Wrapping Up Japan with Osaka and Tokyo

Leaving Ryokan Kurashiki was a pretty big letdown to deal with, but fortunately Osaka was there to pick us back up. We found in our brief stay that we really like this city – it’s not as showy and pretty as Tokyo or as culturally rich as Kyoto, but it’s down to earth and serious about enjoying life and food. There’s shopping for anything one can imagine, a bounty of izakaya restaurants (Japanese-style tapas, basically) and a nighttime bustle that’s easy to get swept up in.

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We had a slight hiccup when we got off the bullet train and realized that, despite us both being certain to the contrary, we did not in fact have any place booked to stay that night. Nothing a quick stop for some pork buns with the laptop couldn’t handle, and fortunately the hotel we ended up with wasn’t bad. We had dragged our feet that morning, not leaving Kurashiki until we had to, and so it was getting dark by the time we cleaned up and headed downtown for the famed Dōtonbori district.

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Dōtonbori is a buzzing canalside area of countless restaurants and bars (and indoor fishing ponds, apparently). We had a good time watching the Japanese tourists take selfies in front of the more famous neon signs and tried out the local specialty takoyaki, fried fish batter balls topped with an assortment of tasty things like bonito flakes and mayo (clip of dancing bonito flakes here).

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this guy moves around. you should go and see.
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an indoor fishing pond in the middle of this busy district!

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Our one full day in Osaka was a fun one. We started with an early lunch at a high-end kaiten sushi place. This was set up like the other conveyor-belt places – color coded plates for pricing, hot water taps for green tea, a giant tub of pickled ginger within easy reach – but the quality was much better. It was nearly twice as expensive as the others we had visited but probably four times as tasty, and still pretty reasonable for what was the best “normal” sushi we’ve had. (I’m excluding the exquisite sashimi we had in a few traditional dinners.)

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sharp architecture near Osaka Station

From there we hopped on a train to visit the nearby town of Nara. This famous location is home to the world’s largest bronze Buddha, housed in the Tōdai-ji temple which was until recently the world’s largest wooden building. As if that weren’t enough to attract mobs of tourists, hundreds of tame sacred deer roam the grounds around the temple and beg for treats being sold by enterprising locals. We knew this place would be all about tourists and so we weren’t too excited to go but we didn’t have any better plans. It ended up being worthwhile – not our favorite day trip but still fun. The massive Buddha is impressive and the giant wooden structure over it perhaps more so. It was amusing watching the Japanese tourists all shuffle through to snap the exact same photographs or giggle and shriek nervously next to the anything-but-threatening deer.

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approaching the Tōdai-ji

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It really is a very large building.

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After the Tōdai-ji we stopped at a nearby free garden, had a little walk around, and then snacked our way back to the train station and Osaka. Our next item of business was a little shopping – I was interested in getting a decent Japanese-forged kitchen knife and the Osaka area is home to some of Japan’s premier smiths. Elaine had located a promising little shop and we were pleasantly surprised on arrival to find that the selection was a lot more reasonably priced than we expected. They carry a range of knives and shears from tourist-targeting opulent stainless blades to more humble and traditional carbon steel ones – these apparently made in-house. After some deliberating I selected one of the latter – sad I’ll have to wait a while yet before I actually get a chance to try it out!

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knife shopping!

Our day ended at a nearby izakaya bar run by a gregarious local who, on account of living in New Zealand, Vancouver, and Hawaii, both spoke excellent English and had a lot of great ideas for tasty food. We had some seriously delicious little plates here from snapper sashimi in raw egg yolk to a miso-flavored rice crust ‘pizza’. This was the most contemporary and inventive meal we found in Japan and I would definitely go back there for more!

The next day, with our time in Japan drawing to a close, we took a lengthy train ride back to Tokyo and our lodging for a couple nights in the Akausa district. What was the right way to close out our fantastic tour of this fascinating country? We intended to visit a few big sights we missed at the beginning but a small sign in K’s House Tokyo Oasis reminded us of a rare and unique opportunity: a sumo tournament being held at the nearby Ryōgoku Kokugikanu! We had actually found out about this prior to our arrival in Japan but weren’t able to buy tickets (in fact, they sold out in less than an hour for all 15 days of the tournament) but it turned out it was possible to buy same-day tickets – if you got up early enough to wait in line and beat everyone else.

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So of course we got up at quarter to five and were in line by 6am – a bit earlier than necessary, we found for a weekday – but by 8 o’clock we had one of the coveted tickets in hand! Each day of the tournament is an all-day affair with doors opening at 8 and the final big bouts occurring around 5pm. We wanted to make sure we had enough steam to enjoy the big guns so we ran around Tokyo on a few errands first, the most important being returning to the Tsukiji Market area for some super-fresh bowl of sashimi. This meant getting on the Tokyo subway at rush hour and I can now say that is the most sardine-like experience I’ve had. I ended up well off of vertical with nowhere to shift my feet. Meanwhile, Elaine had a comfy ride in a women-only car (I can understand why they have these at busy times).

We returned to Ryōgoku Kokugikanu around 2pm for our sumo experience. Watching this competition was supremely unique in our tour of Japan (and by extension, anywhere). Extensive and elaborate ceremony surrounds every moment; of the five or so minutes set aside for each bout, the actual wrestling only takes between one and twenty seconds with the rest being an orchestrated pageant.  This was also the only time that we saw Japanese express really any emotion at all – many spectators were cheering and hollering, and the closing bout – where many thought the standing champion to be unfairly treated – seat cushions were hurled at the ring by the dozens. Nowhere in Japan have we seen social behavior come anywhere close to that!

