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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Tokyo, Yaesu Street

I read plaques!

I spotted this particular plaque/monument whilst walking from Tokyo station along Yaesu Street to my hotel in Ginza.

Since I like to read plaques to see what they're commemorating I detoured slightly to look at this one. It's written in Japanese and a language that uses the latin alphabet but it wasn't in English, I recognised that it was Dutch. (Lots of 'aa'!) Dutch traders had some of the earliest contact with the Japanese, I was curious enough to research what the plaque commemorates.

The man was a Dutch trader called Jan Joosten and he arrived in Japan on a trading ship in 1600, he was eventually given a house in Edo (as Tokyo was know at the time) where Yaesu St. is currently.

Joosten, along with other sailors, was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan, the survivors were taken to the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who was in power. He became one of the Shogun's advisors on trade with the west. He was influential in promoting The Netherlands as a trading partner to the detriment of the Portuguese and Spanish.

When Japan cut off all contact with the outside world, only Dutch traders were allowed to remain on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour. The bridge on and off the island was even guarded by Japanese guards.

This is a model of Dejima from the time in the Rijks museum in Amsterdam. (I took this photo 2 years ago as I'm fascinated by this Japanese period of isolation)

It is possible to visit Dejima now and it advertises itself for Japanese tourists as "Little Holland" complete with Dutch souvenirs. But it's not the small fan shaped island of the 16 to 1800s as once Japan opened up in the late 1800s, Dejima no longer was the only place that allowed foreign ships to berth, and with foreign trade expanding so did the island through land reclamation.

Dejima is interesting not just because of its isolation, but for 200 years it was the Japanese portal into western knowledge, particularly science. The 'Dutch learning" randogaku in Japanese had Japanese students and scholars learning western science, including the western system of telling time, it introduced clocks to Japan. Until the arrival of Americans in the late 19th century, Dutch was the language of learning western science, medicine and technology. After Japan opened to the west, young Japanese scholars were sent around the world and the language of learning changed from Dutch to English.

My introduction to 'randogaku' was in the novel by Lian Hearn called 'Blossoms and Shadows'. I can recommend it for anyone who's interested in Japanese history.

There are still words used in Japan that originate from the time of the Dutch. 'rando' comes from the Japanese word for Holland 'Oranda' (which is what The Netherlands is still called in Japanese) Japanese elementary school students have a particular leather backpack that's called a 'randoseru' from what the Dutch packed their books in I think.

Yaesu St looking back to Tokyo Station, Yaesu Central Exit. The bells monument is a separate one to peace and harmony.

A little aside, I tried to take this picture on a fine day, the day after I arrived in Tokyo, but the morning I walked past it, there was an elderly homeless man and his belongings right where I would need to stand to take the picture. I thought it was a bit invasive so I planned to take the photo when I returned later in the day. Late in the afternoon I thought it was all clear, but when I went up to the plaque I saw the homeless man had placed cardboard on the ground behind the utilities box that was there so he was hidden from the road, and he was sleeping so it would have been even more invasive for me to go take a picture, I would have had to practically stand on top of him!

The pictures I did manage to take, were from a week later just as I stopped in Tokyo for a few hours before my flight back. It was raining, the homeless man wasn't there but I saw that there was a large box with must have been his belongings behind the utilities box, it seems this must have been his 'spot' in Tokyo. (The first day I walked past the monument it was raining as well) Japan does have a homeless population which at most times are invisible in large cities, this was just my brief encounter with one elderly and disabled (he was using crutches) man who lived next to a monument commemorating a Dutchman who was given a house near this site 500 years ago.

Sunday, 24 May 2015


Shoes on, shoes off.

Part of my little nostalgia fest was to go to the suburb in Tokyo where my friend had lived and I used to stay when visiting. After taking a requested amount of nostalgia photos of the area I started walking back to the train station using some of the back streets. I walked past a primary school (elementary school) and then came to a screeching halt when looking past the entrance to the school. I could clearly see the area with the shoeboxes. Part of my 'life in Japan' stories I tell children is how Japanese school students (right through to high school) don't wear shoes inside the school, they have 'outdoor shoes' and  'indoor shoes'. Their outdoor shoes they leave in an area just inside and they change into their indoor shoes. 

