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TRIP REPORT: Just back from first time to Japan!

TRIP REPORT: Just back from first time to Japan!

May 31st, 2014, 06:28 PM
  #21  
 
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Great detailed report. Thank you for taking the time. Can't wait until the next installment
kalihiwai2 is offline  
May 31st, 2014, 10:43 PM
  #22  
 
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Looooving the report, such a pleasure to read.
Kavey is offline  
Jun 1st, 2014, 03:27 AM
  #23  
 
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Thoroughly enjoying your report. Thanks very much.
Bokhara2 is offline  
Jun 1st, 2014, 07:54 PM
  #24  
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May 16 – Japan: Day 4 - Last Day in Tokyo

About a month before leaving Los Angeles, I emailed the Tokyo Free Guide organization (www.tokyofreeguide.com) to arrange for a guide for one of our days in Tokyo. Within a day I received an email from Mariko, a young Japanese woman who had spent some time in London, saying that she would be available all day on Saturday May 16. She asked me what we were interested in seeing, and I thought that it might be nice to have a guide in the Tsukiji Fish Market, and then let her choose some place in the area for lunch. We emailed back and forth a couple of times and nailed down an itinerary.

I had this plan on my mind when I opened the curtains in our room on Saturday morning and was confronted with a stunning direct view of half of Mount Fuji, the other half hidden by the building across the street. Up to this point the weather had been fantastic, with highs in the low 70’s during the day and no rain; but the skies had been hazy and grayish, so it hadn’t even crossed my mind to look for a view of Fuji. However, today the air was crisp and sunny, with blue skies and views for miles. I knew that we would want to go directly to the Tokyo Municipal Government Building to see if we could get a direct view of Mount Fuji, but I didn't want to take Mariko in the opposite direction from where she had planned to take us. I thought that perhaps she might have a suggestion for some place closer to our destination.

At 9:00 AM we met Mariko in the lobby of the hotel and the first thing she said after we introduced ourselves was, “If there's something else you'd like to do today, please let me know”. I mentioned Mt. Fuji, and the amazing view from our window, and she said, "We should go to the Municipal Government Building”. Fantastic! However, we had one super-quick stop to make first.

The night before, we had been posting some photos on Instagram, when we noticed some other photos posted of the Hie Shrine, which included a stairway covered with dozens of red torri, similar to those that we would later see in Kyoto, at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. Since there was a subway stop in that direction, we decided to walk through the shrine to see if we could locate it. Circling the perimeter, we came to the back of the shrine and found a stairway leading to the street below covered with over 100 red torri! We descended the stairway, getting lots of great photos in the process, and finding that it ended right near Akasaka Saryo, where we had had dinner two nights before. We had walked right past it without even knowing it.

We arrived to our stop in Shinjuku, but in an area much different than Kabuki-cho, where we had landed on our first night. This area seemed very much a business district, clean and a bit sterile, with almost no one on the street. We made our way quickly to the Municipal Government Building, and found only a very short line for the elevator up to the observatory. We occupied ourselves for a few minutes by taking photos next to someone dressed as a giant yellow bull, advertising a nearby beef restaurant.

As we had hoped, the view was fantastic. We could see a clear and completely unobstructed view of Mount Fuji, and in every direction the city stretched out in front of us. It was great having Mariko there to point out various landmarks, and we had high hopes that the weather the next day would be the same for our trip to Hakone, and a much more intimate view of Mount Fuji. But first, to the fish market!

We took the Oedo line, which makes a complete circle around Tokyo. As we descended, much further than we had for other lines, Mariko explained that this was one of the deepest subways because it had to go below many of the existing lines. We arrived at the fish market a bit later than we had originally intended, but although about half of the vendors had already finished for the day, there were still plenty who we out in full force, and we enjoyed walking around and learning the Japanese names for various fish that we didn’t already know, as well as trying to identify fish that we were previously acquainted with only in the form of bite-sized morsels.

As we walked around the outer market, Mariko explained to us that in addition to the wholesale market which we knew took place earlier in the morning, there is an intermediary market, where the enormous fish are cut into smaller portions for the general public to purchase. This area was a hive of activity, and we walked around admiring live crabs the size of vinyl LPs (remember those). We also shot a great iPhone video of two guys filleting an massive tuna, who encouraged the kids (I’m including myself in this) to get closer for better shots. They were very energetic, and they gave a great demonstration.

