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Food Tour Booking Pro Tips

Note: This was originally in Day One but I moved it here so we could reference it elsewhere.

Pro tip #1: lots of these guys will advertise on several sites so you may see the same “tour” in several places. When you see the cheapest one REALLY check to make sure food and drinks at each place are included. I bet they aren’t for the super inexpensive one and its almost always better to go with the slightly-higher priced one and having the guide pick up the tab than nickel-and-diming about what to get, fumbling with change, everyone in the group not getting the same things, etc.

Pro tip #2: Get a small group. It is SO much nicer to have 4 or max 6 people on the tour. Anything larger and it takes too long, is way too irritating for food preferences, takes a zillion years for everyone to settle up, etc. You may also miss out on certain tiny places that simply cannot handle anything more than a few people, which is a real potential issue in places like Japan. Do yourself a favour and ask the question before you book, it will be worth it.

Pro tip #3: Get someone who speaks both languages well. This might seem obvious, but it makes a big difference. We’ve had native language speakers who spoke some English (which was fine, especially with the amount of beer we drank anyway), a native English speaker who learned the native language years ago when they moved there (also fine), one native speaker and had 3 other languages, English being the very dead-last (not fine) and one fellow who spoke something like 6 different languages, all of them flawlessly (REALLY fine).

Pro tip #4: Make sure you understand the meeting point. Because here’s the thing….of your guide is a local, they look like everyone else and you will have anxiety that you’ve missed something or they won’t show up. So when you book online, make sure you understand. And make yourself visible when you get there. Most guides we’ve ever had could pick out the lost glazed-eye tourists at 300-paces, but it can’t hurt.

Day Eight – Tokyo – Museum Day and Sushi Video Games

Museum day! We love museum day, the day we get to go play around and learn the history of wherever we are. Tokyo has done a great job with these by putting 4 of them and a zoo in one giant park so a family can simply walk from one to the next on a Sunday. We chose the National Museum of Japan first. This museum is made up of 5 different buildings, and the price to get in was very acceptable (¥600 each, or around $7). The main building had 3 floors going through the cultural history of Japan. Lots of scrolls and poems and historically relevant stuff. It was fine…but didn’t really mean anything to us. It was fascinating and beautiful but without the fore-knowledge of what it meant (“this letter from shogun Someone Orother was sent to general Somebody Else and says the blossoms have returned indicating an end to the fighting of Battle of Someplace”) this part didn’t enthrall us (other than the sword display which was pretty cool and informative).

The second building, though, did. It was the archaeology building and it had WAY more cool stuff! Suits of armour from various periods, giant bells from Shinto and Buddhist shrines, a huge assortment of bronze mirrors. The bronze mirrors were strange. They were cast-bronze, which could be polished to a high finish and become reflective, but they were also very ornate. They had carvings and relief in them, meaning not only would it be an impossible task to polish the things, but there was so little flat surface there is no way a reflection would come back in any meaningful way. They were beautiful nonetheless. We wandered around a while more, got some postcards and decided we had had enough history. Let’s move to science!

The other museum we wanted to hit was the Nature and Science Museum of Tokyo. You knew it was going to be science-y becuase they had a gigantic whale statue out front. But gasp! It was 4pm already and the museum closed at 5! This called for a patented (pending) Tom & Holly Speed Holy Shit Go Faster Speed Museum Speed Run™!

We got tickets and immediately started at the top (the 4th floor). Lets go! Stuffed mammals and an overview of life in Japan, check! Next floor! Diorama of sea creatures and their evolution around Japan and the pacific rim, check! Next floor! Dinosaur skeleton and…more stuffed animals, okay well lets keep going! Next floor! More….stuffed mammals for some reason….weird I thought we saw those on…NO TIME NEXT FLOOR! OH this is the main floor. Okay only 2 more we’ll totally make it! Next floor is in…another building. Already lets get moving! Okay lets get a move….whoa….hang on…this is….really really cool.

And that’s where we started losing a lot of time. Where the first building was…okay…the second building was in every way Japanese. Beautiful, clean, well thought out and on a grand scale. Huge floor to ceiling displays showing the sea creatures living around the island, but these were not stuffed or mounted. Many of these looked like they were made by the same gifted artists who made the fake food for restaurants to display. The same amazing level of detail (the octopus was spectacular) done dozens of times. But we had to hurry!

OKAY KEEP GOING ONLY 25-MINUTES LEFT! Here is an entire massive room for just evolution of life from atoms to current day explained on floor to ceiling projectors and a variety of artifacts. This is really well thought out but OHMYGOD 20-MINUTES! Next is a room with a giant preserved squid, a whale skeleton hanging from the rafters, the contents of a camels hump (answer: phlegm), a cows entire digestive tract drawn out to show how long it is vs a cougars and still more stuffed bears which makes me start to think the curator has some fetish with taxidermied mammals…10MINUTES…..we are literally speed-walking now. Another room with technology including perhaps some sort of plane we could only glance at as we went past…..5MINUTES…..okay that was WTF THERES ANOTHER FLOOR?

And then they kicked us out. Lets suffice to say had we known this museum was this awesome we would have switched the order and spent the better part of a day here. We didn’t get to really appreciate about half of it, which is a shame becuase it was extraordinarily well done.

