Last days in Japan (Tokyo & Tsukuba) and a long trip to Crete (via Helsinki & London)

Sept 25, 2018
by Christina

Reunited in Tokyo, Dan and I settled into our room at the Ueno Youth Hostel. This was selected due to its proximity to the University of Tokyo, where I was scheduled to give a lecture to my professional organization’s student chapter there. It was a nice space/location, but not the best value based on its price. I got my talk ready the day before, and then had a great time getting to chat with students and enjoy a party after my talk on Friday evening.

The next morning we headed to Akihabara to meet up with an old friend from when I was living and working in Japan. Abe-san loves beer, and back in 2007 he took me to visit the Nest Brewery in Ibaraki, a little ways north of Tsukuba where we lived. Since then Nest has opened a location in Akihabara, Hitachino Brewing Lab, so we met him there to have some drinks and catch up.

The location is beneath the tracks of a train station that is no longer in use (but tracks still are in use), and the platform has been converted into a pretty seating area, where a bunch of people were working on some kind of quiz for fun? Never really figured that one out.

From there we went to Kanda Matsuya to have a light meal of soba. Abe-san hadn’t been there before, but he said it was famous and had been running for many years.

Our final stop was Takemura, a sweet shop nearby where we enjoyed some traditional Japanese desserts including a very interesting salted cherry blossom tisane. After that Abe-san had to get home, so we walked him back to the station and said farewell. It was so good to see you Abe-san, and thank you for showing us some great new stuff in Akihabara!

That evening we headed to Odaiba to catch up with some friends for dinner. I met Popi during at an event at my last conference in San Diego, which she attended because her husband Kuroda-san also volunteers with my professional organization. Popi is the owner of several Indian restaurants in Tokyo, and she invited Nabila (who we hung out with earlier in our trip), Dan and myself to join her for dinner at Mumbai with Kuroda-san and their son Ken.

The food was fantastic, and we had a great time getting to talk about travels, talk some shop, and hear about Ken’s work in anthropological food studies in India. We even got to sample the house shochu, a very Japanese liquor, and I really enjoyed the sweet potato one. Thank you so much Popi for organizing, it was a true delight, and it was lovely to meet you Ken!

After dinner Nabila, Ken, Dan and I took a walk to see the “life size” Gundam statue nearby. It’s pretty cool, but the “transformation” it does at 5 pm is a bit of a bust (Dan and I caught it just before dinner along with a few other Odaiba sites). I’d also like to know where the real Gundam is if this is just the life size model ;0)

The next morning Dan and I checked out of Ueno Youth Hostel and I went to get a final lunch of Katsukare, which is the same breaded and fried pork cutlet of katsudon, but it is served with rice and Japanese curry. The clerk at our hostel recommended Hinoya and I wasn’t disappointed.

After that, we said farewell to Tokyo and hopped on the Tsukuba Express to a visit with some former colleagues from when I lived there back in 2006-2007.

Kurosu-san and Yasuda-san met us at the train station, and from there we went for a short laboratory tour at the National Metrological Institute of Japan (NMIJ) campus, where I worked with them. It’s a beautiful campus and it had been over a decade since I had been back, so it was fun to visit.

They’ve also installed a small museum since I left, one that showcases cool technologies developed at NMIJ and AIST, including a single-walled carbon nanotube material displayed as an origami crane, genetically modified strawberries, brain machine interface prototypes, and some fun robots, including robotic seals used for therapy.

After that we met up with Kurosu-san’s wife, and the five of us went to a small beer festival happening near the station. We got beers and snacks, and hung out for a while, catching up on what had been happening since we saw each other last in 2014.

After the beer we adjourned to the Kurosu-san’s apartment to have some shochu (a gift from Popi!), snack, and play with Macaron, their adorable poodle. We said farewell to Yasuda-san who had to get home, and then we got ready for bed.

The next morning Kurosu-san drove us to the airport, which was so nice of him! Thank you sooooo much for having us to stay, it was great catching up with you!

Then Dan and I were off for a long bizarre itinerary from Tokyo to Chania, Crete, Greece. We booked the ticket with awards miles and were “rewarded” by American Airlines with an incredibly strenuous series of flights: 10 hours to Helsinki, Finland, followed by an 18 hour layover, and then a flight to Heathrow and a whopping 22 hour layover, then a heinously early flight from Heathrow to Chania, concluding our 55ish hour transit.

It was our first time flying Finnair, for our flights into and out of Helsinki, and overall we were really happy with it. The food was not very good, but the in-flight entertainment system was responsive and well stocked, and you could go to the rear galley of the plane for complimentary beer, wine, and soft drinks, as often as you might want to, or were willing to risk judgement for being a lush by the flight crew.

The flight to Helsinki was uneventful, and the airport isn’t far from downtown, so we hopped on a train to downtown to check it out. We saw the wharf, including a farmer’s market and the Old Market Hall where we got pastries and coffee.

We also swung by the Uspenski Cathedral and the Helsinki Cathedral, the latter of which had an amazing pipe organ, and it was free to enter and tour.

There were also some really cool handicraft shops located near the Helsinki Cathedral, and we stopped by a grocery store to pick up a meal to eat back at the airport.

I had seen a lot of posts about Finnish saunas, and I found a swimming pool with saunas nearby, the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall. Luckily for me, it was one of the days it was for female use only, and it was swim suit optional, which I found intriguing. Part of the reason for this was that the locker rooms line the pool area and is visible through open arches, so with the locker room fully exposed, making it operate single-sex makes sense. I took a few rounds in the sauna and the pool, before dressing and meeting up with Dan. Sorry, no photos since nude bathing.

Something I found interesting about Finland was that evidently I look Finnish enough that people addressed me in Finnish far more often than English. I found it incredibly ironic that in countries where I had some language ability, such as Latin America or Japan, I was so obviously a foreigner that people would almost always address me in English, but in Finland where I spoke not one word of the native language, that was what I got spoken to most of the time, especially at the bath where, with no swim suit or tattoos, nothing could obviously indicate my foreigner status.

Another random note that probably only I really care about (and maybe my dad, what’s up dad?) is that there are crab apple trees in the parks in Helsinki. This is a tree often used in the US as an ornamental tree because of its colorful red fruit. Most people don’t like the fruit because it is suuuuper sour, but I am a fiend for most things sour, and spent a good portion of my youth getting kicked out of ornamental crab apple trees for climbing them and picking the apples. Well, Finland has ornamental crab apple trees too, but they were the biggest crab apples I have ever seen, it totally blew my mind.

Back at the airport we enjoyed our grocery picnic, and went through security, which was open 24 hours. Also, Finnair permitted us to check our bags back in when we arrived in Helsinki, so we only had to deal with our carry on luggage. We spent a moderately uncomfortable night sleeping in a boarding area, and then boarded our flight for Heathrow (and got to watch some de-icing procedures). Both Finnair and HEL get a thumbs up from us!

