St. Petersberg, Russia

It had been a long day of travel already–we’d driven from Scotland to York, seven hours, the day before, and another seven when all was said and done to get to Gatwick Airpot. We made it with plenty of time, and after a few hours to Riga, a short layover, and another hour to Saint Petersburg, our airBaltic flight landed. We made our way to the taxi counter, where you buy tickets for a legitimate taxi (the city seems to have a vast network of non-official taxis, where negotiation appears to be the norm) and paid about $15 for the ride into the city. Our drive took us down one of Saint Petersburg’s long boulevards (the city’s layout felt a lot like Paris, with huge streets radiating from the centre), and we finally arrived at about 1:30 AM to our hostel, Friends by Dom Knigi, close to the Dom Knigi bookstore building. We got our first glimpse of the Church of the Spilled Blood with its multicoloured onion domes.

Finally, here we were–Russia! We’d been looking forward to it for quite a long time, and after the faff of getting our visas, we finally arrived. Armed with Lonely Planet’s St. Petersburg guide and a few words of Russian, we plunged into the city. Piter is a grand, imperial city, with huge five or six-story blocks of buildings with proper, grand facades. Architecturally, it’s much like the other imperial capitals we visited, like Vienna and Budapest, except with uniquely Russian flair.

We ate pancakes with cheese curd and sour cream at Zoom Cafe before walking past the large, yellow Admiralty building en route to the Peter and Paul fortress. We crossed one of the many drawbridges across the Neva, paused to take in the view at the east end of Vasilevsky Island, which looks out at the Winter Palace and the fortress, and continued on to the fortress itself. Peter and Paul fortress is a bit of a destination for families, a six-sided walled-in island in the Neva, with sunbathers young and old on the sand and a grass beach that falls into the river. In the river were parked a destroyer and a couple smaller boats from the Russian Navy–we learned on arriving that Navy Day was around the corner.

Our first stop was the pretty church on the island, once the tallest point in St. Petersburg, built by Peter the Great in a Western style with a tall golden spire. Much of the imperial family is entombed there, right in the main hall. Peter the Great moved his capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg to try to make the country more western facing, and the fortress was where the city originated. We took a quick stop in the Trubetskoy Bastion, where political dissidents, including Lenin’s brother and Dostoyevsky, were imprisoned in poor conditions up until the early 1900s. 

We skipped the island’s many other attractions, and walked to Solkihna, a Georgian restaurant by the fortress, for lunch (we ventured to another guidebook restaurant, Chak Chak, but found it closed for good). A giant Georgian cheese boat (called Kachapuri) and some delightful meat stews later, and we were ready to venture forth again. It’s worth saying that we love Georgian food. It’s Russian comfort food, the equivalent of Mexican food in America. On RM’s demand, we walked down to the Artillery Museum, a large semicircular brick building with dozens of armoured vehicles and artillery pieces in the courtyard, all painted drab Soviet Army green. Clank, clank, clank indeed! Some of the guns were absolutely massive, and a couple of the trucks seemed to have ballistic missiles mounted. 

We strolled along the Neva, and made our way to the Summer Garden, previously the garden of the Tsar’s palace. It’s oddly laid out, with a series of trellises that make courtyards within the garden, some open and some closed. RM had his first experience with Russian brusqueness after attempting to grab a Coke from a locked refrigerator.

It was a hot day, and we were getting a bit tired. As we’d walked we’d seen tens of canal boats with people on the decks touring the city, and a few motorboats roaming the canals. There’s one company, Anglotourismo, in the city that runs English tours, and after a long search we finally found it, just in time for a 7:00 PM cruise. We wrapped up in blankets (it was chilly on the water!) and took in the city from the canal. The many bridges were colour coded, we soon learned, because initially there were no street names, and the bridges were points of reference. We passed many more grand facades and saw the sad sight of a church that was entombed in brick by the Soviets, becoming a warehouse (in fact, it seemed like all of the city’s churches were at one point converted to warehouses or ice rinks). We learned that though most of the building facades look great, many of the interiors and courtyards–meant for less wealthy folk–were quite a bit worse off. Eventually, we made it out to the Neva with the many other boats, saw the Winter Palace in all its glory from the water, passed the docked warships, circled the fortress, spotted the small imperial Summerhouse, and headed back to the dock.

We had a dinner at Pelmenya, a dumpling place, where we sampled five kinds of dumpling, from the Georgian khinkali to the traditional Pelmeni, and had a house wine, all for about $20. By the end we were getting looks from the other tables–we had ordered way more food than expected. 

The next day started with what seemed like a throwback to an earlier St. Petersburg time. We entered Pyshechnaya, and went past the cheap tables and chairs to the counter, where it seemed like only two things were served: doughnuts and coffee. No one was speaking English. $2 bought us four doughnuts and two coffees, the former with the texture of croissants and a delightful, sugary crust (perhaps the original cronut?), and the coffee–poured out of a large vat–seemed to be mainly milk and sugar. We were surrounded by families and elderly people, all seemingly in no hurry to get anywhere.

After a quick walk by the church (we couldn’t get enough, and must have passed it four or five times), we stopped by the Dom Knigi bookstore, housed in a beautiful building with a glass and steel spire. The bookstore itself is open till 1 AM, a testament to Saint Petersburg’s late-night culture and love of literature. Inside were at least two or three editions of each of Dostoevsky’s works, and Pushkin, Chekov, Tolstoy, and all the rest. Realising that we needed to fortify ourselves before going to the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg’s massive museum, we took a stop at Stolle, a small chain known for serving a variety of good sweet and savoury pies. The crust was multilayered and perfectly textures, and the fish pie and vegetable fillings were great. From Stolle we carried on down Nevsky Prospect, Saint Petersburg’s crowded main street, and into the massive palace square, flanked on one side by the General Staff Building, a huge yellow and white semicircle, and on the other by the massive turquoise, white and gold Winter Palace. 

The Hermitage, mostly set in Peter the Great’s palace, is one of the world’s finest museums. The interior is grand and ostentatious, with huge chandeliers and beautiful staircases, columns of marble and vaulted ceilings. There’s an opulent gold and white chapel, and ballrooms with plaster reliefs and painted ceilings. Some of the more interesting exhibits were the armaments room, with knights on taxidermied horses, and the golden peacock clock, a bespoke piece that spreads its wings once a day. There was beautiful furniture (the items of Karelian birch, with their mottled pattern, were especially interesting), and the Tsar’s walnut-paneled library was impressive. When we were done in the winter palace, we sat in the lovely courtyard garden and drank cappuccinos before heading on to the General Staff Building, known for its exhibition of impressionist works. Interestingly, only a small fraction of the Hermitage’s total collection is on display, with the rest in an off-site warehouse. The General Staff’s collection was far more impressive than we’d realised, with Monets, Renoirs, Picassos, and many more. The Dance, Matisse’s famous work, was also there. By the end, we were a bit overwhelmed.

Next up was the Church of the Spilled Blood, known as the location where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by an assailant. The outside is a riot of colour, multicolour onion-shaped domes sitting above large murals and blue, green and yellow roofs.onion-shaped was overwhelming and beautiful, every inch covered by blue and gold murals, the workmanship rivalling what we had seen in the madrasahs of Morocco. The ceiling was perhaps fifty or sixty feet tall, with each dome holding an image of religious figures. The corners of the pillars had floral designs all the way up. During communist times, the church had been used as a warehouse of opera sets, and during WW2 it had suffered damage from a shell. Now, it looks good as new. We lingered for a while before walking over to Rustaveli, recommended by the Wellesley network. It had a homely atmosphere and great Georgian cuisine–favourites were the eggplant with walnut and the vegetable stew. After the meal and a couple carafes of wine, it was beginning to get late–but we still had a long time to wait before the main event, the nightly raising of the city’s drawbridges. 

After an abortive attempt to find Barackobamabar, allegedly hidden in one of the city’s courtyards (turns out it was closed), we walked across town to Barodabar, or beard bar, known to be a hipster hangout. It was nearly empty when we arrived, but we had a couple great cocktails, RM’s a peppery concoction called Paprika. Now about midnight, the city had fallen dark, though there were still many people in the streets. We headed on to Terrasse, an upscale sixth floor restaurant with a nice view, and had another small carafe of wine. We spotted a couple horse riders making their way through the city–we’ve presumed they’re carriage horses, but who really knows–every once in a while we saw some things not typical of Western European cities. 

With the sky never really getting dark, Saint Petersburg has a huge party pretty much every night during June and July, called the White Nights. Families are out, and the Palace Square is filled with young people and street performers. There are coffee vans all over (the coffee vans are ubiquitous–we were never far from a fix, critical to AM’s happiness). Because of Navy Day, there was a display of tanks and missile launchers by the square. We continued on to the river’s bank to watch the main event, the raising of the drawbridges. It was past 1 AM, and the banks were crowded with people four or five deep, looking out at the reddish, purple horizon. Unfortunately we’d just missed the fireworks, but soon classical music came on, piped through riverside loudspeakers. With many thousands looking on, the drawbridges went up, and the vast flotilla of tour boats and speedboats–there must have been at least a hundred–began to pass by. It was a celebration of summer. 

The next morning, we went to the Idiot, named after one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces, a cozy restaurant who many had recommended. There was a tour group there (it feels like many people come in tour groups, as a good portion of the people at our hostel were Russian. There also seems to be a big push for Chinese tourism.), a few lone Russian businessmen who came for lunch, and a clutch of older ladies watching YouTube videos on their phone. We had the pancake-crepes, some with herring and chopped vegetables and others with cottage cheese and raisin. The waitress brought us a cold vodka shot on the house, which seemed a bit aggressive for 12 P.M. It was surprisingly smooth.

