There and back again – Cycling across the Shimanami Kaidō 広島県しまなみ海道

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Last weekend a couple friends and myself headed down to Onomichi 尾道市 in Hiroshima Prefecture to do some serious cycling over the long weekend across the Shimanami Kaidō 広島県しまなみ海道 (an expressway located in the Seto Inland Sea).

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Also known as The Nishiseto Expressway 西瀬戸自動車道, The Shimanami Kaidō is made up of the longest series of interconnecting suspension bridges in the world, connecting the city of Onomichi尾道市 to Imabari 今治市. The series of bridges represent the only connection between Shikoku and Honshu that is traversable via bike (or on foot if that’s your thing), and since they were erected only 15 years ago they are in very good condition with many small roads purpose built for cyclists.

We headed down via a long string of JR trains (in an attempt to cut costs by avoiding the Shinkansen) on the Friday evening having reserved a room in a very cheap (and dodgy) for both the Friday and Saturday nights. Saturday morning we got up bright and early, geared up and walked a short distance to our nearest bicycles rental station to pick up our the bikes we had reserved for the day.

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There is a very convenient bicycle rental system that has been set up for those wishing to undertake just such a trip as we were embarking on, across each of the 6 islands as well as on the mainland over a dozen pit stops have been set up where bikes can either be rented or returned. There is quite a wide array of bikes on offer to hire including those for children, electric bikes and even tandems! For the modest fee of 500円 one can rent a standard bike for the day, children and students are 300円 and the electrical ones can only be hired for 4 hours (as that’s how long the batteries will last I presume) for 800円.

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But Daniel you ask “Isn’t the one and only skill you will ever admit to possessing, that you are a beast on two wheels? So why would you hire a dodgy rental bike?”. Well concerned citizen you see the thing is as much as I love both my bicycles, and consider them an extension of my own body when we fuse each and every day. Unfortunately taking such machines on trains in Japan is nothing short of a headache (one would need to disassemble the wheels and carry them in a ‘bike bag’) and Kobe is a long way away from Onomichi! In short its simply not worth it over 500円, although it did feel like cheating………

In addition to the nominal fee a 1000円 deposit is required to be paid which will be returned on the condition that the bike is returned to the same station in which it was rented from before 6pm (5pm in Imabari) the day in which it was rented.

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Anyhow I am just going to throw this out there as a warning to anyone who might be reading this with plans to undertake the trip, if all the members of your party have not decided the route they will take or if there is any chance of you splitting up, I would recommend asking for separate invoices for each bike rather than combining them. I will get into it later but half our group dropped off our bikes in Onomichi (where we would be entitled to a refund of the deposit), the other half in Imabari (where they chose to forfeit it) and it took us a good half an hour of arguing with the employees since they tried to cheat us out of our money thinking we were ignorant gaijin (not to worry we had secret weapons and prevailed). If you are looking for details regarding the hiring of bikes follow the link here.

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Shimanami Kaidō has a great range of places to see and thing to do along the way if that so takes your fancy, I however was in it heart and soul for the cycling. For the more touristy things check out the link here where you can find out a little more.

When undertaking a cycling adventure such as this with a group as large as 8 people, its is not at all uncommon that separate groups will form based upon the skill level of each rider. Whilst a couple of us were making great time, there were those who being beginner cyclists lagged behind and it wasn’t long before the constant stopping and waiting became frustrating for those who wish to push ahead.

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I wouldn’t say I am anything close to a pro cyclist but I am definitely what you may call a great ‘cycling enthusiast’, always looking (often to my own demise) to push my body to the limit. For such ambitions however the Shimanami Kaidō is a less than ideal route, being in general very flat, scenic and leisurely.

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I would think that most intermediate cyclist could easily do the 70km it comprises of in a day with little more than a little bit of a sore buttocks to show for it. To my loyal readers you may recall my last big cycling trip last year in which I undertook the ‘Awaji 150’ from my home in Kobe, that route was a good 168km in total and there is a great deal of elevation along the cycling route around the island of Awaji, by comparison Shimanami Kaidō is child’s play.

