On my 50th birthday, in April 2013, a friend and senior purser with KLM gave me the best present ever: a ride to any destination in the world, my choice. I didn’t have to think long. It had to be Tokyo.
We just had to wait for the destination to fit into her schedule. By the time my chance to go came up, rest time between flights had been cut to one day. “Do you still want to go?”, my friend asked. Of course I did.
Flying 22 hours to Narita and back for one jetlagged day in a major metropolis? That’s my idea of fun. Besides, it was the perfect opportunity to quit a nasty habit.
I smoked my last cigarette outside Schiphol Airport, two hours before take off.
IN FLIGHT SERVICE
The flight was fantastic. They even let me into the cockpit for the landing at Narita. Strapped in and headphones on, I listened to our pilots communicating with traffic control while I watched them land that huge 747 and find their way to the gate. I stayed up there in the cockpit until the last passenger had left the plane, completely in awe.
The food was pretty good, too.
Straight to bed after arrival, to try and beat the jetlag.
The next day, we took the bus into Tokyo and made our way to Yoyogi Park. We were looking for the Meiji Shrine which actually turned out to be ‘next door’. Yoyogi park itself was more or less deserted this Friday morning, but for a few photographers around these trees. Cherry blossom season had not quite started yet, but these Ume plum trees blossom early.
Right next to Yoyogi park you’ll find the Meiji Shrine. I was most impressed by the stack of huge barrels of sake.
We walked up Omotesando, Tokyo’s Champs Elysees, in search of a kaiten-sushi place recommended to us by the Captain of the flight. It wasn’t too difficult to find. The chef had a sense of humour which he unleashed on an unfortunate group of Korean kids, while winking at us. Fortunately, the kids were oblivious.
Just a few steps away from Omotesando, in the middle of a residential area, we found the quiet Zenkōji temple and cemetery.
AOYAMA & OMOTESANDO
An odd mixture of hipster posh and the light decay of what looked like council flats.
I loved all the little underground shops, selling mostly food and sweets I’d never seen before.
ADS AND PACKAGING
Since I had so little time in the city, I had hung my Olympus Pen from my neck and shot mostly without thinking.. Easy to do with its 17mm wide angle lens. I think it worked out well.
Where else to end the day but the famous Shibuya crossing? Upstairs from the Starbucks café, we got a decent view of madness central.
And that was the end of my 24 hours in Tokyo and my smoking habit. I dropped my last half pack in the bin in my room at the Radisson Hotel in Chiba. I haven’t touched a ciggie since.
Google “Mount Fuji” and your first search results are very likely to include the beautiful view of Japan’s sacred mountain from the Chureito Pagoda in Arakurayama Sengen Shrine Park, Fujiyoshida. Most of these search results won’t even mention the location – it’s just one of the default “pretty Japan” stock photos used in articles.
This iconic location had been on my bucket list for a while, but since the view would be the main point of the expedition, good weather, or at least good visibility was paramount. In December 2019 I was in Tokyo for a week and the weather was perfect most days. Time to get on a train to Fujiyoshida.
I departed from my hotel in Otsuka and took the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku. From there I took a Limited Express train to Otsuki (1 hour) and continued on the Fujikyuko line to Shimoyoshida (50 minutes).
As I got nearer to your destination, I started catching glimpses of the mountain. It never gets old.
It was a week day, but the train was pretty full with mostly elderly Japanese hikers with backpacks and walking sticks. I was afraid they were all going to see the pagoda, but they all got off at another stop for, probably, a less touristy hike.
The train station in Shimoyoshida is small. Cross the tracks and you’ll see Mt Fuji behind the train station. You can get a drink from one of the vending machines there, or make use of its decent toilets.
Check out the map outside the station to get your bearings. To head for the pagoda, go to the right outside the station, straight on and eventually cross back over the train tracks, straight on, then go right underneath the overpass and straight towards Arakurayama Sengen Shrine Park.
There are clear signs pointing you towards the park and its pagoda. It’s a 20 minute walk and you will get to see Mt Fuji from many interesting angles as you walk through the village and the fields.
