Thursday, 30 April 2015

Yokohama, Japan

We made a quick stop in Yokohama - we didn't have much time but wanted to see it whilst we were here. We walked to a district that Matt had wanted to see - Minato Mirari 21. The walk took us past a coastal area and the port museum. It was also a beautiful location to take pictures, including a view of a fairground with a ferris wheel and roller-coaster!

The ferris wheel was only about £5 and would give us city views without having to walk - ideal! When we got on the ferris wheel we were easily able to see the whole city and even the Tokyo skyline in the distance. Unfortunately, due to the position of the sun, we were unable to see Mount Fiji.

Kamakura, Japan

Located just an hour from the centre of Tokyo is a small costal town - Kamakura. This small town is, like most Japanese cities, filled with temples and shrines.

Out first stop was the Hasedea Temple. This temple had some of the most beautiful gardens in Japan. The landscaping included ponds and Japanese style rock gardens. The Temple was located on the side of a hill. The further up you went, the more impressive the view of Kamakura became. 
The peak included views over the entire city, coast and ocean. Even though today was the cloudiest it has been in over a week in Japan, there were many people on the beach and playing in the sea. Unfortunately, the beach wasn't as beautiful at those in Busan, but its still a beach right? The actual temple itself was really pretty, with a very old looking golden Buddha. The smaller temple was my favourite with hundreds of fake pink flowered plants - one even had its "made in China" label still attached.

We then went to the Great Buddha, one of Kamakuras main attractions. Matt was highly disappointed with its size (trying to compare it to the worlds biggest Buddha in Leshan). I quite liked it's strange colourings and darkened patches - made it look more authentic. Another building was situated in the grounds - the Kangetsudo. 
In was formally located in a royal palace from the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul. Apparently it was donated during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Our final point to visit was the Hachimangu Shrine. On the long walk there we would walk through "shopping street" which excited me (I thought we would be walking past sparkly designer shops), but it was mainly tourist souvenir shops and restaurants. The shrine was relatively pretty and - once again - beautifully located on a hill. The long path to the stairs of the temple was full of stalls that sold different types of fruit. The fruit had been sweetened into a sugary snack and people were going crazy for it!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Matsumoto Castle, Japan

The journey to Matsumoto was the most beautiful yet. There was huge mountains and streams that ran alongside the train route. Matt spent the whole time stuck to the window, attempting to take the perfect photo.

When we eventually got to the castle, it was amazing. It was the complete opposite to Himeji in size and colour. It also had a huge moat that surrounded the castle, making it harder for invaders to capture. It is believed the castle was designed for Samurai when gunpowder had been discovered, as many of the defensive structures seem to be designed for guns.

We initally walked around the grounds, trying to find the best angle for the perfect photo. Just as we we reaching the end I heard gun powder explode. I was really sad that we could be missing a show/display (of what I thought to be cannons) so we rushed to the entrance to see what was happening. As soon as we were inside we could see Samurai with huge guns shooting in unison. It was really cool to see and a lot of gun powder was being used.

I personally prefered this castle to Himeji, it was a lot quieter to start with, but also seemed more cosy. The main keep was a lot smaller but the rooms were a lot less empty than Himeji and contained more English information. In addition the castle had a moonroom! Himeji is one of four castles (there are at least 48 in Japan) to have this room with three sides that open - it is effectively a 16th century conservatory!

We then visited the Matsumoto Museum - the entrance was included with the castle ticket. It had a pretty cool miniature city of Matsumoto and some giant boat. Unfortunately, a lot of the information was in Japanese which made it hard to know what things were.

On a side note, I wish to talk about Japanese toilets. So far I have been really impressed with them, but on our journey to Tokyo I came across the best toilets I have ever seen. When I walked into the toilet the lid lifted by itself for me. I then used the toilet seat cleaner wipes (all Japanese toilets seem to have toilets seat cleaner or toilet seat covers). Feeling comfortable with the toliet I decided to press the buttons on the side - one was to clean your bum with warm water that squirts at it. This was slightly weird so I quickly stopped it! The best bit was the sink! Throughout Japan I have struggled to find hand drying devices, but this sink had soap, water and dryer all under one section. To top it off, the hand dryer used warm air!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Osaka, Japan

Although we stayed in Osaka for two nights, we only saw Osaka itself for one afternoon and evening!

