From Gothenburg to Tokyo by train
…also known as the Tales of a Godzilla Gaijin.
About one year ago, it felt like a good idea at the time to cross a third of the world in 37 days. A 12000 kilometer journey by train, ferry, horse, bus, Shinkansen, tram, subway, taxi, foot and swan boat.
Going from Gothenburg to Tokyo by train is one of the longest routes available. It spans across nine time zones and seven countries. The largest part is the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to the Pacific, the world’s longest railway with 9238 kilometers.
A magnificent day for expedition departure with sun and 11 degrees Celsius. Me and Frida donned our heavy backpacks and boarded the first train of many at the Central Station in Gothenburg.
We arrived in Stockholm a few hours later and made our way to the harbor where the ferry Silja Serenade awaited to take us across the Baltic sea. The dance floor of the club on board was a sad sight but hey, this is day one and things are just about to begin.
Woke up as the ferry arrived in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. I hadn’t been there for six years but the harbor looked the same as I remembered and it actually felt good to be back.
It was now time to change wallet currency into one of the six I’d brought for the trip, Euros will do nicely today.
We took a tram to the Central Station where we locked up the backpacks and then went for a walk across the city, even though it was bloody cold.
The train for Moscow departed in the evening from track 8. Shared cabin with a friendly Russian couple who told us that a plane had crashed earlier this day, early reports stated over 80 casualties. It had hit the Trans-Siberian railway near Perm where we would pass in a few days.
I made my way to the restaurant carriage of the train and had a beer with a Russian guy who shared some additional tidbits of the accident. I found it interesting that he had a very different view on how the whole thing was handled by the authorities, compared to the viewpoint of the young couple in my cabin.
Then everything shut down as we got closer to the border. We had to stay put in the cabin while the Finnish and Russian border patrols boarded the train and searched in vain for my secret stash of chocolate.
- Related blog post: Plane crash on Trans-Siberian
The train arrived early morning in Moscow at one of the nine train stations. I found bliny (pancakes) with black coffee for breakfast and rolled off into the city.
We passed the Gorky park and had a look at the horrible statue of Peter the great, one of the tallest outdoor sculptures in the world. It’s located in the middle of Moscow river, near the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which was once torn down by Stalin with explosives and turned into the world’s largest swimming pool. This country is full of fascinating and bizarre stories, I wish I had time to explore them all.
Had some Solyanka soup and took a metro to the Red Square, which was beautifully lit and the red ruby star of the Spasskaya tower was shining brightly in the night.
We then spent the evening trying to find the infamous Depeche Mode bar around Mayakovskaya, but without any success.
After having pancakes for breakfast we took the metro to Red Square, where we walked past St Basil’s Cathedral to enter Lenin’s Mausoleum. It is not without irony I noticed that the tomb of Lenin is located next to the ultra-capitalistic luxury store GUM. Down there in the dark we saw the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin which has been on display since his death in 1924, but it rather felt like visiting a heavily guarded section of Madame Tussauds.
We briefly passed the tombs of Stalin and the rest of the butchers in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. Stalin’s embalmed body once shared a spot next to Lenin’s but was removed during the Khrushchev Thaw in 1961.
Next stop was to get into the Kremlin, the walled area where an invitation was like receiving a death sentence decades ago. Had a look at the old cathedrals and beautiful Fabergé eggs, but I didn’t dare to do the switch pulled off by James Bond during the first scenes of Octopussy.
The darkness fell over Moscow as we grabbed our heavy backpacks and headed for Yaroslavsky station, which is the official start of the Trans-Siberian railway, the longest train journey in the world. I remember hearing Henry Rollins explain how utterly lost he felt when he arrived on this massive station with all these weird signs in Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve seen several confusing stations but when it comes to departures, nothing beats Stazione Termini in Rome so far.
At an underground market I bought supplies for surviving the long train ride, which mainly consisted of water, vodka and chocolate. The distance from Moscow to Beijing is 7800 km and provisions may be scarce along the way.
The train arrived on time and we boarded what would be our home for the next five days.
Unfortunately we somehow managed to get the provodnitsas (train attendants) pissed off quite early, so they turned off the heat to show who is boss. Fortunately there were plenty of blankets and vodka nearby.
Da svidaniya, Mockba!
