Category Archives: Japan

Cherry Blossom, Tokyo and all points east and west

HIROSHIMA – August 1945 and TODAY

It is difficult to write about Hiroshima.

Nuclear accidents seem to happen, or be avoided, on a regular basis these days; countries arm themselves with ever more terrible bombs, nuclear power is poised to replace coal and gas, and the world sails on as though the 1945 destruction of two Japanese cities had never happened.

It was Sunday, August 6, 1945, and the early morning sun shone from the blue sky over Hiroshima, Japan.  It had been a night of constant alerts with sirens warning of planes overhead but early in the morning, the all-clear sounded.  The streets were full of people, workers returning from night shifts, day workers on their way to take their place, military workers, factory watchmen, women shopping, secondary school children making fire breaks, all, we can suppose, weary after a sleepless night.

Shortly after 7 a.m. an urgent communique came to the Military Command at Hiroshima Central Broadcasting, cut short after just a few phrases by a blinding flash, a blast of searing heat and a roar that shook the earth from its orbit.

Enola Gay
The Enola Gay, the ‘plane that dropped the first Atom Bond on Hiroshima

It was 8.15 a.m when the American bomber Enola Gay dropped a five-ton bomb over Hiroshima and a blast equivalent to the power of 15,000 tons of TNT reduced four square miles of the city to ruins, instantly killing 80,000 men, women, and children.  People turned to charcoal there and then, limbless and headless bodies flew through the air, and on the ground writhed still living bodies, their flesh torn from their limbs.  Tens of thousands more died in the following weeks from wounds and radiation poisoning.  In total, it is said that 140,000 died from the effects of the bomb the Americans called “Little Boy”, 80,000 on the day and 60,000 from injuries and the combined effects of flash burns, trauma, radiation burns, and illness. Three days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing nearly 40,000 more. A few days later, Japan announced its surrender.

Cenotaph at Night with Dome in background, Hiroshima

Cenotaph at Night with Dome in Background, Hiroshima Peace Park – Steve Moore

In 1970, five countries had A & H bombs, the USA, the UK, the USSR, France and China, and they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty designating  themselves nuclear powers and prohibiting all other countries from possessing nuclear weapons for 25 years.  As we know, other countries now possess the bomb, or the wherewithal to make a bomb, although the fact is often denied.

The Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima is located in the centre of the Peace Park,  It is a saddle-shaped structure which was erected in 1952, the shape representing a sanctuary for the souls of the A-Bomb victims.  Inside it holds a list of their names.

Hiroshima clock

Clock in Hiroshima Museum showing how many days since the bomb was dropped and, below that, how many days since the last nuclear test.- Mari Nicholson

There is a Global Peace Watch Clock within the Museum in Hiroshima Memorial Park which displays the number of days since the A-bombing of the city which killed thousands and left thousands more to die painful deaths from radiation poisoning and still others to live with the effects of the poison.  Below the clock is another number which shows the number of days since the most recent nuclear test.  It can be surprisingly low as many underground tests are conducted which are low enough not to create a critical mass of fissile material and so does not attract publicity.  One has to ask oneself why nations feel the need to continually increase the power of their bombs when just one or two set off from different sides of the world could end of our world and our civilisation.

The Museum is dedicated to telling visitors the history of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and among the exhibits are a number of articles and  remains damaged by the bomb, together with poignant pictures and sad memorabilia.

Hiroshima Dome
Hiroshima Dome, the only building left standing after the bomb was dropped – Mari Nicholson

Hiroshima is not like the rest of Japan.  It was flattened when the Atomic Bomb was dropped on it.  It has been re-built and is now a soulless place of dull, grey concrete, wide avenues, boulevards, shopping malls and all the accoutrements of a modern city.  What is lacks is a soul.  That was destroyed in 1945.

Visitors to the city will be moved by the World Heritage Site of the A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima’s most famous site .  It stands forlornly by the river across from the Peace Memorial Park, as a reminder of the power that rained down upon the city half a century ago and brought such terrible devastation to its people.  On that fateful day it stood within 100 metres from what became ground zero.  The A-Bomb Dome is a propped up ruin, the only building still standing.  Try and visit it at night if possible, when it is lit from the interior as well as the exterior.  It is quite eerie.


