Thursday, December 13, 2012

8/12/12 – 11/12/12 Rabbits, Autumn Leaves and Goodbye to Asia

Wow! Look at this! I actually finished my blog for a trip! I’m as amazed as you are!


After the disappointment yesterday of not being able to visit a rabbit café, I decided to take the initiative to get our hotel to call up in advance and make a reservation at Ra. a. gf., or “Rabbit and Grow Fat”. Our hotel staff happily obliged and booked us in to spend an entire hour with adorable bunnies hopping around us.

Before we headed to the café though, we needed to stop in and eat some breakfast. On the way to the train station, I saw a chain restaurant called “Yoshinoya”, a restaurant that specialises in making fairly decent Japanese food for remarkably cheap prices. For example, I had a bowl of chicken and rice for a measly 390 JPY. I wish that we had food of that quality for that cheap in Australia… Anyway, we noticed that Emma was the only women inside the restaurant, and that most of the diners were in their 20’s to 30’s. From that, we deduced that we were in fact eating at restaurant that specialises in making “sad bachelor food”. Still, the sad bachelor food was really tasty, we didn’t care.

We then got on the Yamanote loop train, and headed for Harajuku, where we then headed straight for Ra. a. gf. To say that we were excited was an understatement. What followed was an amazing hour of our lives. We spent the whole time surrounded by bunnies. Tiny, floppy-eared bunnies, pointy eared bunnies, bunnies so small that they could fit inside a teacup, and one rabbit that was literally the size of a medium-sized cat. What’s more, they had covers of the theme songs from Studio Ghibli movies playing in the background. This made an already super-cute experience even more magical. I definitely left any shred of manliness I held at the door, but it was so worthwhile.

Moreso, it was remarkably cheap. Most animal cafes in Tokyo, such as Cat cafes, are famous for how ridiculously expensive they are, some of which costing up to $1AUD per minute, as well as a table charge, and an expensive drinks list. However, this café, was unbelievably cheap. At only 1000JPY ($12.50 AUD) for a full hour, it was well worth the money.

Afterwards, riding our bunny-driven highs, Emma went to a few other vintage clothing stores in the Harajuku district. One had a huge neon sign with the shop’s name, “Chicago” emblazoned upon it, complete with palm trees and other tropical scenery. Not exactly very fitting of the cold, windy city that is the real Chicago, but irrespective of this, the clothes inside were, according to Emma, excellent.

Our next destination was Hamamatsucho, a place we visited on our last trip. Last time we came here to go to the Pokemon centre, which unfortunately, at that time, was closed. Instead, we visited a nearby park, which was a nice surprise. This time, we headed here for both the park *and* the Pokemon centre.

The day was getting late now, due to the shortness of the winter days in Tokyo, so the light was fading fast. As Japanese gardens are fairly unenjoyable in the dark, we decided to head to the garden first to experience in as best light as we could. It was just as beautiful as we remembered, and it was such a pleasant slice of serenity in such a busy city. I took plenty of photos once again, and tried to capture the sunset contrasting with the buildings and greenery the best I could.

Afterwards, we went into the Pokemon Centre. It was ridiculously packed – more packed than any other store I had been in in Japan. What was good to see was that it was packed with people young and old, male and female, Japanese and foreign. It was great to see how all-encompassing Pokemon is. Regardless of if you’re a hardcore player, or a kid who just likes the fluffy little monsters, it doesn’t matter, we all wanted to go to the Pokemon store. To top it all off, they had the Pokemon Centre music from the videogames playing inside. It really made you feel like a kid again, experiencing the wonder of Pokemon for the first time. It was so very amazing. I bought quite a few little figurines, and even some Eevee cookies. But, compared to the shoppers around me, who were each ringing up bills in the tens of thousands of yen range, I spent very little. My cashier lady threw in several Pokemon centre-themed plastic bags as gifts as well. A good memento to remember the store by.

Then, we had to head back to the hotel. We got ourselves ready to go out for dinner, and set out to explore the ever confusing Shinjuku area. The blazing neon lights and crowds of people walking through the streets was an overload of the senses, but it was heaps of fun to look around. After being unable to find a restaurant that both Emma could eat at and also had an English menu, we ended up eating at one of the many restaurants on top of a department store. The food was alright, but it was hardly the best meal of the trip.

One final note that I’ve forgotten to mention thus far in my blog - The traffic lights have health bars! As a way of letting pedestrians know how long it is until they are able to cross, there are little red “pips” next to each light, which slowly count down until the lights change. It’s a great, simple way of showing some very convenient information. It’s also very JRPG-like, and very cool.


Today we checked off the last couple of things left on our list of things to do in Tokyo. We started by going to Shinjuku Gyoen, a local park. As a welcome surprise, the autumn leaves were absolutely spectacular. They were really breathtaking, and made me really happy to see them in their full colours. From the bright yellows, to the deepest reds, and everything in between they were easily the best autumn leaves we had seen on the whole trip. Additionally, the park itself had plenty of stunning views of intricately manicured Japanese gardens. We strolled around for a good hour, admiring the countless breathtaking views.

