Saturday, April 26, 2014

Turning Japanese

Arigatō Gozaimasu Japan.

Konnichiwa Everyone!

How are you? I'm well, we've just returned from our first family overseas holiday and it was amazing! So this update is obviously going to be different from the previous format... I'm not going to outline Chloe's achievements, instead I'm just gonna lay on ya the details of our fan-tab-u-lous trip.... prepare yourself for the awesomeness....

We left Sydney late on the night of the 9th of April, our flight departed at 930pm and arrived in Tokyo at about 7am. The flight itself was pretty uneventful, we managed to secure the bassinet seat and shortly after take off Chloe fell asleep on me and once the seat belt sign was turned off we transferred her to the bassinet and that's where she remained until we began descent. A few times she woke herself as she hit the sides of the bassinet but quickly resettled back to sleep. But being 81.5cm and 10.7kgs (as of today) when the bassinet is built for a baby that is 11.8kgs and 71cm long, it was a bit squishy for her.

When we arrived, we had a few hours of queuing to complete... through customs, immigration, for our rail passes. Whilst in line, it became obvious how much attention Chloe was going to get on this trip. People were snapping photos of her left, right and centre, which was impressive considering we were in an area where the signs indicated no cameras/phones were to be used. She was pretty unaware of it and happily drew on the immigration forms as we waited. When we were done with all the lining up, we boarded an express train to Tokyo at around 9am. Once we arrived at Tokyo Station, we found our hotel (with the help of Tourist Information) easily. Despite requesting an early check in, the hotel wasn't quite ready for us, so we headed back out for some lunch of sushi, noodles and pork buns! Yum. Chloe was fantastic and dived right into the food, no hesitation!

We then returned to the hotel, checked in and headed to the Imperial Palace to explore the gardens. On the edge of the gardens we encountered our first cherry blossoms and they were A-MA-ZING! In full bloom and simply stunning! We couldn't believe our luck, we spent a few moments photographing them before continuing to Niju-bashi for a picture postcard view of the palace peeking out from behind the bridge. We were also spoiled with some diplomatic viewing as the Emperor in his horse drawn cart left the palace across the bridge.

Afterwards we made our way north to the Imperial Palace East Gardens through Ote-man gate. We spent the next few hours taking in the beauty of the gardens and buildings, as well as spending some moments beneath the beautiful cherry blossoms playing chasies and being bombarded by various groups of friendly Japanese. As dinner time approached we strolled down into Ginza to check out the neon lights and opulence - we weren't disappointed. However, exhausted from lack of sleep the night before and a massive day, I'm happy to say we all crashed out early and slept like logs that first night!

The next morning we grabbed a quick bite to eat for brekkie and made our way to Tokyo Station for our (4hour!) shinkansen to Takayama via Nagoya. Chloe was an absolute dream on the train, happily watching her iPad, eating and even catching a nap as we sampled our first bento box, zipped past Mt Fuji and took in the most beautiful scenery of all our bullet train trips.  Hues of pinks from the cherry blossoms sprinkled the landscape, crystal blue water filled the rivers and water ways... it was truly magical.

Shortly after 4pm we arrived at our Takayama accommodation: Zenkoji Temple Inn. A functioning Buddhist temple that takes donations in exchange for accommodation. We were given a small apartment style room complete with a two seater couch which ingeniously Jarratt converted into a cot for our 2 night stay.

With dinner on our minds we headed straight to sanmachi-suji. The centre of the old town. This neighbourhood consists of three main streets lined with traditional houses which contain shops, restaurants, private homes, sake breweries and museums. The old charm was gorgeous! And being a pedestrian only zone Chloe was free to wander about and explore, free of parent panic. By the time we reached the outskirts of the neighbourhood we were ready for dinner. So we popped into a restaurant to try some Hida Beef, Miso Soup and Soba Noodles constructed into Sushi. Whilst the Soba left a lot to be desired, the Hida Beef was UNBELIEVEABLE! In true Japanese Style our meal was prepared for us by one of the waitresses, there was some argy-bargy at the kitchen, we suspect over who would serve us and the 'beautiful baby'. Hahaha. After our meal, we made the cold walk back to our accommodation for the night.


