Take Four: Food and Tokyo

Lobster sandwich, fries and ginger ale

I was able to have a taste of different kinds of food from my trip to Tokyo last week. Unlike my previous trips to Japan where I defaulted to eating the same type of food over and over again per visit, I mustered all my will power to “stick to the plan”, which was to try out a variety this time.

I guess the only time I deviated from the plan was during breakfast, because the hotel I stayed at only had 2 options: Japanese or Continental. I tried the Japanese set the first day, and the next 3 days was Continental. The Japanese breakfast set comprised of fish, pickled fruit and veggies, salad, fresh fruits, miso soup and seaweed flakes. The Continental set comprised of yogurt, a variety of bread, jam and butter, eggs, bacon and sausage (I skipped the last 2).

Japanese breakfast set
Japanese breakfast set

For dinner, I discovered a great alternative which I think I’ll resort to again next time: the basement of big department stores near the train stations usually have food courts, so I opted to buy my food (in portions) from different food courts for two nights in a row, hence my “dinner with a view” from my hotel room.

Dinner with a view part 1
Dinner with a view part 1
Dinner with a view part 2
Dinner with a view part 2

For lunch I’ve had curry and naan, cold soba and unagidon, and shrimp tonkatsu. I’ve also had my sweet tooth satisfied with the variety of cakes and pastries available almost in every corner of Tokyo (because they’re also found in the convenience stores).

On my last night, I was able to try food from an Izakaya with my colleagues. We had sushi, tempura, edamame, and skewers.

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Different kinds of tempura
Different kinds of tempura

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Because it was hot and humid, the cold drinks available in the convenience stores did not disappoint. I was lucky to have discovered Mr Bean while panting and looking for something to drink around Shibuya station. It reminded me of the taho, a soybean drink that I used to have when I was a kid.

But I’m saving the best for last. I’ve had my first ever lobster sandwich a week ago when I was in Philadelphia, and just couldn’t get enough of it. I searched for a lobster sandwich place in Tokyo and luckily, there was one at Ginza called Luke’s Lobster. I had to navigate to this one, which was a couple of buildings away from Muji Ginza. I know it’s not Japanese food, but this one satisfied my lobster craving – the size of the sandwich was just right – it came with a pickle, fries and ginger ale.

Luke’s Lobster Ginza Tokyo
Luke’s Lobster Ginza Tokyo
Lobster sandwich, fries and ginger ale
Lobster sandwich, fries and ginger ale

 

A Maze of Books in Akihabara

Rows and rows of books

I discovered BookOff in Nagoya, when my friend brought me there earlier this year for thrift shopping. The store in Nagoya had a selection of various used items like books (since, well, it’s called BookOff after all), clothes, bags, and accessories. I had to return the next day to ‘complete’ my shopping as 2 hours of looking around was not enough.

During my trip to Tokyo this week, I had the afternoon off during my first day and initially planned to go to Shinjuku. As the train passed through Akihabara, though, I made a spur of the moment decision to check it out. Lo and behold I stumbled upon BookOff at Akihabara which was close to the train station. I thought it also had a selection of other vintage items, but soon found that this branch had mostly multimedia.

BookOff in Akihabara has 6 floors: the first and second floors were for games and electronics and have a wide selection of CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray. The books can be found from the third to the sixth floor: the third floor housed novels; the fourth floor held photographs, anime and illustration books both in hardcover and paperback; and the fifth and sixth floor have pocket sized comics, videos, and magazines.

I was amazed with the shelves of books. In the Philippines, whenever I have the time I’d browse around stores selling used books where I usually end up buying some good finds. In BookOff, customers laze around also reading through the books – I wish I could read Japanese because I probably would have spent hours here. I looked in vain for manga and anime books written in English, but as my Japanese colleagues say: “Why write them in English when they’re sold in Japan?” Oh well, I guess I’ll just look for the English versions online – or wait for them to be translated to English and shown on TV or film: like my favorites Samurai X (Rurouni Kenshin) and Waiting for Spring (Harumatsu Bokura).

 

Rows and rows of books
Rows and rows of books
J-Pop Collection of CDs
J-Pop Collection of CDs
Look, there's also K-Pop!
Look, there’s also K-Pop!

 

 

My Sweet Tooth

Royce Chocolates, a popular souvenir request from home

One thing I like about Japan is the multiple choices of eye-catching, mouth-watering confectionery. I guess even for those whose encounter with Japan is only through layovers at Narita or Haneda, a thing that stands out are the colorful, pretty boxes of chocolate or cakes at the duty free stores – usually flocked with tourists on a hoard-spree of these goodies.

