Tsukiji Tuna Auction and Tedious Air Travel

My alarm is going off. How can my alarm be going off? I just fell asleep 5 minutes ago.
Nope, I am mistaken. It really is 2:30 already. I fell asleep 3 hours ago. Why would anyone ever want to wake up at 2:30am? There’s no better reason than a good old fashioned market. A Tokyo Fish Market, to be exact. This place is famous for it’s early morning tuna auction, to which they only allow entry to 120 spectators. 60 for the first auction, 60 for the last. The first auction starts at 5:30, but rumour has it that you need to be there hours earlier if you plan on getting a seat.
So here we are. Getting ready to leave our hotel at 3am. Did I mention that I have to leave for the airport at 8:30? Yeah. That’s happening.

We take a 20 minute taxi to the famed fish market, where I can already see a couple of other tourists walking towards the market. STAY BACK, tourists! If there’s only 120 seats I refuse to be arrivals number 121 and 122. Best believe I’m racing out of this cab to get in line.
A total of four people get to the crosswalk before we manage to jump out of the car, where three officials are standing to direct pedestrian traffic to the tuna auction waiting area. We are lead into a room stuffed with more tourists, all wearing yellow vests. At a first glance, I figure there must be well over 60 people in front of us, but upon doing a quick count I find that it’s really only about 50, and we’re going to make it into the first auction! Sweet! About 10 more people are given yellow vests, before the blue ones start being handed out, signifying the second wave of auction goers. We’ve made it in time! Hooray!!
We’re directed to sit on the ground with everyone else, huddled as tightly together as possible to make room for more people. I don’t think it would kill them to provide some chairs…or a pillow…or really anything besides a 1,000 sq/ft hardwood floor for 120 people.

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It’s 3:20. Now what? We shift around uncomfortably for 2 hours, that’s what.

Hallelujah, 5:25 is here! Us yellow-vests are herded out into the market, leaving the blue vests to fester in that tiny room for another half hour. See ya, suckers! We have previously been warned that any harm that may come to us in the market is our own fault. Now I understand why they have to do this. There are trucks and mini forklifts whizzing about all over the place and none care if they take out a nosey tourist or two. They might even kinda like it. They’re just trying to do their jobs…and now they’ve got a daily flood of photo-happy foreigners to watch out for. Probably not ideal.
I can’t be sure, but it looks like all 60 yellow vests make it to the tuna auctioning room in one piece. Which is a little unfortunate for me, because now we are crammed into an even smaller standing-only space in an aisle of the market room. There are approximately 8 zillion giant frozen tuna fish laying all over the floor to my left and right. Men with pick-axe/fish hook hybrid sticks walk around with flashlights, poking at the tuna, inspecting it for colour, and sometimes stabbing them a little with their sticks.

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I’m looking to the left side, watching the tuna experts examine the huge fish, when a very loud voice holds a long monotone sound from across the room. Cow bells start ringing. Everyone whips around to the right, where an auction is about to begin!
The booming voice starts yelling out what I can only assume to be prices; throwing his hand up in the air like he just don’t care. Similar to English-spoken auctions, the auctioneer has a bizarre humming, quick and barely comprehensible way of yelling. Two or three men stand across from him, some very large tuna fish laying on the ground between them. The group of men stand casually, moving nothing but their hands in very understated gestures. I gather that these hand gestures represent bidding, but again, I can’t be sure.
Some dude wins though, because after much hum-yelling and hand gesturing a forklift rolls up to collect like 8 giant tuna. The auction champion hooking his pick axe into their mouths and hauling them up onto the forklift with the help of a pal. They look REALLY heavy, these crazy frozen fish.
We just catch the beginning of another auction before our time is up and we are pushed out into the busy, truck/forklift traffic hell that is the fish market. I do another great job of not dying, but there are a few close calls.

While sitting and waiting in the tiny pre-auction room, we had been chatting with some other tourists who knew of this supposedly incredible sushi place within the market. Apparently the wait times to get into this place, for sushi at SIX AM, can be over four hours. This famous chef’s son also has a restaurant in the market, with more reasonable wait times of over an hour.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Dad and I stop at the first sushi restaurant that we see. It’s still in the confines of the market, so we’re bound to get fresh fish no matter where we go. The idea of raw fish at 6am is a weird one, but when in Rome Tokyo… do as the fish market people do.

We sit down at a bar where Dad’s sushi and my sashimi are prepared right in front of us. We’re also served a miso soup with mussels in it! I swear the sashimi is like the freshest most fabulous fish I’ve ever eaten. We even get a free gift when we leave! It’s something black in a jam jar… It has yet to be identified. I’m not like a sushi connoisseur or anything, but I can’t imagine how that 4 hour wait could be worth it. I’ll be in Korea by the time these people sit down to breakfast (is it lunch if you have to wait that long?).

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It’s time to head back to the hotel and get my life together. I still haven’t been on public transport where the attendants push people into the train car, so we try once more for the subway. It’s Friday morning…that’s rush hour right?!

Apparently not. The subway is empty. Lame.

Back at the hotel, I finish packing, and try to fit in a nap. I feel another small earthquake while I’m laying in bed. Feeling slightly terrified when the shaking lasts longer than 10 seconds and increases in intensity. Then it’s over, no big D. I fall asleep.
10 minutes later it’s time to get up and go. Solid nap.

Dad and I take our last selfie-of-the-day, and say goodbye before I get on a bus bound for the airport. As per usual when I’m traveling, I feel a mixture of happy and sad. Sad to be leaving Papa Lai and Japan, but simultaneously excited to move on to some place new.

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I am back to the pov life of a backpacker. In order to save money, I booked the dumbest flight ever. I leave Tokyo at 12:25pm to arrive in Osaka at 1:30pm. Then I must wait from 1:30pm until 6:15pm to board my flight to Seoul. Because I’ve essentially been up since 2:30am, it’s a really long day. I’m too old for this stuff now.

I get to eat one last bowl of soba noodle soup before leaving Japan. I’m craving soba noodle soup, and make it my mission (to keep myself occupied during this boring layover) to find a noodle restaurant. I obviously do, but by the time I arrive at a suitable location, I’m a little hangry. Maybe I’m being crazy, but I swear every other patron of the restaurant is watching me eat. Like turning around in their chairs to look at me. Is there something wrong with my hair? Something on my face? I’m just eating noodles…
I’ll never know.

The girl a seat ahead of me loses her passport on my flight to Seoul. I’m kind of a bad person, but I think it’s funny. She’s so flustered, making the flight attendants flustered. All the crew members are on their hands and knees looking under peoples seats, and stepping up on the edge of other peoples seats (including mine) to access the overhead baggage compartment. This goes on for a solid 20 minutes before she finally finds it stuffed in one of her bags. SURPRISE! Everyone claps, she hugs the flight attendant, and they even make an announcement about it. It’s certainly provides me with a bit of entertainment.