The next morning we made our way to Takayama-Jinya for our private English speaking (free) tour. Takayama Jinya is the only remaining prefectural office building and in addition to the offices, it also has a rice granary, beautiful garden and torture chamber. It was a beautiful (albeit cold) building to wander around and interestingly had over 200 rabbit embellishments on the beams of each room to ward off fires. Afterwards we began the mission of finding an international ATM, once we were loaded we took a stroll along the Miya-gawa and the morning market where once again Chloe became a bit of a celebrity, this time with Japanese school girls.

Once we had taken in all the market had to offer (Hida Beef buns and Sarubobo trinkets) we made a beeline for the Karakuri museum. We'd read about their puppet show and thought it would be a real hit with Chloe... we weren't wrong. Once the puppets began their performance she was pointing and ewww-ing and ahhh-ing like it was no one's business! She was even invited to participate in one of the performances and received a gift from another. Very spesh indeed! Afterwards we walked the short distance to the Takayama Matsuri Yatakikaikan (The festival float hall). Each year one of Japan's greatest festivals takes part in Takayama, Takayama Matsuri. During the festival, a dozen decorated floats covered with carvings, puppets, dolls, coloured curtains and blinds, are paraded through the town. Which we missed.... by 2 days!!! The festival hall itself houses 4 of these floats including one dating from the 17th century.

After we finished at the hall we took a stroll back to the Sanmachi-suji district, where we sample sake and grabbed another serve of Hida Beef, this time as a type of stew with miso 'taste'. It was again, delish! We spent the rest of the afternoon chasing pigeons and exploring an old samurai house complete with secret passageways and booby trapped ceilings! That night we indulged in one last meal of delicious Hida Beef, this time as sushi and with rice.

The next morning we sadly waved goodbye to our temple stay and boarded a bus for Kanazawa with a stop over in Shirakawa-go. Shirakawa-go is home to over 110 gassho-sukuri buildings - stunning steeply slanted straw-roofed homes that were designed to prevent the accumulation of heavy snow in the winter. The name gassho when translated means praying, because the shape of the roofs were thought to resemble two hands clasped in prayer. The buildings are stunning and we were more than happy to spend a few hours grabbing some lunch and exploring the village including a visit to Wada Ke, a house that belonged to a wealthy silk trading family and dates back to the mid-edo period, as well as making the 15 minute walk to the observatory point to look over the whole area. By 2pm we were back on the bus and heading to Kanazawa.

Kanazawa was a true highlight of our trip. Somehow we lucked out in our accommodation, booking a geisha tea house in the picturesque district of Higashi Chaya-gai.  There was also a geisha and musical parade that evening that was running straight past our accommodations doorstep. And if that wasn't lucky enough, we were blown away by the cherry blossoms which seemed more beautiful than those we had seen in Tokyo.

Our first evening in Kanazawa was spent wandering the beautiful alleyways, hunting geisha and having the most magical time along the cherry blossom lined river front in the soft light of sunset as a family. That night, once Chloe was asleep Jarratt and I watched the procession of geisha, musicians and dancers roll passed our doorstep. But the real highlight was Jarratt spotting at the very end of our street, two geishas in a second storey window serving drinks to a group of Japanese businessmen. We were like two giggy school girls, so excited by his find.

The next morning, we took advantage of our location and strolled the beautiful empty streets. After brekkie we made our way to Kanazawa Castle Park and things went a little pear shaped. Just after entering the park Chloe slipped on some gravel and fell, scratching her gum and biting her lip. Despite the excessive amount of blood, the damage was minimal and with the help of a ice block the swelling was pretty much non existent. Not five minutes later, whilst playing with a little boy, bam! Over she went again.... this time doing a pretty good job grazing her forehead. At this point, we both agreed that she would not be walking any more. In the carrier she went. Before long she nodded off and we began the walk to the Nagamachi District.

