Monday, March 30, 2015


After our trip to the mountains we were ready for somewhere warmer so we headed down to the coastal town of Hamamatsu which was still bloody freezing.

We headed straight for the castle and surrounding park, supposedly the best place to view cherry blossoms but, although one tree had taken the plunge and was dripping with flowers, the others were still quite hesitant, unlike Dgym in his ice cream consumption - he had to stop off at a nearby van in spite of the cold, because it's not a real holiday unless he has an ice cream every day. We had a nice time walking around the pools and across stepping stones.

Hamamatsu presented a bit more of a challenge in terms of language - our hotel receptionist's English seemed to be limited to "thank you" (much like our Japanese) but we managed to communicate via the usual means of hand gestures and pointing. Dinner was another challenge - on our second night we ended up in a restaurant which didn't even use regular numbers, with the help of my phone app we gave ourselves a quick crash course in Japanese digits so we could figure out the prices and managed to deduce some important food words from the pictures.

The journey to Hamamatsu had been our first trip on the bullet train (Shinkansen) which was fantastic, they certainly look the part, are incredibly comfortable and feel fast like a train should be. I have been in trouble with Dgym for pointing out they're no faster than the TGV (both can go up to 320km/h although the Shinkansen is frequently more like 260-280 and the TGV has a much faster record time) however it is also important to note that so far nobody has been on strike when we've tried to use the Shinkansen. We are finding that with the Japan Rail Pass, it's quite feasible to stay in one place and take day trips of a couple of hundred miles, which is quite a different travel strategy for us considering the Shinkansen will take you a quarter the length of Japan in the time it takes a Thai train to show up.

With that in mind, we took a 45 minute bullet train from Hamamatsu to Nagoya, where we caught the subway out to the end of the line and then took the Linimo maglev line all the way out to the end. Linimo is one of the three operational maglevs in the world. It's not a high speed train but this was an opportunity to ride an actual maglev so we were pretty excited, unlike most of the other passengers for whom it was just another journey.

The ride felt incredibly smooth - it's a driverless system so we sat at the front which was quite strange and felt a bit like a rollercoaster - a maglev track can go up and down slopes and around corners in ways that are hard for conventional rail. Even more exciting was reaching the end of the line and watching the track being switched over - the tracks actually bend to make the connection between one side and the other. And then we rode back again, picked up lunch (Dgym indulged his McDonald's fetish while I had a delicious fish-waffle toasted sandwich) and returned to Hamamatsu. Yes, we took the train all that way to ride the train - we know how to party.

Next day we walked a couple of miles down to the seaside park, we picked up lunch in town before heading out and were shocked to find no benches en route on which to sit and eat it. We made it all the way to the sea before finding a concrete block on which to perch and eat our bento boxes with basil seed drink and delicious weird little puddings.

Tsunami Evacuation Facility
The coast, facing out into the Pacific Ocean, bore strong reminders of the possibility of tsunami, with signs everywhere, tall buildings designated as tsunami evacuation points and a purpose-built hill in the park

On our last night in Hamamatsu we found a BBQ / pizza restaurant which also had an all Japanese menu but also some friendly English speaking customers to help us out - Dgym got his pizza fix and we also ordered a delicious lump of marbled beef which was gently grilled in front of us, sliced and served with onions and salad and was the most delicious, smooth melt in the mouth beef I've ever had. We've had some decent steaks in the UK and some quite nice ones elsewhere but nothing quite this tender. We stopped by at lunch time the next day hoping for more but they weren't open. We will be looking out for more delicious cowflesh on our travels.

Before leaving town we dropped our backpacks in a station locker and paid another visit to the park, and we were glad we did. It had warmed up considerably and just two days later, the blossoms had bloomed and the park was full of birds, squirrels and picnicking families!

We backtracked a little way to Kakegawa where we spent one night (that's Saturday hotels for you) with a lovely view over the castle from both our room and the ladies' onsen.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mountains and maglevs

After the excitement of Tokyo we moved on to Nikko for the weekend, a small mountain town which is home to several shrines, temples and waterfalls.

Tatami mats
We stayed in a semi-Japanese style room which consisted of a tatami mat area with two legless chairs and a low table, but we got normal beds.

We'd not got on too well with the bus that was supposed to drop us near the hotel - it went right through our stop and circled back to the station so we jumped off at the next opportunity and had to walk about a mile in our backpacks - so we were sweaty and tired and ready to take advantage of the hotel's private onsen (hot spring bath).

