Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Is is near the end of April now and almost all the cherry blossoms in Tokyo are gone. But in the second week of April when I went to see them properly they were everywhere. I visited two well known cherry blossom viewing places, Sumida Park, and Ueno Park.

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The Japanese get very excited about cherry blossoms. They get a warm up to the cherry blossom season when the plum blossoms appear in February, but the cherry blossoms are the main flowering event of the year.

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First I visited Sumida Park which has cherry blossoms along both sides of the river. In the background above you can see the Tokyo Sky Tree which is being built. Below is a different type of cherry blossom to the standard ones.

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Each year at this time there are cherry blossom forecasts on TV that show you the spread of the blossoms through the country, so you can pick the right time to view them. They are only in full bloom in any one area for a few weeks.

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Although all the flowers are pink, there is a big range in the colours, from very light pink, to very stong pink colours.

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There were plenty of people in Sumida Park, but there were even more in Ueno Park. Lots of people were taking a break from work to have a look at the flowers.

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Many people and companies organise cherry blossom parties, where they will have some food and drink whilst sitting on a plastic sheet under the cherry blossom trees. These are called ‘hanami parties’ – hanami means flower viewing.

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I spotted a large group of people crowding round one particular tree taking photos.

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On closer inspection it turned out that there was a cat in the tree. Perhaps he had gone up there for a quite rest, and was now regretting being the centre of attention.

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If you are in Japan at cherry blossom time you can’t fail to spot them. They are planted everywhere, from parks, to gardens, to government buildings. For much of the year these trees look very bare, but for just a few weeks, they are one of the most famous sights in Japan.

Getting a Japanese driving licence

Friday, March 11th, 2011

I recently got my full Japanese driving licence. I already had a UK driving licence; so much of the information here will be specific for people who have UK driving licences. For example with a UK licence you don’t have to do a physical driving test, whereas I know that if you have an American driving licence you do.

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Also I got my licence in Takamatsu – the procedure will vary in other parts of the country.

Translation of my British driving licence

To start with I needed a translation of my British driving licence. You can get one of these for ¥3000 from your local JAF (Japan automobile federation) office.

The procedure is pretty simple; you turn up – no appointment was necessary, fill in a simple form (name, address, telephone number), and give them your driving licence. They only needed my photocard, they didn’t need the paper counterpart. They then took about 30 minutes to copy the relevant information from the photocard to a standard form on one or two pieces of A4 paper.

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After that you should just check the details on the translation form are correct. One thing I noticed is that the licence expiry date they put on the translation form is the photocard expiry date, which is usually very different from the expiry date of your driving licence.

There is more detailed information on the JAF website.

Japan driving licence interview

This is the stage which could vary a lot depending on where you are from. With my UK driving licence I was only required to be interviewed – I didn’t need to take a driving test.

I had to get the appointment booked in advance at the Kagawa driving licence centre which is a 25 minute walk North of Kozai station (one stop to the West of Takamatsu main station).

The interview was going to be in Japanese so I took a friend along to translate for me. Once at the driving licence centre I was seen by a lady who spent over an hour asking me many question about how I learnt to drive and my driving experience. Here is a selection of questions that my friend and I were asked at both of our interviews.

  • How did you apply for your provisional licence?
  • Where did you apply for your provisional licence?
  • How much did it cost?
  • When did you apply?
  • Did you need to do a test to get the provisional licence?
  • Did you need an eye test?
  • Did you have to see a doctor to get the provisional licence? (They seemed very suspicious about the fact that we can just get a provisional licence with no kind of testing!)
  • How did you learn to drive?
  • Who taught you?
  • Were they qualified instructors?
  • How many lessons did you do? How long were the lessons?
  • What cars did you drive?
  • Did you learn on a manual or automatic?
  • Have you driven an automatic? (in Japan they mainly seem to drive automatics)
  • What side of the road did you drive on?
  • What manouvers did you learn?
  • How did you learn the rules of the road? (theory)
  • Was there a test?
  • How many questions?
  • What was the pass mark? What did you score?
  • When did you do your driving test?
  • When / how did you apply for your driving test?
  • Who tested you?
  • What car did you drive for the test?
  • What did you do on the test?
  • How long was the test?
  • Did you pass? (if not expect similar questioning on your other test attempts)
  • Have you ever been caught speeding?
  • Have you driven in Japan?

I’d left my paper counter part back in the UK, and she did ask about it, but she seemed to accept that the photocard was sufficient. To be safe it is probably best if you bring your paper counterpart along with you as well, in case they insist on it.

