Hot Springs

April 13th, 2010

Day 85.  Japan sits in an earthquake zone and is littered with volcanoes.  Needless to say, this is not an ideal location for a country.  The up-side is that Japan boasts more than 3000 natural hot springs (known as Onsen) bubbling with water rich in minerals.  From Kyoto Station (where we took a video of an impressive “Word Fountain”) we travelled by Shinkansen, local train and wooden streetcar all the way to Dogo Onsen on the island of Shikoku to bathe in its famous spring water to soothe our limbs and to have skin like a baby’s bottom.

Old wooden streetcars at Dogo Onsen

We learned of the fancy Funaya Ryokan in Dogo Onsen from our ex-neighbours in London.  A beautiful Japanese style room was waiting for us there.  After a customary green tea served to us on arrival to refresh us from our journey, we headed to the baths in the adjoining building built directly on top of the spring.  We’re now seasoned Japanese bath takers so we felt reasonably confident in what we were doing, even in this high-class establishment, though we forgot that it is considered good form *not* to take a shower after bathing in the spring water so as to prolong its positive effects.

Once again, we were provided our own comfortable yukata robes to wear in the grounds of the Ryokan, but we were also provided socks suitable for wearing with sandals.

These socks are both fashionable and practical

After bathtime came mealtime, an umpteen course extravaganza of Japanese delicacies served personally to our room course by course.

Tempura leaf

Octopus and cuttlefish sushi

The perfect strawberry accompanied by the pinkish "bancha" tea

We had already ordered hot sake to drink with our meal, but through the wonders of modern technology, we were engaged in an email conversation with James back in London just before sitting down to eat.  He recommended that we order the Namezake, a cold unpasteurised sake, to drink with our meal.  We happily obliged!

Safe takes food orders from James by email

Proof that we drank the Namezake on James's behalf as requested!

It Rained All Day

April 12th, 2010

Day 84.  We ventured out with our matching hotel brollies and explored the narrow streets filled with women in traditional dress (and plastic toe protectors over their white socks to keep out the rain).  We browsed the shopping district filled with local specialities such as crispy cinnamon biscuits and ceramics.  We also saw many shops selling all types and colours of Japanese traditional shoe (aka super-smart flip-flop).

Pretty shoes

These shoes aren't just made for walking!

And the stunning cake-shaped shoes:

Cake walk - shoes good enough to eat

You’re not meant to enter a toilet in your socks or bare feet (a very wise policy) and dedicated toilet slippers are recommended.  These fetching slippers were provided for us in our bathroom:

Toilet slippers

And these were found at the entrance to the toilet at one of the temples we visited:

Temple toilet slippers

Every other shop sells shiny or furry dangly things to hook onto your mobile phone.  (You’re not dressed properly unless your phone is properly attired).  Here are a selection of trinkets hanging from the phones of kind subjects:

Fishy phone trinket

Shiny phone trinket

Fancy phone jewellery

Cute phone trinket

For good measure, here are some other Japanese peculiarities we’ve snapped on our travels.  We’ve already mentioned the drinks vending machines serving an impressive array hot and cold beverages:

Safe chooses a drink in under 10 minutes

Many items are given the “cutesie” touch.  The “Hello Kitty” bus and cartoon fire hydrant are no exception:

This bus is meant to be pink

Tokyo firemen ready for action

The Bamboo Forest

April 11th, 2010

Day 83.  Annie really liked the Bamboo Forest and felt more Zen here than in the manicured Zen gardens.  The Bamboo Forest is an area 5 miles out of Kyoto filled with impressively tall bamboos whose leaves make a gentle and pleasing rustling noise in the wind.  On entering the forest, the temperature dips noticeably.

Bamboo Forest

The Bamboo Forest is in the district of Arashiyama, site of the temple of Tenryu-ji.

Safe contemplates his navel at Tenryu-ji

Stream at Tenryu-ji

Carp are everywhere!

We travelled back to Kyoto to catch the late showing of a traditional Geisha dance.

Safe catches up on his Japanese on the train to Kyoto. Easy peasy!

The spectacular and modern Kyoto Station

We weren’t allowed to take any photos, but here is the poster for it and the picture of a girl posing in traditional Geisha costume who we saw earlier today.  (Her parents were very proud when we stopped to take her picture).

