Earthquake Alert

25 08 2009

We were woken up at 6.43am this morning with our phones beeping crazily. We both received earthquake warnings (in Japanese) that are sent to phones a few seconds before major quakes hit. Strangely, we felt no tremors and it seems that no effects occured from the sea-based quake off to the east of Chiba prefecture. Must have been a false alarm, but we’ve gotten a bit scared from visiting the Kobe Earthquake Museum and seeing what destruction can occur after earthquakes. Just as well, as it took us half an hour to translate the message to make sure we weren’t in any immediate danger.

A long weekend in Nikko

25 08 2009

Peter and Jill came to visit us in Japan. We all went to Nikko, north of Tokyo over a long weekend to escape the summer humidity. Nikko is up in the mountains and was much cooler than Kisarazu, Kyoto and Osaka at this time of year.

We all left Kisarazu after lunch for Nikko, taking the train to Tokyo, the subway to Asakusa and arrived at the Tobu line to buy our All Nikko Free Pass with one minute to spare before the 2.50 train. It took 2.5 hours to get to Nikko and then we caught the last bus at 6.04pm up the mountain along the 26 alphabet bends to Lake Chuzenji and to where our accommodation was. We had been recommended this place to stay in Nikko and we booked a bungalow for 4. However, when we got there we realised that it was basic camping. Our bungalow/cabin had tatami floors and futons with blankets, we had to lit fires to cook our dinner on and the was a public bath on site for washing. The western toilets seats were heated though, which was a nice bit of luxury.

When we arrived at the camp site it was already dark so we got some wood and started our dinner fire. We had tofu, eggplant and udon for dinner with Kyoto cinnamon and matcha biscuits with genmaicha for after dinner.

It was quite cold overnight and we needed 2 blankets each to stay warm – back home we were sleeping with the air-con all night so the 1200m above sea level altitude certainly made it cooler.

On the next day we had cereal and fruit for breakfast then caught the bus to Yumoto by Lake Yunoko, about 2000m above sea level. People were fly fishing and fishing from boats (perhaps for trout?) out on the lake. We went to Yumoto Onsen-ji (Onsen temple) and paid for a bath. We were the only people there at the temple so the hot baths were all for us. The water was really hot – 65-72 degrees- so lots of cold water was needed. The whole Yumoto area smelt sulfurous from the volcanic hot springs. The milky sulfur springs are meant to be good for muscle and joint pain.

We headed back down the hill to Chuzenji. We had lunch at a restaurant specialising in udon and yuba (tofu skin) which the whole region is famous for.

After lunch we visited Kegon Falls, a 97m high waterfall. Benno and Lara caught at elevator down 100m to the bottom of the falls so we could get a closer look.

Then we went for a stroll around Lake Chuzenji and looked at the clouds, mountains and paddle boats on the lake.

We walked up to Futarasan Shrine Chugushi then caught the bus a few stops north to our camp site again. Before dinner we walked up to the Dragon Falls, Ryuzu Falls. We looked through the souvenir shop and drank coffee and amezake (fermented sweetened hot rice drink). We had roast potatoes wrapped in foil and cooked in coals and pasta with rich tomato sauce for dinner. The other Japanese people were fascinated with our food (especially the potatoes) and were asking us how/what we were cooking. There were several scout groups and kid’s camping groups staying at the camp site so the kitchen area got busy. When it was dark they let of fireworks and sparklers that we got to watch. Some of the fireworks flew right up into the sky and exploded in multiple colours. It was fun to watch.