So balancing my umbrella (it was raining) I took out my camera squeezed the lens through the chain mail fence and took a picture of the shoe boxes. (Luckily no-one was around so didn't get any weird looks from passerbys!)

There's quite an etiquette to shoes on, shoes off in Japan. My working in Japan wasn't a long term planned strategy, I was offered a job, took it as I didn't want to look back and regret not taking it, but it meant that I was woefully ignorant of not only the language but also the cultural niceties that go with living in a country. Basically I made ever social faux pas in the book!

Beginning with shoes within a few weeks of my arrival. This is tatami matting, it is a traditional form of floor covering made from rice straw, most homes have at least one room with tatami, in some cases they have western style decor in the rest of the home, and just one 'Japanese style' room'.

(This picture is of the interior of one of the traditional houses in Hida no Sato)

Tatami was the cause of my first major social faux pas. A couple of weeks after I arrived and began my new job (with expats, not a Japanese company) a colleague who had lived in Japan a number of years kindly invited the newbies (3 of us) to his apartment for an afternoon of socialising with some of his Japanese friends. (At least we would have some social contact with Japanese!)
I arrived at the appointed time, entered the apartment, saw all the shoes in the entrance (genkan) knew to take off my shoes and put on the 'guest slippers' (Japanese homes tend to have a rack of guest slippers for visitors). I checked how the other shoes were arranged (shoes together, facing the exit) so I was trying to learn the social niceties. 

I then padded down the hallway wearing my guest slippers, (a particularly fetching look with what I was wearing!!) and entered the kitchen area, adjacent to the kitchen was the living room. (Insert important bit of information here, both the hallway and kitchen area had wooden and vinyl flooring) I then entered the living room only to be greeted with horrified gasps from the Japanese women in the living room. Total look of bewilderment over my face, no idea what I had done to provoke such a reaction. I even plaintively thought "but I took off my shoes!" It seems the dreadful faux pas I made was that I had walked on tatami with slippers on. NO! Slippers off, when it came to tatami and only bare feet or socks allowed. It was nicely explained to me and lesson learnt.

Slippers off too, I later learnt (this time by watching a Japanese friend entering the room!) if the room is carpeted and even if the room has a wooden floor but there is a rug, no slippers on the rug. Take them off and leave at edge of rug. (The rug etiquette was another social faux pas, I reasoned the room had a wooden floor so slippers OK, apparently not when you walk on the rug. "It is the Japanese way" as my Japanese friend explained!

Finally, there's also the 'toilet slippers' where some people in their homes have separate 'toilet slippers' to be worn only in the toilet, so it's shoes off, slippers on to enter a home, house slippers off, toilet slippers on when entering the toilet. There's a lot of shoes off, shoes on in Japanese homes!!!!!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Hotel Pearl City Kobe

This was a good value hotel from the point of view that the rooms were quite spacious. It was slightly more up market than a basic business hotel. 

It was close to the centre of Kobe but on an island. The hotel is located in an area to cater for the convention market as the convention and exhibition centre are close by. I deliberately chose this hotel as I was on a nostalgia trip, I had lived nearby. It is in a very quiet location, there's just a convenience store across the road from the hotel and that's it! The surrounding buildings are mainly office buildings, so on the weekend there's no-one around.
The hotel has a free shuttle bus which will take passengers to Sannomiya (Kobe city centre) and the Shin Kobe station. It's also less than a 5 minute walk from the monorail (Portliner) station which takes you directly into Sannomiya.

The hotel had free in room wifi, there was a restaurant and a gift shop in the lobby. As already mentioned a free shuttle bus. The hotel did look somewhat dated, it was built in 1991 (there was a sign!) and it didn't look like it really had been upgraded since it was opened. The room had a kettle but only offered green tea, no coffee.

I was quite happy with my choice of this hotel, the location was very quiet, the Portliner nearby meant easy access to Sannomiya and the room was reasonably spacious.

View from the room, the Portliner (the automated monorail train) coming into Naka Futo station.