As we moved farther from the fish market proper, all sorts of other food items were available to sample and purchase. We tried dried seaweed, sometimes soaked in water to make seaweed broth, and various dried fruits. I finally succumbed to the temptation to spoil my lunch by a gentleman grilling Wagyu beef on little wooded skewers….heaven on a stick.

After the market, we walked towards Ginza where Mariko had a place in mind for lunch. We had told her previously the various types of Japanese food that we have eaten in Los Angeles, and said that we would like to try something we had not had before. She brought us to a place that specializes in Shabu Shabu, which is very thinly sliced meat and vegetables, which each diner cooks in his own private pot of broth, recessed into the counter in front of him. Incidentally, the name Shabu Shabu is onomatopoeia, based on the sound of the simmering broth. I suppose it takes a bit of imagination, but if we can say that a rooster goes, "Cock-a-doodle-do”, then a pot of broth can certainly go, "Shabu Shabu".

We sat at a lozenge shaped counter with stools all around, and the work area in the middle. One worker was busily slicing wafer thin slices of beef and pork, while the other was serving them along with vegetables, noodles and rice to the hungry diners at the counter. It was fun to cook our own food, which took mere seconds, and dip it in a variety of savory sauces. Once all the food was gone, our server took some of the broth from each of our pots and served it to us as a soup, to which we could add little chopped scallions. It was a delicious, if not particularly challenging, new food experience.

After lunch we walked down the main thoroughfare, which we found was closed off to traffic on the weekends. There were even tables and chairs set up in the middle of the street where people could stop to have a rest. This came as a pleasant surprise, because we had noticed while strolling through parks, temples and shrines, that there were really no dedicated places to sit. No benches on the streets, in the parks or the temples, no chairs in the subway stations.

While I'm making random observations, we also noticed that there are no trash cans anywhere. Except for the train stations, which have bins for recycling and for garbage, there were none on the streets, in the shops, or the subway stations. What's amazing is Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities we have ever seen. In four days we have seen no litter, no graffiti, nothing. It ‘s amazing!

Our last stop with Mariko was at the Takashimaya department store. I wanted to start with the food halls in the basement, but when we got there I thought we had accidentally wandered into the jewelry department. Each and every candy and confection was perfectly lined up in glass cases like little gems. We watched as a white gloved store clerk put two pieces of candy in a box, wrapped it with a bow, and deposited it into a little gift bag. Tiffany probably makes less of an effort than this.

Sam wanted to see the floor with plants, flowers, and gardening tools, so we made our way up to the top floor. Just outside the gardening department, the store had created a little park on the roof, with grass and a garden and actual places to sit. There were families sitting on the lawn and children running around a fountain. We took a break at a small cafe where we enjoyed some tea, as we watched a young girl try to figure out how to use a jump rope. She finally decided that it was for tying up her little brother and dragging him across the lawn. He did not find this nearly as amusing as she did, but mom intervened before any major trauma ensued.

Mariko indicated that it was time for her to go, so we gave her a small box of chocolates that we had brought with us from the U.S., wrapped in a red white and blue box, which we had placed into a shiny gift bag. We had read in our guide book before leaving that something like this would be the best way to say thank you. She seemed surprised, but delighted, as we thanked her for a wonderful tour.

Since we were not too far away, we decided to take the subway to see the east gardens of the Imperial Palace. After a quick stroll through the gardens, we decided to head back to the hotel for rest before our last dinner in Tokyo.

One thing I was determined to do while in Japan was to have some interaction with people other than hotel and restaurant staff. So in the weeks before departing Los Angeles, we reached out to anyone who had even the most tenuous connection to Japan to let them know we would be going. As it turns out, I have a cousin who is engaged to be married to a man who is half Japanese. He has a cousin, Tsuyoshi, who he said would love to meet us. So we agreed on tonight to get together for dinner, at a place of his choosing.

