From the second we got into Kanazawa, I was pleasantly surprised by both the city and how nice all of the people were. Everyone we’ve met so far has been very friendly and helpful, but in Kanazawa, there were several instances where people went out of our way to help us or be nice to us.
The first happened as soon as Dave and I got off the bus (my parents’ stop was one before ours). The map to our hotel wasn’t great so we asked for directions and the man we asked left the fish shop he was working at and walked us about 10 minutes right to our hotel door. As if that weren’t enough, all along the way he was stopping to point out different attractions too (speaking only Japanese). We felt like we should give him something to thank him, and the small bottle of sake in our bag seemed to do the trick. He was very thankful for our gift and we were very thankful for his directions, especially since I’m pretty sure we never would have found our place (which was hidden in the alleys of the Geisha district of Kanazawa and only had part of the hotel’s name in English) without him.
We had found another very reasonably priced place (especially compared to our other hotels in the Alps, which were even more expensive than the other already more expensive places we’d been staying in Japan) and we immediately discovered that the deal really was too good to be true. We were staying in what we think was an older Japanese woman’s huge house (Linda, she even had a fridge full of magnets, just like you!). Very strangely, almost all of the guesthouses in Japan charge by the person rather than by the room. Somehow we had mistakenly only booked our room for one person. She shuffled around upstairs trying to get another bed together for us (the traditional Japanese homes have mattresses/futons on the floor) and luckily, Dave was able to bargain with her a little and instead of the $70 she wanted to charge us (we thought we would be paying $35), he got her down to $55 – almost the same as we’ve been paying everywhere else.
We picked up my parents from their hotel and started the Kanazawa tour with the Omicho market, a really great seafood and product market that they say can be compared to the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. It was of course much smaller, but they had some great stuff. We picked up a meatball skewer (three huge Swedish meatballs on a stick) that we’d seen in a couple other places and had been wanting to try. We’d been doubtful that it would taste like the meatballs that we were used to, but surprisingly it did.
From the market, we headed toward Nagamachi, the Samurai district of Kanazawa. On the way, we stumbled upon some older Japanese people playing croquet in a big park (it looked like a big mini golf course) and of course, Dave wanted to partake. This was the other act of kindness that I mentioned above. We tried to gesture to these people that we wanted to play and one of the older men went into a shed to get us clubs and balls. They showed us how to keep score, how the course was lined up, etc. Dave and I played against my parents for a bottle of sake (at the end we added up mine and Dave’s score and then my parents’ score). They ended up beating us by a few strokes, which I attribute to my lack of golf skills and also the hole in one that each of them got, my dad on the first hole, my mom on the second. All throughout the game, the Japanese people at the park were cheering us on, laughing when Dave screamed in excitement after a good shot, clapping when we did something well, etc. When we were finishing up, we realized that they were all waiting for us, because the flags did not, as we had thought, belong to the park, but rather they belonged to them. They had been so happy and excited to have us play and use their equipment. It was very kind of them.
We finally made it to the Samurai district and were able to tour around some of the homes that the Samurai used to live in. They also had a museum ($5 pp), which my dad and Dave went into but my mom and I sat out. They seemed to really enjoy it, but neither my mom nor I were that sad to miss it.
From the Samurai district, we headed to Katamachi, the nightlife district to check out their fancy (and very cute) shopping, restaurant, and bar streets. Originally we had planned to stop into a bar for a drink, but we were a little earlier than we’d expected to be so everywhere was pretty empty. Instead of sitting in a bar with just the 4 of us and buying expensive drinks, we decided to take my parents back to our very cute hotel to show them what a traditional Japanese room looked like and have a bottle of sake at our table (I think this may have been one of the only times we actually had a table in our room!). We relaxed for a bit, introduced them to the owner of our hotel, got to check email, and then went out into the Geisha district (the area we were staying) to find a place for dinner.
Since it was the middle of the week, the area was pretty dead, but we found a great dinner spot serving udon and gyoza. The owner spoke great Englsih and was very friendly and helpful. It was another great dinner after a really nice day. And we had the whole restaurant to ourselves which was great.
