Ijas Mall and DMM Kariyushi Aquarium in Tomigusuku Okinawa!

COVID-19 restriction are lifting and Okinawa is starting to get back to normal a bit, although of course there are almost no tourists! As of today, June 27th 2020, there has not been a positive case in Okinawa since April 30th, almost two full months! Congrats to us on mask use, social distancing, and staying home, now we can reap the rewards!

The Aeon Ijas mall was scheduled to open in time for Golden week, but the opening was postponed due to the Coronavirus shutdowns, but it’s open now! This is probably the third largest mall in Okinawa after the San-A Parco Mall and the Aeon Rycom Mall. It’s geared towards tourists with lots of Okinawa merch shops and the kinds of things that foreign and domestic tourists like. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun for locals! The mall has been quite crowded the last few weekends. It has a lot of fresh fish places to eat in the food court, and a similar assortment of shops to the Aeon Rycom mall. Something it has that no other mall has is a full aquarium!

DMM Kariyushi Aquarium

We left the mall and headed across the corridor to the aquarium. We pre-purchased our tickets on their web site (DMM Kariyushi website) and so could skip the short wait at the ticket counter (The line was about 10 people long and looked to be moving fast). We were reminded that masks were required at all times inside and given a squirt of disinfectant on our hands. We went into a waiting queue that was mostly empty, scanned our QR codes and lined up in a hall waiting for some magical black doors to open.

After about two minutes the doors opened and we entered into a theater room with standing bench seats, we sat down excited for what was to come! A movie with no words started with jelly fish and led us thru an adventure under water and into the air of Okinawa! It nicely set the tone for what was to come, and of course help regulate the crowds entering the aquarium proper. It has a little surprise too!

Due to the ongoing Corona virus issues, some things weren’t going, they had a touching experience area where you could touch turtles, owls, and other wildlife, but it was closed off, in addition the tanks with starfish and the like that you would normally be able to touch, you could only look. I would have liked to pet an owl, but I’m happy to miss it to have the island stay safe! No idea when these things might open up. There was a small cafe going that had soft serve ice cream, beer, soft drinks and small snacks that you could eat while enjoying looking at the largest tank. We didn’t try any as we were headed to Arashi’s to try their new vegetarian ramen! (It was better than expected and delicious!)

The Aquarium is a little expensive at ¥2,400 for an adult, ¥1,500 for children under 12 and ¥2,000 for teens. It’s not as big as the main Okinawa Aquarium, but it’s close to Naha and requires a lot less driving for most. They had a nice intro movie and then into the exhibits. They have an app for guidance and it’s nearly a must, as none of the tanks have labels! The app will provide you info in all the major languages and it quite well done. If you have checked it out, please leave us a comment! We (and other readers) love to hear your thoughts!

Info Block:

Name: DMM Kariyushi Aquarium and Aeon Ijas Mall

Google Maps link: https://goo.gl/maps/pwPFdkLWDNfoh8cc8

Cost: ¥2,400 adults, discounts for kids and teens

Website (English) : DMM Kariyushi Aquarium

Nearby to the Ashibana Outlets and lots of other shopping.

Finding Totoro in Sayama Hills, Saitama Prefecture

狭山丘陵 Sayama Hills

トトロの森 Totoro Woods

埼玉県 Saitama Prefecture


The Friday afternoon of the last weekend in October, I took a quick flight up to Tokyo… where I then took a train from the airport to Ikebukuro Station 池袋駅, and then to Tokorozawa station 所沢駅. The train ride from Ikebukuro to Tokorozawa was 20 minutes by rapid, or about 40 minutes by semi-express.

Once we made it to Tokorozawa, we rented a car from nearby to the station (the car rental place was even open 24 hours). While we had intended to stay at a hotel by the station and only rent a car the next day, most of the hotels had been full so we ended up booking at a hotel a bit further out that wasn’t easily accessible by the train line. By the time we had everything settled, it was already dinner time.

I was able to convince my husband into going to Komeda Coffee コメダ珈琲, a popular cafe/coffee chain, since it was on the way to the hotel. We entered the brightly lit cafe decorated sort of like a log cabin. My husband ordered the gratin and I ordered the “salad” plate and a mini shiro-noir.

The shiro-noir シロノワール is the dessert this coffee chain is known for: a warm, crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside danish topped with a cold soft-serve ice cream and syrup. It was soooooooo good. Yum. I know… it is just a chain coffee resto and not like a real hidden gem or anything, but it is so worth a try if you are near one. My husband rolled his eyes a bit at my “I am having dessert for dinner,” but I have been wanting to try it for awhile now.

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After dinner, we arrived at the hotel, which was actually a “love hotel,” but it was cheap, (mostly) clean, and spacious.

The next day, we headed out early to Sayama Hills area… for the Totoro woods! As a Ghibli-lover, this has been on my list of places to visit for awhile. There are several sections of totoro woods… so you need to plan your route depending on what you wish to see. I will give a guidance for my basic route here, but it was disturbed by some rain on my trip, so my original course plan changed a bit.

To start our Japanese “forest-bathing” 森林浴 adventure, we parked at the paid parking lot near to the Kurosuke house クロスケ家. From here, we followed the Japanese map printed off from the Totoro fund website and headed on the path towards the Totoro Woods #1 & #3 (*note: you can also donate some hundred yen and pick up color printed maps at the Kurosuke house if they are open).

I will post an album of pictures and a Google Map route soon. It was a nice short hike there and back to the house. We started early(ish), about 8am or so. We took several stops including a conbini for breakfast and coffee, so it actually took us 2 hours round trip. We were in no rush, after all, and the whole point of the journey was to be inspired by the Ghibli-like nature and scenery surrounding us. We passed tea fields, acorn trails, chestnut trees, quaint houses, idyllic woods, shrines, and small farms.

We arrived back at the Kurosuke house now that it was open. Of course, we took several photos and bought some souvenirs. It was a very cute place to visit.

At this point there was some light on and off rain, so we decided to forgo the original plan of walking from the Kurosuke house to the Saitama Midori-no-mori museum and park. Instead we drove over the museum and parked the rental car (free). We walked the path according to the printed out maps, towards Kinsenji (temple) and Waseda University (Tokorozawa Campus), and then looped back. Overall, we were able to see and enjoy nearly everything I had hoped for despite the light rain interfering with plans a bit. There are so many sections of woods and countryside to choose from, it would be impossible to visit it all in one trip.

After we finished our “walk,” we were hungry for lunch and stopped at a soba restaurant, Waka Juuwari Soba 和花十割そば. I had the dattan soba ダッタン蕎麦, which is made from Tartary buckwheat; it is a little more “bitter” than typical buckwheat soba, but I found it delicious. My husband got hot curry soba. My husband and I also split a vegetable tempura plate– heaven. To be honest, Okinawa simply does not have tempura like the mainland (Okinawa tempura is good… but it is not the same as the mainland somehow).

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In the afternoon, we went to Tove Jansson Akebono Children’s Forest Park (Moomin Valley Park). Part 2 coming soon.

imgur album for Totoro woods and Kurosuke House:
https://imgur.com/a/uAHkN

Kusatsu onsen: Food

While on a trip to Kusatsu onsen, I encountered quite a few tasty foods, so here is a look below at a few of the things I ate, in no particular order.

ぬれおかき nureokaki: The best way to describe this is a grilled rice cracker skewer, with some seasonings/toppings. My husband got the spicy one and I got one with black pepper and mayo. They were really good, but the spicy one was way too spicy. My husband likes spicy food but even he said the spice was too overpowering.

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饅頭 manjuu: like any good onsen town, there is a ton of manjuu around. I enjoyed the karintou manjuu (crunchy manjuu) the best, but there are a few types to try out here. The outside of the manjuu is a little crispy and the inside is smooth bean paste.

揚げまんじゅう age-manjuu: so this is manjuu… deep-fried. Oh my. The taste was good, but definitely felt a bit unhealthy! I would limit how many of these you eat, but definitely try at least one.

温泉卵 onsen tamago: eggs soft-boiled in onsen water. When you crack it open into a bowl, the are soft and creamy, cooked to perfection. Usually they have a little shoyu or sauce to add to it, and you just eat it with a spoon. My husband is addicted to these.

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温泉卵ソフト onsen egg soft-serve ice cream: okay, so this sounds kinda gross… egg flavored ice cream? But it really means like a creamy egg-y custard-pudding flavor, not boiled eggs flavor. It was really tasty, and I was really surprised at how good it was. I was initially a little apprehensive of the flavor name.

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蕎麦 soba: When in mainland Japan, I pretty much always eat soba. Especially whenever I am in mountainous or onsen areas. Soba here was pretty good, so I was not disappointed. We specifically ate at Mikuni-ya 三國家, which had a long line, but it was worth it. So if you want to eat here during the busy season, be sure to arrive early! They had a special plate of soba for 2-3 servings, then you can order your dipping soup and tempura separately. This is probably good for families or very hungry couples, but we each ended up ordering our own individual servings since we knew we would not be able to finish that much food. Plus for 2 people it is probably a bit cheaper to just order individually anyway.

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舞茸天ぷら maitake tenpura: maitake is a type of mushroom, the name actual means “dancing mushroom” and is supposed to be pretty healthy for you. Made into tempura it is delicious (but probably not as healthy). I ate it with my soba.

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せんべい senbei: some fancy rice crackers were sold; this one was shoyu-negi flavor (soy sauce and green onion). It was a large cracker with a rather sweet chewy outside.

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甘納豆 Amanatto: a kind of sweetened beans, which does not bear fruit below 700 meters above sea level. First the beans are dried, then put into water and finally they are cooked in sugar.


Let’s not forget the beer and drinks.

Cider, two types: 湯けむりサイダー Yu-kemuri (not pictured) and 大滝乃湯サイダー Otaki-no-yu (pictured): Awful. Also remember cider in Japan refers to soda pop, not apples or alcohol. I do not recommend unless you really like sweet sugary drinks. It is made with natural water form the onsen area or something.

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軽井沢ビール Karuizawa beer: Turns out this area is close to Kusatsu, so many of the beers were available. I have seen 1 or 2 of these in Okinawa, but here I saw so many different types.

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草津温泉物語 Kusatsu onsen monogatari beer: We saw 3 different types with this label. We tried them all and enjoyed each one. The price for them was also not too unreasonable, ~500yen.


Special mention: While in Ueno, I could not resist getting a donut from Shiretoko donuts. It is a “wasshoi” festival panda. “Wasshoi” ワッショイ is chant used in Japanese festivals.

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Kusatsu Onsen 草津温泉

Kusatsu onsen 草津温泉 in Gunma prefecture 群馬県 is one of the three famous ancient hot springs in Japan (called 三名泉 “sanmeisen,” in addition to Arima Onsen in Hyogo and Gero onsen in Gifu). These hot springs are renown for healing properties, supposedly to cure a wide array of ailments.

Because I am an onsen junkie, I decided to head to Kusatsu onsen for the long weekend (Mountain Day public holiday, 山の日). In retrospect, this was not the most brilliant idea as: a) Japanese schools are on summer vacation, b) Japanese holiday weekend, and c) Obon in parts of the mainland began the same weekend. So… travel was busy. Very, very busy. I don’t really recommend traveling in Japan during this time if you can avoid it.

Anyway I did make it to my destination with almost no issues, and ended up having a fantastic time even though it was a little crowded everywhere.

We flew from Okinawa into Haneda airport on Friday afternoon; we stayed the night in Hamamatsu-cho 浜松町 with plans to leave for Kusatsu early the next morning. In Hamamatsu-cho, we returned to the restaurant we discovered last time, DevilCraft (this time with reservations!) and enjoyed Chicago-style pizza with craft brews.

There are a few ways to make your way to Kusatsu onsen; we chose to take the limited express from Ueno Station to Naganohara- kusatsuguchi station (~2.5 hours) followed by the JR bus to Kusatsu onsen (~20 minutes). Since we also got a reserved seat on the green car (it has more room), the total travel cost was about 6500yen one-way, from Hamamatsu-cho all the way to Kusatsu onsen. If you are willing to forgo the green car, your costs will probably be about 4500yen one-way.

On Saturday morning we hustled from the hotel to the train station for the 9am train. We arrived early enough to get tickets and breakfast, as well as some snacks and drinks for the train. The train ride itself was rather uneventful, and passed peacefully enough. Arriving at Naganohara-kusatsuguchi station, though, was a bit crazy. Luckily JR had prepared extra buses for the crowd this weekend. The bus went direct to Kusatsu onsen bus terminal so overall the trip out there was very easy.

It was only noon, so though it was too early for check-in, the hotel held our luggage for us so we could go explore the area. Our hotel for Saturday night was right outside the famous Yubatake 湯畑 (steamy hot water fields, provides the main source of hot spring water for the town), called Yubatake Souan 湯畑草菴. We wandered the touristy streets and shops, while enjoying the foot baths and the scenery. Not only this, but the weather was quite pleasant and not too hot or muggy since it is located in the mountains. Some people may complain about the smell of these hot spring towns, but personally I don’t mind it.

As it neared dinner time, we went to the hotel and soaked in the hotel onsen for a bit before changing into yukata for a night-time stroll around the town. The hotel provided basic bathing yukata but I had decided to bring my own (cuter) yukata for strolling. As a note, if you do not own a yukata, you can either use the hotel bathing yukata for walking around or you can even rent a cute yukata at one of the shops in town. One of the reasons I chose this onsen was because it was listed as one of the top onsen towns to walk around in while wearing yukata. I have been to many onsen towns before, and sometimes you may see people strolling wearing yukata in the town, but it is not always very common. Kusatsu is a well-known for being a beautiful location (especially at night) to relax and enjoy wearing yukata.

