It’s Christmas eve, where has the time gone, I can’t quite believe I have been in Asia for nearly a year. I had originally planned to stay here for longer, however I have decided to move to Europe to be nearer to a relative who has become quite poorly. I want to be nearer so I can visit regularly. This decision prompted a hastily arranged trip to visit places that interested me in this region, that I had not previously been to, before I leave. Unfortunately this trip was cut short by an erupting volcano, so one can only plan life so far ahead. I am flying to Portugal in early January, where I plan to settle, however this is what I said this time last year about Asia, so who knows what I will be sharing with you this time next year.
This is my last post from Asia and for this year. Thank you for your comments and support over the last twelve months, I am looking forward to sharing my adventures in Portugal, and Europe, with you in 2018. I hope you are doing what ever makes you joyful over the festive season, and wish you a healthy and happy, new year.
The keen eyed amongst you will notice that I am back in Kuala Lumpur. Well my travel plans were interrupted by a volcano in Bali. The last stop on my trip was going to be to the island of Flores, still in Indonesia, I was going to stay on a small island resort near Flores, and visit the Komodo National Park to see the dragons.
I had a 6am flight from Lombok to Bali on the 28 November, the plan was then to fly from Bali to Labuanbajo on Flores. I knew before I got to the airport on Tuesday morning that I wasn’t going to Bali, Bali airport had been closed for two days due to Mount Agung erupting, I wasn’t sure if I was actually going to get off Lombok though. When I got to Lombok airport the only airline that was flying was Lion Air and only to three destinations, one of them was Jakarta, and I managed to buy a seat, thank goodness. I had a seven hour wait for my flight so I had time to decide what to do next. I did think of going to Thailand but I decided I had had enough of sitting around at shitty airports for hours so I managed to book a flight from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur. I then had an anxious wait to see if the flight from Lombok would go ahead, it did and on time. I got to see views of Indonesian rice fields as we took off from Lombok.
When I landed at Jakarta I was delighted to see that my flight to Malaysia was delayed, for 2 hours, it ended up being delayed for over fours hours and I finally got back to Kuala Lumpur at 2.30 on Wednesday morning. I am really disappointed that I haven’t managed to see the Komodo dragons, however I decided I couldn’t take the risk of hanging around in Lombok to see if conditions got better in case I got stuck there, and I have friends flying over to Malaysia for the festive season.
Just before I landed at Jakarta
This is it for Asia, for me now. There isn’t anywhere left in the region that I want to see. Over the years I’ve visited, China, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia, although only the last six countries since I started this blog. My top three of Asia would be Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, in no particular order.
When I use the word ‘ferry’, when referring to a boat, I have a rough idea of what this is. The ‘public ferry’ I took to go to Gili Trawangan, was one of the more ‘interesting’ journeys I have taken on this trip. The ‘Gilis’ are three tiny islands just off the coast of Lombok, I had intended to visit all three, but decided just the one was enough. Each island has its own features, Gili Meno is the smallest and least developed, Gili Trawangan is the largest and the most developed, the ‘party’ island, and Gili Air is in between the two.
Would you like exhaust fumes with your crisps?
When I took this photo of sacks of grass I didn’t expect to be sharing a seat with it on the ‘ferry’
Public ferry being loaded
My day started with getting to the harbour to catch the public ferry. Having discussed how to get to the islands with the very helpful chap at my hotel, I decided to use the public ferry. The ‘harbour’ is the beach and the ‘ferry’ is a little, wooden boat moored up on the beach, that one has to wade into the water to get on. All the provisions on the Gilis are taken over by boat and I found myself sitting on a little wooden seat surrounded, not just by humans, but by baskets of provisions and bags of grass, the ferry only leaves when it is completely full.
As I was ‘enjoying’ my journey, I was pleased to see that the ferry had life jackets, it looked like there were enough for all the humans on board. However, I was just very slightly concerned as to how they could be accessed, if the boat started sinking, as they were all very snugly tied up to the roof of the ferry.
It took about thirty minutes to get to Gili Trawangan, and once the ferry had moored up on the beach we all waded through the sea again to get onto the sand.
There are no motorcycles or dogs on any of the islands. If you have experienced an Asian country where motorcycles are a popular mode of transport you will know that motorcycle riders tend to ignore traffic lights, or any road traffic signs of any kind, and invariably they will ride on the pavement if this is the best route to get to their destination. So motorcycle free sounds idyllic, however on Gili Trawangan, horse and carts are the mode of transport. So as I was walking up to the pathway that runs parallel with the beach I was greeted by an aroma I rarely experience in my daily life, and that aroma was horse shit.
The beach is busy with people leaving and arriving on the island, boats also run from Bali so there is a constant stream of people and luggage, to and from the beach, and then off and on the horse drawn carts. When the carts aren’t being used to transport tourists, they are used to clear what looked like huge piles of rubbish, dotted along the beach, in between the seating areas of the bars and restaurants. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the beach, or the bars and restaurants that I saw. I was told that the beaches further around the island were better, but I didn’t really want to walk through all the hubbub to get there.
have a nice swim amongst the engine oil!