In the morning, it was raining, but our last activity was an outside one. We borrowed big umbrellas from my parents’ hotel and headed just a few minutes walk away to the Kanazawa castle park and Kenroku-en garden (one of the top three gardens in Japan). There isn’t actually a castle in the grounds anymore (it burnt down years ago) but we were still able to explore the grounds and take a tour through the castle gate. Then, the rain stopped in perfect time for us to head to the beautiful gardens. It was a very nice morning and we all really enjoyed our 24 hours in Kanazawa. Next, we head to the UNESCO village of Shirakawa-go for a very local and traditional experience staying in one of their famous gasso grass houses.
Shirakawa-go is a very small (population 600) UNESCO World Heritage village made up of gasso houses, which are homes made with grass roofs. You can come for a day to explore the village but we heard that you get the best experience by staying overnight in one of the homes. Whenever Dave and I have done a homestay, its usually been during an overnight hike, where we have to walk for at least half a day just to reach a village. Shirakawa-go is easily reached by bus though, so right off the bat, it’s a little different than what we’ve done before. Also, much more expensive – the people doing the homestays are not backpackers looking for a cheap room, on the contrary, this is only an experience you can get if you’re willing to pay for it (about $80pp, per night, though it includes dinner and breakfast). My parents treated us to this unforgettable experience as our anniversary present.
I was a little nervous about doing this with them, as it’s definitely unlike anything my parents have done before. You stay in a very traditional Japanese home complete with futons on the floor (rather than nice beds) and also a shared bathroom. I wasn’t sure if they would like it or hate it, but I knew from my own experience that staying in a local person’s home is something very special and different. Some of my fondest memories and best stories are from stays like this so I hoped that they would feel the same.
After taking the bus from Kanazawa and walking over the bridge and into the village (I had to explain to my dad that there weren’t any taxis we could take from the bus station through the village), we checked into Kanja, our home for the night. We were greeted by a small Japanese woman who showed us to our respective rooms which had mats on the floor and a table in the middle (with tea ready and waiting for us – if only we liked green tea more!). My parents wondered where the beds were and we explained that they would set them up for us later in the day. The woman who owned the house told us to be back for dinner at 6pmand gave us a discount coupon for the local onsen (hot spring) in the middle of town.
We went out to explore the village and as soon as we started walking through it, we were all taken by its beauty and charm. Lots of little houses, tea and noodle shops, and rice paddies filled the village and we were lucky that just as we started to walk around, it stopped raining (unfortunately, it didn’t stop about 30 minutes earlier when we had to walk from the bus stop to Kanja with our bags) and all the tour buses with the day-trippers started to leave. We walked up to the viewpoint to see an amazing view of the whole village and the snowcapped mountains in the distance. We had really come at a perfect time, as just as we were walking up there, a whole group of school children were heading down and we had the whole place to ourselves. The view was gorgeous and stopped and sat for a few minutes to take it all in.
Then, we went to walk through the rest of the village and stopped at the local onsen on our way back to our homestay. My dad hadn’t brought a bathing suit with him, but the rest of us were all ready for a little hot spring action; it was even a little chilly outside so it was perfect. Women and men go separately into the onsen, as everyone is supposed to go in naked. Dave went in in the traditional way, but my mom and I thought it was just a little too weird to be naked together, so we stayed in our bathing suits. We did see several Japanese women in their birthday suits, and got to witness their bathing rituals of sitting on a stool (several of which were lined up outside the onsen) and slowly washing each body part one by one with a wash cloth. There was an outdoor and indoor onsen, so we started outside and made our way in. It was very relaxing and maybe the best $5 we’ve spent so far in Japan.
After the onsen, we did a little souvenir shopping in town and then headed back to our place with 15 minutes to spare before dinner. Everyone staying in the onsen (in this case, the 4 of us and two other couples) ate together in a room, all sitting on mats on the floor and eating from little standing trays in front of us. They had set up our trays full of all of our food for dinner before we arrived. We each had several small tofu dishes, a miso soup, pickled vegetables, soba noodles, a hot pot with hida beef and veggies (the local specialty) cooking, and then a whole small fish in the corner. We see this fish being sold all the time in Thailand and elsewhere in SE Asia and we’ve always thought it looked pretty gross and have been too intimidated to try it. We were skeptical at first, but decided we had to at least give it a try (I mean if we can eat dog and all sorts of bugs, what’s so scary about a little fish!). It ended up being my favorite dish of the meal and now I’ll definitely try it when we see it in Thailand as well.