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inside Ryōgoku Kokugikanu from our nosebleed seats
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the top-ranking sumo enter ceremoniously

Each matchup, as mentioned, takes around five minutes. First a sacred chant is sung after the previous bout (everything sumo is deeply rooted in the Shinto religion) and the ring is artfully swept smooth. The massive competitors then climb up onto the elevated platform – for presumably historical reasons the earthen ring is built up half a meter off the ground, which makes the frequent throws off and into the surrounding spectators all the more dramatic and jarring. Bear in mind these guys are approaching 200 kg, some over.  Anyway once they’re up there with the judge (who is elaborately costumed) what follows is a sequence of repeated posturing, gut-slapping, and salt-throwing that takes several minutes. Finally all three – sumos and judge – are in position and ready, with the crowd electrified. When the moment comes they both explode forward and collide with the violence of linebackers but lacking any pads for protection. If both engaged solidly they then grapple, push, shove and shift their feet with astonishing speed to attempt different throws or to push their opponent out of the ring. Sometimes it’s over immediately, sometimes a series of remarkable recoveries, but at some point soon one wrestler is down or out and the other victorious. (video of a bout here)

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Thus ended our three-week visit to Japan. This was a relatively whirlwind visit – more like a “normal” vacation for us, rather than the relaxed pace we had adopted in affordable Southeast Asia. Japan isn’t the cheapest place to travel in so we did our best to make the most of it, and fortunately we were ready for some busy days after slogging through Indonesia (in retrospect I think we would have been hard-pressed to find a greater dichotomy in efficiency than between these two countries).

Our best days in Japan:

Exploring the spectacular Jogasaki coast before returning to Ito for the most delicious ramen we had in Japan, then soaking in the onsen of one the best value accommodations we’ve found in the world at K’s House.

Teleporting via bullet train from Kyoto to Himeji to visit the spectacular castle and neighboring gardens, then back to the cultural capital for an excellent traditional Japanese dinner.

Hiking between the picturesque towns of Magome and Tsumago through cypress and cedar woods with a picnic lunch next to waterfalls complete with little single-serving cans of sake.

Waking up to a ten-dish breakfast at Ryokan Kurashiki, getting a solid dose of culture and history in Okayama, and returning to Kurashiki for a gorgeous sunset and the best meal of our visit served in our own tatami-mat room.

Random Stats from Japan:

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our route, courtesy of Tripline and Google Maps. Numbers don’t mean much other than sequence.

best sashimi: Ryokan Kurashiki
best “regular” sushi: Kantaro Hakodate, Osaka
weirdest meal: stinky feet tonkotsu ramen in Imabari. No, I don’t think that’s the traditional name.
weirdest single bite: sea cucumber roe
prettiest garden: Koko-en, Himeji
fattest carp: Tsuwano
# of train/subway rides: 86 (I’m counting transfers from one line to another here)
best yuru-chara mascot: drinky the raccoon, Shaijo (I’m sure he has a real name)
best noodles: udon in Himeji
best grilled fish: Yanmo, Tokyo
most scenic: Jogasaki coast, Izu penninsula
most surprisingly fun place: Onomichi
# crippling head strikes: 4
strangest social encounters: group bow outside restaurant in Tokyo. Man in robe at a bar asking if we want raw horsemeat.
best 7-Eleven triangle snack: blue (tuna mayo)
best local produce: Satsuma mandarins, Ehime Prefecture
# of imperfectly cooked rice servings: 0
only time Google translate helped: figuring out a laundromat in Matsuyama
best wagyu beef: Ryokan Kurashiki

Ryokan Kurishiki – 52 Dishes and that’s just Breakfast

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What is the most luxurious thing you have ever done? Stayed in a 5-star hotel? Eaten at a Michelin 3-star? Flown first class? I can’t say that we are really luxury chasers by nature, but the idea of staying in a high-end ryokan in Japan has always been on my radar. I would say “bucket list”, but I don’t really like that term.

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When we decided to go to Japan, this idea of staying in a fancy ryokan surfaced. I had read so much about the experience and we decided to splurge for two nights at Ryokan Kurishiki, in its namesake town a bit Southwest of Okayama. This was really a once in a lifetime experience and I’m not sure how to begin describing it, so…bullet points!

  • Arrive and drop our damp bags and umbrella on the floor.
  • Get escorted to the lounge and served tea and treats.

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  • Staff asks us, as we enjoy our tea, when we would like dinner served and whether we would like sake with it?
  • Also, when we would like to enjoy our bath time tonight and breakfast the following morning?
  • Get shown to our room which includes a jacuzzi tub, powder room, bedroom, toilet room, downstairs sitting room and upstairs loft sitting room.
  • Act like teenagers in their first ever hotel and run from room to room and open every drawer, cabinet, and window.

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  • Shuffle through all the bath supplies and immediately start bathing and put on kimonos.
  • drink all the weird juice in the minifridge.
  • go smell bath products again.

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  • put some clothes on for dinner, which may not be necessary but we don’t know.
  • go back to lounge and sample sake.
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Sake – help yourself!
  • answer the knock at the door to let us know that it is dinner time and our dinner room for the evening is in the special room above the entryway if you can please follow me?
  • eat dinner which is a 9-course affair with exquisite presentation.
  • return to room and change back into kimonos because it’s bath time.
  • relax in the hotspring tub.
  • sleep in a super nice bed with really nice sheets.
  • wake up to the New York Times delivered in our room.
  • have husband fetch you coffee while you read the news and sit in your upstairs sitting area in kimono.
  • go have a crazy breakfast with at least 27 tiny dishes per person and a personal grill to grill your fish and roe (fish eggs for breakfast)!
  • more bathtime (optional).
  • Enjoy Japanese gardens and museums nearby.
  • sunset walk around the picturesque neighborhood.
  • repeat!
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In front of Ryokan Kurishiki 

Of course this list does not even begin to describe the experience. It is kind of like someone asking you how your garden is doing. Which part? The flowers, vegetables? That bear that just ran through the yard? Part of what I was excited about for our stay was just the things you can’t put your finger on, like walking around on straw tatami mats in this 200 year old building or having someone put your shoes facing the correct way so you can just slip them on when you’re ready to leave. Sometimes it’s better to just not try. Hopefully you can get a sense from the pictures how much of an experience this was for us.

The town of Kurishiki was just as picturesque as our Ryokan, especially at sunset. Tiny shops along the canals and everyone enjoying themselves made for a very relaxing walk.

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This is a shop that specializes in all sorts of decorative scotch tape

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Ryokan Kurashiki’s centuries-old building in an equally historic neighborhood

When we did stray from our ryokan we took a day trip to Okayama to visit the Karaku-en garden and the local prefectural museum. A short train ride and we were there. 

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too cute, or “kawaii” in Japanese

Ever the suckers for Japanese gardens we entered and were asked if we would like a free guided tour by a man who had just retired but wanted to keep his English sharp. 

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Our garden guide

We followed him around the gardens as he explained how the local river was diverted to make the castle more secure and all the intricacies of the garden. Japanese gardens require rocks, water, grass and hills. This garden was flat initially, but they brought in soil and also many large rocks when they built it in the 1700’s. They cut the big stones and transported them in segments.

