As April came to a close and May approached, Me and Libby began to prepare for a shift of gears; a shift of the upwards kind. You see, we had two friends coming to visit us: “Captain”, a friend of Libby’s from college, and Elise, a friend of mine from college. We had planned a long vacation to hang out with the two of them, so there many activities to come.
But before that, there was a minor diversion for fashionable shopping. And it was during that diversion that I found “it”; the great hat to ever grace Libby’s head!
When Captain first arrived and for the first few days, Libby and Captain hung out together without me, as I was still busy wrapping up some work. Apparently, even in that small sort of time, things quickly escalated. Apparently on a run through Shinjuku station, the pair found the ambrosia of the gods: Newoman’s Strawberry / Banana nut Daifuku. It was love at first sweet, sweet bite. The chewy, bouncy texture? Blushing. The cream and fruity fillings? Weak in the knees. But I mean, what else can you expect? It’s packed with the secret ingredient: sugar lol.
Eventually, I was finished with work and able to spend my days directly with them. We took several trips to do some summer time exploring; we visited Chichibu, explored several gardens, and went for some hiking. In particular, one of those days we traveled to a nearby Wisteria garden. Libby began the day by letting us know there was a “50% chance of rain”, which unfortunately soon became a “100% completely raining us out”. Soaked but undeterred, we moved through mud and thick sheets of rain and actually really had a good time. Another trip involved us taking a long hike through the mountains, where at some point we began to joke about being Captain’s parents, taking turns complaining about him “getting all his bad behavior from you”. There was also some amazing AMAZING curry bread, the best I’ve had in all of Japan, on the mountain. Well, I should say I had the amazing curry bread, whereas Libby talked Captain out of buying one with me. Boy did he regret that lol.
Eventually, Elise did arrive. Our first major adventure? Disneyland lol. We must have visited Disneyland 5 times since being here. And yet, bringing friends and having an adventure with other people doesn’t seem to get old.
Just as we got more comfortable as a group, we headed off west. Our itinerary was what you expect from guiding a couple of friends around Japan: Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Himeji. Central / Western Japan, as we’ve mentioned before, is probably the best place to head for a week or two if you’re spending that amount of time here.
Still, even after having visited these spots a few times ourselves, we made a few new discoveries on this trip. One of our group favorites was a small tucked away temple featured wooden beams stained with the blood of several vassal lords who committed suicide upon the Western Army’s defeat in Sekigahara, some 200+ years ago. Creepily, the temple described the decision to keep these violence soaked elements as a “heavy reminder of the real consequences our decisions can carry.” Woah. But I’m not done, the temple had two other notable qualities. First and foremost, the small enclosed garden itself was actually GORGEOUS. We were not allowed photography, so it’s impossible to easily share precisely what we saw, but having visited many many temples throughout Japan, it definitely was notably gorgeous in it’s simplicity and design. Apparently, too, we were not the only ones touched. Near the front of the temple included an obituary to the recently deceased David Bowie, and a newspaper to explain the connection. You see, in the 1980s Bowie had visited Japan and come to this temple. For reasons that were not explained, Bowie insisted on sitting alone on the porch to look out upon the garden. And then– he cried, silently. He later said that it was his favorite place in all of Japan. WOAH! We can see why. Another really cool part of this temple was some of the art pieces on display: one of them included an extremely elaborate calligraphic drawing that was composed entirely of tiny, tiny Chinese characters. A magnifying glass provided nearby allowed you to inspect it up close. Insanely, the characters were not meaningless repetitions for the sake of the resulting image either; they seemed to have been painstakingly written sutras themselves! This kind of stuff I expect out of computer generated images, but for a person to do it by hand, with ink? Mind blowing.
In Osaka we visited several hundred year old tree, and one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, like, literally created by the Emperor at the time to introduce Japan to Buddhism (See guys, this is cool right?). The best part of that temple included a plaza overrun with… turtles! Like, hundreds of them! It was like being in a terrifyingly cute Indiana Jones scene; they were crawling over each other, and up the ramps and around the pools of water… very… very… slowly. Some curse this temple has!
