Posted by: Darrell | December 31, 2008

Takasaki and the Conclusion of a Journey

Japan - The Country of Lights

Japan - The Country of Lights

After an amazing three days in Tokyo, we ended our journey exactly where it had begun for me; in Takasaki.

There really is no other place I would have rather ended such an amazing experience than in Takasaki where  I was, 4 months ago, slightly afraid, definitely excited but incredibly nervous. Alone in a country so different and beginning a journey that I never imagined I would take. I was lucky to have one of my best friends there to help guide me through the first few days. And what seemed like an entirety ended much too quickly. Four months of such constant learning and adapting through intense and amazing experience.

So while I had already fallen in love with Takasaki and the Gunma country side, I was able to introduce Liz to where it all began for me. Ben was kind enough to show us around (again!). I also specifically picked Dec. 31 to arrive here so that Liz, Ben and I could spend New Years Together. With maybe one too many drinks, we had a great time and although we were here a couple of nights, it was a relaxing couple of nights after such a momentous journey.

In the end, Liz and I went back to Tokyo to spend the last night together before setting off in different directions. The last meal consisted of one of my favourite dishes in Japan: Tonkatsu. And the next day, Liz set off to the mountains of Hokkaido and I went south to the beaches and sunshine of Thailand.

The final meal - Tonkatsu

The Final Meal - Tonkatsu

All in all, the Farewell Japan Tour was a major success. While we could have wished for more days and gone to more destinations, I think the plan that we choose was just perfect. We got to see everything we wanted and traveled across a country that we had both grown to love. Plenty of planning definitely made it what it was, but in the end it was the adventure that made it memorable.

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Posted by: Darrell | December 30, 2008

Tokyo at Daybreak, Tokyo at Nightfall

The crowds at Tsukiji Fish Market

The crowds at Tsukiji Fish Market

For our last day in Tokyo we combined the early morning fish market with the late night clubbing. The best of both worlds, while only hours apart but strikingly different. The morning consisted of waking up at 5AM to get to the Tsukiji fish market in time for the 6AM auction. Unfortunately with a select few (idiot) gaijin ruining it for the rest of us, the city of Tokyo banned tourists from the fish auction as the Christmas/New Years period was the busiest time of the year. So while we did go to the fish market early in the morning we ended up missing out on the best part. However, all was not lost as the market was still an array of marine life. We even got glimpses of the massive frozen tuna fishes.

The Bank of Japan

The Bank of Japan

After the early morning adventure we visit the business section of the city hoping to see the Bank of Japan and the Tokyo Stock Exchange (Nikkei), but like everything else, it was closed during the New Years holiday period (yeah, period not just a single day or even two days but an entire couple of weeks). However, the architecture of the business district was a nice enough consolation. With imposing columns and grandeur buildings, the commercial district really signified money and wealth.

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

While on our way to go clubbing we noticed that Roppongi was only a short distance from Tokyo Tower and we headed there for some up close and personal pictures. Following that (and constantly avoiding the shady black guys trying sell you things or take you somewhere) we ended up in the notorious Roppongi clubbing area. Being optimistic and hoping most of the horrible stuff said about Roppongi wasn’t true, we were unfortunately proven wrong. While trying to avoid the constant barrage of shadiness, we saw more Westerners acting stupidly than Japanese partying. And the club we ended up at, Gas Panic, wasn’t much better. However, regardless of the environment everything is still an adventure. So while I will always remember the crazy clubbing nights in Osaka, I will never forget (nor return to) the gaijin central of Roppongi.

Posted by: Darrell | December 29, 2008

Tokyo Teleport

The Rainbow Bridge and surrounding waterfront

The Rainbow Bridge and surrounding waterfront

Well not quite but at those prices it might as well be. While the costs of getting to Odaiba are steep the attractions are plentiful and worth the trip. Odaiba is a artificial island also known as the Tokyo Waterfront. In order to get to Odaiba, you must take the Rinkai Line but be warned it will cost an arm and a leg. Upon arrival (and probably still heartbroken from parting with so much money just to get there) you will quickly be immersed in the constant barrage of commercial attractions. The biggest thing by far is the Fuji Television Tower which is an Odaiba landmark and a great place to get nice shots of the Rainbow Bridge and surrounding waterfront. The Fuji TV tower also tons of free attractions and connects to an enormous waterfront mall.

