Tag Archives: Travel

A Week in New Orleans

26 Oct

There are three great cities in America: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.

-Tennessee Williams

We live in San Francisco, James spends a month out of the year in New York, and after 6 years in the US, it was about time we visited New Orleans! Kieren and Sam were visiting from Australia and New Orleans was on their list so we decided to all catch up there.
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Thursday

Our flight landed around 3pm, and after checking in at our hotel we grabbed a very late fried chicken lunch at Willie Mae’s. Our Uber driver said we were lucky to not have to wait in line – hooray for eating at off-peak times!
IMG_20181004_160109The chicken was amazing – one of my favourite things we ate in New Orleans. The batter was crispy and not greasy, and the chicken itself was super moist.

We very briefly met up with Kieren and Sam, had a fancy and delicious dinner at August, grabbed at mediocre cocktail at a bar called Loa, then crashed.

Friday

James and I picked up our rental car in the morning to drive 1.5 hours out of New Orleans to Global Wildlife Center in Folsom. We originally weren’t sure whether to include this in the itinerary but it ended up being the best thing we did, and I would highly, highly recommend going.

We drove across the Pontchartrain Bridge, which is the world’s longest continuous bridge over water.MVIMG_20181005_095029It took 30 minutes to cross. About 5 minutes into the bridge we were like “wow this is a long bridge” and checked Google Maps to see how much longer there was to go. Motherfucker …

All the reviews of Global Wildlife Center said that a private tour was the way to go. The public tour was $19 each and the private tour was $35 (but paying for a minimum of 4 people). We saw the public tour and it was soooo crap compared to ours.

This was the giant bag of feed we purchased – it was a little bit too much in the end, but better too much than not enough!
IMG_20181005_105111Look at this lovely llama’s sweet smile.
IMG_20181005_105729 Oh my.MVIMG_20181005_105715And alpacas! Our driver said the way to tell llamas and alpacas apart is that alpacas have bangs.
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(The alpaca in the foreground finds that very amusing .”Haha it is true, we do have bangs”)

But of course the giraffes were the highlight. Like the other animals they would walk up to the car and eat straight out of our hands. It was amazing to see them so close. =)
IMG_20181005_111015This is George, and he just put his head straight into the food bucket (look at that jealous deer behind him). IMG_20181005_110438James makes friends with a lady giraffe:
IMG_20181005_111044I also really loved the bison. The cows had a particular way of asking for food – they’d come up to the car, stick out their tongues and kind of … swivel them around beseechingly.

Exhibit A:
IMG_20181005_112919Exhibit B:
MVIMG_20181005_113154 Exhibit B is embarrassed by Exhibit A: IMG_20181005_113203Look at this massive unit.
MVIMG_20181005_112757James was super freaked out when the bison exhaled on him because he said there was just so much warm air.

But anyway, the bison also got in on the tongue action:IMG_20181005_112909We weren’t allowed to feed the zebras (apparently they get quite food-aggressive and will bite the other animals) but that didn’t stop them from stalking the car and trying to get food.
IMG_20181005_113858Please.IMG_20181005_113618Please.IMG_20181005_113644(There were also kangaroos at the end of the tour, but they weren’t free-range like the rest of the animals, and also you can imagine how unimpressed James and I are by kangaroos).

Deer though – so cool!
IMG_20181005_122304 So yeah, the safari was amazing and we had such a great time. =)

Also, when we were in the gift shop there were a ton of regular souvenirs like mugs and stuffed animals, but they also sold naturally-shed antlers from the different breeds of deer – how awesome is that! MVIMG_20181005_121202The ones on the middle shelf were only $25!

Here the one we bought is on our mantle at home, as a nice souvenir of our fun day with all the animals. =)IMG_20181025_111734 Afterwards we drove to Harbor Seafood for a very deep-fried seafood lunch. IMG_20181005_140039After we returned the rental car and had a fortifying nap, we decided to brave Bourbon street. It was pretty tacky and packed with drunk people, and we were both really relieved to find O Bar, where we drank nice cocktails and listened to live jazz.

They’re known for their gin fizz, which is shaken for 6 minutes (nowadays by machine but originally by hand) to get this very impressive height: IMG_20181005_201736 James ordered a traditional absinthe drip: IMG_20181005_203003(The barkeeper accidentally diluted the absinthe too much, and James was very pleased when he rectified it by topping his glass up with more absinthe).

Afterwards we kept the party going and went to Frenchmen street where we listened to some more jazz at the Spotted Cat Cafe. IMG_20181005_223039 (1)We walked up and down the street listening to music from the different bars, then James grabbed a late night po’boy for the walk back to our hotel. It was the longest (and most satisfying!) day we had in New Orleans. =)

Saturday

The next morning we started with some oysters at Acme Oysters. We only waited a minute or two but by the time we left a line of 50+ had already formed, so if you go I’d recommend getting there early.

Neither James nor I were super impressed with the oysters – we both think Gulf oysters are impressively large (and cheap)  but don’t have as much flavour as West Coast oysters. The chargrilled oysters were good but that was mainly from the butter and cheese. The oyster shots were interesting though!IMG_20181006_113618The original plan was to hit Cafe du Monde for a breakfast-dessert but the line was crazy so we just grabbed a second breakfast muffaletta at Central Grocery. We ordered the half-sandwich and it was huge.IMG_20181006_125902We then did a self-guided walking tour of the French Quarter. It started off with various historical sites, then at some point devolved into a bar crawl. There were a ton of notable bars and James and I would be like “well we have to get at least their signature drink”.

Here we are at Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, one of the oldest bars in America: IMG_20181006_135845I ordered the voodoo daiquiri which was like terrible slurpee. At one point we saw them pouring a big jug of coloured syrup into a drink and were like “yeah that looks about right.”

The bar was a bit loud for us so after resting a bit we decided to just keep going with the tour. As an aside, when we first got to New Orleans we were like “why is everyone so excited about being able to drink on the street?” but it definitely grew on us. My drink was massive (and gave me brain freeze if I drank too much) so it was not having to stay in a shitty bar until I finished it.

The next bar we went to was Tropical Isle. We got the two signature drinks – the Hand Grenade (which you see everywhere in the French Quarter) and the Shark Attack. Both drinks were predictably gross but also really fun. At this point we were kind of getting into the terribleness of the cocktails – we’d take a sip and just start laughing at how bad they were. They were surprisingly strong though! IMG_20181006_144001The Shark Attack was cool – the bartender filled a plastic shark with grenadine, and when she made the drink, she rang a bell, yelled out “blood in the water!” then squeezed the shark so all the grenadine spread out like blood. James was entranced, and kept the shark so he could make his own high-end version at home.

We continued on with our walking tour and saw some Second Lines, which are these wonderful marching band mini-parades where people walk behind the band and twirl handkerchiefs.

We’d be looking at buildings, hear some music and be like “oooh another parade!” Yes, we were drunk, but also brass bands and wedding parties walking around the city celebrating is so charming.IMG_20181006_145951 Also this next photo reminded me that there was a toy alligator in my Shark Attack for some reason. IMG_20181006_150214Another Second Line selfie! IMG_20181006_152107We’ve done it. We’ve finally become those old people who take photos of strangers’ weddings.

On our walking tour we also saw a ton of stuff like haunted houses (with pretty gruesome histories), psychics, tarot readers and of course, voodoo shops.

James: I would get a voodoo doll of you and pat it on the head.

Another stop was Napoleon House, which some guy originally intended for Napoleon to take refuge in, but Napoleon never even visited, and it’s now a restaurant. James was particularly enamoured with this sexy Napoleon painting. IMG_20181006_160040 (1)Apparently Napoleon House is famous for its Pimm’s Cup so that’s what I got (spoiler: it was too lemony).

James (sounding betrayed): I thought we came in here to sober up so I got a coffee – and then you ordered a Pimm’s!

We also went to Antoine’s Restaurant where we ordered the Cafe Brulot Diabolique. IMG_20181006_164532 So very, very tipsy by then.MVIMG_20181006_164807James was a bit peckish so he got a po’boy before we headed back to the hotel to take a nap. Even though it was hot (and I know I didn’t really mention that – but it really was disgustingly hot and humid) we had a really enjoyable afternoon walking around the French Quarter. =)

Sunday

Sunday morning we had a jazz brunch with Kieren, Sam and their kids, then in the evening we had dinner at Brennan’s.

By this point we were both feeling like we’d overdone it with the alcohol and rich food. We did have to order the famous bananas foster for dessert though. 00008XTR_00008_BURST20181007221243
After dinner we went to The Sazerac Bar which is where the sazerac was invented – but apparently not perfected, since it wasn’t very good. Oh well!

