Monday, April 30, 2007

Japan - Day 5 - Nagoya

From Hakone-Yumoto I took a train to Odawara and there, I made a change and took the Shinkansen to Nagoya. The Shinkansen trains are famous because of their speed, punctuality and security. My pass was valid for all the Shinkansen trains except the fastest one, called Nozomi. This time, I took a Kodama Shinkansen which was the slowest, I think, because it stops at every station. The rest of times I took a Hikari and I could notice the difference. I never made a seat reservation (although it was free with my pass) because they are passing by all the time.

My first impression of Nagoya was definitely good: big buildings with advertisements from technology brands, like Hitachi or Panasonic, impressive elevated highways, wide avenues, workers in suit everywhere.

I had a shower in the Ryokan (Japanese hotel) where I was going to spend my first night in Nagoya, checked my e-mail and then I made a call to my contact in Nagoya, Tokujun Satoh. Mr Satoh is a professor of Spanish at the Aichi prefectural University and my relation with him comes from my Japanese teacher, Tatsuhiko Hattori, who was born in Jimokuji, near Nagoya. They were friends and partners at the Nanzan University before Hattori came to Santander. They were born just after the second world war finished, very tough times for Japan.

Satoh was VERY nice to me (like all the Japanese people I met, actually!!) and I would like to send him another BIG THANK YOU from here. We met up at the Lexus offices in Nagoya because he has bought a Lexus car, and they give him this FREE service consisting on having a quiet lounge at the Lexus offices where you can go whenever you want to, and ask one of the several hostess for a cappuccino or something while they clean your car (yes, amazing!!).

We had a very nice first talk in Spanish there. He spokes Spanish very well and he is also a figure on the Catalan language (he lived in Barcelona for sometime). I gave him, on behalf of Hattori, a modern Spanish dictionary that includes the differences among the latin countries in the use of this language. It was hard to carry it through the Hakone mountains but, DEFINITELY, it was worth the effort.

After the Lexus break, we had some tasty food in a restaurant called Denny's (very useful because there is a parking bellow) that had an interesting Wireless system for calling the waiter to come.

From there, we went to make a short visit to one of the main turistical points in Nagoya, the Tokugawa museum, which turned up to be quite interesting.

In the museum, we met by chance a former student of Satoh and its husband, a Spanish guy from Málaga (it's a small world!!).

After that, he left me in Sakae, the amusement part of Nagoya, because he is also a buddhist bonzo and he had to assist to a funeral for a recent death. Sakae was similar to shinjuku, lots of amusement locals, karaokes, clubs and "salary men" going out.

I was wandering there for a while, hearing the sounds and looking at the neons with my mouth open and then I went back to the Ryokan (I had to rest for the next day, you'll see in the next post!).

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Japan - Day 4 - Hakone

The next day, after a great breakfast with Mitsue, I went to Hakone. I knew it was going to be a little adventure because I didn't make any reservation there and I didn't really know exactly where I was going to spend the night. The goal was to go near the mountain Fuji, have a bath in a hotspring and do a bit of hiking in the Japanese mountains.

My adventure started when I got off in Odawara and decided not to take a train to Hakone but going on foot! Odawara is a city in the East coast of Japan and it is situated just at the entrance to the Hakone area, a big valley surrounded by mountains.

As the day before I wrote down the GPS coordenates of a central crossroads in Hakone I tried to go there. I wasn't an easy task because it was quite far (7km in direct line, but I had to make a big detour and there were also this.. mountains). So I started walking with my two bags (and a spanish dictionary!haha!More on this in the next post..) and after two hours or so, in the middle of nothing, I noticed that the path I had taken was starting to divert and get me away from my destination. You know, I had enough food, water and tools to spend the night in the mountain (including a roll of toilet paper XD), but it wasn't exactly in my best dreams. So, I got a bit worried and started to walk faster and faster to check if the path changed to the right direction again. As I was thinking on leaving the path and go through the forest, I had the luck of bumping into a couple of Japanese hikers. They were very nice with me and showed me a path through the forest that I could use for going to Hakone-Yumoto. They told me it was a very old path used by the Samurais.

