A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: pokano

Hanami and Fresh Fish

Or How All of Japan Goes Slightly Bonkers

We didn't schedule our trip to see the cherry blossoms. We figured we'd be too early. Plus the prices go way up. But somehow we lucked out and hit Tokyo just as hanami (cherry blossom viewing) went into full swing.

Inokashira Park is in the Tokyo suburb of Kichijoji, near where some of our friends live. This was a Tuesday afternoon:
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Here we are with our friends, Jeff and Mutsumi. DSCN2729.jpg

Wednesday we went to Ueno Park. The first thing we noticed was all the street food! Here's the yakisoba man in action. DSCN2790.jpg

This man is making something similar to taiyaki, except that instead of being fish shaped, this confectin is panda shaped. DSCN2794.jpgDSCN2795.jpg

One vendor was even selling gigantic turkey drumsticks (sorry, didn't get a photo). Here's chocolate covered bananas: DSCN2799.jpg And grilled whole fish. DSCN2800.jpgDSCN2802.jpg And who can resist grilled, skewered crab kamaboko? We couldn't. DSCN2803.jpg And, of course, there was takoyaki (octopus balls). DSCN2839.jpg

And then there were the cherry blossoms! Everywhere! DSCN2947.jpgDSCN2948.jpg

And everyone is in a great mood! DSCN2954.jpgDSCN2957.jpgDSCN2959.jpgDSCN2976.jpg

Corporations stake out areas for parties and the alcohol is flowing freely.DSCN2967.jpgDSCN2971.jpg Yet, we never saw any real obnoxiousness and for the entire day we were there, I think we saw maybe 2 policemen, looking bored.

The next day, at Shinjuku Gyoen Park, the festivities were more subdued, because alcohol isn't allowed in the park, and they were doing checks at the entrance gate to make sure you weren't bringing anything in.DSCN3027.jpgDSCN3075.jpg

We felt very fortunate to have seen the cherry blossoms.

Finally, we thought you might enjoy a video and photos we and our friends took at a Tokyo restaurant. In case you've ever had any doubts about the freshness of Japanese seafood, take a look at this.

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Posted by pokano 06:54 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Kurashiki Adventures

Wish We Could Have Stayed Longer!

We're again woefully behind in our blogging. Now in Tokyo--coming home on Saturday. Hope to catch up before we leave.

No, we'd never heard of Kurashiki before we started planning this trip. It was in our guidebook and sounded interesting, so we decided to go. It's a friendly city of slightly less than 500,000 people in Okayama Prefecture, just a 17 minute local train ride away from the big city, Okayama. Kurashiki's claim to fame (besides their white peaches and muscat grapes, which I would give an arm and a leg to try, but alas, we weren't there during the right season) is its historical district right in the heart of downtown, along a canal. Rather than tear it down after the war, the City encouraged businesses to move in, and now it's a thriving part of the municipal economy. Tourists, especially Japanese tourists, flock here seemingly every weekend.

large_AD590E30BF42447598C02B0648BFC48D.jpg Here's Dick's photographic masterpiece, taken as the sun was going down. He didn't realize until afterward that there was a gray heron in the photo!

DSCN2272.jpg The City Art Museum at night.

DSCN2416.jpg Traveling boys' baseball team. When their coach saw Dick's Mariners hat, he knew right away we were from Seattle!

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DSCN2444.jpg Senbei (rice cracker) shop. We bought a big one while it was still warm.

DSCN2478.jpg Achi Shrine, on a hill above the historical district, was a charming complex of temples.

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DSCN2494.jpgDSCN2513.jpg Must have been an auspicious day for weddings, because they were shuttling different wedding parties in and out of the shrine as fast as they could.

