Bali bound!

Well, I’m off again! and just like the last time I found myself in this position (on a recent trip to Japan) I find myself behind on blogging about my last travel experience despite having a new one upcoming and demanding my attention.. So for now the last few days of Japan will have to wait. It’s Bali time! (And beyond)

Currently I sit, reclined in a beautiful airport lounge called Sama Sama at Kuala Lumpur airport. I’ve just dined on a buffet lunch of noodles and samosas followed by ice cream, I’m utilising free wi fi AND I’m on my third beer – an amazing package deal that has cost me about $30AUD. 

I am so damn excited to be back in Asia! 

I cannot wait to get to Bali. 

In the lead up I’ve heard both good and bad stories about the island that leave me with almost zero expectations.. Surely it can’t be as bad as the critics say? 

I guess I’ll find out….

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Hiroshima. A post that matters.

Well, we only had a couple of days in Hiroshima – a surprisingly populous city (home to over 1 million people) that lies on the Southern end of Japan’s main island – Honshu. Ordinarily I would consider this a very short time and leave with a hyper-awareness of everything that I had missed out on. But this time round I think two days is probably all I could have handled. Which is not to say that I hated Hiroshima, that’s not why at all! It was that being there.. was so emotionally exhausting.

I think that as members of the privileged Western World we (for the most part) cannot claim ignorance to the events that surrounded the dropping of not one, but two atomic bombs on the people of Japan at the end of World War Two.. And if you actually don’t know what I am talking about.. Then you need to do the whole world a favour and go and do some fucking research! This’ll get you started: LEARN SOMETHING

….Geeze, immediately in undertaking to write this blog, the emotions that hit me during my visit to Hiroshima have come, screaming, back into my head. And they’re manifold. I mean, look, first of all this ‘event’ was a sad, tragic, horrible, devastating, truly fucked up thing to happen to a POPULATION worth of people.. It’s sad as shit. But because nothing like it has happened in the history of the world – not before or since- it’s impossible from the outset to describe how it felt to reach, even a remote understanding, of the devastation that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima caused. No previous author has had to come up with words big enough to be worthy of this event. No multi-purpose adjective is suitable. Atomic warfare creates new rules and as such, demands a new language – one which I am, gladly, not privy to.
And although, of course, I understand that mass life-losses have occurred the world over, again and again and again and again in human history. No single event has ever destroyed this many lives instantaneously. Which means that although there is existing literature of war and famine and dictatorship and terrorism and natural disaster and mass suicide.. words cannot be bent to rightly describe this. So bare with me..

80,000 people. A blip on the radar. A flick of a switch. A nod of a head. Gone.. Incinerated where they stood. Souls, whose bodies left no remains. Years and years of training to be this thing that we call human.. All for nothing. All condemned by a foreign stranger, so simply. All gone.
…. This isn’t something you can just read, this is something you have to feel. This is something you have to understand. Because if we can do this to one another and claim ignorance and feel nothing.. Then how can we possibly justify our existence?

And trust me, I am no supporter of the human race. For the most part, I think that when we kill each other, it’s a blessing on the earth – which we, generally, knowingly, SHIT ON on a daily basis. And although that does apply literally, our actual human faeces is the least of it.. What I’m really talking about here is our astonishing, self-righteous ability to justify the atrocious way we live – Carbon emissions, green house gasses and climate change. Ocean acidification, sonic-blasting and trawling. De-forestation, mining and blood-diamonds. The production of waste on an astronomical scale. The mass extinction of every other species on earth. The development of a food system that is dominated by conglomerates and exploits land, animals and people to make a profit in a way which is not only unsustainable but also, absolutely fucking STUPID. I mean… we are more than apt in fucking up everything that we’ve ever been given, but we have to turn on one another as well?.. We are SO human. And we don’t compromise on destruction. Why choose one aspect of this earth to screw over when you can screw them all! – The (NOT ‘our’) oceans, the forests, the soil, the food-chain, other animals and each other?
So maybe the loss of our species is not such a tragedy after all.. And in my opinion, it’s not. If mother earth rolled my arse off her face tomorrow I would understand. BUT, even though I hold this brutally honest perspective on the human race, I could NEVER use it as an excuse to do something as significant as dropping an ATMOIC weapon on a busy city.
So I come back to my original question: When we know the extent of the destructive power that we are capable of and none the less use it against the world – How can we possibly justify our existence?

How about some relevant facts..
The atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was the first ever to be used intentionally to cause destruction against humanity.
This bomb was known as “Little Boy” (an irony I find disgusting).
The bomb was dropped on the 6th of August 1945 at 8.16AM.
70,000 – 80,000 people were killed instantly.
Between 90,000 and 166,000 people are believed to have died in the four month period following the bomb drop – from related wounds and radiation.
Up to 237,000 people died in the five year period following the bomb drop – from related wounds, radiation and cancer.
The city was almost completely levelled with 70,000 of some 76,000 buildings completely destroyed or severely damaged.
The bomb exploded approximately 2,000 feet/209 metres above the city of Hiroshima.
Everything (except a few reinforced obstructions) within a 1 mile/1.61 kilometre radius was obliterated.
The heat released by the explosion reached several million degrees Fahrenheit (also several million degrees Celsius) within one millionth of a second.
Within one second a fireball of 200-300 metres in diameter had emerged and engulfed everything in its path.
In the first few seconds following the initial blast, pressure of 4.5-6.7 tonnes per square metre moved at the speed of sound away from ground zero.
A white flash of energy let off by the bomb imprinted shadows into pavements and burnt all light materials, including flesh, in moments.
And after the heat and light and pressure of the initial blast.. Fires broke out and ravaged the remains of the city and it’s people for days.
And after the fires, radiation continued to destroy lives for years – picking people apart from the inside, deconstructing their DNA.
Just one more..
A commonly accepted image of the aftermath of the initial blast by survivors.. is that of people walking around, arms out in front of them, lost, disoriented and burnt.. with flesh hanging off of them in chunks and ribbons.

So.. sadness – thats the first emotion that struck me.

But the one that really took me over after a day walking around the A-Bomb Dome and it’s surrounding Peace Park and museum was different.. Because, although there is this deep, deep sadness. And although this sadness is the obvious emotion to feel towards such an event.. After seeing that shard of a building, after walking through the grounds of the Peace Park, after witnessing the horrors of the ‘Peace Memorial Museum’ (a title which says a lot about the Japanese people and how they now feel towards nuclear destruction) and after reading the biography of a survivor who was there, in front of us, at the A-Bomb Dome, trying to educate visitors about what had happened. What I felt, was not exactly sadness..
It was white-hot, blinding, rage. The kind of rage that literally blurs the sides of my vision. That I can feel as a numbness in my chest. It dizzies me. It deafens me. It makes my fingers tingle and my eyes burn. It makes me so hyper-aware of my heart gasping inside of me that it would be absolutely terrifying had I not experienced it before.. But of course I have. This is the rage, which left unchecked, turns my mind against my body, and becomes a full-fledged anxiety attack. It is the rage, which when suppressed altogether, becomes depression. Thus, it is a most delicate, most empowering kind of rage. A rage that must be expressed in balance. And so a write…

