Flashback Friday: Tokyo

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This post is a flashback to November 2008, when we made our first trip to mainland Japan together. It was so fun to be in a big cosmopolitan city, enjoy the variety of shops and restaurants, and best of all, experience a little taste of autumn since Okinawa was so tropical and warm.

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We stayed at a Japanese business hotel, and I don’t mean something like the Marriott. It was more like a hotel for chain smoking used cars salesmen– ash trays all over the lobby and a men’s only spa. We got a kick out of Sean nearly bumping his head on the illuminated sign every time we walked down the hallway.

Despite the chilly and rainy weather, we did most of the normal sightseeing.

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River canal cruise in which we passed under 12 unique bridges and ended at a Japanese garden.

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Hama Ryku Gardens to visit the 300 year old pine tree. This tree was really amazing and the picture doesn’t reflect the grandeur of it. It grows sideways out of the ground, and they have to hold up the branches with various posts to keep it from digging into the ground.

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The Emperor’s Palace

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East Imperial Gardens

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Roppongi shopping center at night. This place is so shiny and modern. Check out the strange spider sculpture!

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One of the highlights of our Tokyo trip was a bar we found called “Boots”. Sean just couldn’t resist checking it out after seeing the name.
We were so warmly received here! The people (all Japanese) sitting at the bar split up to make room for us up there with them. The owner, as it turns out, is a country music fanatic! He plays the guitar in a Japanese country music band, regularly visits Nashville and Austin, has 10 cowboy hats, and thinks Graceland is the best place in the world. He even proudly displays in the bar his custom-made crocodile boots with the motif of a Shogun warrior stitched into them.

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We also checked out the famous shopping area called Ginza. This area is like Fifth Avenue in NYC with gleaming and luxurious department stores, beautiful things to buy, and attractive people, and prices that are out of sight!

All the major department stores have a floor that has counter after counter of confections and gourmet food items. I’ve never seen anything like this in the states, and they are so fun to browse. In one store, we found a counter that sells something called “Photo Chocolates”. Essentially, they take photographs and project the image onto the chocolate bars. Not cheap as you can imagine!

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Don’t these look like they are coasters or playing cards or something? They are chocolate that you can eat!

We also found the most interesting store– 4 floors of train sets and miniatures for serious collectors and train fanatics! This place was unbelievable. I was amazed by the detail in these trains and little scenes. We tried to capture in close-up how fun there were…I love this one of a Texas Dance Hall.

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Another favorite was this drive-in soda shop

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My all time favorite store we found on this trip was the Chopstick store with literally thousands to choose from. There was even a work shop on top where you could view a craftsman sharpening and shaping them right in front of you.

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They also sell chopstick holders. This one, made out of amber costs $5700 dollars. Who is going to buy that?IMG_1173

This trip to Tokyo was the first of a dozen trips we made while living in Japan. It’s funny to look back on this first time because our impressions were so fresh and we were so naive about the country still. After a while, certain things about Tokyo didn’t surprise or confuse us anymore and they became common-place to us- that is, until we hosted visitors and we were reminded by how unique the lifestyle is there.

It’s been over three years now since we’ve been back in the States, and some of my memories of our Japan life are sadly starting to fade. That’s why it’s great to do these flashbacks and be reminded of the little details.

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Flashback Friday: Iwakuni and Miyajima Food

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This post is a flashback to a weekend we spent in Iwakuni and Miyajima Island on mainland Japan. You can see part 1 here. This trip happened during the fall and we had so many food adventures there…

This historic looking building above is the restaurant we ate at in Iwakuni. Doesn’t it look perfectly cozy for a crisp evening? We don’t actually know what the true name of it is. Everyone we know simply refers to it as the Chicken Shack… you’ll find out soon why.

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The back patio is lit with the most beautiful lights against the changing foliage

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Those are electric blankets lining the tables… so comfy to rest your lower half under them while you are enjoying your meal outdoors.

Here’s a sampling of what we ordered…

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The most delicious grilled chicken teriyaki

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Deep fried battered beef filet

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We figured we needed at least one vegetable so we ordered mushroom and tofu hot pot

But wait, we’re not finished yet…

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Soba noodle bowl

But our Iwakuni eating was not all of our indulgence… Take a look at some of our good eats on Miyajima Island.

