Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cycling to Odaiba

Last weekend we decided to challenge the heat (and it's veeeery hot here in Tokyo!) and make a cycle tour to Odaiba. We thought it would be nice to see a lot of the city and get a nice sea breeze at the Tokyo Bay area. So, armed with our city map and lots and lots of drinks to stay hydrated during our bike ride, we set off!

During our trip, close to Odaiba
During the 16 kilometre-trip from our house to Odaiba, we passed many highlights of Tokyo. It's really surprising to see how close everything actually lies together! From our house, we first passed Tokyo Dome City, the shopping and entertainment district (including an amusement park and onsen!) around the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium.
From there it was only a little further to pass the Yasukuni Shrine, the Nippon Budokan and finally the Imperial Palace. It was very surprisingly how many festivals or events were happening in Tokyo on a random Sunday in July. A music festival in the park close to the Imperial Palace, a festival at the Yasukuni shrine, a big Gosplay-gathering with lots of people beautifully dressed up as their favourite characters and small events in the smaller neighbourhoods we passed through!
The streets around the imperial palace were actually closed for car-traffic, so we could ride our city-bicycles over the big streets of Tokyo. An experience we shared with many professional cyclists who chose this day the train on the road without being bothered by traffic lights or other traffic.
After the Imperial Park we cycled through Ginza, the famous shopping street were it was veeerrry busy this Sunday (probably because of the big Sale a lot of the shops were having) For us this meant having to navigate through big crowds of people, cars and taxi's. Not really the street designed the leisurely cycle through.
After that we finally reached the Tokyo Bay area, and we travelled passed Tsukishima and crossed lots of bridges (the view on Tokyo kept getting better and better!) until we finally arrived at Odaiba.

View on Tokyo from on of the bridges in Tokyo Bay area

We spend the day seeing around Odaiba, doing some shopping (also Sale here!), taking pictures at the big Gundam statue in front of the new shopping mall,  enjoying the light sea breeze, and viewing the beautiful scenery on Tokyo. On the small beach at the shore of Odaiba there was a big event advertising Tokyo as candidate for the Olympics of 2020. Lots of lights on the beach showed pictures of different Olympic Sports.
Posing for the big Gundam

Light for the Tokyo candidate-ship for the Olympics 2012 (picturing the legs of a horse)
The Olympic rings on the beach, with Tokyo in the background
The view from Tokyo Bay area on Tokyo was absolutely stunning. But  after a long day, we had to cycle the 16 kilometre back home. But cycling through dark Tokyo, lit up with lights was actually very beautiful. A little tired we finally arrived back home safely, after a fun - but definitely also very athletic - day.

Beautiful night view on Tokyo from Odaiba

Monday, July 23, 2012


On our last day of our Kyoto-vacation we had to say goodbye to Daphne's parents and grandparents at the bus-station, who would be flying back to Holland after a week of sight-seeing.
Our bus back to Tokyo would only leave at 11 o'clock in the evening, so we had an extra day to spend in Kansai-region. Because we had already seen so much in Kyoto, we decided to visit a different city. We decided to visit Kobe because we had never been there before and we're interested in the city's history.

View on Kobe city from the harbor

Unfortunately, this was also the day that the rain season caught up with us.. After a morning with dark clouds hanging above us, it started pouring rain in the afternoon :-( We had to run to a dry place and buy some cheap umbrella's to stay dry the rest of the day (you can always count on Lawson's 100 for your emergency cheapness).

Kobe has been an important port city for many centuries and was much involved in foreign trade. We think the area around the port terminal is therefore also the most interesting part of the city. Around this area is the Meriken Park, with the characteristic Kobe tower and Maritime museum; and Kobe harborland, a shopping and entertainment district with many shops and restaurants.

View on Kobe tower, the Maritime museum, and part of Kobe port terminal
The international elements of Kobe's port are quite visible in the city. Some of the old foreign merchants houses remain in the city, and close to the harbour lies Chinatown (Nankinmachi), developed by Chinese merchants who settled in Kobe at the end of the 19th century. Chinatown is a popular attraction, mostly because of the delicious Chinese food . We also enjoyed some Chinese dishes for lunch!

Kobe's Chinatown in rain

The center of Nankinmachi (Chinatown)
 Kobe also seems to have a things for placing foreign statues in it's city. We had no idea why these two statues were placed in Kobe, but we fought is was very funny to just run in to these at the streets of Kobe:
Elvis & Laurens
'Manneken Pis'

The recent history of Kobe is overshadowed by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. On January 17, 1995 Kobe was hit by a big earthquake that destroyed much of the city and killed more than 5000 people. In the Meriken Park part of the damage of the earthquake is kept 'intact', so people have a visual reminder of the destruction it caused. It's very confrontational to see how destructive such a big earthquake is.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


An absolute must-visit day-trip from Kyoto is Nara! It can be reached in less then a hour by train and makes a lovely visit outside Kyoto. Actually, Japanese trains are quite interesting, so even the train-ride itself can be regarded as part of the trip. Not only is it a nice opportunity to see the landscape, but try to sit in the front of the train, and you can even observe the driver (very interesting!).