That said we were not as nearly as prepared for this trip as the last (since we left much later in the morning on less than amazing bikes), because of this I was hesitant to attempt cycling all the way to Imabari and then returning in the same day but still wanted to do more than the 76km the one way trip comprised of. Instead half of our group cycled all the way to the 50km pit stop at Oshima before and turning back headed towards Onomichi, whilst the girls cycled all the way to Imabari.

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Quite comically in retrospect (but perhaps not so much at the time) they became stranded on the other side unable to find a bus, ultimately resorting to hitchhiking back to Onomichi that night, their sign says 美女3尾道 (3 beautiful women, headed towards Onomichi) which apparently a convenience store attendant wrote for them on a piece of cardboard!

Another reason why cycling back to our starting point seemed a little more attractive was one can save a little bit of money and a long bus trip doing so, the bus back along the bridges takes 90 minutes and costs the quite steep price of 2200円 for the trip, here is a link to the schedule if you find it useful in addition there is also the 1000円 deposit that is refundable for the bicycles return.

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I must add that there are some small fees for traversing each of the bridges with little collection terminals set up at the beginning of each bridge, although they are quite cheap (adding up to only 500円 for the entire way) you must have the change to pay for them so a pocket full of 50円 coins may prove useful, the list of bridge tolls can be found here. The final fee one encounters along the way is the 110円 for the ferry connecting Onomichi to the first island Mukaishima.

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I am certainly very keen to return to do the trip once again in the future as it really is an amazing ride, one of the things I found really amazing about the entire route was this magical blue line! At times you find yourself passing forks in the road and traversing winding roads through little towns but matter where you are ridding getting lost is something pretty difficult to achieve. One has to simply look down and check if there is a blue line painted alongside the regular road markings, if so you’re on the right track, if not turn around the way you came and find out just where that blue line turned off into!

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Being very very familiar with the perils of becoming lost and frustrated when cycling unknown roads this feature of the trip is a lifesaver.

In addition there are markers every KM you ride telling you just how far you till your destination, finally when exiting each of the bridges there are large blue signs pointing the directions to head if you would like to explore the sights that particular island has to offer (in both Japanese and English)!

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By 7pm on the Saturday night we had all reunited at our ever so dodgy hotel and set out in search of an izakaya for some well deserved drinks, but as we were all quite weary we took it pretty easy.

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Before heading back to Kobe on Sunday however we decided to explore a little of the town of Onomichi since it really is quite a quaint and charming corner of Japan.

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Characterized by a plethora of outstretching narrow laneways and staircases along the文学のこみち(Path of Literature) which head up to千光寺 Senkōji Temple and the adjoining千光寺公園 Senkōji Park in which brilliant views of Onomichi can be seen.

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If hiking isn’t your thing (would not recommend the walk is beautiful) another way to reach the temple is via the Senkoji Ropeway which runs from 9AM-5:15PM, 270円 one way /430円 return.

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When I reached the summit I kind of nostalgia washed over me, which was really odd since this was my first time visiting Onomichi, Suddenly a thought came into my mind ‘huh this city really looks like an aweful like the setting of one of my favorite anime I had watched years prior called かみちゅ! Kamichu! A super cute anime very similar to something Studio Ghibli might make about a middle school girl who suddenly discovers that, overnight, she has become a kami 神(literally a Shinto god). I gave it a quick Google and seems I was right on the money, the series was indeed set in Onomichi over in the Spring of 1983 and many of the temples and landmarks featured in the anime are real locations and faithfully depicted.

kamichuTo anyone who likes a little slice of life anime, I couldn’t recommend it enough; in my opinion it bares a strong similarity to Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi 千と千尋の神隠し (Spirited Away) so if you liked that go for it!!2014-03-26 10.45.01

Our trip back to Kobe turned out to be very long and uneventful, instead of paying the 20,000円 or so that the Shinkansen新幹線(Bullet Train) would usually cost for the return journey we instead managed to find a string of 6 local trains on the JR line that got us back in around 4 hours (and cost us only 4650円 return), my time isn’t worth that much that I am above spending a Sunday train hopping with my buddies so for me it was time well spent ^^

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On that note I’ma go give Kamichu a re-watch for nostalgias sake.

