First let me apologize for the gap between posts. Whether it was settling in back home, the holidays, getting caught up in the ski season, starting a new job, or just the hustle & bustle that comes with everyday life this blog got pushed to the back burner. But not to worry, Denver and Colorado still have plenty to offer and I have certainly been keeping busy. Speaking of keeping busy, here is just a sampling of some of the stories I’ve written for Vail Resort’s Snow Squad Blog.
- I got to interview a Mountain Ambassador from Breckenridge
- I tested out all sorts of new ski gear, including Helly Hansen outwear, Maui Jim sunglasses, and Smartwool ski socks.
- I enjoyed some wonderful festivities in the high country, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, Fat Tuesday, MLK weekend, and New Year’s.
- I confessed that I’m a chairlift chatterbox and discussed why it’s a good thing.
- I discovered the joys of Beaver Creek Resort for the first time, and continued my love for Summit County ski areas Keystone, Breckenridge, and A-Basin.
- I handed out tips and pointers to deal with Spring skiing conditions, where to relax, and where to watch the sun set over the Rockies.
- I got to see some high-flying action at the Winter Dew Tour, as well as beautiful ice and snow structures at the Ice Castles in Silverthorne.
- I shared some of my favorite EpicMix Pins, as well 10 great outdoor activities perfect for winter.
Now as winter fades away, spring continues in full swing, and summer is coming up on our doorstep, make sure to stay tuned as I’ll have plenty of ideas for events to visit, places to eat, vistas to see, and things to do all around Denver and the surrounding areas. Cheers!
While the land of the Rising Sun may not be high on the list of Beer Cultures, they certainly have made they’re mark. Between beer vending machines and the birth of rice lagers, Japan certainly has some unique contributions to the world of beer. While I was there I sampled a variety of brews, everything from regional specialialities to global megabrands, and can now give you the 411.
Big 4 – Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi, Suntory
These four brands command an overwhelming majority of the beer market in Japan, as well as the entire bottled beverage market. Imagine that Coors and Pepsi joined forces and then Bud and Coke did the same…twice over! As a result these brands are found everywhere; in major supermarkets, liqour stores, corner grocers, vending machines, and everywhere in between. For the most part they all have very similar tastes, springing from the fact that all four are “Rice Lagers”. Asahi is known as the “driest” alluding to its crisp taste and the quick departure of its sharp aftertaste. Suntory is the least well known in the beer market, but well makes up for it by offering some of the best “chu-hais” or carbonated mixed drinks, typically sold by street vendors or in cans at any local market. Sapporo and Kirin are easily the two biggest players, and to an extent divide the country geographically. Sapporo, based out of the city of Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido is considered the “King of Beers” in the north. Conversely, Kirin is well regarded in and around Tokyo with their headquarters and main brewery in Yokohama. Personally, I prefered Sapporo over Kirin as it has a more robust flavor and is closer to an American Lager style than any of the others. That being said, Kirin was widely available in the Kanagawa presinct and was easily the “go-to” beverage in the region.
Shiga-Kogen Brand Beer
Hailing from the snowy town of Yudanaka in the Nagano prefecture, Tamamura Honten Brewing has been established in the region for more than eight generations. The brewery is also well known for making their “Snow Monkey” saki, named after the world famous Snow Monkey Park just up the road. Named “Japan’s Best Brewery 2010”, this meca of craft beer was one of my favorite stops on the trip. I was lucky enough to walk away with four of their tasty brews before heading back into Yokosuka; a blonde, pale ale, siason, and what I think is an IPA, were all in the mix. By far the best was the Indian Summer Saison, with a great balance of fall flavors and a nice, smooth finish. Up next was the Miyama Blonde, which was good but a little hoppy that brings with it a slight bitter aftertaste that tends to linger. Moving down the scale is the Shiga-Kogen Pale Ale that is also hoppy, but well balanced and a lighter hue than the Not So Mild Ale. Unfortunately, I’m saving the worst for last as that Not So Mild Ale certainly wasn’t mild at all with an awkward mix of flavors that left much to be desired.
After spending some time traveling, it was good to settle back into the rythmn of things outside Yokuska, and certainly finding some brews a little closer to home. Well I was in luck as almost every town in the Kanagawa region produces their own unique brews. While there were many to choose from, I ended up sticking with beers from the Kumazawa Brewing Company for most of the stay, including a lager, porter, and light ale. Like the main Japanese breweries, it is also a rice lager, bu has a more robust flavor and deeper amber, more typical of an American or European lager. Still, it did lack some staying power and could use a dash more of that hops zing. Moving along I got to try to extremes, both in color/content and in seasonality. The first is the Merry Xmas Ale, a delicious dark beer without the heavy weight that most porters and stouts have. It was real easy to drink, and still had a malty flavor unique to dark brews, certainly one of my favorites this trip. Finally, the last brew on my list is the Enoshima Summer Beer. The beer is named after the quintessential summer hangout in the Kanagawa Prefecture: Enoshima Island. This brew is light and summery, similar to the composition of most American wheat beers. It goes down easy and is perfect for a summer BBQ or to pair with a delicious fried rice dish.
So there you have it, a first hand account of some beer you may come across if you find yourself across the Pacific. Granted there are a few that didn’t make this list, but that is for another day. For now go out and taste for yourself, while some of the more regional beers may be harder to find in the states, any of the Big 4 should be available globally. Cheers!
Arriving from Kyoto, Beth and I make it into Nagano after dark with about 30 minutes to go before we connected with our rural “Snow Monkey” train to Yudanaka and our hotel. Compared to our warm and sunny trip to Hiroshima only a day before, Nagano is tucked away into the mountains and everyone is bundled up in coats and jackets to get away from the brisk night air. Starved, we familiarized ourselves with the station looking for a nice place to eat and take advantage of Japan’s love for beef bowl fast food and get two rice, beef, and onion bowls to go. Eating on the train we rambled along the tracks for what seemed like forever, but I suppose that’s what long days of travel and trains feels like at night. Finally, we reached the train’s final stop in the sleepy mountain town of Yudanaka.
