The Amalfi Coast on Foot: Praiano to Positano (with a bit of Capri in between)

As mentioned in the earlier post Mum and I between us do not have any sense of direction, or apparently ability to follow instructions. This has been made painfully apparent to us in the past few days as we muddled our way along the Amalfi coast in a very long winded fashion!! 

Moving from Amalfi to Praiano was a walk that was meant to be a maximum of 13km. While the instructions suggested we take a packed lunch Mum and I thought stuff it, we will walk fast enough to have lunch in Praiano. Our walk started off well enough, we were able to follow the instructions all the way to Lone (it was basically just following the road) but we came slightly unstuck when we were meant to descend into the fjord of Furore.

The point where we were meant to descend turned out to be quite a seriously overgrown and closed path that had no clear way around, over or through. Retracing our steps back through the overgrown path we phoned Peter, the friendly Dutchman who was meant to help us if we got lost or stuck. Peter was unsurprised by us getting stuck (which infuriated me ever so slightly as it seemed like perhaps he already knew this would happen and just failed to send us revised instructions) and gave us new directions that should have linked us up with the path further ahead. 

What we were meant to descend into
Whether the instructions were faulty or Mum and I simply failed to understand them we will never know (although I do suspect it is the latter) but we possibly never did meet up with the right path and if you look at the map you can see we did quite a bit of looping over ourselves and backtracking!

Finally arriving in Praiano, 19km later, we stopped for lunch (where I consumed an entire pizza) and then walked the further 1.5km to our hotel which much to our dismay was up a very slight hill and a flight of stairs. Finally making it into our hotel room at 4pm we failed to do anything with the rest of the day other than going for dinner! Dinner however was a thoroughly enjoyable experience… The tables were on a verandah below lemon trees and the fresh fish was on display, the owner was a typical Italian who addressed every female as bella and was adoring of even the most visually terrifying guests! The whole dining experience was enhanced by the fact there was an Italian wedding going on below us! Our meal was spent spying on the wedding guests and bride. While the dresses at the wedding were not to our taste we were most impressed with the efficiency with which the wedding finished, by 9pm nearly all the guests had left and basically everything was cleaned up.

Heart balloons released at the wedding

The next day Mum and I were meant to be walking in the Green Valley of Praia… These plans came unstuck within the first 2km when we were unable to find the turn off into the valley. Stopping on the roadside for 20 minutes to try and read a map we eventually gave up and, seeing a sign for The Path of the Gods, the walk we were meant to be doing the next day, we decided that walk could just be brought forward a day! The path we chose was endless stairs all the way to the uppermost point of the Path of the Gods – doing some research after the walk I discovered we chose “the shortest and steepest of the paths to the top, this path from Praiano is not for the faint-hearted”

It must also be said that our walk to the top was not just us two, no, we found ourselves a rather gormless companion, with bright eyes, four legs, a shiny coat and a wagging tail. He met us in Praiano and followed/led us all the way to the top with no concern for his owner who was presumably worried about him somewhere down in the village. At the top however he ran ahead with another group while we stopped for water and we never saw him again.

Descending down the Path of the Gods we arrived in Nocelle a very small, hillside village where we were rewarded with fresh squeeze orange and lemon juice. Descending from Nocelle was an enjoyable 1,800 steps (enjoyable only because we didn’t have to walk up them) followed by some road walking to arrive in Positano. Stopping in Positano for lunch and gelato we then caught the bus back to Praiano and spent our afternoon lazing by the beach and swimming before I bullied Mum into walking up a few more flights of stairs for dinner at a rooftop restaurant!

By day 7 of walking, having done the Path of the Gods the day before we gave ourselves a day off walking and instead took the ferry from Positano to Capri and spent a day exploring the island. Being the idiots we are we decided rather than bussing or taxi-ing to Anacapri instead we would walk up the Phoenician Steps to reach the town. Having read online that the steps take about 1 hour and seeing a sign that suggested they would take 2 hours, Mum and I were enormously confused when after 26 minutes the steps abruptly stopped. Asking a couple of local guides where the steps continued and where we could rejoin the steps we were surprised to hear that no, we had in fact reached the top. If you could have seen us at the top and the amount we were sweating you may have suggested that perhaps the steps were not designed to be taken at our chosen pace (and we might have agreed). 

Seeing the Axel Munthe Museum (inside Villa San Michele) not far from the end of the steps we paid 7 euros each to go inside primarily to use the bathroom to make ourselves more presentable and cool off. Our attempts to make ourselves presentable once more resulted in two Italian women walking into the bathroom with me standing in a bikini top and shorts holding my top under the hand dryer and Mum standing with the buttons of her dress completely undone airing herself… A surprisingly not awkward situation despite what it sounds like!!

After our cappuccino in the museum cafe Mum and I finally made proper use of our tickets and walked through the museum which detailed the life of Axel Munthe a doctor/author/musician with a fascination with death and the Greeks and Romans. A very interesting museum with beautiful gardens I am somewhat embarrassed to say my favourite part of the whole museum was found in the gift shop, it was this quote from Axel Munthe….

Catching a single chairlift to the highest point of the island we were ever so slightly disappointed for the clouds to roll in and hide the views from the top but were treated to better views on the descent as we dipped below the clouds again.

My favourite activity that we did in Capri was go to the Grotto Azzurra. While there was a fair bit of queuing involved Mum and I were well entertained by watching the boats bob about and people enter the grotto in the tiny boats.

To explain why this was so funny you must know that the entrance to the Grotto is only about 1 metre high (maximum, could be lower if the ocean has swelled as you enter). These tiny rowboats that fit about 6 passengers max are propelled into the cave by the oarsman who lays down as they enter resulting in every person in the boat lying on top of one and other regardless of whether you were friends prior to this experience.

It is a very noisy, Italian experience with the oarsmen smoking between trips into the grotto, singing and generally fooling around to keep us all (and themselves entertained). The ticket office is a boat floating in the middle of the sea so the tiny rowboats lurch towards the ticket boat with precious euros being handed over in a precarious fashion as the two boats crash together or float apart depending on how bouncy the water it. 

When it was finally our turn we climbed into the boat, Mum lying on top of me and a girl from South Korea at the other end. Our boatman who loved the fact we were kiwis and sang Gangnam Style to the girl from Korea took us into the cave and it was AMAZING!

The oarsmen sing as they row you around the naturally lit caves. I would happily have waited double the time to go into the caves and 100% recommend that anyone going to Capri take the time to go.

Arriving back in Positano in the evening we ate a most delicious dinner at our hotel restaurant…

Ricotta stuffed zucchini flowers fried on a zucchini purée
Baked aubergine and ricotta rolls wrapped in prosciutto
Fried mixed fish
(Gerald as I know you are reading I said to Mum that you would have loved this whole experience – the walking and the eating… I think next time you should come!!)

Our final full day on the Amalfi Coast was once more spent walking and once more ended up with Mum and I being unable to follow the instructions we were given and guiding ourselves through the walk. (We realised at the end of the day we had done the whole walk backwards, how we don’t know, and added on about 5km to the original walk). 

Within the first 5 minutes we had looped back on ourselves about three times

Bussing up to Montepertuso Mum and I immediately confused ourselves with the written directions, looped back on ourselves about three times and then asked a local what way we should walk (abandoning our instructions completely within about 10 minutes). We walked up (stairs) for about 50 minutes and then came to a level area with a stone hut… Re-addressing our original instructions we thought we may have reached the highest point of the day. I however told Mum that we hadn’t done enough uphill and coerced her into a bit more ascension. As we walked up, and up, and up it began to get colder, windier and much clearer… The up and up and up continued until Mum finally decided just short of the top that we should call it there.