Before they announce our landing, my left ear gives me some serious discomfort. I try to be a champ and just deal, but like I’m literally crying because it hurts so much. I grew up learning that if you keep swallowing the pain will all go away, but it’s totally not working. When a flight attendant walks by I politely ask him for a water and he just gives me sad eyes and says “noo, sorry”. I, in a bit of a panic because my ear feels like it’s got pop rocks in it, respond with “I CAN’T HAVE A WATER?”
“Noooo” he says, pointing to the Peach Deli food menu in my seat pocket, and pointing out that it costs ¥200 ($2).
“Ok!”, I say, “Yes that’s fine”, And he just shrugs and says “sorryyyyy”, then goes to walk away.
I stop him again, “are you going to bring the water?”
“Well it’s ¥200 then” he responds, smiling. This irks me beyond words. I understand it’s probably like a bit of a language/cultural barrier; He’s used to people paying up front, and I’m used to free water. Still dude, I need a water pronto. I give him the ¥200 and get a water within a matter of minutes. I drink it in big gulps until my ear spazzes out, and I’m feeling like my brain might quite literally be exploding. Then the pain is just…gone. I have no idea what’s wrong with me but I’m going to attribute it to the small head cold I’ve had for a couple days. Can sinuses explode?

For the next 30 minutes before we land, I feel like I will never fly Peach again. I hate Peach! With their dumb altitude changing and ¥200 water and stuff. Then, when we land, I breeze through customs, collect my bag, hear Gangnam style playing over the airport speakers, and remember that I’m in Korea. Saweeeeeet!

I take the subway to my hostel. So far, I find Seoul’s subway system to be much more comprehensive than Tokyo’s. Super straight forward from the airport at least!
The hostel seems good. I have to sleep on a top bunk. OOOOH backpacking how I have missed you!!!

Birthday in Tokyo

I wake up to so many wonderful birthday messages from my friends and family, all of whom I miss terribly on a day like today! Everyone has been so supportive of my globe galavanting, and as much as I love being out here, it’s so nice to hear from everyone back home.
I’m not ready to be 22. One day you’re at home playing with dolls, wishing so badly to be 16, 18, 21. Then in what feels like NO time, you’re in Tokyo celebrating your 22nd birthday. What now? I’ve never wanted to be any older than 21. Though, technically, I still am for a little while longer if we’re judging by the current time in my original place of birth…which obviously we must. I still have my youth in Canada! Here I have arthritis and bunions. I’ve got a few short hours to figure out what to do with my life as a 22 year old.

Dad orders our breakfast to the room and steps out to speak to the concierge, leaving me in charge of receiving our meal. He isn’t coping so well with this no-tipping thing, and instructs me to offer the room service attendant a ¥500 ($5) coin. We’re staying in a pretty western hotel, so I figure it’s a grey area anyway. I’ll try it.
The doorbell rings and I am greeted by the most anxious, apologetic fellow on the planet. He keeps saying a mixture of “semimasen” which is Japanese for sorry or excuse me, and a lot of English sorrys too. He is very particular about where each plate and cup must go on the table, which is time consuming…so I just stand there awkwardly and watch him. He points out every individual dish. Water included. I thank him and offer him the ¥500 yen to which he throws his hands up at his side and waves them around saying “no no no” so I retract it. Oh god I am SO sorrrrrry. What have I done?! I’ve made him more stressed. He backs out of the room, bowing and saying thank
you and some more sorrys as he goes. Oh me oh my.

When Dad gets back we enjoy our breakfast while Skyping Mom and Sev, who have just arrived in Chicago. Last year on my birthday, we made a three-way Skype call between the four of us when I was in Australia, Dad was in Peru, and Mom and Sev were at home. I wonder how many years in a row I can accomplish this…

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We plan to go visit the Sky Tree, which is Tokyo’s equivalent to the CN Tower. We have dinner reservations at a mountain-top restaurant at 5:30 so time is of the essence yet again. Dad finds out from the concierge that the Sky Tree and the restaurant are at opposite ends of Tokyo, and Tokyo is huge. She’s stressed. She says we need to leave NOW if we want to go to the Sky Tree. I don’t want to leave now, so we decide not to go.

What do we do instead? We go to the gym. Who am I?
The Miyako has a pretty nice gym with a lane pool, sauna, onsen etc. I workout for a bit and then head down to the pool. There are a bunch of rules posted on the wall, like to take off your shoes, shower before entering the pool, and to exercise BEFORE you swim. I don’t see why it matters which order I choose to workout in, but fine.

It’s not a busy day at the gym, and I’m only one of two humans in the pool. There’s one lady who’s been doing laps since before I started my run. I hop in and take it easy, paddling around more than actually swimming for fitness. I make it through one full length of the pool before I’ve broken a rule. A lady comes over to me with two swim caps to choose from and urges me to put one on. I’ve never even worn a swim cap before so I don’t know what to do, but I throw my hair up in a bun and pull the rubbery hat over my head. She looks so relieved. As I go to swim away, I watch her dip a test tube into the water where I have just been. Can she really be checking to see if my hair has contaminated the whole pool? I’m not an expert at chemistry…but that’s totally how it looked. I have ruined the Miyako’s pool. Evacuate! No one swim. There might be a blonde strand on the loose somewhere.

I leave the contaminated fitness centre and get ready for the day in my hotel room, where no one can tell me how to live! I do what I want.

Dad and I leave early so that we have time to explore the surrounding area of the mountain before sitting down to dinner. It’s a long train ride away, and we have to transfer in Shinjuku so we decide to hang out there for a bit and get a coffee instead of heading straight to Takosanguchi. We come across a bakery named Hokuo: The essence of Scandinavia. The sign also says “Scandinavia’s Smell”…which is easy to misread.

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We stop and get three little pastries that look like rundstykke (Dad’s spontaneous spelling of what I would pronounce like rrreun-stroo-ga; a classic Danish weekend breakfast bun).

While sitting and waiting for our train to come, we sit down to try our Scandinavian essence pastries. The first one I bite into is filled with bean paste. Danes don’t eat bean paste. The second, has a sort of Indian flavour…perhaps a little tumeric? The third is just ham, cheese, and corn. They were doing so well until the corn. None of the pastries are what we would classify as Scandinavian, but at least they taste good!

Next up is our long train ride to Takosanguchi, yet another destination right at the end of the line. Dad and I take turns napping, and therefore take turns snapping awful sleeping photos of one another. It’s only funny when I do it.

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We take a shuttle bus up the mountain instead of hiking, because we’re out of time and my knee is still kind of bothering me. It would take us 90 minutes to hike, and the shuttle only takes 10. We reach the top in no time, which is now a little awkward because we’re way too early for our reservation. No one seems to mind at all, and we are immediately shown through the gardens to our table by a woman in a kimono. We walk over small bridges and on rustic stone pathways to our own private room, over looking a beautiful koi fish pond and the surrounding gardens. We take some more time to wander the gardens before sitting down in our little room, where we have the ability to call our wait staff…from a real phone, not just a button.

