Seeing Ayer’s Rock at Sunset from the Sky

We spent a couple of days near Ayer’s Rock earlier this year and one of the options available from our hotel was a sunset helicopter ride with Professional Helicopter Services, which of course we jumped at. Shortly after the agreed time a small people carrier collected us at the hotel for the short journey to the airport. The helicopter actually takes place from a piece of land adjacent to the main Ayer’s Rock airport, so it’s a familiar journey.

The company we used clearly wasn’t a significant operation. The van driver was also the pilot and organiser (collecting payment if necessary, checking everyone’s where they should be etc.). There was no waiting area, so we sat in the van whilst the pre-flight checks were completed. Shortly afterwards we made our way to the waiting helicopter and the pilot kindly took photos of us in front of the aircraft. We were sharing with two other passengers on this occasion.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that the trip we had booked was for Ayer’s Rock and Kata Tjuta, the two independent rock formations in this area. Whilst Ayer’s Rock is the more well known of the two, Kata Tjuta is the more interesting. It’s taller and the formation itself is more visually interesting. However, Ayer’s Rock does have an allure to it that’s difficult to describe.

 Ayer's Rock at the start of the flight.
Ayer’s Rock at the start of the flight.

Both rock formations stand in stark contrast to the surrounding area which is completely barren and flat. Seeing them from the sky really emphasises just how far away you are from anything else. It’s rather humbling.

This trip is arranged so that you see Ayer’s Rock as the sun is setting, which means heading out towards Kata Tjuta first. I was sitting in one of the back seats and saw Kata Tjuta emerging on the horizon. Quite a sight with the low sun casting long shadows and basking everything in a warm light.

Kata Tjuta is very large, the photos don’t really do it justice. In fact, if you look at the photo below you can see a black spot just above the horizon, about a quarter in from the right. This is actually another helicopter that was take the same tour that evening. You can also, just about, make out vehicles on the ground. They are tiny in comparison to Kata Tjuta. I also like that from that angle, Kata Tjuta looks like a question mark.

 Kata Tjuta from the sky.
Kata Tjuta from the sky.

After circling Kata Tjuta, getting to see it from multiple angles, we headed towards Ayer’s Rock for the finale. The flight is actually very well coordinate to ensure everyone gets a good view and an opportunity to take photos. As I mentioned, I was in one of the rear window seats and there was never a need to reach across my seat mate as the pilot flew in such a way to allow everyone an equal opportunity. The windows were also bubble shaped allowing for a great view and photographic opportunities.

The sun was low by this point, so the sight of Ayer’s Rock in the distance is one to behold.

A rare rain shower on the horizon

Much like Kata Tjuta we circled Ayer’s Rock to get multiple views. We even managed to catch an incredibly rare sight in this part of the world, a rain shower in the distance. This was made all the more spectacular by the warm sunset light illuminating the falling water against a blue backdrop. Simply stunning to see. The pilot mentioned that on occasion you can see wild kangaroos and other animals roaming the surrounding area but we weren’t so fortunate.

Ayer’s Rock casts a long shadow at this time of day, as you can see form the photo below. It also glows a warm red colour that evolves throughout sunset. It seems to actually emit its own light at times and the shadows play and dance across its face.

Seeing it from the sky was a magical experience, and far superior to the previous night where we watched it from a viewing area with hundred, if not thousands, of other people complete with tour guides, buses and so on. You can see the viewing areas in the photo below towards the bottom right.

 Ayer's Rock at sunset, from the sky
Ayer’s Rock at sunset, from the sky

This was a remarkable experience, and one I’d recommend. Overall I found Ayer’s Rock, Yulara and Uluru to be a little disappointing. It felt forced and overly touristy, but this experience made the journey more than worthwhile.

Tips for Visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

It feels a little bizarre to recommend visiting a fish market as a tourist, but Tsukiji Market (aka Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market) in Tokyo is worth the visit. It’s the biggest fish market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any type, anywhere. It’s a sprawling complex on the banks of the Sumida River in the Tsukiji area of Tokyo and is a hustling, bustling trade hub.

There are a few things you should know if you plan on visiting.

Get there quickly

Despite a fair amount of opposition, it’s looking like the fish market will be moving away from Tsukiji in late 2016. If you want to see it as it is now (highly recommended), go now before it’s too late.

Get there early

If you’re planning on seeing the daily auctions (and you should plan to do this, this is the main attraction), get there very early. Visitors are split in to two separate groups of 60 people each. The first group will enter the market at around 5:30 with the second visiting at around 6. The official website says registration starts at 5am, but it actually starts much earlier and you will almost certainly miss out if you arrive at 5. Registration consists of being given a coloured vest. Once all the vests are gone, there’s no more space. You cannot reserve a space in advance. My recommendation, and it’s what I did, was to visit on your first day in Japan. I was jet lagged enough that I was awake anyway, so it wasn’t too big a pull to get up at silly o’clock. If you do this, be sure to plan for a power nap at some point in the day, because you’re body is probably going to take one regardless of whether you plan for it or not (I fell asleep on the underground, which I have  habit of doing).

