Japan 2018

Shimanami Kaido, Tokyo

With lots of excitement, we set off bright and early for our first day of cycling the Shimanami Kaido (the famous cycling course spanning 6 islands) starting off in the main island and ending in Shikoku. This was one of the main elements of our trip to Japan.

From Hiroshima we caught the Shinkansen to Fukiyama, the closest Shinkansen stop to the start of the cycling course at Onomochi – or so we thought. Strangely, just before we were due to arrive at our destination, we stopped at a station called Shin-Onomochi. Japanese trains make notoriously quick stops, so we didn’t think we had time to jump off – and then we ended up sitting at the station for a couple of minutes with ample time should we had decided to get off. Anyway, we continued onto Fukiyama and then caught a local train back to Onomochi. We’ve noticed many other stations starting with “Shin-” and we believe this to be the “Shinkansen” station within a city if there are more than one train terminal. While planning your trips, it’s worthwhile to see if your city has a Shin station, eg Shin-Osaka.

The total Shimanami Kaido is around 70km in distance following the recommended path. There are intermediate and advanced tracks that incorporate more hills and mountain climbs. We decided to split the ride into two days so we could take in more and absorb the wonderful scenery.

In Onomochi we found the Yamato luggage delivery place with no hassle and organised to have our suitcases sent to our hotel in Okayama the next day. It was our first time using the luggage delivery system and we did leave with some trepidation but also with trust in the efficient Japanese system.

We briefly visited the purpose built Giant store which we had missed securing rental bikes from and then headed to the public bike rental place which still looked to have a number of bikes for hire. We paid our money and went to pick our bikes only to find out that most we had seen were reserved and we had limited choices – maybe 12 to choose from – from city cruises to fold up and electric bikes. We chose the only two cross bikes and headed to the ferry terminal. These public bikes aren’t as well maintained and the gears weren’t accurate but they did the job.

We took the ferry across the water. Luce was in charge of paying for the trip and inadvertently didn’t pay for the bikes but couldn’t understand why the money collector was grumbling in Japanese, but as he didn’t explain or even point to the sign (which she noticed when she got off)… it happened. Michael, oblivious to all of that, was the first one off the ferry.

We headed off on our journey towards Imabari following the blue line specifically painted on the roads for cyclists.

About an hour into our journey, Michael’s rear tyre started to deflate and without a patch kit given to us, we were sure to be in strife. Luckily, Luce had pointed out we should ask when hiring the bikes what we needed to do for this very scenario. All you needed to do for such a situation was call a number and they would handle the rest. A truck came past about 30 minutes later and we were able to select a replacement bike. It wasn’t that much better but it did have two operational tyres and successfully got us all the way.

With her country background, Luce went to inspect the local produce as she was fascinated with the soil they were being grown in. It didn’t appear to be soil but something that resembled more of sand. Some were growing in open air, while others were covered in a tunnel of plastic.

After just over 30km, we arrived at our accomodation at a Japanese style “ryokan” and were greeted with the region’s number 1 selling lemon drink. It was indeed very oishi (yummy). A ryokan normally gives you a room with tatami mats, paper walls, beds and tables low to the ground. Located in Setoda, our accomodation provided special public baths scented with pieces of the region’s famous citrus fruits, lemons. Initially, we weren’t sure how our sunburnt skin was going to go with the acidity from the lemons but the onsen seemed to work well.

The view from our room at sunset

In Japan, onsens are separate for males and females and you must wash yourself in the shower area before using the public bath. They provide soap, shampoo, a bucket, seat and shower head for you to do this. You sit down so you do not cause any unnecessary splashes to fellow bathers. Once done, you can head over to the onsen making sure not to create too much disruption to others. Also, you are given a small hand towel to assist with the drying, otherwise this is all done while you’re totally naked. Luce quite enjoyed her time as she had mostly a private experience while lucky Michael shared his with three other men.

The next morning, we set off to complete the ride. The views were even more stunning.

Photos cannot accurately depict the breathtaking scenery, the stillness and tranquility of the surroundings. It is evident through our journey that the Japanese people have strong respect for nature.

The final bridge: Kurushima Bridge

Michael’s cold had abated by the start of the cycle trip and things were looking up again for the both of us. We completed the ride feeling great but later Luce, with her stellar introduction to Japan, finally succumbed to Michael’s cold and didn’t shake it until we were in Hakone (after Tokyo).

