Surely … just … one … more … activity …

After, ooh, maybe an hour of sleep on the plane for me, maybe none for Mem, some for E and a reasonable amount for C, we hit Changi Airport in a state of disrepair – fortunately the airline had sprung for a six hour stretch in a transit hotel so we could shower (wonderful) and sleep – some for Mem, about an hour for me. So of course there was only one thing to do – when the girls had slept out the six hours we had breakfast (ish) and cleared ourselves through Immigration to go to the Singapore Zoo. The day was 33° and about 85% humidity, which the cab driver described as "not a bad day" but I beg to disagree. The zoo took about four hours of walking – we handled it OK but everyone was varying shades of pink by the end, and they made some money on the water and icy pole sales from us. The zoo itself is excellent – naturalistic habitats and a fantastic collection, and a lot of chances to interact with the animals. Got back in plenty of time for dinner and even a ten dollar shower for me!

Signing off – MME&C.

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Toji Temple markets, and goodbye

While we were on the train to Kyoto lat week, we’d read excitedly of the large flea market at Toji Temple, but that was quickly dashed when we realised it’s only held one day every month. And then we realised that on the 21st, when it happens, we’d be in Osaka and just a 25 minute train ride away. So that became our plan for the last day in Japan.

It’s the largest flea market in Japan and when we got there we realised just how large. I had to get some cash and my cards were rejected, which caused a nasty moment of panic before I twigged that the ATM must have been sucked dry by the market crowds – another ATM a few blocks away was fine. The market itself was packed, imagine Salamanca market crowds, and then lay six Salamanca stall runs side by side across the vast grounds of Toji Temple. Over a thousand stalls. The air was mild but the sun was punishing, especially when you’ve only slept a few hours. The market was both mundane and great – the girls both found their hearts’ desires from before the trip began, which was a kimono (second hand yukata, ten bucks a throw) and a Japanese doll. I’d told Edie we would buy her something to match Cal’s Hello Kitty replacement – a stall had a box of secondhand dolls in traditional dress and E picked the sweetest looking one (also the largest) and Cal found a slightly more traditional one with a ceramic head and wooden body. They were asking very little anyway, but the young woman on the stall came over to see the girls ooohing at the dolls and I think took a liking to them – she had pretty much perfect English and as we chatted she fired a few questions at an older guy, her dad I think, and kept suggesting lower prices for the ones that the girls liked; eventually she gave them to us for half their already reasonable price. Mem gave her one of our wooden apples (since we are returning with most of them!) and she and her dad immediately gave us a return gift of some chopsticks and a sake jug, just cheap stall stuff but very genuine of them. It was a nice experience.

But otherwise the stalls had some intriguing bric-a-brac – either interesting and expensive, or mundane and inexpensive. I did ask about a large crab made of brass, $300, and my casual enquiry about a ceramic rabbit which I think was either a vase or an incense holder brought an amused smile from the stall holder as he wrote down ¥200 000 (i.e. $2000) – it must have been an antique, certainly looked old.

And then the train back to Osaka, corralling our unwieldy bags, and a train out to Kansai airport – the first part was a little intense because the JR direct service is also a commuter train for the first part of its journey, and the time was about 5:40, so you can guess the rest. The airport was an airport, the flight was … a flight, and I am writing this from the transit hotel in Singapore while Mem gets a headstart on a short sleep. We may get to the zoo but we’re not sure of the logistics yet.

So that’s that, we fell in love with Japan and the kids were deeply sad to go. So that must mean it was a good trip – I am too tired to know yet!

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Osaka – Kaiyukan aquarium

Just the one activity today, but a big one. It rained steadily throughout Osaka but we didn’t much care – we were in the Kaiyukan aquarium from 9:30 to 1:30. It winds down an 8 level spiral through many tanks including seals, otters, penguins, etc. as well as the expected fish and sea life. We got there at opening time and the place was immediately packed, although it eased a bit after the first hour or so. Incredibly well kept and thought out, although apart from the first level mimicking a forest, and some well done rock settings for most of the tanks, it wasn’t quite as imaginative as Darling Harbour. Against that, the sheer variety and scale was incredible. Mem and I had foregone coffee to get us there on time so the first two hours until we reached the (terrible) cafe were a little testing, although we were kind to each other. The girls were enraptured – Edie had longer stamina than Cal, but they were both fizzing with excitement for most of the day, clicking their cameras and getting as close as they could to pretty much every individual animal there. At one point I said to Edie, "pretty good, huh?" and she spun around – "are you KIDDING dad? It’s AWESOME!" I think it made up for the shrine of a thousand gates.

