07.04.2015 - 14.04.2015
Tuesday 7 April
We are off again. After the trauma in February of finding Ray's cyst was actually a metastatic melanoma and all the tests that ensued followed by a truly restorative month skiing in Meribel we arrive at Heathrow ready for our flight to Japan. After the disaster of having the kids' teddies stolen by the cleaners from our BA flight we have chosen to fly JAL and if the check-in staff are anything to go by we are in for a good flight.
This turns out to be right and everything from the seats, the enormous TV screens, the fastidious service and the truly charming staff make this an incredibly easy journey. The only discordant note is a young English couple (why is it always us?) determined to drink the bar dry and unfortunately regurgitating their endeavours later in the loo. Luckily they weren't noisy and were far enough away from us so we could get some sleep before touching down in a wet and very cold Tokyo. Temperatures have plummeted from the usual 20 degrees to a wintery 4 degrees and we feel the chill as we step off the plane. I stop to clean up the kids (both having been travel sick during the descent) and we become fascinated by the loos themselves. Heated seats, sprays to wash your bottoms, automatic flushes - the kids are in heaven. I finally drag two now incredibly hygienic children out of the ladies and go through customs. The airport is immaculate and the staff efficiency personified and my love of Japan is confirmed when an air hostess rushes up to us with a mobile phone in her hand tagged 'seat 10c'. It actually wasn't our phone but the honesty they display is in such sharp contrast to our own back at home that I feel somewhat humbled and ashamed at the same time.
After a short drive through the industrial outskirts of Tokyo we arrive in the business district and to the Mandarin Oriental. Our rooms are on the 31st floor and the view from each window is of a metropolis of a size I have not seen before. As far as the eye can see there is tower block after tower block, each jostling for space and light. It is almost overwhelming and far bigger than anything I had imagined. As the afternoon light fades and the lights of the city get turned on the vista becomes even more impressive and magical. We spend our first evening having dinner in one of the hotel's restaurants with a birds' eye view from our table of the east of the city dominated by the Sky Tree, which is the tallest tower in Japan.
Ray is up early for a tour of the fish market, Tsukijii, which is reckoned to be the largest in the world. Nothing could have prepared him for the sheer scale of what he was about to see. The market is made up of three or four distinct areas. The high profile tuna auctions start at 5am and are held in an open-outcry area that is itself as big as many other fish markets. The two tuna lying side by side that he took photos of are each worth an astonishing ¥1m!
Bordering this is the wholesale area, which houses some 1,500 small businesses in a huge grid-like structure. The organisation and efficiency with which retail buyers (for hotels, restaurants and shops) access what they need left him awestruck. Each business is a blend of activities, merchanting everyday needs like bream etc with specialities such as rock and spiny lobsters, razor clams and the like.
Beyond the wholesale area is another part of the market dealing with small fish and crustaceans (much of which is used as the base for miso, the ubiquitous Japanese stock), pickled vegetables and products used as accompaniments like the roots that produce wasabi, the fiery horseradish.
Finally, visitors decant themselves into a retail area that sells fish, household goods (see the knife stall!) and also houses outstanding mini-restaurants and snack-houses, which are rammed with both local Japanese and tourists.
Ray felt that Tsukijii made a visit to Tokyo worthwhile on its own although he is a self-confessed anorak about these things! I was sad to miss it but with Jack allergic to some fish and Amy feeling sick most mornings it seemed best to avoid. This was probably wise as they were wiped out with jet lag and we only woke up at 10.15 and had to make a mad dash before breakfast finished.
An hour later we set off to explore the local district on foot in glorious spring sunshine. The streets are amazingly clean and orderly, the taxi drivers clad in jackets and ties and as for the the building sites - something to behold with a uniformed guard at the gate and the site itself tidy, efficient and above all, productive! We stop to have a coffee at a Starbucks and even here are asked to wait whilst a table is cleaned and a reserved sign placed on the table ready for us once our order is completed. It is all a joy and we sit and people watch for the next half hour. I am fascinated and could have stared for hours. On the whole people dress in smart, traditional clothes with a main colour scheme of black, brown, grey or navy and the women clutch their designer handbags as a statement. A face mask is a common sight, which I find a little unnerving, but after a while it ceases to seem abnormal.