The train stopped in Balezino and I bought some edible stuff for breakfast from the lovely babushkas on the platform. We arrived in Perm during the afternoon but there was no sign of any plane crash.
The friendly Russian next door invited me for vodka and I successfully used my secret identity Lakritstrollet to infiltrate his cabin. He had bought five liters of beer in Perm and was eager to empty it along with smoked fish, cheese and cucumber. Nostrovia! He was very entertaining but I managed to sneak off after a few hours.
Caught some fresh evening air in Yekaterinburg where the Romanovs were killed in 1918, and later found dried octopus and fish crisps for supper.
Another glorious day on the Trans-Siberian. Still not king.
We arrived at Omsk in the morning. I remember reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “Imperium” where he described his trans-siberian experience in 1958. Crossing Siberia 50 years ago during wintertime was no picnic, but times have changed for the better.
Nowadays each carriage has a samovar of boiling water, which became the meeting point for sleepy travelers on the train. Dried noodles are not really my favorite food but they are adequate for survival.
Stopped in Novosibirsk where the train attendants refilled the coal supply from a truck. By now it started to feel like we had passed the edge of civilization, with nothing but utter darkness outside the window. With vodka as our ally, we rushed east into the unknown.
I spent some time listening to my iPod while the endless birch forests of Siberia passed outside the window. Bought bread in Krasnoyarsk and watched old women walk among the ancient houses framed by beautiful autumn leaves.
Best stop of the day was Ilanskaya, where I managed to lay my dirty hands on hot pancakes with cottage cheese on the platform. A delicious bargain, bless that old lady! Also had some mystery meat with Borsjt soup. Not particularly tasty but hey, it could be worse.
There are 11 time zones in Russia and the Trans-Siberian pass through seven of them, but the train is always on Moscow time. Despite this fact I found it quite easy to lose track of time on board the train. There is always something to do.
We arrived at Irkutsk early in the morning, once the most cosmopolitan city of Siberia. I admired the beautiful sunrise over Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world which holds 20 percent of the world’s total fresh water. It’s also the oldest lake in the world, more than 25 million years old. Probably a perfect place to hide a spaceship or two.
The train stopped in Slyudyanka and I remembered a travel diary where two young men had jumped off the train at this spot. They ran to the lake to splash themselves with the supposedly holy water for a few seconds, but realized that it would be quite bad to be left in Siberia with all their belongings still on the train, so they ran back faster than Olympic sprinters.
As the train starts to go south towards Mongolia the forests were replaced by low grass in the area southeast of Lake Baikal, which was the home territory of Genghis Khan. The temperature increased and we enjoyed beautiful views of the Goose Lake.
We arrived at the border station Naushki in the evening. First they took our passports, then we had to wait two hours before getting back on the train. Two more hours of waiting for the Russian customs to arrive with dogs and carefully search all our luggage before getting our passports back. Since the toilets were locked during the seven hour stop, we had to bribe the provodnitsas to use the facilities.
Then came the Mongols.
The Huns in camo uniforms swept through our belongings and we had to fill in customs declaration, arrival card and say goodbye to the passports once more. A cute but aggressive Customs woman in tall boots and strict uniform appeared in the doorway just as our resident Englishman was throwing stuff out the window, ensuing a hilarious situation.
The train finally rolled into Mongolia after midnight. I got a sniff of fresh air and fell asleep.
In the morning I started to see white Ger tents scattered across the plains outside the window. The train got closer to the capital of Mongolia and the first people I saw in Ulaan Baatar were sitting along the railroad and taking a dump. Welcome to Mongolia, I guess.
Ulaan Baatar has the lowest average temperature of any national capital in the world, which was painfully obvious as I got off the train. The traffic is insane and half of the vehicles have steering wheels on the right despite driving on the right hand side.
We crossed the Tuul river and went up to a hilltop nearby to get a look at the polluted city, where ugly power stations and buddha statues are uneasy neighbors. But after five days on a train it felt wonderful to breathe some cold air and stretch my legs.
Went back into town where I changed my Russian rubles into Mongolian tögrögs. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent country in the world and there is less than 1500 km of asphalt roads, but fortunately we found one of them and drove east past ruins of small towns where Soviet soldiers used to live.
Tired and dirty, we arrived in the beautiful Terelj area where we stayed in a traditional Ger tent.