Mostly flopping around the hotel room for the girls’ afternoon, and a bit of local shop exploration for Mem and I in little bursts. We are both very tired but can’t pass up the chance to look around another corner or find another oddity. Osaka is just crammed with life and unashamedly rough around the edges, it’s a really exciting city.

Gearing ourselves for the return trip – emotional to leave and physically punishing to do so, I expect. We are back into Kyoto tomorrow morning to catch the Toji Temple markets – only half an hour each way. That’s all we have planned before heading to Kansai Airport for our … 11:50pm flight. Won’t that be nice?

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Despite another train leg, we had a really fun day today. Mem and I nipped out early for a look at Hiroshima Castle, with the young ladies asleep in the room – we returned with breakfast and hit the day. Sad to leave Hiroshima, it’s such a bustling and unpretentious place.

Shinkansen Sakura 546 at 11ish took us to Shin-Osaka then on to Osaka Station, right next to our hotel. Unusually we had a plan of what to do, so we headed out to Tamma station and I took the young ladies to Kids’ World Osaka which was a great fun activity place and a nice change from the less kid-exciting stuff they have to do with us. They had a ball for a couple of hours, including a mock TV broadcast and lots of sciency and dressup activities. I sent Mem into the nearby shopping district which was enjoyable but a little cheap and tatty. On the way back we decided to skip the hotel and headed straight down to Shinsaibashi district which is a little jumble of shops, bars and restaurants, by far the coolest little bit of any place we’ve been, and as the evening came on it changed from its day personality to something more noir. We found a nice ramen restaurant which did slices of roast pork and rice – the kids were delighted – so Mem and I could grab a nice feed as well. It was a great end to an unexpectedly light and entertaining day.

Tomorrow, the mighty Kaiyukan aquarium and who knows what we’ll have energy for after that.

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Day began rather abruptly with me hustling everyone up and out the door by 7:30 – hurrying to catch the 8:47 high tide at Miyajima so that we could see the torii gate "floating" in the ocean. The tram obliged by getting held up near the station (my first ever "tram jam") so we hurried on foot and caught the later train, worrying that it would wash out and we would miss the sight, inched down to Miyajimaguchi, hurried across for the JR ferry, chugged across the water – nearly half an hour late for high tide – and it was still in the water. An hour later, it was still in the water. Two hours later, even. And three hours later. Oh how we laughed about getting up that early.

The island itself is touristy, fun and quite lovely in an odd mix. The standover tactics of the deer set to strip everything edible from your person are quite in-your-face (literally) and although the place is full of shops and souvenirs, they have a bit of an unsophisticated feel and the prices are not the usual gouging of such places. We omitted the shrine due to recently diagnosed shrine fatigue, although Mem and I did sneak away to a Zen temple while the girls reviewed their purchases sitting on the steps. Cal and I also had a look at Senjojaku, the thousand-mat-hall, started but not completed by a wealthy landowner, and populated by an enormous collection of inscribed rice ladles which apparently stem from some lame pun made by a soldier stationed there a century ago.

Our day was punctuated by a group of senior high school girls on a day trip, who’d been on the train with us down to Miyajimaguchi and fell in love with Edie and Cal. One had lived in Adelaide and had perfect English with a very familiar accent – we bumped into them several times which triggered explosions of waving at E and C, who are a little weary of being conspicuous and weren’t quite into it as much. They also interviewed Mem a couple of times as part of their school assignment. At low tide (apparently it does happen eventually) they were down on the sand with us and insisted on a group photo, it was pretty cool and we felt like minor celebrities. Ate some momiji manju maple leaf cakes, had a quick walk in the forests and before we knew it 3/4 of the day was gone, it’s a lovely place. Got back to the city in the later afternoon and tried a couple of underwhelming trips to secondhand shops, interesting but nothing worth picking up.

And saving the best to last – Miyajima, of all places, has a small dedicated Hello Kitty shop and it was there that the dreadful wrong of Hello Kitty’s loss was made partially good. She has returned with a slightly new furstyle and clad in the finery of her native country. We are all very pleased for Cal – the cat is back.

Have also enjoyed copious e-mail and photos from our housesitters who seem to be loving Hobart’s charms – while we are all away!

