Sunday, June 3, 2012

Itinerary (20 May to 2 June 2012)

This was our itinerary with brief notes.

Sun May 20
  -  Flight. SQ12 leaving Singapore at 9.25 AM, arriving at Narita at 5.30 pm
     (all times are the local time).
  - Hotel: 1 night at International Garden Hotel Narita

We took the free shuttle bus from Narita airport to the hotel. Hotel staff asked about our next travel plans at check in and freely offered advice for the next stage of our travel. Also recommended the buffet dinner at their in-house restaurant. We asked about alternatives, and he informed us (quite correctly) that there were no alternatives except for pre-packed meals from the convenience store outside the hotel (I believe it was a Lawson).

Wish we had stayed here instead:

This was just opposite our hotel and seemed rather festive.

Not sure if  Y1990 for 90 minutes rate means the same as what it means here.

Mon May 21
  - Train from Narita to Tokyo, and then to Haneda Airport
  - Domestic flight from Haneda (Tokyo) - JAL 1191 leaving at 4.55 pm, arriving 6.40 PM at Memambetsu Airport.
  - Luggage: Arranged for Ta-Q-Bin (a.k.a. Kuroneko, a.k.a. the Yamato Transport Service) to send our heavy luggage to Hotel Loisir at Asahikawa as we checked out (Y3400).
  - Hotel Route Inn Abashiri (2 nights).

Sending the heavy luggage ahead was part of our plans to travel fast and light. The plan was to carry enough clothes for about 3 days, then change a clean set of clothes when we join up with the bulky luggage. There were probably other ways to travel light, but this was our solution.

We woke really early on the first morning, and explored the area around our hotel. The reception staff was right. Other than a padi field, there was nothing else really. We found a small eatery by accident, but it was some ways away, and we might not have found it in the dark.

With nothing else to to, we headed to Tokyo to spend the day there before catching the train to Haneda to fly to Memanbetsu. Yes, until we started to plan for this trip, we had never heard of Memanbetsu either. We thought we might find some places of interest around Tokyo station, but other than the Imperial Gardens there was nothing much. And for a while we were lugging our 3-day luggage around Tokyo station before we thought to lighten our load by putting most of the luggage in the lockers at the train station. A Y500 locker was large enough for everything.

Lunch or Brunch was at a curry restaurant. The curry was a little over-spiced (too much fennel or something) for our taste.

We were worried about getting to the hotel from Memanbetsu Airport, but no worries. There was a shuttle bus to Abashiri Train Station, and our Hotel was just opposite the station. Fare was Y840 for a 30 minute trip.

We wanted to try the in-house restaurant at the hotel, but the last order was at 8.30 and with no guests, it was closed by then. So dinner was at Victoria Station, a "Steak and Hamburg" joint. It was very satisfying, and probably one of my favourite meals on this trip. PL thought that it was a little unhealthy, though she did enjoy it too. So far our meals have not been traditional Japanese meals, but had been an international buffet, a Japanese curry restaurant, and now a steak & hamburger place. We really should be eating Japanese.

Tue May 22
  - Car Rental from Nippon Car Rental to drive around Lake Saroma (Suzuki Impreza, with English GPS but map is in Japanese. Destination entered by telephone numbers which is not as precise as map code.)

Breakfast was provided by the hotel. It was mainly Japanese breakfast (rice/porridge, pickles, fish, seaweed) and some "international" selection - scramble eggs and ham.

Even as we got into the rented car, I really had no idea as to where to go. I only knew that we should head towards Lake Saroma. I had visions of hillsides covered with beautiful flowers which one could see from miles away just driving along the road.

I was an idiot.
The drive was scenic (as in mostly nature as opposed to urban sprawl) but nothing really spectacular. We made our first stop at Saromako rest stop, where there was a souvenir shop, tourist information, food and drinks. There was a restaurant on the hill with a scenic view. But this was where we got most of our tips as to where to head next.
Two places that were "must-see" were Kamiyubetsu Tulip Gardens, and the Takinoue Park. Takinoue was too far and so we would aim for the Tulip Gardens. Unfortunately, we went off track and only found the tulip garden at about 4.15 pm. We had to return the car by 6.00 pm (the centre closed then). We paid the Y500 yen entry fee, and spent a frantic 30 minutes taking pictures and not really giving the place the attention it deserved.

Then we rushed back and got killed in an accident because of our speeding.

Oh wait. That didn't happen. I mean the getting killed part. (That was just my worry.)