We then headed to Shibuya, to experience the craziness that is Shibuya crossing. I managed to get a good photo of the Hachiko statue, the dog that loyally waited for his dead master for many years until Hachiko himself passed away. We then braved Shibuya crossing – the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Every two minutes, several hundred people surge across this four way intersection. It was just as scary as last time – god help you if you try and cut across the street without following the crossing marks. The people crossing will NOT stop for you, so expect to be knocked down.

Afterwards, we then had a look around the countless name brand stores in Shibuya, and I even bought a few nifty shirts from UNI QLO – a store that specialises in fashionable warm clothing. Yes, that’s right, you read correctly. I bought clothing. I’m as scared as you are, don’t worry.

Next on our to do list was to see the Roppongi area, another high-end area of Tokyo. It really is amazing just how many upscale areas there are in this sprawling city. Just when you think you’ve seen all of the classy districts of Tokyo, there’s another one right around the corner, each classier than the last. It feels like Louis Vutton stores are almost as common as McDonalds outlets, and Chanel or Zara stores as common as Seven-Eleven’s.

We went to Roppongi to try and find the Konami store – a videogames company that makes the Metal Gear Solid series of games that were a fairly large part of my adolescence. However, it was freezing cold outside, so before we tackled this store, we decided to stop in at a Starbucksfor a quick coffee to warm us up. I had the most manly white chocolate caramel mocha in existence. It was super manly. So manly in fact that I instantly grew a beard from drinking it. Grr. And stuff.

We then walked across the plaza actually found Konami’s headquarters, like where they make the games. Unfortunately it was closed, so I didn’t get to `see Hideo Kojima or other famous game-y types.

Found the Konami store in the lower levels of the Midtown complex. It was flashy, but didn’t have as much Metal Gear merchandise that I would have liked. Still, I picked up a few MGS-themed badges, and had a go at the demo of the new “Metal Gear Rising”, which was fairly fun.

As we headed back to the train station, we finally found a proper Japanese supermarket. We looked through it with glee – enjoying all of the crazy foods on offer, and marvelled at the price differences between Australia and Japan – most of their vegetables were much cheaper, especially stuff like mushrooms, but their fruit and some of their processed products like biscuits were much much dearer than Australia.

Then headed back home to get ready for the evening. Got all dressed up as we wanted to have a drink up somewhere high, with a nice view of Tokyo. Doing research online was quite intimidating. Most of the hotel bars had dress codes like “casual elegance” and “black tie only”. Moreover, there was no price list next to the drinks, which is a clear indication that the drinks would definitely be out of our price range.

Eventually we settled on a rooftop bar in the Shibuya district called “Navi”. After a quick stop for dinner at a Maragume Udon we stumbled across, we headed up to the bar. When we got there, we told them we wanted to go up to the roof, to which they paused, and then a few minutes later came back and showed us up. It turns out we were the only people up there. I suppose it makes sense as it was a Sunday night and it was fairly cold. Still, we enjoyed the drinks, the view, and especially the company. A great way to end a fantastic trip.


Today we spent the morning performing the arduous task of packing our bags. It turns out that there was a lot of shuffling and re-packing required after a three and half week trip in Asia, especially with the amount of shopping that we had done. As such, it took much longer than expected. We woke up at about 9am, and were packing until about 12:15pm. As we checked out, we weighed our bags. Mine came in at a staggering 22.8kg – a mere 200 grams short of Qantas’ weight limit. A very close call! Eventually when we left, we went to spend the early afternoon in Akihabara.

While I have visited Tokyo’s infamous Akihabara district before, it was first time visiting Akihabara in daylight. The area did actually seem slightly less seedy in sunlight, but it is still easy to walk into a store, unknowing what is inside, and then immediately do an about-face and leave due to the bizarre creepiness inside.

We did actually look in a few of the more tame “creepy” stores, just to see what was in there. Unlike our last visit to Akihabara, where we found that most buildings tended to get seedier the higher the levels go, but this time, we discovered one building where the stores alternated between quite gross and very tame each level. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find the same building we looked through last time, which had a fantastic Studio Ghibli memorabilia section, but we still did manage to find many stores full of copious amounts of pillow girlfriends, mangas about very questionable content, and figurines of scantily clad anime-women. It’s amazing how much all of these things cost, too – most statues were 6,000 – 7,000 JPY, and some of the pillow girlfriend cases cost up to 10,000JPY! While I thought that these were extortionately expensive, the stores were packed, so clearly there was a booming market for them!

We then headed back to the room, got our bags, and with a heavy heart made our way to the airport. The Keisei skyliner speedily took us to Narita airport, and we were treated to a spectacular sunset on the way. It was a very nice send off from an amazing country. At Narita, we had a meal (Emma had Korean whereas I stuck with Japanese), bought some Tokyo Bananas, copious amounts of kit kats, and then headed for our gate.

