Like I mentioned earlier, we spent the first night on the trip at Tsukiji/Ginza, and I have to admit, I think any time I go to Japan and fly into Tokyo, I'm staying there. While the hotel is a bit of a dive (what can you expect for ~$55-60/nt?), it's a good shock to the system to get me back into thinking J sizing. :P The other and primary reason for going there would be Tsukiji fish market. Coming from North America, and being jet-lagged, every time we fly in, I think the latest we've ever really *woken up* is around 4:30 AM and the rest of our time is spent lounging, reading, watching TV... so being in this area means we can get up at 5:00 or whatever and go out to the market. I'm not sure what time trading and such happens as I've never been there for that, but the market itself is bustling with activity from early morning. I like wandering the stalls there (it's an open air fish / produce market) and having breakfast in the area. Some places apparently don't open until "late" (8:00 AM I think for one place), but the fish... *_* We had "sanshoku donburi" or 3-colours donburi which has salmon roe (ikura), sea urchin (uni), and minced green onion-fatty tuna (negi-toro) on top of a bowl of rice. If you ever eat truly fresh fish at tsukiji, chances are, other restaurants aren't going to measure up in terms of freshness. (Let's face it, they're right at the source). While we were having breakfast, apparently one of the wideshows were there and at the front of the shop where they cut up fish. All I know was, I didn't want to go anywhere near them since we didn't want anyone accidentally finding out we were in the country, and boy were they noisy! :P We actually kept running into a number of TV cameras during the first part of our trip, probably because of the autumn colours as they were late by a couple of weeks this year.
Our second night was spent in Shinjuku, at the Washington Hotel. There was a special rate for J-internet reservations that made it quite reasonable. The Washington chain is quite decent in Japan. Our second night's dinner was also sushi but nowhere near as good as breakfast that morning.
Shinjuku itself was fun. Unfortunately, I'd apparently forgotten to print the area map on how to get to the hotel and after looking at the hotel address, we went to Nishi-Shinjuku station. Wrong! It's in the area but apparently you're supposed to go there from Shinjuku station. So we hopped on a taxi(!) and went to the hotel. The last time I was in a taxi in Tokyo was...... when I was 17?? We were on our way home and caught a taxi from Tokyo station to Narita airport, and it was perhaps one of the scariest 30 mins of my life. I just remember insane speeds and lots of weaving in and out of traffic. This time, we didn't do any speeding but cutting through traffic in Tokyo was pretty freaky. I'd rather walk I think. :P Anyhow, the hotel itself wasn't too far (base rate distance), but was still a good 10 mins walk from Shinjuku station. We'd been planning to go to Akihabara to do some shopping, but due to miscommunication, missed our window of opportunity and went shopping in Shinjuku instead.
Actually, shopping in Shinjuku was fun. Yodobashi Camera has 3-4 shops in very close proximity there, and we ended up wandering from one shop to the next. I bought a new watch (solar powered Baby-G with world-time setting), and a new SLR (Pentax IST with Sigma 28-200 lens; I might try saving for a Pentax or Tamron 28-300 lens next year depending on how I like the camera). I might send my old SLR (Minolta with 28-80 and 70-300 lenses) for cleaning and maintenance now that I have my new one. The Pentax isn't bad or anything, but I'm having a tough time adjusting to the differences and I'm still not sure how it focusses on things. I'll see how the photos turned out, but I wasn't too sure or happy when taking shots. Maybe it's just my eyes. Of course, it would also help if I actually read the manual. :P
After Tokyo, we went to Niigata. I've never been too sure of going to Niigata since I've never really heard much about the area or what's there other than good water and really good rice. There was a nice view but nothing to really write home about or anything. :P (Photos: Something unknown that we saw while on the train and a platform soba shop). Toyama, likewise was nothing special due to the high winds. Bikes we lying knocked over like fallen dominoes and a roof shingle hit the traffic pole we were standing next to while waiting for the signal to change. (Photo: Preparing to link trains together).
Okayama was a layover stop between Toyama and Izumo. We'd been hoping to make the trip fully down the Sea of Japan side of the island, but it wasn't possible in any reasonable length of time, so we had to cut across through Kyoto and catch the Shinkansen to Okayama. I'd hoped to go to Bitsu-Takamatsu as there's supposed to be a castle ruin there, but we ended up going to Okayama Castle instead.
Small castle building
On the outside, it's a nice looking castle, but like Osaka castle, the inside is a whole different animal. No real pictures on my digi from the inside as there was a museum display, but the museum itself was interesting and described the history of the area including Bitchu-Takamatsu's castle. ^_^ Apparently, that castle had been attacked and the surrounding area flooded by diverting a river back in the 1500's or so. Next time I really must go to the castle ruin. :P According to one placard, Sekimatsu(? Akamatsu?) castle was the one that was to be overthrown but Bitchu-Takamatsu was attacked instead. While we were in the area, we noticed that the okonomiyaki shop we went to during our first trip to Okayama (in 1998 IIRC) was still there and they apparently serve Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. We didn't go back though as we weren't hungry at the time. :( The okonomiyaki there was *really* good.