Sunday, 17 May 2015



One of the major changes that I did notice in Japan was the societal change in people smoking. During the time I lived in Japan, people smoked in restaurants, cafes, in offices on railway platforms, something I found difficult to deal with at times, since I had grown used to the lack of areas to smoke in public, in Australia. I also come from a long line of non-smokers, extended family as well, no grandparents. aunts or uncles who were smokers, so my tolerance level for cigarette smoke is very low.

I can remember how shocked I was to walk past a really nice cafe that had decking out onto the footpath, I looked inside to the groups of young women all sat at tables with lit cigarettes and the ashtrays were overflowing with cigarette butts. (I had led a very sheltered existence in my land of non-smoking everywhere!) Fortunately for me shortly after I arrived in Japan, so did Starbucks, and they have a strict no smoking policy in all their branches. So I became a regular, in Japan at the time it was quite ground breaking, a coffee shop that didn't allow smoking.

Fast forward many years and Japan still has the non-smoking Starbucks but now Japanese chains also offer smoking and non-smoking areas so you do get asked when you enter. (An aside, I do know how to say non-smoking in Japanese "Kin'en" but one look at my non Japanese face and the servers stammer out 'non-smoking, smoking?' Sadly no Japanese language practice for me!)

The streets also seemed not to have people smoking as they're walking around and then I found out why. There are designated smoking areas on the footpath for smokers, and Japanese being the rule followers they are, only smoke in those areas. Here's one in Harajuku, it's a low photo as I didn't want to have people's faces in the picture.

This was quite a fancy smoking stop, the others I saw were just basically a sign and people huddled around a rubbish bin smoking.

Train station platforms no longer have a designated smoking area, (that I saw), my Tokyo hotel (which was new and had only opened in January 2015) was non-smoking but it had a room on the ground floor labelled 'Smoking room' for those who couldn't get through a stay without a cigarette. The Shinkansen (the bullet train) still has smoking carriages, just one in the non-reserved section, 4 non-smoking. When you make a hotel reservation, hotels will ask a smoking or non-smoking room?

It seems Japan is adjusting to smoking being an antisocial activity and perhaps the high level of people who smoke will go down as the years pass. (In my 'I live in Japan years' the percentage of Japanese who smoked was really high over 50%, Australia at the time was down to less than 30%)

Wednesday, 13 May 2015


Survival---Japanese toilets

Yes all the hard hitting topics here! Something that is also a constant amusement to me are the Japanese toilets, a very popular topic with children as well as they love to hear stories of non-Japanese people's struggles with Japanese toilets.

There has been a change since I was last in Japan, public toilets now also have the variety of features that before were only found in toilets in private homes. Previously in (the ladies' toilets at least!) the cubicles had signs on them either Japanese toilet or western toilet, with matching symbols. The Japanese toilets are the squat toilets, not like the ones found in Europe, the Japanese ones are uniquely Japanese! The western toilets are the ones you sat on.

Now the cubicles list the choices as Japanese toilet and 'shower toilet', and therein lies my amusement. What are now known as shower toilets are the ones that have extra features where water is sprayed up at the person using the toilet. In the past there was a control panel at the side of the toilet bowl and all the ones I had ever come across just had Japanese writing, which led to many an unknowing westerner thinking they were pressing a button to flush when suddenly water would come spraying at them and they would exit the toilet soaked! At least now there seems to be picture clues, and for future reference the toilet flush is always behind the bowl not next to it. This knowledge saved me from many an embarrassing visit to a Japanese home!

This was the control panel in the public toilets at Narita airport, none of these buttons flush the toilet!

This was the flush control in a different public toilet, it's a sensor flush which you can often find as well, no touching those nasty germs! This was in Tokyo so helpful English instructions added. The button at the bottom right is a call for assistance, in this case it's obvious but some are not which can also lead to public toilet embarrassment for the non-Japanese reading visitor!

Sunday, 10 May 2015


Basic survival-- food!

When I went to check some other travel blogs I noticed that many of them had lovely displays of food pictures. As in "Here's what I ate in this terrific restaurant". It seems I have a lot to learn about blogging since I only took one photo of food in Japan!


