Ueno, Akihabara, and meeting old friends

This morning (29 June – I’m posting this on the 30th) was another sleep in. We’re finally catching up on some of the sleep missed during earlier nights on this trip due to finding it difficult to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. I had another salady thing, this time with large chunks of tofu, from 7-Eleven for breakfast and M. had the granola and coffee from Blue Bottle at Shinagawa Station again. After a lot of onigiri breakfasts we’ve really been feeling the need for something more like our normal diet.

Our first port of call today was Ueno. We caught the train from Shinagawa there and then took a leisurely stroll through Ueno Park, checking out the gardens, a small Buddhist temple, a larger shinto Shrine, and the lake, which was completely covered by huge lotus leaves. There were a handful of pink lotus flowers visible, but none in full flower yet. Presumably in a month or so the lake will be spectacular with huge pink flowers everywhere. There were several large crows cawing loudly and fluttering around – we’ve seen them in many places so far on this trip. But by the lake there was also a large Japanese cormorant preening its feathers, and I managed to get up very close to take a good photo with my phone, it was so tame.

Again the heat and humidity were oppressive and we walked slowly and sought shade wherever we could, lingering there before tackling the next stretch of sunny ground. We didn’t linger too long in the park before going to check out the shopping area south of Ueno station. At first we though it was similar to other areas and not that interesting, until we stumbled into an older region with smaller shops and stalls, kind of resembling a bazaar or permanent market. This was more interesting to wander through, with a wide range of products form cheap and tacky to household supplies to antiques to fine jewellery, and also many stalls selling fresh fish, meat, or vegetables, as well as lots of hot street food. We wandered few blocks and then found a covered alleyway with stalls long it and took this to get out of the sun.

We emerged near Okachimachi station, where there was a large Uniqlo store, which my wife suggested we look inside to cool off in the air conditioning and also to use the toilets. While browsing around in there we ran across a display and desk selling items including T-shirts and tote bags that could be customised by printing any design you wanted on them. Several examples showed photos of cats or dogs. My wife decided to get a bag with a photo of Scully printed onto it. It took a bit of fiddling to get a suitable photo transferred to their system from her phone, but once that was done the print was ready in just a few minutes, and turned out looking great.

Next order of business was finding some lunch. We wandered roughly southwards towards Akihabara, and ran across a square which I later discovered was called Okachimachi Panda Square. It had four food trucks parked in it, and we checked what each was selling. The first had corn dogs and karaage chicken and a couple of other fried things; the second shaved ice; the third waffles; and the fourth various meat-filled croquettes. The only sensible option for my wife was the waffles, so we checked the picture menu pasted to the side of the truck, and they had savoury as well as sweet! There was a ham and cheese filled waffle for example, and next to it what looked like a waffle filled with just melty cheese like a sort of toasted sandwich. We asked and the woman in the truck said it was cheese and honey. So we got one of those for my wife and I went back to the first truck to get some of the chicken karaage. A woman picking up a corn dog helped me with English translation because the woman in the truck spoke no English, and I got a large serve of karaage with spicy sauce (there was also a mild option). When I saw her start preparing it I wondered if I’d ordered way too much! I received a large box piled high with fried chicken pieces, coated in spicy red sauce. It wasn’t all that expensive, so I was surprised by how much I got. It was delicious, and I managed to eat it all, but was very full afterwards.

Since we were close to Akihabara, we walked a few blocks south and watched the streets transition into shops filled with electronics, video games, toys, and various geeky things. I’d picked four shops to try to find specifically to look for any interesting roleplaying games, or potentially worthwhile Magic: the Gathering cards. The first one we found was Retro Game Camp, but this turned out to have nothing but video games, despite some web articles mentioning it had card games. The shop called Grand Panda Canyon was supposed to be located in exactly the same place according to Google Maps, but it took some effort to find. We circled the entire block and returned to Retro Game Camp before noticing as tiny, worn sign indicating the store was up a dingy, narrow flight of stairs immediately next to the former. We climbed up and found a tiny store with trading card games, but almost all various Japanese ones. They had a small section of MtG cards, but not many and I scanned it in under a minute before leaving.

Around the next block was the Mandarake Complex, a series of shops spread over 8 floors with different things on each floor. I wanted to check the toys on level 8 and cards n level 7. We found an outdoor staircase leading up, next to a lift that bore a sign saying “Staff Only”. My wife didn’t like the look of the exposed metal staircase and said she’d wait inside the ground floor while I climbed up. I did so to the 8th floor first. When I stepped inside the door I found two lifts inside for customers! Oh well. The toy floor was not so interesting for me, so I went down to 7 for the cards. Again it was mostly Japanese games, but they had a small MtG section, larger than Panda Canyon, which I looked through quickly, but didn’t see anything that grabbed my attention to contemplate buying.

Next stop was Yellow Submarine, which was the most likely place for roleplaying and board games according to web reviews. They indeed had many of each. I was interested in any perhaps second hand or old D&D books. They had some 2nd Edition D&D, and of course 5th Edition, and several other games in Japanese, but nothing vintage enough or intriguing enough for me. The board game section was larger and had many interesting things, including a section of obscure games I’d never heard of, designed by Japanese designers. Some had English rules taped onto the outside of the box. I bought a couple of games I thought looked interesting, and also a game to give as a gift to our friends for dog-sitting Scully. Oh, and I found some cool dungeon tile map geomorphs which were pretty cheap and also flat for packing, so I bought one of those.

Finally we walked over to Yodobashi Camera to have a look at the toys floor in this giant electronics store. We went up and looked around quickly, using the toilets halfway through doing a circuit of the floor. There wasn’t very much of interest for me on Yodobashi’s toy floor, it being mostly kid’s toys, with only a very small section for card games and puzzles.

From here we went to Akihabara station, where we stopped at a Starbucks to get cold drinks and use the WiFi for a bit, before heading back to Shinagawa on the train. We rested in our room for about an hour, cooling down from the heat of the day before preparing for dinner.

For dinner we were meeting an old work colleague of mine and his wife at Ebisu station, and they were taking us to an okonomiyaki restaurant that they’d booked. We caught the train from Shinagawa and arrived on time. They’d said to meet at the west exit of the station, but when we exited the gates there was only a sign indicating the east exit. Presumably we were on the wrong side and needed to cross back over the tracks somehow to the western side of the station. We had to wander around a bit until I spotted a sign pointing to a west exit. We followed it down a long passageway and emerged down a long escalator to ground level that spilled us onto the footpath. We turned around and confusingly there were signs indicating that up the escalator we’d come down was the east exit, but right next to us another passage at ground level was apparently the west exit. I couldn’t see our friends, so we milled around a bit in confusion until thankfully I spotted one of them approaching.

He said his wife would meet us at the restaurant and led the way to a place called Suzume-no Oyado, which translates to Sparrow’s Inn, in a building complex called L’Gente Ebisu. There we met not only his wife but their two children as well, about 6 and 3 years old. They spoke good English and their father said they’d been raising them bilingual and in fact their English was probably better than their Japanese. We sat in a tatami room, removing our shoes to sit on cushions on the floor at the low table. They confirmed my wife’s food requirements and then ordered for us.

We got a series of appetisers including baby eggplant in a thin sesame sauce, insalata caprese, karaage chicken and karaage chicken gristle (crunchy! – the gristly bit near the breast bone), tempura avocado and corn, thickly sliced snapper sashimi, and grated yam in nori sheets. Then came the main course, the waitress firing up the hotplate in the middle of the table and adding some eringi (king oyster mushrooms) and asparagus to cook first. These were to eat separately while they prepared and cooked okonomiyaki, mixing the batter and ingredients at the table and putting it on the hotplate for us. We had two vegetarian ones, with cheese and vegetables, and three different meat ones. We took cut pieces once they were cooked and topped them okonomi sauce from a pottery jar with a bamboo dipper, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes, and shaved bonito flakes for those who ate meat. When we were too full to eat the last couple of pieces we had some dessert; I had the yuzu sherbet. The whole meal was very nice.

We also spoke with our friends and learnt about their time in Japan and the fact they were planning to move back to Australia after this year. As we were leaving, the restaurant staff offered us free peaches. They said they had too many and didn’t want to waste them. I said I’d take one, and our friends took one too. The peaches were large and fragrant and probably very expensive, give the prices for fresh fruit here in Japan.

With dinner over, they walked us back to Ebisu station in a light rain and parted ways there. We caught a train back to Shinagawa and our hotel for the night.