We wander past the river (brown and polluted in comparison) where Jack looks for water snakes for an eternity until I can stand no more and drag him on past various shrines and back streets where order gives way to a chaotic cats cradle muddle of electric cables suspended in the air. We look round their main department store (sadly mainly stocking western designers and so no different from our own) and finally return to the hotel late afternoon. A good introduction to Tokyo but jet lag and our previous sleepless night is taking its toll so after an early supper we collapse into bed.
The phone rings at 10.40am and it is Yuka, our guide, who has been waiting in the lobby for an hour, too polite to call us earlier. We have overslept! A mad scrabble to get the kids up and all of us dressed and we are ready (if hungry and in dire need of a coffee). We take the subway to Ginza and set off to see the famed Sony store. I had been expecting an architecturally interesting building to warrant a visit and this it is not. Instead it is more of a lifestyle store with beautiful miniature landscapes, similar to those in Legoland, used to display the Sony goods. We wander through the seven floors and whilst my attention is diverted by Amy determined to get a mini Sony Walkman out of us, I lose sight of Jack. A mad search and minor heart attack on my part until he reappears with Ray. Why does losing a child render you so desperate and leaves you feeling sick for some time after?
We continue to explore the Ginza area with a stop at the Hakuhinkan toy store. Here one really notices the difference in our cultures and tastes. Popular toys are Pokemon, Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty and various Japanese cartoon characters that I have never seen. They love little trinkets they can hang off their mobile phones and bags and in the soft toy department, small toy dogs are the animal of choice. Stickers are incredibly popular as are novelty erasers and, of course, anything electrical. We manage to finally extract the children and head off to a restaurant called Seryna in the Roppongi area for a sukiyaki meal. Amy is by now feeling rather sick (partly her usual stomach problems and partly lack of food) and whilst Ray and Yuka order the food I am outside dealing with a vomiting child. We definitely put a few would-be diners off the restaurant but I am so proud of her resilience and the way she re-enters with a smile on her face announcing she feels much better and saying "kon nichi wa" to everyone.
Sukiyaki is where thinly sliced marinated beef is cooked in front of you at the table and accompanied by stir fry vegetables and rice. It is absolutely delicious and although we pass up on dipping it in the raw beaten egg provided, we devour the rest with Jack announcing that this was the best meal he has ever eaten. It takes ten minutes of him saying "arigato" (thank you) to everyone before we manage to leave!
Refreshed and in much better spirits we set off to Shibuya to visit the Meiji Shrine. The shrine sits in grounds of around 175 acres and was originally a garden where Emperor Meiji visited many times. Almost all of the 100,000 shrubs and trees were donated by the people from all parts of Japan and thus includes all the species found in the country. You enter the park through a beautiful wooden Torii Gate consisting of two vertical pillars (one either side) and two horizontal ones across the top, which wards off evil spirits. By the gates are barrels of vintage saki on one side and on the other barrels of vintage Burgundy - both offerings to the gods. We continue on down a tree lined avenue and pass through another Torii gate before stopping to wash our hands at a Temizusha (stone font for ablutions). From here we walk towards the main shrine building in front of which are little desks where you write prayer messages on paper or wooden plaques. The kids are enthralled by this and write long messages asking, among other things, for a new home, a dog and to make nice new friends! Having hung our plaque up amongst the others on the wall we go to the shrine itself. The shrine is a good example of Nagarezukuri (Japanese shrine architecture) and is made solely from Japanese cypress wood. At the shrine itself you throw coins into the offering trough, bow twice and clap twice as you say your prayer. Jack takes this very seriously and bows with such solemnity that I find it hard not to laugh.
Luck was on our side as we complete our visit and get back to the car just as the rain starts. En route to the hotel we stop at one or two more typical Japanese stores before calling it a day.
