in during these ceremonies was incredibly uncomfortable for me. So much so that my legs fell asleep during both of them. At the end of each ceremony, we had to stand up, walk in front of the Buddha and bow, before slowly walking off. Try doing this when you can't feel your feet. Thankfully I didn't have a Mr. Bean - style disaster where I knocked over everything and caused irreperable cultural offence, but it was a struggle on my behalf. I need to join a gym...

Emma and I then sat around in our lodging for a few hours, surfing the internet. Yes, they have internet in a Buddhist temple on top of a mountain. Moreover, the connection we were using is about eight times faster than the one I have in Australia! Internet envy...

Then, we headed back down the mountain through the complex network of buses, cable cars and trains to Osaka. It was with a heavy heart that I left the more rural areas of Japan. I had always wanted to see the amazing fields of greenery so often depicted in the Studio Ghibli films such as "My Neighbour Totoro" and "Spirited Away", and I felt so lucky to have seen them, even if they were just glimpses, as I knew that they wouldn't be around forever.

Thankfully, our hotel is actually on top of the train station where our train terminated. And boy is it fancy. It's a five star hotel and it sure means it! Everybody we saw in the lobby was dressed in business suits, carrying designer labelled luggage. To say that we stuck out like a sore thumb was an understatement! Still, the room was cheap to book, and it is very nice. Obviously where they get you is the various services the hotel offers. For example, a cup of coffee delivered to your room will cost you around $17 Aussie. Furthermore, any sort of meal will cost you in excess of $40, and they have some courses in the main restaurants which are 60,000 - 70,000 yen per person. To put that in perspective, my entire spending money for this holiday was just over 100,000 yen. Looks like we won't be getting room service...

After spending a while relaxing in our room, Emma and I headed downstairs into the massive shopping complex to have a look around. We discovered several levels down an entire level which was a market-style delicatessen. It had hundreds of different vendors, selling any food you can possibly imagine. Every ingredient for anything Japanese (and other cultures, too!), you could buy from these vendors. Emma and I spent a good hour just walking around, just baffled by the sheer range of foodstuffs on offer. The desserts section was particularly fantastic.

Then, we headed out for dinner. We decided to go to that old favourite, Bubba Gump's. Yes, we tracked one down in Osaka to dine on tasty, tasty shrimp for one last time in the forseeable future. I felt a slight twinge of guilt that somewhere in Osaka, an Udon Noodle bar was going out of business because we didn't eat there, but when presented with the opportunity to dine on my classic "firewall of shrimp", how could I say no?

And then, catching the last train of the day, we made it back to our hotel in time for some well deserved rest. I've been up since 6:30am. I'm on holiday. This isn't meant to happen. I need sleep.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


We started this morning bright and early, as we wanted to have a quick look around a few of Kyoto's shops before leaving. Emma finally found some clothes that were nice and that fit her, and I found a TinTin shop, which I went "squee" at everything. We also had McDonalds for breakfast. Again.

Then, it was back to the hotel to grab our bags, and off to the train station. After a quick hop on the subway, we were at the intricately massive Kyoto station to try and find our train to Nara. Now, I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but to a foreigner, it seems like there are more different companies of rail travel in Japan then there are ways of serving fish.

We were given the hard task of finding the "Kintetsu" private railway system for our train to Nara. Now while most of the different companies have their various stations well signposted throughout any major "hub" station, Kintetsu did not. Their directions were confusing and vague. They even had signs that directed us down corridors that didn't actually end in their train station, but in a SHOPPING MALL. After having about as much enjoyment as one gets in watching an orphanage burn to the ground, we finally found our station.

Half an hour later, we were in Nara. A quick 10 minute walk to the hotel, and we were ready to go exploring Nara's premiere attraction, Nara koen (or park). As the title of this blog entry so aptly surmises, Nara park is famous for its deer. They're everywhere. They're tame and they're cute and they can be deceptively aggressive. Normally they're quite passive and won't go near you. That is, until you buy some deer biscuits. Then, it's every man for themselves.

