Seeing Mount Fuji and our first (and only) organised tour day in Japan.

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When researching Japan, seeing Mount Fuji was something that seemed very appealing; though not experienced enough (nor, to be honest, within the budget) to do any of the actual climbing, we decided the best way to be able to get to the volcano was by coach tour. This is because getting there alone would have incurred much higher room and transportation costs.

This in and amongst itself was a new experience for me; waking up at 6:30am to make our way to the Hotel Metropolitan- the tour meeting place (as lovely as it is, staying there would have been ridiculously over-budget, especially considering how expensive Japan is), we clambered onto the coach. We faced an early disruption in the form of the couple sitting behind us, of which the women was coughing frantically on automation every 30 seconds to a minute. Neither of us had any cough syrup on us and needless to say after 5 minutes, we had uprooted to the empty back seats of the coach 🙂

Arrival at the coach station was manic, with people jostling in different directions to find the coach they were actually meant to be on. We had to hunt down the Mount Fuji/Hakone bus, but another guy on our initial transfer coach, for example, was off to have a sushi making session. Upon reaching the coach, we were greeted by a larger than life tour guide called Makoto. He was knowledgeable enough, but made (what I found to be) some pretty unsavoury jokes (suicide forest and perils of climbing Mount Fuji). The initial part of the journey, though long, was actually fine upon discovery that the coach had wi-fi connectivity, but also being able to gaze out at different parts of Tokyo and then (after some more roads) look out at the Mount Fuji area.

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The road on the way to Mount Fuji                      The view from the service station (on the way)

Timing was crucial that day… too foggy and we would not be able to see the views from around Mount Fuji. Rainy, and the large amount of grey and blue in the landscape would have been lost behind a veil of drizzle. Thankfully we got lucky. The sun was shining upon upheaval from the coach, the air fresh, and the views- a beautiful azure coloured sky providing a backdrop to the mountain/volcanic range- were wonderful.

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Mount Fuji (the peak from a distance)                At M. Fuji- the view

We walked around the souvenir and on-site shops, whereby items as diverse as Fuji canned air (which my friend wanted to buy) to walking sticks and cajoles were being sold. Each of us was given a lucky bell charm, which apparently links to Mount Fuji (I’m ashamed to say I just can’t remember how). We climbed up towards a shrine, whereby you can write a wish plaque and attach it to the shrine, with the hopes that a goddess will grant said wishes. My friend had already done a similar thing in Hong Kong on a Wishing Tree but since I had never done this before, I wrote my wish in chunky black permanent marker and dated it. So if I’m ever fortunate to have my bullet pointed dreams become reality, I guess I know who to thank 🙂

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Holding my wish plaque

We also enjoyed mucking around in some random tunnels (because essentially, travelling aged 21 is an excuse to be big kids- my friend being the pun-loving little brother, and me- the bossy older sister).

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  Someone is happy to be at Mount Fuji…                        Tunnel time!!!

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The view that lay beyond the tunnels

We moved on from Mount Fuji just as a murky grey fog was starting to completely obscure the scenic views. Lunch was at a café type place whereby I was accompanied in my vegetarian meal choice by my friend, who was sweet enough to go for the same dish so that there would be no confusion on the part of the tour company. It wasn’t for me, the eight green grapes were okay and if the tempura wasn’t cold, it would have been nice but I think it’s fair to say that we were both very hungry when we moved on. Next was meant to be a boat trip (the Lake Ashi Cruise), but a timing mix up meant we went on the Hakone ropeway (a cable car system) and then arrived at Owakudani sulphur pools first.

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From inside the cable car at Hakone ropeway

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A view of Hakone ropeway from Owakudani sulphur pools

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The Owakudani sulphur pools from the viewing deck

It was pretty impressive but after a few photos there wasn’t loads to do. The cable cars and Lake Ashi cruise were also nice, but not especially unique to Japan. All in all, it was good to be able to see Mount Fuji, but the rest of the tour was just not as memorable (although some of the people we met were).

Tokyo time part 1: Senso-ji Temple and Tokyo Skytree.

My second day in Tokyo (after a very pleasant flight from Hong Kong but a stressful first day of settling) allowed me to have my first insight into ancient Japanese spiritualism and religion via a temple visit (which I hope to experience more of in Kyoto) and gave me the chance to see 360 degree views of Tokyo, lit up and twinkling at night from an almost bird’s eye viewpoint (350m high).

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My friend and I awoke on day 2 in Tokyo with the intention of having an early start but in reality, we didn’t venture out into Ikebukuro (where we are staying) until late morning.

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Ikebukuro at night- this commercial area of Tokyo encompasses the “work hard, play hard” philosophy.

Here you can see it lit up at night.

