07 March, 2018

Getting springy in Tokyo...

Our long trip in Japan is almost over - to finish off we had a few days in Tokyo to get our washing done and do some final, relaxed, sightseeing. It seems that Spring has arrived in Tokyo, it's now about 5-9C, much warmer than we we first arrived, and forecast rain thankfully stayed away. Enjoying the sunshine over several days, we visited a few places we missed out on during our previous stops here. One night, we felt another modest earthquake which shook our bed on the 30th floor in Tokyo, our second this trip.

There's a lot of Tokyo we didn't cover!

Manga billboard ads near Shinjuku Station.

Rated as one of the three best gardens in Japan, we took the JR Yamamote line to Sugamo Station, and walked about a kilometer through what we saw to be the very upmarket suburb of Komagome in Bunkyo-ku to the Rikugien Gardens. Our route passed very nice stand-alone houses with their own lock-up car garages, surely a relative rarity in this huge city.

A wintery feel in Rikugien Gardens, brown grass and no cherry blossoms yet.

How to brighten up a shady corner of a garden.

The Edo style garden itself was a delight, but we were about a month too early for the legendary cherry blossoms to be out. Plum blossoms were out and colourful. Rikugien (which means "six principles of waka or poetry") was built around 1700 for the fifth shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and supposedly reproduces 88 scenes from famous poems. We saw several examples where a posted photograph demonstrated that a particular aspect had been designed to look like a specific Japanese location.

Stepping stones in Rikugien Gardens.

For another garden, we took the Metro to Otemachi, and found our way through a serious business district to the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda district where the East Garden is open to the public. This was also a pleasant spot with the plum trees in blossom, but historically it contains the ruins (moats and ramparts only) of the legendary Edo Castle, now become a look out. Edo Castle is where the Tokugawa shogunate was established, lording over 300 daimyo throughout Japan, and lasted from 1603 to 1868 when the Meiji Restoration brought about the fall of Edo. Fire destroyed the castle in 1853 after which the new Imperial Palace was built nearby. The firebombing of 1945 devastated this site.

New blossoms and old ramparts at the Imperial Palace.

Essential study for touring this country.

Plums blossom a month before the cherries.

Bamboo grove at the Imperial Palace East Garden.

And, within yet another garden, we went to the important Meiji Shrine which abuts Harajuku Station, but we walked there from our Hilton in Shinjuku and entered via the "back gate". This shrine commemorates Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. Meiji (1852-1912) is credited with transforming Japan from an "isolationist feudal state to a capitalist and imperial world power" (Wikipedia) and is revered around the nation. This major Tokyo shrine was completed in 1921, destroyed in WW2, and since rebuilt.

Near Harajuku Station, the main pedestrian entrance to the Meiji Shrine.

Gate to the Meiji Shrine.

Fantastic wooden door at the Meiji Shrine.

Sake has been donated for centuries out of respect to the Emperor and Empress.

Wild gardens of the Meiji Shrine.

We were lucky enough to be in town for the annual Tokyo Marathon, one of the six "majors" in the world's marathon gland slam. We had a spectacular view from our hotel room. Fortunately, they didn't take applications on the day, lest we were tempted to enter! Runners from Kenya and Ethipia won the race. Being only 200m from the start, the Hilton Hotel accommodated many entrants, so it was busier than ever what with Chinese New Year still raging.

First wave of runners in the 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

Tokyo Marathon runners heading through Shinjuku.

After trying and failing to find this on two separate occasions, we finally located the stunning 30m mural by Japanese artist Taro Okamoto called "Myth of Tomorrow" in a prominent location in a busy building at Shibuya Station. The mural of a burning landscape is an abstract depiction of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and was commissioned for (but never installed in) a hotel in Mexico City in 1968, and (after being lost for decades) was finally given the exposure it deserves at Shibuya in 2003. We were pleased to have finally found the mural and discovered that its location also offers a better view of the busy Shibuya crossing than we had seen before.

