Japan Photo Diary, Day 10-12: The Lost in Translation One & Museum Hopping in Hakone

Koya-San

I put so much effort into planning our route FROM Koyasan, that I seem to believe getting TO Koyasan sure cannot be that difficult. All I know is that we need to take three trains.

Of course, taking rural countryside trains are a bit more of a hassle than the metro that run every 5-or-so minutes with clear signs even foreign eyes can comprehend.
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After catching the first two departures alright, I seem to have a flick on the third and get us off one station too early. We end up seemingly in the Middle of Nowhere, or at least that is what I imagine this train stop would translate to in English. Getting off a station too early is not a big deal. Unless the next train will not arrive for another hour.

This one event seems to be the first in a long row of domino bricks of mistakes. To make a long story short: We leave Kyoto around 7am and arrive on top of Koyasan just after 4pm…
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Getting to Koyasan is a bit of an adventure on its own. (Like, without the extra detour to Nowhereland). For the final bits the train winds its way up the mountain, with its wall on one side and steep valleys on the other. At the final station, you catch a cable car to reach all the way to the top.
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Most people visiting Koyasan will stay in shukubo (aka temple lodgings).
As a) I do everything last minute and b) this is high season, we however spend the night at a capsule style backpackers called Koyasan Guest House Kokuu.

It has a design that brings chapels slash stables to mind along with the best English spoken staff encountered the entire trip. (One has even studied in Scotland and gets muy excited when hearing about me arriving from Granite City!)
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The biggest attraction is undoubtedly Oku-no-in — where the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi resides surrounded by circa 200’000 tombstones and monuments. Kobo Daishi was the founder of the Shingon Buddhism that Koyasan is a pilgrammage for; he was last seen in year 835 and according to legend he is to this day sat in meditation inside his mausoleum awaiting the arrival of Miroku (the Future Buddha).

It is a really atmospheric, almost eerie feel walking about the cemetery as the sun begins to descend. Despite knowing we are most certainly not alone as visitors of the mountain, it sure feels like it as you vanish into the large grounds.

You can also watch the monks do their morning chanting in the early am’s over at Okunoin, as we did the following morning. Brings me back to my week at Doi Suthep in 2014.
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Koyasan has recently gotten a new supermarket that stays open until late, but other than that everything closes early (like 5pm max). Which in this case means I did not have time to try out Shojin-Ryori — a traditional buddhist veggie (vegan actually) cuisine — typical for the region. Alas, the more reason to visit again!

On the bright side, it brings people inside and together — we spend the evening drinking copious amounts of tea at the hostel, chatting to fellow travellers about our Japan feels.

Hakone

DSC_0114DSC_0081Fresh out of the chanting, we hurry off to catch the cable car back down to the train station. With the disastrous logistic failures of the day past, we were on a roll. The perkiest bit was when I realised we could get off the shinkansen already in Odawara, instead of travelling all the way back to Tokyo to swap trains. Ha-le-lu!

It is still quite the bus trip to reach the top of the mountain though. Once we are checked in at our hotel Mount View, we head straight out and into Museum of the Little Prince just up the road. Which must be the most unpredictable of locations to find a museum dedicated to a French childrens tale?
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Apparently the founder was so fond of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book that she felt a museum was in order. It is a full on experience, with a French style townscape and gallery of St Exupéry’s life doings. (Most of the accompaning captions with the works found in the latter are in either Japanese or French though… Of course I do not really mind just watching photos).
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Back at the hotel (it is so alien to me staying in a hotel that my fingers automatically add an extra s in there) we change into our yukatas to get into the groove. We head downstairs for dinner, then spend the remains of the evening in the public outdoors onsen.

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The following morning I dress up in my most museumy outfit and we take the bus to Hakone Open Air Museum. It is a very hot morning and thus the sun creates some really harsh shadows over the works unfortunately.
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Hakone turns out to be a right mekka for art museums – there seems to be something for every taste, at every other bus stop.

This makes me completely forget what we really came there for – to catch a glimpse of infamous Mount Fuji…
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Unfortunately the installation I am most keen to watch, The Symphonic Sculpture, is having maintenance work made on this very day (what are the odds?!) so there is no entry.

