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.

“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

Two Festivals in Japan

Recently I had the opportunity to attend two very different festivals here in Japan. On Saturday, there was a small local lantern/ancestor festival in my neighborhood, and on Tuesday I went to the largest Hanabi (fireworks) festival in all of Kanagawa prefecture. Both events had plenty to offer in their own right, but being able to compare them so close together was especially cool. Also, I figured out how to embed videos today, so you get so see and hear some of the sights, too!

Aoba-ku Matsuri 20150801_185608 My neighborhood here is Aobadai (or Aoba-ku) and matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. The manager of the share house that I live in also does lots of event planning, so there’s usually some posters up in the common room about whatever is going on locally. I won’t claim to be fluent in Japanese, but I do have a chronic reading addiction, which basically means that I’ll try to read anything I see that has letters in a language I’m familiar with. I got enough out of the poster to see it was a festival (probably put on my some local schools) and it was in my area, so I asked for more details, since the location was given as “second park” and I couldn’t find that on Google Maps, even using the Japanese.

However, I have the coolest Japanese hosts, so they arranged for all of us here to go together Saturday evening. 20150801_181747We walked up about a block and left another two or so (maybe 5 minutes?) and came across a tiny little park all decked out in fair tents and lanterns. There was a lovely entrance gate with paper flowers and many messages (prayers?) written in Japanese. The park itself was fairly small. I think we could have walked the whole thing in 3 minutes if it wasn’t so full of people, but everyone there was really enjoying themselves. There was also a tower set up in the center where a taiko drum was being played live to accompany the recorded traditional music.

There were stands for juice and beer, as well as traditional festival foods like yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, candy floss, and shaved ice. The lines were very long, but our hosts took turns standing in line to bring delicious goodies back to us so we could share a little bit of everything. I tried in my faltering Japanese to explain my childhood memories of the yakitori stands I had enjoyed when living at Yokosuka with my family.

Sometimes those of us who have chosen the life of travel and adventure just stop in wonder that what we are experiencing is real, and for me that moment on Saturday was standing in the sweltering heat of a Japanese summer, listening to the mingled sounds of cicadas, traditional music, and chattering attendees, holding a beer in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other, completely unable to stop grinning like an idiot.

20150801_182411We wandered around, taking pictures and (for me at least) making delighted squee sounds at the adorable little girls running around in traditional yukata (like a kimono, but lightweight for summer). I saw some kids gathered around kiddie pools of water with floating balloons. The game was a kind of fishing with a hook on a string and the object was to loop a balloon without popping it on the hook. I think the balloons were pretty tough though, because I also saw kids who had won them bouncing them on the elastic bands fairly hard and they didn’t break. There was also a local celebrity, an older lady who serenaded us with some traditional Japanese songs that we were told brought the ancestors down from heaven to celebrate with us.

At some point, some of the ladies doing traditional dancing around the taiko tower dragged us into the dance area and helped us learn the dance. 11823928_923624031042646_1655739058_nThey were so excited to have the gaijin (foreigners) dancing with them, that even though our steps were awkward and unsure, they showered us with praise when the song ended. One of them had a daughter who had studied in Canada and spoke English well, so she called her daughter up and had a couple of the group talk to her on the phone.

20150801_181445She was so excited that she wouldn’t slow down, so I couldn’t catch every thing that she said in Japanese, but when she started talking about the taiko drum, she asked one of the Brits if he knew how to play. I sort of had to translate for both of them, but the conversation basically went that no, he didn’t know how, but would love to learn. Later on, as we were getting ready to leave, she ran up to us, waving frantically and saying “taiko OK”. So it was that he got to ascend the tower and have a brief taiko lesson, playing along to the music as the dancing started up again. I have to say I was a little jealous, but mostly I felt happy that I was able to help facilitate this experience for someone who so clearly enjoyed it and would not have been able to navigate the language on his own.

Finally, as the festival was winding down, we headed toward the exit and I noticed a group of children staring intently at something on a tree so I went closer to investigate. 20150801_210423There on the tree, hanging off a small twig was a cicada emerging from it’s larval shell and drying it’s wings in the warm night air. I was no less enchanted than the children, and took my turn to get up close for some photos before backing up to let the shorter people have the view. The cicada are as much a part of Japanese summers as yukata, lanterns and fireworks, so I felt very lucky to be able to see this one emerging under the spotlight of a nearby paper lantern.

Kanagawa Hanabi

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This was the 30th annual Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival, held in the Minato Mirai harbor. It is said to be the largest fireworks festival in the region, and since Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan (next to Tokyo) that’s saying something. “15,000 bursts of fireworks, the largest of which will be 480 meters in diameter” according to the website. So, you can imagine I was excited to learn it was less than an hour by train from my home, and free to attend! (“premium seating extra”)

20150804_182930Now, going anywhere abroad without a native guide means I automatically double the amount of time I think it should take to get there. That day I learned that for festival days, it should really be more like triple. The fireworks were set to start at 7pm, so I left home around 5, thinking this would give me enough time to get to the nearest train stop and make my way to a nice viewing area. I expected it to be really crowded, but fireworks are up, so it’s hard for people to obscure your view. I also didn’t eat much before I left because I figured there would be lots of yummy festival food once I arrived.

