Our Titan holiday (“The Essence of Japan”) was initially booked through Andara Travel in June 2017. Although we have therefore been looking forward to our first visit to Japan for some considerable time, our thoughts recently have been more concentrated on our trip to Russia in July. The political climate between Russia and the rest of the world has deteriorated since a nerve agent poisoning incident in Salisbury in March, and one of the repercussions has been the lengthening of time required to issue visas - but we have managed to obtain our visas (and the return of our passports) in plenty of time for our departure to Japan today.
We are up at 3am with the Titan taxi due at 5:50am. Instead of the usual Titan vehicle, a local taxi arrives just after the appointed time. The driver is a lady who lives in Olton and who talks continuously on the short journey to Birmingham Airport. Our arrangements with this particular Titan holiday are slightly different to our previous trips with this company - we are flying to Japan a day ahead of the scheduled group departure, and we have chosen to fly from Birmingham rather than the principal airport at Heathrow. It is a dull, damp morning as we make the short drive to Birmingham Airport for our initial KLM flight to Amsterdam.
After being dropped-off in the expensive car park near to the terminals, we make our way to check-in area 117. Flight KL1422 is not due to depart until 9:15am, but as we are travelling Business Class, we have access to the airport’s Aspire Lounge prior to departure. We are also able to have fast track passage through security, and are personally escorted past the long queues. In the Aspire Lounge we are able to have a breakfast of fruit, muesli, and coffee, but are surprised to find that the lounge does not have its own toilets. We pass the time in the comfortable lounge with the Daily Telegraph and its crossword.
Departure is from Gate 48 and we are again able to bypass the queue of passengers waiting to enter the gate’s departure area. Here, we are shepherded to a separate section where a man going to Detroit via Amsterdam gives Jeanette his seat. On board the Boeing 737-800 (Avocet) we are seated in the third, and last, row of Business Class, sharing three seats between us on the right-hand side of the aircraft. As today is “King’s Day”, celebrating the birthday of the King of The Netherlands, all passengers are given orange sunglasses to wear and the crew take photographs.
The aircraft backs-off at 9:15am and takes-off at 9:25am. During the short flight, a pleasant breakfast including salmon with cream cheese, and warm buns and croissants is served. There are good views over The Netherlands as we approach Amsterdam including colourful tulip fields. We land at 11:10am after a flight of 45-minutes; the aircraft has a long taxi to Gate D41. We then have a long walk to the huge Crown Lounge that is reserved for Business Class passengers. Here, the available snacks include items appropriate to “King’s Day” including profiteroles with a topping of orange icing.
Our flight to Tokyo’s Narita Airport will be by Boeing 777-300 named Darien National Park. Flight KL861 is due to depart at 2:40pm and our seats are 4D and 4G. Gate E22 is a 12-minute walk through this vast airport. Business Class consists of five rows at the front of the aircraft and, with a rather nice touch, has access via a separate tunnel on the air bridge. The five rows are in a 2-2-2 format with our seats in the centre section. We chat to one of the pilots and the senior steward before we are served Bucks Fizz with nuts and cheese. The aircraft backs-off at 2:55pm and takes-off at 3:11pm - the flight is due to take almost 11-hours, but we are seated very comfortably in the spacious pods that will convert to fully flat beds.
Lunch is served after departure. David has the smoked beef Carpaccio starter followed by a vegetarian dish (“Beluga lentils à la Beate”) that was a recent award winner in a KLM cooking contest, and fresh forest fruit. The meals are cooked and prepared to order and it transpires that the chef in the galley is the creator of the award winning dish. Jeanette is not keen on the menu choices but is able to specify an individual selection of a green salad, warm apple tarte tatin, and a very large bowl of the fresh forest fruits. All our food is served impeccably by the extremely pleasant staff, and is accomplished by glasses of Sauvignon Blanc.
