Category Archives: Nature

A Japanese Adventure: “An Icy Delight” …

Wow! It’s been a couple of months (I think) since I last blogged about the amazing Japanese adventure.. 🙂 It’s time to get back to it!

The next stop was perhaps THE best stop of our trip…. none other than Fuji-san … aka Mount Fuji!

I’ve forgotten our awesome tour-guide’s name… but she made great use of our long bus ride… by educating us on the mountain structure and regional landscape, a little Kanji-analysis, some awesome origami (yes, we made Mt. Fuji!) and telling use some mysterious stories…
I can’t believe I don’t remember the story.. I’m going to have to chase my sister on this! (Stay tuned!)
By the way, in the snaps below you’ll notice that in my (not so well-done) Mt. Fuji origami pieces, the white layer at the top (which represents Mt. Fuji’s snow-capped peak) is always different in size. While you may be tempted to think this is because of my ridiculously poor origami skills (and you’d be right) .. it is also intentionally different because it represents Mt. Fuji at different times of the year (more snow on the peak in winter).. 🙂

The weather was definitely a step up from our earlier hot and humid days… It was still humid but cooler… and we had no idea just how cold it was going to get.. 😉
We had been told that our first stop was going to be the ‘Ice-Cave’.. and we were pretty excited when we finally got off the bus and saw the sign “Narusawa Ice Cave Entrance”.

Our guide once again took us through the flow of the ice-cave and warned us that there would be some narrow tunnels and that we’d really have to kind-of crouch and scoot a bit. We were also ‘advised’ to take a hard heat to protect our fragile heads….

Of course I didn’t take a hard hat and I ended up exactly as the warning sign said I would:
(The sign also won the award for cutest warning sign ever… haha… :D)

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And so off we went.. descending into the unknown.. 🙂

Our guide carried a giant thermometer to show us exactly how fast the temperature would fall (mercury-based thermometer and not a digital one.. )

It’s a short way down and yes it does get quite low at times.
Little tips:
1. If like me, you are not used to the cold, you may want to carry some gloves. Why? The bamboo supports are COLD too and slippery! So gloves might help you get better grip. You don’t want to slip and fall down…
2. It get’s cold pretty quick. The temperature fell almost 20 degrees in the little walk! At the bottom of the cave, surrounded by ice… it was 3 degrees celsius! (Yup, for me.. coming from a 40 degree climate… that’s COLD!!)
3. Obviously.. carry a nice warm jacket.. 🙂
4. Wear comfortable and solid shoes.. maybe hiking boots.

It was an amazing experience… my nose turned red and I was freezing! I didn’t have a warm jacket so I was wearing a thick sweater on top of a light hoodie… yeah.. it didn’t feel enough.. 🙂

We then took a little breather before heading off to another cave: The Wind Cave!
Our Mount Fuji adventure had just begun… there was a lot more to see… trekking between the sites took some time and allowed us to take in the amazing natural beauty around us.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the trek!

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A Japanese Adventure: Peace and Prosperity

After days of heat and humidity and an overpowering sun…. we finally woke to cloudy skies … 🙂
This was just what we needed because we would, again, be walking quite a bit. This time the first stop was the ‘Meiji-Jingu‘ shrine.

Panorama from the hotel:

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Background:
Meiji-Jingu is one of, if not the most, famous Shinto shrines in Tokyo.
“Meiji Shrine (明治神宮, Meiji Jingū) is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Located just beside the JR Yamanote Line’s busy Harajuku Station, Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths that are great for a relaxing stroll.”
 – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3002.html
More information here : http://www.meijijingu.or.jp/english/

After a taste of Tokyo’s commercial atmosphere, it felt good to get back to more peaceful, cultural and spiritual centers. The walk from the bus to the shrine was refreshing.. finally a little cooler (although still humid) .. and the entrance to the shrine was like entering a forest… a forest of perfect green with beautifully tall trees. While some of you may not find this particularly amazing… for those of us coming from desert-ish countries, greenery is always appreciated.

I have to say I stood a little in awe of all the beauty around me.

The path was lined with donations:  Japanese ‘sake’ on one side of the path… and international donations of other forms of wine on the other side.

The shrine is quite massive, with many buildings and structures  and it is quite a beautiful walk, especially if the weather is right. As with the previous shinto shrines, there is also an area for purification with water (prior to entering the shrine), and also a place where wishes are written, either on wooden tablets or on paper, and hung.

Weather and time permitting, one can lose oneself….. and find oneself in this shrine of beautiful green.

