Archive for February, 2010

Kyoto and onwards…

OK, back to Kyoto! Robin and I met up there after separate side trips from Hiroshima: she wanted to see Himeji Castle and I wanted to see the Mazda assembly line.

Kyoto was a great place to spend our last few days in Japan. I took Robin to Kurama and Kibune, we visited some of Kyoto’s temples and shrines (including the awesome Fushimi Inari and the Tofuku-ji zen garden) and made it to the flea market at Kitano Tenmangu shrine, where Robin bought a skirt.

Kyoto is a wonderful place – so many traditional-style buildings and yet so modern too. And the weather cooperated: 3 days of sun! Strange that we got good weather in Kyoto but not Tokyo…

Now we’re on UA 875 to Singapore. It feels weird to be leaving Japan after so long, and weird to be on United in a place so foreign. So well, that’s it. Goodbye Japan, and see you again someday!

Tea in Masuda

Masuda! Out in the wilds of Shimane prefecture, the least populated in Japan, this small town was a big change from Tokyo. Robin and I headed out there on a complicated series of shinkansen then a pokey local train to stay with Caroline, a couchsurfer.

After finding Caroline’s place, about a 15 minute walk from the train station, we all headed to dinner at the best kaiten restaurant in Japan. Kaiten (conveyor belt sushi) generally doesn’t have a great reputation. A frient once compared it to the McDonald’s of sushi. But this place was a shining exception, as one might expect in a prefecture renowned for its seafood. After dinner, Caroline took us to a small izakaya, again pretty different from the ones in Tokyo. People were as friendly as in my last small izakaya in Kagoshima, but it also had an amazing selection of fresh fish in an icebox and extremely fresh fish in a saltwater tank. We didn’t stay long because Robin and I were tired from a day spent on trains.

The next morning was a tea ceremony! Caroline drove us to a nearby town where some of her Japanese friends were practicing the art of sencha-do, or Chinese-inspired green tea ceremony. As we learned, this is quite different from matcha-do, which is what most people think of as a "Japanese tea ceremony." The basics are the same: the host makes tea for the guests, who enjoy it and each other’s company. But the details… well… the steps are quite different. Also, these ladies did it fairly informally. One of them had been studying sencha-do for a while, and the rest were learning from her. They did a great job both of making the tea and of making us feel welcome! All in all a wonderful experience.

Then we headed to a the local department store where some special needs students Caroline teaches were having a fundraising sale, wandered around a local park, and borrowed some bikes to explore the coastline and rivers of Masuda.

And then onwards to Hiroshima. Thanks, Caroline!

Emergency sleeping in Japan

Robin and I are crazy but not insane – our love hotel adventure wasn’t actually all that risky. We fortunately didn’t have to use any of these, but there are many emergency sleeping options in the nightlife areas of large Japanese cities:

  • Capsule hotels. Usually for men only, although some women-only or mixed places are appearing. ¥4000/night per person, single beds only. Ask at the nearest koban (police box) and they’ll point you in the right direction.
  • Internet / comic cafés. These primarily exist for people who need to get out of a cramped house with their family or wife and spend some time surfing the web, watching movies, or reading manga (comic books.) Most are open 24 hours/day and have cheap overnight rates. The chair in your cubicle is usually some sort of couch or a chair that reclines flat, or some places are starting to offer flat floors. May not accept single women, but I’ve heard that’s fairly rare these days. ¥1500-4000/night.
  • Karaoke boxes. Soundproof rooms with karaoke systems, but they really don’t care what you do in the room as long as you pay for the time. Bench seats mean it won’t be a hugely comfortable night, but probably a decent place to pass out if you’re tired after a night singing and drinking but the morning’s trains are still hours away. ¥????/night

And for completeness:

  • Love hotels. You probably need to be a male/female couple, although single females or two females who claim to be friends looking for some "girl time" are also likely to be accepted. You may also be refused service arbitrarily if you’re white or don’t speak Japanese. Starts at ¥6000/night per couple and goes up – really nice places start at ¥10000/night. More expensive on a weekend night. If you’re interested in learning more about love hotels, there’s a book about them you can buy. Not amazing – he needs a better editor and it’s not up to date enough to mention the problems we had at Dogenzaka – but an interesting read.
  • Taxi home. I was told a taxi from Shibuya to my apartment in Ebisu, one train stop away, would be about ¥2000. The other side of the city is probably closer to ¥10000. The suburbs? Forget about it.

