For the last week of our trip we came to Tokyo. While there, we decided to just wander around the city and explore life in the boundless megacity that constitutes the capital of Japan. While there we went on a day trip to see Mt Fuji and explored its ice filled volcanic caves. We did some shopping, went to restaurants and had a good time in some 'British Pubs'. The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka was my favourite part of our week in Tokyo. It was everything I wanted to see and more. The exhibits detailed how the films are made and the special exhibit on food illustrated how much time and care goes into making a Ghibli movie.
We arrived in Nagano on a cold night on the special express train from Nagoya. Nagano was our only stop which didn't include AirBnB, one night was going to be a hotel and the next was going to be a Ryokan. We stayed at the Chisun Grand which, conveniently, was only a few minutes from the train station. The hotel had a robot in the lobby which made noises and generally amused the staff at the front desk in it's attempts to interact with me. By the time we were checked in the robot had started on a seemingly irreversible dance routine which it most likely continued until we got up into our room.
The room was a standard hotel room with a well appointed bathroom and a good level of comfort. They gave us a free smartphone for the duration of our stay which helped considerably by providing a good internet connection.
The next day we hired a Kei car with snow tyres and set off to the Ryokan and, most importantly, the monkey park. The drive was pleasant and the little car, a Honda NWGN, was slow but otherwise impeccable.
On the way we visited a Wasabi farm where we sampled fresh wasabi and tried wasabi ice cream.
The fresh root was delicious but the ice cream tasted vaguely of vegetables and wasn't my cup of tea at all. Late in the night we arrived at the Ryokan and were greeted by a very friendly old guy who told us to follow him down to the monkey park in the morning. He was driving down a group of the other guests so that they could get there before the tour buses arrived at 9am. We dropped our bags and went straight to a nearby sushi place where we ate and chatted to an English teacher called Graham who was visiting to see the monkeys as well. The next morning we met him again on the walk to the hot spring where the monkeys lounge around.
The monkey park is called 'Jigokudani' which means Valley of Hell and when we arrived it was easy to see why. The hot spring plumed steam from the ground amidst a barren landscape of snow and rock.
In the middle of it all, and completely indifferent to most things going on around them, were the monkeys. With little red faces and fluffy grey fur they sat in the hot spring and generally milled about around the food spread for them in the snow. They ignored humans except for the occasional glance in our general direction. After we'd had our fill of these adorable creatures we drove back to Nagano and returned the car before setting off on our way to Tokyo.
We arrived in Nagoya late and after a long bus ride we were greeted with the first bad AirBnB we have ever had. The apartment was filthy right down to the overflowing sanitary bin in the bathroom and the 'free wifi' that was advertised was over it's data limit and almost unusable. We went to the yakiniku restaurant across the street and after a discussion with the host over AirBnB message we came to the conclusion that they would send a cleaner in the next day while we were out. We went back to the apartment and washed the sheets after taking out the laundry that was already in the machine and went to sleep.
The next day we rented the worst car ever made and set out to look at the traditional Gassho houses in Shirakawa-go.
Along the way we found out that every Japanese person exceeds the extremely low speed limits and that the car was intent on telling me all kinds of garbage such as: "There is a right turn lane ahead, drive carefully." when I have no intention of turning right or "You have been driving for two hours, take a break." when I know perfectly well that I've been driving this piece of grabage for two hours. We return the car and, after an odd spaghetti dinner, head back to the AirBnB which, thankfully, had been cleaned.
The main reason we went to Nagoya was to hang out with my friend Taka. I met him in Hillston, NSW whaile doing farmwork and Nagoya is his hometown.
He is a total legend and his Dad has a mechanic's shop and a cool garage with awesome cars and motorbikes inside. We stayed over at Taka's house for a night and the next day we went to the Toyota Automobile Museum where we checked out their amazing collection of vintage cars.
Later on we went back to the AirBnB and Taka joined us for our last night in Nagoya. The next day we went to Nagano.
After a trip on the shinkansen and two subway stops we arrived in Kyoto at Guesthouse Yululu. The guesthouse is a lovely traditional building with tatame rooms and a kitchen full of manga that serves draught beer.
