Templepalooza

We dropped our bags at the Iris Yu, a more traditional Japanese inn, and headed to the ancient garden and temple grounds of Motsu-ji. The garden is one of the finest examples of Pure Land Buddhism from the Heian period and dates to the 12th century. Unfortunately, the many temples, where over 500 monks once worshipped, have long since been destroyed by fire or war. The grounds are pretty, with a large lake surrounded by landscaped rock formations meant to depict many of Japan’s classic outdoors scenes. It was peaceful, with the wind rustling the many trees, and we took our time walking around.
That evening we took a stroll through the forest on a well-defined trail (are there no non-well defined trails in Japan? This one even had blocks of wood with mallets provided to hit to keep the bears away) to try to catch a view of the sunset over Hiraizumi from the mountains, but alas there was no clear view of the forest. Hiraizumi is a sleepy town without much to do at night, and we went to the Korean place next door to the Iris Yu for dinner. It was cosy, with five or six tables separated by paper dividers, and we both had bimbimbap, a Korean comfort food rice bowl with egg, mushrooms, and other vegetables, meant to be mixed all together–it was a perfect, filling dinner, and the lady (probably the owner) even made a joke about how big AM’s cheeks were. The Korean sake–milky and sweet–was a treat.
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Cozy Korean restaurant

The next morning we decided to be bold, and with our train leaving at 12:26 we got up early, had a breakfast of fish, miso, and rice, and went to the station to put our bags away in lockers and rent bikes. It was a 25-minute cycle mostly uphill through the pretty countryside, with rice paddies and Japanese style houses punctuated by the odd torii and some rolling hills. We finally made it to Takkoku no Iwaya, a temple set in a cave in the side of a rock.
Its history is uniquely warlike and was built after the emperor sent out an army to defeat a misbehaving shogun. Like most temples, it has been burned and rebuilt several times, and most of the current structures date from the 1960s. It’s got some bold red arches as an entrance, and the temple itself is dramatically set into the rock face. An ancient 12th-century rock carving of a face in the mountainside watches over the temple.
We biked back down to town and then over to the Chuson-ji temple, known for its 12th century golden leaf temple and its sutra scrolls. The grounds have small temples scattered everywhere. The most impressive structure, called the pinnacle of Heian Buddhist art, is the Konjikido, a radiant golden temple depicting the Buddha of Infinite Light, coated almost entirely with gold lacquer and mother of pearl. Buried beneath it are the remains of several lords of Fujiwara, who once owned the area. We moved on to the Sankozo museum, which was well worth the visit. In it sits several massive wood statues for worship from the 12th century, most of them covered with gold. The most impressive part were the beautiful sutra scrolls, including transcriptions on blue parchment of the sutra in the form of gold and silver letters shaped into a pagoda. All in all, Hiraizumi is a small town with some really impressive history, and we were glad we spent the night.
After a cheeky coffee at a western style cake and coffee shop (yummy cheesecake!), we hopped on the Tohoku line to Ichinoseki, where we picked up the Shinkansen Yamabiko (still a turquoise E5 series) down to Utsunomiya. It was our prettiest train ride yet, with mountain and valley views. We bought a bento box on the train, only to find that it is self heating–pulling a cord activates the heater pack, and you wait 5 minutes to enjoy. After a 30 minute layover, we caught the Nikko line, heading into the forested valley towards Nikko, greeted first by a sign proclaiming: ‘Nikko is Nippon!’
We pulled into the Frank Lloyd Write designed station (an early work, and not one of his best) in the early afternoon and walked up the Main Street to our hostel. The town was a tourist town for sure–everywhere else we’d been had been almost 100% Japanese, but here there were foreigners galore. Nikko-risou hostel, with its location at the base of Nikko’s historical area, very friendly host, and warm atmosphere was the perfect place to stay. It was right next to the famous Shin-kyo red bridge, built in 1636 and the 8th century crossing place of Priest Shodo. In the evenings we sat in the common area and chatted with the host and people from all over, Canadians, Spanish, French, and Americans. We swapped stories of travels past and got help for our future plans (watching sumo practice? Ninja themed restaurant in Tokyo? Yes, please.).
After dropping our bags, we headed out for an evening stroll on the Kanman Path, one of two walks recommended by Nikko’s tourist bureau. It followed the Daiya river, a place favoured by Emperor Taisho in the early 1900’s, and one that inspired him to compose several haikus. The first stop was the Jokoji Temple, with its numerous Jizo statues (Buddhist guardian deities), these particular ones known to cure ear disease and one that would lead a dead person to Buddha’s world. We passed a simple tower used by priests to pray for world peace, reconstructed in 1971 after the great flood of 1902 destroyed it. Along the river were 74 of an original 100 Jizo statues with red caps sitting starkly against the green moss. It was a beautiful, peaceful place, with a lone cherry blossom tree set right aside the river under a grey sky. Below us sat the dramatically named Kanman-Ga-Fuchi Abyss, a small gorge cut out of the smooth rock with the river rushing through.
We followed the river and turned back towards the hostel, eventually arriving at Shaka-Do sacred hall, where Amida-Nyorai, the general saviour of mankind, is enshrined. The peaceful, lush grounds surround a red shrine, with the huge gravestones of 24 followers of the 3rd Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu sat next to it. Five of his followers, upon his death, self-immolated in 1651.
We finished the walk buying an ice cream bar (with crispy exterior–yummy) from a randomly placed vending machine and getting a dinner from the local convenience store of cheese, bread, steamed buns, sushi snack triangles, and little custard filled hexagonal desserts.
The next day was the big one, with a trek to see Nikko’s major shrines along the Takino’o Path, one well-trodden by Priest Shodo, the founder of Nikko. Before starting we had the obligatory quest for coffee, settling on a place that seemed a hair expensive–until the kind old lady running it packaged the takeaway coffee in a used Dior bag and gave us a couple of small aluminum foil cranes and origami paper to take with us.
We started the walk with the Buddhist Rinno-ji temple, founded in 766, and shrouded in a vast structure in which a reconstruction is happening. The temple is still imposing, with its massive, red lacquer columns. The stars of the show are the giant, gold gilded statues of The thousand-handed Kannon, the Amida Buddha, and the horse-headed Kannon, sitting on a base of lotus flowers. There’s a staircase you can take up to an observatory over the reconstruction work, with displays about the project and a view down onto the temple roof.

