Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Quick Taste of Yokohama and Beyond

It’s always a bit of a buzz hopping on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Osaka to Tokyo. It’s just the perfect distance and time (around two and a quarter hours) to sit and relax, read a book, write a blog or to simply watch the passing countryside. Of course passing Mt. Fuji along the way is always a treat and despite the winter season, it again looked perfect this time around. We were heading to the Japanese capital for a conference and after it was all over, Jules had planned to surprise me with a quick over night trip to neighboring Yokohama. Of course I was totally unaware of all this and after traveling on the subway for around forty minutes that evening, I was quite astounded when she announced that we had actually arrived at this alternate destination. There was I thinking that we were still in the suburbs of Tokyo, which is probably a pretty good indication of the sprawling nature of the city and my sketchy knowledge of the train systems.

Jules had chosen a nice spot in the historic waterfront area of Kannai, overlooking Yamashita Park and Tokyo Bay beyond. As one of the busiest ports in Japan, it appeared to be a hub of activity and so it was not at all surprising that the tallest inland lighthouse in the world (Yokohama Marine Tower) could be found right next-door. That evening the air was crisp and the sky was clear as we enjoyed a leisurely walk along the waterfront heading toward ‘bills’ restaurant for a meal with an Australian connection. Celebrity chef Bill Granger has launched several restaurants in Japan over the last few years and as Jules is somewhat of a fan of his cooking, she had made it her mission to try each one. I had begun to suspect that was part of the initial motivation for the visit to Yokohama, when the next day we found ourselves in yet another of Bills restaurants for lunch in the nearby seaside town of Shichirigahama. Not that I was complaining, particularly as this wouldn’t be the first time that food had provided the motivation for our various travel destinations. (see Jules blog).

The next morning, we stepped out into another gloriously sunny day and were provided with a perfect view of the harbor and the Yokohama city skyline. This is an attractive, modern looking city that appears much more contained than its population of 3.7 million (the second largest in Japan) might suggest. It’s growth has been rapid due to flourishing trade with China over the years and has in turn resulted in the emergence of quite a large Chinese community. This also particularly sparked the interest of Jules culinary side and she was keen to make a short to visit Yokohama Chinatown as it is regarded as one of the largest in the world, with over 250 shops spreading over several city blocks.

With time pressing, we eventually hopped back on the train bound for the popular tourist destination of Kamakura, a place known for it’s great Zen Temples of Japan and numerous Shinto shrines. However, what Jules and I had particularly come to see was the iconic Amida Buddha at Kōtoku-in. This large and impressive statue has become recognized throughout the world as one of the defining images of ancient Japanese religious culture. While it originally sat in a wooden temple over 1,200 years ago, it now provides a much more majestic sight in the open air, against the backdrop of a tree covered hillside. The original temple was apparently destroyed many centuries ago, but the garden setting appeared to us to be far more appropriate. The gold leaf had disappeared long ago from the surface of the great Buddha and the 44 foot bronze statue had become nicely weathered over time forming a beautiful green patina. As we circled around this amazing work of art, we were both impressed by its proportions and the craftsmanship of its symmetrical form. For the small cost of 20 yen (around AU20 cents) Jules even chose to investigate the interior structure. Despite the esteem of the sculpture, there were relatively few people at the site, which made it quite a tranquil experience and one we agreed was well worth the 30-minute walk from the town.

Later that day we found ourselves back in the busy streets of Kamakura. Being Saturday afternoon and a perfect sunny day, the tourists were out in force visiting its various cultural sights. However with just a little time before our departing train, we decided to take a stroll down nearby Komachi Dori. This is a narrow and bustling shopping street that sells all manner of traditional Japanese food and products, which is always interesting to us westerners. After an unexpected visit to the local Modern Art Museum, we headed back in the direction of the railway station down a tree-lined street with hundreds of hanging lanterns. This added to the quaintness of the old town and we could imagine how nice it would look in the evenings.

We were soon back on board our train and heading back to Yokohama to connect with the Shinkansen for the run back to Osaka. It had been a whirlwind visit, but one we had both thoroughly enjoyed. As we nibbled on the delights of delicately prepared sushi from our bento box, there was nothing else to do but simply sit back and relax as the 250km per hour super train whizzed us home.

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