#49 Koyo in Nikko, Japan

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When we think about koyo, amazing colours come to our mind. Gold, crimson, marigold yellow, maple syrup brown, tangerine, plum red…

Going leaf spotting is a tradition in Japan — there is even a specific term for it — momijigari. It is simply the act of enjoying the gorgeous autumn foliage. In this tech-obsessed world, a little spot of koyo is just what we needed.

For some, it could be a lot of fuss for nothing. Then again, the whole idea is to chill and relax. It’s for scenery and nature lovers, and for people who just want to take their mind off the hustle and bustle of real world. A refreshing change indeed for many who travel on a tight itinerary, and a great break for those who have spent a couple of hectic days in Tokyo.

I love trees and autumn is my favourite season. So yes, observing the koyo is just right up my alley. :-)

Here’s my trip report, hopefully it helps you get all the manic planning out of the way and focus on the beautiful scenery.

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#4 My fingers are bluer than the Blue Mountains – Sydney, Australia

Never doubt the weather report. Even if most of the time it isn’t too accurate. Because the time when you decide not to listen to it, as much as you don’t like or want to believe (for fear of disappointment or overconfidence in own abilities to predict weather), it is going to turn out pretty damn accurate. Arriving at Katoomba after a gruelling (ok, it wasn’t so bad…just really excruciating slow) 3-4 hour train ride from Sydney’s Central railway station, we hopped off the train, ready to stretch our legs but were instead greeted rather rudely by the startling chill. How cold can it get? We scoffed, but now we swallowed hard and braced ourselves for the 4°C cold at an altitude of more than 1,000m.


Sunset view of the Three Sisters!
(managed to take a picture before the battery died from the cold)

Confident that there would still be hostel vacancies (since it’s off peak season and all), we marched up to the YHA in the dwindling sunlight, a half an hour trek around the town area of Katoomba which felt like 3 lifetimes, and managed to secure some beds for the night. The YHA hostel in Katoomba is a cosy wooden two-storey building with the likes of a ski lodge, complete with a rec room, a dining hall, a spacious kitchen, and all the things you’d find in a comfy hostel. (Wished I remembered flipflops though, because I ended up walking around in socks.)

The town was awfully eerie after sundown, for good reason, with the teeth-chattering wind chill that seeped through to the bones. Occasional, strong gusts of freezing air rushed up to us whenever we passed a street junction, where the straight and squat rows of cinnamon-red cinderblock buildings gave way to a little road for cars to pass through. Popped right into a toasty and busy little pizza parlour where business was brisk and people wove in and out endlessly. It was as though the whole town felt like pizza that night — rowdy families, cosy couples and raucous college kids formed a varied backdrop whilst the stifling aroma of ham and cheese sizzling in hot oil filled the boxy little space. You wouldn’t have expected this from the silence of the streets outside. Post-pizza, time for a little drink to warm us up a bit…!

The Old City Bank Bar & Brasserie looked rather inviting with warm orange lights illuminating the interiors of the stately-looking brick house. In here, it was like a completely different world from the pizza place, sophisticated twenty to thirtysomethings gossiped and flirted with one another in little pockets, nursing one fancy cocktail after another, while the older crowd looked like they were having one of those “philosophical chats” over a gin and tonic or two. It was virtually impossible to talk over the cacophony of 2,000 simultaneous (non-)conversations in the cavernous high-ceiling room, but somehow messages were conveyed through an overly vehement nod or merely a seductive gaze in one’s direction. The atmosphere was a little sultry with a live band blaring right in our faces, the music had a vintagey, folky feel… a symphony of sounds from a classical guitar, harmonica and drums, and the singer’s hauntingly high warbling notes. For a moment, everything seemed to blur into the background, into the orange light, into the many beautiful alien faces…and you could almost, just almost, forget about the world.

