Monday was the last day of the school holidays. I took Maisie and Tommy to the cinema to watch the new animation ‘The Missing Link’ – it was the first full-length film we’d all been to see together. Despite both kids asking to leave whenever it got scary, we managed to make it all the way to the end! The story concerned an arrogant but kind-hearted Victorian explorer, fascinated by mythical creatures, who was approached by an educated and lonely Canadian Sasquatch, set on tracing his distant Nepali relatives, the Yetis. Cue a mad-cap dash across the world, pursued by evil bounty-hunters. It was fun and the kids enjoyed explaining the plot to Neil afterwards!
Early on Tuesday morning Rowena and I caught a plane to Japan! It was a comfortable Qantas flight, I watched a crappy Anna Kendrick movie (a long-haul staple for me), and the strangely worthy ‘Vox Lux’ (which featured an impressively savage performance from Natalie Portman).
We arrived in Tokyo in the evening and caught the express train into town. Even at 9pm we were whizzing past platforms of queuing grey salarymen (and they were virtually all men – the women appear to work mainly in retail and hospitality).
Our hotel was in Shinjuku. We congratulated ourselves on finding our way out of the labyrinthine maze of underground corridors but we were equally at sea overground (despite the hotel claiming to be only 10 minutes walk away!). Every stacked building flashed with a glowing six-storey billboard, there were no street signs, and throngs of evening socialisers to push through, but we eventually worked out where to go, and checked in to our small (but not unbearably small), tired but clean 1970s hotel room, and crashed out.
We awoke to an overcast, warm and muggy day. The breakfast buffet was pleasantly healthy – we started every day in Tokyo with grilled fish and pickles, lettuce and bean salad, miso soup, French toast and fried sandwiches(!).
We went for a wander around Shinjuku, stopping by the quiet Shinto Hanazono Shrine, all freshly painted red and gold. A little side temple featured a giant wooden phallus. The grounds were full of cherry trees, empty of flowers, apart from one gnarled old specimen still sporting a few pink pompoms. Rowena had never seen cherry blossom before and was captivated. She made it her mission to document all the cherry blossom we spotted that holiday (which turned out to be an epic project!).
As we explored the grounds, we watched locals pop by for a quick prayer. They would ladle water over their hands in the water trough, walk up the temple steps, throw some coins into the offering box, ring the bell and bow several times before heading on their way. There were also racks hung with prayers written on wooden tablets, and messages written on strips of paper that were tied onto horizontal poles. It seemed a very civilised and straightforward way to incorporate prayer into one’s day!
Everywhere the streets and tunnels were decorated with murals, posters, stickers and sculptures. The policemen bees above were on a building site hoarding. The Shinjuku streets weren’t beautiful by day – they needed darkness and electric light to come alive!
We descended into a subterranean shopping mall and found a supermarket, which engaged us for quite some time. Most intriguing was the variety of fresh fish, the appetising array of fresh fried snacks, the aisle full of miso pastes, and the individually plastic-wrapped fruits (the amount of packaging in general continually horrified us).
The subway tunnels were like an art gallery, lined with lovely posters and artworks. We spotted these posters advertising the 2020 Olympics (and later stocked up on memorabilia – figurines and t-shirts).
We caught the metro to Ueno Park, and when we emerged at street level it was pouring with rain. Everyone was armed with umbrellas (mainly clear plastic ones), even the school kids. We avoided the worst of the rain by ducking into a cute bakery and feasting on melon buns (the turtle), chocolate-filled buns (the penguin and koala) and prawn and egg sandwiches (the pandas)!
Happily the shower was brief and we were able to go for a dry stroll in Ueno Park. The park is full of temples and museums, and there were pink, white and purple azaleas and peonies in flower, and a few late cherry blossoms. The first temple we visited, Bentendo, was sited in the middle of a pond (coppery brown with dried winter stalks, and lined with ranks of swan pedalos waiting patiently for the summer season).