In my last 4 visits to Tokyo this year I was lucky to get a chance to try out the different sweets cafes and food outlets (most of them at the basement of department stores, or at the basement of Tokyo Station) have to offer. Even convenience stores have them – truly a sweet tooth’s delight as they’ll never run out of options.

Two of my go to’s – when in Japan: Royce dark chocolate. I started with the refrigirated ones, and have discovered lately the regular bar ones. I brought it home to D and to my colleagues and it has become a popular request whenever I ask what they want me to bring home from Tokyo. There was a time D ate it all and left me frustrated as I opened the cupboard to find out it was all gone. So lesson learned – keep a stash for both of us for the rainy days.

Royce Black Chocolate

And lastly there’s the crepe cake at Cafe Veloce. Simple, not so eye-catching, but when I gave it a try I was hooked on its taste and texture: not too sweet and portion is just right. Goes well with coffee, it sure is a treat after a long day of walking about or just while seeking refuge from the wind or rain during thunderstorms.

Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine

We stumbled upon the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine one sunny Saturday morning as D and I walked further along Miyagawa River and past a grand Shinto shrine. What I liked about the road leading up to Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine were the well-preserved and neatly lined up of wooden houses. Even the wooden lamp posts were rustic.

Shinto Shrine and old private houses

Walk to Sakurayama Hachimangu ShrineWell preserved housesEn route to Sakurayama Hachimangu ShrineKnown as  Takayama’s oldest shrine, Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine was built sometime during the 4th century when writing down history was not yet widely done in Japan. Today, this garners at least a million visitors per year during the Takayama Autumn Festival in October, where large floats with mechanical dolls are lit up by lanterns and paraded through Takayama.

Way to Sakurayama Hachimangu shrineWooden gate to the shrineThe atmosphere in the shrine’s grounds was pristine. The sound of crows echoed in the background as I contemplated on the simplistic beauty of the wooden structure, surrounded by tall, strong trees.

A canopy of grand treesMore steps up

Why Japan’s convenience stores are literally, well, convenient

Rustic themed 711 across the old town

In Japan’s big cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, one wouldn’t have to look far to get to a convenience store, or what the locals call the konbini. Popular chains like 711, Family Mart and Lawson are located in every block, some even facing each other across the streets.

So what makes these convenience stores awesome?Rustic themed 711 across the old town

Availability and Reliability

Because they can be found almost everywhere (at least in the big cities), and they’re open 24×7, it surely is a relief that there’s always the konbini as a backup for a snack or a hot meal, especially late at night or early in the morning. They also accept credit card payments.

Drinks of different kinds

One time I arrived in Tokyo past midnight and was really craving for a good bowl of hot soba, and I simply had no more energy exploring the neighborhood after hours in transit. Luckily there was a Lawson store next to the hotel and they sell the ready to heat soba noodles with vegetable fritters (kakeage I think is what it’s called) – not the instant noodles one. The man at the cashier popped it in the microwave for me, and I enjoyed slurping on my hot tasty soba meal back at the hotel. It was the first time I had a ‘real meal’ from the konbini, and because I loved it, I had at least one in every trip thereafter.

Quick and easy meals

Variety of Goods

I can find almost anything in the konbini – from drinks of various kinds like juice, alcohol, brewed coffee, matcha latte, and soda; to food like ice cream, chips, hot meals, rice snacks, pasta, fruit and so much more!

Quick and easy meals

Aside from food, these stores also sell stationery, shirts, cell phone accessories, IQOS, and souvenirs.

Personally, I have bought items such as umbrellas, Muji shirts, stockings, pens, makeup, and a phone charger.

Night snack and sparkling wine from 711

Other Services

I haven’t tried it for myself but have seen customers send and receive items through the konbini.

These stores also have wifi and ATM.

Now ain’t that quite convenient? My fave fruity drink from Family Mart

Tsukiji Honganji Temple

Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple

he first time I saw the Tsukiji Honganji Temple,  I had to research what kind of a temple it was. Though a Buddhist temple, its architecture is a fusion of different styles – now I’m no expert but at first glance there’s a hint of Hindu style in its facade too.

It’s a few minutes by foot from the Kabuki Theatre in Ginza, and where Tsukiji Market used to be at.

In my recent trips to Tokyo I always missed it during the day. I would go there after sunset to contemplate. It sure is lovely to behold at night.

Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple
Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple

 

 

Kamikochi: Japan Alps

Clear waters of the Japan Alps

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience. ” — Paulo Coelho

The month of May went by so quickly, was travelling back and forth to my top country of destination, Japan.  There were times I would wake up in the middle of the night wondering where I was. I know it’s strange, but I kind of like that feeling:  the gradual realization of knowing where I am, followed by the relief that I still have a few hours to go until my alarm sets off in the morning.

