Tuesday, July 30, 2013

You Gotta Yukata!

Kyoto, Japan -- We knew when we first started planning our time in Japan nearly a year ago that we wanted to try and achieve as many authentic Japanese experiences as possible. One way we are doing so is by staying in Japanese-style hotels called "ryokan," which largely means sleeping on futons on tatami mat floors, going shoeless or wearing special sandals in certain areas, and enjoying "onsen" (a sort of combination shower and spa with an area for washing with soap and a deep tub for soaking). It also means donning "yukata," cotton robes tied at the waist that are worn around your room, ryokan, and even short distances around the ryokan (though we haven't done that much!). In Kyoto we checked into our fourth ryokan, and though they have varied in terms of luxury, our we haven't had a bad experience yet.

At the top of the spectrum was our stay at Hakone, a sort of resort town in the mountains of Fuji-Hakone National Park. After enjoying an afternoon on various forms of transportation around the mountain with stops at the beautiful Hakone Open Air Museum and Owakudani (where we ate eggs boiled in the sulfuric waters of the volcanic hot springs, turning their shells black!) we checked into Ryokan Senkei, and were eventually introduced to Kimiko, our attendant. A slight, middle aged Japanese woman in a traditional kimono who flitted around enthusiastically spouting Japanese instructions and the occasional staccato English word in her tiny voice, grinning and giggling as she bowed repeatedly. She showed us around our enormous private pavilion and then shooed us away  nearby private onsen, so that she could prepare for our "kaiseki" dinner.

Kaiseki is another important part of a traditional ryokan, though it is so elaborate that in modern times it seems to be reserved for only higher-end places. [We should note that this was one experience we had planned on having with Ben's parents, and though it was a great evening, we missed them a lot! Ben says, "Arigato, Moop and Shmoop."] We returned from the onsen to dine like wealthy shoguns in our yukata, a parade of small plates with colorful foreign delicacies, each component masterfully presented with attention to the most minute detail. Highlights were an aji (horse makerel) and eggplant stew and a fig coated in ginger sesame paste; the one low light was a watery fish broth(?) with gel-coated leaves of some kind...haha.
Tiny whitebait for kaiseki breakfast

Our attendant at the Seikoro Inn in Kyoto is young and speaks a bit more English than Kimiko, and graciously makes up our futons each day and serves us tea when we arrive back from our daily activities (We have been going full force here, taking in temples and gardens like Ginkakuji, Nanzenji, Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, Pontocho, and Gion).The system has it's upsides, but I have to admit, having a personal attendant is not our style. It was good to experience once, but it feels very strange to have someone waiting on us to this extent. No problem, our next stay will be in the capsule hotel, where I'm not even sure there's a desk attendant!

Ginkakuji, Silver Pavilion -- Kyoto

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Gone Fishin

Tokyo Japan-- Well, we are spending our final night in Tokyo tonight in our ryokan (Japanese style hotel) because the weather finally caught up to us. Up until tonight, we have been blessed with great weather for this time of year, when it is normally raining or unbearably hot or both...ironically not unlike the D.C. area. The sad part is that tonight is of one Tokyo's biggest annual festivals where they shoot of tens of thousands of fireworks along the banks of Asakusa, and with the weather not cooperating, we they had to cancel the show only about 25 min. into it.
And then it really started to pour, sending hundreds of thousands if not millions of onlookers running for cover. We got drenched, but Betz and I felt worse for all the Japanese people who got all gussied up in their traditional fancy kimonos. Our emotions went from excitement to fear to annoyance to acceptance and finally we were able to laugh about it again and start to appreciate our memorable night and the trip thus far. After all, we did see our fair share of fireworks before the rain started anyway.
We spent the last couple days here in Tokyo exploring the eclectic neighborhoods that comprise the city. I think my favorite was Tsukiji, where one of the world's largest fish markets serves as Tokyo's source for all it's sushi. We arrived at 5:30am (as the guidebook recommends) to experience the hustle and bustle of the early morning frenzy that includes unloading the night's catch, various fish auctions, wholesalers distributions and merchants setting up for the day. This place is HUGE. I mean it seemed like whole city blocks of endless stalls selling everything from whole fish to giant clams and octopus to seaweed to high grade sushi knives. Somehow, we went in a back gate and ended up in the "forbidden zone" where the actual merchants were setting up. We were almost run over by the hundreds of carts zipping by, rushing from one vendor to another, carrying beds of fish that were still swimming a few hours earlier. While catching our breath in an alley, after bobbing and weaving between these carts and their reckless drivers, Betz caught a glimpse of a giant tuna on a cart. We had stumbled across the famed tuna auction area that is strictly private. There were hundreds of giant fish on the floor, marked with red letters with what looked to be lipstick, being hooked by the high bidders and dragged onto these carts to zip away and disappear into the vast grid of stalls. We were pretty geeked and decided to linger a little while, half hiding behind some Styrofoam boxes, before we gave ourselves up to one of the guards in order to find our way out of the fish maze.
The other neighborhoods we visited were equally fascinating, though not quite as thrilling. They included the swanky shopping district of Ginza, the pop/punk candyland teenager hangout area called Harajuku, Tokyo's version of Old Town known as Ueno (where we are staying) and the electronics district of Akihabara. We are sad to be leaving Tokyo, but thankful that so much of our trip is still ahead of us.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mountain Dew and Baseball

