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Across and Above Lake Ashinoko

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We had enjoyed a deeply restful night of sleep at the Mount View Hakone ryokan hotel in Sengokuhara, and awoke eager to tackle our second day in the mountainous Hakone region southwest of Tokyo. After an early breakfast, we were at the northern shore of Ashinoko, a picturesque crater lake nestled in the shadow of Mount Fuji.

Lake Ashinoko

Scenic tours leave frequently from one end of the lake to the other, and we joined the earliest departure, at 9am. Lake Ashi (as it’s normally referred to) is known for its views of Mount Fuji, but sadly it was a hazy day and we could barely make out the flat, snow-covered top of the famous mountain. And as the day progressed, clouds would roll in, obscuring it completely.

But the boat ride was still beautiful, and within no time we had reached the southern shore. We relaxed at a cafe with an outdoor foot bath, and then rented a swan boat in order to get a better view of a huge orange torii along the lakeside. After climbing a hill to the Hakone Temple, where a wedding was underway, we walked almost a mile to the Hakone-en Park, to board a gondola that would take us to the summit of Mt. Komagatake. It’s a good thing we had slept so well, because this was turning out to be a busier day than we’d anticipated.

From the top of the mountain, we had a tremendous view of the lake, but still couldn’t see Mount Fuji. In fact, the clouds were turning a distressing shade of black. While we walked around, a speaker from the retro-looking gondola station blared out something in Japanese. Fifteen minutes later, after the lightning and thunder had started, we realized what the loudspeaker message must have been: due to the storm, the gondola service was suspended. Everyone else had naturally heeded the last call, leaving us alone at the top of the mountain with the staff and a couple other non-Japanese-speaking stragglers.

This could easily have turned into a disaster, but the storm was brief and within an hour we were able to descend. The wait even turned out to be rather fun… we were never rained on, and were able to enjoy an impressive lightning show over the lake.

We took a bus back to Odawara, where we boarded the train to Tokyo. This had been a short two-day vacation, but our escape from the capital was just what we needed. After three months in Tokyo, you start to forget what a forest looks like, or how beautiful a lake like Ashinoko can be.

Locations on our Map: Scenic Boat Departure | Hakone-en Torii | Mount Komagatake

Great Gifts And Toys From Japan

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July 11, 2014 at 3:41 pm Comments (0)

The Mount View Hakone Ryokan Hotel

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The forests, lakes, mountains and sheer natural beauty of the Hakone region are all great, but to tell the truth, we were most excited about the hotel which had invited us to stay for the night. The Mount View Hakone is a traditional Japanese ryokan in Sengokuhara, and we planned on taking full advantage of its baths, food, and relaxing atmosphere.

After checking in, we were shown to our suite. This was exactly what I imagined a ryokan to look like: the floor covered with tatami mats, the decoration minimalist, the furniture comfortable, and the futon bed large and inviting. We were each provided a yukata, or Japanese robe, which we were meant to wear throughout the extent of our stay in the ryokan.

We had scheduled both a private bath and a full kaiseki dinner in the evening, but now had a few hours to stretch out and relax in our suite. After three months in Tokyo, it was wonderful to be somewhere spacious and so blessedly quiet. For perhaps the first time since we had arrived in Japan, we had no urgent plans driving us forward, no work to be done, no special sight that had to be visited. We were able to enjoy simply existing for awhile. I got into my yukata, stretched out on the tatami floor and fell asleep.

Soon enough, dinner time rolled around and, after shuffling downstairs in our robes and slippers, we were shown to our private dining room. Our meal had already been laid out onto the table, and I nearly burst out laughing at the sight of it. So much food! This was going to be a struggle, but one I’d enjoy every bite of. Sushi, soba, miso soup, a beef hot pot, marinated octopus, rice and much more, the meal was like a Greatest Hits collection of all our Japanese favorites. (Well, the Greatest Hits… plus a giant, slimy black snail).

When we finally stood up from the table, our stomachs were bursting, and it was an effort to waddle down the hall to our next appointment: a nigori-yu, or private bath, in the cool evening air. We stripped down, and stepped outside to reach a bath that looked out on a garden of bamboo. The bath was already filled to the brim with revitalizing volcanic water straight from the hot springs of the surrounding mountain. The water is apparently good for muscle tension and the endocrine system.

We fell asleep early, and awoke the next morning fresh as newborn babies, ready for another big day. First, though: breakfast. Western options are available, but we chose the Japanese set, and were served another massive meal of delicious cuisine.