Each temple we visited had a symbol – this one was the biwa (the chosen instrument of Benten, goddess of music, eloquence, poetry and education). There was a large biwa in front of a great bank of paper lanterns, and the prayer tablets were in the same shape.
There were various beautifully inscribed hunks of rock and a walled garden full of stunningly manicured trees (in the whole of Tokyo, we rarely saw a ‘naturally’ growing tree – all of them had been so closely pruned and shaped – any branches that point down are trimmed off, bindings force the growing wood into strange, twisted, asymmetrical shapes).
The hand-washing trough featured a water-spurting dragon on a mossy mound (it was one of the most ornate that we saw). Despite the weather, stall-holders were getting ready for an outdoor festival, some were already grilling up long tendrils of octopus and squid, which the afternoon school kids were scoffing down.
Next we visited the cherry blossom shrine, Kiyomizu Kannondo. A pine tree in front of it had been bound and trained into a circular shape, through which you could view the pathway to the lake temple below. Inside on the walls and ceilings (and in the form of much-stroked fragile-looking wooden devotional figures) were images of fierce gods.
I was also taken by the tall and wonderfully ornate lanterns that marked the perimeter of the temple.
An avenue dense with little red torii gates took us down to the tucked-away Gojo shrine, which was guarded by stone dogs and cute little marble owls.
It was a calm, tranquil spot, a lovely place for contemplation, hidden enough not to be found by most of the tourists! We admired the woodwork of the little tiled-roof pavilions – no nails, everything cut precisely and slotted in.
Nearby was the first Buddhist shrine that we had seen. A large stone-carved buddha stood in a little pavilion, alongside a small moss-covered stupa surrounded by beds of blousy pink, purple, white and yellow peonies.
The Toshogu shrine was the last of the day, and by far the most opulent. The approach was via a wide stone-paved pathway lined with sentry-like stone lanterns (presented as tributes to feudal lords).
The great golden temple doors caught the eye at first, but it was the artistry of the intricate wooden relief carvings that astonished. Each panel featured different vegetation and birds and frogs and fish.
A small modern stone altar was festooned with thousands of brilliantly coloured paper cranes (1000 in each garland).
Everywhere there were crows. Some would eyeball you from a low tree branch, others flapped lazily overhead, cawing loudly. This one was gathering twigs for a nest.
At the far end of Ueno Park the narrow tarmac paths opened out into a vast open square with big, shallow European-style decorative ponds. Beyond this was the Tokyo National Museum.
It’s a large site with a host of mismatched buildings – some Asian, some European in style, others an uneven blend of the two.
We started at the elegant modernist Gallery of Hōryū-ji Treasures (designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi). The crisp spare lines of glass, concrete and steel were set off a treat by a huge cherry tree and a storm of petals which settled in the shallow pool at the foot of the building, creating a welcoming carpet of pink.
The Hōryūji Treasures date from the 7th and 8th centuries. Of the many beautiful things on display, we were particularly taken with a massive metal openwork Buddhist banner (see the one panel – of many – photographed), and a room full of small 7th and 8th century buddhas, once used in household shrines.
Behind the museum buildings was a small landscaped garden dotted with antique teahouses (sourced from all over Japan). Some were plain, thatch and woven bamboo and rush screens, others were elaborate dark-wood-framed constructions with thick handmade glass windows. Everywhere there was the delicate splash of water dripping from bamboo pipes into ancient rough-hewn stone troughs.
We visited the Japanese gallery where they’d curated a ‘greatest hits’ exhibition of Japanese art from 1000 BC to the present day. Wow, there were so many wonderful things to see! I will have to restrict myself to describing a few favourites here!
This terracotta tomb ornament is from the 6th Century.
This is a 13th century Kei Gong, in the form of a lotus.
This was an entry to a C13th poetry competition, the calligraphy by renowned poet Fujiwara no Teika.
