Baby Forester is already starting to change our lives-especially in the blogging world. Shortly after we came home from our ‘journey through Japan’, we found out we were pregnant! As it turns out, morning sickness and productivity are not compatible, but rest assured, our online silence does not mean we haven’t still been squeezing in adventures!
In July 2015, we spent two weeks in Japan, and a day at the Great Wall of China, over the school holidays. We now feel thoroughly satisfied with our Asian experiences, and although we’ve loved these opportunities, we’re ready for the next holiday to be on a relaxed tropical island or somewhere in the Western World!
Check out this video of our Japanese highlights:
We landed in Tokyo, and began our Japanese excursion walking several blocks in the pouring down rain to find our hotel. If this doesn’t scream “TOURIST”, then I don’t know what does…
Evan could not contain his inner child any longer, so we naturally spent our first two days in Tokyo at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. Evan reminded me that this was a ‘once and a lifetime’ experience since Disney Sea is ranked the best Disney Park in the world by most Disney Enthusiasts.
While Tokyo Disneyland made for a good day, we much preferred Disney Sea. Tokyo Disneyland is more geared toward younger children (What?! You say two 28-year old adults aren’t Disney’s top clientele?) with fewer fast-paced rides and lots of animatronic story rides. Well, we still enjoyed ourselves, even though most of the stories were told in Japanese and we had no clue what was going on. We were also disappointed that the Dreamlight Parade and ‘Happiness on High’ firework show were canceled, but we filled our day with multiple visits to Splash Mountain, Star Tours, and Space Mountain.
Disney Sea was perfect for us…even in the rainy weather! The Mediterranean Harbor Front was beautiful…it actually looked like a small European town! We enjoyed coasters and fast-paced rides like Indiana Jones, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and the Tower of Terror. We dined on churros and margaritas, and we enjoyed Big Band Broadway-esque Shows. We loved the Toy Story Mania ride and were thankful to avoid the 4-hour long wait for it, thanks to our fast passes.
Tokyo Disney Sea:
After two days at theme parks, we jokingly decided that this was probably one of the best cultural experiences we could have asked for. 95% of the attendees are Japenese, which meant that we were in the minority as internationals. The Japanese do theme parks differently to Americans. First of all, crowds arrive at the park an hour early and then proceed to swarm fast pass lines. Evan likened his experience of getting Toy Story passes to “the running of the bulls, but with very polite bulls.”
Also, the Japanese attend theme parks dressed-to-the-nines (suits, high heels, and cocktail dresses)! Needless to say, we were underdressed. We were also amazed at their spirit level: it’s not often that you see people bringing giant, human-sized Disney stuffed animals INTO a theme park to carry around for 12+hours. Props to the Japanese.
The remaining two days we spent in Tokyo were a decent mix of highs…and lows. We didn’t find Tokyo to be particularly tourist-friendly, and navigating our way through the expansive Tokyo Rail public transportation system was often stressful enough to make a grown-man cry (Evan, however, handled his emotions like a champ). Not to mention we were HOT and sweaty, walked for hours (averaging 25,000 steps a day!), and were oftentimes lost with no English signage or speakers in sight. However, we did enjoy several highlights:
The Asakusa District was very exciting, filled with street stalls, vendors selling green-tea ice cream, rickshaws, Japanese lanterns and the incense-filled Sensoji Temple Grounds. This was a worthwhile way to spend a few hours, for sure.
Sensoji Temple & Five Pillar Pagoda (top left, bottom right); Alleyways off Nakamise Shopping Street (top right, bottom left)
The Akihabara District is known for its electronic superstores. Evan particularly loved wondering floor-to-floor, browsing through 20-year-old N64 games and camera equipment.
Tokyo From Above:
We found many observatory towers to enjoy the Tokyo city view from on high, both during the day and at night. Endless skyscrapers as far as the eye can see! The AC in the towers was an added bonus. And, we could also see Venus brightly shining in the sky, towering above the nighttime city lights. Wow!
View from atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
View from atop the Seaside Observatory Deck
The Meiji Shrine was one of the highlights in the Shinjuku District. Directly across from Yoyogi Park, this quaint and wooded shrine was dedicated to the deified spirit of Emperor Meiji and his consort. We also spent a decent amount of time shopping for clothes in the GAP, a worthwhile and honorable mention in this highlight list.
The iconic wooden torii marking the entrance to Meiji Shrine
Besides multiple shopping stores and bright advertisements lining packed city streets, we enjoyed one of our favorite restaurants on the whole trip in Shibuya: Genki Sushi Co. The restaurant itself was not posh, but the sushi train concept was awesome! Each customer had his/her own electronic display, on which you could see pictures and names of every food item on the menu. Once you placed an order, a tray came zooming on rails from the kitchen, stopping right in front of you, with your meal ready to eat! It was a great way to sample several different types of sushi in small, cheap portion sizes.
Another highlight was watching the bustle of the Shibuya Crossing Scramble. This 5-way intersection is rumored to be the world’s busiest intersection and embodies the rhythm and chaos that is Tokyo. When the street light turns red, pedestrians pour onto the street from every direction, like marbles spilling from a jar. The large neon billboards and video screens surrounding the intersection truly make you think, “Wow, I’m in Tokyo!” Our video (at the beginning of this post) does this awesome spectacle a much greater justice than the photos below – so make sure you watch it!
Before the light turns red (left), Let the scramble begin! (right)
A Traditional Ryokan:
Before leaving the bustle of Tokyo, we enjoyed a night’s stay in a ryokan (a Japanese inn). This place had all the Japanese traditional ornaments: a rock garden, slippers to wear on wall-to-wall tatami mats, a shoji (paper-sliding door), a fancy toilet system, a small (close-to-the-ground) table, yukatas for each of us to wear, and even origami cranes on our pillows! Evan was braver than I was in ordering a traditional Japanese breakfast, but I have to admit that I ate more of my western breakfast than he ate of his! (Although Evan disputes this).
