Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Japan Days 26 & 27: Hello From Tomorrow

Our good luck nearly lasted to the end of the trip. We got just over a day of stunning Fuji views from our Hakone residence before it slipped behind a thick curtain of clouds and didn't show its face again. We departed a little disappointed on our last full day in Japan, but this made us appreciate the fact that we'd had one good day of viewing all the more.

In an effort to avoid Tokyo traffic (as its airport is actually quite far outside of the city), we wove our way around the metropolis and enjoyed a lunchtime stop in Yokohama. This romantic city sits right on the ocean and is known for its boardwalk, Ferris wheel, and nighttime lights. It's been a featured spot more than once on Terrace House (if we haven't convinced you yet, you should seriously watch this show!) as a place where many Japanese couples become "official." (There is quite a different and interesting dating culture here from our Western views that's worth learning more about).

We strolled the shoreline and enjoyed the colourful flower gardens that looked ready to fully burst with blooms within a couple of weeks. Baby chased pigeons, watched the boats go by, and climbed benches. We marveled at the huge bridge that leads out of the city, then hopped in our car to take it. Even more impressive (and slightly daunting) was the 24km long Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line that came next. It took us from the edge of land, underwater, out the other end in the middle of the bay, and up onto another humongous bridge.

We sailed into Narita just after 3 pm and settled in for the night at a quaint guesthouse surrounded by rice paddies and hillsides covered in bamboo. With mixed emotions, we organized our bags and prepared for our long journey the next day.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Japan Days 23-25: Mount Fuji

With a long travel day ahead of us, we left our ryokan at 6 am. We were enveloped in mountains just peering out above the early morning mist. The road winded through them then shot straight ahead via long tunnels that included off-shoot roads and entry points. We took a morning stretch at a random playground in an industrial park, then were back on the road again.

It happened quite suddenly. We rounded a bend, the trees fell away, and there it was, looming before us like the floating head in the Wizard of Oz. Fuji. There was a collective sigh between us as we realized this wouldn't turn into another Mount Cook debacle. The accommodation we were headed towards boasted Fuji views from a private balcony, and we were really hoping for a couple of days of relaxation enjoying this view.

But we had to get there first. Our next stop coincided nicely with our need to get Baby out of the car seat and our desire to see Fuji at its best: with copious cherry trees framing its figure. We'd been following the blossom forecast and it appeared that we may have timed it perfectly for full bloom for the weeping cherry trees at Saiko No Sato.

We stopped on our way in at a delicious burger joint and were excited to see a weeping cherry tree outside with gorgeous blossoms on it. When we finally found our way up the road to the open-air museum, we could not be happier. We feel the pictures pretty much speak for themselves here.

We continued onwards, having to get to the exact opposite side of the imposing mountain. In the process of stocking up on groceries in a nearby town, we lost one of our Bunny rattles, Baby's greatest inanimate comfort, and were relieved to be able to pull another swiftly from our packs and Baby was none the wiser.

At last we turned up the narrow crumbling street and drove to the very end and through the gates of our villa for the next few days. This wonderful rental allowed us to relax and make sure that we were rested for the upcoming transpacific flight home. We've seen a lot this trip: hoofed it around cities, basked in blossoms galore, slurped up soba, caught glimpses of Geisha, but there is something to be said for a little bit of family time rolling balls around and appreciating the change we've seen in our daughter over the last four weeks. We couldn't be happier!

The actual view from our private balcony!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Japan Days 20-22: Onsen Holiday

It felt great to hit the open road again, the first time back on the left since our amazing New Zealand and Australia adventure last year. There's so much freedom that comes with having your own car and for this trip it allowed us to reach further corners of the country than we would have been able to with Baby in tow (there are some places trains don't go).

We continued with our trend of staying in smaller and smaller towns (the population of each place we're visiting this trip is literally getting smaller with each stay) by heading into the rural mountainous region around Takayama.

Wanting a more traditional Japanese experience we booked a series of nights in two different ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. Each one had its own onsen (either a bathhouse or natural hot spring) inside and, since onsen are usually divided by sex as bathing is in the nude, an important bonus for us was that they each had a private onsen that we could all use together. Our before-bed baths as a family were lovely with the onsen providing a natural feel with stone and the second was open-aired with a small private courtyard, complete with cherry blossom petals floating down from the branches above.