Once you get to the park you will have to either go up some 390 steps to the top, or take the winding road for a steadier ascend. I took the steps. The further you go up, the better the views become, so don’t forget to look over your shoulder once every while. Take care though, it gets pretty busy up there.
The shrine itself is halfway up Mount Arakura, you’ll see the red torii gate. Here you can rest for a bit and get some snacks from the stalls outside the shrine.
When you get to the five-storied pagoda, you’ll have to climb up behind it. Wow. Pinch yourself, you’re really there and it really is the most spectacular view.
The pagoda was built in 1963, as an addition to Arakura Fuji Sengen Shrine. It is a memorial to peace, commemorating the war dead. The shrine itself was first established in 705.
I was there in Winter, so the trees were bare. Imagine being lucky enough to be there in Sakura season, when the pagoda is framed by cherry blossoms. It’s a lot harder to get clear skies then, that’s why I chose to go in Winter.
There isn’t a lot of space on the observatory deck behind the pagoda and you’ll be competing with a lots of people trying to get their selfies and group shots. You’ll have to be a little patient. Take your time. Maybe sit down for a bit, take it all in before you try to get your shot and return to the station.
From Shimoyoshida station you could head towards Kawaguchiko to cycle around the lake, for more amazing views of Mount Fuji.
Rent a bike and cycle around Lake Kawaguchiko, in the shadow of Mt Fuji.
I’m the kind of traveller that plans their trips meticulously. The planning and looking forward to those plans is a part of the enjoyment. I don’t want to waste any time deciding what to do every day. But I have no problems changing my plans and carefully constructed itineraries if it suits me on the day.
Planned itineraries can wear you out if you forget to plan for down time. That’s why one day in my First Cabin hostel in Akasaka I woke up early, feeling a little tired of the city. I checked the weather forecast. It was a clear enough day, so I got up and hurried to the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal to catch an early highway bus to Kawaguchiko.
Take the highway bus
Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal (4F) is a 2 minute walk from the New South Exit of JR Shinjuku Station. From there you can catch highway buses to Kawaguchiko. Both Fujikyu and Keio Bus operate buses to Kawaguchiko Station from Shinjuku. You can book tickets online, or buy them from the counter at the terminal.
Kawaguchiko is one of the towns in the Five Lake area at the foot of Mt Fuji. I’d googled for buses in that direction and saw that the very early buses were mostly full. When I got to the station just after 7 AM, I was able to get a ticket for the 8.55 AM bus, but the man at the counter also put me on the waiting list for the one at 7.55 AM. He told me to come back to his desk at a certain time and stand in a certain place. The man had flash cards in various languages, but he spoke no English at all. This was, at the time, the longest and most complicated conversation I’d had in Japanese, but it all worked out. I stood in the place I was told to, at the time I was told to and lo and behold, the man beckoned me over with a smile. Off I went on the 7.55 AM bus.
Great views of Mount Fuji
The bus ride to Kawaguchiko is about an hour and forty-five minutes long. On a bright day, you get a good and long view of Mount Fuji the minute you drive out of Shinjuku to the West. You’ll barely lose sight of it until you arrive at your destination. The bus picks up passengers from only a couple of bus stops along the way and eventually passes through Fuji Q, the entertainment park, before arriving at Kawaguchiko station. There, the mountain looms impressively behind the station building. Trust me, at some point during your day here, you’ll start to feel like you can’t escape the damn thing!
Renting a bicycle
Right across from the station you’ll find an outdoor shop with a side business in bicycle rental, Soranoshita Kawaguchiko. They also carry an impressive line in cool T-shirts. I was able to rent a bike from them very quickly. You fill in a rental form and make your payment, including a deposit that you’ll get back once you return the bike. There’s a choice of regular or electric. I went for regular after consulting the staff member who said the ride around the lake wasn’t going to be too strenuous. She was right, it wasn’t.
Tip: I find that Japanese bikes tend to have their saddles a lot lower than I’m used to in my country. Instead of sitting up straight, you end up more slouchy and this makes it 1. hard on your knees and 2. more difficult to navigate. Make sure shop staff prepare the bike for you the way you are used to.