So now what……we saw all these displays of sea creatures, perhaps we should eat some of them. Raw. And on a little bite sized cake of rice. And maybe we could add some sort of video-game element to it? Sold! To Kura Zushi we were headed!

Holly had seen a video on YouTube about a conveyor belt sushi place that had a video game as part of it. All the plates rotated around and you took whatever you wanted (¥100 each) from the lower conveyor. At each station you had a touch-screen monitor and you could order whatever you wanted, and it would be delivered on the upper belt, whizzed directly to your table from the kitchen. What a time to be alive. And lest you think this was some gimmicky one-off, they have over 300 locations in Japan and we had to wait about 60-minutes to get seated. It is insanely popular with locals.

Do you like raw fish? I don’t. I hate it. Again, old Tom talking. Because I tried one of about everything the ocean could whip up (i a similar way where I attempted to eat my way through kingdom animalia in Finland). Horse mackerel, 3 types of tuna, 2 types of fatty-tuna, salmon, urchin, squid, octopus, right-eyed flounder (presumably the left-eyed flounder was only served to royalty) you name it, I ate it. And it was all great! But what to do with this stack of dishes? This is where Kura steps up. At each table is a little slot, and into this little slot you drop the empty plate. And each empty plate records on your touchscreen. And when you get 5 plates in the slot a game starts playing. Its a short anime video with a decision at the end…..in one an astronaut guy lands on a planet and a giant monster comes to fight him. The decision is whether the monster wins or the astronaut dude. If the astronaut wins and zaps the monster, you win a prize. And I did! You win a little pink ball (think of a vending machine at the mall that has those glass cases full of plastic bubble balls on a pedestal that you put in a quarter or dollar and get a little sphere. These are also EVERYWHERE in Japan) that comes down above you. In mine I won two, yes TWO, pink San Rio band-aids. No I have not used them, no you cannot have them.

After 3 more games (which is brilliant marketing on their part. At one point we were at 13 plates and ended up spending 200 yen more just to get to 15 to play again. We lost.) our Kura Zushi experience was done. Will it take over Chuck-E-Cheese in the western world? No. Should it? Yes.

Day Seven – Tokyo – Fish Market and Food Tour (Part I)

Day seven started, like so many others, with a Boss coffee. Did I mention how much I love Boss coffee? Boss really is boss of them all, as the can says.

I needed coffee becuase we got up early (relatively) to head down to the see the world famous Tsukiji fish market. We had grand ambitions before actually arriving here of going on the 4:00am tour to see the actual tuna auctions take place. That was quickly squelched when we watched a documentary about it and found out only 100 people are allowed on the tour. Meaning you could show up at 3:50am…..and have absolutely nothing to do until 7 or so when the surrounding market opened up if you weren’t one of the lucky few.

So, we decided 8am was a much more civilized time to wake up and go, and so it was done. We took the JR line (LOVE that pass) to the surrounding market. The stalls are very very close, like one or two people wide at most, and everyone selling super fresh fish from whatever was brought in that morning at auction. Delivery of said good from auction to stall was done via electric ride-on pallet jacks. Think of the stand-up forklift at Home Depot and you have the idea. Except these were crossed with the speeder bikes from Star Wars and went close to the speed of sound. They were really cumbersome and did not at all belong in a public market, so of course there were dozens of them.

The market itself, like many others in Asia, had anything you could think of: fruits, veggies, fresh roasted coffee, kimonos and beautiful hand-drafted knives. The latter we ended up buying. Japanese knives are quite different from what North Americans use as it is sharpened on only one side and the angle of sharpening is more (or less, I forget) and are incredibly sharp. We bought one from the craftsman who made them and they honed the edge for us as we waited.

All this before breakfast! Which was also a fish market specialty: Coal grilled seafood on a stick. For ¥200 (about $2.50) per skewer we got one each of whole scallops (foot and all), swordfish, eel and squid. All amazing.

But we had still not actually seen the fish market part of the fish market. We did eventually find it and got to the entrance where a guard came over and showed us a sign that told us entry to this area was prohibited until after 10am. The reasoning, it turns out as we turned our backs, was that the speeder delivery wrecking machines that were going the speed of sound in the market were here going as fast as purely theoretical particles and in significantly greater numbers. We stopped to watch as the graceful ballet of car, pedestrian, wrecking delivery machine and cargo truck took place. Some would say On Golden Pond is a masterpiece, but those people have never seen the Tsukiji Fish Players classic.

This took us to about 10am, so we needed to hightail it back to Shibuya (see Day Six) to meet our food tour guide. The day we had waited for since, well, our previous food tour a couple days ago. This food tour is with Culinary Backstreets, a company we had one tour (that we paid for, and one we just sort-of joined with the same guide the next day) in Istanbul and absolutely loved it.