Where do I even begin describing to you the best part of my trips to Japan this month? Before I ramble on, let me just put it out there: Kamikochi is by far the most beautiful place I have been to in Japan as of yet. I tried to capture it with my phone camera, but the pics don’t do it justice.

Clear waters of the Japan Alps
Clear waters of the Azusa River at the Northern Japan Alps

I wanted to spend more time at the off beaten places of Japan in our recent trip. So for the first time we flew to Nagoya and rode off for a couple of nights at Takayama.

Afterwards we took the bus to Hirayu Onsen, where we stayed for a night. From Hirayu Onsen we took another bus for a 25 minute drive to Kamikochi.

As the bus neared Kamikochi, my eyes started to feast on trees and snow capped mountains. The bus’ first stop was at the Taisho Pond, where I had a glimpse of lovely serene lake surrounded by mountains. This pond was formed when Mt. Yakedake erupted in 1915. We would have gotten off here and walked all the way up to the last stop, but since it was already afternoon, we were pressed for time (and we were told that the last bus back to Hirayu Onsen leaves at 5 o’clock). So I just admired Taisho Pond from a distance.

When we got off at the bus terminal at Kamikochi, I was even more impressed. The air was cool and fresh, the mountains were astounding, and the sound of birds chirping was icing on the cake. At the bus terminal was an information center where we got a walking map for 100 yen. We were showed different routes to take, and we decided to take the route from Kappa Bridge to Myojin-bashi Bridge which takes about two hours to complete.

I saw this sign showing the different birds that can be seen in Kamikochi and was determined to see several of them up close.

Birds of Kamikochi
A sign showing birds of Kamikochi. As soon as I saw this, I was pumped with excitement!

Kappa Bridge was just a few minutes’ walk from the bus terminal. We were greeted by the clear waters of the Azusa River. There was a lot of people on the Kappa Bridge, but as we started trekking our route, we lost the flock of tourists.

The path that we we took was pretty much next to the river. We passed through a campsite, and as we stopped there briefly, I imagined how surreal it must be to wake up to this scenery. I made a mental note to check out the accommodations in Kamikochi as I intend to go back.

Campsite in Kamikochi, the Japan Alps as a backdrop
Campsite in Kamikochi, with the Japan Alps as a backdrop

As we walked, we greeted people we met with “konnichiwa”. This is what I like about trekking: people actually greeting one another.

We stopped several times along the way to just take in the beauty of the surroundings. The two hours we had planned clearly was not enough! All my previous trips to Japan were mostly in the big cities, and this time I thought I have been missing out. Just as Japan’s cities are awesome and memorable, the countryside and its outdoors have more to offer to one’s senses. I realized I have more to explore in Japan. And this trip was a grand way to start wandering the unbeaten path. As these thoughts went through my mind, the birds seemed to agree as I heard a beautiful melody of chirps of different kinds (and got to record them too!).

Myojin-bashi Bridge, Kamikochi
Myojin-bashi Bridge, Kamikochi, about a couple of hours’ away from Kappa Bridge

When we neared the Myojin-bashi Bridge, we had a few close encounters with the furry Japan Macaques, or the Japan monkeys. They just freely walked about, minding their own business as did we (with a few stolen photo shots of course). I was glad that the tourists were all respectful of the monkeys’ privacy, and no one fed them or called out to them.

Monkey, deep in thought
A monkey, deep in thought. Probably thinking “who are these people in my backyard?”

Walking back, I whispered prayers of thanks for letting me see this amazing place. I looked at D and felt a joy in my heart for having embarked this this wonderful trip with him. I thought of my loved ones and hope I could share the beauty of Kamikochi to them. So for now, I am doing it through this blog. I know it’s not as close as to the real deal, but hopefully, one way or another, they could see.

A walk through the woods of Kamikochi
A walk through the woods of Kamikochi

 

Kamikochi is open from mid-April through November. For more information about this beautiful place in the Nagano Prefecture, visit their website at www.kamikochi.org.

Matsumoto Timepiece Museum

Largest pendulum clock in Japan

Matsumoto is a lovely city, and is the 2nd largest in the Nagano Prefecture in Japan. Coming from Hirayu Onsen, we arrived at Matsumoto through bus. It’s tourist destinations are pretty much walkable. We were off to the hotel when D spotted the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum on his Google Maps. Being a watch enthusiast that he is, I immediately agreed to check it out.

From the outside, we right away caught sight of a pendulum clock in Japan, which we later found is the biggest in Japan.