They do host an enchanting photography exhibition by Kishin Shinoyama – a series of portraits of fellow artists, including Yoko Ono, in their right element. That along with the vegan friendly sushi bar down the road makes it a pretty decent excursion anyway.


This was part 6/7 of my Japan Photo Diary, the previous entries can be found below:

Jetlagged in a rainy Tokyo.
Livin la vida Ryokan & the 1st glimpse of Kyoto.
Bamboo groves, trendy coffees & hidden gems.
Neon lights & deers of might.
A historical hike & a last, lazy day in Kyoto.

Japan Photo Diary, Day 8-9: A historical hike & a last, lazy day in Kyoto.

Magome – Tsumago

DSC_0840DSC_0841DSC_0847Saturday morning we take the train northbound once again, from Kyoto to Magome via Nagoya. Our aim is the 7.8 kilometre hike between Magome and Tsumago.
DSC_0849DSC_0852DSC_0858The hike is part of the old Nakasendo route. Nakasendo in turn used to be one of five highways during the Edo period, this particular one connecting Edo (present day Tokyo) to Kyoto.

Plenty of restoration work has been made to give the hike as an authentic feel as possible, with Magome and Tsumago being some of the most picturesque villages along the route.
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Although loads (like, literally) and loads of buses full of tourists are found at our Magome starting point we quickly descend from them.

Throughout the hike we only meet a dozen of other hikers, and an equal amount of warning bells ↓ to ring in order for the bears living in the surrounding areas to stray elsewhere at the sound.
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Passing waterfalls, tiny villages, a dog or two, bamboo groves, cemeteries and (lucikly) no bears- it is a really beautiful hike, and a perfect day trip away from the big cities.


Kyoto

Come Sunday, I am completely knackered from acting constant tour guide. The cold that had been harassing me with seemingly new symptoms ever since our long flight, seems to have finally given in and left. Possibly he felt I was not paying him enough attention.

(But what conditions for a cold though; subway stations with cross drafts, slushy snow, hours of hiking in damp socks, sun and clouds overlapping one another — I am so lucky it did not completely knock me off my feet, forcing me to spend the holiday in horizontal mode munching on penicillin rather than onigiris!)
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So we make our way into town after a little lie in, go for coffee at % arabica before the queues hit the shop and then sit outside the narrow alleyways of Gion, people watching under the sun, sipping our liquid joy.

Side note: let me just point out that the latte acting model in this photo above is mum’s dairy one; their soy drinks looked no better than what comes out of caffè nero.
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As the afternoon nears, we decide to go see a Geisha-performance at Kyo Odori. At this venue the shows are held annualy between the 1st and 3rd Sunday throughout April, luckily our visit coincides with the very first.

The show lasts circa an hour and we are not allowed to photograph. We are sat on the balcony in the very stuffy theatre. In combination with the loud music and my aching menstrual belly, it all feels a bit claustrophobic.
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For a late lunch we go to Kamisa — a little cafe and shop within a yoga studio. They offer set lunches from circa ¥1’000; the translations only say “brown rice lunch” or similar, but it does not really matter when the entire cafe is profiled vegan. It comes with soup, salads and soy meat.

From the café, we bring some freshly baked orange flavour muffin and coffee to enjoy down at the river along with fellow worshippers of the sun. Truth be told, the winds are way too cold for such activities but who ever learns.
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For our final Kyoto activity, we walk up to Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavillion) which is crowded now just before sunset. We skip the ¥400 entry fee because of this; as you can see an equally beautiful sunset from Kyoto Station free of charge.

As the spring is yet cold, we are all watching the cherry trees with great anticipation, hoping they will bloom soonest. So when you stumble over what is seemingly the town’s one early bloomer, expect a camera fest galore.
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Then we argue over sushi, go back to the airbnb to pack and check train time tables… Yet unknowing of the horrendous amount of mix ups I am to do regarding said time tables the following morning. Until then!