I was thinking of getting the next ferry back when I came a cross a vegan coffee shop, such joy. I had a leisurely lunch and bought a bag of goodies to take back to Lombok. Full of delicious food I felt slightly better about the boat trip back.
I didn’t have very long to wait for the next ferry back to Lombok. The total price of my two tickets worked out at the grand sum of 17 pence, GBP. Now I expect there is a human reading this that may say I got a bargain for my 17 pence. I would say that my desire to undertake cultural research, and experience a certain level of discomfort, so you, dear reader, don’t have to, does have limits, and paying 17 pence for this return trip was of little comfort to me.
A flight time of just over an hour from Yogyakarta and I am in Lombok. Lombok is an island in the eastern part of Indonesia, located between Bali and Sumbawa island, it has a population of around 3.5 million, of which approximately 90% are Muslim. Lombok has the second highest mountain in Indonesia, Gunung Rinjani, 3726 meters high. The island is very green and mountainous.
My hotel is situated on a hill and from my breakfast table I can see Mount Agung, an active volcano, on the island of Bali. I also have views of the lush hillside surrounding where I am staying. I arrived here two days ago and it has rained for almost the whole time.
The morning mist, dancing around the tree tops, in the brief respite from the rain.
Lombok has many beautiful beaches, however my guide books suggest that the Gili islands just off the coast of Lombok are worth a visit, this is the main reason I came to the island.
Finally I saw the sun set, this was taken from my balcony, previous evenings have been overcast due to the rain. Once the rain stops I plan a trip to the Gili Islands.
I’m sitting in a café, drinking awful coffee and admiring this rather lovely view. The entrance fee to this site includes a drink and a snack at the café here. The snacks looked like complete meals so I just had a drink. The café is excellent, built into the hillside to make the most of the position, it’s the perfect place to sit and admire the view after a couple of hours walking round this site, and this is why I am drinking the slightly vile coffee.
I’m at Ratu Boko, 196 meters above sea level, hence the great views, built during the 8th century, and thought to be a palace, although it is now referred to as more of an archaeological site. The exact function of Ratu Boko is still unknown, with theories ranging from a place for rest and recreation, a palace of the ancient Mataram Kingdom and a monastery. Inscriptions indicate the site was occupied by humans during the 8th and 9th centuries.
The entrance to the site is a two part gate, and when it is not cloudy, which it is today, makes for great sunset photos. The site covers an area of 250.000 square meters, the gates lead to a huge lawn terrace.
The large structure with a square hole in the middle is thought to be a place where corpses were cremated.
A pathway leads through the lawns to a landscape garden area, and past these gardens is a pool complex.
I like a rice field. Humans can live in space stations, yet haven’t managed to mechanise rice growing, so one can still see humans tending to their rice crops the same way their ancestors would have. Indonesia is the third largest producer of rice in the world, behind China, and then India. However, Indonesia doesn’t export rice, it imports it, although usually to keep the reserves at a safe level. Rice production in Indonesia is by smallholder farmers, rather than big private or state-owned companies. Smallholder farmers account for approximately 90 percent of Indonesia’s rice production, each farmer holding an average land area of around 0.8 hectares. Indonesians are also big consumers of rice, with only Myanmar, Vietnam, and Bangladesh consuming more.
My time at Yogyakarta is coming to an end, my next stop is the island of Lombok.
Prambanan is the largest Hindu Temple complex in Indonesia, and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. Built in the 9th century it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The complex has eight large temples, the main temple is 47 meters high, and dedicated to Shiva.
There were originally 240 temples on the site, eight main temples have been reconstructed. There were 224 smaller temples, Pervara temples, surrounding the main eight, however these have not been reconstructed so the stones lay in little heaps around the complex.
All the buildings have panels of relief work, and I particularly liked the dragon heads jutting out from the corners of one of the temples.
For a break from temples I went to the Taman Sari Water Castle, which was built in the mid-18th century. It was a place for bathing but was also used for meditation, and as a hiding place for the Sultan and his family. There are ‘secret’ tunnels that the Sultan could use to escape enemies.
Taman Sari was a royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, and originally had four areas: a large artificial lake with islands and pavilions; a complex of pavilions and pools; a small lake; and a bathing complex. The bathing complex is what visitors have access to and seen in these photos. One wouldn’t want to go bathing in this today.
In one area there is a circular building called Sumur Gumuling, where there are five sets of linked steps, four sets of steps lead up to a central platform, the fifth staircase provides access to the first floor. The reason for this odd angle photo is, people, this is a popular selfie spot, somehow I managed to be there, when for a second, there wasn’t a human posing at the top of the steps.
I’ve seen lots of songbirds in cages during my stay here, I haven’t seen caged birds in these numbers since I visited China, it seems it is very popular here too. Songbirds are a huge industry in Indonesia with birds being sold for the equivalent of, a few, to hundreds of dollars. They seem well looked after, although I think it does look sad seeing these tiny things stuck in the confines of a cage. The demand for some bird species is threatening the numbers in the wild with extinction. We humans are a strange lot, rather than see birds living freely, where their songs can still be heard we prefer to trap them in cages. Not that the UK is a better example, it’s supposed to be a nation of animal lovers, yet there are hundreds of dog and cat shelters where pets end up when it is decided they are no longer wanted. Strange humans.