We leave nothing to chance and are woken up by telephone calls and three alarms! A grey day and we decide to go to the Edo Tokyo Museum first to escape the drizzle. Although nothing as spectacular as some of our London museums the kids are fascinated to get a glimpse of how the Japanese lived in the olden days. We spend hours staring at the giant model town and the Shogun's palace with Jack's imagination fuelled by stories of ninja and samurai. Maybe it is the weather but we all seem in a discordant mood with each other and Ray and I in particular seem to be on different paths. It is at times like this that the travel seems harder.
After the museum we head to Asakusa and the Senso-Ji temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo. We pass through the Kaminarimon Gate and then walk down Nakamise Street which is decorated with red lanterns and lined with about 90 shops, mostly selling tourist items. It is Saturday and the place is packed. Ray sets off in front with Jack, head down and determined to get to the temple, oblivious to the shops and their contents. In complete contrast (Mars and Venus) I follow with Mimi and could have bought up mountains of glorious tat (ninja headbands for Jack, a kimono for Mimi, black glossy chopsticks, hello kitty bags) if only I wasn't hurrying to keep up with Yuka. I will have to sneak back.
The temple itself is lovely but for me lacked the calm and serenity of Meiji Jingu. The rain has stopped, however, just in time for me to take a photo of the buddha statue and the blossom. We head back to the car along a street adjacent to Nakamise avoiding the crowds but also my kitsch shops. I think evil thoughts!!
Today Yuka is taking us to a local tempura restaurant where we have to queue for ten minutes to get a table. The place is only full of Japanese and is obviously a popular local. Although beautifully cooked the kids don't take to the tempura and resort instead to bowls of steamed rice whilst we tuck in. Clutching wooden chopsticks as Samurai swords we leave the restaurant and head by car to Ueno Park and its famed avenue of cherry trees. The children are thrilled to be free and run around waving their 'swords' and pretending to be ninjas whilst we wander down the avenue enjoying the cherry blossom. It is nearing its end and the rain has not helped, but you still get a sense of the beauty of spring in Japan. Adding to the effect are the red lanterns hanging between the trees and a stream which runs down one side. The only blots on this beautiful landscape are the endless 'garbage sites' set up along the path. The Japanese are paranoid about dirt and litter but unfortunately take this too far and the wooden bins slightly dominate the walkway. This is nonetheless a wonderful park to visit and we spend a blissful hour wandering through it, stopping to look at the fountains and the giant statue of a blue whale.
Our final destination is the Imperial Palace Plaza and the Double Bridge. The current Emperor and his wife still live in the palace itself and this is hidden from view but the plaza is dominated by a beautiful gate house and two ornamental bridges stretching over the moat. I find the Japanese architecture very serene with its white walls and beautiful sloping black roofs stacked up in layers. With the skies beginning to dark we decide to head back to the hotel for a rest before heading out for dinner.
Tonight we head to a restaurant called Misono (apparently the originator of Teppanyaki) for dinner. We clutch our taxi cards which you have to show to the driver. This has the destination (and return address) written in Japanese as none of the drivers understand English script and few speak English. Showing the usual Japanese concern for people and manners our driver jumps out of the taxi and guides us, umbrella in hand, to the door of the restaurant - I cannot imagine the same effort being exerted back home.
The restaurant is situated on the top floor and down the length of the room is a long steel counter which is the cooking plate itself. In front of this are high chairs lined up and every 8 guests are cooked for by a chef. I am pleased to see we are the only westerners here - always a good sign. In Japan, tepanyaki is all about the beef with lobsters, scallops and abalone offered as a starter. There is none of the theatrical performance we are used to in London or in Melbourne for here in Japan it is taken very seriously and the theatre is simply the skill of the chef in his preparation and presentation of the food. It is also extremely pricey, 16,000 yen (£100) being the cost per person of the food itself and so for many unaffordable and they tend to head to Korean barbecues instead.
