Our Own Japan: 14 – 15.10.2013

Our only full day in Takayama was another wonderful day in beautiful Japan. Traveling is just so unbelievably awesome; how often in life do you get to say that every day has been filled with adventure, new things and just in general, been pretty spectacular? I feel incredibly lucky.

We woke early and cooked breakfast in the kitchen area, saying goodbye to friends we’d only just met and meeting new ones whilst sipping coffee and eating rice and natto with chopsticks.
It was early and the air was so cold; a group of us got together and headed to the morning market (one of two). The walk through the preserved streets and alley ways was beautiful; the old houses and streets were empty at 7:30am and we were able to walk quietly and peacefully through the clean streets whilst admiring our surroundings.

The morning market, however, was already packed with people – shops and market stalls lined both sides of the road that ran parallel to the flowing river, people were busy buying and selling and making; we hugged our jumpers a little tighter around us as we marveled at everything around us. Having been here in this town exactly a year ago, it all felt still so familiar and fond memories and reminders of my past trip here kept me smiling.
Free tastings of every pickle, rice cracker, green teas, fruits, snack, sweet and Japanese treat kept us all stopping and munching, trying new and strange flavours, and occasionally purchasing something we all loved.

I had been waiting for so long to re-visit the Japanese Marshmallow man and show Jacob the person and the food I’d been talking about and mimiking constantly for the past year. This little man was so gorgeous, smiling the biggest smile as he served up his own concoction of a Japanese sweet made from sake and egg. Our group stopped outside his busy stall and watched as he smiled, laughed and went about turning his cubes of goodness, which he called “Marshi-mallus”. His sweet voice calling out “Hai! Thank you very maach!” and “Paper come back!” (please give me your rubbish) left us smiling and handing over money for packets of the golden yellow deliciousness. I only wish I could give some to my mum, who adores this little man as much as I do.

We spent time wandering through the streets as the sun came out and more shops and cafes began to open their doors. The river was flowing, the air was fresh and tourists were busy exploring; some pushing very stylishly dressed, spoiled dogs around in dog-specific prams.
We wandered down to the second morning market, which was purely dedicated to selling fresh produce, and bought ourselves a 1.5kg bag of Japanese rice that we’ll be able to share with our couch surfing host in Tokyo for the next week; we’re loving this whole ‘rice for breakfast’ thing and are going to enjoy it while we can. Japanese rice is unlike any other rice; it’s perfect and tastes so clean and wonderful – every grain is a joy to eat.

More wandering through the shops and streets, we went back to our hostel to drop off our rice before heading out, but ended up staying for an hour or so for a quick nap; after clocking up a decent sized sleep debt over the last few months, we needed a rest.

Awake again, we wandered down to the bus station and bought ourselves our tickets to Tokyo for tomorrow – I can’t believe we have to leave already! I absolutely do not want to go to Tokyo yet; I love Takayama and want to stay here longer, but more to the point, going to Tokyo means we have just one more week left in Japan. Didn’t we just arrive here? It’s going too fast and I don’t like it one bit.
We paid for our tickets (handing over $140 for two tickets for a 5 hour bus ride hurt our budget a lot more than I can explain…) and then purchased another ticket each to take the bus to a near-by open-air museum, Hida No Sato Folk Village.

Hida No Sato Folk Village was fascinating; set amongst incredibly beautiful scenery in a peaceful, well maintained area, a dozen or more historic buildings stand. We were able to wander about inside the buildings and around them while learning about how life was like in this area of Japan many years ago. It was interesting to see the different architecture, how homes were built to deal with earth quakes and massive dumpings of snow, and the different tools and utensils used in daily life.
The space was really beautiful and very interesting, but also very touristy. Towards the end we started to feel a little like sheep in a big pen and were ready to run free again after an hour and a half or so, away from the crowds and one very loud, complaining American man who we’d actually spent most of our time there trying to avoid.

We caught a bus back to Takayama bus station and spent an hour or so wandering through the different shops, taste-testing the various pickled items, snacks, rice crackers and sweets on offer. Oh Japan, how generous you are, and how shameless we are. Seeing as we’re on such a tight budget and blew way too much money on a bus ticket to Tokyo, we skipped lunch today and relied on free samples to fill our stomachs. We wern’t completely stingy though – we did buy a few different things as gifts… It offset the guilt a little bit.

