We were hoping to go volunteering at a refugee centre in Saitama, near to Tokyo. However our trip leader cancelled the event at the last minute and we had non-refundable tickets. So, we decided to backpack around for a week.
We had very little time to plan what to do, but chatting to friends gave us the recommendation to spend most of our time in Kyoto. At this point, the day before our flight, we find out that just getting to Kyoto by bullet train is expensive! The most cost-effective way of getting around was going to be for us to get a Japan Rail Pass, however it was the day before our flight and most applications for the Japan Rail Pass are done by the agency mailing you the pass. Obviously no good! And the Japan Travel Centre in London is closed on Sundays…. After some phoning around, we found that trailfinders in High Street Kensington, only an hour and a half traveling each way, had Rail Passes on the site available for collection. So, instead of packing, we trekked down to trailfinders and paid out more money than a flight to Japan in order to get our tickets. Ouch!
With rail tickets and a credit card we were almost set. Apart from no idea of where we were going to be sleeping. We decided to book Ryokans (Japanese Inns – bed and breakfast places) and there’s plenty to choose from. We emailed off requests for our first night in Tokyo and a couple more nights in another in Kyoto, hoping that with wifi and luck we’d find the rest of the places to stay when we were over there. Thinking on the way we spend money, we realised that we’d probably be out of funds before the end of the trip and decided to drop a quick e-mail to one of our friends in Tokyo to see if we could crash over the night before our return flight.
Our flight was with SWISS. We booked them because (a) they’re cheap and (b) they fly from City Airport to Japan (via Zurich). The convenience of using a local airport is wonderful. We didn’t even have to wake up until 6:30am to get to our 8:30am flight to Japan and ended up sitting around the airport with too much spare time! A very nice flight.
So, our first day in Tokyo we spent the morning looking for wi-fi. We had sent a request to stay at the Homeikan Ryokan however we’d received no reply and didn’t know if had a place to stay or not. We eventually got a data connection that allowed for us to get email and enough information to phone the Ryokan. This turned out to be the best Ryokan of our visit. A fantastic old wooden building, with a traditional room facing onto the garden. The best breakfast of our trip was here (eating a fried egg with chopsticks is easier than it sounds). And the japanese family bath was wonderfully warm! So, with the success of the Ryokan we spent the rest of our first day just wandered around town looking at temples, snacking on sushi and browsing manga shops.
Day two of our trip and we headed down to Kyoto on the bullet train. This time we stayed at Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura. The problem with our stay at a really nice place for the first night in Tokyo was that everything else paled by comparison. This place was had far less character than the Homeikan and the futons were incredibly uncomfortable. No bath either. Grumble. It also provided only Western breakfasts (we decided to skip the breakfast entirely – it didn’t really look worth it). Ah well. We stayed at a second Ryokan in Kyoto, the Kiyomizu Sansoo which was far more pleasant although again not really quite as good our Ryokan in Tokyo. On the webpage for Kiyomizu Sansoo, the first bedroom photo is the room we stayed in! This is a really hard-to-find Ryokan. We wandered around for quite some time (in the rain) trying to find it.
Our stay in Kyoto was mainly wandering around and being touristy. We toured the Kyoto Imperial Palace (apart from the gardens, pretty unimpressive), Kinkaku-ji (the golden pavilion – very impressive), the Manga museum (more like a library), Sanjusangen-do (1,000 statues of kannon – impressive) and watching Geisha walking to work in Gion.
The Gion area is really atmospheric. As dusk falls, all of the red lanterns are lit up and you can see Geisha wandering between buildings as they prepare for the evening. Hordes of tourists appear out of nowhere to vanish into a tiny building for a night of kaiseki food. Joey had some beef in one of these small restaurants that was amazingly good – it came with a citrus soy dip that I’m going to have to try and experiment to recreate!
We took a day trip out of Kyoto in order to visit Himeji Castle. Unfortunately there’s a huge scaffolding around the main building in order to make renovations at the moment which somewhat detracts from the photogenic nature of the place. However to make up for it, you can go up into the scaffolding and see the roof up-close, seeing how they actually do the renovations which was surprisingly interesting.
An armor display within Himeji Castle
Our final day in Japan we spent zipping back up to Tokyo on the bullet train to meet up with Richard. We spent most of the day wandering around the Shibuya area, eating in Roppongi and finally having some drinks at the top of one of the highest buildings in Tokyo. I really wished I’d brought my camera! The view was fantastic – completely different from other western cities – with few streetlights but hundreds of red lights from tall buildings colouring the otherwise monochrome view.
A fantastic trip. I’m sure that my legs will take a few weeks to recover from the amount of walking that we did. And I’ve a renewed interest in learning Japanese now. I spent some time studying every day that we were on holiday – there are some great iphone apps for this nowadays! Although by contrast, apps providing offline maps and navigation around Japan seem to be few and far between (at least, I couldn’t find any good English ones). On the good side, Google maps appears to be way better in Japan compared to my experience of using it in London! For example, when asking for directions by public transport, it showed the time of the next trains, and the route was actually correct! If it wasn’t for Google maps, we wouldn’t have found our second Ryokan in Kyoto. We would have found it even faster if I’d trusted Google maps to start with…