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I’m not sure if this makes me happy or sad, but the waitress comes without us having to call her. We order one Wagyu beef set and one charbroiled chicken set. We plan to share. They each come with multiple dishes, brought out periodically during our meal. Everything tastes incredible, but the most extravagant part is when our own little personal chef enters the room to set up our hot stone stove and to prepare our beef. He cooks it to absolute perfection (like seriously could be the best thing I’ve ever eaten, and I’m not a big beef fan), he then gives us instructions on how to cook the chicken. We get to do it ourselves! I love things like this.

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Rice and miso soup come shortly after we’ve indulged in our main dishes, which I learned from Angela, signifies the end of the meal. Next up is dessert! Sesame ice cream and a pounded rice matcha bean paste ball (totally not the same of it, but I forget the official one), served with rose-hip tea.

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Over the course of our meal, we watch the gardens outside as they change from day to night. Fire torches line the walkways in zen harmony with some electrical lamps, creating a dramatic effect over the grounds. We take some photos, but like all most beautiful places in the world, the magic just doesn’t quite transfer.

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We have an amazing experience from start to finish, and I know this will be one of the first things I recommend to anyone traveling to Japan. Only second to sleeping in a Buddhist temple in Koyasan.

What a fabulous way to spend a birthday, and our last day in Japan!

Robot Restaurant and Other Strange Tokyo Things

After not getting back to the hotel until about midnight last night, I have another late morning. I’ve only got two and a half days in Tokyo left and need to make the most of it! If only sleep weren’t necessary.

We take it easy for the afternoon and spend our time shopping in Shibuya. We didn’t get enough time there yesterday and there’s so much to see!
We find some cool stores, and even a shoe store that carries my size. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I don’t buy a pair. I do, however, get a sweet t-shirt that has a whole bunch of English gibberish on it from a store called Candy Stripper. It’s kind of the bomb.

Dad comes across an awesome restaurant, where you order and pay for your food outside from what’s basically a vending machine that spits out tickets. Once you go inside, they collect your tickets and bring freshly cooked food to your seat at a long bar. I order a small sized bowl of ramen that comes with a side of pork dumplings. I am SO happy I ordered the small, because even after 20 minutes of shovelling noodles, pork, and vegetables into my mouth, I haven’t made much progress.

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We move on from Shibuya to Harajuku; famous for it’s wild fashion. I don’t see anyone totally decked out in Harajuku style, but I do catch a couple of interesting outfits.

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We find some weird giant fem-bot things, parked on the side of the road behind a car. We think is a prime location for our selfie of the day.

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Our reservation to the Robot Restaurant is at 6:30, so our time in Harajuku is cut short in order to get to Shinjuku on time for the show. What I’ve read about Robot Restaurant is that it’s a totally weird, awesome and fun experience, but that the food is awful. Seriously, just read some trip advisor reviews. It sounds kooky. Robot Restaurant Reviews
Naturally, we have to try it. Also, fun fact: my favourite musician in the whole world, Macklemore, was in a Tokyo like a week before me (just missed him, so traumatizing), and he went to Robot Restaurant. So clearly it’s legit.

We take a short cab ride from Harajuku to the Robot Restaurant, still unsure of what to expect. We round the corner onto a small side street and BAM! Lights everywhere, colours, mirrors, music all up everywhere. I think we’ve arrived. Even from the outside, before we give our reservation name, we can see scantily clad girls riding sparkly mirror plated horse robots and giant fem-bots (which, coincidentally, are the same as the ones from our selfie today), as well as power-rangeresque robot people playing music. What is this magical place?

We are early, so we are sent upstairs to a lounge area where two women dressed like what I can only describe as…what the 1960s thought slutty future space people would dress like. All the furniture is crazy and gold. Robotic dinosaurs are dancing on some tables (not ours, unfortunately), mirrors are absolutely EVERYWHERE, and when I go to the washroom the toilet is covered in a floral print (and of course the walls are all decorated in sparkly things too).

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Shortly before the show begins, we are ushered into the elevator and then down three or four flights of stairs to the basement, where I assume the show takes place. We find our seats and settle in for the weirdest show on earth.

I’ve been having enough trouble trying to write about Japan as a whole because it’s just SO different, I don’t think I can manage to properly describe the Robot Restaurant. It is out of this world. Hands down the weirdest thing I’ve seen… and I’ve been to Bangkok. Here are some photos. Everything you are imagining and MORE happens during this show. The trip advisors are right…if you get the chance, GO!

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After crap food at the robot restaurant, we plan to get a late dinner at one of our hotel restaurants. Everything is closed besides the California Café, which describes itself as a fusion of Japanese and French cuisine. Dad orders Italian risotto.
It sounds like a terrible idea but their food is actually good…what are the chances? I just have a simple chicken salad because I’m still full from the 400 pounds of noodles I consumed 6 hours ago.

Soon, it shall be my 22nd birthday! Wahhh

Cat Cafés and Earthquakes

I sleep in quite late compared to all the 6 and 7am mornings I’ve been having over the past two weeks. I feel guilty sleeping in, when we have so much stuff to fit in over the next couple of days! Dad is an angel not to wake me.

We take the train to Shibuya, where there is one of Tokyo’s best CAT CAFÉS! Wahoo! I shall pay money to pet a cat while I drink a latte. Is there anything cooler? I think not.
The Shibuya train station is right in the heart of the city, where the famous Tokyo cross walk is located. Here, we are thrown right into the fire! All of my senses are assaulted as the sights, sounds, smells and sheer density of the crowds overwhelms me. In the best way, though. I definitely feel like I’m in Tokyo. I don’t know which way to turn, every direction has something awesome calling my name. Luckily for me, Dad is sensible and has a map. He’s already figured out where the cat café is, and has started walking towards it. I follow him, whipping my head in every direction as I go, absorbing what I can.
We make it to the cats. The café is up on the third floor of a very non-descript building. We would never have stumbled upon this on our own.

When we get up to the third floor we have to wait outside. Not because the tables are full, but because apparently the cats feel that there are too many humans in their café. Alright.
We wait about 20 minutes, behind a family of 4 from the USA, before finally getting to sit down. We have to agree to a bunch of cat rules; like don’t pick them up with one hand, don’t touch the cats who have pink collars, don’t give the cats any human food etc. We pay to sit down for half an hour, and get a drink included with the entry fee. I get a chai latte and dad gets a coffee. I am SO pumped to go pet some cats!

I won’t lie, it’s super anti-climactic. All the cats are asleep and/or totally disinterested in hanging out with any humans. There are only 6 other people in the café, which is designed like a child’s playroom, and only one cat is actually up and about. There is one beautiful fluffy white cat and I try to pet it, but it runs away. Rude.
The whole experience is pretty weird. We sit down on a tiny, low to ground sofa and just stare at the cats all over the room, waiting for one to come over. None ever do. Eventually I get up and walk around and pet some cats, but they totally couldn’t care less about me being there. Typical cats. This would never happen in a dog café.

