Japan 2017 (19th -31st March 2017)

My annual holiday to Japan, in pictures:

Day 1 (19.03.17)

I arrived from Kuala Lumpur on an overnight flight via Singapore. After a few hours sleep, it was time to have a look around Tsukiji Market and sample some sushi. 

Tsukiji Fish Market

Ocean Harvest – Bluefin Tuna

Sushi Restaurant

Clam miso soup and Sapporo beer

Sashimi selection

Kabuki Theatre, Ginza

Day 2 (20.03.17)

The weather was poor on the second day. We took it easy, visiting a tackle shop and generally relaxing and soaking in the culture on the big city.

Fishing Tackle shop, Shibuya

Shibuya is being further developed

Tokyo Tower at night, viewed from the wife’s apartment

Day 3 (21.03.17)

We’d taken it easy the previous day as today we were up early to get a flight to the south of Japan  – we were supposed to be travelling to Yakushima Island for a few days trekking. He awoke at 5.30am, and were soon out of the apartment and on the train to Haneda Airport. It was another overcast and rainy day.

After a couple of stops, just as we were pulling into another station, wifey realised that she’d got the dates wrong ….. it was on the 22nd ….. tomorrow. We made a quick decision to exit the train (no point going all the way to Haneda). I scrambled to get the cases and we go off the train. We stayed on the station platform, gathering our thoughts and thinking what to do with the day.

Early morning, monorail station in the rain

I suddenly realised that I’d left my small rucksack containing my passport, credit card,  camera and other important items on the overhead parcel shelf on the train. Damn! But I didn’t panic ….yet. We went to the station master’s office and explained the situation. He immediately picked up a cellphone and called through to Haneda, and within minutes was able to confirm that the bag had been collected from the train by the train staff and was at Haneda Airport for collection. We went straight to Haneda Airport and, after answering some questions to verify ownership, I was able to get my bag and ALL of the important contents. I was confident that I had at least a 75% chance of getting my bag back here in Japan, but it was pretty impressive how easily the staff were able to communicated with the station and the train. Brilliant ….! Losing the passport would have turned the holiday into an ordeal …!!

Relevant & helpful information sign …!!

We spent the day mooching around Ochanomizu  area before finishing off with a pint of guiness and a British style pub before heading back home to Shiodome.

Sushi restaurant sign

8 Taps Pub, Ochanomizu

Day 4 (22.03.17) – Travel to Yakushima

Another early rise, 5.30am again. This time a legitimate travel day. We were to fly to Kagoshima and then take the hydrofoil to Yakushima Island. It was a long day of travelling: Train to Haneda airport, flight to Kagoshima, bus to the port, Hydrofoil to Yakushima, taxi to the hotel. We didn’t arrive at our destination, the Yakushima Iwasaki Hotel, until late afternoon.

Hydrofoil, Sakura-jima volcano in the background

Yakushima (Miyanoura) port, Yakushima’s mountains in the background

Yakushima Iwasaki Hotel

View from the hotel lobby

Day 5 (23.03.17) – Shiratani Unsuikyo Forest

Today’s itinerary was a guided hike in the Shiratani Unsuikyo Forest, a lush nature park containing many, and famous, ancient cedar trees. The island, and the mountains in particular are know for the beautiful forests and scenery, but also for the high rainfall. According to Wikipidea, the climate is classified as humid subtropical and has one of the highest annual precipitation rates in the world, between 4 – 10 m annually ….!! It was no surprise then that it rained heavily almost all day during our visit!

View from the route to Shiratani Unsuikyo

Entry ticket

Trail Guide Map -we took the Taikoiwa Return Course

Information about the forest and past (to make roof shingles to keep out the rain ….!!) and present exploitation 

The area hosts a number of scenic mountain streams

The high rainfall has resulted in a rich moss flora

Stumps from previous felling resist rotting despite the high humidity

The large boulders reflect periods of high rainfall and raging torrents

The forest is host to mysterious creatures ……..