Onsen are usually public and male/female segregated but we could use this one together privately and it was a good way to get used to the correct bathing and shoe / clothing removal routines before publicly embarrassing ourselves. Dgym found it a bit too hot for his tastes (he likes a nice luke warm bath) but I've since taken a couple of public onsen and while it's a bit of a nerve racking experience at first, I managed to correctly identify the ladies' bath, to my great relief nobody else was wearing any clothes either and it was overall quite a lovely experience.

Lake Chuzenji
On our first (and only) full day in Nikko we took the bus, more successfully this time, to visit a nearby lake and waterfall. Both were spectacular although it was really quite cold, and the cherry blossoms, or lack thereof, seemed to agree. Nikko itself was quite cold but getting a little further up into the mountains really gave it an edge.

We were able to take a lift down to near the bottom of the waterfall where there were viewing platforms and we discovered a cool optical illusion - stare intently at the moving water for 15-20 seconds, then shift your eyes to the adjacent rock, and it looks like the rock is moving upwards.

We headed back down the hill for the relative warmth of Nikko and more onsen.

Statues with hats
Next morning we were leaving but first I took a short walk along the river by the hotel - the bank was lined with dozens of statues, each wearing a red crochet hat and a cotton bib. Some still had heads, some slightly less so.

It's said that the statues are never seen in the same order twice. I'm pretty sure the vast wealth of photography on the internet can be used to check this but it's a nice little legend - and perhaps it really is somebody's job to sneak out overnight and rearrange them. It was also a really beautiful walk along the river and Nikko truly is in a stunning location.

While in Nikko we also managed to sample various forms of Yuba, a local delicacy which is the skin that forms when you make tofu and, while I wouldn't actively seek it out, it is nicer than it sounds.

Our next stop was Kawaguchiko, a small tourist town at the foot of Mount Fuji which, strangely enough, turned out to be even colder than Nikko and also quite sparse in terms of restaurants which were actually open so we spent a nice couple of evenings shivering our way through town in probably sub-zero conditions wearing every layer of clothing we had, seeking out our dinner (to be fair, it was a particularly cold week in most of Japan).

Fuji itself was hiding when we arrived but was visible for the following two days - it really is a beautifully shaped mountain and I can kind of see what the fuss is about.

However, we had another reason for visiting the area - some months back I'd read about the maglev test facility near Tsuru which is home to an exhibition centre and viewing rooms which allow you to observe test runs of the 500km/h magnetically levitated trains (known in Japan as linear motor trains).

As formerly obsessive Transport Tycoon players, we are both a little obsessed with maglevs but they are still to become a reality on any kind of scale. There are currently only three public-serving maglev lines in the world and this line will one day join them.

The Japanese are clearly taking this seriously - construction begins this year and the line is scheduled to open from Tokyo - Nagoya in 2027 - the journey will take 40 minutes. It's a 42km test track but very little of it is visible above ground - huge amounts of tunnel have been constructed through the surrounding mountains and this will one day form part of the real line.

The exhibition centre itself is excellent - there are several observation rooms with displays showing where the test train currently is and how fast it's going. There's a tiny little toy maglev you can ride in (well, of course we did), a superconducting magnet demo and an incredibly detailed diorama showing the future of the area with maglevs, regular trains, buses and cars whizzing around.

We highly recommend visiting if you are in the area - it's not exactly on the tourist map but nor is it that hard to get to and indeed is day trippable from Tokyo - via the existing Chuo line and a change at Otsuki, it's a 20 min walk from Kasei railway station. It was quite a unique experience and I hope we'll come back and ride the maglev when the line opens!

Can you believe they let us drive it?

Thursday, March 26, 2015


We are in Japan on honeymoon - having got all that pesky marrying stuff out of the way and being long overdue a proper holiday, we decided to visit somewhere we've both always wanted to see, somewhere suitably weird that would provide us with delicious food, awesome trains and plenty more to keep us entertained.

So far the food has not disappointed - we have had sushi for breakfast, delicious bento box lunches and some lovely dinners, with a fair few interesting squishy sweet treats in between. The trains are indeed excellent - frighteningly clean, timely (apart from that one time when one of them was two minutes late), and very comfortable.

Sushi breakfast
We arrived in Tokyo last Wednesday evening and successfully found our hotel in the Ginza district. We enquired at reception about places to eat and were informed that since it was a little on the late side (9pm) quite a few of the local places would be closed, but were given somewhere to try. We failed to locate it but a lovely lady stopped and offered to help, and directed us to a more restauranty area a few minutes walk away. We had been advised to look at more than just ground level when seeking food - Tokyo is a dense city and restaurants can be several floors up. We ended up on the 11th floor of a shopping centre with a couple of meal sets - the presence of bibimbap on the menu and the kimchi that accompanied our meals suggested we might have ended up in a Korean restaurant, but it was tasty nonetheless and very good value at 1500yen (approx £8) each.