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Castle that overlooks the garden

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After a great walk around the garden and a trip to see swords at the prefectural museum, we headed back for our second and last super fancy dinner.

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(caption by Gregor) I discovered photos weren’t allowed after snapping a few. This was a really special temporary exhibit with easily 100 beautiful blades of all types – tachi, katana, wakizashi, tonto, etc – from all over other museums, shrines, and private collections, some dating back over 1000 years. Lucky find! Thanks Elaine for letting me so sharply interrupt the relaxing flow of luxury inn and gardens…

So, back to Kurasiki for another lovely evening. I know you’re thinking, “What about the food? Certainly we’re not going to get off with only seeing 6 food pictures!” Well, you’re right 🙂 Here it comes. The grand finale!

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Sashimi Course with fresh wasabi root and a sharkskin grater
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This is the most magical bite of food ever. Fatty tuna = butter

Wait, I take that back. THIS is the most magical bite of food ever. Waygu beef.

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more, please! 

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Ok that’s enough… Dinner. Just a few more, from breakfast.

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Unfortunately I could not get all the dishes and my husband’s head in the frame. Sometimes you gotta make tough choices, folks.

With our bellies full we said goodbye to this magical place and once again packed our backpacks and set off for the next destination.

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I would like to think it’s all the experiences that make my bag overflow….
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Until next time!

San-yō over Setouchi to Shikoku

Okay, I couldn’t help using some rather obscure location names to achieve some alliteration and sense of adventure. To clarify a bit: San-yō, meaning “the Sunny Side of the Mountains”, is the east-facing hill and coastal region of western Honshū (the big island). San-yō overlooks Setouchi, more commonly known as the Inland Sea, on the other side of which is Shikoku. On to the voyage.


We had considered spending a third night in Hiroshima but in order to mix it up a bit we decided instead to take advantage of our rail pass and go further into Japan. The combined roulette wheel of distance, availability, and interest stopped spinning on the mountain town of Tsuwano, so it was for there we were bound. This entailed a three-hour combination of bullet train and local rail (slow and hilly – this leg one can take the steam train, if one actually plans far enough ahead unlike us).

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Tsuwano is a lovely valley town under the view of the surrounding Chūgoku Mountains with old castle ruins and temples. It sounded like a nice place to get away from city life, and that it was – it takes perhaps fifteen minutes to walk the length of the one main street at a leisurely pace (it takes more than that, of course, to actually relax and enjoy it). Tsuwano is filled with friendly sake breweries, picturesque valley views, and narrow waterways populated by the fattest carp we’ve seen. The town is known for these fish, and they live well because of it – 100 yen gets your kid (or wife) a bag of food for these voracious beasts.

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Upon arrival Elaine took a siesta and I headed uphill to see the ruins of the old castle. These were reduced to stone fortifications yet were impressive, especially considering their lofty location. When I reached the top it became apparent that my timing coincided with an imminent steam train departure because several Japanese trainspotters were parked on the outlook with multiple massive cameras each. I joined them and though my puny point-and-shoot couldn’t handle the distance, I got to enjoy seeing the train chugging through the town and hear the whistle echoing through the valley.

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an interesting experience to sweat your way up a hill to find massive walls
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view of the town and valley from the castle ruins
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An elderly Japanese gentleman, armed with a pair of cameras, awaits the train in a full suit and baseball cap
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my camera wasn’t quite up to the task – as mom said, it looks like a model trainset

For the remainder of the day we visited the local Shinto shrine, wandered through town, and retired to our inn for dinner. We were staying at a small ryokan (traditional Japanese inn – the sort with sliding doors, tatami mats, and futon mattresses on the floor) and our visit included Japanese style dinner and breakfast. Both were delicious and pleasantly served by the welcoming family that runs the place.

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the sacred rope (shimenawa) over the entrance to the main shrine at Taikodaniinari
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dinner at our ryokan

The next day we rolled our way back down to and up the coast to the port city of Onomichi. Onomichi is located on the Inland Sea that sits between the main island of Japan (Honshū) and the eastern island of Shikoku. We came here so that we could bike the Shimanami Kaidō, a stretch of roads and bridges crossing over the sea to Shikoku that is nicely set up for cycling. We were to spend a night beforehand in Onomichi so we could get an early start, and we didn’t expect much of the city (it’s not really a tourist destination) but found it to be quite charming. Walking around brought us through authentic local shops and up through narrow hill alleys with corner gardens tended by busy schoolchildren. For dinner we sat down for kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi at a place above a grocery store where we were definitely the only out-of-towners. It was fun to see a calmer, more genuine side of Japanese life away from touristy temples and busy cities.

 

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from our hilltop hotel: Onomichi, the port, and Mukoujima Island

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The Shimanami Kaidō bike route is 75km of road and pathway crossing through six islands via an assortment of grand bridges before arriving at Imabari over on Shikoku. We arranged luggage forwarding the day before (this was very easy and cheap) so we could make a complete one-way trip. Riding this would obviously require bicycles; we got up early to reach the rental station when they opened. The good news was the rentals here are cheap and permit the one-way trip we intended. The downside is the bikes aren’t exactly in top shape, so we ended up on rickety rides that at least had some functional gears. Mine was a Panasonic – they make bikes??

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one of the many maps along the bikeway
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ready to go early in the morning!

Our trip began with a quick ferry hop over to the first island and then followed the exceptionally well-marked route along quiet coastal roads and bike paths. The weather, overcast and occasionally drizzly, was not the best for panoramic views but actually quite nice for cycling compared to some of the hot and humid days we’d been having. We rode past temples and citrus trees, rocky coasts with the occasional tree starting to turn for the fall, and across modern suspension bridges over swirling currents below. It was a really nice ride and also the easiest ~50 miles I’ve ever done despite being on creaky claptraps. If we had our good road bikes it would have been great to tackle one of the longer and more challenging routes – maybe next time!

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this guy wasn’t even on the map!
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crossing bridge one of six

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a local watching the tide rush by
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the last bridge is a beautiful 4km span over to Shikoku

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we had read that these channels were hazardous to shipping back in the days of sail – easy to believe looking down from up here!

