Arigato Nippon – another world!

From our Seoul hotel, we got a taxi which cost us about a third of the first one coming in, reaffirming my rip off sentiment. We headed to the airport and then took our time at the lounge; we didn’t have much time to check out souvenir shops or to use the leftover Korean currency we had.  The plane itself was a budget airline (Jin Air) operated by Korean Air, but the service was great and the snacks filling, the only problem we had with it was that it was about an hour late for take-off which delayed our arrival to Tokyo.

We made it to Narita Airport, and after figuring out the JR Passes system, we took the cheaper route (via trains) to our Tokyo hotel.  However, the train ride took more than expected, mostly because of the waiting time at the beginning and the slightly confusing orientation from the airport.  But we finally made it close to the hotel and with had a brisk walk to the hotel in very cold weather (with our luggage which wasn’t ideal).  We made it to the hotel which is basic but lovely nonetheless –  especially after the long journey we had.  Looking forward to exploring some parks tomorrow (hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of cherry blossoms, although the weather seems cold for that) and then see Electric City nearby which I’m sure will be an interesting site to see.  Looking forward to exploring Japan, our home for the next two weeks, especially now that I know the two luggage we have is doable on the trains (which was a major concern of mine) and luckily the Jin Air flight allowed a slightly weightier cargo than what would be allowed. Have my Kimono on and loving the warm cosy indoors in our three-bed room, the sofa bed is my son’s because “he can see the TV better from there”. (Day 1, Grand Palace Hotel in Tokyo, 10:45p.m.)**

So this is the first official day in Japan (Tokyo to be exact) and it was very full – unexpectedly so.  Starting off at Akhibara Electric Town with all its lights, cuteness, cartoons, electronics, perversions, and of course sounds.  The uncomfortable cold and rain didn’t help much but we made it through despite an argument mid-way (triggered by – of all things – the cat café!).  We got the little guy a cheap egg toy to keep him distracted, as we saw some perverse “action figures” everywhere.  We played the claw stuffed toy game and we managed to step into a great souvenir shop with all sorts of KitKat flavours; oh the KitKat flavours alone can support a whole tourism industry, there were wine and Sake KitKats!  After giving our guy some hot chocolate, to warm his body up, we headed to Ueno park and off to the Tokyo National Museum where indoor site seeing seemed like the best thing to do.

Unique, stylish, traditional and modern Tokyo town!

Lots to see there, artifacts as old as 10,000 BC, elegant silk calligraphy and paintings, kimonos and kabuki masks, and of course coins, jewellery and pottery.  Even though we promised our boy to see the Zoo we opted not to, given the cold weather, and headed instead to a small mom-and-pop restaurant for some vegetarian food.  Had some rice with seasonal bamboo chutes and shaved fish, which seemed like moving maggots given the heat form the rice, so weird!  It was very tasty and the little ol’ ladies serving us where an added treat.  We walked back to the metro and headed back to the hotel.  In order to avoid any resentment, the wife (rightly so) suggested I venture out alone and she’ll stay with our son.  Not one to miss an opportunity to explore more, I headed to the sky tree tower (via a long metro route that stopped at every station rather than going express).  Walked out to a great shopping plaza with all sorts of Japanese treats and handmade quirks and knick knacks.

I went up the tower and almost saw nothing because of the crazy fog, still though it was a must to go up – after all it was now the tallest tower and had highest observation deck (more than Burj Khalifa on the latter).  Headed back down to the mall and got a few more gifts, a handmade wood pendant for Mom, a crystal with Mt. Fuji for the misses, a Hello Kitty skin product (also for the wifey), couldn’t resist as it was exclusively sold only in Japan only, and an “Ultraman” gift pack for my boy; given it is the new trend in Japan (Pokémon is so last year).  Also got 3D puzzles for my cousin (which I later kept for myself) and Sakura Latte powder sachets.  Yet to find a gift for me and my brother (Grendizer related if possible).

