Hakone

We said goodbye to Tokyo and headed off to Hakone, a little mountain tourist town, famed for its onsen (hot springs). We got the shinkansen (bullet train) to Odawara, and then a lovely little old school train up to Gora, with beautiful views as we ascended.
2016-04-16 Hakone

We dropped off our bags at our hotel, and headed out for some lunch at a little place called the Gyoza Centre – delicious. Although much cooler up here, it was such a lovely, sunny day, so we visited the Open-Air Museum. This is a beautifully landscaped park, full of sculptures by Japanese and international artists, which also features a really nice Picasso gallery.

2016-04-16 Hakone

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There were various types of cherry blossom to be enjoyed too.
2016-04-16 Hakone

Later that afternoon we headed back, by which time our room was ready for us. We were staying at the Gora Kadan, a ryokan. These are traditional Japanese inns, which was a completely different experience. Rooms at a ryokan are laid out in the traditional Japanese style, there are usually onsen facilities (so there are usually many ryokan in hot spring areas), staff are extremely attentive, and top quality food is served, usually in your room. Our attendant, Sho, looked after us during our stay, and was really very warm, helpful, and diligent.

Just inside the front door of our room was a small entryway where we left our shoes, and then there were tatami reed mats covering the floor from the hallway onward. Paper screen doors divided each section. The main area featured a low table and floor chairs, where meals were served. This also doubled up as the bedroom – after the evening meal the table was moved aside and our attendant laid out futon bedding on the floor, and in the morning he tidied it away into the big wardrobes down the side of the room.
Next to the main area was a small sitting area, and outside we had a patio with a fabulous stone tub, which was filled by hot spring water piped in. It was all very classically Japanese; minimalist, neat, efficient, but with top quality in the small details. We really felt like VIPs – this was definitely the luxurious honeymoon part of the trip!
2016-04-16 Hakone

2016-04-16 Hakone

We were given yukata (a light, kimono style robe) to wear around the hotel, and our attendant showed us how to wear these, ensuring we wrapped them with the left over the right (as it is only ever worn the other way for funerals).
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Dinner was a wonderfully lavish affair, in kaiseki style – multiple courses of small, finely prepared dishes.
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The next day we had grand plans of visiting Lake Ashi, taking a cable car to get there and boat ride across it, and also perhaps seeing Mount Fuji if it was clear both here in Hakone and around Fuji. However, it was very much raining, so we decided to wait it out and have a wander round the nearby Gora Park first. We headed to the covered greenhouses, where we spotted some old favourites, and some rather more unusual blooms, as well as delightful bonsai displays.
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2016-04-17 Hakone

We also found the Craft House within the park, which offered taster sessions in pottery, glass blowing, glass etching, and flower arranging, so we ended up going for a glass-blowing session. It was all very well organised – you pick what item you want to make, what type of design, and colours, and then you go in for your session at the allotted time. The staff were very friendly, and while they did most of the skilled work, they got participants involved in just enough of the ‘easy’ bits and made us feel very clever indeed. Gareth and I both chose glasses, one with pink and blue swirls, and one with green spots (choosing the colours and design almost took longer than the actual session!).
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It was very exciting, but since it took a few days to cool and be ready for collection, we got ours shipped. When we got back from our travels our honeymoon glasses had been delivered already!
2016-07-09 Blown glass

After that it was still raining heavily, but we decided to brave it to Lake Ashi anyway. To get there, first we took a funicular further up the mountain. Then, we were supposed to have taken a cable car, however part of it was closed due to volcanic activity in the area, and the remaining part was closed due to the high winds. So we got the replacement bus service instead.
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When we got to the lake, we certainly felt the gale!
2016-04-17 Hakone

From here we would’ve seen Mount Fuji, had it been a clear day, but after this quick snap, we went into the bus and boat terminal building before we got blown away!
2016-04-17 Hakone

After that little adventure we headed back to chill out, and then our second evening of kaiseki dinner featured a different menu, which was just as fantastic.
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The following day we left Hakone, heading down to Kyoto on the shinkansen. We were a little sad to leave the ryokan, which had been simply wonderful, not least in the level of care we had from every member of staff we came across. It had just the right mix of rustic and luxurious, in a beautiful mountain setting. The Gora area itself was quaint and lovely, and very relaxing to be in.