Inside the Toyota MegaWeb

Inside the Toyota MegaWeb

On the opposite end of Odaiba is MegaWeb, a Toyota heaven. Full of every make and model in the Toyota production line it also contains some rare gems like the concept Lexus LF-A supercar, the Toyota Racing F1 car and the SuperGT Toyota Supra. And for those with an international drivers license, Toyota allows you to test drive any model in their line up for nominal fee (less than the cost the Rinkai Line ticket). There are also many Toyota models that you will probably never find anywhere else except in Japan so it is a difinite must for any car enthusiast.

The Venice themed Venus Fort Mall

The Venice themed Venus Fort Mall

Across from MegaWeb is Venus Fort which is a Venice themed mall. Although the shopping is pricey (like everywhere else in Japan), the architecture and lighting inside the mall is quite nice. And interestingly enough, Toyota also owns a car museum inside the mall with a collection of some of the rarest cars in the world (from other manufacturers).

After spending the day in Odaiba we also stopped in Ginza on the way back and admired the fashions and exclusivity of the capital of Japanese fashion. Although most items were more than our nightly rate for our hotel it is still a nice place to take a stroll as sometimes the best sights in Ginza aren’t always the clothes (usually the ladies wearing the clothes and the ultra rich husbands driving the Masteratis, Ferraris and Lambos). And finally to end our day of modernism and commercialism we stopped for some pictures in Shibuya, the heart of the youth movement. Very popular with younger Japanese, Shibuya also has the biggest intersection/crosswalk in the world and cheaper (some would also say less sophisticated compared to Ginza) shopping. After spending the previous day walking around historic Tokyo, Shibuya, Ginza and Odaida really represent the modernism of the city and it almost seems as if you have really teleported into a different Tokyo…

The main intersection at Ginza with Mikimoto and Mitsukoshi department stores

The main intersection at Ginza with Mikimoto and Mitsukoshi department stores

Shibuya

Shibuya

Posted by: Darrell | December 28, 2008

Tokyo – Historic by Day, Majestic by Night

Tokyo by Night

Tokyo by Night

There is no bigger a city in Japan than Tokyo. The penultimate stop on our Farewell Japan tour, we also managed to meet up with Hanh and enjoy some of the most famous places in the city. We started off at the Meji Shrine, one of the most famous and busiest shrines in all of Japan. Dedicated to the late Emperor Meji, the shrine plays host to all of Tokyo during the New Years celebrations. In the jungle of building and concrete, the Meji Shrine is surrounded by a beautiful, rare forest that provides a buffer from the modern to the historic.

Meji Shrine

Meji Shrine

Another famous shrine in Japan is the Asakusa Shrine. Unlike the Meji Shrine, the Asakusa Shrine is located smack in the middle of the busy Asakusa district. With an array of colors, lanterns and hazy smoke, the Asakusa shrine is the complete opposite of the serene, quiet Meji.While the Shrine is the main attraction, the Asakusa district is awash with many interesting street side vendors and shops.

Asakusa Shrine

Asakusa Shrine

The Asakusa district is also located right beside the Sumida river, the lifeblood of Tokyo. As recommended by my host family, we boarded a boat and cruised down the river just as the sun was setting. The views were amazing from the boat as we witnessed day turn into night. The river connects the Asakusa district to the Minato and Akasaka district, home of the Tokyo Tower. While the Tokyo Tower is an observation deck in it of itself, we opted for the World Trade Centre in Tokyo to instead photograph Tokyo Tower. Cheaper and less crowded, the WTC  is definitely recommended as we managed to capture some amazing night shots of Tokyo along with the infinite glow of Tokyo Tower. Sadly at this point we had to bid Hanh farewell but like it had always been, Liz and I continued into the unknown.