Peace Park Memorial
Children’s Peace Monument based on the story of Sasaki Sadako

The Children’s Peace Memorial in the Peace Park is continually covered in thousands of tiny folded paper cranes, a symbol of longevity and happiness in Japan, which come in by the busload from schools all over Japan on a regular basis.  The Memorial was inspired by the story of leukaemia victim Sasaki Sadako, who, at age ten contracted the disease, after which she embarked on a task to make 1000 paper cranes in the belief that if she succeeded she would survive.  Sadly she died having only completed 644 but her classmates completed the task, and so started a tradition that continues to this day.

School children in Peace Park learning about the Bomb and its results

School children learn the lessons of history on the banks of the river that guided the Atomic Bomb to Hiroshima – Mari Nicholson

The Peace Memorial Park is located across the Aioi-bashi Bridge and includes the Cenotaph which  lists the name of all the known victims.  The river is said to have been the bomber’s point of aim on that fateful morning.  Beneath the Cenotaph burns a flame, set to burn until the last atomic bomb has been destroyed, at which point it will be extinguished.  Thousands of sufferers from radiation burns threw themselves into the river in an effort to ease the pain but to no avail, and hundreds of corpses remained afloat in the water for days after the blast.

The Peace Memorial Museum is the place to find information.  It delivers a simple anti-atomic warfare message with a power that can leave you in tears.  The depiction of destruction and suffering is told with no pulling of punches and makes one think of what modern warfare, using these bombs, would be like.

08.30–18.00 March-July, Sept-Nov:   0830 – 19.00 August:  08.30-17.00 Dec-Feb.

Tel: (082)2414004.  Admission 50 yen.  Tram line 2 and 6 from Hiroshima station.

Other places to visit:

Hiroshima Art Museum which has Dali’s Dream of Venus and works by the Japanese artist Hirayama Ikuo who was present during the bombing.

Shukkelen Garden.  Located next to the Hiroshima Art Museum

MitakiDera: the Three Waterfalls Temple, a quiet and secluded gem with a fine view over the city.


Photograph by Steve Moore


Red Torii Gate at Miyajima, near Hiroshima
Red Torii Gate in Miyajima, outside Hiroshima – Mari Nicholson

Best trip outside the city – to Miyajima.  The  famous Red Torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine (at least the one that is most photographed) can be seen here, in a very touristy town but one with great charm.   While there, try the famed oysters, raw, deep-fried, or in hot pot dish, the savoury pancakes and the ice-cream sandwich in a brioche bun.

JAPAN: Walking in the Japanese Alps

Standing on the platform in Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and seeing the Express train go through was proof enough that it deserves the praise lavished on it.  The Express really does go through like a bullet: blink and you’ll miss it.  This sleek, slim, beautifully designed train is simply incredible.

Tokyo to Kamikochi

And I’m about to board it.  We are leaving Tokyo on the Limited Express and heading to Matsumoto and then onwards by local train to Shima Shima before boarding the bus to the village of Kamikochi in the Chubu Sangaku National Park, otherwise known as the Japanese Alps.

Kamikochi is a moderately developed village surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with half a dozen hotels, some souvenir shops, and a few mountain huts.  Over the next few days, my friends Ken and Steve and I shall be walking the many trails laid out through the pine trees and along the fast-flowing rivers of turquoise snowmelt.  The area is only open from mid/late April until November, it stands 1500 meters above sea level and is home to the active volcano Yakedake (2455 m).

Interior Shinkansen

Interior of  Train – Mari Nicholson

The train experience far exceeds my expectations, with carpeted floors, roomy recliner seats, and a quiet trolley service.  The big surprise is the attendant who comes along about every hour or so with individually packaged, cold wet wipes which she hands out to everyone.  Not only that but the wet towels are collected afterwards, so no unpleasant wipes are left hanging around.

From the train windows, we see suburbs of small-holdings each with a small paddi-field, aqueducts, huge electronic towers, and always, gardens filled with pink azaleas, irises and hydrangeas in full bloom along with the ubiquitous bonsai.

Tokyo Suburbs - Rice paddi from house to railway

Rice-planting from road to railway track – Mari Nicholson

A taxi from Kamikochi bus station takes us to the Imperial Hotel, a rustic Alpine-style building, located just below the mountains in the midst of sweet-smelling pines.   Off to the side of reception is a bar in which an enormous open fire sits in the middle of the room, around which, I later found, the hotel clients relaxed and chatted after a day’s hiking   Our rooms are delightful and we decided to quickly explore the hotel’s facilities and then go for a stroll along the Azusa river which meanders its way through the valley.