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On to Hiroshima

A double shinkansen to Hiroshima passed quite boringly, flicking in and out of tunnels past template light-industrial Japanese towns. Hotel was trickier to reach but well worth it, lovely room and a great view north. Gave the girls some crash time while we scouted for lunch, the city feels unpretentious and easygoing and we like it. Walked by the river under a bridge, not realising it was the Aioi bridge until we rounded the bend and saw the A-bomb dome, a bit of a shock although we were expecting to reach it. Decided to go through the memorial museum and warned the girls against some of the more confronting things, but as always it’s the small things which bring it home to you and I had to spend a little time to one side – I know the morality is complex but the individual suffering was something I had trouble contemplating. The girls were interested (E) and tired but somewhat interested (C) – fortunately E already knew the story of Sadako but she spent a long time at the exhibit reading the information and looking at the photos. I don’t think she was badly upset but there was a lot going on in her mind.

Walked straight into the city for dinner and found a casual place which served interesting things to Mem and I, and thank the gods, chips and rice for the young degustants, an easy and tasty meal for all. Early night, we have to hit the tram at 7:30 for a train-ferry connection to Miyajima for high tide.

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Kyoto, surely not another shrine

Not our best planned day and it rather showed. Gave the girls a very long leisurely morning in bed for a battery recharge, Mem and I scouted for breakfast stuff, an entertaining supermarket trip, and brought it up to the two princesses. Thought we would just wing it for the day’s plans (always a wise choice in a city you don’t know whose language you can’t read or speak) and I had thought I might like a quick look at Fushimi Inari shrine, supposed to have a thousand torii gates, interesting. Five minutes south on the Nara local line, out the station gate and across the street, should take a minute. As we explored into it, it gradually dawned on me that if you make a ten foot torii with telephone pole sized timbers, a thousand of them lined up is going to run quite a long distance, and run it did, up the side of a steep mountain and in a loop over the summit. The painted guide boards all looked reassuring – 15 minutes, 32 minutes, etc – but it became quite a punishingly hard climb through an endless time tunnel of orange. What was I thinking? The girls are pretty battle-hardened by now, and trotted with us as we went for one more station after another, sustained by the promise of ice cream and occasional appearances by feral cats who live all over the mountain. They are scrappy creatures but semi-friendly – one hungry young one was persuaded to eat a blob of Cal’s ice cream which seemed to make his/her day.

By the time we were done the only sane thing was to board the cute green train and get our crack hiking team back to their room for a break and yet another late lunch. Dinner? Let’s not talk about dinner, we decided to let the girls choose an Italian place for more familiar options. We were the only ones there. I know Kyoto is a brilliant place for food, but it’s not a brilliant place for kid options – in fact I think as a city it could be magical for anyone over 20, but is a bit austere or refined for young adventurers.

Tomorrow we’re booked for a two-shinkansen run to Hiroshima, still debating whether the horrors depicted in the memorials will inform or traumatise the girls. Ordinarily I would have confidence in our ability to put things in context and make the emotions meaningful, but these two feel a long way from home at the moment and the time may not be right to explain why one group of people would choose to obliterate another. Miyajima will be fun as long as I conceal the fact that Itsukushima and its famous torii are yes, another shrine. It’s become a bit of a loaded word.

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Arashiyama / Kokedera

Today was a day we had planned for a long time – having written to the monks of Kokedera temple months ago to ask if we could visit their moss garden Saiho-ji, and receiving an invitation card in the mail. We decided to make a day of it by heading west to Arashiyama, a small town on the western outskirts of Kyoto which is a popular tourist spot. From the station we walked to the bamboo forests and Tenryu-ji, one of Kyoto’s greatest and oldest temples, with a wonderful garden including a small area thought to be the oldest garden in Japan. The bamboo forests were quite amazing, although overrun with people walking the road, punctuated by taxis driving among the crowds. Serene, not so much.

With some planning and some luck we found the local bus from Arashiyama to Kokedera and took a short ride to the temple with time to spare for our 1pm appointment. We walked up the roads behind the temple and Mem found a track leading into another enormous bamboo forest, a short walk in the rain with nobody else at all, and it was incredible, far surpassed the earlier trail. Time wasn’t on our side so we headed back to Kokedera, where a friendly man in a suit inspected our invitation, asked the girls’ ages and immediately docked our entrance fee by half. They were the only kids there – but they sat with us on the tatami floor and wrote kanji sutras by tracing the intricate outlines given on a paper sheet using traditional block ink and a tiny writing brush. Both girls did a wonderful job and were interested by the monks chanting (which fascinated Mem and I, sonorous recitation punctuated by bells and gongs, a steady drum meter adding to the hypnotic effect). The girls’ sutras looked like lovely renderings of the shapes on the paper – mine looked like an insect had partly drowned in ink and spent some time thrashing about trying to recover. E was quite disappointed to leave the kanji because she was loving it – but we wrote our own prayers on the paper, took them to the low table, bowed and then entered the garden. It was raining lightly but steadily, but when it’s a moss garden viewing it in the rain is a plus, not a drawback. It was as lovely as we’d hoped, and even the dozens of other people present didn’t spoil the magic. I think I wore out the shutter button on my camera.