One of the couples that was also staying at the gasso house was from Amsterdam but had 2 other houses around Europe (in Switzerland and France). They had owned a clothing business, which they sold several years ago and now were retired. They were very well traveled and we could tell also very wealthy. It was fun swapping stories and tips, and even more fun telling them all about our lives in Thailand, which they were very impressed with, despite all the traveling and adventures they’d had. We spent about two hours all talking (we happily shared our sake that we’d brought with us) and eating and enjoying our great dinner. The second couple that was staying in the house showed up to dinner an hour late (we were a little jealous because we’d requested a later dinner, but had been denied). For those of you who think Dave and I have whirlwind tours of the places we travel, you should have heard these people’s itinerary. 5 days in Hawaii, 5 days in Japan, and then a couple days in Beijing. They showed up in Shirakawa-go at 7pm, scarfed down their dinner, went to bed, and then were out at 6am, even before breakfast.
We all went to sleep early after dinner and Dave and I set our alarm for 5:45 to be the first ones up in the morning to use the house’s own Japanese bath, which was a nice way to start the day. We all slept well (even my dad) and then enjoyed another great meal for breakfast with the couple from Amsterdam. We said our goodbyes and headed out to catch our early bus to Takayama, our next stop in the Alps.
As with most of the homestays I have done, this night in the gasso house was a highlight of the trip so far for me. It was truly unforgettable and a very special experience. Best of all, my parents both kept saying how much they enjoyed themselves and that they never would have done something like this had they not been traveling with us, and how happy they were that they got to experience it. I know this is one night that none of us will ever forget.
The Japan Alps tour continued in Takayama, a city of about 100,000. We got in around mid-day, checked into our Ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel with rooms similar to what we’d experienced at the homestay but bigger and complete with wifi, en-suite bathrooms, and all of the usual fancy hotel amenities; once again, my parents treated us to this night as part of our anniversary present). There’s a morning market on the river in Takayama that closes at noon and we wanted to make sure we were able to see it before we closed, so we dropped off our bags (our rooms weren’t ready anyway) and headed out. The market was nice and the view over the river was beautiful but we got there at the tail end so some of the stands were already closed. We picked up a couple of snacks to eat later since none of us were hungry yet after our big breakfast and then continued on to San-no-Machi street, a very cute street with tons of shops, restaurants, and sake stores. This was the first time that we were seeing a little bit of street food – they were selling all sorts of snacks (mostly on sticks) made from hida beef, which they are famous for here. We’d had it the night before in Shirakawa-go, so we weren’t dying to try more, but my dad did get a skewer or too. From the cute area of town, we headed up to Shiroyama-koen for a short nature trail. We thought there would be nice views along the way, but most of them were obstructed by the trees. It was still a nice walk though and the weather was perfect.
After walking all around the very charming town, we went back to our hotel to relax for a while before our private onsen, which Dave had reserved for us as a surprise for my parents (the hotel had a public onsen too but men and women are separated; in the private onsen which you can reserve for a small fee, we could all go together). Dave and I had to deal with a hotel mishap for the night after my parents left – we’d booked a place in Kamikochi, which is known for its great hiking. We were planning to stay the night at a place that claimed they were 5km from there, and had a free shuttle to pick us up from the bus station, but after further review it turned out that the hotel is actually 35km away and would only pick us up from another bus station, an hour from the one we were planning to hike near. After emailing the hotel and the booking website, we decided we would not be going there and would fight the charges if they didn’t let us cancel. We’ll let you know how that one plays out.