Three days later and we feel we never want to leave Kamikochi.  It is the tail-end of the Japanese spring so we are too early for the yearly breathtaking display of Japanese Azaleas (the Rhododendron japonium) and Sagisuge (Eriophorum gracile) that flower during the summer.  In late autumn they are equally attractive as they then sport a coating of fine, white frost.

Imperial Hotel, Kamikochi
Imperial Hotel, Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson

The area of Kamikochi is simply stunning with an amazing variety of bird life whose sweet song hangs in the air from morning till night.  Wild macaques (they do not interfere with visitors because people are careful not to feed them) play on the paths in family groups and among the trees along the river.  As we stroll along, the babies peek from their mother’s arms with big black eyes.

The Macaque takeover of the public tables and benches
Macques lay claim to the picnic area – Mari Nicholson

Sometimes, “if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise” in the form of a big, unfriendly, black bear.   Not to be trifled with, or approached, walkers and hikers are advised to carry a bell attached to their backpacks so that the ringing of the bell as you walk, informs the bear of an approaching human.  We purchased ours on arrival and were glad we did when we came across the sign that informed us that a black bear had been sighted just a couple of days before our arrival!

Bear Sighting Poster
Black Bear Sighting in Woods at Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson

For non-walkers, the local area is safe and accessible, and there are natural hot spring baths for those who fancy the Japanese custom of sitting in a tub with other people. There are well-posted trails ranging from easy rambles to more serious hikes, and treks to the high peaks which surround the valley.

A Walker in the woods
Walking in the woods in Kamikochi



Hikers by the river









This area was discovered by a British missionary, the Reverend  Walter Weston (1861-1940) who arrived in Japan aged 27.   He mapped the area, sparking Japanese interest in Western-style mountaineering as a sport and he popularised the term ‘Japanese Alps’ through his work “Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps (1896)”.

Plaque to Re. Weston

Plaque to Rev. Weston on Azusa River – Mari Nicholson

He is known as the Father of Mountain Climbing in Japan, and a plaque has been erected in his honour set into the rock on the west side of the Azusa River, just north of the Onsen Hotel. On the first Sunday in June, the Weston Festival is held to celebrate the opening of the mountain-climbing season.

Walking in Kamikochi

The simplest way to enjoy a day in Kamikochi is by walking or hiking one of the trails along Azusa River from Taisho Pond to Myojin Bridge.  This is mostly flat terrain and is suitable for all levels of fitness, requires no walking or hiking experience and will only take a few hours – perfect for the less experienced hiker or walker.  No need for hiking boots or specialist footwear, normal trainers will do for these sort of walks. A Walk in the Woods A pleasant one-hour stroll is along the Azusa River from Kappa Bridge (see below) to an area called Myojin where there are several lodges and a few shops.

Myolin Pond actually consists of two linked ponds, one large, one small, filled with crystal clear water.  It is a place where walkers like to pause and sit awhile, listening to the soft swish of the bamboo along the lakeside, admiring the reflection of Mt. Moyjndake in the waters, and the birds that sit on the rocks in the pond.  A tranquil spot by the pond


Japanese boy at Tsaio Pond
Japanese Boy Plays by the Tsaisho Pond – Mari Nicholson

Tashiro Bridge is the starting point of Nishi-Hotaka Mountain trekking course. From here it takes about 20 minutes to walk to Kappa Bridge, 40 minutes to Taisho Pond and 5 minutes to the Weston Memorial.

Hikers along the river in Kamikochi
Hikers along the river in Kamikochi

Kappa Bridge

Tourists at Kappa Bridge, Chubu Sangaku National Park, Kamikochi

Kapps Bridge with Weekend Tourists – Mari Nicholson

Fifty minutes from Myolin is the famous Kappa Bridge, from which hiking trails lead up and down the valleys and towards the mountain summits.  Along these trails, markers indicate the best bird-watching points where wagtails, Japanese bush warbler, Japanese robin, flycatchers, Arctic Warbler, Horsfield’s hawk cuckoo, willow tit, nuthatch, wren, pygmy woodpecker, and others too numerous to list can be seen.

The Kappa-Bashi is a 36.6 x 3.1-metre wooden suspension bridge over the Azusa-gawa river in the centre of Kamikochi, not far from the bus terminal.  Several hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops can be found here.  With the Hotaka Mountain Range in front and volcanic Mt. Yakedake billowing white smoke in the south, Kappa-Bashi’s stunning views from the bridge makes this one of the most scenic spots in the town, hence its popularity.