The people living in the valley were very friendly and it was interesting to hear Mongolians speak about their views on China, but it startled me how openly they hated the situation. Genghis Khan once formed the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in world history ranging from Austria to Korea. Beijing was conquered in 1215 but today the roles are reversed. I asked what they thought of the new movie Mongol which is the story of Genghis, but they seemed to think it it was quite alright compared to earlier takes on the story.
- Related blog post: Dawn in Ulaan Baatar
After five days on the Trans-Siberian train, the freezing tent felt like pure luxury. We had about zero degrees in the middle of the nights so it got quite cold after a while as the fire burned out, but I slept much better than on the train despite various animal sounds just outside the tent.
We started the day with Airag, fermented mare’s milk. It is often referred to as nomad whiskey but tasted like sour-cream. After that we were brave enough to jump into the saddles and ride off into the beautiful Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, where the autumn colors of the trees were gracefully mixed with the gray mountains.
During the days in the valley we went horseback riding past the Turtle Rock, saw crazy climbing goats, wild yaks and two-humped Bactrian camels. It sounds like some kind of aliens but they did not have ray guns. In fact, these camels are among the rarest mammals on the planet and less than 1000 remains.
At nighttime I loved to stand alone in pitch black darkness and beheld stars of the Milky Way totally free of light pollution.
- Related blog post: Tent heating in Mongolia
The valley was very beautiful, but after freezing my ass off in the tent for several nights it felt rather nice to return to Ulaan Baatar for a hot shower. I guess it takes more than a pretty view to make me give up my urban preferences. And yes, I have to admit it was good to be back in civilization (sort of) with an internet connection.
We visit the impressive Gandan Khiid monastery, where we gaze upon the 26 meter tall statue inside the largest building. This temple was built in 1911 and devoted to Janraisig, the Boddhisattva of Compassion. That didn’t stop the Russians from destroying the statue and use the building as a refrigerator for meat. The statue was rebuilt in 1996 and the building is today a symbol of independence for the Mongolians.
In the evening we crossed the large Sükhbaatar Square, where the horse of revolutionary leader Damdin Sükhbaatar stopped to pee in 1921. It was considered a good omen and three years later the city was renamed Ulaanbaatar (“red hero”) in his honour. He can be found as a large statue on the square, as well as on the lesser bank notes.
After listening to a performance with horse-headed fiddles and the odd Mongolian throat singing, we found our way to a Mongolian Barbecue where the cooks had t-shirts that said “Go mongo”. So we did.
Time to leave the capital and head south through the Gobi desert, continuing the Trans-Siberian railroad journey. The train departed from Ulaan Baatar at eight in the morning and it actually felt good to be on the tracks again.
But the view of endless Gobi desert became utterly boring more quickly than I had anticipated. The word “gobi” is a Mongol term for desert steppe. I remember reading the Yule-Cordier edition of The Travels of Marco Polo, and how he described the Gobi desert as “consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys, there is nothing at all to eat”.
We arrived in the the ghost town called Choir and had a look at the statue of the first Mongolian cosmonaut, Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa, standing in the square.
After a few more hours of dust we rolled into Sainshand, probably the most depressing town I’ve ever seen, located in the outskirts of the Gobi desert. I surveyed the barren landscape and wondered how anyone could survive here.
Back on the train I stumbled upon a friendly English couple who were going back to Beijing after a week in Ulaan Baatar, and chatted for a while as a beautiful sunset fell across the Gobi desert outside the window.
Later in the evening we arrived at the border station Zamyn-Üüd. The passport control got overly tedious and as the Chinese inspector even browsed my Swedish paperback I couldn’t resist asking him if he had read it before, which provoked a weird stare.
Since Chinese railroads operates on a narrower gauge than Mongolia, the bogeys had to be changed. The entire train wagons were lifted into the air with us still aboard! This engineering task brought childish smiles to everyone aboard.
We finally crossed the border into China at one hour past midnight.
Time to set back the clock, since all of China is on Beijing time and the Trans-Siberian is on Moscow-time. The Great Wall could be seen here and there along the beautiful mountains as we crossed northern China. There was a brief stop in Zhangjiakou but unlike Russia there were no friendly babushkas on the platform.
We arrived at Beijing central station in the afternoon. It felt rather good to finally get off the Trans-Siberian, despite the heat and heavy backpacks. This far we had covered 10 000 kilometers of railroad from Helsinki to Beijing, not including the initial train ride across Sweden.