Anyway, so as we strolled around at night, the Yubatake was lit up and the steaming field created quite a nice atmosphere. We walked around in our yukata, ate some snacks and drank some local beers (Karuizawa 軽井沢 is nearby, as well as some other beer branded for Kusatsu onsen). There was some sort of candle light up near the Kosenji (temple) 光泉寺 and a live music show. Overall, the evenings in Kusatsu were pretty magical!

The next morning, we woke up fairly early, this time changing into our bathing yukata provided by the hotel to walk around the town in. Surprisingly, many people were up and about, even though it was about 6am or so. My husband and I went to the 7-11 to get iced cafe lattes to enjoy while using the foot bath. Since the hotel breakfast was not until 8am (so late!), we decided to wander around for a bit. **As a side note: surprisingly, the Souan hotel provided yukata that was actually big enough for my husband (194cm)!

First, I tried out the Shirahata onsen 白旗の湯, which is one of the FREE public onsen that the town keeps up. Warning: it is hot! But I was able to tolerate it for a short time anyway, so I think it is very much worth a visit. Also I should note, at many of the free bath houses in town, you do not use soap to rinse off because the water is so acidic! Simply undress, splash some water on you using the bucket or ladle and rinse all over your body, then enter the bath. Just look around you when you enter– if there is no shower station, then don’t worry about soap just rinse with the onsen water, but if there are shower stations with soap then be sure to clean your body well before entering the bath.

Next we wandered down to Jizo-no-yu onsen 地蔵の湯, another free public onsen, though it was not open for the day yet; but there is a foot bath there that is always open. What was interesting was that we heard them performing the traditional singing and paddling to cool the water inside! So while we did not get to watch, we got to hear it.

Finally, it was time for the yumomi show 湯もみ at Netsu-no-yu 熱乃湯, one of the things Kusatsu is famous for. Yumomi is the traditional way of cooling down water with large wooden paddles; the town character, named Yumomi-chan, is bathhouse lady dressed in yukata with one of the large wooden paddles. The water needs to be cooled down since it comes out between 50-70 degrees Celsius, much too hot to bathe in.

I got in line to get tickets for the earliest show; it is 600 yen, but discounted to 550yen if you just show the coupon on your phone or print it out from the webpage. We sat in the front row on the side. There is a second level which may have some better photo-ops, it depends on what you prefer. It started with some dance, then the emcee and ladies with paddles came out to perform. Partway through you can try experience for yourself; it is surprisingly difficult to maneuver those paddles. Then they finish the show with a final dance and lots of impressive splashes. It was quite fun.

From here, I made my way to Sainokawara onsen 西の河原 in the park. Again, I received discount ticket, this time from the lady in the visitors center, so stop by there first! This onsen is a large outdoor bath. It was very relaxing… bathing in nature is the best.

While I was finishing my bath at the park, my husband got in line at a popular soba restaurant, Mikuni-ya 三國家. It opens at 10:30 for lunch. Luckily, we were seated around 11:15. I ordered the Maitake (mushroom) tenpura soba 舞茸天蕎麦 and my husband ordered the regular tenpura soba 天ぷら蕎麦. It was indeed very delicious and worth the wait.

After lunch we got on a bus for Mt Shirane 白根山 (active volcano) and Yugama lake 湯釜. We took the bus straight to the trail area and visitor center; to see the beautiful emerald lake in the crater you will need to walk up a rather steep path of about 800m. Also, it is chilly up here, so you may want a long-sleeve even in summer. To return to Kusatsu, we decided to walk down to the top of the ropeway, ride the gondola down to the bottom station, and catch the bus. This was not a fantastic idea. Why? Well, first the pathway down to the ropeway is not really great for walking, though it is only 800m. Not only this, the buses do not frequent the ropeway station… we ended up missing the bus by 2 minutes and then waiting an hour for the next one. Which might not have been too bad, but there is really NOTHING at the ropeway station. It looked like the restaurant may be open for ski season but not during summer, so we couldn’t sit and enjoy a coffee or anything. We spent a rather boring hour waiting around for the bus to arrive. By the time we reached town again, we decided to head to the hotel, relax, and change.

Due to not booking early enough for the crazy holiday weekend, we ended up staying at a different hotel on Sunday night. Futabaya was not quite as nice or close as Souan, but it was a fine room and we did not really have any complaints.

After changing into my own yukata, it was time to hit the town again for some evening strolling. First we tried Jizo-no-yu onsen (where we heard the paddling and singing in the morning) as it was free… it was truly scalding hot! Be careful. I did not last long. Next we went to Goza-no-yu onsen 御座之湯, which had an entry fee. It was a much more reasonable temperature, so I took my time and enjoyed it.

Finally refreshed, we walked around town, just taking in the atmosphere. Again, we had beer and snacks until we decided to crash for the evening. Kusatsu really is a romantic and relaxing place.

On the last day, we checked out and stored all of our luggage in a locker at the bus station (500yen), then walked through the zoo, which had a baby capybara (it was so adorable) and then tried out the Otaki-no-yu 大滝乃湯, famous for its increasingly hot bathing. Otaki-no-yu has a fee, which I found a little steep (900yen) but since it is quite well-known I wanted to try. Now, if I was smarter, I would have purchased the discount pass for 1600yen that included all 3 of the famous onsen (Sainokawara, Goza-no-yu, and Otaki-noyu) instead of paying the individual fees (600yen/600yen/900yen, though with other discount tickets you can get 50 or 100yen off). I guess I didn’t know if I was going to go to all 3, so I didn’t want to buy the ticket in case it went to waste, especially since there were quite a few free ones maintained by the community. My husband only went to 2 of the 3, so he wouldn’t have saved any money. So my advice… plan wisely!

Otaki-no-yu was very nice: there were some indoor baths, a waterfall bath, an outside bath, and then on course, the 4-tiers (5-tiers on the men’s side) of increasing temperature baths called 合わせ湯. Challenge time! I started at the bottom, a mild 41 degrees C; the lady came in to measure and record temps on the white board while I was there. Next I moved up a tier to 42.5 degrees C; again, not too bad. Tier 3 was 45 degrees C… this was hot. I cold tolerate it, but it was very, very hot. I started to dread what the 4th tier, 47 degrees C, would be like. I watched as 2 or 3 other ladies tried the water and immediately jumped out. I carefully tested the water with my hand, then foot. Holy s***. Well, time to buck up. So I reluctantly lowered all the way in… only to jump right back out. I think I lasted about 2 seconds. Out of everyone, I only saw one lady who seemed to be capable of challenging this 4th tier bath. So I guess I did pretty well. After my challenging bath, I drank a cold coffee milk from a glass bottle, and it felt so refreshing.

Finally it was time to purchase omiyage before heading to the bus station. The bus to the train station left at 12pm, and the train back to Tokyo was scheduled for 1pm, with our return flight to Okinawa scheduled at 5:20pm. Just as a word of warning: both the bus station in Kusatsu and the train station in Naganohara-kusatsuguchi had almost nothing for snacks and bento… I definitely recommend getting something at one of the shops in town or even just from 7-11 before walking up the hill to the station to catch the bus! If you don’t happen to stock up before leaving town, there is a snack/drink trolley on the train, though. After all, I think it is almost impossible to go on a long train ride without snacks, bento, or even a beer.

Overall, Kusatsu onsen is a great destination to hit up while in Japan, with good food, beer, hot spring baths, culture, and atmosphere. Pictures coming soon!


I will make a separate post specific to the food of Kusatsu onsen next!

Asakusa, Senso-ji and Kappabashi Kitchen Street

A continuation of our Kanazawa trip.

After our short Kanazawa trip, we took the train from Kanazawa to Tokyo. We only had 1 night, so we couldn’t do a whole lot, but we were able to enjoy a few things in the Tokyo Station area and surroundings. I guess since I have been to Tokyo a lot, I usually change up what I see and do each time to keep it interesting. This is just one small example of Tokyo.

We arrived at Tokyo Station after the 2.5 hour train ride from Kanazawa. From there we transferred lines for only 1 stop to Shin Nihonbashi; our hotel, Tokyu Stays, was a short walk from there. The hotel was actually very spacious for Tokyo! It also had a lot of nice amenities (there was even a washing machine in the room for those of you on long trips), so I would highly recommend this hotel for all these reasons. The only down side to this hotel is the breakfast buffet was not very good, though it was cheap (500yen)– I would not get it again, and just head towards the station for a decent and cheap breakfast.

We were finally about to get out and explore by 5pm, but since the tourist sites were mostly closing, we had to settle mostly for walking around. We walked outside the Imperial Palace area (in the Kokyo gaien 皇居外苑), by the large number of pine trees until we were hungry for dinner.

At this point, we decided a cheap “western-style” dinner would be best since I am pretty sure my MIL was getting a little tired of Japanese foods. We took her to a typical family restaurant, Saizeriya, which we don’t have in Okinawa (it was also my husband’s first time at this restaurant chain). It is sort of a cheap Italian-y diner food, so nothing gourmet or exciting, but a nice place to sit and get some decent food, somewhat similar to Gusto and Joyfull restaurants. The biggest bonus is the price– we left there for less than 2000yen for 3 people. And most important, everyone was satisfied.

On the way back to the hotel we passed through Tokyo Station’s Character street~~ kawaii everywhere. This is definitely a good place for finding some of your favorite character goods. I, of course, went to the Moomin and Aggressive Ritsuko shops.


The next morning, we ate our disappointing hotel breakfast and went to Asakusa 浅草 to Senso-ji (shrine) 浅草寺. I have been here a few times, and morning is by far the best. None of the hawkers are open and only a few tourists visit this time of day, so it is quiet and peaceful. My husband showed MIL how to draw fortunes the traditional way.

I enjoyed the ukiyo-e 浮世絵 painted shutters (“picture scrolls”) on the small retail shops outside the shrine area in the Nakamise shopping district. These can only be enjoyed while the shops are closed– so after 8pm and before about 10 am. Honestly, I could have spent a lot more time here just looking at all of these! But we were headed nearby towards Kappabashi dougugai かっぱ橋道具街, a.k.a. “Kitchen Town,” in Taito.

As we walked, Tokyo Sky Tree was easily visible in the distance. My husband and MIL enjoyed all the various kitchen wares, knives, ceramics, and such, while I mostly looked for all the kappa. I have to say, this area had everything and anything kitchen/restaurant related, even the fake food (食品サンプル shokuhin sanpuru). It was pretty fun, and some stuff was reasonably priced so if you are interested in these things it is definitely worth the trip.

At this point, it was time to shuttle off to the airport, going our separate ways. I made sure to purchase some limited edition Tokyo Banana (Banana Shake Flavor) omiyage for my coworkers.


Images:

https://imgur.com/a/Irgyv

Kanazawa & Hyakumangoku Festival

金沢 Kanazawa is located in Ishikawa prefecture 石川県.

百万石祭 Hyakumangoku Matsuri: The Hyakumangoku Festival is held in commemoration of Lord Maeda Toshiie’s entry into Kanazawa castle on 14th June, 1583 (Tensho 11) which laid the foundations of the present day Kanazawa.


Summer is approaching, and we decided to take a trip up to Kanazawa for the matsuri since my mother-in-law came to Okinawa to visit us.

We flew into Komatsu Airport on Friday and from there took the bus (~45 min) to Kanazawa Station. Since there were 3 of us, we booked an AirBnb near the castle park.

Once we were settled in, we decided to check out the town. We walked towards the castle area and Kenrokuen 兼六園 (one of Japan’s top 3 beautiful gardens) where there were many museums. We looked through some ceramics shops and also ended up at the 21st Century Modern Art museum. It was fairly interesting, though no pictures inside except in the “pool” area. Overall, it was quite a nice area. Kanazawa has many beautiful traditional Japanese crafts, such as ceramics, lacquerware, cloths, as well as items adorned in gold leaf. We enjoyed seeing all of these in shops and museums.

Since the festival was starting up, there were food stalls everywhere, all with mostly typical matsuri food (yakisoba, grilled squid, takoyaki, bananas on sticks, yakitori, etc).

On Friday evening, there was the Kaga Yuzen Toro-Nagashi 加賀友禅燈ろう流し (Lantern floating ceremony). It was definitely packed with people, and I am not sure we were in the best spot by the Ashinogawa bridge, but we still got to see plenty. Since it was dark at this point it was actually very chilly considering it was the first week in June, and I did not pack appropriately. I don’t know if this was unseasonably chilly, but I would recommend pants/long sleeves/jacket/light sweater type of clothes if you go. While the lanterns were floating down the river, children’s parades were going on throughout the town. It was quite cute with them dressed up, carrying lanterns, and playing drums.


The next morning (Saturday), we wandered about the old samurai districts and went through the Nomura Family Samurai House. I stopped at every opportunity I could to look at and taste Japanese sweets (unfortunately husband and MIL are a lot less interested in these as I am).

We wound our way down to Kenrokuen (garden) which was free that day. We spent some time enjoying the beautiful grounds and buildings within the park itself. Next, we went to a tea ceremony held inside the park. I was a bit expensive (1500yen), but interesting (and delicious) for me (again, less so for husband and MIL). So perhaps I would not recommend it unless you are interested in these things.

