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Ling has a really funny way of asking for directions whenever we were lost in Japan. Whether it’s a local passer-by along Shijo-Dori, or at some subway station, she’ll always ask this way:
“Excuse me, could you tell me is this the right platform to get to Imadegawa Subway Station? You see, I’m trying to get to Kinkakuji Temple, and I’m not sure if this way or that way?”
And the poor local, more often than not, would end up staring blankly at her!
The way I would ask for directions would go like this:
“Imadegawa Station, where?”
… and accompanied by the universal hand gesturing that indicates “where”. And I get a much more immediate response! Oh, on the odd occasion we did get locals who could speak pretty alright English, but more often than not, I had to remind Ling not to pad her queries with so much unnecessary information that would only confuse the locals to what we were asking about.
One thing I found myself doing too – in addition to taking in all the sights and making mental notes – was to take pictures of funny signs wherever I could find them. Here’s a selection of them.:)
Funnily, I didn’t actually see any Haiku LOL.
Japan, Dec 2010 – Panoramas
A selection of the 52 panoramic compositions I did during the trip. The full images are huge, so here are reduced-sized versions. Click on the thumbnail for a 1024 pixel wide image.
Japan, Dec 2010 – Assorted Pictures – Part 3
The third and should be last stack of assorted pictures, unless I uncover more. All but the last two were taken in Kyoto (the last two are in Osaka).
Japan, Dec 2010 – Assorted Pictures – Part 1
I’m about sorting through the 2,609 pictures and about 3 hrs 20 minutes of HD video taken during the Japan trip, and selected a couple of other pictures I haven’t posted up here yet. They’re quite a few but they all evoke distinctive memories of our trip.
This first bunch were all taken in Kobe.
Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka: Reflections on the trip – Part 3
Part 3 of our notes on our 10.5 day trip!
One thing I absolutely do not like is the fact that you get loose change from every dining and retail establishment that are maddeningly difficult to reuse in the transportation system. It’s just crazy to get a pocket full of jingling 1 and 5円 coins, and then struggle to find ways to use them later. They’re still legal tender of course, but we would have really preferred those transportation ticket terminals accepting small change.
On the other hand, understanding the local currency was a lot easier for me than trying to understand American currency. Denominations are printed in large numberings on Japan dollar notes and are of relatively good quality for paper-based currency. I found American dollars hard to read on the other hand, in very poor physical and nearly torn condition a lot of times, and the less said about trying to understand their dimes and quarters, the better! Singapore currency beats all hands down though; it’s plastic money and color-coded LOL.
The Transportation Network
It’s funny to think of it. In Kobe and Osaka, we took the subway/train. In Kyoto, we took the bus! In all cases, we really benefited from the fact that train subway maps and station maps were readily available and pretty easy to read and understand. Exit/entrance points are clearly marked out, and labeled liberally in sign posting everywhere. Trains and buses arrived exactly on the dot – just goes to show Japanese efficiency and ability to stick to timings… so completely unlike in Singapore – and there were sufficient escalators and elevators in stations to expedite traveling with heavy luggage.
All the subway stations we transited to and from had luggage lockers too, and they cost up to 600円 for the largest ones. Funnily, the largest lockers were the ones that got occupied quickly, and if you’re traveling with larger than 26 inch-sized lockers, you might have to hunt around for a bit to find a free locker that’s large enough for your bag. The last hotel we stayed in – The Lutheran Hotel – were happy to hold onto our luggage for an entire day though till night time after we’d checked out in the early morning on our last day.
We didn’t find the trains that heavily occupied. Though to be fair, we’ve yet to experience the famous sardine packing in Tokyo, and by luck, we largely traveled outside morning peak hours in Kyoto and Osaka. The Japanese subway and train network seem to employ a huge number of personnel too. Everywhere we went, we saw uniformed station wardens, people traffic controllers, cleaners, unarmed security personnel and the like. Way, way more than maybe the half-dozen personnel you’d fine in a typical MRT station.
On the other hand, public transportation as a general rule is dreadfully expensive in Japan. The flat bus fare in Kyoto really bit us. A flat 220円 for a short trip, and for longer trips, you’d need to top up even that flat fare. There was a 500円 convenience card you can buy, which helped matters somewhat – but you couldn’t use that card in the subway or trains. My ballpark estimate is that on any given day of extensive sight seeing, you’d be spending at least SGD15 upwards per person on travel alone on the subway and bus networks. I guess one’s paying for the high train staff costing (large number of employees everywhere!) and the costs of building the extensive subway and railway track coverage. We’ve really been spoiled by the relatively inexpensive bus and MRT rides in Singapore.
