Sunday, October 28, 2012

Autumn trip: Nikko National Park

Two years ago we visited the beautiful temples and historical heritage of Nikko. This time we wanted to visit Nikko again, but focus on the natural beauty of the area. Therefore, we decided to make it a weekend holiday in autumn, and enjoy the autumn foliage of Okunikko (the national park of Nikko).

Senjogahara Marsland
 We had to leave really early on Saturday morning to catch the 7:00 train from Asakusa station, to Nikko. After the approximately 2,5 hour train-ride, we arrived at Nikko station and had to change to the bus for the last 1,5 hour of our journey. Then we finally arrived at the far end of Okunikko, at Lake Yunoko. From there we travelled back through the national park by foot, enjoying the beautiful scenery all around us.

In front of the Ryuzu Waterfall
Lake Yunoko

Lake Yunoko

Yudaki Waterfall

Wooden path through the Senjogahara marshland

Ryuzu Waterfall

Autumn colours at Okunikko

Ryuzu Waterfall
The park is famous for its seasonal colours, and we visited at the beginning of autumn season so all plants and trees were starting to change into splendid red, bright orange and yellow colours. Furthermore the park is famous for the many, very big and wild waterfalls. The park has excellent opportunities for walks and hikes through the nature; climbing mountains and walking through marshland. The landscape has a big variety, so there is a lot to see in each area.

Kegon Waterfall

End of Ryuzu Waterfall
At the end of the first day walking we took the bus back to the station, and took the train to our hotel at Kinugawa Onsen. We were very lucky because we were able to book a very nice room only the Wednesday before our visit, given that was peak-season (autum-colours are very popular and attract many (Japanese) tourists). We enjoyed a nice evening in the onsen, so the next day we would be all refreshed and recharged for another day of hiking.

Our day started with a ropeway-trip, from where we climbed our way to even higher mountains, before descending back down to the lake. On our way we actually saw a wild monkey! Although we were very surprised and joyful to see the monkey, it had absolutely no interest in us. So while we were trying to take a picture, it just wandered (quickly) off into the woods, leaving us with only blurry pictures..

View on Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Waterfall from the ropeway-station
(blurry) monkey picture
Okunikko makes for a perfect weekend-trip from Tokyo, so many diverse things to see and enjoy. A nice outdoor break from the Tokyo's concrete jungle.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Akihabara is the place in Tokyo that is perfect for a "nerd-day-out": it's a shopping district catering to those interested in electronics, anime/manga and/or games.
Typical shopping street in Akihabara
Game centers, manga shops, and electrionic vendors
The many (sometimes obscure) shops sell everything a electronics fanatic would want to buy; from new to second-hand products, and from the newest technological gadgets to very old-fashioned, archaic equipment. You can go shopping in one of the many big electronic department stores, or in one of the small one-man stalls specialised in one product. Don't we surprised to find a shops selling only specific kind of cables, or special kinds of lamps.

The other parts of Akihabara have emerged only recently over the last decades and cater to the so-called 'Otaku'. A term referring those people with obsessive interests, particularly anime, manga or Japanese video games. To cater those groups many shops have specialised in selling all kinds of anime, manga and (retro-)video games. But the die-hard fan is of course also looking for (ridiculously expensive) figurines, collectibles, card games, and other merchandise. 

Games, games, and games
In addition to shopping, the die-hard animation fan can also find entertainment in Akihabara, in the form of maid cafes. Cafes where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters, and were you can order drinks and food for exorbitant prices. 
Waitress promoting maid cafe

For us, it is fun to experience to see the great number of shops selling these great variety of products. But, most of all, it is a good place to look for a cheap deal if you are in need of a second hand phone, television, game, etc.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

to the cinema: Rurouni Kenshin

Last weekend was our first visit to the cinema in a loooong time. We went to Ikebukuro, met up with our friend, and headed to Sunshine Cinema Complex. The reason we visited the cinema was the screening of the real-life action film Rurouni Kenshin. The very populair manga/anime, about the wandering swordsman in the era after the Meiji revolution, has been adapted to a real-life movie. We were very excited to see how the story (and fighting) would be directed and acted by real actors, so we were very much looking forward to our visit to the cinema.

We have watched/read the anime/manga: a perfect and most fun way to study Japanese :), so we knew the story. You can watch the movie with (English) subtitles in Roppongi, but since we knew the gist of the story, and we figured both the experience and Japanese-practice would be much better if we just watched the original (no-subtitle) version.