After the park, we went over to the castle and walked all the way through. Various performances were being held in the open field for the matsuri… some traditional, some less so. There was traditional shishimai 獅子舞 (lion dance), which was different than Okinawan-style– it was so interesting! The castle was nice, though maybe not as nice as some of the other castles in Japan.

Higashi chaya-gai ひがし茶屋街, the old entertainment (geisha) district,  was my next stop. I stopped at several traditional Japanese confectionaries (wagashi-ya 和菓子屋), for samples and shopping. They were are marvelous and varied. Many sweets included gold-leaf topping which Kanazawa is known for– over 98% of Japan’s gold leaf is produced here. I saw many people consuming gold leaf ice cream. Some shop keepers may speak English, but it is much easier to communicate in Japanese. There was a shop with local nihonshu 日本酒 where you could order a glass (average price 500yen) and drink; this place was filled more with young’uns who were mostly interested in getting a little tipsy, and there was not a lot of room (some people even just ordered regular beer). I simply ordered the recommended-of-the-day 本日のおすすめ, which ended up to be so-so. Next time I might skip this place unless it was less crowded. I could have stayed in this area for hours admiring all the sweet goodies, but my fellow travelers were not as enthusiastic about this. While this place was a bit touristy in some regards, it was interesting and fun for wagashi-lover like myself. During certain times of year, I hear it is possible to go to geisha shows/dinner.

In the afternoon was the main parade. We were recommended to watch closer to the park grounds than the main station where it started. It seemed to work out nicely. The first part of the parade was mostly just some local groups, but towards the middle and end was the traditional dancing, costumes, music, princesses, etc. So next time I would probably skip the first hour and just watch the last half to be honest!

We had reservations for dinner to Kotobukiya for shojin ryori 精進料理 (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) at a ryotei 料亭 (a type of traditional Japanese restaurant). It was really quite nice, though also quite expensive. Course after course came in, and my husband and I drank nihonshu 日本酒 with it. Afterwards we were quite exhausted and all went back to the Airbnb to crash. I would have liked to go watch some of the Noh theater, but it was chilly and everyone, including myself, was tired from a long day. Maybe next time.


Sunday morning, we walked through Nishi chaya-gai にし茶屋街 old entertainment district, looping through the Temple district. The Nishi chaya-gai was much smaller than its counterpart, yet still very beautiful. Since we went early in the morning, nothing was open yet, though the children’s matsuri was getting ready for their activities in the Temple district (where we actually headed next). There are so many old temples clustered together, including the “ninja temple” (which I did not get reservations for). It makes for an interesting walk. The ninja temple requires reservations, and the tour is in Japanese. However, you can walk about the outside part, even if you cannot go in and see all the ninja traps.

Finally, after omiyage and eki-bento shopping at Kanazawa Station, we boarded the train to Tokyo for a 2.5 hour journey. Of course, I purchased some local Kanazawa beers for the train ride…

Overall, we had a wonderful and interesting time in Kanazawa known as “little Kyoto”!


Images: https://imgur.com/a/mYY0t

 

Ghibli Museum & Kichijoji

三鷹の森ジブリ美術館: “Mitaka no mori Jiburi Bijustsukan” is the name of the Ghibli museum, located in Inokashira Park 井の頭公園 in Kichijoji 吉祥寺. We took an overnight trip to Tokyo, staying by Kichijoji station in order to visit the Ghibli museum (and to eat some totoro themed cream puffs!).

On the day they released tickets (10 am on the 10th of the month before you want to visit), despite the webpage crashing due to high traffic I was (barely) able to secure tickets online using the Lawson’s ticket site. Tickets are only 1000yen per person, and I was not about to try to go through some 3rd party “tour” that included a high transportation fee. Of course, the weekend tickets all sold-out in seconds, so by the time my browser got through, I was at least able to secure last entry (4pm) Friday tickets.

In May, it was the last opportunity to try out the adult-sized cat-bus, so of course I had to fulfill my life dream. This past Friday, I finally got to go to the Ghibli museum and sit in the cat-bus. And the everything about the experience was amazing!

We flew into Haneda airport in Tokyo on Friday early afternoon, arriving about 1pm. From there we jumped onto the trains towards Kichijoji station (2 transfers). The train system in Tokyo can look overwhelming, but with GoogleMaps, it has gotten so easy to navigate. We were at Kichijoji station by about 2pm; since we skipped lunch, we got a snack at the station before heading to the hotel a mere few meters away. We dropped off the suitcase in the room, and headed out to Inokashira park.

At the park entrance, we decided on some crepes from a mama-san crepe stand (husband got savory while I got a sweet blueberry cream cheese), as well as some coffee from the Honolulu Coffee Company (just like home!). We sat by the lake eating and watched the swan boats go by on the pond. After we finished, we strolled through the park, taking the long way to the museum since at this point we had over an hour to kill. The park was really nice, with lots of little surprises everywhere. At about 3:20 we arrived at the museum and there were already a few people milling near the entrance. My husband went up to the ticket taker, and he told us to be lined up at 3:30. Then he laughed when he saw my husband’s uchinaaguchi shirt from Okinawa, apparently he is a fan of Okinawa. So for a few minutes I took some pictures outside the museum, and some people started lining up. At 3:30, they started checking tickets; we received a receipt for 3:40 entrance. So, just as a tip, show up half an hour early to your ticket time and line up! I did not realize this, so I was glad we were so lucky to get in a little earlier than expected, giving us some extra time in the museum.

We entered, received our film ticket and guidance map. There are no pictures inside, only outside. I actually like this policy, otherwise it would be nuts with people taking selfies and insane numbers of photos. I won’t spoil the surprises, but all the exhibits are pretty magical, from the architecture of the house to all the small details, the drawings and sketches, the film pieces, and of course, the life-size cat-bus. It was quite beautiful, and sort of dream-like.

Originally I was unhappy with the 4-6pm entry ticket– I was hoping for an earlier entry. BUT as it turns out, I think it was actually one of the best times to enter! Why? Well, it actually started to be less busy at this time… most people with earlier entrances were finished already and were either waiting for food in the cafe or went home, so when we walked around the museum, it did not feel all that crowded. Plus, the weather was nice, so mid-way through our wanderings we ended up drinking a Ghibli exclusive beer on the patio under the trees (though be warned it is not cheap at 650yen).

Most (English-speaking) people in the online reviews said to skip the short movie showing in the Saturn Theater of the museum… I am glad we did not listen to this, because the movie showing on our trip was “Mei and the Kitten-bus” (めいとこねこバス Mei to koneko-basu). It was so cute! I feel like even with limited Japanese skills, the words were not difficult at all, and the story was easy to follow. 100% recommend. I kind of wish I bought the book in the gift shop, actually– Totoro is one of my favorites.

The last thing we did, was of course, visit the gift shop. By this point, the line was a bit long since the museum was closing at 6pm, though they had several cashiers working to make it go smoothly. We each got a museum folder, I also got a fluffy museum tenugui (Japanese towel) and a mini plushie cat-bus.

We finally had to say goodbye to the museum, leaving at about 5:50. We went through everything the museum had to offer, and obviously could have used a little more time but it ended up to be a fabulous time.

After the wandering back through the park towards the station, we looked through some of the little shops. We stopped at an Okinawan restaurant that had a lot of craft beers on tap (we did not order food there…). Afterwards I took my husband to a rather popular chain ramen joint called Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto 蒙古タンメン中本 since he had been putting up with my Ghibli and crepes. It was your typical set up, narrow restaurant with only counter seats, with a ticket machine at the entrance and a line of locals waiting to catch a seat. The menu was only in Japanese, but it is not difficult, just look for the amount of spicy you want. We were the only foreigners in there that evening (though it looked like at least one other tourist, the rest were mostly office workers). Luckily they slung ramen pretty fast, and the wait was not all that long. While we waited, we noticed people SWEATING, some even crying a little, and one poor girl had an enormous pile of tissues in front of her! This shop is known for spicy ramen. My husband got the #8 spicy ramen (the levels go to 11), and he said that was plenty spicy for him. We noticed several people bought the side of mapo tofu and added it into the ramen! I hadn’t realized this was the popular item (topping??) or I would have told my husband to buy it for himself. They had bibs for protecting your clothes, and since they were many office workers still in suits most people used one.

After finishing ramen, it was time to head back to the hotel and relax. The next morning we walked around Kichijoji and did some shopping. I also ended up trying 2 different taiyaki in the morning. Amane Taiyaki 天音たい焼き was amazing! I usually feel that most taiyaki sellers are the same, but this one was a step above probably any other I have ever had! We also ended up getting a coconut milk boba tea at the Moomin stand. Too cute!

And for one of the highlights of our trip: Totoro cream puff! On the way to Haneda airport, we stopped at Setagaya-Daita station and walked a very short distance to Shirohige Choux Cream Factory 白髭のシュークリーム工房 (the Tolo-pan Coffee and Bakery cafe is on the 2nd floor). They have some seasonal flavors, as well as custard and chocolate year-round. You can get these adorable cream puffs to go, or eat at the cafe upstairs. Since we were tight on time, we ended up getting them to go so we could eat them in the airport lounge. We chose matcha cream, chocolate cream, and custard! Not only were they super cute but also delicious.

imgur album:

https://imgur.com/a/bcpBJ


Ghibli Museum 三鷹の森ジブリ美術館: https://goo.gl/maps/5uFqZP8DSfx

Craft Beer & Okinawan food CRAFT BEER Market クラフトビアマーケット:  https://goo.gl/maps/kaXMfEmY9792

Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto 蒙古タンメン中本 (Ramen): https://goo.gl/maps/fLe2S2HNTA42

Amane Taiyaki 天音たい焼き: https://goo.gl/maps/xnXz46UhQf52

Shirohige Choux Cream Factory 白髭のシュークリーム工房: https://goo.gl/maps/knfCCXi6QMP2

An Okinawa “Bucket list”

**I am working on updating this “Bucket List” to include more must-see sites/events, as well as making links for everything! For now, this is the short version… have patience while I continue to update it with more info.


Many people post “bucket lists” for living in Okinawa. But I find that many of them are not unique to living in Okinawa at all (or even unique to living in Japan for that matter). So I will break some of the must-do/see down. Some are unique to Okinawa, while some are more inclusive of Japan in general.

First, there are some of the obvious tourist attractions/activities that pretty much everybody knows about:

  • Churaumi Aquarium in Motobu
  • Shuri-jo
  • Dive or snorkel in the Keramas
  • Naha Great Tug-of-War
  • Itoman Peace Park and Memorial
  • UNESCO Castle Ruin Sites (Nakagusuku-jo, Zakimi-jo, Nakijin-jo, Katsuren-jo, etc.)
  • Seifu Utaki (UNESCO site)
  • Sakura-viewing (Hanami)
  • Watch eisa (Okinawa bon dance)
  • watch to haarii boat races
  • Eat Okinawa soba, goya champuru, umibudou, and other local dishes
  • Eat Japanese-style dishes (sushi, tempura, okonomiyaki, etc)
  • Hike some of the various waterfalls
  • travel to outer islands (Ishigaki, Miyako, Taketomi, Ie, etc)
  • glass-blowing experience
  • visit various Battle of Okinawa sites (such as the Tomori Stone Shisa)
  • visit the Orion Beer factory
  • Eat at Blue Seal Ice Cream and A&W “American”-style restaurants
  • visit American Village
  • go to Okinawa World or Ryukyu-mura (very touristy Ryukyu village recreations)

Besides these, there are many other things to see and do! Some of these are often overlooked:

Most people seem to neglect the truly local festivals and events, and stick to the bigger ones advertised only in English. But there are so many more experiences to be had on Okinawa, and this is only the beginning of a list. Plus, there is so much more that I do not even know about!

 

 

Hamamatsu-cho Station, near Haneda

I recently had to return home to Hawai’i for a very short few days, but on the way I had to pass through Haneda Airport with an 8 hour layover. So rather than stay in the airport for that long, we opted to take the monorail to the very last stop (maybe about 20 minutes if you take the express), Hamamatsucho-eki 浜松町駅. I did not find many ideas online of what to do with all this time (most people seem content to just stay in the airport, shopping or eating), but I was determined to make the best use of these few hours and decided on Hamamatsucho as my destination (most of the other stops did not sound like there was much around).

When we first got off at the station, we headed to the Japanese garden park that was adjacent; Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden 旧芝離宮恩賜庭園 is formerly an Imperial garden. It is small but pretty, and admission was only 150yen. We were too early for sakura, though there were a few buds here and there. We were also at the very end of ume (plum blossoms) so not much to see there either, however, there were some other nice seasonal plants. It was refreshing, though a bit on the cold side.

After this we walked down the street and visited the Kumano jinja 熊野神社 (shrine) and Zōjō-ji (temple) 増上寺, located just in front of Tokyo Tower and next to Shiba Park. We were hungry, so we did not have a chance to wander through Shiba Park or Tokyo Tower (I have been there before anyway), just this small area around the temple and shrine, as well as the Unborn Children Garden. These are not uncommon to see at many temples in Japan, with rows of stone statues which represent unborn children (such as miscarried, aborted, or stillborn). Parents choose a statue, decorating it with clothing and toys. Often you will see a small gift for Jizo 地蔵 (guardian of unborn children). If you see stones are piled up near the statue this is meant to make journey into the afterlife easier.