The stop in Himeji was primarily driven by the desire to see Himeji castle itself; “The White Castle”. To be honest, I’ve seen alot of castles, so I wasn’t expecting to be anymore impressed than usual, but I was quite wrong with Himeji. Not only was the complex large, but the actual castle itself was well preserved, massive, and a lot of fun to explore. Most Japanese castles are basically buried on the inside with museum displays and modern interior, not to mention constant crowds (looking at you Osaka Castle). Himeji was pleasantly left with only minimal displays and placards; most of the details information was instead buried in the pamphlet handed upon entry. While this might be more tedious to read, it left the actual castle itself more easy to be absorbed into. We’re talking a massive internal complex, built from wood and stone, with secret doors, soldiers quarters, food quarters, defensive siege tools, and great lookouts from multiple angles. Exploring the castle is way more freeform — you’re not pushed quickly through a swirl of people in single file fashion. The castle is so big that in general there’s enough room for every to just move about and explore at their own pace. Definitely one the best castle experiences I’ve had.
For the last leg of the journey, we were supposed to visit Kanazawa for a second time with our group. Unfortunately, I made two critical mistakes: I had made a plan to give a speech back in Tokyo on the same day, for one, and secondly, I had miscalculated the number of days of our trip, meaning that Elise’s JR Pass would expire one day too early, and she would be forced to pay a few hundred dollars to make the trip 😦 So… we canceled that idea and returned to Tokyo instead. Despite the miscalculation, I feel that we were all quite tired and ready to relax some more anyways, so in the end it was fine.
Having me and Libby’s friend visit us and take a group trip was A LOT more fun than traveling alone, but it was also exhausting. It’s easy to underestimate how much planning and decision making is required to keep 4 people entertained and fed. Still, we really loved our travel and look forward to further trips in the future! It seems that Captain and Elise got along well, so perhaps the four us might meet up again in the future.
Although Elise did return home shortly after returning to Tokyo, Captain was to remain and embark on a few more adventures himself, including one in which we meet up and explore a bit of Sapporo with. We’ll catch up on that next time. Until then, here’s Libby!
At the end of April, I basically turned into a Mama Goose, contro–er–planning where to go, arranging nesting materials, and honking at people for not staying in line (of the escalator, that is). I met Capt’n at Ueno Station and that was the start of our pun-tastic, caffeine-crazed and snack-filled journey!
I took Capt’n to the usual Tokyo sites, Akihabara, Shibuya Crossing for crossing streets, Yokohama and the ramen museum, Asakusa, and Sky Tree area. We were at Shinjuku Station when we saw that beautiful daifuku, with the strawberry, bean paste, and cream in the middle. I was telling Capt’n about the other confection, warabi mochi, which you can watch them make on site, when we spotted the perky, powdery daifuku in the cold display. I’ve had regular daifuku with a strawberry in the middle but the whipped cream in the middle for this one just takes it over the edge! We went gaga for it and it would definitely not be the last time we would have it. After our first one, forever we were on the lookout for a similar daifuku throughout our travels. We also went cray-cray over Zach and my favorite tsukemen shop, which is a ramen you dip in a thick broth (also not the last time Capt’n would have it). We also ended up at a meat festival where they served, you guessed it! MEAT! *Drool*
As mentioned, there were tons of nature events happening during that time, the Wisteria Festival in Ashikaga and the Shibazakura festival in Chichibu, both in our home prefecture. Chichibu was a cute town that is known for having a 100 temple pilgrimage. While we only went to a few of them that were closer to downtown, the ones we saw were very special and well taken care of. In one of the larger temples, we showed up at the right time for a fire ceremony being performed.
We also took a trip to Mt. Mitake which is one hour from Tokyo. It was a little frustrating to get to since it meant we had to take a train down to Tokyo, transfer, take another train going West, transfer to ANOTHER local train, take a bus to the bus that goes to the ropeway, and then take THAT bus, and finally get on a cable car rope bridge to finally get on the mountain. It was definitely pretty though, and there were even cherry blossoms still out even though it was two weeks or so finished in the area. We also got to hike down this medium level path down to this waterfall and we were cutting it a little close to sundown. Also Zach is wrong and I did not stop Capt’n from getting the curry bread. Our son is an adult and he can make his own decisions!! Also the mochi stick we had was good. Especially since we didn’t have lunch that day.
After doing all the nature things in Tokyo, Elise arrived and our gang was complete (But we need to get Elise some daifuku!!). Tokyo DisneySea was fun as usual and we took the monorail for the first time. Unfortunately I missed out on Journey to the Center of the Earth since my stomach decided it wanted to explode half way into a 90 minute line. Oh darn. The goslings had fun though. The chicken drumstick next to the Indiana Jones ride was great, and fulfilled all my bbq chicken needs.