I refer to the lady who runs the place as a crazy cat lady. Not because she loves cats, but because she’s crazy. She has so many rules!!! She picks up a cat toy and demonstrates it to the daughter in the American family. Then, when the young girl goes to touch it the crazy cat lady says “NO!” and puts it down. Dad tries to get a cat’s attention by dangling the string of his camera and crazy cat lady yells “NO!”
She isn’t much fun.
I pet a sleeping cat against it’s will.

After our half hour is up, we go back to the busy streets of Shibuya, feeling no regret about having only committed to half an hour with the cats. They were pretty and fluffy and stuff, though!

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We walk around Shibuya feeling totally overwhelmed by all the cool shops everywhere. We end up in a department store which is mostly full of of old lady clothes priced at many thousands of yen. I clearly can’t buy anything but somehow we find ourselves on a floor full of restaurants, so we stop and get a bowl of noodles. Restaurant ramen is SO MUCH BETTER than 2 minute noodle ramen I’m used to eating at home. I don’t know how Japanese people stay so skinny, because this bowl is packed full of pork, green onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts, an egg, and obviously, noodles. Will I be able to eat simple pre packed noodles ever again? No.

One of my Uncle John’s oldest friends lives in Japan, and has done for about 25 years now. He lives just outside Tokyo, so Dad and I go to visit him and his wife Lin for dinner. It takes us some time to figure out what subway line to get on, but we do eventually manage to get to Larry’s. We’re getting better at the whole subway thing, but it’s hard! I’m used to the Toronto subway, which is basically two lines; north and south. Tokyo’s system is, well, quite different.

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Larry and Lin live in what seems like a great little neighbourhood in a suburb of Tokyo. They have two children around my age, but I don’t get to meet either of them. It’s too bad, because I’d really like to meet these like, children of the world! First I met Angela, who’s son has American and Australian parents, was born in Ireland, and grew up in Japan. What a sweet life! Larry is Canadian, Lin is Chinese, and their kids grew up in Japan. Again, I find that SO interesting and would have loved to have met them. Maybe one day!

We have a delicious Japanese Okonomiyaki dinner that Lin prepares for us; cooked right at the dinner table! I get to hear some funny stories about Dad, Uncle John, and Larry from when they were younger (Dad used to brew his own beer, HA!).

We almost die during dinner, when… an EARTHQUAKE HITS! Don’t worry, Mom, I’m being a tad dramatic. No where near close to death. But we do totally feel a quick little rumbling, which Lin and Larry confirm to be an earthquake and say happens quite often. Apparently all new buildings in Japan are built for this stuff though, which is comforting. How cool though! My first earthquake.

We take a late subway home, which is entertaining because the mix of people getting on and off the train range from totally drunk and stupid to super tired after a long day at work.

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Kyoto to Tokyo

It’s our last day in Kyoto. It’s a city that I could spend A LOT more time in, but it’s hard to fit every thing in over a three week period. I need to spend some time in Tokyo!
We check out and spend the morning walking around Teramachi for the last time. It’s so nice to walk around with just our day packs and not to worry about our big luggage. It’s probably sitting safely in our Tokyo hotel as I type.

We come across a small street where there is a coffee shop with a patio. I haven’t seen very many patios in Japan at all so this feels like a novelty! Dad orders pancakes. So Japanese, I know, but one can only eat fish for breakfast so many times. The fruit topping on the pancakes is frozen. Like, still frozen. I steal one of his blueberries and feel no regret having only ordered a matcha latte. It’s not awful of course, frozen fruit is fine. I’m just not jealous.

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We catch a Shinkansen (super fast train) to Tokyo around noon. Because we were traveling with our luggage before, Dad had upgraded us to a nicer train car with more space, charging stations, more comfortable seats, etc. This time, because we’re traveling so light, we book the peasant seats. They’re still fabulous in comparison to what you’d get in other countries, but with these tickets we actually don’t have “reserved” seats, and therefore risk getting onto a train which is full, and having to stand. Luckily for us there are a couple free seats next to each other.

The trip to Tokyo is around 2 hours, and I bore easily. In search of something to keep me entertained, I pull out my new Lush shampoo that I purchased earlier in Kyoto. I don’t know what I plan to do with it. Just stare at it? That’s what I end up doing. I go to read the instructions (because using shampoo is so hard) and find that after a bold HOW TO USE: all the instructions are in Japanese. Well shit. Good thing I’ve got the English instructions memorized!

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Arriving in Tokyo is weird. Tokyo is kind of weird. Unlike Kyoto, everyone here dresses basically the same. Everyone wears a black suit. Not grey, not blue, just black. Sometimes the tie colours vary, but even those are very plain. Dad says Tokyo reminds him of Blade Runner. It is pretty interesting to see how conformist this society seems to be. The weirdest thing about Tokyo though, is that the business districts where everyone wears the same black suit, can coexist with the Harijuku area where everyone wears crazy anime-like costumes. It’s an eclectic mix. I’m also obsessed with how adorable the school uniforms are for young kids. They dress like little sailors. This, to me, is a perfect hybrid of the two. An adorable, almost cartoony kind of conforming.

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We try to walk from the train station to our hotel. Dad has looked at some maps and feels like he knows where to go, and it’s a nice day. Why not?
The only small wrinkle in this plan, is that we don’t actually know where we are, and all the maps are in Japanese, and never point North. They just put maps up any which way they please, so if you can’t read the language, and don’t know where you’re going, it’s pretty easy to get turned around. And of course, we do. We have no idea where we are, so after 20 minutes of walking we just give up and get in a cab. Our driver instantly makes a U-turn. Classic.

One of my friends whom I met living in Lake Louise, Alberta, last summer, has been living in Japan for the last few months. He happens to be in Tokyo tonight, so of course we meet up and go for a beer! I haven’t spoken to anyone my age in over two weeks now (with the exception of my young monk friend in Koyasan), so I look forward to the opportunity to be around people my age, catch up with a friend, and check out the nightlife in Tokyo.

We meet in the lobby of my hotel, then head over to the club district of Tokyo called Roppongi. It’s Monday, so it’s not a very busy night out, but I can totally imagine how crazy this place would be on a weekend! Tacky bars covered in lights line the streets, where club promoters stand outside shouting at you to come in; offering drink specials and saying it’s the best bar in town. I’m so happy to have had the chance to come out for a night like this during my short stay in Tokyo!

Guest Blog: Written by my lovely father, Mr. Mark Lai. This is what he did during my night out.

Naomi is craving a bit of night life (and no doubt a break from the Old Man) and so has arranged to meet up with a friend of hers whom she met while working in Lake Louise last summer. His name is Murray Christmas…I know, say no more…and he just happens to have been working here in Japan for the past several months. I take it he leaves Tokyo tomorrow, so the timing for Mr. Christmas to show Naomi around the Tokyo club scene is tonight or never.
Anyway, this means I have to fend for myself this evening. I read about the bar here in the hotel and see they have a cigar menu! That piques my curiosity, so I decide to check it out.