Once we reached the heart of Imabari, we handed our bikes over and headed to the JR station to board our shinkansen to Okayama via the scenic route over Shikoku island. We nervously headed towards Hotel Granvia, which we selected because it was easily accessible and connected to the station, and were relieved to find our suitcases waiting for us in our room. This would be the most luxurious stay of our trip – it was a 4 star hotel and cost under $200 for the night. We were also at our best – hot and sweaty from our day in the sun.

We attempted to find a meal similar to the mazemen noodles we had in Hiroshima, but couldn’t. It was still ok.

Tokyo

The next day the skies opened up on our shinkansen from Okayama to Tokyo so we weren’t fortunate enough to get a good view of Mt Fuji. At this point, we were hopeful that we would capture the best photos of Mt Fuji with our stay in picturesque Hakone.

The following morning, we embarked on a Tokyo cycling tour by Gaku – a local professional mountain biker who is very nice and so humble. He took our group of 5 on a 6 hour journey to visit the main landmarks around Tokyo mostly on roads. Lucky for us, we were doing the tour on one of the public holidays within Golden Week so fewer vehicles were on the road. It was a very fun and informative tour and we highly recommend doing it as your first activity when visiting Tokyo.

The tour included stops at famous Tokyo sights including Meiji shrine and the Tokyo Government Office building – the later of which has the most amazing view of Tokyo including Mt Fuji on a fine day. As it was a little bit overcast, Fujisan was still hiding behind the clouds – but that’s okay, we still had Hakone to come.

While in Tokyo we stayed in Shimokitazawa, an area described as bohemian with its young, hip and out there styles with many small shops and cafes seating less than 10. Michael calls it the Braddon of Canberra. Having consumed mostly Starbucks coffees in our trip thus far, we discovered a small coffee shop started by a couple from Melbourne a couple of years back. In true Melbournian fashion, it was definitely strong but we did get to enjoy it with banana bread. While in the area, we found giant apples, watermelons priced at 1380 yen (around $15AUD), and 1 litre of Jack Daniels for about the same cost as the watermelon. Alcohol is very cheap and easily accessible.

We decided to visit Asakusa, which according to the guidebook was a highlight of Tokyo. We watched a couple a youtube videos before the visit to give an idea of what to see. Much to our disappointment, the videos hadn’t shown how busy Asakusa would be. Looking back, we should have known better than visit one of the main sites on a weekend during Golden Week.

We arrived at Asakusa and were immediately inundated with tourists. There were so many, it was hard to even walk in a straight line. We attempted to eat our way up the street leading to Sensoji (the main Buddist temple at Asakusa) as the street food is renowned in this area. Unfortunately even the food couldn’t make up for the crowds. Michael, over the tourists and the heat, was keen to leave the area as soon as possible and head for the giant golden flame (or golden turd as a youtuber said the locals called it).

To outsiders, Tokyo does have some strange attractions: be it the cat or owl cafes where you hand over your yen and go pat your animal of choice; maid cafes where you enjoy a meal while you entertained by young looking girls dressed in maid costumes; or love hotels where you can book in blocks of a few hours for a quick layover, or an overnight romantic stay for the more serious kind – why not treat your loved one to the dungeon experience?

Michael somehow convinced Luce to attend a-never-to-be-found-outside-Japan unique cabaret experience while in Tokyo. Yes, that’s right, we went and saw the attraction that put Tokyo back on the world stage, Robot Restaurant! We’re not sure how to accurately describe our experience with the utmost respect it deserves. We witnessed three acts with the first being a robot battle between good and bad forces with some drumming; next was a ninja laser show and robots dancing to modern English songs; and finally a mashup dance mix to more pop songs. As long as you go with no expectation (which we did), you will find it entertaining (if not quite extraordinary!).

 

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Japan 2018

Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima

In Sydney, we boarded our plane to Japan on time but were sat there for about an hour as engineers inspected serviced one of the engines. The flight itself was pleasant, and knew food and entertainment were being provided as part the normal Qantas service. However, as we selected seats further back of the plane, we found that we were left with not much meal selection once they eventually made it to us. Sometimes, they would run out – we missed out on a couple fruit runs. So make sure to sit further up the plane if you get the option.

We touched down in Osaka after 8pm local time (Japan is 1hr behind AEST). Customs was simple: they took our fingerprints and a photograph and let us right through. Once out, we proceeded to obtain our JR Pass within the airport complex. These passes allow unlimited use on most JR managed transport systems across Japan and are only available for purchase to foreigners before you fly to Japan. We ended up using these passes for the majority of our trip.

