Nara

Friday night

One of the joys of living in Tokyo is leaving work at a reasonable time on a Friday night, collecting my bag from home with a quick change and getting the Shinkansen (bullet train) off somewhere exciting for the weekend.

Travel here is so reliable and comfortable the the trip really does start when you get in the train! Traditionally people buy a bento box for the journey an ‘eki ben’ or station bento and often a beer to be enjoyed once you get on the train. There is a great selection of boxes!

A few Fridays ago I did exactly the above but replaced the Eki Ben for an onigiri (a kind of rice ball or Japanese style sandwich) as I planned to get a ‘proper’ dinner once I got to Nara.

I chose Nara as it’s been a while since I looked at temples and wanted to visit somewhere historical that I had not been to before.

Nara is near to Kyoto and as I changed trains in Kyoto and it was snowing!

I got to Nara just after 2100 and found my ryokan(inn). My original plan had been to get something light for a second tea but I felt tired and the ryokan bath called me more strongly so off I went to a lovely hot bath and bed.

Saturday

I got up early the next day and after a FaceTime chat with Mark headed off for my prescribed long run if the week. I’m in training for Yokohama marathon. I had 27km to run and had read on the internet during the week that there was a cycle path on the river joining Kyoto and Nara. The description I read was from Kyoto and described it bring a little hard to get into Nara at the end so I decided to just head north and see when I intercepted the river.

This was my first real look at the town and I was impressed. Lots of narrow streets with older style houses and plenty of trees and interesting looking small shops and cafes. After a while I came to the main road and it seemed wise to follow it as I had to climb a big hill and a few attempts on smaller roads had led to dead ends. The road climbed a large hill and then went down and down on the other side. I thought about turning back knowing I now had a big hill to climb at the end of my run but the river still drew me as 27km is a very long way when you’re going round small streets!

I got there after nearly 8km and it was a great place to run. The weather was lovely, cold and sunny and there was still a fresh morning feel. Along the river there were lots of allotments, birds and houses but not many people so it was perfect for a long run.

The hill on the way back was not nearly as fierce as I’d thought and I was soon back in Nara. I’d left a few spare kilometres at the end to have a look around Nara and ran around a few more streets and a bit of Nara park famous for its temples, shrines and also its deer! There were many deer around but I also saw the 5 story pagoda and some temple buildings.

I went out for some noodles as a very late breakfast/early lunch and then headed back to the park this time in full site seeing mode.

I first went to Todaiji Temple, 東大寺, one of Nara’s most famous sites where the giant Buddha is. This Buddha is the largest in Japan at around 15m with around 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold (Lonely Planet). It’s a little larger than the one at Kamakura but because it’s inside in my view seemed small and less imposing. What was very impressive was the building that contained the Buddha. Depending on what you read it’s (one of) the oldest and largest wooden buildings in the world/Japan. It certainly was impressive.

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One if the traditions in Japan is to go on a pilgrimage of temples and shrines and get a signature in everyone. There are some people, normally monks employed at each temple to sign your book for a small fee as proof of visiting. I decided to buy a book and start collecting the signatures as they are small works of art – beautiful calligraphy.

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It’s a little late in my time in Japan but I’m sure I can get a few more and there are always future visits!

From there I visited a few more temples and explored Nara Park which was a lovely place to spend the day.

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Later in the afternoon I visited a traditional Japanese house/museum called Naramachi Koshi-no-le Lattice House.

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It was an old merchant house and very interesting to see how people lived traditionally.

There was a special festival on in Nara during the week I visited, ending on Saturday night with the parks illuminated. This meant I continued to walk around even after dark. It was quite surreal, and very busy but fun anyway. It’s best explained in pictures:

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I also enjoyed some amazake from a stall that warmed the event! Amazake is a traditional sweet low or non alcoholic drink from fermented rice sweetened and with some ginger added (at least the drink I had). It was lovely and warming on a cold night.

I realised that I’d been on my feet walking or running for about 12 hours (with a total of 1 hour stop for breakfast and a coffee in the afternoon). I was very tired so went got a nice Italian (wood fired pizza and salad) and an early night.

Sunday

Another early rise and morning run then pancakes for breakfast. Pancakes have been popular here in Japan since I arrived so it’s an easy if not entirely healthy breakfast!

I took the train a little out of Nara back to where I’d run to that morning to visit another 2 temples. I got signatures in each.

The first I visited, Yakushiji (薬師寺), unfortunately had the old east tower (pagoda) under cover for a major renovation and although active – there was a service going on while I was there – it seemed kind of empty. On reflection I think that’s because there was so much space and it was so neat and clean.  The rebuilt tower was impressive though and it would be good to see the two towers together when they are both in view.

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The second, Toshodaiji, I really liked, I think it was the older feel with lots of trees and wooden structures. There were also some great store houses.

I definitely have temple saturation for a while!

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I headed back to Central Nara, grabbed some lunch – okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) in a small local place and then visited the Isuien Garden. This is the number 1 site in Nara according to the Lonely Planet so I thought I’d better go and look!

It was lovely, made nicer by the surrounding hills and temple. Some picture follow:

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I took the train back to Tokyo and shock- horror there was a problem with e Shinkansen and it was stopped for ages. It was ridiculous!  One hour late in total and not what I’ve come to expect in Japan!  Still, it allowed me to get all my Japanese homework done and to finish writing my blog for this Nara trip.

Skiing Weekend in Nozawa Onsen (野沢温泉) near Nagano

I left work at a reasonable time one recent Friday night and caught the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano followed by a local train and a taxi to the final destination of Nozawa Onsen. It’s been a while since I’ve been away for the whole weekend and I felt quite excited.

My thoughts have turned a bit in recent days to my return to the UK in April and as part of that I’m seeing Japan in fresh eyes. On Friday night I realised that I will really miss the efficiency of Japanese trains. The Shinkansens are very comfortable, with lots of space and it’s nice to have time to study and read while travelling fast through the country! I enjoyed a packed tea – a kind of bento box.

I met a running friend in Nagano and we got the local train together to the nearest station to Nozawa Onsen. From there we share a short taxi ride to the hotel with 2 other people in the queue.

Arriving at the hotel I was sharing a room with 3 other women from the running club. This is quite common in Japan, we had futon on tatami mats with a shared toilet and small table to socialise around. I enjoyed some tea and snacks before we headed out to one of the 14 free public baths in the town (onsen). There is an abundance of natural hot water due to the volcanic geology in the area.

The town was lovely, there was deep snow but the roads were clear as people pumped the natural hot water over their drives and the road melting the snow. There was a slight smell of sulphur in the air from the volcanic activity but a real treat to have a hot bath in the snow!

I got up early the next morning for a short run before another quick Onsen and then a good Japanese breakfast, pescatarian version for me, which included fruit, salad, rice, green tea and fish.

Next was skiing. The resort was great and the snow very good. Like Hokkaido at Christmas there was a lot of fresh powder snow. Not quite to the level of Hokkaido but enough to make the skiing very friendly and pleasant. I spent the day with 2 Japanese women that I was sharing my room with. They were better on the slopes than me but we had a great day out stopping for lunch at a restaurant near the top of the mountain and meeting most of the others. In the day we managed to cover most of the resort hardly touching the green routes – an achievement for me!

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We got the last chair back to the village and after another Onsen had a great Japanese dinner in the hotel with the whole group. It was a kind of banquet with sashimi, rice, hot pot, pickles including traditional Nozawa Onsen pickle that was delicious! A kind of patchoi mildly pickled. They had it with every meal and was for sale in all of the ski resort lunch spots.

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After dinner we visited a real ale bar with a bit of a British twist

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Chiba San got out the Namban Banner and we took a ‘holiday’ picture!

The next day I enjoyed a Sunday morning without a run (the only one in my marathon training – 11 weeks so far) and after another good breakfast hit the slopes again. We started with the small chair lift to the ski station – you get an idea of the amount of snow from this!

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Skiing in Niseko, Hokkaido with Mark, Christmas 2014

Skiing and Powder Snow

Mark arrived in Tokyo and after a weekend together we headed north by flight from Tokyo to Sapporo in Hokkaido.  Our plan was 4 days skiing in the resort of Niseko south west of Sapporo.

Whenever I mentioned our trip to any friends or colleagues they mentioned 3 things:

1. the amazing powder snow

2. it’s cold!

3. it’s full of Australians.

All turned out to be true.  For me I felt a little like I’d left Japan and entered the international world of skiing.  Niseko did provide some great Japanese food but the main language was generally English and there were lots of Australians, north Americans and Europeans skiing.  Also, some of the things I’d come to love about Japan were missing.  An example is tipping, in Japan you do not tip, people give the exact amount for meals in exact change if possible.  In Niseko there were some jars labelled with ‘tips’ in some of the restaurants and pubs – I stuck to the traditionally Japanese approach.

The week that we were there Niseko got 167cm of snow!  That’s what makes it some of the best powder snow in the World!  Not being a world class skier I wondered what world class powder would mean.  It was great, very forgiving, no sliding sideways down icy slopes and quite a lot of fun on fresh snow feeling like you were the first there (and often were).

It did also mean that a lot of the time it was snowing so not great for photographs but wonderful for skiing!

It was very cold too.  I was used to it being quite cold from Tokyo but Hokkaido was very much colder.  I skied in many layers including several layers of down and we had to stop on a few occasions just to arm up and defrost nub fingers and toes.

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You can see in some of the picture above how deep the snow was.  On occasion we were skiing up to our knees.  It is a bit of a different style of skiing but a lot of fun especially when you are one of the first people done the slope.

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I loved the trees in Niseko.  Due to the almost constant snow they were had all of their branches covered, really beautiful!

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Travel in Japan (at least from a Japanese perspective) is all about food.  Whenever you visit somewhere people ask what you ate or whether you ate the food that the region you visited is famous for?

So therefore included in this post are many descriptions of the fantastic food that we ate while in Niseko.  Hokkaido is famous for lots of foods, dairy and crabs particularly and seafood generally.

I’m missing any photos of the good Italian meal that we had which included lovely cheese, mozzarella and feta – I’ve not found much great cheese in Japan – it is available but takes a bit of searching out and as there is so much alternative good food I’ve not put the effort in.  I’ve also missed any pictures of the excellent sushi that we had on our last lunch before flying back to Tokyo.  It was delicious and if we didn’t have a flight to catch I’m not sure I could have got Mark out of there for several hours!

Izakaya

Izakaya is traditional Japanese pub style food – lots of small dishes to share cooked in front of us.

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Teppanyaki

The teppan is a hot plate where food is cooked.  In this restaurant we had our own and had to cook our own food.  here are some pictures of Mark cooking okomoniyaki (Japanese pancakes) on our teppan.

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Yakatori

This was our Christmas dinner, after a good day of skiing.  Yakatori is food on small skewers here we enjoyed many good things including peppers, mushrooms, chicken (for Mark) and also scallops and crab (not traditionally yakatori but very much from Hokkaido!).

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Okutama Ekiden

On Sunday I took part in the Okutama Ekiden – a very traditional Japanese running event.

For a great and comprehensive description of Ekidens and their history please see the following article on Running Japan News written by Bret a member if Namban running club.

http://japanrunningnews.blogspot.tw/2012/12/how-i-learned-to-love-ekiden-and-why.html

It was an early start to the day to travel to Okutama in the west of Tokyo Prefecture. There were 4 teams of 3 women and 3 teams if 5 men. The Ekiden is a relay race, traditionally (and in this case) run between eki (駅stations). This means after getting ready the first task is to take a train to your starting station. As I was on the final, 3rd leg, and the race finished near where we were based I didn’t have far to go. Also as we had a few teams and several supporters it wasn’t a lonely wait!

The team I was in came into the change over in the second half and the last of the 4 Namban teams. I took off quickly, probably a little too fast but I was spurred on by all the people who had already left, the long wait and my good performance last weekend! I managed to overtake 6 runners in total in the 3.9km run. It was hard – I normally run longer distances so the speed was a good test but my 8 months of training on the track I’m sure helped and I was pleased with my overall pace of 4:19 per km.

The aim of the run is to get the Sash from start to finish. The sash gains the sweat of all of the runners and gets more significance than the baton in a normal relay race. If a previous runner is too slow then the next runner must start without the sash replacing it with a white sash – this is a failure! Fortunately the women’s race was too short so there were no white sashes – I saw quite a few of the last men with them.

It’s very traditional and traditionally timed – no chips here! So we have to wait about 6 weeks for the results for them to be written down, typed up, printed out and posted to the team organisers!

I include some pictures below of the officials at my hand over point marking out the road and all in uniform.

The race attracts the best university and school runners – Japan’s young elite so it was an honour to take part and to see some impressive runners.

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Just over the finishing line – almost beaten at the line (I didn’t know there was another runner right behind – Jenene was shouting at me to go faster so fortunately I picked up the pace!) and I think I just made it!

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Kawagoe Half Marathon

Lovely day out at the Kawagoe Half Marathon with some great girls from Namban Rengo.

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Some good results all round with a 2nd and 4th place and 2 PBs between the 6 of us. I smashed my PB with a time of 1:41:08! This even beats my old Bristol Student Half times (before records began!).  It just felt like my day despite getting back late on Saturday night form beijing and a very early start.  I was 12th in my category and 884th overall with around 8000 runners.

Kawagoe is a lovely place, not far out of Tokyo, with a great old street which we walked down as part of the run and them walked up later once we had finished.

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Namban Rengo 10k and Half Marathon races and BBQ – October 2014

At the end of October was the annual Namban race and BBQ. It took place on the Tamagawa river in the west of Tokyo. A good flat course and a very hot day. The amazing thing was that I was third in the woman’s half marathon (admittedly out of a field of 6) – the first time in my life that I’ve won a sporting prize!

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The medal winners