[Meanwhile, this young man was sitting along the canal, intent on his work. People kept coming up to peer over his shoulder to see what he was doing. img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/526039/DSCN2543.jpg]DSCN2561.jpgDSCN2560.jpgDSCN2558.jpgDSCN2556.jpg

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Cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom. DSCN2578.jpgDSCN2579.jpg

We spent a day in Okayama at Korakuen Park and Okayama Castle.DSCN2307.jpgDSCN2314.jpgDSCN2318.jpgDSCN2357.jpgDSCN2362.jpgDSCN2371.jpg The castle, alas, was bombed to smithereens except for one corner during the war, so most of it is a 1960's era replica. But a pretty striking replica nonetheless. DSCN2375.jpg

Finally, pretty women in kimono in public places are fair game for anyone to photograph. They all display amazing poise and patience as total strangers snap their photos. While we were at Korakuen, we heard two European women yelp as they did an abrupt 180 degree turn and raced down the garden path so that they could get in front of these ladies to take their photos. Everyone was in good humor about it! DSCN2394.jpgDSCN2393.jpg

Posted by pokano 19:06 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

My Life Was on the Line (by Dick)

Traveling through our Stomachs!

After three weeks of pretty intense traveling together, a time in which both of us had been sick (and Pam's asthma had been acting up), and frequently too little sleep, a couple can get mighty cranky with one another. In the past I've referred to this phenomenon as "travellers' spats." The Friday afternoon we arrived in Kurashiki, we had a big one. In fairness, Pam's done the vast majority (really almost all) of the detailed planning for this trip -- both the basic itinerary and the details like hotels, ryokans, house and apartment rentals, and special restaurants and cuisines. That said, my strength is scouting -- a strength for which I am not always given quite the credit I believe this skill set warrants.

Anyway, we were walking around in the evening, not yet well oriented in Kurashiki, a brand new town for us, getting hungry and hungrier, and had no plan. When I'm hungry I can become what Pam would describe as "very mean to me." She had had it. We traded not niceties, we cried, I apologized; it wasn't the best of times. Finally, a terminally frustrated Pam issued an ultimatum: "You, Dick, will get on the internet, read from TripAdvisor and from our travel guide, and find us some good restaurants for breakfast and dinner tomorrow." Of course I capitulated, reflexively, assuring her that it was as good as done. But . . . I'm a bit of a dyslexic, have never been entirely comfortable with TripAdvisor nor carefully studied Japan guidebooks.

In theis already bad moment we stumbled into some sort of Italian-ish restaurant near our hotel, Cafe Ballade, where we encountered a memorably bad meal. Definitely not Italian, though the bright green can of Kraft parmesan presented to me to dust my "little neck clam pasta" suggested intent; and, equally definitely not too very Japanese. So bad that it will go down in our annals as among the worst ever.

After dinner I left a sad, moody, and grim Pam in our lovely hotel room. I diligently, compulsively scouted the neighborhood, wandering every lane and roadway in my quest for redemption, or at least tomorrow's provisions. Cigarette smoke stench signaled the approach of countless drinking establishments, inebriated salarymen stumbling into cool Friday night, and the occasional foodless neighborhood wine bar but, in a country featuring loads of incredibly good food, nothing that could begin to address this real crisis. I pushed on through the night, through Kurashiki's back streets, fatigue, worry and doubt growing. Finally I resolved to search for maybe a half hour more, and then return to the hotel, and to Pam'a wrath. There I would hunker down for a long evening with TripAdvisor, guide book, and maps. By morning, dadgummit, I'd have a clue.

Nearing 10 p.m. I passed a small, darkened, cafe, with a small sign hanging on the door: Le Bon. A menu, all in kanji, was clipped to the wall. Inside I saw some movement towards the back, and pressed my face against the window. I saw a man, maybe wearing a toque, and sensed perhaps he'd glimpsed me as well. I backed away, then peered in once more. Again, he appeared to see me. So I opened the door, asked if I could come in, and he beckoned me to enter. He was a young man, and the chef was a young woman. Their English was better than my Japanese, their French worse than mine, but they communicated that their's was a French-Japanese fusion restaurant, that they both came from Kyoto, and that they'd been in Kurashiki for three years. Laboriously we worked through their menu, though by the end of the effort I still wasn't entirely sure what they served, or whether it would be any good. But the place felt and smelled right; the "vibes," if you will, were promising. The two were incredibly cute, gracious, and enthusiastic, so I began to negotiate a reservation for the next evening. We agreed that I would call the next afternoon, after three, to confirm.

