Let’s Go to Totoro’s Forest

We already went to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. So we thought we would go the extra mile and get lost in Totoro Forest as well.

DSC_4346-01

Totoro Forest is actually a nature reserve under the care of the Foundation of Totoro no Furusato. As far as the name goes, it has been used by Hayao Miyazaki used this forest as the model of the forest used for the animated film My Neighbour Totoro. The thing is, this forest is situated in Sayama Hills in Saitama.

DSC_4344-01

It was a long walk getting up to Totoro’s Forest. And that was just getting to the forest itself. You wouldn’t even know that you were actually inside Totoro Forest until you see some of the signs. Navigating the forest also proved difficult for us since the signs are in Japanese. Needless to say, when we say we got lost in Totoro Forest, we literally got lost inside Totoro Forest. It would have been fine though as inside the forest was cool and actually quite pleasant. It was nice to stay there, but we weren’t actually geared up for camping, so getting lost and not being able to come out of the forest would mean big trouble for us. We also wanted to reach Kurosaki’s house, which is a recreation of the Kurosaki house from Totoro as well. What we didn’t know was that the house was not actually inside Totoro Forest. And following the directions from Google Maps and the one blog with decent directions proved to be futile as we ended up getting even more lost.

DSC_4370-01

We got to Kurosaki’s house, eventually. And it was closed. Yes, for the life of me, I did not bother looking at the details of the house. I only knew that it would be the house would be perfect for any Totoro fan worth his salt. And because I had been too excited and frustrated getting to the house, I didn’t get to check that the house actually had days that it was closed. For a house that was in the middle of nowhere, I think that made sense. It didn’t make sense that I did not see that though. By the time we reached the house, we were already tired. Our only consolation was the maccha house that sat beside Kurosaki’s house.

DSC_4377-01

The lady who owns the café was very nice and friendly. And the mochi and maccha is just superb. It is a very tasty treat and almost made us forget that we got lost and found out that the Kurosaki house was closed. Almost. Still, the maccha was refreshing and the mochi was really, really good. Probably the best maccha mochi that I have ever tried. And it turns out that they grow their own tea. In fact, they have their own school all about making tea. It was really a blessing that we made it there. The old lady even called up a taxi for us (because the place is, quite frankly, in the middle of nowhere). We weren’t able to see the Kurosaki house but we enjoyed our time in the forest and we really enjoyed the maccha. Not a bad day at all.

Advertisements

Let’s Go to Asakusa

Asakusa is in our itinerary for this trip. What we didn’t expect, was rain. It was raining for almost the whole day that we were scheduled to go to Asakusa. But you can’t tell the heavens to keep the rain up while you travel. So it was wet.

DSC_4300-01

As usual, we started the trip getting lost as we got off at Asakusa Station. Obviously, the rain did not help. Part of travelling is being lost, and hungry. While we did have some hits and misses on this trip with our meals, the lunch we had near Asakusa was definitely a miss. You see, we decided to try local and have lunch at a small eatery where a couple of secondary school kids came out from. I mean, if kids eat there, it must be cheap and good, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It was decent, but not good and definitely not cheap. But enough of that.

Nakamise
Nakamise

When we got our bearings straight, we managed to make our way to Nakamise. A shopping street (of all things). According to travel websites, Nakamise has been around for centuries providing temple visitors with traditional snacks, sweets and tourist souvenirs. I’m not really sure if this is still the atmosphere of old Tokyo, but the shops are entertaining in their own right. There are tons of things to buy here. There are T-shirts, keychains, umbrellas, toys, kimonos, snacks and all kinds of knick knacks. The rain didn’t stop us this time around though. Nakamise isn’t that long, but the amount of people and the rain made the trip a bit longer. Nakamise will bring you to Sensoji Temple which is one of Japan’s oldest temples. On the other end of Nakamise is the Kaminarimon, which is essentially a giant Kaminari Gate and is also the symbol of Asakusa. Considering that we travelled from the temple to the gate, it just shows how bad my sense of direction was that day. And no, it does not happen regularly.