There is a poor choice of movies on the entertainment system and Jeanette watches familiar episodes of Blue Bloods andNCIS, whilst David reads. We manage to get some sleep in the comfortable pods before a very good continental breakfast is served. On arrival in Narita Airport (we land at 8:22am on Saturday, April 28th) we are invited to select two Delft Blue miniature Dutch houses. The very smooth flight of 10 hours, 11 minutes has arrived some 20-minutes early, but the aircraft then has a long taxi to its stand. We are soon through immigration etc and are met by a lady who takes us to our waiting taxi and its white-gloved chauffeur.
 Saturday, April 28th
The weather in the Tokyo area is hot and sunny as we are smoothly driven along motorways from Narita Airport to the Keio Plaza Hotel. There is little traffic to slow our journey as we pass Tokyo Disneyland and cross the city’s spectacular Rainbow Bridge to approach an area of high density living and high rise buildings. We arrive at our hotel at the earlier than anticipated time of 10:30am, knowing that access to our room will not be allowed until 2pm. We learn that the access time of 2pm will be strictly observed and this regimented lack of flexibility appears to be a characteristic of life in Japan. However, we are able to leave our bags with the hotel while we explore the area.
With our “free day” tomorrow before the rest of the group arrive, we plan to travel a short distance by train. Our lady courier is going to the nearby Shinjuku station and she takes us there to explain how we can purchase tickets. It transpires that obtaining tickets through a machine that has an English option is quite straightforward, but we are glad that she is able to identify which platform our train will depart from. Shinjuku station is like a small town, it handles some 2-million passengers a day and is said to be the busiest in the world. We find a small café where we have coffee before exploring the adjacent shopping area.
Back at our hotel, we make a comfort call in the basement area. Also here are a small group of Australians and we chat for a while before going out to explore the neighbourhood further. Our objective is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices, a huge complex of two blocks and a semi-circular plaza, where there are observatories on the 45th floor of its two towers. The towers are very close to the hotel, but we have slight difficulty locating the access point for the observatories, thinking initially that the building is closed for the weekend. With some perseverance, we locate the entrances from the plaza with its arc of statues.
There is a queue for the South Tower, so we ascend the North Tower and are rewarded with amazing views of this densely populated city. On a clear day it is possible to view Mount Fuji from this very high viewpoint, but today the atmosphere in the distance is not clear enough. With ample time before our 2pm check-in, we next ascend the South Tower. There are similar views here, but there is an unobstructed view of our high-rise hotel building. As we enter the observatory, we are approached by an English-speaking volunteer (aged 84) who conducts us round pointing out the sights and answering our questions. This pleasant and polite gentleman is to be the first of a number of similar encounters on our trip to Japan. The twin towers make a good landmark for the location of our hotel, and are said to be designed to resemble a computer chip, whilst also evoking the look of a Gothic cathedral.
In the hotel’s reception area, we decide to start queuing for our check-in at 1:45pm, which is just as well as the procedure is somewhat lengthy, before we are settling in to Room 1709. The room has two single beds (which is to be the standard for all our hotels) in a good-sized room that has a table and two seats, a fridge, kettle, and two bottles of water. We have cups of green tea as we wait for our luggage to be transferred from the secure area downstairs. We then relax and doze until 5pm, thus allowing us to recover from the flight and the 7-hour time difference.
Whilst exploring the vast station/shopping area, we had noticed a restaurant called “Mr Farmer” and we have decided to eat there this evening. Not surprisingly, given its name, this is a mostly vegetarian restaurant that should be suitable for our first attempt at Japanese cuisine. The restaurant is quite busy (mostly with young people), but we are soon conducted to a small table with seats on the low side. Next to each table is a box in which diners can place their possessions - in our case, Jeanette’s handbag and David’s camera. After ordering (J: a type of Caesar’s salad with a small potato and a large piece of bread that comes with marmalade; D: beef and avocado wrap with a small salad, mostly cress, and a small potato), David gets glasses of water from a dispenser, which it transpires is a common system in Japan. The meal is very filling and we walk some of it off as we explore a food hall in an adjacent department store; the hall is both extensive and fascinating.
