Monday, November 02, 2009

The Reunions

The next couple of days were to be spent meeting up with former students and catching up a bit. on Friday evening, I got together with a group and spent the evening at a nice little Spanish bar before moving down the road to the Lion's Head, which had always been "our" bar, with its close proximity to the school. It was a great evening to be sure.

Saturday morning, Yoshiko came down to Utsunomiya and dropped Keita and I off at Ray's place for lunch while she enjoyed her freedom from our little monster to do some shopping. Once again, proof that our little man is never happier than when he's eating... here he is with Ray's eldest daughter.

And with the Ray man himself. Keita enjoyed his time here, not only because of the easily accessible food, but the family's pet rabbit and the number of cute Japanese girls willing to spend time with him.

In the afternoon, after stopping by AEON to show off Keita, I met up with Stacy and met her little guy, 3 month old Jyouji, for the first time. Cute little feller, and he behaved quite well as we hung out at the new Tochigi Government building, which has an observatory on the top floor. Here's the view up Kencho, with the leaves well on their way.

And a view of the grounds of Futara-yama shrine, an oasis of green in the concrete jungle of Utsunomiya.

Afterwards, we headed out to Metro for my final visit this trip, and enjoyed some great coffee and mont blanc desserts. I'll miss their Vietnamese Curry! We then headed out to the Lion's Head's hopping Halloween party... Really quite sad that the changes have served to empty the place out. By the time we'd finish work on Saturdays, this place was always packed... and here is is empty on a Saturday night, and Halloween on top of that... sigh. I guess the whole economy thing also isn't helping. I noticed on Friday night that the streets were practically empty when we left the bar at 1:30AM. That was never the case before, with crowds always huddling outside the entrances of bars and karaoke places along o-dori. It was really strange to be able to see and feel a recession that we, living in a government town, just haven't felt the effects of.

I ended up leaving on a 10PM train, quite tired from the running around and with a little more of it to do!

On Sunday morning, I loaded up Keita's car seat onto our little travel dolly and took the little man to Utsunomiya for lunch with Aiichirou and Fumi. He was quite serious on the train the whole way, especially as more and more people piled on. He loves trains though, and started mooing at cows as we passed a farm, to the delight of those around us on the train. Ever the little flirt, he was all smiles when a group of high school girls started paying attention to him. My first solo train trip with the little guy went off without a hitch. We arrived to Aiichirou in the kitchen, preparing a Chinese feast for us. Keita as usual wasn't interested in waiting for all the dishes to come out, getting down to business early.

I was impressed at how well he did, since he's been acting out being out of his element the last couple of weeks. It helped that their house had lots of space and lots of places for him to run around.

And here we are on Monday, less than 48 hours from flying out. We dropped by Yoshiko's friend's noodle factory earlier, nice little place... and we made out like bandits with a bag full of noodles and soup stock fresh off the factory floor.

Now our thoughts turn to the flight back. A quick look at the seating on the flight tells me we'll have lots of empty seats around us (Yay bad economy!) which will make things easier for sure. The packing begins tomorrow.

Friday, October 30, 2009


And here I be, back in Tokyo with now less than a week before our flight back to Canada. It's strange how almost a month has gone by both quickly and slowly, maybe depending on whether I was traveling or trying to stay warm around the kotatsu at the in-laws place.

We had a blast here in sleepy Osawa on Wednesday night. Through Mixi, a Japanese social networking site, Yoshiko had reconnected with someone she used to play with in a band some 10 years ago. The group is still together, minus a drummer who went pro, and they setup a jam session at a tiny little bar near Yoshiko's parents in our honour. We spent the evening having beers and food while listening to some tunes and Yoshiko got to catch up with the gang. To make sure we weren't the only ones there, they invited a bunch of friends, who ensured the bar didn't lose any money for putting on a show on a Wednesday night. The band was hilarious on stage, very self conscious of playing in front of a native speaker, which made for an ongoing joke of them insisting they weren't signing in English but in Scandinavian. They even tried to play me up onto the stage to sing with the band, but my mind wasn't able to put more than a couple of words together from the oldies they were signing so I declined with a promise to be prepared for our next visit. It was just a great evening, in an intimate venue, with some fun people who know how to let loose. As hard as the Japanese work, they certainly party with a certain amount of gusto, for example when the male lead signer disappeared during a solo and came back out in a short, silver sequined dress and a huge Afro wig in which he spent the rest of the set. It was a great evening out to be sure.