Since it was still raining, we managed to sidestep into Shin-Nakamise street. Basically, it is a street running perpendicular to Nakamise street. While it is also a shopping street, it is covered and makes window shopping a little bit more convenient. Add to that the fact that it is surprisingly less crowded than Nakamise and you can have a decent time walking about and taking in the atmosphere.

We must be at Orange Street
We must be at Orange Street

While walking, we also managed to find Orange Street. Another famous street in Asakusa which is, no surprise, painted orange. If it wasn’t raining, we probably would have ended up walking over and looking for historic stores that are supposed to line the street leading up to the old Public Hall. We were about to end our day because, well, the rain doesn’t really help. And then we stumbled across yet another Don Quijote. By far, the most rambunctious one I have seen. And this is where we spent the rest of the day. It had been fun and shopping on the cheap is no longer cheap if you buy too much. Just a thought.

Let’s Go to The Ghibli Museum, Mitaka

The Ghibli Museum is one of our bucket list travel destinations and we managed to tick this one off on this trip to Japan. What is the Ghibli Museum (aside from being a museum)? Seriously, if you don’t know Ghibli, then you need to pick up the pace and read on.

DSC_4201-01

The Ghibli Museum is where Studio Ghibli showcases the work, no, the love and passion that this house has for animation. Studio Ghibli (for anyone still not familiar with it) is responsible for giving us Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Laputa Castle in the Sky and a slew of others that were not as internationally acclaimed as the former. The museum itself is a place where there is no right or wrong way to see the exhibitions. In fact, it was noted that Hayao Miyazaki wanted people to feel like children in the museum discovering things as they move along. And even with the number of visitors to the museum, it does feel like a labyrinth of sorts that you can quite easily immerse yourself in and be lost in it. You have static displays showing the work area of Hayao Miyazaki himself as well as some of the other animators. You have drawings, models, books and other sources of inspiration used by the teams. You can actually imagine yourself in the studio with the desks of the animators scattered about around you. Samples and drafts of animations, story boards, photo albums and more. If only they allowed photography inside the museum walls, but unfortunately it wasn’t so.

Oh No! The Soot Sprites are trapped!
Oh No! The Soot Sprites are trapped!

There are also interactive displays where you can see how animations were done before the age of CGI. There is a machine that you can move the lens as you see fit over a single cel of animation to get the effect that you want. I can only imagine how many man-hours it would take to complete a proper animated movie using these ancient tools. And then there are elaborate displays that bring to life the mind, or indeed the world of Hayao Miyazaki. And it is a wonderful animated world. At one point it got so emotional for me that I nearly teared up for no reason at all, I was just standing there watching this world come alive.

The Robot Soldier from Laputa
The Robot Soldier from Laputa

You are only allowed to take photos and videos for personal use outside the main museum. That means the open areas like the gardens and the café and the rooftop. Even with as little time as we had, the trip was worth it. We managed to get some nice photos at the museum and I was particularly happy that we at least managed to get a photo with the Guardian of the Ghibli Museum, the Robot Soldier from Laputa Castle in the Sky. You find this guy after going up a spiral staircase off from the Cat Bus room which is on the other side of the house from Mamma Aiuto, the museum shop. Up on the rooftop, if you walk around, you will also find the keystone cube from the Castle in the Sky among the lush gardens on the rooftop.

The Keystone
The Keystone

At the basement, you are encouraged to queue up for the screening of a Ghibli short film. It is a great time to experience a raw Ghibli movie, and one that will only ever be shown at the Saturn Theater from inside the museum. Our short film was Kemushi no Boro (Boro the Caterpillar). It is unmistakably Ghibli. And when you think about the details that went into this short film, you can’t help but smile. In this miniscule world projected on the big screen, you enjoy the rich audio that seems to have been just grown-ups making up sounds with their mouths. It was so simple but it was so engaging at the same time as your brain tries to break down the different sounds that you hear as you are watching the film. I won’t spoil the film and in case you manage to view a different one when you go there, just know that it is a Ghibli. We went around as much as we could during our time there looking through the different niceties. We climbed stairs, laughed at the art, realised that we were sitting on caterpillar dung, got hysterical every time we recognise something from the movies and had a great time overall.

