An Asian (and Epicurean) Odyssey

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Apr 14th, 2018, 01:32 AM
  #21
 
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Originally Posted by fourfortravel View Post
Finally, bags in hand we headed to the Japan Rail Office to collect my pre-purchased JREast Pass. Except the system failed. Regardless of whether one has pre-purchased a pass, one must still queue with all those who have not. So much for time saved. Nearly 45 minutes after we joined the queue did I receive my pass.
My understanding was that you cannot buy the JR Pass on the ground without having pre-purchased the voucher outside of Japan, but the JR Office doesn't only deal with JR Pass purchases but a bunch of other tickets too. Has this rule changed and they are now selling JR Passes without need of the voucher?

P.S. Loving the report and super excited to read the Japan segment coming up!
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Apr 14th, 2018, 07:46 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries Japan: From Dynasties to Shogunates

This was my second visit to Japan. On the previous visit with DH and DChildren we spent 12 days divided between Tokyo and Kyoto, and with day trips; so on this holiday my itinerary was a little more free-flow. JF had suggested Kawagoe to me and it sounded appealing, so off the three of us (one of JF’s friends, as well) set on my first full day.

Kawagoe is an Edo village with castle remnants from the Tokugawa Shogunate; clay-walled shops and houses called Kurazukuri; and plenty of girls in rented kimonos taking selfies. At least at the time of our visit it appeared Kawagoe had not yet been, “discovered,” so my snaps are void of large tour groups unconsciously following a cherry blossom flag up and down the streets.

From the Kawagoe train station there is an historic bus that runs a loop, dropping passengers at various interesting sights. We boarded and bounced merrily along, understanding very little of the white-gloved driver’s narrative as we passed into the old city. The three of us alit at the castle; though it was closed on our visit (a random Friday), the buildings and the landscaping created some of the prettiest photos of my holiday. I should mention now that Japan’s Tourism Bureau pulled out all the stops for me, weather-wise, including Cherry Blossoms at near Peak Bloom! And, the Imperial Palace Gardens being opened to visitors! But these stories are later to come.

I write that we all loved Kawagoe. JF and her friend (and their DH’s) had visited a couple of months prior on a wet and cold day and even then, knew a return visit was in order, so when I finalized my travel plans Kawagoe was added to the itinerary. Uncrowded temples, quiet cemeteries, unique stores (except for the brand-new Starbucks); and eye-popping scenery and architecture with nearly every step. We sampled Yuzu honey and “Baumkuchen,” a flat cake with layers like the rings of a tree, and bought several of each to bring home.

As the best tips always go, a friend of a friend of my JF suggested we queue for lunch at, “The Noodle House behind the Soy Sauce Museum.” So we did, after we learned about and sampled soy sauces, naturally. We arrived 15 minutes before opening and scored the last available table. Three bowls of thick and slurpy Udon noodles in a silky broth with melty, caramelized pork belly soon arrived at our table. We were happy. Who wouldn’t be? After lunch JF and her friend headed to a glass-blowing workshop while I and my camera wandered more of Kawagoe, especially the Buddhist shrines with Ema, the wooden plaques for worshippers to write prayers or wishes, and Buddha statues still covered with shawls against the chill; and in the Buddhist cemetery, memorial Tohbas (long wooden sticks with notches to represent a pagoda for the common person) for the departed, so different from the cemeteries I wander in Central Europe. The three of regrouped later for Tokoyaki from the street vendor in a park (fish balls on a stick), beneath blooming plum blossoms before returning to Tokyo.

Though JF lives in a high-rise, the neighborhood is still very much a mix of modern and traditional, with little restaurants of all cuisines tucked in narrow lanes that locals know about and tourists usually don’t bother to seek out. Since dinner was now up for consideration JF suggested the, “little Nepalese place around the corner.” And why not? JF’s DH caught up with us and we all took seats along the counter to watch the chefs (Nepalese and Indian) prepare the dishes, all of which could be ordered tapas-style, in smaller portions meant for sharing. The proprietors have a Coriander farm and as such also had a “Coriander Menu.” We ordered only the Coriander Beer (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) and a couple of plates of Momo (Nepalese dumplings filled with spiced ground lamb) before just letting the chefs suggest their favorites to us. The three of us watched everything being prepared before us, from the pickled cabbage with crisp pappadum to the lamb cutlet and kiln-baked chicken to the “Takari,” a large plate with numerous little dishes, from seasoned greens to dal and more pickled vegetables. Every dish was elegant in its simplicity and sophisticated in its flavors; in basic terms, delicious. As we walked back to the apartment afterward, we finalized our day trip to Nagano in the morning…
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Apr 14th, 2018, 08:05 AM
  #23
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thursdaysd, I agree, I need to return to South Korea (and Singapore and Japan). So much to see, so much to eat...

tripplanner001, I found Seoul and Tokyo to be similar in the same way that I find Washington, DC and New York City to be similar. Both Seoul and Tokyo, like DC and The Big Apple, can one-up the other depending on the criteria. All of this written, I would not turn down an opportunity to return to either.

