Akihabara!

After the brilliant go-kart tour we were in Akihabara and ready to explore, knowing that there was a lot here to get around there was no time to waste deciding where to eat, so McDonalds being the nearest place won.  Something quick was ideal in this scenario, plus they had WiFi so we could bring up maps and get an idea of the area.

Fuelled on food we were set and ready, having worked out a fairly efficient way around the area to maximize as much as possible!  It was only just before 2pm, but we’d learnt our lesson at Nakano, and didn’t want to be having to sprint around trying to beat shop shutters again.

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Heading out we hit the first few stores, they had a range of anime goods and electronics, but nothing special had jumped out so far.  Moving on we headed into the smaller streets around the station area, a colourful area packed with people and full of posters, screens and signs everywhere.

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This is where you realise the scale of Akihabara, we entered one tiny looking anime store and started to think that actually there’d be plenty of time to get around.  Then discovered the tiny store had an escalator going up, then discovered it had 9 floors full of various other anime, manga and game stores!

We decided on the system of head to the top floor and work down clearing the place floor by floor.  Inside the range of anime models and merchandise was crazy, so far the prices were more than those in Nakano, but the choice much larger.  I suspect prices in Akihabara are inflated a little more than Nakano as it’s a slightly more known area with a lot more people around.

After clearing the first building we continued exploring the side streets on the station side of Akihabara, so many more shops with open fronts and display cases filled with various anime figures, a real collectors paradise!  We’d for now decided to hold off on the arcades as it had become clear we likely wouldn’t get around everything.

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More wandering around and admiring the amazing anime posters on buildings eventually led to the larger stores on the other side of the street, this is where things really go interesting.  There were loads of video game stores, again with infinite ranges of modern and retro titles, and also large stores with hundreds of display cases packed with preowned anime goods at cheap prices.

Being relatively pressed for time any thoughts of taking photos actually went out of the window here as searching for cool anime goods took priority!  The best single place was a large 5 floor building that was home to several different anime shops, on one of the upper floors there was a very large store with more display cases that I’d seen in my life! To buy things here you had to write the cabinet, shelf and item number down so you & the staff could find it again!

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We both ended up with bags of anime goods, having each found cool things we wanted, though I do now wish I’d brought more!  And predictably we were there till the stores closed! Just over 6 hours of shopping! (Really didn’t feel that long!) I’ve never spent that long shopping in my life!  By this time the sun had long since vanished and Akihabara transformed into bright lights with lots of nightlife and bars.

This area also house the Square Enix Café, Gundam Café and AKB48 Café, though at this point we opted for just a quiet coffee shop to relax in while we tried to process all the events of the day, as ever since setting off in the go-karts at the start of the day we hadn’t really stopped.  Akihabara really is an amazing place! And the shops with so many cool and rare anime models are just the best!

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This was sadly my last night in Tokyo for this trip, but what a great last day an evening it had been!  Below is my desk filled with my haul from Nakano and Akihabara, something I’ll no doubt expand on the next time I return there!

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The next morning I had to head out at 5am to Narita airport for my flight back to the UK, via Seoul.  I took the subway then the express Skyliner to the airport, only train I know with drink vending machines on it, then it was time for me to bid farewell to Japan once more, not going to lie I was actually a bit teary and had a little cry to myself, really not wanting to leave 😦

I’d been hoping I might see Mt Fuji from the plane as a last sight from Japan, but the flight went a lot further north than I was anticipating it would.  On the plus side the transfer in Seoul this time didn’t involve a chaotic run across the airport, I had time to stop by Starbucks where they were actually still selling sakura lattes, but not realising the price it cost me over £7! Seoul airport is crazy expensive!

I was then asleep for pretty much the whole 12 hours back to the UK.  After being back in the country for about an hour I was already hating it again.  I’m actually going to beg here, if you have a company in Japan and can issue me a Certificate of Eligibility to get a work visa then please do!

 

 

 

Go-Karting Around Tokyo!

There are quite a few ways to get around Tokyo and see the sights, but what better way to do so than by dressing up in a costume and driving around the city in a small go-kart.

I’m going to do my second ever bit of plugging here for MariCar Tokyo (Website Here), as it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life! The go-karts are just immense fun! Looking up at the tall buildings from just a few inches off the ground really gives a new scale to the city, on top of that any time you stop in traffic or at lights crowds of people line the streets to take photos, they are joking on the website when they say you’ll feel famous!

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Now you can turn up on the day and see if they have any slots, but I would highly recommend booking in advance, as it’s so popular chances are you won’t find a slot by just walking into the shop on the day.  Booking is really easy, I just used Facebook Messenger to chat with them and get it all arranged.  Also make sure you’ve arranged the correct type of International Driving Permit to drive in Japan before you leave your country.

There are a few locations you can choose to set off from, I choose Akihabara as it was easy to get to (the shop is only a few minutes from the metro & JR stations), and also I wanted to see that area after the tour anyway.  There are a few routes to pick from at Akihabara, offering tours of different parts of the city, ranging from 1-3 hours in length.  My friend and I opted for a 2 hour option that would pass through Akihabara, Central Tokyo, The Rainbow Bridge, Odaiba, Tokyo Tower and Ginza.  (Though at the end we wished we’d done a 3 hour route as it was that fun!).

Arriving in the store 15 minutes early gave time to make payment, fill out a quick form, and pick out a costume to wear! (Dressing up is optional, but it’s way more fun if you do!) There is a large range of costumes to choose from, a mix of video game & anime characters, as well as some Disney ones.  There are also lockers, drinks machines and a toilet, so the place is pretty well equipped.

In addition for just 200 yen you can hire a GoPro head or chest cam to capture the trip! A real bargain! You don’t have to have a memory card as a few days later they’ll send you a link to download the footage.  Here’s a short edit of mine that I’ve put on YouTube (Link), my GoPro head-cam had a slight issue and didn’t pick up the audio, so I’ve just added a music track over it.

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Once ready to set off, your guide will gather your group and lead everyone to the go-karts, giving you a clear explanation of safety stuff, how the go karts work etc, it’s pretty short as there isn’t really much to go through, and the go-karts are ultra easy to drive. (The staff speak fluent English & Japanese)  Once that’s done, it’s time to fire up the engines and hit the streets!!