We pulled into Imabari early in the afternoon where we dropped our bikes off, grabbed lunch, and congratulated ourselves for dodging the downpour which started soon after. From there we took a brief train ride further south to Matsuyama, the castle town where we had a room waiting for us – and, we hoped, our luggage. Not to fear – the hotel staff graciously presented us with our bags as soon as we got to the counter. Am I more impressed than I should be that we can drop off our big bag anywhere in Japan by 5pm and for ~$15 it will appear the next day at our destination? Japan, you rock.

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tasty bagels and a welcome to Matsuyama!

 

Matsuyama was really more of a stopover of convenience for us when we were planning our Shimanami Kaidō ride, but we enjoyed our two night visit here quite a bit. It’s a coastal city that’s mostly quite flat except for a couple hills popping up; the 400-year old castle is perched on one of these, flanked by a park and downtown. The evening of our ride, after doing some laundry at a very Japanese laundromat (a bit confusing at first, supremely efficient once you figure it out), we walked into one of the many yakitori establishments in the busy restaurant quarter. These places deal in grilled skewers and the one we found was basically a local dive – no English at all. With some back-and-forth cellphone translating plus some assistance from the robed beer-drinking local next to us we managed to order a tasty assortment of chicken. Best were some flavorful meatballs and crispy bacon-like neck.

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I don’t have a photo of dinner. You get this instead

The next day we visited the Ninomaru historical gardens and Matsuyama Castle. The former was a bust – all the waterways were drained for cleaning and it wasn’t very attractive – but the castle was great. It’s not as grand as Himeji-jo but does sport some beautiful wooden construction and impressively high gracefully concave walls. Inside we found some displays of samurai weapons and armor, including a replica kit that you could try on. God it must have been difficult to go to war in those days – I was already hot and sweaty before even picking the stuff up, let alone having it on!

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elegant walls
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an interesting display on some of the intricate joinery used to piece together the wooden castle. It’s like a puzzle!

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no, it’s not quite my size

Lunch was a supermarket affair, the highlight being delicious local satsuma mandarins, and for dinner we ended up at basically a steak bar that specializes in all cuts of wagyu. We packed away a few delicious plates before retiring, bound the next day for Okayama and a very special ryokan stay there.

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Not many cultures would solve the problem of a gap in the castle yard with what is essentially a sculpture

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Hiroshima – Solemnity, Sampuru, and Sake

This post contains gorgeous landscapes and good fortune so please bear with us through the less than carefree beginning.

Hiroshima, the name has some really strong connotations for me as I’m sure it does for everyone in the US and Japan. We happen to be in Japan at a really strange point in time where Kim Jong Un is….well, an issue, and the rest of the world is not really sure what to do about it. We awoke the other morning and found all over the news that a missile had sailed right over Japan while we slept. It was all over the news and Japanese TV’s everywhere were tuned in to the story. So let’s just say it’s a very poignant time to visit Hiroshima and see first hand how a busy city was reduced to rubble and then rebuilt to the vibrant city it is 72 years later; a sobering lesson on destruction and the human spirit. 

Nuclear warfare is a tough issue to tackle even in the best of times. The Japanese themselves were divided over whether to keep the Genbaku Dome – some thought they should take it down and move on with life while others wanted to preserve it. Ultimately, the building became the focal point of Hiroshima Peace Park, which, despite covering a difficult topic is a very thoughtful and well laid out park.

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While it really sucks to stand there and stare at this shell of a building you know was a result of your home country’s wartime actions, it was refreshing to see the park utilized by the locals and life marching on; people cycling through the park to work, mothers feeding their kids snacks on the bench, advertisements flashing across the intersection; and at the same time people taking in the enormity of it all.

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There were many free guides floating about in the park so we opted to get the local perspective here. Our guide wore a black dress with heels and says she has given tours here everyday for the last six months except when it rains. After finding out we were from the US she said, “Let me show you my husband,” and pulled out her phone with a homescreen of Tom Cruise, to which I told her that was my husband and we shared a laugh. Anyway, she showed us all around the complex and gave us a good history lesson about the dome and what happened on “that day” in 1945.

The museum was also very well done with lots of facts and history. My favorite plaque has a great message that again seems very affecting with today’s political climate:

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**Thus concludes the “heavy stuff”. Unless you’re talking about food, in which case we have just begun.**

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Here you can see Gregor’s mound of cabbage/bacon and the sad-looking stew I was about to eat. Please note the baseball game in the background, everyone’s attention was on the local team – the Carp!

Hiroshima is known for these awful dishes I call “spaghetti-egg-pies” which Gregor thinks are great. Okonomiyaki, as they are otherwise called, consist of noodles cooked on a grill with a mound of cabbage, egg, bacon, some rich teriyaki sauce and a crepe-like thing that gets an honorable mention. Apparently this concoction originated in Hiroshima and has somehow migrated to other parts of the country, but it is literally inescapable in the city. Thankfully the one night we ordered this, the place also had a great curried beef which is also everywhere in Japan and looks horrific but actually tastes good. I swore I would not eat this because the sampuru always looks terrible, but I must admit it was really delicious, like curried beef stew.

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Sampuru of the curry dish. Not very appetizing, right?

*Quick note- Almost every restaurant in Japan has “Sampuru” (from the English word “sample”, yes, it is funny) – a window display of plastic dishes that look exactly like what you are served. This mystified us when we first arrived as the dishes are accurate right down to portion size and garnishes, but it is a widely practiced part of Japanese culture to have a window full of plastic displays of your dishes. There is one town that specializes in making sampuru and will customize standard dishes or create them if there is no template available. A full menu of sampuru can cost $8000+ for one restaurant so it’s quite a business.

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Window display of fake food “Sampuru”

Our only full day in Hiroshima area was consumed by a trip to Miyajima, an island off the coast famous for this floating shrine and oysters. They also have deer which are basically domesticated and really lazy. We got an early start to avoid the crowds and succeeded in getting to the island in time to get some pictures before the mobs of tourists appeared. I can’t say I would list it as one of the top three views in Japan as advertised, but it was beautiful.

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Gregor decided to see what his life has in store for him and get a paper with his fortune on it. There are something like 38 fortunes and you shake a box of sticks until one comes out and whatever number that is you get the paper with that number on it. But it is written in Japanese so he just put it in his pocket. Maybe we will meet someone who can read it for him! (Hint, hint, keep reading).

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Gregor getting his fortune
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Many shrines have monks that will stamp a book and write in it for you, many Japanese tourists carry these and stand in line to get them written in.