We step off the train and are one of a handful of people milling around the station this late. Just as Beth and I begin to feel a bit stranded in the middle of nowhere, little Mrs. Yumoto, one of our innkeepers for the night, introduces herself as we load up her van and take a quick trip to the hotel. Despite our late check in, the Yumotos were the perfect hosts and Beth and I were privileged to end our trip with one of the nicest rooms we stayed in yet. Much like our room in Hakone, the room consisted of a entryway, tatami room with futons, a western sitting room, and a separate bathroom and shower. Since the hotel is in the heart of Japan’s best skiing, the room is perfectly designed for a ski getaway with roomy shelves in the large entryway and pegs for jackets in the large tatami room. Beth and I settled in with a quick cup of tea and quickly fell asleep excited for our tour of Yudanaka in the morning.
After a delicious, homemade Western breakfast we hopped in the van for a whirlwind tour of Yudanaka and Shibu, a pair of ski towns right at the base of Shiga-Koen. Joined by the only other patrons of the hotel, we fly by homes and businesses on our way to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. As we speed up the hill I barely catch our innkeeper/tour guide Mr. Yumoto say to check out the local beer and sake brewery (amongst all the other things to see in his small mountain town). Just as I got used to the stop and go nature of our mountain town tour, Ichiro (Mr. Yumoto) reached the trailhead for the park and dropped us of. With no more than a sign for the park pointing us in the right direction, we walk through a frosted and eerily calm forest as the sun rises above us.
Eventually we come upon the monkey park, or what we think is the monkey park anyway. The simple and soft spoken operation, we weren’t sure what to expect. Anxious, we pay our entrance and proceed in, only to spot a few monkeys near the pathway. Amazed by the casual nature and close proximity of these guys, imagine our faces when we ventured further to the monkey’s onsen. Dozens of them casually soaking, grooming, and lounging around the hot springs. Unlike a conventional zoo, this is a wildlife park, and there is no separation between the people and the monkeys. As a result the monkeys have adapted to not care about the human presence, completely ambivalent. We stare in amazement and awe over these little guys, just milling about.
Beyond the wonder of the setting, flecks of ingenuity and humanity appear in glimpses of these snow monkeys. The look on the faces of three soaking look just like that of three relaxed businessmen in a sauna. The way they walk around, groom, and interacte with each other has brief flashes of humanity. After taking dozens of photos in the morning cold, Beth and I head out. Despite the desire to stay and watch these little snow monkeys all day, we’ve got places to see and do before the day is done. By now the sun is up and the chilly morning is changing over to a crisp autumn day in the Japanese high county.
We meander back to the road and down into town, passing elaborate vacation homes and ski getaways. After getting momentarily lost find the Tamamura Honten Brewery and sake museum. It’s an odd situation as the shop seems entirely open, but after entering we find no one around to inquire to sample sake or their local brew. After milling about for 10 minutes or so, someone eventually joins us, and unfortunately they are not doing their sake sample tasting today. No matter, we buy a few locally made “Snow Monkey” sakes and a sampler 4-pack of the Tamamura Honten beer and head into town for lunch.
Making it down the hill we are surprised to find everything seems shuttered up for the day, ridiculous considering it’s only 1pm. Most shops are darkened without people, with only a handful of souvenier and grocery shops open throughout all the town. So without finding some place for lunch, we continue our walk, poking our head into some of the famous Shibu Onsens. Nine in all, each is said to impart a certain benefit, such as good luck or health, to those who bathe in them. So without lunch, but after seeing 7 out of 9 special onsens, we make it back to the hotel to check out and grab a train back to Nagano, and then to Tokyo, finally making it back home to Higashi-Zushi. With warm regards and thanks for our stay, we grabbed a quick photo with our wonderful innkeeper Ichiro and headed, bags and all, to the train.
A lazy Tuesday afternoon, we were only two of four people for our train at the Yudanaka Station and snagged the front seats of our train with a ritred couple from New Zealand. Settling our stomachs with some mini mart food we got to experience a rural train ride through Japan’s fertile mountain valleys like never before. Apple orchards, agricultural fields, and rolling mountains spread out in front of us as we made our way back to Nagano. Once we arrived we had a short layover before catching our last bullet train of the trip. Settling in for the ride home Beth and I napped, snacked, and read our way back home.
All in all it has been an amazing trip, one I couldn’t think be possible to do in 9 days. We saw everything from gorgeous temples in Kyoto to the bustling nightlife in Rippongi. We marveled over Snow Monkeys outside Nagano and were moved by the International Peace Memorial and Museum in Hiroshima. We relaxed and took in the beauty of Hakone as well as the hustle and bustle of Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. I’ve learned to appreciate the modern, the natural, the elaborate, and the simple in Japan. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t rely on plans, but should always set out with a purpose. But most importantly, I know that I won’t find a better travel buddy and friend than Beth, and without her this trip wouldn’t have been possible. Thank you all for following along and I hope you enjoyed this trip as much as I did, but certainly stay tuned as I’m sure this won’t be the last time I travel to the Land of the Rising Sun…
With only one more day in Kyoto there was plenty to see and do, so it was another early morning for us. After a tasty meal of French toast and crouqe monsieur breakfast sandwich at the the French place across from our B&B we hopped the bus to the famous Golden Temple of Kyoto. Formally known as Kinkaku-ji Temple, we were one of the first in line at 8:45 a.m. with the doors opening at 9 a.m. Shortly thereafter the line grew tremendously long with tour groups, school kids, and gaggles of other temple goers waiting behind us. Once we the gates opened it was a hurried pace to the ticket counter, and then a frantic charge to get a prime photography spot across the water from the golden shrine. Once we entered we could see why, the morning sun was reflected beautifully off the gold gilded three story building. This glowing spectacle was enhanced by the picturesque stillness in the water and trees surrounding the pavilion, creating the perfect “Kodak” moment. Continued through the grounds with different views and glimpses of the pavilion building, but also got to admire the autumn beauty of the well taken care of gardens. The bright reds and yellows of the changing trees rival some of the best New England falls and were in gorgeous contrast to the sodden trek through Kyoto’s eastern parks two days prior.