Immigration in Heathrow was super busy, but it wasn’t too difficult to navigate our way to the bus terminal where we caught a bus to Uxbridge where a friend of mine lives.

Chamini is faculty at the university, and she came to meet us and let us in to her apartment where we showered and napped, and went to lunch at the Three Tuns pub

That night we went out for dinner together and got to spend some time catching up since last we’d seen each other in New York several years earlier. Then we got our things and headed back to the airport so that we could sleep there and be in time for our flight which left at 7 am (ewwwww).

Unfortunately, Heathrow is not Helsinki, and we discovered that security was closed. I was never able to get an answer, even from security employees in the morning, about when security closes. The internet claimed 11 pm, and the two employees I asked argued about whether it was 9 pm or 9:30 pm. Boo for Heathrow.

At any rate we found ourselves sleeping on the land-side of the airport with a bunch of other travelers and more than a few stinky homeless people (like, reallllly stinky, not all of them, but the stinkers were really pungent).

As soon as security opened we made our way through, then hunkered down for another nap until our flight departed. This last leg was on British Airways and not Finnair, and we were insulted that they didn’t serve even complimentary coffee, not to mention no in-flight entertainment system. Worst of all, even though we booked this series of flights using points, and any awards travel booked through BA has insanely hefty surcharges. Boo also for British Airways.

But, they did get us to Chania without incident, and thus began in earnest our final European leg of our journey…

 

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Yunomine & Kyoto for her, Hokkaido for him: giant spiders, onsen, and Hakodate mountain

September 19, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

After Dean’s departure in the morning, Dan and I moved to another accommodation, and set about figuring out what to do with ourselves. I had originally been planning to stay a week at ryokan in Hokkaido, but after the earthquake had disrupted our plans I was left at loose ends. So Dan and I camped out at Mr. Donut while I made phone calls in broken Japanese looking for a place with availability.

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[Side note: An interesting theme with the housing we found in Kyoto was that, like our “hotel” in Osaka, companies are taking over apartment buildings and renting them as hotel rooms, so you get a full kitchen/bathroom/etc. That’s nice for the travelers, but with all the talk of affordable housing issues back home in DC, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t causing rent problems for Kyoto residents.]

After many calls I found a place called Azumaya-so in the small onsen town of Yunomine in Wakayama prefecture, south of Osaka. They had a rule that guests can’t stay more than three nights, which struck me as odd, but given my options I took it. So I also made a reservation for a place to stay back in Kyoto afterwards.

Dan decided that seeing Hokkaido was a priority for him. The trains were up and running again after the earthquake, and he had enough days left on his Japan Rail Pass to get there and back to Tokyo before it ran out, so he planned to head off to Hakodate the next morning when I left for Yunomine.

With our plans settled, we went out for a dinner of okonomiyaki here and had a quiet night in before starting our separate journeys the next morning.

We took the metro to Kyoto station in the morning, where I was able to book my trains at the small ticket office inside the metro/shinkansen area without having to exit. It was a 15 minute shinkansen ride from Kyoto to Shin-Osaka station, where I had to change for a local train to Kii-Tanabe station in the town of Tanabe. The Kuroshio 23 had sections of track right along the water and it was a very pleasant trip of ~2 hours.

Once in Tanabe, immediately next to the station entrance is the tourist information office where I bought my bus ticket to Yunomine from a vending machine, which cost 1950 yen for another two hours of transit. Transit on train and bus is generally very expensive in Japan, making the Japan Rail Pass a great deal, but it didn’t include this bus.

The ride to Yunomine was incredibly scenic, winding through the mountains and along rivers. It also include a bathroom break half-way, which was greatly appreciated and a nice opportunity to take some photos of the countryside.

Arriving in Yunomine I was delighted. It is a tiny picturesque town in the mountains, with a small river running through it. The waters of the onsen are sulfurous, and so that whole place smells vaguely of eggs, mixed in with the forest smell.

Check in at Azumaya-so was easy, though the building itself is a little run down. However, my room was lovely and there was an orange cake and a pot of tea waiting for me, so I sat and enjoyed the mountain view out my window before taking a walk around town.

On my walk I saw a lot of statues of this little guy, who I want to make a point to talk about. You can find in many places in Japan, and he was especially popular in Yunomine.

His name is Tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) and he is a folkloric trickster god known for his shape shifting and love of drink. What you may not realize at a casual glance is that one of his consistent characteristics is an absolutely gigantic pair of testicles. Yes, those are testicles. To quote the Atlas Obscura article on Tanuki:

“Tanukis have legendarily been known to use their testicles as makeshift raincoats, as weapons, and as drums. They knead and massage them into the shape they desire, and often impersonate humans to buy alcohol and delicacies”

And here for your amusement are a few photos of Edo-era art depicting the many uses of Tanuki testicles (photos also from the Atlas Obscura article).

On my walk around town, in addition to photographing Tanuki, I stopped into Ryokan Azumaya, which is the fancier sister accommodation to Azumaya-so. Due to their arrangement, as an Azumaya-so guest I was allowed access to the ryokan baths for free. The baths at Azumaya-so were… tiny… so I was happy to access to the bigger, nicer baths at the ryokan. When I stopped in to peek they were unoccupied, so I was able to get some shots of the baths, which otherwise wouldn’t be possible, because nude bathing.

Because Azumaya-so is actually a minshuku, or discount ryokan, instead of having my meals in my room I had to go to the dining hall to eat breakfast and dinner, which are included in the lodging cost. This ended up being interesting because I got to see the demographics of the other travelers. Over the course of my three days I saw that I was a) the only foreign tourist and b) the only solo female traveler. Most people traveled in pairs, though a few male solo travelers and one large group came through.

The food they served at Azumaya-so (and at ryokans in general) is a large meal composed of many different dishes, including vegetables, meats, fish, rice and miso soup. It was so plentiful that even though there was no lunch included (and I didn’t eat lunch elsewhere), I never had the chance to get hungry between breakfast and dinner.

Here are some examples of dinner:

And here is an example of breakfast and its summary destruction…

So for three days, pretty much all I did was sleep, eat, bathe, yoga and write, and it was glorious.

However, this not-leaving-the-house attitude turned out to be highly abnormal behavior for a guest, and the owner asked me if “you have some problem?” because I was spending so much time in my room. As I discovered, Yunomine is largely treated as a one-night stopover for the famous Kumano Kodo trail, of which there are many branches all over the Wakayama peninsula. The fact that I had shown up with only the intention of eating and bathing, with no interest in or knowledge of the Kumano Kodo, was received either with shock or laughter depending on my audience.

I did decide, however, that I should take a peek at the trail one day, so my second day there I went to the shop to buy a drink and some onsen tamago (eggs cooked in the very hot onsen waters) and climb up to Yunomine’s shrine and peek at the trail. The shrine was up a few steps from the river that runs through town, and I walked into the woods from there, which was some of the prettiest nature I’ve ever seen.

