After a good night in Ina, followed by a quick stroll around town in the morning, Ryan and I were picked up by Yuko and Terrance, who were to be our tour guides for the day. With them was Hester and Terry, Terrance’s parents, who also happened to be on holiday in Japan for the wedding period.
The first destination for the day was to be the famous post town of Narai-juku, a nationally-designated architectural preservation site which basically means that the town is being kept such that it looks exactly like it did back in the Edo Period (between 1603 and 1868).
During the Edo Period, Narai-jujku marked the half way point between Kyoto and Edo to travelers along the Nakasendo Route. It was the most wealthy post town of the Kiso Valley (as well as the most elevated along the route), and was sometimes referred to as “Narai of a Thousand Houses”.
(This becomes quite apparent when you look at the sheer number of preserved houses compared to other similar post towns along the route.)
The drive out there from Ina is quite scenic, the majestic wooded mountains making for landscape that isn’t something I’m familiar with, and on arrival you are greeted by a massive steam locomotive (on display), and handed a rather informative little pamphlet.
The little town (ignoring the tiny cars parked along the main road) is a fantastic look back at the architecture of the era, and there are loads of bustling curio shops stretching from start to finish of the preserved building strip.
Shrines, marker stones, wells, pretty flowers, curios – basically there was more than enough things of interest to make for a genuinely pleasant excursion.
(Also, I bought two beautiful red polished, small wooden bowls – a trademark technique of the area – which happened to be the first keepsakes that I actually bothered buying on this rather fantastic holiday believe it or not!)
Oh, and with all the new people to take photos of, I got perhaps slightly camera trigger happy:
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Oh, and we got to spot another comically endowed Tanuki garden ornament, which was by far my favourite little character on this whole trip! :)
Related Link: Narai-juku
Having enjoyed a fun evening out in Ina, Ryan and I woke up with a little bit of time to kill before we were to be picked up by Yuko and Terrance for an outing.
In other words, out we went for a short stroll around our immediate area!
Ina is of course a completely different kettle of fish compared to the big modern city of Tokyo and the culturally rich Kyoto, and as such there was of course a lot less interesting things to be seen.
Smaller buildings, more countryside, fewer landmarks – still, even out here their seeming penchant for old bronze statues of naked ladies seemed intact… :P
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Heading into our third leg of the holiday (the first being Tokyo/Yokohama, followed by Kyoto), we were now to travel to Ina, a small city in the Nagano Prefecture which is near to Komangane where the big wedding (and reason for the trip) was to be held.
Ryan’s happiness at being featured on the Hamish and Andy podcast (he had just finished taking their call), soon dissipated at the realization that he would be squashed in a bus next to me for the next couple of hours (something he was slowly but surely kind of getting used to over the duration of this trip!).
As comfortable as the bus trip was (for me, not poor squashed Ryan), it was a lengthy highway bound journey and sights or no sights, we were pretty happy when the stopover to stretch our legs happened.
(That said, neither of us wanted to risk being left behind by the bus, so we didn’t stray particularly far!)
The countryside was slowly giving way to the stunning wooded central alps region, and the last half of the highway bus trip was particularly pretty, though Ryan and I had to keep our wits about us because we needed to listen/lookout for our scheduled stop, the in the middle of nowhere Komangane IC Highway stop.
(Not that there was any reason to worry though. Just as everything had been running super smooth since the start of our trip, we didn’t muck this one up either.)
At the highway stop, Yuko and Terrance were patiently waiting for us and our luggage, and after a happy reunion, we were ferried away towards Ina, where the next adventure was to be trying to find our hidden away in the backstreets accommodation, the old Ina-chuo Hotel.
As it turned out, luckily Yuko and Terrance were on hand for the check-in, because unlike at Kyoto (where the younger staff member could actually speak a bit of English), this hotel is run by a very, very old Japanese couple – meaning that other than the occasional smile, nod, shrug, or look of confusion, Ryan and I were complete and utterly unable to communicate with our hosts!
Bags unpacked, we were then immediately whisked away to a local izakaya, with Yuko and Terrance eager for us to drink some sake and partake in some proper Japanese food – not the fast food that Ryan and I had up to now been living off of. (So sue us, neither Ryan nor I am adventurous when it comes to food, and we certainly weren’t there on a gastronomy holiday!)
[Note: An izakaya is essentially a type of informal Japanese drinking establishment that serves food to accompany the drinks, acting as casual places for after-work drinking. So kind of like a pub or tavern, but also not quite.]
A super fun, and properly authentic Japanese experience for Ryan and myself then!
Not that Yuko and Terrance were quite finished with the two of us just yet. After enjoying some food and drink, we next drove around the small Ina looking for a karaoke shop that might still be open this late on a week night.
Sadly for Ryan, they found one, and soon the four of us were belting out one bad song after the other. Ryan hated it, but I loved it. You have to karaoke when you are in Japan because they certainly seem to know how to do it!