Asakusa, Ginza, and Shin-Yokohama

This morning we slept in. The new hotel room is larger and more comfortable than any of the others, which may have led to us both getting good sleeps and snoozing in a bit longer after the exhaustions of the past few days. I had my salad for breakfast and we prepared to go out for the day. I let my wife choose what to do since I didn’t have any plans for Tokyo beyond showing her Meiji Jingu, which we did yesterday. She did some searching and decided we should go see Asakusa, an area Google described as having an old Tokyo vibe and streets lined with craft shops and street-food stalls. And then if we had time we could go to Ginza to check out the shopping area there.

My wife’s plan for breakfast was to get some croissants or other boulangerie goodies from the good looking French bakery near the 7-Eleven just outside the hotel. They opened at 09:00 and bit the time we were ready to go it was after that. But when she went over to look, it turned out they had a sign on the door indicating that for today only they would open at 11:00. So without her breakfast we went to the Blue Bottle coffee shop in Shinagawa station, where she got her morning coffee. I noticed that they also sold granola bowls with milk and pointed it out, and she got one of those, which she really enjoyed, so it turned out okay in the end.

We took a Keikyu line train for Asakusa, where we took a few moments to get our bearings. While Japanese train stations are typically very well signposted and straightforward to navigate once you know where you need to go and get over the whole foreign country thing, one thing remains really tricky. Even if you know you want to go out the west exit of a station, the exist aren’t labelled with simple directions. They’re typically labelled with things like “Taiho Exit” and “Karazushi Exit” which are completely meaningless if you don’t know which side of the station those two things are on.

Anyway, we exited the station on the correct side, but I hadn’t exactly located this area of crafts and street food, so we wandered around a few blocks until we noticed a large crowd of people down one street. Heading that way revealed the extremely busy area right in front of the Kaminarimon, a large gate leading to the Senso-ji shrine. Hundreds of tourists were milling around it, taking photos, and then moving on to the street leading north to the shrine.

This street was filled with hundreds of small shops in four rows with three paths between them, all full of people. This was obviously a very touristy area. Some of the shops were cheap tourist trash, but others had interesting and genuine looking items, and there were also numerous food stalls. Although there were also signs everywhere saying that food was strictly for take away and eating in the street was forbidden, although we saw a lot of the tourists ignoring that and just eating whatever they’d just bought as they walked along. There were also many people dressed in kimonos wandering around, both women and men in their different styles – who mostly looked like tourists who had hired them for the day.

The weather was hotter and if anything more humid than yesterday. The clouds broke up and the sun shone strongly. I made sure to use lots of sunscreen and several time we stopped in the shade or better yet inside a stall where they had fans blowing a cooling breeze, just to cool down for a minute. We bought a few things: small souvenirs for people back home, and also a couple of small buns with a seasonal limited lemon filling that we ate a bit later as a snack. It was interesting to see this area, but the combination of the oppressive heat and the crowds of tourists made it good to get away quickly after we’d explored most of it.

We walked back to Asakusa station and this time took a Ginza line train to Ginza. Here we emerged right under the Mitsubishi department store, which we went into to find some toilets. After that I suggested we go up to the 9th floor to get some lunch at the cafe there, which looked like it had good sandwiches from the photo on the signage. We just wanted somewhere we could sit for a bit out of the heat. I got a “french fries set” which consisted of a choice of sandwich (chicken and salad), a small salad, fries, and a drink. My wife had had a late breakfast so wasn’t very hungry, so I suggested she could have the salad or some of the fries and the drink, while I’d have the sandwich and whatever else she didn’t want. She chose an iced matcha latte, but the woman at the cashier’s station pointed out that only certain drinks were included in the lunch sets. So I chose and orange juice and bought the latte separately. The food was decent, with the sandwich being stuffed with plenty of salad, and the bread fresh and not soggy at all.

After eating, we went down to street level and explored the blocks around the main intersection of Ginza, where all the super expensive brands had shops. We found that moving a block or two off the main streets revealed a more down-to-earth selection of shops, mixed with restaurants and other things that were more interesting than the luxury brands. Again it was so hot that we ducked into several shops ostensibly to browse but also really to get into some blissful air conditioning. My wife bought a traditional Japanese fan and fan case from Itoya, a somewhat upmarket stationery and art supply store, as a gift for her mother. She also got some traditional sweets from Ginza Kikunoya, a sweet shop originally opened in 1890.

Having picked up several items and become hot and a bit exhausted, we decided to return to our hotel before heading to Yokohama for our dinner appointment. We dropped off our items, freshened up a bit, and left again just before 17:00. I’d received a dinner invitation from one of my ISO standards colleagues who we saw in Okayama last week. He’d invited us down to Yokohama to eat with him and his wife at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. This was a place we went to last time we were in Japan for the 2019 ISO meeting in Yokohama, and M. had enjoyed it a lot because of the excellent vegetarian ramen there. She’d suggested we go back, but I’d said it was a long way to go just for dinner – but now we had an excuse! So we’d accepted the dinner invitation and now we made our way there by first catching a Keikyu line train to Higashi-Kanagawa before transferring to a Yokohama line train for Shin-Yokohama.

We arrived about 17:50, and my colleague Atsushi was waiting for us at Exit 8 from the station as I’d suggested. He said his wife was arriving by Shinkansen and would join us about 18:40, so in the meantime we could look at the museum part of the Ramen Museum. He led us there, but got briefly confused when he took a wrong turn and didn’t recognise the street. Consulting a map on his phone he found the right street a block over. We browsed the museum exhibits slowly as we knew we had a bit of time to wait. I bought a jar of seven-spice pepper for my mother as a gift. His wife Mihaela showed up a the expected time and we descended into the basement level where the ramen shops were. The shop Komurasaki had vegetarian ramen that my wife wanted (there was another option but it was very spicy and less appealing), and Mihaela was vegetarian too, so approved of our choice. Atsushi and I both chose the “special” tonkotsu ramen with all the trimmings. The food was excellent.

After eating, we went for a walk in the cooler but still very warm night air towards Nissan Stadium, host of the FIFA World Cup final in 2002. It was a pleasant walk through a park and along a small river and we chatted and shared stories along the way. Mihaela was Romanian and had moved to Japan about 30 years ago. I might have made a faux-pas when I mentioned that I’d be hosting an ISO Photography meeting in October next year, and Mihaela perked up and said she’d love to visit Australia again and would accompany Atsushi, and asked him why she hadn’t told her about that yet! She said maybe she’d even stay longer because Atsushi would be travelling on business and his company wouldn’t let him stay longer that required for the meetings. After stopping to take a few photos at the stadium we returned to Shin-Yokohama station where they farewelled us and we reversed our train trip back to the hotel.

Nakatsugawa to Tokyo

We woke up early with the sunlight from the 04:45 sunrise coming in through the rice paper windows, but snoozed until just after 07:00. Breakfast was from 7-Eleven again, but this time we’d found salad and vegetable options which were a nice change from onigiri. The vegetables were very fresh and crisp. I had a salad with some chicken pieces and a yuzu dressing, while my wife had vegetable sticks. Then we packed our bags and checked out.

Nakatsugawa station was just a short walk away and we tapped our Suica cards on for the ride back to Nagoya. A train pulled in just as we arrived, ready to turn around and depart in about 15 minutes. We got on board and waited sitting on the train. The train was a rapid service, skipping a few stops, and taking 50 minutes to reach Nagoya. It started mostly empty but slowly filled up along the way until there were several passengers standing. At Nakatsugawa a group consisting of two kids about 7 or 8 years old and what looked like their mother and grandmother got on as well. The women were speaking Japanese to each other and the kids were chatting in English with what we agreed was an Australian accent. I guess the mother and kids were from Australia, visiting the Japanese grandmother.

At Nagoya we had another weird incident with the gates between the normal trains and the Shinkansen. There was a Shinkansen ticket machine just before the gates and so I stopped to buy tickets to Tokyo. There was one confusing screen which asked if I wanted fare tickets and non-reserved seat tickets, or just fare tickets. I chose the fare tickets. Then when we tried to go through the gates it rejected our Suica cards, and also rejected the Shinkansen ticket. We went to the assistance window and a staff member there told us we needed the non-reserved seat ticket as well. I said we’d come from Nakatsugawa and needed to tap off our Suica cards. He did some magic with the IC card reader and got us to tap our cards there. Then he sold us tickets from Nakatsugawa to Tokyo and said we needed to insert both the new ticket and the one I’d bought at the machine together into the gate to get through. The card reader had cancelled our tap on fare, so overall we’d paid the correct fare, but again in an extremely convoluted way. It’s weird, at every other station the interface between regular trains and Shinkansen was straightforward and obvious, but both time in Nagoya we got stymied by it.

Finally managing to get into the Shinkansen platforms we headed upstairs and a train was just arriving. We walked down to car 3 for the non-reserved seating just in time to get on at the end of the queue of passengers. I thought we might have trouble getting seats, but we magically found a row of three seats completely unoccupied and grabbed it. The trip to Shinagawa took just over 1.5 hours.

