The main nightlife area of Kyoto is the central part of the city around Kawaramachi road. Around this area are tons of shops, restaurants, and clubs, including several 'red light' clubs, all lit up in neon lights. There were very young women and pimp-like men coaxing people into some of these clubs. The only western establishments we saw, and therefore the only ones for which we could understand the names, were am/pm (like 7-Eleven), Circle-K, and McDonalds. On our first night in Kyoto, we walked around for over an hour trying to find a restaurant where anyone spoke English or where they had an English menu. After passing hundreds of restaurants, we chose to eat Italian -- they spoke no English, but at least we recognized the items on the menu. We were searching for Agatha's, a restaurant specializing in yakatori (skewers), which we had seen in an advertisement in an English newspaper -- it specifically stated that they had English menus, and we figured eating yakatori in Japan was a 'must-do'. We finally found it the second night and it was excellent.
Gion Corner cultural show
We went to the Gion Corner area in Kyoto to see a cultural show that included dancing, acting, and traditions of the ancient Japanese culture. As we expected, this show was a total tourist attraction, but at least it stated it up front. The area around the theatre was somewhat upscale, but again, we had a very difficult time finding a restaurant where people spoke any English or provided English menus. We found one after about an hour of walking around, and were able to order a very good Japanese plate, and the standard fallback -- pizza!
We spent just one day in Hiroshima. We took the bullet ("shinkansen") train from Kyoto to Hiroshima for one night, mostly to visit the Peace Memorial Museum. The train logistics were quite easy, and we took a tram to our hotel area -- even with little English signs. The Tourist Information counter gave us good directions, which helped us to get around easily. We found Hiroshima, compared to Kyoto, to have a large city feel to it. Hiroshima was more crowded with more traffic, but was smaller in actual area. We found even fewer people spoke English here than in Kyoto, if that is possible.
The hotel in which we stayed was very near the hypocenter, where the atom bomb exploded in 1945. Because everything within 2km of the hypocenter was completely destroyed by the bomb, and further out many areas were destroyed, many of the buildings in Hiroshima are quite new.
We visited the Peace Memorial Museum and walked through the entire exhibit, reading the displays (all had Japanese and English) and looking at all the pictures and before/after models of the city. It was as we expected, except for the clear message that Hiroshima was very much a military-focused city in Japan for the many years before the bomb was dropped. Also, the early part of the museum presented Japan as an aggressive war-monger nation in the late 19th century until the end of WWII. Around the grounds of the Peace Memorial, we viewed the Centograph with the single flame that burns in opposition to nuclear weapons -- the flame is not intended to be an 'eternal' flame; it will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is destroyed. We also saw the A-Bomb Dome, which is the remains of the building that was directly below the bomb explosion, only about 50 feet from bridge, which was the actual target of the bomb. The A-Bomb Dome is a cement and steel building which was greatly damaged, but was not destroyed, and stands as the only pre-1945 building the vicinity.
After experiencing all the atom bomb exhibits, we decided to go see the movie Pearl Harbor, which was being advertised all over in Hiroshima (if you can believe that). We thought it would be fitting (and more than a little ironic) to see that movie to bring the story 'full circle'. Although there were many big sign advertisements for the movie, it is not out until July in Japan, so we could not fulfill our wish.
After a trying few hours of traveling from Hiroshima (see Getting There-Tokyo), we took a bus to the Hilton in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, a very active part of the city. We were quite happy to be in a hotel that was actually worth the inflated prices we were paying. We arrived on a Sunday and walked to the main Shinjuku area to see the crowds we had read about. To get there, we took advantage of the extensive underground walkway system. We were quite impressed with the very clear maps at every entrance and exit to the walkway system -- we could tell how far the walkways went and understand what buildings and points of interest existed up every stairwell. The walkway went through the subway stations and then along all the major streets we needed to traverse. Small stores, restaurants, and whole shopping malls existed in the underground area. We got out of the walkway exactly where we wanted, and walked through the streets in the main area. At all times of day and night we saw thousands of people using the walkways.
Supporting what we had read, there were thousands of people in the Shinjuku area, and all kinds of shops lining every street. Many of the streets were closed off to traffic, and street performers drew large crowds. We enjoyed the crowds in the beautiful weather. We went into a couple of the huge stores -- including the biggest Gap we have ever seen. We went back to the area at night and it had more neon lights than Las Vegas, and was so much bigger than Times Square. It also seemed like there were more strip clubs (and, seemingly, other X-rated activities!) here than in Vegas and Times Square. We loved the energy and crowds of Tokyo, and loved walking along the streets, people watching.
Because we were in Japan, we felt like we had to eat Sushi. We strolled the streets of Shinjuku, looking for a restaurant with pictures of sushi. The one we found and tried was outstanding, although the constantly-staring master 'chef' made us a bit uncomfortable (we were sure we were doing something wrong). For the first time ever, Kristen ate sushi -- and she liked it!
We had planned to do several things in Tokyo, including visiting some cool buildings we had read about, visiting the oriental market, and watching Sumo wrestling. Because we were so close to getting to Australia/New Zealand, we blew off all of it, enjoyed the little we saw in the city, and left two days early.
