Santorini, Greece, 7 – 16 th March 2015

This was to be the very first holiday for me as a father traveling with his own little family and I was both excited and a little nervous. Excited because I imagined a family holiday as being much less demanding, forced to simply enjoy”playing home” in a new place, by a child that could not stand the alternative, instead of the perhaps forcefully, high-paced holidays we usually had. Nervous because so far having a baby had proven to be a source of many new worries and we were not sure how we would cope with all of them in a new environment. Most importantly, how would Espen cope with spending a whole day traveling, taking-off and landing twice, being stuck on his parents laps for hours at a time, etc…

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Well, he did brilliantly! We were proud to arrive in Santorini, with a baby that had not cried once during the whole time. Perhaps Espen had developed a resistance to the air pains most kids remember from their first flights, through the 50 flights he had been exposed to in utero? I know that Anabel and I certainly enjoyed the free lunch and dinner that SAS Gold card provided by the very same flights earned us. Access to the lounges definitely helped, offering a smooth first trip with a baby; with meals both times very tasty and accompanied with a nice beer and whisky (a 12 year old Laphroaig and a 12 year old the Balvenie doublewood… how could I refuse…even if it was 12:15 and then 17:15?).

Now when we read about our destination, we fell upon someone’s description of the place as being the most baby friendly place she had visited. I think it would be more correct to say that the Greeks are baby obsessed! From the hostess in the lounge in Athens, that came to our table 4 times to tickle Espen ( and call him Cookie), to the old Andreas of Budget rent-a-car that insisted I leave him with Espen and that he would give him his house and car and all his possessed. The hotel owner was no better, insisting many times that she would provide everything we might need (especially babysitting). About 50% of all the Greeks, old or young, male or female that passed us on the street, winked and waved to our little wonder. The Greeks definitely were a warm, friendly and extremely reassuring people to spend a holiday with, when accompanied by a wide-eyed little wonder. That being said, Espen clearly isn’t just any baby, but also the cutest in the world, as demonstrated by the swedish SAS air hostess who swooned, insisting “she needed to get herself another one of those”, and nearly every single Chinese tourist also stopping by to shake hands and exchange smiles (and take pictures).

Needless to say that we had quickly found our internal comfort, and were ready to simply indulge in the safe atmosphere on our deck with the amazing view. Because yes, the view is nearly all Santorini is about, and I am surprised I managed to write so much without yet mentioning it. Our first morning here, as I opened the window, my first words were “Wow, this is simply the most amazing view I had ever seen!”. Of course I meant, “from a room”, although even that was not entirely true as Anabel reminded me of my parents house in the South African bush. But still, the words were sincere, this was truly a breathtaking view, and only pictures would do it justice.   Imagine stepping out from a cave in the mountain, to a bright sunny day illuminating an endless sea that lies far below at your feet.

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The seemingly endless sea, was put into perspective by the islands around us; a long one right in front, sheltering us from the otherwise imposing endlessness. One to the left, an active volcano offering prospects of enjoyable walks and relaxing hot springs. And then the islands to our right, with its white houses covering only the inhabitable crown of the island, merily resembling a snow-capped mountain.   In many pictures of Santorini, the typical sight is a terrace with the same view I described above, to which one adds a dab of white and blue coloured square houses. We are even luckier, it seems as we are so “low” on the mountain or at so steep an area, that we see nothing but the sea and the cliffs around us. It really feels awesome, and I willingly spend hours sitting out and watching the wind playfully caressing the vast sea, creating light ripples that spread as if cast from a magician’s’ hands. Our room’s private terrace and it’s view was definitely the highlight of this trip and destination. The view, accompanied by the large breakfast served at our convenience, with a choice of different type of eggs and yummy fluffy bread and the best Greek yogurt I have ever had, made this my favourite place and activity in Santorini by far. This was also very convenient, as with a five-month old baby one does end up needing to spend a lot of time in a hotel room.

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The rest of the island was not so exciting. I definitely enjoyed the walks and the surprising doors that seemed to open only into emptiness (every door opened only to a steep path down which could not be seen from the outside), reminding me of a unfinished Lego house.

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However the island was generally much more of a tourist trap than a genuine piece of Greek living. For starters, prices, for everything and anything, was on par with those in Denmark… considering that Denmark is considered among the top three most expensive touristic destinations in the world, that is quite a statement. The quality of service though varies greatly. From our hotel (Porto Fira Suites), with breakfast -at-your-door- you-ask-for-anything-and-we-will-get-it-for-you service, to the the taxi from the airport, that costs a harsh 20€ for a 10 minute ride in a crummy car. The worst, though, was the tour to the volcano, that cost 20€ per person, to be stuck on a crummy boat with 40 other people and no place for everyone to sit down. We were dropped of on a volcano for our own tour and a strict deadline to come back, and then anchored close to a hot spring, where we were simply told to dive and swim the rest of the way. With some psychological preparation, proper protection from the otherwise blistering cold, and without the 40 others so closely stuck to us that our naked bodies would have had to make contact way too often for comfort; we might have considered enjoying the hot spring… but not in these conditions. Instead, we spent a large hour just waiting in a cold cramped boat with an uncomfortable baby to appease. If they got 800€ in 3 hours for maintaining one crummy boat and one sailor, plus a vending shop higher up in town, then they must have one of the highest margin businesses that exists around I am sure… On a more positive note though, I would add that the volcano walk in itself was a very positive experience. Espen slept through most of it, but Anabel and I thoroughly enjoyed the wild landscapes, the sulfur fumes, the savage waves of crumbled volcanic rocks and the incredible vistas of the caldera around us. There was no doubting that we were in a middle of a giant cauldron, in a soup of paradise blue.


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If one could look aside the prices for the food, than I would definitely mention the food as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the stay. I am not generally very fond of a Greek salad, for example, as I do not like feta cheese, nor am I a big fan of olives. Well, apparently, I did not really know what feta cheese should taste like, nor olives for that matter. A simple Greek salad from our local Gyro seller was a great hit on the taste buds, as was their “tomato balls”; a mysterious tomato rösti, most likely made with tomato, onions, bread and more yummy stuff, which lent itself really well to melting on the tongue.

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At the Naoussa restaurant, we also enjoyed a local dish called “Bouyougi”, a greek cheese fondue, made from feta, mainly, but with tomatoes and herbs added to the dish which I must say definitely reconciled me with feta.

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There is otherwise not so much to do in Fira, not without a car to go farther afield. But as the weather was rather on the cold side, that we had a large bath with Jacuzzi that fit the whole family, and a view I didn’t get tired off; we found ourselves enjoying our first family vacation spending at most 4 hours out a day and the rest with hugs and food and baths at “home”.