-Dan (and here is a kancho for good luck)

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Whynot Nagano Ski Trip 2014

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Over the last weekend of Feburary, a grand troupe of us Kobe kids (along with another 230 so people) pilgrimaged up north to the snowy slopes of Nagano’s Kashimayari Ski Park, on the annual WhyNot ski trip.

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WhyNot is a company that runs International parties and events across Japan. They typical host very ‘gaijin friendly’ nomihoudai (all you can drink) nights across various bars and clubs in Osaka, so they are a company many a Kobe JET is very familiar with. Our ski trip was run by the WhyNot47 project, a section of the organization that plans and runs various trips around Japan to each of the 47 prefectures, in an effort to dismiss the misconception that Japan is a dangerous place post 3/11 disaster. If you would like to know more the link is here.

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Gathering on the chilly evening of Friday the 28th of February loaded up with snacks and booze aplenty, we boarded our bus departing from Sannomiya at midnight on the dot! Spirits were high in the hour after we set off, jikoushoukais (self introductions) were given and many a ‘beverage’ consumed, however at the back of our minds we all knew we would have a physically demanding day on the morrow the bus grew quiet after our first rest stop. I awoke in the early hours of the following morning, stiff necked and groggy due to a sleeping awkwardly on the bus. Casually glancing out the window at irregular intervals as we made out way up progressively further north, it almost seemed as if the seasons were winding back, the snow falling thicker and thicker as we ascended the mountain.

Upon arrival at the ‘Tateyama Prince Hotel’ a very fancy ryokan 旅館 (traditional Japanese style hotel), I was nothing short of overwhelmed as I had been expecting lodging far below its station; in fact my first thoughts that have stayed true are ‘this place is too nice for us’!
After jumping off the bus we check in our luggage, grabbed our rented gear and suited up, the next thing we knew we were boarding the transfer shuttle taking us to the slopes of Kashimayari Ski Park!
WhyNot were very accompanying for those even with the most basic of experience in winter sports, offering to take care of all the equipment and lessons for a fee.

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As it was my first time seeing snow in all my days (being from the Australias) I opted to try my luck at skiing and booked a beginner ski lesson. Luckily my mate Erik was also in a similar position and accompanied me in my attempts to learn the basics of getting around the slopes. Unfortunately the lesson provided by our instructor left a lot to be desired, the general noise about the slopes compounded alongside his broken English left us in a position where we were getting very little out of the time we were spending under his care. An hour passed by and we had done little more than learn how to put our ski’s on and walk around a few meters, it was then he proposed a half an hour break! Looking out at the slopes, we glanced our friends enjoying themselves in envy, it was then we concluded amongst ourselves (pardon my French) ‘Fuck this shit’ and jumped on the nearest ski lift’s up to one of the gentler slopes.

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At this point we had a fair idea of how to ‘go’, but little knowledge of just how to ‘turn’ or ‘stop’, I thought back to what the ski instructor told Ike in the episode of South Park in the boys go skiing ‘If you french fry when you’re supposed to pizza you’re gonna have a bad time’, and felt pretty confident I had this.
Over the next few hours I only fell over 70 or 80 times. I became terrified each and every time I reached a speed my body was not yet comfortable with, my legs instinctively failing me resulting in me ‘eating it’ time and time again. It wasn’t until the afternoon in which one of my buddies who is a very proficient snowboarder found me still failing epically at even the easiest of slopes, and insisted I come up to one of the tallest ones for a ‘trial by fire’. Reluctantly I jumped on the lift up heading up to the mountain whose peak was obscured by clouds, upon reaching the summit all I could think was ‘oh hell no’, as I looked out at the white abyss beyond. Somehow I made it down inch by inch (most of which I was on my ass), yet miraculously after having conquered the beast mountain (albeit in the least fashionable of ways), by comparison those gentle slopes which had tossed me around in the morning I could now traverse with ease. I think what it really came down to was a confidence issue, soon as I had it in my head that this was just ‘a little slope’ I stopped falling over every 10m and all of a sudden skiing was a lot more enjoyable!