While I was going trough the path I felt lucky for having got lost because, otherwise, I wouldn't have had the opportunity of talking in Japanese with those nice hikers and I couldn't have walked this great Samurai path through the middle of a beautiful forest. Sometimes the direct path is not the best, you need to fail if you want to learn new things.

I climbed up and down some mountains and eventually I saw concrete again, a beautiful temple in the lower slope of the mountain (in Japan there are two types of temples, o-tera and jijan, and this one was an o-tera). A little bit more walking leaded me, finally, to the town of Hakone-Yumoto. This town has a lot of hotels and there is a bus that takes you to the nearby Moto-Hakone, famous because of its lakes and its views of the mountain Fuji.

I found a good hotel, thanks to a conversation (japanese=useful!) with a local person, with traditional Japanese style rooms and hotsprings. It was a bit expensive compared to what I have paid for the hostels, but definitely VERY CHEAP if you compare it with a european hotel of that quality (9.500 yens, 60 Euros). This is another good thing I loved from Japan, they are fair with prices, they never try to overcharge you in turistical zones (a coke is the same price in every vending machine, and with lower prices than in Spain), so you can spend your money without worrying about the price, because its a normal price (we should learn about this, because I think that having different prices for the same thing, depending on where you are, is counterproductive). Outside the hotel there was a beautiful waterfall where I took a picture of two Japanese guests that I had the opportunity to chat with.

The room was better than what I had expected, in a word: GREAT! It was big and it had a lot of things:
  • Two types of toilet, Japanese style and Western style (my choice, definitely). Notice in the picture, the cable that ends in the toilet. In Japan, they usually heat the toilet, so when you sit down its quite pleasant (more on Japanese toilets and bathrooms in a future post).

  • Bathroom accessories: shampoo (a big bottle, not a little packet like in Spain), gel, shaving tools, hairdrier, towels, toothbrush and toothpaste.
  • TV with 20 channels plus 5 pay-per-view channels
  • Yukata
  • Locker
  • Air-conditioned and heater (a good quality machine)
  • Tea
  • Freezer
  • Bathroom with o-furo
  • Futon
  • and the price also included several hostsprings ("onsen")

I left my luggage in the room and tried to go on foot to Moto-Hakone instead of taking a bus (yes, I like to use my feet) but it was a bit far. On the way, I stopped to eat the fantastic o-bento (japanese take away food) that Mitsue's parents prepared me from the dinner and some sweets they also gave to me. (thank you!).

While walking on one side of the road I was about to bump to a snake, I was scared!! XD. I took this picture from a prudent distance because I didn't want to get closer.

After this "incident", and since I was kind of tired I decided to go back to the hotel and have a relaxing bath in the open-air hotspring. When I entered the hostpring there was already a naked old man there. You have to leave all your clothes at the entrance, and wash and rinse yourself very well before entering the water. It was very relaxing. After that, I had a shave and I went to my room where I lay down and wathed some Anime on the television.

As a conclusion I think I got to do all I wanted to do in Hakone except, unfortunately, that I couldn't see mountain Fuji because the weather was not good enough (summer is probably a better season if you want to see it).

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Japan - Day 3 - Kamakura and Chigasaki

The next day, I was supposed to go to Kamakura with Mitsue, a Japanese woman that I met when doing the "camino de Santiago" (check the corresponding post). I got up early and bought my breakfast in a 7-Eleven, a slice of pizza that I heat up in the microwave and some buns. Then, I went to the Minami-Senju train station where I took a train to Nippori, so I could change to the Yamanote line for Tokyo station and then change for another line to Ofuna, the place where I was supposed to meet Mitsue. It wasn't an easy job to be in Ofuna at 10:00 in the morning from Tokyo. At first, I thought I could not make it because it was the rush hour and thousands of Japanese were crowding the trains. But, while I was waiting in Nippori for the Yamanote line (completely scared of being squashed by the officers in charge of pushing people in the train! ;D) , by chance, I saw another train with destination Ofuna. I got in and, altough it was a local train ("futsuu densha") that made a stop at every station of the route, I was right and I managed to make it before 10:00. (Note: to survive in the Japanese train and metro system is quite easy because there are lots of signs ("kanban") both in Japanese and English. I have taken lots and lots of trains there and I didn't make a mistake with any of them)

While I was waiting for Mitsue in the Kamakura station, I saw some tramps taking out from the train and from the rubbish some Mangas. This Mangas (the name for Comic in Japan) are thick magazines made of bad quality paper and
full of comics. I saw lots of Japanese people reading them in the train and then throwing it or leaving it in the train so another person can read it again. These tramps then sell the mangas for very low prices either in the streets (as I saw in Shinjuku) or in special stores for used books (I saw several shops like this and you could buy lots of comics, books or even video at very low prices!).