Late afternoon was spent wandering the streets and through too many cute shops with way too many cute things that were calling out for me to buy them. I resisted, and bought nothing, although the thousands of beautiful baby products made it very difficult – I saw so many things that my baby niece absolutely, most definitely needed.
It was wonderful just having the day to explore and mull about as we pleased; Takayama is an easy place to explore and time seems to pass quickly.

Our last night in Takayama was spent cooking up a storm of rice, natto, cabbage and age tofu, miso soup, a big pot of coffee and countless cups of green tea. We spent the evening in the kitchen chatting until late with a New Zealander and a Pom; I love meeting new people and travelers – the conversation is always so interesting and varied. It’s like there is this unspoken bond between us all, it’s as though you become instant friends
I love being a backpacker. I love being a traveler… and I love being here in Japan.

We went to bed in our spacious bunks and fell asleep laughing at each other. I think we’re both on travel highs at the moment. Tomorrow we head to Tokyo and I think both of us are having too much fun to admit we only have a week left in this country.

On our last morning in Takayama we woke early, enjoyed green tea, coffee and breakfast of natto, rice and miso soup with our new Pommy friend. We planned to re-visit the Morning Market area and take a wander further into the less touristy areas to see what we could find.
After packing our packs and checking out of our hostel, we spent a few hours doing just that. We started wandering, ate more Japanese Marshi-Mallu and a delicious matcha dango stick, and explored the lane ways and preserved streets, the tiny shops, galleries and temples. We headed back to our hostel around 11am, just as it started to rain…and by rain, I mean, a lot of it – bad weather had rolled in due to a typhoon.

We said goodbye to Takayama and boarded our bus at 1:30pm, expecting to arrive into Shinjuku, Tokyo, at 7pm. The bus ride was incredibly comfortable and we spent hours rolling past some absolutely spectacular scenery; mountains, waterfalls, creeks and rivers, greenery and forests – all set amongst grey skies and heavy rains that continued to pour down and down.

The rains slowed the traffic, and it was completely dark outside by the time we arrived into Tokyo, about 40 minutes later than expected. Off the bus and trying to avoid the rain, we headed straight to Shinjuku train station – the world’s biggest and busiest train station – and tried to navigate ourselves two trains and about one hours distance away to where our next and final Japanese couch surfing host, Yuki, lived. T
The torrential rain caused heavy build ups and train delays, and a strange encounter with an overly helpful man who bought our tickets for us (with our money) then asked for a 300 yen tip (for something we were in the process of doing quite capably before he came along and snatched the 1000 yen note from Jake’s hand and shoved it into the ticket machine we were standing in front of) – I said no and removed the coins from his grasp, and he thanked me – how’s that for unbelieveable?! Someone just tried to scam us in Japan!… I didn’t think it was possible. At least he was polite about it.

Around 9pm Yuki greeted us warmly at the station near by her home and together we walked in the rain, crouching under shared umbrellas.
Yuki generously prepared us dinner, and it was lovely to once again be welcomed into the home of a stranger who instantly felt like an old friend.

The plan was to visit Kamakura or Yokohama or even Disney Land tomorrow, but the incessant rain this evening and the forecast for tomorrow that spells the same wet weather due to a typhoon means we probably will opt for a quieter option. Either way, we’re in Japan and that is just so amazing. On our tiny futon in this little house, we already feel at home.

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Miso Katsu, Salmon Sushi, Green Tea and Cup Noodles: 13.10.2013

Today has been amazing, simply put. We woke in Nagoya and fall asleep tonight with new friends in beautiful Hida-Takayama.

Yuko, our couch surfing host in Nagoya, had arranged with one of her friends for us to learn how to cook miso katsu (pork) at their home this morning. It had turned into a full scale cooking school experience, with Yuko’s friend inviting her friend and cooking teacher, along with his wife, to teach us how to cook salmon sushi. This was pretty much a dream come true for us.

We arrived around 10am and were greeted as if we were family friends; the warm welcome was so lovely and we were served beautiful Japanese sweets and green tea. Then the cooking began…
Yuko’s two friends, along with one of the friend’s husband – who we called “Sense” – are all amazing cooks and they were straight into the cooking action. Sense is a Japanese chef who apparently trained at Kyoto’s most famous restaurant; now retired, he teaches cooking.

