Sunday, 31 October 2010
Since I have been posting about our Japan trip, I took a break from the Pic of the Week. However, it seemed appropriate to share this one before the week/month ends, especially since it is Halloween. Here then, is your treat: Mozart balls in Vienna.
Click on the photo to see a larger version on flickr.
Japan is famous for its bullet train (known as the Shinkansen, in Japanese) but it also has a well-connected series of subways, local trains, limited express trains, express trains, super express trains... Japan also has cheaper bus alternatives which are comfortable and efficient. Before our trip, we researched the Japan Rail pass but calculated that it would be more cost-effective to take buses and single train journeys for our itinerary. As a result, we had the chance to experience various forms of transportation.
We left Mt Fuji from Kawaguchiko Station and took the local Fujikyu train to Otsuki. It was charmingly slow and scenic, with a several-minute-long stop at Tsurushi in order to let the coming train pass on the single track. Small boys and train enthusiasts may be interested to know that there is a Thomas train - sadly I didn't get a good picture of it.
At Otsuki, we transferred to the next train bound for Kofu, a limited express.
By comparison to the Fujikyu, it felt like a rocket ship - and we discovered that our local train tickets were also not up to speed. We had to pay an extra ¥500 each. We rectified our mistake by taking the s.l.o.w. train to Kobuchizawa, where we had a 30 minute wait for the next train to Matsumoto.
In Matsumoto, we were greeted by the 'Town Sneaker.' Despite its funny name, it took us straight to our hotel.
Leaving Matsumoto several days later, we went to Nagoya, where we transferred to our first Shinkansen.
The subways in Kyoto were nicely decorated.
Finally, we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.
After riding the Yurikamome monorail to Odaiba, we found the Tokyo Teleport.
Sadly it did not take us into another dimension as the name would suggest, but only back to Shinjuku. Still, if there is any public transport system that seems likely to conquer limitations like physical space and time, Japan Rail is a good bet.
Monday, 25 October 2010
We took the bus from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko in order to spend a few days at the foot of Mt Fuji. We did not plan to climb the mountain, but we thought that we would be able to see it at the very least.
Our hotel room was spacious and comfortable, especially after our cozy cabinet in Tokyo.
We arranged for the hotel shuttle to pick us up from the station. Little did we know, this would involve two international calls from my mobile in Japanese, one to let them know we were coming from Tokyo, and one to announce we had arrived at the station (just on time, like we said we would be). We were impressed with the overall efficiency of Japanese hotels, but wondered why they couldn't be slightly more flexible... Check in no earlier than 3 PM; call as many times as they required, with no apparent awareness on their part that it might be expensive and inconvenient for us. Still, the hotel was clean and comfortable so we couldn't complain much. And we were excited to have a view from our balcony of...
We spent Tuesday afternoon exploring our part of the lake.
Lavender and vanilla ice cream
The mountain peeked out above the clouds for a few minutes just before sunset, giving us hope that we would have an unobstructed view the following day.
Wednesday morning, we rented bicycles and spent the day riding around the lake.
It was a lovely day, not too hot or cold, with blue sky - but no discernible mountain.
The beginnings of the koyo (changing leaves) season
Tempura soba and curry udon for lunch
On the morning of our departure, the mountain appeared one last time, briefly (by the time I got out of the shower, it was gone again.)
We read somewhere that Mt Fuji is 'notoriously shy' so we couldn't be too offended at its reluctance to be photographed. In the end, we had to leave it in the same category as the Northern Lights (which we missed in Iceland because it was just a little bit too warm) - a reason to go back again someday.
Sunday, 24 October 2010
As much as S and I love to travel, 2010 has not been the most successful year in that respect. Our flight to Istanbul was cancelled in April when the volcano erupted in Iceland. We nearly missed my cousin's New York wedding in May due to strikes on BA. So when we started to plan A Big Trip, we wanted it to be something memorable. Neither of us have been to India; China was also enticing; but two weeks seemed too short for either country. In the end, I proposed a trip to Japan. At the very least, I knew we wouldn't need a tour guide and we could see different aspects of the country in two weeks. S kindly agreed, and the planets must have been properly aligned because our flight left without difficulties from London Heathrow...
Much has changed in Japan since I lived there (1994-1998); not least of all has been the development of online information - in English, no less. I booked hotels using japanican.com. We took the Narita Express to Tokyo Station, then transferred to the Keiyo Line to find our hotel in Shiomi. The hotel would not let us check in before 3 PM, so groggy, unwashed, and wearing the same clothes we had flown in, we went in search of some food.
Our first meal was not particularly inspired but it hit the spot: cheap and cheerful gyudon (beef bowl) and oyakodon (chicken and egg on rice) at a place where you order your meal by purchasing a ticket at a vending machine.
Fortified, we headed to the Imperial Palace. It was fairly busy on a Sunday afternoon.
Punk rock kid and mother at the Imperial Palace
As dusk began to fall, we went to Roppongi to see Tokyo Tower. I had forgotten how quickly (and early) it gets dark - between 5 and 6 PM, the sky turned black. I decided that Tokyo looks better at night, especially with a view from above; I had never really noticed or felt that before.
Braille sign showing Mt Fuji on the observation deck at Tokyo Tower
Our first view of Rainbow Bridge and the ferris wheel in Odaiba
When we were finally able to check into our room, it was tiny!
To be fair, the website had described it accurately, but how many people know how big/small 11 square meters really is? Still, it came as promised: Always Pleasant Amenity (APA Hotel).
On Monday, we started by walking through Meiji Shrine.
S wanted to know about the ropes and 'lightning' paper. My Japanese memory failing, I asked several friends. No one knew, but wikipedia had an explanation: shimenawa ropes.
From Meiji Shrine, we walked around the trendy areas of Harajuku, Shibuya and Ginza.
Shibuya crosswalk has to be seen and heard to fully appreciate it:
If some cities have a distinctive smell, Tokyo has a sound. Sofia Coppola captured the sounds of Tokyo in Lost in Translation, which made it so authentically brilliant in my view.
Tokyo International Forum
Although we had only just begun to scratch the surface, it was time to leave Tokyo and head to Mt Fuji.