Thursday, 25 December 2008

Happy Christmas

We're at the airport now, about to board our flight back to the UK. We've managed to use all our spare cash up buying extra gifts so now we're left with photos and memories. We've had a great time in Japan and look forward to boring everyone with our stories. Happy Christmas!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Leaving Kyoto

Kyoto has been a great base for the last week. As a city it's good in itself; ringed by scenic hills (steep-sided but not too high, clothed in pine trees) and small enough to be easily manageable it has a huge number of sites of interest and good public transport. We've nipped from venerated temple to zen garden to lamp-lit bamboo forest by bus at a leisurely pace.

Kyoto's central position on Honshu has made a good base for wider exploration too. We've day-tripped to Hiroshima to see the peace memorial and the island of Miyajima for the floating torii (and tourist-mugging deer). We've overnighted in a temple at the top of mt. Koya ("Koya-san") and wandered amidst the 200,000 moss-covered graves in the cemetary, cathedral-like with its tall stands of Japanese cedar. This has naturally led to lots of photo opportunities :-)

Our night in the temple on Koya-san and the last four nights in Kyoto have been in traditional Japanese ("ryokan") accomodation. Think Kill Bill - tatami mats, paper screens, no shoes (very Swedish!), bedding rolled out on the floor and lots of sitting cross legged at low tables.

The ryokan in Kyoto is a very interesting place. It's been run by the same lady since it opened in the 60's and some of the furnishings - particularly the TV and bakelite phone - seem to be original. The place was groundbreaking in its time for catering cheaply to foreign tourists in a traditional manner - there are Japanese newspaper clippings and stills from TV interviews in the 60's and 70's attesting to the fact. There are also articles from foreign newspapers (eg NY Times) with some fantastic photos of tourists with big moustaches, bigger flares and flowery shirts. The journalistic style of the time seems to have been for fantastically posed shots that focus on the travelling westerner ("yes, you too could be here"): the smiling tourist with a flower in her hair waving goodbye to her hunky friend on the balcony above - the ryokan frontage and canal opposite being mere incidental backdrop. There's a great shot of a middle aged gentleman, neatly trimmed with the conservative look of a bank manager, wearing a yukata (Japanese dressing-gown type robe) and kneeling down ready to try some green tea. He looks stiff and uncomfortable with a very fixed "I really am enjoying this, honestly" smile; it's easy to imagine the BBC english commentary "Here is Mr Smith, having a jolly good time sampling the local culture in Japan."

What really makes this place is the friendliness of the owner and her son - not just the normal Japanese politeness but a real warmth of welcome whenever we return from a day out (or even the laundrette round the corner). The son gets very excited when he discovers that K is Swedish - it seems they've had a lot of Swedish visitors since the early days. We get a goodbye in Swedish ("Vi ses") whenever we go out. You can't escape the Swedish mafia...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

TV star

Firstly, thanks for all the comments - it's good to know I have readers :-)

It was particularly interesting to see the video that Steve linked to - me being a menace to society at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. We knew that it was the last day it was open to tourists before we went (as the period around new year is the busiest of the year for them). The TV crews were there in force - interesting to see the story spun as "tourists are an evil menace". There are clearly many sides to this - we certainly saw thoughtless people blocking traffic in what is a busy working market, but we also saw many tourists behaving with due courtesy and it really is a fascinating place to visit. Didn't see any fish licking, but you cant have it all.

My abiding feeling is that the market is missing an opportunity - it treats visitors as a barely tollerable evil. It lets them in, but provides zero signage or guidance and then gets upset when they (given little option in the cramped conditions) get in the way. Where's the entrepreneurial spirit? What I'd hope for is some signage and defined paths for tourists that gives them guidance (we certainly had our "where should we be" moments) and keeps them out of the way. Once you have them where you want them you can then start to extract cash from said tourists - sell them stuff, give demonstrations of fish skills (OK, I'm reaching here!), charge for the best bits etc. If I ran the market it'd be different...

Anyway, its apparently moving to new premises in 2012 so there's a perfect opportunity to build in the overhead tourist gantry that allows us gaijin to see what's going on in a frankly quite amazing place without us getting in the way and being demonised on TV for it.

Apparently its going to rain tomorrow, so I might be back on line quite soon.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Teenage fashion, fishmongers and snow monkeys

So, no post for a few days and now loads to catch you up on. We spent Friday in Tokyo exploring Harajuku (teenage fashion stores rubbing shoulders with haut couture and temples). We loved the vibe of this area and will be spending our last couple of days based here before flying home. We headed up to Shinjuku as the sun set and I spent a few happy minutes taking in the view from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building (see right) before we headed off to find ourselves a basement yakatori restaurant (dont ask which, we'll never find it again!).