Note, ¥100 is about $1.20 Canadian as of this entry. Or just pretend the last 2 digits are cents for a rough approximation of prices.

Blogging notes

A few notes on my travel blogging:

  1. I’m not going to be putting photos in my blog entries for the next while. It just takes too much time in front of a computer, and entries get posted a lot later as a result too. You can see my latest photos on flickr (and I’ll try to add that link to entries in the future.)
  2. My awesome girlfriend Robin has joined me here. We’ll be travelling together most of the way to Tibet, and you can read her blog here.
  3. If you’re reading this on Facebook, it looks better on (or you can use an RSS reader.)
  4. If you still use Livejournal, you can add my blog to your friends page (thanks, Julie.) But again, it looks better on
  5. If you’re looking for a good way to keep track of what’s new on a few blogs, Google Reader is great.
  6. You’re all awesome. See you soon :)

Hikoning in Hakone

Robin wanted to try some onsen and see Mount Fuji, so we headed to Tokyo’s famous Hakone mountain resort area to do just that.

It’s also an interesting region from a transit point of view. JR only serves the nearby city of Odawara, so from there you need to use the private Odakyu railway. From Odawara, I took:

  1. A suburban type train for about 4 stops. The line originates in Shinjuku (downtown Tokyo) so we could have taken the same train all the way from there, but we had JR passes so using their trains was free.
  2. A pokey local mountain train. This was my favourite of the bunch. The trainsets have 2 or 3 short carriages with long couplings for a very tight turning radius. It also does switchbacks on the way up: the train drives up into the switchback then pulls out going the other direction but on a different track, still going up. Sometimes another train going the other direction pulls into the switchback during this process so they can pass each other (most of the line is single track.) Yes, I took photos – not uploaded yet :)
  3. A cable car: two cars balanced on one cable with one going uphill and one going down, driven by a motor at the top.
  4. A gondola (called a "ropeway") like a ski lift, but ticketed per ride like a transit system.

Our hotel was on one of the pokey local train stops. We arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday after some errands in Tokyo in the morning, then headed out to explore right away.

I wanted to head to Owakudani. By the time I got to the bottom of the ropeway, I was warned that the ropeway was shutting down in 30 minutes so I could only spend about 10 minutes at the top. I told the guy I’d walk down, and he warned me it would take an hour to get back to the ropeway station, and longer to get to the bottom of the cable car. OK, fine, that’s about what I expected anyway :)

Robin left me at that point to explore on her own, and I took the ropeway to Owakudani. The main attraction there is eggs boiled in a hotspring: Kuro Tamago. Kuro (black) since the shells turn a wonderful shade of black in the sulphurous steam. I walked up the mountain to the area with the egg vats (which only took a few minutes) and saw another ropeway, this time for cargo only. It was used to send boiled eggs down from the vats to the gift shop!

I bought some eggs for later and started the walk down. The hiking trails were covered in reasonably deep snow so I just took the road. It took me about 45 minutes to reach the ropeway station, and as expected the cable car had also stopped. But it only took me another 30 minutes to get back to the hotel. Robin was already back, so we went for dinner then… the onsen.

There were several onsen in the area, but most were huge baths full of tourists. Fortunately, our hotel was almost empty and had its own bath. It had a sign you could put down by the door to indicate what type of bath it was at the moment: male only, female only, or mixed. But there was a Japanese man inside who hadn’t put down a sign! Robin and I had no idea if she was allowed to enter or not with the man there so we just went up to our room for 30 minutes to wait.

The onsen was nice but extremely hot and there was no cold pool (or even a way to add cold water.) The indoor pool was large, probably big enough for 10 people, and there was a small outdoor tub probably intended for one but just big enough for the two of us. We soaked our tired bodies then headed to bed.

REVIEW: Yamato Transport Company


LOGO: 9/10. It’s a mother cat carrying a kitten! This logo is everywhere in Japan, as recognizable to Japanese people as the Coca Cola logo. 1 point off because the logo on their vehicles is usually fairly small.

URL: 10/10. It means "Black Cat Yamoto", not something boring like "Yamato Transport Company" like you might expect.

