03 October 2016

Tokyo (Japan) - Ueno Park & Akihabara

Date of Exploration : 28 Mar 2016

After Asakusa Temple, we continued our exploration of the northeastern districts of Tokyo with a visit to Ueno Park and Akihabara. As all these places of interest are rather nearby, planning to see all of them together as a day excursion would save a lot of travelling time.

Ueno Park - An Attraction of Attractions

From Tokyo's iconic Asakusa Temple, we took a short train ride to Ueno Park. Other than being a scenic green escape from the concrete of Tokyo, the park is also home to a zoo (Ueno Zoo), several museums (such as the Tokyo National Museum, Western Museum of Art, National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, etc), shrines and themed landscapes.

With so many attractions within its grounds, Ueno Park makes for a very rewarding visit that could demand a full-day trip just to explore most of what it has to offer. But perhaps what the park is most famous for is its reputation as one of the best places for hanami (appreciating cherry blossoms) during the sakura season

I came to Japan specially for the cherry blossom season so Ueno Park was on my list of must-visit places to revel in the floral spectacle. Ueno Park is also a favourite choice for hanami parties for the locals because it is the only park in Tokyo where the consumption of alcohol is allowed.

Being a hotspot for viewing sakura, Ueno Park gets a lot of footfall with people numbering as countless as the flowers in bloom. To avoid crowds and have much of the park to yourself, the best time to visit is apparently before 10am during the sakura season.

We arrived late at Ueno Park (at around 3pm) but early for the sakura season. Most of the trees were still budding and the flowers were not in full bloom yet.

We passed by the quaint Kiyomizu Kannado (Goddess of Mercy Temple) sitting atop a hill. As we did not have a lot of time before nightfall, we rushed through our visit of Ueno Park and did not visit the various attractions and points of interest within its vicinity.

I can imagine how spectacular it would be when the floral canopies are in full bloom.

As different species of cherry blossoms with slightly different blooming periods are planted in Ueno Park, we were rewarded with these early sprays of pink so our trouble to get here wasn't in vain.

Sakura flowers are pretty alone and beautiful together.

Groups of people spread picnic mats along the paths lined with sakura trees for hanami parties and gatherings. Consumption of alcohol is permitted in Ueno Park so can you imagine warming up with some sake (Japanese rice wine) in the cool spring air amidst drifting petals of sakura? Ahh... it would be bliss! Except that the green hoarding destroyed any sense of beauty!

Silly jump shot at the vast plaza in front of Tokyo National Museum.
A brief time photographing the sakura blooms later, the sun began to set and we hurried off to our next destination. If I visit Tokyo again, I would definitely come back to Ueno Park to check out the zoo, temples and museums. And I would definitely start my visit much earlier so as to see more!

Akihabara - Plugging into the Anime Pulse of Tokyo

Departing Ueno Park, we had wanted to walk over to Bunkyo Civic Center, which has a free-access observation deck on the 25th floor, to catch the sunset over Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji from the deck.

In my research, Bunkyo Civic Center didn't seem too far a walk from Ueno Park but because I was being cheap, I didn't get a local data SIM card so that I can activate Google map for way-finding and relied on asking our way to where we wanted to be. Thinking that Bunkyo Civic Center would be a well-known landmark, we asked the police at Ueno Park and several passers-by along the way but no one knew where the building was. We even showed them photos of the building only to receive blank stares.

We walked along Showa-Dori road, which is an arterial road next to the entrance of Ueno Park, and about 30 minutes later, we ended up at Akihabara! I've planned to go Akihabara after Bunkyo Civic Centre but unwittingly, we've arrived at Tokyo's famed tech district without knowing that we could actually walk to Akihabara from Ueno Park. Oh well, it was a pleasant surprise although we didn't get to see the sunset over Tokyo as hoped for.

Welcome to Tokyo's geekdom of tech and anime!

Other than electronics, Akihabara is also a come-to place for entertainment-themed restaurants and cafes such as the AKB48 Cafe and Gundam Cafe. AKB48 is the wildly popular girl band group which has 48 members! And 'AKB' is short for Akihabara because this is where it all started.

I came to Akihabara not because I'm a techie but for the area's famed maid cafes where diners are served by cute girls in maid costumes. Ok, I know what you are thinking... that I'm a dirty old man satisfying some BDSM fetish but I'm not. I'm just curious about this peculiar cafe culture that is every schoolboy's and horny men fantasy.