Kavey, I do not know if the rules for purchasing JR passes have changed. But, I can report that once I was closer to the sales counters in the queue I could overhear numerous people talking with clerks and deciding upon passes to purchase; they seemed to be what was slowing the process down. My transaction took less than a minute or so to complete.
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Apr 14th, 2018, 08:36 AM
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From japan-guide.com:

"From March 8, 2017 until March 31, 2019 (and possibly beyond that date), it is also possible to purchase the Japan Rail Pass at an increased cost (see table below) at selected major stations and airports inside Japan, including Narita Airport, Haneda Airport and Kansai Airport."

There are also regional passes that do not have to be bought outside the country.
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Apr 15th, 2018, 12:54 AM
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Originally Posted by fourfortravel View Post
Kavey, I do not know if the rules for purchasing JR passes have changed. But, I can report that once I was closer to the sales counters in the queue I could overhear numerous people talking with clerks and deciding upon passes to purchase; they seemed to be what was slowing the process down. My transaction took less than a minute or so to complete.
Thanks, very interesting, will research before our trip next year.

Originally Posted by thursdaysd View Post
From japan-guide.com:
"From March 8, 2017 until March 31, 2019 (and possibly beyond that date), it is also possible to purchase the Japan Rail Pass at an increased cost (see table below) at selected major stations and airports inside Japan, including Narita Airport, Haneda Airport and Kansai Airport."
There are also regional passes that do not have to be bought outside the country.
Ah just read this, thanks Thursday!
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Apr 16th, 2018, 01:04 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries Japan: Nagano and Yokohama

The episode wherein luck favors the prepared, and sightseeing with a Straw Man.*

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and warm; the forecast equally so for our long day outing to Nagano. Not even Tokyo Station on a Saturday morning could dampen our enthusiasm. The station is simply crazy; if you aren’t moving visibly and predictably, there is a good chance you’ll never catch your train. Or perhaps not catch any train. JF and I, though, deftly maneuvered our way through the station and to a market for breakfast provisions, then politely queued with other travelers on the platform for our Shinkansen. The formality of the housekeeping staff bowing when a train arrives or departs is artistry; the expediency with which the trains are prepared for new passengers is impressive.

Some 75-ish minutes later we arrived at Nagano Station. Having completely committed to memory (and copied to my iPhone files for backup) the thoughtful blogging of a traveler who shared step-by-step instructions, with photos, on how to connect to the hourly Jigokudani Monkey Park bus, we were prepared and had our “Snow Monkey Day Pass” purchased, with even a little time to browse the excellent gourmet market in the station before boarding.

One travel blogger noted the “steep” initial incline from the bus stop to the entrance to the park, so we were on the lookout. I now report that “steep” is a matter of opinion. Soon enough, snow monkeys! We felt like aspiring Jane Goodall's, observing the Japanese Macaque in its native habitat. Or was it the other way around--were we the primates being observed?

The day outing to the monkey park up in the Japanese Alps was entirely memorable; and the monkeys, entirely too adorable. New moms with their spring babies and that exhausted look on their faces (haven't we all felt that way at some point?) Monkeys sunning themselves by the onsen and on the sun-kissed rocks, the day too warm for a dip in the hot sulfur spring. Alpha males and cute little monkey bums! Signs were everywhere requesting that visitors not get too near the monkeys. But, baby monkeys were scrambling under our feet! The Japanese Serow even made an appearance in this wild kingdom; its ninja deer-goat-antelope appearance quite extraordinary.

After we had convinced ourselves that we had sufficient photos, and more importantly, had successfully kept one another from tucking a fluffy baby monkey into our totes did we leave the monkey park. Along the way is a private onsen for humans, and we happened by just as a male Homo sapiens stepped outside of his onsen wearing nothing but the clothes he was born in to snap a picture of the beautiful scenery. A wild kingdom of a different sort!

“The Farmhouse,” a restaurant outside of the park was the Japanese equivalent of my much-loved Hütte: a cheery and welcoming place offering comfort food and local beer after a long hike; in our case, the weekend set menu of curry and a Snow Monkey IPA. Because we had planned, we finished lunch and walked the final 500 meters just in time to catch the right bus to the station to avoid a lengthy wait for a return train.