We met in front of a famous dog statue (super quick version of the story…university prof takes train every day to work, dog comes with him to the station. At night he comes home, dog is waiting at the train station for him. Prof dies. Dog continues this daily schedule for years more anyway. Japanese people adore this loyalty, name entire section of Tokyo after dog. Dog’s name: Shibuya)

Noam is the guides name, and he is originally from San Diego but has been living here for about 12-years and is married to a Japanese national. Which fulfills Pro Tip #1 of get a speaker who does both languages. We learned some lessons from the tour with Kevin, so we keep our mouths shut from the get-go (see Day One Food Tour)

Noam had us start in the basement of the department store we were sitting at. Here’s the thing about basements in supermarkets in Japan: they are amazing for food. Like…amazing.

Actually lets expand the circle on that for a moment…here’s the thing about food everywhere in Japan: Its all amazingly fresh, even in tiny convenience stores. There are legions of 7-11 stores (18,000 actually), and every single one has an entire refrigerated section stocked with fresh nigiri sushi, rolls, steamed buns and more. They almost always have a hot plate with tako or something else hot and a broth with something floating in it. In addition to a hot tray with chicken katsu and tempura. And all amazingly fresh. It is absolutely culturally acceptable to grab dinner from a convenience store on the way home. The hot Safeway chicken is okay, this is not next level, this is about 26-levels higher than that.

Which for a North Americans is the complete opposite of what you would think. There are exactly 3 reasons to eat at 7-11 at home:

  1. You are drunk and its 3am and nothing else is open
  2. You are on Jackass (and its also 3am and nothing else is open)
  3. You’ve rolled snake eyes in the game of life and taqitos from 2002 on a roller and nachos with Cheeeezzzzeee (TM) are now fine dining for you

The 7-11’s are well lit, don’t have skid row regulars hanging out in front of them, and are totally devoid of sticky Slurpee on the floor. In short they are a useful business in a neighborhood, not the place for a wine-tipped cigar and the lottery ticket being counted on as an RRSP.

But I digress (if you don’t believe me, read the prior tangent). So the basement of the food store (which was called Food Show) had stall after stall of fresh fish available to take home, already cut as most people don’t have the skill to do it themselves, and maybe held a dozen cold case bins holding dozens of perfectly prepared and fresh sashimi sushi boxes like you would see at any restaurant ready to take home. Noam took us to a tiny little corner where there was a bar where you could eat sushi. So we did. And it was fantastic (if you are wondering, as clearly you are, the place was called Fish Power, because….Japan). Noam made us take note of the logo and then pointed out that all the refrigerated boxes in the bins were all made by this tiny restaurant. Their main source of income, he told us, was wholesaling sushi to supermarkets, and selling it here was more of a “why not?”. So yes, you can literally get sushi-restaurant quality fish to take home with you from a supermarket as you leap off the train on your commute home. God I love Japan.

We wandered the supermarket for another half hour or so. Once you get out of the produce and sushi sections there is a whole other world of vendors making yet more amazing food. Ogimiachi (spelling) at one, tempura’d everything at another. We tried karage, but done properly (natch). Karage at home is usually a chicken wing (or a few) lightly battered and deep fried. Here it was boneless thigh meat, mixed with soy sauce, then dipped in light batter mixed with soy sauce and deep fried. The tastes could not be more different. At another we tried a Portugese cake which was great, and the okonomiyaki station. Which surprised Noam becuase they had not been there before. Why? Well becuase the vendors rotate in every few weeks, so you can try new foods and keep coming back and not have the same thing twice. All in the basement of a department store. Makes Superstore look sub-par now, doesn’t it?

What there was not was the strange fish odour you get from some grocery stores (Save-On Foods in PoCo, for example, is the LAST place I would ever buy fish). Fish should never smell fish-y.

After the supermarket we got on transit to go to another neighbourhood in Tokyo. This, Noam explained, is how Tokyo works: each neighbourhood is a micro-cosmos as part of the bigger city, kind of like Metro Vancouver. The one we were going to was far enough out of downtown Tokyo that families would travel there on the weekend to chill and stroll and relax. Oh and eat.

And so we will….

Day Six, Part 2 – We Take On Tokyo

We didn’t have a lot planned to do in Tokyo other than the Culinary Backstreets food tour that was going to take most of Day 6, and now that we were in at noon, we had to think of things to do.

I really wanted to go to the Akihabara district, which is a neighbourhood where electronics are plentiful and cheap (relatively). It used to be world-famous as the leader of tech, as Japan was back in the day (think MiniDisc and BetaMax) but now is mostly for Manga, girls dressed as manga characters passing out flyers to go to manga-themed restaurants, manga bookstores and places to buy manga figurines. Its the distilled essence of every crazy stereotype you think of as Japanese. The bouillabaisse base of Japanese sub-culture soup. Did I mention the girls dressed up as characters? That’s really important becuase there are a lot of them. And that they are supposed to look evocative and aged 12 with tiny little skirts on? The simple act of walking down the street while not looking directly at the sidewalk or straight up at the sky makes you feel like a pedophile. Did I also mention it is INSANELY popular? There were thousands of people there with us at noon on a Friday.

