Journey to Japan- The End

Today’s the first day we got to sleep in as we were scheduled to leave the hotel at 11.30am. So sleep in we did… till 7.30am. ^^ We got up and did the last minute packing and realized that all our KitKat would not fit! O___O That meant Z had to go to Bic across the street to pick up another suitcase but luckily we managed to pack up on time and instead of having breakfast at the hotel on our last day, I just ate one of those super yummy apple-like pears that I had picked up in Shibuya. Like the peach before it, the pear was sooooooooooo juicy that I ate the entire thing and began to wonder where I’d be able to find Japanese fruits in Dubai.

We checked on time and headed to the Tokyo Kamii Mosque for Friday prayers. The mosque is stunning, it’s Turkish architecture making us feel right at home. A spiral staircase leads up to the women’s section which is on the second floor overlooking the men’s section below. As you climb up the stairs you’ll find a a stand with the Friday sermon, in Japanese and English for the various nationalities of people who’ll come. The mosque is very welcoming and encourages people interested in learning more about Islam and Muslims to come to the mosque and we found many ladies curious to learn more about Islam up on the second floor eagerly waiting for the Friday prayers to start.

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Tokyo Camii Mosque

The sermon was read out 4 times… in Japanese, English, Arabic and Turkish. After prayers, we headed downstairs where the mosque was offering free lunch to all the visitors as well as everyone who had come for Friday prayers. We didn’t eat at the mosque since we’d already been booked somewhere else- Aladdin for a buffet with some really good kebabs. It was half-way through lunch that sensei received a phonecall that left her pacing up and down the restaurant looking super-excited. It turned out that she won an award for her book. The perfect icing on her cake after a splendid vacation. She was so happy that she wanted to order mango lassi for everyone, but forgot that it wasn’t an Indian restaurant so she ordered a round of mango juice instead ^^ I’m so happy that we were there to share one of her happiest moments on the trip.

One this high note, we left for the Edo Museum where we found that everyone’s tickets had different pictures on them. It’s the little things that make all the difference.

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Looking around before heading into the museum

We headed up the escalator to the 5th floor and even the escalator ride was fun because it’s a regular escalator that suddenly becomes flat in the middle before turning back into steps as it heads higher up ^^. The museum is pretty massive and we were stuck between wanting to see everything and not being late. I gave up on taking pictures because everything was picture-worthy and I just wanted to take everything in. At the exit to the 5th floor, I ended up printing myself another epic souvenir- the front page of the newspaper on my birthday and I later got sensei to tell me what was the big news that day. It turned out to be some big Enron like scandal in some recruitment firm- because some things never change.

We headed to the first floor looking for the bus parking and we ended up stumbling across the museum shops, where – you guessed it- there were a million more models. We ended up getting two really intricate models of shops in Japan similar to one of the exhibits that I had seen earlier in the museum. The instructions may all be in Japanese, but if it’s a model, I have to attempt it ^^

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Book store

You can see Sky Tower from the Edo Museum and that’s where we were headed next. We decided to skip the trip to the top and instead wandered around the stores on the 4th floor where of course we stumbled upon a Nanoblock store <3 We didn’t have much shopping in mind so we decided to explore the 5th floor which was intriguingly called the Japan Experience.

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Heading to Sky Tower

It was a good thing we did too because that’s where we stumbled across a store with traditional glasswork. We ended up spending half an hour there with much Yen to AED conversions and Whatsapp back and forth with my mum to figure out which one she liked best. We were a bit worried how we would take it back because it was glass but the elderly gentleman at the counter packed it so well that we were left with nothing to worry about except what was for dinner ^^ Dinner was at Amara, an Indian restaurant on the 6th floor of the Sky Tower where we had chicken biryani, palak paneer, spicy chicken, seafood salan and of course, lassi and chai. They had kulfi too but we parked that, saying that’s important to leave something to look forward to on your next trip. Tummies full we left Sky Tower in the evening and walked to the train station where we’d take a train to get to our bus- another first.

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Last look at Sky Tower

We bought our tickets for 150 yen and headed to Asakusa where our bus was waiting for us. We took some blurry pictures on the train, but even through the blur you can see our smiling faces :) We took a picture of our ticket as well, since the ticket is swallowed up at the exit as you leave.

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Last ticket before the plane ticket

The bus took us over Rainbow Bridge for the last time and before we knew it we were at Haneda airport, buying more KitKat from Lawson’s and Royce from the Duty Free upon sensei’s recommendation. As we waited to board the plane, we all pooled our change together trying to figure out how to spend it since we’d probably not be able to convert the coins back home, but by the time we were done counting the coffee shop at the airport had also closed so to our last moment in Japan, we did the very Japanese thing of just going to the vending machine.

We were all split up on the plane and everyone just tried to grab some much needed shut-eye before getting home. We met again at baggage claim, with promises of meeting again and keeping in touch. At that moment, I just wanted to go back- back to the bus, back to walking everywhere with our trusty fan, back to hunting for vending machines, back to staring at beautifully crafted models. InshaAllah there will be another chance to go back but Alhamdulillah, after a beautiful trip we were back home <3

Journey to Japan- Day 8 Part 2

And so we left the Iwako factory and headed to the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple. We opted out of the Soba lunch because my tummy’s not too good with noodles and pasta at the moment and instead walked around the Nakamise Street with Honda San looking for a place to eat. We stumbled upon the cutest cafe called Candy where I opted for a vegetable sandwich and Z for an omlette sandwich. The food was simply heavenly and I’m fully convinced that the secret behind the air-like bread in Japan lies in their flour. Well-fed, and Z with his melon flavoured shaved ice in hand, we strolled down the street looking for some souvenirs to take home- basically just some hand fans, which we found easily enough. Honda San even treated us to some Japanese sweet (I can’t remember what it’s called though!)… a sort of puff pastry like round sweet filled with sweet potato. It was really..really good. We found out that food and drinks aren’t allowed, not just inside shops which is understandable, but also on the main street to prevent littering. Instead there are places on the side street where you are allowed to stand and eat. As we got to the end of the street, we reached the Kaminarimon Gate where we saw the famous lantern- red, emblazoned with the words Thunder God and flanked by statues of the gods of thunder and wind. To be fair, there is an identical, and in fact much larger, lantern at the beginning of the street at the Hozomon Gate but oddly enough this lantern was the main draw. We found out that it was all thanks to a sketch or painting that had been done of the temple in winter, which featured the smaller lantern.

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Being the rebel, this is the Hozomon Lantern

We headed back up the street to visit the temple itself. Outside the temple, as with most others, is a large pot filled with sand into which people place burning sticks of incense. We learnt that after burning the incense, the smoke is consider healing and people will place their hands in the smoke then rub their hands over whichever part of their body requires healing. Incense lit, we headed up the temple steps where we learnt that this temple too had been burned down during WWII but unlike the other temples which were rebuilt from wood, this temple was rebuilt using modern materials like concrete and titanium.

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Making wished for good health

When we asked whether this was a Buddhist temple or a Shinto Shrine, we were told that sometimes it was not so easy to tell, the religions having been intermingled a great deal. The Japanese, Honda san told us, seemed to be easily influenced by external elements owing to the fact that they were an island nation with fixed boundaries. He said landlocked countries did not appear to succumb as easily to change as do island nations. It’s true but I can’t quite pinpoint why.

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Senso-ji Temple

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Five Storied Pagoda

From the Senso-ji Temple, we walked to the Tokyo Cruise station where we took the Himiko to Odaiba. The ship is incredibly futuristic looking and was in fact designed by the famous manga author Leiji Matsumoto whose manga even our sensei had read! The weather was overwhelmingly hot and humid but as we got onto the ship, it started to drizzle again, just as it had drizzled moments after we had left the hotel in the morning. I was beginning to miss the umbrella that our colleague had lent us the previous day, which we ended up leaving behind at the hotel. The rain stopped, though, before we docked and we ended up enjoying the almost hour long ride with beautiful views of the countless bridges across the water, each painted a different colour – red, orange, yellow, green… a rainbow of bridges.

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Getting off the Himiko

We finally reached Odaiba, right in front of Aqua City and the Decks. We had the option of heading to Palette Town or the Onsen too and while I was initially very keen on going to the onsen, I was so exhausted by the heat to go so far so I opted to just wander around in Aqua City which would be our final meeting point anyway. Aqua City is a huge mall, conveniently connected to the Decks, where you can find Legoland and Madame Tussaud’s. Unfortunately both were closed by the time we got there so we just roamed around the different shops, including… the Coke store filled with Coca Cola merchandise,  which is how we stumbled across perhaps the most important souvenir of our trip… KitKat. There are over 200 hundred flavours of KitKat unique to Japan and while we had scoured every shop looking for some unique Kitkat, we had only come across matcha up until that point. We stocked up on some yummy flavours of KitKat, then headed down to Tully’s Cafe for some much needed rest.