The Japanese are world-famous for their fastidiousness in personal hygiene. But the cities we visited weren’t exactly litter-free – not that I was expecting it to be actually. But what’s interesting was the very large number of cigarette stubs everywhere. Ling personally found it discomforting whenever we entered a cafe full of smokers and try to find a table in a non-smoking area, and we ended up walking out of more than a few cafes when she found the tobacco stench unbearable. I guess I can’t complain too much, considering that in Singapore, on any given early morning, you’d find cigarette stubs and used tissue paper and empty can drinks and empty noodle cups and more used tissue paper and empty 7-11 drink cups and… etc.
I read somewhere in travel books too that sneezing without covering their nasals is a terrific no-no-no in Japan. But here’s the dammnest thing: I saw a lot of persons doing just that, and spewing all their goodness on whichever their nasals were pointing at. And they didn’t look like they were foreigners.
And that thing about slurping your ramen? Hearing someone slurp their noodles beside me is enough for me to want to stab my ears! I didn’t personally experience hearing loud slurps in my stay in Kumamoto last year on account that I was fine-dining in a very quiet restaurant every night, but this time round in Kyoto and Osaka, did. I guess it’s a really totally jarring experience to see this very well-dressed and pretty looking Japanese lady loudly slurping her ramen right beside me. It sort of completely killed that image of the refined Japanese woman for me, though of course the Japanese don’t see it the same way.
Ling took special delight in the ubiquitous vending machines everywhere, and she liberally used that excuse of her allergy to seafood and her need for ‘tea detoxification’ to hunt for choice teas from those machines.:)
It was a good trip, especially for Ling I think who really enjoyed herself taking in the sights, the cuisine, and people-watching. We planned for the trip within a budget of about SGD6K, and spent in all about SGD5K I think, though I’ll only have the exact figure once I’ve completed my usual postmortem spreadsheet accounting. Photographic opportunities were problematic though on account of cold and crummy weather, but we had to manage. Funnily, the E-PL1 has really come through in this vacation, and I found myself relying on the little compact much more than the D300. This vacation has seriously made me reconsider whether those huge DSLRs are where I want to go long-term, or go with the micro-4/3 standard.
I asked Ling where next we should go to. I’m all for visiting the United States again – which as I’ve remarked here before, far prefer it as a visitation place than Japan, and still do even after this trip – but if we’re coming back to Japan again any time soon, I imagine we’ll be hitting the Tokyo region next.
As for our ‘loot’, we didn’t really buy a lot of stuff, and the most costly items were a pair of Shigeharu chef knives – one for mom, and another for ourselves. The rest of it were small items; some local snacks, those Green Tea Kit-Kats that we nearly gave up looking for, fridge magnets from several places, a toy for Hannah (that round blue pokka-dot thing in the picture – it’s a whale-shark doll from Kaiyukan), some pottery pieces from Douguyasuji, and lens filters from Yodobashi Umeda.
Our most treasured gift for us though was that Hannah still remembers us! And she looks taller, looks different, and is capable of more complex utterances than ever.:)
Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka: Reflections on the trip – Part 2
Part 2 of our notes on our 10.5 day trip!
We didn’t have much of a choice on when to go on vacation given the large number of limitations to accommodate: Ling’s academic calendar, my academic calendar – which was out of sync with hers – and when grandparents were available to take care of Hannah when we’re away. In fact, just 3 weeks before we left and after accommodation and flight plans had all been finalized, our sis-in-law remarked to us that it’s weird we’re visiting Western Honshu in December when this would had been the best month to visit.. Hokkaido instead LOL.
Still; I don’t mind winter nearly as much as Ling does. In fact, given a choice I’d always prefer to go to cold rather than warm places for a vacation. I get enough of the warmth and humidity already every day in this part of the world! The end-of-year we went was just about as good a time possible for the season; any later, e.g. next month, would have started to see heavy snowfall which might have seriously messed up our itinerary; and we got to see some remnants of autumn too.
Of the four cities we visited, we found Nara the coldest, and Kobe the most comfy in terms of temperature. We experienced fairly light snowfall too in Nara, Kyoto and Osaka; and the rain in Nara about destroyed our umbrella.
As remarked here at several spots already, there were no shortage of eating places in Japan. Every street we went or road we turned to, we’d find eateries and restaurants. Many of them were modest eateries where you’d walk-in, find yourself a common table, order, tuck-in, pay up and leave. But in terms of their national cuisine, this is as good as it gets. Short of the fine-dining Japanese establishments in Singapore, I don’t think the mid-price Japanese restaurants here can match what you can get in the origin country.