Qantas Airways Flight QF22 NRT – SYD
Boeing 747-400ER VH-OEI “Ceduna”
Captain Gavin McLeod
Scheduled Pushback: 1950
Actual Pushback:1952
Scheduled Arrival: 0725
Actual Arrival: 0723
Seat: 63A

While I was hoping for another magical international flight from Qantas, much like my previous flight with them to Hong Kong, the flight was unfortunately fairly uneventful. For the first time this trip, we were seated towards the rear of the aircraft, and as anybody who travels frequently would know, sitting towards the rear of any aircraft is much noisier than sitting in front of the wing. Being a 747, which is a fairly old aircraft technology-wise, it was really noisy. Headache-inducingly so. As a plus though, our aircraft was one of the retrofitted ones up to Qantas’ A380 standard, so this made the journey much more pleasant. The awesome in-flight entertainment coupled with my excellent noise cancelling headphones made the engine noise not too much of an issue. However, I had a guy in front of me who decided to recline his seat from the time we reached cruise until we reached descent, putting his chair up only for meal times. This was quite annoying, but I was still fairly comfortable, and having someone recline into you is a fact of economy class – everybody has a reclinable seat and it is theirs to use when they want to.

I only watched one movie, “Ted”, which wasn’t all that funny. The rest of the time I spent sleeping or staring out the window into the dark. While I generally prefer day flights so I can look down at the land below, I do enjoy overnight flights as they give you an opportunity to look up at the cosmos, away from any other light sources. It was fantastic to watch, and I spent probably a good hour or so staring out the window. I even saw a shooting star at one point! Aside from stargazing, I mainly slept on the flight. I managed to get about 4 hours sleep, waking up intermittently to look at the flight map to see where we were. It was sad to see us get gradually further away from “Tokyo”, a destination that I truly adore. I will miss it very much.

Before long, breakfast was served, and I chose the Japanese option. It was actually fairly decent, and quite authentically Japanese. While the words “rice” and “porridge” put together don’t sound all that appetizing for a westerner, it was actually quite tasty. We were soon descending into Sydney, and the combination of our approach path and fine weather conditions allowed for some spectacular views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. I couldn’t help but think about what it must be like for the Japanese tourists on the plane, coming to Australia for the first time - it must be a nice introduction for them. Our touchdown in Sydney was very smooth, as was the immigration and customs process. For once customs was pretty much effortless. They asked me a few questions about what I was carrying, and I didn’t even need to open my bags. We then transferred across to domestic terminal, where we had to re-check our baggage. There was one lady at the baggage check area who seemed to be in quite an unpleasant mood – she was barking orders at foreigners and treating them with a lot less respect than the western customers. I was quite disappointed by this, as she is probably the third or fourth Australian person these people would have contact with, it certainly doesn’t make a good impression as to what our country is like. The bus ride across to the domestic terminal was fun as always, and I took lots of pictures of various aircraft movements.

When we got to the terminal, Emma and I had Red Rooster for breakfast/lunch, much like we did when we left on this trip. It added a nice symmetry to the trip, even if it were with fast food. I led Emma to our gate, and then had a walk through the Qantas museum. It has a great view of one of Sydney’s runways, so once again I had loads of good photo opportunities.

Soon it was time to board, and the plane had only just arrived. Clearly we wouldn’t be an on-time departure. The time did fly by fairly quickly though, and soon we were on our last part of this amazing trip around Asia.

Qantas Airways Flight QF516 SYD-BNE
Boeing 737-800 VH-VXN “Fremantle”
Captain Phil Handen
Scheduled Pushback: 1005
Actual Pushback: 1016
Scheduled Arrival: 1035
Actual Arrival: 1058
Seat: 18A

Despite the fairly late arrival of the aircraft, we managed to push back only 11 minutes behind schedule. What followed was a fairly lengthy taxi, during which I barely stayed awake. It’s probably because I was tired, but I didn’t actually realise we were taking off until the engines frightened me awake. We were soon roaring down the runway, Brisbane-bound.

There isn’t much to talk about on this flight. It was just another bog-standard domestic hop. It was entirely uneventful, and as it was one of Qantas’ older 737-800’s, it only had the overhead screens. I made use of them and watched the morning news, to catch up on what had happened in Australia while we had been away. Because we fell outside of the breakfast or lunch time frames, the only food we were given was a Byron Bay cookie, which I gleefully enjoyed. As we approached Brisbane, we were informed by the captain that due to Brisbane’s lack of second runway, we were being forced into a 21 minute holding pattern, until a landing slot became available. This was very tiring, and a little bit nauseating as well, due to the frequent banking of the aircraft. Why couldn’t this have happened when I was in business class? I wouldn’t have minded at all! Finally, after what seemed like forever, we began our final descent. One fairly rough touchdown later, and we were back in Brisbane once more. Our bags were quite early to the baggage collection carousel, and then Emma’s mum met us and took us home, our adventure officially ended. I don’t really like the drive from the airport back to reality – the combination of jet lag and post-holiday blues is unpleasant, but at the same time, it is always nice to see our families again after a long trip.

