Wabi-Sabi Sole

Finding Beauty with Imperfection

Category: Travel (Page 2 of 2)

Shinkansen 

I must confess. I was completely giddy anticipating our Shinkansen trip. Riding the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) has been at the top of my Japan Bucket List. Our trip to Hiroshima was the perfect opportunity. 

We boarded the Shinkansen in Shinagawa. Here is the route to Hiroshima. 

Considering this is the Shinagawa Shinkansen station, it seemed empty! Our train was on track 23 – car 6. 


I took a video and several pictures while waiting for our train at 10:17am. I was only reprimanded once for not standing behind the yellow line! Oops! 

The video is of the train leaving. I thought it would show the speed better than the train arriving. 

​This is our train arriving. I used the burst setting on my phone. It was still blurry! 


Once on the train, I unpacked our snacks! We packed the needed provisions. A homemade rice ball, veggie sticks, and several chūhai. We settled in nicely for our almost 4-hour journey. 

Let me tell you a little bit more about the Shinkansen. My source was Wikipedia and the JR Train website. I summarized and made it reader friendly. 

Speed – the maximum is 200 mph. The average speed is between 150-185 mph. 

The Route – the Shinkansen tracks are their own separate system. They do not cross roads or go around obstacles. They go through or over any obstacle. Most of the time the tracks are slightly elevated above surrounding landscape. Curves are kept to a minimum. Because as we all know, the fastest way from point A to Point B is a straight line. 

The Tracks – the tracks are Standard Gauge (wider tracks – lower center of gravity) vice Narrow Gauge. Being an Austin, I’m not embarrassed to admit I know the difference. Also, the actual rails of the tracks are longer. This reduces the number of welds required and the effects of thermal expansion within the rails and therefore provides a smoother ride. 

The Trains – the trains are lighter and can accelerate or decelerate quickly. This reduces the amount of damage to the tracks. Also, the cars are air-sealed to ensure stable air pressure when entering tunnels at high speed.

Side note: I felt the speed the most when going through the tunnels. The combination of the speed and confinement created excessive pressure on my ears.

Environmental Impact – the average ride (per passenger) on the Shinkansen produces 16% of the CO2 produced by the same trip made by a vehicle. Considering the Shinkansen has 342 daily departures with 1,323 seats per train, that’s a much smaller carbon footprint than driving. 

Safety – Very. No fatalities from derailments or collisions. Deaths have occurred from people rushing the train and suicides.  

Taking the Shinkansen is a fantastic alternative to driving and much less hassle than flying. We were able to book a train, hotel, and tour package at a very reasonable price. I hope when you visit, we have the opportunity to visit another part of Japan via the Shinkansen. You won’t be disappointed!! 

Take A Break

Dina and I rented a car and drove to see the Fuji Flower Carpet on Thursday. Although I had already been a few days earlier, I was happy to visit again and hopefully sneak another peak at Mt. Fuji. We left at 5:30 am. It was about a 2.5-hour drive and we arrived right when the park opened at 8:00 am. Here was our route.


I must also briefly tell you about the drive. As we drove towards Mt. Fuji we started with a great view and then clouds slowly started to settle. Dina put it nicely, “I’m observing a changing weather pattern.” However, we drove through a REALLY long tunnel and on the other side, we drove out into the sunshine and cloudless skies! It was a Fuji miracle! We were SO happy!!

Our luck continued at the flower carpet because we definitely beat the crowds and traffic! It was worth going early. I won’t overload you with pictures- I’ll just share a few of the beauty. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to see Fuji twice!


Without the crowds, we were able to have a break time. Ahhhh, beautiful view, good coffee, and cream cheese filling. (I was expecting red bean paste!)


After we snapped a plethora of pictures, we decided to head out to Mount Minobu. Dina picked up a brochure showing Mt. Fuji, a Ropeway, and a pagoda. She quickly did a Google Map search and realized we were an hour away. So, off we went! Maybe my favorite part of the drive was seeing Lake Motosu. It was breathtaking. We pulled over to take a few pictures.