The deer will catch wind of your scent of deer biscuits, which is quickly transformed into a scent of fear. First, there will be one following you, then there will be two. Then, it's like an exponential thing. Soon you have like, TWELVE deer surrounding you, trying everything they can to eat your brain- I mean, deer biscuits. They're a bit like zombies, except a whole lot cuter, and they let you pat them... sometimes. Eventually you learn if you get deer-mobbed, to throw a biscuit far away and hope that some of the pack breaks off, allowing you enough time to flee.

I'm actually giving them quite a bad rap at the moment - some of them are mean - they will bite you on the leg/butt if you don't give them their biscuits, but most will just gingerly follow you around, bobbing their heads up and down until you give them some of your precious biscuits. We found one particularly nice one which let us pat it. It even liked us patting it - even when we didn't have any biscuits. We named it Yuki (snow), because it was the only Japanese noun we knew aside from food.

We then headed away from the more populated sections of Nara park, and up into the hilly shrine area. It was beautiful through this area. Stone lanterns lined the pathway all the way up to the grand shrine, and through the forest trees, you could see deer flitting about as wild deer should.

The grand shrine was also very impressive - very big and painted in a striking tone of red, but because I didn't understand any of the religious customs associated with it, I could only really appreciate it on face value. That, and the atmosphere that the park created around it.

I decided to feed any deer that I saw in the foresty section some deer biscuits, as a congratulatory measure for being "deer that behaved like deer should". We even saw the cutest little baby deer near the Grand Shrine. He got lots of biscuits.

We then made our way past a startlingly large, almost mountain-sized, hill, and then down through the most breathtaking cherryblossom grove Emma and I had seen yet on our trip. The sun was setting as we made our way through it, which added that extra special touch to a visually stunning landscape.

Back at the hotel, we could finally check in. During the check-in process, we were sat down, and offered some delicious looking cherryblossom tea. How can I describe this heated beverage? Imagine the purest cherryblossom flowers you can (look at my blog photos for reference). Then imagine them being gently placed in a intricately detailed deer-themed teacup. Now imagine boiling hot seawater being poured over them. That's what it tasted like. Salt water and flowers. Interesting. The hotel lobby itself is a train wreck of decorations from all different cultures, but the rooms themselves are nice and ryokan-like. I sound like I'm giving the hotel a bad review, but it is actually very nice. Especially the staff, and especially Nami, who has been looking after us so far. More on her later.

After relaxing in our room for a little while, we headed up to the roof of our hotel to catch the last rays of sunlight disappearing over the horizon. A very romantic end to a highly scenic day.

Like at the other Ryokan we stayed at, dinner was in our room. This time, we were served by a delightful lady called Nami, who spoke great English. She showed us exactly what to do with all of our various dishes of food, and that made the meal infinitely more enjoyable. She even talked with us about how she travelled to Australia last year on a working holiday. She was great.

And then I sat down to write this blog. So that's pretty much as far as I've gotten so far today. Oh wait, Nami has just brought us a gift. It is post cards with our names in Kanji written on them. "Emma" means "Smile True", and "David" means "Kindness Beautiful... Pass... The Big Dipper..." My tallness translates into any language.

Oh, and I spent about 1000 yen on deer biscuits today. They're that freaking cute.

Tomorrow: Nara koen's Big Buddha, Moar deer and our next stop: Mt. Koyasan, a town of Buddhist monasteries.

05/04/11 Kyoto: The city of Bicycles, Bins and Ding-dongs.

Firstly, I shall explain the title of the blog. The bicycles bit is pretty self explanatory - everybody rides bicycles in Kyoto. There are bicycle lanes everywhere, and there are thousands of spots where you can park your bicycle. Good to see that the city is somewhat environmentally conscious, although it is Kyoto, made famous due to the Kyoto Protocol - an agreement signed by various nations around the world to lower greenhouse gas emissions and help prevent climate change. So if it is anyone's responsibility to be green, it is Kyoto's.

