Sayonara, Japan!

We met up with my cousin, Tomoko, at the hotel, and spent a delightful time catching up.  She had not been able to make it to the family reunion, so it was great to see her after almost 50 years. IMG_9241[1]With cousin Tomoko.  IMG_9243[1]Group photo in front of hotel.

Afterwards, we took the train to Kawasaki, a suburb of Tokyo close to Haneda Airport, and visited with Uncle Tadashi and Aunt Nagako.  They live in a high-rise apartment in walking distance to the train station and several shopping malls.  It was so good to visit with them again.  Aunt Nagako made a fabulous lunch with 12 courses and 4 different types of beverages – it was amazing!  We enjoyed petting her cat, Momo, and watching clips of Aunt Nagako and Uncle Tadashi in TV commercials.  We did some last-minute shopping with them before saying our goodbyes and heading for the airport. IMG_9296[1]Reflection of Uncle Tadashi and Aunt Nagako’s apartment building.  IMG_9255[1]View of courtyard from 20th floor of apartment building.IMG_9264[1]View from balcony.  IMG_0365[1]One of our 12 courses.  Delicious!  IMG_9291[1]Group photo.  IMG_9288[1]Momo the cat.  IMG_9302[1]Last-minute shopping for tea.

We are so thankful for our wonderful stay in Japan.  We especially enjoyed spending time with family.  My mom was truly happy to see everyone again after so many years.  As we leave, we will miss the warm, kind and hospitable people, the great adventures, the beautiful places and the fantastic food we experienced in Japan.  While we’re saying sayonara today, we will definitely be back!  IMG_4545[1]Last train ride in Japan as we head for Haneda Airport.IMG_9308[1]Vending machines at the train station.  These are called venno and are ubiquitous in Japan.  There are 5 million of them — one for every 23 people, and bring in $60 billion/year. IMG_9311[1]Hello Kitty store at Haneda Airport. IMG_4546[1]One of the lobbies at Haneda Airport.  IMG_4548[1]Planes at Haneda Airport.


Tokyo Ancient and New

The Imperial Palace sits in the middle of Tokyo on expansive grounds that are a wonderful respite from the usual crowds of people.  Because it is the current residence of Emperor Akihito and his royal family, the palace itself is off-limits to the public.  We took the iconic shot of the palace by Nijubashi Bridge.  A swan even appeared in the moat, which made it a perfect photo opp.    IMG_8953[1]Imperial Palace.  IMG_8921[1]Grounds opposite of the Imperial Palace.  IMG_8973[1]Offices complexes outside of the Imperial Palace.

The Shibuya area is known as the Times Square of Japan.  The light change at Shibuya crossing when all pedestrians get a green light in all directions is pretty wild.  Suddenly the entire intersection was filled with a mass of humanity. IMG_9018[1]Waiting for the light to turn green for pedestrians at Shibuya crossing.  IMG_9026[1]Shibuya crossing.

We stopped at a sushi conveyor belt restaurant for lunch.  The ordering and delivering of food was very efficient with individual tablets at each seat for placing orders, and three levels of conveyor belts that delivered the food right to your spot.  Because your food was delivered so quickly, you could place multiple orders throughout your meal.  The minimal waitstaff was there to help with IT support.  And everything was fantastic!  IMG_9092[1]Ordering more dishes at the sushi conveyor belt restaurant.

We headed for Harajuku, the colorful mecca of Tokyo’s teenagers shopping for the latest fashions.  We stopped by a couple of stores where we felt like we were plopped in the middle of Candy Crush land.   There were crepe shops everywhere offering crepes rolled into cones and stuffed with various fruits, whipped cream chocolate sauce and nuts, so of course we had to sample one. IMG_9141[1]Takeshita Street in Harajuku.  IMG_9148[1]Colorful cotton candy in Harajuku.  IMG_9155[1]IMG_9176[1]IMG_9189[1]DSC_3889img_91641.jpg

While in Harajuku, the other thing we had to do was to stop at a cat café, which has become a popular thing in Japan.  You pay for the privilege of petting and playing with cats.  My parents, who are not cat people, decided to pass on the experience.  It was kind of bizarre, but very fun, and the cats were definitely cute.  DSC_3923DSC_3910DSC_3911DSC_3916DSC_3918IMG_9220[1]Some of the cat cafe customers wore cat ears.  You can’t make this stuff up.