Monday

On Monday we did a swamp tour. We chose to do it in a small airboat because it’s supposed to be much better/faster than the regular boats. It was loud so we all had to wear ear protection.IMG_20181008_101309 I’m assuming this is the engine? IMG_20181008_102723On the swamp tour we saw two alligators, which our guide lured with marshmallows and hot dogs: IMG_20181008_104747There were also giant spiders and some sweet little raccoons. The raccoons also liked marshmallows: IMG_20181008_110915 The swamp was surprisingly lovely (despite the spiders and giant mosquitoes): IMG_20181008_111559After the tour we showered and grabbed an early dinner at Coop’s Place. It was our first time trying gumbo and red beans and rice. James said this was his favourite meal (for the price) in New Orleans. Then we went to Cafe du Monde for their famous beignets, and fortunately there was no line this time.

We capped it off with some jazz at Preservation Hall. IMG_20181008_175930 It was very hyped up but honestly of all the jazz we saw in New Orleans we both enjoyed this the least. It’s still probably worth doing just to cross it off the bucket list, but considering it was the most expensive performance we went to, it just wasn’t as great as we expected.

Tuesday 

We went to Commander’s Palace for an early lunch. Originally we’d been thinking of cancelling the reservation because we were both sick of eating so much high-end Creole food but I’m glad we kept it because it was really good! MVIMG_20181009_125212The main draw of the weekday lunches are the 25c martinis. Yes, that’s right, 25c.

James: They could throw the drink at me and if I opened my mouth and I’d still be able to drink 25c of gin.

(Definitely just order the classic martini though – the cosmo/citrus/melon variations they had were pretty awful – I ordered the citrus because I was like “ooh, sounds like it’ll refreshing!” and it was blue).

We walked off our martinis doing a self-guided cemetery tour across the street at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. We also did the Garden district tour but quickly got bored since it was just walking around looking at mansions. Instead we grabbed an Uber to MS Rau, which is a cross between an art gallery and a high end antique dealer.

Here are Abraham Lincoln’s opera glasses from the night he was assassinated – pretty weird!MVIMG_20181009_152915There was a secret door that led to a series of rooms with lots of paintings which was pretty cool.IMG_20181009_152232In the evening we had dinner at Jacques Imos. MVIMG_20181009_195502 There was a 1.5 hour wait after we left our names but luckily there was a board game cafe down the street, so it was actually quite pleasant. =)

Holy shit, a deep fried po’boy. MVIMG_20181009_214939It took forever to cool down. We ate the fried chicken and brussels sprouts that arrived after it, and it was still too hot to touch. It did make a very satisfying sound when we tapped it though.

James was feeling a bit ill so he skipped the Rebirth Brass Band, which was a pity because it was my favourite performance of the trip. The acoustics of the room weren’t great but the band put on a fantastic show! MVIMG_20181010_012928

Wednesday

Our final day in New Orleans! We packed in the morning, and then went the Carousel Bar. We’d tried a couple of times already at (what we thought were) off-peak times like 3pm, but the carousel was always full.

Since it was our last day we were taking no chances, and went right at opening to snag a seat.IMG_20181010_111050And yes, the bar actually rotated! I also only just noticed that the chairs have pictures of different animals on them. =)

As the bar slowly went around you would occasionally see yourself in the mirrors at the top. James took a lot of time to line up this photo:IMG_20181010_120603Hello!

The drinks were actually much better than I was expecting – not as good as SF/NY, but a lot better than you’d expect at a very touristy bar! Though after a couple of drinks each we decided we needed a non-liquid meal before our flight, so went to Cochon Butcher.

James had a pork belly sandwich and I ordered their take on a Big Mac – the Pig Mac. IMG_20181010_123709It was spectacular.

Overall we had a great time in New Orleans, James’ butter-poisoning notwithstanding. Yes, Bourbon street was a shitshow and all the tourists were a little (or a lot) drunk all the time, but everyone was so friendly and we loved the architecture, history, food and music.

New Orleans has such a distinct identity – it’s definitely one of America’s great cities and I’m glad we finally got to visit!
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Up Mt Fuji Again and More Tokyo

7 Sep

Day 19: Low Key Fuji Day

We slept in that morning, then rolled out of bed to head to Shin Udon. It was very popular (another one of those tiny restaurants with a well-managed queue) and it was bloody fantastic.

This was my carbonara-style udon with bacon tempura:
IMG_20180709_123305And James’ more traditional udon with a deep fried egg:00000XTR_00000_BURST20180709123345-ANIMATIONThe udon was made on-site and the texture was absolutely perfect. A great, carby start to our Fuji day!

We did some brief board game shopping and picked up a support brace for my knee, which had started to play up from all the walking. Then we had a nap and rested up for the hike.

There was a cool orange moon when we started our hike. Unfortunately this is the best photo I managed to get of it:
MVIMG_20180710_014321We were both kind of nervous because we’d been walking an average of 10km a day in the heat/humidity for 2.5 weeks and were definitely starting to feel it. We’d walk up stairs at the train station and need to rest our legs so we were pretty sure 1400+ vertical feet in high altitude was going to be a pain.

As it turned out, we’d worried for no reason. Even though we were a lot more fatigued, we were actually significantly faster this time around (like 1.5-2 hours faster). Mentally, it also felt a lot easier – I guess because we recognised landmarks and knew when we were getting close to a rest stop. Plus we started seeing large tour groups who had stayed the night at the huts and were getting ready to start, so we would just keep going so we didn’t get stuck behind them.

The second hike made us realise how unusually windy the first hike had been – at the time we’d just thought getting blown around was normal. The hike was much easier without the wind constantly fighting us.

It took us 4.5 hours to get to the summit, and we arrived around 2:30am. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as last time since it wasn’t raining and windy, though it was still quite cold when we weren’t moving. But still! We’d made it! =)

Day 20: Descending Fuji, Cocktails and Effective Prayer

Sunrise was supposed to be 4:30am so we sat there for awhile. We’d expected to take much longer and were actually pretty pleased with ourselves. I had a lot of time to think about how wonderful James was for climbing Fuji twice for me, and James had a lot of time to feel miserable and quietly huff oxygen from his bottle.

As we waited, we could see a steady stream of headlamps and flashlights coming up the path. It was early in the season but quite busy since there was a one day window between a typhoon and a storm where you could climb, and obviously everybody had gone on that day.

The crowd near us:
IMG_20180710_035625James and I huddled for warmth and waited for the sun to rise. The dawn sky was like this for a long time:
MVIMG_20180710_034841 (1)More so than our previous end-point at 3450 meters, at the 3776 meter summit we really did get a sense that we were on top of the world (or at least Japan). IMG_20180710_040127The clouds underneath us looked like waves:
IMG_20180710_041441 Welcome to the land of the rising sun:
IMG_20180710_044447After sunrise we checked out the crater and hung out a bit on the summit. Unfortunately they weren’t doing the summit stamp that day so despite our best efforts our sticks would remain unfinished.

Oh well. The important thing is that we got to the top. =)
MVIMG_20180710_050833 (1)Much like our ascent, the descent was much easier than last time since it wasn’t windy and raining. We also weren’t bitterly disappointed so I guess it was easier mentally too.

The volcanic gravel made the walk down quite slippery and we saw several people fall over (and almost fell several times ourselves). At least the views were nice: IMG_20180710_051600We got back with plenty of time to spare, and picked up some souvenirs while we waited for the first bus back at 10am.

If you hike Fuji I’d definitely recommend booking a seat in advance because the line for tickets was really long. People with confirmed tickets were guaranteed their seats and everyone else was first come first served (bearing in mind that the Shinjuku buses only came hourly and when I checked on the day they were full until 1pm). There was a line of 50+ people who all looked hot, tired and stressed, which is not the way you want to end your Fuji trip!
IMG_20180710_100820We showered once we got back to the hotel, but instead of napping like last time we had a katsu curry lunch then celebratory cocktails at Gen Yamamoto. MVIMG_20180710_155440
The drinks were great – very fruity and some unusual combinations (like peach and wasabi!) I liked that they were low-alcohol because that way we could try a lot without worrying about getting plastered in the afternoon.

Afterwards we went to Senso-Ji Temple for the Hozuki-Ichi festival. If you recall, we’d already been to Senso-Ji, but since we were in Japan on the 10th (we were originally not going to be) we definitely had to go again, since there is a belief that praying once on July 10th is equivalent to 46,000 prayers on other days.

There were stalls selling ornamental cherry pods and wind chimes (perhaps also 46,000 times as effective if purchased on this day?) with tons of Japanese people buying them.IMG_20180710_170949Obviously we couldn’t bring the plants home but we bought a couple of wind chimes.

Nakamise street was also very crowded and decorated with hozuki foliage: IMG_20180710_173914On July 9 and 10 they had these charms on the temple to ward off lightning:
IMG_20180710_171438 Which you could purchase as omamori, but only on those days:IMG_20180711_125104It was very hot and crowded but I enjoyed seeing a tiny slice of Japanese life at that festival. =)

In the evening we went shopping for last minute souvenirs (primarily booze) and encountered some more fun gachapon.