A lot of the guides I read before hand recommended getting there for 4am. I’d aim for 3:30 am at the latest to get in the first group. We got there shortly before 4 and were in the second group. You will have to wait in quite a cramped waiting room once your registered but feel free to sit on the floor. There are also toilets outside (head right out of the door, then right again at the road and the public toilets are just before the bridge). After registering I actually wandered around the area for 30 minutes or so.

Know where you’re going

Embarrassingly, we found it a little difficult to locate the registration area. Our taxi dropped us off on Shin-Ohashi-Dori, which is where the market is. It is not, however, where you need to go to register. To register, head to the building marked on the map below. There are signs, but your best bet is to look for the large group of very tired looking people wearing bright waistcoats.

Once you arrive, you are given a multi-lingual information sheet that includes a map of the whole complex. It’s handy, but perhaps a little too late if you’ve already struggled to find the reservations building. You can download a similar sheet on the official website though.

If you want breakfast, be prepared to queue

Getting a delicious fresh fish (sashimi) breakfast at the market seems like an obvious choice. Be warned though, the queues for the more popular eateries can be two hours plus immediately following the auction. If you’re ordering something, definitely go for the fatty tuna sashimi.

If you’re looking for something else to do after the market, Ginza isn’t too far away and is a good place for a bit of shopping therapy.

Be aware that this is primarily a functioning market

The tourist aspects of the market are secondary. This is primarily a functioning market where people earn their living. As such there are some strict rules which are enforced. Read up on these rules before visiting, otherwise you will not be granted entry. Also be aware that you have to walk through large parts of the wider market to get to the auction room and you will encounter vehicles moving quickly through the area. It’s also going to be dark at the time you’re there, so be careful, follow the instructions of the guards and stay with the group.

One other thing to be aware of is that when you’re in the auction room it’s quite a tight squeeze and you need to make some space for yourself. You’re also going to see a lot of dead fish, if you’re squeamish about such things, this may not be for you.

Enjoy the experience

The video above contains some scenes from the market, both inside the auction room and the surrounding area. The auction is remarkable to watch. It’s fast moving, completely unintelligible for those uninitiated in fish auctions (and those who don’t speak Japanese) and fascinating. You can also spot the buyers examining the large tuna that constitute the day’s catch and doing deals all over the complex.

The fish themselves are impressively huge, and there’s a lot of them. There’s also a frenetic energy around the place and interesting things happening everywhere. It’s hard to follow what’s going on, but it doesn’t really matter. I’d recommend walking around some of the small shops inside the larger market complex after seeing the auction to see what the restauranteurs are doing with the catch you just saw being sold as well as to see some unique things for sale. You can also catch a peak in to some of the working areas in the market, which is very interesting.

Visiting Arashiyama, Near Kyoto, Japan

If you’re in the Kyoto area, it’s well worth the short train journey to Arashiyama. Using your JR Rail Pass, it’s about 15 minutes from Kyoto arriving in to Saga-Arashiyama Station on the Sagano Line. We stayed in central Kyoto near Karasuma so it was a quick trip on the Tozai line to Nijo Station and then the Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama, about 25 minutes total.

Arashiyama is a fairly touristy area and can get quite busy. However, there are a few reasons that make the trip worthwhile.

Bamboo Grove

 Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Probably most famous of all the attractions in Arashiyama is the Bamboo grove. I was a little surprised when I arrived at the bamboo grove (less than a ten minute walk from the station that’s well signposted). Most of the photos you see show the grove as a relatively calm, quiet place. This does not match my experience. Despite the photos, it was really busy. Whilst I’d heard this might be the case, I wasn’t expecting there to be taxis driving along the road you’re on as you walk through the grove. The further you walk though, in general, the quieter it gets.

Do make sure you walk right to the end though, not least because it’s the entry to the next attraction.

Okochi Sanso (Ōkōchi Sansō) Villa & Gardens

This is one of the more overlooked gems in Arashiyama, and was relatively quiet on the day we visited (I suspect because of the roughly 1000 yen entry fee). Okochi Sanso Villa is a collection of buildings and gardens originally built over a number of years by famous Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro. The buildings aren’t accessible but the gardens are worth the entry price alone. Especially in autumn, which is when we visited.

The gardens are separated in to different types of arrangements, including moss gardens, trees, shrines and a tea garden (the entry fee includes a cup of tea). What’s impressive is how the paths are crafted to reveal different parts of the gardens to visitors.

