Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The missing luggage was delivered safely to the house after 10pm last night. I was asked if we were carrying back rocks by the delivery man.

After a month of travel it is pleasant to be back in our own home, back with our puppy who looks less puppyish than when we left. Yet I am not tired of travel. I still listen to the jets as they fly above our house and think about how I would like to be on them. Maybe back to Europe next time, but with a stopover somewhere in Asia.

The holiday had many highlights. In China it would be walking along the Great Wall, the serenity around the big Buddha in Leshan and watching pandas play in Chengdu. Despite all the pushing peasants and taxi touts, we also met some lovely, helpful people in China. Hong Kong's fun came from the precarious transport up to the Peak and Lantau. Japan had quiet walks, cherry blossoms, volcanos and cities of neon.

We will visit all those countries again, if we get a chance to. Each is different and each has far more to see than we have yet seen.

But now it's time to enjoy the relatively unpolluted skies of Australia, to eat better yum cha than in Hong Kong and fish without bones. And I'll keep on dreaming of that next holiday...

Monday, April 9, 2007


After one month travelling through China, Hong Kong and Japan on plane, train, cable car, trishaw and whatever else you can imagine we have finally made it home again. It is always nice to return to your own home, a place where everything is familiar.

Almost everything is familiar. Where once there was lawn now there was a jungle and the green waste bin wasn't large enough to hold all the clippings when I returned it to its former state.

Our final day in Tokyo started with me running around to find the Kinko's in West Shinjuku to print out our Cathay Pacific online check-in documents. We then checked out of the hotel and caught the subway to the Tsukiji fish markets to find more dried seafood.

I guess that the markets are closed on Sundays because there was only one dried seafood stall. The rest of the open shops were sushi restaurants for the tourists.

As usual we were running late and overloaded for the Narita Express. My backpack frame had broken, so I was forced to drag my 25 kilogram back along the ground. Judging by the black dust on bottom of the bag I was doing a service for Shinjuku in cleaning up the floor.

The flights back to Sydney were pretty fun, with only a few rough periods. The food was delicious and I had not seen the Little Britain Abroad episode on the IFE. The Cathay crew were very helpful, the air fresh enough for me. If only we had those lie flat first class bed maybe I could have had a good sleep on the plane.

Instead I saw the stars for the first time in a month, watched a meteor burn up in the atmosphere. Below the bright lamps of the shrimp and squid fleets were brighter than any stellar reflections. I knew when we were passing Taipei because the cloud cover below suddenly took on a glowing red tinge, like a hidden hell. Lightning flashed in the clouds over Indonesia, natures fireworks.

As we crossed into Australia I watched the sunrise beneath the clouds, turning the cloudscape into a desert scene. Then I felt the plane shake as we passed into the clouds themselves.

Unfortunately, my big bag did not appear on the luggage belt at Sydney Airport. I hope it has not disappeared into the hand of thieves because some of the contents are difficult to obtain in Australia. Plus my dirty laundry could be considered a weapon of mass destruction... oh, now it makes sense. I'll keep my eye out for people in sunglasses following me.

The holiday is over and it is back to work tomorrow. Now for sleep!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Saying goodbye to Japan

This will probably be the last post from Japan. This afternoon we catch the Narita Express to the airport, a flight to Hong Kong, then straight onwards to Sydney. As I said before, I will miss Japan, miss travelling. But it will also be nice to be home, to see our dog again, to see friends.

I am not looking forward to doing housework again, to our garden or to the routine which rules our everyday lives. Each time we travel we bring back with us new memories and new ideas. There is always something positive to take away from each location. The grass may not always be greener on the other side, but it does offer a new perspective.

So goodbye Japan for now. I'm hope we'll be back in the future.

A walk in the park

It took until the second last day, but I found it! No, not the singing toilet. Its location is still unknown. I'm talking about Gokuri, Miracle of Grapefruit. This drink sustained me during our first visit to a hot and humid Tokyo. Since then it seems to have disappeared from the vending machines that dot the landscape.

On the last trip I found Gokuri in a vending machine at Matsumoto Station, minutes from our train's departure. This morning we were walking down the North Eastern entrance into Shinjuku Station when we came upon a shop called ranKing ranQueen. This chain of stores (also spotted in Shibuya) only sells the "Top 5" items in a variety of categories from drink (Gokuri was only number 4!?!?!) to cellulite removers. So Tokyoites, remember to keep Gokuri's ranking high, because I have no idea where else I can buy it!