Make sure you obtain an IC card (eg Icoca, Suica, Pasmo, etc) and charge it up with some money. It is like a debit card and is used to give you much easier access through gates to other non-JR transportation networks. It’s a swipe on, swipe off sorta thing similar to Canberra’s MyWay, Sydney’s Opal and Melbourne’s Myki. In addition, you can use the IC card at most places to purchase goods or services, eg at shopping areas, vending machines, to obtain food and beverages. That said, Japan is still a cash society – most evident as you move outside of the main cities – so make sure you have some of those Yens too. We purchased our IC card right next to the JR office at the terminal but they are available at most entrances to the JR train stations and at convenience stores.

We also attempted to locate a rentable pocket wifi device from Lawson but failed. We soon discovered that Lawson is just another convenience store chain (similar to 7 Eleven) that doesn’t stock items of that nature – unless you previously ordered the device from an online website and instructed them to ship to one of the Lawsons for pickup. Not to fear, we went back to the airport terminal and chatted to other providers but didn’t end up renting one of the various options due to cost. It would have come to around $200/mth which was far greater than what we were anticipating. If you’re looking for a portable wifi device at a reasonable price, see this article from Tokyo Cheapo. We connected up to the free Osaka wifi and made our way to to our accomodation arriving close to midnight. Luckily, all of our Airbnb stops have provided free pocket wifi for us to use while out and about during our stay.

Osaka (24-25 April)

Our first day in Japan was wet but that didn’t hold us back. We took our Airbnb provided clear brollies and went out to town hitting the famous Dotonbori food district. After all, I think that’s why we went to Osaka.

The two must have food items were Okonomiyaki (pancake) and Takoyaki (octopus balls). We selected a reputable restaurant on Tripadvisor and gave them a whirl. For both of us, it didn’t really float our boats. Okonomiyaki was still oozy in the middle so we weren’t sure if they were ready but the chef made a gesture for us to start. After sinking my teeth into Takoyaki, a hot sensation went into my mouth (this is the normal reaction for the impatient). Again, I wasn’t expecting for it to be gooey on the inside but it was. And did I say it was hot (temperature wise)?

With the night’s food excursion over, we headed home. Unfortunately for Luce, she ended up getting a case of food poisoning. We’re not sure what caused it as Michael had everything that she had. The next morning, Michael went out in search of coconut water for Luce to rehydrate with electrolytes but soon discovered that coconut water is not common in Japan. Neither was normal lemonade. Luckily, an assistant suggested to try one of the larger Life supermarkets. Once at a Life supermarket and armed with my trusty Google Translate app with “coconut water” pre-translated, presented it to the first helper I could find. The helper looked perplexed and started talking in Japanese (I think to herself). After some time, she indicated for me to stay and proceeded to head into the aisles and came back with a small container (perhaps around 300ml) of coconut water. I quickly cleared the shelves of all remaining bottles (there were about 5 or so), gathered some bread, bananas and a few other things and off I headed back.

The rest of the day was about recovery, however, we did manage to go for a short walk to see Tsutenkaku – a tower that resembles the Eifel Tower with large Hitachi written down the side.

Kyoto (26-27 April)

Luce recovered quite well so we boarded our first Shinkansen (bullet train) ride to Kyoto which only took around 30 minutes.

Snoopy shop

We arrived early for our walking tour so we headed to the nearby famous Nishiki Markets where we weren’t expecting to find a store fully dedicated to Snoopy. Michael had an ice cream (surprise surprise) and Luce tried to avoid the smells of any food that reminded her of Dotonbori.

Walking tour of Gion

We had booked into a well reviewed free walking tour in Kyoto. Our guide, Mayu, spoke very good English and we formed part of a group of about 20-25 from all over the world, visiting famous sights around Gion – the Geisha district.

The tour started by crossing the road where Mayu mentioned we were passing a Geisha walking in the opposite way on the crossing – not the best place for a photo. We then proceeded passed the tea houses of Meikas (Geisha’s in training – 15-21 years old) where Mayu explained the difference between Meikas and Geikas (the later as Geishas prefer to be called). She also explained how to spot the real deal as opposed to all the tourists who rent Kimonos and wonder around.

Mayu explained that the main religions were Shinto and Buddism, with Buddism brought over from China and accepted by the Japanese as it had a more positive approach to death, and most Japanese celebrate/worship both. We passed Buddist templates and Shinto Shrines – you will generally find a Shinto shrine with the temples as Shinto used to be connected to the government.

