Gardens and Kindess: Hisaya Odori, Tokugawaen, & One Treasured Umbrella

We are at the end of my stories about this recent visit to Nagoya. I saved a special story of human awesomeness for this last post because nowadays I feel like we need all the random acts of kindness available. I’ve also collected the various encounters I enjoyed with the city’s greenery and gardens. I love living an urban life for so many reasons: transportation, culture, food, a wide variety of craft beers… but after spending so much of my life near trees I get antsy if I’m not next to one for a while. Nagoya could give any green city a run for it’s money as far as that goes, and although the Atsuta Jinju Shrine was far and away the most immersive natural experience, there were other treasures around town worth mentioning.


The Nagoya Green Belt, Hisaya Odori

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photo credit: ume-y

Hisaya Odori is one of the main streets in Nagoya, and it runs through the Sakae neighborhood for about 2km. It’s filled with flower gardens, green grassy spots, beautiful fountains, the Nagoya TV tower and the Oasis 21 center, plus some truly large trees. It’s like a lovely green ribbon in the heart of downtown. I adore this and want one in every city.

After shopping in Osu, and the surprise dance show in Sakae, we headed over to the Hisaya-odori Garden Flarie, which is a cross between a botanical garden and an outdoor barbecue restaurant. It’s free to enter and explore. That day I was greeted with a magical rose maze filled with hundreds of varieties of roses in full bloom. It smelled amazing! It wasn’t huge, but it was so packed with flowers I felt completely overwhelmed! In a good way. I wasn’t the only one appreciating the blooms, as an entire photography class had come out with their very expensive cameras to have a chance at the wonderful backdrops.

Once I made it through the roses, I found a small lake surrounded by more flower beds. One of the city’s giant crows was having a bath in the stream feeding into the pond, and didn’t seem at all bothered by the humans wandering around. Finally, my flower power boost wound down and we plopped into some comfy chairs to listen to the live music.

Beer Festival Walk Through

Later that evening we ran into the Belgian Beer Festival taking up about two blocks worth of the park, so we decided to stroll around as an after dinner food-settling walk. It did look like a decent beer selection was available, however, it was set up more like a beer garden than a tasting festival. A glass was 8$, and although tickets to get it filled were 2$ each most beers were 3-5 tickets. They were good looking beers from nice craft breweries, so I don’t mean to suggest they weren’t worth 6-10$ a pint. However, neither of us really wanted a keepsake glass, and we found it a little sad there was no option for tasting available.

photo of the 2014 Belgian Beer Festival in Nagoya from the event website

A few years ago I ran into a wine festival in Prague that had what strikes me as the perfect set up. Five dollars for the glass (a better price point), and then wine could be had in “taste” portions (1-2 oz) for a single ticket, or full glass portions for more tickets. This allowed guests to taste several wines without going broke or getting drunk, and then settle into buying full glasses or even bottles of their favorites. Beer is so filling, I couldn’t imagine drinking even a full pint after my wonderfully huge meal of Hitsumabushi, let alone drinking enough to even taste the 3-4 beers that had caught my eye. Still, it was fun to see what was on display, and it was a nice slow post-meal walk before we turned up the speed to find the subway.

Tokugawa gardens

20180508_151625Tickets to the Tokugawa Gardens can be purchased at the same time you buy your Nagoya Castle ticket (combo ticket ftw) which gets you a slight discount if you are planning to do both, but does not include the art museum at the gardens.

After I finished at the castle grounds I took the Me-Guru tourist bus to the next stop, Tokugawa Gardens. The Me-Guru stop is on the opposite side of Castle from where I came in, but the ladies at the ticket office were well familiar with the bus I was looking for and gave me directions. If you do take the Me Guru TO Nagoya Castle, just be aware it will pass you through a little “village” with food and shops. I am not sure if the golden ice cream is in that one as well, but you can get your hand stamped at any gate should you want to exit and return later on the same day.

I finally found the Me Guru stop, but the first golden bus to pull up was going to the wrong place! I thought like most hop-on-hop-off buses it would be a single circular route, but I was mistaken. Be sure you ask the driver if he’s going to your stop when you get on (no need for elaborate Japanese, they mostly know the stop names). In my case, the driver advised me to hop back off and let me know about what time the bus I actually wanted would arrive. Very kind and helpful.

I ended up waiting for about 30 minutes. It probably would have taken about the same amount of time to walk over to a subway/ regular bus station and go from there… maybe? But I didn’t have WiFi to check any alternate route and it honestly felt nice to just sit still for a while after walking the palace grounds all morning. If I’d checked the Me Guru routes and schedules better, I could easily have spent that time in the little village of shops I passed between the castle and the bus stop, so that’s on me.

For more info on how to use the Me Guru, see my post about Nagoya Castle.

20180508_151313The golden bus drops you off right at the gates to the gardens, and I was able to show my combo ticket to get in with no trouble. The gardens start out with a main square that houses the entrance gate and the museum (which I did not go in that day). There is a large lake to walk around and feed koi fish in. The koi are ginormous. Biggest koi I have ever laid eyes on. I think there are smaller tuna. Some were close to a meter. There were also many colors, mainly the gold color and the calico mix of orange, black and white, but there were also ghostly solid black koi that were invisible even a few cm under the water until they broke the surface. They were like swimming shadows of fish. It was fascinating to watch.

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Near one edge of the lake, the concrete path leads right up to the edge of the water and the fish are clearly used to associating humans with food because they come in droves as soon as any two-legs gets within sight of the water. I was able to get some very close up photos of the koi who were trying to see if my phone was edible. Good thing they don’t have teeth!

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I thought about circling the lake because it was quite pretty, but the rain was beginning to patter around and I had left my umbrella at the restaurant the night before, and had passed exactly zero convenience stores that day so far to buy a replacement. It was still light rain, and it was warm, but it’s hard to take sweeping vista photos of a beautiful body of water in the gray drizzle. I decided to head into the trees for shelter and to see if I could find some more picturesque views.

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The woods are criss-crossed with paths and stairs that lead all around what is a fairly small area. Despite it’s diminutive size, the paths all lead to new and unique viewpoints. I found a little rest area/ cottage at the top of a low hill. It looked like a great place to hide from the sun or rain. There was also a small suikinkutsu, a traditional garden ornament made in such a way that the water falls onto an upturned pot and makes a kind of chiming sound. I don’t know if this one was clogged or broken, but I could not hear the sound it is famous for making at the time I was there. You can hear a sample on the wikipedia page, though.

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Next, I found the river that fed both from and into the lake in a kind of faux natural fountain. There were more of the shadow koi dancing in smaller ponds around the woods. I watched butterflies flitter through the trees looking for the recently departed spring flowers. I found an inch worm that I tried desperately to photograph, but he was just moving so fast that everything is blurry. It was still fun to watch the little bug I know only from kids songs.

Although the spring flowers were gone, and the summer flowers were not yet blooming, I did find one fascinating splash of color among the green leaves. The Japanese maple trees were putting out “helicopter” seeds that were bright pink! Not autumn leaf red, no… like hyper-Barbie pink. They very tips of the green leaves took on the same pink hue. This was beyond fascinating to me, not only because I had no idea leaves could be pink, but because there’s no reason for it. Flowers evolved colored petals to attract insects (and other animals) that will help spread the pollen and fertilize more plants. The maple seeds are wind blown. The helicopter blades fly on the wind. Any kid who ever lived near any such seed bearing tree has played games watching how far the spinning seeds will go. They don’t need insects to be attracted, so why the heck are they pink?

20180508_153348Finally, because I can’t take a vacation without finding the waterfall, I found the waterfall. I am reasonably sure given the size of the park that the river and falls are man-made, but they don’t look like artificial fountains, they look like natural waterways. It’s a specialty of Japanese gardens to cultivate nature in a pleasing manner while still maintaining the natural beauty.

About that Umbrella?

Sometime while I was in the trees, the rain really picked up and when I came back into the open, it was definitely umbrella weather, and I still didn’t have one. Plus, the map indicated that my walk to the nearest public transit station was just over 1km, a distance I don’t mind walking in better weather.

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I decided it was time to leave the gardens. I could have spent much more time there in better weather, but even in the rain I feel like it was worth the entrance fee and the walking around time. It truly is a beautiful and relaxing place. I pulled up my map (satellite map works even without data or WiFi) and oriented myself to find the park exit nearest my destination. I double checked with the ladies at the gate on my way out that I was heading the right way. I love Google Maps, but I still like double checking.

With a 1km+ walk ahead, I was sure that I’d pass any kind of convenience store on my way between the gardens and the station where I could re-umbrella myself, but it was very residential. I know Korea has an insane number of convenience stores, but most places I’ve been in Japan have a reasonable number (at least one every couple blocks) or if they don’t have those, then they have tourist stands selling stuff which always includes umbrellas on rainy days for people who forgot theirs. The neighborhood around Tokugawa is bereft of all these.

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artist credit: Rolfyram

Some way into my walk, I just became committed to being wet. I was on my way back to the apartment after all, so I just had to survive the subway and I could get a hot shower and a change. Then suddenly, a kind faced Japanese lady came up beside me. She spoke rather quickly, but I came to understand that she was offering to share her umbrella space with me as we walked in the same direction. As we walked along the otherwise abandoned streets, she asked me the usual foreigner questions: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc. I was struggling with my Japanese all week because it kept getting mixed up in my brain with Korean and I felt embarrassed by my total inability to string together a sentence, but she was patient and kept at it, smiling the whole time.

When she asked where I was going and I told her, she was completely shocked. But that’s so far! Yes, I know, but I’ll be ok, I’m going back to my friend’s house next. She tutted a bit more about the distance and when we came to the intersection where we would part ways she began to give me her umbrella. This was no cheap conbini umbrella, it was a nice, heavy, decorated affair. I shook my head and gestured for her to keep it while trying again to explain I would be ok. I’m not going to melt however often my students say I’m a witch. But she insisted further.

I remember learning back in my first year of Japanese classes that it is necessary to refuse 3 times to be really sure, and while I would certainly have appreciated an umbrella, I felt awkward accepting such a nice one from a stranger. So I refused again, and again she insisted, telling me her house was just across the street. And a third time, really are you sure, I will be ok, you shouldn’t do that. And a third time she offered the umbrella, so I finally decided I should accept it with grace and gratitude. I thanked her profusely and bowed. She was grinning from ear to ear, so I think somewhere she’s telling the other version of this story where she got to rescue a poor foreign visitor in her neighborhood. It was such a nice umbrella, it kept me dry all the way home, and I made the effort to get it on the plane back to Korea because even though it didn’t fit in my carry on luggage, it’s too precious a souvenir to leave behind.

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That night we feasted on conbini food and managed to make some working rubrics for her essay classes. The next morning I made the long trek back to the airport and my home in Korea. Because she and I both live a bit far from our airports, it’s still about 6 hours of total transit time from my house to hers. Too long for a regular weekend, but I hope for another long one where I can go back and see some of the things I missed or at least see the best ones in better weather.

Less than a week till I’m wheels up again. It’s getting down to the wire trying to finish my end of semester work at the University and get my trip planned out enough to be sure I can get tickets to everything I really want, and have back up plans for when I can’t. I hope you enjoyed Nagoya. Thanks for reading!

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Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

Food of Nagoya: Tebasaki, Hitsumabushi & Kishimen oh my!

I don’t think that I ever truly appreciated food tourism for most of my life. Of course I like to eat locally, to try new foods, to sample the regional cuisine, but I’ve never made it a goal. It was always more of a side quest, a “since I’m here anyway, I might as well”. I thought I was doing quite well given the (not inaccurate) stereotype about American (and British) tourists who like to go to exotic places and then eat familiar foods. I thought my willingness to try was good enough. What did I know?


I have noticed since living in Korea that there is a strong feeling bordering on obsession with the famous foods of any given tourist destination. Not only outside of Korea, but regionally within the country as well. If you go to a certain place, it was taken as given that you MUST get some of the locally famous food. To do otherwise was simply unthinkable.

As my friend and I sat waiting for our food, I shared this observation with her and she made a politely stiffled “wtf whypipo” sound and tried not to look completely aghast. Her family is from Mexico (yes, she’s American) and she explained to me that as a Latina, for her and her family (and her culture as far as she is aware) it’s always about the food. I have to admit, I did feel a little abashed, but I have no reason to cling to my old ideas. I usually enjoy the hell out of eating locally, so why NOT make it part of my to-do list rather than merely adjacent to it?

Tebasaki

20180505_175507Our first famous food sight was Yamachan, a chicken joint that is usually so popular that wait times can be over an hour. Yamachan is famous for chicken wings. Initially, I was very skeptical since I get plenty of chicken in Korea, but when we arrived we were sufficiently early as to be able to get a table. We had to take the smoking section, but it was still clear air when we were seated.

Smoking sections? Yeah, Japan has relegated smoking to a few small designated areas. You can’t just smoke anywhere, even outdoors. There are designated smoking spots with ashtrays. Some are open air, while others are actually a glass booth to protect passersby from the second hand fumes. Since people can’t just step onto the sidewalk for a smoke, restaurants have smoking sections. These are also cordoned off with floor to ceiling walls and sometimes even a double door airlock system to keep the smell from entering the non-smoking section.

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photo credit: Yusuke Kawasaki

Back to the chicken wings. Nagoya is famous for tebasaki, a crispy fried pepper spiced chicken wing. There’s no batter, so the wings are just fried nice and crispy on the outside, but moist on the inside. They are coated with a lightly spicy salt and pepper flavor that was zingy and enjoyable. Plus, each order comes with instructions on how to eat the wings Nagoya style (and get all the meat off in one swipe!). I found later that a lot of people consider these wings to be “quite spicy” so Korean cuisine might have impacted my spice meter, as I only found it pleasantly zingy.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

As we finished our plate of wings, the restaurant was filling up and the smoke was getting thicker so it was time to move on. After the tebasaki appetizer, our main course was to be conveyor belt sushi.

