Hiroshima

Our stay in Hiroshima was around 36 hours- 2 nights and 1 full day.

We got our hotel with air miles after struggling to find anything central for under $350/ night.

The hotel was centrally located, but a nondescript “business” hotel.

Once checked in we took a wander to orientate ourselves. We grabbed some okonomiyaki ( local dish and highly recommended ) which was a combination of pancake, cabbage, fried noodles, egg and meat or fish. Perfect and exactly what we needed.

After that we had a couple of drinks and practiced our karaoke in a claustrophobic and very warm room.

The next day we started a self guided walking tour around the city which started at the peaceful and Tim Burton-esque Shukkeien Gardens (shrunken gardens). The gardens were heavily damaged in ’45 but became a refuge for victims. It was restored and re opened to the public in 1951.

Hiroshima Castle: 10 minutes walk from the gardens, curiously made of wood and occasionally guarded by Samurai.

Even the Samurai are friendly in Hiroshima

Atomic Bomb Dome: the epicentre of the bomb and kept in the same physical state as Aug 6 1945.

The Cenotaph

Throughout the visit, I think the most moving aspect, at least for me, were the videos and recordings from survivors recounting memories of the horrific day that changed theirs, their friends, their family’s and the world forever.

We were so struck that despite this horrific act which killed 150k of their people, the Japanese response is to seek peace, not vengeance.

Their request for the world to stop the development and testing of nuclear weapons is clear and they make no apologies to highlight the date of the last nuclear test and the guilty country: USA in December 2017, if your curious.

For dinner we found a local place for dinner. With all the signs in Japanese, we went in clueless of the menu but were greeted by an enthusiastic chef who explained the menu, seated us and quickly served an appetiser of a large snail (around 3” in size).

It did not taste of chicken, nor was it tender. It had a uncomfortable crunch to it and I’m ashamed to say that half of mine ended up in a Kleenex.

The rest of the meal was amazing with sashimi and a fish head soup. The chef become our new BFF.

Next stop: Osaka.

Naoshima: Art, Nature and Architecture

Naoshima is an island located in Japan’s Seta Island Sea. Known for its contemporary art museums, this island has been a hidden secret for around 30 years and boasts contemporary architecture alongside traditional Japanese houses. I say *hidden* as not that many Japanese or tourists know about it. The theme of the art spaces and for Naoshima as a whole is to create spaces where art and nature coexist.

But this place is not somewhere you stumble upon: from Kyoto it took us a bus, four trains and a ferry to arrive but after spending 36 hours on the island we can duly report that it was definately worth the multiple connections as the place itself and the museums are breathtaking.

In order to balance our trip budget we stayed at Naoshima Backpackers Guesthouse. We’d wanted to stay at the Benesse (the primary island hotel and Museum) but at $400 a pop it would have broken the budget so we settled on $30 per night at the backpackers instead. Incidentally, we are expecting our budget to take a beating in a few days so we intentionally stayed low in this location.

In the interests of experiencing unusual forms of accommodation, we’d booked a capsule room (unique to Japan and a space big enough for a bed and not much else) but when we arrived we were upgraded to twin room. Who gets upgraded at a backpackers?? Haha

Anyway- it was nice to have the space for our huge case so we didn’t complain.

Once settled, we hired bikes to get around the island (which was around 10km round the edges) and used local recommendations for lunch and dinner.

[One thing to note is that in comparison with the rest of Japan which is ordered and precise, Naoshima was a little *casual* in the way it handled itself: for instance, restaurant opening hours were listed as *Open Monday/irregular* and the one bakery on the island listed online as opening at 8.30am, had a sign outside, when I visited, saying “today’s opening is from around 13 o’clock”. It was very out of character and ever so slightly annoying]

The main compound on the island (mentioned above) is called Benesse House and is one of many buildings designed by Tadao Ando, a self taught Japanese architect who designed many of the museums / buildings on this island.

His style, minimal, angular and in most cases from concrete give a blank canvas for the presented artworks and become very much part of the visual experience.

During our brief stay, the museums we visited were:

The Chi Chu Art Museum

Benesse House

Lee Ufan Museum

For all of the above locations photography is prohibited. Under instructions from the management/organisation, who wanted visitors to focus on the space and not on re living the visit. It made for a frustrating start since the buildings were so unique in design we wanted to capture the angles and vistas.

However, in retrospect, it did make the whole experience so much richer and more powerful. For visual purposes on the blog we scanned some postcards to try and capture the space.

It’s unusual to have one museum only feature three artists and maybe eight pieces of work in total but this was the case for the Chi Chu.