The guide will take the lead for the rest to follow behind, and will keep checking back to make sure everyone is getting along ok.  My guide for the day was a guy called Kenya, who is possibly the coolest & most energetic person I’ve ever met!  He was a great laugh, told us lots about places as we passed them, keep checking to make sure the group was together, and when traffic stopped would often jump out of his kart to get pictures of us all, which he then later shared to all our phones when we returned to the shop.

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With everyone fired up and ready he took us straight out and through Akihabara!  This for me was one of the best street views, as being a district for anime & games, all the buildings were decorated with various large anime posters, screens and billboards, including a massive Sword Art Online one!

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*Quick note, pictures taken here while on the road are stills taken from my GoPro head-cam footage, obviously you should not be trying to use a camera or mobile to take photos while driving! If stopped at traffic lights it’s ok to take a quick snap, but not while driving.

Passing through Akihabara was great, being the morning there was only moderate traffic on the roads so it was a fairly clear run, but lots of people were on the paths waving and taking photos each time you stopped!  It really was so much fun just sitting in the go-kart at traffic lights making poses and waving back to people!

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The traffic on the roads stayed light allowing for some happy cruising along at the speed limit, the go-karts are really nippy and handle really well with good firm steering.  Not long after leaving Akihabara we were passing through the offices and shops of central Tokyo.

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It was fun here to see that even some business people on the way to their offices were happy to stop and wave, even though they must see these tours fairly regularly the sight of a load of people dressed up in go-karts hadn’t worn off on them.  Shortly after cutting through streets of office we were near Tokyo main station passing by the Imperial Palace where we’d arrived on our first day in Tokyo.

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The main street cutting passed the palace grounds had more traffic and people around than when we’d arrived on that first day.  As we passed through again there were crowds to wave and smile at, small groups of children who were all shouting hello and waving, and even people in taxis next to use sticking cameras out of the windows.  There really is nothing else like it!

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The route carried on along some really nice roads in the open part of the city near the Imperial Palace Park, which allowed from some great views of the Tokyo skyscrapers in the distance, and with the sun out and a small breeze it felt brilliant!  One extra moment of fun came in the form of a massive tunnel that Kenya took us through! The sweeping curve through the tunnel with the arrow signs and lights felt really like a video game! Plus the sound of the go-karts flying through the tunnel was just so epic!

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After more touring the central city, passing by places like the Dentsu HQ skyscraper, we made our way toward the bay and Rainbow Bridge! (Named due to it’s nighttime illuminations)  The road from where we were wound under the bridge, before doubling back and gradually ascending to it.  It was a great feeling being able to open up the go-kart a bit more along the top of the bridge.  Crossing the bridge was a little cold due to the wind across the bay, but worth it as it offered great views of the city on the waters edge.

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After crossing the bridge the large ferris wheel of Odaiba was ahead of us (very colourful at night), however we headed to the right away from it and toward the bay edge and the shopping malls that lined it.  We stopped here for a quick break to stretch the legs and give the chance for some photo taking.  Walking around the Odaiba shopping malls and out onto the waterfront while dressed in costumes was a great laugh, of course lots of people enjoyed the sight and wanted pictures, which we of course more than happy to strike so poses for.

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After enjoying the view and sites of Odaiba, it was time to get back on the karts and venture back across the Rainbow Bridge, toward Tokyo Tower!  Heading back over the Rainbow Bridge gave a nice view back out over the bay area and toward Odaiba.

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The end of the bridge was another really fun section of track……I mean road, a long spiralling curve leading down from the top of the bridge back down to the ground below.  Flying around this descending spiral was another moment that felt like a racing game! In addition it also gave another nice city skyline view of Tokyo.

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After the Rainbow Bridge we spent a bit more time heading through some of the streets in central Tokyo, before arriving on an road that led straight up towards Tokyo Tower!

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As we neared the tower we headed around to it’s base passing by Shiba Park, an area that I’d learnt a few days earlier disappointingly is not a park full of shiba inus, but just a nice small park, the kanji for shiba, can also mean ‘lawn’ or ‘tuft’.  We took the road next to the tower and turned right into the access road at its base, parking right under the tower!

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There was a little traffic on the approach to the tower, which gave Kenya a chance to jump out and run around behind us to get a great shot of the karts on the road with the iconic tower standing tall in the backdrop.

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This allowed for another small break and photo opportunity at the towers base, Kenya going out of his way to make sure we all got some good photos, he was fun to watch as he was trying to get some photos from every angle he’d often end up laying on the ground trying to get a good shot!

IMG_5789-13-04-17-22-57After the pit stop at Tokyo Tower we head out from the base of it, doubling back around to see it one more time before heading onward towards Ginza!  The route to Ginza was great, passing by roads lined with sakura trees still in bloom, crowds of people to wave at and pose for, and a Shinkansen flew past over a bridge as we approached Ginza.

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Now having visited Ginza on foot the day earlier, I can say with 100% certainty that it is way more fun to pass through Ginza in a go-kart!  Passing through the heart of Ginza looking up at all the fancy buildings really is the best way to view it.

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About 10 minutes of so after passing through Ginza Kenya gave us the sign that we were on our last 5 minutes and heading back into Akihabara, not wanting to go back my friend and I did briefly consider just driving off in another direction till we ran out of fuel.  Heading back into Akihabara was a mix of feelings, it was great looking up at all the anime signs, and it did mean exploration and a shopping spree was imminent, but it was also quite sad the thought of not being in the little go-kart anymore.

Screenshot_68.jpgAfter winding back through Akihabara’s side roads we were back at the go-kart parking lot, walking back to the shop felt strange, walking was just not as fun as being in a go-kart.  Life is more fun when you’re in a go-kart, that was the lesson learnt here.

If you’re in Tokyo, then this is something you absolutely must do! You won’t regret it! As with Tokyo Book And Bed, I’ve decided that whenever I’m in Tokyo I’ll be going back here, I’ll do a different route each time to experience go-karting around all parts of the city.

