A Travellerspoint blog

Wearing bibs to dinner

Goodbye hugs, swanky hotels and a tour’s beginnings

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We had a little sad, but cute, moment when we left the JGH hostel this morning as our host Ayumi came to see us off. She looked genuinely upset that we were leaving and she even gave us a little hug each before watching us stagger on up the street, loaded under the weight of our bags. Still we did cheer up once we arrived at our destination, the Prince Hotel Shinagawa. This was to be the tour start and our hotel for the night. We’d decided, whilst in Australia, to do an STA group tour in Japan as we’d calculated it would reduce our costs dramatically as a rail pass alone was worth nearly the value of the whole tour. The hotel was practically bursting with luxury compared to what we are normally used to and we couldn’t wait to check into our rooms. The contrast between our last hostel and the hotel is shown below. Sadly however we couldn’t check in until two so we made our plans, left our luggage and headed off after a quick pow-wow to plan our day.

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Our first destination was the Tokyo Sky Tree, the second tallest structure/building in the world. Sadly we already knew that we wouldn’t see the inside of it as there was a cost to get in. After leaving the train station we could see it in the distance. The only problem was that it didn’t look that tall. Still we persevered and so we got up close to the tower and realised just how gigantic it really is. We do however think that the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (Still dabbling in the delights of Dubai) spoiled this a little for us, as the Sky Tree does not have the Burj’s presence or the beauty. Still it was impressive enough and after a couple of snaps we were off again on the trail.

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We stopped off at a shrine that Rach had really wanted to see, the Yasukuni Shrine. This was apparently a controversial part of the journey as it is a shrine dedicated to those who die in war and enshrines some war criminals. However when we got there all we could see was the beautiful shrine. There was no hint of any wrong doing on the part of the Japanese and it was a great experience. Even better was the small museum attached, it was here we sampled some of its delights in the foyer. It was really interesting seeing the war from a different point of view and we both really enjoyed ourselves.

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After a quick debate about walking to the Tokyo Stock Exchange we decided against it and caught the train. This was a good choice as it gave us some time to study the brochure and we discovered that it is shut on a Saturday. So after a quick readjustment we decided to head to the Sony building. It is a building packed with all the latest offerings that Sony has for the market. It sounds a bit sad but we both had a really good time wandering the floors looking at all the tech. Perhaps the highlight was the small show of their latest TV that we got treated to. When we say the picture was so clear it felt like we could reach out and touch what was being shown, it is no exaggeration.

Sadly we had to pry ourselves away from the tech as it was time to head back to the hotel to check in and meet up with our group. We let ourselves into our room and after fifteen minutes of childish joy made our way back down and spotted our group. We had a couple of things to go through but before long we found ourselves heading out for some delicious Ramen Noodles together. We had a great time getting to know our fellow tourees, laughing at each other having to wear the paper bibs to eat and it should definitely be a good two weeks. We even ended up going for a midnight stroll with three others to explore a nearby shrine. It was a truly beautiful place although sadly we forgot our camera.

By now thoroughly tired we made our way back to the hotel and after a quick blog write-up collapsed into bed.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • Check the opening and closing times. We almost messed up on the Stock Exchange.
  • From what we’ve seen so far, tours are great for luxury at a slightly more affordable price.

Posted by rexontheroad 23:11 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Am I supposed to eat this?

Geishas in training, green tea and cable TV

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Today we set out with more of an idea of what we wanted to do thanks to our lucky find of the tourist info office. So we set out with heads high and resolve strong to start the day with Hamarikya Gardens that we had heard about. After making a quick stop by the tourist office to find out some times for a tea making demo later on during the day we decided to proceed on hoof and so made our way across a small distance of the city.

An hour later and sweating buckets in the midday sun we arrived at the gardens only to find that there was an entry cost of around 300¥. Being on a tight budget (or simply being cheapskates, you decide) we didn’t go in and instead turned tail and went back the way we came, although this time we did make the wise decision of taking the train. Due to our limited financial situation we have decided that if there is a substantial cost associated with anything the only time that we will actually do it is if it is something that we really want to do. On this occasion the gardens did not fit this description.