 View towards Kyoto.
View towards Kyoto.

It isn’t all about the gardens though. As you meander your way through the property you are, at various points, presented with wonderful views of Kyoto. Again, stunning in the autumn when the colours are out.

Iwatayama Monkey Park

 Warning sign and monkey at Iwatayama Monkey Park.
Warning sign and monkey at Iwatayama Monkey Park.

Visiting the monkey park is not for the faint of heart. The visitor centre is approximately 160m up (160m elevation, you’ll be walking further) a steep, twisting path that has to be walked (there’s no other way up). On a hot day, it’s quite a challenge. Depending on your fitness level and the weather, you’re looking at a hike of between 20 and 45 minutes. There are two routes, one of which is steeper but shorter, and another which is longer but less steep.

As you can see from some of these images, the path isn’t necessarily well maintained either. In some parts it’s quite overgrown and most of it is uneven. You’re fortunate if you’re walking on a section with a handrail (although most of the really steep sections do have handrails). There are some wonderful views of Kyoto though.

It’s also important to manage your expectations when arriving at the park itself. The visitor centre is little more than a shed with a small shop and toilets. You can purchase food to feed the monkeys for around 100 yen, but you have to feed them from within the building, you are not permitted to take the food outside with you. These are wild animals after all, and I can imagine it being quite uncomfortable were they to round on someone they believed to be carrying food. There are warning posted around the area to this effect advising you to avoid eye contact (although I don’t know what “Don’t put a load on outside” means!). I did receive a warning from one of the monkeys who gently punched me on the leg, but I’m unsure what my indiscretion was!

What’s remarkable about the Monkey Park is that there are monkeys everywhere. You have to be careful walking around so as to not step on one. Even when you’re walking up to the park (and back down again) there are monkeys in the trees above you. You can hear them, and see them. It really does feel rather wild at times. There are regular feedings performed by the staff in the park which brings out even more monkeys that were previously hiding in the trees.

Thankfully the walk down is much easier. If you’re a fan of wildlife (I’m told there are rare birds in the area as well), it’s a worthwhile visit.

Landing on a Glacier in a Helicopter in New Zealand

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New Zealand on a couple of occasions. The first time I tried on three separate occasions to take a helicopter flight to the glaciers. Each time I was thwarted by the weather. I even got so far as having the safety briefing before the flight was cancelled on one failed attempt.

So when revisiting New Zealand earlier this year I was more determined than ever. Unfortunately, my original flight was cancelled. I’d booked through the concierge at the St Moritz M Gallery Hotel in Queenstown and he quickly rearranged our flight for the morning. As morning rolled around, the flight was cancelled again, with a tentative reschedule for an hour later. It wasn’t looking good. Thankfully, the incredibly helpful concierge took my number and said he would get us on the first flight that day, and call me when they were ready to pick us up. A few hours later, and the call came, the Helicopter Line van was ready for us.

After a mad dash to get back to the hotel, we were sat in a van on our way to the airport (the helicopters take off and land adjacent to Queenstown’s main airport). We were sharing the helicopter with a family of three from the US. Once we were all weighed, seats were allocated to balance out the weight, and we were off.

Whilst the focus of the particular flight we chose was a glacier landing, the entire flight was absolutely stunning. Takeoff gives you a wonderful of Queenstown, and the trip to the glacier is really quite exhilarating. We were incredibly lucky with the weather. Heavy cloud was just clearing, revealing blue skies. This not only created some really interesting light, but also left small clouds hanging on some of the peaks and hovering in some of the valleys. Other than flying at sunrise or sunset, I can’t think of a better time to fly.

Our pilot was great fun. Unlike the rather sedate Helicopter flight around Ayer’s Rock, this was far more exciting. We hugged the rugged mountains, swerving around and over rocky outcrops before landing on the glacier itself. The pilot really was having fun.

The glacier landing itself was equally fantastic. We have around ten minutes to explore the area immediately around us. It’s difficult tot explain, but you’re in a small group, on top of a glacier which itself is on top of a mountain, which is in the middle of a mountain range. The photos don’t really do it justice.

 View from the glacier.
View from the glacier.

The flight back followed the Shotover river, giving stunning views, with clouds hanging in the valley. The pilot also did a superb job of pointing out points of interest along the way.

If you get a chance to take this flight, I’d thoroughly recommend it. Not only do you land on a glacier, but you get to see some stunning scenery from the air and, to top it all off, you get an exhilarating helicopter flight.

Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 2 – Buddhist Temple

In the first part of our look at traditional Japanese accommodation we looked at a ryokan, the traditional Japanese Inn. For many, this represents the final word when it comes to traditional Japanese accommodation, but there is another option.

Buddhist Temple

Yes, it’s possible to stay in a genuine, functioning Buddhist temple.