Before meeting Tsuyoshi, Sam and I discussed whether or not it would be appropriate to give him a box of chocolates, as we had Mariko. We wondered whether or not he might think it was odd, so we decided that it might be better to just buy him dinner. So imagine our consternation when the first thing that he said was that his wife couldn’t make it, so she had bought us a gift, which turned out to be a lovely pair of chopsticks. Doh! We could have brought the chocolates for his wife, had we known that he was married, but it didn't even come up when we were sending each other messages on Facebook. Darn!

Tsuyoshi took us to an Izakaya, which I would describe as a sort of Japanese pub. The focus is on beer and sake, but there are menus hand printed in Japanese plastered all over the walls. There were no English translations, and no photos of food, so I was happy to be there with a local. Walking in, we saw that the main room had western style tables and chairs, however in the back were small private rooms with tatami mats. It was quite smoky in the main room, so we were happy when he told us that he had booked a table in a private room. It was nice to see that the traditional Japanese seating was still in regular day-to-day use. We took off our shoes and padded in our sock feet to our table.

While we were waiting, Tsoyushi explained that the Izakaya was owned by his friend from university, Shintaro. Soon after, Shintaro came in dressed in a traditional robe and holding an enormous bottle of sake, which he distributed generously. This was shaping up to be a fun evening! Since we had no idea what to order, we asked Tsuyoshi to order for us. After explaining Sam’s food allergies, my only suggestion was that he order something that we don't normally eat at home. What happened next falls into the category of, “Be careful what you wish for”.

Pretty soon food started to appear. The first item was panko encrusted and deep fried burdock root, which I had never heard of. It had a vague similarity in taste to artichoke, to which it is related, and was quite good (although you could panko encrust and deep fry socks and they would probably be good).

The next plate to arrive had a variety of meats on it, which turned out to be various cuts of whale meat. (Before proceeding, I want to say that I don't want to create any controversy on this website. Please feel free to send me a private message if you want to tell me that I'm a terrible person for eating this.) Tsuyoshi went on to explain the various cuts which included one that looked like a cross section of an intestine, which is, in fact, what it turned out to be. This was accompanied by a thick, green, gelatinous puree of sea cucumber which was impossible for me to pick up with chopsticks. We had thought that we were pretty seasoned Japanese food diners, but this proved to be a bit of a challenge.

We didn't want to be rude so we tried each of the various cuts of meat and the sea cucumber, but it was not lost on Tsuyoshi that we were eating an awful lot of the burdock, and not a lot of anything else. Being a kind host, he ordered some sushi, which arrived family style, on a bed of rice in a cylindrical wooden bowl, along with some cold soba noodles.

Tsuyoshi stepped out for a moment, and we waited for the bill to arrive so that we could pay and properly thank him for his hospitality. When he arrived back he informed us that he had taken care of the bill. Now we really felt terrible! But he insisted, and there was nothing we could do, other than offer to reciprocate sometime in Los Angeles, an offer he said he planned to happily accept.

After taking a variety of photos of Tsuyoshi and Shintaro striking fierce poses, we went for a walk through the neighborhood. This was yet another part of Shinjuku, different than both Kabuki-cho and the business area near the Metropolitan Government Building. The vast majority of the people on the streets looked to be about 20 years old, or roughly 30 years younger than us. We were in party town!

Within a block we found ourselves in a warren of small alleyways, lined with dozens, maybe hundreds, of little bars, each with a capacity of five to six people max. This was the Golden Gai, which we had read about in our guide books. It was fascinating to see these tiny, old, two-story buildings in the middle of a forest of skyscrapers.

Too soon, the night had come to an end, and it was time to say our goodbyes. It was a fantastic evening, and we look forward to the day that we can host Tsuyoshi and his wife in Los Angeles.

Up next: Hakone
russ_in_LA is offline  
Jun 1st, 2014, 10:05 PM
  #25  
 
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Regarding the absence of trash cans, my husband was in Tokyo a week after the sarin gas attacks. When he was Tokyo station he looked for a trash can and asked a Japanese business associate about the lack of receptacles. He was told they were all removed as a safety measure.
SeeHag is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2014, 09:35 AM
  #26  
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kalihiwai2,Kaveyon,Bokhara2,

Thanks for the feedback1

SeeHag,

That makes sense, although it's even more impressive how clean the city it considering that there used to be trash cans and now there are not. Thanks!
russ_in_LA is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2014, 12:13 PM
  #27  
 
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What lovely experiences with Mariko and Tsuyoshi!