Instead before I knew it we were already off to our next stop… which was “Takeshita-Dori” – the center of ‘Kawaii’ culture. Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures of this amazing street because I was just too busy taking in the sites and trying to pick up some goodies… in particular a cap. Since arriving in Japan, I’d been looking for a good cap… but I hadn’t found one I liked yet. The caps either said: “tokyo”, “kyoto”, “Japan”, “samurai” or “ninja” … or they said “New York”….
(I did find one I really liked later on… a separate blog post on that.. 😉 … )

Background:
Takeshita-Dori  is summarized pretty well in this little leaflet snapshot as “the birthplace of Kawaii culture”.

It was fantastic to see some people in character outfits with hair dyed in various colors… 🙂
The shops had everything from fashion, to figures, belts, swords, food (lots of food goodies), dog clothes.. and believe it or not dog cosplay gear.., kimonos, sports wear and more…
Another perfect little shopping street. 🙂

Sadly, I didn’t get to snap too many pictures as I was busy enjoying the stores and the unique gear. The street was insanely busy (which was awesome) but also made it difficult to take any clean shots of buildings/stores.

One place that I did want to visit while there was the Evangelion store (which is on a parallel street).. but I was sad to see that it had actually closed and had re-located (Google Maps… you let me down.. 😥 … )

Background:
Evangelion is another popular anime series with quite a fan following.
Themed stores for the franchise allow fans to enjoy the anime merchandise.
You can see snaps from one of the stores here: http://japanlover.me/otaku/otaku-travel-guide/evangelion-store-harajuku-tokyo/

I was completely drenched (nope not in rain.. just sweat) after the humid walk through this little shopping heaven and decided to stop at the Starbucks at the end of the street for a little ice cold drink. One thing you can always count on is a Starbucks, or, my preferred coffee shop in Japan, “Tullys” to be close by for a refreshing snack.

Surprisingly, the best coffee shop I visited in Japan was not one of the more well known brands.. but rather was a small family run coffee shop. It was one of the best coffee shops I have ever visited. The food was delicious and I’d love to go back!!! This little hidden gem will be discussed in an upcoming blog post…. but not for a while. The next blog post is going to cover a very interesting lunch and the amazing Shibuya crossing.. 🙂

A Japanese Adventure: Heavenly Bites and Nagoya Delights

After our flashback into the past – Ninja Style – we ‘stealthily’ made our way to lunch at ‘”Chitoseya Nishikiten”…
A combination of a hot pot and unbelievably delicious bento (even better than the previous one)!

The bento had a mix of chicken, fish, some delicious salad and seaweed… and every item was delicious. The dessert was perhaps the best dessert so far: Mango Pudding!… Soft, sweet and flawless. The hotpot was thoroughly enjoyable, but I have a limited appetite, and after polishing off the bento, I couldn’t bring myself to wrap up the hotpot. It’s supposed to be eaten in stages… they bring in noodles later on to add to the hotpot… I was completely full by then. Others in the group though, couldn’t get enough of it. 🙂

The restaurant was very comfortable, the service was great (as it was everywhere), and the meal gave us the energy we’d need very very soon… for our next stop…. Nagoya Castle!

The walk from the bus to the actual castle takes about 10-12 minutes… and the view is great.. the castle is like a hidden gem, peeking out from between the trees… the walls apparently designed to keep even climbers out…

The castle is absolutely gorgeous… it’s hard to grasp how such structures were built in the past…

Although there are multiple levels at the castle, we didn’t go through all of them.
Our main goal was to get to the top and enjoy the view… (as well as the souvenir store that is always at the top floor of such sites).. 🙂

I picked up a couple of unique souvenirs (which I shall discuss in a separate post on souvenirs)… 🙂

The elevators to go up to the top and back are usually crowded, but not unbearably so.There is a lot to enjoy, not just the view. As always everything is ‘Kawaii’ and you can’t help but pick up a little memento.

As we made our way back down and to the bus… I couldn’t help but stop at the snack store to pick up a little treat to cool off…

Yup… some shaved ice with strawberry syrup… an absolutely essential treat for every outdoor excursion.. 🙂

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I’m breaking up my adventure into tiny little posts so that I can relieve it piece by piece. From Nagoya castle, we headed to Nagoya station to take the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Tokyo! 🙂
(The Shinkansen (新幹線, new trunk line) is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen)

I’ll cover our first experience taking a Shinkansen, (even our first visit to a Japanese train station) in the next post!

 

A Japanese Adventure : “Shrines, Foxes, Temples and Deer”

It was hard to believe the first real day of sight-seeing (Day 2 of the trip) was over! We woke up energized and ready for our next adventure!

And we started off our adventure the way all great adventures should start…. with a healthy (and delicious) breakfast.. thanks to some Matcha Latte and Eggs Benedict – Kyoto Style..! 🙂

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And then we we were off! Our first stop was the Fushimi Inari Shrine!