Largest pendulum clock in Japan
Largest pendulum clock in Japan

I was pretty touched when the lady at the reception gave me an origami souvenir. I honestly don’t know much about watches or clocks, so I came to the museum with an open mind.

On the first floor I saw how time was determined in ancient times like through sundials. There were also wall clocks stemming from medieval to modern times on display.

On the second floor, I saw several Japanese and Western timepieces, and mechanical and swinging clocks. I also saw a statue and photo of Mr. Chikazo Honda (1896-1985) who collected clocks since he was young and donated them to the city in 1974. Being an engineer, he fixed the clock collections and even produced a rolling ball clock.

Also on the second floor was an area where gramophones were displayed. A sign says they are scheduled to play three times a day.

I enjoyed browsing through the items exhibited in the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum. It’s amazing how most of the timepieces on display in the museum are still in good working condition up to this day!

Miyagawa River, Takayama

Miyagawa River, Takayama

I’m still trying to rank the things I liked most about my recent trip to the city of Takayama in Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture, and until now I am not able to complete my list. Is it the quaintness of the place or the overall peace I felt as I walked its streets marveling the wooden houses? Or interacting with the friendly and warm locals? Or is it the sound of the birds and the flowing waters of the Miyagawa river? Or the simple lifestyle of the locals where there seemed to be trust and respect to everyone or everything?

Nakabashi Bridge, Hida Takayama

I say that last bit as when D and I rented bicycles for our first day’s trip to Hida No Sato (also known as the Hida Folk Village), the guy at the rental place just got our names and contact numbers and off we went. While I was puffing away on my bike during an incline, the car behind me slowed down and waited patiently until I made it to the top. Also, on our first day while we sat in front of a fruit store happily slurping our shakes, we saw two elderly women who were walking around with baskets and tongs, picking up garbage to maintain the city’s cleanliness.

Miyagawa River, Takayama

So instead of finalizing a “rank” list, I’m writing this blog about the Miyagawa River, one of the places where I spent a longer time in compared to the Miyagawa Morning Market or the Takayama Old Town. It was this river that called to me the first time I saw it – with its clean clear waters, colorful big fish swimming about, and birds of different kinds flying over or going near me, hoping to get bits of treats. It was at this moment, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, where I realized that the peace and happiness of being one with nature, regardless of where in the world I am feeling it from, is universal.

Fish and duck, Miyagawa River

 

 

Magnificent Mastumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

I used to think all castles in Japan looked the same until I started paying attention to history, art, and traditions. So when I planned this recent trip to Japan, I decided to include Matsumoto City, the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture, in our itinerary. Originally, our trip was exclusively just within the mountainous Gifu Prefecture, but when I saw photos of the Matsumoto Castle, I figured it will be worth travelling another couple of hours from Hirayu Onsen.

Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle

Mastsumoto Castle, locally referred to as “Matsumotojō“, is one of the top 3 most beautiful original castles in Japan, next to Kumamoto Castle and Himeji Castle. In contrast to the white Himeji Castle (known as the White Heron), Matsumoto Castle is black, and is also known as the Crow Castle. It is built on a plain instead of on a hill. It was built during the Sengoku period, or the “Warring State” period during Japan’s civil unrest. It started as a simple fort but was later on strengthened with defensive works in the late 1500s.

Matsumoto Castle, Japan
Matsumoto Castle, Japan

The castle grounds are enclosed by 3 original moats. The main keep, built between 1593-1594, was declared a national treasure in 1952.

Upon entering the castle, we took off our shoes. Climbing up the stairs was no easy feat as the steps were awkwardly high and narrow.

The tenshu (donjon tower) was used primarily for warfare. The second floor was where the armory was kept, and where the warriors assembled. It had distinctive warrior windows at the east, west and south walls.  I brooded over the openings used by archers and the ishiotoshi (stone drops). The openings were very strategic and gave a good vantage point on all angles surrounding the castle, and the ishiotoshis must have not given any chance for climbers of the castle to succeed.

The third floor was dark and had no windows and was considered to be the safest area as it was likewise a secret and could not be seen from the outside. The fourth floor was temporary private area where the lord stayed during emergencies. The fifth floor was where the tactical meetings took place.

The sixth floor lies 22.1 meters above the ground and is covered by tatami mats. This floor was designed as the warlord’s headquarters if the castle was under attack. On this floor is a shrine for the goddess of the 26th night of the month, Nijoruku-yashinLegend has it that on the 26th of January, on the year 1618, a young vassal on duty had a vision of a woman dressed in beautiful clothes handing him a bag. She told him that if the lord of the castle enshrines her with 500 kilos of rice on the 26th of each month, she would protect the castle against enemy and fire. It is believed that because of this bag, the castle was preserved and is now the oldest of its form.

