Autumn in Japan (JPY:SGD=100:1.62)日本旅行お疲れ様でした!

Vacation duration:1st of November 2010 to 12 November 2010

Destination: Kanto to Chubu region, Japan (Yes, the 2nd trip in 2010)

Temperature: 13 to 26 degrees celsius

Budget: S$4,000 approx.

JPY to SGD exchange rate: Very damn high.

Accommodation: Basically a quilt on wooden floor under a foldable table. What can I say since lodging is free…

Apologies for the travel update that is long overdue. Thanks to the convenience of uploading photos onto facebook, maintaining a blog regularly has become quite an impossibility for a bum like me. Finally, I get to savour the autumn season of Japan where the flaming red and yellow leaves paint the streets and land with rustic, warm colors despite the creeping cold of winter. The snow dust that froze my lips in March that year lingered in my mind as I stuffed my luggage case with heatec and heat packs. When it comes to warm wear and souvenirs, I was sufficiently prepared after learning the cold, hard lesson in Hakodate. However, in Japan, like any other exotic locale with their unique cultures, I was still mentally unprepared for the least expected.

After arriving in Narita airport via ANA’s spanking new Airbus, I was shuttled to the domestic flight area for the transit flight to Nagoya where my classmate, YH 部長, was posted to live like a Japanese for half a year. I was expecting a  modest sized jet engine plane to ferry me across the Japan hinterland. As the limo bus approached the jet plane it turned and steered towards .. … a small aircraft with massive propellers. One of the passengers, a Japanese salary-man probably in his late forties, went ”OH!” in shock.

For me, I was stunned. Not just about the propellers which could shred a migratory flock to pâté but also the fact that ANA is using a domestically designed and manufactured aircraft for their domestic flights. The NAMC-YS11, a model which I came across while doing some investigative research in my course of work. Those propellers and the fact it is completely Made in Japan left a real deep impression. I realized their full turbo power after finding myself strapped to the window seat with a full view of the spinning blades.

The plane took off and buzzed like an angry bee over the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji and onwards to the west of Japan. The famous peak flanked by rusty-brown landscape and jade-green bodies of water had the passengers snapping away with their mobile phones. The ride was rough but the view was exquisite.

After I arrived in Chubu Centrair airport Nagoya, I took the Meitetsu train to Kounomiya station near Inazawa where YH san is living in. Finding his house has to be the most tiring, exasperating, $%#@ing, bone-breaking part of the trip. The locals were helpful and I appreciate their willingness to direct a gaijin to the right place. A kind couple walked me to a property agency and asked for directions on my behalf. Apparently the maps were last updated a decade ago and YH’s house was not recorded on the map. Dragging 18kg of baggage across 2km of empty streets was bearable. Searching for the elusive location with an outdated map for over an hour left me drained, hungry and sore. I actually sat in the middle of a residential carpark and groaned theatrically for 5 mins before dragging myself to another alley to try my luck. I came across a building with a sign written in katakana  and containing a very important word ”international”. For any foreigner, this word is tantamount to ”English speakers here! ”. True enough, a lady who graduated from the States walked me out and gave me clear directions to YH san’s place. I found his place and the key, let myself in, took out the quilt, curled myself into a ball to sleep and dreamed of my bedroom.

The place is for single use. I guess the petite physiques and grace of the natives makes it easy for them to live comfortably within a room of liliputian proportions and exploiting every inch of the limited space to the max. The bed sits atop the storeroom where the ironing board and the like are kept. The kitchen stove and sink is a hole in the wall along the corridor which leads to the main door. I learned to tread carefully, avoiding tripping over wires or making large gestures, but my elbow always gets battered by the walls and tissue roll holder.

YH san was kind enough to let me bunk in and add to the mess in his house. Given the stratospheric exchange rates, the accommodation costs would have left a large hole in my pocket and an empty stomach. I didn’t mind sharing a room with a guy because one of us is sleeping on the floor (I take the floor). Anyway, I could catch up on my sleep in the Shinkansen.

