A Travellerspoint blog

December 2014

Osaka Universal Studios, Japan

Harry Potter converts

After a lot of chit chat I managed to persuade Jason to go to Universal Studios...yes!!! I was so excited!

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I set my alarm extra early to make sure we got to the ticket booth first and ensured early entrance to the park. I thought I was eager...the Japanese were there even earlier and were frantically running around when the gates opened. I tried to get Jason to run but he was having none of it.

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We'd got the speed tickets that meant that we skipped the queues for the major attractions and were given a time slot for the Harry Potter area. It didn't seem that busy for most of the rides but it probably made sense to get the speed tickets for Harry Potter and the big rollercoaster, American Dream, alone.

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We tried to go on everything: Spiderman, Back to the Future, Shrek, Terminator, the Waterworld show, Space ride (which was my personal favourite), and loads more. Harry Potter really surprised us, neither of us are particular fans, but the whole area is amazing and there's so much attention to detail. We treated ourselves to butter beer, but couldn't persuade Jason to buy a wand or cape. We were amazed by the main Harry Potter ride; fantastic 4D effects, water and fire in front of your face, action packed. But I'm afraid the Flight of the Hippogriff was rubbish (that might be slightly unfair, I'm sure younger children loved it).

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I loved the whole day, especially because of all the extra Christmas touches. There were Christmas parades, Christmas songs played throughout the theme park, huge Christmas tree and twinkly lights...it made me feel all Christmassy!

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This is our last entry for Japan. We spent our last day finishing our Christmas shopping in Kyoto and making our way to a hotel near the airport. Looking forward to finding some warmer weather in the Philippines.

P.S. We didn't take our big camera so I'm afraid the pictures are only off our phone.

Posted by bloorsontour 23:18 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Himeji and Kobe, Japan

Nothing much to report

Himeji

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Not much to report here. Himeji has Japan's best castle and Sophie has decided that I love castles (I do quite like them) so we thought we'd better take a quick look. The tower was closed so we just had a quick wander around, took a few photos...

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It was a little drizzly so we decided to spend tthe afternoon Xmas shopping. I even tried to win some presents at the arcade, but failed miserably (it was fixed!).

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Kobe

We used Kobe as a base for 4nights for visiting surrounding places (including Himeji). We had a cheapish hostel with our own bunk bed room. It was a little tight, especially as we had to hang washing up due to the rain outside...

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No pictures of Kobe really. We ate well and spent more time trawling the shops, but it was mainly just a comfortable base. We didn't even try Kobe beef, although, as most of it comes from Oz, we can always grab some there... We did on the other hand get into tempura; a cheap and tasty restaurant that we were addicted to.

Posted by bloorsontour 22:25 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Onomichi, Japan

A spot of cycling

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Most weekends are difficult finding accommodation, but this weekend proved even more tricky because it was a Japanese public holiday. When we were staying at Hanna Hostel in Hiroshima we met Sylvie and Willem (from Lille, France), they too were frantically searching for accommodation on the internet like us. At one point it just seemed impossible (unless you wanted to pay a small fortune). Lucky for us Willem found a guesthouse on an island called Setoda with a couple of spare tatami rooms free and invited us along for a couple of days cycling the islands south of Onomichi.

Sylvie and Willem organised everything for us...we turned up at Onomichi station in the morning and they had our bikes ready and waiting for us.

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It's very popular cycling the network of islands from Onomichi; great cycling paths, well sign posted, convenient bike hire & drop off points, beautiful scenery and jaw dropping bridges connecting all of the islands together. A lot of people make the trip from Onomichi to Imabari, but we took it easy (Day 1: Onomichi to Setoda, Day 2: Setoda to Omishima and back, Day 3: Setoda to Onomichi).

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Although I would say the overall scenery wasn't stunning, quite industrial in places, it was definitely picturesque. All of the islands are connected by bridges that you can cycle over; beautiful manmade arcs dot the horizon.

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The islands are covered with orange trees, thousands of them and it was fruit picking season too. They had so many oranges that some Japanese women were giving them away to all the cyclists that went past. I'm sure we got extra orange treats because we were foreigners. Jason now wears his handmade orange badge on his bag everyday.