Nagamachi District is an area once inhabited by samurai. It is a beautiful well preserved area filled with winding streets, tile roofed mud walls and framed by two canals. Once little miss woke, she wanted 'out' of the carrier, we were both extremely nervous as we didn't want anymore head injuries. We tried to deter her by offering to carry her, on our shoulders, in our arms.... but eventually she wanted to walk, so I took control of the pram and the bags, etc and Jarratt moved into the catching position. Which she found hilarious. We did not.


We slowly made our way up to Kenroku-en via the castle park. Kenroku is the shiny star of all Kanazawa's beauty. It is ranked number 3 among Japan's top gardens. We, however did not see the beauty as it was overrun with people. It was the Sakura festival weekend and as a result entry to the park was free. So there were people everywhere. One of the reasons the park is so renowned is because it follows the six requirements for perfection from Chinese culture... one of which is seclusion, another spaciousness... but when it was as crowded as it was on this particular day, it was anything but perfection. Pretty? Absolutely! Perfect? Hmmmm- not quite. We then headed back to the Castle Park for a cultural performance including a variety of traditional local dances, including a geisha performance. That night we popped back to our favourite restaurant for one last meal and one last stroll around the beautiful empty streets.

The next day we jumped aboard the shinkansen bound for Kyoto. It was at this point that little miss began to become a bit sick, she developed a rough cough and snotty nose. She also became quite clingy and went off her food entirely. But like the trooper she is, she battled on with mummy and daddy's help. When we arrived in Kyoto, once again we found our hotel easily, and with the help of google maps made the plan to head out to Arashiyama which is at the base of the Kyoto's western mountains. We spent some time exploring the famed bamboo grove, the atmosphere within the grove felt very surreal, almost like another world. The effect of the bamboo reaching into the sky, as if never ending was quite unlike anything we'd ever experienced.

With the afternoon quickly slipping away we were desperate to get over the bridge, across the water and up the mountain to visit the monkey park. I'd read about the park and thought Chloe would enjoy it. The park is home to almost 200 monkeys who are free to roam the grounds and (refreshingly) it is the human's who are caged up in a box. The monkey park was a ridiculous 20 minutes climb straight up! And of course too difficult for Chloe, so we took turns carrying her - although Jarratt did do the majority of it. Once at the summit the view was spectacular!  And the monkey's did not disappoint either! Chloe had a blast feeding them bag after bag of apple. Squealing with delight as each monkey snatched a piece from her hand. After an hour or so we began the decent down, the cold air was beginning to set in and we were conscience of the fact that Chloe was not 100%. So we grabbed a quick dinner on the main strip and then boarded our bus for the hotel.

The next morning we made our way to the Imperial Palace for our tour of the inner palace and grounds. This tour had been booked 3 months in advance from home. Despite this fantastic planning, we had issues accessing Jarratts email from Japan, thanks to some quick thinking by Bec and a good friend back home, we were able to rectify the problem, and off we toddled. The tour itself was ok, the gardens however were spectacular. It was also cool to see where the enthronement of a new emperor (and other state ceremonies) are held. After the conclusion of our tour, with the little lady fading we decided to let her have a decent sleep in the cot back at the hotel. We also took the opportunity to do our washing and form a game plan for our remaining time in Kyoto whilst she slept.

That afternoon we took the subway and a JR into South East Kyoto to visit the Fushimi Inari-Tasha, a Shinto shrine. I'd seen gorgeous photos of these never ending red torii gates and was desperate to photograph them. The shrine is stunning and did not disappoint. It was easy to understand why it is one of Japan's most popular. After I'd pretty much filled my SD card with photos we boarded a JR train back to Kyoto station where we had some dinner - A deep fried breaded pork cutlet, in the hopes we could coax little miss into eating something more than sultanas.  We were not successful. Not wanting to push her passed her limits we called it a day and headed home.

