Peter and Elizabeth - RTW 2009-11 travel blog

Dead fish

Men killing fish

More dead fish

Bloody eels

Big tuna

Elizabeth posing with a tuna

Us, enjoying some sunshine

Us, ready for some beer!

Us, ready for some beer!

Being poured... mmm...

Ready to taste...

She can't wait any longer...

And she's off!

And me too!

A couple down and the beer snacks come in handy

Nearly there!

Solitary beer snack

Arty shot

Torii at Meiju-jingu

View from the Met Govt building

They had a display at the Met building. See the next one...


Tokyo at night

A rare view of Mt Fuji

Elizabeth with the elusive peak

And me...

Foggy and cloudy, but still not as bad as the Great Wall!

Elizabeth dressing up!

Sole torii gate

Torii plus mid-afternoon moon

View of Lake Ashi

Arty shot from the cable car back down

Torii in the water with a blurry Fuji behind.

October 27, 2009

The alarm went off bright and early this morning for our trip to the fish market. Some books recommended getting there for 5am so you could watch the tuna auctions but we settled for trying to get there for 8am. Having had to get three different subway trains to get there, we entered the market and walked through towards the wholesalers area. This place was absolute mayhem with small motorized carts going back and forth down every single aisle, not caring to stop for anyone or anything. We were warned that this wasn’t a museum and people actually work here so don’t expect people to stop and pose for pictures. The Tsukiji Market is supposedly the largest fish market in the world and there was plenty going on here, right on Tokyo Bay.

I wasn’t sure that Elizabeth really wanted to come here as she can be a little squeamish at times. I don’t think she was too keen at seeing the dead fish carved up right around us. However, even she wasn’t prepared for our first taster of the market. Almost as soon as we entered the wholesalers area, a large octopus was slapped down on the table by us. It was still moving and Elizabeth pointed at it and mentioned it was still alive. That soon changed as the fishmonger immediately plunged a knife into its head to kill it, before handing it to a customer. It seems fresh fish here really is fresh! Elizabeth was a little shocked by this but as we walked around I tried to pre-warn her of anything a little “messy” coming up. We saw plenty of shellfish from shrimps to crabs to lobsters to oysters and lots of other random fish I didn’t have a clue about. We also saw lots of eels of various sizes and these were all lying in ice with their heads partly removed. These were quite bloody and Elizabeth really didn’t like those! Some of them were even still moving! We saw a man hacking away at a huge tuna, too and it was probably the first time I’d seen an entire one. The fish was massive and later on when we saw a discarded tuna head on the ground, I had to snap a picture!

Before long, I could tell Elizabeth was getting a bit bored so we started making our way out, dodging the men in fishy aprons and those driving the carts as we departed for the metro station. I thought it was a really cool thing to see and would’ve liked to have seen the tuna auctions but no way am I getting up any earlier!

From there we headed to Ebisu where we had been yesterday. Here we grabbed some breakfast and we tried to make it a cheap one by having McDonald’s. The breakfast would’ve been cheap except the orange juices were over $3 each. I’m amazed people here aren’t dehydrated with drinks being so bloody pricey.

Our first actual stop here was the Museum of Photography. There were two temporary exhibits here but we decided to just visit the permanent one, which was free! We headed downstairs and the room was covered on every wall with photographs taken by Japanese photographers. They were all a member of the Japanese Photographic Association (or something like that) and this was their annual display.

The photographs were really amazing with some amazing mountainous views. I love the photos which show the mist rising and trees or mountains or anything appearing through the mist. I should really try and be a little more experimenting with my photography, even as an amateur.

After the photography, we headed to the Yebisu Beer Museum. Outside the museum were large beer cans so we both posed with those before heading inside. Yebisu is part of the Sapporo Brewery and has been around for over 100 years. The museum was alright but as most of the signs were in Japanese, we headed through pretty quickly to the fun part – the tasting room!

For 300 Yen you got to sample one beer. For 500 Yen you got to sample four. We went for four! The four were, in order of our consumption, Major Weiss, Premium Yebisu, Major Ale and Yebisu “The Black”. All four beers were really nice, with no bitter after taste like many we’d sampled in Seattle. My favourites were definitely the Weiss and the Black though. After finishing our four beers and our beer snacks, we decided to get another single beer. It was a little more expensive getting a single sampler than the four sampler but it was still the cheapest beer in the city! I opted for another Black and Elizabeth went for the Weiss. So far, it had been a really good day – what day isn’t a good day when you’ve had a beer or two BEFORE lunch?!

I wanted to buy one of the tasting glasses as a souvenir but when we got to the shop they only sold them as a set of 6. Instead, we settled on a different glass which they sold individually which had the Yebisu symbol on it. It looked more Japanese than the Beer Museum motif, anyway.