Our first stop was Osaka Castle and the gorgeous parks that surrounded it. The castle wasn't quite as impressive as Himeji but still beautiful in its own right. I particularly like the surrounding moat! Rushed for time we didn't look round, only admired it from afar.

Matt and I had planned to go to a dog cafe in Busan but it was closed, fortunately we found another in Osaka. This cafe only had miniature dogs, but it was still worth a visit, especially as I have been missing my beautiful dogs. After a lot of searching to find the entrance (it appears map reading wasn't my skill today) we came across the doggy sign for "Dogs Tail Cafe". 
When we entered we paid 1000 yen (around £5.60) for 50 minutes with the dogs and a drink. As soon as we went inside all of the dogs were at our ankles, crowding Matt. We sat down and they all followed Matt, sniffing and licking his legs. A little black long haired dog was licking mine. Everytime I tried to stop him or a dog disturbed him he began growling and trying to bite - what a grumpy dog! The fogs were quite tierd and didn't want to play very much (I think we may have gone a bit too late) but they did want to sit in our laps and sleep. 
This was really cute and not something I am used to with giant retrievers! I also learnt that miniature poodles are really cute when they haven't had their face weirdly shaved! When we left we had to wake our sleeping puppies off our laps, even Matt didn't seem worried by them!

We then walked around the Dotombori district, which is Osakas flashy light area. It was amazing, so vibrant and alive and so many food places with giant moving animal (I.e. Crab) signs. Opposite was Shinsaibashi-suji shopping street. Considering the shops were pretty average, the street was very busy. In all in, a great afternoon!

Nara, Japan

Our first stop when we arrived in Nara was at a Vegetarian Japanese Style Restaurant. They had a set menu of vegetarian food and for the first time in Asia, they had brown rice! Our first course was a misuo soup and the second course was four small plates of assorted foods. Unfortunately, these foods were quite jelly like in texture and I only really enjoyed the salad. The owner was really friendly and asked which my favourite was. I panicked and thought I couldnt say the very English salad and just chose one at random. She then preceded to give me more of it! Our final course was fruit and another jelly texture cake, followed by Japanese tea. Although my enjoyment ofbthe food wasn't high - I did enjoy finally experiencing food in a true Japanese style, something I would not have been able to do at a normal Japanese Restaurant.

We then headed for Nara park - home of all Nara's famed deers. Matt got bitten on his back by some weird catapillar looking bug, fortunately it doesn't seem to have any effects on him! 

We then grabbed some ice cream and deer food so we could feed the deer that were just wondering everywhere! Obviously Matthew finished his ice cream way before me and got the deer food out. The deer then preceeded to chase him to try and steal it (clearly thought he was an easy target!) whilst he ran away screaming like a girl. After I finished my ice cream, I joined in the feeding - they were so cute and took the food so gently. I particularly liked how they would inappropriately head butt Matt when he wasn't giving it to them fast enough. The cute little Bambi was definately my favourite!

Finally we went to Todaji Temple - this was the largest temple we have seen whilst in Asia. Even the entrance to the temple was huge! In addition, the temple was very impressive in both size and grandeur. There was a giant Buddha inside and hundreds of holidaymakers snapping away.

Nara was a gorgeous little city, especially if you love deer!

Monday, 27 April 2015

Hiroshima, Japan

We arrived in Hiroshima very aware that we were only spending one day in this city, so headed straight for the Peace Memorial Park. This is the centre of where the American Atomic Bomb was detonated on 6th August 1945.

Towards the end WWII, the Germans had surrendered and the only war that remained was the Pacific War - Japan vs. the Allies. The Japanese didn't see defeated as an option and American had planned a full scale attack on the Japanese Homeland, whose resources and military equipment were slowly getting more sparce. This plan had a huge expected casuality toll for American Soliders. Americas "Manhattan Project" was finally completed and they had access to nuclear weapons. It was decided that a suprise nuclear strike upon Japan would be the most effective way to force the country into submission with the smallest loss of American lives. America gave Japan one last opportunity to sign a peace treaty with an ultimatum that if they didn't Japan would face "the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese homeland". When the Japanese rejected the treaty the Americans planned to use their untested nuclear weapon - the Uranium bomb (having only tested a plutonium bomb so far). In an attempt to save face (if the bomb didn't work) and in an effort to ensure the POW weren't moved to the Hiroshima, the Americans did not warn Japan of this strike. At 8.15am on the 6th August 1945, Enola Gray flew over the city of Hiroshima dropping the first ever nuclear weapon on a city.