Without saying too much, and spoiling the story for those who do not yet know it, we can definitely say that it was a great movie, and a very good adaption from the manga. We would definitely recommend you to watch it (so those outside Japan should either wait for the international release, or the DVD (with subtitles?).

And, a good sign of our Japanese progress!, we were able to understand (most of) the Japanese in the movie. Although the bad guy could sometimes be a little hard to understand... why do evil characters always have to say their evil things in mumblings or weird slang?

Visiting the cinema in Japan is basically the same as visiting the cinema in Holland. You get your ticket at the counter, pay too much for your popcorn, sit on the seat with your number and turn off your phone before the movie starts (here almost everyone actually does turn off his phone!). The only big surprise came at the end: during the credits the lights do not go on, and everybody (still quiet) actually watched the credits with great attention.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Koenji Awaodori 2012

Japanese summer knows a lot of festivals, and among these are many Awaodori festivals: traditional dance festivals. We visited some very small scale festivals, for example the one organised by our local senior center, but also very large, crowded festivals like the yearly Koenji Awaodori.

Awaodori festivals consists of many groups of (choreographed) dancers and musicians: parading while dancing, singing and playing through the streets. They wear traditional costumes, and play instruments traditionally associated with the festival (shamisen lute, taiko drums, shinobue flute and the kane bell). All together, awaodori festivals make for truly energetic and popular events.
The dance has been nicknamed 'Fool's Dance' whose origins date back 400 years. This nickname comes from the lyrics to a common dance song, which translates as follows: Fools dance and fools watch, if both are fools, you might as well dance. The tradition can be traced back to the Tokushima area. The story goes that the local daimyo Lord Hachisuka Iemasa hosted a (drunken) celebration for his citizens to celebrate the completion of the local Tokushima castle in 1586. The amounts of alcohol lead to a citywide outbreak of dancing in the streets, some citizens started to drunkenly weave and stumble back and forth, others picked up commonly available musical instruments and began to play a simple, rhythmic song, to which lyrics were invented.

The most famous Awaodori festival in Tokyo, is the Koenji Awaodori festival, held on the last Saturday and Sunday of August. We headed there on Sunday afternoon, so we would not stand completely in the back when the dancing started at 5 o'clock. The festival is really popular, and (not surprisingly) very crowded. The parade of dancers and musicians is of course the main event of the festival, but (as with all Japanese festivals) the lines of food stalls selling all kinds of Japanese snacks/foods/drinks can't be missing.
The dancing lasts for no less then three hours, and is filled with different groups (of people young and old) forming a huge parade through the streets around Koenji station. They are wearing beautiful, colourful outfits and put together a amazing performance, and they are obviously having a great time themselves too. Instead of describing the dancers, and the musicians, it's better to just enjoy our photo's & video's and see what this festival of dance and music is all about:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ryogoku: Edo-Tokyo Museum (& Sumo)

Ryogoku lies on the east side of the Sumida River, an area of Tokyo were we never went before. It is known as the Sumo-district, with the famous Kokugikan Sumo Stadium, various sumo stables (were the professional sumo wrestlers live and train), and restaurants selling typical Sumo food.

We, however, did not travel to Ryogoku for the Sumo attractions, we wanted to visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum (Edo Tokyo Hakubutsukan). We had already visited the branch location: the Edo-Tokyo Open Air museum, in the Westerns suburbs of Tokyo in March and very much enjoyed that trip. Therefore we were very much looking forward to visit the permanent exhibition at the main museum in Ryogoku.

The building of the Edo-Tokyo Museum

The museum is easily recognizable, as it is housed in a futuristic and unique building. It's already very impressive to walk up to the building, and enter through a very long escalator in a big round tube.
The museum itself shows the past of Tokyo (formerly known as Edo) in a very interesting and interactive way. It shows very detailed how life in Tokyo used to be.

Model of old street in Tokyo

Model of an amusement district next to the river

Model of an amusement district next to the river

Many of the items on display are (life-sized) models of items, vehicles, figures, shops and stores and make it very interesting to see how Tokyo was in the past. There are quite a number of interactive models, were moving displays give you a view on the inside, or show what used to happen in various situations. For example, you get to see the inside of a former Kabuki-theatre, with a detailed show on how special effect used to be carried out. The theatre of the museum (of course in old Edo-style) holds various performances in the weekend, showing traditional Japanese entertainment.
It was truly a very interesting trip and museum, and we would definitely recommend the museum to people who are interested in the history of (life in) Tokyo.

Display of Kabuki actors and atributes

Model of Western style house (for foreign visitors) located in the floor, the roof of the building would open to you could see the inside!