Next, we walk back to the Metropolitan Government Building so that we can see the lights of Tokyo from its 45th floor. Only the North Tower is open at this time and there is a 15-minute wait to get to the lift. The Observatory (like almost everywhere we have been since arriving) is very crowded, but the views are quite spectacular. We are back in our room by 7:30pm for some Redbush tea. It is now about 31-hours since we set out from Knowle, via Amsterdam on King’s Day.
 Sunday, April 29th
We are up at 7am on another hot and sunny day. There is a choice of restaurants for breakfast, but we play safe by eating at Jurin which promises a western style buffet. This is a very large restaurant where we are able to have juice, fruit, cereals and bread as well as sampling the cooked items. Jeanette is able to have soya milk and there is even apricot jam! However, it takes us an hour to have breakfast, and it took ¾-hour to shower etc - we will need to do better than this when part of a group!
With the benefit of yesterday’s reconnaissance, we are able to easily get a train from Shinjuku station to Harajuku station - just two stops south on the Japan Rail line. Even though it’s Sunday, the stations and the train are crowded. Later in the trip, we find that we are in Japan during ‘Golden Week’, the week commencing April 29th that contains a number of public holidays, and this fact means that we will find all the tourist areas crowded.
Exiting Harajuku station, we initially explore Takeshita-dori, a narrow alley of shops and eateries that has attracted large crowds of mostly youngsters, many of whom are sampling such delights as candy floss and ice cream. We walk the full length of the street with its fascinating sights, and then attempt to find the location of the Togo Shrine. We find a set of steps that appear to lead to the garden where the shrine is located but these are barred with signs that we take to mean the park is temporarily closed. A family group is nearby and we try to ask what the signs mean; we are referred to a young girl who immediately scans her smart phone and then indicates that we should follow her. The girl has limited English, but we understand her to say that she has plenty of time to show us the way to the Togo Shrine. At the end of Takeshita-dori we turn left and are soon at the main entrance, which we would not have found without the kind assistance of our guide.
The Togo Shrine was founded for Admiral Togo the commander who defeated the Russian fleet during the Russo-Japanese War - a huge naval victory, and the first by an Asian country over a Western one. The shrine has a beautiful garden featuring a pond, and there are some historic photographs relating to the Admiral’s career. An elaborate wedding ceremony is taking place that includes a procession by the bride and groom, plus their guests, through the garden.
Returning to Takeshita-dori, we find somewhere to have coffee before walking back towards the railway station. This station was the main arrival point for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Village, and we find a pedestrian footbridge that gives us an overview of the former Olympic Stadiums that will be used for handball in the 2020 Olympics.
Nearby is the entrance toYoyogi Park, the location of the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The Meiji Jingu (Imperial Shrine) dates from 1920 and the Emperor Meiji and his Empress are enshrined here. After passing under a huge torii gate, we follow a wide gravelled road, shaded by cedar trees, and pass a display of barrels of sake wrapped in straw; these colourful barrels are offered each year for the souls of the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken. Shortly we come to the Nai-en garden, where there is a small entry fee to pay at a booth where a volunteer gives us two of her handmade bookmarks as a form of ticket. The garden’s main feature is a display of over 150 species if iris, but only a few are in bloom today. We explore the attractive grounds and visit a spring (labelled the ‘Kiyomasa-Ido Well’) where a short queue of people are waiting to touch the pure water for unknown reasons - David does the same in the hope that doing so will bring good luck.
We then make our way to the shrine itself, which is another crowded area, but do not remain here long as we are due to visit here tomorrow with the group. The shrine is a very popular location for weddings and there is one taking place this morning.