Moss rabbit

Moss dragon

Kugurisugi Cedar

Shikanoyadoki Yakusugi Tree

Mako in the moss garden

Forest landscapes

Old cedars in slow decline

Cedar tees and rain …..

Taikoiwa Rock signpost

Taikoiwa Rock (granitic) in the clouds

Taikoiwa Rock views – eerie skeletal trees in the mist

Return route from Taikoiwa Rock

A natural rock shelter, used by woodcutters in the past

Cedar trees with alien-like roots entwining granite boulders

The mystical moss dragon resting in a clearing

Satsuki Suspension Bridge

The end of the trek

Day 6 (24.03.17) – Yakusugi Land

On our second free day at Yakushima we were blessed with dry weather. We hired a car and decided to explore the island. Out first stop was at Yakusugi land, where we decided to make use of the good weather to do the Yusugino Makori Course. A 150 minutes course according to the guide map (however, at the ticket office we were told that that was for a fast hike, and that it may take a little longer at a more leisurely pace):

Yakusugi Land Map – we did the Yusugino Makori Course

Mako at the start of the trail

An old stump from felling, new trees are growing on top off (not out of) the stump

Mature ancient cedar

Yakusugino Mori Course views

Arakawabashi Bridge & views

Arakawabashi Bridge

River rapids

River landscapes

Mountain river and forest

Mako besides a large felled tree stump

The trail through the forest

Landmark Cedars along the trail, including ancient toppled trees and Buddhasugi Cedar

Yakusugi Land – Forest Bird species (24.03.17)

Trail guide sign

Buddhasugi Cedar information sign

Buddhasugi tree (c.1,800 years old)

Another tree stump, probably from human felling

Kugurisugi tree

On the last part of the trail – once again back to boardwalks

A deep mountain gorge

Yakusugi Land – Shinsen Rest House

We completed the trek in about 165 minutes, close to the guide map estimate. Not too bad for oldies …!!

We then decided to head to the turtle beaches on the north-west of the island. After some debate over the best way, we went clockwise, to enable us to drive through a difficult road section on the western coastline in good afternoon light conditions.

The wild western coastline

And abundant wildlife

We emerged, after an arduous drive on a narrow mountain side road into a river valley and the hamlet of Nagata. The town is marked by a river mouth partially barred by a large sand spit, making for a very picturesque setting:

Nagata town and river mouth (Google Earth)

Nagata River Mouth and sand spit

And then, in the crystal clear waters, there were fish …! A school of large mullet feeding amongst the algae in the brackish water:

Mullet, Nagata River mouth

The river-mouth and sand spit formed a natural harbour, which was completed to the north with a concrete breakwater. Just beyond this was a small beach, composed of coarse granitic sand. We were looking for the beaches used for nesting by loggerhead turtles, but this sand didn’t seem suitable.

A small, coarse sand beach, Nagata

View from the breakwater to the Nagata River valley and mountains beyond

Barely 500m further along the coast from Nagata was Inakahama Beach. This was a long beach with a broad expanse of fine, soft sand. This must be the turtle nesting beach, as evidenced by the local sculpture and inscribed stones:

Inakahama Beach turtle sculpture

We finished off the day by continuing to drive clockwise, completely circumnavigating the island one and a bit times. We arrived back at the hotel at around 8.00pm, tired, hungry but still in time for a delicious dinner.

Day 7 (25.03.17)

This was another travel day, departing Yakushima in the early afternoon for a conventional ferry back to Kagoshima, before catching an early evening flight back to Tokyo.

There wasn’t much time to do anything, and as usual it was raining …. It was interesting to pass a fishmongers shop and see sailfish as part of the shop’s sign. In-fact (and unsurprisingly), fishing is an important industry on the island. Sea temperatures never fall below 19°C and are considerable warmer in the late summer months, hosting a range of game-fish, including dorado, sailfish, GT’s and various tuna species. 