After Okayama, we went to Izumo. Izumo Taisha is an enmusubi shrine (people go there to pray to find a good partner) hence people who pray there clap four times rather than the traditional two (twice for themselves and twice for their partner). It's a very old shrine and all the gods gather and spend a month in Izumo (kan-aridzuki month with gods) leaving the rest of the country without (kan-nadzuki month without gods). Apparently, Izumo Taisha used to have a JR train station but it was later closed and people either catch a private train from Izumo station or take the bus to get to the shrine now. We stayed at a ryokan in the Izumo Taisha area, and... well, food-wise it was quite good, but the rest was quite mediocre to poor. We went middle of the line price-wise in the area (~Y13000/nt per person) but no one else other than a single guy seemed to be staying there. The ryokan was old, built in the 70's, and like most ryokan consisted of a small entry which leads to the bath & toilet (separate), and the main room (8.5 mat room) and a small 2(+ ?) mat sitting area with fridge. The toilet room was so small that anyone who's even remotely hefty would have a tough time getting in there. It was so small that I was debating whether it would be easier to use the toilet backwards! The worst though was that, the place had bugs. I didn't realise it until early in the morning when I got up to go to the toilet and take my morning shower (I don't like using public baths unless it's a hotspring). The bathing room was fine as it's fully tiled except for a wooden door, but the toilet also had peeling wallpaper in it where the bugs seem to scurry under when hiding. :-/ I was rather creeped out when I realised there were bugs in the place; especially considering how tight and tiny the toilet was. (Lots of older places get roaches when not cared for properly, and I've been to some restaurants that were infested as well. Infestations are more the minority and (for example) the fish market in Tokyo had no bugs whatsoever, so taking proper care of things is really important there. The rare odd bug isn't a serious concern though).
Trees with o-mikuji (fortunes) tied to them
Coins thrown and embedded in the bottom of the rope
sculpture of 8 headed dragon killed by getting it drunk (one sake barrel per head)...
by this God
Dinner at the ryokan not everything is shown, but you can see, rice and pickles, hotpot, crab (zuwai crab season just began), chawan mushi (steamed egg dish), clear fish soup, sashimi, soba, scallops, another small dish, and melon.
Former Izumo Taisha station
Gates at the former station shows how much traffic the station handled. Very small stations usually only have 1 or 2 gates, so this station used to be quite busy.
After Izumo Taisha, we decided to spend an extra day in Matsue and go around that area. (We'd been speeding through the country so far too afterall). In Matsue, I wanted to go to... I can't remember the name offhand, but a museum near Yakumo village. The museum had information about a dig carried out closeby in the 1970's or so and some interesting artefacts from the dig. After that, we managed to get back to Matsue and see the castle before nightfall. Matsue castle is an original and a nice albeit smaller castle. I forgot to mention when buying tickets that I was a foreigner as for some strange reason, foreigners get in for much less than regular rate. I think Matsue is seriously trying to entice foreigners to the area in terms of tourism. (I've been to Matsue earlier around 1999 when I'd been living in Japan and there's lots more to see in the area. It's a beautiful area to visit and really easy to move around as they have a couple of bus loop lines that hit all the sites and you can buy full day passes for 200-500 yen depending on which bus you use. Since they're loop lines, basically after you see a site, you catch the next bus at the same stop you got off at (or the next if it's further down the line) and catch the same bus to the next place you want to go to).
Re-construction of old jomon or yayoi period home
Previous dig site
path leading to Kamosu shrine up to the torii gate
path leading up to shrine from the torii
Road to the museum and Kamosu shrine
. It really was in the middle of nowhere.
Fish tail on display in the castle
After Matsue, we went back to Osaka and promptly died. We'd been thinking about going to Hamamatsu next (and maybe Shizuoka) but didn't have the energy anymore. Hamamatsu is famous for their unagi much like... Kurume(? IIRC) in Kyushu and also has a castle but I'm not sure if it's an original or a re-construction. This time in Osaka, we spent two nights at Hearton Hotel which is surprisingly affordable at Y8800/nt. (That's what we paid both when we booked at the station and when we asked to stay another night after not having the energy to go further afield). The only problem I had with the hotel was that the soundproofing wasn't as good as I hoped for so we heard the trains at the station (it's right outside JR Osaka).