I’ve come to this region to see temples and my first visit is to Borobudur Temple. Borobudur temple is the world’s biggest Buddhist monument. Built in the 9th century, using 2 million stone blocks, without any kind of mortar or cement, it covers an area measuring 123 x 123 meters, and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.
The temple fell into disrepair and was rediscovered in 1815, buried under volcanic ash. In the 1970’s the Indonesian Government and UNESCO worked together to restore Borobudur, and UNESCO formally listed Borobudur as a World Heritage Site in 1991.
Borobudur consists of six square platforms, topped by three circular platforms, each of the levels can be walked around, to get to each level there are very deep, steep, steps.
The platforms provide an opportunity to have a closer look at the relief panels that cover every surface of the temple, depicting Buddhist doctrines, and Javanese life, a thousand years ago.
The main dome, at the centre of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupas, one of the stupas has been dismantled to show a Buddha statue.
Every stupa has a praying Buddha inside
The effort to get to the top of the temple is rewarded with views of the region.
Many of the Buddha statues are headless, this is thought to be the result of the heads being stolen and sold as collectors items.
Mendut is a ninth-century Buddhist temple, located in Mendut village, a few kilometres from Borobudur, built in the 9th century, it is older than Borobudur.
The temple steps lead into a room with three large stone statues. A 3 metre tall statue of Dhyani Buddha Vairocana, noted for his posture, as he sits with his feet on the floor, Western style, on his left is statue of Boddhisatva Avalokitesvara, on his right is a statue of Boddhisatva Vajrapani.
Indonesia is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands and I am on the island of Java. The world’s most populous island, more than half of the country’s population, 145 million people, live on Java. I flew from Caticlan to Manila, then from Manila to Jakarta, and finally from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is in the central region of Java, and is the cultural capital of the island. It is the only region in Indonesia that is still governed by a pre-colonial monarchy, the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono X.
main market entrance
There is a daily market near my hotel, aside from the main market hall, provisions are also sold from small stores the size of a cupboard, or straight from the pavement, anywhere that looks like it could be a good spot to display items to sell, is used.
Cupboard size stall
Cupboard size stall
Pavement banana stall
Coconut preparation is done using a homemade machine and pasta is dried on the roadside.
Drying pasta on the roadside
I came across a furniture restorer, what looked like a cycle/junk shop and locals having refreshments at a local café.
Outside the market, there’s a line of becak, a bicycle-rickshaw with three wheels, the drivers dozed while they were waiting to take shoppers home, there is a choice of motorised or human powered becak, and this is a very popular method of transport here.
The top floor of my hotel provides a good place to capture the sunset.
Boracay is an island and so naturally there is a proliferation of boats here, either moored up on the beach or out at sea, with the paraw being the most common. A paraw is a double outrigger sail boat from the Visayas region of the Philippines, they were originally used for fishing and the transportation of people and goods.
A paraw has a main sail and a gibb, it takes at least two people to sail it, and as it doesn’t have a keel, one person has to be on the outrigger to keep the sail boat in balance, this person is called a ‘balancer’. The hull of a paraw is fairly narrow and only one person can sit in the actual boat, usually the captain, the passengers will sit on the outriggers. Paraws here are used for tourist trips, and most of them seem to have blue sails.
As the sun starts to set many of paraws line up on the beach waiting to take tourists on a sunset sail. Getting on the paraw involves wading through the water, once it’s full and the sails have caught the breeze, it glides silently out to sea.
As the sun slips away, the evening ritual of the island begins. The horizon is filled with the silent shadows of the paraw sails; beach loungers are replaced with bean bags; the pathway fills with black clad divers, freshly emerged from the sea; barbeques are lit; happy hours are taken advantage of; people wade into the sea for sunset selfies; fairy lights are switched on; and the volume gets turned up as DJs compete with live musicians to mark the end of sun worshipping day and the start of the party night.
The party continues through the night, so I was surprised, when, one morning I went for an early beach walk thinking I would have the beach to myself, it was around 6, to find the beach was quite busy. People were swimming, paddle boarding, children were playing, joggers were jogging, and others like me, taking an early morning walk, the moon was still out too.
The beach takes on a different colour as the sun rises.
The weather has been good during my stay here, although in a lot of the photos there are what look like rain clouds. Despite an often very cloudy sky, it only rained a couple of times and for very short periods, and afterwards the sun always came out to dry everything up.
Boracay had some of the best sunsets I have ever seen, and it seems fitting to end my posts on the island, with a reminder of just how stunning nature can be.
There is a sandy pathway that runs the whole length of, and parallel to, White Beach. It is here that many of the resorts restaurants, hotels, bars, cafes, and shops are located. Motorised transport is not allowed on the pathway, so although it’s traffic free, it is full of humans. Hawkers roam along here, trying to sell you: boat trips or dives; sunglasses, phone cases, or hats (or anything that glows in the dark after sunset); offer massages on the beach, which sounds better than the reality, which was a grubby mattress on a lounger under the shade of a tree, while the world walks past; henna tattoos or braiding hair; and tempt one to eat at a particular restaurant. As I have said previously the hawkers here are not terribly aggressive, so it is easy to ignore them, however there is no escape from them and they are encountered every time a trip is made along this path, so it can get annoying. There is a tacky side to Boracay, and for me, this is it.
