It’s been a few months since we’ve added to our blog, but not for a lack of interest or things to write about. Quite the opposite, we’ve been very busy, visiting places, enjoying festivals, and generally enjoying ourselves the most that we have been since arriving in Japan. Many times we’ve talked about putting up another blog entry about something we did in the past few months, but somehow we never got around to organizing out the photos and putting it to work. For that reason, we’ve got alot of material to catch up, and we decided to split up that content into two separate posts. This first post will cover the first two trips we made since we last wrote, and in the near future we will cover the most recent trips / adventures as well. Keep reading until you reach the bottom, we’ll be mixing photo galleries in with each relevant adventure along the way!
Let’s start off with our first trip, several weeks back, to Atami (熱海), a small town along the coast of the Izu (伊豆) penninsula.
At the time, me and Libby were under alot of stress, alot of which is explained in our previous post. The idea for this weekend trip was to get away to some nature, delicious food, and some onsen baths, without having to travel too far or too uncomfortably. And we achieved just that!
Atami itself is a pretty laid back costal town. Our first night arriving in town, since we had left just after my work, we stayed in a pretty cool little hostel, which unlike our previous hostels, was relatively comfortable. The individual capsule were more than large enough for us and our stuff, and the staff super friendly and helpful. We found some information about the town from the many pamphlets and got our rest easily. I really enjoyed the feel of this place; very European, with narrow, curving pebbled streets that decended down from the station to the bay below.
The next day was the beginning of our real vacation, a day we got to spend adventuring out to explore the coastal trails along the Izu peninsula.
First, we boarded a train that curved through the mountain tunnels and coastline villages. It was alot of fun and super relaxing; because of the large cliffs surrounding each cove that marked a station stop along the line, we couldn’t actually tell where the train was going toward next. Instead, it was only after the train pulled out the other end of the next tunnel did we suddenly realize what the next cove / village would look like. Surpisingly there was a good amount of variety in each stop we passed along the way. Some felt like little Hawaiin beach towns, with surfers and very open, casual city layouts that hugged the water. Others felt more like tucked country villages, built more along the mountains and cliffs than up on the water.
We finally arrived at our goal, a bit south and further down the peninsula. I don’t really remember the name to be honest lol, but I had been there before on a trip a few years ago, and I recalled that there were several good places within walking distance of this particular train stop. The day was warm, the sun beat down on us, and we walked… ALOT. But it was worth it; we saw coastal temples, walked up and down trails through the forests with lots of beautiful views across the ocean, we enjoyed some very delicious ice cream (some of the best we have this whole trip!) from some local fruit, visited a garden, and had some nice tea. By the time we were ready to head back, our legs were tied and we were very hungry. Allll according to plan.
Our stay that second night was at Onsen Hotel — at last, more baths! We had a pretty nice private room, which included a private view across the town and up towards the Atami castle. Amusingly, though, the hotel staff who showed us our room seemed to laugh when I mentioned the Atami castle. “You know it’s fake right? They built it a few years ago just to attract more visitors because they know people like castles.” More on that later, lol.
For dinner, we were treated by the hotel to our first Japanese style Kaiseki (懐石) dinner. This basically amounts to a fancy, special occassion multi-course meal that featured local vegetables, high quality beef, a whole cooked fresh fish, and dessert. Libby was all like XD and I was pretty happ with it too. Our host reminded us to eat the darker meat, too, since it was in fact the most rich in flavor, even if it looked weird. Libby was happy to oblige.
Afterwards, I headed straight for the baths! Oh man, nothing feels quite as good as soaking in a spring bath after wearing your feet to exhaustion from walking. The releasing of the tension in my feet and legs and even shoulders was great. The stress and tension of the previous weeks melted away.
The following day was us exploring most of the rest of Atami’s downtown. We explored the red light district, which was actually quiet beautiful (aside from dirty old men, obviously), thanks in part to the very attractive canal that runs down the center of the district, along with the beautiful flowers and trees tended for along side it. We of course checked out the beach, and finally took a gondala up to the infamous “Atami Castle”. We discovered, as our hosts had warned us, that this castle was nothing more than a tourist trap. No historical significance, even the locals didn’t seem to care about it. We didn’t actually go inside, instead hanging out at a nearby view and cafe, but we realized the inside was nothing more than a small random museum about “other castles” and general Japanese history, like they couldn’t even own up to the history of building the fake Atami castle itself lol. Still, amusing, and the view was nice.
That wraps up our Atami trip from my side, I’m going to hand over the post to Libby to fill in some gaps and add some of her perspective.
