April 20, 2016
Once outside of Tokyo you find everything from historic buildings to breath taking nature, from modern architecture to nondescript if not to say ugly, from very gaijin focused services to very Japanese oriented ones.
Over the past weeks we travelled around a bit, mixing city tours like trips to Kyoto and Nikko with shorter excursions to places close by like Kamakura (again!), some shrines and temples in the outskirts of Tokyo and not to forget Disneyland!
I can hardly imagine what this city looks like in high season. It seems hard to believe that even more people fit in the streets, buses and trains. We went on a – off-season – weekend before the cherry blossoms bloomed and at times it felt like being at Shibuya crossing.
Kyoto has around 16 temples and shrines that are rated as World Heritage, plus some castles and many more temples and shrines. I think you can easily spend two weeks in this city discovering the many sights, theatres and museums.
Unfortunately we could not venture into the Gion district after dinner as the children were too tired from walking all day, so we spent our evenings in our tiny (really tiny!) hotel rooms. We only had Saturday and Sunday to visit this wonderful city which means that we definitely need to come back to see more. I may have to go by myself as Mark found it “too Japanese”!
Kamakura and Enoshima aquarium
This time, we not only went to Kamakura to see the big Buddha, but we continued the trip to visit the Enoshima aquarium. Definitely worth going with kids. They have a very nice unexaggerated Dolphin show and an amazing jelly fish exhibition. We are already planning to go back in summer as the aquarium is located on a wonderful beach with – if the weather is clear – an impressive view of Mount Fuji just across the sea.
Tsukinomiya Shrine and flea market
A wonderful way to spend half a day is a visit to the Tsukinomiya Shrine on one of the days they hold the flea market in the adjacent park. The shrine does not have the traditional tori gate or protective lions; instead it has a pair of stone rabbits. The shrine is called Tsuki Jinja in short by people of Urawa. “Tsuki” means the moon in Japan, and in the old days people believed a rabbit lived on the moon. It is a wonderful location for a flea market especially during the Hanami season as there are plenty of cherry trees in the park. There is also a playground in the park where you can leave the kids while walking around searching for some old Japanese treasures.
A little bit hidden at the Southern end of Minami Aoyama is the Nezu museum with its wonderful garden. A real discovery!
Nezu Shrine and Ueno park
Hanami hysteria is best to experience when visiting Ueno park. Thousands and thousands of people come to see the cherry blossom and pick-nick places are set up all around under the trees. The Japanese style is a blue plastic cover spread on the ground. People bring their bento boxes and their beers and sake. Most of them get horribly drunk and some pass out on the benches or the ground. Very funny to see the usually so well controlled people in such a state!
The Nezu Shrine with its little red toriis is very special and one of Japan’s oldest shrines. Nezu Shrine is set in lush greenery, with ponds of carp, pathways that are tunnels of small shrine arches, and elegant, beautifully colored, wooden structures that reflect Japanese culture in all its age and beauty. We were a bit too early to see the Azaleas, but right now is actually the best time to go and see thousands of Azalea bushes bloom.
Edo-Tokyo open air architectural museum in Koganei park
Our first Hanami pick-nick we had at Koganei park in the North of Tokyo with our friends from Germany and Switzerland. It was just the beginning of the cherry blossom and we found this really nice spacious park right next to the open air museum we planned to visit. The open air museum gives you great insights into different architectural styles and periods in Japan over the past 200 years. You can visit traditional houses, villas (Western and Japanese style) as well as shops and workshops of all kinds.
The toughest week ever: Disneyland and Edo Wonderland within 5 days
There is a first time for everything. So this was our (the children and my) first visit to Disneyland. And to be honest: it probably was my last. Even though we had a fun day, I was quite disappointed, because until our visit to Disneyland I had not understood the difference between a theme park and an amusement park. You go to the theme park to meet your favourite (Disney) characters, buy tons of merchandising and eat expensive junk food. Eventually you take a ride on one of the roller coasters if you are patient enough to wait for approximately 2 hours on a busy day (like the day we went there). Basically you pay a lot of money to live the experience. You don’t pay firstly for the roller coasters – which was my main point of interest. An amusement park is a park where you have extraordinary roller coasters and expensive junk food with some merchandising here and there. From now on we will focus on amusement parks! Nevertheless we had a fun day and the children were very excited and did not mind waiting times or not doing the roller coasters.
Edo Wonderland is a different experience as you can dress up as people from the Edo period, and you can see Ninja shows, traditional theatre and a parade of people in wonderful costumes. The food is much much better than in any park we’ve been so far and the merchandising goes from cheap crap to nice and valuable stuff.
Nikko is a nice little city and home to some of the most spectacular shrines and temples as well as the imperial summer palace. Instead of running you through the sightseeing, I would like to share our hotel experience with you.
Our hotel was on the cheaper side of available hotels, a bit away from Nikko, closer to Kinugawa Onsen. A nondescript building from the outside, the inside kept the late 80s alive. The Japanese sense for maintenance was clearly visible as everything inside the hotel was in clean condition. Traces of usage all across the place, but everything clean and functioning. No renovation work since its opening 30 years ago, it seemed. The hallways reminded us of prisons with their light grey linoleum floors, the off-white walls and the off-white metal (!) doors. Apart from fire extinguishers there was no decoration or furniture.
The rooms were spacious with three Western beds and a Tatami floor section. The tincy bathroom was not to be used (only the sink for teeth brushing). I think the plumbing has also never been redone so using the bathtub was out of question. But they had three different Onsens (hot spring baths) on the ground floor.
The dining / breakfast room was the usual: far too light, atmosphere and furniture as in a youth hostel (see earlier posts). Dinner was served at from 6-7 pm, breakfast between 8 and 9 am. The first morning at 8:30 we had a knock on the door: a lady reminded us of the breakfast I had ordered for me and the kids.
When checking in, I had asked how much the breakfast was and if they had reduced prices for children – assuming a breakfast buffet. The receptionist was a bit surprised about my question, but reluctantly agreed to a reduced price for the children. So no problem there. The breakfast turned out to be a fixed set menu with salad, grilled fish, tofu, miso soup, rice, pickles, omelette etc. – the usual stuff. Linus and I were happy, Leonard ate everybody’s grilled fish and Lilo ate the rice asking where the next bakery was. So now my question: Why would you give a children price if you serve exactly the same amount of food to everyone? The answer is quite simple: The receptionist did not really understand my question for a reduction as breakfast is the same for everyone. But because I was asking for a reduction and I am the client, they gave me one to make me happy. Welcome to Japan!
The most surprising thing during our stay in this hotel was the 8am wake-up call over loudspeakers in and outside the hotel. No way you could miss this one! I wonder what the neighbours are thinking about this, because of course the wake-up call comes everyday of the week, even on Sundays! Basically the hotel needs to make sure that you wake up in order to be able to take your breakfast before 9am.