We arrived at Sushiro, the famous 100yen restaurant, only to discover that going to a popular restaurant on a Saturday night that is also a holiday means a long wait. Quelle suprise! The good news was that we’d already had some chicken wings, and it was our first time to catch up since parting ways in February, so the waiting area was just a place to sit down and chat by then.

photo credit: アジロウ

This was a true dollar menu style conveyor belt place. Any dish that came by on a plain yellow plate was up for grabs and only 100 yen. If you wanted something specific, you could use the little computer at each table to place an order. I got some of my favorites (unagi, fatty tuna, salmon roe and more) and proceeded to stuff my face with sushi. It’s amazing to me that even though Korea and Japan are separated by only a narrow strip of ocean and both are heavy seafood consumers, the difference in ingredients and flavors is mind-blowing. Even in Japanese sushi restaurants in Korea, I have trouble finding things like tuna and eel. Salmon roe? Forget about it. I was in sushi heaven until I thought my tummy would explode and then the waitress came by to calculate our bill. She did this by measuring our stack of plates! They don’t even have to count, since each plate is the same height, they just hold up a special ruler and then type up the bill.

Two of us stuffing ourselves was still less than 12$. Japan doesn’t have to be expensive.

Morning Service

20180507_100913Amid the many things that I found to try while in Nagoya is the “morning service”. Many of the cafes around town have begun to offer a light breakfast (egg and toast or ogura toast) for free (“service” in Japanese) with any order of coffee. Sunday morning my friend and I headed over to Komeda Coffee. This cute little coffee shop is a chain restaurant famous for it’s special morning service of thick, fluffy, buttery toast and red bean paste, also known locally as “ogura toast”. While lots of places in east Asia love sweet red bean paste in pastry (I eat it in Korea all the time), Nagoya got famous for ogura toast by adding… wait for it… margarine! The sweet thick red bean spread with creamy salty margarine creates a unique Nagoya flavor that should definitely be on your “to eat” list. Plus, their coffee is pretty good.

In the spirit of being on vacation, and fondly remembering my childhood year in Japan I ordered a “cream coffee”, the picture of which looked like iced coffee with a generous twist of whipped cream on top. Vacation calories don’t count right? When I received my mega sized coffee drink, it turned out not to be whipped cream, but ice cream! Smooth, rich, vanilla soft serve floating on a small iceberg inside the cup. I am especially fond of red bean and cream, so I dolloped some ice cream on my toast for extra decadence. So good. And all for less than a Starbucks’s latte!

I went back to Komeda every morning of my holiday because it was a) close to my friend’s house and the subway, b) very reasonably priced breakfast, and c) SO DELICIOUS! Free WiFi and friendly, patient staff helped a lot, too.

Hitsumabushi

The evening highlight of Sunday was a visit to one of Nagoya’s most famous restaurants, Atsuta Horaiken, to enjoy this local specialty. I know eel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been in love with Japanese grilled eel since the first time I tried it. It’s flaky, smokey, sweet and savory. It’s everything a grilled fish should be plus some undefinable extra flavor that comes from the eel and it’s special sauce. Unagi sauce is actually sold in stores because it’s such a unique blend. I bought some once to make eel at home and had so much leftover sauce I started eating it with eggs, which turns out to also be good. Anyway, when I found out that one of my favorite Japanese foods was ALSO one of the most famous local dishes of Nagoya, I immediately put it on my to do list.

Bear in mind that Japan was just finishing a holiday weekend on Sunday, so for many folks it was the last fling before going back to work on Monday. To make matters worse, this famous and delicious restaurant doesn’t take reservations on holidays or weekends, it’s first come first serve. We tried to make a reservation for one of the weekdays I was in town, but they were booked solid. Instead we planned to head over about 30 minutes before opening and get a good place in line. When we showed up, the restaurant had workers stationed all the way down to the elevator to show visitors where to go, and very polite hostesses were arranging guests on a looooooong line of chairs in the open space in front of the restaurant.

We were only about 20 people down the line and were honestly quite excited about it, since we were originally prepared to wait an hour or more for a table. Even better, the restaurant started seating people well before the posted opening hours. I’m not sure if it was because of the holiday or because it was the last weekend this particular location would be open before prolonged remodeling. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves playing musical chairs for a remarkably short time. I love the fact that the restaurant had seating in the waiting area. While I think pagers might have been a better way of alerting guests that a table was ready, it was a little exciting to be in line and to shuffle seats every time someone ahead of us went inside.

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photo credit Ray C via TripAdvisor

They also brought us an English language menu while we were waiting so that we could peruse the options, and the hostess did her best to make recommendations and give explanations in English for us as well. I really appreciate this because although my Japanese isn’t half bad, I am terrible at the super polite version of Japanese. Especially fancy shops and restaurants will often use a version of Japanese that is so formal I can’t understand it anymore, and then I just end up feeling embarrassed.

Hitsumabushi is NOT cheap. A single order is almost 40$. Both of us wanted to have some, but we were also eyeing an appetizer on the menu that was tamago (egg) with eel filling. In the end we decided to order the 1 ½ size hitsumabushi and one of the egg eel omelettes to share. The omelette arrived first and was quite delicious. The egg was light and fluffy and the eel inside was rich and savory. I think if it had been my dinner choice I would have been a little sad, but it was a perfect appetizer experience.

Finally, the star of the show arrived. Hitsumabushi is served in a huge wooden bowl with a tray full of fixings. We were issued careful instructions on the proper way to eat this delightful dish. On the surface, it looks like unagi-don, a bowl of rice with eel on top. However, the Nagoya style eel is thinner sliced and has a crispier exterior than regular unagi. Also, it’s not drenched in eel sauce.

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We ate according to the instructions, spooning ¼ of the large bowl’s contents into our smaller personal bowls and eating it plain at first. I was impressed straight away.

20180506_155253Even in normal restaurants, eel is one of the more expensive dishes. I tend to avoid buying it here in Korea because it’s often not prepared well. Nonetheless, it is one of my all time favorite Japanese foods. The “plain” hitsumabushi still had plenty of flavor. Of course the smokey, fishy unique flavor of the eel itself, but also a lighter version of the sauce it’s cooked with, as well as the vinegar in the rice. It had so much of what I look for in a good meal, I instantly knew the price was well worth it.

20180506_160202The second ¼ of the dish is meant to be served with the dry fixings provided in the little side box. In our case, we were given small slices of spring onions, thinly shredded nori (seaweed), and what very well may have been fresh wasabi. Most wasabi in the world is fake, sadly, it’s just green horseradish. Now, I love horseradish too, so that doesn’t usually bother me. I’ve learned a little about fresh wasabi from watching cooking shows and documentaries, but I’ve never had any. When I looked at this wasabi, I noticed the texture was very different from what I’m used to. Instead of a smooth paste, it had little shredded bits of plant matter.

Real wasabi is a root that is grated to get wasabi paste. I thought that the texture could be an indication of fresh grated wasabi. I tasted it on it’s own as well before adding it to my bowl and found that it was lighter, fresher and less “bitey” than what I’m used to in wasabi paste. It didn’t even try to get up my nose. Again, it lines up with everything I’ve read about the flavor of real/fresh wasabi. Excited by this prospect, I added some of each ingredient to my bowl and lightly mixed them together.

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Whatever I thought of the wonderful flavor and texture qualities of the first unaltered bowl were blown straight out of my mind. Everything wonderful about the plain hitsumabushi was suddenly illuminated by fireworks-like bursts of green umami jumping out of the simple yet high quality spices I had added in round two. Sometimes, I go too long between truly spectacular life changing meals. I lose sight of the artistic heights of food that were so poetically expressed by a cartoon rat. Worse, I may even come to look at food as a burden, simply fuel for my body with no other reward, if I am kept in sub-par food land for too long. But then a restaurant like this comes up and gives my taste receptors and limbic system something to scream about and I remember what is possible. This isn’t just food tourism, it’s heaven in a bowl.

20180506_161416Round 3 we were instructed to replicate round 2 and then add broth. I don’t really know how to describe the flavor of the broth. It was also a little smoky, a little umami. I suspected there were some dried shitake involved in the flavor as well as some konbu dashi. It was nice, but for my taste it didn’t really add to the flavors the way that the spices alone had. Additionally, it drastically changed the texture of the dish, turning crispy eel and rice into a wetter soup. It was still delicious, and I’m glad that I was able to try all the different styles of eating hitsumabushi, but I was grateful for that final ¼ serving where we were instructed to return to whichever of the first three we had liked best and do it again!

By the time we finished, I was on an insane food flavor high and I thought my stomach might explode. If this experience sounds like something you want to try, don’t worry, although the Sakae location is closing, there are other branches of Atsuta Horaiken around Nagoya you can visit.

What flavor is that?

Our last stop before going back to the apartment was a kind of bargain grocery store. Advantage of shopping with someone who lives there is that they’ve found and vetted all the cheap places before you got there. My friend was actually just stopping in for some toilet paper, but I decided to wander the candy section to see if I could find some unique chocolates to bring back to friends in Korea. This is more challenging than it sounds since most Japanese brands of candy are sold here in regular shops. What I found was a wall of every flavor of kit-kat imaginable.

I don’t even really like KitKat as a candy bar. It’s always tasted a little like sweet cardboard to me. But the Japanese are obsessed with it. I love finding new flavors of standard “American” candy in other countries. I found the all-caramel milky way in Saudi, I found an infinity of Dove flavors in China, I found the hazelnut Snickers here in Korea (omg like nutella and snickers had a baby, whaaaat?), but Japan has outdone everyone on variations of KitKat.

I have seen several in the past, most notably green tea, and white chocolate raspberry. This wall… had…. everything…. I took photos only of the most bizarre flavors, but there were local apple flavors, Hokkaido creme flavors, 2-3 different versions of redbean including regular and ogura toast at least, but the winners of the unique flavor awards go to: sweet potato, rum raisin, sake (yes the rice wine), and (drumroll please)…. Wasabi.

I have no idea what any of them taste like because they were only sold in huge boxes and I could not really justify spending 8-10$ on a giant box of candy just to know what it tasted like. I promise if I ever see them on sale individually packaged, I’ll report back on the flavor.

What I did buy that evening was no less a flavor twist than green tea flavored Khalua liquor. I found a tiny bottle for 6$ and decided that was a very reasonable price to sample this experimental flavor and get an evening cocktail, too! My first time to have green tea and coffee together was a green tea ice cream affogato at the Boseong tea fields last year. Basically green tea ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. It was insanely delicious so I had high hopes for the Khalua. We grabbed some milk at the convenience store and settled in to experiment.

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The actual liquor is not a color/texture that you really think of for drinking. It’s thick and a mixture of dark green and dark brown… yeah… appetizing. I tasted a little straight for science and it was, unsurprisingly, very sweet and very strong. Once we added ice and milk, the liquid became the appealing green color of a green tea latte and the flavors had more room to play. I think a little vodka would have rounded the whole thing off nicely, as it was still very sweet for my tastes even with the milk, but I liked the play of green tea and coffee together.

Kishimen

One of Nagoya’s other famous foods is kishimen. I had heard there was some near Atsuta Jingu but I didn’t realize that it was inside. Following the signs and my nose I discovered a small kitchen and covered picnic table area where the famous soup could be ordered in several styles.

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Side note: It is so important to carry cash in Japan. I don’t even understand how one of the most high tech countries in the world that invented paying for things by tapping your mobile phone on them still has so many places that are cash only, but it does. Temples especially and tourist facilities in general, just about any smaller shop or restaurant (not convenience stores of course, they take cards), and all the machines you use to charge the transit cards also only take cash. It is one of the great mysteries of our age.

I was running low on cash because I’d spend some to make donations earlier in the day, so I was just able to get the basic Miya Kishimen, also the name of the shop, for 650Yen.

Kishimen is similar to udon, but the noodles are wider and flatter than a typical udon noodle. I also found the flavor of the broth to be quite distinct with a very smokey aspect as well as undertones of salty and sour for a very piquant profile. Maybe it was the experience of eating in the picnic pavilion in the middle of the beautiful forest, but I thought the noodles were definitely worth it, far above the average udon eatery. There was a self service tea station with lovely tea, and several signs warning patrons to beware the crows. I assume the greedy little scavengers… I mean clever sacred corvids… will hop over and steal any unattended food. The sign and the crows did little to dispel the vague aura of haunting I was experiencing that day, but I think that just added to the fun.

Miso Katsu

Dinner Monday night was one more Nagoya specialty, Miso Katsu. Katsu is a panko fried pork cutlet that is pervasive throughout Japan. It is also one of 3 Japanese foods that can reliably found at “Japanese” restaurants in Korea, so while I like it fine, I was not initially excited about going out for katsu. But, all of my local food finds so far had been better than expected so I agreed to give it a whirl. My friend got off work and met me down at one of the famous chains, Yabaton.

photo credit: Yabaton via Tabelog

Regular katsu is delicious when cooked well. It’s essentially fried pork, so it is hard to go wrong, but the best versions are very tender cuts of meat and crisp flaky fried exteriors. Bad versions are tough and greasy, obviously. What makes Nagoya’s miso katsu so special is that they pour a red miso sauce over the katsu just before you eat it (so as not to make things soggy). Miso is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, and most foreigners are at least familiar with Miso soup, which is typically made from white miso. White miso is soy beans fermented with mainly rice. The flavor is fairly light and mild. It’s pleasantly tart and goes well with seaweed and green onions. Red miso on the other hand is made of soy beans fermented with barley or other dark grains. The flavor is quite pungent and may be an acquired taste. It’s not like “stinky cheese” pungent or anything, so don’t be scared to try it, but it is a good deal stronger and darker than what you may have experienced in the past with miso soup.