Later during the trip, Dina used Google Translate to attempt to find the name of the lake. Google Translate told her it was the lake on the back of the ¥1000 bill! Sure enough!


Dina’s excellent navigation skills, she will laugh at that statement, enabled us to easily find Minobusan with ease.


We enjoyed the Minobusan Ropeway ride and the view of Mt. Fuji from the top even though the clouds were starting to set in on it.

At the top were lots of trails and a temple. I look forward to returning in the fall with Dave and possibly catching a sunrise over Mt. Fuji!

By the time we came down the Ropeway, we were ready for lunch. We were fortunate to find a noodle restaurant around the corner.


As we were eating, I noticed a sign – fitting right into today’s theme!


The hearty lunch proved to be essential for the rest of the afternoon. According to the brochure, the pagoda was part of a Monastery.


Next to the pagoda were a lot of stairs. Going down. So down we went.


Once we reached the bottom, we read this sign.


As I mentioned, a lot of stairs. 287 in fact. We just walked down them. We would obviously need to go back up. “The Stairs provide you attaining joy of enlightenment.” Hmmm… I’m enlightened about the soreness in my quads today!


The monastery was very unique. It was hard to capture the magnitude and beauty of the buildings and grounds. I took a few pictures and hope they provide you with good highlights. I will definitely suggest we take a drive to Mt. Fuji and see Lake Motosu. If the fall foliage is peaking, we should also make a trip to Mt. Minobusan.


Here was our trip home.


We arrived shortly after 6:00 pm. A glass of wine and rehashing the journey with Dave over pizza was a nice way to wrap up an adventurous day!

Japanese Hotel

Thursday evening, Dave spontaneously suggested we take time to sightsee in Tokyo for the long weekend. The New Sanno was booked, of course, so I made us reservations for a room at the APA Hotel in Asakusa. Asakusa is on the east side of Tokyo. We have not really explored this area yet. We are the blue dot in the photo. 


I used several of the local Facebook pages to select the hotel. It came with good recommendations and the suggestion to bring your own pillows. Haha. Seriously, I wish we would have listened! They are flat! We were provided robes set with crane origami. 


The room is tiny and a great deal. About $85 a night! Besides a bed, window and full bath, it has two pairs of slippers for each of us, a fridge, a place to hang stuff, steam pot, humidifier and a TV. 

Check out all 118 square feet. 

Perfect fit!?! 


The only place for our carry on sized suitcase was in front of the door. Putting the suitcase in front of the door is a bit of a hazard. We therefore had a serious conversation about egress. Dave promised to get us both out in the event of an emergency. Safety is paramount. 

A place to hang stuff. 

Bed. Window. TV. 


The bathroom is adorable. The sink and shower faucet are controlled by the same spot! 


The toiletries were fully stocked. 


Ironically, the only oversized item is the soap, conditioner and shampoo! 


Honestly, it’s part of the Japanese experience. And it’s only for two nights. Tomorrow, I plan on taking Dave to at least seven temples (another Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage) and possibly another two to see Ume Blossoms. In the afternoon, perhaps we can make it to the Tokyo Skytree. My tourist list is long as always! 

Sogo Yokohama

I went on a shopping trip today to the department store, Sogo, in Yokohama. My mission was to visit the Sanrio store for a Hello Kitty t-shirt to wear during the Tokyo Marathon. 

I didn’t find one. Turns out the Sanrio stores only stock kids stuff. However, I did find a whole new feature of Google Maps. 

Google Maps will show you the stores on each floor of a mall. Check out the first picture. It shows the B2 level or the second floor of the basement. It is at this level where you come out of the train station. The highlighted level on the side corresponds with the map layout. 


Next B1. 


As you scroll up the floor on the left side, the layout changes to match. Pretty amazing. Skipping ahead, level 2 & 3. 


When I first saw level 7, I got a little excited. It says LOFT. This was not the LOFT from the US. It was a cute store with a lot of Japan souvenirs. Just not cute clothes. 


Finally, on up to level 8 where the Sanrio was located. Lots of cute Hello Kitty toys and clothes for little kids. No t-shirt for me. I think I’m going to have to order from Amazon. 


