Last post on Japan!
Arrival of the Shinkansen
2012-07-28: Kyoto to Fukuji Onsen
We started the day with another 8am breakfast at the ryokan. Breakfast has gotten more psychic: Ms. Uemura stopped asking if Ted wanted a second piece of toast and just brought it. During breakfast, we watched the Olympic opening ceremony on TV in Japanese and saw the torch get lit. We could hear the beginning of everything that was said in English… but about 3 words in the Japanese translator would drown out the English in the background. After eating, we cleaned up and checked out, but left our luggage behind. Even as we checked out, there were no other guests at Ryokan Uemura. Surprising; almost disconcerting.
No sooner had we walked around the corner from the ryokan than we ended up in the middle of a group of people filming a movie scene. They had to stop to let us through. I’m guessing they re-shot that scene. =\
We walked to Ryozen Kannon Buddhist temple, which was basically in our backyard but we haven’t been home during its open hours. Our entrance fee bought us an incense stick to bring up to the… incense-stick-offering-area. We finally got a complete view of the giant Buddha statue sitting on top of the main temple that we’d caught sight of two nights ago. Pamela wonders how a temple can hold up a gigantic stone Buddha. It was seriously gigantic, and just sitting on the roof of the temple. Then we caught monks chanting and drumming and performing a ritual, which we later read (in the temple’s brochure) was a ceremony that they only do 3 times a month, in which “the mountain priests of this temple conduct services of kindling a sacred fire for the sake of national prosperity, highway traffic safety, and harmony within families.” We walked as closely as we dared without distracting them, and Pamela videotaped the chanting.
After staying too long (we’d told Uemura we’d only be gone an hour), we walked next door to Kodai-ji Buddhist temple. We did a really quick walk along the “tour route”, hardly stopping to look at anything or take any pictures, and discovered that our “quick run-through” of Kodai-ji was about the average touring pace of other tourists… and we even skipped all the optional turn-outs. We’re slow.
We walked a few steps back to Uemura, collected our luggage and took a bus to Kyoto station. While waiting for the bus that our map said went to the station, this other bus arrived listing “Kyoto station” as its destination and we decided to take our chances. Apparently our bus map is incomplete, because the bus we took isn’t listed on it at all.
Once we’d purchased our train tickets, we ate lunch (pasta and… a rice-pasta-omelet) and then wandered into the department store at the station and gawked over all the pretty, expensive umbrellas/parasols. There are a lot of pretty umbrellas walking around Japan, and the department store had several hundred of them in stock. We’ve never seen so many umbrellas for sale, and all with different pretty designs. They were also unnecessarily expensive, so of course now Pamela wanted one.
We rode a Shinkansen (Hikari) from Kyoto to Nagoya. Upon boarding this train, an entire class of Japanese schoolchildren got on the train with us. Our first instinct was to groan, but as we got off the train, we realized we’d forgotten they were even there. How was an entire class of elementary school children that quiet for so long?? Ted slept; Pamela wrote yesterday’s blog post until the computer ran out of battery. The train from Nagoya to Takayama was slower. Pamela slept; Ted studied Japanese.
We arrived in Takayama… in a rainstorm. The storm had been partially predicted, because when a train passed us going the other direction, Pamela had said “that train… is wet.” But it was still jarring after the heat of Kyoto. While we waited in bus station… we found free Wi-Fi!!! Japan does not seem to be very big on Wi-Fi hot spots; this was the first and only one we ever came across other than the airport. Pamela plugged in her dead laptop to post a blog entry… but got yelled at for using the power outlet. I can use the Wi-Fi, but not the outlet???
Seriously, why can’t I use a power outlet??
We rode the bus from Takayama to Fujuki Onsen through the rainstorm. At our stop, we asked the bus driver where our ryokan was, and he found it on a map and then drove us a bit farther forward to point it out to us and keep us out of the rain. The helpful bus driver did not actually speak any English, although he managed “bus stop” at one point. He also had a very thick regional accent of some sort.