"Myth of Tomorrow" by Taro Okamoto at Shibuya.

Supposedly the busiest crossing in the world, at Shibuya, on a Sunday.

And one sunset we went to the seaside, to the district known as Odaiba, a very modern tourism-oriented part of a renewal project on man-made islands in Tokyo Bay. Odaiba started as a string of small man made fort islands ("daiba" means "fort") built in late 1800's to guard against possible attacks from the sea, specifically the USA. Modern redevelopment was spurred along by construction of the "Rainbow Bridge" (1993) and the Yurikamome ("black-headed seagull") line in 2006. The Yurikamome line uses a driverless automatic rubber tyred train sets, so is fun to ride on, but as we discovered on the way home, it's also a serious commuter route, being packed with businessmen after work.

Panorama of Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo skyline.

Traversing the Rainbow Bridge, the Yurikamome subway line uses driverless trains.

Futuristic Fuji TV building at Odaiba.

Skillful artist painting watercolour of Rainbow Bridge.

A puzzling sight in Tokyo, the one seventh scale replica of the Statue of Liberty at Odaiba.

All Tokyo trains are always full, but on the Oedo Line that same evening we encountered crowding of the level that you read about. Our subway train was so full, the passengers so packed together, that it would be impossible to fall over. We're taller than most Japanese, so could see what was happening - many passengers don't even bother to hang onto the straps, they are held upright and in position completely surrounded by and buffered by their neighbours. (And, everyone on board was totally focused on their mobile phones - we tried to imagine the system behind this massive use of bandwidth in an enclosed train maybe 100m underground. We even received a text message during the crush.) The manoevering to get on and off at stations is indescribable. Luckily, almost everyone got off at Shinjuku, like we did.

Hazy sunset over Tokyo west of the city.

Welcoming decorations at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office.

So, what's our wrap-up of Japan? We discovered that there are two Japans - one packed with foreign tourists, and the other where there are few. The two Japans are entirely different. In the Japan occupied by the Japanese, the trains may be crowded but the streets are clean and the people are restrained and polite - they say konichiwa to each other on the footpaths, even to us. Pedestrians walk on the left, but in touristy Japan, mostly populated by loud-mouthed visitors from elsewhere in Asia and elsewhere, the Japanese are bullied into walking on the right, and their traditional protocols seem to fall by the wayside. Oh, how the locals must deplore these and other affronts caused by outsiders! Japanese must feel squeezed out of their own cherished beauty spots. Non-touristy Japan is a much nicer place to be.

A fair spread over Hokkaido and Honshu, but nothing south of Miyajima, nothing on Kyushu or Shikoko or any outer island. There's still a lot of Japan to see!

During our most recent visit to touristy Japan, Hakone, we were alert to the effects of this invasion and paid particular attention. Japanese facilitators are everywhere, giving amplified advice on where to stand on crowded platforms for example, what bus to catch etc, but it's all in crystal clear Japanese, a language which is incomprehensible to 80-90% of the audience. We know from local English language newspapers that this is an issue well understood by authorities, and they plan great improvements for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Specifically, we've heard that tsunami warnings, which can be transmitted to every mobile phone in a region, will soon be available in English. There's a long way to go.

25 February, 2018

The elusive Fujiyama at Hakone...

One of Katsushika Hokusai's "Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji" (ca 1830), looking across Lake Ashinoko.

Some 100km west of Tokyo stands the icon of Japan, Mt. Fuji or Fujiyama. We've been lucky enough to see the classical conic shape from Tokyo, but we now visited Hakone in the hope of a closer view. This didn't eventuate - in good weather (mostly), Fuji, still 30km away, remained shrouded in cloud, even though February (and winter generally) is statistically a month with plenty of clear days. Oh well, but we discovered that there is much more at Hakone. We got there on the Odakyu Line's Romance Car limited express from Shinjuku to Hakone's base station, Hakone-Yumoto, a very busy station clinging to the side of a hill on the edge of a rather cute mountain town.

