Tag Archives: Japan
10 January, 2017

New Year’s in Los Angeles

Nobody goes to Los Angeles. They may say they do, but no. Those friends of yours who vacation in Santa Monica and Hermosa, or  one time partied in Hollywood or Beverly Hills? They probably never went to L.A. either. The closest they likely came to Los Angeles, the city, was a Lakers game. On the eve before New Year’s Eve, coming straight from the airport, we went to L.A. The city. Downtown. The only part of L.A. I’d ever been. The part that continues, to this day, to offer visitors a glimpse of what Manhattan, New York looked like thirty years ago, before Disney and the M&M Store moved in and squeezed the homeless and needle-pushers out.

Our good friends Katrina and Alan return to Los Angeles, the county, most winters to visit Alan’s family who still reside there. For as long as we’ve known them, we’ve been treated to stories of the incredible New Year’s Day feast that Alan’s mother assembles in Japanese tradition. Anyone who has read this blog for long likely knows the attachment I have for Japanese culture and food. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I’ve been angling for us to spend New Year’s in Los Angeles, with Alan’s family, for several years.

But the first stop was downtown.

Come for the Drinks, Skip the Food

There are times to wander around aimlessly, cafe-and-bar-hopping your way through a new place. Then there are times when it pays to have a plan, a local guide, and some friends to share the experience with. Our trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling massive region where it takes no less than 45 minutes to get anywhere, would have, at the least, required a lot more work on our part if not for Katrina’s planning — and their family sedan.

Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised — and concerned — when it was revealed that our first stop would be downtown. At a cafeteria, no less.

My prior L.A. experience consisted entirely of visits to the convention center and shuttle-vans to and from my hotel on Grand. I knew enough to know that downtown L.A. was 1) a dump, and 2) not a place anyone ever went. That being said, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” from “The Golden Age of Cafeterias” (their words) is a heck of a sight. Massive redwoods and boulders, crystals, and plant life give the towering multi-story cafeteria a mystical outdoorsy feeling while somehow avoiding the cheesiness of Rainforest Cafe. The cafeteria’s Forest Glen setting is said to have inspired Walt Disney.

The Atrium at Clifton’s Cafeteria. Photo from www.discoverlosangeles.com

But while the food itself, bland home-style country staples, could be easily forgotten (if, unlike me, your stomach allows it) the numerous bars occupying the bulk of Clifton’s space in the old rundown theater district on South Broadway, are sure to be remembered. A modest dress code — no sneakers or t-shirts, look spiffy — is enforced for the upper bars where Art Deco decor and period-dressed servers and bartenders await. Drinks are pricey, at $14 each, but the speakeasy-vibe of the “secret” Pacific Seas tiki bar (hidden atop a stairwell behind a mirrored false-wall) adds a sense of intrigue to the night. Unfortunately, the 60s-era Chris-Craft speedboat in the bar offered no additional seating and we retreated to the spacious, yet frigid, Gothic Bar. A fine spot.

Inside The Last Bookstore. Photo from www.welikela.com

From there we walked a few blocks over to The Last Bookstore, a shop I had just heard about that week. The lower floor is like any other indie bookstore, though with an expansive rare books section that, unfortunately for me, was primarily art books (though they did have a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye in not-good condition). But upstairs, they’ve piled their books in such a way as to create several book sculptures and other installations that are truly worth visiting. There are also several art galleries along the walkway and a tunnel of LED-lit books you can walk through which was very neat. I picked up Silence, the book that inspired the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Christian Japanese from the early 17th century. It just so happens that one of the characters in my work-in-progress is also from that era.

Pre-Partying Around Hollywood

We were staying at a house we rented on AirBnb, near Alan’s family in Torrance. This location was not only close to his parents, but also right near the King’s Hawaiian restaurant and bakery, an absolutely fantastic place to have breakfast. Nobody bakes a cake like the Hawaiians. A fact we were reminded of later that day, after watching some football, when Alan’s parents surprised Kristin with a guava, passion fruit, and lime birthday cake that was even better than it sounds.

But yes, it was Kristin’s birthday and it was New Year’s Eve, and we had plans. Despite the unseasonable cold and drizzle, we donned our suits and dresses and went out for a night on the town. First stop: a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All of the shops were closed, the tourists had mostly gone home, and we were able to enjoy some nice window shopping at our leisure. We have many of the same shops in nearby Bellevue, but luxury retailers aside, Rodeo is just a nice street to go for a walk, especially when everything is lit up for Christmas.

Rodeo Drive. Photo from www.viceroyhotelgroup.com

From there, we cut through a neighborhood of gated, outrageously expensive homes to Sunset Boulevard, and up to Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant and bar in the style of an Edo-period palace. It’s tremendous looking and offers a fantastic view of greater L.A. from atop its hill in Hollywood Heights. Sadly, only those staying for the New Year’s Eve party (with $50 cover charge) could get in. We merely wanted an early evening pre-dinner drink so had to move along. Definitely a place to return to in the future.

Fortunately, we found a great bar right on Hollywood Boulevard, smack dab between the restaurant we were eating at and the Egyptian Theater, where the party we had tickets for was located. Some drinks and free tequila shots later, we went to The Musso and Frank Grill, an old steakhouse from 1919 that was a frequent haunt of A-listers during Hollywood’s golden age. We spotted no celebrities (nor were we looking for any) but we had a terrific meal. Veal, filet mignon, prime rib, and lamb chops were on order, and each were delicious. I’m still partial to Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill f0r when it comes to high-end steak houses, but Musso and Frank was certainly a cut above Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, not just in food, but ambiance too.

The four of us at Musso and Frank Grill.

Scamming Like It’s 2017

Our friends have had great luck attending themed NYE parties in L.A. on prior years, usually getting tickets ahead of time through GoldStar, a membership discount site for events and concerts. This year, we settled on a party at the Egyptian Theater. VIP tickets, at a discounted $70 each, were supposed to get us into an extra area or two. In reality, despite arriving by 10:30, the main indoor space was jam packed. The lines for drinks (open bars, included in price) stretched around the block and back to 2012. We waited and pushed, and eventually got in. Only to find the main space packed with hundreds of people, far beyond fire safety codes, and with no chance of getting a drink. I descended the stairs in a search for a restroom and stumbled across the room our yellow wristbands were supposed to get us into.

But instead of going in, we made the mistake of going back outside, convinced the VIP area was somewhere else. It wasn’t.

And then, in those minutes that we were back outside in the frigid outdoor courtyard area, the line to get in had grown so long that it was effectively a mob scene. A stationary stampede of humanity pressing against a single open door. For forty minutes we stood in line trying to get back inside the space we shouldn’t have left. Now and then a staff member would escort a private party of six inside, those who paid thousands of dollars to reserve a table. The “bottle service” option.

It was 11:40. There was no getting inside. For anyone. The wristbands mattered nothing. Everyone had one.

We went back to the bar near the entrance and got another pair of drinks. But first, a trip to the port-a-potties. Formal wear, frigid temps (for L.A.) and five port-a-potties with a line of over 40 people waiting for them. Nevermind.

We were furious. The party was a complete scam. The outdoor music was horrible, they sold too many tickets, had too few bars, too few restrooms. And the inside area was a deathtrap, crammed with far too many people. Everyone we talked with was furious.

Determined to not be in line for a port-a-potty at midnight, or stewing in our fury, we exited the scam of a party and ran back across the street to the hole-in-the-wall bar we were in before. We made our way to the back room (the place was now packed) and quickly made some new friends and toasted and danced in the new year.

Alan graciously stopped drinking at one in the morning and was able to drive the rest of us home at three.

A great night saved from disaster.

The Japanese Feast for 2017

Ignoring the leftover birthday cake I munched down at 3am, we began our 2017 in traditional Japanese style, with ozoni, a brothy soup featuring a big piece of mochi. Ozoni is the obligatory first meal of the new year. Personally, I’m not a fan of mochi unless its got a scoop of ice cream inside it, but the broth was very tasty and well, of course we were going to eat it.

The four of us excused ourselves over to Culver City where, right across from Sony Pictures, is a bar that serves as the homebase for Seahawks fans in southern California. Dee-jays played music and emceed during commercial breaks, free blue and green mystery shots were served at halftime, and dozens of displaced Seahawks fans cheered and jeered the victory over the lowly Forty-Niners.

Back at the family home, a table with tens of dishes awaited us, as did many of Alan’s family members. In addition to comfort food like grilled pork and chicken, BBQ shrimp, char-siu, and gyoza, there were plenty of specific foods and dishes served for their symbolic meaning. Daikon, burdock root, and carrots — all root vegetables — were served to strengthen the family roots. Dried kelp, kombu, was served to inspire joy. Tiny dried fish (which were served fried and really tasty), gomame, are eaten for good health. Lotus Root, renkon, was cut in round slices to symbolize the Buddhist wheel of life. Black beans are also eaten for health while a very tasty chestnut dish signifies mastery of success.

Just some of the food for the New Year’s Day feast!

Kristin and I stayed away from the herring roe which is eaten to increase fertility. We did partake in the carp which is eaten for its indomitable spirit.

And on and on it went. So. Much. Food. Deserving special mention were the caramel macaroons which Alan’s nephew made. Macaroons far lighter and more delectable than any we had in Paris.

New Year’s Day had traditionally been a non-event for us. A day to relax and clean up from the holidays, perhaps. But this year it was so much more. We got to spend it with great friends and their wonderful family. We ate delicious multi-cultural food, learned a bit about its significance, and swapped travel stories and more. It was a fantastic day, I won’t soon forget.

Six Flags and a Beach Cruise

We finished up our time in L.A. with a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain on Monday, but only after a breakfast stop at Gardena Bowl. You read that right, we went to a bowling alley for breakfast. This is where having a local comes in handy, as there’s simply no way we would have known of such a place. In fact, Gardena Bowl was where Alan used to bowl in the 80s and its Hawaiian-Asian cafe is a local hot spot. We had to wait for a table at 9am, but the wait was worth it, for the sausage and egg mix.

