Monthly Archives: November 2011
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…
Before we head out on our week-long trip around central Japan, Beth wanted to show me some of the cultural sites around her neighborhood. A short distance north by train took us to Kamakura, a bustling seaside suburb of Yokohoma. It was here that we connected to the historic Endoen electric train. A train from a by-gone era, this electric line services the small communities along the beach as well as connecting tourists to the many cultural sites along the shore. Though it runs more slowly compared to the busy JR lines I’ve grown accustom to, I really appreciated our rides on this classic train. Between the stretches that chase the sand and sea to the ones that barreled past homes and shops, I certainly could recognize the beauty in the mundane in this electric line.
After hopping on we took a short ride to Hase, the part of town that features Japan’s second largest Daibutsu, or big Buddha. Cast in 1215 this bronze Buddha towers close to 14 meters tall and weighs more than 120 tons. It has seen some rough times over the years, surviving earthquakes, floods, monsoons, and nearly constant exposure to the elements, and has undergone several restorations over the years, the most significant in 1712 and 1923. This figure draws crowds from all over and it truly a sight to behold, in and out. From the exterior it looks like a solid piece of bronze, but from inside you can see the seams that show, with artful detail, the assembly of this great giant.
After visiting the Daibutsu in the Kotokuin Temple, we made our way through the streets of Hase, which offer many shops and eateries. I got to see beautiful calligraphy and craftsmanship in a card store, as well as sampling the local treat of green tea ice cream. The bright green color may cause some alarm at first, but after one taste I was hooked, it was absolutely delicious! Walking along we paused at several art and pottery stalls, featuring beautiful works. Eventually we came to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, easily Kamakura’s most important. As it turns out the weekend we visited coincided with a festival for young children in Japan, Shichi-go-san, where the children are taken to shrines to pray for good luck, happiness and to marry young. Consequently we also witnessed several traditional Meiji weddings taking place. The shrine grounds are stunning, blending the land and waterscapes with the main pathway that lead to a set of towering steps to the shrine. Once we reached the summit you could look straight down the main street of town and beyond to the sunset, truly a gorgeous sight to behold.
All that walking around worked up an appetite and luckily we had made plans to meet up with a crewman of Beth’s and his wife and their Japanese neighbor for dinner at a “sumo” restaurant. This restaurant prides itself on having a sumo clientele, complete with posters, massive handprints, and score cards from some of the local sumo patrons. The restaurant is quite traditional, serving the meal on a table top on the floor complete with padded pillows to sit on. We also had to remove our shoes and store them at the entryway before settling in for dinner. And while a four course meal sitting cross-legged the entire time did strain the muscles, the stomach was to reap the benefits. Each course was extremely good, each served in a unique, signature broth. The first two course were more or less soups, complete with various mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, and tofu. The second course was a little more spicy, featuring local mussels and imitation crab meat. Oh did I mention, these course were served in a giant cauldron placed in an intricate heating rack in the center of the table? Well they were, and thank goodness we had 5 people there because with any less there is no way we could have finished. Moving on we were served a tasty dish of saucy rice which bursted with flavor despite the mundane appearance. This was about the time we received a complimentary order of terriyaki chicken meatballs, my personal favorite of the evening. Finally we made our way to the final course, already feeling full and satisfied, but were happy to take in a spicy broth with udon noodles. After all that I can understand why its a “sumo” restaurant, and would certainly recommend searching one out if you ever visit Japan!
Sunday rolled around and we decided to go back to Kamakura and visit Enoshima Island, a tourist attractions we missed the day before. While on the Endoen line in Kamakura we decided to ride it all the way out to Fujisawa, just to see what was there. Expecting to find a small residential community at the end of the train line Beth and I were surprised to find Fujisawa and a bustling city of commercial activity. Certainly off the tourist path, this town was all business with dozens of skyscrapers and elevated pathways. After walking around, visiting a local park, and enjoying a curry lunch at CoCos, we decided to head over to Enoshima Island.
Enoshima Island is a treasure trove for vacationers, Japanese and foreign alike. It was a mainstay location for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, with its famous Shoden Marina built for the sailing competitions. It also features a high-class onsen and hotel, dozens of Shinto shrines, and great beaches. But what the major attraction on the street seemed to be is a Japanese dish that features what looks like noodles with eyes. In reality they are little white, wormy looking fish and the Japanese love em! Add that to the squashed and dried octopus, squid, and jellyfish lines and you have yourself one seafood loving populace. I have yet to work up the nerve to try it myself, so we moved on to the shrines and famous lighthouse.
