Sakura (Cherry Blossom) viewing in Kawazu

This week, Mark and I went on a day trip from Tokyo to Kawazu on the Izu Penninsula to see some early flowering cherry blossoms.  It was a very Japanese experience with crowded trains and many stalls selling local food along the river bank where the majority of the blossoms were.  It really was very nice and very pink!

Japan is getting pinker at the moment in the build up to cherry blossoms – lots of posters, adverts, pink beer (at least the cans) and forecasts like weather forecasts on where to see blossoms.

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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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Hiroshima visit: Peace Park and Hiroshima Castle

Back between Christmas and New Year; Mark and I spent a day looking around Hiroshima after our visit to Miyajima and before heading back to Tokyo.  We started our day with a long run along the river.  The rivers here are really nice, lined with trees and some nice cafes.  After that we explored the city on foot and took some pictures that I include below.

Hiroshima Castle.  It was destroyed by the atomic bomb but has been rebuilt.  A striking landmark.

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The Peace Park including the Atomic Bomb dome, the only building that remained after the A-bomb (the bomb exploded almost exactly right above it).  It is now preserved as a memorial.  When we visited it was covered in scaffolding but normally this is not the case.  It’s a strange irony that it is being repaired to return it to its semi-destructed state.

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The Peace Memorial Park:

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Part of the Children’s Peace Memorial:

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The memorial was inspired by Sadako Sasaki who developed leukaemia aged 11 in 1955 and decided to fold 1000 origami cranes as in Japan the crane is a symbol of longevity and happiness and she believed that if she made 1000 she would recover.  She died before reaching her target but her class mates folded the rest and her story continues to inspire people to this day.

When I visited Nagasaki with my parents there were a lot of school trips visiting and they all had ‘streamer’ made up of cranes.

Okonomiyaki

One of the traditional food of Japan is the Okonomiyaki a kind of pancake/pizza made of mixed ingredients cooked on a heated plate.  In Hiroshima the traditional okonomiyaki includes noodles.  It was delicious but very filling – this eating tourism is not as easy as it looks!

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Miyajima, Hiroshima. Visit with Mark

Between Christmas and New Year we visited Hiroshima for 2 days.

The first day we spent visiting Miyajima, an island shrine that seems to float on the water with an amazing O-torii gate.  The shrine was built during the 6th century and remodelled to how we now see it in 1168.  It was noted to be one of the three most scenic sites in Japan in 1643 by the Confucian scholar Shunsai Hayashi who toured Japan on foot and wrote a book “Observations about the remains of Japan’s Civil Affairs” where he praised 3 locations in particular including Miyajima.

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To get there you have to take a short ferry ride and the port is about 30 minutes outside of the city of Hiroshima.

The island was surprisingly peaceful for the large number of people visiting and like many places in Japan you could easily get away from the crowds by walking a little further and taking some of the back roads.

Of course to follow Japanese tradition we tried the local food: oysters, conger eel and the local cakes which look like maple leaves but have a variety of fillings.

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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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Unofficial Work Trip to Izu Penninsula

On a Friday night in November a group of us from work left early, taking a minibus to Izu Peninsula, more specifically the resort of LaForet. The views of Fuji san on the way were great, with the sun setting. After arriving we settled into our room and freshened up in the Onsen (natural Japanese hot baths) with the other women.

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The men were in a separate building a short drive away and a resort minibus took us to join them for dinner.  We had a very traditional Japanese dinner with entertainment provided by ourselves, viola playing, dancing and even some comedy (mostly lost on me as no translation!).

The food was amazing and served in a traditional tatami room.  Many of my (Japanese) colleagues talked about how they had never had such a traditional meal so I was honoured to have had the opportunity.  The night was a lot of fun.

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The next day I went for a short run before breakfast and then a group of us visited Shuzenji Onsen 修善寺 nearby.  It was lovely, lots of shrines and autumn colours and a fabulous bamboo corridor to walk through.  We ended our visit with some great soba noodles for lunch before returning to Tokyo.

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