Thursday, April 16, 2015

More Tokyo

Our time on bunny island sadly came to an end, and so too would our whole trip quite soon - we bullet trained back to Tokyo and checked into a capsule hotel. Normally capsules are gender segregated (in fact, many are men only) - I wanted to try one, Dgym wasn't so keen until I found a special one that offers couples' capsules.

Sadly, although I think capsules are a nice idea in principle, the implementation didn't seem so great. I'm not sure our couples' capsule was any bigger than a regular single capsule, so things were cosy to say the least. The walls are really thin and the end of the capsule is only a bamboo curtain so you can hear everybody else. It was baking hot at first - there was an air vent into the capsule but it didn't seem to help much.

It's all a little old fashioned - they use old style lightbulbs which don't help the heat situation. there's a CRT television hanging from the ceiling which (a) takes up a silly amount of space where you could have neat little shelves or pockets there and a flip-down flatscreen TV in the ceiling (b) makes for some excellent head banging moments. Fortunately the lights went out eventually, the air con in the corridor started to do its job and we both found the right sleeping positions to get us through the night, so long as nobody moved. We were quickly out of there the next morning... it was an experience worth having but also worth ending - although I'd gladly repeat it on my own with a well designed capsule that felt like my own little space and not a plastic box with somebody stomping on the ceiling.

After that we were very happy to check into our proper hotel for the last couple of days, which were really all about the food.

We went on a cooking course and learned to make miso soup, yakisoba (grilled noodles), nikojaga (a type of stew) and taikayi (fish shaped waffle-type sweets - in this case filled with red bean paste but there are a lot of sweet and savoury possibilities). It was all pretty tasty and nikojaga in particular was so simple to make and so delicious that we'll definitely be trying it at home.

We also managed to get through more delicious sushi, a fantastic katsu curry, a most excellent bowl of ramen on Tokyo station's Ramen Street, and a mini choc fest in 100% Chocolate Cafe.

Weird ice cream
We also paid a visit to Namja Town in north west Tokyo where we visited the Ice cream Parlor and were able to sample all manner of weird ice cream flavours including pumpkin, potato, aubergine, wasabi, avocado, curry and tomato as well as some less weird but very delicious ones like plum sherbet and Japanese citrus. They were mostly very well done, my favourite was the aubergine which was slightly smoky. They also had some weirder ones like coal, oyster and cow tongue. I was hoping they'd have the famous raw horsemeat flavour but it wasn't on the list.

And so we're back home, after about 24 hours of travelling, including a stopover in Paris with a delightful inter-airport transfer, and the obligatory pain au chocolat, (it's actually illegal to pass through France without consuming one) - somehow I managed to have about three breakfasts, jetlag messes with appetite at least as badly as it does with sleep. Still, it's a lovely time of year to come home, it's warmer than it was when we left and everything smells of spring!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bunny rampage

We took a detour to Hiroshima when we left Kobe. We only had a couple of hours there, but we both wanted to visit ground zero and the peace park and it was well worth a visit. The atomic bomb dome building was covered in scaffolding but understandably a lot of work goes into preserving its state (they are now looking into retrofitting seismic protection) and it is an eerie sight nonetheless.

There is certainly a "grim reminder" and memorial aspect to the place but the surrounding park is a lovely place to reflect and it is also a place of hope with several monuments to peace.

After that we stocked up on cabbages, carrots and bananas and got the train and ferry to Okunoshima.

Okunoshima is better known as Bunny Island, and is inhabited by approximately 700 rabbits and very little else. There are no natural predators (land based at least, we saw a few birds of prey overhead and I'm sure they have a pretty easy life) so the bunnies have little to fear and are happy to hop up and say hello, although their interest fades quite quickly if they find out you don't have food.

We had a couple of nights booked in the hotel there, buffet dinner and breakfast included - which was quite nice sometimes (especially the night they had a chocolate fountain), although neither of us are really keen on Japanese breakfast - there's a lot of strong flavours - pickles, fish, natto - which are quite hard to stomach so early on. We had a Japanese style room with a nice view out towards the sea - and we could see hundreds of bunnies hopping around outside.

Unfortunately it rained all day on our only full day on the island, and Dgym wasn't feeling well so we didn't get to make the most of it - we watched damp little bunnies running from the shelter of one tree to another, but I managed a slightly soggy walk around the island (only an hour) to see the rather creepy ruins of old forts and the WWII poison gas factory, all of which are now inhabited by rabbits.

Next morning Dgym was feeling a little better and the rain had stopped - we were up early and went out for an epic feeding session with all the tasty green stuff we'd picked up in 7/11 on the mainland, plus a few bananas. (for some silly reason they don't sell this on the island- you can buy bunny food pellets at the Tadanoumi port but they prefer fresh veg).