From the ocean, there is a cable car up a pretty substantial hill to a nice viewpoint. You can then take the cable car back down if you wish. I was fighting a cold so our usual gung-ho approach of “of course we will climb the hill” diminished into taking the cable car up and enjoying the view, how luxurious! It would have been quite a climb so well worth the price of admission if nothing other than to avoid being a sweaty hot mess on the train ride back to Hiroshima.

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The viewpoint was spectacular and from there you can hike about half an hour to another viewpoint and walk down the hill, which is what we opted to do.

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First viewpoint
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View from the top!
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Gregor with his fortune
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Shrine near the base of the hill

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At this point it was lunchtime and after gazing over the bay and seeing oyster farms it was of course time to partake in some of the island’s famous fare. We ordered both fried and grilled oysters. These are the biggest oysters I have ever seen! Each fried oyster was about the size of a small egg. With that box checked off we strolled back to the ferry and got slightly sidetracked by the large market in town that had one of the most delicious desserts I have ever had. Not sure what they are called, but it’s like flaky pie crust with custard inside, or you could get caramel. Oh, and they serve them piping hot, oh so good! We ate these too quickly to get a picture 🙂

This seemed like a pretty full day already, but we decided to take a trip a bit North to Saijo, a town famous for sake. Reasonably, one of the most important ingredients in sake making is water so sake distilleries tend to cluster around water sources that have the best balance of minerals. All around town they have little fountains where you can fill your water bottles for free with the famous water, we did a little taste test and the water is very good in the town!

Each town seems to have a mascot to help you with your daily activities. The left is Hiroshima’s overfed deer-police and the right is sake-town Saijo’s “Drinky” the raccoon.

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We visited two of the distilleries and did a self-guided tasting at the first one (they just have bottles of sake out that you pour yourself), I cannot imagine this working in the US.

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Distillery #1

The second place we visited was a bit busier and had 4 or so tables where people were doing tastings. No open tables, but two empty seats at a table which the three Japanese men sitting at gestured for us to join them. At this place we got two flights of sake, one of the “standard” and one of the higher end stuff they had available.

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One of the men at our table (named Kiyoshi) at our table started chatting with us and spoke very good English. Come to find out he is a sake sommelier which he confided is not as hard a title to attain as a wine sommelier, but he sure knew more than us! Gregor took the opportunity of meeting a bilingual person to get Kiyoshi to read his fortune that he had been carrying around since he got it at Miyajima, unable to read it since it was all in Japanese and unable to prepare for whatever inevitable fate was about to befall him! Kiyoshi said “aah” and that he had gotten the same fortune before and it was a good one! Something about North East being a good direction and also that he was to have good luck. I should have paid more attention to that part as shortly thereafter he double-skunked me at cribbage! I don’t think I have ever been double-skunked! This fortune must be the real deal.

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Kiyoshi reading Gregor’s fortune for him

After finishing our sake tasting Kiyoshi asked if we would like to see a local shrine on our way back to the train. Always happy to trail a local around we walked over to see a lovely rock garden and then took the train back to Hiroshima.

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Southeast Asia Summary

This post is mostly to share some photos that didn’t fit in along the way, plus a few overall thoughts from our four months in Southeast Asia. We came nowhere close to seeing everything this region has to offer, but I think we’ll be back – we found traveling here to be easy, very affordable, and best of all, consistently amazing!

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We spent 122 days traveling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia:

map of our wanderings (the numbers don’t indicate anything beyond chronology)

This means that we only saw half of the countries in this area at all – we didn’t see Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, or (aside from a brief stop in Kuala Lumpur) Malaysia. These are all places that – based on other travelers we spoke with – have a lot to offer, we just didn’t make it there.

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A Random List of Stats

Hottest temp: 40C+ Hue, Vietnam
Best bananas: Angkor, Cambodia
Worst food poisoning: Kampot, Cambodia
Bumpiest bus ride: Mui Ne to Dalat, Vietnam
Most repeat meals: Mama’s Chicken Shack, Tonsai, Thailand
Best kebab: Sinbad’s, Mui Ne, Vietnam
Best place to pet cats: Tonsai Beach, Thailand

# of flipflops blown: 5. Once the first pair goes, you’re screwed: all the ones here are terrible.

# pairs of sunglasses: 5. Scratched, crushed between my head and something, lost overboard, and just generally low quality.

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Best sunset: Railay Beach, Thailand. (Gili Air, Indonesia, in close second.)
Most ants:
Bakong, Cambodia

Worst accommodation: Cat Ba, Vietnam

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Best diving: Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Best coffee: Hanoi, Vietnam
Worst internet availability: Sulawesi, Indonesia
Best hike: Gunang Lokon, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Best oranges: Hanoi, Vietnam

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weirdest meal: Krabi, Thailand
best street noodles: Nguyễn Trung Ngạn Alley, Saigon, Vietnam

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What We Were Nervous (and Wrong) About

We’d never been to this part of the world and so we had a few things that made us a bit anxious beforehand, ranging from the somewhat reasonable to the rather ridiculous.

Communication: a wide range of completely new tongues – some unreadable to boot – plus reportedly little English had us wondering how difficult it would be for us to get by day to day. This turned out to be a complete non-issue. Southeast Asia is full of polyglots, many of them learning some English in school along with multiple local languages, making it embarrassingly easy to communicate. The few phrases and words we learned came less out of necessity and more to at least show we were trying. In the cases where we were far enough out of the way as to run out of English speakers, gesturing worked fine with the friendly and patient locals.

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Crowds: picturing Asian cities brings to mind street food, pollution, and… dense crowds. Would it be nerve-wracking? Nope. Granted, there may be times and places where the crowds really are something else (festivals, etc) but otherwise it’s just like any other busy city. We’ve been in tighter (and smellier) quarters packed in the Paris Metro than we were anywhere in Kowloon or Bangkok.

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Beds: maybe edging toward the sillier side, but we both have had lower back issues off and on and I was worried that the reputably rock-hard beds would be problematic. Yes, we encountered many hard beds, but fortunately it’s been fine!

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Buddha is OK with the hard beds… Bangkok, Thailand

Height: you can laugh at this one but I’m 6’2″ (188cm) – significantly taller than your average Southeast Asian. How many times would I hit my head? Results are in: a lot. The temples of Angkor in particular were a hotspot of head bumps. Ah well, I survived!