After the girls had been such good sports – and I mean incredibly good, not a murmur of complaint about the complex travel, sober ceremony or even the sanity of walking slowly around a damp garden in the rain – we decided to follow Uncle Dean’s recommendation of a trip to the monkeys. A solid hike up 150m of mountain height led to a fairly average looking caged building – but the cage was for us, so we could feed the monkeys from within, who were otherwise roaming the park freely. Aside from a couple of moments of unease (these guys are pretty large, move very fast and get cranky quite a lot) the girls were entranced, and happily fed peanuts and apple chunks to the panhandling monkeys through the wire. Very very exciting and a couple of keepsake soft toys completed the grand slam. Train back was quite full and we didn’t get to sit down – a rest at the hotel before heading out for some very tasty ramen wasn’t quite enough, and we hurried back through the now pelting rain to get Edie to bed, while Callie nailed a small tub of chocolate brownie ice-cream, crowned her favourite there and then. I have no idea where the girls get their zing from but am beginning to notice it correlates quite closely with ice cream consumption.

Quiet day tomorrow I think. But this was a great one.

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Lost in Kyoto

Yesterday was a bit of a mess with a couple of less-exciting destinations and poor transport choices, so we reached the end of the day completely worn out and not much in the mood for happy snaps! Went to Heian shrine where I had for some reason believed there were many turtles in the garden ponds – instead we saw the shrine itself followed by a rather expensive entrance (more than Kenroku-en) to a fairly average garden, with exactly three turtles in the ponds. Would have been OK except that there were beautiful sections with stone bridges and paths through trees, maybe 1/3 of the garden, simply marked "No Entry". It was odd.

Decided unwisely to walk to see some of the other shrines and temples nearby – first one was a winner, a Shinto shrine to rabbits which was charming and included a girl bringing her actual rabbit there to pray. Followed by a long, confused walk to a beautiful Buddhist temple and then a walk through a large area including an enormous cemetery and several other temples – got ourselves quite thoroughly lost for a bit (thanks Google Maps and Apple Maps). Escaped the maze and made our way back to the stop for the "Raku" sightseeing bus route, which on the way out had been merely crowded, but which on the way pack was like a Guinness record attempt for the number of people in a bus shaped space. At least the girls got a seat for the latter half of the long trip. We were all pretty dead (I’d had 4 hours’ sleep) and it was very slow, stopping several times for people to wedge themselves in and fight their way off. Also had to stop for a Shinto procession carrying a shrine so perhaps it was a significant day. Fell off at the other end, regrouped with another late lunch and after a rest decided to go to the local toy shop which was a bit unexciting, and a pet store which included kittens up to $3500 and a puppy which was about $5800 – unbelievable, perhaps there is expensive registration included in the price, but it’s not a casual undertaking it seems. Dinner was an unimaginative revisit to the teppanyaki place to short-circuit a lengthy decision.

Today, Arashiyama and the moss garden of Saiho-ji – wish us luck, and reasonable weather!

I should say that all our updates are a mix of photos taken by the whole family, in case I gave the impression they were all mine! Edie has really taken to her camera in particular. We’ve shot 1600 pictures to far, so it may be best to avoid dinner invitations for a month or so after we return.

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A pleasant goodbye to Kanazawa and an easy train to Kyoto, but it was 2pm by the time we sorted out our hotel (which is excellent) and the day was looking like a bit of a bust. Fortunately a couple of stations up the Sagano line is Nijo, where there is a still-intact 400 year old castle used by the Tokugawa shoguns and then the first Meiji emperor – we were able to walk the "nightingale passages" around the entire castle and look in on the stunning interior rooms with their original decorations. The huge cedar floor slabs are built to chirp musically when walked on, so you couldn’t sneak through the corridors and surprise the shogun. And it still works four centuries later. The interior was incredible, every detail crafted to perfection. The gardens behind the gargantuan stone walls were simple and beautiful. A really special place to visit despite the crowds of a Sunday afternoon.

We had eaten late so after a bit of a rest in the hotel we headed down toward the station about 8 and finally hit the food jackpot, a busy teppanyaki grill which made pizza-topped potato slices for the girls, and a range of Kyoto specialties for Mem and I. The staff were laidback and friendly and beamed at my hilariously bad Japanese, the food was divine and the local beer was very tasty. The girls loved watching the teppanyaki chefs doing their stuff as well. So it turned out to be a great day. 4 nights in Kyoto and thus far we love it.

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