After leaving Le Bon I still chased down a handful of other streets, hoping to find some magic sure thing. It didn't happen. More smokey joints serving beer, sake, whisky and dubious food -- nothing that shouted out a message of my salvation. On my dejected walk back to our hotel I struggled to convince myself that Le Bon would be as good as my instincts suggested. There was also the question of how to communicate my unfounded enthusiasm for a completely unknown quantity to a justifiably skeptical Pamela -- on the one hand I had to raise her confidence that I'd found a quality restaurant, but, on the other, what had I got myself into?

The next day was better. We'd slept well, had eaten an okay bowl of ramen at Okayama Station en route to Korakuen Garden, had some yummy sakura ice cream while at the Garden, then headed back to Kurashiki for an early, 5:30 dinner at Le Bon. Here's Pam's TripAdvisor Review for our meal:

We had a GREAT meal at this tiny French/Japanese restaurant, staffed solely by a young couple from Kyoto. DSCN2405.jpgHe does the baking (except for the French bread, which is brought up daily by train from Onomichi) and side dishes; she does the main courses and the most amazing coffee we've ever had. Dinner started out with an oyster flavored creamy broth and beets vinaigrette. Delicious! We then split a salad of lentils, apples, Japanese oranges, with dabs of yummy yogurt, all flavored with coriander. The taste grew on us as we ate it. My main dish was the most amazing salmon preparation I'd ever had. Two thin half steaks of presumably Hokkaido sashimi grade salmon had been refrigerated wrapped in konbu--we were told this was a sushi chef's treatment for flavor, texture, and preservation. The chef sauteed the skin till crispy, but barely cooked the meat itself, which retained its buttery texture. This was served in a light but flavorful anchovy/lemon/caper sauce. Pure bliss! A preparation I will remember for the rest of my life! My partner had pork (possibly a loin cut) that had been cured in salt, leaving the fat as yummy as the lean, and then sauteed briefly in with a few whole cumin seeds, and served with a lightly orange flavored mashed sweet potato. Very tasty. The house red was French and delicious. Dessert was vanilla ice cream flavored with cardamon and pink peppercorns, served with a house-baked almond meringue cookie. My partner then ordered a coffee, which was simply amazing. The chef ground the coffee, then used a Melitta filter, a tall silver coffee pot, and a small pan, to make the coffee by hand--it probably took about 10 minutes, as she made sure that the temperature was properly maintained below boiling and meticulously saturated the ground coffee first before allowing anything to filter out. The result was the richest, smoothest coffee we've ever had. If you served this in the States, it would cost at least $10. Here it was 500 yen. Entire cost of dinner, around 7700 yen, or the equivalent of about $63 US, for a meal we probably would have paid at least 50% more for in the US. The chefs were wonderful to us, explaining what they were doing as they cooked (we sat at a counter right next to the kitchen).

Posted by pokano 18:04 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Dick on Onomichi/Innoshima

Our apologies for not updating the blog or, for that matter, Pam's Facebook, more frequently. After Onomichi, the focus of this blog post, we headed to Koyasan, the subject of a separate post that Pamela's preparing; there, we encountered cyber weirdness whilst staying at a Buddhist temple -- no email access, even though we had some other, limited internet access. Oneness and emptiness, I guess. We're in traveling mode, and there's so much to see and do (and eat) that dealing with the nuts and bolts of drafting and editing text and selecting and tweaking photos, and then uploading, etc., has a way of receding into the background of our priorities.

