Interlude

I’m visiting Japan again! In a little under two weeks!

Planning for this trip started way back in June, actually, because Qantas suddenly had a sale for flights to Japan. With a family holiday for this year looking a little unlikely due to difficulties in scheduling time off four all four of us at once, I decided instead to head off to visit Japan on my own again, in a semi-impulse buy – semi-impulse in that I only had three days to buy the tickets while the Qantas sale was still on, but though I still have a huge list of things I’d like to do in Japan, I wasn’t even in the beginning stages of planning out another trip, so it wound up being a case of snap up the tickets now, and plan the trip later. And after consultation with the boss at work, I basically had a choice between going basically almost immediately – which is to say, in the July-August range – or going in October. And considering I’ve done August in Japan already, I decided October would be a new experience for me. Plus, as an added bonus, the Tokyo Metro Underground Mysteries starts in October.

(Side note, the Qantas sale included business class flights for only twice what James and I paid (each) for our economy class tickets for the last trip, so I was sorely tempted to fly business… except that by the time I’d cleared things with work, all the business tickets for October had been sold. Sad face.)

So, I picked some cheap dates, and booked the flights in practically no time at all. Easily the furthest in advance I’ve bought tickets for any of my holidays, I’d say. With that done, I intended to sit and think over the itinerary for a while. My biggest thought was that considering it’s early Autumn in Japan, I could head to the northern end of the country and enjoy the Autumn leaves, a popular autumnal pastime in Japan… until the moment I started idly penciling in some things that looked interesting, and discovered the place I considered visiting first actually had a major event in the very weekend I arrived – an event I had, up until that moment, thought took place in summer. And then I discovered another event was taking place in a different nearby town the following weekend. And suddenly it turned into a frenzied rush of booking hotels in case these events are popular and the hotels book out, and then I thought I might as well fill in the gaps, and then suddenly everything had been decided and booked before the end of July (aside from my JR Pass and travel SIM, which could only be ordered at most two months prior to the departure date).

In some ways, getting everything worked out so far in advance was a mistake, because I then basically spent all of my waking hours endlessly rehearsing every planned activity in my head, fretting about weather, and travel times and timetables, and whether I’d scheduled too much into every single day like I did back in December 2017. But on the flip side, booking so far in advance turned out to be beneficial when I discovered that the event I’m attending during my first weekend in Japan has reserved sitting areas, and tickets could only be reserved by calling the organisers on the phone on September 7th. So then I got to spend a few weeks fretting about having to hold a phone conversation in Japanese where I had to convey some fairly precise information, and receive other information back.

In the end, it went off without too much of a hitch (aside from one confusing moment when I thought the woman on the phone was asking for my e-mail address, but she was actually trying to give me theirs), and with the aid of an acquaintance in Japan to make the payment  for me, it’s all confirmed – I received my seating allocation last weekend. So now I can stop fretting about organising stuff, right? Right?

But in any case, before I head off for my next trip, I’d like to wrap up my last one with my usual list of stats and fun facts. I actually don’t know if anyone else finds this sort of thing interesting, but I’ve often consulted this data for my other trips whenever someone wants to know things like how much your typical visit to Japan costs, so it can be kinda useful to know. I’d like to include extra informative general tips and suggestions, but honestly nothing at all is coming to mind…

So, here goes:

  • Posts:
    • Total length: 48 A4 pages (without photos); 27,671 words; 154,474 characters. About three-quarters the length of the blog from 2017
    • Average per post: 3.2 pages; 1844.7 words; 10,298.3 characters
    • Longest post: Day 6, the day we went over the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route. 5.5 pages, 3253 words; 17,936 characters. Most of the rest of the posts were actually quite close to the average length.
  • Money:
    • Turns out the Qantas card only retains statements for the last twelve months – to get older statements, you need to call up and ask for them, and those statements represent the information a bit differently. So, I’m not sure how much I had loaded on the card when I started the trip, but in total, I spent 196,353 yen. A bit less than last time. Again, this includes hotels, spending money, non-JR Pass travel and so forth, but not airfares or the JR Pass.
    • Hotels account for almost precisely half that – 96,866 yen (by comparison, half of my total expenditure is 98,176.5 yen), for an average of 6926 yen per night. Well, ish. To be precise, this is what I spent on all of our Toyoko Inn stays for both of us – I did the booking and the payment, since I had a membership card. When it came to our ryokan in Kyoto, though, James paid for that, as they’d only take cash, and he happened to have a lot of it on hand. He also paid for our meal at Ninja Akasaka, the only meal where we didn’t pay separately, and when we added those figures up, it came out to be almost the same as what I spent for the Toyoko Inn stays – just 4000 yen (or about $50 Australian) separated the figures, so I gave him 2000 yen and we called it even. (The Kyoto ryokan, incidentally, cost 77,760 yen for two nights, which is more than our three most expensive Toyoko Inns added together, which collectively represent eight nights. But hey, it was pretty luxurious. If I’ve done my sums correctly, the Toyoko Inns cost on average 4036 yen per night for each of us, while the Kyoto ryokan was 19,400 yen per night.)
    • Spending money and souvenirs were the other half, or 99,487 yen, or 6632 yen per day – precisely 100 yen per day less than December 2017. That said, the Kobe beef dinner cost almost one-sixth of the total all on its own, and if you take that out, the average per day drops to 5591 yen.
  • Photos:
    • Total: 8558. About two-thirds of what I took last trip. I guess the fact that I’m not alone acts as a mitigating influence on my rampant photo-taking?
    • Average: 570.5 per day
    • Most photographic day: Day 9, with 899, when we visited Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei, in Kyoto
  • Steps:
    • 238,326 steps, for 172.2 km, only about 12km less than last trip. 72.25 cm per step – one wonders how the Health app calculates it.
    • Average: 15,888.4, or 11.48 km, per day
    • Most steppish day: Day 12, when we strolled around half of Osaka, with 22,347 steps or 15.5 km
  • Goshuin:
    • Total: 26 – four fewer than last trip
    • Average: 1.73 per day
    • Most goshuinicious day: Day 9 (Enryaki-ji, again) by a fair margin.
  • Stamps:
    • Total: 56 – one fewer than last trip
    • Average: 3.73 stamps per day (one day fewer, see)
    • Most stampinominal day: Day 6 – Tateyame-Kurobe Alpine Route day – with 16
  • Manhole Cards:
    • Total: 3
    • Average: 0.2 per day
    • Most cardular day: Well… there’s a three-way tie, on the only three days I got cards, days 1, 4 and 15.