The second day, we went to... I can't remember the name of the village off-hand. >_< Basically, it's a 1 hr bus ride from Ishiyama station and the village makes tanuki. You know, the tanuki from Ponpoko? Those things. I don't have any digi-shots so photos of what the village looks like will have to wait until my film shots are developed. ^_^;;
We ended up staying at the New Hankyu Hotel Annex for the rest of our stay (also in the Osaka/Umeda station area) and while nice, I think I'll try for a hotel in Namba next time. :P I really wanted to get my hair cut while there since we were taking things so slowly for the second week, but there were no womens salons in the Umeda area. >_<
Anyhow, after Ishiyama, we went to Arashiyama in Kyoto. BIG mistake! >_< Lots of people like to go to the mountains during the fall for the colours, and Arashiyama seems to be very popular. We went to one of the temple complexes and for a quick walk across the river but that was about it. Way too many people. It was almost like a festival was happening! >_< >_< >_<
Some food for sale near the station including ayu on a stick. This should have warned us for what was up ahead...
Garden open to the public during the fall for viewing. The temple was rather interesting and had some sword cut marks still in the pillars
View of the river from the bridge. Way too much traffic on the river!
Pedestrian traffic down the street. Very much like there's a festival going on only during daylight hours.
On Monday, we went to Uji to buy some tea. Basically we took JR to Kohata station, and got off there to go to the tea growers co-op, and picked up some tea. After that, we took the Keihan line to Uji as it's much closer to areas of interest. In Uji, we went to various shops trying the tea and having sweets. One shop had a small display of their history and tea growing in Japan. Apparently, the two most well-known grow areas are Shizuoka and Uji, but there are some 40 tea grow areas in Japan. Uji's tea is amongst the best in Japan and apparently there's some problem with shops mixing tea with Uji's and selling it as "Uji tea". After Uji, we then hopped on the Keihan train to Shijo and went to Tsujiri for some more tea. :P Tsujiri is a very well known dessert shop in Kyoto's Gion district and are especially famous for their matcha parfait... which I still haven't had. :P I'll have to try it one of these days. Anyhow, I really enjoy their houji-cha so picked up a couple of packs (one for a gift for my sister's friend), and also a new houji-cha that I've never tried before. Shall see how they are.
On Tuesday, we went to Sumiyoshi Taisha, a major shrine in the Osaka area. Apparently it's shichi-go-san right now, so there were lots of kids dressed up in kimono / hakama as were some parents. We also came across a wedding that had just ended. Hopefully my photos turned out of these. I thought I'd been to Sumiyoshi during the day but am not sure. My first trip to the shrine was for New Year's... >_< Lots of fun but SOOOOO many people! I'm not sure where it ranks, but Sumiyoshi's among the top 10 places to go in Japan for New Year's.
Oh, talking about New Year's, when booking our last hotel, we were booked under the business / casual hotel package that's happening at the moment, and I noticed that the hotel we were in had a special rate of Y5300 / nt during New Year's!! I think since most people go home for New Year's they're trying to get any people to stay during that period. :P I'm tempted to try for this if they do something similar next year, and maybe try for a winter trip over next time. (Anyone want to come? :P) Seriously though, I'd like to go for New Year's again some time since I only went for the shrine/temple experience once.
And some random stuff about the trip...
- It definitely takes skill... to use a squat toilet on a shaky train. >_< Squat toilets are a pain period but when the train's bouncing all over the place... Yeesh!
- My new favourite tea that I first encountered at Hanshin Department store last year, can ONLY be found at Hanshin department store. This year, I went to Daimaru and Hankyu dep't stores first and checked out their supply of Fauchon teas. While they had regular apple tea, they didn't have the Prestige Apple tea that I'd bought the year before. I ended up picking up two cans at Hanshin dep't store along with a can of caramel tea. :P
- Sea of Japan side is SO different from the Pacific side. Food portions are much larger, is much more affordable and better tasting. :P Okay, the last is somewhat subjective and variable, but the seafood is generally fresher there. Food bills are half what you'd pay on the main side.
- Dinner time in department store basements is INSANE!!! In case you don't know, the basement is the food shopping level (not the restaurant level which is at the top). Apparently lots of people buy dinner there and around 5PM things get crowded. At around 6PM everything's on sale and they really start pushing people to buy. There's also lots and lots of free samples. I found Tokyo to have more free sampling and to be pushier. I usually don't sample unless I'm fairly serious about buying, but in Tokyo, they'd shove the toothpick in my hand anyways! :P
- Maybe Tokyo isn't all that bad, but I still really dislike Tokyo station. It's a multi-level maze and impossible to figure out (for me). Unfortunately, all the work around Osaka / Umeda station is making that area the same for me. >_< I'm constantly getting lost there now.
- Yodobashi Camera is *definitely* worth getting a point card at. You get points on everything there (10-20% of ticket price) that is worth that amount in yen on your next purchase. My sister's X-mas present of a new e-dictionary gave enough points for me to buy the Fantastic Children game for the GBA for about Y565 (down from Y4500 or so). We got lots of stuff for free (games, mono-pod for a camera...) during the trip because of this. :P
Oh, and photos listed in here are strictly from the digi-camera. Most serious photos are on the SLR although there's some cross-over due to my incompetence with the new SLR. :P