I find a seat at the bar and chat with the bar tender in broken English. I observe that he is quite talented and is kept busy mixing elaborate concoctions of colourful “girlie drinks” for stern looking conservative business men in black business suits. I opt for a glass of Bordeaux and an 18 year old single malt on the rocks. Then I ask to see their cigar menu. They have a surprisingly extensive selection of (mostly Cuban) cigars , complete with dimensions (length and circumference) and estimated smoking duration. I choose one if the Romeo ‘y Julieta options available…estimated smoking duration of 65 min. The keeper of the cigars (not the bar tender) brings my selection (which is of course perfectly humidified) and proceeds with a ritualistic clipping of the end and painstaking torching of the tip in preparation for me to smoke. Wow, only the Japanese could elevate the lighting of a cigar to an art form as complex and subtle as their tea ceremony.
Smoking a cigar may not be the wisest thing for me to be doing in preparation of my marathon in Banff this June, but this has to be the most enjoyable cigar I have ever experienced. What’s more is that I am smoking it inside, at the bar. Nor am I the only one but somehow their ventilation system is able to deal with it because the air quality is quite tolerable.

The dynamics within this bar are quite interesting to observe. It appears to cater to Japanese business men. Other than the bar itself, where solitary drinkers are hanging out, the rest of the place consists of curtained off “private” rooms. As it is almost 100% men in the place, I surmise these private “rooms” are intended to enable confidential business discussions. I feel like I’m in some kind of Japanese version of Goodfellas. I
I finish my cigar just before last call at midnight and then make my way to bed. Naomi is still out, but I know I don’t have to worry about this travel savvy kid of mine. She has a good head on her shoulders.
She arrives safe and sound sometime well after I have fallen asleep.

Will We Ever Learn?

Breakfast is the very very last time we get to see everyone before they leave. I really hate goodbyes, I always feel like I have so much more to say and I don’t like the finality of it all. Alas, it must be done.

Angela has suggested that we get our hotel in Kyoto to ship our bags to Tokyo for us. This is something commonly done in Japan, costs very little, and allows us to travel to Tokyo more comfortably without lugging around our big suitcases. Now we can take the subway to our hotel instead of a cab. Parfait!

For our last day in Kyoto we take it really easy. It’s so nice not to be on any kind of schedule.
Dad and I decide to go to The Imperial Palace, after Angela points out to us that it’s free and open to the public for today only. Great! A little more sightseeing sounds like a good way to spend the day. We take a short cab ride to the palace, which is CLEARLY flooded with tourists. I don’t know why I didn’t foresee this. Free entry, Naomi. Free entry.
We line up behind approximately one trillion other humans at the entrance, where I must have my bag searched before being granted entry. I’m not sure if the guard who checks my bag is some sort of mutant or has super human sense, but all he does is unzip the top of my bag and then wave his hand 2 inches around the outside of it before handing it back to me and smiling. Yup, if I had a knife you’d TOTALLY be able to sense it from the air emanating off my backpack. Seems legit.

We pick up a small English brochure about the history and importance of the palace to read as we check it out. The most notable thing, is that it was first built in the 700s, but has been destroyed and rebuilt like 8 times since then. Wowzers. The current palace was built in 1855. I didn’t really learn much else about it, because there were too many people and it was hard to read the signs while still following the flow of traffic through the grounds. Seriously, look at all these people.

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But hey look! Cool old paintings, too!

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Once we are off the palace grounds and can breathe again, we walk back in the direction of our hotel. It’s about a half hour walk, but we’re in no hurry.
We wander around Teramachi and the surrounding shopping area quite aimlessly…it’s great. After having already visited this area of Kyoto with Angela, I feel like I know my way around and can take the time to check out any stuff I didn’t have time to see before.

We stop for a drink at a cute little upstairs restaurant on the main strip, where we order a hot matcha with a pounded rice jelly sweet thing.

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The bill comes to ¥2,239 ($25) so we leave ¥2,240 on the table, say thank you, and walk back downstairs. Our waitress comes to find us downstairs while we’re admiring the boxes sweets for sale, and brings our bill to the cash register there. Whoops, sorry!! We apologize and bow and stuff, then she runs back upstairs. The cashier takes our money and stands at the till for a while facing away from us. We’re done looking at all the sweets and we’re a settled up with the bill, so we step out to continue our walk. We make it to the traffic light before the cashier comes running after us to bring us a receipt and our ONE YEN in change.
One. Yen. That’s worth slightly less than a penny. Will we ever learn?! Japanese culture has a right and wrong way to do things…we clearly just chose the wrong one. One yen.

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I get pretty awkward and uncomfortable with the service in Japan. Everyone is subservient all the time, and I often feel like wait staff look stressed or worried (especially about speaking English), which makes ME stressed and worried. I just want them to relax! I’m not a difficult customer. Unless of of course, you’re chasing me down the street to give me ¥1 that I rudely walked out on.

We make it to the food market in Teramachi without being chased down by anymore flustered staff. We walk down a skinny road lined with tables stocked full of every different kind of fish you can think of. Loose leaf tea, tofu doughnuts, beans, nuts, and candies are also abundantly available. This, Angela had told me before, is where many local Kyotoites buy their groceries. We find a stall with little mini octopus skewered on a stick. I don’t know why, but it catches my eye amidst the hundred other fish snacks available on the street. The sales lady tells us that the octopus “head” is actually a quail egg. They’re only ¥200 ($2) so we each get one. I’m about to eat some kind of weird fish-bird hybrid. We take our selfie of the day, snacks in hand, and pop the whole hard boiled, tentacley collation in our mouths. I’d say the egg is a tad over cooked, and the idea of it is weird, but the overall flavour is fine.

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We find ourselves outside of a department store. I can see shoes and purses from the street and I can’t escape it, it’s like a magnet, I’m pulled in. Briefly, in Osaka, I had seen a pair of shoes with a Japanese logo. Not like Japanese sounding words with an English Alphabet, but proper Japanese characters. I need want a pair. I spend some time walking through the department store strictly looking for Japanese characters on the inner soles of the shoes. I finally find the same logo I had seen the other day, pick out a cute pair of flats and of heels, and ask the sales lady to bring me the biggest size of each. I’m only a 9 (39) in Canada, which is kind of big but not like the biggest, but Angela had warned me that shoe shopping would be impossible here. I ask anyway. They can only bring me (their biggest) 25 in the flats, which is apparently the equivalent of an 8, because I can get my foot in the shoe but it’s not what I’d classify as comfortable. I’m broken hearted.

We pass Coach on our way out and stop to look at prices just for comparisons sake. I now understand why bus loads of tourists get dropped off at the Coach Outlet malls in Canada. The purses are nearly twice the cost here! A bag that would usually cost around $300 costs close to $600. A small wristlet that I know to cost $58 in Toronto, costs $100 in Kyoto. Hella no. Not that my soon-to-be poor backpacking self can afford these things anyway….
A girl can dream of a world where backpacking in Louboutins makes sense, can’t she?