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The weather was absolutely gorgeous for the whole three days of cycling. Bright blue skies meant lots of picnicking outside along the way, calling in at convenience stores and supermarkets to get fresh pastries, soups, tempura and sushi. Of course it also called for obligatory beers whilst watching the sunset right by our guesthouse on Sunset Beach too.

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Our accommodation, Setoda Guesthouse, was basic but nice and clean. Its appeal was beach front location and onsite onsen that looked out to the beach (its downside was the rather surly daughter that frowned at everything). We had our evening meals at the guesthouse as it was a rather sleepy location; grilled fish, pickles, rice, sushi and dumplings. The place was run like clockwork: at 6.30pm they'd be a knock on your door calling you to dinner, you were not to be a second late...the same happened for breakfast at 7.30am, which is why we chose not to have breakfast there on the second day, we needed as much sleep as we could get after cycling and a 9am checkout time.

Overall it had been a fab few days with great company. Thanks Sylvie and Willem for organising it all! Hope you continue to have fun on your next adventure, keep in touch x

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Posted by bloorsontour 06:02 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Miyajima, Japan

The 'not so' floating gate

Miyajima is a brief train and ferry ride from Hiroshima (all included in the Japan rail pass). It's another one of Japan's top landscape views and we made a quick morning stop there.

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To be honest, I think we miss timed our visit to Miyajima. The best time to go, from a photographic point of view, is at high tide when the Shinto Shrine Gate appears to be floating out at sea. Still a beautiful scene, we got there at low tide when tourists can walk up and touch the gate instead (so getting an obstructed camera shot).

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It's quite a pleasant town, although lots of tourists and cheap souvenir shops, and you can walk around it in an hour or two really. There are very sociable dear that wander around, even trying to get into the restaurants for a free feed and the local delicacy seems to be fish rolls. They taste similar to Thai fishcakes and you can have them in lots of different flavours; spring onion, bacon &asparagus, chilli. Jason liked them and tried quite a few.

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We then spent the afternoon trying to do our Christmas shopping and found a decent Indian restaurant for a curry and a beer. Lovely!

Posted by bloorsontour 05:16 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Fukuoka, Japan

Sumo time!

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We'd based ourselves in Hiroshima for a few days and having our rail passes meant that we could access quite a few areas from there. Luckily, it was the November Sumo Championship in Fukuoka and only a short ride from Hiroshima. We can't tell you anything else about Fukuoka and its tourist attractions, but we had a brilliant day watching the sumo.

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You can pre-book ringside tickets in advance or turn up on the morning, like we did, and pay considerably less money for a general admission ticket (which entitles you to back row seats and all day admission for a little over 2000yen).

I'm sure Jason's best bit of the day happened outside the arena... Sumos out and about. He couldn't believe the number of sumo wrestlers walking about in everyday life in their robes, wooden slippers and oiled hair. He particularly enjoyed secretly photographing them at the traffic lights, in the supermarket and general chit chatting with each other. They were absolutely massive, casting shadows over me and Jason.

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The rules...as far as we can work out...

It all starts with a song from the umpire.

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Then there's repeated squatting and throws of chalk in the air.

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Next comes the hip swing and slapping of thighs.

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The charge.

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Shoving, eye gouge, slapping, tripping up, general wrestling about to try and get your opponent on the floor or out of the ring.

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Although there's fighting all day, the top leagues don't get going until the end of the day, with full procession and traditional performances.

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The crowd got particularly excited about a fighter named Endo, cheering and shouting over and over. We had a group of school children sat in from of us and they were screaming and waving sticks in the site for Endo. Unfortunately he didn't win and Jason managed to snap the unfortunate end to his fight (bum in the air).

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Overall, not a sport I'll be trying myself but a very entertaining day!

Posted by bloorsontour 01:28 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Hiroshima, Japan

Exploring the Peace Garden with our Japanese tour guides

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Before we even made it to our hotel from the train station we'd stopped for a cultural experience, sampling Hiroshima's delicacy of okonomiyaki. The train station had quite a few restaurants serving these delicious egg pancakes. I had a plain pork one and Jason had his with oysters. It's basically a filled pancake of beansprouts, bacon and your choice of filling with a fried egg topping and sweet sauce... I loved them.