Magic Mountain was cold and crowded so after realizing that the lines were over two hours for each ride, we scurried back to the entrance booth and bought the Flash Pass. It ended up nearly tripling the entrance fee per person, but we never had to wait for more than ten minutes, and most times we just walked right on to the rides. Still, because we’re not awful people, we did feel bad about bypassing a three-hour wait to board immediately. Alas, we only attend these amusement parks every few years. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, our last day in Los Angeles, was spent at the beach. We rented bikes in Hermosa and rode north six miles past Manhattan Beach to El Segundo. L.A. County has a paved bike path that stretches from Palos Verde, south of Redondo Beach, thirty miles north to Malibu, rarely crossing any streets and routinely swept free of sand. We didn’t go far on account of the bad cold I had caught over the weekend, but we got a nice taste of the Strand and the hundreds of beach volleyball courts set up near Manhattan Beach, the dozens of surfers braving the cold, and the oodles of jaw-dropping homes perched above the beach.

The Strand bike path going past Manhattan Beach. Photo from www.caskeyandcaskey.com

We didn’t have time to visit Venice Beach, but did have lunch at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Route 66. An excellent way to cap off our L.A. trip.

California Kindness

One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is just how friendly everyone in L.A. was. I always noticed this during my many business trip to Southern California, but it bears repeating. I can’t stress how nice it was to spend all that time, often in very crowded places — bars, amusement parks, nightclubs, and restaurants — with so many friendly, polite people. People of all walks of life, of all nationalities. Every one of them, from fast food workers to other club goers, were all so nice and approachable and friendly. No posturing. No distant coldness. No aggression or agitation. Just a polite mellow that made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than if it had been nearly anywhere else I’d ever been or lived.

In some ways, this added an extra layer of Japaneseyness to the weekend. After all Japan and southern California are the only places I’ve ever been where employees and guests alike seem to focus on making sure that everyone’s experience is as great as it can be. There’s a quality of life in SoCal that is hard to replicate anywhere, and it’s not just for those in the multi-million dollar homes on the beach or in the hills. Its ingrained in the people. The people who might be taking your order. The people you might be waiting in line behind. The people you might strike up conversation with at a bar. The people are just friendly.

Such a shame that it’s noteworthy.

Special Thanks: To Alan and Katrina for being such great friends and for inviting us to join you in your family’s New Year’s celebration. To Alan’s parents, Aiko and Sam, for being such gracious hosts. Thank you so much for everything! To the rest of Alan’s family, thank you all for making us feel so welcome. We hope to see you all again soon! And last but not least, thanks to Jeremy and Jessica for watching our beloved Juniper while we were gone. You’re the best!

18 June, 2015

Top 10 Questions We Get Asked

We’re oh-so-close to getting back on our bikes after six months away from our beloved Salsa Fargos and we can’t wait. We spent the last two weeks in Florida at Kristin’s mom’s beach house, joining family in spreading her father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and are headed back to New Jersey to collect our Ortlieb duffel bags, deposit some of the gear we took to Japan and Indonesia, and bid farewell to family one more time. We’ll be back in Italy, unboxing our stowed bikes in less than a week!

While we were making our 31-hour journey from Singapore to Florida earlier this month we thought it would be fun to assemble a “top 10” post from our first 15 months of being on the road. Rather than answer the most rudimentary questions (What’s your favorite meal?, What’s your favorite country?, How did you get across the Atlantic?, etc.,) we tried to remember the questions that scratched a little deeper. And in doing so, we were forced to remember — and acknowledge — that this has been one absolutely amazing trip so far.

We hope you enjoy this post and, if we failed to answer any questions your inquiring mind wants to know, go ahead and ask it in the comments section and we’ll be sure to reply as soon as possible!

1: What was your favorite day on the bike?

Doug: For me, it had to be our second big mountain day in Spain. I was really hesitant to leave Pamplona and my 8-year old GPS gave up the ghost the morning we were leaving so I had to wing it with just a compass and small-scale map. The next day, after camping in Logrono, we headed deep into the Sierra de la Demanda for some tremendous alpine scenery. We struggled to find a place to wild camp as we kept getting higher and higher into the mountains. The scenery was tremendous, the road very narrow and windy, sheep and cattle wore eerily clanging bells, and it was getting dark. And we just kept climbing and climbing along this narrow mountain creek until, finally, we found a wonderful primitive campground near a trailhead on the side of the road.  It was one of the darkest nights I had ever experienced and it got cold. But it was the perfect end to a tremendous day of early autumn cycling in the Pyrenees and capped our third consecutive day of 4,000 feet of climbing.

Kristin: For me, it was the day we finally reached the familiar scent of the Atlantic Ocean. We rolled out of Brooks, Maine that morning headed for Acadia National Park. We always knew we would eventually reach the Atlantic Ocean, but after enjoying the routine of biking, eating, and sleeping day after day, we were shocked when we realized that we actually did it. We bicycled across the USA at its widest point. It was as we crossed the beautiful bridge that connected the small island of Verona with mainland Maine that I smelled that salty, sea air. I stared at the back of Doug’s head, willing him to turn around. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by calling to him. Within a few minutes, he turned his head and through my tears, I saw his eyes glistening too. We stopped on the bridge, wrapped our arms around each other’s sweaty bodies and just paused to think about what we had just accomplished.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass in the Sierra de la Demanda.

2: What was your favorite day off the bike?

Kristin: I will never forget my 39th birthday in Naples, Italy! Doug plans most days, but today was going to be special. The celebration started with dinner the night before at a small restaurant with live music. It started to lightly snow in Naples and the waiters all ran outside to see the flakes — it never snows in Naples! The next morning, we hopped a train to Pompeii where a dusting of snow made this wonder even greater. It was much larger and better preserved than I imagined. There were still tile mosaics in the bathhouses and terra cotta warming pots in the restaurants. After returning to Naples and a few hours of rest, we ventured out to the town square for a Time Square-like celebration to ring in the New Year. Yes, my birthday falls on December 31st! At midnight, after the countdown, many people in the crowd began lighting fireworks (most would have been illegal in the USA) and sparklers as long as my arm and the diameter of my index finger. It sounded like what I imagine a war zone to sound like. Later we returned to our room, walking down the middle of the street so as to avoid items being thrown out the windows. In Naples, people take “out with the old and in with the new,” quite literally as champagne bottles, small appliances, and even some furniture were thrown out in favor of a new start. This was a celebration unlike anything I’d experienced before and it went from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. People in Naples know how to ring in the New Year.

Doug: Kristin planned a tremendous day for my 39th birthday in Paris. We walked up to Sacre Couer first thing in the morning and then split up for a few hours. I had to get some new bike chains and a new tire and went and walked through Paris by myself on a bit of a cafe/pub-crawl. That night, Kristin took me to the incredibly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle to see a string ensemble perform Pachelbel’s Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and Vivaldi’s entire Four Seasons led by one of the France’s top violinists. It was absolutely amazing. We then had a fantastic dinner at an upscale cafe while watching some guys play a fun yard game out in the square. After dinner these two younger Parisians, Cedric and Jeffrey, taught us how to play the Swedish game Molkke. I took to it right away and won my share of games. We played until nearly midnight when one of the wealthy neighbors came out to complain about our noise.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

3: What was the biggest dose of culture shock?

Doug: We spent a month in Morocco, our first Muslim country, and then, on December 9th, boarded a ferry bound for Livorno, Italy. We were tired, emotionally spent, and not really thinking too clearly about the seasons. When we finally arrived in Italy, very late on December 11th, we pedaled four miles through darkened streets to our hotel. The next morning, we awoke to realize our hotel was right in the middle of a bustling Christmas market. We had completely forgotten about Christmas. The transition from southern Spain to Morocco was so gentle thanks to the long-forgotten Moors (“Moops” for our fellow Seinfeld fans) but going straight from a month in Morocco, capped with ten days in the Sahara, to a Christmas market in Italy… it was almost too much to comprehend.

Kristin: On April 27th, after six weeks in Japan, we boarded a plane to leave the polite, modern world of Tokyo. We loved the city. There are so many people in one place and yet it never felt crowded or claustrophobic. Everyone was courteous and respectful of everyone else’s space. But we were excited to be finally headed to Bali and after ten hours, we were thrust into another world. The streets of Kuta, our first stop, were crowded with honking cars and motorbikes and the sidewalks were filled with people bumping past each other. Most every store front was a cheap souvenir store, tour or taxi service, or massage parlor with workers outside constantly calling to us. It was also very dirty in spots. It was too much in-your-face chaos too soon. After a good night sleep, we accepted Kuta for what it was and enjoyed the party, but the initial shock nearly had us back on the plane for Tokyo.

4: List your Top 3 favorite food memories!

Kristin: Anyone who knows me knows that every tooth in my mouth is a sweet tooth and I never met anything sugary that I didn’t like. So, when we arrived in Morocco and I had my first sip of the sugary sweet mint tea, I was in love. It tasted like mint flavored sweet tea from the southern United States, but served hot. Next on my list are the baguettes in France, which seems obvious, but when I imagined a French woman walking elegantly down the street, I never pictured her gnawing on a baguette for lunch and yet that was what I saw. Naturally, I paid my euro for a whole baguette and joined in. And last but not least, I loved the plethora of fresh fruit (papaya, passion fruit, dragon fruit, guava, mangosteen, to name a few) in Bali. Much of it I had never seen nor was really sure how to eat, but the locals were always willing to help us out or sometimes we just figured it out. Eating is a huge part of the joy of this trip.