We stop at one more store before returning to the hotel for a much needed nap. A really cute pair of very Japanese looking ankle boots catch my eye in a shop window. I go in and ask for the biggest size. The biggest they have, in all three available colours, is a Medium. I don’t know what size that is number wise, but I don’t even come close to cramming my foot inside.
Shoes do NOT come in my size here. Please ignore my previous statements; I retract everything I’ve ever said about wanting to move to Japan.

I have a wonderful nap while Dad tries to upload photos to Facebook (and fails). We find a cool side street in Kyoto for dinner where we have an all you can eat (or, “you may order many times for free”) cook-it-yourself dinner with beef, pork, and vegetables in stew. We also get some random side dishes such as edamame, raw salmon salad, and small fried chicken balls with French fries. I am SO FULL, and so happy I skipped lunch to have room for all of this. The restaurant plays Japanese covers of American songs which I totally jam out to during dinner.

Mountain Trek Day 6

It’s our last day with Mountain Trek! We’ve got just a short day of hiking in order to make it to Kyoto at a reasonable hour. We’ll have one last meal together tonight, and that’s it. Some people have even arranged to fly home tomorrow morning! I’m really happy that Dad and I added a couple of extra days on either side of the trekking trip so we could see more of Japan.

We leave our fabulous village hotel behind, feeling a little sorry that we didn’t have more time there to enjoy it. They even made a good breakfast!

There are two options for hiking today; a flat country road that will take us to the temple in an hour and a bit, or a mountain trail that will take about two and a half. Part of me wonders if I should take the flat road after having some knee trouble, but I figure if I’ve come this far I might as well finish strong too. I opt for the mountain.

The first half is relatively flat with a gradual ascent along a river, similar to yesterday’s walk. I spend most of the time chatting with Linda while I still have my breath. Then the stairs come. They never end! I must walk up a million steps.
The last part is even harder. Instead of steps, I’m faced with a stone wall where I need to put aside my hiking poles and use my hands to climb up. The climb only lasts for about 5 minutes, and is lots of fun, but it’s definitely pretty challenging. Everyone does a great job and makes it to the top no problem, I’m so impressed!
The view from the top of the mountain makes it all worth it. This is truly, in my opinion, what makes all hiking worth while.

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We only get a few minutes at the top, because time is of the essence if we plan to beat rush hour into Kyoto. I ask Ted, “how long is the decent down, like 30 minutes?” He responds with “nah just like 15”. Okay sweet! It’ll be a quick walk down the mountain to the temple. I start on my way, being careful not to aggravate my knee too much, but still moving quickly so I can go get a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup…and see the temple…but mostly the soup.

45 minutes later I’m down the mountain. Not sure what I expected, really. When Ted says 15, it either means 5 or 45. Never 15.
When I do get down to the temple, I meet up with the Mountain Trekkies who chose to walk along the road today. They say it was a nice walk, and took them less than an hour. I’m slightly envious, but simultaneously happy that I chose to do the climb.

I watch as the calligrapher signs my final stamp at the 88th temple on the pilgrimage. I wonder if he is confused as to why I only have stamps on pages 1-12, 20 and 21, as he signs 88. This can’t be the popular order to the route, especially in Japan.
We wait for everyone else to come down from the mountain to hear Ted do his final chant, and we all light an incense stick while he does.

Now it’s noodle time. There are a few noodle shops to choose from just outside the temple, but I just pick the first one I see. I sit down with Arun, the handsome doctor, and Carol, his beautiful yet brilliant wife (I totally came up with that on my own) as well as Angela, Dad and Sharon.
Angela orders us all a big steaming bowl of udon with vegetables and pork, after having it recommended to her by our waitress. Apparently, these udon noodles are a specialty of the region, yum! Everything tastes fresh and is totally delicious, but I can’t finish it all because the portion is so big! Afterwards, we all get matcha ice cream for the road. The drive ahead is another long one. Ted says it should be about 2 and a half hours to Kyoto, placing our arrival around 4.

It’s 5:15 and we’re still in the van. Not sure what I expected, really.

Its 6:00 before we’re in the lobby of our hotel. It’s a nice place, right in the heart of downtown Kyoto. Optimum shopping location! We get a little bit of time to settle in before gathering again for dinner.

Dinner is at a restaurant down the street where we have our last fantastic meal all together in a historic building at the scene of a famous samurai showdown. There are even sword markings on the bridge just down the street to prove it. Pretty cool!
We all make a toast to Ted for all the hard work he’s put into this trip and the year of planning that went into it. Tomorrow we will all be going our separate ways, so we enjoy our final meal, laughing while reminiscing our adventures over the last six days.

Mountain Trek Day 5

I always sleep SO well on these tatami mat futon beds. I must invest in one.
The bean bag pillows, however, I think I can do without.
I get up just in time for breakfast at 7am which is a traditional Japanese breakfast full of small dishes. It consists of a piece of cooked mackerel, miso soup, rice, a raw egg, and natdo (which is Japanese for fermented soy beans). This is a popular breakfast dish, and notoriously difficult for westerners to stomach. I’ve seen it a couple times now at breakfast buffets, but have decided that if I’m going to try it, I should do so at a good Japanese restaurant. Now is the time. Angela is across the table from me, which is great because she can coach me through it. I stick the stringy, kind of sticky looking soy beans in a bowl with my rice and mix it up. There are two mini packets of sauce that come along with it, so I tear those and pour them in too. I lift my bowl to my mouth and start using the chopsticks in a circular motion to eat the beany rice. It’s too stringy to eat in small doses, so the goal is to just keep ’em coming to avoid a mess. I get about three rounds of chopstick full bites before I have to stop. They’re not delicious. Of course, I can swallow it, there are worse foods out there, but this isn’t something I can classify as enjoyable. The next step would be to add the raw egg, but I just feel that’s unnecessary. No thanks.

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We pack up and head to the vans. We’re skipping a little bit of the pilgrimage today and starting at Temple 20 (yesterday we were only at temple 12). We’ll get to do more hiking today as we walk from 20 to 21. We start our day off with a half hour descent. There are a lot of stairs built into the trail, which is a little hard on my knees. Specifically my right knee on its right side. Ouchhhh. I know this sounds crazy but picking up the pace and doing a little jog actually makes it feel better. So I get in a little trail run.

We make a quick stop in this almost empty village. There’s evidence that people still live there, but an abandoned school building with rusty fire escapes and furniture covered with tarps seems to be the biggest land mark. The gazebo where we all meet up is just a random mixture of old furniture; most notably a torn
blue pleather couch, a fabric folding chair, and three brownish-white bar stools. I assume these must be left here for the pilgrims, but I’m really not sure.

The last portion of our hike is only about 2km and is increasingly difficult as the ascent goes on. It starts out relatively flat and meanders around a river with a very gradual ascent along the way. About half way through, the stairs start. They feel pretty killer at the time, but once I reach the top (and stop sweating and wanting to throw myself off the mountain) I look back at them fondly. My knee pain is basically gone. It seems to only hurt on the downhill hikes, which this trail doesn’t have at all. Pros and cons.