There was a room devoted to the tea ceremony. The display is changed every season, to feature utensils and artworks appropriate to that time of year. We were there in ‘early summer’, a time for ‘earthy Japanese ceramics with a feeling of warmth, as well as refreshing blue-and-white porcelain from China’. I particularly liked this C17th bowl in the shape of a cracked Japanese peppercorn.
There was plenty of armour and weaponry on display, which didn’t interest me so much. The swords were so sacred/revered that you weren’t even allowed to photograph them! I did like this crazy C18th helmet (in the shape of a Buddhist ruyi scepter) and a pair of ornamental bronze stirrups with a sparkling inlay of mother-of-pearl shell fragments.
A lovely C17th screen plastered with pictures of female poets reminded me of Maisie (it was all the hair!). There was a room full of artefacts that had recently been decreed as ‘National Treasures’. We weren’t allowed to take any photos, which was a shame as many of them were stunning (and I doubt we’ll ever see them again!). There was a lovely ancient herd of life-sized terracotta geese, and an incredible series of C19th copper/silver/bronze eagle sculptures, so alert and alive, eyes aglint, every feather detailed and lying against their bodies just so.
Later rooms featured Kabuki, Noh and Bugako costumes (this little figure is Ryo’o), and finely embroidered kimono.
And last, but not least, was a small selection of C18th/C19th Ukiyo-e by Hiroshige, Hokusai and their predecessors, and a few tiny netsuke, both old and brand new. Above is a print by Suzuki Haronobu who contributed to the invention of vibrant, multicolour woodblock prints…
…and one by Torji Kiyonaga, of the ‘Boy’s Festival’.
And here is a classic image by Hiroshige.
And a few C19th boxwood netsuke.
At 5pm we were politely ushered out of the gallery, and our exit route took us past the biggest Gingko tree I’ve ever seen – I had no idea they could grow so large!
Other interesting sights on our walk back to the station included this huge rather forlorn whale, crashed out in front of the Science Museum.
We also passed by the Le Corbusier-designed Museum of Western Art, and a funky 1960s concert hall (designed by Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa) which was being renovated.
We travelled home to Shinjuku on the subway, and had to gather our wits together to make our way out of the maze of tunnels once again! I enjoyed a series of Toei (metro)-produced information posters entitled ‘The Unknown Special Carriage’ – I had to record them all for Tommy!
It was almost dark when we emerged into the swirling Shinjuku crowds, every storey of every building was glowing and flashing and the rain made the pavements sparkle. We grabbed quick bowls of noodles and went on a night safari, starting with the lofty main thoroughfares, then burrowing into the seedier backstreets.
There were long queues (of tourists) for the robot restaurant (robots and sexy girls didn’t appeal to us!), and some questionable-looking ‘transformation parlours’.
We spotted gaggles of dodgy-looking men hanging out on dark corners, and tired-looking over-made-up women in tottering heels popping in to the all-night chemists.
We didn’t hang out in the red-light district for too long. Even a pudding shop that specialised in loaves of white bread stuffed with Häagen Dazs didn’t detain us!
We were glad to get back to our quiet room for cups of tea and speedy Wi-fi (that was something that Japan always got right!).
It was bright when we awoke on Thursday, but by the time we’d eaten our grilled fish and salad breakfast the clouds had descended once again. We headed over to the modern monied district of Roppongi Hills, and caught a speedy lift (our ears went pop!) up to the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower, where there is a contemporary art gallery.
The show was entitled ‘Roppongi Crossing 2019: Connexions’ and it gathered together works by a number of contemporary Japanese artists addressing what it means to live in the C21st. There were lots of striking and thoughtful pieces and we ended up spending a couple of hours there.
In the first room was Iikawa Takehiro’s huge pink cat ‘Mr Kobayashi’ – the idea was that he was so massive and awkwardly positioned that you could never photograph him in his entirety.