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nope, not my head, though it felt like it sometimes. This ones’s from the history museum in Saigon

Safety: reading about others’ travels it’s easy to get concerned about scams, theft, or worse. It turns out Southeast Asia is just like anywhere else in the world and these are only issues if you are dumb or drunk or perhaps exceptionally unlucky. Common sense prevailed and we had no issues!

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Hue, Vietnam

Health and Food: we were really excited about touring through Southeast Asian cuisine, but also apprehensive: would it be sanitary, or would we get sick all the time? Would everything be insanely spicy? Again, these were pretty much unfounded fears. There were occasional bouts of discomfort and one real food poisoning (I pushed my luck at an idle Cambodian street cart) but overall no more problems than on any overseas travel. As for spiciness we only had a handful of times when we weren’t given a choice or warning ahead of time. Again, common sense (and some Pepto) goes a long way.

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rice: get used to it

The Top Highlights

Exploring the temples of Angkor: climbing around on thousand-year-old ruins, dozens of sites each with unique things to see, and a crash course in local history and art along with it. This is a special place.

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Diving in Komodo National Park: our Southeast Asia travel happily led to us discovering scuba diving as a new passion for both of us. The grandeur and excitement of this amazing location combined with us learning a ton made this one of the best things we’ve ever done, period.

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Caving in Phong Nha: swimming through granite and limestone tunnels underground, combined with enjoying the gorgeous natural scenery above, made this a really unique and fun destination.

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Eating our way through Vietnam: we really liked Vietnam. The culture and people, the value of accommodation, and of course the food. All the stuff you know already (pho, spring rolls, bahn mi, bun thit nuong) and plenty that was new (bun cha, egg coffee, mi quang, grilled squid…) – it’s all amazing. Even the basic stuff – fruit, peanuts, eggs – were fabulous. Saigon, Hoi An, and Hanoi were tops for food.

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Hoi An, Vietnam: good food, and pretty too

It’s not really fair to only list a few top items, though. So much was amazing, with nearly every day bringing us something new and beautiful!

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

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A Quick Country Comparison

We were surprised by how unique each country and region of Southeast Asia is. Even a short border crossing on the mainland brings a whole new world to explore. The differences felt much more pronounced to us than traveling between nations in Europe or Latin America (though perhaps this is partly due to the newness of everything Asian to us!).

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Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

Thailand: as advertised – approachable, fun, and tasty. This was a good country to start with because it’s so easy to travel as an English-speaking foreigner. Some areas were certainly heavily touristed but we never felt too far from the local culture and food scene. There’s something for everyone here with beaches and karst, jungle and hills, temples and markets, and the most varied (and cheap) street food.

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Chiang Mai

Cambodia: we had some highlights in Cambodia – especially Angkor – but overall this was our least favorite country to visit. We found it to be quite dirty and relatively unremarkable, with good food hard to come by. Phnom Penh was our least favorite city in S.E. Asia for the same reasons. We certainly can’t hold it against them – the Khmer have been through some seriously hard times in recent history! We don’t regret visiting at all but I don’t think we’ll be hurrying back.

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Angkor Wat

Vietnam: our favorite. There’s rich culture and history, beautiful mountains and coastline, and for the most part excellent and varied food. The people are friendly and hard working, the streets largely clean, and the value for accommodation was the best we found. Getting around the country is easy with a good network of buses and cheap flights. It wasn’t all perfect, of course: some places just didn’t work for us (namely, Cat Ba), others were mobbed by hordes of Chinese tourists, and the summer heat could be overwhelming especially as we got further north. Overall, however, Vietnam won a special place in our hearts.

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Hoi An

Indonesia: is huge, scattered, and hard to travel efficiently. I think it would have taken something like six months before we could say we saw as much of Indonesia as we did with one month in Vietnam. So there is much of the country that we did not visit and therefore can’t describe – nearly four weeks on Sulawesi alone covered only some of that one island! Indonesia was our longest stint at two months but this was due to our new infatuation with scuba diving. If it weren’t for the numerous incredible sites for this activity I think the repetitive food and challenging logistics would have worn thin sooner. But we were off the beaten track for a while – if you don’t mind having a lot of tourists around, Bali seems like a great cheap destination. Overall: I expect we’ll be back for some more diving – and when we do, we’ll be more than ready to dig into more nasi campur and ayam taliwang!

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Senggigi, Lombok

What’s Awesome About Southeast Asia

In our opinion, of course!

Travel value – doing anything and everything here is so much less expensive than in most other places on our planet. Bargains for food, lodging, and transport are everywhere, and even bigger costs like diving are cheaper. Sure, you can pay a lot to visit Southeast Asia – stay in plush hotels catering to Westerners, book glossy packages, and eat and drink the food you’re used to rather than local fare. But then you’re not only paying way more than you need to, you’re missing out on so much of what makes traveling fun!

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Street food – okay, maybe stating the obvious here, but it’s nearly everywhere in one form or another, often delicious, always cheap, and a good bet for a pleasant surprise (or at least a learning experience). The indicator for good street food is ubiquitous across S.E. Asia: tiny plastic stools in the road or sidewalk packed with locals.

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at a street soup vendor in Chinatown, Bangkok
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can’t remember the name, but delicious… Saigon, Vietnam

Fruit – the fruit in S.E. Asia is insanely good. Not only is there huge variety and plenty you’ve never seen before, but even the ‘normal’ stuff (bananas, mangoes, pineapple, etc) is so much better than you can get in the States. Back home I rarely like mangoes and can’t stand papaya, but in Thailand I was eating them every day!

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jackfruit and temple in Hue, Vietnam

Markets – are fun concentrations of people, color, sights and smells. Temporary street markets take over long stretches of streets to entertain tourists and locals alike while covered daily markets show you the local specialties and personalities (as long as you don’t mind walking through fishy wet floors). Not all markets are equal but most are worth checking out and many are quite a lot of fun!

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fried fish at a market in Thailand

Tropical coasts – so much incredible coastline and blue water (where it isn’t marred by plastic garbage). I don’t really like jungles with the heat and humidity – I prefer being high up in the mountains, which isn’t really a thing here – but I also like being on the ocean. Indonesia takes the win here but Thailand and Vietnam also have great waterfront.