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From there we began walking down the river, looking at the docked warships–a couple large ones had come all the way from China. There were a couple of submarines and some smaller craft. We walked out on the pier and took the scene in–clearly there were plans for a big production the next day, as the city had erected stadium seating and a camera hung across the river by wire. A helicopter droned around the Peter and Paul fortress. We went into a church on the Vasilevsky side, stopping in the atrium because a wedding ceremony was underway–it was grand and beautiful, with large mosaics. Eventually we ended up at the viewpoint we’d been to on the first day, looking out at the water and the Winter Palace. We saw a few wedding couples (in fact, we saw tons over the weekend) taking pictures–one was harangued by a group of older guys on a boat until they kissed. 

Our next stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and on the way we passed a huge bronze statue of Peter the Great on a horse, sitting atop the largest boulder ever moved. We took a cheeky nap in the grass before heading on to the cathedral. The church is enormous, its exterior a series of huge columns with a gold dome on top. Inside, it’s easy to lose a sense of scale, with an impossible high ceiling filled with colourful painted murals. Dominant are the giant green columns (stone unknown) on one side. The whole thing, while grand, feels like a bit of a riot of colour. We took a quick walk around the crowded cupola, with 360 degree views out to the river, the Winter Palace, and the rest of the city. 

One thing we knew we wanted to do in Russia was see a ballet, and we’d booked tickets to Swan Lake at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, performed by the State Ballet company. It’s a stately yellow building right by a statue of Pushkin on the Arts Square. Worried that we’d be underdressed, RM insisted on swinging by Zara, where we found a blazer for $30. We got dressed up, and found ourselves in the theatre’s lobby, amidst a crowd of Russians dressed to the nines and quite a few tourists mixed in. Our seats were in a box on stage right, with a decent view of the stage, set beneath the theatre’s soaring, painted ceiling and chandeliers. We were soon joined by two shockingly well behaved small children. Soon, the performance began–the music soared, the swans danced, there was love and a touch of violence. We loved the score. The dancers, with their leaps and spins, were fantastic. The sets seemed pretty dated, and the building a bit past its heyday. The intermission at Russian ballet is taken very seriously, and the Mikhailovsky was no exception. During the first intermission we had a couple glasses of prosecco, and during the second we had more prosecco alongside a piece of bread slathered in butter and red caviar. Turns out that all in all we kind of like the ballet. We took our evening stroll past the Church of the Spilled Blood (we just couldn’t get enough), and marvelled at its domes standing against the night sky.

Dinner was at the cozy Gosti, set to be homey, serving classy, delicious Russian fare. We decided we wanted to see the White Nights celebrations one more time, so we walked back to Palace square, which was filled with people young and old. A metal band and a soulful acoustic guitar player filled the square with sound, with crowds gathered around them. Off to one side a baton twirler, each end of the baton set aflame, lit up a rapt audience. Hulking Russian armoured vehicles sat in the darkness, a few interested men and children examined them inquisitively. We meandered to the bridge, joining the ever growing crowd waiting for the bridges to rise. The river began to fill with canal boats, until soon there were several dozen sitting in front of us. Just after 1 AM the music began to play, and the bridges went up. Soon the boats sped past, and we wandered home. 

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Our last day in Saint Petersburg was upon us, so we decided to visit the Russian Museum, a massive collection of art from Russian artists. There were examples of Russian handicrafts, but our favourite part was the more modern art from the 20th century, along with some impressionist pieces of Russian scenes. There was also a great set of china that represented the Russian worker. From there, it was time for our train to Moscow.

We hopped the St. Petersburg metro, passed through Moscow station’s grand entrance, with a huge mural seemingly from Soviet days on the roof, and had coffee while we waited for the train. The stations interior is pretty drab, though there did seem to be a gun kiosk set amidst its stores.

-RM

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Scottish Highlands: Skye

After nearly two years, our time remaining living in the UK was fast winding down. There were only two places we really wanted to visit that we hadn’t a chance to yet: Scotland and Russia. We spent a hurried last couple of days packing up our flat, bought some frivolous camping gear (and some not so frivolous), rented a car from Gatwick, threw our stuff in a storage unit, and hit the road–tent, sleeping bags, dog and all. After a good five hour drive, we reached the Holiday Inn off a bleak exit in Warrington, collapsed for the night and got up ready for our first day across the border in Scotland.

A couple hours later and we rumbled past the blue and white Scottish flag. We passed Glasgow, and wound our way along the picturesque shores of Loch Lomond, a near 20-mile long lake on the way up to Glencoe. We took a cheeky stop at Asda, the UK version of Wal-Mart, to stock up on camping food and some other sundry items. As we got close to Glencoe, the weather turned grey, and green mountains began to loom over a deep valley floor below the road. It was the Scotland we’d imagined–windy, wet, and otherworldly. Tired from the long drive, we arrived at the Glencoe Independent Hostel, where we had a small but wonderfully outfitted cabin with a porch and a view to ourselves for the night.

 

 

 

 

We dropped off our things and got back on the road for the recommended Lost Valley hike. We arrived at the car park below the Three Sisters, the peaks that dominate much of the Glencoe valley (or glen, as the Scots might say). There was a light mist coming down, but we figured that if we let a bit of bad weather stop us we might never hike in Scotland at all. We walked to the valley floor and then back up the other side, beginning the climb up the mountain. The vegetation was lush, with thick green ground cover and many pink foxgloves and thistles along the way. We had a stream crossing (Cash wasn’t super thrilled about it) and a bit of an easy scramble on the way up. The views back across the valley were great. At the top of the climb, the ground flattens up into a large bowl at the base of two of the peaks, an unexpected valley with a large streambed at its base. With the mist hanging above us, the scene was a bit magical. We let pup off the leash with the usual “he’s tired, he won’t run that far,” and after some abortive attempts to chase him, he finally returned to us 20 minutes later.

 

 

 

 

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Tired and hungry, we ditched the idea of making soup for dinner and instead drove down to the Clachaig Inn, a pub for hungry hikers like ourselves. It was crowded, and we tucked into a great steak and ale pie and some brie, chatting with a couple of other hikers over the house scotch while we listened to Gaelic folk tunes being played by locals at open mic night. It was a quintessential country pub, warm and cozy, with low ceilings and plenty of exposed wood to boot.

We’d decided to book ourselves on the 4 PM car ferry from remote Mallaig on the west coast to the Isle of Skye, and we began the journey farther north. The driving (as we soon found was the norm in north-west Scotland) was scenic and winding. Though it was the national speed limit of 60, we rarely approached 60, with our Golf’s tiny diesel engine often needing a downshift to get up the hills. We passed Fort William, and some great timetable sleuthing by AM had us reaching Glenfinnan just before the fabled Fort William – Mallaig ‘Jacobite’ steam train was to pass by. The train trundles over a long viaduct across a valley floor, with views out to sea and into the inland mountains. From our muddy perch (we almost missed it because parking was scarce) on the overlook, we watched the train round the bend, it’s engine belching steam as it strained to climb up the mountain. While it is picturesque, the train takes about double the time that driving does. We drove up to the Glenfinnan station with its museum about the railroad’s construction–it was built to connect the west Highlands with the mainland.

 

 

 

 

As our drive continued we took a quick stop at the wild Camusdarach beach, an expanse of white sand bordered by dunes and some small tidal pools. The few white houses surrounded by sea, sky, and sand were quintessential Scotland.

 

 

 

 

We arrived in Mallaig quite early for our ferry and sat at the Garden Tea Room for a snack before our ship left. It was our first encounter with Scottish seafood–smoked mackerel and some herring pate–and it was excellent, a harbinger of our seafood experience to come. After a bit of exploration of the town, a lovely little seaport with great views, we parked our car on the ferry for the ride over to Skye. The sea was choppy and filled with big jellyfish, and with each big wave a car alarm or two went off. Soon Skye rose up towards us, and we were driving off the boat at Armadale, driving towards the northern tip of the island.

 

 

 

 

They say that Skye is like the Highlands in miniature, and as we drove dramatic scenery was all around us. We passed Sligachan, a major jumping off point for hikers, and took a quick stop to see its vast glen bordered by mountains, with a pretty stone bridge set beneath it. Eventually, we got to the northern coast and drove along the cliffs that drop into the sea. Soon we began to see the vast landslip that dominates the northern Trotternish peninsula, the result of one type of rock pushing down upon another and causing a cliff face. Along with the inland cliff, there are several rock formations like nothing we’d ever seen before.

We decided to push past our hike and get to the Staffin campsite to set up our tent before it got dark. After a brief conversation, we paid the guy in charge of the campsite £16, set up our tent, and drove to the Old Man of Storr for a hike–it’s one of the famed rock formations on the island, a giant teardrop-shaped column pointing into the sky, as tall as 12 double-decker buses stacked one upon the other. It was cool and windy, the sky a Scottish grey. After a moderate climb, a found ourselves beneath the pillar, Cash tugging onwards.

 

 

 

 

We decided to hike up right to the base, which meant a bit of scramble and a climb up some slippery mud. Once we got up there we quickly realised both that the climb down wouldn’t be easy and that seeing the pillar from the base doesn’t actually help much, and after a scamper down we began climbing again to reach the top of the cliffs that sit over the Old Man. This was where we first encountered the one constant in almost all highlands landscapes, the peat that covers the ground nearly everywhere. Most of the land is devoid of trees, instead covered by a layer of grass and heather that sits on spongey, black, moist earth. In all our hiking we almost never found it to be dry. We ascended further (RM decided to take a fall in the mud on the way), and eventually were treated to stunning panoramas back down the Trotternish peninsula, with the undulating grassland studded with deep blue lochs and lochans (aka baby lakes). Past the open sea stood the Isle of Raasay and the peaks of the Highlands in the distance. We ascended further, crossing a sheep enclosure and reaching the cliff top before realising that the weather seemed to be changing fast, with the tendrils of a grey cloud coming at us, fast, and the wind picking up.