This poster shows the view we never saw.

The Hakone area is a truly delightful mountain retreat, a beautiful and complex array of urbanisation, rugged wilderness and a whole cornucopia of transport options. In the four days we spent in Hakone, we got around by taxi, bus, train, ropeway, cable car and boat. Roads here are narrow, steep and windy - all drivers have to cooperate to get past any oncoming vehicle. There is so much of interest here, in the way of scenic attractions, bush walking, history, galleries and even shopping) that it would make sense to spend more time exploring, and possibly a rental-car would be a good idea. No wonder the Japanese love this place, all within day-trip range of Tokyo.

The Haya River cascades through the mountainous town of Hakone-Yumoto.

The Hakone Tozan Line is Japan's oldest mountain railway, about 1920. Its tiny three carraige train sets resemble a light rail system, but the signalling system is first rate. It has to be, trains are running in both directions on a single line track every ten minutes or so, with passing lanes and three "switchbacks" where the driver and conductor run to swap places. The train climbs from 108m at Hakone-Yumoto to 553m at Gora over 9km (about 40mins) of cliff-clinging, twisty track. It's a fun ride, full of things to look at.

Three carriage trains ply the steep twisty climb from Hakone-Yumoto to Goma.

Buses provide a similar experience. A comprehensive network covers the territory, the buses navigating really tight spaces with aplomb and consideration. Every other vehicle gets a wave of thanks from the bus drivers. Every time the bus takes off, the drivers count and "salute" each of their six mirrors. Like everywhere else, the buses adhere absolutely to their timetables.

Tori gate and cemetary at Moto-Hakone.

Lake Ashi or Ashinoko is a large crater lake in the caldera of Mount Hakone. It's 723m above sea level and it's a weird sensation to climb a long steep hill in a bus to look down on a lake, such is the nature of volcanos! A very popular way of crossing Lake Ashi is on ferries, each modelled on old pirate ships or war-ships for some reason, and from the southern end of the lake you can see Mt. Fuji, if you're lucky. We were not, a huge cloud stubbornly refusing to budge from the top of the mountain each time we were here.

The rather bizarre Ashinoko ferries were packed with Chinese New Year crowds.

Glimpse of Lake Ashinoko from the ropeway near Souzan.

By travelling between Goma, the railway terminus, and Togendai-ko, a ferry stop, we learned the difference between the terms ropeway and cable car, in Japanese parlance at least. Between Goma and Souzan there is a "cable car", two trains running on a steep slope (one up, one down) connected by a cable operated from the top station. There are four stops on the way, and the two trains have a passing lane in the middle. And between Souzan and Togendai-ko there are two seperate "ropeways" carrying dozens of gondolas, each holding maybe a dozen passengers. At the top, connecting the two ropeways is Owakudani (1044m), also accessible by road, an extremely popular vantage point.

The cable car from Owakudani arrives to a full platform at Gora.

Sulphur smelling steam wafts assaults the nostrils of everyone in those gondolas.

Owakudani is referred to as "hell" in much tourist literature, it's where the inner workings of our planet break through to the surface in swirls of steam and very strong sulphur smells. (Every passenger on the ropeways has been given a moist face-cloth becore coming here, and warned off if they have any breathing illnesses.) The Hakone area is actively volcanic, being right at the intersection of three tectonic plates. The major formative eruptions of the Hakone caldera were 180,000 and 60,000 years ago, the latest causing lava flow was 2,900 years ago. In 1170AD there was a significant eruption, and much more recently, in 1991 a seismic swarm of 300 recorded earthquakes occurred. In 2015 there was a lesser explosion causing a small, new crater to be formed, evaculations and disruption of tourism. The new crater is evident if you peer through the swirling steam escaping the valley near Owakudani but the whole area is such a sulphurous hell-hole you wouldn't notice it.

Hot water harvesting hell-hole that is Owakudani.

It's said that eating just one black egg boiled in dilute sulphric acid prolongs your live seven years.

