Japan Series: Fushimi Inari

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Upon arrival there is a rush of people drawn to get to the Inari Shrine. We have all come to see the thousands of famous red torii gates. We start walking, selfie sticks everywhere, in a sea of people. I think to myself that at this rate, there is no way I am going to get a decent picture, let alone actually enjoy it.

We keep walking. We hear the group next to us agree to each other, ‘let’s turn back, we have seen enough, it’s all the same.’ The rest of us continue. We keep going, turning off here and there to see the odd shrine on an adjacent path. This place is huge!

It turns out there are 10,000 of these wooden torii gates on the Inari mountain. That is a lot and I should have read about this place a bit better beforehand – I am usually much better than this! Then I am reminded that if you want to do the entire route, it’s about a 2 hour walk to get up and down the mountain. We decide to ‘see how we feel’ but I didn’t bring any water and it’s starting to get pretty warm.

We keep climbing, the steps are getting steeper now. Then we come to a clearing and we can see across the entire city. It’s a magnificent view and worth the climb. At this point there is a rest stop where you may purchase beverages and snacks, turn around or carry on. We kept going, somehow 35 minutes and a lot of sweat later, made it to the top!

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That view!

The route is very clear to follow, and even has timers to estimate how much longer it takes to climb the next sections. There are vending machines up the mountain but the further up you get, the more expensive they become! There are signs about wild bears in the area to be careful about, but maybe that is more at night.

The further we climbed, we noticed that the crowds became smaller and it got to a point where it was just us around each corner. Photo time! If you want to get some good shots, just keep on walking. It’s a shame for people with mobility issues as this is not an accessible attraction. However, I did see some ladies in high heels near the top which was absolutely shocking. What are they trying to prove?!

The Inari Shrine is open 24/7, you can go day or night. I would have loved to experience it in the evening – not to go all the way to the top as it looks so isolated, but to see it in a different light.

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At the top, there is no ‘well done, you made it’ but there is a vending machine to quench your thirst which is still pretty good. We had wobbly legs the entire way down but were proud to have done the circuit.

My Fitbit was pleased with me that day: 100 flights of stairs climbed or 1000m of ascent!

The low-down:

Cost: Absolutely free!

What to bring: sensible footwear (I do not condone the high heels!), a bottle of water, a camera to take some amazing photos

How long: Up to 2 hours

 

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Japan Series: Rainy Kyoto

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Welcome back to the Japan Series! After a few days in Tokyo and a day trip to Kamakura, it was time for a weekend trip to Kyoto…

During our trip to Kyoto we rented an Airbnb, staying in a traditional Japanese house near Toji Station. This was a great location and amazing to stay in a beautiful Japanese home.

We arrived Friday night after a long coach journey, and had only 2 full days to make the most of this city, which I must admit, is not long enough to see everything. Pressure!

In Kyoto, there is a lot of tourism. So much so, that it can get to the point were there are just too many tourists at sites. Still, we found that by being smart with our itinerary, there are ways to avoid a lot of the stress of the crowded temples and shrines. It was also coming to the end of sakura season, so the main bulk of tourists had fizzled out. Nevertheless, for some places, the overcrowding is just inevitable and you have to suck it up and go with the flow (of the crowd).

The weather forecast was not looking promising for Saturday morning, so we changed our plans up a bit to take into account the rainy weather.

Our first stop was to the nearby Toji Temple. Now, this is not one of the ‘top sites’ as such, but with it being a short walk away it would have been a shame not to see it. In all honesty though, this was one of my favourite places that I visited in Kyoto. Maybe because it was quite empty, maybe because it was just so beautiful, I don’t know, but I loved it! The 5-storey pagoda is really something, and has been even earthquake-proof for a few centuries! It was really interesting reading about how they managed that.