Doug: Forgive me for speaking in general terms, but after so many great snacks and tremendous meals, I struggle to be very specific. For me, when I think about food, the first thing that comes to mind is the unbelievable French bakeries (boulangeries/patisseries). The baguettes and pastries being produced in France are, for my money, the highest quality, most affordable food on the planet. Next up, I’d have to say our first kaiseki meal in a Japanese ryokan. We stayed in a few ryokans while in Japan, but nothing compared to that first 11-course meal at Aura Tachibana. And, lastly, for my third pick, I’ll just say Tuscany. All the food in Tuscany. All of it. Especially the meal we ate on a rainy, frigid, day in the mountains served up by a former Miss Italia.

Our appetizer contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

The appetizer course of a meal at Aura Tachibana in Hakone, Japan.

5: What cultural observation surprised you the most?

Doug: After spending a month in France, a month in Spain, and a month in Morocco, three countries with very established “cafe cultures” for lack of a better word (Spain less so than France and Morocco), I have to say I was quite surprised by the lack of a cafe culture in Italy. Italians belly up to the espresso bar, order, throw back their shot in one gulp, and are out the door as fast as can be. I noticed very little loitering in Italian cafes, very few people reading the paper or watching the day unfold. Which shocked me given how unhurried most Italians seemed to be. That said, the cafes in Italy stock an impressive array of alcohol and appear to do most of their business in the evenings when people stop for a drink or three after work. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many chairs and tables in Italian cafes.

Kristin: Japan is small and space is limited, so I was shocked to see the size of the stores and number of choices in every category. Just one store, Yodobashi Camera in Osaka, had eight massive floors of electronics. I couldn’t believe how many high quality choices there were for every category of electronics from refrigerators, to vacuums, washers and dryers, to printer paper, to speaker wire, everything electronic. Just as an example, there were over one hundred different vacuums to choose from and the printer paper section spanned about 2000 square feet. Every item had a variety like this. If you wanted a rice cooker, you had dozens of models to choose from. The section devoted to camera tripods was larger than most camera stores we have in the USA. I’ll be very jealous when I start looking to furnish a home and faced with America’s limited choices.

6: What was your favorite region/country to travel by bicycle?

Kristin: Even though the New England region of the USA provided some of the hilliest and longest days, the friendliness of the people more than made up for it. We cycled up Terrible Pass in Vermont with a pair of roadies who chatted with us until our paths diverged and nearly six months later invited us to see them when they heard that we were back in New Jersey for a few weeks. Also in Vermont, we had a motel owner toss the keys to his new car to Doug to drive the two of them to pick up our pizza and beer. The pizza place didn’t deliver, nor did any other restaurant in town, and the motel owner had had two beers, but didn’t want us to go hungry. In Maine, we were adopted for the night by a dozen senior citizen hot rod owners staying at the Fryberg Fairground. We cycled up to ask them if they knew where we might camp for the night and before we knew it they insisted that we join them for dinner, let us put up our tent behind their RVs, and fed us until we cried mercy. The following morning, several of them brought us baggies of brownies, muffins, and bread to have for breakfast and take with us for snacks during the day. We have met friendly people everywhere, but these were just a few standout memories that we wouldn’t have had if we were driving.

Doug: I want to say Spain, but I can’t. I have to go with my backyard and say the northwestern United States. Particularly, that stretch between Puget Sound and Glacier National Park. The scenery is phenomenal, the environments varied, and there are so many affordable camping options that bike touring is just easier there. We camped in State Parks, County Parks, National Parks, and plenty of National Forests, the latter of which has a tremendous system of primitive campgrounds. Also, food is abundant and inexpensive (gas station Teriyaki for the win!), there are a number of friendly WarmShowers hosts. Also, the roads aren’t bad at all and there are plenty of rail-trails to be ridden. If you’re looking for good roads, abundant non-commercial camping, and great scenery, the Pacific Northwest is tough to beat!

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state.

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state, our fourth night out.

7: What place are you most looking forward to returning to?

We’ll tag team this answer since we have the same top two responses and they’re essentially 1a and 1b. First, we have to say Bali. Not for bicycle touring, but for living. And we’re actually going to be doing just that next year, as we already made arrangements to rent a great little house outside of Ubud for four months in 2016, just a short walk through the rice fields to our favorite haunts from last month. So that, by default, has to be mentioned first. The other place that we really hope to return to is Pamplona, Spain. Pamplona had a tremendous blend of parks, public squares, cafes and restaurants, and nearby recreation that it really suited us. It’s also a very clean, well-organized city, with a lot of culture and history. And the best part, in our opinion, is that it’s relatively free of tourists outside those two weeks in the summer when the world comes to run with the bulls. Kristin has been working on improving her Spanish language skills with Duolingo and looks forward to putting it to use in the future.

I can get used to this.

Nightlife in Pamplona.

8: What place do you hope to never return to again?

Kristin: North Dakota. Whether riding or camping, the wind is more than I could handle at times. Some days we had a tailwind and it was wonderful, but most days it was either a strong crosswind or strong headwind. We had two days that we had to cut short after a few hours of cycling averaging only 5 to 7 miles per hour and realizing we wouldn’t make it to our planned destination. In camp, the wind continued to annoy by whisking away our plates, napkins, plastic garbage bags, and anything else that wasn’t weighted down. There were plenty of nice views and scenery, and we met some friendly, generous people too, but the incessant wind was miserable. If I ever return, it won’t be on a bicycle!

Doug: I’ve complained about Morocco enough over the past six months, that it’s starting to feel like I’m piling on, but I have to say the city of Fes. It’s just not for me. There are a lot of neat things about Fes, but for every wonderful moment we had, we had two or three blood-boiling moments of frustration. I don’t care for places where the only way to survive is to assume most people are scam-artists. It’s particularly disappointing as I always counted Morocco as one of the three countries I was most excited to visit. It’s been funny to talk to other long-term travelers these past few months about Morocco. As soon as the topic comes up, everybody we meet who has been there just puts their hands up to stop me right there. “Don’t get us started about Morocco. Let’s talk about something else,” they say. I’m happy to know it’s not me (though, of course, those who experience Morocco on package tours often regale us with a very different opinion).

The hills of the plains aren't big, but they're never-ending. As are the headwinds.

The hills of North Dakota’s central plains aren’t big, but they’re never-ending. As are the headwinds.

9: What were your favorite obvious tourist attractions?

There are plenty of so-called must-see attractions that we rolled right on past, but we did stop for some of them. We even went way, way out of our way for a couple too. A brief list of our favorites in no particular order: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Michelangelo’s David, Bodleian Library at Oxford, Pompeii in the snow, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, live Flamenco performance in Seville, the Eiffel Tower, Mont Saint-Michel, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

10: What was your most embarrassing moment?

This was a joint-humiliation affair so this will have to cover both of us. We were still in Washington state, staying with a WarmShowers host in eastern WA and he so graciously emailed to say that he would be home after we arrived and we should just let ourselves in. We were really shy about doing this so we instead went to a bar for an hour and then came back. He still wasn’t home so we finally got up the courage to let ourselves in. He had cats. Two of them, one orange and one black. We did our best to keep them away from the door, but we had a lot of panniers to bring in and, well, in the chaos of us going back and forth from the basement guestroom to our bikes outside, the cats disappeared.

Panic immediately set in. We started running throughout the house calling out for “black cat” and “orange cat” hoping that they would respond to these ridiculous calls. The cats were nowhere. And then we noticed the door was ajar. Oh no. We ran to the door and looked out the window and didn’t see them. Another hurried search of the house turned up nothing. What are we going to do? “We need to just go,” I said to Kristin. “We need to just pretend we were never here and hope someone returns the cats. Lets get back on our bikes and find a motel before he comes home.” She didn’t like this idea. I didn’t like it either, but what choice did we have? I was already envisioning these poor cats getting eaten by a coyote or run over by a car.

We stood in shock in the kitchen, feeling absolutely awful. And then we heard the dog barking outside. He was in a fenced-in kennel and barking like crazy. We went outside to see what the problem was and that’s when we saw the cats. They were sitting on their hind legs right outside the door. Miracles exist! We each grabbed a cat and quickly carried them inside, tremendously relieved that they actually allowed us to pick them up.

Two hours later, showered, beer in hand, and talking with our host, the cats wandered into the kitchen. Our host bent down to pet them, then stood, and opened the door to let them go outside. “I should have asked you to let them out when you got here since I had to work late,” he said.

Yes, the cats we were so panicked over; the cats we imagined being killed by our negligence, turned out to be outdoor cats. Outdoor cats we should have just let out.

9 May, 2015

Japan by Train: Skip the JR Pass!

Spend any amount of time researching a trip to Japan and you’re bound to encounter all manner of helpful articles extolling the benefits of the Japan Rail Pass. This pass, a money-saving transit pass available only to foreigners and sold in 7-, 14-, and 21-day durations, allows unlimited travel on the bulk of the Japan Rail Group’s nationwide network of trains (including most shinkansen “bullet trains”) and some buses and ferries.

At first glance, the JR Pass seemed like a no-brainer of a purchase, especially since we’d be visiting without our bicycles and relying heavily on the country’s outstanding railway system to get around. But, the more I looked at it (and the more time I allowed my natural aversion to pre-purchasing to settle in… I blame the videogame industry for this reluctance) the less the JR Pass seemed to make sense for us.

Shinkansen N700 Series by Sui-setz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shinkansen N700 Series by Sui-setz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For starters, it seems like a hassle. You have to purchase the pass from a licensed sales agent outside of Japan then turn in the voucher at a major JR Station office once inside the country. Okay, that’s relatively pain-free, but back in the USA, before we left, I didn’t know whether or not each of the legs of our journey would be possible using JR lines. In fact, I was pretty sure we’d be taking a lot of local trains, which the pass wouldn’t always cover. I spot-checked the cost of our longest leg — Osaka to Hiroshima — on the invaluable Hyperdia website/app and decided that we’d probably need to do a lot of long-haul trips to make the JR Pass worthwhile. Lastly, the biggest pass was for 21 days and we were going to be there for 6 weeks. Do we buy two passes each? Do we buy one and activate it in the middle of our trip? Ugh. Too many questions. When in doubt, I always take the path of least headache, least restrictions. My recommendation to Kristin: “Let’s skip the passes. Worst comes to worst, we end up spending an extra hundred dollars or so over the course of six weeks. It’ll be worth it to have the extra flexibility.” She agreed.