Our primary form of transport that day would be the train network; we had brought a JR pass in advance (for up to 7 days, standard price of £165.50, free trains on the JR network and some buses). This was also an important purchase for us since we knew it would cover the cost of our train travel to Kyoto (our second destination in Japan). The first port of call was Asakusa, and to get here, we took the Yamanote line to Ueno station and then had to buy tickets to travel on the Ginza line (since this is part of the subway system, not the JR network).

*note, if you do have a JR pass, you can get a shuttle bus to and from Tokyo Skytree in Asakusa to Ueno station, which eliminates the cost of buying a metro ticket- we discovered this whilst in Asakusa*.

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Ikebukuro JR station                                                                                  Asakusa Metro Station

But enough on trains, we had a short straight walk from the station to get to the Senso-ji temple. The temple itself is Tokyo’s oldest temple, known to the people of Japan as the Asakusa Kannon and attracting over 30 million visitors per year.

Walking through the arch, you experience a riot of colour and noise as market stalls selling items as diverse as rice-crackers wrapped in seaweed, toys pertaining to superheroes and childhood and traditional Japanese-style fans and tea sets line the streets.

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The top of the arch which you walk through        At first sight: the shopping area leading up to the temple

The shopping area forms a kind of crossroads, whereby taking the north fork (if you are coming from around Asakusa station way), leads you directly to the temple. The weather that day was fairly warm, and my friend spotted a street vendor selling Japanese soda. To get the taste, the vendor drops a ball of flavour through a closed bottle top, which then lodges itself into the bottle as a result of the bottle shape and, according to my friend, it then “effervesces… or something”. He also asked me to write that, in his in own words, “he is not a scientist” 🙂

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Japanese soda pop!

Upon approach to the temple; shop stalls become slightly more tourist-focused. If you look up, you can see decorations which seem to resemble tree or tree branches (maybe they are real, I’m not too sure), resplendent in shades of peach, fuchsia, lemon and crimson. Prior  to entering the temple, you walk through another arch (red and gold) and soon come across an urn, with incense smoke rising urgently and weirdly, almost elegantly, and the opportunity to buy incense sticks from a stall to the right.

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The burning of the incense in the urn                                      The temple from afar

The purpose of the incense (reputedly) is to be a method of purifying the surroundings, bringing forth an assembly of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, demons, and the like. Entering the temple, you can throw money into a ridged box and say a prayer. It is also possible to light a candle. Since photos are allowed, below is a snapshot from inside of the temple.

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The shrine at which people throw money (into the box below) and then pray

The temple gardens were also beautiful, and my friend developed a new obsession (see below).

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The temple gardens                                                                  The obsession- a loved fish  nicknamed “Diem”.

After the senso-ji shrine, we decided to try and get back to Ueno, where a number of museums are. However, by the time we arrived at quarter to five, everyone was shutting up shop (so to speak). We made the impulsive decision to hop on a shuttle bus which had just arrived outside where were standing in Ueno (near Ueno zoo and the shuttle was free as a result of our JR pass). The final stop- Tokyo Skytree

By the time we reached the attraction, the city had crept towards darkness and my hunger levels were at an all time high (being vegetarian in Japan is not all that easy- a blog post about that might be coming soon amongst other things). So we decided to have a look around to find a place that I was able to eat at. Eventually, we found a fusion café in Tokyo Skytree town (my friend had eaten fried chicken in Asakusa earlier) and since the staff were so polite and obliging (this seems ingrained in Japanese culture), I was able to eat spaghetti with soy sauce and seaweed. Skytree itself exists within a shopping village, and shops there are either cute, quirky and full of anime references or high-end/high street clothing and accessories brands. There are also food courts and restaurants. It spans over roughly 8 floors, with an east and west wing and a centre point.

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An anime shop                                                                              What caught my eye 🙂

Post-food, we went to the fourth floor to access the Skytree tower. The lift elevated to us to 350m high ridiculously quick, so much so that my friend (who’s not crazy about sudden changes in height) did not experience any inertia.

The views from behind the glass windows were like nothing I’ve ever seen before; Tokyo became a toy city, with flashes of gold light from buildings and darkness only arising from rivers, fields or the sky itself. Below are a couple of my favourite pictures from the observation deck:

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I’m also seriously proud of my friend (who suffers from vertigo) for standing on a sheer glass floor (with the drop from that height visible beneath it).

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The glass floor in question                                                       Having a little sit down in the most comfortable place

In the end, he may have left Skytree feeling tired, and I may have felt energized, but both of us thought Skytree was an incredibly worthwhile thing to do. At 2060 yen, it may have been more expensive than Tokyo tower (which is where we initially planned to go and is located in Minato, Tokyo) but in my mind, it is well worth the cost. The views are mesmerising, staff are so sweet and cheerful and it was a lovely way to end a really good day in Tokyo.