Front of the train: train driver and some train-spotters on the platform
 In 710 Nara became the first permanent capital of Japan, and still Nara is full of historical treasures: many (large) temples, shrines and old districts.

Todaji temple, Nara
 One of the most famous temples in Nara is probably the Todaji temple because the temple houses an enormous bronze statue of Buddha. The statue is 15 meter tall, and weighs more then 500 ton! It's very impressive to stand in front of the daibutsu when entering the temple.

The Daibutsu in Todaji temple

Bronze statue of Buddha in Todaji temple
 Located in the back of the temple is a pillar with a hole that is the same size as the statue's nostril. (around 0,5meter). Our guide has told us that the one of the monks who used to work on making the Buddha had to use the statue's nostril to get out of the Buddha once it was finished! Now, you can try the same with the hole in the pillar. And it's said, that if you manage to squeeze through, you will be blessed with enlightenment in your next life. Seeing the size of the hole, and the difficulty to get through, this enlightenment will be mostly given to children or small people!

Although not really a historical treasure, still a very popular attraction in Nara: deer. Nara is full of deer that roam freely around in Nara park, where many of Nara's temples and museum are located. Deer are said to be the messengers the Gods in Shinto, and have become a symbol of Nara and a national treasure. The deer are quite tame (except when you have food ;) and you can walk around them and feed them with special crackers you can buy at the park.

Deer in front of the Kojukuji temple
Deer by the lanterns of Kusaga Taisha shrine
Dry garden destroyed by deer walking around ;)

Another popular attraction in Nara were we, very surprisingly, ourselves! The day we visited Nara, a lot of school from whole over Japan had school trips to Nara. So it was very busy with buses and school children. And many times the children came to us, to ask us if they could take a photo with us! (we are just as cool an attraction as the daibutsu!) A lot of these schools came from areas in Japan were normally not many foreign tourists visit, so they thought it was quite rare to see us :)

Taking a picture with school children in Nara

As we did before when we visited Nara two years ago, we complemented this day with a lunch of Kansai-speciality: Okonomiyaki. Japanese-style pancakes and very delicious!

Okonomiyaki-lunch in Nara

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Kyoto Part 4: Monkey Park in Arashiyama

In the north-west part of Kyoto lies Arashiyama, a very atmospheric district with lots of attractions. The view of Arashiyama is beautiful as it is located along the river and close to the mountains. There are many temples, shops, restaurants in this area. There is also a bamboo grove and you can rent a boat to travel the river too.

View on the scenery surrounding Arashiyama
Boats along the river

However, our favourite attraction in Arashiyama is absolutely Monkey Park Iwatayama! The monkey park is located in the Arashiyama mountains, and can be reached after about 10-15 minutes hiking uphill. After the hike you arrive at an open area where the monkeys can roam freely, and were they will be fed several times a day.

When we visited Monkey Park there were lots of baby-monkeys around, mostly sitting close to their mothers, very cute! かわいい!From the visitor centre you will be able to feed the monkeys; you will actually be inside, while the monkeys can roam freely outside but will come to you to get the food. They are very sweet and cute in how they carefully get the food from your hands!

Feeding a mama-monkey
Baby monkey with mama
Baby monkey feeding by mama

Because it was a very warm, sunny day when we visited Monkey Park, the monkeys were playing around a lot at the water pool! They were just like little children, chasing each other and trying to throw each other in the water.

Monkey drinking water at the pool
Because Monkey Park is located on a open field in the mountains, you have a wonderful view over Kyoto from the park. We think actually one of the most beautiful views of Kyoto. And sometimes, the monkeys will be lying on the view points, appearing to be also enjoying the lovely scenery!

Wonderful view from Monkey Park Iwatayama

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kyoto Part III: Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji (silver and golden tempel)

For part 3 of our Kyoto updates we will tell a little bit about our visit of the two temples in Kyoto with beautiful shiny names: Ginkakuji (the silver temple) and Kinkakuji (the golden temple). These temples are actually located at different sides of the city, with the Ginkakuji lying in the eastern part of the city (accessible by a leisurely stroll on the Philosopher's Path) and Kinkakuji located in the Northern part of the city.

Kinkakuji has the longest history of the two temples. In 1397 it was build by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu for his retirement villa, and only after his death in 1408 is began to serve as a Zen temple. The temple is most famous for its beautiful looks, the Pavilion is a very impressive building. The two top floors of the temple are completely covered in gold leaf, making it shine in the sunlight, and is reflected in the pond. Therefore there is a special area designated to shoot pictures, where it is very crowded with people taking photo's and posing in front of the temple! 