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Taking time to take things slow and indulging in my son’s rhythm so as to optimize the smiles/hour ratio? Certainly no complaints from yours truly.  So, what is there to do in Fira apart from the volcano tour? Walking along the cliff side, mostly. But that is no little affair. For starters, its tough work. As the path is not made for strolling, it’s made to serve all the houses, hotels, and restaurants that are hanging on to the cliff side, and as such, it simply goes up and down, all the time. The houses, suites and hotels, are also extremely quaint, with tiny pools seemingly falling of the edges, and a homogeneous white and thick-walled construction decorated by Pots or domes of blue, curved roofs and chimneys that reminded me of Gaudi’s work, in a more sober form, and Escherian staircases. Last but not least of course, the view, with new sides of the island  and new angles to the village that unfurl with every step. And need I say that the view on the see around us never ceases to look amazing? We walked all the way to Skaros rock, only to stop short due to construction work. However, the walk in itself, was worth the toil, and rest assured if you are dead on arrival, there is a shortcut back that does not go up and down, but straight through boring nothing-to-seeness, in only a quarter as much time.

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For the last three full days, we decided to rent a car so as to get a little further than Skaros rock. I contacted my “friend” or should I say “father” seeing as he continuously referred to me as “mon enfant”, stroking the back of my hair as I was signing signed the contract…it was a little disconcerting but it felt so genuine that I actually ended up feeling reassured. That worked against me though, as I ended up with a crappy car for the same price as his competitor…   My confidence was somehow shattered the next morning as I picked up a parking fine on the car despite his multiple reassurances that I could park anywhere… Having a car was worth it though as there is a lot more to see in Santorini than Fira, in fact I would probably recommend you not take a hotel in Fira at all, as Oia is definitely much more charming, a more polished version of Ia, whilst the southern-most  tip of the island offers a much more authentic Greek experience; we for example, paid a fare that felt “normal” at a restaurant. The-said restaurant; “Gregarios”, comes much recommended, you had a fridge full of fresh fish you could pick from, and a variety of salads, in addition to a view of the whole caldera, only about 200 metres from the tip of the island. The service was very friendly, and instead of getting less change than I expect, I get a a round 20€ note for my 50€ when I owed 31€. So I ask for change for my 10€ to give as tip, and she still gives me the whole 10€ back in change instead of keeping the 1€ I owed her. This was in addition to a free desert she gave us… and not any free desert, but the best baklava I probably would every try; straight out of the oven unto our plate.

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We wondered a bit in the south, seeing the red beach, with its porous rock and red & black pebbled “sand”. We missed the “prehistoric town” (sold as a “Greek Pompeii”) that somehow thought 15:00 was a fitting time to close. Closing times astound me in Greece.

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After a rather frugal lunch I had once decided to go hunting for the bakery shop we had crossed earlier but were too full to enjoy; only to find that this time it was closed… at 14:30, right when, I assume, most people come out from their lunches and could benefit from a little sugar rush…. The neighbouring cafe told me that they probably opened again around 17:00… go figure.   But like I said, the drive is profoundly enjoyable, even for one like me who normally dislikes driving. At least it is in this period, as the roads are calm and empty, and the vistas are nearly breathtaking at every second. I can imagine it is nothing close to enjoyable in high season. In fact I have a hard time imagining anything is enjoyable in high season here. Andreas explained that during that period, 48 planes land a day… whilst there were only 2 I think during our time and the airport closes between them.  

We got lost at some point and ended up taking a long, winding road, large enough for a car and a half (despite it being a two-way), steep uphill dead-end road, that brought us to a monastery at the topmost point in Santorini. The view was even more astounding than all the previously enjoyed views as one could see as far as a healthy eye could. For 360 degrees, the island, in its entirety, spread out at your feet. Unfortunately, traveling with a 5 month old proves again to be straining one’s ability to “enjoy” the moment, as Espen, perhaps this time bothered by the sudden altitude, was crying a lot, making the moment a three-clicks-of-the-camera-and-back-down-we-go.

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On the way back, we “miraculously” found an open bakery, with a wide variety of tasty looking treats. So, naturally, we took one of each, including a pack of the Easter specialty cake (“made with cheese, but not salty”). That particular cake was very nice, whilst the rest, tended to be  slightly too honey-drenched. The best one we had was in fact a round ball of pistachio nuts seemingly glued together with glazing sugar. The sugar, however had orange blossom flavoring, and the pistachio were so abundant that the overall pastry had a great balance of savoury and sweet.

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It’s funny in fact how despite the size of this island, (you can actually see the one end from the other), one can still experience the full contrast between capital towns, smaller towns and country side, that you would in a normal sized country . Fira is busy and not always charming , typical of a capital,  Oia is quaint and calm,  typical of a secondary city whilst the south of the island seems vast and uninhabited,  with even more friendly people that seem to have time for you, as usually is the case in the countryside. But where Santorini really excels is that there is a distinct architecture throughout the island which reflects the local tastes and savoir-faire.

Before our trip home, we got to enjoy two last local sights: The blacksand beach of Kamala, with its sugar sized grains of volcanic ebony-black sand contrasting beautifully with the Aegean blue sea.

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The ancient city of Thera, a sort of European Machu Picchu. It was nowhere as magnificent as Machu Picchu but it did radiate this peacefulness that hard-of-access ruins do, especially when surrounded by a 360 vista of the island and the sea at large.

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On the trip back we discussed with a very pleasant man from Cyprus, living in Crete, that explained that he was selling very well to Chinese people right now, due to a new law that allowed them to travel freely in Shengen if they had invested enough in property in Europe. And Santorini was just the place, as it seemed to represent a dream destination for all Asians. I definitely understand why, and look forward to visiting more of Greece, its flavors,  its unique sights and its friendly inhabitants.

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Tokyo, Japan, 1st November 2013

Our last day in Japan started without pressure, after 4 weeks in Japan, I had come to a point where I felt I had seen most of what I really wanted to see and experience in Japan. There  is of course still tons of things, which I still keep in a list, but they are no longer so pressing that it would stop me leaving with the pleasure of feeling I have had a fulfilling holiday. We got the chance to spend yet another day with N., and so we set off together towards Meiji Jingu Shrine. It is the Emperor’s main shrine as well as Tokyo’s most important Shrine. The Emperor is to Shintoism what the Pope is to Catholicism, so, this shrine is really no ordinary shrine. It starts off strongly with a huge Torii in wood and gold, and a strong alley of old trees. Despite being very close to the cars and other noises of Tokyo, it was incredible how rich the sounds of birds and nature were here, it was so incredible that it felt fake; but after a couple of minutes search, I felt I could say with confidence: there really were a lot of birds in that park. The shrine itself does not look much different from other shrines, but it is much more animated. It was with a lot of zeal that I went on a photographic frenzy and enjoyed three exhibits:

  • the Chrysanthemums, Japan’s national flower, in all possible shades and perspectives
  • A bonzai, or “mini scenes made with real trees” exposition
  • a beautiful Ikebana (floral arrangement) exposition

Another key element that I had yet to to experience was Kaiseki Ryori: Japan’s haute cuisine and the original inspiration to French gastronomy. We found a restaurant in Omotesando that had affordable menus: 8000 & 3800yen respectively for the 10 course meal or the fish only meal. I do not need to be told that going for a cheap “haute cuisine” restaurant makes no sense, but the problem is that Japanese taste buds can sometimes be very different to ours; none of us really likes pickles for example, but every time we looked at pictures of the menus, it all looked very pickles focused. We therefore thought that it would make most sense to try a cheap version first before wasting 25000 yen in pickles. The restaurant was a little dark, but tastefully decorated and the food that came was, in fact very refined and a real pleasure to the taste buds. I started with a nutty, creamy tofu. Then followed Sashimi of unidentified fish. It tasted exquisite. I also had :

  • a beef sushi!
  • a piece of steak so intensively well prepared that it melted in the mouth. The taste was a perfect balance of wasabi, gravy and sweet prune. That one was so good that it disappeared before I managed to think of taking a picture
  • a boring rice dish covered in the same tiny fish we had had in Enoshima, and a very nice, but still rather ordinary miso soup

There was a variety of other tasty dishes that I can’t quite remember: The desert that followed was slightly disappointing: mandarin Pana cota The girls, in the meantime had had very similar dishes, except for an exquisite grilled fish dish that went insanely well with the pickled lemon grass. We headed back to Yoyogi to enjoy the last rays of light in Yoyogi park. This equivalent to London’s hide park or NYC’s central park, harboured large spaces for people to practice all sorts of activities, though my favourite were clearly those playing guitar or flute to accompany my meditative enjoyment of the park’s landscape. The trees had in some places shifted to autumnal colours, and the walk ended up being one of my most relaxing moments of the trip. I realised that pure Zen gardens,  although they manage to convey the beauty of nature at its best, misses one element: humans. Having fellow humans around simply living, smiling, having fun and, most importantly, playing music, really enhances the feeling of belonging to a world, that is, all in all, not that bad. The sun went down, so we decided to move Taro Okamoto’s museum. On the way we stopped at “!Danish bar” to get “a Danish” (pure croissant-like-pastry in a sausage form with sugar crystals in it)…yup, it is yummy. Taro Okamoto was an artist with a special style, that irradiates a positive energy like few others. The external garden with its sculptures is really nice, but the museum itself is tiny and not worth the money. If you happen to be in the area though and want to sit down and enjoy a coffee, this is a great place. From there, we moved on to Roppongi to visit the Mori tower and its sky-deck, supposedly the best view of Tokyo. One the way though, N. showed us the restaurant where Kill Bill’s bloody-carnage-scene was filmed. It was a fun and unexpected to find the place in the middle of Tokyo but obviously not a secret, as it had entirely filled up by the time we came back for dinner… How unfortunate, I would have liked to taste their “hot chocolate cake with black sesame ice cream”. The Mori Tower sky-deck visit costs 2000 yen to go up, but that includes the museum visit, which one cannot exclude from the price. I find the price to be a rip-off, especially if you do not have an interest for the museum in the first place, but the view definitely was an awesome eye candy. We headed back towards home then, and stopped first in Shibuya for a “do it yourself Okonomiyaki”. I followed Nathalie’s recommendation and tried something else than the usual seafood version: a mochi & cheese Okonomiyaki. It was amazing! One of the best I had ever had. Definitely a recommendation from my part. The restaurant is just on the left of the famous Starbucks, if you look from Shibuya station and consists of 3 floors of tables just for Okonomiyaki; Anabel was delighted. We spent our last evening at home with N., and regretted already the end of another great holiday. This one had been more exceptional even, in that it had also been in great company. Thanks J. & N.! Two parting pictures:

  • In Tokyo, this is how you park your car. Put it on the blue spot, and leave, the rest will happen automagically
  • When going to Japan, make sure to bring as many empty suitcases as you can afford, cause this is what we brought back (excluding what was in the dirty laundry, and what were presents)

Hakone, Japan, 30 – 31st October 2013

We started the day finding our way to the Romance car, that leaves from Shinjuku and, with Shinkansen comfort but without the speed, would bring us to Hakone-Yumoto. N. was with us for the two day outing and we immediately enjoyed the Japanese trains’ awesome seats that swivel around to create the cosy four-seater configuration.

We bought the Hakone “freepass”, which, for 5000 yen gives access to all transports within Hakone and did indeed feel like a really good investment. With that in hand, the romance car tickets only cost an extra 800 yen.
Once in Hakone, we bought ourselves some bentos (Japanese packed lunch) and took the local mountain train up to Miyanoshita, where we found the Fujiya hotel.

To celebrate its 135th anniversary, the hotel had an offer to holders of a foreign passport to spend the night for 13500 yen,  which was a cheap price in Japan for a luxury hotel, or even a middle range hotel.
Seeing the hotel amenities and how big it seemed to be, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening visiting and otherwise enjoying the luxury. 

Magnificent from the outside with its very Japanese design, the hotel’s inside sported some intricate woodwork in a tastefully old-fashioned western style. In fact this hotel was the very first western style hotel in the whole of Japan, and, as nice as that might sound, it regretfully very much played the part.
The whole hotel and its amenities were in serious need of maintenance, and more often than not, it felt like the hotel was already abandoned and going through its last moments. It was clear in any case that the hotel was not at the peak of its glory, but rather becoming a piece of museum in itself.

We visited beautiful gardens, on many different levels and with different nooks & crooks, pools with carps, watermill and even greenhouses.

Sadly, this same garden lead us to an outdoor pool that looked like it was in the setting of a film about an abandoned town.

The contrast with the rest of the hotel and its staff that still harboured a look Agatha Christie would have depicted, was astounding.

It was an interesting experience to walk around the labyrinth of a hotel, and find the most odd rooms and arrangements.

We found the bar; so dark and old in its furniture that one could easily imagine the cigars and whiskeys that were enjoyed by men discussing strategic moves during the two great wars.

We also found an actual museum for the oldest pieces of the hotel, including the registers dating back to 19th century, and a picture of a proud hotel owner with his comrades from the moustache club.

When we found the swimming pool, my first reflex was to take pictures of this anachronistic setting.

We settled in for a swim and an onsen (shared bath), before moving on to dinner at a Soba & Udon restaurant just outside the hotel.
There were two reasons we didn’t eat at the hotel itself: the first one is that they served French food (the menu, oddly enough was in French only…) and the dinner cost more than our room did.

The Soba restaurant was very authentic. We obviously entered directly into someone’s house and living room, and were welcomed by a very old and friendly man who promptly forwarded our orders to his wife. I ate a Karei (curry) Udon dish, whilst Anabel had a mushrooms Soba soup and N. a Tempura one, whilst a Samurai armour stood in watch behind us.