Nagoya is a bustling city centre, just a few stops away from Inazawa. The Takashimaya mall next to the JR station was massive with over 10 stories for patrons to satisfy their shopping needs. The platinum customer service is deadly to the purse. I couldn’t resist spending S$500 on a Samantha Vega bag after the store assistant brought out all the bags on display and treated me like a taitai despite my shabby appearance (see photo of Hachimaru mascot). Getting around is pretty convenient with the Meguru bus for tourists and all you have to do is just get off when 70% of the passengers alight.  Nagoya castle is a must-see with its famous tiger-headed fish (Kinnoshachihoko) which adorn the tips of the castle roof and yummy green tea ice cream. My personal favourite is Osaka castle though, with its lovely park and ruins.

When in Japan, one must try out all the gastronomic delights it has to offer. Unfortunately, to a South East Asian, the servings can be pretty huge. Food is affordable in Japan especially if the meals are prepared at home. When shopping at the supermarket, it is advisable to bring your own bag otherwise 5- 10 yen would be levied. (I used a Cold Storage plastic bag to carry the spoils from the hypermarket in Kanayama  district www) A 1-litre carton of milk costs around S$2.50 and ready-to-eat pasta costs less than $4. Eating out at family restaurants and revolving sushi bars was not too expensive either. Making lunch out of your friend’s rice which he saved for dinner is another money-saving option. Heh heh www

Delicious gourmet from Nagoya contrasted by my fried rice which I nicked from the refrigerator.

On 3rd November, I took the Kintetsu line to Yokkaichi to meet an online friend, Chanmai san for the first time in person. I met him in late 2009 in one of the DFF paint chatrooms and I always thought that he was a ”she”. Even though he has indicated his gender in the profile, I thought he was a girl who’s joking around (My facebook gender was Male from 2008 to 2009 and reverted to Female when I started getting spammed) Everything changed after I heard him speak through a voice chat on Skype.

Manly voice = Not female.

(^p^) I had no inkling how he looks like since I didn’t ask for his photo. The only  thing to identify each other with is my tote bag with cats emblazoned on it and his cat t-shirt.

My first impression was he really wore a cat t-shirt as promised. I should have requested for Hello Kitty… www

He drove us to this fantastic restaurant called Hatsune which serves very good grilled eel on rice for lunch. Reservations must be made in advance and we saw a few customers waiting in their vehicles for the shop to open. The waitress called on each patron’s name until the seats were filled.Chanmai san filled my notebook with hilarious sketches until the food finally arrived in beautiful lacquerware. The eel was grilled to perfection and it practically melts in your mouth. I doubt I could ever savour such a perfect dish in Singapore or anywhere else. The beancurd was an exquisite appetizer, rich with the creaminess of soybean and yielding to the tongue.

This is probably the best meal I ever had in my life. Even at this moment, I can’t help but drool all over the keyboard.(0p0)

We headed to Iga-Ueno city, a quaint town famous for its ninja history and historical figures. They are namely,ninja  Hattori Hanzo and poet Matsuo Bashou.

Carmine san and Michael san brought us to the Iga-ryuu Ninja museum to see real ninjas at work.

The resident ninjas gave exciting demonstrations on the use of main weapons such as blades of various sizes, shuriken and kusarigama. There were somersaults, death-defying combats and anal trauma www  There’s even ninja children gamboling in the area. We also visited a real ninja house with all sorts of trickery fit for an ancient 007. To spread the ninjutsu tradition, Chanmai san bought a kusarigama for my brother to assassinate me.

Another highlight of Iga-Ueno is the place itself. The quiet streets are lined with charming shops and tea houses. It seems that we have walked into a mish-mash of history where wooden shop houses display ancient cameras, walls plastered with posters from the eighties and coin-operated kiddie rides. Carmine san and Michael san led us to an interesting tea house called Murai Bankoen(むらい萬香園). It is owned by Motoharu Murai san whose grandfather was one of the last ninjas in Japan.

His passion for the ninja tradition and history was impressive. Murai san generously shared stories of his grandfather, life’s anecdotes and his amazing collection of weapons and ninja paraphernalia. I never thought I’d get to handle muskets, pistols, daggers and swords. The owner even sneaked up on us in various disguises not to mention attempting to assassinate Carmine san www.