Animals refusing to face us:IMG_20180710_203036 Tiny safes:IMG_20180710_203033Day 21: Time to Head Home

We spent the morning packing, which actually took a lot longer than we expected – I hadn’t realised we’d bought so much stuff (which will be in its own separate post)!IMG_20180711_103845 (1)From the door: our Fuji walking sticks, the two suitcases we originally brought, a giant shopping bag full of snack souvenirs, an extra piece of luggage we purchased in Japan, another giant shopping bag with snacks and ramen, and our carry on backpack.

(When we were waiting for the airport shuttle, a family of four had a similar amount of luggage to us and I was so embarrassed).

We arrived with plenty of time at the airport and did some duty free shopping to use up the rest of our yen before heading to the ANA lounge. In the lobby they had a model plane signed by the Star Wars cast:IMG_20180711_150758One of the actual Star Wars planes we saw outside: MVIMG_20180711_161853The ANA lounge was pretty cool. They had the usual comfy chairs/wifi/pre-cooked food/booze, but also a noodle bar with various meals cooked to order:IMG_20180711_154551And even a sake bar:
IMG_20180711_161359There was also a beer-pouring robot that James saw but inexplicably didn’t take a photo of. =/

And then it was time to get on the plane and go back to San Francisco.
IMG_20180711_163333Bye Japan! We can’t wait to see you again!

Back to (the) Tokyo Part 3

30 Aug

Day 15: Ramen, Pokemon and Ninjas

That morning we got up early to wait in line for ramen at Nakiryu, which (along with Tsuta) is a one-Michelin starred-ramen restaurant in Tokyo that only costs $10-15 a meal. We arrived over an hour before it opened on a rainy weekday and we were 5th and 6th in line.

Waiting in line was a surprisingly non-terrible experience. We chatted to some Americans near us, and it was interesting seeing how many people joined the queue and when. This was the line just before Nakiryu opened (bearing in mind that there are only 10 seats inside):IMG_20180705_111828They handed out menus shortly before the restaurant opened, and James used ours to help him order at the ramen machine.IMG_20180705_113508After he paid at the machine he gave the receipts to the guy behind the counter. That’s how you order at all Michelin restaurants, right?

James got the signature tantanmen (a sesame/red pepper ramen) with thick slices of braised pork, soy-dipped egg and shrimp wontons:MVIMG_20180705_114909I ordered the sanramen (hot and sour ramen) with the egg and regular pork.
MVIMG_20180705_114848We each strongly preferred our own ramen but I have to admit that James’ thick-sliced pork was insane.  

The kitchen worked in complete silence, which was impressive but a little unsettling. Also it wasn’t a leisurely meal – like at every popular ramen joint in Tokyo we had to eat quickly so the people behind us could get in. People didn’t really talk, and mainly all you could hear was the sound of cooking and customers appreciatively slurping ramen.

It was really, really delicious though, and definitely worth doing just for the novelty of having a cheapo Michelin starred meal. That thick-cut pork, OMG.

After our early lunch we walked to the Pokemon Megastore in Ikebukuro. We got a bit lost in the shopping center and had to ask for directions, but looking back we probably should have been able to figure it out for ourselves:MVIMG_20180705_142145 A wall of pokemon:IMG_20180705_123526 Here we are with some old favourites:IMG_20180705_124433(Yes I am aware that I should have been peeking over James’ other shoulder. It bugs me a lot).

It was fun walking around and looking at all the cool merchandise and peeking at what other people had put in their baskets (mostly plushies).

This is Pikachu wearing the skins of his defeated enemies: IMG_20180705_124724I spent a lot of the time messaging Cat, asking which pokemon were which. She answered my questions very patiently but eventually sent back an exasperated “OMG why are you even in the pokemon store if you don’t know anything about pokemon??”

James was very excited by these pokeballs with mystery pokemon inside. He bought two, hoping for either Pikachu and Eevee. He got … Pikachu and Eevee! What a lucky cricket:
IMG_20180705_141751I was also sucked into trying my luck with these cool tins. I bought four and only got one repeat (which was the awesome one in the bottom left so I’m OK with that):IMG_20180705_135814I bought a Mimikyu soft toy for Cat and some more snacks that came in decorative tins.

After we checked out, James (and several other guys) got super distracted by these pokemon gachapon:
IMG_20180705_140821Once again James got the exact gachapon he was after. Perhaps he does have the luck of the nine-tailed fox after all!

We did some random shopping afterwards, where James was entranced with this nesting Totoro toy:
Totoro We also found more cat hat gachapon! Flowers: IMG_20180705_155941And what I assume are Valentine’s Day hats:
IMG_20180705_155927I was also happy because we found a squeeze toy I was hunting! I saw these at Tokyu Hands in Shibuya and fell in love with the eggplant one but they didn’t have any for sale. =( Fortunately they were available at the Ikebukuro location:IMG_20180705_161349 (1)(There’s a gap at the back because I snagged the last eggplant before taking the photo).

When I first saw it I went from “hah, that eggplant is really dumb – I wonder what it feels like” to “OMG I must have it”. It is tactilely delightful.

It was a wonderful afternoon full of gachapon and eggplant luck.

In the evening we went to a ninja restaurant in Asakusa. It was super cheesy but also super fun. This was James at our table in the ninja village:
IMG_20180705_192446The dishes were a mixture of ninja-themed and just ninja-named. James ordered the set course which came with several ninja-themed dishes, like these shuriken crackers:IMG_20180705_194027I asked our waiter what meal had the coolest presentation and he recommended this ninja chicken:

=D

They had an awesome “ninja magician” come by and do sleight of hand tricks. The table next to us also had a magician so we got to see multiple magic tricks.

At the end of the night they gave us a complimentary snow frog dessert to celebrate our 10th anniversary. =)
MVIMG_20180705_213257(A month early, but we figured it counted because the whole trip was basically our anniversary gift to each other!)

Afterwards we headed to Bar Benfiddich. It’s supposed to be one of the best bars in Asia, and is one of those places where the bartender makes you a drink based on your flavour preferences.

James and the owner/bartender, Hiroyasu Kayama:IMG_20180706_010028We were at the counter so were able to chat a bit, and found out that his apprentice/assistant was entering a cocktail competition in Yokohama. We ended up talking to Miyoshi for ages about cocktail-making, and she told us about the preparation involved for the competition. Something that totally blew our minds was that in Japan, artistry (or, what Google translated as “beautiful movement”) is an important part of bartending. All the bartenders we saw were dressed in suits and moved very precisely when measuring, pouring, and creating cocktails. And of course, there’s the Japanese Hard Shake, which is very cool to watch. Movement/artistry is much less of a priority in the US, where bartenders – even high-end ones – are quite casual.

We asked Miyoshi to make her competition cocktail for us (which she had to get the owner’s permission to do):
IMG_20180706_003324 It was called Fleur de Soie, and had lavender and fresh lime juice, and it was very tasty, refreshing and not too floral. I looked up the competition results later – she didn’t win. =(

It was a really memorable night and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Japanese cocktail-making. I think it was my favourite of the bars we went to in Japan (James also enjoyed it but preferred High Five in Ginza and the Ritz-Carlton bar in Kyoto).

Day 16: Art and Baseball

The next morning we lined up at Narikura to try what is almost unanimously agreed-on as the best tonkatsu in Tokyo. This time we only had to arrive ~40 minutes early to get into the first seating. It was a promising sign that most people in the line were Japanese.

James ordered the Kiramugi and I ordered the snow-aged pork. The quality of the pork was amazing – mine was more tender but James’ had the better flavour.
IMG_20180706_112220I think Narikura was noticeably superior to even a good tonkatsu place like Maisen. But the wait at Maisen was much shorter, and I don’t know if I’m enough of a tonkatsu connoisseur to make it worth the wait. I was glad we tried it though!

After lunch we took a train to the Yayoi Kusama Museum. I’d booked tickets a couple of months in advance and, like the Ghibli Museum tickets, they sell out very quickly.

The highlight was definitely the pumpkin infinity room; also known by its full name: Pumpkins Screaming about Love Beyond Infinity.
MVIMG_20180706_141220It was really interesting – an employee would let just you/your group into the room, and you had it to yourselves for two minutes. The exhibit itself was very small, but the angle of the mirrors made it look like a huge field of pumpkins. The museum was very popular, so it was nice to have that intimate experience with just me, James and infinite glowing pumpkins (screaming about love).

We wanted to go in again but when we exited there were already 10+ people waiting. We hadn’t had to wait at all for our turn – I guess we’d gotten there at the perfect time. Oh well.

We continued on to the rooftop pumpkin, which was the other part of the museum where you were allowed to take photographs:
MVIMG_20180706_141610It was a very small museum. We spent about 30-40 minutes there and that was with backtracking and looking at some of the paintings twice. I felt like it was worth the $9 we paid – especially for the pumpkin room! – but much more than that would have felt like a bit of a rip-off.

We had an afternoon break and then went to Tokyo Dome to watch a baseball game.MVIMG_20180706_181913We had several friends recommend seeing a Japanese baseball game and I’d definitely agree it’s a must-do. Japanese baseball is sooo much more interesting than American baseball. The fans are much more interactive – they had synchronised flag-waving, individual chants for different players, and even a brass band!