I drove as fast as I dared, and on a 50 Km/h road, but a wrong turn threw off my entire plans and we limped into the centre at 6.15 and I put on my most apologetic face as I said "gomen'nasai" to the staff. Before that I pulled into a gas station and was clueless as to how to work the pump (all in Japanese).

I asked the attendant if he could speak English and he said, after a pause, "no" in English. My outright laugh when he said that might have disarmed him.

Anyway, I asked for help and he understood. So I gave him two Y1000 notes, which he inserted into the machine (at the same time! I was thinking, "wait! that's TWO Y1000 notes!" but the machine was able to figure that there were two notes and credited me with Y2000. The machines in Japan are a lot smarter than the ones we have). Topping up the car cost over Y1300 and machine spat out my change (politely of course).

Dinner that evening was at Sukiya where I have a rice bowl with beef (IIRC).

We explored the little town of Abashiri and discovered that it had a KFC, and a yakiniku restaurant. We would have tried that if we stayed another evening.

Wed May 23
  - Train to Asahikawa leaving at 13.29
  - Hotel Loisir Asahikawa - 2 nights

We went to prison.

The station master offered the 9.30 train, but we wanted to walk around a bit in Abashiri in the daylight. So we decided on the 13.29 (as per our original intent). He asked if the unreserved seats would be ok, and we said yes. For a out of the way place like Abashiri, we didn't really need a reserve seat.

And we bought "ekiben" or Station Lunch (from Ekimae - train station, and Bento - lunch box = Eki-ben) from the Abashiri station. There was rice, noodles (which was a little like mee goreng), seafood, and siew mai. Nice, though I will always prefer hot food.

 From the train food trolley, I bought several drinks and the ice cream (below, right) on the 6 hour journey to Asahikawa. And the Ekiben and onigiri was quite satisfying.

We love the little soy sauce bottle!
From Hokkaido's milk

So we were not too hungry by the time we got to Asahikawa. So I had a sandwich at Doutor's - a chain of coffee and sandwich shops in Japan - as a sort of dinner.

We checked in at Hotel Loisir (which was easy to find because of the tall building and lighted sign), got reunited with our luggage, walked around the area that evening, and use the coin laundry in the basement of the hotel to wash the clothes we had used the last few days.

Thu May 24
  - Car Rental, Nippon. Staff was fluent in English and GPS was much better. Staff marked locations map code in the directory for us.

Breakfast was at a coupon restaurant. This restaurant model has a machine near the entrance, where you select your meal, put your money in, and the machine prints out a coupon or receipt, which you then hand to the staff inside. The staff may then ask you some questions as to your options, which you, not being able to understand Japanese, just nod stupidly or alternatively, stare blankly at the staff and until realisation dawns on the staff that you are actually a special needs tourist and will make the appropriate accommodation for your special needs.

My breakfast came with a raw egg, which I did not know what to do with. So I put it in my soup. I was supposed to stir it into my rice, sort of like Korean bibimbap.

Then we drove to Takinoue to see the purple mountains majesty. Okay, more of a hill but it was the closest opportunity for me to use that phrase.

And since we still had some time, we drove to the Okhotsk Tower. Then we made our way back leisurely with lots of time to spare. And also because this centre closed at 7.00 pm.

Dinner was at an Izakaya where we had the best gyoza ever!

We also had chicken and pork yakitori, vegetable tempura (bittergourd), and yaki onigiri.

And beer and Umeshu. Then we had seconds of the chicken and the gyoza.

The gyoza was spicy, and since we obviously loved it, on the second plate the chef put a little more of the spicy sauce on the side. Yums!

The Unnamed Izakaya (If anyone can read Japanese...)
I wish we could go back to that Izakaya in Asahikawa.

Fri May 25
  - Train from Asahikawa to Sapporo on the Super Kamui leaving at about 11 am.
  - Hotel Mercure for 1 night only

Before we left Asahikawa, we spent the morning in Tokiwa Park.

A small park but with an observatory, a temple, and a pond.

Back at the Hotel we arranged to Ta-Q-Bin our luggage to Hakodate.

Then we made our way to the station and got an ekiben for lunch on the train. Again, we did not get reserved seats but there was no problem finding empty seats together. This would change when we reached Tokyo.

PL chose the Asahikawa Zoo Ben which was like a sample platter of EVERYTHING.

Or maybe the small "cells" for the food were to represent the enclosures for the animals in the zoo?

And... Asahikawa has a zoo?

Who knew you could learn things from a lunchbox?

It must have been good, 'cos PL didn't offer to let me try any of her meal.

I had an ekiben that came in a reusable container. We washed it and it became a handy container for snacks and stuff.

