A couple weekends ago, we went for a quick trip to the coast in Somerset. We stayed in the beautiful and very welcoming Swain House in Watchet and had a great mini break. It was the first time in ages we’d been out with our cameras and, though my eyes are feeling a bit out of practice, it was lovely. Here are a few shots from the weekend.
Our first day in Kyoto we decided to head to the Higashiyama district to wander a temple or two and enjoy the historical streets. Our hotel was very close to Kyoto Station, but we took the easy option and jumped in a taxi. We’d heard taxis could be quite expensive in Japan, so were happy to find that in Kyoto this was not really the case, at least not compared to the UK!
We got dropped off at Kodai-ji, a Buddhist temple at the edge of district, tucked up against a forested hillside. We wandered the complex stunned by the serenity and beauty. I’m little ashamed to admit that while I have photos of the gardens, I don’t feel I really captured the true atmosphere of the place at all… Though, in a way I do feel this might be a good thing in that I was shooting less than normal because I was simply enjoying the experience. Perhaps an apt reaction to a Zen Buddhist temple.
After leaving the temple we explored the old streets of Higashiyama. It is a popular tourist area, but somehow that enhances rather than spoils the experience because so many of the tourists are Japanese and are enjoying the day out in traditional clothing. This is such a popular activity in Kyoto that most of the hotels have a ‘hire a yukata’ package where one can rent an outfit to wander around in for a day!
The weather that day was interesting to say the least; it started out bright, but in a short time became blustery and dark. It turned out that a typhoon was approaching far to the south and while we were lucky it didn’t reach Kyoto, its effects were felt. We were very glad to reach our hotel before the rain hit that evening as when it did, it was torrential. The last image in this post was taken in our hotel courtyard bar that evening; you can see the rain.
As a small side note before I get to the images, the hotel we stayed at was fabulous. It was Sakura Terrace The Gallery and while the rooms were smallish, the whole place was stylish and the amenities were fantastic; every evening you could have a free ‘welcome’ drink at the bar, the communal areas also had ‘cafes’ where you could make yourself a tea or coffee, and they also had a laundry room that was free to use – they even provided the detergent! Because of all these things, the place had a friendly community atmosphere about it that we really enjoyed. We stayed at the hotel for our first two nights in Kyoto, then again for five nights once we returned from Koyasan and were super happy it was our Kyoto home.
Day 3 in Japan: Higashiyama, Kyoto
The second day in Japan was a mix of sightseeing and traveling as we were heading to Kyoto that afternoon. Having made sure our phones were actually on Japan time, we got up at a reasonable hour, checked out of our hotel, and made our way to Harajuku to have a look around.
One of the brilliant things about travelling in Japan is the convenience factor – things like lockers in the stations that are big enough to fit suitcases. We needed to be at Tokyo Station around 2pm and as Harajuku was on the way, it was much easier to take our suitcases with us and store them at the station than have the hotel hold them and have to backtrack. Good work, Japan!
We hadn’t really done our homework, so assumed we’d exit the station and see crazily dressed people; as it was, we exited towards Yoyogi Park and ended up wandering a calm and quiet route through the trees towards the Meiji shrine.
It might not have been what we’d been expecting of a visit to Harajuku, but it was lovely. The Shrine, with its towering gates and gorgeous trees, was beautiful and we were even lucky enough to cross paths with a traditional Shinto wedding procession.
After the shrine (and a rest with a cold Asahi at the nearby cafe to rest my leg after the unexpectedly long walk!) we made our way to Takeshita Dori, the trendy and strange shopping street across from the station, before making our way to Tokyo Station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.
We’d purchased green car (first class) JR Rail Passes for the fortnight so we’d have the comfort of extra leg room for our journeys and I can attest to the comfort – after enjoying my first ever ekiben (station bento/lunch), which you buy at the station and eat on the train, I ended up sleeping almost the entire way to Kyoto! Nick, however, documented the trip with some classic from-the-window-shooting so when he starts uploading his photos, we’ll get a chance to see all the lovely countryside I missed!
So, Japan. We had a brilliant time and very easily could have spent much longer (other than, after 16 days, we were exhausted and, of course, missing our Ponzu). I very much expect we will return. It was an unusual trip in many ways, with my being half-Japanese, but never having been to Japan, with my studying the language, but autodidactically so reading and writing much better than speaking or listening. Until recently, I thought it would probably be one of the most alien places on earth that I could visit, but with my endeavour to learn the language, I started watching so much anime and Japanese television that somehow I felt almost pre-acclimated to the culture and that, combined with being able to read a lot of the writing around me, made it seem oddly familiar rather than strange.
We arrived at Narita late on a Saturday night and knowing our hotel, Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, was on the Airport Limousine Bus route, we decided to travel into Tokyo that way rather than via one of the trains. The coach ride was long, but smooth. There was no traffic and at first, driving through the darkness, it almost seemed we were in the middle of nowhere rather than on the outskirts of the world’s most populated metropolitan area. Slowly the buildings started growing in number and then in size. Driving on the rolling and curving flyovers from the elevated perspective of the coach, the roads devoid of other traffic, it almost seemed like we were flying through the buildings rather than driving amongst them. A very quiet, almost magical introduction to what is actually, obviously, a bustling city.
The hotel, when we arrived, was lovely. I managed almost the entire first interaction in Japanese, only failing to understand a sentence about leaving our shoes at the entry of our room so as to keep the tatami mats clean, which was then kindly explained in English (of course we would have done so anyway, as we do not wear our shoes inside, but they weren’t to know).