We went in barracking for the Yomiuri Giants (since they’re the closest thing to the San Francisco Giants) but were won over by the superior chants of the Hiroshima Carp. MVIMG_20180706_195519The game itself wasn’t that exciting (poor James was in a line for the bathroom for the sole home run that was hit) but the enthusiasm from the crowd was infectious and it was fun chanting along with them.

Day 17: Harajuku

We had deliberately saved Harajuku for one of the last days of our trip in case I went crazy and bought a ton of stuff.

I managed to restrain myself, but did buy an awesome Junya Watanabe top at a fancy consignment store. Look how much room there is inside! That’s how you can tell it’s posh.
IMG_20180707_115906We really enjoyed (well, as much as you can “enjoy” it given the heat) strolling around Cat street and the surrounding area.

This is James wondering why I made him go up the stairs for this photo:
MVIMG_20180707_134914_1Some of the stores had really interesting interiors:
MVIMG_20180707_112914(And they all had air conditioning so it was always a relief to go inside).

Even the exterior of some of the buildings was unusual. The one was half-building, half-vase! MVIMG_20180707_113822A guy walking down the street looked to see what we were admiring, then also started taking photos. =)

We also braved Takeshita street, but it was insanely crowded and the stores were a lot more cutesy, which isn’t really my style. I do want to go back for some jiggly pancakes one day though!

After our afternoon of shopping we had dinner at Den, which has two Michelin stars (though a lot pricier than Nakiryu!) and is based on traditional Japanese cuisine but with a fun, modern interpretation. I’ll make a separate post about it because it’s quite photo heavy. It was quite difficult to get a reservation, but totally worth it, and the meal was one of our highlights in Japan. =)

Day 18: Studio Ghibli and Steak

We started off the day with more conveyor belt sushi. Breakfast of champions!
MVIMG_20180708_115210I followed this man and his cat down the streets of Shibuya until James got me back on route:MVIMG_20180708_122804To get on a train to head to the Ghibli Museum. It wasn’t as cute as a little Tokyo shoulder cat, but it was pretty cute:
IMG_20180708_133357We weren’t allowed to take photos indoors, which was actually a really good policy because the museum was already very busy and if we’d had to wait for everyone to take photos it would have been even worse.

We could take photos outdoors though. This was the staircase to the roof:MVIMG_20180708_135318Which was where the Iron Giant lived:
MVIMG_20180708_135604We also explored the (very crowded!) gift shop and a very detailed special exhibit about the different ways food is depicted in Studio Ghibli films. Also we saw a short film about a little caterpillar in a special cinema there which was pretty fun.

Then we walked back to the station to go to Steakhouse Satou where we had a fabulous Matsusaka steak dinner. Matsusaka beef is like Kobe beef but more well-known in Japan than internationally.

The beef before cooking:
IMG_20180708_163727And after:
MVIMG_20180708_165058It was melt-in-your-mouth tender and amazing. 

Steakhouse Satou is also well-known for its Matsusaka beef croquettes, which they sell at their stall downstairs. There was a huge line, but it moved quickly. IMG_20180708_171604We were quite full from our steaks but managed to make room for a single croquette between us. The croquette was really, really good – for sure worth getting if you’re in the area and don’t quite have the budget for steak.
IMG_20180708_172931
We had an early night, making sure to get plenty of rest for the next day, which was going to be our second (and final) attempt to get to the top of Mt Fuji.

Back to Tokyo and Up (Most of) Mount Fuji

19 Aug

Day 12: Japanese Whiskey and Tokyo

In the morning we took a train to Yamazaki to tour the Suntory whiskey distillery. We had to book quite far in advance but this tour was one of the few things in Japan that James really wanted to do.
IMG_20180702_093323Even a month in advance, only the morning slot was left, so 10am whiskey it was! We explored the museum while we waited for the tour to begin.
IMG_20180702_093613 There was information about the history of the company and also whiskeys in various states of aging:IMG_20180702_094242The distillery tour was in Japanese but they gave us headphones so we were able to follow along with the audio tour.

This room was very hot and yeasty. There was a reason that all the stills were different sizes but neither James nor I can remember why. Clearly we retained a lot of information from the tour.
IMG_20180702_101028 (1)This was the room where they aged the whiskey in barrels. I don’t like the taste of scotch but this room smelled wonderful – like we were in a forest.
MVIMG_20180702_102408The tour concluded with some whiskey tastings.
IMG_20180702_103822It was quite an elaborate set-up – there were snacks, overhead slides and a little reference guide. It also confirmed for me that I just don’t like whiskey and I gave half my tastings to James. (Then later one of the tour guides came around and was impressed that I’d managed to finish all of my whiskey and I awkwardly went along with it).

There was also a paid tasting room that had a much larger selection. It was packed – though I think we got unlucky because there was a big tour group there. This was the bar:IMG_20180702_120244And the menu:MVIMG_20180702_112716James tasted six (I think) whiskeys, including the super old/rare ones. He said they were very smooth but overall he prefers Scottish whiskey.

We also stopped by the gift shop but it was lame and had the same un-aged whiskeys you can find in the US or at any 7/11 in Japan. The tour and tasting room were really fun though and I’d definitely recommend them as a mini day-trip from Kyoto or Osaka.

Afterwards we took a train to Kyoto and then the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We bought some food at the train station to eat on our trip.

This one was so pretty – like unwrapping a little present. =)
IMG_20180702_130552When we arrived in Tokyo we stashed our luggage in one of the station lockers and went to VR Zone in Shinjuku where we played VR Mario Kart.IMG_20180702_161347We could pick up bananas and shells with our hands and throw them at our opponents and the whole thing was really immersive. It had a big catch-up system so it didn’t feel like a lot of skill was necessarily involved but it was still fun.

We played 3 other games and they were various shades of OK – Mario Kart was the clear star. VR makes me a bit nauseous so I was quite happy to limit ourselves to 4.

We retrieved our luggage and checked into the Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, where they had the cousin of Haku-chan (the sake-recommending robot) on staff:
MVIMG_20180710_183331For dinner we went to a place that is known for its deep-fried gyoza:
MVIMG_20180702_203018 And its katsu gyoza: MVIMG_20180702_202503They were tasty but the regular fried gyoza were the best. We both wished we’d just gotten one or two of the novelty kind and more of the fried gyoza.

Day 13: Google and Fuji

We took it easy this day because we had plans to climb Fuji overnight. We headed to Roppongi to check out the Google office since several friends who have worked there told us it has an amazing view. We were hoping to be able to see Fuji but unfortunately it wasn’t clear enough. =(

At one of the cafes I ordered a peach soda with basil and cider jelly (and my name in Japanese I think!)
IMG_20180703_092125I was intrigued by the Ramune soda bagel:MVIMG_20180703_094432But I should have gone with one of the croissants because the bagel was disgusting. I felt bad not finishing it but it was by far the worst thing I ate in Japan.

This was one of the microkitchens:
MVIMG_20180703_100422They had a lot of Japanese snacks, and we grabbed a couple of the onigiri for our Fuji hike.IMG_20180703_100550There were also these adorable lollies! MVIMG_20180703_101647James and the Oreo Android being dynamic together:
IMG_20180703_101606We did some light shopping, grabbed lunch, then had a fortifying afternoon nap at our hotel. The hotel was really conveniently located – a 5 minute walk from Shinjuku station and and also the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal to go to Mt Fuji.

We took the latest bus to the Mt Fuji Suburu Line 5th Station. There was only one store open at that time, so we bought some wooden walking sticks and started our hike a bit past 10pm.

Day 14: Fuji!

Hiking Mt Fuji overnight is called “bullet climbing” and generally not recommended. The way that most people climb Fuji is to start during the day, climb until they reach one of the mountain huts, stay there overnight, then climb again in the early morning to reach the summit by sunrise. Bullet climbing is starting in the evening and climbing throughout the night.

James and I opted to bullet climb because we really didn’t want to hike in the heat and also didn’t want to pay $70 each for a sleeping bag in a shared room at a mountain hut. It was fine. The only tricky part was the altitude, which affected James a lot more than it did me (which we expected, because he gets headaches on top of Mammoth at 11k feet).

But anyway, we were fairly well-prepared with warm layers, headlamps, and plenty of food and water. We hiked throughout the night, starting from 2800 meters (9186 feet) at the 5th Station.

We were really glad we brought our headlamps since it was dark on the trail.
MVIMG_20180703_222612You can see the shadow of James’ head on the sign post. Even before I remembered taking this photo I saw it and was like “hey, that shadow looks a lot like James’ head!”

There were several stations where we would briefly rest and get our walking sticks stamped (well, branded really). The early stamps cost 300 yen but prices went up the higher we climbed. Also some stations had multiple stamps so it ended up costing quite a bit!MVIMG_20180703_234154James and I agreed that the beginning of the hike was the hardest mentally because it was the longest stretch without a break. Later on it was steeper but there were more stations to stop at for breaks. Which was good because James had a headache and nausea from the altitude. He’s not a complainer so the fact that he even said anything meant it was pretty bad.