20150804_184459_Richtone(HDR)The train ride out started smoothly enough. I noticed more and more people in yukata boarding the train heading the same way. And then just as I was thinking if I got lost I could always follow them, a whole bunch of them got off at a totally different stop than I was expecting. It’s possible they knew something that I and Google Maps did not, because when I got to my last transfer station, the train to the stop I wanted was closed! After about 10 minutes of standing in the underground, dripping with sweat, I gave up on the idea that it would be open and went back to find another route to my destination.

20150804_183945_Richtone(HDR)I made it eventually, only about 15 extra minutes, and emerged from the train station to HUGE crowds of people being herded politely by squads of police officers with glowing red batons. They herded us up an escalator and into a huge shopping mall (which was insanely obsessed with Pikachu), then through a public square and onto a skybridge and through a carnival, and over a regular bridge, 20150804_185350and… it was a really long walk, and although I enjoyed the sights, including the famous ferris wheel, I began to be concerned that I would not make it to the waterfront before the fireworks started. Additionally, there were no food stands, just the regular restaurants in the area (all of which had huge lines).

The fireworks started while we were on one of the bridges, and I personally would have been happy to stop there and watch, but the police kept shuffling the crowd along. I told myself that it was a great part of Japanese life that I was experiencing this event as part of a huge crowd. I’m still not sure if I buy that completely, but there was a nice breeze coming off the water, and everyone was very excited to applaud the fireworks, so it was hard to be unhappy.

The show would go on for about 5-10 minutes, then stop again for as long, so we had some time to keep marching toward our destination without missing too much. There was a short time where the harbor was blocked by tall buildings and I couldn’t see the fireworks at all, but I could hear them and feel them. It was a very curious sensation, being out on the streets with huge crowds of people and police cars everywhere managing the crowds while having the sensation of being in a bomb zone.

20150804_191013_LLSFinally we rounded a corner and had a clearer view of the sky over the water. And there we stopped. I was pretty confused because it was just a street full of people, many of whom were sitting on mats on the pavement, enjoying the picnics they’d brought. But everyone seemed happy enough, and the crowd had really strong reactions to each fresh burst of color. There were lots of phones held aloft to try to capture the spectacle, mine among them, although my camera work may have been a little shaky, since I held the phone up really high and watched the fireworks under it rather than on the screen.

I noticed that some people were gradually edging forward in the crowd, so on the next break in the show I slid along behind one such group, using their crowd busting to my advantage. 20150804_192753_2I gradually made it closer and closer, pausing whenever the fireworks started again to watch and enjoy. I finally emerged on another street that was far less occupied. It was the street that lined the waterfront park. And yet, not only was there a chain link fence set up to keep “non-priority” folks from sitting on the grass, they had put tarp up to keep us from even looking through the fence.

20150804_194119_2Even so, at periodic breaks in the trees, small clusters of people gathered to peek through the cracks in the tarp or watch the fireworks that could be seen over the fence. I kept wandering down the mostly empty street until it looped back around toward the carnival, and finally settled down at the gates to the park. I asked one of the staff about entrance tickets, because it would have been nice to see the show on the water as well as the one from the air, but it turned out you had to get the tickets in advance. Ah well. I still managed to see a bit (and catch some of the music) of what was happening on the lake through the gates, but I couldn’t get any decent pictures.

So, the crowds were huge, there were no food stands (although a couple enterprising folks had set up buckets of ice to sell cold drinks out of) and there were really no events aside from the fireworks. As far as festivals go, I think I preferred the smaller local one. BUT,

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The fireworks were probably some of the most impressive I have ever seen (and I’ve been to the 4th of July on USAF bases, so that’s saying something). I admit fully that my poor little phone just does not do them justice, so after you check out my Facebook page for my own pics, do yourself the favor of an image search and see what the pros have captured. It wasn’t just the sheer quantity (part of the finale actually filled the whole sky with light), but the epic size of the fiery blooms in the air. It’s so hard to portray perspective in photos, especially at night, and I know I sound like a broken record of “you have to see this for yourself” but as beautiful as the pictures are, there is no substitute for the real thing.

This video is only about 5 minutes long, and the whole show lasted over an hour. The finale is really something, so don’t skip the end!

Despite the fact that I sweated about 2 liters out, didn’t get to eat anything, and spent hours and hours crammed in trains, lines or subways to get there and back, I do not regret it for one second. The two festivals could not have been more different, and going to one was certainly not a substitute for the other. It just goes to show that big or small, every corner of the world has something to offer.

Where have you been? 2 months of blog silence

I realize that I haven’t really updated anyone in a couple of months. My life got a little crazy, but here’s some of what’s been going on.

