Tag Archives: Japan

Mt Fuji View – Yamanashi Prefecture




Today, a very different hotel and view: a smaller, less flashy hotel, the Highland Resort, in Yamanashi Prefecture with a stunning view of Mt. Fuji which was cloaked in clouds when we arrived but not any more.

We drove about two hours to Hakone, for a quick ride on a cruise boat across Lake Ashi. Very refreshing to be out in the countryside after Tokyo. Narrow roads winding around densely vegetated low mountains lined with purple hydrangea.  Then we drove another hour to Yamanashi (I don’t know what town this is). Directly in front of me as I type in my room is the dark conical shaped Fuji, with a thin line of fluffy clouds near its base and below, dense green forest, mostly pine trees. To our left ( but out of view from where I sit)  is a four-lane highway strip with among other things a Big Boy restaurant and in the back of the hotel is an amusement park, complete with a roller coaster. There’s an onsen here too which I hope to use. (My body is aching after my massage yesterday.)

p.s. Morning after: Did use the onsen. Becoming a fan. It’s a relaxing way to end the day. The governor of Yamanashi welcomed us at a banquet last night, followed by a rousing performance by about a dozen traditional drummers and then a young guy playing a traditional guitar that sounded a bit like a cross between a sitar and a banjo.


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Iron Chef, Onsen, Tsukiji Fish Market – Toyko


With the Iron Chef

Never a dull moment. Today’s close encounter was with the Iron Chef Masahara Morimoto, of  television fame (that’s him in the hat).  Eight of us when to what I gather was one of his restaurants, Atelier XEX, and he happened to be at the restaurant, which is very rare, so he stopped by our table to say hi.  Just one of several noteworthy experiences today.

We began with a visit to the amazing Tsukiji Fish Market, where our guide led us through throngs of people carrying umbrellas in the rain, along narrow corridors lined with fish merchants. Lots of sights and sounds – massive chunks of tuna that looked almost like beef, huge tuna heads, dried bonita fish flakes used to make a salty broth (dashi) for miso soup.  Then we were ushered into a tasting room to try like all kinds of sushi (I loved the tuna varieties  but not the octopus or squid).

This afternoon I went by myself to Ooedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot springs bath theme park of sorts that was pretty crazy, packed with kids, families, very thin women. I  joined dozens of naked women in the women’s bath area, sitting in hot water, cold water, lukewarm water, a steam room and sauna. Met a nice young woman from Austria in one pool of water.  I paid extra to have “fish therapy” which was bizarre, with fish feasting on the dead skin on my feet. They made some head way but needed more than the 15 minutes I was willing to pay for. I also got a Japanese body and foot massage, which was different – lots of pressure points work. I could have spent longer at the onsen. There were other treatments, plus food, some sort of live floor show, God knows what else.

Tonight’s dinner featured all kinds of delicious food cooked on a hot grill in front of us: shrimp tartar, “sautéed use” lobster, oyster foie gras, waygu beef. Wow.






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Seeing Ambassador Kennedy – Tokyo

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We did lots of interesting things today but the coolest for me, hands down, was being about two feet away from Caroline Kennedy, now Ambassador Kennedy, during  a visit to the U.S. Embassy. I have admired her for years. Maybe  10 years ago I wrote an essay about her for a newspaper, when her mother died. Or maybe it was when her brother died. Anyway, there she was right in front of me, standing at a lectern, welcoming over 100 visiting farmers  who came to the embassy for an ag briefing. She looked smaller, thinner and more fragile than I expected. And older, her skin stretched tight across those sharp, almost bird-like, Kennedy features that reminded me most of her grandmother Rose. She was warm, funny, low-key. I was star struck.

Beyond that, we spent much of the morning  on an air conditioned tour bus seeing some major sights with the help of a tour guide, going up in the Tokyo sky tree for an amazing aerial view of the city, visiting the old shrine at Akasuka (and the street leading up to it lined with good craft and souvenir shops), gazing out at the imperial palace.