The second room featured an elegant video of two life-like robots interacting (their language was dolphin noises!) and a fabulous car/wardrobe bricolage (by artist Aono Fumiaki) – the craftsmanship in this piece was phenomenal (the picture doesn’t do it justice, there was so much detail on the other side).
Hayashi Chiho contributed a quirky installation/video about her imaginary marriage with a salaryman robot, and Sato Masaharu was represented by a simple, but surprisingly effective, film of abandoned cellphones ringing, unanswered.
Isoya Hirofumi made great honey-filled glass amphora lanterns, and artist collective Mé had taken a snapshot of the sea and recreated that momentary landscape, life-sized, in black resin.
Dokuyama Bontaro contributed two very different works. One was a fascinating selection of interviews with elderly Taiwanese people recalling their childhoods under Japanese rule (and recalling, incredibly accurately, the propaganda songs they sang at school!), another was about the 2011 Japanese tsunami/nuclear disaster. Communities ripped apart by that tragedy made masks representing their former lives.
Lighter in spirit was Takekawa Nobuaki’s epic ceramics project ‘Cat Olympics: Opening Ceremony’, and collective Anrealage’s liquid crystal dresses (which came to life under flashlight – we thought we were being asked not to photograph them, but in fact the opposite was true!).
On our way out of the exhibition we were ushered into a darkened room which was occupied by a huge luminous (Australian) green ant, created by Aussie/Japanese artists Ken and Julia Yonetani.
On the floor below the gallery was a 360° viewing gallery (which was also devoted to a behind-the-scenes Pixar exhibition, which we barely glanced at – although I did like the big Monsters Inc models).
There was no sign of Mount Fuji (the clouds were too low), but there were good views of the Tokyo tower, and of the chaotic topography of the city, all snaking highways and railways, clumps of high-rises, great park blocks of green, an uneven carpet of low-roofed apartments and houses crammed every which way.
We paused for a drink (it was the most expensive cup of tea I’ve ever bought) in a snooty bar with a glorious panorama – it was worth it for the view!
At the base of the tower was one of Louise Bourgeois’ spiders. They do get about!
We hopped on a busy train (everyone utterly engrossed in their phones – apparently it is rude to talk on the train, everyone treats it as their quiet time!) and headed over to Iidabashi, to visit the C17th Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens.
Despite being situated in a busy suburb (with a huge stadium/rollercoaster abutting the grounds), the gardens were wonderfully tranquil. And after a short while, the sun even came out!
Every tree had been shaped to be aesthetically pleasing. The maples wore it lightly (and as it was spring, their keys brought a shot of pink to the pale green patchwork of star-shaped leaves).
The pines were crazily twisted and wizened and unevenly balanced, and propped up with poles to stop them toppling over.
There was a plum orchard (seaweed-wrapped rice balls with sour pickled plum inside were one of my favourite snacks!) and a wisteria arbour…
…an island with a half-hidden red temple, a carefully constructed ‘natural-looking’ woodland and a water-lily pond crossed by two narrow stone bridges, each of which was constructed of only three pieces of carefully morticed stone.
Long-necked turtles basked in the misty low late-afternoon rays of sun, and bees enjoyed an abundance of nectar in the great floppy rain-dusted magenta peonies.
An ancient ‘moon bridge’ cast a perfect semicircle reflection, the archway and its reflection making the perfect round of a full moon.
We lingered as long as we could before the quiet closing chimes started ramping up! We walked past a busy soccer pitch and a number of blank government offices, and up a footbridge that took us across a canal and a huge road junction and beneath a railway.
We descended into a well-heeled post-work restaurant area, and found a pretty little lane lined with tiny cafés. Most had no windows – they were simply a darkened doorway hung with fabric, through which was visible a narrow stool-lined bar overlooking a tiny kitchen area.
We’d heard that tourists weren’t always welcome in these tiny places, and many of them had menus with no English and no pictures of the food, so we took the hint!