Welp. See you here again in ten days. I leave for my next trip on October 11th.

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Day 15–Airline Meals

Pretty much everything in Japan has a mascot of some description. Companies, monuments, cities, even entire prefectures. I find they seem to fall into two categories: cute girls, and cute blobs. The “cute girls” category is basically anime-style anthropomorphised representations of the thing that they’re the mascot of (the OS-tan girls that went around the internet a few years ago are the perfect example of this – they were fanart rather than official mascots, to be precise, but the principle is the same), while the “cute blobs” category is basically… a cute blob, with a face (Kumamon, who’s currently going around the internet, is the perfect example of this – he’s Kumamoto Prefecture’s mascot). I find that cute girls are more often used by entities that would advertise on TV or in print (like this, for example), while cute blobs more often as a guy in a costume in the real world (like this). We’ve encountered several of both examples over the course of our trips – I mentioned Koya-kun in Koya-san on our first trip, and Hikonyan in Hikone back in December – but today we met Chiba-kun (a pun on Chiba-ken, “Chiba Prefecture” in Japanese). He’s a big red dog, because the shape of Chiba Prefecture on a map just happens to resemble a dog in profile, standing on its hind legs.

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Chiba City is the capital and most populous city in Chiba Prefecture, part of the Greater Tokyo Area. It curiously doesn’t appear to be a dormitory city for Tokyo to the same extent as Yokohama is, despite being just 40km from the city centre. It’s home to Chiba Port, one of the largest sea ports in the nation, and Futa, a red panda who became an internet sensation by standing on its hind legs for up to ten seconds at a time. Also, Narita Airport is found in Chiba Prefecture, which is why we decided to stay here for this portion of our trip.

So, once again we started with breakfast, then it was sadly time to do our final pack up and check out. We left our suitcases at the hotel, though, because we still had most of the day to do some sightseeing.

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I mentioned during my brief visit here last December that the Chiba Urban Monorail appeared to be running at stamp rally to encourage visitors to travel the monorail and see the sights of Chiba, accompanied by a booklet illustrated by Swedish manga writer Åsa Ekström, so today that’s exactly what we decided to do. And, spoiler alert, this wound up being a really good plan, because each of our stops for a stamp resulted in an extremely pleasant surprise.

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Since our JR Passes expired yesterday, there was no waste in spending all day on a private line, so we purchased a day pass and hopped aboard. (The day pass was actually pretty good value for money – cost us less than a trip to the end of the line and back.) Aside from the stamp at Chiba Station, there were four other stamps to acquire, and we had about five hours in which to do it, so we decided to head for the furthest one first. Though before we did that, we first decided to head right for the end of the line, just because we could. Hopped off and admired the station, then hopped back on again.

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Our first stop was two stops back down the line, and then a fifteen-minute walk away – the Kasori Shell Mounds. Shell mounds are prehistoric midden heaps (which is to say, ancient rubbish dumps) consisting primarily of discarded shells. They exist all around the world – including in Australia – but the ones in Japan were the first to be discovered, and they seem to be the most numerous. The Kasori Shell Mounds are generally regarded as the largest in the world – they date from the Jomon Period, the earliest named period in Japanese prehistory, which covers the time from around 14,000 to 300 BC. (The name “Jomon” means “cord-marked” from a characteristic style from that period of decorating pottery by rolling ropes around it while still soft.)

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As we approached, we found class groups of elementary school students walking away, and when we reached the Shell Mounds Museum building on the site, we found volunteer museum guides giving hands-on demonstrations to students of how to start a fire with a bow drill. When the demonstration was done, we were asked if we’d like to have a try too, and they were very excited to have us do so, taking photos of us to put on their website. (I’ve thus far not been able to find exactly where those photos were posted, though, if it’s even been done yet. One of them gave us his card so that we could find the site, but rather than a URL, it’s just got a search keywords.) One guide even told us (in English) “you’ve made my day”. We were, incidentally, both successful at starting fire, so now we’ll be able to survive in the wild.

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Once we’d thanked the guides (and they’d thanked us), we headed inside the museum for a bit of stickybeak, finding the stamp for the monorail stamp rally at the back of the room. It was pretty much all in Japanese, so we mostly just glanced at the pictures. One part had a demonstration of how the Jomon-style patterned pottery was made, and how different styles of cord wrapping produced different patterns. We picked up some flyers at the museum, and after we’d left, I realised that one of them said that the museum cost “a small entrance fee” whoops.