Geisha dance poster

Geisha girl

The Perfect Blossom

April 10th, 2010

Day 82.  We woke up to a lavish breakfast to set us up for exploring the ancient city of Kyoto.

Breakfast, Kyoto style. Notice the obligatory personal barbeque.

Kyoto seems to have it all.  Along with a large commercial area, shopping district, and more restaurants per square foot than humanly possible, it is pepperd with no less than 1600 shrines tucked away in its winding alleys, and only a few miles out of the city will find temples and gardens nestled in the colourful hills.

We’re in cherry blossom season and the landscape, be it urban or rural, is awash with a sea of pink and white flowers.  This is a big deal in Japan and it is eagerly awaited each spring.  Hoards of people are either having their photo taken under them or taking close-up photos of the individual blossoms.

Safe stands under the cherry blossom while trying not to scratch the sandfly bites on his leg from New Zealand

Factoid: The movie buffs among you might have seen one of our favourite films, The Last Samurai.  One of the leading characters is a warrior and leader, yet he is also a learned man and a philosopher.  He spends his life searching for “The Perfect Blossom” and it is only at the moment of his death at the hands of the Emperor that he watches cherry blossoms falling from the trees for the final time and cries, “They are all perfect!”

The perfect blossom

Safe sniffs the perfect blossoms

We visited the Zen Bhuddist temples of Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji by the Eastern hills of Kyoto and contemplated the Zen gardens which are unchanged for centuries.  A common feature of these and other temples seems to be that their wooden structures sadly burned down on many occasions in their history.  We cannot help but think of the Japanese penchant for personal indoor barbeques and the obvious potential for mishaps.

We trod the Philosopher’s Walk which follows a canal connecting both temples and is lined with endless cherry blossom.


Zen garden at Nanzen-ji

Temple scrolls

Chariots await the weary traveller

Annie has her photo taken with a bemused chariot puller

In the afternoon, we boarded a bus to take us from one end of the city to the other.  The bus driver dressed in a suit and white gloves was very courteous and softly warned the standing passengers via loudspeaker each time the bus was about to move.  We had ample time spot fashionably dressed Kyotoites walking their dogs, generally of the cute little yappy-type variety.

Samurai Hound

In the West of the city we happened across a Pachinko parlour, one of many dotted around Kyoto.  Pachinko is a popular (and seemingly addictive) pastime which is a cross between a fruit machine and a pinball machine.  Stepping into the parlour through the sound-proof doors was like stepping into the jet engine of an aircraft.  The sound of a million metal balls whizzing round and round made our heads spin so we took a sneaky picture of the bleary eyed punters then quickly left.


Back in London, NewField IT is proud to have provided professional services in countless countries around the world.  It came as no surprise to find evidence of NewField IT’s commitment to its clients on our return to a shopping precinct in Kyoto Station.

If anyone can, NewField can! Obama would be proud.


April 9th, 2010

Day 81.  The Shinkansen bullet train can transport you instantly to any destination in Japan, well not quite, but its still pretty quick at over 300km per hour.  Getting on the train should have its own instruction manual as the whole process is filled with idiosyncracies from the parade of little pink cleaning ladies with white gloves who rush on and polish the carriages before you’re allowed to get on, to lining yourself up neatly at a designated spot where your carriage will be.  Once on the train, the conductors are so courteous that they bow each time they enter or exit the carriage.  Everybody buys their own perfectly packaged bento box before boarding the train and has lunch at their seat.  This is one of the few times (outside a restaurant) where the Japanese are comfortable eating in public.  The other notable exception is picnics under a cherry blossom.

The fast train

Pink ladies line up to board the train and give it a spring clean

Bento on the train

On arriving in Kyoto, we checked into a Japanese Style room at our Ryokan, a Japanese style inn.  We were each given Japanese yukata robes, a bath towel and small flannel.  We were then advised on the use of the public bathing facilities.

Fetching yukata robes

Bathing in hot water is a popular and serious pastime in Japan.  The aim is not to clean oneself (this is done before entering the bath) rather it is for relaxation, much like a sauna.  The correct bathing procedure is as follows:

  1. Arrive at the changing area of the single sex bathing facility in the robe provided with one towel and one flannel.
  2. Fully undress, make a vague attempt to cover your private parts with the small flannel and enter the bathing area.
  3. Choose one of the washing stations which line the walls and rinse the body well.
  4. Enter the hot bath, nodding to others already in the bath, and relax.
  5. As soon as you’re ready, return to the washing station to soap yourself and have a good scrub with the flannel.
  6. Fully rinse off the soap and return to the bath to soak once again.
  7. Leave the bath and rinse at the washing station.
  8. Wring out the flannel as much as possible then make an attempt to dry yourself with it.
  9. Return to the changing area, dry yourself with the proper towel, dress then leave.