The first thing we saw when we reached the Peace Park was the A-Bomb Dome. Due to the direction of the bombs detonation (downwards) the prefectural hall (which was earthquake stable) still stands today. Surrounding it are before and after pictures, showing a vibrant hall one day and a horror movie deserted town the next. It was shocking to see just how different a building could become in such a short space of time. When the bomb exploded this building would have instantly gone up in flames - instantly killing everyone inside of it.

Around the park were several statues and memorials to the bombing. These included a children's memorial that was created after the death of a girl who was exposed to the radiation at 2 and died from Leukemia 8 years later. Her friends and school friends raised the money for the memorial for all the children that were effected by the bomb. At the far end of the park stood the Atomic Bomb Museum. This may have been the worst place I have ever been. 

The museum tells the story of the bombing, the aftermath and even educates about how nuclear bombs work and the after effects of radiation. The most harrowing part of the museum were the stories about people who were effected by the bomb. Several of the stories were about children who were seriously injured and died not long after the detonation. There were pictures on the walls showing charred bodies and effects of the radiation of some of the immediate survivors. There were clothes in glass cases, showing how the blast burnt through clothes leaving huge holes and speculating about the damage done to the skin of the wearer. For approximately 2km around the point of detonation, all buildings (most were made of wood or had wooden frames) were completely vaporised by the bomb or burnt down due to the fires created from the heat of the explosion. It is thought that 70,000 people died immediately during the explosion and a further 70,000 died as a result of their injuries or radiation in the following five years - most of these people were civilians, women and children. A shockingly high proportion of the bodies of the dead were never found.

We left the Museum feeling quite upset and tried to find food. A local delicacy was recommended to us and a restaurant that served it even had a vegetarian menu. The food was really tasty and surprisingly filling.

In the afternoon, we went to Miyajima - a small island off the coast of Hiroshima. This island is famed for its free standing Torii gate that appears to float in the water at high tide - the Itsukushima Shrine. The gate was the same bright orange that we found in Kyoto and people flocked to it to take selfies.

By far the best part of this island were the wondering deer that followed tourists - offering to help them eat their food and even their maps! It was strange to see such a reclusive animal in England be so used to human interaction on this island. The trip there was made even better by the fact we could use our 7 day JR rail pass to get the train and ferry for free!

I have always been against war and violence and death always upsets me. Seeing the state of Hiroshima after that bomb was dropped was unreal. The ground was scorched and trees destroyed. All life looked like it was gone. Hiroshima asks for world peace. It asks that nuclear weapons are never used again, that people will never again face the fate and the future that they did. Families were destroyed and even the lucky people who survived the initial attack have suffered with long term effects for their entire life. Stories from children who survived and witnessed the aftermath should be enough to prevent something like this ever happening again. I will never understand how it was agreed to release a second bomb over Nagasaki after witnessing what happened in Hiroshima. When the bomb was released, we had an understanding of the effect of radiation poisoning but never at this level. I agree with Hiroshima, that a weapon of mass destruction like this should never, ever be used again.

Himeji Castle, Japan

The castle was visible when we arrived at Himeji train station. Although it looked pretty close, it was just a trick due to its huge size size and stature.

Himeji Castle has been undergoing a huge renovation project for the past 6 years - this included closing off the main keep to all visitors and even putting a scaffold and cover around it, preventing it from being visible to many tourists! The castle was finally reopened to visitors on the 26th March 2015 and has seen over 10,000 visitors a day since.

When we arrived and took the obligatory selfies, we headed to the ticket office where we were handed a piece of paper allowing entry into the main keep. It appears they are limiting the numbers that enter and fortunately we were two of them.

The view of the main keep from the outside was beautiful - bright white walls and thousands of semi circular roof tiles with white edging. At the end of the tiles were white circles creating the effect of giant pearls adorning the edges. The inside of the keep was equally as beautiful. The renovation had kept all of the original wooden features. All the rooms were made of wood and the east and west pillars (although reinforced and strengthened) remained from the original design. Each of the rooms were busy with huge tour groups filling all the space. The castle itself advises that you download their app which allows you to use data and an AR reader to visualise what the room would have looked like when the castle was in use. From the few examples I saw, it appears the app still needs some work, but should be downloaded prior to going.