Dinner was once again prepared foods from the upscale market near the apartment building, enjoyed on the balcony overlooking Tokyo Bay while going over our day outing to Yokohama the following day. JF’s neighbors (Straw Man (SM), his wife and their 2 year-old “prodigy”) were invited to join us, as they had visited several times (JF and her DH had not yet visited) because SM “totally knew” the “best Dim Sum place” (as a self-purported foodie) as well as the “perfect” route in order for me to see the requested sights (the Ramen Museum and the marine sea park). You might read into this that the day did not go quite as planned, and you would be correct.

Yokohama was once a small fishing village during the Edo period. Then along came Commander Perry to "suggest" (he brought his fleet of American warships as a calling card) that Japan end its policy of national seclusion by opening its ports to trade. Next followed Western fashion, English-language newspapers, and of course, three Starbucks. Now the city is Japan's fourth largest and offers a day's worth of history and fun including Chinatown, the largest in Asia; a Ramen Museum, where one can sample variations of the noteworthy noodle from around Japan; and a marine sea park offering a glimpse of ocean life in the waters surrounding Japan.

The Chinese established a Chinatown more than 150 years ago in Yokohama, making it the largest across Asia; and touring it was a highlight activity for me. Richly decorated gates marked the entrances. Queues for Dim Sum stretched along the sidewalk, no one complaining about standing in the spring sunshine to wait for a table. Colorful streets with colorful stores beckoned. In nearby Yamashita Park along the waterfront people walked with their children, both canine and human, through the impeccable grounds filled with the most well-behaved flowers. And all around, more cherry blossoms.

This reads like a perfect day, doesn’t it? (*In reality, it was suspicion at first introduction on my part; and I privately dubbed the neighbor, “Straw Man” because he sucked the fun out of my day.) For someone who reportedly had visited Yokohama “many” times, he had never heard of the marine sea park, so it wasn't on his agenda. And instead of touring the Ramen Museum, he had devised a walking tour of some decomissioned ocean liner and two former port warehouses that are now overcrowded, chicy-mhicy shopping and dining venues; and then dragged us two kilometers at the end of the day to see a North Korean rusty scupper (that we couldn’t see anyway because the sight was closed.) But I don’t want to give everything away about my mostly non-fun day…

Walking through Chinatown, SM became visibly irritable when JF and I would attempt to wander in and out of stores, shops of interest, taking photos and otherwise doing what we had set out to do. At one shop he pointed and said, “You both should shop here. It’s where all the tourists shop.” At lunch, SM engaged me in conversation, but not the small talk typically reserved for strangers; it was more of an assessment: “Did I understand what Dim Dum was?” and, "You do know the Ma Po Tofu is spicy?" and telling me, "You can't order anything with shrimp. We haven't tested Child Prodigy for shrimp allergies." This coming from a “foodie” who did not even know to open his Mu Shi pancake before filling it; he left it folded…

After what was truly medicore Dim Sum I deliberately invented ways to avoid doing anything on his agenda. While the group followed him onto old boats and into crowded shopping centers, I declined cheerily, saying that my camera was begging for more waterfront/gardens/cherry blossom snaps, but that I would certainly meet everyone afterward. And that is what I did. By the end of the afternoon, after we had been dragged to the North Korean ship, even JF was exasperated and suggested that we all return to Tokyo. On the train home SM suggested a pub serving “the best” American food for dinner, and thankfully JF piped up with, “The two of us are going for soup dumplings at my favorite place; we need to plan for tomorrow.” We shared velvety transparent dumplings filled with truffles and ground pork; glass-thin shrimp dumplings, and worked out our fun-filled plan for the next day.

Up next: Sakura and Ohanami!
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Apr 16th, 2018, 04:46 AM
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Wow! I never thought of Nagano as within the geographic reach of a day trip from Tokyo. The wonders of high-speed train travel!

Too bad you wasted your day in Yokohama. Sounds like it could have been avoidable too.
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Apr 16th, 2018, 08:02 AM
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Reading54, I apologize for missing your earlier comment. I took careful photos and notes on everything I had eaten on this holiday in the hopes that I can recreate some of the dishes, too!

tripplanner001, yes! Nagano can be a day trip from Tokyo! We caught an 0845 train or thereabouts to Nagano, and then the connection to the Monkey Park (planing is essential). We were back to Tokyo Station by 1930. It is Shinkansen magic. I was bummed about my Yokohama day, certainly. JF had had no reason to suspect that Straw Man was not quite the Jack-of-all-sightseeing-trades that he claimed to be; and since the day was beautiful and I was on holiday with friends (and strangers) it was best just to make the most of it.
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Apr 16th, 2018, 08:03 AM
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Alas! The best laid plans... sorry about SM, but otherwise, it sounds like a fabulous day!
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Apr 18th, 2018, 12:14 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries Japan: Sakura and Ohanami!

