No countdown, no fireworks, no party hats and stringers, no loud drunken crowd, no pushing and shoving, no dancing, no popping corks. Instead…masses of calm, smiling Japanese waiting at the gates of a Kyoto temple, ringing shrine bells, burning rope ends lit by lantern flames, sake served by monks, wishing wells, Buddhas, prayers on paper, fortunes in boxes, good luck charms in every size and shape, food stalls serving sausages, fish cakes, glutinous rice treats (mochi). This is the new New Year’s experience that only Japan can offer.
Japan and the Japanese people continue to amaze me with their impeccable service, delicate presentation, attention to detail, eye for aesthetics, loyalty to customs, helpfulness, diligence, and overall conscientious manner. Going back to Japan, I was excited to discover more of the country and hoped that Patrick would find it as fascinating as I.
Dec 28. My cousin Ece, who has been living in a smaller city called Tsu for over a year, was waiting to greet us at Narita airport with open arms and a wide smile. We took the subway into rainy Tokyo for 1,5 hours only to get lost trying to reach our hotel. Finally, at 2am we could rest our heads on our pillows for a few hours before waking up to head to the Tsukiji fish market, an experience that one should not miss in Tokyo.
Dec 29. I hear you have to be at the fish market at the crack of dawn to get a peak at the wholesalers auction that takes place just as all the fish is hauled off the boats. Although we missed that, our sleepy trio did get a feel of the early morning market buzz as small motorized trolleys zipped by, large slabs of tuna were carried by 4+ men, many came to buy the freshest fish, and trucks for loaded up for the day’s deliveries. We crossed to the other side of the street to join the morning crowd at a sushi breakfast, only to find out the most expensive sushi goes unappreciated by our ignorant taste buds. We went sushi-hopping till we were high on fresh, raw fish.
We spent the rest of our first full day in Tokyo in Asakusa, an older district of Tokyo that has the most Edo flair. We went in and out of the Senso-ji temple and walked through the gardens, and all along the tourist-mobbed streets – even made a ceremonial stop at Starbucks – before heading to Shinjiku, skyscraper paradise. We went straight to Takashimaya department store to a popular lifestyle shop called Tokyu Hands. Judging by the masses of shoppers and lines, Japanese people are really into accessories for their mobile gadgets – little charms, stickers, covers, etc. Also they are fantastic at gift wrapping and paper products like cards, stationary, etc.
In the evening, we went to Sibuya (Lost in Translation crossing) to meet TJ and Ramela who had flown in from Shanghai that afternoon. Our group was complete. We found a great place to eat thanks to Ece – the type of restaurant is called izakaya. We literally ordered from a computerized screen that stood at the end of our table. A little taste of everything…ymmmm, so good.
We hit Sega game world after dinner to take the funniest instant photos with Ece and Ramela which we then could decorate and customize – while the guys played on the taiko drums. The evening stretched on into the morning hours, as some newly found Japanese friends took us to a private bar and afterwards we haggled our way into a very cool night club where we danced till dawn. (Funny cultural note here: although the five of us grew up in similar cultures, we noticed that the countries we currently live in have had a great impact on our behavior and expectations. The Chinese side was trying to bargain on all prices, cross streets on red, cross at any place – not necessarily at crosswalks, take taxis with 5 people.)
Dec 30. Train to Okawara. Bus to Hakone, a quaint mountain town known for its healing hot springs. We stayed at a ryokan (see slide show) that was the epitome of the Japanese experience. So we put on our yukatas, soaked in the springs, ate our many many small dishes of delicious ryokan food, slept on futons on tatami mats (made from bamboo), and felt completely and utterly relaxed.
Dec 31. Hike around Hakone area. Although we never got a clear view of Mt Fuji, we could breathe in that fresh air, take great pictures along the lake, and have udon noodles and soba beer before we headed back to Okawara and took our connecting train to Kyoto.
Jan 1-3. Kyoto offers all the temples and gardens one ever wanted to see and more. See slide show. There are no words to explain the serene beauty of some of the worlds we entered when going through the front gates of the temple grounds. From sunsets to Zen rock gardens, we took every opportunity to feel at one with the great spirits who granted us this awesome opportunity to be in this part of the world, doing what we are doing.