Sunday, January 07, 2007

Japan 2006 - Part 1 - Fukuoka and Mt. Koya

Japan 2006

Prologue: From the moment I accepted the job with Intel in Shanghai, both Sun-Ling and I knew it was only a matter of time before we traveled to Japan. The only decisions to be made were when and where. Our first choice ,first week in May 2006, 7-day public holiday in China, turned out to be a “Golden Week” holiday in Japan as well due to the confluence of 3Japanese National Holidays. So we opted for the fist week in October 2006, a Chinese 7-day public holiday, but not a Japanese holiday.

The “where” for us is usually partially determined by the cost of the to-from transportation. Frequent Flier miles are best. We’ve been know to add or delete an entire country based on its FF mile seat availability. We ended up flying into Fukuoka in southern Japan as it is 50% of the cost to fly to Tokyo, but connected to the Bullet Train (Shinkansen) network.


30 September

4:30 PM – Pudong Airport - The start of another Golden Week Holiday. We worked Monday through Saturday and now have 7 days off for the National Day Holiday plus Mid Autumn Festival. Mid Autumn Festival is the Chinese equivalent of a Harvest Moon Festival and by chance this year falls during National Day Holidays. We however, will not be in Shanghai, but will spend the 7 days in Japan. Our flight leaves at 6:00 PM so we have plenty of time – hopefully time for a snack. ;-)

Fukuoka, Japan
Japan is one hour ahead of China, so after a 75 minute flight we landed at 8:30 local time. Quickly passed through the short foreigners immigration line and answered 3 questions at Customs.
“Where do you live?”
“Where did you come from?”
“How long will you be here?”
“7 days.”
Wave of hand.

The Citibank ATM was right at the Customs exit just as our research had indicated. We extracted 50,000 Yen with no problem, used the WC, and caught the 8:55 shuttle bus to the Domestic Terminal. 11 minutes. Easily found the subway entrance. Sun-Ling expertly bought 2 tickets after I pointed out the “English” button and we hopped on the subway at 9:25. We rode 3 stops, 1 stop past the Train Station, and then walked about 3 minutes to the JBB Hotel following the excellent directions on their website.

The young lady at the counter spoke English and seemed to be expecting us. She made copies of our passports, took our 6800 Yen (about $50 US), and gave us the key to room #606. The room was very small, but not the smallest ever. The bathroom had a sink, tub/shower (the shower head on flexible hose), western toilet, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and cups. The sink and shower shared the same faucet which swiveled between sink and tub. Nifty idea. There is a western double bed, no closet (2 hooks on the wall), desk, small fridge, TV, hair dryer, mirror, a small stool (no chair), robes, and slippers. Compact.

After check-in, we immediately headed back out and walked 10 minutes to the train station – past a Lawsons – and after a few inqueries found the right Japan Rail desk to convert our rail pass voucher to an actual 7-day Japan Rail Pass. The yong man behind the counter was quite nice, spoke enough English, made copies of our passports, and gave us our Rail Passes. Then we made 3 “free” train reservations: the next day from Fukuoka (Hakata Station) to Shin Osaka, the day after tomorrow from Shin Osaka to Tokyo, and the final day from Kyoto to Hakata Station. Excellent!

Then we walked west from the station to the Canal District. Saw the local “food stalls” and briefly toured the “red light district”. Young ladies sat on the balconies with a red light florescent light turned on. Wondered back to the hotel by way of the local temple and museum which were closed. The canal area was nice – clear water – and we saw one homeless guy sleeping on a bench. He had a nice quilt, pillow, and looked quite comfy. Arrived back a JBB hotel around 11:15. Ate some of our food stash, showered, relaxed, and crashed.

Impressions of Fukuoka:
 Compact, clean, busy, but not crowded.
 Easy to get around with an over supply of taxis. Lots of idle taxis near the train station.
 Small folding bicycles are popular – just like China. Now I know where they come from. ;-)
 Some folks were quite stylishly dressed

SLHOTD: Canal walk

Oct 1, 2006 Fukuoka to Mt Koya

Plan: Train from Fukuoka to Mt. Koya where we will stay one night at a Buddhist Monastery. Mt Koya or Koyasan is associated with Kukai, the Buddhist monk and founder of the Pureland school of Japanese Buddhism on this mountain in the 9th century.

Today, Mt. Koya is still the home of Pureland Buddhist and the 100 or so temples and monasteries onsite take in overnight guests. The standard deal includes a vegetarian dinner and breakfast, and a chance to get up at 5:30 and chant with the monks. We stayed at the Fukuchi-in (Monastery Inn) which also has a hot spring for about $100 USD per person per night. A lot more than we usually pay for accommodation but it’s an experience not to be missed.