Thoughts on Hong Kong, Seoul and Japan:

Hong Kong

Maybe because I stayed in an “old” district of Hong Kong, I felt that I saw a city that is struggling to retain its once rich culture. It feels like the last remnants of the city are being dragged, much to the locals’ disdain, kicking and screaming into the modern era. It is rapidly being gentrified, forcing out the locals for incoming rich businessmen. It is a very glitzy place to visit for a holiday, great for shopping and urban views, but don’t go here and expect a relaxing time. Spending time with Harry was awesome – he was an absolute legend and showed us some brilliant and unique sights around an otherwise very touristy city. It’s a frenetic, crazy city that is loads of fun, especially if you have a local to show you around.


This was the surprise star of this trip. I went in with no expectations, but I got to experience a fantastic slice of a highly modernised, yet barely westernly-influenced city. Meeting with Yunna was fantastic – she really gave us a look into a local’s perspective on Seoul, and we really had a great time with her. The city seemed to showcase the epitome of Asian culture –they were still very respectful towards us, much like Japan, but they definitely felt a little bit more relaxed. It was like the whole country had loosened their belt a notch or two compared to Japan.


What can I say about this fantastic country that I haven’t already? Japan is a beautiful place. It is so different to any other country I have visited. It has staggering beauty, both in its regional and urban areas. The people are kind and genuine, and will go out of their way to help you. Don’t feel afraid to talk to them, even if they only speak a handful of English words, they will do their best to make you feel as comfortable as possible. All you have to do is be kind and smile, and they will return the favour. It’s a magical country, one that cannot be missed. Go there, now. Buy yourself a plane ticket, start planning, and enjoy this sublime country. If not for yourself, do it for me, as I wish I could be back there right now.

Where to next?

To be honest, I’m not sure. I’d love to go and see Vietnam, Cambodia and a little bit more of Thailand, or I may head back to the USA to do some more networking career-wise. At the same time, I’m trying to save money - trying to become a more responsible adult. I don’t know if I can keep doing both this travel thing and move on with the rest of my life, but goddamn I’m going to try! Stay tuned, as I’m sure there will be more posts to follow in the future!

Friday, December 7, 2012

6/12/12 – 7/12/12 A Plastic Plane to Tokyo, Earthquakes, and Eel Flavoured Ice Cream


Today we headed back to Tokyo, the last destination of our epic trip around Asia. But before we did that, we had a few hours in Kurashiki before our flight. We spent them having another look around the canal area, and we also went to a store called the “Kimono Café” to purchase some Tabi boots for my friend Peter, back in Australia. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any in his size, so after much deliberation, I decided not to get them for him as there’s nothing worse than having shoes too big or small for you.

I spent far too much time trying to decide on the boots, and suddenly we were pressed for time. We hurried back to our hotel, got our bags, and then made our way to the bus station. A short bus ride later, and we were soon at Okayama airport, where we would catch our flight to Tokyo.

We got there quite early, so we grabbed a bento box each from the convenience shop, and then went up to the observation deck to eat them. I did my usual plane spotting thing, which was pretty uneventful, as the only plane at the airport was our ride that would take us to Tokyo an hour or so later.

This wasn’t really your ordinary aircraft though – it was a Boeing 787. The type has only been in service for just over a year, and ANA, our airline today, was the first to fly them. It is the most technologically advanced civil aviation aircraft currently flying. Its body is almost completely made of carbon fibre reinforced plastic, and has many high tech features in it designed to reduce weight and maximise efficiency. All of these features add up to approximately a 20% fuel saving when compared to other aircraft of a similar capacity. While this may not sound like much, when you think that about 85% of the costs of the airline industry is fuel, and that fuel prices are only going up, you’ll soon realise why this is such a big deal. Some airlines (United Airlines in the USA, for example) spend $10,000 on fuel each second of each day. If they could be spending 20% less than that, they’d stand to save an amazing amount of money.

Anyways, we headed back down through security, and awaited boarding. It wasn’t long, and we were soon on board this brand new plane.

ANA Flight NH656 OKJ-HND
Boeing 787-8 JA808A
Captain Hideo Azuma
Scheduled Pushback: 1210
Actual Pushback: 1208
Scheduled Arrival: 1325
Actual Arrival: 1325
Seat: 11A

First impressions of the interior were good. It was very clean, and the “new plane” smell was still there. The seats were roomy enough, but the recline on them slid the bottom of your seat forwards, and the rear did not move backwards. Essentially for me, this meant that I had no recline on my chair, as my knees touched the seat in front of me when my seat was in the fully upright position.

One other really cool feature about the aircraft was the window shades, or rather, lack thereof. Instead of having the “pull down” shades of other aircraft, there are two buttons at the base of each window. Press them, and the window itself actually changes its level of shade. It can cycle through from completely clear to almost completely dark. Very impressive stuff. I’m sure it is more expensive to install than a traditional window shade, but this system weighs a lot less, so in the long run it would mean more money saving for the airline.

Unlike the A380, there wasn’t any noticeable quietness to the cabin, so I’m not sure if it was actually quieter than its older brothers like Boeing claims. The cabin did have a nice open feel to it though, and the lavatory that I visited actually had a window in it – the first I’ve seen on an aircraft.

