Friday, February 28, 2014

Japan 2013: Kobe, Hiroshima, Kyoto

This probably ranks as one of the most random trips I have ever made. Well I suppose the few times I've dropped by at Singapore are more random, but coming from Malaysia, a trip to Singapore doesn't really count for much. That declaration will probably earn me the ire of every single Malaysian who hasn't been to the little island state yet, but it's quite true. Singapore is small enough to not require a plan- there's not much to see that you can't find back in Malaysia anyway. Back on track- my workplace, though nowhere near Japan, is a Japanese run firm- and the Big Boss decreed that a year end long holiday similar to that back home would be nice. Whilst idly browsing through Airasia's website, I noticed that there was, quite conveniently, some sort of promotion going on. After a short discussion as to whether I should snap up the promotional tickets, I entered my card number, clicked 'confirm payment', and then sat at the computer thinking "OK, so what am I going to do now?" Oh dear.

Note: I made an editorial decision to split this trip into two posts, the second to be titled "Japan 2014 something". There are many reasons for this, one being to sidestep any incongruity in the titling, since my stay there stretched until '14, the other being that it's already the first day of March and I haven't posted anything since December last year. So look forward to more procrastination on the continuation of this post.

My flight to KIX- Kansai International Airport, outside Osaka, took off at 3.00pm. It didn't start off well as I had a terrible cold and my nose kept dripping- nearly exhausting my supply of tissue along the way, and a finger bloodied from pulling out a bit of protruding nail.Well. Some 6 hours later, I arrived in KIX, still sniffing away. It was already close to midnight- I had no intention of heading into town to look for lodging at that hour, and had actually already decided to crash on a bench for the night. Dinner was surprisingly good- sandwiches and a can of hot amazake from Lawson. The warm drink didn't do me any good though, and it was a most horrible night spent on a bench in the Departures hall with mucous lubricating my skull.

Day, erm, Day 1, since the previous night can't possibly count. My valid for one week JR Pass said the same thing, which is why I had it validated this morning instead of last night. Anyway. First stop on the agenda- Kobe, the only reason being that it's within easy range of KIX by train, and isn't Osaka, because I'd settled on having the big O as my final destination before leaving Japan (via KIX again, because flights from Tokyo simply cost too much at the time).

I probably shouldn't have waited over a month before writing this post. I remember close to nothing of what I did, and in what order- what is certain is that I didn't head to Kobe for the beef, though of course I wouldn't have a problem if you were to offer me a slab of well done wagyu steak free of charge. Besides the beer guzzling cows the region is famous for, all that I knew about the city, at the time (as in, before my flight into KIX), was that a big earthquake hit it years ago, which had me wondering what effect (if any) it had on the bovine population. Anyhow, I headed to my hostel- the Yume Nomad, which turned out to be a rejuvenated former love hotel. In case you're wondering, nothing remotely interesting happened to me during my stay here (feel free to apply your own definition of 'interesting').

After unpacking I headed off to the nearby Mt Maya, a 700m high chunk of earth with a herb garden, cable car station, dam and little waterfalls attached. I'd originally thought of waltzing up Mt Fuji (not possible in winter), or Mt Koya (too far, too little time), so I didn't think much about taking a short hike uphill just for the heck of it. I'm glad I did the climb- after climbing (well, walking up) this puny little hill I now know that 3.7km high Fuji isn't for me- not yet, at least. After a brief chat with some friendly old ladies, a bottle of Pocari Sweat, and many short breaks along the way, I finally made it to the top for a view of what looked like a deserted Kobe. Too cheap to test the 'herb infused buffet lunch special', yet too lazy and tired to walk all the way back down, I reluctantly paid 900 yen for the ride down.

After that- a rather long train ride to the Arima Onsen village- a charming little hilly town with steep roads and little snack and souvenir shops with tourists on their cross-hairs. After some light snacking, I headed over to the largest facility open to the public- the Taiko no Yu, which has water from the town's two famous springs, Ginsen and Kinsen. I was surprised by the queue though- there was a waiting time of around 30 minutes, though it felt like much longer. After checking in (finally), I went over to the dressing room to change into a yukata/robe/whatever (and failed at it, not knowing that you have to tie it once on the inside as well as the outside- there are two strings, I didn't notice the one inside), and headed to the men's bath. The first round: another changing room. Naked men were walking around with their willies swinging about- not a pleasant sight for me. After that- a shower and a short dip in the indoor bath. Feeling rather glum (and wondering why in blazes I was bathing naked with a bunch of other men), I got out and went to look for the rotenburo (outdoor bath), only to be told that it could only be accessed through the indoor bath. Back to the changing room again- sigh. When I finally got to the rotenburo- it was quite a disappointment. I was expecting a large steaming lake (come to think of it, it was ridiculous to expect such, since it was located upstairs), but instead I found small little jacuzzi holes and small bath tubs- all fully packed. I walked around feeling somewhat idiotic, and exited the facility for some final snacks and a glass of local sake before heading back to Kobe.