That was then, back in February. Now it’s May and it’s time to tally up our transit costs and see whether not buying the JR Passes for a longer trip was a smart decision.

Prices for the JR Pass, as of February, 2015.

Prices for the JR Pass as of February, 2015. From www.japanrailpass.net

For comparison’s sake, we were considering buying two 21-day “Ordinary” adult passes per person (all figures from this point on are for two people). This would have been a total of 237,400¥ or, $1,995 USD, based on the average exchange rate we encountered during our stay (119:1). Yes, we can probably put “sticker shock” down as another reason why I decided against the passes. These things aren’t cheap!

I’ve been tracking our expenses, by category, for every day of the trip. This was a little easier when we were bicycling everywhere and we didn’t have large transit costs (aside from a Trans-Atlantic Crossing). To not over-inflate our daily expenses, I broke out our point-to-point transportation costs for Japan into the separate “major expenses” page of our tracking sheets.

We had a total of 14 point-to-point travel days in Japan that ended up costing a total of $1254 USD for the two of us, a very big savings. That included two rides on super express “Nozomi” shinkansen trains that weren’t covered by the JR Pass, so in addition to the monetary savings we also saved some time. We also had a lengthy ride on a highway bus not covered by JR Pass.

The route we took through Japan, in pursuit of the blooming cherry blossoms.

The route we took through Japan, in pursuit of the blooming cherry blossoms.

But, wait, is that all the transit you took? I’m glad you asked! No, it wasn’t. If you add up all of the subways, taxis, ferries, cable-cars and shuttles that we took (almost none of which are covered by the JR Pass), that adds an additional $602 USD to our total transit expenditures.

So, in essence, not only was our total transportation expense of $1856 USD more than a hundred dollars less than the cost of the JR Passes for that 6-week duration, but more than 33% of those costs wouldn’t have been covered by the JR Pass anyway (several of our train tickets were on local lines not covered by JR trains).

What if you only bought a single 21-day pass and optimized it for the most expensive part of your trip? Another great question, thank you for asking!

The most costly 3-week period for our point-to-point travel totaled $825 USD, while two 21-day JR Passes to cover that same duration (one each), expertly timed with prior knowledge we didn’t actually have, would have cost $997 USD. Another example of not getting the JR Pass being the smart decision. And, again, that $825 includes several local trains and shinkansen rides that were not covered by the JR Pass.

I’m not suggesting that buying a JR Pass is always going to be a losing proposition, but it’s certainly not the money-saving silver bullet(train) it’s made out to be in the travel guides. In our experience, and as I think these numbers bear, the JR Pass is going to only make sense if you’re doing a shorter trip that involves more frequent travel days. We tended to stay at least 3 nights in each of our destinations, cutting back on the amount of time spent on transiting from destination to destination.

Final Verdict: The JR Pass should only be considered for whirlwind tours of Japan’s major cities and transit hubs. Those planning on visiting smaller, more remote towns or spending three or more nights in each location will save money by not buying the JR Pass. Happy travels!

20 April, 2015

April in Kyoto: You Might Want to Skip It

The idea of chasing the blooming cherry blossom trees, sakura, across Japan is not new, nor original. Numerous websites are devoted to predicting the ideal time and place to catch the peak of Japan’s national tree as the light-pink flowers spread across the mountainous island nation. It is a thing entirely worth doing. And it was this idea, wrapped in the romantic notion of lively picnics beneath an impentrable floral canopy as blossoms fluttered down all around us, Kristin tossing her unflippable hair and laughing as a petal improbably landed in my sake cup, that led to our deciding to spend six weeks in Japan this spring. And it is the beauty of this brief phenomena mixed with Japan’s rich cultural heritage that leads all sakura-seekers, eventually, to Kyoto… and therein lies the problem.

The rain wasn't going to dampen this picnic in Himeji, hanami as we imagined it.

The rain wasn’t going to dampen this picnic in Himeji, hanami as we imagined it.

I received — and ignored — the first clue that Kyoto in April was not a good idea when, back in late January, my attempt at finding a room in Kyoto for the first week of April proved impossible. Every one of my go-to websites turned up a complete and utter absence of vacancies: Hotels, Orbitz, Hostels, Booking, etc., not a single room to be found for the first week of April. I knew Kyoto was a popular spot for hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties, but to flip through dozens of pages of hotel listings and come up empty — at any price range — left me feeling like the only kid who forgot to study for the big exam. I restructured our itinerary to head to Koyasan and Kobe for a few days, pushing back our arrival in Kyoto to later in the week, at the risk of missing peak bloom (an excellent decision, as you will see). Shuffling the dates landed us a private room at a very cheap, very old, and very tiny guesthouse on the north end of Kyoto, appropriately named Small World. It was perfect, albeit rather cold and drafty.

We alighted from the train in beautiful, majestic Kyoto Station on April 6th and promptly took a place in line at the nearby Tourist Information office to try and snag last-second tickets to Miyako-Odori, the annual spring Geisha dance festival. Thirty minutes of waiting in a snaking line of backpack-laden travelers, most of whom were asking for tourist maps and bus schedules (available along the wall) or pleading for a hotel room in this completely sold-out city (ignoring the large sign on the door stating there were none available), eventually got us our tickets. I couldn’t believe it! Already sensing that April in Kyoto was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for not all the right reasons, we splurged and got the premium tickets to attend the tea ceremony as well — absolutely worth it!

Simply stunning display of makeup, dress, and quiet subtlety in everything these women do. The tea ceremony at Miyako-Odori was certainly worth seeing.

Simply stunning display of makeup, dress, and quiet subtlety in everything these women do. The tea ceremony at Miyako-Odori was certainly worth seeing, as it’s the closest a Westerner is likely going to get to an actual Geisha.

After dropping our bags, we set off on foot to Kinkakuji, the famed Golden Pavillion. I was fortunate to have visited Kinkakuji on a trip to Japan in 2009 and consider it to be one of those rare, obvious, over-hyped tourist-traps that actually still merits a visit. At least once. So, since it was within walking distance and Kristin hadn’t seen it, we went. The peaceful garden surrounding this shimmering gold-leafed six-centuries-old Zen Buddhist temple that I had visited on a cold winter’s day six year’s prior was now lined wall-to-wall with umbrella-wielding tour groups, with more pouring out of a convoy of tour buses every minute. Hundreds of people, predominantly Chinese, jockeyed for a position near the bamboo barrier lining the pond in hopes of getting a clear photo of the gorgeous temple that deserved so much better than this. Nobody stopped to just take it in. Nobody stood in reverence or in contemplation. Selfies, group poses, peace-signs for the camera. Snap, snap, snap, move along. Been there, done that, bought the postcard. The fact that it was a historical religious temple of architectural magnificence mattered not.

Obligatory photo of Kinkakuji. Being tall and able to withstand repeated blows to the head with selfie-sticks   will prove useful if hoping to snag this photo.

Obligatory photo of Kinkakuji. Being tall and able to withstand repeated blows to the head with selfie-sticks proved useful in taking this photo.  But, honestly, if you want to see Kinkakuji, come outside of April. There aren’t any sakura there anyway.

We walked over fifteen miles through the streets of Kyoto the next day, from our guest house to the Imperial Palace to Nishiki Market to Gion, and over to the Path of the Philosopher in the city’s eastern edge. We hit the ground early in effort to visit the Imperial Housing Office with our fingers crossed that we’d be able to get tickets for Katsura Rikyu, the Imperial Villa on the southwest corner of town. A friend back home, originally from Japan, recommended it as the absolute best thing to see in Kyoto. We got the tickets — they’re free, but limited, and only available with passport in person at the IHO — thanks Mire! We then got on line to enter the Imperial Palace Grounds. It was the last day the grounds were open for un-guided viewing. Though we were on line before the gates opened at 9am (the IHO office conveniently opens at 8:45) we were already stuck behind two hundred raised umbrellas as another convoy of Chinese tour buses idled patiently in the lot nearby.

Gotakien Garden at Kyoto's Imperial Palace and cherry blossoms along the Path of the Philosopher.

Gonaitei Garden at Kyoto’s Imperial Palace and cherry blossoms, post-peak, along the Path of the Philosopher.

Perhaps everyone (except us) already knows the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is a more worthwhile destination, but the only truly noteworthy element of the Kyoto palace grounds is the Gonaitei Garden. But, beautiful as it was, we could have skipped it considering we were already in possession of tickets to Katsura Rikyu. In dire need of some coffee and a little peace-and-quiet, we soon left the palace grounds and headed straight to the nearby McDonald’s. Yes, there is better coffee in Japan — by a mile — but where else can you get 120¥ coffee and sit and read while being serenaded by a live pianist? Yes, I digress, but it must be noted that several of the McDonalds we’ve been to in Japan have baby grand pianos on their second floor with daily performances. It is not uncommon to find Japanese people working, conducting meetings, napping, and reading or playing portable games in a McDonalds. For a Westerner looking for a cheap respite, they’re invaluable. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, Sausage Egg McMuffins are my drug of choice.

Caffeinated but hungry, we delved deep into the the slowly progressing crowd of foragers inching their way through Nishiki Market, Kyoto’s epicenter of fresh food, free samples, and all manner of unrecognizable goodies. Duck on a stick? Yes, please. A handful of miniature, translucent salted sardines? Sure, why not. A baby octopus with a boiled quail egg stuffed inside its head? Umm… sorry, but we’ve had our fill of octopus this week. Honestly. I returned to the knife shop upon whose floor I had left a small puddle of drool in 2009 and was able to smile confident in the deal we got on four Sakai Takayuki knives at a restaurant supplier in Osaka. We also returned to the print shop where, last trip, I bought a yellowed old print of Hokusai’s famed “Great Wave off Kanagawa” printed by an apprentice shortly after his death. This time, unemployed, we were just browsing.