Visitor Centre, Kamikochi, Japan - Mari Nicholson

The Visitor Centre in Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson

The more experienced walker will enjoy the climbs in the surrounding peaks, following one of the many delineated trails.  These are more challenging and are only recommended between mid-June and mid-September.  If you are new to the area, you should be aware that the treeline of Kamikochi continues up to 2500 metres which takes the hiker into a craggy world of rocks and cliffs where, even in good weather, climbing can be extremely dangerous.   These peaks should be tackled with great care, especially if there is wind or rain, as the rain on the high crags can be intense and has been known to continue for several days, leaving hikers on the verge of hypothermia.  Every year there are accidents and people lose their lives in the mountains.

Resting awhile in the Kamikochi Park

Resting Awhile – Mari Nicholson

A 3-hour walk from Kappa Bridge is Yokoo, the climbing base for many of the 300-metre mountains in the Japanese Alps, including Yarigatake, a tranquil place and perfect for walking.  There is a mountain lodge in the area for overnight hikers.

A Bend in the River - Dramatic Scenery

Fast-Flowing Rivers of Snow Melt – Mari Nicholson

And I just can’t resist one more picture of mother and baby macaques, part of the family we encountered on one of our walks through and along the river.  The soulful expression on the face of the mother, and the tiny baby peeking out from under her fur is as tender as you’ll get in any ‘mother-love’ picture.


Mother and Baby by Steve Moore.

The whole area of Kamikochi is covered with virgin forests of birch, Japanese larch trees, and Japanese hemlocks.  In June, the young leaves of birch trees are so beautiful that they attract many tourists to what is called the “light green mist”.  Generally, the foliage is at its peak in October and attracts visitors who come to admire the wonder of it.

I’ve seen it in spring and part summer, now I want to experience this delightful spot in the Japanese Alps in the autumn.  I know where I shall be heading next time I’m in Japan.

Points of Interest in Kamikochi

Taisho Pond (Taishoike) was formed in June 1915, when an eruption of the nearby volcano Yakedake dammed Azusa River and created the pond. Decayed trees, standing in the pond, provide a special sight.  It  is a small pond surrounded by marshland located along the hiking trail connecting the Kappabashi with Taisho Pond.  This pond never freezes over completely due to the spring waters underneath.

Kamikochi Imperial Hotel Built in 1933, is the most prestigious accommodation in Kamikochi, offering a combination of mountain lodge atmosphere and first class hospitality services.  The food was the best we had in Japan, with very fresh lake fish every day on the menu.

Imperial Hotel Kamikochi.  Terrace and Balcony Rooms - Mari Nicholson
Imperial Hotel, Kamikochi, Terrace & Balconied Rooms – Mari Nicholson



The Takezawa Marsh, a 5-10 minute walk from the Kappabashi along the trail towards Myojin Pond, is one of the most scenic areas of Kamikochi.

Myojin Pond can be reached in about a one hour walk from the Kappabashi.

Kamikochi Visitor Center Open daily from 8:00 to 17:00 (free admission), the visitor centre introduces the geography, geology, fauna, flora and folklore of Kamikochi and provides information to mountain climbers. Booklets available and

How to Get There

From Tokyo, two trains get you to Matsumoto, the JR Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano. From Nagano, take the Shinonoi Line to Matsumoto.  The other option is the JR Chuo Line, slower than the Shinkansen, but it takes you to Matsumoto from Shinjuku Station. At Matsumoto, take the Matsumoto Dentetsu Railway to Shin-Shimashima, this is as far as you can go. From here, a bus, or a taxi will take you to Kamikochi.

Visitor Centre in Kamikochi:   Phone: 0263 95 2606

Hours: 8:00 to 17:00, mid-April to November 15, free admission

7:00 to 18:00 July 20-August 20

Closed November 15th through winter


The temperature in Kamikochi is 5 to 10 ℃ lower than Matsumoto and in late autumn it sometimes falls below freezing point.  Winter clothes are recommended from mid-October to early May when snow may be encountered, and carry rain wear at all times because it rains a lot in the Kamikochi mountains.


I’ve written in earlier posts about how easy it is to negotiate the subway/metro, and the train stations in Tokyo, so here are the maps to help you do so.  Also posted is a map of Tokyo’s streets.

As the train stations link to everywhere in Japan, if you’re travelling on, it could be useful to study these before setting out.  The subway/metro maps are a doddle to follow and the system can’t be recommended highly enough for getting around the city.

Hope these help.