And on the train to Kyoto, by pure luck we happened to look up at just the right moment, and caught sight of Mount Fuji after all, for around 5 minutes. That was something really very special.
2016-04-18 Passing Fuji

See more photos from Hakone in my Flickr set
Japan: Hakone

Meanwhile, back in the UK…

So things happened, and have been happening, and the UK is a fragile place at the moment. I was very much for remaining in the EU, and even after a few days the Brexit outcome is no less sad, painful, and worrying. Mostly because of the circumstances leading up to the vote – lies, nastiness, xenophobia and outright racism. What’s really sad is the people who voted against the EU were really voting against a UK government who has marginalised them for years. Meanwhile, just hours after the result was announced, key figures in the Leave camp were dismissing their major promises, one by one. I can’t help but feel they never really wanted to leave the EU, it was all about manipulating people in desperate situations to advance their own careers. Isn’t it astounding that product advertising is held to more accountability than election campaigning?

So now we have a new buzzword – Regrexit. We have a Prime Minister who’s washed his hands of this mess, government leaders focused on vying for power, an opposition party doing nothing but tear itself apart, cracks across the UK nations getting wider, and EU leaders calling for us to hurry up and get out already. Meanwhile, the council in Cornwall, an area that voted strongly to leave, has made statements about their funding fears, asking for assurance that the EU subsidies they receive will be matched by the UK government in the brave, new future. Irony really is a sick joke.

So what happens now? Keep Calm And Carry On? The next few weeks and months will certainly bring a lot to consider; technically the referendum result is not legally binding, so if there is any way the government can wriggle out of this and keep a few shreds of dignity they probably will. And if not, well, the one good thing about being out of the EU is that there is absolutely no one else to blame this country’s problems on, so how’s that for accountability?! All we can do for now is hope for the best, and when the time comes, engage with the whole process as much as possible. And then, que sera, sera.

I’ll end with a happy look at the garden, which has been coming along slowly but surely, now that the battering rains have given way to sunshine. Back to Japan next time!

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Pink lupins

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Purple lupins

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Pink and yellow aquilegia

2016-06-26 Cut flowers
First garden bouquet of the year – lupins, daisies, and day lilies

Tokyo Food Roundup

A big part of our trip to Japan was of course the food. I’ve already mentioned kushiyaki and yakitori at the izakaya we found on our first day, and on day two, during our guided tour of Tokyo, we had tonkatsu. This has its roots in Western pork chops, and is usually a pork cutlet, breaded and deep fried, then served with rice, a refreshing Japanese cabbage salad, and the special tonkatsu sauce, said to be derived originally from Worcestershire sauce – so yummy I drowned everything in it. As well as pork there are chicken, beef, and prawn versions as well.

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Super realistic plastic displays outside the tonkatsu restaurant

We had wonderful sushi and sashimi. Tuna remained the top favourite, but there was also a particular ‘white fish’ which we couldn’t identify but tasted wonderful. There were some ‘try anything once’ items as well, like sea urchin – once was certainly enough. In some places we were served fresh wasabi root with a little grater. This is the ‘real’ wasabi, as opposed to green coloured horseradish, which is what we would normally get in the UK or even in smaller restaurants and takeaway sushi meals in Japan. This is because fresh wasabi is expensive to grow, and the flavour lasts for a very short time, so you have to grate it as you eat. It tasted fantastic – the hit is even stronger than typical wasabi paste, but there isn’t the unpleasant feeling of it going through your nose.
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We also visited the Tsukiji fish market, the largest wholesale fish market in the world – this was an early morning start! There is an outer retail section selling groceries and kitchenware, and limited access to the inner wholesale market (visitors are allowed only after 9am, when the main wholesale trading has finished). Fish markets are always interesting, and this was no exception. One of the lasting impressions I have is of realising just how big tuna fish really are. Outside there are also many little restaurants serving the freshest fish for breakfast – we didn’t try this though, we were too hungry to face the huge queues.
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We also got acquainted with fresh bamboo shoot, a delicacy in Japan. We saw it growing in gardens and being sold in markets, and enjoyed it in meals.
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This is grilled bamboo shoot served with myoga bud, which was another amazing ingredient we came across in Japanese food. It’s commonly used as a garnish, and has such a lovely sweet-sourish, zingy, gingery, taste – it is a member of the wider ginger family, and reminded me of galangal and torch ginger.
2016-04-12 Tokyo

One evening we happened to end up in a restaurant specialising in Okinawa cuisine. We had tofu topped with sukugaras, an Okinawan seasonal delicacy of salted baby rabbitfish. There was also pork coated in black sesame paste – to die for, as well as Okinawa style tempura, which has a thicker batter. All washed down with awamori based cocktails (awamori being an Okinawan spirit distilled from rice).
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Less attractive, but no less interesting I think, is the breakfast I had in the hotel in Tokyo. I enjoyed the Japanese section of the buffet – it wasn’t fancy, but it tasted good.
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Rice and pickles, Japanese cabbage salad, miso soup, and good old orange juice.