As we removed our yukatas and put back on our boring Western-style clothes, I felt nothing but contentment. Our stay in the Mount View Hakone had been exactly what we needed. Ryokans are normally expensive, but the prices for rooms and baths in this hotel are down-to-earth. So if you’re planning a trip to the Hakone region and want to experience a traditional Japanese lodging, this is a great choice.

Location on our Map
Mount View Hakone – Website

Japense Cookbooks

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July 11, 2014 at 2:37 pm Comments (2)

Escape from Tokyo: A Trip to Hakone

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On our last weekend in Japan we abandoned Tokyo and headed for the hills of the Hakone National Park, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Centered around a large crater lake, this is an area of hot springs, spas, traditional hotels, forests and mountains. It was the perfect antidote to the Big City Sickness with which we’d slowly but surely become infected.

Getting To Mount Fuji

In order to arrive at the Hakone region, we made use of every transportation method ever conceived by man, with the sole exception of Segway. We had made a reservation at a traditional ryokan hotel in the mountain town of Sengokuhara, and the day before leaving, I sat down to the considerable task of figuring out the directions:

1. Subway from Sumiyoshi Station
2. Bullet Train from Tokyo Station
3. Funicular Rail from Odawara Station
4. Mountain Railway from Hakone-Yumoto Station
5. Cable Car from Gora Station
6. Ropeway from Sounzan Station
7. Bus from Togendai

This sounds hopelessly complicated, but it was a lot more straightforward than I had feared. Though there are a large number of individual steps, the road to Hakone is firmly established, and we would step off one train, ropeway, or cable car, directly onto the next. From Odawara, the route climbs steadily into the hills, into increasingly beautiful nature, necessitating ever more extreme modes of transportation.

Getting there, as the saying goes, is half the fun. But in Hakone’s case, it might be more like 70%. At one point along the ropeway, as you’re cresting the hill before Owakudani Station, Mount Fuji suddenly appears, impossibly large on the horizon. Its profile is among the most famous in the world, and the view from our suspended car was unforgettable.

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Midway along the ropeway is Owakudani, which is an area of geothermal activity. We disembarked to explore the hissing springs and “enjoy” the stench of sulfur. Owakudani is known for its hot spring hard-boiled eggs, whose shells have turned a beautiful color of purple-black, due to the mineral properties of the water. The area reminded us a lot of our time in Iceland, albeit with sixty thousand times the people. Not even in Hakone, it seems, can one rid oneself completely of Tokyo’s crowds.

Luckily, Japanese groups tend to stick tightly together, and if you can manage to peel yourself away, finding solitude isn’t impossible. Instead of rejoining the lines waiting for the ropeway, we walked from Owakudani to Ubako Station on a wooded path leading down the hill, and were the only ones doing so. Near the path’s end, we encountered a quiet spa with an adjoining temple, seemingly forgotten in the woods. There was nobody here, so we sat down in front of the main shrine and made a snack of our blackened sulfur eggs.

The ropeway then continues to Togendai Station at the northern shore of Lake Ashi, a large lake formed by volcanic explosions. A boat ride sounded tempting, but we decided to leave it for the next day. This had already been a long journey, and we were anxious to arrive the ryokan where we’d be staying the night…

Locations on our Map: Odawara Station | Owakudani Station | Quiet Temple/Spa in the Woods | Togendai Station (Lake Ashi)

Cheap Flights To Tokyo

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July 9, 2014 at 3:19 pm Comments (3)

Yokohama’s Chinatown

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Outside of China, the largest Chinatown in Asia can be found in Yokohama. Hundreds of restaurants and shops are packed into this colorful and boisterous neighborhood, along with a multitude of gates and temples, and (if you’re visiting at lunch time) approximately 34 billion students looking for a cheap meal.

Yokohama China Town

Yokohama’s Chinatown feels like a theme park, with large gates clearly defining its borders and a festive atmosphere reigning in its pedestrian-only streets. This isn’t a normal neighborhood with residents quietly going about their lives, but a boisterous place where people go to eat and have fun. Chinatown is a completely different beast from the rest of Yokohama, which we had found to be quiet and relaxing.

China and Japan haven’t always enjoyed the rosiest history of friendship, and the fortunes of Yokohama’s Chinatown have waxed and waned with the tension between the two. The neighborhood was established when Japan opened its borders in 1859, and grew rapidly until the Sino-Japanese War of 1937. Relations stabilized after WWII, with Japan’s embrace of pacifism, and today Yokohama is home to thousands Chinese expatriates, most of whom are Cantonese.