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Toji

 

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Toji

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Toji

The rain still beating down, we made our way to Tofukuji Temple. We caught the bus right outside Toji which took us straight there – handy! It was a short walk to the Temple. This one is interesting as it has two very different gardens which you have to pay to enter. We decided we may as well do both while we were there. These gardens are actually made to be appreciated in rainy weather, and there are plenty of walkways to keep dry if necessary.

The first garden, you can walk around and explore away from the sheltered areas and really get into nature. It was so tranquil and the colours around were mesmerising.

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The second was a ‘zen garden’ which was also beautiful in its own way but with a lot more structure and perfectionism to it.

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It wasn’t long after until the sun reappeared and it became sunny and humid again, just in time for our next stop, Fushimi-Inari Shrine, which I will talk about in next week’s post…

Robyn

Japan Series: coach travel

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9 hours of air travel from Helsinki to Tokyo felt like forever, but 9 hours from Tokyo to Kyoto went by so quickly!

Most people get the shinkansen (bullet train) or choose to fly to Kyoto in just a few hours to save some time. We decided to take a coach, hence the nine hour trip. Coach travel in Japan is not so bad though from this experience, and I would recommend it for those wanting to save some pennies on transport.

For our trip which left from Shinjuku Station, our coach seats reclined quite far back and had a hood around them to give us some extra privacy and shade from the light when desired. This was lovely for when I wanted to nap, and I did nap (a miracle as I find napping on any form of transport so difficult)! If only economy plane seats were this good! The coach was not very full and on both trips we had no one behind us either.

We had breaks every so often at good service stations (I have never seen such a pristine and inviting service station bathroom), and there were plenty of options for snacking and hot meals so there was no need to bring provisions if you didn’t want to.

This was also the day I ate my first onigiri (rice snack with filling in a triangle shape). This one had fried chicken as the filling and it was delicious. There will be a separate post on food as it was one of the best aspects of the entire trip.

All announcements on the coach were made in Japanese, English, Mandarin and Korean and the bus driver left a sign on the front of the bus to let us know when to be back during service station breaks.

Overall it was quite a pleasant experience, and I felt well rested, ready for two full-on days of sight-seeing in Kyoto!

On the return journey which left at a grueling 12:40am (night bus), be warned that there is hardly anywhere open 24 hours near Kyoto station! The nearby Starbucks seems to be where everyone lingers until closing time at 11pm. The station is open for somewhere to sit but nothing more.

When we rocked up to a service station at 6am, still half asleep, we turned round to find Mt. Fuji right in front of us! I didn’t get to do the day trip but at least I got to see her from a service station on a clear morning…

The low-down:

Price: a return ticket cost £68. You will have to book these when in Japan.

Worth it? Yes, if you are wanting to save some money but not if you want to maximise your time in Kyoto.

Coin-lockers: Kyoto station has plenty of coin lockers starting from 300 yen to hire for the entire day. If you have a late bus or train back, these are great to keep your luggage safe and make the most of your day.

 

 

Japan Series: 9 little things I love about Japan

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There were so many ‘wow’ moments in Japan. It wasn’t even anything especially big, it was all in the detail. Japan is definitely all about the detail. So without further ado…

9 little things I love about Japan:

1. The vending machines

They are everywhere. Not just in the entrance way of a shop, they really are everywhere. There were three on the road we were staying on, just on the pavement. Heck, they were on the top of the Inari mountain in Kyoto just when I needed it (Fushimi-inari). The local metro had about 4 on the platform. Not just cold drinks, no, there were warm drinks too. Hot coffee? Cold coffee? Hot lemon drink (my fav), hot chocolate or grape juice? No need to rush to make a hot drink in the morning when the vending machines have got your back. It is impossible to ever feel dehydrated in this country and I love it. I want my hot lemon drink back!

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My beloved hot lemon drink, I will drink you again

2. The toilets

The first time I saw a Western toilet in a café with all the exciting buttons on it, I had to tear myself away because it would look a bit weird if I spend ages in the toilet, right?

-Where is your friend?

-Oh yeah, about that, she hasn’t seen a fancy Japanese toilet before – she may be a while.