The flight was a very short one – it took us over Honshu as we flew Tokyo-bound. There were some fantastic views of Mt. Fuji as we zig zagged towards Tokyo. I had no idea why we flew like that – possibly because of turbulence, or because we had to kill time before our landing slot opened up. Either way, I found it quite puzzling why we didn’t just fly in a straight line to Tokyo. We could have probably been there about 30 minutes earlier!

Before I knew it, my first flight on this futuristic aircraft was over. I look forward to taking many more on them when Qantas/Jetstar eventually incorporate them into their fleet.

When we reached Tokyo Haneda Airport, I had one goal – to find the Pokemon Jet. ANA has several 747’s painted in a very colourful Pokemon-themed livery, and I had always wanted to see one in person. Sadly, even after searching from one end of the observation deck to the other, I was unable to find them anywhere. I did however find loads of ANA aircraft to snap photos of, so it wasn’t a complete disappointment.

Then, we caught the Haneda Monorail into Tokyo. We then had to once again switch to the Yamanote line, which was once again packed (even though we weren’t in rush hour), and we were soon back at Shinjuku, at our hotel.

That night, we had MOS Burger for dinner. They recently opened up a store in Brisbane, so I was keen to try it from its origins. I’m not going to lie – I didn’t really enjoy the Japanese version. It was just really texture-less and bland. I’m hoping the Australian version of it is better. We’ll see.


Wow. Today was a weird one. I wish that I could say that the earthquake, or even eating eel flavoured ice cream was the weirdest thing that happened to me, but no. Read on to find out.

Our first part of the day was a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum – something that Emma and I tried to visit on our last trip, but due to the natural disaster, were unable to as it was closed. Thankfully though, nothing was going to stop us visiting it today. We had our tickets, we had our passports for ID check, and we were all set to go.

For those of you reading who don’t know who Studio Ghibli are, a quick rundown – Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s leader, is considered one of the best animators in the world, and he is widely considered to be Japan’s “Walt Disney”. Studio Ghibli’s films are heart-warming, entertaining, and uniquely Japanese. If you haven’t seen any of their films, do yourself a favour and go and rent out “My Neighbour Totoro”, “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke” right now. I’ll wait here until you’ve seen them.

Ok, are we good now? Cool. Now you know why we were excited to go to this museum.

After arriving at Mitaka Station, we caught the appropriately Ghibli-themed bus to the museum. Looking at the building from the outside, it was difficult to tell that it was for Studio Ghibli – its outside was strange, yes, but nothing that screamed of Ghibli’s unique style.

Once we were inside however, that all soon changed. It is such a labyrinth of a building – small rooms branching off through tiny corridors and around every corner some form of fascinating Ghibli-related exhibit. The theme of the museum is “let’s get lost together”. That is, there is no set order to explore anything, you just go about as you please, absorbing as much of the fantastic wonderment that the building contains. Unfortunately, all of the exhibits are in Japanese – there is a tiny amount of information on the English pamphlet they give you, but nothing to explain the actual exhibits. Still, I felt like this just added to the sense of discovery you get when walking around the museum.

In one of the rooms, it had big books full of the storyboarding of some of the films. The ones on display today were “Porco Rosso” and “Princess Mononoke”. Having watched the latter film only a few days earlier, it was fascinating to flick through the book, and notice the screen directions for the shots that were still fresh in my mind.

We then headed down to the Saturn Theatre – one of the main attractions of the Ghibli Museum. Here, they show exclusive short films that they have made – ones that you cannot see anywhere else in the world. They aren’t available on DVD, or on the internet. Needless to say, I was excited. I couldn’t tell you the name of the film we saw, as it was written in Japanese and flashed on screen too quickly for me to read it.

What I will tell you about it though is that it was absolutely adorable. Essentially, it was a film about mice sumo wrestling with each other. The animation was fantastic, and it really engaged the audience watching it, even those that couldn’t understand the dialogue, such as Emma and I.

We then headed up through a spiral staircase to the gift shop. While I wouldn’t normally talk about something as tacky as a gift shop, this one was –amazing-. All matter of Ghibli merchandise, all silently begging you to buy them. It was all so cute, and between Emma and I, we spent a shameful amount of money in there.

Sadly, it was then time for us to leave this magical place – we had many other things to do with our day, and it was already about 2pm in the afternoon. I could probably write several more paragraphs on this museum, but I’ve chosen not to as I’d rather not spoil it for you. When you come to Japan, come to this museum, it’s as simple as that.

Next on our list of things to do was to head back to Harajuku and to the humourosly-named “Takeshita Street”. Our eventual goal was to visit a rabbit café – a place where you could have food or drinks surrounded by cute fluffy bunnies. Unfortunately in Brisbane, rabbits are banned as pets, and seeing as how cute they are, Emma and I were very keen to try this out.

Anyways, before this, we had a look down Takeshita Street, which was just as crazy and frenetic as we remembered. We had another look into Emma’s favourite “random crap” store, where I bought a Coca-Cola glass, and a hilariously creepy set of playing cards to use at the next poker night.