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One of the fun parts about WhyNot trips is that they always include a nomihoudai 飲み放題 (all you can drink) party in the evening of the Saturday night, very aware of this, myself and a couple mates retired early from the slopes to relax in order to utilize the hotels onsens and take a nap prior to the evenings festivities.
Having paid the very reasonable additional surcharge of 1000円 to reserve a private double room instead of a communal one, my mate Ryan and I who I was bunking with were delighted to discover that the small fee had bought us an identically sized room to that of our other friends who were sharing 7 in the same space! Needless to say we found ourselves with room a plenty.

After a long soak in the onsen, a brief nap and the amazing buffet dinner the hotel provided, I found feeling somewhat like a normal human being again. Onsen are a funny thing when you think about them, when I first arrived in Japan they terrified me, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would possibly want to get naked with their peers! Almost two years down the roads having been to them dozens of times they now don’t faze me in the slightest, in fact they are a rare treat! The whole concept of the naked body being shameful for some unknown reason is really a western concept, one that if you are to bath in Japan you must discarded with your underwear!

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Anyhow I digress, at around 8pm the nomihoudai party began in the bottom floor of the hotel. If there is one thing WhyNot will always do well it’s alcohol! They had a wide array of canned chuuhai 酎ハイ (Japanese liquor that is often used in place of vodka and added typically to juices or sodas), beer and the ever abunai Strong Zero’s.
I think I know my way around liquor in Japan by this point in my adventures, and there are two kinds of nights out drinking you have do here:
1. Regular drinking
2. Strong Zeroing
The thing is, the morning after a night in which one was drinking Strong Zeroes are going to be agonizing without any doubt. The reason these drinks are so dangerous, is that although they don’t taste particularly alcoholic they are 8% alcohol, even drinking one tall can has 3 standard drinks in it! Personally I would usually only be willing to drink 1 or 2 of these a night before switching out for beer, however since they were all free things got out of hand rapidly.

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There were more kampais than I will ever recall, shenanigans a plenty and at one point I found myself in some sort of circle pit screaming the lyrics to ‘what does the fox say?’. Needless to say I found myself spread out on the floor of my room, still fully clothed alarm blaring at 8:30am the following morning, my room buddy not in a dissimilar state.
We had almost missed breakfast but we discovered there was one bus headed back to the slopes at 10:30am. By this point those dozens and dozens of falls the day before had caught up to me, and my body was screaming for rest. Never being one to know my own limits I decide to ganbare and head back out to the slopes one more time (we had paid a good deal for the privilege after all)!

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In retrospect the amount of damage I ended up doing to my back (was wearing a back brace for a week after the weekend) heading out for the second day was perhaps not one of my wisest judgement calls, however with a little experience under my belt skiing in general became a whole lot more enjoyable. I even managed to tackle the mountains highest slope that took me a whole half hour to get down (however half the time I was on my ass)!
12:30pm marked the last bus back to the hotel before our departure home, luckily most of the guys managed to squeeze one last onsen in before we left to defrost our frozen limbs.
We packed up and checked out with haste the 8 hours later we arrived home in Kobe, tired and weary but with a grand sense of accomplishment!

There are worse ways the spend the weekend 😉

-Dan

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In case you are interested in going next year (I know I am certainly keen to do so) here was the flyer for the event.>

Tropical Japan: Adventures in Ishigaki 石垣島

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For the last week of natsuyasumi 夏休み (summer break) a couple friends and I headed off to Ishigaki Island 石垣島, one of the smaller less populated islands of Okinawa 沖縄, for a little adventure travel and R&R in paradise!

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Our journey began last Monday evening on the last bus to Osaka International Airport from Kobe. If you find yourself with a flight departing prior to around 10am (ours was 7:20am), shacking up overnight in the airport is the only way to hope to make it in time!
Although not being what one might think to be the most comfortable or classiest of nights, if you borrow some blankets from the information desk and find a nice dim spot it’s not a half bad way to grab a little shut eye.

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We opted to stay in a cheap little youth hostel called Iriwa on the inaka side of the island, although located a little far from society at only 2000円 a night who can complain! The website is below.
http://iriwa.org/about-english.html

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In order to compensate for our location, we rented a car from said hostel for the week to explore the island. At only 3000円 a day it lived up to our expectations of what you might receive from such an appropriately priced vehicle.