We ventured into one that had welcoming-looking windows, and a few pictures on the menu (but no English). And the staff (who couldn’t understand our English or Chinese) were very friendly and accommodating. We ended up ordering all the dishes that were in the pictures, which, happily was just the right amount of food! And it appeared that the locals were ordering the same dishes too!
Their specialty was salty snacks to consume with beer – we enjoyed various deep-fried skewers (fish, curry rice-ball, even spam!), some beautiful sashimi, and a melt-in-the-mouth block of fresh tofu flavoured with a sprinkling of finely-chopped spicy beef mince.
It was a surprise when everyone around us started smoking – it’s still a very popular past-time round here, and people love to do it while they eat!
We browsed the shops (open always till 8pm, sometimes later) after our early evening meal, stopping to smell different teas and admire displays of pastel-hued mochi cakes (pink, pale green, yellow and white). We tried a green one – a tiny thing, individually wrapped in plastic and pretty paper. It was very powdery, and didn’t really taste of anything at all! The cheap ones in 7-11 were much nicer!
We peeked inside a games arcade, full of disappointed souls failing to claw up large cute soft toys. It’s a wonder anyone bothers trying! I snapped another couple of fun information posters during our journey back to Shinjuku.
On Friday we went to look for the ‘Eye of Shinjuku’ – a lovely station artwork that was very hard to locate (we had almost given up hope when we finally stumbled across it!).
We crossed to the western, CBD side of Shinjuku and walked along a grand high-ceilinged underpass (this was unusual – most tunnels were pretty claustrophobic!) to the Metropolitan Government building, an imposing pair of grey stone-clad towers with viewing platforms in both wings. Again, Mt Fuji was not visible, but the cityscape was impressive.
We walked through a dowdy suburban park (mucky sandpits, a non-functioning waterfall) to another sleek high-rise, the Opera City Tower. Neil had managed to find us a free lunch-time concert to go to in the building’s acoustically-perfect concert hall.
It was an organ recital, performed by a visiting Spanish (not sure of the details as they were all in Japanese!) organist. She presented a lovely varied programme – covering baroque, romantic and contemporary, European and Asian – and the 3,826 pipe organ sounded glorious! We weren’t allowed to take any photos but I managed to sneak in one undetected (hence the far from perfect composition!).
The hall, all polished oak, was beautiful (being pyramid shape, it also felt vaguely masonic!), and the audience, mainly elderly and Japanese, was reverential.
In the afternoon we travelled across town, to the Docklands area, for a very different cultural experience. We weren’t expecting the last leg of our journey to be via monorail – and a rollercoaster of a one at that – it was cool whizzing above roof-level, over bridges, past a giant robot, a colourful ferris wheel and a huge maritime museum in the shape of a ship. Otherwise, the scenery was reminiscent of new Docklands developments anywhere in the capitalist world!
We were heading to one of Japan’s current most intragrammable attractions – a digital art exhibition entitled ‘Borderless’, put together by art collective teamLab. They call themselves ‘an interdisciplinary group of ultra-technologists, whose collaborative practice seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world’.
It wasn’t a subtle show (although there was nuance, if you could find a quiet corner and stay still and watch the images gradually morphing, which we occasionally managed to do). Most of it relied on floor-to-ceiling immersive projections. The first room was full of spinning red, pink and yellow flowers, the next featured a waterfall – all shiny white streaks; a long corridor was filled with swaying bamboo and darting fireflies. We watched this for a while and a fantastical procession of frogs and rabbits with staffs and palanquins slowly wended their way through the bamboo forest.
A particularly dark room hung with layers of gauze screens captured ghostly ranks of traditional Japanese musicians and dancers. As you approached each one, his instrumental line would rise above the general chorus. It was a lovely touch, and the effect of watching the slow rhythmic movements of the whole-room orchestra, was quite mesmeric. We spent a long time there, and gradually they men began to transform into rabbits and toads!
