Japan 2015 - last day, in Osaka

Today was my last day in Japan! Boo! I woke up early in my prison cell, because I had to be out by 9 or else pay for another night, and headed out into a really cold morning in the middle of Osaka! It was early and everywhere was still mostly closed, and this was the first day I was in the same place as a previous day with no particular plans. I made my way to the subway and headed off to Namba station, where I'd be leaving to go to the airport later , and stored my luggage for the day. I found a little cafe serving breakfast and had some french toast and 'royal milk tea', which is apparently not Japanese for simple white British tea. Whatever it was, it was pretty disgusting, but it did contain tea so I wasn't too put out.
Being my last day I had all my yens to spend if I wanted, so some shopping was in order at some point, but everywhere seemed to be closed and I'd also heard that the Umeda Sky Building was actually worth it. I'd been up Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand during last year's holiday and hadn't bothered with this one when I was in Osaka on Saturday, but I thought it would make a good activity for today. I made my way to the north part of Osaka, and on the way detoured through 'Yodobashi', a massive multi-storey electronics store I'd read about.
As well as electronics it had a whole floor dedicated to real nerdy stuff like comics and video games and models of characters from anime, but more on that later - there's plenty of that in Osaka to be found!! After a quick tour of Yodobashi, I headed across to the Umeda Sky Building. It was very tall! Definitely worth the price of admission, gave some amazing views of the city from above.
After that I went to look around the shops again. I found Osaka really confusing and hard to navigate the first time, so it was good to start to get a feel for what was going on. I jumped on the subway to go south aways, to the location of several distinct shopping districts. The one I was pretty keen to have a good look around was 'DenDen Town', where geeks probably go when they die. There are absolutely tons of shops dedicated to nerd stuff - video games, comics, trading cards, anime, models - it's unbelievable. I spent a good while wandering around in disbelief at the sheer volume of stuff available. I'd find a shop with literally 5 floors, each the size of a Waterstones, filled to bursting with row after row after row of mangas. And then round the corner there'd be another one, exactly the same! There were shops completely dedicated to trading cards, models of robot figures from the anime Gundam Wing, manga; you name it, there were ten shops selling it. All within this little district of Osaka.
I guess it's probably kind of a boring day to hear about, I meandered around shops packing stacks of Super Nintendos, spent some yens on Magic cards (300 yen for a booster pack! That's like HALF the prices in the UK!), goggled at the variety of trading card games I'd never heard of (Magic is probably the most popular in the UK, but totally superseded in Japan by several others). One of the most apparently popular card games involved lots of pictures of cartoon girls in various states of dress or undress! Eventually it was dinner time. I had been having cheap meals the last few days, so I wanted something a bit more pricey today, and I thought it would be interesting to have some 'posh' sushi, rather than the conveyor belt sushi I had in Nara with my host family. And it was certainly interesting! I ordered a plate of mixed nigiri (slice of fish on rice), and tried some stuff I'd never had before. The worst one was the first one I ate, shellfish or something, it was completely impervious to chewing. The best one, to my surprise, was 'unagi' - eel!

After that it was time to head back to the airport for my late flight. I bid farewell to Osaka and Japan, collected my luggage, and shot away on the train. With just 300 yen left in my wallet! I've had a great time in such a short time; I'm really glad I came. I feel totally ready to come back another time! What else has Japan got to offer?