Hotel Mercure Sapporo was within minutes of the Suskino station, two subway stations from the Sapporo Train station. However, we walked along the subway pedestrian mall which was about 15 - 20 minutes walk. There was another station, Hosuisusukino which ran on another line which we could also have used, I believe.

Mercure is part of a French hotel chain I believe, and the room was more "Western" with a longer but shallower bath tub. The room was larger than the Japanese standard. We stayed one night only.

We spent the afternoon at Odori Park, where there was a wine and food festival. I sampled the Hokkaido fried potatoes on a stick, but I was looking for the grilled or roasted potatoes, but was not able to find any. Then we shopped along the Tanukikoji - Sapporo's famous shopping street - looking for the 100 yen ("Hyakuyen") shops which we remembered from 1998. Either our memories were faulty or the shops had moved.

We did find Daiso (off the Tanukikoji) and spent two hours there buying stuff all priced at Y105 (5 yen was the tax) each.

Then we went back to Tanukikoji for dinner, found a smoky, western-style restaurant. But after hours of walking, I was just glad to be off my feet.

Tanukikoji - Sapporo's shopping street.

Sat May 26
  - Train to Hakodate leaving at 12.22
  - Hotel Ekimae, 2 nights.
  - Car Rental - 24 hrs 5 pm Sat to 5 pm Sun. 

We spent the morning in another familiar site - Nakajima Park.

Then checked out of the hotel and waited for the free shuttle to the station. As the bus pulled away, I spotted the sign for Gyu Kaku and remembered that was where we were supposed to have dinner instead of the smoky western food place the night before.

At the station, we got another set of ekiben - the Spring set for PL and I had the Furano beef. We got these from a vendor in a kiosk at the station. When he heard us jabbering in English, he spoke to us in English too, and recommended the Furano beef ekiben.

Spring Set

Furano Beef. Nice!

We caught 12.22 Super Hakuto limited express and got to Hakodate by about 3.30 pm.

The Hotel Ekimae is just 3 minutes walk away, right besides the Hotel Route Inn, but the sign was so small, we walked around it before we found it.

The lady at reception seemed flustered to see us but quickly reunited us with our luggage. The room was small and it was the first "traditional" Japanese room - tatami mat and roll out futon mattresses - that we were stayed in.

It was going to get cosy.

We had simply planned to go see the famed view from Mt Hakodate but as it was still early, and Nippon Car Rental was just next door, we decided to rent a car. (Yes, our planning was that laissez faire.) The car rental lady was fluent in English and we asked her for some recommendations. She was surprised when I said I wanted to go to Mt Hakodate and recommended we go after dark when lights would be spectacular.

The GPS was only in Japanese. But we quickly learn what was "turn right" and "turn left" sounded like in Japanese. We got the Nippon staff to mark some map codes of interest on the directory and we were off.

Goryokaku was a western-style fort shaped like a 5-point star.
To Goryokaku park.

We were too late to go up the tower where we could have seen the shape of the earthworks, but we took a walk around the park before it closed (6 pm I believe).

Then we headed towards Mt Hakodate Ropeway (or cable car).

The Ropeway station was crowded with tourists, which sounded like they were from Taiwan. They were noisy but otherwise okay. But it did mean any chance of a quiet evening was gone. At the top, it was a madhouse. So we sought refuge in the restaurant. There was a queue for the window seats, so we just took a seat inside the restaurant. We could still see the view. And the staff was very nice. When a window seat opened up and the queue had also inadvertently disappeared, they offered to move us to the window seat on their own. That was nice and made the whole experience a plus for us.

Oh, it was cold up there. With windchill easily below 10 C (50 F).

Anyway, here is the famed Mt Hakodate view taken with an iPhone 3GS.

Sun May 27
  - Rented Car - drove to Onuma park
  - Trams within Hakodate

We had parked the car within Nippon car rental lot overnight to ensure no parking fines, and collected the car well before the start of business. But the staff were already there and they would have noticed the car. Anyway, we drove to Onuma Park and rented a tandem bicycle (Y2000 for the whole day).
Mt Komagatake

We cycled the recommended route which was scenic, but if you don't have the time, you could cover with a car instead or give it a miss. All the main sights are within walking distance of the village.

But we enjoyed the cycling. It was cool and you never enjoy this kind of weather in Singapore. And there were few other cyclists, we almost had the park to ourselves.

Onuma Park circles a lake (two actually) with many little islands, and about 8 bridges linking the larger ones.

Many small islands dot this lake.