To finish up, we headed to a place located just behind the station called Devil Craft Brewery… craft beer and Chicago-style pizza! Yes, I know… most people go to Japan and are not looking for this type of thing, but we live here and these types of places are few and far between. So how can we turn this down?

Apparently there are 2 other locations in Tokyo as well. They have some craft brews of their own, and some others from around Japan. Many foreigners will also be happy to know there is an English menu for both food and drinks. We did not make reservations, but since we got there at opening time (5pm) we got a table– keep this in mind if you decide to visit, get reservations! This place is super popular.

We each ended up to try 2 beers (pints) each, splitting an appetizer and a pizza. To be honest, it was my first time to have Chicago-style pizza! My husband loves it and it is his favorite type; since we have never seen another place serving Chicago pizza in Japan we knew we had to come here and try it. And it was so good!

Overall, it was pretty awesome, though a little costly. But when you consider that the craft beer scene in Japan is still a little new, I think their prices were fair to be honest. I would highly recommend trying this place out if you find yourself in the area.

Once we finished eating, it was time to get back on the monorail to the airport for our late night flight.


Addresses:

Hamamatsucho-eki: https://goo.gl/maps/ryqETJVBZ922

Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden: https://goo.gl/maps/LaKjv9U49nC2

Kumano Shrine: https://goo.gl/maps/Ar5YmhSQ5kQ2

Devil Craft Brewery: https://goo.gl/maps/CJ6aLTiXS5G2

Yufuin: 湯布院, 由布院

continued from Part 1.

湯布院  or 由布院 Yufuin has 2 versions of its name, one is for the district and one for the town, but I have the impression that no one differentiates between the two anymore.

On the third day of our trip, we rented a car. First thing in the morning after breakfast, we went to see plum blossoms (ume 梅) at Minami tateishi park 南立石公園. It was a gorgeous day, and they were flowering quite nicely.

Next, we drove to Yufuin. Warning: Yufuin is NOT as rural or quiet as you may be led to believe! We were a bit surprised how busy it was (not in the least bit rural like many people claimed), but rather a bit touristy… but again, it was still fun, and it was nice to see it so lively. We walked around for a bit and then went to Cafe Duo, where your coffee drinks come with latte art– so cute! I got a Hello Kitty, my husband a bear. They even give you the design tool so you can add your own bit at the end.

We continued walking the tourist streets and around to the lake, Kinrin 金鱗湖. Along the street I got some sort of crunchy manjuu, which was wonderfully tasty. For lunch we decided to try the soba restaurant by the lake, where we split a soba, tsukemono (Japanese pickles) assortment plate and some yuzu inari. Very good, indeed. While Yufuin town was nice albeit not what I was expecting, I did not want to deal with an overly crowded onsen, so we decided to head out of town a bit and see what we could find. After all, we are in a famous onsen area, I want to try something a bit more local.

We came to Tsukahara onsen 塚原温泉, a highly acidic (pH 1.4!) onsen in the mountains, supposed to be good for skin disease. The onsen itself is called kako-no-izumi. Now this was a quiet and secluded place, for local-type tourists. My husband was asked by a gentleman who happened to speak English in the bath how we came to find the place, as it is well-known to Japanese, but not necessarily most foreigners. Honestly, we just noticed it on GoogleMaps as we were leaving Yufuin and as I remembered hearing the name before (probably in the Japanese magazine about Oita), we decided to give it a go.

You could choose the inside or outside bath; the fee 600yen for the outside (you could get a combo ticket for both). No soaping/etc allowed here, just rinse and get in. This is because of the high acidity. Again, the changing area was small and had a few baskets to hold your clothes and personal effects. The view surrounding the bath was amazing, and more of what I expected to see.

Tsukahara onsen was discovered by Minamoto no Tametomo in the Heian period while he was hunting deer. They steam eggs here as well, so definitely try them. You can also visit crater for an additional 200 yen.

After feeling refreshed, we visited the last 2 hells in Beppu. Since we already had paid for our pass, it was quick to go through.

It was time to return the rental car, which was luckily right next to our hotel as well. From here it was dinner time so we checked out an izakaya down the street from the station. This one had a nomihoudai 飲み放題 (all you can drink) plan for a reasonable price. The food was actually really good, much better than the night before, so we left very happy.

Sadly, on the 4th day, it was time to return to Fukuoka and catch our flight back home. We bought some omiyage お土産 at the Beppu train station before the 2-hour ride. Back at Hakata station, we had some time for shopping and a lunch at an Italian restaurant on the 9th floor called Esse Due, which turned out to be very good. Overall, we have had some really good food in Fukuoka (and Kyushu for that matter)!

imgur:

https://imgur.com/a/RIojo

Beppu: 別府

Another trip to Kyushu! This time we headed to Beppu 別府 in Oita prefecture 大分県, famous for its onsen. Again, Fukuoka is the biggest airport (also with direct flights from Okinawa) so once again we touched down in Fukuoka, with a 15 minute train ride to Hakata Station. From Hakata station the train goes direct to Beppu, taking about 2 hours.

Before boarding the train to Beppu, we decided to pick up an ekiben 駅弁 (eki bento 駅弁当), a train station packed lunch (駅 eki means train, 弁当 is bento), and some beers for the 2 hour ride. I noticed a place called Evah Dining selling macrobiotic vegan bento, and they all looked really good. It was hard to choose but in the end I went with the one labeled “ladies bento.” After all, I am a lady. My husband picked up some sort of pork katsu bento, but in the end was jealous of mine because it was so tasty.

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We arrived at Beppu station in the early evening and checked in to the hotel just 1 block away, the Beppu Daiichi hotel (it was very cheap, included breakfast, but no onsen on site). After we dropped our luggage in the room we headed out to the Takegawara onsen 竹瓦温泉.

The outside has a traditional facade.  Inside is typical of a small local onsen, so you didn’t get the impression it was just for tourists, but visited by the local population. The entrance fee was very cheap (since there are no amenities). Bring your own soap/etc and towels! You can also purchase a souvenirs towel there (which we eneded up doing even though I brought my own). They also had the sand baths for an extra fee, but we decided not to go for it.

Once we paid, we went to our separate baths. In the ladies, there are no lockers, just baskets, and the area is very small. I undressed and grabbed my soap and towel, heading down the stairs. I admit I was a bit surprised to not see the usual (more modern) shower stations… there was simply the bath itself, a cold tap, some wash buckets and a stool. So this means you go old school: to rinse yourself off before entering the bath, take one basin, fill with some cold tap water, take it over to the small area, fill another basin with warm onsen water, mix them together (outside the bath). Clean yourself using this water and your soap. Once you are clean and rinsed, time to soak. Despite the simplicity, this was a really nice place for an authentic onsen bathhouse experience, plus it was a very cheap entrance fee (200yen I think).

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After a nice soak, we walked about the area and through the shopping arcade, though it seemed most things closed pretty early. We saw the Yayoi tengu やよい天狗, I bought a retro-design towel at one of the souvenir shops and then headed back to the hotel.

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The second day, we toured the Beppu hells (jigoku 地獄) in Kannawa. Touristy but fun, there were lots of interesting sites to see. The combo ticket for the 7 main hells was 2000yen per person, and there were a few smaller ones with separate fees, if you so choose. We only did one of the smaller ones since otherwise the fees add up very quickly. Most of the hells have foot baths and snacks for purchase, so plenty of opportunity to take a break and relax. There is also a stamp rally!

Full Stamp Rally Sheet!

After touring the 5 main hells in Kannawa 鉄輪 (we went to the other 2 on our combo ticket the next day since you needed a car to reach them), we headed to Myoban 明礬. This was quite a walk, ALL up hill…. but the bus was inconvenient and we were feeling genki 元気. Of course, one of the number one stops… Okamotoya 岡本屋 for jigoku mushi purin 地獄蒸しプリン– pudding/flan steamed by onsen! It was so delicious, we ended up getting a second later. My husband also got toriten とり天 (chicken tempura, famous in Oita) and onsen tamago 温泉卵 (egg boiled by onsen steam). After this we headed to the hut bathes, where we rented (literally) a family onsen bath in an outdoor hut for an hour; it was awesome! Since it was a private family bath, my husband and I bathed  together. A rather interesting area, with good food and views and a unique chance to experience a hut bath.

On way back towards Beppu, we also stopped at Hyotan onsen ひょうたん温泉. This onsen was busy and much more touristy. So the good news is, yes, foreigner friendly, but… crowded, so I don’t particularly recommend it as a must-see. The baths were okay, overall, and there were minimum amenities, but again, bring your own towel. There was a mixed “sand bath” area (which also came with yukata rental), but probably was not worth the extra 300yen on top of the 700yen entrance fee. In my opinion the price was a bit high for what it was; I have been to a lot more remarkable onsen for less. That being said, in the common area they did have a steam-cooking area (for eggs and such), a small food stand, as well as an area to sit and have you throat steamed. It was an interesting experience.

Back at Beppu station, I hadn’t had enough onsen purin, so I tried a purin dorayaki– basically 2 pancakes with a frozen purin in the middle. It was pretty good.

Dinner time was a so-so izakaya, Watamin, not too far from the station. The food was okay but the beer prices were a bit steep, so we ended early and had some more beer from the Family Mart in the hotel room.

Part 2 continued in the next post.

imgur link:

Huis Ten Bosch: ハウステンボス

Post-Christmas, pre-New year was a quick trip to Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch theme park town outside of Fukuoka (somewhat close to Sasebo). Kitschy? Yes. Bizarre? Yes. Fun? Yes. Cheap? … no.

On Boxing day, we flew from Okinawa to Fukuoka, one of my favorite cities. Being pre-New year and arriving into Hakata station (luckily only 15 minutes from the Fukuoka airport), crowds were a bit crazy to be honest. There were no available coin lockers to found, so we ended up hauling our small suitcases with us to grab some lunch before getting on the train to Huis Ten Bosch. Luckily, for our first stop we already knew where we were headed, straight to the Hakata Bus Terminal building, 9th floor… okonomiyaki! It was just noon on a Monday before New Years, but we were lucky and the wait was not too much when we arrived; Fukiya restaurant’s okonomiyaki is extremely popular with locals, businessmen, and even Japanese tourists. We went to the server, ordered and waited for a table to become available. Once the table was available, a few minutes later our okonomiyaki arrived and we chowed down. As before on our last trip to Fukuoka, this place was awesome and cheap.

After lunch, we purchased our tickets and got aboard the ~2 hour train to Huis Ten Bosch. We reserved the green car tickets (assigned seats! lots of leg room!). Overall the train ride was fairly uneventful, and no snack or drink cart, so it was a good thing we brought our own tea and beers for the ride.

Finally, we arrive at Huis Ten Bosch… it was raining a bit, so not perfect, but honestly stepping out of the train station took my breath away a bit. Before me was a rather European feel (we could see the Hotel Okura across the bridge where we would be staying), and it was a little amazing. Cheesy, I know, but it really was quite pretty even in the rain! So we hustled across the bridge to get out of the rain and checked into the hotel. We settled in, refreshed ourselves, checked out the hotel. Inside our hotel we had an onsen, a FamilyMart, a bakery, restaurants, and of course a souvenir stand.

We bought the 1.5 day pass to the park from the hotel lobby (includes after 3pm admission the first day + 1 full day the second) and headed just a few meters to the entrance of the park; at this point it was about 5pm. It was still raining a bit, which put a damper on things, but we trooped onwards. The illuminations were just starting up, so we got some warm coffee beverages and wandered past windmills, flowers, lights, etc. The sit-down, eat-in restaurants in the park are a bit spendy we learned, and while being decent were a bit overpriced; luckily the next day we stuck to smaller snacks/light meals and were much happier. We ended up eating a small dinner at one of the restaurants which was okay, but definitely tourist prices. We went up the tower and continued to looked around at the light-ups to get a feel of the park as it was raining, but after a bit the rain got to be too much and we headed back. It was very beautiful though, and I quite enjoyed the atmosphere despite the rain. Once we got back to the hotel, I changed into onsen jinbei clothes and went straight to the onsen baths! The chilly rain had gotten to me, and I need to warm up.

The onsen itself was not terribly remarkable, but it was clean and warm. There was a sauna, an indoor bath and an outdoor bath. The outdoor bath was only somewhat protected from the rain, and yes, I went into it anyway, but it was sort of romantic with rain drops and hot onsen water. But the feeling passed after a few moments of being pelted with cold rain and so I headed back to the indoor bath.

The next day, my husband must have been very comfortable because he slept in past sunrise (this never happens!). A quick morning soak in the onsen, then our choice of the “western” breakfast buffet or the Japanese morning set meal. We ended up at the western buffet, since after all, this is a Dutch themed park! While it is called “western,” it is in reality a mix of some western foods and Japanese foods– not to worry, still miso soup, rice, fish, natto, and other Japanese favorites were offered. We ended up choosing this buffet both mornings even though we discussed trying the other (much smaller) restaurant in the hotel for breakfast. Normally we might just choose FamilyMart for breakfast, but the hotel came with breakfast both mornings, and Japanese (actually most Asian) hotel breakfasts are typically very good, unlike their American counterparts. Anyway, this breakfast was in fact quite good, with a beautiful view of what turned out to be private residences designed to mimic a (wealthy) European housing neighborhood.