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We then headed to look at the shell mounds themselves. The southern mound has a channel dug through the middle for archaeological investigation, and then roofed over so that visitors can walk through and see the layers of shells and dirt in cross section. At least, that was the theory – James thought the actual shells we could see were a fake veneer, but I wasn’t so sure.

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Though the site had another mound to look at, and a reconstruction of an Edo period house, we decided it was time to move to our next destination, since we were on the  clock, so we headed back to the monorail station. I found it a little weird how being inside the station felt just like being inside any other station, even though it was basically a big room suspended on pillars over a roadway. This monorail has so much infrastructure – as I mentioned last time, it’s the world’s longest suspended monorail. It’s really useful, but I can only imagine the fuss they’d make in Sydney if anyone tried to install something similar, especially considering the fuss that got made over the dinky little one we used to have.

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In any case, the next stamp was at Chiba Park, most of the way back towards Chiba Station. We hopped off the monorail and headed inside, walking down to the lakeside Renge-tei pavilion where the stamp would be. It was a very nice lake, and accessing the pavilion was done by walking along board walks over ponds by the lake – and one of the ponds had a duck leading a whole series of little ducklings.

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We stopped there to take photos for a while, then went for a stroll around the lake, stopping briefly to visit Genshima Shrine nearby. It had a line of torii gates, though I don’t think it’s an Inari shrine.

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Back at the monorail, we headed for the opposite end of the line, at Chiba Port Park. Chiba Port Park is kinda like Darling Harbour – formerly a shipping port, now a place for a day out. Complete with a pier for cruise ships, though there was no ship in port today. Also nearby is the Chiba Port Tower, a 125 metre tall tower with an observation deck at the top, which might have been nice to visit if we’d had more time. The stamp was located in the K’s Harbour building (think Darling Harbour’s Harbourside, though a fair bit smaller).

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We decided to stop for lunch at Pier One, a restaurant in K’s Harbour (one explicitly mentioned in the stamp rally booklet), and were expecting fancy restaurant prices, only to discover that mains cost in the range of 1000 yen each (about $12 AUD), and came with free salad bar and drinks. I mean, it sure looked like a fancy restaurant, with a high ceiling, and private booths on the second floor, and a multi-storey fish tank covering one wall, but it was so incredibly affordable. James and I both had beef stew in a bread bowl (though James later confessed it might have been better to have seafood in a seaside restaurant) and got salad and drinks – James had Butterfly Pea tea (it’s blue!), while I had a drink called “Real Gold”, and I’ve still no idea quite what flavour it was (certainly not the flavour I was expecting from the colour, which was… well, gold).

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Running a little short on time, we headed to our fourth and final stop, at the far end of the monorail’s branch line – specifically, the Chiba City Folk Museum, built in a reconstruction of Chiba Castle, which used to exist at the site. Another castle-outside-museum-inside thing, like Osaka Castle, though I guess since I was expecting it this time, it wasn’t too bad. We didn’t have much time to do more than catch the lift to the top floor and admire the view, sadly.

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While the stamp I was after was located inside the castle, it was actually also available at the Inohana-tei teahouse next to where we’d entered the grounds, and when I stamped my booklet, the shopkeeper came out and gave me my reward for collecting all the stamps – a plastic document wallet with Åsa on the front and the monorail mascots on the back. I’d been thinking I’d have to go back to the tourist information centre and Chiba Station for that. He was quite impressed I’d come all the way from Australia.

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We headed two stops back up the branch line to return to our hotel (since the branch line actually wraps right around the block where our hotel is located), grabbed our luggage, and continued on towards Chiba Station. I stopped by the tourist information centre all the same – because there’s a manhole card available here. Turns out the specific manhole cover depicted on the card is actually located at Chiba Shrine, where we’d gone the other day, but we didn’t really have time to go and revisit.

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Back at Chiba Station, we hopped onto the Narita Line train for Narita Airport – without our JR Passes, booking a Narita Express would cost a fair bit more. It wasn’t too bad a ride on the regular train, though I did wind up standing for much of the trip. Most people got off at Narita Station, meaning I could sit for the last little bit.

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Arriving at Narita Terminal 2-3 Station, I attempted to leave, and discovered my Suica card had insufficient credit left. Went to a top-up machine and discovered that I was all of twenty yen short. Twenty whole yen. Well, eighteen actually, but the machine rounded it up to twenty.

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Narita Airport has a whole bank of capsule toy dispenser machines (i.e. they dispense little toys inside round plastic capsules, kinda like a Kinder Surprise toy but with better quality and no chocolate egg) to help people use up excess coinage – they’re incredibly popular over here, and in some places we saw entire shops filled with row after row of them – the name for them here is “gachapon”, which is onomatopoeia for the sound it makes when you use it (something like “clatter-clunk”). I decided to get one for the experience, but none of them contained things that particularly excited me, so I wound up getting one which contained a wooden puzzle.

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Then we headed upstairs to check in, arriving just before the lines opened up to find a large queue already waiting. Checking in went off without a hitch, though. Then we went to browse the shops for a while, and checked out the outside observation decks, before heading through security.

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During planning, I discovered a friend of mine would be landing in Narita for her own holiday literally an hour and a half before our flight took off – on closer inspection, we’d even be passing through adjacent gates. I’d hoped we’d have enough overlap time that we could meet up in the main concourse, but the big screens were already telling me I should be heading for the gate before her flight even landed. Instead, I found a place on the connecting passage (where the people mover used to run) where I had a clear view through the window at the people coming off arriving planes, and waited for her.