Ghibli Museum!!!

The day had arrived! The day to step into the magical and mysterious Ghibli Museum!  For those that don’t know tickets for this place can be insanely hard to get! As they tend to sell out very shortly after going on sale, and it’s not just a case that there’s only x amount of tickets available, but that you have to book for a particular day and timeslot, so the chances of actually getting a ticket for when you’re able to go are even slimmer!

However staying up till 2am and mashing F5 to refresh the page for half an hour had paid off and tickets had been secured!

So off to Kichijoji it was!

Kichijoji & Inokashira Park

Kichijoji is an area about 10 miles out to the west of central Tokyo, heading towards the outskirts of the city.  It’s still quite a lively are, with a reasonably large size shopping area around the station, and is also home to the amazing Inokashira Park.

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Just a few minutes walk from the station there’s a narrow street that leads the way into the northern section of Inokashira Park.  This section of the park accommodates a large lake, lots of sakura trees, some cafes and even a small zoo!  One of the many great things about this park is that there are people walking shibas!  Just look at this cute little dude!! he was so friendly and soft!!!

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After admiring the cute little shiba and giving it lots of pets and scratches, it was time to move on around the park.  the large lake was full of rowing and paddle boats, and was surrounded on all it’s banks by beautiful sakura trees.

DSC_0987.JPGIn some areas the sakura had started to fall, coating the water around them in a thin film of pink leaves, which looked absolutely wonderful!

DSC_0994.JPGThe same had happened along the pathways around the lake, with the ground covered in pink leaves.  Heading around the park toward the western end of the lake revealed a small shrine on the waters edge, with a bridge allowing nice views and a path across the water.

DSC_1004.JPG The Ghibli Museum was located in the southern section of the park, past  the open grassy areas and tennis courts, 5 or 10 minutes walking and a sign stood out as a beacon to let everyone know their journey was at an end, and the Ghibli Museum was indeed here!

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The museum itself has a unique design to it, as you’d expect for something Ghibli.  It’s a building of bright, vibrant colours, a giant Totoro stands in the window of one section outside.

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The building also combines with a nature theme, in that greenery covers many of the walls and sections, there’s also a roof garden.

DSC_1015.JPGThere were quite a few people in line to get in, but as tickets were pre booked and for set timeslots it didn’t take more that a few minutes to get through and into the museum, we were in pretty much dead on our ticket timeslot.  (I should add that although you book and have to enter on a particular timeslot, there isn’t any time limit how long you can stay in the museum, so you don’t have to rush around).

Now upon entering the museum, and throughout it, it’s made quite clear that you cannot take photos inside the place, not wanting to risk getting kicked out it’s a rule I stuck to.  So sadly I can’t show you any pictures of the inside (aside from this amazing stained glass door panel, as technically I was outside of the museum when I took it).  I can completely understand this rule though, as the inside of the place is so amazing, if you saw pictures of it online somewhere before hand it might take away a bit of the magic and mystery.

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In that spirit of preserving the magic and mystery of the place I’m actually going to not go too in depth about what was inside, it’s better to simply experience for yourself when you visit.  What I will say though is the interior of the building has a real charm to it, I can’t describe the style of the design, other than maybe with quirky, old and well, magical.

The exhibits, especially one of the main areas on the ground floor are just mind blowing, in terms of the style and how well done some of the things are.  The upper floors have a lot of artwork and areas that really help you see inside the mind of how designs happened.  One thing I will reveal is there’s a seating are done in the style of the inside of the Catbus, it’s the most comfy place ever!

On the upper floors, there’s an outside courtyard housing the Ghibli Café, now as it was lunchtime the queue to get in was ridiculously long, there was a separate seating / holding area for those waiting to get in.  Though strangely from what I could see on the menu, and by peaking through the windows, there didn’t seem to be a huge choice of things, and nothing looked particularly Ghibli themed to me.

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Staying on the outside there was also a winding staircase up to the roof garden, complete with giant robot soldier, have to admit I haven’t watched the particular title that this is from.

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Back inside on the ground level is also the Saturn Theatre, where you can watch an exclusive Ghibli short film!  When you enter the museum they give you a ticket in the form of a unique strip of Ghibli film cells, this is your entry to the Saturn Theatre.  (you get to keep the strip after).  The short film was brilliant, and the animation out of this world! (As you’d expect from Ghibli).

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All in all the Ghibli Museum lives up to the hype! And it’s worth the effort involved of getting tickets for! The only slight downside I found was actually in the form of the museum shop, I was hoping for some cool artwork prints but all they had on that front were postcards.   I was also hoping to get something that stood out as an exclusive only available from the Ghibli Museum, but everything inside really seemed like something I could get from anywhere (in Japan anyway).

Ginza

After Ghibli there was still most of the afternoon free, so heading to Ginza in central Tokyo seemed like a good option.  The area is really a few main long shopping streets, lined with tall fancy buildings, with lots of high end shops and department stores, it’s really a shopping area for the wealthy, but never the less still an interesting place to walk around.

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I think I read on weekends afternoon / evenings it actually becomes a pedestrian only area, because it gets that busy! And though I visited during the day, I’m told it’s visually spectacular in the evenings.   Looking through some buildings was interesting, for example on one floor of a stationary department store we found a really strange room just growing plants! It was like stumbling across some strange science lab!

DSC_1029.JPGWith a relatively quick tour of Ginza completed it was back to the apartment for a fairly chilled anime evening before the next days adventures.

The Meiji Shrine & Nakano!

After a morning at Sengakuji temple I still had some time to kill before meeting up with my friend, so I decided to head up to Harajuku and start exploring around there while waiting.  However as the mornings rain had intensified it probably wasn’t the best day to go, as it meant none of the street entertainers or crazy fashion wearing people had ventured out.

Harajuku

Arriving in Harajuku there were a few main and backstreets which were full of various clothes shops, coffee shops and a few department stores.  Takeshita Street is generally regarded as the main street to see here, however venturing down that revealed mostly crepe shops, cloth shops and some touristy looking stuff, overall it disappointingly felt like quite a tourist trap area.  It’s possible a sunny day might add something more to it, but I’m not convinced of that, could though just be that this area wasn’t really my sort of thing.