We've been meaning to visit the Shinjuku National Garden (Gyoen) for a long time and today we finally made it through the crowded gates. The sunny, warm weather was perfect for lying under the cherry blossoms and thousands of locals appeared to agree. We weren't complaining, mind you, because they lent a festive and friendly air to the park as they savoured sushi and sake on their big blue mats. The park was big enough to share with everyone.

Like Mount Fuji, it is difficult to understand the Japanese obsession with cherry blossoms until you see them for yourself. The Shinjuku gardens house many types of fruit blossoms in different shades of pink and white. Petals drifted softly to the ground or covered the surface of ponds. Clear spaces in the waters reflected the images of the overhanging cherry blossom trees, while the light upon the paths was filtered through the green and red Spring foliage of the maple trees.

The park is a beautiful, restful place that feels like it is miles away from the neon cacophany of urban Shinjuku.

Just for a change, we caught the train to Shibuya, ate yummy Japanese burgers and shopped in the cheap Shibuya 109 department store. Nearby, Tower Records has an amazing range of limited edition soundtracks while Seibu Loft is full of interesting things for the home and office. Browsing Japanese shops is a lot of fun, both for the wierd range of goods on sale and the people who shop there.

Shinjuku's north entrance was noisier than usual tonight with a politician holding a rally. It's local election time in Japan. It's a pity, because I had enjoyed escaping New South Wales prior to the state election, with all the awful advertising.

I can't believe that this is our last night here. I look out our window and see a rainbow of neon, pulsing and flashing with life. I'll miss that.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Snow, Streams and Steam at Hakone

Each gust of wind covered us in a cloud of rotten-egg gas. The landscape was stony and bare, except for paths of leafless shrubs. Grey water bubbled from steaming vents in the ground. Behind us Mt Fuji loomed large, covered in snow and cloud.

We were at Owakudani, a dormant volcano whose collapsed sides had exposed springs of steaming sulpherous water. Hirohide-san had kindly picked us up from Hakone-Yumoto station and driven us up into the mountains. Hot springs steamed out of the rock besides the road as we neared Owakudani, itself visible from afar by the white clouds coming directly from the mountainside. Yet we could also see patches of melting winter snows. It was the three phases of water at once!

Even more impressive was the sight of Mount Fuji. We were fortunate, for almost the entire mountain, including the summit, was visible. It is truly an awesome sight, looming large over the countryside with nothing else besides it to diminish its height.

We ate eggs boiled in the hot springs of Owakudani. The iron and sulphides in the water had reacted with the proteins to stain them black, but they tasted great.

Our next stop was over and through the mountains to Gotemba, Hirohide's pretty home town. I had met Hirohide, or Hiro as he preferred to be called, while on my morning walk to work in 2005. Hiro is a researcher and lecturer at Numazu University, but was spending ten months in Australia as a visiting researcher at my workplace. He had kindly offered to take leave from work and show us around his local area.

Gotemba is also the home of major Japanese and US military bases and we passed helicopter gunships sitting on the tarmac and flying overhead. It seems an awful waste to place military baes in the area, for it has such spectacular views of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, snow thwarted Hiro's attempt to drive us up to the base of the mountain, although the views of the winter landscape were worthwhile in themselves.

We ate a delicious lunch of tonkatsu (crumbed pork). I have never tasted pork so tender and sweet as this. We were given a mortar and pestle to grind roasted sunflower seeds, to which we added a sweet tonkatsu sauce. Great fun!

Steep and winding roads lead us to the area of Hakone that appears in all the photographs, the big caldera lake called Ashi. Motorised cruise boats disguised as paddle steamers or sailess men of war roam the lake with a cargo of tourists. Besides the lake near the town of Moto-Hakone is the famous red and black torii, others mark the entrance and exit to the town.

Part of the old Tokaido road between Edo (old Tokyo) and Kyoto lies besides the lake, marked by giant cedar pines. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate the wives and children of local nobles were kept at the capital of Edo and the nobles themselves were required to visit Edo every alternate year. The movements of weapons and soldiers was strictly controlled to prevent rebellion.