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From Rinno-ji we continued up to the Tosho-gu, Nikko’s main attraction. Toshi-gu was built with a strategic focus, as the shogun, the ruler of the powerful Tokugawa dynasty, required his lords to pay for it. The construction was so expensive that it prevented from amassing wealth of their own to raise armies against him. Being Golden Week (when major holidays coincide and most of Japan takes holiday), it was jammed with tourists, at times making it impossible to move. Nonetheless, the temple complex, built in the 1600s, was spectacular to behold. In front sits a colourfully painted 5 story pagoda (2nd tallest in Japan!), after which you pass through the Omote-mon gate into the main complex.
There’s a stable for the sacred horses, one of which was on display (on loan from New Zealand, and with a very busy social schedule), with ornate painted wood carvings of the original emoji, the ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys.
At both ends of the square are the Sacred Storehouses, gilded and painted with bright colours. Compared to the peaceful temple scenes we had seen before it was all a bit overwhelming, with gold and blue and red and green all around. Surrounding the courtyard was a display of bonsai trees, small and looking very old.
We proceeded up the stairs through the Yomei-mon, or sun blaze, gate (aptly name for its blinding gold and white facade) with white dragons carved out of the face and paneled with gold. We admired a lantern display against one wall, and then proceeded into the temple, where a priest administered a quick blessing (we think) over the crowd underneath a gold ceiling with dragons painted in circular panels above.
A walk up the 200 stairs leading to the tomb of the shogun Ieyasu, whose son built the complex. There were some neat views of the complex’s many roofs, and also a walk under the small sleeping cat carving, a key tourist attraction, though we’re not quite sure why.
It was all quite overwhelming, and we were happy when we arrived at the next, much less crowded temple of Futarasan-jinja, a pretty red shrine with a quiet garden next to it.
Done with the temple complex, we continued up a long flight of stone stairs deeper into Nikko’s woods, tourist crowds long since dissipated. The cedar trees, centuries old, towered above us, and lent the path the mystical aura it has held for over a millennium. One of the biggest of the trees, named Taro Sugi, is 550 years old and 130 feet tall. With no underbrush, the forest had that eerie light that all great forests seem to share.
Along the way, we passed the Gyoja-do sacred hall, a shrine to the founder of mountain asceticism, a stone alleged to have the power of childbirth, a stone with the power to improve schoolwork, and a shrine to Sugawara Michizane, enshrined as the God of Study.
At the end of the path, concealed in a glade of pines, is the Takino’o Shrine, a series of pretty, subdued red shrines set by a long waterfall. The entrance is the Undameshi-No-Torii, whose small hole at the top is designed to provide luck, if you can get one of three pebbles to go through by throwing. AM, after 8 attempts, gave up.
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We began to walk back to town, stopping for a pancake-vegetable-meat-dried-tuna-flake-sauce on a stick snack. As it began to rain, we sat on the porch of Gyoshintei, a pretty mansion with a manicured lawn and a British red telephone booth out front and a Japanese garden in back. It was a bit too classy for us, but we sat and had coffee and rich cake (at ¥2000, it was hardly cheap). We finished our walk with a stop at a three-storied pagoda near the park entrance, whose red sides were adorned with carvings of the zodiac.
We’d seen the main sites of Nikko, and a big hike seemed ambitious for the few hours of daylight we had left, so we whiled away the rest of the day stopping in the shops on the Main Street, filled with wood carved art and woodcut prints from over a century ago. We got stuck at one of the shops when the skies opened up into a thunderstorm, but our host was driving by and picked us up, taking us back to the hostel. We read, chatted with our host, and planned for Kyoto the following day. We hatched a bold–and hopefully not misguided–plan to visit Hiroshima and Kurokuen, one of Japan’s three great gardens, en route from Kyoto to Tokyo three days later. Dinner was at Shiori, one of the few places in Nikko open that late (talk about a sleepy town!), with dumplings, delectably fried trout, and teriyaki chicken. After hanging out with our hostel mates for a while, and chatting for a long time with a Canadian couple who had been traveling for two years (pretty incredible when you think about it–sounds really scary and hard), we called it a night. Our host made a joke about trying lemon milk, only available in Nikko’s prefecture, and RM drank a pint. Sugary sweet, and too much milk for one sitting.
-RM
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Sassy Sakura