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Just some of the 200 flavours of KitKat we could find

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View of the Rainbow Bridge right before sunset

Once we all rounded up, we headed for dinner at Khazana- another Indian restaurant where we had chicken tikka, some vegetable and chicken salan, naan and rice in a thali like arrangement. The food was great and we ended up getting back to the hotel with tummies full and hearts even fuller – with beautiful night views of the Rainbow Bridge. I’d finished packing most of our things the night before so we were pretty much ready for our last day in Japan…It’s not fair that time flies faster when you’re having a good time.

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Night views of Tokyo

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Rainbow Bridge at night

Stay Tuned for Day 9

Weird and Wonderful Signs in Japan

Crazy people with joint pain and broken hearts not allowed

Crazy people with joint pain and broken hearts not allowed

Spell check fail

Spell check fail

Bumping your head may cause you to release gas

Bumping your head may cause you to release gas

Isn't that some sort of food safety hazard?

Isn’t that some sort of food safety hazard?

Is that subliminal threatening?

Let’s go together… cut hands… O___O Umm, thanks but no thanks?

Grannies and little girls beware sexist deer attacks!

Grannies and little girls beware sexist deer attacks!

I lied. I never went to Japan. I've been in France this whole time.

I lied. I never went to Japan. I’ve been in France this whole time.

Journey to Japan- Day 8 Part 1

Happy Birthday Mommy <3 Another standard breakfast but I was a bit blue because we were missing mum’s birthday. This morning we were headed to Saitama to visit the Iwako factory. A factory you say? Isn’t this a holiday, I hear you wonder… but a factory it is and that’s exactly where we headed. This particular factory is normally not open to the public but they made an exception for our sensei and all we knew before we started off was that this is the home of Japan’s most famous kawaii erasers/rubbers (take your pick) that come in all shapes and sizes.

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Across the street from the factory is the warehouse, a pretty pink

We passed a baseball practice session and before we knew it we had reached. We were greeted by an elderly gentlemen at the entrance who led us in and started the tour by explaining how rubbers are made. Synthetic rubber pellets when heated are injected as a ball of string into the moulding machine where the rubbers are finally produced. We saw a whale being produced with a cute red water spout. As we watched the process we realized that it’s not the raw material in this case that presents a significant cost rather the moulds which can often costs up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The machine we were shown was manually fed and the rubbers had to be manually removed from their spine.

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A look at some of the models under production

The company though has also started investing in more efficient automated machines which of course were IP protected so we couldn’t get a look. After understanding how the process works, we were taken up to the store room where we were surrounded by boxes and boxes of the cutest most colourful rubbers ever, fruits, animals, food, toys… they had every shape imaginable.

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Okay this really looks like candy…

From there we moved to a small room filled with low tables and tatami mats where we sat comfortably and found out all about our “guide”. It turned out that our elderly guide was in fact the founder of Iwako! He had retired 3 years ago at the age of 79, but then decided to come out of retirement and help out in the company as a regular staff member. Now that is something you won’t find every CEO doing is it…

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Listening to his life story <3

As he began to discuss his life story, he handed out tiny packets of what were erasers that require assembling (is there anything in Japan that does not come in a DIY model version?) As we sat and built ships and trains and strawberry shortcake, he also explained how assembly normally took place. Assembly does not take place in the factory, instead the parts are loaded in trucks owned by four ladies, who distribute them to hundreds of households where women assemble them (a business model commonly seen in Japan and Korea). Once assembled, the rubbers are taken to another facility where more ladies do quality control.

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Tadaaaaaaaaaaa! My masterpieces

After the war, his parents had been too poor to afford his upbringing and so sent him to his uncle in the countryside. He lived there with his cousin who would consistently rank high and school while he would place near the bottom. His cousin one day remarked that she was embarrassed to be known as his cousin because of his abysmal grades and it was then that he decided that he would do well in school… and do well he did. In the 9th grade he placed the highest. As he left school to get a job, he was met with ridicule with employees looking down on him and doubting his abilities simply because he came from the countryside. Yet despite their words, he went on to work at the same company, a stationary shop, for 18 years. He eventually became obsessed with the idea pf setting something up by himself and he eventually set up a small 2 room factory a few metres wide at best, which is where he wanted to bring to life his vision of erasers that were not simply plain white blocks of rubber. His initial designs consisted of vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes and the like, vegetables any Japanese person could identify , but not a single company accepted his designs saying that no one would want to buy a pretty rubber that would eventually lose its shape. He was undeterred by the rejection and continued to improve his designs. At the time, telephones were rare so he used to frequent a shop where he would pay to make calls, then ask the storekeeper to take down any messages that came for him. The shopkeeper was so impressed by his dedication that eventually he offered him the free use of his phone whenever he liked on one condition – that he did something with his life. His trust was not misplaced. In 1988. his business finally took off, but by this time he had two competitors. He didn’t worry though and took it as further incentive to exercise his creativity and come up with unique designs on a regular basis. With the space of 5 to 10 years, his competitors had gone bankrupt. Yet instead of getting worried about what would happen to his own company, he looked at their failure as a shortage of erasers in the market that he needed to fill and so he started 24 hours production. This meant additional part-time labour during the night shift. But worried that part timers would not be able to handle emergency situations since they didn’t have enough experience with the machines, he decided to sleep over at the factory…just in case they needed to call someone to help. He began to sleep at the factory and ended up sleeping there in a sleeping bag for 10 years. He doesn’t need to do that any more, but that’s only because he now lives above the factory. His designs proved to be a stunning success, in fact such a success that the Chinese began to produce imitations. He showed us his design and the Chinese equivalent. Let’s just say changing a shade of colour doesn’t absolve you of copying -__- . We were shocked and asked him if he had copyright protection and why he didn’t sue them. He told us, that at first he was quite depressed to see his hard work and his ideas being so blatantly copied, but a colleague of his told him that since there was copyright violation meant nothing in China, there was no use getting worked up because it would lead nowhere. He decided that imitation was indeed the best form of flattery and worked even harder to consistently produce better and unique designs at the highest quality.

What was even more inspirational than an already inspiring life so far, was the fact that at the age of 81 he was setting himself goals to accomplish. He’ll write down on a big piece of paper, the heading “My Goals” followed by “I will definitely succeed” and then a very SMART objective complete with expected date of completion below. He’ll then laminate the sheet and put it on his table at every meal time to go over. What with sleeping in the factory for 10 years and staring at his goals at every meal, his wife has had a rough time of it and always tells him that after she’s put so much effort into cooking a nice meal for him, the least he can do is look at it. ^^ His goal as of this year is to produce 100 more new designs. The design department, so to speak, is made up of him and his eldest son who is now CEO and while it is a collaborative effort it is also very much of a competition, he said, to see who would come up with the best designs. There is really nothing quite like healthy competition to bring out the best in a person.

His inspirational life story and his dedication to his work meant that he is wanted as a speaker at many events, even schools. However, with age, attending to many events has become difficult and at one point he had even asked his secretary who was constantly answering calls requesting visits, to tell everyone that he had died… just so he wouldn’t have to go. Of course that wasn’t really a practical suggestion since he’s seen outside everyday in the neighbourhood ^^ We were really fortunate to have met him and I can only hope that we can live our lives with at least half as much passion and dedication as him.

There was no end to his niceness either. After taking a group picture with him, he explained that this factory was not really geared for visitors and so there was no souvenir shop, but we were welcome to keep the models we had assembled and also to go to the second floor and buy whatever we liked at half-price. But as we bought our goodies, we realized that apart from that he had also set aside goody bags for all of us! As we headed to the bus, he even came all the way outside just to wave goodbye. <3

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Seeing us off <3

It’s important to dream, he had said, but it’s better to dream when you’re awake than when you’re sleeping so you could work hard to achieve those dreams.

In fear 
I kept away 
A thousand dreams

In hope
I kept awake
A thousand more
-SZ

Stay Tuned for Day 8 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 7 Part 2

…Running slightly late as usual, we headed to the Fuji Hakone National Park to visit Lake Kawaguchi and take the cable car up Mount Kachi Kachi.

The lake was simply stunning. One of the five lakes created after the last eruption, Lake Kawaguchi is massive with breathtaking views, mountain upon mountain visible on the far end of the lake. For those interesting in spending time at the lake, they even have paddle boats which you can take out into the middle but I was content to just admire the stillness of the lake with its hazy reflection of mist and mountains.

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First view of the lake

We walked past rows of hydrangeas to get to the cable car where we picked up another one of the epic coin souvenirs that only Japan offers (as far as I know that is ^^ ).