But why rage? Well! – When the deed was done. When the dust began to settle days later. As the dying suffered. As the living mourned. As the dead lay decomposing. America denied everything. The propaganda machines were booted and sent into a protective, cowardly frenzy. The people of Japan were given no compensation, no recognition. Not even an apology in the years following. Today the Peace Memorial Museum of Hiroshima stands as a proud monument seeking world peace and an end to nuclear weaponry. The people of Japan admit to starting a war and admit to the greed of their leaders at the time. They understand the conditions which lead to the development and dropping of the atomic bombs on their country and they are willing to take blame for refusing to surrender earlier. Japan has spent 71 years mourning. Now all it wants is peace.
I mean… What amazing people!
And yet. Research into atomic weaponry continues. Arms races have escalated beyond the wildest dreams of the 50’s. The world ticks along without having to think about it. America votes into power the most dangerous, self-righteous, politically uneducated, white-man they can find. And global tension builds again.. We learn nothing! We ignore anything that makes us feel or think deeply! We blunder through life carelessly and when something finally goes wrong, when our stupidity finally comes to stare us starkly in the face… We deny it all. We sweep it under a giant rug and shout louder at the media than those who hold the real facts. We listen to the wealthy, who buy false research, and let them sooth us into believing that nothing has to change. Our effort is not required. We can go back to our senseless shopping.. HOW DO WE JUSTIFY AN EXISTENCE AS MEANINGLESS AS THIS!
Even IF the mass loss of human life is not a tragedy. Even IF Japan is willing to take the blame for it’s own destruction. Even IF the war has come to an end. HOW do we live in a world which is not even mature enough to say the word “sorry” when it’s so long overdue? HOW do we live in a world so filled with denial and lies and greed?…

In 2016 for the first time in history, a sitting president of the United States of America made a visit to Hiroshima. His name was Obama. The people of Japan wept with gratitude. He, still, did not offer an apology.

So rage is the real emotion that I felt.

But I’ll let Japan have the final say because rage is not at all what they want.

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A brief stop over at Himeiji Castle 

On our way out of Kyoto we took up the opportunity to a stop off at a gorgeous hill-top castle in Himeiji (called Himeiji Castle). This castle is well known for the fact that it has never in it’s history been laid siege to and taken over, despite the fact that it was established way back in 1346. But this is probably because it has pretty damn formidable defences specifically designed to utilise the progress of weaponry power that took place in Japan around the time – namely the development of automatic guns. Which means that while earlier castles relied on a succession of moats and stone walls to keep out intruders, Himeiji, well ahead of the rest, developed gun-holes and protected lookouts that allowed defenders to pick off intruders one by one with modern technique.

But the castle, besides it’s brilliant protection mechanisms, was also generally beautiful. It had the extensive gardens and excessive number of rooms that you would expect of any modern day European castle – with room chambers that would have easily been considered luxurious in comparison to the everyday housing of the Edo period that we saw in the Museum of Housing and Living in Osaka.. But despite this, somehow, the castle in it’s entirety managed to retain that lovely Japanese simplicity. With it’s exposed wooden floor boards, plain white walls, a general lack of plumbing and electric work and long empty hallways. Although, to be fair, I imagine that the whole place would once have been much more lavishly decorated and fabulously furnished than was left for us to see. And had there been a royal family residing there today I am sure that so much space would not have been left so bare. In fact it was really a bit of a shame to find that even the most basic of traditional Japanese furnishings had been removed from not just a few, but actually all but one of the castles rooms.. so that although we could move more or less freely throughout the premises, I guess we didn’t really get a true insight as to how the wealthy lived here.. And it also meant that much of that magic, dollhouse-like quality that I would usually associate with royal residences was lost. Which was perhaps the real tragedy.

But, as a whole, Himeiji was none the less no disappointment and to see the labyrinth of gates and walls and the sheer size of the grounds was worth the stop alone. Plus, beneath a clear, blue sky day the castle shone like new on its hill-top perch, giving off an air of success and wealth which was rather astounding. And to accompany the majestic grounds was the tragic fairytale story of a princess Sen – a war widow twice over, who lost one of her children at a young age to illness, and eventually retired to monk-hood to see out the end of a life that had been full of despair in solemn prayer.. And alongside her tale was the rest of the castle’s history of residents too – making it very easy to lose a few hours here (which was a pleasant surprise to find, because in my travels throughout Asia thus far I have often found that English explanations lack at such touristic spots).

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But we had another destination to reach before the day’s end, so we had to move on. Although, despite this, on our way out of the city we found an awesome outdoor food market that we had to stop at for a hour or two. So we nibbled at Naan bread and samosas and drank beer for a while, and watched the locals out enjoying the sunshine.

And then we re-boarded the Shinkansen and shot off towards Hiroshima.

Kyoto – Temple city.

Kyoto is a city of both the old and the new – where cobbled streets and ancient temples meet exclusive dining and high end shopping. It’s quaint and beautiful and hectic and modernised. It’s a small city with a big city feel, and it has something to suit everyone – so it draws the crowds.

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Having heard so many good reviews we set aside a whole four days to spend in this popular city.. and for the first time during this trip I can say that we were, perhaps, just a little disappointed. Maybe it was just that we were beginning to tire of temple-hopping or that our expectations were too high on this occasion.. I am not at all trying to say that Kyoto was not worth the stop – because it totally was! But something just seemed to lack here.. and although we definitely enjoyed seeing the gorgeous streets of this old capital, I couldn’t help but feel that we perhaps gave Kyoto too much of our short time in this wonderful country and as a result we spent too many precious hours wandering about aimlessly, not necessarily finding anything new. Which of course can be great if you manage to get off the tourist track and find a sense of home in a foreign part of the world or if you discover something new or meet someone inspirational.. but we didn’t. We just found an emptiness that we didn’t quite know what to do with..
However regardless of what ever it was that we may have thought was lacking (maybe it was too commercial? Maybe it was too common? Maybe there were just too many damned tourists?!) we did see some awesome sights in Kyoto that I’m glad we didn’t miss out on.

Day one:
We arrived in Kyoto in the middle of a grey, rainy day and hastily made our way to our accommodation (an Airbnb) to dump our gear and dry off. Then, so as not to waste any more time, we promptly headed out to go temple spotting! Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera – a really, truly unique Japanese temple which balances on high, bare wooden beams over a steep and picturesque hillside of bright autumn colours. We lingered here for a few moments, gazing out over rolling hills covered in thick forest and enjoying a scene that felt quiet and calm despite the presence of a reasonable crowd. And then we wandered down into the gardens below.

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From the bottom of the hillside the giant wooden supports of Kiyomozu-dera were all the more impressive and their size, integrity and ingeniousness could be better felt. But it wasn’t just the clever structure of the temple that people came to see here – there was also a fountain of fresh mountain water to be drunk from! And this was no ordinary mountain fountain.. This fountain was designed in such a way that you had to reach out with a cup-on-a-stick to catch the falling water, which ran down from above your head in three thin streams and out into a pond before you. And it is believed that, dependant upon which stream you chose to drink from (and you can only choose one), you will be granted a specific fortune: ‘money and love’, ‘longevity’ or ‘good grades in school’. So we happily joined in and quenched our thirst from a randomly selected stream – seeing as it was not explained to us which stream provided which fortune. And the water was fresh and clear and cool from mountain air.