This was part 5/7 of my Japan Photo diary; the previous entries can be found below:

± Jetlagged in a rainy Tokyo.
± Livin la vida Ryokan & the 1st glimpse of Kyoto.
± Bamboo groves, trendy coffees & hidden gems.
± Neon lights & deers of might.

 

Japan Photo Diary, Day 5-6: Bamboo groves, trendy coffees & hidden gems.

Alternative title, ‘A 2-minute Stroll Scroll down the Kyoto tourist attractions.”

Despite the early morning and having done no research other than which stop to get off at, we do not have to neither worry nor read maps when arriving to Arashiyama rail station as there is already a decent amount of tourists out and about.

We target a couple with pretty looking cameras and then shadow them; trying our best to walk slow enough not to surpass them, yet fast enough to not lose them behind the next corner. All while crossing our fingers they are, in fact, also on their way to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
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Perhaps you recognise the grove; it can be found on several top lists on essential things to see whilst in Japan. These lists also tend to bring up the topic of how difficult the task of capturing this place on photo in a way that does it justice is.

Well, they are right. Now you guys know also.
DSC_0492DSC_0494Back in the city, a train ride and four espressos later, we slowly make our way to the Nishiki Market – a narrow arcade market stretching for five blocks.
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DSC_0501DSC_0518 Via Happycow (as per usual) we find the all vegan restaurant Hale that is located within the market. The place is pretty well hidden if you do not know what you are looking for. Actually, it is proven difficult to find even if you DO know what you are looking for, as I have to walk past several times before finding its entrance.

Once inside, the place really feels like an oasis compared to the market chaos just outside.
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On our way to Gion, aka the “Geisha quarters”, we stumble (quite literally) over Ryozen-Kannon when its massive sitting statue of the Goddess of Mercy surveying the city from her height of 24 metres suddenly hovers over us.
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(My kind of philosophy if I ever open up a business ↑)

After this we collect our bags to check-in at our new airbnb out in suburbia and that is the end of that Wednesday.
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Thursday calls for yet another early morning. We are at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple, well before the gates open.

A security guy tells us to walk around the sides of the complex for 15-or-so minutes and there will be another gate that opens before 9am. Either he was pulling an early April’s Fool prank or something very essential got lost in translation, as we end up in the hills without a single alternative gate in sight. Atleast we got to enjoy a decent view from  up there.
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Back at the temple grounds, still mere minutes after its opening, the place was pretty darn crowded (I can only imagine how it would be like going around noon!) and thus it felt very much like we were sheep being herded around.

I guess that is the thing with this kind of trip; you have a limited amount of time and you want to squeeze all the must-see sights in, yet you end up feeling completely un-original chasing down the same postcard views as everyone else. But hey, I guess that is how tourism works ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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In the afternoon we join the crowd queueing up outside % arabica – the award winning coffee shop. (They also have a shop out in Arashiyama if you are needing a caffeine hit whilst exploring the Bamboo Grove!) These guys are really passionate about their doings, and it is easy to tell why the queue more often than seldom swirls its way down the street.

Also, check out the look of that sleek espresso machine?! Divinity.
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Following along the tourist trail, we take the train out to Fushimi-Inari Taisha to climb up through its seemingly endless amount of torii gates in time for the sunset.

This one was a top pick from the trip’s bucket list. There are four kilometres of wooded pathway that crosses over Inari-san. The bottom bit is well crowded with people wanting to have their photos taken, you are basically a potential photo bomber every 6th step you take (but don’t quote me on those numbers!). The higher you proceed, the lesser the crowd. Top tip of the week.
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About halfway up the mountain there is a beautiful pit stop with a view over Kyoto. DSC_0662DSC_0665
We climb up as the sun declines from the sky. Suddenly the crowds seem to have vanished and you can hear birds chirp and the light buzzing as power travels through the electricity wires.
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For both brunch and dinner that day we went to Choice, which I think you can tell is a pretty top notch grade. I will write a seperate post dedicated to this place a bit further on.