We watched as the women seamlessly prepared the various ingredients and dishes, slicing so beautifully with incredible knife skills and Japanese knives, which Jacob was thrilled by.
Once the sushi rice was washed, cooked and seasoned perfectly with seasoning, sugar, salt and water-soaked ginger, sense began his lesson: using chopsticks with the right hand and the left hand to adjust, he showed us how to place the salmon into the sushi making device so that it looked perfect. I definitely did not master this technique. Pushing exactly 200g of beautiful rice into the device and then applying the lid and lots of pressure, out came a rectangular shaped piece of pure, perfectly seasoned deliciousness. Sense showed me how to cut the sushi and clean the knife each time before placing it beautifully onto long leaves and adding pickle for both presentation and taste.

Whilst I was making sushi, the women were preparing the katsu and various delicate and beautiful dishes – both in terms of presentation and taste.

The meal was an absolute feast; we were served an array of vegetable and pickled vegetables, a beautiful pork katsu with a thick, sweet miso sauce and a cabbage salad, a delicate egg soup and the beautiful salmon sushi. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of these people and were just so thankful and excited to be able to experience this. This is an opportunity we would’ve never expected and imagined; we can’t thank our couch surfing hosts or our lunch hosts enough.

After lunch and saying countless” thank yous” and “goodbyes”, Keiji and Yuko went generously out of their way to drive us almost an hour away to a JR train station near-by Inuyama, and we said goodbye; again – it’s always saddening when we have to say goodbye to people who have been so generous and kind. We feel like we are saying goodbye to old friends.

We took the local JR train bound for Hida-Takayama directly, which was a beautiful ride through amazing scenery, mountains and rivers. I love the train journeys in Japan and for the first time in a long time, I was able to sit back, put my ipod in and just enjoy.

Arriving into Takayama after 6pm, it was dark already and the air was cold – a shock to our system after months of heat. The air smelled beautiful and fresh and it felt so incredible to be back here. Too late to explore and on too tight of a budget to afford premium Hida beef for dinner, we checked into our first and only Japanese hostel – J Hoppers – which is honestly the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It has awesome communal kitchen, a great living area, big spacious rooms and large, private and comfortable bunk beds with lots of bedding and space. Their facilities are really good and the location is awesome too.

Instantly we made friends with a Taiwanese and Japanese guy in our dorm room and together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket to get our selves some cheap backpacker food: 98 Yen instant cup noodle ramen. Another guy from China joined our little backpacking posse and soon, back in our communal kitchen, there was an even bigger group of us all coming together to cook and eat and drink the free filtered coffee and green tea. It was a lot of fun, and we spent the rest of our evening in the kitchen chatting and laughing.

I’m really happy to be staying here in this hostel; it’s such a different atmosphere and experience to couch surfing. I’m incredibly grateful and having so much fun couch surfing but in a way I’m really grateful we now have the opportunity for two days to simply relax and just be by ourselves, do as we please, sleep/shower/eat when we want and, even though we’re in a hostel in a shared room, have our own space… Couch surfing is fantastic but we’ve been staying with locals for almost a month straight already (with a two day break in Nepal), so a hostel offers another different experience and it’s wonderful to be able to meet such a diverse group of travelers. This place seems great and I already can’t wait for tomorrow morning to arrive.

Castle Japan: 11 – 12.10.2013

The 11th of October marks the half-way point of our Japan trip, and its making me anxious to think that in 10 more days, we have to leave this country that I’ve fallen in love with over and over, more every day.
As well as being the half-way point of our time in Japan, it’s also the half-way point of entire travels: it’s going far too quickly for my liking, but at the same time looking back on our travels in Sri Lanka feels like it happened years ago…

From Nara we traveled onwards by local train to Nagoya, our next destination just a few hours away. Hungry when we arrived into Nagoya station, we knew a Yoshinoya couldn’t be too far away. I stopped to ask the train station ticket master if he knew where.
This little elderly man with a very serious face looked at me for a few seconds, repeated “Yoshinoya,” thought about it for a moment and then suddenly his face turned into a beam of sheer delight. “Yoshinoya?! Gyu-don? Aaaah! Hai, hai,  hai! Go… straight-u. Stair up!… Go…straight-u. Stair down. Yoshinoya!”
Lots of arigato gozaimasus and bows later, we left the cute ticket man smiling and waving at us and headed for our old faithful Yoshinoya for 280 yen gyu-don beef bowls.