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The pork at Yabaton is excellent all by itself. Tender and juicy cuts of pork, fried in fluffy panko breadcrumbs with little to no extra grease. When the waiter brought our bowls to the table, he also brought a container of thick, dark red miso sauce which he poured over the katsu with a flourish. I was impressed at how well the flavors went together and how much I enjoyed the red miso. It may be the most unique katsu experience I’ve ever had and I’m so glad I didn’t skip it just because katsu is “common”.

Conbini Food!

Japanese convenience stores are called colloquially by the Japanglish word “conbini” short for “convenience” in a language without “v”s. By my friend’s request I popped into the local convenience store on my last night as her guest to get dinner. When I lived in Yokohama for a summer, I often made meals from the conbini. There’s bento (lunch boxes), onigiri (amazing rice triangles stuffed with yum and wrapped in seaweed), and a plethora of random foods to pick and choose from.

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photo credit: via kamonavi

Conbini food is almost always fresh. It’s a stark contrast to gas station foods in America that are filled with preservatives and have a shelf life sometime past the nuclear apocalypse. You can actually eat healthy from a Japanese convenience store. After days of dining out, my friend was craving a simple salad, a bag of greens costing about a dollar. I had been grabbing onigiri (one of my fav snacks) for lunches and afternoon pick me ups all through the vacation so far, so I looked to see what else was available for eats and I found a conbini food I had entirely forgotten the existence of!

Japanese convenience store food

photo credit: intrepidtravel.com

During my summer stay, I ate these cold noodle bowls ALL THE TIME. It’s in the refrigerated section, and has a plastic bowl with fresh udon noodles and packets of sauces and toppings. Back in 2015 the ones I got had a fresh egg, but the one I found this time had what I think was dehydrated egg? Maybe a new health law? Anyway, I found the flavor that was my favorite and was very excited to get to have it again after almost 3 years. I also got myself a “long day” reward: juice box sake! That’s right, you can buy sake in a cardboard box with a straw. Your inner kindergartner and your outer adult can both be happy as you sip booze from a tiny box.


Travel and food are such a huge part of my life. Although I had previously taken my responsibilities as a food tourist lightly, I’m vowing not to do so in future and thus my summer plans involve ever growing lists of “famous foods” I have to seek out in each place. I’m not turning this into a food blog full time, but I think I’m going to take a cue from Mr. Bourdain and let my belly lead the way in a few more adventures.

In fond memory of Anthony Bourdain, who’s shows about exploration and food contributed to the desire I have to travel and share what I find. Thank you.
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Shop ’til You Drop in Nagoya: Sakae, Osu & Studio Ghibli

I am not normally a shopping oriented tourist, but it can be fun to shop in some of Japan’s more unique markets. You can find good bargains in the street markets and second hand shops, and you can explore unique parts of the town that are just gushing with Japanese charm. Every city has it’s shopping centers and for Nagoya that’s Sakae, Osu, and Nagoya Station, with a side of Oasis 21. I managed to hit up all four of these while I was in town. Plus, a visit to the unique Studio Ghibli theme store where all things Miyazaki reside.


Sakae

20180507_181345Sakae was my first non-airport sight in Nagoya where I disembarked the airport shuttle bus and met up with my friend. It’s a large and bustling neighborhood in Nagoya with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  While waiting for our dinner restaurant to open, we decided to do a little shopping.

Department stores in Japan (and Korea for that matter) are really just large buildings where a bunch of shops get a few square meters. It’s a very open floor plan, so it can be hard to tell where one shop ends and another begins, but each shop has it’s own cashier as well, so while it may look like a Macy’s or Harrods, you can’t just wander around collecting things and take them to one register at the end. I don’t usually shop at the cutesy boutique places inside such department stores because their prices are INSANE. I can’t really wrap my head around 300$ blouses or 500$ shoes. At first, I got currency confused because Korean Won are (as a very loose rule of thumb) USD + three zeros. So 10USD is about 10,000 KRW. It’s not exact, but it helps us to think about what things cost. Many Korean places have simply stopped writing those three zeros on menus and advertisements, too. 14,500 won might be written as 14.5 on a menu.

Japanese yen are, by a similar rule of thumb, USD plus two zeros. So 10 USD is 1,000 yen. This cause my brain to do some flips since I’ve been thinking in Korean won for the last 2+ years. Seeing things that cost 30,000 yen, at first I was like, oh that’s not bad, about 30$. Until my brain caught up and went, no wait, that’s Japanese money, that’s 300$, not 30$. Eeek!

Instead, I prefer to shop the bargain racks. Daiso is a famous Japanese store full of cheap but relatively decent quality basic necessities and cute extras. In fact, you can outfit everything you need for a home from Daiso except the furniture without breaking the bank and most of it will last for years. Another great place is Book Off.

Photo credit: Bookoff.co.jp

You wouldn’t know from the name, but that’s a second hand clothing shop in Japan, like Goodwill or Value Village in the US. I was able to find my-size clothes at the one near my apartment back in 2015, so I was happy to waste a little time perusing the cheap rack with my friend while waiting for the restaurant to open. The front of the store is still a little pricey since it’s all brand names, but the farther back you go, the cheaper things get all the way to the 200 yen rack. I was able to get a nice summer blouse for 500 yen (5$) which will help me avoid dressing in unprofessional T-shirts at my new job as the weather warms up.

Bonus Street Performance

On most good weather weekends, there is at least one part of Sakae hosting outdoor performances. We passed one briefly on Saturday, and since we had some time to kill on Sunday, we made a small detour to see where all the beautiful costumes were coming from. Once we got through the crowd, we found a small stage set up under some elevated train tracks where groups were performing song and dance numbers dressed up as various anime shows. Sadly, we also got there in time for only the last two numbers, but it was still fun to watch. I love that people in Japan will just randomly have full costumed dance competitions on the sidewalk.

Osu Kannon

Osu is one of the many shopping districts that combines the feel of an outdoor market with a bustling mall. It’s technically blocks and blocks of shops, but many of the busy streets are covered with semi-permanent or even permanent covers to protect shoppers and strollers from sun and rain. It’s a great place to find more famous food shops, cheap souvenirs, discount shoes, and second hand yukata (summer weight kimono). It’s also home to a beautiful Buddhist temple known as Osu Kannon.

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I honestly do not know why so many shopping centers like this are close to famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I remember going to Asakusa in Tokyo, which is a stunning temple, and finding not only the corridors leading up to the temple covered in temporary carts and stalls selling to tourists, but a very similar covered multi-block shopping district. I don’t get the impression that it’s new, either. Cursory historical prodding indicates the shopping districts grew up side by side with the temples over decades, if not centuries.

I did a fairly quick walk through of the temple. It’s usually not permitted to take photos inside, so I refrained. It was small but glittery. Most of the walls are painted bright red, and every available surface is covered with an assortment of golden statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There is a small area where one can give donations in exchange for prayer papers or beads. The temple, like many, is actually dedicated to Guanyin (pronounced Kannon in Japanese). Originally, Guanyin was Avalokitesvara (a male) in India, but sometime in the move to China, she transitioned and is now the stand in for the goddess of mercy, compassion, and childbirth. I like her because she’s either Trans or NB and is one of the most popular subjects of reverence in Buddhism around the world.

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The temple at Osu isn’t that big, and the atmosphere of commerce nearby detracts a bit from the usual sense of serene calm I enjoy in temples, so after a few photos, we wandered out into the shopping streets.

Side note about Buddhism:
This religion is, like all religions, super complex with a long history and many cultural twists and turns. When I talk about it, I’m both generalizing and filtering it through my own lens. Not every Buddhist will agree. Typically, although the Sakyamuni Buddha was the one who discovered the four noble truths and the path to enlightenment, not many people actually turn to him directly. I personally think this is because the Buddha was way into self-responsibility and most people can’t really dig that, but the official story is that he’s basically gone because enlightenment.

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Instead, Buddhism has developed something of a saint class called “Bodhisattva”. These are beings who have attained enlightenment, but then decided to stick around and help others. Many of these slid conveniently into the role that local gods and goddesses had been filling culturally prior to the introduction of Buddhism. So, Guanyin didn’t so much come from Buddhism as put on a Buddhist dress when the times changed. There are actually plenty of stories of gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and the like who followed the teachings of Buddha. No shame in converting. Nonetheless, for those who feel like enlightenment is too far out of reach this lifetime, praying to Bodhisattva like Guanyin can provide some relief from the suffering of this world, and maybe a boost into better circumstances in the next life. Reincarnation, after all.

And Shinto Shrines:
A small Shinto shrine can almost always be found a stone’s throw away from any Buddhist temple in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion to Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China (who got it from India). The Japanese don’t see any particular need to separate their religions and the same individual may pray/make offerings at Shinto, Buddhist and Christian places of worship without any sense of conflict. It’s actually a very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that they are able to be so syncretic without actually seeing themselves as “religious” at all. One of my professors in grad school taught a whole class about it.

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Osu is no exception. We ran into a little Shinto shrine moments after leaving Osu Kannon. I enjoyed the beautiful red toori gates, the paper lanterns, the stone fox spirits in their jaunty red kerchiefs, and of course the gardens. Shinto is strongly connected to the gods (kami) of the land, trees, rivers, and other aspects of nature, so the shrines tend to reflect that. To give you an idea of how many shrines can be found in a small area in Japan, I went back to Google maps later to get the name of the place we visited and I had to check the street view of no fewer than four before I finally found the one that matched my memory. It’s Fujisengen, by the way. It seems there are more than a thousand shrines across Japan with the same name, all dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji, and possibly volcanoes in general. Now that I know that, I feel like it was much cooler to have visited a volcano goddess shrine…

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See the rest of my photos of the temple and shrine over on the Facebook Album.

Ok, Back to the Shopping:
Everyone complains about how expensive Japan is, and I know it certainly can be. I will never take a taxi there for anything other than a true emergency, but even taking public transit, it’s easy to spend 7-10$ a day. (good news is, if you know you have a lot of trips planned, you can get a day pass for about 7$, but still). We had visited Daiso and Book Off on Saturday, so on Sunday we hit up the other great dollar store (100 yen store), Siera. I thought Daiso was full of great bargains, but man this place was epic. I heavily considered getting some of my summer prep goodies there before I remembered that I have Daiso here in Korea. I did pick up a usb splitter because I had cleverly forgotten my second charger (one for the phone, one for the back up battery). That 1$ splitter worked a dream, by the way, so it’s not just cheap crap in the store either!

Photo credit: Japan-guide.com

If you’re looking for traditional Japanese styles and/or J-pop fashions you can find them both in Osu. I poked around a few shoe shops looking for summer sandals, and almost bought an insane pair of super cute Lolita platform shoes before remembering I will wear them exactly nowhere.  Finally, we popped into a Kimono shop to try on some things from the discount rack. A brand new high quality kimono or yukata can cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands). However, older models, used models, or items with small flaws in the cloth or stitching can sell for as little as five dollars. What! So, if you like kimono/yukata it’s worth it to peruse the discount rack at the shops here in Osu where you might find a real treasure!

Ghibli Store

One of my other goals for this trip was a stop off at the Studio Ghibli shop. It’s called “Donguri”. I’ve never seen a permanent one anywhere but Japan, but they do occasionally  pop up when Ghibli shows go on tour. I went several times when I lived in Yokohama in 2015 and bought much swag for my stateside friends.

20150823_171542The shops in Yokohama and Tokyo had a huge array of Ghibli goodies and I wanted to go back and see if I could get something unique for my niblings (gender neutral for the children of siblings, I did not make it up but I love this word). I’ve been sending them one Ghibli movie a year along with a few themed toys. Every other family member is drowning them in Disney, so I claimed Miyazaki. So far they’ve gotten Totoro, Kiki, and Ponyo (they are still quite young). My niece especially loves the lace bracelet I got at the shop, but mine is from Mononoke which they are not old enough for yet. I did manage to find a Totoro online, but it was twice as pricey as mine had been, so I figured I’d hit up the shop in Japan and have extra prezzies. Cool Auntie!

The Problem of the Train:
My friend recommended the one at Nagoya Station, which wasn’t so much bad advice as incomplete advice. With no data plan in Japan, I was reliant on WiFi for internet. Sipping my latte in Starbucks (free WiFi) outside Atsuta Jinju , I tried to plot my route through public transit to Nagoya station. It’s the main hub in Nagoya, so you’d think that would be easy. But it meant getting off the subways and onto the trains. I learned it in 2015 and then I forgot again because in Korea the trains are only between cities (going from Seoul to Busan) and the subways are all inside a single city, often even stretching to suburbs and neighboring smaller satellite cities. I was able to take the Busan subway all the way to Yangsan for dental appointments. It was the end of the line, but still.

In Japan, trains do run between cities, but they also run within cities. And they don’t work like subways. You can still use a general Japan transit card on any train, so visually it’s very similar to the subway system. Tap your card and walk through the turnstyle. The platforms also look like subway platforms, but unlike a subway where only one route will come and stop at your platform, train stations have LOTS of routes sharing a single platform. So not only do you have to find the right platform (which can be one of 20 or 30, I still have eye-twitches about the Yokohama station), but then you have to carefully observe the digital readout to see what train is coming at what time. Your train may be scheduled for 3:16, but some other train is going to pull up at 3:13 and you MUST NOT GET ON. It will take you to the wrong place.

