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A walk in the woods

January 26

We landed in chilly Japan at about 7:30 pm. We had been a little cold in Hong Kong but in just a few minutes here and my teeth were chattering. I pulled on a few layers and even wrapped my sarong around me like a scarf. Brrrr!

Japan has a reputation for being very expensive and I’ve found that there are ways to save some cash; transportation is a hard one though. If you do your homework (like know that a fast train-15 minutes-from say Osaka to Kyoto might cost $30 but a slow train-30 minutes-will only cost $6) ahead you can save a bit but getting to town from the airport is just expensive. About $35 /person each way. Period. I’ve found shuttle busses for cheaper but they only run twice a day and never when I could take them. We paid the fee and got off in the Shinjuku area. We had found a deal with one of my favorite chains, Ibis…now to find the hotel. We wandered around for a bit (walked right past it), then a bit more…and a bit more. We finally got in a cab and together we somehow found it. We checked in and crawled into bed; I wanted to get up early and do some serious shopping tomorrow!

January 27

We had a cheap breakfast from the 7-11 (Huge hint: In Japan 7-11’s have decent cheap food, some even sitting areas) then headed for the subway. I was so excited. I was going to spend the day in a few of my favorite shopping areas in Tokyo (poor James!). We stumbled across an amazing buffet place that wasn’t too expensive and had a delicious lunch. I really love the big cities for their food!

We finally made it to Harajuku. A fun area known for the cute, quirky Harajuku girls who shop and hang out in the area – all decked out! Most days you can see girls walking around all dressed up, or actually dressed normal for them. If you hang around on a Saturday it is filled, and seems more like a fashion show. The area is filled with fun shops. I spent a few hours picking up items and saying “can I wear this in Canada?” One of the things I love about Japan is anything goes. All styles are in and age means nothing. It is my kind of place. I bought a few things that I am sure will have my mother’s eye brows raising (nothing indecent or anything like that!). I also picked up a pair of leg warmers; which are very much “in” in Asia and I was freezing in my quick dry, light weight pants. Pulling them on James commented that they really added to my homeless look. We both looked pretty funny wearing pretty much everything we owned.

Shopping is exhausting so we had a late afternoon nap before showering and heading out again. The hotel wasn’t the cheapest or the nicest but it was very convenient. We started off walking around soaking up the atmosphere. We had a few things to replace so did that as we went along. Eventually we stopped for a few drinks and to people watch. Tokyo has some amazing sights and lots of history but when visiting it’s really about the feel of it. It just an amazing mix of old and new. The new shiny buildings, advanced technology, stores full of brand name everything seem to blend effortlessly with the old traditions and customs. It’s not surprising to see a lady in full geisha walking down the street beside a young guy in pink sparkle sneakers. I find it refreshing and calming. There is also order, a politeness, a respect for others that I haven’t found anywhere else in the world. You can be walking down a street packed with people and not get nudged or bumped. On public transportation it’s not acceptable to use your cell phone; it’s just disrespectful to others around you. They not only like rules but follow them; and expect others to do the same. It makes for an easy place to be.

After a few drinks we walked back to the hotel. It was the wee hours but still safe. I love Japan!

January 28

We slept in and then headed out for a bit more shopping and to soak up more of wonderful Tokyo. I had decided on one of the many markets/shopping streets. We didn’t buy much but again just enjoyed people watching. We treated ourselves to an American chain restaurant supper of wings and ribs.

The plan was to have a quick nap and shower and go out again. Once showered and tucked into our warm bed we both fell sound asleep. So much for drinks out.


January 29

Today was a travel day and we didn’t have far to go so we slept in again. We were heading north of Tokyo to a city called Nikko. Last year, almost to the day, I had visited and loved it. We had met Chris in Toyko for a few days and I stayed a few days extra (James had to go back to work). I hadn’t realized it was rated in all the guide books as a must see; it just happened to be the city closest to the pottery village I had wanted to visit.

To save a few bucks we took a slower train and packed a lunch. At the last minute I grabbed a few beers; will I ever be able to ride a train and not have a beer after living in Korea? I loved the train ride. It started in busy Tokyo and slowly made its way to rural areas. High-rises turned into small apartment buildings and then houses scattered in the fields. The further we got from Tokyo the more snow we saw. Hmmmm….I bet it’s getting colder too.

My favorite guesthouse

After a few hours we arrived at the Nikko train station and walked the five minutes to our Ryokan, The Nikko Guest House. There are fancy hotels in the small town but last year I stayed “budget” and it ended up being one of my favorite places ever to sleep. The Nikko guest House is run by a young couple that lived for a few years in Singapore. They grew up near Nikko and know the area well. They had wonderful suggestions and helped us plan our stay. They cannot seem to do enough for you.