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With that, the evening drew to a close, and Ryan and I were returned to our rather spacious (in Japanese hotel terms) room at the Ina-Chuo Hotel. The furnishings were ancient (but in working condition), and as our trip was proving, the less modern were were going, the more space we were getting.
Which I kind of liked.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m posting these photos separate from the photos taken on the walk to Nagoya TV Tower and then the photos taken at Nagoya TV Tower. Nevertheless, I do have a separate folder for these, so if you have to know, these were all taken on the long walk from Nagoya TV Tower to the Meitetsu Bus Center.
Starting from Hisaya Odori Park, Ryan and I made our way back towards the Nagoya Station area (taking a different route of course), with our goal being the Meitetsu Department Store (and Bus Center), where we would be catching a bus to Ina.
Along the way we crossed a river, saw some pretty cool buildings, and took our time walking past a Maserati dealership, kind of the last expected thing we thought we would see in Nagoya.
With time to spare, we reached the Meitetsu Building, did a spot of shop browsing (so, so many levels of high-end stores, and boy, are CDs and DVDs expensive over there!), and then took a couple of photos under the famous Nana-chan, a massive white mannequin that gets a new look every month and acts as a popular meeting spot for people in Nagoya.
Yup, and then it was time to try and figure out how to find our bus (which is tricky given the massive size of the building), all while Ryan anxiously waited on his phone call from Hamish and Andy (which apparently are a reasonably well known podcast pair?).
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If you have to know, his phone call went well. (And we found our bus.)
Related Link: Meitetsu Bus Center
Having enjoyed a scenic stroll along the streets of central Nagoya (while we were waiting for our bus transfer), we eventually reached Hisaya Odori Park where the object of our mission resides – Nagoya TV Tower.
Nagoya TV Tower is the oldest TV tower in Japan, completed in 1954 (and bearing quite the resemblance to the Eiffel Tower!). The tower is 180 metres high, and has two main observation decks at the heights of 90 metres (the indoor Sky Deck) and 100 metres (the outdoor Sky Balcony).
The tower also includes a restaurant and gallery at 30 metres.
(Neat fact: Nagoya TV Tower keeps getting destroyed in Godzilla movies. In 1964 Mothra vs. Godzilla, Godzilla beat Mothra with it, whilst in the 1992 remake, Battra took down the tower during its attack on Nagoya!)
Although obviously not nearly as high as some of the other observation decks we had already visited whilst in Japan (e.g. Tokyo Tower, Landmark Tower, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and Kyoto Tower), we still got some pretty awesome views of this pretty city – and the outdoor viewing deck was an particularly enjoyable (refreshing) experience.
As it turns out, Nagoya TV Tower also happens to be quite a popular spot for weddings and wedding photos, hence the Promise Heart:
So, with our impromptu sight seeing trip now complete, we grabbed some refreshments from a vending machine and hit the road back towards the Meitetsu Bus Center to catch our ride…
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Related Link: Nagoya TV Tower
So having stayed in Yokohama whilst visiting Tokyo, then moving on to Kyoto via bullet train, time had now come to move on to the third and final leg of our journey – a stay in Ina, a small city situated in the Nagano prefecture.
However, without a direct rail route to get there, Ryan and I was to take a shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, where we would then catch a bus and travel to the Komagane highway bus stop where we would be picked up by Terrance and Yuko and then ferried to our Ina accommodation via their car.
Eh, simple enough.
Nagoya in case you are wondering is Japan’s fourth largest city in terms of population, and with the headquarters of Toyota being situated nearby, well, you can expect a pretty well off and modern city.
Having successfully arrived at the huge train terminal via train, Ryan and I found ourselves a few hours to spare, and eager not to waste any of our time in Japan, we immediately started walking, setting our sights on the Nagoya TV Tower as a suitable destination.
Nagoya is a beautiful city, and the street that we happened to be marching down was littered with public art everywhere you looked. Beautiful sculptures, statues and architecture certainly was the order of the day.
A particularly interesting sight that we stumbled on was the Sky-Boat Ferris Wheel, which believe it or not, is attached to the side of a shopping center! (Sunshine Sakae in case you want to look it up.)
Eventually we stumbled into the pleasant Hisaya Odori Park, with the sight of the Nagoya TV Tower looming largely in front of us…
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So with a Goddess of Mercy, dolphins and trains now spotted on the day, Ryan and I next decided to take a lengthy march through to the Kyoto Municipal Zoo, passing by the massive red torii gate of the Heian-jingu shrine in the process.
Kyoto Municipal Zoo is a small 3.4-hectare zoo located in Sakyō ward, Kyoto. Established in 1903, Kyoto Municipal Zoo is the second oldest zoo in Japan, after Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.