CONVENIENCE: 10/10. There are Yamato drop off locations every few blocks in cities and everywhere else in Japan. They’ll pick packages up too.

PRICE: 9/10. ¥950 for a COD next day delivery from Osaka to Tokyo, about 500km. Try that with FedEx…

AVAILABILITY OF CHANGE: 4/10. Japan is a cash-based society, and I’ve never had a problem giving even street vendors a ¥10000 (about $100) bill and getting a pile of change. Until now. The driver didn’t have change, and only I had ¥10000 bills and ¥850 in coins!

SERVICE FROM DRIVER: 9/10. He was willing to come back later in the day at a time of my choosing and he gave me his cell phone number. Apparently this is also written on their "we missed you" delivery slips.

OVERALL: 9/10. Would ship with them again in a second! Go black cat company!

A week in Tokyo

I’ve been a bit busy since Robin arrived… that’s a good thing :)

Last Thursday, we visited Kapabashi-dori, the kitchenware district of Tokyo, so Robin could see the plastic food. Many restaurants have plastic food in the windows (as advertising, but it also makes it relatively easy for foreigners to order) and it’s one of the many things sold at Kapabashi-dori. We then wanted to get out of the rain so we headed to a museum in Ueno Park, but it was just closing. So I figured it was time to introduce Robin to onsen at the nearby Jakotsu-yu. After travelling around Kyushu, I appreciated this place all the more – it’s up there with the best. There’s great water, a good selection of different types and temperatures of baths, a nice outdoor tub, and it’s right in the heart of the city!

On Fryday, we got up nice and early to head to Tsukiji Fish Market. We took the 5:16 subway to be there for the tuna auction, which is only open to the public until 6:15. It’s a busy place even that early, with motorized carts driving around narrow passageways between wholesale fish vendors. After that, it was time for breakfast at a nearby sushi restaurant for the freshest sushi possible. Then we headed to Akihabara and visited some of the local shops. Robin was surprised at the selection of one of the sex shops. I guess I’ve been in Japan long enough to be used to entire floors dedicated to male masturbation aids, but I was still shocked on the top floor, where there is a display of realdoll-type sex dolls. I’d seen the display before but I didn’t notice (or maybe repressed the memory of) the dolls in the back, which are bright-eyed (and thankfully fully clothed) children. *shudder.*

Onto more pleasant things: we toured Shibuya, the youthful shopping and nightlife area one train stop away from where I was living, and visited the Pink Cow, an excellent art bar/restaurant run by an expat Californian.

On Caturday, Robin found the excellent Medicine and Art exhibit at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, so we spent a few hours touring that. They were also showing the Complaint Choir, a video where they took the complaints of locals in various cities around the world and set them to music, performed by local choirs. Things I learned: everyone hates taxes, and in Helsinki tramline 3 smells like pee. While there, we got a great view of the city because the museum’s on the top floor of a skyscraper and the ticket includes admission to the viewing area one floor below.

Then we headed to Shinjuku, both to see (but not really experience) the seedy nightlife in Kabukicho, a huge red light district full of hostess bars, strip clubs, and outright brothels, and to truly celebrate Caturday by visiting Calico Cat Café. This was the first experience for both of us and we were not disappointed. The café is two floors of a typical narrow concrete building filled with cats! There are about 25 cats living there, and you pay by the hour to visit and interact with them. It’s a popular place on a Caturday night so the cats were a bit overstimulated, but you could usually find one or two who’d play with you or who would stand around and be petted.

Funday had reasonably good weather instead of the cold, wet weather Robin accidentally brought from Montréal. We visited the Tokyo Dome park but sadly the roller coasters were closed. We also went up the Bunkyo city hall building for a view from the top. This is a nice view because it’s far enough from the skyscrapers of Shinjuku that you get a good view of them, and it’s free to take the elevator up.

After that, we visited Senso-ji Temple in Akasaka and got our fortunes. Both of ours said it was a good time for travel. Hooray! We also visited Harajuku to see the cosplayers, rockabilly dancers, clothing stores, and to have a crêpe. Then Robin was tired so she went home and I went to the climbing gym for some bouldering!

