Japan: Niigata, Mt Fuji and the Imperial Palace, Feb 2020

February 2020

The year has had a busy start as I joined Sylvia for a few days in London mid-January, after which we flew to Las Vegas where our good friends, Dave and Chrissie, got married at the Gracelands Chapel. Yes, they even dug up Elvis for the occasion.

This was followed by a week at the shot show. Sylvia headed to Disneyland, joining her sister, Deb, for a few days of fun. Since then Sylvia has been Singapore, France, NZ, Singapore, while I have been back in NZ, and now here we are in Japan for a week. I flew to Singapore on Friday from NZ for the weekend.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

We strolled to the Shinagawa Station this morning, catching a local train from there to Tokyo Station where we jumped on the bullet train to Niigata. Even the way the trains join together here is neat and tidy, not to mention the red coats that line up on the platform to clean the train, and then bow before the passengers are allowed on.

Heading northwest Tokyo seems to go on forever with its mix of housing and tall buildings all jumbled together. The train line is elevated so one gets a good view across the city.

I had an aisle seat in first class. Sylvia and her were team down the back somewhere. I spotted an empty window seat and took it until the conductor came along and gave me a lesson in sign language that I need to get back to my own seat. I obeyed. Soon after my phone rang, which I answered, only to have the conductor reappear and usher me out of the carriage into the corridor between carriages, the only place one can use a phone.

Having got a grip on train etiquette, I stood in the corridor watching the cities roll by. Gradually the odd bit of countryside appeared briefly between cities. Eventually we headed into a very long tunnel and after 22km we broke out into snow country and the city of Yuzawa.

As we pulled out of the station sprinklers sprayed, I presume, warm water onto the track, I presume, to melt the snow and ice. We were soon underground again. Emerging again we headed through some farmland and more towns before arriving at Niigata.

The Royal Canin team headed off by van to visit stores. I headed north on foot for a few blocks, hunting out a famous Sake Brewery. During the stroll I came across a couple of roadwork sites. I am always intrigued how they keep these sites so clean and tidy here in Japan. I think the secret lies in the witches-type brooms they use and the constant cleaning of the site as they work.

Arriving at the brewery I found the English tour was at 2pm so I took a stroll down to the convention centre near the coast. Not far from the brewery is, I presume, a temple with nice grounds and statues.

The building next door has an observation deck (it’s free) on the 31st floor with great views over the city and the Sea of Japan. The mountains to the east were clagged in but the local views over the ferry terminal and industrial buildings give one a great appreciation of just how tidy things are in Japan.

I strolled back to the brewery and joined the 2pm tour. The lady took us through how Sake is made. Starting with polished rice, which is ground down. The better the quality of the Sake the more it is ground, hence taking more rice to make the better brew. It’s fermented in steel tanks. It used to be done in wooden vessels and now here they have gone back to that for the top end stuff.

After fermentation it is pumped as a slurry to a press which removes the liquid. The waste, which is like a block of plastic, is used in the manufacture of skin creams and lotions, the making of miso soup, and some for animal feed.

Back in the seventies in Japan they had sake vending machines around cities, one of which still survives but not in working order.

After the tour we headed back into the shop area and paid 1000 locals to taste all the different brews on sale. I got chatting to three young men from Austria, one of whom is studying international law in Japan, the other two visiting him. By the time we had tasted some 20 different brews we couldn’t really tell the difference.

Just after 5 I rejoined Sylvia and the team at Izakaya Restaurant where we enjoyed a rather delicious meal of mainly raw fish plus puffer fish (fugu) and steak, which we cooked ourselves on a small heated stone. All too soon we were back on the train speeding back to Tokyo.

Wednesday 19 February 2020 

A taxi across town to Shinjuku, the meeting place for the bus tour south to the Mt Fuji area. Mt Fuji is closed at this time of year. We headed south, soon catching our first glance of the 3300m+ volcano.