I took a seat on a log, settled in with my salty lychee drink, and cracked one of my eggs open to discover that they were, in fact, uncooked. Turns out you’re supposed to cook them yourself. That’s why they were sold in a net bag with a long handle.

I finished my drink and walked back into town where I plopped my two remaining eggs into the yuzutsu to cook the eggs. It also finally made sense why the sign at the shop gave a number of minutes for cooking, which was 8 or 9 minutes, I forget. When the time was up, I took them back to my room and enjoyed them alongside my daily orange cake and pot of tea.

An interesting, ah, let’s call it a quirk, of Yunomine was the presence of some genuinely enormous spiders. Since they seemed more interested in keeping to themselves than eating my face, we were cool. I didn’t even get a photo of the biggest one, which surprised me in the dressing room at the ryokan; it could have easily spanned my palm without fully extending it’s legs. There may have been a shriek.

In my comings and goings between Azumaya-so and Ryokan Azumaya I ended up chatting and making friends with the front desk clerk, Hasashi. He was the one who laughed the loudest when I admitted my intentions to bathe, eat, and be lazy. I also got to hear the story of how he arrived in Yunomine.

He was a taxi driver in Tokyo until he retired at 60, after which he went to spend 10 weeks in Oxford learning English. When he returned to Japan, he got another job delivering mail until he had to retire again at 65. He said he ended up in Yunomine, but he didn’t know how. Since then he’d been doing new things, like working at the ryokan, writing poetry, and practicing aikido, and he was about ready to test for his black belt at 70 years old. He was super inspirational, and I hope that I’m doing new things like he is that at 70.

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Hasashi, it was so nice to meet you! I hope that I will get to come back to Yunomine and see you again!

After three nights in Yunomine I reversed my journey back to Kyoto (and got some sweet evening time pix of Kyoto Tower).

Then I made my way to Sakura House. Gianfranco checked me in and showed me around the house. He’s an Argentinian/Australian (with an Italian name) who has settled in Kyoto for good; he had great travel stories and was a delight to chat with. He explained to me that the Sakura house is a historic building that used to function as a family’s home and business, and that it has become popular to convert homes of this type into guests houses.

The house was beautiful, with a huge kitchen, and shared living area for the two guest rooms. There was also a lovely garden courtyard in the center that I walked through to access my room and bathroom.

I had reserved the “Kura” room, for two very important reasons: the antique roll top desk and the Jacuzzi bathtub. Bathing and writing are two of my great passions, and the discovery of a room with these two amenities had me squealing with excitement when I made the reservation. And I was not disappointed.

So I spent the next few days writing at the sexiest desk I had ever sat down at, cooking for myself with a plentiful supply of veggies, fungus, and noodles, doing yoga, taking baths, and sleeping in. I even managed to go the park for a ring work out, where I also got viciously chewed by mosquitoes. But now I know I can squash a mosquito on my leg and finish my one-legged squat rep, so there’s that.

But I did have one final thing on my agenda for Kyoto: a tea ceremony. I had been repeatedly thwarted in this quest, both in Hiroshima and Kyoto, so I was determined to make it happen. I wasn’t after one of the big 45 minute affairs with all the explanation; I just wanted a tea and a sweet overlooking a pretty garden where I could sip and contemplate. This article had several good suggestions for where to find such an experience, and so I headed to Nanzen-ji to give it another go.

I took the metro over, and on my way to the temple I encountered some awesome insect life. I don’t know if praying mantis bite or not, but this one didn’t, and even seemed eager to climb aboard when I put my hand down near it. Then there was the enormous butterfly…

Nanzen-ji was free to wander around, but you had to pay to enter certain areas. I was particularly taken with the brick aqueduct. The sign explaining it was all in Japanese, but the sign explaining that the crack they had examined in it was not a big deal was in Japanese and English.

The tea room turned out to be inside of one of the pay-to-access areas, called Hojoji Garden & Tea House. To get access to the tea room, I had to pay the general entry fee of 500 yen, and then the tea room ticket was 500 yen on top of that, bringing my total to 1000 yen.

I decided take my tea first. The tea room overlooked a small idyllic garden with a waterfall, and it was everything I had been hoping for. I just sat, drinking my matcha, eating my little cake, and did my best to present in the moment and enjoy this fleeting thing that I had struggled so much to achieve.

Then I took my tour of the building, since I had paid for it and I was there. And this sign greeted me on the way in.

Apropos if I may say so.

The big draw of the building were the gardens, including a large rock garden, and all the beautifully painted fusuma screens (that you aren’t supposed to photograph). They were some of the coolest screen paintings I’ve seen, topping Nijo-jo I would even say, with dudes riding flying cranes and the like. The architecture was also very pretty, though I have to admit the rock garden didn’t really do it for me.

Once I was done with my tour I decided to take a run back to Sakura house. I ran down to the Kamogawa and enjoyed the water and the fish, before veering off and taking a short running tour of the gardens surrounding the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The Palace itself isn’t particularly interesting from the outside, but the park was beautiful. There were still a ton of downed trees from Typhoon Jebi, but not so much that I couldn’t run around and enjoy the scenery.

I wrapped up my run in the park, and walked the rest of the way back to Sakura House. On the way I stopped to browse at the only thrift shop that I think I’ve ever seen in Japan. Gianfranco said later that it is advertised as an antique shop, but they had a lot of more modern stuff in there too. I couldn’t resist and bought myself a little 50 yen Kitty-chan key chain.

Four nights flew by incredibly fast at Sakura House, and then suddenly it was time for me checked out. I picked up a bento on my way to Kyoto station (this shop was way cheaper than on the platform!), had a nice lunch on the train, and then went to find Dan at Ueno Youth Hostel in Tokyo.

 

Dan:

While Christina was on her bath adventure, I decided to make use of the last few days of my Japan Rail Pass. As she mentioned, we had cancelled our journey to the north island of Japan (Hokkaido) due to a recent earthquake, but at this point everything was back to normal. So I would be able to not only get there, but I wouldn’t be a drain on resources after a natural disaster. I took the long train ride from Kyoto to Hakodate, the southern most city in Hokkaido. Please enjoy this crappy picture taken from the train of the beautiful landscapes in Hokkaido.

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I didn’t have much of an agenda for my time up north. I just wanted to see the general differences between the south and north of Japan. For starters the weather was wonderful. It was starting to get cool and even feel a little bit like fall, which is a season that we haven’t experienced in a while, so that was refreshing. Other than that, the main difference that I noticed was that the cities were much more spread out, with large roads and big houses.

The main thing I did in Hakodate was climb the nearby mountain (Hakodate Mountain). It was an easy 30 minute climb to the top where the cable car station was. The city is on a narrow strip of land with ocean on each side so the panoramic view from the viewing platform is really excellent.

The view was great and well worth the hike alone, but mostly I enjoyed the walk through the forest. On the way up were wonderful pine trees and cool mushrooms and it just felt really nice to be outside in the cool weather. So I wandered around some of the other paths at the top of the mountain for a bit. There were some ruins from old military artillery installations that were super fun to wander through and there were hardly any other hikers on the trails.

