Category: Travel and Adventure


Recently I made my yearly pilgrimage to Kyoto and the Kansai area. From the end of April to the beginning of May is known as “Golden Week” in Japan, because there are 4 national holidays that let people out of work and school. It’s one of the busiest travel times of the year, and if you’re traveling from outside of Japan it’s probably a good idea to avoid this week, unless you love crowds. I used some of my vacation days so I could travel mostly on non-holidays and tried to avoid the worst crowds. I still met with crowded buses, long lines, and expensive trains. I did this trip on my own this time, too. Traveling alone is never as fun as traveling with friends, but on the other hand I did everything at my own pace.

On Saturday I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. I arrived around 11 am and quickly stashed my bag in a coin locker before they were all taken. My first stop in Kyoto this time would be Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion.

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

The Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

While the Silver Pavilion is not a must-see stop in Kyoto, it’s a good visit for anyone interested in Japanese traditional culture. This pavilion influenced later architecture, being the first to have a tokonoma, a small alcove in the wall for hanging scrolls and displaying flower arrangements. The beginnings of the Japanese tea ceremony started here, and the understated beauty of the pavilion and garden became the standard for Japanese aesthetics.

To complement my visit to the Silver Pavilion I intended to visit Ryoanji next, a zen temple with a famous rock garden, but I got on the wrong bus and ended up in completely the wrong direction. Timing is everything in Kyoto because most temples close around 4 or 5, and taking the wrong bus meant losing the chance to see Ryoanji that same day. Instead I got my bags from the coin locker in Kyoto station and checked into my hostel.

Day 2 in Kyoto I headed to Ryoanji first thing in the morning. If you’re already visiting Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion), Ryoanji is a 15 minute walk from there and I highly recommend it. There is a bus service available too, but the walk is pretty as you get closer to Ryoanji.

The highlight of Ryoanji is the zen rock garden. There are 15 stones/boulders expertly placed to help you meditate as you look at the garden. What’s interesting is that no matter where you sit or stand while looking at the garden, you can’t see all 15 stones. At most I counted 14. They say that the only way to see all 15 stones at the same times is to reach enlightenment.

Rock garden in Ryoanji

Rock garden in Ryoanji

How many can you count?

After enjoying the gardens of Ryoanji, I decided to spend the afternoon in Arashiyama, which is in the western part of Kyoto. I think everyone else had the same idea, because it was extremely crowded.

My first stop in Arashiyama was Tenryuji, a temple with a famous dragon painted on the ceiling (the eyes follow you!) and beautiful garden. My main reason for the visit though was for the restaurant in the garden at Tenryuji. The restaurant serves shoujin ryouri, Buddhist cooking. Buddhists are vegetarian, so the entire meal was meat-free. I discovered this place when my vegetarian friend Allison visited last year. I had to go back and have another delicious experience there. I learned too late that the menu was the same as last year though. At least I knew what everything was!

The set meal at Tenryuji

The set meal at Tenryuji

After lunch I explored the Arashiyama area. There’s a bamboo forest, and a picturesque bridge over a river with mountains in the background. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon shopping for souvenirs and grazing at the food stalls.

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

A lazy afternoon in western Kyoto

My third day in Kyoto I took a train to the southern outskirts of the city to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, a temple that is famous for it’s thousands of torii gates.

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Thousands of vermillion gates lead visitors on a path up the mountain

Honestly I went to Fushimi Inari just to see these gates, and they’re as beautiful in real life as in the pictures. I had to wait a while to get a good picture free of other tourists, but the wait was worth it!

At many shrines and temples across Japan you can see the protectors of the shrine sitting on either side of the gates as you enter, and Fushimi Inari is no exception. Fushimi Inari is protected by foxes.

A fox holding a key in its mouth

A fox holding a key in its mouth

Here’s some trivia for you: The fox on the left of the entrance is holding the key to the granary to protect it from the mice!

The foxes are so popular that there are many fox themed souvenirs and fox related dishes that you can eat on the mountain. For example, kitsune udon (fox udon) is a noodle dish made with fried tofu, because foxes (supposedly) love fried tofu!