We ate very well too, at Gonpachi, a  place made famous in the movie “Kill Bill” and we had the good fortune to sit by people who didn’t like sushi so we ate their’s.  More fabulous Japanese food tonight at an elegant resort in the city,  Happoen, with a lovely Japanese garden lined with ancient bonsai trees.

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“Lost in Translation” land- Tokyo; overnight at Kyoto ryokan


Talk about a change of scenery: now we are in a super modern new development area in Tokyo Bay at an enormous convention hotel, Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba. (Yes this is the portion of the trip we did not plan or pay for…). Out our 16th floor room is a sweeping view of high rise towers lining the bay and, oddly, our very own Statue of Liberty.

The bed here is about three times the size of the futon at the Hiirayaga ryokan (traditional inn) we slept on last night. Fortunately, the futon wasn’t too hard and my back held up (so far) but at around 1 am I woke up with what I later self-diagnosed as heartburn or acid re-flux and a vague upset stomach. Too much weird food during our kaiseria dinner at the ryokan last night. We opted to have breakfast not in our room (which was getting a tad confining) but instead in the dining room of the new wing, a gorgeous room with solid glass walls on all four sides that made it feel like we were dining in the lovely garden just beyond those walls. I ate the western breakfast (couldn’t deal with a Japanese breakfast of tofu, miso, pickled stuff but I did eat the good smoked fish). I am glad we stayed at the ryokan, it was truly an adventure, like stepping back in time and the people running the place were lovely. But one night was enough.

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Relaxing Japanese-style at Hiiragiya ryokan — Kyoto

IMG_0122 (1)The futons have been laid out in our room, on the tatami mats where a low table with two chairs once stood (from one of which I managed to stand up from without throwing my back out, following a nine course (or so) Kaiseki meal). Hiiragiya Ryokan  is an old inn that’s only a few blocks from the very different  hotel where we spent the previous four nights. But it seems miles and decades away, sort of lost in time.

IMG_0129Our room is very traditional, low wood ceilings, tatami mats, bamboo screens, a glass back window looking out onto a Japanese garden. I can hear water tricking outside but little else. We have taken two long baths, as is the tradition here, which was relaxing after traipsing around all day in the heat.

Our meal was served one course at a time by a polite young woman in a kimono, lots of things we’ve never eaten before  (“sushi of horse mackerel,”  “dipped and broiled burdock wrapped with eel in soy-based sauce” etc). Not our kind of food but definitely a memorable cultural experience.

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We have tried to get into the groove here but there’s been laughter too and Dirck has been a good sport, padding around barefoot in his new yukata (robe.)  For lunch, the ryokan folks suggested a traditional in yakitori restaurant, Kushikura, nearby where we sat a modified Japanese seats watching the chefs meticulously grilled meat and vegetables on skewers.

imageLast night we went to Honke Odawara, a soba noodle place that has an outpost on the the 7th floor of the elegant department store Takashamaya,  whose food stands we visited today. Wish me luck sleeping…

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RAGBRAI prep in Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial park (shades of the Brandenburg gate three years ago

Kyoto Imperial Park (shades of the Brandenburg Gate bike ride three years ago)

imageWith the weather making Kyoto even more of a furnace today, cycling was the way to go and it did feel at times like RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) as sweat dripped down my face while peddling inrelentlessly bright and hot sun. But what a great way to see Kyoto, especially since it is so flat in town (unlike the nearby mountains) and the streets are bike-friendly. Everyone is riding, it seems, young, old, Japanese and not.

We ended up renting (for 10,000 yen/$10 each for the entire day) from a bike shop owner near Sanjo station and the bikes were big and sturdy, 5-6 speeds with a big wire basket. Worked great! We rode to the Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, way up the river (further than planned since we were riding on the river trail and missed the turnoff street to the Silver Palace and had to backtrack.