After spending five nights on the Trans-Siberian and three nights in a freezing tent, the hot shower in the hotel was heavenly. Then we went looking for food in the bustling city. I noticed that since Chinese is a tone language, they tend to talk very loud which can be a pain when you’re tired after a long journey. It was not entirely easy to order something, in fact I spent what seemed like an eternity at a food court until getting a dish which may end up on my top five list of worst things I’ve ever eaten.
A few months ago there were 26 000 journalists in the city covering the Olympics, so I would have thought that the citizens were used to seeing westerners on the street. But we received more stares than rock stars and hordes of people wanted to be photographed with us.
After carefully noting that Chinese breakfast is horrible, we went to the Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world. This was the location of the infamous tank photo and I tried to envision the atrocities committed here in 1989. We reached the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, where his embalmed remains are on display just like Lenin’s in Moscow, but he looked even more artificial than the bearded Russian.
Passed through the Tiananmen gate beneath the famous portrait of Mao and entered the Forbidden City. It’s built on an enormous scale, almost like a city within the city. The walled area of the former imperial palace is where the emperor uncontested ruled the empire until 1912. I especially enjoyed the rooftops which were decorated with mythological creatures in a very orderly fashion.
We left the area through its northern gate and got lost in the traditional hutong alleys. During the last 50 years a lot of hutongs have been demolished to make way for modern buildings.
Later in the evening we went to a weird restaurant where we had vegetarian shark (!) while observing cockroaches running free on the floor. Very chic.
The day started with a visit to the crazy silk market as well as a kung fu show. Later in the evening we found a nice backpacker hostel inside one of the hutongs near Lama Temple, which felt like teleporting to a relaxed bar in Thailand. The owner was a friendly chap who gave us local beer on the house.
It’s not every day when you get walk on the Great Wall, but this was such a day. It goes up and down hill after hill, and some of the slopes are quite steep. The peak stretch is estimated to have been 6700 km but a few of the hills were enough for me. Frida got a lot of attention with her blond hair and had to pose for countless photos.
The evening was dedicated to nightlife. We got a tip yesterday about this club called Banana, so we had to check it out. At first I had some trouble understanding how to order anything from the cool bartenders juggling bottles in a cloud of smoke, and we got quite a lot of attention since we were almost the only foreigners. The dance floor was filled with people and oscillated quite heavily as we bounced to the music.
The most hilarious episode was the pretty Chinese girl who said that I had bad English, while stumbling with the words to say it.
- Related blog post: Going bananas in Beijing
Had a walk through the old Dazhalan areas and some hutongs until we found our way down to Tiantan park. A lazy afternoon stroll through a beautiful park was just the right thing to do. And they had ice cream!
Got up at 4.15 AM and off to the western train station which turned out to be ridiculously big. We boarded a speed-train which took off in 242 km/h according to the display, a number that instantly inspired me listen to Front 242 on the iPod.
It was a rather uneventful trip and we arrived at the train station of Qingdao in the afternoon. After leaving the backpacks on a hotel we went on a holy quest for food and coffee. Qingdao has 8 million citizens but felt like a relaxed small town after the chaotic streets of Beijing.
As we got down to the May Fourth Square on the waterfront we noticed there were tons of people there, as it turned out to be the “59th birthday of the Republic of China”. A lot of kites were in the air and the evening ended with fireworks.
The day started with a visit to the Tsingtao Brewery for a lot of beer before lunchtime. It was founded by Germans in 1903 during the colonization period, since they couldn’t survive here without decent beer.
After a stroll along the waterfront we took a cab to the Qingdao International Beer Festival, an event clearly inspired by German beer festivals.
To top it off, we ended this alcohol-themed day at a weird bar downtown where the staff wore Venetian costumes. Somehow one of their hats found its way onto my head. Suddenly I heard the cover band performing a Rammstein song, so I rushed to the stage! Frida may have mentioned something of a “rose incident” at this place, but as usual, denial is policy.
Dark sunglasses have never felt as good. We took a bus to the ferry terminal, where everyone stared their eyes off at us. I guess not too many Westerners use this route. The ferry departed in the afternoon and provided a spectacular view of the Qingdao skyline at sunset as we drifted east across the Yellow Sea.