Again, doing research that night I realised we had climbed very nearly to the highest mountain on the Amalfi Coast, Monte Sant’Angelo!! We then spent the next hour and a half going down, down, down! Again the cloud returned and we found ourselves walking through what seemed like a horror film set, tall trees, dark clouds… It was the point in the film where everyone is thinking “don’t go in there you idiot, you won’t come out alive”!

I can happily report we did come our alive and in a horrible little village called Santa Maria del Castello… Finding a cappuccino stop with a helpful owner who pointed us in the direction of Positano we continued down and after another hour of descent we finally arrived in Positano.

Useful signs like these guided us back to Positano
As well as well maintained, obvious tracks like this

Perhaps the best thing about returning to Positano that day was the presence of Jamo and Rachael, two friends from NZ who had walked the Path of the Gods and come for a visit. I therefore spent the afternoon sitting on the beach with them and catching up on our respective travels.. With brief moments marvelling at how bizarre it was that we were on the other side of the world and still able to hang out.

The entertainment for our final meal in Positano was a soccer game between Italy and Spain… With absolutely zero interest in the game Mum and I watched everyone watching the game while we ate, particularly one man who looked like he might burst into tears at any moment! Thankfully Italy won and the restaurant erupted with cheering, hugging, high fives and kissing as all the locals celebrated the win.

En route to Switzerland we had an all too brief stop in Milan where we had just enough time to go to the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum (that had scaled models of many of his designs) and the Duomo. 

Today we train to Bad Ragaz where we meet Dad and Alice for a few days. 


The Amalfi Coast on Foot: Ravello to Amalfi

Yet again arriving on the Amalfi Coast was like being transported to another completely different world. Mum and I have gone to the Amalfi Coast for 8 days of unguided walking – this means we are given the maps and route instructions but don’t have to deal with any group activities or guides, our hotels are also all organised and our big bags are transported for us (talk about living the high life!).

View from Villa Rufolo

We started our 8 days on the coast in Ravello, high up on a hill overlooking the sea and seaside towns like Maiori and Minori. Our late arrival into Ravello on Sunday night/Monday morning meant that we took day one very easy. Wandering into the town we found a local sight to see called Villa Rufolo while the villa used to house a wealthy Italian family from the thirteenth century it is now open to the public and has a maze of beautiful gardens and courtyards. Of particular interest to us was the erection of rather a large stage overlooking the sea – it turns out that every year an orchestra plays at the villa as part of the Rufolo Festival.

I think even I would enjoy a classical music concert with this view

After debating how to spend our day we decided to start one of our walks. This walk went from Ravello through Atrani to Amalfi. Knowing that between us we had no natural homing pigeon sense of direction or the ability to read a map, we favoured the written directions and hoped they would be sufficient to get us by (well that and asking people where to go). The walk to Atrani and Amalfi followed the coastline and involved us walking down a lot of steps alongside lemon and olive groves. It was the perfect day for it, not particularly hot but with a lot of sunshine so the sea was sparkling! The walk took us all of an hour and a half (with a stop for a cappuccino along the way). Once in Amalfi we were immediately amongst hordes of tourists and beach goers – we quickly realised that not being by the beach made a big difference to how busy a location is. 

We stayed in Amalfi for lunch and returned to Ravello by bus in the afternoon. Enjoying the quiet of our town we chose to spend the afternoon lazing by the pool. Venturing into the town for dinner we had an enjoyable evening watching the locals and tourists go by and eating pizza!

The next day we unwittingly ended up on a guided tour of Pompeii… We thought we were just sharing transportation there! While our guide had a grating voice that assaulted our ear drums on the bus and through Pompeii via individual radios with earpieces, she was very knowledgable and was able to shortcut the queue to get us tickets… So it wasn’t all bad. Pompeii really is amazing, as a town that has been completely preserved thanks to volcanic ash meaning that where frescoes and mosaics haven’t been uplifted to museums you can see them as they would have been in 79AD.

Frescoes from inside a brothel

The city remains themselves are marvellous and do exemplify Roman intelligence when you see things like how they heated public baths or dealt with their lack of sewage system (through stepping stones). Mum also thought that the plaster casts of humans and animals alike would be an excellent way to preserve your family if you were that way inclined!

We were also fortunate that presently there is a sculpture exhibition on inside Pompeii by the deceased Igor Mitoraj. 30 large-scale sculptures depicting imposing mythological characters sit beautifully within the Roman remains and in my opinion enhance the experience of Pompeii.

The one downside to our trip to Pompeii however was undoubtedly the heaving mass of humans that were there with us – we were informed by our guide that Tuesday is a bad day to go as the cruise ships come in on that day. Due to the business of Pompeii we didn’t get back to Ravello until 2:30 at which point exhausted by our guide we chose to repeat the previous day’s afternoon and evening routine of lazing by the pool before venturing into the town to watch the world go by over dinner!

Stealing rolls, fruit and hard boiled eggs from breakfast we left Ravello behind ready for what we were told was 4.5-5 hours of walking. Departing Ravello and bound for Amalfi our guide told us we were to go via Pontone, Torro Dello Ziro, and Valle dei Mullini to Amalfi. Despite some discrepancies between the directions we were given and the actual route we successfully navigated our way to all these places. The walk to Pontone was just a lot of stairs and views of the sea. We then walked down to Torro Dello Ziro this gave us an excellent view of the coastline and the ability to see Atrani and Amalfi from above.

From there we returned to Pontone for our cappuccino in the very small town square. Walking out of the town we came across a few unusual wee walkway decorations… Our favourite was a mini village built into a wall which was about 4 metres long and filled with endless ‘daily life’ scenes!

Walking from Pontone to the Valle dei Mullini was like being transported to into some sort of fairytale set. Surrounded by bush and a river we came across numerous waterfalls and ruins. 

Walking into the nature reserve and along a path – that was meant to take us half an hour to reach the end – I was adamant the path couldn’t end when it did as it hadn’t taken us long enough and climbed up and around a waterfall insisting that this was a path. Mum was not so sure and hung back… Sure enough she was right! My path was 100% out of bounds as a local guide who found us informed us!

Definitely worth it!

I slid my way back down the rocks and returned to the beaten path with my tail between my legs. Reaching Amalfi within 3 hours we realised we had a lot more free time than anticipated. Anxious to use it wisely we first lay on our beds using wifi and then went down to the beach where we lay reading and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations all afternoon. Mum also managed to pick our some lovely eligible bachelors for me… However I feel that in her desperation for grandchildren she has really lowered her standards.

Mum stayed on the right side of the path

Our next walk was up from Amalfi to Scala, Valle Delle Ferriere and Pogerola, returning to Amalfi. While one option was to take the bus to Scala and walk from there, the alternative was to walk up. The instructions said the walk was very steep and had a lot of steps… I can now confirm that walk is very steep and does involve a lot of steps. I convinced Mum that we were being pathetic if we didn’t walk up and more or less bullied her into the walk. While I think she was silently cursing me as we walked up what felt like 1,000 flights of stairs she said she was happy we had done it at the end of the day. 

Just one of the many flights of stairs we enjoyed

From Scala we walked into the nature reserve of Valle Delle Ferriere, the same place we walked the day before only this time much higher up. Walking along rocky paths below towering cliffs it was hard to believe we were within 5km of the Amalfi coastline, it looked like a mountainous village.
As we walked deeper into the Valley the path’s surroundings became denser and greener, giving us much needed shelter from the beating sun. As this occurred the path became much narrower and more overgrown with some of our navigation being done on a gut feeling as opposed to following a clear path.The “stairs” we were climbing also became more what I would describe as boulders to scramble up!
Despite some guesswork we successfully navigated all the way into the valley and all the way out! 
Our descent took us to the village of Pogerola where we stopped for a bite of lunch and a brief rest of the legs before tackling some more stairs. Our final afternoon in Amalfi was once more spent lazing on the beach and our evening spent moving from restaurant to restaurant on the Main Street watching the holidaymakers go by.