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

We finished off the amazing evening in Shinjuku enjoying some Okinawa cuisine. And as a toast to the city that never sleeps we had drinks at the Park Hyatt Tokyo lounge, the location of the movie Lost in Translation. Much like the movie, we were drawn into city that captivates during the day and seduces during the night, the city where being lost is a journey and friendships are defined by the adventure.

 

 

 

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Cruising along the Sumida River in Tokyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Colorful Bridges of Tokyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another night view of Tokyo

Posted by: Darrell | December 27, 2008

Yokohama

Granmall park with the sail shaped InterContinental hotel

Granmall park with the sail shaped InterContinental hotel

While Yokohama is another major city in Japan, it is often forgotten amid the popularity of Tokyo. However, Yokohama has an great reputation, much better than Nagoya and this was a place we were really looking forward to come to on our Farewell Japan Tour. While steeped in history, Yokohama is surprisingly modern with the nicest trains stations in Japan. The Minato Mirai line really is something else. However, being overly expensive your best bet would be to buy a day pass and just travel around Yokohama and also see all the different Minato Mirai stations, because they are a point of interest in and of themselves. For a taste of the historic, just walking along the many streets of Yokohama will bring to one of the many historic and European inspired architecture building.

One of the Minato Mirai train station platforms

One of the Minato Mirai train station platforms

With the largest Chinatown in Japan, Yokohama also has a great international flare. From the World Porter shopping mall to the cheap and delicious street vendors lining Chinatown, Yokohama is surprisingly international being so close to Tokyo, the heart of Japan. Liz and I also spent the evening walking around Motomachi and it was nicely decorated and chic for those who are looking the hip and fashionable.

Yokohama skyline with Mt. Fuji in the background

Yokohama skyline with Mt. Fuji in the background

Yokohama is also famed for it’s beautiful harbour. The promenade that connects the Minato Mirai district to Yamashita park is the best place to take it all in. The promenade will also pass the famous Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse or Aka Renga Souko. While historic on the outside, the warehouse is actually a ultra modern open-concept shopping mall. Besides being a great place to walk around, the Red Brick Warehouse and the gardens around it are also very photographic and provide great views of the Bay Bridge and the harbour. However, the best part of the Yokohama is where you least expect it; on a public lookout point on top of the New Yokohama International Port Terminal. This Port terminal is like no other with it’s green garden concept and wavy-rounded design. This is by far, the best place to enjoy the harbour. And best of all it is completely free unlike the exorbitant Landmark tower. Even though it is very popular among professionals photographers and the casual tourists, you are guaranteed to get great shots of city mirrored in the harbour with Mt. Fuji as the backdrop. Combine that with a setting sun and the infinite shades of yellow and orange, the harbour becomes truly unforgettable.

All of the photographers trying to capture...

All of the photographers trying to capture...

...the perfect shot!

...the perfect shot!

Posted by: Darrell | December 26, 2008

Mt. Fuji

The city of Kawaguchiko with Mt. Fuji in the background

The city of Kawaguchiko with Mt. Fuji in the background

The symbol of Japan was the next stop on our Farewell Japan Tour. The snow-capped, majestic mountain is as ubiquitous to Japan as Tokyo. Featured in paintings, drawings, history and folklore, Mt. Fuji is a feat to climb. However, we didn’t get to climb it. Mostly because it’s only open 2 months out of the year for the reputed 12 hour climb. However, it’s majestic-ness and beauty was definitely not lost in the midst of winter.

After extensive research by Liz, we determined that the best place to really get a feel for Mt. Fuji is in a small city at the base of the mountain and right beside a lake; Kawaguchiko. Instead of our usual business hotel, we made our two night stay at K’s House Hostel. Although, hesitant at first, the hostel was amazing. If we were to every come back again to climb Mt. Fuji, this will be the place where we would stay. Located minutes walk from the lake and a short bike ride to the base of the mountain, this would be the perfect place to set up camp for a monumental climb, or in our case just some sightseeing.