We are lucky with the weather as the previous 3 or 4 times I have been to Tokyo the mountain has always been clagged in. Leaving the city we head into hilly countryside which is a little bleak at this time of year with most of the trees having lost their leaves. Each large valley we pass through seems to host a city.

Arriving at Lake Fujikawaguchiko we park up at a viewing spot by the lake. We have clear views of Fuji across the lake. This is quite a tourist spot with special viewing cabins facing the mountain set in the nearby hills.

Next stop is the Alakula Sengen, a pagoda situated some 400 steps up a hillside facing toward Mt Fuji, which had sadly disappeared behind the clouds.

Back on the bus we then headed to Oshino Hakkai, a small tourist village which has a spring that the waters from the mountain gush from. The 8 m deep pool harbours some brightly coloured fish. Lots of stalls sell sticky rice balls and other delicacies. Chestnuts are cooked in a pressure cooker.

Apparently, or so they claim, there are no rivers on Fuji and all the snow melt and rain seeps down through the lava popping up in springs around the area. The water has special properties allowing people to live longer. There are lots of sculpted trees here. The Japanese can even make a pine tree look good.

Next stop, which I missed when I booked the trip, was the Gotemba Premium Outlets. Yes a bloody shopping centre! You could just see the top of Fuji poking through the clouds. I found a restaurant and enjoyed a pizza and a glass of wine. Disappointingly this was the longest stop and from the number of buses in the car park there is obviously some dodgy deal being done between the tour companies and the shopping centre.

Thursday 20 February 2020

A stroll through the stunning hotel grounds took me down to the Shingawa Station.

Apparently the land where the four Prince hotels are located once belonged to the emperor’s family but was sold to pay off some of his tax debt after World War II. Every time we stay here i am impressed by the beauty, tranquility and peacefulness of the grounds.

A few stops up the line took me to Tokyo station and a short walk to the magnificent grounds of the Imperial Palace. Crossing a bridge over the first moat one enters a large area covered in sculpted pine trees.

I headed across the grounds and up a small hill to a bridge over yet another moat, with its high stone walls on the inner side, to where google maps said the entrance was. This entrance, guarded by a couple of soldiers, was closed so I headed back down, following the moat around to the west and through a large gate heading north. The grounds on each side of the moat are well kept with every tree and bush trimmed and shaped.

Near the end of the moat I asked a policeman where the public entrance was. He pointed it out on my map about 2kms back to the east where I had sort of come from. Strolling back across the grounds I eventually came to the public entrance where a very helpful chap gave me an entry form and said come back in an hour for the tour. I found a local cafe and enjoyed some lunch while waiting.

At 1.20 i arrived back at the gate to be led into a large room where several hundred people were gathered waiting for the tour of the palace grounds. We were split into groups by language. The guides all have a squawk box attached to their waist and a microphone to their face. Most of the palace has been rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1945. The emperor recently abdicated and handed over to his son. Apparently the legacy of this leadership goes back over 2000 years.

There are lots of buildings in the grounds, which cover over one million square meters of central Tokyo. First stop is the Fujimi-yagura building constructed in 1659 on top of a 15 m high rampart. With all four sides identical and no visible doors it was a little hard to capture. The overhanging bits had holes in them from which rocks could be dropped through on anyone silly enough to try to climb up the wall.

Next was the Imperial Household Agency. Constructed in 1935 the third floor was used as the palace after WWII until the current palace was constructed.

We passed Hasukae-bora moat where in summer lotus flowers blossom.

At the top of a small hill is the Chowaden Hall, which is a large reception area and part of the palace. Completed in 1968 it is adjacent to a large courtyard, with a 100-plus car garage underneath it, that is used for the emperor to address the people on his birthday. A copper statue at the east end represents a pine tree with its evergreen strength.

The people in the green jackets in the photo above come from all over Japan to attend to the royal gardens behind the palace wall. They pay their own costs for their 3-day stay and on the last day get to meet the emperor.