There is a ropeway (cable car) to Mt Komagatake. But we didn't know about it then. We shall try it next time... if we can find it!

One of the Bridges of Onuma County

I found out that Onuma means "Big Swamp". Coincidentally, my town's name also means "Big Swamp"!

We had lunch in the village - snacking on fried potatoes, some kind of mochi or rice cake, and other finger food.

We spent half the day there and drove back well before 5 pm. Filled the car up (the recommended gas station was a full service station), and returned the car.

We then tried to arrange for our luggage to be "Ta-Q-Bin"-ed to Shinjuku Prince Hotel. And ran into a slight problem.

The reception staff was an elderly gentlemen who spoke no English, and the staff that could speak English had not reported for work! So we played charades for a while until the staff walked in and we all sighed with relief. The arrangement here though was a little different. The hotel did not collect the fees upfront but would send the luggage COD. We would pay when we collect the luggage at Shinjuku Prince Hotel.

We also ask about the bus to the airport and the staff was able to give good advice. The bus terminal was just next to the hotel, and the airport bus leaves from bay number 11.

Logistics settled, we then explored Hakodate by tram. Some half-hearted shopping. After the Daiso experience, we were no willing to pay more than Y105 for any item!

Dinner was shabu-shabu at Wai Wai Tei. It was gluttony!

It was more meat than we had eaten for the whole of most days! Or seemed that way.

It was also the most expensive meal we had at about Y9500.

Mon May 28
  - Bus to Airport (7.50)
  - Flight JAL 1162 leaving at 9.45 Hakodate, and arriving 11.15 Tokyo.
  - Then a lot of trains to Kawaguchiko Station
  - Taxi to our hotel
  - Hotel Route Inn Kawaguchiko - 1 night stay only.

This was another day of heavy travelling.

The bus to airport and flight was uneventful.

However, getting to Kawaguchiko was gonna take many train changes according to Hyperdia.

The first leg was not in doubt. Take the Airport rapid service to Shinagawa.

There we bought tickets for Kawaguchiko, and the nice ticket staff was able to provide a printout of the various changes we needed to make, and to scribble the station's names and train's names in English.

Unfortunately, we missed our connection in Shinjuku (We had an adventure in miscommunication while buying an ekiben, and we were confused as to which train to take and from which platform, as there were many trains with sort of the same names and some might be going in the wrong direction!)

We got back on track with the help of a station platform staff and managed to get down to Otsuki.

(Obligatory photos of our ekiben here:)

We both had the same ekiben as these were the last two boxes of ekiben.

At Otsuki, we found this elegant throwback from a gentler times.

 The Fuji Tozan Densha is a working Tourist train with just two cars. On the ride to Kawaguchiko, there are views of Mt Fuji along the way.

Along the way, we caught glimpses of Mt Fuji with the top wreathed in clouds.

Which may be more than what most people get to see, apparently.

Mt Fuji is often covered with clouds.

At Kawaguchiko station, we looked at the buses, and they were mostly sightseeing buses. So we were not too sure that they would do. Later we found out that their routes would take us close to our hotel, and for Y1300, the pass would be valid for 2 days. You can hop on and off the bus I believe, during the two days.

Since we were staying only one night the pass would be enough for coming and going both ways. However the pass would be for 1 person, so 2 person would Y2600. The bus may work for one traveller, but for two, the cab was cheaper overall unless you also want the bus tour.

We took the cab from the station (Y710 flag down, and it was Y890 at our hotel - about 5 minutes away, less than 2 Km). It was a walkable distance, but it had been a long day. But it was about to get longer.

Breakfast Coupon
Like the other Hotel Route Inn in Abashiri, this Hotel also came with complimentary breakfast. The Breakfast coupon were also elegantly printed. In most hotels if you do get a meal coupon, it is at best a cheaply printed coupon, or maybe even scrawled in unintellible scribbles on a tear off coupon. This was elegant.

We checked in, and then went for a walk.

Mt Fuji was visible but was soon cloaked by clouds. The town/village had a busy road running through it, but the village itself was sleepy. We walked towards the station, found steps leading up to the top of a hill-park - Tenjoyama Park. We climbed it partway then found a path down the other side and the Mt Kachi-Kachi Ropeway station, where a view of Mt Fuji could be had. We kept this in mind as an option for the next day.

We decided to have dinner and that was when our long day got longer.

There were no restaurants.

Everything within walking distance was closed.

This sleepy town had gone to sleep. We ended up with chicken nuggets (Y45 per piece, 4 pieces, was great for my hungry stomach), and snacks and instant noodles from Lawson. Then we headed back to the hotel.

