29. Eat The Music

from “The Red Shoes”, Kate Bush, 1993.

So we have been in Kyoto for a couple of days and already have some museums under our belts (the Museum of Kyoto, and the International Museum of Manga), though as seems to be rapidly becoming the norm no photography was allowed at these. While out our meanderings took us close to the Nishiki Market (錦市場) so it seemed an apt time to take a look as it’s on our to-do list.

Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki Market is to Kyoto what Borough Market is to London: filled with stalls and shops selling all manner of fresh produce, as well as numerous restaurants and takeaways where you can enjoy local delicacies. The market has a long history that dates back to 1310 when it was a wholesale fish district.

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Nishiki Market is a covered arcade that stretches for five blocks in the busy shopping area of Shijo. It’s obviously quite a popular tourist spot as the local to gaijin ratio seemed about 2:1 with people buying food, eating food, photographing food, and wondering just-what-the-hell-is-that food?

There’s a fun bustling atmosphere about the place as you peruse the shops accompanied by the almost singsong calls of the vendors as they tout their wares. There are plenty of samples to try as well – you can almost get a free lunch if you start at one end of the market and work your way to the other trying the food as you go.

So here are a few pictures of some of what we saw:

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Nishiki Market – pretty sure they sell sake here.

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Nishiki Market – that’s not a nice place to stick those skewers.

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Nishiki Market – some of the locals enjoy a quick snack.
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Cute marshmallow sweets – strawberry pigs and mystery chicks; maybe chicken flavour?

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Nara zuke – hmm, squidgy.

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Chopstick rests – a most essential dining item.

Nishiki Market is a great way to spend an hour wandering the stalls and taking in the culinary-related sights and smells whether you’re a foodie or not. Maybe we’ll go back for some free food next time we’re in the area.

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28. Train Of Thought

from “Headlines and Deadlines”, a-ha, 1986.

After four weeks in Tokyo – and wow they went so fast – it was time to leave and explore more of Japan. First stop is Kyoto, which was previously the capital of Japan and is home to some of the more traditional sights that we are looking forward to seeing.

But how to get there? Well really the Shinkansen (新幹線, meaning “main trunk line”) – or bullet train as it’s often called – is really the only way to travel internally in Japan. Certainly flights are not ideal for us given the larger amount of luggage we have – flights involve far too much effort at both ends too with getting to and from the airport, etc.

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Shinkansen – the Tokaido line from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka, passing through Kyoto.

However, unlike buying a train ticket in the UK, things are a little more complex if you want to use the Shinkansen. To get from A to B you need buying some – or all – of the following:

  • Basic fare – this is a ticket to get from A to B on non-Shinkansen trains.
  • Shinkansen supplement – this is a ticket to get from A to B but riding on the Shinkansen train instead. You need the basic fare as well as this supplement to ride the Shinkansen train.
  • Seat reservation fee – get this if you want to choose a specific seat.
  • Green Car fee – this is an upgrade of your Shinkansen ticket to sit in the Green Car, or first class carriage. Green Cars offer more space and comfort than regular Shinkansen carriages.

As it was our first time on the bullet train we purchased all of the above.

OK, so we lugged those bags via the metro (actually this was pretty easy as we were near the metro and already on the right line) and headed off to Tokyo station for a rendezvous with our Shinkansen train: Nozomi 227, the 12:00 service to Osaka.

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Nozomi 227 – 12:00 departure to Osaka. The Nozomi is the fastest train service on the Tokaido line.

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Shinkansen – here are the lovely ladies in pink who make sure everything is spick and span before you board.
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Shinkansen – an N700 Advanced no less. Lummy.

The Shinkansen – and generally Japansese trains in particular – are known for their punctuality. Japan’s Shinkansen knows no peer and late arrivals, averaged out over the course of a year, are measured in seconds. Suffice to say we departed at 12:00 on the dot.

The Green Car is certainly comfortable with lots of space – the seat layout is 2+2 as opposed to 2+3 in the regular class. The only thing we found slightly awkward were the footrests:

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Shinkansen – annoying footrests.

While these are great if you like them, neither of us are fans of footrests, and as you can see with the ones on the Shinkansen you cannot stow them away so they occupy space that otherwise you might stretch out in more easily.

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Shinkansen – the Green Car, yes we know it’s brown inside.

When we left Tokyo it was rainy and misty so that even when we were at the closest point to Mount Fuji we could not see it – perhaps we forgot to buy the See-Mount-Fuji-On-A-Clear-Day supplement? Hopefully we’ll get to see Fuji-san on the way back in July. However, by the time we got to Kyoto the sun was out and the skies were blue.

