18.05.2017 - 24.05.2017 25 °C
After our final flight with Cebu Pacific we arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport, from where we got the bus into the huge, densely populated city. We stayed in a hotel in the Kuramae district, which turned out to be an excellent location. The first evening we walked over to the neighbouring Akihabara district, which is a buzzing, vibrant place home to lots of electronic stores and entertainment venues. We sampled our first ramen noodles of the trip, which were served in a bowl of soup. Although quite different to food at home they were quite tasty. Apparently (apart from wasabi), the Japanese generally don’t like their food to be too spicy. Despite waking at 02:30 in the morning in Cebu (nearly 20 hours before) we felt energised by all the activity in Akihabara, so after dinner we couldn’t help but wander around in amazement at the sights and sounds of the area, which felt exactly like the Tokyo we had imagined. A lot of the office workers didn’t seem to be leaving work until 7 or 8pm. It was a depressing sight to see so many of them heading from work to the gaming rooms full of slot machines and deafening music. Japan is renowned for having a very high suicide rate, and this hard-working lifestyle must surely be a contributing factor.
The next day we had a comparative lie-in, waking up at 05:30 (compared to 03:30 and 02:30 the previous two mornings), in order to join the orderly queue outside Ryogoku Kokugikan at 06:00. The reason for this was to purchase general admission tickets to the sumo tournament being held in Tokyo while we were visiting. All the presale tickets had already been sold out weeks in advance, so our only hope was to pick up the general admission tickets which go on sale at 08:00 each morning. There are only six sumo tournaments held in Japan throughout the year, each lasting a fortnight, so we were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time! We passed the time chatting to a Kiwi woman who was also on holiday in Japan, before getting ticket numbers 147 and 148 out of 400 available on the day. Turns out we could have slept in till a bit later! It is a very hierarchical sport, with the action beginning among the lower ranked rikishi at 08:20, while the big guns in the higher divisions don’t compete until late afternoon. As they don’t check tickets early in the morning, we decided to spectate some of the earlier bouts from the very expensive, uncomfortable seats close to the ring (cushions on the floor), before leaving to do other things with the morning. Charlotte went back to the hotel for a nap, while I went next door to the Edo-Tokyo Museum to learn about the history of the city. Prior to becoming the capital in the 1800s, Tokyo was known as Edo, and the museum traced the history of the city from the Edo period to the current day. We rendezvoused back at the sumo stadium to spectate on the rest of the bouts during the afternoon, from our proper seats at the very back of the upper floor. Although it was an interesting experience, there was far too much strutting around and posturing by the wrestlers, and not enough action. Each bout only lasted a matter of seconds, although the build-up can take up to four minutes. Apparently psyching out your opponent is a huge part of the contest. Just when you expected the bout to begin, one of the wrestlers would stand up and go for a short dander around the ring, and all the enthusiasts (generally retired locals) loved it! We enjoyed experiencing the excitement among the Japanese crowd, so it was still worth the early start!
The next morning we visited Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. Three early starts in a row was enough for us, so we didn’t worry about trying to queue to see the tuna auction which starts at 4am. Instead we entered at the more civilised hour of 10am, when the merchants were packing and sorting all of their early-morning purchases. Although it is still very much a working wholesale market, it has now reluctantly become a major tourist attraction, despite not being geared up for such an influx of tourists. Apparently there can be a bit of animosity from the merchants towards tourists, which is understandable given they are wanting to go about their daily business without constantly being gawked at. For this reason, as well as for safety given the number of motorised trolleys zooming about, they are now quite strict on when tourists are allowed to enter the wholesale area, after 10am. By going in at this point we were still able to see a fair bit of interesting stuff, with all sorts of seafood being packaged up before being taken away. According to our guidebook, although Japan only accounts for 2 percent of the world’s population, the Japanese eat nearly one third of the word’s seafood. We even spotted some fresh looking bluefin tuna from Ireland! We tried some sashimi afterwards, before heading on to explore more of the city. Next up we visited Hema-rikyu Gardens, where the peace and tranquillity made it feel a million miles away from the fish market, which was only a short walk away. There was an interesting contrast between the small trees of the garden and the huge skyscrapers right beside. From here we wandered through the Ginza district, the main shopping area full of towering buildings and fancy shops, towards the Imperial Palace. We relaxed for a while in the surrounding park, before getting the Metro train north to Ueno Park. Here, there were plenty of locals out enjoying the Saturday afternoon sunshine, paddling about on the little lake on the pedalo swans (just like Pickie-pool in Bangor). We walked south from Ueno, through the busy markets area to Akihabara, stopping for dinner along the way.
On our final morning in Tokyo we walked around the Asakusa district, where the Sanja-Mitsari festival was in full swing. This is an annual event where the local wards carry around their shrine on a tour of the district, while bouncing it up and down on their shoulders to bring good luck. It was a truly bizarre, chaotic occasion which was very interesting to watch. There was a great atmosphere, which was to be expected with the considerable volumes of beer and sake being consumed at 9am! It was a fun way to finish our time in Tokyo before catching the train north to Nikko.
Nikko is a quiet little town in the mountains to the northwest of Tokyo. It is much more spacious than the crowded capital, surrounded by forested hills with snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance. From Nikko we went hiking for two consecutive days around Lake Chuzenji, higher up in the mountains. We were blessed with clear blue skies, continuing the good spring weather we had experienced in Tokyo. On the first day, we walked from Chuzenji-Onsen, along the northern shore of Lake Chuzenji. Then we visited Ryuzu Falls, before passing through the scenic Senjogahara marshland to Yudaki Falls, which make an impressive white wall of foam, where we stopped for lunch. By early afternoon we made it to Yumoto-Onsen, where we circled the smaller Lake Yunoko, before heading back to Chuzenji-Onsen.
The next day we walked from Chuzenji-Onsen along the southern shore of the lake, passing the former summer villas of the Italian and British Embassies. We climbed up from the lake to Mount Hangetsu, where we enjoyed the impressive views from the viewing platform at 1752m. We were able to see the entire lake, across to the top of the larger Mount Nantai on the other side. We then continued up and down, along the ridgeline to Akechidaira, a viewpoint across to the famous Kegon Falls. We got lunch here, seemingly the only people to arrive on foot, everyone else seemed to take the lazier option of the cable car! On our final morning in Nikko we explored the majestic temple area, admiring the interesting buildings and artwork before catching the train to Nagano.
The smaller guy won!
Tokyo Imperial Palace
Sanja Mitsari Festival
Charlotte with her new friends. Spot the odd one out!
Interesting way of wearing kimonos at Sanja Mitsari! Maybe he went to the wrong parade!
Shinkyo bridge Nikko
More hiking around Lake Chuzenji