Interestingly, the price range for low to mid-level restaurants seemed pretty consistent. Ramen was routinely going for between 900 to 1200円, conveyor belt sushi between 100 to 140円 per plate, and normal sit-down meals at restaurants between 1000 to 1500円. Strangely, the low-price range eating places of about SGD8 are more expensive than Singapore since hawker and food court fare routinely go for SGD4 to SGD5, but the mid-price range eating places of about SGD12 to SGD20 in Japan is actually cheaper than its equivalent in Singapore. Conveyor belt sushi is for certain cheaper than Singapore. Weird. We didn’t try the fine-dining places.
Moreover, if you go with cuisine across ethnicity origins, the range of cuisine in the four cities didn’t nearly match what we get in Singapore. I guess it’s the benefit of being where we are; Singapore remains a melting pot for all races, and given our geographical location and history, continue to enjoy very well-done cuisine across so many types and price ranges.
As Ling’s remarked too, it’s also possible to find crappy food in Japan. And while her reference point is in a couple of ramen places we tried out, mine is in fast food. Fast food in Japan is as fast food anywhere else gets; it’s just bad. We tried out a couple of items at First Kitchen for instance and it tasted factory-churned out and not terrifically appetizing.
One thing we did like a lot in Japan is that many, many restaurants present static displays of their cuisine in their shop front. It helped Gaijin like us a lot who don’t read a word of Japanese, though there’s still that old adage that what you see is still routinely an idealized representation of what you (might) get. Still, eating out in Japan was an easy affair for us just following our P.E.P. protocol. Language wasn’t too much of a barrier for us. A couple of restaurants had English menus, and at least one waiter staff who could speak Mandarin.
Also, I especially liked the fact that the displayed prices you see in Japan restaurant menus is almost always the actual price you’d pay on the final bill. It’s better than what we get in Singapore restaurants where we have to calculate additional 10% charge for usually just barely adequate service + 7% GST, and loads easier than the IMO troublesome tipping system used in the United States, though you get excellent waiter service in return there.
Part 3 of our notes in the next post!
Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka: Reflections on the trip – Part 1
Our 11:30 PM flight home from Kansai International Airport back to Changi in Singapore was remarkably smooth in one respect. I was semi-conscious until I was awaken seconds before midnight by the SQ pilot leading the cabin crew and all passengers in the 10 second countdown to 2011, at which point I was asking Ling if we were still taxing. She chuckled and said that we’d been in the air for 30 minutes already! I didn’t feel or sense a thing when the plane took-off. Likewise, the landing was as soft as a feather with zero bumps, low noise – just perfect.
On the other hand, just two rows ahead of us was a crying baby who – somehow – managed to cry continuously throughout the entire 7 hour flight home. You know it’s real bad when even Ling gets exasperated and says it’s either a problem with the baby or the parents! She even wrote Ann that “Murder had never been more real in my mind!” LOL.
Either way, neither of us managed to get much sleep; and right now at 2:10 PM and finished unpacking, laundry, picked up Hannah, had our brunch, cooked and fed her lunch, did her laundry, cleaned up the house – the two of us are just about to completely bowl over from lack of sleep!
Still, blogging comes first before the memories of our trip start to blur and every experience we got from our 10.5 day trip start to feel the same. There are still a few more posts after this, though they’ll be a selection of videos taken by Ling (our video camera girl this time), and also my panoramic compositions.
A 10 day trip through Japan was about perfect for us to get a good feel of the country and at the same time just about exactly long enough for us to start missing home (i.e. curry puffs, Hokkien noodles, roti prata, (real) dim sum, and Hannah). Of the four cities we traveled to and visited, here’s what we think is a doable length of stay for most first-time travelers to these cities:
Kobe: recommended 3D 2N, which was the length of time we spent. There aren’t many definitive sight-seeing spots in the city, but those that are:
Kitano-Cho (~ 2 hrs exploration time)
Nunobiki Falls & Mts. Maya & Rokko (~4-8 hrs)
Sannomiya Station stretch (~2 hrs)
Chinatown (~2 hrs) – are all well worth visits.
Kyoto: recommended 6D 5N, though we spent a longer 7D 6N here. If you’re up to visiting all the temples and shrines, then a longer visit is recommended. But if you’re interested to just view the most important religious institutions, then an 7 day stay might be excessive, as we both felt now that we’ve been there done that. Kyoto’s palette of sites are significantly more varied, the more so considering it’s such a convenient jump-off point to many other cities nearby. That we missed Himeji Castle was disappointing, but I’m assuming that we’d go back to Kyoto again for a second visit at some point. High points we felt during our Kyoto stay and our recommended length of visitations included:
Nijo-Castle (~2 hrs)
Kyoto Station (~4 hrs, but multiple visits really since it’s a central transit point. An absolutely gargantuan structure!)
Gion area (~4 hrs)
The Philosopher’s Walk (~4 hrs)
Arashiyama area (~4-6 hrs – the bamboo grove is a must see!)