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Soon, she appeared. The glass between us was completely soundproof, so we wound up pulling out our phones and connecting with a Facebook Messenger audio call, and let me tell you, that was an absolutely surreal experience. If for no other reason than that although we could see each other’s lips moving in real-time, there was delay of about a second or two before we could hear the sound over our phones. We felt like we were in a prison talking to an inmate, though we couldn’t quite decide which of us was the visitor and which was the inmate.

Before too long, it was time for me to head for my gate and her to head for the real world, so we decided to part ways. At the gate, James and I were given new boarding passes – at the seats we’d booked, one of the screens wasn’t working, so they were going to swap us with the passenger seated alone on the other side of the plane, but they hadn’t checked with her if that was all right at the time we’d checked in.

And then we boarded. We were sitting in the very first row of economy class – originally, I’d booked the last row in the forward economy section, as that’s all that was available when I booked the tickets (and so that we could recline without fear of hitting someone behind us, but when I checked again the other day, it seemed more seats had become available. They weren’t too bad – kinda like exit row seats, but with not so much leg room.

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They served dinner after we took off – I had pasta – then we settled down to sleep. Or at least attempt to. I slept about as well as I usually do on planes – which is to say, not at all – so I watched a few movies instead. I wasn’t able to find anything new that I’d been wanting to watch, so I re-watched Mad Max: Fury Road and then Star Wars: The Last Jedi, before noticing Wonder. They served us a breakfast of a muffin and a tray of fruit before landing – James commented it was practically the first fruit we’d eaten all holiday (aside from strawberries or banana slices being used as garnishes).

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Soon, we were landing at Melbourne Airport. Oh yes, we flew home via Melbourne, incidentally. We collected our luggage so we could go through customs (no issues) then had to go re-check it. I decided pop out en route for a photo, and discovered it was cold enough to see my breath – I actually don’t remember ever seeing my breath in Japan, even in the snow on the Alpine Route, though I confess I wasn’t really looking for it.

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We pulled our Japan-Melbourne luggage tags off our suitcases ready for the new tags to add, only to realise the tags were actually for Japan-Sydney-via-Melbourne, and the machine wouldn’t let us print new ones, so we had to get an attendant to print them out for us.

Bags deposited, we headed for our new gate. For our domestic leg, we were in the second row of economy class. I decided to re-watch Rogue One (on the iPad Qantas app), but somehow actually managed to doze off while we were taxiing, waking up in the air. They served us a snack. Only managed to get half the movie watched before we were already landing in Sydney (we approached from the north, for some reason, so we got a nice view across the CBD).

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After a walk of about half a kilometre to reach the express pickup zone, James’ girlfriend gave me a lift home. At the Tim Tam I’d picked up on the plane to Japan (and carried everywhere in my camera bag since) while waiting. And the holiday was over.

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I spent Saturday forcing myself to stay awake so I could get to sleep at usual bedtime, and aside from dozing off a few times, I managed to do it. By now I already feel adjusted to Sydney time again.

Not sure when I’ll visit Japan again. Soon, I hope. Much sooner than another seven and a half years, for sure.

Today’s photo count: Five hundred and eighty (includes the photos taken Saturday and Sunday)

Today’s pedometer count: 15,139 steps, for 10.8km (does not include steps taken on Saturday or Sunday)

Today’s goshuin count: None

Today’s stamp count: Aside from the stamp rally stamps, which I stamped in my book all on one page (as well as in the special booklet), I got four – two at the Kasori Shell Mounds (one of which I over-inked), Chiba Castle, and Narita Airport. And it just now occurred to me I never checked if the JR Chiba Station had a stamp…

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Day 14–Ninja-Style Shabu-Shabu

We returned to the hotel quite late tonight, so photos will have to wait. Quite possibly a couple of days, since we fly home tomorrow night. (So soon!)

Subway stations in Tokyo (and, for that matter, other cities too) have long been identified by a code – a letter representing the train line it’s on, and a number for how many stations since the start of the line. For the aid of tourists, JR East in Tokyo – along with the minor private lines who weren’t already using numbers – also started using station codes starting from August 2016 – you can tell that it’s for tourists because the station code’s aren’t included in the Japanese “next station” announcements on trains, only the English announcements.

For the JR lines, the codes have two letters, a J (for JR) then a unique letter identifying the line, which is usually the first letter of the line name, but sometimes getting the right letter is as tricky as getting the two-letter US state codes.  For example, the Yokohama loop line is JY. The Yokosuka Line is JO, because the Y has already been used (the Sobu Line shares the same code, since it’s connected through Toyko Station). The Yokohama Line winds up being JH (because JK is already the Keihin-Tohoku Line). The poor Tsurumi Line is JI, because every previous letter has been used (JT = Tokaido Line, JS = Shonan-Shinkuku Line, JU = Utsunomiya Line, JR = Japan Rail, the company, and JM = Musashino Line).

The Sagami Line, which we took way back on Day 3, doesn’t have letter codes at all, as with a number of other lines not actually in Tokyo Prefecture. Yet, I suppose. Neither does it have English announcements. It’s a fairly minor semi-rural line, mind. Single-tracked most of the way.

But I digress. Today we started with breakfast – the breakfast room here is a little bit more modest than some of our previous hotels.

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Then we headed out for sightseeing. Today was our only day this trip that we’re actually spending in the Special 23 Wards of Tokyo – Mount Takao, from Day 3, is in the City of Hachioji in Tokyo Prefecture, and we had a brief visit to Tokyo Station on Day 4, but today’s the only day we actually spent all day sightseeing in the city.