Tokyo Subway Map

Tokyo Maps

Tokyo Maps 11



One concentrates on districts in Tokyo rather than buildings and monuments of which there are few, because, despite hundreds of years of history, there is nothing of any permanence left in the city, apart from the Imperial Palace which you can only look at from the Imperial Gardens.  The lack of permanent buildings and monuments is because the houses burnt down regularly as they were traditionally made of wood, and because frequent earthquakes made the use of stone too dangerous.

Tokyo’s districts, however, are many and varied and it is a good idea to know what you want to do and see before setting off to explore.  Each area offers something different, but if you like a frisson of naughtiness, then maybe keep Roppongi for nighttime.

Rickshaws for Hire –

Akihabara– Electronics town – is what the name implies.  It’s heaven for gadget freaks, where thousands of square metres are given over to nothing but electronics, from wide-screen televisions to electronic toilet seats, through all beauty products, kitchen appliances, cameras, ‘phones and games.   Hard not to spend money in a place like this especially when you see, and covet, the latest model of camera or ‘phone, maybe 3 years ahead of when we’ll see it in the West. Electronic Japan

Fortunately, it’s so easy to do a ‘phone check on prices these days wherever you are, and we found, much to our surprise, that most of the goods in Electronics town were priced higher than they were in our own country (possibly to do with the currency fluctuations) so prices were a disincentive to buy.  We did succumb, however, to one or two items unavailable to us at home: I defy anyone to walk through this store or the next on my list, the Sony Building, without buying something, even if it’s only a camera case!

The Sony Building is another Mecca for electronic-mad visitors.  All the trend-setting Sony stuff is laid out on six floors and you can have hands-on fun with the latest games, listen to car stereos, see a demonstration of the future of television and even have a meal.  On the ground floor, there is an English pub where the food, wines and spirits are pretty good.  Japanese beer, Asahi, can be recommended.


Mother photographs laughing daughter at Senso-ji Shrine

Asakusa District is said to retain much of the atmosphere that existed before the Second World War when it was Tokyo’s hub of popular entertainment.  You’ll see fewer businessmen here with briefcases, few banks and few high-rises but there are interesting small shops and craft stalls, and you can climb to the viewing platform of the Tokyo Skytree – the World’s tallest tower at 634 metres – for panoramic views over the city.

If hot spring baths are your thing and you are not planning a visit to one of the Ryokans where you usually have your own volcanic spring on your balcony, then the Jyakotsuyu Onsen (hot spring) at Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0032, will give you the authentic experience.


The Red Lantern at Senso-ji Shrine

Asakusa also houses the oldest and most impressive temple in Tokyo, the Senso-ji, one of the city’s most treasured temples.  The Thunder Gate dominates the entrance with the red lantern immortalised in Hiroshige’s early 19th-century woodblock print still dominating the entrance.  Beyond the gate lies a bustling street where 54 shops line what is one of the oldest shopping streets in Tokyo, and which leads to the temple buildings with their heavy lead roofs.


A Young Couple Check out the Fortune Slips

The temple grounds are incredibly busy with sightseers, people praying, shopping and taking selfies of themselves and their families, and those seeking a look into the future.  For 100 yen your future will be foretold but should it not be what you hoped for, them you simply tie the fortune ticket to the nearest wire tree and it will remain forever within the temple grounds.  And then you buy another, hoping that this time, your luck will be better.


Senso-ji Temple

Incense blows from the great bronze urn in front of the main hall and men and women dive into the smoke and stroke it over their heads (for clearer thoughts? more hair?) while others light their incense sticks and just pray.


Bathing in the Smoke

Ginza District is famous for its up-market shopping and the range of designer shops that line the street.  It’s a great place for admiring the window dresser’s art where the placement of a purse with a belt and a scarf is like a modern still life. All the top designer names are here.


Louis Vuitton in Ginza


Budget-conscious shoppers should head for the Uniqlo store which offers floors of trendy designs at cheaper prices.  Both men and women are catered for here and although the music is loud, the staff is cheerful and helpful.

Roppongi District is where the Japanese go to let their hair down.  It could be called sleazy in some senses, raucous and tasteless in another, but it is undeniably what a lot of people want as you will see if you venture into this Vegas in Japan area where behaviour you don’t see anywhere else in the city is tolerated.

Kagurazaka was once a 200 strong Geisha town which was razed in the 1945 bombing and there are still some 20 Geisha here.  If you take a stroll down the cobblestone alleyways of the town  you may meet some of the ghosts that they say still haunt the place.