We headed to the  gate and from across the  bridge looked back towards the building on the hill that was brought from Kyoto (the former capital) some years ago.

The emperor’s residence was pointed out, situated behind another wall next to the Palace.

After a few more stops and explanations from the guide as we wandered down the hill and she explained how the emperor and his wife go out to the fields and help in the gardens and with the cultivation of silk worms.

The tour over we handed back our badges as we left the grounds. As I headed back to Tokyo station I looked back to see another white house on the edge of the moat, its purpose of which I am not sure.

Friday 21 February 2020 : Okinawa

After a relaxing catch up on a bit of work during the morning at the hotel we headed to the airport. Interestingly the ANA lounge has only packets of rice snacks in the way of food but a good supply of whisky and beer. We arrived at Naha airport in Okinawa about 5pm and headed on the bus to the rental car pick up only to be informed that we couldn’t get a car as we didn’t have an international drivers licence. Must say I haven’t been asked for one of those for 20 years. We got the bus back to the terminal, then a cab to the Hilton Doubletree at Chatan, about 30kms and an hour’s drive up the coast. Here we struck the most helpful staff we have ever experienced.  We found we could apply online for an international drivers licence, the staff offered to print it off for us. Car booked for the next day we headed to a bar for a quick drink.

Saturday 22 February 2020 : Okinawa

Prior to breakfast we checked at the desk and the staff said they would get the rental car brought to us. A few minutes later they were back with the bad news. The printed copy of our downloaded online licence was no good. This is Japan and everything must be done properly. No rental car, we organised a driver for the day. Our first destination was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium at the end of a peninsular about 30kms up the coast. That 30 kms took well over an hour and a half. Nothing moves in a hurry around here. On the way we passed the large Kadena US Airforce base and a large marine base. There are still some 25,000 US servicemen based in Okinawa on land that was confiscated after WWII.

Sylvia had particularly wanted to visit the aquarium as it has whale sharks on display. We weren’t disappointed as after heading down a few passageways with lots of different marine life we came to a large auditorium facing a huge fish tank containing a large variety of fish including stingrays, manta rays and tuna to mention a few. Cruising around amongst them were two massive whale sharks. We watched them for some time then headed into a tunnel to watch from below. It was then that the feeding started. Krill, or some similar food, was tossed into the water above. One of the sharks floated almost vertically sucking large amounts of water into its mouth like a giant vacuum cleaner, filtering the food out as it forced the water out its gills. It was really interesting to watch.

Apologies for the poor quality photos. I haven’t quite worked out how to get good pictures through fish tank glass.

Outside, the grounds were well set up with a large shark at the entrance and many bushes shaped as varieties of marine life.

We had planned to head up to the top of the island but as the trip had been so slow we headed southwest to the Okinawa Gojuryu Kenshi-kai Museum. The coast is pretty rugged in most places with the odd sandy beach outside large resorts. Along the way we began to realise that most of the buildings on the island are solid concrete, some looking like bunkers or fortresses. This is perhaps not surprising bearing in mind that the island was pretty much leveled by the huge naval bombardment that took place between April and May in 1945. 2.7 million explosive devices were used by the US 500,000 strong force prior to and during the invasion. 1.1 Million of these never exploded and had to be taken care of after the war. Over 200,000 people died during the invasion, most of those civilians. The Japanese put up such heavy resistance here to delay the inevitable attack on the mainland. It may be a good thing that the two atomic bombs brought the war to a close as the invasion of the Japanese would have taken many more lives and caused much more destruction.

