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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 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 3: Kobe through Osaka to Kyoto
Day 3 was when we said goodbye to Kobe and made the move to Kyoto, the real highlight of our 10.5 day trip to Western Honshu. We had to time our check-ins and travel time carefully though to make sure that we minimized the time we’d be spending lugging our heavy baggage around.
Firstly though; we spent a good part of the morning doing a final walkabouts of the Kobe Station, looking for breakfast at the same time.
Most eateries and restaurants were closed, and we didn’t think McDonalds was going to offer the same hotcakes breakfasts that we love in Singapore LOL. There was a Doutor Gourmet Coffee Shop beside the donut shop at Kobe Station that Ling had bought from on the first day. Ling didn’t think the donuts were that great after all, so we ducked into the former for breakfast.
One thing about all these café eateries though is that the non-smoking sections are placed real close to the smoking areas. If there’s one thing I’ve do dislike about going to Japan as a tourist, it’s the number of smokers everywhere and their having to puff away even in restaurants and eating places.
Right beside the bus terminal in Kobe Station is an octagonal-shaped forum called ‘Sun Porta’. Yep, with the ‘L’. But the morning sun’s light shining through the glass ceiling made for a pretty nice picture.
Post-brunch, we checked out of the hotel at 10:00 AM and headed to Kosoku Kobe subway station and took a ‘Limited Express’ JR Hankyu line to Juso station in Osaka, then onto Karasuma Station in Kyoto itself.
We blooped a little here in our travel arrangements though. It wasn’t necessary for us to alight off Juso station – which we did based on our ticket fare. Rather, we could have taken paid a single fare from Kosoku Kobe to Karasuma Station. Oh well – lesson learned having paid about double.
The combined train rides between Kosoku Kobe and Karasuma Stations was just over an hour. But including the time we took to transfer, get our bearings, paid for tickets the second time (sigh), by the time we got to our mainstay for our trip – Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyoto – it was about 12:15 PM already.
Normal check-in time at the hotel was 2:00 PM, and the concierge was only willing to let us in by earlier by an hour, so it was more exploration on foot. Kyoto has a very different feel about it compared to Kobe or Kumamoto that I was in last year… it feels a lot more upscale (?!).
While prowling the area to see where we could get lunch, we got into a shopping mall called “Laque” that made us feel very poor. It was all boutique and very expensive looking. Thee was a lovely florist at the basement level with very well-arranged bouquets though… all going for at least a hundred dollars and above.
So, it was back to the street level for us on the look-out for lunches on a budget! More in the next post.:)
Chisun Hotel Kobe @ Kobe
To avoid the dreaded tourist trap shops typical of packaged tours, we decided to plan our own itinerary for the Japan trip. Choosing a hotel which fits our budget, location and list of amenities became a challenge as there is a bewildering spread available out there. I would usually visit Trip Advisor to read up on travellers’ recommendations first before taking the plunge.
Chisun Hotel Kobe is a decent hotel within our budget. It is situated right above a subway station and within 5 minutes walking distance to a busy JR station where there are plenty of eateries to choose from. There is a nice supermarket called Life just next door where we went for fruits (strawberries, of course), mineral water, take-away pasta salad and bread.
Room wise, it was very clean with basic standard amenities such as toothbrush, towels and hot water kettle. However, the room was really on the small side with hardly any walking space. There is one downside though – the air-conditioner was well, always a radiator. We couldn’t seem to get a comfortable temperature and the window couldn’t be opened at all. The end result was a stuffy room. I was generally okay with it but Yang was suffering.
On hindsight, we could have asked the hotel staff for help. Oh well, it was 2 nights and we didn’t bother. :)
Day 2: Kobe – Chinatown
This might sound really weird, but it’s strange that Chinese like us would go about hunting for Chinatowns whenever we visit another country! Well, at least Ling was really interested in visiting the Chinatown in Kobe, also known as ‘Nankinmachi’. We checked out the area at about 6 PM on Thursday evening Day 2.
Day 2: Kobe – Meriken Park & Harborland
The afternoon segment of Day 2! We were already pretty deadbeat by the time we ended our morning jaunt up Mt. Maya. Ling was interested in trying out the local versions of Yoshinoya, so we ducked in one such outlet back at Sannomiya Station for a quick beef bowl-styled lunch.