Cycling around the lake
Once they’d adjusted my bike, I set off for the 20km ride, counter clockwise around the lake. 20km is nothing and can be done in an hour, but it took me about five as I felt compelled to stop every few 100 meters to take in the spectacular views, and to take pictures.
It was too early in the year for the cherry blossoms, but right out of the gate, so to speak, I found a small strip of green with a couple of ume (plum) trees in bloom. So pretty.
The weather was amazing. Bright and sunny, with a cool breeze. I got sunburnt like I hadn’t been in a while. Bring sunscreen or cover yourself. Bring sunglasses too.
Take a break in Oishi Park
My first real break was at Oishi Park on the North shore of the lake. It has a wonderful view of the mountain and it is a popular rest area. I parked my bike, got some food and a glass of iced coffee and – as they say – smelled the flowers.
On the South shore of the lake, I took a break at Yagizaki Park. Closer to the town of Kawaguchiko, this park was being used for school year pictures when I got there. You can see them gathering on top of the hill on the right side of the picture below.
Lake Kawaguchi Mt. Tenjō Ropeway
After my bike ride, I took the Lake Kawaguchi Mt. Tenjō Ropeway up Mount Tenjō (900 yen for a round trip). At the top, the observatory has a view of the lake as well as the infamous Aokigahara forest and Mount Fuji. By then, the clouds were coming in and Fuji-san became less and less visible. I’ve read mornings are always the best time for clear skies, so I suggest an early start is advisable if you too would like to cycle around Lake Kawaguchiko.
Buying a ticket back to Tokyo was relatively easy from the counter at Kawaguchiko station. I got back to the city around 7pm. On the bus all the Japanese passengers were fast asleep. I had an ear to ear grin on my face. Completely refreshed and ready to face the city again.
(23 september 2019) It is currently not possible to land on Gunkanjima until further notice due to typhoon related damage to the port.
Back in 2015, on one of my first trips to Japan, I tried to go to Gunkanjima, the “James Bond” island off the coast of Nagasaki. I was staying in Fukuoka and had booked the trip via the Gunkanjima Concierge website, one of several operators of sightseeing tours to the island. I was aware that weather conditions would decide whether the boat would be able to land on the island or indeed actually depart or not, but I forgot to check the weather the morning of my departure. When I got there after a long train ride, all trips had been cancelled for the day.
“Gunkan” battleship roll, an oval ship-shaped maki sushi.
Hashima Island (端島) better known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島; meaning Battleship Island), is an abandoned artificial island about 19 kilometers off the coast of the city of Nagasaki, in southern Japan. One of Nagasaki Prefecture’s 505 uninhabited islands, it’s best known for the abandoned concrete buildings used as the backdrop for some notable scenes in the James Bond movie Skyfall, although the scenes involving the actors were not actually filmed on the island, but in Macau.
Around 5000 people used to work in undersea coal mines on Gunkanjima. They lived in multi-story apartments that covered the island, giving it its battleship shape. The coal was mainly for the Yawata Steel Works, managed by the Mitsubishi Mining Company since 1890. Controversially, from the 1930s until the end of the Second World War, conscripted Korean civilians and Chinese prisoners of war were forced to work at the Gunkanjima Mitsubishi facility under Japanese wartime mobilisation policies in very dangerous conditions.
It does look like a battleship.
Eventually, the coal ran out and the mine was closed in 1974. All of Gunkanjima’s inhabitants left and the island was abandoned for 30 years. The buildings crumbled and tumbled under the harsh weather conditions. But the ruins stirred up interest with urban explorers and eventually and access was re-opened in April 2009. Gunkanjima became an unlikely tourist attraction even though more than 95% of the island is still off-limits during the organised tours. Japanese tourists flocked to the island first, and after the Bond movie, foreign visitors started to join the daily tours, operated by various companies from Nagasaki harbour.
Unesco World Heritage
In 2015, the island was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site as part of “Industrial Heritages for Modernization in Kyushu and Yamaguchi”, but not without opposition from both China and South Korea. Japan had never acknowledged the existence of forced labour on the island before and during WWII. Japan eventually said they would take measures “to allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought there against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions” and the island was then approved for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Until today, there is no mention of this dark history on the island and tour guides apparently do not refer to or appreciate being asked about it at all.