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Gili Air, Indonesia

Outdoor activities – we kayaked, rock climbed, snorkeled and scuba dived, hiked, and mountain biked, and that’s only a subset of the really affordable activities available in S.E. Asia. Now of course there are some outdoor things that aren’t easy – even just walking from A to B can be a pain as sidewalks are often nonexistent or full of scooters or holes! Also, most of these activities aren’t “normal” for the local culture so it can be a bit convoluted sometimes to actually find a hiking trail, equipment, or map.

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Cat Ba, Vietnam

Temples – Buddhism and Hinduism means lots of eye-catching sites to visit that really aren’t like anything you can find in the Western world. They’re beautiful and peaceful, ornate yet often simple. More often than not there’s at least one nearby that’s worth visiting.

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Hue, Vietnam

Bummer! The Not So Great

Plastic, plastic, plastic – bottles, bags, containers, it’s everywhere and has nowhere good to go so it ends up in the ocean. It’s really sad to see a gorgeous beach marred by garbage dunes or to watch plastic bags drift by while diving a beautiful reef. The worst part is it’s hard to avoid being part of the problem, because:

Drinking water – is hard to find outside of the aforementioned plastic bottles. Some places are better than others – Bangkok has a bunch of reverse-osmosis dispensers around the city that cost next to nothing – and sometimes we’ve been able to filter tap water. But a lot of times we’ve had to buy water and unfortunately it’s a lot easier to find small bottles than bigger, more efficient ones.

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Native wildlife – hoping to see that local furry or feathered critter? Good luck, it’s most likely been eaten or deforested pretty much out of existence. Thinking about conservation isn’t really part of the culture here. Unless there’s money to  be made from it, but that doesn’t always get the best result: feeding animals to attract them to certain locations, elephant ‘sanctuaries’ with questionable practices, or that one tree in the park where the guides bring everyone to see the same tarsier family (I think 90% of the amateur photos out there must be the same tarsier).

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What Would We Do Next Time?

After talking to travelers and expats along the way there are a few specific things that we would really like to come back to Southeast Asia for, in addition to revisiting some of our favorites.

Diving in Raja Ampat: this is by all accounts an amazing place to dive in Indonesia, but it’s both far out of the way and relatively expensive. A liveaboard trip here would be fantastic I’m sure.

Exploring the Philippines: we elected to skip the Philippines this time due to the political climate, but we’d both really like to go. It sounds unique, beautiful, and fun. In particular I would like to dive some of the many WWII wrecks among the islands and bays.

Malaysian Borneo: we were actually very close to going here for the combination of hiking and diving. A last minute decision to hop over to Japan for a few weeks preempted this but we’re keeping it in mind for next time!

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Mui Ne, Vietnam
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Lombok, Indonesia
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Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Hue, Vietnam
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Sulawesi, Indonesia

A Small Sampling of Kyōto’s Offerings

Traveling from Ito to our next destination – Kyōto – brought with it our first Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) ride. This was highly anticipated. I really like traveling by train and was super excited to partake in this holy grail of rail.

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our sleek chariot arrives

We were not disappointed. This and subsequent journeys really hammered home how convenient and pleasant train travel can be. It’s so much more comfortable than flying, and in the case of the bullet trains, faster for Japan-scale distances (especially considering the hassles of airports). It’s so quick and easy that it feels as if you’re simply being teleported to your destination. It’s not cheap – a typical hour long journey might be something like $50 – but considering the value, well worth it. At the recommendation of many we got a Japan Rail Pass for the duration of our stay which lets us hop on and off nearly all trains at will which was great. (This pass was also expensive, but I can say we at least broke even and it was very nice not to worry about getting tickets or whether we should pay to do a particular day trip.)

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rocketing through the countryside with Fuji-san in the distance

So we clicked our heels, said “there’s no place like Japan”, and poof – arrived in Kyōto, the richly historical former capital of Japan. It’s chock full of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, classy restaurants, and surrounded by low rolling hills. Elaine had snagged us a great hotel quite close to the train station so we dropped our luggage and grabbed a lunch of pork katsu (fried cutlet – I loved it and Elaine was a good sport). Then we took the local rail a couple stops over to Fushimi Inari-taisha.

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at Fushimi Inari-taisha

This complex is one of the more famous (and busy) collection of shrines winding its way up a hillside, the highlight being the walkways framed by countless torii gates. Our expectation was to find a section or two of paths that have this iconic scene, but in fact there are kilometers of trails between different shrines all with this tunnel-like feel from ten thousand total gates (I had to look it up).

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Kyōto brought us to our first sushi conveyor belt meal which was a lot of fun! The sushi isn’t spectacular, but with each plate only being about $1 we could afford to try out some different stuff and eat our fill. Plates are color-coded so you can tell which ones have wasabi, and there are hot water taps in front of you for topping off your cup of green tea.

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a sampling of Kyoto dining. Top left: menu at the chicken yakitori spot. Top right: a massive bowl of pork ramen. Middle: wagyu steak, need I say more? Bottom left: udon noodles with bonito and egg. Bottom right: pork katsu with bonus cheese-filled fried beef patties!

We ate well during our 5-night stay in Kyōto. Huge bowls of ramen, fresh udon noodles, and even torisashi (chicken sashimi!). The massive train station was well-stocked with easy food options for us as we were heading out on day trips. The tastiest lunch was some grilled wagyu beef; the best dinner was at Gion Yata, a small Japanese place serving a seasonal menu. We wanted a nice evening at a solid local place that wasn’t over the top (there are plenty of Michelin-star restaurants here) and this fit the bill perfectly. We had a lovely fish-centered tasting menu accompanied by fine local sake for a really reasonable price.

Aside from the torii-laden Fushimi Inari-taisha we visited a few other temples while strolling around the city. One of the favorites was Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji on the northeast fringe of the city. This is a beautiful wooden Buddhist temple, really a series of small buildings, wrapped around a nice garden. Another favorite was small Gio-ji which has a cute and verdant moss garden. We visited the latter on a trip to Arashiyama for a famed bamboo grove, near Kyōto. Though we didn’t find the bamboo forest as captivating as advertised (possibly due to the crowds of tourists) we did enjoy the subsequent walk around the peaceful neighborhood.