After we visited the museum, we took a walk around Ryogoku. There are two very nice parks in the area, Yokoamicho Park and Kyu-Yasuda Teien Garden (with a splendid view on the new Tokyo Sky Tree!). We also walked by the Sumo Stadium and discovered that there was actually an event going on that day.
That day the national competition for junior high school students was held in the Sumo Stadium. Therefore entrance was free to the public. It was our first visit to the Kokugikan, and our first time to see sumo live, so it was very interesting to experience!

The sumo hall in the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium

Young sumo wrestlers about to start their game
The sumo wrestlers were still very young (somewhere between 12 and 15 years old) but most of them already had the characteristic body of a professional sumo wrestler, while others were still skinny and looked like they would be better suited to take part in the long distance running competition. Some pro's were also enjoying the tournament but we suspect they were scouting for talent at the same time. Regardless of who won the championship, the true winner was the McDonald's across the stadium. Everywhere wrestlers were building their body power with some good old Big Macs :).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cycling to Inokashira Park & Zoo: part II

Located in Inokashira Park is the Inokashira Park Zoo, a relatively small zoo which houses some animals you don't regularly see in a zoo. The zoo is mainly aimed at exhibiting a variety of Japanese species. That means there are no lions or tigers, but mainly indigenous animals such as birds, fish, squirrels, swans, cranes, deer, monkeys, raccoons, etc.

The zoo is divided in two areas by the main road that leads to the Ghibli Museum. The main area is home to all the animals that walk, crawl, climb, dig or fly. The second area is for all kinds of aquatic/swamp creatures.
After parking our bicycles we bought two tickets and entered the main zoo. One of the first things that struck us was how open and green the zoo was. The Mitaka neighbourhood is known for its green atmosphere but the zoo was really amazing. We took a walk and came across a huge guinea pig farm. Instead of putting the fuzzy critters behind bars, kids were allowed to pick them up from a huge 'container' - for lack of a better word - and gently pet them. There must have been hundreds of guinea pigs because every kid was holding one and still there were more eagerly waiting to be cuddled. Ultimate guinea pig cuteness!

We strolled around some more and came across one non-Japanese animal: a huge ancient Asian elephant called Hanako. She was brought from Thailand to Ueno Zoo in 1949 when she was two years old but in 1954 she was relocated to Inoshikara. She wasn't very sociable so living isolated from other elephants was the best option. With 65 years, Hanako is Japan's eldest living elephant. She might not look like a young lady any more but she seemed very happy and active in her old day. She has lost most of her teeth, so her carers feed her small sliced vegetables, or easy digestible dumplings.

Asian elephant Hanako

Hanako shows the signs of old age, and walks around slowly
After that we visited the bird house. Upon entering the bird house visitors are being cautioned to keep the doors closed at all times. Visitors to the bird house are literally visitors. You enter their territory and they freely fly all over the place. Small ones, but also huge jungle birds. Incredible. Even more incredible is the bird house itself. It looks like a post apocalyptic factory hall that has been reclaimed by nature. Vines and tropical plants are growing everywhere: around the balcony, on the stairs, round the windows. Birds are in the tree tops but also walk the ground, sit on the railing, or hop on the stairs. It feels very surreal to walk around in this environment but it's a creative way for a small zoo to attract visitors.

The outside of the bird house
Inside the birdhouse

But, the most fun place we visited was definitely the Trail of Squirrels. It's exactly was the name suggests: a lingering path through bushes and trees where squirrels dance around your feet. They play, frolic, fight and jump around while you try hard not to step on their furry little tails. Not that you would, they're just too fast! Once again it doesn't feel like your in a zoo, it's much more like you're visiting the animals. You have to be courteous and polite or else they'll bite ;).

Playing with branches and leafs
Running and jumping around

Taking a rest

On to the second area of the animal park: water creatures. We crossed the bridge to the water area and saw some kids standing around plastic water tanks. Young at heart as we are we went to take peek too. It was like the guinea pig petting farm only this time with mini lobsters! Scary but cute in a strange way. Inside the aquarium house you could pet some more animals. Like fish! Hold your hand in a certain angle in the water and the fish come rushing over. Apparently that's how they are fed everyday.

Laurens holding a lobster
 The aquarium house showed cross sections of rivers and swamps in Japan. Very impressive. The rest of the second area was mainly populated by a variety of ducks and automatically lead to the Inoshikara Park itself. We had a something to drink and moved on to leisure in the park.

Turtle in the aquarium house