Like many other eateries we’ve seen or patronized so far, many Japanese just duck in for a quick meal before leaving. There’re fine-dine restaurants of course, several of which we passed by later in the evening at Daimaru department store, but those places looked real expensive.
Tummies filled, it was a short train hop from Sannomiya to Motomachi Station in the direction of our hotel. We’re gradually getting the hang of Kobe city transportation too, though there’s a funny incident about how we both ask for directions that I’ll relate here later.:)
Chinatown was on our way towards the Harborland and Meriken Park area; but that’ll be for the evening program.
At about this point, and passing by again the ubiquitous vending machines, Ling started doing a girly-whine about her brain having a migraine and feeling very slow; and that she needed coffee to perk her up. So here she went:
She was supposed to turn into a happy camper finally being able to try out Japanese Coffee Cans DIspensed from Vending Machine – only that the one she chose tasted like, in her own words, “3-1 coffee”.
Meriken Park is a short 10 minute walk from the Chinatown. It’s pretty hard to miss even for new travelers, as you only need walk in the general direction of this very distinctive-looking Kobe Port Tower:
When we got to the park itself, there were a group of Hyogo Prefecture motorbike police all clustered together. They started doing some synchronized bike formation stunts much to the thrill of the onlookers:
Some of those synchronized riding stunts look pretty dangerous; the way they were criss-crossing each other. We were undecided whether this group were just practising for an event, or this was part of the day’s tourist highlights in the area. In any case, they went about it for 20 minutes, at which point I wondered don’t these guys have traffic offenders to catch LOL.
Truth to tell; there wasn’t much for us to see at Meriken Park. It houses some nautical museums and exhibits, a really swanky Oriental Hotel, and an Ok view of the Kobe bay area. It’s otherwise all pretty drab and grey.
The Harborland area was, visually at least, a lot more colorful and teeming with families and activity. It’s like a Vivocity concept with Ferris-wheel, kid and family friendly booths, shops and restaurants and the like. There was also a Santa Claus and retinue at the grounds which posed for many photo opportunities:
Towards the mid-afternoon, we’d explored the area adequately, and headed back to the hotel for a short break before the evening program. Nicely; the harbor area is very close to our hotel, so it was a cool breezy 15 minute walk back to Kobe Station and our hotel.
Evening program; Chinatown. Ling wanted to check it out, and reported that since Kobe is apparently just one of three Japanese cities with a Chinatown of any good. More in the next post.:)
Day 2: Kobe – Mt. Maya and Nunobiki Falls
Our second day in Japan, and still in the city of Kobe! Kobe as a city sits at the foot of a hilly and mountains region, and Ling’s itinerary for the day involved us going up two of those mountains: Mt. Maya – which had four cascading waterfalls – and the more well-known Mt. Rokko which offered stunning views of the city from up top.
The central city of Kobe itself is a pretty compact, so getting to the foots of the mountains only involved us taking a train back to Sannomiya Station then switching platforms to get to Shinkobe station, with the pair of mountains right behind the latter station. It was a cool morning of about 10°C by the time we got there at 0815 hrs where we started our trek up the first mountain – Mt. Maya.
Late autumn bloomers to the party. It was nevertheless still wonderful to see a welcomed change of red and orange colors in a sea of mostly green.
By the time we began our ascent there weren’t many people about, but as the morning gradually started, more persons also started on the trip up. Lots of elderly people too all armed with walking aids, several of whom greeted us with Gohaiyo mornings, and several other groups of younger persons carrying full backpacks practically speed walking up the mountain.
The walk up was fairly well-paved and marked out, so it’s a safe trip – if tiring – walk up the mountain paths. The pay off was a series of four waterfalls, called the Nunobiki Falls. The first two are pretty modest, but the last two pictured below are pretty impressive:
All the waterfall pictures here were taken on slow exposures of about 1.5 to 3 seconds using not the D300 but the E-PL1 mounted on the GorillaPod Focus.:)
Continuing up the track up, Ling spotted a small side trail that eventually led us to a secluded spot where we got a pretty good view of the city:
The next milestone is the reservoir that sits about a third-way up. Took us about 2 hours to finally get to the pretty scenic spot.
By this time we were getting pretty beat. Then it occurred to Ling why we didn’t just take the cable car from the mountain base to the top, then walk down and enjoy the sights without having our feet complain too much LOL. That’s about when Ling suggested we go back to her original plan to make for the cable car station to either ride the car to the summit, or down Mt. Maya to try the next mountain.