Okunoshima, like many things we have seen in Japan, really is as awesome as it sounds and is an incredibly unique place. The bunnies are friendly, incredibly cute and if you sprinkle your lap with shredded cabbage, you'll soon have a lovely warm bunny blanket to keep you warm.

Monday, April 13, 2015


We spent a few days in Kobe. I only knew two things about Kobe before we got there - it had a big earthquake in 1995, and is famous for its beef. It's a lively city, and seemed busier than anywhere else we've been here, including Tokyo.

Blank canvas
Kobe is sandwiched between mountains and sea, and has several cable cars taking you up onto the ridge overlooking the city. We took the Maya cable car + gondola on our first day in town - we have been trying to get as many forms of transport as possible into our holiday and this was an opportunity to strike off another two, so we weren't too bothered that we couldn't see the top of the mountains from the bottom and were happy to take a little adventure into a cloud. This is supposedly one of the most beautiful night views in the world, the problem being that (a) it wasn't night (at this time of year the last car back down is 5:30 so you can only do that in summer anyway) and (b) the cloud provided a perfect blank canvas upon which to project our own imagined views of Kobe and Osaka Bay.

There was a sign at the top of the cable car warning you to watch out for snakes - being British, we don't really get to see snakes in the wild - I've only ever had one or two fleeting glimpses, Dgym has never seen one - so to us this was exciting and we spent quite a while watching the bushes for interesting movement - we saw a shed skin but no actual snakes.

We took a day trip to Kyoto which was cold. It had been a bit fresh in Kobe but not too bad so I'd gone with raincoat over T-shirt, seriously regretting it when we got to Kyoto and realised it was colder - so first thing was a spot of hoodie shopping.

Outside Fushimi Inari
We headed out to Fushimi-Inari shrine and started the walk up through the hundreds of orange torii (gates), along with several hundred other tourists. I hate other tourists, they are so annoying, why can't they all just go away?

We got fed up and uncomfortable quite quickly, so took the next exit and found a path alongside the shrine, through the bamboo forest - which was incredibly pretty and we had it almost completely to ourselves - there were a couple of small shrines dotted along the way - not that we're too bothered for temple and shrine viewing, it's equivalent to wandering around churches back home, and we don't do that much either.

Next day we visited Osaka, again a short day trip from Kobe. Seeing that there was a tall building with a glass elevator up to the 35th floor, followed by a pair of glass-walled escalators suspended over thin air taking you up to the 39th - this seemed like another great opportunity to make Dgym feel ill. Despite it being a good deal lower than Tokyo Skytree I think the open air terrace helped, and here is a picture of him looking all nervous.

Oh yes, and the beef. We maybe went a little crazy on the Kobe beef but it really is very nice.

Delicious cowflesh

Over-friendly sushi

Further south, past the end of the bullet train line, pretty much as far south as you can get on the train, we stopped in the small town of Ibusuki for a couple of days.

Ibusuki has been described as the Hawaii of Japan. I'm not sure it needs one and I've never been to Hawaii but Ibusuki is laid back, volcanic, very lush and green and quite tropical so perhaps there are some similarities. We'd been wanting to see somewhere smaller, which it was, although the large number of rusting fixtures and overgrown buildings suggested it was a town that had seen better days.

Our hotel was only partly refurbished so some bits of it also had that kind of feeling - the room we booked turned out to be more of a prison cell with bad 60s decor and an ageing pink bathroom - we upgraded to a much nicer Japanese style room with tatami mats and futon beds - during the day, the room is occupied by a large, low coffee table with legless chairs - this is moved aside in the evening and futon beds (a thin mattress topped with sheets and duvet) are laid out.

Dgym walks to Chiringashima
We walked out to Chiringashima, a small island connected to the mainland at low tide by an 800m sandbar. The walk out to the start of the sandbar took at least an hour, and crossing was like wading through... well... damp sand. I kept falling behind Dgym - I can normally keep up but when each footstep is hindered by sand and you have to take more steps because you have shorter legs, it's inevitable and I think it's a great excuse. Our legs were pretty knackered by the time we got back to the shore and then it was another hour's walk back to town, by which point we had definitely earned some tasty 7/11 snacks.

Lake Unagi
I promised Dgym we'd take it easy the next day with a nice relaxing electric bike ride to a nearby lake. Of course there's only so much an electric bike can deal with and only so much you want it to deal with when you've rented it for four hours and want the battery to last long enough to help you when you really need it, so with many apologies to my husband's legs, I had to break my promise and we were pedalling quite hard at some points. We made it out to Lake Unagi and back and were able to see some beautiful Japanese countryside on the way - we passed farms where we saw cows and pigs, and saw several lizards on the cycle paths on our way out of town.