The bins - When we were in Tokyo, Nagano, Yudanaka and Takayama, finding a bin is like trying to find Wally (Waldo) in a barbershop pole museum. - They're pretty much non existent. Hell, in our brief transit in Nagano, I actually had to ask the tourist information counter where the closest bin was! But, in Kyoto, it is a different story. Bins are everywhere. Every time you round a corner, there is a bin, with separate sections for rubbish, bottles, cans and newspapers.

The ding dongs - everything in Kyoto goes "ding dong" when you pass through it. The convenience stores do, the toilets do, the subways do, the lifts do! I wouldn't be surprised if some of the temples go "ding dong" when you walk through their gates. Our local subway station even went "ding dong" without walking through any doors! Every five seconds or so, it would loudly announce to the world an alert that, the entrance to the subway (an open passage) was still in fact open, through the means of a loud "DING DONG!" I feel very sorry for the Seven and I-Holdings employees right next door, as they have the double whammy of the subway and every time their shop door opened. And, being next to a subway entrance, this was quite a lot.

Anyways, on with the blog. Today we did another temples run. This time, we headed to eastern Kyoto to check out Nazen-ji and the path of philosophy that runs north of it.

After getting off the subway, I had a quick look through the lonely planet guide to see where we were. While I was doing this, Emma was busy being accosted by an old Japanese lady. Emma was literally being shaken by this lady, as she yelled at Emma, "beuutitul! beuutitul! you are beuutitul!" Emma just smiled and laughed, and posed for photos with the lovely old lady. I feel kind of bad though, as I didn't actually realise what was going on, until I saw Emma rapidly swaying in and out of my peripheral vision.

Nanzen-ji, and it's accompanying temple grounds are truly a sight to behold. A mix of tall, evergreen hardwood trees and cherryblossoms line a large pathway up to the massive Sanmon gate. And when I say massive, I really do mean massive! It was about 30 metres tall, and about 50 metres wide. Definitely much larger than any other gate that I'd seen before. One thing that puzzled me though was that this gate wasn't exactly joined to any walls of any sorts - and as such, any form of gigantic foe that they were trying to regulate the passage of could easily walk *around* the gate. I guess it must be one of those spiritual things.

Anyhow, after Sanmon, there was the temple and the zen garden it held within. The zen garden was particularly amazing. It had meticulously raked stones flowing around the other large boulders and islands in the garden. I pondered, somewhat philisophically to myself: "I wonder if the monks who reside in this temple ever want to just jump into the garden and make Zen-angels in the stones?" Naturally, I decided neither to voice this thought, or act upon my thought, as I'm sure my cultural uncouth-ness would have caused offence beyond any feeble language boundaries. Also, Emma would have probably hit me.

After spending a good hour or so wandering aimlessly through the temple grounds, we headed north along the "tourist track" to the "Tetsugaku-no-michi", or "Path of Philosophy". At the start of the path, there was a small vegetarian restaurant, so we decided to stop for lunch.

I had the (ironically enough) beef curry, whereas Emma had the curry tofu and noodle soup. My meal was nothing special, but at least it was fragrant. Emma's, on the other hand was warm, thick and there was very little difference in texture, consistency or taste between the noodles, soup or tofu. Essentially, Emma had a bowl of curry-flavoured snot for lunch. I decided to tell her about my thoughts on her meal *after* she had eaten it.

The Path of Philosophy itself was quite nice. A stroll next to an old canal, lined end to end with cherryblossoms. Very peaceful (even with hordes of tourists around us also walking the path), and it did offer a few opportunities here and there to ponder on quiet thoughts. Along the path, there was a delightful lady who was painting postcards. She had considerable skill, so Emma and I bought some. The lady was delighted. Now, there's no real polite way to say this, but this lady's voice was super high. It was like a chipmunk had inhaled its own body weight in helium, recorded itself speaking, and then played it back in fast forward. I only made out "thankyou very much!", but she was very cute.