And since, we have of course conducted some basic research (really just a brief Google) that leads us to believe that our randomly selected stream just so happened to be that of ‘money and love’ – which is the stream I would have deliberately chosen given half a chance. So perhaps the temple understood us better than we realised. Perhaps our fortunes were meant to be left to fate?.. At least I sure hope I didn’t waste my good fortune on good grades..

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And then it was on to Sanjusangen-do, ‘The Temple of 1001 Buddha’ (which are actually Bodhisattva – beings who stave off reaching full enlightenment – and thus becoming a Buddha – in order to stay and teach humans of the ways of the Buddhism). A temple, unlike most in Japan, that is styled as a simple long hall. But which none the less has earned it’s name –  because this hall is not named as a metaphor or exadguration or in reference to a painting or half-arsed depiction. Instead, there are literally 1001 carefully detailed, life-sized, identical golden idols within it’s walls. All of which, despite the fact that they have been carved across generations – and not by a single master of the art – show an eerie similarity to one another and a stunning attention to detail on behalf of their creators. And the only single exception to this theme of repitition is one giant, sitting rendition of the single selected character – named Kannon – who is much bigger than the rest and sits contentedly, cross legged in the middle of the hall, in a giant, open lotus flower.

But in case the sheer number of idols and the skill of their replication is not quite enough. The Bodhisattva that these monuments are modelled after (Kannon) is also the Bodhisattva of 1000 arms.. So each rendition of Kannon that rests in this hall has been granted 42 arms.. A fair representation I think.. And each arm presents to the viewer one of 42 different objects that are thought to bring human health and happiness – A bell, a house, an axe, a charm, a book, a bow.. The details are astonishing. Each individual Kannon is such a carefully carved, shining example of human commitment and attention to detail, while in unity the collection presents a formidable wall of worship and wealth. No matter how you view it, this temple is spectacular.

And outside, as always, there was a beautiful little rock garden to walk around aswell.

And then, all too soon, daylight was lost. So we headed off to find dinner with a light rain continuing to patter overhead. And, in Kyoto, there is one place to go for food that has a reputation far ahead of the rest – Gion. A posh, modern suburb that brags of wealth and exclusivity. So we headed into this area hoping to find some memorable fare. And it’s certainly fair to say that the area immediately impressed upon us an air of sophistication. Here the streets weren’t the busy, raucous, steaming crowds of vendors that one usually finds in Japan. They were instead quiet, dimly lit and empty. The only thing indicating the presence of restaurants at all in fact was the silent menus which marked out empty doorways and no doubt led into quiet, dimly lit inner sanctums of rich business people sipping sake and nibbling at thinly sliced fish.. Although all of this interior detail, of course, I can only assume.. because the high prices on those silent menus were enough to promptly direct us elsewhere.. We selected a much busier, more raucous, more typical street to eat dinner on instead.

Day two:
On day two we suffered a minor set back in our sight seeing schedule after a bag was left behind at a restaurant following lunch (no one deserves the whole blame here). A fact that we only realised when we were half way to our final destination of the day. Thus we had to forgo our final destination in order to retrieve our personal belongings – among which were two $750.00 Japan Rail passes.. But alas, the property was found safely and we still managed to fit in some really nice sightseeing despite this little hiccup.. Actually, it was a pretty good day!

Our main destination was Gingkaku-ji (Gingkaku temple) or the ‘silver pavilion’, which is a rather simple Japanese temple that isn’t so much named for its actual colour as opposed to it’s colour in comparison to Kyoto’s ‘golden pavilion’ – which is actually covered in gold leaf. But despite the rather unspectacular grey of the building itself, what is really beautiful is the gardens. As always the Japanese landscapers who designed this place have done a stellar job in creating something inconceivably beautiful from simple rocks and moss. So we strolled the gardens for a time and drank in the bright greens of thick moss, the pale greys of exposed rocks and the furious reds of autumn trees. We watched water droplets ripple and disturb clear ponds, we climbed gravel stairways into thick scrub and looked out over the temple’s simple roof. We picked out our favourite autumn colours from the rainbow array presented to us and we even found a small bamboo grove with the thickest stalks of bamboo that I have ever seen.. It was a really beautiful place to linger about.

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Of course, we had to leave this small wonderland at some point, but reluctant to cease our meandering ways we next found ourselves walking the nearby ‘Philosophers Path’. This gentle walking track follows a low stream along a small back-road of odd shops and houses, and is lined with leaning trees. On our way we stopped in to browse and buy beautiful, hand crafted chop sticks from a small road-side store and found a wee pottery shed where we sat for a while and crafted simple clay cups. Of which the latter was surprisingly easy, we thought, despite how hard people always try to make pottery out to be.. Although, of course our creations were nothing at all complex, and were probably much thicker than conventional crockery due to our inability to mould the clay into a fine china without having it collapse.. However we don’t yet know the true beauty of our creations and so cannot yet judge them, as they will each take 3 weeks to set. After which time they will be delivered to our home in Melbourne. So before the success of our careers in the pottery field can be determined we must desperately hope that these first attempts will arrive to us well packaged and unbroken within a months time.. I can’t wait to see the end products. My hopes are high.

And then, after spending the first half of our day so slowly we decided it was time for lunch.. and it’s at this point, after having consumed an exceedingly average Indian/Nepalese meal, that we momentarily lost our day bag.. and with it the last of the days light (this was obviously a late lunch).
But we are not the type to dwell on such misfortunate events – and all turned out well in the end with nothing lost or stolen. So with one missed opportunity we took up another. We took advantage of our newly freed night to check out a light show that was on at Kodai-ji (Kodai temple). Which was damn spectacular, and completely unexpectedly so.
This light show projected all sorts of creatures and tippy colours on the temple lawn and surrounding white fences of Kodai-ji – which were brilliantly clear and accompanied by intense gong-like music that could be heard rumbling throughout the temple grounds long before the lights could be seen. But of all the monsters and creatures and colours involved in the projections the best were those that followed the existing lines of the temples gates and simply coloured them in, in an olden style which made the whole surface look wooden and thatched. It was brilliantly done, and wicked to have stumbled into! And it provided such a fantastic modern twist to the typically ancient nature of a temple. In fact it was so good that we made sure to watch it twice (each show lasting about 5 minutes) and even after our second sitting we left impressed and elated.

Day three:
On day three we prioritised catching up on the site we missed the day before – Kinkaku-ji (Kinkaku temple) or the ‘Golden Pavilion’. A site which is truly worthy of it’s name, because it is almost entirely coated in gold leaf. Although I must say, despite this hefty claim to fame I was rather disappointed by the ‘Golden Pavilion’ – which seemed to lean largely on the fact that it is gold to gain recognition. Because the surrounding gardens were less impressive than many that I have seen in Japan and the temple itself was of quite plain and simple in design.. And besides, the place was overrun with school children and other tourists so that we all had to tussle about to reach prime photo locations, lookouts or just to generally move about.

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So without lingering here too long we moved on to our next stop – The Kyoto Botanical Gardens. Where, for a minimal entrance fee, we were allowed to meander throughout a massive garden-scape that was, simply put, absolutely gorgeous. We wandered beneath trees of red, green, purple, orange and yellow, amongst roses and orchids and blossoms, through pathways, over bridges and between bushels, and found our way into the single best tropical conservatory I have ever seen. And in here, throughout 5 separate but interconnected glasshouses we discovered flowers that were thick, heavily scented, carnivorous and cleverly shaped. We saw tall cacti and bulbous fruits and long leaves and crystal ponds. It was wonderful. And the range of species included in these gardens was extremely impressive.