Our next objective is the Shinjuku-Goyen Garden which is located northeast of Yoyogi Park. With the aid of a map from the hotel, we manage to find our way there, pausing when we pass a café to get coffee and a snack. At the garden, we find that entry is free today. An elderly volunteer advises us that the roses are worth seeing and gives us a map of this large garden. It is a long walk from the Shinjuku Gate, where we have entered the garden, to the rose beds which are located in the French Formal Garden. But the route is very attractive as we pass a Japanese Traditional Garden and a series of ponds.
The roses are spectacular with a variety of specimens at their best. Nearby is a wonderful avenue of sycamore trees where we rest for a while before walking back to the Shinjuku Gate via the English Landscape Gardens. Throughout the garden there are large numbers of Japanese families taking advantage of the lovely weather and free entrance, in a city where few residences seem to have their own gardens.
Our final objective prior to returning to the hotel Is the Hanazona Shrine. We find this tucked away amongst buildings in the East Shinjuku area - it is a calm and surprising oasis amongst the encircling concrete towers, with a tree-filled compound surrounding the traditional vermilion and white shrine.
From the shrine, we need to walk around Shinjuku Station to get back to the hotel. On the way, we are stopped by two men who appear to be conducting some sort of survey regarding the nearby Golden Gai area. Our guide book describes this area as having “scruffy alleys …. with bars just wide enough for a few stools”. Our inquisitors are taken aback when we say that we are too old to visit the area, but we do visit a similar area the following evening. We find the hotel with the aid of adjacent buildings as landmarks, particularly the unusually shaped Mode Gakuen Academy Cocoon Tower.
At the hotel, we try to find our Titan tour manager. There is no message on our room’s phone, so we go to the lobby and enquire at the information desk. A gentleman here is unable to help, but when we return to our room he arrives with the information that the tour group will be departing at 8am in the morning. When we go down with the purpose of eating in the hotel’s Italian restaurant, Jeanette spots someone she thinks may be our tour manager, and this proves to be correct, to the obvious relief of Ruth who has been looking for us. We also meet two of our group - Paul and Lesley.
The Italian restaurant is called Duo Fourchettes and it is located on Floor 2. After having Camparis, we have mixed green salads (2); seafood risottos (2); tiramisu (J), crème brûlée (D). There are few other diners, but some are sitting at tables decorated in a Beauty and the Beast theme. Although our meal is very enjoyable, it is very expensive, even with a 10% discount for hotel guests, though we do notice that we have been overcharged for the tiramisu and get that amended.
Returning to our room we find that neither key card will work. A receptionist is very suspicious when we inform him and is only partly mollified when Jeanette produces our passports. A young girl accompanies us back to our room to confirm that the key cards do not work. She is very apologetic and runs down to reception to get replacements. We retire early with the knowledge that Ruth has arranged for a wake-up call for 6:30am tomorrow.
 Monday, April 30th
We are up at 5:45am after a poor night’s sleep. Although we go straight to sleep at 9:30pm, we are awake about midnight and then it is broken sleep thereafter. After having breakfast at 6:30am, we meet the rest of the group when the coach departs at 8am. Our local Japanese guide is Akiko Koni, who proves to be an enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and hard-working guide. Unlike Akiko, who will be with us throughout the whole of the trip, we will have a number of different coach drivers in the various locations we are to visit. The coaches are full-size 40+ seaters, although there are only sixteen of us in the group.
The coach firstly takes us to the Meiji Shrine we visited yesterday, but instead of the pleasant walk through the park we experienced, we drive past the Olympic Stadiums and the park’s entrance, and park fairly close to the shrine. It is hot and sunny again, but the park is much quieter than yesterday. Akiko guides us through the procedure to be followed at the shrine which consists of throwing a coin into a receptacle, bowing twice, clapping twice, and then bowing again, although these actions should be preceded by purifying the hands and mouth at the temizuya water pavilion. There is plenty of activity with wedding preparations and others dressed in traditional costumes; Akiko provides us with explanations regarding these and regarding the features of the shrine area. We will see other examples throughout our trip, and they include the tori (the large gates that straddle the entrance of the compound); the temizuya (the fountain of purifying water); komainu (guardian lion-dogs); toro (decorative stone lanterns); and shide (white zigzag strips of hemp used for blessings). Here there are some shide attached to a rope strung between two camphor trees, that were planted in 1920, and are known as the “husband and wife”. Nearby is an ema board on which are hung dozens of omamori - good-luck charms that are sold at the shrine on which worshippers have written prayers or wishes.
