Sunday, February 19, 2017

Fuji Five Lakes: Lake Kawaguchi, Japan

Sunday, February 19, 2017

We left Tokyo early in the morning and made our way to a small town called Kawaguchiko in Fuji Five Lakes. From our AirBnB in the Daikan-yama neighborhood of Tokyo, we took three trains to Kawaguchiko station. The last train was a Fuji-san express, where some of the compartments give you a view of Mt. Fuji as you approach the destination. It was a cloudy day, so our view was of the mountains, which were brushed with reds, oranges, and greens, the town starting to change to fall. Kindly, our ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel) sent a shuttle to pick us up, so that we didn't have to roll our suitcases across town. 

We weren't able to check-in until later in the afternoon, so we rented bikes from a small shop and decided to ride around Lake Kawaguchi. It was a bit chilly since the sun was behind the clouds, but it was a pleasant ride. 

On the other side of the lake, we visited a Maple Leaf Tunnel, It looked like it was an old canal that was lined with maple trees on both sides. You could walk on either side, taking in the momiji (maple leaves). 

Nearby, there was an Autumn Festival with craft and food vendors. I kept an eye out for some ceramics, but didn't see anything that I wanted to purchase. Instead, we ate! We snacked on grilled corn on the cob, some grilled oysters, had a few beers, and we even tried these delicious bread rolls that were unlike anything I've ever had! They were quite dense, and only 50 yen so we had to go back for another! We tried using our Google translate app to translate her sign that was in Japanese, but unfortunately, we still had no idea what kind of tasty bread the woman made. 

Making our way back to the Japanese hotel so that we could check-in, we came upon a hill with a nice view of the lake. Up the hill were small, concrete stairs and at the top was a tiny shrine, hidden behind the trees.

We went back to the ryokan to check-in. When we arrived, there was a line of women dressed to the nines in their traditional kimonos. The woman that was assigned to our room led us to our floor. Once we went inside our room, she removed her sandals, and we removed our shoes, switching into the slippers since the entire room was covered in tatami mats.  She showed us around the room, and then made us matcha green tea before leaving. In the room, there were shoji screens over the sliding glass doors. Behind it should have been Mt. Fuji in the distance, but Fuji-san was shy that day, hiding behind the clouds. 

In the closets were the shiki futons for later in the night, as well as yukata (robes) and obi (sashes), so we changed into them before dinner. One block away from the ryokan was a Lawson convenience store (which we loved throughout Japan for their tamago sandos [egg salad sandwiches]) so before dinner, Steven picked up some shochu, a distilled alcohol beverage. Before dinner, we enjoyed the onsen (hot spring) on our balcony while drinking the shochu. 

We signed up for the kaiseki dinner, which is a traditional, multi-course dinner with seasonal small plates. Our ryokan host (I believe her name was Fukima) would bring the trays of food in one by one. They were so heavy that they would bend in the middle. I don't know how Fukima carried them from the hallway all on her own! Most of everything we ate were new flavors and textures for us. Some familiar items were raw meat cooked over a small, hot grill, as well as a miso soup heated over coals. There was a lot of seafood on the menu, which we both love, as well as chestnut and mochi/rice confections. It was all beautifully displayed, and a lovely experience - certainly a highlight of our trip. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Last Day in Tokyo, with Ginkgo Leaves

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Could it really be the last day of Tokyo, already? Looking back, it was such a wonderful city, and I fell in love with it more than I expected. Our last day, we started at Meiji shine, where we saw a couple in traditional wedding wear, truly beautiful. 

Later, we explored Harajuku, which I didn't get many photos of because it was packed. There were immense crowds and we took it all in, shopped a little, and enjoyed the youngsters around us as we tried to figure out a purikura photobooth

For lunch, we went to an okonomiyaki place where you cook it yourself, and it's all you can eat! Being that we weren't limited, we enjoyed different ingredients like nato in our okonomiyaki, but my favorite was definitely the green onion one. 

From there, we walked to the famous Ginkgo tree lined street. From around the corner, we could see the yellow tops of the trees towering above everything else. I had no idea how tall these trees were in real life. We walked down the street, taking in their immense presence and their beautiful color. It was more beautiful than I ever expected. The view from end of the street, looking down the row of perfectly shaped, yellow ginkgo trees, it looked just like every postcard and photograph of the famous street that I've seen in magazines and travel shows. Standing there, looking at it's beauty, I suddenly realized how far away from home I really was. I realized that I was visiting a famous place that was so beautiful, somewhere I never thought I would get the opportunity to travel to, and yet there I was. I felt so humbled under those trees, I felt so happy to be in Japan.  

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Robots, Tiny Bars, and New Friends in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Where to even begin! Shinjuku was everything I imagined about Tokyo. We stayed at an Airbnb in Daikan-yama, a really nice area with boutiques and shops, which is in between Ebisu (where my favorite yokocho is) and Shibuya (where scramble crossing is). Our area felt nicely balanced with tall city buildings mixed with smaller buildings. On the more city-like side of the spectrum, our evening in Shinjuku was incredibly stimulating from the immense buildings, bright lights, colorful outfits, it goes on.

Early in the evening, I bought some swag from a street vendor - a souvenir jacket with a tiger and "Japan" embroidered on the back. I had seen many of them being sold in stores at a higher price than I wanted to pay, and even the locals were sporting what I at first thought was ironic fashion. Finding this bomber jacket at the right price near Piss Alley, I had to have it.

We started the night at Omoide Yokocho, which like other yokochos, is a series of small bars and restaurants close together in an alley. Omoide translates to "Memory Lane." Omoide Yokocho used to be referred to as Shomben Yokocho, which translates to "Piss Alley." You can imagine how small, and cramped these areas are. We walked around until we saw an open seat at one of the grills and we ate skewers of meat called yakitori with our Asahi beer. We had a really great night talking to the locals. The couple to our left was asking about our camera, and they were nice enough to take a photo of us together! A group of friends to our right were made up of a local, a woman visiting from Osaka, and a guy visiting from Hawaii. It was really awesome getting to talk to them throughout the evening. The local was telling us how to say a few things in Japanese, and in turn, we were teaching him how to say a few things in English. It was such a fun dinner!

From there, we went to Robot Restaurant. If you have seen the Tokyo episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain visits Robot Restaurant. Although there are definitely robots, it isn't much of a restaurant. It's a show, an experience, and it's incredibly stimulating. We were only among tourists, but it was something we wanted to do because where else in the world does something like this exist? It was vibrant, it was spectacular, it was fun. It's definitely an experience one could only have in Shinjuku.

Before we headed back to our apartment for the evening, we made our way to Golden Gai - an area of  small, 5-10 seat bars. A Chicago friend recommended a bar called Parasol, which was on the second floor of a small building. Our friend visited Tokyo and made friends with the bartender, so she gave the bartender a heads up that we were coming that evening. The bartender, Hayato, later posted on Instagram the photos from both of our visits! When we first entered the bar, there were only two seats left at the bar, at opposite ends, and before Hatayo even knew we were the travelers that he was expecting, he had everyone scoot over to accommodate us, the tourists. We ordered some tropical inspired drinks. To our right were two women that spoke English that work for Uniqlo, so we spoke to them a little bit through the night. To our left were a group of salary men (business men in suits) that kept ordering tequila shots, and Hayato kept pouring shots for us too. It was such a jovial and exciting evening that ended with us rushing to catch the last train at Shinjuku station. It was everything I had wanted, all wrapped up in one Tokyo night. 
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