This is part 3/7 of my Japan Photo Diary, the previous posts can be found here:

× Japan Photo Diary, Day 1-2: Jetlagged in a rainy Tokyo.
× Japan Photo Diary, Day 3-4: Livin la vida Ryokan & the 1st glimpse of Kyoto.

Next time we will do a daytrip to Nara & Osaka, and head out on a historical hike. Until then! x

Japan Photo Diary, Day 3-4: Livin la vida Ryokan & the 1st glimpse of Kyoto.

Leaving Tokyo behind, we put our JR-passes to use travelling north east towards Yudanaka.DSC_0118DSC_0119
Passing by snow covered roof tops and 1998’s host of the Winter Olympics Nagano ↑, where we changed trains and had time enough for coffee.
DSC_0131Once we arrived to our final destination of Shibu Onsen, another train and one bus later, the weather looked like this.

Since we arrived a couple of hours prior to check-in, we decided to get the area’s no.1 tourist attraction over and done with, namely visiting the Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani.
DSC_0136DSC_0142DSC_0154I had read somewhere that one could walk up the hill to the monkeys in about half an hour, but must have missed out on the tiny detail of that being from the last bus stop and not from the village at the bottom of the hill… Either way, we chose a forest route signposted from the village and I am sure it took us well over an hour (and that excludes the many photo-breaks that were made along the way) and only met one couple and two snow trucks on the way. #offthebeatentrack #theroadlesstravelled 😛

But never mind that, apart from my choice of footwear (sneakers baby) getting completely drenched in the snow slush that covered the road, our longer walk through the high rising pines was absolutely beautiful.
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Arriving at our destination, my heart was definitely pounding at an increased speed. I could not help but to think of my latest monkey-encounter in Malaysia, especially when one jumps out in front of this American couple, on their way to depart, and grabs the lady’s plastic bag containing the printed t-shirt she had just bought and completely demolishes it.

The Snow Monkeys are definitely an interesting breed. What is particular about them is how they are the northern-most living nonhuman primate. To keep warm during the snow filled months they bathe in the natural hot springs. Other than that, they do all the regular monkey business. (Like flea picking and starting fights over hierarchical issues and what not..)
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Back at the Ryokan, we changed into our yukatas before going downstairs to enjoy our dinner; which seemingly consisted of a thousand tiny little dishes.

It all felt a bit like being on a health retreat; sitting in our robes, on the floor, eating a meal mainly consisting of different kinds of mushrooms and tofu (I had requested a vegan meal after all).
DSC_0344DSC_0297DSC_0327Shibu Onsen consists of nine bathhouses, whereof only one is open to the public. The other eight only locals or overnight guests have access to, through a master key that your ryokan will provide. It is said to bring good luck if you visit each one of them.

At first I was a little worried we would not have the time to visit all nine, but finally you do not spend an excessive amount of time in each hot spring. Like 5-10 minutes tops… Unless you want to faint from low blood pressure of course.
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The following day was spent mainly on different modes of transportation. Back to Nagano, up further north-east to Kanawaza, before finally reaching Kyoto.
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At this point I was absolutely starving and we were both a bit cranky arriving at Kyoto Station. But the higher we walked up to explore this magnificent station building, just in time to see the sun fall down over Kyoto and leave everything in a beautiful pastel tone, we quickly forgot about our hunger.

Above and below are “some” photos to illustrate. (Yes little photo bomb, but no kidding, I have already excluded like half of them!!! Too much pretty)
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Our airbnb was like two blocks up this road, by the way. (Pun intended)


This is part 2/7 of my Japan Photo Diary. Hope you enjoyed this somewhat mastic post of two very different towns. The last post covering our first two days in Tokyo can be found here:
Japan Photo Diary, Day 1-2: Jetlagged in a rainy Tokyo.

Next up is two days of exploring Japan’s ancient heart, aka Kyoto.
Until then!
xx

Japan Photo Diary, Day 1-2: Jetlagged in a rainy Tokyo.

DSC_0002Already when hovering in the air above Tokyo I knew we were in for an experience beyond the ordinary. Just look at the order of this harbour, all down to seemingly millimetric perfection,  much in line with the country we were about to encounter.
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We arrived in Toyko at 11am local time. Most part of the day was spent queueing. Twice to get through the border, then near an hour to activate our Japan Rail-passes at their airport office.