With 10 levels plus a rooftop, this feature of Google Maps is essential! 

Google Maps proves yet again to be my favorite traveling partner for navigation! 

Laforet Grand Bazar

The first semester ended yesterday for Yokosuka DOD schools. Today and tomorrow are teacher work days. What is a better place to spend days off with kids than in Harajuku? Oh, wait… Kids? Hmmm… Fortunately, Dina agreed to share her sweet girls and we all ventured up together on the train!

Probably my favorite moment of the day was shortly after we took this picture.

 

I (jokingly) told the girls that our Kimono appointment was at noon. They both looked at me as I continued to tell them, I scheduled an appointment for all of us to have a kimono fitting and photo shoot.  The look Dina’s oldest daughter, a teenager, gave her was priceless! From there, the joke only escalated and morphed into an inconceivable Japanese kimono fairy tale. It was hilarious.

We walked down Takeshita street and worked our way to Dominique Ansel Bakery for lunch. On our way, we passed this spectacle. A HUGE group of balloons!

Not only was there a huge thing of balloons, there were a lot of Japanese standing in a long line and a cute little American girl wearing cat ears! Kawaii!

Turns out, the spectacle was actually a very well known sales event. According to my research, the Japanese flock to Harajuku for the semi-annual Grand Bazar sales. The sale includes a six-story complex (plus vendors on the street) with many different well-known Japanese brands. The event offers drastic discounts and amazing bargains if you are willing to stand the crowds.


Knowing we would not have much luck finding our size, we continued on our way to lunch. We thought the girls would enjoy seeing and drinking the blooming hot chocolate at Dominique Ansel Bakery. Plus, I wanted to try the lobster roll.



The lobster roll was good. The one I had at Luke’s was better.

After lunch, we spent about an hour and a half wandering around a five-story toy store called Kiddy Land. They had a wide variety of Japan characters and many American. Sadly, no Neko Atsume!

As we walked back towards Takeshita Street, we passed the Laforet Grand Bazar again. This time, the main character was on the street! Seriously. Soak in the number of balls this guy is wearing/carrying. Each time someone asked to have a picture taken with him, he asked, “which ball do you want?” So, bizarre.


Hopefully, the picture is not too grainy but, you really needed to see the details of the makeup on his face.

I laugh each time I look at this one! Her face, his face! Her height, his height! Too, funny. He was definitely not Japanese. However, I think I detected a slight Wisconsin accent.

When you visit, Harajuku is an absolute must! I can’t promise the Bazar but, I can promise the bizarre!

Ikebana New Year Luncheon

Ikebana International celebrated the New Year with a special luncheon in Tokyo. The luncheon was held at the Palace Hotel Tokyo.

The following Ikebana Chapters were represented and brought an arrangement to display:

Tokyo Founding Chapter

Kyoto Chapter

Kobe Chapter

Shinano Chapter

Okinawa Chapter

Sapporo Chapter

Kamakura Chapter (The one I am a member of.)

Fukuoka

Nagoya Chapter

Osaka Chapter

Shinano Chapter

Saitama Chapter

Hiroshima Chapter

Besides lunch, the event included three Ikebana demonstrations by renowned Ikebana headmasters. Pictures were not permitted during the demonstrations. You will have to take my word for it, watching them make the arrangements was mesmerizing. Evergreens, bamboo, and plum blossoms were the focus of the three arrangements. In the picture below, the three Ikebana headmasters who made arrangements are in the center. Mr. Akihiro Kasuy is wearing the gray kimono, Mrs. Senko Ikenobo is wearing the yellow kimono, and Mr. Hirooki Ohara is the youngest gentleman in the gray suit.

The arrangement pictured below was completed by Mrs. Senko Ikenobo.

The arrangement pictured below was completed by Mr. Hiroki Ohara who become an Ikebana Headmaster at the age of 6. Yes, 6.

Mr. Akihiro Kasuya completed the arrangement pictured below.


I had to take a couple pictures of the crowds and chaos after the demonstrations were complete. Everyone wanted pictures!


So much going on – gotta take a selfie!