Back at the hotel, we settled in the tea lounge, at John Lennon’s table, and enjoyed our first and only Fuji shaped cake of the stay. It was a pink crepe that covered a chiffon cake with jam on it.

We originally intended to try all Mt. Fuji shaped delicacies of the area, but quickly realised that our ambitions were not realistic. In case you think this pastry looked good though, check out what other hotels and cafés had to offer:

And that is, of course, not the only Fuji shaped objects we were going to find during our stay.

We then found a convenient store, where we each bought sufficient amounts of the liquor of our choice, which in my case was the cutest bottle of Hakushu whisky. Inspired, by the old style bar with its Jazz music, we wanted to drink and spend the evening discussing all things of the world amongst friends. But the bar’s prices were obnoxiously high so we decided that the room, with our own choice of Jazz and our own convenient liquor and desert would do for a great evening; and it was.

The next day, we enjoyed a great continental breakfast, for the first and last time of this holiday and moved on to Hakone itself, by bus. In Motohakone-ko, we discovered the typical Pirate boats that were supposed to take us cruising on the lake. It looked lovely with all its color and charm although one should absolutely not look too closely, at risk of seeing how tacky it actually was.

Most importantly though, at that very moment, for the first and only time of the whole trip, or even the whole 4 weeks I have stayed in Japan in total, I saw mount Fuji!! (Yes! there on the right… try zooming in!)

It was unfortunately a little small and not showing all its splendour, but, much like the Matterhorn, given how hard it had proven to actually get to see this majestic, and emblematic mountain, I was very happy for the moment, and did many times throughout the rest of the day, wish that the clouds would just leave us alone for a change.

We sat down for a moment contemplating lake Ashi and reminiscing; this sight was so familiar to us all, whether from Switzerland, or from France, “mountains and lake” is a view we had grown up with.

We moved on to the “Hakone detached palace garden” and its supposed viewpoint on Mt. Fuji. The way there brought us through a beautiful pedestrian mud path called Cedar alley for its old & majestic cedar trees standing in salute our way.

The weather did not allow us to enjoy the view on Fuji from the garden top observatory, but the view was still beautiful and the path along the coast allowed for a thoroughly relaxing walk along varieties of lichen on trees, stone and earth.

After the garden, we found the pirate boat again, and enjoyed a pleasant cruise on Ashi that would bring us to the other side of the lake, at Togendai-ko.

At Togendai-ko, we found the departure point of the cable-cars that would bring us to Okinawari, where fumes and sulphur from the active volcano below could be experienced up-close and personal.

The Japanese always seem to create a local culinary speciality per town or sometimes even per area within a town. For each of these specialities, they would then create varying pastries that imitate its appearance and finally some mascot of the speciality, for extra cuteness and, well I am not that sure why I guess.

It has rarely been so obvious than in Hakone, which speciality is the volcanically cooked egg, or black egg. .

It’s mascot:

And a “hello kitty” variant, for the sake of it:

The egg itself is black and stinks of sulfure, but as one might expect, once peeled, it simply tastes like an ordinary hard boiled egg.
They had egg soft-ice too though which I had to try. There was a slight Zabaglione taste to it, but not a memorable experience altogether.

We needed to get going now for our walk to the source of the fumes, but we were not so sure what to do with this warning…it sure sounded serious…

We walked on a narrow path surrounded in flatulence whiffs, beautifully fluffy cereals and patches of barren landscapes in a forest of autumnal colours.

We realised after 20 minutes that we had taken a path that would get us to the top of the mountain, which we we did not quite have the time for. Sure it was just past lunch time, but the absurd time zones in Japan meant that the sun rises at 05:30 (completely useless) and sets  at 17:00.
It was a special landscape though, and an altogether enjoyable experience.

We finished our cable care ride two stops before Gora, where we found the Gora garden;  a cute sloppy garden with:

  • a very European look around the fountain
  • a very Japanese experience around the tea house
  • beautiful Bouginvilliers and other flowers in the green house

We stopped at a nearby hotel to ask for directions, and were kindly invited to take a tour of the hotel called Gora Kadan. It belonged to the prestigious “Relais & Chateaux” listing an brought home exactly what a luxury hotel really is. It radiated with beauty, taste and zen. The views at all points in the hotel were worthy of contemplation and we could not but help wonder if couldn’t by any chance actually afford a week here (the answer is no, obviously).

If you have enough money… I believe this hotel is really how you want to experience Hakone. Trust me!

We took a Ramen & Soba dinner in Gora in a small side restaurant and then moved back to the hotel to collect our luggage and catch the last romance car leaving directly from Hakone-Yumoto, towards Shinjuku. It unfortunately leaves at 19:46, which left us no time for what is actually the main activity in Hakone: Rotenburo, or outdoor Japanese public baths.

It was so with a little regret that we left Hakone, but it quickly dissipated when we enjoyed another combini drinking evening in the train. This time I bought a bottle of Yamazaki, which I found slightly less enjoyable than the Hakushu, which sported slightly finer flavours, in my opinion. Hakushu brands itself as the “distillery in the middle of the forest in the Southern Alps of Japan, which is an image that speaks to me, so I do suspect that I might not be talking only with my palate.

Kamakura, Japan, 28th October 2013

Monday blessed with us with a sunny day, at last and it was perfect timing for our day out at Kamakura.
Kamakura is about 1:30 hours south-east of Tokyo, towards the coast, in a village that remains to this day very much surrounded in forests and temples.

It was, from 1185 to 1333, the political capital of Japan, and it seems to be the place with the densest concentration of temples & shrines.
This town, much like Kyoto, asks for 200 yen per temple visit, which is also a good way of keeping ambitions down and trying to focus on quality rather than quantity.

From Kita-Kamakura, where we alighted, we started with Engakyu-ji, right up from Kita-kamakura station.

At Engaku-ji, one can walk up a path on the side bringing to small habitations but also a nice view of the temple grounds surrounded in forest.

Further down the road from Kita-kamakura, on the right side of the other side of the train tracks, we found a temple called Shokozan-Tokeiji. More than looks this temple stands out with its story: It used to be a nunnery and evolved into a sanctuary for women. A law was created that stipulated that women who spent 3 years there were then allowed to divorce; giving it the surname of “divorce temple” or ” the place where men are deprived of their pride”. Only one person, Kato Akinari, the lord of the Aizu castle, violated the law and saw the Shogun immediately deprive him of his fief. It is said that, whenever a women was seen to be in a hurry, people would immediately point her towards the temple, making assumptions as to what her pressing issues might be.