Though first we started by heading the wrong way – in the scramble to find the right platform and get on the train, I neglected to read the destination board as closely as I ought, and we managed to board just in time for the train to pull out the wrong way. At the next station, the train we needed to catch back pulled out just as we pulled in, so we had to wait for the next one. Back Chiba once more, we hopped onto the Soba Line (Rapid) for Tokyo, changing to the Sobu Line (Local) a few stops before so we could go direct to our first sightseeing destination: Akihabara.

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I mentioned on Day 2 that Nokogiriyama was the first time I’d returned to a place I’d already visited in Japan, but apparently I’d clean forgotten that I visited Akihabara in both of my previous two trips. Today I made it three-for-three. I can’t seem to help it – Akihabara is just the quintessential Japan; nothing even remotely similar exists in Australia.

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First thing first, we headed to a place called Takemura for some morning tea. I visited this place on my last trip, but on that particular day it happened to be closed – it was open today. To recap, Takemura, a traditional Japanese sweets shop, in a traditional Japanese building. Mostly I’d heard of this place because it serves as the home of the main character in an anime series called Love Live, but once I’d seen it, I knew I had to visit it anyway.

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I’d heard it’s usually completely packed by fans of Love Live, but I guess the fuss has died down a bit, because besides us and another trio of visitors, the place was empty. I decided to have kuzumochi – mochi covered with brown sugar syrup and roast soybean flour – while James had shiruko – mochi in red bean soup. Quite tasty. We also got a kind of tea made from a pickled sakura flower. And also regular tea.

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Then we headed back to Akihabara. Mostly we wanted to go shopping for a bit, so we parted ways to wander around on our own. I went to get a t-shirt I’d seen on my last visit but didn’t buy for some reason, then popped into a bookshop for some manga magazines. Then I tried to find a figurine – I don’t usually do figurines, but this one was a really cute one of a character in a series I quite enjoyed recently, so I thought I’d have a look at it. I asked at three shops if they had it, before the shopperson in the fourth shop pointed out it doesn’t actually get released until October. Now if the first shop had told me that… (On a side note, those phone-book-sized tomes in the first image here are train timetables, as sold in the bookshop. And those are just Tokyo, not all Japan.)

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We met up again and went to grab some lunch from a place doing gyudon and similar dishes, except that it specialised in the “stamina” versions of them. James had ginger pork, while I had unspecified meat with miso sauce. Both came with a raw egg to put on top, and a bowl of miso soup, and there were piles of condiments we could add in too, like mayonnaise and sauces and minced garlic.

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After lunch, we returned to the station and hopped onto the Chuo Line for our next destination: Sendagaya Station. First target, Hatonomori Hachiman-gu, just to the south of the station, as a Hachiman Shrine, it enshrines Hachiman, a syncretic divinity of archery and war which combines elements from both Shinto and Buddhism. The Hachiman shrines are the second-most common type of shrine in Japan, after the Inari shrines.

But the main drawcard that attracted my attention is that the shrine grounds include a Fujizaka, a miniature version of Mount Fuji that mountain worshippers can climb which (somehow) conveys the same spiritual benefit upon the worshipper that climbing the real Mount Fuji does, despite being only about six metres tall. It’s supposedly the oldest Fujizaka in Tokyo, and is built using actual stones taken from the real Fuji. Or so I’ve heard. Quite a nice view of the shrine grounds from the top, though.

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Once we were done there, we headed over the railway lines to Shinjuku Gyoen National Park. Originally constructed as a garden for the daimyo Naito in 1772, it became an agricultural experimental station after the Meiji Restoration, before becoming an Imperial garden in 1906, then opened to the public in 1949. It contains a Japanese traditional garden, a French formal garden, and an English landscape garden. It’s only two hundred yen to enter, which is pretty cheap.

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The anime movie The Garden of Words by Makoto Shinkai is primarily set in the Japanese section of the garden, which (I think) is what first drew my attention to this place, so we headed over to see the Japanese section first. It was quite serene (aside from the helicopter hovering nearby), with ponds and bridges, and a Taiwanese-style pavilion.

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Sadly, time passed faster than we’d expected, and they soon announced over the loudspeakers that the park would be closing soon, so we decided to brisk-walk through the English section and see the French section. The English section was basically just like Centennial Park, only with more “time to go now” music playing over the PA. The French section had a few roses blooming, but it seemed like it was too soon in the season for most.

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As an added advantage to crossing the park, exiting from the Okido Gate on that side of the park put us near the next train station we’d need to enter – this time, we’d be taking the Tokyo Metro, Marunouchi Line. We hopped on board, then hopped off again a few stops later, in Akasaka. The platforms seemed to be a long way underground, and interestingly, the down-line trains stop above the up-line trains.

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Once on the surface, we headed to see a nearby shrine, but because I hadn’t realised that that map I was looking at in the station was upside-down, we headed south instead of north, and wound up at a different nearby shrine, Hie Jinja. Since it turned out to be extremely pretty, I guess that was a fortuitous mishap. One side of the shrine was an Inari shrine, and it had a long narrow staircase with torii gates all the way up. Tragically, we arrived too late to get a goshuin, but we had a poke around the place all the same.

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After that, we headed for the shrine I’d actually intended to visit, heading there down the back streets. The Akasaka area in general appears on my list of places I’d like to visit in Japan, but I neglected to make a note of exactly why. The moment I stepped onto the back streets, I discovered why. Very pretty.