Finally I spent some time at the Goryokaku Park. It’s a very unique star shaped fort in the center of the city. It looks really cool on google maps and in aerial photos. I was staying very close by so I visited in the evening and in the morning. At night it’s a nice place to jog around and very serene. In the morning I was able to enter the fort itself. It has this huge berm around the whole park with some beautiful gardens and old trees. A really wonderful place to walk around.

My next destination was Sapporo. My first impression of Sapporro was that is was culturally a whole lot different than the rest of Japan that I had visited. There were skateboarders all over and jaywalking was normal. It felt like a different world.

I visited the Sapporo beer museum on my first night in town. I made it just in time before it closed. I did the beer tasting first since they were closing up the bar, and then I was able to wander the small museum at my leisure. The museum covered the general history of Japanese beer brewing and some cool displays of the advertising throughout the years. The general area was a really popular destination for locals out for fancy dinner and there were several posh restaurants in the general area taking advantage of the pretty scenery.

On my second day in Sapporo I tried to visit the actual Sapporo brewery which gives free tours. It’s pretty far outside of town, but it was easy enough to get to with my rail pass so I headed off early to make the first tour. I arrived in plenty of time but was met by a confused security guard. I understood quite quickly that it was closed for the day as well as through the duration of my stay.

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So the brewery tour was a bust, but the hostel I was staying at (The Stay Sapporo) had free bike rental and I had plenty of time left in the day. I biked the rest of the day up and down the Toyohira River. It was actually supposed to be a short journey, but as I headed north I soon realized that the trail basically wasn’t going to stop. I called it quits once I started getting hungry.

It was a really pleasant river path with all sorts of parks scattered about. There was baseball, some odd very sparse playgrounds and even some people white water kayaking in the river. But the most common thing were these mini-golf-like courses full of old people in vests. The balls were quite large and the putters were a cross between a golf putter and croquet mallet. I didn’t take any pictures unfortunately but do believe the sport is called Park Golf.

Finally my rail pass was about to expire so I made my way back down to Tokyo. The trip was going to take most of the day from Sapporo. Unfortunately I was leaving on the last day of a three day weekend and ran into my first trouble making a reservation for a seat with the rail pass.

I had to wait until the afternoon to be able to catch a train with a seat, putting me into Tokyo at around 11pm. I misunderstood and thought that I was going to have to wait until the afternoon and then only have a standing room only ticket. That was tough news, but really the guy was having me book the later departure so that I didn’t have a standing room only ticket. I would have preferred to leave earlier but oh well. I got to enjoy the nice weather in Sapporo a little longer and just sit around outside the station and people watch for a few hours.

 

Tokyo & Kyoto: bicycle races, a vending machine bar, and Nijo Castle

September 12, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

Upon departing Osaka, we took a train towards Tokyo and made our way to Hachioji, a suburb west of Tokyo, where we caught up with Dean and went to stay with my friend Nabila. I know Nabila from volunteering through my professional organization, and it was fun to get to spend time with her outside of a conference! It was also super nice of her to let the three of us crash at her place!

After we dropped our bags off at Nabila’s, the four of us headed out to dinner at a kaitezushi (conveyor belt sushi) place nearby. Nabila said that the Kura sushi chain was the best rated in Japan, and we certainly enjoyed it a lot. Also interesting was that they had a special conveyor belt for your touchscreen orders, and this one went super fast, zipping the contents quickly from the kitchen to its recipients. You fed your plates into a slot at the end of the table, and after every five plates the touch screen would run a video and give you a chance to win a toy, which we did once out of 25 plates. The boys also got very excited over that grilled salmon with cheese and corn-mayonnaise nigiri… smh.

The next day we slept in and while Nabila was at work we decided to go for a walk near the house. A river with a paved path ran right by Nabila’s house, so we took a stroll, indulging the boy’s vending machine fascination along the way. Yes, vending machines really are everywhere in Japan. It’s amazing.

We made our way to Toritsu Takiyama Natural Park for a hike. However, there was a big sign out front when we arrived, saying the park was closed because of suzumebachi, the giant hornet. Supposedly one sting can’t kill you, but they come in groups and the estimate is that at about 10 stings you might keel over should seek medical attention. Well, that slowed us down for all of a minute until some old Japanese dude hiked in right past the sign, and I asked if it was okay, and he said so, so good enough!

We had a nice hike around the park, which was wooded with paved paths and beautiful vistas of the surrounding area. We visited some of the shrines, and found signs warning about pit vipers (mamushi), but we encountered neither snakes nor giant wasps. Phew.

On our way back to Hachioji station we got lunch at Matsuya, a simple diner chain, where I was able to satisfy my craving for Japanese curry, and Dean got his new favorite Japanese dish, katsudon, which is a breaded fried pork cutlet with egg over rice.

Then we got on a train and made our way to witness first hand the cycling sport that had captured Dan’s imagination…. Keirin.

Dan:

After a few failed attempts at attending Keirin races, I finally found a velodrome with a schedule that matched up with our travel plans. The Tokyo Oval Keiokaku velodrome was only about 45 minutes away from Hachioji.

We arrived at the Yanokuchi train station and asked around for the pick up point for the shuttle bus to the station. It was a short ride. The stadium also has a section for horse racing, which is where we went first. After some silly pantomiming of horse riding and bicycle riding we found our way to the velodrome. The entry fee was only 50 yen ($0.5) since they make all their money off the gambling, so it’s dirt cheap entertainment.

We arrived just in time for the start of a race. They are spaced out about every half hour, so it was lucky timing. In general the crowd is mostly crusty old men. A few of them come outside to witness the race in person, but a lot of them stay inside to watch the TV monitors.

The Keiokaku velodrome was about middling quality of the tracks that I’ve visited. It’s an outdoor track that is pretty well maintained, but it’s nothing very fancy. There are plenty of food and drink vendors inside the stadium. We bought some overpriced beer and had a few old dudes take interest in us. They treated us to some really quite awful shrimp flavored processed meat tubes. It was a fun cultural experience.

To be honest, I found the races a bit boring to watch. I think it’s more fun if you are gambling. There are all sorts of bets that can be placed. I don’t ever gamble and it would have been nearly impossible to figure out the betting form, so we just watched.

The race starts off with a few laps behind a pacer. All the racers have standardized gear and wear assigned color jerseys so they are easy to identify. There is some jockeying for position during the pacer laps, but it’s mostly decided beforehand because every racer has to announce their strategy for the race.

After the pacer leaves the track, the real racing happens, with teams of riders jockeying for position and setting up the final breakaway. But it’s not quite as dynamic as the Olympic cycling races and there are tons of little rules that I don’t know at all. So I prefer the slightly modified Keirin in the Olympics for myself. Even still, I was delighted that I finally got to see the original form of the sport.