By the time we got to the 8th station area it was starting to get really windy, and any time we stopped walking we would instantly feel the cold. The wind forecast had been fine when we checked earlier that day, but we talked to a Canadian guy who was worried because he said the forecast was getting worse and worse.

We got to Goraikou (the final mountain hut) a bit before 3pm. It was really howling by this point and the ranger told everyone we were better off staying where we were for the sunrise because it was even windier and more overcast at the summit. We decided to take temporary shelter inside the mountain hut then continue to the top after sunrise.

Here we are inside the hut around 3:30am.IMG_20180704_034708Unfortunately the wind got even worse, and when we tried to go up the ranger said that they were no longer allowing people to summit because it was too dangerous (later we found out that Typhoon Prapiroon had just hit). IMG_20180704_041751 (1)I was so bummed. Climbing Fuji was the only reason we’d gone to Japan in the summer and we were so, so close! If we’d known that resting meant we couldn’t get to the summit we would have just kept going. When we got back to the 5th Station we talked to some people who had gotten to the summit and they said it was really awful. Apparently they couldn’t see anything and it was raining, cold, so windy that people were getting blown around, and everyone descended as quickly as they could after sunrise. But at least they got there!

And it’s not like our sunrise view was any better:
IMG_20180704_041806 We hung around for ages, hoping the wind would die down and the ranger would let us up. But no luck. =(

On the plus side, while we were waiting the clouds cleared and revealed this spectacular view: MVIMG_20180704_043433-PANO (1)Isn’t that cloud amazing?? I looked it up afterwards and it’s a lenticular cloud caused by some combination of the mountain, wind and air temperature. At the time I was so disappointed we hadn’t gotten to the summit that it didn’t register how fortunate we were to see that gorgeous view. I’m really glad we took photos!
IMG_20180704_050429Eventually we gave up and started the descent, and it was raining and windy pretty much the whole way down. A couple of times there’d be a huge gust of wind and we’d have to plant our walking sticks and hunker down so we didn’t get blown off the mountain.

We didn’t have waterproof layers on our bottom halves so got soaked (top halves were dry though!). Combined with the disappointment of not summiting, the descent and the long (damp) wait for the bus was a completely miserable experience.

We took the bus back and walked back to our hotel – thank goodness for that 5 minute commute because we were seriously gross. We showered and had a post-Fuji nap before grabbing some conveyor belt sushi for an early dinner.IMG_20180704_190050We were very pleased with the conveyor belt sushi. Obviously restaurant sushi was better, but this was cheap, decent, quick, and a fun novelty.

Then we went to a bar called Whales of August which made movie-inspired drinks, some which were kind of meh and some which were very creative.

Tangled:
MVIMG_20180704_195557 Totoro!MVIMG_20180704_201830Even the drinks with beautiful presentation weren’t great-tasting though. We’d pretty much exclusively been drinking at high-end cocktail bars in Japan and it was a stark contrast.

We did some shopping, then wandered over to check out the Shibuya crossing intersection. Honestly I don’t get why it’s a tourist attraction except maybe for people who’ve never been to a big city before. It’s a big, multi-directional crossing. Cool?

Since we were in the area we also stopped by the Hachiko statue:IMG_20180704_223334 (1)When we went back to our hotel I got all sad again about not summiting Fuji. It was the only reason we’d come during the summer (we both hate hot weather) and not getting to the top felt like a failure. Normally we would have tried again another trip but neither of us wanted to go to Japan in summer again.

We checked the forecast for our remaining days in Japan but the typhoon meant that it was raining and windy the whole time, and the only day it looked possible was our departure day – and that day was a tiny window sandwiched between two storms. So even if we changed our flights, if the first storm went longer than expected or the second storm arrived earlier, we’d be SOL again.

Plus it was the end of a long holiday with a lot of walking in very hot/humid weather so we were both tired, James already had a ton of people booking meetings with him as soon as he got back, we’d be sacrificing really great flatbed seats on our return trip with the possibility that we’d have to fly economy, and it would cost around 1k to rebook our flights/hotels/Fuji buses/the catsitter. James hated the hike since he’d had a headache and nausea for much of it (and had carried all our stuff because of my herniated disc) and pointed out that we had pretty much climbed Fuji, and the last few hundred meters didn’t make a difference except in my head.

Basically, there were a ton of practical/financial/logistical reasons I should have accepted that we weren’t going to summit Mt Fuji, and the only reason to try again was that I really, really wanted to.

You can see where this is all going. (Yes, I am aware that I’m incredibly spoiled)
IMG_20180704_043946See you soon, Fuji-san!

Nara, Osaka and Kobe

8 Aug

Day 9: Nara

In the morning we opted for the Western breakfast at the hotel and enjoyed eggs benedict, fresh fruit, charcuterie, and a selection of pastries from Pierre Hermes:
MVIMG_20180629_084111We went back to our room to finish packing, then had an early lunch at Tempura Mizuki, conveniently located in the hotel. We’d had delicious, cheap tempura in Tokyo and wanted to compare it to fancy, Michelin star tempura.
IMG_20180629_123642All my other experiences have been closer to the heavily battered, comfort food end of the spectrum so I really enjoyed seeing what high end tempura was like.

Our seafood and vegetables before they were battered and fried:IMG_20180629_115007The batter was soooo light. It was quite a thin layer and applied with a brush. The tempura wasn’t greasy at all – after the chef fried each item he’d set it down on some blotting paper which seemed mainly decorative because there were no excess oil drips.

Look at our huge, beautiful scallops!
IMG_20180629_120433After eating his scallops James was very pleased and gave them what I assume has to be his highest praise: “I think Kyoto and Mouse would really like this”.

The chef recommended different salts for different tempura. The options were matcha salt, seaweed salt, lake salt and Kyoto pepper salt.
IMG_20180629_114030I was curious what $21-a-glass tea tasted like so I ordered the Royal Blue Tea. It tasted like tea.IMG_20180629_114325It was a wonderful lunch with wonderful service. Though the service was actually more attentive than I’m comfortable with – for instance, when we left the chef and waitress escorted us to the door to say goodbye and stayed there as we walked up the stairs. IMG_20180627_070222When we got to the top I looked back and they were still there. Holy crap.

After we checked out we took the train to Nara, where of course we went to the deer park. It was initially quite disappointing because the deer weren’t very interested in us. Cat will be able to vouch that I sent her a series of panicked texts asking where to find the deer biscuit vendors.

Here’s a picture of me trying to be friends with a bunch of deer who did not give a shit:
IMG_20180629_151115 But that all changed once we found the deer biscuits. Suddenly everyone wanted hang out with Kaye.IMG_20180629_152911It was kind of unsettling how aggressive the deer were for food. And it wasn’t just food – this deer snatched the paper biscuit wrapper away:
IMG_20180629_153105 (1)Right before this photo this deer nibbled my top and left a slobbery combination of drool and biscuits on me. MVIMG_20180629_160424 (1)We ended up making pretty good friends with them though. We had something they wanted (deer biscuits) and they had something we wanted (deer selfies):IMG_20180629_161213Photos with our dear (deer) friends:MVIMG_20180629_161245I remembered reading somewhere that some of the Nara deer would bow at you to get deer biscuits. So I randomly tried it and got followed around by a herd of bowing deer. Some of them would just kind of roll their heads around but a couple were quite good at it.UfCz9if - ImgurSo well-mannered!

Needless to say, the biscuit ladies made many yen from us that day.

We also went to the Great Buddha Hall in Todaiji Temple to see this enormous bronze Buddha. It was quite spectacular and definitely worth the entry fee:
IMG_20180629_164848
Inside the hall was a pillar with a hole the same size as the giant Budda’s nostril. Apparently if you can pass through that hole it’s a sign you will attain enlightenment in your next life.

Here is a picture of James failing to reach enlightenment:
IMG_20180629_165904Back outside the temple, James found a deer licking its friend and threatened to join in. Look how sick of their shit that middle deer is.
IMG_20180629_170709We were just about to leave when it started raining heavily so instead we decided to head under cover. The park (which had been quite crowded) cleared out almost completely and we got to see the deer walking around looking for shelter.

This guy walked up and joined us.IMG_20180629_171000 And we all sat there together, waiting for the rain to pass.IMG_20180629_171141 (1)Once it had died down we said goodbye to the deer and headed to Osaka to check into our hotel and grab dinner.

We put our names down at a popular chicken restaurant called Ikkaku and had a bit of a wander around downtown Osaka.

Apparently this running man sign is a famous landmark.
IMG_20180629_201939Ikkaku is famous for a dish called “old chicken” but we both preferred the texture and flavour of the “young chicken”. The old chicken was more intensely chicken-tasting but it was also quite tough, whereas the young chicken was fall-apart tender.