Out hotel, the Shinagawa Prince, was right across the road from Shinagawa Station. It’s a confusing complex of four different hotel towers, with a maze-like warren of levels and passages between them. We tried checking in at one of the towers and were instructed to follow a convoluted path to another tower. They checked us in and gave us early access to our room, which was nice, since it was now about 12:30 and it would have been less fun to have to leave our luggage and walk around without having a chance to freshen up.

The first order of business was lunch. We found a 7-Eleven right outside the lobby level entrance to our hotel tower, and there was also a food court there. My wife suggested she get some onigiri from the 7-Eleven and I could get whatever I wanted from the food court. Looking around the half-dozen or so outlets inside the food court, I chose a plate of takoyaki, topped with cod roe for a change. They were decent, and very hot as usual.

Stomachs full, we went to Shinagawa Station to find a coffee shop and my wife spotted a Blue Bottle Coffee at the Shinkansen side, so we sat in there and I got some sparkling water to drink too. The shop had a view out a glass wall over the bustling people moving through the station, but there were signs saying no photography. Obviously it must have been problematically popular for photos.

After drinks, we boarded a Yamanote Line train for Harajuku. Here we visited the Meiji Jingu shrine and its beautiful garden. We went slowly because the air was oppressively humid. It was about 29°C according to the weather site I checked, but really steamy. The past cities were humid, but this was really an another level, and very energy-sapping. We didn’t spend long in the shrine itself, but retreated to the shrine garden, which is a tranquil place and a bit cooler with the cover of trees. We made sure to visit Kiyomasa’s Well, an ancient well which provides cool spring water year round, and which we washed our hands and forearms in to cool down. Being June, the irises were just starting to appear and the water lilies were flowering, which made the large pond quite pretty. Last time I’d been here, ten years ago, it was January, and the pond was partly frozen over.

Leaving Meiji Jingu, we decided to walk the kilometre or so to Shibuya. Fortunately it was downhill! We reached Shibuya Crossing, and took several photos at street level before entering the Starbucks and ordering some drinks so we could go upstairs and get an elevated view out the window. They had a Tokyo special, in which you could have a lemon cake blended into any drink, so I had that in a vanilla frappe and it was pretty good. We even managed to get seats at the window, and took a few photos and videos of people swarming across the crossing.

It was time to explore the area and check out some shops. Entering one likely looking building hoping to find a department store or mall we found ourselves in a for emporium that sprawled over multiple levels. This was a chance to use the toilets on the basement level, so we did that. Emerging, we went down a street or two and ended up in the Miyashita Park shopping mall, where we enjoyed the cool air conditioning while browsing around. Then we went out to the street to explore some more. My wife stopped by a Starbucks to post some Instagrams using the WiFi, and I searched for any vegetarian restaurants in the area, not really holding out much hope. But I find a vegan place called Izakaya Masaka, just a few hundred metres away!

We followed Google Maps to the location. It turned out the izakaya was located in a modern shopping mall, Shibuya Parco. In the basement restaurant level, called CHAOS KITCHEN (in all caps). It was a bit of a rabbit warren down there, with dozens of small restaurants in dimly lit and heavily mirrored passages. We located the izakaya and found several customers waiting outside on seats. I added my name to the waiting list and we sat down. One other group arrived shortly after us, four young adults speaking French. And then the staff took the waiting list away and replaced it with a sign saying they couldn’t accept any more customers for the evening. So we were lucky to arrive when we did.

As we waited, we saw several other prospective diners turn up, look at the sign, and walk away in disappointment. It’s amazing that vegetarian/vegan places aren’t more common in Japan, because many tourists seek them out, and it’s difficult to find any and when you do it’s often very hard to get a table. You’d think more people would open vegetarian places to cater to the obvious demand, but it doesn’t seem to be a popular move.

We ended up waiting maybe 45 or 50 minutes for those queued ahead of us to be seated until it was finally our turn. It turned out the place was tiny, with only two tables of four, a counter seating three, and six tables of two, cramped into a space barely large enough. The ordering was strictly by a QR code scan on a phone, but we couldn’t do that as we had no roaming on our phones, so the waitress gave us one of the staff’s phones to order on. We ordered a serve of gyoza, a side of szechuan spiced fried potato wedges, and two plates of karaage fried vegan “chicken”. These came with four fried balls per plate and a choice of sauces, from which we chose the sesame and the onion/lemon. The food was really good and filling, and definitely hit the spot after all that waiting.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

We headed back to Shibuya Crossing to take some night time photos. Then we caught a train back to Shinagawa and our hotel. I grabbed a salad for breakfast and a carrot cake for dessert from the 7-Eleven and then we retired to our room for the night.

Walking the Nakasendo

Today was our big planned walking day. We’re in Nakatsugawa because it provides access to a popular part of the Nakasendo, one of the Edo period walking trails from Tokyo to Kyoto.

We got up and had a quick breakfast, then departed to make the train leaving for Nagiso at 08:14. Yesterday when we arrived at Nakatsugawa station, I’d checked the timetable for trains leaving for Nagiso in the morning. Reading the poster I thought it said that there were trains departing at 08:14 and then 10:00, with no trains in between except for expresses that required reserved seating and significant extra cost. I asked a staff member at the station and her confirmed this. So rather than wait until 10:00, we made sure to get the 08:14 train.

We tapped our Apple wallet Suica cards on the station gates, climbed over the stairway to the other platform, and boarded the two-carriage train that was waiting there to depart. We had several minutes to wait, and it was lucky we did, because there was an automated announcement on the train in Japanese and then English, saying that Suica cards were not accepted beyond Nakatsugawa, and anyone on the train needed to pay the driver on the way off the train. We could do that, but we needed to cancel our Suica taps somehow, lest the system get confused and end up charging us some wrong amount, or not letting us on our next train. So I ran back over the stairs with both our phones and spoke to a staff member, who nodded knowingly and told me to tap the phones on a pad there, which he programmed to cancel our previous tap-ons. He then said I should buy tickets to Nagiso, which I did, before running back over the stairs to get back on the train before it departed. It wasn’t actually close, as I made it with 2 or 3 minutes to spare.

The train took us up the river valley into the mountains, into countryside a lot wilder and less settled than any we’d seen on the way to Nakatsugawa. The rocky river and the forested mountains on both sides were beautiful. We arrived at Nagiso at 08:30 and alighted the train with about 6 or 7 other passengers. It’s obviously not a heavily travelled line.

We left the station to take a brief look around the tiny village of Nagiso, and a small cafe was just opening. We went in, but the man had retired to a back room and I had to call out “sumimasen” loudly a couple of times before he heard and bustled out. My wife ordered her coffee to go and we set out.

Right near the station we saw a sign pointing the way to the Nakasendo, leading us over the train line on a small pedestrian bridge, and then along the road above for a bit. Soon the path left the road and we were walking along narrow laneways with a few scattered houses. There was a little car traffic, but not much, and the path became narrower and less vehicle-friendly. We crossed a few small bridges and the scenery became pleasantly rural, but not really wilderness.

A few kilometres down the path we reached Tsumago-juku, the first of the historic post towns along the route where travellers could stop to rest. This was essentially an old village laid out along the trail, with well-preserved historic wooden buildings. Some of them were private residences, but many had been turned into shops or cafes or restaurants to serve modern customers. It was very pretty to walk along, and not at all crowded, with just a few tourists walking around. It may have been too early, as many of the shops hadn’t opened yet.

Tsumago-juku, Nakasendo trail

Continuing along the Nakasendo, we soon found ourselves walking along a foot trail uphill through thick pine forest. It was really beautiful, with a feeling like Sam and Frodo walking across parts of Middle-earth. Occasionally the path popped out at a small cluster of houses or a lone building, and some of these offered refreshments. There were also several toilet buildings along the way. But the main next goal was Magome-juku, the next post town along the route. This was up the mountain and over Magome Pass. There was a road running up to the pass as well, but the Nakasendo mostly followed a foot route running parallel, occasionally popping out to cross the road or go along it briefly before heading back into the forest. But at one point near the Otaki-Metaki Waterfalls there was a detour due to the Nakasendo path being closed because of some sort of small disaster, presumably a land slip or rockfall or something. So we had to detour past the waterfalls – which was in a sense fortunate otherwise we might not have seen them at all, and they were worth seeing. The detour took us along the main road for a few hundred metres before we rejoined the Nakasendo route through the forest.