Although we didn’t try them, we did come across vending machine restaurants. These two were in Tokyo Central train station, while beer vending machines were everywhere!
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And of course, I was on a mission to ‘collect’ seasonal cherry blossom, or sakura, flavoured food.
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Sakura ice cream, sakura mojito, and McDonald’s Sakura McFizz.

Back in Aberdeen, we got to eat one of our souvenirs, a beautifully packaged set of little cakes from Nikko – featuring a gate from the Toshogu shrine, and the ‘triple hollyhock’ crest of the Tokugawa family. These had two different fillings, red bean, and lotus seed or something that tastes a lot like it.
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Next up we move on to Hakone, and in the meantime there are more photos from Tokyo and Nikko in my Flickr set.

Japan: Tokyo and Nikko
Japan: Tokyo and Nikko

Nikko

We made a day trip out of Tokyo to the spectacular mountain town of Nikko, home to many historic and natural attractions. We visited some of the shrines and temples which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We got the bullet train to Utsunomiya, and then a regular train to Nikko, where we met our guide, Emiko-san. Our first stop was the sacred Shinkyo bridge, where, it is said, the monk who first brought Buddhism to Nikko was able to cross this river after the gods came to his aid and created a bridge of snakes. The water of the river Daiya is sparklingly clear, and Emiko-san declared that the best sake comes from Nikko because of the quality of its water.
2016-04-15 Nikko

We also made a quick stop outside a museum building for a look at their cherry blossoms. Being in the mountains, Nikko is a lot cooler, so the cherry trees here had just come into bloom.
2016-04-15 Nikko

2016-04-15 Nikko

Then we headed over to the Toshogu shrine, built in 1617 as a mausoleum for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan. There are many building within the Toshogu shrine, and even the storehouses and stables are beautifully and elaborately decorated.
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Stone torii gate

2016-04-15 Nikko
5 storey pagoda

2016-04-15 Nikko
Storehouses

The stables has a series of panels depicting the cycle of life in the form of monkeys. One of these panels popularised the ‘3 wise monkeys’ proverb of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. In the context of the panel series here, it is about teaching children morality and right from wrong.
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2016-04-15 Nikko

The Toshogu shrine complex contains combined elements of Shinto and Buddhism. Our guide pointed out details such as a torii gate (Shinto) with lotus embellishments (Buddhist) around its base pillars. In the main gateway structure there are Nio (Buddhist) guardians on one side, and ‘lion-dog’ (Shinto) guardians directly behind them on the other side.
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Further on, up many steps, is a structure where Tokugawa Ieyasu’s remains are kept.
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We came back down and then entered the inner shrine through this stunning gate, which shows the feudal lords of Japan at peace and in the service of the shogun (photography wasn’t allowed beyond this point).
2016-04-15 Nikko

2016-04-15 Nikko

All around the shrine there are many, many exquisite carvings of flora and fauna, especially birds.
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2016-04-15 Nikko

Tokugawa Ieyasu was born under the Chinese zodiac of tiger, and he favoured tiger imagery as a representation of himself, his fierce conquests, and as a warning to all who may think of opposing him. However, once he took on the title of shogun he ruled a unified Japan in a time of peace and development. This time of peace is symbolised on another gate, where there is a carving of a sleeping cat amongst flowers, and a pair of sparrows carved directly behind it. Of course, when we bought an omamori from this shrine, we got the one of the sleeping cat.
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After spending the morning here we stopped for lunch at a little shop, and had yuba soba, a Nikko specialty. Yuba is tofu skin wrapped around to form a cake, served with soba (buckwheat) noodles.
2016-04-15 Nikko

Then we went to the Rinnoji temple. This is under major restoration, so it is fully covered by a huge scaffolding structure, which makes it look, from the inside, rather like a shipyard. We were allowed to view some of the statues and relics on temporary display, and to look in from high observation decks at some of the work taking place. This also offered lovely views of Nikko.
2016-04-15 Nikko

We also had a stroll around the peaceful, moss covered garden here.
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A serene viewing spot, bringing the sacred Mount Nantai ‘into’ the garden.
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We then walked up to the Imperial Palace Villa, which showcases classic Japanese wooden architecture. Erected in 1899, it was the summer residence of the Imperial family until World War II, and then later restored and opened to the public in 2000.
2016-04-15 Nikko

2016-04-15 Nikko

Inside, it is an interesting mix of traditional Japanese style with European influences, such as sliding paper doors and tatami mats, along with European light fittings, and a billiard room.
2016-04-15 Nikko

The grounds are expansive and stunning, featuring a 400 year old cherry tree; its ancient boughs are propped up by tall wooden posts.
2016-04-15 Nikko

2016-04-15 Nikko

2016-04-15 Nikko

A beautiful finish to our day in Nikko.