Background:
Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha) is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates…[…]…Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds.”
(http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html)

As we walked to the shrine from the bus parking, the streets were lined with lively little shops, selling snacks, souvenirs, paintings, postcards, plants and more… we stopped by the shops once we’d seen the shrine. With plenty of tourists making their way up, just for a moment, I was concerned about getting lost or separated from the group, but fortunately that did not happen.

As you can see in the pictures, the entrance to shrine is flanked by 2 foxes and one has a key in its mouth.
A little info: “Foxes (kitsune), regarded as the messengers, are often found in Inari shrines. One attribute is a key (for the rice granary) in their mouths.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fushimi_Inari-taisha)

‘Thousands’ of gates is no exaggeration as you’ll see from the pictures below! The entire shrine spans a large area. There’s quite a bit of walking from one area to the next, and every path, passage or walkway is lined with … you guessed it… red gates! 🙂

At some areas of the shrine (as with subsequent Shinto shrines we visited), we saw people writing their wishes/prayers on little wooden plaques. The plaques are called ‘Ema’.

Background:
““Ema” (絵馬) 
are wooden wishing plaques. This is a Shinto custom and thus can be found at shrines all over Japan…[…]… In recent days people write their wishes or prayers on a wooden plaque that can be purchased at the shrine and then hang it up on the shrine grounds.” (http://zoomingjapan.com/wiki/ema/)


On the way back to the bus, many of us had split up to do our own exploring, so my sister and I had time to explore the shops we had passed on the way to the shrine.

And that’s where I picked up this adorable little souvenir!

0I also had the chance to try ‘Inari Sushi’.
“Inarizushi is a simple and inexpensive type of sushi, in which sushi rice is filled into aburaage (deep fried tofu) bags.” – (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2038.html)
That about sums it up – Simple, inexpensive… and tasty! 🙂

There was a bit of strange incident as we had to wait first at a train crossing, because someone seemed to have tripped an emergency switch causing all gates to lock down, and each gate had to be opened manually one at a time by inspectors, ensuring that no actual accident had taken place. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to have been any accident. After that mini-adventure (which just involved waiting), we had to wait for 2 missing and chronically late group members who unfortunately got lost and found their way back after an hour.
Interesting Note: In some bus parking areas, the bus cannot start its engine (and therefore its Air Conditioner) while parked. This means that if even one member of your group is late, you could end up stuck and waiting for your missing buddy on a very hot and humid summer morning! 🙂

When we finally did get moving, we took our time to relax, rehydrate and enjoy the view from the bus:


 

Our next stop of the day was the Todaiji temple at Nara.
Background:  (東大寺, Tōdaiji, “Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara… […]… Along the approach to Todaiji stands the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce looking statues. …[…]…Temple visitors will also encounter some deer from the adjacent Nara Park, begging for shika senbei, special crackers for deer that are sold for around 150 yen. (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4100.html)

Yup… that’s right… DEER! … roaming around quite peacefully between visitors 🙂

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And here are the two guardians. “Representing the Nio Guardian Kings, the statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself.” (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4100.html)

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The entrance to the temple was absolutely stunning! I enjoyed the walk up to the temple entrance, perhaps even more so than the temple itself. 🙂

Background on temple:
“Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size. The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. Big Buddha (Daibutsu) – his open hand alone is as tall as a human being
Several smaller Buddhist statues and models of the former and current buildings are also on display in the Daibutsuden Hall. Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base that is the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life.” (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4100.html)


 

It was really quite a wonder to behold. As we walked back, many of us taking time to relax by the lake or feed the deer, and others scouring souvenir shops nearby, I helped myself to one of these delicious delights (perhaps my favourite snack in Japan): “Shaved Ice with Strawberry Syrup” – perfect to beat the heat! 🙂

IMG_4846Our next stop was another traditional Japanese lunch… which I’ll cover in my next post.

 

 

 

A Japanese Adventure: Bamboo Forests and Turkish Delights

A little tired, a little thirsty…. but hungry for more of Kyoto’s beauty we headed to our next stop: Bamboo Groves at “Arashiyama”.

A little background: “The walking paths that cut through the bamboo groves make for a nice walk or bicycle ride. The groves are particularly attractive when there is a light wind and the tall bamboo stalks sway gently back and forth. The bamboo has been used to manufacture various products, such as baskets, cups, boxes and mats at local workshops for centuries.” – (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3912.html)

The small shops and all their little treasures offered us ample distraction from our walk to the bamboo groves. We couldn’t resist exploring each of them for any hidden gems … something to take back: TShirts, Bags (CANNOT STRESS HOW GREAT THE BAGS ARE!! Everywhere!!), souvenirs, jewellery, Matcha flavored icre-creams and snacks.. 🙂 I was too busy shopping or snacking to actually take many pictures of the stores. There was another Lawson’s around (for more info on Lawsons check my first blog post).