Shortly thereafter we took a short bus ride and walk to the Ryoan-ji Temple, birthplace of the Zen Rock Garden. Boasting the oldest rock garden in the world, the temple area was gorgoues. The grounds include bright green moss and tree landscape gardens, as well as a lake filled with lilypads and reeds, even a passive crane was there to complete with aora of peace. But the main attraction, the world’s orginal and classic rock garden, is seen from inside the main temple building. After removing our shoes, Beth and I proceeded to gaze out on the rock garden courtyard that featured 15 rocks, some moss covered, in a sea of sysmetrical lines and rings. The acute attention to detail and preservation of the garden over hundreds of years gave us plenty to think about.
Leaving the Ryoan-ji Temple we ventured across town to Ginkaku-ji Temple, nicknamed the Silver Temple. Feeling hungry we enjoyed ten delicious pork gyozas for lunch at the low low price of only 250 yen! These little potstickers were freshly cooked on an open grill just outside a local grocery and were a delicious way to enjoy our walk to the Ginkaku-ji Temple. After scarfing down our gyozas, we encountered more storefronts, tent shops, and food vendors along the entrance to the temple. Most of the food was ordinary yakitori and bean paste snacks, but one treat stood out above the rest: the Potatornado! This swirl of fried potato delight lies in the grey zone between French fry and potato chip. Using the special Potatornade slicer, the potato is spirally cut thin and skewered on a stick. It’s then given a quick dip in oil and salted for taste. The end result is either a soft potato chip, or the world’s biggest curly fry that was oh so good!
Nestled into the hillside this temple features a gorgeous dark wooden pavilion eerily similar to the “Golden” one. Both utilize the same architecture, are situated on the water and have lush gardens surrounding them. And while we came to gaze at the craftsman ship of the pavilion building, Beth and I were in awe of the expertly sculpted rock gardens on the grounds. Raised hedges and flat top cones tower over the sysmetrical pebbles. Smaller gardens featured shrubs, rocks, and even stone markers and all were uniquely designed for that day. Considering the buckets of rain that had poured down on this temple only two days before, the beautiful precision and geometry of the designs was breathtaking. The Ryoan-ji Temple may have been the original rock garden, but the rock gardens of Ginkaku-ji Temple are surely the best I’ve ever seen. We continued our walk through the gardens, featuring everything from bamboo forest groves to the crimson red cherry trees to the bright green moss that covered the forest floors. Rising up along the hillside we were treated to a gorgous view of the temple grounds, as well as overlooking parts of Kyoto. Aside from visiting the three hillside shrines on the out skirts of town, this vista was the best place to see much of Kyoto.
With time running short and the rain coming down we hopped back on our bus for the hotel. Despite visiting many shrines and temples our Kyoto bad luck wasn’t finished yet as we hadn’t been to an ATM in some time and needed to find one before checking out of our B&B. At 1:05 p.m. we reached our bus stop with not enough cash, an hour to check out, and two hours to get to our train to Nagano…without a 7-11 (the only place off-base Beth’s checking card would work) in sight! Future travelers to Japan, here’s my advice. It’s a cash based place, and so long as you carry your money responsibly you should have no trouble carrying large amounts around with you. Transportation, restaurants, entrance tickets, and lodging all burn through cash rather quick and you never know when you can get caught off guard. After some frantic searching down major boulevards by the B&B, we finally found a working ATM…phew! Thankfully we made quick time back to the B&B and checked out a little early giving us enough time to pop into our favorite French place for some chili and clam chowder bread bowls for lunch.
After lunch we bagged up some pastries to go and hopped on our bus to the Kyoto Station. With traffic making the trip a little longer than expected we dashed through the station, only being able to take in a few moments to admire its grandeur and scale. The massive hotel, shopping center, transit hub, and architectural beauty is considered one of the world’s best train stations and is renowned for its massive rooftop framework of semi-circlular steel and glass. But with only ten minutes to spare we raced through the station and onto our shinkansen to Nagano. While I have previously stated that the bullet train is treated like Japan’s version of US domestic flight, the station’s security is nothing like any US airport. No screening, no shoe removal, no pat downs or ID checks. So long as you have your ticket and know where you’re headed your fine. While this may or may not be as “safe & secure” as US domestic air travel, it’s much more convenient as we were able to check out, have lunch, take a 25 minute bus ride, and get on to a train taking us hundreds of miles away…all within an hour. With our little Japan vacation loop nearing the end Beth and I have only one stop left: Nagano. Stay tuned to hear more about the Japan’s epicenter of skiing and our adventures in the snowy mountains!
A change of pace from our sopping day in Kyoto, we took the bullet train down to sunny Hiroshima for a day in the southern most stop of our whirlwind tour of Japan. After disembarking from the bullet train we hopped on one of the city’s many trolley cars. Kinda like the cars from Fishermans’ Wharf in San Francisco, these electric train car lines criss cross the main avenues of the town. We took one of these electric cars out to Miyajima Island, home to the famous “Floating Torii Gate.”
Arriving at the ferry terminal we were amazed by the crowds. granted it was a weekend morning but this small town ferry terminal transformed into downtown Tokyo for the day. Across the river we were surprised by something we hadn’t expected on the island: deer. These “wild” deer have learned to come out of the inland forest and into the shoreline towns to search for food. As we walked down the crowded boardwalk to get a better view of the torii gate we saw dozens of these fearless deer walk up to visitors, food stands, and even snatched some food off one guy’s lunch platter! After the pleasant walk down the beach we were a little bummed to find the famous “Floating Torii Gate” at low tide. A mighty impressive and elaborate gate, but is certainly more impressive at high tide if you can plan it right. Still, we made the most of our trip and had a blast taking photos, people watching all the tourists, and having a tasty street vendor lunch of corn on the cob and yakatori chicken.
After our stop off at Miyajima Island, we took the ferry and train car back to central Hiroshima to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. First thing to catch your eye is the A-Bomb Dome, which used to be the Industrial Promotion Hall. Almost directly underneath the epicenter of the blast this building survived where almost no others did. Used as a gathering place and emergency treatment station immediately following the blast, it now has been preserved as a testament to the destructive harm and power of nuclear weapons by UNESCO in 1996.