By the last 300 metres of the hike, I am alone and can see the temple at the top of the hill. I reach a small fork in the paved road that gives me the option to walk along a gravel path. I figure both of them must lead to the temple, so I pick the nice trail instead of the paved road. 2 minutes later I find myself at a dead end facing a ladder against a tall cliff. Obviously I climb it. I leave my poles and backpack behind and slowly climb up the rickety ladder, feeling a little like this might be poor choice. There were some signs along the trail, but all in Japanese. Maybe they said “danger, don’t climb ladder”, I don’t know. I just feel like I have to know what’s up there!
Once I reach the top I can see a small shrine sitting at the edge of the cliff, and mountains off in the distance ALL around. It’s stunning. I feel free, I feel alive. I know it’s far from it, but it feels like the tallest place on earth. I sit there on the cliff for a few minutes before realizing that no one knows where I am. I had passed Dad a few hundred metres back on the trail, and he’ll be confused when he gets to the temple and I’m not there. I know I have to go back down. It was a fun little side adventure while it lasted! After a week of following someone else’s guided footsteps through Japan (as wonderful as it has been) it’s nice just to discover something cool on my own, even if it’s small.

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I hike back to the temple quickly to meet up with all the other Trekkies. Dad didn’t even know I was gone.
I joke, he did, but he assumed I had gone up ahead to the main temple, which is up yet another two flights of tall stone steps.
This temple is beautiful, as per usual. I am fortunate to catch a glimpse of a monk walking beneath a cherry blossom tree. It’s picture perfect.

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We take a cable car down the mountain, which I’m sure my knee is thankful for. We are served “mushroom tea” while we’re waiting, which is really more like a bouillon than a tea. It’s salty, but yummy as long as you think of it like a soup.

The cable car is pretty cool! There is a square grate in one section of the floor, and huge windows all over the place so we can observe the wonderful scenery on our way down the mountain. There is a cable car tour guide with a microphone, pointing to all sorts of different things out the window but speaking Japanese. Besides Angela, Ted and one random man who is not a part of Mountain Trek, no one on this cable car can understand what he is saying. But the cable car guy takes his job very seriously and does his very best to get us to understand what he’s communicating anyway. He even warns us whenever there will be a bit of turbulence.
Ted brings Dad his hiking poles, which he had totally forgotten outside before getting on the cable car. GoPro attached to them and everything. I laugh at him hysterically.
When we get off the cable car, I’m almost inside the restaurant for lunch when I realize…I’ve forgotten MY hiking poles on the cable car. Thankfully, Kirkland picked them up for me. What a gem! I guess I can’t laugh at Dad anymore.

Lunch is at a restaurant and souvenir shop at the base of the mountain. Ted has pre-ordered all our meals, and does a fantastic job by choosing a delicious bowl of udon noodle soup with wild vegetables picked from the mountain. It totally hits the spot.

Now we’ve got a two and a half hour drive ahead of us to our next accommodation. It’s a scenic route which keeps the long drive interesting.

Ted has this weird habit of doing the opposite of everything he says, so whenever he tells us a hike is going to be long and hard, I assume that means short and easy. When he says the food gets better, I expect 7/11 lunches. It’s always a gamble.
Today, as we arrive at our new accommodation, he wants to take us on a 20 minute walk to a “special place”. I assume this means an hour walk to a place that sucks. I’m fine with it, but I’ve just learned not to get my hopes up too high.

We take a 10 minute walk down to a bridge that is UNREAL and made of old vines and wooden planks. It’s stunning! The gaps between each plank are about as thick as the planks themselves. You don’t want to drop anything!
It’s beautiful AND it realllllly is only 20 minutes away. Ted was right!!! I love it. We take our time crossing the swinging bridge and getting shots of the beautiful glacial (I think) water below us. A couple people have a fear of heights, but face their fears to cross the bridge. That’s bravery at it’s finest if you ask me! If you’re going to cross a bridge, this is probably the scariest one on which to do so.

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Dad, Angela, Kirk and I also run down to a waterfall just a few hundred metres away from the bridge. It’s stunning and I want to jump in, but the bus is waiting for us…and it’s like 15 degrees.

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I take a quick onsen before dinner. It’s the most fabulous one yet. Actually, the whole hotel is fabulous! It’s a great experience. I believe we’re in an area of Japan that not too many foreigners get to see. I LOVE places like this. Little hidden gems. We’re staying at what appears to be the fanciest hotel in town. The staff leave us a cute origami flower and a note welcoming us to our room.
I love it here!

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Dinner is served in traditional Japanese style. The food is unbelievably tasty and very local. We eat river fish (which I expect is literally caught outside in the very river we were just standing over on the bridge), kobe beef, soba noodle soup, tempura, and a ton more. Everything is perfect.

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I go back to the outdoor onsen at 9ish to catch a glimpse of the moon on a calm night. It’s the most wonderful end to a wonderful day.

Mountain Trek Day 4

We pack all of our bags in order to leave the hotel and move on to the next one. Today, we’ve been told, is the hardest day of our hike. I’m feeling pretty good about that because the only hiking we’ve done so far has been on flat pavement. I look forward to getting on a real trail!

We drive to temple 11 and spend a bit of time there preparing for our hike and enjoying the space. Kirkland leads us through a series of stretches before we start walking. Hanging notes sway in the wind along the trees lining the path, with words of encouragement painted on each of them. Ted points out the important characters on the directional signs for us to memorize so that we can find our way if we get separated. One of them kind of looks like a trident, and another I think kinda looks like an old school space invader. It’ll be easy to follow the signs to our destination now.

The trail is beautiful and long, covered with rocks and tree roots as all hiking trails should be. It’s lovely. We hike mostly uphill for the first 6k, at which point we stop to meet our vans down in a valley where we eat lunch.

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We keep intercepting a large group of pilgrims on a two day bus tour. They’ve got all the gear and they chant at every temple. It’s so interesting and I love running into them at our stops. I will say, their chanting isn’t quite as fantastic as the group of monks who chanted yesterday, but nothing ever will be.

Ted tells us that the last 2k of our 12k day will be the hardest. Straight uphill, he says, sending his hand up to the sky on a 70 degree angle. I seriously consider staying in the van along with some other hikers, but in the end decide, YOJO. You’re Only in Japan Once (maybe). Those of us who choose to hike are all a little terrified, but still up to the challenge. We expect that the hike will take us an hour, so we take it really easy. The trail is challenging, sure, but there are many switch backs and make-shift rock stairs along the way. I wouldn’t classify this straight up hill, but I fear it will get worse so I keep a steady pace. Half an hour into the hike we reach a plateau, and find out that we’re here. It’s over. Our 2km straight up hill mountain of doom was actually a 30 minute hike through a forest with a challenging but totally manageable trail. Sweet.
The day as a whole, which we were told is the hardest, is actually quite painless. Bring on more hiking!

Making it up to the temple is well worth it. The view from the top is wonderful and we even make it up in time to see the group of pilgrims chanting again. What a great end to our hike! On our way to the car park, I am walking with Sharon when we see a group of Japanese pilgrims walking up to the temple. We give a small bow and say “konichiwa” to everyone we pass, as you do to your fellow pilgrims. At the back of the group there is one young white guy, to whom I am not sure what to say, so again Sharon and I just say “konichiwa”. He gives us a head nod and says “hey”.