Overall it was a really good tour, and we may have tipped our tour guide more than we should have as Luce was still getting used to the currency conversion rate. To make up for that, Michael had another ice cream, this time matcha green tea flavoured, before we moved to our next tourist attraction.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Michael, who had thought at this stage he was invincible to sickness with his iron stomach, started to develop a runny nose. It would stick with him for the next couple of days. We carried on and went to the Shrine with more than a 1,000 Tori gates, which coincidentally is voted as #1 in Tripadviser. The Shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. In Shintoism, there are many gods. It takes around 2-3 hours to do the full loop to the top of the mountain and back and there were many stairs. There are a lot of people at the start but many turn around about mid-way. The majority of the Toris were donated by companies, organisations, households or individuals and their contribution appears in writing on the Tori.

We had dinner back in Osaka where Luce tried a rice, mince meat and egg meal – the plainest she could find for her delicate tummy. This turned out to be a similar dish that Michael’s mum made for him.

Arashiyama

The following day we headed back to Kyoto and searched for a chemist near the station for Michael’s cold which continued to wear him down. Armed with Google Translate, we were able to have a full conversation including:

  • runny nose / cold
  • strongest version
  • non-drowsiness
  • taken with meal

First up at Arashiyama, we went to the bridge which had much more significance than what two tourists thought at the time. It was built during the Heian Period between 794-1185. Across the bridge on the otherside was the entrance to the monkey park at Iwatayama but we didn’t go there. Instead we turned back and headed up to Tenryuji Temple, the gardens of which has UNESCO World Heritage Site status. After some time exploring the wonderful garden, we headed through the bamboo grove and into Okochi Sanso Villa which contained a large area of gardens and building structures. This place is an area dedicated to the famous Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro (1896-1962). The actor would come here to relax, replenish and draw to inspiration.

A panoramic view of a structure in Okochi Sanso Villa

We decided to have dinner at Kyoto Station as it was getting late so headed up to Kyoto Ramen Koji which contains a collection of 7 ramen restaurants. We tried our first dipping ramen which is where you get a bowl with the broth with toppings (eg meaty) and a plate with your noodles. With your chopsticks you then take a mouthful of noodles, dunk it into the broth and then eat it. If you didn’t ask, then your noodles would be cold much like ours were. So if you’re going to give dipping noodles a try, we recommend you ask for hot noodles so it keeps the broth hotter for longer.

Dipping ramen from Kyoto

Hiroshima (28-29 April)

We arrived at Hiroshima in the train terminal and quickly noted the city’s similarities to Melbourne. From what we could see, Hiroshima’s public transport consisted of above ground trams, buses and taxis.

At the train terminal, we boarded the around-the-city sightseeing bus, free if you had a JR Pass. It’s a bus that takes you in a loop to all of the main attractions in Hiroshima where you can hop on and off at your preferred places. If you’re towing luggage, we probably wouldn’t recommend this means of transportation as it can be tight for others to move past. Try the trams, you’ll be in more comfort.

We stopped at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as it was too early for us to check into our accomodation. Michael had researched previously that they had coin lockers so we stowed away our luggage and visited the Museum. We learned the history of Hiroshima through murals, photos, models, videos of survivors recounting where they were and what they were doing. You can’t help but feel saddened about the events that occurred here but humbled about the people’s yearning for a peaceful future and the important message they were trying to share.

It looked like they were setting up for something big at Gokoku Shrine within the Hiroshima Castle complex.

With the day over, we went back to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park Museum at 6.30pm to retrieve our suitcases but soon discovered that the centre had closed 30 minutes earlier. While contemplating what to do without access to our things overnight, we noticed a security guard in the Museum. Luce showed our key through the glass and were kindly directed to an open door and able to retrieve our suitcases from the only locker still in use. Michael shared how to say our deepest apologies in Japanese (gomenasai) and we went on slightly embarrassed but relieved to find our accommodation for the night.

Dinner that night was Indian curry. We couldn’t believe our luck that we were able to order our favourite curries – lamb saag and palek paneer – however it really didn’t live up to what we could get at home except for the Naan bread. Luce’s large was bigger than both our heads combined!