One of the most famous maid cafe is @Home Cafe. At the cafe, you are treated like a king where the maids will serve you, play games with you and even feed you! I was really psyched about the experience of being pampered but my companion didn't feel comfortable with the idea so the lift lobby was as close I'd gotten to @Home Cafe.

There are many different kinds of maid cafes in Akihabara. Some have games as part of their services while others engage you in handicraft or performances. I think it's a blessing that I didn't go into the maid cafe. I would probably take over their jobs since it sounds like so much fun! LOL

Since we gave the maid cafes a miss, we decided to check out Gundam Cafe, which is next door to the AKB48 Cafe.

Piecing together plastic robots was one of my favourite past-times as a kid and I had shelves full of Gundam bots and mechanised Zoids on display. Whatever ang pow money I got during Chinese New Year would end up on those shelves. So I was also pretty psyched to dine at Gundam Cafe. But luck wasn't on our side. The cafe was closed that day for a private event! *tear out my hair*

It was quite a string of non adventures at Akihabara but there's no denying that the district possesses a great potential for unusual experiences that is centered around the uniquely Japanese culture of manga / anime. And here's me trying to audition as the next anime star. Ooi... stop puking okay?!

From soaking in the religious traditions at Asakusa Temple to sakura viewing at Ueno Park to stepping into the future at Akihabara, we encountered 3 very distinct facets of Tokyo that are so very different all in a day. What can I say except that I'm totally loving it in Tokyo!

13 July 2016

Kyoto (Japan) - From Modern to Time-Trodden

Date of Exploration : 29 Mar 2016

After 4 days in Tokyo, we bade the eclectic capital city farewell and made our way to Kyoto. We were initially anxious about securing train tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto but there was really no need to worry as the frequency of trains plying between the two cities is very high.

A train departs Tokyo for Kyoto once every about 20 minutes so it wasn't necessary to pre-book tickets online. But being kiasu, we bought the tickets a day in advance at one of the ticketing outlets at Shinjuku Station where our hotel is near. During peak tourist season in Japan such as during the sakura season, it is advisable to buy tickets earlier in case tickets get sold out on the intended day of travel.

As Japan's train network is notoriously confusing, one trick I've learnt is to always look for a station's control booth next to the entry / exit gantries or information counters to ask and confirm details before making a ticket purchase. They are very helpful and most of them speak decent English so there's really no reason to get lost. When in doubt, just ask.

We bought the train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto a day earlier on 28 Mar to travel on 29 Mar. The one-way train ride costs ¥13,080 (approx. S$172) for the non-reserved seat and takes about 140 minutes (2hrs 40mins) between Tokyo and Kyoto.

A non-reserved seat means that you don't get an assigned seat and have to get on the train carriage to look for an empty seat. If the train is full, you'll have to wait for the next one. A reserved seat would be one where you are assigned a seat number but it would costs more per ticket (
¥14,000 / S$184).

The sleek Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) that look like they just arrived out of a sci-fi movie is our ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train line that connects Tokyo to Kyoto is known as the Tokaidao Line.

Now, this is where it gets complicated. There are different travel durations for the Shinkansen to reach Kyoto - Nozomi train takes 140 minutes, Hikari train at 160 minutes and Kodama train is the slowest at 4 hours. So check the departure noticeboards and board the right train as all train tickets to Kyoto cost the same price. And make sure you board the right class - Reserved or Non-Reserved seat, which are indicated outside the train carriages.

The Tokaido Line actually links Tokyo to Kyoto and then onward to Osaka so it is not uncommon to see Shin-Osaka or Osaka listed as the final destination of a Shinkansen train. But always, when in doubt, ask a fellow passenger or a train captain who strolls pass as they change shift before getting on a train. I asked 3 different people to confirm the train I was getting on goes to Kyoto before I got on.

There were a number of food shops at Tokyo's Shinagawa Station which offered very pretty looking bentos which we bought to fill up during the long ride. A set of these tic-tac-toe bento boxes costs around S$10. And don't worry about eating or drinking on the train as there are toilets on board in case you have a very active digestive system.

A passing glimpse of the snow-capped tip of Mount Fuji. When visiting Japan, one of the trophies to bring home is a photo of Mount Fuji is full view with its white tip. However, due to weather and environmental conditions, getting an unobstructed and clear view of Mount Fuji with its summit covered in white snow depends a lot on luck.