We left Harajuku for the Shinjuku neighborhood, an area known for nightlife and restaurants.  There we had a fabulous feast of chirashi, tempura, Japanese fried chicken, grilled pork and grilled fish.  IMG_9229[1]Shinjuku area.IMG_0272[1]IMG_0274[1]Dinner in Shinjuku.

After getting back to our hotel, I decided to try the Japanese public bath there, especially since bathing is such an important ritual and a big part of Japanese culture.  While not the full onsen experience with the hot-spring water in a spa setting (often outdoors), this was very delightful and so relaxing.  The baths are segregated by gender.  There were washing stations along two walls with faucets and shower sprays, stools, basins, and shampoos, conditioner, body wash and facial soap.  Since everyone soaks in the same large bath, which is the size of a pool, you have to wash and rinse yourself thoroughly before entering the bath.  The water was really hot, but not unbearably so.  I soaked for as long as I could and could feel all tension melting away.  It felt so luxurious.  When I got back to the hotel room, I fell asleep immediately.



Early in the morning, we headed for the Miyagawa Morning Market in Takayama in the midst of our second typhoon in Japan.  Everyone says that this weather is highly unusual for this time of the year.  Through the pouring rain, we walked from shop to shop that were selling fresh produce, pickled vegetables, locally made crafts and street fare.  IMG_8691[1]Display and free samples of some of the dried fruits and coated nuts at the Miyagawa Morning Market.

We left Takayama by bus for Shirakawa-go, a picturesque village located in a remote valley on the banks of the Shokawa River.  It’s only 30 miles northwest of Takayama but has not been easily accessible until only recently when the motorway was completed.  We traveled through 13 tunnels, the longest of which was 7 miles long, through highly mountainous terrain.  The bus ride through the region, called the Japan Alps, was delightful.  The winters in this region are especially harsh with lots of heavy snow (usually over 6 feet of snow) blanketing the entire area.  Because of the snow, the thatched roofs on the farmhouses (known as gassho-zukuri) are constructed at steep angles.  The thatched roofs are about 2-3 feet thick and are made of pampas grass that needs to be replaced every 30 years.  The entire process involves the whole village of Shirakawa-go so that roofs can be replaced as quickly as possible. IMG_8704[1]Village of Shirakawa-go.  IMG_8698[1]At Shirakawa-go with Mom and Dad.  IMG_8709[1]Shirakawa-go.

We visited the Wada gassho-zukuri farmhouse, which is the largest and oldest one in the village.  No nails are used in building the farmhouses because the structures have to be flexible enough to withstand earthquakes.  The Wada gassho-zukuri provided a good sense of what rural life must have been like in centuries past.IMG_8755[1]Underside of the thatched roof of the Wada farmhouse.  IMG_8784[1]View from the second story of the Wada farmhouse. IMG_8804[1]More gassho-zukuri farmhouses in Shirakawa-go.IMG_8814[1]IMG_8833[1]IMG_8892[1]IMG_8886[1]Kristen in Shirakawa-go.

After a delicious lunch consisting of grilled fish, tofu, pickles, miso soup and local vegetables, we rode on to Kanazawa, where we caught a shinkansen for Tokyo.  After arriving in Tokyo Station, we once again spent another hour trying to get out to make a connecting train.  Traveling with a person who needs to use an elevator adds a whole layer of complexity to an already complex situation.  We’re convinced that no stairs, escalators and elevators meet in the same place in Tokyo Station.