Tue May 29
  - Taxi to Train Station
  - Train to Kyoto
  - Taxi from Kyoto Station to Hotel
  - Kyoto Garden Ryokan Yachiyo Hotel one night

I woke before 5 am, peeped out the window, then threw it open. Mt Fuji was lit by the rising sun.

Mt Fuji from my Hotel window at 5.00 AM.
One of my favourite shots of Mt Fuji

We dressed and went to look for a better view of Mt Fuji.

We took a long walk, passed the Kawaguchiko Bridge, to a boating pier where students were getting in their morning practice.

It was lovely.

We headed back to the hotel for the complimentary breakfast (I tried to make up for the lack of a hot meal the night before), then checked out.

We called for a cab from the Hotel as it did not seem likely that any cab would be cruising by. The meter started at Y800 and jumped by Y180 every interval. The final fare was about Y1300. Not sure if it was higher because we called for the cab, or because it was a different cab company.
Reflections of Mt Fuji

At the station we asked for tickets to Kyoto. The station master told us he was unable to sell us tickets to Kyoto in halting English. Fortunately I had studied the options from Hyperdia, so I asked if he could sell us tickets to Shin-Yokohama. That he could. He also informed us that the next train was the scenic Fuji Tozan Densha and it would be Y200 more per passenger for this rapid train service. We took it. The commuter train would be about 20 minutes later and slow. The fare was Y2790 with the additional seat fare for the scenic train.

As we reached Otsuki, the tour guide on the train asked where we were going, and we said ultimately, Kyoto, but our ticket was for Shin-Yokohama. She then told us which train we should connect to.

We got on the train and found ourselves seats in the unreserved section. The conductor came by checked our tickets and then asked for our seat tickets. We used our universal "stare blankly in incomprehension" look and he explained that this was a Limited Express train service, and we needed a seat ticket. Asking where we were heading, he figured we were headed to Hachioji to connect to the line that would bring us to Shin-Yokohama, and charged us Y500 (each) as seat fare for that segment.

At Shin-Yokohama, we bought tickets for the shinkansen, and decided that unreserved seats had seerved us very well, so why pay more? Well, when we got on the train, the unreserved sections were all left with single seats. So PL and I sat apart. Oh we got an ekiben, but no pictures cos we sat apart and she had the ekiben first (we decided to share an ekiben as we really filled up at breakfast).

At Nagoya, the seat next to mine became free and we rode together the rest of the way.

At Kyoto, we hopped into a cab, and showed the taxi driver the address of the Ryokan on our iPad. Agoda's Hotel Vouchers has the name of the hotel written in kanji/katagana/hiragana, whatever.So that is helpful (Expedia, does not).

Welcome cookie or candy with face.
We arrived before check in so we left our light luggage and went traipsing through Kyoto. Did you know there is a municipal zoo in Kyoto? There is, but we didn't visit. We went temple hunting, found the Nanzenji Temple, and then it rained. We sheltered under an old aqueduct in the Temple until the rain stopped then headed back to the Ryokan.

We booked the Keiseki dinner at the Ryokan for 6.30 pm, and went to our rooms. As per tradition, we left our shoes at the front steps where an old gentleman speaking impeccable English assured us that he would take care of our shoes.

Our room.

To welcome us, we were served green tea and these cookies or candy with faces on them. 

The room was a traditional Japanese tatami room, but large.

At 6.25, the staff came to get us, but we were not quite ready. In our hurry to get to dinner, we left our cameras in the room. I could have gone back to the room, but everything was so nicely arranged, I didn't want to mess up the "wa". So no pictures of the Keiseki dinner.

But it was gorgeous. (Use your imagination.)

We finished dinner at about 7.30 and we didn't know how to get out. of the ryokan to walk about. We didn't have our shoes, and the front door was closed. We were prisoners!!!

So we had ended up making tea in our room. Not!

Wed May 30
  - Exploring Kyoto by bus and trains
  - Kyoto Dai-Ni Tower Hotel - 1 night

In our exploration the night before, we found that the closest subway was the Keage station and we could take the train to Kyoto Station where we can go look for our next hotel.

As it was a weekday and at about 9 am, we found ourselves caught in the morning rush hour. We decided to seek refuge in one of the coffee shops operating within the station (at Karasumaoike station, if memory serves, and had breakfast at a deli called Sizuya) and let the rush hour pass.

(By the way, we took a cab to the ryokan because Maps could not provide us with a guide to get there by transit. But from Kyoto, take the train on Karasuma line to Karasumaoike and change to the Tozai line to Keage Station. Then it is about 10 minutes walk to the Ryokan. There are other variations, which Hyperdia would offer.)