Nishiki Food Market (~2 hrs)
Kinkakuji Temple (~ 1 hr)
Fushimi Inari Temple (~4 hrs – enough time to climb all the way up to the summit)
You could probably manage the above itinerary with 5D 4N too, though you’d probably not spend much time shopping then. We also initially included a few more Kyoto temples as well, but took them out at the last minute after Ling started getting cold feet about visitations there. Another alternative, but smarter way of arranging the itinerary is to visit each Kyoto area according to its cardinal direction; i.e. day 1, go East, day 2, go West etc. In our case, it was a mite bit messed up, but we’ve learned from this experience.:)
Nara: recommended 1D, and as a side trip from Kyoto. The highpoints included:
Deer Park (~1 hr)
Todaji Temple (~1 hr)
Yoshikien Garden (~1 hr)
Isuien Garden (~2 hrs)
Osaka: recommended 3D 2N, though we spent 2D 1N. You could manage just spending as short a stay as we did, but only if you’re not going to do any sort of shopping.
Osaka Castle (~2 hrs)
Umeda Sky Building (~4 hrs – the best time to go up could be late afternoon in order to catch the sunset, and also stay long enough for the night shoot)
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan (~4 hrs)
Continued in the next post!
Day 10: Osaka – Walking About
We finished our visit to Kaiyukan, lunched at First Kitchen at the Tempozan Harbor Village next door to the aquarium, then traveled back the Umeda area. We still had several hours to kill before heading back to The Lutheran Hotel to pick up our luggage that we’d left at the concierge and head to the airport, so we explored the area a bit more on foot, eventually finishing at Yodobashi Umeda mall for shopping and dinner.
Dinner was at a level 9 restaurant called Hong Kong Chon Long offering Chinese cuisine, buffet style. There were several other eateries on the floor, but at this point in our trip, we were pretty tired of Japanese food already and were both tired from all the walking and just wanted a place to stone. Per head cost was about 2,100円 per person including drinks; relatively pricey for this floor, but the offerings were rather disappointing. I didn’t enjoy the dim sum as they tasted as though they were made from the same shrimp paste – heck, even the Hougang Mall kopitiam whips out better dim sum than this. The Chinese-styled stir fry tasted better, especially the fried noodles and rice, and the sweet & sour pork ribs, though there wasn’t really much range or variety.
Which led me to conclude to Ling; I think we should just avoid trying out non-local cuisine at this price range the next time we’re in Japan. We should just stick to their national fare which they do consistently do better in, in our experience anyway.
Day 10: Osaka – Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
While Ling was planning for our itinerary, she lamented that there really isn’t a lot of things to see in Osaka. In fact, the only things visitors go to Osaka to do largely center on shopping and eating. The few places that warrant as popular tourist sights include the Umeda Sky Building (visited), the Namba district and shopping arcades (visited), Osaka Castle (closed for the period), and lastly, Oaska Aquarium, also known as Kaiyukan.
As with my visits to San Francisco and Boston last year, where there’s an aquarium, it’d be a place I’d definitely want to visit. The day we chose to go though was on New Year’s Eve on the 31 December, and as it turned out, hordes of Japanese locals also had the same grand idea. Long queues were already formed up early in the morning at 10:00 AM before opening hours, and keep in mind that the aquarium is located near Osaka Bay and enjoys the best i.e. coldest of sea breezes.
The admissions area was a bit of a mess with throngs of people buying tickets, no clear demarcations to move people from ticket purchasing to entrance, and lots and lots and lots of children about. Heck; I think the first 30 minutes of our visit to the aquarium was made almost impossible to enjoy because of kids shoving and pushing everyone else and themselves.
The aquarium itself boasts of being one of the largest in the world, with a 10 meter deep center piece tank titled “Pacific Ocean”, and houses a somersaulting Manta Ray and a pair of magnificent looking whale sharks. The other really special exhibit for me was titled Japan Deeps, and housing dozens of Giant spider crabs, several of whom were lunching. Lastly, the very cold weather made it possible also for an outdoor penguin parade, something we’re unlikely to ever see in Singapore (we only see penguins in carefully-temperature controlled exhibit areas).
Kaiyukan itself isn’t too bad given its two highlight tanks with the whale sharks and spider crabs. But all things considered and putting aside the fact that we perhaps chose the worse possible time to visit with all those screaming kids about, I’d expected more for the fairly high admission fee of 2,000円 per adult. It didn’t seem as though there were as many distinctive nor varied exhibits showing the full spectrum of aquatic life, as compared to say the New England Aquarium that I last visited in Boston this June.
So, worth a visit for the whale sharks and spider crabs if you can stomach the high admission fees. But the New England Aquarium has no fear; it remains still the best aquarium I’ve yet seen anywhere.