To finish my stay in Kyoto I went back to one of my favorite temples, Kiyomizudera. I already wrote about this great temple after my first visit, so I’ll end my Kyoto story here.

A final message about traveling in Kyoto (or anywhere in Japan) during Golden Week: It’s possible, but you must be prepared for the crowds and very patient if you want good pictures. I made it to two or three sites a day using the Kyoto bus system, which was cheap but slow.

Happy travels!

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Part 3/3

On my last day in Seoul, I got up early again and started the day off at the War Memorial of Korea.
Korean War Memorial

Both of my grandfathers fought in the Korean War, so I knew I had to see the memorial.

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It was a very moving memorial and museum. From the exhibits I could tell that the South Koreans were grateful for all the help they received from other countries during the war, and that they long to be reunited with North Korea someday.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my grandfathers were friends with some of the men who died during the war. I left very grateful that they both made it home safely.

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After spending the morning at the war memorial, I decided it was about time to go look for souvenirs before I had to head home. First, I tried going to Namdaemun Market. I was disappointed when I got there though. The market is very similar to Dongdaemun and Myeongdong. There was a lot of clothing, accessories, jewelry, and some big department stores. It wasn’t what I was looking for. I didn’t waste my time there so I headed to the last market on my list, Insa-dong.

Insa-dong

Despite Insa-dong being a tourist trap of souvenir shops, it was my favorite market. The street was lined with shops selling all kinds of different hand-made crafts, art galleries, and of course some souvenir shops. If you only have time to go to one market in Seoul, you should make Insa-dong your priority. I got all of my Seoul souvenirs there.

The side streets had a lot of restaurants and I had difficulty choosing one for lunch because they all looked delicious.For some reason this cracked me up:

Fire Beef Sushi

“Fire Beef Sushi”

After lunch (I chose bulgogi) I had some time on my hands. I decided I wanted a chance to see the traditional Korean houses, hanoks, a little better, so I went to the Namsangol Hanok Village in Chungmuro. There are 5 restored hanoks that visitors can visit and look inside of.

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I’m lucky that I went on a Saturday, because there were student volunteers there to give tours in English! The tours were free and I could tell that the students were doing it to practice their English. It was an informative tour and I would recommend it.

To finish my last day in Seoul I went back to the Gyeongbok Palace area to see the Cheonggyecheon stream light up at night. I was expecting the river to turn different colors like blue or red, but I saw something completely different!

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Light was projected onto a wall of water to make a show. It was pretty neat. Also some cool designs were projected on the wall by the stream. I think they moved around with the people looking at them.

My last picture of the night, a panorama of the area around the stream.

Seoul at night

The next day I took a plane back to Tokyo. Seoul was great and I would love to go again. There was so much that I didn’t get to see!

Thanks for reading!

Part 2/3

On my first full day in Korea, I got an early start around 7:30 am. I checked out of the jjimjilbang (Korean all-night spa) and headed to Dongdaemun station. That day I was meeting a friend from America who happened to be in Seoul at the same time for work. We were going to meet at Gyeongbok Palace when it opened at 9 am.

I was worried that I would get lost on my way to the palace, but the Seoul subway system was very easy to use, even during the morning rush hour. It seems like there is a train every 3-5 minutes. I got there in plenty of time and got to see the palace in the early morning light.

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When my friend got there we bought our tickets and took a look around. There were English signs in each area to tell us what we were looking at. I was very happy to see that Gyeonbok Palace was the birth place of the Korean alphabet (Hangul) and the first place in Korea to get electricity. It was very beautiful. I could also see that it was heavily influenced by Chinese architecture.

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There was a large garden at the palace, but it was too early in the year for any of the trees to be blooming. I’m sure it would have been beautiful a few weeks later.

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Gyeonbukgung pavilion

Near the palace grounds there are two museums, the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea. I had time to tour both. The National Folk Museum had a lot of English explanations posted around and was educational and enjoyable. The National Palace Museum had very little English, but the exhibits were beautiful. The National Palace Museum provides free guided English tours. I didn’t arrive in time to go on one, though.