Saturday saw us getting up at 04:30 (!!!) to go to Tokyo's premier fish market. We got lost in the dark outside the hotel and descended into chaos as we reached the market itself. The market doesnt encourage visitors - it views them as a nuisance and possibly misses an opportunity in the process. This means no signage, which for us meant wandering lost through a major industrial facility dodging mini fork lifts and hand-drawn carts until we finally happened upon the huge sheds full of row upon row of seafood stalls. These were in the process of setting up as we arrived, getting ready for the influx of restauranters buying their day's worth of produce. The whole place was incredible, all the more so when we finally found (stumbled on) the tuna auctions. These are the center-piece so far as spectacle is concerned, highly animated auctioneers crackign through lines of torpedo-sized frozen tuna at lightning speed.

That was only the beginning of our day. After a swift breakfast we caught our first shinkansen up into the mountains to the small town of Obuse. After dropping our bags we moved straight on again to search out the snow monkeys (well done to Iz for this recommendation - they dont really feature in the guide books). These little guys are awesome, totally habituated to humans and happy as you like as they paddle around in their own hot spring. We spent a couple of hours here photographing the little fellows and just watching them play around and interact with one another, so close we could reach out and touch them. A definite high point of the trip so far.

After that we deserved a rest, so we spent Sunday chilling in Obuse and sampling sake (we're experts now). My achievement of the day was eating an oyster (!?!).

Today has been another travel day - back through Tokyo to Kyoto. We're settled in our hostel now with the next few days travel booked up and enjoying connected life once again (the bar in the hostel has free fast wifi - does life get better?). Expect an update tomorrow evening after our day-trip to Hiroshima.

807 photos taken so far - be afraid...

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The holiday starts here

My final meeting is over, I've sent my last email and I'm finally free to enjoy my holiday! My first step was to extend our stay in Tokyo by one more day so that we can actually go exploring. We're now here until Saturday, then off for two nights in Obuse up in the mountains north of Tokyo.

The main items on the agenda for Obuse are lots of chilling out, sampling the sake from the local brewery and hopefully catching sight of the local snow monkeys as they bathe in their own onsen. After Obuse we'll be off to our new base in Kyoto, whence to explore western Japan.

Right, I'm off for a beer...

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Jet lag and Christmas lights

My previous post ended in a cliff-hanger: would we actually leave Heathrow at all? In the end we did, and got to Tokyo only about three hours later than planned.

Our hotel turns out to be a good one, and thanks to a recommendation from Cam (thanks!) we've got a room with great views across Tokyo, past the Tokyo Tower and right out to Mt Fuji on the horizon. We checked in just in time for a fantastic sunset and then dragged ourselves out for a quick dinner before collapsing in an exhausted heap.

Japan seems to be well suited to inflicting maximum jet lag if you're travelling from the UK. Midnight in Japan is 3pm UK time, making it very difficult to get much sleep, and 9am Japan time is midnight in the UK - just as we want to get up and do stuff we start to feel the full crushing weight of our sleepless night. Dealing with daytime tiredness isnt too bad as Starbucks are omnipresent, but not being able to sleep at night is right annoying. I plan to complain just as much on my return to the UK when I fall asleep at 3pm and wake up at midnight :-)

Japan is much more into Christmas than I expected, what with it being a predominantly Buddist nation. It isnt actually a national holiday, but most kids get told about Santa and get presents and there are decorations everywhere. Just walking through the shopping malls near our hotel we've seen a whole range of light shows (with musical accompanyment and smoke machines, naturally). There are also Christmas markets galore and other special events too.

We stumbled across one such special event last night whilst on our way back to the hotel after dinner. The thumping dance music and crowd of interested onlookers was what first picqued our interest. The center of attention turned out to be a Japanese dude with an easel. He was wearing some kind of portable mixing desk (to control the music DJ-style) and dancing around quite vigorously. While doing this he was also painting a picture, using a range of paints, spray cans and charcoals. As you do. All quite normal, I'm sure. As he finished each picture he presented it to a member of the audience as a gift before switching tune and moving on to a new creation. When we moved on after 15 minutes he was on to his third picture, set quite appropriately to dancy festive music.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Tokyo false start

K and I are off to Japan today on a (partly working, for me at least) holiday. Sadly we're still at Heathrow at present, sitting in the lounge while our plane is searched by security staff. It was already running an hour late when we boarded, only for someone to discover an unaccompanied camera. No-one claimed this dastardly item, so we've all had to leave the plane again while it's searched (to see what else has snuck on, I guess). Still, at least we got a glass of wine first.

Once we do get to Tokyo we'll be staying there until Friday. I'll be doing a bit of work while K swans about the place amusing herself. After that we're thinking of heading into the mountains to see the snow monkeys, and then on to Kyoto for a big dose of temples. This may all change of course, depending on what takes our fancy - we'll keep you posted. Maybe we can get back on our plane soon...

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Weekend in Torpet

I've uploaded some photos taken by K and myself this weekend just gone while we were in Sweden. They're mostly of Sissi, Lisbeth and Lars' cute doggy.

...and all I got was this chocolate

So Symbian has been bought by Nokia. To celebrate the fact, we each got a bar of (Finnish) chocolate. Let's hope we don't look back on this as the high point!