By way of examples: We've eaten lots of oysters (grilled, fried, poached, with udon, with rice and egg) here in Hiroshima prefecture. The region is famed for its oysters and we've made it our job to fact check. And we can confirm that the reputation is justified.DSCN1801.jpgDSCN1276.jpg

We returned to Pam's father's family's home area, Onomichi, this time for four days and three nights. Almost enough time. One doesn't go there for high falutin' big city culture; rather, it's Mediterranean warmth, casual atmosphere, dramatic scenery, role in Japan's film and literary history . . . and the stunning transformation we've witnessed in just the past year. DSCN1147.jpgDSCN1182.jpgDSCN1187.jpg DSCN1368.jpgTwo phenomena deserve note: One is that mainland Onomichi and the chain of islands that extend out into the Seto Inland Sea have become a major Japanese and international biking destination. DSCN1340.jpg The island string can be accessed via well-marked, seemingly bicycle safe inter-island roads and striking bridges connecting them, or by a well-run small-boat inter-island ferry system. DSCN1442.jpgOn weekends Onomichi's waterfront and ferries are overpopulated with archtypal bicyclists in proper helmets and silly spandex colors, many riding spectacular bikes made out of space-age materials. Several Onomichi hotels have become explicitly bicycle friendly -- most prominently Hotel Cycle (http://www.onomichi-u2.com/en/hotel_cycle.html) -- and the Onomichi JR railway station has a bicycle setup area. The city and the biking community have multiple weekend cycling events theroughout the year. (Parenthetically, I'm on a listserv for Garuda airlines, the Indonesian national carrier; late in 2014 they advised me of a promotion involving a long weekend of cycling in the region.)

The other almost startling evidence of Onomichi's rapid transformation is it's main covered shopping arcade.
We're no experts, but covered, multi-block street-based shopping arcades seem to exist in all of the small sample of Japanese cities we've visited. I expect they exist in part to address Japan's hot summers and frequent torrential rainy days. Regardless of their provenance, they're sort of charming, and can be quite stylish, very old fashioned, dowdy, hip, or an engaging combination of all of the above. The arcade near our little Shirakawa Cottage in Kyoto seems, over the last three years, to be case study in accelerating urban gentrification. Once, recently, a neighborhood shopping district with many shops shuttered or operated on short hours by elderly green grocers, fresh and dried fish mongers, dry goods merchants, butchers, hardware purveyors, etc., now the contractors have moved in, gutting, revamping, and repurposing spaces as guest houses, craft beer and eats joints, architects' ateliers, 100% organic cotton boutiques, French boulangeries . . . you get the picture. Many of the old merchants still exist, but their days, and the nature of the businesses they operate, are clearly numbered. Well, the same can be said for Onomichi's long covered arcade, which runs parallel to the waterfront, roughly two blocks up. A mere year ago it looked to be dying. On this visit we saw several new boutiques selling high-priced gear with contemporary design pretensions, fancier traditional Japanese sweets shops, fairly authentic Neapolitan-Japanese fusion pizzerias -- the contractors are hard at work remodeling Onomichi's arcade now as well. Of course this is all progress, and it beats the moribund scene of the recent past, but at the cost of distancing a place from its posterity, from its history.DSCN1234.jpg90_DSCN1248.jpg90_A88676A7D11AE125041406DA6856B1EE.jpgDSCN1254.jpgA88E024DFD15F3FA25BACB43EAA48A39.jpgDSCN1256.jpgDSCN1257.jpg

No such issues yet visible two islands down the archipelago, on Pam's father's Innoshima. Although it's flooded with bicyclists in clown suits on the weekends, there was zero evidence of anyone having figured out how to capitalize on this potential new market of hungry weekend warriors. No cafes or restaurants open . . . on the part of Innoshima we visited. Tour buses disgorged small crowds of (nonbicyclist) tourists at Innoshima's International Flower Center, provisioned with what appeared to be mainland catered bento box lunches -- not so much as one of Japan's ubiquitous drink machines. DSCN1388.jpgDSCN1386.jpgNow Innoshima is a small island, but not Lilliputian, and we walked a handful of kilometers through several villages. Nothing open. Countless small farms and large garden plots, a handful of cars and motorcycles, the occasional bus, no taxis. DSCN1404.jpgDSCN1430.jpgDSCN1420.jpgHere and there, by the roadways outside the gates of weekend idled shipyards and other light industrial facilities, perhaps a drink machine.

Posted by pokano 16:51 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

How Could It Get Better After Miyajima?