My Chinese zodiac animal is the rabbit.
Rabbit statue

Before we left we were lucky to catch a reenactment of the changing of the guards at the palace gate.

Gyeonbukgung Palace Guards

After Gyeonbuk Palace, I said goodbye to my friend and headed over to Changdeok Palace. This palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace buildings were a little similar to Gyeonbuk Palace, but the layout was different. There was also an even bigger garden, but it can only be viewed on a guided tour. I didn’t think it would be very nice this time of year, so I skipped the garden.

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I saw a palace building with a parking space for cars for the first time here.

Changdeokgung building

After touring the palace grounds I walked over to the Bukchon Hanbuk Village that was nearby. This is an area of Seoul that has very old traditional houses that are still being lived in. Many of the houses were surrounded by high walls however. The area was perfect for a quiet stroll, and the streets were lined with shops and restaurants. I enjoyed this peaceful area.

Bukchon Hanok Village

After getting some bibimbap (vegetables and an egg served on rice in a hot bowl)for lunch, I decided it was about time to check into my youth hostel. I booked a hostel in Dongdaemun so that I could stay close to the action. Dongdaemun is close to many of the big tourist attractions, so I think it was the perfect area to stay.

I came across some performances in Dongdaemun that night. It looked like a dance competition.

Dongdaemun dancers

That night, I decided to check out another night market in Myeongdong. I really liked Myeondong a lot. It felt a lot like Shibuya or Shinjuku in Tokyo. There were vendors lining the streets selling clothing, jewelry, handbags, souvenirs, and food. There were also regular stores like H&M and Zara. From Myeongdong you can see the N Seoul Tower, which lights up every night. I explored a lot of side streets and thought about buying some souvenirs, but I had a feeling they were overpriced. This night market wasn’t open as late as Dongdaemun. Shops started closing around 9pm. I had Korean style barbecue for dinner and then made my way back to the hostel for some much needed rest.

Part 3 is coming soon!

Part 1/3

This was my third trip out of Japan to a nearby country, and my first trip alone! Seoul was a great choice for a solo trip. The flight time was short, about 2 hours from Tokyo. Navigating the Seoul metro system was ridiculously easy and also very cheap. Each one way trip only cost about $1 (US). Also, there was English everywhere, and where there wasn’t English, there was Japanese. Being bilingual is great sometimes!

My plane was taking off at 6:20 pm in Tokyo and would land in Seoul at 9:10 pm, so I made a point of getting my currency exchanged to Korean won before getting on my plane in Tokyo. But when I arrived in Seoul, despite the late hour, the currency exchange was still open! I’ll keep that in mind in the future. From the airport I took a train to Seoul station.

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So it’s 11pm, I’m alone in Seoul, what do I do? I go to a night market of course! There is a great night market in Dongdaemun that is open from 8 pm to 5 am. Dongdaemun is a short ride from Seoul Station. I arrived and put my bag in a coin locker ($3) and headed out to see the sights. There were a lot of people out shopping and eating food from street stalls.

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A stall selling some kind of omelet. I had a hot dog at a different stall later.

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The market wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. The items for sale were clothing, accessories, and cosmetics. Not very many souvenir type things. If you are serious about getting some clothes from Korea, then this is the place for you. The shoppers were a mix of people looking for good deals (everything was very cheap) or people looking for wholesale items to use in their own stores the next day. I simply looked around and enjoyed the atmosphere.

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Around 1 am I got tired and went to a tourist information booth (open at night!) and asked for the location of a Korean spa (jjimjilbang). I was directed to one in the basement of a large department store across the sidewalk. Why go to a spa? Because it is a cheap place to take a bath, get something to eat, and take a nap.