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Hydrangeas! <3

The view from the cable car was even more stunning than I had anticipated. It was fast turning out to be my best day in Japan and I’d like to drop a pin right here as another place I’d love to live. I’m not the only one who feels that way either, with many people opting to build their holiday homes on the face of Kachi Kachi, with a view of the lake on on side and a view of Mt. Fuji on the other. The cable car ride took about 3 minutes but I really wish it had taken longer just so I could enjoy the aerial views a bit more.

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Rows of Mountains

Once we reached the top, we had two options- either enjoy the view from the top of the mountain, or walk down to the hydrangea garden about 15 minutes away. I was too much in love with the lake view for even the gorgeous hydrangeas to compete and so I headed up, where I was rewarded with a shower of mist which really helped given the hot weather. ^^ I was tempted to stay there for hours, and had the weather been more conducive I’d probably have to be dragged away. I think I found my dark tea house in the view of the lake from Kachi Kachi.

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Watching the light play hide and seek

There was a bee warning up on the viewing platform, but no one said anything about monkeys- which is why we were pleasantly surprised when we saw a monkey swinging through the trees as we made our way back down to the cable car.

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Walking into forever

We had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves admiring the lake view and taking in the breeze and it was the view from this lake of the mountains beyond that I cannot forget. The one thing that left the most indelible print on me. I don’t think any picture can do it justice because when you look at a picture you are bigger than what you see, but when you’re actually there the sheer size and majesty of the surroundings is enough to put the world into perspective and re-calibrate your sense of self and sense of self-importance.

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A moment that will live with me

We had to leave Lake Kawaguchi though and we made a short stop at Oshino Hakkai to view one of the eight freshwater springs fed from Mt. Fuji, which are also known to offer great reflections of the mountain in their clear water. The day was hazy though so we didn’t have much luck with catching a reflection, but we did see what was some of the clearest spring water I’ve ever seen. It was so clear, in fact, that it could be called a mirror. As we stood on one side, we could see the perfect reflections of our friends in the water, and that’s when I realized how magnificent the reflection of Mt. Fuji would be in these springs.

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Clear spring water- and a moment later a giant fish!

Our guide felt bad that we didn’t have more time to spend there, explaining that people often came here to spend the entire day, attracted by the changing reflections in the springs as the day wears on. I understand the attraction and I feel like I’d love to come back here. We ended up buying peaches and grapes which are in season in July/August and then walked to the bus.

Of course, we’re prone to distractions and instead of heading to the bus we were naturally drawn to what seemed at the time to be a public garden, but later turned out to be a public garden for a fee which we didn’t realize since the gate is not exactly the entrance- you’re able to walk in from anywhere and we ended up wandering in inadvertently from a place where there were no signs. Oops. It was like a mini view of paradise, a beautiful garden, a lake with a stepping stones and a short bridge leading up to a gorgeous house. We finally got out after many attempts by our guide and were finally on our way to another Aladdin- this time an Arabic restaurant for dinner.

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We couldn’t help but be distracted

The ride was long but our guide was nothing if not well-prepared and this leg of the ride she told us about how Mount Kachi Kachi got its name. It’s a rather gruesome story but the story of Kachi Kachi Yama goes something like this…

There was once a badger, who went into the home of an elderly couple where he killed the elderly obaasan and… ate her…while her husband was away. He then assumed her form, but could not get rid of his tail. When the elderly ojiisan came back home, the badger attempted to act like obaasan while concealing his tail, but ojiisan knew at once that this was not his wife and confronted the badger. The badger managed to escape leaving behind a grieving ojiisan who was so hurt that he could not even go about his daily routine anymore. One day a rabbit came round to ojiisan’s house and on hearing ojiisan’s tale decided to help him. The rabbit walked past a hole in the forest where the badger had been hiding for a few days. The badger called out to him saying that he was hungry and could use some food. The rabbit told him that he would give him some food in return for him helping to carry a load of wood (or something to that effect) up the mountain. The badger agreed and up they went. The badger, starving for a good meal, kept badgering (pun very much intended) the rabbit to give him his food but the rabbit told him to wait till they got to the top of the mountain, as they had agreed. As they approached the peak, the rabbit took out two pieces of flint and started striking them together behind the badger’s back in order to start a fire. The oblivious badger wondered what the “kachi-kachi” sound was and the rabbit told him it was the name of the mountain. The rabbit set the badger’s load on fire and the badger finally felt the searing pain and began to roll around on the ground to put out the flames. The rabbit feigning innocence ran around yelling for help, though he knew that no one lived in the area. A few days after the “accident” the rabbit went to visit the badger to ask after him. The badger was still in pain so the rabbit offered him some ointment to help heal his wounds faster. The ointment, of course, was no ointment. It contained in fact chilly powder which burned deeper into his wounds but the rabbit assured the screaming badger that the more it hurt, the faster it would heal. A few days later, the rabbit came to see the badger again. This time he convinced him to come fishing with him on the lake and offered one of two boats. The badger took the boat that looked better but was in fact made of mud, and so as they got to the middle of the lake, his boat began to disintegrate and he yelled for help. The rabbit then told him that this was his punishment for having killed obaasan. And so the rabbit went back to ojiisan to give him the good news that he had avenged the death of obaasan.

The End

Don’t look at me like that. I warned you it would be creepy.

After the creepy story, our guide went to happier territory and shared with us pictures of her attempt to scale Fuji with a group of other climbers earlier in July. It’s important to remember that adverse weather prevents any attempts at a climb except in the months of July and August yet despite this, our guide faced terrible weather close to the top which forced a retreat. They were faced with windspeeds as high as 35kph which meant they had to descend in a crouch to minimize their surface area so as not to be blown away. The climb takes about 2 days including an overnight stay and our sensei told us she had climbed Fuji once when she in her twenties. It kind of made me wish I could attempt the climb at least once.

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The splendid road back home

From gruesome tales and tales of defeat at Fuji, she moved on to lighter things by giving us a demonstration of a traditional Japanese dance with some instrument, the name of which I can’t remember. Our guide was also pleased to tell us that she and her team had placed 4th in a contest with hundreds of participants thanks to their after-work practice and dedication. She’s even learning how to play a traditional musical instrument, but since she didn’t think she was very good, she instead showed us videos of her sensei performing. And one of the songs that she performed was something that Z remembered from his junior school play. Chandni all over again :P

We finally reached Aladdin where we had a yummy dinner of sheesh taouk and rice before heading back to the hotel for sweet dreams of Fuji. This had been my best day yet. <3

Stay Tuned for Day 8 Part 1

Journey to Japan- Day 7 Part 1

We had to wake up super early to get ready for the trip to Fuji, which takes about 2 hours to get to from our hotel by bus. Armed with an extra set of clothes and our sweaters in anticipation of the freezing ice cave, we finally left at about 9am.

The road to Fuji is simply breathtaking. I do wish that the road barriers were clear though so you could enjoy an uninterrupted view but the scenery was just splendid nonetheless, dotted with colourful houses some sporting their own solar panels.

 

We were all pretty exhausted from the day before, and most of us ended up drifting off in the bus but I woke up just when things were getting interesting- our guide started handing out sheets of Origami paper. She was going to show us how to make Mt. Fuji. ^^ With plenty of Origami paper at hand, I was all set to amuse myself during the long bus ride, but our guide was really well-prepared and kept us all awake by telling us the traditional Japanese story of the Moon Princess. The story was complete with pictures and all. I told you she was well-prepared!

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A pink Mt Fuji and some paper cranes ^^

The story is called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and goes something like this. An old childless bamboo cutter finds a shining bamboo in the middle of the forest inside of which he discovers a tiny baby girl. He takes her home to his wife and in just three months, the baby grows up. The bamboo cutter discovers that since finding the baby every stalk of bamboo he cuts contains a gold nugget which means that the family now becomes wealthy as well. The girl has grown to be a beauty and princes from around the land come to ask for her hand in marriage, but none of them are able to bring back items she requests which are her condition for getting married. The Emperor too has fallen in love with the girl but his offers are also rejected. One day her parents find her looking at the moon and crying. She tells them that she is not of the earth and was sent to protect her during a war and that it is now time for her to return to her people. Loth to see her go, the emperor and her parents set guards around the house to stop her from being taken by force by the people who will descend from the moon. Unfortunately, all the guards are paralyzed by the light of the moon and the princess leaves but not before sending an elixir of eternal life to the emperor. The emperor, on finding out that she has left, declares that he has no use for eternal life if he cannot spend it with her so he sends his men to point closest to the heavens, the top of Mt. Fuji, where they are to burn her letter and the elixir. And so they burn the letter and elixir and the smoke from this fire is said to be the smoke that can still be seen at the top of Fuji today.