A note on holidaymakers:

Holidaymakers are strange humans, who wear very strange clothes. Nearly everyone around us had made an effort to dress for dinner (not a habit I ever intend to indulge in on a regular basis) – their choice of outfit may range from a 60-something year old woman wearing denim short shorts with a strappy singlet and stilletos to some sort of unflattering dress with an horrific floral pattern on it. Alternately girls my age might opt for either the skin tight strapless minidress that shows off their latest tan lines or perhaps a maxi dress and a full face of make up. Turning now to the men, while most of them favour chinos and a shirt and therefore cannot go too far wrong others try to look like the cool dad on holiday and have some ghastly printed t shirt paired with a pair of cargo shorts and travel sandals… A look their dolled up wives certainly have not approved. 

While Mum and I have a fabulous time watching these people and guessing how everyone is connected and what their conversations are I am sure they see us go by and think (at least of me, Mum not so much) “oh god how could she leave the house like that, shorts and a t-shirt appalling… And has she even done her hair? What an embarrassment she would be to have as a daughter.” 

Anyway… As far as people watching goes Amalfi is a wonderful place.. However not one I would race back to. Ravello, where we were, and Praiano where we are now are much quieter places with equally spectacular views but far less hype!

London Layover

Between Japan and walking the Amalfi Coast I managed to squeeze in 48 hours in London. A large portion of the weekend was spent around mum’s friend Gina’s kitchen table cuddling her grandson Jaspar and throwing tennis balls for the dog dangermouse.

My visit to London was very well-timed as it coincided with one of my very best friends giving birth to a beautiful baby boy. So, arriving in London on Friday afternoon I quickly went to the hospital to surprise her and give her son the first of many, many cuddles. Being able to surprise Steph at the hospital was awesome, she looked so very confused at my arrival saying “but you’re in Dubai” before coming to terms with the fact that we (her parents, partner and myself) had all pulled the wool over her eyes.

From the hospital I had another wonderful moment, being able to see my Mum. While seeing her had been somewhat overshadowed by the chance to meet Austin and see Steph, as soon as I saw Mum I was very pleased that she was in England too! We then went out to a delicious Japanese restaurant in Chelsea called Kurobuta – this was a sort of modern Japanese restaurant where the food was recognisably Japanese but not how they would serve it in Japan!

The next day I ventured out round Battersea Park early in the morning as an attempt to fill in the time due to my very early wake up! 

View of the Thames from Battersea Park

The rest of the day was filled walking around Chelsea and South Kensington with Mum and her friend and going to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A had an excellent exhibition on about the History of Underwear – there were some extraordinary exhibits, such as the corset for golf, cycling and tennis or the more modern dominatrix style lingerie. 

After looking through the exhibition, Mum and I met Gina and her friend for lunch in the V&A restaurant. An amazing restaurant set in three rooms decorated by William Morris, the food was varied and delicious leading to an enjoyable long lunch. 

Tiring in the late afternoon, potentially due to jet lag, I convinced Mum to go to Me Before You at the local cinema. We sobbed our way through and went down to the pub for dinner with rather puffy eyes. I made a rookie error at The Pig’s Ear and ordered quinoa for dinner… Not a pub specialty!! Mum and Gina made a much wiser decision ordering fish, something that was actually well cooked as opposed to my quinoa.

My final day in my short visit to London was an endless stream of catch ups over food and coffee. Starting with breakfast at A Wanted Man in Chelsea with Mum and Gina where I had a delicious bowl of porridge, this melted into coffee at the same location with two friends from NZ and then I moved on to lunch at Gail’s in Battersea Square with my sister and mother and some friends who live in England. Good company and good food is an enormously enjoyable way to spend a day!

Mum and I headed to Gatwick in the evening and despite delays did eventually make it to Ravello in Italy where we will spend the next 8 days walking the Amalfi Coast… Ahhhh what a life I lead!!

Unremarkable Osaka and Sayonara Japan

Of all the places I have been in Japan, I would have to say that Osaka is the only one I wouldn’t race back to. Lacking the excitement of Tokyo and the history, culture and beauty of Hiroshima and Kyoto, it really did just seem like a big city and not much else. In fact, were it not for Universal Studios I may not have even lasted 24 hours in the city. There is however a chance that I am selling the city short, Osaka is the place I did the least research on – so maybe had I been more diligent I would have got a lot more out of my trip.

Arriving at lunch I checked into my hostel (where everything was so low I had to duck to enter and exit every room) and ventured out to Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi. Dotonbori used to be the theatre district of Osaka, while it continues to hold theatres it is also a street alive with food vendors and tourist shops. Walking through here was very fun as there were numerous jingles for the food vendors and people yelling at you trying to entice you into either their restaurant or shop (almost like being back in India).


While here I tucked into some unnecessary but delicious takoyaki (octopus balls) as this is considered to be one of Osaka’s local dishes.

From Dotonbori I walked through Shinsaibashi. This is the main shopping area of Osaka and has an area called Amerika-mura which is similar to Shimakitazawa in Tokyo – full of young people and second hand shops. Not particularly interested in shopping I used the area more as a time filler and from there walked to Umeda where the HEP 5 Ferris Wheel is. I have realised that I really enjoy seeing cities from a height – so given the short amount of time I had in Osaka the Ferris wheel was the perfect solution. 

It was at this point that I realised I didn’t really have a lot of interest in Osaka, as I looked out across the city it struck me that it really was just a big city where people go about their daily lives.

Waking up early the next morning I ditched my bags in a locker at the train station and headed to Universal Studios Japan. This was a great time!

I’m getting way better at selfies

Universal Studios, much like Disneyland is a place where you would have to actively try to be angry or sad to not have fun there – in part because the rides are awesome, but also because everyone around you is shrieking with joy that it is somewhat contagious! I straight away headed for the roller coasters and to my delight discovered there was a “singles” line for those of us who either didn’t have friends or didn’t care if they went on the ride with their friends. Before 11:30am I was able to get through the three most popular rides with very limited wait times (in comparison to everyone else) – being single was an excellent outcome it turned out! 

The line if you weren’t “single”

From there I went to Harry Potter World – this was what I was really excited about!! You enter Hogwarts through Hogsmeade and can go into all the shops and restaurants that the books talk about. Initially I was slightly disappointed… However I then realised that was because I was expecting the magic to be real haha… I really did think that all the amazing creations J.K. Rowling dreamt up would actually exist! Once I lowered my expectations to not expecting real magic I had a much better time!

Entry to Hogsmeade

There were only two rides in Harry Potter world – one which was a 4D experience where you flew through Hogwarts with Harry and played quidditch… Which was AWESOME! And the other where you went on what was really a roller coaster for children called Flight of the Hippogriff (this was average).


Going on a few more rides I left the park and headed to Tokyo at 3pm… Deciding that I would rather get back to Tokyo and do things there than stick around in Osaka. 

My last day in Tokyo (and Japan) was spent with me trying to make myself really tired so that I would sleep on the flight home. This started with a run round the Imperial Palace and then stuffing myself full of vegemite toast (lucky I am leaving Japan as I finished my vegemite on the last day). I then went to the National Museum of Nature and Science – this was actually really cool (although much bigger than I anticipated!). They had a 360 degree movie experience that took us through the plate formation of the earth and also the evolution of sea creatures.. While everything was in Japanese it was still awesome to watch. The rest of the museum was very interactive and had some very impressive displays of birds, insects, animal skeletons and technological advances. While I wish I had got an audio guide for the museum (as I would have understood a lot more) even just seeing everything was cool. I spent my last afternoon in Japan in Shibuya, stuffing my face with sushi… I would have to say I don’t think sushi will ever be the same after Japan, something which I may need to seek counselling about. 

