Saturday, May 21, 2011

vending machines in Japan

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufactures Association, Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita, with about one machine for every twenty-three people. I found this beautiful assembly last week in Kamakura.

watching sumo

In January 2011, a sumo championship was held in Tokyo. We took the chance to see these bull-like men in their tight shorts fighting and to get an idea of what sumo is all about. What I like on sumo is this very interesting mix of old traditional Shinto‑culture and live-entertainment for the whole family, which is broadcasted nation-wide and very popular. It has managed to survive with its formalized rituals and traditional etiquette, what makes it unique among other popular sports. 
Sumo has his origin in the Shinto-religion and a long history. Already in the Nara Period, 1300 years ago, the Emperor gathered wrestlers from all over the country to hold a tournament called sechio-zumo. The first sumo matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest and performed together with sacred dancing and dramas. Early sumo was a rough-and-tumble affair, combining elements of boxing and wrestling. In the Kamakura period, about 800 years ago, when Japan stuck in civil war, sumo was regarded chiefly for its military usefulness. Juijitsu has its origin in sumo. Later, in the Edo Period, 1600-1860 ac., peace was finally restored in Japan and professional sumo groups were organized to entertain the people.
The rules of fighting are quite simply. A rikishi loses when he touches the ground with anything except his feet. Fights can be tough and as there are no weight limits as in boxing or western wrestling it is possible for a rikishi to find himself pitted against an opponent twice his own weight.
There are six Grand Sumo Tournaments a year, three of them in Tokyo. A tournament lasts for fifteen days, each rikishi (sumo fighter) fighting once every day with a different opponent. Every tournament day starts as early as 8:30 am with the lowest classes and trainees and ends at about 6:00 pm with the fight of the Yokozuna, the Grand Champion of Sumo. Winner is the rikishi with the best record of wins over losses and gains the Emperor’s Cup on the final day. There are additional prices for best fighting technique, fighting spirit and even one for upsetting the Yokuzuna.
The Tokyo Kokugikan (Sumo hall) is in Ryogoku, not far from Asakusa. We arrived there at about 11:00 am and spent the whole day watching sumo, eating lunch, drinking beer and having fun. It was a nice and relaxed atmosphere. 

I uploaded pictures with a story line here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Finally back in Tokyo Part 2 - Travelling around

I returned from Kakuda on February 24. One day later, my sister and a friend visited me in Tokyo. We did a lot of sightseeing and I showed them the most important places like the Edo Palace and Ginza-street, Shibuya with the Meji-Shrine and the famous super-crowded street-crossing, Shinyuku and the government building with its great and gratis view on Tokyo, Roppongi and the Mori-Tower with its even better but more expensive view, Ueno with the stylish Fuji-TV building and the Rainbow-bridge and so on. We were quite busy these days but my sister and our friend fought really brave against their jetlag and all the crazy inputs Tokyo offers you. But all in all, I think they enjoyed the trips. For me, the most interesting tour was to the Tsukiji-fish-market, mostly because if not been there before. I’m going to write a separate post about it.
Ashi Lake in Hakone