There was a sign on the wall which had a cartoon man making this pose.
IMG_20180629_205903But I forgot to take a photo so now it’s just a weird photo of James.

Day 10: Osaka

We went to Kuromon market as soon as it opened. The first thing we ordered was this beautiful salmon, tuna and roe bowl:
MVIMG_20180630_092124It was so cheap and tasty! I never stopped being impressed by the enormous salmon roe in Japan.

James also scouted out this awesome soft shell crab burger: IMG_20180630_095629We also bought an $8 peach because (much like the $21-a-glass tea) I was curious what an $8 peach tasted like. IMG_20180630_100922They cut it up for me and it was very peachy and nice. Not orders of magnitude nicer than the <$1 peaches I’ve eaten though.

Before we left I bought some oversized scallops grilled with butter soy sauce:
IMG_20180630_103325 It was delicious: IMG_20180630_104040I was pretty full by that point but I still regret not getting this sea urchin:
IMG_20180630_103158It was really heating up by this time, but we didn’t have a ton of time in Osaka so had to power through. We visited a shrine shaped like a lion’s head:
MVIMG_20180630_112507 Then went to a knife shop where James bought a handmade paring knife. He tried out a bunch of different knives and this one was his favourite:IMG_20180711_134842The store engraved it with his name in Japanese and showed him how to keep it sharp. It is his favourite thing he bought in Japan and he babies it like crazy.

In the evening we had a takoyaki snack:
IMG_20180630_201419Then headed to Ajinoya, a popular okonomiyaki restaurant that’s known for having a lighter batter than most okonomiyaki: IMG_20180630_205150That picture only shows half of the queue – there was a second queue across the street so as to not block the street or neighbouring businesses. The double queue was quite common for popular restaurants in Japan and they were all very good about actively managing it and making sure people didn’t accidentally cut the line,

Our okonomiyaki on the grill:
MVIMG_20180630_215735After dinner we walked back to the hotel to crash for the night.

Day 11: Kobe

In the morning we took a train to Kobe to visit the Hakutsuru sake distillery. They had a free self-guided tour where we learned about the history of sake and the sake-making process. It was a nice, informative way to spend an hour or so.
IMG_20180701_093757The free tour included four tastings at the end, which was pretty generous! Also in the gift shop we met Haku-chan, a sake-recommending robot. IMG_20180701_101717Then we continued to downtown Kobe to meet up with Haruka and Noah for lunch. We had more okonomiyaki:IMG_20180701_124757We’d brought them some snacks from the US but they surprised us with gifts of their own! Haruka gave me a beautiful hair tie that she’d made herself, and Noah also gave us some handmade presents:
IMG_20180808_120338The thing on the top left is a little game where you pick one of the coloured paper bits and unwind it to get a little prize. Cute! And he also made us little paper birds with our (and his) names on them. I’ve never had a kid make me anything before – I actually teared up a little.

But yeah, it was really nice chatting to Haruka and catching up over lunch. We grabbed dessert (mainly for Noah, who has a huge sweet tooth) and parted ways at the train station.MVIMG_20180701_153645Then we were on our way to Kobe Animal Kingdom! It originally wasn’t on our itinerary but we decided to go at the last minute since we were in the area.

I’m really glad we did because they had capybaras! For 100 yen you could buy leaves or kibble to feed them.
IMG_20180701_162610They were very chill. Though unlike the deer of Nara, as soon as we ran out of leaves they lost interest very quickly.

I was excited about the capybara and he was mildly excited about the leaf.IMG_20180701_163308I like to think he just told me a wonderful joke.
IMG_20180701_163310There were other animals at the Animal Kingdom. Some of them were in enclosures like a zoo but others were fairly free range. Outside we hung out with (and fed) kangaroos.
MVIMG_20180701_171404 If you’re curious what an alpaca looks like right before it spits at you this is it: MVIMG_20180701_170104Terrifying.

Inside we saw a cool sloth. He moved so slowly (slothfully, even) and was so chill.
IMG_20180701_172603After Animal Kingdom closed we took the train back to Osaka and ate some katsu curry for dinner -it was under $10 each and incredibly satisfying. James thought it was one of the best meals we had in Japan.
IMG_20180701_191253(Though really, pretty much every meal we had in Japan was amazing).

We didn’t spend a super long time in Osaka proper, but unlike Tokyo and Kyoto there wasn’t a ton we wanted to see, so we were quite happy just eating at random places and using it as a base for day trips. Though, like pretty much everywhere else, Osaka is probably best experienced when not 30C+ and humid. Maybe next time!

Kyoto!

29 Jul

Day 5: Travel to Kyoto and Geishas

In the morning we checked out of our hotel and took the shinkansen to Kyoto. The weather in Kyoto was insanely hot – much more hot and humid than Tokyo. We’d planned quite a light itinerary, but even then we still pared things down because it was awful being outside in that 12-5pm stretch.

Luckily our hotel was beautiful. We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton and they upgraded us to one of the luxury river view rooms:
IMG_20180625_131252It’s hard to tell in that photo but on the console is our own little bonsai tree. =)

On the table they had a welcome gift of some fresh fruit, some green tea waffles and a box of chocolates. Also some beautiful origami cranes:
IMG_20180625_132815Our room was enormous compared to the other Japanese hotels we stayed at. You could probably fit our other hotel rooms in the dining area alone.

And then another hotel room in the bedroom area:
IMG_20180625_132801The doorway to the left led to the entrance hallway had some refreshments (water, coffee and tea restocked daily) and the mini bar:
IMG_20180625_131143And to the right was the bathroom area, with the toilet at the end of the hall and the bathroom opposite the mirrors.
IMG_20180625_131204The showerhead was across from the bathtub so that wooden panel was the shower floor. The bath amenities were great – Asprey body wash, shampoo and conditioner, with yuzu and hinoki bath salts also provided.

And did I show you how big the bed was?
IMG_20180625_170305 (1)It was by far the most we’ve ever spent on a hotel but it was worth it. Housekeeping would come by twice a day and in the evenings they’d leave us a little snack like chocolates or cookies. =)

But anyway, we were able to check in early and then headed to Nishiki Market to wander around. I loved the stores where you could pick out fresh seafood and they’d prep and serve it:
IMG_20180625_141405I also loved the oversized Japanese oysters:IMG_20180625_141735But my favourite was sea urchin!MVIMG_20180625_142214We walked around eating whatever caught our eyes – which was generally oversized seafood. This:
IMG_20180625_143913 Was turned into this:IMG_20180625_144224The different parts of it had different textures – some of it was really soft and a couple of parts were almost crunchy.

For lunch dessert we had some green tea rice cake:
IMG_20180625_144817It was very matcha-y and the lady behind the counter said it wouldn’t keep and had to be eaten day-of.

We were full by the time we saw these little hedgehog pastries so didn’t get any, but how cute are they?? MVIMG_20180625_145424After the market we walked around in the attached shopping area where we found an arcade to hang out in. I liked how random some of the claw machine prizes were – bread in a can!
IMG_20180625_150751James also found a drum game that he enjoyed. I like the bonnet-wearing dogs on the screen:
IMG_20180625_151443 Speaking of … IMG_20180625_155004We also found another cat hat gachapon in the shopping arcade. This one had really cool costume hats and I kind of regret not trying for that cool sushi hat at the end:
IMG_20180625_155000After that it was time to go back to the hotel and shower/change for our Geisha dinner at Gion Hatanaka.IMG_20180625_200149The food was beautiful: IMG_20180625_175128But not that tasty. =( There were multiple courses that we forced ourselves to eat – it was all you can drink, which helped.

In between dinner and dessert we were introduced to the Maiko (apprentice Geishas) and the hostess told us some facts about their dress and lifestyle. Then we were treated to a shamisen performance from a Geisha while a Maiko danced.
IMG_20180625_182803Afterwards one of the Maiko came to the different tables and we were able to ask her questions through an interpreter.

Then after dinner we got to play drinking games with the Maiko – that was definitely my favourite part of the night.

(I didn’t choose the title of the video – that was James, who was very proud that I won. Afterwards he was like “she trained at drinking games! And you beat her!”)

Most people lost and the Maiko would pour them a glass of beer or sake (which you can see to the right of the Maiko in the video). If you won you got to pick a small prize (in the basket to her right).

The second drinking game was basically rock/paper/scissors. You hid behind a screen then chose to be either a samurai, tiger or old lady. The samurai killed the tiger who ate the old lady who, I don’t know, scolded? the samurai. Here James is the tiger and the other guy is the old lady, so James won!
IMG_20180625_194157I also won my match. Our night’s loot:
IMG_20180711_142758(Oil blotting sheets, Geisha coasters and chopsticks)

Afterwards we headed to the nearby Yasaka Shrine to look around. It was very atmospheric at night.IMG_20180625_201752Looking towards the street:IMG_20180625_202731-EFFECTSThen we walked back to our hotel, ready for an early start the next day.

