Day 16: Nikko! August 29
This was our last full day in Tokyo, and the morning was spent on a 5-hour round trip to photograph a bridge. We took the 7:30 Nikko limited express to Tobu Nikko. This was a direct train that got us there in two hours, but keep in mind there’s an additional fare (even with the Japan Rail Pass) for using the second half of the rail line, which is privately owned (approx. ¥2,000 or just under).
Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko – a photo in a travel book compelled me to see it in person.
Now, why would anyone in their right mind go two and a half hours each way to photograph a bridge? First, I never said that I’m in my right mind. Second, Shinkyo Bridge is something I have wanted to see with my own eyes for seven years, ever since I saw a photo of it in a travel book. I tried my best to recreate that photo again. But what they don’t tell you in the travel books is that there is a very busy intersection right beside it! Also, the bridge isn’t the original. The original was built in the 12th Century and burned down in the 17th Century. The current bridge was built circa 1911. Still, a beautiful bridge and one of my favorite sights of the whole trip.
What the travel books don’t show you – a busy road right beside Shinkyo Bridge!
There is much more to see in Nikko. It is a very picturesque area, especially in the Autumn when the leaves turn red. It’s also a town of cultural and historical significance – World Heritage lists Nikko as the home town of the Tokugawa clan that ruled the Shogunate, so there are quite a few other structures to see. Plus, the area is famous for onsen resorts, so the best way to see all it has to offer would be a one or two night stay at an onsen ryokan. Be warned though, these are not cheap. Stay one night if you can, rather than two.
The JR Nikko Station.
Nikko is a city that claims to be the heart of Japan, and thus takes great pride in its appearance. The JR Nikko station is in immaculate condition, as are all the stations going back to the other end of the line. It’s extremely difficult to find a rubbish or bottle bin anywhere, even near many vending machines, so keep that in mind.
After a short wait, we were on a train back to Shinjuku. From there we went to Akihabara, where Terry found the droids he was looking for (a set of R2-D2 and C-3PO) that he’d seen on one of our earlier stops there, and we made our way back to Shinjuku. We stopped at the Piccadilly store to grab some Yamato 2199 gifts for friends, then headed out for our last dinner in Tokyo – a return to the King of Teppan. Then back out once more for a bag to take my loot home in. Then packing, which was no mean feat. Then it was time to hit the hay.
Day 17: Driving Adventure to Mount Nokogiri! Sayonara Nihon! August 30
First, a bit of backstory on the activities undertaken the last morning in Japan. Terry and I are both fans of the TV series Top Gear, and having seen the episode from a few years back where they race the Japanese public transport system (including the Shinkansen) against a Nissan GTR from one side of Honshu to Mount Nokogiri to the southeast of Tokyo, we figured, why not emulate the last leg of the trip, from Tokyo to Nokogiri-yama?
We got up early, eager to make it to the car rental place as early as possible. In retrospect, I should have booked Kuroneko Yamato again the previous day to take our luggage to the airport. End result: since the hotel exits onto a narrow laneway, taxis can’t get in there. Thus, I had to drag two very heavy suitcases a fair way away from the hotel to find a taxi…and then jam all our bags into one! Not my finest moment, but we got there in one piece.
Some of the scenery on the way through Chiba prefecture.
After that, it was time to pick up the car we’d booked on Monday. The only problem was, we completely forgot how to get to the rental place. Never, ever underestimate how easy it is to get lost, especially when signage is in an unfamiliar language. After Terry went exploring he managed to find it again, so we got the paperwork taken care of and loaded up the Skyline while the attendants programmed the GPS. Then we were off!
The first challenge was getting out of Shinjuku and onto the motorway. This took a few attempts, as the accessway was anything but conspicuous. Basically it was a 90-degree turn with little wiggle room. Plus, on top of that, there were only two lanes – a fully automated one for those drivers with auto tags for tolls, and a manned one. Once past that, we were into the wonder that is Tokyo peak hour traffic. Amazingly, it didn’t slow to a crawl very much, if at all. Our journey took us past Odaiba, where we had visited the 1/1 Gundam statue, past Haneda Airport, and through the tunnel underneath Tokyo Bay, eventually coming out onto the road toward Mount Nokogiri.