Made it back, but didn’t have enough time to see the Senso-Ji Temple nearby as it got fairly dark; even though it was open not much I can see there at night.  Will try to visit maybe in the last few days we’re in Tokyo.  Had a good beer and chicken dish (tapas style) in a restaurant across from our hotel and all is quiet now with mother and child both sleeping while I plan the next leg of our trip.  Expecting a walk around the Imperial Palace in the morning (since it was too cold to see much in terms of cherry blossoms) and then off to Mt. Fuji.  (Day 2, Grand Palace Hotel in Tokyo, 10:58p.m.)**  P.S. Proud of the little guy for learning how to use chopsticks at dinner tonight, where else to learn chopsticks but in Tokyo at five years old!

This entry is a couple of days late because I couldn’t get my adapter to charge my laptop and didn’t figure that out until now, anyway I’m rolling with the punches – a must when travelling I guess.   So I’ll try to recollect as much as I can, given it has been quiet the eventful trip so far.  On my last day in Tokyo (for this stop, we’ll be in Tokyo again later) decided to visit the Senso Ji Temple instead of the Imperial Palace, even though both are outdoors. I thought the temple was more appropriate in this blistering cold and wet day in Tokyo.  Luckily, I did ask for an umbrella from the hotel to borrow – didn’t mention it to the “all-knowing” wife because she suggested it earlier and I just blew her off (I know, I know).

After braving the freezing cold (partly because we came ill prepared and dressed for this trip in Winter and partly because it was unseasonably colder than usual) made it back to the hotel to pack and get ready to go off to Mount Fuji. Our son was still asleep but as soon as he woke up we had breakfast across the road at Jonathan’s coffee shop and he had a great time being creative with a chocolate tube designing his on pancakes, to write whatever he wanted.  The “adults” of the group had a Japanese breakfast, which was interesting and quite tasty, along with get it yourself speciality teas!  We went off to Mount Fuji on a trip which ended up being much longer and complicated than anticipated, that was mainly my fault for not being prepared which is a rarity, and the luggage didn’t help; particularly in Kudanshita station near our Tokyo hotel where apparently there were no elevators.  So I had to take the luggage down the steps and go back up for the stroller.  We finally made it, my wife dropped her ticket as we boarded the train and literally ran out to get it (without her phone or wallet or passport for that matter) before the train doors shut.  It was a cold and wet Tokyo day but as we got closer to the mountain it got slightly sunnier with a thin layer of snow.  Near our hotel though it was much sunnier and had full on snow (which was a complete surprise to us).  It was my son’s first time seeing natural snow! A Canadian’s first experience with snow in Japan of all places!

Feeling zen in snowy Fujisan

The views and scenery are breath-taking and the mountain itself, especially from our room, is majestic and demands respect – I could stare at it for hours. The hotel was dated with 90s-style corridors and lobby, but the souvenir shop had lots of tempting things to get, especially sweets and biscuits.  There was a ping pong room hidden away and an arcade room which we stumbled on by accident, an eerie “children” room, and a Onesan bath which boo surprisingly took a liking to, despite the no clothes code. I’m sure sharing it with old women gave her images to last a lifetime.

The dinner buffet wasn’t the best but full of variety and a great treat for the eyes.  The room itself was Ryokan style straw mats, kimono and all the little details (tea set, slippers, etc.); it was awesome and very comfortable.  We gave the little guy the Ultraman pack to keep him busy, but it was slightly disappointing to see that, other than the action figure which he played with for a while, there were boxes of processed artificial “sausage” and gummy candy (none of us were fans of any of that).  He did ask for KitKat balls which we got him from Tokyo (I have yet to find them).  Let’s see how tomorrow can compare given that we will go from breakfast at Mount Fuji to dinner in Tokyo Disney! (Day 4, Grand Nikko Hotel in Tokyo, 01:28a.m.)**