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Our hostel, Hanna Hostel, was perfect; cosy living room, full kitchen, private bedroom, helpful staff and offered us a free guided tour of the peace park. A few of us took them up on their offer of a tour; it gave us a great chance to meet other travellers and we had the perfect guides too.

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Three Japanese women, in their 60s/70s, guided us around the park and explained everything there was to know about the area and its history. They said they were doing their tours for free because they wanted to practice their English and keep the memory of Hiroshima alive. They were so cute (unfortunately we forgot to take photographs of them); they came prepared with a folder of information, flicking through it at any opportunity, wanted to ask us questions about our lives (I.e. whether the UK buries or cremates their loved ones) and told us personal anecdotes about what they and their families had experienced. One memory that touched us was how our guides mother went to help at an aid centre after the bomb hit and described the devastation her mother had seen there, she also showed us old family photographs too. They pointed out the different surfaces on the granite remains, the areas not directly exposed were still smooth whereas the roughened areas had been affected by heat radiation. They also a explained about a building, once a bank and now a tourist office, which survived the blast. One man survived inside because he had gone into the cellar to collect some papers...when he returned to the bank floor he found that everyone else had died and that all the surrounding area was in flames. A truly horrific image. We learnt so much having a guided tour with them, we would have missed and not understood a lot about what the park and its surroundings had to offer.

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The ruins of the A-Bomb Dome

The government debated what to do with the ruins of this military hall that was destroyed by the atomic bomb and decided to leave it completely as it was in memory. It lines up in contrast to the arch cenotaph and Flame of Peace inside the memorial park. The flame is not an eternal one, but one that will be extinguished when there is no more nuclear weapons on earth...

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The cenotaph is enscribed with the names of all of the victims of the bomb, reaching now hundreds of thousands (I can't remember the exact figures). There is also a mound of grass that has remaining ashes of people that were burnt on the day of the bomb. The numbers were so high that they said that one spadeful of ash in the pile was one human life, there was no other way of determining bodies.

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There's a beautiful children's peace monument in the park.

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When we were there different schools were lining up to pay their respects, singing songs in front of the monument and handing over their handmade paper cranes. Sadako Sasaki was a little girl that got leukaemia from the atomic bomb. She made a thousand paper cranes to symbolise longevity, happiness and peace. Children from around the world send cranes to Hiroshima everyday in her memory.

After our tour we went into the Peace Memorial Museum. Again very interesting, graphic in parts and thought provoking. There were photographs from the day, of people being burnt, clothes in display cabinets with the persons' story attached. Afterwards we both signed their petitions to put an end to nuclear weapons.

We spent the afternoon wandering around Hiroshima, which is now a modern city, grabbed a noodle lunch and visited the newly built castle (of course, the original was destroyed by the atomic bomb). Neal, a fellow backpacker from Canada also joined us, and we're hoping to meet up with him again in the Philippines.

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We had a lovely evening back at the hostel; enjoyed drinking whiskey with the other travellers from our tour group, grabbed an evening meal together and ended up planning a couple of days cycling together with Sylvie and Willem (more of them to come in future blogs).

Posted by bloorsontour 19:49 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Kyoto, Japan

Beautiful city, not-so-beautiful accommodation

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We arrived to find a huge modern train station, complete with 11 storey shopping centre and a huge Xmas tree.

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Upon leaving the train station, Kyoto is a bit of a disappointment. It is essentially a modern concrete city built around some of the most historic sights in Japan and all of the good stuff is initially hidden from view.

Finding somewhere to stay in Kyoto was a pain. Our landlady in Nikko did her best for us and spent an afternoon ringing around. In the end, she found a "simple place", near to the station and under £50 a night... We arrived to drop our bags off before heading out for a day of sightseeing. It smelt of dog and was a bit chaotic, but was in a decent location. More on this later...

We headed to the Higashiyama district and headed for its main attractions...

Kiyomizu-dera; a big wooden building on stilts, lots of people, stunning despite construction works and the number of tourists (Japanese tourists are generally calm, don't shout or elbow, so crowds are much more manageable)...

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Gion - the old geisha district. We saw a quite a few, but suspect they were paying for the privilege rather than being paid, judging by the quality on show! This area is very touristy, but that's seems to have preserved buildings that have been torn down elsewhere in the city. In the backstreets, there are some pretty exclusive residencies, restaurants and Ryokan. We walked on to find somewhere a bit more in our price range for lunch.