We spent a restful night at Zenkoji Buddhist Temple, a functioning temple that also operates as an Airbnb.  It was such a cool place to stay.  We had a couple of rooms with traditional tatami (straw) mats and slept on futons – so comfortable! The temple also had a spacious common area with a shrine where the monks would pray.  My mom was worried that they would get us up at 4:30 am for forced prayer sessions and would whack us on the backs of our legs if we started to fall asleep.  I had to assure her that they would not do that.  They did offer Zen meditation sessions, but unfortunately, our schedule did not allow any time for peaceful meditation.  Maybe next time. 4ad79872-7bd9-4167-9131-34b44f4d3793Zenkoji Temple at night.  IMG_8470[1]Garden at Zenkoji Temple. IMG_8483[1]Common area at Zenkoji Temple.

We headed for the Takayama Jinya, a historical government administrative building that served the Tokugawa shogunate from the 1600s to the 1800s.  It’s the only one that is in existence in Japan, and is a fascinating, sprawling complex containing various chambers, courts, interrogation rooms with torture devices, and a 400-year-old rice granary where rice was collected from local farmers as a form of tax.  IMG_8503[1]Exterior of Takayama Jinya with peace symbol raked onto the gravel.  IMG_8543[1]Courtyard garden at Takayama Jinya.  IMG_8558[1]IMG_8572[1]Interior shots of Takayama Jinya.  IMG_8602[1]IMG_8623[1]Exterior of Takayama Jinya.

We began walking through the Sanmachi district, a historic center of traditional homes and businesses on narrow streets that are flanked on both sides by tiny canals of running water.   There were a number of shops selling Takayama specialties, including sake, miso, lacquerware, arts and crafts and Hida beef.  Takayama is known for its delicious beef, so of course we had to sample some grilled Hida beef on a stick.  We’ve been told that the cows in Takayama are provided with beer each evening, along with massages, and they listen to classical music to help them relax, hence the high quality of the beef.  IMG_9827[1]Along with the Hida beef on a stick, we sampled mitarashi-dango, skewers of grilled rice balls seasoned with soy sauce. IMG_8671[1] Mom and Dad stopping at a cafe for some coffee.

In the evening, we celebrated Kristen’s birthday by going out to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in Takayama cuisine.  We sat at a traditional Japanese table and feasted on Hida beef, mountain vegetables, Japanese pickles and premium local sake.  The beef and vegetables were served hoba miso style, which means that they were combined with miso paste with scallions, ginger and mushrooms, and cooked on a dry magnolia leaf over a clay burner.  It was delicious!  IMG_8673[1]IMG_9862[1]Hida beef served hoba style.  So yummy!


Early in the morning, we said sayonara to Kyoto and boarded a shinkansen for Kanazawa, a former castle town, on the northwestern coast.  Once there, we headed for Omi-cho Market to sample some of the street foods of Kanazawa.  At the market, we found fishmongers selling the freshest sashimi, farmers selling their local produce and others hawking a variety of different foods, including green teas, pickled vegetables, rice cakes and grilled delicacies.  IMG_8184[1]Kristen sampling grilled mackerel.  IMG_8193[1]Kristen sampling grilled eel.  IMG_8200[1]Fishmongers at Omi-cho Market.  IMG_8205[1]Omi-cho Market.

We then hiked over to Kanazawa Castle Park.  Before the castle burned down in the 1800s, it must have been massive because the only part that did survive, Ishikawamon Gate, is huge.  IMG_8219[1]Roof detail on Ishikawamon Gate.

Adjacent to Kanazawa Castle Park is Kenrokuen Garden, which is considered one of the best landscape gardens in Japan.  Originally Kanazawa Castle’s outer garden, Kenrokuen has everything a Japanese garden should have:  ponds, trees, streams, rocks, mounds and winding footpaths.  The effect is magical.  We wandered throughout the park, and everywhere we turned, we had to take another picture because it was so beautiful.  IMG_8252[1]Bob and Kristen at Kenrokuen Garden.  IMG_8276[1]More scenes from Kenrokuen Garden.  IMG_8284[1]IMG_8302[1]IMG_8323[1]IMG_8332[1]IMG_8357[1]Kristen and Grandma at Kenrokuen Garden.