On Tokyo Bay

And when you want to have an hour’s rest, take the boat trip on Tokyo Bay, which gives you a totally different look at this fabulous city, as well as a comfortable ride in a well-ventilated boat with large picture windows on either side.  Once at the end of the trip, you can, if you wish, continue on to Odaiba island complex and ride the Big Eye for another view over Tokyo.


Night time Tokyo

Shinjuku District is considered now to be the heart of the entertainment area, especially adult entertainment where nothing seems forbidden.  Bars, restaurants serving food from every nation, and discount shops abound with street entertainment on every corner.  If any place in Tokyo might be considered slightly unsafe, this would be it, so beware of pickpockets and don’t go into any bars with unlisted prices.  Check it out during the day before venturing into it at night.


Shinjuku Ni-chrome is a couple of blocks away from the centre and is the gay and lesbian nexus of Tokyo.

Outside the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo is an intersection where it is estimated as many as 2,500 people cross the street every time the light changes.  It handles over 2 million people a day but you won’t be pushed or jostled, the Japanese are much too polite for that.  It is the beginning and end of two main subway lines and during the day or at night when the neon is crackling all around you, join the surge of people at the famous crossroads as the cacophony of music, horns, tannoys and talk assault your ears.

Worth checking out.


The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building comprises two huge towers each 248 metres.  From the viewing level on floor 45 of either building, the views of the city and surrounding areas are stunning.  In the winter (because of the clarity) you can usually see Mt. Fuji on the horizon.


The writer with Sumo Wrestler in Subway

The writer with a Sumo Wrestler met on subway

If it isn’t the season for the Sumo tournaments and you’d like to see them in action, then head for their stables at Arashio Beya 2-47-2 Nihonbashi-hamacho, Chuo-ku 103-0007 (1 min. walk from Hama-cho station on the Asakusa line, and usually from about 7 a.m. – 10. am.  Many consider these practice sessions even better than the tournaments as they are constant.  Make sure you follow the rules of not pointing your feet at the wrestlers (bad luck), no flash photography, no tripod, don’t stand up to get a better shot, and don’t bring food or drink.

Tokyo may seem weird but it is a fabulous city, a glorious hotchpotch of lights, noise and incredibly well-behaved people who stand patiently at the lights waiting for them to turn green when there isn’t a car for miles around.  It’s fun whether you take it in during daylight hours or nighttime.

TOKYO – Soaring Towers and Electronic Delights

From bonsai in lush landscaped gardens, to kimona-clad beauties shopping in Ginza, and from pale green tatami mats in Ryokans to exquisite floral arrangements, Tokyo, as well as reaching into the future, is picture-book Japan come to life.

This is the first stop on a tour that will take in stays in some of Japan’s most beautiful cities and countryside, Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps, Kyoto, the ancient capital, Takayama, whose beautiful old town still preserves traditions, Hiroshima and Miyajima, and Hakone where a cable-car side-trip to Mount Fuji is planned.  Fingers crossed, the weather will be fine on the day.


Kamikochi, Japanese Alps, turquoise waters of the snowmelt from surrounding mountains – Mari Nicholson

Driving into the city from the airport did not show a green  and pleasant land.  Living space is at a premium in Tokyo, which means that the suburbs are composed of high-rise apartment blocks built wherever space could be found, all in a uniform grey, unbroken by a splash of colour or flowers on a balcony.  Once in the city however, another world becomes apparent.

Getting around Tokyo

Tokyo is a city of districts, each offering something different to the visitor, so it repays a bit of research before you set out to explore.

With its sensory bombardment, the capital of Japan can seem daunting to the first time visitor but with a little planning, we found it to be very accessible.

Tokyo is composed of many different districts each with its own character and charm, and as a capital with a reputation for safety, walking the streets is one of the best ways to absorb the atmosphere, check out the local craft shops, or explore the shopping malls both below and above ground.  I am a leisurely traveller, happy to leave some things unseen, rather than rush around ticking off the sights, so I didn’t try to see everything.

Orientation, subways, and trains


Tokyo Train Station – Mari Nicholson

Rail is, without doubt, the best way to get around Tokyo, and the trick is to buy an IC Rail Pass for 3,000 Yen which is something like the UK Oyster Card, and which is valid on the vast subway network, the equally extensive overland train network, and the Monorail (great for views over Tokyo Bay), and also valid to use in some Japanese cities.  Not only that, but you can use it to buy drinks from the kiosks on every station, just slap your card on the designated spot, and hey presto! green tea or hot chocolate can be yours in an instant.  Topping up when needed is easy, with instructions in English.