We feel like we utilized all the major modes of transportation offered in Japan except bicycles: bus, tram, subway, train, taxi, underground walkways, and walking. Because we traveled around so much in Japan, we have included some detail about each city.
When we arranged our Round-The- World (RTW) ticket we did not include a flight from Hong Kong to Japan, because we assumed we would arrange a tour through China that would end with a flight into Japan. Since we decided to skip the China tour, we had to buy a ticket to Japan. We worked with a local travel agent in Hong Kong, but the one-way flights were very expensive, even in economy class. Fortunately we got a clue and remembered that we could add a segment to our RTW for a standard penalty. So, we worked with British Airways and added the Hong Kong-Japan route to our RTW itinerary. The penalty we had to pay was pretty steep, only a little less than the economy fare outside the itinerary, but we were able to book business class. We had intended to fly into Tokyo, since our next flight on our original RTW itinerary left from Tokyo. But while sitting in the airline office, we looked at a map, and realized that it made much more sense to fly into Osaka, so that we could minimize our travel distances to Kyoto and Hiroshima. We saved probably a day's worth of train ride just by looking at a map!
The flight to Osaka was good, and when we got through Japanese immigration, we immediately hunted for the train station to get to Kyoto. Fortunately, the tourist information representative spoke a little English and wrote down the train to take. When we got our ticket, there was not a single English word on the ticket, and the ticket seller had to use a sheet of English translations and lots of pointing to explain which track and which car take. The express train was comfortable, and the 70 minute ride let us see some of the countryside -- most of it had homes and neighborhoods.
When we arrived at the Kyoto train station, we immediately realized how few signs were in English. In fact, most everything was completely unintelligible to us! Fortunately, we found a tourist information desk where they gave us an English map and a brochure that had our hotel name/address in Japanese so we show it to a taxi driver and he would know which hotel we wanted.
We bought tickets for the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima through the hotel for around ¥28,000 for first class seats. Getting to the station and finding the train (they had written the English translation of the scribble on the ticket for us) was simple, the train arrived three minutes before departure time, and departed exactly on time. The 70 minute ride was comfortable.
When we arrived in Hiroshima, with a little directional help from the Tourist Information desk, we took the tram to our hotel area. We understand that Hiroshima is the only city in Japan that still has trams.
We had decided to fly instead of taking the train from Hiroshima to Tokyo because the cost was comparable, and the train took four times longer. And since our guide book said that the Hiroshima airport was 'located conveniently south-west of town...a ¥200 tram ride', we figured it was a no-brainer decision. Since it was so hard to talk to anyone at the Kyoto hotel, we did not bother to confirm that information from the guidebook. Given it was so close, we figured we would take a taxi instead of the tram, so that we did not have to carry our bag through the streets.
We left the hotel about 90 minutes before the flight time, figuring we had plenty of time. As the taxi started driving northeast through town, we worried that maybe he misunderstood where we wanted to go. We confirmed 'airport' and he said 'yes, yes, Hiroshima Airport', so we figured we were ok. After 20 minutes (we had expected it to take only 10 minutes) we had not seen any airport signs, but we thought maybe they were not in English, though we figured they would use the standard airplane symbol. We re-read the Lonely Planet section and it still said 'conveniently located', so we were lost. After 25 minutes in the cab, now traveling through tunnels in mountainous and forested areas, we were quite concerned about whether we were heading the right way. Also, the taxi fare was up to ¥6,000 (US$50), which is a bit more than the ¥200 ($US1.80) the Lonely Planet suggested. Soon after our third read of the Hiroshima section of the book, we saw a road sign with an airplane symbol that said and '35 km' on it! We were fuming about how wrong the guide book was! We arrived at the airport just 15 minutes before our flight, and paid ¥16,500 (US$136) for the ride. We swore that we would write the Lonely Planet a nasty email on this one.
One note regarding guidebooks....our very experienced traveling friends we met in Tibet swore that the Lonely Planet should be named the 'Lying Planet' since its information cannot be trusted. They recommend the Rough Guide, if you must use a guide book. Although we did use the Rough Guide for a few destinations, we did not see much of a difference between them.
Our flight was fine, but when we landed, they welcomed us to '#*$%_@% international airport', so we worried that with all the confusion of getting to the airport, we worried we might have gotten a flight to Narita Airport, instead of Haneda Airport. The big issue is that Narita is much farther from Tokyo. Since Haneda is the domestic airport we assumed it would be somewhat small, but as we saw signs for 90+ gates, we still did not know which airport we were in. Only when reached baggage claim did we realize where we were. It was pretty sad at that point, and we felt like novice travelers!
We flew All Nippon Airlines (ANA) from Hiroshima to Tokyo. The airplane had one of the coolest airplane features we have seen yet: a camera loaded on the front of the plane with the picture presented on the screen in the cabin (first class, anyway). We get to see the take-off from the pilot's view, and the city views up to about 10,000 feet. The coolest part was during landing, when we saw the runway approaching and then touching ground. We even saw the flag man directing the plane into the gate. We hope that all the airlines start adding this feature.
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