Supper

We ended the day with a light meal at the Straw Hat Café. The only café at the museum grounds. Every minute was worth it. But it should be said that getting tickets to the Ghibli Museum, can be a frustrating experience. You can only get your tickets online and only on a certain date and by the time the online buying opens, you realise that there are hundreds of other hungry souls waiting for that opportunity to get tickets. If you do manage to score some tickets online, you will still be queuing up at the gate long before your entry time. But again, if you manage to get through all this frustration, it will all go away the moment you set foot inside.

Let’s Go to Akihabara

Let’s Go!

Akihabara has been well known to be an Anime paradise for Otakus. And while not necessarily an Otaku, Matthew and myself have had our share of anime love. What’s nice to know is that both myself and Matthew have our own anime that we love. There is a good variety of stuff that either of us like and dislike and a good number of anime that both of us love as well. I guess this variety allows us to enjoy more of the quirkiness of Japan and Akihabara.

Ready for some Japanese
Ready for some Japanese

We did decide that we would go to Akihabara on a Sunday. A day that the main street, Chuo Dori, is closed to traffic and people can just walk around and cross the main street to get from one store to another. And since neither myself nor Matthew could contain ourselves, Judy decided to leave us alone and she does her own shopping. After all, one of the biggest Don Quixote discount stores is in Akihabara as well.

Temptation is at every corner of Akihabara

In no particular order, we managed to visit some of the best known anime and gaming shops in Akihabara. The Tamashii Nations boutique displays and sells their best selling action figures and collectibles. Their store is mainly dark themed but the name speaks for itself, and the figures that are in the store are extremely tempting to buy. But this is just the first stop and I was pretty sure that we would bump into more shops along the way. And I was right. We scoured the nearby buildings to look and see if there was anything that was worth taking home. After all, we didn’t really bring a big enough suitcase for all the things that we wanted to buy. In a way, that helped us with our budget, both in money and in luggage. Mandarake is everything that it was told it would be, an Otaku paradise filled with toys, collectibles and what-nots. They sold both brand new and used anime merchandise and they even sell vintage items that are sought by collectors and fans alike. The price though, was reflective of the item that you are eyeing. It’s up to you really, if the price is right for you.

Let's get shopping
Let’s get shopping

Other shops that we visited are Akky One, Akky II, Laox, Softmap and BIC Camera. It’s worth noting that there are several BIC camera outlets in Akihabara alone, some have items that are not in the others and it is difficult to say which are available elsewhere. But prices in BIC Camera is consistent across the branches so if you want to buy something from them, buy it in the store that you saw it in. At the time, there was also a big Tax-free sale going on for tourists, and it was a big help if you are bunching up your items (since the minimum is 5,400 JPY before tax to qualify for tax exemption). There were kawai maids advertising their Maid Cafes by the time the afternoon rolled in and while it was tempting to go to one and experience it, we decided that we would rather spend our money elsewhere though, like actual toys.

It had been a long day ...
It had been a long day …

What we had at the end of the day was a Liger Jager Zero for myself and a Kapool for Matthew. And a bunch of other stuff that we don’t even need to mention. What we could mention though is that the trip to Akihabara was well worth it. We even managed to sip a drink at the Gundam Café before heading on home. Aching feet aside, the trip to Akihabara was one of the best trips that we had.

Let’s Go to Yokohama

On the way back to Kyoto from Kamakura, we decided to take a detour to Yokohama. But what is in Yokohama? Quite a lot to be honest. And we really should come back here. At that moment though, we decided to hang around the Cup Noodle Museum.

Finally, a family sized Cup Noodle!
Finally, a family sized Cup Noodle!