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Soon, we arrived at Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin. Now, I’ve been calling it a shrine, and it’s the absolute spitting image of an Inari shrine (it’s even included in the name) but this place is actually a Buddhist temple, enshrining Toyokawa Dakini-Shinten. Actually, that bit seems to be a little bit of a legal fiction, avoiding the forced separation of Buddhism and Shinto during the Meiji era by going “We’re absolutely a Buddhist temple – we don’t worship that fox, it’s the woman riding on top”. It largely lacked the long tunnels of torii gates, but it was certainly packed with fox statues (many of which looked quite a bit like dogs) and red flags. And surprisingly, though it was past 6pm, I was still able to get a goshuin.

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As the sun was setting and it was getting harder to sightsee any more, we decided to head for dinner. Tonight’s dinner was pre-booked for 7:15, because apparently 7:00 was too crowded, but we arrived at 6:45 and were shown right in.

Why did we pre-book? Because tonight ate at Ninja Akasaka, the full-on ninja-themed restaurant. To get in, we were taken down a wood-panelled hall, up and down stairs, past a fountain, over a drawbridge, before arriving on what looked like a street lined with little houses. We were shown into one. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to take photos for this section.

This restaurant has a whole pile of pre-set multi-course meals, and as part of the booking procedure, we were required to pre-specify what one we wanted, so we chose the shabu-shabu meal. We had deep-fried burdock strips, ninja-star grissini (with pâté), white fish and tomato ceviche, and turban shell bombs (which came with a fuse that our waitress lit, setting off a miniature explosion, which sadly I didn’t quite see because I was trying to take a photo of it).

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Then came the main course, the shabu-shabu. Basically we get a tray of thin-sliced raw beef, which we dip into a ring-shaped pan of boiling kombu stock and swish around (“shabu-shabu”) for a few seconds. Then we dip it into either sesame sauce or ponzu sauce and eat it. First we had to grind our own sesame seeds for the sauce, mind. Extremely tasty, either way. Also came with greens and ninja-star buckweat dumplings.

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Before the next course, the Ninja Master came in to perform some magic tricks for us (no photos allowed for this segment) – both of us thought that perhaps he was standing too close to us, because we could pretty much see how he was pulling off the tricks. He did it pretty smoothly, though.

Afterwards, we had a plate with the sushi of the season, and dessert, which was extremely intricate – a frog made from cheesecake wearing a wasabi leaf hat, and a biscuit bonsai tree in a pot filled with ice cream “dirt” (in vanilla, green tea and black sesame flavours).

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I confess it felt a little like our waitress was rushing us at some point, bringing the next course almost before we’d finished the last, but by the time it came to pay the bill, we’d actually been there for close to two hours. We paid up, headed back to the subway station and caught the Metro back to Shimbashi, where we changed to the Sobu Line (Rapid) for Chiba.

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Tragically, it’s time for us to head home tomorrow. Kinda feels like we’ve been here a long time, yet it’s still over far too soon. I’ve booked an evening flight again this trip, so we’ve got most of tomorrow to sightsee. Plus, I’ve deliberately picked a hotel in Chiba so that we can get to Narita more cheaply and faster – our JR Passes expired at the end of today.

Today’s photo count: Six hundred and forty-six

Today’s pedometer count: 18,420 steps, for 13.1km

Today’s goshuin count: Three – two at Hatonomori Hachiman-gu (one for the shrine itself and one for the Fujizaka, and the first includes a blue stamp, which I’ve never seen before) and Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin.

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Today’s stamp count: Just one, Sendagaya Station.

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Day 13–Mos Burger

Here’s a quick little lesson for those who want to learn Japanese (or who want to travel in Japan and want to sound like they know Japanese). English has a whole lot of loadwords which originally came from Japanese – for example, sashimi, or tsunami, or Osaka. As per typical English pronunciation rules, the stress in these words tend to fall on the second syllable. SaSHImi, tsuNAmi, oSAka. Japanese, however, doesn’t have syllabic stresses at all (though there is a slight tonal stress which I never quite got the hang of). The best way to approximate this without too much effort is to put a stress on the first syllable instead of the second. SAshimi, TSUnami, Osaka. Now you too can sound like a local!

Today, we had breakfast.

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Then it was time to check out of our hotel, and embark on our longest period of travelling between hotels. I mean, aside from the trip over the Alpine Route, though that doesn’t really count, because the Alpine Route itself was our activity for the day. Today we travelled from Shin-Osaka to our next (and, sadly, final) hotel, in Chiba, on the east side of Tokyo, via shinkansen.

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It was a comfy enough trip, as all shinkansen trips have been, but also quite full – lots of westerners boarded at Kyoto (though not all went all the way to Tokyo), so sadly we weren’t able to get a window seat. We shared a row of three with two other people. I calculated when we’d be passing Mount Fuji, and headed out to the carriage vestibule to take photos through the door’s window, but although we’d even seen blue sky in places, Fuji was completely concealed by very dark grey clouds. That’s Fuji in the third image below.

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Actually, one thing we noticed along the way was that all the rivers were running very high. Not sure if that was from the rain or from snowmelt. All the rice paddies seemed to be flooded too, but maybe they’re just getting ready for planting season.

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We arrived in Tokyo shortly past 1pm, so we decided to grab some lunch from the station’s food court – we both ordered dumplings from a Chinese-style dumpling shop. I had a mixed box of shumai, while James had got a special deal of twelve boiled dumplings for the price of ten, and a “premium” meat bun. Then we headed to the train for Chiba.

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Our hotel in Chiba (again Toyoko Inn) is just a short walk from Chiba Station. The surrounding blocks are full of love hotels and hostess bars, though. When we checked in to the hotel, there was a man behind the counter. An actual man. Never seen one at Toyoko Inn before.