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It would have been easy to get lost in this space for hours on end. But we didn’t allow that to happen. Instead we decided to head back to the old streets of Kyoto’s historic district for some last minute shopping before our time in this city ran out.

And it was probably at about this point during our stay in Kyoto that we realised we were running out of things to do here, because we’re really not shopping travellers. And although I did have a couple of purchases that I was dying to make on this one occasion.. We ended up spending the rest of the night trying to find recommendations and suggestions for things to do in Kyoto online. Things to do that is, that weren’t more shrines, shops or eateries.. And as it turns out these things either don’t exist in Kyoto or are too exclusive to find. Which is the reason for my initial opinion that Kyoto might be, just a little, overrated. I mean, almost everything that we saw and did in this city was amazing – the botanical gardens, the silver pavilion, the light show at Kodai-ji, the 1001 golden statues of Kannon, the old streets of Kyoto’s historical district – were all worth it! But it was all expected. It was all forseen. It was all predictable and commercialised and touristic and crowded. We stumbled upon nothing that was as yet undiscovered by the tourist masses and I can’t help but feel that our experience in this city may well have been a cookie-cutter identical of many others. And the weirdest part was, that outside of all of the generic fan fare that told us to come here for the beautiful temples and for the food and shopping.. there was nothing. It’s like a big bubble had grown over this city prohibiting the growth of anything new or different, which come to think of it, was probably a result of the city trying so hard to protect and promote it’s historical content.. I don’t know. It’s hard to put a finger on.. I would definately tell people to go here. But just, maybe, as a stop-over destination instead of as a sole attraction.

But, I digress… we still had one more day to fill.

Day Four:
Day four was to be our final day in the olden city of Kyoto and we had just one more sight to see before we thought we had really seen everything that this city had to offer – the Fushimi Inari Shrine. A shrine that is built to the gods of rice. And it really was well worth the short trip out of the city that it required.

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Built on a mountain side, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is based less around the temple buildings at the mountain’s base, and more around the hallway of bright red and orange tori gates that stretch up to the mountains top – with each one donated by various wealthy individuals (there are a few different sizes which can be bought at varying price points). So we climbed the mountain side beneath a spectacular array of brightly painted wooden gates, enjoying the tunnel-like quality they lent to the landscape. And although there was actually no view from the top, due to the large amount of bush up there, it was a lovely walk that we ultimately enjoyed – even if the stairs may have been my mortal enemy for a while there..

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And by the time we made it back down we found we still had the large part of a day left, so we popped into the first cafe we could find for a beer and an iced green tea. And we were pleasantly surprised to find that this place had a beautiful outlook and an old wooden rocking chair for Sam to rock in. So we stayed a while here and relaxed.

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And then suddenly our desperate online searches for something to do with the rest of our day turned up a result – there was a sake museum near by! So we took a short, self-guided tour through an old sake brewery which had a surprisingly long and interesting history, but that none the less only provided entertainment for about 20 minutes. So we quickly felt we had seen all that the small museum had to offer and made our exit before too long – making sure to sample some sweet and dry sake and plum wine and pick up a couple of bottles to take home on our way out.

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And as abruptly as that our time in Kyoto was at an end.
We spent the rest of our night aimlessly – packing our bags, sitting about in the lounge of our accommodation watching Japanese shows we could barely understand and dwelling on the news of America’s recent election results..
We were ready to move on. And our next stop would not let us down – it was onwards to Hiroshima!

 

Nara – Temples, deer and lovely locals

Nara is a wonderful little Japanese town that lies only a short distance North East of Koyasan and is easily accessed by rail. This place is known for its collection of temples – one of which is the largest completely wooden structure on earth – and it’s wild deer – who roam freely throughout the town and are locally protected.
Unfortunately for us Nara was another all too brief overnight stop – which meant I didn’t get to explore every cranny of the town as I might otherwise have liked to.. But we did none the less manage to easily fit in the main temples and a fair amount of time with the deer as well as plenty of time beneath the beautiful autumn trees and a couple of wonderful, unplanned encounters with locals.. So we did pretty well with our time here.

Let’s start with the temples.
Todai-ji (Todai temple) is the main temple of attraction in Nara. And what with it being the largest all-wood structure in the world and what not, it has a pretty good reason for its fame. But the building is not merely structurally impressive – it also boasts beautifully kept lawns and a massive bronze Buddha – which are each amazing to view in their own right.
Unfortunately however, it is rather overrun with tourists – and during our visit, also with school children.. but ultimately I think that this has to be expected and it didn’t detract overall from the size, weight and general impressiveness of the place. And for an entrance fee of only ¥400 (about $6AUD) who can really complain? .. plus, as an added bonus, only a short 5 minute walk up the hill from the main structure of Todai-ji is Todai-ji Nigatsudo – a hall of worship with awnings full of decorative lanterns. And these aren’t just the standard, uniform, repetitive lines of identical lanterns that, although beautiful, are seen commonly throughout Japan. They are instead a higgeldy-piggeldy mis-matched collection of various sizes. Some large and simple, others smaller and more ornate, but all beautiful in their singularity.
And we had time to walk around a couple of lesser known temple grounds as well. Which we did in a slow, unhurried manner. In fact, although a day is never enough, our short time here was well matched to the small size of the town, and we easily got about a decent portion of Nara on foot without having to hurry between destinations. And I even believe that we were fortunate to spend our time here under a heavy grey sky. It suited the olden, ornate temple-scape in a special and deply moving kind of way that can be hard to describe, but that I think everyone feels. I guess it’s that sometimes the world seems to age beneath a grey sky.. and when the age of the earth is presented to us in this obvious way it’s as if everything must become still in order to understand. So a stillness decends on the earth that could never be achieved beaneath a busy blue sky… and everything, for a while, is grey and still and quiet and beautiful..

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And throughout all of this exploration we interacted with the deer – which wasn’t just one or two deer – these critters were everywhere! Males (with and without antlers), females and their babies. None of which seemed to get larger than about hip-height – pretty small for deer I think – but, make no mistake, their small size did not detract from their confidence. And although the fawns were a little more standoffish than their parents, none of the deer would hesitate to eat out of an open hand. And every store in Nara sells deer crackers for a few hundred yen or a couple of bucks, so of course we immediately obliged. But did decide after buying only one set of crackers that it was better to just enjoy the deer naturally without giving in to feeding them. Because we were promptly chased down the street by a very butt-y male deer who persisted to ram us until all of our food stores were deteriorated. I guess I’d say it was pretty rude. But, despite this butting being quite intimidating and a little stressful for whom ever was the target, it was an absolutely hilarious sight as a spectator. I literally laughed myself to tears watching Sam attempt to passively avoid this deer’s attacks. I mean, it’s not like you can hit them back. And to run is not a sensible idea. All you can do is stand and accept the rudeness that is being dealt to you. And their butts don’t hurt in the least, and I’m sure they aren’t intended to. But there is just enough force behind them to, say, knock a cracker out of your hand and give you a little bit of a jolt. Sam claims that the main point that distressed him during the bombardment he received wasn’t the force so much as the ‘disrespect’ of the deer. It was just so totally unexpected. I mean, here we were peacefully strolling through the deer-filled Narnia of this little place and thinking we might treat these wonderful, dozey little creatures to a wee snack. Oh! here comes a male, strutting casually over, in no hurry at all, to say hello and then – RAM! (I have laughed throughout the writing of this whole paragraph just thinking about it – Sam was chased down a whole street while I collapsed in laughter and left him to his fate). But seriously, they really really were gentle, beautiful, docile creatures; they were actually lovely. And walking through the streets of Nara constantly surrounded by these furry companions was quite a delight.