Ted says that the name of our new ryokan (Ryokan Sansui, or 山水) literally means “Mountain Water.” Fitting for a hot spring hotel. As we walked up to the building, a man came running out to help us as if he’d been waiting all day for us to show up. A woman gave us a tour and showed us our room. Then dinner came… By dinner time, the rainstorm had turned into a thunderstorm, and the first particularly loud crash of thunder actually made Pamela scream. Pamela claims she has never screamed due to thunder before…
But back to dinner. First, a new woman walked in with a tray of food, and indicated to move our table and make room for it. Then we both pulled our seats up to opposite sides of the tray, and the woman looked horrified and indicated that that was very wrong, so we leapt back. Then she came in with a *second* tray of food. Oh.
In the end, dinner involved 15 separate dishes; they just kept bringing up more food! We’re still not sure what half of it was; but in no particular order we were served:
- Jasmine tea;
- mineral water;
- a square box with… a bite of salmon with something yellow on top; a square of fish on top of a cube of cornmeal; an entire 3-inch-long fish; a bowl with a wheel-shaped vegetable and a bit of meat; a leaf wrapped around rice and secured with a toothpick; and something that looked like a round stuffed pork slice;
- a bowl with… shrimp tail; flower-shaped soft rice cake; purple and white vegetable that looked like swiss cheese (lotus root?); a bite of green vegetable; another… vegetable; and a pile of thin seaweed-y things in a soupy sauce;
- a bowl of cold soba with rice krispies and green onion;
- a bowl of miso soup with a *lot* of seaweed, green onions, tofu, and mushrooms (Pamela drained the broth);
- a bowl of egg pudding with fish and a white vegetable and a green leafy vegetable;
- a bowl with a potato-rice ball;
- a bowl of tempura with shrimp, zucchini, kabocha squash, 2 leafy green things, a potato chip (??), and a dish of pink salt to dip it in;
- a plate with an entire 8-inch fried trout atop vegetables (pink, brown, and green strips) and a green chili pepper;
- a sashimi plate with tuna (2 pieces), 2 types of white fish (2 pieces each), and a pile of noodle and radish (?), with soy sauce, wasabi, a flower, a sprig of small red ball-shaped berries, and tiny red leaves on the side;
- a plate of beef, enoki mushrooms, green onions, other onions, and brown peanut-ty sauce over a giant brown leaf, with chafing fuel lit in a pot underneath the plate to cook it;
- a pot of rice… that we never opened. Oops. The women exclaimed over it when they came back to pick up the remains of our dinner;
- a bowl of pickled… green, red, and white veggies, next to the rice, that we also never touched. This was apparently less offensive;
- a dessert cup with green tea pudding, whipped cream, pink mocha ball, and a piece of fruit.
After dinner, the first woman (the only one who could manage some broken English besides the man at the front desk) told us there was a summer festival going on right that moment, and another woman brought us dessert while they removed dinner and laid out our futons. We ate the dessert and changed, then went down to walk to the festival… and were told it was ending. Fail.
Instead, we showered and changed into yukatas provided by the inn. We tried to read up on the procedures for using hot spring baths in our travel book, and instead giggle about how it described “magic elves” as making your futon appear while you were bathing and disappear while you were eating. Ryokan staff members will thus henceforth be known as elves.
Apparently the yukata is intended to be worn with the left side crossing over the right side, not the other way around. This was learned after the inn-elf giggled at us and tried to fix it. No idea what else we were doing wrong with it.
We soaked in a private onsen (hot spring) bath outside before sleeping. The hot spring water is too hot to remain in for longer than ~5 min. at a time without a break, so we didn’t stay long (maybe 30 minutes). The correct onsen procedure here is to apparently shower in the “preparation room,” then get in the onsen bath, then shower again in the preparation room. We learned this after showering in our own room, as we found that the “preparation room” showers actually had soap and shampoo.
- Pamela still does not like Orangina, even though Ted thought he’d finally found some juice in the store for her.
- Tatami mats look much nicer on the floor than industrial-grade carpeting.
Mountain Trail in the Japan Alps
2012-07-29: Shinhotaka Ropeway
We dragged ourselves down to our 8am breakfast only slightly late after our own alarm, an unexpected wake-up call, and an also-unexpected door knocking all ensured we’d be awake. Breakfast had almost as many dishes as dinner, but none of them looked very breakfast-y: this was our first actual Japanese-style breakfast, with things like rice, fish, soup, etc. Pamela liked the ham with potato salad and the boiled nuts the best. Meals around here do not seem to include much fruit, except perhaps a few pieces with dessert.