I was very sad to leave Japan, while India was an experience (and one I immensely enjoyed), Japan was a place where I could actually see myself living. At least leaving I know that I am coming back in August/September to climb Mt Fuji with Ben and have the final two weeks of my trip in an amazing country!!!


Hiroshima was a city of extremes for me, immense sadness and also a lot of enjoyment. With little over 48 hours here my first afternoon was spent within the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Starting in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was fairly harrowing. Entering the exhibition with an audio guide you are immediately presented with life size figures and a poem about trying to pull a girl from the rubble as fire rages steadily closer to her. From this point on I spent most of the exhibition with tears rolling down my face. The exhibition demonstrated both the immediate and long term horrors of the Atomic bomb.

Tricycle damanged from the bomb

Watching videos from survivors of the bomb you realise that aside from the health issues that arose from the use of nuclear weapons almost just as troubling was fear of potential health issues – many of these people lived out the remainder of their lives fearing that they would be diagnosed with a terminal illness that was a consequence of their exposure to radiation. By the time I left the museum I felt both immense despair and also pride. Despair that we continue to live in a world where nuclear weaponry exists and could again be used, and pride to come from NZ, a country who’s identity is partially formed on being steadfast in their commitment to being nuclear free.

Moving through the Peace Memorial Park there were numerous monuments and statues dedicated to both those lost and those who survived the bomb.

Memorial cenotaph for A-Bomb Victims
Children’s Peace Monument

While this monument is dedicated to all children who suffered from the A-Bomb, it was inspired by one young girl called Sadako Sasaki. Aged 2 when the bomb occurred she survived the bombing but died at age 12 from Lukemia – prior to her death she relentlessly folded paper cranes (under the belief that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes your wish will come true), hence the depiction of a girl holding a crane on the monument.

People from all over the world make and send their paper cranes to the monument as a symbol of shared hope for peace and the abolition of atomic weaponry

The A-Bomb dome is perhaps one of the most controversial reminders of the bombing in Hiroshima, much like our own Cathedral in Christchurch people don’t like the idea of the centre of the city being framed by such visible destruction that undoubtedly evokes painful memories. However, the building continues to undergo reinforcement work and will forever remain in the city – serving as a reminder to the world of the destructive nature of atomic weaponry and a continuing appeal for their abolition. 

The structure of the building was able to remain somewhat intact as it was almost directly below the centre of the bomb

My second day in Hiroshima played out in a fairly stark contrast to my first. I spent the first part of the morning running through Hijiyama Park and eventually finding my way back to my hotel. I then went and explored Hiroshima Castle – while not particularly exciting, it was interesting to learn about Hiroshima’s identity prior to the dropping of the A-Bomb. It is very easy to forget that Hiroshima had an entirely separate existence from the one it now has.

Entrance to the castle

Afterwards I made my way via foot, bus, train and ferry to Miyajima Island. The island is about 45 minutes away from the centre of Hiroshima and is categorised as one of the “3 best looking spots in Japan” (or so the brochures say) – this would have to be a fairly accurate assessment from what I have seen so far. The island is probably most famous for the “floating Torii” (it at least appears this way at high tide) – but the best part about it in my opinion is the view from Mt Misen. While I had originally planned to hike up the whole way, with the temperature being 32 degrees and quite humid I decided against this and instead took the lazyman’s option of the cable car. 

The view from the cable car was spectacular, both the bush that you glide over and the views out to the sea. Once I had reached the top of the cable car there was still a 1km quite steep hike up to the peak of the mountain – with the sun beating down I got quite burnt and very hot! It was 100% worth the walk however, on such a nice day you could see out round Hiroshima and the surrounding towns as well as other islands in the area. 

Along the walk there were some very cool mini shrines and areas of worship…

One thing that Buddhists do here is often the statues are dressed up, their dress changed according to the seasons – throughout this walk however it appears that some people were also having a bit of fun with the Buddhas with this guy being my favourite…

(Apparently there was also one along the way that I missed who was holding a set of Dumbbells!) And these guys being a more traditional example of how to dress a statue for summer…

What I couldn’t believe was how similar to the Malborough Sounds it looked at times.

Working my way back down the hill to the seaside I managed to time it perfectly for high tide so that the Torii  and Itsukishima Shrine were both surrounded by water, therefore achieving the desired look of apparent floating!

While neither sight held nearly as much appeal for me as Mt Misen did, they were still both worth seeing as I was in the area! 

The island also houses a 5 Story Pagoda (again not something that really spun my wheels)

Returning to Hiroshima I again successfully navigated both trains and buses (something that I was very proud of myself for doing) and made it back to the noodle shop next to where I am staying… I had eyed this shop up the night before and decided to go in and my god am I glad that I did! My cold soba noodles with dipping sauce and tempura vegetables and prawns were so goddamn tasty I had to restrain myself from ordering the dish twice over!

It is fair to say that much like the rest of Japan, Hiroshima has continued the trend of stealing my heart – with views, food and history like I have experienced in the past two days I know that I will return here for a more extended visit in the future!

Kyoto (by bike)

Despite some difficulties in getting to Kyoto (due to my own stupidity) I did eventually make it. Two steps out of the train station, laden with bags, downpour commenced. Somewhat demoralised about the prospects of sightseeing in the rain I checked into my capsule for the evening and intended to wait out the rain by reading in my coffin/capsule.

One massive downside to capsule bedding (other than the obvious coffin like feel) is you have absolutely no idea what is going on in the outside world. This only occurred to me when I realised I had been reading for 2 hours and there was a good chance that the rain had subsided. As it was now evening I wandered down the road to the Gion district, this is where all the geishas are. Much to my disappointment I saw only one geisha in full garb and she was practically running through the area – either to escape people like me, or because she was running late. The district used to house geishas, while some buildings continue to do so, most have been converted into restaurants – this really destroys any romance about the area and instead makes it feel like you are in a tourist trap.

From Gion I walked through Yasaka Shrine. The shrine complex was very peaceful at this time as most tourists had departed so I had nearly the whole place to myself. 

Yasaka Shrine opens rather unglamourously right out onto a main road

The Yasaka Shrine didn’t hold any particular interest for me, rather it was a way of filling in the evening.

My second day in Kyoto was far more exciting. I started the day with a run around Kyoto’s Imperial Palace – I have realised not only is running a great way to see a city, it’s also a really good way to work out if something is actually worth visiting. The Palace is only open 2 days a year and the gardens are not particularly exciting so it’s not somewhere I would recommend someone visit unless they are looking for a relatively shady running spot! I then proceeded to dump my belongings at Piece Hostel Sanjo where I would spend the next two nights (I mention the name because it is an awesome hostel – highly recommend) and headed to the aquarium. Now, I am aware the aquarium may seem like a strange choice of tourist attractions in a city steeped with as much history and culture as Kyoto but there was a reason. A friend from NZ, Mikey was in Kyoto and really wanted to go to the aquarium and see the dolphin show. The aquarium was actually a thoroughly good time, despite the fact we were the only adults there without children. There were numerous weird and wonderful sea creatures and the dolphin show was very cool (if you can put concerns about the mammals aside).

Renting bikes from across the road we then headed to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – a classic tourist spot in Kyoto it was heaving with humans. One good thing about this shrine however is to appreciate all the Torii that lead to the inner shrine you must walk up a hill – this means that as you walk further and further up the crowds tend to dissipate. 