Hirosaki has a famous cherry blossom festival, and we hit right in peak season. After checking into our train station hotel, we began walking towards the Sakura, becoming increasingly worried that we had chosen the wrong place. Hirosaki is a town of nondescript office buildings and nondescript streets, with plenty of vending machines along the way (Royal Milk Tea–classic). A light rain was coming down.
When we got to the main park, we began to realise what a gem the town was. The park is the old grounds of a castle, with cherry tree-lined moats surrounding. Sakura were everywhere, in the park and lining the water, pink and white, some drooping so they nearly touched the water. We walked the tree-lined south side of the fort before going inside. The entrance was a huge, wooden gate with massive doors, guarding the approach to the fort. We walked through the grounds, past some little stands selling pottery and food, and made our way to the castle. The castle is a three-story structure from a couple hundred years ago, having burned down previously (historically there’s a big problem with Japanese castles burning down, as they’re mainly wood, put in high places, and susceptible to lightning strikes). The scene was from a story book, the castle set against a grey sky with cherry blossoms all around.
We crossed one of the ubiquitous red bridges (red bridges! Cherry blossoms! Water!) and made our way to the north side of the park, where the Japanese version of a county fair (minus the rides) awaited. Talk about county fair food! There were baby fried octopuses (yes please!), grilled fish on a stick, yakitori, little ramen houses, desserts we’d never seen, grilled sea creatures, and more. People huddled under a large outdoor roof, picnicking as the gentle rain fell. We snacked as dusk fell, and we walked around the now lit up blossoms, gazing out at the rows of Sakura by the water.
We ambled out of the park and back into town, entering the bottom floor of an office building that housed a restaurant we heard about from a blog. Turns out it was another set of mini-iyakazas, each with a little counter and several stools, staffed by a cook and someone to interact with the customers (and mainly just chat). They’re quite cozy, and people seem to sit for a while and chat to each other–it’s a social scene indeed. The first one we ate at, way in the back, had either boiled or fried fish and tofu that you pick from the counter. We chose boiled (poor move), and drank cold sake as the cook, dressed in a black robe with fire, tried to make conversation with us, but he spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese. We moved on to another booth called Oz (named for the bearded cook, who has a figurine of himself on the corner of the counter), choosing at random, and chatted a bit with the woman in front. She was from Hirosaki, proclaiming that the Hirosaki sakura were number one. The fried chicken was to die for, with tangy peppers and perfectly cooked meat, and it tasted quite nice with the Hirosaki sake she pointed us towards. We also had an odd Okinawan dish, with spam, tuna flakes, tofu, noodles, and bitter cucumbers (good for the skin, she said!). RM kind of liked it; AM did not.
As we went to leave, she asked if we had an umbrella, and, after realising we did not, offered one of theirs. We were quite taken with the kindness, and after a couple polite nos we took her up on the offer. After a cheeky stop at 7-11 for dessert (we haven’t quite figured out the best ones; the first one was soy glazed dough–yuck–and this one, a blueberry pancake sandwich, was a little nicer), we headed home, and after a late night call to Columbia financial aid we were off to sleep.
We awoke as a hefty drizzle settled in over Hirosaki, and we were glad we still had the umbrella. We started our day at the Saishoin temple, which a French fellow we talked to at the izakaya the previous night recommended. It was a wonderful little oasis, with a five-story pagoda, many cherry blossoms, and a gong that worshippers and tourists alike rang. Even set in the middle of the city, it was peaceful.
After a quick stop to see the view from the top of the city hall, open only for the cherry blossom festival, and a gander at a display of Tsugaru style lacquerware (48 steps to make a single piece!), we strolled to the old Hirosaki city library, built in the Western Meiji style. In it is Cafe Ange, a classy place serving tasty Hirosaki apple pie, really good coffee, and Tsugaru style coffee, brewed with ground beans in a burlap sack and very weak.
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We stepped out into the rainy day, headed for the temple district, with tens of Buddhist temples, all seeming to still be in operation. We’d never seen such a concentration of religious buildings anywhere, and there were almost no other tourists around. Each had an arch as a gate and a huge main building in Japanese style. The crown jewel of Horosaki’s temples, Choshoji, sits at the end of the street, with an imposing 500 year old gate at the entrance. We passed by a gong from 1306 and went to the main building, where we bought a ticket, thinking that we’d have a quick look around before leaving. We were mistaken, as we quickly realised that the staffer at the temple that day wanted to give us a personal tour of the grounds (such hospitality! And we were the only people in the place). Off we went, through the large halls of the main structure from 1502, simple dark wood and paper inside, where the monks would eat. A fish shaped board, called a gyoban, was hit every meal–fish are said to have good manners at their meals, and the monks were to eat as fish do. Also on the premises were five small mausoleums, of pretty red-painted wood construction, set peacefully back in the pines, housing five Tsugaru clan lords. A shrine from 1580 with 100 painted stone Rakan statues, the disciples of Shaka Buddha, sat across from the main hall, and another small structure, with 1800 Jizo figurines carved from a single pine tree, sat elsewhere. Donate to the temple, and one of the figurines can have your name (of course, all of them have been claimed by about 100 years ago. Overall, we were amazed by Chosonji.
By now we were pretty wet, and we decided some warm food was very much in order. We walked over to Takasago, a noodle place in a traditional Japanese house, and sat on tatami mats by the heater while we ate brothy, flavourful buckwheat soba soup (a Hirosaki specialty) and a Japanese curry. We thawed out and continued on to the Fujita Memorial Garden, a pretty, peaceful Japanese landscape garden with a big pond, several bridges, and a waterfall punctuated by a red wooden bridge. It was our first Japanese garden experience, and we found it quite peaceful–buying a second umbrella at a Lawson convenience store certainly helped.
We also took a quick stroll through the botanical gardens on the castle grounds. From there, we walked back through to the biggest sakura spots, like the sakura tunnel along the water, taking in the beauty of Hirosaki’s cherry blossoms. We were soaked and headed back to the hotel to regroup.
As the rain let up we decided to sally forth back to the sakura festival, and take in the lights at night (after returning the umbrella to a grateful Oz). When the sun goes down at the park, lights come on, illuminating the trees. It’s enchanting, and one of the big reasons why Hirosaki’s cherry blossoms are a huge draw (number 1 Nighttime sakuras in Japan!).
RM needed to try some more carnival snacks, and had his eye on a Japanese omelette burrito crepe frito pie looking thing–a mass of BBQ sauce, cabbage, meat, noodles, vegetables surrounded by thin dough/egg and topped with mayo. After two bites AM wasn’t interested, but RM loved it. We almost went for a full fire-roasted fish on a stick, but couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. After some hemming and hawing we managed to convince AM she needed some yakitori from one of the stands that was still open, and we got a couple sticks after having a halting conversation with the proprietor. RM tried to get cold Hirosaki Apple sochu, but the proprietor pointed us towards the hot. Everyone was very excited that we were from London, and we left to see the lights from the main bridge. It was beautiful, and quiet as the rain kept most people away. After a nice stroll through the grounds of the castle, we headed home, stopping at a 7-11 for more dessert snacks and a little ingeniously wrapped sushi snack for AM.
With our train leaving at 11 AM, we weren’t quite ready to call it quits on the cherry blossoms, so we headed back to the castle to see it in the daylight. It was perfect blue skies, and the pink and white of the cherry blossoms framed against the castle were out of a picture book. We paid the ¥2000 to join a boat tour of the castle’s moats, with propulsion provided by a kimono and straw hat wearing fellow with a long bamboo pole. The tour was in Japanese, and while we didn’t understand it was quite nice to be below the cherry blossoms. Midway through a swan attacked the bamboo pole, providing entertainment for the second half of the journey. The boat ride was a nice capstone to our cherry blossom adventure, and we boarded the Ou Line train back to Shin-Aomori for our journey south the Hiraizumi.
From Shin-Aomori we hitched the Shinkansen Hayabusa to Morioka, and then took a busy two-car local Tohoku line train (“Iwate Gold,” for the prefecture name) to Hiraizumi, staying alongside a pretty valley with tall mountains for most of the way.
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-RM