Cheung Chau: sunshine, seafood and street stalls

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Today I woke up to bright sunshine in Hong Kong, which was fortunate since my friend decided it would be nice to visit Cheung Chau. Cheung Chau is a small Island 10 km southwest of Hong Kong Island and is a very popular destination for tourism, as well as being renowned for its street food stalls.

In order to get there, we got the train (MTR) from Tin Hau to Central, picking up some breakfast from a bakery on the way to Tin Hau station. I’m ashamed to say that I caved into temptation and got a coffee cake for breakfast, but I still feel that this was a better shout than the spam, cheese and tomato ketchup bun my friend decided to have!

Upon arriving at Central, we headed to the ferry terminal (terminal 5) and just before we got there, were greeted by some stunning views of the harbour.

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The view from Central, near the ferry terminal

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This made me smile

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Arrival at the Ferry terminal

I was somewhat apprehensive about the 35-minute ferry journey, having been prone to occasional bouts of motion sickness in the past. However, the water was very smooth and the journey to Cheung Chau seemed to fly by (no travel-related pun intended). The only slightly annoying point was that in the downstairs deck where we sat, the windows were quite murky so photos didn’t come out quite so well. Fortunately though, this was not the case on the ferry journey back 🙂

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My attempt at taking a photo from next to the window on the way to Cheung Chau

Upon approaching Cheung Chau, you witness beautiful sparkling water, with boats and fishing boats dotted across the harbour and a backdrop of stalls selling everything from jewellery and clothing to food stuff and bubble tea.

I think my favourite view, however, was when we were able to observe the boats from dry land:

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Walking along the harbour front was probably my first prolonged experience of the humid heat that my friend told me I would experience in Hong Kong. Whilst this occurs on the main island, many buildings, shops and restaurants have incredibly efficient air conditioning, meaning that sometimes you even find yourself reaching for your jacket! Nonetheless, the heat went hand in hand with the sun, which made all the colours of the harbour brighter and led me to make the urgent purchase of a pair of sunglasses (my original pair somehow broke in my backpack during my London to Hong Kong flight).

Alongside sunglasses, I found some over really nice gifts and was particularly impressed by a shop whereby you could select your own pearl from an oyster in a bucket of water. You then got to pick a pendant and watch the jeweller as she polished the pearl, drilled a hole into it (if necessary) and set it into the silver pendant (within whichever shape was picked). This is actually a gift for a friend I’ll be visiting soon, and I was also allowed to take a video of the pearl selection so have that to show her. But it does mean that I’ll have to block her from seeing this particular post on Facebook!

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Although the island has plenty of street food, and although my friend was desperate to try a twisty fried potato that was being sold on a street stall as well as mango filled buns, he decided to take me to the Rainbow Café along the harbour front for lunch. This was a good place to go because although Hong Kong caters very well for Vegetarians, fish is a fairly big deal on Cheung Chau and many restaurants serving Hong Kong food on the waterfront were using fish or fish sauce in their dishes. The Rainbow Café, however, was a contrast to this since it serves some Western dishes too (one of the rare occasions where I didn’t have some form of delicious Asian food). However, I couldn’t complain too much because part of me enjoyed returning to the home comfort of potato wedges and garlic bread (I’m not going to lie though, Dim Sum still wins). What was particularly lovely was being able to sit in an air conditioned café, which was light and cosy with little bear cushions and lots of written messages from past visitors, and sipping on an ice cold Lime Soda. Total bliss when wanting to take a brief break from the glorious sun.

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What’s more, the Rainbow Café has a service whereby you can pick however many postcards, write them and then pay for them to be delivered (including international delivery)- all whilst eating your food or enjoying your drink. So mum, dad and sis- postcards for you and the rest of the family should be there in a week 🙂

After lunch, we went back to roaming around the harbour front. As previously mentioned, there are lots of street food stalls (see the first picture below) and fresh or dried fish stalls (see picture two).

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 A street food stall                                                 One of many dried fish stalls

And just because this really impressed me:

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See the fruit in the white crotchet coats? That is to maintain quality and ensure that the fruit does not bruise.

Much of the rest of the time was spent chatting and enjoying the sun or taking pictures. Oh, but we did find these really cool steps by the ferry terminal on Cheung Chau:

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We only had to wait around fifteen minutes for the next ferry back to Hong Kong Island and the journey once again was relaxed and pleasant (cooler too since the windows were open this time). All in all, I’m very glad I got the chance to visit Cheung Chau- it was a beautiful place with a really friendly ambience.

I hope you’re enjoying these blogs so far! On Wednesday (or tomorrow since this is probably when I’ll post), I’m heading over to Tokyo so I hope to keep you informed. I am very excited for Japan, so if anyone has a heads up on what I should see there, let me know in the comments below.

Will blog again soon!