The Kyoto Dai-Ni Tower Hotel (or Second Tower Hotel) is affiliated to the Kyoto Tower and gave all its guest complimentary tickets to visit Kyoto Tower. That was nice.

We later realised that the hotel also had bicycles for rent to explore Kyoto on wheels. Could consider this the next time.

We left our overnight bags at the hotel and left for a walking tour of Kyoto. More specifically, we wanted to return to the Higashi-Honganji Temple, which we remembered fondly from our visit in 1998.

It was still there, but there were renovations and repairs going on, and a few more people than I would have liked.

I felt somewhat upset that it was not as tranquil and peaceful as I remembered in 1998.

Yes, it was good that they were taking care of their heritage and realising how important it is. But, there were more people around.

In 1998, we were practically the only visitors, and we felt the peace and tranquility of the place. And I guess it was a little selfish to want that peace and tranquility all to myself.

Which also goes to show that peace and tranquility comes from within, and not from an old, quiet temple in Kyoto. Still, I can go back in my mind to that old quiet temple in 1998.

We walked a bit towards our next destination, again a temple we visited the last time - Kiyomizu Temple or the Temple of the Beautiful Waters.

On the way there, we found a bus stop and a bus (Number 80, IIRC) that would take us there. We hopped on to save our feet some walking. This was the "Get up the back door and pay the driver when we get off at the front" routine. Fare was flat at Y200, or Y240.

The "hike" up the road to Kiyomizu was "festive", I guess. The road was narrow, there were school kids walking up, down, and standing around chatting away excitedly, buying food, snacks and souvenirs from the shops, and all the while, vehicles were making their way down that narrow alley that passes for a road.

We ducked into a quiet alley to find some quiet. And found green tea ice cream in a quiet niche, not far from the madding crowd, and yet just far enough.

We even found a statute or sculpture that looked like Eric Cartman from South Park!

It was a hot day, and the ice cream was most welcome. There was red bean, some kind of fuzzy mochi thing that looked like algae, and black beans of some sort.

I like these little oasis of sanity.

We explored more of Kiyomizu this time around, but decided not to go into the temple (crowd and there was an entry fee) itself.

We found a cemetery, and some temples or shrines within.

Those were quiet and peaceful.

Lunch was on the go. We had beef "bao" or dumplings.

We did more window shopping on the way down and found many fascinating things to marvel - blades, miniatures, pottery, candy and mass-produced souvenirs.

On the street, we made our next plans which was to find Maruyama Park and the temple within (Chion-In Temple).

On the way there we passed a restaurant with seafood Keiseki, and made a note to return for dinner.

Navigating with Maps on my iPad, we managed to get to the temple facing Shijo Dori and entered the temple and park environs.

Teahouse. We were the only customers.
This was not the usual park we expected. There were many little shops and eateries along the myriad alleyways. We had tea at one of these little restaurants. We were the only customers.

Back on the streets and among the alleys, we would catch a glimpse of the pagoda rising up from among the roofs.

We tracked it down but couldn't find the entrance. Maybe it was already closed for the day.

As it was also close to dinner, we headed back to the seafood restaurant for dinner.

We ordered the Queen Crab Kaiseki. There were crab sashimi, boiled crab, crab tempura, crab gratin, Crab siew mei, and crab sushimaki. The boiled  crab was deliciously sweet and needed no additional flavourings or seasonings, though it came with a dip. Nice.

The we head back to Kyoto and used our complimentary entry to view the sights. But after Mt Hakodate... it was just okay.

Thu May 31
Not the Shinkansen we took.
  - Train Shinkansen Kyoto to Tokyo, local trains to Shinjuku
  - Shinjuku Prince Hotel - 2 nights

This time we booked a reserved seat on the Shinkansen (800 yen more) so we would be sure of seats together.

We changed to the local trains at Tokyo station to Shinjuku and then searched for the hotel. Here, Maps failed us, and pointed to the wrong location. The problem is the station the Hotel is over is the Seibushinjuku, whereas we exited from the Shinjuku (JR) station. The two stations are about 10 minutes apart on foot and above ground, you need to cross 2 junctions and go under some railway tracks. Underground, I believe there is a faster way (no crossing), but I never found it in the catacombs.
Like beer, it is never to early to ekiben!

So after some help from a security guard or two, we got ourselves properly directed to the hotel, where we dropped off our day luggage, reunited with our Ta-Q-bin-ed luggage, and found out check in time was noon onwards.