Anyway, Tokyo is frenzy, noisy and quite awesome, but Japan has much more to offer. So, we left Tokyo on March 1 to discover it. Our first stop was Hakone, a bigger village lying in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, about 80 km (a 1.5 hours train ride) south‑east from Tokyo. The National Park is a recreational area, popular especially by stressed Tokyo‑residents. And after 4 days power-sightseeing in Tokyo, we were quite stressed, so it was the ideal place for us to go. It’s a really nice area and offers many sightseeing spots and touristic attractions like the scenic Ashinoko-Lake with Mount‑Fuji-View, a volcanic valley where you can eat black eggs cooked in volcanic-heated-water, a Modern-Art-Outdoor-Museum, old shrines and temples and a lot of hiking trails and Onsen (hot spring baths). However, some of the worst stereotypes about Japanese tourism come true here. At least in the major tourist season in summer, you can find the most important places very easily, you just have to follow the masses along the well-prepared round tour. This tour includes a boat trip, a rope-way and a cable-car and covers most of the important spots. Fortunately, we went there during the week and in off-season, so it wasn’t crowded at all.
We stayed in Hakone for one night in a traditional Japanese Hotel (Ryokan) and made the round-tour the next day. Even when the weather was not the best, it was still a lot of fun and very relaxing. Additionally, I hope my visit got an insight in how the Japanese mass tourism looks like. To be fair, the Fuji-Hakone-Izu-National-Park is huge and you can avoid mass-tourism and organized tours easily, if you want. Also, the tour was quite interesting. If you want to know more about, I uploaded some pictures here. 
The next aim was Kyoto, where we planned to stay the remaining days and use it as base-camp to discover the Kanzai-Area. We had several options how to go there. The most convenient way to travel in Japan is the Shinkansen Super-Express-Train. It takes only two hours for the 500 km from Tokyo to Kyoto and there is a train every 10 to 15 minutes. The Shinkansen system literally shrinks Japan to the size of a pinhead. With 12,000 Yen (around 100 €), Shinkansen is not the cheapest way to travel. Recently, short-distance-flights became a payable option. Some airlines like skymark offer nationwide-flights for 10,000 Yen (85 €), if you book early enough. 
Kinkakuji-temple in Kyoto
Also, JR has some special offers like the seishun-18-ticket. With this ticket, you can use every local and local rapid train in Japan on 5 non-consecutive days or you split the days between several members. I used this tiket to travel around alone after my visit left me. But using local trains takes a lot of time, about 7 hours from Tokyo to Kyoto. For us as budget-travellers, the night-bus-system was the best option. Willer-Express offered a tour from Shinjuku-station to Kyoto in a comfortable night-bus with leg rest and sleep cap for 5,500 Yen (45 €). And because you travel during the night, you don’t have to pay for an accommodation, too. The only problem is that you get waked up rough at 6:00 am and kicked out of the bus five minutes later, right into the cold and rainy Kyoto. It gives you the feeling of being reborn in some way.
So, our first meeting with Kyoto was a little rough. But our feelings to the former capital city of Japan changed a lot after we arrived in our hostel. Hostel Mundo was one of nicest and cosiest hostels I have ever been to. It’s in a small, more than 100 years old house next to the Imperial Palace and much more authentic and lively than any five star super luxus hotel could be. We had a great time in Kyoto and in this hostel. The city is surrounded by mountains and the weather there is a little rougher than in Tokyo, we had snowfall on several day. With about 1.5 million residents, it is the largest city the Kanzai area and third largest in Japan. It has a long and important history as the capital city of Japan and the residence of the Japanese Emperor for more than 1000 years. Kyoto alone has 14 world heritage sides and about 2000 shrines and temples. However, Kyoto isn’t that kind of living museum these facts imply. Most areas are quite busy and even when the height of the buildings in Kyoto is restricted and there are no skyscrapers, you feel that you are in the third-largest city in Japan. I hope that I can find time to write more about my impressions on Kyoto in a further post. Up for now, you can see pictures and get some impressions from Kyoto here.
The cultural centres are Kyoto and Nara, the two former capitals of Japan. Osaka is the place you go for shopping, nightlife or business. It is as lively as Shibuya or Shinjuku in Tokyo, even when it is not so large. And Osaka is also said to be the food-capital of Japan. Kobe is the third big city in the Kanzai-area and a major port and industry centre. All these cities are close together and well connected by public transportation. For example, travelling between Kyoto and Nara takes about 30 minutes and costs about 600-700 Yen.
Nara was the first capital city of Japan, more than 1000 years ago and has many cultural sights. But unlike Kyoto, it is much smaller and way less busy. The old Emperor Palace is not longer existing (even so, the area where it stood is a world heritage side). But you can find the largest sitting Buddha in Japan there. He sits in the Todaiji-temple, which is one of the largest wooden buildings worldwide.
Osaka is more like Shibuya or Shinjuku and great to spend the night there. It’s full of young people in the latest and craziest fashion. Also, it has one of the three most famous castles in Japan. Sadly, like most of the Japanese castles, it is a concrete reconstruction. I don’t know how impressive it really is because we didn’t visit it. You can see some pictures from Kyoto, Nara and Osaka here, and I hope to find the time to write more about it, soon.

