2012 Japan Trip Day 33 – Toyosato/Nagoya

Date of Travel: 02/03/2012

We kick-started our day with a nice breakfast at Guesthouse Sakuraya. I really did like the accommodation, and wished we had stayed longer! The lady who works there showed us a newspaper clipping of the Omizutori festival from the night before, which was really nice of her. We then headed back to Nara JR station, caught a shinkansen, then hopped off at the town of Hikone. After buying lunch from a convenience store, we swapped to a local train line not owned by JR (and hence had to pay for tickets), and caught a train to Toyosato.

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The main reason why we were headed to Toyosato was for our first and only official anime pilgrimage – to visit the old Toyosato elementary school building which many of the scenes in the K-on! anime series were based on. I would not dive into the details of our pilgrimage too much into this post, but I will include it in my next “Random Fun” post so stay tuned! In the meantime, here is a small selection of photos we had taken of the school and its surroundings.

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After visiting the school and arriving back at the train station, we found that the next train wasn’t arriving for another 40 minutes! J.C. and I joked that we should return to the school to continue exploring. Brownie, who found himself completely out of his comfort zone during the pilgrimage, got on his knees and begged us not to return there (okay…a bit too much dramatizing there…). I headed to the nearby bakery in the meantime to get some snacks. With a few minutes before the train came, we bought tickets and waited at the train tracks. There were a few nice illustrations on show from artists under the circle name Nekominto, who are known for their K-on! fanart, advertising the train by showing their characters in a range of different seasons. Just goes to show how popular illustrations are in Japan (they seemingly have a mascot for everything…and I mean everything!). Soon enough, we hopped on a train back towards Hikone, before transferring back onto a shinkansen towards Nagoya.

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Nagoya’s JR station is one of the busiest in Japan. It is the world’s largest train station in terms of floor area. The twin towers rising above the station houses the headquarters of the JR company, and seemingly loomed into the clouds high above. We were there quite early, so we just wandered around the station people-watching and looking for potential eating places for dinner. We found that, apart from sushi, all other restaurants were quite crowded or on the expensive side. As such, we headed out of the station, but still could not find a place that suited all of us. In the end, we settled for sushi back in the station. We ordered using a computer system, and the food came to us via an automatic system consisting of a convey belt hidden behind a wooden fence, and a mechanical lever that pushes the plate of sushi out when it senses the chip in the plate. In addition to a sushi set, I tried a plate of tuna belly sushi (that costs almost the same as the sushi set itself), and boy were both good!

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After dinner, we went to the observatory deck to people-watch some more, before deciding to head back to Tokyo as we were tired. There was a sense of sadness when we were heading back to Tokyo in the shinkansen, as we were heading into the final leg of our trip, and this was the last time we would be using a shinkansen on this trip. When we arrived in Tokyo, we took some time to go around taking photos of various shinkansen, headed through the shinkansen ticket gates for the final time on this trip, and headed back to my friend’s place in Mitaka for the night. The next day, we would start the final leg of our trip – exploring Tokyo!

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
Train from Hikone to Toyosato – 400 yen
Train from Toyosato to Hikone – 400 yen
JR Trains covered by JR National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
N/A […I really owe my friend a lot of favours now don’t I?]

3) FOOD
Lunch from Hikone convenience store – 575 yen [Chicken katsu sandwich, onigiri, chocolate mountain and red bean bun]
Snack from bakery next to Toyosato station – 430 yen [Fanta grape, jeffa pocky and red bean doughnut]
Dinner at Nagoya station – 3,000 yen

4) ATTRACTIONS
N/A ~All Free~

5) OTHERS
Souvenir at Toyosato – 1,000 yen

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
5,805 yen (537,325 yen total)

Total Cost of Day Trips Leg
24,143 yen (6,036 yen per day)

2012 Japan Trip Day 32 – Nara

Date of Travel: 01/03/2012

We found ourselves starting the day on an early morning shinkansen ride back to the Kansai area…which we just left 2 days prior. It was quite inefficient planning on our behalf, but the reason we were heading back was for the Omizutori festival in Nara, which is held over the first couple of weeks of March. We arrived at Nara station and headed out for lunch. As it was still too early to check into our accommodation at Guesthouse Sakuraya, we decided to hop onto another train to head over to Horyuji temple.