Nakasendo trail

The forest was a mixture of pines with large stands of giant bamboo in places, and very beautiful. The going got tough as we ascended to Magome Pass, with the trail becoming steeper. We started to notice people walking the opposite direction, heading to Tsumago-juku. They seemed happy to be walking downhill while we puffed slowly past them. Eventually we topped out at Magome Pass, 790 metres above sea level. Nagiso, where we’d begun walking, is at 411 metres. From here it was all downhill! Almost.

We walked down and it was a bit under an hour to Magome-juku. By now it was lunch time and we stopped in at a small place that offered simple soba and udon meals. We both had cold noodles with wild vegetables, my wife getting soba while I had udon. We wanted cold instead of hot because it was a hot day and the sun had come out, and it was also very humid, so we’d become very hot walking. Resting in the shade of the restaurant with a fan blowing cool air was a pleasant relief. We also tried a goheimochi coated with a sauce of sesame, walnuts, soy sauce, sugar, and sweet sake. These were really delicious, with the nutty flavour making them much better than mitarashi dango which we’d had at Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

After eating we resumed our walk. Most people get a bus to or from Magome-juku, but we had decided to walk all the way back to Nakatsugawa. The Nakasendo continued, through a rural area full of houses with vegetable gardens, rice paddies, and we even saw some grape vines. This was a nice countryside to walk through, and I’m very glad we did it.

Nakasendo trail

Eventually we reached built up areas again, part of which was the next Nakasendo post town of Ochiai-juku. This was not as preserved as the previous two, with many of the original buildings being redeveloped into more modern houses. The honjin or government inn was preserved there, but closed for the public. We continued on and stopped at the nearby Genky Ochiai supermarket/drug store to buy some cold drinks: ginger ale for me and green tea for my wife. We drank sitting inside the lovely air conditioning before setting out for the final leg back into Nakatsugawa.

This involved walking uphill over a couple of large hills and back down again, since we took some quiet back streets to avoid the bust main road that skirted around the base of the hills. But it was good that we did this because we passed signs indicating that this was still the original Nakasendo route. It took us down a final steep hill into Nakatsugawa, just a couple of blocks from our hotel.

We stopped and rested for a bit, and I had a cold shower to wash off the walking grime and cool down, before dressing in fresh clothes for dinner. I tried looking for any restaurants nearby that might have vegetarian food, but we decided to just go to the nearby shopping mall and try whatever they had there. It was a small mall, and we ended up just getting some take-way sushi and taking it up to eat at the food court tables. After that we had some ice cream at a Baskin Robins. This was our first non-Japanese food of the trip, but we both felt like it after the hard day of walking.

We’d walked 21.5 kilometres, climbed a total of 683 metres of elevation, and I walked 32,150 steps. Phew!

Kyoto to Nakatsugawa

We slept in this morning, not getting up until after 08:00. We ate our breakfast and planned our morning activity. My wife wanted to visit a handicraft market that she’d found online, but couldn’t remember exactly which one it was. Searching was tricky, because a lot of the markets that came up were only open on one specific day of the month. We decided it was a toss up between the Kyoto Handicraft Centre, or the Kamigamo Handicraft Market. The first is a modern shopping mall full of traditional craft artisan’s shops, selling things like swords or probably expensive pottery and stuff. The second was an open-air market with over 250 stalls run by individual artisans in the grounds of the Kamigamo-ninja Shrine. The first sounded interesting but very expensive, while the second appealed more for the chance to actually find something we might be interested in buying, so we chose that.

We packed our bags and checked out of the hotel, leaving the luggage behind to pick up later. Heading out to Gojo subway station, we stopped at Walden Woods Kyoto, a coffee shop, where my wife got her morning coffee. She said it was good, and it was nice to try different coffee shops each morning. From Gojo station we caught the train north to Kitayama station, next to the Kyoto Botanic Gardens, and from there walked to the Kamigamo Shrine for the market.

The market was impressive! There were 265 stalls marked on the handy map at the entrance, which also included a suggested walking route to make sure you didn’t miss any of the stalls. They were laid out in the grounds of the shrine, in between several of the shrine structures, and on both sides of an attractive stream lined with low stone walls. Children and adults waded and played in the stream, which was just over ankle deep. It would have been a good way to beat the heat, since it was a very warm and extremely humid day. There were many large trees providing shade, but not all of the stall areas were shaded.

Wandering around, we stopped to get some lunch at a stall selling bread in rolls and loaves. I got a cheese roll, my got a roll with red bean paste, and we also grabbed a small sourdough loaf with fruit to split a bit later on the shinkansen. My wife bought a few small market items, and I walked over to some of the shrine areas without market stalls to get some photos of scenic parts. Just before midday we found a place to sit by the stream bank, in the shade to escape the heat a bit, and ate our rolls. There was a very young girl standing in the stream and meticulously removing rocks from the stream bed and placing them on the first stone step above the water level, while her father supervised. Eventually he put them all back in, at which point she started pulling them out again.

Walking out of the market we passed a stall we’d seen on the way on called Kiry’s Muffins, which had signs advertising Australian muffins. It was clear Kiry had come from Australia and baked muffins that looked larger and more like the ones we’re used to back home, compared to the smaller Japanese style ones we’ve been seeing everywhere. Apparently they were popular because this was the only stall we saw in the whole market that had queues of people waiting to buy the product. We said hello to Kiry quickly as we passed, and learnt she was originally from Tasmania. She was keen to have a chat and ask us where we were travelling in Japan.

Leaving the market, we walked back to a different station: Kitaoji. We walked along the river much of the way, and we saw several birds: mallards, swallows, carrion crows, and a black kite circling fairly low overhead. I entered a bird count into eBird, but couldn’t identify the kite until we got back to WiFi and I did a search for likely birds of prey in the area. We also saw several dogs, including one shiba inu which led its owner down a steep stone bank towards the river, perhaps in an effort to chase some of those ducks.

The train from Kitaoji took as back to Gojo, from where we walked back to the hotel to pick up our bags and then walk to Kyoto station. I bought shinkansen tickets from a machine to avoid the long queue at the ticket office, and it was very simple. We headed down to the platform and a Nozomi super-express was leaving in about 5 minutes, giving us enough time to walk to the rear three carriages where the non-reserved seats were.

On the train we got seats sitting next to a man in the row of three. After a while, he presumably heard us chatting in English and asked us where we were from. We had a bit of a conversation and it turned out he was a former professional soccer player in the J1 League, the top league in Japan, playing as a goalkeeper. He’d retired and was now working as a coach. He gave me his business card, allowing me to know that his name was Yosuke Abe, and to look up some of that information later.

It was only a bit over half an hour to Nagoya. We had to change to a Chuo Line train to Nakatsugawa. There were two different gates to leave the shinkansen area, one to the exit and one leading to JR train lines, including the one we wanted to get to. So we tried using our shinkansen tickets to go through those gates, and the machine gave us our tickets back, which previously they hadn’t done. And then I realised we were inside the JR platform area without having tapped our Suica cards to initiate the journey. Unsure what to do, my wife suggested we go talk to the staff at the gates. A few other people were getting assistance there, but eventually I spoke to them and told them what happened and that we hadn’t tapped our Suica cards. They took it in their stride and directed us to tap our cards on a pad right there, and then asked for our shinkansen tickets, which we gave to them.

That sorted, we headed to the platform to catch a train to Nakatsugawa. I’d read that they only leave about once an hour, but there was one going in the right direction in about 10 minutes, so we got on that. It was only when it started moving that I realised it wasn’t going all the way, but terminated at Kozoji, about half way there. So we got off and waited for the next train to Nakatsugawa, which was a “rapid” service that arrived just a few minutes later. It had skipped several of the stops that our train had stopped at and so caught up to it. It took us the rest of the way to Nakatsugawa.

Here we walked the short distance to our hotel, The Ryokan O, via a 7-Eleven store to get some snacks to top up the small lunch. We checked in, and found it to be traditional in the style that we had to take our shoes off and use slippers to walk around and up to our room on the second floor. It has futons on tatami matting and very little else in the room – a low table and two flat cushions to sit on, and a very tiny fridge. The toilets and shower rooms are communal, shared with the other guests. We got yukatas from reception to wear when moving between our room and the showers.

After a rest, we left just after 18:00 to find dinner. I’d searched for some possible vegetarian options and decided noodle places might be suitable. There were a few udon places nearby, but the best rated was a soba and udon place right at the train station, so we headed back there. It took some finding to locate it, as it turned out to be a tiny counter inside the station waiting room, manned by a little old lady. There were no seating areas, so she indicated we could sit at the single table in the waiting room. There were only six menu options, either soba or udon noodles, plain, with egg, or with tempura. When my wife showed the old lady her vegetarian card, she indicated the tempura would be no good. So my wife got the plain soba, which just had green onion on it, while I had the tempura soba, which came with a kind of tempura patty which had vegetables and tiny shrimp in it. The meal was good, and cost just ¥970 for the both of us!