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This signature cookie of Miyajima is made almost everywhere on this tiny island and the wonderful aroma of baking cookies hits you from every angle as you walk down the street. You can even watch the whole process through glass windows similar to the assembly line at Krispy Kreme. They are served warm and taste somewhat like waffles with different fillings such as azuki bean, custard cream, green tea cream, and chocolate. Can you guess which flavor we tried?

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Need you really wonder?

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Oyster man on the street

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Bacon wrapped cheese fish cake

My new food love were these steamed buns filled with savory Hiroshima beef

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Anybody hungry, yet?

Looking back on our experience in Iwakuni and Miyajima Island, I’m so thankful we got to spend the weekend there and try all those delicious foods. This was one of those special times that make travel so fun… and it’s fun to reminisce about too.

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Flashback Friday: Miyajima Island

 

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Wild deer in front of the famous floating Torii Gate

This post is a flashback to when Sean and I went from Okinawa to Iwakuni on mainland Japan. Sean had to attend a meeting up there and I tagged along to get a little taste of maple leaves, cold weather, good eating, and deer… so perfect to put us in the holiday spirit.

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We took a short excursion one day to Miyajima Island, aka the Shrine Island, a convenient 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland. There we saw plenty of wild deer roving the streets, shrines and temples, and beautiful views of changing foliage.
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In addition to these scenic buildings and spots, Miyajima also has charming narrow winding streets and a downtown square area with lots of food vendors and shops selling local specialties. There’s lots more to say about this trip to Iwakuni and Miyajima, including some pictures of wonderful local food we ate while we were there.

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Friday Flashback: Geisha Adventure

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Okay, it was one of those cheesy experiences.

It was also very touristic and contrived. But it was also one of my favorite memories now of Japan.

I’m talking about dressing like a geisha and strolling through historic streets of Kyoto.

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So what exactly are geisha?

They are entertainers who practice traditional dancing and singing, play instruments, and engage in witty conversation. Are they really prostitutes underneath it all? It’s hard to say. We couldn’t find anyone who would describe them that way. Instead think “Courtesan.”

While there used to be as many 80,000 geisha slinking around the backstreets and pouring sake for businessmen in Japan, today it is believed there are only about 1000. Moreover, they don’t come cheaply. Clients often pay thousands of dollars for a geisha’s exclusive entertainment. But more on that later.

So my friend Diana and I decided to enter the mysterious geisha world and find out what it’s all about.

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Turns out there’s a lot of prep work and a certain degree of discomfort. It took almost 45 minutes to get the makeup on and about 15 minutes to put on all the undergarments. I can’t even tell you how many pieces and parts are strapped this way and that underneath the kimono. In Diana’s case, she was uncomfortable with the heavy wig; As for me, I had a temporary moment of claustrophobia with all the articles on clothing on me.

But we got over that quickly as soon as we hobbled around the streets in our wooden sandals and got a celebrity welcome…

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It might have been the novelty of a huge lumbering foreigner dressed up as a geisha, but we were like Moses parting the Red Sea. Crowds split and formed around us. I think about 100 people took our picture. This is what it must feel like to be Angelina Jolie.

And even though now I’m freaked out by the pasty white makeup and pink eyeliner and wonder how I didn’t wipe out in those shoes– at the time, I felt so elegant.

Later that night, as Diana and I were strolling through Gion, we noticed a frenzy of activity outside an expensive club. Right before us, posed two actual real geisha with their group of wealthy businessmen. I mean, look at that one guy on the right. He’s wearing an ascot!

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Kyoto Travel Tip #2

Overall, dressing like a geisha was so fun. I highly recommend this experience. There are dozens of photography studios in Kyoto offering this service, but we used Maiko Studio Shiki and chose the Maiko Stroll Plan, which included a book of 10 portraits inside the studio and a hour walking around outside. Young girls can also participate and men can dress as samurai. I don’t know if this studio closed down. The website link I had for it doesn’t seem to work anymore. But I think most of these studios are about the same.