White Beach is a haven for water sports, diving, paddleboards, windsurfers, snorkelling, and parasailing. Most days there were people parasailing, and from the beach, they looked like air borne jellyfish, gliding under the clouds.
While the middle of the beach is popular and so quite busy, either end is quiet .
Every evening as the sun starts to set, the beach takes on a different vibe. Humans head to the sea for a sunset selfie, and the paraws line up on the sand ready for sunset cruises.
The sunglass sellers now sell glowing, neon, nonsense, DJs arrive at the bars, and the volume gets turned up a notch or two, nature is putting on one of it’s best shows, and we are all invited.
I finally got Boracay. Since my arrival I couldn’t really see what people rave about here. Yes the beach is amazing, it’s long, clean, wide when the tide is out, and shallow, one can walk a fair way out before getting out of ones depth. It’s not a great journey to get here, when I arrived, passengers were piled into an airport bus and taken a weird route, that involved getting stuck in traffic for 30 minutes, just to collect luggage.
There are better beaches that are easier to get to, I would even go as far as to suggest you can get all this at say Blackpool Beach in the UK, (if you haven’t been there, try it, it will surprise you) although one wouldn’t be laying on a lounger on a British beach in November. The lack of motorised sports on white beach, makes it quite a peaceful place too. This evening there was an amazing sun set, the best one since I arrived, and as I was laying on my lounger, sipping a frozen margarita, listening to the mellow tunes being played by the hotel DJ, watching nature entertain me, I got why this island draws so many people here. Maybe I’m getting old, or I’ve seen too many amazing beaches, to be impressed by Boracay, but I do get the vibe that is Boracay, even if it’s not for me.
I flew from Manila, to Caticlan airport, which is on the island of Panay. As the exit doors of the airport open, one is greeted by twenty to thirty humans all shouting that they can take you to your destination, for a better price than anyone else can. It is for this reason that I chose a hotel that collected me from the airport. All I had to do was look for my name, then weave my way through the scrum, to be escorted to a peaceful waiting area for the transfer to the neighbouring island of Boracay. A speed boat arrives and five minutes later I am on Boracay Island.
Boracay island is 7 kilometres long and only a kilometre wide at it’s narrowest point. White Beach, is what draws humans here, prepare yourself for lots of photos of sand, sea, sunsets and sails, there isn’t much else here, and some might say this is because it isn’t required.
White Beach is 4 kilometres long, it really does have white, powdery sand and turquoise blue sea. The sand and the water are very clean, (smoking isn’t allowed on the beach nor is littering, and it seems to work), the water is shallow, there are lifeguards at intervals along the beach, and when the tide is out the beach widens to double its size.
Walking along the beach I came across this, it’s called Willy’s Rock, I couldn’t find anything about it, apart from it has a statue of a religious figure on it.
I am writing this at breakfast and my cappuccino has been brought to me without even being ordered. The humans that work at this hotel have customer service sorted, and for me it’s the attention to details that makes a hotel stand out. Before I have even put my bag down by the pool sun lounger, Franko, is there laying a towel out and placing a cushion behind my head, seconds later, iced water has been placed on my table and depending on the time of day, ice cream, (non dairy) and or popcorn. All the guests here get the same service.
It’s the same at the beach loungers, the hotel is steps from the beach, there are humans there to tend to one’s needs. The cheery greetings given if one should walk past a human that works here, make, what is really just another nice hotel on the beach, into something quiet special.
These are a version of taxis in Boracay, there are cars on the island, although vehicles are not allowed on the pathway by White Beach. There are no motorised water sports near the beach either, these happen further out in the sea, so this does make it quite tranquil, even on areas where it is very busy with humans, when either walking along or laying on the beach.
There are hawkers, on the beach and on the pathway, they are not as persistent as some I have encountered elsewhere in the world, and they do go away when one says no.
Over 710 islands make up the Philippines, the population of 104 million people live on only on eleven of them. The life expectancy of males is just 65. The sun was shining when I landed at the airport and this was the only I time I saw it for the next couple of days.
Torrential rain does interfere with seeing the sights, there was a raised, covered walkway, that provided shelter from the rain so I was able to explore the area around my hotel. I came across this small park near a shopping mall.
When the rain did stop I ventured further into the city, to the Intramuros district which sits on the banks of the Pasig River. It was once the most exclusive district in Manila, high walls protected upscale homes, government buildings, churches, schools, and plazas. Little is left now due to extensive damage in Second World War.
My guide book describes Fort Santiago as ‘Intramuros’ premier tourist attraction’, I didn’t think much of it really, I photographed what is here. The fort is also the place of the Rizel Shrine Museum, Dr. Jose Rizal, is one of the Philippines most revered people, he was executed by a firing squad, at Fort Santiago, by the Spanish Colonial Government in 1896, for the crime of rebellion, aged just 36.
The Plaza de Mexico is an historic square, where in 1964 a monument was erected, to commemorate the 4th centenary of the expedition of Miguel López de Legazpi and Andres de Urdaneta from New Spain (Mexico) and the historic Manila-Acapulco galleon trade relations between Mexico and the Philippines, which lasted 250 years. The seated statue is of Adolfo López Mateos, the President of Mexico who visited the city in 1962.