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The view from the sixth floor was spectacular – I saw the distant mountain ranges surrounding Matsumoto. How lucky for the locals to be waking up to these mountains everyday! I’d imagine the views would be beautiful in every season.

My favorite part of the castle would be the Moon-Viewing Wing which is connected to the Main Tower’s west side. These days, there are only two castles in Japan with a moon-viewing room: this, and Okayama Castle. The room was built during an era of peace following the warring states period, and had vermilion balcony with openings to the east, north and south. It also has a vaulted ceiling. As I looked out from the room, I daydreamed it was a tranquil night, crickets softly chirping, and I was looking out from the balcony. Oh how beautiful the sight must be!

Moon-vieiwing wing in the Matsumoto Castle
Moon-vieiwing wing in the Matsumoto Castle

I wrap up this post with a mood that longs for the big bright moon. This is what I’m listening to as I write this.

 

 

Takayama: Old Town

Takayama Old Town

What comes to mind when you think of a trip to Japan?

With this trip, my friends asked me if I was revisiting the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. When I replied that this time we were going to the more laid back places like Takayama and Kamikochi, almost all of them would give me a thoughtful look and ask where’s that?

Takayama, a quiet city in the the mountainous Gifu Prefecture of Japan, is famous for a lot of things like the hida beef, its museums and temples, the nearby tourist destinations like Kamikochi and Shinhotaka Rope-way, and the well preserved Old Town, Kami-Sannomachi, which serves as the commercial hub since way back during the Edo period. The Old Town is walking distance from the Takayama Train and Bus station (around ten minutes’ walk).

From the train station, we walked across the Miyagawa River and came to see two bronze statues facing each other in the middle of the Kajibashi Bridge. These statues are called Ashi-naga and Tenaga. Ashi-naga is a long legged goblin, while Tenaga is a long armed goblin. According to folklore, the two work as a team, where Tenaga would climb over Ashi-naga’s back so they can harvest fish and catch small creatures.

A couple of blocks after crossing the bridge, we passed through stores and houses in the Old Town. They were quite remarkable. Even the 711 across the street had a similar rustic theme to it.

Rustic themed 711 across the old town
Rustic themed 711 across the old town

On our first day, we got to the Old Town a tad bit too late as the stores close at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It was still quite surreal walking through the narrow picturesque streets – there were canals on both sides of the road flowing with clear water. I was amazed at this – I wish we had the same in my city.

The old town past business hours
The old town past business hours

On the next day, after kicking off the day with a breakfast and stroll through the Miyagawa Morning Market, we headed right to the Takayama Old Town. It was teeming with tourists, and there were already queues at the restaurants as it was around lunch time. Because it was warm and sunny that day, we took it as good timing to enter the stores and check them out.

Water chilled soda
Water chilled soda

There were several souvenir shops selling wooden crafts and trinkets, local snacks, and sarubobo dolls. There were also several shops selling the hida beef skewers, sake, and other local delicacies. We also saw a man pulling on a rickshaw for tourists.

Waiting at an intersection at the old town
Waiting at an intersection at the old town

One of the best finds that I had in the Takayama Old Town is Cafe Ao, a Japanese cafe quietly tucked in one of the wooden stores near the Old Town’s entrance. What caught my attention was the mat floor and the irori, the Japanese sunken hearth used as a fireplace and heater in the olden days. The first time I learned about the irori was during our trip to Hida Folk Village (Hida No Sato) on our first day in Takayama.

Irori at the entrance of Cafe Ao

All guests had to take off their shoes upon entering, and we made our way to the inner part of the building, where I was delighted to see a couple of zen gardens surrounding the cafe. There were lovely wooden furniture in the cafe, and some guests who opt to sit on the floor could do so. I got us green tea, coffee and a seasonal cake. The whole dining experience was very relaxing and precious. The seasonal cake was so yummy, and D liked the lovely touches of sweets included with his green tea.

If you are in Takayama, don’t forget to check out the Old Town. You’ll be amazed by the rustic simplicity of this place, a perfect getaway (and I’d say a 180 degree turn) from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities of Japan like Tokyo. Be prepard to travel back in time as you walk through Takayama’s quaint streets and meeting its friendly locals.

Takayama Old Town

 

 

 

 

 

Curious About Cats

Cute kitty

For a long time I’ve always been a dog person. Lately, thanks to volunteering experiences for animals, I’ve been exposed to cats, and admittedly there is something about them that intrigues me.