Japan 2015 - Kyoto

This post was written a day late because, shockingly, the airport where I'm currently sitting is more comfortable and has better wifi than where I was staying last night. After my fun evening out in Himeji, I set off early in the morning to get to Kyoto as soon as I could. It was set to be a long journey, and I was anxious to be there for as long as possible. Kyoto is famous for its beauty and abundance of historical and traditional features. A fellow traveller I met in Himeji had told me that even though he'd spent three days there he wished it could have been longer. I'd seen pictures of its famous rows of torii gates, they've featured in anime and films and I couldn't wait to find them and soak up their serene presence. One of my favourite tracks from the band AIR is called Alone in Kyoto, I urge you to look it up, and was written for the film 'Lost in Translation' as the protagonist wonders around the quiet streets. So, with all that in mind, I was well ready for a great day, so long as I could fit it all in. I was prepared to return the day after if need be, but that would be tight. On my way through Himeji, bright and early, it was lightly misty, the sakura trees were dropping pink petals everywhere, and I saw a couple of interesting things. A heron landed on a tree ahead of me on a path, and I managed to snap it flying away as I approached:
And, being Monday, there were loads of school children, from 6 to 16, walking to their schools. Japanese schools have really smart uniforms and they were all walking on their own, from the train station where they'd alighted to their schools. It's so different to our schools!
After about two and a half hours on the trains, I arrived in Kyoto. In Japan, every train station has coin lockers where you can store luggage all day for 300 yen (£1.80); this has been really useful for me. I packed everything in a big backpack I borrowed from my sister, and it's naturally pretty heavy. I brought a second, lighter, backpack purely because I thought I might check the bigger one on the way home and use the smaller one as hand luggage, allowing me to bring back souvenirs. But as it happens that also let me carry only the bare essentials with me every day on my explorations! So, Kyoto. I was expecting everything I'd described above. A quiet, scenic, contemplative town. Sights like this waiting for those who knew the right places to go:
Well, when I first got out of the train station I was surprised to find myself in a pretty normal-looking modern town. There were wide roads with heavy traffic, tourists everywhere - and not the chinese tourists of Nara Park, but westerners looking very western.
There's an easter egg in that picture, by the way. A holy shrine for a different kind of person, someone more like me :P Keep reading if you can't spot it by yourself! When I followed the directions I'd prepared in advance to find some shrines and temples, I eventually found - sat amongst all the shops and busy roads and itself filled with stalls offering snacks and souvenirs for tourists - a sort of microcosm of the variety of places I'd seen already. Everything was surrounded by tourism, you were never out of eye-sight of modern shops, or signs written in English offering takoyaki (seems that's the quintessential must-try weird Japanese food, easily knocked up and served at a stall), or renovations, and the inescapable crowds. There's a little district - two streets really - which have been kept in a traditional style, but it was nothing I hadn't already seen at Mount Yoshino and was worse for the crowds. The shops were selling good tourist wares of a wide variety, and I did do a little shopping.
Past those streets I reached 'Kiyomizu Temple', which was one of the many attractions. It was like Todaiji but smaller. It was like Yoshino but less remote. It was like Shosha but less atmospheric. So I walked swiftly through the crowds, skipped the line to take your shoes off and gawk at the strange statues on display in a dimly lit room, and just snapped a couple of shots before moving on.