Just across Ota River is the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, which includes several memorials and monuments commemorating those who perished as a result of the blast. The Children’s Peace Memorial, inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, is the most easily identifiable with the colorful bins of origami cranes, loud crane bell, and tall figure just off the main road crossing the bridge. A short distance from that is the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound and Peace Clocktower, and just across the street from the Children’s Peace Memorial is the Peace Flame, which has been burning continuously since it was lit 1964. It will remain lit until the last nuclear weapon on Earth has been dismantled and destroyed, thus ending mankind’s potentially destructive nuclear age.
Following the main corridor pathway past the eternal flame is the Memorial Cenotaph, the official marker for all those killed by the A-Bomb blast, this marker is a popular attraction for locals, Japanese nationals, and foreigners alike to pray for the peaceful rest of those lost and for continued pursuit of world peace. At the end of this corridor is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In its beautiful simplicity the museum is lined up to form a straight line of sight past the epitaph and eternal flame, over the river, and onward to the dome of the A-Bomb Dome.
Once inside the museum gives a detailed history lesson in the build up of military and commercial activity in Hiroshima as well as on World War II the development of nuclear fission, and the decision to drop the bomb. And while the museum is built to remember and document the sorrow and horrific nature of that day, its primary mission is to stand as a cautionary tale to the destructive force of nuclear weaponry in the hopes for world peace. Moving through the museum there are dozens and dozens of photos, artifacts, and even pieces of buildings that had survived that fateful day. It is a somber hall filled with ripped and burnt clothing, warped girders and shutters, and heartbreaking tales of survivors struggles with losing loved ones and dealing with the fallout of radiation. Once through the exhibits of the museum, we walked past the full length windows that overlook the park and memorials with a new sense of what happened August 6, 1943. While it may seem off-putting since it happened only 69 years ago or as an American walking through the halls, I highly recommend paying a visit to this Unesco World Heritage Site.
From the museum we took a short and lovely walk following the river, catching glimpses of the numerous community and unofficial memorials in and around the park. Making it back to our train station we took two short rides and went to visit the historic Hiroshima Castle. With a storied history that dates back to 1590s, the castle grounds had risen and fallen in prominence depending on the region’s ruler, until the castle structure was destroyed in the a bomb blast. It was rebuilt in 1958 and turned into a museum on the area’s rich samurai and shogun history. Like a smaller version of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Hiroshima Castle has a large stone wall surrounded by a large moat, which was breathtaking as the sun dipped down out of the sky. We continued to walk around the wooded grounds, which include the Hiroshima Gokoku Jinja Shrine and historic military headquarters for the Japanese forces during the Sino-Japanese War. Soon thereafter we came upon the castle tower, peeking up through the trees, sun glinting off the grey stone tiled roof. The building has five successive levels, each featuring gorgeous white stucco and traditional woodwork to the region.
While we enjoyed the towering giant for its beauty and grandeur, Beth and I had dinner to eat and a train to catch, so we made our way back to the electric car line. Along the way we stopped by a tasty little Chinese restaurant and chowed down on tasty gyoza dumplings, fried noodles, and simmered pork before making our way back to the train. With only 15 minutes to spare we made our way through the stations and even purchased two traditional Hiroshima dessert cookies before we boarded the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for Kyoto. The soft cookie is shaped like a maple leaf and typically has a sweet bean paste center, but can also be filled with a variety of cremes, including chocolate and green tea. After a long day of sightseeing the major attractions Hiroshima has to offer, we nibbled on our treats and relaxed along the ride back to the B&B for the night. Stay tuned for our second day in Kyoto, as well as our trip north to Nagano!
We woke for our first day in Kyoto refreshed and anxious to see a handful of the city’s many shrines and temples, but were met by a downpour of rain. Unfortunately, all the main attractions in Kyoto are centered on the outdoors, typically connected by walking tours down streets and sidewalks. So after adding another umbrella to our arsenal we bucked up and headed out on our walking tour of the Eastern Higashiyama neighborhood, starting with the Hein Shrine just next to our hotel. One of the largest and brightest shrines in Kyoto, this one features an enormous outdoor plaza and painted steel torii gate.
Walking through the gate we headed south to the Shoren-in and Chion-in temples. While located within close proximity to one another, the first temple is a quiet refuge from the tourist crowd while the other is quite the attraction with its massive, single room temple dwelling. After touring the grounds of the Chion-in temple and aweing over its impressive prayer room and entryway gate, we made our way to Higashioji street and brekfast. After having two mornings of fish and soup for breakfast these sweet and light pastries were absolutely scrumptious and when paired with the sweet and spicy flavor of the chai milk tea was heavenly. But time halts for no man, so with only a few hours before we needed to be back at the hotel and plenty to see we umbrella’ed up and left.
Continuing through the rain and puddles, we came to the Otani Mausoleum, the final resting place of the renowned Buddhist Shinran. The grounds featured a towering stone stairway, as well as a gorgeous prayer hall and tree garden including several ornate fountains. After spending some time admiring the beauty of the Japanese misty hillsides under the information office’s overhang, we proceeded out to the entrance to the Gion district. Amidst the classic geisha homes styled from the Middle Ages, lie some of the Japanese Buddhists community’s major points of interest including the Kodai-ji temple.
The temple grounds included a secluded stone path, complete with a raging river of runoff water flowing alongside, through a mix of old growth tree canopy and bamboo groves. After reaching the summit we got to walk the grounds and came upon the massive Buddha statue. After paying a small entrance fee, Beth and I were given sticks of incense to pray with and granted access to the Buddha, the tomb of the unknown WWII soldier, a large golden wishing ball, and the offering area for the incense. While the famous Kamakura Buddha is older and built from bronze, this Buddha statue is carved from a solid piece of stone and has a sandstone-like coloration versus Kamakura’s dark green shade.
Making our way back into the Gion district we were met by rickshaw drivers, traditional teahouses and ornate fan shops all in small wood framed shops. The smaller streets in the GIon district were a break from the flow of traffic and we were able to stroll right up to the Yasaka Pagoda. While not as towering as Kyoto’s famous Toji Pagoda, Yasaka Pagoda is the main landmark of the Gion district and throws you back in time.