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Meiji Shrine Park

A good thing going through Takeshita Street was that I emerged on the edge of the Meiji Shrine Park, a huge park containing Meiji Jingu, The Meiji Shrine.  There are several main paths leading through the park toward the shrine, each one with a giant wooden torii gate at the start of it.

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Each one really impressive, standing tall, towering over the pathway.  Getting up close and studying the grain and seeing the splits in the wood gives some indications just how long these have stood here.  Seeing the rain drip off the top of them is also strangely therapeutic.

DSC_0911.JPGThe wide paths cut through the tall green trees of the park, along the way from the Harajuku side there is a huge wall of sake barrels on one side, with a row of wine barrels on the other.

DSC_0915.JPGAs you near the shrine there is the option to take a side path and pay 500 yen to enter the Meiji Shrine Inner Gardens, this is something I recommend doing, as to me I found it the highlight of the park, and the advantage being here in the rain was I was pretty much the only person there.   On sunny days it’s usually a very busy and crowded place!

Meiji Shrine Inner Gardens

There’s a few trails you can follow through the trees, eventually merging and meeting up at the top of a clearing that overlooks the large lake.

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The paths split again, following it to the left leads towards one edge of the lake, a viewing area with a tightly packed straw roof provided me a break from the rain while overlooking the lake.

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Heading back along the trail led through more trees and plants, the path lined with magnificent thick bamboo fences which shone in the rain.  Eventually the lake filtered into a narrow channel, which had been divided into various sections for things to be planted in it, It looked like some sort of small rice field, but I don’t think the plants were rice.

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Pressing on a bit more and taking a slight detour from the main route revealed the true gem of this garden to me, in the form of Kiyomasa’s Well.  In a the murky water of the river lies a circular well that retains perfectly clear water, constantly bringing more to the surface.

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Seeing the contrast between the well water against the muddy river water is just magical! It’s been said that this well is a place of power, and there are various stories and rumours about it increasing luck.

DSC_0941.JPGYou could use the stepping stones to go into the river and get up close to examine the well, which with the ripples from the rain drops was mesmerizing.  However you are not allowed to drink from it or put your hands in it, I have to admit as there wasn’t anyone else around I was tempted, but in the end I decided to respect the sacred place and was content to just see it.  (Had I been anywhere else other than Japan I probably wouldn’t have minded breaking the rules on it).

I’m told on sunny days queues of people actually form to see this well (as it’s on a narrow section at the end of the river with only one access point), so being here in the rain gave me the chance to appreciate it without another soul around.  Honestly this well is so impressive that it makes visiting the Meiji Shrine worth it just to come and see this.

Heading back from the well I picked back up the main trails through a few impressive flowers, and back to the main park.

Meiji Jingu

The Meiji Shrine itself actually kind of snuck up on me a bit, I didn’t actually realise I was approaching it until I was in the main courtyard of it!  The gates leading into the courtyard are quite large, but somehow discreet enough that I didn’t clock they were the main entrance gates.

DSC_0963.JPGThe main courtyard was quite large, inside the corners were large sacred trees, while around the outside the covered walkways held some elegant flower displays.  Large sections of the shrine were covered in scaffolding and sheets while they undergo renovations for the shrines 100th anniversary in 2020.  I believe the renovations are due to continue into 2019.  On a cleaver note though the sheets covering the sections they are working on have a scale picture of what the building section should look like, so although it’s not the same you can get an idea.

Nakano!

I managed to link back up with my friend at Shibuya station, somehow finding each other in a station the size of small city.  From there we decided to head onto Nakano, as it was a place tipped for being great for anime and manga related items.  (It didn’t disappoint!)

The main shopping street of Nakano links straight up with the station exit (or one of them at least), making it easy to avoid the rain and get straight into the under cover shopping arcade.  After a quick pit stop for some dinner we headed on toward the area at the end of the shopping street, Nakano Broadway.

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Nakano Broadway is a shopping area at the back of the main shopping street which spans a few floors, starting in the basement level you have various foods and groceries, on the first level general shops, floors 2 & 3 however are full of anime and manga merchandise stores!  Absolute heaven!

There are so many shops, large and small selling anime and video game figures, model kits and merchandise here!  Best of all most of them sell preowned items at crazy low prices! Shelves are packed with boxes of various anime figures and items to look through, and storage boxes on the floor full of smaller anime items to sort through.  You can find so many gems here it’s just insane!

We spent a fair bit of time looking around, but the shops here close at 8pm, as we’d arrived about 6.30pm it didn’t leave us long to look around and get things, this led to frantic speed searching and scanning through looking for key bargains and items we that caught our eyes, making notes to try and come back for some things.  This turned into literally running around the corridors of the anime floors trying to get back to places to buy some things while shop shutters were flying down around us!

We didn’t manage to get around to all the stores, but both end up with some cool stuff by the end of it.

DSC_0982.JPGAmongst my finds were this really cool Konata Izumi model for only about 1000 yen.

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And this bargain Asuka model from Neon Genesis for only 300 yen! The prices in Nakano are just amazingly cheap, cheaper than Akihabara!  I regret that I didn’t go to this place sooner, and that I didn’t get a chance to get back there for some of the other cheap stuff I saw that I wanted.  Next time in Tokyo I’m defieintly allowing more time to stop by here!

After the mad adventure and speed run at Nakano we headed back to the Roppongi apartment, using the system of pick a train that looks like it’s going vaguely in the right direction, a system that never fails in Tokyo.

Bonus pic: this really cute shiba I saw on the way back, look how cute!!!

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Sengakuji Temple

Having some time to kill in the morning I decided to head off to Sengakuji, the temple housing the graves of the 47 rōnin, as well as that of lord and lady Asano.  The tale of The 47 Ronin is quite a well known and famous story, for those who don’t know it’s essentially the story of how a group of samurai, banded together as rōnin to avenge the death of their master lord Asano, after he had been cornered into committing seppuku.  I won’t try to recount the tale here as I’ll no doubt make a hash of it, and there are many detailed accounts of it online you’d be better off reading.