We stayed for a handful of races. The last race that we watched was the women’s keirin race. This seemed to be quite popular and drew a much larger crowd. The women have a bit more freedom in their bike selection and can have carbon fiber frames and a few other aerodynamic enhancements that the men aren’t permitted, but otherwise it’s the same race.

Overall it was a weird tourist activity and it was fun to get to see this different part of Japanese culture.

Christina:

When we got back to Hachioji from our Keirin adventure, we picked up groceries to cook for dinner, so when Nabila came home, we had a nice homemade meal together. It was really great to spend some time with Nabila, and so nice of her to have us over. Thank you so much!!!

The next day we headed into central Tokyo, where we’d gotten a nice tatami room in a guest house in the Taito neighborhood. From there we walked down to see Senso-ji in Asakusa, and I concluded that I prefer it in the evening. During the day its packed full of tourists, and at night the temple isn’t open, but it’s beautifully lit and relatively quiet.

After that we ran down to the Sumidagawa and enjoyed a nice run along the river. The water was beautiful and we got some very nice views of interesting Tokyo architecture, including Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall, which is shaped like an Olympic torch, but I’m sorry, it just looks like a big golden pooh.

After our run Dan and I went to Jakotsuyu in Asakusa to have a bath. This one is a simple neighborhood sento with a mix of locals and tourists. It is an onsen, with dark colored spring water. They’re split by gender, and nude, so no photos inside. It cost about 500 yen for entry, with soaps and towels available for a fee as well. Dan said their was an old man on his side with an enormous koi tattoo that extend from his back down his legs, meaning he was probably important enough of a yakuza member that the proprietors were afraid to turn him away for his tattoos… (since people with tattoos are officially not allowed in the baths, and there’s a very interesting history as to why).

We caught back up with Dean to check out a little gem of a bar called Shokuyasu Shoten that he had discovered online. It’s a vending-machine only bar, with no staff. Just a collection of booze-filled vending machines in an alcove beneath the tracks near Yurakucho station, with a few tables and enough patrons that many had to sit across the street. Some of the patrons helped us determine that the ancient looking vending machine served sake, which Dan decided to try. It was fun sitting on the curb having some drinks and watching commuters and the other “bar” patrons hanging out. The things you can do when drinking alcohol is legal in public spaces!

The next day we went to explore Akihabara, a major center for nerd culture in Tokyo populated with electronics shops, video game arcades, and maid cafes (Dan and I enjoyed @Home Cafe during our last visit to Tokyo in 2014). We paid a visit to a shop called “Super Potato” which specialized in vintage video games and systems. It’s several floors of sweet video game nerdery, including an arcade floor where you can game, smoke, and buy snacks.

Our next stop was the Tokyo Dome to buy tickets for New Japan Pro Wrestling that night. It was an expensive endeavor, so I decided to take a pass and we just got tickets for Dean and Dan. After that we got a quick lunch of cold soba at a shop nearby, and I left the boys to their wrestling adventure…

Dan:

I don’t know much about Japanese wrestling. I’m really only familiar with Ultimate Muscle (Muscle Man) since, for some weird reason, I used to have a collection of the goshapon (capsule toy) sized figures. Anyway, Dean, Christina, and I have been to WWE in DC before, and Lucha Libre in Mexico was one of my top favorite tourist activities of the trip so far, so of course I wanted to see New Japan Pro Wrestling live.

In order to get the cheap, standing room only tickets you have to show up to the Tokyo Dome on the day of the event. We showed up about 15 minutes before the ticket counter opened and there was already a huge line. Luckily we were still early enough, but only barely.

Since we got standing room tickets, we made sure to get into the building when the doors opened. Of course we didn’t actually know where the entrance was so we just had to wait until there was an obvious line of wrestling fans and we hopped into that. There were all sorts of people at the Tokyo Dome that night, but most were teen girls attending a J-pop concert… so the wrestling fans were pretty easy to pick out.

We were led up a narrow concrete stairwell which was covered in graffiti. I’m sure it was contrived grunge, but it was a good entrance atmosphere for pro wrestling. We were pointed to the standing areas which are balconies over the ring. It’s a great view if you get there early, but there was already a row of people formed, so we opted to stand at the top row of the bleachers. Not the best seats in the house, but we were in the front of the standing area so it was just as good as most of the seats in the bleachers.

Whereas Lucha Libre is definitely it’s own thing, NJPW borrows a lot of its style from US pro wrestling. A lot of the wrestlers were actually from the US and spoke zero Japanese. I found that kind of embarrassing especially when they would curse in English.

By far, the most unique aspect of the night was the crowd. During the first few matches it was surreal. Everyone was dead quiet and would basically golf clap at the end of any big move, which I found hilarious. By the end of the night people were getting amped and cheering for their favorite wrestlers and reacting to the punches (every one would cry ‘oh!’ in unison with every punch). Los Ingobernables de Japon were a crowd favorite. They are a crew led by a Japanese guy that did a stint with Lucha Libre in Mexico.

My other favorite moment of the night was when one of the wrestlers was disqualified and, in response, went and kicked out an announcer and took over as an announcer for quite a long time. The guys next to me were also watching the live broadcast on their phones and let me watch the replays and close ups of the hilarity that ensued. Supposedly there were no pictures or video allowed because the match is being broadcast, but after seeing other folks taking photos and video (not in excess) I decided to take these few photos.

The event ended without much fanfare. Everything got quiet and orderly and everyone shuffled politely out of the stadium. In terms of live wrestling, my overall impression is that it’s absolutely more interesting than WWE, where it’s almost impossible to buy worthwhile seats. WWE is great to watch on TV, but from my own experience, terrible in person. I’m still convinced that the best wrestling in the world is in Mexico. It can’t be beat.

Christina:

While Dean and Dan watched the show, I made my traditional pilgrimage to Shibuya to one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world. When I lived in Japan over a decade ago, Starbucks’s caramel frap was my drink of choice (I hate the use of the word “basic” to describe such things, but here it’s apropos. I was 22, what do you expect?). So in homage to days gone by I ordered one and found a spot to sit on the second floor of the Starbucks that overlooks the intersection. I camped out for a bit to write, then did a little wandering around the neighborhood before getting back on the train to Taito.

Once back I got my exercise gear out, and headed to a small local park to get a ring workout in. Bentenin park was interesting because it also included a shrine, wedged right next to the playground equipment. It was late so I had the place to myself until the boys came back from wrestling, and then we all turned in for the night.

We had originally been planning a visit to Hokkaido, but unfortunately the earthquake on September 6 had seriously disrupted train service, among other things, and so instead of heading north, we headed back west to Kyoto, an iconic and historic city of many temples and shrines.

Having visited Kyoto before on several occasions, our first morning in Kyoto I decided I wanted some downtime to write and do research on tea ceremonies. So while the boys headed south to visit the sake museum, I went to the Chuo library near our accommodation. The library was well populated with patrons at the long wooden desks on the second floor, and was a quiet and picturesque place to work with all the lovely colorful books that I couldn’t read. (They also had a cool recycling program, with bins out front for various items.)