An elevated part of the fort provides views of the city.
I went on the city metro to get to Intramuros, and this was an interesting experience. It was really cheap and easy to use, there were armed guards on all the trains and at the stations, and the women only carriages also had armed women guards too. Whilst on the subject of armed humans, the hotel, walkways, and shopping malls all had armed security guards. I didn’t like the vibe in the city at all so I was pleased to be moving on to the island of Boracay.
My last day in Japan today, and it’s still raining. Erol made us breakfast, and determined not to let the rain ruin my last, we set off for a self guided walk using a brilliant app called Detour. Once Erol and I had downloaded the app, we could sync our phones so that we hear the guided walk simultaneously. The tour we did walked us round Ueno Park, a large public park in central Tokyo. The park grounds were originally part of Kaneiji Temple, which used to be one of the city’s largest and wealthiest temples, the family temple of the ruling Tokugawa clan. During the Boshin Civil War, 1868, Kaneiji suffered nearly complete destruction, after the battle, the temple grounds were converted into one of Japan’s first Western style parks and opened to the public in 1873.
Out first stop was at the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals in the Battle of Ueno, a man whose memory is still held in great affection by many Japanese people for his virtues of courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. The Shogi-Tai Soldiers tomb was erected in 1868, to honour the soldiers killed in the Ueno War.
From the balcony of Kiyomizu Kannondo, there is a view through a circle made from pine tree, this circle is called the pine tree of the moon.
Bentendo is an octagonal temple hall on an island in Shinobazu Pond at the southern end of the park. The temple is dedicated to Benten, the goddess of good fortune, wealth, music and knowledge. The fish in the pond were rather large and huddled together, it looked like they were waiting for something, I think they were hoping to be fed.
All that is left of a huge Buddha, Ueno Daibutsu, is this face. The complete, original statue dates from 1631, it survived earthquakes, in 1640, 1855 and 1923, and a fire in 1841. Only to be melted down for weapons during the Pacific War. In 1972 the face was restored and sited in the park.
Ueno Toshogu Shrine was founded in 1627, the main structure of the shrine was rebuilt in 1651. Despite major earthquakes and wars, the structure has remained intact, and has been designated as an important cultural property of Japan, due to its representative nature of the Edo period.
You may recall seeing a photo of folds of paper tied to tree, (last day in Kyoto), we have seen these at many of the shrines we have visited, and today these folds of paper are tied to a sort of mini washing line, just seen in the photo below.
They are Omikuji, a written divination about a person’s near future, they give general advice about things like travel, business, love and illness, it’s what we would call fortune telling. At this shrine the omikuji also had a English version of the text and we couldn’t resist, we each dropped our 200 yen, in coins, in the money box and pulled out a small packet. I did mine first and it was a good or positive omikuji, there is also a little charm in the packet, mine was a frog, a safety frog, Erol’s was also positive. If the omikuji is good or positive it should be carried with you, and if the omikuji is bad or negative, then the paper is folded into a strip, tied up at the shrine and left, leaving the bad fortune there too. I’m not sure if it’s possible to take another omikuji if the first one is negative, or how many times one can try to get a positive one, we thought it was fun.
After the walk and getting completely soaked we had a late lunch, and I changed into dry clothes before heading to the airport for my next destination on this trip.
I almost forgot to mention the toilets. The first time I used one I didn’t have my reading glasses with me, so I couldn’t see which of the buttons on the ‘menu’ was flush. I was faced with a variety of options, all in Japanese, something I have never experienced in a toilet before. Toilets seats in Japan are heated. I think there wasn’t one instance of using a toilet, and I’m including public toilets too, even in places like parks and stations, where the seat wasn’t heated. I now know the menu options can include, washing, drying, playing music, deodorising, playing the sound of running water and temperature control, and this is just the basic ones. The more advance versions can automatically raise and lower the toilet lid, turn room lights on and off, and check blood pressure. All this from a nation that was still using ‘hole in the ground’ toilets only sixty years ago.
Efficient, polite, extrovert, gadget obsessed, reserved, quiet, colourful, innovative, punctual, neon loving, organised, crowded, hi-tech, traditional, noisy, respectful, clean, kind, hard-working and above all, Japan is, unique.
Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands, the four largest islands are Kyushu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Honshu, where the capital Tokyo is located. It has a population of 127 million, of which 98% are Japanese. Tokyo, the biggest city in Japan in terms of population and area, with a total population of over 37 million inhabitants, has the largest population concentration of any city in the world.
I was left to amuse myself on Friday, as Erol had to go to work. So I decided to go on the Hop on Hop off Bus tour round the city, these are usually a great way to see a lot of a city in a short space of time. Unfortunately the bus had high glass windows so it wasn’t easy getting photos. The main façade of Tokyo rail station dates to 1914 when the station opened.
At 634m high the Tokyo Skytree is the world’s highest stand-alone communication tower, it opened in May 2012.
The Fuji building
Odaiba is a shopping and entertainment district on a man made island in Tokyo Bay. The Fuji building, the headquarters of Fuji Television, is located in this area, as is a 115 meter tall, brightly coloured, ferris wheel, which is one of the world’s largest.