We did similar for our guide, taking some English jarred pickled vegetables, as I knew Japanese love pickles but that our style is different so thought might be interesting. Was nice to be able to say thank you for the time our volunteer guide put into planning our day for us!
Kavey is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2014, 04:06 PM
  #28  
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Hi Kavey,

What a great idea. I had no idea how common pickles were, at every meal, even breakfast! Such a variety too.

Work is getting busy, but will try for another installment in the next couple of days.

Thanks!
russ_in_LA is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2014, 08:43 PM
  #29  
kja
 
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Sounds like your trip got off to a great start! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.
kja is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2014, 09:02 PM
  #30  
 
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Kavey is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2014, 06:47 PM
  #31  
 
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Can't wait to read about Hakone!
MinnBeef is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2014, 09:02 PM
  #32  
 
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Great report, very timely as we move from Borneo to japan tomorrow.
FromDC is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2014, 11:59 PM
  #33  
 
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Excellent report with interesting details! Thank you for sharing and I am looking forward to more
blackthorn2 is offline  
Jun 4th, 2014, 09:40 PM
  #34  
 
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and then what happened
mrwunrfl is offline  
Jun 5th, 2014, 06:04 AM
  #35  
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Thanks for the feedback everyone! More to come in the next day or two...
russ_in_LA is offline  
Jun 6th, 2014, 05:05 PM
  #36  
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May 17 – Day 5: Hakone

Tokyo was a blast. I feel like we spent exactly the right amount of time there, and saw everything that we had planned to see, at a reasonable pace. We were especially happy that we got to spend some time with a couple of locals, and to see some areas that we might not have otherwise seen. But now it was time for a trek to the countryside, and with a little luck, a closer view of Mount Fuji.

Before departing the hotel, we arranged at the front desk to have our bags sent ahead to Takayama via Takkyubin delivery service, absolutely best convenience ever invented for train travel. For only $13.00 per bag we were able to avoid schlepping our luggage up and down stairs, and onto and off of trains. We had printed out the address in Japanese for our hotel in Takayama before leaving home, so was very easy for the front desk fill out our paperwork for us, which they were happy to do.

Armed with just an overnight bag each, we set out for Tokyo station. We would be staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan at our destination, which includes dinner and breakfast, but I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find lunch on our arrival, so I wanted to get something at the station for the train ride. I was excited when I saw a sign advertising “Ekiben”, because I recognized from my Pimsleur lessons the word “eki” meaning train station and “bento” in abbreviated form. Two train-station bento-boxes, to go, please!

Our Shinkansen departed promptly at 8:26, bound for Odawara, and we were surprised to get a few fast glimpses of Mt. Fuji from the right side of the train, where we could see that there were only a few wispy clouds at the base. Our guide book had warned us to avoid traveling to Hakone on the weekend, but we ignored it, and we were now crammed inside a train car, filled with half the popuation of Tokyo, standing for the final 38 minute leg from Hakone-Yumote to Gora. This train was narrower than the others, and the incline much steeper. I got a very clear understanding of the origin of the term “switch-back”, when I saw that the conductor would have to periodically stop the train and get out in order to switch the track back and forth from the one on which we had just arrived, to an adjacent one, at which point the train reversed directions and continued up the mountainside. Finally, in Gora, we changed to a funicular/cable car, for a steep 10 minute ride to Soun-zan.

At the end of the cable car it is possible to transfer directly an aerial tram called the “ropeway”, where you can continue your ascent up the mountainside. However, we chose to exit because our accommodation was located a mere 100 meters away, at the Gora Hanaougi Sounkaku ryokan. Although check-in time was not until 2:00 PM, we wanted to drop off our bags before we continued with the “Hakone Loop”, which in addition to the cable car and ropeway, includes a ship on Lake Ashi and a bus back to Gora.