A short subway ride later, I made my way to Fushimi Inari, the famous row of dozens of bright orange torii gates. Now, I'd seen plenty of torii gates at this point, even some in long rows down paths, but I was still looking forward to this iconic site. Remember that picture of it above? There's a reason it's to the side. There's no way you're getting a picture down the length of the path without tourists getting in the way. This is what it's really like to be there:
So, another illusion shattered. It's right in the middle of another tourist trap, I think you had to pay to get to it, and there's simply no way anyone ever wandered past it on an idle stroll, or retreated to it as a quiet place away from the crowds in town or any of the silly pictures I had of it in my head. It was an interesting place, but I wasn't in the right frame of mind to enjoy it like other places I'd been. Moving on, I had a little side-mission to accomplish before heading to the next recommended site. A bit of a lengthy walk, away from the shrines and temples and into the thick of Kyoto town, walking along main roads, where no tourist should be, and I came upon my own personal holy place. I hadn't realised it until I stumbled across the fact, and I would never have guessed it with my naive picture of the place, but Kyoto is actually the town where a certain Japanese company was founded, and whose main headquarters are still located. Apart from the name on the building, there's nothing to show it - no shops or museums or anything for a pilgrim like me to enjoy, but still I was able to stand right outside the building where so many of my favourite video games have been, and continue to be, made.
So with a thrill at the thought that somewhere in that building the next Zelda game is being developed, Mewtwo is being made ready for release on Smash Bros, and who knows what other secret projects are being worked on for me to enjoy later on, I went off to find some lunch. Tonkatsu today! I've had something different every day so far. This was pretty 'basic' fare, my brother Matthew could probably have done better, but it was nice, and the price of a McDonald's. I like how every meal has all these bits to go with it, miso soup, green tea, a small side or two of some weird vegetable!
After lunch it was getting late and I contemplated heading back to Osaka. My final planned stop in Kyoto was going to be a bit of a challenge to get to, trains and then buses, and it would be getting dark soon. But I figured, what the hell, I'm here so I'll go. And I'm really glad I did! I got there 10 minutes before it shut, and in those 10 minutes got the experience I'd been missing all day. A unique, interesting, and properly presented (as in, not surrounded by crap) historical treasure. It had real presence, and even though I only had 15 minutes to go round, it was enough to soak it up and get some good pictures. Behold Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple!
So with Kyoto over on a high, I was happy travelling back to Osaka to find my final accommodation. I got back quite late and took a little while to find and come to terms with(!) where I'd be sleeping that night. I'd seen the pictures of the room online and they looked fine, but the building and the corridor were properly like sleeping in a prison! The doors were like cell doors, metal things that clanged firmly shut like they had to keep in violent murderers! I was happy to have my own room though, and did some internetting. It was in the middle of Osaka city, so I could pop out into the pouring rain and find a place to grab a late dinner a quick trip on the subway away. CHIKIN KA-RE (chicken curry), cheap and simple and filling.
All in all, I think Kyoto is a great place for people wanting to get as much 'Japan' as they can in as short a time as possible; it's tourist-friendly with Japanese food and souvenirs, and offers a variety of iconic sights. But for me, it offered nothing new and was less palatable for its popularity.