The cold has this amazing ability to sap one out of energy in a short period of time. To escape from the bristling winds on our walk back from the bar to the hostel, we popped into one of the bric-à-brac stores that lined the main streets. I was pretty surprised that it was still open at nearly 10pm in such a small town, but was more than glad for the respite. There were many interesting trinkles and second-hand items on sale, and one that caught my eye was a huge oil painting of Frida Kahlo. Plenty of antique vases, ceramics, old sewing machines, military uniforms, handmade furniture and ornaments, silverware, designer purses, carpets, huge ugly fur coats and lots of curios… a good place to spend half an hour poking around things that piqued our curiosity. But enough was enough, we needed rest for our hike in the Blue Mountains.

Just so you know, the Blue Mountains aren’t exactly as blue as you’d imagined them to be. Earned its name from the blue haze that is generated from the vaporizing moisture from the eucalyptus forests, the Blue Mountains is also recently listed as a World Heritage area. Truly breathtaking, and lauded as one of the must-have day trips when visiting Sydney (besides Hunter Valley)…

“The rugged beauty of the mountains captivated my heart as well as my soul the moment I laid my eyes upon the scenery.”

The skies were turquoise and clear, not a cloud in sight. The sun blazed but my skin just felt a tinge of coolness. We were about to go bushwalking! Since there was the case of a 19-year-old British tourist who went missing for 12 days (he survived) after going off into the mountains a few weeks before this, we needed to record our names down at the front desk in the hostel before heading out. Well, better safe than sorry, I guess.

We didn’t head straight to Echo Point, but instead took a scenic walk from our hostel and went into the hiking trail from a side entrance of the Blue Mountains National Park. Wise choice, because we could enjoy the fresh air, the birds chirping and the calming silence of the forest…well if I ignored the quiet crunching of gravel and dry leaves under my boots. By the time we reached Echo Point, there were busloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists there marring the landscape with their gaudy inappropriate-for-hiking attires and camera flashes doing their touristy thing. We avoided the mob by popping over to the Information Centre to grab a couple of maps at and went on our way back into the mountains again.

Look, you can’t even see the end of the stairway…and this is only part of it.

One of the main attractions called The Giant Stairway was no joke, with nearly 900 steps of it all! Good thing we planned our route in advance (lazy hikers as we are, heh) and descended the stairs instead of going up. By the look of the blue-faced hikers who decided to challenge the Giant Stairway climbing up, we knew we made a good decision.

The highlight of the morning was the Scenic Railway. We could see The Three Sisters as we rode upwards and the adrenaline rush combined with the view just took my breath away. For just A$10 per person, this would be your best bet if you want to save time and money, instead of having to do the Scenic Skyway or Cableway, which of course would allow you more time to take pictures and enjoy the view at your time. And as if the view and the experience weren’t enough, the Scenic Railway is also the steepest incline railway in the world; so you can add this to your list of Firsts that you have been proudly expanding.


The weather so good, everyone wants a piece of it…even if it meant having lunch on the road divider!
(Did I mention my BF has the best camera ever? The blue in the sky…perfectly captured)

Wanting to fit more into the itinerary, we headed out to Leura Village on the Blue Mountains bus (because it was waay too far to walk), and had a little jaunt around the beautiful quaint little town of Leura before conquering the rest of the hiking trail back to Echo Point. Leura is a very sweet and beautiful town. But the trail was waiting for us. Had a fabulous mouthwatering mindshatteringly yummy meat pie before the trek began. The calories were very much appreciated.

We went past many many viewing points, some of them with picturesque panoramic views worthy of more than a Panasonic Lumix advertising campaign. I was out of breath and frankly out of fuel. The sun was setting and I was freaking out because we were barely 40% of our journey back. My BF was very supportive, both physically and metaphorically, kept my spirits alive by telling me stories and carrying my pack to keep my mind off the fact that my legs were as heavy as lead and that I have already walked a hell lot of a distance. You would be surprised that I was the one who suggested doing this, and he came out unfazed, and amazingly not as bombed out as I was. Not only was the hike filled with words-cannot-describe-how-beautiful-they-are views, it was also a refreshing workout and a great bonding time for us. After the exertion, we also visited the Jenolan Caves the next day to wrap up our trip to the Blue Mountains.