Koyasan!

sunny 42 °F

We really enjoyed our time in Miyajima, even though it was close to freezing at night and very chilly during the day. Our ryokan was in a park but only a 7-8 minute walk to the beach. I'm sure it would be even more wonderful during the warmer months (although no mosquitos this time of year), but we were almost always cold. So where did we choose to go after Miyajima? Someplace even colder--Koyasan, up in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. Getting to Koyasan is not trivial. Online it looks positively daunting, with multiple transfers: from the ferry from Miyajima, back south to Hiroshima, then up to Osaka on the shinkansen, catch a subway, catch a train in a completely different station, and finally a cable carDSCN1968.jpg, to a waiting fleet of buses that take you to your temple/hotel. I think we left Miyajima around 9:30 am and finally arrived at our temple around 4:30 pm, but the actual trip was much easier than it looked--Japanese efficiency in travel is incredible, and there's always someone to help you at every step of the way.

Koyasan is celebrating the 1200th (not a typo) anniversary of its founding by the monk Kobo Daisho (aka Kukai). Kobo Daisho sounds like he was an amazing guy. He was the one who developed hiragana, the basic Japanese script. He brought Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan. He was a fine engineer and was responsible for building the Toji Temple we saw earlier in Kyoto. And he got imperial dispensation to develop a temple community on top of a mountain of his choice--he chose Koyasan 1200 years ago because the mountain is flat on top and shaped like a lotus blossom. Today more than 100 temples grace the mountain, many of which offer lodging at various price ranges and levels of comfort. Back a millenium ago, it was said to be a two day journey from Osaka, but given the altitude that must be climbed (no cable cars then), those monks must have been excellent, swift hikers.

We stayed in one of the older temples in town, Fudou-in. It started snowing as we arrived and we could see big chunks of ice in some containers near the entrance. DSCN2214.jpgDSCN1979.jpg

Our room was WARM and comfortable. DSCN1982.jpgDSCN1983.jpgDSCN2219.jpgIn fact, it was so warm, we even had to turn off the space heater! How luxurious after cold Miyajima! And the food was fabulous--Buddhist temple vegetarian food.large_DSCN1984.jpglarge_DSCN2217.jpg The tofu was incredible (as it has been everywhere we've been, almost). So rich, so creamy. Nothing like we get at home. It's like a fine panna cotta or Russian cream without the sugar. They serve thick spoonfuls of it, sitting in a pool of fine quality shoyu with a dab of real wasabi on top. In the morning, for breakfast, they serve it with a dab of jam or candied citrus peel, and it's like eating the finest yogurt. Sure wish I could duplicate this at home!

There was also gender segregated public baths--so relaxing!

Serious students of Buddhism can come to Koyasan to study. For the rest of us early morning prayer service is entirely optional. Dick surprised himself by going twice!

The highlight of Koyasan for us was walking through Okunoin, the 1200 year old cemetery, laid out amongst the majestic Japanese cedars, some more than 600 years old themselves. The Japanese government has tagged several of these trees for seed stock. Whatever one's faith, the serenity and reverence of the cemetery were highlights of our trip. Enjoy the photos!

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And last, but not least, what cemetery can be complete without its own rocket? large_DSCN2069.jpg We have no clue what this was doing there.

Posted by pokano 15:51 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Photos, We've Got Photos!

And we know we're WAY behind!

The last several days have been really travel/tourist intensive. So we've fallen woefully behind in our blog. We've gone through 3 prefectures: Hiroshima, Wakayama, and Okayama, up and down mountains, and to the sea. We're gonna need a vacation just to recover from our vacation! In the interests of getting something up on the blog--especially for those of you who aren't on Facebook, here are some pictorial highlights.

The famous torii gate at Miyajima, low tide. large_DSCN1526.jpg
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DSCN1557.jpg Pagoda at Miyajima

large_DSCN1539.jpg Pagoda from Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima

Two women dressed up as Heian princesses at Miyajima! large_DSCN1572.jpg

DSCN1591.jpg A lovely selection of Miyajima seafood at our ryokan.

DSCN1586.jpg Futons laid out in our ryokan room. They were as comfy as they look. The big problem was that the room was ALWAYS cold!

large_DSCN1608.jpg Miyajima torii gate at high tide.