The temple is located only a few minutes walk from Shinagawa station, a small side road leads up to the temple, gradually narrowing as it reaches the main temple gate.  Despite being near the main road, it’s set back far enough that you can’t hear the rest of the city.  On this particular rainy morning no one else was around, and all I could hear was the rain beating down on the floor and my umbrella.

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Through the main gate is the temple courtyard and main temple, relatively small in comparison to many other temples I’d seen, yet still a beautiful sight with the shine of the standing water on the slabs of the courtyard, and the small trees in each corner.  Various small statues of different leaders from the incident were scattered around the courtyard edge.

DSC_0849.JPGTo the left hand corner of the courtyard from the main gate was a small path leading towards the grave site, a narrow path lined with a stone fence and some sakura trees, where the petals had started to fall, leaving a pink trail along the path.  On one side is a small well, which is the well where the rōnin washed the head of Kira before presenting it at their masters grave.

DSC_0852.JPGWandering down the pathway I made a slight detour into the two smaller museums on each side of it.  As there wasn’t any entry fee to the temple or graves, 500 yen for access to the museums seemed like a good donation, in addition it gave me some respite from the rain.

The museum building to the left is a small hall, full of various relics and artifacts from the story, ranging from the actual weapons and armour of some of the rōnin, to the scroll where they all signed their names.  There was also a small presentation recounting the tale, which to my surprise was actually in English.

The small museum building to the right of the path is an older building, housing some remarkably well carved wooden statues of each of the rōnin.

After the museum exhibitions I headed back out and up the path, climbing a couple of steps and passing through the small temple gate of the grave site.  I was greeted with the site of a man under a covered section with a large tray of incense smoking in front of him.  Approaching nearer it became clear they were being sold for people to pay their respects by planting them at the graves, only 100 yen per bundle just to cover the costs of the incense.  Having brought a small bamboo tray full I proceeded into the grave site.

DSC_0874.JPGWith the rain still beating down the site was still fairly empty, only two other people where there, a Japanese man in a suit who was just leaving, and an older Japanese man I’d met in the museum section.  We got talking briefly about the weather and where I was from, but my limited Japanese prevented me from talking about much more than that for now.  It was quite a strange and surreal experience talking to two random strangers in a small but significant grave site in the middle of Tokyo, while holding a bamboo container of incense, with the heavy rain falling around us.  It felt like quite a moving and special moment somehow.

Eventually the other two bid their farewells, leaving just me at the site.  I continued to pay my respects at each grave, planting incense at each one.  The site was in two small areas, on one section were the graves of the 47 rōnin (I think I read actually a bit less, as some didn’t make the trip back, so some aren’t graves, but memorials).

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To the side of these was a small area containing the graves of lord and lady Asano, as you would expect given their status these graves were larger in presence that those of the rōnin.

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After taking in the solitude of the place, I placed the last of my incense, returned the empty container and headed slowly back toward the station, reflecting on the mornings rather strange experience.  I’m glad I decided to visit on such a rainy day and quiet day, I think I was quite lucky to be there when I was.

Exploring Tokyo

I was quite sad to leave Tokyo Book And Bed after such a great stay there, but for the rest of my stay in Tokyo a rather cool apartment in Roppongi awaited.  The apartment had been a great find, and it turned out to be as good as the listing had made it out to be.

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A spacious duplex on the top floor of a quite fancy apartment block, the first level had a massive lounge, complete with large TV, N64 and balcony, as well as a kitchen, and a large bath and shower room.  Upstairs had a massive bedroom, with bed and futons, walk in cupboard, tatami seating area, and second balcony, with great views out toward the NTT DoCoMo tower building in Shibuya.

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After dropping bags off for the final time this trip, it was a case of venturing out toward Roppongi Hills, a really modern and quite upmarket shopping area, also home to the Mori Tower, one of the many high skyscraper observation decks in Tokyo.  The courtyard outside also gave my first view of Tokyo Tower amongst the city’s skyline.

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After a bit of time exploring Roppongi & Roppongi Hills it was on the metro and toward Nakameguro, a random station that we’d passed by earlier in the day on the metro and seen lots of sakura there from the window, so had deemed it worth a look.

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Arriving in Nakameguro it was clear that something was going on, as the small station was absolutely packed with people.  Heading out it didn’t take long to see why, as a minutes walk from the station were rows of sakura trees running along both sides of a small river, with lanterns hung along the way and food & drink stalls scattered along the paths.

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The whole place was buzzing with people and a festive atmosphere, crowds of people were just walking along, drinking, eating and taking pictures of the sakura.  It was now after full bloom and the sakura had started to fall, which resulted in loads of falling pink petals snowing down upon everyone, onto the floor and into the river.

Being that so many people were walking around with glasses of wine, or sparkling sake with strawberries in, it didn’t take much persuading for me to join in and buy one from one of the many stalls selling them.  Walking around in the middle of a sunny afternoon in Tokyo, while viewing the sakura and drinking sake with a strawberry in really is just the best!  It was also a great spot for grabbing a quick street food lunch.

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Shibuya

After the rather amazing place of Nakameguro, it was time to head along to Shibuya!  The famous Shibuya Crossing is immediately outside the station, it was mid afternoon by the time I was there, which meant it wasn’t really as busy as I’d seen in various media over the years.  I’d actually assumed crossing it I’d just get swept along in a sea of people, then have to charge through the oncoming hordes from the other side, but as it turns out it was quite anti-climatic and just like crossing a normal busy crossing.  It’s also actually a lot smaller than I imagined it to be, I don’t know why but I always assumed it was a lot bigger.  (Though over the next few days I did pass by this area a couple of times and it did look busier each time, at rush hour I can imagine it being insane).

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The main streets near the crossing range are filled with talk buildings, mostly of large department stores, mixed floor buildings, and various fashion labels, each building with and large advertising screens attached to the front of them.

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In the centre of the district is a mostly pedestrian area, with wide shopping lanes, packed with people and full of all kinds of shops, restaurants and arcades, the colourful array of signs sticking out really adding that Tokyo feel to the place.