I learned to appreciate cats – at a distance. I am a bit scared how they would react it I touch them, because as far as I know, unlike dogs, they would prefer to be left alone, and would come to me if and when they can be bothered.

Maybe it’s destiny – while we were walking home to our hotel in Nagoya the other day, the words cat cafe popped out of my Maps. And it was right along the way. So, despite how tired we were from walking (and finding away) around Nagoya, I asked D to wait for me so I can at least say hello to the cats of Cat Cafe Mocha Nagoya Sakae.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the cabin-designed cafe teeming with cuddly and fluffy cats of different colors (I am not at all familiar with any cat breed). Because I had just a few coins in my pocket, I only availed of the 10-minute pass. The other more expensive option was an all day pass with unlimited drinks.

Some of the rules in the cat cafe were taking off my shoes and leaving them and my bag in the locker; sanitizing my hands; no flash photography; and keeping quiet so as not to scare the cats. Guests were also asked not to grab and pick up the cats.

When I got in I headed to a lazily lounging gray cat. Gray cat had a very fluffy neighbor seated high above and was looking down at me with what seemed to me was bored curiosity. A few minutes later, Fluffy was fast asleep. I was so amazed by Fluffy’s paw – it was like a stuffed toy’s paw: pink and black. This is my first time to see a paw of this kind. Pardon me but I just had to take a photo of this rare spectacle.

I just have to take a photo of this cutie paw

I tried to take selfies with the cats, but I’m not really good at those. But one thing I was able to finally do was give a couple of the cuddly cats some light strokes on their heads. I’d like to think they liked it we no one scratched me.

Cute kitty

Ten minutes went by so quickly. A cheeky little fellow tried to squeeze in through the door as I exited. I envied the staff who gently picked the cat up. I wish I could feel that relaxed with cats. I’d really want to adopt one someday soon.

Sarubobo Doll

Beer kegs and Hida’s Sarubobo doll

Beer kegs and Hida’s Sarubobo doll

A sarubobo doll is a mascot of Japan’s Hida region. Hida is located at the northern part of the Gifu Prefecture known for its hot springs and serene looking mountains.

Sarubobo literally translates to ‘monkey baby’. It is shaped like a human but with no facial features. Mothers and grandmothers used to make these dolls for children, and is believed to bring blessings and good fortune.

Majority of the sarubobo dolls I saw in Takayama were colored red. I learned that different colors signify different meanings: like red is for marriage and family; gold is for money; blue is for good fortune at work or in school; black wards off evil; pink is for love; green is for peace and health; and purple is for longevity.

In Takayama, sarubobo dolls were everywhere. They were in shops’ entrance doors, and hung as offerings at the Kokubunji Temple. When we reached Hirayu Onsen en route to Kamikochi for a closer look at the Japan alps, we saw what is claimed to be Hida’s largest sarubobo doll at the bus station.

I personally think that while it’s a cute souvenir, what struck me about the sarubobo dolls is how sweet it must have been for children in the past to have received a handmade doll from their moms or grandmothers. It’s the labor of love and the personal touch that the elders put in to bring happiness to their children – it was just precious. We gazed on these dolls I came to remember times my mom would help me with my school projects when I was younger. D recalled the time his mom made a volcano for him when he was a child.

There’s so much simple but thoughtful crafts and activities that I am learning more about in this trip to Japan. I’ll write about these other touches of art soon.

First Onsen Ever

View of Mt Yarigatake from Hirayu Onsen bus station

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

I’ve thought about this for some time before I made a conscious decision to do one thing I have never done before. And this recent trip to Japan was my window of opportunity: try out an onsen.

Onsen is a natural hot spring bath. Japan has lots of these. Dipping into an onsen is said to relax the body and has benefits for the skin. It had never beem something that appealed to me though, as what’s daunting for me is that most onsens that I know of are communal, and one has to totally strip naked to be able to take a dip. In these public onsens, males and females are separated – but I don’t think I can still do an all naked stint in front of total strangers, even for the purpose of relaxation.

Until I booked our trip to the Japan alps. I intentionally included in our itinerary an overnight stay at one of the onsen towns, Hirayu Onsen because it is located halfway across Takayama and our ultimate hiking destination, Kamikochi. I figured D and I would need an onsen bath after a tiring day of trekking.

Hirayu Onsen is the oldest of five onsen towns on Okuhida valley. It was discovered in the 1560s, and is now basically the hub to Kamikochi and Shinhotaka (where the famous double decker gondola, the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway, leading up to the highest point where tourists can view the mountains is found).