Thursday morning, I hopped on the Tobu line from Imaichi down to Tokyo to meet up with Doris and Andre who were arriving in Tokyo after visiting Hiroshima, Kyoto and Hakone after I left them last week. My first stop was the Kebob place in Ueno's Ameyoko where I grabbed lunch. After checking in to my hotel, we hopped on the trusty Yamanote line and headed a couple of stops down to Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics mecca, where I was looking for a camera case and new ear phones for my ipod.

Unfortunately, the case I was looking at was way overpriced at more than $80, so I'll stick with the one I've got now. Managed to find some comfortable ear phones though, and Doris and Andre got to experience the massive Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara, so a good stop all 'round.

We then headed to Shibuya where we crossed the famed crossing multiple times before wandering around immersed in the crowds of evening shoppers. Ended up at an Indian restaurant for dinner, since we'd all had quite enough of Japanese for now, and then headed back to Ueno for the night.

Friday morning, we'd hoped to make our way up Shinjuku's Tokyo Metropolitan Government building before the haze set in. The day looked great as we made our way out there, nice blue skies everywhere. Here is the behemoth of a building, which is essentially Tokyo's City Hall.

And the view from the top, with the Park Hyatt on the left. Unfortunately not as clear as I'd have liked, but better than some of the times I've been our there.

Every time I manage to get up somewhere and see the city, I'm amazed at the sheer size of it. An endless sea of buildings, houses, streets, train lines... and almost all built in the last 60 years, with very little having survived the fire bombings of WWII.

The TMG Building has observatories in both towers, on the 45th floor, and it's free... on a clear day, which I guess would mean mostly in the winter, you can get nice views of mount Fuji from up here.

And that was basically it for me. Headed on back to Ueno to pick up my bag and I was off to Utsunomiya for a well deserved nap.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chillin' in the Prefecture

Well it's been almost a week since my return from my little 2o some odd train, 1700 kilometer tour. We haven't been up to much, just relaxing and trying to get our little guy settled down some. He hasn't taken all that well to being away from home, and this is probably the worse age to travel with a child as well, since he can't understand what's going on, but it's slowly getting better.

We have had a couple of outings worth mention, just running around Northern Tochigi a bit. The day after I arrived, Wednesday, we took Keita out to a really nice park between Imaichi and Nikko. This was/will be the site of the Soba festival shortly, lots of green grass, lovely view of the mountains.

After an initial attempt at playing at the large park, where he wouldn't leave other kids' toys alone (there's that "not understanding" thing), we exiled him to the other side of the park, where there was a little play structure and a lots of space to run around. Our little man is always most happy when it's snack time, this day was no different!

Here's the structure for those who "don't play well with others"... lol Keita didn't seem to mind.

On Thursday, the whole gang packed into the car and we headed up into the hills towards Nasu, with the intention of visiting the prefectural aquarium up there. When we got there however, we were surprised to find the gates shut! Unfortunately, we'd gone and driven the hour and a half up here on the aquarium's "4th Thursday of every month" off. Lovely! We were planning on visiting Yoshiko's uncle/aunt while we were up here anyway, so we ended up there a bit early is all. After coffee with them, we hit the road again and headed to yet another nice park for a picnic. The park seemed to be an outing destination for schools as we saw quite a few groups out and about, matching hats and all.

After lunch, and having let Keita play for a bit, we headed up a little further into the park where there's a bit of a farm/petting zoo/amusement area which Yoshiko and I had visited back when we were dating. Our little guy had fun running around and mooing at all the animals. This little goat down below decided to make a break for it as we entered the enclosure, and had to be corralled back in by my father-in-law.

Keita didn't really know what to do with these goats, who quickly crowded around looking for food... one even grabbed a bite out of my shirt.

After sampling some of the farm's wonderfully creamy ice cream, we headed on back home, with plans to retry the aquarium thing another day. Kind of funny that we ended up there on the one day during our entire time we're in Japan that the place was closed... oh well.

We tried again on Saturday morning, with Yoshiko's brother coming along for the day this time. Gates were open as we came in, and the aquarium was all decked out for Halloween, complete with underwater graveyards. Keita having recently learned the word "fish", he kept running around from tank to tank pointing out that these were all in fact fish. Cute!

The aquarium included a tunnel through an aquarium in which these massive (largest freshwater fish?) were swimming, I believe they're from the amazon. Keita ended up more enthralled with the scuba diver doing the cleaning in the tank.

After a good hour in the aquarium (recommended for anyone living in the area for sure, 600 yen is on the cheap side for entry fees to these places, and it was better than the one at Shinagawa), we headed back outside into the expansive grounds of the aquarium.