Well, all morning it had been pouring rain so naturally everything below the shin was soaked after several hours of walking, and with our check in time at the B&B Keiko looming we grabbed a bus back to the Three Sisters and gathered up our things. What seemed like an easy half hour walk down a major Kyoto street became a wet and soppy march that washed away our sense of direction. Piled high with all of our clothes, belonging, and gifts we had accumulated thus far we trudged through the rain, all the while making a series of phone calls to the hotel to update our directions. After 40 minutes or so we made it to our rendezvous point and were met by the innkeeper Raphael, an expat from Brazil, who filled us in on the area while guiding us back into the quiet side street that the B&B sat on.
Located in a quiet neighborhood not far from the Imperial Palace, the B&B Keiko features two traditional tatami rooms to stay in, plus a community common room, washroom, and bathroom. The rustic woodwork and straw matted floors created a great reprieve from the rain outside and after getting some tips for places to eat nearby we shed our packs and changed our socks to set out again.
But our bad luck wasn’t quite over yet, after getting turned around twice in the monotonous, but charming lanes of central Kyoto we ended up 30 minutes away from the restaurant we planned on getting to. After back tracking through the rain we made it to what Beth and I claim to be the best udon place on Earth! Freshly made udon noodles are prepared right before your eyes and they offer the tastiest tempura I’ve had all trip with all sorts of different things. Beth got an assorted vegetable mix, I got a thick and juicy squid chunk, and we split a freshly prepared slice of sweet potato, all dipped in the house’s tempura batter. It was delicious! We thanked heaven that we found this place and made sure to tell our innkeeper thanks for sending us here.
After that things started to look up for us. The rain stopped, and we were only a block away from the famous Kyoto shopping streets. These streets used to be the main commercial boulevard for Kyoto since the 19th century, but now serve as the town’s most famous indoor-outdoor mall with an assortment of shops and restaurants for blocks and blocks down Teramachi and Shin-kyogoku Streets. At the end of the shopping arcades the streets makes a right turn into the Nishiki Food Market, and what the shopping arcades was for consumer goods, the Nishiki Food Market is for anything edible. Shop owners pedal a diverse mix of flowers, peanut brittle like crackers, produce, fish, and much much more. After stopping for a coffee pick me up in the foggy late afternoon, we hopped a train to take a glimpse at Kyoto’s very own Imperial Palace Grounds.
Kyoto was the capital city of Japan before the emperor moved his residence to Tokyo. Unfortunately for us, the palace was closed for the night, but we were able to walk through the expansive grounds in the dense fog. Having the park to ourselves was enjoyable after the crowded markets, and between the fog, the vast and empty pathways, and the low burn of the streetlights it made for an eerily beautiful walk.
We headed back in the direction of our B&B, experiencing the charm (and trendy coffee shops) of Teramachi Street. After meandering the streets in our hunt for dinner brought us to a vending machine restaurant, complete with egg and beef bowls with a side of dumplings. Mmmm, mmmm. Beaten down by the day’s rain and long walks (Kyoto’s very spread out with much of their sights on the periphery) we headed in for the day. Setting up on beds and planning for our day in Hiroshima we settled onto what has been the comfiest futon yet and quickly slumbered to bed.
Our time in Tokyo has come to an end, and when we left off Beth and I were speeding out to the Hakone region by train. While it may not be the well-known Bullet Train, our Udayara RomanceCar was the first time I ever traveled somewhere by train. By and large it’s very similar to taking a plane: trays that flip down, chairs that recline, shades for the windows, and attendants with snacks and beverages. However you get a whole lot more leg room, can swivel your seat to face back for groups bigger than 2, and is a very smooth ride. For being an hour ½ ride, the time flew by. Watching the landscape transform from cities and suburbs to green fields and rural towns was mesmerizing and before you know it we were in town.
After a quick bus ride from the station we arrived at our traditional Japanese hotel, complete with shoe locker and slipper setup before checking in. After getting everything stowed away (my size 13s only fit if I put them in sideways) we headed up to our room on the second floor. Just like the entrance to the hotel, our room has an entryway complete with bedding closet and slipper stowaway (socks or barefeet only) Moving from the entryway we slide the door to the right to find the main room, complete with low table and floor chairs. At night the table and chairs move to the side and we setup our sleeping quarters. Complete with futon mat, sheeted comforter, and pillow we bunked down on what became a very comfy floor. Off the main room is a sitting room, complete with two chairs and small table with a view out to the river behind the hotel, as well as a sink. Connected to this was a small toilet room, but more importantly was the outdoor stone shower and hot springs tub (more about that later). Finally, in typical ryukens and onsens (traditional Japanese lodgings and hot springs) normal everyday street clothes are not worn. Instead guests use a yukuta, which is essentially a heavier version of the more well known kimono. This yukuta is far more than a bathrobe, as it is worn to meals, throughout the hotel, out on the grounds, even to bed if you so choose.
Well, after two long days of serious sidewalk touring around Tokyo, Beth and I jumped at the chance to settle into some comfy robes and hit up the reserved private onsen, or hot springs. Once inside we were able to soak and shower in a traditional tile bath house. Unlike the Western view of the hot springs being centered outside around a nature geyser or spring, the Japanese often bring the natural spring water in to use for bathing and soaking. No bubble jets or jacuzzi settings here, just good ole fashioned hot baths.
Following our first soak, we then partook in an outrageous traditional dinner filled with all the staples of Japanese dining: noodles, broths, rice and fish. Surprisingly, it wasn’t separated into courses, but if it was would be a 6 or 7 course meal. The centerpiece of this feast was a delicious simmering stew cooked table side. This Miso based delight came with mushrooms, onions, noodles, tofu, and shaved pork that we added to simmer and were super tender. We also enjoyed tempura fish, roasted potatoes and veggies with a honey mustard dipping sauce, a soy based side soup, steamed rice, pickled veggies, and a few other goodies…including a pear sherbert dessert. Paired with this gluttony of all things Japan was a bottle of their local brew, Shonan Lager. While it fit well with the typical light and hoppy taste of most Asian beers, this lager carried a more robust flavor and crispness with it that certainly enhanced its hoppiness.