Japan Part 1: Hokkaido Dreaming

We’d saved up Avios for a while, and wanted to go somewhere a bit different for a 2-week Spring trip. After looking through all the available flights, we landed on Japan. A six-month wait and an 11 hour flight later, we landed in Tokyo Narita. When we’d planned for the trip, there was one key thing we wanted to see: cherry blossoms. Knowing that they were in bloom mainly in the north in late April, we decided to fly from Tokyo immediately to Sapporo and make our way down all the way to Kyoto, riding the rails with a Japan Rail pass. One full day and some triangle sushi snacks later, there we were–at New Chitose airport, a bit jet lagged and loopy but excited to see a completely different, new place.
Sapporo–a sprawling metropolis on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island–was where we spent the first night. We stayed in Susukino, a fast paced district with neon lights and tons of bars and restaurants. The streets are sensory overload, with talking billboards, bright signs, and a building adorned with a giant crab.
We headed to the fish market for dinner, but it was mostly closed, so we headed on to the Sapporo beer complex, home to a beer garden and a museum. Sapporo’s famous food is its Genghis Khan lamb, and we sat down in the vast Kessel beer hall, drinking Sapporo (RM got the litre, obviously) and grilling our own lamb and vegetables on the table burner. It was also our first encounter with Japanese bureaucracy–though there were tables available, we had to go to a separate counter and get a reservation ticket to be seated. After an abortive attempt to get ice cream based drinks at one of Sapporo’s ice cream shops–lesson for the future, make sure you’ve got the Japanese characters handy if you want to go somewhere specific–we made our way to the hotel for some much needed sleep.
After a late start the next morning, we headed to a place called Donburi Chaya for brunch. Donburi is a bowl of rice with seafood over it, and was the start of our Japanese culinary adventure. It was also our first experience with a true Japanese restaurant. After a quick bow at the door, we were seated by the woman in charge of the place (at least she seemed in charge!) at a little counter in the back. We struggled to communicate that we needed more time with the menu, and ended up ordering a single bowl for about 1400¥. The food came within minutes, a beautiful arrangement of raw salmon, tuna, cod roe, prawns, scallops and squid over a bed of rice, along with complimentary green tea. The seafood was delightful, with smooth texture and great flavour–and one bowl turned out to be enough for the both of us.
We walked past the famous clock tower (a modest building in the New England style with a clock from Boston) and to the train station, where we booked tickets for most of our major journeys with a very friendly JR clerk. We had plenty of time till the next express train, so we picked up donuts and coffee from Mister Donut and walked around the city (our Mister Donut experience, where the cashier neatly packaged and folded everything, putting the napkin into its own plastic protector, was quintessential Japanese). The old city hall, with its pretty garden out front, was nice, though Sapporo on the whole is a town with mostly faceless, utilitarian architecture and few sights to speak of.
From Sapporo, we hopped a train to Noboribetsu, a famous Japanses hot spring and spa town. The train ride was quite nice, with scenic mountains. We splurged on a Green JR pass, with its business class accommodation, including massive reclining seats, knowing that the trains would be crowded for Golden Week later on.
Noboribetsu Onsen itself is about as ugly as they come–a series of high rise concrete buildings housing various resorts–but we were here mainly to recharge in hot onsen baths and relax at our ryokan, high class Japanese accommodation with extraordinary hospitality. We were immediately greeted upon our arrival to the town by someone from our ryokan, Kashoutei Hanaya, who held us from crossing the street until things were absolutely clear. When we arrived we took our shoes off before entering, with the shoes being stored in a cubby for us out of sight. After a bow and an enthusiastic welcome, we were brought up to our room, where we were served strong green tea and given the basic instructions on how to wear our yakuta (hotel provided robe, for wearing everywhere, even to dinner) and how to use the onsen.
After checking into our hotel, we took a walk through Jigokudani Park also known as Hell Valley. This park just outside of town has hot stream vents and sulfurous streams all powered by volcanic activity under the earth. Our walk was beautiful.
When we returned from the park, we set out to try the onset (filled with hot water from the Hell Valley springs). Going to the onsen was a classic Japanese experience not to be missed. You strip down completely in a changing room, and then sit on little stools next to the hot bath as you wash yourself down completely (the bath is not for washing!). From there, you soak in the bath and relax. The whole thing is segregated for men and women, and though RM was worried about breaking the rules at first, it turns out that onsening is easy. The indoor bath was hot and therapeutic, and the outdoor bath, a hair cooler, was a great way to enjoy the evening breeze (RM was too scared to go to the outdoor one the first time in the onsen–it’s an intimidating place!). The baths are quiet a peaceful places to recharge, and afterwards we felt incredibly clean. We donned our yakutas and headed down for dinner–dinner was the bit we were most excited about, as the guidebook had said that the dinners here were exquisite. Kashoutei Hanaya did not disappoint! It’s too many plates to record–kimchi, cod roe, small pink roe and pastry wrapped fish cake as little side dishes, with a boat shaped platter of sashimi as a centrepiece. The sashimi platter had things we’d never seen before, like two types of conch, along with salmon and scallops and sea urchin and a white fish. There was miso and rice, and of course green tea. Alongside it all was a ceramic small pot of vegetables over individual burners to cook, with delectable mushrooms inside. The meal was scrumptious, and our hands were tired from overaggressive chopstick use by the end. Dessert was a smiley face of fruit and pastry to top it all off.
Full from dinner, we had a longer, evening dip in the onsen before retiring to our room. It was Japanese style sleeping, with foam mattresses laid on top of the tatami mat. This night was tough to sleep, with jet lag still hanging on to us. We awoke to have breakfast in the dining room (still in our robes, obviously), which was another beautiful spread–and certainly the most individual items we’ll ever have for breakfast. Thick slices of prepared salmon with brined squid, thickly sliced egg omelette, miso, okra with beans, miso, tofu on a burner, a mystery vegetable–extravagant indeed.