After a quick lunch we wet into an all-hentai (comic book porn) bookstore which exists because…..Japan. It was not a small store and had rows upon rows of explicit comic book sex acts being done to comic book girls. One of the most popular books (based on the piles available for sale) appeared to be drawn pictures of young (like aged 8 – 10) girls in one piece bathing suits. It was disturbing and just…wrong….but….Japan. Even now, days later I can’t wash the gross off no matter how many times I shower. Not that the store was gross….it was very well kept, organized and clean. And the people shopping there didn’t seem to have an iota of the guilt you would think they should. So maybe I’m just prudish. Still…..as soon as I can find steel wool….

What I really wanted to see was the mecca of all things Japan: Mandarake. Mandarake is basically a concentrated fetish store for anything Japan-y, and its 7-floors of madness. How I ever got Holly in is anyone’s guess. I think she was likely whacked out on sake. HK note – I decided to use the Mandarake “experience” as a bargaining chip for future use.

Each floor is its own ecosystem of weird. Two entire floors of just little vinyl figurines, an entire floor of manga books, an entire floor of just hentai books (and full-sized body pillows with girls on them), one of creepy dead-eyed dolls, etc. All accessed by going outside and walking down a staircase. It was at once awesome and terrifying. There was also the highest concentration of other white folks of anywhere we’d been. Most of the store, actually, had fanboys/fangirls immersing themselves in this world. Which is some sort of irony…..the Japanese wanted to be so much to be like the west after WWII that the culture they ended up exporting is now highly in demand in the west.

Like almost every other popular place in Tokyo (or Osaka for that matter) the streets are VERY bright. All buildings are at least 5 storeys, with most being 7-10 and almost every one having artwork that covers 3-to-5 floors. There are massive (4 or 5 storeys) hi-def video screens playing, and every business no matter how small has a brightly lit LED sign out on the street. Its a cacophony for the eyes. That being said, Japan clearly has eradicated epilepsy becuase there is no way someone could live here and go outside.

We wandered around the area and hit a few more interesting shops (including a 7-storey store of just sex toys, which, again, featured male…um….”pleasure devices” that were marketed clearly by having pictures of drawn little girls on them). We went into what is essentially a London Drugs, a small market for electronic parts (think transistors and soldering) and computer places. We also went into the Sega arcade (yes, that Sega) which was 5-floors of people smoking and playing fighting games on arcade machines at full volume (again, how I got Holly in here is a miracle). The whole experience was amazing, fun and overwhelming. But it was time to go.

Back on the train we headed to Ginza, a very upscale high-end neighbourhood that could not be more the opposite of Akihabara. Ginza has streets also lined with lit up signs, but they say Louis Vuitton and Chanel instead of House Maid Cafe (which is again a distillation…..you go into this cafe and are served and doted on by young girls dressed as even younger girls dressed as maids. They giggle at your stupid jokes while you grin like an idiot. Or so I assume. Ahem.). Here ladies (note the tone change from girls) walked down the street with multiple bags from Ferragamo, and we sat in a Starbucks and watched the stores next door valet park a Mercedes SLK, a Bentley, a Cadillac SUV and a Porsche. It was just as popular with the polar opposite cross-section of people. In one night we got to see both sides of the same country.

Ginza was fine, but we prefer the less higher-end places, so we got back on the subway to go to Shibuya, which we read was the epicenter of youth culture in Tokyo.

Shibuya, not to sound like a broken record, was lit up, and just as popular as the other 2 places we had been. This was now a third cross-section of the population. The TV’s blaring had ads for products targeted at Japanese youth. The stores were “hipper” and there just seemed to be more teenagers and 20-somethings milling about.

The whole reason we came here was Google had recommemnded a small place “the locals enjoy” for some dinner, so we went to find it. It was a tiny little izakaya  which is a small place with a couple private tables but is really one large public table shared with several parties. We sat down and ordered one of the few word we knew in Japanese: beeru. (Holly had said the Japanese will simply Japan-up English words by adding a vowel at the end. I didn’t really believe her until she asked a shopkeeper for “postcard”, got a blank stare, then asked for “postacardo” and was taken immediately to the postcard section. Also Kevin our Osaka food guide ordered Holly a “highbarru” or “highball” at the whisky bar. They can’t do L’s, which is hilarious becuase I now have an excuse to call her Horry).

We also had some other words like “saba” (mackerel) and “yakitori” (grilled food on a stick) so we ordered some of each of those. While we waited we noticed no one really cared we were there, again contrasting China where we would have been (and were) stared at relentlessly at non-tourist establishments. Once we got some food, Horry got a tap on the shoulder from the man beside her who was there with his wife. He showed her his cellphone screen which he had used translation software to ask what country we were from. Holly replied “Canada” and they nodded and bowed. And I got to use my joke that works in every country we have every been to 100% of the time: “And you?”. He looked and said “JAPAN!” and both he and his wife killed themselves laughing. Hello new friends 🙂

For the next few hours we used Google Translate to varying levels of success (or accuracy if you want) as we drank more beeru with that couple. The wife would ask us something in Japanese, her husband would remind her we don’t speak a word, then she would make him translate it on his phone. They bought us a round of beer, and we went through all the standard questions: Where have you been in Japan? Answer: Osaka and Hakone and Tokyo. Which place is best? Answer: (depending on which city you are in) this one! Where else will you go? Answer: Kobe and Kyoto.