And what's a visit to an aquarium without a good koi feeding? This pond was full of the buggers, and they put on quite the show as they tried to get at the food we were throwing.

While Keita enjoyed throwing food at them, his impression of the squirming mass of fish was "yack". His word, not mine...

So that was that, after a rather difficult meal at Denny's, not the same as back home, just another family restaurant... we headed on back to Yoshiko's aunt and uncle's place where their grandkids Yuna and Shuka were home from school. Keita got to play around with them for a bit, in between trips to the ubiquitous snack bowl, present during any visit to a Japanese home...

Today (Sunday), Yoshiko, Keita and I drove into Utsunomiya for lunch at Cafe Praktica (again for me) and to show off our little man. He did a surprisingly good job, thoroughly enjoyed Praktica's fabulous quiche and we got in a bit of shopping before heading on back home. He's now passed out upstairs, poor little guy is still getting over jet lag... as am I actually... toss and turn for a good part of the night, though that may be due to sleeping on the floor, can't wait to get back into my own bed!

Just a week and a half left before we fly back to cold cold Canada. Hope the snow holds off for a bit more so I can get my yard work done. And I guess I'll have to start thinking about the return to work at some point, though for the first time ever, work is in no way on my mind. Nice to be able to make a clean break for a holiday!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nara and Osaka

Turns out the choice of coming back to Yougendou was a good one. It was a fabulous place to just hang out, do some laundry and recover a bit from the relatively intense travelling we'd done thus far. Sunday, was just such a day. With Doris trying to beat a cold, I gave Andre directions onhow to get to Nara and sent him on his way. I went out for a walk for lunch on yet another lovely day and poked around the quiet Oji area. I can't say enough about Yougendou, check out their web site and you can get a feel for it. Here's the front entrance, with a sign drawing clients to their fantastic little dining bar.

And a shot of the interior, this is the breakfast area of the guesthouse.

It was interesting to talk with the boss of the place, Chris, and hear about how they got started here and all the work they've done. They have really done a fantastic job keeping the house traditional while ensuring all the proper amenities are provided to guests. Highly recommended to anyone staying in the Osaka/Kyoto/Nara area, each of which are like a 30 minute train ride away at the most. Yougendou is one stop away from World Heritage Horyuji as well, which makes an easy bike ride as we discovered on Monday morning.

After checking out, we rented a couple of bikes (500Yen per day) from the guest house, grabbed a map and were on our way.

The weather was once again cooperating and the 20 minute bike ride to Horyuji was fantastic. Of course while travelling in Japan and visiting "famous" places, you have to contend with three types of crowds. First, on weekdays there are the duo of school trips and retirees' organised bus trips, and then on weekends there's just the crush of people in general. Being a Monday, we only had to contend with the first two, as regiments of school kids descended upon Horyuji.

This temple houses the world's oldest surviving wooden buildings, dating back to the 700s, pretty impressive.

After the intensely decorated Toshogu, this temple looks decidedly conservative, but does still include some nice carvings and details, such as the dragons on the corner's of the main hall.

Once again, I got into the habit of taking these dramatic roof line/skyline shots, like how this one turned out.

After grabbing a nice lunch just outside the temple, we made our way back to Yougendou to return the bikes, collect our bags and say farewell to the great staff. If I were ever to live in Japan again, I think this is the kind of place I'd like to run or work at. Shortly thereafter, we were off and running again, leaving the ancient capital of Nara behind and heading to the massive modern metropolis of Osaka. Our hotel was located smack dab in the middle of Dotombori, the entertainment and shopping district with literally hundreds upon hundreds of restaurants and shops.

Osaka's big draw for me was the food, with Takoyaki and Oconomiyaki originating here. As dusk fell, we headed out on a quest for dinner and to look at the dazzling array of signage trying to entice passers by to eat at THIS restaurant and try THIS dish... must be difficult to ply one's trade surrounded by so many competitors, but they've certainly got the volume to make a go of it.

We settled on a restaurant serving up Osaka's signature dishes with a twist and thoroughly enjoyed our meal of fried noodles, oconomiyaki and negiyaki. Afterwards, we wandered the streets a bit more before heading back to the hotel and turning in. This was to be my last night on duty as tour guide, Doris and Andre are on their own for the next two weeks as they travel to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Hakone and Tokyo. Good luck!