It was not raining for our main day in the park– yay! We went to the park and boarded the boat which would take us down the canal to a point further into the park. The park is divided into various zones, with different themes and such. Anyway, to keep it short, we enjoyed almost all of it, especially the “palace” which was a museum and gardens; the current displays were Da Vinci and also orchids. The best part was it came with a multiple entry, so we could come back at night to watch the music and light show (which by the way was very much a highlight). There were various “attractions” (museums, shows, activities) that were included in the park pass, though some things like foods and bicycle rentals, that were extra money.

As for the strange parts of the park: the “Horror” zone… yes… zombies, haunted houses… it was very creepy, and they had multiple haunted house attractions (one even required a couple, either male-female or both female, but not male-male… umm). We skipped most of these since there were lines, and to be honest… I am too much of a scaredy-cat for some of those. There were even haunted bathrooms. I went inside the womens, mostly out of curiosity, but it was really creepy and dark. I didn’t stay long. At night-time there was a projection mapping/lights and music show here, which to say the least was odd… entertaining but confusing (at least as a foreigner).

During the day, we ate our way around the park; since it was just after Christmas there was a “Christmas Market” tent with spiced wine and foods, as well as some heaters to keep you warm. We shared a raclette (cheese) meal and some wine here, and my husband enjoyed some grilled sausages on a stick. There were various food vendors and restaurants scattered throughout the park.

Overall a fun day, meandering and pretending we had visited a more European-style place. We took a break between our day-time park walking and night-time illuminations back at the hotel (after all it was only a few meters away from the park), so we could be fully charged for the illuminations. At night, the park is truly spectacular; lights everywhere. We wandered through all the various night-time shows they offered before collapsing back at the hotel.

The next morning, we ate in the hotel restaurant and enjoyed one last onsen bath before getting on the train back to Fukuoka and the airplane ride home to Okinawa. Overall, a successful trip, if not a bit odd at times.. probably not a typical stop for the average foreign tourist, but if you have been living abroad in Asia for awhile, I think it is a welcome reprieve to enjoy some actually almost European/Westernized atmosphere. The winter illuminations were gorgeous, the park town interesting, and some pretty good food.

Huis Ten Bosch, Kyushu

Jozankei & Date: 定山渓&伊達

The last full day in Hokkaido, we decided (a little impulsively) to go ahead and drive down towards Lake Toyo and Date areas. We did not have much of a plan, other than to make some stops along the way and enjoy the fall colors.

We started the morning with an early stroll round town, just admiring the atmosphere in general before heading to the hotel breakfast. After breakfast we soaked in the hotel onsen before we jumped into the car and started on our way.

Our first stop was Hoheikyo Dam. Good thing we did this early, just as it opened (9am)… it was a Sunday. When we arrived there was enough parking, but as we left… there was a long line of cars waiting to park! This dam is on Jozankei Lake (funny, Jozankei dam is on another lake…). Anyway, we parked and started towards the dam. There are 2 options: a rather quick but crowded round trip bus ticket, or a 40 minute walk up a slight slope. We had a busy day ahead of us so we chose the bus. There were 4 buses continually making round trips, so there was not really a wait. At the dam/lake you can walk around and enjoy the leaves and the fresh air. Many people come to take photography, picnic, etc. It was really nice! But.. somewhat of a crowd! One thing I will mention: if you do not rent a car to drive to this dam, you can take a city bus– BUT it will have to wait in the SAME traffic as those waiting (to get in) to park at the dam parking lot… so you do not save any time!! Although the crowds are probably only during the Autumn season (so weekends in October)… probably other times of the year (or weekdays) are much quieter.

After the dam, we got back into the car and continued our road trip. Along the road we stopped at many local produce stands and a pasture with ice cream (yes, I ate MORE ice cream!) and cheese. There was also a road side michi-no-eki 道の駅 (service station), which was in Kimobetsu 喜茂別. Road side stations are popular stops in Hokkaido and each is supposed to be known for a certain food. I noticed a line for something called age-imo 揚げいも, which means fried potato. My husband was reluctant to stand in line but I insisted I would and he could use the restroom and get drinks; the line though long was quick, less than 10 minutes. Not sure what to order I just chose the number one regular age-imo  and hand-cut chips. They had some other stuff, but everyone was getting age-imo. Oishii~~ ! My husband was surprised to find me food in hand already, so I added some (free) sauces to my giant stick of 3 age-imo balls (it looked like an oversized dango!) and sat outside on the bench to devour. The age-imo is a cooked (reasonable sized) potato covered in batter (sort of like a corn-dog) and fried. It sounds weird, but it was really good, especially with the garlic sauce. The hand-cut chips were also crispy and hot. I highly recommend making a stop here if you are anywhere near the area!

Anyway, we continued our trip down the road, making many small stops along the way. We reached our “destination” of Date and stopped at the park next to the Bocca restaurant. While somehow associated with Bikkuri Donki, do not be fooled… this place makes its own fresh mozzarella and puddings. For lunch, my husband and I split caprese salad, margerita pizza, and potato-cheese soup. It was all very good. We also got pumpkin-caramel puddings to go… amazing.

At this point it was time to start heading back to Jozankei, and make any stops we missed along the way; one of these was the mushroom kingdom store. There were so many types of mushrooms and mushroom products. Plus you could get miso-mushroom soup (loaded with many types of mushrooms) for only 100yen.

As we headed back, traffic up to the Hoheikyo dam was really backed up. So, why not stop and relax in the Hoheikyo onsen? We were (barely) able to get parked, since this was a popular idea.

The building is a little run-down, and it was very crowded with people taking a rest from the stopped traffic. The facilities were similarly pretty “tired” looking, and the amenities scarce; I have been in rustic onsen that you could claim are traditional or retro, which makes them charming, but I don’t feel it applies to this onsen… “tired” is the best description. The changing room was elbow to elbow, make sure to have enough 100yen coins for shoe lockers, etc. Entering the bathing area was similarly crowded, and there was a bit of a wait for people to rinse off to get into the bath, as there were only about a dozen wash stations. After a good soap, rinse, etc., it was onsen time. There were 2 onsen; one inside and one outside. Almost no one was inside, everyone was outside. And, really it makes sense. The air was comfortable, the water warm, the scenery quite beautiful. Despite its tired and somewhat drab building, it was fairly refreshing. The outside onsen was a decent size, so it was not too crowded, plenty of space for everyone. While I would not necessarily recommend this onsen to everyone, it was not too bad… just be prepared for crowded weekends during autumn foliage season. Otherwise the place is probably pretty quiet during the off season.

After a good soak, I changed back into my clothes and drank a beer while hanging out with my husband for a bit, hoping for the traffic to die down a bit. There was an Indian restaurant in the onsen, but opted out of it after eating all day, plus there was a long wait to get in. When we left, it was still fairly bumper to bumper with people returning home after a long day of leaf-viewing, but we managed to make it back to the hotel. *Special note: this onsen allowed tattoo. It also allowed drinking beer while in the outdoor bath, but the older Japanese ladies gave stinkeye to the younger (and mostly foreign) ladies doing this. On the men’s side my husband said many of the ojiisan had a beer.

Back at the hotel, we took a night walk to enjoy the illuminated pathway by the river and the bridges, before going back to the room and relaxing with some beers. The next morning was an early day to head back to the airport. Since we were returning the rental car to the airport, the drive was quite lovely and we ended up taking the “back roads” and stopping at a waterfall area, perfect to see some ore autumn leaves!

The Sapporo airport was much larger than we anticipated; there is HelloKitty area, Doraemon area, Royce Chocolate factory, a spa, a cinema… we did not have much time unfortunately, but I was able to make some omiyage purchases and grab some goodies for the plane ride home!

Full album on imgur:

Hokkaido 北海度

Previous days here and here.

 

Jozankei: 定山渓 (part II)

Continued from Sapporo (part I).

After spending the morning in Sapporo, we loaded into the rental car and started our route towards Jozankei onsen town for some leaf-peeping.

On our way out of the city, we stopped in some orchard areas, tasted some fruits, and purchased some snacks for the road. We also stopped at a winery, which had wines and hard cider (real hard cider, not just soda!).

After trying some wine, we stopped at a soup curry restaurant for lunch… yum! This place was nice, you had several choices to customize your order. Right after lunch my husband wanted to stop at a conbini; next door was an ice cream shop and many people were indulging despite the chilliness in the air… so of course even though I am stuffed, I have to try some! I ordered camembert cheese flavor, it was really good!

The next stop was at Jozankei Dam to check out some autumn leaves (kouyou 紅葉). It was gorgeous. There are 2 locations,  one at the dam itself where there is a museum, and one on the lake overlooking the dam.

Afterwards we headed to the hotel, checked in, grabbed a town map and set off to explore Jozankei. There are many kappa statues hidden all over. The town itself if rather small and not so many shops or restaurants, but it was nice. There are a few footbaths and even a hand bath. The river had a nice walking path, which is illuminated at night. The leaves were pretty but dusk settled in quickly being up north. After strolling around the whole town, we felt a bit tired so we grabbed some beers and snacks as we headed back to the room. Back at the hotel I changed into yukata and relaxed in the onsen baths.

Kappa 河童 are a type of yokai 妖怪 demon that inhabit rivers and lakes in Japanese folklore, supposedly luring people in, sometimes paying harmless pranks to drowning. Supposedly cucumbers are the favorite meal (ever heard of kappa-maki, a type of roll sushi?). Jozankei has many statues of kappa scattered all over.

continued in Part III: Jozankei & Date.

There are too many wonderful pictures from the trip, so here are the highlights. For more, go to the imgur album here.

 

Sapporo: 札幌 (part I)

We took a 3-day trip to Hokkaido, stopping over in Sapporo overnight, then continuing on to Jozankei Onsen. It was October, so the weather was crisp, and the leaves were turning!

We arrived Friday night in Sapporo; our bags came quickly and we jumped onto the JR train from the airport to the city. IC cards are accepted here, so I used my PASMO without worrying about separate train tickets. The ride was not so short, maybe about 45 minutes.

We made it to our cheap hotel just south of Susukino area, checked in, and got ready to see the nightlife. We decided to walk from our hotel up towards Sapporo station area, even though it was a bit chilly. Most of the tourist sites were closed at this time, but we could at least enjoy the views. We walked by Odori park, Sapporo TV tower, Sapporo clock tower, the Sapporo Beer Hall… and stopped for some famous Sapporo miso ramen topped with corn and butter for dinner! We passed by the touristy “Ramen Alley,” but continued on to a smaller place out of the way, which happened to be quite popular with the local crowd.

The next morning, we got up early and ate hotel breakfast which came with the room; this is very popular in Japan unlike the US, so consider trying the hotel breakfasts.. it is nothing like the stale pastry and cereal that make up the typical “continental breakfast” at many budget US hotels. Afterwards, we walked to the Nijo seafood market and back to Odori park for some day time photos. The leaves in Sapporo were only just starting to turn, but it was lovely anyway.

At this time, we needed to check out and pick up the rental car… time to drive to Jozankei!

Our time in the city of Sapporo was wayyy too short! We have already decided we need to go back another weekend. Maybe when the weather warms up…

continued in Part II, Jozankei Onsen.

For more trip photos, go to the imgur album here.

 

Okinawa Omiyage: お土産

Omiyage お土産 are souvenirs. I posted about omiyage in general, but what should you bring back from Okinawa or send to friends back home? These are some of the things I have sent to friends or taken with me to give to the host when we stay at an AirBnB. Here are a few of the top omiyage that are distinctly Okinawan… (don’t get me wrong, the weird KitKat flavors are interesting, but not really unique to Okinawa).

Food:

chinsukou ちんすこう: small cookies/biscuits, made mostly of lard, flour, and sugar. Not recommended for vegetarians or Muslims, since it is usually pork lard. You can find various flavors such as brown sugar, salt, milk, sweet potato, and even sakuna.

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Okinawa brown sugar 黒糖 (pronounced kokutou): cubes/chunks of brown sugar are sold in bags (and sometimes as candies). Also many other omiyage items will be flavored with Okinawa brown sugar.

shikuwasa (fruit, juice, etc) シークワーサー or シークヮーサー: small limey citrus fruit. You can buy the juice concentrate, or snacks/candies made using the flavor.

beniimo tarts 紅いもタルト: these are super popular omiyage. It is a small tart with the Okinawan purple sweet potato flavor. They are very pretty. They even make some for dogs now!

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Okinawa soba 沖縄そば: packages of Okinawa soba.

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awamori 泡盛: the local liquor. You can buy small or regular size bottles.

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spam スパム: while not especially Okinawa exclusive, it is extremely popular here in Okinawa, and not many people on the mainland of Japan eat this. There are many types (similar to Hawaii, really), and some may be exclusive to Okinawa.

Non-food omiyage:

Shisa シーサー: these come in pairs, and are replicated like the larger ones you see all over Okinawa on buildings, houses, etc. These range in very cheap, to very expensive. You can buy them about anywhere, but for nicer ones check out the pottery districts in Tsuboya or Nanjo.

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bingata 紅型: beautiful Ryukyuan technique for dying fabric. You can buy all sorts of items made from this fabric: coin pouches, purses, scarves, shirts, kimono, hair-ties, or even framed pieces of the fabric.

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Ryukyu lacquerware: Ryukyu lacquerware has a unique style compared to other Asian countries.

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ujizome うーじ染め: a technique for weaving and dyeing fabric using sugarcane leaves (uji うーじ in Okinawa language, 染め zome is dying). Items are a beautiful green color.

umeshi うめーし: Okinawan chopsticks (hashi 箸). They may look plain at first, but have an interesting history.