There are buttons to make flushing noises, heated seats, deodorising sprays. It was really weird and wonderful at the same time. I remember being so intrigued when my Japanese housemate in France tried to explain them to us one time in French, after all that time I was not left disappointed. You would find these in restaurants, service stations, department stores… I feel like we are really missing a trick back in Europe. We need to implement these asap!

3. The service

Okay this is a good thing and a bad thing at times. Japanese service is so attentive. Glasses of water are brought to your table and topped up without you even having to lift a finger. On the other hand, they give you a bag for everything you buy in shops, with the little tape round the top – is that really necessary? Even for the littlest thing. Maybe the fact that we are charged 5p for every bag we need in the UK now, it is going from one extreme to the other. All those plastic bags I accumulated in Japan? Yes, yes I did bring them back in my luggage and now I have lots  of plastic bags to use at home. Is that weird?

4. Warm hand towels at the start of every meal

They do this in other cultures, I know, but having a refreshing warm or cold towel before your meal is so nice. Again, we need to implement this and make this a norm in the UK!

5. Everyone carries hand towels in their bags

Hand driers and paper towels aren’t really a ‘thing’ in Japan, so most people carry a hand towel in their bag for this reason. Not only do you feel super organised when you whip your hand towel out in one of these situations and the person next to you doesn’t have one, it makes a lot of sense – maybe even better for the environment (?). Hand towels are a very popular souvenir and I bought such a soft, cute pastel-coloured one with my initial on it to use at home. I will use it (promise).

6. The roof handles on metro trains are just the right height for me to reach. Normally, they are way too high up as I am so small, but Japanese people are on average smaller, so they compensate this on their trains. Yay.

7. On a similar note, no need to find the Petite section in a shop, oh no. Why do that when you can just select a normal pair of trousers and they fit you perfectly, no problem! I wish I could have done more shopping for trousers/clothes in Japan as my height is just the right size for their clothing! I feel bad for tall people though, as like…what do they do..? Oh yeah, struggle like us small people back home. No sympathy.

8. When it is cold, they have under-seat heaters on metro trains. There is nothing more perfect than that.

9. Hanami 花見. I was lucky enough to see Japan during spring-time, near to the end of the cherry blossom season. The cherry blossoms were not in full bloom anymore, but I was lucky enough to see some beautiful sakura (cherry blossom) all the same. I love how there is a Japanese word, hanami (花見) which literally means ‘flower viewing.’ I loved the cherry blossom and it is so cool how there is a universal love and interest in Japan in just appreciating the beauty of nature.

What do you love especially about Japan? Let me know in the comments below!

Robyn

 

Welcome to the Japan Series!

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Three weeks ago I had the pleasure of packing my bags again and flying from Heathrow airport to Tokyo! The main purpose of my trip was to visit my old housemate Harrie. She moved to the other side of the world for her Masters instead of staying in the UK, like I begrudgingly (at times) decided to do for work.

It has been 9 months since we were hobbling around campus in our heels on Graduation Day last July, but it felt like no time at all when we found each other in the Arrivals hall. For this trip she was my rock/translator/interpreter/tour guide/life-saver. Having a Japanese-speaker, someone who knows the customs and culture was so beneficial as I was truly lost at times and overwhelmed by everything around me.

I know just how useful being able to speak the local language is, and I love it when I go to countries where I can communicate without problems (South America, I cannot wait!), and it is so frustrating when I cannot do that! Being able to say the basics though was really helpful and went a long way.  Not many people actually spoke any English but there were signs, maps, menus etc. in English in most places we visited.

All I am going to say, is now that I have experienced Tokyo, and more precisely, Shinjuku train station at morning rush hour, London is so tame – and I thought London was insane! I knew nothing.

We spent the first two days of my stay in Tokyo, a day-trip to nearby Kamakura, two days in Kyoto and two more in Tokyo, three days were travel days.

I am looking forward to sharing all the amazing-ness of Japan with you…!