And even more questions which I don’t remember! But hopefully this gives you an idea of the style. Once it was finished I was told that they’d phone within a week to tell me if I’d passed. If so I’d have to go back to the driving licence centre for an eye test and to pay. There was no charge to be interviewed.

Getting my Japanese driving licence

A week later I was told that I passed the interview so I was asked to go back to the centre the next week before 2pm.

After I got there and checked in at reception a man collected me. I had to verify my details on another form. And I had to choose two 4 digit pin codes (both could be the same). I’m guessing you might need them one day to prove you are the licence holder so note them down. He also checked my foreigner registration card and UK driving licence. And he took my UK driving licence translation (I didn’t get to keep it).

Then I given two A4 forms and had to go to a counter to buy revenue stamps for them at a cost of ¥5000. The lady behind the counter put the correct stamps on the correct forms. I also had to put my name and address on both of these pieces of paper.

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Next I had to get photos from a photo booth. It printed out a sheet with two large photos and two small photos.

The man found me and we went back into the office. He put one of the small photos on a form, and the other three photos were mine to keep.

Then he took me upstairs for the quickest eye test I’ve ever done. In a small room was an eye testing machine and an operator. There were two types of test. The first was a Landolt C test where you are shown circles with a bit missing. I had to look through a window in the machine at a grid of these circles which were different sizes. The operator would light up one of the circles and I had to say whether the missing bit is on the top, left, bottom, or right. He let me say the answers in English. There were about 5 or 6 of these circles that he lit up. Some are quite small.

The next test was a colour blindness test. Using the same machine he would light up two colours. I had to say what the colours were. E.g. red and green. Orange and red. Again he let me give the answers in English.

The whole sequence of boths test can only have taken about 30 seconds. I got what I believe is a very good score!

The the man who had been acomponying me took me to another counter where I had to hand in the form which my mini-photo on it. He then left me while they processed the form.

About 10 minutes later they gave me a print out which I had to check. The Katakana version of my name was spelt wrong so they had to make a correction (I think the man’s handwriting hadn’t been very clear).

With the corrected form I then had to go to another area where another man took a photo of me using a fixed digital camera.

After this it was back downstairs to the waiting area.

Another 5 minutes later the man who had been making sure I went to the right places came out with my licence. I just had to sign for it and then I could leave with my brand new laminated Japanese driving licence.

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Total time taken – about 3 hours (45mins for translation, 1.25 hours for interview, 1 hour for photos, eye test and getting licence).
Total cost – ¥8000 (¥3000 for translation and ¥5000 for licence application).

Changing the address on your Japanese driving licence

If you move then you have to get the address on your driving licence changed. You have to do this within two weeks. In order to change your driving licence address you will first have to change the address on your alien registration card at your local government office.

Then you will need to go to the driving licence centre at a main police station to change the driving licence address. You may also be able to change the address at a standalone driving license centre (but I’m not certain about this).

You need to go to a proper police station – they can’t change the address at the police koban boxes that you see all over the country. At my local police station there was a separate entrance for the driving licence centre. It was open during office hours 9:30-12:00 and 13:00-16:00. You have to fill in a simple form and show your alien registration card.

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Then they print your new address on the back of your driving licence in the box above (the photo was taken before I changed my address) and your licence is now up to date again.

Plum blossoms in Ritsurin Park

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Japan’s most famous type of blossom is the cherry blossom, but if you can’t wait until March/April to see them you can see the plum blossoms in February.

Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu has one of Japan’s most famous gardens, and in that garden are two groves, each filled with 80 plum trees (also known as Japanese apricot trees).

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The first plum blossom trees in the South grove were planted in the Edo period, and the first ones in the North grove were planted in the Meiji period.

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There were plenty of other people taking photographs of the blossoms as well as me.

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Japan is very in tune with the seasons, so whenever there is a change in nature (plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, etc) Japanese people flock to gardens like this to see it. They even show the progress of the blossoms in the weather forecasts as they start flowering through Japan. A sign in the garden says that one of these trees is a ‘sample tree’ that is being observed by the Takamatsu meteorological observatory.

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As well as pink blossoms, there are also white ones, and others that are light yellow. Many of these plum blossom trees are 50-60 years old

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Here’s a close up of some of the pink flowers.

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And a close up of some light yellow ones that are waiting to come out.

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And finally in the background is Mount Shion which is visible through much of Takamatsu.