The Gardens surrounding the castle were beautiful. Once again, it was a shame we missed the Cherry Blossoms! The official castle gardens were separate from the castle, but a joint ticket could be purchased for 40 yen more. Here there were several ponds and bridges. The ponds were full of huge koi carp that resembled the big ones in my grandfather's pond. The whole place was very idyllic and beautiful!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Nagasaki, Japan

We completed our 3 hour train journey to Nagasaki and headed straight for the War Memorial Museum. This museum wasn't as harrowing as the one we witnessed in Hiroshima - whether this was due to the exposure the day before the style of the museum I am not certain. On the 9th August 1945 at 11.02, the second atomic weapon was dropped on a city in human history. The heat of the plutonium bomb (c.f. Hiroshimas bomb was made with uranium) instantly killed everyone who was exposed outside within a 1km radius. It completely destroyed the city as many of the buildings were made from wooden structures and the fire burned late into the night. This weapon of mass destruction has had many of the same effects on the city and the residents exposed. As a result, Nagasaki are also asking for world peace and complete destruction of all nuclear warheads. They also have a peace register where countries and cities can join in with the effort for world peace. The mayor of Bristol joined in 1988.

The Nagasaki Peace Park contains a section with concentric circles - the hypocenter of the bombs detonation. Next to it is the only surviving spire of the Christian Church that was 800m away from the explosion - a reminder of the power of the explosion. The fountain of peace was beautiful with huge water jets resembling the dove and peace. Unfortunately, in an effort to take a beautiful picture, Matt fell in. He soaked both his shoes and socks - hopefully not causing too much offence to the locals.

Our next stop was another bomb damage site - the one legged Torii gate or the Sanno Shrine. This gate is located 800m from the hypocenter. The tremendous heat rays of the explosion blackened the upper part of the gate and the blast destroyed the pillar and crossbeams nearest to the hypocenter, leaving only half the structure to this day!

In the afternoon we headed towards the Western district and Hollander (Dutch) slope - most westerners that settled in Nagasaki during the Foreign Settlement Era were Dutch, and so westerners were often assumed to be Dutch. Around the slope were several western style houses depicting the settlement that existed here.

We then walked past a Confusion shrine - one of the only of its kind to be built outside of China. It was strangely better than many of the shrines we saw in China with huge dragons on its roof!

Our final stop was Glover Garden. Glover was born in Scotland and came to Nagasaki in 1859 at the age of 21. In Nagasaki he established the Glover Trading Company which focused on shipbuilding, coal mining and the tea trade. Here he built the first western style house and the became dominated with other western merchants who lived in and loved Nagasaki. The whole area was lovely abs the houses had a variety of artifacts on display, including portraits of Glover and his wire Tsuru.

Nagasaki was a beautiful city and it was amazing to literally see a city that had risen from the ashes and rebuild into something amazing. It was a true testimatent to the people who lived there.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Kyoto, Japan

Due to our delayed flight, it was dark when we arrived in Kyoto. This created a beautiful welcome to Japan. Kyoto Tower lit up the exit from the train station and coloured fountains of water banked the side of the walk way - I already knew that I would love Japan.

The following morning we discovered that the Japanese love fluffy American pancakes for breakfast - heaven! We moved our stuff to our new hostel and ran into a 70 year old (ish) woman, she walked slowly with a bend in her back. She left her house and climbed onto her scooter and instantly headed off at full speed, it was surreal - how often do you see older people doing things like that in the UK?

We set off to begin Temple day! Although not technically a temple, our first stop was Otani Hombyo - a huge crematorium with really pretty buildings and gardens. When we got to the burial area the number of gravestones was astonishing - they were all new looking and so clean.

Behind the crematorium was our first temple of the day - Kiyomizu Temple. This idyllic temple was located amongst thousands of tree on the side of a mountain. The Temple itself was a bright orange - such a contrast to the temples we saw in China and South Korea. The Temple was full of touristy shops selling charms for love, marriage, exam success and even to remove headaches. My favourite things were wooden plaques where you could write a wish and a monk would bless it - potentially making it come true. I saw one wishing her daughter a safe and happy pregnancy.

Leaving the temple lead to a series of pretty streets called Higashiyama Streets. These streets were small and windy, but mainly aimed at tourists with several shops selling the same merchandise.