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Matsuyama 松山, part 3: Festival 祭 & final day

Continuation from part 1 and part 2 of Matsuyama trip.

At the end of the first day, we were lucky enough that there was a Lantern and danjiri (shrine/temple cart) festival scheduled during our visit, held in the park at the foot of the castle. So of course, we go to check out these interesting mainland matsuri called 大神輿総練 Oomikoshisouneri!

灯りの祭典(ランタン祭り): Lantern festival 

だんじり danjiri: a cart made to represent a temple or shrine, it has 
wheels, but can also be lifted up on the shoulders.

神輿 mikoshi: palanquin carried on the shoulders used by shrines and 
temples during festivals.

I have way too many photos to post, but it was certainly a lively and exciting matsuri. First we ate some matsuri food and drank some beer, then watched the taiko performances.

They lit the lanterns (by hand, all candles!) that adorned the danjiri. Next they started with the all-female mikoshi, parading through the crowds. Then the enormous mikoshi/danjiri rolled out with enthusiatic men on each corner whistling, waving towels, and shouting, while several men were carrying the cart and occasionally lifting it high into the air. Once they had their turn, the smaller danjiri got to go all at once– the field was filled with carts jostling about, drumming, chanting, whistling…! It was a site to see, a great way to end the evening.

To view all of the images, here is an album: https://imgur.com/a/03dUy 

During our final full day in Matsuyama, it rained quite a bit, so there were less pictures. We still had a fairly eventful day, though.

First we explored a historic tea garden and a folkcrafts/textiles museum, both which happened to be open fairly early.

We then went to the day onsen near the hotel 伊予の湯治場 喜助の湯 (“Kisuke”), while not historical, pretty nice with lots of different types of baths. You had to purchase amenities separately which could add up if you do not bring your own.

Afterwards we headed towards the castle gardens, despite the rain. We paid the admission fee to look around the gardens, as well as the tea set. The garden does not always do tea ceremony, so we were fortunate that it was being held this time of year. We were brought out usuzumi youkan 羊羹 to eat and frothy, bright green matcha to drink.

Even though we indulged in a tea set, I was not finished yet… we ended up also walking downtown where I sought out various treats famous to this area, including ichiroku (1-6) tart and shoyu dango. Ichiroku tart is a lovely yuzu citrus castella wrapped around smooth bean paste; you can also buy chesunut and matcha flavors. I also bought Madonna dango (also Botchan themed), which has a really western dango taste: strawberry, vanilla, and cafe ole! It is really good, and I think it must be popular with women.

A gelato shop called SunnyMade also caught our eye, and well, yes… ! Of course we decided to split the “10 small scoops of your choice plate!” We were given a check sheet and decided which of the 18 available flavors to try (the 10 we chose were kabocha/pumpkin, iyokan marmalade, kinako/roasted soy bean, passionfruit, blueberry, strawberry, matcha, salt milk, pear, and another local citrus flavor). There was even a free toppings bar. It was delicious and I would recommend trying it, especially the local flavors!

We shopped for awhile under the covered arcade until dinner time. For dinner, we happened to find this “German” restaurant… well, it was German themed but not really so German at all. It was called Munchen ミュンヘン. We noticed a large number of people getting carry-out right away and wondered what it might be… turns out it was karaage, and this place is super popular spot to get karaage. We ordered some (Japanese) beer in king size mugs, karaage, German sausage plate, and fried gobou (burdock root). It was all actually really good, and not pricey at all. Overall my husband was very happy. Afterwards we crashed at the hotel with a few more beers from the conbini and watched the local news.

 

Matsuyama 松山, part 2: Castle 成

Continuing from where I left off about Matsuyama, part 1

After Dogo onsen area, we set out for lunch and walked a bit aimlessly until we settled on an okonomiyaki place, which turns out to be a lovely find. We split a kimchi yaki-ramen and a Hiroshima style okonomiyaki with some beer. The owner ojiisan and customers were a bit amused by the gaijin coming inside (this was not exactly on the main path, but rather tucked behind some sketchy neighborhoods), and then being able to order in Japanese. Quite good, really.

Next it was time for sake (nihonshu) sampling! There is a place where you can (for a price) sample sake from all over the prefecture. The price is per glass, so not really so much as sample, as just a small glass. To be quite honest, I felt completely overwhelmed by the menu… so I plucked up my courage and asked in Japanese if he (the worker) could recommend 4 different sakes from Ehime prefecture, since I really do not know enough about the subtle differences of sake to decide. Luckily, he understood my dilemma, and I got the feeling this was actually quite normal for Japanese to ask for his recommendations, so he chose 2 sweet and 2 dry for us. I was relieved, as I wanted to try some, but again… the menu had probably over 50 different choices with not much description that I could properly understand (other than the very basic types and alcohol percentages). I would definitely recommend visiting this shop if you find yourself in Ehime, and try some of the local alcohol.

It was still fairly early, so we decided to go ahead and visit the castle since there was rain in the forecast for the following day (and good thing we did!). To get to the castle, you can walk up a steep trail or for 1020 yen round trip + castle tower entrance fee (entrance by itself is 510 yen), you can take either a chair lift or a ropeway car. My husband wanted to take the chair lift since it would be more exciting. The chair lift is continuous, so there is essentially no wait time to get on (the seats are individual, so no riding in twosies), while the ropeway leaves every 10 minutes, and has room for probably a dozen or so people in the cabin. The chair lift has no restraints, you just sit in the chair and hold on… I felt a little nervous, but it was fun and the view wonderful. At the top, you still have to hike a bit up to the castle no matter which mode of transport you chose.

The castle and grounds were really nice; the views on top of the tower were quite good. The tower was pretty interesting, lots of historical information. You must remove you shoes to enter the castle tower, and you can opt to wear rubber slippers. The stairs inside are very steep and narrow, just as a fair warning in case this might pose a problem. I almost slipped a few times.

After the castle, of course I need another snack so my husband and I split an iyokan 伊予柑(type of local orange citrus) soft serve by the chair lift/ropeway (which is CHEAPER than the one by the castle, only a few meters away!). It was delicious! I highly recommend trying this if you visit in warmer weather.

At this point, we head back to the room clean up and get ready for the next exciting adventure: the festival! To be continued in Part 3!

Again, a very small sampling of photos, for more visit: https://imgur.com/a/03dUy

Matsuyama 松山, part 1: Dogo Onsen 道後温泉

During the recent holiday weekend, we visited Matsuyama 松山 in Ehime Prefecture 愛媛県 on Shikoku 四国. While this may not be a “must-see” for most people taking a visit to Japan, it was certainly a lovely place… I am now wishing I had more time and could have seen more of Shikoku. Another trip maybe…

Matsuyama is known for 2 things: it is the setting of the famous Japanese novel “Botchan,” by Natsume Souseki, a tale of a head-strong Tokyoite named Botchan sent to the rural Matsuyama town on Shikoku Island to teach middle school math, set in the Meiji era. It was also recently turned into a J-drama movie starring one of the Arashi members, and is really entertaining! The second thing is the Dogo Onsen, not only famous due to Botchan, but also said to have been 1 of the onsen that inspired the backdrop for Ghibli’s Spirited Away animated film.

Anyway, on to the trip!

First thing to know, there is no train from the Matsuyama airport, you will need to take a bus downtown (which is actually a very short ride, 310 yen to the JR station, or 410 yen to the city station, I think it must have been less than half an hour). Exit the airport, and there will be a ticket machine to buy tickets, then just get on the bus. Easy. Depending on the number in your party, it is not unreasonable to simply take a taxi (fare ~2000yen when we took it on the return trip from our hotel to the airport!).

We got off at the JR station, but realized too late that the tram that goes to our hotel a) runs only 2x per hour, and b) actually runs in a loop which is somewhat reverse and inconvenient. Anyway, at the JR station you can buy 1 day or 2 day passes for the Iyotetsu trams (**PASMO and SUICA do not work… sigh). For a some extra fee, these can include more trains, the Botchan train ride, and Matsuyama castle entrance. For what it is worth… I do not think these passes are worth it, at least it ended up not be for us. The “city” is actually really walkable (or even bike-able), and the trams not so convenient. It turned out to be cheaper for us not to use the day passes, since we sort of enjoy walking most places anyway. Just something to think about.

Anyway, we end up walking to our hotel (next to the castle park area) from the station since it is not a very long walk anyway. We checked into the hotel, admired our “castle view,” which was a bit like, oh yeah, I can see a cute little castle at the top of that hill over there… and headed out to enjoy the evening views. We headed towards Okaido station shopping area, admired some food stuffs in the department store and surrounding shopping arcade. At sunset we took the ferris wheel on top of the department store. FYI: If you show your PASSPORT this is free! We did not do our research… and had to pay the fare. sigh. BRING YOUR PASSPORT for the free ride!  Well, it was a nice view, not spectacular but a cute way to wind down a day.

Afterwards, it was time to head towards Dogo Onsen 道後温泉, one of the onsen that is said to have inspired Spirited Away (Japanese title: 千と千尋の神隠し)! I came at night in order to get the night shots of the onsen all lit up and romantic (bathing would happen the next day). A warning: if you really, really want to bathe at Dogo onsen at night, just be aware it might be crowded… nighttime is the most popular time to visit (for very good reason, it is stunning!). We opted just for pictures at night (I dislike crowds overall). So we enjoyed the public foot bath, the strolling the small shops in the area, trying out the famous botchan dango, and taking pictures for the first evening. Really, Dogo Onsen is just fantastic at night; the atmosphere really is amazing, people wandering around in yukata with bath baskets, leisurely heading towards the bath… I was quite jealous now that we had not opted to stay in the immediate area (but the prices were literally 3x that of where we were staying… alas!). We also tried the Dogo Beer Brewery… it was okay… but honestly 600yen per beer was a bit much. The beer was so-so (I thought the Madonna beer was best), and if you were not eating a meal there, you could only do “take-out” which meant drinking the beer in a plastic cup in front of the building. So lessons learned: stay as close to Dogo Onsen as possible in one of the minor onsen hotels (assuming price is not unreasonable) and do not feel pressured into trying Dogo Beer, as it is not that great (not terrible, just, Asahi is better and cheaper).

The next day, we decide to hit up Dogo Onsen for the actual bath around 8ish after taking breakfast at our hotel. This so happened to be a PERFECT time for visiting… not too crowded so enjoying the bath was amazing! We arrived, took a shoe locker, and bought our tickets. Now, there are many levels of tickets, most are for a total of merely 1 hour in the bath… there is the basic, no frills, no nothing just entrance fee for just a few hundred yen. Then you can start looking at the Tama-no-yu bath with senbei (rice cracker)/tea snack on the second floor lounge for a bit more, and then the high rollers of Tama-no-yu bath plus private changing room and botchan dango/tea snack at a whopping 1500yen, but you get 80 minutes in the bath. Well, in coming here, I am going for the whole experience, so I insist to my husband we get the highest tier. Now, I will not kid around, knowing Japanese is a huge advantage here. I am unsure how you could get around here comfortable not knowing it. I am sure it is possible, but I imagine rather difficult.

So we get our tickets, and they direct us to the 3rd floor. On the 3rd floor, we are received by a mama-san, who gives us bath towels, yukata with the special crane design, and shows us to our private 2-person tatami changing room. She explains we have the room for 80 minutes, and can use both the second floor Tama-no-yu bath, as well as the public 1st floor bath. When we are finished and ready for tea, to ring the buzzer on the table. So we change quickly, admire the view from our third floor room, and head down towards bath areas. We are entranced by the beautiful interior of the whole complex, with winding halls, narrow stairs, beautiful rooms with small details, cheerful bathhouse workers… seriously, something out of a Ghibli film.

I enter the 2nd floor baths, and as it turns out, I am the only one using it at this time. It was wonderful, even if a bit simple. Even so, images of Botchan (a Japanese novel set in Matsuyama) and Spirited Away surround me. Perhaps I have a good imagination. After a good soak, I finish up, eager to scope out the rest of the complex, as well.

I looked around at the second tier lounge, just to see what I upgraded from. This floor was also quite lovely; while it was a mixed, open floor plan (changing rooms for the bath segregated), you could enjoy senbei and tea while wearing yukata with the basic design with a nice view from the balcony. I think a majority of visitors choose this option.

From here, I wandered down to the first floor public bath. It was larger and obviously more lively (less private), but that is also a good thing. I like variety. There are no amenities down here, so you need to bring your own towels, robes, soap, shampoo/conditioner (the more upper level bath comes with these), just remember if you choose this option!

Afterwards I went back to our 3rd floor room where my husband was waiting. We buzzed for tea, and moments later it arrived~ green tea and botchan dango. Botchan dango has 3 flavors: red bean, matcha, and local citrus (although very light citrus flavor). Finally our 80 minutes have passed and it is time to leave. My husband liked that we had a room together and he was not just changing with ojiisans, even if our baths were separate.

Before we headed down the stairs, the mama-san showed us the Botchan room. It is all in Japanese, but I could get the basic idea. On the second floor, we were then given a small tour of the imperial baths (where the emperor bathes on his visits). They explained that the 2nd floor mens bath is where the bodyguards bathed; my husband was amused and now brags he bathed where the imperial bodyguards bathe. Anyway, it is an interesting little area.

Feeling refreshed, we look for the next item on the itinerary; the onsen shrine and the Dogo Park area. These are not particularly spectacular, but enjoyable nonetheless. We get tickets for the Botchan train; it is so cute. We also watch the “gizmo” clock, as on the hour, it plays music and little Botchan characters come out and move around.