We caught a bus over to the Higashi Chaya district, which is the geisha district of Kanazawa.  We visited the 200-year-old Shima Geisha House, which provided a rare opportunity for an inside peek into this world. IMG_8400[1]Inside Shima Geisha House.  IMG_8406[1]IMG_8410[1]IMG_8434[1]IMG_8441[1]Higashi Chaya district.

We left Kanazawa late in the afternoon and traveled by train to Takayama, located in the Hida Mountains, which is part of the Japan Alps National Park.  IMG_8461[1]Kanazawa Train Station.  IMG_8465[1]Dinner in Takayama — so yummy!

Hakone and Mt Fuji

Sunshine finally!  Since we’ve been in Japan, we’ve had very little sun, experiencing mostly cloudy days with rain showers to outright typhoon category 5 conditions.  We took advantage of the sunniest day thus far by heading to Hakone for a possible sighting of Mt Fuji.  Deciding to visit Hakone as a day trip from Kyoto, we had to rise very early to take various forms of unique transportation to get there.  We started with a shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto to Odawara, switched to a local train that got us to a closer station, then transferred to a three-car electric train that winded its way with switchbacks up through the mountains, then boarded cablecars to get higher up the mountain, then transferred to the Hakone Ropeway for a gondola ride to Owakudani, then changed to a different gondola to get back down the other side of the mountain to Togendai and finally boarded a boat to cross Lake Ashinoko – it’s exhausting just recalling the journey!  Actually, traveling to Hakone was half the fun.

Early on in our travels, we did see Mt Fuji from the shinkansen.  Sightings tend to occur in the morning since clouds usually cover the mountain by afternoon.  IMG_9368[1]Photo of Mt Fuji taken from the bullet train.

Along the way, we stopped at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, which is one of the coolest museums ever.  Set outside on a beautiful rolling hillside, it showcases sculptures by artists such as Rodin, Joan Miro, Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, etc.  And at the end of touring the museum grounds, we stopped at the museum’s foot “onsen” (public bath) where we could soak our feet in a large, outdoor footbath supplied with piped-in hotspring water.  So luxurious!  IMG_8001[1]Sculpture at Hakone Open-Air Museum.  IMG_8007[1]IMG_8029[1]IMG_8042[1]IMG_8046[1]

During the final stretch of our travels, we spent a few minutes at Owakudani, which means “great boiling valley” in Japanese.  You can see huge billows of sulfur steam coming up through fissures in the rock.  The Hakone Ropeway personnel even hand you little towels to breathe through because the sulfur steam can be very strong and irritating.  IMG_8069[1]Sulfur steam at Owakudani.

When we finally made it to the other side of Lake Ashinoko to take the iconic photos of Mt Fuji, it was already late in the afternoon.  Mt Fuji looked very faint in the background, but you could still see its peak.  As it turns out, our first photos of Mt Fuji from the train were the clearest ones, but we still enjoyed the entire experience.  IMG_8146[1]Mt Fuji in the background.  IMG_8148[1]

Exploring Nara

Using Kyoto as a base, we took a side trip out to Nara, Japan’s original ancient capital that’s located only 26 miles away.  One of the great things about Nara is that most of the historic buildings and temples are all located within the peaceful confines of a large and beautiful park in the middle of the city.  Nara Park is also home to more than 1,200 deer that roam freely and are quite friendly, especially when you feed them “deer crackers”.  IMG_7551[1]Photo of Japanese countryside taken from train between Kyoto and Nara.  IMG_7566[1]Dad feeding “deer crackers” to the deer.  IMG_7693[1]Kristen feeding a deer.  img_77051.jpgKristen making friends with the deer.DSC_2815The deer didn’t seem to like me quite as much.