The van takes us to another onsen which I’m sure my body will thank me for. The hot water loosens my tired shoulder and leg muscles, but I get out early because I’m just far too hot. I can only enjoy an onsen for about 15 minutes before I need a cold shower.

We drive another half hour to our accommodation at a quaint little Japanese style hotel. Our room is just one large tatami mat with two futons, and a table in the corner for us to pull out if we so choose. It’s not a glamorous place to stay but I love that it’s true to Japan and especially the pilgrimage.
Dinner is served downstairs at 7:00pm. For a minute we’re concerned when we see what looks like a gravy covered burger patty on our plates (along with other small dishes of pickles, fish, rice, tofu etc) but it turns out that this burger is made with Japanese beef and is covered in miso gravy. It’s actually a local speciality. Cool!

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blogging

Mountain Trek Day 3

Should I bother talking about breakfast? Does it even make sense to mention that it’s lame? Would it be redundant? There is actually one new feature to the repetitive buffet breakfasts; cold saucy meatballs. Deeeelish.

Our vans take us to a Lawson’s (7/11 like store) to pick out our lunches. We are given another ¥1,000 ($10) as our spending money. Dad and I try to find some vegetables or fruit but there’s not much to choose from so I buy an onigiri and a salad. Dad gets yoghurt, packaged mini-croissants, strawberries, and a bunch of other stuff. We’re really TRYING to enjoy the whole convenience store lunch thing but it’s not super easy.

We drive up to the fourth temple on the pilgrimage and we begin our hike from there. Hike is a loose term, because we’re still walking on flat pavement through towns, but alas, this IS the pilgrimage trail. There are signs to prove it and everything.

By the time we’ve made it to Temple 8, it’s time to stop for lunch. I eat my pre-packaged “convenient” lunch beneath the shade of a wisteria tree. Unfortunately the wisteria isn’t in bloom, but it’s branches are twisted and knotted around a tall arbour, making it the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

The temple is up a set of stairs, and as we reach the top we are so lucky to discover that we’ve arrived just in time for a group of monks to begin their chant. This is part of the pilgrimage tradition, to chant at every temple, and Ted has been doing it on our behalf every time, but this is something special. About 30 monks and widows chant in a beautiful hypnotic tone. Some are carrying conch shells and blow them at different times during the chant, making it even more magical. This moment is surreal. I am surrounded by beautiful cherry blossom trees, at an ancient temple, listening to monks chant while some of the petals from the cherry blossoms float down in the wind. I feel like this is something I will never forget.

As the chanters start dispersing, Dad sees the main monk walking towards him and instantly assumes he’s in their way. Instead, however, he has come over to ask us where we’re from. He exudes such a powerful presence of calm and confidence. Dad tells him that we are from Canada, “Oh, Canada”, he says in broken English. Then Dad also points to Tim, who is standing next to him, and says that he is from America. “Oh, America”, seeming enthused. He then smiles, points to himself and says “Japan”. We all laugh hysterically. It feels a little bit like talking to a celebrity, or the Dalai Lama. It just feels SO exciting to be having a conversation. He continues on with his gaggle of monks and widows following close behind, all smiling, bowing and saying “konichiwa” as they pass.

We’ve been walking for a few hours now and I have consumed at least half of my three-litre platypus…it’s time to pee. When we get to temple 9, I make a B-line to the closest restroom, which unfortunately for me, is a squatter. If you’re unsure of what a squatter is, just think again. It’s pretty self explanatory. I don’t totally hate them, I’ve gotten pretty used to them in fact, but they aren’t my first choice. I miss heated toilet seats.
There is one side pocket in my white pilgrimage vest, in which I have placed my cellphone for easy access to a camera. Whilst squatting over a deep dark scary hole of doom, my cellphone casually falls out of it’s pocket, bounces, and lands about a millimetre shy of where it would have otherwise plunged to it’s death. I don’t care that it’s waterproof. I would not have retrieved it.

Temple 10 is the last temple of our day. I look forward to what comes next, which is stopping at a real onsen on our way back to the hotel. We walk along paved roads that are slightly less central to the town, until we see our vans parked at the bottom of a long set of stairs. The climb up the stairs is nice, as it is shaded by trees and a change from the flat cement. Every time we reach a plateau I think we’ve arrived at the temple…but the stairs just keep on going. Even once we have in fact reached the temple, there are still more stairs to climb. I ring the giant bell just outside the temple, and continue up to wherever these stairs shall lead me.
The top isn’t too much further, and once we get there I am overwhelmed bu excitement. There’s an absolutely wonderful view of the city and distant mountains, veiled by a little bit of mist (or pollen or pollution. It’s hard to know).

!

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We spend some time lounging up here before heading back down to the vans. Onto the onsen! We are taken to a REAL natural outdoor onsen on our way back to the hotel. What a treat! It’s so nice to relax in the hot water after a long day.

As a final stop before returning to our hotel, we stop at a grocery store. This is an upgrade from the usual 7/11s, and I am much happier being able to choose from multiple fruits, and to pick up boxed maki that I can trust to be fresh. We go over our ¥1,000 ($10) provided budget in order to pick up some stuff that would be suitable for breakfast too.

We meet in the lobby of the hotel at 6:45 to go for dinner. After the terrible meal we had last night, Ted has arranged for us to eat at a local seafood restaurant instead. I am skeptical, because it seems that Ted and I have different meal expectations, but I am optimistic that it can’t be any worse than what we ate yesterday.

We walk 10 minutes to a local seafood restaurant with the most welcoming staff in the world. All 16 of us get a “HELLO!” “IRASHAIMASEI” (please come in) shouted at us on arrival. Fun! We sit at a traditional Japanese table and order our drinks. The menu is entirely in Japanese and without any photos, so Ted takes it upon himself to order food for the whole table to share. Again, I’m a little skeptical. Some edamame arrives; always yummy. Then tempura sticks of some type of root. I don’t know which root, but the delicious kind.
Next, a HUGE plate of fantastic looking sashimi is placed in front of us; beautifully presented and scrumptious-looking. Salmon, squid, shrimp, crab, tuna, sea urchin, scallops, it’s all there. There is one mystery fish on a long skewer, head in tact and everything, but I’m pretty sure it’s just there for decoration because I try to make Dad eat it and he physically can’t cut it. We eat all the edible parts of the dish up in minutes.

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After that we get an order of sushi, and I try the weirdest looking one: salmon caviar and cucumber. It’s actually tasty though. I made a friend eat it once at a cheap little conveyor belt sushi joint in Banff, Alberta, and he was violently ill a few hours later. So we’ll see what happens to me…but I’m willing to chance it! You gotta try everything once.
Tonights meal experience is such a fabulous change from the mediocre food we’ve been eating over the last couple of days (with the exception of the monastery). I knew Japan had some delicious stuff somewhere!