Apart from admiring the neighborhood’s elaborate gates and its temples, the main thing to do in Chinatown is eat. There are so many options, it’s hard to know where to start. You can pig out on street food like dumplings, fried chicken, pork buns, chestnuts, rice cakes and kebabs. Or you can choose a lunch special offered by one of the hundreds of restaurants. Spicy Szechuan tofu dishes, Beijing duck, Shanghai-style fish, or an infinite variety of noodle and rice meals.

Overwhelmed by choice, we finally sat down in a random restaurant which looked popular, and enjoyed a delicious multi-set meal for about ¥800. Don’t ask me to share the restaurant’s name or location, because we were so disoriented by lunch time that I remember neither. Anyway, I have a feeling that any place you eat in Chinatown would be excellent.

Our trip to Yokohama was turning out to be a lot more interesting than expected, and Chinatown was the day’s biggest surprise. Even if you have to skip the rest of the city, it’s worth the short journey from Tokyo just to see this neighborhood and enjoy some authentic Chinese cuisine.

Location of Yokohama’s Chinatown on our Map

Hostels In Yokohama

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June 25, 2014 at 9:47 am Comment (1)

A Trip to Yokohama

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After Tokyo, Yokohama is the second-biggest city in Japan, with a population approximately equal to that of Los Angeles. The idea of dedicating a single day to it is absurd, but Yokohama is so easily accessible from Tokyo that it actually makes for an excellent short excursion.

Yokohama Japan

Just hop on the JR Tokaido train heading south out of Tokyo Station and 25 minutes later, you’re in Yokohama. It’s so close that it could be conceivably be considered a suburb, and indeed, many people commute from here to the big(ger) city every day for work. But although it exists under the shadow of Tokyo, Yokohama has an identity and colorful history all its own, thanks largely to its status as Japan’s first international port.

When Japan finally opened its doors to trade in 1854, it did so reluctantly. The shogun designated Yokohama, a fishing village farther down the coast from Edo, as the only port allowed to accept ships from other countries. Foreigners were permitted to settle down here… and only here. The result was that Yokohama blossomed into Japan’s most cosmopolitan city. Strong populations of Americans, Chinese and Brits brought with them innovations and learning that the country had previously shut its isolationist ears to.

The international flavor is still readily apparent in Yokohama, which boasts one of the world’s largest Chinatowns, as well as buildings which wouldn’t look out of place alongside the Thames. We began our day by walking from the train station past the baseball stadium, home of the Yokohama Bay Stars, and down Nihon-dori (Japan Street), which was once the official boundary between the city’s Japanese and the foreign populations.

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Soon, we were at the bay and walked out onto the newly-reconstructed Osanbashi Pier. It’s rare that a pier could be considered a worthwhile tourism sight, but Osanbashi is lovely. Constructed with gentle slopes covered in grass, it looks more like a park than a pier. This has been the center of Japan’s maritime relations since the country’s doors opened, and today welcomes cruise ships full of foreign guests.

We now walked southeast along the bay, through Yamashita Park, where there were a number of statues and kids playing catch, and came upon the NYK Hikawa Maru. Built in 1929, this enormous passenger ship connected Japan to Seattle until the outbreak of World War II. It acted as a hospital ship during the hostilities, and then returned to its peaceful Pacific crossings until being decommissioned in 1960.

It was about noon when we reached the Yokohama Marine Tower, which has an observation deck on its top floor. From here, we had a nice view of the harbor which has played such an important role in Japanese history. Further north, we could spot the modern section of the city, which we’d be visiting in the afternoon. And to the south, Chinatown, which we (correctly) reckoned would be a great place for lunch. There was still a lot ahead of us, but we were feeling optimistic; our morning in Yokohama had already been an unqualified success.

Locations on our Map: Yokohama Station | Yokohama Stadium | Osanbashi Pier | Yamashita Park | NYK Hikawa Maru | Yokohama Marine Tower

Great Hotels in Yokohama

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June 25, 2014 at 7:13 am Comments (3)

Other Sights in Kawagoe

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We had spent the morning admiring Kawagoe’s Edo-style kura-zukuri buildings and visiting the museums found along its main strip. After a long lunch, we felt rested enough to continue our exploration of the city.

Sights in Kawagoe

Our first stop of the afternoon was at Candy Shop Lane, where we sampled the famous treats of Kawagoe. The candy production based here kept Tokyo’s sweet-tooth satisfied during the lean years after the great 1923 earthquake. There are fewer shops today, but this lane is still filled with people selling traditional sweets like candied yams and red-bean cakes. We found a lollipop sculptor, who crafted an attractive (and delicious) flamingo for us. And by showering us with samples, a wily old woman guilted us into buying a couple bags of salty rock candy.