I honestly did not know what to expect – from what I showed in the map it’s a little speck compared to Takayama. I was also a bit nervous as I only had a few thousand yens on hand, so I made a mental note to look for the ATM as soon as we got off the bus.Hirayu Onsen: our BnB’s backyard

When we arrived at the bus station I was awestruck by the surrounding mountains and the view of the alps at a distance. The climate was cooler compared to the first cities we visited, and there were still several cherry blossom trees that added color to the already picturesque town. True to its onsen name, there is a footbath at the waiting area of the bus station. On the second floor is a window view of the peaks of the Japan Alps, and Hida’s largest sarubobo doll is displayed.

View of Mt Yarigatake from Hirayu Onsen bus station

Our B&B, Tsuyukusa, was a 3 minute walk from the station. On the way to the B&B we could hear the constant flow of water. There were several establishments that we passed by that had steaming water fountains in front of their property.

Tsuyukusa BnB, Hirayu Onsen

The Tsuyukusa staff were very warm, and they gave us a simple welcome gift. Our room was Japanese-style, with tatami mats, wooden floor and sliding doors. There were 3 private onsen baths in the B&B: 2 indoor and 1 outdoor. Guess which one D and I used?

Private outdoor bath, Hirayu Onsen

What we learned from using the onsen is that we had to take a shower first before dipping in. There were small stools and basins next to the tub. The towels had to be left at the lounge, and there were reminders not to run around and make loud noises in the onsen area.

The outdoor onsen gave us a view of the mountains, and the hot water was indeed relaxing. We enjoyed the hot spring bath for only for about ten minutes as hot baths tend to increase blood pressure. Later as we went to bed and all througout our stay, the constant sound of gushing water could be heard – it’s almost like sleeping on the beach where the sound of the waves is nonstop.

There was no ATM at Hirayu Onsen, and there were no restaurants that accepted credit cards. Luckily the souvenir shop at the train station accepted credit card payments. Other than this hiccup, I’d say our overnight stay in Hirayu Onsen was a unique, surreal experience, and will definitely be something I’d always remember Japan for.

And since this blog is all about my first time doing something I haven’t done before, this is a perfect song to cap it off.

Takayama’s Hida Kokubunji Temple

Hida Kokubunji Temple

After a long day walking and biking the streets of Hida Takayama, it was a toss between getting an early snooze or grabbing a bite first. Grudgingly I agreed to eat out, as I am sure that as soon as I hit the sack I couldn’t be bothered to go out later on for late night snack.

Off we walked from the hotel to the bus terminal, as most of the restaurants at the Old Town were closed after 5 o’clock. And then we heard a couple of deep loud barks – an all-too familiar sound that shook my sleepiness off in an instant. About fifty yards ahead of us was a yellow labrador tied to the wooden gate of Hida Kokubunji Temple.

Hida Kokubunji Temple

I admit it was the first time I realized there was a temple at this side of the road, and so near to the hotel where we were staying. It is an old Buddhist temple with a triple layer pagoda, a bell tower and a huge gingko tree. Inspecting the tree up close, I read that it is a natural national monument, with an age approximately 1200 years old. It was believed in the past that when the leaves of the gingko tree fall off, it would snow in Takayama. Now the people of Takayama cherish the tree as a symbol of changing seasons.

The Great Gingko of Kokubun-jiThe pagoda is about 500 years old, and the main temple is the oldest structure in Takayama, built in year 757. The wooden gate, where we met our new found friend, was inherited by the temple when the Takayama Castle was destroyed in 1695.

Hida Kokubunji Temple bellI guess finding this historical gem is icing on the cake. The highlight of this discovery, really, is this good boy who gamely greeted everyone who entered the gates and warmed up to those who stroked his fur. He reminds me of Rex, who I miss terribly. If he could only be with us in this trip, he would have loved to splash around the cool waters of the Miyagawa River.

Sweet labrador who called us to check out the temple

Japan, Always

Hachiko

Every year since 2010, D and I go at least annually to The Land of the Rising Sun. A little over four hours away by flight from Manila, Japan is the number one travel destination in my list at any given time. It is where I can walk around without a solid itinerary on hand, as I am sure I would manage to get lost, stumble upon interesting finds and learn a few things. D and I are also always amazed at this country’s cleanliness, the order and discipline of the Japanese people, the way we feel safe walking its streets, and the people’s overall respectful nature. Our favorite seasons are spring (cherry blossoms!) and autumn.

Tokyo, day and night
Tokyo, day and night

During our first few visits, D and I had our share of tourist boo-boos. We’ve missed a couple of trains and platforms because of the complexity of the subway system. It was something easily rectified later on as we figured the different trains are color coded, and each station has their respective “codes”. In Tokyo, there is a massive underground network connecting the subway stations – and admittedly this is something that we have yet be familiar on. For now, we still just wing it every single time.