Libby on Izu Peninsula/Atami
Long story short, I’m not teaching anymore. I’ll write more about that later in another post. Anyways as for our trip, Atami is a really nice place to have a break from the city. It seemed mostly filled with older people, with its city mascot being a bald guy with a bath robe on. It feels kind of like Pacifica if it were scrunched up even more into a mountainside. There were also parts of the town that reminded me of Palo Alto, where it had really big houses and wide roads. It was really deja-vu!
The hostel we stayed at, Guesthouse Maruya, was one of the best ones we’ve stayed in. We could even stand in the room! It was tatami-lined with a bunch of shelves built into the walls and crevice of this warehouse-ey building. It was also nice and quiet since maybe 2 other people were staying there. The place seemed really casual and relaxed. It had a creepy downstairs basement though…
For most of our trip we did lots and lots of walking on hills, around cliffs. The area is famous for a Buddhist monk staying in the area and setting up shop. There is a dormant volcano around the island but a lot of the seaside was made of lava rocks, which was pretty cool.
Our onsen hotel dinner was the most memorable part of the trip! Everything was just fancily put in front of our faces and it was hard to decide where to start. It’s hard to describe the experience until you eat it for yourself. Everything was delicious and interesting and you leave really stuffed. Our server was this old lady and she was really nice and explained what everything was. She did say I was supposed to serve Zach rice since I’m the lady here…
And as for the fake castle, there was an erotica museum once you get off the air tram towards the castle. It was full of gimicky things and you definitely left the place feeling queasy and maybe like you need to wash your hands. The entire place along with the castle was definitely a tourist trap. The castle even had some Buddhist statues, and you could offer money into the wishes box. The statues were definitely a bit too new looking! There was also a lady with a pet monkey that could do tricks with a soundtrack playing in the back. I guess that’s like having your own pokemon?
Tourist traps aside, I would definitely go back to Atami for the coziness of the place (and it also has great desserts made from the local oranges!)
Following our Atami trip, summer had begun in full swing. Oh my GOD I had forgotten what it was like to sweat. And sweat. And bake! And then sweat. It’s the kind of uncomfortable heat that makes you want to shower multiple times a day, and when you get home you just want to claw out of your sweaty shirts and pants.
And yet, the discomfort of summer brings with it alot of specialty summer food! Seasonal fruit mochis, cold soba noodles, corn and watermelon. Certain things just taste better on a cool summer night after a steamy hot day.
The next big trip we had recently was a return to Kyoto to meet up with my friend, Ian, who was visiting us. We had a 3 day weekend thanks to a national holiday (Ocean Day. As Libby put it, “So are supposed to celebrate by eating more fish on Ocean Day, or abstaining from eating fish on Ocean day?”), so we packed up our stuff, jumped on a train to meet up in Kyoto.
Fortunately for us, we found a really really nice airbnb right near the Gion district (the most popular area, with alot of great shops and major streets), with a great view over the river and easy access near a train stop.
We’ve talked about our time in Kyoto before, but frankly me and Libby agree that it is by far the best place to visit in Japan. If you’re only here for a week, forget Tokyo. Just spend that week in Kyoto. It’s way less crowded, the food is better, the culture is better, it’s so absurdly beautiful and there’s always more things to see.
Meeting up with Ian was fun! We had with him his girlfriend, and one of her friends who had been in Tokyo. The group of us had alot of fun chatting and catching up. Early on I got designated the “Japan expert”, so that everyone felt the need to ask me the meaning and history of everything we saw and did 😛 Of course, I know everything about Japan, or something, so I was sure to recount the story of how the bamboo forest actually came from another, smaller, bamboo forest that had existed in the same spot before, or how the whistling face mask came from a man who actually died while whistling, and the Japanese found it so funny they caste over his head and made toys of it. I really am the best guide.
Anyways, the main event upon our arrival was to watch the major parade / festival that was being held near a temple in the Gion district we were staying in. We lined up along the major street to watch, and… it began to rain. At first just a sprinkle. The procession of people in the parade had begun to line up, many in costume and some on horses. None of them, unfortunately, prepared for the… oh boy. The rain got stronger, and stronger. It turned into a full one down poor, and while we and all the onlookers could stand under neath the roofs of the street covers, the procession had to stand through the whole mess, with only a plastic rain sheet around their costumes to help with the waves. And then, just like that… it stopped. After a bit of time, the parade finally began! So, yeah, an awkward way to start lol.