The museum, built into the side and top of the island, uses pockets of natural light to illuminate rooms. When you see the museum from above (google it) you see angular shapes for each of the galleries for museum walkways.

Featured in one room were five Monets, in the second pace were three James Turrell light pieces and in the last space was a piece by Walter De Maria.

Not much – right?

It’s hard to describe in a blog the impact this building and the pieces had on us (without us sounding pretentious, obnoxious, or both) but entering each of the rooms was an emotional, spine tingly affair as we either discovered a new artist, saw work in a new and dramatic space or were able to quietly interact with the piece in silence and without camera clicks.

The docents were cautious on numbers and the other visitors extremely respectful of space and noise. At times the rooms were like private galleries with just us or maybe four other people.

The building itself was so beautiful in its exterior design and interior finishing that it became part of the experience and it made the Monets (pieces we’ve seen before in Paris) almost secondary in the experience.

Our second location, The Benesse House, held a larger number of pieces (at least more than nine), again in a beautiful space and also designed by Ando. It was a lighter, more open space with pieces from Warhol and Hockney to Cy Twomby, Richard Long and Jannis Kounellis. Many of the pieces were inspired by the island location and the surrounding nature.

The final visit was the Lee Ufan Museum which showed his works on canvas along side sculptures. Just as impressive as the previous but different, calmer and more *natural*. The postcards below illustrate his work further.

By the time we had finished the day, we were *arted-out* but in a good way. Usually after a gallery or museum visit it’s the combination of art and the crowds that’s exhausting… in this case it was the space and the art that left us inspired yet calm and full, like you feel after a great roast chicken dinner (apologies to vegetarians).

We ended the evening with a meal at Ebisukamo, a local Japanese restaurant with three tables and one chef+waiter+owner.

The next day would take us to the next door island of Teshima for the Teshima Art Museum. The museum, created for just one piece, was another experience of impressive proportions but again, no photos permitted. The link will take you to the site with images and you’ll just have to believe us when we say it was impressive.

Our next stop is two nights in Hiroshima.

Kyoto: Kimonos, Sake and Shrines

Saturday – Wednesday

Saturday: After carrying the JR Pass around with us for over two months we finally had the chance to exchange the voucher for a ticket and start traveling on the Bullet Trains. The JRPass is a tourist deal only purchasable from outside Japan and in advance of your time here, which enables you to travel as much as you want on the high speed trains for a select amount of time. In our case 14 days. It’s not cheap ($450/pp/14days economy travel), but if you’re planning to zip from city to city and want to reserve seats, it makes sense.

By the time we got from Tokyo to Kyoto it was around 5pm and once we had checked into our place (a small studio space with kitchen and washing machine in the Gion district called Laon Inn Gion Shinmonzen) we met some friends from SF (also traveling in Japan) for drinks and food.

Some locals having a gossip

Sunday: Things on our to do list for the city were to generally wander around and take in the city, go see a Shrine or two, learn more about Sake, and visit some gardens which should be in the transition to Fall and therefore pretty in the color scheme.

Our first stop was walking to the Imperial Palace Gardens which had gardens and a palace. I think it’s a sign of old age when you voluntarily go see a stately home and gardens. Clearly I’ve come to that stage in my life. It was pretty interesting – no, really.

Walking too and from the gardens took us through a nice residential area with small streets, local stores and a mix of old and new architecture and a nice contrast to the Gion district which has a lot of older style buildings.

We hit Nishiki market which is a *bit* of a tourist trap but good to do on our first trip here. It’s a long city block of a street market which has food stalls and gift shops. I was about to eat my own arm so T shoved some carbs down my throat before a passed out and from there we headed for some more substantial food.

Working from another list of recs we found Isuzu which was a Kyoto style sushi bar at the edge of Gion area. The style differs from the traditional in that it doesn’t have wasabi or soy sauce. Strange I hear you say – well yes, but not so weird. It made the flavors of the fish come out more and was a touch sweeter than the usual dish. After so much walking we headed back to the room the have a quick disco nap.

Living on the edge and embracing the holiday spirit we headed out for a cheeky cocktail. We found a very fancy drinks place (ITS GION 2 Deux) in the older Gion neighborhood which served very nice and what turned out to be very expensive drinks. Four drinks took care of the whole day’s food budget. F*ck It: we’re on holiday.

Monday: Monday was shrine day and we headed to Fushimi Inari Shrine, along with the rest of the tourists in Kyoto. The shrine is famous as having 1000 red gates wrapped around a mountain which you can walk through and be enchanted, and blessed, at the same time. Luckily 60% of the tourists couldn’t be bothered to (or couldn’t) walk to to the top of the hill which made it less of a crush for us the further we walked.