Onigiri, the most common Japanese food to eat when on the go. It's a childhood staple for when students go on excursions (field trips for North Americans!) and when adults want a quick snack. Onigiri for Japanese children are the equivalent of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich for North Americans or the Vegemite sandwich for Australians, the Marmite sandwich for Brits.

They can be bought from any convenience store, it's crisp nori, with rice and then a different centre depending on which one you buy. I've been through the experimental phase when I lived in Japan so now I just buy this one it says "meyonesu shi chikin" as in mayonnaise sea chicken. Sea chicken (or shi chikin) is cooked tuna, so the centre is tuna mixed with mayonnaise. There are other centres the one I really dislike is the ume boshi which is sour plum, it's just a preserved plum in the centre of the rice. The other flavours (?) are written in Kanji (the Sino-Japanese characters used in Japan) and I've never memorised what the different ones are but I did learn katakana very quickly and so can read it and therefore always get an onigiri I like!

Onigiri are cheap and filling, the price is on this one its 110 yen, about $1.00.

Next universally loved by non-Japanese reading westerners.

The plastic food displays outside restaurants! Just point to what you want to order as you're illiterate and can't read the Japanese menu. Some more tourist friendly places do have English menus or picture menus, but I still love the plastic food displays.


Japanese shopping trolleys (shopping carts for North Americans, this is a linguistic tutorial!) never fail to raise a smile with me. Another thing from Japan that I love, to me they're just like little toy trolleys that children have. It amuses me to potter around the supermarket with one. 

The concept of doing one large 'shop' of weekly groceries is not something that is common in Japan. Most women (and it's 99% women, it's very rare to see a male in a supermarket) shop every 3 days, freshness in ingredients is important to Japanese. (There are practical reasons as well, small homes so little storage) Therefore the shopping trolleys are small, you fill up one basket generally that's enough for a family for a few days and then shop again for the next few days worth of fresh ingredients. It is possible to use 2 baskets, one goes on the bottom, one on the top.

The basket has 'daiei' written on it as that's the name of the department store I was in, the bottom 3 floors was where the supermarket could be found. This was in the city centre part of Kobe, my local supermarket on Port Island was just one level with a few speciality stores in the strip mall you passed through to the supermarket.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway

Up in the air

Walking around the upper parts of Kitano to view the Foreign Residences, the Ropeway station, is just a quick stroll away. The Ropeway will take you up to the Herb Gardens at the top.  It's called a ropeway, to me it's an enclosed ski lift not taking you to snowfields!

A good head for heights is needed as the gondola goes up above the tree levels and you look down over the city of Kobe. The day I rode the ropeway it was clear and the views were fantastic.

This photo was taken from not very high up! The capsules of the ropeway are totally sealed, there are 2 stations one mid way, then the top station. The idea is to stay on the ropeway until the top station get out there and walk through the Herb Gardens to the mid station and the catch the ropeway back down again. It is possible to hike all the way down, I've never done it!

The Nunobiki Falls, the Herb Gardens take their name from this waterfall. This was a hastily taken photo from the ropeway.

From the lookout at the top of the Herb Gardens, which is also where the ropeway ends. People then walk their way down through the gardens which has various displays, sections of the gardens depending on the season. The building with the glass domes is the Glasshouse/Greenhouse, both English labels are used, made me stop and think which was the American English term which was the British English. Australians seem to either use both interchangeably or call the building a conservatory if it's in a botanic gardens. (Not only a history nerd but a language one too!)

Sadly for me the cherry blossoms had all bloomed so I missed them, the bright green foliage belongs to the Japanese maples so in autumn the gardens would be a spectacular shade of red.

This picture from the ropeway is a really good aerial shot of Port Island, an artificial island just across from the main city centre (downtown) area of Kobe. I lived on Port Island for a few years but it has been 10 years since the last time I was actually on it and was shocked when I arrived there to see that it had been expanded, whole new sections had been added. Including the part I've labeled, it houses a university campus! The wharf area on the left hand side of the picture has also expanded. 