I really recommend staying in a jjimjilbang if you are in a pinch and need somewhere to sleep. I stayed the night for only 10,000 won ($10). When you enter, they give you a key with a number on it, take your bag, and give you some towels, a t-shirt, and shorts. First, you lock up your shoes in the foyer, then you go into the locker room to change and lock your belongings into a bigger locker. I was expecting the spa to be similar to a Japanese onsen, so I didn’t bring any of my shampoo or conditioner with me. Unfortunately the spa only provided a bar of soap. I made sure not to get my hair wet and took a relaxing bath and watched some television. There were a lot of other Korean ladies there doing the same thing, washing their hair, and brushing their teeth. It was a nice atmosphere. When I was ready for bed, I put on the provided t-shirt and shorts and found an empty bed in the sleeping room. Yes, there was a sleeping room full of beds. There weren’t any blankets, but it was warm enough inside without one. I got about 5 hours of sleep. Around 7 am everyone’s cell phone alarms started going off though so I took another bath and left around 7:30.

I don’t want to make this post too long, so I’m breaking my Seoul trip up into 3 parts.
Stay tuned for Part 2!

I can’t believe it’s already February! The new year is flying by fast. I hope everyone is keeping warm. One of the best ways to keep warm in the winter is to visit an onsen, or hot spring. Luckily, I live in Gunma Prefecture, where there are many amazing hot spring towns to visit. Recently I went to Kusatsu, a hot spring town that consistently ranks in the top 3 in Japan.

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Steam rises from the hot spring water in the center of the town.

I got on the train to Kusatsu at 11 in the morning on a Saturday. After a quick transfer one station over, it was a relaxing 1 hour trip to Naganohara-kusatsuguchi station. From the station there is a bus to the center of town. The bus ride was about 25 minutes long. Then, the hotel offered a pick up service from the bus terminal. I finally arrived!

A typical hot spring trip involves staying at a hotel that has private baths (indoor and outdoor), scenic views, and a dinner service, as well as breakfast. Meals consist of Japanese cuisine, and are usually quite good, though sometimes I’m not sure what I’m eating. Guests are served in their rooms, or if your party is big enough, in a private dining room. This type of hotel stay and meal plan can cost more than 10,000 yen (more than $100). It’s worth it though!

After checking in to the hotel and dropping off bags, I headed into town to do some shopping and enjoy the quaint atmosphere. The streets are lined with shops selling souvenirs, restaurants, cafes, and vendors selling hot food and drinks. There’s so much to see!

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A side street in Kusatsu.

Be sure to try the onsen tamago when you visit! Soft-boiled eggs cooked in a hot spring!

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A view of the hot spring water flowing in the center of town.

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A trip to Kusatsu, or any hot spring town, can easily be done in just a day as well. You don’t need to stay in a hotel to enjoy the natural hot water. There are free baths and some paid baths around town that usually sell towels for you to use. There are also many foot baths for people to enjoy along the streets.

After some sightseeing, I went back to the hotel to get into the bath before dinner. I used the bath again after dinner, too. And after breakfast! The water is full of minerals that makes your skin really smooth and supposedly is good for your health. It’s also really fun!

On Sunday morning I went into town again to get some last minute souvenirs and enjoy the foot baths. I didn’t have time to go to any of the free baths around town though. I would definitely go again, probably on a day trip!

Kyoto and Osaka

I’ve been so busy lately that I forgot to make a post about my trip to Kyoto and Osaka over Spring break! I had an amazing time with friends and I am looking forward to going again some day.

Day 1 –

The day started with a bike ride to the train station. From Maebashi my group and I took the train to Tokyo and caught a bullet train to Kyoto there. I’ve heard that you can see Mt. Fuji from the windows of the train on the way to Kyoto, but I fell asleep. When we arrived at the Kyoto train station (which is really cool by the way) we took a bus the area of hostel. The hostel was pretty nice and close to the river and shopping district.

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Kyoto is an extremely old city filled with lots of historical landmarks, famous temples, and it attracts many tourists year-round. This was only a short trip, so it was impossible to see every thing the area had to offer, but that’s just an excuse to go back over and over and over again.

My first Kyoto temple visit was the well known Kiyomizu Temple. The walk up to the temple was extremely fun. The road is lined with shops, souvenirs, restaurants, even kimono renting places. Many people were dressed in traditional clothes while they were walking around the streets.