They also have a small kitchen and let their guests use it. After checking in (and having a hot cup of green tea) we went for a quick walk to look around and stopped at the grocery store. We were excited to be able to cook a meal.

Back home we cooked supper and then sat talking with the owners. We were going to visit my pottery village the next day and they had a few suggestions. They also printed off maps and bus/train schedules. So nice! We went to bed early. I was freezing and the thick blankets in our room were calling my name. Our room was kept pretty much the same as when it was originally built. Sleeping was also in the Japanese traditional way - mats on the floor. The space heater warmed the room up but for safety reason we had to turn it off before we went to sleep. I snuggled down into my fluffy pile of blankets and had one of the best sleeps I’ve had in ages.

James enjoying the pretty pottery village toilet

January 30

I woke up still wrapped in my cocoon of blankets. It was 4 degrees in our room. Brrrr. We got dressed quickly, or as quick as you can put on an undershirt, a long sleeve t-shirt, a t-shirt, a zip up fleece, a hoodie, tights, pants, socks and leg warmers, then went for breakfast. Soon we were out the door and on our way to the train station. Today we were visiting one of my favorite pottery villages (I know, weird!) in a tiny town called Mashiko. It was filled with pretty much nothing but pottery and a pottery museum. Heaven!

We took a train then a bus, about 2.5 hours in total, through rural Japan, or what I call rural. Beautiful wide open spaces between small villages with a back drop of snow-capped mountains. Stunning! We jumped off the bus at one end of the village and started to walk. Not everything was open, which James was thankful for, but I still managed to spend over four hours (James figures it was more like 15 hours) looking. The shops were filled with traditional pottery and newer patterns and techniques. The last time I was here I bought a few things but mostly gifts; this time, with James help, we bought a few amazing things for ourselves. I have to say that even James looked impressed at the quality and beauty.

James and the anatomically correct pottery bear (that sounds like the worst children's book title ever, not that "James and the Giant Peach" sounds great)

I ended up buying a few items from some of the same shops as before – some had more mass produced stuff and some more unique items of better quality. Last time I was debating on buying a few pieces and while deciding the owner mistook it for price issues and offered me a lower price. I tried this again, in the same shop, and it worked. The next place we tried it again and it worked again, she gave us a great deal. At the cash she was pointing at ear rings I was looking at and saying something in Japanese (go figure?!?) James was off paying with a credit card so I had no help figuring it out. She finally walked off to another customer. I think he must have been Korean because she came back and pointed at the ear rings and said “Service!” Oh! She ended up giving me 2 pairs for service! Oh how I miss service!

Reluctantly I got back on the bus home. “sigh” For anyone interested in pottery make sure you leave some spare time while in Japan. This is only one of a handful of villages that are filled with pottery. Last summer while traveling alone I planned my route around castles & pottery villages. I mentioned I was alone, right?

At the train station we took the guest house owner’s suggestion and had “the best dumplings in Japan”. They were pretty good. We got a box to go for the owners as a thank you for being so helpful. I know we are paying them to stay at their place but really feel more like their guests.

After a day in the crisp, cold air we were both exhausted. We had a cup of hot tea and a snack in the common room. The low table had a heater under and was covered by a thick blanket so our legs were toasty warm. Nikko is also famous for its many hot springs. Actually I fell in love with natural hot springs in Japan and Nikko has way more than its share. It just happened that fancy hotels in the area were offering free baths for a winter festival. One was a block away from us so I somehow managed to work up the energy and went. I had planned to go last night and tonight but the chilly weather had kept me in last night. Of course a few minutes in the hot spring made me regret skipping it the night before. It was sooooooo relaxing.

The hotel was pretty fancy and had designer body scrubs, face creams, body creams and moisturizer in the shower. I left feeling smoother, softer and cleaner than I have been in a very long time. Almost girlie.

Sacred bridge

January 31

We both woke from another great sleep. I have to admit cool/cold nights are the best for getting a good night’s sleep. We lingered over breakfast and chatted a bit more with the owners. We had a full day planned and they were helping us with it.

First on the agenda was a walking tour of Nikko. Just north of Tokyo, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and thick forest is Nikko; one of Japan’s major attractions. Its gilded shrines and exquisitely crafted temples sparkle against a backdrop of mossy stone walls and towering cedars. The only drawback can be the crowds but in the winter (off season) you almost have the place to yourself.