The next day, after making big plans the previous day and taking it easy for little miss to catch up on some rest, we headed out to Southern Higashiyama. On the recommendations of pretty much EVERY writer on the topic we made a beeline for Kiyomizu-Dera. A Buddhist temple which is apparently the most famous landmark of the city. We had been informed that it gets extremely crowded and it was a good idea to visit as early as possible, which with a little person who wakes religiously between 7-730, was not hard. We arrived at the temple just after 830am and luckily the place was empty. We made our way to the main hall, which was a huge veranda supported by pillars and gave a good view across Kyoto. Just past the main hall and up some flights of stairs is the Jishu-Jinja, a shrine for love. The main attraction being 2 stones set about 10m apart. The jist is if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed you will have success in love. You can have someone help you, but then the deal is you will need someone's assistance in finding your true love. A cute little gimmick.

We headed around for a look back at the main hall and were shocked at how overrun the place was now. So we snapped a quick pic and headed down the hill for the waterfall Otowa-no-taki. Its said if you drink from the waters you will be bestowed with good health and longevity. Since Chloe was asleep, she missed out. Sorry love.

We made our way down the hill, past the craziness of the vendors and stalls and took a right into Sannen-Zaka and Ninen-zaka. A lovely restored neighbourhood lined with wooden houses, traditional shops and teahouses. Although it was gorgeous, we had already been spoilt with possibly the nicest district in Kanazawa, so we were a little underwhelmed. We stumbled across lonely planet's 'single most attractive street' in Kyoto and then continued onto Maruyama Park. With most of Southern Higashiyama done, and doing well on time, we decided to walk into Northern Higashiyama and check out Nanzen-Ji. A zen temple dating from the 17th century. We checked out the massive san-mon (gate), the main hall and paid entry for the Hojo gardens. The gardens were gorgeous, exactly what you'd expect from a zen temple. Bonsai style planting, stones raked into patterns... needless to say, Jarratt thought they were pretty impressive. It also seemed to improve little miss and her spirits, she became happier and despite being sick even managed to 'cheese' for a few photos. Perhaps we have ourselves a little Zen Buddhist? Given that Nanzen-Ji is the headquarters of the Rinzai School of Zen, whose tradition emphasises insight into one's true nature through still, quiet moments of meditation. I have to admit I'm pretty stoked if she continues along this path! ;-)

After the temple we made the long walk across town to downtown Kyoto wandering through Ponto-cho - a traditional nightlife district and one of Kyoto's geisha districts, unfortunately we were unlucky and no geisha's were spotted. Once we reached the end of the main street we made a quick dash up to Nishiki Market as we were interested in seeing all the weird and wonderful foods Japan has to offer. Dried jelly fish, refined baby sardines, squid with quail egg and things that could not be translated for us carried along the narrow marketplace for as far as the eye could see. But with a toddler, pram and numerous bags it all proved too difficult and we made a quick exit and headed for Gion.

Gion was in parts stunning and full of old world charm and in others a mix of modern architecture and congested traffic. We wandered the beautiful streets of Shimbashi and Shinmonzen and spotted our first Geishas for the evening strolling along the canal. It was a truly heart racing sight. We then zigged when we should of zagged and ended up taking the long way round to Gion Corner on Hanami-koji. The street was bedlam with tourists everywhere, then all of a sudden from up ahead of me Jarratt screams "Bec, Cab!" - I quickly caught up to him and the cab he was next too. The cab was caught in heavy traffic, unable to move, and tucked inside were two geishas! I snapped a few photos as the cab pulled away... but Jarratt was off and running, pushing the pram containing Chloe at a breakneck speed.... 'They've pulled up.... and they're getting out!" He shouted... "Hurry!" I felt ridiculous, but Jarratts urgency and excitement spurred me on. Off we chased. Geisha hunting at its finest! We ended up following them into Gion Kobu Theatre, but lost them when they slipped inside. We then made the slow journey home where a bride (hilariously) stopped us for a photo with Chloe and we spotted one more Gorgeous Geisha through the bus door.

