From Inverness and Aberdeen we have great opportunities with the KLM flights (3 per day from Inverness and 4 per day from Aberdeen) that connect so well with their worldwide flights from Schiphol, Amsterdam airport. Leaving Aberdeen at the very civilised time of 11 in the morning, it was just under one hour in Amsterdam to walk across to the other departure gate to walk straight onto the ‘plane for Osaka Kansai airport. The KLM service is superb. Meals, constant soft drinks to keep you hydrated, comfort packs of blankets, pillow, eye mask, ear plugs, ear phones for the in flight entertainment system in the back of the seat in front of you, as well as snacks, and all this in economy!
It is an overnight flight, and arrival in Osaka is around 9 the next morning. At the airport railway station I picked up my JR Rail Pass. This is a great idea. It must be purchased outside of Japan and costs around £200. This is a bargain. Of course Japanese railway tickets cost less than UK ones – but then I have never found anywhere that doesn’t! However, the pass saves you money if you are planning to travel around, and it also makes life easier, you don’t have to keep buying tickets.
All stations have ticket barriers, and a manned gateway. The staff are invariably very smart in their uniforms, and very helpful. I showed the pass and was waved through with a bow, so I asked which platform for the train to Osaka main station and was sent to the right platform. There is English spoken on the railways, and English names under the Japanese ones on the signs. There are some restrictions on the use of the pass, you cannot go on the top of the range first class express trains, or on most of the small private railway lines, but this is not a problem, the slower trains still go at 180 miles per hour! I bought a second class pass, the seats are superb, loads of leg room and they match up with the windows – why can’t we do this?
Osaka Kansai airport is built off shore, in the “inland sea” between two of the main islands of Japan. The airport trains take just over one hour to get to Osaka main station. This station is huge, modern, has many levels and is part of a massive retail and office complex. And it was hot. I went in July when temperatures are between 30 and 40 degrees C day and night, and the humidity is stifling. I was told that in June it rains, July and August are stiflingly hot, September is typhoon season, so the best time to go is March April and May, and October and November. On the station I was just perspiring constantly, in fact the whole time I was there too! It is common to see folk carrying a towel, about the size of a bar towel, to keep mopping up the trickles. I accumulated a few of these handy towels while I was there.
The information desk at the station was manned by four delightful ladies, all wearing an attractive yellow two piece jacket and skirt outfit, with matching brimmed hat. People in Japan seem proud to wear uniforms and always look smart. One lady told me which exit to use, and it was just a few minutes walk to my hotel the New Hankyu Hotel.This is a modern, superb hotel and air conditioned like everywhere was. Check in time in Japan is either 2 or 3 pm, and they are quite punctual people. I left my bags there and went to explore.
Osaka, population 2.7 million people, is a huge modern bustling city, astride the river Yodo where it runs into the “inland sea”. There are around a dozen bridges across it. Near my hotel is the Umeda Sky Building. This has been classified as one of the world’s top 20 buildings. It is 40 stories high, and an architectural masterpiece. I went in and looked at the tariff for going up in the lift to the top. There is a reduction for senior citizens. I went up to the desk where the cheery lassies would sell me a ticket, I said that I qualified for the reduction – she asked me for evidence, and I showed her my passport – she stared at the date of birth and her eyes opened wide – wowwwww! She then put my year of birth into a calculator and deducted it from 2017, and reverently handed me back my passport with a graceful bow. I don’t know why she was so amazed; the Japanese live longer and healthier than any other race on this planet so they must receive lots of people older than me surely? The lift zooms you up into the sky, and then you take an escalator that rises between one tower and the other until you end up in a space age circular walkway up in the air. From here you get a great view of the city.
There are more attractions in Osaka, like the impressive castle, markets, shrine, shopping, aquarium and much more, but I didn’t have much time to explore. Plus, I was needing some sleep.
The next morning I took the train to Kyoto, only 25 minutes away. Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan for around a thousand years until 1869 when the Emperor Meiji moved the capital to Tokyo. This left behind a great many historic buildings that are remarkable. Arriving early, too early to check in, I deposited my bags in a luggage locker at Kyoto’s massive multi-storied modern station, and walked off to explore their Railway Museum just a 20-minute walk away, built into a triangle of railway lines. The walk is pleasant, through a beautiful park that is dotted with old tramcars that are now cafes. Suddenly, I heard the booming chime whistle of a steam engine, and two open carriages slid into view, propelled by a massive steam engine. This shuttles 10 mins up and 10 mins back and is very popular.