Then, we caught a bus back to Kyoto station, and we made our way to our hotel. At the hotel, we managed to hook up a Skype session between Emma's parents and us. Good times were had, as we filled each other in on our trip and what had been happening down under.

Then, we headed out for some dinner. We found lots of restaurants that seemed to share a lot with Phuket's "jack of all trades, master of none" ethos - the food looked to be alright, but nothing spectacular. In the end, we settled on an Udon Noodle place. It was a great decision, as they hand-made their noodles, and the food was good quality. Upon seeing us enter, they handed us an English menu, too, which was a nice touch. The restaurant worked on a semi-buffet system, where they gave you your desired noodles and soup, and then you put whatever extras you wanted with it on your plate, and you were charged accordingly. It made for a great customisable meal. I wish I knew the name of the restaurant, as I would post a glowing review about it online!

Then, we headed back to our hotel to get ready for tomorrow and our next destination in Japan: Nara!

Next: Nara, Japan's ancient capital. Now it's full of DEER!

Monday, April 4, 2011

01/04/2011 - 04/04/2011 Takayama and Kyoto

Ok, wow, so a few days went by without me really noticing. Time for a quick fill-in on what happened over these days.

Our first day in Takayama was spent looking around the centre of the "old town", through the various stores selling local handicrafts. These were primarily wood-carving based, but there was also plenty of pottery and other types of crafts. Emma bought quite a large variety of souvenirs, but the only one I can remember at the moment is a ceramic owl, wearing a cloak made out of an eggplant. It's very cute.

The next day we checked out the historically preserved village of Hida No Sato, which, while itself isn't an authentic village from centuries long ago, it is made up of various houses from other villages that have been moved to this "safe" location, and have been historically preserved. It was a picture-perfect look at old Japanese village life. Everywhere you looked, there was an interesting hut, full of preserved tools and other mementos from the village lifestyle. I especially liked the really steep roofs on the buildings, designed to withstand the heavy snowfall that the Hida/Takayama region receives during winter.

When looking around this village, Emma and I were lucky enough to visit on a day when there was a parade being held. Before this parade, they were making a traditional rice-based dessert, which is essentially rice pounded into a paste, and then dusted in sesame seed powder or green tea powder. During the rice pounding process, Emma, being the only foreign woman there, was picked to help pound the rice. Many embarassing photos were taken.

Then, the parade took place. It was an interesting mix of traditional attires. The large parade made their way around the village. There were kimono-clad women, demon mask-wearing men, and men who dressed similar to priests, playing instruments that could only be described as sounding like someone playing a kazoo through their nose. Not pleasant to the ear, but I'm sure they were culturally relevant somehow.

After the parade ended, Emma and I then went and fed the Koi carp at the lake for a good 30 minutes. They had breadsticks for 30 yen. We couldn't resist. It was definitely funny when you broke off a piece of bread so big that none of the fish could swallow it whole. They would chase it around the whole lake until one fat one finally managed to inhale it. That, or the solitary swan that was on the lake came along and swallowed the bread whole. It was an angry swan.

Later that night, Emma and I tried out one of our Hotel's traditional Onsens. It was quite relaxing, but boy was the water temperature hot! It felt like we were being boiled alive every time we moved in the water. Never did I think that I would sweat in Takayama's freezing cold weather. Still, after a good soak I definitely did feel refreshed.

Also, a side note, each night in Takayama we were treated to a diverse range of Japanese cuisine, using local ingredients. The food was tasty, but I'd be lying if I said I knew what I was eating for 70% of the time. Still, the highlight of each meal for me was the beef. Apparently it came from local cows in Hida, about a 20 minute drive away. It tasted amazing, and was probably the best beef I've ever eaten.

Yesterday (3rd of April) was a day spent primarily travelling between Takayama and Kyoto. It involved a 150 minute train ride through the mountains to Nagoya (during which I spent most of my time playing Ouendan on my DS), and then a Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto. The Shinkansen was great fun once again. Looking out the window, it's as if you're driving along a highway, except everything is in fast forward by about 300%.