After dinner all Beth and I could think about was going back to the room and trying out the private room tub on the outside porch. Keep in mind it is November here, and while it may not be snowing yet the temps have come down to make these fall nights crisp and chilly. So the meeting in the middle of steaming hot bath water and the chilled November air pouring in from the Hakone foothills truly enhanced the feeling of relaxation and ease that a good soak gives. Granted, it was painfully slow to fill up, but it was well worth being able to sit in piping hot water almost up to your shoulders. We stayed in until the water was almost lukewarm and then settled in for a goodnights sleep amidst the running river. Between the Japanese league baseball on TV and the faint glow of the moon through the wood and paper door I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Waking up the next morning Beth and I were treated to a traditional breakfast featuring steamed rice, a light broth with onions, noodles, and chinese cabbage, a full grilled fish, and lots of pickled and root veggies. Unlike the bacon and eggs or milk and cereal breakfasts of the West, our morning meal in Hakone is quite similar to our other meals, featuring rice, noodles, miso broth, and fish. Planning our adventure for the day we discover something special about the Hakone Region. Much like Summit County, Colorado has lots to see spread across several towns, the Hakone area is much the same, with various attractions in different towns. Furthermore, each of these towns are separated by switchback roads and tall mountain valleys, making the local bus system key to our travels.
Our first stop was Hakone-Machi, home to the famous waterside arch, part of the Hakone Jinja shrine. There we got to enjoy great views of Mt. Fuji, complete with Ashi Lake in the foreground. The Hakone area is well known for its unique and skillful woodwork, and got to admire some pieces ins several of the woodwork shops throughout the town. Everything from tea trays to inlay paintings, to kids toys, to their famous puzzle boxes were on display, each of which done with care and craftsmanship. All that shopping worked up an appetite, so we got lunch at a little sausage and brat shop that was a nice retreat from the typical Japanese meal, yum yum.
Finishing our meal, we walked up the hill through the shrine area and got to admire the beauty of the old growth forest and skillful designs of the shrine. So far I’ve found that Japan is a country whole heartedly devoted to stairs and stone steps, so it was no surprise to see a great set of ones leading up to the main shrine. After making it to the top we were rewarded with a graceful trip back down using switchback paths past lush foliage, dragon statues, and a koi pond. Once we reached the bottom of the hill it was only a short walk to get up close and personal with the torii gate. The way the gate frames the water and stands in stark contrast to the surroundings is hard to do justice to, even with photos. After trying our best (despite our pesky camera’s refusal to use the flash setting) we headed back to town along a quiet stone path by the water.
To get back to our hotel we took another bus, but it was more like a Nascar with handles the way our driver handled it. The hair-raising ride kept me on my toes as the handle would jerk at each turn and I’d need to use every muscle to steady myself at the abrupt stops. Just for kicks we decided to take a pit stop at the town of Miyanoshita, the next largest up the road from our hotel, with the idea of window shopping, looking for dinner, and probably walking down to our hotel for a soak and sleep. Well, things got colder, darker, and closed real quick – November in the Hakone mountain’s is quite chilly and the sun goes down around 5pm, so we decided to hop back on the bus and head to the hotel. Thank goodness we did as the distance down the winding two lane highway was great, with no easy place to walk. What seemed like a 15 minute walk on the map would have surely taken an hour or more, something neither of us wanted to do. Our driver this time around couldn’t be more different than previously. Very polite, very careful, he always checked his seven mirrors before starting again and warned passengers to “hang on tight” when tight turns approached.
Finally, we reached our hotel just as the sun cast its last rays and got a breather before planning to search for dinner in Hakone-Yumoto later. While stretching our legs and enjoying a cup of freshly made tea, Beth and I were lucky enough to catch a sumo match on the television. Sumo is a full-contact sport where a wrestler attempts to force another wrestler out of a circular ring or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. After watching several matches we concluded that the bouts are much more about the tradtions, rituals, and pomp and circumstance rather than the few quick moments of intense competition. Every so often we got to see a duel that lasted closer to 20 or 30 seconds, but most were finished in 10 seconds flat. Well after all the walking we did during the day Beth and I built up quite the appetite and went out to search for dinner.
We took a quick bus ride down to Hakone-Yumoto for dinner and seemed to only find an odd mix of train station diners and high priced sushi dens. Just when we thought all hope was lost, we poked our heads down a side street that featured a great little yakiniku, or Korean BBQ restaurant. Yakiniku is a form of Korean BBQ somewhat similar to Mongolian BBQ in the states, except its only beef and the portions are a little smaller…and you grill it. That’s right, each table comes with a inset grill used to cook your beef to perfection. And while that sounded tempting, Beth and I enjoyed their special of the day: pork and chicken bowls. These bowls featured scrumptious chicken or pork coated in a sweet and savory BBQ sauce served with kimichi and rice with a side of miso soup. Simple and to the point our dinner was delicious. Similar to sweet and sour sauce at home, the Korean BBQ sauce was the highlight of the meal for me. That being said, the chicken and pork were both very tender (even if they were a little fatty).
After dinner we returned to the hotel and away from the chilly and brisk mountain air. Before heading out to dinner Beth and I reserved another 30 minutes in the private bath house for when we returned, and it was the perfect way to end the day. Immersing in the hot water felt great on some tired muscles from three days of serious walking. Before you know it the thirty minutes were up and we headed back to the room, rested and relaxed…just what we came here to do.