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We found this on the way up:

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Then we made it to the temple! It was a beautiful Spring day, and lucky for us one of the cherry trees was blooming right out front.

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I was hoping to hit the beginning of cherry blossom season when I went, but most of the trees bloomed 2 weeks later than usual this year. This was a lucky catch.

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A beautiful pagoda, view from below:

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Even though part of Kiyomizu was under renovation, it was still a good experience. I toured the temple and temple grounds, and saw a beautiful view of the building.

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At the end of the tour, there is a famous waterfall (the temple’s name actually meansclear water) that has wish granting powers. I waited in line to take a drink and make a wish.

This picture can give you an idea of what it looked like:

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After seeing the temple, we explored the streets of Kyoto and came upon a cherry blossom festival (even though there were no cherry blossoms!). Kyoto really is a beautiful, old city.

A temple gate and a street in Gion:

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Usually the hostel/hotel on a trip isn’t worth mentioning in a blog post, but when we returned to our room that night we met our roommates. There were two sisters from the U.K that were in Japan for a few weeks, and a Romanian couple on vacation as well. Everyone was so nice that we talked about Kyoto and our lives for a while before bed. We got to talk some more the next night as well, and even ran into the sisters randomly in Gion the next day. It was a good group to be with in the same room.

Day 2 –

Unfortunately the second day was a bit rainy. We made the best of it by having breakfast at an amazing coffee shop, then heading over to Sanjusangendo. There are absolutely no pictures taken in the building, and it was raining, so I can’t offer much except this link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanj%C5%ABsangen-d%C5%8D

I liked visiting this historic site. Places like this in Japan make me realize how little I really know about the history/culture of this country and how much more I need to learn. Where are my old textbooks when I need them?

The rest of the day was spent shopping in a famous food shopping district called Nishiki. It had lots of fresh foods out, including things I had never seen before. I would totally shop there if I lived in Kyoto. Lucky for us most of it was covered so we didn’t get rained on.

After a hard day of shopping, we treated ourselves to the best fried chicken and ramen in the city. Maybe even in Japan. Seriously, it was that good. The place was even featured in a travel book about Japan. I’m lucky the store doesn’t have a branch in Maebashi.

Day 3 –

Day 3 was Osaka day! Osaka is only a 40 minute train ride away from Kyoto. Osaka was such a cool city, with a totally different feel to it from Kyoto or Tokyo. It was younger, hipper, just more urban feeling and fun. Osaka is famous for takoyaki and okonomiyaki, so of course, I ate both while I was there. đŸ™‚ At the end of the day of sightseeing my group went to karaoke and had a ton of fun!

A busy street in Osaka:

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Day 4 –

Day 4 was the last day of our trip. We took the train back to Kyoto to see the Nijo Castle.

This is my first castle visit in Japan, and I can’t really imagine any other place topping it. It was beautiful inside and out, and full of great information in English. Since this was once the dwelling of an emperor, the floors are rigged with a mechanism that makes it impossible for intruders to enter unnoticed. The floorboards literally sang as you walked on them. I loved it!

The outside wall around the castle:

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The entrance:

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A close up:

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Unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed indoors. Every room had beautiful woodwork and wall murals painted by famous artists.

After touring the indoors, there was a large garden outside to tour as well. I’m sure it would have been even prettier later in the spring.

Me:

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To finish up Day 4, we gave Kiyomizu Temple one last hurrah. On Day 1 we had just missed being able to take a walk into a tunnel in complete darkness, and wanted to go back and do it. I had to descend into pitch black darkness with only a hand rail to guide me through tunnel. As you walk through, you are supposed to discover “your own light” inside yourself to guide you. It was a little scary at first because it’s so dark your eyes don’t adjust to anything and you never see where you are walking. The tunnel wasn’t very long though, so not a bad experience.

A great picture of the temple on Day 4, courtesy of Clarissa:

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That finishes my Kyoto and Osaka trip of 2012. There is still much more that I haven’t seen yet, so I can’t wait to go back!

-Kristen

It’s been quite a while since I’ve made a post. This will be the first in a series of my recent travels.