I remember absolutely nothing about what I did after that. Oh well. Moving on. The next morning- a shinkansen to Hiroshima. I thought of stopping by at Himeji along the way, but the famous castle was shrouded in a tarp for maintenance work. I made my way to the Hiroshima Hana hostel- thankfully only a short distance away from the station, passing by a used book store along the way (which I'd return to later)- to check in, dump my bags, and ah, attempt to chat up the receptionist (we talked a bit and I passed her my business card, but that was pretty much it, tsk).

Instead of paying for a subway ticket, I footed my way to the Genbaku Dome (the atomic bombing memorial site), passing through the Nagarekawa red light district on the way (it being daytime, everything was closed, of course), and stopped for lunch at a Saizeriya, a local franchise of 'Italian' reasonably fast-cuisine. The beef steak was rather small (but alright for the pricing)- nothing to cry about, but the frozen tiramisu cake was delish. I made my way to Dome after that, but the museum was closed for new year holidays- so I contented myself to taking photos from the outside, before heading on to the next destination on the checklist, Miyajima/Itsukushima.

A fairly large island not too far from Hiroshima proper, famous for the 'floating' torii gate which most travel books, tour operators, government PR people agree is one of Japan's top sights. The problem with being a 'sight' is that once you've sighted it, and then spent some time seeing it up close, there's usually not much to do. Anyway. A short train ride out of town- I think I walked all the way back to Hiroshima station, crazy nut that I am- and then a short and pleasant ferry ride (covered by my JR pass) across a chilly stretch of water, with chunks of ice floating around. Once on the island, I discovered that it's possible to rent a bicycle and pedal around, but it was a bit too late, and the caretaker (JR personnel actually) kindly shot down my ridiculous idea of cycling to the top of the mountain (Mt Misen). Too bad for that, but his advice was rather sound- bike or no bike, it's going to be a tiring walk to the top, the bikes are really just tame little mamacharis, and it's really not that fun cycling around town, given the number of people walking around. Just walk.

It wasn't too hard to walk around, either. The town isn't too large, though I did of course forego the 500m uphill hike. I got to see the torii at both low and high tide, though my timing was a little odd. At low tide I could walk fairly close to the torii for it to loom large over me, but not close enough for me to go out and take a nap below it; and at high tide, the water was high enough to surround the torii, but it didn't go all the way up to the temple itself, leaving a patch of damp brown sand in the middle. But enough of the torii, and on to another main attraction: the free roaming deer. Miyajima actually doubles as a sort of deer sanctuary, though I haven't the faintest idea if the deer are originally from there, or if they were sort of dumped there because they were in the way of mainland urban development. The crazy tykes are nosy things- nosy in that they'll stick their nose in anything you may be holding, for a sniff and a bite, if they feel like it (which they invariably do). I witnessed a a tug of being played out between one determined stag and an equally stubborn little kid. The kid won in the end. The rest of my time there was mostly spent putting stuff into my mouth- fried flavored fish cake, momiji-manju, age manju, barbecued oysters... a most satisfying side-trip, overall.

Back in Hiroshima. I plodded along with no idea of what else I should do- went into a 2nd hand bookstore and got one book just in case "I might be in the mood for reading something later" (I did not have that much free time on my hands). It was already starting to get dark, so I decided that I might as well accomplish my main reason for coming to Hiroshima anyway- for Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki. I'd spotted a few restaurants in main train station- bustling and noisy, with long queues stretching along corridors and along stairwells. I couldn't decide if they were famous or if the crowds were just too lazy to look for alternatives outside- after all there's Okonomi-mura, a small area (or mall?) filled with several Okonomiyaki outlets, just 2km away. I wasn't interested in that either though, as I had a different target in mind- 'Sankanou', a little joint located somewhere near the JR Hiroshima station, recommended on Hiroshima's Wikitravel page for its gunpla loving and friendly owner Kazu. I'm glad I took the time to look for the place- pretty much everything that was said about the place is spot on. I was mostly stone tired and not very talkative (I rarely am, anyway). Kazu shared the kitchen with his wife, and I had quite an amusing night with a passing-through salary-man, a rather cute girl my age named after a fruit, and a couple on holiday- all regulars. I passed my card to Kazu but forgot to pass it along to the rest- pity that. Sankanou also has the honor of having a toilet where a trio of lovely bikini clad girls watched over me as I used the loo- there's a first time for everything. Well alright, it was a poster of some idol band, but let's not get too technical.

The rest of the night was spent walking in a light drizzle, just to get a glimpse of the "Dream-Illumination"- a series of decorative lighted displays along Heiwa Odori. According to their website, 1.4 million LED lights were used, but after walking past brightly lit outlines of staircases, trees, castles, and even a big wooden ship, I got tired of the whole affair and decided to head back before getting pneumonia. The next morning: another another long train ride, and I was in Kyoto, all set to do a Rurouni Kenshin scene pilgrimage (nah). I found my next bed place with the help of some traffic wardens and a little old lady- the 9 hours capsule hotel, probably the most fancy capsule hotel in Kyoto. Funnily enough, over dinner later on in Tokyo with some acquaintances, I found out that the owner's actually a friend of a friend. Small world.