Thumbelina meets Roswell meets… I can’t quite place the ending ^^ Our guide then told us a bit more about Mt. Fuji and its status as an active volcano which last erupted about 300 yrs ago. And so, equipped with some fact and some fiction, we reached the Nurasawa Ice Cave. Being a cave, there are areas where we would have to pretty much be on our hands and knees but we were all eager and ready to go in. Most of us opted to forgo the rubber boots and hard hats though they’re provided at the entrance for free to ensure a safe bump-free walk. At the entrance of the ice -cave itself we could feel the blast of icy air welcome us. It was unreal to be sweating in the humidity one minute and rubbing our frozen fingers, cold from holding on to the bamboo railing, the next. The descent is by no means difficult but it’s important to keep watching your head and not slip on the stairs. There was ice everywhere, as expected of an ice cave, and we came to a consensus that the best way to spend our time in the ice cave would be with a hot cup of karak. Our glasses fogged as we clambered out and we were ready to go back in ^^

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Ice! Brrrrrrrrrrrrr

From the ice cave we took a walk through the forest, also known as the Suicide Forest, to reach the wind cave. The forest is a place that a lot of people come to to commit suicide, we were told, and it’s not exactly difficult either because it’s very easy to get lost there. With that in mind, we kept in a group careful not to get lost.

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Looking up at the canopy

The path were we walked was in fact a magma trail from the last eruption, so all along the forest edges we could see how life had recovered after the eruption. There are huge holes in the ground, no one knows how deep, trees bent from the force of the magma, and trees that have managed to grow from a mere 10cm of soil on protruding rock. The things we saw showed us the true meaning of resiliency. The forest was rich with life, insects and mushrooms all doing their part to return the dead trees and leaves back to the soil. It was a friendly reminder of the reality of life- ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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Trees growing at a slant

We eventually reached the Fuketsu Wind Cave, one of over 80 caves at Mt. Fuji. The entrance to the wind cave was pretty much as cold as the ice cave and I had to layer up again as we watched the mercury plummet on the thermometer. Unlike the ice cave though, the cave is a simple slope and as we went in we saw what used to be refrigerators back in the day- wooden crates filled with seeds and silkworm larvae. On the walls of the cave was a shiny moss, glittering when light shone upon it. Regular green moss has also started covering the walls, but that’s because of the artificial lights that have been introduced in the cave to guide tourists.

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Natural Refrigerators

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Emerging from the cave

With our trip down the caves complete, we headed to the souvenir shop, where since we had collected our stamps, we were gifted free postcards. Outside the souvenir shop is another shop that sells, interestingly enough corn flavoured ice-cream! Sound strange? Well, it didn’t taste so strange according to everyone who attempted it. I am now determined to come back to Japan when my stomach is more cooperative.

We headed off from the base of Fuji for lunch at the Aladdin Indo restaurant which is an Indo Pak restaurant as evidenced by the flags outside and the staff who were from both India and Pakistan. This has further reinforced my belief that outside our own countries we are united under the “desi” banner. This lunch would prove to be one of the yummiest lunches on the trip, filled with butter chicken and melt-in-your-mouth naan and mango lassi, followed by a much needed masala chai.

After a filling lunch, we then headed to the Fuji Hakone National Park to see Lake Kawaguchi.

Stay Tuned for Day 7 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 6 Part 3

And so we stood, at the Shibuya crossing… lights red waiting to cross. Watching the crossing is fascinating in itself, but experiencing it is another thing altogether- like being a cog in a giant machine- a wall of people moving forward. When you come from a place where walking in itself is not exactly common in 50C heat, and pedestrian crossings seem like such an underutilized asset, the Shibuya crossing is a world apart.

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Spoilt for Choice- Staring at the crossing not knowing what direction to take

We crossed and made our way first to see Hachiko- the statue of Hachiko rather- the dog who would come to the Shibuya station to meet his master long after his master had passed away.

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Hachiko

From there, we strolled to Tokyu Hands, if strolled can be used to describe walking in a sea of people. We passed another Mandarake and finally reached Tokyu Hands. So what can I say about this place, except that leaving Yodobashi and Bic behind and coming here was not the best idea because this too was a builder’s paradise and a paradise with much more variety if such a  thing is even possible. Wooden 3D puzzles, car models, train models, origami, DIY wax stamping, metal models- you name it, they have it. I’m really glad this trip happened right after Ramadan otherwise I’m not sure I would have been able to exercise so much self-control.

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Look another ABC Mart!

When we finally left Tokyu Hands, we headed with sensei to find Z a jacket for the following day’s trip to the Ice Cave in Mount Fuji. We managed to find a cool hoodie for the bargain price of…wait for it… a thousand yen which was a steal really. From there we strolled along to Excelsior Cafe to cool down, grab a drink and a bite to eat while waiting for the rest of the group to…regroup and head to dinner which was at Saishoku Teppen Ippin. Dinner was some form of salted noodles with chicken, egg and shrimp. Take all the things I can’t eat out of it and all I’d be left with would be an empty bowl so I decided I’d 7/11 it instead. The noodles were not really great, so Z decided to order some chicken in sweet and spicy sauce which was… simply…fabulous. So good in fact I sneaked two pieces on an empty stomach. The yummy chicken along with the lovely service were enough to make the dinner a fun experience. The waitress was a cute and bubbly girl, who looked like she’d walked straight out of a Korean drama ^^ One of the waiters asked to take a group picture so they could upload it on their Facebook page and we were all more than happy to oblige. I asked the guy who had taken the picture if he could give me the FB page ID. He asked if I wanted his FB page ID… Awkward silence followed by a clarification that I wanted the restaurant’s page so we could see the picture when it was uploaded. His colleague burst out laughing as did everyone else. We had a fabulous time, and ended up taking a picture with them again before we left for the hotel.

Armed with bananas and large apple-looking pears which we had picked up from the street vendor in Shibuya, I was ready to call it a night and dream about Fuji which is where we were headed next.

Stay Tuned for Day 7 Part 1

Journey to Japan- Day 6 Part 2

…Bellies full we were taken to perhaps the most special part of the trip- the Tea Ceremony at Urasenke.

Now there will be no pictures in this  post as pictures were not allowed but I’ll try to describe the experience, as surreal as it was and I I’ll leave it up to your imagination to fill in the blanks.

One of the two oldest tea houses in Japan, this is the same tea house that hosts the sheikhs and has recently opened in Emirates Palace. They visit the UAE to train students here and even host students in Japan. As such it was a great honour to be there.

We were greeted at the door with such grace and formality that I felt seriously disrespectfully under-dressed. We were asked to remove our shoes at the entrance, slipped on some slippery slippers and entered a veritable paradise of a garden. It was not the size of the garden, rather the attention to detail that made it so beautiful.Despite the absence of a colourful palette of blooming flowers to catch your eye, each stone, each shrub and tree seemed to have been carefully selected and positioned to create something so aesthetically perfect. You’d be forgiven if you forgot what you really came there for.

We were asked to make our way across the garden, carefully treading on the stones to ensure we didn’t inadvertently kill the bright green moss that had so carefully been grown. We reached a small tea room- a room so small and so dark with an entrance through which you would need to crawl to get in. Yet every single one of these aspects of the tea house was an intentional design feature- the close walls and the darkness to ensure complete focus by eliminating unnecessary distractions and the narrow door just big enough for an unarmed man to crawl through yet not big enough for a man with a katana at their side. We peered through the door into the dark room which in any other place would have seemed like isolation, but is it really isolation where you are left alone with your thoughts?

A short space away was the waiting area where guests would be seated before being welcomed by the house master who would come out to greet them. Surrounded by all that beauty, I think I could have waited there for hours. We were led to the main house, at the entrance of which there is a water fountain on the left and a tree a hundred if not more years old further to the right. The house smelled deliciously of wood and we were finally seated in a large room with tatami mats where we were greeted by the tea master. The whole experience had such an air of formality that we sat almost instinctively on our knees, hand on knees and awed into silence.

The tea master started by giving us an explanation of the seating arrangement where we learnt that the person seated closest to the tea master is considered the guest of honour with levels of importance decreasing the farther you got from him. We were first served the okashi, a Japanese sweet made of red bean paste, though looking at the beautiful yellow flower in the plate you’d never have be able to tell. The okashi was served with a wooden knife/fork for lack of a better word. The okashi was slightly big and so delicious that I began to wonder if they would take it away before I could finish it, if they had to serve tea. Luckily someone else had the same concern and asked the tea master what the proper etiquette was. Normally okashi is eaten before the tea, the dish placed outside the black border of the tatami mat to be taken before the tea is served, but since we were there to learn he said the rules wouldn’t apply so we could go ahead and eat as slowly as we liked. He also realized that by this time a lot of people were beginning to squirm, not being used to sitting on their knees like that, and he laughed and asked us to sit comfortably saying it took years of practice to be able to sit for so long.