In February I went to the Snow Festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

You’re probably wondering what a snow festival is. Think tons and tons of snow shipped in from all over Hokkaido, compressed into huge blocks, and then carved into intricate designs and put on display for everyone to see. Add tons of food and people from all over the world, and you get a snow festival. There were even ice sculptures at the snow festival too.

I only got to go for 3 days, but that was pretty much all I needed.

The festival didn’t officially start until Monday, so Saturday and Sunday were a chance to explore the sights of Sapporo.

The first day was spent in a neighboring city called Otaru where I went to see the canal snow light path. It was snowing and cold, but very beautiful.

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That day I got to eat some delicious ramen. Hokkaido is famous for delicious miso ramen and crab.

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The second day was a chance to see Sapporo’s famous chocolate factory. At the beginning of the trip I thought the chocolate factory would be a boring, run of the mill factory. Instead, it was like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The factory owners/operators really tried to make the trip magical by filling the place with a ton of weird stuff, and of course some views into the factory and an explanation of how they make their signature product.

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I ate some more delicious ramen that day. This is called miso butter corn ramen. There is a lot of butter and corn in it!

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Sunday night was test night for the Snow Festival light up shows. I got some of my best pictures of the huge sculptures.

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An ice sculpture that has real crabs and fish in it.

Finally the day of the Snow Festival came. I saw all of the sculptures in the day time, some performances and shows, and stuffed myself with food from Malaysia, China, Russia, and Japan, of course. I wish I had taken some pictures of my food for you all, but it was gone quickly after I bought it.

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After a great weekend in Sapporo, it was time to go home. I want to go back soon to eat more fantastic food and see more of beautiful Hokkaido.

At the airport we ran into a special friend. Melon bear!

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I taught my kids the sentence: Kristen looks like food for melon bear. They weren’t as amused as I thought they would be.

Now for your feedback – what was your favorite sculpture?

-Kristen

Sado Island

Please forgive how late this post is, about a month late exactly.

Back in September I took a weekend camping trip up to Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture with two friends. Sado Island is famous for many things,  like wooden boats, the red-crested ibis, noh theaters, beautiful beaches, sea food, and the Sado Gold Mine. The island is the largest isolated island in Japan. It has beautiful rock formations and lots of hiking on the mountainous terrain.

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We left Takasaki Station early morning Friday by bullet train. It was very exciting for me, having never ridden a bullet train before. Watching our train come in was very cool and we took lots of pictures like the tourists we are.

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After the bullet train ride we arrived on the coast of Japan in time to catch the ferry to the island. The ferry we took was a car and passenger ferry, so it was huge! We bought our tickets and boarded the ferry.

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Within minutes we were all motion sick. It was awful. The only thing that helped was laying down and taking a nap, or sitting outside watching the waves. It was a two hour boat ride.

Thankfully, we finally made it to port on Sado Island! We landed at Ryotsu Port. We disembarked with all of the other passengers and had a look around. We wanted to rent a car, but all of the car rental places were booked up! So instead we bought unlimited use bus tickets for 2 days, which cost about $20 and probably paid for themselves twice. We ate a snack in Ryotsu, then went exploring. We found a farmer’s market and bought some apples and bananas for breakfast the next day. We also loaded up on snacks in case the campground didn’t have food nearby. Then we hopped on a bus to our campsite in Tassha.

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When we first got to the campsite, we were a little disappointed and confused. Where were the beautiful beaches? We asked a gift shop attendant and found out that we were in the right place. It was a gloomy day, and threatening to rain. We were a bit worried about the fact that it might thunderstorm, and we had no running water/bathrooms after 8pm. We decided to stick out anyway and put up the tent. We took a walk on the shoreline and then hiked up the road to explore. There wasn’t much around us. Sleeping in the tent that night was a little scary (I swear I heard a cat outside the tent!) but we made it through.  In the morning, the sun was out and we got to see the beautiful beach that was advertised. The gift shop opened at 8 am and we finally got to use the bathroom! We pulled down the tent and caught the next bus to our second destination: The Sado Gold Mine.