Off roading
The Torii that everyone comes to see

Mikey and I walked to the top… Twice, as the first time we didn’t realise we had reached the top, upon realising this we went back to the top to appreciate what everyone was coming for. I have to say, the top is very poorly sign posted and lacks any view of the city (which you get from lower down), so, it is really easy to miss!

After descending the hill we took off on our bikes again down by the river and spent the remainder of the afternoon just biking round Kyoto and stopping for a bite to eat here and there. Mikey and I parted company and I checked into my hostel. To my delight I discovered

  1. My bunk bed was massive
  2. There was a takoyaki making party on that night!

Takoyaki is a Japanese dish – also known as octopus balls – a personal favourite of mine. They are made from an egg batter and have octopus, shrimp, spices, and herbs in them. The batter is spooned into a hot plate that looks like a golf ball mould and from there you simply add the other ingredients and gradually turn the balls so the cook right through and form a round shape.

The evening slipped by in a blur of cooking and eating alongside a Chilean man and a Kiwi couple.

Rising early I headed to Daimonjiyama, a hill that overlooks Kyoto, to do an activity that would not be quite so full of tourists. Walking to the top took all of about 25 minutes and was relatively steep, however, had you only seen the Japanese people walking up you would have thought it was an expedition similar to reaching the summit of Everest, hiking poles, boots and camelbacks appeared to be standard issue. The view from the top was awesome, and really should have given me fair warning about how big Kyoto was (this was not something I realised when I rented a bike and planned the rest of my day’s activities).

The path up Daimonjiyama

After a quick shower I once more rented a bike and headed across town to the Bamboo Forest… What my map told me was an 8km bike ended up being more like 14km due to my inability to read a map/follow instruction and relentless, unfounded, confidence in my own sense of direction. The Bamboo Forest was beautiful but somewhat underwhelming… You are not given free reign to walk through bamboo as you please, rather you are confined to a path that is filled with other tourists.

From the Bamboo Forest I took yet another scenic route through the burbs of Kyoto (eventually) to Kinkau-Ji (or the Golden Shrine). Yet again, hordes of tourists surrounded me (it’s like I’m one of them or something)… Being a solo adventurer is quite useful sometimes as I was able to slip through the crowds and push my way to the front of the viewing area with ease. The Golden Shrine really is pretty spectacular, set atop a lake that is teeming with life it sparkles pretty ferociously in the sunlight!

A group of school kids from Tokyo approached me while I was at the Shrine and with their teacher standing behind them they dutifully asked me questions about where I was from, where I had been in Kyoto and if I liked Japan. All looking terribly embarrassed to ask me questions they were absolutely mortified when their over-excited teacher asked me to walk around the shrine with them so the students could practice their English. While the teacher’s intention was for the students to translate what their guide was saying about the Temple to me it really ended up with the teacher walking around doing 90% of the translation and quizzing me about NZ along the way.

A short ride downhill and I found the Kyoto Museum for World Peace. This was an amazing museum, despite nearly the entire place being in Japanese I was given a very informative audio guide in English.The museum detailed many of Japan’s war crimes from 1931 – 1945 as well as those of America. It then proceeded to examine the Cold War and modern regional conflicts. Finally, it contained a brief exhibition about ways we can act towards world peace in everyday life. I was most impressed by the balanced account given by the museum and the clearly very conscious decision not to shy away from responsibility for some of the atrocities committed in the past. The Museum was also holding a World Press Photo exhibition at the time – which always makes for good viewing. 

En route back to returning my bike I stopped in at my old favourite (from Sakata) Kappa Sushi where I rewarded myself for a busy day of sightseeing and biking by stuffing myself full of sushi. I then promptly returned to my hostel where exhausted and fit to burst from so much sushi I went into a very happy food coma for the night.

My final morning in Kyoto was spent running alongside the river and attempting barefoot running – an activity I am certain would be frowned upon by the Japanese given that they have separate indoor, outdoor and bathroom shoes… I just don’t think barefoot running would be their style! 

Tokyo part 3: How to cause a scene in Japan

After dear Fifi’s departure I spent an afternoon in mourning. Luckily by nightfall I had come to my senses and remembered that I was in a country with perhaps the best food and should not risk wasting a meal! I headed straight back to Ebisu, the area where we got the ramen from and instead ventured across the road to this food court type area that was packed with “salarymen” and groups of friends drinking and having a thoroughly good time. I somewhat foolishly sat down at the first available seat without viewing the menu. By the time I read the menu I was already too far in, they had brought me some mysterious bar snack and so I was committed…

Given the limited vegetarian menu I filled myself up on more of the atmosphere and less of the food (which whilst being delicious was rather small). The remainder of the evening was spent wandering through Ebisu and Shibuya until I realised it was in fact rather late and I was edging closer and closer to being lost with every side street I went down… Like a safety conscious traveller I returned to my hostel.

Finding my way to the Louis Vuitton exhibition the next morning was somewhat confusing but absolutely worth it. The exhibition was about Louis Vuitton the person as well as the label and tracked the progress of their luggage throughout the years. It was one of the most beautifully curated exhibitions I have ever seen and flowed seemlessly with a good mix of history, human interest and obviously luggage! Even better, the whole thing was free including the English language audio guide that explained to me many of the signs I could not read!

It turns out Louis Vuitton was not only a thoroughly interesting person but he really did have a vision for the luggage he created and had a very thorough understanding of functionality combined with design (the Steve Jobs of his generation perhaps). Moreover, much of the luggage was not some foul monstrosity that can be purchased today but was actually rather beautiful!

From the exhibition I wandered down to the Shinjuku Gyeon. The Gyeon is Japan’s national park and as well as having large, open, green spaces it has three distinct areas; a French garden, an English garden and a Japanese garden. Walking into the gardens it is hard to believe that you are still in the heart of Tokyo. Despite being almost the centre of the sky scraper area, the park is serene and quiet, a perfect place to lie and read.

Japanese Garden
Japanese Garden

Within the park there is also a greenhouse that houses some of Japan’s endangered or rare flowers/plants. While being in a greenhouse on a hot day is not an activity I would advise in general, this greenhouse may be an exception. Small enough to get around in 20 minutes it is bearable… And the flora is phenomenal! While I stupidly did not take a brochure on the flowers, I did take photos of some while I thought were stunning (if anyone can name them for me that would be appreciated)…

Now for the lesson on how to cause chaos in Japan… After a couple of hours wandering through the gardens and lying in the shade reading I suddenly felt rather ill. Deciding to head back towards a train station and potentially my hostel I started walking through the park. In under two minutes I went from feeling ill to projectile vomiting down the footpath of the garden. Well, that sure as hell got the attention of the Japanese who were near me. Stunned by what had just happened (myself included), 5 older Japanese people came to try and help me… No one spoke English and all I kept saying was gomenasai (I’m sorry/it’s my fault). I was being handed numerous hand towels and a couple of bottles of water, they forced me to sit down (about 10m away from the scene of the crime on a bench because sitting on the footpath was not an option) and someone found the caretaker to clean up after me. I wanted to scream! All I wanted to do was get back to my hostel and lie down, but these incredibly kind Japanese people just wanted to take care of me… While grateful for their concern and assistance I was even more grateful when an American came over and spoke to me (I told him I just wanted to leave) and then in broken Japanese managed to quell the concern and get me a get out of jail free card. In a loud confusion of thank-you’s and sorry’s I made a break for it. 