At about 9:30am we leave the Meiji Shrine and are driven to the Imperial Palace. The emperor and his family still live in the palace in the western part of the grounds, but it is only the remainder of the huge park that is open to visitors. We enter the park by crossing a moat at the large Otemon gate and are guided round by Akiko to see the defence towers, a pretty landscaped area with a pond, and the Honmaru, the former keep from where there are views over the park which is mainly grassed with specimen trees. At some early point in the exploration of the park, we lose Roger, a member of the group who has some difficulty in walking. We end the tour of the palace gardens at a museum near the entrance whilst Ruth goes in a successful search for Roger. The tour does not include the Nijubashi, the famous double-arched stone bridge, and Akiko agrees to get the driver to pass this on the way to the Senso-ji Temple - but we only get a distant view.
We arrive at the very crowded temple area at noon. The temple is popularly known as Asakua Kannon and is Tokyo’s most sacred and spectacular temple. This is a very large area but the holiday crowds make it quite difficult to get round. In addition to the temple compound there is a long, narrow alley (Nakamise-dori) which is crammed with small shops and eateries. After viewing the shrine, the Hozo-mon gate, and the five-storey pagoda, we go to the incense burner - this is surrounded by people who are wafting smoke over themselves in the belief it will keep them healthy. Exploring independently, in the very crowded Nakamise-dori we purchase tasty melon pans, a classic Japanese sweet bread covered in a thin layer of crisp cookie crust with a grid line pattern on top - we choose the version with a dollop of ice cream in it, and are shepherded to the “eating area” so as not be in the way of potential purchasers.
At the end of the Nakamise-dori is the Kaminarimon gate (“Thunder Gate”) which has guardian statues each side behind wire netting; the statues are of Fujin and Raijin - fearsome gods of nature. Across the street from the gate and Nakamise-dori is a department store, and we go here to escape the crowds and to find some coffee. It is very hot in the store’s café but we manage to get decent drinks. Back in the temple compound, we find the delicate Nade Botokesan Buddha; this statue has been polished smooth by those hoping for good luck and help with their ailments. At 2:20pm we rejoin the bus to make the short journey to the Sky Tree Tower.
At 2,080-feet, the Sky Tree Tower is the tallest building in Japan. We ascend to theTembo Deck on Floor 350 and then are able to walk down to the two floors (345 and 340) below. Although it is hazy in the distance, there are extensive views of Tokyo and we are able to pick out our hotel with the aid of the binoculars. Floor 340 features the usual glass floor, and we also have time to explore the area outside the tower.
After nearly two hours at the tower, we drive back to the hotel via the Ginza district of Tokyo. This district is the main shopping area of the city with some very fashionable shops, but we do not explore on foot, just observe the buildings and people from the coach.
Back in Room 1709, we choose to have a relaxing bath rather than use the shower, before setting out to find somewhere to eat. We decide to return to the Mr Farmer casual restaurant in Mosaic Street that we used two nights ago, and find that this evening there is a waiting list. A waitress enters our name on a sheet, on a lectern, outside the restaurant’s door, and as we have our short wait, other diners arrive and add their names to the list - a task we could not have managed on our own, particularly not being able to understand the Japanese characters for indicating whether we wished to dine ‘inside’ or ‘outside’.