AM took another quick dip in the onsen before we went to leave. As RM was putting on shoes, one of the hotel staff asked where we were going–when he responded ‘to the train station,’ she immediately asked if we wanted a lift. Yes we did. Unfortunately, it was supposed to leave at 9:45, and it was now 9:46–she gave us a look that said ‘let’s get moving.’ AM put her coffee down immediately, and we hustled to the van after some obligatory bows and ‘arigato gozaimasu’s.
From Noboribetsu station we took the Super Hokuto Limited Express along Hokkaido’s southeastern coast, until we pulled onto the small peninsula on which Hakodate sits. We were soon checked into an economy room at the Smile Hotel, ready to explore a new city.
Hakodate was our first experience with Japan’s obsession with rankings. Many of the main attractions sport a large Michelin guide explanation, with the view from Mt. Hakodate listed at 3 stars. The town recently slipped out of the best 3 city views of Japan, much to the residents chagrin.
We started with the brick warehouses in Hakodate’s old fishing district, which has been converted into a series of stores. We elected to try the Hakodate-only salt ramen at a local chain, where we got a couple of bowls of ramen and some huge dumplings–our first experience with a ordering machine, where you place your food order before giving the waiter your ticket. Food in Japan is fast–no faffing about with ordering and then waiting for the order to be placed (in fact, it’s the complete opposite of European restaurants, where dinners out can turn into 2 hour affairs).
We spent some time walking the shops with mostly kitsch before stopping at the Hakodate Beer Company for a brew in one of the warehouses, a pretty brick building with a high ceiling supported by huge cypress timbers. After a brief stop at a sweet shop (AM resisted; RM was insistent), we forged ahead to our first planned stop, an antique kimono shop Kichii in the historic Matimoto district. We stopped there and at another shop along the way, pausing to admire a monument to one of Hakodate’s famous poets and a street lined with well trim trees ending at a large torii up the hill. The Kichii kimonos were beautiful, traditional and very expensive.
We left the store empty handed and strolled along to Hakodate’s historical district. Hakodate was one of the key trading post towns as Japan opened up to foreigners, with Russian, American, British and other countries all represented. There’s a pretty Eastern Orthodox Church, a beautiful wooden blue and yellow municipal government building in the European style, and the old British consulate (which honestly didn’t look like much). There’s also a statue and garden for Commodore Matthew Perry, who was the one who forced open Japanese trade to the US with gunboat diplomacy–at least that’s what Wikipedia says, though it’s clearly not how the Japanese see it.
Along the way we saw some lovely household gardens and walked into a Buddhist temple, open to the public even though it was deserted, and past another pretty little temple in a garden. Perhaps most importantly, we stopped to try the second best melon bread ice cream in the world (yeah, Japan is really obsessed with top 3 lists), a delightful warm, crunchy melon flavoured bun with a big slab of thick, creamy Hokkaido ice cream wedge in between. We walked on over towards the cable car station to go up to the Mt. Hakodate viewing platform, stopping at a Torii along the way–we almost went into the grounds of the temple, but an old man seemed to be shooing us away (though he might have been a tourist himself). It turns out it was a burial ground for Imperial Japanese soldiers, and we don’t think we were much wanted there.
We hopped aboard the giant cable car to Mt Hakodate, the promontory overlooking the city, with famed views (three Michelin stars!) alongside a big tour group doing the same. The mountain, which sits at the south point of the city abutting the sea, has commanding views. We watched the sunset over the fishing trawlers in the bay, and then noticed that the mass of tourists was moving to the other side of the outlook. We got there far too late, as we were blocked by rows of people with smartphones and cameras out trying to take as many pictures as they could. We decided to wait it out, looking at some of the lesser views and walking around the several shops and restaurants in the complex (it was packed). Eventually we bit the bullet and went over to the railings, waiting to get to the view. There was a lot of jostling, but finally we got there. The city lights span a narrow neck of land between the sea, and it truly is a great night view. As we left a couple of middle aged ladies pushed past us to grab our spot.
We left the mountain and headed for Hakodate’s night life district, a smattering of bars and restaurants set amongst low rise office buildings. There’s a little street known for having 26 different food places, and we went in past the lantern lit entrance. It was as promised–rows and rows of little bars with 7 or 8 seats facing the cook, people laughing and talking to each other as they drank Asahi or Sapporo. We did a couple laps and picked one, and after a ‘Konbanwa’ we sat. The Japanese seated across from us laughed at us (or with us?), and we had a delightful little meal of duck wings, chicken yakitori, and sake.
The next morning was the much awaited event: the Hakodate fish market. Inside, there’s a kiddie pool with live squid, where you pay ¥600 to catch a squid with hooks and then watch it get made into sashimi in front of you. RM was nervous–there was a big crowd–but we paid the man. There’s no baiting the squid–simply touch them with the sticky hooks and their caught. 10 seconds later we had a live one on the line, and a minute after that it was sliced expertly and put on a plate, ready to eat (the head of the squid does a little dance–it’s kind of gruesome). It was fresh and tasty, even if it was still wriggling a bit.
We walked around the rest of the market, with dried squid, live King crabs for sale, roe, and pretty much every other fish product for sale, before hopping a tram for the town’s fort, Goryokaku.
Goryokaku is one of Japan’s only forts in the Western style, a pentagon with bastions sticking out, and it’s got a nice moat and some interesting buildings inside. It was the former seat of the magistrate of Hakodate, and was seized by the shogun’s forces who were resisting Meiji rule. They were defeated, and now the fort is known for its cherry blossom festival. There’s a tower next to it with an observation deck that has great views of the fort and the city.
With that, we headed to the train station to move on to Hirosaki. We bought a couple of bento boxes (packed lunch, Japanese style), and also some Shinkansen first anniversary wine, as we’d be getting on the bullet train at Shin-Hakodate, the Shinkansen station out of town. The train itself was a sight, gleaming turquoise with a pink stripe and a long, bullet shaped nose. High speed rail indeed! The line had been extended to Hakodate the year before, and it seemed like people were still pretty excited about it. We blasted down to Shin-Aomori, and from there caught a standing room only Ou Line train down to Hirosaki.
-RM