The links connecting these two buildings are to ‘earthquake proof’ the structure.
Tokyo Tower, at 333 meters high, is the world’s tallest, self-supported steel tower and 13 meters taller than its model, the Eiffel Tower. A symbol of Japan’s post-war rebirth as a major economic power, Tokyo Tower was the country’s tallest structure from its completion in 1958 until 2012 when it was overtaken by the Tokyo Skytree.
The area were Erol lives, is like a little village, with it’s small independent shops, and quiet, narrow streets.
Outside Shibuya Station is a statue of a dog called Hachikō. Hachikō came to this station every day to meet his human owner returning from work, when his owner died in 1925, the dog still kept coming to the station, until he died ten years after his owners death. Hachikō became legendary and so this statue was erected of him.
The Hachikō statue is where I was on Saturday morning, meeting a friend of Erols, to walk around the area and have coffee while Erol was at work, again! Shibuya, is one of Tokyo’s most vibrant and busy districts, filled with shops, restaurants and nightclubs. Huge video screens constantly blare out their messages, competing with the, ‘quieter’ signs that cram every available space, providing a patchwork of colours on the streets. It is what one expects to see in Tokyo and it does not disappoint.
Shibuya intersection is the busiest in Japan, at peak times it is thought that as many as a thousand humans cross here at any one time. It wasn’t that busy when we were there, however it is fascinating watching the crowds on the pavements grow, as they wait for the light to go green, and when it does, the whole intersection becomes a mass of people, all heading in different directions, in the midst of this there are people taking selfies and videos, lest they forget how they crossed the road.
As soon as the lights go red the traffic reclaims the crossing, this happens every two minutes, every day and well into the night.
As we made our way back to the station, it started raining, and marshals were now at the crossing, blowing whistles, (very loudly), ensuring the mass, of umbrella carrying, humans all got across the road safely.
Even in the pouring rain Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is beautiful, it opened in 1949 and is one of Tokyo’s largest parks. The garden contains three styles, English Landscape, French Formal and Japanese Traditional. We got there shortly before it was closing so only had time to visit the Kyu-Goryo-Tei in the Japanese Gardens.
Kyu-Goryo-Tei is also called the Taiwan-Pavilion due to its special features of southern Chinese architectural techniques, and that many of the building materials used were brought over from Taiwan. This building is designated a historical building by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Undeterred by the rain we had a wander around the Kabuki area in the evening. Named after a kabuki theatre, whose construction plans were never realized, Japan’s largest red light district features countless restaurants, bars, nightclubs, pachinko parlours, love hotels and a wide variety of red light establishments for all sexes and sexual orientations. Bright, shiny, loud, flashing, busy, tacky, neon, glaring, colourful, and when we were there, wet, it’s all there, on the streets, waiting, tempting one to enjoy the experience.
We came across a robot restaurant, endless gaming parlours, and Godzilla watching over us from the rooftop.
Next we went to Omoide Yokocho, meaning memory lane, a network of tiny alleyways along the tracks northwest of Shinjuku Station. The lanes are filled with dozens of tiny eateries serving ramen, soba, sushi, yakitori and kushiyaki. The restaurants, are about the size of a large cupboard, and consist of just one counter, usually the size of chopping board, with a couple of stools, some had tiny tables, the food looked and smelt amazing, a lot of it was being cooked on open coals. I couldn’t take any photos.
One of the most iconic images of Kyoto is the vermilion red (I would call it orange), painted Torii Gates of the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Founded in 711 by the Hata family, its principal deity is Ukanomitama-no-Mikoto – the goddess of rice and food. Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine for more than 30,000 Inari shrines across Japan. Inari is short for ‘Ine nari’, the reaping of rice, derived from ancient Japanese, where rice, the main food sustaining Japanese people’s lives, symbolizes the miracles of heaven and earth.
The vermilion red is considered a guard against evil forces, and is frequently used for shrines, the pigment used is made from mercury and red earth, which preserves the wood. Worshipers have donated torii gates to express prayers and appreciation since the Edo period, 1603-1868, and Fushimi Inari Taisha is now famous for its Senbon Torii ‘Thousand Torii’ gateways. Around 10,000 torii gateways of all sizes, line every path up to the top of the shrine. The torii gates are donations by individuals or companies, the donator’s name and date of the donation is inscribed on the back of each gate. The cost starts around 400,000 yen for a small sized gate and increases to over one million yen for a large gate.
The torii gates weave their way through the trees, on the paths they line, that wind up to the top of the mountain, it is a wonderful sight.
We’ve seen lots of stone animals, (we originally thought they were dogs) at shrines, they are foxes. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari, and the stone foxes are often referred to as Inari. They hold a symbolic item in their mouths or beneath a front paw, a jewel (looks like a ball), a key, (for the rice granary), a sheaf of rice, a scroll, or a fox cub, are all common. Almost all Inari shrines, no matter how small, will feature at least a pair of these statues, usually a female and a male, wearing a red bib, as mentioned earlier, red is to guard against evil forces.
The Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, mysterious figure capable of ‘possessing’ humans, their favourite point of entry being under the fingernails.