Our chef starts with the lobster and Jack nearly faints at the sight of its claws moving as it is cooked. We explain that it is dead and that the heat makes the muscles expand but he looks on sceptically eyeing the chef as some barbaric butcher! Next is the beef which is very different in appearance to our English cuts, being far more marbled and incredibly tender. Just as he lays the dishes in front of us Amy falls asleep in her chair and nothing can wake her. She misses it all. The food is incredible and utterly delicious and a wonderful end to our stay in Tokyo.
We set off in the car to Kamakura, a charming village en route to Hakone. We stop first at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine which is Kamakura's most important shrine. It was founded by Minamoto in 1063 and moved to its current site in 1180. The shrine is dedicated to the patron god of the Samurai and the deified spirits of the Emperor Oji are enshrined here. It has a 1.8km approach and being a Shinto shrine, we pass through a stunning red Torii gate before approaching the shrine itself. It is spectacular. After the shrine we wander over little Japanese bridges crossing streams filled with carp before coming to a small ornamental lake. We stop for the loo - immaculate as always with the standard array of buttons to warm the seat, wash various parts, dry and deodorise. The only oddity is that more often than not there are no hand dryers or towels as the Japanese prefer to bring their own and it is standard practice to carry a small towel or flannel with you wherever you go. Back outside we sit by the lake and Yuka gets the kids ice cream. Luckily amidst the standard Japanese flavours (green tea, potato, plum pickle and a vivid blue one whose flavour was lost in translation!) she finds vanilla and the kids are blissfully silent for a bit. Suddenly the peace is interrupted as two eagles dive into the water and fly up to nest in a nearby tree. They are joined by four more and soon the air is filled with these magnificent bird of prey. The children sit entranced for ten minutes watching this magnificent aeronautical display until it is time to leave.
Our next stop is the Hasedera Temple and gardens, which we view alone whilst Yuka queues for a table at a nearby restaurant. According to legend in 731 AD two statues were carved from a giant tree and whilst one was put in a shrine the other was thrown in the sea. 15 years later the giant wooden statue washed up at Nagai Beach in 736 AD and this temple was constructed to honour it. The gate to the temple is surrounded by Japanese pines and has a giant red lantern suspended from its roof. Inside are beautiful ornamental gardens built around ponds and streams with small decorative stone bridges, stone lanterns built like mini temples and the usual stone inlaid paths. There is a formula to all Japanese gardens which need to display various elements and try and replica nature. Streams, therefore, must meander not be in straight lines, water irises are often planted in the water to represent reeds, carp are always placed in ponds, waterfalls and rock piles built to represent the mountains and moss grown in carpets under the trees. The colour is derived from the greens of the leaves and moss, from the blossom on the trees and bushes and not usually from flowers.
We could have stayed much longer at this beautiful site but Yuka is waiting and so we head to Ishibashi Noodle bar for lunch. This is probably our most successful lunch yet and the children inhale the delicious soup. We had asked Yuka to take us away from the tourist route and into a local place and she has done just that. The food is simple, but incredible.
Before leaving Kamakura we stop to see The Great Buddha which is an impressive gigantic bronze statue of Buddha but in hindsight perhaps worth missing as the time used here means the clouds come down before we get up the mountain to Hakone and thus Mount Fuji remains hidden from view. We stop at Lake Ashi anyway and wander along the waterfront, now clad in coats as the air in the mountains is significantly cooler. The lake is rather beautiful with a stunning red lacquer Torii Gate set into the hill side. We are disappointed not to see Mount Fuji, the symbol of Japan, but apparently the success rate of viewing it are only 10% so it is just the luck of the gods.
We head off to Gora Kadan, a ryokan set on the side of the mountain near Hakone. As we cross the railway line to get to the entrance our hearts sink a little at the hotel's location but nothing had prepared me for the luxury and simplistic beauty we were about to encounter. The ryokan is set in the former summer residence of the Emperor and looks out over the beautiful mountainside below. Water plays a significant part in the design of the hotel and runs either side of the main corridor and falls away into a carp filled pool below. All the staff are dressed in traditional Japanese robes and kimonos and we are taken to our rooms where we meet Setsuko who is to be our 'assistant' during our stay. She is an elegant 60 year old lady, immaculate in green kimono, who shows us what to do in a ryokan as there are many rules and traditions.