We visited a reproduction of one of the Imperial checkpoints along the road. Here, samurai and other officials monitored the movement of people along the Tokaido road, paying particular attention to the children and wives of nobles. The nearby museum, well worth a visit for the many artifacts on display, told the tale of a young girl who tried to return to her homeland to see her father and was executed by the soldiers at the checkpoint. Women who supported illegal travellers could be cast into slavery, the men tatooed for their crimes.

Nearby to the museum is a pretty park with great views of the lake and, if weather permits, Mt Fuji. By this time the clouds had closed in and the great volcanic mountain was no longer visible. But we had seen it and were more than satisfied.

Hiro drove us back to Hakone-Yumoto, which looks to be a lovely little town built in a mountain vallery around a burbling stream. It was wonderful to have a local guide and Hiro ensured that we saw many areas that may have been a bit troublesome to see otherwise. It's always fun to talk to someone who lives in the country you are visiting!

Our Odakyu "Romance Car" train took us all the way back to Shinjuku station in comfort. We wandered around neon Shinjuku, visiting the "youth" 0101City department store. The basement houses Diamante Jesus, a store for Barbie Doll wannabes, while from Level 4 upwards are clothes and shoes for the cuties, goths and punks that gather in Harajuku on Sundays.

The Japanese make Australian fashions, in fact anywhere else in the world, look positively boring. If you tried to wear in Sydney what they do here the conservative locals would probably charge you with something. I'm going to miss the colour and craziness of the people and the cities when I return to Australia. I have to admit that it is not something I am looking forward to. It's nice to be able to walk the streets late at night and enjoy the zany atmosphere without worrying that some drunk or druggy is going to mug you. And its like this every night, not just for Thursday late night shopping!

I can't believe that this holiday is almost over. I don't want it to end. I just want to sit in this hotel room and gaze out over insane Shinjuku, then nip out for a quick but delicious sushi or soba and to walk amongst the cherry blossoms in the park.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Searching for the Singing Loo in Shinjuku

Ever since we spotted a picture of this moving, singing toilet in a book we've wanted to see it for ourselves. All I knew was that the Ten Chi toilet was in the Lemina Building located somewhere in Shijuku.

Our search began in West Shinjuku on the 26th floor of the L building. According to the Lonely Planet the Toto Super Space showroom was located here. Toto make those arse-warming-and-washing toilets used across Japan. I love them, our hotel room has one and it certainly saves on toilet paper.

The showroom was a pretty staid bathroom fixtures display, the nearest working toilets nothing more exciting than your average Japanese loo.

The sky was as blue and as clear as it has been through all of our time in Asia, the chilly air invigorating (to me, B was just cold). What better opportunity to spot Mt Fuji from Tokyo? So we caught the lift up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower 1.

I thought I spotted Mt Fuji, but it wasn't as obvious as with our trip up to Matsumoto last year. No matter, we'll be in the area tomorrow visiting Hakone. However, the views across Tokyo were fantastic. Most buildings in Tokyo are low to the ground due to the danger from Earthquakes. Shinjuku is a more stable geological location and there were a number of skyscrapers around us. Helipads and the railway tracks of the window cleaners' apparatus were visible on their roofs.

Crossing back over to East Shinjuku the remainder of the day was spent mainly on shopping, though we did search for the Lemina buidling out in front of the Mitsukoshi Department Store. Better luck next time! I didn't check my watch often enough and we missed out on going for a walk amongst the cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Park (last entry 4pm). Hopefuly we will get another chance on the weekend. I feel much more exhausted from the shopping than the sightseeing.

I really admire the quality and elegance of many Japanese goods. We visited a furniture store and most of the furniture looked simple, yet very classy. The food, both local and western is prepared and presented well. Their average bakery/patisserie item is as delicious as anything similar we ate in France. The fruits (I'm munching strawberries now) are top quality. Tonight's sushi was incredibly flavoursome.

One failing would have to be the television here. Such nice TV sets, such crap programs. Just saw the Japanese version of Deal or No Deal. No pissing or chilli eating contests at all! In fact I haven't seen a single one of those classic Japanese gameshows since we arrived. Do we just get back too late?