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And as for the human locals… Wow, Nara gave us a sense of friendly humanity that we found no where else.
First of all our hostel staff here were amazing. They must have been of a similar age to us, so speaking with them was easy and informal. They welcomed us warmly, showed us around with a casual and friendly air and asked us all about where we were from. And when we found out one of them was soon headed to Melbourne to work and travel we quickly exchanged details and encouraged her in her decision. So we now look forward to meeting her again in four months time when she arrives in Australia.
But it wasn’t just the staff – The other guests at our hostel were awesome too and added a lot to our excellent perception of the Nara locals (despite the fact that they might not necessarily have been from Nara).
In particular we had a rather wonderful experience with an older Japanese lady who was staying at our hostel, who spoke with us in broken English over breakfast. This woman had a very soft and gentle nature and seemed more than anything just to want to talk with anyone who would listen, about any old thing.. as all old ladies tend to.. And so as it came to be that as we were sitting around the hostels communal dining table together she told us about her life, her cat and general Japanese news and tradition. And seeing as we were eating, we sat and listened courteously, responding appropriately to her questions. And, as she continued we started taking some unexpected but genuine interest in a few of the things she had to say about the local area. For example, we were astounded to hear that some of the temples in the area had been put up for sale as firewood some time ago! And so we started warming to her, and ended up encouraging her to continue with her tales and random anecdotes throughout our breakfast period. And suddenly an old lady who I was at first reasonably wary of, was the centre of attention in the room, which, as more guests began to wake, was becoming fuller and fuller. It was like she had cast a calm spell on us. And by the time we had finished our breakfast she had not only our attention, but that of a few other guests too.. And then, as if the already quintessential image of herself was not quite complete she whipped out a tea set and quite casually.. before we could leave.. she prepared for us two cups of Matcha green tea – which she had bought with her from home! It was kind of ridiculously cute. And the tea was rather nice (and, we were told, it was also very pricey) so we felt quite spoilt in the end by our chance encounter with this lovely old lady, and we found it hard to eventually excuse ourselves from the table to get on with our day. But we know she didn’t put her tea set away on our account. There were plenty more hostel guests for her to entertain by the time we departed. And as a true testament to her kindness – when we returned to collect our bags over an hour later, she was still there, mixing tea for complete strangers and chatting away..

But, as adorable as the little old tea lady was and as relatable as our young hosts were the very best local encounter that we had in Nara did not take place within our hostel. It was actually at a random bar that I can’t even name..
You see, during our evening in Nara we met up with an old friend of Sam’s (who happened to have arrived in Japan only a week or so ago in order begin a university exchange in Nara) and decided spontaneously to make our way into central Nara to find drink and food. This friend had enjoyed eating somewhere here in the past that had decided he would take us to try it out. But alas, upon our arrival at this destination we found that his intended restaurant was already closing for the night. So somewhat reluctantly on his behalf, and absentmindedly on the behalf of me and Sam we decided that a neighbouring restaurant would do just as well. And fortunately the restaurant directly next door was still open and serving. So we entered.
It appeared just like any standard Japanese bar or restaurant – small, well lit and simply furnished with wooden surfaces and a bar set for guests to drink and dine at. And the bar, as is fairly typical in Japan, ran along the ‘kitchen’ space in a way that meant whoever’s preparing the food is kind of the centre of the room..
So we took a seat at this bar and we’re informed by the host that our meal choice was already made – 2 vegetarians and 1 meat eater was no problem, he would choose for us. Which made the experience fun from the start. And he chose well because the food was pretty damn good. But it was the host himself and his wife that were the real attraction – they were so gloriously casual and friendly and they seemed so happy in their roles. And we reflected later that this was something which you simply don’t see a lot of in Japan. This casual, happy-go-lucky kind of attitude – It’s rare in a country which is so obsessed with routine and formality and structure and the ‘right way’ or the ‘Japanese way’ of doing things. I mean even our Macha tea experience – which was completely unplanned – was about formality and the traditional way of doing things. But here, in this little restaurant, this couple was just living as they wanted. And it made the whole place feel so easy. Here they were running a small bar, probably in their own home, and they were enjoying it, and it showed! And maybe that was it, maybe it was because we were seeing this couple in a  home setting and not in a public setting where there were norms and expectations to be upheld. But whatever the reason, it was gorgeous! And we loved every moment. I wish every human experience could be as open and friendly and easy-going as this one.
And the bartender could speak a little English and Sam has some understanding of Japanese so we were able to entertain basic conversation. And soon we found that one of the business men, seated at the bar beside us, also spoke a little english – so we got a small community going as he began asking us basic questions about ourselves and telling us a little about himself in return. And before long this business man was buying us sake and the bartender was throwing out recommendations too so that we almost had a tasting course going on! And in fact we thought we might even be starting to understand the difference between dry and sweet sake by the end of it all.. but I think really we had only come to understand that a variance exists in taste between brews.
So, in this way, we sat and enjoyed a shared sense of camaraderie in drink. And our Japanese business friend quickly grew drunk while we grew tipsy. And only after an hour or so like this did he get up to leave. So we waved him fervent farewell and thanked him for his company.
And little did we know… without our even realising.. he had paid our entire bill for us before he left.. And even if we had paid that bill it would have been a perfect night. But with this final act of random kindness we left elated and on high.

To have ended up at this place so coincidentally and have found such good company.. It was my favourite night in Japan.

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But we couldn’t stay in Nara forever. Our next stop was Kyoto.

On to Osaka! 

So after 4 full days in Tokyo it was time for us to move on to our next destination – Osaka. This was a trip made easy by the brilliance of the Japanese Shinkansen (bullet trains) which travels at speeds in excess of 200 km/h. However we extended our journey by making a stop off at a small sea-side town called Atami along the way. And there was really only one reason for this stop over.. The Atami Adult Museum. A museum on the subject of sex, which to be honest is rather less of a museum and more of a small-scale amusement park of sorts..
At this place, for a modest entrance fee, you can explore a series of rooms which showcase all kinds of weird exhibits – from a hallway of butts and breasts to a Marilyn Monroe doll whose skirt blows up to reveal she’s not wearing any underwear, to a wall of peepholes which, when peered through, reveal a series of short (10 second) clips of girls bending over.. the place is.. weird.. to say the least. But also perhaps the natural result of a culture which generally frowns upon public affection (one of the norms here that Sam and I have had some trouble accustoming ourselves to is the fact that to show any affection above hand holding in public here is considered inappropriate.. the amount of times we’ve gone to put an arm around each other and had to retract it is painful). You can even interact with a few of the displays here, to an extent, without anything getting too weird.. For example there’s a couple of chairs you can sit in which reflect your image next to a hologram maid or man-servant in a mirror opposite you who preform all kinds of weird tasks, or you can ride a tandem bicycle which similarly reflects your image as naked beside you when you pedal.. And there’s plenty of buttons and handles to push and turn as well. Ultimately it’s a pretty involving kind of place. Maybe more explicit than I expected, but none the less a worthy stop. And as this unusual destination sits at the top of a hill (accessed by a short gondola ride) it offers a pretty nice view out over the quaint sea-side town of Atami if nothing else.