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We were a little late for lunch and most places were closed. We followed our noses, though a curtain and into a great Ramen noodle shop. They mixed the broth with a spade in a couldren - it smelt and tasted amazing!

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After a bit more walking around and an ice cream stop, it was time to head back to our guesthouse. The place was a maze, stuff everywhere, yapping dogs, a strong smell of garbage and one toilet for who knows how many guests (at least a dozen). As this was the most expensive place we had stayed, we weren't too pleased. We sat in our room, which smelled, bit looked clean enough and heard scurrying on the ceiling above... we were looking forward to 4 nights in one place, but we were in quick agreement that this would be for one night only! The internet was broken, so we couldn't even search for somewhere else! We spent the evening outside a tourist office with free WiFi, looking for somewhere new, followed by a whisky or two to drown our sorrows.

The next day we got out of the guesthouse early , hired some bikes and headed off on a loop of the north west area of Kyoto.

We toured a fair few temples...

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Kinkaku-ji - the golden temple. It's one of Japan's top photographed images and is well worth seeing. This is also where Sophie's new nickname comes from... Ginger Carp.

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Riyoan-ji - the Zen garden (some rocks in gravel to have a really good think about).

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Ninna-ji. Nice and relaxing. Covered walkways connect loads of temple buildings around gardens with some weird flowers.

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Finally, we had time for a stroll along the bamboo path, before cycling for an hour back to the train station to catch the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. A fun, but pretty tiring day.

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Posted by bloorsontour 05:02 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Kanazawa, Japan

A busy afternoon

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We squeezed in a brief visit to Kanazawa. It was a short train ride from Takayama and we'd managed to find a cheap hotel for the evening, so that helped make our decision. The train got in at midday and so we quickly rushed around a couple of the main tourist sites in a busy afternoon.

The Kenroku-en Garden is the best I've been to, especially the time of year we went because of the autumn leaves and rope suspensions on the trees. The gardeners tie the branches of the trees with rope in the autumn to prevent damage to the branches during heavy snow fall and it creates beautiful landscape views. A japanese garden is supposed to have six attributes; seclusion, spaciousness, water, artificiality, antiquity and views - I think this one does pretty well - it really was stunning to walk around.

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We made a fleeting visit to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. We didn't have time to visit any of the special exhibitions, but we did have a brief look around the building and outer galleries. The building itself is extremely modern, smooth glass walls and circular in shape (with no main entrance, so that you don't approach the works in any particular way, apparently) and there's a weird swimming pool that looks like there are people walking around in the water (but it's an optical illusion and actually the people are in a room underneath the water).

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We then dashed over to Higashi Geisha District. Apart from Kyoto, it is one of the best preserved geisha areas in Japan. Untouched by WW2 and so showcases original streets with slatted wooden facades and lined with boutique shops and tea houses. There's a gold leaf company there and you can watch the process of gold leaf production (although we didn't have time). In their shop they sell gold leaf jewellery, gold facial products, bags embellished with gold leaf and much more...I could have spent a lot of pennies here. There's a whole building facade covered in good leaf too.

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Although this was a very short visit I really enjoyed our afternoon here and wish we'd had a bit longer to explore.

Posted by bloorsontour 06:49 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Takayama, Japan

Our first ryoken and onsen

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The train ride to Takayama was one of the best we've taken. Firstly, it was on the Shinkansen bullet train, secondly we ate amazing sushi and finally we had a picture perfect view of Mount Fuji. You usually have to be pretty lucky to catch a glimpse of the snow capped peak of Fuji, usually covered in cloud, but on this particular day it was in its full glory for a good proportion of our train ride along the south coast of Japan. It really is a beauty (and I caught a pretty good camera shot of it from our super fast train).

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We were desperate to stay in a traditional ryoken; however a lot of them are luxury boutique style spa hotels and way out of our budget; Jason managed to find us a reasonably priced one in Takayama and we enjoyed our stay here a lot. Our room was a traditional tatami floor with futon beds, full yakata (dressing gown) wear for lounging in, endless supply of green tea in our room and couples onsen bath. I was so glad it was a couples onsen, a lot of them are single sex only and you have to shower and bath naked in front of strangers...not something I was looking forward to. Jason on the other hand was willing to embrace the full onsen experience. He really wanted to go in a natural hot spring onsen outside where you can bath next to wild monkeys, but unfortunately this place in Japan was too difficult to get to in our short space of time.