Yukata (cotton robes similar to their silk Kimono counterparts) were provided by the ryokan for use going to and from the baths, around the inn and to dinner. Rooms were large and open and consisted of futon mattresses and duvets on the bamboo matted floor for sleeping and a low table for tea. We managed to rig up a screen so Baby wouldn't be distracted by us when she was trying to sleep, which sort of worked...

In Takayama, we took advantage of the range of our baby monitor and had dinner together after Babe had gone to bed - a real treat! Our indulgent feast included fish cooked on a "wanosato" (a fire of smoldering embers with river fish roasting on sticks so as to resemble a fish swimming upstream), miso soup, the best tofu of the trip in a sesame sauce, sashimi and assorted veggies, rice, a tempura course and on top of all of that, our meat dishes. Craig tried "shabu shabu" where you're given a small pot of boiling water to dip your thinly sliced beef in. (Shabu shabu literally translates to "swish swish" as you swish the meat back and forth to cook it). Erin had "donabe" where the meat is cooked in a ceramic dish at your table. Both were delicious and the entire experience felt very decadent with neither of us having to clean or cook or look after a child during the meal. It was very reminiscent of our favourite meal from our trip to Croatia!

During the days, we did our normal wandering through pretty streets but also found the time to go to a few museums. Wanting a deeper understanding of the subject matter, we also experienced it first-hand in the field before visiting the museum.

First, on our way to Takayama we stopped in Shiragawa to see the world heritage site of the preserved Hida homes in a lovely valley. Once in Takayama we visited Hida no sato (Hida Folk Village) consisting of homes that had been relocated before hydro-electric dams would have flooded them. It was done especially well. As you circled around the gorgeous pond (with a stunning view of the Japanese Northern-Alps as your background, I might add), you were able to take part in activities to help you understand their traditions and lives. There were games to play, straw to weave, silk to spin...you could honestly spend an entire day there.

With the Teddy Bear Eco Village only a few steps from our front door (billed as a museum of eco-consciousness), we just had to go. If not for us, so that Baby could see all the bears, and hopefully not be scarred for life.

Expecting something vaguely creepy, the museum contained well-designed (though somewhat inaccurate) displays on the history of teddy bears, their development through the 20th century, a very odd wedding chapel scene with enormous bears getting married, a surreal outer space room in a loft upstairs, and a series of vignettes teaching us about our planet and how we're wrecking the Earth for ourselves and our animal cousins. Embedded subtly in all of that was the belief in auras and aura cleansing (why not?). We could fill this entire post with pictures and videos from the museum but wouldn't want to spoil the experience for anyone else.

Not surprisingly, the mountains themselves were also a highlight of our road trip. On our drive from Takayama to Hirayu, we stopped to go up a set of ropeways, climbing well over a kilometre into the sky. We had a gorgeous day with spectacular panoramic views and there were hardly any people there. The second gondola was a double-decker, holding over 100 passengers! We lucked out and got seats right at the back and enjoyed views all the way up the mountain. On our way down we lived out a romantic Terrace House-inspired dream date by taking a foot bath in a bubbling sulphuric stream.

Ahead of us lay a long travel day that would get us to our next stop. We'd be going from the mountains to The Mountain...

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Japan Days 18 & 19: Kenrokuen

Brightly red burning
a heartlessly bitter sun
but spring's in the breeze
-Matsuo Basho, a haiku displayed within the Kenrokuen gardens
(terribly adapted by Craig from existing translations to more accurately reflect our experience)

A big reason for us to visit Kanazawa was that it contains one of the three great Japanese gardens, Kenrokuen. We walked the gardens twice, the first time to make sure we got there in the sunshine, with bad weather threatening the rest of our visit, and again in the early morning to have it to ourselves and avoid the tour groups. The magnificence of the gardens does not translate to pictures amazingly well, but that does not mean you will be subjected to any fewer photos.

Japanese gardens have six elements that combine to 'harmonize conflicting landscapes to produce contrasting beauties''. Kenrokuen is one of few that has all six of these features and this is part of what makes it a great garden. It also gives it its name which can be translated as “garden of six elements”.