We asked the front desk where the nearest ATM was since we didn’t have enough cash left for today’s travel. (NOTHING in Japan takes credit cards except for the department stores. Seriously. Nothing. It’s cash or bust.) The inn elves told us that there wasn’t a nearby ATM, but that the female elf would drive us to one in the next town to the north, near a different bus stop. We accepted the offer, got ready and left… also only slightly late.
She drove us to an ATM… but it was the wrong kind of ATM – it didn’t take foreign cards because Japanese cards are apparently fancier. So she drove us to a different ATM. Also too fancy. Finally she drove us back to inn and loaned us a couple hundred dollars…
They offered to drive us to our destination, the Shinhotaka Ropeway, since we ended up missing the intended bus, but we declined and decided to wait for the next bus 45 minutes later. We ended up spending 30 of the 45 minutes we had to spare searching for the bus stop which was supposed to be 200 meters from the ryokan. A few minutes before the bus was due to arrive, the male inn elf mysteriously showed up to clean the bus stop building, and was still there as we left aboard the bus. We suspect he may have come just to make sure we made it onto the bus.
The bus took us to the Shinhotaka Ropeway, which is this gondola attached to a pulley system ski-lift style that takes you up to the top of some mountain a few mountains over from where it started. We went up up up. We noted that there were no other foreign tourists in the whole area. By the end of the day, we had only seen exactly 2 foreign tourists at Shinhotaka Ropeway: us. There were, however, many Japanese tourists.
We bought a baked good from a bakery at the ropeway to call lunch. It was yum. Then we bought 3 more. We admired the view from the top station for a short bit, and then attempted to hike the trail that Lonely Planet told us would take us down the other side of the mountain to Kamikochi, the next town over, in about 3 hours. We tried asking the guy in the store where the trailhead was, and he showed us Kamikochi on a map. Um, thanks. So we went outside and found a trail and just started walking down it. We took pictures of the signs along the way, wondering what they said. All we could tell was that they did NOT say Kamikochi (we’d taken a picture of its name on the map). We also noticed that everybody seemed to be going the *other* way down the trail.
A ways down the trail, we started stopping people we passed asking where they were coming from. None of them indicated that the trail went to Kamikochi (in fact, most of them seemed to indicate they had never heard of Kamikochi). One couple finally communicated that our trail was about a 2-hour hike and went to the summit of the extremely large-looking mountain in front of us. We finally turned around, deciding it must be the wrong trail.
When we got back to the trailhead, we looked at a map inside the hut again and discovered that the name of the stop *in between* us and Kamikochi matched the signs on the trail (and was over the summit of that large mountain). Thus we decided we had, in fact, been going the right way.
So, we started again. We’d gotten to about where we’d been before when we passed a group of hard-core-looking hikers. They stopped us, exclaiming that they had just seen us going the *other way*. A man in their group who actually spoke English (first one in the entire mountain range, I swear), asked why we were going back the way we’d just come. When we told him we’d been trying to go to Kamikochi but had been told we were going the wrong way, he exclaimed that we were crazy and should turn around at once. He claimed that they were going to Kamikochi, but with an overnight stop on top of the mountain, and that it was at least a 10-hour hike. We hiked for a little while longer, then turned around and went back again, deciding that either Lonely Planet was trying to kill us, or that the nice man thought we’d kill ourselves without hiking sticks or something. (Unlikely.)
After consulting the same hiking map for a third time, Ted found times listed between each stop on the trail, and decided it was supposed to be about a 3-hour hike. Sigh. At least the weather was really nice. It had been great hiking weather all afternoon, and would be great evening weather for outdoor festival-viewing; best weather all trip. This was the first day of our trip that Ted did not get over-heated and exhausted.
We took the ropeway back down and returned to our ryokan. Thankfully, we hiked back fast enough to make the 4pm bus rather than waiting another 2 hours for the next one.