We then headed to another used clothing store from the same chain as Emma’s favourite in Osaka. It was quite disappointing compared to the Osaka branch, but we reasoned that this was probably because we were shopping in the ultra-hip Harajuku district, where “used” clothes probably meant “two months old” and not necessarily “vintage” like the one in Osaka tended to be. Still, there’s another couple of outlets of this chain in Tokyo that we will visit sometime over the next few days.

Unfortunately, when we made it to the bunny café, it was inexplicably closed. We were very disappointed, but when we got back to the room, I found out through some research that it is closed every Friday. I suppose bunnies need some downtime, I guess. Never mind, we would return tomorrow for some bunny love.

As I sat there researching rabbit cafes in Tokyo, the strangest thing began to happen. The walls began to shake. Not just the walls, but the floor, the ceiling, the bed. Everything. The whole room began rocking quite violently side to side, so much so that Emma sat up, and gripped my hand tightly. We instinctively knew what was happening – an earthquake. Being in Japan, this is an everyday fact that they have to deal with, but us, being from Australia, had no idea what to do in this situation. While I wouldn’t exactly call it frightening, it sure was unpleasant. I was just about to get up and evacuate when the shaking stopped. Suddenly, all of the TV channels changed from their usual bizarre content to earthquake and Tsunami warnings.

It turns out that there was a magnitude 7.3 earthquake off the coast of Sendai, very close to where the March 11th, 2011 earthquake struck. Today’s quake was much weaker though, as the tsunami warnings were for waves only 1 metre in height. I sent a quick text to our parents to let us know that we were fine.

The news stations showed looped footage of marinas expecting to be hit by tsunami’s, and footage of offices shaking during the quake. But, about an hour after the event, things were calming down and the TV stations soon returned to their regular broadcasting. Emma and I took this as an “all clear” indicator, and headed out to explore Tokyo by night.

Tonight, we were going to “Sunshine City”, and to the ice cream parlour within it. Why travel all the way to Ikebukuro for ice cream? Because of the strange ice cream flavours on offer. Remember how at the start of this entry I mentioned “eel flavoured ice cream”? Yeah, that weird.

To get to this ice cream parlour, we had to first enter an indoor theme park by the name of “Namjatown”. Earlier in the trip, when we were in Seoul, I talked about “Lotte World”, the big corporate theme park. This was the same, but much, much creepier.

Designed by Namco, a videogames company that has produced many classic games such as Pac Man and Dig-Dug, this place was just wrong. It was very poorly lit, and filled with strange cat-like statues that looked a little bit like Hitler. All they were missing was the moustache. The ice cream parlour level was even worse – upon getting off the escalator, there is a large stone statue of a very Nazi-flag-esque eagle, wearing a military cap and smoking a pipe. Emma summed it up perfectly:

“What’s up with the Hitler bird?”

This caused me to burst out in laughter, unable to contain my amusement at the sheer strangeness of the situation. This place could have probably been excused for its less-than-subtle Nazi references if it were from the time period, but no. This amusement park was built in 2003!

We then headed to the ice cream city (which is pronounced over the PA speakers as “ice cream shitty”), a magical land full of bizarre ice cream flavours. They had the regular flavours such as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and the like, but then they also had really weird ones. Flavours such as soy sauce, ox tongue, indian curry and snake were on the menu. Let’s get one thing straight - we didn’t come to this bizarre theme park to eat tasty ice cream – we came here to eat the most disgusting ice creams we could find!

I’m not sure if we actually did that, though. Emma and I chose flavours for each other, and we were each allowed to veto one if we thought it were far too disgusting to eat. I ended up with four flavours – eggplant, garlic and mint, chicken, and worst of all, eel. Emma had wasabi, cheese risotto and “pearl” flavours.

I’ll do these up in a quick review format to make it easier to read. Taste is out of 10, 10 being “normal”, 1 being vomit-inducingly disgusting.

1.       Eggplant Ice Cream

Very unpleasant. I loves me some eggplant, in fact, I had tempura eggplant with my dinner just prior to this meal. But this was just plain wrong. It definitely had the “eggplant” taste, but this was mixed with this awful burnt vegetable flavour, and then the sickly sweetness of the ice cream. 5/10

2.       Wasabi Ice Cream

Surprisingly alright. It didn’t really have the spice that the wasabi you get with your sushi has, but it definitely had a little bit of a kick to it. Compared to the eggplant ice cream, this was quite pleasant. 7/10

3.       Garlic and Mint Ice Cream

This one was actually really good. There was only the slightest taste of garlic to it, so it was really just like eating mint flavoured ice cream. This one holds the honour of being the only tub of ice cream finished that night. 9/10

4.       Cheese Risotto Ice Cream

Not bad at all. Once again, it didn’t really have the “cheese” flavour that we were expecting. We were expecting something sharp and pungent like parmesan, but instead there was almost a “cheesecake” taste to it. Perhaps it was incorrectly labelled on the package, although there were definitely pieces of rice in it. 8/10