Typical food stal in Nishiki Market, many of which had free samples or inexpensive offerings of skewered meat and fish.

Typical food stall in Nishiki Market, many of which had free samples or inexpensive offerings of skewered meat and fish. There’s so many tasty things to eat here, come hungry!

As we walked on, towards Gion, the crowds only intensified. I don’t like large crowds of people. Sporting events aside, I tend to avoid festivals, concerts, and other events that attract large quantities of people. I’m a shoulder-season kind of guy who always preferred the lonely beach of September to the bikini-clad one in July, the wilderness campground to the hot spring resort, and the quiet gathering of friends to a raucous party. The rain had stopped, we were fed, and the cherry blossoms were past their prime. This didn’t matter; Gion in April is a nightmare. It is a commercialized, hanami-profiteering orgy of food stalls, pop-up tents, and tacky souvenirs stands. We wended our way through Maruyama Park, uphill away from the throngs of kimono-clad twenty-somethings on dates, the masses of tour groups, and out of sight of the gawdy blue, red, and yellow tents and canopies. I couldn’t imagine it on a sunny day at peak bloom.

Stands like this lined every path in Maruyama Park, offering little chance to even see the cherry blossoms unless you were right under them.

Stands like this lined every path in Maruyama Park, creating a carnival atmosphere. There was even a haunted house. Neither of these were things we were hoping to find amongst the cherry blossoms in Japan’s cultural center.

We traversed a hill with a trail of temples — some counts put Kyoto’s number of temples and shrines over 1600 — and soon found ourselves along Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Path of the Philosopher. With hundreds of cherry blossom trees lining a narrow canal, the Path of the Philosopher offers a quiet, beautiful walk for you and everyone else visiting Kyoto. Or so I feared. Actually, at nearly two miles in length, the crowd got pretty spread out, especially late in the afternoon when we were there. This was a highlight of our grand walking tour of Kyoto, as it allowed for plenty of photo-ops without dealing with tour groups. The people walking the canal trail were just local families, couples on dates (in beautiful traditional dress), and pairs of tourists like us. One thing we learned, and saw repeated again the next day at Fushimi-Inari (the other must-see, obvious tourist trap in Kyoto but with free admission), is that tour groups don’t stray far from the bus. A two mile walk? You’ll leave the masses behind in under a quarter of a mile.

If Not Kyoto, Where?

Our six weeks of chasing the cherry blossoms are coming to an end (though, as I write this, they are in full glory here in Nagano Prefecture). We’ll be headed to Bali next week. And, looking back, missing the peak bloom in Kyoto was a blessing in disguise. Skipping Kyoto altogether — this trip — was an opportunity missed.

Kyoto is a magificent city, not exactly easy on the eyes, but it’s got more than its fair share of history, culture, arts, dining, and everything else a traveler can ask for. It is, make no mistake, one of my favorite cities. But the things I love about it, the things most people come to see, are always there. While certain festivals such as Miyako-Odori only take place in April, there are plenty of fantastic places to view cherry blosoms elsewhere in the country, with far fewer people, and with virtually no commercialization polluting the experience.

Kristin and I taking in peak-bloom at Mount Egeyama in Kobe.

Kristin and I taking in peak-bloom at Mount Egeyama in Kobe.

One of those places, our favorite, was Mount Egeyama Park in Kobe. This small park with its spiraling hillside walking path has over 1400 cherry blossom trees of multiple varieties. We spent a few hours in this park on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon. There were women walking their dogs, dads and their sons throwing baseballs around, a small group of young boys with a net and bug jar collecting insects, and even a toddler taking her first steps as her mom blew soap bubbles. It was a park the way a park exists in our rose-colored, Norman Rockwell memory banks. We walked every inch of the park’s trails then sat on a bench and read under the shade of towering cherry blossom trees.

An occasional petal fell onto the screen of my Kindle. It wasn’t the sake cup I envisioned, but it still made us laugh with joy.

On Tap: For those considering a trip to Japan in the not-so-distant future, the next posting is going to cover our decision to not purchase a Japan Rail pass for our time here… and whether or not that was a wise decision. I’m going to itemize our travel costs and compare them to the price of the 1, 2, and 3 week JR passes that are available for foreigners. I’m not sure whether or not we saved money by not buying the passes, but I think we just might have. Stay tuned to find out!

Postcard Winner! Congratulations to Justin Vander Pol! Not only is Justin the kick-ass realtor who got our house sold in just 8 days, but he’s also a longtime Board Member (and former Executive Director) of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, and most importantly (not really) the winner of this month’s postcard-and-more drawing!

7 April, 2015

Finding Peace in Koyasan

The too-clean granite walkway and evenly spaced stone lanterns went on no further. The unforested, newer section of the cemetery with its hodgepodge collection of minimalistic, ornate, corporate, and grandiose tombs and gravemarkers were behind us. We turned left, umbrellas high in the air – higher than the sun – and soon joined the older, more foot-worn path as giants stood at attention. The only sound was our footfalls lightly splashing in the dimpled centuries-old stone blocks; the only light the orange glow from the erratically-spaced, shoulder-high lanterns. The umbrella and lingering darkness restricted our view to the trees nearest the path. Six-hundred-year old cedars stood watch over the hillside, not a single one less than arm-span wide, not one with a branch low enough to see without craning our necks.  Dotting the land between the trees were hundreds of thousands of graves and shrines, some far older than the trees, nearly all of them hosting a growing blanket of moss. We walked on, steadily, every step taking us deeper into the ancient Okunoin cemetery of Koyasan, every moment spiriting us away into the realm of a Miyazaki film.

Parents who have lost their children place bibs on the Jizo statues (and many others now) in hopes that the Jizo will guide their children to heaven. It was believed that children would not reach heaven because of the agony their death had caused their parents.

Not wanting to miss the morning prayer, we arrived too early. We entered the temple at the far northern end of Okunoin, past the bridge leading to the Kobo Daishi Gobyu mausoleum and temple and waited, trying our hardest to not look as lost and confused as we felt. With most visitors to Koyasan staying in one of the many Buddhist Temples near the town center, those staying at Guesthouse Kokuu tended to have the morning prayers at Kobo Daishi’s temple to themselves, save for a few locals who live at this end of town and any pilgrims passing through.

A few ochre-robed monks shuffled past in silence while we stood staring at the beauty of the temple’s interior. Then, luckily, a familiar face showed up, though you can barely see it beneath the shaggy hair and wide-rimmed glasses. It was Nathan, the American pHd candidate from California (Berkeley, natch) who had been studying Buddhism for the past fifteen years. My knees ached at the sight of him, vividly remembering the agony I was in as I un-pretzeled my body following the one-hour meditation session he led the night before. Nathan, his puppy-soft voice quieter than usual, led us to the side of the main dais where we left our shoes, then instructed us on taking a pinch of zuko incense, an ashy like powder with a pungent, Earthy scent, and rubbing it between our palms to cleanse ourselves. Koyasan’s particular brand of Buddhism, Shingon, Nathan tells us, is far more ritualized than other sects. The zuko incense being just one of the differences. We padded across the front of the carpeted dais to two groups of five seats. Nathan sat cross-legged in the center, between the two rows of spectator seats. I was happy for a chair.

Okunoin Cemetery is over a thousand years old and occupies the space betwee a cedar forest over 600 years old.

Okunoin Cemetery is over a thousand years old and its 200,000 graves lie amongst a cedar forest over 600 years old.

A distant bell was struck and a dozen monks, clad in elaborate robes with numerous folds, streamed in from a side entry. It was 6 a.m. and silent. The bell tolled again, louder, and the monks busied themselves near the back of the temple. Another toll, then another, and another. It was getting louder, but still behind us, from within the forest, across the sacred bridge perhaps, beyond which, where we were, no photographs were allowed. Most of the monks kneeled down and sat back on their heels along the sides of the raised platform before us while others stood at attention.

I looked over my shoulder, out through the open exterior of the temple, and saw four robed monks, each in wooden raised sandals and conical hats, marching our way. A chorus of birdsong trailed them. Two of the monks shouldered a long bamboo pole, suspended from the center was a large wooden crate containing Kobo Daishi’s breakfast. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Koyasan’s Shingon sect of Buddhism, died over a thousand years ago but is believed to live on, spending eternity in meditation. The monks here feed him every morning and afternoon. Eternally. No simple bowl of rice or pull-top can of sake like those left at Shinto shrines, Kobo Daishi is given a proper meal. The next five minutes are spent watching the monks take away the previous meal and set out the fresh one, each action performed with ritualistic precision.

Visiting the cemetery at night is a surreal experience.

Visiting the cemetery at night is a surreal experience.

To attend a morning prayer session at a Shingon temple is to understand that you are a mere spectator. This is not a Catholic mass with its synchronized kneeling and standing. There are no and also with yous. There is only sitting and watching and listening as the monks chant their morning sutras. Three times the monks bowed their heads to the floor, abruptly stood up, then bowed again in time with a bell. Then the chanting began. Nathan removed an iPad from his bag and followed along with the kanji flowing vertically down the illuminated screen, from right to left.

Mu Chi Yaku Mu Toku I Mu Sho Tok Ko

There is no wisdom and no attainment, because there is no object to be attained.

Mu Ku Ge Ko Mu U Ku Fu

Because he has no obstructions, he has no fear.

The chanting had a calming effect on us. Peace and tranquility flooded the room. A harmonious relaxation washed over us, one that made it oh so difficult to stay awake. Like attending a concert for a harpist. My head snapped upright as the weight of it fell forward and startled me awake. I gently elbowed Kristin to keep her awake. A few moments later, a Swedish couple who had arrived late struggled to stifle their giggles. One of the monks on the dais, the one nearest us, the one whose lips barely moved and who may or may not have been chanting at all, was also struggling to stay awake. As the chants rolled on this monk also battled the soothing sounds in effort to stay awake. We sat there, at peace, and also quite amused as this monk’s eyes fell close, his chin started to drop, and then with a sudden whipsaw jerk, his head snapped down and up, his eyes startled wide. It really was hard to not giggle.