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Horyuji temple is one of the oldest temples in Japan. While its complex is not as old as that of Shitennoji in Osaka, its buildings supposedly dated back to the 7th century, making it the world’s oldest surviving wooden building. The approach to the temple grounds was very long but simple in design, as it was only lined with trees. It’s an approach benefiting of the temple itself, as the temple buildings’ architecture, and the general landscaping, was perhaps the simplest I have seen thus far. It was especially a far cry from the elaborate buildings in Nikko.

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We were held up by a tour guide at the temple’s entrance, who wished to show us around. I was not really keen as I did not want him to take too long because we wanted to reach our accommodation by 5 pm before heading to the Omizutori festival. However, Brownie did not know how to say no, so we ended up getting a tour of the place. To be fair, he did tell us a few interesting facts about the buildings, especially some of the statues and carvings present in the main hall and 5-storey pagoda.

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After parting ways with our tour guide, we explored the eastern end of the temple grounds. This part of the grounds featured an exhibit showcasing the temple’s collection of art. Slightly further from that is the Yumedono Hall, which is known as the Hall of Dreams. There wasn’t much to see around this part, and we would have left earlier if not for a security guard asking Brownie if he wanted his photo taken.

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We caught a train back to the JR Nara station, and ventured to the Naramachi area, which like Gion and the Chaya districts in Kanazawa is famous of having old traditional buildings. We then followed a map I printed off from Google to find Guesthouse Sakuraya, where we are staying the night. After reaching the location specified on the map, we could not find Guesthouse Sakuraya anywhere. After asking a few locals, we learnt that the place we were looking for was located a few blocks away! When we told this to the lady who greeted us at the entrance to the guesthouse, we had a good laugh about it. The guesthouse was one of the nicest we stayed in during the whole trip. The staff was extremely friendly, the room was spacious, and the accommodation felt very traditional. After leaving our backpacks and resting for a while, we headed over to Nigatsudo Hall near Todaiji Temple for the Omizutori festival.

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Omizutori is an annual “sacred water-drawing” festival, and is perhaps the longest running Buddhist event in Japan. On every evening over the first 2 weeks of March the priests would walk along the stage of the Nigatsudo Hall with giant torches. We got there relatively early and had a good view of the stage. It was not as crowded as I thought it would be, which probably made the experience more enjoyable than anything else. The falling burning embers from the torches were a sight to behold. As it was only the first day, only one torch was brought to the stage each time. Still, it was a nice atmosphere to be in.

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After the event, we headed up onto the stage to have a wander around. It was quite crowded upon the stage as almost everyone went up. We had a good view of the grounds from there, and also could see a number of security people wandering through making sure that none of the embers would set a fire to the stage. On the way back down, we did come across a pile of additional torches which were to be used over the following days. Each of these bamboo poles were over 6 metres long, much bigger than I thought it would be!

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We passed through a number of small shopping alleyways back towards our accommodation, and found another Katsu restaurant for dinner. I have kind of gotten sick of deep fried foods by this point, but we were quite tired and couldn’t be bothered finding an alternative! The food was pretty good however, as with most katsu restaurants in Japan. As most of the other shops were already closed, we headed back to our accommodation to rest for the night. There, Brownie and J.C. had a great game of Go, while I started planning for the train trips the next day. Another long day ahead tomorrow!

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
N/A [3 days in a row – score!]
JR Trains covered by JR
 National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
Guesthouse Sakuraya – 5,000 yen

3) FOOD
Breakfast from convenience store at Newdays KeiyoStreet Tokyo Station City– 385 yen [ham and egg muffin, hotcakes with jam and cream, chocolate melon bread]
Lunch at Nakau near Nara JR Station – 490 yen [large gyudon]
Dinner at Tonkatsu Ganko @ Higashimuki Shopping Arcade in Nara – 1,180 yen [katsu and friend oysters]

4) ATTRACTIONS
Horyuji temple entrance fee – 1,000 yen

5) OTHERS
Souvenir at Horyuji Temple – 1,000 yen [book]
Souvenir from Omizutori festival at Nigatsudo Hall – 100 yen [pamphlet]

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
9,155 yen (531,520 yen total)

2012 Japan Trip Day 31 – Nikko/Tokyo

Date of Travel: 29/02/2012

We woke up to an extremely cold morning in Tokyo. I opened the curtains and saw the reason why – it was snowing heavily outside! It made me extremely nervous of our plans for the day ahead, as we were planning a daytrip to Nikko. We decided to go ahead with our plan, as it was the only chance we had of visiting Nikko on this trip.