Japan 2015 - Himeji

This morning I left a very different homestay in Sakai, just south of Osaka (I chose it because it was the only place available anywhere near Osaka in my price range on the Saturday evening). It as a funny house down a narrow ramshackle street owned by a fairly young couple, who have four rooms dedicated to hosting guests like me. I was sleeping in a traditional Japanese style bedroom, with cushions to sit on and a bed you lay out yourself when you go to sleep then pack away again. The hosting couple had very little English but were really happy to hear my crappy Japanese (everyone has been actually! "Jouzu desu!" - yeah right but thanks for the compliment :P), and they were happy to pick me up from and run me back to the nearby station. I went back to the station with a German guy called Sebastian who is working in Japan for 3 months.
From Sakai I went on quite a long journey north and west through Osaka to Himeji. This town is the location of the highly recommended Himeji Castle, which has only last month been unveiled following a several-year renovation. It was impressive-looking, though nearly identical to Osaka Castle. You could go in, but it was crazy-busy with an hour and a half queue, and I'd gotten into Himeji late in the day and had other plans, so I just walked around it and went on my way. I later found out from another tourist that it's actually the original castle, unlike Osaka Castle, and the inside is very interesting, so I regret that I didn't have the time.
I had to get the bus from the centre of Himeji to reach the second reason I came, so that was another new experience. It's all very organised - you enter through the rear door and leave through the front, paying the fare in a little coin machine next to the driver. There's even a change machine too so you can shove a note in one slot, receive a handful of coins and drop what you need to pay in another slot.
My destination was Mount Shosha - a temple complex of several buildings on a mountainside and the location of several important scenes from the Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe film 'The Last Samurai', which I love and happened to watch a couple of months ago before this holiday was even considered. To reach the temple (Engyoji), like Yoshino which I visited in Nara, you can either take the cable car or walk up. I braved the walk again and regretted it! The scenery was lovely, it was raining on and off all day so there was mist everywhere up the mountain, but it took an hour to climb up and I was well pooped by the time I got to the temple.
I really enjoyed this trip; the temple was really atmospheric in the mist, and remote and historically significant and full of interesting statues and buildings. Once I'd recovered myself a little from the climb I had a really serene time exploring the site.
To enter any of the buildings you had to take off your shoes and leave them outside. Witness, my shoes sans my feet:
By this time it was about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and I'd had only a little rice snack thing from a convenience store and had been eating the last of my haribos to get me through the climb, so I was very happy to discover a cafe in one area! They had pictures of the available food so I picked something called the Himeji Special or something, and was intrigued by what I got. It tasted lovely, and I called the waitress over to ask her what the names of the different things were. I earned another "Jouzu!" when I wrote what she said down in Japanese characters, and apparently it was 'konnyaku' (konjac), 'daikon' (radish), 'tamago' (an egg) and 'chikuwa' and 'gobouten' (weird tube things). It was tasty and a very welcome rest and recovery from all the climbing and walking. You always get free hot green tea with meals and that was greatly appreciated.
After my lunch I continued my exploration, and found the site of the scenes from The Last Samurai. It was super misty, but the pictures below should show how I saw the same location as in the shot of Tom Cruise approaching Ken Watanabe (the samurai leader)'s home.
I made my eventual way back to Himeji, meeting some nice American travellers on the bus back to Himeji. Back in Himeji I had to find my accommodation, and in a sketchy alley a ways away from the town centre I was greeted by the most hippy laid back joint I'd yet to stay in. I'm in one bed in a shared dorm and a few of us (myself the only non-Japanese) went out to a local noodle bar for dinner and sake. That was awesome, because it meant I got to see a different way of life and to have a drink! I've had lots of different sorts of opportunities to practise Japanese which has been excellent, and I'm really glad I came.