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the old aqueduct at Nanzen-ji temple
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lighting some incense at Nanzen-ji
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it’s a lot of work to keep these gardens in top shape
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garden near Nanzen-ji
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beautiful garden and bridge at Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji
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Eikan-dō’s “sleeping dragon” staircase
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a rare moment at Arashiyama – no crowds in the frame!
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Elaine likes moss. At Gio-ji

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some Japanese tourists getting hauled around. Too hot for that job!
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Niō guardian at the gate to Seiryō-ji temple
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Seiryō-ji temple

Downtown Kyōto is a fun place to walk around after dark. It’s not nearly as energetic as Tokyo but there’s still a lot going on. The river is flanked by stone walkways and steps where locals hang out and talk or play music; nearby are a couple historic districts (now primarily restaurants) called Gion and Pontocho. Walking through the latter we had a rare sighting – an actual geisha! (There are plenty of folks who dress up in imitation but fewer than a thousand of the real thing and they aren’t out in public much). She popped out in front of us on the narrow street wearing a blue kimono, hair up, white makeup, and quickly shuffled away on tiny feet in wooden sandals off down a side alley. I don’t know how she could possibly move that fast. Elaine was thrilled – check that box!

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Kyoto’s Nishiki market is touristy but fun

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a canal-side Kyoto sake bar at night

We made a couple day trips by rail from Kyōto during our stay. First we went to Himeji to visit the famous (and recently renovated) Himeji-jo “white crane” castle. This is one of the few original castles in Japan, with many having been destroyed over the years due to fire or bombing in WWII. This was a truly stunning visit. The moat-surrounded castle complex is beautiful, and the interior of the tiered keep is an impressive example of wooden construction using massive interlocking beams. We managed to arrive just as the castle opened (it was easy to get here, with Himeji being right on the bullet train line) and the first part of our day before the crowds showed up was blissfully serene.

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a view across the moat

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inside, massive timbers interlock and overlap to hold the 5700-ton tower up
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an iron-wrapped door and wooden weapon racks

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Just outside the castle walls happened to be one of our favorite gardens as well: Koko-en. This is a restored samurai housing area and the walk through follows a sculpted stream through several different styles of gardens and types of plants. The ponds are populated by the most vibrant koi we’ve seen, each one looking like a watercolor painting. All in all our visit to Himeji was one of our top days so far in Japan!

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Another great day trip went the opposite direction into the foothills of the Japan Alps. There we wanted to do a recommended walk between two traditional hill towns (Magome and Tsumano). The journey out took over 3 hours from Kyōto, by bullet train, local train, and then bus. We were by no means certain it would be worth going all this way, but we wanted to go hiking and the train rides were free so why not! Fortunately our efforts were well rewarded. This 10km walk, bookended by adorable towns, wound through beautiful hills, rice fields, cedar and cypress trees, and across streams. Midway through we picnicked next to a pair of picturesque waterfalls. Rain threatened but held off. Another great day trip!

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a several-hundred-year old cypress tree

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This wrapped up our 5 night / 4 day stay in Kyōto. We left with much still unseen – there are so many famous sights in this area that I think you’d have to live here for a while and slowly take it all in. We certainly could have hit more of the beautiful religious buildings but we like to have some variety (and some escape from tourist crowds) so… until next time, Kyōto! Next stop: Hiroshima.

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Ito – Ocean & Onsen

We certainly loved Tokyo, but we will be back so it’s time to move on! Whatever you have in your mind about how to describe Japan, it’s true. All of it. The fast trains, the spaceship toilets, everything excessively tiny and cute, good sushi at 7-Eleven (really!).

What I did not expect from Japan was rugged coastline with sapphire blue water and great rock formations. However, our next stop had all this and more. 

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The weather was really hot, but that did not stop us from walking the picturesque coast of Jogasaki. The seascape made us think of a smaller Big Sur but with the added benefit of being able to walk and enjoy the view. If you have been to Big Sur, CA you know how amazing it is, but you have to drive and park along the side to catch the views.

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this house was used as a fish lookout to alert fishermen of mullet schools

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Ito is laid out like a typical beach town complete with many ice cream stands, a good selection of restaurants and some helpful tsunami signs.

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No, you cannot escape a post without food pictures so don’t even ask. If your question is, “Is that a huge chunk of butter in the ramen?” The answer is yes, and also bacon.

Also on my list of expectations for this country was excessively pricey accommodation and food. True, it is not really possible to find a $16/night hotel or dinner for $2, but whatever money you spend is not wasted. By that I mean even though things are more expensive, you are never disappointed.  We booked a place in Ito even though we were not entirely sure about the traditional Japanese beds or the shared bathrooms, but wow, what an experience!

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K’s house on the right, Tokaikan on the left

K’s House is a 100 year old building that was renovated to become a “backpacker’s hostel”. It is situated on a tidal inlet and has 4 floors with traditional Japanese style rooms and Onsen (baths). They had two larger onsen, one for men and one for women and some private onsen that had showers and soaking tubs that filled with hot spring water. Thankfully they had an etiquette guide for the onsen so we didn’t make any onsen faux pas like standing while showering or wearing a bathing suit. A very unique experience and a good introduction to staying at a traditional Ryokan later in our trip.

Connected to K’s house is a National Monument, Tokaikan, which has 3 floors, each one designed by a different competing architect. This is also a guesthouse and very similar to the place we stayed, but with some more finishing touches.

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Tokaikan, next door to where we were staying.
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indoor garden at Tokaikan, our place had a similar one
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We were probably not supposed to join this party (er- display), but it looked so inviting!

We were happy to have access to a kitchen at our place and made ourselves some vegetables (yay!) and enjoyed some Sake with a great view from the common room. The Sake in Japan is very delicious and much more affordable than in the US.

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At 8:30 the town put on a great fireworks display we can only assume was for us as we were celebrating 15 years of togetherness (awww).  Apparently there is a special kimono (Yukata) for fireworks displays which many people were sporting and created a festive atmosphere. Or, perhaps they were just in their onsen robes and stepped away from their bath when they heard the festivities because it’s the same robe for both. We’ll never know!

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They even had a “big size” Yukata! (but not “big size” doors)

♥On a personal note, thank you all so much for reading our blog, it means a lot to us. It can be a lot of work, but it is motivating to know that people other than us are enjoying (?) it. We are so happy we decided to take this trip and grateful to our parents for taking care of our pets for such a long time. After over 4 months in we have already had the trip of a lifetime and have much more planned coming up, so stay tuned if you will!♥

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Gregor loves selfies!