The journey began with a long flight towards Tokyo, with a pit stop at London. Because we flew ‘ahead of time’ we had plain day the whole flight. After we landed at the airport we took the train to our first hotel: Hotel Grids. Which is near Akihabara. We experienced a lot of things people had already told us at home. Things like how clean the roads are, or how polite they are. Also one of the amazing things was the many vending machines, which can be found at pretty much every street corner.
It sure was crowded in the center of Akihabara. A lot of really high building, mostly containing anime and manga promotion material. But even so it was amazing to experience. After visiting a lot shops, expositions and shows we found out that there are stores on many of the higher levels in the buildings. Shops like Akiba hobby and the Touhou fan-store. A lot of these stored were set up really tight, which means that it was really easy to miss things. On Sunday the main road there is closed for cars for a few hours, during that time people can walk freely across the whole road to take photos or just for fun. At the edge of the road we went to eat at a Korean barbecue, which was really good although it wasn’t cheap. A fun there there was that when you ordered your next item on the digital menu, you got a minigame which could win you some free food. Odd but fun.
De Racing Miku Akihabara Exhibition:
The journey continues to one of the well known attractions in Japan, The unicorn gundam statue. Every once in a while the giant robot moves with sound effects, a real sight to see. (WHat interval we don’t know, but we got lucky when we got there). Next up was the shopping center next to the gundam which had a ROund 1 and a rooftop skatepark, which had a great view because of the height of the building. Next we went to Joypolis, a SEGA branded attraction centre, we expected it to just be gift shops but indeed it was a giant building with lots a attractions to take part in. They had a system with tickets, you buy one at entree, and then you top it up to pay for the fares. There was also the option to get a free for all ticket, which was pricey but meant that you could do all the rides without extra fees. The centre was actually not crowded at all, no problem at all because we had no lines to get in the rides. The one we found the most awesome was the Initial D real car racing machine. We play the game at home but now we had the opportunity to play it sitting in a real car form the game itself.
Our journey continues in Shinjuku, an area within Tokyo itself. We stayed there in the Hanabi hotel at the edge of the area. As opposed to the mattresses we had in the hotel before this, we had traditional futons, which were (surprisingly enough) not that much different except for the fact you’re sleeping on the ground. In the evening we went looking for a nice place to have a drink. Which lead us to the Foxgod cafe. This was a rock/metal cafe, but completely dedicated to babymetal, a band we just went to see a show off before our trip to Japan. The people at the cafe were super nice and enough though we had a language barrier they went to make conversation with us. Really a recommendation! In the main party area we didn’t have as much luck to find nice places to have out. We got asked if we maybe wanted to ‘touch the girls’ by some random guy in the street, which is a big scam which we are not in for. So be aware of people that have really good english are and clearly not really japanese!
To get an idea of what’s around we went to check out Gyoen national park. The park was really big for something in the middle of a big city (by the way this wasn’t even the biggest) and was separated in different styles of gardening. We started at the japanese gardens. These were all neatly maintained till in the smallest details (see photo X). Next up we went to the english gardens, these were mostly big fields with huge baffling trees. The park was filled with explanation signs talking about all the different plants. Parks in Japan usually have a small fee they use to maintain the park. The second park was the Meiji Jingyu Shrine which also had a forest around it. The entry next to the Harajuku train station was a gigantic gate. A wide path led us to the shrine. A beautiful forest which will once again make you forget you’re actually in one of the biggest cities of the world. The park has a surface area of 70 hectare with 365 different species of trees that were donated when the park was founded (120.000 trees total). Inside this area there also was a big garden. This also had a small entrance fee which allows you to visit the former garden of the emperor Meiji. On the side of the garden there was a path, if followed will lead to sort of a wishing well. Whatever you do don’t touch the well, it said the the sign next to it. There was personal to guide people to see into the well. Here we also got the chance to talk to some of the japanese people, which proudly talked about the healing powers of the hot springs that he had visited.
Lastly i took a day to travel around by myself for a bit. The first stop was as a Super Potato, the 2nd one because i also went to one in akihabara. As to be expected i got a few things there i couldn’t leave behind like a Famicon, the average prices were also lower at this location. For this trip i had researched if there were any special Arcade machines i could check out. After some googeling i found a location on my path. Travel is mostly really simple, most people have the image of stuffed trains. But in reality it’s not that bad at all, this is partly because of the fact there is just 5 minutes between each train. After my arrival i was shocked they had 2 ITG machines. Especially because ITG is something you usually find in America, not japan!. The owner of the place told me these 2 were the only ones in Japan. The people there were nice, it didn’t much to feel at home. Logically i played a bit on every machine there. The same evening we played my newly achieved Famicon at the hotel connected to the TV there. Playing retro games till late in the night.