Up at 7:00 and out the door at 7:10. After ten minute walk to the Station, we had no trouble boarding the 7:35 train to Shin Osaka Station. For breakfast: pastries bought in Shanghai the day before.

The bullet train was cool. Our reservation was for the non-smoking, silence car. Silence means no talking, no station announcements except for the departure and the arrival at the terminal station. In between stations are not announced. Not even the food cart person says a word.

The seats, a 2x2 arrangement with a rather large aisle, are not 100% comfortable but recline nicely. After making about 10 stops, some at familiar names like Hiroshima and Kobe, we arrived at Shin Osaka on time at 10:20 AM.

I slept for about half the ride. I did however note that the bullet train tracks were usually separated from regular tracks, elevated, with banked turns, and went through many tunnels. After arriving at Shin Osaka, we transferred to the subway and rode to the Osaka Namba Station stop. Here we bought 2 round trip tickets for 5100 Yen each to the Mt. Koya Station which is at the top of a funicular. The tickets also include 2 2-day bus transport passes on Mt Koya. A good package.

The train, light rail, left on time at 11AM. After changing trains in Hashimoto, we seriously started heading uphill. The train struggled up and up a single track, going through 15 or so tunnels (they were numbered) and occasionally stopping for a while at some small station to let the return downhill train pass. The landscape was a mixture of lush bamboo and evergreen forests along with orchards. The area is known for its persimmons.

We arrived at the base of the Mt Koya funicular about 12:40. As it was cloudy, we couldn’t see much during the 5 minute ride up the mountain. It was the usual funicular where the two “inclined trains” pass halfway up the mountain. We then caught the bus – included in our ticket – and arrived at the Fukuchi-in Inn about 1:02 PM.

They were expecting us and a very fit woman of about 40 checked us in, showed us to our room, and gave us a short “guided tour” of the Fukuchi-in Inn. Her English was basic so we were a bit confused about the hot springs bathing protocol since this was our first time. Oh well, we can figure it out later. Finally she brought us tea and a small sweet cake.

Our room was basic. Tatami mats on the floor, a small wardrobe, 2 yukata (robe and sash), safe, low table, cushions, small TV, and a mirror. No chairs or stools.

It was raining, but we headed out anyway to the small Mt Koya downtown area, about a 5 minute walk. After a check with tourist information (not much useful information) and a bit of an argument between us, we caught the bus to Daimon Gate, at the east end of town and began to walk back to the center. Sun-Ling noted that “Daimon” (Big Gate) – would be “DaMen” in Chinese.

Sun-Ling in front of Daimon (big gate) on Mt Koya, Japan. Check out the fierce guardian statues on both sides of gate.
Daimon (Big Gate) -  Mt. Koya, Japan

We proceeded through the usual attractions -- Daimon Gate, the Kondo temple, Kongbuji Temple– before returning to the Inn.

We paid 400Y each to enter Kongobuji, the principle temple, where we admired the painted sliding door panels called “fusuma”, the largest rock garden in Japan, the big kitchen, and enjoyed our cup of tea and snack that was included with admission.

Then back to Fukuchi-in at 5PM and into the hot springs bath before dinner. Basically, the routine is wash and rinse yourself, soak in the hot water, then wash off again. I skipped the “wash off again” part. Why bother? Anyway, I had the whole complex to myself so I could not watch how the locals handle the large towel, the small towel, the locker, the robe and sash, regular slippers, rubber slippers, soaps, shampoo, brush, basket, stool, etc. Maybe next visit to Japan.. ;_0 Overall, a most pleasant bath experience.

Dinner was next. We sat in our room our robes (yukata) and the same woman who checked us in started bringing in the vegetarian dinner.
 Small hot pot with tofu and mushroom. The pot is actually a piece of non-burnable paper.
 Cold cucumber dish
 Another cold dish
 Rice
 Tempura with flavored salt
 A cold Asahi Draft (see photo)
 A tofu dessert

Overall the food was OK, the beer was cold.

Cold Beer and Yukata

Then back on with our street clothes and a 2 km walk to the Okuno-in area, the famous cemetery containing Kukai’s Mausoleum, where we hope to see a special Buddhist Ceremony. It’s a very, very large cemetery surrounding the KuboDaishi, the Kukai Mausoleum. Kukai is the founder of Pureland Buddhism in Japan.

We were in luck. After cool walk through the cemetery, we arrived at the Hall of Lanterns. We hung out for about 45 minutes. Lots of chanting. No photos or video allowed. I recorded some audio but later accidentally erased it. Bummer.

After a 30 minute walk back to town, we arrived at the Inn only to find that the front gate was locked. So we walked to the nearby Police Station, called the Inn, and everyone had a good laugh.

When we got back to our room, the sleeping mat, quilts and pillows were laid out and we crashed.

To see all the photos from Oct 1, click here.

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