If you want someone to take a good photo of you, pick a person holding a real camera.

Steam ejects from all over the Hakone caldera.

We had been wondering how onsen hot water is managed, and up here, we gained some insight to that question. Owakudani is a farm where hot water is grown and distributed. It an amazing, and ugly, industrial enterprise, but the scalding water thus produced is then used to warm us up in those wonderful Japanese bath-houses. When you are here, it looks like the end of the earth, but a study of the map quickly shows how close the trappings of tourist civilisation are, ryokans, golf courses etc. There's a Geological Museum at Owakudani and the JPY100 entry fee is well worth it, giving the history or the area, and with scale models of the heat exchangers.

Mythology regards Lake Ashinoko as a vicious nine headed dragon - artwork in the Geological Museum.

On the bad side, our whole time at Hakone was blighted by huge crowds. When we made these arrangements we didn't realise that it was Chinese New Year, and nor did we appreciate that Japan would be so popular with the Chinese at this time. We thought families were meant to reunite back home at CNY, not decamp to foreign countries! We first discovered this problem when we had to queue up for an hour at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo just to buy the Hakone Free Pass which would get us on the Romance Car limited express train to Hakone-Yumoto Station as well as local trains, buses, cable cars and ropeways within the district. For our visit, public transport was distressingly overcrowded - the cable car was the main bottle-neck, but the trains were packed too. We imagine that it is always busy in this tourist region, but Chinese New Year is definitely to be avoided!

The pirate ship-like ferry welcomed Chinese New Year visitors.

For accommodation, we picked the Kai Hoshino at Hakone for a few nights of luxury before returning to Tokyo for the last time. It squeezes in between the Old Tokaido Road and the Sukumo River. Our suite, which is in a new wing, faces due north across the river to a very pretty and very close foothill of Mt Yusaka. Steam from the onsen downstairs wafts pass our full width picture window. It's really pure indulgence, our suite, with large living and sleeping rooms, in a modern-traditional styling fusion, and a large ultra-chic bathroom and shower.

The Sukomo River passing below our room at Kai Hakone.

Kai Hakone is decorated in themes of parquetry from various local woods, called yosegi zaiku. There are truly glorious wooden creations, including impenetrable puzzles, in both the common areas and in our suite. Tempting but expensive.

Fine wooden creations were everywhere at Kai Hakone.

In individual paper walled rooms, we dine on Japanese style kaiseki dinners here, which are probably the best of the whole trip. The kitchen goes to great lengths to accommodate special food wishes, and the staff try to explain what everything is. We get written menus. Kaiseki breakfasts too - at this time of day we'd probably prefer our fruit, cereal and toast!

Just one course of our kaiseki meals at Kai.

Kai Hakone is located on the Tokaido road, a torturous path through the mountains taken by travellers between Edo (old Tokyo) and Kyoto. Under a policy called sankin kotai, once a year, feudal lords (daimyo) were obliged by the shogun to travel to and from Kyoto for the purpose, it was said, of impoverishing them beacuse of the costs of maintaining two households. This annual event is commemorated on a giant noren (curtain) which divides the Kai's onsen into "inside" and "outside" - it's a truly spectacular katazome (stencil dyed) sketch by Mitsuko Ogura made even more interesting by fanciful elements such as the mountains being represented by parquetry, the appearance of a modern day pirate ship on Lake Ashi and a tourist cable car too!

Sunset shot from our Kai Hoshino room.

The onsen is unusual, a large rectangular wooden tub (no natural rock formations here) half in and half out of the building. There is a very pretty, subtly lit, garden by the onsen, and if you sit on the bath edge, you can contemplate the river only a few metres away, until you get too cold and have to slip back into the 40C water. All pretty nice, but we wonder if this onsen is big enough to cope with sumer crowds.

We wondered how the shogun and his daimyo got to enjoy onsen.