In 2018 I was on day trip to Nagasaki from Fukuoka, with no planned intention to visit Gukanjima. I wanted to see more of the city and its Chinatown than I did last time I went. Beautifully situated on the coast, surrounded by mountains, Nagasaki has almost a European flavour. The city has street names (“Holland Street”) and you’ll find signs and plaques everywhere telling you about its history. I walked up “Dutch slope” and had a coffee at a very colonial looking mansion. I went to Dejima, the former Dutch settlement that has been lovingly restored. Marvelled at the Dutch language videos in the rooms. The city has recently restored the bridge to the original entrance of the settlement. They even want to make it an island again by digging canals on its two, now landlocked, sides.
Nagasaki’s famous dish, Champon
After exploring the city, I picked Shikairou, the oldest Chinese restaurant in town (1899), for lunch. I’d seen the historic spot where it used to be in Chinatown, but it has since moved to a 5-story, ugly modern building near the waterfront. I ordered the dish that Shikairou’s owner invented: Champon. A noodle soup in sea food broth. It had no flavour that I could detect, and neither did the small piece of slow cooked pork I ordered as a side, another local specialty.
A disappointing lunch, but Shikairou is very close to Tokiwa Pier, the spot where four years earlier I’d found out my trip to Gunkanjima had been cancelled due to weather conditions. This time, the weather was outstanding, so I walked over to the tour operator’s office. By chance I got there exactly at the right time, the boat was due to leave within the hour. A small queue had already formed. I was handed a waiting list ticket and ended up nr 6 in line after all the pre-booked people. Eventually, I got on the tour without a problem. They made me sign a landing certificate and a ‘safety contract’ and the ticket for the tour cost 4000 yen, plus 300 yen island landing rights.
Nothing better than an unplanned boat ride. I’d read about the sea around the island being rough and to get ready for sea sickness, but there was none of that. The trip takes about 50 minutes and the island comes in view about 30 minutes after departure. The boat circles the island slowly before landing, so everybody can get a good look. From a certain angle, the island and its buildings really does look like a battleship. The captain of the boat has to decided whether conditions are safe enough for the boat to land. If not, the boat will keep circumnavigating the island for the duration of the tour. Landing on Gunkanjima is said to be possible only on about 100 days per year and is most difficult between November and March.
Fortunately, conditions were deemed good enough. After the boat landed, everyone on the tour had to walk along the designated paths as a group. You get to spend about an hour on the island and are only allowed to walk within a fenced off strip about 1/4 of the island’s circumference. The rest of the island is deemed too dangerous to explore. You are not allowed to stray from the group. Commentary on the tour that I was on was in Japanese only. Like a lot of Japanese bus and boat tours, the whole thing was highly organised, with continuous and inescapable Japanese commentary both on the boat (pre-recorded) and on the island. Some tour operators provide English language ear pieces. The guides will talk about the history of the island, its role in the modernisation of Japan and the stories of the people who risked their lives in the mines.
The best parts for me were the eerie ruins, their shapes and colours, a contrast to the blue sky and sea around us. Sailing back after the trip and getting a good look at Nagasaki’s coast line was another treat. While some boat trips in Japan have been disappointing (there’s one in Hakodate that’s particularly lame), this visit to Gunkanjima island was an excellent way to spend the afternoon.
How To Get There
You can only get to Gunkanjima by joining an organised tour. Private landing is strictly prohibited. Ferry tours from Nagasaki range from ¥3,600 to ¥4,200 for adults. In addition to ferry fees, visitors must also pay a ¥300 landing fee (¥150 for children). This fee is charged by Nagasaki City and goes towards assisting in Gunkanjima’s preservation.
There are several tour operators who all leave from various piers in Nagasaki Port. You can reach Nagasaki Port by taking tram #1 heading for Syokakujishita and get off at Tsukimachi station. Transfer to tram #5 heading to Ishibashi. Get off at Ourakaigandori Street station. From there it’s a one minute walk to the harbour and Gunkanjima Concierge Co, the tour operator that arranged the tour I was on.