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Shinkansen – coming into Kyoto, still lots of rice paddies to be seen.
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Shinkansen – the Nozomi 227 zooms out of Kyoto towards Osaka.

We really enjoyed our journey on the Shinkansen to Kyoto; about the only thing we could say – apart from the cumbersome footrests – is that the train goes too fast to take pictures as by the time you’ve seen something, it’s gone by. 😛

So now we’re in Kyoto; time to find our feet and start exploring.

27. Top Of The City

from “The Red Shoes”, Kate Bush, 1993.

We went back in time again to the days of Edo when we visited the Fukugawa Edo Museum. This is a community culture centre that was established in 1986 and has an Edo period display of reconstructed houses, shops and other buildings to recreate a small section of the old city.

Amongst the buildings are a fish-oil and fertiliser wholesaler, a vegetable seller, a rice seller, a boathouse, a fire watchtower, a tea shop, and a row house (a house with divided sections for individual families), all authentically reproduced and filled with everyday items.

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Fukugawa Edo Museum –  a view of the top of the city looking out over the roofs.

The city section also includes animals and plants, as well as lighting and sound effects that change according to day and night as well as the seasons. With all these features it felt quite realistic and about the only thing we could see missing from the ensemble (apart from actual inhabitants) was mud in the streets.

Time to take a wander through the streets and alleyways:

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Edo – main street.
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Edo – vegetable store.
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Edo – rice store.

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Edo – no we don’t know why those chooks are up there either.

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Edo – street food seller.
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Edo – tea shop.

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Other than an English language leaflet with a map of the town and the major features and some information on them, all the remaining information was in Japanese. However, there were several guide-staff available who wandered around and happily provided additional information for visitors, and they spoke English in varying degrees. We talked with two of them for some time, including at one point a discussion on the best words for ‘poo’ with regards to humans and animals. We’re sure that while we were getting answers to our questions they were enjoying practising their English language skills, so everyone was happy.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Fukugawa Edo Museum and in all honesty think that this museum did the reproduction of Edo better than the Edo-Tokyo Museum we had visited previously. This is mainly because although the Edo-Tokyo Museum did have some similar buildings they were just individual examples rather than having been integrated into a larger reproduction of how the city used to be.

A great experience and one of the best museums we’ve been to so far in Tokyo.

26. Imperial Zeppelin

from “Fool’s Mate”, Peter Hammill, 1971.

After the rain it’s back to the sunshine and back outdoors, this time to walk around the Imperial Palace gardens, or more specifically the East Gardens, which are open to the public. The gardens are the former site of Edo Castle’s innermost circles of defence and although none of the main buildings remain today, the moats, walls, entrance gates and several guardhouses do still exist.

There are three entrance gates to the gardens: Ote-mon Gate, Hirakawa-mon Gate, and Kitahanebashi-mon Gate. We entered through the Ote-mon gate.

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Ote-mon Gate – just across from Otemachi station, the most complex and sprawling metro station in Tokyo where five lines converge.

Although entry to the gardens is free it is regulated to control the number of people in the grounds at any given time. Once through the gate we went to the “ticket office” and got our pass tokens.

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Imperial Palace gardens token – now we’re free to roam.

Token’s in hand here is sample of what we found while strolling around the Imperial Gardens that sunny day:

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Ninomaru Garden – a traditional style garden.

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Tenshudai – the foundation of the former main tower of Edo Castle.
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Tenshudai – getting a bit artistic here.
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Tenshudai – and here is the view from atop the foundation.
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Ishimuro – this is the entrance to one of the underground stone cellars of the old castle.

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Fujimi Yagura keep – one of the smaller keeps, unfortunately off limits to explorers.
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Doshin-bansho guardhouse – one of several guardhouses dotted around the gardens.

All the walking and the sunny weather put us in the mood for an ice-cream afterwards and we tried one of the pre-made cones which was all that was available at the garden’s gift shop; as you might have seen from blog entry “23. Turning Japanese” we were not particularly impressed with the pre-made cones! 😛

The Imperial Gardens are beautiful, with a wide variety of landscape styles: an intricate section of Japanese gardens with a lake and sculpted greenery; open areas of lawn; and shady woodland. There is certainly something to suit all tastes for those that enjoy formal gardens and quiet spaces. Definitely one to put on any visitors list.