Note 1: Vaguely attempt to cover private parts with small flannel while entering and exiting the water.

Note 2: Never put the flannel in the water.  Either leave it at the side of the bath or put it on your head.

The public bath is open until 1am and we get the impression that the right time to have a bath is sometime after a good meal with a good deal of sake.  We happily obliged.

Goodnight wishes with origami

And The Gardens Of Japan

April 8th, 2010

Day 80.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending how you look at it) the tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market was closed to the public for a month, so rather than getting there for 5am, we had a leisurely lie-in and got there at 7:30am instead.  The world’s largest fish market is definitely a place of buisness and the wholesale traders have little time for hoards or tourists that are only there to take flash photography and poke the tuna.  In the past tourists have been banned altogether but there seems to have been some compromise where the tourists enter at their own risk and the traders try to knock them down with small automated milk float type vehicles with metallic bumpers that would surely take your leg off if they managed to hit you.  All this said, it is an amazing place with every possible water creature available for sale.

Choosing tuna is an art form which requires a specialised buyer to make the purchase, though we’re slightly unsure how you can judge the quality of a fish which is frozen and looks like a tunified ice cube.  Just like beef, different cuts of tuna command different prices with the fattier sections tending to be more expensive.

A heap of frozen tuna fish

Fatty tuna loin

Not so fatty tuna loin

Some non-tuna items for good measure:

Mussels as big as a big hand

Nosey fish

We had breakfast at one of the popular sushi restaurants inside the market area where the fish was probably taking its last breath seconds before hitting our plates.

Yesterday it was cold and cloudy yet today it was beautiful and sunny (the weather is very changeable here in the springtime).  We realised we were in the vicinity of another tall building with an observation area so we once again took the opportunity to try and spy Mount Fuji, this time from the 47th floor.  The observation area in the Dentsu building was facing Tokyo Bay rather than Mount Fuji so one of the passing domestic staff took pity on us and took us into the restricted area and excitedly looked for Mount Fuji with us.  Alas, no mountain today.  It will give us something to come back for!

View from the Dentsu Building

From the Dentsu building, we spotted the Hama-Rikyu-Teien garden which, according to the guide book, is “arguably the lovliest garden in central Tokyo” so we took the express lift with a view back down to the ground floor (our stomachs followed us a few seconds later) and headed for the walled garden.

We were given a free audio guide to the garden and we learned about the life of the Shoguns when they lived there.  The garden is bound by the ocean on one side and skyscrapers on the other and water from the ocean is channelled into inland ponds to add the the garden’s beauty.

Hama Rikyu Teien Gardens

View of the Dentsu Building from the gardens

Safe hides amongst the flowers

From the garden we took a ferry boat out into Tokyo Bay headed for Odaiba, an artificial island which is home to an interesting mix of seaside leisure development, headquarters for a national TV station, and a mini Statue of Liberty.

Tokyo Bay

Superfast jet boat

Lady Liberty reaches Tokyo

TV building on Odaiba

From Odaiba we returned via monorail though suburbia back to central Tokyo and to Kagurazaka, the Hampstead-esque region of Tokyo with cutesie European cafes, gelaterias and boutiques.  Whilst looking lost (again) and hungry (as always) a kindly Frenchman who’d lived in Japan for 18 years with his Japanese wife helped us out and personally guided us to his favourite meatball shop and then to an ice cream parlour.

Sake Tasting

April 7th, 2010

Day 79.  After a satisfying breakfast of rice, pickles and miso soup, we headed off to continue our exploration of the city.  After a stroll around the Imperial Palace we took the Metro to Ginza.  We’re experts at the Metro now and bought ourselves a Pasmo card which gives us free reign on all lines belonging to all Metro companies, and almost as importantly, enables us to cashlessly buy drinks from vending machines around Tokyo.