Then we went touring.

We wandered about in the Kabuki-cho area, and from the Kanji (Chinese) characters, "Kabuki" means, "wine, women, and song" though perhaps not in that order.

It was a happening place, but perhaps not at 11 am in the late morning.Still there were signs. We found a police car with the emergency lights flashing while parked along a street in Kabukicho.

Single seat dining.
In the lift/elevaator!
After our wonderful experience with the Izakaya, we were eager to try new things, so for lunch, we walked into a dark, ominous-looking restaurant entrance where huge barrels had been turned into cosy little single seat (or very cosy two-seaters?) dining tables with curtains for privacy. As there were two of us, we were directed upstairs via the lift, which was shockingly decorated with this silhouette (left).

But the food was good!

We ordered one set meal, and I decided to try ordering some yakitori. Pointed at the pictures, I ordered some chicken and pork. I think one of the order was pure pork fat. Sinful! I couldn't bring myself to finish that.

The bill was about Y2000, if I recall. Need to check.

After lunch when we checked in, the reception offered to upgrade our room for just Y3000 more per night to a room twice as big. We figured we weren't going to spend a lot of time in the room, so why bother.

It was one of the smallest room we had. Only Hotel Ekimae at Hakodate was as small or smaller.

And with our full complement of luggage it was a squeeze. Should've upgraded.

It occurred to me then that somehow we had managed to arranged for our luggage to join us at all the smallest rooms we had - Loisir, Ekimae, and now Shinjuku Prince. Mercure, Abashiri, the Ryokan, and Kawaguchiko were all larger rooms.

Oh well. Such is planning.

One other point about the Ta-Q-Bin. There is also an airport service where you can send your luggage to the airport instead of lugging it along onto the bus, trains, etc. Unfortunately, you need to send it 2 days before your flight. So it was a little tight at Shunjuku. I'm not sure how it would work because the last two days are usually the times when you want to do some last minute packing of souvenirs. This is the logistics we need to work out if we want to use this airport service. Something to think about.

But since we couldn't meet the deadline, the alternative was the Airport Limousine Shuttle - which is a bus actually. We got two tickets for the 5 pm shuttle to Narita on 2nd June from the hotel later that evening and the staff told us where to get the bus (Outside Keio Dept Store next to Shinjuku JR station).

After checking in and settling in, we went off again to search for Shinjuku park. Which we found, and which was closed by the time we got there, but we saw the sign that said it would be open to the public for free on Sat and Sun (2 & 3 June) to celebrate environment day or green month or something.

Then we headed back to Shinjuku to try to find the little alley we saw after lunch which was mostly small yakitori and other eateries.

After much hunting, we found it! but many of the more interesting ones were fully occupied (it was all counter sitting. Finally we found one with two empty seats and sat down. The old man behind the grill spoke to us in Japanese and we did our best confused tourist impression and he called a younger man (presumably his son) out. In his best English, he pointed to a painting behind us and said, "we have eel." Okay, we could eat grilled eel. He corrected himself and clarified, "Only eel".

Ah! Understanding. We ordered 4 sticks of eel (unagi) and a small bottle of beer for us. The customers next to us, asked us where we were from ("Singapore") then nodded in approval before launching into a conversation with his friends where "Shingapuru" was peppered throughout the conversation. For all we knew, he could have been telling them how his grandfather single-handedly conquered Singapore in WWII.

Or how his father met his mom in Singapore.

Or how Singapore has the best Chicken rice in the world.

The unagi was good, but we needed more. So up and goodbyes and thank you and pay the bill (Y1740). And off to our next adventure.

So now we knew there were speciality yakitori shops, we looked for but found all those with obvious variety were fully occupied. We found another with meat and veggies and sat down. The old lady spoke to us.

"Yakitori?" I asked.

"Pork," she said.

"Okay, Gyu-niku (beef)?" I asked.

She shook her head and repeated, "pork".

Great. From a Unagi-only place to a pork-only place. We knew how to choose them.

So we had pork.

There was a Japanese bell pepper in the basket in front, I point to it. She said "Pimen".

"Yes, please. Pimen. One". And we got our vegetable for dinner.

She also asked if we wanted sauce or salt for our seasoning. We chose salt.

The five sticks of pork yakitori were a mix. One was liver. One was innards (I found the chewy intestines tough to chew). Other than the innards, it was good. PL had the liver and she liked it.

The bill? Y770 for 5 sticks of pork and 1 pimen. Cheap!