The lush and hilly island is covered in different Shinto shrines and monuments, dedicated to a host of gods and goddesses. The main building seems to be have something to do with love, luck, and relationships, as noted by the frequency of relationship oriented prayer cards, not to mention the week-long Valentines Island celebration where the everything is drapped in pink lights in February. Despite walking from shrine to shrine and through various gardens, this is still city property and the grounds are covered with trinket shops and restaurants. We even saw a street performer and his monkey do so wild tricks to a massive crowd’s amusement.
Continuing on we got to see the famous lighthouse and botanic gardens, founded by British merchant Samuel Cocking in 1880. Though much of the greenhouse area was destroyed in a 1923 earthquake, the gardens and towering lighthouse have becoming an emblem of the town, attracting thousands of visitors each week. As we made our way back we had both worked up a hunger and decided to treat ourselves to some street food. Beth’s picked out some of the best corn on the cob, complete with soy sauce dressing, while I got to try my first massive dumpling (really they are almost as big as a Chipotle burrito), but not nearly as filling. We enjoyed our street food, walked back to the train and witnessed a beautiful sunset through the windows on the way back to Kamakura, truly a great weekend exploring. Next week Tokyo…stay tuned!!!
Well after ten hours in the air, four movies to watch, and some very crowded rows my full flight from San Francsico touched down at Tokyo’s Narita Airport late Sunday afternoon. Amazing to think that in just a day’s time I traveled halfway across the globe; over an ocean to the East.
After getting picked up at the airport Beth and I made our way south on the highway system through the urbanized subrubs outside Tokyo. It was a dark and rainy by the time we left, but I will say it is astounding how familiar modern, Westernized Japan feels despite the obvious differences in the langauge and geographically. Sure they may drive in narrower lanes on the wrong side of the road, but their highways are in better shape than ours, complete with the same toll roads, construction zones, and full sized vehicles (except very few SUVs, and though they may be tall and long, no van is wide.)
Two hours later I was given the tour of Beth’s house, a quite little home down a side street of a side street, with only four other homes on her “block”. I say block because in this town, and in the surrounding subrubs, the “city-grid” style of urban planning is pretty loose. Between the history of the neighborhoods and the winding hills and valleys that make up most of Japan there is little to no “grid” work of off. But nonetheless her home is prefectly outfitted, with all the modern conveniences we have in the states, as well as a few aspects that make her home decidedly Japanese. The most prevalent of these is the two tatami rooms, traditional Japanese rooms with woven straw mats as the floor with wood work, sliding doors, and wooden framed paper. One room is one the ground floor and is slowly becoming the dining room, the other is empty for now, but is likely to become a small guest bedroom on the second floor. Another noticeable difference is a bit more modern, but certainly stems from the Japanese cultures affinity for efficiency. Almost all of her lights are flourescent, there is no central air as each room is heated and cooled when needed, you turn on the hot water for the kitchen and shower before you turn on the tap, and all of her trash is seperated into five categories for recycling.
But the home isn’t the only noticable place for Japanese efficiency. Its a myth that everything out East is small, its just minimizing uneccesary space. Driveways are only as wide as the cars that sit in them. Most homes a designed in a square fashion, much smaller than the typically American suburb home. In fact the most doorways in Beth’s how only have about 6’2 in clearance…and have certainly given me a few scares and false ducks. Most of the roads here are two lanes, complete with a small shoulder for motorcycles and pedal bikes to use, but when you look at it would match one, relatively wide suburb road in the States. Yes, most of the cars are narrower, but the reality is they drive much closer together and pass/are passed by scooters and bicycles often. After walking around town and riding shotgun for the past week or so (including in a rental delivery truck for Beth’s latest furnishings) I’ve come to the conclusion that the transit system in place is very effective, but heavily relies on trust. Mothers let kids as young as 8 or 9 ride their bikes down these narrow narrow shoulders because the trust that all of the other drivers will take care and consideration when passing them.