5.       Chicken Ice Cream

Horrifying. Terrible. Awful. The ice cream itself didn’t taste of chicken – it tasted of bad. It tasted of drowning puppies, burning orphanages. It tasted like sour milk mixed with chicken salt mixed with way too much sugar. What’s worse, there were lumps of chicken meat in it. It wasn’t good chicken either – it’s like when you get little bits of chicken stuck in your teeth after eating a roast. Imagine if they put that into an ice cream. I shudder at the thought of it. 2/10

6.       “Pearl” Ice Cream

No idea what this one tasted like. It was sweet, with no awful flavour to it. It almost had an aftertaste of sultanas, but in a more artificial way. Not disgusting, but not really something that I would willingly eat in a hurry. 7/10

7.       Eel Ice Cream

Oh god, WHY DID I PICK THE EEL? Some avid readers of my blog might remember my previous encounter with eel – our first night in Tokyo on our first trip to Japan. It made me feel incredibly ill then, and the ice cream was a hundred times worse. Words cannot describe the awfulness that I felt in my mouth. They really can’t. It was like somebody had taken really bad eel sushi, blended it up, and then mixed it with ice cream. Then, they leave that out in the sun to sour for a few days, before steaming it over a vat of boiling shit. I mean, who the hell looks at a tub of ice cream and goes “y’know what? NEEDS MOAR EEL!” Seriously Japan, that was messed up. 1/10

And yet, funnily enough, the disgustingness of the ice creams that we ate still wasn’t as weird as the rest of the theme park. Alien themed shooter rides, houses of horror, and some form of indoor rollercoaster/cart thing. All of which had eerily family friendly Nazi-like statues around them. Not enough to get them shut down, but enough to make it rather unsettling. AND THEN A MASSIVE ICE CREAM PARLOUR IN THE MIDDLE OF IT. This was by far the weirdest place I’ve been to in Japan.

Tomorrow: Bunnies! Loads and loads of bunnies!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

04/12/12 – 05/12/12 – Kurashiki, a Final Taste of Rural Japan


Today was a very special day for Emma and I. It is our anniversary, and as such I wanted to spend it somewhere nice. I had planned in the trip that we would spend our afternoon/evening in a small city about 300km west of Osaka called “Kurashiki”. The town wasn’t really a major tourist attraction, and while it wasn’t brimming with tourist sites like Kyoto or other places we’ve visited, it does have a very nice “canal” area which has been preserved from an era long gone by.

Our day started in Osaka, where we spent a few hours in the morning browsing around the “kitchen” district. It wasn’t so much a district for food, but moreso a district for all of the cooking utensils and tableware that one finds in Japan. Here we bought a few bowls and cups – we are trying to put together a very Japanese-themed dinner set, and this is by far the cheapest and easiest place for a tourist to find them.

Afterwards, we went back to the hotel and got our bags. We then headed for Shin-Osaka, where we would catch a Shinkansen to Okayama. Today we would be catching the Shinkansen Nozomi, or “wish” in Japanese. It is the fastest of its kind in Japan, clocking in at 300km/h on its fastest sections. It’s a service that runs all the way from Tokyo to Osaka, and onto Hiroshima and Hakata as well. Even better, it runs every 15 minutes, so if you miss one train, the next one isn’t too far behind.

The only downside to this brilliant train is how expensive it is – our one hour journey cost us about 6000JPY – certainly not cheap, but boy is it an efficient (and very fun) way of getting around the country.

Unfortunately, when I bought our tickets at the kiosk, it spat out our seat allocations as aisle seats. Damn, no window views for us. To compound this, the guy we sat next to had his window closed for the whole time we were on the train. This was very unfortunate, as I really wanted to watch the world zoom by outside, but thankfully I still managed to see a few glimpses outside through the other windows in the cabin.

Aside from that, there isn’t too much to say about the Shinkansen – it’s a very smooth ride, and very quiet. It makes me wish that Australia had a similar system in place, but given our sparse population and huge landmass, it is a system that would never make a profit.

We were soon in Okayama, our last ride on the Shinkansen for this trip was over far too quickly. A short local train ride later, and we were in Kurashiki. After we got to our hotel, we headed down to the canal area to have a look around. By the time we got there, it was late in the day, so most of the stores were closed. Still, it was a very picturesque canal, and a perfect place for us to spend our anniversary. I had read about a nice restaurant in the guide, so we headed to that place for dinner. It specialised in seafood and especially sashimi – raw fish.

For the food that we ordered, it was surprisingly cheap – the entire meal for both of us was just under 6000JPY. This was less than the yakitori meal we had had in Osaka a few days earlier, and the quantity and quality of the food was much greater at this restaurant. The food was delicious, and the sashimi was probably the best I’ve had so far on this trip. The restaurant had a really nice ambience, and a beautiful view of the canal area outside. It was also very quiet. So very quiet. There were only a few people in there, but it was such a nice change from last year’s anniversary, which was spent in a Japanese Restaurant in San Francisco, next to quite possibly the loudest American man I’ve ever heard.

After that, we walked back to our room, and tried some more bizarre Japanese ice creams for dessert. A very nice and relaxing day, just what we needed after the hustle and bustle of Osaka.


