POTW: Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

This week’s featured Japan photo is a close-up shot of the imposing castle at Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture. There’s no beating about the bush: it’s an evil-looking thing! The black and white colourings and bare stone wall surrounded by a featureless lake make it look like a bleak prospect for any would-be attackers. Although centuries old, the castle has been through a number of different incarnations, largely due to falling foul of arson. The last major revamp of the castle was during the heralded “Meiji Period”, in the early 20th century.

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Hakone Tour

A popular outing that many foreign tourists visit Japan will take is going over to Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture. Be warned, though – it’s a tourist trap! That’s not to suggest you shouldn’t go; you should. Just make sure you go in the right state of mind… bring a sense of humour with you!

Like many parts of Japan, Hakone is a volcanic area and is home to many Onsen (hot spring) resorts where you can bathe in hot springs and attract sharp glances and lingering stares from the local Japanese at your Western tush. That’s how it feels at times, anyway! Be sure that you don’t have too many tattoos, they are frowned upon in Japanese culture – only the Yakusa mafia bosses have tattoos in Japan!

Aside from the hot springs, Hakone has a number of tourist traps attractions, situated in and around its long-dormant volcanic caldera. First you can visit the sulphurous (stinky egg smelling) pools and eat eggs boiled in the volcanic spring water. They’re meant to be good for you, apparently! You can take the cable car down to the caldera, giving you a wonderful view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Finally, you can take a pirate ship – I’m not making this up, nor am I on drugs, honest! – across the lake, complete with fake pirate statues, rigging and the like. (It doesn’t have sails though – they cheat and run it by a motor like a modern-day ship).

So if your Japanese students, Japanese girlfriend, tour operator, friends, or fellow backpackers suggest you should go to Hakone – GO! Just be prepared to laugh your socks off at the tourist conveyor belt you’ll be subjected to!
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Best Hostel in Tokyo?

Since I first visited Tokyo over five years ago now, the options for a budget traveller have come on in leaps and bounds. Back then, the cheapest hotel in Tokyo was some place on the outskirts, a tattered and slightly seedy low-rent hostel that had been hastily given some backpacker facilities in an attempt to boost its income.

Imagine my surprise when a few years later, the Tokyo guesthouse scene had blossomed. During my week in Tokyo I purposely moved around the different areas on the city, managing to experience a number of different hostels in an attempt to find my “home” in Tokyo. And I found it.

I can state in my humble (and completely unbiased!) opinion that the best hostel in Tokyo – that I have experienced, at least (and I hope to go back some time to experience some more!) is none other than Oak Hostel. It just felt right there. It had free internet – both in the communal areas and in the dorm rooms – as well as a 24 hour reception, a friendly vibe (Tokyo accommodation can feel a bit “formal” at times, but these guys were completely laid back). Most importantly it was clean, warm and had plenty of other decent backpackers hanging around to chat to.

The location wasn’t too bad; it’s located along a main road leading east from Ueno Station, which is on the JR Yamanote loop line that encircles the main areas of Tokyo. I had a bit of trouble finding it, because I am directionally impaired! Look out for the sign (in English) that should be on the street. The area’s not the gleaming buildings of Ginza or the adrenaline-fuelled hubbub of Shinjuku, but more of a traditional Tokyo ward, a former working-class neighbourhood. It’s completely safe though, just as most areas of Tokyo are (Roppongi, where all the drunk Westerners congregate, is the most dangerous place in Tokyo in my opinion, and even that’s safe by Western city standards!). Along the road from the station there are various restaurants you can pop in to get some instant food – a steaming bowl of ramen, gyoza (dumplings) or various other joyous quick Japanese dishes. All in all, it makes the Oak Hotel the best hostel in Tokyo…

…so far, at least! 🙂

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POTW: Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji, Japan

I thought it would be nice to start a series of weekly photographs I’ve taken in Japan. The first ever in the series is a particularly special photo: it’s of the immense Mount Fuji, taken from Lake Kawaguchi. The reason it’s so special is that Mt Fuji is normally covered at least partially in cloud; it’s very rare to see it in all its glory in a cloudless sky. I appreciate how lucky I was to snap Fuji in this serene state!

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I left my heart in Tokyo

When I undertook my round the world trip several years back my first destination was Tokyo. I had never been outside Europe before in my life; and suddenly there I was, stepping off the plane and into a madcap – yet strangely organised – city of lights, noise (from the Pachinko parlours), and people simply everywhere! Unintelligible signs were at every move; it was easy to be overwhelmed by the whole experience. But I lapped it up.

Two years on, Japan – and Tokyo, in particular – still occupies a special place in my heart. I’m not sure if it was the fact it was just the first exciting stop on my journey, and whether I would have felt the same had it been the last country I would have visited. But regardless, I love the place, for its food, excitement, noise, alien-ness, humour (Engrish, anyone?), its people (especially its women!) and I want to go back there as soon as I can get the cash together!

So in the meantime, this is my window on Japan. I’ll be reporting back on aspects of The Land Where The Sun Rises from the comfort of my armchair – its sights, culture, language and so on – with a backpacker bent. So I hope you enjoy the posts. Please link to me if you find them useful for your readers, and happy reading!

(PS. The title is a reference to that godawful song that’s on the radio all the time at the moment, which is akin to blasphemy! The song, as I see it, has nothing to do with Tokyo or Japan – it’s just some gimmick hook. Oh yeah, they put an Asian tune hook going into the chorus, but that sounds Chinese to me, not Japanese! Clueless…)

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