In the morning we rose, had another breakfast complete with fish, soup, and a slew of pickled veggies, then checked out for the day. Complete with our big backpack of clothes, our little one of stuffs, and a bag of gifts and souvenirs from Hakone-Machi, we made our way to the train station in Odawara. After pulling into the sprawling station, we popped most of our things into a storage locker and set out to explore the town. Unlike the small mountain towns of Hakone, Odawara was a bit more urban, complete with mid-level rise buildings, fast food chains, and lots of commercial industry. We had a few hours to kill before setting off to Kyoto that afternoon, so we made our way to the Odawara Castle. After walking past some shops and sushi dens, we came upon the grounds for the Odawara Castle. Unsure if the grounds were open to the public, Beth and I ventured through two sets of walls and gates before seeing another visitor. Traveling during the week in November has its perks as mostly young vacationers and retirees can be seen at most tourist attractions. The grounds contiuned through a maze of walls, gates, and vertical rises before we entered the inner courtyard and castle keep. Thew keep rises up five stories and has beautiful views of the Hakone hillsides. Unfortunately, the original keep which was first constructed in 1447 was destroyed by the Meiji Restoration in 1872. Fortunately, it was rebuilt in 1960 utilizing ancient architectual plans and construction techniques to house a gorgeous museum featuring the area’s feudal history. Once we completed our schooling in the ancient samurai, we went back to town and I got to sample my very first beef bowl. A common fast food staple in Japan is the local rice bowl eateries, which Beth and I have lovingly nicknamed beef bowl shops. They all have huge outdoor banners promoting their cheap and tasty rice bowls piled high with onions and beef. I had seen these in each of the towns and cities we had been through but had yet to sample the wares; Boy was it tasty and filling!
After our late lunch we went back to the station, collected our bags, and waited for our shinkansen train that would take us to Kyoto. This was something I was very excited about because the shinkansen train is the Japanese name for the Bullet Train! These aerodynamic trains feature long sets of cars and travel at break neck speeds all across Japan. Essentially replacing the need for domestic air travel, these trains are quiet common and are used frequently. But for two Westerns e couldn’t keep our jaws from hitting the station platform as we watched the first of several bullet trains speed through the station. In the blink of an eye the train would be gone (as we discovered while attempting to take photos of it) just a flash of white and blue. After a half hour or so of frenzied train spotting, ours had arrived and we got to board. Unlike the excitement of watching the train from the outside, the inside operates much like an airplane that never really leaves the ground. The setup is similar to the RomanceCar, except a bit more modern with bathrooms, smoking lounges, changing rooms, etc throughout the cars. It wasn’t until we got to full speed in the countryside and hit a few banked curves did I fully appreciate the speed, style, and smooth ride that our shinkansen offered. We’ll get to ride more of the bullet to visit Hiroshima and Nagano, and I can’t wait to see what those trips offer.
Arriving in Kyoto we gathered up all our belongings and bags and headed north to our hotel after a quick subway ride from the station. Unlike bustling Tokyo with lights and people everywhere, or the one horse towns in Hakone, Kyoto is a big city with an old soul. Restaurants are typically closed by 8 or 9pm, and shops much much earlier. As we walked down the darkened street it seemed closer to midnight than 7:15, and Beth and I feared that dinnertime may have already passed. After quickly dropping off our bags at the hotel we got directions from the innkeeper of a close-by noodle house that should still be open. Thankfully it was and we ended our touring day with mix of authentic udon noodles, curry and rice.
After a hectic day of travel we settled into our room at the Three Sister’s Inn Annex. Opening shop in 1969, this inn is used to receiving western tourists and have seen enough to fill volumes of travel anecdotes. We had heard about it through Beth’s parents who had stayed at the Inn back in 1970s, and the great reputation for service and style hasn’t changed since. Tomorrow is our only full day ins Kyoto to sight-see, so it’s sure to be jam packed with temples, shrines, and all sorts of cultural experiences to share. Hope you’re enjoying my travel log as much as I am, stay tuned for more tales of a Denverite abroad!
For our first morning in Tokyo we hit the ground running, starting off by visiting the world’s most congested pedestrian intersection: Shibuya Crossing. Just outside of Shibuya subway station, Shibuya Crossing is quite similar to Times Square in New York City, in that it’s a major intersection point for the city, with several major city roads, subway lines, and districts. After finding a seat in the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing, Beth and I enjoyed our lattes and watched the crowd. People congregate in droves on the sidewalk corners surrounded by billboards, electric signs, and TV monitors. Cars, trucks, bikes and scooters fill the intersection, but suddenly the next moment is empty silence. Once the walking man changes from red to green people scatter throughout the intersection like marbles spilling out from a cup. For a few moments the traffic is halted by this endless wave of people, but as soon as the crowd fizzles out the traffic roars back again. Despite being just a regular ole urban, red light intersection, Shibuya Crossing is truly a unique Tokyo event that is worth witnessing.
Moving on to our next big stop, we head to Yogogi Park, home to Japan’s most well known shrine: Meiji Shrine. Yogogi Park is much like Washington or City Park back home in Denver…but much bigger. Filled with groves of Japanese cypress trees, ponds with water spraying fountains, and a beautiful rose garden Yogogi Park is the ideal place for a typical Tokyo urbanite to get away from it all. Moving into the Shrine we pass through a magnificent torii gate, signifying the entrance of a sacred place. Beyond the arch lays one of the best demonstrations of landscape architecture I’ve ever seen, with a massive and long pebble pathway lined with an old growth tree canopy. The natural tunnel effect of the trees is enhanced by the park workers dedicated to clear debris from the pathway. After a leisurely walk down the path we came across the entrance to the shrine, including the purifying water station.
Once we enter into the shrine grounds its hard not to be impressed by the intricate wooden designs in the ceiling and roof of the structures, as well as the way they create symmetrical patterns in the layout of the shrine. Large tiled plazas are on either side of the entryway. Compared to the bright colors of typical Korean or Chinese shrines, the Meiji shrine is a subtle balance of dark wooden beams, white trim, and an olive tile roofline. Inside the plaza prayers are given up at the face of the actual shrine building or written on a ceremonial placard and hung beneath a spiritual tree. As we made our exit from the grounds Beth and I were surprised to see a wedding party exiting from a building to the side of the shrine into the plaza. The slow and ornate procession made its way through the plaza before spilling out to the grounds for photos. Upon this we made our own exit back into Yogogi Park, and back to the Hibuya subway line to see the Imperial Palace.