So here I am on the Shinkansen, at the end of yet another bit of travelling in Japan. Went back to some places I'd been to before (Matsumoto, Kamikochi, Yougendou, Osaka) and saw some new things as well (Tsumago and Magome). This trip also helped focus my interests for our next trip to Japan, assuming my habit of buying a train pass and doing a 7 day trip every time continues. I will probably end up back at Yougendou again the next time, using it as a base to check out the Kinki region a bit more. I've visited 2 of the 3 "famous" views of Japan, may well do the 3rd the next time around. I may also head further west, and check out Shikoku or Kyushu. I haven't see anything along the north-eastern coast of the country either, so there are still lots of options open to me.

Now, time to head back home, hug my dear wife and son and chill out for a bit. Going to have to start making plans to see some people before we leave, though the parties do seem to plan themselves. We're just about at the halfway mark of our trip, 2 more weeks to go.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Magome and Tsumago

On Friday morning, we left the beautiful mountains of Kamikochi behind and made our way into Gifu prefecture (another prefecture added to my list!) and the quaint little town of Magome. Magome and it's twin city Tsumago are two post towns on the Nakasendo. The mail heading for Tokyo would be relayed up the road from town to town all the way up the line to Tokyo, by foot. If this section of the Nakasendo is any indication, the whole relay thing was a good idea.

We arrived once again under clear blue skies, quite lucky with the weather so far this trip. After finding Tajimaya, dropping off our bags and dealing with a little passport/money/train pass left on a bus situation, we were off and exploring the town, which has been modelled after the original post town of the Edo period.

As the sun started setting, the colours really started to pop on all the old wooden shops, inns and homes up the slope of Magome.

When we got back to the hotel, we encountered a group of 17 seniors from Canada, the UK and Australia, checking in as part of a walking tour. Dinner was probably the best I've had, and was likely geared to the fact that all the guests were gaikokujin for the evening, the signature cricket dish I'd seen on Tajimaya's web site was glaringly absent from our table... lol

After enjoying a leisurely 3 hour meal, we turned in and did the standard jet lag wake up at 5AM thing once again, can’t wait for that to end… So needless to say we were ready for breakfast when they came knocking at 7:30, we ate and headed out the door. We used the luggage forwarding service available to hikers doing the walk between the two towns, Andre headed on down the Nakasendo and we hopped a taxi to beat him to Tsumago. With the early arrival, we had the place almost to ourselves, which was really neat.

Soon enough the buses full of visitors started unloading, but it was still a very neat place to hangout for a morning.

As the rain started falling, we hopped on a bus which eventually connected us to a train, and then another, and another, and one last one... which brought us to Nara, and the beautiful guesthouse, Yougendou. Not sure what the plan is for tomorrow, probably fairly relaxing after all that running around, we'll see.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Ah Kamikochi, such a beautiful place to spend some time. For someone who didn't have the chance to grow up near mountains, any trip into "real" mountains is a treat, and this area certainly doesn't disappoint in the mountain department. We were pleasantly surprised with breakfast at the hotel this morning, saved us some time and we got to start off the day easy. We headed on down to the bus terminal and hopped on our mountain-bound train for the hour and a half ride up some nasty narrow mountain roads surrounded by breathtaking scenery.

After fighting the bus traffic and arriving, we quickly found our hotel and dropped off our bags, got dressed for the walk and headed out the door. Here's Alps Sansou, nestled in the woods and surrounded by mountains... fantastic hotel!

As we were coming out the door, we spotted a couple of monkeys hanging around the building and licking the salt off the rocks of the foundation. As we came out, the couple of monkeys turned into a whole gang and we were surrounded with the docile little guys. None of them approached us, so people around here are obviously very good about not feeding the wildlife. There were quite a few wee ones with the group.

As we stood by and more and more monkeys came bumbling down the road, we spotted a few babies hitching a ride on mom.

This one would pause between fits of scratching and stare off intensely into space...

So after getting our fill of monkeys, we headed on down the trail to check out the true attraction of Kamikochi... the mountain views.

This area is absolutely gorgeous, with peaks as high as 3200 meters towering all around and a pristine river running through the valley.

Our timing was doubly good in that the leaves were well on their way, giving us some nice shots of colour as we did the 6km loop out to Myojin and back.

After resting for a bit in the sunshine and enjoying the view, we headed back to the hotel to relax, only to find our gang of primates grooming themselves all over our parking lot.

Hard life eh?

Yet another fantastic day, the weather has been amazing and certainly a highlight of the trip. We just finished up a traditional Japanese meal and are stuffed to the gills. Ready for an evening of relaxing and a good night's rest before hitting the road again tomorrow (and then the rails) on the way to Magome.