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As the evening drew in it was back to the flat, to refresh and get see what I’d be doing that evening.  I had been waiting on a friend to see if he was around to meet up, but with him not being able to I decided I might as well head out and explore Tokyo Tower as it was just a short walk away.

Tokyo Tower

From the window of the flat I could see a trail of sakura leading along a road that was vaguely in the direction of Tokyo Tower, so I decided to just go down there and see what happened.   The road wound it’s way uphill and through an office district, full of sakura on both sides of the street along the way, all lit up making a massive illuminated pink tunnel over the road, a really spectacular sight.

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Surprisingly although Tokyo Tower was so nearby, and would have been a giant glowing reddish orange structure against the night sky, the tall skyscrapers of Roppongi around me, meant I couldn’t actually see it to know if I was head the right way.  I’d somehow found myself wandering through a labyrinth of office blocks in the darkness, as the district had pretty much shut down for the night there was fairly minimal lighting.  Eventually after cutting through some courtyards and places I’m not sure I should have been allowed it, I caught a glimpse of Tokyo Tower through a gap in the buildings.

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Mentally adding it to the mini map and compass in my head, I reset my bearings and headed through the rest of the skyscraper maze eventually emerging on one of the main streets near the tower.  The approach up to the tower was an amazing sight, as the iconic red and orange lit shape stood out against the night sky, complete with a full moon alongside it!

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Outside the tower there were rows of koi carp streamers hanging down, I’m not sure what the occasion was, but they were quite a cool sight.

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Looking up at the tower revealed the remarkable lattice work of beams constructing the tower.

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Entry to the tower was limited to the lower observation decks as the top deck had been closed for renovations (I think it’s off limits for quite a while as well, so worth checking if you plan to go).  That said the view from the lower decks was still quite impressive, obviously a 360 degree view of the city, with great views of Odaiba and the Rainbow Bridge on the horizon, to the busy city streets below.

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The interior of the tower is also a pretty fun place to be, with a café / bar doing food, drinks and alcohol, with live music playing nearby.  Lots of the interior was also lit up with light shows projected onto the floor, and rows of purple lights across the celling.  The whole place had a real party vibe to it.

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Heading down from the tower I had a quick look in the One Piece theme shop and café below, but not really being a fan of One Piece and not really knowing anything about it, it was just a quick glance around.

Heading back I went through Roppongi’s main nightlife area in search of a late dinner, it’s a very action packed place, but some of the bars and places are on the more shady side of things.  I though was just happy to find a Mos Burger, before heading back.

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Book And Bed Tokyo!

So, Book And Bed Tokyo, it’s hard to describe, but it’s a sort of cross between a capsule hotel, hostel and a library.  The place is right near Ikebukuro station (really easy to get to anywhere in Tokyo from here), in a building up on the 7th & 8th floors.  Your bed is in the form of a capsule pod that’s integrated into a large bookcase running the whole length of the floor.

I don’t really do plugging stuff, but this place is so amazing I want to! So Book And Bed Tokyo please check the place out if your going to be in Tokyo (Think they have places in Kyoto & Fukuoka too), it’s the most amazing experience, and most relaxed place you’ll ever stay at!

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I booked the standard beds which was 4800 yen plus tax, this was really spacious and quite cosy (compact, smaller beds are also available for a bit cheaper).  The inside of the bed pod has loads of space, as well as hangers, a shelf, small safe (though I didn’t feel the need to use it), a couple of power outlets, and a small lamp.  It was high enough that I could comfortably sit up inside it as well, at the entrance there’s also a curtain you can draw across.

DSC_0700.JPGThe bed is also really comfortable, and the place is really peaceful so I had no trouble having a good nights sleep.  (Though a set of earplugs is provided should you feel the need to use them).  At the bottom of each bed column is also a storage space for your luggage, my medium sized wheelie case fit in there, along with my shoes and rucksack with plenty of room to spare, some slippers are also at provided.

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At one end are the shared sinks, toilets and showers, all the facilities are really clean.  At the other end is a lounge area, large sofas around the edge with a sofa island and cushions in the middle, these are really comfy to and chill out on.  Each seat section also has power outlets, wooden drink holders and at night a small lamp.  There’s also a small kitchen area, with a few small appliances.  A range of drinks can be brought at the main reception desk.

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As mentioned, one wall is a massive bookcase with the bed pods integrated in it, there’s a staggering choice of books to choose from, something of pretty much every genre and type of book.

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The décor and atmosphere of the whole place is amazing, the celling has a range of books hanging from it, and the lightbulbs are a really cool design.  In the evening and at night the lighting is perfect as well, not too bright, just giving off a warm ambient glow.  It’s just so peaceful and relaxing, perfect for reading or getting things done on your laptop.

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In the morning the large window by the lounge lets in the natural sunlight, again making it just a really cool place to hang out.  Check out isn’t till 11am either, so there’s a lot of time to still relax before leaving.  Something that I did, the original plan was that we’d set off early toward our next place in Tokyo, but from first walking into the place we decided that in the morning we’d just chill out there for as long as possible!

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In addition they do amazing coffee here in the morning! It’s done via the coffee machine (In fact I’m pretty sure it’s the same model I have), but something about it just made it taste like one of the best coffees I’ve had.  Honestly I can’t explain just how incredible this place is!

What I really want to do though is also a special shout out to the staff there! They made the place even more amazing! All of them are really friendly and welcoming, happy to have a quick chat as well.  Being up earlier on the morning I was checking out I spent a bit of time just chatting away in the reception before grabbing a coffee in the lounge, it’s just the best place in the world to relax!

I loved every second of staying there, I wish I’d been around to stay longer! I’ve made my mind up though that anytime I’m in Tokyo I’m going to be spending time here! I highly recommend that you do as well if you get the chance!

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First Day In Tokyo!

Having set off in the morning we’d arrived in Tokyo around lunchtime, food for now though was pushed back as we were still had luggage with us and wanted to see if we could drop it off at Tokyo Book & Bed in Ikebukuro, where we’d be staying for a night(Such an amazing place that I’m going to write about that separately after this).