Miraculously after a 3 hour nap I felt basically fine again (starting to wonder if the vomiting was over-tiredness)… Ready to do and see more (but also feeling a bit cautious) I walked down the road to Ueno Park with the intention of going to the National Museum. My plan was flawed for 2 reasons:

  1. I had lost track of time and it was already 5:00pm by the time I arrived there
  2. The Museum had been shut as the Emperor was visiting (I was informed this by a friendly Buddhist nun)

Apparently sighting the Emperor in such an informal setting is very rare… Hence why older Japanese people began to crowd round the Museum’s entrance. Deciding I had nothing better to do I joined the party and stood outside the National Museum for 1 hour for a 2 second sighting of the Emperor… But my god he is a cute old man

Again my evening was spent wandering the streets, this time in Ueno until I finally decided it was time to retire for the day. Returning to the hostel I found the bed below me (that had previously homed Fichan and a friendly French girl) was not occupied by an older Dutch woman who in the space of our 12 hours together accused me of stealing her prescription glasses, rummaged through my belongings and tried to tell me I couldn’t use the bathroom in our room (needless to say I was glad to see the back of her)… She also snored and coughed all night.

My final morning in Tokyo was upon me and as I had been unable to watch sumo wrestling (tournaments only happen 3 times a year) I decided to try and watch them practice. Lonely Planet gave me a recommendation of where I could watch from the street (the stables are notoriously private and hate spectators) so I loaded my google maps and ran there. Arriving at the stated location I found myself in the middle of a street of housing, not a single sumo wrestler in sight. Disappointed but not deterred I ran towards the Sumo stadium and museum figuring the closer I got the better the odds of me sighting one was. Sure enough, just before I reached the stadium I found three old Japanese guys standing looking at what appeared to be a wall with a look of awe on their faces… A viewing window to a sumo stable had been found! 

Watching the keiko (practice) one couldn’t help but notice there was a lot of butt slapping, squatting and shifting from side to side for those outside the ring. Those inside the ring seemed to only last 30-45 seconds before someone stepped outside the circle and therefore a victor was found. In saying that, I stood therefore 30 minutes and there was never a moment where there weren’t two people in the ring battling.

Perfectly timed photo

The other thing I notices was some sumo wrestlers really weren’t all that sumo… Some just looked like normal guys with thickset legs and body (obviously others like our friend above were well rounded).

Returning to the hostel, packing my belongings and saying goodbye to my dear Dutch friend I headed to the train station arriving 45 minutes early for my train to Kyoto. Despite being early I managed to miss my train by 1 minute as I got distracted reading. I then jumped on another train to Kyoto only to discover that with my JR pass I wasn’t allowed on that train. 1.5 hours later I was very politely kicked off the train and given directions to one I could be on! My 2 hour journey to Kyoto therefore became something of a 3.5 hour ordeal but arriving in the city I can already see it will be worth it… Another beautiful city to explore!

Tokyo part 2: It is the Best of Times

Waking up to a rainy Sunday morning in Tokyo was less than enticing, but knowing that the city had endless fun for us both Fi and I dutifully donned our raincoats, borrowed umbrellas from the hostel and ventured into the city. Starting with culture, we headed to Ueno Park to the Tokyo Modern Art Museum… It was however less modern than we anticipated and we were notably younger than anyone else in museum we split the scene and moved about 300m across the park to the Tokyo Western Art Museum. Unsurprisingly the Museum was full of beautiful art with our trip through the museum made even more fun by playing “spot the deformed boob”. Feeling sufficiently cultured after an hour and a half of museum-ing we navigated our way through the Tokyo train/metro system (a very easy system to use) to Shimokitazawa.

Shimokitazawa is a sort of young/studenty area of Tokyo with a lot of very trendy looking people roaming about. The area is filled with Cafes that sell real coffee and second hand shops (where you can buy just about anything). Our biggest issue with the place was our inability to find Japanese food (that wasn’t beef based)… Endless Italian restaurants and pancake Cafes were at our disposal but the battle to find sushi was serious. Eventually giving in to hunger we caved and went to an exceedingly average cafe that appeared to be trying to make healthy western food but just wasn’t quite nailing it. Aside from our bad lunch we enjoyed delicious coffee (even found a flat white) and had a very enjoyable few hours roaming the second hand shops. One issue did continue to rise to the surface however, Fi and I were often too big for the Japanese second hand clothing and were always too big for their shoes (as we later discovered when we asked for a 42 or 43 and they told us women’s shoes only went to 39 most of the time)!

Real coffee

From Shimokitazawa our adventures took us to Nakameguro, a riverside neighbourhood in Tokyo (although the river was very low and looked more like an oversized drain pipe) where tree lined footpaths made for a picturesque afternoon stroll area. The area was filled with cute little cafes (selling real coffee) and bars, as well as some very beautiful shops stocking clothes both well beyond and within our budgets. Many of the shops there had chosen to combine functions, selling clothes, homewares and coffee all in one location… It made some shops very hard to leave as they had successfully made themselves very welcoming. 

By evening we were ready to gear up for a little bit more of the intense side of Tokyo (and we were starving) so we headed to Shibuya, where the famous crossing is and not so coincidentally some delicious sushi. Watching the Shibuya crossing from the train station was awesome, everyone successfully dodging one another to reach their respective destinations. Thinking that making it across in one piece would be difficult Fi and I ventured down to street level. We were wrong, when you were actually in the crossing it was a piece of piss, partly because everyone in this country is so courteous that they actually pay attention to where they are walking (as opposed to NZ where we all look at our phones!).

Making our way slowly through Shibuya (getting distracted by shops and people watching) we came to Uogashi Nihonichi, an amazing standing sushi bar (where I think the chef sometimes liked to fuck with us and put a wee bit extra wasabi on). The sushi was made as you order it with the ingredients being displayed before you… It was basically the ultimate in dining (in my opinion).

I am certain by only allowing patrons to stand they notably increase their turnover

The last stop of the day was 450m up in the Tokyo Skytree. This was amazing! The view from the Skytree at night just shows more or less endless lights, the city really just keeps expanding out. While up that high Fi decided that in an earthquake prone country she was probably not such a fan of heights. Spending nearly an hour looking at the city lights Fi and I agreed we were the happiest little tourists that ever did live!

Off to a slower start than the previous day we spent the initial part of the day doing stair sprints in Ueno park and then eating our weight in rice balls for breakfast! Excited for Harajuku we were somewhat disappointed when we arrived and there were zero go-go girls to be seen. The slow morning turned into a slow middle of the day where all we found were chain shops that were not particularly exciting (even the Nike showroom). Ditching the shopping and finding Fuglen (a coffee shop we were recommended) the day took a really positive turn. For one, the coffee shop was the coolest little cafe with great music and fantastic people watching and from there we were able to stroll for a couple of hours all the way to our dinner in Ebisu at Afuri ramen.

Vegan Ramen
Yuzu Shio Ramen and a mini donburi
Ebisu Yokocho (very cool food court-ish place with an excellent exterior)

Delicious ramen in our bellies we made it (with some struggle) to the Golden Gai in Shinjuku. An insane series of narrow streets that is filled with even narrower four seater bars (some squeeze a few more people in). While finding the place was a wee bit difficult, it was undoubtedly worth it. 

Wandering into a bar run by an older woman we were treated to delicious drinks and even better company. The woman had travelled the world, was an artists and had many friends who had done amazing things e.g. A permanent photography exhibition in MOMA. Fi and I couldn’t believe the number of times her stories would start with “a friend of mine is/did…”

The second bar we went into had an amazing CD collection… Mainly amazing because it was all music that Mum and Dad love. 

Wary of the early closing of the trains in Tokyo we made it back just in time for the last train to our local station (amazing how time passes with a few G and Ts). 

Fi’s final day in Tokyo started with a trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market – this was super cool! Walking through the wholesale market I saw some of the biggest cuts of tuna I have ever seen. Moreover, the place has absolutely no fishy smell because all the fish is so fresh. While words will not do this place justice, it was just amazing to walk through and see the men and women go about their work (and also to comprehend that there was this much fish passing through this market everyday and the ocean still hadn’t run out!).