Seemingly held together with rust and duct-tape we soon named the little guy gokiburi kaa ゴキブリカー (cockroach car)!
As shortly after departing for the first time we were soon attacked by several cockroaches! this led to the conclusion that the only way to justify the number we encountered within the interior, was that a nest of the insects must have been hidden away in its rusted doors!

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With a car at our disposal exploring the island even from our some what remote location was no trouble. We spent evenings watching sunsets on beaches sipping cool beers, dinning upon fancy local cuisine and chilling in the common room of our hostel.
Days we explored ishigaki and its neighboring islands, some of exciting activities we got up to included swimming in waterfalls, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, canyoning and cycling! Basically ALLTHE EXERCISE!

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On a final note here is some of there awesome omiyage (gifts) I picked for my coworkers! These beniimo taruto 紅芋タルト (purple yam tarts) are particularly popular as local fare so I grabbed a box sparing a couple extra for my own nommings! Basically just a tart base with a fluffy purple sweetened yam filling, delicious town! It was hard to part with them when the time came to hand them out!

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Not that I have visited Naha yet but from why I have heard Ishigai offers a much more rural and isolated experience of Japanese island culture in Okinawa. To be honest there were times when I forgot I was in Japan all together, quite a lot of scenery and tired little towns looked like they belonged in south east Asia.

That’s not to say I don’t recommend the experience 100%, just bring a long a couple good friends, a pocket full of yen to burn and the spirit of adventure!

Nara 奈良市 Adventures!

This is going to be a post from the vaults, I in fact began writing this one about 6 months ago but never got around to posting it along with so many others. Anyhow without further a due….

Nara (奈良) is an ancient capital city in Nara Prefecture, Kansai region of Japan.

Along with the development of Heijōkyō 平城京, the capital of Japan between 710-784 AD, Nara flourished under the influence of Buddhism, leading to the creation of an enormous number of cultural assets, buildings and books, many of which are preserved today. Nara has the largest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan.

While the Heijōkyō Palace (平城宮) site turned into plain fields after the capital was moved to Kyoto, the shrines and temples were left on the east side of the palace (called Gekyo (外京)), and Buddhism remained influential throughout the following centuries. Another part of the area developed as a merchant town, notably in the Edo period, known as Naramachi (奈良町) today.

Now at the end of last year when my parents came up to Japan to visit me I took them to check out Nara, since its pretty much a staple when visiting the country and extremely tourist trappy.

I myself had visited Nara twice before on previous visits to Japan but it was nice to be able to share such am amazing place with my family.
I want to share some of the photos of the with you.

Arriving on a Sunday outside Nara station the was a large group of performers singing and dancing to Okinawan Taiko (Japanese drumming).

Most of Nara’s temples and shrines concentrated in Nara Kouen 奈良公園 (Nara Park) and are more of less entirely accessible by traveling on foot.

For anyone that’s been to Nara before, the truly special and stand out thing about it are definitely the deer, these guys just walk around the town as they please not bothering anyone. Long ago they were considered to be sacred however post WW2 were redesignated as national treasures, visitors can buy Shika-senbei 鹿煎餅 (deer cookies) to feed to them for about 150¥ from vendors in carts around the park.

We grabbed some Takoyaki たこ焼き for lunch.

This guy here is the Daibutsuden 大仏殿 (Great Buddha Hall) the most significant building in Naras Tōdai-ji 東大寺 complex. Inside it houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue which in Japanese is called the Daibutsu 大仏. Tōdai-ji has existed since the 7th century, yet has gone through several periods of decline, destruction rebuilding in the past 1300 years due to disease, war and politics.



For shits n giggles: In 855 the head of the Daibutsu actually fell off!

Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社

During my parents visit to Japan a few weeks ago we visited Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社 the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi -ku, Kyoto.

Famous for the thousands of torii 鳥居 (shinto archways) lining the paths up the mountain on which the shrine is located, all of which are donated to the temple by local families and corporations. The Inari kami 神 (deity) are one of the three main kami in the shinto faith, being the protectors of grains and rice. Companies often make offerings to Inari shrines by placing barrels of sake 酒 (rice wine) at the base of the mountain, however visitors can make small offerings by placing food in front of the kitsune statues (popular choices are sake and rice).