We didn't get to see the iconic mountain's summit when we visited Lake Kawaguchiko, a prime spot to see and photograph the famous mountain. But on our way from Tokyo to Kyoto, I caught a fleeting glimpse and thus this photo of Mount Fuji's white-capped top! Here's a tip... when facing the forward direction of the train, sit on the right side (see photo above) for a view of Mount Fuji passing by your window. Mount Fuji is visible about 35 minutes into the ride so prepare your camera!

Hello Kyoto!

We left Tokyo at about 11:50am and arrived in Kyoto at 1:10pm. The trains are very punctual for departure and arrival which made the whole travelling experience so definite and predictable. Love the Japanese for that!

I come in two pieces... my luggage and me. Lesson here is not to play matchy-matchy with the luggage as it's hard to discern which is which.

Our nest in Kyoto was Hotel Brighton City Kyoto Yamashina which was near a local train station and easily accessible. The hotel comes with free usage of an indoor onsen that has stipulated schudules to separate male and female usage of the shared hot pools.

We paid S$495 for 2 nights here. Our room was very compact like most Japanese hotels but it has quite a nice view in the direction of the train station with mountain ranges in the background. After we put our luggage and bags, we had to tip-toe around the room.

One major convenience we enjoyed about Hotel Brighton City (Kyoto, Yamashina) was its next-door proximity to Daimaru shopping mall via an underground link. This provided a great opportunity to go food shopping at the the mall around 7:30pm when ready-to-eat stalls at its supermarket section start offering steep discounts for quick sale of their perishable bentos, snacks and meals.

We bought 3 sets of sashimi
after discount at ¥980 (S$4 each) and delicious bentos for about S$6 for dinner. It was a sumptuous budget feast in bed!

Down the Way of Bygone Days

After dropping off my dressed-alike luggage at the hotel, we headed straight for Gion, the heritage district of Kyoto. It was just a shot train ride from Yamashina Station where our hotel was to Gion and we were instantly transported to a time-yellowed era of Japan's yesteryears.

Kyoto is so very different from Tokyo. The streets are quieter and pace of life slower with  countless remnants of the old world beautifully aged in place. 

Antiques within an antique... Passed by this vintage toy shop that is itself a piece of history. I had a hunch that early sex toys were disguised as elephants.

This roadside lavatory that resembled a slice of Swiss Roll Cake cracked me up! Guess many would be doing some baking inside.

Wood you still love me tomorrow?

First bloom of a sakura tree reaching towards Kamo River taken on Sanjo Ohashi Bridge.

Pulling back a little more, this is the same sakura tree as the one above in black-and-white with Kamo River to the left. The river is near the Gion old quarters.

Crossing Sanjo Ohashi Bridge over Kamo River from Gion, I was brought to a very quaint neighbourhood of restaurants and cafes along Kiyamachi Street. With a canal lined on one side with old shophouses and the other with cherry blossom trees, the street is a natural lens pleaser. But this place is not to be confused with the Shirakawa Area which is the most scenic old streetscape in Kyoto.

Double flower power! A pink magnolia tree held its ground to attract eyeballs amongst the crowd of sakura blooms along Kiyamachi Street. I think the 2 flowers complement each other wondrously.

Pink magnolias typically bloom in spring on a bald tree.

It is always such a joy to discover sakuras in bloom. This is the pink variety of the five-petaled Yamazakura. This species sprouts leaves the same time as its flowers bud and bloom.

Having a Little Red Riding Hood moment in the enchanted sakura forest. LOL

I wood always love you... Yup, I'm smitten by the classic wooded facade of olden day Jap architecture.

Doing my best interpretation of Spirited Away.

Getting in on the minimalist chic-Zen movement of Japan by cam-whoring with an uncluttered backdrop.

The bench needed company so I decided to let it feel better by sharing the weight of my loneliness.

A scenic setting for great snaps, Kiyamachi Street and its surrounding grid of streets and tidy back alleys provide a unique backdrop to indulge in narcissism.

We didn't find much things to do here as we did not venture to the nearby market and shopping area and decided to head back to the Gion old quarters to catch the coveted cultural performances by maiko. Exploring Gion and its photogenic nearby districts of Kiyamachi Street and Shirakawa Area is definitely a time opportunity in Japan not to be missed! 

