Hello avid readers!
I am writing to you from my hotel room in Tokyo on the eve of my departure from this foreign land, but I wanted to take some time to capture my experiences to both remind myself of my journey, and to hopefully provide some insights for you on what to see, what to miss, and how to survive.
After a tiring, and long flight to Tokyo (NRT) via Calgary, I immediately hopped on the next Narita Express using my newly-exchanged JR pass bound for Shinjuku, which claims to be the busiest train station in the world (I believe it!). After grabbing a quick triangle of rice from a convenience store at the station and fiddling with the wrapping (tip: pull tab #1 ALL THE WAY until it comes off), I changed trains for a limited express to Matsumoto, a more rural city that I planned to use as my base of operations and a jumping-off point for the Chuo (central) alps. In Matsumoto, a short stroll with my gear brought me to Matsumoto Backpackers, a small hostel run by an Irish gent and his wife, who not only provided a roof over my head (for a reasonable fee), but also travel advice and companionship during my time in the city.
After a good night sleep (after my 24 hours of travel, I would have had a good night sleep on a rock), I headed out to scope out the town, and catch a glimpse of the Matsumoto castle, a gorgeous old fort from the 1500s. I happened to be in town for a local festival, so the main street was lined with parade floats, which instead of moving down the road as part of a parade, were parked in a line the entire day, with people walking from one to the next and praying.
After more rice triangles for breakfast (the filling is always a surprise if you can’t read Japanese!), I took the bus to a road into the local foothills that is closed to auto traffic and hiked the 6km to a lake at the top of the mountain, returning through Awsama, I took a dip in a relaxing Onsen then took a bus back to my hostel. After a (not so very) brief nap, Brian (the hotel owner) and I headed into town for a night of food-stall food and fireworks.
After a less deep night sleep, I returned to Matsumoto Castle for a tour of the grounds and inside, be warned, the stairs in this castle are STEEP, and you will be wearing socks on the slippery wood flooring. Learning about ancient Warring States Japanese history complete, I headed for the train station and took the hilariously slow local train to Komagane and bused to the HI Hostel there.
Early the next morning, a long windy bus, filled to the gills with Japanese tourists (I was the only westerner I saw all day) to the base of the rope-way. My slot on the cable car was about 45 minutes from my arrival at the station, so I hiked around behind the station and found a beautiful waterfall and generally enjoyed the fall foliage.
Finally, it was time to queue up in a polite and orderly fashion and cram into the car for a scenic trip up to about 2,600m, making it the highest cable-car in Japan. A steep but pleasant hike followed to reach the highest peak in the Chuo Alps, and a lovely view was enjoyed by myself and the 100s of other Japanese hikers there as well. The air was very stinky and a cloud of ash was visible from the volcanic eruption that happened not too far off.
More hiking and pictures followed by the return cable car and bus journey, then a train to Osaka, part of which was via bullet train. In Osaka, I went to see the “Vegas of Japan” with swanky clubs and neon lights, but instead opted for a stop at a bar owned by a Boulderite and some English speech for a change. In Osaka, there are two local specialties: takoyaki and box sushi, neither of which I liked. Takoyaki is an octopus dumpling which was too doughy for my tastes, and the box sushi is pressed into a brick before being sliced, leaving the rice a bit on the mushy side.
The next morning I got up early to explore Osaka, took the metro to the Osaka castle (not worth the entrance fee, just walk around the grounds) and explored before heading to the Osaka Aquarium, one of the largest in the world. As it was a gray day due to the typhoon, this was a perfect day to spend the afternoon, along with the rest of Osaka that had the same idea. Seeing seals, otters dolphins and even a 1,000kg whale shark was pretty cool and a good way to learn and stay dry. A short bullet train ride from Osaka left me in Kyoto, where I had a nice bowl of ramen, and hit the hay early.
The following morning was the peak of the typhoon activity in Kyoto, it rained and was windy for about an hour before clearing into a wonderful day. I got my bus pass and ventured to Gion to explore historic temples, shrines and stopped at Hachidaime Gihei, a popular restaurant that specializes in the selection and proper (traditional) preparation of rice. While I wasn’t able to detect a magical difference in the rice, the food was nonetheless tasty, so refreshed I headed for downtown Kyoto and kept trekking.
The following morning, I arose early and headed straight for the Inari temple, in hopes of beating the crowds. As luck would have it, getting there at 6:30am was the perfect time to have the shrine to myself. The Inari temple is one of the most sacred in all of Japan, and is home to 1000s of toriis, or wooden arches. A lengthy trek up Mt. Inari was very enjoyable in the cool of morning, and the quiet as I walked deeper into the forest was a nice change of pace.
From there a two hour bullet train took me to the big city, Tokyo, where I tried to wrap my head around the subway system with its multiple competing providers and tangle of lines and stations. Eventually finding my hotel, I dumped my luggage and walked to the fish market area for a sushi lunch. Returning to my hotel for a long shower and nap, I took the subway to see the crowds at Shibuya (busiest cross-walk in the world) and Shinjuku.
That all brings me to today, in which I awoke, had a conveyor belt sushi breakfast and headed to Shinjuku via Ginza to head up the to the 45th floor observation deck of the Tokyo Metro Office Building (city hall). Seeing a large park sticking out like a sore thumb in the urban landscape home to some 35 million people, I headed for Yoygi park and escaped into the quiet sounds of the forest until arriving at a shrine for a beloved emperor. Returning back to the observation deck to catch a glimpse of the lunar eclipse, I hopped a subway to Roppongi to see the “rowdy” nightlife in an otherwise polite country (I’ve heard a car horn twice during this trip).
Now I my wrap up my post and hit the sack for an early morning watching the tuna auctions before flying to Christchurch tomorrow mid-morning.