Here is a “sample” of pictures:

Click to continue to Part II!

Additional images from Matsuyama (not organized or labeled yet…): https://imgur.com/a/03dUy

 

 

 

Snow Monkeys and Nabe: 猿と鍋

猿 saru means “monkey.” 野猿  yaen means wild monkey, meaning the wild Japanese macaque.

After the New Year in January, I took a short trip to Yamanouchi (山ノ内) in Nagano prefecture (長野県) to see the snow monkeys at Jigokudani onsen 地獄谷温泉 (translation: hell valley hot springs) and yaen-kouen 野猿公苑 (wild monkey park). We stayed at the Korakukan Ryokan, literally right outside the monkey park, and obviously wild monkeys are a common site outside your window. It was pretty amazing.

The Korakukan ryokan is a bit “rustic,” to be polite, but despite the older facilities, the location and the food were absolutely amazing. Waking up to monkeys outside is just pretty darn cool. I will admit, the onsen themselves are only okay (but if you are very lucky a monkey might join you, so that is a bonus), and the facilities do take a bit to get used to (so do not come in with high expectations). It may not be the most comfortable place to stay in terms of amenities or luxury, but the experience is one I will never forget.

The first day, we landed in Tokyo and stayed the night, catching the early morning train over to Nagano, and continuing on to Yamanouchi (last stop was Yudanaka station). We stopped here and had Japanese soba for lunch. From there a bus will take you to a bus stop where many onsen resorts are located just outside the monkey park area, but the ryokan that is inside the monkey park area is a a decent hike through the snow (there is another road that gets you closer to the ryokan and park, but it closes during winter, so the bus stops at the area just outside by the beginning of the walking path). Yes, we could have stayed in a classier place, more facilities and luxuries, but all those places were much further from the monkey park than the Korakukan ryokan (which was literally at the monkey park). There is also a recommended area called Shibu onsen 渋温泉, which is an adorable onsen town that we explored one of the days during our stay, but alas, I was going for the monkeys. And since my number one reason for this trip was monkeys, as such the rustic ryokan was it. So definitely consider your priorities before booking this trip: do you want to be right by monkeys all the time (literally outside your window, in your baths, hanging out near the dining hall) or would you prefer convenience (to town, restaurants, or well… everything), nice facilities, small luxuries, more/fancier onsen, less trudging through snow/ice ?

We trudged through the light snow with our luggage (remember, pack light for this one). I would recommend a suitcase that you can carry like a backpack. And those traction things you can put over your shoes is a really good idea, there was quite a bit of ice in spots and especially useful for the downhill parts to not go skidding down on your bum. Luckily when we went there was only a bit of snow and the heavy winter storms had not hit yet (seriously, we missed some awful weather by just over a week), so it was not terrible. We arrived safely, got settled with our belongings, checked out our quaint facilities, and immediately headed to the park to see some monkeys before closing time!

Of course, this place is a happening tourist spot during the day time operating hours, and of course completely empty during closed hours. But I got to see some monkeys and observe them for awhile. They are so cute. But we did have to leave and went down to catch a bath and dinner at the ryokan.

The onsen bath was pretty scalding hot, and the faucet water pretty darn cold, so it was interesting to say the least. However, I got clean so I cannot complain too much. Plus there were some outdoor baths and you could glimpse some monkeys during twilight.

For dinner, nabe 鍋 (hotpot) was the main item for the meal, with several accompanying dishes. If you have never had nabe in the mountains of rural Japan during winter, you must try this! It was amazing. I had a vegetarian nabe, and my husbands was for omnivores. His also came with fried locust; he said they were crunchy and not too bad. With my yukata and coat (known as a hanten 袢纏) on, sitting at the table near the heaters drinking a beer and eating warm nabe with mountain vegetables, life was good. Plus a few monkeys ran down the hall outside the dining building.

The next day, we woke up early, grabbed an early morning bath (the guys bath was lucky and had monkeys join them) and checked out the monkey park before opening. Seriously, I could probably watch monkeys for the better part of a day. Over night it had snowed and so you could see monkey prints throughout the valley.

Afterwards, we headed towards town (through the snow path) and enjoyed touring about, as well as tasting beer at the Teppa Room, sake (nihonshu 日本酒), manjuu, and yet more onsen (a bit more upscale than our ryokan, so… ). There were some temples/shrines, and the town sites in Shibu onsen. When we returned for the day, we went back yet again to look at some monkeys before dinner time. The second dinner was another nabe with a little bit different variety. Again, it was an amazing meal. Throughout the day, I had chatted with various mainlanders about Okinawa, which seemed to interest them. Oh, and it snowed again overnight.

The last day we had to head out early after a quick bath, trudging back through the snowy path to town with our luggage. We trained back to Nagano where we stopped for a walk around and lunch before heading to the airport in Tokyo. I got some fresh apple juice and baked apple goodies; yum! I wanted to take a bag of apples back to Okinawa (apples are sort of expensive in Okinawa), but figured that was not really feasible. But I did pick up some other omiyage to take back home to friends and coworkers.I also got an amazake 甘酒 soft serve (yes in the middle of winter… but it was amazake flavor!). My husband tried a sake (nihonshu 日本酒) sampler . We really enjoyed our stop in Nagano, and realized that we should plan a separate trip just to visit Nagano properly.

Below are some images from the trip. Here is a link to the full album, in case you cannot get enough  monkey pictures. I did not take any inside the ryokan, as at the time I figured it was too rustic.

Tanegashima recipe: Karaimosen からいもせん

Today we will try something from Tanegashima 種子島, an island off the southern coast of Kagoshima prefecture. This is a continuation of “Island Mama’s homemade cooking” section.

I will introduce karaimo-sen: karaimo からいも is the name for satsuma-imo さつま芋 in Tanegashima, which is a type of sweet potato. Karaimosen からいもせん is the name for the starch that is made from these satsuma-imo (in Japanese, starch is でん粉 denko). From this, they are turned into starchy fried dumplings. A hearty and simple snack or even turn it into a meal, this is a nice dish easily made at home.

There are different ways you can make a traditional dish of Tanegashima; one option is completely from scratch, and the other is using already processed potato starch from the bag at the grocery store. I will introduce both ways, thanks to a website that described the process in Japanese, but I have only made from the powder before. Looks like I will need to do some experimenting in the kitchen soon and try making this from scratch.

First the easy way!

Karaimosen からいもせん:

Ingredients:
sweet potato starch, 1 cup
Water, 1.2 cup
Peanut sauce: peanuts, shoyu, vinegar, sugar in equal amounts (or to taste)

Mix the starch and water. Put a little oil in a frying pan and heat, add the starch-water mixture. Cook until transparent (flipping over to cook both sides), let it become a little grilled (I love having some crispy little edges if possible). When all the way cooked, cut into bite sized pieces, top with some peanut sauce and enjoy. You could also use ginger instead of peanuts.

If you want to make something a little fancier, perhaps more of a main dish, you can serve with some some boiled (or maybe even fried if you so desire) vegetables such as kabocha, bamboo shoots, konnyaku, shiitake, or other Asian vegetarian favorites, and instead of peanut sauce, some sort of shoyu and ginger mixture. The article also mentions using it in a sukiyaki or other soup stock sort of dish.

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If you find yourself in possession of some satsuma-imo and want to try making this from scratch…

From scratch:

It may be helpful to refer to this website (in Japanese), there are pictures. When I get around to making this, I will take some pictures of the process.

English Instructions:

Take satsuma-imo, clean and peel. Cut into smallish chip-size pieces and add along with water to a blender/juicer (you can hand grate this instead). Strain the liquid into a bowl using a cloth (such as cheesecloth with fine mesh to separate the solids from the liquid). This liquid is what precipitates the starch; this takes a few hours. Once you have the starch, discard the liquid, and dry the starch in the sun. Now it is ready to use.

Previous recipes of “Island Mama’s homemade cooking” news article:

Ojiki-jima recipe: bouburazouse ぼうぶらぞうせ

Yonaguni-jima recipe: Sakuna shiraae サクナの白和え

Learning Hiragana & Katakana

Hiragana ひらがな: traditional phonetic alphabet, typically used for original Japanese words.

Katakana カタカナ: phonetic alphabet used for foreign words, although occasionally used for Japanese words.

For anyone living in Okinawa, or even just visiting for awhile, I think it really opens up the possibilities if you learn the basic alphabets. It enables you to read more menus and signs, even with limited vocabulary. Menus with western food (such as Italian, American, French, etc) will use a lot of katakana (because the dishes are foreign!) and by simply sounding them out, you will likely figure out the meaning.

How does one go about doing this? Well, memorization and practice. There are even some phone apps, like Dr Moku, to help you. I also find the cute (and cheap!) little books and posters in the Daiso/100円 stores are great tools; even though they are for Japanese children, they are fun and a great way to simply practice.

Honestly, I am surprised to learn of people living here and not giving it a go to learn the alphabets and some basic Japanese. Relying on places to have English menus or translations in stores limits you. Worse yet, those who rely solely on their phone translators… while the technology is improving, there ares still some issues with “lost in translation,” especially when it comes to handwritten signs or stylized scripts. Plus, you can gain some small respect from the local population for attempting to learn (you will often hear things like nihongo ojouzu desu ne! you speak Japanese well!). By learning the basics, a whole new Okinawa opens up to you.

 

 

Manhole Covers in Japan: マンホールの蓋

マンホールの蓋: manhoru no futa, means “manhole cover.”


If you travel Japan, you will notice many beautiful and artistic designs on manhole covers. Just about every town and city has its own design. Be sure to take the time and look for them.

Below is the one from my town, Nakagusuku. It has a classical Ryukuan poem about the town on it, as well as a full moon, a hibiscus, and ocean waves:

「とよむ中城 吉の浦のお月 みかけ照りわたて さびやねさみ」

In Okinawan the pronunciation would be: トゥユムナカグスィク ユシヌウラヌウツィキ ミカギティリワタティ サビヤネサミ, fairly from the different than standard Japanese reading.

The poem describes peacefully viewing the beautiful and peaceful moon from the castle towards (what is now) Yoshinoura Park, and there seems to be no worries about accidents or sorrow; this area was the place where Lord Gosamaru held moon-viewing feasts (tsukimi 月見) during the Gusuku era.

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Here are a few others located in various places of Okinawa and Japan; I can’t upload all my pictures, but maybe one day I will put them in an imgur album:

Hakone trip, part III: 箱根

The last day of our trip, we got up early and enjoyed the hotel onsen one last time. We decided to go the bus route directly to Hakone-yumoto station (rather than cable cars and trains), no transfers and a little less time overall.

At Hakone-yumoto station, we had about 3-4 hours until taking the Odakyu Romance car back to Shinjuku station. Since it was still rather early, we walked to another temple and shrine behind the station, across the river. Between the Fujiya Hotel and the Temple, there is a small “park,” well, more like short hiking path (~15 minutes) that takes you through some woods. It is sort of scenic, so it was fun. This is not in Google Maps, so we sort of found it as we were walking around the temple and saw a large sign behind the cemetery, deciding to check it out.  We walked back across the river, and strolled down the main street in front of the train station, where we found the Hakone Folk Craft “Museum,” which is run by the city and free to the public. We saw the sign on the door saying it did not open until 10 am, but peered through the window. The older man on staff saw us, and opened early! We felt so bad, but he enjoyed talking to us, and explained many things about the wood crafts that are a cultural property of Hakone; it is called Yosegi Zaiku  寄木細工, or Hakone marquetry, and it is very intricate. It was really interesting and we ended up to purchase a small decorated wooden puzzle box.

By this time, it was only 10 am, but since we had a long day ahead of us, we decided to go ahead and have one last soba lunch before heading home. We went to Hatsuhana Soba restaurant はつ花新館 across the bridge from the train station; it had a gorgeous view of the river (and it was air conditioned). My husband got the tempura zaru soba set and I got a regular zaru soba set. It was delicious~~ for dessert, we headed back towards the train station and got a coffee soft serve from the little coffee shop on the main street… this was also incredibly delicious since they roasted their own coffee to make the soft serve.

Of course, I had one last onsen manjuu before leaving. I also stopped by the shop inside the station to pick up omiyage for my colleagues. Although due to volcanic activity, they were not making the “black eggs,” I picked up small manjuu with custard filling that were made to look like the famous black eggs. Another perk of the Hakone free pass: a discount at the train station shop!

This was the end, as we boarded the Odakyu Romance car and transferred to the subway back to the airport. Overall, a very fun weekend trip.

Part I

Part II

More pictures

Hakone travel, part II: 箱根

On Day 2, we actually got to do some real sightseeing and relaxing. We got up early and took a nice walk to Lake Ashi 芦ノ湖 (Ashinoko) and took the bus down to Lawson for coffee and a snack. While waiting for the bus to return uphill, we walked through the pampas grass field across the way. Since it was still early, I soaked in the hotel onsen (again). By the time we cleaned up, we decided to start heading out to explore. Unfortunately, due to the volcanic activity, they were not selling the famous “black eggs” which are rumored to add seven years to your life. We took the ropeway (gondola) roundtrip, despite the cloud cover and fog. From there we took the cable car down to Gora Park– admission to Gora Park is FREE for Hakone Free Pass holders (another reason this is a good deal!). We walked about and enjoyed the flowers and scenery; at the end of the park is Gora station, where the sightseeing train starts, so we took it a few stations to a popular soba restaurant for lunch. My husband got the Tororo soba (grated nagaimo, Japanese mountain yam known for its somewhat slimy texture and health benefits) and I got the tempura zaru soba set. Of course, there was also a stop for a manjuu snack, and we were given some mushroom tea as well.