We have chosen to eat inside and both have very filling meals based on grilled chicken. The restaurant is very busy, the majority of diners being young girls busy with their smart phones. After our enjoyable meal, we again explore this area around the vast Shinjuku station. On the west side of the station we find the narrow alleys with small bars that seem to be a major attraction for many tourists. These tiny bars, many so small that they can seat no more than ten people crammed close together, look entirely unattractive with their noise, smells and smoky and stuffy atmospheres, and an unsavoury looking clientele. However, it is an experience not to be missed as this is a different side of Japan from the somewhat sanitised and regimented aspects we have encountered so far.
 Tuesday, May 1st
It is another hot and sunny morning as we depart Tokyo, leaving the hotel at 8:45am. The traffic is light as we head southwest towards the Five Lakes area where Mount Fuji is located. As it is well known that Japan’s highest mountain (12,390-feet) is often hidden by clouds, the group is somewhat apprehensive despite the excellent weather. However, we are soon getting excellent views of this iconic peak, with its almost perfect cone shape, as we approach on the Chuo Expressway.
Our coach takes us to the Fujisan World Heritage Site where there is an observation deck with more excellent views of the mountain with its upper slopes covered with snow. We have arrived here ahead of schedule so have plenty of time to gaze at the beautiful Mount Fuji, and watch a DVD regarding the mountain and the Five Lakes area. There is also a small museum here and a café where we get coffee. The coffee system requires us to make our selections and input coins at a machine at the entrance, present the resulting ticket to a waitress who brings us our drinks. We are able to top the coffee up with hot water from a machine, then drink, sitting at stools with views of Mount Fuji.
At 11:30am we leave the visitor centre and are taken to a restaurant in a nearby small town for lunch. Other than breakfasts, this is the only meal included in the Titan programme and consists of soup; salad; fish with rice; and a hot drink. There are more views of Mount Fuji from the restaurant.
Our next stop is at the nearby Lake Kawaguchi, where there are views of Mount Fuji across the calm waters of the lake. After group photos, we walk alongside the lake through colourful gardens. We then share an ice cream, an unusual treat for us on this trip, unlike a couple from Yorkshire (Marilyn and Brian) who have one each at every opportunity. Leaving the lake at 1:45pm, our driver takes us along Highway 137 (an extension of the Chuo Expressway we followed this morning) through Kofu and Nirasaki to Lake Suwa. The road passes through some beautiful scenery. After the high concentration of buildings in Tokyo, it is good to see the countryside with its paddy fields and the lovely mountain scenery, some of the more distant mountains are peaked with snow. But nowhere do we see domesticated animals - there are no fields containing sheep or cattle.
The coach makes a stop of nearly 30-minutes at a motorway service area at Lake Suwa. This is a pleasant place to stop for a (free) cup of tea, with its views over the lake. We talk to a Japanese man as we have our tea, and discuss our travels so far with him. We reach the Buena Vista hotel in Matsumoto just before 4:30pm. Room 813 is very good, being spacious, modern, and well-appointed. We settle into the room by having a bath prior to meeting the rest of the group at 6:15pm. Matsumoto is the gateway to the Japan Alps, but its main attraction is its castle. We are scheduled to see the castle tomorrow, but Ruth and Akiko have suggested that we view the castle this evening as it is floodlit.
The walk to the castle takes about 40-minutes but does include the exploration of a local store, part of which is described by Akiko as the equivalent of Poundland, which is interesting but we do not make any purchases. The walk is well worthwhile as the castle’s keep is beautifully illuminated, the image being enhanced by reflections in the moat and a background of a dark blue sky. This is the oldest five-tiered keep in Japan, dating from 1593, with its well-preserved moat and castle walls dating from 1504.
Walking back towards the hotel, we pass through an area of restaurants. We choose to eat in a Japanese restaurant called Akakara, whilst others go for a Korean establishment on the other side of the road - however, four soon change their mind and follow us. Akiko is on hand to help with the menu, but a diner at an adjoining table passes us a menu with some English. We share a salad and then wait for the chicken kebabs we have also ordered, but after quite a long wait, we have to remind the dim waitress to bring these. A good value meal to end the day before another early night.