Local Fishmonger shop

We stopped at a local tackle-shop, and it was interesting to see the fish prints (a traditional Japanese method of recording prized fish captures, presumably from before the days of cameras) of trophy fish. In this case a huge 49.5 kg GT:

Giant Trevally, 49.5 kg

Finally, before reaching the port, we spend half an hour in a tourist gift shop. I took a picture of a poster of local fish species. In addition to various small tuna and jack species, I noticed a number of different types of flying fish. These seem to be a local delicacy and speciality product of the island: 

Local sea fish species

Day 8 (26.03.17)

After the wilds of Yakushima, it was a bit odd being back in the mega city! But we’d brought the weather with us – overcast, cold and light rain. Today we did something different – I’d seen an advertisement poster for a David Bowie exhibition and the train a few days before. It was from the Victoria and Albert museum in the UK, and was on a tour around the world. There was still a few days left and it was very close to our apartment. A perfect opportunity to visit on a dreary, wet day.

“DAVID BOWIE is” information at Tennozu Isle Monorail Station 

Exhibition advertisement and entry ticket

David Bowie’s music provided a soundtrack to my teenage awakening years. I used to listen to his music with my first girlfriend (her elder sister had an big collection of Bowie records), so it was with some expectation that I entered the exhibition. And I was not to be disappointed …. it was excellent. Bowie’s career was documented from his boyhood  in South London and his early influences right through to his later career. Handwritten notes and song lyrics, early recordings, interviews, videos, soundtracks and stage costumes. The exhibition also covered his film and theatre roles and some of the influences of Japan on his work and philosophy. I was surprised at how busy it was, we spent around three hours there. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so I could only get a few pictures in the entrance:

David Bowie – Aladin Sane

We then headed over to Ginza to try our luck for sushi at the Midori Restaurant in Ginza. It’s pot luck here because its always busy – you take a ticket and wait out in the street for your turn. Luckily, the ticket machine shows you where you are in the list and gives a time estimate for your turn. Time for a pint of guiness at the nearby HUB English Pub a few shop lots down the street:

Guiness sign, HUB English Pub, Ginza

Finally it was our turn to be seated. Definitely worth the wait and you can understand why its so popular ……

Oishi sushi

Day 9 (27.03.17)

Another damp and overcast day:

Tokyo Tower viewed from the Shimbashi apartment

A quiet day walking around various areas and shops in Tokyo. Always good to observe the public information signs at the train stations:

It’s good manners to pull …!!

The highlight of the day was a delicious dish of steak-don at Takashemaya Department store (meat from Imahan meat shop):

Imahan steak-don. Delicious

I also got to try a free sample of salmon eggs and cheese. Once again, simply delicious:

Salmon eggs and cheese display

It really is hard to surpass the quality and tastes of Japanese food.

Day 10 (28.03.17) – Tokyo Skytree

With a brilliant blue sky and warm weather, we decided to visit the Tokyo Skytree. As an extra adventure, we were going to catch a ferry from the nearby Hamarikyu Park and travel to Asakusa on the Sumida River:

Shiodome – Hamarikyu Park

Mako’s apartment block viewed from Hamarikyu Park

Hamarikyu Park views

As we walked along the edge of the pary bodering the Sumida River, I glanced over the side and saw a large sting ray in the shallows …!

Sumida River

Tokyo Mizube Cruising Line ticket

It was a very pleasant day for a river cruise, and gave a different perspective of the city’s sights.

A sister ship making the return journey

Tokyo Skytree viewed from the Sumida River

We passed the Asahi Beer Company buildings and the Asahi Beer Hall, with its (in)famous Asahi Flame sculpture. For some reason, this is known colloquially as “the golden turd”. I can’t understand why …. The beer’s nice though!!

Asahi Beer Hall

Approaching Asakusa, The Skytree looming ever closer

Asakusa Ferry dock – Tokyo Skytree backdrop

From Asakusa we walked to the Skytree, stopping for lunch en-route.