Our  first evening in Nagoya was wonderful, spent with our new couch surfing hosts Yuko and Keiji (and their very pretty persian cat Lulu).  Yuko is a really lovely woman with a bright smile and a generous nature. We talked about our plans in Nagoya, and when Yuko mentioned that Nagoya is not so much a tourist destination, I explained we decided to come here because Jacob wants to see a real Japanese castle. With that, Yuko looked puzzled and then explained that, like Osaka castle, Nagoya’s castle is made of concrete and is a reconstruction. Oh…

She then mentioned that there is a very old and very real Japanese castle just an hour or so drive away in a place called Inumaya, and that her and Keiji would take us the following day by car if we wanted. We hadn’t been expecting to have the day with our hosts (it’s been very rare for our hosts to have the whole day off to spend with us to-date), nor did we expect such an incredibly generous offer, but this was really exciting for us. I really enjoy having time to actually spend with the people who are so generously hosting us, so that was a really amazing offer for more than just the fact that we’d get to see a real castle. Yuko and Keiji hadn’t been to this castle either, so it would be new for them too.

Talking more about food and our love for coffee and Japanese food, and about what is ‘famous’ in Nagoya. Apparently it is  Nagoya culture to eat breakfast in cafes and, when you order a coffee, breakfast is usually free!? Yes, I know, it’s a concept our Melbourne-set minds can’t comprehend: you mean, we get given food free with our coffee? Free? As in, we don’t pay for it? How…? Why…?
Yuko declared that the following morning, she and Keiji would take us to their favourite café for breakfast and coffee. Excellent – we desperately need a coffee and are already salivating at the thought.

Our only full day in Nagoya the following day was sounding pretty fantastic already.

We woke the following morning feeling refreshed and absolutely ready for coffee; we were all a bit excited for breakfast (possibly Jake and I were a little more excited for coffee and free food than is normal, but we’ve been traveling for a while and until Japan, coffee has been pretty hit-and-miss and free food has been non-existent.) Who doesn’t love coffee and free food!?
The breakfast and the coffee was pretty awesome and it was really lovely to be surrounded by people enjoying the cafe culture that we love and miss. I guess it was a simple experience but one we’ll remember.

After breakfast, Yuko and Keiji took us to Seto – a neighbourhood close by that is famous for its beautiful ceramics. We first visited the community centre where a fair/community market event was taking place. It was marvelous – we wandered around all the little stalls selling handmade craft items, gifts, foods and home-grown produce. It was a real community; women and children were performing dances, children were painting at a big painting table, there was a little stall where women were teaching people to sew little trinkets with recycled kimono cloth, and everyone was socializing with their friends and community members. Yuko introduced us to one of her friends who was there, and we walked around the stores where people greeted us so warmly. One stall all offered me a beautiful little gift: a set of tiny hand-made Japanese-style shoes made from kimono material. It was so wonderful – a really ‘local’ experience; people were so generous and kind and I wished I could show my appreciation in return.

Yuko, Keiji, Jacob and I spent some time wandering around some beautiful ceramic shops, browsing at the perfectly sculpted cups and tea pots, sake sets and crockery, gorgeous decorative pieces and colourful glazes, insence holders and choppu sticku holders, cooking pots and various cooking items. I wished we had endless amounts of luggage space, money and bubble wrap!… it was tempting until I reminded myself of the logistical issues.

From Seto we traveled by car for over an hour to Inuyama. Keiji enjoys driving – like Jacob – and it was a really lovely drive out there; the scenery along the way was beautiful.

We walked through one of the main streets of Inuyama; a quaint street that headed towards the famous Inuyama Castle, lined with little food shops and gorgeous Japanese souvenirs, ice cream stalls and beautiful houses and buildings in tradition Japanese style. The castle peered down on us from above as we walked up towards it, and it was a spectacular sight.

At the castle entrance we took off our shoes and began to climb stair case after stair case, up and up and up; the stairs were so steep and so slippery, it felt as though everyone there was moving through the tiny space at once to get to the top where we could walk around the balcony area and enjoy the impressive views over Inuyama. Spectacular.
The castle was so stunning and it was really surreal to try and imagine how this must’ve been hundreds of years ago when it was in use. I can’t imagine, but it was still so fascinating. Inuyama castle was a real highlight for us, especially Jacob who had been so excited to visit a real Japanese castle. We had no idea about Inuyama before we met Yuko and Keiji, and to be taken here and experience this with them is something we will always be grateful for.

The weather was perfect today – another blessing – and after our castle visit we were able to enjoy the area surrounding it. We stopped in at a museum that houses several floats used for an annual festival here. The floats were massive and beautiful; how amazing it must be to watch these festivities in all their glory.