The Turquoise Coast, Turkey

With a British 4-day weekend on the horizon, we decided to go big and head to Turkey to see the Turquoise coast, a stretch of land running from Antalya all the way up southwest Turkey. It was a bit of a rookie travel move, as we ended up leaving at 4:30 for a 7:00 AM flight and then driving three hours to our final destination, only arriving just before sunset to our hotel in Kas.
Kas: Food and Views
The coast is an interesting mix of resorts filled with British tourists, beautiful secluded beaches, lively coastal towns, and ancient ruins from what used to be Lycia. Kas itself was a wonderful little town. We were there in off-season. The town centre–usually crowded in summer–was quite peaceful. The food scene there is mainly traditional Turkish restaurants. We spent the first night at the Panorama restaurant and watched the sunset over the harbor filled with boats.
Bi Lokma, or ‘Mama’s Kitchen,’ was by far our favourite meal. We started with a meze plate with 10 different cold dishes, and then had these amazing little homemade dumplings with olive oil and sour cream sauce. Dinner was a bit odd–we knew that a referendum for Erdogan, the president, to consolidate power was planned, but we didn’t realise that it would be on the Sunday night while we were there. Just as we sat down to dinner, the results came in, and Erdogan moved several steps closer to dictatorship. People in town were clearly unhappy, and as we were about to move into dessert a convoy celebrating the election results rolled by, with police cars with sirens going, honking cars, and vans wrapped with Erdogan’s visage. Fireworks went off–it felt like propaganda in a town that clearly voted against. AM ordered wine, but the owner said she could only serve “tea” in a mug since the election day was meant to be dry.
Kas is a town filled with little surprises everywhere. There’s the Secret Garden bar, with smooth jazz playing in an outdoor lounge area.
As you walk the streets of Kas, there are millennia old sarcophaguses (some with ancient inscriptions still showing) and a ruined temple. The old amphitheatre on the west side of town, rising from the hillside, is the perfect place to watch a sunset and think about life in Lycian times. From there you could see the islands off the coast, a constant feature of the Turkish coastline, and the towering mountains that sit just above the town. People were universally friendly, and our hotel, the Hotel Payam, was great, with a Turkish cheese breakfast and Turkish pastries that were to die for.
Ancient Cities Along the Coast
We largely spent our days seeing ruins and touring the area’s many beaches, bombing down the winding coastal roads in our rented Ford Focus. The ruins were truly incredible. We stopped at Tlos first, one of the largest ruin complexes, with a stadium where contests used to happen, the remains of a bathhouse, and an ancient necropolis carved out of the hillside (and, obviously, an amphitheatre). The views from the top showed us the whole valley, and we spend a couple hours ogling the massive stone structures. The entry fee, at about £2 per person, was a steal.

Along the winding mountain drive down from the Tlos Valley was the gorge of Saklikent (Hidden City), a very deep canyon cut from rock with a raging river flowing through. We paid the entry fee to head up the canyon, on a walking path that was suspended over the rushing water. It was pretty and peaceful, though probably not worth the short journey.

We stopped for lunch at one of the many over water restaurants at the gorge for a peaceful rest, at a place called Paradise Park (obviously named after the famed Nashville dive bar). The trout (a local specialty, grilled with the head still on) and Turkish meatballs were a delight, but the location, on floor cushions on a platform overhanging the water, was better.
Our next stop was Xanthos, the capital city of Lycia. It was impressive with a large street paved with huge rocks, a large amphitheatre, and the remains of a church. Xanthos’s history is unfortunate at best–when threatened with invasion and put under siege, the men of the town killed all the women and children, burning them on a pyre, and then themselves died in battle. The survivors, who happened to be out of the city during the siege, returned to rebuild–only to do the same exact thing generations later, effectively eradicating the remaining Xanthanians.
Our final ruin stop, at Myra, was the most beautiful. Said to be the birthplaces for St. Nicholas, it was the one with the best-preserved stonework, with ancient, intricate carvings. You could walk through a corridor under and ancient stone arch and sit in the carved stone chairs that were used in the amphitheatre, imagining yourself as a Lycian King watching the gladiatorial games. It was tough to believe the ruins had lasted for thousands of years, and the fact that we could go in and touch them, walking amongst the old buildings, meant we could feel a connection to an ancient way of life we’d never felt before.
The Beaches of the Turquoise Coast
Of course one of the main reasons that people come to the Turquoise Coast are the beaches. In mid-April the water was still pretty frigid, but it didn’t stop us from a couple swims and a lot of sunbathing. Our first stop was Patara Beach, a sandy strip that is the longest beach in Turkey. It’s so long that people can hire a cart to take them farther down the beach to avoid the crowds.
Our favourite beach by far was Butterfly Valley. It’s a beach with crystal clear water sitting at the base of a deep gorge. The only way there is by strenuous hike (which we obviously did not elect to do) or by a ferry from the nearby town of Oludeniz. The boat ride was great, with a view of the dramatic coastline and the mountains. Paragliders filled the skies as we left Oludeniz (despite RM’s best efforts, AM was not interested).
Thirty minutes later, our boat dropped us off in the small bay that is Butterfly Valley Beach. We hiked into the valley a bit, which in the summer is known for the many types of butterfly that make the valley their home. It’s a bit of a hippy commune. We spent a couple hours exploring, sunning, and swimming in the beautiful water before heading back.
The rest of the day was spent in the Blue Lagoon, a touristy stretch of beach in a protected bay.
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We made it out with only one police stop (“We’re from London”–“okay okay”) and no damage to the rental car. It was a lovely weekend, though we left feeling a bit disappointed about the beach part of the holiday–the coast felt too touristy, and like it had lost some of the charm it once had.
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AM snapped this from the passenger window — the driving was beautiful, to say the least

-RM

The Dutch Experience

RM’s company used to recruit pretty heavily in the Netherlands, and one of RM’s best friends from work and his girlfriend invited us to visit them in Holland for a weekend trip. D’s parents live in the town of Haarlem, 45 minutes outside of Amsterdam, an upscale village close to the sea. We stayed with them for most of the weekend, and made it our mission to have the most Dutch weekend possible (with some help and supervision from our very Dutch friends).
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View of AM’s old office taking off from London City