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We headed down the mountain, drove to a place called Kilt Rock on the edge of the cliffs by the sea (different cliffs than we climbed, which are in the centre of the peninsula), and looked out at the sea and the highlands in the distance. There was a waterfall coming off the cliffs, and we struggled to find the kilt-like rocks–it’s still unclear whether they’re there at all.

After a long day’s journey, we were happy to get back to the tent. Dusk began to fall, and RM began to cook dinner with the tiny camp stove we bought from Amazon for £8. Dinner was in two courses, an Asda soup and Asda ravioli, plus a bottle of prosecco we picked up along the way. The campsite was busy and lively, with couples and groups chatting into the evening. While cooking, we also encountered another feature of the west coast: the legendary Scottish midge. It’s a tiny bug, no bigger than a gnat, whose small bites can cause anything from annoyance to near insanity based on the number of midges around. They’re most pronounced around morning and dusk, and we later learned they can only fly if the wind is less than 5 MPH, a blessing in the windswept highlands. They also don’t really mind being around midge repellent, and the only sure fire way to stop them is by wearing a midge net around your head. After a short conversation with the campsite master, who told us to keep Cash on a lead lest he be shot by a crofter for worrying the sheep (sheep worrying is a serious offence), we zipped up the tent and went to sleep.

Electing to forgo breakfast on account of the midges, we packed up the tent and began our drive up to the Quiraing, one of the most famous hikes in Skye, which explores the cliffs formed by the landslip even further. The weather was clear and hot, which made the landscape even more beautiful than we’d seen on our last hike (though perhaps less mystical). We parked our car at the top of the pass and made it up to the cliffs after a hike up some muddy switchbacks. These cliffs, tall and foreboding, had large rock formations in front of them, like giant blades rising from the earth. In between the cliffs and the rocks were grassy green areas, with the ever-present white sheep grazing with studied nonchalance. To the east were the massifs of the Highlands’ many peninsulas, and to the south were the continuing cliffs, standing over large lakes ringed by grass. It was the view that we’d traveled to Skye for.

 

 

 

 

We hiked farther up, away from the cliff, and upon reaching the summit we had views to the west of the Hebrides and the small isles off the coast of Skye. By the time we got back to the carpark it was jammed with cars, and we bought a coffee and an Iron Bru (the odd orange Scottish soda that’s been helping fuel RM since 2016), looking out  over the cliffs, the sea, and the land.

 

 

 

 

We mounted back up and continued the drive towards Uig on the west coast of the Trotternish, and had our first experience with the single track road, a road only one car wide with turnouts to allow passing. With numerous blind crests and blind turns, it takes a lot of patience, friendliness, and tolerance for hair-raising moments. The views along the drive, as they were throughout, were beautiful. We came down off the hills into the town, a cute port town with a ferry service. After a stop by the local pottery place and the Skye Brewing Company (sadly, no in-store tasting), we drove over to the guidebook- and local-recommended Ferry Inn, a classic pub looking out over the road and the water. We sat in the garden and chatted with another guy who was passing through on holiday. The food, a Scottish Blue Murder cheese salad and some gourmet sandwiches, was just what we needed.

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We continued the drive out towards the west, stopping in another pottery shop with expensive but really nice pieces (£25 seemed too much for a coffee mug) before heading to one of Skye’s coral beaches. The car park was packed with locals and tourists alike looking for some sun on a hot day, and at the end of the mile-long walk we were rewarded with a long stretch of white beach, made up of the crushed bones of sea creatures. There were brown cows grazing by the beach to boot. We read and sunned, though the water was far too cold to swim (at least for us–the children near us seemed to have no problem with the frosty water).

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Eventually, we hopped back into the car and drove to Dunvegan, getting to Skye Weavers five minutes before the shop closed. We quickly learned that opening and closing times in the highlands don’t always hold true, as the gent who owns the place with his wife popped out of his house to show us the bicycle loom, which can produce five scarves every thirty minutes. The power was out, and it was the perfect opportunity for him to show off that he runs by human power alone. The loom itself, with its shuttle that picks up threads using pre-designated patterns, was cool to see. We chatted for a while with him, and bought a soft wool scarf. He gave us a strong recommendation to hike out to Wollestone point rather than going to see the more famous Neist Point lighthouse, and after a short drive capped by a bit of a terrifying blind crest and a car park besieged by cattle, we set off to hike up to the cliff overlooking the sea. This hike, through several rabbit warrens and by clusters of sheep, set Cash mad–it took him the better part of a day to recover from his excitement and exertion. The trek was a short 30 minutes, and from the top we had sweeping views out to the Isles and a view down onto Neist Point.

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We walked back to the car, and after another hour’s drive parked by the Ullinish Inn (very fancy! And they do not serve beer without dinner!), we began to walk to our second night’s campsite, Oronasay Island.

Oronasay, recommended by the guidebook as an excellent spot to wild camp, is a tidal island, it’s land bridge cut off when the sea gets towards high tide. We walked across a farmer’s land (hikers are allowed to walk pretty much anywhere), taking heed of the signs saying that our dog would be shot if we didn’t keep him on a short lead. We reached the tidal causeway, walking over large rocks, and were soon on the island. The island was filled with sheep–Cash ran off some of them with his presence alone, but one was not deterred, instead choosing to stare us down and stamp his foot. We quickly backed off.After some scouting of campsites, we decided on a spot close to a cliff face overlooking the sea, a bit sheltered by an even higher cliff above.

 

 

 

The views from the island were the most tremendous we’d see all trip (perhaps only rivaled by those of Suilven who we climbed later), with the land turning golden in the sun and the mountains and the islands turning a blue and purple hue in the setting sun. Behind us were the reddish cliffs of mainland Skye dropping into a deep blue sea, with the towering Black Cuillin hills in the distance. Seagulls and buzzards flew around us, and we had the island to ourselves, with the only sound that of the sheep, birds, and the waves. The sunset was soft and beautiful, and we fixed ramen on the stove with chocolate for dessert. The wind grew still, and we were soon besieged by midges, a signal that it was time to get in the tent and bed down. The night was windy, and we were kept up with fear that the tent would collapse–we had foolishly only brought the stakes and two guy lines that came with the tent, which offered protection only against more moderate wind. In the end we fell asleep, our fears unfounded.

 

 

 

After we awoke, we fixed a cup of instant coffee for AM (whose coffee habit has gotten worse and worse with time) before hiking back to our car.

 

 

 

We drove on to Carbost, where the Talisker distillery is located, and sat outside the Old Bay Inn, drinking coffee and looking out at Carbost’s pretty bay with its views back across the water to the mountains. The real reason we were at the Inn was to await the opening of the Oyster Shed up the hill, famed for its fresh seafood. After two cups of coffee on the loch, we got in the car and found the outpost, which sits perched above sweeping views of the bay and mountains. The seafood was some of the best we’d had. We had the sampler platter, with, prawns, herring, an oyster, mackerel, and a delectable crab leg, a set of huge grilled scallops–dressed with nothing but lemon, and a half lobster, all of which were just about perfect. It was eaten with hands on a big green picnic table–we found that most highland eating is delicious and done without pretension.

 

 

 

We drove down off the hill, and called the Bella Jane ferry company, which runs a service from the tiny hamlet of Elgol in the southeast of the island to Loch Coruisk, known as one of the wildest and most desolate lochs in Scotland, set amidst the Black Hills. The drive to Elgol was both winding and beautiful, with views across a bay to the Red and Black Hills (and tons of farm animals on the way). We pulled into town, with its single schoolhouse that hosts four pupils, and awaited our ferry ride out to the lake.

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Waiting for our ride

We boarded the small boat, with one of the bearded Scotsman who crews the boat hoisting Cash up by his pack (yes, Cash has a backpack, and he wasn’t super happy about the situation) and depositing him on the boat. The ferry ride was only a little bumpy, though dark clouds hung off in the distance, foreshadowing the weather to come. As we approached the mountains began to loom over us. The boat took us past a colony of seals, lazily flopping around on the rocks and sunning themselves as they digested their day’s meal, and we saw a few different kinds of bird as we approached.

 

 

 

We left the boat with a ‘good luck’ from the captain, and set off to find a good campsite overlooking the lake. We hiked at the base of Sgurr na Stri, one of the named peaks that guards the entrance to the lake, and soon found ourselves looking out over a large black lake set at the base of the mountains. AM spotted an area above the lake with great views that should be protected from the wind, but we set up our tent (to AM’s objections) on a small rise overlooking the lake. The ground wasn’t wet, but it was certainly not well shielded from the wind. We took a hike up to the smaller lake that sits above Loch Coruisk, and RM claimed a small peace with views to both lakes. With the wind picking up we headed back down the hill, only to find that our tent had collapsed in the wind (AM resisted the urge to say ‘I told you so’ since the rain was starting to pick up and we didn’t have much time to find a new, dry spot).

We moved the tent with a harsh wind blowing down to a lower spot, securing our two guidelines against the wind’s direction, and gambling that the lower ground wouldn’t flood as the rain came. With a stiff wind blowing, we were happily midge free, and we cooked on a rock with the gas stove, eating another meal of ramen, locally baked bread, and chorizo. Cash by now was looking particularly pitiful, as his paws hurt from all the walking, so AM snuck him a couple of bites of jerky (this would never be allowed at home). The lake was silvery black, severe, wild and desolate indeed, with waves rippling across its surface. We retreated to our tent, and with midges nowhere to be seen we opened our tent door up and sat there with Cash, drinking nips of scotch bought from a store, and watching the sun set as the storm rolled in.

 

 

 

We read a little (the sun only set at 10 or so), and soon hunker down for the night. While the storm was probably a mere breeze by Scottish standards, we were a wee bit worried as rain began to pelt down and wind lashed the tent. The tent didn’t collapse, but the water level rose as the ground soaked (it wasn’t dry in the first place, but no place was). After a few hours we were a bit damp inside, but luckily the tent never flooded. When we awoke the rain and wind had stopped, and we donned our midge nets (they were swarming!) to pack up our tent, and headed back to the stairs into the water.