The private onsen was really fun. We’d picked up a huge bottle of sake (it was too good of a deal at about $16 to pass up) and we each took a glass into the tub with us. They gave us a basket of CDs to choose from and it was nice to all be in there together. As much as my parents have loved Japan, I think the only thing they were disappointed about were the onsen. They had expected more natural hot springs (like bathing pools in the mountains, similar to some that Dave and I have visited in Thailand). We had realized that for natural hot springs like that, you really need to travel further and have your own transport to get to them, but my parents assumed the hotels would each have their own, rather than the more hot tub-like onsen that they actually had. Either way, it was nice to sit in them and relax after a long day of walking and exploring. The private onsen also had a nice view of the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
We all got ready for dinner when our hour at the onsen was over. We’d made a reservation at a burger place we read about in our Lonely Planet. After eating nothing but Japanese food for two weeks (and especially after the very traditional dinner and breakfast we had in Shirakawago), we were all ready for a break. It was a cute little restaurant in the area we’d been in earlier that day. That area was now completely dead (I suppose this town is really set up for the day-trippers), so it’s a good thing we had found this place. It was a great meal (we got a blue cheese and bacon burger, chili, liver pate and crackers and then fries and onion rings for the table – all delicious) and it was funny seeing all the Westerners come in and out. The people who had been sitting next to us when we arrived were from Boston and only on day three of their trip (that made any guilt we had about eating Western food go out the window). The second group were three teachers that lived in Takayama (or in even more remote towns in the Alps). This was their go-to spot for Western food. We got to talking and as the conversation went on, we (as always) realized how lucky we were to be in the situation we’re in at ABAC. Besides living in an extremely small town, these teachers got two weeks of vacation, worked 40 hours a week, had to pay for their own housing, and overall sounded overworked and underpaid. It always makes us feel very good to talk to other teachers and be reminded of the great life we have in Thailand.
We went to sleep early and Dave and I woke up early to go into the public bath in the morning, followed by a big breakfast at our hotel (I think we’ll be skipping lunch for the second day in a row). It was a nice day in Takayama, and now onto our final stop with my parents – Matsumoto, known to have one of the best “castles” in Japan.
Because of our Kamikochi hotel mishap (which ended up working out fine – the owner wrote us back apologizing and saying he would not charge us any late cancellation fees), the first thing we needed to do when we arrived in Matsumoto was book our buses/trains out of there and then find a place to stay. We all dropped our stuff at our hotel, a whopping 3 minute walk from the train station, and then headed out to Matsumoto Castle, stopping at every hotel we saw along the way. Most of them were completely booked and the others were out of our price range. It was pretty surprising considering the whole town seemed to be dead, but luckily, we had booked two beds in a 10-person dorm about 15 minutes from the train station, just as a backup.
During our travels throughout Asia, Dave and I have seen our fair share of castles and palaces…. Or what they call castles and palaces. None of them though have even slightly resembled a castle. Matsumoto Castle was the first that we’ve seen that we could actually put into the “castle” category. Of course, I’m not sure if any of the Disney princesses would agree, but either way, it was very pretty and very Japanese. The castle is surrounded by a big moat and a bright red bridge leads to the front doors. For 600Y pp, we were able to tour the grounds and actually go inside the castle to see all 6 floors via very steep staircases. Maybe the best part though were the three characters (a ninja, a samurai, and a geisha) that walked around taking pictures with all of the tourists, and in the case of the samurai, trying to scare them by opening up his very large and loud fan.
After seeing the castle, we walked around the two cute streets on either side of the river on the way back to the station, but it started pouring so we decided to head back to hit up our hotel’s public bath. These were, as always, separate for men and women and complete with a big hot tub (where everyone bathes together naked) and then showers lining the wall, where the Japanese people sit on stools and very slowly wash each and every part of their bodies. It seems like it’s a social thing too, as they do all of this while chatting with their friends sitting next to them. My mom and I did not partake in this ritual, but rather just enjoyed the hot tub (in our bathing suits) on the very chilly day.
It was still pouring by the time we wanted to go to dinner, so we decided to stay close. My dad found a great little restaurant around the corner from us serving sushi, meats, and most importantly, raw horse meat, the town’s local specialty. My parents were pretty grossed out when Dave and I ordered it, but hey, it wouldn’t be an RTW without trying some sort of strange animal meat that some might consider a pet (remember last year, it was dog in Vietnam). We also got a sushi set, my mom got a whole fish, my dad some meat skewers and we shared tuna sashimi (they called it the leftovers) for the table.