This in turn made our mantra for the day something along the lines that “at least it moved us an hour closer to bedtime” → Beating that jetlag blues. After all, for us it was around 2 o’clock in the morning that we had landed upon Japanese grounds.
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Once we were settled into our AirBnb (believe me did that take some time! Hey, here is a secret travel tip: Do not follow the wrong co-ordinates on Google Maps. You might not find the place you are looking for ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) we hit the streets of Shinjuku – known for being a major administrative hub, housing the world’s busiest railway station along with the Tokyo Metropolitan Building where you can enjoy a decent view over the city free of charge. (If you are, surprise, willing to queue for it!)DSC_0020
We were however on the food hunt. Following a HappyCow recommendation we ended up at Ripple – part of a smaller chain of restaurants called AinSoph serving vegan food around Tokyo. Mum had their falafel burger and myself a burrito – particularly tasty after the joke* of a “meal” that SAS had served me on our way over.

(*The philosophy of my in flight meal seemed to be “let us replace all the non-vegan items with different flavoured jams.” Whereby my mum is sat with a full 3-course breakfast meal; myself with a bread roll and three types of condiments. Considering they had plenty of notice AND offer their customers a vegan meal plan option, I would have expected something a wee less spartan! Greetings, Hangry Bastards ™!)DSC_0041The following morning we had coffee at the Starbucks surveying Shibuya Crossing. (I have never in my life purchased so many cups of Starbucks coffee as I have during this trip! Who am I!)

All the best seats were obviously already occupied by dudes and their tripods, but the building also contains floor upon floor of stationaries. The top ones that sell books and magazines feels like a haven escaping the crowds of lower floors.

Processed with VSCO with t1 presetAfter satisfying our caffeine depots, we went to a Purikura. In other words it is sort of an interactive photobooth experience. Snapchat IRL. Instant airbrushing and doe eyes making you look like a far more kawaii version of your normal self.

I won’t explain it in much more details, I think the severe confusion you are struck by definitely adds to the comedic effect of it all. However I will add that I have not laughed like that in a la la long time!
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For lunch we walked just around the corner of Shibuya Crossing. Initially we ended up in a long queue (I swear, the Japanese love queueing more than the British!) but soon realised it was for the wrong place (phew!). It is relatively easy to miss restaurants and cafes when in Japan as one immediately thinks it ought to be visible on the ground floor – but look up! (Or in some cases down, it may well be a basement you are looking for.)

DSC_0058Up a tiny staircase we went, entering an Indian veggie place called Milan Nataraj. The bright side of chasing vegan grub in a country of fish fanatics – you really avoid the queues and the crowds!

The buffet hostess was lovely and happily pointed out my options as a vegan. (This was before I realised it is clearly labelled on the buffet table itself.) There is a lunch time All You Can Eat (only my four favourite words in that particular order) buffet served daily for about ¥ 1500, which is a price similar to most dishes on the set menu. But the more the merrier, right? At least as a vegan in Japan, one never knows when there will be food other than plain onigiris the next time!
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After lunch we took the train to Harajuku with its fair fashionistas, wacky installations and high pulse. It feels a bit like Tokyo’s response to Camden. The crowds down Takeshita Dori (starting under the wee dinosaur) were just mad. Then again, these little prefectures that make up the grand mass that is Tokyo are more populated than my hometown…

DSC_0099DSC_0111Our final stop before retreating back to the airbnb for the night was the Ueno Park. It is said to be one of the better spots in Tokyo for Hanami.

Due to the colder spring the cherry trees (this one above, that must have been standing under heating lamps or so, was under severe papparazzing! iPhones from all angles!) were far from ready to bloom this last week of March. We still agreed that it was a beautiful park on its own — of course yet hopeful to be able to visit it again later on and see what the fuss was all about.


This was part 1/7 of my Japan Photo Diary. Next post will be of Shibu Onsen and the arrival to Kyoto.