But enough about the mundane, time to hear about the fun! Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city is a hub of commerical activity and is one of Japan’s largest ports. It’s here that Beth and I went out for our first Japanese “Date Night”, riding the cheap and efficient JR (Japan Rail) line. Lucky for us, Beth’s town is situated right along a JR line that connects Yokohama and Yokosuka, and runs extremely often; I’ve ridden it about a dozen times so far, never had to wait more than ten minutes once I got to the station. Anyway, we rode up and got to experience first hand the hustle and bustle of Yokohoma’s train and subway depots during rush hour, an amazing occurence that lasts most of the night. Japanese culture has strongly enforced the idea of “a working man” and most jobs feature long hours. As a result rush hour here lasted, from what I could tell, 6pm – 9pm, possibly even later. But what amazed me most was the high volume of people who all seemed to know exactly where to go at any given time, as if following invisible lines on the floor. And endless wave of black suits marching along to each of the correct trains. I’ve been through subway stations in Rome, New York, and Washington DC none of them compares to the modern marvel of a Yokohoma train.
But back to the “Date Night”, after rising out of the subway station at one of Yokohoma’s multistory shopping malls, we journeyed outside to take a look at the town. (An advisory here, we only saw a small part of Yokohoma, it would take weeks to thoroughly report all the ins and outs of the city). Walking around we saw a beautiful riverfront area, filled with shops and an amusement park. The amusement park has all your standards: roller coaster, log flume ride, carnival games, etc. But it also features a huge Ferris Wheel, so big that it had gondolas as the seats, a digital clock at the center, and the frame has a light show on it! Formally known as Cosmo Clock 21, it is the second largest Ferris Wheel in Japan and one of the world’s largest clocks. We also spotted two if Japan’s most famous suspension bridges, the Yokohoma Bay Bridge, fondly known as the Rainbow Bridge. After seeing the sights we ventured to another shopping plaza, this one inspired by Berlin’s famous Christkindl Market. It was here than we enjoyed some American cuisine, light jazz, low tables, and the beautiful atmosphere of Bill’s. Dinner was delicious, as Beth enjoyed a lightly breaded calamari and I enjoyed a penne and cream sauce pasta featuring green peas, parmeasan, and prochutto.
The second city worth mentioning is Yokosuka, home to the the United States Navy’s 7th Fleet as well as a large portion of the Japanese navy. This military port town is exactly that, with a vibrant downtown filled with hotels, restaurants and bars. It was here that I took part in my first “Sushi-go-Round” restaurant. This semi-fast food sushi place offered a delicious menu and the best part, each plate is about a dollar. The plates revolve around on conveyorbelts past each of the booths and we could special order plates marked for your table, or in most cases we just helped ourselves. All sorts of sushi, noddle bowls, and desserts were made available, and almost all of them delicious.
Beth and I also enjoyed one of Yokosuka’s famous curry places for another fun “Date Night” That day she gave me a tour of base, we picked up her latest furniture and then returned for a night on the town. For dinner we dined on tasty homemade naan with garlic and cheese baked in, accompanied by the smoothest and best spinach and chicken curry I’ve ever had. And to that the spiciest chicken tika masala I’ve ever eaten and an ice cold Asahi beer to wash it down…mm mm mm, we ate til we couldn’t anymore and left as happy as could be.
Finally, I should mention my side trip to Zushi, the next town over. This small town is a fishing and beach community, setup along a bay already on a section of protected Pacific shoreline. After taking the train over and walking around the town I came upon the beach. Dark sand and a gentle rolling were a sight for sore eyes after walking around dense collections of homes and condos. A hot spot for wind surfers, many were packing up there things and heading back into town. Following them back to the train, I spotted many beautiful homes and surf shop rental businesses. Though just a small suburb along the a JR line, this town seems like a prefect place to get away from work and city life for a relaxing weekend on the coast.
Well that’s all for now, the rain is falling and its quite cold and muggy out, much like in the Pacific Northwest of USA. Starting next week Beth goes on leave, so without having to report in to work each day we’ll be able to travel around a bit. Already we’ve made plans to visit Kamakura, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagano, so stay tuned for more news from a Denverite Abroad.
So before I headed out-of-town last week, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a few meals with good friends and family to catch up and wish me well. One of the places we went to, at my suggestion, was Shells & Sauce. Located off of 12th Street and Elizabeth Street in Denver, Shells & Sauce has become my go-to place for delicious Italian. Each time I go there I’ve tried something new off their ever-changing menu, and have never been let down. The house lasagna, their pasta arribiatta, the veal, you name it! The restaurant itself is comfortably cozy and always fills up their dining and bar space on the first floor (so I recommend getting a reservation). But, in the summer or a mild winter night you can venture up to the more secluded patio and bar area for a quiet, low-key evening. I hadn’t been to the second floor before, but I was pleasantly surprised by the change in ambience and the wait staffs extra attention to customers up there.
