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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).
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 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.
Day 10: Osaka – Yodobashi Umeda
Blogged at Kansai Airport! I haven’t taken too much of an interest in shopping itself so far in the three cities we’ve been to this trip. I find merchandise and product pricing to be quite expensive for many goods, and the fact that the exchange rate between Japanese Yen and Singapore dollar isn’t favorable for us at the moment.
That said, we passed by a large department mall on our way back from the Umeda Sky Building yesterday night, and the Osaka Explorer Guide map we had noted that this mall, the Yodobashi Umeda, is one of the largest and best-stock electronics store in the country. That’s too tempting for a visit to resist, so after our visit to the Osaka Aquarium (the photos are on the D300 and I’ll do a blog post on it when I’m back in Singapore) and lunch, we returned to Umeda Subway Station for a look-see.
And boy, I wasn’t disappointed. This is the most well-equipped electronics mall I’ve seen yet out of Singapore. Unlike Sim Lim Square where the mall comprises all small and separate retailers, a good part of the Yodobashi Umeda mall comprises a single business entity which offers everything you can think of that’s electronic. What especially interested me though was the camera equipment floor at level 2. Every mainstream camera model and lenses were on display and for people to try out at their convenience. Oh, you could try out similar equipment in Singapore stores, but the shop keepers back at home routinely give you the evil eye if you ask to inspect the equipment unless you convince them first that you’re a genuinely interested buyer.
The Yodobashi Umeda camera floor was thus a godsend. I tried out all the camera models to my heart’s content; including the top-of-line full-frame Canon and Nikon models (Nikon D3S – ooh lala with the 24-70mm f2.8!), the very new Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 OS, the new Olympus E-PL1S, the new Panasonic GF2, and an entire bunch of micro-4/3 lenses! Even Ling remarked that she’s never seen me so thrilled with shopping in Japan before.
And that was just the camera floor. There are six other floors (the top two floors are restaurants) in the mall, with entire floors dedicated to mobile phones, games & DVDs, home electronic appliances and the like. I could easily spend an entire day just in this mall alone. Most of the items though were priced at standard retail and comparable if not slightly more expensive than if I bought in Singapore; so I was satisfied just to pick up two 40.5mm filters (a Marumi CPL and a Kenko ProDigital clear glass) for my E-PL1, and a green funky looking camera brush. If I’m ever back in this city, I’m gonna plonk an entire day just for this mall.
Well, it’s nearly time to check-into the airport departure gate now for our 7 hour flight back to Singapore. There are a couple more posts I’m going to do to wrap our visit up; including our visit to the world’s largest aquarium, and walkabouts in Kyoto and Osaka.:)
Day 9: Osaka – Lunch @ Namba & Dinner @ Hanshin Department Store
Like most of Kobe and Kyoto, there was no lack of dining opportunities in Osaka and you’re only limited by how crowded the restaurant is, the waiting time you’re willing to accept, and your budget. When it came to lunch, we were about the Subway Namba Station area. This station is connected to the next one – Subway Nipponbashi Station – by a long underground mall. Having come off Tonkatsus, we were up for ramen this time. One Ramen restaurant called “Koten” at the underground mall seemed quite popular with the locals and the prices quite attractive. So, we ducked into this place for lunch.
By dinner time much later in the day, we’d explored the Shopping Arcades, stopped by First Kitchen – a Japanese fast food chain that offers pasta, burgers and salads – for coffee, and done the Osaka City night panoramas at Umeda Sky Building night. Heading back to the JR Osaka Station/Subway Umeda Station, we explored both the underground and surface areas for dinner opportunities. Found ourselves at the 14th floor for restaurants at Daimaru Department Store, and left has hastily when we saw the prices and the likes of restaurants like Le Figaro – wandered around a bit more, and it started snowing again LOL.
Eventually, we ended up at the Hanshin Department Store that’s just across JR Osaka Station where there were several quiet restaurants at Basement 2 (Basement 1 has an totally crazed out wet-market for fresh foods, including huge mutant-sized crabs). Of the lot, we settled on a corner restaurant offering tempura sets which Ling and I both had. Interestingly, this restaurant was wait-staffed entirely by elderly folk, compared to the usual young adult wait staff we see everywhere else.
Day 9: Osaka – Umeda Sky Building
Our last stop for the Day 9 evening was the Floating Garden Observatory at the top floor of the Umeda Sky Building. This is the seventh tallest building in the city, and actually comprises two skyscrapers that is interconnected with an observatory at the 39th floor. This observatory offers a spectacular 360° view of Osaka, and I was really looking forward to this experience with the memory of going up the Prudential Tower in Boston for the roof top photo shoot still very fresh in mind.
The Floating Garden Observatory itself is a covered and sheltered compound, with a few cafes and couple-seat viewing areas. The real prize though is the roof top that you go up a level more where you can get full 360° views in the open. According to Ling’s itinerary, we had a choice of going up during the day or evening time, but I chose the latter. I’ve done enough day time roof top shoots, and was looking forward to a night shoot instead. The views at least didn’t disappoint, but the photography wasn’t quite so easy! Didn’t have a tripod, and it was freezing cold up top in the open. Shot around 184 exposures and 16 panoramic compositions. I’ve just processed these panoramas, and it’s amazing that even half of them turned out well. Bits of camera shake here and there at the very slow shutter speeds I was using, handheld LOL.
Admission fee is 700円. Worth every yen! All the pictures were taken using the D300 and Sigma 18-250mm.
The height of the Umeda Sky Building is at 173m; lower compared to Boston’s Prudential Tower’s Skywalk Observatory’s 228m, but no less impressive. Recommended for Osaka visitors! :)
The Lutheran Hotel @ Osaka
Our third and last hotel for our 10.5 day Japan trip is The Lutheran Hotel, a 10 story business hotel located at a relatively quiet district of Osaka City. The reviews for the hotel were quite positive, and rates attractive at just over SGD100 per night. Moreover, the hotel is located right next to the Tanimachi 4-chome station and a short 4 minute walk to Osaka Castle. Internet access was complimentary, and our room even came with a HP notebook in case we wanted to use the hotel’s one.
The room is about the same size as the one at Mitsui Garden Hotel; relatively small compared to Singapore hotel room sizes, but average by Japanese standards. The room was very clean, and had pleasing color combination in its decor and furniture. Moreover; the room had an Ion Humidifier, like the Mitsui Garden Hotel though we couldn’t figure out how to operate the one at the latter.
Best of all; the concierge allowed us to check in at 11:30 AM instead of the usual 2:00 PM. That was very welcomed.:)
The one and almost serious downer was that we were given a smoking room as all the other rooms were unavailable. There was a scent freshener in the room that helped to remove the smell, and the windows could be opened too to further air the room so it wasn’t that much of a big deal for us. The range of toiletries was also a little limited, but this wasn’t an issue for us as we always bring our own.
Our stay is for just one night, but if we were staying at Osaka for a long stretch, we certainly wouldn’t mind staying at this hotel for longer.
In all, The Lutheran Hotel gets a recommendation for us. Just slightly lower-priced than Mitsui Garden Hotel, but about its equivalent in creature comforts.