Monday morning was spent moving out of my apartment. Goodbye Ebisu, hello homelessness! We had time for Robin’s introduction to kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi before heading to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. This is a wonderful place: a fun building (for kids of all ages) with a furry Nekobus (catbus) you can play on (but only if you’re a lot smaller than Robin and I) and some great exhibits. One in particular is pretty amazing: it’s a series of plastic figures of Ghibli characters (including Totoro and the Nekobus) in different poses, arranged on a rotating platform. The platform spins clockwise while lit by a strobe light, which produces an awesome stop-motion effect. Totoro appears to be jumping in place (with his umbrella) and the Nekobus appears to be walking counterclockwise! Every minute or two, the whole thing stops rotating and the strobe turns off so you can see how it works. Robin and I spent a long time watching it, both because it’s amazing and because I now want to build something along the same lines for Burning Man :)

On Monday night we found our first love hotel. We visited one area near Ueno because of a particular hotel, but it was booked up so we wandered around. Most of the hotels were either plain and somewhat seedy or quite expensive but we found one that was a good compromise. It had the biggest selection of amentities I’ve seen at any hotel ever, a huge plasma TV with surround sound and karaoke (love hotels are adding things like this to try and get people to spend more time during each visit), and best of all a jacuzzi built for two (with its own waterproof TV screen.) All this was around $120/night. How do they make money at this? Well, each room on average is rented 3 times every 24 hours, once for a "stay" (usually 10PM to 10AM or thereabouts) and twice for 2 hour "rests." Don’t worry, it’s Japan: the cleaning between uses is impeccable.

Tuesday was a day outside the city: we visited the nearby town of Kamakura to see some wonderful ancient temples and the massive Daibutsu, a bronze Buddha over 13 metres tall. He’s survived a tsunami that destroyed the temple around him, several earthquakes, and now survives the hoards of tourists who visit him every day. For dinner, we met up with some Burners. Tokyo has a very small Burning Man community who meet monthly a curry restaurant. We met Makibee and her baby, as well as Kevin, who’s currently sailing around the world!

At night we took the train to Ikebukuro, which seems to be Tokyo’s best love hotel district. We stayed in a cute, cartoon-themed hotel where each room was decorated in a different cartoon. Of the cartoons I recognized, there was Peter Pan, some sort of aligator I’ve seen around Tokyo a bit, and Totoro! Of course, we picked Totoro. The room also had a ceiling full of twinkling fibre-optic stars! All in all, a nice place to spend the night.

Wednesday was our last full day in Tokyo. We met Ihara, whom I used to work with at Sun, for lunch at the famous Monjadori. This is a street full of monja restaurants. Monja is a strange food. It’s cabbage and batter with whatever toppings you order (between the 3 of us we had cheese, kimchee, and octopus.) Each table contains a gas grill where you put down the dry ingredients, let them cook a bit, make a well in the middle, and add the batter. It cooks slowly and unevenly, and you eat a partially charred, partially raw gooey mass straight off the metal grill scraper. Delicious!

Ihara then took us to the beautiful Hama-rikyu Gardens and we were thinking of taking the ferry to Odaiba Island but it was cold and wet, so we parted ways. Robin and I went to Shibuya to do a small bit of shopping then took a train out to the suburbs so Robin could try the bouldering gym. After that, back to Shibuya for one last visit to the Pink Cow, which was unfortunately fairly quiet but the burritos were still great.

We decided to sleep at the nearby Dogenzaka, Tokyo’s famous Love Hotel Hill. The rooms there are all on the small side and a bit more expensive than those in other areas, but we were tired and didn’t want to take the train across the city. But Dogenzaka completely fails now. We went into at least 4 hotels and were refused service at all of them. I didn’t understand what was going on at the first two – were the rooms shown on the selection board not actually available for some reason? But the third made it clear: they wouldn’t serve anyone who wasn’t fluent in Japanese. The woman at the fourth went as far as to take my money and give me a key (I was able to understand enough Japanese to get that far) before demanding the key back and refunding the money when I couldn’t understand some sort of question about their frequent-stayer point-card system. We were starting to wonder if any hotel would actually let us stay and Robin asked me exactly what I was thinking: "can we still get the train to another area?"

Yes. Fortunately, the Yamanote line runs late by Japanese standards, and we got one of the last trains to Ikebukuro. There, they were happy to see us and our money. We checked into a seedy, kitschy hotel and the woman said some Japanese set phrases I knew to be friendly as well as "goodnight" in English. We didn’t even care that the room was small and smelled vaguely of mildew.