The next day we had a cooked breakfast of porridge cooked on the campfire. Then we caught the bus down the 26 alphabet bends to central Nikko. We looked at the Shinkyo sacred red bridge then walked up the hill to the temple and shrine complex of Nikko. A combination ticket for Y1000 gave us access to 5 temples and shrines. We saw Rinnoji Temple Sanbutsudo, Toshogu Shrine, Kitano Shrine, Futarasan Shrine and Taiyun temple. In Toshogu was a carving of the 3 monkeys- hear, see and speak no evil. The gates and buildings were intricately carved and painted. Benno went through to another section to see a carving of a sleeping cat (nemuri neko) that is meant to be very realistic, and up the hill to Ieyasu’s grave. Ieyasu was a famous samurai/warlord that ruled in Japan. In Kitano shrine a monk gave a talk about the 12 statues on display that represented the oriental zodiac, then demonstrated the amazing acoustics of the inner room. He tapped two wooden sticks together and the sound echoed through out the chamber for several seconds. In Taiyun we saw some treasures, but the explanation was in Japanese. Some of the trees were starting to turn autumn red- the temple complex would be lovely in autumn.

After the temples we went into central Nikko by the train station and had an Indian feast at Asian Garden. We had mango juice, potato curry, vegetable curry and dhal. They served up the largest naan we’ve ever seen.

We caught the bus back to the campsite and had salted rice crackers with fresh tomato and cucumber for dinner.

On Monday we woke up early and packed up our cabin. We caught the 7.40am bus from the camp site into central Nikko, the 8.56 Tobu train back to Asakusa and then went to Harajuku for lunch. We went to Brown Rice Cafe and ate the lunch set that included pumpkin gnocchi, chili con can, tofu, miso soup and brown rice or wholemeal bread.

Somehow it was 3 pm by the time we finished lunch so we caught the Yamanote line back to Tokyo. Benno wanted to find the shop New York City Doughnut Plant as they advertised vegan doughnuts on their website. It took us 25 minutes of wandering around the station, asking at information, reading signs and maps and finally we found the shop. We bought 6 soymilk doughnuts that were glazed and sprinkled with sesame seeds and took the train back to Kisarazu where we enjoyed okonmiyaki for dinner.

Maiko Makeover

20 08 2009

The professional photos from the Maiko Makeover at Yumekoubou Studio in Gion, Kyoto, 8th August 2009.

A Maiko is an apprentice Geisha. Sorry a lot of the images are the wrong way up but I just copied them straight from the CD and couldn’t be bothered rotating them.

Our Kansai adventures

19 08 2009

In 3 weeks we have

  • been to 6 festivals (Cosplay in Nagoya, Noisy drums in Kuwana, Peace Festival in Hiroshima, Fireworks in Kyoto, To-kae in Nara and O-bon Daimonji in Kyoto)
  • visited 7 castles (Nagoya, Inuyama, Hiroshima, Takayama (ruins), Osaka, Himeji, Nijo/Kyoto)
  • slept in 6 cities (Nagoya, Takayama, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara, Osaka)
  • eaten amazing food at 15 restaurants from the Vegan Pocketguide.
  • spent about $90 per person per day
  • been on 7 forms of transport (walking, bike, train, tram/streetcar, bus, cable car, ferry)
  • dressed up 3 times in kimonos or samurai armour (Inuyama-Jo, Himeji Museum and Maiko Makeover)

The longest day of travel was 12 hours on the train (from Kyoto through to Kisarazu), the most we walked in one day was 25km in Hiroshima and the place with the best vegan Japanese sweets was Takayama.

Returning home to Chiba-ken

18 08 2009

Today we had a really long train journey ahead of us. With the help of the hyperpia website we planned our transfers – most were only a few minutes long and not even enough time for a toilet stop.

We went from Uzumasa to Kyoto, Kyoto to Maibara then Ogaki, Toyohashi, Hamamatsu, Okitsu, Atami, Kawasaki and to Tachikawa. Perhaps because it was the end of O-bon the trains were extra busy with people returning home. On some stretches we didn’t even get seats and had to stand up with our luggage. It made for a tiring day, even if the trains were air-conditioned. It was just as well we had packed our bento the night before otherwise we wouldn’t have had time to buy any food for lunch without missing a transfer. We bought an eigo no shinbun (English newspaper, The Japan Times) and read it on the train then did the crossword together on the way home to Kisarazu.