We went to Nara, where the homeless unemployed deer harassed us for deer cookies on the way to Todaiji temple. Todaiji was built in 752 and was the center of Buddhism in all of japan. The main temple building is a replica and is currently the largest wooden structure in the world despite being only 2/3 the size of the original. The main hall houses a 15m tall bronze Buddha.
After Todaiji we went to the nearby Bamboo forest which turned out to have been taken over by a totally different forest of selfie sticks. However, the forest itself was beautiful and I was able to get one good photo.
In order to avoid the selfie stick infestation we went to the Fushimi Inari shrine early in the morning.
It was dead quiet and very peaceful. A kitten ran out and meowed at us as we passed between two sets of gates.
Our last exploration of Kyoto was Gion. Gion is the district of Kyoto famous for being the first Geisha district.
We took a tour which was rich in historical info about Geisha culture and on our last night we went to an authentic Tea Ceremony just before rushing off to get our bus to Nagoya.
We set off to Shikoku from Okayama. While at Okayama station we were interviewed three separate times by English students and their teachers. The students were learning conversational English. The students and teachers were paired up and the teachers asked us to help their pupils. This teacher had the best English of the three pairs we spoke to, she recommended a ramen place in Okayama.
Upon arrival at Takuma station on Shikoku we set off into the rural night towards our AirBnb, on foot. We passed pretty rural houses interspersed with industrial facilities. Eventually we arrived at a petrol station and asked someone to clarify the AirBnb directions. They pointed us in the direction of a busy road and we set off again. Eventually, after following the maps beacon for our AirBnb for a while longer, we reached the same petrol station. We were lost. After deciding to follow a side road in the hopes that our accommodation would be at the end, we reached some houses and decided to ask for directions. The lady we asked had just parked in her driveway with her son. They had little English and made a fuss when we showed them the AirBnb listing. It turns out that the google map was way off. By one train stop. We didn't know quite how lost we were. After no deliberation we were offered a lift. The car had TV screens and a show featuring cute cats and dogs was on. Finally we arrived at our AirBnb and after profuse thanks on our part we set about getting to bed. The next day we rented the most annoying car ever. It was a nice new Mazda Demio and it had a terrible habit of beeping constantly while in reverse and yelling at you for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, we enjoyed driving around the Iya Valley in the pouring rain. The views of the valley were breathtaking. We stopped at the ancient vine bridge before heading back. In Japan, the speed limits are very low, 50kmh on the country roads, this would make for a slow journey if the locals didn't exceed the speed limit so regularly.
After a day of rest we left Shikoku and went to the island of Ogijima on the way to Kyoto. Ogijima has many sights including cats, a sweet residential village and a mountain with a large cave at the top. Legend has it that a long time ago an ogre lived there. After taking pictures of cute cats we set off around the village and came to the road that runs around the small island. While walking there we saw a little truck next to a daffodil atop a sign and another sign nearby marking out prices for something.
We followed the path to a small cafe where we were served Yuzu and Biwa.
Warm from the hot Yuzu we went further down the road until we came to the steps leading up the mountain. After a long climb we reached the cave at the top. On the way up the mountain we met Taizo. We travelled back to Takamatsu with him, he works IT security and lives in Tokyo. He came to see the daffodils which bloom a on Ogijima in February. His English was excellent and we had a great chat about the islands of Ogijima and Megijima.
From Takamatsu we set off for Kyoto on the Shinkansen. Our rail pass took us to Osaka and a local express train took us the rest of the way. We arrived at Guesthouse Yululu in the late evening and went to sleep after a nice dinner in a local pub.
After we got off the Shinkansen and stowed our luggage in the station lockers we went to the Shukkeien gardens. Eventually we made our way to our apartment and after sampling the local Okonomiyaki settled in for a cold sleep. The next day we toured the Mazda HQ and ate ramen at a shop on the side of the railroad. The ramen shop was owned by an adorable old couple and the food was delicious. After the Mazda tour we went to Miyajima island and saw the giant Tori Gate. On Miyajima tame deer wandered around everywhere and pestered everyone for food. While we were on the island we petted the owls and played with the kitties in the cat and owl cafe. At night we popped accross the street from our apartment to Cantina 23 and ate burgers and drank the excellent 500¥ cocktails. The next day we set off ont he bullet train for Shikoku.