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Takayama is a pretty town with traditional wooden buildings and narrow streets, a lot of them housing souvenir shops and sake brewerys. We spent a lot of our time browsing the shops for Christmas gifts and the odd sake tasting here and there. We decided we like the fruity sweet sake a lot more than the dry or hot ones, best to be served over ice.

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We visited the Festival Floats Exhibition and puppet museum (I promise this was better than it sounds). These huge floats make an appearance twice a year in Takayama festivals, they're ornately decorated in bright colours and gold leaf and are each housed in ready made storage containers dotted about the town. Some of them have amazing puppets attached to them. We had our own private puppet display and presentation in the museum; Jason loved it and was amazing by the engineering of it all. J went on stage and was given a cup of tea by a mechanical puppet and then another one drew us a signed Japanese print. There was also a model replication of the temples we'd visited in Nikko where you got to appreciate the vast craftsmanship of each temple in detail (especially as some of the originals were covered and under construction). Overall money well spent.

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After a busy day we we headed back to our ryoken for a well deserved soak in the onsen.

The next morning we called at a little cafe for breakfast, the place was fine and the breakfasts OK...Jason had a traditional hida beef burger with apple sauce for his breakfast fill. The only reason its worth mentioning is because there was a lovely Japanese girl that wanted to practice her English. She asked if I knew anyone who liked Hello Kitty and of course said our niece Ruby did, so she drew her a little picture which I hope makes it to Ruby in time for Christmas.

We then visited the open air museum which housed some traditional Japanese buildings from the region. The museum covered quite a large area around a pond; there were old wooden homes, wooden carvings, original mills, traditional weaving & woodwork displays and games. The scenery was beautiful, yet again surrounded by orange and red leaves on a bright autumn day with views that looked out to the Japanese Alps.

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For our last night in Takayama we had to move into a hostel as the ryoken was fully booked for the weekend, luckily it was a really nice one with our own private room. To save a few pennies we ate in and got ourselves a prepared nabe (hotpot) of fresh ingredients from the supermarket. Its such good value; pork, noodles, mushrooms, beansprouts, flavoured stock all for £1.50. All we had to do was boil them together in the hostel kitchen and tuck in...delicious!

On our final night it had been quite cold and as we were walking down to the train station you could see how Takayama was surrounded by snow capped mountains. It wasn't quite ski season when we were there, but it looks like they were starting to have their first snow. Maybe when we come back we can make the most of the snow...

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Posted by bloorsontour 05:00 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Kamakura, Japan

Temples galore

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We arrived at a small station near to Fujisawa (close to Mount Fuji and Kamakura) at night and hoped that our Air BnB host would be true to his word. Punctuality is pretty important in Japan, so 20 mins after we were due to meet, we were getting a little concerned... At last Kyota arrived and showed us to our apartment, 30seconds from the station. It was good to have our own place for a couple of days.

We had been to a fair few temples in Nikko and so another day of it in Kamakura was nothing to get too excited about. In the end though, we loved it there.

Kamakura is a former capital and as such has some pretty grand temples, but quite different to the slightly garish examples in Nikko. They are set amongst immaculate gardens; incredibly peaceful places for quiet walks and meditation rather than tourist attractions. It was quite strange to see roses in flower, blossom on some trees, orange leaves falling to the ground from others and completely bare branches of trees apparently in the depths of winter. All four seasons within a small garden...

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Feeling pretty relaxed we left the temples and headed along streets with tasteful shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants. A team of 6 gardners pulled inch high weeds out of the moss at the base of trees. Others cut grass with scissors. I guess places dont look this pristince without attention to detail!

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By the time we reached the centre of town things were a lot more commercialised and hectic, but there was still a nice feel about it. We finally got off the mark with our Xmas shopping and fit in seeing the grand Buddha before heading home for some Chinese food recommended by Kyota. We pointed at pictures and the beaming chef flapped his arms like a bird - yes chicken will be great...

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P.S. Green Tea flavoured KitKats are pretty disgusting, even free ones...

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Posted by bloorsontour 17:44 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

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