After checking in at our hotel (which has the smallest toilet/bathroom ever - it's like a port-a-loo!), we tried to find somewhere to eat for that night. Unfortunately, having all the knowledge of Kyoto that a tea leaf does of the history of the East India Company (thanks for that one, Douglas), this was a difficult task. It appeared that everywhere we looked lacked an English menu, and from the pictures on the outside, everything appeared to be swimming in pork or beef - both of which Emma can't stomach.

Sadly, in the end, we had McDonalds. It wasn't particularly nice, but at least Emma's Teriyaki Chicken burger was something different.

Today (April 4th), Emma and I first headed to the International Manga Museum (Japanese Comic Museum). It was fascinating, with the museum containing over 300,000 different manga volumes. Unfortunately for us, most of them were in Japanese. We still did have a good browse through the English section. I read the manga version of the video game "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask", and Emma read... something... with a weird title. Something like "Solanum"... I think.

They also had a fascinating section on the history of Manga and its various influences across the world. Furthermore, they explained how money from a sale of a Manga book is divided up, and pretty much summed up how much it sucks to be a Manga artist, as you get paid very little money for your craft. Still, recent estimates have valued the Japanese Manga industry worth over 3 Trillion yen, so there must be some money in there somewhere...

Then, we headed west to a the Arayashima district. This area was very beautiful, with the streets lined with cherryblossom trees, most of which were in bloom. The area was also very touristy - probably the most touristy area we had encountered so far in our Japan travels! Still, the reason we were heading here was to see Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. Moreover, we were going to visit the garden at the temple, and it certainly did not disappoint. After rounding the corner of the main hall, Emma and I were presented with the most beautiful Japanese garden we had ever seen. Everywhere you looked, every angle, there was a perfect photo opportunity. Moreover, the garden was dripping in cherryblossoms, and it made the garden exponentially more beautiful. Lots of photos were taken.

Then, we headed north of the gardens to the equally impressive bamboo grove. Essentially it was just a path through some bamboo, but when you're actually walking through it, it's so much more. You are surrounded by a virtual forest of bamboo, which sways gently in the wind. This bamboo stretches far above you, to form a canopy of green. It is a very surreal experience - gone are the memories of the bustling streets of any major Japanese city, and instead you are filled with a sense of calm. To anybody who goes to Japan, you *have* to walk down this path. It is amazing. Unfortunately, my camera couldn't really capture the awesomeness of the grove, but hopefully I can fix the colour levels in Photoshop later...

After some more wandering through the backstreets of Arayashima, we were on a train (in peak hour fun) back to Kyoto city. We had a look around Kyoto station to find somewhere to eat for dinner. Once again, we encountered much of the same troubles we did the previous night - no english menus and most meals seemed to have only red meat in them. Thankfully though, after a while we did find a nice place to eat. We had torikatsu - crumbed meat (in this case shrimp) deep fried served with vegetables. It was a nice way to end a very fun day.

Tomorrow: More Kyoto temple stuff, and some observations on the city of Kyoto.

Friday, April 1, 2011


So we woke up this morning bright and early at 7:30am. Breakfast was at 8:00am, and we had to robe-ificate for then. At bang on 8:00am, we were gestured into the dining room. Another feast awaited us. Once again, it was a mix of tasty delights, such as freshly cooked salmon fillets, omelettes, and other delicious treats, down to the strange stuff, such as four different types of mushrooms, and meats served cold and slimy that should be served hot, or not at all.I managed to eat most of it though.

Then, we went back to the room to get ready to have a stroll around our local district of Shibu Onsen. Magically, like how it materialised the night before, our bed had now disappeared. Then, I decided to open the blinds to see what the weather was like outside. Snow! It was snowing! Glorious, glorious snow! I called out to Emma, who came shuffling into the room, and was just as pleased as I was.

I dashed down the stairs, got my boots on as quick as I could, and went out to experience snowfall for the first time. It was just as awesome as the snow on the ground. We then took various pictures and strolled through the snowy backstreets. Emma and I even tried to make a snowman at one point, but didn't quite get the hang of it. Needless to say, I was super excited. Sadly though, my camera photos don't really do the beauty of fresh snowfall justice... I really need a better one!