First we remove our shoes and are shown the wooden flip flops we are to wear in the main parts of the hotel. These are placed on a straw mat facing the front door. Inside we wear socks which are divided so the big toe is separate from the other toes to allow the wearer to use the flip flops. We slide back the rice paper screen and enter the Tatami room which is simple in design with low ceilings, pale walls and undecorated save for a vase of flowers to one side placed by a screen painting. In the centre is a low table surrounded by cushions. Through another sliding door we pass through an annexe where there is a low writing table before walking out on to the terrace. Here we put on outside shoes to walk the short distance to the bedroom. Through another sliding door we pass a room housing a large round wooden bath, which resembles a hot tub and is permanently topped up by hot running water coming from a shoot in the wall. Beyond that is our bedroom where futons are placed on a raised dias and covered in thick duvets - needed in this cold mountain air. The pillows are the traditional rice filled pillows and, as we later find, take some getting used to. Laid out on the beds are our kimonos which we are to wear whenever we are in the ryokan. It is all simple and rather beautiful and, after the modernity of Tokyo, we finally feel like we are in Japan.
We undress and put on our kimonos and go next door so that Setsuko can tie them properly for us. You have to tuck the right side into the left or it represents death and funerals. Properly attired we are served a welcome green tea and then are taken off to the Onsen baths. Here the boys are directed off to the right whilst Mimi and I head left. You take off your flip flops and enter a changing room where you strip off and place your kimono in a basket. We are alone and oddly, despite being at ease naked at home, we feel rather self conscious standing in this public room with nothing on. We enter the bath chamber where a huge round bath filled with natural hot water from the volcanic springs dominates the room. To one side there are small wooden stools and in front of each is a hand held shower, a wooden bucket, wall mirror, and shelf containing soap, shampoo and conditioner. As instructed we wash our bodies and hair, rinse off and then enter the bath. The temperature is 40 degrees and Mimi finds it a bit hot so we decide to head to the outside onsen bath instead. We slide open the door and enter a beautiful Japanese garden and there is a pool surrounded by rocks and trees. The pool is again fed by the volcanic springs and is the same temperature as inside but here the early evening air helps moderate the heat. It is magical and we float in the warm water, dimly lit by lanterns and feel completely free. Rather reluctantly we finally drag ourselves back inside and change into our kimonos as we are late for our dinner.
Setsuko is waiting and we sit down on low cushioned chairs in the Tatami room. The table is laid out with beautiful red and black lacquered tableware with our chopsticks resting on ornate rests. The children have miso soup followed by simple beef and rice and Japanese vegetables whilst Ray and I are in for 9 courses! Gora Kadan is renowned for its food and it does not disappoint. Some of the dishes are exquisite - the sashimi amongst the best I have had and the wagyu beef literally melted in our mouths. Even the boiled sea roe which sounded very unappetising on paper is actually delicious. Ray is braver than me and wolfs down the tiny raw squid and other unidentifiable items but we both fail at the tofu and starch soup which just looks (and to be honest tastes) revolting.
Whilst we eat enough to do a sumo wrestler proud the children get restless and so Setsuko takes them off and shows them how to write kanji script with the brush. First she wets the solid block of ink and then scrapes it with a china stick to loosen the ink before dipping the brush in. With a deft hand she draws the symbols for Amy's name making it look effortless and easy (it isn't!!!).
Finally, tired and sated we head off to bed, laughing at yet more shoes placed just inside the loo door solely for wearing in there. God knows how dirty we must appear to the Japanese tourists who visit England. We all lie in a row on our futons and I have to say, we like it best this way all tucked in and calling out goodnight in true 'The Waltons' style.