First port of call though was to investigate metro passes, as while they aren’t generally worth it while in Kyoto or Osaka, Tokyo is a different story, it’s so large with so many areas that passes would end up saving money.  Asking in the station we were directed to a information centre in the basement of the department store across the street, where for just 1500 yen (just over £10) you could get a 72 hour unlimited metro pass! A bargain! (24 & 48 hour ones were also available).  *see note at bottom on passes. **small rant about London Underground at very bottom.

With unlimited metro travel obtained it was off to find a metro station and head off to Ikebukuro, however being that we were practically next to the grounds of the Imperial Palace it made sense to head up and have a quick look around.

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Rather bizarrely the large streets around the palace were fairly empty, of people and traffic on the roads.  The Imperial Palace grounds / park was largely huge open spaces, with some areas of greenery and lots of trees, and some nice waterways, fairly nice but not mind blowing.  There weren’t many people around inside the grounds, however I chalked that up to it being a slightly rainy Sunday.

Though this did make for a strange first impression of Tokyo, as I’d expected everywhere to be really busy all of the time, instead I was in central Tokyo with hardly anyone around, and hearing almost silence.  A feeling that got stranger when we left the park and headed into the nearby Metro station, the platform was deserted! It really wasn’t feeling very Tokyo so far!

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Being slightly confused we headed along to Ikebukuro, and arriving there things immediately got more lively, lots more people around, and the station area had a lot more in the way of city life with various shops and arcades around.  Tokyo Book & Bed was only a minutes walk from the station, check in wasn’t till later in the day, but they were happy to take store our luggage till then.

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Finally relieved of carting luggage around there was time for a massive portion of food from a restaurant tucked away in one of the building basements, before heading out to try an find something that would really make things feel more like the busy Tokyo in our minds.  As Shinjuku was nearby, that seemed like a good place to start!

Upon arriving in Shinjuku we picked a random station exit from one of the many available (stations are so large in Japan many have as many as 20-30 exits!), the area was a series of small shopping streets, with a few arcades and neon signs already starting to light up.  There were a lot of people around, but still not quite as you’d imagine Tokyo to be.

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By the this time the sun had pretty much gone from the sky and evening was setting in, this was handy as we established the rule of ‘look for glowing lights and that’s were the action must be’, this led us back toward the station area and through some narrow streets which were packed full of small food places and bars, each one was full of people, many with queues waiting to get in!  Things were now feeling like Tokyo!

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Weaving through the narrow food streets was great, the look and feel of the place was an experience of it’s own, this also led us through the station and out into a wall of neon lit buildings which marked the main area of Shinjuku!

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This area was now full of life, people everywhere, massive crowds, and Tokyo’s famous neon signs and large screens covering the front of every building!  There was a tonne of stuff to take in that it took a few minutes just to process everything that was around!

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Every street had signs sticking out of buildings and flashing lights everywhere, even on the main roads lorries with massive TV screens on the side were circling round advertising the various bars and clubs around, while blasting out music, really adding to the vibrant feel of the area.

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After a few hours wandering around at night it was time to head back and see what Tokyo Book & Bed was like.  The area around Ikebukuro had by this time now livened up as well, feeling the need for food a bit of exploration was done, the area had no shortage to choose from, in the end a Japanese – Italian restaurant was the winner for dinner before finally heading into Tokyo Book & Bed.

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*Note 1: Worth noting that you need your passport when buying one as it’s only available to foreigners visiting Japan.  Also each passport can only be used to buy these passes once while in Japan, but you can buy one for each person there with just a single passport.  So for example if there are two of you in Tokyo for 6 days, you could have one person use his passport and buy the first two 72 hour passes, then when they run out the other person could buy 2 using the other passport.  (Essentially what my friend and I did).  If you were travelling alone then you’d only be able to get this type of metro pass once, though I’m sure other types of pass are around.  The individual metro fare prices are actually quite cheap, but given how much I travelled around in the 3 days this pass probably ended up saving more than double it’s value!

**Note 2: Now as it happens metro prices around Tokyo are actually really cheap! You can get around most of the central city areas for about 200-250 yen per trip, cheaper than Zone 1-2 trips on the London Underground, with cleaner, more efficient, on time, non delayed, not on strike, trains.  In addition even though it’s one of the busiest, if not the busiest cities in the world, the stations are still clean and spotless, unlike the rather grimy, falling apart stations on the Tube.

The other great thing here, is for long routes there are rapid services that only stop at main stops, like you’d get on a normal JR line.  So for example if I wanted to got to a station 15 stops away, there would be the usual local service stopping at all stops, and a rapid that only might stop at 5 of them, getting there much quicker.  Something the Tube is badly lacking! Granted some lines on the tube would need expanding to do that, but being that no improvements have ever really been done to it, why isn’t that a thing?

 

To Tokyo!

The time had finally come to head to Tokyo! I was sad to leave kansai, especially without having had the chance to meet up with my old students, but I’ll be back again!  And the thought of getting to go to Tokyo for my first time had me pretty excited!

There’s a few ways of getting to Tokyo from Osaka, the cheap option of a night bus is a good choice, as you travel overnight you also save on accommodation, and prices are only 3000-5000 yen depending on how much comfort you want.  There’s also of course the option of flying, which is relatively cheap & quite quick, though you need to allow about an extra couple of hours to get to and from each airport.  Of course there’s also the option to drive, or with a lot of time and changes use local trains.

Shinkansen!

Naturally though the Shinkansen was my chosen travel method, you get to travel in style while watching the countryside & mountains of Japan fly past at 300kmph!  There are a few choices of Shinkansen to Tokyo from Osaka, The Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama Shinkansen.

Kodama is a little cheaper, but stops at all stations so takes over 4 hours.  The Hikari is a middle ground taking about 3 hours, and is the quickest covered by the JR Rail Pass.  And finally the Nozomi, which is the quickest of all getting to Tokyo in a little under 2 and half hours, only stopping a few times along the way.  Just something to note, you need to have the correct ticket for the correct Shinkansen (obviously), so if you buy a Kodama Shinkansen ticket then you can’t get on the Hikari or Nozomi.