Then the question of age comes up, as it does for whatever reason, and I got to use my second joke which also works 100% of the time with the ladies. He said he was 68 and before he could say his wife’s age, I found the number 31 in our phrase book and shouted that out. Riotous laughter from him, adoration from her. Smooth.

Back and forth we went and had a great time with them for several hours in the bar being (Holly says anyway) the loudest and most obnoxious in the place. But all fun things have to come to an end and after many goodbyes we took the train home. It’s these interactions that become the reason you travel. The time we spent with Fatima and Ibrahim in their house in a tiny village in Turkey is one of our most vivid memories from that trip, and this will be a great story as well and really cemented how much we are enjoying Japan, the country but especially the people.

After finally finding our way back to the apartment we wound down with a cup of disgusting sake from 7-11 and got ready for the food tour the next day.

Day Six – Welcome to Tokyo! Enjoy Our Public Transit System!

After a full fun day using every conceivable mode of transport, it was time to bid adieu to Hakone and continue our voyage on to Tokyo (after breakfast….and another onsen session, natch).

As we had come in we also left, taking the bus for close to an hour to reach the Odawara train station to get back on the Shinkansen line. The ride to Tokyo took less than an hour (especially at 270+ km/h). I should mention here that we bought the JR Rail Pass in advance as we were told by numerous sources it is the best way to go, and let me tell you, we agree. Every JR station is a breeze to flash the pass and continue on. We assumed JR would be the national railway, like VIA or CN, and that we would only be using it to go between big cities like Osaka to Tokyo, but in every place we’ve been so far they run many many lines all through the cities. In fact they run a large portion of all rail traffic (subways are another matter) so getting the pass is an excellent deal and makes travelling in-city super easy as well.

We arrive in Tokyo and start to try and find our Air B’n’B. Now Osaka is a big city and we were impressed (read: overwhelmed) with the size and scale of things, and we really legitimately loved Osaka and its craziness…..but in terms of sheer size, insanity and Japanishness Tokyo takes it to an 11 right out of the gate. Our train arrived and we looked at the map of trains to see where we needed to go. We could not find it anywhere on our map, and that’s because, here, you need this OTHER map of the Tokyo metro. Unless you want to go to these stops across the river, then you ALSO need this private system map. And did we mention this other private system with only 4 stops you will need a map of?).

Here are the maps of all the lines together and then a small gallery of JUST JR lines, JUST Metro lines and JUST Skytree lines. With all this information the answer to the question “How do I get here?” is “Its incredibly easy and only requires a few steps, but before I can give you the answer may I see your masters degree in topographical cartography in non-Euclidean 6-dimensional space?”

We were used to the train systems now, but even still we had to ask someone at the JR line how to get to the train we needed. We needed to, and this is not a joke or an exaggeration, go back down 2 basements to the train line we just came off of, pass another train line on the 3rd basement level, walk all the way across the platform, turn left, go down a 4th basement level and catch that train. The train system runs very very very deep underground. At one point there was a small hole in a tile on the floor that I stepped in and the brimstone melted the bottom of my shoe.

We found the station we needed to board and then read the instructions to find the house and learned another important rule about the Japan transportation system: In China, and elsewhere, we could make pretty good assumptions about train stops. The stop might be called something on our map, but something else locally, usually with a similar name. In Japan…..that sort of crap don’t fly! The name on the map is the name on the station is the name on the train is the name everywhere. So when the instructions said Nishi-Shinjuku Gochome, we thought what he meant was just Nishi-Shinjuku (but not Shinjuku, which is the station you hear about where they stuff people into cars during rush-hour becuase 2 million people PER DAY use the station). To be fair our reasoning was sound…..the two transit maps we had at the time only had Nishi-Shinjuku and it wasn’t until we learned the ACTUAL station we wanted was on another line entirely. Long story short the instructions to get us there didn’t work at all and we had a long 20-minute walk. But, we did learn all about the Tokyo transit system, and isn’t that its own reward? I mean yes, but I was still in a pretty foul mood after all that.

Here’s the other thing about the Japanese: they HATE the outside world. Or at least that is the conclusion you would come to if you were an alien visiting earth for the first time. There are entire cities underground around transit centers (no, really). The stop we accidentally wrongly got off on had 15 exits and at least 5 of them were over 6 city blocks away, and all underground. There have to be maps of JUST the exits at the stops so you can find them and figure out where they go because, unlike our local Skytrain where taking the wrong exit simply means you walk an extra 30-feet or maybe have to cross an intersection, here if you take the wrong one you could quite easily be in a completely wrong neighbourhood (which, you might be interested, is what “chome” means, sort-of) when you do surface and have a very long walk for yourself.

So anyway, we found the place, it is lovely (and at least twice the size of our place in Osaka) and we’re in Tokyo by noon. Now….what to do…..

Day Five – The Hakone Transportation Experience

Having your own private hot tub in a hotel is a pretty slick luxury, and when its outdoors as this one was, that’s even more awesomer. You can commune with nature as you sit in the warmth of the water and look through the very thin grass mats at the trees and recite haiku .