Dan:

I don’t remember how I learned about the Kyoto sake breweries, but I’m very glad we went. The Fushimi district south of town is home to several breweries with Gekkeikan being the most recognizable to me, and the one with something to visit. They run a museum which discusses the sake brewing process, the history of Gekkeikan, and the general history of the neighborhood.

In my mind Gekkeikan makes pretty terrible cheap sake. But the museum was great and now I have a much greater appreciation for the company. Obviously it’s a museum run by a commercial entity but, if I’m to believe them, they have a pretty cool history.

First off, sake brewing is a pretty complicated multistage process, which I never appreciated before. Also it wasn’t until recently (thanks to the incredible technology innovations of Gekkeikan!) that sake could be made year-round and preserved for wide distribution.

The coolest thing that I learned is that the traditional Gekkeikan bottles came with a little glass which served as a lid. So the crappy cheap Gekkeikan that you buy in the US with a lid/cap is in homage to this. That was pretty awesome I thought. Most of the facts, including a picture of their original bottle are available on their website.

At the beginning of the museum tour there was a pump where you could drink the spring water that is used to brew sake, and outside the brewery was a municipal spring water tap. I wanted to fill my water bottle, but there was a line of old people and each of them had armfuls of six liter water jugs that they were filling up. So moral of the story is, fill up your water bottle inside the museum. It’s a weird, kind of soft water.

At the end of the tour you are able to try two types of sake and a plum wine. The only sample that I really liked was the retro bottle of Gekkeikan which is supposedly the traditional sake. Also included with the tour was a complimentary bottle of their cheap sake. But it came in a special edition bottle, so I was pretty pumped on that. I love special edition stuff. All in all totally worth the entrance fee of 400 yen.

I got the distinct impression that the neighborhood is gearing up to encourage tourists to visit, but it’s not quite there yet. There was a small shop nearby with (delicious) draft sake to try, but it was really not much more than a gift shop and restaurant. It was associated with Kizakura Kappa Country. Still a great area to visit, if only for the museum, but I suspect there might be more to see and do in the near future. I think it would be in everyone’s interests.

After the brewery we stopped by the Inariyama Temple. It’s a very typical site to visit in Kyoto, featuring a path of tightly packed, bright orange tori gates. I’ve been before and it’s still one of my favorite temples in Japan. Even though it’s slammed with visitors, it has a really cool atmosphere.

Unfortunately most of the mountain was closed off due to the recent typhoon. I think several tori were damaged by the wind, so it was closed off for repair. But the most iconic segment at the bottom of the hill was still open and I was glad that Dean got to see it.

Christina:

On our second day in Kyoto, Dan and I slept in a bit while Dean went to tour Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple, and possibly Kyoto’s most famous edifice. After that the three of us joined back up and went to visit Nijo-jo, or Nijo Castle. Nijo-jo was the home to shogun in the Edo period and was later used as the Imperial residence. This is one castle that wasn’t destroyed and rebuilt as a museum inside, and its interiors are beautiful with all their painted paneling. Unfortunately though, it is not permitted to take photographs inside the castle, so I can’t show you all the wild tigers, cranes, cherry blossoms and snow drifts painted on the panels, but they’re lovely.

We walked from Nijo-jo to visit Nishiki market, which is a long covered pedestrian walk, filled with all kinds of foods. We bought some snacks, and I couldn’t resist the pickled daicon, which is so good, but I will warn you… don’t eat too much of it at once. The market is lovely, but also kind of crowded, so be prepared.

Near Nishiki is Pontocho, an alley filled with restaurants and small shops, where you can hope to see maiko (Geisha in training) and geiko (Kyo-kotoba for Geisha), but we arrived long before anything was open. Evidently it doesn’t get rolling until the evening, or we were just there on the wrong day. (Incidentally, we did glimpse a pair of maiko near Nishiki market, which is the first time I’ve seen them! Very excite.)

I had been hoping to have a simple tea ceremony at the Nijo-jo garden (as opposed to one of the big culture experience deals that are also common in Kyoto), but its gardens and tea house were closed due to damage from Typhoon Jebi. So when the three of us split up for a few hours after Pontocho, I had quick lunch down by the river, then headed to Shoren-in temple, only to discover I was an hour late, and that their tea room closed at 3 pm. Thus my tea quest went unfulfilled (until later… dun dun dun).

That evening was Dean’s last night in Japan, and we headed to a diner to get him one final serving of katsudon before he had to return to Tokyo the next day for his flight back to Washington, DC. It was really great to see you Dean! We’re glad that you could come and join us for an adventure! :0)

Osaka: Hello Kitty, vending machines, and a building impaled by a highway

September 5, 2018
by Christina

To get to Osaka from Hiroshima we found a very special method of transport: the Hello Kitty shinkansen. Yes, this a Japan Rail bullet train that is pink and decorated in Hello Kitty theme, it’s “the cutest bullet train“. Props to Dean for discovering this in his research, I had no idea, it’s only running June to November this year!

The train has pink exterior decorations and two cars that contain a gift shop, a Hello Kitty statue and decorations. The other cars aren’t notably different from a normal train.

The only problem with this mode of transit is that while the standard train takes ~2 hours to get from Hiroshima to Osaka, Hello Kitty takes 4 hours because it stops at every stop and waits for the other trains to pass, also giving people photo ops.

Final bit of trivia, the Japanese do not call her Hello Kitty. Whhhhat? Mind = blown. They call her “Kitty-chan,” which explains the blank look I initially got trying to book a ticket for the “Hello Kitty no shinkansen” in Japanese.

Even despite the longer transit time, we arrived in Osaka several hours in advance of our check in time at our hotel, and since we were informed that check in was via video call with no staff on-site, we didn’t try to bum rush early. Instead we got lunch (ramen!) near Shin-Osaka station and headed to the general neighborhood of hotel.

Once there we found a bench to chill on in a pedestrian arcade, and picked up snacks at Family Mart. That’s when someone stopped by to make friends with us. He was an elderly man, but dressed like a salary man, who greeted us and we struck up a conversation in mostly Japanese peppered with a bit of English, which I could only half follow. He sat and smoked a cigarette with Dan, left, came back, and seemed to want us to go somewhere with him. Dean and I were not in the mood to go adventuring with our luggage in tow, so we sent Dan off with him while we watched the bags.

While Dan was gone, a man carrying grocery bags put something that looked like a pack of cigarettes on Dean’s knee, then one on mine. I asked him in Japanese what it was, but received no response. I picked up the box and realized it was milk caramels, and said thank you, but our benefactor had already walked away and didn’t look back.

In a little while Dan and our new friend returned with several shopping bags. They had gone to get a health-juice and make some purchases, and it turns out many of the purchases were for us/Dan, including grapes and beans. We thanked him profusely and in confusion, at which point he departed again.

So, if you sit around with your luggage in Osaka, people give you presents. Awesome. We liked Osaka already!