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

Kawaguchiko is definitely a small city, with limited facilities and no public transport. Furthermore, it is also quite a journey to get there. However, everything you need is in walking or biking distance and what it lacks in facilities, it makes up in charm and beauty. The lake itself is a beautiful place to spend the day and one of the best locations to get some of those Mt. Fuji Kodak moments. There is also a Mt. Fuji information centre located right at the base of the mountain and provides climbing information, maps, history, museum and also a great lookout point to take some pictures.

Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko

Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko

As for the mountain itself, well it truly is beyond words. Even when covered by clouds, there is nothing quite like seeing the nearly symmetrical slopes of mountain towering above. And the picture were simply amazing; whether in black and white, sepia, framed against the clouds or back-dropped against the lakes. The mountain is without a doubt, one of the most picture perfect places and one of the highlights of our trip. However, if this is the beauty of seeing it from afar, I can only imagine how close to heaven you must be when you can complete that climb and watch the sunrise from the top of Japan.

Mt. Fuji at sunset

Mt. Fuji at sunset

Mt. Fuji in black and white

Mt. Fuji in black and white

Mt. Fuji in sepia

Mt. Fuji in sepia

Posted by: Darrell | December 25, 2008

Nagoya

Mt. Fuji seen from the Shinkansen

Mt. Fuji seen from the Shinkansen

After spending a final night at my home stay with Liz, we set off on the Shinkansen with the plan to spend our day in Nagoya before heading to Kawaguchiko and Mt. Fuji. During the train ride, we were given a sneak peak of Mt. Fuji which look majestic peaking just above the clouds.

Nagoya City

Nagoya City

Upon arriving, the first thing you notice is that Nagoya is big, and not just big like any other city in Japan, but massive in the size of roads and usage of automobiles. However, Nagoya is the car capital of Japan and second home of Toyota (the first being Toyota city itself). With limited time, we decided to go and see Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology.

The Toyota Museum

The Toyota Museum

The museum is a short train ride and walk from Nagoya Station and showcases the history of Toyota from it’s loom manufacturing days under the Toyoda name and then it’s emergence as a car maker. Everything is also provided in English and the second half of the museum is a car lover’s dream. The first half with the loom manufacturing was interesting, but soon became pretty repetitive. The second half showcasing the cars of Toyota was very technical in nature. From the mechanics and workings of every single part of a car, the museum was amazing in displaying the dynamic innovation of the various components and also the manufacturing process of the car. While probably not for the casual car lover, the museum is very informative and gave great insight into Toyota. While that was pretty much all we got to do in Nagoya, it was plain to see that beyond the technology and manufacturing heritage of city, Nagoya really doesn’t offer quite as much as Tokyo or Kansai.

Posted by: Darrell | December 24, 2008

Ferry Boats

Kansai Kisen Ferry

Kansai Kisen Ferry

A relatively unknown secret is that you can charter a ferry from Beppu to Osaka for half the price of the Shinkansen and you don’t have to pay the cost of a hotel as the ferry is an overnight trip. It can compared to the overnight bus, except WAY better in comfort, style and experience. A recommendation from my homestay family, Liz and I were wonderfully delighted with the ferry that I though it was important enough for it to warrant it’s own blog post.

Our 4 person room

Our 4 person room

Although hesistant at first, this blog post written by another traveler who discovered the joys of ferry boating is what really convinced us to go ahead with it (that and the substantial savings). While we are guilty of valuing time over money and consistently taking the Shinkansen or the fastest transportation available, the ferry is actually the cheapest AND fastest way to get from Beppu to Osaka. It is fast because, instead of sleeping over night in Beppu and then taking the first Shinkansen to Osaka, the ferry sails over night and arrives in Osaka at 6am, just in time for the first trains.

