Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 12

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We were up early and rearing to go in order to catch an early train to start our commute back to Tokyo, with the added challenge of an extra full sized piece of luggage in addition to our two existing pieces. With the help of a generous baggage strap I hauled two of the luggage cases (each weighing a fair bit a this point!), with Wifey carrying the other. We ended up walking from the hotel to catch the train from the Universal City Station to Osaka Station, transferring from there to catch another train to Shin-Osaka, then from there we boarded the Shinkansen to go to Tokyo Station.

Once we arrived we found our way to the Keio Line and hauled are arses down to catch the rapid train that dropped us off at Maihama, with some signage confirming that we were walking a kilometer or two in the train station as we made our way to where we needed to go. We exited the train to the trill of Disney-themes on the PA, then wandered down to the Bayside Station to jump on the monorail (giving our Pasmo IC cards a wake-up run), then walked from the stop to our final destination, the Hilton Tokyo Bay. If we used our brains a little bit more by this stage we could have waited a couple of minutes to catch the shuttle bus, but we saw the pearly lights of the hotel and walked over to it without thinking.

Since we arrived prior to the room being available we left our extensive pile of stuff and headed back out into the city to do some more shopping. The original plan was to finish up the souvenir shopping in Harajuku with a combination visit of the Oriental Bazaar and Daiso, but with culture day happening on this day, we ended up only getting to the Oriental Bazaar. After a thrilling/exhausting fight through the human sea that was choking up everywhere from the train station to well past the bridge, we crossed to hit up the Bazaar.

The Oriental Bazaar made for an awesome stop to grab some souvenirs for ourselves and friends/family back home. Prices were pretty reasonable and we picked up some fantastic goodies. It was a bit embarrassing seeing some of the other gaijin mulling about being loud and obnoxious (there were at least a couple who were getting antsy that not all the store staff could speak English), so we did our best to get what we were after and tried our best Japanese wherever possible – one of the ladies who helped track down a happy coat for Wifey said she thought it was very nice of me to use Japanese to practice while shopping in there. Gotta love those nice touches 🙂

By the time we were done the sun was beginning to set, so the combo of human sea and an early start encouraged us to head home since the train ride combinations were going to take 30-60 minutes before we made it to the hotel.

By the time we arrived at the Maihama Station our bellies were ready for some love, so we ducked into the food court in the shopping complex next to the monorail station to fill up on some delicious udon before heading back to our hotel. This time we were entirely sensible and waited at the bus stop at the bottom of the escalator to grab the shuttle bus back to the hotel.

The shuttle buses are an amazing homage to the classic chrome beasts of many years ago, although once you step on board they seem to behave like any modern bus, so nice and clean with air conditioning! Once the door closes Mickey greets you in Japanese which was hilarious because it just came out of nowhere, and it was only a few moments until we arrived at the hotel.

Things got a little interesting here, as the room arranged for us was a smoking room (even though we had stipulated a non-smoking room in our booking). After some discussion with the staff (a little tricky as my Japanese + English combination was fraught with incoherency), they were able to secure us a room at no extra charge that was in the non-smoking section. The catch was that it was on the same floor as all the family rooms, but that didn’t bother us at all. We got the access card and the porters arranged for our luggage to be brought up (very fancy by our standards!!), and lo-and-behold if we didn’t manage to get an awesome/amazing themed bedroom!!

Wifey was absolutely thrilled as she was secretly hoping the room was going to be themed, so it was a really nice way to finish up our first day on the final leg of the trip.

While the day wasn’t as productive as we hoped (it presented the challenge of adding in a trip to Daiso the next day, but we’re always up for a challenge :)), it was still good fun and the hotel made for an amazing way to rest and relax after a big day of travel.

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 5

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Saturday saw us packing up, checking out and heading down to Shinjuku Station to transfer to Tokyo Station in order to jump onto the Shinkansen to visit our next stop – the cultural center of Japan, Kyoto.

One of the advantages of the Japan Rail Pass for foreign travellers is that the Kodoma, Hikari, Mizuho and Sakura Shinkansen lines are covered in your pass, which makes it easy to travel from different parts of the country to another. We spent a little bit extra to have access to the Green Car, which is a slightly more fancy way of travelling. The Green Cars have more leg room, more likely to have extra seats to stow luggage and nicer seats, but not every Shinkansen line will have Green Cars as parts of the service so do your homework – for what it’s worth, we were able to secure Green Cars for all our Shinkansen travels around the country for our trip.

Shinkansen only depart from selected stations in Tokyo – from the main Tokyo station, as well as from Shinagawa. We were contemplating grabbing the train from Shinagawa (so travelling from Shinjuku to Shinagawa on one of the JR lines) in case Tokyo was too crazy, but we ended up going back to the original plans we made before arriving in Japan and braved the early morning rush hour in Tokyo Station. Our car was pretty empty for the most part, so I whipped out the iPad to start writing up these series of blogs as we were getting home pretty late during the first leg of the trip and scribbling the day’s events weren’t as high on the priority list as kicking back, taking a nice Japanese bath and watching a movie before going to bed.