We grabbed a sandwich for lunch and then headed off on the metro, hoping to visit the shrine we missed out on yesterday due to the weather. Today was a gloriously sunny day without a cloud in the sky and the late autumn temperature was just perfect for walking around. Once off the metro, we headed for the park around the Meiji Jingu shrine.

On the approach to the shrine, we walked through a number of torii. These are the gates to the shrine and are shaped with two vertical wooden columns with wooden beams spanning the top, making a sort of “pi” symbol. The torii here were huge and looked really impressive surrounded by the densely wooded parkland. At the shrine itself, there was a little booklet which showed the two ways in which you can pay your respects to the shrine. Firstly, you approached the temizuya or font. From the font you filled the ladle with water and rinsed both your hands. Afterwards, you filled one hand with water and used it to rinse your mouth, spitting the water into the area around the font before rinsing your hand once again. Both Elizabeth and I did this although I think Elizabeth thought it was a little stupid.

Inside the shrine main building, I performed the second act of respect. This involved bowing twice, clapping your hands twice and then bowing again. Elizabeth wouldn’t do this as she claimed it wasn’t her religion. I explained it was just a sign of respect and even the leaflet we have says similar.

The shrine buildings themselves were quite nicely laid out and looked almost isolated as they were surrounded by the large wooded park. You’d almost have forgotten you were in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities.

Having entered the south end of the park, we continued on through to the north end, making our way towards the Shinjuku area of the city. Here we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings which had a viewing area on the 45th floor on each of the north and south towers. Like most things today, these were free – this was one reason why we’d chosen this over other high buildings in the city. The view was pretty good from the top and, looking westwards, I’m pretty sure we could just about make out Mt Fuji. The sun had begun to go down so it was difficult seeing in the bright light but I definitely saw a tall peak!

After finishing at the top, we found a great information centre in the lobby and collected a load of info about Tokyo. It was a shame we hadn’t found this a couple of days earlier but it provided some good tips nonetheless. It recommended one store in particular which sounded like it sold touristy, tacky stuff at the best prices in town. We decided to head there but in reality this shop sold all kinds of crap from stereos to Hallowe’en outfits to sexy underwear and none of it was cheap at all. It wasn’t what we’d expected. We did buy a highlighter pen though!

We continued on to one of the department stores, Takashimaya Times Square, and had a look around. This place was 16 floors and was huge, labeled as Japan’s largest store. At the basement level was a massive food court. We went down here to look at the stuff, considering maybe buying some food for a cheap dinner. We saw lots that looked good but there was nowhere to sit. Given our guesthouse isn’t “food friendly” we didn’t want to bring a lot of messy food back to try. We bought a couple of macaroons to have for dessert though. We seem to have gotten into this habit now of sweet stuff each day. We’ll have to try and shake that off!

For dinner we headed to a place called Tsunahachi, a tempura specialist. I’m not a fan of deep-fried stuff but Elizabeth is so I was willing to give it a go. We got a seat right by the chef at the bar which was good, giving us a view of them preparing the food. I ordered the Zen Tempura set meal and Elizabeth ordered the vegetable tempura from the “carte” menu. My tempura consisted of two large battered prawns, a mushroom of some sort, cuttlefish, shrimp and a conger eel. It was also advertisted as having vegetables but this turned out to be just some pickled cauliflower! Elizabeth’s tempura was one piece of snowpea, one slice of potato, one of eggplant, one of sweet potato and a mushroom, which I ate. It wasn’t a lot of food at all and it was only when we paid that we realized her dinner had cost just over $4! The waiter could’ve told us we’d not ordered very much! Thankfully, my dinner came with rice and Elizabeth tucked into that as well. I also got her to try the shrimp and conger eel. The chef had put the eel onto her plate anyway and I encouraged her to try it, only telling her what it was after she’d said she liked it! She wasn’t so keen on the shrimp though!

I was surprised how little food we got, especially mine for the money we paid but what we got was pretty good. The service was really bad though, with all the Japanese people around us regularly having their teas and waters replenished while our glasses sat empty. It was almost as if we weren’t welcome there, with a couple of waiters and a couple of nearby diners almost constantly watching us. It was good to experience more proper Japanese food in a typical Japanese restaurant but I’m not sure we’ll be rushing back there again. I think we’d both try tempura somewhere else though.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped and grabbed some raisin bread as Elizabeth was still hungry – I don’t blame her on 5 small pieces of vegetable! The bread was really good – I hope the bakery is open early tomorrow morning so we can grab some more for breakfast!

October 28, 2009

Well, the bakery was open early when we got to Ueno but they did not have the lovely raisin bread loaves available that early so I settled on some raisin bread rolls and Elizabeth got a sweet roll thing that looked like a cinnamon roll but wasn’t! When we got to the bus station, we tucked into our breakfast while we waited for the coach. When it arrived, we actually had an allocated seat, like a flight, for our tour to Mt Fuji.