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The train from Mitaka to Tokyo station was significantly slower than the day before due to the snow. It usually would have only taken about 40 minutes, but ended up taking well over an hour. We hopped on a shinkansen which would take us to Utsunomiya Station, where we would transfer to another train to reach Nikko station. It was snowing even heavier at Utsunomiya. I could only imagine how heave the snow would be at Nikko!

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When we arrived at Nikko, we ate our lunch which we bought earlier before walking towards Toshogu Shrine. It was summer the last time I was in Nikko, and it was extremely hot and full of tourists – not so much this time.  Back then, a bus took us directly to the shrine, where else this time we walked there ourselves from the train station. It was a very different atmosphere this time, with the heavy snow and lack of tourists bringing a sense of solemn isolation to the place.

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We walked along a path to the east of the main approach to the shrine. We passed by Rinno-ji Temple along the way, which was under renovation. We headed west along the next junction, and stumbled across a beautiful snow-covered shrine surrounded by tall trees. It definitely ranks as one of the most memorable scenes from our whole trip to date. We continued west to reach the Five Storied Pagoda of Toshogu Shrine. I was definitely not used to seeing this area so quiet. Last time I was here, there were plenty of school children and tourists wandering around the place. I would say that the quietness and the snow really helped enforced the mystical and magical atmosphere.

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The entrance to the Toshogu shrine was up ahead. The shrine was famous for its carvings. One of which is the three monkeys (hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil). The many buildings around the ground were very grand. A lot of them were covered in gold leaf and plenty of carvings and miniature statues. The most famous is perhaps the Yomeimon Gate, which contains over 500 sculptures. Comparing this to the 1/10th model we saw back in Takayama, I must say that the model did a very good job capturing so many characteristics of the building.

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Towards the back of the shrine is the Nemurineko (Sleeping Cat) craving. It is said to be very life-like in appearance, though I wouldn’t say so as I almost missed it completely! There is a long path beyond this gate which led to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who according to Japan-Guide is the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled over Japan for 250 years until 1868. Surprisingly, the design of his tomb was very simple and basic – a sharp contrast to the other grand buildings scattered around the shrine grounds.

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After visiting the tomb, I slowly headed back to the shrine entrance. Once Brownie and J.C. finished exploring the place, we regrouped and caught a bus back to the train station as it started getting very cold. The bus was almost completely empty, demonstrating the lack of tourists present due to the heavy snow! Once reaching Nikko station, we hopped on a train back towards Tokyo.

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By the time we reached Tokyo, it was already dark. We switched trains and headed over to the Shinjuku district. We wandered around the Odakyu department store which was located directly over Shinjuku station looking for a place for dinner. A sure sign that we were in a big city is that it was difficult finding a place that had some tables available! Luckily we managed to find one in the end. After dinner, we explored the western part of Shinjuku, which is known as the Sky Scrapper district, before heading over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building.

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Both of the building’s towers have observatories on the 45th floor which is free to visit. We went to the north tower since the south tower’s observatory was closed. To my surprise, there was a security check on the ground floor when entering the building. It was the first time we were searched in such fashion outside of airports. The view from the top was great, as it really showcased just how huge Tokyo was. However, the bright lines from inside the observatory made taking photographs difficult and annoying. There was also a toy store here selling a lot of popular goods like Ghibli, Hello Kitty, and popular anime series. It was still relatively early when we finished exploring the towers, but we were quite tired from the long train trip to Nikko and back. As such, we headed back to Mitaka to my friend’s place. Our plan for the next day was to return to Kansai for another night (specifically in Nara), which was a very stupid plan on our behalf. Since it was only for a night, we planned to leave our luggage at our friend’s house and pack everything we need in our daypacks. Once we finished packing, we headed off to sleep relatively early in preparation for the last round of long distance travel of our trip.

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
N/A [I can live with this!]
JR Trains covered by JR
 National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
N/A [Thanks to my friend!]

3) FOOD
Breakfast/lunch from convenience store – 2,025 yen [croquette bun, onigiri, sushi, umbrella]
Green tea at Nikko – 150 yen
Dinner at Tsunaan @ Shinjuku Odakyu Department Store – 1,418 yen [zarukatsudon set]

4) ATTRACTIONS
Toshogu Shrine entrance fee – 1,300 yen

5) OTHERS
Souvenir at Toshogu Shrine – 1,000 yen [book]
Ikamusume mini-figure at  Hakuhinkan @ Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Building – 682 yen

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
6,575 yen (522,365 yen total)

2012 Japan Trip Day 30 – Kamakura

Date of Travel: 28/02/2012

We kicked-started the penultimate leg of our trip with an early start. We were definitely half asleep, as we ended up hopping on the shinkansen which does not accept JR Passes, and were caught by the conductor! Luckily he didn’t ask us to pay any fines. At least, we think he wasn’t going to. We hopped off the shinkansen at Kyoto anyway just in case! There, we finally got on the correct one and headed towards Tokyo Station. We dumped our luggage in coin lockers, and hopped on yet another train to Kamakura. Kamakura is known as the mini Kyoto of the East, as a large number of temples and shrines were spread out around the town. We had a quick walk around the main town area before having lunch.