After landing, we went straight to the Jopen brewpub in Haarlem, which has delightful craft beers, fried Dutch snacks like bitteballen and cheese, and a relaxed vibe. After a few drinks, we headed to BD’s parents’ house and staying up late chatting and eating cheese. After a late start the next day and a big Dutch breakfast spread (spreads, cheese, meat, butter and bread–all from a Dutch breakfast box), we left for a drive in the countryside in the family classic 1979 woody Jeep Wagoner. Perfect beach car, with a big bench seat in the back. Just out of town we started to see the flower fields, massive stretches of purple and red and yellow flowers with an overpowering scent. We’d never seen anything like it before.
After some arm twisting of AM, we decided to visit Kukenhof, a large and very famous Dutch garden. The parking lot was packed with tour buses and cars, and we began to have second thoughts. Those thoughts turned out to be unwarranted. While the garden was super busy, the garden was huge and the flowers were beautiful, endless rows of tulips, daffodils, and more tulips. We walked, had herring sandwiches, and took in the beautiful day. The most unique part of the garden is its large greenhouse, with hundreds upon hundreds of tulip varieties brought in by Dutch flower companies. The Netherlands sells around 60% of the worlds flower bulbs, and every year the 100 royally endorsed flower companies bring their latest creations to the Kukenhof to wow potential buyers.
When we got home, we mounted up on BD’s family’s bikes and cycled into a national park by the coast with rolling sand dunes, little lakes, wild horses and wild cows. After about an hour, we reached a coastal area known for its beach clubs, most of which are taken down during the winter and put back up in time for early summer with different themes. We whiled away an hour drinking Sol, eating fried Dutch snacks, and looking out at the sea before heading home. Our Haarlem day ended with another bike ride into town to sample some of the local ice cream at Luciano’s (really delicious–they show a clip of them making the ice cream while you wait in the long line to be served) before heading to Jopen for another round of Dutch beer snacks for dinner.
Cheese, tulips, beer, herring–what more was there to do? It was a glorious day, and we headed in to Amsterdam to make the most of it. Westerpark made for a perfect place for a walk, and we strolled along its promenade amongst what seemed like the whole city out reading and sunbathing. We stopped for coffee outside a little old warehouse right on the canal, with some delectable drinks and very rich cakes (RM’s was pretty much pure caramel) before walking through the train station to try some Dutch sausage (our mission was to eat every Dutch snack known to man–we came close). We took a short ferry across the massive canal to the north of town to go to the new, up-and-coming north side. As we went, BD pointed us to the many places he had been clubbing including an old petrol holding tank, a hatch into an underground basement, and a few innocuous seeming bars.
The north side has a interesting modern museum building, and also a tower with an observation deck that is well worth visiting. We took the €12.50 per person plunge, and were shot up the elevator to the “Lookout Experience.” For some reason Dutch people love to use the word experience (boat experience, Heineken experience, and more). The views over the city were lovely, with panoramas out over the industrial section, the churches of the centre, the train station with its “AMSTERDAM” roof, and the new modern buildings in the northwest.
After a bottle of white wine at the restaurant, we walked around the city, taking in the lovely canals and many large tulip planters scattered throughout. It’s a lovely city, with a ton of hipster design shops, restaurants, and cafes–and of course the ubiquitous coffee shops and the red light district.
We had a large Indonesian dinner called a rijkstaffel, with 25 different small dishes brought out, before heading back to the apartment to sleep before our 7 AM flight back.
-RM

Oslo (Again, this time just AM)

My best friend from Wellesley, MS, moved to Norway about a year ago. Her hubby is Norwegian, and they’ve lived in a couple of places in Norway in their first year of marriage. I went up to visit them at their house in Oslo April armed with a backpack full of essential (and hard to find in Norway) English goodies:

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(Not pictured: 3 blocks of cheddar and 2 bottles of Bailey’s) 

Unfortunately–as suspected by many–I’m not the most responsible solo traveler. After arriving too late to check into my Friday night flight (and a few tears later), I finally jetted up North on Saturday morning to hang with MS, JA, and Oggie the Doggy.

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Take two. 

We spent Saturday driving through the countryside, taking a walk, and hanging out in their cozy house.

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Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

Sunday kicked off with Norwegian breakfast (my favourite!!), a walk through town, and waffles and Brunost (a sweet brown cheese) on the porch. It was sunny and beautiful, and MS and I sat outside, watched the clouds roll through the valley, and even got the change to FaceTime with our newly engaged friend EW.

These are the kind of weekends that make me feel so lucky to be living in London and only a plane ride away from people I love.

-AM

Madeira, Portugal

Madeira was an impulse buy for a weekend trip, a 3 hour flight to a speck of an island off the coast of Morocco. The landing itself was an event with the plane making a 180 degree hairpin turn before touching down on a runway perched on massive stilts in the sea. The island is surrounded by cliffs—its beauty is wild, of towering volcanic mountains and little towns in the valleys below.

We stayed in a hamlet called Jardim Do Mar, set on a large plateau at the base of the cliffs, with concrete breakers to protect against the Atlantic swell. It’s got cobbled streets to narrow for cars set with flower patterns of white amongst black rocks, and a couple of restaurants serving dishes from the sea. Our favourite spot was Joe’s bar, which serves up fried seafood, 1.5 euro beers, and a laid back island vibe—the first night we had no cash, and the owner asked us to come back and pay the next day. We found that kind of hospitality everywhere. People were very friendly, and no one was in a rush for anything. Our evenings at Jardim Do Mar were mainly spent walking by the sea or in Joe’s little garden drinking wine.

With only one full day on the island, we spent Saturday driving around the island, up its winding mountain roads and through its many tunnels. We had sunshine on the coast and saw snow up on the second highest peak—it’s an island of several climates. We drove north across the spine of mountains that defines the island, over winding roads hugging drops deep into the valleys. It was incredibly lush, with sweeping vistas that made you forget it was an island.

We stopped for a quick hike in the UNESCO protected Laurisilva forest, with trees that date back 800 years in a Jurassic Park landscape, before pressing on to the north coast.