Sacred something or other

Nikko’s history as a sacred site stretches back to the middle of the 8th century when a Buddhist priest established a hermitage here to be used for training monks. Long after the hermitage was gone and forgotten the area was chosen as the site for the mausoleum of Tokugawa Leyasu; the warlord who took control of all of Japan and established the shogunate that ruled for more than 250 years. Regardless of your opinion of Leyasu (they say he executed his wife and eldest son because it was politically expedient) the grandeur of Nikko is stunning, a display of wealth by a family that had supreme power in Japan for over two and a half centuries. Simply put – the place is enchanting and one can easily imagine the Japan of ancient times. The dusting of snow makes it almost romantic. When I was here alone last year I couldn’t wait to visit with James.

We walked 20 or 30 minutes uphill towards the shrines past small shops and restaurants and came to Shinkyo Sacred Bridge. Shinkyo is a shiny red-lacquered bridge across the Daiya River. According to legend, when the priest Shodo (the founder of Nikko) first came with his followers, a god helped them to cross with his two snakes. They entwined themselves into a bridge. You gotta love Japan’s stories.

We crossed the road and our walk took us up a flight of mossy steps. Small aqueducts, slightly icy, ran down both sides trickling and tinkling with water. The only other sound was the crackling of ice under our feet. Statues, tiny shrines, monuments and stone lanterns were tucked into tree fringed openings. It was magical.

Enjoying the walk

As we got closer to the main temple, Rinnoji Temple, we came across a few tourists and one large tour. Rinnoji Temple is a mausoleum of the third Shogun and is under re-construction – so it’s all covered. We still went inside and were amazed by the three gilded Buddha’s, the largest wooden ones in Japan.

We visited a tiny park that had a tiny pond surrounded by statues, monuments and snow topped stone lanterns. I was tempted to sit for a bit.

We continued on to Toshgu Shrine, Futarasan Shrine and Taiyuin Temple. On the way we walked past more moss covered stone walls, stone lanterns, shrines, monuments and even a line of stone statues. There once were 100 stone statues but due to a flood in 1902 there are only 74 left. Still quite a sight. We passed huge bells and drums in intricately detailed towers.

When we got to the Taiyuin Shrine I was again in awe. Even though I’d seen it already, the size and beauty of it nestled almost into the side of the mountain amazed me yet again. This might be my favorite temple. It towers above you as you walk up the stone steps and once inside it is huge. At the very back is a tall stone wall, moss covered of course, which is topped by huge cedar trees. Everything about it, the temple, the surrounding wall, the trees, just seems bigger than life.

Sacred beer

We ventured off the main path and took a stone/dirt path higher up the mountain. We were all alone and even I took advantage of the silence. We came across a small shrine, Kitano, and stopped for a break. James had picked up a variety of beers brewed in the area and we had a few. Maybe not what Shodo had in mind but perfect for us.

We headed a bit further up the path and it got more snow and ice covered. We carefully went up ice covered steps to see a hidden monument and temple. It was beside a fast running stream. Again it was peaceful except for the running of water and crackling of ice. I could happily live in this beautiful temple beside the stream.

We walked towards the road but James being a boy preferred to slip and slide on the icy path. When the road came within jumping distance I made the leap. I was sure I would fall and break my neck if I stayed on the path.

We slowly made our way back to the main road and then to our hostel. I had to catch a train for an afternoon treat. James had volunteered to stay behind and ship a box of goodies home. When James was done the owners were going his way so offered to pick me up and drop us off at the train station. I’m serious, the nicest people!

I caught a train and only had a few stops before I got off. I was in a very tiny village and only got lost a few times so made it to me appointment on time. I was making glass beads. I’ve always wanted to try it and a local artist offered short classes. I was greeted by a yappy dog and one of the smallest shops ever. She didn’t speak much English but I got the idea and soon was twisting a bead. It was fun but a bit harder than I thought. I think an extra hand or two would have helped. When I was done the bead went into the cooling bin and I went next door for a coffee.

The coffee shop was quaint with old creaky wooden floor and a fire place - and was real. Real meaning everything was done by hand. The water was heated on the stove in a giant tea kettle; the real chocolate was poured into milk, no powders. Even the mugs were warmed before being used. It was interesting just to watch them prepare the drinks. I had forgotten my book so sat back with my caramel coffee and enjoyed a book on houses. I could happily have lived here forever.

Saying goodbye to/with the owners

James and the guest house owners eventually came for me. I was like a three year old with new a new finger painting. Look at my pretty bead! We were squeezed into their car and made the four block (yeah, so I got lost in four blocks) drive to the train station. After hugs and pictures we were off. On the train I watched the snow and tiny villages with cute little houses disappear. Before I knew it we were in Tokyo again.

