Month: October 2012

J2K12: Hakone

And we are now in Hakone, a hot-springs (温泉) area about 2-hours from Tokyo, starting the trip off right with soaking in the hot springs and just relaxing.

In Shinjuku, we spotted some amazing parfaits.

And on the train up, the conductor let us know when Fuji-san was in sight.  Fuji-san not being shy.

Always the contrast of old and new, too: castle and train yard.

At our inn, the balcony sitting area serves a dual purpose as our sink area.  Toilets are shared down the hall, and the hot springs bath is directly across from our room.  Score!

As soon as we arrived in Hakone, I was reminded of how big the spiders are in the countryside here. (No photos of them by me, though.)  We settled into our aging ryokan and then wandered out to find some dinner.  (Neither our friend or I are fans of the meals they serve in inns; too much raw fish.)  The “about 15 minute walk from Station” to our inn was more like a 30 minute walk from station, straight up a hill.  Into the sun, on a fairly warm day.  We may be using the bus after our adventures today.

Ropeway, inclined railway, pirate ship and more await.  I see that the Soga brothers graves are in the neighborhood.  I may have to try to visit them.

J2K12: Saturday in Tokyo

Another lovely day in Tokyo today.  We started out by spotting some trainspotters in Nippori Station.

And we just happened upon a 草野球 (local baseball teams) game in Ueno Park.  (It’s me, of course I’d find baseball in autumn in the middle of Tokyo.)  This good-natured game was the Red Rox (no, that’s not a typo) and the Red Oceans.  The Red Oceans won 5-0.  We grabbed a seat near the Red Oceans bench and laughed as the players ribbed each other during the game.  So fun to be able to understand what they’re saying.

Ueno Park was also participating in the Green 2012 event.  There were booths, goods and produce from Tohoku, rice paddies (harvested and unharvested), vegetable gardens, and tons of other distractions.  Ueno Park also has a zoo.  With Pandas.  So, it’s always a zoo on the weekends.  It was even moreso today.

This was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen done with plants.  From the front, they look like normal (dried/dead) shrubs.  But on the back they had eyes of all sorts attached.  A huge mirrored surface was angled behind, so that you could see the front and back simultaneously.  Super, duper adorable.

Our destination was the Tokyo National Museum, where they are holding a special exhibition of treasures from Izumo Taisha, the grand shrine in Shimane prefecture.  As Izumo is on our list of places to visit this trip, the timing was perfect!  The exhibition was also in commemoration of the 1300th anniversary of the writing of the Kojiki, which chronicles the beginnings of Japan.

It was quite a fabulous exhibition, in spite of being only two rooms.  We spent more time looking at a few more rooms in the museum, but had reached museum saturation.  Time for lunch.

At Cocoichi curry.  The best Japanese curry on the planet.  A little shopping and back to the ryokan to rest up.  Not before a photo op in the park nearby.  Why do we not have fun things like this in the US??

The Tokyo Giants are playing the Sapporo Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japan Series (the Japanese World Series) starting tonight.  I proudly wore my Nippon Ham jersey around today.  Go Fighters!

J2K12: Mikan & donuts & elephants, oh my!

I’ve now visited during all seasons and can definitely declare that autumn is absolutely my favorite season in Japan.  Spring, with its sakura blossoms, is also quite lovely, but the cedar allergies pack a wallop.  Autumn is filled with that golden light, great foods, and beautiful changing leaves.  And mikan and かぼちゃ (a small pumpkin/squash).

Woke up on day one and munched on some mikan that we had purchased at a shop the night before.  Yum!  The Japanese do this little satsuma oranges better than anywhere else.  And they’re everywhere in the fall and winter.  I absolutely live on them while I’m here, somewhat to the puzzlement of my traveling mates, who don’t understand my obsession with these bitter little fruits.

Then we headed out to my favorite coffee shop chain in Japan, Mister Donut.  Not only do they have yummy donuts, they offer free refills on (quite tasty) coffee.  And before 11AM, you can get a morning set for 300 yen; which is about what other shops will charge you for coffee alone, with no refills.  The chain’s motto (or one of them) is “Mister makes you happy.”  I absolutely agree.  Their donuts aren’t really anything special, but there’s a charm to the shop that I can’t resist.  (Much like my attraction to mikan.)

Afterwards we headed to Hamarikyuteien, former Tokugawa shongunate gardens near Tokyo Bay.  (Right next to Tsukiji Market, we discovered.  Well, our noses discovered first, then we confirmed visually.)  We noticed that the park was participating in the Green 2012 campaign, which seemed to be about parks and green spaces in Japan.  We strolled along some stalls that had been set up and came across a stamp rally.  Woo!

Mikan, Mister Donut, and a stamp rally… all before noon?!  This was the best start to any Japan trip, ever.  It was like I was living my own personal Miller High Life.  In Japan.  Without Miller beer.  In any case, it was great.  We got our little stamp sheets, which directed us to 5 locations around the park.  Stamp the appropriate Tokugawa shogun into the appropriate circle, come back and receive a prize.  The prize turned out to be seeds for Petunias and chamomile, with instructions on how to easily grow them at home.  Which is good, because while I inherited my father’s love of baseball, I did not inherit his green thumb.

The 300 year old pine in the garden.

Cloyce making friends with the largest aloe I’ve ever seen in my life.  (We come in peace!)

Views of the gardens and the skyscrapers around it.  This is one of the things I love about Japan, the coexistence of the very old and the very new.

An elephant made entirely of succulents.  (No donkeys to be found.)