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We actually managed to arrive right at the time we could first check in, for the first time this trip, so we stuck our luggage in our room, had a short break, then went out for a wander. For another first-time thing for me, the beds in this room run lengthwise, with the pillow end under the window – every other hotel has had the beds running crosswise… like pretty much every other hotel room ever.

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First we headed for Chiba Shrine, which was just a few minutes walk away. We passed under the Chiba Monorail on the way – we’ve actually got a monorail station on both sides of our hotel, Chiba Station a few blocks on one side, and Sakaecho Station a few blocks on the other. Chiba Shrine was certainly a little bit different to any other shrine I’d seen – the main building has two floors, with a worship hall on each floor.

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After Chiba Shrine, we pretty much just wandered the streets in a big loop, and when we found ourselves back at the train line, we decided to get some dinner at Mos Burger. I had a teriyaki chicken burger, with chips and a very thick milkshake. Yum.

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From the table in Mos Burger, I happened to spot a branch of a dagashiya (traditional Japanese sweet shop) chain in a shopping street built under the railway line, so we popped over there. As a chain, it was all packaged snacks rather than actual traditional ones, but it was still entirely filled with chocolates and lollies and chips and crackers and other snacks and weird things, and it was also full of people buying things. I can’t even imagine having a shop like that in Australia. I bought myself a bamkuchen for dessert, but it’s probably nicer fresh.

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We decided to head back to the hotel at that point to actually get an early night for a change. Firstly, though, I had to fix my camera strap – one of the attachment points had come untied, and managed to slip free as we were heading for Chiba Shrine, but luckily I caught my camera by pure reflex before it fell. I spent way too long trying to thread the string back through the hole, until I worked out I could just pull out the string completely, loop a thread around the middle, and use that thread to pull the string though the hole, and it was done just like that. Almost annoyingly simple.

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So, blog’s done now. Pretty short, but we did spend half the day on a train. Still trying to hammer down exactly what our plans for tomorrow are – I’d run out of steam a bit by this point in the planning, so I’ve just written “something in Tokyo”. Time for an early night, however.

Today’s photo count: A mere two hundred and ninety-three

Today’s pedometer count: Just 9371 steps, for 6.4km

Today’s goshuin count: One – Chiba Shrine

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Today’s stamp count: None

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Day 12–Okonomiyaki

Some Japanese place names are quite a bit of fun. Or, at least to me. There’s one train station near us named Nishinakajima-Minamigata Station. That particular mouthful of a name means “West Central Island, Southern Side”. One wonders how many other directions can get worked into that.

Osaka is the capital and largest city in Osaka Prefecture, and the second largest in Japan, with a population of over nineteen million. Oddly, during the night, it falls back to only third largest, because a fair percentage of the people who work in Tokyo live in Yokohama, meaning Yokohama overtakes Osaka in population when the workforce goes home. Osaka means “large hill”, but it used to be spelt with different kanji, but during the Meiji Restoration, people realised that when the second kanji was read as two separate kanji, it means “samurai rebellion”, so they changed it.

Today we started with breakfast, as usual, though there was a comparatively extravagant spread available, I thought.

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Then we headed out for sightseeing. First step was to take the Osaka Municipal Subway Midosuji Line to Tennoji Station. Originally this was just intended as a place where we change trains, but quite recently – as in, just a few days ago – I discovered that Shitenno-ji, a Buddhist temple generally regarded as being the first in Japan, is in the area. In fact, Tennoji station takes its name from the temple.

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Sadly, and as predicted by the iOS Weather app, it started to rain as we started walking away from Tennoji Station, and didn’t let up at all for the remainder of the day. Fortunately not pounding, driving rain, but still an annoying all-day shower.

We started our stroll walking in the wrong direction – somehow I’d gotten the idea that the Midosuji Line runs north-south at Tennoji, because that’s what it does at Shin-Osaka, but actually it runs east-west. But the upside of that was that had a lovely stroll through Tennoji Park, and got a nice view of Tsutenkaku (essentially Osaka’s equivalent of Tokyo Tower or Kyoto Tower).

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As we left the park, a random person popped out of a house (or shop?) and handed James an umbrella – I had my el cheapo plastic one from the convenience store, but James was just in his raincoat and waterproof pants, so perhaps the guy took pity on him. Although it was a raincoat, the general effect of it is that he was looking a bit damp.

Soon, we reached Shitenno-ji and had a bit of a look around. The temple was founded in the year 593, though most of the present buildings are reconstructions dating from 1963. According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, though, there’s a stone torii dating from 1294, making it one of the oldest in Japan (though while I photographed it, I didn’t specifically notice it at the time). The temple’s name means “Four Celestial Kings”.

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We arrived in time to see a group of monks performing some kind of ceremony in front of some of the minor side temples. We looked around at more things, but the main courtyard cost money to enter (and appeared to be half under refurbishment), so we decided to pass on that. I found the goshuin office, and discovered they had twenty-three different goshuin on offer. Not even sure what most of them mean. I got two of them and left it at that.

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Heading back towards the station, we popped into a small shrine and temple. The shrine was Horikoshi Shrine – I mostly popped in here because I’d mistaken it for the temple we went to after, but it turned out to be a very nice-looking shrine. Seemed they were also one station on a stamp rally commemorating the Summer War of Osaka back in 1615 – recall that Osaka Castle is also a museum about this war, but they were commemorating it here because Tennoji was the site of the war’s final battle. Turned out Shitenno-ji also had a stamp, according to a poster in the window here, but I hadn’t noticed at the time, and we weren’t about to go back for it.