Our next stop was a breath of fresh air: Mt Fuji! We had left the chaos of Tokyo to enjoy the peace and serenity of the five lakes region surrounding the slumbering volcano. We were blessed to have the first clear day seen in that area in about a month’s time, giving us picturesque views of Mt Fuji.
Our feet welcomed a reprieve from the 25,000+ steps we’d averaged each day in Tokyo, and we explored the area by bike. We enjoyed trying the local delicacy: hoto (yoshida udon noodles cooked in miso soup with pumpkin, cabbage, and vegetables). We gladly tried this local favorite opposed to our other menu options: pork guts stew and horse-meat sashimi!
A view of Mt Fuji and the Japanese countryside by train (top left); Mt Fuji by bike (top right, bottom left); Atop Mt Kachi Kachi, looking out on Lake Kawaguchiko (bottom right)
Hoto (left); Clouds covered Mt Fuji’s summit in the distance, so I improvised with a much-needed popsicle (right)
Our favorite Japanese city was Kyoto: big enough to get lost in but still charming enough to display Japan’s traditional culture. We enjoyed our first ride on a bullet train from Mt Fuji to Kyoto, and stopped at Nijo Castle once we arrived in town. Perhaps my favorite area was Arashiyama due to the beautifully-lined bamboo streets, which offered shade and tranquility.
Watching the world pass by at the speed of a bullet (train, that is)
Nijo Castle and Grounds
Arashiyama Bamboo Streets
The Old Quarter of Kyoto lies in the district of Gion. Here the architecture quickly changes, and you feel as though you’ve stepped back into Japanese history. This is one of the only places in the country where you might find an opportunity to run into a genuine geisha. Pagodas dot the skyline and rickshaws carry passengers down cobblestone streets. It’s a lovely area and one that monopolized much of our time in Kyoto. We also met up with our friend Sadia, who was studying in Kyoto at the time.
Sushi Train Restaurants with Sadia
Through the streets of Gion
Well, we hadn’t seen any traditional geisha yet, so Sadia and I ensured a photo opportunity at the Maiko-Henshin Studio. That’s right, WE dressed up as geishas! Evan wasn’t too keen to dress as a samurai, but this proved to be a good thing as we needed a photographer at the ready!
Fushimi Inari Shrine:
Kyoto delivered again…with one of our favorite shrines in Japan! Fushimi Inari is known for the thousands of vermilion torii gates, lined closely together, straddling trails through wooded forests that ascend the sacred Mt Inari. We didn’t make it all the way to the top of Mt Inari, but we loved weaving our way through orange tunnels.
Kinkakuji, Kyoto’s famed golden pavilion, is a zen temple completely covered in gold leaf. I’m not sure what was more impressive: the number of sweaty tourists crowding onto the tiny viewing platform to catch a glimpse of the temple, or the pavilion itself. Either way, the temple is looking good for its 600-year-old status!
Our day trip to Hiroshima from Kyoto proved to be a fascinating, yet sobering, day. As a history buff, I wanted to visit and learn about the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city. The Hiroshima Peace Museum did an excellent job of providing non-biased, somber, matter-of-fact anecdotes.
Within the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, we visited the Prayer Fountain, the Children’s Peace Monument, a mound made from the ashes of unknown victims, the Cenotaph, the Atomic Bomb Dome, and the Peace Museum. Not far from the park was a plaque commemorating the exact location of ground zero, where the a-bomb exploded.
The Museum was very graphic, and had a mixture of facts about the bomb itself and stories from victims. The personal tales of victims were gripping. Japanese families had even donated locks of hair, strips of torn clothing, and shards of skin from deceased children and loved ones. We saw blocks of cement with shapes burned into the outline of human bodies and walls of buildings streaked with acidic ‘black rain’. War is horrifying, no matter which side you’re fighting for. It’s also weird to smile for these photos, but I guess we are creatures of habit.
It’s also weird to smile for these photos, but I guess we are creatures of habit.
A lock of hair saved by a mother who lost a child (above left); The Cenotaph (above right)
The Children’s Peace Monument (above left); a shredded school uniform (above right)
The Atomic Bomb Dome (above left) was the only building that remained standing near the bomb’s hypocenter. The plaque (above right) signified the exact location, 600 meters below, of the bomb when it detonated.
Just beyond Hiroshima is a small island, home to the Itsukushima Shrine. This shrine is famous for the tidal waters that wash in and out each day, and the shrine appears to ‘float’ during high tide. Wild deer also roam freely along the streets of the shrine and are now quite accustomed to tourists. Unfortunately, high tide evaded us, but the views were lovely, nonetheless.
Before farewelling the Japanese island altogether, we paid our respects to the city of Osaka. Our first stop was the Osaka Castle. We enjoyed the dumpling vendors outside the castle, more than the museum inside- mostly because we understood very little of the Japanese information in each exhibit. However, the view from atop the castle was worthwhile, and the castle itself is worth a picture!
After one more shopping spree at Banana Republic, we spent our final Japanese evening roaming the electric streets of the Dotonbori District. This area is known for eccentric food stalls offering many types of (questionable?) appetizers, the lantern-lit river ways that wind through skyscrapers, and the neon billboards that send a kaleidoscope of color onto the pavement. You can feel the hum of the city as you explore the alleys, and our final Japanese sunset made a surreal spectacle of the evening sky against the flurry of manmade lights.