And so, we found ourselves once again just outside Tokyo station in a little shop for a tea making demonstration. The tea was prepared in the traditional Japanese way and it is a very slow reverential process that is fascinating to watch. It then came to the tasting of the tea and somehow Rach found herself being volunteered by the many enthusiastic Japanese around us. She sat down (not realising what was going on) and was presented with some sweet bread by one of the Meiko (a Geisha in training) and took a bite. Unsure of what to next and with many eager pairs of eyes staring at her she looked around in puzzled bemusement until one of the people around us imitated that she was supposed to eat it all before drinking. She was then presented with the tea. This raised a matter of no little importance. Rach does not like green tea. However in this situation she couldn’t really refuse and so was obliged to down the bitter cup in two gulps and she performed admirably bowing like a natural born Meiko.

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After she had settled with the taste in her mouth we then relinquished our seats only to find ourselves being ushered back into some more in front of a small matted area. The two young Meiko with their painted faces and beautiful robes then performed several dances for us. The dances were absolutely incredible and flowed so beautifully. How they kept in time was a mystery to the both of us as the music playing seemed to have no rhythm whatsoever. At the same time it appeared that a tour guide had mistaken us for some people on her tour and so we got a running commentary on them as they danced elegantly in front of us. We were told about their make-up, their hair, their houses, what the structure of the learning was, everything that could be packed into small snatches of whispered conversation.

Regretfully though, the dancing came to an end, and we had to leave the shop feeling somewhat guilty at not buying anything. Still this was soon forgotten once we had reached the Meiji Shrine and gardens. The Meiji Shrine is one of the biggest and most famous in Tokyo and we had a brilliant time strolling through its tranquil gardens before arriving at the shrine itself. There we subtly tagged onto another tour once again, and learnt a lot about the shrine itself and what took place there. The gardens themselves were so peaceful that we decided to settle in for a late lunch. Normally lunch doesn’t get a mention in our blogs but on this occasion we (or Alex) feel that it merits the honour as Rach managed to get pooed on by a bird.

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Now that you’ve stopped wetting yourselves laughing at her misfortune (come on people that’s just cruel) we can move on, much as we did at this stage. We had from our small amounts of previous research discovered that the observation decks at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building are a great vantage point from which to see much of the city and best of all, unlike others, free. We got there and found to our delight (or Alex’s at least) that there were two towers to explore. We had a great time going up and down although to be honest the sights weren’t as impressive as we’d hoped although we did manage to get a glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji in the distance. We also somehow ended up being targeted by another TV crew (this time for cable tv) to give another interview. This one was much shorter although not sweeter as she kept asking us for our thoughts about the area we were in, which we hadn’t actually paid much attention to on our power walk to the towers. After that we felt that the day couldn’t get much better and so we dragged our tired limbs back to the hostel for a well deserved night’s sleep.

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Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • For a good vantage point of a giant city try the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Great on a clear day and best of all free.
  • If you are on a tight budget sacrifices will be necessary. The best way to negotiate these pitfalls will be to have a plan and stick to it.
  • Perhaps do some research into the Japanese culture in case you get volunteered to perform in a tea ceremony.

Posted by rexontheroad 15:18 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Stars of Japanese TV

Imperial gardens, free tea and national TV

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We hold up our hands and admit that we messed up a little on Tokyo. Having so many other countries to think about and with a tour already booked, we neglected to buy a travel guide or even do any research on Japan. With a touch of naivety, we'd thought we’d be able to get our hands on some English leaflets to assist us but unfortunately this was not to be.

Our arrival in Japan had started off with some excitement as this was the first country that either of us had been in which required fingerprints to enter the country. Feeling a little like criminals we managed to suss out the Tokyo train network pretty easily as they have the stations written in English so on our first day of sightseeing we headed into Tokyo station. We immediately spotted some signs for the Imperial Palace so we started there.

We headed in through Ote-mon gate where all the other tourists seemed to be flocking and came across an art gallery of pieces donated by the Emperor. They were beautiful to see. We then headed on through the gardens, which were stunning with a lake filled with koi carp and some gorgeous trees. No matter how much we wandered though we still couldn’t find the palace. At long last we did find it, tucked behind a large wall, and sadly it was shut. We found out on our tour later on during the day that it only opened two days of the year and the next one wasn’t until December!

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After having had our fill of the gardens and not too sure what to do next due to our lack of information or even a map we decided to make our way back to the station and see what we could work out from there. It was as we were struggling to find our way back that we consulted one of the maps dotting the area and we noticed, in English, those most sacred of words; tourist information centre. We had to stop ourselves from sprinting there to nestle in the familiar and comforting embrace of another info centre and once we had arrived we set about making the most of it. As the Japanese are one of the friendliest peoples on earth it wasn’t long before one of the staff came over and asked if we needed a hand and so we found ourselves being whisked off on a walking tour of the area.