Unlike ryokans, which are plentiful, staying in a Buddhist temple will require a little more adventuring. Not a lot, and far less than you’d expect, but a little more. The temple we stayed in was in a small town called Koyasan, which is located mid way up Mount Koya.

Yes, this is a Buddhist Temple mid way up a mountain! Awesome.

Getting to Koyasan requires a fairly convoluted train journey. We set off from Kyoto at around 11am and arrived at the temple at around 3pm. This involves catching a train from Kyoto to Osaka, then using the Osaka mass transit system to get to Namba and then another two trains before finally reaching the Nankai Koyasan Cable Car, which is the primary way in to the town. The cable car is quite an adventure in itself. It’s incredibly steep with stunning views all around. It’s worth noting that the Namba to Koyasan section of this journey is not covered by the excellent Japan Rail Pass.

The driveway leading to the temple

Upon reaching the top of the cable car, you simply locate the correct bus, jump on and away you go. Ten minutes later and we were outside our accommodation for the night, the Fudoin Temple. I’ll cover Koyasan in more detail in another post.

The entrance way is framed by two banners and a rock with Fudoin etched in it. It’s then a short walk up to the main complex.

The temple was reminiscent of the ryokan. Shoes had to be removed upon entry and the sleeping arrangements were the same (i.e. mats were laid on the floor only when it was time to sleep). Again we had a private bathroom. Apart from the morning ceremony and dining, we only really dealt with one monk (I’m unsure as to whether he was actually a monk, but I think any layman would describe him as such). He was very friendly, welcoming and spoke a little english. It’s always surprising how enthusiasm and friendliness act as ample substitutes for a common language.

 Dinner in the temple.
Dinner in the temple.
Dining room

Rather than food being served in your room, it was served in a communal dining room. It was a set menu and all meals were served to all guests at the same time. The communal dining room was beautiful, with approximately eight tables set out with screens between each. There were only three other tables occupied when we ate. The screens were adorned with traditional Japanese art, as were the walls. Some of the guests wore their yukatas to dine. Mine was on the small size, so I did not.

As this is a buddhist temple the meals served are entirely vegetarian. In fact they follow Syojin ryo, which is a buddhist approach to cooking that incorporates five cooking methods (raw, boil, grill, fry and steam), the five tastes (sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and salty) and five colours (white, yellow, red, blue and black). Koya Tofu is also served as well as sake should you want it (hot or cold). I’m not an expert in Japanese cuisine by any means, but I’m told that this particular style of cooking is inspired by the Koyasan area and is meant to provide spiritual and mental strength.

First, a disclaimer. For me to consider something a meal it has to contain meat. I’m a lover of meat and struggle with vegetarian meals. In fact, I believe this was the first vegetarian meal I’ve ever eaten. To say I was impressed would be a massive understatement. The meal was really quite fantastic. The standout was the Koya Tofu and the tempura style vegetables. My girlfriend, who’s a fair weather vegetarian, said it’s the best vegetarian meal she’s ever had. 

Upon finishing dinner we returned to our room to find that the beds had already been made. The beds were very very similar to those in the ryokan, with a pad laid on the floor and covered blankets provided. One thing to note, however, is that the temple can get very cold. We visited in November and whilst the rest of Japan was reasonably warm Koyasan in general was really rather cold and wet. There is a space heater provided in the room which we used, but the smell from the oil fuelling it was too much for extended use. Thankfully the blankets on the beds were warm and I had a comfortable night (although I generally prefer the cold). As you can see, a television was also provided in the room as was a private toilet.

You’re given the option of attending the morning ceremony. After all, this is a functioning Buddhist temple. The call is very early, and you’ll be fetched from your room at the agreed time. The ceremony lasts for about 30 minutes and is, to a degree, interactive. That is, you’re asked to come to the front and light candles. It’s actually very relaxing, with a lot of typical chanting and singing. There’s also an english section where some of the temple’s history is spoken about (the resident monk studied English at university). They also talk about the history of Koyasan, mount Koya and the particular sect of Buddhism practiced in this area (Esoteric, or Shingon, Buddhism). All in all, fascinating, and a great way to start a day of exploring.

Following the ceremony, you’re taken immediately for breakfast. Breakfast was significantly smaller than dinner but also delicious and meticulously served and presented. It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere in the dining hall when eating. It’s quiet and respectful. It’s completely incomparable to any breakfast you’ve ever had at any hotel.

Koyasan is a UNESCO World Heritage site and unsurprisingly there’s a lot of history in the temple itself, including the mausoleum of an Empress. The grounds are stunning, especially in the autumn (also, I’m told, May, when the rhododendrons are in bloom).

Koyasan should be near the top of anyone’s list when visiting Japan and if you’re looking for an authentic experience there’s few better options than Fudouin Temple.