After getting back, we relaxed in another private outdoor hot-spring-pool until dinner, then had another gastronomical adventure in our room, consisting of *only* 13 dishes this time. I’ll spare you the details of each dish.
After dinner, we walked to the “summer festival” with 2 guys we ran into from Norway, and couldn’t believe the fluidity of their English after trying to communicate with the Japanese for the last week. We watched some sort of cultural drum dance things, followed by a dragon dance, followed by a dragon-eating-a-snake dance. There were a million bugs attracted to the outdoor lighting, but thankfully, they were mostly moths, not mosquitoes. There was occasional lightning during the festival, but the rain held off.
We walked back to our room, sat by the windows, and turned all the lights off to watch the lightning storm outside until we fell asleep. The rain was no longer holding off.
- The Japan Alps are very pretty. The hiking trails are so much greener and prettier than the ones on Mt. Fuji, which was a barren volcano once you got above the tree line.
- Japan uses these TP rods that have a cover. This cover is useful for tearing the unperforated TP if it is either (a) serrated or (b) thin. Not if it is thick.
- The Japanese TP also has no cardboard roll inside. It’s like it was wrapped tightly around something else gear-shaped that was then removed. Less waste.
- I don’t think we’ve mentioned Japanese toilets at all, actually. For those of you who have never seen one, public toilets in Japan (though not in our inns) are in the floor. You squat. They still flush and have modern plumbing and everything, just no seats, so they’re technically more sanitary. This works better for some forms of business than others.
- Ted gets fewer bug bites when wearing long pants. (Duh.)
- Pamela’s blog posts get progressively longer each day of a trip.
Private Hot Spring Bath #3
2012-07-30: Fujuki Onsen to Tokyo
On the last day of our trip, we woke up eaarrrrlllier than early to relax in the third private outdoor hot-spring-pool *before* our 8am breakfast. We have now successfully tried all 3 of the private baths.
Breakfast was again many dishes, though none as enjoyable as yesterday’s. One particularly weird dish was a bowl full of fish that are about the size of a bean sprout. Looked like a bowl of short noodles full of eyes. The Norwegian guys were seated next to us at breakfast, and we noted that their breakfast dishes were the ones we’d been served yesterday. After comparing notes, we learned that their dinner dishes last night were also the ones we’d been served two nights ago. That must be one busy cook, considering each meal was 13-15 dishes… and he was making multiple meals.
The inn-elves drove us to a third ATM which had been closed yesterday so that we could pay them back… and then drove us to the bus terminal in Hirayu Onsen, the next major town, since we’d again missed the intended bus. Note to future selves: JP ATMs accept foreign debit cards. Other ATMs do not, pretty much universally.
We took a bus east to Matsumoto, rather than going back the way we’d come, and saw many pretty waterfalls in the hot spring area. From Matsumoto, we took a (slower) train to Shinjuku, Tokyo.
We wandered through Kinokuniya, Coldstone, and a mall in Shinjuku, but got sick of lugging luggage around while we shopped. Then we took a train to Shibuya to meet Eiko for dinner, where we met her mother as well. They took us to dinner at an Asian-fusion restaurant in a department store where we had Thai/Vietnamese food.
Pamela stayed with Eiko and her mother in Shibuya while Ted traveled back to Brian’s place to collect our walking sticks and return his key. We waited, and waited… and the discovered that Ted had gotten on wrong train and would not be returning to Shibuya, so we left and met him at the monorail to the airport.
Eiko and her mother took the monorail to the airport with us, where we checked in, returned our rental phone, and said goodbye to them. Then we flew home, during which we slept pretty much the entire way. We arrived and were greeted by Ted’s dad negative one hour after we’d left. Weirdo time zones.
- We’ve seen children in school uniforms the whole time we’ve been here, and not just the ones “dressed-up” as schoolgirls. They must attend school year-round… or enjoy wearing their school uniforms.
- I lost weight in Japan; my pants are no longer too tight!
- Jetlag was easier to deal with heading west: We arrived at 5am, were forced to stay up all day as we ran around Tokyo, crashed at night, and were on a normal schedule. After heading east, we left at midnight, slept all night, and then arrived at midnight… wide awake. This does not work so well…
- Bay Area weather is SO NICE. Even when it’s hot.