Whatever my complaints about Japanese television, they pale in comparison to what I think of CNN. So little news in so much time! No mention at all of the disaster in the Solomon Islands, yet endless "analysis" and updates about the British soldiers' return from Iran. They could show news from across the world, yet all they do is focus on US non-news, terrorism and the Middle East. Even Channel 10 news is more informative. If this is the type of news that Americans watch at home then it is no wonder that they seem so ignorant. It's a pity that there are no other English language channels here at the hotel.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Karma Kamakura

Inside the cave locals placed their coins in the small wicker baskets and ladled the Zeniarai Benten shrine's spring waters over the basket, soaking the money. Legend says that the money will be bring great returns once spent.

As Australians we had a great advantage over the locals. A plastic fifty dollar note. No worries getting that wet!

The Odakyo Line's rapid express to Fujisawa was a glorified suburban train with squashed inward facing seats. Not great for sightseeing, but the departure point was close to the hotel. After yet another late night that was very important as it meant we could wake up that much later (but still too early).

At Fujisawa we changed to a tramway called the the Enoshima Dentetsu or Enoden line. This is a cute little train that runs through a narrow path, giving passengers a good view of some lovely little house gardens. After Enoshima the Enoden line runs along the coast. We watched locals attempting to surf in near non-existent waves. They were probably too busy enjoying the sunny weather to care.

Disembarking at Hase station we walked up to the Hasedera temple, with its large wooden "kannon" (Buddha statue). The temple gardens are very pretty with many spring flowers and a wonderful view across the bay.

A lunch of soba noodles, tempura and rice recharged the batteries. It's the first time we have had both on this trip to Japan. Last time I went crazy over soba, especially the cold zaru soba.

The Daibatsu, an 11 metre high bronze statue of Buddha was not as impressive as the Lantau island statue in Hong Kong, although its history is more interesting. It was originally enclosed within a wooden temple, but this was washed away in a tsunami.

After one false start we took the Daibatsu hiking course northwards. The initial steep steps upwards were daunting, but the serenity and beauty of the surroundings quickly overcame the misgivings. The path wound its way up along the hill ridges, thick exposed tree roots a constant tripping hazard.

We passed under green and red maples, pink cherry blossoms and a forest of cyprus pines. Above us falcons circled, while other birds sung a constant symphony. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in Japan.

The trail emerged into a quaint (and undoubtedly expensive) little community with spectacular views over the ocean. The Kuzuharaoka Jinja marked the end of our walk along the trail, the shrine appearing to be more of a picnic spot and blossom appreciation location than place of religious significance.

The road down to the Zeniarai Benten shrine was steep and guaranteed that we were not climbing back up. There we washed our fifty dollar note and admired the huge koi. You don't see koi that size in China it seems. Probably eaten.

One more shrine interrupted our walk to Kamakura station: the Sasuke-jinja had a classic path of torii, though some were new and unpainted, while others had rotted away. The lead up to a peaceful set of shrines, adorned with many dog statues.

The Enoden line returned us from Kamakura to Fujisawa, from where we caught the train back to Shinjuku and a evening trip to Yodobashi Camera and a dinner of Japanese curry. No little laptops as cute as the one I'm typing on.

Kamakura is a really pretty place to visit. The Daibatsu trail provided a total contrast to the flashing lights and crowds of Shinjuku. There are many aspects to Japan and it's well worth trying to explore as many as you can.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Let's go Kawagoe!

Imagine eighty people dragging a four tonne three storey wooden float down a street. On the float musicians are playing flutes and striking drums, while at the top a human sized doll watches over the proceedings. Now imagine twenty-nine of these floats parading past centuries old Japanese architecture through streets lined with tens of thousands of onlookers.

It would be spectacular to be in Kawagoe during the Autumn festival. But October is a long time away, so the town dubbed "Little Edo" was a lot quieter today. The black, grey and brown Edo-era tiled warehouses have been converted into shops selling a good range of souveniers, dried foods and sweets, many derived from the long purple skinned potatoes that seem to be the theme ingredient of the town.

In lieu of the festival I visited the Kawagoe Festival Museum, where a couple of floats are displayed, along with audio-visual presentations. The old staff in the museum are eager to share their knowledge through the language barrier. It's surprisingly interesting.