We had to switch trains in Tokyo. We could have gotten to the airport quicker but it would have cost more than double the price. So we walked the block and got on another train. Twenty minutes later we were at Haneda airport, the domestic/discount airport. I would soon be leaving Japan. This might sound crazy but people often ask where in the world you have traveled could you live? Hands down it’s Japan for me. I hope to someday move here and spend a year or so, hopefully longer. So it’s a see ya later, not a sad good bye!

February 1

The flights weren’t necessarily the greatest but they were cheap. Our first stop, after an overnight flight, was Kuala Lumpar. We got in at 5 am and were tempted to visit the friendly girl at the information desk who had sent us to the gross sticky sheet hotel the last time we had a stop here – but ended up at McDonalds. We didn’t have enough time to go to town (about 1.5 hours each way) so had a greasy breakfast and used their free internet. As usual the whole place, not just McDonalds was packed. For such a small airport it is very busy.

A few hours later we boarded our next flight…we were on our way to Thailand! Our next destination is actually Sri Lanka but it was so much cheaper to go Kuala Lumpar – Thailand – Colombo that we decided to add a few days in Thailand. We are both exhausted and thought a break at one of our favorite (for peace & quiet) resorts would be a good place to recharge.

We landed pretty much on time and headed to immigration. We walked down a long hall way and around the corner. Holy crap! There was a wall of at least a couple thousand people. I’ve never seen anything like it – or wanted to! We both groaned and joined. Several hours later (of jostling and fighting to keep our place in line) we were through and looking for our bags. It had taken us so long they were long ago taken off the conveyor belt. We had cheated and arranged a private transfer (yes, we were tired – this was kinda our vacation from our vacation) and worried it had left. He was still there and looked as relieved to see us as we were to see him. Despite the delay he was still friendly and offered to wait while we grabbed a bite to eat. We passed. We just wanted to be sitting quietly beside a pool.

I fell sound asleep in the car – which says something for the highway. James woke me a few minutes before we were there and I already felt relaxed. The resort is tiny and the owners remembered us. Check in took a few minutes, we dropped our bags, showered and headed for a lounger. Ahhhhhh….

February 2 & 3

Somehow we managed to sleep/lounge/eat/drink the days away. I barely picked up a book or the computer. I almost feel guilty, almost.

February 4

I’m not sure how, but James talked me into getting dressed and leaving the resort. I think it was a promise of Subway for lunch and some cheap shopping. We even did this outing the easy way – we rented a scooter. I forgot my camera so I’ll try to paint you a picture of Pattaya beach…Noisy streets filled with scooters, cars, tuk-tuks, jeepneys and busses all honking. Busy with old beer bellied shirtless men or Hawaiian print clad old men, with young pretty girls in short skirts, tight t’s and stilettos. Pasty white drunk guys being loud and obnoxious carrying beers, Russian families with small, pink, sticky kids and strollers that don’t fit the non-existent sidewalks and street vendors every three feet wanting you to stop, chat and to just take a look. I think there was an actual beach but it was hiding behind the vendor stands, umbrellas and billboards. So why bother leaving my oh so quiet and peaceful pool lounger? Cheap dresses of course. I think Thailand has the cheapest summer dresses and I’ve been traveling with one, and only one, for way to long. We both ended up picking up a bunch of stuff, yes even James. I happily replaced all my bathing suits (diving is hard on them) for under $30 CAD – four new cute as can be bikinis. We wandered around a bit, had Subway, found ice-cream for dessert then went home. My lounger was missing me.

The resort had a party (which meant music and a bartender at the tiny bar) and we spent a few hours visiting and chatting. We hit it off with a couple who are living & working in Korea as teachers and we had a few laughs. They are enjoying it like we did, but have encountered a lot of the same cultural differences we did. It’s surprising how much I miss Korea.

February 5

It just happened that everyone was checking out today so the owners said we could check out when our transfer was coming – 4 pm. I again somehow managed to laze the day away.

It’s a sad day today – we are leaving South East Asia. I have spent the past two and a half years traveling in and around SEA. I have made so many memories, seen so many wonderful amazing oh my god things and met so many new friends. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to really get to know it, which sounds funny but I think I got to spend enough time to see a teeny weeny bit below the surface. To be honest I haven’t loved it all, I’ve had moments where I would have preferred to be poking my eyes out with forks rather than go one more step, get on one more bus, eat from one more dirty restaurant, squat in one more stinky stall….but – in Asia the good far outweighs the bad and it’s a place everyone should visit, again and again and again.

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