After spending a good hour or so experiencing the snow, we headed back to our room, and made our preparations to leave Shibu Onsen. After chilling out (or in this case, heating up) around the table-heater in our room, we said our goodbyes to our wonderful host. As a memento, he gave us a pair of chopsticks with our birthyear on them, and a photo of us in the snow together. Even though we could barely communicate with him, he was a very nice and helpful gentleman.

What followed was a long walk to the train station. A long, cold, snowy walk, dragging our luggage behind us. Not the most pleasant walk, but I'd rather a freezing cold walk to a train station than a stinking hot one any day.

Then, we boarded our "Snow Monkey" train for Nagano. I had to go to the bathroom, so I had to get off the train and find where it was. In the process, I found a local Lawson, so I went inside and tried to find us some lunch for the train ride. I ended up finding quite a nice deep-fried chicken with rice... thing. Plus, my phrasebook came in handy! I asked the store clerk if the meat in this was chicken, to which she replied, yes. That alone made the phrasebook about 100 times more useful than my Thai one, as I couldn't even comprehend how to begin to pronounce a single word in Thai.

After the ride back to Nagano, we were confronted with a new problem - we had accumulated a lot of rubbish over the trip so far, and for the life of us, we could never find a garbage bin! For a country as staggeringly clean as Japan is, it is amazing that there are no rubbish bins - anywhere! After asking the tourist information centre where a bin was (which led me through quite a complicated path of various buildings and what have you), I eventually found one. Then, it was onto our train ride to Matsumoto.

This ride was quite pleasant - through many pastures, tunnels and foothills. Sadly, there was very little snow to be seen. About an hour later, we arrived at Matsumoto. Here, we needed to transfer to a bus to take us to Takayama, but we had an hour to kill between our train arriving and our bus departing.

Then we realised that we were booked in to have dinner at our hotel in Takayama, but due to the long bus ride, we would be significantly late. This meant that I needed to contact the hotel to let them know that we were arriving late.

I checked our hotel voucher, and it didn't have a phone number on it. Shit. Therefore, I needed to find a computer with internet access on it to email them. So, I asked at the tourist information centre (in japanese - thankyou phrasebook!) where I could find internet access. She gave me directions to what I can assume was a public library - that was where the fun began.

I had to make my way through several backstreets, and then go up to the second level at the public library. Then, I had to sign in on their sign in sheet, and attempt to use a japanese keyboard and internet browser. So it turns out that the spacebar key is really tiny, and on either side of it is a key that changes the language from english characters to either hiragana or katakana. Then, they don't have a clearly labelled button to turn it back to english letters. Unfortunately, I am used to a western keyboard, so I often changed the lettering from english to japanese mid-word. The only way of putting in english characters after switching to hiragana/katakana was by holding the shift key, and making the english letters capital. As such, this is an approximation of what my letter to our hotel looked like:

Dear Sir/Madam,

My name is DAVId WILLiams. I HAVe a reserVATIOn at YOur HoTel tonight. DUE To a miscalculated BUs dEPARTURE tiME, We will be arriving to yoUR HOTel at about 8:00PM. I APOLogise for the exTremely LATE NOTICE.


DAvid WILLiams.

Then, I clicked on "send". It came up with an error message in Japanese. FFFFFFFFFFFFFfff- So  I scrambled to find a phone number to contact them on. Success! Then, after a quick call on a payphone, I had cleared everything with the hotel. Sometimes it is easier to do things the old fashioned way.

On my way back to the bus station, I spied a gaming store. I went inside, and saw a copy of Ouendan for only 1800 yen. Bargain! I bought it. My first proper souvenir for myself.

Then, I went back to the bus station and waited with Emma for our bus. When it arrived, we put our luggage underneath, and sat down. After the doors closed, it became apparent that we were the only people on the bus! In fact, on the whole journey, only one other passenger got on. Still, the bus was quite comfortable, and you couldn't exactly complain about the scenery.