Tomorrow it's off to Kyoto early in the morning, since there's lots to do there and I have to get back to Osaka to sleep!

Japan 2015 - Osaka

I'm writing this a little late because I didn't have time on the evening of the day, but I added the pictures then and now there is text to go with it! Saturday 4th of April, I woke for the last time at my host family's, had my last breakfast with them, and got ready to take all my luggage away with me to Osaka. Thanks to my host for having me, feeding me, showing me some great experiences, and helping me get on my way on the trains!
The train to Osaka was really busy, although nothing like what I've heard about Tokyo where they literally push you into the train to fit more people in. There are various passes available for tourists to get them on the trains, subways, buses, and into tourist attractions, so my plan was to pay for this train into Osaka and then at the main station there get myself a pass that would make all my travel free for the rest of the holiday.
Once I arrived in Osaka, in an underground train station, I was on a mission to find the location I was promised would be selling the passes. The station was massive, with shops and whole underground shopping malls to get lost in, and I couldn't figure out where the hell I was supposed to go. I killed an hour wandering around, getting lost, finding a little rice snack thing in a convenience store to tithe me over. I discovered a massive bank of 'coin lockers' where you can store luggage for a 300 yen a day, so that allowed me to lighten my load considerably. Eventually I found the right place and brought my ticket and, a bit flustered, proceeded to the subway. Osaka supposedly has free wifi citywide, which I discovered means in certain mysterious spots in the stations, so long as you don't move once you've found them. And even then it's not guaranteed. So planning my routes was possible with the help of the internet, but time-consuming. Once I'd figured out where to go, I was off, and that's when I discovered the phenomenon of 'women only' carriages.
I was a bit embarrassed when this carriage rolled up in front of me, having failed to notice the sign on the floor beneath my feet which should have warned me. On my second visit to Osaka, a few days later, I accidentally wandered into one of these carriages while looking for an empty seat and, I kid you not, when I grabbed a hand hold and settled in five women stood up and moved out of the carriage without a word. I was like, jeez, that's a bit racist, until I realised where I was standing. Oops! My first stop was 'Kaiyukan', Osaka's big aquarium, complete with whale shark. It's not exactly Japan-specific, I admit, but it looked really good and there wasn't really that much to actually do in Osaka besides wander around and shop and eat. The aquarium is at the 'bay area' of Osaka, which also has Osaka's replica of Universal Studios which I've been to in Florida a couple of times. Outside of the aquarium was one of the street performers you see in London, but this guy was really weird looking. Pretty cool! I headed into Kaiyukan and tried my best to get some good pictures of the fishies, which was a challenge with the dim lighting, reflections, crowds, fast moving fishies, but I think I got some good ones. There were some really cool things in there and the tickets aren't that expensive, about £15. I highly recommend it. The whale shark looked a bit ill, circling around just below the surface of his tank listing to one side. The whole place probably a massive ethical nightmare, like Orlando's SeaWorld... Anyway, pics.
After Kaiyukan it was lunchtime and I grabbed some takoyaki from a cute little cafe dedicated to making it for bay area visitors. The chunks of octopus were massive, not quite the same as the baby octopodes I used when I made it at Matthew's birthday party that time!
Chomping my octopus balls (teehee) I stayed in the north end of Osaka to look for Osaka Castle. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the castle's park surroundings were packed with Japanese people of all kinds enjoying a day off. It reminded me of London. There were people having picnics under the sakura trees, a little crowd of photographers with massive telescopic lenses all taking pictures of, as far as I could tell, a tiny robin, children, old people, and a few foreign tourists as well.
Osaka Castle is a renovation, but still impressive-looking and faithful to the original design. You could pay to go in but I couldn't find the entrance and, anyway, figured it was good enough just to see the outside. It was very majestic, and I enjoyed the ambience of the crowds all having a nice day outdoors.
I was pretty surprised to see a performer with a trained monkey in a waistcoat doing tricks for one crowd. I don't think that would be legal here, so it was something I'd probably never get to see normally. She was just there amidst the people, with her little area set up for the monkey to do tricks. I figured out how to use the 'action' mode on Matthew's camera and managed to get some shots of the monkey doing big jumps.
Next I wanted to explore the south of the city, with its shopping districts and promise of geek treasures. I headed back to Umeda Station (the main station in the northern half) and had a quick detour to hunt out one shop I knew was somewhere in Umeda Station which I just had to visit given the chance. The Pokemon Store! It took some finding, let me tell you. It was actually just one part of one floor of a department store dedicated to clothes and you'd never guess it was the location of this shop. It was pretty cool, but there wasn't really anything I wanted to buy. I guess I'm a bit old for pokemon toys now!
From Umeda Station I went south to Namba, the main southern station, to explore the various shopping districts Osaka is known for. I didn't do a very good job of finding my way around and wasted a lot of time searching in vain for interesting streets, but I did eventually find a hive of nerd shops. I just did some quick browsing and took in the variety of things on offer - I'd certainly never seen anything like it in England! It seemed like every games console ever made by Sony, Sega or Nintendo was stocked by the dozen, with aisle after aisle of games and accessories. Especially the older ones! Want a SNES? Why not have 10!
I'd also read about a street called 'Dotonbori', which lights up at night and is apparently famous for its giant crab sign at one end or something. There were actually two or three of them along the street, but I stayed in Osaka late so that I could see it in its glory. I was staying a ways away from the city in another homestay just for one night, but didn't have to be at their station until 10pm.
My accommodation that night was in a very different kind of homestay. I chose it because it was far cheaper than any hotels and nearly everywhere was booked in Osaka that night even when I was planning everything the week before. I was lucky to find this! It wasn't a family like my first hosts, but a fairly young couple who have sort of turned their house into a homestay hotel. They have four rooms they use to host, and I'd booked one with a traditional Japanese bed for the giggles. I had a little table with cushions around it, and my bed was a thin mattress, duvey, and pillow all folded up and to the side. To sleep you have to push the table and cushions to the side and set up the bed every night! It was cosy and the host couple were nice, with very limited English, but I was enjoying trying out my worse Japanese anyway so we had fun.