At the ryokan, we were greeted by a young man who spoke almost no English, but we were able to confirm our check-in time. I wanted to ask him about lunch options nearby, but realized that that only phrase I could cobble together in Japanese was the rather crude sounding, “where is lunch?” Fortunately, he understood that I didn’t expect him to provide it, saying that there was a place at the first stop on the ropeway, called Owaku-dani. However, walking back towards the ropeway, we spied a row of rare and elusive benches, facing a beautiful mountain view. Remembering that we were still carrying our ekiben, we took full advantage of both the benches and the view, hoping that Fuji wouldn’t disappear behind clouds while we were eating our lunch.

After a quick bite, we boarded the ropeway for the ascent to Owaku-dani, famous for its steaming volcanic vents, hard boiled eggs blackened by cooking in the sulfurous pools, and views of Fuji…and what a view it was! Just as clear as we saw from Tokyo, but about 100 times closer. There was still a slight veil of clouds at the base, but with Fuji’s majestic white peak jutting into the blue sky. There are few things that are so iconic, that they can unmistakably identify a place as being that place, and no other. With only today to really get a good look, we were grateful to have such beautiful weather and such an amazing view! We got out for a few minutes at the first stop so that we could have time to savor it.

After taking it all in, we continued from the highest point of the ropeway down towards the lake, the amazing view now including the green, tree covered mountains framing the lake, and Fuji presiding over it all. At the bottom we changed to the boat for our 30 minute trip across the lake. It was a gorgeous and clear day, but what struck me was how impossibly green and lush the hillsides were, stretching all the way down to the lake. It’s not that we don’t have some beautiful human-assisted “nature” where we live, there are lots of beautiful parks and gardens, but in Los Angeles, the hillsides in their native state tend to run the entire color spectrum from dark beige to light brown, so the intensity of the green was very striking.

Our ship finally arrived at Hakoni-machi, the first of the 2 stops it would make, but we got off there in order to walk through the Hakone Barrier, which is a replica of a check point that was built in 1618 on the road from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo (correct me if I got that wrong). This location afforded us more views of the top 1/3 of Fuji, but not as impressive as those from the ropeway.

After the checkpoint, the path goes through a cedar forest in a small ravine, with a hilly peninsula to the left and the road up and to the right, which we could see was absolutely packed with cars and busses filled with Sunday traffic. We couldn’t see the lake for a while, but when we finally passed through, the path veered back toward the lake and we were treated to the best views of the day. Unobstructed by mountains or clouds, Fuji floated over the still lake, with small boats in the foreground and a giant red torri on the lake shore below. That image is one of my favorites from the trip. I took lots of photos, but didn’t dare delete any of the previous ones, just in case. (If you have not already, see Fodorite MinnBeef’s trip report, with a harrowing Fuji photo experience, and you will know what I mean).

At this point the last leg of the Hakone Loop is usually by bus back to Gora, but given the traffic jam that we were witnessing, we decided that it would be both faster and more enjoyable to just retrace our steps. This turned out to be a good move. The return boat trip and ropeway ride was just as beautiful, and far less crowded, and afforded us some additional Fuji views.

Arriving back at the ryokan, we removed our shoes and didn’t see them again for the next 20 hours. When booking our accommodation, I had decided to book only two of the 13 nights in a traditional Japanese style inn, just in case we were not comfortable, so we were excited to see what it would be like. We were very taken by how meticulously maintained and well-designed everything was. Our tatami mat room was simply decorated, with a low table, two cushions, and higher table with two chairs. We dressed in the traditional yukata robes provided, which were told to wear to the onsen mineral baths, to dinner, and to walk around the grounds. The small wooden chairs were not terribly conducive to lounging, but we rested for a while, gazing out the window at the green tree covered mountains, trying to mentally Photoshop the power lines out of our view.

There were two public onsen at this ryokan, one was completely inside, and the other with an indoor and outdoor pool. These two baths alternated each day between men and women. Since today the men’s bath was the indoor bath, we paid a little extra to use a private outdoor bath on the roof. This consisted of a large wooden tub, set under an attractive bamboo covering, and even the water spigot was appealing, made of wood and bamboo. It was great to soak outside, with cool mountain air and a view of the green tree tops. The next morning we thoroughly enjoyed a soak in the outdoor public bath, which was considerably more elaborate, with a waterfall flowing into the pool, and a second shallower pool to cool off in.