The Museum is an old railway steam depot, modernised, and rebuilt again in 2016. It is just superb. There are around 55 locomotives, coaches, “bullet trains” and wagons grouped around the historic roundhouse, in modern exhibition rooms, simulators, activities, happy children everywhere, and all you need to know about railways. It is very interactive, well laid out, spacious, and air conditioned too! It really is a “must visit” place. There are restaurants there too of course, and I went in for lunch, but couldn’t fathom out the system. A helpful lassie explained. You go to what looks like vending machines, and choose which dish you want from the pictograms. Then you insert your money and press the button against that picture. You receive a numbered token and your change. Then you go to the counter and hand in your token, they give you a gizmo, and go and cook your meal. You find a seat (best ones are against the long window looking out on the main lines with constant trains zooming past) and when your gizmo buzzes you go back and collect your dinner. It is excellent value and good quality.
Eventually I tore myself away and returned to the main station – but could I find the luggage locker? There are so many of them. Eventually I went to the information desk at the main entrance (one counter is marked “English”) and showed the lassie the key – the Japanese writing on the fob told her that my locker was three floors down, by the underground subway platform! How I had been down there I don’t know. Luggage retrieved, I took a taxi to the hotel Kyoto Royal Hotel and Spa. Taxis are clean, with white lace covers on the seats and even on the armrest / hand brake tunnel cover. The fares are metered and you get a receipt, and not expensive. The hotel has its own coin-operated launderette in the basement – very handy indeed. Your clothes never dry in the humidity, even in the air-conditioned rooms, so I found this a great idea.
At 5 pm I was met by Barun Sarkar of www.cityunscripted.com for a 3 hour walking tour of central Kyoto. Barun was a mine of information, and we visited the Sanjo bridge over the river Kamo where in 1864 a decisive battle was fought. The bridge support finials still have the marks of the sword battle. We also went to the Nishiki market. This was good fun. Traditional craftsmen were busy at work, and there are many food stalls. They tempt you with a tasting of this and that, and “dinner” was taken by buying various things (I’m not sure what most of them were, but all were good) and followed with a pint of beer from a stall. I even bought some postcards from a stall, and the lady had stamps for Europe too. (and much cheaper than UK postage as well!) We walked the streets where traditional Geisha girls can be seen, and it is not unusual to see folk going about in traditional Japanese dress, about as normal as kilts are here.
The next morning I walked to the Imperial Palace, not far from the hotel but far enough to leave me in a puddle of perspiration again. Wearing a hat against the fierce sun was no use, it was too hot, so I copied the natives and used my umbrella, much more effective. The Palace is spread over a huge area, and is in the traditional style of building, wood predominates, and big roofs curl down and outwards. See www.kunaicho.go.jp for details. It is fascinating to wander around this amazing complex of buildings, including the typically Japanese carefully contoured and neat garden and small lake, with curved bridge of course. There are Shinto and Buddhist temples everywhere in Japan, including within the grounds of the Palace. There is also a “rest area” building. This has a drinking fountain outside, as is common, and inside is air conditioned of course, so it was full of recovering hot tourists. There is a small shop area, and a vending machine. The Japanese are vending machine addicts. They are everywhere and the cheapest and best way to by cold bottles of water is from a vending machine.
Leaving here, I slowly made my way through the park, a peaceful oasis in the city, to the Castle. This is not a castle as we think of them. It has a wide green moat (with very plump fish in it) and a drawbridge, but inside it is another collection of traditional buildings and another ornamental garden. To go round the inside, you leave your shoes at the entrance (or they will give you a plastic bag to carry them around with you if you want) and you put on slippers to walk on the tatami matting. The interiors are painted with stylised ancient murals, with the curtains drawn to protect them from the light. Each room has an explanatory panel in English, as is usual everywhere I went.
Strolling back through the town, I looked for somewhere to grab a bite to eat. They have everything, including Starbucks and burger joints, and also a cat restaurant, where you eat with cats which I still find bizarre, even though you can do this in Edinburgh, and an owl restaurant. Surely this can’t be right – owls are nocturnal, and here they are being kept awake on perches at the tables – I certainly was not going to encourage that. Japanese food is very good, and not filling. It is rare to see potatoes, or fries, or stodge. I always ate very well, but was never feeling bloated. No wonder they don’t have an obesity problem like we do.
There are many things to see and explore in Kyoto. It is a big city (population nearly 1.5 million people) and very busy – but as in all Japan I never felt threatened. Japan has a very low crime rate, and it keeps falling. The people were invariably polite and helpful, even though I cannot speak Japanese, we always communicated well, and many folk speak some English. Toilets are everywhere, always impeccably clean, and free. There is no litter. I was looking for a bin to put a label in – I asked someone where there was a litter bin – they didn’t understand, was I looking to buy a bin? No, I explained, I want to get rid of some rubbish – they looked at me puzzled – but don’t you take it home with you? I hate to think of what the Japanese make of our towns and roads where litter is everywhere.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to these Japanese cities. It was a higher level of civilisation, everywhere was clean, tidy, people were polite and friendly, everything worked as it should, and it was a great experience. I left Kyoto to go to see another part of Japan, in a mountainous country area – but that will have to wait for the next article. Meantime, if you would like more information about Japan, their tourist office is (being Japanese of course it is) very efficient and helpful.