Finally, I met Mitsue and we took another train to Kamakura. We decided to get off in the north of kamakura, Kita-Kamakura and do a short walk through a mountain path to Kamakura. Kamakura was a turistical place with lots of souvenir (omiyage) shops because it has a lot of history and important temples. Mitsue showed me the way of washing your hands in these templos (there is a small ritual for that) and another ritual that consisted of throwing a coin to the temple, then clap two times and pray.

After doing sightseeing, we went to have lunch in a Ramen restaurant. It was very funny to see that the restaurant was very very narrow. We had to wait a little bit outside so a couple finished and then we went in. You have to it your noodles (ramen) very fast because it is hot and there is a queue outside waiting for you to finish!! haha!

When we went out of the ramen restaurant there was a light rain and as I was a bit tired we decided to go to visit Mitsue's parents. They lived in a very nice area that reminded me of some Anime (Japanese cartoons) series. I even heard the typical sound of the bell when the school finishes that appears in a lot of Anime series (I also heard the finish sound of the factories, the next day).

I was very surprised of the GREAT dinner that they had prepared for me. Everything was delicious and I was able to taste real homemade japanese food of all kinds. Tenpura, several types of Sushi, Take (bamboo), Sashimi (raw fish)... Both Mitsue and her parents were SO NICE that I couldn't believe it. I would like to send them a big THANK YOU again for everything. Thank god I didn't forget to take some presents for them: a guide of the Camino de Santiago del Norte (so Mitsue can do it and visit Santander someday!), a typical spanish hand painted fan and some pastry from Cantabria.

After having dinner with her parents we took a train to Mitsue's home which was in Chigasaki, not too far from its parents'. In Chigasaki Mitsue showed me some shops of used manga, where people were reading them for free. There were also a lot of 24h stores. To finish off a great Japanese day Mitsue prepared me a bath, called O-Furo, which is useful to warm up your body before going to bed. The idea is that you have a shower and you wash yourself outside of the bath and then you enter to this warm water and have your body warmed up. In the next picture you can see an ofuro from the hotel I went to in Hakone (see next post).

After the O-Furo I planned my next day with the help of Mitsue and Google Earth, and then I went to sleep in a Futon (the Japanese style beds).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Japan - Day 2 - Tokyo

In my second day in Tokyo I tried to visit the most famous areas or districts of Tokyo. There is a very useful train line that goes around Tokyo in a loop called the Yamanote line, so you can get off at the main areas of Tokyo. Basically, I stopped in some of the most famous ones, I walked there for an hour and then I went to the next one. These are the areas I visited:
  • Akihabara: well known because of its electronic shops, this place was really interesting. I bought there a conversor of sockets so I could fill my camera's battery and I had a chocolat with some Donuts in a very popular coffee called Mister Donuts. It was right in front of the main buildings so I enjoyed watching the crowd from there. In Akihabara I entered into a lot of Manga&Anime related shops. There were two shops with several floors full of comics, anime, toys.. It was like the paradise for a Manga fan.
  • Ueno: this park is famous because of its cherry trees and the celebrations ("hanami"=see flowers) that japanese people make there when they blossom, typically in April. They go there in groups, drink sake and have a lot of fun. In the end, I found the park a bit disappointing.
  • Shibuya: this district had a lot of shops and restaurants and I saw the famous sculpture of the dog "Hachiko". You can find Hachiko story on the Internet for more details. In front of the station there was also one of those big pedestrian crosses. I had some Udon for lunch here in Shibuya. They were very tasty and cheap! One thing I liked very much in Japan is that you are not necesarily expected to ask for something to drink when you go to eat. Instead, you can have as much water or tea as you want for free! That reduces the price definitely.