We certainly have had a busy day. It started out when we awoke at 12:30am to the commotion of the other climbers. About 150 of us were all crammed into the Hakuun-So lodge, in our identical navy sleeping bags that looked like larva lining the walls of some kind of hive. With the Japanese tourists leading the way, the rest of us decided to follow suit...and quickly because we knew that we didn't want to miss the sunrise from the top of Fuji.
We had climbed about 2/3 of the way up yesterday--a trek that took us about 4 hours before we hit Hakuun-So. The winding gravel path gave way to steep volcanic rock as we passed from station 6 to station 7 and soon the many travelers that were clogging the path began to fizzle out. Suddenly, there were no more groups of school children in their matching "buddy" uniforms and white hats. Climbing was quite a challenge and it only got harder as the hours went by and as the air got thinner. Worse, about 1/4mile away from our destination for the night, it started to rain. Alas, we were so foolish not to take ponchos and our sweatshirts got soaked! This would prove extra costly as we awoke at midnight, forced to choose between wet jeans or shorts for the final 2 station trek to the top of the Mountain. I chose shorts, Betsy was lucky enough to have worn her shorts and leggings the day before, so she had a nice warm pair of pants to wear.
The funniest part of the night was when they served us all dinner. Of course we couldn't eat their meaty dish that looked like Salisbury Steak, so they served us some interesting veggie Japanese food that included seaweed wraps that were nicely tied in bows and various fermented or fried vegetables. The irony of it was, for the meat dish, they gave everyone spoons, but for the veggie dish they gave us chopsticks. The Japanese couple across from us couldn't help but notice and the four of us had a good laugh.
Reaching the top felt pretty good, but we raced up so fast that we had to wait over an hour for the sun to rise and only wearing shorts in 45 degree weather was pretty miserable. We even cut out a hole in a garbage bag so that Betsy could wear it like a homeless person. And to no avail. The clouds rolled in at about 4am and we couldn't see anything except the blackness of the sky turn blueish.
So we gave up and started heading down the exit path. We were a bit disappointed, but really proud of making it to the top (especially after how hard the book made it seem). But then, as we were headed down, we saw the bright pinkish ball fill the sky with warmth. It was beautiful through the foggy clouds, contrasting with the dark red of the volcanic rock of the cliffs. And it only got better-- after we made it down a little ways, we were underneath the top layer of clouds, about 1.5miles in altitude, and we could see everything. We were like floating in an airplane, with a sea of clouds below us with only a few peaks protruding in the distance. Just beautiful. The remaining 2.5hr decent was absolutely awe-inspiring.

We ended the day, back in Tokyo, at a truly great Japanese tradition...Baseball. The hometown Swallows were taking on the Yakult Tigers, a team that will probably make the Japanese version of the World Series. 2/3 of the stands were filled with Tigers fans who had organized chants, flags and even a band with them. It was like going to a college football stadium or something. Everyone was on their feet every time their team was up to bat. Betsy and I fit in the the Tigers' fans because our Pirates shirts matched their black and gold uniforms.Very good sportsmanship though, and even when the Swallows were down 11-0, the jumbotron translated into English read "every time try!" which we thought was hilarious at the time, maybe because we were pretty slap-happy by then. The Swallows were terrible- even an old friend, Lastings Millage, went hitless in the game, but it was all good fun and really cool to see the great American passtime be experienced so differently.
 (picture of the umbrella dance during the 7th inning stretch)
Now, it's time for a real night sleep, something that we can't say we have had since leaving the States. We are staying at the beautiful Ryokan Sawanoya in Ueno Park, complete with Japanese baths, futons and our very own crazy Panasonic toilet...Ah, Japan.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Turning Japanese

Konnichiwa! Well, we have arrived in Tokyo. Overall, I'd say the trip went very smoothly. It began with us saying goodbye to our Alexandria apartment before heading to National Airport. We managed to confine our packing to two small wheeled bags and two large backpacks, and it was validating when a United Airlines attendant complimented us on our efficiency!