It was a great meal but very bittersweet as it was our last one together. After dinner we had to say our goodbyes, as Dave and I were leaving at about 5:30am to catch a bus for Kamikochi to do some hiking. It was such a great trip with my parents and we were so proud of them for being able to keep up with us so well and for being such good sports. They really embraced all the new experiences and I think had an unforgettable trip to Japan. I know we had an unforgettable time with them.
Dave and I were on the 6:30ambus to Kamikochi for what was supposed to be some great hiking deep in the Alps. Luckily, the rain had stopped but it was still very cold and very foggy, which unfortunately obstructed some of the great views we had been hoping to see. The bus ride to Kamikochi was pretty expensive (about $40pp round trip) but the park itself was free, which was a nice surprise. When we got there, we went straight to the Visitor’s Center to talk to them about our plans for the day and then decided on our plan of action.
We originally wanted to do the 5 hour round-trip hike to Dakesawa, which is supposed to have great views (you can even see all the way to Mt. Fuji on a clear day), but when we looked up into the valley where the hike was supposed to be, we couldn’t see a thing, so we figured we’d probably be disappointed when we got up there and had no views at all. Instead, we decided to hike all around the river, which is the most popular route, but also much easier (it’s all flat and we’d call it more of a walk than a hike). In the morning, we started west on the shorter route (2 hours) from the Visitor’s Center to Taisho-ike Pond. This route was very crowded and not that impressive, namely I think because there wasn’t much we could see due to the fog. But, we’d chosen to go that way first because we figured we’d give it a little bit of time to clear up and maybe we’d still be able to do the Dakesawa hike in the afternoon. Two hours later, we were back at the VC and still could only see fog, so we had a quick lunch and then headed east for the longer (4 hour) and supposedly more impressive hike. Right from the start, this part of the hike was more scenic and more impressive. It was still cloudy, but starting to clear up a little bit so we were able to get some good views. The day kept getting better and better as we went on, and what we thought was going to be a disappointing day (after having to change our hiking plans), turned out to be pretty nice. It was relaxing, we saw some great views, and we ended up walking about 22km or 13 miles.
By the time we got back to Matsumoto and our hotel for the night we were pooped (the combo of waking up at 4:30am and walking 13 miles did us in). We showered and then went out for a quick dinner (our first ramen of the trip) near our hotel. I think we were sleeping by about 9:30pm.
The next morning we woke up to gorgeous weather. We missed the probably gorgeous views in Kamikochi by one day, but today we’re heading to Mt. Fuji, so hopefully this weather will hold up until we arrive and we’ll be able to get those views instead.
And, of course, the beautiful, sunny weather from the morning had turned to gray, cloudy weather by the time we got to Kawaguchi-ko, the most popular of the 5 lakes surrounding Mt. Fuji, around lunchtime. Our guesthouse said there were no views of Fuji that day and there hadn’t been any for the past two days, but it was supposed to be nice the following day according to the (unreliable) weather report.
Since we couldn’t visit any of the Fuji viewing spots that we’d wanted to see that day, we asked about renting bicycles so we could at least see the lake town. Our guesthouse was out of them for the day and the only other place in town wanted to charge us the full-day price of 1500 yen for just half of a day. We tried to make a deal, but the woman working the shop wouldn’t have it, so we left… bikeless. Instead, we started to walk around the lake, which ended up being the best option anyway, since we were making so many stops to take pictures of the beautiful scenery (even without Fuji in the background, the lake itself is still gorgeous) and pop into souvenir shops.
We made our way around part of the lake and then stopped back at our hostel to make sure no bikes had been returned (two were sitting outside, but they wouldn’t give us the room number of the renters to see if they were done for the day). Then, we continued on our walk around the lake, walking over the bridge that crosses the lake (for a great bird’s eye view) and then toward Yagisaki Park and the Kawaguchi-ko muse museum. There was nothing much in terms of a town around this part of the lake, but there was still a very nice walking path. When we got to the museum, we didn’t go in, but there was a nice viewing spot and when we got up there, we were able to see that the very peak of Fuji was popping out from behind the clouds.