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Seto Inland Sea sunset photos

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Whilst living in Takamatsu, Kagawa I had the opportunity to observe the Seto Inland Sea sunset many times. Here is a small selection of my photos. This first one was taken from the Naoshima to Takamatsu ferry.

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The Seto Inland Sea is always busy with passenger ferries taking people between the islands. There are many interesting islands to visit near Takamatsu, I visited some of them as part of the Setouchi International Art Festival.

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Most of the photos are taken from the Takamatsu harbour area near to the Sunport Centre and red lighthouse. But the next two are taken from Naoshima Island.

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Here is the ferry arriving to take me from Naoshima to Takamatsu.

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All the colours are natural; I didn’t use any filters, or software to change them. They were taken using my cheap compact camera that I’ve had for many years.

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These were taken during the Summer/Autumn seasons of 2009 and 2010 which is why everyone is in short sleeves!

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Many people came to the red lighthouse pier with much more expensive camera equipment than I did.

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And finally a sequence of the Sun disappearing behind the Seto Inland Sea.

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Bowling in Japan at Round 1

Friday, February 18th, 2011

If you want to go ten pin bowling in Japan there are plenty of bowling alleys in the cities. I went to a big chain called Round 1 which has locations all around Japan. The one I went to was in Takamatsu, Kagawa.

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If you are thinking that this building is a bit big for a bowling place that’s because there is much more inside. They have skating, a games arcades, pool, karaoke and racket sports.

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They have a complicated system of memberships that can get you discounts if you visit more than once (see their Japanese website for details), but you can just go bowling without having to sign up as well.

The weekday cost at this branch was ¥500 per person per game, plus ¥350 each for shoe hire. If you are really keen they were offering 6 games for ¥1500. They allocate you lane at the reception, but you don’t pay them until after you are finished.

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The shoe hire area was very high tech. They had a line of shoe vending machines with the sizes written on them (in cm). Each had a button, and an opening at the bottom. You press the button, and the shoes come out. The machines did however only go up to 27.5 cm. Too small for my fairly average European feet. Fortunately you can ask them for larger sizes.

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They have a selection of different bowling balls to choose. The orange ones (there were other colours as well) were standard bowling balls with different weights, and finger sizes. The yellow ones were labled as ‘easy balls for ladies’. They are lighter, have larger finger holes, and contain rubber inserts. The text explains that they are less likely to damage your nails.

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The rest of the bowling alley looked pretty standard. There were the usual displays above the lanes, and on the side. There are music videos playing at the end of the lanes.

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The results screen had some Japanese on it, but you don’t need to be able to read any of that to see your score. The button to move onto the next game appears on the bottom right, after the current game is over.

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The actual alleys looked very well maintained. Very clean and smooth.

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After the games were over we could put our shoes in a ‘shoe bin’ which was in the middle of the line of shoe vending machines. Then after paying we got a print out of our scores. Here’s mine: 107 on the first game, and 125 on the second.

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We were also each given a token which we could use to have a go on one of those ‘catcher’ games in the arcade, and some fake Round 1 coins that could be used in the ‘money pushing’ machines.

You can get more information about Round 1 on the Round 1 website [original Japanese] [English translation]. And here is a direct link to the prices [original Japanese] [English translation] at the Takamatsu branch. There is also a PDF with some English information on how their system works.

Ryoanji Temple and Yudofuya Restaurant in Kyoto

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Ryoanji is a famous temple in Kyoto, Japan. It is most famous for its rock garden, consisting of small white raked stones, with 15 larger rocks positioned in the gravel.

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Just outside the garden is a model that shows the positions of the rocks. When viewed from the ground you can never see all fifteen rocks at once. Fourteen is the most that can be seen at any one time.

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A lot of people sit and watch the garden for a few minutes before moving on.

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Yudofuya vegetarian restaurant

If all that time spent looking at rocks has made you hungry, there is a traditional vegetarian restaurant in the grounds. It isn’t easy to be vegetarian in Japan, but if you are in Kyoto it is easier than in many other places due to the temple restaurants that serve vegetarian food.

It is called Yudofuya, and the main dish it serves is yudofo (which is tofu served in hot water). We didn’t have to book when we went there – we arrived before 12pm and it was fairly quiet. This was January by the way.

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There are only three items of food on the menu, so we ordered all of them. First was the ‘vegetarian dish with yudofu’. Quite pricey at ¥3,300, but tasty. It consisted of lots of small vegetable snacks. Also pictured is the rice which cost us ¥200.