From here we made our way back up the mountain to Lake Ashi, where the sightseeing ship departs. We walked to the Hakone shrine (it has a torii at the edge of the lake). It was really quite nice, but very popular. Heading towards the ship’s port, we took the cedar trail which was rather breathtaking. Many beautiful tall trees line the path, which surprisingly was not very crowded considered the crowds other places. It is not a terribly long walk and very flat, so I definitely recommend taking it. Arriving at the ship ticket office, we upgraded to the “first class cabin”– our Hakone Free Pass includes economy tickets on the half hour sightseeing ship ride, but for 400yen you can ride in the less crowded section. WORTH IT. The regular area was crammed with many people (mostly trying to get the best view from outside), but the first class section was fairly empty with both an outside standing area and an inside seating area. We easily walked both inside and outside without worry. It was very nice!

Before we boarded the ship, we had a half hour to burn. We noticed some girls sitting by the concrete dock with a set of 3 beers and some sausages. What was this we wondered? So we set off to find the place where they got these… inside an innocuous looking tourist building is a Hakone craft beer and (mostly fish/seafood) sausage shop. We certainly could not turn down the promise of craft beer, so we split the trio tasting set and went back to the edge of the docks to sit. There was a pilsner, red ale, and a weizen, all of which were pretty good.

On the ship, the loudspeaker announced various historical and cultural facts, but mostly we just enjoyed the views (even if they did not include Mt Fuji due to the clouds). To finish off the day we took a short walk along Lake Ashi at Togendai Port before heading back to the hotel to relax.

Once we arrived back to the hotel, of course one more soaking in the outdoor bath was in order. I donned my yukata again and relaxed Japanese-style. We finished the evening by enjoying some more craft beer (different company, but also located in Hakone).

Link to more pictures: Hakone Pictures

Link to Part I of Hakone trip: Hakone Travel, part I: 箱根

Link to Part III: Hakone trip, part III: 箱根

 

Hakone Travel, part I: 箱根

For Umi-no-hi (Ocean Day, a public holiday in Japan) 海の日, I took a trip to Hakone 箱根, a mountainous area outside of Tokyo (~1.5 hours or so). It is an area, where if the weather were to be clear, you can get beautiful views of Mt Fuji (富士山). Alas, the weather was a bit overcast and there was some fog, so no Mt Fuji viewing for us. At first I was a bit disappointed, but then I realized that the overcast weather was actually perfect for walking around– it was so cool and refreshing in the mountains, but when the sun comes out it gets hot and muggy, the clouds blocking the sun were really nice. So it was a good trip nonetheless.

From Okinawa, I flew into Haneda airport, where I caught the Keikyu line and transferred at Shinagawa station to the Yamamoto line, getting off at Shinjuku station. At Shinjuku, I bought the “Hakone Free Pass,” which basically covers all your transportation for the rest of the trip! It is a great deal (you actually save a lot of money), and makes travel super easy. I saw some tourists paying individual fares at each bus, train, cable car, gondola, etc, but those costs add up fast. The Hakone free pass pays for itself with just one round trip course  to, from, and around Hakone, let alone if you wander around more. So, if you decide to take a trip to Hakone yourself, I suggest you check out the free pass.

To get from Shinjuku to Hakone, I took the Odakyu Romance Car, which I reserved a month in advance online. I was able to get a seat at the very back (front?) of the rear observation car so I got a great view out the rear-facing window. I sat next to grandparents and their grandchild, and we chatted a bit, and of course they wanted pictures with me. As soon as the train started moving, all the families started breaking out the bento and beers; the very image of train travel in Japan. The food trolley came by and I got the snack set with iced green tea… the first thing I had to eat all day. The train wound through the city and then the countryside, until we reached Odawara. Many people got off at this stop (including my new friends), so we said our goodbyes. The train continued to Hakone-yumoto station, the last stop.

At Hakone-yumoto station, it was time for lunch so before continuing on the rest of my journey to the hotel I booked by Lake Ashi, I shoved my suitcase in a coin locker and decided to explore for a bit. The town around the station is not very big, and obviously somewhat touristy, but it was cute and nice.

Since one of the things to eat in Hakone is soba, I decided to try the soba shop on the 3rd floor of one of the manjuu buildings; it was very modern and clean looking inside. I decided to make it easy and ordered the fuku-buku set 福福セット which was the recommended number one lunch. How can I go wrong with the recommended set, after all it was zaru soba (cold dipping soba)? It was excellent, so I am glad to have made that choice. Plus it came with momen tofu and azuki jelly, and some other small bits on the side. The shop lady complimented me on my Japanese, as I suppose being in a tourist area, it is not often you see many foreigners speaking much Japanese. After the meal, lunch comes with a free manjuu. Manjuu is another important food for Hakone, especially since it is an onsen area.

After lunch and a bit of looking, I figured it was time to head the rest of the way to my final destination. From here, you can take either the bus or the sightseeing train up the mountain. I chose the sightseeing train, where I would need to later switch to a cablecar and then either a bus or gondola. The sightseeing train was cute, but rather crowded. It takes you through beautiful greenery, and even the hydrangea (あじさい ajisai in Japanese) were still in bloom. It has 2 switchbacks, so the trip is not so short. At Gora station, it was time to change to the cable car tram up the mountain (again, you could take the bus from here). So onto the cable car, again somewhat crowded, although quaint. At the top station, I decided to wait until my husband joined me the next day to take the gondola, and ended up on the bus up towards my hotel. At this point, it had been a rather long day, so I checked in and went up to my room on the 5th floor. There was a gorgeous view of where Mt Fuji would be if the clouds cleared. After settling in a bit, I decided to take a bath in the hotel onsen to relax, so I changed into the yukata in my room. The onsen in the hotel was small but nice after a long day of traveling.

After a refreshing bath, I realized I forgot to stop at a store and buy snacks/drinks for the room, so I decided to walk partway down the mountain to the Lawson ~1.5 km away. It was a healthy walk, but all down hill; I caught the bus coming back up (covered by my free pass!). I noticed later that I was not the only one in my hotel that made a Lawson stop. I was lucky to find craft beers made in Hakone (Pilsner, Pale Ale, and Red Ale varieties); although I discovered the next day that there are a few more craft beer breweries in Hakone (maybe we need to take another trip and visit all of these…). My husband arrived and it was already dark, so we drank and ate instant ramen in the room, ending our first day.

I will continue the trip to Hakone in second post. More soba and manjuu to come!

Link to more pictures: Hakone Pictures

Link to Part II of Hakone travel: Hakone travel, part II: 箱根

Part III: Hakone trip, part III: 箱根

 

 

Shuri weaving: 首里織

Shuri-ori 首里織 is a type of Ryukuan textile woven on a loom. One of the most common patterns is Shuri Hana Ori (hana means “flower”), and there is a simple flower pattern that appears in the fabric. Another pattern is Shuri Roton Ori, which has raised vertical treads.

You can try your hand at shuri-ori (and other Ryukuan crafts) at the Traditional Handicrafts Center in Naha, near Kokusai-dori (visit their website here).  My husband and I made our own coasters awhile ago, and it was a lot of fun. There are several other types of traditional crafts you can try here as well.

I have also received a few gifts of small shuri-ori items; the size of table mats and coasters. The patterns and colors are simple, yet quite nice, and really look elegant. If you just want to purchase, not weave your own, there are several shops around Shuri and Naha.

Miyako-jima: 宮古島

We just took a short weekend trip to Miyako-jima, one of the southern islands in Okinawa prefecture. You must fly (cannot take a ferry to Miyako-jima), but luckily it is a short 50 minute flight. When you get there, it is highly recommended that you rent a car, or at least a scooter, since the island is decently big (compared to some of the others in Okinawa).

There are a few things to “sight-see” on Miyako-jima, but really it is all about the diving, swimming, and snorkeling. Beautiful beaches are plentiful, and many of them have snorkeling spots (although these are mostly for novices, avid snorkelers will want to take a boat tour to some of the more spectacular reefs).

We stayed at a quiet AirBnB on Kurima-jima, which is connected to Miyako-jima by a bridge. There are other islands also connected to Miyako-jima by bridge: Ikema-jima and Irabu-jima/Shimoji-jima.

Miyako-jima is known for mango– so of course I indulged at every opportunity! We had mango smoothies from some cafes, fresh mango juice from a farm, and anything else mango I could find.

We ate dinner the first night at a great Italian spot near the main city area. It was called ADish. We had pizza, pasta, salad, crostini, and wine. We sat at the counter, but reservations are recommended for this place. We were too busy eating to take photos unfortunately. When we returned, we bought some cans of  Orion and sat outside, gazing at the milky way and millions of stars, listening to the insects.

The second night, we decided to try the local place by the AirBnB house. So we walked down the road to Hanafuu 花風, which is some shipping containers converted into a small restaurant. The menu was written on fans on the wall; we started with some Orion draft beers. The owner was happy to see us, and we chatted a bit in Japanese. She gave us some yakiimo (baked sweet potato) that was grown in Miyako-jima and a hair tie with bingata print on it. We ordered another round, as well as goya chanpuru and salt yakisoba. At this point, a few more customers started to arrive (most of them it seemed like this place was their second home). So we ended up also chatting with some of them. She ended up giving us a few extra side dishes for free, and everything we tasted was amazing. After a few more rounds of beer, the owner was convinced to break out her sanshin to play and sing for us. In this small place, we were truly able to feel the kindness and vivacity of the Miyako-jima people. Finally we were tired, settled the bill, said our goodbyes and headed out. We were greeted with the millions of stars in the dark sky, surrounded by rustling sugarcane fields.

Overall, it was a fabulous trip, with great food, friendly people, nice beaches and gorgeous views.

full album of random pictures: here

Shisa: シーサー

Shisa (or shiisaa) シーサー are the guardian lion dogs in Okinawa and Ryukyu culture. They always come in pairs (a male with open mouth on the right, a female with closed mouth on the left); the open mouth wards off evil spirits, and the closed mouth keeps good spirits in. A second mythology is reversed, saying that the male has his mouth closed to keep evil out of the home and the open-mouthed female is to share goodness with others.

There are many, many styles that you will see around… and they are everywhere, from rooftops, gates, schools, houses, stores.

A famous shisa statue in Okinawa is located in Yaese (south), the Tomori Stone Shisa. It has significance in Okinawa history, and has even survived with visible scarring the Battle of Okinawa.

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April 3rd is Shisa-no-hi シーサーの日, Shisa day. “Shi” is 4 in Japanese, and “san” is 3, together sounds similar to the word “shisa.” Tsuboya yachimun (pottery) district in Naha has some small events on this day.

I have an assortment of pictures of shisa from around the islands:

Shisa シーサー


Address for Tomori Stone Shisa: https://goo.gl/maps/Cq7PuEyowmT2

 

Stamp Rally: スタンプラリー

スタンプラリー Stamp rally. This is probably what it sounds like…

As a visitor, you may notice in some places (especially tourist sites) there are large stamps and ink pads. They sometimes have intricate designs, representative of the town or historic site. Sometimes they are just cartoon characters. But whichever they are, they usually serve a purpose: as a step in a “stamp rally.”

What does a stamp rally mean exactly? Well, typically this is geared towards children. You pick up an official paper grid with blank spaces at a central location, such as the information desk or a ticket office. Then you go around the site and look for the stamp stations, each with different designs. The goal is to find all of them and stamp each piece of your grid with every design. Once you finish, there is sometimes a small “prize.” It is basically a game to keep children entertained while touring places.

These are some examples (I will upload more later):

While I do not normally participate in these, sometimes I still enjoy adding a stamp to one of my travel books as a reminder of my visit. It’s kinda cute. It has even started to get high-tech as some big tourist sites will have an app and you scan QR codes at various locations to “collect stamps.”

All this aside, I have another theory as to why stamp rallies exist, but first some background. Personal stamps/seals, called “hanko” 判子 or “inkan” 印鑑, are important in daily life as an adult… it is necessary for bank accounts, receiving packages, school registration, legal transactions… etc! Even as a foreigner, I have a small hanko that I use for just these purposes. Honestly, these seals really are surprisingly used every day; my graduation certificate and school ID have imprints of the university and president’s seal, many documents need to have my advisor’s or sensei’s seal on them, during the university physical exam I need to “pass” each section to get each individual doctor or nurse’s seals, I even personally have to use my seal to log in my research assistance hours. I have taken to using my seal instead of my signature for whenever the delivery driver drops off packages ordered from the internet. Basically, it is like a personal signature. So… my point is, I believe that stamp rallies are just practice for small children to gather or collect stamps as they will need to in adulthood! Seriously, it is like preparation for life. Get your papers stamped because in order to get through life in Japan, you need people to stamp your papers so you can move forward or gain accomplishments (as an adult, these are our “prizes”).

Next time I get my university physical exam, I will take a photo of my own personal stamp rally I must complete in order to prove my health. It is literally a stamp card that I take to various stations where certain aspects of my health are evaluated. Each section of the card gets filled out with details and each doctor/nurse stamps the section to prove that I “passed.” The first time I had to do this, all I could think about were the children I saw at Shuri-jo racing around and filling out their stamp rally so they could get their sticker prize at the end.