Dinner was served at 6:30 PM and we were surprised to be shown to our own private dining room behind rice paper screens. The meal was an elaborate kaiseki, every bit as good as our first in Tokyo, with a dozen small courses of fish, beef, tofu, and seasonal local vegetables. Our kimono-clad server was delightful, and knew enough English to be able to explain each course as it was presented. We could get used to this.

When we returned to our room we found that our low table had been moved aside and had been replaced with two futons covered by two comforters. The futons were surprisingly comfortable, although the pillow was paper thin. This was easily rectified by taking an additional comforter, folding it into thirds, and using it to supplement the pillow. Exhausted after a busy day, we slept better than expected.

All in all, we had a fantastic day in Hakone. I’m glad we tried our first ryokan here instead of in the city, as it seemed somehow a fitting way to end a day spent enjoying nature.

Tomorrow: Hakone Open Air Museum, Odawara Castle and Takayama
russ_in_LA is offline  
Jun 6th, 2014, 11:18 PM
  #37  
 
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This is so interesting & I'm enjoying your writing enormously, Russ. Thank you very much.

I can see myself following in your footsteps sometime in the next couple of years, very much influences by what I'm learning from your travels.
Bokhara2 is offline  
Jun 7th, 2014, 04:54 AM
  #38  
 
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Loving your report.

I've wondered why almost everyone seems to take the Halone loop in the same counter-clockwise direction instead of going against the flow. Good move to skip the bus and double-down on the pirate ship.

Looking forward to the report on one of my favorite places anywhere, the Hakone Open-Air museum. [English football fans beware: one of the great pieces there is called "The Hand of God."]
DonTopaz is offline  
Jun 7th, 2014, 05:57 PM
  #39  
 
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http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5205.html

Great report brings back some good memories.
We stayed at the Fujiya hotel , did the circuit, and walked the Tokaido trail to Hatajuku (nice marquetry crafts) stopping at the Amazake Chaya Inn. Then bus back to Hakone Yumoto ,railway and back to Fujiya.
Your reverse course of pirate ship ropeway would have been better.
Oh well next time.
After reading your report an onsen stay iand return toHakone would be fun and may be an option.
Thanks for posting
kalihiwai2 is offline  
Jun 7th, 2014, 07:47 PM
  #40  
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Thanks everyone for your comments! Now, continuing on with the saga...

May 18 – Day 6 – Hakone to Takayama

We were awake by 6:00 AM and eager to try our first Japanese breakfast of the trip. I had previously commented to Sam in Tokyo that I felt like I wasn’t getting enough protein in the morning by just having a muffin and tea, so I would run out of energy before lunch. All I can say is that a Japanese breakfast of fish, tamago (little bite sized pieces of omelet), tofu and miso soup was the perfect protein-packed start to a busy day. Today was set to be our longest travel day, 5 ½ hours to Takayama, and we still had a stop at the Hakone Open Air museum ahead of us, so we decided to get an early start.

The museum features sculptures by renowned 20th century artists such as Calder, Moore, Giacometti, and several Japanese artists, distributed among the hilly park-like setting. It was a gorgeous day, and the azalea and rhododendron bushes were bursting open, painting large swaths of magenta along the garden paths, which would have been enough to make a visit worthwhile. But around every corner, there was also a spectacular modern sculpture, either tucked into a tiny niche of greenery, or in the middle of a large, grassy lawn. We enjoyed many familiar artists, and were surprised to learn that Henry Moore actually created some sculptures not entitled, “reclining figure” (although there were a lot of those as well). We were also introduced to some Japanese artists unfamiliar to us. Our favorite piece was by Taro Okamota called l’Homme Vegetal, which looked to me like the bulbous pods found on giant kelp, but on a monumental scale, painted bright white and protruding out of a central figure.

We spent about 90 minutes in the park before continuing on our way to pick up the Shinkansen in Odawara bound for Nagoya. Arriving in Odawara about 2 hours before our connection, we decided to have a look at the large castle that we could see from the train station, and find a place for lunch along the way. We managed to take the only street that was completely devoid of restaurants, until we got to the entrance for the castle. Since we didn’t want to retrace our steps, we went to the only restaurant we could see, which was directly across the street from the entrance.