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The third item is the ‘yudofu’. It is a big pot filled with loads of soft tofu. It cost us ¥1,500 and was very good.

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All three dishes together are enough for two people. In the restaurant you have to sit on the tatami floor, and you get a great view of the garden out of the window.

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The restaurant soon became busy, so you probably should arrive early.

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Here is the menu which you can just about make out from my photo. I’ve written the text out under it. Our three dishes came to a total of ¥5,000.

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Yu-dofu (boiled soy bean curd with vegetables): ¥1,500
Rice: ¥200
Vetetable dish with yu-dofu: ¥3,300
Beer: ¥500
Sake: ¥500
Juice (Cola, Orange, Kirin-Lemon): ¥200

There is also a note explaining that if you only order a drink there is a ¥300 cover charge. And if you want to share the Yu-dofu dish between multiple people (without ordering other dishes) they’ll charge ¥200 for each extra person to cover ‘chopsticks and spice’.

Staying in the Akihabara Washington Hotel, Tokyo

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

During a recent visit to Tokyo I stayed at the Akihabara Washington Hotel for 8 nights. Here are my photos and a small amount of information about the hotel.

The hotel is in Akihabara on the East side of central Tokyo. It is a three minute walk from the JR Yamanote line – this is the line that circles central Tokyo and goes to many of the main places of interest. Also from Akihabara station is the Chuo Sobu line, which can get you to Shinjuku in a more direct way than the Yamanote line.

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This is what the double room looked like from the inside. The decoration is modern and functional. There is a free LAN internet connection if your bring your laptop.

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In the bathroom they had one of those heated mirrors that prevents steam from forming on the central part of it after you have had a bath or shower.

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The TV is compact – it needs to be as the room is quite small.

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And the fridge is even smaller. It is only one carton deep, however you can still cram a fair bit in. Here I’ve got several drinks, sushi, rice balls and yogurt squeezed inside. Instead of a traditional hanging ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, the one here is magnetic, so it sticks on the door.

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In the hotel room was a pamphlet advertising a special ‘train set’ room which they have in the hotel. The English text says ‘Railway Diorama & Railway View’. As well as getting a train set in your room, you also get a good view of the train tracks which run near the station! I’ve no idea what this room costs, but if you are into that kind of thing this could be the hotel for you!

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Here’s the view out of the window. This room was on one of the upper floors.

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Here is the ground floor lobby which just contains the lifts. The reception is on the 2nd or 3rd floor. In the lift you have to press your room key to the card reader panel and then it takes you to the correct floor. You can’t access any floors other than the common floors, and the one you have a key for.

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And finally here is a view of the hotel building from the front at night.

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If you want to compare prices for this hotel you can look at the Akihabara Washington Hotel on HotelsCombined.com*.

Can you walk across Tokyo in a day?

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Once you’ve seen all the main tourist sites in Tokyo what can you do next? Why not try walking across the city! I recently did two walks across central Tokyo, one from Akihabara to Shinjuku, and one from Shiba area (Hamamatsucho station) to Shibuya. Both these walks are from East to West from one side of the Yamanote loop train line to the other. This map shows very roughly where I went and you can click on it for a (slightly) bigger version.

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Akihabara to Shinjuku walk

Akihabara was my starting point as that is where my hotel was (Akihabara Washington Hotel). Akihabara is the electronics and manga district of Tokyo and is full of brightly lit shops, and geeky looking customers!

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I headed South, walking along the canal (there are quite a few canals in Tokyo if you look for them).

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It didn’t take long for me to reach the musical instrument area with many shops selling guitars and sheet music.

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Beyond the musical instrument area is a second hand book street (lots of themed areas on this walk).

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I went throught the North part of the Imperial Palace park and exited on the West side near to where many embassies are.

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Then the walk was largely in a straight line along Shinjuku-dori, the bright lights of Shinjuku becoming visable in the distance.

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And here is the end, Shinjuku, famous for its nightlife, shops, and restaurants.

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In total this walk took about two and half hours at a leisurly pace. It shows that central Tokyo is quite walkable if you can be bothered.

Shiba to Shibuya walk

My second walk was again from East to West. This time I started at Hamamatsucho station in the Shiba area and walked to Shibuya. Again both areas are on the Yamanote JR line which loops central Tokyo. The first major sight on the walk was the Tokyo Tower.

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Next I ended up following a not very glamerous looking expressway that was going towards Roppongi Hills.

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Once the slightly scruffy looking area was out of the way I could see the new tower buildings that make up the Roppongi Hills complex.