On the bus, our tour guide started immediately and she didn’t stop all the time we were with her. As we headed out of the city she talked to us about everything, firstly pointing out city sights and then telling us about Japanese characters and language and all kinds of stuff.

It was a good 90 minute drive to the base of Mt Fuji and the visitor centre. We were supposed to spend 20 minutes or so here but she gave us just 10 for a toilet break. Here, we got one of the best views of the mountain we were to get all day as the sky was clear enough for us to see the peak of the mountain looking down on us. Unfortunately, it was just time for a few quick snaps and a quick pee before getting back on the bus. Maybe I should keep a little tally going (just approximately, of course):

Bus time – 90 minutes

Sight-seeing – 10 minutes

From there, we headed up to the 5th station of Mt Fuji which stands at an altitude of 2,305m or 7,560ft. The tour guide told us an easy way of remembering the total height of Mt Fuji in feet – there are 12 months a year and 365 days in a year so that is 12,365. However, she went on to tell us, the mountain is actually 12,385 so it doesn’t quite work. Quite why she bothered to tell us her incorrect maths, I’m not sure! The drive to the 5th station took over 40 minutes. When we got there, we had just less than 40 minutes to check out the views and look around the gift shops.

Bus time – 130 minutes

The view from here was awful. Despite the day being clear, the clouds were constantly coming and going across the mountain and our 40 minutes coincided with a cloudy period and we saw very little. We saw the sights at the 5th station itself, however, including another Shinto shrine and some cool statues. We had a look around the gift shops a bought a book including lots of pictures of the mountain and another magnet. I’ve got no idea how large our fridge is going to have to be.

Sight-seeing – 50 minutes

After that, we headed back down the mountain, grabbing some great views of the peak as the coach wound down the road, back and forth. Elizabeth was getting a little bored. I think, and preferred to keep an eye on a woman with bright orange hair, or pumpkin-head as she was christened! We didn’t get any chance to get pictures though as the driver didn’t stop for us to get any. After another 40 minutes on the bus, we headed to a hotel for our “traditional Japanese lunch”.

Bus time – 170 minutes

Our lunch consisted of a bowl of miso soup, a bowl of rice and a variety of small dishes of varying type from tuna sashimi to deep fried chicken to pickled vegetables. We sat next to an Australian couple at lunch and were chatting with them about the interesting selection of food. It certainly wasn’t very filling either and all four of us were happy to finish our bowls of rice! The one good thing about the lunch was the timing – all too often on tours you end up having lunch at either 11am or 3pm so it was nice to have lunch actually at lunch time.

Lunch had been scheduled as a 40 minute stop but we decided to change buses. Rather than stay on the coach all the way back to Tokyo, we decided we’d catch the faster train back and as we had our JR passes with us it wouldn’t cost us any extra. We eventually headed off after a 55 minute stop. It was a shame that our new tour guide was equally chatty, not giving us much time to switch off and relax!

Bus time – 170 minutes

Sight-seeing – 50 minutes

Lunch – 55 minutes

From lunch, we headed off from the restaurant to Hakone and the edge of Lake Ashi. The drive to get here was another hour and I was beginning to get frustrated with the tour and lose interest. The main reason for us taking the tour was to see Fuji and so far, we’d seen it for about 10 minutes. We were taking a boat trip on the lake and we’d assumed that you could see Fuji from the lake but you couldn’t at all. The boat trip, I suppose considered part of our sight-seeing, was actually quite enjoyable, taking you along the shoreline of the lake and giving you some amazing views of the surrounding valley and the beautiful autumn colours. The lake has formed in an old volcanic crater so we were able to see trees on each side of us as we cruised along. The boat trip was 15 minutes, another short side attraction. It was almost like we’d just paid for the bus ride and the attractions were added on as an after though. I appreciate Mt Fuji is a fair distance from Tokyo but this was getting silly.

Bus time – 240 minutes

Sight-seeing – 65 minutes

Lunch – 55 minutes

At the end of the boat ride, we walked up to take a cable car to the top of the crater ridge, to the top of Mt. Komagatake. After 15 minutes waiting around, we boarded the cable car. Outside, it had an amazing picture of a cable car going up with Mt Fuji proudly in the background. Our hopes were raised of more views of the amazing mountain. As soon as the cable car started, an English recorded message commenced with the words “due to cloud cover today, Mt Fuji is currently not viewable”. The 7 minute cable car ride afforded some more great views of the lake and surroundings and as we approached the top we did just see Mt Fuji just poking through the clouds.

Once at the top of the cable car, we raced up to the shrine further up the hill to get some pictures of Mt Fuji before the clouds changed their minds again. The torii gate and shrine here were really cool and looked amazing when viewed with nothing behind them, creating a sense of true remoteness. Of course, looking the other direction you had the horrible 1980’s style cable car housing but we ignored that!

