Yawn. Another hack wallowing happily in the trough after scoring an all-expenses-paid travel junket.
Six days in Japan. Visit a handful of cities, poke the old honker into various grog goblets, feast on the mind-blowing food, check out some temples and attend a rugby test.
Cruisy? It was. But, hang on. Let’s try a different spin on this. How would such a trip have been received by the ‘real’ people, the sort who will have to dip into their own purses to visit Japan during the Rugby World Cup later this year?
Which excursions on this pre-RWC reconnaissance gig would appeal to other New Zealanders? Any that wouldn’t? Rather than subject readers to the ramblings of a dated reporter, here’s a chance to walk in some imaginary shoes and give the punters their say.
Let’s call our fictional friends Ali and Joel. Let’s also say they are dairy farmers, the sort of hard working Kiwis worth celebrating. They pay the taxman big sums, work long hours, stress over financial issues and fret about the weather. A holiday is required.
Alison (Ali to her pals) is the real force behind the marriage. She likes getting things done, whether it’s in the cow shed or feeding out the silage and plays rugby for the local club. Her team won the competition last year. Ali, along with her team-mates, got a tattoo to mark the occasion.
Joel (his mates call him Slug because he doesn’t move far from the kitchen) is an old fusspot. Loves cooking, doing the accounts and listening to Mariah Carey. Can be a real bore after a couple of wines. Truth be known, he cannot stand rugby. But, man, he is looking forward to the Japanese cuisine. Game on.
Tokyo. The big smoke. Population: About 9.3 million people.
Good news. You can buy a coffee at a cafe upon arrival at Haneda International Airport. Rather than be a caffeine snob and pick the eyes out of your flat white, enjoy the chance to start recovering from the overnight flight.
The 24-kilometre drive into the city takes about 30 minutes and a visit to the Shibuya scramble crossing, the busiest in Japan, is non-negotiable.
It’s where pedestrians rush from every direction into the intersection. Some tourists literally climb nearby structures to get footage of this migration. No joke. They go ga-ga.
Ali’s reaction: Take it or leave it. Something for the millennials to get excited about.
Joel’s reaction: What does this all mean for the carbon footprint? So many people, so little space.
Close by is the Harajuku neighbourhood, aka Tokyo’s “kawaii” capital. Here you’ll find all manner of shopping, food and drink – from quirky cosplay stores and vintage clothing to rare designer finds.
If you want to visit a cafe with owls, you can do it here. Dogs, rabbits, cats and hedgehogs are also in venues, but we’d advise against it – they are not known for the best treatment of animals.
Then it’s off to get nude.
Not before a two-hour drive out of Tokyo, though. Once the bags are unpacked and the legs are stretched, there’s an onsen experience awaiting. It will help flatten out the crinkles.
A dip in an onsen (a public bath where water is sourced from natural hot springs) on this occasion is to be had at the Shuzenji Onsen Hotel Takitei. Females and men aren’t permitted to mingle in the communal pools. You also have to get naked. It’s tradition, so get your gear off.
Bad news for folks like Ali. Some (not all, and if in doubt ask) establishments don’t permit inked-up customers to dip in their pools. Rules are rules, Ali. Keep your kit on.
Now for some cultural action. Mt Kuno is the destination, about 7km east of Shizuoka, where the Kunozan Toshogu shrine is the target. Built to commemorate Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, a respected general from about 400 years ago, it attracts international and domestic tourists.
Ali’s reaction: Loved the cable car ride (the locals call it a ropeway in English) and scenery.
Joel’s reaction: Couldn’t get enough of the history. There’s enough information to make your head hurt.
Next, a sake brewery tour.
It’s a couple of hours motoring into the mountains; a spectacular drive, enhanced by the fact the Japanese also drive on the left hand side. It’s also a treat to get off the motorways, away from the ubiquitous safety barriers to view the rice paddies and farms.
The entrance to the Sekiya Brewery is no great mystery. Lots of sake bottles lined-up here. The making of the Japanese grog is a process that requires rice and water in large quantities, along with hygiene and technical skill.
Ali’s reaction: Enjoyed the tasting, asked for a top-up. Purchased a few bottles to kill the jet lag. Would recommend this brewery to curious Kiwis seeking to deviate from the beersies.
Joel’s reaction: To be honest, a pinot gris would be preferred. Politely took a wee sip from Ali’s glass.
But enough about the booze.
It’s time to advance to Toyota City. More specifically, the 45,000 capacity Toyota Stadium where the All Blacks play Italy in their final pool match on October 12. There’s a retractable roof, but it hasn’t been used in yonks. Will it be used during the World Cup? We were told no.