Taxis are on the expensive side, but you don’t tip in Japan so at least what you see on the clock is what you pay.  If you decide to hire one, then ask your hotel to write the destination in Japanese and show this to the driver.  Rear passenger doors are automatically locked so wait for the door to open.

Luckily my travelling companions, Ken and Steve, are wizards when it comes to map-reading, especially subway maps, so I was able to rely on their expertise on negotiating the metro.  Even I, after the first day, felt confident beneath Tokyo’s streets, as the system is made easy for non-Japanese speakers, with letters and numbers as well as names on the stations, fail-proof directions to platforms and tannoy announcements throughout the carriages when a station is reached.

Tip:  Buy your IC Card and get a Tube Map as a priority on your first day.  Then hurl yourself into the city and enjoy the experience – remembering to stop for sustenance occasionally.

Tokyo Fish Market

Octopus in Tokyo Fish Market
Octopus – Mari Nicholson



DSC00010 copy
Eeels in Tsukiji Market – Mari Nicholson








Everyone said the Tsukiji fish market which handles a larger volume of seafood than any other market in the world is a must, and although we had all seen fish markets in the East before, we went there on our first morning.  It’s impressive, with over 400 varieties of seafood on display from massive tuna laid out on marble slabs, squid and octopus squirming in baskets, shellfish heaped up in mounds, baskets of crustaceans, and eels, lots of eels, along with species of fish I’d never seen before.  Tiny automated carts zip around (you need to watch out for these) collecting boxed items to be forwarded on.  I loved the machine where huge blocks of ice were man-handled into a drum which turned it into ice cubes which were then used to pack the fish for the retail market.

Parks and Gardens


Misty Day in Tokyo Garden – Mari Nicholson

Too many to be able to visit them all, so we choose just three, the Shinjuku Gyoen Park where an air of tranquillity heals the spirit, and Koi carp plop in the streams under arched bridges, the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace which are a superb example of the perfect Japanese Garden and the Kiyosumi Gardens with its large pond surrounded by some very special stones placed in the garden as stepping-stones, paving stones and stones for the waterfall.

ImperialPalaceGarden, Tokyo

Imperial Palace Garden, Tokyo – Japanese Tourist Board

Tokyo Gardens


There are too many Museums to mention and too many to visit on a 3-day visit if one wanted to see anything else, so Fukagawa Edo Museum was the only Museum we visited in Tokyo.  This was an instant lesson in Japanese history and was a great help in understanding modern Japan.  It consists of a display of reconstructed Fukugawa Saga-cho houses, taverns, and shops, all looking as though they’ve just been vacated – as well as a small theatre and lecture hall, all furnished in the period.  There are interactive displays and fantastic model towns, rivers and courtyards filled with people.  Well worth the visit.


Edo Museum – Mari Nicholson



Restaurant Menu – Mari Nicholson

There are so many superb restaurants in Tokyo, that won’t go into the eating experience, but the best sushi restaurant in Tokyo is said to be in Kyubey, right here in Ginza .  Sadly, we just couldn’t make time to visit it as there was just so much sight-seeing to take in but from what we heard from other people, this is definitely the place to go.  The prices are in keeping with the area with dishes from 4,000 to 8,000 yen, while a full set runs from 10,000 – 30,000 yen.

But I was mightily intrigued by some of the ‘alternative’ restaurants in the city.  First up there are the ‘Maid’ restaurants which pander to Japanese male fantasies and allows the customer to interact with real-life manga characters. Waitresses are typically dressed as French maids and customers are treated as though they are the masters/mistress of the house.  These range from standoffish Victorian style maid service to the school-themed cafes where customers pay to be spoon-fed or to be slapped in the face in public.

An eye-opening blog by fellow WP blogger, Stacey Gleiss, is worth reading here, as it explains a lot about these restaurants and the Japanese man’s liking for ‘childlike women’.

Then there are the ‘Cat’ cafes, the ‘Dog cafes, the ‘Bird’ cafes, the ‘Rabbit’ cafes, where you can sip your coffee or tea while relaxing with either your own pet or a rental pet.  As space is so scarce, many people do not have the option to keep a pet so this is the answer to the problem.  Mind you, if you do have the space to have a dog or a cat, you can also buy a pram in which to wheel them about.  It stopped me in my tracks, but the Japanese sailed serenely by, unfazed by this strangeness.