At ease, our dishes cleared away after much bowing, the tea master for the ceremony came and began to make the tea, first rinsing the utensils in hot water and whisking at the bowl in which the tea would be served. What I loved was the absolute level of precision of his movements, everything a calculated move with a specific purpose. Even the cloth that is used to wipe the bowl after washing has an exact way of being folded. Once the tea was ready, the lovely kimono clad lady served the tea with a bow (still seated both hands placed in front on the floor and head bowed low) starting with the guest of honour. The tea was received with both hands from the tatami mat on which it was placed, rotated twice and then sipped, not gulped as the tea master hilariously demonstrated. Once finished, the cup is rotated back to its original position, the lip wiped clean, the ceramic admired and the cup then placed back on the tatami mat, outside the black border for clearing. The tea was by far the best green tea I’ve ever had, which just goes to show that when made right, everything tastes great but it takes great skill to make it right.

The tea master took the opportunity after tea to answer our many questions:

  1. We learnt that it takes about 30 years of training to become a tea master and even then you’ve not fully “levelled-up”.
  2. Tea ceremonies, he told us, are not usually accompanied by other activities like cards or games which is a normal part of the Arab tradition. Tea ceremonies, rather, are considered a way of bringing people together for important occasions- marriages, funerals and even when someone is ill as a way of making them feel better.
  3. He also explained some of the other intricacies of the tea ceremony that we did not experience that day, such as the tea being served in two rounds. This is normally done as a means of discerning whether the guest genuinely enjoyed the tea or not.
  4. Even when hosting a tea ceremony for the emperor, the emperor is expected to bow to the tea master, despite the difference in their ranks.
  5. We learnt that the ideal temperature of tea when served is about 85C and that a tea master, through his experience, knows just by looking at the way the water is boiling how hot the water is and is able to add cold water in just the right quantities to achieve the perfect temperature.
  6. The tea ceremony is not just about the tea, but also about selecting the right calligraphic scroll to best represent the occasion, and the most meaningful flower arrangement.

At the close of the ceremony, we were escorted outside and the tea master told us that they would be visiting the UAE in November in case we’d like to meet again. ^^ It had been such a surreal experience, a break from the busy world outside, a step into serenity and mindfulness that we miss in our everyday lives. If there was one thing I took away from the experience, it was that everyone needs some time in that dark tea room to remind themselves about what’s important in life, to focus on what really matters and to look for answers in themselves not losing themselves in material distractions.

We stepped out, humbled, from the tea house and onto the street, ready to walk into another world… the Shibuya Scramble.

Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 3

Journey to Japan- Day 6 Part 1

Had an early breakfast after a perfect night’s sleep and got ready to head to the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. We walked past the Yoyogi National Stadium to get there and were finally met by a towering gate of wood- not orange like the other shrines.

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Yoyogi National Stadium

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Torii leading to the shrine

That made the temple, or Shinto shrine rather, more at home with the surrounding forest. And like most of the other places we’d been, I couldn’t tell what I enjoyed more- the walk to the temple or the temple itself. The thick canopy of trees above us was alive with the sound of cicadas and it was only later that I found out that the forest was actually man-made- each tree having been donated.

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Thick canopy of trees

On the way to the shrine, there are stacks of barrels of sake on the right and kegs of wine on the left – all donations to the shrine. The colourful barrels of sake make for a great picture and so you’ll find most tourists milling in the area. That’s where I spotted a Korean couple arguing about how to have their picture taken best. I missed my parents a lot at that point.

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Donations of sake by local breweries

We kept walking, past the poetry of the Emperor and Empress to whom this shrine has been dedicated before entering the last last torii to the shrine. The Emperor and Empress, we were told, were expected then, and even today, to give their orders in the form of poetry – something amazing yet slightly impractical. I wonder if practicality is a stifled form of art. It was at the last torii that I met the Korean couple again who asked me to take their picture at the entrance to the shrine ^^

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Poetry in the middle of the forest

The shrine itself is a beautiful wooden structure – beautiful in its simplicity, magnificent in its size and flanked by perfectly symmetrical trees. The temple, like most other structures in Japan was burnt down in WWII and the buildings were rebuilt in 1958. While it’s okay to take pictures of the structure itself, picture taking is not allowed inside the shrine where people pray. It helps people remember the real purpose of the building- not a tourist attraction, but a place of worship. In the courtyard, there are two places where prayers can be written. I found it very interesting that people need to pay to be able to write their prayers, whether on wooden tablets or on paper, the cheaper alternative. What was even more interesting is the idea that prayers are prioritized according to a person’s financial status and contribution. I think there’s more man than god in that tradition.

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Meiji-Jingu Shrine

We left the shrine and walked down to Takeshita Street (Takeshita Dori)- the birthplace of pop culture. It seems like such a contradiction that two places that are such polar opposites would be situated so close to each other. The street is impossible to miss – a shock of colours and a mass of people.

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Takeshita Dori

Right at the entrance to the street there are some shops in front of which there is an overhead water spray – something I made full use of to cool me down before heading on down the street. We had been warned that we would be bound to come across some class of, as my sensei succinctly put it, “weirdos”, but luckily enough we found none, only throngs of teenagers having a good time. There are all sorts of shops you can find here, from a huge Daiso to a three storey shop dedicated entirely to cosplay outifts for dogs and of course stores for the rebellious goth-wannabe where labels on stands ask you politely to F off (I’m not sure how that helps with sales :P ) If you’re looking for something very Japanese here, then you’re out of luck. This place is filled with lots of merchandise with NY labels and graffiti screaming “God Bless America”. If things like this aren’t really your style, I’d still recommend taking a walk down the street just to experience the dramatic cultural shift between the crowd you’d find at the temple and the youth of today. There are also plenty of places to grab a bite from, ranging from crepes to ice-cream to candy to all things yummy. I couldn’t sample anything as usual so after a fun walk in the killer heat, I stopped at Starbucks at the end of the street to soak in some much needed air conditioning.

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Lots of graffiti to enjoy

The next stop was… a Shabu Shabu lunch. I actually really like the idea of being able to cook your own meat at the table (it saves you from the hassle of struggling to define well-done, a little more than well-done and burnt to a crisp) so this is something I was really looking forward to. The restaurant was down a, for lack of better word, shady alley quite close to the famous Shibuya crossing, also known as the Shibuya Scramble. When we got seated, all the tables were already prepared with their own little stoves with pots of boiling broth. We then got a plate of vegetables, another plate filled with thin strips of beef and some seasoning like chilies and garlic. Not being very fussy, we threw everything in, except the meat, which is supposed to be put in individually, cooked as much as you like then eaten by dipping into another bowl of sauce.

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Shabu Shabu anyone?

The Shabu Shabu was a stunning success, all plates were completely wiped clean and in the words of one of our friends this was the first day he had eaten like a human. Bellies full, we were taken then to perhaps the most special part of the trip – The Tea Ceremony at Urasenke.

Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 5 Part 2

And so we left on a Gundam-high to look for.. you guessed it… the Gundam cafe which is actually really close to Yodobashi. There’s no way you’ll miss it because there is a Gundam right outside the cafe, not life-size, but big enough to catch your eye.

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Gundam Cafe

The cafe is rather cozy, filled with all things Gundam. The best part of our trip to the cafe – drinks named after Gundam 00 characters on the menu (I was torn, as usual, between ordering the Allelujah Haptism and the Lockon Stratos) and… we got to try strawberry shortcake with its very own edible Gundam sketch. The cafe even has a small souvenir store next to it from where you can buy…models (yes, again!), T-shirts, notebooks and a whole bunch of other Gundam paraphernalia.

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Gundam Strawberry Cheescake – because that’s how bring peace about

We left the cafe and continued to stroll on the same street which turned out to be Chabara, where we found a long line of food carts.

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Chabara

When I say food carts, I mean cute little modern red and white versions of food carts selling all kinds of food. Not sure if anything would be halal, we decided to skip food sampling and instead went looking for Mandarake– an anime/manga store, building rather, filled with anime, manga, figures, collectibles and what not. Manadarake too is not far from Yodobashi and the black building is pretty easy to pick out.

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Because buildings should be colourful

We made our way to the manga floor, only to be told that there were only about 4 manga in English on the entire floor. We headed next to the figures/collectibles floor which if you’re a collector is like a mini haven.