We did our long trip from Mount Fuji to Tokyo Disney after a slightly disappointing buffet breakfast; this was after I got up at 5:30 a.m. in an ice-cold day to see the sunrise over Fujisan.  Thinking of the travelling journey, it still makes my muscles sore.  We headed for a disappointing lunch and then off to the Disneyland park for another relatively long train ride (tomorrow we made sure we register for the shuttle).  But Disneyland itself was great, especially the “20,000 leagues under the sea” ride where my son was convinced he saw real electric eels (they were more like squids) and aliens.  Most rides though had long queues (around 2.5 hours of wait each) and others he was too short to enter.  We did some smaller games like “magic carpets”, “Sinbad storybook Voyage” (reminiscent of “it’s a small world after all” ride in Euro Disney, a 3D movie of the Genie (all in Japanese), and bouncing Jelly Fish in the Little Mermaid area.

As he slept, we grabbed a burger on the way back – we were trying to avoid the mad rush back as the park closed, we weren’t able to go on the hotel shuttle bus because we didn’t reserve the way back ahead of time.  Man that trip was the longest ever in the subway, while I was carrying him asleep, my muscles are still paying for it.  Here’s to a more pleasant visit tomorrow to the park and thoroughly enjoying all the rides. Long day, sore muscles, tired body – can’t wait for bed. (Day 5, Grand Nikko Hotel in Tokyo, 01:55a.m.)**

Another day full of queuing up for a ride in Disney but managed to have highlights such as the Peter Pan ride (reminiscent of Euro Disney), the Jungle Boat Ride, Snow white Cave adventure, and what would be an amazing ride, the Star Tours (Star Wars theme).  We also went to the Dumbo up and down rides, queued up strangely for food at the Hungry Bear Tavern and managed to get claustrophobic at the stores in the park.  A big highlight was seeing the Disney Parade as well.  After spending about 8 hours at the park, thankfully this time we had the shuttle bus to and from which saved us time and hassle.

As the rest of the gang catches up on a well-deserved rest, I took a late excursion going to see Tokyo Tower and Zenso-Ji Temple (even though it’s closed).  It was worth walking through Tokyo streets a bit, nice to see locals out picnicking at night under cherry blossom trees, drinking and being rowdy.  Tomorrow we’ll go off to Kyoto, not looking forward to the train ride but hoping it goes smoothly enough to not tire us out completely.  (Day 6, Grand Nikko Hotel in Tokyo, 11:55p.m.)**

I will make this short because it’s already almost 1 a.m. and I plan to wake up around 5:30 a.m.; the train trip was longer than I thought, as usual, and being in a train that we thought will take us all the way to Kyoto – we found out that it terminates in Nagoya and we left just as the doors were closing.  Made it to Kyoto – taking the bullet train was quiet the experience, especially the express one, finally made use of my JR pass.  My son passed the time on the iPAD as I was planning and scheduling the Kyoto days (which I kept changing up to half an hour ago given the later arrivals), bae studied for her certification on the train (as much as she could anyway).

A rich dose of Japanese culture in Kyoto

We took a non-English speaking taxi driver because the alternative was a longer line, this wasn’t an issue until we realised the driver didn’t know where the hotel is, even though I gave him the address in Japanese.  We ended up being dropped off elsewhere but he was nice enough to walk us to the right place, especially nice of him since it was frustrating to drive in the touristy area of Gion where our hotel was (or Inn rather).   The Ryokan Inn was quaint and he room spacious and simple (Japanese style).  View of the pagoda is great and the staff is overly friendly…overly!  Downer though was no internet in the room – only the lobby – but might be nice to take a forced break from Wi-Fi, makes planning the routes a bit more challenging though.  There is also a slight language barrier; but the staff went above and beyond making us feel comfortable.