The food we found on-board was almost as bad as the Beijing dishes, which is a most impressive accomplishment.
Woke up at seven on the ferry and went searching for breakfast. It was mighty unimpressive as expected, but they managed to come up with some bread and egg for us weird foreigners. Still hungry I walked around the boat and saw the mainland of South Korea appear in the distance.
The ferry entered the harbor of Incheon through largest sluice gate I’ve ever seen. Immigration went pretty fast for a change and we traveled by car to Seoul where we stayed at some kind of family hostel.
Starved as usual, we found some sort of restaurant near Hongik University where we left our shoes at the entrance and seated our weary butts on floor cushions. I got some kind of mystery meat while Frida had a hard time getting vegetarian food. Where is the Star Trek universal translator when you need one?
We caught a tram to Dongguk and went for a long walk uphill to Seoul Tower, where a large crowd had gathered. It was the 50 year anniversary of the cease fire with North Korea, so fireworks began to appear over the skyscrapers downtown.
Got onto a bus driving north along roads lined with barb wire. A guard in camo uniform with a rifle on his back had a look at our passports and then we entered the DMZ of the 38th parallel, the infamous area separating North from South Korea.
Created in 1953, the DMZ is the world’s most heavily fortified border with a 155 mile long military demarcation line. Seven million Korean families are still separated by the DMZ, a sad story.
Our guide kindly advised us to “please don’t step into the land-mine fields”. I had no trouble at all in following that advice. From a hilltop I looked into North Korea with binoculars, seeing their flag shaking defiantly in the wind. So close, so far away.
We then donned yellow hardhats and climbed down the “Third Tunnel of Aggression”, one of the tunnels that North Korea dug in secrecy for a surprise attack on Seoul. They got as far as 44 km from Seoul until it was discovered in 1978.
Even though the evening was spent roaming various bars of Seoul, I had a hard time shaking the gloomy feeling of the day. But at least the prices did their best to distract me, since a drink cost 110 000 Won.
- Related blog post: A day of war
Took a metro across town to visit the COEX Aquarium, but it was rather disappointing compared to the ones in Monterey or Sydney. Even the cute sea otters were sleepier than their Monterey counterparts.
But my mood instantly went up as I discovered a Coldstone at Millennium Plaza, my favorite ice cream store of the world! Ever since I discovered it by chance in Los Angeles, I try to seek it out anywhere if possible. A large bucket of coffee ice cream saved my day.
Spent the afternoon strolling along Cheonggyecheon, a beautiful water stream running for 6 kilometers along the skyscrapers of downtown Seoul.
The day started with a visit to the beautiful Changdeokgung palace, featuring 400-750 year old trees as well as the oldest stone bridge in Seoul, built in 1411. The rooftops had figures which reminded me of the ones I saw in the Forbidden City of Beijing a week earlier. Unfortunately most of the old buildings had suffered severe fire damage during the Japanese invasion in 1592.
I also had the distinct pleasure of having entire visiting school classes giggle and point fingers at me for the entire two hours. It’s not every day the Swedish Godzilla comes to town.
Strolled through various markets and sometimes felt my appetite go down the drain.
As darkness arrived we took a metro to Yeoinaru for a boat ride along the Han river. The lit skyscrapers were idly passing by as we sipped tea. Arrived at Building 63 where we found a nice wine bar on the 59th floor. Magnificent view of Seoul through the large windows!
The hours passed quickly with Australian reds. On the journey home Frida almost managed to make the cab driver accept a red rose instead of money.
After a short cab ride to Seoul station we boarded a southbound KTX train. At 300 kph we crossed the southern peninsula at a rather brisk pace and arrived at Busan in the afternoon.
Busan turned out to be a really boring place, but after some difficulties we at least managed to get something edible in exchange for money. By now I had gotten fairly tired of waving “helloo” back at all girls everywhere who had never seen a Godzilla before, so I gladly boarded the ferry which would take me across the Korea Strait to Japan.
My first contact with Japan was to figure out how to order food in the ferry canteen. There was some sort of machine which accepted Yen bills, and after pressing a random button it produced a small note. I then proceeded into the dining hall and gave this note to the three young Japanese girls. They giggled, said something in three simultaneously voices and giggled some more. I didn’t really know if it was a statement or a question, but they swiftly produced a tray with something resonably editable so I never bothered to find out. Wakarimasen?