Standard issue chopping sword

Our final activity was visiting Senso-Ji, an ancient Buddhist temple. This was more or less a tourist trap (mainly Japanese tourists) that was not particularly exciting… Apart from the numerous young Japanese girls dressed in kimonos.

Farewelling Fifi was sad and meant that I was back to roaming the streets alone. I therefore spent the entire afternoon sitting in Fuglen drinking coffee and writing this blog (while planning what I would eat for my next meal).

Tokyo part 1: The Most Awkward Arrival

To describe Fi and my arrival in Tokyo as awkward would be a giant understatement. Arriving at Tokyo Central after our Shinkansen experience (bullet train… Was slower than we expected) we were unable to contact my friend Shigeki who I met walking the Routeburn in January. Thankfully we had directions to his home station so we sent him an email and steered ourselves in that direction. Arriving at his local station again we lacked any signs of Shigeki… He had not replied to my email nor appeared at the station. Thinking that this was odd, but determined to find him nonetheless, Fi and I used his email signature to find his address and walk to his house/dental practice (on one site). We made it to his dental practice with no incidences and walked up to the front desk… Shigeki came running out from the patient he was seeing to explain that he had misread my email and thought we were coming in January… Not June. FUCK!

Ever the gracious Japanese host, Shigeki quickly raced us through to his house, gave us a map of the local area and keys to two bikes and said he finished work at 6pm so we would see him then. All seemed well. Fi and I sat down on the floor of the guest room (that is directly opposite the front door) and hatched a plan for our afternoon. About 2 minutes later Shigeki’s 20 year old son walked into the house… To accurately articulate how awkward this was, imagine walking into your own house to find either 2 Japanese boys or girls (alternate depending on your own gender) sitting on your guest room floor!!! Again… Less than ideal! The awkwardness was then compounded by his limited English and our non-existent Japanese (other than the much used sumimasen… Sorry/excuse me). After showing the son a picture of me with his father in NZ some of the awkwardness was alleviated (that may just be wishful thinking on my part) but Fi and I decided to bolt from the situation anyway. Grabbing the bike keys we headed out the door to go to a local outdoor architectural museum in a park near Shigeki’s house. Phew, we thought… We had escaped the son. 

The moment of relief was short lived. Sure enough pulling into the drive as we were leaving was Shigeki’s wife. (Again imagine coming home to two Japanese girls/boys with keys to your bikes insisting they know your husband). Yet again with her limited English and our absent Japanese we fumbled our way through an explanation of our presence and possession of bike keys. Noriko, Shigeki’s wife did not seem so sure about this situation… While not being hostile towards us she was certainly tense about us being around. We did eventually manage to explain that we were the Kiwis who were meant to be coming in January but that did little to relieve us from the overwhelming sense of being a very unwelcome surprise. Jumping on the bikes to escape Fi and I departed for the architecture museum with no intention of returning until Shigeki was finished work!

Commuter bike upgrade… the bike I am riding was electric!

Walking around the architecture museum Fi and I were exceptionally distracted and didn’t really appreciate much of what we were seeing instead we swayed between hilarity over how absurd the situation was and mild panic due to our desire not to be an imposition of Shigeki and his wife. We discovered the museum had free wifi and basically spent our time looking at hostels close to Shigeki’s side of town that we could go stay in if we needed to! Before returning to Shigeki’s we went and purchased a presento for him and his wife as a sort of “sorry we probably scared the shit out of you” gift.

When we returned to Shigeki’s the mood had notably improved… His wife understood who we were and despite our offers to go to a hostel/hotel we were told we were very welcome in their house! That night we had a traditional home cooked Japanese dinner of Japanese curry… Apart from being notably less spicy than an Indian curry and not being eaten with your hands, Japanese curry shares many similarities with Indian curry and therefore felt like a dish that I was very well versed with! We ended up having a very enjoyable evening with Shigeki (whose English is phenomenal) and Noriko, with a lot of later about us being a surprise and the fact they were anticipating us in January (a lot of that was connected to the fact they could not understand why the hell we had been in Sakata, which is not a tourist area other than the fact it has good skiing in the winter).

Shigeki was very disappointed to have to work in our second day in Tokyo as he had hoped to take us on adventures himself. Fi and I were however slightly relieved to be less of a hassle and happily caught the train and took ourselves into Tokyo! Shinjuku was the outing of the day. Shinjuku station is the busiest train station in Tokyo which serves 2 million people per day!! Arriving there well after peak time Fi and I both commented on the fact that it was still pretty busy… At peak time they have people standing by the carriage doors to push people into the train so the doors can close. We walked to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and took the free lift to the 45th floor observatory… Seeing Tokyo from that height basically confirmed to me that we were in a MASSIVE city… Like enormous… As far as the eye could see Tokyo kept going… Where the high rises of central Tokyo stopped they were replaced with endless housing/schools…

After the Tokyo tower Fi and I spent the day walking around Shinjuku and the shops… Shopping in Japan isn’t like shopping in NZ, there is such an endless variety of items that you would never see at home that are generally absolute hilarious! 

Some of my favourite items from the day

Through Shinjuku we went into some amazing second hand shops, again the Japanese take such good care of their belongings it all looks brand new, we went into a massive department store called Isetan, that had such an overwhelming food court Fi and I both had to purchase snacks just to the be able to make a decision about what we actually wanted to eat! 

This whole country is geared for people much shorter than us!

Amazingly, time disappeared on us and much faster than we hoped we had to be back on the train to Shigeki’s as we had a dinner reservation at a Japanese hamburger meat restaurant (I didn’t have the heart to tell Shigeki I only eat fish). The restaurant we went to was 100% not just a hamburger meat restaurant… It turned out we were sitting down for a degustation meal with 9 courses (one of which I forgot to take a photo of)!! The food was AMAZING, undoubtedly some of the best food I have ever eaten… And while it has confirmed to me that red meat is not my favourite, even I could appreciate that this was some seriously good meat!

Our third and final day with Shigeki saw Fi and I being gifted even more food (as is Japanese custom) and being taken To see Mt Fuji and a traditional Japanese onsen. As Shigeki had to work in the morning Fi and I took the opportunity to exercise and try burn off some of the previous nights food! When he finished work we headed out to Mt Fuji… Despite the mountain being surrounded by a lot of cloud for most of the day it was pretty damn spectacular (I cannot wait to climb it in September!)

We stopped in the town for hoto noodles, these are famous in the Fuji area. They are very, very thick noodles served in a broth with vegetables etc… Ramen style! The bowl was delicious and very, very filling… By the time we were heading to the onsen I was just about ready to food coma.

The Japanese onsen was an interesting experience… They are effectively public baths where everyone roams around naked. After a while we started to relax about the idea… But it was still a little weird to be surrounded by naked Japanese women and children. A couple of the children looked genuinely alarmed when they saw us!

Returning from Fuji,  we got caught in quite a lot of traffic which really slowed progress. What we didn’t realise (but Shigeki did) was that on Saturday night in Tokyo lots of restaurants close early! Missing our intial dinner reservation which was for unagi (eel… But still makes me think of Friends) we then struggled to find a restaurant to Shigeki’s taste. Finally settling on soba noodle ramen we ate and then were delivered to our hostel parting company with Shigeki who has put us under strict instruction for future visits to Tokyo and explained next time he will not get the dates muddled!