Day 6: Arashiyama

In the morning we took a bus to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.
IMG_20180626_074805We got there around 7am which was a good time because there were only a scattered few other people around and it was easy to get uncrowded photos.
IMG_20180626_073625We talked to a photographer who said he’d gone at 8am the other day but even then it was too crowded. So yeah, like with Sensoji (and every other popular attraction in Japan) best to go early!

Afterwards we headed to the nearby Tenryuji temple gardens which we which we enjoyed a surprising amount.
MVIMG_20180626_083204 We were there right as it opened so pretty much had it to ourselves (I assume while everyone else was at the bamboo grove). IMG_20180626_083446James was particularly impressed with the moss. The day before I had seen him stop and admire a moss display at a florist in Kyoto but I think this was the day that confirmed his love of it.

James and his moss:
IMG_20180626_085314It’s always quite exciting when you discover something new about yourself. =)

After the zen garden it was time to go the monkey park. To get to the monkey area we hiked 20 or 30 minutes up a hill, which was quite tiring in the heat.
MVIMG_20180626_091640There was a feeding room where we could buy food for the monkeys (apples or peanuts) and stand inside what was basically a giant cage, feeding the monkeys who were outside. We prioritised the baby monkeys because they were adorable.
IMG_20180626_094429I didn’t realise this at the time, but apparently the monkeys give birth in June/July and that’s why there were so many babies around.

It was really fun feeding the monkeys and it didn’t hurt that the shade and fans were a nice respite from the heat.

Outside it was so hot even the monkeys looked for ways to keep cool: MVIMG_20180626_095500Did I mention how cute the babies were? I did, but it really needs to be re-said.
IMG_20180626_094901 Super cute.IMG_20180626_094852We packed a lot into that morning! Afterwards we walked to the train station and headed back to our end of the city for some ramen. We went to a place called Honke Daiichi Asahi. It was absolutely delicious.
IMG_20180626_112135 And very popular. And very air-conditioned inside. =D

This was the line by the time we left – pretty decent for a weekday lunch! IMG_20180626_113940When we got back to the hotel we relaxed in our room, went for a swim in the pool, used the sauna (James: I don’t like this. It’s like being outside) and had a fortifying afternoon nap. Since it was so unbearable outdoors we were really happy to have a nice base to come back to.

In the early evening we went to Okazaki Shrine, which is appropriately rabbit-themed since it’s associated with fertility:
IMG_20180626_164337There were little bunny statues everywhere:MVIMG_20180626_162415And the Chozuya had a decorative rabbit instead of a dragon:
MVIMG_20180626_163844Then we had an early dinner at a nearby restaurant. We ate wild boar and candied grasshopper that the owner/chef had caught himself:
IMG_20180626_171427And followed that with drinks at the hotel bar. The cocktails were quite pricey ($23) even by US standards but they were delicious and beautifully crafted. This one came in an ice bamboo glass:IMG_20180626_203414I also had a hojicha cocktail which was decorated with tea leaves:
IMG_20180626_210119It looked really cool but got quite sticky as the honey glue holding the tea in place dripped down.

James really enjoyed the theatrics of his drink (and the drink itself):00060IMG_00060_BURST20180626212039_COVERIt was a great way to end the night. =)

Day 7: Kibune

This was the first morning that we took advantage of the free hotel breakfast. If you wanted the Japanese style breakfast you had to reserve it the night before:
IMG_20180627_072846The rice was cooked overnight in a clay pot (I think that was the reason we had to reserve it the day before).IMG_20180627_072855It was a massive breakfast.

Then we walked to the train station, crossing over the Kamo-gawa river.
MVIMG_20180627_084020We took a couple of trains and a bus to Kibune, which in summer is famous for its picturesque riverside dining and nagashi somen (noodles that you catch with chopsticks as they flow past you in bamboo chutes) at a restaurant called Hirobun.

I was a bit worried because our train and bus were quite full, so even though Hirobun didn’t open for 1.5 hours we power walked up the hill to get there. This was the line just before it opened:IMG_20180627_102259It’s not that long and at first we felt like idiots. But when we walked down we saw that nagashi somen only sat 10 or 15 at a time, so everyone past that lady in the yellow skirt had to wait for the second seating.

We prepaid at the counter upstairs then went down to the river, where we were greeted with this view:
IMG_20180627_104209James waiting for his somen to arrive (ours was the middle chute): IMG_20180627_110030Catching my noodles:
00013IMG_00013_BURST20180627110124_COVERThe noodles were quite plain but the activity was fun! They were really good at timing the noodles so you had enough time to eat but weren’t waiting around too long. It sounds silly but it was really exciting whenever I saw some noodles plop into our chute!

This was the waiting area by the time we left (and there was an equally long line outside). At least it was nice and cool next to the river. =)IMG_20180627_112359There were tons of noodles and we were really full at the end. I’d definitely recommend it if you’re in Kyoto in summer!

Then we went to Kifune Shrine, which is dedicated to the god of water and rain. You could purchase a cool fortune which only showed up if you dipped it in water:
MVIMG_20180627_114337 It had a QR code that you could scan to find your fortune in a bunch of different languages. =)

After the shrine we hiked from Kibune to Kurama. It was quite uphill at the beginning:
IMG_20180627_115859Despite that it wasn’t a difficult hike, and there were a lot of shrines and others points of interest to stop at. This tree grove had really interesting roots: IMG_20180627_122721And James found a giant bell:
IMG_20180627_124829Kurama-dera Mountain Temple was also pretty cool.
MVIMG_20180627_125232 It had a lovely view over the mountains:MVIMG_20180627_125309 This was the end of the hike, descending into Kurama:IMG_20180627_130811We took the train back to Kyoto and our hotel for our customary afternoon rest.

In the evening we did a bit of shopping before dinner. On the way we saw a lady walking a turtle! MVIMG_20180627_171202She told us its name but I can’t remember it. Sorry little anonymous turtle!

At Loft, we found a whole series of cat gachapon. =D
IMG_20180627_175612And even more cat hats: MVIMG_20180627_175904
For dinner we went to Anzukko, which is known for its cast iron gyoza. It (and everything else we ate there) was excellent:
IMG_20180627_183120After dinner we walked around and found some mysterious adult only gachapon: MVIMG_20180627_194055
Which I completely bypassed for the peach squishy gachapon next to it:00000XTR_00000_BURST20180627202518-ANIMATIONNote: it (along with the french breadstick squishy under it) was the only one we saw where the contents were guaranteed.

We actually went back for that peach squishy – I couldn’t stop thinking about it after we originally saw it so we went back. Also it came out all compressed and gradually inflated over the course of an hour.

My peach joy:
IMG_20180627_202632

Day 8: Fushimi Inari

At 6am the next morning we went to Fushimi Inari. There were a few people around but it was pretty empty:
IMG_20180628_060023It was difficult waking up early all the time, but really worth it to avoid the crowds and the afternoon heat. MVIMG_20180628_060120Inari is the god of rice but is also worshipped as the god of business, and all of the torii at the shrine have been donated by Japanese businesses. The foxes at Fushimi Inari often had stones or keys (to the granary) in their mouths.
MVIMG_20180628_060441James liked the foxes and kept looking for one with 9 tails (apparently the more tails the fox has the wiser it is).

This one-tailed fox didn’t cut it:
MVIMG_20180628_082301The walk was very nice – even at the lower shrines where it’s normally quite busy we only ever saw a couple of people.

I can’t remember why the path split here – I think maybe they wanted you to go up one way and down the other way?
MVIMG_20180628_060818This section was called senbon-no-torii (one thousand torii) – they were so dense they blocked the sunlight:
IMG_20180628_060830The backs of the gates had details about who had donated them and on what date:IMG_20180628_061827We soon arrived at the inner shrine of Fushimi Inari. Nearby there were these rocks – you were supposed to make a wish and lift up one of them, and if it was lighter than you expected your wish would come true. Spoiler: the rocks were both very heavy.IMG_20180628_061322We kept walking and it was pretty cool seeing all the gates in various states. Some were faded and old, others quite new and even a couple with signs warning you not to toucch them because the paint was still wet. This shrine wasn’t finished yet:
IMG_20180628_075036We took a slight detour to a shrine area with stray cats:
IMG_20180628_063232This was the view near the top:IMG_20180628_080116Us at the summit:
MVIMG_20180628_072755The way back down was leafier and at times the torii gates were quite far apart: IMG_20180628_073809We passed a shrine grotto with a waterfall that you could stand under and pray:
MVIMG_20180628_074428 We didn’t see a lot of people on our walk down:IMG_20180628_074626It only really started to get busy once we hit the inner shrine. At the bottom we bought a torii gate ema:
IMG_20180628_060344(I’d taken that photo earlier – by the time we got back down it was swarming with people).

On the walk back to the station James tried his luck with the gachapon, hoping for the 9 tailed fox. IMG_20180628_085659Unfortunately both times he just got regular foxes. In our Japan expenses spreadsheet he has them listed as “2 unlucky foxes”.