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Anyone up for translating… everything in this store…pretty please ^^

When we finally got back to our rendezvous location (Yodobashi, under the big yellow fish), not everyone had arrived since they got caught in the long line at the tax-free counter at Yodobashi. With everyone’s shopping finally tax-free, we headed to dinner at Al Muna where we had felafel and kebabs and seekhs of chicken. Feeling full, we were surprised to learn that there was yet another dish being dispatched to our table. We didn’t even hesitate when we asked the waiter to give our plate to another table where it was more likely to be polished off. Dinner was followed, of course, by tea and off we went to the hotel.

Our exploring for the day, though, didn’t stop at the hotel. We had slept in last night and decided that despite how tired we were, we were well-rested enough to cross the street to go to Bic Camera, which was thankfully open till 10pm. Now I had assumed, and incorrectly yet again, that Bic Camera was purely an electronics store (clearly I learned nothing from my morning experience at Yodobashi). Bic Camera is like a scaled down and more organized version of Yodobashi – all 8 floors of it which meant it was easier to navigate and less overwhelming than Yodobashi had been. Of course, it also meant more models and particularly metal models (like the Metallic Earth models that I collect).

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Today we fight…the urge to buy everything

My self-control for the day had already been exhausted and I ended up treating myself to metal models of some of the monuments we had visited and some Nano paper models. I was sorely tempted to pick up some Nanoblock too but resisted the urge, especially after my crazy debit card kept giving an error at the cashier     -___-.

We decided to call it a day pretty much at store closing time and headed back to the hotel to get ready for another long day – especially to get those white socks ready for the tea ceremony. ^^

Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 1

Journey to Japan- Day 5 Part 1

And so began the Tokyo leg of our trip with breakfast… and shopping. Our first stop was the Isetan Department Store. After seeing the posh stores in the main business district near our restaurant deserted last night at dinner time, I was not sure how much rush to expect but it was pretty much as busy as any mall in Dubai, despite it being a weekday morning. The store is filled with all things branded, but since I’m not really a shopping person, I decided to find myself something that screamed Japan and nothing says Japan quite like ceramics. I headed off to the ceramics section where one of the stores actually had a ceramic painter who was painting right in front of us.

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Ceramics Painter

I was tempted to buy something in the traditional white and blue but nothing really caught my eye so I wandered around aimlessly until our sensei suggested visiting the Okinawa exhibition on the 5th floor. To the Japanese themselves, Okinawa is rather foreign, with its own unique flavour owing to the fact that they were very late in being colonized. This means that not only are their handicrafts rather unique, but also their language has its own unique style. I found the Okinawa exhibition absolutely fascinating – a riot of colours, not the traditional image of Japan at all. Their ceramics were also very different and that’s where I finally settled on a handmade plate.

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I can’t quite explain the feeling I get when I look at it…like this feeling of being underwater…

There was lots of coral jewellery which I absolutely loved. There were also traditional musical instruments from Okinawa, mainly the sanshin, and lots of snakeskin products, from purses to packs of just snakeskin and there was even a huge snakeskin on display which you could touch… I did…then ran away to the first floor to look for a fan. I’m pretty picky when it comes to buying things for other people so suffice it to say I couldn’t find what I was looking for and instead spent my time more wisely in the basement… in the basement filled with food. By food I mean all sorts of cute bento boxes, heaps and heaps of colourful salads and of course… Japanese sweets <3 If all that food had been halal, you’d probably have had to drag me out of there by force.

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Sorry I don’t have more pictures. I was paralyzed by the sight of so much colourful food.

By mid-day, we were ready to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office to get some views of the city. It’s open on weekdays from 10am to 3pm and entrance is free. I wasn’t too eager to go at first, but the thought of a possible glimpse of Mt. Fuji versus shopping convinced me otherwise. It was only after I got there that I learned that the heavy city smog and normally dense cloud cover meant spotting Mt. Fuji is more of a rarity than I had expected. Nonetheless, being 202m up in the air meant views were good and made for a great panorama of the sprawling city. They ran out of brochures in English, so I got myself a brochure in Korean so I could figure out what the main landmarks were ^^

Back downstairs, we headed to the tourist information centre where we picked up some brochures on where we were set to go next. If you’re not keen on reading about the places, they have great visuals highlighting what each area is famous for ^^.

Lunch was a Turkish affair at Bosphorus Hasan which was followed by perhaps the highlight of everyone’s day (or trip)… the famous Akihabara.

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Heading to lunch behind…way behind… our guide

Our first stop was Yodobashi, which I had expected would be an electronics haven. I was very much mistaken… Yodobashi is not only an electronics haven but also, and perhaps more importantly for me, a model haven.

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Yodobashi – Hobby Heaven #1

The 7th and 8th floors are filled with all kinds of models- cars, trains, Gundams, puzzles… you name it- they have it. It was completely overwhelming- the sheer scale of it and the number of models. I was sorely tempted to put the entire floor in my basket, but decided to exercise self-constraint or risk going bankrupt on my first night in Tokyo. As such I treated myself to a puzzle which I had spent months searching for back home and my brother found himself a Gundam model… not a Gundam model but THE Gundam model, I should say since it’s the model from our favourite Gundam show.

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Sakura Puzzle <3

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Okay so Setsuna’s Gundam is pretty epic… but I kinda love Allelujah’s more

And so we left on a Gundam-high to look for.. you guessed it… the Gundam cafe which is actually really close to Yodobashi.

Stay Tuned for Day 5 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 4

Packing- check. Breakfast- check. Plenty of time to admire our beautiful hotel– check. We were all set for our last day in Kyoto before taking the Shinkansen to Tokyo.

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Watching the water fountain at the hotel

So off we went to the Mie prefecture to visit…wait for it… the Iga Ninja Museum. Iga is said to be the one of the two homes of the ninja (the other being Shiga) and becoming a ninja is more or less a family business to ensure secrets and techniques are not leaked. And of course, as our guide sensibly pointed out, one can’t really go around teaching others how to kill people in this day and age without being locked up so most of what we know about ninjas and their techniques revolves around self-defense. The road to Iga is simply beautiful. Small Japanese-style homes surrounded by paddy fields, rice stalks swaying in the wind. It looked like a life of peace, but I’m sure many farmers would disagree.

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The road to Iga

As we approached the ninja village, we stepped into lush greenery which meant that we didn’t feel too hot despite the soaring 36C and of course, we had our trusty fans with us.

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Nothing like an animated welcome ^^

We started off by watching the ninja performance which was more humourous than deadly but I can’t tell what I enjoyed more – the performance or the cute Japanese kids all dressed up as ninjas in their blue, red and pink outfits. As part of the performance they call on members of the audience to participate, and one of our group got called on to attempt bursting a balloon with a flute-like device used to shoot poison darts. They succeeded albeit on the 3rd attempt ^^ At the end of the show we all took turns throwing shurikens at a target. I did pretty well – I managed to get about 4 out of 5 shurikens stuck somewhere on the giant wooden board , nowhere near the target. This does count as a success, in case you’re wondering, because not flinging it backwards had been my goal.

Now ninjas, mostly known through movies (which are of course highly inaccurate) for their fighting skills, are not warriors but are in fact mostly involved in espionage and strategic activities designed to undermine the enemy’s military might. As such their homes are filled with all sorts of secret passages and hideouts, which we were shown at the Ninja House by a Kuno, or female ninja. I loved the secret floorboard under which you can put important documents and valuables and cover them with sand so they don’t burn in case of a fire. Also epic was the secret lookout – two holes in a wall behind a revolving door in a room just big enough to stand in – not high enough though because the typical height of the Japanese back then was just over 5ft.

There’s a museum too where we saw all sorts of weapons, ninjas clothes, outfits for camouflage, and also those epic wooden shoes they used to walk on water. It was amazing how all their weapons had been fashioned to fit into the secret pockets tailored into their regular farmer outfits or into their farming implements – like a sword in the handle of a rake or pitchfork.

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Scenery from the road taking us towards our lunch

We left all the ninja-ness behind in time for lunch at Chitoseya Nishikiten for another Japanese feast, this time not just the bento but a hot pot filled with leeks, mushrooms, chicken and tofu. Since I like my meals hot, I left my bento to my brother and gobbled up the hot-pot with rice, also because it had a lot more flavour, and polished it off with not one but two mango custards (which I would love to be eating right now as I write this).

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The bento I gave to my brother :)

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The simmering hot-pot

Post-lunch, we headed to Nagoya to visit the famous Nagoya Castle. Nagoya, unlike the rest of the cities we had visited, is very industrial and noticeably so with its tall buildings which look like they mean business. A very far cry from the traditional Japanese homes in Kyoto. The castle, sadly, is not the original castle of 1612 since it was burned down in WWII. Is there anything this war did not destroy – historical sites, families and generations to come…

The castle was rebuilt in the 1950s and the architecture is really something stunning- from the foundation up to the golden dolphins on the turrets said to ward off fires.