Assuming that you have correctly found your platform and patiently waited for the correct train, you must now pay vigilant attention to the announcer (all Japanese) because while the subway cars all have maps with LED lights to show what stop you’re on, and digital readouts, and often announce stops in 3-4 languages, the trains are ooooooold and do none of this.

I made a horrible error in reading my directions and somehow got “ride 7 stops” when it actually said “ride 7 minutes”. I take full responsibility for this flub of my native language. Lucky for me, I figured out my error about 3 stops in and was able to get off and turn around. No trip to Japan would be complete without ending up on the wrong train platform in the middle of nowhere.

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Takashimaya

I finally made it to Nagoya station and went in search of the Takashimaya department store. It is a hike. The signs are not awesome. And the “department store” breaks the mold and spreads out over several buildings more like an American mall than a Japanese depato. I walked a lot, and asked directions more than once. Fortunately Donguri is a popular store, so people knew what I was talking about. Finally, drifting outdoors, looking at bus stops, taxi stands and the subway entrance I spotted the Disney store out of the corner of my eye. Only because my friend mentioned that the Ghibli store was across from the Disney store did I find it at all. That place is bonkers. I think it would have been a wonderful place to wander through shopping, but it’s kind of a nightmare if you’re just looking for one specific shop.

I was excited to find the shop and the giant Catbus out front. I’ve seen them at other places with signs that it’s only for children but this one was up for grabs so I headed on in. While I was admiring the interior, petting the fur, and generally being a silly fangirl, one of the other customers offered to take my picture. So now I have a pic of me riding Catbus. I look on this as a win.

There was also a rather large Totoro, only slightly smaller than “life size”. Loads of fun. Unfortunately when I got inside the actual shop I realized that a lot of the lower priced swag I’d picked up in Tokyo was remarkably absent. There was a section of children’s clothes, bathroom stuff, lunch boxes and other dishes, soaps and perfumes, posh grown up jewelry, school supplies, a billion stuffed toys and VERY EXPENSIVE display figurines. I was looking for things like kids jewelry (charms, fabric, rubber, etc), maybe a coloring book (there were “art” books… not for kids, just collections of Ghibli art), smaller toys, games or activities… ? It seemed like the only things for kids in the age range I was looking for was stuff like lunch boxes, chopstick kits and pencil cases. And most of it started at 20$ and went up from there.

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I was so confused because the shop in Tokyo had masses of stuff that was under 10$ which is why I was able to bring things back for so many people. Nothing in the shop that day was especially jumping up and down and saying “buy me” so I decided to have a quick look at the one other Donguri in town before giving up.

Oasis 21

20180507_181041The other shop is at a place called Oasis 21 which is ostensibly a bus station, but is really a shopping center. It’s much easier to find and less crowded than Takashimaya. It’s part of the lovely greenbelt in Sakae and it has a great view of the Nagoya TV tower which Nagoya loves to brag about like it’s the Tokyo Tower. It’s a little adorable. The Donguri in Oasis 21 isn’t as decked out in plush petable Totoro characters, however, so if riding the Catbus is on your bucket list, you better go to Nagoya Sta instead. I didn’t really have much time to see the other stores in Oasis 21, but it looked cute. It’s a big oval with an open center and covered shops on two stories around the outer rings.

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The selection at the shop wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t know if it’s just Nagoya or if the whole chain is going through a change in inventory. (Seriously, I went to 3 or different ones in 2015 and they all had a wider range of items and prices). In the end I settled on some water safe Ponyos and some mystery rock Totoro (the niblings have recently discovered the joys of rock collecting, it tracks). For myself, just some very practical binder clips in Totoro theme to liven up my work environment. I hope it’s better next time I’m in Japan.


I would never have expected to spend so much time in shopping districts, but it was fun. Even without a lot to spend, Japan has great dollar stores and second hand options and window shopping can be it’s own reward in a culture where there is so much chibi cuteness everywhere you turn. Happy to be back writing more about my travels, and counting the days until I hop a plane to the EU for the summer! I hope you’re enjoying Japan as much as I did. Stay tuned for more Nagoya soon, and as always, thanks for reading! ❤

Sacred Forests: Atsuta Jingu Shrine

Finally, a new post about travel! I went to Japan at the beginning of May for a 5 day weekend and while I got rained on for most of it, I still had a great time. Nagoya isn’t exactly on the top of everyone’s Japanese travel itinerary, but I have a friend working there and it was nice to combine some travel goodness with some friend hang outs. Eventually, I’ll be writing about Nagoya Castle, Tokugawa Gardens, the awesome regional foods of Nagoya, and a few other gems, but for now I give you the epitome of “forest bathing” at this old and venerable Shinto Shrine.


I only got one sunny day on my holiday and this was not it. This was a special shame because I had actually planned my more touristy activities for Monday and Tuesday to avoid the holiday/weekend crowds. I swear I checked the forecast before this plan, and it was just supposed to lightly rain one of the days.

Thinking this, I picked some indoor activities for Monday, the light rain day, and planned to split Tuesday, the partly cloudy day, between the two main outdoor attractions I was interested in. However Monday is also the day all the indoor activities like the aquarium, planetarium, and science museum are closed! I could not be less interested in car and train museums, so I decided to brave the rain and head to the forest anyway. 

A Little Bit About Shinto Shrines
Generally in Japan, anything called a “shrine”shrine icon is Shinto, while a “temple” temple icon is Buddhist. The map icons help to distinguish, and no, that’s not a Nazi swastika, it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol that is much much older than Hitler. The Shinto tales of kami (kind of like gods and spirits) are every bit as long and sordid as the Greek or Egyptian myths and involve lots of improbable births, sibling marriages, and explanations for how the world got so messed up. I do not know the whole thing as well as I know Greek gods because I wasn’t raised on a steady diet of Kojiki myths, but they show up regularly in Japanese pop culture and anime and unlike the Greek pantheon, they are still relevant and widely worshiped inside Japan to this day.

There are three sacred objects in Japan: a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The sword is enshrined here at Atsuta Jingu. It belonged to Yamato Takeru in life and was enshrined along with some of his other belongings upon his death. The main god of the shrine, Atsuta, is the god of this sword.

Atsuta Jinju is said to be about 2000 years old. In addition to housing the sacred sword, it honors 5 major deities including Amaterasu (the sun godess), Susano-o (god of the sea and storms), YamatoTakeru (12th Emporer of Japan whose death inspired the shrine), Takeinadane-no-Mikoto and Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto (the first parents of the native people of Nagoya).

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Large, old Shinto shrines are quite different from their small cousins.  I ran across a smaller shrine in Osu (above) that was about the size of a house. There are dozens tucked in wherever a sacred spot can be located. The city sort of swallows them up. Larger shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo (below) and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya are located in sacred forests. The fact that Shinto is an active faith in Japan means that these forests have been preserved and protected throughout history and urban development. Now, some of the largest cities in the world have these crazy old growth forests right inside.

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I can’t really get into a full explanation of Shinto mythology and practice here because like every aspect of human culture it is huge and complex, but I hope this gives a little insight into the significance and history of the Atsuta Jingu shrine.

Into the Woods

Going inside, each gate is marked by a gigantic toori gate, usually left natural wood brown and decorated with shide (the zigzag folded paper) and sometimes fresh cut branches. The gates are enormous, and yet in photos they don’t look large beside the trees because the trees are even bigger. People bow to the forest both upon entering and leaving. It’s not just a park in the city, it is a truly sacred space.

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Walking into one of these gates on a sunny day is somewhat daunting because the bright sunlight and city noises are suddenly absent and you find yourself mystically transported to a world of green-gold half light and birdsong. Going through the gates on a gray and rainy day felt far more sinister as the path ahead of me was swallowed in near darkness. Mists clung to the trees and the birds were silent from the rain except for the occasional cawing of huge black crows. Super spooky and it gave me a real appreciation for the origin of some of those Japanese horror stories.

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Museum of Treasures

Once inside the forest, my eyes adjusting to the low light level, and my lungs filling with the most amazing air, I began to feel better at once. The museum is near the main gate, so I decided to go there first. I found a couple of chickens hiding in the lee of the building to stay dry. They had become superstars to the other guests, city dwellers who hardly ever see farm birds in any other context than a restaurant menu. I don’t know if it was more fun to watch the birds or watch the people react to them.

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On display in the museum’s main room is what I can only assume is a replica of the sacred sword said to be enshrined there. It’s loooong. Like taller than Shaq. When I first saw it, I didn’t yet know the myth and history of the shrine, but I assumed that it must have belonged to a god simply by it’s proportions. There is also a small gift shop, and a public restroom and snack machine. Upstairs looked like a library. The museum proper is 3$ to enter and since the shrine is otherwise free (donation based), I didn’t have any problem contributing. I’m a little sad they didn’t have any English, but I enjoyed looking at the relics nonetheless.

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My absolute favorite was an elaborate painting that depicted the history of Japan from the creation of the world by the gods through modern day. It was done as a spiral pathway that started with creation, followed the early emperors of Japan and the sacred sword being passed down until it was finally enshrined, and then further important events in the shrine’s history. I couldn’t really read the guide, but I know enough about early Japanese creation myths (presentations in Japanese class paid off eventually?) to have recognized the pictures in the center an extrapolated outward.

I was hoping to find an image or print somewhere to share, but it’s not in the brochure or on the website, which also says the relics on display are changed out monthly. It was easily the most distinctive thing in the museum. I enjoy the old ceremonial clothing, dishware and weaponry as well, but it didn’t stand out to me as unique the way that painting did.

Ookusu: Big Tree

Once finished with the museum, I headed back into the woods with my trusty travel umbrella. Different areas of the forest are further divided with more toori gates and the first one I encountered leaving the museum led me to the ookusu. It literally translates to “big camphor tree” and these big old trees are often centerpieces at shrines in Japan. Totoro lives in a camphor tree, after all. The sign next to this one says it’s over 1000 years old. Near the tree there is a chōzubachi (ritual purification water pool) and a decorative wall of empty sake barrels. Sake is used in offerings and rituals, and the empty barrels are turned into art to adorn the shrine. Usually the sake is donated to the shrine and the displaying of the empty barrels is similar to many other types of prayer where notes or paper decorations are displayed. Instead of buying a prayer paper to write on, these breweries donate sake.

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I look back at my photos now and realize there is just no way to show the context of the size of the forest in Atsuta because everything is built to god scale and you walk around feeling a little bit like a child in a grown up world the whole time. Maybe that’s intentional? Probably. It reminds me of my photos of the redwoods where all the trees are so big that they all look normal next to each other. I’m not saying that this ookusu is as big as a sequoia, but it’s still a big tree. I was holding my phone up at arms’ length and I’m still shooting up at the rope marker.

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The Honmyu

My next stop was the main shrine itself, called honmyu. Here I found several buildings surrounding a gravel courtyard. Photos of Atsuta taken here almost make it look like it’s open air rather than deep forested. It is a working shrine, so the main hall for services was lit, but closed to the public. I was pleased to be able to have a peek through the windows nonetheless. One building was a performance hall although it was empty the day I was there. I suspect that at least one of the other buildings was housing for the shrine maidens and priests.

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One building was a place to donate in exchange for a variety of charms or blessings. Lucky charms are a big part of Shinto and Japanese culture in general. There were small charms for almost everything. Additionally, there were prayer papers and wooden ornaments that individual prayers could be written on and hung around the shrine. I also saw arrows. I know that miko (shrine maidens) are famous for archery because (guilty look) the anime I watch shows them using bow and arrow to slay evil spirits. These demon breaking arrows are used to dispel evil and ward off bad luck. Absolutely nothing is in English, so I did my best to try and read the labels, but in the end I had to ask. I think I mixed up my pronunciation but the miko I asked seemed to figure it out quickly and I found a white swan for happiness. I don’t know if charms work, but I was happy to have the chance to visit the beautiful forest and that seems like a good reason to donate. Plus, whenever I hear the tiny bells jingle, I get a happy memory. Working already.

The main part of the shrine, where I believe the sacred relics to be enshrined, is not accessible to the public. We could walk up to a gate and get a lovely view of the beautiful buildings, but can go no further. Like many palaces, it’s a series of buildings and courtyards.

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The design is simple, natural and elegant made only of dark wood and a minimum of metal ornamentation. Unlike smaller shrines which are decked out in red and gold, the forest shrine was almost in camouflage to blend in to the trees around it. Despite the heavy rain that day, and the fact that it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, the forest still had a large number of visitors, and not only tourists, but locals who had come by to offer prayers and donations. Many people approached the shrine to drop coins and a formal bow.

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Spirit Houses: Jinja Shrines

In addition to the main shrine, the jingu, there are a number of smaller shrines or jinja around the forest. For some reason I thought these were usually open with an interior display of statues and gifts, but I have since gone back through my photos of other shrines and I was mistaken. All kami houses are shut up tight. These smaller shrines are also a kind of spirit house where the smaller local kami can dwell. Big global or national Kami like the goddess of the sun may have shrines all over Japan, but local kami may only have a few shrines… sometimes just one. People may pray to a specific kami because of it’s history, or because of a local or family connection.