Moving on. After cramming my stuff into a locker in the men's area- yes, it's gender segregated- not that that matters when it comes to capsules since they're all about privacy anyway- I headed on to the nearby Nishiki Ichiba (Nishiki Market), a long and narrow street with shops selling food and ingredients (mostly) on both sides. After some hot soup, freshly fried mini donuts, and walking through the pressing crowd- is pressing crowd an actual phrase (with a meaning)? Never mind that. Just imagine a train at rush hour, and how tiring that is. Only this time the train isn't moving, but you have to walk from the first carriage to the last, and back again. I was there on a public holiday of course, so everyone who could have been there, was there. I think I've lost track of my sentencing, come to think of it. Moving on...

I was hoping to chance upon historical spots like the Ikedaya (where an Ishin gathering was raided by the Shinsengumi), or the Omiya, the inn where Sakamoto Ryoma was killed- instead I stumbled upon the place where Sakamoto married Oryo, on the way to Kiyomizu-dera, which I found after a quick Japanese curry lunch. The main street leading up to Kiyomizu is lined with shops- and that's where I chanced upon a little Ghibli store tucked in corner behind two other shops. I'd thought of visiting the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, but with my schedule not being fixed yet I decided to forgo it, so finding this shop was quite a happy coincidence. I squeezed in a matcha ice cream cone before moving on- nothing like internal cold to counter external cold, like I always say (the same reason I whack my head when I have a headache). Kiyomizu itself is one of the top tourist sights in Kyoto, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's supposedly rather pretty in, oh, anytime but winter, and parts of it were undergoing maintenance, so it didn't impress me much. There was a small roadside tea shop of sorts selling toshikoshi-soba and amazake, I didn't bother because it was full, never mind that there wasn't any queue.

On the way back down I pigged out again- I thought of getting some souvenirs for people I'd be meeting in Tokyo, and not being able to think of anything interesting or unique, settled on a popular shop selling yatsuhashi, a sort of traditional pasty sweet. There was another smaller shop further downhill, which I had decided on revisiting earlier on- mainly for the pretty sales clerk, but I wasn't confident enough in my ability to find it again (asking random pedestrians 'do you know where I can find the yatsuhashi store with a pretty lady in charge?' wouldn't have gotten me anywhere), so I settled on the largest one on the way down, which also claimed to be one of, if not the very first yatsuhashi store in that area. Not that that mattered to me, really, as I was mainly drawn in for the free hot tea they were handing out. Once inside- lucky me. They had samples for each product. I had a little bit of this, and a a little bit of that- couldn't decide which to buy, so I went with one with packaging that I liked. I'm a horrible shopper, I know.

The next few hours were spent wandering around town, looking into every shop I passed, discovering bits of Gion, and trying to decide what to have for dinner, while waiting for the Okera-mairi festival to start at the nearby Yasaka Shrine. The Shrine itself was rather festive- there were food and game stalls just outside the main section of the shrine, and I got myself a stick of barbecued meat (kushiyaki, I think it's called) for 500 yen. Quite pricey for street food, but it was nice. As for the festival itself- it was a bit of a put-downer. Priests (Shinto or Buddhist, I have no idea- I still can't remember the distinction between jinja and tera) prayed to, or over something in a partially see-through raised hall (lots of taking turns to bow), before filing out in a line, holding a wooden box and bringing it to a small hut outside, where a fire was started. The idea behind Okera-mairi is that you get this small piece of rope which you light up, and you take home the last bit that's remaining- so there was a fair bit of smoke there that night. I can't recall what the rope is supposed to symbolize, but there you have it. Many visitors (Japanese too, but presumably not from Kyoto) left scratching their heads wondering exactly what the whole thing was about. As mentioned, the festival itself was somewhat disappointing- however I did manage to see a whole bunch of miko (shrine maidens) bustling around. I'm pretty sure that they're just neighborhood lasses working at a part-time job, but hey, you take what you get.

While looking for the famous Pontocho area (and not being able to find it), I stumbled upon a ramen restaurant in Honmachi called Nobunaga Ramen- actually I was walking around feeling somewhat irritated, as most of the restaurants seemed to focus on the same type of dish- when two of their staff doing some spontaneous marketing outside the restaurant spotted me and tempted me in. Ramen? OK. Haven't had any so far, so I might as well.I won't say it's the best ramen I've ever had- I can't recall, really, but it was quite nice and warmed me up for the cold outside.

I headed directly back to 9 Hours after dinner, having completely forgotten that it was New Year's Eve, like I usually do with any major celebration. I did recall asking the receptionist at the hotel what people do at night, and she didn't really know what to say (I guess she didn't think it would be appropriate to recommend girly bars or anything like that to me). A shower, and then off to bed- there might have been fireworks going on outside, or Kyoto might have been set on fire for all I knew, but there you have it.

Happy new year, folks... and don't any of you dare point out that the previous sentence is just over 2 months late.

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