Oh and there was a “zeppelin” too:

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“Zeppelin” – it’s so imperial.

25. Cities

from “Fear of Music”, Talking Heads, 1979.

On only the second rainy day since we arrived over three weeks ago we needed something to do indoors and that would keep us occupied for the day: cue the Edo-Tokyo Museum. This is a very large museum; stepping into the main hall with a life-size reconstruction of part of the original wooden Nihombashi bridge sets the scene for the scale.

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Edo-Tokyo Museum – a life-sized replica of a section of the original Nihombashi bridge greets you as you enter.

The museum essentially comprises two halves: the history of Edo, and the history of Tokyo; Edo is the city that Tokyo grew from. There are lots of exhibits of artefacts to see, as well as models of how the cities used to be.

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Edo – a busy main street in the old city.
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Edo – the riverside at one end of the Nihombashi bridge.
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Tokyo – the new city grows and adopts a distinctly Western appearance.

Fortunately the information presented is in English as well as Japanese making this museum very accessible to tourists. There are also guides available who take groups around though as usual we eschew these as we prefer to wander and explore for ourselves rather than being led.

As well as the models there are – like the Nihombashi bridge – life-sized replicas of period buildings from Edo and Tokyo.

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Our favourite building replica was the kabuki (歌舞伎) house, which were Japanese equivalents of theatres in the Edo era. The kanji symbols for kabuki literally mean “sing, dance, skill” and so effectively translate as “the art of singing and dancing.”

Here’s a few pictures of the kabuki house:

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Away from the buildings there are lots of artefacts, so here’s a few of the ones we liked most:

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A wealthy man’s writing set – with brushes, ink, and ink-stone.

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Japanese sandals – stylish and practical; we’re getting a pair each.

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Pocket watches – damaged not so much by the Great Kanto Earthquake, but by the many fires that raged subsequently.
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An abacus/calculator – loving the retro-tech.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a huge place to explore but even so it does get quite busy so it paid to be there slightly earlier in the day and miss the worst of the crowds. We highly recommend it as a very fine introduction to one of the world’s great cities.

24. Two Tribes

from “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 1984.

On a recent visit to Akihabara to explore the electronics and anime madness of “Electric Town” we decided to drop it down a gear by taking some time out relax and stroll around two nearby shrines that we found on the map: the Kanda Shrine (神田明神) and the Yushima Seidō (湯島聖堂, literally “Hall of the Sage in Yushima”) sometimes called the Confucius Shrine.

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Akihabara – home to electronics and anime, and on Sundays the road is closed to traffic so everyone can roam freely.

The Kanda Shrine is a Shinto shrine that dates back 1,270 years, although the current structure has been rebuilt several times due to fires and earthquakes. The shrine  was important to both the warrior class and everyday citizens, especially during the Edo period.

Here’s a few pictures from the shrine:

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The Kanda Shrine – the main shrine building and the plaza.
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The Kanda Shrine – the entry gate to the shrine plaza.
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The Kanda Shrine – the washing trough to cleanse your hands. There’s also a poster in the background telling you how to pay your respects: bow twice, clap your hands twice, bow once more.

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The Kanda Shrine as you can see in the pictures is quite colourful, and looked more like a Chinese temple than the Japanese temples and shrines we’ve seen so far. We had an enjoyable time here just meandering around and then sitting in the plaza in the afternoon sunshine. Very pleasant, but onwards we go.

The Yushima Seidō is a Confucian temple established at the end of the Edo period. It is a temple for the veneration of Confucius and the sages and philosophers of Confucianism in several East Asian religions. Confucian temples often housed schools and other study facilities.

Here’s a few pictures from the temple:

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Confucian Temple – the main temple building.

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Confucian Temple – the man himself, Confucius.
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Confucian Temple – the building roofs have guardians lurking everywhere.
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Confucian Temple – and the edge tiles of the roofs have intricate details.

In a chaotic and busy city like Tokyo it’s very welcome to be able to find and enjoy these little oases of peace and tranquillity. We’re always surprised at just how many places like this there are, lurking in all kinds of unexpected locations, from behind ordinary houses to sitting shoulder to shoulder with 21st century buildings.

23. Turning Japanese

from “New Clear Days”, The Vapors, 1980.

From our time so far in Tokyo it has become clear that not everything is quite as we might be used to at home, or in some instances in any sane place. So here’s a few of the things we’ve discovered so far as we’re gradually “Turning Japanese” (we really think so).