I left Saudi in mid-May and went to Europe for three weeks with the expectation of a nice secure job awaiting me in Japan. Europe was great. I got to hang out with some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time and to see really cool stuff. It was a great vacation, even if it was accompanied by a cold. During my time of resocialization, I started to emerge from the fog of isolation that had covered my mind during my time in Saudi. To be clear, I don’t blame the country or culture for this, I think it could happen to me nearly anywhere. However, being cut off from friendly socialization for that long drove me more than a little bonkers, and although I knew when I made my decision to leave that it was a problem, it wasn’t until I was back among friends that I started to realize how big of a problem it had been. Take away lesson, make sure I’m in a social setting from now on.

20150521_150241France was epic, I managed to blog a little about that before radio silence kicked in. In 5 days and 3 towns I fell in love with it and am now looking at various options for how to live there for 6mo-1year in the reasonably near future.

Prague is also pretty kick ass. It was nice to be able to just hang out with one of my besties, the beer was amazingly cheap and the clubs were super fun. The weather was awesome and there were festivals just about every other day celebrating something. It was really tempting to just stay there, it would have been a little tricky to get all my visa paperwork done, but there appeared to be plenty of jobs and it was *cheap* to live there. The main thing that sent me moving on was the thought of this nice job waiting for me in Japan.

I’d really tried to do my research and be picky. I turned down jobs in rural areas because I knew I needed to be in urban (social) areas to be ok, and I turned down jobs at pre-schools because I didn’t want to work with tiny tots all day. (more on that later, but my hats off and all respect to early learner teachers). I asked loads of questions and discussed the conditions that were causing me to leave my position in Saudi. I really thought I’d landed at a happy place. I was excited to go and start a new job.

Things started going a little weird when I tried to get more detailed info about my arrival in Japan. Since the nearest airport to Yokohama is in Tokyo, it’s not a short cab ride away. Every other school I’ve worked for (and to be fair that’s only been 3 others) has sent someone to the airport to collect me. These folks tell me I have to get myself from the Tokyo airport to the train station that is nearest the residence. This turns out to involve a 2 hour bus ride and a transfer from the bus to the train line. Additionally, arriving with NO phone (still don’t have a Japanese SIM, btw) I had to call the house manager (not affiliated with the school) who would then meet me at the train station to show me to the house (and collect my rent money).

I’ve done enough travelling that I was able to sort it all out, including getting my luggage delivered to the school so that I didn’t have to try to haul 2 large suitcases and my carry on bags across all that public transportation. But it wasn’t a good omen. As it turns out I was not able to accept the job for a variety of reasons I won’t go into in public, but we are parting amicably.

20150709_145612Other than that, Japan is pretty cool. The weather is down right miserable this time of year, hot and humid. Stepping outside means you need a shower. So I haven’t done much exploring outside the neighborhood. I did make it down to Chinatown in Yokohama, the largest one in Asia, and although I got rained out after a few hours, the weather that day was pretty nice. Most of the rest of the time I think about going out until I open the door and feel the non-airconditioned air. So I’m really hoping that I can stick around through the fall at least and get a chance to see things without melting.

My house is a sweet set-up. It’s called a share house, so it’s like dorms for adults. We get bedrooms that are private, but the bathrooms, showers, kitchen and living room are all shared spaces. I hear that not all the share houses around here are so nice, but we 20150606_150634have a kitchen that looks like the set of a cooking show, and a cleaner that comes in and does a base coat cleaning 5x a week. I have to clean my own room and wash my own dishes, but the rest is taken care of. On top of that, the people who live here are really fun and friendly. I’ve stayed up having great conversations, parties, drinking and even gone out to karaoke a couple of times. Just for eg, last night I made some comment about a post from Facebook about the discussion of economy in the US Presidential race and ended up having a 2 hour conversation with a German, Norwegian, Canadian and Saudi.

I keep thinking that I should be more worried/depressed/anxious about things, after all, I’m about to leave my job without a new one. It’s too hot to do anything so I end up laying around at home binge watching netflix until it’s time to go down to the kitchen to cook and hang out with folks. I think I should feel bad for not taking advantage of being in Japan to go visit temples or beaches or hot springs. But I’m really not. I’m not tripping skipping euphoric happy or anything, but even when I lift up the carpet and peek behind the dresser in my head I can’t seem to find any heart stabbing sadness or spine freezing anxiety waiting to jump out at me. After the near crippling anxiety and depression I was going through the last few months in Saudi, it’s still a little hard to believe.

I’ll start job hunting again once the visa is in (my house is cheap so even part time work will be enough), and I’ll try to find some fun places to go that have AC until the weather turns cooler, but for the most part, I’m coming to terms with the fact that what I need right now may not be a whirlwind adventure, but instead it may be to have a slow lazy summer of watching too much TV, staying up too late, drinking too much and just hanging out with cool people in the kitchen. That being said, blog posts may be fewer and they’ll almost certainly be more about things I’m thinking or feeling rather than about things I’m doing. But that’s OK. Not every part of an adventure is external, trekking to new places and seeing new things outside of ourselves. Sometimes we need to trek inside and sometimes we need to visit the familiar.

To be sure, the tone of my adventure has changed in the last couple months, but that’s part of why my mission isn’t just “teacher & adventurer”, I’m also a learner and a seeker. Thanks for sharing it with me, and I hope you’ll stick around as the next chapters unfold.

🙂