So, we continued along the path that ran around the side of the reservoir (with more backpackers passing us), before we realized that we weren’t quite on the right route to the cable car station. We got help from a pair of old aunties who could only manage a few words of English (‘left’ and ‘temple’), but enough for us to understand how to go from here.
We backtracked a little – feet already killing us – then climbed/crawled/walked this spectacularly steeped series of winding stairs.
And guess what; after another 30 minutes of climbing, we got up to the cable car station, only to find it looked liked this. Do you know what’s missing from this picture….?
YEAH that’s right… the !@#!@#! cable car station is still in construction!! No cable cars!! Heck; the fellows below are still building the car towers even:
I could have just about strangled the wife, who was looking real sheepish at this point. I glared half-jokingly at Ling and said “dear, how come your itinerary involves us climbing up a mountain for 1 hour to visit a construction site?!” She wailed that ‘but the map said that the cable car is working!! Not my fault!!!”
Oh well. What to do. We made our trek down on foot but on a small mostly deserted service road for vehicles. Somewhat easier walk down, and romantic even. By the time we got back to Shinkobe Station, it was about noon, and we gave up trying to go up Mt. Rokko. One mountain on this trip is enough for us!
Our afternoon segment involved us visiting the port area of Kobe. More in the next post.:)
Day 1: Kobe – Kitano-Cho
Our mid afternoon segment of our first day was spent exploring the Kitano-cho area. This district shows up as a suggested place of visitation for visitors to Kobe as it features well-preserved European-styled residences that were built during the Meiji period. To get to this district, we headed from the hotel back to Sannomiya station. And maybe it’s a woman thing, but Ling couldn’t get her bearings again LOL.
Fortunately, men continue to have a more reliable sense of direction, so I got us back on track. The walk from Sannomiya station up to the district is about 10-15 minutes and on an inclined slope. About half of it is at about 8 degrees, but near the foot of Mt. Rokko, the slope inclination increases dramatically to as much as 30 degrees.
Many of these well-preserved houses have been turned into commercial establishments. Some are small museums, others seem to be rentable towards photographic endeavors.
My feelings of Kitano-Cho are pretty mixed. While the houses are without doubt very nice looking, nearly everyone of them we saw involved some sort of admission fee. Sort of reminded us of the Bali experience where the whole place felt terrifically commercialized. Our final stop for the first day was Sannomiya – in the next post.:)
Day 1: Kobe – Chisun Hotel Kobe
All the reviews we’d read of Japanese hotels pointed out to the relatively compact sizes of the rooms for most hotels short of the five star ones. So, at some level, we weren’t too surprised when we checked-in to find ourselves in a room that’s even smaller than our Rivervale bedroom:
To be fair; everything that we need is all there, and there are four necessities: a shower area, a bed, a water boiler, and Internet access (for me!). Some part of me though had still been secretly hoping though that the rooms were larger. The one I got at Kumamoto KKR – and this was a business hotel mind you with supposedly even smaller rooms – was far bigger and more luxurious than this. Still, the per room rate was even lower than what the booking site had suggested; for two nights, our confirmation email stated that the charges to be 15,000円 – but we ended up paying 10,720円.
On the upside, the room’s really cosy and we don’t mind the fact that it’s pretty small. It’s actually quite a fun challenge to navigate ourselves and our luggage about in the room without having to climb over each other!
We also went about exploring the immediate area around Chisun Hotel Kobe. There was a fairly large two-level supermarket situated just beside the hotel. Ling has already started eyeing the strawberries there!
Even for a relatively quieter and sleepy city like Kobe, there’s no shortage of dining and eating places. You’d totally spoiled for choice! There’re eateries everywhere, and a lot of times we’re just walking along roads and side streets looking at menus and trying to decide where to have our next meal. If only we could eat more than just that few times a day without ill-effect.
We eventually settled lunch at Kobe station. There was a Kobe Food Terrace’ foodcourt ‘of sorts inside the station, and Ling had her first taste of a Japanese eatery with what I’d call quick input-output. Office workers queue up, order and get their food, find themselves a free seat, tuck in, and leave – all in 10 minutes.
As though lunch wasn’t enough; on our way out, Ling picked up a donut snack that came in a one of those really cute packaging:
And Ling was especially looking forward to checking out those vending machines – which in themselves are ubiquitous throughout Japan.
Next post on our exploration of the Kitano district.:)