DSCN1612.jpg Miyajima is also known for its rice paddles. This one is billed as the largest in the world!

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large_DSCN1718.jpg Miyajima is a great place to people watch. And did we mention the tame deer?
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DSCN1738.jpg Itsukushima Shrine.DSCN1783.jpg

View over the Inland Sea from near Mt Misen on Miyajima. DSCN1844.jpgDSCN1851.jpg

Posted by pokano 06:40 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Adventures on the Hozugawa

Two days ago, en route to where this story is actually going, we went to a fancy shiatsu/massage clinic to schedule an early evening appointment for Pam, who hasn't been feeling well pretty much the entire trip. (The massage ended up being wonderful and very reasonably priced)

Scheduling accomplished, we hopped a couple of trains to get to Kameoka on the Hozugawa River, where we were to undertake a mildly adventurous two-hour river boat descent that would eventually deposit us 16 kilometers downstream at Arashiyama -- featured 2+ years ago in our fall colors spectacular blog. P1010565__.._arashiyama.jpgWater levels were fairly high, rapids interestingly rapid, the trees were just beginning to blossom, bird sitings--and even a monkey--were frequent, if fleeting, and everyone could wave at the people in the sightseeing train aboveDSCN1031.jpg; look around the site (http://www.hozugawakudari.jp/en) and you'll get a reasonably good idea of what we experienced and expected.)DSCN0968.jpgDSCN0992.jpg

What none of us, including our four-man crew (who probably had at least a cumulative 75 years on the riverDSCN0977.jpg)DSCN1022.jpgDSCN1017.jpg, had ever experienced or expected occured maybe two-thirds of the way through our journey. We passengers were enjoying the thrill of our seasoned crew navigating us through rapids, narrow chutes and past boulders, shrieks, laughter, river spray and applause punctuating their good-humored patter and displays of expertise. It's worth noting that the company that runs these river rides has departures every hour on the hour, except for ours (by my delberate decision because I wanted the difficult, but dramatic, late afternoon light for photography), the last departure of the day, one and one-half hours after the previous boat.

The design of the boat more or less requires passengers to look forward, rubber-necking to the right or left as sights approach. We were dodging through some big boulders when, for a brief moment, no more than a second I reckon, I glimpsed the back, head and legs of a black-haired, motionless man draped over the top of a Smart-car sized boulder in mid-river -- like a piece of wilted spinach on a baked potato -- no more than six feet from our boat. In the time it took to twist around to try to confirm what I had seen, we were past it; he was linear ancient history. Pam and I were the only non-natives on board -- everybody else spoke only Japanese -- so it wasn't immediately clear who had seen what, when, or for how long. Pam had seen a tad more than I, and both of us immediately began to watch the crew, looking for whatever their faces would reveal. Of course it was their job to be hyper observant, and certainly at least a couple of them had seen the man . . . but there were still several moments of uncertainty, during which time maybe 250 meters and 25 seconds passed, and we were several river turns past where the man had been spotted. But a plan had been hatched, evidently, and we swung into shore as quickly as we could. The crew secured our boat, someone was on a cellphone or walkie-talkie, and two of our crew disappeared on foot, heading back towards the sighting. Within short minutes we heard sirens and within mere moments more we spied a couple of cop-types scrambling over a fence high above, and down the steep canyon walls -- all unfolding amazingly quickly. DSCN1035.jpgThough the man was motionless and I had observed him for less than a second, I've seen people freshly dead or dying from accidents or wounds, and my instinct was that he was not dead. Over the next twenty minutes or so we watched as emergency vehicles and their personnel gathered on a bridge high above the river, then resumed our own river descent, a slightly more somber congregation than before. When we finally arrived at Arashiyama roughly half an hour later, there was a further assembly of fire, EMT and rescue vehicles still awaiting . . . extraction of the victim from the canyon cannot have been trivial. DSCN1064.jpgNobody spoke English, and we were now in a previously unexpected rush for a Shiatsu appointment back in Kyoto.

Posted by pokano 19:21 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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