"Sakura" means "cherry blossom," and by most excellent fortune the timing of my visit to Japan coincided with stunning weather and near-perfect blooms! This day, thus, was all about the blooms. We (JF, the Kawagoe friend and I, and another of JF’s friends whose DH rather coincidentally will be joining my DH’s group in Vienna, so we had much to chat about) prepared for our blossom viewing with a lovely champagne brunch in a Ginza restaurant high atop Tokyo to put us all in good blossom-viewing spirits (it worked!).

Full disclosure: DH and I are not a “Brunch” people. On weekends we are typically out the door by 0900 either tromping about the Vienna Woods or pointing our wagon toward one of the neighbors. But if Vienna’s brunches were like this one…we began with a small main course (I chose a fish of some sort with a plum glaze) and then were turned loose to explore the buffet arranged with the happiness of Mackerel Confit with Roe, Hokkaido Squash Soup, a Japanese Curry, and on and on; and sweets almost too beautiful to eat. The Champagne flowed freely, too, perhaps a dangerous thing at 1000 in the morning.

We departed this Bacchanal for a leisurely stroll with as many other people as there were blossoms along the Chidorigafuchi-ryokudo path around the moated Imperial Palace. The mood was festive; and the flowers showed off brilliantly against the blue sky and spring green. Every five steps warranted a pause to admire nature’s 360° cinema; I think I snapped close to 200 photos on this walk alone.

But cherry blossom appreciation does not end when the sun goes down! "Ohanami" is the term for "cherry blossom viewing." The blooms are quite special for the Japanese, and picnicking beneath the trees is a tradition dating back centuries. Following our 10km Ohanami, the real work began. Before we left for brunch JF and I staked our Ohanami place along the waterfront below their building; the protocol being to spread one’s picnic blanket and leave a note with your family name, which we did. Back from our walk, friends and food descended upon JF’s apartment. Salads were tossed; Sushi was arranged elegantly on platters; cheeses were drizzled with Yuzu honey; and paper cherry blossom lanterns were hung. (The tins of Manner Wafers that I had brought along were excitedly received, too!)

The evening was special and will be a fond memory for years to come. Friends and colleagues (some of whom I know through DH) laughed together, ate together, and made merry in the warm spring evening air. We were in good company with other groups large and small doing the same up and down the Sumida riverfront; and when river cruise boats with their pink lanterns and happy passengers would sail past, everyone waved and toasted, “Kampai!” Straw Man and his family made an appearance, too; I happened by him just as he was “commenting” that the SPAM Masubi JF had prepared was, “Hawaiian, and not Japanese.” ( He brought POPCORN.) Every party needs a pooper.

It being a work night for some, the Ohanami parties up and own the riverfront disbanded at a respectable time. Just one day and change remaining for me on this adventure…

Last edited by fourfortravel; Apr 18th, 2018 at 12:17 AM.
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Apr 18th, 2018, 05:36 AM
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Lucky you, sounds wonderful.
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Apr 18th, 2018, 08:46 AM
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lol at Straw Man - he is consistent.
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Apr 19th, 2018, 06:16 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries: Imperial Tokyo, Touristy Tokyo, Local Tokyo, and…Leaving Tokyo

Not only was I treated to splendid weather and cherry blossoms at near bloom while in Japan, but the Imperial Palace grounds and gardens were open for touring, a rare event that not even many Japanese have experienced. Fearing Disney ride-esque queues we were thrilled to have to wait not more than a few minutes on this final full day before going through security and entering the grounds. Past the palace and among the manicured gardens we were queued ever so politely, with staff on hand to answer questions and to point out ideal places to snap photos. Rather civilized, and entirely a treat.

From the Imperial Gardens we headed next to Ameryoko Market for the energetic buzz and to have lunch at “this little place near the funny sign” that JF recalled. And what fun we had trying to find it, weaving past people and more people, pausing for photos of just about everything and then trying hilariously to slip back into the stream. In between, “Oh, look, another temple tucked behind some clothing shops!” We soon found the sign (“Octopus Fritters Take in Mayonnaise”) and moments later, the “little place.” Edamame; seared Ahi Tuna slices (oh, my word!); Tempura “Shrimp” that were more the size of Mediterranean Langoustines; and a sashimi plate that we devoured with unabashed ecstasy.