We walked up to a pond called Shin-ike or Kodamagaike. There is a belief that when you are looking for someone who is lost, you clap your hands in front of the pond and your clapping will echo from the direction where the lost person can be found.
The shrine is open 24 hours a day. We expected it to be very busy so we got there early hoping to miss the coach tours, there was a lot of people there, but not enough that I couldn’t get some human free shots and it was peaceful walking along the orange, corridor like, pathways, up the mountain.
We only walked up for about an hour and then came back, it takes around two hours to get to the top, we had other places to visit and this was our last day in Kyoto.
Near the entrance to the shrine there are selection of street food stalls.
Sanjusangendo Temple was established in the twelfth century and looks quite dull from the outside, it’s 120 meters long and is Japan’s longest wooden structure. Inside there are 1001 carved wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, the scale of the display is quite spectacular. There are 500 statues, in ten rows of 50, on each side of the seated figure of Senju Kannon. Sanjusangendo is the only Sentai Kannon-do (one thousand-Kannon hall) left in existence. The statues were made using a technique called yosegi, which allowed a number of craftsmen to work on one statue. First hollow blocks of wood were put to together and roughly carved, then the images were finely carved and lacquered for preservation. There are no photos allowed inside the hall.
Our last stop before we head to the station to get the Shinkansen back to Tokyo is Higashi-Honganji Temple. Higashi Honganji, officially known as Shinshū Honbyō, is the mother temple of the Shinshū Ōtani-ha branch of Jōdo Shinshū (Shin Buddhism), whose founder is Shinran (1173-1262). Built in 1604, the Higashi Honganji temple buildings were destroyed four times by fire, the most recent in 1864, most of the current buildings were rebuilt in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Goei-do, or Founder’s Hall, is the largest wooden building in Kyoto, and one of the largest in the world.
Kyoto station is the largest station in Japan, designed by the architect Hiroshi Hara, to celebrate the 1,200th anniversary of the foundation of Kyoto as the Heian capital, and constructed of glass and steel, it opened in 1997.
The station complex contains a department store, a shopping mall, several small museums, a wide-screen movie theatre, two theatres, two multi-storey car parks, a game centre, a hotel, government offices, and restaurants. Live concerts and comedy shows are held here at weekends.
A huge escalator system takes people up nine storeys to the roof, where there is a viewing and seating area. There is also an aerial walkway, the Skyway tunnel, one can walk the length of Kyoto Station, 45 meters above the central hall. The Skyway’s glass windows provide views of the city and station below.
So that was Kyoto. A city of contrasts, where one alights from one of the fastest trains in the world, the Shinkansen, into the futuristic display of glass and steel that is Kyoto station, to visit places and observe rituals that are centuries old.
Today we got the Randen, which is what locals call the Keifuku Electric Railroad, a tram, or streetcar, with quite cute little carriages. Operational since 1910, it is now the only tramline left of a network that used to cover the whole city. I thought they were a tourist thing because there are lots of sights near the station stops, but it is used by local people to get around, on the only two lines that are operational now. I liked that they have a purple tram.
Our first stop today is Kinkakuji, (Golden Temple), obvious to see why it’s called this. Kinkakuji is a Zen Temple. Each floor represents a different style of architecture, the first floor is built in the Shinden style, the second floor in the Bukke style, and the top floor in style of a Chinese Zen Hall, with a golden phoenix perched on the top. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf.
Originally built for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, as a residence for his retirement, it was turned into a Zen temple after his death in 1408. The structure today was built in 1955, previous versions of the building have burnt down several times throughout its history, including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto, and more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatical monk.
It is designated as a National Special Historic Site and a National Special Landscape, and it is one of 17 locations making up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto which are World Heritage Sites.
The temple stands in front of a large, tranquil pond which provides good photo opportunities. However, it is one of the most popular buildings in Japan, and what you don’t see in these photos are the hundreds of tourists that were here. We got there just after 9am, it was chaotic and completely rammed with people: coach tours with the compulsory, miked up, tour guides, all talking different languages; school trips with what seemed like whole classes of chatty children; and random tourists like us; the cacophony of humans competing to be heard was awful, and all vying to take a selfie in front of the temple. Marshalls were coordinating the swathes of humans, as there was a one way system that they were ensuring was being kept to. Despite the beauty of the temple and pond, the experience was vile.
Whilst we are tourists, we don’t really like being around hoards of them, and turned into grumpy humans as we marched off to our next temple. Ryoanji Temple is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden. This is another very popular temple. The rectangular Zen garden contains fifteen rocks, and gravel. At 25 meters long I couldn’t get a decent picture of the whole garden, because there were too many tourists there! and it is said that only 14 of the rocks can be seen from any one place in the temple, until one attains enlightenment, the fifteenth boulder remains unseen.
The rock garden is viewed from the Hojo, the head priest’s former residence, where one can sit on the steps and, because the garden’s meaning has not been made explicit, it is up to each viewer to find their own meaning. The rock garden is thought to have been created around 1500 by a Zen monk.
In the ground of the temple is the Kyoyochi Pond, which dates from the late twelfth century.