The next day we boarded yet another shinkansen, full of Japanese business men, bound for Hiroshima. There's few places that hold a deep seeded interest for me... I mean, I want to go everywhere, but there are a handful of sights that I know will absolutely take my breathe away. The Taj was one, and the Atomic Bomb Dome is another. As morbid as it sounds, it was a highlight, obviously not in the traditional sense, but I have read/learnt so much about it that being in its presence affected me deeply.

Our first port of call after checking into our hotel was the Peace Memorial Museum as Chloe was due a sleep and we thought it the most practical option to do whilst she napped. We invested in some audio guides since the cost of entry was so little. The museum itself was enlightening. It was divided into three sections, downstairs, upstairs and a long corridor. The downstairs section spoke of the history of the city and the living conditions during the war. It also provided a 73/100 model of the Atomic Dome which was tiled with letters to various government officials from the Mayor of Hiroshima objecting nuclear weapons and asking for them all to be destroyed. Upstairs was depressing - displaying the development of even more destructive weapons since August 6th 1945 when Hiroshima was bombed. The long corridor was filled with various item salvaged from the aftermath - watches frozen at 8:15am, ragged clothes, a 3year old's rusted tricycle - there are also some confronting photos of victims. But this is Hiroshima and it was to be expected. My favourite of the whole museum was the exhibition on Sadoka. As we made our way to the exit, Chloe awoke. Well timed indeed.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the Peace Memorial Park. The park has over 50 memorials sprinkled throughout we focused on the major and most interesting to us. The cenotaph, Flame of Peace, Children's Peace Monument (which Chloe just adored with its bell and being surrounded by all the 'pretty' cranes), the Atomic Bomb Memorial mould, The Peace Bell, the Peace Clock and finally the Atomic Bomb Dome. We also visited the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. I found the design of the memorial hall incredibly moving... a walkway circles down into an underground hall with a centre fountain - which represents the time that the bomb was dropped.

We left the park and checked out the Hypocenter - the spot where 600m's above the atomic bomb had exploded. Its crazy to imagine while we stood there - that this was the starting point for 3000-4000 degree heat rays and blasts of wind and radiation that swept through the city. And had we been here 70odd years ago, we would have been killed instantly! That night we indulged in Hiroshima's speciality dish - okonomiyai. An omelette / noodle concoction. I score it a 7!

That night, with Chloe tucked into her pram asleep, we took a twilight stroll around the park. At night the park became totally different. It was tranquil, quiet. There was a severe lack of Japanese students asking to practice their English on us..... and we felt calm. It was lovely. We wandered along the waterfront and looking at the Atomic Bomb Dome across the still water was an eerie sight. We pulled into a café and indulged in some chocolate cake and red wine. It was very nice to have some time together. I almost forgot about Chloe sleeping in the pram beside us.

The next morning we caught a (ridiculously overpriced) ferry to Miyajima. The small island is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is one of Japan's most visited tourist spots. Its star attraction, after the wandering deer, is the torii gate of Itsukushima-jinja, which at high tide floats on the waves. Being pretty time poor, we did a quick few snaps at the torii and began the mad dash climb to the Misen Ropeway via Momiji-dani-koen park. Chloe loved the ropeway and waving to the cars that were passing in the opposite direction. She also seemed to be back to her healthy self, pointing her finger and saying 'more please' and 'up daddy up'. It was great to see. We only managed to ride the ropeway up and straight back.... but it was totally worth it!

We then boarded a ferry from Miyajimaat lunch time, a shinkansen shortly before 2 and were in Tokyo at our hotel just before 7. It had been a looooooooong day, but with little miss having had a 2 and a bit hour sleep in the pram on the train and daddy craving tempura into Ginza we trekked. Despite our best effort to get her to sleep, Chloe joined us for dinner. Not that it bothered us in the slightest.

Our tempura fest was amazing! On a whole we had been a little disappointed with Japanese cuisine. But this redeemed all. It was delicious! Within 15 minutes we'd hoovered the whole thing and had it not been 9pm and a small toddler who was only starting to get back to her healthy self - I think we would have sat there into the early hours of the morning... stuffing our faces. Ha!