The little capsule-type rooms were plenty spacious and quite cozy. We definitely recommend Guesthouse Kokuu if staying in Koyasan (especially if you didn't manage to book a stay at a temple).

The little capsule-type rooms were plenty spacious and quite cozy. We definitely recommend Guesthouse Kokuu if staying in Koyasan (especially if you didn’t manage to book a stay at a temple).

Later that day, the chants fresh in our memory, we sat in a quiet room with incense at Daishi Kyokai and tried our hands at copying a sutra. “Heart Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom” is a short text of just 262 kanji. The chant above, which was unlikely what we heard during the morning prayer, was just two lines of the Heart Sutra. I had been practicing Hiragana lately, trying my best to learn the 46-character syllabary (one of two syllabaries in addition to the hundreds of kanji used in Japanese writing) but copying the complex eight- and ten-stroke kanji of the sutra made me realize how unlikely any of this was going to stick. Nevertheless, Kristin wanted us to do it. And so, for over an hour, we sat in quiet and focused on copying these complex characters while trying to meditate on the meaning of the chant.

The next day was a big day in Koyasan, the town’s 1200th anniversary celebration. Unlike a lot of founder’s day festivals, Koyasan’s founding coincides with the birth of the Shingon form of Buddhism, established in 816 by Kobo Daishi, the Bodhisattva we watched receive breakfast the prior morning. The ceremony included a ritual dance from the reigning Yokozuna-ranked sumo wrestlers, a procession of hundreds of monks, much chanting, and the tossing of prayer cards from atop a large gate. Everything was in Japanese. We knew who none of the key players were. We understood nothing. And yet we loved every minute of it.

We had a terrific spot to watch the ceremonies.

We had a terrific spot to watch the ceremonies.

Having arrived an hour before the ceremonies, we were able to get a good spot near the front of the barricade; hundreds of people filling in all around us. We faced the gate just steps behind the hundred-plus monks aligned in columns before the gate. The ceremony was a serious affair, but not without its moments of humanity. Some happy smiles and handshakes here, a group photo there. One of the five monks stationed equidistantly across the top of the gate was caught periodically checking his smartphone. Maybe the one we saw falling asleep at prayer? Several dozen monks gathered loosely in identical robes for a group photo on the steps in front of the gate, but too many of the monks were all too happy chatting and laughing amongst themselves to bother taking the pose seriously. A more senior monk tugged and jostled and turned shoulders and practically pleaded with the others for JUST ONE MINUTE of their attention, like a mother trying to corral her spring feverish children for a family portrait on Easter.

IMG_4615_KoyasanYokozuna

Yokozuna arrived to perform a ceremonial dance, led by Hakuho, the reigning champ we watched win the tournament in Osaka.

It was a beautiful day in the mountains of Kansai, a perfect day for an early morning ceremony under a brilliant blue sky. And after the monks streamed through the gate and the Yokozuna left and the public was done leaping and grasping at the falling prayer cards — Kristin came away with one — we continued west to the massive Daimon Gate and turned our boots onto the dirt pilgrimage route and hiked back along the ridge to our guesthouse on the east end of town. Up and over the mountain we met, the day just warm enough to make a jacket unnecessary. Signs warned of bear activity on the trails and, for a moment, we felt back home in the Cascades amongst all those conifers. We hiked several miles up and down the sides of a short mountain, a chorus of chants carried on the wind reminded us of the holiness of this place we were visiting. While the ceremony for the public lasted just 90 minutes, it would go on throughout the day for the monks who had gathered to celebrate the sacred founder who, behind two lanterns that had been continuously burning for over 900 years, lies the remains of a man whose spirit was soon due an evening meal.

Five monks stood like sentinels across the gate showering the monks (and then the pubic) with prayer cards.

Five monks stood like sentinels across the gate showering the monks (and then the pubic) with prayer cards.

Special Thanks: We are extremely happy to announce that Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Kristin’s former employer, have offered to sponsor our upcoming year of travel with a generous monthly stipend. Words cannot express our surprise and gratitude. Sincere thanks to www.pacbio.com and to Ron Helm for spontaneously clicking on Kristin’s LinkedIn profile to see what she’s up to. We’re so glad you found our story inspiring!

1 April, 2015

A No Fears Guide for Visiting Kinosaki Onsen

“What should I write about?” Someone walking as near as Kristin was may have assumed I was taking requests, but she knew that wasn’t so. After a year on the road together, every single day together, she knows when I’m inviting conversation and when I’m just talking to myself. More than her smarts, her natural beauty, and her kindness I now rank her ability to listen silently during my vocal brainstorming sessions as the thing I love most about her. Yep, I’m crazy about the way she ignores me.

“I suppose I could write about Osaka and going to the sumo tournament or maybe the videogame arcades and electronics stores, but I think that’d be better for a new dispatch to Dubious Quality. It’s been months since I’ve sent something to Bill. There’s always the toilets and the ubiquitous washroom slippers that are inevitably five sizes too small for me. Ugh, lame. Maybe I could write about Hiroshima or our trip to Miyajima? Nah, that’s too obvious. The last thing the Internet needs is for another navel-gazer about an American visiting Hiroshima. It’s sad. No kidding! And Miyajima was beautiful, but what’s there to say? ‘Hey, go to Miyajima! It’s beautiful!'” I sighed. We were having a great time and there’s so much I love about Japan, but I needed a hook (like this last paragraph).

We paused to watch three twenty-somethings dressed up in their kimonos and obi take turns photographing one another beneath a cherry tree, each passing their iPhone to the next. No doubt to update their Facebook, err, Line profile photos. These weren’t the two-foot wide obi that all but covers the kimono from hips to breasts and forces a shuffling gait, but they were gorgeous nonetheless.  Down the hill, on a delicate wooden bridge, in the shadow of another cherry tree in partial bloom, a young couple was posing for their engagement photos. We’ve been privy to a number of these photo-shoots during our time in Japan, it’s the season after all, and I’m convinced that no single outfit does more for a woman’s beauty than a ceremonial kimono and obi. Pair it with a parasol and you’ve got a look that could melt a thousand hearts.

We were in Nara, having arrived on a train from Kinosaki Onsen a day earlier. Aside from the dolled up Japanese women — swoon — there were deer. Hundreds of deer. The only thing outnumbering the deer were the tour groups. “It was pretty cool being the only westerners in Kinosaki, wasn’t it?” Kristin, having allowed enough silence to pass since my last rumination, knew this time it really was a question.

“I was just thinking about that. It was a resort town, but everyone there was Japanese.”

I played back the days in my mind and realized that, save for a single pasty, somewhat doughy male we passed outside one of the bath houses, we didn’t see any Westerners in nearly three days. It might have been the only place we’ve ever seen recommended in Lonely Planet that wasn’t awash in backpack-laden tourists from Australia and Europe.

“Must be all the public bathing. That’s got to account at least for keeping the Americans away.”

Becoming One with Your Yukata

I touched on visiting an onsen (public hot spring bath) in our last post but that was just focusing on a single ryokan. Ryokan and onsen are everywhere in Japan. But Kinosaki is different. The difference is right there in the train station name, KINOSAKI ONSEN. The town, from a visitor’s perspective, is little more than a collection of inns, shops, restaurants, and ryokan huddled around seven public hot spring baths where tourists come throughout the year, particularly in the spring, to spend a few days eating, bathing, and shopping, not necessarily in that order. A picturesque canal runs through the center of town, eight stone bridges, most pedestrian only, span the shallow carp-filled Ootani River. Lanterns and street lights illuminate the drooping branches of the willow trees that line the banks. Further upstream, a pedestrian only gravel path is lined with dozens of cherry trees. Sadly, not a bud had yet to unfurl its petals.

The night lights along the canal in Kinosaki.

The night lights and willow trees along the canal in Kinosaki.

Upon checking in at our ryokan (a short walk from the station, no chance of getting lost), we were relieved of our shoes and Kristin was ushered over to a selection of floral yukata — “Women only choose yukata. Man yukata in room. One kind only,” the receptionist explained in choppy English. While Kristin chose her bright pink cotton robe and powder blue sash, two members of the staff inverted our wheelie duffel bags and cleaned the wheels with a cloth. A woman, the head maid we surmised, then showed us to our room, an eight-mat traditional room — I love the smell of tatami — where we would eat, sleep, and relax. She served tea and, with limited English skills, explained how to wear the yukata and top coat, while making clear we were not to wear the winter overcoat which we were still, puzzlingly, left with anyway. We thought we knew how to wear them, we had worn several yukata already, but Kristin’s was far too long for her height. She tried to exchange it for one that was shorter, not realizing that these higher quality yukata were meant to be folded at the waist like a kimono. The sash, really a small obi, was to be tied in a vertical bow, concealing the fold. In truth, the most important thing to remember when wearing a yukata is to always pull the right side of the robe in first so that the left side overlaps on the outside. The opposite is for dressing the dead. The other thing to remember is that the yukata, despite my calling it a robe, is not a bathrobe. Don’t go full nude under it. Wear your underpants and a t-shirt or bra unless getting ready for bed.

Kristin trying to teach some light yoga poses to our maid.

Kristin trying to teach some light yoga poses to our maid.

The yukata is your uniform for your stay in Kinosaki. We wore it with the provided slippers whenever we were inside the ryokan, whether reading in our room, going to breakfast (a sixteen-mat room where all the guests were served together at separate tables) or while eating dinner in our room. Dinner, served on a very low table — you sit cross-legged on seat cushions with a thin wooden back — was the multi-course kaiseki we had come to expect, but the long, drooping sleeves and wide cuffs of the yukata made it difficult to eat without inadvertently dunking a sleeve into the food. We quickly learned to use one hand to hold the sleeve while reaching for your food or tea with the other.