After breakfast we went shopping, which might have been a mistake because it was so hot. On the plus side we found some Peach Coke!MVIMG_20180628_131241And another gachapon arcade. The weird gachapon we found here were buff birds:IMG_20180628_135024And tiny clothes hangers:IMG_20180628_135128In the evening we had dinner in Pontocho Alley: IMG_20180628_183248And enjoyed our evening snack from hotel housekeeping:
IMG_20180628_142140I was so sad to leave that hotel! But I guess not too sad since I knew we were definitely going back to Kyoto one day (which was also why I was OK with skipping a couple of the main temples that were under renovation) – but never again in summer. =P

Kyoto was a gorgeous city and a nice change of pace from Tokyo. But we were ready for the next portion of our trip – Nara, Osaka and Kobe!

Tokyo, Canyoning in Minakami, and an Owl Cafe

17 Jul

We started our trip with a few days in Tokyo. I scheduled some early starts to take advantage of our jet lag because I remembered needing a few days to adjust in Seoul.

Our trip was at the start of Summer, but for the first few days the weather wasn’t too bad (and led to the erroneous belief that we were dealing pretty well with the heat/humidity).

Day 2: Tsukiji and Ginza

Our first morning we woke up bright and early for the Tsukiji Market. A little too early – we got there maybe 30-60 minutes before the outer market really opened so just kind of wandered around for a bit.

We had a delicious breakfast at Sushi Daiwa.
IMG_20180622_060417It’s apparently the second most popular sushi place in the market and I originally hadn’t planned on going because I didn’t want to wait in line, but we were able to walk straight in (FYI Sushi Dai, the most popular sushi place, already had what looked like a 2 hour wait).

This was the queue outside Sushi Daiwa by the time we were done:IMG_20180622_062135Afterwards we wandered around a bit more and bought a $5 giant oyster at Taito Fisheries. It took 3-4 bites to finish and was delicious.
MVIMG_20180622_071641 (1)Then we went to Ginza where we did some window (and actual) shopping. James bought two pairs of shoes from Onitsuka Tiger and we had omakase at Kyubey.
MVIMG_20180622_131941It was even better than Sushi Daiwa, but that makes sense given that it was twice the price!IMG_20180622_130535Sea urchin is so, so tasty.

We shopped some more afterwards. Probably the weirdest place we went to was Dover Street Market.
IMG_20180622_140956 It felt more like an art gallery than a clothing store.IMG_20180622_141103I’ll take two.

I can wear it while I watch the Gucci hat parade.
IMG_20180622_141041Afterwards we headed to Bar High Five where we drank delicious cocktails. I don’t have any photos of dinner so I think we decided we were still full from our giant breakfast and lunch, and just crashed at the hotel.

Day 3: Minakami Canyoning

The next morning we took a shinkansen to Minakami.
IMG_20180623_055856We went canyoning in the morning, which consisted of floating through creeks, ziplining, abseiling, and waterfall jumps.

Here I am leaping into the water in a quokka-esque fashion:
P6230110Whee!
3DAFD80C00000578-0-image-m-20_1488092927987This is James going down a natural water slide. They let us go down this one a couple of times – once forwards and once backwards.
P6230097Backwards was scarier by far since I had no idea where I was going, and got super disoriented once I hit the water.

But the freakiest thing was getting dropped from this waterfall:
P6230040
(We didn’t drop from that height – they lowered us about halfway so we didn’t bounce off the rocks)

Ziplining!

After canyoning we had lunch and went white water rafting. The water wasn’t very high and occasionally James and one of the other guys had to get out and push us over the rocks. All credit to the company though, they made the photos look very dynamic!
Then we had showers, got changed, took the shinkansen back to Tokyo and had a delicious tonkatsu dinner.
IMG_20180623_194251
Day 4: Sensoji and Akihabara

Sensoji is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Tokyo so we went early to avoid the crowds (and the heat). IMG_20180624_073308It rained a little which cut through the humidity, and the weather was actually really comfortable for walking around. Asakusa has a ton of shrines and we found this bizarre one: MVIMG_20180624_082209We visited Tobifudoson, the shrine for flight safety (how niche!) and Imado, a cat shrine that claims to be the origin of the mani neko statue. We picked up some ema boards as souvenirs:
IMG_20180717_172547At Imado we also met a cat which seemed appropriate.MVIMG_20180624_091754James: I like that you can’t go near the shrine but the cat’s allowed to sit there and lick his butthole.

By this time the shops had started to open up so we walked back to the station and grabbed some tempura from a chain restaurant. It was delicious and ridiculously cheap – something like $12 for the two of us. IMG_20180624_101704Then for lunch dessert I had some gelato at Asakusa Suzukien which is famous for its intense matcha gelato. From a website discussing the store:

The matcha gelato has 7 degrees of richness. No. 7 is said to have the richest matcha flavor in the world. In the gelato industry, No. 5 is believed to be the richest that can be produced. Here at Suzukien, they exceed this limit to No. 7.

“No. 7?? Madness! Big Gelato said it couldn’t be done!”

On the bottom row you can see the progression in green intensity from 1 to 7.
IMG_20180624_105953I tried the No. 7 and the hojicha. No. 7 was tasty and indeed extremely matcha-y but I preferred the hojicha because I love hojicha. But it was definitely worth trying No. 7, if only for the ability to turn up our noses at all the other non-boundary-exceeding matcha ice cream stores.

I snapped a quick picture of the crowd at Kaminarimon Gate by the time we left – definitely better to go early!
IMG_20180624_094555My original plan had been to shop Kappabashi Kitchen Town but after some last minute research I found out about 30% of the stores were closed that day, so we decided to save it for next trip and opted for a rest at the hotel.

We got back to our hotel about 15 minutes before the Miyazaki Clock was set to go off. There were a whole bunch of mechanical vignettes that lasted about 10 minutes and it was really cool to watch.
IMG_20180624_115036We rested for a few hours, then headed off to Akihabara. I didn’t think I’d be that interested since neither of us are really into anime but we found a bunch of stuff to entertain us. =)

We spent some time marvelling at the weird shit like anime sex pillows (you can tell they’re sex pillows because of the hole), and also an hour or so browsing Japanese board games, but the real hero of the afternoon was the gachapon arcade. IMG_20180624_154353We were absolutely addicted to these things in Japan. They’re like those little toy gumball machines you loved as a kid, but the stuff inside is so much cooler.

Our favourite gachapon were the cat hats:IMG_20180624_153442Unfortunately we got the orange which was like, the lamest or second lamest one, depending on whether that peach has a leaf in the back. There were a ton of different cat hat series – fruits, vegetables, bunnies, teddies, etc. Also lollies:IMG_20180624_152139Every time we saw a gachapon in Japan we would check to see what wonderful capsules there were inside. Even on super hot days when we’d been walking for hours, we’d still cross the road for them. But anyway, here are some other awesome and weird gachapon we found in that store:

The Garbage Collection:
IMG_20180624_151924 Animals peeing at urinals:IMG_20180624_152128Spoon Hamster:
IMG_20180624_152451 Vomiting animals:IMG_20180624_152448Miniature Sniper:
IMG_20180624_152039The Statue of Liberty on her day off:
IMG_20180624_153923It was always so exciting opening up our capsules to see which one we got. =)

Then it was time for the owl cafe! James thought I had dressed up for the shrines but I had really dressed up for the owls. Here James and I are with Pot Sticker and Gorilla:
20180624_6D0A4880The cafe had a room full of owls chillaxing, with some of them off-limits because they had already been patted too much. You could hold two owls and James started with Pot Sticker:
20180624_6D0A4899Then moved to Spring Onion. He said at first Spring Onion was quite standoffish but then they got along. As proof he showed me these photos of them in tandem:MVIMG_20180624_184242
IMG_20180624_184301
MVIMG_20180624_184317
1x06_Visiting_Ours_(41) (1)
I hung out with Gorilla at the start. He started upright and majestic (and incredibly suspicious of me and the other birds):
IMG_20180624_181554Then partway through he kind of sighed and collapsed on my arm. There were two employees there and both of them came by at separate times and were like “wow, he must really like you!”20180624_6D0A4946 (1)(That’s me hunching over to be more like Gorilla – my posture isn’t quite that bad)

My second owl was grumpy little Okra.
MVIMG_20180624_184921He was so soft! We were only supposed to touch them very gently on the forehead but I would sneakily rub my cheek against him.

When the guy put Okra back on his perch he put him too close to another owl. Okra looked annoyed and took two very deliberate little steps away. Look at him glaring at poor Kuppi who did nothing wrong and was just trying to enjoy his break time. MVIMG_20180624_185227The staff took some really nice photos of us (which they sent to me digitally) and made one of the photos into a postcard. I also bought a souvenir feather of Okra to stick in my hat. =)

For dinner we went to Ippudo for ramen. It was delicious.
IMG_20180624_202716The next morning we packed our (slightly expanded) bags and headed to Kyoto!