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In fact we ended up spending the best part of a day searching through the town of Atami for an ATM so we could pay to get into the Adult Museum in the first place..

So by the time we departed again for Osaka night was already beginning to fall and by the time we arrived at our destination dinner time was long overdue.
We dropped off our bags and headed out immediately to find food along Dotonbori street – a well known riverside boardwalk full of food vendors. But we actually ended up stumbling upon an awesome little yakisoba (fried soba noodles) shop before we even made it to the river side, so we stopped here for a delicious meal and a drink instead.

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And before we called it a night we stumbled further into the local scene by entering a tiny underground bar.. Within which a Japanese man sung and played his guitar to the couple of small groups of locals who could fit inside. And the small crowd in return clapped and sung along to his crazy tunes with tipsy enthusiasm.

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It was adorable and we were welcomed warmly to take part. And only once the man had finished his set did we make our exit (just as one of his peers was preparing to get up and perform next) satisfied with the cultural exchange we had just taken part in.

Day one:
So our first real, full day in Osaka began the next morning as we headed out to see Osaka Castle. Which was a pretty beautiful castle. Painted in simple colours as sitting atop a modest bare brick defence wall. This place was another example of the understated beauty of Japanese design. And, as expected, the surrounding gardens were vast and gorgeous and glowing with the first of autumn’s reds, yellows and purples. We climbed a slow slope to the castle gates, looking out over 2 impressive moats and a small forest of greenery all the while, and entered the main body of the building – which is now a fully modernised museum. We read of the destruction that the castle has been through and the almost complete reconstruction that has been required on two occasions – the first, the result of a fire set by attackers and the more recent following the bombardments of WW2. And we climbed up 8 stories worth of stairs to look out from the castle’s top floor balcony. The view was nothing particularly spectacular. Just a perch for an emperor to look our over his village from. But the traditional Japanese awnings and golden gargoyles that strutted out from beneath the decking added a timeless, ancient air.

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Then, after descending and stopping briefly to sample a selection of unusual snacks from the Japanese food trucks parked in the castles courtyard we ventured on to The Shinsaibashi Museum of Housing and Living – which was freakin’ awesome!

This place was set up as a full scale model of a small Edo (olden Japanese) village – complete with cosmetics store, pharmacy, bookstore, toy store, town hall, local well and housing (With examples of that of both the rich and the poor classes). You could stroll through the town and in and out of the various stores and houses for as long as you liked. And we even had English audio guides to provide a little extra information (I am definitely an advocate of the brilliance of electronic audio guides). And when we’d seen all that there was and explored all of the nooks and crannies of this little faux-town we headed through to a display room full of miniature model towns which depicted further scenes of the progress of Japanese housing through the ages.

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I don’t know if it’s just me.. and I don’t know why.. Maybe it’s a yearning left over from my childhood.. but.. I love miniature models like this! I love looking into homes through cleverly unstitched walls, I love examining the little characters and trying to determine what they might be doing for the day and where they’re off to, I love peering down the streets and imagining that I might be strolling there and peering in through shop windows, I love the whole atmosphere that the tiny towns emit and I love all of the tiny little details too – the tufts of grass so cleverly dispersed, the thatching of roofs, the placement of parks, the tiny tools of the tiny little worker men and the minuscule kitchen pots and pans, a stray dog sniffing here, a child flying a kite over there… all of it! I love it! So naturally, as we exited the museum through the gift store I was overwhelmed with excitement to discover that I too could buy a wee model set and build my own tiny village home. I was sold! – And so I purchased a souvenir to take with me that will take some considerable time and patience to complete, but that I cannot wait to see in its final form.

And then, to end our day we sought out the Umeda Sky Building – a beautiful piece of architecture which presides over Osaka city and has an amazing open air observation deck at its very top. Here, with beer in hand, we marvelled at the perfect red roundness of the Japanese sun – exactly like that of the Japanese flag- as it set steadily into the ocean.

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Day two:
Our second day in Osaka was consumed by one activity alone. One big, bad-ass activity. Universal Studios. And man was it impressive in its complete immersiveness and in the number of people that it draws in! – This place was hectic!

I mean, I’ve been to Universal Studios in L.A. I’ve been to Disney Land and Knotts Berry Farm, L.A and the 4 big theme parks of the Gold Coast, Australia too (Wet’n’Wild, Dream World, Sea World and Movie World). And I have loved all of these in the sense of cartoonish magic and fun that they ooze with. But I don’t think I have seen any of these nearly as busy as Universal Studios, Japan (albeit I have never been foolish enough to enter any theme park in the midst of peak season).
And the biggest draw card of this place right now is Hogwarts. Which sits atop a rocky hill overlooking the Harry Potter World segment of the park. So, naturally, in joining the fanatic tides, we spent the first 2 hours of our day waiting in line to see what was within Hogwarts.. and it turned out this was 2 hours Damn well spent! – Hogwarts housed a 4K3D experience which had us strapped in and flying around the grounds of the castle through all kinds of dramatic adventure scenes. We narrowly escaped the attack of a dragon, we flew through the quidditch stadium after the golden snitch, we dodged dementors and dropped off castle tops and were generally flung throughout a world of magic only to land safely back in the corridors of Hogwarts to the cheer of Dumbledore and his students. It was brilliant. The effects were amazing. The length was decent. And when it was time to exit I did so with trembling legs.
And the rest of the day did not disappoint either. We explored jurassic world, took a boat ride with Jaws, were saved by Spider Man, witnessed a 4D Terminator attack, watched a rocky horror-like monster show and were flung through the stars in a space ride. And despite the huge crowds that surged through the park all day, we cleverly skipped queues by joining “single” lines, which allowed us to fill in the stray single seats left in every second carriage of every ride by visitors who turned them down in order to ride with friends. And this was really, really a brilliant discovery.  Often we found we were even skipping ahead of groups who had bought VIP passes at an additional cost. We would run through the bannisters that marked out the empty ‘single’ lines, past mainstream lines that stretched and curled for hours. We saved a whole days worth of hours in this way! – A trick I will be looking to try out in every theme park I attend from now on.

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And after 11 hours at Universal Studios we called it a day.
We left, starving, to find food and sleep deeply. Exhausted by a day of adrenaline filled play.

Day three:
In sticking to a tight schedule day three was our last full day in Osaka. And in fact we used this day to travel a little farther afield than the city of Osaka itself. Today we journeyed out to Naoshima Island. An island known for its art.
Unfortunately on this morning we were running a little late and realised only once we had reached the ferry port that would deliver us to the island that most of the art houses would close soon after our arrival.. So we took advantage of our situation to take it slow. We meandered about a few free outdoor exhibits that were designed to blend in with the beautiful natural landscapes that surrounded them and whose meanings and impacts were therefore changed with the seasons.