More geisha stories to come, including what my husband said upon viewing the studio portraits. Men just have a different way with words, I guess…


Flashback Friday: Kyoto, Japan

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Cherry blossom season in Kyoto is magical- and a little crazy.

All over the city from mid-March to mid-April, the blooms take on the most beautiful range of colors from white to pale and bright pink. The trees look like they are cradling fluffy pockets of snow.

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When the wind blows and blossoms flutter to the ground, people stop what they’re doing and immerse themselves in the flowery downpour.
As you might imagine, the crowds come out in full force. It’s such a festive time and there are so many community events going on at the temples. Ladies wear their finest colorful spring kimono and photographers are everywhere.
The best part is that trees look gorgeous day and night. This particular tree is famous in Kyoto. I captured this image at sunset on our first day.

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With the huge influx of people into Kyoto, hotels book up months in advance and can be alarmingly expensive, averaging $150 per person a night. Starting in January, I tried making reservations at half a dozen places to no avail.

I finally found one budget traditional inn, the White Hotel Kyoto with availability. The receptionist sounded completely wacky on the phone and the Trip Advisor Reviews for this inn were dreadful. Basically, they warned “Don’t stay here!”

But given the price and time of year, we went for it anyway.

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Thankfully, the inn suited us just fine. Yes, the receptionist was completely cuckoo and it was cramped and we slept on tatami mats on traditional Japanese futon. But the price was great at only 4600 yen per person (~$50/night), the location near the train station was excellent, and it did have loads of character.
Traditional Japanese inns require guests to leave their shoes at the front and wear hotel slippers inside. One hilarious particular about this inn were the “special” slippers designated for our humungous foreign feet…

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Kyoto Travel Tip #1

The Kyoto White Hotel is a good value during cherry blossom season and the location can’t be beat. It’s a 3 minute walk from the Kyoto Train, Subway, and Bus Stations with loads of restaurants and bars nearby. Don’t be intimidated by the Trip Advisor Reviews, but keep in mind it’s a little bit strange…

Next week’s flashback will feature a Blue Eyed Geisha… who do you think that could be?


Friday Flashback: Snow Monkeys in Japan!

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*I think this is my favorite trip ever!

In no way can I do justice writing about the snow monkey adventure we had in Japan.

It really defies words, but with photos and descriptions, I’ll try…

This trip was a planes, trains, and automobile adventure.

Here’s how it went: We flew from Okinawa to Toyko, embarked on a super fast bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, spent the night there and enjoyed the luminary festival, and then woke the next morning to catch a bus into the mountains.

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From the bus stop, we then WALKED another 2 km into the Jigokudani Monkey Park. We had beautiful sunny weather that morning, and the hike through the snowy narrow mountain path was magical.

Once we entered the park, monkeys were everywhere.

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Planning the trip, I had envisioned seeing five or six monkeys scamper by quickly. I thought we’d have to scramble to take photos and video before they ran off into the woods. But we encountered probably 100 monkeys leisurely roving about the site. According to locals, about 200 macaques live in this park.

The main attraction were the monkeys that sit in the hot springs to warm themselves.

Are you wondering if the monkeys get cold afterwards? The answer is no. We learned that macaques, unlike humans, do not have sweat glands that cool them off.

There were also plenty of chances to see monkeys frolicking in the snow.

The baby monkeys were about the cutest things ever, little puffy fur balls that hopped around. This baby kept trying to climb the cable and kept sliding down unsuccessfully. Everybody who witnessed the cuteness couldn’t help but ooh and ah over it.

Are you a fan of monkeys?


Flashback Friday

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A few years ago, we spent the night on Zamami Island, off the coast of Okinawa, Japan.

This tiny island was so low key with only few sunbathers on the beach. In fact, it’s the perfect kind of island that shuts down once the sun goes down.

I still remember how quiet and peaceful it was there, and how beautiful and clear the water was!

I did forget this one funny detail, though… we stopped at a small cafe and had a drink after dinner.

There we found the funniest magazines that featured cat centerfolds! Only in Japan, folks…

You can read another post about a special experience we had on Zamami Island here.