Japan – A Familiar Place, Temples Abound, A Brief Stop and A Town By The Inland Sea

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Wednesday, 11 May 2016.

Back in Nara, the deer did indeed bite and also kick, which I happened to witness as a small boy was kicked to the ground as he was trying to feed a twig to a deer. I rushed over as the deer rose on its hind legs and kicked the boy right in the chest, him crying, and picked him up, carrying him over to his startled father. The boy was not hurt but the shock must have been enough to shatter his view on the cuteness of deer. Poor kid, I hope he turns out alright when grows up.

Following Nara, I spent four days in Osaka. On two of those days, I explored the city by bike and, during my explorations, I sensed a similarity to the city and that of my home city of Cape Town. The familiarity was there in the curve of the streets, the western influence in architecture and the laid-back attitude of its townsmen.

Kyoto, to the north of Osaka, was next on my route. Famous temples are found scattered around this former capital of Japan, with an old district of the Geisha, close to where I stayed, amidst narrow streets of ancient origin and street vendors and shops selling their local delicacies and souvenirs. I only had two days in Kyoto and could not fully appreciate the city and its past, although the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its multitude of torii gates winding up along the mountain was quite a sensory and historical experience, but I would be back in a few weeks time to discover more this renowned capital of old.

The esteemed castle city of Himeji quickly followed Kyoto, but only spending a day there I could only explore the magnificent castle itself before having to leave again the next day. Okayama was spent in a similar way, arriving there by local train, along with a fellow traveller, a Frenchman, who I had met in Himeji, and explored the renowned black castle, the only such coloured castle in all of Japan, before heading off again the next day on my journey towards the south of Japan.

The coastal town of Onomichi is my next stop, again only for a day, wherefrom I will cycle along the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido highway, connected by many small islands, to the smallest of the four main islands of Japan called Shikoku. I especially looked forward to this part of my journey, and besides it having rained for the last three days, the weather should be clear and I will have a sunny and rainless day of cycling across the Inland Sea of Japan.

– Starr

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Japan – The Biting Deer Of Nara

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Sunday, 1 May 2016.

I am currently sitting on a highway bus, heading to Nara City, in the Nara prefecture, situated next to Osaka and Kyoto. I was in Nagoya for the past three days, exploring the big city’s unique cultural treasures, following my stay in Shizuoka.

Back in Shizuoka, I ended up finding the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, along with a fellow traveller from America that I had met at my hostel. We finally found the shrine after having cycled past the entrance initially, riding along the coastal cycling road. We had arrived at the shrine as it was closing, having ascended the winding 1000 steps to the top, but were fortunate to have the keepers of the shrine allow us entrance to have a quick look around and pay our respects to the long-dead shogun. Later, I read online that Tokugawa Ieyasu’s son had actually moved the remains of his father to another shrine in Nikko, further north in the Tochigi prefecture. That was for another time then. We cycled well over 20kms that day, with a not too pleasant bicycle seat to boot.

The Golden Week started two days ago, which is a week long holiday in Japan, and it is evident in the slow-moving traffic we are sitting in now. Everyone goes somewhere else during this time, with a lot of people heading towards Kyoto or Osaka, and the road to somewhere else happens to be the road I am on. The benefit of taking a train now becomes apparent, albeit at a more expensive rate, but nothing beats the view and seeing the landscape, as it passes by you at a slower pace, from a different perspective.

Nara, to where I am going now, is a prefecture known for its forested parks, animals, and rolling green mountains, a wildlife sanctuary among the endless cities of Japan. One of these animals is a deer, of an unknown name as of yet, which according to the tales I heard in Nagoya, roams the streets of Nara and has a tendency of biting people. Back in South Africa, I have been around a few baboons in the wild myself and they also tend to be on the aggressive side when near humans, but never have I been bitten before, luckily, I would probably lose a limb or worse. I shall have to meet said deer and see if all they really want is a little kiss on the nose or a big hug. It is, after all, hard to show affection when you have no arms or hands and only teeth getting in the way of a kiss.