The next day we took a tram ride to the Hiroshima station to head to Miyajima, an island close to Hiroshima containing the Itsukushima Shrine (aka famous floating Tori gate). While waiting at the platform for the train to take us to the ferry terminal, a passing train suddenly started honking it’s horn (which was not the usual behaviour for Japanese trains) and came to a grinding hold well before the platform. We worked out from people’s reactions that someone had fallen onto the tracks and was either hit by the train or pinned between it and the platform. We moved to another platform with a train soon to come, while avoiding looking in the direction of the accident. Unfortunately all trains were delayed and we got to watch as medical and official personnel all rushed to free the person and stretcher them away.

The human accident delayed trains by over an hour and a half. At 12.30 we finally boarded a very full train and headed to the ferry terminal. Once on the ferry we were able to take photos of the famous shrine. Unfortunately it was low tide, so the photos show the masses of people right up to the shrine. We exited the ferry with the masses and battled our way to the shrine in the heat, all the while Michael with his heavy cold, was getting more and more unimpressed. We took our obligatory photo of the shrine and with the shrine, and then headed to the ropeway to try and make the most of the so far lacklustre trip. After waiting 30 minutes (and an ice cream later), we boarded the ropeway. Luce remembered she didn’t like heights and sat like a statue the entire trip to the half way point. At the half way point, Michael pointed out that we didn’t have enough time to walk around the top of the mountain and get down (there was now a 30 minute wait to descend from the top) and get back to Hiroshima without being in peak travel time, so we decided to head back down the mountain at that point.

We made sure to consume a famous pastry (supposedly shaped like a girls hand, but really more like a maple leaf) before happily boarding the ferry to leave the whole place behind.

Best. Mazemen. Noodles. Ever.

Yes, the Okkundo Mazemen restaurant deserves its own heading.

Firstly, there was a bit of discussion on where to eat dinner that night, with Luce finding this noodle place with great reviews, however it was not to Michael’s liking as it didn’t come in a broth. But never fear Michael found a ‘different’ place for us to eat. Strangely it had the same name as the place Luce had found and was in the same location, but came with broth.

The restaurant was tiny and cozy, seating around 12 people at a time. We entered and were seated without any issues with only locals already dining and a family joining later. In total, it was a comfortable and happy scene with interacting chefs and laughter coming from all around. To order, you were asked the portion size, level of spicyness, and any other additions. We highly recommend you get extra slices of pork, and the bowl of rice to throw into the larger noodle bowl after finishing the noodles to finish off (as opposed to us foreigners slurping the last bit of the amazingly tasty sauce). When you receive your bowl of noodles, you break open the perfectly cooked soft boiled egg and swirl it around into the rest of the noodles before forgetting about all decent etiquette and downing it all. And strangely, there was no broth in sight!

Not only was it the best noodles we’ve had, it was very cheap with two regular sized bowls, four pieces of fried chicken entrees and a drink for just over 1800 Yen (~$22AUD).

It was the authentic Japanese experience we were after.

 

 

 

 

 

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Scarlet

It’s a Girl!

I’m super pleased to announce the healthy delivery of my new baby girl Scarlet.  We drove all the way to Wagga Wagga (around 3 hours trip from South Canberra) on Saturday to pick her up at 8 weeks.  She was one of the favourite of the breeders, smallest of the litter but probably the feistiest that can hold her ground.  Scarlet is a wheaten (red and white) border collie.

Scarlet mostly slept on the drive back and preferred to lean on my brother who was in the back seat.  We drove straight home without a toilet incident.

As expected, she gave her fair share of the whelping through the first night but once she knew I was around, she went back to sleep.  Not surprising given that only the night before, she was sleeping with her plentiful litter.  She adjusted very quickly and is now only waking me up at 0630 for a toilet break… and breakfast if I stay up.

Scarlet is affectionate, playful and very active.  She’s not shy and always initiates play time with Simba.  Her favourite move is a launch with all four paws in the air towards Simba, only to land short – she hasn’t mastered distance yet.

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Simba

Down for the count?

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Red Hill rainbow

After work, was chasing the Strava climbing challenge for January and saw this rainbow on my first lap of Red Hill.  It had disappeared by the second lap. If you look closely, you can make out a second outer rainbow!

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On top of Red Hill

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Simba

Simba is 2

Today Simba is a little less puppy and a little more adult but still the same ball of fun. He remains the same gentle and caring dog from birth and continues to be inquisitive at the dog park with others. But most proud of all, he now belts out his booming deep barks to strange noises out the front.

Here’s a few photos of him on his favourite mat over the two years.

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