To get in-to or out-of the hot tub you have to shower, and the only shower for the room is outdoors. Which is fine when you need a quick rinse, but when you also are stumbling around first thing in the morning, it gets a little strange to open the sliding glass door and stumble outside for your cleansing routine. And then when you start hearing the traffic on the road not 8-feet from you, and hear the people walking just on the other side of the hedge as you lather up your junk the haikus begin to lose something from the night before and now you are waxing poetic about just how thick ARE those hedges anyway? And how much taint-showing is considered improper (pro tip: 39%)?

The fish was delish, the rice was nice, the egg was...uh....cooked properly
The fish was delish, the rice was nice, the egg was…uh….cooked properly

Day four began with a lovely breakfast of…something. The fish was amazing, and everything else was absolutely edible, especially the soft-boiled egg made in the natural hot-springs. The Japanese as a country have figured out how to make perfect soft-boiled eggs. We have yet to find one we didn’t devour. We generally enjoy it when they place we are staying makes an attempt at a local breakfast rather than a weak attempt at a western one. And this one was fantastic.

After another onsen session (because, why not) we headed out for our day of transportation.  The thing to do in Hakone (the only thing it seems) is to try out all the different methods of moving around they have.

First stop was the ropeway. Now, the name “ropeway” is misleading…..its actually cable cars. Here’s the thing, though: Every once in a while I would forget where we are and think we were back in China. And in China a “rope way” of some old rusty carrier buggies on literal pieces of rope dangling hundreds of feet above the ground would NOT surprise me, and in fact would be a tourist attraction. So I got a little freaked out that this would be approximately 85% the way we would die, until we rounded the corner on the bus and saw actual cable running, clean lovely cars and the general Japanese-iness running the whole show with professionalism and aplomb.

Steam vents and sulfur piles. Did we accidentally go to the underworld?
Steam vents and sulfur piles. Did we accidentally go to the underworld?

The ropeway is actually 3 different stations, and it goes a very long way. The first stop is at the Ōwakudani Boiling Valley. An interesting place where massive plumes of sulfured steam are constantly being belched into the air. With the concentration of sulfur being so high the entry of the vents have large patches of yellow around them where the mineral has precipitated out onto the ground. It also means the smell is incredibly strong and there are notices everywhere about what to do if the concentrations get too high becuase your lungs will start doing bad things like turning to liquid with high acid content being breathed into them.

Daikon loves his black gross eggs
Daikon loves his black gross eggs

Luckily this didn’t happen and we were free to wander around and enjoy the other thing this place is known for: black eggs. Thats right, for only 500¥ you can have gross, nasty looking black eggs, cooked in this highly sulfurous water. So naturally, we bought a bag.

They were STILL WARM. Like the guy had just yanked them out of the earth
They were STILL WARM. Like the guy had just yanked them out of the earth

The eggs are hard-boiled, and contrary to the statement I just made above about the Japan as a nation figuring out soft boiled eggs, hard boiled was another story. It was, really, just a bland hard boiled egg.

The next parts of the ropeway were just gorgeous views. You have an unencumbered view of Mt Fuji, the gorgeous valley below and the natural part of Japan you don’t really think about too much. I mean any place that has massive buildings with 4-storey TV’s on them at nearly every intersection and lane upon lane of glowing neon you think “clearly this town communes with nature”.

 

At the end of the ropeway is a funicular, which is a word that is very hard pronounce, and also a railway that goes diagonally down the side of a mountain.

At the end of the funicular is a tiny little town where we caught a bus down to the lake, where you can catch a pirate ship back to where we started this whole adventure. Before doing that, though, we made the pilgrimage to 7-11 (of which there are thousands) for some snacks, and then took a lovely walk down the beach past seniors doing watercolours, men fishing while being harassed by tourist French children, and families out for a walk before being accosted by the sound of a band of German tourists sounding like a Pink Floyd album being played backwards.

So soft...so so soft
So soft…so so soft
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Me, I’m mostly a fox actually.

On the way back to the ships there was a little house on the street that had a sign with 3 sentences in English:

Coffee 100
These are midget Shibas feel free to pet them they are very nice
Please don’t feed them

So we stopped and had a coffee with those two. And this was another moment where we felt like this was such a foreign place compared to other places we had been. There was no “buy food for the dogs for $5” or some guy wandering the streets trying to sell trinkets to tourists. None of that, just a lady selling coffee from her business who brought her nice dogs with her. That’s it. In fact it made us realize that we could mutter “no, thank you” in a dozen languages (mostly Spanish *cough*Mexico*cough*) but here the only time we had said that phrase was someone asking if we wanted more skewers of something. There was no exploitation, no annoyances, nothing.

We wandered back to the boat which, I may have mentioned, was a pirate ship. Because…..Japan. Along the way they pointed out gates in the water and Mt Fuji, of course.

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ahoy matey!

At the end of the boat ride we were at a loss for what to do now that we had ridden cable cars, a funicular, buses and a pirate ship so we climbed on another bus and tried to head to a local brewery. Turns out the bus that runs to the brewery doesn’t run on whatever day this was so we decided to go to Gotemba City instead. Google suggested a yakitori (grilled food on skewers) place so we headed down some dark alleys and found a great little place. The owner/chef was in the tiny kitchen with an open charcoal grill and we ordered a variety of chicken parts, chef’s choice. Heart, blood vessel, liver, gizzard – it was all awesome. We had tofu two ways and another round of skewers and loved it all. We were the only ones in the restaurant so the chef came out to talk to us. After that we headed back to the bus depot to find our way back to Hakone and our onsen, where there were a couple of sakes waiting for us.