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First glimpse of Nagoya Castle with its Golden Dolphins

Built on a curved bed of rock (ogi kobai) with 5 storeys of green tiled roof, the castle is simply beautiful. Traditionally, such castles have 5 floors, but there are also one or two hidden floors which can be used as a hide-out or escape route. Since the castle was rebuilt recently, there is a really modern adjoining section through which you take an elevator up to the observation deck for some spectacular views of the city.

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Panorama of Nagoya Castle

Each of the floors of the castle is now a museum gallery which unfortunately we did not have time to visit (it’s always good to leave some things to next time ^^). Instead, we took in the views from the top of the castle, made our way back to the bottom for some much-needed vending machine refreshment and shaved ice to ward off the heat which was finally beginning to feel like 36C. We left the castle, walking past a moat once filled with water, but now filled with vegetation and deer! Further construction, or reconstruction rather, is ongoing, to bring the castle and its surrounding quarters back to life.

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Views from the top of Nagoya Castle

From the splendour of the castle grounds we headed to the bustling Nagoya station where we were going to catch the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Afraid we’d miss the train, for which we had already booked tickets, we had rushed through the day, only to find ourselves at the platform well over half an hour in advance, which meant another long hot wait (air conditioned metro stations in Dubai have spoiled us I’m afraid). The wait turned out to be a good thing, as it gave us time to figure out where and how to embark and disembark (to avoid any embarrassing faux pas) and also gave us the opportunity to enjoy the sight of the sleek white Shinkansen arriving and departing from the station.

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Shinkansen Time! :)

We caught the 244 to Tokyo at 17.42pm and while the Shinkansen reminded me of a wider, more comfy and of course much faster Dubai metro, there were a couple of other more noticeable differences – the first being the lack of noise both from the train and from the passengers. This silence, however was shattered by our noisy entrance and anyone who had hoped to catch some shut-eye would have been sorely disappointed, or perhaps amused by all the lively banter, photo sessions and exchange of snacks across all the rows. The second was the fact that there were food trays on every seat- food is allowed on the Shinkansen… Woohooo! In fact they even sell food on the train in a cute cart.

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Silence ahead and chaos behind in the Shinkansen

The ride was about an hour and a half (I say about, the Japanese however are much more precise when it comes to train times) and when we finally got off in Tokyo, we stepped into a mass of people at the Tokyo Station. The station is relatively easy to navigate since all signs are in English and we eventually found ourselves in the rotunda of the Tokyo Station, home of the Tokyo Station Hotel, an extremely expensive hotel which costs thousands of dirhams per night. This is not where we were staying though, so we went off into the night, leaving behind the glittering station building, for dinner.

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Ceiling of the rotunda at Tokyo Station

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The glittering Tokyo Station

Dinner was at Maharaja, a South Indian joint where we had a thali filled with some type of spicy chiken, fish curry, gulab jamun, rice and naan. I filled up on the naan, meduvada entree and gulab jamun and of course had tea before we set off to out hotel, the Akasaka Excel Hotel, Tokyu situated right opposite Bic Camera.

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Heading to the Hotel

Exhausted, like really really exhausted, we collapsed in bed, forgoing the temptation of night time wandering on our first night in Tokyo.

Stay Tuned for Day 5 Part 1   

Journey to Japan- Day 3 Part 2

We returned to the bus famished and ready for our next Japanese lunch at Matsumotoya, situated right next to the Horyu-Ji Temple. We were served soup and rice along with the cutest little bento box packed with all sorts of goodies. I was actually able to recognize some of my favourites from yesterday’s lunch such as the battered chillies, sweet pumpkin and seaweed in soy sauce.

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Bento Box!

Not being too adventurous though, I ate all my favourites from my box as well as my brother’s and let him eat everything else. The restaurant also doubles as a souvenir shop so we got to roam around and fill up on all things kawaii before heading to the Horyu-Ji Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the entrance there was another water fountain, and we assumed that this too was for drinking water, but it turned that you’re supposed to rinse your mouth and just spit out the water…again to bring some sort of luck.

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Don’t drink… spit

One of the most amazing things about the temple, architecturally speaking, is the use of architectural features imported from other countries through China such as the tapered columns commonly used in Greece.

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Horyu-Ji Temple

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Looking up

inside the temple complex is my favourite building – architecturally speaking again, the 5 storey pagoda. I find this building utterly mesmerizing and could spend a whole day,if not longer just looking at it. Sorry Karamon, this pagoda beats you in my book. ^^

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My favourite – the 5 storey pagoda

The pagoda houses the scene of the last moments of Buddha, depicting a lying Buddha, a doctor taking his pulse and his lamenting disciples. The scene was reminiscent of the statue of the lying Buddha we had seen in Sri Lanka. The temple also used to have murals. In 1949 however, some people were commissioned to reproduce the murals after a long day, one painter left his electric heater on and left the temple. This sadly started a fire, which burnt or damaged most of the historic murals. As we passed through, we entered a hall where we saw the place where debates were said to take place between students/scholars of the time and in that moment I felt like world had suddenly become so trivial, obsessed with fleeting trifles.

We then headed to the museum where we were able to see a number of historical artifacts, murals and statues. One of the interesting things was the mural at the entrance of the museum. The clothes that the Japanese wore back then, look nothing than what we consider Japanese traditional clothes, but looked rather Pakistani/Indian – down to the Khussa like shoes they were wearing. The only notable difference was their hairstyle- hair done in loops at the cheeks. Definitely not a lasting fashion trend. Another interesting thing was the large golden statue of Buddha, in which his face looks like it has different expressions, depending on the angle from which you look at it. I think I was a bit embarrassed to try scrutinizing the statue since there were people coming in to offer their prayers as well.

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Heading to the museum

Outside the museum, on the way to the exit is a souvenir shop/rest area with two very important things – air conditioning and vending machines with Calpis – the non-official official national drink of Japan-a great way to re-energize after a long walk. We were supposed to head back for dinner but decided we had enough time on our hands to go to Teramachi street a large outdoor, yet indoor-feeling, shopping area.

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Remembering our rendez-vous locations

There are all sorts of shops on this street selling fans, shoes, clothes, books, mangas, anime, cute socks, bags.. you name they have it. The also have a number of restaurants, a cinema, games areas and of course… pachinko. I would stay away from the pachinko though because there are much better ways to spend your time and your money here. We ended up shopping for Converse shoes here which turned out to be insanely cheaper than in Dubai (again, how is Japan expensive?!) so we ended up buying 3. My other purchase was a traditional wooden stamp. There was an entire store dedicated to stamps and because I don’t have any Kanji for my name, I just ended up buying a goldfish stamp because I felt I should take back a souvenir for them too! ^^

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Because that’s how much I <3 my fish

We headed back to the rendezvous location with sensei one minute ahead of schedule, only to find no one there and no bus to boot. We wondered if we had come the right way and eventually ended up calling the tour guide who told us that they had tried to make it easier for us by parking right in front of the exit. -_- In our rush, we had walked right past the bus and to our rendezvous location. Note to self- Things change. Keep eyes open.

Dinner was at a Moroccan place called La Baraka and oddly enough I’d never tried Moroccan food before. This trip to Japan was becoming a trip of many firsts. The food was really good, but after we though we were done, we were told that there was another course yet to come… a much bigger course. While we couldn’t eat another bite, we did enjoy the amazing Sulaimani tea which reminded me of the tea back home at Chicken Tikka Inn. Matcha vs Sulaimani – Sulaimani wins :P

We headed back to the hotel ready for a night of packing since we were going to head out to Tokyo on Day 4… on the Shinkansen. Another first <3

Stay tuned for Day 4

Journey to Japan- Day 3 Part 1

Day 3. I woke up early again, but the exhaustion was creeping up so I woke up later than usual…at 7.30am. If you know my regular routine you will admit this is a stretch for me ^^ We were slated to cover three more temples during the day, and the day promised to be a hard hitting 35C with humidity reaching 80%. That didn’t do much to dissuade me since I was all set, a small electric fan in hand, hat on head and the promise of vending machines at every corner.

We started in Kyoto heading to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. It was a considerable walk to get to the shrine, since buses aren’t allowed to park just anywhere. So we got off, crossed two railroad tracks (very exciting!) and walked past rows of shops before reaching the main gate.

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My first train track crossing

The shrine is famous for its 1000 bright orange gates leading all the way up Mount Inari, and a main hall flanked by foxes. Each of the gates, as I later discovered, have been donated by people so each gate bears the name of the person or business who donated it. It takes a couple of hours to reach the top of the mountain where we were assured there were fabulous views of the city. Being pressed for time though, we enjoyed walking through two sets of gates and after a much needed refreshment break of water and Oronamin C, we headed back down to the shopping area.