After a lovely walk through the gardens, we headed for the station to head to lunch.  On the way, though, we made a slight detour to see the Hayao Miyazaki designed clock that is incorporated into a building facade near Shimbashi.  I’d seen it from the Yurikamome before, but hadn’t seen it up close.  This is another aspect I love about Japan, they just have stuff like this around.  Just because.  (Because it’s awesome and makes people happy.)  Note, this photo shows only about 1/3 of the entire clock structure.

On the way back to the station, I spotted this cute bear.  The bad pun is a bonus.

Lunch was at our favorite Hakata-style ramen shop in Tokyo, Jyangara.  Love is too mild a word for how I feel about their ramen.  I got their Hakata style with extra charsiu.  And as we sat and ate, we rocked out to American pop/rock music of the 1980’s.  When Duran Duran came on while I was eating my ramen, I seriously thought this was the best day ever.

Afterward, we popped over to Shinjuku to pick up some Laduree macarons for my host family.  We were headed there for dinner and I didn’t want to arrive empty handed.  I had wanted to get some whiskey in duty free (my host mom always had a whiskey soda with dinner), but they only offered it in one liter bottles.  I thought it would be a bit strange to show up with a liter of whiskey in hand.  So, macarons it was.

We arrived at my host family’s house just as my host dad was arriving home from work, still in the garage.  I say good evening and asked if it was ok to go in that way.  He told me to ring the bell.  So I did, and my host mom came out to personally greet us.  We arrived around 6PM and had the most wonderful time, chatting and dining on my host mom’s wonderful cooking.  “Nothing special” she had written in her e-mail.  Riiiiiight.  In addition to edamame and a couple of beautiful salad-type dishes with fish and veggies, konyaku, etc., there was homemade tempura, which she must have slaved away on all afternoon.  Later we were offered some fresh honeydew, from the cousins in Ibaraki.  All washed down with plenty of beer and some Australian dessert wine containing gold flecks.

We talked politics, travel, fishing, baseball (my host dad still can’t get over my interest in the Japanese high school baseball tournament), and more.  And laughed.  A lot.

A perfect end to a perfect first day in Japan.

J2K12: ひみつ旅行

And we’re off to Japan again.  This time a secret trip we planned in February, before I knew about the summer study abroad option.  Why secret?  Well, after our misadventures on the 2009 trip, we wanted to keep it simple and just enjoy the country ourselves.  (And we joke that Obama won the presidency during our secret trip in 2008, so let’s try it again this year.)

Hubby and his dad flew over in mid-October to travel around by themselves.  His dad had never been before, so they did a “best of” tour, including Hiroshima, Kyoto (Fushimi Inari and Nara), and Takayama.

I flew in on the same dad that hubby’s dad flew out.  And unlike my experience on the direct flight from Portland over the summer (which was Not Good), the flight out of Seattle was a dream.  The nicest flight crew I’ve ever encountered, and I managed to snag a row of three seats (in cattle class+ on a 777) to myself, meaning I could lie down and nap between the turbulence and meal service.  Very Good.

Arrived at Narita to find hubby waiting for me.  Such a welcome sight after almost 24 hours of being awake.

After a little rest at our favorite ryokan in our favorite neighborhood in Tokyo, we headed to our favorite okonomiyaki shop in Tokyo.  Which is, conveniently, just around the corner.  We’ve been going there for 5 years now and this is the first time I’ve been able to understand and make conversation with the owners.  Japanese degree, banzai!!  This is precisely the reason I studied and worked so hard.  I know I’ve still got a long way to go, but being able to communicate with the people we see while on our travels just makes me so happy.

Not only is the okonomiyaki super tasty and the owners so nice, but the shop is also filled with baseball memorabilia.  Every wall surface is filled with sign boards and jerseys and other gifts from pro Japanese players.  And there’s Kuro-chan, the (elderly) shop cat who was there to give us some loving.

A great start to my trip.


The first ten years of my life were spent living here and there around the globe, following my dad’s job in the US Air Force.  When we were stationed in the States, we lived in the Midwest, so the sight of barns, with their red paint and sloping roofs, and tall, cylindrical silos was always familiar to me.  And still is familiar to me.  As with many things that become so familiar, you sometimes stop seeing them: they’re normal, they’re everywhere, they’re nothing unusual.

Except they are.

In the latter weeks of my six-week intensive Japanese language program at Waseda this summer, we were working on a chapter about travel (I think).  The co-author of our text is a professor in Wisconsin, so the American slant is very midwestern.  In one of the reading sections, an essay about travel around Japan, it was talking about Hokkaido, the northernmost main island.  It discussed how different it was from the main island (Honshu) and mentioned that one could even see American-like barns and silos in Hokkaido.  How foreign!

In my class of a dozen students, there were two Americans (including me).  The rest of the students were from China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Thailand, and my sensei was from the Tokyo area.  So, as common as this image of barns and silos would be for those who grew up or lived in the Midwest, it would be completely foreign to those living half-way across the world with a different agricultural infrastructure.  My sensei had searched on-line and found some images of barns and silos to show the class what they were.  We then had a brief discussion about what the silo’s purpose was.  In Japanese, of course.  (Talk about topics they don’t teach you in Japanese 301!)

What was so familiar and commonplace to me was new and unusual to others.   While my life is normal to me, to someone from Japan it would be as foreign as living in Tokyo felt to me.  This makes me think about re-seeing the familiar and commonplace in my life from a different point of view.  And appreciating it.

A little reminder that the value of foreign exchange does not lie entirely with what you learn in the classroom.


Photo credit: The Minnesota plains, taken by my lovely sister K.