It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and I am writing this blog from my temporary but comfortable apartment in Tokyo, about a week after Haley and Gabe left Tokyo/Japan/Asia to make it home in time for Thanksgiving.
What is wrong with this picture? Well, for one, this blog entry is overdue. Two, Haley and Gabe aren’t here. Three, I’m not in California.
But no matter – what a treat it was to be able to travel and spend time with them again, this time in Japan! Often times, I find that Life throws these wonderful, serendipitous opportunities our way – Kumiko goes to Japan on a work assignment for 6 months before Haley & Gabe head home from Asia – and we are lucky enough to seize and make the most out of them.
So, here we were, together again. Doing the same things. But different. You know, because this is Japan, not Thailand, and it’s November, not May. And thus the title (and structure) of the blog post. Also, I’m pretty sure it’s the name of the restaurant where we ate on our last night in Ko Lanta.
To pick up where Haley left off in the blog before the last one, we decided to get out of Tokyo for the one full weekend they had in Japan.
1. THE PLANNING
3 indecisive people going over each option again and again the day before we leave. We were originally deciding between Kyoto, Hakone, and Nikko, but chose Nikko because we couldn’t find any accommodations for Kyoto (fall is the most popular season to visit Kyoto along with spring), and while Hakone offers amazing hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji, Nikko is a World Heritage site with beautiful architecture (I’m a sucker for those), offers great hiking nearby, and close to Tokyo.
Used 2 laptops, and instead of arriving at a locale then checking out our accommodation options in person, actually called ahead to check availability and book rooms. We did good.
SCOUT. We’ll get to that.
2. THE DEPARTURE
Gabe urging us girls to hurry up with our prep. Unlike Thailand, we are upheld to a much higher standard of put-togetherness here in Japan. Fact.
Unlike Thailand where there are sometimes 1 or 2 boats a day, in Tokyo there are trains every 2 minutes, so Gabe had a hard time putting the pressure on.
Since we left almost an hour later than we had originally intended and got to Asakusa only to find out the train we wanted to take was already full, we had an hour to kill until our next train. We decided to bask in the sun by the Sumida River, enjoy the view of the Tokyo Sky Tree, and debate what the enormous golden objet d’art represents on top of Asahi Breweries’ Asahi Beer Hall.
Turns out, it’s the Asahi Flame, designed by Philippe Starck no less, and is supposed to represent both the burning heart of Asahi beer and a frothy head. And to think that all these years, I was referring to it as Asahi’s Golden Sperm to visitors…sigh. For the record, Haley and Gabe thought it looked like poop, which is the more common association/mistake and in line with its colloquial nickname, the golden turd.
With that hour of fun, and 90 min of a nice train ride, we finally arrived in Nikko.
3. THE CROWDS
Tourist spots are a shit show. Tons of people there to see the fall foliage.
Haley was surprised at the # of Japanese tourists who come from all over Japan vs. in Thailand where the tourism industry is heavily supported by foreigners.
Alongside about 100 tourists, Haley got to paparazzi a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony procession over the Shinkyo bridge, which is visible, but not open to the public for a stroll.
4. THE SCENERY & PHOTOGRAPHY
Breathtaking natural scenery. Bossy photographers.
Thailand = beach, sand, emerald, blue.
Nikko = mountain, wood, red, coral, orange, yellow.
My skill as H&G’s portrait photographer has vastly improved, and I was able to capture some holiday card-worthy pics of the two this time around.
Of the 103 buildings, structures, gardens, and natural setting that makes up the Nikko World Heritage Site, and all the great moments experienced there, here are some of our highlights:
– Three wise monkeys: it is said that proverbial maxim was popularized by the wood carvings found here
– Our favorite of all the temples was the Rinnoji Temple, specifically the grounds of the temple, that houses the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, who is the grandson of the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
– Haley & Gabe jumping through a huge circular rope for good luck. Japanese people are very superstitious and happily participate in gimmicks like these :)
5. THE FOOD
When we find something we like, we keep eating it throughout the trip.
In Thailand, it was fruit shakes. In Nikko, it was dango, a round Japanese dumpling made from mochi (rice), often served in threes on a skewer.
With the mochi and a stop at a restaurant for dinner, we were off to a completely different adventure – our accommodation for the next two nights!
Haley and I knew something was special when we called ahead to make a reservation. It was a place run by an American guy named Scout, and when we got through to him on speaker phone, we immediately noticed that he was a talker. I mean, a real talker that talks for minutes with no way of cutting him short type of talker. And then we realized that he never directly answered any of our questions, but we somehow managed to confirm our reservation.
When he picked us up at the station (the place was a short train ride from central Nikko) – it all made sense. He is that guy, whose mind is racing at 100mph. He hopped from topic to topic, but was very sweet, offered to make pizza for dinner the following night, and had a lovely old ryokan next to the river with defunct baths.