Things get wilder after this… …

If I return to the Chubu region, I’d definitely want to visit Iga Ueno again. When it got dark, we parted ways with Carmine san and Michael san and we headed to Suzuka for a ramen dinner.

It took Chanmai san about 2 hours to drive from Suzuka to Inazawa, covering 50km just to send me home. And the best part is, he has to drive back to Suzuka where he lives! I enjoyed the ride as a passenger but at the expense of Chanmai san in the driver’s seat. わるかったが本当に感謝しましたよ(;w;)rz

The next morning, we met up again at good ol’ Yokkaichi station and headed for Osaka where Chanmai san used to live with his family. Guess where…the legendary Nipponbashi a.k.a Den Den Town! Nipponbashi to Osaka is what Akihabara is to Tokyo. The streets are lined with stores selling electronic products, comics and anime goods, maid cafes and other stuff that makes it an otaku paradise. Ying san and I missed it in our last trip when we went to search for some gastronomic delights in Dootonburi.

We entered a strange little shop selling all sorts of T-shirts. It was the mannequin with Abe’s famous expression that caught my eye. The owner was a petite lady with an assortment of piercings. She showed us all sorts of funny T-shirts with iconic memes printed on them. I got 2 shirts with ”Yaranai ka” printed on them which I’m sure would be safe to wear in Singapore or elsewhere. Heck, people might even find it cool just because there’s japanese characters printed on it.

We walked into a shop that says ”cosplay” on the outside. Inside, I realized it was a shop specializing in cosplay for adults if you know what I mean. There’s * censored* and *censored* for the couple to *censored* and *censored* into the person’s *censored*. The low birth rate in this country does not do justice to its phenomenal adult entertainment industry. There’s even a handkerchief depicting all 48 positions. I wanted to get it but I can’t imagine my aunt finding this in the laundry basket…(x_x;)

Nipponbashi proves to be another book paradise for me. I’m a real sucker when it comes to shopping for books in Japan. Animate, Toranoana, Bookoff… books to me are what shoes is to Imelda Marcos. I enjoy the thrill of finding a much sought after doujin or book. For this trip, I found the last copy of B-kaigishitsu’s latest doujin in Toranoana. Chanmai san gave me a present, a DIY (Draw it yourself ww) book titled ”萌える戦国武将の描き方”. This is the perfect present for a Japan-crazy, BL-addicted visitor like me. In Singapore, you see men and kids waiting outside boutiques while the women shop for clothes. In Japan, the men wait outside the bookstores while the women shop for ”restricted material”. Well, that’s just a generalization based on my own experience ww  Chanmai san waited outside the Animate bookstore while I scoured the BL-filled store. CH san’s husband always goes to the convenience store to browse while the girls go doujin-hunting in Mandarake.

For lunch, we visited a maid cafe. It is my first time going to a maid cafe and I finally understood why this niche industry could survive so well in Japan. The french maid uniforms were adorable, the waitresses were kawaii, the service was top-class , the food… I was too busy ogling at the waitresses to notice. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in such establishments.

I apologize for behaving like a chee-ko-pek, grinning like an old, balding lecher at the girls. Even Chanmai san told me to stop leering at the maids. (If only my cousin was with me, we could leer together www) I marveled at the maid’s arm strength as she balanced the large platter of omelet rice with her left arm and squeezed a ketchup bottle to decorate the platter with her right hand. I can never accomplish such a feat without looking like a Parkinson’s patient.

It was enjoyable to ride in Chanmai san’s car. I enjoy watching the changing scenery along the highways, talking with him and watching the shows on his GPS screen. And whenever I travel, I sleep half of the time whether its on the Shinkansen or the bus. I understand it must have been dreadfully tiring to be the driver. Chanmai san obviously looked so shagged from driving that he had to make a stop at a nearby mega-mart to use the massage chair. (><;)

I’m not sure if he’d want to be driving me around again but I’d definitely would want to be his passenger (^^) またドライブしませんか?