  • Harajuku: this area is very popular among young people. There were lots of people and I saw several girls dressed up as maids and similar things. Here, I took a delicious CocaCola, after having tried and hated some japanese drinks (they make them of tea!).
  • Yoyogi: this is another park but it was also disappointing. I bought here an international phone card, which is the only way for doing international calls from (some) public phones. I used this card to give I-am-alive calls to my family without having to spend money on it. Basicaly, they work by writing some numbers, listening a presentation message, then writing the ID from the card and finally dialing the destination number including the international code (34 for spain).

When I went back to the hostel I was really tired, and after having a shower I talked with other guests that were in the hall of the hostel. John, from the UK (I think from Chester but had lived in London for a long time), who had quit his job and started to travel around the world trying to work as volunteer for food and bed, at the places hi visited. Chris, from Liverpool, who just got out alive from a tragic car accident (he show us a terrible picture of the car and I couldn't imagine how he survived that). An australian girl, an australian guy, some girls from Holland that were about to leave (they were studying business in Taiwan) and three Japanese girls I had the oportunity to chat with in Japanese. They were from several places in Japan, Hokkaido, Yamagata and Kyoto. They all were job hunting. Interesting. In the picture you can see the girl from Hokkaido (Hiromi Sakuragi) and John.

For dinner, I went with John to a nearby supermarket where we bought some rice and "yakitori". Very tasty!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Japan - Day 1 - Tokyo

I left Santander the 6th April 2007 at 00:30 and I arrived in Narita (Tokyo) the 7th April 2007 at 11:00 in the morning, local time. It was quite a long trip but when I finally got there I didn't notice the tiredness because of the excitement.
In Narita airport, everything went ok. I spoke my first Japanese words with the people from immigration who asked me where I have learned Japanese and where I was going to spend my first night in Japan (I told them the exact GPS coordenates and they laughed so I gave them the name of the hostel). In fact, my GPS turned up to be unbelievably useful in Japan. Thanks to it, I was able to get lost in the streets of the Japanese citys without worrying about how to get back home.

After immigration, I had my JapanRail Pass stamped starting the following day. This is a special ticket for tourists that must be bought at your own country before coming to Japan and allows you to take as many trains of JR (including Kodama and Shikari Shinkansens) as you want during its validity (mine was 14 days long). I don't know if it was worth paying for it (I think it was), but I took lots and lots of trains without having to think about prices, distances, handle with automatic machines... Even so, I had to take some metro lines and buses that were not included in the pass. From the airport I took a non JR train, Keisei, for 1000 yens, to Nippori. I took with me one of those huge guides (Rough Guide, Lonely planet...) of Japan and it was very useful for things like that.

In the train, I met a Spanish guy from Sevilla, José Oranto, and a Japanese girl called Achiko. He was coming alone but was supposed to share the trip with a guy from Venezuela with which he had been chatting through the Internet. Achiko was going back home to Saitama from London where she had finished her studies on English philology. Nonetheless I had to talk to her in Japanese because she didn't speak English very well.

In Nippori, I had to change to another train line, but as this place was not too far from my hostel, I decided to get off there and go on foot. I switched on my GPS and it said I was about 6 Km from the hostel, so I started walking through the streets, electric wires, japanese people, shops... for the first time in my life. I was amazed of everything and I remember myself with my mouth completely open.

When I got to the hostel it was locked until 16:00 so I had to wait for a while. Nearby, there was a lot of tramps and homeless people and I was a bit afraid but gradually I realized that they were harmless. Finally, the hostel's manager showed up and I could have a shower and access the Internet. The hostel was really cheap, 2100 yens only, and It was quite clean, had showers, microwave and free internet: After having a short sleep I tried to talk a little bit with another guest, a French girl, but she couldn't speak too much English (I have to learn French..) and then I went to see Shinjuku at night, one of the most famous places in Japan.

The scene in Shinjuku was absolutely amazing. Lots and lots of people, neons, sounds from everywhere, huge crossroads. I was like in Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell. I was walking Shinjuku for a while getting soaked with the environment (and also with a light rain that showed up for a bit).

Unfortunately, I was able to see also the darkside of this area where you can find lots of striptease and other bad reputation locals. There were black guys in the streets speaking to you in English and trying to convince you to enter to their locals. And even a very pretty Japanese girl asked to me if I wanted a "massage" ("ikaga desu ka"), which I suppose is a polite way of calling prostitution.