After the Ikebana demonstrations, lunch was served. A four-course lunch with a glass of champagne.

Course 1: quinoa and seafood salad with spinach mousse and spicy cauliflower coulis.

What looks like an egg on top was actually the spinach mousse. It was delicious.

Course 2: Clam soup with thyme. It was served without the broth. The waiters then came around and filled the soup with broth.

Soup with broth.

Course 3: Sous vide beef tenderloin with truffle sauce and seasonal vegetables.

Course 4: Dessert – Cremet d’Anjou with berries and a side of raspberry sherbert.

The appetizer and dessert were my favorite! The seafood salad with spinach mousse was delicious. The raspberry sherbert and fresh berries were a delightful and satisfying treat at the end of the meal.

A group shot of the Americans from the Ikebana International Kamakura Chapter members.


Before leaving, Dina and I were able to get a picture with Mori-san. Mori-san is the president of the Japan side of the Ikebana Kamakura Chapter. She is very kind and is always willing to give us hugs and appreciation for us joining Ikebana.

As I have said several times in my previous discussions about Ikebana International, it is such a fun way to experience Japanese culture. The underlying theme to bring peace and friendship through flowers enhances the experience.

Christmas Vacation 

Christmas Vacation. 


Two of my favorite words. Having the opportunity to live on the other side of the world gives us a chance to vacation on the other side as well. We debated for a couple weeks at the end of September where we would like to visit. After seeking counsel from new friends we have made here and old shipmates (thanks, Audry & Matt), we decided on Phuket, Thailand. 


I have spent the day cleaning the house and packing our suitcases. We leave tomorrow morning and fly non-stop to Bangkok. After a brief layover we continue to Phuket. From the airport, we will have about an hour taxi ride to our hotel. Here is a Google map of the island. We are staying at the red dot. It is a resort right on the beach in the Patong Beach area. 


Here is a bigger perspective we are the blue dot in Japan. 


We have plans to lounge on the beach and by the pool. We have looked at the possibility of taking a sea kayaking adventure and a speed boat to visit neighboring islands. We are planning to do some sightseeing around the island as well. 

Unfortunately, with my Japanese cell phone, I will only have connectivity when we are in our room. I came to the decision that I am not going to stress about updating my blog while I’m on vacation. I will take lots of pictures and share our adventures when we return after the New Year. 

Thank you for reading and following me through our first 5 months in Japan. I’m looking forward to the coming New Year and sharing all the adventures it will contain with you. I miss you all and love you even more. 

Wishing you the happiest of holidays. 

XOXO 

Matsumoto

The second half of our day on Saturday was spent in Matsumoto. Matsumoto is a city surrounded by mountains in the Nagano prefecture. It was about a 1.5 hour drive from the Snow Monkey Park.


The highlight of our visit to Matsumoto was the Matsumoto Castle. This castle was unlike any castle I have ever seen. Mainly because it was a Japanese castle. 


The weather in the afternoon was perfect allowing for excellent lighting on the castle. We were amazed with the perfect weather we had all day. Clear in the morning so we could see Mt. Fuji, snowed while we were visiting the snow Monkeys and then perfect clouds in Matsumoto. 


The Matsumoto Castle is listed as a National Treasure of Japan. It is often referred to as the “Crow Castle” because it’s black color and roof line give the image of crow wings. 


The castle was built during the Sengoku Period and completed between 1593-1594. For 280 years, the castle was ruled by 23 different lords until the Meiji Restoration abolished the feudal system. In 1873, the castle was sold at auction and prepared for restoration. The main structure was experiencing a significant starboard list. Since 1873b, two significant renovations have occurred. One between 1903-1913 and the other between 1950-1955. An earthquake in June of 2011 caused 10 cracks to form in the walls of the main structure and potential renovations are being discussed. 

Upon entering the castle, visitors are asked to remove their shoes. You are provided slippers to wear while walking around. Dave had a little bit of a struggle finding a pair to fit his size 12. 


The Castle has 6 floors. Each floor is connected by a set of narrow and steep stairs! I wasn’t able to photograph each set because of the crowds. These will give you an idea. 