Maps

There are lots of helpful maps in the metro stations just as you would hope to find. However, we soon learned that North is not always at the top of the map. In fact it is just as likely to be on the left, or right, or even bottom. Cue lots of head tilting and turning as we try and reconcile the map on the station wall with the map in our hands. Now that really is quite literally “Turning Japanese.”

Escalators

Sticking with the metro, in Japan you stand on the left and walk on the right of escalators. And they think we’re barbarians!

And no Philip still hasn’t fully made the transition yet.

Metro Music

And in still more hijinks with the metro, the stations play little jingles and other pieces of music – some unique to particular stations, and others used more often – whenever a train is at the platform. When the music stops the train doors close. It’s a bit like musical chairs, only with men in white gloves ready to stuff you into the train if you don’t fit. The music acts both as a way to time getting on-board and as a handy ear-worm for you to hum along and get funny looks from the locals; we do.

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Ice-cream cones can be bought pre-made, as shown in the picture. We had our first (and last) experience of these while walking around the Imperial Palace Gardens the other day.

The pre-made cones suffer from two fundamental problems:

  1. The ice-cream is too hard to lick properly.
  2. The cone is soft as it has absorbed moisture.

And there’s no Flake either. Pure insanity.

Give us a good old British 99 any day.

Japanification

OK this is a word we’ve made up, but turnabout is fair play. We’ve encountered various perfectly good English language words that have been “Japanified” in order to fit into Japanese. For example:

Aspirin (アスピリン) is pronounced “Ah-su-pi-rin.”

Heartland (a brand of beer) is pronounced “Heart-oh-land-oh.”

Receipt is pronounced “Receipt-oh.”

And so on. It looks like if you need an English word then just put an “ah” or an “oh” in. We can’t look much more silly than we already do stumbling around with our current smattering of Japanese; we enjoy being the gaijin entertainment.

Drinks Machines

Drinks vending machine are everywhere. And we mean everywhere. There are even gangs of them lurking on street corners like this bunch of bad boys located just near our Airbnb apartment:

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Drinks vending machines – option paralysis time.

There’s no end of the drinks available: you can get water, sodas & pop, iced-coffees, oolong and other teas, beers; so many it’s almost bewildering. One bonus is we can get Fanta Grape, a drink from Philip’s youth that he’s enjoying again.

But food snack machines if you want crisps or chocolate or squid-crunchies? We haven’t seen one yet. But then again there are so many convenience stores (7-11, Daily Yamazaki, Family Mart, Lawsons, Mini Stop) around that you don’t need them.

But hang on, these shops sell drinks, and usually for less than the vending machines. Erm…

Tiny Places

Look up at most blocks in Tokyo and you’ll see a host of boards to identify the premises found within:

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In our area alone there are literally hundreds of restaurants, cafés, and bars packed in like this. The vast majority of restaurants and cafés we’ve seen and used are tiny, usually only seating at most dozen or so people. And often a lot of this seating is at a bar and more suited to individual dining. It seems a lot of eateries are geared just as much to the more functional aspect of eating as a place to also enjoy company for a meal.

Being so small it’s no wonder that so many of them can be squeezed into any given building. It just makes you wonder how the higher up ones get any business when you can’t just happen to be wandering by and like the look of the place? Word of mouth perhaps?

Wet Hands

You need the little boys (or girls) room? No problem. There are plenty available. OK done? Now wash you hands. Water: check. Soap: check. Paper towels or hand dryer: erm…

From our experience so far we’ve found a way to dry your hands after washing them in only a tiny fraction of the toilet facilities. Not sure why – paper towels not being available we could understand from an environmental point of view, but there could definitely be a lot more hand dryers than the one or two we’ve found so far.

Smoking

You are not allowed to smoke on the streets – as non-smokers we definitely like this as you don’t have to suffer other people’s smoke in your face, though we can see smokers would not be amused as an infringement of their liberties.

In case you forget there are plenty of signs on the pavements to warn you:

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No smoking – it’s there spelled out plainly on the pavement.

There are, however, designated smoking spots dotted all over where people can enjoy their little piece of tobacco heaven:

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Smoking spot – hey is that drinks machine in there smoking too?

But what Japan gives non-smokers with one hand it takes away with the other: many restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops permit smoking.

Suffice to say that after the many years of enjoying smoke-free eateries in the UK and elsewhere, it doesn’t matter how good the food is if a place allows smoking, we won’t be eating there.

Here’s looking forward to more “Turning Japanese” aspects; it would be a boring world if we were all the same.