 

 

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The morning boat soon arrived, this time a RIB with a 500 HP motor, and we rocketed back across the waves, getting back to Elgol by around 10 AM. Cash oddly didn’t seem to mind the ride–he curled up on our bags on the front of the boat and tried to sleep for the journey.

 

 

We drove out of Elgol, knowing that we needed to find coffee, and fast. In an open area beneath the mountains sat the Blue Shed Cafe, a blue structure with great views from the balcony. It was ten minutes past opening time and the gate was closed, but we chanced it, and found them just opening up. We had good coffee and delectable cakes (orange and almond, lime and ginger) out on the porch before driving on.

 

 

We headed up to Broadford and then out to the bridge connecting Skye to the mainland, when AM realised that we were about to pass the Kyerlea (sp?) otter haven. We’d seen seals, heron, buzzards, and more, but no otters. The road was winding, single track, slow, and beautiful, and eventually we went past the sign for the car park and parked right by the ferry terminal. It’s an alternate ferry to Glenelg, carrying 3-4 cars at a time as it battles the tides (allegedly the ferry is a bit famous, covered at times by the BBC). We parked next to a camper van and debated our next move as we looked out at the tide rushing in to the sound. There was a man standing by the wall next to the water with a cup of tea, and we soon struck up a conversation–his huge camera told us that we might have found something good. He’d once been a curtain installer, and has found his calling photographing wildlife while mostly living out of his van. We soon learned that he was awaiting the arrival of Victor, the area’s sea eagle, a huge bird who bullies seagulls into giving up their fish after they’ve caught it. Soon Victor swooped by, attracted by the crowd of seagulls and seals feeding on the fish as the tide came in (we held Cash close, as sea eagles pick up a lamb every now and then). The bird’s wingspan was enormous, and he dove before heading back up to his perch. We spent an hour with the man, watching the wildlife and the occasional dive from our feathered friend. We spotted for him, and he got some decent pictures, though Victor never came close enough for us to see detail. It was a majestic scene.

-RM

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Scottish Highlands: Northwest Coast & Speyside

We drove on, heading towards our next destination, the Applecross peninsula, geographically close to Skye but separated by a spine of mountains. We took a quick stop at the Eileen Dunnan Castle, situated on a small spit of land sticking out into the loch. It was a pretty scene, though it was quite crowded.

 

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Eileen Dunnan Castle

 

We decided not to go inside, and instead continued on the Wester Ross Coastal Road towards Applecross. Just before heading over the famously treacherous mountain road that leads to Applecross, we stopped in at the Kishorn Seafood Bar, yet another of the highlands’ prized seafood establishments. We ate some succulent scallops in butter and mussels cooked simply as we sat in the sun–another truly outstanding meal.

 

 

We soon arrived at the single track Bealach Na Ba, with its huge warning sign ‘not for learner drivers’ and its cautions about hairpin bends. Our Golf was keen, and up the pass we went, the single track road not disappointing for either beauty or difficulty. The pass climbs up a deep valley, soon reaching several hairpin switchbacks before arriving at the top. The views back were nice, and we stopped at the top for a quick break before descending to Applecross.

 

We found Applecross truly magical. After checking in at the Hartfield House, a hostel with sparse but very welcome accommodation (finally, a shower and a bed!), we got a map of Applecross’s trails and walked through the forest into town. We passed by the remains of the Applecross estate, with its proud country mansion and its large garden whose traces were still visible in the forest. We passed the community filling station, whose proceeds are used to fund preservation work, and looked out across its tidal bay, whose sand stretches for a couple hundred metres. The moss on the walls, the trees, the serene houses–it was an oasis in a wild land.

 

 


We reached the famed Applecross Inn, a vibrant pub that is the peninsula’s main gathering spot, with views across the sea to the Isles in the distance. The host chatted with us for a bit, and we had a drink outside while we waited for a table (Scotland loves dogs–and obviously Cash was allowed inside). We were soon seated at the same table as another couple, and we had a great dinner conversation (the host came by, very proud of his matchmaking abilities), discussing Trump, how tourism has changed Scotland for better and worse, stories from youth, midges, country life and the weather. They had just gotten done biking a tough cross-country route, and were staying in their van–when she recommended a mountain, her partner suggested that it might be ‘too technical’ for us. Our favourite story was about underage drinking in the guy’s village a long time ago–an early teen had come into the pub and asked for vodka, and, with tourists watching, the barkeep said loudly: ‘if you’re going to drink underage in my pub, you’d better drink beer.’ We stayed for a long while, talking with some others about our dog, and with the host, who goes out alone in his boat most mornings to catch fish to sell to the pub. Our food was delectable, a monkfish fish and chips (best we’d ever had), some chowder, and a duck salad. Overall, another great Scottish pub experience. We walked back to the Hartfield House as the sun was setting over the water.

When we awoke we walked to the Walled Garden, the walled garden of the Applecross estate which had once fallen into deep disrepair. When we got past the rock wall, we entered a lush, wild garden, beautiful plants in bloom each way we turned. There was a vegetable patch, hanging flowers–the work We sat to eat at the restaurant at the end, and learned from an older guy watering the flowers that years ago someone named John had taken it upon himself to rejuvenate the garden, and with help brought it to its present state. The wall is to provide the plants respite from the harsh Scottish climate. The food, a full Scottish with three meats, beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms, was a solid way to start our day, and we loved sitting in the sun.

 

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The walled garden

 

We walked back to our car, and drove all the way past town to the Applecross Photo Gallery, with the promise of free coffee. The gallery is set above the sea with a beautiful view out to the Isles, and the walls are lined with prints. One of the photographers (or perhaps the only photographer) regaled the group of people there with stories of a freezing morning sat atop Ben Eighe, where he camped mistakenly with his summer rather than winter sleeping bag. The sunrise he captured was stunning. We bout a card with a shot of the Applecross Inn, and then drove up to the town’s picturesque church, which was a longstanding site of a monastic order (though the leader was forced out many centuries ago). We continued north along the coastal road, a winding single track road with views of pretty crofts dotting the seaside. The drive was classic West Highlands, as harrowing as it was beautiful.

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We were en route to Lochinver, in the sparsely populated far northwest corner, and to get there we took several two lane ‘high-speed’ roads. We stopped over at the Torridon General Store, recommended from the guidebook, and had coffees and great cakes while we looked out on the water and listened to the locals natter away. At some point we stopped at the Callasaja Gorge, an incredibly deep and narrow gorge with a waterfall and a swaying suspension bridge over it.

Eventually we passed Ullapool, a town that’s the biggest in the northwest, and were soon in Assynt, a region that looks different from any other in Scotland (and, we’d get, any other in the world). It is pockmarked with small, blue lochans and huge lochs, and tiny rises and falls in the land throughout that eventually all ramble to the sea. Amidst all this are mountains that tower over it all, each a lone peak surrounded by the peaty land.

We wanted to do two hikes while up there. The first we did en route to Lochinver, a mountain called Stac Pollaidh, whose top looks like a series of tendrils reaching to the sky. The hike was about two hours total, an excellent path around the base of the mountain with an offshoot that climbed up to the saddle on the mountain’s middle. The climb was steep, but in terms of effort to reward it was the best climb we’d ever done.

 

 

From the top there was a commanding view of the whole landscape, a series of winding waters and lochs next to a rugged coastline. We could see several peaks all around us, but the one that most captured our attention was Suilven, our next day’s objective, rising sphinx like out of the peat. We spent some time on the summit ridge, with RM scrambling a bit but not making it to the summit. Cash, we had learned, is not a big scrambler, despite his outsized self confidence. We got back to the car a bit muddy (it hadn’t rained for a while, yet the ground retains water) and ready to get to town.

 

 

We soon reached Lochinver, a port town that’s still a centre for fishing in the region, and checked in to the Rose B & B, with views out over the water. We were greeted by the friendly Dutch proprietor, who said that he wanted to live somewhere he could see mountains and water from his house. Mission accomplished, as the crown of Suilven was visible from the big windows looking at the water.

 

 

Eventually we walked into town and quickly realised that it was 9:05–and all the restaurants closed at 9. With some midges closing in, we made a snap decision: to the pub! The Caberfiedh, as far as we could tell the town’s only pub, had a great atmosphere in the bar area. There were some tourists, especially French, who had come for the food, but it was mainly locals, rowdy and crowded around the bar. They loved Cash, and as most of the diners left they insisted that we allow him off leash to run around the pub. We had some local brews, a Suilven from An Teallach brewing, and soon got out the Scrabble board from a shelf by the bar. This caused quite a stir, as one of the denizens was known locally for being a great Scrabble player, and for memorising the Scrabble dictionary. The pub was warm and cosy, and some of the locals came by every now and then to help us out with a word or two. We chatted, played, and chatted some more as Cash roamed around the restaurant. After closing time we headed home and collapsed.

We got up and found our host in the kitchen, in chef’s uniform, cooking breakfast to order. After a hearty breakfast, we prepared for the big kahuna: a climb up Suilven. We were worried about how tired Cash was, and his paws seemed a bit tender. Turns out he was ready for a big hike.

We parked on the north side of the mountain in the Glencansip Lodge parking lot, and walked by the lodge’s honesty shop (‘open 24 hours’), skirting a large loch as we went. Soon we were headed up and down the rises and falls of the land as we wound our way alone a creek that went from lochan to lochan. The trail was more of a single track dirt road, passable for serious off-road vehicles, and the landscape was peaty, classic highlands.We barely climbed in elevation for the first four or five miles as we hiked to the base of the mountain, and along the way we passed the wall for the Suileag bothy (a bothy is a free house for hikers to stay in, an old croft house normally), and a work party brought in by the John Muir Trust that preserves much of the land. Soon we reached the base of the mountain and had the first of our three sandwiches from the packed lunches our host made for us for the hike (worth every bit of the £6 we paid for them).