Next up is the Toyota Kaikan Museum. Warning sirens: This will appeal to the automobile and technology types only.
Ali’s reaction: No comment.
Joel has his say: Loved the car covered in fake fur, complete with big ears at the back and the number plate that read “DOG”.
Nagoya, about 25km away from Toyota awaits.
Nagoya, the centre of the Japanese aircraft industry during World War Two, was bombed extensively during the conflict and Nagoya Castle’s Towers and the Hommaru Palace were destroyed in the air raids of 1945. The long awaited restoration of the Hommaru Palace began in 2009 and was completed last year. Words cannot do the project justice.
Ali’s feedback: A marvellous effort. As for Joel: Stunned by the attention to detail.
The SCMAGLEV and Railway Park will get a train spotter’s heart thumping like a hammer.
If you’re not into trains head straight to the “Greatest Railway Diorama Room”. This is the most large-scale diorama in the world, the theme being a “day in the life of a railway”. Seriously, it’s a beauty.
Joel: Lost for words. Has loved trains ever since he was a kid.
Ali: Forget it. You either get it, or you don’t.
The city of Oita, on the island of Kyushu.
Oita is where the All Blacks play their second pool match against Canada on October 2. If the All Blacks want to get away from the urban scene, they could do worse than visit the picturesque resort town of Yufuin, situated on Lake Kinrinko, in their spare time.
It’s about an hour’s drive away from Oita.
The hot springs resort town itself is nestled below the twin-peaked Mt Yufu.
Joel says it best: Beautiful area. Tells Ali he would happily miss the All Blacks’ game and spend a few extra days chilling in Yufuin.
Ali says: Nonsense, Joel. Get your priorities right.
Nearby is Beppu. Or, to give more detail, the “hells of Beppu”.
These are steaming hot pools. You don’t bathe in them, unless you’re completely off your head. Tourists flock to view the steam rising, and marvel at the blood-coloured water.
Over to you Ali: Been to Rotorua and also hunted up the back country of the South Island, so seen a few hot pools over the years.
And Joel says: Couldn’t get enough of the steam. It reminded him of the time he told Ali he had crashed the ute.
Back to those All Blacks. They might fancy a feed of horse meat while waiting to play the Canadians.
But first they may see value in taking a drive into the Kuju highlands and booking a horse for a ride, dressed as a Samurai warrior, at Kokopelli Western Rides.
Hunger pangs will be easily conquered. A nearby restaurant serves “soy sauce koji malt seasoned” horse meat served in broth. It tastes just fine, too.
Ali’s reaction: Nothing like some red meat for the iron levels. Tender and nicely marinated. Give me horse any day.
Joel says: Never been so happy to be a vegetarian.
There’s also time to squeeze in another temple. This could also interest the All Blacks, particularly if they want to indulge in some spiritual activity at the Monjusenji Temple and experience a Buddhist rite of cedar-stick burning.
Be warned, you will be asked to write your name and wish on a stick before it is incinerated. Prior to the flame engulfing your private message, it will be read aloud to your travel partners. Yes, there is potential for embarrassment.
Back in Tokyo. Then drive to Yokohama. You can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s just one big, sprawling city.
There’s a rugby test between the All Blacks and Wallabies at International Stadium Yokohama Stadium to be viewed. It’s a dead rubber and the All Blacks coast to an easy win.
The stadium, which will host the World Cup semifinals and the final, is a giant. It has a capacity for 72,300 bums on seats, but only 46,140 turn up to squint at the All Blacks-Aussies test while trying to convince themselves it defeats the purpose of being there if they keep glancing at the big screen.
It is advisable to take a set of binoculars. This stadium isn’t purpose built for a sport played on a rectangle of grass.
Ali’s view: It’s no Twickenham. But the team in black won. Joel’s take: Glad the opera glasses were packed.
New Zealand footy fans like a beer, and there’s no crime in that. When in Yokohama, the Noge area is one of the primo places to be for those supporters – young and old – to experience the nightlife.
When the time comes to celebrate, or commiserate, after a match there are no shortage of outlets that sell the party juice. Depending on where you go, you can pay around $10 for a glass of beer. Much more in some places, less in others.
As for a crash pad, you could do much worse than the Prince Hotel Shin Yokohama. You can see Yokohama Stadium from this high rise, and it’s within walking distance.
Ali and Joel would be impressed.
MORE INFORMATION japan.travel
GETTING THERE Several airlines fly to Japan including Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific.
Richard Knowler travelled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organisation.