From Electric Town to the National Museum

Tokyo is certainly a city of contrasting cultures, where history, tradition, and societal etiquette are carefully preserved, while ultra-modernity, efficiency, and popular culture are adopted and innovated. The day we visited both Akihabara and Ueno Park certainly highlighted this.

Akihabara is the ‘Electric Town’, home of otaku geek culture, which generally refers to fandom, popular culture, and obsession with all things manga, anime, and electronic. Upon exiting Akihabara station you’re greeted by entire streets of anime and manga shops, complete with flashing lights and catchy music blasting out of most of them.
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In a passageway just outside the station there was a tiny little gallery displaying action figures, the coolest of which was this set of Star Wars characters in samurai gear.
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Yodobashi is a huge chain of literally huge electronics stores. It turns out that branded electronics generally work out to about the same price as in the UK, so we didn’t get any camera lenses as we’d hoped to, but we certainly spent quite a long time here window shopping for all sorts of things (space telescope camera, anyone??).
2016-04-13 Tokyo

Another thing we loved here were these gachapon vending machines. You get them in the UK as well, but in Akihabara they were in pretty much every shop, often in large clusters. Coins in, turn the handle, random little prize comes out, depending on the theme of the machine.
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On a separate day we got to visit Artnia, the Square Enix cafe and merchandise store in Shinjuku. Fans of Japanese video games will know that Square Enix makes the hugely popular Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games.
They had a somewhat themed menu, so Gareth and I had a Potion and a High Potion, which were very refreshing and refilled our Health Points.
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We also bought some souvenir merchandise, but mostly wandered round the shop admiring all the cute items, fondly recalling characters from various games. Best of all was the ‘exhibition’ room, which had a huge suspended crystal (crystals are a recurring theme in the games), as well as displays of the very expensive merchandise.
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Back to Akihabara, where we happily spent the morning in and out of various shops, by lunchtime often dodging schoolkids – clearly regular patrons heading straight to their favourite sections. Some of the toy and game stores were intricate labyrinths of vintage and brand new items, and several had staff in full character costumes. Even in places like manga bookstores, where much depends upon being able to read Japanese text, we still had a great time looking at the interesting covers and illustrations, and just soaking up the atmosphere.

Later in the afternoon we headed over to a completely different setting – Ueno Park. This is a huge public park complex with many museums, temples, and shrines.

Outside this temple was a spectacularly trained Japanese pine.
2016-04-13 Tokyo

Across from there, on a man made island upon a pond, is a small temple dedicated to Benzaiten, a Japanese form of the Hindu goddess Saraswati. I’d come across Benzaiten sometime last year, and when I realised there was a Benzaiten temple in Ueno Park I was very keen to visit it. Just as Saraswati is always depicted with the Indian instrument veena, Benzaiten is usually depicted with the Japanese biwa.
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We got a cherry blossom themed omamori charm from this temple

Here is the obligatory cherry blossom picture. Ueno Park is a very popular cherry blossom viewing spot, however the blooming period of the main flower variety was nearly over at the point that we were in Tokyo. The later blooming varieties were still going strong though.
2016-04-13 Tokyo

2016-04-13 Tokyo
Interesting Japanese birds hanging out amongst fallen cherry blossom petals.

We visited the Tokyo National Museum and went through the ‘history of Japan’ section. There were so many intriguing and beautiful things to see and learn about.

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16th century samurai armour, with rabbit ear embellishment

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17th century screen with painting of aristocrats viewing cherry blossoms

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Beautiful kimonos, although I didn’t catch where or when they were from.

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12th century statue of Komoku-ten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings, and Guardian of the West

I was very taken up by this exhibit, 6th century Haniwa figurines (terracotta figurines used in funeral rituals and found in tombs). They are thought to be dancing people, a woman and a man with a sickle. I found them so charming, and I can’t be the only one, as a cartoonised version of them features as the museum mascot. I also found them somewhat familiar.
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Haniwa dancing people

A few days later I realised what they reminded me of – the cute but infuriating Cactuar character in Final Fantasy games. And it turns out others have noticed that too – just today when I looked up the Cactuar Wiki page to add a link here, I noticed a sentence about the character bearing a resemblance to Japanese Haniwa figures. Perhaps the designer was inspired by childhood visits to this museum? Perhaps Electric Town and the National Museum aren’t so far apart after all.