Walking into the restaurant, we could see that it was packed. We asked the proprietress for table, and she responded with something indecipherable to us. I responded with my best attempt at Japanese, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand Japanese”, at which point one of the patrons said in English that there were no tables free downstairs, but that there was Japanese-style seating upstairs. We nodded our assent and were led upstairs.

The upstairs was empty, save for one businessman, dressed in a suit and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Seated at a low table, we pointed at the photos of a couple noodle dishes on the menu. Soon after, several groups of men filled the rest of the tables, no doubt on their lunch break from work. We were clearly objects of fascination, as we could see turn heads and smiles at our attempts to speak Japanese with the server.

When lunch was over and we got up to leave, one man in a group of men in their thirties asked me, in halting English, where we were from. Eager to practice my Japanese, I used one of my recently learned phrases to tell him that I was an American. At this point, the proprietress said something I never expected to hear in Japanese. She said that my Japanese was good. Finally, I understood why my Pimsleur lessons had taught me how to understand that phrase, and how to respond to it. Not because my Japanese was good, but because people are so nice in Japan they will complement you even when it isn’t true. I was so excited that I knew the properly modest response, so I blurted out in my bad Japanese, “oh no, my Japanese is not very good”! At that point the group of men burst out laughing, one of them who had been drinking a glass of water, pointing to his mouth to show that he and almost spit it out. We were so happy to have had a brief connection and shared a laugh. We had many such moments as these with fellow diners, school children or Japanese tourists, and they proved to be among the highlights of the trip.

After lunch we made a quick spin in the Odawara Castle which, although reconstruction, was still exciting to see from the outside. The inside had several museum exhibits, but we didn’t have time to properly appreciate them. With ½ hour left before our train departure, we headed back to the station. The trip was uneventful until about if 1-1/2 hours before arriving at Takayama. At this point we had left the city behind and were traveling in a tree lined gorge, with a river below, which we crossed over several times. It was very picturesque, as we passed by fields of green tea and rice paddies. I found that instead of being tiring, the train journeys were actually very restful, a chance to get off my feet, relax and enjoy the scenery.

We arrived and checked into our modern and nondescript hotel near the station, called the Hida Plaza hotel. I chose it because I wasn’t sure how we would feel after sleeping on futons the night before, so I wanted to be sure we had comfortable beds. I also found the idea appealing that it had two onsen, a Japanese –styled one in the basement, and a more modern one on the roof, with views of the city.

Unfortunately, after arriving to our rooms, we discovered what would turn out to be, the hardest, most uncomfortable beds of the trip. I seriously contemplated sleeping on the floor because I thought it might be more comfortable.

I decided to get my mind off this by trying the modern onsen on the roof, which turned out to be a good experience. It had the largest bath of any we have seen so far, about the size of a typical backyard swimming pool. It also had several baths of varying sizes outside, which made it possible to have a tiny bit of privacy since there were few others also using the facilities.

After a good hot soak, I asked of the front desk for a restaurant recommendation. I requested some place that specialized in the locally produced Hida beef, which is similar to the more well-known Kobe beef. We got only a little lost walking the two blocks to the restaurant, mostly because the stairway from the street was located in the back of a garage of what appeared to be a residential apartment. Once inside it looked more like a market, with refrigerated cases containing plastic wrapped pieces of beef and bowls of vegetables. It was explained to us that we should choose a piece of beef, and they would bring it to our table.

Having chosen our meat, we were taken to a grouping of tables that were all occupied, so they led us to what appeared to be a storeroom/office, clearing off a table that was piled with paperwork. Each table had a grill built in to the center of the tabletop, into which was placed red hot charcoal which had just been taken out of a large pot. The meat was brought to us, sliced and seasoned, and were told to go back into the market area to retrieve vegetables to cook on our grill along with meat. At that point the proprietress left the room and we never saw her again. It was actually fun cooking our food, so we really didn’t mind, except that it was the first dinner in which Sam did not have any sake, since no one ever came back to ask. Fortunately the beef was excellent, so we laughed, and left satisfied, if a bit perplexed.

Tomorrow: Touring Takayama – One of the best days of our trip!
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