Fri Jun 1.
  - local trains to Ginza,  then to Akihabara, then back

We decided to explore Ginza which is supposed to be a shopping area and perhaps have breakfast there. It was a business area, with few eateries, and mostly pastry shops. I guess, traditional Japanese breakfast (rice, pickles and seaweed) doesn't translate well to eateries. It's almost like setting a restaurant to serve cornflakes and milk. Only.

We had breakfast at Choco Cro (IIRC). Apparently their specialty is chocolate croissant, hence the name. PL liked their green tea croissant.

After breakfast, the various shops were open, and we explored Sony Building. They has a showcase of their various products and innovations such as the image stabilising for their video cameras.

Then it was lunch and we found ourselves competing with the office lunchtime crowd. There were so many choices, but also so many people queuing patiently for their lunch.

Mapo tofu rice set
We finally found one where the queue had all been absorbed and we were next in line.

Again, language was a problem, but we figured that the special for the day was "Mapo tofu" set. I asked for alternatives, but gave up with our limited language, and we settled for 2 Mapo tofu sets. Each set came with a bowl of rice drenched in the minced meat and tofu with thick gravy, takuan pickles on the side, and miso soup. It was one of our cheapest meal at just Y500 per set.

Next we went to Akihabara and this was a shopper's mecca. One of the largest was Yodobashi Cameras, or as their sign on the building says, "Yodobashi Akiba". This is like the Mustafa (SG reference) of Akihabara. They sell EVERYTHING! Cheap! Well, reasonably priced.

The public anouncements were in Japanese, English, Mandarin, German, and Spanish. It was a tourist trap of sorts, except tourist were probably happy to be trapped in their 8 levels of shopping hell (or heaven if you are into shopping).

We spotted Gyu-kaku's signboard, and that was dinner. Gyu-kaku in Japan is a little less up-market than in Singapore. For less than Y4000 ea, we got a 90 minute buffet. from a menu list of over 40 items. (Tip, on the menu, "Hormone" is intestine. Long story.)

It was good. One of the more satisfying meals I had. I ordered bonjiri (or bonchiri) which was translated as chicken rump. It is what it is. Fatty, and yummy, and to hell with my cholesterol.

I also asked for the special rice.

Sat Jun 2
- Airport limousine (bus) to Narita
- SQ 11 leaving at 8.40 pm, arriving 2.15 am Singapore.

It was our last day, and we checked out first, then left our luggage with the bell desk. Then we headed to Shinjuku park which was having a free entry weekend. Took us an hour to walk there cos we were confused about the entry. (There is a Sendagaya gate and a Shinjuku gate. Shinjuku was nearer, but we walked to Sendagaya.)

Here are some photos.

We had the chance to try some Ramune in the traditional bottle (with a glass ball as the stopper), and some street food (PL had it) which was like some mashed sweet potato.

We headed back to towards our hotel, and found a restaurant along the next street that was still open to have our lunch. (Two customers that came in after was politely and apologetically told that it was past "last order" for lunch.) We had tempura with rice. PL ordereed a set that came with rice and udon noodles. too much!

Then it was shopping for last minute 100 yen bargains at Lawson 100 (a 100 yen shop).

We made it back to the hotel, picked up our luggage, did some quick repacking, and headed to the bus stop outside Keio Dept store (Shinjuku JR, West entrance). There were staff there to help arrange and load our luggage, checked which airline we were taking so they know which terminal to drop us off (luggage tagged accordingly), and assured us that we could take the earlier 4.30 shuttle though we had booked for the 5 pm shuttle.

The ride was uneventful, and so much less stressful (physically and mentally) than trudging through the train system with luggages in tow.

We arrived with hours to spare, checked in and then went shopping before security, and after.

And blew my final Y10,000 on souvenirs like blueberry and strawberry cheesecake Kit Kat, wasabi Kit Kat, Hokkaido potato chips, and the seaweed in a tin that my sister asked for. Most of these were from the shop called "Akihabara" inside the secured area just before the gates (Gates 31 - 47 if I recall rightly).

So ended our two weeks in Japan.

We shall return.


  1. Hi! I am thinking of driving to Takinoue Pink Moss farm from Asashikawa.

    Appreciate if you know how much is the travelling time and the appx petrol fee.


  2. Takinoue is about 150 km from Asahikawa if I recall correctly. Depending on your speed, traffic and road condition, you should be able to cover the distance in about 3 hours.

  3. Thanks! Is the traffic and road conditions generally bad? In addition, any toll charges along the way? Thanks.

    1. Road conditions may depend on time of year. It was ok in late May. No tolls between Ashahikawa and Takinoue.

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