We then found our next target: Jochi-ji, nestled in a cypress wood. It is considered one of Kamakura’s five great zen temples. It is famous for it’s Buddha statues representing from left to right: Amida (the past), Shaka (the present) & Miroku (the future).

It also had a statue said to bring luck if one rubbed it’s stomach, which many obviously decided was worth trying…me included.

On the main road, we found the place where we would satisfy our stomachs, a small grandma & grandpa noodle restaurant. The noodles definitely filled a void and our hosts even managed to provide an english menu.

Remember how I said you should never be afraid to be thirsty in Japan because you can always find a distributor even in the middle of the forest? This is not the middle of the forest, but the choice gives an idea of the general availability of these things!

I was not going to gobble those pointless calories though; I had a more important targets to focus on: one of the local specialities, purple potato soft ice cream (murasaki-imo sofuto).

The next temple was on the main road to Kamakura:  Kencho-ji; described as “the first ranked of the 5 great zen temples of Kamakura”. Whether the ranking is on size, importance, beauty, how “zen” it really is or yet another criteria, is unfortunately not explained, but the temple is really big and seems to be a used as a textbook example of the Zen temples.

It had a nice zen garden hidden behind the main meditation room and some beautiful gold-worked doors and portals.

Its main praying room had are presentation of Buddha that is quite uncommon in this part of the world: famined & ghastly looking. This seems to be the typical representation of him in Pakistan, and I had previously seen a similar imported version in Thailand. 

Going further down the road, we reached our next destination: Tsuruoka Hachiman Gu, it was not a fantastic temple in itself or in any case not for what we could see (we did not pay for a visit), but it had two particularities that made it worth the visit:

  • Children of ages 3,5,7 go through some kind of ritual here, meaning that you get to see lots of gorgeously cute kids walking around in traditional Kimonos.
  • The elevated view on the street, that seems to go from this heightened position, all the way down to the sea

We walked down slowly, enjoying gardens and very beautifully designed boutique windows.

We arrived at Kamakura station, where we took a bus to Hookoku ji, or “the bamboo temple” which, along with the great Buddha, is what I really came to see. As the name implies  this temple has created a bamboo forest instead of a garden, which is probably the only garden I would prefer to a zen garden. This small temple, was definitely worth the extra bus ride, as, though small, it was by far the most peculiar and cute outdoor experience of the area.

We quickly visited Sagato-dera; the oldest temple in Kamakura, built in the year 734 and starting-point of of a Buddhist pilgrimage, the stone stairs going up are so worn-down that they look more like a mossy slope. They are blocked from usage though, more likely to avoid slipping and falling than to protect the relic that these stairs have become.

There are also three statues of Buddha, more than 1000 years old that, according to the stories, would have hid of their own initiative in order to survive the great fire of 1189. Do not bother coming to see them though, they are so far hidden from sight and light that you can barely imagine their presence.

Our time had run out but we would not want to miss out entirely on the landmark of Kamakura, The Daibutsu, or Giant Buddha.

We took a bus back to Kamakura and waited there for another bus to the Daibutsu. In the mean time we found a “Delice de France” pastry shop, were I had:

  • a delicious “Kamakura Danish” (croissant dough filled with redbean and cream)
  • as well as, believe it or not, a “Kouign Amman”; this speciality desert from the Bretagne region in France, where my parents have their summer residence, is not even available in the rest of France…but here in a small Buddhist village in Japan… it very obviously is

As we stepped off the bus next to the Daibutsu, we were told to hurry up as we only had 5 minutes left before closure. 
The sight was worth it though and impressed from the first glimpse, behind a bush, 50 meters away. It is huge, and beautifully surrounded in green nature.

This Buddha was built to compete in grandeur with Nara’s great Buddha. But, as opposed to Nara’s Buddha , which is in a temple, hidden from light, and blocked from close access, this one can practically be touched. The sense of its scale really comes out when you get up-close and personal, and see it sit there, in the peace of the untamed but altogether benevolent nature around.

On the positive side, I was the last one to leave, offering me a splendid photo of the Buddha in its glory: alone.

We then found our train back to Yurakucho, Tokyo, where we met up with J. and N. for a wine tasting evening, followed by a short visit of where they work & spend most of their days. 

Back at Shimo-Kitazawa, we found a Belgian bar where we were to meet up with Hiroki, my old friend from Lausanne, who had lived with Stefano and presented me to N. in the first place. One of J.’s friends was also there, and we enjoyed some European delicacies: fries, waffles with a good beer and whiskey. Japanese evenings end early though as all the public transportation stop at midnight; an odd thing for such a highly active country that usually flaunts extreme convenience… I guess not all cities can claim to be “the city that never sleeps”.

The next day, does not deserve a blog post, it was rainy again, and we spent all day in Shibuya, & Yurakucho, buying litres of liquor (prices, even for European liquors, were half the price of those I can get at Copenhagen airport), and other presents. We enjoyed a chiffon cake (supposedly a girl’s best friend; this delicious cake is created with little to no fat).

And bought more Match based stuff:

At night, we met up with J. & N. for dinner at Nabezo, a place in Shimo-Kitazawa that serves Sukiyaki and Shabu-Shabu; two variants of meat fondues.

On the way home though, J. took us to “Village Vanguard”; simply the craziest shop I had ever seen. It presents goods of all types, books, plastic wares, food and everything in between…

We bought:

  • Darthvader icecube silicon tray
  • An object that allows girls to make huge buns in their hairs
  • A globe that projects a picture of earth on the ceiling when it sits in water (typically in a bath)
  • amongst other things and an even greater variety of things that we decided we just did not have the room to bring back.

Tokyo, Japan, 27th October 2013

This was Sunday, and Anabel’s friend from University times, Sakae, came from Osaka to spend the day with us.
We found him in Shimo-Kitazawa and started with a walk on the north side to find a cosy place for a breakfast.
We found a cosy cafe with an outdoor table that sold two weird things: salty dishes based on American pancakes and a honey and lemon beer and I decided to have both.

The beer, it turned out, really was a beer as opposed to something sweetish that resembled it, and that was a little weird for a breakfast dish. The Avocado, egg and bacon pancake salad was decent breakfast material though.

From here we took the train out-of-town, to where Suntory had their beer brewery: the premium malts.
This episode ended up being one of the best value for money of this trip yet: the bus from the station was free and the tour was free as well as the beer tasting and we even got two Suntory beer glasses thanks to a nice lady that had downloaded a coupon for four glasses but only wanted one.