I got up at dawn just in time to see the sun rise over the coast of Japan, the land of the rising sun.
I had arrived by ferry from South Korea to the west coast of Honshu, the 7th largest island in the world. As we were washed ashore as smelly gaijins, I kind of expected the same harsh treatment as Anjin-san and his crew in James Clavell’s Shogun.
But the locals were extremely friendly. The immigration officer smiled while he had to greatly adjust the camera upwards to reach my head for the photo, and even the poor customs inspector smiled as she opened up my entire backpack and examimed my bag of dirty socks, one by one. I would rather chop my arm off than excavating dirty laundry from weary travellers, but she just kept on smiling.
Eager to start out fresh, I tried to my finite vocabulary at the girl behind the counter in a coffee shop, who gave me a large giggle and a small coffee. I would have preferred a small giggle with a large coffee, but better luck next time.
We walked to the train station and got on a small train to Kokura, where we changed to a Shinkansen train! The world’s fastest train for regular traffic, with speeds up to 300 km/h. They are clean and comfortable, and the conductor even bowed before entering the train carriage.
Later that day we arrived in sunny Hiroshima. Payed 150 yen for a ticket and boarded a tram which took us to Dobashi where we found a hostel, complete with futon mattresses on hard tatami mats. I slipped into a yukata robe and headed for the large bathing room in the basement.
Big in Japan. That was the song in my head this morning as I walked alone through the streets of Hiroshima and attracted a lot of attention with my height. I truly felt like Godzilla and began to wonder if my head was visible over the rooftops, but unlike the Chinese the attention was handled in a very discrete and polite way by the Japanese.
I went for a stroll through the solemn Peace Park, which was once the busy downtown district of Hiroshima before the atomic bomb detonated on August 6, 1945. Walked past the eternal fire and up to the “A-bomb Dome”, one of the very few structures that survived the blast. Excerpt from my notebook that day: “Currently sitting ten meters from the dome that survived the blast. Only scattered ruins remains, appreciated by the birds. Creepy place.”
The intended target was the Aioi bridge, but the bomb drifted slightly off course by the wind and detonated above the building. Most of the walls managed to withstand since the blast came from directly above, but almost every other building in Hiroshima was erased.
Then I suddenly realized I’d been walking around in the epicenter of the world’s first nuclear target with a tshirt that said “Bang bang” and yesterday wearing one that featured an American airplane. Not my brightest hour.
Met up with Frida and Eddie to get a tram south to Hiroden, where we boarded a ferry to the island Miyajima. It has been worshipped as a divine area and features the well-recognized red torii gate standing in the water, where we natually had to pose for the classic C64 game view. Free-roaming deers smelled something nice in Frida’s bag and tried to snatch it. I really enjoyed the tranquil atmosphere of the island and tried some sort of strange waffles at a vendor along the village streets.
The evening was completed at the best sushi place I’ve ever been to. The amused chef produced one delicious piece after another in front of us. He was very curious to our reactions from the different pieces and even produced a weird dessert on the house. With the tshirt I was wearing, I kind of expected to be served lethal fugu…
Sayonara Hiroshima! We caught a tram to the train station where I bought some maki for breakfast before boarding the Shinkansen, as always arriving perfectly on time.
We switched trains in Osaka and arrived in Kyoto a while later. The train station of Kyoto turned out to be a a large 15-floor building, the second-largest train station in Japan.
Walked some blocks north before we found our ryokan, which is a sort of traditional Japanese inn. The grumpy old manager was very strict about us wearing the special slippers inside. Got a nice room with futons, tatamis and walls of rice paper. The only thing missing was a ninja outside the sliding doors.
In the evening we went north to explore the seedy Gion district, walking all the way to river Takano. By a back alley we slipped into the Pontocho area and saw Geishas passing by silently in the narrow alleys. This is a place where you really feel that you’re not in Kansas anymore. The evening wrapped with Suntory whisky. “It’s Suntory time!” as Bob Harris would put it.
There’s a whole lot of ancient temples in Kyoto since it was spared during the WW2 bombings. We took a bus to Kinkaku-ji, an area well-known for the magnificent golden temple Rokuon-ji situated in a Kyoko-chi mirror pond.
Had green tea in a garden and with renewed strength we walked westward towards one of my prime destinations, the Ryoanji temple with a 13th century zen garden. A beautiful place of tranquility. Staring at a bunch of rocks may not sound very sexy, but I assure you it’s well worth the visit.