Day Three – Road to Hakone

After de-mobilizing from the gnome home we got on our favorite subway stop (also, the closest one) and headed off to Osaka station which was the closest one that would exchange our mail-order voucher for the Japan Rail pass. The process of exchanging this piece of paper for other pieces of paper was excruciating……ly easy. At nearly every opportunity to screw us or make life difficult Japan would continually find ways to make life not hard. A young lady from the JR lines approached us in line, took our documents, showed us where to fill them out, then told us which line to go in to receive the passes. In short, the whole process took little time, was insanely efficient and left us with not only a sense of wonder but also how this tiny country had not yet managed to conquer the world with politeness and ruthless time management. My theory is the time they save doing mundane tasks is put into creating the weirdest comics and merchandise on earth (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

So much plastic food, such attention to detail
This is all plastic. All of it. No really….every single thing you see here is a plastic model. Its….amazing.

After getting our passes it was time to find a snack and something to take on the 3-hour train ride. Through a huge market specializing in just such things we went to the box lunch place pictured above. I recommend you zoom in on that picture because you will get better detail at what can only be described as Japanese Art. Every single item is plastic. All of it. The rich attention to detail is stunning…..gravy, bits of corn, clear sauces, rice noodles….down to the smallest detail.

Lunch box of fun for the train! Little octopus, a little egg, some pickled lotus root and fried tofu skin with red bean paste. You know, the usual.
Lunch box of fun for the train! Little octopus, a little egg, some pickled lotus root and fried tofu skin with red bean paste. You know, the usual.

We settled on one that looked good and headed off for the train. We booked seats on the Shinkansen, which is the famous Bullet Train. Trains in Japan are famously punctual, which made our train being 6-minutes late a bit of a hullabaloo (anecdotally we had heard if you were more than 5-minutes late for work because of the train you could get a note from the train company stating it was their fault. Compare this with Translink who will happily help you out if you are an hour late by telling you to feel free and use the other public rapid transit option. Oh, wait…..)

284km/h. The words you are looking for are, in order, "Holy" and "Shit"
284km/h. The words you are looking for are, in order, “Holy” and “Shit”

Once we got going we pulled out the GPS and started clocking our speed and we got the peak around 285km/h which is super crazy fast. How fast? Here are two videos of a few seconds of entire towns going by in a blink.

And after a short 3-hours (no, really, it felt very quick, no pun intended) we arrived one minute EARLY to Hakone. That’s right the legendary system had made up not only the 6 minutes it was late but added an extra becuase it could as an extra little “screw you rest of the train world!”

And just like that, we were in Hakone! After an interesting 45-minute bus ride through winding mountain roads, with a bus driver that basically narrated the entire thing, we arrived at the only hotel we will stay in this whole trip. Hakone rolls up its streets around 5, and it was already after 4, so the only thing we could do is sit in our private hot tub. I mean…..I guess if that is the ONLY option we have it will have to do. Luckily we had also picked up some sake to go with our hot tub, so we made do.

Day Four – Leaving the Gnome Home

From Osaka we had booked a hotel room in the resort mountain town of Hakone. Think Whistler with less skiing. But first we had to bid goodbye to our tiny place in Osaka.

The front door and grand hallway from the ballroom
The front door and grand hallway from the ballroom

The place we stayed was booked on Air B’n’B and was not small (so were heard) by Japan standards, but by large-north-american-brute-male standards it was pretty tiny.  One you walked in the door you were in the main hallway….the Grand Foyer if you will. In the case “grand” means “about 4-feet wide”. The toilet room (because that is ALL it was) made airline washrooms feel like palatial mansions by comparison. I could either close the door OR poop…..but not both. Beside that is the bathroom….because again, that is all it was. The entire room would easily fit in our bathtub at home with extra room for a bidet (which we also had). Across from those is something that could be described as a kitchen, though it would be, at best, tongue-in-cheek and realistically a flat out lie. It had a warm surface and a sink.

The door to the domicile was tiny…..like a small lawn gnome might go through easily.

Damn you door jamb we have fought for the last time!
Damn you door jamb we have fought for the last time!
This hurt several times
This hurt several times
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Giant asshole used for scale

The Grand Ballroom, the room we lived in, was huge!* (*Room was not huge) at 9 feet wide. It could fit a bed! And a table! And curtains!

 

Day Three – We Storm The Castle and Eat Takos

After the Farm House Museum we went back into the city to go to Osaka Castle. The subway was easy to use and dumped us in front of the park. We hiked through the park and up a massive staircase, then wound up, eventually, at the castle. The observation level offered great views of the city. The other floors had displays of historic artifacts including armor which was made of gold. The floors also had hordes of school children who were, for some reason, fascinated with Tom. Groups of them approached him to help them with their English homework which included having a foreign tourist colour their country in their notebooks, answer a few questions and take a photo. The kids were cute and tried hard with the English so we helped them out and coloured a lot of maps of Canada. We are not sure why this happens to us – we had almost the same thing happen to us in Seoul.