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Back in the day, the Tokugawa Shogunate was funded by the gold from the Sado Gold Mine. Now the mine is shut down, but it provides a fun tour into history for people. You can walk through and see animated robots doing the everyday work that real mine workers used to do. They even had a lot of signs in English! We paid 800 yen each to tour half of the mine. Then, we walked through a museum with lots of information and old artifacts from the mine. Then of course the exit took you to a gift shop! I’m a sucker for souvenirs.

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Outside the gift shop we saw a place selling dango, a specialty of Niigata prefecture. We bought sakura dango and enjoyed them together.

Next up on the trip, the port town of Ogi. We took a nice long bus ride down the island to our last stop. When we got off, we weren’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into. We didn’t know where we were, had no transportation (besides the next bus) and we had our heavy bags to carry everywhere. Thankfully the weather was nice, actually it was a bit hot for backpacking that day. We had intended to camp again, but the campgrounds were mostly closed for the season. We got over our initial nervousness to go look around and we found the tourist information building and got the phone number for the local hostel. Once we made a reservation, we hiked up to it on foot with all of our bags (it was quite a climb!) and paid about 3600 each for a night in a nice little youth hostel that seemed to be only run by an old lady. Once we dropped off our bags, we hiked back down to explore the town and soon realized that this place was tiny. There was no way we could have gotten lost! It was such a small town, the kind where you can walk through the downtown area and not even realize it… But anyway we found dinner at a nice little restaurant, took pictures of the ocean, and bought souvenirs. We were lucky enough to see one of the famous wooden tub boats being rowed (picture at top of the post). It was a peaceful night. As it was getting dark, we went back up the road to our hostel and spent the rest of the night enjoying the electricity and cell phone reception.

Then Sunday came too fast. It was time to leave. We got to spend a little bit more time in the little town before our ferry left. We left from a different port than we came in, because it would have cost a lot of money to take a bus back to the main port now that our passes were expired. This ferry got us to a fairly big train station on the main island of Japan, so it all worked out. Our second ferry also seemed like a much smoother ride, and it didn’t take as long to get back either. We weren’t too motion sick to go outside and enjoy the view, and we even got to feed some seagulls! That was fun.

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Goodbye Sado!

It took about 7 hours, 1 ferry, 1 bus, 3 trains, and 1 bicycle ride to get back home in Maebashi. But my weekend in Sado Island was a great one! I would recommend a trip to Sado Island during the summer season, when more things are open, and I would also suggest renting a car too. But either way it’s a fun trip.

I almost forgot to add a certain funny story. While Laura and I were on the bullet train back to Takasaki station, we were sitting next to a nice looking old lady. She had a heavy carry on bag with her, so I offered to put it up for her. Then we talked the rest of the train ride! She didn’t speak much English, but she had been all over the world and told us some cool stories about her travels in Europe (from what we could understand…). Then she gave us some souvenirs from her latest trip! It was too kind. Laura and I conspired to gift her back. I mentioned earlier that I was a sucker for souvenirs, and I had bought some at the Sado Gold mine. I pulled out a key chain, hid it in my hand, then right when we got to our stop, we sneak attack gifted her and ran away. It was great!

-Kristen

Visit Sado

Sunrise on Mt. Fuji

There’s a saying in Japan that goes like this: A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once, a fool climbs Mt. Fuji twice.

So far I am a wise (wo)man!

After work on Friday, August 19 I hopped on my bike and rode over to the train station to meet with the other 20 people climbing Mt. Fuji that night. I brought my various pieces of gear with me: A complete snow suit, a sweater, hiking boots, a head lamp, 2 litres of water, a rain jacket, my DSLR camera, hat, gloves, and a ton of trail mix. After meeting all of my lovely hiking companions, we got in the cars and started driving to Yamanashi Prefecture, the home of Japan’s tallest mountain.

The car ride was unenventful until we finally made it to the mountain. Imagine this: A dark, drizzly night, wet pavement, and winding roads going up a mountain. Finally we made it to our starting point, the 5th Station. There are nine total stations, and then the summit.

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This picture was taken the next day.