The tour itself was a little disappointing as it was all in Japanese, of course, but also the plant was entirely not operational. I am not sure if we were walking through a pretend brewery or if all were off work due to it being Sunday, but I do think such factories usually run 24/7…

I did learn though that there were 6 main steps in brewing:

  • Matling: Transforming the barley into malt (inducing germination of barley and then dry-stopping it at the right point. Remove the rootlets and voila)
  • Wort preparation: Mill the malt, add natural water, adjust temperature so the malt can be converted into sugar. Add Hops and boil to create wort
  • Fermentation: add yeast and ferment at low temperature. The sugar becomes alcohol and carbon dioxide creating “young beer” in about 7 days.
  • Maturation: In tanks at low temperature, the carbon dioxyde dissolves and solid settles in the bottom. Taste & aroma grow milder.
  • Filtration: All solids and yeast residues are removed from the mature beer.
  • Packaging: Canning & kegging

Luckily we did get a brochure that explained the gist of it and helped create some sense of expectation for the actual tasting. Suntory also explains how ambitious it is in being environmentally friendly, making it, with the help of the taste, my new favourite Japanese beer.

We also got great insight as to how rigid the Japanese actually can be. I used to complain about the Swiss having way too many rules and boringly sticking to every one of them even when it clearly made no sense to do so. I am starting to dislike that there is a certain similarity there in Denmark, but the Japanese, they really are number one in this domain.

Here is, an example chain of events:

  • We were eating the yakitori we bought in on town on the street right outside the brewery, on the street. We were suddenly ushered away by a guard who showed us a special waiting room down the street for this sort of activity (huge choice of Yakitori in Japan by the way)
  • We then sat down at the projection room, where they explained the production system, and I started drinking from my bottle to quench the thirst from  lunch. It didn’t take a minute for the tour assistant to come and notify that we were not allowed to drink. Given that this was not a commercial service and that they did not offer drinks themselves, I really failed to understand why. But “why” is a question you do not ask in Japan. Questioning is very rude and Sakae preferred to give his best guess at “a reason” to me, than ask the tour assistant.
  • We continue the tour and start walking around the exhibition when I take a chewing gum and offer one to Anabel. No more than 5 minutes later, the same “tour guard” comes out and says something to idea that “one is not allowed to chew chewing gum in this production facility”… Not that we were anywhere near actually working instruments…
  • At this point it was ridiculous already, but it got hilarious when one person walked away from the neat group of people that we were, to go see the window on the other side of the narrow corridor that we were walking in. The tour guard immediately ran to him and gently shoved him back into the flock of sheep that we had obligingly become. Never in my life, had I felt so much like I was watching humans acting as both sheep and sheep dog; and if this might not sound ridiculous in some potentially dangerous place, this happened within a corridor no wider than 3 meters. There was another group coming in the other direction, and god knows how the little lost sheep would have been confused to end up in the middle of people going in the other direction…

It was all in all a very enjoyable tour though, not the least for the free beer in the end which I discovered to be very enjoyable. The foam is thick and stable and protects otherwise really fine tasting beer, that goes down really easily.

We then moved back towards Shinjuku  for a self-made Okonomiyaki. It was probably slightly inferior, culinarely, but seeing the process in which one prepares them, always helps enjoy a meal and in this case also demystified the recipe for us.
Sakae took  a Tokyo version of the Okonomiyaki (which is a Kansai specialty, the region to the south of Tokyo). It was in fact quite different in appearance altogether and despite looking a lot less appetising, was perfectly pleasing to the palate.

We left Sakae for his plane at Ebisu and met up with N.& J. who brought us to Roppongi for a fun moment at the Zombie bar. It was Halloween and they had a special offer: zombie drinks (cocktails made to look particularly gross, but otherwise perfectly drinkable), and a make-up session while we drink.

We ended up as the best looking Zombies of Tokyo (at least the cheerful crowd at the bar seemed to believe that our European angular faces provided much better zombie material).

A professional photograph that was writing a book of portraits, wanted our photos in there, so we dutifully posed for him following his instructions as to what looks to have. Keep your eyes out for our slightly morbid faces in your local library in the future.

We moved back out towards Ebisu for dinner.  but not before stopping in a pulikula (a special Japanese version of the photo machine, where one is asked to modify the pictures at will before printing them. It was fun in itself but rendered all the more fun with the unbelieving faces of the well dressed Japanese girls who could not stop watching our rather peculiar aspect.

We survived the subway trip and all the smiles and gazes and arrived back in Ebisu to enjoy a meal at the most incredible restaurant we had yet tried in Japan: Sorano. This restaurant specialises in Tofu and prepares a 8 course meal with as many varieties of taste and textures of Tofu. One was tofu made on the spot with a charcoal barbecue, whilst another was a grilled chewy tofu on a stick and the best was kept for last as we discovered the Tofu tiramisu!

Surprisingly, that tiramisu tasted very similar to the regular tiramisu and it was one of the top five tiramisus I had ever eaten.

Yokohama, Japan, 26th October 2013

We had apparently survived the Typhoon , which ended up being nothing more than a moderate night-long rain, or to be more exact, a two day long rain.

We learned from N. in the morning that we had apparently slept through an earthquake, which had shaken Tokyo, but more gravely, shaken Fukushima, in addition to sending another Tsunami onto it. The state of the nuclear power plant is unstable enough as it is, and we woke up finding N. in a slightly unsettled state.
We sighed at the rain and decided that we could not continue hoping for it to stop before going further afield. We hoped on a train directed towards Yokohama, Japan’s second biggest town.

Our first stop was ShinYokohama, a little outside Yokohama, was the Ramen Museum. Ramen is a famous Japanese dish that consists of noodles in a broth with some kind of garnish on top. This dish originated in China, but was perfected into a unique type of noodle soup by the Japanese within a hundred years thanks to addition of their unique ingredients.
This museum claims to be the world’s first food focused entertainment park, as, more than a museum, it was really a shop, and then lots of restaurants.
It only cost 300 yen to get in though and I would say the experience was definitely worth it, as much like Odaiba’s onsen, this indoor museum recreated a 1953 Tokyo feeling with tiny boutiques, only one and half time my size, old fashioned sweet shops, and, if not entirely convincing, at least quite a different experience.

Now I love Ramen, and the prospect of being able to have all the speciality Ramen available in one place was not a depressing one. But that was without counting on the fact that it was the weekend. I had previously noted that one should avoid touristy activities in Japan on the weekend, because that is when the rest of the 140 Million Japanese come out from hiding. Well it turns out there is pretty much nothing you can do on a weekend in Japan… this is when I realise I would really have trouble living here, Japan is so perfectly nice as a tourist during the week, but if I were to live here, I would have to blend in to what the other 140 Million do at the same time they do it… and that is a daunting task.
In the case of the Ramen museum, every single of the 8 different Ramen bars in the museum had about 15-30 people waiting outside in line, and… we just left…regreting sourly (for my part) not getting my teeths into all these tasty soups.

To share the frustration, see for yourself:

We picked up quite a bit of sweets from the sweet shop on the way out though. Most peculiar was the old style sweet that consisted of water and sugar mixed into a paste. This paste was then to warmed/twisted through vigorous twirling around the sticks. When it became practically hard, we would get two waffles to stick to it. This is supposedly what kids ate in Japan some 60 years ago, I guess. Not an exquisite taste, but a fun experience.