11 July 2016

Kyoto (Japan) - Falling Under the Old World Charm of Gion and Shirakawa Area

Date of Exploration : 29 Mar 2016

Passing through the high walls that hid Gion (祇園) from the modern eye was like slipping through a crack in time to old Japan. And midst the labyrinth of wooded classical Japanese shophouses and abodes, a hunt is on for a glimpse of that elusive living cultural treasure of Japan... the geisha. It takes luck to spot one.

Gion is a famous geisha district, not just in Kyoto but the whole of Japan, which makes it a magnet for tourists hoping to chance a meeting with the traditional artisans. Historically, geisha are female performers who entertained male patrons with song and dance as well as offering consort and company during Japan's late medieval period from the 1600s. In those days, some of the geisha also provided sexual services and districts where they operate were condoned off and designated as pleasure quarters. Thus was the beginning of Gion. Or so many would think.

Taking a walk down the vintage Gion district is like going on a time travel to Japan's medieval past.

Contrary to popular belief, Gion was never a red-light district and geisha are not prostitutes although some worked for the pleasures of the flesh.

The true origins of Gion, as I read off the web, is that the district started as an entertainment hub to serve visitors of the nearby Yasaka-jinja Shrine (a.k.a Gion Shrine). Today, Gion has evolved into an attraction in its own right and serves as a bridge into the old world.

What greets visitors at Gion is a grid of streets and alleys packed with fine dining restaurants and tea houses (called chaya in Japanese) that will have credit card companies preparing a funeral for the banks. Eateries within Gion are known to be pricey.

The IT thing to do at Kyoto is to rent a kimono (from ¥3,000, approx. S$40) and play dress-up to resurrect a nostalgic Japanese era with you in it. There are many ladies in traditional kimono but they are not geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) so do not be mistaken.

I also played dress up... aiming to channel Chage and Aska in a hip (I think it's hip lah) top but looking like Barney forgot sunscreen for the legs. Heh heh... Love the mostly old world feel of the alleyways at Gion.
Catch a Traditional Show at Gion Corner... if You Can

Tucked at the end of the Gion main street (if you are coming from Shijo-dori Street) is Gion Corner where you can catch a variety of traditional dances and ceremonies as well as performances by maiko (apprentice geisha). Click here for the official website of Gion Corner for their performance dates and schedules.

Tickets are at ¥3,150 (S$42) per adult but if you click here to download a coupon, print it out and show it during purchase, you can get the ticket at ¥2,800 (S$37.50). However, Gion Corner so run special promotions during special seasons and tickets can go for ¥2,500 (S$33.50) per adult so do check at the ticketing counter which is the best deal.

Entrance to Gion Corner where a study of 7 different kinds of traditional performances await. The performances include Kyo-mai Dance, Flower Arrangement, Tea Ceremony, Koto Zither, Gagaku Court Music, Kyogen Theatre, and Bunraku Puppet Theatre.

I looked forward to catching the the performances and came ahead at 4:30pm to purchase tickets for the 6:00pm show but was turned away. Ticketing only opens 30 minutes before the two nightly shows (unless stipulated as closed) at 6:00pm and 7:00pm.

Hence, for the 6:00pm show, tickets are available for sale at 5:30pm and 6:30pm for the 7:00pm show. We came at 5:45pm to buy tickets for the 6:00pm but it was already sold out. I was crestfallen but decided not to go for the 7:00pm show as I was famished and looked forward for dinner.

So my advice would be to start queuing at least 45 minutes before the stipulated show times.

The performance hall of Gion Corner is the beige building on the left.

The good thing about being at Gion Corner early prior to the show times is that you may get to see a Maiko making her way to the theatre for the evening's performance! I was caught by surprise and they don't stop for photos so this smudgy shot was what I had to contend with using my Olympus Tough TG-4 compact cam.
Do Not Touch the Geisha or Hound them Like Paparazzi

It is very hard not to be all worked up and excited upon seeing a real-life maiko or geisha. Because of their reclusive and guarded realm, their secret lives have become something of an enigma that makes a sighting the highlight of a visit to Gion.

The enthusiasm to bring home a memory of proof of sighting by tourists has led to increasing complaints from the artisans that tourists have become disturbingly rude with them by blocking their paths, holding them back and chasing after them for photographs. This led to the following sign to remind visitors to be respectful of geisha...