Gunkanjima Concierge Co. Fee: Adults ¥4,000 / Students (Junior and Senior High School) ¥3,300 / Children ¥2000 Departure Area: Tokiwa Pier, Nagasaki Port; Ioujima Pier, Ioujima Port https://www.gunkanjima-concierge.com/en/
The Shizuoka Prefecture Fujisan World Heritage Centre is a museum in Fujinomiya City, Shizuoka Prefecture. A facility for protecting, preserving and maintaining Mt. Fuji. The Centre also has an academic research function.
In 2013, Japan’s iconic Fuji mountain was registered as a Unesco World Heritage site. I had read about the architect Shigeru Ban’s Mount Fuji World Heritage Centre, built to celebrate this event, before its opening in 2017. I jotted it down on my long list of interesting places to visit. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information around on how to actually get to this place. In the end, I stumbled upon it almost by accident. Coming back on the train from a trip to the Kuon-Ji temple in Minobu, Yamanashi prefecture, I caught a glimpse of a very large red torii gate. When I turned to get a better look, I recognised the cone-shaped building behind it. I got off the train at the next stop, Fujinomiya Station, and walked back to have a look.
The red torii gate that drew my attention is part of the Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha Shrine which lies a little further behind the centre, towards the mountain itself. 1000 years old, it is the most important shrine dedicated to Mount Fuji and seen as the front entrance to the mountain. Admission to this shrine is free.
It was a quiet day at the center, there weren’t a lot of people around. Shigeru Ban’s clever upside down design is striking and makes use of the same kind of woven lattice woodwork (8,000 bars of locally sourced cypress wood) that Kengo Kuma makes use of so often in his work. Shigeru Ban’s competition winning design was based on water circulation and reflection. There’s a plane of water in front of the building, a natural spring-fed water basin. If you’re lucky, the water will be still enough to reflect the shape of the building. When I visited, however, there was a strong breeze rippling the water.
It is 300 yen to go in. The building has a shop, a theatre, a library, a restaurant and an event space. Inside, you walk up a spiral ramp, as if you are ascending the mountain from within. Your ascent is specifically designed to make it seem like you are climbing all the way from the ocean to the summit. On the wall on your right hand side, images are projected such as the outlines of imagined fellow pilgrims and time-lapse videos of the mountain from various angles and in all four seasons. There are five floors, each with their own exhibitions, telling the story of the mountain, its resources and the devotion it inspired.
On the top floor of the building you find an observation hall that leads to an open-air deck. From here you get unobstructed views of Mount Fuji, that is, if the skies aren’t too cloudy. This is the best part of the museum. Personally, I think the best way to experience Mount Fuji in this area is from the train that runs from Shizuoka to Minobu on the Minobu Line, a long and winding track. While you are on that train, the mountain appears and disappears as if by magic. Sometimes on your right hand side, sometimes on your left. It is surprising and awe inspiring, and you’ll understand the ‘sacred’ part of it, more so than viewing it from a purpose built platform. Still, I enjoyed the visit and can appreciate Shigeru Ban’s innovative design of the building.
How to get there
By train: from Shizuoka, take the Tokaido Line to Fuji Station. From there, get on the Minobu Line to Fujinomiya Station. From Fujinomiya it is an easy 10 minute walk to the center.
For more details and opening hours, check the Mt Fuji World Heritage Centre’s official website.
The architect Tadao Ando has designed four chapels and churches in Japan. They are known as the Churches of the Wind, Water, Sea and, his signature work, Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church, better known as the Church of the Light.
The Church of the Light was built in 1989, in the town of Ibaraki, in Osaka prefecture about 25 kilometers outside of Osaka city. It is the main chapel of the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church and a showcase of the self taught (he used to be a boxer) architect Ando’s trademark work.
Ando – unlike his Japanese contemporary Kengo Kuma who specialises in the use of wood – primarily uses reinforced concrete that is very smooth to the touch, with strictly geometric lines. He is renowned for building his structures in harmony with nature, letting in natural light and wind to redefine the space inside the concrete.