At that point we went to go check in to our hotel, Infinity Hotel Osaka Dome-mae, which again, did not have any staff. Check in was via a tablet video-call and the tablet froze and didn’t work. After calling for assistance on the landline and being walked through resetting the tablet, which remained buggy, we somehow managed to check in, but it took an age.

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However, after that, it got better. It appeared that the “hotel” was actually just an apartment block (they even had taped over mailboxes in the check in area. So we had (by Japanese standards) a spacious apartment including a kitchen, washing machine, and balcony. The price for it was suspiciously low, but I concluded this was because it was new while they tried to get reviews. So, check-in awful, everything else awesome.

Interestingly though, we seemed to have placed ourselves in one of Osaka’s red light districts, and there were shops that were populated by very attractive young women as well as “snack” bars, where you can get food and an attractive conversational companion.  It may be called “Heart Town”? We saw quite a few of these on the way to the discount grocery store nearby, where we picked up fixings for dinner and drinks.

The next day we met up got to meet up with Kyoko, who is a friend of mine from yoga teacher training in Rishikesh. She is from Osaka originally, and is living and working there while she takes a bit of break from working cruise ships. We got to spend the day with her, which was so much fun! Though some of the things we had in mind were a little strange to her!

First stop were the Pokemon station and the Sanrio store in the Daimaru near Osaka station. These are exactly what they sound like, and they were packed. We didn’t pick anything up at the Pokemon stop, but Dan had gotten terrible jealous of the Kitty-chan Shinkansen chopsticks that Dean had picked up in the train gift shop, and he picked up a pair of his own there. So they both now have some of the most niche kitsch imaginable, chopsticks with the ends shaped like the Hello Kitty themed bullet train.

We got okonomiyaki in a nearby shop called Chibo, which is a bit buried inside of a shopping plaza, but it’s there! Okonomiyaki is one of Dan’s favorite Japanese foods, and we only managed to get it once on our first trip, so were making up for that!

From there it was a short walk to the Gate Tower building, which hit my architectural fascination hard. A dispute between a landowner who was planning a building, and the government who was planning an elevated roadway resulted in… a building with a highway going through the middle of it, that pays rent for the space. Amazing. We even managed to sneak inside and up the elevator.

Next stop was the mystery vending machines. If there is anyone who’s interested in vending machines exceeds that of Dan’s… it’s Dean. I can’t remember who discovered them online, but there is a location in Osaka with 10 yen vending machines selling items that are approaching their expiration dates, and you give it your coin not knowing what will come out. Sadly the 10 yen machines were sold out, but there were 20 and 50 yen machines still stocked, which gave us not only drinks and candy, but things like cake icing and baking chocolate. Just… wow. (Also, you know Dan totally ate the icing directly out of the tube, right?)

After the relative disappointment that was Hiroshima castle, we elected to only look at the outside of Osaka castle when we learned it was similar: traditional exterior with a brand new museum inside that looked in no way like the original interior. I was very happy with that decision. The park, grounds, and the castle itself were all very beautiful, but without the obligatory museum visit and entry fee.

Then, for our lost stop of the day, we went to the Shinsekai neighborhood. This is the dangerous and dirty neighborhood, which, knowing that, is a testament to how beautifully clean and safe Japan is in general. We walked around the shops, sampled some takoyaki in one place, then got fried things and beer in another shop. I also got a sweet robot sticker that is the robo-version of the Tsutenkaku tower.

Exhausted from our epic day of touristing, we headed back to the hotel to relax with some drinks and snacks, until Kyoko had to go to catch a train home, since she had work the next day. It was so much fun to see you, Kyoko!!!

The next morning we got to meet up with another friend of mine, this one from way back in grade school and junior high in New Mexico. Mike and I both moved away from New Mexico in 1999, but we stayed in touch as pen pals, writing actual letter to each other, for many years. I turns out that Mike moved to Osaka five years ago, and has been teaching English and living there since. When he saw some of my posts on Facebook, we got back in touch and arranged to meet up.

After lunch we were on our way to the Osaka science museum when we got distracted by something in a store window: a futuristic looking walking machine on a mannequin sitting in the Honda shop window. We stopped into inquire and it turns out it’s a device developed by Honda to help with therapy for people needing to relearn to walk after accidents and such. Well, we asked if we could try it and the clerk, perhaps having a slow day, let us try it out.

Interestingly what was done first was a calibration of natural walking, and then the system would pull your legs differently to correct and make your gait more even. I got to see my calibration graph and it turns out I don’t lift my right leg as high as my left leg, and when the machine activated and pulled harder on my right leg, my gait became perfectly even!

We thanked the clerk for his time and, with the diversion over, we made our way to the Osaka science museum at last. It’s four floors of different physics and natural science demonstrations, some of them hands on, and all very cool. I particularly loved the Michelson interferometer, because, lasers, but the old-school particle accelerator equipment, and the ball machine kinetic art were all really cool. So much fun science!

From the museum we went to get some snacks, and hung out in Utsubo park chatting until Mike had to getting going. It was lovely to see him again, and we agreed that it should be much sooner than 19 years before we catch up again ;0) Great to see you Mike!

From there the three of us walked back to the hotel, cooked dinner, and spent a chill night in.

I had agreed to give a presentation at an event that the Osaka University Student Chapter of my professional was hosting, and so the next day Dan and I went north to stay near Expo City (which is close to the University) while Dean split off to go see Nagoya and Tokyo.

Once we were checked in, I spent the rest of the day working on my talk, but in the evening we wandered out to see the Expo City and its beautiful Ferris wheel, the Redhorse Osaka Wheel. I’ve discovered that light painting Ferris wheels is one of my new favorite things to do, and I did it in excess, as well as photographing some of the interesting statues around.

The next day while I was at the event at the University, Typhoon Jebi rolled through. Dan stayed holed up in the hotel, and reported that the storm broke a window in the lobby. Walking to the monorail station from the event after the storm had passed, there were quite a few downed trees and branches, but otherwise the storm passed fairly uneventfully for us. However, it did some major damage in some places, so we were pretty lucky.

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The next day we checked out of our hotel and headed to west Tokyo to regroup with Dean and meet up with my friend Nabila! Stay tuned!

 

 

Hiroshima: the Peace Memorial, deer, okonomiyaki, and a friend comes to visit!

August 30, 2018
by Dan

At the conclusion of my bike trip, in Hiroshima I met up with Christina and Dean, our friend from DC. They flew into Tokyo at roughly the same time and made the journey. from Tokyo together. The night they arrived they stayed at the ever present chain of hotels APA. What they didn’t know was that, unfortunately, APA is closely aligned with Japan’s far right nationalist party and denies the war atrocities of Japan (a huge source of contention between China and Japan). After finding that out we avoided the place for the rest of the trip. But if you or anyone you know happens to stay at one in the near future, please take some of the propaganda for me, I’ve started collecting weird propaganda.