We got back on the tram for a ride to the end of the line to visit Arashiyama area. When we came out of the station we were basically in a tourist town, one that was crammed with people. The Togetsukyo Bridge, meaning Moon Crossing Bridge is suggested as Arashiyama’s most iconic landmark, originally built during the Heian Period (794-1185) and most recently reconstructed in the 1930s. We were rather underwhelmed by the bridge and what was on either side of the Katsura River.
The walk through the Bamboo Grove, is a concrete path though bamboo, again slightly underwhelming.
Tenryu-ji Temple is the most important temple in this area, is one of five great Zen temples of the city, a UNESCO world heritage site, and also known for it’s gardens. The Sogenchi Garden was the first garden in the country to win the designation by the Japanese Government as a Site of Special Historic and Scenic Importance .
The garden is designed as a strolling pond garden, with the path around the pond showing the scenery from different perspectives. Designed seven hundred years ago by Zen master Muso Soseki, it still retains its original appearance today.
Over the last two days we’ve seen a lot of traditional rickshaws here, pulled by humans. Japan is where rickshaws are commonly believed to have been first invented, in the 1860s and by 1870s, 40,000 rickshaws were operating in Tokyo, as they became a popular, inexpensive, method of transport in the 19th century. Rickshaws are now used as a tourist attraction, we saw them at all tourist areas we visited.
We arrived in Kyoto on Monday evening, thinking it would take us a few minuets to walk to our hotel then we could go exploring. Kyoto is a huge, sprawling city, the seventh largest in Japan. When we got a map from the hotel staff, they advised it was too far to walk, even a bus would take 20 minuets. So with instructions on which bus and where the stop was, we went off exploring the city centre. Nothing particularly spectacular, lots of shops, as one would expect, we found a lovely noodle bar for supper and made our way back to the hotel for an early night as we were up early in the morning.
For over a thousand years Kyoto was the capital city of Japan, the Japanese still see Kyoto as the cultural capital of the country. Kyoto has approximately a quarter of Japan’s national treasures, over a thousand Buddhist shrines, four hundred Shinto temples, and seventeen sites designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. We have a temple/shrine itinerary that we’ve agreed, starting in city’s most important sightseeing district, Southern Higashiyama. Erol suggested we hire electric bicycles for the day to ensure we get to see as much as possible. It was a brilliant idea, they were great fun, and not only did we get to see everything on our, very ambitious, list we also did a couple of extras too, and got the bikes back an hour early. One can cycle on the pavements here, there aren’t that many dedicated cycle lanes, cyclists just ride all over the pavement and no one seems particularly bothered by it, so this makes it easy to be a cyclist here, because, like any other global city, the traffic is horrendous.
Once we had shown the bicycle hire chap that we could operate the bicycles to his satisfaction, we took the route along the River Kamogawa, ‘the river of wild ducks’ to get to our first temple, as we rode along the river bank we saw herons fishing for their breakfast.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple, it literally means ‘Pure Water Temple’, is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan, founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall, on a hill, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1994.
There was a horrid tarpaulin thing over the main building, when we visited, as it was being renovated, so I didn’t take any photos of the main hall, which has a wooden stage that juts out over the hillside, for views over the city.
The bikes have to be parked in designated places, this is Japan, usually an area of an existing car park, and it was as we rode into the car park that I saw this huge concrete statue set against the tree covered mountains, this place wasn’t on our itinerary.
Our plan was for me to buy a ticket, take a few photos and go on to our next stop. However, the lovely elderly Japanese chap in the ticket booth, who didn’t speak a word of English, called me back as I was about to walk off with my ticket, and presented me with a burning incense stick, we, (Erol and I) thought this was a lovely gesture, we had a bit of a moment, Erol bought a ticket too and we spend time wandering the grounds, bathed with wisps of scented smoke from our incense sticks.
This is the Ryozen Kwannon Temple, a war memorial dedicated to the fallen on both sides of the Pacific War, it has an altar containing soil from every Allied cemetery from World War II. In the Memorial Hall there’s a monument erected to the memory of more than forty-eight thousand foreign soldiers who died on Japanese territory. The 24 meter high, 500 ton, concrete statue of the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, was unveiled in June 1955. Before we left, we put our incense sticks in the burner, I really wanted to carry mine around, not practical when riding a bike, goodness knows how that would have ended.
Incense less, we went to see the Kodaiji Temple. On route we came across a little coffee stand which made really good, soy milk cappuccinos, it was also a good place to people watch. We saw these smiley women, taking photos of each other and got even more giggles when I asked if I could take their photo. A bit like in Seoul, (but not in the numbers and they don’t have traditional footwear), people dress up in national costume to visit temples and shrines.
Kodaiji Temple, founded in 1605 by Kita-no-Mandokoro in memory of her late husband. I didn’t photograph much here, we found it rather uninspiring, ditto Yasaka-jinja Shrine.
The main entrance gate to the Chion-in Temple, the Sanmon Gate, dates to the early 1600s and is the largest wooden gate in Japan, 24 meters tall and 50 meters wide. Chion-in Temple is the headquarters of the Jōdo sect, the largest school of Buddhism in Japan, and one of the most popular pilgrimage temples in Kyoto.
Shorenin Temple is the only temple in Japan that is dedicated to the Shijoko Nyorai.
Inside one of the buildings were some examples of wood painting.