“Light is the origin of all being. Light gives, with each moment, new form to being and new interrelationships to things, and architecture condenses light to its most concise being. The creation of space in architecture is simply the condensation and purification of the power of light.” – Tadao Ando
The Church of the Light has a rectangular shape, cut through by an obliquely-angled freestanding wall which divides the space into two parts: the chapel itself and a small triangular entry hall. The narrow aisle slopes gently down towards the altar on the south end of the church.
Behind the altar, the wall has two large slotted openings that form the shape of a cross. Light seems to burn through wall into the otherwise very dark space, facing the churchgoers seated on wooden benches made from the wood that was used for the scaffolding during the construction of the church.
Ando had an ongoing disagreement with the congregation concerning the cross shaped slots. He wanted to let the wind in freely, but the congregation deemed it too cold and covered it with see through plastic windows.
There’s something very striking about Tadao Ando’s work. I love the smoothness of the concrete and can’t resist touching it whenever I visit one of his buildings. The absolute minimalism appeals, as does his use of light and dark. It is photogenic work, or in modern terms… ‘instagrammable’. Concrete is sexy, don’t @ me.
My favourite of his buildings that I have been able to visit is the Chichu Art Museum on the island of Naoshima. Its labyrinthal entrance leaves a lasting impression and the building is more interesting than most of the art inside. Although the Monets are a nice contrast. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden on the premises, you’re not even allowed to take a picture of the sea views from the museum café.
As for the Church of the Light, even as a non-believer, the sight of daylight burning a cross through the wall is something I won’t forget.
How to get to the Church of the Light
Unlike some of Ando’s other churches, The Church of the Light is fairly easy to get to and to visit, although you do have to book in advance.
You’ll have to sign up via their website weeks in advance and it is not open every day. Days of opening are decided one month in advance. Visiting hours are between 1.30pm and 4pm. Entrance is free, but church staff will ask you for a donation upon signing in. Nobody checked whether I had actually booked in advance or not.
Tadao Ando is a very famous and popular architect throughout Asia, he has designed many buildings in South-Korea and China. When I visited in November 2017, there were a lot of – mainly Asian – visitors. Everybody will be taking pictures. People will stand at the back, north end of the aisle first, but will eventually walk towards the south wall. Take your indoor pictures early if you want clean shots of the building.
Directions: From Osaka take the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line to Ibaraki Station, a 14-minute ride. From there you can take a local bus. It is 12 minutes on the number 2 Kintetsu bus, the ride costs around ¥220. Get off at Kasugaoka Park Bus Stop (Kasugaokakouen) from which it is a 1 minute walk north-west towards the church. The bus driver will provide a map with walking directions upon request.
Or you can walk, as I did. It’s a little under one hour.
Update:Late 2017 it was announced that the current Tsukiji fish market will close on October 6,2018 and will be demolished immediately after. That means the inner market, including the tuna action will move away from Tsukiji, but the outer market will stay. The new Toyosu market (Toyosu Shin Shijō 豊洲新市場, Toyosu New Market) will open on October 11, 2018. Visitors will be able to view the tuna action from behind glass on the second floor of the building.
Is the Tsukiji fish market, one of the great tourist hotspots of Tokyo, worth visiting or not? Jesse, of the YouTube-channel AnnaleeAndJesse says it’s overrated and not worth going to. Because why would you want to look at fish? That’s what he says in his vlog Tokyo Top 3 Must See & Tourist Traps.
Professionals at work
Why would you want to look at fish? Well, because it’s fun watching professionals at work, Jesse. It really is a treat. Fish is such an important part of Japanese culture. More so than the number 1 on Jesse’s list, Shibuya. Not everyone stays interested in teen fashion for their entire life. Personally, I’d rather watch fish. Bright red crabs. Slippery octopuses. It’s endlessly fascinating.
Reasons not to go to Tsukiji
That doesn’t mean I don’t understand Jesse. I sort of agree with him about Tsukiji. Yes, it smells of fish out there. And you can eat ‘fresh’ sushi anywhere in Japan. Yes, you’re in the way of the people working there. Yes, you have to get up really early. These are all reasons not to go.