An hour or so later we arrived at the Karate Museum. The driver looked at it and said “closed,” He wanted to drive on but I asked to get out and have a look. A phone call and Dr Tetsuhiro Hokama, a 10th degree black belt and master of the Gojuryu style, came to the door and welcomed us in. He pointed out that he has people from 40 countries come and train with him and he often visits many countries to give seminars and coaching to people. At 75 years old and having dedicated most of his life to learning and teaching karate he was very hospitable and keen for us to see his museum upstairs on the second floor. He lives on the third floor and has done for the past 30 years. The museum is a collection of memorabilia he has gathered over the years with lots of old newspaper and magazine articles about him and other karate masters from Okinawa and other parts of the world. Karate was developed in Okinawa over hundreds of year, evolving from kung-fu and other martial arts arriving from China. It was not until the 1920’s that some Okinawan masters took karate to Japan. Although Japan had jujutsu, from which judo was developed in the mid 1800’s, karate as such was new to Japan.  We had a good chat to Dr Hokama, who also has a Phd in calligraphy. He was keen to answer any questions and in the short time we spent with him it was obvious he was very dedicated to both karate and calligraphy.

Next we headed further southwest to Peace Park. Situated on the coast this is a large memorial to those that died during the war and houses hundreds of plaques containing all the names of those that lost their lives during those bloody times. The museum outlines the atrocities committed, often by Japanese soldiers, on the civilian population, many of whom committed suicide at the end of the battle as they had been told by the soldiers what bad things the US soldiers would do to them if they were captured.

We had planned a fourth stop but the day was over so we headed back to the hotel and took a stroll around the local “American Village” as its known. Most of the people on the streets were US service people heading in and out of the many bars, shops and restaurants. We enjoyed a drink at a local cigar bar and a stroll through the streets.

Sunday 23 February 2020

We again arranged a driver to take us to the Japanese Naval Tunnels and then on to the airport. After another short trip that seemed to take forever, we arrived at the old naval tunnels. Situated on top of a small hill with good views over the city some 450m of tunnels were dug by hand by the local civilian population with picks, shovels, crowbars and other hand instruments. They worked tirelessly 24 hours a day until the job was done.

At the top of the hill there is a monument and a small museum, which then leads into the tunnels. This is where Rear admiral Ota made his last stand. During his final hours he sent a last telegram to Tokyo praising the people of Okinawa for the fight they had put up and the concern he had for their future. He then committed suicide in the tunnels. It took several days for the US forces to clear the tunnels as the Japanese fought to the end and when they ran out of ammunition used spikes to fight with. The tunnels are well preserved and well lit with lots of little caverns that housed such things as generators, medical facilities and more. One such cavern still has the shrapnel marks from a grenade explosion. The exit from the tunnels bring one out near the car-park with a good view to the south of the city.

As we had driven around the city we had seen statues of lions on many buildings. It turns out that the lion is the symbol of Okinawa.

We took our flight back to Tokyo, from where Sylvia was heading back to Singapore and I was staying the night, fortunately at the airport hotel. I said goodbye to Sylvia at the International terminal and got on the airport bus to go to the hotel at terminal 2. Not far into the journey I got a call from Sylvia to say she had my passport and I hers. By that stage she was through security and had to convince the guy to let her go back. I did the full circuit on the bus and we swapped passports and all was okay!

3 thoughts on “Japan: Niigata, Mt Fuji and the Imperial Palace, Feb 2020

  1. Roger James says:

    Thanks Bill. Now I know who you are. I fought up with Michael and Eric a couple of weeks ago in NZ.

  2. Rosie and Lardy says:

    THank you Roger for another informative account, and great photos. Must be a huge aquarium to be able to keep whale sharks happy. Sounds like a lucky ending to the trip with the passport mix up. Happy next travels. Xx

  3. Bill McClellan says:

    Hello Roger: Many thanks for your excellent post about Japan. I always enjoy reading your and Sylvia’s posts about your travels. It is great to see how well Japan has recovered after the devastation of World War Two, and I thank heaven Japan has been at peace with the world since then.
    Best regards, Bill McClellan, Herndon, VA
    (uncle of Michael Malsz)

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