We of course bought some takeaways:

We moved on to Yokohama central, right next to the Landmark tower;Japan’s highest.

I did not think the view could be much more impressive than that of Toyko, but I was going to be very wrong. Whilst Tokyo ‘only’ offers and impressive view of unending buildings of all sizes on all sides,  Yokohama offers:

  • a variety of artificial islands
  • Mt Fuji (were the weather nice)
  • Tokyo in the background
  • Boats navigating around the islands.

They Tokyo bay area is simply awe-inspiring and this view really felt like something to write home about. So much so, actually, that we decided to spend the hour we had left before sun-down sitting at the café, with an ice-cream-soda and writing my blog in the process. This was the most fulfilling “writing my blog” moment, regularly looking up from my keyboard unto a view that I did not get tired of seeing…

The idea was to stay enough to enjoy the view at night which is undeniably an entirely different experience. What, during the day, was a fun experience of trying to figure out the most fun details or beautiful, turned into an exercise of convincing ones mind that what it saw was in fact not a forest of shadows infested by glow-worms & fireflies. The night-view somehow really brings home how amasing humanity really is, in a way that words cannot convey.

We enjoyed the fastest elevator in Japan back down (750 meters/s), and took the train to Chinatown.

On the way, we found a Korean restaurant and hopped in for a taste of our two favourite Korean dishes:

  • Bibimpop (a sizzling hot stone bowl of rice, meet and veggies is served with an egg on the side and some the Kimchi. Put everything together, and let it all fry as you mix).
  • The kimchi pancake, Jijimi (more common in other Japanese restaurants)

On arrival, we first took a stroll in Yamashita park, a park with lots of volume and interesting sculptures, but most importantly, a consistent view of the bay and it’s impressive boats.

Yokohama was renown for having one of the largest Chinatowns in Japan, and I must admit that this one takes a little by surprise. The choice of food is suddenly de-multiplied with even more stuff to try out and an appetite that struggled to cope.

I certainly enjoyed two of the best steamed meet buns I ever ate, though seeing the technique they have in making them supposedly helps.

I also enjoyed a custard filed hedgehog bun , though eating it made me feel a little cruel (it is really cute).

And some less nice things to eat: Shark fin soup! The dish that is bringing this species to the brink of extinction.

We found a thai boutique where we found some lovely objects to buy, and then called it a day. This Chinatown is very clean, has a beautiful colour palette and very well maintained portals. All in all a great experience.

We bought our Omiyage (souvenir) for J. and N., a Korean desert made of strands of honey that are stretched 10 times in flour thus becoming hair thin (they instantaneously dissolve in water). They then pack some peanut paste within this hair thin strands of honey and freeze for a mouthful of pleasure  Seeing how delicate they are and that they should be eaten frozen, I doubt we will find these anywhere else for some time… unfortunately. Their name though, in case you are more lucky, is Otare.

Tokyo, Japan, 23 – 25th October 2013

We were driven into town this morning and dropped off at Yurakucho station. From there we walked through Ginza (the Champs Elysées of Tokyo, where they actually have what I thought were uniquely Parisian establishments such as “Printemps” shop, and an “Angelina” café). It is astounding how big brands have 6 to 12 floors buildings of shops here even though one can hardly imagine them having so many products to sell.

We slowly arrived at Hamarikyu garden, only to find out that the boat trip we should take from the other side of the garden would bring us too late for our appointment at Asakusa (it leaves every hor and takes 40 minutes). So we dropped the Garden for now and took the metro up to Meet Ayaki in Asakusa.

Ayaki is a new friend from Copenhagen, and was in Tokyo for 3 months so we thought we should meet up. Asakusa is the “oldest part” of Tokyo, it was actually mostly spared in WW2, and also has the very first Shinto shrine built in Japan (although this edition of it was of course not built so long ago. The alley leading up to it is famous for having lots of special food and weird items, but most interesting was the deep-fried Mochi (or Daifuku) filled with Matcha paste, sesame paste, or even sweet potato and pumpkin. Yummy!

The temple itself is rather large and certainly has the biggest receptacle for money that I have ever seen in a temple, as well as having a high preponderance of Manji symbols (otherwise known in the western world as the Swastika). But the most special item is a big bowl of fuming incense before the entrance. People bath themselves in the fumes, believing it to be a remedy to most illness.

We slowly moved on towards the Asahi (the beer company) building with its famous flame like sculpture on the building’s roof. From there, we took the Sumida river ferry all the way back down to Hinode pier, crossing under many a bridge and seeing many tall buildings on the way. We saw the Yomiuri Shinbun building, famous to us after having read “Tokyo Vice”, but I would otherwise say that the trip was not worth being called a tourist attraction.

From Hinode, we moved on to Shinjuku, where we enjoyed our first Starbucks Matcha Latte followed by Krispy Kreme doughnuts ( although they are American brands, I would argue that they still offer “a real taste of Japan” as they are either only findable in Japan outside of the USA (like Krispy Kreme) or have their local product, like the much beloved Starbucks Matcha latte).

We spent some good amount of time at “Tokyu Hands”, a 4 floor shop that sells just about anything really, such as an object that makes much sense but one never thought of before: learning chopsticks for kids.

We said goodbye to Ayaki as we ran to Shibuya for our meeting with Aki.
We found Aki at Hachiko, as arranged. Hachiko is a dog statue at Shibuya that is used as the standard meeting place for most of Tokyo; the story goes that this dog called Hachiko waited everyday of his life for his owner to come back from work at this very spot, and this even after the owner’s death. He lived on for many years, with people from the station feeding him and eventually died, but left a strong impression on the people who outlived him and his owner.

With Aki, we went to a place that served food specialities from a region in Kyushu, close to Fukuoka where Aki lived.
It was a small place obviously filled with locals, and that reeked of authenticity, which unfortunately in this case took the smell of smoke. Most of Japan has gone smokeless, even the streets and parks have designated smoke spots which is both funny, and maybe a little excessive, but it one cannot deny how quickly one gets used to that feeling of smokelessness.

In the restaurant, we ate something one does not find in many places: raw chicken (or half-cooked actually). Aki had asked if we minded raw meat, and we unfortunately expected the usual raw beef..
It was chewy and despite a sauce which was very good, did not leave a pleasurable sensation in my mouth. The Monk fish liver paté though was surprisingly nice, as well as the Sashimi and the rice dish speciality: a cucumber and tofu cold soup that drowns cold rice; very refreshing.