We went a little out of our way to Tachikawa, to the west of Tokyo, as there was a vegetarian taiwanese/chinese place in the station building, Chein Fu. We had tried to go to the Nagoyan branch but it had closed. We were looking forward to dinner and it was fairly good. We had wontons with vegetables, black soybean tofu, cashew and pineapple konyaku ‘prawns’ and guava juice.

Then we still had about 1/5-2 hours on the train to go back to Tokyo, through Soga and onto Kisarazu. Half the people in our carriage had come from Tokyo Disneyland and had Disney popcorn, bags and toys with them. We caught a taxi home from the station as the last bus had already gone. The taxi cost three-quarters of what it cost us to travel by train all the way from Kyoto to Kisarazu. That is, 10 hours of train travel almost 600km cost the same as a 10 minute taxi ride travelling about 5 km. Just goes to show the value for money of the seishun 18 kippu.

Final day in Kyoto

17 08 2009

We had two more ‘essential’ sites to visit on our last day in Kyoto. It was still hot and humid so we took it easy. We made pancakes for breakfast, slowly left the apartment, caught the train to the eki, bought a day bus pass and waited for a bus to Ginkaku-ji. However, lots of other tourists seem to have had the same idea and the sightseeing bus was crowded. We waited 20 minutes for the bus, then it took 30 minutes to go a few stops and it was totally packed with standing room only. So we changed plans, decided to head for an early lunch first and then go back to Ginkaku-ji. We caught a local (non-sightseeing) bus to our lunch destination and it was almost empty (hint number 1:use local transport, not tourist transport). We ate a lunch set at Sunny Place which was cheap and delicious.  Soy chai, brown rice, fried gluten chicken and millet burger,  various salads… lots to eat.

After lunch we caught a bus (not full) a few stops to Ginkaku-ji. We walked up the hill, following the path of the ‘Philosophers walk’ for a while until we reached the temple grounds. The main building was going to be covered in silver but never was so maybe the name ‘silver pavillion’ now refers to the silver sands in front of the temple. The gardens were lovely and mossy. We wandered out and past the shops with sweets, souvenirs and yukatas (cotton kimonos for summer). We refreshed ourselves with a traditional Kyoto cider. Lara bought a dark yukata with pink flowers and a yellow and grey obi (belt).

It was getting late in the day so we caught a bus to Nijo-jo (Nijo castle), stopping off on the way to see if Vegie Sweets was open (it wasn’t). Atsu met us and we wandered around the palace on the nightingale floors (floors that squeek to alert the residents of intruders) past all the wall paintings. We wandered the gardens, past honmaru which is flat and quite different to other castles built as tall defences on mountain tops.

Then we bussed to Gion to try to find a sweets shop. We wandered past the giesha district which seemed very touristy with every second person holding up a digital SLR and hoping for a photo of a geisha. We left quickly and headed for Nishiki markets. We found a suitable sweets shop before we even made it to the markets and ate lots of samples and drank green tea before buying a stack of traditional japanese sweets (wagashi). Most of the Nishiki markets were closing by the time we wandered past. There was one shop that advertised tofu doughnuts. We got excited but then found out that they use egg. We bought some tofu and vegetable slices for dinner and went on our way, catching the bus number 11 back to Uzumasa.

We ate forest rice and the tofu slices for dinner, then enjoyed leftover chocolate pudding and hot soy chai for dessert while watching funny tv on the computer.

Kyoto over O-bon

16 08 2009

O-bon is a Buddhist festival celebrated to remember your ancestors. In Osaka the O-bon meant holidays and many of the restaurants were closed and we had trouble finding anywhere to eat 😦 In Kyoto however, not so many places took holidays but there are some interesting celebrations. Giant fires in the shape of kanji are lit on the mountains around Kyoto to show the spirits where to go (it is believed they visit this world during O-bon).