When we finally got to the Silver {alace, the place was choked with tourists (which we did not miss while biking) so instead we rode on a country lane alongside the Philosophers Walk, a one-mile or so lovely shady footpath along a canal.  Again, biking made it much more pleasant given the heat. From there we rode near the Goji bridge to a hip cafe in a hostel called Lin that we discovered during our recent dinner at nearby Giro Giro. No food available but I had superb pineapple juice (I am dying for fruit here but it’s hard to find and very pricey when I do…a peach for $4) a croissant and mixed nuts. I did find fresh pineapple served on a stick outside the terrific craft store on Shiro Dori (street) in Gion. Such a fun day, even when we came back to our hotel dripping with sweat and sunburned.

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Wrecked feet, temples, stones, 27412 steps – Kyoto

imageNot pretty, I know, but this is what my foot looks like after a record 27,000 plus steps in Japan’s hot humid July.  Blisters, callouses, itchy toes, the effects of skin exposed to friction. Tomorrow we may need to switch to bikes.

imageWe used our free one day bus pass that came with our bullet train ticket deal to ride all over today, but still got in the steps. The Golden Pavilion/Temple (Kinkaku-ji) is, as advertised, covered in gold leaf and sitting serenely in a landscaped pond and garden. But hordes of tourists buzzed all along the trails. Onto Ryoanji Temple and its famous zen rock garden, then back on the bus to suddenly rural bucolic Kyoto, the Arashiyama and Sagano districts, with the famous bamboo grove and narrow country lanes winding up a densely vegetated hillside to ancient cottages with thick-thatched roofs, some growing moss like they are being absorbed back into  the land. We stopped at a famous 400-year old tea house Hirano-ya, where we had our first stint sitting on the floor to drink tea and eat a strange sweet sticky dessert, of sorts, served with something akin to cocoa powder. We were given a stick, shaved at the end, to eat it with. Next time, maybe we make a reservation so we can have a meal.

imageTonight we went to Isoya, a hipster spot in an alleyway about two minutes from our hotel, sitting at the counter in a tiny little room open to a back alley, watching a young chef work his magic at a very hot grill with all kinds of great looking and tasting vegetables.

imageWe were the only non-Japanese diners and there was no English menu or much English spoken (which is as it should be) so we just pointed at various bowls of vegetables and picked two meats (steak and chicken).

imageThe chef used a wood board to serve us various ceramic plates filled with freshly grilled concoctions. We may have to return tomorrow.image

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Old town and temples, old and new food – Kyoto

IN Gion

In Gion

We found the ancient architecture I was expecting this morning in Gion, beautiful old wood houses and stone streets, shrines and women (and men) in kimonos, purple hydrangea and Americans zipping by on bike tours. The 100-year-old sushi place that was too crowded for us yesterday, Izuju,  welcomed us today. We sat in a small old fashioned narrow dining area and ate Kyoto-style sushi, nothing like sushi I’ve had before. For one thing, the fish was grilled and there types of fish and combinations new to us. Aya (sweet fish) is the local seasonal fish, white, delicious grilled and dipped in a light sauce. Then saba sushi – chub mackerel with salt and rice vinegar (which I liked, tasted like smoked whitefish)’ maki sushi (Japanese mushroom, white flowered gourd, Japanese horn root  and omelet; sama maki (sliced Red Sea bass, bread, the Japanese herb kinone, and vinegar rice).

Izuju Sushi

Izuju Sushi

We followed hoarded of tourists on a walking tour of east Gion and Higashi, along narrow streets lined with ancient wood buildings, with elegant shops,  and lush green gardens and enormous ancient buildings (Yasaka Shrine, Kodaiji Temple, Ryzokan Shrine and Kiyomiza-dera Temple.) Spectacular. I ended up buying a lot of gifts, glasswork with inlaid pieces of old kimonos, cotton scarves,  oil blotting face papers (perfect to mop up sweat for another dripping humid day) and a short vintage kimono at a store called Hinaya Kyoto (4-452 Gojo-bashi Higashi) near Kodaiji Temple. I almost bought a gorgeous two-piece long jacket made from old kimonos for $93 until I realized it was $930. (Or about 93000 yen which I read as 9300.)