Being that I hadn’t bothered with a JR Rail Pass (They are only really worth it if you are taking two or more long distance Shinkansen trips), I opted to take the fastest Nozomi Shinkansen, 13000 yen or so later and I was on the platform ready and waiting!  I attempted to get a picture of it arriving, but wasn’t quick enough, I blinked for a second and it was in the station!

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*A quick note for anime fans, sadly the Type 500 Eva (Neon Genesis themed) Shinkansen, is currently out of service until around the end of May 2017, so sadly you can’t go on that right now 😦 I was hoping to at least see it, but it only runs Osaka toward Fukuoka, so it wouldn’t have helped me get to Tokyo.

On the platform you need to make sure you’re lined up for the right car, as the forward cars are normally for reserved seats only, while the next few are often Green cars, basically like first class, more space, comfier seats etc.  And the last few are generally for the non-reserved standard tickets.

The interior in the non-reserved cars is still really nice and spacious though (I can only imagine what the Green cars are like), there are cabins at the ends for luggage storage, and wide overhead rails big enough to accommodate large wheelie suitcases.  Though there was so much leg room between the seats that I just parked my mid sized case in front of me (and still had plenty of foot space!).

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The seats are really comfortable, really wide, and have the option of reclining, as well as a laptop / table tray as well.  The car itself is also really well sound proofed, even blasting along at 300kph it’s practically silent, you can’t hear the noise of the tracks, or wind outside.

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Quarter of an hour after setting off we made the first stop in Kyoto, if you ride a Shinkansen and have luggage it’s worth bearing in mind the Shinkansen does not stop at each stop for long, just a minute or two, so you’d better be ready to get off when it reaches your stop.

A few minutes after Kyoto and we were flying past Ishiyama at the southern end of Shiga, again last year I’d watched the Shinkansen fly past while walking along the river bank in Ishiyama, so it was nice to briefly get a glimpse of that area again, with Lake Biwa just about visible in the distance.

Half an hour after that and it was time to make another quick stop in Nagoya, a city which I still would like to visit at some point, but for now I got to wave goodbye to it from out of the window.  This was also the final stop before the two Tokyo stations.

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As more of the Japan flew past out of the window I ended up falling asleep for a while, a combination of being burnt out from lots of walking and exploring, as well as late nights and fighting off some form of virus over the last few days had left me needing a bit of rest.

I woke up though just as we were passing Shizuoka and nearing the Mt Fuji region, unfortuenly though as the Shinkansen exited a tunnel into this region, the outside skies were dark and rain outside had caused a layer of mist which limited the views.  I glanced at the GPS on my phone and as the Shinkansen flew past Mt Fuji nothing but grey skies and clouds could be seen 😦  On a clear day the view of Mt Fuji from the Shinkansen should be great, but the weather had denied me the chance to see the sacred mountain for this trip.

2 and a bit hours after leaving Osaka and I was in Tokyo! First making a stop at Shinagawa on the outskirts, before the Shinkansen pulled in for it’s final stop at Tokyo main station.

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Minoo

Minoo is an area in the mountains just north of Osaka, not to far out by train.  It’s actually not a place I’d known of, but over a chilled out breakfast at Eggs ‘n Things in Shinsaibashi it was picked out at random on a map as it just looked like an interesting place.

Incidentally I really recommend Eggs ‘n Things as a breakfast stop, it’s actually a Hawaiian style place (and Hawaiian based I think), doing great ranges of breakfasts from fried eggs with Canadian bacon, to delicious looking pancakes.  They have quite a few places across Japan, but it had taken until now to actually find one due to a strange ghosting marker on Google Maps days before.

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Arriving in Minoo it started to rain steadily the second after stepping out of the station, but not being in the mood to buy yet another umbrella I decided to just tough it out and get wet instead.  The path out into Minoo Park led past a small area of shops, that were still open despite there being no one around.

Now the path through Minoo Park cutting through the valley is actually quite a wide paved / tarmacked path, yet somehow we managed to miss this and ended up on a muddy track climbing up into the hillside.  At the top there was a muddy clearing with what would have been quite a nice sight of some sakura trees, only up here they weren’t in bloom (presumably due to the cold higher up the hillside).

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Weaving back down another trail led into a small park next to the river, with a small shrine nearby as well.  After a bit of exploring the area we pressed on across the bridge and continued further into the park, somehow once again missing the actual main path and ending up on a smaller dirt track along the side of the river.

The track cut back and fourth across the river a couple of times via some small bridges, with some areas where you could step down to the rocks in the river.

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The small track continued to follow the river, cutting through some impressive rock faces, before eventually a narrow bridge crossed the river linking back up with the main pathway, this made for easier and less muddy walking.  The main path soon led to an undercover break area, with restrooms, vending machines, seats and a handful of shops, though the shops were closed, probably assuming not many people would venture out in the rain.

Continuing along the main path, which again followed the river, gave more great views of the valley below, the tree lined hillsides, and quite a few various plants that were shinning from the water left by the rain.

DSC_0615.JPGA few more kilometers further along and the path led to a clearing with a waterfall cascading over the edge of the tall rocks above and into a lake below, before forming the source of the river which the trail had followed.

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After taking in the view of the waterfall and the water crashing over the rocks at the start of the river, we followed the main path back toward the town, curious to see where the main path actually had started.  Along the way was a solitary Ice Cream vending machine, yup even out here on a random mountain path there was still a vending machine! Despite it still raining and me being fairly soaked, I still decided to buy a pot of cool looking flavoured ice chips, as it turns out though I should have probably read what flavour they were, as they tasted like Listerine mouth wash!

The main path then led back through a small section of traditional buildings, with the path curving around and a drop to the river below, a really picturesque sight, especially in the rain.

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More walking eventually led back to the trail of shops leading back to the town and station, looking back the main route was actually really obvious, and the original trail we had taken into the park was the narrowest path and easiest to miss, but it had led to a nice walk through the park along a different route.

Overall Minoo is a really nice trip out from Osaka, it doesn’t take long to reach, but it really is a nice change of pace from the busy city areas of Namba, Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi.