Saturday, June 27, 2015

Part 1: Our trip to the Land of the Rising Sun (post late by a year and some)

Around March last year, the three of us set out to finally visit our dear friend in Tokyo. It took us three years to make the trip and C was already in her final year of PhD studies. Nevertheless, we found some time in between the busyness of us three to agree on a date and just book those darn flight tickets!

So off we went with some level of planning and budgeting. Our itinerary was to spend a few days in Tokyo and then head to Kawaguchiko, back to Tokyo, shinkansen our way to Kyoto, day trip to Osaka and back to Tokyo for the remaining days. Being Asian, we wanted to cover as much as possible (ideally) but reality always pulls us back to earth and enjoy things as it comes rather than chasing a humanly impossible schedule.
My first impression of Japan when we touched down was... soooo... cold... brrrhhhh!!! We reached Haneda on an early spring night and C was so kind to meet us at the airport, bringing with her 3 woolen scarfs (for her tropical guests!). We did a lot of train riding and walking to get to her place in the middle of the night, but we felt amazingly safe and impressed with the clean roads. Her rented apartment was the epitome of space maximisation. It was a wonder that everything that you could need was there.

Food is always on our minds - Malaysians! C, being our dutiful guide took us to the famous Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. We couldn't wake up in time for the morning fish auction, so we went there at the normal people time and lined up for brunch at the real Sushizanmai restaurant in Tsukiji.

best sushi sashimi long queue
The queue at Sushizanmai in Tsukiji Market
Japanese vegetables wasabi
Brunch at Sushizanmai Tsukiji and other produce we saw at the market
We had an array of sashimi (salmon, tuna, white fish, shrimp, salmon roe, sea urchin, snow crab) and yes, I tried it all despite my fear of raw food. Didn't like the texture of raw meat and still don't get it why people love sashimi (but this is my own take; in need of polishing my food connoisseur skills). Only in Japan will I eat sashimi and to please my fellow diners... thank you... thank you.

We walked around quite a bit in Tsukiji after that and saw many peculiar looking fresh produce which we've never seen back home. I saw fresh wasabi for the first time (yes, jakun!) and we bought huge strawberries for midnight snacking.

yoghurt honey strawberries
Snacking on strawberries, Greek yoghurt and honey
C was telling us about this cheap store to shop at, where I kept hearing it as "donkey hote" but later learned that it was actually "Don Quijote" - a discount chain store. I was thinking that the store's name was inspired by the book 'Don Quixote', but this is just speculation (lah). Anyway, this store turned out to be our staple shopping place for almost everything, from cereals to makeup remover to umbrellas! This and drug stores :)

Japan has a LOT of temples and each has its own character. As I can't read kanji and am not too familiar with Buddhism and Shintoism, regrettably I wasn't able to fully appreciate the details of each temple we visited. In Tokyo, at the beginning of our trip, we visited Sensoji in Asakusa. It is the oldest temple in Tokyo. There is an avenue of souvenir shops and snack stalls called Nakamise, leading up to Sensoji. We bought our little trinkets for friends there and I found the safe journey amulet for my colleague there. We had our first soft ice cream with kinako (roasted soybean flour) there.

temple kaminarimon pagoda
Sensoji temple - Kaminarimon and pagoda

The first attraction that we encountered at Sensoji was the huge red paper lantern at the Kaminarimon gate (Thunder Gate) where we walked under it to enter the temple grounds. The second gate is the Hozomon before we entered a courtyard with a corner where there were joss paper burning and another area with a booth for the omikuji, where with a small donation you would get a paper with blessings and a random fortune prediction. I read that if the fortune was a bad one, you should fold the paper and tie it to a pine tree or the metal wires on a stand prepared by the temple. If it was a good one, you can either keep it or tie it in the temple. My friends got their omikuji and the funny thing was that both were very similar. We then visited the main building and saw a five-storey pagoda in the grounds. I can't recall if we visited the Asakusa shrine (since it was a long time ago).

In the evening, C took us to Ginza where the upscale shopping area was. She pointed out to us the Wako store and we crossed the Ginza crossing. Our main aim was to have dessert.

Ricoh Haier
Ginza crossing

Our dessert destination was Henri Charpentier, a cafe specialising in French-Japanese desserts. It had a quiet entrance with pink accents. As we entered there was a dessert showroom where the desserts were in glass display counters and it was white everywhere. We waited a little while for a table and was ushered down a spiral staircase to the dining area. There was a darkwood bookcase wall with pink faux books where the restrooms were hidden behind. They took our coats and shopping bags to store away while we dined.

We had their signature Crepe Suzette where they prepared it in front of us - butter, orange juice, liqueur and a flambe! We had several other selection of desserts but the best that we enjoyed was the lemon tart (which had a thin chocolate thread and a tiny piece of gold foil on it). It was a pricey "meal" but a very fine one.

crepe suzette cakes lemon tart
Henri Charpentier desserts galore

Although we would have liked to say that we were full, but we were still missing our dinner. So on we went to Shibuya where C said we could kill two birds with one stone. No birds at night, but we visited Hachiko (statue of the faithful dog) and had the best ramen ever! Hands down beat Hakata Ippudo Tokyo, which we had tried later on in our trip (btw, service was pretty bad there). I have no idea what is the name of this shop but we went there twice during our trip. This was the first time we ordered our food through the famous vending machine. C helped to translate the menu and we all ended up having the same thing. At this shop we were given a pestle and mortar to grind sesame seeds (free flow) to garnish our ramen. Awesomeness!

vending machine ramen statue of faithful dog
Shibuya - Hachiko and awesome ramen

Other places which we visited in Tokyo include Harajuku where we did see a little (very little bit) of cosplay, Akihabara with shops and shops of electronic gadgets, Ueno park for the cherry blossom trees (we were lucky that there were early blooming in some of the trees) and sports shoes shopping, and Roppongi Hills for a night view of Tokyo Tower and the city lights.

coffee barista
Omotesando Koffee in Tokyo - hard to find coffee place where we could only takeaway - L's finds :)

counter coffee barista
Inside Omotesando Koffee - a small counter to order your drinks and watch the barista

Tokyo spring time
Crossing to Ueno Park, Tokyo - I strategically cropped out an 'Adult Movies' store!

Tokyo Spring March 2014
Cherry blossom in Ueno Park, Tokyo - one of the few trees in bloom

Chocolate picnic spring
Bread Papa cream puff under the cherry blossoms - Ueno Park, Tokyo

night lights city view Tokyo
Roppongi Hills - view from the helipad - Tokyo Tower illuminated in the centre of the city

sculpture night view
Giant spider sculpture outside Roppongi Hills building - looks like War of the Worlds!

The next day, we left for Kawaguchiko. We almost missed our intercity bus trying to find the bus station. But with help from a very nice local lady who barely spoke English, we found our way there. The bus ride was a comfortable one and when we reached Kawaguchiko Station, we found our way around and took a short walk around Lake Kawaguchiko, one of the Fuji five lakes. There was still snow on the banks and swan peddle boats were available for rent on the lake.

From the tourist map, we found that there was a tourist attraction nearby - Mt Kachi Kachi Ropeway. It was a cable car ride up the mountain and at the top, there were a few decks with amazing views of Fujisan! The souvenir shop had cute mountain souvenirs like plushies in the shape of a snow-capped blue mountain with a cheeky face and mountain shaped senbei (rice crackers).

Lake Kawaguchiko and Ryokan
Kawaguchiko and Fujisan

The mascot for the Mt Kachi Kachi Ropeway was a white rabbit and a brown raccoon. We took turns to ring the Bell of Tenjo, which is supposed to make our wishes come true. And bought 3 kawarake dishes each to try out the Karawake Nage. We need to throw the karawake dish through a hole from a set distance and if we are successful, we will have luck or romance. One of my kawarake dishes went through the hole... so... ;)

Finding our way to Komaya Ryokan was a little tricky. We had left Kachi Kachi a little later than planned and had missed the yellow tourist bus. We waited like lost sheep at the bus stop for some time until a bus travelling in the opposite direction stopped and the bus driver asked us where we wanted to go. He was kind enough to radio his colleague to come pick us up. It was a refreshing experience to have such caring strangers offer help to us.

When we reached Komaya Ryokan, it was dinner time. Thankfully we had enough foresight to pre-order dinner. Although it worked out to be above RM100 per person, it was quite an elaborate do with a stone grill (stone was carved from volcanic rock) for marinated pork slices and assorted vegetables, a funny crooked fish, sashimi and tenpura.

traditional ryokan with fujisan view
Komaya Ryokan

Our onsen slot was at 10 p.m. The ryokan had a private indoor hot spring bath. Hot spring water was piped into a small tub with a changing room attached. As we were not comfortable being naked together, we took turns to wash and soak in the onsen. We each had 20 minutes and it was more than enough as it was unsafe to soak too long in the hot water anyway. My skin was not used to the hot water and it felt like needles piercing me as my foot entered the water, but after awhile it acclimatised and the temperature was bearable.

The next morning, we set our alarms at sunrise and through the cold, we trudged down to the lake in our pajamas to see Fujisan in his morning glory. The mountain was so beautiful and magnificent. It was all that we had expected.

Morning fuji mountain
Fujisan from our room window in Komaya Ryokan

serene mountain Fuji reflection on lake
Fujisan from Lake Kawaguchiko

It was checkout time and we paid in cash (they don't accept credit card). The ryokan seems to be run by a family and they were very helpful in trying to get us wifi connectivity through a prepaid card, but we couldn't log on after all.

We had a few hours to kill before catching our bus back to Tokyo. So we decided to visit the Kawaguchiko Music Forest. It was a quaint place but unfortunately the gardens were not in bloom yet. The museum had all sorts of music boxes - big ones, small ones, old ones and new ones. There was a concert hall where we watched a live performance of music boxes (as big as upright baby grand pianos).

Kawaguchiko Music Forest
Kawaguchiko Music Forest

When we left the museum, we could not get a bus ride back to town. We waited for half an hour and still no bus. So we decided to walk to the bus station with the tourist map as our guide. It was quite a long walk, about an hour or two (I can't recall) of walking around the perimeter of Lake Kawaguchiko. We crossed a highway, had lavender soft ice cream and finally when we reached the station, we had missed our bus. We were in despair as this meant an additional cost. But the kind ticketing lady said she would overlook this and let us exchange our bus tickets for a later bus. We thanked her profusely and headed out to find lunch.

C had mentioned there was a famous houtou restaurant, Houtou Fudou, nearby. We had our hot udon in pumpkin soup there. As an avid meat eater, it was... ok, I guess. Not a big fan of vegetarian food.

vegetarian Houtou Fudou Kawaguchiko
Houtou Fudou
Just into our third day in Japan and we had already experienced the surprising but refreshing kindness of random Japanese strangers.

Update: For Part 2 on Kyoto and Osaka, go here.

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