On March 8, my sister and our friend had to leave me and go back to Tokyo, to catch their flight home. But I had some additional days left and wanted to see more of Japan. Because I was not in a hurry, I used the seishun-18-ticket to travel south, down to Kyushu. I went from Kyoto to Hiroshima with a brief stop half the way in Himeji to see the famous Himeji-castle. It was my first usage of the seishun-18-ticket and I figured out that using local trains for long-distance travelling takes not only a lot of time, but requires also a good planning and a strict schedule. I missed my train in Himeji so that I hardly managed to catch the last connection to Hiroshima and almost stranded in a small train station in the middle of nowhere. But I finally arrived in Hiroshima short before midnight, after ten hours on trains.
Atomic bomb dome in Hiroshima
In foreign countries, Hiroshima is known more or less as the city which was first hit by an atomic bomb. But it is, and ever was, much more than that. It is the capital city of Hiroshima-Prefecture and with more than 1 million residents the cultural and industrial centre of the southern part of Japans main island Honshu. Of course, tourism in Hiroshima is strongly connected to the atomic bomb; the peace memorial park and the museum are quite impressive and a must see when you go there. But it also lies in a beautiful landscape. The island Miyajima is one of the three most beautiful landscapes in Japan. The whole island is a holy shintoistic place and it’s Itzukushima-shrine is a world heritage side. I spent do days in Hiroshima. You can get some impressions of Hiroshima, Miyajima and the other places I went to from the pictures I uploaded here.
After Hiroshima, I used my seishun-18-ticket to travel more south, to Nagasaki on Japans most southern main island Kyushu. It was a 10 hours trip again, but the landscape was nice to see and it wasn’t boring at all. Nagasaki is the second city hit by an atomic bomb. It is way smaller than Hiroshima and has a long history as the centre of European-Japanese trade. For several hundred years, the Japanese Shogunate had a very strict politic to keep Japan closed from foreign influences and Nagasaki was the only town where Europeans were allowed to do trade in Japan. Thus, Nagasaki was influenced by Europe much more than the rest of Japan. You can see traces of European influences on many spots in the city.
Nagasaki was my starting point to explore Kyushu. The most southern of the four main islands of Japan has a lot of volcanic activity and some of the most active volcanos can be seen here.
My major aim was Mount Aso in central Kyushu, the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest worldwide. Its total height is about 1600 m and the circumference of its caldera is 120 km. It basically looks like a giant plateau with five peaks on it, each of them an own crater. The only active and most impressive one is Mount Naka. It smokes a lot and is erupting from time to time. Even so, you do not have to climb the caldera but there is a bus to the plateau and a ropeway brings you close to the crater. When I went there, it was sunny, but a strong wind was blowing and it was pretty cold. I did some hiking along the inactive craters and had great natural experiences. Even so, I was happy to relax afterwards in an onsen close to my backpackers-hostel.
Cherry blossom in Kyushu
On my way to Mount Aso I made a brief stop in Shimabara, a smaller town lying at the base of Mount Unzen, also an active and quite dangerous volcano. In 1792, an eruption and following landslide caused a giant wave of 100 meters height and killed more than 15,000 people. The latest accident happened 1995, when a pyroclastic flow caused by a large eruption cost 43 lives. I also made a stop in Kumamoto, the capital city of Kumamoto-Prefecture and famous for Kumamoto-castle. It is one of the three most important castles in Japan, together with Himeji-castle and Osaka-castle. Unfortunately, most of it is a reconstruction like Osaka-castle, but still impressive and nice to see.
My last planed stop was Beppu, THE hot spring town in southern Japan. It has the largest volume of hot water worldwide after Yellowstone in the United States. In some areas, the whole city is literally steaming and people use the natural hot water not only for baths but for heating and cooking. It is nice to see, but also very touristic and everything but cheap. One must-do when you go to Beppu is, besides going to hot-springs, of course, to visit the nine “hell onsen”. These are hot-springs which are to hot or have toxic ingredients and are not used as baths, but are only for to watch. Everyone has a different colour, according to the minerals it contains. Even when the “hell-onsen” are decorated like theme parks (one contains a small zoo where the animals are fare away from looking healthy or happy, another has living crocodiles which “enjoy the hot steam and high temperature of the hell-onsen, because it offers them an ideal breeding temperature), it is something you should see. However, after the nature experiences I gained at Mount Aso, Beppu was a little to touristic for me. For example, the music, which came out of drains, confused me a lot. So I wasn’t so sad to leave Beppu after one day there and went to Fukuoka, where I actually planed to take my plane back to Tokyo. But because of the earthquake things changed a lot at this point…