Ushijima Jinja Shrine

Tokyo Skytree towering over local buildings

The Tokyo Skytree viewed from it’s base

Some blurb from Wikipidea:

Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー? Tōkyō Sukaitsurī) is a broadcasting, restaurant, and observation tower in Sumida, Tokyo, Japan. It became the tallest structure in Japan in 2010 and reached its full height of 634.0 metres (2,080 ft) in March 2011, making it the Tallest tower in the world, displacing the and the second tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa (829.8 m/2,722 ft).

Two observation decks can be visited, at 350m and 450m …! We did both:

Tokyo Skytree tickets for the 350 and 450 decks

View north: Sumida (left) and Arakawa (right) Rivers

View to the south-west. tokyo Tower in the distance

Wifey and me, Tokyo Skytree 450m observation deck

Day 11 (29.03.17)

Today’s plan was to visit Ueno Park in the hope of seeing the start of the sakura (cherry blossom) bloom. This is an annual spring event that, literally, sweeps the country – it starts early in the mild southern parts of Japan and moves progressively north as temperatures rise as spring progresses. I arrives in the Tokyo area sometime in late March through to late April. The arrival of the sakura bloom is seen as a sign of spring, the end of winter and is celebrated with  food and drinking under the cherry blossom trees. The sakura bloom is, however, short lived – the changeable weather at the time of year, particularly temperature drops and winds can result in a “snow-shower” of sakura petals, leaving behind bare trees.

Now, as I’ve already mentioned,  in earlier descriptions from this trip, the weather had been quite variable. So, it was with some optimism than we left Shiodome for Ueno and the hope that we would be able to catch the start of the sakura season …..!

As usual, as we approached the metro station, the enigmatic “knife-edge” building loomed before us.  I always enjoy the information posters at the station – this one is advising us not to drink too much and stand beyond the yellow marker line on the platform, particularly when Thomas the Tank Engine’s cousin is approaching the station ……

Shiodome: Knife edge building (left) / Train information poster (right)

When we arrived at Ueno Park, in warm spring sunshine, it initially looked like we were too  early in the year. But as we walked to the south-western corner of the park we were greeted by a line of trees in the early stages of bloom:

Ueno Park sakura (cherry blossom)

Both pink and white varieties of sakura were present:

Sakura, Ueno Park

From here we took a leisurely walk around the park, taking in all the sights.

Bentendo Buddhist Temple

As usual in Japan, interesting and tasty food is always on hand at public places:

Street food: grilled fish and crab

The park itself is extensive and features a zoo, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo National Museum, The Museum of Nature and Science in addition to various shrines, including The Gojoten Shrine:

Ueno Park Map

In addition to the museums and cultural sights, the park has a large lake, complete with waterfowl, large carp and a huge reed bed – a natural oasis amongst the concrete jungle:

Rushes in the lake

The park also hosts a small flea market, selling various trinkets, oddities and fossils of man:

Ueno Park: Skeleton (left) / Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell” sculpture (right)

Gojoten Shrine

Meanwhile, people were gathering at various locations around the park to start their sakura celebrations, including ladies in traditional kimono dress. Note the attention to detail and organisation that pervades Japanese life – the recycling bins were set up and ready for use, labelled in both Japanese and English:

Japanese ladies in kimono besides a “sakura” rubbish recycling area

Life size Blue Whale sculpture, Museum of Nature and Science

Mako at The Gates of Hell (The National Museum of Western Art)

We stopped for lunch, onigiri and sandwiches from Lawsons covinience store, and sat just inside the park near Ueno station. One last look at at the sakura:

Sakura and inscribed egg-shaped stone

We finished off the afternnon at our newly discovered favourite pub in Shinbashi:

With a glass of our favourite brew:

Lovely day for a guinness …..

Before returning through the early evening streets back for a rest at the apartment:

Japanese pub in the railway  overpass arch

We ventured out on a long evening walk before finding a cozy (and very expensive) sushi bar with a cheeky chappy sushi chef …..