We ended the evening in a wannabe trendy café called “aux gateaux naturels”. They had many a good sounding cake, but unfortunately none of the ones I wanted were available anymore. I had preferred to leave and find another place but Aki refused, probably worried of offending the café personnel. I did read that one must be very cautious not to make someone lose face in Japan as at time it might still lead to Suicide… An irritating trait for one with a Danish culture of frankness, and most importantly for one not wanting to waste a precious meal on something I did not desire.

So I settled for delicious lemon and verbena infusion whilst Anabel ordered a cheese cake. Well, believe it or not, that cheesecake actually tasted of cheese… Not too strong a cheese thank god but enough of cheese to feel slightly inappropriate in a cake. All in all, not a place to recommend for cakes, or at least not at closing hours.
We sadly parted ways with Aki, a Japanese with kindred spirit, and came back home exhausted.

 N. was going to spend the next day with us, but unfortunately, it was yet another pre-typhoon rainy day. So we started our day by heading towards Ueno to visit the Tokyo National museum. This pretty building is situated within Ueno park, but it’s interactivity definitely lies within.

It is there that one can find all sorts of artefacts belonging to Japan’s history, such as samurai swords in their different forms, (Tachi & Katana swords with opposite bends as the first one was designed to slash down from a horse whilst the other from foot). We also discovered some of the gorgeous lacquer-work, and wood paintings (some of which I definitely could imagine myself having at home), and some work and depictions of the Ainu, the hairy Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost large island) indigenous people.

It was huge and would probably warrant a whole day of exploring, but we settled for a couple of hours and some chewy Izu flavored sweets at break (Izu is this small Japanese lemon, which is much less acid than ours and more delicious too).
We decided to move on back to Ameyoko to find a Soba restaurant called Ueno Yabusoba. It was a small but classy restaurant that served homemade Soba (Buckwheat noodles), in many forms. Anabel took the soup with tiny mushrooms in it, whilst I took the most classic version, with only wasabi and soya sauce, and N. had a kind of Japanese yam mash with hers. Hers was the best! I did accompany my simple dish with some delicious Mushroom tempuras though.

We moved on down to Odaiba, the artificial island, to find a large Onsen (Japanese public bath) which allows  Men and Women to hang out together in common areas, and separate only when comes the time to get naked and into 40 degrees water.

The common areas were arranged as an artificial village in the mountain. These typical old-fashioned Japanese Onsen villages, where people would walk around from one onsen to another in their yukatas and hang out in the village playing dart games or eating between baths.

 The illusion was not perfect, but it was definitely good enough to give a taste of the experience, and a sense of being totally out of Tokyo for 2 hours. We enjoyed

  • walking in outdoor foot baths, paths with massage stones on them (or torture stones depending on how used you are to this sort of treatment)
  • relaxing in the tatami room with free tea, some food at different food parlours
  • and finally the bath itself, where we parted ways. I would have enjoyed some company, but I have to say that the experience was otherwise extremely relaxing! And the English, always fun:

We left for dinner at a Sushi place N. knew on the way back. She recommended the chirashi there (A selection of fish cuts placed on a bowl of rice), which we all enjoyed after the famine inducing hot baths.

N. and I even tried our luck with a Fugu sushi. Fugu is a renown gourmet fish, in Japan. After tasting it though, I suspected that the thrill of it should come not so much from the taste or texture, but rather from the thrill of knowing that one is eating a highly poisonous fish. These fish are considered the second most poisonous vertebrates in the world. They contain a toxin 1,200 more deadly than cyanide. It’s in their skin, their ovaries, their gonads, and their liver. One fish can kill thirty people. We took last pictures, for prosperity:

Luckily, the matter of Fugu preparation, much like everything else in Japan, is taken seriously, and chefs that prepare it need to be state certified, and train for 2 years while eating a whole lot of their own preparation. Both N. and I, in any case, lived to tell the story, and the story goes…”not worth it, neither in taste or texture”.

In any case, we drowned it down with a surprisingly delicious discovery from last year: Sparkling sake (as well as some of the matcha stuff we were starting to collect):

Having made a full plan for next week when the weather should theoretically be great, and knowing that we had just entered our two typhoon days, we decided not to go trekking in the mud the next day, but rather take care of the necessities, i.e. shopping. We had indeed come to Japan with near-empty suitcases, filled with old clothes that I would throw away after using knowing all too well that I would buy my year’s dose of clothes at Uniqlo. 

Unsatisfied with the idea of spending a full day shopping though, we started the day with Hamarikyu gardens, that we had missed the previous day.

Despite rain throughout, and cloudy skies, this garden struck us with its beauty and serenity. In the middle of Tokyo’s urban jungle lay this haven of peace, with its powerful lake as the centre piece, softened by small bridges cutting it up into smaller, bite size pieces. On one side of the lake, lay a tea-house, where we enjoyed some amazingly lifelike cakes and the real Matcha tea that comes with it, in a relaxing (save for the uncomfortable seating) way to enjoy the view as Daimyos, Shoguns, Emperors and their dignitaries would have done in their time. Of course they would have done a proper ceremony of it and ours was a bit touristy (read: a little rushed), but still, sitting in a beautiful tatami-covered wooden building looking out onto the rain softly brushing the landscape, was not all that bad.

I had noted , last year when I came, that I had two new favorite trees, and here they were again, centrepiece of this park. The Japanese black pine tree, decorating landscapes with their lonely thick branches sprouting out like Bonzais in a living room, whilst the Japanese maple trees would provide the reassuring cover of their broad foliage, softening the light that goes through them with their tiny , yet refined leaves.

We left the park resourced and ready for the 6 hours of shopping that followed;most of it at Uniqlo, but also Mujiroshi, and Tokyu hands, were I got some advance on my Christmas shopping.

On the way though, we stopped again at Tsukiji (the fish market) to re-experience the best Sushis in the world. The restaurant we had tried though was no longer opened, so we tried the only one that was still opened and did not have a queue.

The funny thing about Japan is that, despite having ungodly work hours, they have nothing against queuing for more hours whenever they want to do something. We have seen 1-2h queues outside a popcorn shop, and the queues at this sushi place was only in one restaurant whilst other two were free of them. One might think that the queue is a tribute to the quality of the establishment, but, as that is exactly how Japanese people think, some boutiques pay people to stand in queue thus attracting more people, etcetera… and the horrible thing about their attitude is that Japanese people never question why or what they are queuing for, if there is a queue, there must be a good reason…

The restaurant we ended going in served a good sushi, but unfortunately, not the unique experience we had last time. I wouldn’t say “the queue should have warned us” though, as we had done exactly the same thing last time, skipped the queue and went for a “trip advisor recommended” restaurant. So the tip here is, don’t try your chance, but go for something a foreign written guide will recommend.

We got home just as the typhoon was kicking in, to a perfect home delivery meal that N. &J. had ordered. For the first time, I experienced home-delivered Unagi (Cooked eel covered in special sauce on a bowl of rice).
A perfect way to end the day.