We walked a bit and went to Yakasa temple after a slightly pricey but tasty dinner near the shrine.  It was nice, but closed, because it was too late at that point – we plan to go again at an earlier time, most likely tomorrow after the bamboo grove trip.  On the way, I indulged in some junk food (pizza flavoured chips which were anything but, green tea Kit Kats, the mushroom chocolates that reminded me of my childhood, and cherry blossom Kit Kat balls – only in Japan!).  Time to call it a brief night before a busy tomorrow. (Day 7, Kyoto Higasiyama Hotel, 12:59a.m.)**

Saw a few temples in the morning before breakfast (Kiyomizu-dera, Myouhoin, and Chishakuin; unfortunately, Sanjusangendo was closed and opens a bit late, will have to see it another time), it was an early start but the 5 hour sleep from the night before was surprisingly enough. After the nice Japanese breakfast at the inn, we headed out on a very cold and rainy day to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.  Took the Torokko train (apparently, it was supposed to be romantic – but it was anything but) it was crowded, standing room only and not very smooth, plus the cold and rain didn’t help the view and pictures.  Nothing wrong with the train itself mostly the timing was a bit off.

Got off on the way back at the grove and took some nice views in.  Accidentally ended at the main Kyoto station – after we missed our stop to the subway where we had a nice lunch (while our kid had a quick rare nap) and I tried some eel and sake. Then chilled at the Yodobashi mall and got me a Japanese local perfume “Samurai”, the misses got a few shirts and shoes. The highlight was the toys and hobbies floor where we spent – with our son leading the way – a good hour or so.  I Had a nice coffee at Seattle’s best on the top floor and strolled around the nearby book store.  On the way back to the hotel made a quick detour to the Higashi Temple nearby and made it through the cold and rain back.  Booked the Kimono rental and then had our Green Tea ceremony – it was awesome and our little one really enjoyed it, he was asking for Green Tea for days after.  Very interesting to go through the ceremonies and cultural steps for tea making.  (Day 8, Kyoto Higasiyama Hotel, 9:04p.m.)**

A more productive day than I thought and a tiring one no doubt. Started with my morning hike to Shimoai-Jinja shrine north of central Kyoto, which was further than I calculated, but the forst leading up to it – although very Canadianesque – was well worth the visit; especially in the early quiet morning.  Then with a quick walk (more like a jog) made it to Heian-jingu temple.  It was a bit rushed, but had a sense of the site and still managed to absorb it all in.  To save time I sucked it up and took a cab back to the hotel.  On the way there decided to exchange some Korean currency that I had been carrying around only to realise I exchanged the notes I wanted to keep.  I thought the money left was much less than I remember and only now (after I found the actual stash of money I was supposed to exchange) I realised why.

After a western style breakfast which was filling, we headed out to the recommended Kimono rental place but saw that it was way to full.  On the way to the Green Tea Ceremony, which we were late for, we had wifey’s palm read by a Japanese lady who didn’t speak any English.  Using Google translate, we made a valiant attempt to make sense of it all-  but the gist of it was she had trustworthy friends, and 34-35 her life will change dramatically, at 39-40 she will have an illness but she’ll recover, and she should take care of herself, she will have another child (a girl) – which she read my son’s palm for, and that our compatibility is strong because we are friends and have similar values and that I am the calm to her nervousness…what else is new really.

We headed to Yasaka again and saw a kimono rental company and opted to go for it.  With our traditional Japanese clothing, much like in Korea, we’re able to access many historical spots for cheaper prices.  We walked around and took many great pictures, and then headed back to quickly return the clothes, even though we had them for the day. So didn’t get our money’s worth really but made for some nice pix.  My better half was feeling too cold and unlike my son and I, she wasn’t able to wear her regular clothes under.  The little guy picked his own clothes and they looked good on him, everyone who saw him commented (we couldn’t understand but assumed they thought he was cute) and wanted a picture with him. A group of young ladies asked him for picture, but he refused…. typical arrogant child! Would have been a great photo of all of them with him “pimping it”.