After we all joined up, our first order of business was to go out for the local dish, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is one of my favorite Japanese foods. I learned about it during my first trip to Japan. It’s a savory pancake with any variety of fillings, usually cabbage, and then topped with meats, seafood, something similar BBQ sauce, mayonnaise, and then sprinkled with seasonings like bonito flakes and seaweed. It’s delicious comfort food.

Hiroshima style okonomiyaki has noodles added to it. It turns out I’m not a big fan of it and prefer the more typical varieties, but we of course had to try it. There are okonomiyaki places all over town. We went to a nearby building Okonomimura that hosts several floors of okonomiyaki stalls. They are all more or less homogeneous as far as we could tell but there is a small description of each stall in the lobby that we didn’t notice until we left.

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We went up several floors and first stopped at the booth of a lonely old man who was incredibly emotionless and unenthusiastic. I liked him and he took a lot of care preparing the dish. I think we did kinda screwed up his night though, because shortly after we arrived a huge tour group of Germans came in and they went to the stalls behind us. I guess to not bother us. There were a few Japanese customers that came to this floor looking for a place to eat but peaced out immediately seeing all the foreign tourists.

Next we went down a floor and were called over to join a Japanese couple eating a stall that highly recommended their okonomyaki. The chefs at this stall were much more animated. In general it was roughly the same, just less painstakingly prepared. Anyway, not my favorite style of okonomyaki and probably a bit more expensive than an independent joint away from the tourist region, but Okonomimura is a solid bet if you want to try it out.

Another of our food adventures was to visit a Mos Burger, which is a Japanese burger chain that Christina was introduced to on her JAL flight. They have pretty standard burgers, but also serve up some of the weird food combos that Japan is famous for. The Teriyaki burger is probably the best, with teriyaki sauce and cream cheese toppings. I got the most globally diverse item on the menu: a Japanese kare taco naan flatbread. Of course. It was pretty average but I loved it conceptually. It is the closest thing that I’ve ever seen to a Casey’s Taco Pizza outside of Iowa. Pretty exciting stuff.

In addition to eating things, I joined Christina for a work out in the park one day. She said that people in Tokyo ignored her at the park, but it Hiroshima they were a little more curious, but still no one asked to play on the rings (common in many countries).

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Of course the main draw for visitors is the atomic bomb site and the Peace Memorial. I have mixed feelings about visiting the sites of war atrocities and mostly we have chosen not to visit such places. I understand why people do it, but I have my own reasons against it.

In general this is more of a memorial/museum, but still I was not particularly keen on visiting. Christina has visited Hiroshima before and did the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum already and didn’t feel the need to see it again. I went and it was the difficult experience I expected. I share Christina’s desire to not go back to see it a second time.

Note from Christina: The death and destruction documented at the Peace Memorial Museum are heart breaking and hard to talk about for both of us, and why Dan is not going into further detail here. When I visited, I remember being impressed with how the museum was not anti-American, but solidly anti-war and focused on the human cost of the bomb. I think it is an important thing to see if you visit Hiroshima, and why I pressed Dan to visit despite his reluctance.

Later that day the three of us went for a walk around the Peace Memorial park, which was beautifully lit at night. Here are some night pictures of the A-Bomb Dome, a building preserved in its destroyed state, and one of the memorial statues.

The next day we journeyed to Itsukushima Island (typically it’s called Miyajima which means shrine island). It’s a highly recommended tourist spot nearby. I had biked past it on my way to Hiroshima and was planning to camp at the campgrounds there. But I didn’t realize it was an island and I would need to take a ferry. Also there are pit vipers there. Which actually isn’t an issue for camping, but it gave me pause when I first read it. More problematic is the rummaging deer which have no fear of humans. Anyway, I decided not to camp there and just come back with the rest of the crew instead. I really enjoyed it.

We used our JR rail passes to get there since it covered the train and the ferry to the island. It was much faster than biking, but it really isn’t that far from downtown Hiroshima. I got a banana chocolate latte from the vending machine that I had found passing through by bike. It is my favorite vending machine thing.

We arrived at the island and went to look at the shrine. People say it’s one of few floating tori. First it’s obviously not floating. It’s like 50 meters from the shore. Of course it’s anchored. Also I’ve seen tons of tori gates in water. There is nothing particularly special about this one. It is pretty, but a little oversold imo. Also there are lots of deer that people pet (even though the signs say not to). I was not particularly fond of them, but they were docile and didn’t bother us for food.

Note for Christina: I visited this island once before over a decade ago, and I remember being able to buy pellets to feed the deer and they were aggro and would swarm people. This was much nicer.

From there we started a hike up the mountain. We took the Daishoin route up, which starts at Daishoin Temple. I think this was the coolest part of the entire island and by far the most unique part. There were tons of little temples scattered about, some seemed quite hidden. For example there was a dark walk way underneath the main temple that you had to feel your way through until you came to little lit up alcoves with some gold deities. That was a fun find. The whole temple was in a beautiful stony valley with mountain river. I loved it there and, if we weren’t itching to get up the mountain, I would have loved to stay and explore a bit more.

The hike up the mountain was paved and easy enough. The view at the top was excellent, but I found the huge boulders at the top a lot more fascinating. They were fun to climb around, but most of the fun parts to explore were blocked off.

There is a multi-story structure at the top where you can relax (2nd floor) or get the 360 view of the island and surrounding water (3rd floor). We took some pictures and had some snacks there before heading back down a different route.

When we got to the base of the mountain, the tide had moved out and so we got to walk up to the tori. Kinda cool to get to see it at both high and low tide.

We also took a stroll through the tourist shopping center, where these leaf shaped momiji cakes with fillings of different flavors are popular. I wasn’t very excited about them, but Christina enjoyed them, especially the lemon custard one. And Dean found his first beer vending machine. They are few and far between, but they do exist. On the way out I got another banana chocolate latte. The best!

Now a quick note on the typical tourist to Miyajima. I swear 80% of people were speaking Spanish. It was crazy. And speaking of Spanish. We stayed at Santiago Guesthouse and there were tons of Spanish speaking guests. And there were two Spanish restaurants nearby. What’s the deal? What is the connection between the Spanish speaking world and Hiroshima? The staff at the hostel didn’t know. They were kinda surprised that I noticed any connection at all.

Our final day in Hiroshima we went to see the Hiroshima castle tower. I have to say, it was much cooler looking on the outside. The last time it was reconstructed the interior was made into a modern general museum with no effort to emulate what the original castle would have looked like inside. I didn’t find the exhibits particularly interesting , the exception being the display of samurai swords showing the fabrication process and some awesome samurai armor. Plus! You could try some on! That was the highlight of the visit to the castle. Samurai armor is so cool.

After the castle Christina and Dean took a lap around the Shukkeien Gardens. I did not and avoided the rain, so I felt pretty clever about that decision. But it looks like I missed out on some pretty beautiful landscaping.

Note from Christina: The gardens were really pretty, and when it began to rain a staff person came out delivering umbrellas to guests, which was so sweet. Unfortunately they were not offering tea ceremonies that day, perhaps because of the weather.