A brief layover in Chicago allowed for last phone calls and pizza, then we were on our way. We were surprised at how many nationalities were represented on the flight and decided Tokyo must be a big hub for flights going to eastern Europe. The flight was fairly uneventful, though, and even touched down in Narita about 30 minutes early. We breezed through customs, where they take electronic finger prints and a picture of each individual, and managed to withdraw some Yen and purchase tickets for the train into the city. Opting for the cheaper, local train allowed us to see a glimpse of rush hour in the Tokyo suburbs. There were plenty of people who looked to be coming from work (both men and women), as well as many children in uniforms, but for the entire hour-plus journey, we were the only non-Japanese that we saw on the crowded cars. The pattern continued on the busy subway we took once within the city limits to the station nearest our Japanese-style hotel, or ryokan.

It wasn't until we emerged from the subway that we hit our first snag. We knew from the guidebook that the streets in Tokyo are not really named or labeled as they are in the United States, but we didn't realize how clueless this would render us. We stared at a busy 5-way intersection clutching our directions we had carefully printed from Google maps ahead of time, but no matter how we looked at it we simply could not do any better than guess at which way to go. Ben asked a man near the station, who pondered carefully and then gave us definitive directions, which turned out to be wrong. Another man even pulled out a pocket magnifying glass to help study our map, but no dice. With dark clouds looming, we jumped at the chance when a taxi happened to pull down our side street. Even the driver struggled to find Andon Ryokan on his GPS, but we made it just in time for the rain to start.

The ryokan is very cool, a modern interpretation of this Japanese tradition. After a rejuvenating shower we hit the streets again to find dinner, which proved much easier with the kind hotel manager's map and instructions (we really are very close to the subway, too). Dinner proved another challenge, though this we had expected. We muddled our way through at a tiny sushi bar with the animated owners and another diner who knew some broken English. We were able to order vegetarian tempura (including bright orange regional squash and breaded egg yolks) and some fish with sushi rice. The owners threw in some delicious miso soup with egg and daikon radish, possibly because our Japanese is so pitiful! In any case, we are learning constantly and excited to become more comfortable with the customs, language, and food.

Tomorrow we wake up early to climb Mt. Fuji...so now it's off to bed!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Travel Map

Click on the map for a full view

Here is our Plan:

We start in Tokyo, head throughout Japan, including visits to Hakone, Kyoto, probably day trips to Osaka and Nara, before departing from Hiroshima.

From there, we get on a flight to Bangkok, but before we get out of the airport, we turn around on another flight to Siem Reap and Ankgor Wat in Cambodia for a couple days.

Then its back to Bangkok for a while and an overnight train up to Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand) to end our trip.

We leave in one week and return August 14th...Should be fun.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

At 2 years, on the cusp of another adventure!

Well well well. It certainly has been quite a while since we've used this blog. It's been three years, almost to the day. Oy, I forgot how hard it is to figure out this blogging interface and actually get some thoughts down in a comprehensive way. Anyway, here's to shaking off some of the rust and getting pumped for our next adventure.

Let's see. What has happened in the last three years? Too hard for a first post...but here are some of the major events in our relationship. We got engaged almost as soon as we got back from Europe. In fact, today is Betsy's and my 2nd anniversary! We are going to go out to celebrate at Geranio, one of our favorite spots in Old Town. We have had weddings, funerals, births and graduations in the family. (I guess three years is a long time.) Also, I am now an Architecture Master and have less than one year left on my internship before I can get my stamp.

So now that I am on my way, it was time to follow Betsy as she goes back to school. I have to take a minute to brag about her here. She applied to 15 Psychology Doctorate programs all across the country,  and got in to almost all of them, something that is just unheard of (I mean her incoming class is 7 students of the hundreds that applied!)...So she will be going her first choice, Duquesne. We could have ended up in Chicago, Berkeley, Indianapolis, NYC, Philly or even Detroit. Alas, as fate has it, we will be returning to the beautiful Golden Triangle, the Steel City, our homeland, the Burgh!

But before we do that, we decided to quit our jobs a month early and head out East in hope of rediscovering some of the magic we found abroad three years ago. We figure that this will be the last big life transition we share before having kids--crazy--so why not make the most of it? The itinerary this time: Japan, Thailand and Cambodia!

For those of you who remember, Betsy is a huge Anglofile, but if her passion for the English is eclipsed by anything, it's probably the Japanese. And me? I'm just so excited to be out on the road in a new and unfamiliar place again. The estrangement and excitement just can't be matched any other way. So this should be a good trip. Thanks everyone for following our travels. We look forward to keeping you in the loop and using this blog to decompress and comprehend all of our new experiences.