Once we were past the outskirts of Tokyo, the traffic really died off, as one would expect, so for the most part it was smooth sailing the rest of the way down the southeastern peninsula. The only annoying thing really were the tolls. More or less $1 per km, so a 130km trip ended up being very expensive.
The Buddha rock carving. This isn’t the largest representation of Buddha in the complex; elsewhere is a 30.3m (100ft) carving in a cliff face.
When we arrived at the base of Mount Nokogiri, we paid another $10 toll at the entrance for using the mountain road. There was a parking lot right there, and if you didn’t want to pay the price, you’d have to hotfoot it up the mountain. But of course, since Jeremy Clarkson did it, then we had to as well. The experience was well worth it. Took about 5-10 minutes to get up there, and every turn was a hairpin, so you were feeling the G’s, but that said, the view was incredible both going up and coming down.
At the top, we parked the Skyline, paid the admission to the Nihon-ji temple complex, and headed off in search of what the show referred to as “The Buddha of Road Safety”. In truth, I highly doubt any of the Buddhas in this huge Buddhist complex have “Road Safety” in their job description, but given how many things other Japanese gods are responsible for (e.g. the Shinto god Inari), I can’t discount it might be true. As we were basing our whole visit on emulating the show, Terry posed for the camera, taking on the role of Jeremy Clarkson explaining that the stonework on one side was from the 12th Century, and that on the other side was from the 10th Century.
A natural-looking archway on the way down.
After we got those photos, we trekked up to the observation platforms where we could see the coastline for miles around us, while we tried not to get blown away by the wind. From there we decided to leave nought to chance, made our way back to the car, and proceeded back down the mountain where we were treated to some more fantastic views.
An hour or so (and not nearly as many tolls) later, we arrived at Narita. After refueling the car, we went to the Nissan rental place programmed into the GPS, after which the attendant drove us to the terminal and dropped us off with our luggage. From there it was a wait of several hours before we could check in and get our boarding passes, so we spent that time using the airport’s wifi to update Facebook and play online games. Once we’d checked in, we spent time at a restaurant in the airport, grabbing last minute souvenirs and gifts, before heading to the boarding gate.
Ten hours later, we were back in Australia, and ready to rest after a two-and-a-half-week adventure.
Japan Retrospective: Thanks, Travel Tips, and Highlights
17 days in Japan, and the surface barely scratched. Saw a number of the major cities and historical sights, celebrated the finale of Space Battleship Yamato 2199, spent a small fortune on anime stuff, saw the Tezuka Museum, and met up with fellow crazy Yamato fans like me, not knocking back the opportunity to see the final chapter on opening day.
A cedar tree near Zojijo Temple in Tokyo,
planted in 1879 by President Grant..
There are a lot of people to thank for this trip. Top of the list goes to Tim, since he gratefully provided the Yamatour group with all sorts of information that proved invaluable, and for putting us in contact with locals who helped us out further. Thanks go to Ardith Carlton and Brad Lucido for their hospitality in not only organizing tickets for opening day, but for taking us to see the sights after the movie as well. The three gentlemen in Japan, who went well out of their way to help a few lost foreigners find where they were going, which restored my faith in the human race.
To the rest of the Yamatour guys, it was great meeting all of you, even though half of us didn’t see the other half for very long. Hopefully we can meet up for a future event. To Patrick, mate it was great meeting you – I’ll take you up on those Monster seats at Fenway Park one of these days! Finally, to my friend and roommate on this trip, Terry, thanks mate for coming along for the adventure, and for being co-cameraman (Terry and I each took roughly half of the photos over the course of this travelogue).
Now, the lessons learned:
Planning and Preparation:
– The more you research before you leave home, the better idea you’ll have of what you want to see, and the budget you’re going to need. There are some people who go with the flow, and that’s all good. Recommendations are Japan-Guide.com for its specialized Japan content, including reports on seasonal events like the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves, and Trip Advisor, which also has a mobile app on both iOS and Android. If it weren’t for the Trip Advisor site, I’d not have found neither the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum nor the Samurai Kembu sword dancing experience.
– If you plan to average one or more long-distance Shinkansen trip per week you’re there, the Japan Rail Pass is a must; a single return trip from Tokyo to Osaka will almost pay for itself without adding in the price of the regular trains.
… and swap them for this! Note the number of stamps on it!