The bamboo forest was perfect.. and would have been more perfect still, had we walked through it at night or in spring weather. It was as if you were walking into the past… hidden in nature’s grasp.

There were even some little ‘rickshaws’ that you could use to cruise through the path. In one of the corners, there was a cemetery… I couldn’t possibly think of a more peaceful resting place.

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There was yet more beauty to enjoy as we walked towards the the nearby bridge.
Background: “The Togetsukyo Bridge is Arashiyama’s well known, central landmark. Many small shops, restaurants and other attractions are found nearby” – (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3912.html)

Even thinking about it now, weeks later, I can feel a closeness to nature… there was something about the atmosphere; families sitting in the setting sun, just appreciating the moment, quiet conversations, and a light breeze of relief through all the humidity…


I have to praise the way our Sensei had organized the tour. Every little detail or possible concern had been addressed. Our group consisted of a mix of nationalities, most of us not accustomed to Japanese food, and few sushi-lovers (for the record.. I am a sushi-lover.. 🙂 ) .. so the meals each day were organized as:
– Lunch: Japanese cuisine
– Dinner: International cuisine

So after our 11 course traditional vegan lunch (see earlier blog post), our dinner was to be at a Turkish restaurant: “Istanbul Saray”!
It was interesting to observe that every restaurant we went to immediately served cold water… which was perfectly refreshing given the humidity outside. I have to confess, I was famished so I gobbled up my main course before taking any pictures… but here are a few of the starters and the sides:

One word: DELICIOUS!

You can find more coverage on Istanbul Saray at: http://www.deepkyoto.com/istanbul-saray/

And believe it or not, that was the end of Day 2!


 

The next blog posts will cover the adventures of Day 3: Temples, Shrines, Deer and a touch of Sushi! 🙂

A Japanese Adventure: The Golden Temple & The Rock Garden (Ryoan-ji)

After that unforgettable lunch we were off to explore more of the rich history and culture of Japan!

Our first stop was The Golden Temple !

A little history first (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3908.html)
“Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408.”

It was actually quite difficult to take photographs which didn’t have any tourists in them.. 🙂 .. but we managed to somehow.

On the way:

The Golden Temple:


 

We didn’t stay long… just long enough for everyone to take photos to their hearts’ content before moving on to one of my favorite sites: “The Rock Garden”  – Ryoan-ji

Background:
“Also called the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, Ryoan-ji has what is known as the most famous Zen garden. The refined dry landscape has fifteen enormous stones placed inside 248 square meters of highly polished white gravel. The monks residing at the temple groom the gravel each day and the stones are arranged within the space in five separate groups.

Like most Zen rock gardens, Ryoan-ji’s garden is to be seen from a single vantage point on the veranda of the Abbott’s residence. The rocks of the garden were arranged so that only fourteen of the fifteen stones may be viewed at any given time from any angle. This arrangement ensures that only through attaining enlightenment will one see all fifteen stones simultaneously.” (http://www.bestchoiceschools.com/25-most-inspiring-japanese-zen-gardens/ – Yup Ryoan-ji is number 1 on this list of the 25 rock gardens! 🙂 )

Although it was quite humid, many of us would have gladly spent hours at the Rock Garden, seated in silent contemplation. Even with large number of tourists passing through, the garden had an aura of peace and stillness… making you want to lose yourself in that serenity; disconnected, “unplugged”, finally at a place where you could reflect on yourself, your life and those thoughts, dreams and even those troubling decisions, that you’ve tucked away in the furthest corners of your mind, just because hectic daily work routines don’t let you access and address them freely.

It was interesting to observe that during our time there, even other tourists spoke relatively softly (compared to other sites), so as not to disturb the unique sense of peace. I overheard a fascinating conversation between 2 architects, discussing the mysteries of the design of the Rock Garden. I can’t remember the whole conversation, but one topic that did come up was ‘The Golden Ratio’ and its application in the garden’s architecture and design: How could the very same numbers have been applied so very long ago.. and so very far from places such as the Parthenon in Greece where the Golden Ratio was applied.
Learn more:
The Golden Ratio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio#Architecture
Parthenon and the Golden Ratio: http://www.goldennumber.net/parthenon-phi-golden-ratio/

If I ever get the opportunity, I’d love to revisit the Rock Garden in cooler months and spend a lot more time there… truly refreshing for the mind and soul.


 

And the day was still not over! Our next stop was Arashiyama for some shopping and a walk through the Bamboo Forest! … which will be covered in the next blog post. 🙂