#3 Towering Ambitions – Tokyo, Japan

I must be pretty lucky to be able to spend my 21st birthday in Tokyo. My first official day of adulthood and I was already doing something that I would be really proud of myself when I looked back in a decade or two. I started out the day a little exhausted, but hopeful and feeling blessed. It was a beautiful day to start exploring the city.

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Street scene in Shinjuku

Shinjuku (新宿) is a visual explosion of colours. The world’s busiest metro station was located here with tons of restaurants, bars, retail stores, hotels and skyscraping government buildings dotting the surrounding area. I felt like I was in the centre of the universe. Lost in Translation, here I come!

The city is huuuuuge. I could feel the throbbing heartbeat of Tokyo right where I stood. I angled my neck and marvelled at the multi-coloured advertising banners with Japanese characters splashed across in massive cartoonish characters across gray, steel-and-glass facades of shopping malls. Since neither my bf nor I were fans of planning our routes to death (i.e. plotting everything on a Google Map and following it to a T), we decided to wander around and find a few of the interesting places that we read about and try not to get sucked into the lovely patisseries and cutesy shops that lined every street.

Perhaps it was the time of the day, but Kabuki-cho wasn’t the most exciting place to be in at 3PM; a few wild-haired teenagers stood at the curb smoking thin cigarettes and loitered around, didn’t want to wander in any further as there didn’t seem to be much action going on… Figured the place only comes alive at night for all the reasons we didn’t want to know about, since it is a red-light district and all. Come to think of it, we should have come around here in the evening, but we never did. Oh well, I can save this for the next time I come around, when I’m older and won’t be mistaken for what I’m not…

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School children on a field excursion…so kawaii! (near Shinjuku Gyoen)

We began hunting for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where we could access the Observatory Deck (45th floor) for free (!) to enjoy a good day view of the entire city from the top. I thought we could recognise the building since it should be the “tallest” to have a good vantage point — I thought WRONG. Every damn building in Tokyo is so tall, one obscures another from view, especially we are just mere mortals standing on the sidewalk. So better to consult a map…and Tokyo’s street maps (the kind erected on the sidewalk at regular intervals) are not the easiest to decipher, but we managed… Stumbled upon the Shinjuku Gyoen but refused to walk through a huge park of nothing to see but pretty pavillions and well-manicured lawns. Sorry, we’ll pass for this one. (A side-effect of post-Kyoto visiting.)

It’s a totally different world here altogether. Take out the technicolor billboards and humongous ads and add 50 storeys to the buildings from the main shopping area in Shinjuku, and you have the CBD. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is lauded to be the symbol of Shinjuku. We entered through the wide glass doors, and felt a little embarrassed to be dressed down for such a formal looking building in such a formal looking district where most people (Japanese) were donning business suits and carrying briefcases. But we were met by fellow tourists who looked equally ridiculous (or worse, especially the Americans in their trainers and visors), and instantly we didn’t feel as bad. The North Observatory was closed on that day so we went to the South Observatory instead. They essentially the same except the view is different. The two Observatories (located in the same building) open on different days so check before going if you’re particular about which one you want to visit.

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There it is, very faint, but still unmistakable! Fuji-san! :)

The view was priceless. (Well, admission was free, too.) I could spy Mount Fuji! Easily the highlight of the day! The peak could barely be seen; it peeked out faintly from behind the veil of marbled clouds in the sky, but it was there. I could barely contain the excitement — I’m a fan of tall buildings and looking at the city from the top — didn’t squeal in case the steel-faced security guards throw me off out of the building. :)

The day was coming to an end and I was hungry for dinner… Time to head out to Roppongi.
That’s all for Shinjuku!