The 2nd highlight of my trip is to Hiroshima. Unlike the loud, fast-paced Tokyo, metropolitan Nagoya or the quiet Hakodate, Hiroshima has a balanced and charming atmosphere. If I had a choice of cities to work in Japan, I’d probably choose Hiroshima. It is hard to tell that this beautiful city was once destroyed by the atomic bomb.

Thanks to YH san, I learned that Rail Pass holders can board Nozomi trains for non-reserved seats. The city has a very interesting tram system which allows passengers to pay a fixed fare of 150 yen to ride within the city centre.

We visited the A-bomb dome and the Peace memorial museum. The tragedy was deeply felt when we read about the catastrophic aftermath of the bombing where ordinary people were wiped out in a flash at the epicenter, leaving only shadows behind. From our history textbooks (which was displayed in the museum!), I could not fathom the destruction just by looking at photos of a mushroom cloud billowing from the cartographic view.

Those who survived faced radiation sickness, starvation and thirst from the extreme heat of the blast.  Body remains were preserved by the musuem to show the physiological effects of the radiation.The only consolation for us is we came with an empty stomach. We had a quick okonomiyaki lunch in one of the nearby shopping arcades and took a long tram ride to the Miyajima ferry port where we boarded the ferry bound for Miyajima. Miyajima is a cultural heritage site known for its iconic red torii gate. When we arrived to port, the tide has subsided, leaving a carpet of seaweed and the torii gate exposed. It was fun picking up the seaweed and throwing coins onto the ledge of the torii gate.

The food was absolutely scrumptious. I had grilled rice cake with a plump, juicy oyster as we walked along the arcade facing the coast. Sorry I forgot to take a photo of the delicious treat because I couldn’t resist wolfing down the rice cake drenched in soy sauce. After visiting the temple at the mountain top, we headed to a nearby shop selling handmade momiji manjuu, a maple leaf shaped sponge cake with red bean filling. It was still warm and we were served hot roasted tea. Back in the bustling arcade, we joined the queue for grilled oysters when we could no longer resist the smells wafting from the shops. We were lucky to get the last few oysters before it was sold out. The juicy plump oysters was to die for and I virtually licked the shell dry just to savor the rich salty flavors.

As sunset approached, the shops and restaurants closed for the day and we had no choice but to return to the city where we checked in and went to a nearby ramen shop for dinner. The small ramen shop was run by an delicate old lady and her muscular, body-building son. I couldn’t help but comment on the wall plastered with photos of beefy men flexing their muscles. The ramen was delicious with a light soy sauce based broth and thin noodles characteristic of the Hiroshima variety. For breakfast, we had another round of  okonomiyaki at a restaurant recommended by the friendly guesthouse personnel before heading back to Nagoya.

Armed with my dog-eared JR Pass, I headed to Kofu in the Yamanashi prefecture to visit the Takeda Jinja, a shrine built to house the spirit of  Takeda Shingen.

Statue of Takeda Shingen holding the iconic metal fan which he used to deflect Uesugi Kenshin’s attacks.

I couldn’t help but snap this picture of the wall. Takeda and Yamamoto are just too kawaii.

As usual, it’s another uphill trek that took me 30 mins to reach the shrine. After paying my respects to the great shogun whom I learned about from the Taiga drama ”Fuurinkazan-風林火山” and searching for one of the 24 land markers that depicts Sanada Yukitaka, Yukimura’s grandfather, I grabbed a box of inari sushi and a scrumptious minced pork patty (total cost =400yen/$5) and headed to Tokyo by train.

After arriving in Tokyo, I bought a Koppepan (bun filled with red bean jam and margerine) to sing to the theme song of Fuurinkazan (youtube video above www). Just joking, the Koppepan’s for breakfast and it is not priced at 120yen www

The next day, I headed to the controversial Yasukuni shrine which always have Chinese nationalists jump up to protest whenever a Japanese Prime Minister pays the shrine a visit. True, the terror and misery caused by the Japanese occupation was completely whitewashed and the Nanjing ”incident” was only a one-liner. Well, China made no mention of what terrors occurred when the Communists marched into Tibet either. For the curious and those wanting to see the Japanese perception of history, Yasukuni shrine is definitely worth a visit and the Yuushukan museum is well worth the 800 yen paid to gain admission.