The Yokohama Cup Noodle Museum was still a few blocks away from Minato Mirai station, the closest train station that I found to get there. However, Yokohama looks and feels so different from Tokyo and even from Osaka that it was quite refreshing to walk around. We managed to get in the Cup Noodles Museum late in the afternoon. We were actually afraid that we would not be able to make it since the museum closes at 6 PM. However, it seems that luck was in our favor and we managed to get in and enjoy what the museum had to offer.

Yup, we are fans of Cup Noodles
Yup, we are fans of Cup Noodles

You are presented with the history of cup noodles in Japan. There was a room that showed the variety of cup noodles that have come out since 1958. The original chicken ramen is the star of the show of course, but that did not stop them from creating odd-world flavors like tomato and curry. And you would be amazed at the variety of the cup noodle including those that have never been released outside of Japan. It was an entertaining and interesting look at cup noodles. The Momofoku Theater shows the viewers how Momofoku Ando overcame great adversity to achieve globally significant inventions. It was presented in a kid-friendly format, and even though it was in Japanese, it was easy enough to follow the animation of how the instant cup noodle ramen came into existence.

My take-away from the Cup Noodles Museum
My take-away from the Cup Noodles Museum

What’s nice about the Cup Noodles Museum is that it was created in such a way that you have to climb up floor by floor and by doing so, you minimize on missing out some of the attractions. We had Matthew try his hand on the DIY your own cup noodle at the factory. Well, it basically allows you to design your own cup and when you are done with that, it is like a choose-your-own ingredient to complete the package. You don’t need to be an expert with instant noodles to appreciate it, and as with many tourist attractions, this one is quite full. While Matthew was able to create his own cup noodles, it didn’t really look like he had that much fun. Of course, it may be attributed to the fact that he wasn’t feeling well at the time as well so other people’s enjoyment may vary. We ended our trip with a snack at the Noodles Bazaar. It is sort of like a hawker center where you can choose to eat different types of noodles from different countries such as China, Malaysia, Vietnam and others.

We didn't realise how famous Snoopy was in Japan
We didn’t realise how famous Snoopy was in Japan

After our outing at the Cup Noodles Museum, we headed back around the block and ended up in Yokohama Minato Mirai Tokyu Square. A mall, that was so big that you need a map so that you won’t get lost. It didn’t help that the escalators do not go up to the next floor in a conventional way either. Here though, was a Snoopy Town Shop, a Disney Shop and other character shops that are proud to represent Yokohama. As I mentioned earlier, Yokohama is special and it shows. This place is now on our list of places to visit again if we ever go back to Japan.

Let’s Go to Kamakura

Kamakura is a coastal town in the Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo. Since our base of operations has now moved to Tokyo, our itinerary now centers on places easily accessible from Tokyo. Of course, still taking advantage of the JR Pass. However, due to the number of lines plying the rails of Tokyo, not all of our rides are covered by the JR Pass now. We still make use of it as much as we can, but there is an alternative Pass that covers mainly Tokyo and other non-JR lines within the Tokyo region. It may be a good idea to study that depending on how your stay in Japan would look like.

DSC_0543

Kamakura today is a small city and sometimes called the Kyoto of Eastern Japan. I can’t vouch for that since I’m not a local, but it is a very popular tourist destination for both foreigners and local alike. We experienced first hand how a crowd can move you from place to place, you don’t even have to walk. You can just “ride” the crowd to get to your destination. However, riding the crowd didn’t go too well for us. Our destination was supposed to be the Great Buddha of Kamakura and the Hasedera Temple. Instead, we ended up in Komachi-dori shopping street. I really thought that I was moving in the right direction seeing as the street was crowded and everything. It felt like everybody was going on that street so that’s where we went. I should have guessed that it was a shopping district with the Ghibli Store on the first corner of the street. And then the shops just kept on going and going and going. Until I consulted Maps and it showed us that we were actually going in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to be going. And we have already walked a good hour (maybe even an hour and a half). Add after all that’s said and done, the walk along Komachi-dori was actually fun despite the big crowd. There are a lot of shops to explore. We even found the same shop that we had bought our umbrellas from in Canal City. You won’t grow hungry either as there are also lots of shops selling snacks and other knick knacks. There were souvenir shops left and right. And there were dozens of macha shops all along the Komachi-dori shopping street.