 

 

 

Cash, seeming pretty tired from the walk, laid down in the grass as we ate. Soon we began the ascent up the steep, switchbacked trail, luckily well maintained. It was a reasonably short hike, but vertical pretty much the whole time. As we went up, the views got better and better, till, out of breath, we finally reached the summit ridge, the saddle of which is a large expanse seemingly sheltered from the wind. We began our final ascent to the summit, and the wind began to howl. As we got to the summit it was nearly strong enough to knock us over–pup was not happy about it. The summit itself was a large, nearly flat grassy expanse, quite the contrast from the knife’s edge ridge we took to get to the top. It was topped by a huge rock cairn, visible for pretty much the whole hike in. The views–of Stac Pollaidh, Ben Mor, the sea, the lakes, the land–were sweeping and stunning.

 

 

We took a break back in the sheltered saddle, consuming the rest of our lunch (more sandwiches, an apple, crisps, orange juice, and a McVities Penguin Bar) and pondering the otherworldly landscape. The descent from the mountain was slow, and came to a grinding halt when AM thought that Cash–our poor, tired dog–would be fine off leash, over RM’s protests. He was let off leash, and then he was gone, around the side of the mountain. The next thing we saw was a black blur bombing downhill, about a quarter mile away. After 20 minutes of flat out off trail sprinting and bird chasing, Cash was indeed tired, and came bounding back into RM’s arms. The remainder of the hike was uneventful, a long slog 4 miles back to the car, with a quick stop at the honesty shop for a refreshing drink (we still owe them 29p–we’ll send a check when we get back from Russia).

 

 

We drove home, tired but happy, cleaned up, and went to the famous Lochinver Larder, known for its pies (who knows how famous famous is in Assynt). We got venison and cranberry, walnut and something else, a jacket potato, and pork apple cider, and sat down by the water to eat. We looked out across the town at the big warehouse, the old stone buildings, and out into the harbour, at the mouth of Loch Inver. After we’d finished we headed to the Caberfiedh for a round of Suilven beer, and chatted with a couple locals at the bar. The first moved to Assynt to start a new life, and now raises sheep, pigs and cattle in nearby Clachtoll. We talked about the challenges of farming for quite a while, and talked with his buddy, a Scotsman who we could barely understand (partially because of his Scottish accent, but mostly because he was drunk). Soon after we met the chieftain of the local Highland Games (the Highland Games are a big deal in the Highlands, and seem to involve a lot of drinking and throwing of big rocks). He’d returned from an arctic expedition for the Games, and normally arrives to the pub by boat. He was perhaps the world’s most interesting man, and he told us quite a bit about the geology and history of the area. Both of them, on seeing our tour books, gave us routes to take the next day, all involving the coastal road from Lochinver to Kylesku.

Our time in Lochinver ran short, and after another great breakfast we hopped in the car and took the pretty coastal road. We soon got to the Rock Stop Cafe, a cafe with a rock museum attached. The whole area is a geopark, and is a very important area for geologists, containing some of the oldest rock in the world. There were samples of Lewinsian Gniess, the bedrock of the area, of limestone and sandstone and tens of other stones found in the area. AM loved it, rock lover that she is. From there we continued on to the Kylesku bridge, a pretty concrete structure that ended the need for a ferry across the loch in 1984. The plaque, which said ‘opened by her majesty the queen,’ had the queen bit scratched out. We turned around, and drove through Inchnadamph on Loch Assynt, with the ruins of the Ardvreck Castle sitting perched above the lake, and blasted down past Inverness.

 

 

We were on the way to Speyside–whiskey country. We wished we had more time in the Highlands, but thought that no trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to at least a couple of the the dozens of distilleries that dot the country. We passed a loch that opened to the sea by Inverness where they decommission oil rigs, with perhaps five or ten of the steel structures in various states of construction, and as a mist settled in we pulled in to the Cardhu distillery, where we’d booked a tour.

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It was the first of Johnnie Walker’s distilleries, and also the only one founded by a woman. Now it’s owned (like many others) by the Diageo Group, a huge international conglomerate. The tour took us through how Scotch is made, from the malted barley to the huge vats used to ferment it to the beautiful, huge copper pot stills used to distill the spirits into whiskey. At the end of the process is something called the spirit safe, where the good liquor is diverted into tanks before being barrelled. Perhaps the most interesting part was how automated everything was, with a control room and a computer that allows the whole process to be controlled. Below the walkway, we were on sat a whole host of metrics used to improve the plant’s output. It was all quite impressive but left us with the feeling that a once local business had lost a bit of its soul to the global economy. We, of course, had a tasting at the end, and we really enjoyed the smoothness of the Cardhu whiskeys.

Soon we were at our Airbnb, a big bedroom in a house in Archiestown. Our host recommended the Mash Tun pub in nearby Aberlour as a good place for dinner, and we took a walk by the River Spey with Cash, taking in a pretty suspension footbridge before settling in at the bar. It was a cosy place (and Cash was a big hit), and while we snacked on haggis nachos and a burger we contemplated the massive whiskey list, a compendium of the hundreds of whiskies they carry (at least it seemed like hundreds), complete with staff tasting notes for each one. While some of the shots can go into the hundreds of pounds, we opted for the £4 Tomintoul 10 and the Glendronach 12, each a delightful taste of Scotland. After taking Cash for a walk by the Aberlour distillery, including a whiskey barrel photo shoot and a sighting of an enormous monkey puzzle tree, we called it a night and headed back to our B and B.

 

 

It was time to commence our long trip down south. After a delicious breakfast, we chatted with the host for a long while before packing our bags. We’d called a second distillery, Glenfarclas, and there was space on their 10:30 tour. We figured that we wanted to see another one, so we pulled in to their large complex, situated in a glen, a warren of stone warehouses, a visitor centre, and more industrial buildings. In stark contrast to Cardhu, it’s a family run operation, owned by a succession of George and John Grants. Whiskey production in Scotland was done typically as an afterthought, and Glenfarclas was one of the few distilleries that decided to get a license in the beginning. Each warehouse is padlocked, and occasionally inspected by the taxman to ensure that no stock getting taken without tax.

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The set up was a bit more old school than Cardhu’s, with a lot of the machinery decades old (the control panel was straight out of the 80s). Our guide was truly outstanding, and she showed us bits of the process–like how they clean the malted barley–that we couldn’t see in Cardhu. One cool fact that we learned is that peat fuelled the fires for malting barley only in regions that couldn’t get coal to burn, us imparting a smoky character–not because it was desirable to have the smokiness initially. She let us roam free and take pictures in the room with the pot stills, and we were able to get right next to the massive copper vessels.

 

 

The tasting was in a room with chandeliers and wood panelling taken from one of the Royal Navy’s decommissioned ships (lost by a torpedo), and we loved the Scotch. We ended up buying a couple bottles on the way out, and walked Cash around the grounds before leaving. Just as we were headed back to the car, we stumbled across the owner in a suit, who quickly told us the story of the warehouse door sitting next to us. Turns out it’s the smallest bonded warehouse in the UK (and I’d bet the world), holding only three barrels–they asked HMRC if they could get it bonded, and HMRC agreed. It was a great way to cap off our visit.

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From there, we hopped on the single track roads and drove towards the highway. As we left we were struck by how much Speyside’s rolling hills, forests, and farm animals looked like Kentucky bourbon country, as though there’s a perfect mix of geographical conditions perfect for making whiskey.

 

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Cash in York

Single track roads soon became double track roads, and eventually motorways, and after 7 hours and most of the S-town podcast we finally arrived in York, where we’d stay before continuing on to London. We rested at a sparse but functional place called the Watergate Inn, conveniently located in the heart of town. We wanted to explore this pretty, history-filled British city before we left the UK, and now was our chance. We took a walk down the Shambles, a famed narrow street with wood buildings overhanging the pedestrians below, before continuing on to the Minster (sp?), a stunning, huge church complete with flying buttresses and stained glass. Throughout, many buildings had old facades of wood beam and stucco (or something like it). We walked by the canal, took a gander and York’s tiny castle on a small hill, and had a quick dinner by the water before calling it a night.

 

The next morning, we got an early start for the drive back to London, and after dropping our dog off and changing our things out at our storage unit we drove to Gatwick, turned in our rental car, and hopped a plane to Saint Petersburg.