Next day we started off with a sushi breakfast in the Tsukiji fish market, which was lovely but huge. The market itself was very much reminiscent of south east Asian markets in layout and atmosphere - simple restaurants linked by narrow corridors, hard to tell where one ends and the next begins, tiny ladies ushering you in with laminated menus, each establishment equipped with a tiny open kitchen, diners crowded on stools around a narrow bar. And then you notice the super-clean kitchen, the floor that's not wet and filthy and the lack of stifling heat and mosquitoes. (Not that I want to diss SE Asian markets too much because they are awesome).

Sweetcorny goodness
We then quickly found ourselves in a convenience store checking out the weird treats (funny how that keeps happening) - I definitely won the most weird and disgusting item competition with my heated can of sweetcorn drink - imagine drinking a slightly sickening sweetcorn soup from a can. No really, just say the word and I'll bring you some back.

Our morning was spent wandering around a very pretty park which had a pond, giant fish, some grumpy looking cats, and two cherry trees that had managed to blossom, and we soon realised that it wasn't exactly warm.

We were in denial when we packed - we're going on holiday, how could it *possibly* be cold? A quick check of the weather forecast indicated that Tokyo was several degrees warmer than London. We'd also heard Japan can be quite rainy so we packed raincoats rather than winter coats, and threw in some thermal base layers just in case it got a bit nippy.

In the evening we went on a food tour - since discovering food tours in Vietnam, I've been keen on this as a great way to learn about the different foods of a country or city when first arriving. Unfortunately this wasn't a great food tour, there was not a lot of variety - but it was an enjoyable evening out with other Tokyo visitors, appropriate amounts of sake, tasty things on sticks and some sizzling pancake-hotplate action.

Dgym cooks up some monjayaki

Our second day was crazy and action packed, maybe a bit too much so. First up was a visit to the Kimuraya bakery at Ginza station, the oldest Western style bakery in Japan. Unfortunately this didn't open till 10am and we were out of the hotel and wanting breakfast by 9 so we settled for a pre-breakfast breakfast at a local cafe while we waited, and I had a lovely bright green mug of matcha. The bakery was well worth the wait as we were very excited to be able to buy what turned out to be a cubic apple turnover, thus beginning a new era of "trying to find cubic food".

Cubic food
Next stop was in southern Tokyo for the Miraikan Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Our main reason for visiting was to see the Asimo demonstration. If you didn't know, and didn't see him on QI, Asimo is a humanoid robot. I don't have pictures because it was a popular demo - I was standing behind a tall person, and everybody was filming it anyway so you can look it up on Youtube. He ran around, stood on one leg, hopped and then sang a little song. It was all very impressive although I'm not convinced it's not just a short person in a robot suit.

There were plenty of other exhibits, including some demos and videos of robot hands and eyes (motion tracking systems), and a Shinkai 6500 submersible which you could go into and imagine what it's like being crammed into a space not much bigger than a phonebox with two other people thousands of metres under the ocean. Museums can be pretty tiring and our feet were knackered after that so the obvious next step was to catch the metro to the other side of town and go up a 450m tower.

The Tokyo Skytree is only two years old and is the world's tallest self supporting tower. We've been up the Willis tower in Chicago but this one is higher and one of our goals for this trip was to send Dgym up a tall tower and make him feel sick. Well, we went up but, disappointingly, he felt fine.

Next morning it was me feeling ill after accidentally ordering a bowl of natto, nasty stuff which we had been warned about on the food tour - it looks like an innocent little bowl of beans but dig in and they turns out to be stuck together with this stringy gloopy saliva-like substance. The taste is not nice either, I barely made it through a spoonful and had the aftertaste all day. It basically looks and tastes like a family of slugs have wandered all over your breakfast.

We had to head out of Tokyo after that as it was Saturday, and hotel bookings are insane on Saturday nights in Japan.

It's a huge city but it's clean, easy to get around and has nice parks. We were surprised by how quiet it is and at first wondered whether our ears had gone funny - cars seem unusually quiet, people don't raise their voices a lot and the streets just didn't seem that busy for such a dense city. We've headed off to see some more of Japan for now, but will be back for a few days at the end of our trip.