Leaving Beppu Port

Leaving Beppu Port

The room choice are sleeping on a floor with other people (it’s a lot better than it sounds) or requesting a room that can be shared with 4 to 12 other people. However, on our trip we lucked out as the sailing wasn’t full and we were given a 4 person room without other roommates! The bed are great, facilities are even better and the comfort is 10 times better than a night bus (or so I have heard). One caveat is that you should eat BEFORE you board the ferry as the canteen food is expensive and underwhelming. Beer and snacks are also expensive, so buy before you board. However, the ship is vast and there are many areas to peacefully write a blog post, have a beer or just relax. The night view is also nice, although cold and probably less nice than the day view. If you are reading my blog and there is once advice to take; it is to take the ferry boat when traveling from Kyushu to Honshu.

More Information
A primer on Japanese Ferries

Route Guide for Japanese Ferries

Kansai Kisen (Beppu-Osaka) Service

Posted by: Darrell | December 23, 2008

Beppu

Kamado Jigoku (Boiling Hell)

Kamado Jigoku (Boiling Hell)

Another famous city in Kyushu, Beppu is famous for it’s onsens and jigoku (boiling hells).The first thing you notice when you get to Beppu is that everything is on mountain. In fact, Ritsumeikan APU is located on this mountain, much in the same way SFU is – away from civilization. However, despite the steep and narrow mountain roads, large public buses service almost all of Beppu. Although the bus drivers are talented being able to navigate such tough roads, the buses are far and few in between leaving visitors with vary negative view of Beppu public transport. Don’t let that deter you though, from the great sites of the jigoku as they truly are unique.

Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell)

Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell)

Most of the 10 jigoku are within walking distance from each other (although to get to one it is a 40 min bus ride after a 1 hour wait). It is very commercialized in that, all of the jigoku has something else to keep you entertained. This is in stark contrast to the vast untouched beauty of the temples, shrines and mountains in Japan. And some of the entertainment was pretty interesting, but don’t forget the reason you went there in the first place: the jigoku. These boiling hells are a very interesting site, varying in color, temperature and composition. Naturally forming and awe inspiring, they are on any must see list for Beppu.

Takegawara Onsen

Takegawara Onsen

Another one of Beppu’s famous things to do is the onsens. The information table at Beppu train station have the descriptions of all the onsens and can also point you in the right direction, so don’t forget to stop by there. They vary from the ultra luxury, to the beach front sand spas and the ancient (some would say ghetto) bath houses. However, because we had not yet been disappointed with the historical choice, we decided to go to Takegawara Onsen, the oldest and most famous onsen in Beppu.  I was incredibly blown away by Arima, but prepare to be underwhelmed by Takegawara. It is nice and cheap, but that is as much as I can really compliment on. However, if there is something I have learned from this trip; it is to just take a chance and you never know where it may lead. At least I can say that I went to one of Japan’s oldest and most famous onsen.

Posted by: Darrell | December 22, 2008

Nagasaki

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

Another port city in the beautiful island of Kyushu, Nagasaki has come a long way since being devastated by the atomic bomb. While planning the trip, we knew that any travels to Kyushu would not be complete without a journey to Nagasaki. Although, Hiroshima and Nagasaki shared the same fate, they both have very different ways to recognize that life-altering day. Any visit to either cities is incomplete without a tour of the Atomic Bomb Museum. Nagasaki’s Museum is quieter, but just as powerful as Hiroshima.

Nagasaki Port

Nagasaki Port

Nagasaki has a beautiful port with most of the downtown core located right along the port. Being a fairly small city, Nagasaki is easily to map and walk around, although the bitter cold forced us to take the ultra cheap street car. It is also unique in it’s European foreign influences quite different from Fukuoka’s Asian influence. One of those was the very ancient and historical Oura Catholic Church.

Night View of Nagasaki from Mt. Inasa

Night View of Nagasaki from Mt. Inasa

And to capture the entire beauty of Nagasaki in a single shot, we braved the cold and headed up on Inasa Mountain and managed to get some amazing night shots. While more known for the atomic museum, it was the night view of Nagasaki that really stole the show. Because it not about what happened, but how you pick yourself up and Nagasaki really shows us how beauty can emerge from ashes.

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