Imperial Palace

At Ginza we paid a visit to the seven storey Bic Camera superstore, a Mecca of electronic gadgetry.  Everything of every model and colour can be found here.  We really mean everything!  There is a entire floor dedicated to mobile phones.  The Japanese favour the long rectangular flip top phone with enough space to dangle a fluffy toy or trinket.  There is a floor for cameras, a floor for T.V.’s etc. etc.  Safe thought about cancelling our tour of Japan so we could live on the wires floor for a week.

Safe quality checks an in-car air humidifier and ioniser which fits into the cup holder

Another trip on the Metro took us to Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world.  Shinjuku is a lively part of town and home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building boasting amazing views of the city and Mount Fuji from the 45th floor.  Unfortunately the “Shy Mountain” was too embarrassed to reveal itself today.

View of an attractive educational establishment from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Late afternoon was spent crossing the street at Shibuya, home to the iconic Tokyo landmark of neon lights and the busiest pedestrian crossing.  When the pedestrian light turns green, half of Tokyo seems to cross the street here.  We did it four times to make sure we’d experienced it properly, three times for practice and once for real.

Crossing the road at Shibuya

It’s no secret that we have a penchant for hot sake and we’d read about a sake specialist in the Shibuya area.  We indulged ourselves and splurged on a slap up meal and a four course sake tasting.  For each type of sake we were invited to choose an individualised cup from a large selection of shapes, sizes and materials.  Choosing the perfect cup was difficult, but drinking the sake was far too easy.

Safe also ordered a Shochu, a rice spirit, which we’d heard had become very popular in Japan.  Little did we know that we’d ordered a half-pint of tequila on ice.  Not one for us lightweight drinkers to repeat!

Choose a cup ... any cup ...

Naturally, we were given a personal table barbeque to roast our oversized shiitake mushrooms, though unfortunately we left the first one stewing a little too long and it shrivelled.  We were given remedial classes from the friendly waiter so our next attempt was cooked to perfection.

The perfect mushroom

The dessert was sublime.  The lemon jelly (pronounced zelly in Japanese) was a feat of engineering where the inside of a lemon had been removed and perfectly (and miraculously) substituted with a lightly perfumed soft wobbliness.  A great end to a special meal.

The perfect wobbliness

On the way back to the hotel, we grabbed a hot sweet milky Royal Milk Tea from a vending machine to help counteract the effects of the Shochu!


April 6th, 2010

Day 78.  Tokyo is different.  Really different.  We felt like we’d landed on a different planet.  In fact, we felt like how Japanese tourists look like when you see them in London!

Embarrasingly, even though we think we’re seasoned travellers, we managed to get on the airport train going in the wrong direction.  We’d planned to meet a bicycle tour in central Tokyo but missed it by 40 minutes.

Our next task was to navigate the Tokyo Metro to get to our hotel.  The Metro is incredibly efficient, but not very intuitive to the non-Japanese Speaker.  The tube map looks like an alien star chart from the far reaches of the galaxy.

An excerpt of the Tokyo Metro map

Everyone is so helpful.  As soon as we looked bemused someone came to help us, even if they couldn’t speak English.  One friendly commuter asked us where we were going but still needed to use an iPhone app to plot our course and calculate the fare and ticket type.  (The major Metro lines belong to no less than three different private companies).

At last we made it to the Asakusa district where our hotel was, however we had a little trouble finding the hotel even though we’d walked up the correct street.  We made the incorrect presumption that the hotel name would appear in English somewhere on the building as advertised on the internet booking site.  By following the street numbers, we discovered we’d been standing outside the hotel for some time.

Having dropped off our bags, we explored the area.  We decided that the best landmark to help guide us back to our hotel was to follow the direction of the “golden poo building”.

This way to the hotel

We went for lunch at one of the oldest restaurants in the area, the Komagata Dojo, which specialises in Dozeu, broiled baby eels.  We were instructed to take our shoes off and were guided to our seats on the floor.  Each customer is given their own mini barbeque so your eels can be freshly broiled in front of you.  Our neighbours were very helpful and friendly and instructed us in the art of Japanese eel cooking.  They even generously insisted that we try some of their pickles.

Maitre D' at the Komagata Dojo

Our table at the Komagata Dojo

After lunch we walked the streets and headed for the nearby Senso-ji shrine.  We were overwhelmed with the sheer variety and quality of the sweets and savouries on offer.  Thankfully, many shops provide plastinated replicas of the food on offer allowing the uninitiated to point hungrily while nodding.  The ubiquitous street vending machines are also worth mentioning as phenomena in their own right serving the tastiest selection of hot and cold beverages from a can or a bottle.  The hot sweet milky “Royal Milk Tea” cannot be beaten.