And now there is a ‘Goat’ café as well, 5 minutes walk from Shibuya Station at Shinoda Building 1F, 23-3 Shibuya, but I wasn’t able to check this out to see how they interacted with the goats.  This one sounds seriously weird.

(To be continued)


Japan – Land of the Rising Sun

I have had this image of Japan for years, of a country of kimono-clad beauties, beautiful gardens landscaped with flowers and red bridges, temples, and Bonsai, and, you know what, it is just like that.

Japan 1
Kimono-clad Japanese Lady

I  didn’t manage to cover the whole of Japan on my trip, that will take a few years, but I did chance upon many instances of the above as well as the frenetic crackling neon of Tokyo with shopping on Ginza, the surge of people crossing the road at Shinju and suspicious bars behind curtained doorways off the main streets: the traditional craft shops in Takayama; the Ryokans where you sleep on a futon and eat only Japanese food: Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps, a sublimely tranquil place for walking and cycling, where snow-capped mountains surround fast-flowing rivers, and monkeys cavort among the bamboo, and where the birdsong is so sweet it stops you in your tracks: Kyoto, ancient capital of Japan with its traditions and spectacular sight-seeing: Hiroshima with its sombre Peace Park and its nearby island of Miyajima, and Hakone where the image of the ic0nic Mount Fuji changes depending on time of day and weather.

To say it was culture shock is putting it mildly whether it was from seeing a racoon on a lead being led along the street, to seeing a dog in a ‘dog-pram’ being wheeled around a park, to witnessing day in and day out, the regiment of ‘salarymen’ coming and going from their businesses all dressed in their uniform of black suits, white shirts and dark ties. The men of this most conservative of nations never sport coloured shirts.

Japan 2

The kimono-clad women and young girls I saw, and the few men I glimpsed dressed in traditional garb, I later found were often Koreans who hired the kimonos when they were in Japan.  Many Japanese hire them also, as the cost of buying a good kimono, or a special one, can be astronomical, and they are nearly always worn for weddings.

So, join me as I blog about my trip on later pages, let me know if I can answer any questions you may have, or just log on and say ‘hello’.






Fukuoka, Japan: a Very Traditional City

Fuji with Bullet Train – copyright Japanese Tourist Board

Japan, that country full of surprises, stylish day to day living, and exquisite scenes that unfold in front of one’s eyes as though arranged by the Gods, is rich in dynamic cities.  None is more so than Fukuoka, a city rich in traditions, yet one that has embraced modernity with enthusiasm, a city of shopping-malls, modern subways and high rise condominiums.  Like the best of Japan’s cities, it is traditional in its outlook, but manages to fuse old and new.  Unfortunately, it is also the country where I dropped my camera and with it, hundreds of pictures I hadn’t saved to any other medium, but lucky for me the Japanese Tourist Board were able to help me out with these lovely images.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

Located on the island of Kyushu, Fukuoka’s main attractions are the many Buddhist statues, Shinto shrines and age old ruins. Visit in spring-time for the glorious, pink cherry blossom and the Fukuoka Daibutsu, the imposing 10.5 metres high sitting Buddha statue. You may photograph the blossom but it is forbidden to take pictures of the Daibutsu.. Many people will be observ ing you and if the rules are broken you could end up in difficulties!

Son et Lumiere Fireworks and the Fukuoka Dome – Copyright Japanese Tourist Board

The city has modern shopping malls in plenty too, catering to a hip, young, fashion conscious clientele who, even in freezing weather, will be found wearing mini-skirts and sleeveless shirts. Smaller family shops sell local handicrafts, and share the spotlight with high rise condominiums. A network of subways conveys people effortlessly around the city while bullet trains cover the rest of the island.

The Kushida shrine, recognisable from the large red lanterns that decorate its two-storey gate is just a ten minute walk away from the Daibutsu Buddha. This is a Mecca for the worshippers praying there, as they seek success in business, or getting a wife, or/and a long life.  If you want to know what the future has in store for you, you can have your future foretold by one of the fortune-tellers in the courtyard that leads to the praying chamber.

One of the best places for shopping and eating is Canal City, a huge complex of hotels, movie theatres, restaurants and shops. Fukuoka’s seafood is famous throughout Japan with most of it caught daily in the Sea of Genkai and served fresh in the restaurants here and in Nakasu, the nightlife district. Or, join the locals around the open-air yatai food stalls in the central districts of Tenjim, for grilled chicken skewers, hot pot and noodle soup.  The food is really fantastic.

Mt. Fuji/Lake Kawaguchi – Copyright Japanese Tourist Board