-RM

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Lake Como, Italy

AM had been making noises about a trip to the Italian lakes for a while, and with our anniversary fast approaching we booked. We searched long and hard for a good place to stay at a reasonable price and opted for a B&B called Cherry en Rose in the town of Lezzeno. Lake Como is massive and shaped like an upside-down Y–Lezzeno is I the triangle of land on the Lake‘s south side, close to the much more famous Bellagio. Though we fretted quite a bit about where to stay, once we arrived we quickly learned that there is no wrong answer on Lake Como. And though we were worried about too many tourists, at least in early July we found it crowded enough to feel lively, but that there was a good deal of peace and quiet to be found if you looked for it.
We flew out of Stansted on Friday evening (Stansted–still worse than Gatwick), landed in Milan Malpensa, and drove our little rental Fiat Panda down the autostrade and into the winding, tight road through the small towns on the coast of the lake, often wide enough for a single car. We awoke to a stunning view from our balcony overlooking the lake. Lake Como, long and about a mile wide in most places, is a blue-green hue with pretty little Italian towns clustered along its shores. It’s been a vacation spot for centuries for good reason. Everywhere, a backdrop of verdant green mountains surrounds the lake, except for the rocky, towering Alps in the distance. Our B&B had a small pool set in a pretty Italian garden with views out to Lenno and the unique Villa del Balbianello across the lake. One Italian breakfast later (meat, cheese, cake, endless espresso, butter, bread, jam–tres European), we were off of Lezzeno’s ferry terminal to explore the lake. There are a series of ferries to get around, with the big towns of Bellagio, Varenna, and Mennagio having the most frequent service (the three form a triangle in the middle of the lake). The ferry that we took was a smaller, infrequent one that gets the smaller village along the way. Every once in a while we saw the superfast hydrofoil from Como pass by.
Our first stop was Bellagio, perhaps the most famous town on the lake. It’s got a lovely waterfront and a series of steep streets climbing the hillside, and dozens of shops and restaurants. We walked to La Punta, ‘the point,’ which sits on the tip of the little Bellagio peninsula, with views of Varenna, Mennagio, and the mountains to the north. We drank cappuccinos and hot chocolate (I’m still not sure if cappuccinos after 10 AM are legal in Italy), watching the boats flit around the lake and the Alps in the distance. Like most of our time there, the sun was warm and a delightfully cool breeze blew. We pondered the lake, the deepest in Europe at 410 meters, the big grand hotels of the different towns, and the lone villas of the rich and famous dotting the lakeside.
We left Bellagio for Varenna, a quieter and (say us) prettier town just across the lake. As you approach Varenna’s bright coloured houses, a mix of red, yellow, and pink, sit perched on the water’s edge. Like Bellagio, the town is a warren of alleys with steep steps leading down to the waterfront. With all of the towns, it’s impossible to know the scale when you’re in them, as the alley walls close in–they could be 500,000 or just 100. We headed over to Varenna’s two villas with gardens, Cipressi and Monastero, which sit right next to each other. The gardens of Cipressi. We’re peaceful and cool, set on a steep hillside right by the lake, and made of a series of terraces. We found them a bit run down and also more in the English style, and soon moved on to neighbouring Monastero. This was the Italian garden we’d been looking for–stretching a good 10-minute walk along the lakeshore, the garden was an oasis. Square flower beds, pavilions set against the lake, statues, and manicured trees and hedges, this was a true Italian garden, set beneath a large villa. The weather was pretty much Mediterranean, and we strolled along the shore, with the mountains as a backdrop. We stopped for a cheeky glass of prosecco on the terrace in the shade to celebrate our anniversary and walked back to the town centre. After a light lunch of pizza and Caprese salad on the water edge in the town’s lively harbour, we hopped a ferry back to Bellagio just as a light rain began to fall, leaving a cloud of mist over the lake.
We strolled Bellagio’s gallery of fancy shops for a bit as the rain poured down, and then wandered the town’s streets, stopping into little galleries of local painters selling watercolours and oils of lake scenes. Our ferry back to Lezzeno soon arrived, and soon we were home.
The big event of the evening was dinner at a local agrotourismo, Madonna de Cieppi, named after the hilltop church at the agrotourismo’s gates. With dusk just about to fall, we climbed the hill above our Airbnb. While the place looked close on Google Maps, we found it quite difficult to find–it was an extra 800m past where we thought it would be, up a steep hill, and down a quarter mile path through the woods (cars highly discouraged). The place is in a clearing set on the hillside, with a beautiful panorama view of the lake, a perfect spot to watch the sunset. We chose the set menu, a classic three course Italian meal with coffee to finish. As darkness fell we dined on a meat and cheese platter, a delightful pasta first course with veggies and goat meat, a second course of sausage and veal, and a tiramisu dessert, all with a bottle of red to wash it down. A much needed long walk through the forest later, and we were home.
As we left the restaurant, we picked up a pamphlet for a boat rental place called Airon Marine in Lezzeno, no license needed. While we were certainly not qualified boat drivers, we thought a motorboat would be the perfect Lake Como experience. At €130 it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it was way better than chartering a boat for the day–plus we got to drive. After a quick crash course on motorboat driving (watch out for logs, don’t gun the throttle too fast, no sharp turns, and park slowly) we were on our way, jetting along the lake. We took a left turn and headed down the southwest leg, dodging flotsam from the recent rains along the way. We flew down the coast, doing a close in drive by of Nesso, its pretty bridge and homes stacked one above the next standing by the lake shore. Little villas and small towns studded the shore, and the water was an emerald green.
From Nesso we made a beeline for Bellagio, dodging ferries and taking in the pretty town from the water before stopping in a relatively clear bit of lake for a swim. The water was chilly–just cold enough to shock the system–but refreshing for such a hot day. We cruised by Varenna and sat right in the middle of the lake for a bit, taking in the towering mountains in the distance and watching the different watercraft buzzing around the lake. The boat rental guy told us to come back at 2:20 or 2:30 to account for his long lunch break, and so we took a very close in, slow cruise by the Villa del Balbianello, and massive yellow painted villa at the tip of a peninsula right by the lake. It’s flowering gardens and well-coiffed topiary were iconic Lake Como.
One harrowing parking maneuver later and we were walking back towards Lezzeno town centre, a bit sun baked and ready for lunch.
We stopped at the Aurora hotel, with a restaurant open to the lake with very nice views and a sunbathing area. We had a quick snack of pizza and panini before heading back to the  B and B, where we spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing and reading by the pool. The weather, the garden and the lake made it a perfect place to bask in the sun. Our final stop of the trip was Ittourismo da Abate, a restaurant that specialises in Como lake fish, and whose owner fishes for the restaurant himself daily. Our meal was quite good, with lake fish six ways as an appetizer, a bit of lake fish pasta, and some very well steamed lake fish with cherry tomatoes, capers, and lemon. It was all tasty, though in the end it was still lake fish.
The next morning saw us getting up at 4 AM for a slightly scary, winding drive to Milan Malpensa, where getting through security and a twenty-minute walk to our gate had us nearly miss our flight.
-RM