On the way back we stopped at 7-Eleven for some snacks and dessert. I got a small tub of red bean paste with mochi balls in it. Back at the ryokan we sat at the bar for a while to enjoy our complimentary drink. The guy at reception had given us vouchers when we arrived. I tried the “Nakasendo Fizz” cocktail, which the menu said was good for relaxing after a lot of walking. It was gin, yuzu liqueur, tonic, and soda. It was named after the Nakasendo trail which we’ll be walking along tomorrow. The bartender asked us our travel plans and we said we’d be doing that from Nagiso, and he said it was a very long walk. I showed him that Google Maps said it was a 4-hour walk, and he didn’t believe it, saying maybe 5 or 6 hours.

After our drinks, we had showers and prepped for sleep.

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

This morning we were up at 07:00, but took our time having breakfast and prepping for the day. We left about 08:30 to walk towards Kyoto station, which is an impressive maze busy with people scuttling to and fro. We found the Nara Line platforms to catch a local train to Inari, two stops down the line. There was a train waiting on platform 10, which was our local train, due to depart in a little under 15 minutes. It had just arrived and we faced a wave of passengers getting off as we moved towards the platform. We boarded the almost empty train and got a seat to wait for the departure. By the time it departed the seats were all taken and there were plenty of people standing. Most of them were tourists heading to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, like us.

We alighted, with most of the train passengers, at Inari station, which is right outside the shrine entrance. Immediately, the sights were amazing, with a huge red torii gate beckoning people in.

Torii gates path, Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto

The initial area consisted of wide open courtyards with pebbled surfaces and stone paths, surrounded by various shrine buildings, mostly fairly large in size. There were places to buy papers, small wooden boards, ribbons, and other things to write your prayers on and tie them up in the various designated places. Hundreds of tourists milled around, taking photos, and generally shuffling from one sight to another.

After ascending a few flights of steps to courtyards at higher levels, we came to the main attraction here: the path ascending Inari-yama, or Mount Inari. This is a path surmounted by hundreds of red torii archways, closely spaced to give the impression of walking through a long tunnel.

Torii gates path, Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto

As we climbed, the sides of the torii facing us were blank, but turning around we could see that the other sides were all covered in Japanese characters, presenting a very different view of the tunnel. It was virtually impossible to take any photos of the tunnel without other tourists present, although several people were trying, and consequently holding people up in bunches behind them as the ones in front politely tried to stay out of the photos. It was a bit crowded and difficult thing to keep out of people’s way, as there were also people coming back down in the other direction as well.

Torii gates path, Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto

Along the way there were a couple of places where there was a break in the torii and some small shrines by the side of the path that you could walk over to see. At one of them we decided to step out of the crowd to go have a look. Although it was just off the main path, it was completely empty of people for a while, until another couple came over as well. Then I spotted a path leading up the hill that looked to run almost parallel to the torii path, and I suggested we try walking up there a bit. I expected that it would track alongside and eventually we would be able to rejoin it. But it meandered uphill in a different direction.

The path led to a bamboo forest, where the path was covered in fallen bamboo leaves. The forest was an impressive sight, and well worth this detour, whatever it was.

Bamboo forest

We continued uphill, and I checked my phone map and determined that we seemed to be heading in the right direction to reach the top of the mountain, so decided we should just keep going. The path was almost deserted, except that a couple of young guys passed us at one point. Along one side of the path was a wire fence, and occasionally a gate that led to what looked like a less-used path. Signs on the gates said to keep them closed to keep wild boars out. My wife said we better not open the gates or boars might come on to the path we were on. I pointed out that the fence might be to keep the boars on our side. At one point we heard a strange grunting sound coming from the forest, which continued for a minute or so. I’d never heard a noise like that before and My wife asserted it was probably a boar.

The path continued through wonderful scenery before eventually joining a narrow paved road that led further up the mountain. We walked along this behind a spry old Japanese woman, who was scurrying up the hill ahead of us. She looked about 70 years old, and this was probably her morning constitutional or something. The road led past a few small houses and several shrines that seemed to be part of the Fushimi Inari complex, with similar red torii in smaller sizes, and lots of stone statues of foxes, which we’d noticed seemed to be a common theme. Many of these shrines were very old and covered in moss.

The road eventually ended and gave way to a series of steps leading further uphill as the going became steeper. Still the old lady bounded along ahead of us, although we caught up to her taking a rest stop a couple of times. But each time she jumped up and took off again ahead of us. Eventually we reached the path with the hundreds of red torii again, but up here near the top of the mountain there were a lot fewer people walking it. I spoke to a couple who were coming up and said we’d come another way up the mountain, and it looked like a lot of people had dropped off the climb. They said yes, there was a point further back where a lot of the families with children had stopped.

From here it wasn’t far up to the top of the mountain, where there was a large cluster of shrines along the same themes. Many of them had tiny replicas of the red torii, with writing on them in Japanese. Apparently you could buy these small copies and have your names or prayers written on them, and then you placed them on the shrines. I’d hoped there would be a view from the top of the mountain, but the shrines were surrounded by dense trees, and there was no view at all.

We headed back down the main torii path, enjoying this area with the much smaller number of people, and also the surrounding lush green of the forest in which the red gates were set, providing a visual contrast. We reached the crossroads area, where two routes up and two routes down converge. Here there was a small cluster of shops providing food and refreshments, as well as a view of Kyoto below. A hundred or more people were resting here, this being the uppermost point for many before deciding to avoid the steep climb to the top and just return back downwards. We chose the main way down, but again the path forked some way further along. We decided to take a quieter route again, and ended up on a path that I think took us just outside the edge of the shrine and along a narrow road fringed with old houses, as well as some small shrines resembling all the ones we’d seen already.

We reached a place where there was a cafe called Vermillion that looked inviting. Since it was just a few minutes before midday, we decided to stop for lunch. There was a popular outdoor seating area facing a small pond out the back, and they said there were several people waiting for seats on the patio, but we could sit inside without waiting. So we chose to do that and got two cozy armchairs with a small table between them near the front door. My wife ordered the cheese toast which the menu said came spread with Vegemite(!), while I got a baguette sandwich with pastrami, Camembert, and apple. Each was served with some pieces of gherkin. The food was good, though the portion sizes were not large, but it was enough to fill the holes in our stomachs and energise us for more walking.

Continuing on, we re-entered the shrine and emerged near the bottom. Exiting in a different direction to the way we’d entered from Inari Station, we headed to Fushimi Inari Station instead, on the Keihan Main Line. Along the way we passed dozens fo food stalls and souvenir shops, obviously set up to capitalise on the thousands of tourists passing by here every day. Instead of west back to Kyoto, the different train line was to take us north, to Sanjo Station. Here we transferred by foot to the nearby Sanjo Keihan subway line, and took a train west to Keage Station. From here we emerged to walk north, past the large Nanzen-ji Temple and Eikan-do Temple to the southern end of the Philosopher’s Walk, a peaceful walking path beside an old canal, lined with trees.

Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

The Path was beautiful, but we could tell it would be much more beautiful in either autumn with the maple trees turning red, or in spring when the hundreds of cherry blossom trees would all be in bloom. There were many rustic stone bridges crossing the canal, making for picturesque photos.

Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

I’d thought there would be small shops along the way, but there were very few. But we stopped at a cafe named &andbull, which had a sign outside saying “COFFEE, PIZZA, DOG OK”. The logo was a bulldog face, and siting inside with its owner was a very large white fluffy dog. My wife ordered a matcha ice cream and talked with the dog owner, finding out that it was a one-year-old poodle-Saint Bernard cross. She ate the ice cream sitting outside with me. It came with a shot of coffee poured over it!

This was close to the end of the Philosopher’s Walk, and from here the best way back to the hotel was to catch a bus on the main road a few short blocks west. We determined that we wanted the number 5 bus to Kyoto Station, as the other routes all headed in different directions. A bus came and we crowded on with slightly squished standing room. The bus drove a while until it came to a stop where a dozen or more people squashed on, and now it was getting very cramped inside. It continued a few more stops, and then packed even more people on! As we started off and turned a corner I noticed out the window large market with many stalls across the road. I wondered if this might have been the market we’d planned to go to on Sunday but maybe we’d got the day wrong and it was on Saturday. The next stop was just around the corner, barely 100 metres from the previous one, so I told my wife to get off here and we squeezed our way to the front of the bus and got off.

We crossed the road and explored the market, which seemed to be mostly a flea market kind of thing with second hand goods. There were some stalls selling newly made crafts and some selling food such as cakes or biscuits by local bakers, and there were a few hot food stalls. I later determined this was in Okazaki Park, and was a fortnightly flea market. We got a chocolate banana muffin and some lemon biscuits from one stall for snacks, since our lunch hadn’t been large.