Osaka Castle now featuring foliage!
Osaka Castle now featuring foliage!

Finished with the castle, we went outside and watched some older schoolkids take many, many selfies of themselves then headed to the plaza in front of the castle to get some food truck items. We ended up having takoyaki (a tiny bit of octopus in a fried batter) that wasn’t great.

Outside the main attraction street
Outside the main attraction street
There a re a LOT of these covered markets all over the place
There a re a LOT of these covered markets all over the place

That evening, we headed to Dotonburi to experience some nightlife. The pedestrian shopping streets were covered to protect from rain and full of bright signs and plenty of people. We cruised around and found a conveyor belt sushi place and grabbed some little plates. We enjoyed all of it! And it was fairly inexpensive too.  After that we wandered around some more and found a famous takoyaki place – these ones were a bit slimy in the middle too but it was all part of the experience, I suppose.

Giant octopus! (note: Octopus shown actual size)
Giant octopus! (note: Octopus shown actual size)
Basically tako yaki is a mess in a box topped with fish shavings.
Basically tako yaki is a mess in a box topped with fish shavings.

Something we have noticed about Osaka is that there are very few garbage cans in public. I walked around with that stupid takoyaki box for 40 minutes before getting frustrated and trying to stuff it (unsuccessfully) into a pop can recycler. Apparently, people walk around with their garbage until they get home and can dispose of it.

The famous Glico runner now in LED form
The famous Glico runner now in LED form
The famous....um...beer sign
The famous….um…beer sign

We admired all the moving signs and the LED billboards and decided it was time to call it a night. We accomplished all we set out to do – takoyaki – check, Dotonburi and the Glico man – check, stay out past 10 – check.

Day Three – Love In The Time Of Japanese Farmhouses

For day 2 we needed to go to Dotonbori. But a food place at 9 am sounded sort of lame, so we decided instead to go to our favourite place in the whole wide world wherever we are: open air museums!

In just about every country with a long-ish history they have an outdoor museum of how life was, and Japan, having history as it does, had just such a museum, in the form of the Old Japanese Farm Houses Museum (not to be confused with the New Japanese Farm Houses Museum, which is not a real thing because I just made it up).

We got a day-pass for the subway and headed off. Somehow we have come to adore these little places that serve French pastries. There are a lot of them, and you pick up a cafeteria tray and a pair of tongs and wander around the store picking up whatever you want. Could be a hot dog in a croissant with cheese, or something called “Freshness bread is make a happy day” which ended up tasting pretty good.  So we did that before walking to the museum.

Al fresco Kabooki
Al fresco Kabooki

The museum is on the other side of a huge park, which is a common theme we’ve been told about Osaka: They like to have green space alongside the city (the previous day Kevin took us to a place he called Pokemon Park to watch zombies wandering around playing Pokemon Go by themselves). I had to stop and use the bathroom. And like a public bathroom in North America it was riddled with graffiti, broken toilets and faucets, stunk to high heaven and was basically a haven for crack fiends. By which I mean NONE of those things. The public bathrooms, again a common theme in Osaka, are pristine. Clean, bright, fully functioning, and of a higher quality than the one you have at home (unless you live in that park of course, which is possible). Every public restroom we’ve been in could have been a cover picture for Awesome Nice Bathroom Monthly.

With special GoGo Girl boots
With special GoGo Girl boots

The museum itself is a set of 13 buildings from as far back as 200 years ago up until about the 1800’s (though some of the same time period are still being used today we were told) and from various regions of Japan. The ones from regions with a lot of snow had huge massive beams running across them for load, and had trusses that were not actually attached to the lower frame so that they could move and sway with the wind in a typhoon.

These were the largest Japanese slippers he museum had
These were the largest Japanese slippers he museum had

2 of the buildings had volunteers that spoke excellent English and could explain things much more in-depth for us. The only problem with this is that you must take off your shoes and put on slippers to enter the building, which turns out to be hilarious when you have size 13 shoes, a number not normally used by the Japanese for footwear.

One was the only building with a second floor, but it was not used for living space (I accidentally just wrote “loving space” there and then erased it and then thought, yup, it probably was that too) it was used to cultivate silk worms by the thousands. They  would grow them from larval stage and then trade them with the cocoons intact to silk merchants to unwind (to answer your obviously burning question, they get around 1 Km [not a typo] of silk from a single pod)

Next was a house that had the farm animals living in the same space as the family (like some husbands, am I right ladies? High five.) It was built in an L-shape so that when it was very cold out the farmer could simply look at the adjacent space and make sure the animals were okay. The roof was built such that the fire in the house would also send heat over to the animal section to keep them toasty and warm.

The rest of the houses were interesting, but the souvenir we got was the best: our legs chewed to pieces by bugs so small we could neither feel nor see them but left our legs looking like we had had words with a weed whacker and lost quite badly.

Next we decided, since we’ve seen how farmers live, how about royalty? Maybe a castle? And then how about some overhyoped street food? Day two continued…..