The next day, we made our way to Tsukiji Fish Market..... wow! just wow! What an experience. Visiting the worlds biggest seafood market is exactly what you'd expect. Chaotic, dangerous, exhilarating, amazing! We arrived shortly after 8, which meant we'd missed the tuna auctions by 3-4 hours! However the place was still a buzz with activity. Men whizzed passed us on handcarts and forklifts with perfect high speed precision.... and with no concern for tourists.

We made our way to the Seafood Intermediate Wholesalers area and upon entry was met with a very disgruntled security guard who informed us (despite letting every other tourist past) we were not to enter until 9. Appalled I objected, he proceeded to say no. I pointed out the other tourists wandering through to which he just shrugged. I then told Jarratt I was going in. So with Chloe firmly attached to my hip.... in I walked. The security guard chased me and I essential created a distraction for Jarratt (who had the camera *wink wink*) to enter. I ended up getting booted shortly afterwards... Jarratt ever the doting father and husband felt he couldn't stay when Chloe and I weren't there.... so he followed. We ended up finding a back entrance and spent the next half an hour dodging guards and taking in the wonder of the truly gorgeous haul of sea creatures - purple octopuses, live crabs still thrashing about in bags, mini squids. By 9am we were having brekkie in a local café - sorry Jarratt that I really couldn't stomach sushi for breakfast - and started making a plan for the rest of the morning, as the fish markets had taken a lot less time to find and explore than planned.

We decided to head north to Asakusa to visit Tokyo's most visited temple, Senso-ji and sneak a peek at Tokyo Sky Tree from a distance. After a quick lunch on the run we headed back to the hotel so Chloe could have a decent sleep and be well rested for her trip to the happiest place on Earth!

Disneyland was absolutely amazing! We arrived after 3pm and took advantage of the starlight pass. We made the decision early that we'd base ourselves in toon town as that was most likely the place Chloe would enjoy the most. We were wrong, so after a decent 45 minute wait for a crappy ride and one toddler melt down, we regrouped and decided that fantasyland was where it was at. Its a small world after all, Snow White adventures, Dumbo the flying elephant, Winnie the pooh adventures, Peter pan, and so on. They were all happy to let her ride, as long as she didn't sit on our laps...... no worries. Disneyland was madness, the crowds were particularly large given it was Saturday night. (What the hell were we thinking?!?!) But thanks to an oversized popcorn waiting and queuing didnt bother Little miss at all.... as long as she was scoffing down the popcorn goodness. We ended up pulling up stumps at about 9pm and headed to the bathrooms to change her for bed, give her milk and put her in the carrier for sleep. All was seamless and by 915pm, she was out! All in all it had been an amazing day!


Our last day in Tokyo (booo!) saw us check out of our hotel and head to Shibuya for some breakfast at Starbucks whilst overlooking the madness that is Shibuya crossing AKA the scramble. Renowned as the worlds busiest intersection, people come from all directions at once with every light change. Its astonishing to watch. Once we filled our bellies we headed to Harajuku to visit Meiji-jingo, but honestly I think we were all templed out. We spent a brief, tokenistic visit and then headed out to the shopping district in hunt of Kiddyland and some Harajuku girls. We found both! The Harajuku girls were very dismissive of most asking for photos... but we were in luck, we had a beautiful little blonde thing which we only needed to point at and in they'd jump for a photo. It was hilarious.

By 2pm it was time to pack it up, pack it in and head back to the hotel to grab our bags and begin the long flight home. And despite a vicious attack by another child whilst we waited to board the flight the whole travelling home bit was uneventful. Once again she slept in the bassinet from take off until descent! Go Chloe!

Japan was amazing, it was hard at times but oh so rewarding. We are so happy and feel so blessed to have shared this wonderful trip together. Jarratt and I have always been fantastic travel buddies, but if Chloe wasn't able to enjoy it like we do, than that would have been a deal breaker for us. But thankfully she took to it like a duck to water. Illness and all. We couldn't be prouder of our little jetsetter.

Now.... where should we go next? hehehe.