In the park, we headed for Todaiji Temple and its Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, constructed out of bronze.  Standing at a height of over 50 feet, it’s one of the largest bronze figures in the world and is quite impressive.  What’s even more impressive is the wooden building that houses the Daibutsu.  At 160 feet high, about 200 feet long and 165 feet wide, it’s the largest wooden structure in the world and is truly awe-inspiring.  IMG_7672[1]Todaiji Temple  IMG_7641[1]Interior of Todaiji Temple. DSC_2858Daibutsu IMG_7645[1]Daibutsu  DSC_2873Seated to the left of the Daibutsu is Kokuzu Bosatsu, the bodhisattva of memory and wisdom.

Walking through the park, we next headed for Kasuga Taisha Shrine, a Shinto shrine located in a deeply wooded setting.  The pathways to the shrine are lined with more than 3,000 stone and bronze lanterns, and there are more in the shrine itself.IMG_7762[1]Walkway to Kasuga Taisha.  img_77691.jpgKristen and deer at Kasuga Taisha.  IMG_7772[1]Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha.  IMG_7778[1]IMG_7808[1]More lanterns at Kasuga Temple.

After leaving Nara, we visited Fushimi-Inari Taisha with its more than 10,000 vermillion torii, or shrine gates, that create a tunneled path that winds through the woods and up a mountain slope.  We arrived in the early evening as it was starting to get dark, and with the graveyards and countless miniature shrines along the path, it was a little eerie, but so cool.  We were only able to make it halfway through before it got too dark, so we’ll definitely have to return someday.  IMG_7853[1]Entrance to Fushimi-Inari Taisha.  IMG_7867[1]IMG_7871[1]IMG_7895[1]DSC_3070

We took a shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka for dinner.  Osaka is Japan’s third-largest city and very modern and high tech.  It’s also famous for great food.  We headed over to the Dotombori area, which was jampacked with eateries and tourists.  It looked like Times Square, only much, much cleaner.  While there, we sampled delicious street food, and tried the notorious fugu (blowfish).  Chefs must train for a minimum of 3 years before serving fugu since it contains a potentially lethal poison.  My take after trying fugu?  It tastes very bland and is totally not worth the risk. IMG_7908[1]Osaka Train Station.  IMG_7914[1]Dotombori district in Osaka.  IMG_7925[1]img_93091.jpegAn Osaka street fare specialty, tako-yaki are octopus dumplings fried on a griddle and topped with a savory sauce.  Delicious!  IMG_9321[1]Fugu (blowfish) sushi sampler.  Not quite so delicious.

Exploring Kyoto — Part 2

We set out for Arashiyama located on the western outskirts of Kyoto.  It’s a small town built around the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, pictured below with fast waters as a result of the typhoon.  But what it’s really known for is its bamboo grove, which was quite beautiful, even after a number of stalks were brought down by the typhoon.  IMG_7269[1]

IMG_7278[1]Cat store in the middle of Arashiyama.IMG_7283[1]Arashiyama bamboo grove.

IMG_7294[1]Arashiyama bamboo grove.

Next we headed for Ryoanji Temple, built in the 1400s, which contains one of the most famous Zen rock gardens in the world.  The garden is made up of 15 carefully placed rocks surrounded by a sea of sand that is surrounded on three sides by a clay wall and on the fourth by a wooden veranda.  It looks very austere.  We sat for a while on the veranda overlooking the garden, and enjoyed the peaceful surroundings.

IMG_7384[1]One of the buildings in the Ryoanji Temple complex.

IMG_7346[1]Ryoanji Temple Zen rock garden.  On the right, you can see the sock-covered feet of some of the people sitting on the veranda overlooking the garden.

One of Kyoto’s most famous attractions is Kinkakuji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.  It is covered in brilliant gold leaf and really shimmers in the light.  Kinkakuji is quite spectacular, especially with its reflection captured in the pond waters.