We left tokyo to go towards the north of Japan. We could choose between the tourist route or the toll route. We navigated as close to the sea as possible. Many places in Japan have large stone shock breakers to protect from all the erosion. Also, something that we noticed were the many homes for elderly people in Japan. Many of them located very close to the shore. After a 5 hour drive we arrived in Sendai, for our first stay in a capsule hotel. But first into the local arcade!
Another fun thing to do is to get a personal stamp there. That is something that Japanese people use as a signature, for example when sending a mail. Near the donquiote you usually find a machine that is able to make those. There is a choices for different sizes and materials. It helps to do a little research beforehand if you are not familiar with the language. Because the English menu’s are not correct at all, and you may end up with a stamp that has meaningless symbols.
Luxury against efficiency
The capsule hotel is not well known for its luxury, but that’s not what it’s meant for. All corridors, lockers and shower cabins were grey with big white arrows on the floors and walls. It was super clear WHAT to do WHERE. The beds were fine, and that is what is was all about. Although there was someone snoring really loud. At departure you throw your towel and slippers in designated bins. You drop off your key and your pyjamas at the reception, and that’s it. Goodbye!
The next day we were sleeping at Saken, an all inclusive traditional ryokan. When we arrived we were directed to a parking place were someone with a can was waiting to load our luggage. At the hotel our luggage was carried inside and we were escorted to the reception in a beautiful hall. At first sight we didn’t even know how to properly behave, overwhelmed by all the luxury. A silk like floor with a pond, next to a small podium with a gold plated harp. After checking in we were escorted to a traditional Japanese room. The personnel was having some trouble moving our crazily stuffed bags to the room. Which was to be expected after all the Akihabara shopping. When we were done checking out our room, we went to explore the rest of the hotel. We kicked off with dressing in our Jukata’s, ready in the closet for the full experience. The hotel had several different hot springs, one of which was in front of the tower that our room was located in. It had an inside and outside part. There was also a general hot spring, which was much bigger but much less traditional. And not to forget the hot spring at the bottom of the mountain that we could only enter the next day. To get there there we had to pass a long downwards wooden corridor at the edge of the maintain. After which we took in the beautiful scenery. Furthermore there was a museum with lots of artifacts and stories related to the ryokans history. Saito was our personal receptionist, his English was top notch and he was available to us 24 / 7. He told us if there was anything, we could call him and he’d help us out. This appeared to be 100% correct, but we had no idea how and where his sleeping should occur.
The dinner there was an experience on its own. When we got the ryokan we hadn’t yet registered for the main dinner. But because we did not want to miss anything about this experience, we just had to add the dinner. At our table was a lovely view. We received 5 courses of which the only choice was the main course. One after the other dish was presented. Shrimp surrounded by different pieces of meat and fish. Sauces with of unknown recipe. And eventually abalone and salmon caviar. Yes we had to google that. Quite an experience, but probably a one time thing because of the price.
Breakfast was a buffet, luckily a lot more straightforward, but still very elaborate. Despite the fact that people come there to relax, we slept very little so we had a lot of time to try out all the facilities
The next destination on our list was Mount Haruna, a mountain known for the appearance in the Initial_D TV series. We had our hotel at the feet of the mountain, so that made it perfect for paying a visit. We just stepped out of our fantasy world we experienced in the Ryokan right into the longest trip of this vacation. But on the way, we decided to divert and take the tourist route through the mountains. It had 3 high peaks and a somewhat scary, curvy road towards the top, so we were hoping to see a bit more of the nature japan has to offer. Even while we separated ourselves more from the densely populated areas we would still pass by a 24/7 shop every 10 minutes, sometimes in the middle of nowhere.