Our next stop included walking through a huge Torii gate (a big gate which looks like the Greek letter pi) which was also bright orange and lead to the Heian Shrine. The main entrance way was a huge open space with pretty buildings around the edge. It is also known to have the best Cherry Blossom garden in Kyoto - unfortunately the ticket office informed us we were too late and the petals had fallen from them. 

On the way to the Philsopher's Path, we ran into a Japanese man who wanted to record us reading an English poem and ask some questions about its grammar. The politeness of the Japanese is unreal - this man was so kind, recommending places we should go and talking to us. Everyone also nods at people as a sign of respect - they are just so polite! The Philosopher's path itself follows a canal and during Cherry Blossom week, there are pink flowers everywhere. 

Unfortunately, once again, we were fractionally too late and found green trees along the river and piles of pink petals all over the floor! Whilst we were walking along the path, we came across a cart that had pillows and blankets inside it. Resting upon the pillows were several cats all curled up together, it was really cute!

Our final stop after a long day of walking was Ginkakyji - unlike China these temples closed relatively early (5pm) and so we were too late to enter! Instead we went to a Chinese Restaurant for more eggplant (Aubergine) and rice - we were definately missing this from China. Fortunately whilst we were in South Korea, a person in our room spoke Japanese and translated a statement in Japanese for me, saying I am unable to eat meat or fish. This meant when we went to a restaurant that was unable to speak English, we could still be certain we were ordering vegetarian food - and it worked!

The next day the weather was even more beautiful than the previous, with temperatures of 25 degrees and very little wind. We decided to go to another temple on the way to the subway - Rengeoin Sanjusangendo. This temple was home to many statues which resembled gods and deities. We were unable to take pictures of the statues but they number of them was very striking.

Lunch consisted of finding a Vegan/Vegetarian restaurant that Matt had seen on Tripadvisor. I was a little worried when I saw the menu, but the food was amazing. I had a soy meat burger and we even ended up staying for vegan pancakes with cream!

In the afternoon we went to Nijo Castle - a secondary castle to the Imperial Palace from the Shogun period. shogun literally means Commander or General and he was appointed by the Emperor to help run the country. The beat part of the palace were the squeaky floors designed to warn people if intruders were near people's room in the night! This Castle closed at 4pm and the lady on the speaker effectively told us we had to get out now!

Our final stop of the day was a mile away at the Imperial Palace. In order to look around the palace, a reservation needed to be made. We did not have one of them, so instead we explored the Gardens which are open all the time!

The final day in Kyoto was my favourite. We got an early start to ensure we fitted in all of Matts plans before they closed. Our first stop was the Arashiyama Monkey Park. It took 20 minutes to climb up the mountain, to a height greater than that of Kyoto Tower. When we neared the top, we saw our first monkeys - two babies wrestling and their big Daddy in the tree. When we reached the viewing platform, I was overwhelmed by how many monkeys there were. It was also the first of many feeding times we witness, so all the monkeys in the trees were present! 

Although the rules clearly stated you are to stay 3m away from the monkeys at all times, it was impossible - they just kept walking past your feet. Whilst Matt was trying to take a picture of the view, a monkey sat behind him, not even half a meter away! We went inside to the feeding area where you could buy bags of apples or nuts and feed the monkeys through a wire fence. The monkeys were uber cute and grabbed the food from your hands to eat it, then stuck out their hands for more.

We walked across Arashiyama bridge which had a beautiful backdrop of mountains, leading to a busy tourist street filled with school children and tourists. 

Walking down this street we found a chopstick shop, where you can choose a design and they engraving your name in Japanese onto the chopsticks! 

Whilst we waited for them to be engraved, we went to the Bamboo Forest. Here, huge bamboo trees grew and leaned over the path. It was really pretty, but not quite as cool as anticipated as everything was fenced off, preventing you from exploring (and I suppose damaging) the forest.

A 40 minute walk from here was the Saga-Torilmoto Preserved Street - a scenic road of traditional houses. When we arrived it was literally a ghost town - not what was expected! So we got a bus back to the river for lunch.

In the afternoon we went to The Golden Temple. The Temple was very pretty and reflected beautifully in the still water surrounding it. We walked past a wishing pot where people were throwing coins - although none of my coins made it in the pot, one of my wishes did come true. When we left the complex we ran straight into a red velvet cake shop!

Kyoto was an amazing city with so many temples! You could still feel ancient Kyoto as you walked around combined with the modern additions added to the city. It was really beautiful and one of my favourite cities I have explored.