So all in all, the experience of being homeless in Tokyo and depending on love hotels was a bit stressful. I’d visit love hotels again, but just as a "rest" while staying at a normal hotel, hostel, or apartment. And not in Dogenzaka. I don’t know what their problem is. Love hotels are supposed to be anonymous – why should it matter if I understand how their point-card system works if I have money and I’m willing to pay for a room (especially at 0:30 when most people have already taken the last train home?) Oh well.

Robin is here!

Robin is here!

First bowl of Soba

Robin arrived a few hours ago today. I took the train (Keisei Skyliner) out to Narita in time to see her 777 touch down from the observation deck, then headed down to arrivals. Yay!

She’s now sleeping off the jetlag, so I have time to upload photos and blog entries…

Home to Tokyo

On the last day of almost any adventure (long or short, awesome or fail) I just want to get home. Tokyo feels like home to me for the time being. It’s been my base in Japan and it’s the only place in the world where there’s an apartment rented in my name.

I showed up to the reservations window in Fukushima Station, Osaka at 11:11 and told the guy I wanted the next train to Shinagawa. He told me “we recommend you allow 30 minutes to get from here to Shin-Osaka.” (Shinkansen often stop at “Shin” stations. A linguistic coincidence but a convenient one.) He wrote two times on a piece of paper: 11:40 and 12:05. I pointed to 11:40. Hey, let’s go!

It turns out this was no problem. I even had time to buy breakfast in Shin-Osaka. I’m now on a huge (16 car) 700 series Shinkansen running as a Hikari super experess.

The last few days were fun. I explored the Akiyoshi-Do cave then sat at the bus station for almost 2 hours, giving me no time to explore Kibi. I suppose I could have backtracked and done the ride today, but like I said I want to get home :)

Umbrella Shop Rice fields

I found some really interesting food in Osaka: tomato ramen. It’s a bowl of noodles, but in tomato sauce with various toppings (my favourite is cheese, in other words about half a cup of parmesan, which soaks up the sauce and gets all stringy.) I went there 3 times :) Now this is fusion food.. fuck all the restaurants that use that term because they happen to serve Chinese-style food and Pad Thai.

2 nights and a day in Osaka also let me sample the nightlife – drunk Japanese people are great because they stop caring how bad their English is and just want to talk to you. Some of us tried to get on the ferris wheel at the Donki (a chain of discount stores best described as “the Honest Ed’s of Japan”) in the nightclub area, but it wasn’t running for some reason. On the way home, last chance: I grabbed my camera from the hostel and there was a convenient post across the alleyway so I didn’t even need to wait for someone walking by to take this photo:

me & my kitteh

Meow! Just under 2 hours now to Shinagawa, then a few minutes on the Yamanote line to Ebisu, then home!

Originally written February 6, 2010

Last few adventures

This morning I said goodbye to Kyushu, Nagasaki, and the worst hotel in Japan (must write to Lonely Planet about that one too) and got on a train for Shimonoseki. Shimonoseki is the fugu (blowfish or globefish) capital of Japan so my mission was obvious. Fugu, it turns out, is delicious but also pricy (chefs have to be specially qualified through years of training and exams to reduce the risk of – well – death.)


After that, I headed to Akiyoshi-dai. I got off the bus at a closed tourist information centre and once again wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Fortunately, there was a map with the hostel indicated (labeled in Japanese, but Lonely Planet helpfully includes Japanese writing for most place and business names.) I’m now at the hostel in a huge 11-tatami room (yes, it’s a unit of area here.) There were 5 futon in the closet but there’s just me… not just in this room but in the whole place! Travelling in the offseason is weird. This isn’t the first time I’m alone in a hotel or hostel (Kagoshima and Kumamoto were also that way) but definitely my first time being alone in such a big place.

Some places are still full of tourists and travellers though. The hostels in Kyoto and Osaka were all full or close to full every night, and some places like Aso-san were full of Japanese tourists. I never know what to expect when I arrive somewhere!

Tomorrow: exploring the Akiyoshi-do cave then bus->local train->shinkansen. Possibly cycling the Kibi Plain before heading to Osaka. If I don’t have time, it’s straight to Osaka. I’m spending Thursday and Friday nights there before heading back to Tokyo on Saturday.

Originally written February 3, 2010

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