After some more brief glimpses of Fuji, and a whole 35 minutes at the top, we headed back down and had almost 40 minutes to kill in the gift shop before the bus left. At the gift shop, Elizabeth saw a traditional Japanese fan she liked and we bought it. She had looked at a lot of these since we had got to Japan and I told her she should get one as she’d only regret not buying one while we were here. Thankfully, we saw one she liked and snapped it up before she changed her mind. We also bought corn chips to supplement lunch!

Bus time/waiting time – 255 minutes

Shopping – 40 minutes

Sight-seeing – 99 minutes

Lunch – 55 minutes

That was the end of our sight-seeing for the day as we boarded the bus to go the train station. As we neared the station (another 70 minutes on the bus) the guide went around and gave everyone their train tickets. Most people had paid to get the shinkansen back to Tokyo rather than the coach. I also got the impression most of the people were only coming to Tokyo on holiday rather than travelling around and had been picked up from their hotels this morning. Our guide had to give some of them VERY detailed directions on returning to their hotels using the trains and metro, including which platform trains left from, how to use the tickets, which metro exits to use and such like. She even insisted on writing directions for us on how to use our JR passes to get our shinkansen tickets. The way some people spoke about the metro it was like it was going to be the worst experiences of their lives and they’d never survive it. One lady in front of us decided she wanted to go somewhere other than her hotel and had to ask about buying tickets. The woman behind was worse – she was worried that it was going to be dark and possibly raining when they got back to Tokyo and was worried they wouldn’t find their hotel! I couldn’t believe it – does she never go out after dark in her home town? Crazy!

Bus time/waiting time – 325 minutes

Shopping – 40 minutes

Sight-seeing – 99 minutes

Lunch – 55 minutes

At the ticket counter, we decided on getting a reserved seat on the train rather than unreserved. Elizabeth was happy with unreserved but I honestly didn’t want to be in the unreserved carriage with the tour group! We got two seats, one a row in front of the other, easily enough without the guides written rubbish and got onto the train for the 35 minute journey to Shinagawa, a station in south Tokyo where we wanted to get off rather than central Tokyo station.

On the train, we got another demonstration of Japanese customs. Our seats were amongst a group of local businessmen. One of the elder gentleman noticed we were sitting apart and asked if we wanted to sit together. I expected him to move so that we could sit either side of the aisle together but he told one of the more junior of the group to move so that we could sit next to each other. As is the way here, the young guy moved without a word and graciously offered us his seat. It is great to see such respect but I do wonder whether these people have the guts to stand up to their seniors in a business environment. On some occasions, surely you have to question rather than just follow? For such a progressive society as here, I’m sure they do in the confines of the office but, in public, seniority clearly rules.

Anyway, after a brief stop in Yokohama, our train pulled in again spot on time and our tour had officially finished. I reckon we had this by the end:

Bus time/waiting time – 325 minutes

Shopping – 40 minutes

Sight-seeing – 99 minutes

Lunch – 55 minutes

Train – 35 minutes

So, an hour and a half of sightseeing of which 40 minutes was at a cloudy mountain and 35 minutes was at the top of a random mountain with a shrine and cloudy views of Fuji. I wasn’t really impressed and was just glad to be back in the city and ready for a beer.

For dinner, we headed to Hard Rock which wasn’t on the itinerary until we found a load of vouchers for free beers in one of the information leaflets we’d found at the Tokyo Met Government offices yesterday. We headed to Roppongi, which is Tokyo’s main district for nightlife and contains a lot of international restaurants. It is said that the Japanese food here is more accessible to “gaijin” (foreigners) but I suspect that just means expensive!

At Hard Rock, we arrived just in time for happy hour and the waitress advised us to get the half price beers now and use our vouchers a little later for our free ones. Smart girl! There was a band playing at the café and they were pretty good. I didn’t recognize anything they were playing but it was a great combination of jazz and blues, with a very good singer who also played guitar, another guitarist, a bass player, a saxophonist and a keyboard player. All the songs were in English and it was a nice accompaniment to dinner making a change from the videos usually played at these places (although we did listen to those for a bit while the band took a break).

After our half price beer and free beer, a great burger for me and nachos for the wife plus a shared apple cobbler, we headed out with my wallet considerably lighter. Even with “only” paying just under $10 for 4 beers (imagine what they would’ve been full cost!) the bill still came to over $60. I tried using my Hard Rock card to get the usual 10% off the food but it apparently wasn’t allowed in conjunction with the free beers and the half price ones! I guess we’d got enough freebies in their eyes! After the *ahem* magnet, we headed back to the guesthouse, picking up some bread stuff for breakfast tomorrow.

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