Link:
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (in Japanese)

#1 Shrine City – Kyoto, Japan

KYOTO, JAPAN
Travel dates: 17 – 18 May 2009

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Kinkakuji

Kyoto is well-known for its sheer amount of beautiful and magnificent ancient shrines and temples, boasting of spectacular Japanese architecture and remnants of olden-day opulence. I was in Kyoto for 2 days with my friend, which was perfect for purchasing the Kyoto City Tour 2-Day pass for the bus. We travelled nearly 7 hours by bus from Tokyo since we disembarked at Narita Airport. The bus ride cost us 2800 yen (one way) each and it was not comfortable at all, though it is much cheaper than taking the renowned Shinkansen (bullet train). Most of the booking sites are written ENTIRELY in Japanese (with no or very poor English translation), so unless you have a Japanese friend to translate and help you, this option is not feasible.

Transport within Kyoto is relatively convenient, just like most modern cities, it is well-equipped with an efficient public transport system, with public bus and subway. (Check out this website for more on Kyoto’s public transport.)

Tip: They have two kinds of subway just like in Tokyo, but don’t be tempted to purchase the day pass that includes subway rides! Because the pass usually only covers the lines from only one or the other subway company, and makes it extremely inconvenient if you ended up at a subway station that you cannot gain entry to with the pass you already bought. I highly recommend just getting the pass for the city tour bus, since they have pre-planned tourist routes that travel to all the popular tourist destinations, like the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion Shrine) and Gion.

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Kyoto International Manga Museum

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Nijo Castle

A few must-go places in Kyoto are of course the Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion Shrine), Fushimi Inari (possibly one of the most impressive and biggest Inari shrines — with a beautiful and huuuuge torii gate — in Japan!), Nijo Castle and perhaps a day trip to Arayashima! There are really so many shrines and temples in Kyoto that it was impossible for me to finish seeing even half of them after the two days! Some require admission fee and some don’t, so pick and choose the ones you want to go wisely. For the budget-conscious, the shrines with free entry do not necessaily pale in comparison to the ones you need to pay to visit.

If you are a fan of Japanese shrine architecture, do consider spending more than 3 days in Kyoto to slowly enjoy (and not gorge on) the lovely structures and peaceful atmosphere surrounding the splendid and well-maintained shrines.

When you’re sick of the shrines (and yes, trust me, you will!), head over to Kyoto’s International Museum of Manga…which is really an interesting place to explore, and a true haven for manga fans! Although their collection of manga books are not entirely exhaustive and especially extensive since it is meant to be more of a display museum than a repository, the books they have there are enough to wow your socks off. There are also permanent and special manga exhibitions for visitors to enjoy. You can also sit there to read some of them if you have time to spare. I was more fascinated with the insanely vast volume and variety of manga books they own, than interested in actually perusing the books. It costs ¥500 to enter, but I think it is pretty worth it. :)

Extra tip: Drop by the Kyoto Tourist Office (opens at 8.30am) located within Kyoto Main Station (follow the map directions), to grab some free (!) Kyoto maps and find out what activities and places are worth seeing.

ACCOMMODATION
Backpacker hostel – K’s House Kyoto                                                                  ¥2,300 (dormitory); ¥3,500 (single)
15-minute bus ride and 25-minute walk to Kyoto station
– 3-minute walk to Shichi jo Subway; 5-minute walk to various bus stops

TRANSPORT
Kyoto Travel Two-Day Pass                                                                                    ¥2,000 (Adult); ¥600 (Child) 
(For : City Bus, Municipal Subway Line or Kyoto Bus)    

RAKU City Bus                                                                                                              ¥220 (flat rate)
Goes to most of the popular tourist sites around Kyoto
– If I’m not wrong you can use the two-day pass on the RAKU Bus as well
– This bus is the fool-proof way if you don’t want to struggle with public transport. :)
– For more information, visit the
official Kyoto Transport website

FOOD
– In general, everything is cheaper than in Tokyo.
A simple restaurant meal for two                                                                           ¥1,200-1,500