We headed to Nojo-Jo, but unfortunately it was closed – managed to look at it from the outside, looked impressive.  It was a nice Japanese castle, worth visiting instead of a temple or shrine for once, and the moat and walls were very impressive.  We missed the opening by 5 minutes, really sucked! The only consolation is that in Kanazawa we will likely visit the main castle there and its gardens.  We stopped in a playground nearby for a good hour where he played hoping he would tire out – that was not the case.  Heading from there to the Imperial palace area and the shopping district he was jumping, singing and moving all around, very restless.  At least he kept himself entertained, and us to some extent.  The shopping area was not very productive, managed to get my niece something from the Disney store there, and a t-shirt for me, some sweets for colleagues and a post card.  Had a nice cappuccino and Macha cake at Takashimaya department store (we also saw Kyoto Marui and Mina briefly) and passed by some of the nice arcades and a nice walk through the main Oike-dori road downtown.

Headed to the hotel earlier than most days since we powered through a full nonstop day.  Ready to recharge the batteries for tomorrow.  Can’t wait for the two best sites in Kyoto tomorrow, leaving the best for last, Fushimi Inari and Sanjusangen-do Temples.  I’ll do them before breakfast and before we head out to Kanazawa for our second to last stop in our trip.  (Day 9, Kyoto Higasiyama Hotel, 9:17p.m.)**

Did my early morning visit to Fushimi Inari temple where I inadvertently took longer than I should have, taking on a mountain hike up to Mount Inari.  Then a quick subway ride to the Sanju Sangendo with the rows of buddha statues.  Both were very magical and zen, and on a brisk but lovely sunny day worth the visits a hundred percent.  Flagged a cab back to the inn due because I was realising my time was running out, and after a quick break we all headed off to Kanazawa.  The ride was smoother and faster than our previous experiences (we sat in the “Thunderbird” train no doubt!)

Had a nice lunch at the station, we took a slightly pricy cab drive to the isolated Ryokan Inn which was amazing, but was a much better option than the bus, well worth the fair.  We were happy to realise we have Wi-Fi available in our room which was spacey and had its own garden.  Our boy quickly made use of it by singing his lungs out for a good 40 minutes running around it.   Booked a Geisha show tomorrow and getting ready for what would be a full day of visiting the castle, gardens, market, ninja sector and the geisha sector for the show.  Will take the bus there and a cab back because the geisha show is a tad late, so should be another expensive one! (Day 10, Motoyu Ishiya Hotel in Kanazawa, 4:50p.m.)**

A productive day as expected, had the standard breakfast and off we went with the bus into the main station to take on the tourist bus within the city.  I bought the day pass after some confusion and got on the bus.  Our first stop was at the castle; walked around and the nearby gardens.  They were all lovely and what an amazing example of Japanese creativity and architecture, but the cold weather, dark skies, and winds made it uncomfortable and followed by an unhelpful spell of rain.  We took refuge in a nearby mall where we had a quick walk around.  Broke with our Japanese diet by having an Italian buffet at Salvatore Pizza restaurant.  It had a tasty pizza and pasta spread and we devoured it after a long non-carb spell in our trip. For our son it was a nice break from all the bread and bland white rice he’s been having, and the occasional eggs (completely his fault for being a picky eater in Japan).

Kanazawa – a must see on your Japan visit

We walked through the Samurai quarter and saw some nice local traditional architecture.  Made our way along the main road to catch a peak at the odd shrine and temple here and there before we got into the main market which was small but worth seeing.  I also got to taste Sakura flavoured croissant, and a melon bun popular in the north Hokkaido region of Japan.  It was a nice cream crunchy pastry which complemented my cappuccino.

We proceeded to the Geisha quarter; it was the highlight of not just Kanazawa, but of our entire trip.  We were almost going to lazy-up and not go, luckily I pre-booked so we were committed.  Apparently we got over our laziness quickly when there was lost money at stake!  Just before that I got a nice bookmark made of Japanese tree wood, while I was gone apparently my wife made friends with a Malaysian boy telling her about his trip and saying he will miss her; it was hilarious.