Now it was time to brave the bus again to get back to our hotel. Fortunately this time the bus wasn’t as crowded, and a lot of people got off a few stops later so we managed to get seats. We rode all the way to Gojo subway station, where we got off and walked the rest of the way to our hotel. (The bus would have gone right past the hotel, but I had no idea where the next stop would be – judging by the distances between stops it could well have been at Kyoto Station and we would have had to walk the same distance back to the hotel.)

We rested up in our room for a bit before heading out at 18:00 to find dinner. I’d been unsuccessful finding any interesting vegetarian options online, so we decided to just walk to the station and perhaps the Aeon Mall on the other side to check any restaurants along the way or try the food floor in the mall. We ended up in the mall at a sushi conveyer belt place called Kaiten-sushi Uogashi AEON Mall Kyoto. There were a few people waiting, but we wrote our name on the waiting list and didn’t circle any of the three options afterwards because we had no idea what the Japanese characters meant. We think they were for preferred seating at tables or the counter. A waitress came out and offered us the next two seats at the counter, jumping a few other waiting customers who presumably had indicated preference for a table.

My wife ordered kappa maki (cucumber rolls) and pickled radish rolls and also inari pockets from the electronic ordering screen, while I just grabbed a couple of dishes with fish from the conveyer to get started. I ordered a seasonal specialty which looked like fried potato cakes, but turned out to be probably grated yam cakes as the texture was very soft inside. I also ordered a crab and a salmon roe sushi. We filled up on the meal and were very satisfied by the end.

Heading out, we stopped at a Godiva dessert bar, where I had a chocolate and cherry crepe, which was also filled with whipped cream and chocolate ice cream. My wife got a cold 99% cocoa drink, which she said was very good. Then from there we walked back to our hotel, stopping again at a 7-Eleven for breakfast supplies.

Shopping and great food in Kyoto

We slept in a bit this morning, not getting up until close to 08:00. We decided to start the day by exploring the nearby Shosei-en Garden, which is only a couple of short blocks from our hotel. But first my wife wanted some coffee, so I searched and found a cafe called murmur coffee not far away where she got a take-away. She said it was drip style coffee rather than what she was used to, but it was still good.

The garden cost ¥500 each to enter, and the woman at the counter gave me a very nicely designed glossy brochure with map, which she very deliberately said I could keep, and was not allowed to give it back. We followed the suggested walking route around the garden, exploring the various corners with tea houses, pavilions, and wooden and stone bridges over the pond and streams. We saw sparrows, mallards, crows, and some grey herons, which are impressively large birds.

Shosei-en Garden, Kyoto

It didn’t take too long to walk around the garden, so we headed back to the hotel since it was nearby for a few minutes to put on some sunscreen and use the bathroom before heading out again.

We walked north, choosing random small streets to avoid the larger roads. Our goal was Nishiki Market, which is famous as the evolution of a traditional market street. It runs for several blocks and has a roof covering the street, which is pedestrians only and was a bit crowded with people – mostly tourists.

Nishiki Market, Kyoto

It was a good mix of shops selling wares, ones selling fresh seafood, meat, or vegetables for home preparation, stalls selling food ready to eat, and restaurants. We browsed along everything and stopped in several places for bites to eat. The first stop was a place selling very large rice crackers and also skiers of what looked like meat but apparently was made of rice, topped with various things. We got a couple fo the rice crackers, a “five pieces” one and a sea lettuce one. They came hot, and we ate them sitting in the shop. There were frequent reminders over a PA system that eating while walking was prohibited, and all food must be eaten in or next to the shop you buy it from. Next I stopped at a place to get some takoyaki. They wouldn’t let my wife sit with me inside while I ate unless she also bought some food, so she explored outside a bit instead.

Nishiki Market, Kyoto

We grabbed a few other miscellaneous snacks to eat, filling up on bites that came together to make quite a respectable lunch. We also stopped to browse in several of the shops, including the Aritsugu knife shop, founded in 1560, and now operated by the 18th generation descendant of the original founder. There were also shops selling nice looking pottery

We reached the end of the Nishiki Market and continued on east towards our next destination. The next stop was Hanamikoji Street, which is a preserved historical street and district with old style houses, many of them converted to shops or restaurants, although many are also still used as private residences. Some of the buildings look old and well preserved, while others have clearly been recently renovated as the wood looked very new, but in the same old style in keeping with the historic nature of the area. One interesting thing was there were large signs placed frequently, warning people that Hanamikoji was a private street and that photography is forbidden. The signs say that surveillance cameras are in use, and there is a ¥10,000 fine for taking photographs without a permit. It was a bit of a shame, as it was very photogenic, but I didn’t want to risk having security guards come racing out and trying to issue a fine, so I withheld from taking any photos, although I saw a handful of the other tourists sneaking photos here and there.

Along this street we stopped in a shop where we had to remove shoes to enter. They had some amazing pottery pieces in there – amazing and expensive. Some tiny tea cups were around ¥5000 ($50), and there were bowls for around ¥20,000 ($200) or more, as well as some more decorative pieces that went up to ¥200,000 ($2000). The iron glaze on some of them was amazing, giving them a sparkling metallic glitter appearance, in various attractive colours. We also stopped in a shop that sold tenugui printed with a very large range of art designs in more or less traditional styles. Some of these were very attractive and would make excellent wall hangings or framed pictures, but we didn’t get any. We did get some cotton handkerchiefs form another shop, printed in more attractive designs with gold highlights. My wife chose three of these for a special price for the three.

At the south end of Hanamikoji Street entered the Kennin-ji Zen Buddhist temple. This is a sizeable temple and a significant one in Zen Buddhism. There were some parts of the complex that were fenced off with low fences and other people were walking around inside, but we figured they must have paid to get in there via one of the buildings which we hadn’t bothered to go in because of the entry fee. But we could still see everything from the outside area. We walked out an exit to the south to continue back to our hotel.

The day had been mostly overcast and very humid, but not rainy. It was warm though, and we used the opportunity to cool off and rest on our hotel room before seeking dinner. I looked for some okonomiyaki restaurants with vegetarian options, and found four within walking distance. Reading their reviews made me want to try Yamamoto Mambo first. When we arrived there, it looked good, but was very busy and a man behind the cooking counter said they were booked out and it would be a “long long” wait for a table.

So we headed to the next place, an intriguing possibility with a very high Google review rating, but based on only 15 reviews, compared to the 500+ for all of the other options I’d found. It was called Aikochan, and one reviewer said it seemed to be operated by an old couple out of the lower floor of their old house, but was well worth the visit. As we walked over towards it, the shops petered out, and the pedestrian traffic as well, until we were walking through an almost derelict old residential neighbourhood. Here we found the old two-storey house with a red lantern out the front. A middle-aged woman was on her phone outside, but came over to usher us in as we walked towards the door. I asked “okonomiyaki desu ka?” and she confirmed it was the right place.

Aikochan okonomiyaki restaurant, Kyoto

Entering, we found a tiny room with a counter with two large hotplates facing four barstools. There were two small tables, one with four seats and the other with two, four a total seating capacity of ten people, although the room would be very cramped with ten in it. As we entered, we were the only customers, though. Behind the hotplates was an older woman (perhaps the other one’s mother?). Neither spoke more than a few words of English, so my wife got out her vegetarian card written in Japanese to show them. They understood, and asked a few questions to confirm that she could not eat squid either, and we also managed to convey that I was fine with anything on the menu. They went through a list of various meat options and I chose pork. I ordered an Asahi beer from the fridge and my wife didn’t want anything so they gave her some iced tea.

Aikochan okonomiyaki restaurant, Kyoto

The old woman began cooking the okonomiyaki for us, by laying down a thin layer of batter. After letting this cook briefly she topped it with chopped raw cabbage, spring onions, some pickled ginger, and something that looked like rice bubbles. Mine then received a layer of thinly sliced pork strips. This cooked for a while, then the woman poured some more batter on top, and flipped them with two spatulas. After cooking the other side for a few minutes, she took out two eggs, checking that my wife was okay with egg (so I’m not sure what was in the original batter). She cracked an egg onto the hotplate and then picked up my okonomiyaki and dropped it on top of the egg, then repeated the process with the other one. At this point she asked us if we wanted spicy or mild. I said spicy, and my wife said a little bit spicy. After a minute or so she flipped them over again and spread two different sauces on with large brushes. I think the first was the spicy one. Then she topped with powdered kelp, and powdered bonito for me, and then mayonnaise. She cut the okonomiyaki into eight wedges and served up the first onto a small plate for us to eat with chopsticks, leaving a small spatula for us to help ourselves to the remaining pieces from the hotplate, which kept them warm.