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You can go up to the top of this tall tower (Mori Tower) to get a good view across Tokyo. The rounded building to the left is the TV Asahi building which you can also visit.

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After passing Roppongi Hills I continued following the raised expressway.

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Going through a dark tunnel (but not as dark as the photo makes it look).

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Before finally reaching Shibuya – one of Tokyo’s main shopping areas.

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This walk only took a bit over one and a half hours.

If you are looking for a new way to discover Tokyo walking across it is very good for discovering how all the areas are linked. You don’t realise how close some of these areas are if you go everywhere by train.

Viewing Mount Fuji

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Mount Fuji (known as Fuji-san) makes one of Japan’s classic and most famous images. It can however be notoriously difficult to view as clouds and mists often obscure it (see the film Cherry Blossoms for an example).

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Winter can be a good time to view it as the air tends to be clearer. I went at the end of December. Your best bet for seeing it is to go on a clear, dry day. There are webcams positioned at various places looking towards Mount Fuji. They can give you a good indication in advance of what the view will look like.

To get to Kawaguchiko station (near Mount Fuji) from Shinjuku station in Tokyo you have two main options.

1. Get the Chuo Line and then the Fujikyuko Line trains which will cost between ¥2390 and ¥3800 depending on whether you get the Chuo line rapid service (1hr 40mins + 50mins) or the Chuo line limited express (1hr + 50mins).

2. Or you can go for the Chuo Highway Bus which will get you there direct from Shinjuku in 1hr 50mins for ¥1700.

If you want to climb Mount Fuji (which you can only do in Summer) you’ll have either get a shuttle bus/taxi from Kawaguchiko station or the Chuo Highway Bus can take you all the way from Shinjuku to the Kawaguchiko 5th station.

The information we got from the tourist office estimates that it would take you about 5 hours on the way up, and 3 hours on the way down. You can also get a piece of paper from the Tokyo Tourist Information Centers which shows you all the transport options between Tokyo and Mount Fuji.

We got the bus from Shinjuju. We were able to see Mount Fuji after we had travelled about 20 minutes from Shinjuku. Once got to Kawaguchiko station we got the Retro Bus to the Mount Kachi Kachi Ropeway. We bought a discounted ticket from here which let us go on the cable car, and on the Ensoleille sightseeing boat.

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The cable car takes only a few minutes to get you to the top of the (small) mountain. On the way up Mount Fuji is not visible at all as it is obscured by Mount Kachi Kachi.

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However once at the top Mount Fuji is clear to see from the various viewing areas.

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Even today which was a bright sunny day, there was still a ring of mist around Fuji.

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There is a bell you can ring and some kind of mascot at the top (not sure who he is).

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Then we got the cable car back down the mountain and made the short walk to the lake.

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To finish off our Mount Fuji viewing we got on the Ensoleille sightseeing boat for a 20 minute sail on Kawaguchiko lake.

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The view from the lake is considered to be one of the classic Mount Fuji views.

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Tokyo New Year’s Eve fireworks in Yokosuka

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

On New Year’s Eve most of the major cities around the work have large free organised fireworks displays in the city centre. Unfortunately Tokyo doesn’t – at least not in the main city. There are several paid displays if you are prepared to travel a bit outside the centre, but if you made the journey to Yokosuka (横須賀市) in Kanagawa prefecture on 31st December 2010 you could see the fireworks for free.

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From Tokyo JR station it took over an hour to get to Yokosukachou station (needing two trains), from where it was just a five minute walk to the fireworks area. As we were there early we went for a walk around the park where there were many stalls serving hot food and drinks.

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There were lots of Japanese food stalls, and even a stall claiming to serve ‘American Food’.

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The fireworks were being launched from the Tokyo Bay near to some navy ships that had been decorated with lights.

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There were three submarines in the water. One had ‘2010’ written on it in lights, and as soon as it became 2011 the lights changed to ‘2011’.

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The fireworks display then started. Despite using an old, cheap digital camera that I was holding in my hand I still managed to get some good shots of the fireworks reflected off the water.

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The display lasted a bit over five minutes and the mostly Japanese crowd watched very politely. Unlike in many other countries where people drink to excess on New Year’s Eve, in Japan people either don’t drink, or they just have a very small amount. There was no sign of any rowdy behaviour during the whole evening.

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After the display finished there was time to get the second to last train back to Tokyo. If you hang around too long after the fireworks you’ll miss the last train, so make sure you know where you are going after the fireworks finish.

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