Of course we also took a pose for the picture
The Golden Pavilion reflected in the water
The Golden Pavilion

Ginkakuji was build in 1482 by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, modelled after the Golden temple of his grandfather. However, the silver temple was actually never covered in silver! Maybe the name was only given as a nickname to contrast it with the Golden temple.. or maybe, he just ran out of money..
Silver or not, the temple does look impressive. It's located between a green garden, and next to a big dry sand garden "the sea of silver sand" (and no, the sand is not actually silver ;) with a big cone of sand with the name "moon viewing platform". When we visited Ginkakuji they were actually just working on making the sand cone, very interesting to see!

The Silver Pavilion
The Silver Pavilion with 'the sea of silver sand'

View on Ginkakuji from a high point in the garden

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Kyoto Part II: Fushimi Inari Shrine

One of the most well-known places in Kyoto is the Fushimi-Inari shrine. Famous for the endless rows of vermillion (reddish-orange) torii gates, it has been a background in many popular drama series and movies, like 'Memoirs of a Geisha. It is located in the south of Kyoto, two train stations from Kyoto Central. Taking the train is the most convenient way to go since the station is right in front of the main gate.

Fushimi Inari Shrine
 Fushimi Inari is dedicated to Inari, the shinto god of rice and business. His messengers are foxes (kitsune) of which there are many statues all over the mountain. Most of the foxes are depicted with a granary key in their mouth, a symbolic key to success and prosperity. Though their boss is the god of rice, the foxes are more into tofu. It is said that their favourite food is 'aburaage': fried tofu. We enjoyed some delicious kitsune udon (fox udon: noodles with aburaage on top) with the family and Daphne's mom was immediately sold, she absolutely loved it. After our fox powered lunch we set out to climb the mountain.

Big fox by the Fushimi shrine
Fox next to the Torii gates

Kitsune-udon, delicious!

The shrine consists of a main worship hall  and several auxiliary buildings. Though these are very beautiful the main attraction lies beyond: a pathway through several thousand torii all the way to the mountain top. Estimates differ on how many gates there are. Some say around 1300, other sources say around 5000. In any case there are many, many gates. Donating a small one costs about 4000 Euro, a bigger one costs more than 10.000 Euro. If your company isn't bankrupt after this, it will surely flourish after receiving Inari's blessing. While walking the path we saw the construction of a new torrii. With absolute precision it is pieced together between the existing gates. Though job!

Path of Torii gates
Torii gates on the Inari mountain
 Besides heavenly foxes, the Inari mountain is also home to a lot of cats. We found a mother and kitten along our climb and played with them for a while. Very cute furry creatures.

Small kitten at one of the shrines between the Torii gates
Laurens playing with the little kitten
Near the top there's a beautiful view over Kyoto city. A very rewarding treat for the steep trip. We had some refreshments (refreshments in our dictionary usually comes in the form of ice cream) and decided to slowly make our return downwards.

The beautiful view from Inari mountain

Monday, July 2, 2012

Kyoto Part I

After we finished our exams at school and had the last inteviews with the teachers for this period, we went home and immediately started packing our backs. That same night we would take the night bus for a vacation in Kyoto! We had been looking forward to this trip; Kyoto is a very nice city and Daphne's parents and grandparents would join us there too. So, after a night sleeping in the bus, we went to meet them at Kyoto station. We hadn't seen them for half a year, so spending the week together was very nice. We even had an extra special occasion this week, as Daphne's grandmother celebrated her birthday during the vacation!

Family portrait at the Fushimi Inari Torii gates

We had been warned by friends that it was still rain season, and we should expect lots of rainy days in Kyoto. The whole family came prepared with rain boots and umbrella's, but it turned out we were very lucky this week! Even though the week before we came the weather was quite bad and the weather forecasts didn't look good, we had a week with lovely, sunny weather and no rain at all! (well, apart from an occasional shower in the night - but who cares about those?)

The Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashiyama during "rain-season"

We had visited Kyoto before in 2010, but it was great to be back again. The contrast between Tokyo and Kyoto is extreme. The busy streets and subway stations suddenly become quiet, the big skyscrapers are turned into huge temple complexes, most shops in the centre close after 8 o'clock in the evening, and people walk much slower. After living in Tokyo for so long, you feel like you are visiting a beautiful small town when you take a holiday in Kyoto. Although it is still Japan's 7th largest city and has 1.5 million citizens, it feels so much more small and relaxed.

Maruyama Park, a peacefull and quiet park in the middle of Kyoto

Kyoto really is a beautiful city, full of history and with so many things to see that will impress you. For eleven centuries it was the capital of Japan and the emperor's residence, until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, after which the country's capital moved to Tokyo. Although fires, wars and earthquakes destroyed parts of Kyoto in the past, the city was largely spared from bombings during the Second World War because of it's cultural value. Therefore, Kyoto has an abundance of history, traditional neighbourhoods and old buildings, temples, shrines and gardens.

The Imperial Palace

We had a very busy schedule this week, and were able to see lots of the history of the city. Because we saw so much in this one week, we will make several updates so we can share with you all highlights from our vacation!

The Hojo Rock Garden in Nanzen-ji

The Sanmon Gate at Nanzen-ji
The rock garden of Ryoan-ji

The Bamboo Groves in Arashiyama