We walked through the chilly rain to the Kitain Temple. We were starving by this stage, for we hd not eaten lunch and it was after three. For the second time a hanami matsuri (cherry blossom festival) came to our rescue. There were lamps and tents set up amongst the temple ground cherry trees. We ate yakitori (skewers) and yakisoba (fried noodles) under the tent.

The temple grounds are home to the Gohyaku-Rakan statues, 538 disciples of the Buddha carved from stone. Their postures and expressions are almost comical.

The train to and from Kawagoe left from right under our Shinjuku hotel. It was pleasant to get out of the city and pass through the suburbs, with their tiny manicured gardens and snapshots of daily Japanese life. One the way back a group of teenage girls dressed in exquisite kimonos boarded the train.

At Kawagoe station we saw a vending machine selling a Yakult drink called "Thorpedo" with Ian Thorpe's face plastered all over it. So does it contain any performance enhancing drugs?

I'm surprised the Kawagoe isn't mentioned in the Lonely Planet. The JNTO representative recommended it to us and we agree, it's a very interesting little town to visit and convenient too!

Back in Shinjuku, B had a hair cut while I bought up N-gauge model railway parts at Sakuraya. Amazing how cheap and how good the N-gauge stuff is in Japan. I'm looking to setup a miniature version of our rail trip to Takayama last year, as a reminder of our holidays.

More trains tomorrow, this time to Enoshima and Kamakura.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Venus on Planet Tokyo

A shopping centre decked out like an old Italian town, complete with painted sky and uniformed attendants marching with glowing red batons. It's Venus Fort, located in the Odaiba area of Tokyo, adjacent to a multistorey showcase of Toyota cars which includes an automated car driving a indoor circuit. It's quirky Tokyo with a cafe that serves a delicious cup of hot white chocolate.

We arrived at Aomi station in an automated "monorail" on the Yurikamome Line. It's more like a bus constrained to a path as there are no rails as such. Still, the views from the elevated "track" are great, showing off Tokyo's harbour area and Rainbow Bridge (which just looked white to me, even in the evening). It makes a nice change from the lack of views on the subways.

After waking up late in the morning, just in time for the included hot buffet breakfast, we caught the subway to the Ginza area so we could pay a visit to the helpful Japan National Tourism Office (JNTO) for maps and brochures. It beats whipping out the big all-Japan Lonely Planet.

From Ginza we walked past impossibly expensive brand shops down to the Tsukiji Fish Markets. B ate a lunch of mixed sashimi (raw fish) on rice. I've tried sashimi, but would rather not eat it if I can help it. Don't like the taste or texture.

The small produce and fish stalls around the markets were closing by 2:30pm, so we walked to Shiodome and caught the monorail. The rest of the day was spent browsing the clothing stores. I'll get my chance to see electronics soon. And sightseeing begins again shortly, which I am greatly looking forward to.

Star Wars Lego is even cheaper in Japan than Hong Kong. Why is Australia so expensive?

It was strange reading the Sydney Morning Herald this morning and seeing a tsunami warning issued for the Eastern coastline. I'd expect that for here. There was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake last week. Hopefully the plate tectonics will be taking it easy for the next week.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Konnichi wa Nihon!

We said goodbye to Hong Kong today and hello to Tokyo today. The Airport Express to Hong Kong airport was fast and comfortable. Though it was nice to get some cash back we were a bit sorry to return the Octopus cards. These stored value cards were not only used as tickets on the MTR and trams, but also for purchases in bakeries, supermarkets and other shops. So nice not to fumble for change. Sydney is long overdue for this technology.

Both of our Cathay Pacfic flights have been superb, with the exception of the food. The entertainment system wasn't working properly on this flight and was rebooted a number of times. This seems to be a common problems across airlines.

Our flight path took us near a number of storm clouds and things got bumpy as we skimmed along the high altitude cloud tops. Seems to be a common problem for flying north across the Pacific.

Caught the Narita Express to Shinjuku for the seventh time, it is all very familiar to us now. That's the nice thing about staying here in Shinjuku. There's a lot to see (and many places to shop), but we know our way around and we can relax now. Upon entering the hotel room we had a pleasant surprise. What was once a slightly run down beige and white room with a great view is now a hip looking space complete with a widescreen LCD TV and, still with a fantastic view. Cool!

We saw many cherry blossoms on our ride into Tokyo, so hopefully we'll get a chance to walk amongst them during our stay here.