– One very important thing to remember is that the Japan Rail Pass MUST be ordered before you leave for Japan – it CANNOT be purchased in Japan. Also, the name on the voucher you receive (to exchange for the pass when you get to Japan) must match your passport precisely, in the format “Surname/Given Names.” Since a quick turnaround is required if you need to change it, I’d shop for it locally. You can buy it online from a number of vendors, but get it from a company in your own country or from your local travel agent. JTB (formerly the government-owned Japanese Travel Bureau) has offices all over the world that not only help Japanese visitors get to those countries, but are the primary vendor of the Japan Rail Pass vouchers.
– Also, take good care of the JR Pass – if it gets stolen, lost, or accidentally destroyed in the wash, it will not be replaced, and you can’t buy a new one there. Just get yourself a travel document wallet and keep it deep in a backpack.
– Depending on your preference for comfort, location, and the time of year, prices can vary greatly. Sites like Hotels.com and Hotels Combined offer deals in limited numbers – this is how I got a fantastic deal for the luxurious and idyllically-situated Hotel Granvia in Kyoto in the middle of Obon, one of the busiest times of the year.
– If you’re willing to rough it, hostels are very cheap.
– You don’t have to understand Japanese to get by, but as Tim suggested, making an effort seems to impress the locals. I will certainly be learning more Japanese before my next trip… hopefully.
– If worse comes to worst, many restaurants have pictures of their meals. Learned this from Tim in his tips, and it was especially the case in major cities.
Eat on the go when you’re on a long train trip.
– You’re spoiled for choice. Especially in the major cities, restaurants are diverse and commonplace. If Japanese isn’t your thing, they have plenty of western options (McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway) as well as proper restaurants serving foreign cuisines. Fear not, the Japanese have mastered most cuisines.
– Try something new. You might surprise yourself. Next time, I will try sashimi. Really regret not doing that while I was there.
– There’s something for every budget. Most food is cheap; for the most part, it’s only upmarket restaurants where food really gets pricey. Japanese themselves are pretty stingy as far as food prices go.
– Japanese train station bakeries are fantastic. A wide variety of breads and pastries both sweet and savory, as well as sandwiches and occasionally bento boxes.
– Convenience stores are cheap, and the food is (shock horror!) fresh AND palatable. The Family Mart next to my hotel in Tokyo had fantastic chicken karaage (deep-fried chicken).
– Try to go where the locals go. If there’s a long line outside a restaurant, chances are it’s pretty good.
Travelling to remote areas on weekends
mean fewer trains and longer waits.
– Don’t go to Japan in July/August if you can help it, especially if you’re not used to hot, humid weather. If you’re crazy enough to go (like we did) or have little choice, drink plenty and often, especially water and Pocari Sweat (Japan’s equivalent to Gatorade). Had the 2199 release schedule not been accelerated, I would have been there right when I wanted to go most – in Autumn.
– Vending Machines are a great way to break a ¥1000 note, but be warned you may wind up with huge amounts of 10-yen pieces.
– Convenience Stores are a good way to get rid of some of that loose change. They’re also a good source of surprisingly palatable food. And prices are reasonable.
– JP Bank ATMs located at Japan Post Offices will generally accept MasterCards. Up until January 2014, there had been an embargo on foreign-issued MasterCards at 7-Eleven ATMs in Japan which seems to have finally been resolved.
– Withdraw money for your items in cash. A lot of retailers add a surcharge for foreign cards.
Traveling and sightseeing:
Things you can’t always plan for, like the Galaxy Express
exhibition may come across your path.
– The Japan Rail Pass is worth its weight in gold if you’re planning to go to more than one city. One return shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Osaka will just about cover the cost on its own. Terry and I bought 2-week Green Car passes which cost ¥61200, and they more than paid for themselves. The shinkansen trips alone (round trip Kyoto-Nagoya, 2 x round trips Kyoto-Hiroshima, Kyoto-Tokyo, round trip Tokyo-Niigata) would have cost ¥117,700 for individual tickets. To top that off, it covered several Limited Express trains and all our general JR travel for the two weeks. Easily paid for itself twice over.
– On the other hand, if you’re limiting yourself to one city, the Suica [Swipe Card] or its regional equivalent is probably the best option. Aside from being useful on many if not all modes of transport in the area, they are fast becoming accepted for payment at convenience stores, vending machines, and at airport gift stores. If you do a single day trip to another city, some cities have reciprocal arrangements where their respective cards are accepted (we could use our Suicas for buses in Niigata, for example).