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On the next leg of my walk I stepped off the main path to get a closer look at some of these jinja shrines. They were plain wooden tiny houses on stilts and I couldn’t make much sense of the simple signs adorning each one, so I just decided to enjoy the path when suddenly I noticed I could see my breath! I know the spring has been cooler than usual this year, but it was in the high 20s that day and for most of the day I had felt warm and a little sticky, now suddenly my breath was clouding up in front of me. I tried again, because I like to replicate results. And it happened again. I backed up down the path and it stopped happening. I moved forward, it happened again. I put a hand next to the shrine I was getting foggy breath in front of and I swear it felt colder. Just to be sure it wasn’t an effect of the shade or the wood, I tried the shrine next to it and didn’t feel any difference in the warm air on the path and that next to the shrine. I am not saying it was haunted, but … you know every time there’s a haunting in a movie the temperature suddenly drops and the characters can see their breath, so…

I did take a picture of the name of that shrine to check later, but all I can really find is that it seems to be related to water offerings. Maybe that’s why it gets excited in the rain?

Paper Cranes

After a delicious and filling lunch (which you can read more about in the food post) I felt well equipped to explore the rest of the grounds. I checked a few maps to try and guess which paths I hadn’t walked down yet. All the signs were Japanese only, and referenced the proper name of each building in the compound, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been to and what I’d missed without the map reference.

As I wandered down another wide road, shrouded in tall dark trees, Nagoya’s oldest stone bridge and megalithic 8m high, 400 year-old stone lanterns (said to be one of the three most significant in all Japan), I found a few more of the jinja shrines along the way. Most of them were brown and unadorned, but a few had splashes of color.

20180507_133742At first I didn’t know what they were. I only saw the bright colors from a distance and was drawn closer with curiosity. As I examined the strings of color, it became clear that these were chains of paper cranes folded and strung together in a way that most Westerners are familiar with from the story of Sadako and the 1,000 paper cranes.

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It was so stunning to me to see string after string of brightly patterned paper, neatly and identically folded into shape. The rain had soaked them thoroughly but the paper held together well and the water made the colors pop even more. This one smaller shrine received more attention than any but the largest center shrine, so naturally I was very curious. It’s called Kusu no mae Shrine and is described on the website as “god of amnesty” The sign goes on to mention both Izanami and Izanagi, who created the world and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The website says: “It is commonly called “God of Koyasu” or “Ogunsama”, it cures various diseases” courtesy of Chrome’s auto translate.

A Whole Other Shrine, What?

I was perfectly content playing “find the shrine” in the forest. It was beautiful, the trees kept most of the rain off, and it smelled absolutely amazing to breathe the air there. Thinking I’d almost walked every trail there was to walk, I suddenly turned the corner into a whole ‘nother shrine complex! The same courtyard surrounded by multiple buildings. A slightly smaller charms/gifts shop with similar items. And a nearly identical unapproachable series of dark wooden buildings with delicate gold trim. I thought at first I might have wandered around to the back side of the same area I’d seen before, but the map confirms it is a totally different shrine called Kamichikama.

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Trying to discover the meaning of this led me on a wild Google chase that resulted in me visiting the actual Japanese website for the Atsuta Jingu shrine. Previously I’d only been reading the made for English speaking tourists site. The native one is WAY bigger. It’s tricky to translate religious stuff and ceremonial language, but I found the map with building names and basic function (so much better than the English one) and Kamichikama is a Bodhisattva of wisdom. I can’t find his name anywhere but Trip Advisor in reference to this particular place when I search it in English, but Shinto has a LOT of local deities and honored persons, so it could be that he only exists at this one place and that is not weird.

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I poked around the Japanese version of the website after discovering the insane difference in the level of details. Google translate is not great, but it does give me a little more information than … nothing… I am not going to try to translate the whole site and detail every little shrine I found, but if you’re curious, the information is out there. There are a LOT of shrines inside this forest and they are all devoted to a specific kami  or sometimes historical event that is remembered. People regularly come to them to pray and make offerings. Some people seemed to treat it a little like a wishing well, while others had deeper reverence. The practice of Shinto may have changed over the centuries in Japan, but it is definitely alive, well, and a major part of the everyday lives of the Japanese people.

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Sadly, the low lighting and high humidity played merry heck with my camera and there are not enough good shots of the shrine to be worthy of a solo Facebook album, but I will put together a trip compilation album before the end of the series. Speaking of which… I’m not actually finished writing the rough draft of whole this trip yet… still. At my last school, I had 1-2 hours when I was stuck at my desk with nothing to do but write, but here I have to carve out time because there is no “desk warming”. It’s so tempting to just leave the office behind and go for a walk or take a nap. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of my spare computer hours nailing down plans for the summer holiday European trip which is going to be so awesome. I’ll do my best to get the rest of the Nagoya stories out before the end of the semester? As always, thanks for reading!

A Wild Day at Zoorasia

In the continuing pursuit of enjoying my remaining days in Japan, I decided to check out a local zoo-park called “Zoorasia” here in Yokohama. I read some positive reviews, it is closer to my share house than anything else on my remaining wishlist, and it’s cheap. So after a strange bout of weather induced lethargy, I woke up yesterday and hit the streets to see the creatures. Don’t forget to check out all the photos on Facebook!

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Summer is probably the worst time to do anything in Japan outdoors. It’s hot, humid and in August all the kids are out of school. I’ve become committed to the humid sweaty days, but pretty much every time I go out I can’t help but think, “Wow, this would be amazing in the Spring/Fall!” On top of that, animals aren’t super keen to be active on hot summer days either. I had some hopes that the overcast sky and slight drop in temperatures might help, but mostly it’s just a use it or loose it problem. Two buses took me straight to the front gates of the zoo, which is not on any of the train lines around town. The ticket counter was automated and took me a moment to figure out since there was no English option, but it was a good sign that I was off the beaten tourism path.

20150827_144124The entrance to the zoo was only 800 yen, or about 6.50$ and it’s totally worth it. The lush greenery is everywhere, making the zoo more like a forest path walk interspersed with animal enclosures. The omnipresent trees shielded visitors and animals alike from the sun, and really made me feel like I had left the city behind, even though I was still in a very urban area. The sounds of birds and insects filled the air, completely overpowering any lingering noise from traffic. The trees themselves were themed to each of the geographical regions of animals, and most of them were labeled as well, making the experience more like a zoo+botanical garden.

The larger animals were all in pleasant open air enclosures with running water or waterfalls built in and plenty of growing plants. The smaller animals or birds that were caged were widely spaced and the plants growing inside the cages were a match to the ones growing outside giving an illusion of spacial continuity beyond the cage itself.

20150827_132709I got to see a family of tigers, a mother and two older cubs. Tigers are normally quite solitary so it was fun to see the three of them interacting socially. I spent way too long staring at the posing penguins, and really enjoyed a walk through an aviary that contained a wide variety of ground dwelling birds that were free to roam around the same space as the guests. Many of the animals were asleep, but to be honest I’ve been to so many zoos in my life that I generally don’t focus on the animals as much unless there is a special enclosure, new babies or educational shows.

There were several signs at various enclosures that seemed to indicate that something happened there at scheduled times, but they were all between 9-11am, so I missed out. 20150827_131830One thing I was particularly impressed with was that at each larger enclosure, there were plexi-glass panels installed in the fence that allowed smaller children to approach and get a clear view of the animals inside without their parents having to lift them or any temptation to climb the fences to get a clear view.

The paths were lined with resting benches and there were usually multiple viewing points for each of the larger enclosures allowing patrons to find the best vantage point wherever the animals were resting. In addition to the resting benches, there were picnic areas, plentiful restrooms, water fountains and vending machines as well as a couple hot food restaurants.

20150827_140545There were three separate places in the park that were entirely dedicated as nature walks including a flowering river valley complete with a misting waterfall that children could walk close to and get sprayed, a deep forest trail, and a wide open lawn with statues of the animals for children to play on or pose with. And just when I started thinking that what the place really needed was a great playground, I turned the corner and ran into one. Apparently there were also pony rides and a petting zoo, but I admit I did not make it through the entire park before closing time.

20150827_131311In addition to the plants and animals, there were museum like displays dotted around the park as well. Many of the sections included statues, decorations, carvings and displays that told about the people and animals of that region. Some of the animal enclosures had molded paws that people could compare to their own hand sizes for scale. Many of them included beautiful art or historical replicas, like the Inuit kayak next to the penguins (ok wrong pole, but hey). The penguins were especially playful, posing for the camera on land and following people around underwater, skimming by at eye level to catch a glimpse at us.

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The Japanese section included a lot of historical artifacts from ancient times in Japan like farming equipment, wooden carts, and a charcoal burner’s hut. The Japanese animals were also amazingly cute. Most zoos only have one or two unique Japanese species so this was an area I paid more attention because they were animals I had not seen before. There was a leopard cat that was no bigger than a large house cat. There was a creature called a raccoon dog that kind of looked like that sounds, but tiny. There was a fox playing hide and seek with the visitors. And even the badgers were adorable, less than half the size of western badgers and very playful, chasing each other around the enclosure like kittens. I have a much better understanding of the cultural obsession with cute tiny animals after visiting that section, because apparently, that’s all that lives here!

20150827_153923I decided to forgo Africa in favor of a nature walk, which in hindsight may have been poor planning. Although the forest was absolutely beautiful and very peaceful, it got to a point where any time I paused to take a picture or admire a view, I was instantly mobbed by a million tiny insects. Toward the end of the trail I actually had to break out my umbrella to clear the trail of spiderwebs ahead of me. I’m getting much better about my dislike of spiders, but I’m still not quite up to charging through full webs. I imagine that like so many things here it would have been absolutely idillyc in Spring or Fall. It wasn’t horrible or anything, but I got tired of the bugs pretty quickly even though none of them bit.

As closing time drew near I headed back toward the main gates and bus stop, pausing to enjoy the air-conditioned gift shop for a while and pick up a small penguin themed omiyage for my sister who may or may not have a serious arctic aquatic bird obsession. I think the Zoorasia is a big win. There’s so much to do and see for people of all ages. In addition to families with small children, I saw young singles walking around and older folks with expensive cameras practicing candid wildlife photography. I expect a full day might enable one to see the whole park, but I can’t imagine getting bored with it after only a single visit, and I’m sure if I lived here longer it would have really satisfied my need for a nice day outdoors in nature without the long trip out of the city.

Asakusa: Temple, Shrine & Sky Tree

Asking some of the other residents here what kinds of things I should do yielded several great suggestions, the most frequent of which was Asakusa. I fell down on my research a little, because I was under the impression that the Buddhist Temple was really the main thing there, so when someone asked me if I was headed there to do shopping I was a little confused. I was planning to do some shopping, but over at the nearby landmark tower, the Tokyo Sky Tree since it was also on my list and was just one stop up the tracks from Asakusa. Hence, two hits in one day.

All Aboard

It takes about 90 minutes to get into Tokyo from where I live. It’s a little funny because that’s about the same time it took for me to get into Beijing when I was in Hebei, but for some reason the trek coming in from small town/rural areas to the big city was much more reasonable than my current commute which is all city as Yokohama and Tokyo pretty much blend directly into one another. The train system in the Tokyo area is fairly impressive, however. There are dozens of lines running all over and you can generally get anywhere if you can navigate the spiderweb of tracks and mind-boggling complexity of the transfer stations (more than one of which rank among the most crowded in the world).

The trip to Asakusa took the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya where it becomes the Honzomon line and runs all the way to the Sky Tree. From there it got a little tricky, because I had to take the Tobu-Skytree line backwards one stop then turn around for two stops to get to the Asakusa stop. Easy, right? I took the local instead of the Express because there are usually more open seats on the local and I really don’t want to stand on the train for 90min. When I got off the train, I followed the signs to the Shrine and found myself in a huge shopping tunnel.

The Shopping Street

20150823_141638It turns out that the reason my friend asked if I was going to Asakusa to shop is that it is the Silk Market of Tokyo. Unlike Beijing’s Silk Market, the Tokyo Bazaar is not contained in a single tall building, but spread out on narrow street after narrow street.  Each stand is selling some variant of the same tourist attractions: kimonos, festival lanterns, woodcuts, fans, jewelry and handbags. The food stands are selling all the famous Japanese street/fair foods, sweets and ice cream. Inside the first gate of the temple compound is Nakamise Shopping Street or Kaminarimon, but the shopping extends well beyond the gates outside too.

It’s more than a little insane, but I can see why people who are only in Japan a short time would spend a day there shopping, since you can find a souvenir or gift for everyone on your list there. Me personally, I’m not into a lot of the mass produced tourist souvenirs, but I have the luxury of time to find more meaningful mementos. Plus, I checked the price tag on a couple items and had to work to get my eyes back in my head. The prices were nuts. And unlike the Silk Market where haggling is expected, it’s really not accepted here.

What’s more, it created a strange sense of incongruity walking through streets dedicated to materialism while on my way to the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Senso-ji Temple

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The Senso-ji Temple was built in 645 and is dedicated to Kannon (Guanyin in China or Avalokiteśvara before he left India and had a sex change) the Bodhisattva (sometimes translated as “Goddess” although not in the Western sense) of Mercy. The first gate is actually amid the shopping area and merely delineates those copycat shops from the “true” Nakamise area.

2015-08-23 20.45.19Off to one side stands the pagoda, creating a stunning backdrop to nearly everything, and off in another direction is the looming spire of the Tokyo Sky Tree, reminding us of the fact that this temple now rests in the heart of one of the largest metropolitan areas on earth.

As we emerge from the shopping street another huge red gate looms over the crowd. I took a moment to explore the grounds around the gate before entering. There were several smaller statues and shrines tucked in around the main roadway. 20150823_143223Like so many tourist spots in Japan, taking only a step or two off the main path grants you near instant seclusion. Among the many side statues that I could not identify were two larger statues of Kannon and Seishi (mercy and wisdom respectively).