Next it was off to Kyoto and Osaka! We stayed in a ryokan and had a nice kaiseki dinner and a bath. We also stayed in this very old Japanese style house, with a very steep stairway and a shower on the side of the building. We went to the usual places, a short peek at Kiyomizu-dera with snacks in between, reading our fortunes at Fushimi Inari, feeding koi at Nijo Castle, oh-and-ah-ing at the shininess of Kinkaku-ji, and averted eye contact from monkeys in Arashiyama. Shodenji temple, the one where David Bowie cried, was surprisingly nice. You can sit on the stoop of the temple and just watch this small zen garden. Butterflies would land on the bushes and little lizards would crawl in between the shade. Some bees made a home in the roof of the temple and made quiet buzzing sounds. It felt like a little world in that garden, minus the big and complicated problems that we face outside the temple walls. It was a weird and interesting experience.
But where was dat daifuku mochi?! Luckily there was a Kyoto branch of the same mochi shop, though it has strange hours posted on it’s google entry, with it being open late in the afternoon and closing at like 2am. Hmmm. At night, we meandered through Kyoto’s Gion District looking for it. The usual tourist shops were closed. There were a lot of girls standing on corners, and guys dressed in suits. Guys in black and white suits, girls on corners. Ohhhhh, this shop is for people that want two types of midnight snacks! Anyways, it was open, and we got four of the strawberry filled ones, and two puddings, sesame and plain. And so our Daifuku gang was complete and all was right with the world.
Our trips to Osaka and Kobe were pretty short. We found a really good katsu curry place made by chefs with big top hats. I really liked the temple with the really old tree. The tree seemed very much alive, and I bet it has seen some sh*t. The really old Buddhist temple, Tennoji, was amazing too, and it looked weathered down, keeping with Buddhist tradition, I suppose. We found some strawberry mochi not far from it but it wasn’t the same. And what was up with those turtles?!?! We saw a dead one that got stuck in between a ramp going down into the water from a flat rock :c. The circle of life at a Buddhist temple.
Himeji Castle was really impressive, though I didn’t expect what it was going to be. Sometimes when I’m travelling I make strange assumptions about destinations out of nowhere. “Oh we’re going to Oregon? That means we’re going to Portland!” Just kidding, we’re going to end up at the coast. “We’re going to go to Georgia and end up at Atlanta airport? That means we’re going to the Coke factory!” Just kidding, we are going to be in Athens mostly which is a number of hours away. It’s not like where I ended up was terrible, just completely different from what I thought it would be. I had the same reaction with Himeji Castle. For whatever reason I assumed it was going to be like a royal residence, like Buckingham Palace or Balmoral Castle, filled with royal crap! Obviously there was no royal stuff inside. But! It was still a very old building, with nice wooden floors, supported by huge beams going up 6 or so stories. It was still really cool and one of the biggest castles I’ve ever seen. And it even had the well upfront, made famous by a traditional ghost story.
Since the Kanazawa trip wasn’t going to happen. The two goslings, and I were going to head to Nara, a city of very hangry deer. We bought some deer senbei cookies, sold by old ladies from carts. The deer immediately followed us! They were grabbing our shirts and trying to eat the paper wrapper out of hangry-ness! They pushed us with their stubby heads! Capt’n reflexively hit a deer in the face. I suppose he got that trait from me, Mama Goose. One of the famous temples in town is Todaiji, which holds a very large Buddha statue and also has a lucky pillar with a large hole that you can try to crawl through (Buddha’s nose). Even though there were a ton of people there, it felt peaceful staring into the statue’s face. There was a place for offering incense and it reminded me of home. After the temple we had some matcha ice cream and got harassed and bowed at by one more deer.
We were done with Nara, and it was time for Capt’n to say sayo-Nara, which he literally did *urgghh*. Elise and I dropped him off at Kyoto Station and we were headed Tokyo-bound. The rest of the time we were recovering from sore feet and backs from our trip. Our last full day together, we ended up with tsukemen at our local shop and went to the baths. The next day Elise went home and our nest was empty once again.
All joking aside, our apartment did feel cozy with Capt’n and Elise around. One journaling in a corner, one playing Mario Kart games, one fast asleep from jet lag, all in our tiny apartment. It reminded me a lot of huge family reunions at my house when I was young – too many people sharing seat belts in a mini van and extra mattresses in the hallways (minus toddlers trying to kill each other). In that brief week, the four of us were a family.
Next entry, we’re headed up north towards Sapporo!