Sights in Kawagoe

We now made our way to the east, toward the former site of Kawagoe’s castle. Because of its upstream location on the Sumida River, Kawagoe was of great strategic importance to Edo, and the scene of many battles. After falling victim to fire, the castle was mostly demolished in 1870, replaced by public parks and sport fields. You can still visit the Honmaru Goten, which was the castle’s main residence. Today, it holds archaeological artifacts.

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For a better picture of life in medieval Kawagoe, we visited the nearby City Museum. Meant to resemble a modern kura-zukuri warehouse, this large white building isn’t particularly appealing from the outside, and we almost skipped it. But once inside, the museum does a good job of bringing the history of the city to life, with explanations of how the kura-zukuri were built, along with full-scale replicas.

Sights in Kawagoe

One task remained on our long itinerary in Kawagoe: the Kita-in Temple, to the south of the former palace grounds. Believed to have been founded in 830, the Kita-in was of great importance to the Tokugawa Shogunate. When it was destroyed by fire in 1638, a section of Edo Castle was transferred to Kawagoe to help with the temple’s reconstruction process. This is the only part of Edo Castle which has survived into the present day. It’s now home to a museum, although the exhibits are just a handy pretext for getting to see the interior of this historic building.

Also within the temple’s expansive grounds, we found a courtyard with a collection of 500 statues. Carved from stone a couple hundred years ago, each has a different posture and expression. Additionally, the Kita-in has a shrine for the spirit of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, a bell tower and a mausoleum which holds the remains of Kawagoe’s former lords, or daimyo.

Locations on our Map: Candy Shop Lane | Honmaru Goten | Kawagoe City Museum | Kita-in Temple

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May 28, 2014 at 6:34 am Comments (0)

A Trip to Kawagoe

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An hour to the northwest of Tokyo, Kawagoe is one of the more popular excursions from the capital. It’s known as “Little Edo” because it retains the distinctive kura-zukuri buildings which once lined the streets of the capital. We spent a day seeing the city’s sights.

Kawagoe

After taking the train to Kawagoe Station, we had to walk for twenty minutes to reach the historic center of town. At first, Kawagoe felt like any other Tokyo neighborhood: big buildings, pachinko halls, cellphone stores, and tons of people. But upon reaching the historic zone, the atmosphere changed dramatically. It might be overdoing things to say that we had been swept into the past, but certainly we were no longer in the modern day.

The kura-zukuri style of construction prominent during the final years of Edo is still evident in Kawagoe, and only in Kawagoe. Heavy warehouses of layered clay and plaster atop a wooden frame, and capped with thick tile roofs, these buildings were designed to withstand the constant fires which so plagued the capital. They’re definitely sturdy; I’m surprised more haven’t survived. We got a good look at how they’re built during a visit to the Museum of Kura-zukuri, found inside one of the kura on the main street of Chuo-dori.

We would enter quite a few kura during our day in Kawagoe. One houses the Kameya Sweets Shop, while another sells goods in a setting straight out of Edo, with the vendor and her wares standing on elevated tatami mats. This is Osawa Family House, which was built in 1792 and is the oldest kura-zukuri remaining in Japan. And then there’s the Yamazaki Art Museum. The exhibits are small, and won’t take much of your time, but the museum is worth visiting just to see the inside of the old warehouse.

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Although these kura-zukuri are easily Kawagoe’s most well-known feature, the city’s most emblematic structure is the old wooden bell tower in the center of town. The three-story Toki-no-kane was originally built in 1644 and is still rung four times a day.

By lunch, we had worked up a mighty appetite, and sat down at Kotobukian, where the specialty is green-tea soba. Each of us were served a wobbling tower of five stacked bowls, each filled with soba noodles and accompanied with a different condiment. This was a lot of food, but the noodles went down surprisingly fast and gave us the energy we’d need during the second half of a long day in Kawagoe…

Locations on our Map: Kawagoe Station | Museum of Kura-zukuri | Yamazaki Art Museum | Toki-no-kane Bell Tower | Kotobukian

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May 28, 2014 at 1:24 am Comments (3)
Across and Above Lake Ashinoko We had enjoyed a deeply restful night of sleep at the Mount View Hakone ryokan hotel in Sengokuhara, and awoke eager to tackle our second day in the mountainous Hakone region southwest of Tokyo. After an early breakfast, we were at the northern shore of Ashinoko, a picturesque crater lake nestled in the shadow of Mount Fuji.
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