And on that sankin kotai pilgrimage, one of the three ports in the pirate ship cruise loop on Lake Askinoko is Hakone-machi where the shogun placed a sekisho, a check-point, which operated from 1618 to 1868AD, where arrivals were searched for weapons, and (apparently more importantly) departing women were scrutinised closely in case they were wives (or children) of the said daimyo attempting to flee from Edo. The women were hostages in Edo to make sure the daimyo came back!

Hakone Shrine by Lake Ashi was called on by daimyo and other travellers.

As we left from Hakone-Yumoto station, we observed packed Romance Car trains arriving every 20 minutes from Tokyo, packed local trains arriving from nearby big city and Shinkansen stop Odawara, and wondered how this district can absorb such visitor numbers. We were very glad to have been able to enjoy almost absolute peace and quiet at an out-of-town riverside ryokan.

Romance Car train pulling into Hakone-Yamoto station.

Photo density map shows how we worked around Mt Hakone.

24 February, 2018

Cranes and planes in Kushiro...

Finally, on our last day in Hokkaido we zero in on the city of Kushiro, but before that we visit the Akan International Crane Centre in the city's north for another look (hopefully) at those gorgeous red-crowned cranes, known locally as tancho. This is a place devoted to the cranes and performs the dual roles of nurturing the endangered birds as well as providing a great opportunity for visitors to observe them in the wild. There are interpretive displays, a video to watch, and a bird hospital outside. The publically chosen nickname for the centre is Grus which is part of the scientific name for the cranes.

Tancho may be rare, but photographers are in abundance in the well-structured viewing area. There are 25 or so cranes coming or going. It's quite windy (not to mention a long way below zero), and the tancho are quite spectacular as they exploit the wind to take off and land. There are dozens of whooper swans there too, which, sadly, get in the way of clean photographs. But the cranes were close enough to get some good snaps.

The Akan International Crane Centre main building.

Photographers are well catered for at Grus.

In flight, in search of a better spot.

A crane amongst the swans.

Running into the wind for takeoff.

Strong headwind makes landing easy.

That's my crown!

Red-crowned crane in profile.

Whooper swans like it here too!

Kushiro is a large port city (4th in Hokkaido) which was opened to trade with the UK and USA in 1899AD and benefits from being relatively ice-free compared to others this far north. We have a quick lunch at the Kushiro Washo Market (Mike and Steve pig out on sashimi) and then we asked the critical question: "is there a Starbucks in Kushiro?". We haven't had a cappucino or espresso since leaving Sapporo, so the need was great. The answer was yes, just opened! Steve had a big fat mocha, we had our usual.

On sale at the Washo Market in Kushiro.

It's best to eat your fresh seafood right at the market, like we did.

The market came to a stop when Japanese darling and (eventual) gold medallist Yuzuru Hanyu was on the ice.

Red-crowned cranes on the Route 113 bridge across the Shinkushiro River, just opposite Starbucks.

And then to the airport for a JAL flight to Tokyo Haneda. So, what did we think of Hokkaido? In summary, it was not what we expected. Once we left Sapporo with Steve and headed east, we really thought we were headed into relative wilderness which would be sparsely populated, and very few visitors. How wrong we were! Cities and towns were much bigger than we thought. Almost everywhere we went was crowded, and packed with tourists, and most of them were not Japanese, and not westerners either. The sights were beautiful, there's no doubt, but we didn't expect such numbers to be looking at them with us, bus tours everywhere. The Meiji Restoration had the objective of developing the island and keeping the Russians out - they seemed to have achieved the former, but maybe not the latter.

This photo density map shows our coverage of Hokkaido, with a distinct focus on the east.

We know (and met) Aussies who have successfully toured Hokkaido on their own, renting a car, but we employed a private local guide, Steve, from Hokkaido Nature Tours (HNT), who took us everwhere and arranged everything. This was successful for us - we could never have seen the sights so efficiently without a Steve. Because it was a private tour, Steve was very accomodating of our expressed wishes, and also, he flexed the program wisely to cope with forecast bad weather, of which we had a fair bit. Thanks Steve, and thanks HNT.