Next up was a dazzling LED maze. The LEDs were encased in clear plastic rods suspended from the ceiling, and rainbow colours would flicker through the grid in 3-dimensional patterns – lightning or rain, or waves, or fireworks. Never underestimate the power of sparkly lights – we found it hard to drag ourselves away from that room!
There was also a gallery of endlessly crashing waves (like a ukiyo-e painting come to life), and a steeply contoured space where you waded through a forest of knee-high springy lily-pads, onto which were projected blue-white water currents, floating petals and orange-bright carp.
A highlight was the ‘Forest of Lamps’ (which felt like a Yayoi Kusama rip-off!). Hundreds of identical Venetian glass lamps were suspended at different heights in a mirrored room. They cycled through subtle colour-ways (influenced by the season – we had pink cherry blossom and yellow kerria flowers), reacting to peoples proximity and movements.
On the top floor of the gallery, teamLAB had given up the pretence that this was all ‘art’!
There was a big ‘space’ trampoline, where bouncing volunteers triggered the formation of a black hole…
… a play area full of gigantic rainbow-hued luminous balloons, and various LED-encrusted pieces of jungle gym equipment. We were a bit too weary by this point to join in, but everyone else was having a go – young and old!
The teamLAB show was sited in a rather run-down shopping centre, called ‘VenusFort’ (all the shops were aimed at women!). It was pleasantly empty, and we went wild in the 100 yen shop!
Our route also forced us to traverse a huge Toyota showroom. We admired their futuristic vehicles, tried sitting in all their latest models, and had a go on a racing car simulator (a proper fairground-style attraction – we were strapped into our seats and the floor disappeared, and we lurched around while watching videos of all-terrain racing!).
We made it back to Shinjuku pretty late. The restaurant that looked the friendliest was a tiny little Thai place, and they served us some very tasty Tom Yam soup and Pad Thai noodles.
On Saturday we headed over to Harajuku. We were hoping to spot all the Cosplay girls and boys hanging out, but we never found them (although we did locate the places where they shopped!).
We went first to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. It was the weekend, and there were great crowds of tourists passing under the huge stripped tree-trunk torii gate at the entrance, and perambulating down the long drive, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly serene.
We passed the huge banks of tributary sake barrels and French wine casks (from well-known vineyards!), and under another epic torii gate before reaching the shrine itself, which was fairly understated, and not particularly large.
A bridal procession was making its way into the central courtyard as we arrived, and inside the temple another (unrelated) special event was just starting.
The shrine, which was constructed in 1920, is nearing its centenary, and is hosting a series of special commemorative events – and we had been lucky enough to stumble upon one of them!
There was a band of fabulously-clad gagaku musicians, playing hichiriki (oboe), ryūteki (traverse flute), and sho (mouth organ). They were flanked by two great ornately framed da-daiko drums, and a pair of bronze shōko gongs. The winds played meandering dove-tailing melodies, floating, haunting, harsh and poetic.
On a small raised stage in front of them, four male dancers performed a slow-moving and stately dance, their faces impassive, their glorious costumes billowing.
And what costumes – wow, they were stunningly beautiful – all jewel-bright silks and brocades, with flower embroidery, checks and stripes, gilt and pom-poms. And even with all of that going on, the square-sleeved voluminous outfits were still dignified and supremely elegant. The first set of outfits was primarily brilliant orange, with touches of cream and magenta, the second set was an emerald green with flashes of cream and orange.
The performance lasted an hour or so, and it cast quite a spell. We had been entranced by the stillness, and weren’t ready for their swift and economical pack-up – everything was tidied away in under 15 minutes!
Not quite ready to engage with the Harajuku crowds once again, we popped into the shrine gardens, where, occasionally, we could see no other people at all, and were able to tune out the rush of traffic and trains and hear only hear birdsong and splashing water!
The planting here was more ‘natural’, the trees less controlled (although there were some lovely little potted bonsai).
We were too early for the irises, but there were plenty of azaleas, and a few little colourful orchids.