In the trains and buses, I always get overwhelmed by the silence – in a good way. It’s something that I only see in Japan – people do not talk on their phones. I was told that they do not make calls or keep their phones on silent when in transit out of consideration and respect to the people around them. I wish we can have that in my city.

Walkway
Picturesque path outside the office

Lastly, what I admire about the Japanese is the way they take pride in their work and craft. It’s always a treat to eat at the restaurants, or buy Japanese-made souvenirs because of the way they are carefully prepared. During my last visit a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having a couple of multi-course Japanese dinners. Several small plate meals were served one at a time: a variety of colors, textures, and tastes. I thought I’ve already had a taste of all kinds of Japanese food, and boy that was an eye opener – Japanese cuisine is so vast. This makes me excited to discover more in our upcoming visit – that, and the fact that we go off the beaten track for a change.

Various Japanese dishes
Various Japanese dishes

Have you been to Japan? What do you like most about it?

 

 

Cee’s Black & White Challenge

Transportation

Can’t get enough of these fun photo challenges 😄

Here’s my response to Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge on Public transportation (no cars or trucks).

This one’s taken Narita Airport, showing one of the best airlines in my opinion. Transportation

And this one’s taken while I was walking along the Chicago river.

Transportation

Always Excited to Fly to Narita

Narita

What I look forward to when traveling is experiencing the culture. On the other hand, if there’s any part of traveling that I’d rather skip it’s the wait time – from the boarding, to layovers, to the actual flight. To make good use of the wait time I would have my ebooks ready, or connect to the WIFI and surf away. So I usually end up having tired and strained eyes from all the reading.

It’s different, though, in the case of all my wait times in the Narita International Airport in Japan. I actually look forward to every couple of hours’ stay here, and I feel like I discover new places or things to do in this airport every time I check in or drop by for a connecting flight.

Just like most places in Japan, the Narita International airport is efficient, safe and clean. The airport staff is polite and accommodating. WIFI is free, and connection is fast. On top of these, here are what sets the Narita International Airport apart for me:

Information at my fingertips

Narita has a chatbot named Bebot that travelers can use as airport reference guide. I was able to use this on my iPhone during my last trip, when I asked how to get to another other terminal. The responses were quick, accurate and delivered in a conversational tone.  After my questions were answered I was asked what I thought of the airport – and of course I gave it a thumbs up and said I loved it. Bebot’s response to this was rather very charming.

Narita Observation Deck

In Terminal 1 we were able to access the observation deck where we could view the airplanes on the runway. Access is free and the deck is located at the fifth floor. The deck is enclosed with steel fence, and there were several benches.

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View from the observation desk

NAA Art Gallery

Located at the fifth floor of Terminal 1 is the NAA Art Gallery. At the time, photographs of Mt. Fuji taken from different angles and seasons were being displayed. The photographers were friendly and even gave me and my husband a photo souvenir each.

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NAA Art Gallery at Terminal 1

Baggage storage

My last trip to Tokyo was for three days, and it was a stopover coming from North America en route to the Philippines. I did not want to tow my big luggage with me in the city, so I opted to avail of the baggage storage services of the airport. After paying the fee (around 520 yen per day for my medium-sized bag), I was given a claim stub and off I went. It was such a relief and convenience walking luggage-free to the city and to my hotel.

Postal service

The post office is located at the fourth floor of Terminal 1. I was able to send the postcards which I bought from the souvenir shops to family and friends abroad.

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Post office at Terminal 1

Japanese cultural experience

Travelers can get to experience the traditional culture of Japan through dressing in samurai armor and having a photo taken as a souvenir; or hands on experience on Ukiyo-e printing. Allow for at least an hour before boarding to be able to participate in this as there may be a queue.  I was able to take home my Ukiyo-e print, frame and display it.

At Terminal 1 the Kabuki exhibit shows costumes, wigs, and accessories. I am always amazed by the colorful displays in this gallery.

Souvenirs

I like Japanese souvenirs because they’re yummy, cute, colorful, and unique. My favorite purchases are green tea, doll-shaped rice crackers, Royce Nama chocolates, different flavored Kitkats, and Tokyo Banana. The stationery and pastries in the souvenir shops are packaged so nicely, I’m sometimes hesitant to take off the wrapping.

So far these are what I discovered and enjoy whenever I am at the Narita International  Airport. I’m sure I’ll have more visits to come (Japan is my favorite holiday destination!) and I will find more places and activities to rave about.

Have you been to Narita International Airport? What did you think of it?