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Starting our journey at Mount Inari

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More stunning architecture

There are all sorts of souvenirs you can there but the most popular by far are fox-themed souvenirs since that’s what makes this temple special, the fox being a messenger of the Inari god.

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Every fox has something different in its mouth. Guess what he has. ^^

As we headed back some people even tried Inari sushi- sushi for the masses ^^. Before we could reach the train crossing to go back, we were faced with a massive crowd of people waiting for the crossing to open- which it didn’t for quite some time. At first we thought there had been some sort of accident on the tracks, but luckily it was only a case of impatient people trying to cross quickly by pressing the emergency stop, which meant the rest of us had to wait till all crossings were checked and reopened. The wait was not as bad as the heat was and I realized the electric fan was nowhere near as effective as the regular hand fan. So not making this mistake again! To further complicate things, we realized that not all the group had managed to make it back to the bus and so had to stand outside in the heat, as this particular bus stop had a no engines running policy. I think we should been smart enough to walk to Lawson’s to stay cool, but we weren’t so we just waited till everyone showed up which they did eventually. At this point I realized that there are only 3 things you need to survive a Japanese summer – a hand fan, a bottle of water and a small hand towel. Voila- you have a make-shift cooling unit. ^^

Our next stop was Nara, about an hour or so away where we were going to visit the Todai-ji Temple situated in Nara Park also known as the deer park. I’d never seen deer up close before so I was really excited. The deer although wild, are used to being fed and petted by visitors. When feeding, we were warned though, not to spoil their habits by simply giving them food. Instead we were to make them work for their food by getting them to bow politely 3 times, which they surprisingly do if you just ask them to! We got to see the deer lazing around in the shade right at the entrance of the park all the way to the main gate of the temple. I realized that the deer are already pretty spoilt and would just walk up to you, nuzzle you looking up with their big watery eyes asking for a treat. Really, how can you say no?

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Deeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Yes, I was excited ^^

We managed to remind ourselves that the deer were not the highlight of the visit (or maybe they were ^^), but rather the temple, which is the biggest wooden structure in the world and one of the oldest. As we walked towards the temple we passed through the main gate, known as the Nandaimon Gate (narrowly avoiding stepping on a large stag with massive antlers) flanked on either side by massive statues of guardians which are, along with the temple, considered National Treasures.

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Looking up at the gate and narrowly avoiding stepping on a stag

At the first glimpse of the temple, I was simply in awe. The structure is not only massive, but beautiful with immaculately manicured gardens on either side as well. What’s even more amazing is that this structure is only two-third’s of the original size, having been rebuilt several times following fires and earthquakes.

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The largest wooden structure in the world

This temple houses the statue of Buddha, commissioned by the emperor in the mid-700s. The statue is about 15-20m in height, an imposing figure, which was built mostly by the Chinese, who had the skill, at the time, in metalwork to make such a big statue. The statue is so big that a small child can fit through its nostril, a feat we saw being attempted, successfully, by many small children squirming their way through a hole in a pillar the size of the nostril. I passed on attempting it, despite promises of good luck and such, for fear that I would get embarrassingly stuck inside.

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The imposing statue of Buddha

As we walked out the temple, we came across a number of small souvenir shops, but there was one souvenir that our sensei showed us that proved to be my favourite souvenir throughout my trip. It’s a small vending machine, with different coins that you can buy, each featuring some view of the temple or park. Not only can you buy the coin, but can have it engraved with your name or any other message that will fit, along with the date, for a bumper price of 30 yen. Oh, and you can fit it in a keychain too. After such an epic souvenir, I was beginning to think that whoever told us Japan was expensive was lying.

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Souvenir from Nara

We returned to the bus famished and ready for our next Japanese lunch at Matsumotoya, situated right next to the Horyu-Ji Temple.

Stay tuned for Day 3 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 2 Part 2

… With that, we headed to lunch at the Kangaan temple.

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Kangaan Temple

We were seated four to a table and the traditional lunch for Buddhist monks came out with four pieces of each item on each dish – one for each person seated at the table. The food though was so beautiful, it seemed like a shame to eat it. In fact, it was so beautiful that I passed on eating an orchid. As we ate, we realized that there was more food coming – in fact there were a total of 13 courses. Out of the 13 courses that were all visual delights- I ended up with four favourites – the sweet pumpkin, the battered chillies, the seaweed cooked in soy sauce and the vermicelli noodles. I would gladly have eaten an entire meal of just those four items. The chillies were in fact so good that I ate all the chillies from my neighbouring table since they didn’t want to have any – they really don’t know what they missed ^^. The final course was watermelon (something I finally recognized) and we were then ready to start our hectic post-lunch tour to visit 3 historical landmarks in Kyoto.

It took a while though to get us out of the temple just because their garden was so beautiful, with its carefully trimmed trees, its traditional water fountains and stone work.

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Traditional Water Fountain

Our first post-lunch stop was The Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku, a place we nearly skipped over because we had seen a manga museum on the way to lunch. Thankfully, the manga museum closed early and we ended up at the Golden Pavillion. It was possibly one of the best decisions we made on the trip. The pavillion is like a golden jewel surrounded by breathtaking greenery and a lake filled with Koi and turtles. I can only imagine how stunning it will look in spring and autumn. Tourists thronged to get their picture taken with the temple in the backdrop and it seemed like a far cry from the  Black Temple nickname it had been given once when its gold leaf plating had worn and turned black. After the unfortunate nickname, it was thankfully restored to its former glory, this time with 5 layers of gold leaf which are checked every day for signs of blackening. I would love to come back here, hopefully in better weather and hopefully in silence and solitude, to better appreciate the beauty of the place.

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The Golden Pavillion

From Kinkaku-ji we headed to the Ryoanji Temple to see the rock garden- a traditional Buddhist Japanese garden without trees or water and filled with only white sand/gravel and 15 rocks arranged in a 5-3-2-3-2 pattern such that from no angle, except aerial I assume, can you see all 15 rocks. This fits in with their ideology that one should not be too attached to worldly things. The garden can be interpreted in many ways- a river filled with swimming tigers, a sea of clouds with mountain peaks and a sea dotted with islands. I’m leaning towards the second interpretation myself.

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Ryoanji Temple

The purpose of the visit is relaxation and meditation but once open to tourists, meditation takes a back seat as people are occupied with taking pictures and moving on. We managed to spend quite some time there relaxing and looking at the hypnotically raked sand. What I found remarkable was my first view of a cherry blossom tree. We were looking at a brochure of the garden with a picture taken in spring and when we looked up to spot the tree, we found a sad tree with leaves all drooping – not a single clue of what the tree can look like in spring. It’s a bit like people I suppose that way.

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I would love to see the Cherry Blossom in full bloom

As we left the rock garden, we walked through a beautiful tree-lined path and I’ll be honest when I say I can’t say what I liked better- the rock garden or the tree-lined path, Possibly the latter.

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Tree-lined walk back to the bus

Our final stop of the day was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, or maybe it was the shopping around the area. I can’t tel what the primary attraction was but for me it was the forest. The shops, we learnt, close rather early by UAE standards- 5 or 6pm usually which meant that for those interested in shopping, they had to move fast. I was only interested in reaching the forest, but I managed to pick up some souvenirs along the way. Towards the entrance of the forest we spotted a graveyard which we told was reserved for people who belonged to this particular temple. The forest itself was enchanting and noticeably cooler than the humid streets, with towering bamboo swaying in the wind. Since bamboo grows incredibly fast, we were told that it had to be tended to regularly especially during the rainy season.

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Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

We left the forest and headed to the Togetsukyo Bridge, or Moon Crossing Bridge, which was our rendezvous location. Over a huge river, even the bridge is full of history and tradition. Rebuilt in the 30s, this is bridge is the bridge that young girls cross leaving their parents on one side of the bridge and heading to the temple to pray on the other side, as a sort of coming of age event. The bridge and surrounding mountains are actually a sight to be seen in spring and autumn which now makes me want to go back to Japan even more.

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Togetsukyo Bridge

Dinner was a very halal Turkish affair at Istanbul Saray and after all the walking, I ate like I was famished, having burned our 13 course lunch away. (You can check out a list of halal restaurants in Kyoto here). Dessert was Muhalabiyya followed by tea – real black tea. I’m still struggling to develop a liking for green tea. After a packed day, I only realized how out of shape I was when I fell asleep in the bus. It’s a good thing I’d decided to join the gym after this trip – this trip was like the perfect warm-up. :)

Stay Tuned for Day 3 Part 1