The Imperial Palace has been the home to the Imperial family since 1868 when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. The palace sits on 2.86 square miles in the heart of downtown Tokyo. A completely secure compound, the entire park area is surrounded by a massive stone wall, complete fully functioning lake sized moat. Within this ring are acres and acres of beautiful large bonsai trees, exhibiting perfect feng shui between their needles, branches, and trunk. After walking down a grand promenade entrance way we were once again confronted by another set of walls and moat. Here, with guards posted at the bridge that serves as the main entrance to the Imperial Palace, was as far as we could go. But the vista looking across the water to the Palace, as well as looking out over the acres of pine needles and green grass with towering Tokyo in the background is well worth the visit. As we left the sun began to set and cast a gorgeous glow on our day out so far.
Before heading back towards our hotel we decided to pay a visit to the famous shopping and neon district of Ginza. We walked through the district with our eyes open wide to the wonderful signs and lights we expected to see, especially at the Sony Building. But as the daylight waned and we walked past blocks of shops we were a bit underwhelmed, especially with the Sony Building (which only has a wall of speakers and no light show). Some stores put on their best, like the GAP, Cartiers, and a wonderful Sapporo lit sign that looked like foamy beer. That being said most shops just had one or two backlit signs out, nothing special, up and down the streets. So all in all, the Ginza shopping district is great for high fashion, jewelry, handbags and shoes…but not necessarily for a dazzlingly light show. So growing hungry and tired we decided to head back to the hotel.
On the way we decided to stop off in Rippongi and walk the rest of the way versus taking the subway. Only 45 minutes away from our hotel, the main street in Rippongi offered a better glimpse of colorful nightlife and dining. As we wandered through the streets we ran smack dab into a beaming tower of orange and white: the Tokyo Tower. The tallest freestanding iron tower in the world, it’s mimicked after the Eiffel Tower in France. The bright orange and white colossus stands out among the many Tokyo skyscrapers and has become a major attraction in Tokyo. Feeling impulsive and looking for a great city view at night we decided to purchase tickets to visit both viewing galleries. The first rises up to 150 meters and acts as the main observation deck complete with a café, photo booths, gift shop, and a great view of Tokyo lit up in the night sky. Reaching out for miles and miles we were amazed by the hundreds of skyscrapers extending out in every direction. Rising to the secondary deck at 250 meters we get a more comprehensive view out but with no clear end in sight. Tokyo truly is an urban oasis in the world, seemingly endless concrete, subways, and asphalt.
We headed down from our bird’s eye view of Tokyo and now famished were determined to find dinner in the Rippongi district. In stark contrast to the high-class shops of the Ginza shopping district, Rippongi is filled with bright neon lights, loud music, and people out and about looking for a good time. There are dozens of bars, storefronts, and restaurants along the main drag, all a diverse mix of various cultures. As we walked around there were plenty of American and English themed bars, Mexican, Italian, Korean, and Turkish restaurants to choose from. After an enticing sample of grilled chicken, we settled in at a wonderful little Turkish grill. We ate a wonderful meal, sampling their shaved beef, lettuce, sauce and rice all followed by an amazing, authentic eggplant dish with spicy sausage, peppers, tomatoes, garlic yogurt, served with a side of pita bread. Absolutely delicious! Finally, we went back to the hotel after a long day to prepare for the early rise to the fish market tomorrow.
The next morning we were up and early, but not early enough. Even though we woke up at 5am and made it to the Tsukiji Fish Market by 6:30am, we had missed the fish auction and the reserved tickets to see it. That being said we had no idea that there were reserved tickets or that the fish market was closed from 6:30am – 9am to the public so that the freshly auctioned fish can be properly dispersed and displayed. So with that in mind we accidentally snuck our way into the fish market amongst the hustle and bustle of Japan’s fishmongers. High-speed forklifts, push carts, and three-wheeled scooters owned the roads and pathways in the market. Styrofoam crates, wood crates, and plastic crates all filed with ice and water extended through the walkways as far as we could see. Oh, and the fish! Lots of fish. All kinds of fish; little fish, big fish, tuna fish, eel fish, cut-up fish, noodle fish, you name it. Oysters, muscles, and clams of every kind, not to mention a whole horde of shellfish, from the mighty tiger prawn to the lowly blue crab. Simply amazing! But our amazement was cut short after we strolled down our third row and a policeman (with a look of surprise) informed us that we could not be here for another two hours or so…oops! So to kill some time we decided to visit the futuristic Obaida Island.
We headed out to the shoreline, eventually finding our way to the monorail line that goes over Rainbow Bridge and does a loop around Obaida Island. Once we reached the island we realized that it’s really an office park by day and shopping/bar mecca at night. The extensive collection of malls and amusement area rides were like ghost town, all closed til 11am. Aside from the steady stream of black and grey suits headed to work we were the only people on the whole island. Still, we got to ride on a smooth monorail over the famous Rainbow Bridge, which was a scenic break from the subway cars. We also got a great view of Tokyo bay-side and the bridge, and got to walk around some of Tokyo’s best skyscrapers, including the futuristic Fuji TV Station building. But there is only so much to do in an island ghost town, so we headed back to the fish market before packing up for the afternoon train to Hakone.
Entering correctly this time, we walked among the stalls and sushi dens, as well as dozens of fish monger gear vendors with ice hooks, galoshes, and waders. With proper guidance and instruction we made our way back into the fray, but by now things were mostly calm, many of the trucks and dollys already packed up and out of the way. Still there were all sorts of sights to see, and with permission we were able to take photos of the merchandise and stalls. However, bottom line is if you really want to see the fish market in action (and auction) getting up at 5am isn’t going to cut it. You’ll need to be there at 5am or earlier to be one of the 120 people (first come first serve) each day that are granted entrance to the viewing area.
On the whole Tokyo is a clash of cultures and histories. On one hand it is one of the most urban and densely populated places on Earth, and on the other hand it’s a patient, timeless city with beautifully preserved heritage sites. I strongly suggest if you ever make it to Japan to spend a few days in Tokyo. There are so many other things that are left to see and do there (not to mention a whole host of restaurants to try) that we hadn’t the time for and I am already planning our next itinerary. But for now we move south to get away from the concrete jungle and enjoy the serene hillsides of Hakone, complete with native forests and scenic riverside waterfalls. More to come…