Kitsune themed decorations at Fushimi Inari station.
Omiyage stores leading up to the entrance to the shrine.

Kitsune 狐 (Fox) statues

Torii themed prayer boards

Genkii 元気 torii time

Parentals waking through the torii.
Mother in front of a small restaurant along the way.

We purchased a bag of Tsujiura Senbei 辻占煎餅 (fortune cookie) a speciality product of the area.Reading my O-mikuji 御御籤 (Fortune), I received a Dai-kichi 大吉 (Great blessing) and a Chū-kichi 中吉 (Middle blessing).

Nunobiki Herb Garden 布引ハーブ園 & Nunobiki Falls 布引の滝

20121016-午後031214.jpgA couple weeks ago towards the end of summer my good friend Matcha-san (a fellow Melbournian) and I spent a day exploring Nunobiki Herb Garden 布引ハーブ園 and the Nunobiki no Taki 布引の滝 (Nunobiki Falls) next door for a chill and relaxing Friday adventure. Situated a couple minutes walk from Shin-Kobe station (the stop the Shinkansen 新幹線 (Bullet Train) passes through) it’s insane that such beauty and wilderness exists literally on our doorstep here in Kobe.

The Nunobiki herb garden sits on the side of Mt Rokko, consisting of a large café and rest house at its peak, further down a sizable greenhouse and a long path lined with every herb imaginable. The easiest way to reach the peak by taking the Shin-Kōbe Ropeway 新神戸ロープウェー (colloquial known as the Kōbe Yume-Fūsen 神戸夢風船 (Kobe Dream Balloon)) a 1.5km cable car for a brisk 10 minute trip to the top of the mountain then walk the casual slopes down. In my opinion view of Kobe granted from the peak of the Herb Garden is far superior to that of Port Tower and I highly recommend a day up there. At 700¥ all the way up it was certainly not expensive also!

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The cable car entrance point.

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The view of Kobe on the way up was fair amazing.

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Matcha and I on the way up.

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Sample of steel cable that supports the cars.

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A model of the Herb Garden

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Sights along the walk back down.

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Here are a couple photos of the views from Nunobiki Herb Garden,

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After a relaxing morning casually strolling around the gardens we decided to head off to see the Nunobiki Waterfalls which is considered to be one of Japan’s one of the greatest divine falls alongside Kegon Falls and Nachi Falls.

Much to my amusement I forced Lady Matcha to go bushwacking (its an australian term) to the nearby waterfalls next door, a task she was not at all dressed to embark on!

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In the end it was totally all worth it as quite clearly Nunobiki Waterfalls are a little bit amazing ❤

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A couple funny little signs I spotted along the way.

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To add to the awesomeness of this place there is also a little traditional Japanese restaurant on the top of the mountain overlooking said waterfalls.
We ended up talking to the little old obaa- chan that runs the place for a good half hour! She’s meccha sweet!

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Here are some photos of the menu for the place which specializes in ramen, the item labled おすすめ (recommendation) is their specialty Nunobiki Ramen 布引ラメン (Thread-pulling Ramen) which I tried.

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After devouring this bowl whist looking out at an amazing view it too has become my おすすめ and at 500円 why not ^_^

Tokyo Skytree Adventures!

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Today I’m at Tokyo Skytree, freaking epic!!!
Although similarly so were the lines, arriving at 10:30am we were given passes that would allow us to join the queue at 1:00pm, after returning from a brief trip to Asakusa it was another hour before we could buy tickets to go up!

That said the view from 450m was well worth the wait, I’v been up Kobe’s Port Tower, Kyoto Tower and Tokyo Tower but nothing compared to Tokyo Sky Tree!

At 2000¥ for the 350m viewing platform it was a little pricy compared to visiting viewing platforms at many other towers.

We decided to also head up to the 450m viewing platform, although hesitant at first in my opinion the extra 1000¥ was a fair price to scale the worlds second tallest structure!

All in all a fantastic experience!
(^∇^)

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