Passing through the next gate, we walk beneath a giant red and black “lantern”. When I passed beneath it, I looked up and saw the bottom of the lantern was a wooden carved 20150823_143530dragon with red painted highlights. Stalls selling tourist kitsch give way to stalls selling prayer scrolls, medallions, and beads for the supplicants of Kannon.

20150823_144155A huge incense burner squats in the middle of the road. People queued up to have a place nearby to contribute their own bundle of incense and wave the fragrant smoke over their heads for cleansing and blessing. Some did this with great reverence, and others (especially younger people) with a sort of good natured humor.

There is also a chozuya, or water purification area. It’s usually seen at Shinto Shrines, but because of the tremendous overlap in Japan between the religions, 20150823_144041it’s common to see them at Buddhist temples here. This one was quite different from the others I have seen in Japan, consisting of a statue of (what appeared to be) a historical figure. The dragon headed fountains/ faucets are pretty common, but these were quite detailed and beautiful.

The crowd huddled closer and closer together as we mounted the steps into the main temple. Another giant hanging lantern adorned the entrance. 20150823_145128I could hear the clanking of coins long before I saw the donation box at the entrance. No fee is required to enter, yet most of the people who passed by tossed some coins into the huge box. There were bars across the top that the coins bounced around before dropping causing the constant sound of tinkling metal.
The interior of the main temple was huge and dimly lit. The ceiling was painted in beautiful murals of Kannon and there were beautiful decorations on the walls. 20150823_144653The main altar was behind protective glass because it was a delicate lacework of gold and precious jewels. There was another less giant donation box as well as places to light votive candles or attach prayer scrolls. There were hundreds of people waiting to enter, so I didn’t linger too long at the front. I managed to find a side area to really scope out the room from one side. Lavish does not begin to express.

The Temple Grounds

20150823_145223As I left the temple to one side, I emerged above ground level and got a great view of two more statues below: a large seated Buddah figure and a bronze pagoda. Then, coming down from the main hall, I entered a garden that was simply stuffed full of tiny shrines. Each one looked like a small house on stilts, complete with miniature steps and doors to let the kami in and out. 20150823_145945This style of shrine is unique to Japan, representing a blend of the native Shinto practices and imported Buddhism. I often saw small shrines in China, but none with this style of architecture.

The shrine gardens also included a small waterfall that lead into a koi pond, complete with moon bridges. 20150823_152810It was quiet and peaceful in the midst of the bustling tourist crowds. When I emerged from the garden, it was stunningly obvious that I was leaving the temple grounds, so I prepared to turn around and go back in when I spotted a veritable forest of red flags. I suppose it could have been another of the many shops advertising for something, but my curiosity won and I headed over to investigate.

20150823_151115It turned out to be a shrine to Jizo, who is a Bodhisattva that helps to lessen the suffering of people in hell (e.g. speed up their next rebirth out of hell). In a very practical way, the tourist sign advised that keeping some of the powder of the Jizo image in your purse could save you a great deal of money as divine favor. I love watching the evolotion of religious figures across cultures, and the Japanese are very practical about their religion, often less concerned about the next life than what a charm or prayer can bring them in this one. (test passing charms are very popular among students!)

The temple grounds continued, full of side temples that were nearly abandoned creating a real contrast from the pressing crowds of the Nakamise and Main Hall. 20150823_151409I walked into another empty shrine area, this one dedicated to Sukunahikonao-mikoto (yeah, the Japanese kami all have really loooong names). The sign informed me that he is a protector of women, and honored by women bringing used sewing needles and sticking them into tofu as an offering.
Another side garden held statues to famous historical figures including famous Haiku poets, a philanthropic orphan, and a tanka poet. And yet one more contained at temple to Benzai-ten (goddess of fortune) and the Senso-ji bell, 20150823_160943which historically was one of the main bells that marked the time for the citizens of Edo (old Tokyo). The other bell was at Ueno, and resulted in a famous Haiku by poet Matsuo Basho: “Sounding through clouds of flowers — it is the bell of Ueno or Asakusa?”

By this time, I had circled three quarters of the way around the main hall, and found yet another gate marking the separation of temple grounds from the secular world. When I paused to buy some takoyaki and stare a map of the grounds to see where I was, I realized that I hadn’t seen the Shinto Shrine that was listed on Google Maps as being right next to the Temple.

The Shinto Shrine: Sanja-sama

20150823_153225On the fourth side, hiding behind a copse of trees and nearly blotted out by one of the side gates was a plain wooden torii of pale sunbleached wood rather than the bright laquered red. The shrine is nicknamed Sanji-sama for the three diefied spirits it is dedicated to. Inside the Shrine grounds was a small garden complete with greenhouse and scarecrow, the wooden posts for hanging prayers from, a small shop selling charms, a washing area, the shrine itself, and … a monkey show.

To be honest, I have no idea why there is a monkey show, but I found it on the “official” website, so clearly it’s a part of the Shrine’s attractions and not just some random street performer. My best guess is that it’s an older art form preserved for an old-timey authentic feeling, much like the traditional dances that are performed.

20150823_154522I wandered around for a bit, washed my hands in the cleansing fountain, offered a prayer at the shrine and decided to buy a small charm. The monks(?) manning the shrine’s charm station didn’t speak English, so I ended up helping some other tourists navigate the process of adding a prayer to the pillars placed there for that purpose. Then, after reading over the translation page (cause, my Japanese isn’t that good) I selected a small white fox charm that was listed as granting wishes. It’s really adorable, sewn from a white brocade with gold thread whiskers and happy black eyes. There is also a small golden bell and medallion with the name of the Shrine: Hikan Inari.

After some post travel translation and research, I discovered that the Hikan Inari Shrine is apparently right behind the Senji-sama shrine… and is covered in fox guardian spirits, which makes more sense as to why their charms were foxes, but less sense as to how the heck I missed a shrine covered in cute kitsune statues! I seriously thought I explored every inch of that place, I found statues and shrines tucked into side corners and entirely ignored by the other tourists/pilgrims, and yet I missed this.

*sigh.

Tokyo Skytree & Studio Ghibli

20150823_164232By this time I’d spent several hours on my feet wandering around the nooks and crannies of Asakusa and (thinking I’d seen everything) was ready to head to my next destination: The Sky Tree. I wended my way back through the obstacle course of shopping and hopped back on the train for a much more straightforward single stop ride to the second tallest structure in the world (next to the Burj Khalifa which I visited in Dubai last year).

The Skytree falls short of the Burj Khalifa by nearly 200m, but it’s still impressive. Plus there is a huge shopping district at the base of the Skytree with many handmade Japanese goods and local specialties (like the TV character store), as well as my own shopping target: Donguri Kyowakoku, a store entirely dedicated to the films of Hayao Miyazaki (and since I couldn’t get tickets to the Miyazake museum, the next best thing to walking inside the classic animations).

When I arrived at the Skytree, I got instantly lost in the mass of stores that the train stations dump travelers into. I was pretty overwhelmed and significantly more impressed by these shops than I had been at Asakusa, so pro-tip, take the train one stop over and do your souvenier shopping here if you are doing a day trip in this part of Tokyo.

I found my way to the base of the Skytree, which is actually four floors up, and also found the line for tickets to ascend the tower. It can be tricky to get tickets in advance without paying a travel agent 400% or being fluent in Japanese, and I had also read that the trip up the tower wasn’t all that great unless you went on a very clear day. As you can probably tell from my other photos, the day I went was quite cloudy and I learned a little lesson from the Burj Khalifa that standing in huge long lines to ride up an elevator is lame. The line for tickets was estimated at 30-45 minutes, it was cloudy and it was crowded. So, I opted to forgo the skyward trip in favor of more ground exploring.

I found the Skytree beer garden, which had a pretty resplendent set menu, a bar (of course) and even some special seats that were built to allow the couples seated within them to recline in comfort and view the tower looming above them. Oh, and also enjoy a bottle of champagne. 20150823_164248All around the outdoor patio were places that vented a cooling mist onto visitors to help combat the summer heat, and some that attracted scores of little kids who played in the wet fog blasting out of giant fans.

After too many photos, I set off to try to find my target shop and ended up having to ask directions because the sheer volume of stores in the area made it impossible for the map directories to do anything other than list things by category. This is just one of the many reasons why I really like to know at least a little of the language in my country of choice. Even if I sound like a toddler, I can still get my point across and roughly understand the answers.

20150823_171542When I rounded the correct corner there was no doubt in my mind. The window of the shop was dominated by a giant Totoro under an even larger tree. Tourists paused to take their pictures in front of the favorite neighbor before entering the shop. I had first discovered this chain on a totally practical shopping trip to Lalaport in Yokohama, and subsequently recieved a flood of requests for Ghibli-shwag from my friends in Seattle.  When I read that there was one at the Skytree, I was sure it had to be larger and more impressive and hence decided to do my shopping there instead of returning to Lalaport.

I was not disappointed. This shop was easily twice the size of the one at Lalaport, and although it had fewer statues on offer, those were generally too expensive and too heavy for me to be interested in bringing back. Instead, I had a massive selection of bounty to choose from including plushies, stationary, towels, dishes, keychains, hair bobbles, jewelry and prop/character replicas. Totoro featured the most heavily, followed by Kiki’s cat Jiji, but there was something from nearly ever film Miyazaki ever made.

20150823_181137One part of the store was dedicated to books and dvds, dominated by a giant catbus head and arms over the bookshelves and separated from the rest of the store by a large tree, inside of which slept Totoro with a little Mei on his belly. When onlookers pushed a button, the scene lit up and Totoro began to snore gently, his tummy going up and down with his breath. Stupidly adorable.

20150823_184651It took me a good long while to find the perfect match for everyone on my list and it was dark by the time I left the shop. This meant that the Skytree was dressed in it’s nighttime lights and I was able to get some more cool photos. I took my time wandering back toward the train station. I was on the opposite side of the whole district so I had to walk back through everything anyway.

I checked out a few more interesting shops on the way including the TV Character Store which was filled with all the famous animated characters that are aired on Japanese TV. The Skytree’s primary purpose is television broadcasting, so the stations have a strong association with the landmark. Aside from the dozens of iconic characters regular merchandise, there were special Skytree souvenirs that depicted the characters visiting or interacting with the tower.

20150823_194445When I walked through a section of food shops there were Skytree shaped treats everywhere. Bottles of soda or wine shaped like it, chocolates molded to look like it, loaves of bread braided and decorated to mimic the texture and shape, and even some fresh waffles on a stick. Seriously, the only other place I’ve seen so many different things on single theme is Disney Land, where you can buy Mickey shaped everything.

Part of the reason for this is the gift giving culture of Japan. Souvenirs aren’t purchased by the Japanese for themselves, but as omiyage which is the name for souvenir gifts. Any time a Japanese person takes a trip, they must bring back small gifts from wherever they went to the friends, family or even co-workers that they left behind. So each place has shops selling very local goods distinctive to the region or attraction for this purpose.

Continuing the endless walk of shops, I passed one making one of my favorite Japanese snacks – onigiri. These are the triangular rice “balls” often containing a nugget of fish or vegetables in the middle for flavor. My personal favorite is the salmon roe, and nothing beats freshly made, so I picked one up and headed outside to find a seat to enjoy my treat.

20150823_200510Just as I walked outside, I caught a small fountain light show. One of the ground fountains was playing away with some matching music with flashing colored lights adorning the jets of water. Small children danced and splashed in the hot night air, enjoying the freedom of the cool water and fun. In addition, the Skytree had joined in the show and put on a new multicolored light show that lasted only a few minutes longer than the fountain itself.

20150823_204753Feeling full and satisfied, it was far enough past the evening rush that I felt like it was safe to get on the train. Luckily since I got on at the end of one line and rode it all the way to the end of a second, I got a seat the whole way, and was hardly ever too crowded.
Quite often I notice Japanese people asleep on the long commutes, which is not a skill I have mastered yet. Maybe if I lived here longer or took the same routes often enough for them to feel familiar I could, but in the mean time, I occupy myself with people watching.

Wrap it Up

All in all, it was a long day, more than 10 hours away from home, 3 of it on the train and the rest spent 95% on my feet. I’m grateful to be in Japan and to have the opportunity to see these amazing things (heck even the everyday things), but wow next time I’m coming here in spring or fall and getting better shoe inserts for all the walking!

Japan is a magnificent country. It’s tiny islands are immensely dense in population, yet they are still socially conscious enough to keep things clean and whole, and to appreciate the value of efficient public transportation and public entertainment like parks, shrines, museums and gardens even in the very heart of the biggest cities. They work hard, and yet still find time to enjoy these pleasures with their friends and family. I’m sad that I have to leave so soon and know I will make an effort to return here again. Between times, I will try to carry some of their lessons with me wherever else my travels take me.


Thanks for reading, liking, sharing and/or following! As always, having an audience keeps me on task writing about my travels. If you want to see all the pictures from this day out, check out the facebook page! 🙂

A Day Trip to Mt. Fuji

Because I’m in Japan, I decided that I really had to at least go by and say hello to the mountain. I really do want to add it to my list of cool mountain climbs, but since climbing above the 5th station requires special equipment, I was really not prepared to do so this visit. Alas, next time. Instead, I decided to go see what I could see of the mountain and it’s beautiful surroundings.

This can be a bit of a challenge, since there are about a million awesome things at the base of Mt. Fuji including the five lakes, the hot springs, the suicide forest, the ice caves, the waterfalls and two other national parks. I also looked at several options for getting myself out there and exploring alone, but I quickly realized I would probably spend more money on public transportation and taxis trying to get around, plus I really had no idea where to go. So I decided to book a bus tour to get out there and see the basics.