– Starr

Japan – Leaving Tokyo and Heading South

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Tuesday, 26 April 2016.

I left Tokyo six days ago, heading to the first stop of my southern trek across Japan, to the mountain town of Hakone.

Hakone is south of Yokohama, which is in the same prefecture, of Kanagawa, and east of Mt. Fuji, which is in the Yamanashi prefecture. It is an area well-known for its onsen, or hot springs, and due to its close proximity to Tokyo makes for a popular destination for the city-worn traveller and local.

After a much-needed break and relaxing time spent in the onsen, and a much more taxing time spent hiking, first with three girls from Israel and then the next day with two girls from Switzerland, I left for my next stop, Mt. Fuji. The views along the ridges, and from the peaks, of Hakone were fantastic and you really get to see Mt. Fuji and the surrounding areas from a sublime vantage point.

I had planned and intended to go to the five lakes district, on the northern side, of Mt. Fuji. However, after studying the train and bus lines, I discovered that I would have to back-track to Yokohama in order to get to my hostel. On leaving again, I would have to, instead of going around the western side of Mt. Fuji towards my next stop in Shizuoka, go back to Yokohama and then take the main Tokaido line back past the main stop of Hakone, Odawara, and only then after a few more transfers would I reach Shizuoka. Suffice to say, it would be quite a detour from my plan of travelling in a continuous direction and not back-tracking or taking the same route twice, if possible.

My research led me to the city of Fuji, which is just about in-between Hakone and Shizuoka. Being on the southern side of Mt. Fuji, I would be able to behold the majestic mountain, at a relatively close distance, and still be able to travel easily to my next destination.

And so I did. After exploring Fuji, and beholding the Mountain, and the beautiful waterfalls and forests of Fujinomiya, at the Shiraito falls, I reached Shizuoka in less than an hour by train. Shizuoka is different to the other cities of Japan that I have as of yet seen. There is a lot more green, forested, areas, in and around the city. They are also underground tunnels, instead of crossings, that pedestrians used to get from one side of the road to the other, on some of the main roads. This is a new sight to me and adds an agreeable difference to the city and its unique character.

Tomorrow I will explore more of Shizuoka, and search out the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, where the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great shogun of Japan, is buried.

– Starr

Japan – Never Alone in Tokyo

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In Tokyo, you hardly are ever alone.

There is always someone, ahead of you or, behind you.

There is always someone, walking across the street from you,
or suddenly appearing out of nowhere, on a bike or from a building.

In Tokyo, you probably are never alone.

Japan – More Peculiarities of Tokyo

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Update: 21/04/2016 – I added a bonus section to the end of the article, with some more of the peculiarities that I observed in Tokyo during my two-week stay there.

Monday, 18 April 2016.

Here are a few more peculiar things that I have experienced or seen in Tokyo.

Disclaimer: I might have mentioned some of these before.

In Tokyo, there are not many public bins around. The only ones to be found are next to vending machines or outside of convenience stores but they are mostly only for the recycling of bottles and cans. If you want to dispose of anything else, you will have to carry it along with you, until you happen upon the unicorn of bins, the magical general purpose bin. Keep note of that bin when you find it, it might the last one you see for a while.

Most public restrooms do not have any hand dryers or paper towels. So you invariably end up wiping your hands on your pants, leaving unsightly wet marks, but things could be worse.

The majority of the people of Tokyo are very fashionable and dress very well, in a manner of different and unique styles. The men also seem to be quite concerned about their hair, with the majority of men’s hygiene products in stores consisting of hairsprays, gels, and shampoo.

Chopsticks. You can eat, and do eat, most everything with chopsticks. It’s clean, it’s easy, and oh so efficient. It’s biodegradable too.