imageTonight we went for a many course set Kaiseki meal at Giro Giro Hitoshina which was as hipster  as the Anthony Bourdain-published “Rice Noodle Fish” book promised.  Lots of interesting ingredients and combinations. The server did seem impressed when I said we’d had aye (fish) for lunch, and he knew the restaurant Izuju, also recommended by an Anthony Bourdain-affiliated website, Roads and Kingdoms, which has not failed us! At Giro Giro, we met some lovely older elegant Japanese couples, both of whom had lived in the states. The men were chemists who did post doc work, one at U Va, the other at Minnesota. We got to the restaurant early and were told to go away and come back which is how we found another cool place around the corner, Len, a hipster hostel, bar and restaurant serving fish and chips and cheese boards. Ahh to be young again but middle age ain’t so bad. At least today.


Outside Giro Giro


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Saved by the hole-in-the-wall noodle shop – Kyoto


Nishiki market

Nishiki market

Just as we were succumbing to heat and fatigue on a beastly hot Saturday night in this charming city (having been turned away from two guidebook-recommended and jam-paced restaurants) we stumbled upon a tiny narrow 13-seat curry noodle and steak restaurant just south of the Nishiki Market that came well recommended by three young Japanese women who had just finished eating there (and they spoke English.) Dirck dubbed the steak among the best he’s had (high praise from a Kansan). My orange-colored noodle curry was excellent too ( although I tried not to watch the cook through the curtains beside our table sloshing stuff on the floor. We later got a business card, so there is a name to share: Itadore. We at lunch at another noodle place nearby,  Gontaro.

The bullet train (Shinsaken Nozomi) got us here in. 2.5  hours. My only issue was motion sickness. We managed to take the subway with help from some older women. Hotel Gran Ms Kyoto has a vague hip vibe and great location, but is a bit drab.  Too tired to write more. Brutally hot and humid, as warned but cool city to explore.

image                                                     Steak and curry at Itadore

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In our tiny room in Tokyo

Dirck tries out his onsen robr

Dirck tries out his onsen robe

We haven’t been in this small a room since Bordeaux in 2006 but it’s what we expected from our “inexpensive” hotel (which cost about 22,000 yen or  $220). Unexpected was a really nice onsen, or public bath, for women only that I found very relaxing after a very long day and flight.  I knew the flight was long when I realized after the first six hours that I’d be in London, by then. Instead we had five more hours to go. This on top of two hours waiting nervously in the Des Moines airport, which was dealing with pop-up summer storms, and two hours in Minneapolis, after the one-hour flight from Des Moines.

So far so good with my bum back post-flight. I made sure to get up every few hours to do odd stretches in a relatively clear space near the bathroom (in front of rows of passengers). I wasn’t alone. There were a few other Japanese people doing stretches, foot-stomping and what look d like Tai Chi. Delta was impressive, especially after our dismal Air Canada flight to Lisbon last year. Great entertainment system, lots of movies, music (Deer Hunter, Fritz and the Tantrums) and cool flight tracker map that showed us just north of Kodiak, Alaska during one check.

We took the Narita Express train into Tokyo Station, as our Japanese friend Tom suggested, and although it was much more expensive (62,000 yen/$62 for two) than other options like the bus,  it was very efficient and we were eager to get to our hotel. We were hugely impressed by the fastidiousness of the train. When it pulled up at the airport and passengers got off, we had to wait while men carefully cleaned the floors and dusted. Imagine that happening on the Long Island Railroad at Penn Station.

Tokyo Station was as bustling as expected but we managed to find the tour office where we picked up our discounted tickets for the bullet train to Tokyo tomorrow and after a little bit of wandering we chanced upon the hotel we had reserved, Super Lohas Tokyo, which is very pleasant. We ate delicious tonkatsu (pork cutlets from black pigs) at a branch of Maisen, the famous tonkatsu place that is conveniently located in a department store next to Tokyo station. Exhausted and must get to bed.

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