This was the first view of Fuji that we’d seen and as soon as we did, we realized how massive it was. Originally, we thought it was hiding behind some of the many mountains surrounding the lake, but at that moment, we realized that it was just the clouds that had been hiding it. Without the clouds, you would be able to see it from almost anywhere in the town. I, of course, started snapping as many pictures as I could, from every possible angle, just in case this was the only view I’d get. We walked around a little more, back to the bridge, where we waited for a little while to see if the clouds would dissipate any more (it looked like maybe they would, but instead, they just started to re-cover the volcano). I told Dave that I thought the best chance we’d have for a clear view would be early in the morning and that I thought the best view would be from the bridge (where you not only get an unobstructed view of the mountain, but also the lake), so we decided we’d come back to the spot we were at on the middle of the bridge first thing the next morning in the hopes of catching a view of the famous Mt. Fuji.
The guesthouse we were staying at (K’s Guest House) had a huge kitchen and lounge area and also a very big grocery store just down the street. It’s not very often that we get a chance to have a home-cooked meal while we’re traveling (in fact, the only other time we did was when we were in Mendoza, Argentina on RTW 1.0), so we decided to take advantage of the situation and cook dinner that night.
We went to the grocery store, and as is so often the case, we ended up there for over an hour, browsing and deciding on not only dinner for that night, but all of our meals for the next two days. We bought pasta, sausage, and broccoli (plus breakfast and lunch for the next day) and then went back to cook and relax. The guest house was filled with other people who had the same idea as us, so it was fun to be there with everyone else and chat about all of our travels. The huge bowls of pasta we had were of course great too.
The next morning, as planned, we woke up early and were thrilled when we looked out our window and saw some sun. We were out the door and on our way to the bridge by 6:30am. We had the bridge almost to ourselves and got there in time to see a completely clear, completely unobstructed Mt. Fuji in the background. Since it was so early and there were no boats on the lake yet, we were even able to see the volcano’s reflection in the water – the postcard view, which was even more impressive than I’d imagined it would be. The volcano is not only perfectly symmetrical, it also stands all alone, not surrounded by anything, whereas every other mountain anywhere close to it is in a range with tons of other mountains as well. It was pretty remarkable and this sight definitely made both of our top 3 lists of places we’ve seen (following Macchu Picchu and Angkor Wat).
We spent some time staring at Fuji from the bridge before returning to our guesthouse to get ready for our hike for the day. The plan was to take the cable car (the #1 attraction in Kawaguchi-ko) to the Fuji viewing point and then do the 5 hour hike to Misu-Toge, which is supposed to have beautiful views of Fuji along the way.
The cable car opens at 9am and we were the first ones on it (we literally went up with the workers). By the time we got to the top, Fuji was already beginning to get covered by some clouds, but the view was still spectacular (especially being able to see the amusement park right at the base of Fuji). After taking in that view for a few minutes, we started our three hour hike up. It started off a little slow, and by the time we reached the first viewpoint, Fuji was completely covered (to the point where if you didn’t know where it was supposed to be you’d have no idea it was there), but overall the hike up was really great and even better than we’d expected. The trail took us through the forest on the ridge of the mountains that surround Kawaguchi-ko. It was very pretty and just hard enough to make us feel like we were getting a good workout. When we were almost at the top, we even saw some of the Japan army (about 20 guys with probably 50 lb. packs on their backs) doing their training. We got to the top and had lunch next to a few other Japanese couples that were up there. They were all eating their sushi triangles (as I call them – I don’t know what the real name for them is) and we had a sandwich, chips and some fruit (we’ve had the triangles for lunch several other times this trip though).
The way down the mountain was supposed to take two hours. We chose to take a different route than just going the same way we came from because the new way was supposed to be shorter and it was also just something different. When we reached what we thought was the bottom after only 45 minutes, we congratulated ourselves on how fast we were. We turned left to walk down (again, what we thought was) the highway that would lead back to the bridge over the lake at Kawaguchi-ko. An hour later, we were still high up in the mountains and the town/lake were barely visible. We realized we had somehow done something wrong (though we’re still not quite sure how), but we ended up walking 4-5 miles out of our way down a road that cuts through the mountain and led us right back to the path that we’d taken up. Luckily, this detour only cost us an extra 45 minutes or so, but I did get a little nervous for a few minutes when we weren’t quite sure where we were.