At the 5th Station most of us bought souvenir wooden walking sticks. The walking sticks not only help you up the mountain, but you are also able to get stamps burned into them at each station! I like the idea a lot and got a walking stick for about 1300 yen ($13). The 5th Station stamp looked like this:

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Our plan was to start that night around 11:30 and climb until the sunrise at 5:00 am. At first the hike was not bad, mainly a lot of gravel, big steps, and some trees on the side. We reached the 6th station in a short amount of time.  Unfortunately, the 6th Station was quite small and was not giving out stamps. Then we started to ascend to the 7th Station. The climb got steeper, and the steps seemed endless. My new friend Laura and I named ourselves “Team Slow” and made the trip up with plenty of stops to rest and drink water. Remember, we were thousands of meters above sea level and the air was a lot thinner than we were used to! Thankfully, we did not feel the effects of altitude sickness at the early stages of climbing, or we would have had to go back down.

At the 7th station I got my next stamp:

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So at this point the climb had mostly been peaches and cream, and I thought the rest of the way would be quite similar, just lots of gravel and steps. But I was wrong, so so so wrong. After the 7th Station the path was full of large rocks, going straight up into the sky. I can’t really describe what is was like to look up the mountain and watch the head lamps of other climbers navigating among the rocks for what seemed like miles and miles. We had to use our hands, walking sticks, chain ropes, and poles to drag ourselves up the rest of the way to the 8th Station. The worst part was when we saw a station in the distance, worked really hard to get to it, and then realized that it was just a bathroom stop with a lot of lights. We took a lot of breaks, sipping our water, eating fruit, nuts, and M&Ms,  and huddled in our jackets for warmth. It was also raining, so the rocks were slippery, the sky was dark (though we did get a glance of the moon and some stars toward the top), and the wind picked up very strongly. There were a couple times when I would look up the trail of rocks and hours of climbing and thought about just staying put until the morning. My motivating factor was the promise of the beauty of the sunrise on top of Mt. Fuji, and also the fact that going down the rocks would be just as awful as going up them.

So I kept moving, holding onto Laura’s hand so we could pull each other up the rocks, all the while giving and receiving courage from other climbers. We heard things like “Ganbarou!” “Fight!” and of course we said “Sumimasen!” because we had a tendency to hold up the other climbers…

Then a miracle happened. We made it to the 8th Station at about sunrise. The view was not much to look at really, but for a couple of weary climbers the lightening of the sky meant that the climb was almost over. The goal was within reach. And, we stayed up all night to climb this *&%^%* mountain!

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I think this is one of the better sunrise photos I got from the 8th Station.

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Me!

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My hiking partner Laura. What a work out!

At this point we could have continued to the summit, another 2 or so hours of hiking, but the air was getting to me and I didn’t feel like going up any further. Also, the people at the 8th station were not doling out the stamps! I was not happy. I waited for a while to get my stamp, but the wind was very cold and strong, and I was eager to get back down the mountain so I could sleep.

Ok, so I climb a mountain, got to 3100 meters, the hard part is over right? No! Because what must go up, must come down.

The side of the mountain kind of looked like this:

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See all of those little red rocks? The path way down the mountain zig-zagged, back and forth, back and forth, all on those little red rocks. The way was a bit treacherous, because losing your footing was easy. I fell about 4 times, and scraped up my leg a little, but I didn’t feel bad, because everybody else around me was falling down as well. The way down seemed to last forever, but there were stops to rest and use the restroom thankfully. I snoozed a bit here and there, and rested as much as I needed. I soon learned that if I wasn’t walking or sitting, my legs would shake with the effort to stand up. I definitely was feeling the wear and tear of the mountain. After about 3 or so hours of hiking downhill, I made it back to the 5th station to meet the rest of the group.

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Some very tired but happy hikers! Unfortunately not everyone was there for this picture.

So even after everything I went through, I might have to become a fool and climb it a second time! My goal is to make it to the top, take some beautiful pictures, and get every. single. stamp. Fight!

Until next year, Mt. Fuji.

Thanks for reading! Leave some feedback, would you climb Mt. Fuji?