An Aside on Climbing Mt. Fuji to the Top

Previously, I have enjoyed a variety of mountainous hiking. I’ve done a bunch of National Parks in the US and two sacred peaks in China, but not once have I ever actually tried to climb anything that came with an altitude sickness warning. So when I learned about the warning on Mt. Fuji, I needed to learn more about it. It turns out that above 2400m, the air gets crazy thin and there isn’t enough oxygen. Like many of you, I knew that climbers in the Himalayas needed to bring oxygen with them, but I didn’t realize how many other peaks require similar precautions. There are also a few medications that can help prevent altitude sickness. And finally, it is recommended that ascent is not to rapid to allow the body time to acclimate. So people who want to climb all the way to the peak and back in a short period are especially at risk. Being in great shape doesn’t protect you from altitude sickness, either.

In addition to this, because the last 5 stations of Mt. Fuji are above the timberline, the climb is all on volcanic rock, meaning you need sturdy supporting hiking boots, and gaiters to keep the rocks from entering said shoes. You also need climbing sticks, gloves and clothes that can be used in hot, freezing, dry and wet weather meaning lots of gear and lots of layers, and a big honkin’ waterproof backpack (being in great shape definitely helps with that). There are places to rent all of these around Mt. Fuji, but it will definitely cost you a couple hundred to rent the whole kit. That’s on top of the cost of transportation, food, accommodation, water… Tour guides packages start around 400$ generally include transportation from Tokyo, 7th station inn, and a couple of meals leaving you on your own for the rest.

Basically, I think climbing Mt. Fuji is a great goal, but you either have to plan that ahead or be willing to drop a serious dime to do it spontaneously. For me, I’m going to have to put a pin in it and try again next time I’m in Japan.

The Tour Begins

I chose the Fuji and Hakone tour with Viator / Sunrise Tours because it was a pretty reasonable price for a lot of sightseeing (e.g. less than I would have paid to arrange my own transportation). Every single place we stopped at was amazing and worth it, but we did spend 6 hours on the bus that day and only 4 hours on foot (45 minutes of which was lunch). I don’t think they’re a bad tour agency, just that there is so much to see over such a huge area that it’s hard to have a day trip with less than half the time in the vehicle.

I started out leaving my apartment in Aobadai at about 7:15 am, and loaded up some snacks on the way to the train station where I experienced the joy of the crowded morning commute into Tokyo. It took me two trains and more than an hour to get to Shinjuku where I was to meet the tour bus, and I nearly missed them because the directions they gave us on how to find the meeting place from the train station were entirely vague. I left myself an extra half an hour and wound up being only about 3 minutes “early”.

We left Shinjuku at 9:05 and the tour guide was already upset we were late. To be fair, Japanese culture considers 10 minutes early to be “late”, but it was still something a lot of travelers didn’t understand since they too had a hard time finding the meeting point. We stopped at a rest station because someone forgot to pee before leaving, and then we were “so far behind schedule” that we had to skip our 20 minute stop at the Mt. Fuji visitors center.

The Fifth Station & Shinto Shrine

We pulled up to the 5th Station at around 11:30 and had about 30 minutes to explore. I can promise you this is like the barest minimum that one could use to see this place. The 5th Station is the farthest rest stop that can be driven to. Private vehicles aren’t allowed, so everyone has to take a tour bus. It’s 2,305m above sea level. Fuji has 10 stations total, the last one is at the very peak and is 3,775m high.

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It was a rainy cloudy day, and the air at the 5th Station was blissfully cool. There was a really beautiful effect of the clouds wreathing through the lower peaks around us, and the peak of20150820_112418 Fuji itself was obscured by more clouds. I could see that we were close to the timber line because the bare part of the mountain was just a little bit higher than we were. I looked it up and found that for Mt. Fuji, the timberline is between 2400-2500m. It was strange to see the dense lush green forest below and all around us with the barren black lava crusted surface extending above us.

20150820_112506I was initially a little disappointed because it looked like one giant tourist trap. Fuji can only be climbed for about 3 months in the summer, so everyone comes during that time, plus August is vacation time for the Japanese, so the 5th Station was thronged with people, and lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. I spotted the bright red torii gate that led toward the Shinto shrine and headed that way. It was small but pretty. There was a purification area, several beautiful decorations and of course a place to buy prayer strips and other luck charms. There was even a little coin-op machine that showed a puppet demon doing a traditional dance performance. The view from the top was pretty, and probably would have been astonishing with a few less clouds.

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20150820_114146_Richtone(HDR)Then, as I came back down the steps, I noticed a small path leading behind the shrine that no one was taking. Of course I followed it. Just a few steps was all it took and the noise of the crowds faded to almost nothing. The green trees, black earth and red torii gates stood out brilliantly in the wet and cloudy air. The smell was amazing, fresh and alive, and I could really understand then why this spot had been chosen for the sacred shrine. Instead of a concrete platform with a railing and a coin operated binocular set, the dark soil led out to a steep decline where I could look into the valley below. Small pine cones adorned the gnarled evergreens, sparkling with raindrops. It felt like my own private Mt. Fuji.

With a few minutes left before the bus left, I ducked into the souvenir shop’s post office to buy a couple post cards for my collecting friends. The shop itself was kinda lame, but it was fun to get the Fuji postal stamp as well as all the ink stamps on the postcards.

Back on the Bus: Black Mt. Fuji

Do not let my time estimations lull you into thinking our guide was in any way casual about time. Our bus dropped us off at the drop point, but then had to go park in the tour bus parking lot, with no designated space number. Our guide said she would be waiting outside the bus to help us find it, but that lot was rather large. Our departure times were given to us before we left, and we were told that if we were more than 15 minutes late, we would be left behind. It turned out the bus was all the way at the very other end of the lot, so I barely made it by the departure time, and once again, several other people were late. Honestly, I have trouble blaming the tourists, since they were foreign and not familiar with the locations, but by the end of the day, I seriously wanted to whisper to the tour guide to start giving fake departure times.

We had not been able to see the peak of Fuji from the 5th Station due to the cloud cover, but as we began driving down, the clouds cleared up and the guide stopped the bus and let us out for a quick photo op. 20150820_121028I was really surprised to see that the peak was plain black. I mean, in every picture ever of Mt. Fuji, it is a snow-capped cone with intense contrasts between the dark base and white peak. When I lived in Japan as a kid, we missed the summer altogether, so I never saw it in the hot weather. And in Seattle, our own Mt. Rainier is at it’s most visible in summer, and is always crowned with white. So what the heck was going on with this lump of volcanic black looming over our heads?

A Brief Explanation of Timberlines and Snowlines

After this trip, I did some research about mountain elevations, timberlines and snowlines. I now know more about all these things than I ever thought I would. Timberlines are the elevation at which trees stop growing due to temperature and/or oxygen availability, but are generally between 2100-2500m above sea level. Snowlines on the other hand vary by latitude, and can be drastically different from equator to pole. Thus, Mt. Rainier (which is 4,292m high) and Fuji (which is 3,775m) both exceed the timberline by quite a bit and have totally barren tops. They aren’t hugely different in altitude, but they are in latitude. Rainier has a snowline between 2900-3200m. So if Fuji were as far north as Rainier, it too would have a permanent snow cap, but since it is much farther south, the snowline is more than 5400m, meaning that all the snow melts in the summer heat. Hence, black Mt. Fuji.

Lunch by the Lake

20150820_125653We had another long drive back down the mountain and over to Lake Kawaguchi for lunch. Our tour included a local food lunch, but it took us about 40 minutes of driving to get there. While our guide was chatting to us about the history of the Shogunate in the area, the mountain made another appearance from behind the clouds, but since by this time we were on the ground, we could see more of the iconic conical shape. When she pointed it out, the whole bus full of people spun around in our seats to catch a glimpse and let out a spontaneous and involuntary synchronized “ooooh” as we all saw the mountain for the first time.

20150820_125849We pulled up next to Lake Kawaguchi for lunch. We were offered a very generous meal that sampled many different dishes including tempura, teriyaki chicken, rice, tofu, pickled veggies and a local speciality of noodles in miso broth with a slice of fresh watermelon for dessert. The food was delicious and there was a great view of the lake from the second floor window where we sat. Then suddenly, one of the large camera enthusiasts came in and declared that he had found a great view of Fuji around the side of the building. Not willing to risk the clouds coming back around, I paused at lunch and scampered downstairs for a quick glimpse and photo op. 20150820_131930It was really astonishing to see the giant volcano looming over the village houses. There was a cloud parting around the flat cap creating a halo above the peak. After a few dozen pictures, I tore myself away to finish lunch, then returned to the lakeside to soak in the greenery before we got back in the bus for the next long drive.

Why Are We Driving So Much?

This is a great question. I have no good answer. We drove for 2.5 hours to spend 30 minutes on Fuji. We drove 45 more minutes to have lunch and didn’t even get to walk around the lake. And now we were driving another 90 minutes to get to our next stop. See, Lake Kawaguchi is on the north side of Mt. Fuji while Lake Ashi is on the south side, so we have to drive all the way around the mountain to see both. I think if I had known this I would have booked a different tour with less driving time, but it didn’t really occur to me to Google map every stop on the itinerary. Live and learn.

The poor little tour guide did her best to entertain us on all the long drives, filling us with lots of mini lectures about Japanese culture and history, factoids about the mountains and lakes, accompanied by photos and hand drawn infographics. At one point she even sang us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji. Interestingly, the road up to the 5th Station has been graded in such a 20150820_135509_Richtone(HDR)way that the hum produced by the tires of vehicles plays that song… I heard it, it was a pretty cool piece of engineering. On this particular stretch of drive, she handed out origami squares and taught us all how to make a very simple snow-capped paper Fuji.

Ascending Mt. Komagatake

20150820_151223We parked at the sky gondola that would take us up the next mountain with only a few minutes to get on board. The gondolas only run every 20 minutes, so we scurried up to the landing area for the 3:10 ride and piled into the (supposedly) 100 person capacity gondola. Although, to be honest, I’m pretty sure that 100 people would involve the level of crowding normally associated with the Tokyo train at rush hour and that only about 25 people could reasonably be expected to enjoy a view from the gondola.

20150820_152422The day was very cloudy, so as we rode upwards we entered the cloud layer. It was pretty cool to watch the cables vanish into the thick white fog and then to follow it. I had hoped we might emerge above the clouds, but no such luck. I believe the mountain top would be quite beautiful in the sun, and even as it was there was a kind of quiet eerie beauty to the viewing platform. We could choose to descend at 3:30 or 3:50 in order to catch the boat. As nice as the top was, we all sort of decided there was only so much looking at the inside of a cloud we could do, so we piled in with an Italian tour group for the earlier gondola so we could check out the area around the lake.

20150820_153402On our way down, feeling a little disconsolate for the lack of view from the top, our spirits were lifted when suddenly the clouds to our right broke and Mt. Fuji came into view. According to our tour guide, it’s very rare to see Fuji from the Hakone area in the summer, because the summer is the cloudiest time of year in Japan. The mountain burst though a low layer of clouds which in turn were lit golden by the afternoon sunlight. The swirl of dark gray rain clouds and golden fluffy clouds danced around the black silhouette of the bare mountain. It really was a delightful and blessed feeling.

Shopping at Hakone

We spent some time exploring the shops while waiting for the boat. Pretty typical touristy stuff, but there was one shop that specialized in a local handicraft: Hakone puzzle boxes. These beautiful wooden boxes are made with intricate geometric patters comprised of the wood of different trees to create the different colors. The boxes require a series of secret movements, adjusting the side panels in a specific order. There is no metal or plastic, but the boxes are locked tight until the correct combination is performed.

20150820_154259In addition to the boxes, which were demonstrated by the shopkeeper, they had many other gifts made with the beautiful wood in the puzzle box patterns. I’m totally out of luggage space, but it was nice to see some local handicrafts promoted among the plastic ninja swords and plush Mt. Fuji dolls.

A Boat on Lake Ashi

20150820_163431Our boat picked us up at the pier next to the gondola station and we set off across the lake at 4:15. It was a really relaxing ride with great views. The valley was clear, the sun was beginning to peek out from the clouds, and we were able to watch Mt. Fuji receding in the distance as we sailed away. There were little towns at various ports around the lake. 20150820_162850There were more torii gates along the waterline. And there was even a boat tour that went in a 3 masted old-fashioned pirate ship, which was an adorable contrast to the Japanese countryside.

In contrast to the cities, the weather on the lake was cool and pleasant, so I really enjoyed the ride on the upper deck, basking in the sun, wind and amazing views. I also met a lovely family from L.A. (because no outing is complete without meeting new people!) and spent most of the trip chatting with their college-age daughter about the benefits of living overseas. I think I sold her on it.

It was really crazy how many people with giant expensive cameras were there. Mind you, all I had was my phone, which stands me pretty good in most cases. I’m pretty sure it didn’t even come close to doing the lake justice: brilliant golden sunlight reflecting from the small waves caused by the wake of many boats, deep green rolling foothills on every side, brilliant red torii gates dotting the landscape and over it all the black, symetrical cone of Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was a perfect way to end the day.

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Wrap-Up

We left just before 5pm and spent a little over 90 minutes returning to Tokyo. Since it was rush hour(s), I hung out in one of the famous Shinjuku department stores. These things are huge. Floors and floors of beautiful clothing, home decor and accessories. Unlike normal Japanese shopping, which is tall and narrow, the Shinjuku department stores are both tall and wide. I was just killing time, but I was astonished at the variety of fashion available. If I ever have a ridiculous amount of money to devote to my wardrobe, I’m pretty sure Shinjuku wins out over Dubai for shopping destination.