The show was great, the main owner (da boss lady) Lady Baba was funny charming and interactive.  It was actually informative and very entertaining, the geishas were mesmerising really, even though it was an interestingly odd culture for me, the experience was priceless.  We had a great time, and even the little guy loved it. We ended the night with some mugshots with all the geishas, even Lady Baba.  They called the little guy “Kawaii” which means cute (we heard this all too often all over this trip) and Lady Baba even took a selfie with him on her phone.

Back to the hotel after a quick stop at Starbucks, and now getting ready for tomorrow’s last leg to Tokyo before the end of the trip…not looking forward to going back to the routine for sure.  What an incredible trip so far!  (Day 11, Motoyu Ishiya Hotel in Kanazawa, 9:57p.m.)**

Today was another eventful day bit not for the right reasons, the journey from Kanazawa to Tokyo had a few hiccups along the way but it was just the length of it I seem to keep underestimating.  Went like this: took the bus to Kanazawa station, a full train ride (we did find seats though but were left sitting awkwardly, especially with our luggage).  Eventually met a couple of Canadian girls from Regina, Saskatchewan (originally from Port Hope, Ontario) one of which sat next to me and we struck a conversation – it was cool.  Then had a couple of confusing directions for the metro and went on the wrong line, went off and back on, returned back to the same station and took another line (all with luggage, a kid and a stroller in tow) ……aargh.   Somewhere on the Kanazawa train ride I realised my passport was left in the hotel back in Kanazawa and the whole trip on the train I was planning to go back tomorrow and making the same round trip back to Tokyo, spending an extra almost thousand dirhams (300 dollars!) and wasting a good 8 hours of my trip.

Finally made it to our hotel in Shinjuku and after a quick rest, we headed to the famous Shibuya crossing and the surrounding shopping area.  Had a nice dinner at a below ground restaurant and went for a quick shopping stroll (boo got a hand bag) and a coffee shop break where I had a much needed latte.  Luckily when I checked in the hotel in Tokyo, I called the Kanazawa Inn keepers to confirm it was there, the hotel was nice enough to send it for free but that would be 2 to 3 days and I couldn’t risk it with our flight coming up, so I paid about 30 dirhams (10 bucks) to get it couriered…. what a relief but what a stressful few hours until we knew we had that option.  I felt so grateful and much better afterwards…should arrive by tomorrow morning.  Very impressed with the level of service of this country and the helpfulness and professionalism of its people in general.  Looking forward to some last-minute sightseeing tomorrow at Tsukiji market for breakfast then Harajuku and Ginza for some capitalist consumerist shopping (maybe fit in Akihabara again if I’m lucky – if not maybe the day after).  (Day 12, Granbell Hotel Shinjuku in Tokyo, 12:13 a.m.)**

Unfortunately, the fish market is closed Wednesdays (good thing I read the hotel info) we headed to Harajuku and Akihabara at night.  Harajuku was a nice surprise and had some really cool nooks and cranies to discover, the Meiji Ju shrine was a beautiful place to be on a FINALLY sunny day.  Wifey and son went to see a Cat and Owl themed café in Harajuku and we had a ramen in this hole in the wall, very tasty.  There we met “Noorah” who is a Music producer and knows the producer of Cirque De Soliel well – will email her soon to keep in touch.

Cherry blossom heaven

We headed back for a quick break and at night made our way to Akhibara where I eventually found a “Grendizer” sticker for my brother and we got an additional suitcase as a carry on for all our stuff.  Dinner in a Chinese restaurant where they had this very tasty Apricot liquor then headed back and now ready for our final day tomorrow.  Bittersweet as all good things come to an end, missing the routine back home to some extent especially for our son (his was suffering diet here) – but loved this place more than I thought and we stayed a good long time, longest trip in a long time.  Because of the length, we felt we got used to a certain rhythm here.  Dare I say it felt like a familiar home after a while. Best to savour the last day, the few hours left I should say.  As of now my favourite destination of all.  (Day 13, Granbell Hotel Shinjuku in Tokyo, 12:18a.m.)***

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