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And we selected just one exhibition building to explore – The Benesse Art Museum. Which was in itself a pretty interesting place to see – set like a great concrete tomb in an island hillside. The museum housed a very selected number of exhibitions including paintings and sculptures and multimedia pieces of modern persuasion that dealt with topics from consumerism to the Japanese constitution that was set after the dropping of the atomic bombs.
There were also smooth stones to lie on that faced you to the sky and a gorgeous lookout where your peripheral vision was blocked by massive concrete walls to present the image ahead of you – out over the sea – as a timeless and static picture. It was a pretty interesting place and some of the installations were quite beautiful. But as with all modern art I am often left wondering how much meaning the original artists actually intended for some of their pieces.. There seems to be at least one pile of dirt or stack of drift wood in every modern art centre that I enter and I refuse to acknowledge this as creative brilliance.

We also spent a fair amount of time just laying in the sun and enjoying a quiet hillside, watching hawks swoop and stalk above us on this cloudless day and sitting on the stoney beach selecting our favourite stones from the shore. It other words it was a day that ended up well spent, despite our lack of schedule. It was a peaceful day on an island that was beautiful in its own right, regardless of human artistic addition.

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And to finish off a lazy day we enjoyed cheese, dinner and wine on the banks of Dotonbori river. And tasted the most delicious Angel Food Cake ever!

And then, just like that… it was time to pack our bags again.. the next morning we would head into the autumn beauty of Mount Koya.

4 days in crazy awesome Tokyo.

Well, it took over 24 hours worth of travel, several weeks of planning and many months of saving but already, now, as I sit on a train headed to Osaka, I know it was all worth it, because, well, I’m in Japan! And how do I even begin to explain everything that I have seen and done so far? I’m only 4 days in and there’s already so much to say!

I’ve just spent 4 full days exploring Tokyo city after arriving on the evening of the 28th of October (2016). In getting from my permanent residence in Melbourne to my first temporary residence in Shibuya, Tokyo I required the assistance of no less than 1 bus, 3 over ground trains, 2 planes, an airport monorail, 1 subway, 1 high speed bullet train (Shinkanzen) and my own 2 feet. It was, indeed, no small task.
And now, since my arrival in this crazy city – I’ve been in crowds larger than I’ve ever seen in my life, I’ve learnt the basics of a new language, I’ve enjoyed the mystery of foreign snacks, I’ve (already) unexpectedly bonded with a local and I’ve come to understand a few public norms that wouldn’t usually apply at home.. I’ve been stunned by beauty, I’ve been impressed by order and I’ve been helped by strangers who can barely understand what I am asking and whom I can only just understand in return (actually a side note of thanks is owed here to my boyfriend – Sam – who I am travelling with, who has a pretty decent Japanese vocabulary and has managed to communicate on my behalf pretty damn well so far). I have spent 4 amazing days in Tokyo.

But here’s a little more detail…

Day one:
Refusing to allow jet lag to slow us down we headed out early on day one to see Yasukuni – a war shrine and museum in Chiyoda, in central Tokyo. The shrine, dedicated to Japanese lives lost at war throughout this countries history, was pretty and simplistic – as is the traditional Japanese style – and surrounded by well manicured gardens of lush green grass and rocks. Despite it’s old age (having been established in 1869) it is not a historical point, but rather a modern place for prayer and as such we witnessed several people approaching the main shrine to drop a coin and bow and clap and pray (in what I can only assume is the proper way to do such a thing here) during our visit. We were also fortunate to find 2 beautiful examples of  Japanese art within these grounds – Bonzai and Ikebana. So we spent some time browsing the gorgeous floral arrangements and adorable little bonzai villages and picking out our favourites.

But the main reason for this stop was, of course, the war museum – which was very modern and housed all kinds of war machines – from fighter planes to kamakazi submarines. It housed samurai outfits and fine swords, old photographs, military uniforms and graphic paintings. Bows, guns, trinkets and poems. The most poignant find for me however was a small selection of old letters. These letters were written by young soldiers at war. Young soldiers who were preparing to die.. Who were writing home with the full knowledge of their impending death.. Who would die for their country believing that this was the only honourable thing to do. However what was so striking about these letters was not so much the circumstance as it was that they were written in such a particular manner.. A manner far different from what we would expect in the Western world. For these young men there was no hiding the fact that they were about to face death. They were well aware of the situation. They were sensible and realistic about their chances of survival. And these chances were very low. There was no shame. No sugar coating. No hope of survival. Only a blunt acceptance of their fate. And so, in this manner, they wrote home. Letting loved ones know that they were ready to go to their death and saying a final goodbye to their mothers.. In a word I guess I would say it was humbling, but also it was just plainly foreign. Of all of the war poems and old letters that I have read in Western museums nothing has ever come close to these ones, with an attitude so single mindedly tuned towards non-existence..

But of course there was more to this place. Aside from ornaments and relics the museum was also full of short historic summaries. These detailed all of the battles that Japan has been involved in since it was first asked to open its borders to the rest of the world (for trade) in the 1600’s, through its rapid modernisation and right up to present day. Surprisingly this is no short history and as it turns out Japan has fought more or less with whole world at some point in time to protect its traditions and its citizens. However, as a result of the length of this history and the museum’s inability to be selective within this timeline we found that overall the exhibits lacked depth and detail and we were often left seeking more. One event in particular which we did think would be granted more space within the museum was World War 2.. and specifically the last few weeks of World War 2… but looking back now perhaps that was a very Western assumption for us to make. Of course Japan has a greater history than that which the Western World played a part in and of course I can see why they might like to avoid too much detail surrounding such a massive national loss.. But, never the less, I guess I expected more than just an acknowledgement of the events that took place. I wanted detail. I wanted to know what the Japanese side of the story was in the days and the hours that lead up to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki… Of course I now realise that that was asking for an impossible recollection. A history that was simultaneously written and destroyed. Details which existed for the ‘other side’ but which here were only oblivion.
So instead of a vivid, garish exhibit 2 small plaques were stuck up on the wall of this museum to tell of the dropping of the atomic bombs. One for each event. A total death toll of 280,000 people. It said that they all died instantly.

.. And what does one do after such a human experience? Well, we still had a city to explore..

Next we made some time for an impromptu stroll around the Emperor’s palace (which lay just across the road). We didn’t actually enter the grounds, but took a walking path around the perimeter which was swathed in greenery. A little surprisingly, despite our close proximity to the royal quarters during our stroll, we barely got a glimpse of the grounds due to the thick bush that the palace is set in. This meant that unlike the lavish palaces of South East Asia – which generally preside proudly over a city with tall towers and shining gates – this one was well hidden from regular view presenting itself as humble, austere and Eden-like. Very Japanese.

Then it was on to Nakamise-dori (Nakamise Street) and Sensou-ji (Sensou Temple).
Nakamise-dori is a long, crowded, market lined street that leads right up to the giant tori gate entrance of Sensou-ji. In fact, in this case the word crowded is an understatement. When we arrived the street was packed side to side and end to end with people buying Japanese wares and foods. And these weren’t all tourists either! It seemed that locals and tourists alike flocked to this street for it’s significant selection of giftware, it’s hand made snacks and, of course, to see and worship at the massive Sensou Temple. So we joined the current of shoppers and browsed the markets, we snacked on a sweet doughy treat filled with red bean paste and green tea biscuits in the shape of cat faces.