I spent the entire day walking alone in the streets of Kyoto, visiting temples and shrines at a leisurely pace just like Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost In Translation. I even listened to the song “Alone in Kyoto” by Air on my iPod, featured on the movie soundtrack as backdrop to her journey. Yes, I’m a movie buff, so what.
It is a strange sensation to stroll in a Japanese town as a six-foot-five gaijin, a foreigner excluded from the language and everyday rituals that everyone within sight silently obeys. I love it.
One of the highlights of the day was the Nijo-jo castle, built in 1603 as the residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu. For all of us who remember the Shogun tv-series and the old ninja movies with Sonny Chiba, this is holy ground.
The palace looks like a fortress with a moat surrounding the huge stone walls. To protect the compound from assassins, all hallways are equipped with “nightingale floors” making a high-pitched sound when anyone steps on it. I tried my best to sneak across the building, but the floor revealed me each time. I suppose I would make a lousy ninja.
- Related blog post: Alone in Kyoto
Checkout at seven and a short walk to the train station. Found a sandwich and boarded the train which soon rolled through the misty Japan Alps. Beautiful valleys and deep gorges went past outside the window for hours as the train winded its way up the hills.
We finally arrived in Takayama, a traditional village with several sake breweries. Starved as usual, we found a place which served the local Hida beef from the Hida highlands, which was very nice but almost as expensive as the infamous Kobe beef.
Went across the Kaji-bashi bridge into the Old Town where we dodged into a place which seemed to serve coffee, but it was a bit different from your average espresso hideout. Some guy was filming us the entire time as we were offered some kind of strange green sweets. Oh well, the things I do for my caffeine.
The evening was ended at a place where we sat on the floor with jugs of sake in our hands. It could be worse.
I went out for a stroll at the morning market along the river Miyagawa, before the train arrived and we went south.
Passed the town of Gero and had a last look at the beautiful alps before arriving in Nagoya, the fourth-largest city in Japan as well as the largest train station.
I noticed a station officer who accessed a control panel, cleverly hidden inside a pole. He really took his job seriously. Things were getting hot with a large backpack, but luckily the next train arrived shortly and we could continue eastbound.
A brief stop in Mishima, the closest point to Mt Fuji from Shinkansen. No wonder they consider it a holy mountain.
Arrived at Tokyo station in the evening and took the Yamato line subway to the Ueno district for another cozy inn with tatamis and slippers! But the yukata robes are still made for Ewoks instead of Swedish vikings, it looks like I’m wearing a loincloth…
I gave myself the luxury of a slow morning, to give my bad case of sinusis a chance to die in peace. Then I hit the streets of Tokyo on my own.
After deciphering the glyphs of the subway map I managed to find my way and the correct sum to pay for various zones. My first stop of the day was Akihabara, the haven of electronics and computers. Visited a few arcade halls which were mainly occupied by teenage school girls at this hour.
If you have seen one iPod you have seen them all, so I soon got bored of all the electronics shops and took the subway to Shibuya. Said hello to the infamous Hachiko dog statue and walked across the Hachiko crossing, the busiest pedestrian walkway in the world.
While crossing, I almost started humming on Alphaville’s “Big in Japan” (again) as I was an alone six-foot-five gaijin in a sea of short Asians. To say that I stood out from the crowd would be the understatement of the year.
I’ve seen the crossing in a lot of films but it felt smaller in real life, which was something of a disappointment. Unable to let go of the original feeling of its size, I found my way to Starbucks on second floor above the crossing and sat down by the window next to two girls dressed as neon goths. However, the view from the window was even more interesting where an endless surge of humanity was crossing the “X” in all directions as the green light hit.
With my trustly companion Lonely Planet I found my way up the Dogenzaka hill and had a look at the bizarre Love Hotels area, before getting the subway to Shinjuku, probably my favorite part of Tokyo.
The Shinjuku station is often considered to be the busiest station in the world. It may be exited in two directions: west and east side, which are as different as black and white.
I first visited the west side which features Tokyo’s highest concentration of skyscrapers. Tried to sneak into some of the cool buildings including the Cocoon, but the security guards unfortunately spotted me from a mile away (surprise). They kindly adviced me to talk to the hand…
I soon grew bored at seeing the palms of security so after an extremely black Brazilian coffee at Pronto I deciced to explore the eastern part as the sun set.