The view of the surrounding mountains from the sixth floor was beautiful. 


After exploring the castle, we walked around the gardens and had a couple unique photo opportunities. 


We had a little bit of time before needing to catch the bus, enabling us to explore the city of Matsumoto. We found this beautiful temple and I purchased another temple book. Two reasons – 1. I only have 3 spots left in my book. 2. I forgot mine. Ugh. Rookie mistake! 


When we first arrived, we were able to see the end of a wedding. 


We walked through the shopping district and found this cute store! It has my name! 

As always, thanks for reading! Hugs & kisses from Japan! 

Snow Monkeys 

Visiting the Snow Monkeys has been on my list of “must do” since we started discussing the possibility of taking orders to Japan. I first learned about Snow Monkeys when I taught AP Environmental Science at Bayside High school in 2004. A picture of a snow monkey was on the cover of our text book and we discussed the monkeys when learning about an animal’s ability to adapt to their environment. Snow Monkeys live in a harsh winter environment and use the onsen (hot spring) as a refuge from the cold.

I signed us up to take the tour offered by ITT on Saturday 12/17. The tour bus picked us up at 3:30am and we returned at 10pm. It was a long day on the bus, but well worth it!

Jigokudani Yaen-Koen or Snow Monkey Park is located near the city of Nagano in the northern part of the Nagano prefecture. Nagano was the sight of the 1998 winter Olympics. It is about a 5 hour drive from Yokosuka.

We had two rest stops on our way to Nagano. The first was slightly before sunrise and gave us a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji.

The Nagano area receives heavy snowfalls and the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen remains snow covered four months of the year. The elevation of the park is 850m (2,788 ft). The path to see the snow monkeys is very narrow and and only accessible by foot. From where the buses drop you off, it is approximately 2km through the forest to see the monkeys. The park includes mountains forests surrounding a valley. The onsen is located in the valley. The steam from the hot springs during the cold winter makes the name Jigokudani, (meaning: “Hell’s Valley”) appropriate because the steam rise up.

The path to the Monkeys was an unexpected delight. It was already snow covered and the forest was serene. About 5 minutes into our walk along the path, it started snowing. Talk picturesque!

At one point a park worker passed us on his snow mobile!

We moved to the side for him to pass and then continued on our way.

A sharp right turn took us up the steps for the Snow Monkey Park. But first, let me take a selfie!

Our tour guide passed out our tickets and we were off to find SNOW MONKEYS!!

And did we ever… I hope I convey how big of a deal this was for me. Like I said, I have thought about this for years. It was better than I expected. The monkeys are so chill, they don’t care about humans and the opportunities to observe and photograph them are endless.the first set of photos were from the creek bed area. The brown furry rocks are monkeys.

The monkeys are wild Japanese macaques. They are free to roam the forest. There is nothing preventing them from coming or going. Often they are seen just sitting, walking about or grooming their friends.

I think if I could have stayed all day, I would have. They were fascinating to watch. This one… just posed and posed. Their faces turn red as they warm up in the onsen. Notice the difference in the earlier pictures.

Here are a few shots from the upper viewing area.

The close-up pictures are amazing. I also tried to see how many I could photograph at once.

Frequently, momma gives rides.

As we left the park, my heart was happy. I felt so fortunate to have experienced such a magical moment. We are sacrificing a lot by being away from our family and friends. Especially during the holidays. Having the opportunity to go on adventures and explore helps ease the separation. And being able to share it with you, helps me feel grounded and connected. Wow. That was heavy. We obviously need more monkey pictures!!

And a few more pictures of the walk back to the bus. It was still snowing!!

Can you believe this was only the first half of our day? We left the Snow Monkey Park at noon. We stopped about thirty minutes away for lunch. Shockingly, I had ramen. Although not the best ever, it was perfect on a snowy snow monkey day!

I am going to save the second half of our day for tomorrow. I have already written half a book with numerous pictures. I will save our afternoon in Matsumoto visiting the castle and exploring the town for tomorrow!

P.S. If you decide to visit in the winter months, we will definitely add a visit to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen to your list. As always, thank you for reading. Hugs and kisses from Japan.