On our return I was straight onto the hotel shuttle bus up the road to the sand baths where I was given a yukata (Japanese robe) to wear and directed to one of several large sandpits where I lay down and a Japanese man shoveled black volcanic sand over me up to my neck.

The sand is warm, not too hot at first but it builds - you're only supposed to stay in for 10 minutes as it can cause burns if you stay in too long. It was a strange 10 minutes, the sand was kind of warm and comforting but also heavy and constricting, and I could feel my heartbeat in my hands and feet the whole time. Afterwards, there were showers to clean off the sand, and an onsen so you could soak away the stress of being immersed in hot sand, by immersing yourself in hot water. I felt pretty refreshed afterwards, but also very red and sweaty.

The food options in Ibusuki were a little limited - but on our first night we headed out to a place with good reviews, which turned out to serve sushi and some other dishes. We chose couple of sushi sets which weren't as good as the ones we had in Kumamoto, but more to the point one of the toppings freaked us out somewhat - shortly after we'd been served our sets, Dgym announced that he had seen his prawn move. I didn't believe him and pointed out that (a) it had no head and (b) perhaps it had been resting on another bit of food and had slipped down.

But he saw this happen a couple more times and demanded I watch it carefully. Sure enough, the tail eventually twitched, which made me feel slightly ill. Eating bugs or raw horse is one thing... stuff that's still moving or still alive, nooo way. I watched my own shrimp closely but it was definitely past the point of movement - though I did feel funny about eating it. Dgym left his alone, fair enough (although I think he was a bit rude - when food waves at you, it's polite to wave back).

We later learned that sweet shrimp often do this - they're taken from a tank in the restaurant and often beheaded just before serving - so some residual tail twitching is common, often a lot more violently than dgym's did. So no doubt that it's fresh... but still no thank you.

Monday, April 06, 2015

With apologies to horses

We took the bullet train south for 6 hours to Kumamoto, a city about half way down Kyushu, mainland Japan's southernmost island.

Kumamoto Castle
Despite our frequent dislike of cities, the ones in Japan are turning out to be quite enjoyable, providing us with tasty food, nice parks and pretty castles. People seem to be pretty good at being clean, quiet and respectful here so it is easier to coexist without the usual destruction of personal space and assault upon our ears. Kumamoto was no exception to this - it's a pleasantly lively town and we had a fun three days.

We visited Suizenji gardens which had ponds, stepping stones, cherry blossoms, herons and a mini Mount Fuji. We also visited the castle, a vast multi-level structure which has been partly rebuilt and provided a good couple of hours' wandering around gazing at pretty blossom trees and enormous stone walls. We were also going to visit Mt Aso but it's currently spewing poisonous gases so you can't go near the crater. However, from the top of the castle the volcano's activity was clear to see - it was quite a cloudy day anyway but it was definitely more grey and hazy in the eastern direction towards Aso.

Best sushi ever
The food in Kumamoto was lovely. We visited Sumo, a sushi bar a few blocks from our hotel - they didn't speak a lot of English but we ordered a couple of sushi sets which turned out to be fantastic - the chef was making it right in front of us and passing us the pieces as soon as they were ready. The fish was tasty, smooth, melt in the mouth, the rice beautifully textured and still slightly warm. On the negative side, this has almost completely ruined English sushi for me!

The following night we went to a barbecue restaurant - following the delicious steaks we had in Hamamatsu, we were up for more grilled meat.

However, this was yet another Japanese only menu with just a few pictures to go on. We ordered some tasty looking marbled meat and some other bits - the raw meat arrived thinly sliced and beautifully arranged with shredded raw onion, horseradish and some decorative flowers... and no grill.

Raw horse sashimi (basashi) is a local speciality - fish isn't the only thing the Japanese like to eat uncooked. Dgym was a bit bothered by this and tried to communicate that we'd really prefer a grill. This was either refused, or not understood because we didn't get one. And so we started on our our meal of cold dead horseflesh which (along with some other, warmer, things) was very nice. I'd like to say this has completely ruined English raw horsemeat for me but I'll leave you to insert your own Tesco lasagne joke here.

We also ended up in a cat cafe (Dgym's reaction to my suggesting this - "I hope they cook it better than the horse") - this is a cat shelter where you can go and interact with their cats and also grab a drink. One lady had the good sense to camp out next to a blanket and so had three or four furry companions snoozing beside her.

Most of the adult cats seemed a bit disinterested (i.e. they were cats) but we did spend a good portion of our time there with a tiny five week old black kitten who seemed intent on mauling my trouser pocket to death.