Although facilities have been added and removed over the years, most animals are housed in concrete and steel cages constructed between 30 and almost 90 years ago – which is probably what made this one of our least favourite experiences whilst in Japan.
The zoo as mentioned is reasonably small, yet still houses quite a large variety of animals, ranging in size from big to small. Our favourite without a doubt was the cute as a button red panda, but sadly it was the bigger animals that were at the heart of our discomfort.
While South African zoos tend to be spacious with large enclosures for the animals, this zoo was the complete opposite: A lion pacing about in a tiny concrete room, an elephant stuck on a concrete slab – well, you kind of get the picture.
Look, zoos are always controversial for this very fact, but upsetting enclosures aside, we did enjoy viewing animals that we weren’t necessarily familiar though – though of course, being from South Africa meant that all their main exhibits were things that we already ARE quite familiar with!
There was a quite a few areas to explore (though some were closed due to construction), and despite my by now aching feet, it was a good little excursion.
Naturally, I didn’t take very many photos at all (fences and glass don’t usually allow for decent photos), so you’ll just have to take my word that they do in fact have around 721 animals from 175 species there!
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Once we eventually made it back to our lodgings, I put my feet up and drank beer, whilst Ryan plodded out again for the night. Seriously, the man is a walking machine I tell you!
Related Link: Kyoto Municipal Zoo
Umekoji Park is a large green space in rather crowded Kyoto, and thus quite popular with the locals. Of course, the newly built (2012) aquarium took quite a bite out of the space, but I have to say that as tourists, Ryan and I kind of enjoyed the new attraction.
Next up for us though was something a little less nature and a lot more man-made – Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum was beckoning from literally next door!
The Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum was opened in 1972 on the 100th anniversary of the start of railway operation in Japan.
At the center of the museum is a 20-track roundhouse built in 1914. It was built surrounding a turntable, and houses and exhibits the preserved locomotives. The roundhouse is an Important Cultural Property designated by the government of Japan as the oldest reinforced-concrete car shed extant in Japan.
The former Nijo Station House is the oldest wooden railway station in Japan. The station house was built in 1904 and also served as the main office for the Kyoto Railway Company, a private railway in operation at that time. In 1997 the station house was relocated to the museum site as a railway cultural asset, where it is now used as the entrance way and display hall for the museum.
Although Ryan and I didn’t hop on for the short 1 km trip in a steam locomotive, we thoroughly enjoyed browsing all the displays and artifacts in the station house museum, before moving on to the outside area to admire the 19 steam locomotives on display – all lovingly restored, cared for and in working order!
The beasts are pretty magnificent in their own right, and each with their own bit of history attached.
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That said though, I kind of forgot that steam locomotives were generally all painted black. Which means that visually, this wasn’t the most exciting of things that we had come across in Japan!
Note: Turns out that we were pretty lucky to see this after all. The museum has subsequently been closed, in the process of a major construction overhaul which will add a massive footprint and a whole lot more trains – including a couple of shinkansen (bullet trains).
From a Japanese news article:
“The opening date for one of the largest train museums in Japan has been set for April 29 2016, West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) announced Wednesday.
The Kyoto Railway Museum, being developed on a 30,000-sq.-meter site, will exhibit a total of 53 locomotives and train cars it inherited from the former Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum, which was on the same site, and the Modern Transportation Museum in Osaka, which is also closed.”
Related Link: Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum
Talk about a change of scenery. For the last couple of days Ryan and I had been taking in a lot of Kyoto’s well known ancient attractions, in other words, castles, temples and shrines, but now having both seen more than enough in this category, we decided to take a break and check out a few different attractions in this culturally rich city.
So naturally we started with an… aquarium.
Opened in March 2012 in Umekoji Park, about one kilometer west of Kyoto Station, Kyoto Aquarium is a small (compact) two-story facility that is divided into nine zones with various themes, and exhibiting a variety of aquatic animals.
Smaller than Japan’s other more famous aquariums, Kyoto Aquarium is a little unique in the fact that Kyoto itself is an inland city and nowhere near the sea!
However, surrounded by mountains on three sides, Kyoto has historically always been water rich, thanks to the abundance of rivers that flow into it, and as such, it then makes sense that Kyoto Aquarium places much emphasis on river aquatic life – in fact, it even has a rather unique outdoor river zone to explore!
There were lots of preschool groups on school outings visiting the aquarium on the day, which meant that the atmosphere was quite excitable (noisy, but in a good way) – which is probably why Ryan and I then so thoroughly enjoyed the quick but entertaining dolphin and penguin show at the aquarium’s neat little dolphin stadium.
(Confirmed, you can never not enjoy watching dolphins at play!)
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Also, I hugged a rather large salamander.
In the end, it was a nice change of pace and an enjoyable enough visit – though it did remind me once again just how much the Two Oceans Aquarium back home in Cape Town really does need a dolphin pool! Sharks aren’t nearly as entertaining…