The garden is irrigated by a natural well, the waters of which rose up crystal clear through a bed of smooth grey slate pebbles.
Back in the street bustle, we passed busy fish-ball cafés (teams of chefs swiftly spinning the patties round in half-sphere moulds to make perfectly round snacks).
We found a 6-level mall full of tiny boutiques aimed at hip 20-somethings. There were clothes in every style – from pink kawai-cute baby-doll, to goth and punk, Disney kitsch, ‘90s grunge and ‘80s hip-hop.
There were pre-loved pieces (vintage sports clothes re-cut and combined), and stylish, unusually-shaped blouses and skirts in unusual prints and fabrics (I would have loved to have invested in a new, funky work wardrobe – but prices started at $150 and went upwards!).
There were beauty treatments (so many skin-whitening creams and cosmetics) and sparkly eye-shadows and nail varnishes in every shade imaginable, and lots of fun jewellery (there was a whole space-themed range – I had to buy Maisie a few things!).
The cosplay girls were lining up to go to their favourite shops – all dressed to the nines in their big net petticoats and lacy socks, hair in pastel colours. But there were big signs saying ‘no photographs’ which we respected! We rode up and down a particularly spectacular mirrored department store escalator!
Behind the main thoroughfares, each backstreet was devoted to a particular item – we ended up exploring trainer street, and stopped at a little cafe for a late lunch. The couple sitting next to us were very friendly and gave us their menu recommendations – and we were grateful, as that dish of thick udon noodles with pale pink cod roe, turned out to be my favourite meal in Japan!
We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for presents. Row took me to a couple of shops on the smart, tree-lined avenue of Omotesando, including the tourist-tastic ‘Oriental bazaar’ (which reminded me a little of Neal Street East).
We strolled down Cat Street, which was a mix of trendy western brands, cool Japanese printed t-shirt outlets, and cute lolly and soft toy shops (we found handmade rock candy, with minute pictures of different types of vehicles in the middle). The shops were stacked on top of each other in layers (this is common – there are many restaurant buildings like this too). I was struck by one which had a bike shop on the top storey!
It was a relief when the shops shut and we could stumble back to our hotel beds! Our route home took us through an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed station. There was an intricate mosaic of the mad hatter’s tea party, and a rather fun white-rabbit stained glass window.
On Sunday the skies were clear and blue. Everything was transformed. Even the chaotic streets of Shinjuku felt welcoming!
We spent the best chunk of the day on a train – riding the ‘romance car’ from Tokyo to Hakone, a cluster of villages in the foot-hills of Mount Fuji, famed for their hot springs and views.
We finally got our glimpse (and it was only a glimpse – from a speeding train!) of Mount Fuji, majestically crowned with snow after a long winter.
I also spotted my first bullet train, and a benign blue stretch of the Pacific Ocean.
The last few days of our trip coincided with ‘Golden Week’ – a week containing 4 Japanese national holidays. Hakone is a popular vacation destination, and our train was packed with extended Japanese family groups. The 1.5 hour journey seemed brief to us, but clearly not to the locals, who came fully prepared with snacks, packed lunches, beers, toys, games and quiz books.
Any expectations of a quiet country town were quickly dispelled when we had to queue to exit the station, and wade through dense tourist-shop-pottering crowds to make it along the main street to our hotel.
Fortunately it was quieter in the back streets. Our hotel was situated on the banks of a rushing river, which had been beautifully landscaped with a stepped series of scalloped boulder-edged weirs. A bright white crane stood silently in the shallows waiting for unwary fish.
We were too early to check in to our hotel, but they took our luggage (a tiny lady struggled with our heavy cases, and laughed us away when we tried to help her!), and showed us the free coffee machine in the lounge (a bean-to-cup machine no less – it was the first, and only, good coffee I drank in Japan!).
It was clear that the hotel was designed for Japanese guests (we saw very few other westerners there), as some of the door-frames were barely tall enough for Row and I to fit through!