We went higher and higher into the mountains and saw the clouds coming closer. “We are probably somewhere around the top now”, but no. Once we arrived at the top above the clouds we could see a beautiful scenery of mountain tops, which also caused many extra pit stops at the side of the road to take some more pictures. Luckily we had called the hotel beforehand to confirm that we could check in late. However, after a confusing conversation using the best Japanese we could muster, it was all fine. On top of one of the mountains there was a small village at a lake, and again we took a small break to take some pictures. It was a long trip, taking a total of 10 hours, but it was no struggle since we got to see all those amazing places
The hotel we arrived at was named Grand Hotel. It was a more luxurious hotel than we expected. There was a big entrance hall with a wall filled with traditional clothing which we could pick up on our way to our room, and there were also multiple onsens at the location. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to explore the hotel because it was a one night stop on our trip whose main focus was on the nearby mountain. But I still managed to find an old American-style arcade inside the hotel. Funny I hadn’t seen any tabletop arcades or pinball but this hotel had it next to the main hall. At night, we headed into the mountain starting at the parking lot we knew from the TV series. The climb onto the mountain was quite thrilling, since the spiraling roads full of hairpin turns made for an exciting trip to the top. We were stunned that the local people drove up these hills every day probably even a lot faster. There we met some local guys who were with their cars which were clearly “pimped”. The dark lake at the top was also beautiful, then we headed downwards… like a roller coaster, perfect.
Leaving no time for a break, we continued on towards our next destination, Kyoto, in the morning. The landscape was nice there as well, but the weather turned around 180 degrees. Nearing Kyoto we saw a big cloud forcing itself in between the mountains. The moment we arrived at the foot of the mountain, light rain switched to a heavy rain storm. We were almost forced to stop at the side of the road. But 15 minutes later it was all over.
Our hotel in Kyoto was located in a quiet area. Upon entering, we felt more like guests with a host family than in a hotel. The owner and another family that were staying were celebrating the birthday of the owner’s son by eating Takoyaki. But we were not only served in a traditional way, we also had to learn how to do it ourselves. He also had some secrets to share with us about his takoyaki. For example, he put cheese in it and called it a “Cheeseoyaki”. Our room was spacious and had great air conditioning that made it feel as cold as inside a fridge. This was nice considering the outside temperature was still around 30 degrees Celsius. We travelled all day and it had already gotten quite late, so we decided to go to Nara Park the next day. The park itself is openly accessible, and the stray deer there are the most famous tourist attraction. These deer were part of the park and you could feed them, they were trained so that they first bow before they took the biscuit. “Are these deer happy here?” was a question that first went through my head, but we did see that they had the opportunity to withdraw from the people higher up in the mountains and other places in the big park. In the park was the Todaiji temple, the largest wooden temple in Japan, with a rich history – it was a sight for sore eyes. After paying a small price you could enter this temple. Inside we were face to face with the biggest Buddha statue we had ever seen. The temple was in fact only one floor with this statue reaching all the way to the roof. In addition, there were two other immense statues that watched over Buddha. At the end of the day we had gone to a local Izakaya, which was cozy, but curiously, we were the only ones there.
We also wanted to pay a visit to the bamboo forest and the Tenryuji temple, which turned out to be nearby. The forest was impressive, its paths being lined with large bamboo stalk on both sides. However, we noticed that the forest itself was not very big. The surrounding nature was still impressive, and we also walked through another forest. We did not think the bamboo was that impressive. The Tenryuji consisted of a garden with several temples connected to each other. Took some side trails, discovered some temples and took a small funny train back to our hotel. By the time we came back, the other family had left so we had the “hotel” for ourselves. We were pleased that there was a large selection of drinks and food that we could get there ourselves. The prices were indicated for each product and you had to pay by putting your money into a collective depot (on good faith). It’s rare that you see an establishment trusting their guests this much! They even bothered to translate a message to Dutch on a note thanking us for the night before. The photos taken the day before were already on the wall. Back in our fridge … I mean room we took a moment to see what we had bought until that moment, it was a lot …
Back to Tokyo
Our last car trip was back towards Tokyo for the last 2 days. It was very cloudy, which was a problem since we were relatively close to Mount Fuji. We look our camera with us, but saw nothing. After half an hour to see if there was something to spot, and with our hope almost abandoned… we suddenly saw a UFO above the clouds … no, it was the mountain! Our route went around the mountain, after which we turned away from the clouds and we had an open view of the mountain. The mountain was really impressive in real life. When we arrived at our last hotel (MyStays), we saw that we did not have single beds, not even for 2 people, but a small one which had to be shared. We used the last 2 days to do the things we wanted before leaving. One more day back to Akihabara or along every Book-off that was to be found. We tried to absorb as much Japanese culture as possible. For example, we saw a wine bottle rack where every wine had a game chart of statistics about the caricature of the wine, and even on the last night a retro game shop around the corner. With bags too full to carry (or too heavy for transporting on the plane) we left towards the Netherlands. During our days in Japan, we made so many great experiences, it’s impossible to write them all down in these short blog posts.
Author Benjamin Vitters English translation door Anton Grootes, Benjamin Vitters, Alex Japanese translation door Niek Nooijens Grammar Monica Grootes