We met a sweet American couple with a baby, two Taiwanese girls who went immediately to bed upon arrival, and a British girl who was writing a novel about Nikko. We socialized a bit, planned our 2nd day, and turned in early as we were pooped from the day.
6. THE SLEEPING ARRANGEMENT
Always in one room together. Gabe continues to rally to watch Breaking Bad before bed, while I subtly decline.
In Tokyo, we shared a (King size) bed. In Nikko, we each had our own futon. Now, Haley goes to bed by 9 pm, blaming it on “jet lag.”
On the second night, we got the annex room all to ourselves, which had two nooks/elevated sleeping area: one large nook with two futons, and one small nook with one futon. I was convinced until the very moment we went to bed that I was going to sleep in the small nook because there was A futon there. But Haley and Gabe thought that nook was made for them because it was a “double” futon, while Scout prepared the larger nook with TWO futons for me. In the end, they slept in the smaller nook but it doesn’t make sense to me to this very day – what do you all think?
We woke up early the next day to get an early start to day. Scout made delicious home made pancakes, which made up for the fact that he didn’t bring his extra tank of gas knowing that the car wasn’t going to make it to Nikko, wasn’t sure if the gas station that he intended to stop by on the way would even be open that early on a Sunday (it wasn’t), which required back tracking to his house by our lodge to fill up with the extra gas he had. It just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Haley and Kumiko, lovers of all things efficient.
7. THE ITINERARY
Kumiko ambitiously aims for 5 activities in a day. Part of it always (and rightly) gets vetoed.
Also, it always ends up including unanticipated yet extensive monkey sightings.
Koh Phi Phi = hike, kayak, beach
Nikko = check out water fall amidst fall foliage, hike, hot springs
We met the cutest couple ever during our first activity: mini hike to Kirifuri falls. You can’t actually get to the fall itself, but there is a path to a deck that offers a stunning view of the fall.
The super friendly Japanese couple kept talking to us, when I realized that the man had a can of beer in his hand at 900 am and was already a bit tipsy. This is the beauty of Japan – you can buy booze from a vending machine and drink it on the streets, and it’s totally fine.
We also had another dango moment here. Even after our filling meal, there’s always room for dango.
Because the bus down to town was not yet running, we decided to walk down the hill when Gabe got the idea to hitch hike down. It’s not commonplace to do so in Japan, and many cars zoomed past us while we continued down. After our detour with the troop of monkeys, a nice couple in a van stopped to give us a lift. When they opened the back door, a little girl was sitting in the back seat, but upon seeing Haley started crying so loud, the dad got out of the passenger seat to sit next to his girl and give me shotgun as Haley and Gabe got in. In the 5 min ride into town, however, the girl completely recovered, and when we got out at the station, she even waved and said good bye….and tapped Gabe playfully (?) with a baseball bat :)
8. THE MAIN HIKE
We always get our hike on wherever we are.
This hike was relatively flat – unlike the hilly hikes in Thailand. We filled our stomachs with – what else – dango next to the trail head, the fall of Ryuzu. That means Dragon’s Head – can you see why?
The first part was through a bamboo field – so serene and so different in color and season from Nikko, which is at a lower elevation.
Then, the second part was walking through the Senjogahara moor on wooden planks. The scenery was pretty in a much more severe way than Nikko or even the bamboo field, and made us wonder how different it would look like in spring.
The trail ends at Yudaki Falls, where we briefly stopped for another round of dango, then headed to Yumoto to soak in a hot spring bath in the Onsenji Temple.
– Gabe, the ever so conscientious one, tried to get the one piece of trash – a plastic bottle – we saw on the entire trail from the stream. What looked like a easy task ended up taking a bit more work.
– Most hot springs, including the one we went to, have separate baths for men and women. We were chilled from the hike and eagerly went into our separate baths when I realized that I hadn’t shared the bathing etiquette with Gabe. You see, in common baths, it’s important to clean your body before you get into the bath that others also enjoy. As a result, he ended up getting a weird look from a fellow bather, but he thinks it was for another reason.
As we left the temple and headed back to our lodge, it started to rain and didn’t stop for most of the night. Felt pretty lucky and grateful for the nice weather for the past two days. That evening, we got to eat Scout’s home made pizza, which was pretty yummy – I even got lucky and got a piece of anchovy!
After sorting out next day’s departures with Scout, which ended up taking way longer than you would expect, we retreated to our annex for some Breaking Bad (Gabe FTW!).
The next morning, we headed back to Tokyo…after a fun two days that felt much longer than that, and knowing that we only had 1 more night together in Tokyo before I bailed on my guests for their last couple of days.
And I’m saving that night for an entry of its own :)