See no touch. Be respectful of Maiko and Geisha. You can take a photo from a distance but do not block their way or stop them as they are on their way to honour the booking of their entertainment services. That is, they are on their way to work. So stopping for photos with every click-hungry tourist would cause them to be late.

Weaving through the side streets and alleys of Gion, we came across houses with wooden tablets placed on top of the door frame. These are homes of a geisha and her charge of maiko (trainee geisha). Geisha is used both as a singular to describe one geisha as well as plural to describe many of them. Likewise, using the term maiko can mean one or a group.

In Kyoto, the geisha is also called 'geiko' (pronounced as "gay cold" and not to be mispronounced as "gecko"). The village of the geiko is listed and the names of the maiko all ending in 子 (zi) are displayed outside the house.In the past, a girl may start training as a maiko from the age of 8 years-old. The modern day maiko starts between the ages of 15 to 20 and their training could take as long as 5 years to complete before they 'graduate' to become a geiko. A geiko performance commands more prestige and a higher price compared to a maiko.

Face-time with a maiko! Again, the sighting took me by surprised and I tried to take a photo from the side without being intrusive. As the light was failing, she was constantly moving and I didn't want to shock her with flash photography, the photo turned out blur again.

She is the third maiko we saw during our time in Gion. We saw one in a cab on her way to perform in a private event, another at Gion Corner, and this one who walked face-on in my direction. We must be really lucky!

A maiko's costume is usually more vibrant and colourful as compared to the oft single-toned sombre hues that a geiko dresses in; that's how to tell them apart. Maiko and geiko don't perform for just anybody. You have to have connections to be invited to a private performance and be prepared to pay. Else, head over to Gion Corner for a sample of traditional dance performed by maiko.

No selfie with geiko or maiko? No problem! Found these 2 cute and friendly gals in kimono to get my brush-with-history memento. Arigatou ladies!
 Shimbashi Street in Shirakawa Area Switches on its Charms

While the walled geisha district of Gion that sprouted along Hanami-koji Street is a key tourist attraction in Kyoto, there are many other scenic spots to explore outside of it and the most charming of them all would be Shimbashi Street in the Shirakawa Area. Especially at night when the night lights come on.

We didn't really know our way to Shimbashi Street so we just followed the backs of strangers who seemed to have a destination in their stride and hoped that we'll stumble upon the famed street.

Countless shops line the vehicular streets immediately outside of Gion. We were wandering blindly but thankfully, we arrived at...

... Shimbashi Street! This is one side of it lined with blooming sakuras. It took us under 20 minutes to walk from Gion to Shimbashi Street.

The boulevard of statuesque sakura trees filled the atmosphere with romance and magic... and then I had to stand there and spoil it. LOL

Across from the boulevard of cherry blossoms is the Shirakawa Canal where the most enchanting street-scape of Kyoto unfolds along the waterway.

Sakura lined streets, bridges, a flowing stream and classical architecture... Shimbashi Street with the accompanying Shirakawa Canal brought to life a fairytale scene.

The best time to visit Shimbashi Street is during the evening when the day crosses over to the night. This was taken at 6:40pm when the blue hour was at its peak.

Words and photos are inadequate to fully express the period beauty of this lyrical poem residing in a bewitching painting.

Lots of visitors and photographers fell under the spell of Shimbashi Street. On the other side of the canal, premium restaurants and tea houses line the banks to offer a prime dining experience.

A cascading spray of cherry blossoms in full bloom.

The sakura flowers radiate beauty both in daylight and artificial light.

No leaves just flowers.

We took a very scenic night stroll down Shimbashi Street.

Shimbashi Street receives an endless stream of visitors during sakura season.

I liked the lights found around Shirakawa Area that are such beacons of Zen.

The tight alleyways of Shirakawa Area are home to numerous restaurants waiting to be savoured.

Old world in a new light.

Our visit of Gion and the scenic areas beyond it began from 4pm and ended at 7pm. Personally, I didn't find a lot of things to do except for landscape photography and and posing in them.

Restaurants and shops at these heritage quarters have an obligation towards authenticity so it's impossible to see beyond the wooded frames and paper screens to know what's offered inside. Their commitment to uniformity in building material also led to a somewhat homogenous look where it is hard to distinguish one eatery from another.

Yet, those are the factors that distinguish Kyoto from other Japanese cities and that which made this place a come-to to escape the hyper urbanity and frenzied life-pace of Japan.
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