Tokyo

We hopped on another Sakura Shinkansen for the trip to Shin-Osaka, and then got on the Hikari 534 to Tokyo for the final three-hour leg of our journey. Dinner was an uninspiring bento box (with bento, cheaper is often not better) after we made a failed attempt to wait in line for hot food. We hopped of the train at Tokyo central and took the JR Chuo line over to Shinjuku. Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world, has tens of exits, and after some false starts, we finally made it to our 5th-floor shoebox sized Airbnb.
After an obligatory convenience store coffee (Sunkus, not as great as 7-11), we headed over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, whose 45th floor free observatory has sweeping views over the vacuity from each of its two towers. The city seems to sprawl forever, with countless skyscrapers, and Mt. Fuji stands tall on the horizon. There’s some really interesting architecture, like the Tokyo City Hall, which has a superstructure of geometric, white beams that stand starkly against the black glass interior.
We roamed south, passing through the Meiji Shrine complex, where Emperor Meiji is entombed. He was the driving force behind the modernization of Japan and the consolidation of the emperor’s power, and his decision to cut off his topknot and don a suit instead of traditional garments signaled a major shift towards Westernisation. The grounds were pretty, with a forest filled with beautiful trees (seriously, are there any ugly trees in Japan?) and a shrine complex, where we saw a wedding procession pass by.
With the Yakult Swallows baseball game fast approaching (the Swallows are Tokyo‘s other baseball team, the Mets to Tokyo‘s Yankees, the Giants), we hustled over to the famous Shibuya pedestrian crossing, where what looks like hundreds of people cross at each green signal. We took a cheeky stop up on the 25th floor of the Shibuya Excel hotel to look down on the crossing, evading the hotel’s minders, who aren’t too keen on tourists. The view wasn’t great, so we hopped over to the Starbucks and perched just above the crossing to watch the madness. Definitely the biggest crossing we’ve ever seen, though our expectations were probably too high–we thought it’d look busier, but rush hour’s probably the time to go.
From Shibuya we walked on over to the Swallows Meiji Jingu Stadium, on the site of a former temple (one might argue it still is a temple…to baseball). On the way we grabbed a couple beers, which we had to pour into paper cups before going into the stadium. For obvious reasons, two beers per person is the max. The stadium was a riot of fans clad in Swallows gear. It was a sold out game (is any baseball game in Japan not sold out), and we were playing the feared Hanshin Tigers, whose fan base, along with the Hiroshima Carps, is known as the most rabid in Japan. Japanese fans take baseball very seriously. There are volunteers who lead the chants, and every player has his own song, memorised by all. The simplest was “home run home run Balentein,” for an American player, but even that had a melody and more Japanese words tacked on at the end. If you run out of personal beer, there are a mob of servers, mostly women, serving draft beer out of kegs strapped to their backs. If $7 beers are too expensive, you can also get cans for $4.50. The fans are also very polite. There’s no heckling, and only chanting when your team is on offence. Food is typical baseball fare–hot dog over yakisoba, Korean bimbimbap rice with meat and egg, and yakitori. The sun was hot, the crowd was loud, and the beer was cold–a lovely way to spend an afternoon. The Swallows kept things steady for the first few innings, but then the pitcher had a meltdown, allowing a run in the fourth and a run in the fifth before giving up 5 in the 6th. He got yanked, and a solo RBI wasn’t close to enough to recover. The best part was the seventh inning stretch, when the crowd all pulled out umbrellas, and thruster them up and down in the air, matching their chanting. There was also a jumbotron Rock Paper Scissors match between a Hanshin fan and a Swallows fan–like the baseball game, we lost.
After the crushing defeat, we headed back home so AM could work on some grad school bits, and then we made our way to Ebisu, a pretty chill neighbourhood where twenty somethings go to have a few hipster beers and a ramen bowl. We spent a bit of time walking around, taking a gander at Ebisu Yokocho, a building with thirty or so tiny bars and food places, before realising that we needed help making up our mind. We turned on Ramen Beast, an app that our host recommended to find Ramen places (oddly our Japanese friend hadn’t heard of it–it might be our host’s side business), and settled on Suzuran, a Chinese style ramen place that the app said was the best in Ebisu. We entered the dark doorway, and waited about 15 minutes for seats at one of the ten or so places at the bar. You sit looking directly into the kitchen, with three people working away, oddly quiet and calm. The lights are dim and the setting intimate. We ordered from the pictures in the menu, and quickly realised that we had chosen a two course plus beer menu. Whoops–our Japanese skills need some work. After the raw tuna salad, the tuna melting away like butter, we were each served a big bowl of ramen, the oil floating to the surface. It was divine, not too spicy and not too salty, but with a hefty, meaty broth and perfectly cooked noodles. The meat was super flavourful. For taste, it might have been the best meal of the trip, which made us feel better about the way-too-pricey-for-ramen price tag of $70 all up. From there we met up with RM’s friend from college at a nondescript bar, chatting over our trip and catching up, before heading of to Shinjuku’s all night neon light district for a stroll. The neon lights were blinding and the scene chaotic, and we made our way back home to call it a day.
The next morning we headed straight for Asakusa, an iconic Tokyo neighbourhood we were told we had to go to. We stopped at kitchen town, a series of stores selling everything you could ever need in a kitchen. There were specialty knife shops, coffee grinder shops, and more. We walked on over to the main market area, jam packed with tourists browsing stalls selling everything from kimonos to trinkets, and past the red gate with a famous four foot tall lantern hanging from it. The area was fun, but after Kyoto we felt we didn’t need to spend much time there. We used our 1 day Toie lines pass, which covers some subway routes (Japanese and particularly Tokyo transit is divided between several private operators), to hop over to the Imperial Palace grounds, where we spent a while wandering the gardens and the historic palace battlements. The garden in inner moat, which also houses the current Imperial Palace, was particularly pretty, with a picturesque pond with bridges, a small bamboo garden, and wisteria hanging from a trellis. It was an oasis from the city, and a great place for a walk. After an abortive attempt to get drinks at the Prince Park Tower Hotel, whose $19 cover charge and $12 beers caused us to rethink our plans, we realised we were pretty hungry, and headed over to Tsukiji Market, Tokyo‘s famous fish market. We had a brief moment of panic when we realised that the fish market was closed (AM was worried she’d never eat again), but quickly found a small seafood restaurant district packed with places to eat, about half of whom were open. They all served bowls of raw seafood over rice, and many of them had sushi too. We settled on the most trustworthy way to choose in Japan–when in doubt, get in a line. Sushizanmai was well worth the wait. For ¥1500 we got a fresh raw seafood bowl over rice, prepared by a sushi chef right in front of us, and we tacked on another three sets of sushi to go with it at ¥300 each. The fish was flavourful and tender, and the sushi rice perfect. The rolls, especially the fatty tuna with green onions and something else, were delectable. The restaurant itself is an experience, with the whole staff shouting out a greeting as you arrive, and large tanks of fish set against the wall. Every once in a while, a fish would get taken out and filleted on the spot by one of the chefs at a central cutting board. Feeling much better after having eaten, we took a brief stop at the Tokyo Tower to see the carp banners that had been strung up for children’s day (300 of them, less cool then they look in the pictures), before heading back to the Shinjuku area.
Being our last night, we planned on a bit of a night out. Our AirBnb was close to the New York Grill on the 52nd floor of the Hyatt Regency, known for being the location where Lost in Translation was shot. We needed to change because of the dress code, and the ¥2000 cover charge past 8 PM meant we needed to hurry. We got there at just about 7:40, and had a beer in the dimly lit bar, with the unending city lights stretching out below us. AM naturally opted for a Suntory beer, making it a Suntory time. In the distance we could see the sky tree, and the streets teemed with activity. We left promptly at 8, and soon headed into some of the more famous spots in Shinjuku. Dinner was at a packed yakitori place in Omoide Yokocho, a series of small izakayas around a narrow alley. The food was uninspiring, as was the odd Hoppy non-alcoholic beer and shochu mix we had to drink. We mosied on over to the Golden Gai, another set of alleys surrounded by tiny bars, more than 100 of them. While some aren’t for tourists and only serve regulars, many were friendly to our kind. Most have a cover charge. We posted up at a mellow bar with a few college age tourists and a friendly bartender, and drank sake and plum liquor. The bartender was a shoe designer, who’s seen her shoes out and about, mainly on Chinese tourists. From Golden Gai we went back into the neon lights of Shinjuku, looking for a kareoke place to complete our Japan experience. We opted for 30 minutes at Kareoke-kan, and had a private room where–after taking a while to figure out how the system worked, given that we had to start in Japanese–we rocked out to American Pie and Elton John.

One last 7-11 snack later, and we were ready to call it a trip before boarding our 12 hour flight from Tokyo to home.

-RM

Hiroshima

Arriving in Hiroshima, we headed for the Crowne Plaza, passing through the glaring neon of the entertainment district before stopping at a convenience store (Japanese convenience stores! Gotta love them) for a couple of steamed buns, some beer, and ice cream. The Crowne Plaza offered a couple free beers at the mini bar, and we were soon whisked up to the 19th floor. It turned out that the hotel was guidebook recommended, and our room on the west side had an eerie view of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, at the epicentre of the atomic bomb’s blast. Sitting down for dinner while looking out over the glittering city lights, knowing that we were inside the blast radius, was surreal. It felt like our understanding of the history was a hair better just by being there. We’d seen numerous food stands set up in the median of the road right by the hotel–it turned out that Hiroshima’s Spring Flower Festival was underway the next day.
We’d mainly come to Hiroshima because it was a site of such significance to the world, and our first move the next morning was to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, located in the park. The museum has a tough job to do, and it does the job very well. The first thing you see on entering is a large photographic reproduction of Hiroshima before the bomb, with bustling city streets and Japanese black tile and wood architecture. The next is a semi-holographic depiction of the blast, showing the destruction in its wake. There’s a long exhibit on the history of the bomb drop–dropped on Hiroshima without warning, Hiroshima being the unlucky city that had clear weather on the day. Some of the communications about it from within the US government are chilling. The force of the explosion levelled nearly everything in a 3 km radius, causing the city to be immediately set aflame. It was so hot that tiles and glass melted ear the epicentre, and the injuries were horrific. The museum followed through the story of three children killed in the blast. The museum didn’t just focus on Hiroshima, it also addressed the norms race and its consequences in decades that followed the first nuclear bombing. It was an education in itself–more powerful than anything in a textbook or newspaper article. Suffice to say we’ll be reflecting on what we read for years to come.
We went outside to the Memorial Peace Garden, with its flame that’s only to be extinguished when nuclear weapons are eradicated from the world. There’s a memorial with small paper cranes sent from schools around the word–the crane fast became a symbol of Hiroshima when a girl with leukaemia from the blast started folding them, hoping that they would bring her healing. When she died, others kept folding them in her name. We passed the A-Bomb dome, the closest building to the epicentre still standing, a stark reminder of the destructive potential of the bomb, its metal parts twisted around and its facade mostly destroyed. It was tough to reconcile all this with the Hiroshima of today, a thriving, modern metropolis whose baseball team, the fearsome Hiroshima Carps, has a rabid following. The city is an amazing example of resilience–it’s people welcoming and hungry to share its story and lessons learned with visitors from all over the world.
After a second round of 7-11 coffee we headed towards the fair, watching the mayor go up in a lift to light a large, Olympics-style flame at the top of a massive cone of flowers. As we walked we spotted drums laying on the ground, with kids in cutoff sleeve black t-shirts milling around. After 15 minutes of waiting, we quickly realised that we were about to see a high school (we think) Japanese drum performance. In perfect synchronisation, with angry shouting to go with it, they beat out a thunderous rhythm. Soon the big drum in the back chimed in, with one of them beating it with all his might. There were some drum solos, and one of the girls stole the show. Truly impressive.
From there, we headed to the main fair, where a seemingly endless parade of floats went by the main street, the sides of which were lined with food stands (not American carnival food!). We watched as bands of people in neon tshirts, traditional dress, and Carp jerseys all walked by, each so pained by a float. One was playing all of the US military service songs, which seemed odd given our location in the blast radius. As usual, the food was eclectic and great. RM’s favourite was the whole grilled squid on a stick with teriyaki sauce, and we also had fired chicken and a rolled batter pancake on a stick.
From there, we walked over to an okonomiyaki place called Okonomi-mura, with 28 small okonomiyaki bars crammed into three floors. According to our guide book, okonimyski is e food you must try in Hiroshima–when have we ever turned down a food challenge? The first place had a line out the door, so we walked up a floor and were quickly snatched by one of the cooks, who directed us to the two seats remaining at the bar. We sat in front of the large griddle, and watched as one of the of cooks put down the batter, piled on cabbage, sprouts, green onions, and spice, put down a patty of noodles to fry, basted it with sauce, put down an egg, and then put the whole sandwich together, for us to eat straight off the griddle. Unmissable experience.
We grabbed our bags and hopped the tram to the train station, taking the 40 minute Sakura Shinkansen journey to Okayama for a quick layover to see Korakuen, one of the three greatest gardens in Japan (Japanese people love lists!). We hopped a bus and were soon at the garden, a fairly compact piece of land with a lake in the middle dotted with islands. Built in 1700 by the daimyo of the region, it’s been lovingly reconstructed after the damage of WWII. It was pretty cool to stroll in the places that he had also walked, soaking in the world as a Japanese feudal lord would have seen it. There are glades of trees, small waterfalls, and little bridges to cross. It was picturesque indeed, though it left us feeling a bit like we’d missed something.
We hopped on another Sakura Shinkansen for the trip to Shin-Osaka, and then got on the Hikari 534 to Tokyo for the final three hour leg of our journey. Dinner was an uninspiring bento box (with bento, cheaper is often not better) after we made a failed attempt to wait in line for hot food. We hopped of the train at Tokyo central and took the JR Chuo line over to Shinjuku.  Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world, has tens of exits, and after some false starts we finally made it to our 5th floor shoebox sized Airbnb.
-RM