And we eventually made it to the temple at the top of the street.. only to be cursed!
Yes, you read it right. We were cursed at a Japanese temple shortly after landing in the country.. which was a little disappointing if not disconcerting.. You see we thought we would take part in an activity that we saw a lot of locals participating in.. What they were doing was donating a small amount of money at one of a few small counters to shake a stick out of a small hole in a cylindrical metal box. Once they had managed to shake a stick out of the cylinder they could read a number off of it which corresponded with a set of numbered drawers. Each drawer contained a fate. Ours was misfortune and bad luck.

So, beyond our cursing it was only logical to fully participate in the temples goings on. We tied our curse off in a neat knot with the others, we swept incense smoke over our faces and hair, we washed our hands and faces in a communal fountain and we climbed up the stairs into Sensou-ji to peer at the golden shrine.

And then as night began to fall we made off for our final stop of the day – Akihabara. A central district of Tokyo which is known for its neon lights and hectic multi-story shopping. And I don’t know what more to say about the place than ‘it didn’t disappoint’. Bright store fronts, loud music, crowds, lights, stores selling electronics and anime and manga EVERYTHING.

This district was madness. And before long, after entering only two or three stores we decided that home would be best and we headed back down into the Tokyo subway to find our way back to our apartment.

Day Two:
We rose early for another day of sight seeing on day two.
Our first stop was Roppongi Hills – a massive hyper-modern shopping complex that sits just on the outer ring of the central city. Unfortunately we certainly are not wealthy enough to do any real shopping at this place, but thought we would go and check it out anyway – both out of curiosity and due to the fact that this place is home to SPACE FISH!
However to our great dismay the rumoured space fish (which were meant to have been bred in space) seemed either to have all died off in earth’s waters or were all invisible… So despite how crystal clear the pond was where they were meant to be living we didn’t spot a single specimen.. But we non-the-less had a meander around the shopping complex – which was in itself a beautifully designed place.

And we ended up finding our way up to a pretty impressive viewing deck which presented 360 views over Tokyo.

And right up there, some 56 stories above street level, there was a Godzilla exhibition for us to walk through.. I cannot express just how Japanese this felt.. The exhibition was full of perfectly erected miniature Tokyo-scapes with random Godzilla and Godzilla-like creatures (Kaiju) just chilling in amongst skyscrapers and public parks. And it was actually the other creatures that were the best. There were monsters of all kinds roaming about these miniature cities! – A giant flying turtle with jet packs and a massive lizzard-thing with a sword-face that could shoot ninja stars from its eyes were my favourites. And we got to take a few silly pictures playing the part of the monster ourselves, rampaging over Tokyo city.

Next it was on to Tokyo Tower. A pretty cool construction that was clearly visible from the lookout at Roppongi Hills, but was definitely more impressive up close. This tower is quite obviously modelled after the Eiffel Tower of Paris.. Except bigger. More colourful. And full of shops and a children’s theme park (manga theme). Soooo.. Japan wins?

So we spent some time walking around the base of this structure and briefly checked out the markets inside, but we didn’t dally here for too long. We had a couple more stops to make before the day’s end..
Next up was Harajuku. A district in central Tokyo which used to be a popular hang out spot for all kinds of extravagantly dressed up Japanese who would go here just to stand and pose for photos in brilliant costumes.. Not for any particular reason other than just because they could.
Unfortunately today (I believe natural reasons as opposed to enforcemed ones) this gathering is only a shadow of what it once was, and you are now lucky if you spot one or two brilliantly dressed posers.. So we did well to spot  a couple of these costumed crazies posing on the streets.

Then, feeling the day begin to wear on us we settled down in a cat cafe for half an hour to relax.. Yes. It is a thing. Cat cafes in Japan. So Japanese..
And the atmosphere was so relaxing here that one of the guests seemed to have even drifted off to sleep himself! While others sat about studying in the fluffy quiet or just lounging about in a docile way. All-in-all it was a much nicer experience than I expected from such an attraction. The cats all seemed very well looked after and most of them were dosing in and out of sleep peacefully (the way that only cats can do) during our visit.

Then, our final stop for day two was Shibuya. Another shining example of the neon lights and hectic shopping districts of Japan. Another crazy-busy central city suburb. Home to the busiest intersection in the world.
And wholly damn was it busy.
Now, I imagine that Shibuya and this big intersection are busy any time of the day and any day of the week… I imagine that on a Wednesday afternoon you’d have to group up on one corner of the street. Wait for the signals to change to green. And push your way through a flood of hundreds (if not thousands) of people to get to the other side of the road. BUT, on the eve of Halloween… Everything was a different story. Because Japan. Loves. Halloween.. Which meant that when we arrived in Shibuya there were not just hundreds or just thousands of people at this giant crossing… There were TENS OF THOUSANDS. And it was INSANE!

And the Japanese love nothing more than dressing up on Halloween – I’m talking manga, anime, inanimate objects, fairy tale characters, zombies, fruits and vegetables.. Literally any random thing becomes a costume – and everyone hits the streets of Shibuya in their wares, literally to just strut their stuff and have their pictures taken (maybe this is where all of the Harajuku posers were tonight). And it is absolutely amazing to see. We ended up, after pushing our way through crowds for over an hour, just finding a perch on the street side and watching all of the people interact (because I do love people watching). It was so cool to see the sense of community that everyone had in this festival of dress-ups. If you admired someones costume there was no shame in asking them to take a selfie with you or alternatively, you could palm off your cellphone to the nearest passerby to take a quick snap for you – which was absolutely OK. And the state of some of these costumes was so professional grade.. There was no way to walk through this mass of people and not want a picture.

And as simply as that our halloween-eve experience settled a debate we had been having since our arrival in Japan.. Would we dress up for Halloween and strut through Shibuya?
Hell YES we would! – and with that decision made we promptly hurried to a department store for supplies (a department store, which, by the way was AMAZING. It is hands down my favourite store in Japan so far. It’s multi-levelled, has an extremely comprehensive selection of goods, has clear floor-plans, helpful staff and a BIG crafts section with more stickers than my heart can handle! It’s called: ‘Tokyu Hands’… I miss it already.

Day Three:
Day three was the Halloween day and as such we spent all morning preparing ourselves to look good on the streets of Shibuya. We completed our Halloween costume shopping, popped out for lunch and made up our scary faces over a casual beer before heading out for the night (looking damn horrifying).

And although it might seem hard for me to exaggerate the situation further.. Despite how busy the streets had seemed on Halloween-eve… They had nothing on the numbers in attendance on Halloween night itself. Wholly damn hell is was insane. There must have been over 100,000 people on the streets on this night – at an honest estimate! So we joined the crowds, we took pictures with strangers, we allowed the tides of people to drag us down closed off roads, I struggled momentarily to survive a massive migraine.. and we eventually ended our night in a club called ‘Womb’ – where we got to see a live K pop performance and danced the night to a close. All-in-all it was a damn good night. And it was by a long, long mile the best Halloween I have ever participated in. I now whole heartedly believe that no one loves Halloween like Tokyo does. And I now know where all of the best costume supplies comes from.

But our trip was about to get even more spectacular.. Day four deserves a post all of its own.