The island is one of water, with babbling streams and levada irrigation channels that crisscross the island. After a cheeky stop at the Veu de Noiva, a waterfall that flows directly into the sea, we headed on to Quinta de Furao, an upscale hotel and restaurant with a beautiful view out to the sea.

We had a delightful lunch with dry Madeiran wine, stopped for a tropical fruit dessert at a fruit stand on the side of the road (passion fruit and a weird, delightful green fruit) and then drove up to Pico Ruivo with the hopes of breaking the cloud layer to see its famed views. We drove higher and higher, and the visibility got worse and worse. We saw cars pass us coming the other way with little snowmen on their hoods, and we quickly realised why it was so busy—there was no view above the clouds, but there was snow up top, in what must be a reasonably rare occurrence on a tropical island.

We drove back down to the sunshine and warmth, stopping at a crowded platform that rests over the highest cliff in Europe, a 1,000 foot drop down into the sea.

The highlight of the trip was a dinner we had in Prazeres, the town that sits above Jardim Do Mar, at at Restaurante Manjerico. It only takes bookings ahead of time, and AM facebook messaged them in the hopes they’d be open. They were, and we were welcomed by the sweatshirt wearing proprietor who runs the place with his wife. We sat in a big room downstairs, chatting with him about Brexit and the Portugese diaspora in the UK. The meal was to die for, with a cheese and scallop platter to start with, and more food than we could possibly eat for the main course. It was potatoes, rice, marinated roasts, and vegetables—Portugese comfort food at its finest. A boisterous group of locals soon joined, with a feast for kings. We hadn’t asked the price before sitting down and were quite worried when the bill came. With wine and all, it came to 33 Euros—pretty unbelievable.

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Before we knew it we were having our last walk down by the water and boarding a flight home with a couple bottle.

-RM

Budapest, Hungry (Again)

RM had a week of training in Budapest, and so we decided to make a weekend of it with another couple. It was a quick trip—just a couple days—but it reminded us why we loved the city so much, with great cheap food, lively nightlife, and a hipster design scene. Budapest is a sprawling old imperial city, with imposing architecture and the beautiful Danube cutting through the middle, separating the grandness of the Buda side with its palace from the denser Pest across the river.

Much of the weekend was spent visiting some of the places we loved from the last time we were there. We were surprised to see Paloma, a pretty courtyard filled with independent artists’ shops, still thriving, with mainly the same stores that had been there two years before. Our favourite was still a little family run booth that sells pewter and stone jewellery. Fiser, where we bought AM a handbag a long time ago, was still up and running, making bags of all shapes, styles and colours to order.

Saturday night was one of our livelier ones in a while, kicking off with dinner and Hungarian wine (we do love Hungarian wine!) at Macesz Huszar, a classy Jewish style restaurant in the old Jewish quarter. From there, to Szimpla Kert, one of Budapest’s several ruin bars, a sprawling series of rooms in a ruined old building. There’s dancing on the main floor and a few other bars scattered around, with a crowd of young Budapestians mixed in with a big dose of tourists. We had a few beers and met up with some other Newtons before heading to Club Tesla, a huge club with a mainly Hungarian crowd.

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One of the best parts of Budapest is just walking the city and taking it in. The seat of parliament is a stunning, huge Gothic Revival building set on the river with a large plaza out front. Two Soldiers march in lockstep out front in a circle around a towering flagpole. Crossing the river takes you over the famed chain link bridge, flanked by enormous bronze lions, to the imperial palace set on a hill above the city. When we needed a coffee to start our day we stopped in Auguszt Curkraszda, a bakery with delightful, rich cakes set as in an old imperial style cafe. To end the trip we took a long stroll up to the tall statue of a lady on the highest part of a hill that dominates the city—it was a long hike up trails still slicked with ice, but well worth the view.

-RM

La Clusaz, French Alps

RM’s work hosts a ski trip every year which is something the whole company looks forward too.We missed it last year and were determined not to this year, even if RM didn’t know how to ski and AM hadn’t snowboarded for 14 years. And so we boarded the flight to Geneva after work on Friday with 100 other coworkers and friends and made our way to La Clusaz in the French Alps.

The town was a beautiful little ski village set in a deep valley surrounded by towering mountains. Ski lifts crisscross the mountains, and a multitude of chalet bars scatter themselves across the slopes. Though the snow turned icy by the end of the weekend, the weather was beautiful, with clear skies and a winter chill in the air. The company rented two hotels, one of which had an open bar (risky at best), lukewarm hot tub, sauna, and pool.

By day, we skied and snowboarded all over the mountains. RM had a lesson to begin the weekend, with the primary instruction being “go down that hill” and “don’t go straight down.” We stuck to blues and greens, though RM found that greens were the right speed. Soon we lost count of the number of falls, some more spectacular than others. By the end of the weekend, greens were no problem. While AM did some steep, crowded blues, RM often hiked down to get to events at the bars on the slopes. The annual scavenger hunt, in fancy dress (what British event doesn’t have costumes?), was fun, with our team dressed in Super Mario attire. As some pretty weak skiers, we mainly stuck to the easy slopes.

Nights were filled with dinner, British drinking games (oddly less active than American ones), and all-you-can drink cocktails. We learned the joys of French Alpine cooking, including raclette, where a wedge of hard cheese is put next to a heating element to melt. Some favourite drinking games include “Mr. President,” where everyone puts their finger to their ear and says “get down Mr. President”—the last one to do so is tackled—and another involving numbers and repetition. We never managed to make it that late, which was probably a good thing.

We finished the trip with one last ride up the mountains, some runs down the nicer greens, and a beer atop the mountain.

Seven Sisters Cliffs, England

Our more-than-just-a-friend-more-like-family friend MS came to visit and we used it as an excuse to take a trip to Seven Sisters Country Park and see the beautiful white cliffs. The cliffs are the longest stretch of chalk cliffs around the channel, but are quickly eroding into the sea. Cash especially loved the trip because we let him run around on the beach–a rare treat for a city slicker pup.

On the way home we stopped in Brighton which was mostly strange. The main attractions are a boardwalk which RM and MS convinced me looks the same as every boardwalk ever (how am I to know? I’ve never seen one!). A couple of blocks away was the the King’s summer palace–an Indian inspired building built for King George and designed by John Nash in the early 19th century.

-AM