So far this sounds like a normal ryokan stay. So far. But where visiting Kinosaki Onsen Town really takes a turn is when you go out.  Though our ryokan had two private baths that could be reserved, Kinosaki’s real draw is the collection of seven public bathing houses. That and the novelty of walking around town in what amounts to a cotton robe and wooden sandals. It’s not weird if everyone is doing it, right?

Late afternoon in Kinosaki, near the canal.

Late afternoon in Kinosaki, on our way to a pre-dinner soak.

Bathing Time… Again?

I’ve seen it mentioned that the yukata and gebi (wooden sandals) are a passport to Kinosaki. That’s not entirely true because you are actually given an actual paper passport upon arrival, with seven folded squares ready to receive your “passport stamps” from each of the seven onsen. The Japanese are crazy about collecting inkpad stamps from the places they go and Kinosaki is no exception.

Your passport to the seven public baths in Kinosaki.

Your passport to the seven public baths in Kinosaki.

Each night after dinner (and again each morning after breakfast) we ventured out onto the streets of Kinosaki in our yukata, top coat, and sandals, each of us carrying a small tote bag with our towels, membership card to gain free admission into any of the public baths, and our paper passport. Any unease we may have felt in going out wearing our robe quickly vanished as we realized everyone coming and going was clad in the same attire. The women wore a variety of multi-colored floral yukata while the men had on whichever monochrome patterned yukata their ryokan prefers to stock. Couples walked hand-in-hand. Groups of college-aged men and women strolled briskly in same-sex packs. Families shuffled along at the pace of the littlest member, sometimes the oldest. Everyone was smiling; everyone carried their own tote bag with towel and washcloth.

Girls coming and going in Kinosaki clad in their yukatas and gebi.

Girls coming and going in Kinosaki clad in their yukatas and gebi…. and selfie-stick.

The onsen varied in age and size and architecture from the modern to the traditional, as did the bathing rooms. Some were lined in rock, some had outdoor pools, another even had a refrigerated ice room for cooling off. The thermometer inside read zero degrees Celsius, and it felt marvelous.

Regardless the size or style of the onsen you choose, the procedure is always the same. And it’s not nearly as complex as many of the websites we’ve seen make it sound. That’s the good news. The bad news is, well, this isn’t exactly something for someone with body issues.

Upon entering the onsen, you scan your ID card (or pay the day-use fee) and drop your sandals where the tile floor meets the wooden steps. One of the onsen, Goshonoyu perhaps, had no room for sandals on the floor and free sandal-sized lockers were available. Take a key, drop it in your tote, and head to the changing room for your particular gender. Unless you come in the middle of the day, there will likely be plenty of people to follow. But, if not, just look for the red or blue banners and go on in.

Our maids readying our room for dinner.

Our maids readying our room for dinner while we sat in the small reading area behind two sliding paper shoji.

So much nudity. Immediately. Just keep your eyes straight ahead and seek out a locker that still has its key. Put your tote in the locker, drape the washcloth over the locker door so you don’t forget it (be sure to leave the larger towel in the locker, very important!) and strip down. Put your watch, phone, and/or wallet in the tote and lock the locker up tight. Don’t worry; it’s not going to get stolen.

Unlike the ryokan where we stayed in Hakone, each of the public baths we visited (four of the seven) in Kinosaki had the washing facilities lining the perimeter of the baths, in one large area. No problem. Again, keep your eyes to yourself and head for a vacant washing area. Run the tap into the small basin to get the temperature right, dump it over yourself to get acclimatized and take a seat. Now use the shower nozzle, the washcloth and basin, and body soap and shampoo provided (always provided) to wash up. Wash really good, your undercarriage too, and be sure to rinse completely off. Yes, there will be other people around you doing the same and no, there are no privacy dividers like we men have between urinals back in America. While it will no doubt feel a bit weird the first time you do it, the Japanese have been attending onsen since they were children. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a father scrubbing up his son’s back while the son, in turn, washes the back of his younger brother. Kristin reported seeing a mom carrying her infant from the bath into the hot spring. They start them young here. Nudity is just a part of life. Washing is another part of life, an integral part at that. There’s no reason to feel embarrassment about either.

Hot spring foot baths can be found every few blocks throughout town.

Hot spring foot baths can be found every few blocks throughout town.

Okay, so you’re clean. Now, take your washcloth — you rinsed it out really good, right? — and walk on over to the hot spring. There might be more than one to choose from. Perhaps even one upstairs on the roof, or another in an alcove under a cascade of scalding hot water. Wherever you go, ease in gently and keep the washcloth out of the water. Put it on your head, leave it on a rock. Whatever. Just don’t put it in the water. Nearly all of the pools have a ledge you can sit on just inside the pool. The water should just about reach your ribs. Ease into the deeper waters once you’re comfortable with the temperature. And, if you’re lucky, you might find one with some whirlpool jets.

Once you’re done soaking, probably fifteen to twenty minutes will suffice, feel free to rinse off. Now for the next really important step: drying off. Use your washcloth — yes the wet one — to dry yourself off as well as you can before going into the changing room. The floor can get really slippery in the changing room so be sure to get as much excess water off yourself as you can before entering the changing room. Once inside you can use the larger bath towel in your tote to dry off. The changing rooms always have some sinks and mirrors and some even have disposable razors and a hairdryer. It’s best to bring your own toiletries when going to the public baths in Kinosaki though. These places see a lot of traffic throughout the day and you’re unlikely to find the amenities stocked at an upscale ryokan.

Going shopping on the way back from the baths in her yukata and gebi.

Going shopping on the way back from the baths in her yukata and gebi.

Coordinating with the Other Sex? One of the things we struggled with at first was picking a time to meet back up in the lobby. After all, you’re headed in separately and won’t be wearing your watch. We found 40 minutes to be a fine amount of time. This gives you ten minutes on either end for washing and drying off and twenty minutes to soak. This allowed us to coordinate our departures without rushing things.

Most people in Kinosaki visited the onsen in the morning and again in the evening. While wearing your yukata and gebi out in public during the day wasn’t necessarily discouraged, nobody does. We went to a cafe after our bath on the first morning and then went and did a little shopping and by the time we were done we were clearly the only people still in our yukata. We felt a little sheepish when we realize our faux-pas but there was something positively wonderful about not putting on real clothes for the better part of 48 hours. That said, if you’re going out for lunch or to go shopping or sightseeing, you might want to throw back on normal pants and shirt between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Too Long, Didn’t Read? Just Know This!

  1. Put on your yukata by folding the right side in to the left, and then the left side across to the right. Never the other way around. Tie it up tight with the sash and slide the bow over to your right hip.
  2. Make sure you’ve got some underwear on under the yukata. For goodness sakes man, you’ll be eating breakfast cross-legged and these things fly open in the wind!
  3. Resist the urge to wear the split-toed socks with the wooden sandals unless it’s very cold outside. They make it very slippery and it’s only a matter of time before some tourist breaks an ankle and ruins the fun for everyone.
  4. Keep your eyes to yourself, bring your washcloth with you to bathe, and leave the larger bath towel in the locker with all of your clothing. You’re going full-on birthday suit from this point on!
  5. Wash up really good using the bucket, your washcloth, and the shower head. Nobody will be watching, but just in case they are — if you’re reading this, you’re probably a Westerner and there’s the chance they might be watching just to make sure you do things right — use the soap! Seriously. Don’t be like, “Oh, I just showered back at the hotel.” It doesn’t matter. Take your time and soap up, scrub down, and rinse off.
  6. Rinse out your washcloth really good, carry it loosely in front of you in a sort of nonchalant manner that tells people you do this sort of thing all the time — only you have to know that you’re just shielding everyone from eye-level shots of your junk — and ease into the water.
  7. Don’t let the washcloth hit the water. Put it on your head, leave it on a rock, or tie it in a bandanna like the older Japanese men do. Bonus points for wearing it this way if you have a long gray beard.
  8. Don’t die. Seriously. Stay awake and get out when your fingers start to prune.
  9. Rinse off and, very important, use the washcloth to dry yourself as best as you can. Sure, the damn thing is wet. I know. But use it to wipe off as much water as you can. Nobody wants you dripping all over the changing room and causing someone to slip and break their naked neck. Or worse. You’ll finish drying once back at the locker.
  10. Feel free to use the changing room sinks to shave, do your hair, your makeup, whatever you wish. That’s what they’re there for. This is as much about hygiene and getting ready for the day (or night) as it is relaxation and recreation. Double-check your locker, leave the key in the lock, and head on out.

That’s all there is to it! Apologies to our faithful bi-weekly readers who may feel a bit of deja-vu after our last post about Hakone, but we’ve read too many overly complicated write-ups about onsen protocol to not want to put one out there in layman’s terms. Not only is it not something to be wary of, but it’s extremely enjoyable. Go for it!

19 March, 2015

Our Grand Hakone Loop

Some days need to be recorded for posterity. Our second full day in Japan, chronicled in this post, was one of those days.

It began, like so many mornings on the other side of the world do, wide awake at 4 a.m.  Jet lagged and excited I quietly slipped out from under the duvet, padded across the tatami  mats, and set the kettle on for tea. We were in a ryokan — the highly recommended Aura Tachibana to be exact — for two nights of traditional Japanese luxury set in the hot spring resort region of Hakone in the mountains southeast of Mt. Fuji. It was supposed to be our treat after five nights of hosteling in Tokyo. Instead it ended up being a comforting retreat following the memorial service for Kristin’s father, Eric. The stress of the prior weeks had taken their toll; my saddened bride slept for ten hours, her body clock immune to the 14 time zones we crossed.

Clad in our yukatas and split-toed socks and corresponding sandals, we sat down to a breakfast consisting of seven courses, one of which contained nine separate seasonal side dishes. The centerpiece was dried horse mackerel. A bowl of miso soup with crab claws flanked a dish of sesame tofu and couscous salad. Any taste buds that weren’t completely shocked from this bevy of tasty, yet unusual breakfast offerings were soon reeling in puckered discomfort from the record-levels of sourness packed into the pickled plums.  But enough about the food… for now.