Finishing off our adventure in Inuyama, we stopped off at Komeda Coffee – a chain of coffee houses that are famous all over Nagoya area – to enjoy a massive coffee with ice cream. Indulgence at its best, but a “must-do,” we are told. Another Nagoya experience ticked off the list, gladly!

The drive home was lovely; we really enjoyed it. Stopping off at a near-by supermarket, we wandered about the isles enjoying everything in our sight; we love the Japanese supermarkets and looking at all the different products, and were excited to stock up on ingredients for tonight’s “Takoyaki Party” – Sense Keiji was teaching us how to make takoyaki and we were both very eager students.

Our evening was spent preparing and making takoyaki – an evening we thoroughly enjoyed. We grilled so much takoyaki and Sense Keiji taught us well – we hope we did him proud.

We went to bed this evening full of takoyaki and happy after the most amazing day with two wonderful hosts.

Deer Japan: 9 – 10.10.2013

Saying goodbye to beautiful Kyoto and our new friends, we were sad but excited – we were Nara bound with just two nights and just one full day to explore the city. Again we were couch surfing; our fourth hosts in Japan and our first family with children. Megumi, Koji and their two young children Nazuna and Tsubasa are very experienced hosts, and knew how to look after us. Both the children speak very fluent English and are extremely outgoing and energetic; they really seem enjoy spending time with other people.

The two nights we spent with this family were a great experience for us; we spent a lot of time with the kids playing various games, we had some great conversation and shared some absolutely incredible home-cooked Japanese food.

Our one day in Nara went by way too fast and was thoroughly enjoyable. Awake early after another late night (Japanese people seem to sleep a lot later and get up a lot earlier than we are used to!), we were tired as we boarded the train to Nara City station, but as we stepped off the train we were ready to explore for the day.

It was incredibly hot today – 31 degrees – which is very strange for October, we’re told.  Actually, we’ve been really lucky; it’s been beautiful weather and often very hot every day since arriving in Japan (besides the morning on the day we left Kyoto, where it rained heavily for a few hours due to a typhoon some distance away), so the jumper I bought in India to wear in Japan has not yet been of any use….

We began our day by simply walking around Nara city; it was reasonably familiar to me and I could remember quite a lot of the places and directions from my stay there last year which was good. Last time my mum and I were here in Nara we visited a community centre that housed an earthquake simulator and a lot of insightful and fascinating information about earthquake-proof building foundations, which I really wanted Jake to see. Close by I knew of a really beautiful restaurant that served Nara specialties – a type of sushi wrapped in leaves, and a delicate soup with thin noodles. I wanted to find these places at some point today.

We walked around the town which was beautiful in the sunshine and stopped to pet the many sweet deer that were strutting about, occasionally head butting tourists who refused to hand over their deer crackers. Very funny animals that make a very cute sound.

We visited a pond filled with turtles and surrounded by a stunning view, explored several temples, took a stroll through the streets and stood awe struck by the massive 5 story pagoda – built without using any nails!

Walking around the town was just so beautiful, seeing the deer and the people and everyone so happy. The sunshine bought out ice cream carts and little food vendors, and lots of tourists. I loved watching the deer congregating around the little ‘deer cracker’ vendor’s stalls, as if so hopeful they might just get lucky by looking oh so cute and get given a snack.

We eventually found our way to the community centre, and I was so glad we’d found it. We had a look around the centre and both took a seat in the earthquake simulator, which was quite terrifying when imagining how this would’ve been in reality. From there, we sat for a bit enjoying the air conditioning, free green tea and wifi before heading back out into the heat of the day.
Nearby, I recognized the restaurant I’d been looking for and we ended up eating a delicious lunch there, where we met an older Australian couple who were rather funny.

After lunch, we spent some time wandering through the little shops before heading towards  a famous temple, past thousands of beautiful ancient stone lanterns covered with moss. It was shady in the forested area, deers were bleating and it was so serene. In the temple, we came across a wedding taking place and stood for a while watching the brides elaborate hair, make up and outfit being adjusted, as well as everyone else in the wedding party. The photographers smoothed every crease and fold in the material, and combed every hair into place; this precision took a long time but the wedding party looked amazing. I felt a bit guilty standing there photographing them, but a million other tourists were too – I guess they chose to have their wedding in a touristic city, in a touristic area, in a famous temple…

We wandered back into town eventually, and before we knew it it was late afternoon and time to head back to our host’s home to spend and enjoy the time with their family and share another delicious home-cooked Japanese feast.

Our time in Nara was quick, but wonderful.