Our room was beautiful and quite spacious, not nearly as small as we’ve heard most in Tokyo are. In addition to the sleeping area, with an exceptionally comfortable futon on a low bed-frame, it had an elegant small sofa and a cute legless chair in front of the mirror near the TV and fridge area. We were surprised there were no mini bar items in our fridge, but soon found that was because there was a vending machine in an alcove across the hall, filled with a selection of super affordable drinks including water, coffee, green tea, other soft drinks, as well as alcoholic beverages like beer, whisky and soda, and umeshu! Way better than a mini bar, which we tend not to use anyway. Of course, it would turn out this was only the tip of the Japanese vending machine iceberg.
We settled in and then went in search of food. It was quite late, about 10pm, so we didn’t want to go far and wanted to make sure we got somewhere before last orders. We found a Yakiniku (bbq meat) place just down the street and though it was hidden down a stairwell, we decided to try it. So glad we did; the atmosphere was great and the food was super delicious. It was the kind of Yakiniku restaurant in which you grill your own meat over charcoals in the centre of your table (a great favourite of ours!) – if you’ve never tried it, you should seek one out if you can. BBQ Wagyu on night one – couldn’t have a better start.
The entry to the restaurant:
We’d forgotten to change the time on our phones so woke an hour later than expected and missed breakfast. Oops. Our first mission of the day was to figure out if I could get the Zeiss Batis 2/25. I was a bit too nervous to try Japanese over the phone so we decided to ask the concierge if they wouldn’t mind calling the store to confirm for us before we took the train out to Nakano. The girl we spoke with at the front desk was amazing, she not only called and confirmed, but even told us what exit to take at Nakano Station! I got very, very excited that the lens was still there waiting for me (my Japanese emails had worked!)
Nakano was a cool district, filled with people shopping and eating. Not at all touristy and the locals seemed amused by the two of us walking around with cameras. Now, as most of you know, in the UK and in Singapore there are a lot of photographers, so people are used to seeing them out on the prowl, that day was our first hint that, though it might be counter-intuitive, it might not be entirely the same in Japan.
We found フジヤカメラ店 (Fujiya Camera Store), which actually turned out to be two stores, one small vintage camera store on one side of the street and a big new retail camera shop on the other. I explained who I was and they went to the back to retrieve the lens! Five minutes later it was purchased and on my camera.
One of the test shots:
Afterwards, we wandered for awhile before finding a place to eat. We decided on a small place that smelled good from the street, was busy inside, and looked to be more a meat restaurant than a seafood one (I’m allergic to shellfish). Once inside we were a bit bemused to find out it was mostly a chicken restaurant that was famous for its chicken tataki (seared on the outside, raw in the middle)… I’d read that chicken could be (and was) eaten this way in Japan even though as a Westerner, at the thought of it, all you can hear is the voice in your head screaming ‘salmonella!’ …So, when in Rome and all that: we ordered the tataki. A friendly guy at the bar, right across from our table, leaned over and recommended another dish, chicken hearts; we’re not normally offal fans, but again, we were explorers on our first day in a foreign land, so we ordered it. The chicken tataki was very… chewy. Lol. The flavour was nice because it had been cooked over charcoal, but texture-wise I wasn’t entirely convinced. The meat inside was surprisingly dark, not like the pale chicken we are used to seeing at home. I expect it may have been a special kind, maybe the famous Nagoya Cochin? The chicken hearts were ok, but not something I’d go out of my way for again. Luckily, Nick enjoyed both dishes very much! I liked the sauces that came with them – there was a fabulous yuzu paste which I need to try to find at our Japanese grocery store.
On one hand, visiting Japan in the summer means the weather is hot and unpredictable (when you’ve been living in Singapore, that doesn’t really signify), on the other hand, it means matsuri (festivals)! If we were going to visit in the summer, I desperately wanted to go to a matsuri. Having watched a fair amount of anime, I knew that it was quite usual for some people to attend in traditional clothing, light summer kimonos called yukata, and that there would be lanterns and stalls selling food and hand-crafted goods. Everyone would wander the streets, eating, drinking, shopping, carousing, just generally being merry. Sounds good, right? So, pre-travel, I looked up what Matsuri were scheduled for so late in the summer and soon found we had but one opportunity to attend one and it was in Azabu Juban, a trendy neighbourhood in central Tokyo, on the evening of our first day. Done. So from Nakano we went back to our hotel for a rest (well, I rested, Nick went back out with the camera for awhile) and a clean up before heading to Azabu Juban.
When we boarded the train from Shinjuku (handily located right next to our hotel) we knew we were headed in the right direction because there was a girl in a yukata beside us. By the time we reached Azabu Juban Station, there were many more and a few young Japanese men in yukata as well. Awesome. There was a mass exodus from the train and, once above ground, we realised the scale of the event. The streets were packed with people! Elbow to elbow, modern fashion and yukata, young and old, drunk and not quite as drunk. In the very centre of the madness of this throng, a man stood on an elevated surface with a megaphone and a sign asking people to stay to the left. Even in what appeared chaos, the Japanese instilled order and, because of this, the ocean of people flowed.
We made our way to a crossroads where we got could get enough space to take a few shots and, having done so, Nick went off in search of drinks for us, primed with the sentence ‘2 beers please’ in Japanese. While he was gone, a couple of eccentric characters appeared to my right and greeted one another exuberantly. I couldn’t help but smile and when they noticed, they struck up a conversation. When they realised I was foreign, they got very excited and were so welcoming. I practiced my Japanese and they their English and we had a lively conversation before they had to run off and meet another friend. Brilliant.
Some images from that evening:
All in all, a very successful first day as far as we were concerned!