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Our aim after lunch was to find the Tenen Hiking Trail. According to Japan-Guide, this walk contains several tomb caves, which sounded very interesting. To reach there, we headed through the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine grounds. This shrine was located northeast along the main road from Kamakura station. The grounds were quite large and pleasant to walk through, but we did not spend much time here as we wanted to cover the Tenen Hiking Trail before it got dark. We reached Kenchoji Temple after following the main road heading west. We had a quick look around the place but could not find the start of the Tenen Hiking Trail! We ultimately gave up and decided to tackle the Daibutsu Hiking Trail instead.

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We continued west along the main road, then turned left. We thought we were going to reach the Jochi-ji temple, which was the starting point for the Daibutsu Hiking Trail. However, we soon crossed paths with the JR line, and immediately I knew that we were lost! We decided to continue down this path anyway since it would likely cross the hiking trail sooner or later! We ended up passing some tomb caves, a random cave with beautiful moss and fern leaves growing around its interior, and reached a temple. The temple (which I later found out was named Kaizo-ji) had some beautiful plum blossoms in full bloom, which I personally thought was prettier than those we saw back in Kyoto a few days prior. The temple was quite small but spacious, and we had a nice stroll around.

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We backtracked a bit before I finally figured out where we were! We were right next to Genjiyama Park, which also joins up with the Daibutsu Hiking Trail. We followed the path until we reached Zeniarai Benten. This is another popular shrine in Kamakura, where people visit to wash their money, which supposedly increases one’s wealth. The entrance to the complex, and the washing area itself, was amazingly built into the hills. It was a very unique shrine.

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After exploring the shrine, we continued along the hiking trail towards Kotokuin Temple. The trail mostly passed through forest areas, and offered great views of the town. There were quite a few squirrels scurrying about as well. Somewhere along the way, we all got separated from each other. Brownie rushed ahead, but took the wrong turn at the end and got lost. J.C. decided to take things slightly slower, and asked me to move on ahead. I thought that Brownie was well ahead of us, so I headed straight to the Kotokuin temple a couple hundred meters from the end of the hiking trail. In the end, I was the first one there!

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Kotokuin temple is famous for having the largest outdoor bronze Buddha statue (second largest bronze Buddha statue overall). It sits in the middle of the temple grounds, surrounded by other temple buildings. There were also large straw slippers being hung up, which is supposedly the size of the Buddha statue’s feet! After wandering about a bit more and regrouping with Brownie and J.C., we started heading back to the train station. We stopped by an ice cream parlour selling Kamakura’s specialty – sweet potato ice cream. It was not bad, though I was not used to having sweet potato flavour in my ice creams!

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After returning to Tokyo station and collecting our luggage from the coin lockers, we hopped on a train to Mitaka station, where we would be staying with a friend of mine for a few nights. The train was the most packed I have seen on my trip thus far. It was very awkward as well as we were having large items of baggage and took up quite a lot of space. I took a quick picture of the train carriage, though I do not think the other passengers were all too pleased about it! My friend met us at Mitaka station, we were had dinner nearby. We walked back to his place which was only a short 10-15 minute walk away, where we chatted for a while before getting some sleep after a relatively hectic day!

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
N/A [Yay~ saving money!]
JR Trains covered by JR National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
N/A […what really? It’s great to have friends you can count on when you are travelling!]

3) FOOD
Breakfast from Lawson @ Momodani – 293 yen [lemonade cream bun, strawberry sandwich]
Lunch at Kamakura – 730 yen [Yaki buta-don]
Sweet potato ice cream – 295 yen
Dinner at Mitaka JR Station – 590 yen [Tonkatsu]

4) ATTRACTIONS
Kotokuin Temple entrance fee – 200 yen

5) OTHERS
Coin locker at Tokyo station – 500 yen

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
2,608 yen (515,790 yen total)