Having lived in Australia all our lives, the Shinkansen are a revelatory establishment – the speed these things travel at are amazing, and from what I understand, the Nozomi Shinkansen is even faster. We hammered through the concrete jungle in no time and soon enough we started seeing the quasi-industrial fringes, followed by semi-rural Japan. Amazing stuff. There were also attendants going through the carriages with snacks and drinks if you’re so inclined – we had picked up some goodies before heading out so we didn’t bother (Pocky FTW!).

We got into Kyoto just after midday (so around 3 hours in the train), and the difference between the two cities was absolutely tangible. While Kyoto wasn’t dead by any stretch of the imagination (compared to travelling in Australia it was positively busy), it was nowhere near the insanity of Tokyo. We also found out pretty quickly that Kyoto isn’t as idiot-proof for gaijin, so we had to kick our brains into gear to concentrate a bit harder on where to go. It wasn’t difficult, but you had to put in a little more effort, and let’s face it, part of the fun of travelling is doing the whole sink/swim thing and experiencing life outside a cultured tourist-friendly environment.

Once we loaded up with a couple of subway tickets (¥210 each, as there’s always the option of using the fare adjustment machine when you arrive at the exit gates) we jumped aboard one of the Karasuma Line trains to arrive at Karasuma Oike. After jumping out of the subway and dragging our heavy suitcases up a few flights of stairs, we wandered up Karasuma-Dori and checked into our hotel, the Hotel Monterey Kyoto (and lucky for us, despite it not being check-in time, our rooms were ready).

At this point Wifey was starting to start suffering the telltale affects of a cold, and combined with an empty stomach, it was time to grab a bite to eat. On the way to the Nishiki Markets we stumbled across an udon place that seemed to be teeming with customers, so we jumped in for a whirl. We both grabbed a basic bowl of udon, broth and some veggies and sliced pork, then as we wandered down the line they had some extras to add on, so on went some karage and crumbed miniature hard-boiled eggs on skewers.

Once food was sorted, we wandered the final distance to the Nishiki Makets. The place was awesome, a hive of measured activity with Japanese and gaijin flowing down the central lane with an assortment of souvenir shops, food stalls, speciality goods (including some pricey but beautiful handicrafts) and at least one ¥100 bargain store which Wifey insisted in entering.

Once you got to the end of the Nishiki Markets, it opens up to a modern undercover strip mall that runs along Teramachi-dori. After aimlessly wandering about the place for a while we decided to head back, this time going via Rokkaku-dori. On the way I spotted an upstairs nerd store next to a convenience store, as well as another place advertising LDs in addition to CDs and videos for sale. At this stage Wifey was feeling positively knackered from the onset of her cold, so I chalked these down in my head to visit later as we headed back to the hotel.

After getting her settled and taking advantage of the awesome complimentary wifi in our rooms, I found out where the nearest Book Off was located and went for a walk, intending to visit it and check out the other stores along Rokkaku-dori on the way. The LD store was sadly void of any LDs, but they did have some awesome classic Japanese vinyl that was fun to look through. Next up was the otaku store, which was a fruitless but hilarious adventure into the seedy side of nerd culture over here. Upstairs was a labyrinth of ecchi figures, dedicated ladies area for all their shounen-ai adventures, another area for eroge PC games and eventually I unintentionally stepped into the porn area where all manner of amusing/disturbing stuff assaulted the senses.

Bemused, I wandered out and back onto the street to continue my journey to the local Book Off. I found out something quite handy though – in light of the awful Maps app on iOS 6 (seriously, the thing redefines awful, and as of this blog post there is finally a dedicated Google Maps app so I can stop using the useless default), I found out that the Google Map I brought up through Safari was happy to function when disconnected from data and relied purely on the GPS functionality to help guide me to my location. To my surprise, I ended up back at the Teramachi shopping mall, and proceeded to follow this up Sanjo-dori to get to my destination. On the way I was fortunate to see how Kyoto transformed from afternoon to evening, with kids riding their bikes home from school or practice, parents taking their kids to the local parks after school, teenagers heading out all dressed up for the night and salarymen finishing up for the day.

Eventually after crossing two rivers (one small and one big), I came upon the impressive Book Off situated opposite the Sanjo subway station. I’m not sure how long I spent there, but I managed to pick up a small pile of titles on my to-get list once again, with an emphasis on cheap PSone titles much akin to the other Book Off stores (averaging, once again, about ¥100 per title).

Nerd shopping done, it was time to head back to the hotel (with Kyoto now in the full swing of evening) and, of course, time to pickup something for dinner. I ended up dropping into a bakery to grab a variety of yummy savoury and sweet things, then exhausted a couple of convenience stores to get some drinks and some cereal for brekkie. Unfortunately there was no luck on the cereal front, so I grabbed some fresh bananas instead.

While the day ended a little earlier than others, it was an awesome way to induct ourselves into Kyoto life. What was interesting from our experience of day one (and this would be a recurring theme for Kyoto) is that the pace is much more relaxed than in Tokyo, and while I expected there was going to be a change, I didn’t realise how pronounced it would be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing by any means, just an observation I wanted to share.

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.