We wake to rain and rather a lot of it. As we knew this was forecast we don't mind and there is something rather lovely about lying snuggled up in bed listening to a downpour. The joy of our uniform of kimono and socks is that we don't have to think what to wear and enjoy the freedom from decisions. It also speeds up getting ready and a few minutes later we are seated in the Tatami having breakfast. We have chickened out and have opted for the western breakfast as I am not sure that Amy's tummy could cope with miso soup smells first thing. We meet up with Yuka and decide to postpone our tour until the afternoon and so spend the morning doing some school work and going for a swim.
After lunch, with no let up in the rain, we decide to venture out anyway and drive the short distance to the Hakone Open Air Museum. The museum opened in 1969 as the first open air art museum in Japan and the spectacular grounds house some 120 works by well known modern and contemporary sculptors. The landscape would be worth a visit on its own but the exhibitions, brilliantly laid out in this backdrop, are truly breathtaking. This is no formal museum tour as many pieces can be interacted with (the foot bath and springy giant fried eggs) and some which children can play with. Our favourite is 'Woods of Net' which is a domed canopy (useful in this rain) suspended from which is a beautiful array of interwoven coloured nets. The kids climb up through the openings and play in the nets for at least half an hour, shrieking with laughter and declaring this to be the best day ever!!
We finally extract them and make our way to the Picasso museum in the centre of the park. I had expected one or two paintings but not the incredible collection that was laid out before us. In this remote area of Japan, high up in the mountains, there is probably one of the best displays of his work I have ever seen. Paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, ceramics, gemmail, silver and tapestries - all the different mediums he worked in are exhibited here. It is simply brilliant.
After a wonderful afternoon spent in the park we return to the car somewhat wet and bedraggled but also elated by our discovery. The Hakone Museum, on its own, is worth coming to this region for.
We have another Onsen bath but this time have the company of a large Taiwanese lady. She is charming and oddly having someone else there makes me feel much more at ease. Mimi is by now an expert and scrubs away at her body holding the spray this way and that to rinse herself down. In her perfect English the lady sweetly points out that the soap in a net bag that Amy is at that moment using to clean her bottom with is actually the facial soap for everyone! I wince in embarrassment but neither Mimi or the lady bat an eyelid. Despite the rain we decide to head outside where parasols are waiting to shield us. It is even more magical sitting together in the bath under a traditional Japanese parasol in this tranquil garden. Amy announces we must build one of these when we get a new house and I only wish it was possible as I am as addicted as her to this concept.
Instead of the nine courses we have opted instead for a shabu shabu which is thinly sliced beef and assorted vegetables cooked in a pot of broth placed on a stove in front of you. Unfortunately it was still precluded by four courses and whether it was the heat of the bath or the jet lag I still cannot shake off, I suddenly feel green at the sight of the food and have to head outside to recover. I do not do justice to the dinner but at least the shabu shabu is simple and I manage to eat some.
I am tired and even the rice filled pillow (rather hard and unyielding) does not stop me nearly falling asleep before the kids. We sleep for ten uninterrupted hours - total bliss.
It is still raining but as we are off this morning it does not really affect us. The children hastily try out our own bath with Ray before a final breakfast prepared by Setsuko. It feels strange to put clothes and shoes on again and I feel rather sad to say goodbye to our beautiful and simplistic way of life in this ryokan. It has been a wonderful and unique opportunity to experience the lifestyle of the Japanese in such caring hands. We all hug Setsuko goodbye and will miss her gentle presence.
We drive down the winding mountain roads (Amy is sick!) past truly spectacular scenery and arrive twenty minutes later at the train station. As we stand on the platform a bullet train passes through the station and I cannot begin to explain the noise and speed with which it passes. At 300 kph it is something quite extraordinary to see and I am grateful for the barriers along the platform protecting us from the train. We board the train and what was a three hour car journey takes only 30 minutes before we are pulling into Tokyo station. Yuka guides us to the platform where we are to catch the new bullet train to Kanazawa. This train is only two weeks old and there are people lining the platform, armed with cameras, ready to capture it on film. It is rather a beautiful looking train and the inside is incredible. We say goodbye to Yuka and settle down into our luxurious cabin ready for Kanazawa and our next adventure.