For dinner, my friend and I enjoyed gracious complimentary serving of freshly baked house bread with Shells & Sauce signature dipping oils. My oh my, this was good enough to make the meal! The bread was warm, soft and fluffy in the interior, perfect for dipping into oil and vinegar, which was blended just right. For the main course I ordered the 6 cheese pasta pouch, a tasty assortment of stuffed pasta, paired with the classic Peroni beer while my friend enjoyed the veal, accompanied by New Belgium’s Sunshine Wheat. The lightness of the Peroni was well met by the mixed medley of fresh vegetables that accompanied the parmesan cream sauce which really made the meal. The pasta itself was cooked right to perfection, not too al-dente and by no means soggy. My friend’s veal was by all accounts delicious, her and waiter both raving about it for the rest of the night. All in all, Shells & Sauce is that neighborhood place to catch up with old friends, enjoy a superbly made meal, and all without breaking the bank. For the level of service and culinary talent this restaurant is a complete steal and always worth considering for the next “Date Night” outing.
That being said the other restaurant I recently visited is no stranger to Downtown living. Marlowe’s is a well-known staple to urban Denverites, located across from the 16th Street Mall on the corner of Glenarm and 16th Street. This upscale meat and potatoes restaurant also features a traditional bar area that is frequented by all sorts of 9 – 5ers ending their busy work days. That being said they also make a wonderful meal, with a menu that can do no wrong. My father and I settled in for a late night dinner after visiting the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Expo, taking place just a few blocks over at the Colorado Convention Center. Both of us starved, we immediately ordered something filling and warm for such a chilly long day.
My father ordered the steak and potatoes entrée, complete with a caesar salad and Big Nose Brewing Wheat beer. What amounts to a simple order could be anything from it when his dinner arrived. A tasty plate of seasoned and seared potatoes dribbled with house steak sauces and marinades was topped off by what looked like the ideally cooked medium-rare flank steak. I myself ordered the Bison Burger, complete with New Belgium’s 1554 and a house salad served with their Blue Cheese vinaigrette dressing. The salad was to die for! The medley mixture of vegetables was more or less commonplace, but the inclusion of moist yellow raisins, pine nuts, and the decadent vinaigrette dressing really took this “house” salad above and beyond. My burger was just what the doctor ordered before a trip to the Far East: meaty. Though it wasn’t beef, this treat packed just as much of a that hard to describe taste and feel, well complemented by the boursin and white balsamic shallots and toasted bun it was served with. The side of seasoned steak fries are better than any set of string or waffle fries and left me feeling full and satisfied; the ideal meal before a day of travel. So next time you’re walking around Downtown Denver without a clue as to a great place for beers, beef, salads or potatoes, give Marlowe’s a try.
Now that November is upon us the mountains are starting to accumulate snow and open their doors for those excited for the season. Denverites are no exception and next time you’re looking for something wonderful to spend the weekend on, consider a trip to the high country to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown living. You could hit the slopes, take a walk through the picturesque mountain towns, or simply curl up in a cozy mountain cabin with a good book.
If you’ve read some of my earlier posts you’ll know that I am part of Vail Resorts 2011-2012 Sprint Snow Squad blog team; a group of dedicated men and women who tirelessly keep readers up to date with anything and everything related to skiing in Colorado (more specifically at Vail Resorts). Since I started working in late October I’ve had the pleasure to attend some pretty amazing events, including the A-Basin’s Halloween weekend, which was filled with all kinds of crazy, silly, and scary costumes. Just recently I got to attend the 2011 Colorado Ski and Snowboard Expo at the Colorado Convention Center downtown, and it was a blast! Every resort you could imagine was there, as well as great deals on equipment, apparel and winter gear for the upcoming ski season. If you want to see either of those event’s in detail please click here to go to Buzz.snow.com’s Photo Gallery website.
Last but not least, I published a dispatch on the great early season lodging deals at Breckenridge and Keystone this upcoming year. Some include fantastic giveaways like free Epic Passes, free Ipads, free Camelbacks, and free night’s stays…many of which can be used anytime during the season! But hurry, they don’t call them “Early Season” deals for nothing as most need to be purchased/booked by the end of this week. So what are you waiting for? Check it out at http://buzz.snow.com/members/Chris-Yonushewski/default.aspx?cmpid=SOC00407