Today we caught the local Randen train to Arashiyama, the hilly region to the north west of Kyoto. We visited Tenyru-ji and walked through the very peaceful gardens they had. Then we went out the north exit and strolled through the bamboo grove. There were lots of elderly walkers (maybe part of a hiking club?) in a big group all walking up and down the mountain. The bamboo grove itself was quite large but maybe not so similar to the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon movie. There are in fact bamboo groves in the Ginkaku-ji gardens and they looked just as good.

After the bamboo grove we walked down the hill, over the river with the fishing boats (used for cormorant fishing) and the up a hill to the Monkey Park. It was a bit of a walk to the top of the hill were the monkeys were and you can only feed the monkeys through bars. Since it was summer, there were lots of little baby monkeys born recently in spring and they were cute.

Taking the train back to Atsu’s house we had some of his delicious forest rice for lunch, relaxed for a bit then caught the JR train to Kyoto eki and then south to Inari eki. All three of us visited Fushimi Inari shrine, famous for its red torii. The red torii stretch on and on for 4 km or so, we reckoned, so we only walked a short stretch. Many of them had inscriptions – they had been donated by companies in the hope that they would have success and prosperity.

It was getting time for dinner so we heading back on the train, stopping in at the supermarket on the way. We made vegan okonmiyaki for dinner, with entree of salsa and avocado dip with corn chips, and chocolate self-saucing pudding for dessert.

At 8pm we stood out on the balcony and were able to see 2 giant fires lit on the mountain sides around Atsu’s apartment. From one side we saw a giant torii (shrine gate) and from the other side we saw the daimon-ji (kanji for big, dai). The fires only lasted for about 15 minutes then died out. It was great to be able to see them from the apartment.

Returning to the old capital

15 08 2009

Again we were asked to leave the house early – today was Indian Independence Day and our host had things to do. So we were on our way to the subway by 7am, having had some fruit and sugary bran cereal for breakfast. We caught the subway following by the JR train to Kyoto where we caught another train to Atsu’s lovely new apartment
(he had just moved in).

We rested in the morning, enjoyed Atsu’s hospitality then he showed us the local  train and walked us to the bus stop. We left him behind and headed out to lunch to Vege Note. They had a very generous lunch set with fried croquettes or fried battered carrot plus they had a decadent chocolate cake with fresh fruit for dessert. A little boy sitting at the table next to us dropped his glass cup and it shattered under our table and landed on my thongs. Although I wasn’t hurt we continue eating until they had said ‘sumimasen’ 100 times and left the restaurant.

We picked up some flyers about the Vegan Festival in Kyoto then headed off with our one-day bus pass (bargain value for Y500 it gives unlimited travel on city buses in Kyoto which really saves money if you are seeing lots of sights in a day since buses charge a flat fare of Y220 per trip).

So we caught the bus up to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion. It was busy with tourist group tours but we managed to glipse the famous temple covered in gold leaf and then wander around the gardens for a while. Then we caught the bus down to Ryoan-ji, a zen temple famous for its dry rock garden. It had a huge pond and nice gardens to walk through but lots of people were sitting on the viewing platform over the rock garden. There are 12 rocks and from any one place you cannot see them all – such is the comtemplative aspect of the dry landscape garden.

We caught the bus across town to Ginkaku-ji, hoping to get in before closing but the roads were busy and we had to transfer buses so we didn’t make it there before closing time. So instead we bused down to the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. The gardens were a bit boring compared to the well-tended temple gardens but we were able to sit down and drink lots of water to rehydrate after a hot day.

The cicadas were chirping loudly as dusk approached so we caught another bus and got off close to Kyoto University. We met Atsu and had dinner at the most popular veg*an restaurant in Kyoto, Cafe Proverbs 15:17. It was hard to choose what to eat from all the delicious options, but Benno had Kyoto-style curry ramen with gyoza and Lara had Japanese-style curry rice with spring rolls and an ice latte. We had chocolate tofu tiramisu cake and a peach tart for dessert. So delicious!

We headed back to Atsu’s house and enjoyed matcha (cold green tea) with traditional Japanese sweets from Himeji.

Kobe, city of earthquakes

14 08 2009

We were told that we had to leave the house by 7.30am so we got up early and had porridge for breakfast and headed out.