DSC_0578

When we realised that we had gone the wrong way, we had to decide if going back the other way is worth it or just call it a day. Well, luckily there was still a contingency in my itinerary for such an event. Onward then, to Yokohama.

DSC_0569

Let’s Go to Osaka

It’s our last day in Kyoto and we should be on our way to Tokyo soon. Until we got a call from a friend that is. She was asking to meet us before we head to Tokyo. So we packed our suitcases and made our way down to Osaka. We honestly did not have a lot of time to spend in Osaka. The trip from Osaka to Tokyo alone would be around three hours and that’s not including finding our way to our Air BnB host. But we couldn’t let an opportunity to catch up with friends pass by especially since we don’t come around that often to the land of the rising sun.

We're high up but we don't care!

We met up at Umeda/Osaka station and made our way to the Umeda Sky Building. It was a good walk from Umeda/Osaka station and when we got there, it became eerily familiar. As my memory came back to me, it turns out that this was where we took the bus to Hiroshima back when we were here in 2013. Those were pretty good memories.

Enjoying the view
Enjoying the view

The Floating Garden Observatory that connects the two towers of the Umeda Sky Building is accessible from the 39th story. It should be noted that I am actually afraid of heights and that 173 meters high is quite high. So what the heck was I doing up there? Well, the view is awesome for one thing. I should also mention that Japan has several of these tall towers with observation decks on different cities, but this one in Osaka was the only one we actually went up to. So yes, the view is great. And that was in the middle of the day. Imagine what it could have been at night. You can see practically all across Osaka from up there. This top floor is called the Sky Walk and it would be obvious why its named that when you are actually already there.

The view from up there
The view from up there

There is small pocket of space on top of the observatory called the Lumi Deck. This is a place where couples “lock” their promises on the Fence of Vows. The Lumi Deck can be accessed from the Sky Walk. And while it was windy and cool on the day that we went up to the Sky Walk, we heard that it can get freezing cold during the winter. We also discovered that Japan’s weather can change abruptly from time to time, so it’s best to check for rain or other undesirable weather conditions before going to the Sky Building.

Going back the way you came, you would already have noticed the souvenir shop which is (un-creatively) called the Sky 39 Souvenir Shop. There are items unique to the Umeda Sky Building that you can only buy here. You just need to keep your eyes peeled and your thoughts clear on whether you need them or not.

Matthew and Yumi (he's much taller now)

It was soon time for lunch and we decided not to go too far anymore. We just went back down to the basement level of the Umeda Sky Building and we were actually pleasantly surprised. Takimi Koji Gourmet Street is like a nostalgic era of Japan that is filled with restaurants and other food shops. We had our ramen here and some pretty good photos for our memories too. It was a great place to eat where the food is good and the prices reasonable. And all of it just some 10-15 minutes of walking from Umeda/Osaka station.

Alas, it was time to go. Time spent was short and sweet but we were happy to meet up with a good friend once again. Until next time, Yumi-san.

Let’s Go to Gion

Okay, it was late at night and it was drizzling when we decided to take a walk at Gion. In fact, it was the night of the same day that we went to Arashiyama and the Kyoto Railway Museum. So I guess you could say that my day had been full. Of course, I spent the morning with both Matthew and Judy in Arashiyama and then I spent the afternoon with Matthew in Kyoto. The night ended with me and the wife taking a stroll in Gion. By far the most productive day of my stay in Japan.

Gion at Night

We didn’t get to see any Geisha. But we saw lots of bouncer type guys in full suits though. I guess that shows what kind of place the surrounding area of Gion is. We did feel safe while we were walking around, and the atmosphere in Gion has its own special aura. The air may have been cold and damp due to the rain, but it was nice just walking around the neighbourhood.