Suffice to say, I was very happy to reach the bottom of the mountain and be back in Kawaguchi-ko. We ended up walking around 16km up and down, and after 22 km a couple days before, we were pooped. Our guesthouse had, in addition to the great kitchen, a washer and dryer, so we decided to cook again (like I said, you have to take advantage of a kitchen when you find one) and do our laundry. We had wanted to get steak to make with our leftover pasta from the night before, but when we couldn’t really find any for a reasonable price, we ended up with a smorgasbord of great looking prepared foods (Swedish meatballs, sweet and sour chicken, wings, fried calamari) that we’d seen the day before and wanted to try, plus a little leftover pasta from the night before. It was another nice dinner and another relaxing night, which was just what the doctor ordered.
BACK TO TOKYO:
The next morning, we were back on the road, headed back to Tokyo for our last day and a half in Japan. This time around, Dave and I stayed in Asukasa, on the east side of the city (right near the Tokyo Sky Tree), which is the backpacker area of Japan. We dropped our bags at our guesthouse (we couldn’t check in until 3) and left to do some more exploring.
We walked to Ueno, which is supposed to have a very nice and big park. Just before the park, we found the one thing that we’ve been missing since we got to Japan. A huge market filled with food, clothing, and more. Walking around this market, we finally felt “at home.” Unfortunately, we’d already eaten a mediocre lunch on the way and we were filled with regret during our walk around the market seeing all of the great food we could have gotten. Even I had a rare FOMO moment.
Next, we went through the park, which was very beautiful. There’s a huge pond, half of which is covered by lotus flowers and half of which is cleared for paddle boating. There were lots of pretty flowers, a big fountain, a couple of museums (we didn’t go into any though) and a huge Starbucks, with a line out the door.
From the park, we walked one more neighborhood over to Yanaka and did one of the Lonely Planet’s famous neighborhood walking tours, which took us up and down alleys, past temples and shops, and ended up at a walking street filled with little shops and snacks. It was a nice afternoon and for the first time in Tokyo, we actually felt like we were in Japan in this older and more historical part of the city.
Back in Asakusa, we checked into our room (maybe the smallest room we’ve stayed in, complete with a bunk bed and just enough floor room for our bags, though it did have a great rooftop with a view of the river and Tokyo Skytree ) and then got ready to go out for the evening. We walked around our area a little bit and checked out the Senso-ji temple, Asakusa’s biggest attraction and the most popular temple in Tokyo. The temple grounds are open 24/7 (and it’s very beautiful at night all lit up), but all of the little shops/markets leading up to the temple were already closed by the time we got thereL.
We had picked up a free copy of TimeOut magazine (I miss TimeOut!) at our guesthouse in Fuji and it had mentioned a great food/drinking street (Hoppy Dori) right near the temple in Asakusa, so we set out to find it and stop for a beer before dinner. We found the street, which was lined with cute little places with outdoor tables, filled mostly with Japanese men wearing… you guessed it, suits. We did a quick lap down the street and then went back to the beginning to the one that was most crowded. We started to ask the woman working there how much a big beer was and then she did something that I’ve never experienced before. She put up her fingers in the shape of an “X,” telling us that we were not welcome. At first, we didn’t quite understand what she was trying to tell us, until she started saying “no, no, no” and shaking her “X” at us. This wasn’t the first time we experienced someone being a little rude to us and not wanting to help or serve us and we were stunned at this racism that we were experiencing. For Dave especially, this instance changed his perspective about Japan and the Japanese people.
Luckily though, two younger Japanese adults saw what happened and immediately called us over to the bar/restaurant they were sitting at which was right nearby. They apologized about the rude service (or no service at all) that we’d just experienced and asked us to sit down and join them for a drink. They promised to help us order and even the woman working at that bar said “ok, ok, come in, come in.”
We ended up hanging out with our new friends for an hour or so, chatting over beers and soju. They both had lived in Australia (one was a chef and the other in marketing) and they were very happy/excited to be able to practice their English, which they said they rarely get to use now that they are back in Japan. We swapped stories and even they were in awe of our lives and our holiday schedules. After a while, Dave and I realized we were starving, so we parted ways, exchanging contact information. Still though, we couldn’t get the sour taste of what had happened earlier out of our heads. We stopped for a couple ramen soups on our way home and called it a night.