Let me put it this way: The reason why we had to catch a bus between Matsumoto and Takayama and not a train is that there is one gigantic mountain range between the two towns. And the bus trip took us over those mountains. It was amazing. The lakes were dark jade in colour, the trees the greenest green this side of greenland, and the snow was pristine and untouched. I felt like getting off of the bus every time it stopped! Although, if I did, I would have probably frozen to death.

Another thing I found amazing was the network of tunnels through these mountains. Some of them stretched off to the infinity point, so that you couldn't actually see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. When confronted with such amazing engineering marvels, I always think to myself "how on earth did they do that, and how did they get the time/money to do it?" then, I realised that being the world's third largest economy, you can afford to make things like that.

After another hour or so of twists and turns through the mountains, accompanied by suitable "ooohs" and "aaahs" from Emma and I, we descended down the mountainside into Takayama.

After arriving at the bus station, it was a 5 minute walk to our hotel, where we checked in and went to our room. The room is great, with it being a fusion between a traditional ryokan with tatami floors, and the amenities of a hotel (mini fridge, internet access, etc.). The only downside is that our room is a smoking room, but nothing that a bit of airing can't fix.

We then went to dinner, which was once again a traditional meal. Thankfully though, some of the staff spoke english, which meant we were instructed on how to enjoy the meal to its fullest. That being said though, one of the rice dishes we ate had tiny shrimp in it - whole shrimp, complete with shell and eyes. They were so small that you couldn't peel them, so you just had to chew on them. It felt like they were looking at you, pleading for you not to eat them. It wasn't unpleasant, but not something I'd eat again by choice.

The staff at the hotel are very kind. We even chatted to one of the waitresses about traditional Japanese life versus traditional Aussie life. All in all, a great evening, and an excellent introduction to our hotel.

Next: Takayama stuff!

30/03/2011 - New Japan vs. Old Japan

Wow, what a day!

Our day started in our hotel in Shinjuku, as we made preparations to leave Japan's capital. We cleaned up the room, panicked a few times as we lost and then found items which we needed to pack, and then filled out their customer service feedback form. Lots of smiley faces were written over their feedback form, as they were just that plain awesome.

Next, we took a train to Tokyo station, and then the Shinkansen Asama to Nagano. Shinkansens are freaking cool. You travel along at such a quick speed, seeing the whole world zoom by around you. Plus, they're such a smooth ride. Not once did I feel the train rock precariously from side to side, as pretty much every train I've ever been on in Australia tends to do. I also liked as we got closer to Nagano, we went through a series of tunnels. It seemed like after every time we came out of a tunnel, the environment around us completely changed. First it was urban, then it was forest, then it was thick, evergreen pine forest. Finally, and much to my delight, it was snowy forest. Yes, I finally got to see snow. This made me very happy, as along with "sunset over the water", another one of my "geographical features I must see before I die" has been ticked off.

After arriving at Nagano station, we had a mere 15 minutes to scramble between the Shinkansen station, and find and buy tickets for our ride to Yudanaka. Needless to say, it was stressful, but we got there in the end, with a few minutes to spare. The train we were on was called "Snow Monkey" - it was clear why most people visited Yudanaka!

After about another hour on this train, we arrived at Yudanaka. As I checked my holy grail folder on how to get to the hotel, I discovered that I didn't have a map. Crapshit. Thankfully, there was a very friendly station conductor who spoke very good english who put us on a bus that would take us very close to our hotel.

Now, I shouldn't really say "hotel". The place we stayed at was far from it. It is what the Japanese call a "Ryokan", which is a traditional Japanese homestay. This means everything is traditional, from the robes you wear around the premesis, to the room styling with it's tatami floor mats and it's low-set chairs and tables. It has a really nice feel to it.

We were taken through the various customs of a stay in a Ryokan. They seemed a little bit complicated, but were definitely quite entertaining for us Gaijins (foreigners), who had only the slightest clue as to what we were meant to be doing.