We went for a wander along the narrow roads that climbed steeply from the valley floor. A number of the bridges were decorated with koi nobori (fish banners) decorated by local school children to celebrate Children’s Day (which fell at the end of Golden Week).
There were buildings perched on the tiniest and most awkward of plots!
Old wooden cottages jostled for space along the roadside, tiny verandas laden with pretty ceramic pots full of carefully tended flowering shrubs and bonsai.
We visited a couple of Zen temples, with mossy stone graveyards terraced up the hillsides. There were some beautifully carved headstones, and amongst the flower tributes were a few favourite mugs, and even an (unopened) can of beer.
The Sounji temple was decorated with a number of wooden and stone carvings of mythical lions…
…and the drainpipes were a chain of upended bronze bells (like little flowerpots) flowing into an elegant circular iron trough.
They were erecting a new entrance gate at the Shogenji temple – an exact replica of the original, built using the traditional materials and methods.
These two serene buddhist figures were carved on a gravestone.
We found our way into a small dappled patch of woodland, beneath our feet was a writhing (and slippery) mass of tree-roots, and many fallen leaves (it was odd – there were leaves everywhere, it felt more like autumn than spring).
The old primary school, perched on a high bank overlooking the (not particularly pretty) town, had been converted into a posh restaurant, with a perfectly-designed little garden.
We were constantly amazed how the Japanese could create a tranquil green space in the tiniest of spaces – sometimes less than a metre square!
On our way back down the hill, we came across a small shrine honouring dogs.
Our hotel room was much larger (and more luxurious) than we had expected. There was a little luggage/cupboard foyer with the ultimate toilet (the heated seat, the water flushing noise, the various bidet settings – plus the wash-basin incorporated into the water tank!), and a raised tatami-mat bed area, plus a carpeted sofa corner and a wet-room shower, the hot water directly piped from the local hot springs. It was fantastic!
We were provided with kimonos and obi to wear while were in the hotel (or even outside – we saw a couple of people doing that, but it was really too cold for us to attempt that – it felt like winter in Hakone!).
We went up to the roof to try out the hotel’s onsen (hot spring baths). There were separate mens’ and womens’ baths, and we had to bathe naked, which was a little confronting at first, but we soon got used to it. The idea is to shower and scrub yourself, then take a dip in the hot pool, and repeat the whole process several times. We did the first bit, but once we were in the 40° pool water, we didn’t really want to get out. It was so relaxing!
The pool room was roofed, but with an open wall which looked out onto a vertical bank of luminous green spring woodland. We could hear the rushing of the river water below, and the lazy chirping of birds getting ready to roost for the night. The deepening night air kept our faces cool while our bodies turned to jelly in the heat of the water. After 45 minutes or so it was very hard to move! Happily we didn’t have far to go, as we’d booked into the hotel on a half-board basis, so only had to make our way down to the dining room.
There was another pleasant surprise here – dinner was an immaculately presented 6 course menu of local delicacies. Our starter included ‘firefly squid’, ‘tara bud tempura’ and ‘canola flower sushi’ and a huge broad bean (massive beans seemed to be a local specialty – in a later meal we were treated to a monster kidney bean!). There was a simple but elegant clear soup of clams, crab, tomatoes and olives, and a taro dumpling in a caremelized sauce.
The main course was a tasty dish of grilled beef with three different pickles, and a bowl of possibly the most delicious rice I’ve ever tasted! It was cooked at the table – the waitress lit a little block of blue-flamed solid fuel under a ceramic pot filled with uncooked rice and water, and 20 minutes later, the fuel burnt out and we were left with a perfect mound of fluffy fragrant rice (completely unseasoned – it didn’t need any other flavours!).
Dessert was a soft creme brulée with a rather sickly pink ‘cherry blossom’ sauce (which did taste a bit like medicine!). The meal was so perfectly balanced that we just felt pleasantly sated at the end, not stuffed or unhealthy at all!