– I stress again, have some kind of plan before you leave home. Come up with a list of things you want to see. Look at multiple options for day trips and activities. Have a rough game plan of how to get around. Hyperdia is excellent for this, and now there’s a mobile app available which allows you to plan your trips. The app will even factor in whether or not a trip is covered by the JR Pass. Have multiple options for your return in case you don’t make Plan A.
– Be realistic about what you can get done – I most certainly didn’t this time around. To really enjoy temples and the like (especially in Kyoto) don’t expect to see more than two or three in a day – unless it’s a location like Arashiyama which has several temples in close proximity to each other.
– Accept that sometimes you’re going to find something that wasn’t on your schedule that will cost you something else from your to-do list. Sometimes the unplanned thing will turn out to be even more fun.
– Do day trips to remote locations with limited public transport on weekdays to minimize the waiting time between transfers. This is especially true of places like Iga-Ueno and Nara.
Be wary of foreigners wearing strange clothes…
especially if they’re armed.– Kuroneko Yamato is a godsend for moving your luggage from your hotel to the airport (or between hotels if you’re staying in more than one place). Just have a day pack with a change of clothes so you can send the luggage on ahead of when you leave.
– Things like toiletries are cheap in Japan – buy them there, leave them there. If you’re moving between cities, buy light and take them with you to the next stop.
– You can drive in Japan without too much trouble arranging a car and so forth, but given that a car rental can be expensive (the tolls certainly are expensive), avoid it if you can. Places like Hokkaido and Shikoku might be best served by car to get to some places, but avoid driving anywhere near Tokyo. There’s no need to amid the best public transport system in the world.
– Don’t travel to remote locations on weekends. You’ll find yourself wasting time because of the less frequent trains and buses, and being stuck between transfers.
– Get out of your comfort zone! (Which I didn’t do much this time, but will next time).
– Enjoy yourself! Japan’s a fantastic country and the things you can do and see are endless.
So many of them. So many things I loved seeing and experiencing. The Yamato 2199 meetup and seeing Chapter 7 was obviously high on the list, as were the Yamato Museum, the neighboring Yamato Gallery Zero, and the Tezuka Museum. The Mazda Museum was fascinating, the Genbaku Dome and the Peace Museum were haunting and sobering. Tokyo was vast and full of the hustle and bustle of city life, Niigata a quiet respite from it. Seeing Nikko’s Shinkyo Bridge ticked off a near-decade-old addition to my bucket list, and Nokogiriyama was an amazing journey and offered fantastic views.
… and ancient.
Ultimately though, my favorite place was the ancient capital, Kyoto. Even though I was there in one of its busiest times, the beauty and tranquillity of the temples, shrines, and gardens (of which I only saw a handful) were relaxing and beautiful, even in the heat and humidity. I just felt so comfortable there, maybe it had something to do with it being a much smaller city than Tokyo (and similar in population to my home city of Brisbane), or maybe it was the slower pace.
See the Japan that you WANT to see… AND the Japan that you happen across.
That said, it’s just my own personal opinion, and while Kyoto’s temples are my favorite memory, they’re at the top of a long and high-ranking list.
My only problem now is, do I see something new next time, or do I go back to see Kyoto in the autumn, which I really have to do one of these days?
Yep. Doing both. Kyushu and Shikoku next time, perhaps? Only time will tell. If I end up seeing the Yamato 2199 movie coming out in 2014, that will dictate the time of year, and the most likely destinations outside Tokyo. If it’s out around the same time as last year, I may venture north rather than south. Hokkaido is substantially cooler, and it’s on my list of places to see.
Well, that’s it for my first, and certainly not last, visit to Japan. I close off by paraphrasing Kodai and Yuki from Episode 7 of Yamato 2199:
さよなら 日本! 俺は 帰って来る でしょ！必ず帰って来るぞ!!
Sayonara, Nihon! Ore wa kaette kurudeshou! Kanarazu kaette kuruzo!!
(Goodbye, Japan! I will return! I will definitely return!)
(A big thanks goes to Hiroshi Ban from the CosmoDNA Facebook Community for help with that).