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The temple we visited was Tokoku-ji, and I found it notable because they have an actual piece of the Berlin Wall – and by “piece”, I mean a full-height section of the wall about two metres wide. I’d spotted it as a point of interest in Pokémon Go, so we basically just popped in, took some photos, and popped out again. Incongruously, considering it’s a temple, the road leading up to the gate is lined with love hotels (for those who’ve never heard of love hotels, I’ll just say they rent rooms by the hour, and leave it at that).

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Back at Tennoji Station, we decided to stop for lunch – ramen. Specifically, ramen at Tenka Ippin, a chain of ramen restaurants whose kotteri soup base I’d heard many great things about. We both ordered kotteri ramen, James with won tons and me with corn, and it was so very tasty.

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From there, we hopped onto the Hankai Tramway, a little light rail that was constructed in 1900 and is still running. With all the rain, though, the windows all fogged up making it a little tricky to take photos. Our target was Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, but I wanted to hop off a couple of stops early – I’ve been working on creating subtitles for a live-action Japanese drama as a hobby, and several scenes were filmed at and around Tezukayama-yonchōme Station on the Hankai Uemachi Line, which is just a few stops short of Sumiyoshi.

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I went for a bit of a wander around the place, while James headed straight for the shrine. It was very interesting seeing the locations for myself in person. I’d vaguely hoped to find the house where the series’ characters live, but there’s no reason that it’s anywhere nearby – or, for that matter, that it even exists in the real world. They’re certainly vague enough about how places relate to each other in the series – one early episode has one character point vague directions to Tsutenkaku and Osaka Castle, but the positioning of her arms describes an area of Osaka that’s nowhere near the Hankai Line.

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Snooping done, I made my own way to Sumiyoshi Taisha. I found an “all drinks 100 yen!”  vending machine, so I bought a melon cream soda to use up my ten-yen coins and slurped on it as I walked. Spent a while poking through what I’d taken to be some minor temples and shrines I’d seen on the map north of Sumiyoshi, but when James messaged me to ask where I was, I discovered on looking at the map that I’d actually been skulking around the inner courtyards of Sumiyoshi itself.

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Sumiyoshi is one of the earliest shrines in Japan – its construction pre-dates the arrival of Buddhism in the country, and more importantly, Buddhist architectural styles. Basically, it was built in an entirely Japanese style, and it’s the ur-example of what is now called “sumiyoshi-zukuri”, or “sumiyoshi style”.

It’s quite an expansive shrine, though, with buildings all over, and a sharply curving bridge that you could actually walk up and over (unlike other bridges of that style that I’ve seen). Rained throughout, though – and both of us were rapidly discovering precisely how waterproof our shoes are.

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Once we’d seen the shrine, we headed to the nearby Sumiyoshitaisha Station on the Nankai Main Line for our third train trip – and our third railway company for the day – to get back to Namba Station in central Osaka. The Namba district contains the Dotonbori canal – views along which are some of the most-often used shots in travel ads – and lots and lots of shopping streets, the largest of them mercifully covered over. Last time, we clean missed visiting actual central Osaka, so I thought I’d rectify that this time.

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James and I parted ways again and wandered up and down separately for a while. The first thing I wanted to see was Houzen-ji Temple – a tiny little temple which is little more than a courtyard to one side of a back alley. It has a statue of Fudo which is entirely covered in moss, thanks to the practice of splashing water over it as a means of worship. Wandered a bit more after that, before meeting up again with James and heading to dinner.

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On our last visit in Osaka, I made several attempts to get Osaka-style okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake/pizza thing, name means “cooked as you like it”) but was never able to find any restaurant near our hotel, so this time I wasn’t going to be leaving without getting some. Fortunately, I managed to find a nice looking little restaurant on my wanderings, so we headed into there. It was most tasty. The chef cooks it sort of it front of you, then it’s served on smaller versions of the big hot plate that are kept hot when not in use.

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After dinner, we dropped by Bic Camera so I could, out of some desperation, buy a new external battery for my phone – I’m getting a bit tired of them running flat in the early evening or even mid-afternoon. Not entirely sure how the prices compared to Australia.

Then, since it had become full night, we headed to see the lights of Dotonbori. Very shiny. Very crowded. Still raining.

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Headed back to the hotel by the Midosuji Line again. I’d been vaguely hoping to make it four companies for four trips, but while there is a JR station at Namba, it’d require multiple transfers to get back to our hotel using JR only, so Osaka Subway it was. I grabbed a donut from Mister Donut for dessert, trying to go for something fairly uniquely Japanese (though not quite so uniquel Japanese as matcha and red bean paste). Got a “golden chocolate” one (though still not sure what the golden bits were made of) and wound up costing me less than I expected – maybe end-of-day sales.

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Back at the hotel, I did a bit more laundry while blogging. Wound up not actually getting all that soaked in the end, though it was mostly just annoying having to shield the camera from the rain. I did quite like the transparent umbrella, though – not too sure why they’re not a thing in Australia.

Tomorrow is also forecast to rain, but that doesn’t matter so much, since we’ll be travelling back to Tokyo. Thursday and Friday have no rain predicted.

Today’s photo count: Six hundred and eighty-five.

Today’s pedometer count: 22,347 steps, for 15.5km

Today’s goshuin count: Five. Two from Shitenno-ji (the second one refers to one of the Seven Lucky Gods, though I’ve clean forgotten which), then Horikoshi Shrine (a little plainer than I would have liked), Sumiyoshi Taisha, and Houzen-ji.

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Today’s stamp count: Just the one from Horikoshi. It shows Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, and commander of the attacking forces in the Summer War of Osaka.

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