Kyoto

An early start from Nikko had us on the Nikko JR Line back to Utsunomiya for a quick trip on the Yamabiko 128 Shinkansen to Tokyo, and then from Tokyo for a nearly three khour journey on the Hikari 469 to Kyoto. We passed a glorious view of Mt. Fuji along the way, with its snowcapped volcanic rim towering above us. We had never thought the mountain was so huge, but now, after seeing it, we understood why it’s taken such mythical significance.
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We hopped off at Kyoto central station, which itself is an architectural treat. A monster of a 11 story building, it is packed top to bottom with shops. Taking an elevator to the 10th floor brought us to the skyway, which sits over 100 feet above the cavernous station hall. We had sweeping, though partially obscured, views over the city. Exiting the skyway, we were at the top of a massive staircase that goes from an exterior top deck all the way to the base of the building. It feels as though you’re on a hilltop, not the top of a man made structure. The plaque at the top said building was meant to represent Kyoto itself, with  a hillside bustling with activity, ramen shops and stores and public spaces and all.
With our Airbnb check in hours away, we hopped the JR Nara line to Fushimi Inari Taisha, a vast temple complex devoted to business. Every year, companies pay to have their name inscribed on one of the temple’s toriis, orange arches that line the miles of walking path. At points the toriis are so dense that they block out the sun, creating a mystical passage of arches. There are thousands of them, along with countless statues of foxes, the symbol of luck in business. The whole park was unique amongst all the places we’d seen so far.
From the temple we took a train back into Kyoto. At first glance, Kyoto isn’t much to talk about–rows and rows of nondescript 4 or 5 or 6 story buildings, some residential and some with restaurants and shops. For centuries it was the seat of the Japanese emperor, but modernisation took its hold in the 20th century, with many of its old houses torn down. Suddenly, you’ll pass an archway that leads into a temple complex with a beautiful garden, or a narrow alleyway lined with the red lanterns of izakayas, some with only 5 or 6 seats filled with laughing patrons–and you quickly realise how much of Kyoto there is just beneath the surface. People wearing traditional kimonos are everywhere, mostly tourists who have rented them for a day and some modern day geishas mixed amongst them.
Our ride on the 207 bus brought us to our Airbnb in the Gion district, one of the few parts of Kytoto mostly untouched by the modernisation. Once the geisha district, it is packed with small craft shops, izakayas, and tea houses. It’s a great place to walk and drink in Kyoto as it would have been hundreds of years ago. After a long day of travel, we dropped our bags and headed out to see the city–and get some much needed food and drink. We walked across the bridge into central Kyoto, turning into Pontocho, a packed, narrow alleyway with endless bars and restaurants. After a couple abortive efforts to get a drink out on the deck overlooking the river, but to no avail–none of the restaurants were doing outdoor seating quite yet. We read that Jam+Sake, a hostel with a bar, had a great deal on sake tasting, so we scooted over there. Naturally we had the Kyoto tasting, and the bartender pulled out three enormous bottles of sake, pouring one glass from each. They were each delicious, one sweet, one dry, and one strong–we had no idea that sake could be so varied in flavour (and RM has big dreams of being a sake conisseur, which will likely be met with the reality of London liquor stores very soon). From there, we headed on to Hitomi, recommended by NYT 36 Hours. It’s a small yakitori joint, known for smoking chicken over coals and for using every part of the bird, beak to skin. It was once a spot for locals, though it felt like the NYT had cracked that open just a hair. Suffice to say that these guys know how to cook a bird. We were seated on tatami mats upstairs in front of large, wood slab tables, and given the instructions to call down by phone when we wanted to order. The majority of the dishes were ¥150-¥300 ($1.5-3), and we started ordering left and right. Our favourites were the chicken with perilla (like mint), the fried chicken, the chicken thigh with salt, and the chicken meatballs (sense a theme here?).
The next day, we wanted to wander the city–and get some souvenirs that we’d been planning on. Specifically, we’d heard that there were some really great knives to be had in Kyoto, and we were on the hunt. We wandered into the main market district, a massive series of covered galleries packed with people. You can buy pretty much anything here–artsy stickers, kimonos, pottery, apparel, matcha ice cream, octopus, and more. We wandered shop to shop and bought little snacks as we went, taking it all in. We continued on past the shop, eventually spotting a small shop selling woodblock prints, where we’d later buy one to take home. Woodblock prints are made as a series of stamps, each one applying a different colour to the parchment, meaning that an original artists work can be replicated in full colour. We opted for a small one of the sun setting of Gion, made by the artist who the shopkeeper said first developed the unique Kyoto woodblock style.
Our first major stop was Aritsugu, the venerable Kyoto knife maker who was once supplier to the imperial household, in its 18th generation of ownership. Massive cleavers, sashimi knives, eel knives and more ringed the walls, with a display case of more ordinary knives in the middle. In the back stands someone sharpening knives that have been purchased, and another using a nail to engrave in Japanese characters. We walked to a couple other knife shops up the road, one of them a two person operation with beautiful, but pricey wares. On the way someone asked us if we were lost–so friendly (in another classic instance, AM spilled ice cream on herself–someone stared, but then promptly offered tissues to help clean it up). In the end we opted for Aritsugu, where we got our names engraved on a dual stainless and carbon steel santoku blade.
After a bit more wandering we found ourselves near the 16th century Nijo castle, with its large grounds and imposing wall. The emperor at times resided there, but it was mainly the Shogun’s opulent residence, and the place where Shogun Tokugawa gathered his lords to tell them he was submitting to imperial rule, ending the Shogunate. We entered past a moat and one of the corner keeps, a three storey white pagoda looking thing, and started towards towards the first gate, bedecked with intricate carvings and brass plating. Through it lay the palace, laid out as a series pf several rooms, each with paintings of natural scenes on the walls, which are covered in gold leaf. It was here that the Shogun would receive visitors, would walk over the squeaking nightingale floors of broad planks (so named because their construction caused them to squeak, alerting guards to potential ninja assassins) to pay homage. The higher the lord’s social status, the farther they were allowed in to the palace. The palace is near perfectly preserved, wood and paper and broad hallways all allowing you to transport yourself back in time. Exiting the palace, we crossed an inner moat and large rock wall that provided an additional layer of protection from invaders (the palace was never attached), with another palace inside. Over the whole grounds, there are three gardens, one of whose construction the emperor is said to have personally directed. They were each pretty in their own way, one using water, stones, and bridges and another morse sparse and focused on its trees.
As dusk approached we popped into a ramen shop for a cheap ramen and dumpling snack, and hustled back to the Gion district, stopping a Yasaka Shrine near our Airbnb, whose lantern-lit pagoda and pretty red gate made for a stark and beautiful scene. It was Kyoto at its best, the light making everything look golden, with the temple’s kimono wearing visitors helping to set the scene. We walked uphill into the extensive Maruyama Park, lush with foliage, and passed some more temples (and a cheeky Michelin star restaurant, hidden amongst the trees) on the way. Out of the park, we made a beeline for Gion’s most iconic scene, a five story pagoda set amongst the wood houses, outlined against the setting sun. A group of other tourists had already gathered to take pictures of the pagoda rising starkly out of the roofs. We wandered the streets, winding between the small, still open shops and peering past the red lanterns into izakayas filled with laughter.
We soon found ourselves back across the river, walking past empty alleys and narrow streets filled with people. We were back in the shopping area, on the hunt for a little izakaya to eat at–we had seen several when we were walking around, off the main drag. We turned out of the main shopping area and into some back streets, quickly finding two little places with all the seats taken by chattering locals. Our third try was the charm, and we stopped at the next one we saw, popping our heads through the sliding door–most places are tough to see into, with curtains or frosting over the outside. It turned out to be Tomi Sushi, three quarters full. We’d wanted to have a sushi meal, and were wary of price at some of the more established places. Tomi had a casual atmosphere, with a long counter and three sushi chefs behind the bar, flicking balls of rice in their hands, putting on a touch of wasabi, and fish on top. We started with 12 or so pieces of all different kinds (only $13), the fish melting in our mouths–the eel and another buttery mystery fish were our favourites–and ended up getting a couple of scallop pieces to share.

 

We’d realised that there were a lot of handicrafts and things that we’d want as souvenirs, and the next morning we did a little shopping. The first stop was for a watch for AM from a store called Tokyu Hands with pretty much everything–from hip backpacks to cookware. Made by a Japanese company called Knot, it was a fraction of the price we’d seen for similar watches in London. We wrapped up the knife purchase, and stopped at a kimono store for a cotton yukata for RM, which he’d wanted ever since wearing one at the ryokan. Food, always important, was a series of 7-11 and Lawson snacks, ranging from hot dog on a bun to steamed bun with meat. We shopped around for prints, and then headed to the JR station by subway, planning to head up to Kinkakji, Kyoto’s golden temple suspended above water, and another garden nearby.
We’d stopped at the JR station when we first arrived, trying to get tickets to Hiroshima, then Okayama, then Tokyo, all on May 3–it would’ve been a long day, but it also would have fulfilled our desire to see both the atomic bomb site and one of the three top gardens in Japan. Sadly, there were no seats available, and we thought about going unreserved on the first leg, a two hour journey from Kyoto, was risky at best. We tried again, but to no avail–and realised that we could simply go that evening, ditching the last night of our Airbnb. A couple of swipes using IHG Reward Nights and a conversation at the ticket counter, and we were off to Hiroshima. We grabbed our bags, took a quick walk through the pretty grounds of Kenin-ji temple, with its grand gate and bright flowers around an understated main temple, and were soon at the Kyoto main station, ready for Hiroshima. We took the Shikansen Hiraki to Shin-Osaka, a quick 14 minute hop, and the the Shikansen Sakura service to Hiroshima, a total journey of just under two hours.
-RM

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

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