It’s a completely different story from the west side since it is Tokyo’s liveliest night spot and the location of the notorious red light district Kabukicho. I wouldn’t go so far as using the words of Obi-Wan, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy”, but it certainly has its fair share of seedy people and environments. The shops have cool exteriors and the people are weird. I love it!
This is also the area where Bill Murray’s character gaze at the neon lights from a taxi in the beginning of Lost in Translation.
After spending several hours in crowded manga booths and noisy Pachinko halls filled with cigarette smoke I got back to the Hachiko crossing where I met up with Frida and more. We went to the karaoke place Karaoke Kan in Shibuya, where room 601 and 602 were used during the filming of Lost in Translation (ok, so I am a movie buff). I found a Depeche Mode song for starter and soon the awkward singing commenced. Unfortunately Scarlett Johansson didn’t show up with a pink wig but we still had a great time.
Today we went east towards the Ueno park, where we found an old man who volunteered as a guide. It was amusing at first but we soon wondered how to get rid of him. Entered the Rinnoji temple and had a look at the statue of Saigo Takamori, also known as the last samurai (yes, the one from the Tom Cruise movie).
Yeah, and then there was this incident in Shinobazu Pond which involved a yellow swan boat. Denial is policy…
After having tempura for lunch we took the subway south for a brief look at Ginza, Tokyo Tower and the Imperial Castle moat. I was a bit impatient since we had planned to end the evening at 52nd floor of Park Hyatt, the infamous bar where several pivotal scenes took place in Lost in Translation, one of my all time favorite movies.
It was a bit of a hustle both getting there and getting admitted, but well worth the trouble. As soon as we entered I recognized the lamps where Bill and Scarlett sat and we found a nice table. The view of nightlit skyscrapers was magnificent and there even was a live jazz band. But no, I didn’t get involved with the female singer. Japanese whiskey was ordered as I had to say “For a relaxing time, make it Suntory time” in my best Bill Murray voice.
Today I went to Harajuku and looked for the cosplay assemble at the Jingu-bashi, but there were unfortunately not many weird people present at this hour. Strolled through the park instead and listened to street performers with their crazy fans.
After this unexpected surge of fresh air I desperately needed caffeine and found a small coffee place. Ok, I was the only gaijin in the espresso bar, so everyone was observing my every move in silent anticipation of what I would do. I ordered a macchiato but after a few minutes they gave me a cup containing a putrid green liquid. The schoolgirls giggled at me even more than usual. I first reckoned it to be a prank, but then I realized it was a “welcome cup” of green tea and my coffee arrived shortly after.
I walked along the Takeshita-dori, a street with nice alternative clothing shops which felt pretty much like Camden in London. By now I was getting used to all clerks enthusiastically shouting “Irrashaimasse!” as soon as I entered any shop, an endless chattering while dealing with my purchase and finally the “arigato gozaimashita” on my way out. Annoying in a charming way.
I spent the evening strolling aimlessly in Shinjuku before meeting the others at Yanaka-Ginza for fried oysters which tasted really odd, and ended the evening at a saké bar which featured Star Wars posters and a Johnny Depp figurine. Only in Japan…
Sayonara Japan! It’s time to leave this odd but wonderful country and go west. But we were kind of lazy and didn’t want to go back the same way by train for another six weeks, so we got to Narita airport where a Boeing 777 brought us back to Europe.
After a brief stop in Paris we finally arrived in Stockholm on a cold autumn day. Catched a subway to Söder where we stayed with a friend. A normal bed felt wonderful and between yawns I noticed that I was still on Japanese time, 08.30 am.
A long sleep and a Swedish breakfast, what else is there to wish for? Ah yes, a teleporting device perhaps. We took a subway to Stockholm’s Central Station where we embarked on the last train ride back to Gothenburg.
Suddenly I realised that I understood what people talked about for the first time in six weeks, and it was not really a pleasant experience. The final colours of the autumn trees dashed past the window as the season had come and gone without us.
We finally arrived at Gothenburg station in the afternoon, our place of departure six weeks earlier. Our backpacks were a bit more dusty this time and the shoes slightly worn out, but it was a great trip!
/ Reine the Godzilla Gaijin, 2009