Today was our last day to experience rural Japan – tomorrow, we are off back to Tokyo, and the craziness of the big city. So, as a nice day trip, I had done some research into a castle that was often missed by the masses of tourists. The humourously named “Bitchu-Matsumaya-Jo” was our destination for the day. It was located in a small town about 30 minutes away from Kurashiki, so the plan was to get a train to the town early in the morning, and spend the day around the town, as well as at the castle itself.

Unfortunately, we had forgotten that Emma’s timetable for university became available today, so the morning was spent organising that, and I had to change our plans for the day. Yes, we would still visit “Bitchu-Matsumaya-Jo”, but it would be a visit just to the castle, and not the town as well.

On our way to Kurashiki train station, we stopped at a “ticket-vending machine” styled restaurant. I’ve probably explained this system before, but essentially, instead of having to try and explain your order of food through poor phrasebook translations or interpretive dance, you merely put your money into a vending machine at the front of the store, press the nice shiny button that corresponds to the picture of your meal, and then give the ticket to the nice wait staff. A few minutes later, they bring you your meal. Easy. The system worked for us, and we soon each had a lovely hot meal. The food was so good that we returned later in the day for our dinner, as well.

After another enjoyably slow train ride through rural Japan, we were soon at Bitchu-Takahashi, the name of the local train station. Amazingly enough, Emma and I managed to go the whole day without childishly giggling at the names of everything around the town, considering about three quarters of the local areas had the prefix of “Bitchu” attached to them before the name of the actual place.

We decided instead of walking to the castle to take a taxi. Did I forget to mention where this castle is? Oh, well, it is the highest-situated castle in Japan. Essentially, it is on top of a mountain, a good 400 metres above sea level. As I was doing research into the location, I also found out that unlike pretty much every single other cultural asset in Japan, this castle had not been burned down. Not once. Ever. While this might sound fairly strange to be making such a point of this achievement, you need to consider that some temples in Kyoto have been burned down SEVENTEEN times over the course of their existences. Therefore, this is quite a feat.

After the taxi ride up the mountain, up a long and winding road, it dropped us off 700 metres shy of the castle itself. It was another 20 minute steep uphill hike until we reached the actual castle walls. It was then that I realised why this castle had managed to never have been burned down – any passing Samurai clans, covered in their heavy iron armour, would have taken one look at the towering mountain, and the tiny castle perched atop it and thought “Screw it. We’ll burn the village instead. That’ll be enough.”

The hike was well worth the effort though – not only did the mountain offer stunning views of the town below, but it was so nice to get off the beaten path and experience the quieter side of Japan. In our entire couple of hours we spent climbing the mountain, we saw only a handful of other tourists.

The castle itself was very small – tiny in fact, at only three stories in height. But, this castle was not built as a grand monument – it was built as a lookout to defend the town below. It was really nice to actually see a proper Japanese castle. Last time we tried to was at the very end of our previous Japan trip. We had gone to Himeji to see the famous Himeji castle, only to find that the castle was under renovation, and had been so for the past two years, and would be for the next six. I was disappointed to not see a castle on that trip, so this one more than made up for it, especially when combined with the utter peace and quiet we experienced on top of the mountain. The only other sounds heard were the occasional squawks of the birds overhead, and the very distant rattle of the trains in the valley below.

We then had a look around inside the castle itself, which wasn’t exactly thrilling. It was essentially just a series of big, empty wooden rooms, with very steep stairs, and large, tree-sized wooden beams supporting the roof. What I did like about the inside of the castle was the squeaky floorboards. They sounded very old and rustic – a perfect opportunity to use my field recorder to get some awesome footstep sounds. Plus, with the utter silence that was outside, I managed to get them with no background noise whatsoever.

Afterwards, we then began the long trek back down the mountain, and back to the train station. We decided to do the entire journey on foot this time, as we had some spare time, and taxis in Japan are quite expensive. It was roughly a 90 minute walk from the peak of the mountain to the train station, but it was well worth it. We saw crisp alpine forests, bamboo groves, countless rice paddies and traditionally-styled homes. As we walked down the hillsides, we followed a serene mountain stream that was dotted with bridges and water wheel-houses. It was a fantastic send-off to our rural experiences in Japan – at last we weren’t on a train rolling through the countryside – we were actually walking through it. We could smell the fresh air, hear the locals conversing with each other and feel the cold breeze against our faces. This simple act of walking through a small town was one of my most enjoyable experiences I’ve had overseas thus far.

We then caught the train back to Kurashiki, where we headed back to the hotel. As we’re going on a flight tomorrow, we had to weigh our bags to make sure they’re under the weight limit. However, we didn’t have a set of scales, so we had try and communicate this to the front desk. Trying to ask for a set of scales is quite difficult when your phrasebook doesn’t cover it in the slightest. We ended up getting our message across, but there was a good three minutes or so there where Emma and I were acting out the most bizarre game of charades I’ve ever been a part of.

 Tomorrow: Back to Toyko, on a plastic plane!