An amusing detail of the parade was the “sacred child”, some young kid who is lifted on to a large float and paraded around in royal clothes. Later on, we read that the kid who actually has to take on this roll in the parade had to traditionally stay on his float for the entire 3 days of the festival, and was not allowed to have his feet touch the ground at any point. I’m not sure if they still do that… I mean, how would the kid use the bathroom? Would they have to bring him a bucket? lol
Anyways, after the parade we visited the nearby temple, which was really pretty once night hit and the lights came on. After that we hung out in an interesting Cuban bar along the river, where Ian’s girlfriend’s friend (who is incidentally Cuban) had some fun talking to the bar tended about the fancy drinks. What more can I say? It was just a cool time to hang out and Kyoto is an awesome city to do so.
The following day, we did alot of walking, through the bamboo forests, to the Monkey park, down to the Togetsukyou area (渡月橋). Aside from just being absolutely gorgeous, my favorite part was when we decided to rent a paddled boat, where in an older man took us up the river while we laid lazily in the shade on the boat. Another boat eventually came alongside ours and offered us snacks and drinks, so of course, like everything else we do in Japan, we ended up eating while we relaxed on the boat ride 😛
Unfortunately me and Libby had to return back to Tokyo with enough time for me to return to work the next day, but overall, again, Kyoto is a great place and I can’t recommend it enough. Even though the short adventure there was certainly fun, we both agree that next time we’d prefer to stay longer. There’s just too many things we didn’t even have time to get to!
With that, I’ll swap back to Libby so she can fill in some more details.
Libby on Summer and Kyoto Trip No.2
I’ve never been a summer person. Summer can be terrible for me especially as a Bay Area Native with our non-summers. During my commutes to and from my school, I would be just drenched in sweat. I get really self conscious of it since my back is completely soaked, but I would look at my coworkers and nobody else is soaked! WHY? HOW? This is still an unsolved mystery to me. I would say people dress even more here during the summer. Ladies will be in t-shirts but their sleeves will be covered by these extra sleeves that they would buy. Some will wear cardigans, which are helpful in hiding your sweaty back but still pretty torturous. Salarymen will still wear button down shirts, some people with short sleeves, black pants, but their top button undone. This is called “Cool Biz”!
But being here experiencing an actual summer, I’ve learned to appreciate the season more, especially with all the cold food. Before coming here, I didn’t understand the appeal of soba. If I was in the Bay Area, the thought of eating soba would be like “What-cold noodles?! *frown face* Why not warm?!” But now I get it and appreciate it. Slurping these cold noodles dunked in tsuyu (soy sauce, mirin, sake sauce) and a ton of green onions (the national vegetable of Japan, aside from cabbage) is just right on a hot summer night. Cool and not too filling!
Anyways, Kyoto! It was great to see Ian and his girlfriend Clio and to meet Alex. Seeing some familiar faces is always nice. We walked around the streets and by the Kamo River, passing by one or two maikos, normal yukata-wearing (summer robe, informal compared to a kimono) people, and tons of other tourists. In Kyoto, everybody seems to be in a general good mood, especially with the Gion Matsuri (festival) we were about to see.
Zach and Ian went to a conbini (convenience store) for refreshments while Clio, Alex, and I were trying to save a spot on the street railing before the parade was to start. This old lady and her other relation was trying to get in on one of our spots so I offered the spot right next to me at the end of our group. She seemed really thankful and she even wiped off some of the rail in front of me when it started to rain (D’awww!). As Zach said, the procession got caught in the downpour, which is called the tsuyu or the summer rain between July and August. I don’t know what it is, but when it tsuyus it’s oddly magical because it rains so hard and then it decides after 30 minutes “Ok, I’m done with my tantrum”. The people in the parade were all stopped, with these costumes and large mostly useless umbrellas. I was having my awesome red bean and green tea ice cream while the others were having their beers. I think I’ll remember that moment for a long time.
After the parade, we decided to have parfaits at one of our favorite chains, Nana’s Green Tea. We got excited by the parfait that Zach and I stole Ian and Clio’s parfait and started munching on it. We figured it out after leaving one piece of chocolate in their green tea chocolate bits parfait. Sorry, guys!
The next day we visited the Arashiyama area of Kyoto which is really beautiful. It’s so amazingly green and I’m not sure the pictures below do it justice! The best part was visiting the monkeys in the monkey park. It’s a 20-30 minute trek up this mountain, which luckily has benches along the side and a water mister halfway up. The monkeys were really interesting to watch and up close. But you can’t get too close to them or stare them in the eyes or they get confrontational on you. They definitely had full reign of the area. One of the monkeys took over a tent where a park worker was supposed to be sitting. There was a hut where you could cool down, but also where you were able to feed the monkeys apples and peanuts at a safe distance. After lunch and some mochi soft cream (!!!!), we took a relaxing boat ride on the Oi River among the trees and mountains. Kyoto is just so fun and we can’t wait to visit again!