The six elements are presented in seemingly contradictory pairs, at least in the pamphlet we were given.

Spaciousness and Seclusion: it was remarkable how well many different points of the gardens created both experiences simultaneously.

Artifice and Antiquity: the built environment and artificial natural elements should harmonize with the natural setting.
The bridge is actually a single slab of stone but by cutting into the side it creates a feeling of lightness.
Water courses and Panoramas: thinking back a few hundred years the effort and ingenuity required to have a massive pond, perfectly controlled streams creating hypnotic patterns as they flowed over just the right number of pebbles, and a waterfall, all on top of a hill with views of the surrounding city and distant mountains was, and continues to be, an impressive feat.

Notice how the tree branches extending out over the pond blur the line between water and land?
Baby neglected to turn a full 90° at the bend
to enjoy the juxtaposition of the two views.
Allowing Baby to walk and wander at her slow and meandering pace was a wonderful way to enjoy the gardens as it allowed for prolonged viewing of some scenes and for us to take the time to enjoy how the view changes with each step.

We cannot overstate the importance of watching the Japanese Style Originator episode on Japanese gardens before visiting. The episode specifically goes through the various parts of Kenrokuen and explains the significance and the meaning of each bridge and lantern and their placement. However, it not only increased our enjoyment of this garden, throughout the trip we noticed trees shaped to follow the contours of the shoreline or other minute, beautiful, details that we would have otherwise walked right by. (You may have noticed a few nuggets of wisdom from the episode peppered into the captions.)

Alas, like any great experience, it comes to an end, but waiting for the bus as you watch the movements of golden and red fish gently disturb the reflection of a castle lets the feeling linger just a little longer.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Japan Days 16 & 17: Kanazawa

It was our smoothest travel day thus far to get from Hiroshima to Kanazawa. We were feeling like we had our travel legs under us, getting out the door quickly and packing our bags more efficiently. Adventure Baby had figured out the routine, too, being content to sit in the stroller as we walked to stations, waving at all the buses she saw. This trip has certainly brought out a love of trains and it couldn't have come at a better time. We had to sit on the platform for twenty minutes during our transfer and she was thrilled by every train that went by, calling out "Choo-Choo" for everyone to hear. Other passengers continued to be friendly and engaging. You can bet that if there's a dog (real or stuffed) within a 12 mile radius, our daughter will find it. The woman in the row behind us was very patient, allowing Baby to sit with her for a full half-hour, playing with her keychain, phone, and purse.

Kanazawa itself was much more our pace. The streets were smaller and the buildings more traditional. It was what we imagined Kyoto would be like. We had three days planned in Japan's wettest city and were extremely fortunate to end up missing nearly all of its rain. The travel gods were doing us a favour this trip with forecasts frequently turning up warmer and drier than predicted! (It still rained.)

A big draw for Kanazawa is its three still functioning teahouse districts. We were staying just up the road from the largest and oldest, and enjoyed morning, afternoon, and evening walks through the narrow crooked streets.

Craig bravely taking on a Geisha in a sake drinking game
One of the teahouses opens itself up to the public (for a fee) in the evening in April to experience an evening with Geisha. There is much mystery around Geisha and it's an honour to be invited into a teahouse as a foreigner and without a guarantor. The event promoted a better understanding of Geisha, their training and practices, and is hoped to encourage and fund more women to become Geisha as it is a dying profession. We took turns on back-to-back nights. It was entertaining and informative, though given the steep price we would only recommend it to someone who is either interested in Geisha, traditional Japanese shamisen and drum music, or is good at drinking games.

Erin has little interest in seafood, but Craig took the opportunity to slink out at night to try some of Japan's best on offer. He was not disappointed, and was surprised when sea urchin and eel (something he has hated almost every other time he has had it) were his favourites of the "high-end" platter he ate.

Perhaps the best thing about Kanazawa was our accommodation. Compared to the tight apartments we'd had up to this point, our entire home set right next to a temple, was perfect for us. We finally have some space to unpack and for Baby to play safely. The kitchen was better equipped (though it still had only a one-element hot plate and no cutting knife). Good thing Craig's now-famous wagu soba needs little for its preparation!