Reality of Fushimi Inari

We wrapped up the day with our friends K and R at a great soba noodle place called Sobanomi Yoshimura.

Tuesday: Tuesday was International Sake Day (actually I made that up), but it was the day that we went to a Sake museum to learn about the art of making it. We went to Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum which was in the Fushimi district of the city. Super interesting and we also had a tasting. T learnt some interesting facts for his archive and felt more educated on the subject.

We followed this up was a visit to a local micro brewery there called Matsui Sake Brewery (I told you it was a sake day). This gem of a place was 30 mins north of Fushimi in the heart of Kyoto and remains a family run business. There was no tour, but there was a tasting, with large pours. We left 30 mins later drunk and ready to start a sake importing business in SF.

We ended the day with an Airbnb *experience* Walking tour called Lanterns and Lanes which would take us on a 3 hour walking and food tour of the Gion (Geisha) district plus some more temples, and shrines finishing up with some food. The tour was great and took us to some new neighborhoods. T gathered even more facts and we felt like we got a good intro to the city.

Kyoto is such a contrast to Tokyo in its vibe and style of architecture. It’s a really calm, beautiful and traditional place with many ‘hoods to explore than we had time for. We both left wanting to return for a re run.

Tokyo : “More Intensity”

Tuesday – Friday

Tuesday: It took us 45 mins between stepping off the plane and getting to our Narita Express train into the city. That included, immigration, baggage reclaim and customs: these guys are organized and a welcome change, generally.

After arriving at our hotel (Sakura Fleur Aoyama Hotel) in Shibuya (around 7pm ish) we checked our multiple lists of restaurants recs and sought out a sushi chain which happened to be 7 minutes walk from our place (thanks Jeremy). For a chain, Sushi Zanmai was great and perfect for a quick and local sushi taster.

After that and because we were right at Shibuya we tackled the famous crossing (largest crossing in the world – I think, and was featured in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, a film which will be referenced more than once in this post. If you haven’t seen it, and you like Bill Murray, shame on you for not seeing it!): in any case, the crossing was huge and busy since it was Halloween the day we arrived so we were surrounded by dead zombies and Japanese corpse brides with Hello Kitty headbands. #surreal

Wednesday: After a good nights sleep we headed out into the noise and stumbled across one of the game arcades (similar to those in Lost In Translation) and partook in some arcade dancing. If I can figure out how to load a video, I will.. it was epic. From the arcade we crossed town to the Digital Art Museum which was a visual overload of ….digital…art. I’ll let T’s pictures tell the story although after 2 hours we needed to sit in a beige room to decompress a little. But well worth going if you have the chance.

Heading back into Shibuya and in need of food, T found a space age conveyor belt sushi place (Uobei) which could have been opened in the 60’s by the look of it. But the food was great and quick.

By the end of the day, I was feeling a bit ropey (throaty – probably the Nepalese gunk coming out of my body) so we heading back for an early night after purchasing a vitamin pack from SevenEleven.

Thursday: Feeling better and ready to explore the stores, we headed to Ginza which was full of the fancy pants expensive chains – not so exciting. We did find a great ramen place which tested our skill of translating from pictures in a vending machine. The food was amazing.

From there we headed to Shinjuku where we stumbled in Isetan. This turned into an expensive trip, partly because we both bought beautiful things but also because we didn’t have our passports which would have enabled us to get the tax back. In most countries it’s done at the airport but in Japan, they refund in the store.. Good to know for the future.

But the highlight of the day / trip would have to be a visit to the Robot Restaurant. This is legendary and in all the guide books and blogs for the city. How would I describe it? It’s a cabaret show featuring robot anime characters and lasers – costs about $40 and lasts 90 mins.

Friday: Our last day in the city started in an area near to Shibuya: Omotesando. We expected it to be a few shops, but we didn’t expect cool architecture mixed with local neighborhoods mixed with shops. It was a nice surprise and very low key. We shopped and this time, with passports.

In the evening we headed for a drink at the New York Bar in the Tokyo Park Hyatt (film reference, Lost In Translation). For a hotel bar, it was great and the view of the city was amazing.

For dinner, after another restaurant rec, we tried and succeeded to get a walk in at Gonpachi Nishiazabu which was the inspiration for the scene in Kill Bill with the Crazy 88s. It was pretty cool.

We wrapped up the evening at Karaoke Kan in Shibuya which was the same place as Bob and Charlotte in Lost In Translation. So.Much.Fun. We booked for one hour and extended to two. The set list highlights were:

  • Wilson Phillips
  • Beastie Boys
  • USA for Africa
  • Dolly Parton
  • Warren G
  • Taylor Swift

The hangover was epic.

Next stop: Kyoto.