The tour was somewhat unusual as we each had a headpiece so as to hear the three tour guides from a distance. They tried their hardest to give a great tour although at times did get stuck on the English (not a criticism by the way as we don’t speak any Japanese) and so at times it was a little hard to follow. They did however pick some interesting spots and we were staggered to learn that the Marunouchi area that we were in accounted for one quarter of Japanese revenue.

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As we made our way back to the Information centre a news crew suddenly appeared and began filming us. A little puzzled we attempted to act natural as we listened intently to the tour guide. They were still hovering round as we went into the activity room above the centre and we were supplied with Japanese tea (yum for Alex, yuck for Rach). They then came up to us and with one of our guides acting as translator, they asked whether they could interview us with questions about Tokyo. We agreed and spent a good ten minutes answering questions about our opinion of Tokyo, what we think of Japan, which parts were we particularly interested in and a few more. Apparently it will be on the news on Saturday morning so we’ll have to see if we can get hold of a TV!

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After our touch of fame we hung around the place a bit longer as there was a craft section. Tempted by the glitter and the flowers we ventured over and a member of staff sat with us and taught us how to write our names in Japanese, which we copied onto bookmarks and went art-attack crazy. After having created our masterpieces we then decided to do one last thing for the day and head off to Shibuya crossing, a famous crossing in Japan, that has featured in several movies. It was incredible, simply the number of people that were there was awe inspiring and the lights and sounds overwhelming. This last effort did however completely finish us off and so there our sightseeing ended for the day and one which had started off pretty badly, ended up being a very fun day.

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Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • You can buy a metro day ticket which is hop on- hop off.
  • Until we got to the airport we didn’t know that in order to fly to Japan, you had to have proof of how you’re going to leave the country. Make sure you do this in advance.
  • Japan require you to provide fingerprints on entering the country.
  • Toyko can be quite daunting unless you are armed with a guidebook or a map. The Information Centre, which is armed with many English booklets and English speaking staff, is a fantastic place to start.

Posted by rexontheroad 22:06 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Caving with an I-phone

Glowworm caves, the Hakka and the end of Jucy Lucy

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Sad to say, but we have just seen the last of New Zealand from our plane window. It has however given us an amazing time and thirty days, or 5,000km after our arrival, we can honestly say that it is the most beautiful country either of us has ever visited.

Each and every single day in New Zealand has been amazing. The last two days, true to form didn’t disappoint. Two days ago we decided to break up our long trip with a stop in Rotorua and not yet having experienced the Maori culture we visited a place called Whakarewarewa. It is a small Maori village on the outskirts of Rotorua and is still fully functional with sixty-five people currently living there on the edge of a thermal hotspot. We had a great time being guided around the village and being shown how the Maori have kept their culture in the face of modernisation. They still use the hot-springs for all manner of things; from steam cooking to washing. The only shame is that due to early European exploitation of the steam-fields to provide heating it has meant that the number of active geysers has been reduced tenfold. Those that have remained however were just as spectacular and seeing the plumes of water shoot from the ground was a sight to behold. To top it all off we were treated to a Maori cultural performance. The haka performed by the warriors; awesome; the love story played out; heart-warming; and the dance and music; entertaining and brilliant. The audience was also included as they taught us some Maori dance moves and got us to perform for them. To make it even better this experience cost us about a third of all others we’d come across anywhere else and was perfect for half a day. We left feeling entertained but also like we’d learnt something as well.

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The following day (yesterday) we visited the Waitomo caves, something Rach’s research had turned up. This spot is renowned for its glowworm tours so in a bit of a rush we booked ourselves onto a three hour tour of the Spellbound Glowworm Cave and Te Ana o te Atua (The Cave of the Spirit). Once we’d ventured inside and our guide had explained a little about glowworms, we were led to a waiting boat for a lights-out, silent cruise along a subterranean river. It sent tingles down our spines as we stared up, slack-jawed, at the myriad of pinpricks of lights covering the ceiling. Beautiful doesn’t really do it justice but it’s the best we can come up with at short notice. (By the way the pic below was stolen from the Spellbound Tours Company as our camera really didn't do it justice.)