Streets of Gion
Streets of Gion

If my memory is correct, we were walking along Kawaramachi-Dori street that is lined with Pokemon themed street lamps. We just walked through alleys and streets trying to make our way to where Google Maps says “Gion”. And while it did not prove to be the most educational tour of Gion, we did manage to take in the atmosphere. The area around Kamo river is full of old school vibes combined with touches of the present. The cobbled street with Japanese lanterns are especially gorgeous at night. We were also trying to reach the Shirakawa area where the streets are lined with willow trees. I think we did, as we managed to walk through Shirakawa-Minami Dori on the way home. We were also surprised that we managed to find the entrance to Yasaka Shrine. A shrine that we visited the last time that we were in Kyoto back in 2013. It looked different in the morning but it is arguably better in the evening because of the quieter atmosphere.

Ending up in Yasaka
Ending up in Yasaka

Come to think of it, I would consider it a romantic stroll of Gion. We just walked, held each other’s hand and sat down for some coffee. All the while just talking and having a good time.

Let’s Go to Kyoto

Going to Arashiyama was the earliest we ever traveled during our stay in Japan. And to no surprise, by the time we returned to Kyoto, it was still just lunch time. We had time to kill, but not much muscle left to kill it with. Since it was still early, and our memories of the SGMAGLEV Railway Museum was still fresh in Matthew’s mind, we decided to try the next nearest destination. The Kyoto Railway Museum. The wife may have had enough of trains for the moment though, as she let us be on our way and said that she would just go home to rest up (and do some laundry). On that, we had to rely on Google Maps to bring us to our destination.

Nope. Thomas is not here.
Nope. Thomas is not here.

It turns out, the Kyoto Railway Museum wasn’t that near the train station at all. We found that out as Matthew and myself were walking to the museum but ended up in front of the Kyoto Aquarium instead. But we persevered and walked the additional meters to get to the Kyoto Railway Museum. Was it worth it? You bet it was.

Matthew trying out a train.
Matthew trying out a train.

When we got to the Kyoto Railway Museum, Matthew was back in explorer mode. He couldn’t wait to go around and once again soak up what this museum has to offer. The Kyoto Railway Museum, unlike the SGMAGLEV in Nagoya, caters more to the history of Japan’s railway operations. You will notice straight away that this museum is bigger than the one in Nagoya. You enter the museum from an open area where you already have several trains from Japan’s rich history of rail. Matthew, as always, goes on ahead going in and out of trains where possible. You can even have your picture taken from the cockpit of a bullet train (for a price). Once you enter the main building, you are transported back in time to the beginning of Japan’s railway history. There is a very old steam engine that has been preserved on one side. And all throughout the main building are evolutions of the trains that have plowed all across Japan’s countryside. Even if you are not a train nut, it’s difficult not to be the least bit interested in trains. There are cut out cockpits of trains with working levers and switches. There was even a working public address system (which Matthew had absolutely abused). There were more trains here than in the SCMAGLEV Railway Park, so much so that if we spent half a day there, you would need the whole day here in the Kyoto Railway Museum.

At the roundhouse turntable waiting for a magic train.

We saw a model of an old train station complete with a counter, train schedules and wooden gantries. We saw the difference in classes of trains. We saw how kitchens in trains looked like and their dining cars. There were so many trains to see that we were almost lost in the museum. And then as we were heading to the exit, we saw it. A stable of steam locomotives inside a roundhouse and a turntable for the trains. The steam trains have all been meticulously restored and you can smell the grease and oil all around you. It is one of the most majestic things I have seen. The trains all seem to come to life in that place and if you close your eyes, you’d get scared that they might even start talking. But it is enough to feel the steel on your skin. That roundhouse and that turntable is a must visit.

The exit, as always, is fronted by a museum shop where Matthew’s eyes always light up. Here we got the next wind up shinkansen that completes his pair of souvenirs from the railway museums. We headed home after that. But that was not the end of our Kyoto trip.