Sushi Bar, Ginza

…. making extremely delicious sushi:

Oishi desu-ne

After dinner we contemplated another beer at the Man in the Moon, but we were too tired. It had been a long day. A glance at the iPhone health app revealed that we’d pounded over 17,000 steps for the day, 10 km of walking. Definitely time to call it a day and get a good night’s sleep …!

Day 12 (30.03.17)

This was our last full day in Tokyo before our return to Kuala Lumpur. We started the day with no fixed plan and began with a stroll to Tsukiji Market. This may be my last visit to the market at this location as it is due to move to a new premises across the Sumida River-mouth sometime in late 2017 or possibly into 2018 (or possible never …. some political wrangling going on over this). On the way to the market we passed this interesting arrangement in-front of a trendy fish restaurant:

Fish Restaurant entrance, near Tsukiji Market

En route to Tsukiji we recognised the enigmatic “knife-edge” building in Shiodome, this time viewed from it’s eastern curved side:

“Knife-edge” building (L) / Sushi Bar advertising banner (R)

Soon we were in the bustling streets alongside Tsukiji, with it’s enticing mix of (mostly) fresh sea food stalls and restaurants, selling all manner of sea creatures.

Tsukiji’s narrow and crowded side-streets

Sushi Restaurant frontage

As usual, the most sought after and defining sea-food  of the market, the mighty bluefin tuna:

Bluefin Tuna sashimi

The weather was excellent – around 17 degrees C and clear blue skies, perfect for walking and exploring. After sampling some delicious sushi and some rather tough and overcooked abalone, we decided to take the train to Toko Midtown , to see if conditions were favourable for sakura viewing. Upon arrival I was interested to see the following signpost, giving information about the different cherry blossom types and their usual blooming dates:

Sakura blossom types and bloom dates

We exited the station area and made our way to the nearby Hinokicho Park. We passed a Fugu (puffer fish) restaurant along the way to the park (puffer fish is considered to be a delicacy, but some of the internal organs contain fatal toxins, so extreme care is required when preparing the dish):

Fugo Restaurant (L) / Inscribed Stone, Hinokicho Park (R)

Unfortunately, the cherry blossom was not yet in bloom in the park. However, some of the other plants in the park were in flower:

Hinokicho Park views

It was a pleasant place to spend a few hours, with some nice out-door cafes and people enjoying the early spring sunshine. One interesting sight was a Mount Fuji landscaped feature:

Mount Fuji feature

We walked to a nearby convenience store to by some food for lunch which we ate in the park. It was then time to move on again, searching for the elusive early spring sakura blooms ….!

Our next location was The Yasukuni Shrine in the Chiyoda District. This is Japan’s official war shrine, commemorating those who fell in the service of Japan.  The following is a brief description, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The Imperial Shrine of Yasukuni, informally known as the Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社 or 靖國神社? Yasukuni Jinja), is a Shinto shrine located in Chiyoda, Tokyo. It was founded by Emperor Meiji in June 1869 and commemorates those who died in service of the Empire of Japan, which existed from the Meiji Restoration of 1869 until the nation was renamed during the Allied occupation in 1947. The shrine’s purpose has been expanded over the years to include those who died in the wars involving Japan spanning from the entire Meiji and Taishō period, and lesser part of the Shōwa period.

The entrance to the shrine is marked by two large torii (traditional Japanese) shinto gates, and a number of inscribed stone sculptures:

Torii gate and inscribed stone

There was a long, tree-lined path to the shrine, passing through the first, and later second torii. Sakura trees lined the route and were in bloom:

Sakura, Yasukuni Shrine

The pathway to the shrine complex was also marked by status of fierce dragons-like creatures and traditional stone lanterns, all carved from white granite:

Granite stone works lining the route to the shrine complex

Half way along to the path we encountered a statue of Omura Masujiro, the Vice-Minister of War during the Meiji Restoration period, and accredited with the creation of the modern Japanese Army during that time:

Statue of Omura Masujiro, Vice-Minister of War, Meiji Restoration period

To be continued …….

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