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All too soon the lights went back on and after a brief break we were led into another cave to find the tour had been carried out in the wrong order. After the glowworm caves this cave was a bit of a comedown, and although the features were interesting, the Moa skeleton remains in particular, it just wasn’t the same. So looking to regain some of the high we’d experienced before we decided to do the Ruakuri Caves and Bush Scenic Short Walk, one of New Zealand’s top ten walks, after the tour. It was just what needed. It was an amazing walk through some brilliant cave formations, and doing a little off track caving we came across another couple with the same idea, but one step ahead of us with a torch (I-phone, what else?) We had an awesome time scrambling betwixt the stalagmites and stalactites we came across and only stopped when we couldn’t find any other route through. After getting back to the camper van, we realised, devastatingly, that it was time to head to Auckland and our flight onwards.

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And coming full circle we’re now in our seats, after a tearful farewell with Jucy Lucy, watching the in-flight entertainment (four films each already) as we beast the eleven and a half hours to Tokyo. Bring it on!

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • Although touristy, unless you are lucky enough to stay with a Maori family, cultural ‘experiences’ are a great way to get a glimpse into an amazing culture.
  • There are so many caves in the Waitomo region that you’ll be spoilt for choice. Ask the information centre about the tours so you can decide which is best for you.
  • We chose a tour that we could take photos on but unfortunately unless you have a state of the art camera, nothing will come out.
  • At Waitomo if you want to see the glowworms go on a tour as the ones you can explore yourself, whilst impressive on the cave architecture, do not perform as well on the luminescent front.

Posted by rexontheroad 10:38 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Sharing a seat with Elijah Wood

Ferry friends, a brilliant film and a return to a favourite

After twelve incredible days in the South Island we returned via ferry to the North Island somewhat glum. This didn’t last long though as we’d only just sat down on the ferry when a lady on the table next to us asked Alex for technological assistance. Before we knew it we were sitting at their table discussing everything from the role of the English monarchy today to Obama’s election campaign. They also told us about their religious beliefs and the role God plays in their lives. They were incredibly interesting people to talk to and June even gave us a copy of her book, which she signed to the both of us and we were really glad to have met them.

When our feet were planted firmly on Wellington soil once again we did what we spent most of our previous Welly time doing: visiting the Te Papa museum. We managed to see a few more exhibitions but still didn’t manage to finish it and this was our third time!

Back on our LOTR tour, (A day in Middle Earth) our guide had told us about the Embassy Theatre that had hosted the LOTR world premieres and how the seats had plaques that showing the seating arrangements during the screenings. After some gentle probing one of the Embassy staff members we found out which screen the plaques were in and so we picked a film showing in there, Looper. Barely able to contain our excitement we practically ran into the screen, did a quick scan of the plaques on the way to our seats, which were K.J.Halloran and Keith and Mary Kenderdine (any ideas?) before relaxing enough to watch the film which was absolutely amazing!

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After the credits we managed a quick run around the seats as the staff cleaned for the next performance and managed to locate Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortenson, Orlando Bloom, Sir Ian McKellan, Liv Tyler and Hugo Weaving and the picture below of us is in Elijah and Sean’s seats. We couldn’t find Peter Jackson's though so not sure if he was sitting in one of those marked ‘New Line Cinema’ or ‘In memory of.’ However even if you’re not a LOTR fan , it is still a gorgeous cinema to go to.

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Our excitement for the night didn’t end then however. We parked up to camp by a reserve in Pentone and had just pulled up and started putting down our blinds when we glanced out and saw a guy in a hood, nose pressed against the window, staring in at us. Needless to say we didn’t stay there and spent a long night trying to find somewhere to camp. We found ourselves parked up outside of Harcourt Park (illegally). This meant that we woke up this morning and got to stroll through the gardens of Isenguard contemplating the monster drive ahead.

And so here we are once again outside of Rotoura after a 451km drive taking up the entire day. Both stiff and tired we are however glad that we took the chance to shower at the Superloo in Taupo, so at least we both feel a little human again. Hopefully our backs will have straightened out enough by tomorrow to visit one of the Maori villages in area.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

* Wellington’s nickname Windy Welli is not undeserved so if in a flat-sided campervan watch for sudden gusts.

* Journeys in NZ can be long and radio signal is tenuous at best. We found a great way to keep entertained was to read short stories to the driver.

* Don’t be creepy and peer into people’s campervans, not a good look.

* Of course Rach has done a review of The Embassy Theatre and has also thrown in one for Wellington iSITE Visitor Centre.

Posted by rexontheroad 21:44 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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