IMG_7429[1]School children on the grounds of Kinkakuji


IMG_7473[1]The back side of Kinkakuji

For dinner, we headed to Pontocho, a narrow alley that runs parallel to the Kamo River.  Once a geisha hangout area, it is now filled with restaurants and bars.  We ended up at a chicken yakitori (charcoal-grilled chicken on a skewer) izakaya where the food was absolutely delicious!


Exploring Kyoto

We woke up several times throughout the night with cell phones going off with audio alerts on the typhoon.  Thankfully, the eye of the typhoon veered away from Kyoto at the last minute, so we were not impacted as greatly as we had feared.  While the rains continued through the morning, it cleared up enough so that we were able to explore Kyoto. IMG_7531[1]Rainbow after Typhoon Lan.

We hiked to Sanjusangendo Hall, a Buddhist temple built in the 1100s, that contains 1,001 life-size, wooden statues of a Buddhist deity, Kannon, along with a gigantic seated Buddha and a row of guardian deities who are based on Hindu gods.  The rows and rows of these life-like figures are quite striking and make for an impressive sight. IMG_6906[1]IMG_6915[1]Garden outside of Sanjusangendo Hall.  IMG_6909[1]IMG_6945[1]Exterior views of Sanjusangendo Hall. Sanjusangen-do Hall1,001 wooden figures and large seated Buddha within Sanjusangendo Hall. 330px-Sanjusangendo_Thousand-armed_Kannon

From there, we all walked up a very steep hill towards Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient and colorful temple first built in 798.  Its main hall is built over a cliff and features a huge wooden veranda supported by 139 pillars that are each 50 feet high.  Unfortunately, part of the structure was under repair, so you couldn’t get the full impact of the temple, but it was still very impressive. IMG_7015[1]Kiyomizu-dera  IMG_7035[1]Structure supporting the veranda of Kiyomizu-dera.  IMG_7057[1]IMG_7067[1]Kiyomizu-dera  IMG_7151[1]Washing station outside of the temple.  IMG_7160[1]IMG_7110[1]IMG_7118[1]IMG_7196[1]Kristen in a kimono.

We then walked down the hill to the Gion area, which is the geisha district of Kyoto.  We didn’t see any geishas, but they still entertain every evening in this quarter.  There, we ate at a sushi restaurant that was established in the 1700s and featured Kyoto-style sushi.  Kyoto sushi is wrapped in kombu, or seaweed, and features cured fish.  It’s very different from what we usually think of as sushi (which is Tokyo-style sushi), but quite good.  IMG_7240[2]Kyoto-style sushi.

Farewell Yokohama and Hello Kyoto

We rose early this morning and headed to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Yokohama, one of the few Catholic churches in the entire prefecture.  With Catholics accounting for less than .5% of the total population in Japan, it was really difficult to find a Catholic church.  While the cathedral wasn’t very large and was only about half full, the entire assembly really sang everything.  Hearing a singing assembly like that was so uplifting and inspiring.  We found it interesting that during the “handshake of peace”, no one shook hands.  Instead, everyone bowed to each other.IMG_4056Sacred Heart Cathedral

We left Yokohama after Mass and headed for Kyoto on a shinkansen (bullet train).  It was definitely speedy, traveling over 275 miles in under 2 hours, and so smooth and quiet.  Our particular shinkansen averaged 140 mph.  The fastest ones tested at 350 mph, and passengers weren’t comfortable with that, so they lowered the top speed to an average speed of 200 mph. IMG_8111[1]View from the shinkansen en route to Kyoto. IMG_7255[1]Kyoto Train Station

We got to Kyoto just in time for Typhoon Lan to touch down on Japan.  Months ago when we were planning for this trip, we were told that October, and especially the second half of October, would be an ideal time to visit Japan because the weather is the best then.  That a category 5 storm would be accelerating towards Japan during our vacation was the furthest thing from our minds.  After settling into our Airbnb, we set off through the driving rain for dinner.  We ended up at a neighborhood izakaya (gastropub) and enjoyed a grill-your-own meats dinner and Korean bibimbap. IMG_4090