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.