Tag Archives: Japan and South East Asia

Japan’s capital city of Tokyo is a surprisingly friendly city and a big plus is that its train and metro stations

Matsumoto Castle Tokyo

Matsumoto Castle, Honshu

Flying in to Tokyo, you might just  enjoy the awesome sight of Mount Fuji sticking its familiar funnelled head up above the clouds.
It sets the tone for a travel experience like no other in a land where people are somehow able to find serene calm in the midst of massive urbanisation and the constant threat of earthquakes. This national characteristic was displayed to the world in the manner in which the country handled its tsunami disaster.
Tokyo is a surprisingly friendly city and a big plus is that its train and metro stations, as in the whole of Japan, display their English names alongside the Japanese script.
This is a big help in a situation where it is very hard to get by even with a phrase book. But the Japanese are honoured to have you in their country and will help you in whatever way they can as you try to get to the city’s Royal Palace or dine in a typical street café where trays of meat are served for you to cook at the table.
One of the nice things about the country is that even though you probably look very different to the locals you won’t feel it. People don’t  stare at you. It’s considered impolite.
A wonderful time to visit is in spring when cherry blossom time bursts out all over the country starting early in its southernmost extremity of Okinawa and working its way up central Japan to its colder northernmost region of Hokkaido.
The arrival of the sakura is an excuse for a get-together to welcome the new season and you will see this going on in parks, gardens and any other areas where the groups can sit under and around the beautiful blossoms and enjoy a picnic and a drink.
By the way, the Japanese, by and large, do enjoy a drink.
Tokyo lies in Japan’s central island of Honshu where cherry blossoms  usually reach their peak in late March to April. However, be warned,  it’s really difficult to predict cherry blossom opening dates in advance and planning a trip at the right time is tough. But if you’re lucky you will never forget it.
After the long flight to get to Tokyo it might be a good idea to head for the Royal Palace on the first day of sightseeing. Located on the former site of Edo Castle, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls bang in the centre of Tokyo, the residence of Japan’s Royal Family is just a short walk from Tokyo Station.
Most of it is simply to admire and out of bounds but Higashi-gyōen is the one corner of the Imperial Palace proper that is regularly open to the public, and it makes for a pleasant retreat from the grinding hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Here you can get views of the massive stones used to build the castle walls, and  climb the ruins of one of the keeps, off the upper lawn. Although entry is free, the number of visitors at any one time is limited, so it never feels crowded.From this little island of relative calm, just a stone’s throw away from the skyscrapers and the bullet trains, you can plot your next move.  Tokyo Station is a big bullet train –shinkansen – terminal. Trains shoot in and out with phenomenal punctuality, and frequency. A platform ticket costs little and will allow you on the platform for up to two hours.

Is the  Shibuya street crossing really worth a visit? Probably not, as you can watch it on You Tube without being part of the pedestrian melee, but the area certainly is. The hit film Lost in Translation was almost entirely shot in Tokyo’s two loudest and most colourful districts which are Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Japan has two main religions – Shinto and Buddhism – which co-exist. Tokyo abounds in Buddhist temples,  one of the most famous being  the Sensō-ji in the Asakusa district It’s really worth visiting at least one of these temples as there is no equivalent in the western world.
Tokyo Tower is based on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Since 1958 is has been the world’s tallest self-supporting iron tower at 333 metres against the Eiffel tower’s 320 metres in height. It has two observation floors where you can enjoy a 360-degree view. The Tower also has an aquarium, wax museum and other various amusements, shopping arcade, restaurants and cafes.
Meiji-Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Emperor Shoken. Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912 and Empress Shoken in 1914.
Roppongi Hills is a massive business and shopping complex, often described as a mini-city. The centrepiece of the complex is the 54-storey Mori Tower, with panoramic views of the city from its observation deck .
Don’t forget to break up all this sightseeing by sampling the noodle bars and eating houses that abound. You can’t visit Japan without trying a spicey ramen noodle.
All over Tokyo and Japan the hygiene is first class. No matter how humble the eating place, you are nearly always provided with items to wash your hands with both before you eat and after you eat.
Tokyo is the gateway to the rest of Japan and all its diversity. Travellers can head south to the sub-tropical island of  Okinawa or north to the Japanese Alps and further.
The Japan Rail Pass is worth every yen of your money for this purpose. You get it in the UK before you leave. A visitor cannot buy it in Japan.
Just over £200 buys a 7-day ordinary pass which takes you all over Japan. You can also pay a bit more for 14 and 21 day passes. Children aged 6 to 11 are half price.
An exchange order is sent to you in the UK and you get your JR pass in Japan at exchange offices located in major train stations.
The pass is itself a gateway to Japanese culture as train stations in Japan are vibrant, busy centres with all kinds of things going on in the way of shops and restaurants and diversions.
Japanese families equip themselves with lunch boxes and chopsticks for their journey and ticket inspectors bow to the travellers in each carriage as they make their checks.
With the rail pass you can head north in Honshu to Nagano and the Japanese Alps – a trip which is also a must for samurai warrior fans.
Matsumoto Castle in Nagano province is an original construction, and one of the four castles in Japan to be listed as national treasures. Tall people can find it tough going following in the footsteps of these 16th century warriors within the castle.
The view of the Northern Alps from the castle parkland is beautiful, and, of course,  it is a famous cherry blossom viewing spot in spring.
In the winter this areas of Japan becomes a magnet for skiers and climbers and was the venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
In the summer its natural beauty comes to the fore culminating in a spectacular autumn fall with leaves turning a yellow gold colour and Dake birch and Nana-kamado trees turning red  in October.

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