Aikochan okonomiyaki restaurant, Kyoto

It was delicious, really good. After eating a few pieces each, four young men came in and took the table of four, squashing behind us. They seemed to speak Japanese, but still apparently had some difficulty figuring out the menu options. The lady pushed our remaining pieces to the edge of the hotplate and prepared the middle to begin cooking their okonomiyaki, which also had noodles on them. When we finished eating and got up to pay, the old woman also gave us a packet of 7-Eleven pancakes with maple syrup flavour, presumably as some sort of dessert. This seemed very generous, especially when the price for the entire meal, including a beer, came to just ¥1550 (about A$16)! What an absolutely amazing experience.

We walked back the short few blocks home to the hotel, stopping at a 7-Eleven on the way to buy some rice balls for me for tomorrow’s breakfast. I also grabbed a chocolate ice cream for dessert. My wife wanted to save the pancakes for is to share at breakfast too.

Back at the hotel, it was early enough for us to do some laundry, using the hotel’s coin-operated machines. We washed our things, which should give us enough clean clothes to last the rest of our trip.

Okayama to Kyoto: meeting day 4, Kibitsu Jinja Shrine

We got up this morning at 07:00 after a good sleep. We ate our breakfast items and then packed our bags for check out of the hotel. We headed down a bit before 08:00 and checked out, leaving our luggage there to be picked up later in the day.

We walked over to the station, where the shinkansen ticket office wasn’t even open yet, but a few people were queued outside. Continuing on we went to the coffee shop near the Convention Centre so my wife could get a take-away coffee before catching our train to Kibitsu. The shop was open and we went in, but when M. tried to order her coffee, the woman behind the counter indicated that she had to wait until 08:00 – it was only 07:57. So we sat and waited a few minutes until their official opening time. Another man had been sitting inside and waiting already, so when he got up to order my wife queued behind him.

Coffee achieved, we walked back to the station quickly, because we just had time to make the 08:11 train to Kibitsu. It’s a small local train and the carriages were full with high school kids. We squeezed on, and found there were some empty seats in the middle, so we excused ourselves and moved past the kids to sit down. The kids all got off at the first stop, leaving the train more sparse with only a couple of people standing. The train passed out of the suburbs of Okayama and into countryside, with small villages and rice paddies lining the sides of the track, and large forested hills behind them. Our stop at Kibitsu was the fifth stop, after about 15 minutes.

We alighted and walked to the platform entrance to swipe our digital Suica cards on our phones. There were two women there puzzling over how to end their ride with their JR Passes. They spoke English, so I tried to help, but didn’t find any way for them to swipe their tickets, so just said it’d probably be fine. They were also heading to the Kibitsu Jinja Shrine, and I said we were going there too, so they followed us, and we ran into them later at the shrine a couple of times.

It was raining lightly and we got out our umbrellas as we walked. After turning a corner and crossing a main road we walked along a path between rows of pine trees that led straight to the shrine. I washed my hands using the Shinto ritual at the water basin with provided bamboo cups on long handles. We entered at the impressive gate, with granite steps leading up between rows of paper lanterns and under torii gates. There was a courtyard area with small shops where visitors could buy items like ribbons and wooden blocks to tie onto the frames doted around the shrine for that purpose. One shop had what looked like calligraphy experts who would write visitors’ prayers onto the blocks for them.

Kibitsu Jinja Shrine, Kibitsu

The shrine sprawled over an area of the hillside, maybe 20-30 metres wide and about 200 metres long, with multiple buildings set amongst walkways, trees, flowers, ponds, and small courtyards. One major point of interest was the long covered walkway extending down the hill and along a flat area for 100 metres or more. The whole area was beautiful and provided lots of photo opportunities.

Kibitsu Jinja Shrine, Kibitsu

We finished exploring the shrine a bit after 10:00, actually faster than I’d anticipated. We started walking back slowly to the station, taking a different route through rice paddies and houses for variety. I checked the train times and found we have about 13 minutes to catch the next train, after which there would be a 50 minute wait until the next one. So we hustled a bit to make sure we made it in time, which we did. The train was right on time and took us back to Okayama, where we arrived shortly after 11:00.

With some time before lunch we headed to the shinkansen ticket office to buy our tickets to Kyoto for this afternoon. There was a bit of a queue bit it didn’t take too long. For lunch we decided to go back to The MARKET bakery where we ate yesterday. We sat at the same outside table, which was nicer today as there wasn’t a truck parked nearby so we had a better view. I decided to try the “bread plate”. This consisted of three slices from different loaves that they baked – a rye seed loaf, something a bit wholemeal, and a bread with dried orange peel bits in it – plus a small bowl of what turned out to be tuna mixed with some citrusy herb (shiso leaf?), some preserved vegetables, vegan butter, and a “small dessert” which turned out to be a bite-sized chocolate brownie. It was very good; the bread being delicious.

Rain returned as we sat, but eased off again as we departed at 12:30. We parted back at the Convention Centre, me going to the final plenary meeting of the ISO meeting, and my wife heading off to explore a bit while I did that.

The final plenary session was basically just administrative matters, and lasted a bit under two hours. Therein thing of interest was that the German delegate said he’d consulted the German mirror committee and received a positive response to proposing to host the 2025 plenary meeting in Berlin. They still need to contact DIN, the German standards body, for approval, but it seems likely that Germany will be making a formal offer to host that meeting.

After the meeting I returned to the hotel lobby, where my wife had been reading a book (on her phone). We retrieved our luggage and went back to the station to catch a shinkansen to Kyoto. We caught one leaving at 15:20, and arrived in Kyoto about an hour later. There were two different exits from the shinkansen platforms and I chose one thinking it would lead in roughly the right direction, but it doubled back and deposited us on the south side of the station, when we needed to head north to our hotel. Consulting a map of the station didn’t show any obvious way whatsoever to get from one side of the station to the other. We decided ask at the information counter, but on the way there I spied a sign indicating a “north-south passage”, so we followed that and managed to get over to the north side.

We walked to our hotel a few blocks, and checked in. There was a brief issue in that I’d accidentally booked the room for one person, and here in Japan they charge different rates for occupancy by different numbers of people. So we had to pay a bit extra. And they gave us a package of stuff which contained an extra bath towel, hand towel, night robe, slippers, coffee, tea, sugar, and a biscuit, which matched the single copy of each already in our room.

We rested briefly and figured out where to go for dinner. I said I’d found a vegan ramen place, and my wife said we should try that. So we walked out towards Gion Soy Milk Ramen Uno Yokiko, which was about half an hour’s walk north-east. We passed through some quiet old residential streets, and then hit an area that was obviously very touristy and busy, with plenty of restaurants, and plenty of tourists walking around.

At the restaurant, we noticed a larger sign declaring the place to be a laundromat, accompanied by a smaller one with the ramen restaurant indicator. That was a bit weird! But we went to the door and a waiter came out to tell us there would be a short wait for a table and directed us to write our name on the waiting list and take a seat. While we waited, a lone guy, then a couple, then a single woman, and another lone guy joined the queue. The waiter gave us a menu to browse and then took our order while we were still waiting for a table. It took a long time before anyone came out of the restaurant, and we were ushered into a small table in the back corner. The place only had three two-seat tables, and seven seats along a counter.

Our food came quickly: a serve of steamed gyoza, then the “yukizuki” ramen for M. and the “gekko” ramen for me. There were only really three ramen dishes on the menu, and some side dishes. I enjoyed the meal, but M. wasn’t too keen on the milkiness of the soy milk broth. She liked the gyoza though.

Vegan ramen

After eating we walked back to our hotel by a different route, again noting the large number of tourists wandering around, and all of the restaurants obviously catering to the tourists. We stopped at a 7-Eleven for breakfast supplies for the morning. Back at the hotel we showered and prepped for bed. We might try sleeping without an alarm set for the morning.

Okayama: Photography meeting day 3

This morning after getting up and having the breakfast things we’d bought last night from a 7-Eleven, my wife and I walked over to the same coffee shop where she’d had a coffee yesterday morning. This time the staff pointed out that I needed to order something if I wanted to sit there with her (which they hadn’t done yesterday!), so I had to get up and go straight to my meetings.

This morning we had technical discussion on: photographic vocabulary and definitions (updating the existing standard), an additional presentation on HDR held over from yesterday, and the ISO DNG format. Following this we moved into the closing administrative session, which was broken in two by lunch.