Peek-a-Boo

Long story short, I saw our future house today!!  Here is a picture of our “le” (pronounced “e-et”).  It was great to put eyes on our home sweet home.  Less than 2 weeks!


What you can’t see is the long hill I climbed to get to the house.  Nor can you feel how hot and sweaty it was to make the climb.  I know the U.S is feeling the torch of summer and Japan is no different.  It was 89 degrees – 70% humidity with a heat index of 99 degrees.  Sounds familiar to so many!


Added bonus is that it is an end unit and tucked away with a woody backyard.


And now for the longer part of the story.  Let me back up to Wednesday, 8/3.  Two key things happened.  1.  We obtained our Japanese cell phones.  This enabled me to utilize GPS and cellular service beyond wifi.  2.  My newest friend, offered to show me how to use the trains.  Armed with my new cell phone (iphone 6s) and money for a drink at a vending machine along our journey, my friend, her two kids and I, set off on a field trip to Ikego Hills and back.  We were successful in our adventure and I was prepared for my solo journey on Thursday.  Here are a few pictures to provide better understanding of the Japanese train system.

  1.  Boarding passengers form a line behind the diamonds while waiting.  Also notice the passengers across the tracks.  The benches are unique. 

  1. If you desire to sit on a bench and wait, you sit on a specific square on the bench.  Do NOT hog the entire bench.  If possible, leave a space between you and another person on the bench if you don’t know them as demonstrated in the above picture. 
  2. The trains are really clean.  Ok, maybe not the train station but, the train is really clean.  Also, it is really difficult to find a trashcan.  Another lesson learned, keep a trash bag in your purse at all times. 
  3. Do NOT talk loudly, eat, drink or anything else that would cause you to make a spectacle of yourself.  I should probably include “be a tall American women with blond hair” because people will stare at you.

This leads to my favorite game to play on the train.  During my first solo train ride on 8/4/16, I developed the adult version of “peek-a-boo”.  I sat in silence and I played on my phone for a minute or two.  Then spontaneously I would look up, make eye contact with the person staring at me and smile.  Without fail, each time I looked up, someone was staring at me.  After I looked up and caught them staring they would quickly look away or at the floor.  It was hard to keep a straight face.  I was giggling on the inside.  I didn’t feel threatened by any means.  It was more a feeling of being a mysterious anomaly who should be admired and studied.  Too much?  Seriously, I didn’t feel threatened or awkward just different because I am and that is OK!

Continuing on with my journey, here is a screen shot of my Google Map.  In case I haven’t explained how easy Google Map is to use, if you look at the directions at the bottom, it tells you what time your train will arrive, which platform, how many stops your train will make and total travel time.  Even more helpful, the blue dot travels along the route.  Enabling visual verification you are on the correct train.  Completely user foreigner friendly.


I also develop a mnemonic to help me identify my stops.

  1. Jimmuji Station – Jumanji (Station by our housing area)
  2. Kanazawa-Hakkei Station – Kwanzaa-Hanukkah (Where we switch trains)
  3. Yokosukachuo Station – Yokosuka”chew” (Station near the base)

Silly, but very helpful when everything is indecipherable.

After my trek to and from housing, I shopped along Blue Street as I made my way back to the base.  Here were items I found at a little convenience store.  Tomato Pretz, 2 flavors of KitKats (still searching for wine flavored), clorets (gum) and two individually wrapped Japanese “uncrustables”.  One flavor is egg salad and the other peanut butter.  Interestingly, neither were refrigerated and both had an expiration date of 8/6/2016.  Hmmm….


Finally, it was time for lunch.  This was a yummy soft bread covered with macaroni salad, 3 pieces of broccoli and 1 shrimp.  It was served warm.


I am happy to report that I was not a bobbing blond bobble head while exchanging currency.  I made two separate purchases and felt I handled it like a 96-hour newbie.  I followed the locals in line ahead of me and placed my CASH on the little tray that was by the register.  I bowed slightly each time (only once) and said “hai” and “aragoto” – (thank you).  Oh, and of coursed smiled.

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