Tsukiji tuna auction
The fish market in Tsukiji has an inner and an outer market. Inner is for wholesale. Outer is for everyone. Generally, guide books advertise the inner market. Those same guide books tell you to see the Tsukiji tuna auction, you’ll have to get go join the queue at 5am. That’s bad advice. Make it 3am to actually have a chance to get in. The auction starts around 5.30am, and only 120 people can go in, in two groups of 60. First come, first serve. Due to the growing number of tourists in Tokyo, come at 5am, you’re out of luck. That’s my experience.
My visit to Tsukiji
I’ve been to the fish market twice. The first time I arrived at Narita airport around 9.30 in the morning. I booked a hotel near the market and stayed awake for most of the day. Eventually, I joined the queue at 3am and was number 35 in line. In front of me was a group of drunk Canadian frat boys. Behind me, the queue grew every minute.
After a while we were allowed into a waiting room and were given coloured vests to wear. After waiting for two hours, sitting on the cold floor, cheeks red with embarrassment due to the trouble the Canadian gaijin were causing, we were herded into the building.
We were told to stay inside the visitor passage and were given 15 minutes to take picture and watch the auction. Staff wasn’t very friendly, but taking into account the frat boys, I was mildly sympathetic. During the auction they were all standing in front of me. Before I knew it, it was over. I was tired and pissed off.
For my second visit to Tsukiji I skipped the auction. At 10am, the inner market opens for the general public. There’s more queueing and herding involved and you are supervised by staff. That’s not a bad idea, because there are people working there ride mini-fork lifts. (Watch a video.) If you are not careful, they’ll hit you. But you’re allowed to stroll through the many stands and watch the fish mongers closing up their businesses. With a bit of luck you’ll catch some of them filleting tuna with their impressive knives.
Tsukiji outer market a worthwile visit
It is the outer market that’s really worth a visit. Here’s where you can buy and taste stuff as an ordinary customer. In the outer market you will find shops and restaurants selling grilled scallops, for example. Other stuff, like wasabi roots and kitchen appliances like knives.
Tsukiji fish market is moving
The market is supposed to be moving. It should have been done already, but there are all kinds of problems with the new area. For now the move is planned for winter 2017/2018. It is unclear whether the new market will be accessible for tourists. The outer market, however, will stay at its current location in Tsukiji.
NB. For those of you who watched Jesse’s vlog mentioned at the top of this article, I agree with him that Akihabara isn’t that exciting. For action figures and other merchandising such as unopened Star Wars merch from the 80s and 90s, go to Nakano Broadway.
At the morning market in Hakodate (函館朝市, Hakodate asaichi), Hokkaido you can catch your own squid, have it cleaned and turned into sashimi for your breakfast. In the video above you’ll see how that works.
Hakodate is the third largest city in Hokkaido, the most northern prefecture of Japan. It lies at the foot of Mount Hakodata from where you have a wonderful view of the city and its surroundings. You can drive your car all the way to the top, or take a cable car.
Architecture in Hakodata sometimes seems very Western, it reminds you of Greenwich in Engeland. Or Philadelphia. You’ll notice it in the Motomachi area and in the harbour. You’ll see a lot of red brick, which you won’t see in the rest of the country. Cruise ships doc at Hakodate daily. The many tourists who spend a day on shore go to the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse, to shop for all kinds of souvenirs. But what Hakodate is really known for is its market and its fish: tuna, squid, salmon roe, sea urchin and – often gigantic – crab.
Hakodate morning market
At a one minute walk from the station of Hakodate (JR Hakodate, not the bigger Shinkansen station at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto!) you’ll find the morning market which is open from 5am until 2pm. There are some 300 stands with food and a lot of fresh fish in particular. Look for the stand where you can fish for your own breakfast, you can’t miss the large acquarium full of squid.