We broke for lunch by 12:15 and I met up with my wife at our usual spot. I’d searched and found a couple of bakeries that we could walk to and try for lunch: Hattori Bagel, and Espresso Bar – The MARKET. We walked past the bagel place first and went on to check The MARKET. My wife liked the look of the bagel place, but liked The MARKET better. It looked like a boutique bakery with small loaves of interesting grainy bread, biscuits, scones, and things, They had a lunch menu with a few choices of vegetarian dish plus the soup of the day, and also some sandwiches and focaccia, mostly vegetarian but with a couple of tuna/salmon options.

I chose the brown rice quiche and soup, while she grabbed a fig scone and a lemon/tea scone to have with a caffe latte. We sat at a table outside on a small wooden patio, so we could enjoy the quiet street ambience. The soup turned out to be what I think was green split pea. The quiche had chunks of sweet potato and onion in it and was pretty good.

As we were eating it began raining, out of today’s overcast sky. At least the weather is cooler today. We walked back to the Convention Centre in the sparse but heavy drops, where we parted ways again until later in the afternoon.

Back in the meeting, I assisted with drafting of the WG18 resolutions, and then we had the final administrative session for the working group. But that’s not the end of the whole meeting! There were still TC42 sessions later today, and tomorrow.

The WG18 meeting wrapped up by 14:00 and I returned to the hotel to meet my wife again. After a bit of a rest we went out to the giant Aeon shopping mall across the street so I could have a look around, and also to buy a cheap umbrella which may be needed in the next few days as rainy weather is forecast. I also checked out a couple of game and hobby shops to see if they had any interesting things. I found some Japanese Magic: the Gathering cards, but not for the Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty expansion, for which I might have considered buying a few. So I saved money but not buying any!

We came back to the hotel and soon after I went back to the Convention Centre for the second administrative working group session. After this I went over to the adjacent Crowne Plaza Hotel to meet my wife there in the lobby before we went to the meeting reception up on the level 19 Sky Lounge. It was a standing buffet with a wide range of food: little fried crumbed things, prawns in a spicy sauce, pieces of steamed fish, chicken pieces in another sauce. There were several vegetarian options including roast vegetables, mini quiches, mini sushi rolls with three different fillings, salads, and some other things. They also had chefs preparing fresh sushi, served six pieces to a small wooden box, and plates of freshly fried tempura with vegetables, prawns, and fish pieces. There were also dainty pieces of three different types of cakes, and cut pieces of various fruits for desserts.

TC 42 meeting reception

The Japanese organising hosts and the TC 42 chair gave brief welcoming speeches and then we started eating and chatting with various delegates. There was entertainment: firstly singing by the main woman on the local organising committee, then a musical performance by delegates on recorder, trumpet, and clarinet, with same woman and a man I didn’t recognise doing some brief vocals towards the end of an original composition written by the guy playing the recorder. And finally after these there was a pantomime performance with a narrating drummer announcing various things in Japanese, while a dancer dressed as a samurai performed, then two dragons appeared (performed as large puppets by men inside the dragons), leading to a fight in which the samurai cut the dragons’ heads off.

TC 42 meeting reception

We chatted with various people, and it was good to hear that many are excited to come to Australia again next year when hopefully I will be hosting the WG18 meeting in October 2024. It was a good event, and the view from the Sky Lounge was wonderful, with panoramic windows to the north and south showing off the city of Okayama and the mountains to the north, as the sun went down. The reception was scheduled until 20:00, and in true Japanese fashion the hotel staff announced it was over and ushered everyone out right on time.

We’d had plenty to eat for dinner and so just headed back to the hotel via a 7-Eleven to get some breakfast supplies. Then it was showers and bed time.

Okayama: Photography meeting day 2

I slept a bit better but not fully through the night. We got up at 07:00 and had breakfast in the hotel room with the things we’d bought last night. I had a salmon onigiri and a small set of sushi rolls. My wife had a red bean paste bun, and then tried what she thought was simply some plain type of mini bread rolls, but which turned out to be a “3 flavours” thing with chocolate, custard, and red bean paste in the middle of the mini rolls!

After this we prepared for the day and left around 08:00. My wife walked with me to the coffee shop I found yesterday near the Convention Centre and got a latte there. We parted and I went to the meetings, while she was planning to visit the Okayama Prefectural Museum and Okayamajinja shrine.

The ISO meeting today started with a session on a proposal for measuring the information capacity of camera systems, using Shannon information theory. Then we discussed angle-dependent image flare measurement, followed by depth camera characterisation for accuracy and resolution.

We broke for lunch a little early. I met my wife and we walked north of the Convention Centre to find one of the lunch places recommended by the meeting organisers. We found the place called Sanuki Otoko Udon Nose and were looking at the picture menu board outside, which looked like it had some suitable vegetarian options for her. Then one of the Japanese delegates from my meeting came out and said hello, and asked if we needed any assistance with the Japanese. I asked if there were vegetarian options and he pointed out a few on the menu board outside, so we went in. We all had to wait a few minutes for a table, and my meeting colleague was with two other Japanese delegates, so I reintroduced them to my wife (they probably met briefly last year in Cologne at the beer garden dinner).

A couple of minutes later we were seated at the central bar-like area. The waitress gave us an English menu, and my wife picked a dish of cold udon noodles with kelp and some other vegetables, plus a quail egg. I chose a bowl of hot noodles with tempura prawns and vegetables, which came with a smaller bowl of dipping sauce and a plate of chopped spring onions, sesame seeds, and ginger. My Japanese colleague helped us interpret the waitress, who was asking a couple of questions. He said that the dishes came in three sizes, which he described as 1.0, 1.5, and 2.0. We both asked for the 1.0 versions. She also wanted to know if she should bring the cold noodles first, or wait until the other dish was cooked so we could eat together, and we chose the latter.

The meals came and they were both substantial. The quail eggs were raw. My wife mixed hers through the cold noodles with the sauce, while I put mine into my dipping sauce and swirled it around. We filled up quickly and were very glad we’d chosen the 1.0 size! After paying (cash only) the cheap ¥1700 for the meals, I left my wife at the nearby Hokancho shopping street so she could look around there, while I headed back to the meeting.

The next session was about camera autofocus repeatability. And then there was a long session on high dynamic range photo display and gain maps for dynamic range conversion. This included a couple of interesting demos of HDR image conversion and display, using an Apple HDR monitor to show off the images. This was pretty impressive, and hopefully a preview of a near future with easy access to HDR images and good ways of displaying them for people on all sorts of display hardware.

The digital photography working group session ended by 17:00, but I had an extra two hour meeting until 19:00 with the TC 42 Administrative Working Group, which deals with business matters at the higher technical committee level.

After this I left and met up with my wife again. We dropped my bag off at our room and then walked over to Omame-dokoro Masu, a place described by Google as a tofu restaurant. It had good reviews and many people saying it was great for vegetarians. We found what I thought was the place, but it was difficult to tell as there were three doors close to each other, and no English anywhere in sight. We poked our noses in one and I asked the staff inside simply “tofu?” and they nodded, so we entered and took seats at the bar counter. The place was tiny and there were just seven seats, but there was also apparently an upstairs room with other customers up there.

One staff member typed on his phone and then showed us a translation which said, “Sorry the menu is only in Japanese.” We said that was okay, and I used Google’s photo translate on my phone to get an idea of what was on the menu. We ordered the “peanut tofu” appetiser, “special tofu dumplings”, and “assortment of 6 types of fried tofu – sweet and spicy sauce, spicy miso, plum meat, dengaku, grated radish, fried garlic”. I assumed “plum meat” meant the flesh of a plum. I got a beer to drink and M. tried a “Calpis”, which turned out to be a milky yoghurt drink, which she liked. The last dish arrived first, being six blocks of fried tofu topped with the various things. But one looked suspiciously like tiny fish and tasted to me a bit like it, so I asked after looking up the Japanese word for fish, and the guy confirmed it was indeed fish. So I ate that one, but my wife had the dengaku (miso) one and half of each of the others.

Then the dumplings arrived, looking like fried gyoza. I tried one, and the filling was very suspiciously meaty. I asked the guy, who asked another staff member, who said they had chicken in them. So this was a bit surprising! I ate them, and they were good, but my wife was left not having any. We ordered a couple of other things, this time asking to confirm they were fully vegetarian before ordering. So it was a bit of a mixed bag, with unexpected items and surprise meat in dishes. I wonder how many vegetarians have gone to this place and assumed the entire menu was vegetarian, and came away thinking some of the dishes had surprisingly good “imitation meat” in them!

We were full, and walked home along another different route for variety. We stopped in at 7-Eleven for more breakfast supplies and then went back to the hotel for the night. I grabbed a random ice cream which had zebras on the wrapper, and it turned out to be vanilla ice cream with ripply stripes of chocolate through it, and was quite good. So it was really a day of surprising food!