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I managed to stick it out until after rush hour so that I could actually get a seat on the long train ride back to Aobadai. The day was long, and really really full of uncomfortable transportation, but despite the lack of sleep, the aching feet and the hours of bus riding, I have to say that the whole Fuji-Hakone-Izu National parks area is amazing.

Now that I know a bit more about the area, what there is to see and how its laid out, I can say that my preferred future method would almost certainly be to go in the off season, rent a car and spend several days circling the base going from little lake town to little lake town. The only thing you can’t drive yourself to is up the mountains themselves, but there are local buses going up Fuji itself, and some of the other mountains have gondolas like the one we took. Sometimes it feels like the first time I visit someplace is just recon for the second time, but then again, I guess that’s why I want to live abroad instead of just taking short vacations. And even though things didn’t work out in Japan this time around, I have no doubt that I’ll come back here again someday.


Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, and as always, please check out all the photos on my facebook page 🙂

An Hour with the Owls: Visiting Tokyo’s Owl Cafe

Some of you may be aware of the Japanese fascination with animal themed cafes. This originated as a way for people who lived in tiny apartments or share houses where pets were not allowed to enjoy spending time with affectionate furry friends like cats, dogs, and bunnies. But as the animal cafe trend continued, a new more exotic pet came into focus: owls.

20150816_181230After a little bit of help from Google, I found the Akiba Fukurou Owl Cafe. They named for the neighborhood (Akihabara) and the Japanese word for owl “fukuro” which is also a homophone for the Japanese word for good luck (or at least protection from hardship) “fukurou”. Their website has an English language option that helps you to navigate the reservation process and learn about the cafe, the owls and what to expect for your visit.

My email request for a reservation was promptly and courteously answered, and even when I wanted to add another person, the cafe was very helpful in our last minute adjustment. Their emails are also full of adorable little stars and hearts. The nice thing about having a reservation is that your time with the owls is guaranteed and you don’t have to worry about the place being booked when you show up.

The Akiba Fukurou isn’t a cafe in the sense of serving coffee or snacks, it only inherits the name from the pet cafe phenomenon. Instead, it’s much more like an “owl experience”. Although complimentary bottled water is provided, the main purpose of the visit is definitely the birds. The hour is only 1,500 yen (about $12 US) and so totally worth it!

20150816_181234_editThere are 24 owls living at the cafe of many different sizes and species. All the owls are born in captivity and raised as pets, so they are used to people and well cared for. In Japan, it is legal to keep owls as pets only if they are bred for this purpose, so the cafe also seeks to educate visitors about the responsibilities of owning a pet owl.

While we were standing outside waiting for our reservation time, one of the staffers came out with little booklets that outlined the owl touching policies and house rules, but more than half the book was filled with owl facts. For example, pet owls adapt to a day-time schedule like their owners and sleep normally at night. Also, pet owls often eat raw chicken instead of small rodents. Owls don’t really bond with their owners the way some parrots do, but more accurately tolerate co-existence with humans (not unlike some cats I’ve met). And, no, they can’t be potty trained. There were lots of other owl facts, but mostly the same stuff you find at zoos or in nature documentaries.

20150816_180413As we entered the dimly lit space, we were asked to make use of the hand sanitzer and to choose a brand of bottled water on the way to our seats. We passed by the owl perches on the way, but were asked to wait just a little longer before starting to take pictures. We were seated at little white tables and the staff gave us a run down of the house rules. The first speech was in Japanese, but after the Japanese patrons got up to start petting the owls, they grouped all the English speakers together for the English version.

20150816_181521_editAll the owls had little green tags above their perch that showed their name in both English and Japanese. Some owls also had a pink tag, which was an indication that the bird was to be left alone. The staff was very attentive to the birds’ needs and moods, and would put up a pink tag on any owl that was getting grumpy or had been handled too much. One (very large) owl had a blue tag which I was told indicated that he was still in training, so he could be petted, but not removed from his perch.

11911618_10155998920590473_2055993660_n_editWe were told to only touch the owls on the head with a single finger, and not to stroke them like cats. Also we were warned about the owl’s tendency to shrink when scared and asked to keep our voices soft and our movements slow. It is also important to hold on to the bird’s tether so that the larger birds can’t fly off and attack the smaller ones. And finally, while we could pet any (non-pink tagged) bird on our own, if we wanted to hold one, we had to ask for staff assistance.

20150816_182449_editThe rules explained, we were set free to explore the owls. I took some time to visit all the perches, take pictures and pet everyone I was allowed to. I was astonished by the variety of sizes, colors, shapes and textures of the owls. All of them were soft, but some feathers felt like firm silk and others felt like soft powder while a few felt like fine fur. When the staff set up their camera for the complimentary photo op, I chose a particularly soft medium sized bird named Zebra (for his black and white stripes).

Zebra was amicable, but loved to bob his head all around. At first I was worried that he’d end up scaring himself by running into my hand too hard when I was petting him, but after he bumped into me a couple of times with no sign of trauma, I decided he must be ok with it, and settled down to enjoy the softness. His bobbing made the photos a little awkward, but he was fun.

20150816_183132I was happy to have been able to bring a friend on this adventure because owl selfies are hard, and honestly a bit distracting (at least one owl tried to chew on my phone trinket). Since there were two of us, however, we took turns taking pictures of each other. The staff were very helpful and attentive, prepared at the drop of a dropping with a handy moist towelette. We were warned that owls aren’t potty trainable, and that was certainly true. We joked later on the way home that our owl experience was all the more authentic for the poo. But all “accidents” were attended too immediately both for the patron and the floor.

Actually, the room was amazingly clean. I know the Japanese are really into clean, but I was a little shocked at how a room with 24 birds in it could remain so clean. There was no odor (not even air freshener), the floor was spotless, and I didn’t even have a teeny tiny sniffle or itch of allergies from the feathers!

20150816_181731_editAfter a while, I decided to switch owls. I had hoped to handle one of the teeny tiny ones. These full grown owls were maybe the size of my fist and just the epitome of cuteness, but I was not the only one with this idea, and in the end, I ceded the friendly miniature Cherry Tomato to a visiting child and chose a beautiful tawny colored horned owl named Queen of Hearts.

11874169_10155998877910473_1858344596_n_editDespite the staff’s edict to keep the birds at arm’s length, Queen did her very best to climb as far up my arm as her tether would allow. She turned around often, watching the people around her while hooting softly. Her hoots were so adorable. I don’t know if I would have heard them had she not been basically on my elbow. They were near classic owl hoot sounds, graceful and melodious. Her throat feathers expanded outwards as she spoke, always two hoots together.

20150816_185315_editFinally, the staff called the ten minute notice and we all began to turn over our erstwhile feathered friends. I lingered as long as was reasonable, petting more owls and doting especially on the largest owl who was not yet wrist trained, Takoyaki (yes, that’s a type of food). I spotted one staffer checking on the owls as they were replaced on their perches, adding do not touch pink tags to a few, and giving at least one a reassuring nose to beak nuzzle of affection. There is no doubt for me that these owls are much more than just a job to the folks running the cafe.

After a final hand sanitation, we were given our souvenir photo laminated post cards (a really nice touch, since most places I’ve been try to sell these). As we wandered back to the train station I realized that I felt hugely energized and refreshed. We had come into Akihabara some hours before our reservation to check out the neighborhood and the Anime center, so I had been feeling a little run down while waiting in line for our appointed time. Afterward, however, I felt amazing. I’m not saying owls have mystical properties or anything, but I’m sure there’s some kind of dopamine release that we got with all the cuteness and the animal interactions.

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Even before we arrived back home, the cafe staff had sent me a kind email, thanking me for my visit and sharing a digital copy of the souvenir photo. I cannot like these people enough. They are attentive to the needs of their customers and their owls. I wish to pieces we had things like this in the US because I really think that not only does spending time with animals make us feel better, it makes us remember that we aren’t the only living beings occupying this world.

This is a unique Japanese experience that I would recommend to basically anyone who doesn’t have a heart of stone. With an easy reservation process and a great location, a visit to the Akiba Fukorou Owl Cafe is perfect for anyone visiting Tokyo for any amount of time.

Shibuya & The Meiji Jingu Shrine

You ever have those times when no matter what plan you make the universe has other ideas? Well, it seems my summer of lazily watching netflix and contemplating reality has been superceeded by … more adventures. I guess I can’t complain.  

I met two of the new teachers and decided to join them on an impromptu trip to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. I don’t think I would have sought out this particular site on my own, but it was certainly a pretty day.

Some History

Shinto is the only “religion” that can be considered wholly Japanese. Buddhism, Christianity and other religions are now practiced widely in Japan (albeit in a uniquely Japanese fashion), but they are all transplants. But try as I might, I could never find any definitive literature (in English) about Shinto, and this is because for nearly the entire history of the Japanese people, it hasn’t been anything remotely like an organized religion, but much more like a series of local beliefs and practices about nature and the spirit world.

Emperor Meiji changed all that in the late 1800s by creating a state mandated form of Shinto as a way to reclaim Japanese culture from foreign influences. While there is a reasonable amount of data about this version of Shinto, it is also known that it isn’t necessarily true to historical Shinto practices, since it was created as a political tool. The Meiji Jingu shrine was built after the Emperor’s death to commemorate his work in the Meiji Restoration and to honor the deified spirits of he and his wife, the Empress Shoken. It was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt again after the war.

For my personal tastes, I’m far more interested in visiting Shinto shrines that pre-date the Meiji reformation, but I’m not so much of a history snob that I would turn down a trip that someone else already planned on a day when I would otherwise just be watching TV.

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The Shrine

20150815_164628We had a bit of an adventure getting there, since Google Maps doesn’t give very specific directions when it tells you to walk from say a train station to a bus stop, but we eventually found the right bus. I think we got off a couple stops too early, but we kept asking folks along the way for directions (including some nice ladies at a pony riding park) and eventually rounded the corner to see a tall torii gate leading to a deep, lush forest.

20150815_165018Soaking in the dark, shady greenery, we set off down the quiet path, alternating between taking pictures and admiring the view. We stalked butterflies and looked at spider webs along the trail toward the shrine. As we approached the main compound, we paused at the fountain outside the gates to wash our hands in the Shinto fashion with small bamboo dippers.

20150815_165447Upon entering, we were greeted by two giant trees with a rope adorned with the folded white paper blessings. We visited the main shrine where photos were not permitted, saw the prayer walls where visitors could hang up their written prayers which would be read aloud and burnt the 20150815_165806next sunrise in offering to the gods, and generally ooohed and aaahed at the stunning surroundings. Sadly, the museums and the iris garden were both closed by the time we got there, but it was still a beautiful and peaceful walk in the woods, punctuated by the vast wooden torii and the gently sloping rooftops of the traditional architecture.

As I said, this particular shrine wasn’t on my personal list, but I’m happy that I went. I doubt I’ll go back this trip, but if I’m living here again in the future, I’ll probably put in the effort to go early enough to see the museums and gardens. I don’t know if I would recommend it to someone on a short visit to Tokyo (with so much else to do), but for expats, long term vacationers or anyone else who’s looking for a nice, green afternoon, it’s definitely a win.

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Shibuya

Shibuya is an iconic part of Tokyo, nearly all of you have probably seen the busy multi-directional crosswalk in at least one movie. So, of course it was on my to-do list while living so close. It’s also the home of the Meiji Jingu Shrine, so I got to kill to sightseeing birds in one day.

20150815_155442On our way between the train and bus, we paused to take some photos of the crosswalk, and upon our return from the shrine, we took some more time to explore the areas restaurants and shops. We got approached by a couple of Mormon missionaries, which could have been awkward, but I subverted them into a much more pleasant conversation about family and sightseeing, and they directed us toward a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.

The sushi place turned out to be more expensive than we wanted, but right next door was a tiny little sliver of a ramen shop. These shops are tucked all over Japan, with their ordering machines, and single long bar for seating. Customers order their food from the vending machine where they pay and get a ticket. Then taking a seat at the bar, we turn over our tickets in return for heaping bowls of deliciousness. I finally got a chance to try the tonkostu broth ( a rich white broth made by boiling pork bones for hours and hours, recommended as the favorite by my students here).

20150815_183233Then we set off to explore the shops. Japan doesn’t have a lot of ground space so large shopping centers tend to be very narrow and very tall. Even when we stopped in my favorite boutique cosmetics store, Lush, we had to ascend a narrow winding staircase to see the second half of the tiny store. We also found a store called “Black Flame”. We expected something heavy metal or goth, but instead walked into the most intensely uncomfortable array of cultural appropriation and well intentioned racism. I really don’t know how else to put it. The (Japanese) sales rep was decked out in a full hip-hop array complete with a “fro” style hairdo under his backward facing cap.

Once you step away from the crosswalk, the side streets are narrow and the buildings are soaring, with tiny shops tucked in to every available space between the mega-famous brand stores and shopping centers. We found a store entirely dedicated to chocolates wrapped in messages. Literally, every chocolate was the same size and shape, but each was wrapped in a different message. I suspect one could easily spend days wandering around just a few city blocks there and still not see all there is to see. Needless to say, after 20150815_183149a fairly long day of exploring the shrine, we didn’t have that much energy left for shopping, so after a couple hours, we called it a night and headed back home.


It was really nice to have an unexpected day out, especially one I didn’t have to plan or think about and got to share with fun people. Life keeps on reminding me to be flexible, to let go of my plans and intentions and to just enjoy what is in front of me.