Japan 2015 - Kashihara Shrine and Mount Yoshino

Today I left my hosts in the morning to embark on my own on the Japanese train system! My mission was to make my way to Mount Yoshino, which is a nice climb with beautiful views of the sakura which are in blossom this week and probably only this week for the whole year (good timing, eh?). On the way to Yoshino I would be passing through Kashiharajingu (Kashihara Shrine) which is my Japanese teacher's local shrine so I wanted to stop there too and look around. The trains were super easy to use, once you'd figured out the ticket buying machines. You have to know the fare amount in advance, and then you just hit the button for that amount and the machine accepts any denomination of money and gives you the change. Your ticket just gets scanned on entry and then when you get off, no matter how many transfers you do on the way. Every station works the same, and the names are written in English as well as Japanese so it's really easy.
My first stop was Kashiharajingu, the shrine my Japanese teacher visits from her home. Nara (the region I'm in right now) was like the original capital of Japan or something, so it has a lot of ancient history and is just completely littered with shrines and temples of all sizes. Like literally every street and path has little wooden shrines of varying grandiosity. But Kashiharajingu was a big shrine, if not on the same order as Nara Park where I went yesterday. It had grounds with various areas, and as I entered I noticed some strangely dressed people doing some sort of ceremony. I thought it might be a wedding or something, but I'm not sure. It was interesting to watch, anyway, and a stroke of luck that it was all going on just as I sauntered in at 10am.
To be honest it would probably have been a bit of a boring stop (though it's a nice place and it was interesting to see where my Japanese teacher lives) if not for seeing that ceremony and a kendo competition being held right in the middle of the grounds! Kendo is a Japanese martial art with swords, a bit like fencing but with heavy wooden swords. There was a large crowd of kids and teenagers all dressed up in their gear, and parents hovering around cheering them on.
After spending an hour wandering around Kashiharajingu, I headed back to the train station to take the 1-hour journey to Mount Yoshino. The journey there on the train was interesting as we passed through increasingly rural Japan. There was all sorts to see out of the window, tree-covered hills, settlements of different sizes with their many shrines, people tending to allotments, houses amongst all the hodgepodge of different building styles that looked more like miniature ancient temples with elaborate gardens, and inside the train I was amused to watch the operator bowing every time he entered or left the carriage on his way up and down. Eventually I reached Yoshino, which had been recommended by my hosts as being a nice trip worth it for the views of the cherry blossoms. I forewent (is that a word?) the convenient cable car in favour of slogging up the initial steep walk to reach Yoshino town from the station. The views were indeed beautiful.
There were lots of tourists around and the town, which is sort of clinging to the mountain side along various paths, was full of vendors peddling their wares. Everything seemed to be crazy expensive, so I mostly just looked, except to buy a couple of cheap wooden spinning toy things for Ryuusei and Taku. There was all sorts of food for sale, and I mostly either had no idea what it was or knew what it was and had no intention of eating it - like the stall that was selling whole fish, grilled and skewered and on display next to a tank of their happily swimming brothers.
There were lots of little shrine areas of historic significance up there, and I took a lot of photos before it started to rain pretty heavily in the afternoon. It was very zen wandering around on my own, visiting all these quiet areas all set up to be peaceful and enlightening or whatever.
I was getting pretty hungry by this point, but all the cafes and restaurants were intimidating with their foreign menus and what looked like traditional Japanese seating with short tables and cushions to sit on and a porch where you leave your shoes. Eventually I walked beyond the crowded area and found a restaurant with no customers and thought, hell, they're probably desperate enough to humour a gaijin. I approached the lady at the entrance (every store and stall has someone politely greeting and nodding to everyone who walks past) and declared "Sumimasen! Sen yen ga arimasu!" which means "Excuse me! I have 1000 yen!". I didn't want to get fleeced with some insanely priced, unnecessarily fancy dish after all. She was very happy to suggest something she thought I'd like and explained in a little English that it would have chicken and egg in it. I had to take off my shoes and sit on the tatami flooring like a proper Japanese person, and she served me tea and brought me a very lovely lunch.
Shortly after that I made my slow and winding way back down to the bottom of the mountain and back to civilization. I walked from my final station stop to my host's house without any trouble, and with a "Tadaima!" I was back to entertaining three lively kids. I spent my last evening with them playing games and eating a nice dinner of chicken curry and broccoli salad, and helped Ryuusei beat world 2 on his Mario game which he'd been stuck on.

Tomorrow I'm off to Osaka to spend the day in the big city, and will be all by myself trying to find my various destinations and overnight accommodations! Ganbatte!