The next morning, we woke up early to head to Arashio Beya, what they call a sumo stable, where the sumo wrestlers go to practice. Japan has a couple of big sumo tournaments every year, the last of which we unfortunately missed by just a few days. When we had been in Tokyo with my parents, they weren’t even back to practicing yet (you have to have your hotel call Arashio Beya the day before you want to go after 4pm to see if the practice is on or not) because they were all taking a break after the tournament.
The wrestlers practice from 6:30-10:30 every morning and luckily the stable was fairly close to where we were staying. We got there at around 8am and were able to watch the enormous wrestlers practice from the windows outside. These guys were HUGE and it was a pretty cool thing to see.
From there, we headed to the Imperial Palace near Tokyo Station. You can sign up for a tour of the grounds (which are off limits to the public, except for the East Gardens), but you have to do this a month in advance. Once again, unfortunately we weren’t able to do this with my parents, as we weren’t able to get a reservation for the day we were there. The tour is an hour long and takes you through the grounds, making stops along the way. The whole tour is in Japanese, but they have English audio guides, which give you the same information (but are missing all the jokes that the guard tells during his explanations L ). It was nice to get some history and cool to see the palace (or what’s left of it) and the grounds. Once the tour was over, we went to see the East Gardens, which I thought were a little disappointing, as there weren’t even any flowers! But, like Central Park (and Ueno Park which we visited the day before), it’s a huge park right in the middle of the city, so that part was pretty cool. Also, seeing the palace surrounded by new skyscrapers was a great contrast of old and new.
The last neighborhood we had yet to explore was Ginza, which they compare to New York’s 5th Avenue. It’s a huge shopping area filled with malls and fancy stores. It reminded me more of Michigan Avenue than 5th Avenue, but the coolest part was going into the Sony Building to see 6 floors of all of their new and upcoming products. This area is also supposed to have a lot of movie theaters, but similar to what we saw in Shibuya, they all cost around $19 and the movies were all at least 6 months old (they were playing Cinderella and the Maze Runner – in Bangkok, the Maze Runner 2 just came out).
After exploring Ginza, we made our way back to Asakusa and got ready for our last night in Japan. A teacher friend of ours from ABAC was in Tokyo at the same time and we’d been talking about meeting up for a while. It was pretty hard to coordinate since we don’t have phones or 3G, but we made plans to meet at the Starbucks at Shibuya Crossing at 9 (there are supposed to be good clubs in Shibuya) and agreed that if anyone was more than 10 minutes or so late, we would just try to email each other and meet up later.
We got to Shibuya and were very glad we came back to see it at night. Similar to Shinjuku at night, it was packed with lots of people in suits eating and drinking. It was a very fun atmosphere. We were early, so we walked around for a bit and then headed over to Starbucks a little before 9. When our friend didn’t show up after a few minutes of waiting, Dave and I decided to go get dinner at a sushi place we saw nearby and hopefully we’d be able to get in touch with him later.
The place we found was set up with a counter all around the sushi bar and was standing only. We waited a few minutes in line and then were brought to our place at the bar. Dave and I each ordered a sushi set with 8 big pieces and 3 roll pieces (chef’s choice, of course). The set came with a miso soup and we also each ordered a hand roll, our 1st in Japan. We also got our last sake of Japan.
The sushi was great and definitely the best that we’d had in Japan. It was a delicious and fun meal, perfect for our last night in Japan. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get wifi anywhere to get in touch with our friend (who had emailed us saying he wouldn’t be there until 9:30 anyway – we didn’t get that until we got home), so we didn’t end up meeting up with him. But, it was an awesome last dinner and perfect last night in Japan.
Overall, our trip to Japan was a great one. Other than a few incidents where the people were less than welcoming, we loved getting to see this country and are already anxious for our trip back to ski in the winter. We thought we planned the trip perfectly and are so happy that my parents were able to join us for this incredible vacation. Now, onto part 2 of RTW 3.0, Taiwan. We’re already very anxious to get back to street food and movie theaters, two things we missed greatly during our two weeks in Japan.