Plastinated ice creams. Choose from rose, jasmine, green tea, chestnut, sesame and many more ...

Safe gracefully eats a red bean ice cream

We followed the crowds towards the temple being careful to avoid the pigeons.  (We can’t read the Japanese on the pigeon sign, but we think this sign is discouraging people from feeding the birds).

Senso-Ji Temple

A picture speaks a thousand words

We returned to our hotel later in the afternoon to be shown to our room and found a whole new concept in the bathroom.  No longer is using the toilet merely a bodily function, it is a whole new technological pleasure experience.  The toilet seat is heated and there is a control panel with more buttons than a calculator.  When you sit on it, water begins to trickle down the back of the loo automatically.  We are speculating that this might be to encourage you to wee.  Or perhaps it is cleaning the toilet for you before you do your business.  Another possibility is that it might be impolite to inflict the embarrassing sound of going to the toilet on others and so the trickle is there to mask this, especially since one of the buttons on the panel is there just to provide the sound of a flushing toilet via loudspeaker without using any water!

Once your business is finished, you can choose to be squirted with water of any temperature and any pressure or angle, then choose to be gently blow-dried.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a toilet!

The default settings were adequate for our needs.


April 5th, 2010

Day 77.  We arrived in Sydney bright and early this morning with 10 hours to spend in town until our onward flight to Tokyo and a pocket full of Australian Dollars left over from our last trip here (which have gained in value considerably since then).

Australia is as vigilant as New Zealand about controlling the import of food, animal products and plant products into the country and there are harsh penalties for violating the rules.  You’re asked both on paper and verbally if you’re carrying anything dodgy and cute beagles excitedly sniff your bags in the hope of finding food.  We fessed up to two packets of emergency noodles which we hadn’t quite got round to eating and they said that was ok.  Our bags passed through the x-ray machine and we were asked if we were carrying fruit.  We answered no.  Then they asked if we were sure we didn’t have anything else.  We answered yes.  Our suspect bag was searched only to find our half eaten packet of mini Easter eggs which we’d inadvertantly tried to smuggle through!  Fortunately they didn’t take away our Easter eggs (oh, and we didn’t get into trouble).  Apparently there had been several inadvertant attempts to smuggle Easter eggs over the last couple of days already!

The day was spent wandering the obligatory tourist route starting at Circular Quay by the Sydney Harbour Bridge and strolling past the Opera House to the Botanic Gardens.  Because it was Easter Monday, everyone and his dog was out in town (and all the cafes charged an Easter Monday fee!)

We both got our hair cut at a budget salon in the basement of a shopping mall.  Unfortunately Annie came away with a fringe which she was a bit of a shock.  Clearly fashion in Sydney is a little different to the UK.

Before returning to the airport we sat at the cafe outside the Opera House for a Shiraz and a bite to eat in the knowledge that we were embarking on the last leg of our trip.


Easter Sunday

April 4th, 2010

Day 76.  The clocks went back last night so we had an extra hour of Easter Sunday.  Unfortunately, rather than spending it in bed, we stood outside the Rivers Cafe waiting for it to open.  However, very fortunately, we were happy to find a launderette directly opposite which was open so we took the opportunity to wash our very stinky camping gear instead.  The cafe finally opened and we ate a seriously large and tasty breakfast of eggs with lots of bacon, and pancakes with even more bacon.  (Murchison is famous for its bacon).

This launderette saved our bacon!

After breakfast, we rolled out of the cafe and picked up our nice clean bag of washing.  We then stocked up on mini Easter Eggs from the corner shop for the long journey to Christchurch.

We were held up in the Waipara wine region some 50km outside Christchurch.  Safe remembers trying a lovely 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from Waipara West (or was it Waipara Springs?) at a NewField IT wine tasting at Vinopolos in London back in October, so he was quite excited about finding the winery.  We made stops at the low key Waipara Springs for a quiet lunch, the gates of Waipara West (just to see it for Safe’s sake), and the upmarket Pegasus.

Lunch at Waipara Springs

A drive past the entrance of Waipara West

At last we arrived in Christchurch and made ourselves comfy at the Sumida Airport Hotel and watched a women’s netball tournament on TV in anticipation of our early flight the next morning.