The Yuushukan museum is a military otaku’s paradise. Thanks to ジェプレー社長’s recommendation. Just at the entrance, one could start getting trigger happy with the camera. There’s the life-size Mitsubishi Type 0 carrier plane, the C56 Locomotive no.31 which ran along the Death Railway and big guns. Only these exhibits can be photographed whereas after paying 800 yen to enter the museum all camera devices have to be kept off. I guess it’s for a pretty good reason since the FAQs paint the country as a victim of circumstances (unfortunately it continues to be so). When will there ever be an official apology like what Germany did, I don’t know.

It took me more than an hour to walk around and gawk at the large collection of military memorabilia and weapons. There is a life-sized submarine, the Sakura fighter plane which carried kamikaze pilots to their demise, more big guns, swords, uniforms and the like. Thousands of black and white photos of young men were fixed onto the walls. Some look as young as 12 years old. Also, visitors get a peek into the letters written by soldiers to their family and friends. No idea whether such letters have been screened by the military government at that time since most of the content describe a highly patriotic soldier who is willing to sacrifice for his country and is bidding his last farewell to his loved ones.

At the museum shop, there is a whole array of military paraphernalia and content for sale. I even saw a book that claims the Nanjing massacre was exaggerated and false. It comes in both Japanese and English. I admit I had no guts to purchase such highly controversial material even for someone who could nonchalantly buy piles of BL manga. In the end, I bought a CD collection of military songs for 3,000 yen/$40.

It was nearly 3.30pm and I took the train back to Ikebukuro to have a ramen dinner and to do some last minute shopping. I went to try out Muteki Ramen which already had a queue at 4.30pm! The pork broth squeals of pig and the braised pork was a heavenly melt-in-your-mouth experience. The only downside is the broth reminded me of pork liver mee suah.

Whenever I come to Tokyo, I’d always visit Ton Chin in Ikebukuro to slurp up their rich tonkotsu ramen. It became my first love when CH san and her husband brought me to shop in the summer of 2008. I brought Ying san and MC san to slurp up the ramen last Spring. On top of the hearty broth and springy noodles, one can ogle at the nice arms of the cooks cum servers cum ramen decorators.(^q^) This year, their black uniforms with navy aprons became white and the counters have been renovated with a metallic finish.

The next day, I zipped off to Kyoto via the Shinkansen. First stop was to Uji, well known for its delicious green tea and the setting for one of the chapters of the Genji Monogatari. I stopped by a tea shop to ask for directions and was offered to sample good quality sencha. The tea had body and a savory sweet flavor which is completely different from the usual cheap green tea we get anywhere else. 

Byoudouin (平等院) is another world cultural heritage site famous for the lavishly decorated Phoenix Hall which houses a massive Amitabha Buddha statue. The Hall itself was featured on the 10 yen coin. Entrance fee to view the hall from the gardens is 600 yen. I guess the maintenance fees must be pretty steep… 

I had doria for lunch at a nearby Saizeriya restaurant and headed back to Kyoto for more sightseeing. The bus terminal was swarming with locals and tourists alike. Since almost 80% of the temples charge an admission fee, I decided on visiting the famous Kiyomizu temple (清水寺). The bus was crammed with people and with all the noise, I really wished I could jump out of the window. I wonder how the local residents could tolerate this in their daily commute. I got off and followed some local tourists up the hill towards the temple. Along the way, I was lucky to find 2 maikos making their way down and being the gaijin tourist I approached them for a photo to be taken. I don’t even have to cram myself into the bus to get to Gion to see the maikos.(^^) Don’t you think the maiko on the right looks more ‘hiao’ than the one on the left? www

One must have strong knees and legs when it comes to visiting Japanese temples. Most of the shrines and temples are built above ground. After the slope, there’s a whole lot of stairs to contend with. Stairs that lead to the entrance gate, more slope and stairs to the admission counter where tickets are purchased for 300 yen. Then a little bit of stairs to get from the famous stage to the temple which houses a buddha and some more steps on the other side of the hill which provides a full view of the stage.