Where else to walk off our meal but Ueno Park? Cherry Blossoms, and beneath them, everyone from businessmen sitting on their briefcases with their bento boxes to moms and children sprawled on blankets, soaking up the sun and celebrating the pink and white flowers. The happiness was contagious, too: we grabbed two scoops of Cherry Blossom ice cream and wandered, past so many Ohanami picnics and past the street food lane leading to Toshogo Shrine and the grilled squid-on-a-stick and the pink, green, and white Mochi (also on sticks) and the…corn on the cob?not on a skewer but on two chopsticks, and wishing that we had perhaps not indulged so much at lunch.

With just a couple of hours remaining in our day, JF suggested Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. Though we as a family had previously visited I replied, “Of course! I’ll get some updated snaps!” Wow, ten years can add a lot of tourism to a destination, but in trying to dodge a tour group we discovered that one of the related structures was hosting an exhibit of rarely-displayed art from the temple, along with an opportunity to walk in the also rarely-open temple gardens. So, not only did Japan make the sun shine and cherry blossoms bloom; open the Imperial Gardens; but the country also opened their oldest temple’s art and gardens for me to explore! So few tourists were in the gallery and the gardens. Too bad for them, but not for us!

By this point in the day we were exhausted, yet somehow still wanted to eat dinner. JF suggested we head to Ginza, where we could connect with her DH. I was enamored with the eateries beneath the train tracks in the area (a la Midnight Tokyo), but the group vote was for Thai food. I went rather vanilla with my order of Pad Thai, but, just as any Italian restaurant worth its salt should be able to prepare a perfect Spaghetti Aglio e Aioli, so should a Thai place be able to prepare their national noodle dish correctly, right? Well, the odds were ever in my favor; the dish had been prepared by someone who knows.

A “late” start of 0900 on my final morning. JF and I, and Kawagoe friend, walked about her neighborhood, which has been featured in the movie and anime series, Sangatsu no Lion(March Comes in Like a Lion). Honestly, this half day was just as I had wanted, something not at all touristy. We began our walk with the Sumiyoshi Shrine, dating to the 1600s, small but important to the people of this Tsukudajima neighborhood and its history as a fishing village. There is also a remnant of the ferry dock piling; the ferry transporting passengers across and back over the Sumida River until 1964, when a bridge was built in time for the Olympics. As we were approaching the historical description board, an elderly Japanese man came up and motioned excitedly for us to read it because, as he said, “There is English for you.” Nearby, the beautiful bright red bridge, Tsukuda-ko Bridge sits amidst old houses and boats and is a popular spot for artists. Even more tucked away down a nondescript lane is the Buddhist Tsukuda Tenzai Jizoson, the “Guardian Deity of Children” built entirely around an old tree.

Walking around this village that sits beneath the towering residential skyscrapers is a little bit like stepping back in time. The public bathhouses are still maintained; and it is quite common to see elderly Japanese going to and from in the mornings (we saw several). The shops are small, most unlabeled to the naked eye; and some not always attended during the day: it is expected that one respects the honor system. On one corner was the neighborhood funeral director, often seen walking his 30 year-old tortoise, the child he never had. On another corner a trendy Owl Café, where non-perfumed visitors (perfume upsets the owl’s sensibilities) can enjoy coffee in the company of rescued birds of prey. JF did not know of my love of raptors, or otherwise we would have made time for a coffee, alas. Next time.

And that is that. A taxi to Tokyo Station and then the Narita Express to the airport. Two hours at Incheon and the six-hour haul to Singapore (on an A380, so, no complaints). An overnight, or whatever one calls “sleep” in a pod-like airport hotel between the hours of 0200 and 0700. The return leg to Dubai; with three hours to waste there, why not buy the large box of Bateel dates (DD's friend at the American School Dubai has hooked me) and get a manicure? From Dubai it was homeward bound to Vienna. DH met me at the airport, a bouquet of flowers in hand to welcome me home.

Thank you for reading.
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Apr 19th, 2018, 06:54 AM
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Thank you for the report! Sounds like a wonderful trip.
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Apr 19th, 2018, 08:08 AM
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What a delightful report! Thank you.
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Apr 19th, 2018, 08:58 AM
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Thank you for sharing. Makes me think about how much I miss Japan.
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Apr 20th, 2018, 12:16 AM
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Loved the whole thread, thanks so much for sharing!
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Apr 20th, 2018, 08:33 AM
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Thanks for taking us all for a fun ride.
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