Also, being eight feet tall, I have discovered that traditional Japan doesn't fit me. I just don't fit. The doors are too low, the clothes are too small, and the shoes don't fit in the slightest. So much so, that when we were given our traditional japanese gowns to wear around the Ryokan, the lovely lady who was assiting us put them on called me "Totoro" (I think). Anybody who has seen the Miyazaki film "Tonari No Totoro" will know that Totoro is a gigantic rabbit-like creature. Apparently I require gowns fit for a Totoro.

Another note on the customs of Ryokans. They like their shoes. I won't go into detail, but you have shoes for outside (your regular shoes), shoes for outside over a short distance (wooden block-sandals), shoes for inside the Ryokan (but not inside your room - bare feet or socks only) and shoes for the toilet.

All, except for the shoes I came in, didn't fit me. That, combined with the small gown on my frame meant that I tend to waddle around in a traditional Japanese getup.

After spending a brief time in the Ryokan, Emma and I went for a trek to visit the Snow Monkeys. These monkeys are apparently the only monkeys in the whole world which have learned to sit in hot spring baths to keep warm. But, the trek to them is quite epic. All in all though, given the relatively cold temperature, and the divine surrounds which you walk through (pristine alpine forests, with a snow covered forest floor) make it a very nice walk.

And yes, snow. I finally got to see snow (close up). Touch snow. Eat snow. It's cold and white and awesome. You can't tell if you're going to sink into it when it's really deep, and I found that out the hard way. On several occasions I sunk in right up to my knees. Also, snow actually snowballs if you roll it down a hill, although it doesn't gain as much momentum as it does in the cartoons. Still, awesome nonetheless.

Anyway, after quite a long trek (made probably twice as long by my constant stopping and starting, looking at snow), we arrived at Jigokudani, the Snow Monkey park. The monkeys were great. You could get literally within 20 cm of them, and they didn't mind. Well, one of them did, but I'm guessing that he's the alpha male, and doesn't like being photographed. Emma did take lots of photos of the baby monkeys though, and they were really adorable. And yes, there were plenty of monkeys sitting in the hot springs, eating in the hot springs, and being general monkeys in the hot springs. All in all, definitely worth the trip out to the park, and I heartily recommend the experience to anybody who visits Japan.

Then, we headed back down the mountain to our Ryokan. Before long, it was dinner time, and we sure had an interesting, but delicious meal. Firstly, we were instructed by our hostess on how to eat the meal. Naturally, all of these instructions were in Japanese. I have confidence in about three phrases in Japanese, and thankfully one of them was "Gohan", which means rice. Because of that, I got at least one safe thing with our meal. Once again, as with the Tempura restaurant we visited in Tokyo, our food ranged from mind-blowingly delicious, to "what the hell am I eating". All in all though, the meal was rather filling, and I can't wait for my next Ryokan meal.

Unfortunately, the meal was a bit of a guessing game, as we weren't sure what you did with what. You had a little boiling vat of oil and other liquid to dip some food in. I worked out pretty quickly that you were meant to put your raw beef in there, but unfortunately Emma put a whole egg in hers, and it kind of warped it for her. Still, it did end up tasting alright, she tells me.

Afer our meal, we went for a walk around the street in our traditional robes and sandals. While it was cold, there was also remarkable beauty in these quaint Japanese backstreets, and it made me feel very lucky to experience such a remarkable part of the world.

We then headed back to our room, where magically our bed had appeared. The beds were super comfy, but the pillows were not. They feel as if they are filled with beans of some description, although after a while, they become slightly more comfortable. Still, if you go and stay at a Ryokan, don't expect a pillow made of swallow feathers or anything.

Emma and I then settled down to watch the Studio Ghibli film "My Neighbour the Yamadas", which in itself was very educational in regards to traditional Japanese household customs - if only we saw it before the trip! It was also a very sweet, funny film. If you get the opportunity, watch it! We then had a very well-deserved sleep.

Tomorrow: The epic journey to Takayama.