Breakfast on our second morning at Aura Tachibana... we came straight from the hot spring baths.

Breakfast on our second morning at Aura Tachibana… we came straight from the hot spring baths to an incredible feast containing everything from dried fish to raw octopus to dumplings and soup and white bait.

We were blessed with a clearing sky and a plan: we would spend the day circling the Hakone National Park by rail, cable car, ropeway, boat, and by foot. By piecing together the info from several tourist maps of the area, I was able to convince myself — and Kristin — that this loop was feasible. Not only was it doable, but it should be considered mandatory. Here’s how to have one of the best days of your traveling life while in Japan.

It begins at Hakone-Yumoto station, a short walk down the hill from our ryokan. There we boarded the narrow gauge Hakone Tozan train to Gora. The two-car train climbed steadily into the mountains, stopping three times to switchback up the Haya River valley. At each switchback the two train conductors would alight from their respective ends of the train, meet on the side of the tracks in the middle, exchange pleasantries, then reboard the train. Off we’d go in the opposite direction we were just traveling, continuing along for a lovely, scenic 40-minute journey that ascends over 400 meters in elevation!

HakoneMap

The train, cable car and ropeway even appear on Google Maps. The Old Tokaido Road roughly parallels the unlabeled secondary road returning back from the south end of the lake to Hakone-Yumoto.

Once at Gora Station we exited the turnstiles from the train tracks, walked a few yards, and quickly and painlessly bought our tickets for the Hakone Tozan Cable Car, or what I think a lot of westerners would refer to as a funicular. Two two-car trains glide back and forth up the steep mountainside, ascending over 200 meters in just over 1 kilometer. The ten minute ride, like the switchbacking train, isn’t just transportation, but novelty entertainment! Unfortunately for us, being there in March, the hydrangeas that line the tracks of both the train and cable car were still several months from blooming. If you come in June for the flowers, expect long lines.

The cable car took us to Sounzan Station at an elevation of 768 meters. There the transit prices rose steeply, but so did the wow factor! We bought a one-way ticket on the Hakone Ropeway, all the way to Lake Ashi at Togendai. The four kilometer aerial gondola ride took us up and over the sulphur-spewing vents of Owakudani (where you can buy blackened geothermal vent-cooked eggs said to add 7 years to your life) high in the mountains. Keep your eyes peeled to the right hand side of the gondola as you crest the ridge as the sudden appearance of Mt. Fuji is not to be missed. Chances are, the collective gasping of the other people aboard your gondola will draw your attention.

Mt. Fuji comes into view on the Hakone Ropeway after cresting the ridge.

Mt. Fuji comes into view on the Hakone Ropeway after cresting the ridge.

Mt. Fuji was partially covered in clouds at first, but the sky was clearing by the minute. What a view to see Fuji from above the treetops and ridgelines of the other mountains to the south. I couldn’t stop taking photos, even as we transitioned from one gondola to another at Owakudani. So excited were we to see Mt. Fuji that we completely forgot to visit the tourist center at the top of the mountain (1044 meters above sea level) and buy our sulphur-blackened eggs.

Japan’s most famous volcano gradually dropped out of view behind the neighboring ring of mountains as we descended to Lake Ashi at Togendai station. And the closer we got to the lake, so did the 308 ton Vasa touring ship, a gorgeous green and gold replica of a 17th century Swedish warship of the same name. We opted for 1st class tickets for a few extra bucks and recommend you do the same for a spot on the spacious, raised quarterdeck at the stern of the ship. While the rest of the ship was jam-packed with people, we were able to move around, take photos from both sides of the ship, and avoid being jostled. There was also a comfortable inside cabin, but it was too nice a day to need it. In total, our transit costs for all four modes of transit, including the 1st class tickets for the cruise, totaled 7400 yen ($61 USD at time of writing).

Once in Togendai, we boarded this pirate-styled tour ship for a 30-minut ride across the lake to Hakone-Mache.

Once in Togendai, we boarded this 17th century warship-styled tour ship for a 30-minute ride across the lake to Hakone-Machi.

We disembarked the Vasa after a thirty minute cruise to the south end of Lake Ashi, in Hakone-Machi. A quick lunch of curry chicken katsu and ramen (Japanese comfort food) and then we were off on foot along the Avenue of Cedars, a 17th century section of the Old Tokaido Road that was lined with cedar trees in order to protect travelers during the windy, frigid winters. The Avenue of Cedars took us halfway to Moto-hokone and, more importantly, to a magical spot on Lake Ashi’s coast where Mt. Fuji can be seen rising above the waters of the lake, fishermen in the foreground, and a bright orange Torii Gate on a distant shore. It’s a quintessential photo-op; there’s no reason to buy the postcard when you can take the shot yourself.

The southern shores of Lake Ashi offer an unblocked view of Mt. Fuji with the Hakone Shrine in the foreground.

The southern shores of Lake Ashi offer an unblocked view of Mt. Fuji with the Hakone Shrine in the foreground.

Now, if the weather isn’t cooperating or you don’t feel up to a six mile hike in the hills, there’s a bus from Moto-Hokone that will take you all the way back to Hakone-Yumoto station. But, if you’re up for some adventure, spot the bus stop, cross the street, and head up the unmarked side road for several hundred meters. The trailhead for the Old Tokaido Road, an Edo-era stone-paved road, will be on your left. You can’t miss it.

It was brutal with 21st century hiking boots. I couldn't imagine walking it in 17th century sandals.

The Old Tokaido Road, originally built in the 17th century, leads from Lake Ashi past the Amazake teahouse.

The road is chock full of history and contains some historical signage along the way, translated into Korean and English. But it’s also extremely slippery after a rain and a very rugged surface. Hiking boots are highly recommended and trekking poles would really help for balance. The trail crosses route 732 multiple times and will periodically seem to disappear. Learn the style of signs that are used to mark the trail and stay on the lookout for them. The Old Tokaido Road is easy to follow for the first several kilometers, to the historical thatch-roofed Amazake Chaya teahouse (worth a stop, but its namesake rice-porridge tea is pricey), but it then turns to a narrow nature path that joins and leaves the roadway through a series of steep switchbacks and the signage becomes less frequent. We ended up walking the last two miles along route 732 which may or may not be the only way to complete the loop — we saw no signs. Don’t fret though, as the trail is never far from the road and there seemed to be a bus stop every 400 meters. We eventually made our way back to our ryokan, completely on foot from Hakone-Machi in roughly 3 hours, including a stop at the teahouse. We tend to hike very quickly though.

The road eventually turns to a trail and that trail but never gets too far from the road... and the safety of a passing bus if you need it.

The road eventually turns to a trail and that trail can get a little hard to follow, but you’ll never gets too far from the road… and the safety of a passing bus if you need it.

Back at the ryokan, we wasted no time in changing into our yukata and heading down to the hot spring baths. In addition to terrific multi-course meals, ryokans are famous for their public hot baths. Attending one can be a bit intimidating at first, but we’re happy to report that there’s nothing to worry about. You’re naked with other naked people, but it’s Japan. Not only is nobody going to stare, but they’re going to try their hardest to be invisible and act as if you are too. Also, the vast majority of hot springs, onsen, are separated by gender. Just grab a locker for your room key, clothes, and any valuables you foolishly brought with you and grab a wash cloth. Your first stop is the showering area. Aura Tachibana has a spacious bathing area with a dozen or more stalls where you can sit on a wooden seat and use the shower hose and faucet to wash yourself good and clean. Body wash, shampoo, and conditioner was provided along with a small cedar bucket for you to finish rinsing off with. Once you’re good and clean, grab your (rinsed-out) washcloth and mosy over to the hot springs. Feel free to carry the washcloth in front of your privates if you’d like or just toss it on your head and strut your stuff. Whatever you do, don’t let the washcloth or any other towels or clothing enter the water. That’s a big no-no. Unlike a hot-tub, the water is minimally treated (if at all) so it’s important that no dirt, grime, or clothing go in the water. Japanese men place their washcloths atop their head.

Kristin reported some light chatting among the other women in the hot springs but none of the other men in the hot springs were talkative beyond konichiwa. My formal reply of hajimemashite was greeted with a chuckle. Point taken: naked strangers can probably go with the informal greeting.

The onsen aren’t just about a relaxing soak, but are really for bathing. The drying room and locker area had a number of sinks stocked with razor blades, cotton swabs, shaving cream, lotions, and hair care products. It sure beats a truckstop shower stall.

Our second and final dinner at Aura Tachibana was one for the record books. They have three menus, one for each night of your stay (at nearly $300 USD per couple per night, including taxes/gratuity, they don’t get many people who stay more than 3 nights). I’d tell you all about it, but at nine courses and twenty-two dishes, I think it’s best to just let some of the pictures do the talking. Fortunately, each meal came with a printed menu (in English) that helped to identify the dishes.

Our appetizer on the second night contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

Our appetizer on the second night contained shrimp pudding, pufferfish (no poison, we were assured), green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a random slice of turkey pastrami which, after all of this raw fish, was much appreciated.

The sashimi course had tuna, octopus, konnyaku, and clam.

The sashimi course had tuna, octopus, konnyaku, and clam.

The perfect end to a perfect day: homemade Grand Marnier ice cream with a caramel drizzle.

The perfect end to a perfect day: homemade Grand Marnier ice cream with a caramel drizzle.

If the last few paragraphs felt a bit rushed, they were. It’s almost dinner time here on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi and reliving those two days at the ryokan are making my mouth water. It was the type of experience I wish everyone could have… and savor. What a day! Four modes of transportation, incredible views of Mt. Fuji, a 10 kilometer hike on a 17th century road, a soak in a hot spring, and two world-class meals to bookend what, as of now, has to go down as one of my greatest days ever.

Ahhh… it’s great to be back on the road!