The wish written on the wooden tablet says : I wish for a ♥Kawaii♥ girlfriend. I hope his wish comes true  www

The view was magnificent. It is amazing that the wooden structure is built without nails and has survived for centuries. It is believed that if you jump off the stage and survived the fall, your wish would come true. You jump, I jump. Nobody did www

All the climbing made me peckish for something sweet and hot and my butt was yearning for a seat. I stopped by a tea house for some oshiruko, grilled rice cake in sweet red bean soup. It was so sweet I could feel sugar crystals form in my kidneys.

I took the bus back to JR Kyoto station and walked for 10 mins to the Honganji temple (本願寺). Admission is free hence my interest to  visit the temple which houses an Amitabha Buddha www Unfortunately it was closing time when I reached.

As my legs and butt were screaming for a seat, I decided to walk into Nakamura Tokichi and ordered a dessert set consisting of matcha ice cream and a complimentary green tea jelly. I observed that the local customers would make a sandwich out of the clam shell wafers and consume the ice cream sandwich in this manner. I followed their manner of consuming this dessert and ended up with melted ice cream streaming down my arm… …

By 5.30pm, it’s a slow trot back to JR Kyoto station where I waited for WTR san to have dinner and chat about DFF. She’s a charming friend whom Ying san and I met online. I’ve never met anyone who’s as faithful to Zidane from FF9 as her. I even forgot that it was 11 November where I’d draw a picture of WOL from FF1 to commemorate. We had okonomiyaki for dinner in the shopping basement of the station. It’s fun to hang out with WTR san and she’s always generous. Thanks to her, Ying san and I became Black Thunder addicts. She passed me some Kyoto snacks and KNK san’s outrageous doujin (we can never get enough of it ハァハァ).  She walked me all the way to the Shinkansen entrance and I ran to catch the train before it departs 3 mins later. The funny thing is, both our periods came after we reached home. I suspect there’s something about the food we just ate. Hmmm…

Esto no es en espanol. It’s Jap-glish meaning  ‘Escalator’.

For the remaining 2 days, I headed to Akihabara to maximise the use of my Rail Pass. I went to grab a few more books and started pillaging every convenience store of Black Thunder. Basically I wiped out the whole stock of Black Thunder that day (0///0) For lunch, I had Shrimp burger at MacDonalds. This could probably be served only in Japan. I would be really ashamed if any Japanese visitors discover that Singapore is selling the Samurai burger.

Gundam cafe with its legendary Char Zaku toilet www

On the last day, it was a long train ride to Chubu Centrair Airport on the Meitetsu. The sky was gray and cloudy. I was hugging 22kg worth of luggage and nodding off while 2 high school kids opposite me were playing hanky-panky. I got my backpack and luggage checked in by a nice lady at the counter who told me the luggage would be transferred to the chartered plane bound for Singapore so I have 30 mins to hang around in the transit lounge.

The transit at Narita airport was a nightmare. Some idiot staff told me I had to collect my baggage and insisted that I go to the belt to collect it. Thanks to the imbecile, I wasted 30 mins of my time standing there waiting for the baggage that never came. I checked with one of the counter staff who verified that the baggage has already been transferred to the chartered plane. The F-word came out loud and clear before I could shut my mouth and I could see the poor lady was really stunned. (><;) I apologized and sprinted back to the transit customs with my Samantha Vega paper bag flailing on my arm.

Thanks to the idiot, I did not get the chance to purchase any Umaibou, a tasty and cheap corn snack which is not sold in Singapore and ended up sweating like a pig. Apparently kaizen which is central in the work culture of Japan has stopped somewhere. Well I guess they place more importance in incoming tourists and homecoming natives than outbound passengers. Hmph. =/

This trip is entirely different from the one I had in March. I got to learn what it is like to live in Japan and the social norms that prevail in the country. Love it or hate it, I can never get enough of this country and its people. (0w0) またくるよ~げへへへ

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1 Comment

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One response to “Autumn in Japan (JPY:SGD=100:1.62)日本旅行お疲れ様でした!

  1. “The realization that we are all basically the same human beings who seek happiness and try to avoid suffering is very helpful in developing a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood; a warm feeling of love and compassion for others.”

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