Port Island was originally constructed in the early 1980s, it was constructed from landfill, basically garbage landfill. The taller building in the centre are part of the residential zone, behind that is the business zone with offices and the convention centre and a few hotels. Then the industrial zone with the wharf areas. The Kobe airport (domestic flights only) was built at the back on an adjoining island, that opened in the early 2000s.

Japan constantly offers up things that amuse me. This is one I particularly liked at the Herb Gardens, at various scenic spots (this was inside the Glasshouse/Greenhouse) there are these stands from where you can place your camera/smartphone to take a selfie! No need for selfie sticks here! What amused me even more was when I saw people actually using them to take selfles! I had to wait for people to leave to take this photo.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Ijinkan, Kitano, Kobe

A small part of the west in the east

With the arrival of westerners (and also other Asians mainly from China and India) the architecture of Kobe evolved from it being a totally Japanese city. Originally the newcomers settled down by the port in what was called The Foreign Settlement, unfortunately these building were just about all destroyed during World War II. As time went on and the non-Japanese settled into permanent living in Kobe, they set about making that living as comfortable as possible. Japanese summers are oppressive, not just hot but also uncomfortably humid, so those westerners with money then moved up the mountain (or as described in a Japanese info guide "to the foot of Mt Rokko".) to try and escape the worst of the summer heat and built western style homes there. The houses were for the wealthy and foreign diplomats.

I love this area of Kobe, it's my favourite part. I love the notion of 'fish out of water' people who are removed from their own cultural background into one that is totally different and then try to replicate the familiar in their unfamiliar surroundings. The Japan of the late 19th and early 20th century was very much a foreign and different place for the westerners who lived there.

The area is called "Ijinkan" (The Foreign Residences), it's in Kitano, it's very popular with Japanese tourists as they get a taste of European style homes, some of them are open to tour others have been converted to restaurants.

Whilst the houses are European (there's a France House, an England House, an Austria House named after the nationalities of the original owners who built the houses) they are built of wood which is the traditional Japanese building material as homes can easily be repaired and rebuilt if damaged in earthquakes. So to me at least the houses look American, the only European touches are the shutters.

The houses are still very much in a Japanese neighbourhood, they aren't clustered together, the Sunday I was walking around there were the Japanese day-trippers who had their maps of the area with the location of the various houses marked. The whole area is very popular with the Japanese (not so much with westerners who are quite familiar with western style homes!) and there are nice cafes and restaurants dotted around.

Kobe isn't the only city in Japan where you can find the remains of foreign houses, Nagasaki also has a collection. The difference and why I prefer Kobe's in that in Nagasaki the foreign houses are together, not in a neighbourhood. You pay to go into the foreign settlement so it has something of an artificial theme park feel about visiting the houses. Kobe in contrast gives an imaginative person with a sense of history (me!) a feeling of what life could have been like to those westerners who lived in the area from the late 1890s. (Most of the Kobe houses were built 1890 to 1910)

The French flags over the entrance as due to the fact that this is "France House" the original occupant was French. The England House is next door (Entente cordiale, history nerds will get the joke!)

Some of the houses are not open, which makes me wonder if they are still privately owned. During my time in Kobe I was fascinated to come across expats (British, German, Portuguese) who were longterm Kobe (and Japanese) residents, some of the younger ones were second generation. They had lived their entire lives in Japan with perhaps making one visit to the country whose passport they held. Apparently these old time expats weren't unusual in places such as Hong Kong, even mainline China (until they were expelled with the Communist revolution, some of them ended up in Japan.)

These houses in Kobe survived World War II bombing raids and the 1995 earthquake due to their location up the mountain. The houses in Nagasaki are interesting as they survived the atomic bomb that was dropped on that city as those houses were on elevated ground as well, ground that curved away from the main part of the city, that location saved the houses (and the people in them!)

There are more houses than those I've posted, it is quite a large area to walk around in. I've never actually paid to go inside them as a westerner I'm very familiar with westerner interiors, even historic ones. But the whole area is worth spending an afternoon wandering around and stopping to have lunch or afternoon tea in one of the cafes.