Many, many happy times in Sakata

Dining with Ben’s Japanese friends at their restaurant was a wonderful experience. We arrived and were immediately presented with very large beers and presents (a common theme in Japan). Sitting down at the bar where we could watch Keikochan and Kochan cook we settled in for what would clearly be a very fun night. Keikochan and Kochan are good friends of Ben’s, sort of like his Japanese grandparents. Keikochan, the woman, has a wonderful sense of humour and makes very dry jokes in both Japanese and English. As well as Keikochan and Kochan we dined with Orakisan, the supermarket prince (a friend of Ben’s who owns a supermarket chain) and Sato Sensei and his wife. Sato Sensei had coxed Fi and me in the knuckle four and spent most of the night celebrating our win and ordering us more drinks.

Presented with endless plates of food we ate everything from raw tuna jaw to tempura to a type of Japanese salad and a “challenge” food. The challenge food was a deep fried ball of something that was only presented to Ben, Fi and I… Biting into it the ball immediately oozed. With a relatively thick liquid pouring down my throat I knew what I had just eaten… Sperm. Sure enough, it was revealed to us that we had just eaten the sperm of a blowfish. What was actually really cool about it was that, that is a dish that requires a licence to prepare because if it is prepared in the wrong way it is poisonous and can kill you (like The Simpsons episode). While happy to have tried it, Fi and I stopped after one ball, Ben on the other hand went in for round 2. We also got to drink some very expensive Japanese sake, this was actually really delicious and very easy to drink, unlike sake that I have tried in NZ that tastes like gasoline. At the end of the night, when all other patrons had left the restaurant, Keikochan and Kochan came and sat with all of us and we spent an hour sitting round joking in a hybrid of Japanese/English with translations being made where necessary/possible. As we all got more comfortable around one and other Keikochan decided that Fi and Ben were more neiko types (cat types) and I was more of an inu (spelling unsure) type (dog type) which we all thought was very accurate. The dinner was one of my favourite experiences in Sakata (although it’s very hard to pick as it was the best week), being able to sit for four hours with people you have only just met and don’t completely share a common language with, and laugh for four hours straight was an enormously pleasing experience.

The next morning we caught the train out to Fukura, about 25 minutes away from Ben it is a small coastal town where there are 16 Buddhas carved into stones. Walking around the rocks/beaches on a crystal clear day it was hard to believe we were in Japan (barring the Buddhas), the water was a crystal clear blue and the sky very clear. 

Tour guide Ben doing his job

We jumped around the rocks for about 40 minutes and then had to run back to the station to ensure we made it for the train back to Sakata. Back in Sakata, we biked around to Keikochan and Kochan’s for afternoon tea and cakey. 

Keikochan and Kochan’s house is amazing, it is a very traditional 80 year old house. Arriving we removed our shoes, walked into their personal shrine where we performed the ceremony as instructed…. As a dog type I somewhat butchered the ceremony, much to Keikochan’s amusement. Once inside their house we sat on the tatami around their fire pit (I don’t know the Japanese name for this)… This is a square pit which they place coal in and have a cast iron teapot that hangs over the pit. 

This photo is from an architecture museum but it was the same thing

While we did not have a full tea ceremony, there was a lot of method to how Kochan prepared the tea. The Japanese never use boiling water for tea, so once the water was boiled it was poured into a bowl to be cooled. From there a pot of tea is made and everyone is served very small cups of tea. The same tea leaves are used 3-4 times before the pot is completely emptied and you start again. While being served endless snacks and tea Keikochan continued to provide us with insights about ourselves by giving us our Japanese names. Keikochan revealed that I have a beautiful voice (I’m sure all persons reading will agree), like a little bird that goes “Pee pee, pee pee” and therefore my Japanese name is “Peepee”. For Fi she said she was tall and beautiful like a Lily and so her Japanese name was “Li”. Our topics of conversations covered quite a broad range of subjects, from taking the piss out of Ben, to Hiroshima and the G7 summit that had just occurred. Again I was amazed at the ability to communicate in absence of a completely common language.

Our day ended with not one but two trips to Kappa Sushi!! We first went with Ben’s friend from NZ, Katie who is living in Sakata as an English teacher. We had an enjoyable time and left to the supermarket. However once at the supermarket Ben realised that he hadn’t quite eaten enough and I decided I could squeeze more in so we went back in for round 2. We are unsure if the people who served us realised what had happened but we found the whole thing highly amusing, especially imagining the conversations they were having about us in Japanese.

Ben’s friend Umetsu Sensei, asked Fi and I to go and speak to her class at Koryo Koko (Ben’s school). The class were the NZ equivalent to year 13 and were the quietest class I have ever encountered… After speaking to them about India, in English, I was unable to get a reaction and therefore favoured showing the photos of things from India like cows inside and my bucket for a shower which at least got some laughs. Fi then spoke to the kids about NZ and what she thought of Japan… Again to a completely silent room. While Umetsu Sensei asked us questions the class just sat in silence. Finally, with some coaxing one of the boys got up and spoke briefly and then challenged Fi to an arm wrestle.

Much to my surprise Fi lost the arm wrestle but it was at least a way to get some animation out of the children. We then spent a fair amount of time walking around the school and meeting various other teachers/friends of Ben’s. 

In the afternoon we went out to watch Ben take a coaching session down at the river. There is a fair amount of time spent “faffing” with warm up, preparation, cleaning etc… However as Ben acknowledged, these kids don’t really get any free time, so being able to just hang out with their friends at rowing means these activities are actually some of the only time they have to be kids. Watching the rowing and listening to Ben coach was pretty cool, he has to do all his coaching in Japanese and has a lot of crews to coach. This means that he has to really think about what he wants to say and ensure that the kids understand what he is talking about each time he sets them off. Fi and I were very impressed at Ben’s Japanese abilities! The training session was cut short due to thunder and lightening some returned to Ben’s apartment to yet again cook up some delicious and not particularly expensive fish, veggies and rice!

6 people carrying 1 quad

Our final day in Sakata saw us travel with Umetsu Sensei to Yamadera and Yamagata – about 2 hours away from Sakata. Yamadera is a big shrine complex with lots of stairs. Surrounded by massive trees and hills it was a very cool place. All around there are statutes of Buddhas that Ben explained to us get clothed for what is appropriate each season e.g. Warmer clothes in winter. Climbing up to the top shrine we got great views of the surrounding greenery and also witnesses some very dangerous tree felling which involved one man balancing on a ladder cutting through a tree trunk while someone else held it.

Ben getting amongst some shrine activities
Not OSH approved activities

We then trained to Yamagata where we more or less spent 2 hours hopping between food shops. Starting at a bakery where Fi and Ben were able to enjoy real coffee (a rarity in Japan) then onto a soba noodle shop. Yamagata is famous for its soba noodles which can be served either hot or cold. The soba noodles were delicious, while Ben and I opted for ones with mushrooms, Fi chose tempura and I really think she made the better decision!

Many, many peace signs and smiles

Umetsu Sensei drove us back to Sakata via a local foot spa… This is literally a foot spa that is just placed outside a shopping area where anyone can go..

Matching Chanel tracksuit was too good not to snap

We then took Umetsu Sensei out for dinner to say thank you for all her kindness. She chose to go to okonomiyaki, which is basically considered to be Japanese pizza. Thank god we had a local with us because we were presented with bowls of uncooked, chopped vegetables and raw eggs and sat around a hot plate. Ben, Fi and I were somewhat perplexed. Umetsu Sensei explained that we were to mix everything together in a bowl and then pour it onto the hot plate and basically cook it like a pancake (only slower)….

What it lacked in looks it made up for in taste!

Sadly our time in Sakata came to an end much faster than we all wanted. With Fi and I both in love with Japan it was a no brainer to me when Ben and I started talking about climbing Mt Fuji that I would come back…. Turns out I could get really cheap flights in September so looks like I will be back before the year is out!! Fi and I headed out by bullet train to Tokyo (which was not as fast as we anticipated) early Thursday morning for the next leg of our Japanese adventure to begin in Tokyo!