We took the subway to the JR station then caught a train to Kobe. We arrived in Kobe a few minutes before the tourist centre opened so we waited to collect a map and get directions to the Earthquake museum.

We caught a train to the museum and wandered around on the tour. There were videos, movies, simulations, models and lots of photos and written materials about the massive earthquake (“the Great Hanshin Earthquake”) that hit Kobe in January 1995. About 6000 people died in this earthquake and huge amounts of damage done to buildings, bridges, railway lines and other infrastructure like water and electricity. The first time Benno came to Japan on his school trip was a few months after the earthquake and the shinkansen lines had only just been repaired.

After the museum we caught the train back to the station and went to the only veg restaurant in Kobe, Modernark pharm. It was a very popular place and they had great food, including burgers, curries, raspberry soymilk lassi, soy latte, sesame shortbread and cakes.

After lunch we caught a train to halfway between Osaka and Kobe and visited the Tezuka Osamu manga museum. Osamu Tezuka was a famous manga artist and drew comics such as Kimba the white lion (from which Disney stole the Lion King plot) and Astro Boy.

We caught the train back to Osaka and went to dinner at a french vegetarian restaurant far away from the city. We caught 2 train lines to get to the station, then had to find a bus to go out along the highway. We weren’t sure where to get off but the bus driver helped us and eventually we found the restaurant. We had vegan ome-rice (omelet rice, a japanese favourite) made with yuba or tofu skin, and risotto. Then we had mango sherbet for dessert. It was already getting late so we found the bus stop, caught a bus back to the station and then a train back to Osaka and then subway back to our host’s apartment.

A hot, busy day in Osaka

13 08 2009

From Nara we caught the train to Osaka, the third largest city in Japan. We didn’t want to be carrying around our heavy luggage so we left it in a locker at the station, but also left our camera in there… duh.

We bought a one-day subway pass and from the JR station we headed via subway to Osaka-Jo. Although it’s a reconstruction, Osaka-Jo has lots of interesting displays. It was so hot and humid that it was an effort wandering around the castle. It’s also quite large- with the observation deck on the 8th floor. Strangely, Osaka-Jo seemed busier than Himeji-Jo.

From the castle we caught the subway to a restaurant for lunch – it was closed for O-bon. So we caught another subway to a second restaurant – it also was closed for O-bon holidays. We thought we’d never find a restaurant… so we had some chips, banana and cooked corn cobs from a convenience store for lunch in desperation.

Then we went to Osaka Aquarium. It was packed – more so than Shinjuku-koen at hanami time. We took ‘waiting tickets’ then wandered through the Tempozan marketplace for an hour while waiting for the time when our ‘waiting ticket’ said we could line up.  After lining up we still had to wait to enter the aquarium, then buy tickets, then join the throngs wandering around looking through tiny windows and the aquarium. I don’t see how it could be a family friendly excursion for the day, but every family in Osaka was there (it seemed).

We saw giant rays, star fish, an octopus, clown fish, otters, dolphins, the famous whale sharks, turtles and scary Japanese deep sea giant crabs. However, the enclosures seemed much too small for the larger creatures (such as the whale shark) and the crowds of people were intense. So, while it was in air-conditioning (a nice relief from the humidity outside) it was not such a peaceful afternoon excursion. However, we did get to see Capybara.

After exiting from the aquarium we called up every restaurant in Osaka that was in the vegan pocket guide. Only one was open for dinner and the rest were shut for O-bon holidays. So we caught the subway, making several changes, and arrived a Natarji, an upmarket vegetarian Indian restaurant. It was a lovely, authentic Indian meal.

After dinner we collected our luggage from Osaka JR station (but it took a little while to retrace our steps and find it). Then we caught the subway again to our indian host’s house but he had given very few directions and even when talking to him on the phone he was unable to give clear directions. So it took a while to find the house, but finally we did and we were able to go to bed.

Photos are from our keitai, so are not the best quality.