Catch your own squid
Buy a ticket and you are given a rod and then you can do your thing. Some catch one within seconds, but if you are unlucky, it can take a while. Once you catch your squid, staff will offer a bucket to drop your squid in. She will take it to the table where a professional is filleting your catch. It’s a fascinating and somewhat gruesome process because the squid keeps moving even though its head has been chopped off. The tentacles may wander off by themselves. Within a minute your squid is handed back to you on a plate as slippery, rubbery sashimi. You can sit down at one of the tables to eat it. There are chopsticks, soy sauce and ginger on the tables. Even on your plate, parts of the dead animal keep moving, the soy sauce triggers convulsions. These are automatic reactions to the salt in the sauce. The cells in the muscles that react to electric impulses are still working despite being disconnected from the brain. It’s a little creepy. What does the super fresh raw squid taste like? Primarily like the sea.
Eating a plate of shivering limbs is nice, but the real party starts with the bowls of donburi that you can order from the many restaurants at Donburi Yokocho Ichiba, the food hall part of the market. Donburi is warm rice topped with another ingredient. Can be anyhing. Chicken or beef, tempura, and so on. But this is Hakodate and we’re at the fish market, so we’re talking kaisendon here. Kaisondon is rice with sea food: gorgeous salmon roe, creamy uni (the stuff that comes from sea urchins), plump sweet shrimp and crab meat, rounded off with s shiso leaf and a squeeze of wasabi. Yum.
Uni is an acquired taste. It can be bitter if its kept too long. No such thing in Hakodate. Straight from the sea in my bowl, it tasted salty, briny and a little sweet.
So you don’t like fish? Try Lucky Pierrot (ラッキーピエロ), Hakodate’s over the top answer to McDonalds. Their hamburgers are tasty and the restaurants have their own peculiar look.
Yokohama is the fourth largest city in Japan and easily reached (20 minutes) from Tokyo. Yokohama is now for its large Chinatown, an area full of Chinese restaurants and shops with snacks and souvenirs. Close to Chinatown you’ll find a large baseball stadium. I went to see a baseball game there in 2018, which was a lot of fun. On one of my first trips to Yokohama, I wanted to experience the amazing view over Yokohama Bay which you can enjoy at various places in the city.
You can experience that view from the Landmark tower, a gigantic brutalist type building with all kinds of uses. From the 52nd to the 67th floor, you’ll find the Royal Park Hotel. The rooms of this hotel have gigantic windows, with extra wide window sills that you can sit on. Pillows provided. Day and night you’ll have a gorgeous unhindered view of the bay, all the other buildings around are lower than the tower. I stayed at the hotel for one night and made this, too short, video of the sunrise.
Sky Garden observation deck
If the Royal Park Hotel is too expensive you can go to the Sky Garden observation deck in the same Landmark Tower. It is on the 69th floor. That’s 273 meters hight. The fastest elevator in Japan will get you to there at 750 meter per minute. It’s 1,000 yen for adults and the Sky Garden is open from 10am until 9pm. Op Saturday, until 10pm.
You HAVE to see Himeji castle, the other students in my Japanese for beginners class told me. It’s the best castle in Japan. Can’t skip it. Better than Osaka.
OK then. On their advice, I decided to spend one day of my third trip to Japan in Himeji. I’d previously skipped it due to time constraints.
And there I was with hundreds of other tourists, waiting in front of the gate of the castle of Himeji (姫路城, Himeji-jō) also known as The White Raven. One hour of waiting outside the castle, then in sock feet and one hand clutching a plastic bag with my shoes, all the way up the slippery wooden stairs in a long line of people. I gasping for air and was fed up with the crowd. I didn’t see a thing the entire way, except for the buttocks of the people in front of me. And when I got to the top? I found a small shrine and an unimpressive view of the city. That’s all. Followed by the even more precarious trip down the stairs. Once outside, I was a little disappointed, but glad to no longer be inhaling the smell of socks. Time for a comforting snack.
Unfortnately, despite the otherwise festive market in the dusty park outside the castle, the takoyaki I bought was below par.
The fact that it can be busy at Himeji is something the proprietors know very well. If you take a look at the castle’s website, you will find their “congestion forecast”, in which they distinguish between “overcrowded”, “full” and “moderate”.
visit Himeji during the low season.
Osaka castle has a better view.
if you do go, take into account that there doesn’t see to be much else to do.
Seriously… Osaka is much more fun. And the takoyaki tastes a lot better over there.
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