Firetrucks are a common sight around Tokyo. There appears to be a lot of fires around these parts, I was recently near one myself in an area called Golden Gai. You notice the firetrucks, not because of their siren, but more because of a loud announcement made, via a loudspeaker, to get out of the way presume, as the fire truck speeds past you.

On trains, mobile phones are the number one distraction, with sleeping coming in at a close second place. People hardly speak to each other on the trains, nor give each other any direct attention, although there are more of the odd stares at foreigners, but this is, of course, a global custom and one that people would experience anywhere else.

As for the vast train line network of Tokyo, after being in Tokyo for about two weeks you should be able to understand and navigate your way around the train lines. And if you are the adventurous kind, you might even be able to take a nap on the train.

– Starr

Bonus round:

Ice coffee is big in Tokyo. Whenever I am at a coffee shop it seems if all the locals order ice coffee. Maybe it cools them down from all of the busyness of Tokyo or perhaps it just tastes better that way. Cold coffee from vending machines and convenience stores also comes up as a peculiarity to me. In South Africa, we also drink ice coffee but people generally buy the hot version more often. Although cold coffee from a can is a foreign idea to me, I am getting used to it.

Man-bags are a common sight in Tokyo. Not the Indiana Jones satchel kind, but the big bags that women generally carry around. The ones with short handles that you carry on your forearm or under your arm, close to your body. This fashion may have originated in Europe, and although not all businessmen use them or men use them, but it is biggish in Japan and a somewhat common sight on the trains and along the streets of Shinjuku and Ginza.

Japan – Living in the Future Past

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In Japan, I feel connected to both the near future and the ancient past. You can feel it when you walk the neon littered streets, pass by the high-tech arcades and towering electronic merchants, or when standing at a small stone shrine, set within nature’s own tranquil form, built many centuries ago. The spirit of a time-honoured tradition and respect for nature, and for one another, is always felt when coming into contact with a person from Japan. The ubiquity of technology permeates every subway, vending machine and heated toilet seat. The future is embraced here, whether it be for folly or for the betterment of all. The past is remembered, through every temple and shrine, communal gathering and festival, and passed on with every bow.

Japan – Walking and Cycling in Tokyo

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Saturday, 16 April 2016.

I have now been in Tokyo, and Japan, for just about two weeks. I left my second-last hostel in Tokyo, this morning, and headed towards the Star Inn, a few kilometres away. I decided to walk, instead of taking the train, as I had a few hours to spare before my next check-in.

I awoke to the news that there had been another earthquake in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu. This second earthquake registered at 7 on the Richter scale and caused much more damage to the buildings and roads than the first one had. 40 people were killed in the both earthquakes and around 2000 more injured. Being from South Africa I am not used to earthquakes, but even here, where it is more common, the people are still shocked when it does happen. I feel saddened for the people of Kumamoto, and hope they recover from this tragedy. I will have first-hand experience of the extent of the damage, as my journey takes me south, to Kyushu, and to Kumamoto.

Continuing my walk to Starr Inn, I crossed the Sumida River, walking past Tokyo Skytree, I came upon a park where a craft and food market was underway. It was great walking amongst the stores of local artists and food peddlers, and it gave me a sense of how it must have been in the ancient past. Walking there, among the friendly and jovial people, I got a sense of the more relaxed and rural lifestyle of Japan. I am sure to encounter more of this spirit when I start travelling south, next week.

The night before, I rented a bicycle and cycled down from Ueno, past Ginza and central Tokyo, to an area near Roppongi, where I partook in an International Speed Dating event, organised through Meetup.com group. It was great fun, but quite tiring because you only had 4 minutes to talk to a girl and then you had to quickly move on to the next one. It felt like Tinder on a bullet train. There were about 50 people in total and I was fortunate to have matched up with a very nice girl, a nurse, from Yokohama. I shall visit Yokohama in the coming week, to explore the city, to see the land, and to meet up, again, with the girl from Yokohama.

– Starr