Back to Japan – Day 9 Part 3 (Nikko)

Lake Yunoko was a wild card on our trip which didn’t just catch me by surprise – it left me breathless. The bus pulled up at a parking area where we got off to the most sulphuric smell coming from the water, a pungent reminder of Japan’s violent volcanic presence, and watched as the placid water suddenly plunged into a turbulent and frothy white fall- the Yudaki falls. Watching the water suddenly drop off the edge I thought how the water was a reflection of our lives. The calm and seemingly endless routine of life, at once plunged into sudden chaos taking you deep into uncharted territory where you fight your way through obstacles driven on only by the hope of rest at the end of your struggle. A bit like how this waterfall would turn into a river which would eventually quietly meet Lake Chuzenji for some much needed rest.

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Yudaki Falls. If photos could capture smells, you’d be closing your browser right about now.

From the falls we began our 3km hike around Lake Yunoko – a naturally dammed lake which had formed with an eruption of Mt. Mitake. Unlike lake Kawaguchi and Lake Chuzenji, this lake was untrammeled by the trappings of commerce and touristy attractions like swan boats leaving us a pristine view of nature to appreciate in silence and the soft rustling of leaves. We were not competing for space with hordes of tourists in the narrow path that took us around the lake. Instead, we walked at leisure, at our own pace, appreciating the serenity of the lake afforded to us by the brief openings in the leafy cover and for once, I did not feel compelled to take many pictures, as though the silence would cement the memory for me instead.

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The untrammeled beauty of Lake Yunoko

Ma went on ahead, Z lingered somewhere behind and I took it all in in relative solitude interrupted only by fleeting conversations with our tour buddies. And as I walked, slowly realizing just how cold it had become, we came across a break in the trees through which we began to watch as lines flew through the air, landing still in the water, almost imperceptible if not for the widening pool of ripples in a lake softly disturbed as you would a sleeping child. There, standing waist deep in the water, were men who were fly fishing in complete silence. In fact, it was so quiet that you would never have noticed them standing there in their gear if it hadn’t been for the betraying ripples.

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The first time I’ve seen someone fly fishing

I watched mesmerized and later, when I stumbled upon a fisherman standing quite close to the trail, I asked him for a picture, so I could remember that men need not be loud to have their presence felt, but can move the world with patience, in silence and chosen solitude. The trail continued, and we came across the body of a fisherman lying on the bank of the lake. オサマさん, who had gone down to investigate, came back with the reassurance that the fisherman was very much alive and just fast asleep. He reminded me of the puzzle my dad had once put together, of a fisherman surrounded by trees, asleep by the lake. I wonder, if I should fall asleep there, what I would feel awakening in the darkness, undisturbed by street lights, the buzz of electricity and the familiar sound of cars and traffic, with only the light of the moon filtering through the dark canopy. I wonder if I should feel scared, or alone or perhaps closer to God and the Earth. I wonder if I should panic, or lie back and stare up at the sky, my eyes adjusting to the dark to trace outlines of the leafy canopy hiding the starts. I wonder if the sound of insects should scare me, or be welcome company… I wonder…

As we rounded off the trail, past enticing signs that lead up to Usagi Jima (Rabbit Island), I could spot ma at a distance in the middle of a photo shoot thanks to the ever obliging オサマさん who was capturing the moment for her while Z and I caught up. I ran all the way up to her and discovered that she was as much in love with this place as I was. With that settled, we began to think out loud on what it would be like if we could just stay there and what we would do to get by. I decided I would simply open a store that would stay open past 4pm, which is when the only store we’d seen there closes, and in doing so I should be able to tap into the night crowd. ^^

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On the trail

The weather had been divine- chilly but not distractingly so, like winter mornings back home or a summer afternoon spent at Nuwara Eliya. I was loth to leave, but we had to. It was going to be a long and winding drive back down the mountain and the driver had invited 4 people up to the front for enviable views of how those tight turns are navigated by the big bus. Z went up and I stayed back to enjoy the last views of the lake flying past our window. I was surprised that I hadn’t experienced any motion sickness on the way or down here. In Korea I’d been okay but it had been tough on Z whereas in SL I was in a bad sort of way. Perhaps it had something to do with the weather, or perhaps it was the less than daredevil driving on narrow two way roads.

We made our way down the mountain to much applause and began the long drive home to Tokyo thoroughly entertained by our in-house MC who had now taken control of the mic. We reached the familiar rest area with its origami decorated restrooms, took a moment to stretch our legs and went to the store to look for something, anything really that was halal because by this point all my rice and fried chicken had said farewell and left me a splitting headache as a parting gift. As soon as we went in, we came across the one vending machine that I’d been looking for at every train station since we landed in Japan- the vending machine that dispenses actual food – as in nice hot food…french fries and burgers and the whole unhealthy yet delicious lot.

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Do you come in a halal edition?

Despite the hunger pangs we had to pass since we couldn’t be sure if it was halal (no idea what oil they use) so we walked hungrily back to the bus, me with an ornamin C and ma with an enthusiastically purchased jasmine tea. At this point I was craving anything salty that was NOT salted nuts and I would have killed for a pack of crisps. And just as I said this to ma, Z got on the bus… with a halal pack of Pringles. God works in mysterious ways. This pack of Pringles, I enthusiastically devoured, while ma tried to pass of her failure of jasmine tea to Z…who liked it. Success!

The skies darkened around us as the mood in the bus began to lighten up thanks to our resident MC’s efforts which left us in stitches of laughter despite our exhaustion. We learnt that one of our tour buddies had been on the same exchange program that our せんせい had been on years ago, in which she had met her husband. There were songs and stories and finally we were all asked to share what we had loved most about the trip- from the places to the food. The sukiyaki was a clear winner along with Mt. Fuji, but there are always outliers – like the one person who only enjoyed plain Japanese rice and another person whose favourite place was the company of his newfound friend. ^^ For me personally today’s visit to Nikko had been the highlight of my trip along with the mouthwatering yakiniku where I had to exercise the most self-control.

The mic passed down the bus, from one person to another, all of us sharing our thoughts on the trip. I just wanted to thank our せんせい, both of them in fact, for their patience in deciphering the halal quotient of ingredients for any and every food you could find in Japan, and that too in record time. I also wanted to thank everyone for having looked after ma as well as they had but I was too shy to say anything so I’ll just say it here instead.

Time seemed to fly and the bus ride back seemed nowhere as long as when we had set out in the morning. Before we knew it we were back in front of our hotel and walking towards dinner which was waiting for us at Saray Akasaka. This time our dinner buddy was せんせい’s daughter and in all her bubbly enthusiasm we exchanged all possible forms of social media contact details and that’s when it hit me. The trip was coming to an end. The next day would be our last and then who knew when we’d all come together again. With that thought, we headed back to the hotel to pack in preparation for our early checkout. It would be the last night I’d sleep on my bead filled pillow. The last night we would attempt to make tea in the kettle that doubles in a practical thermos the way only Japanese products can. There were a lot of lasts on a day that had been filled with firsts.

Missed Day 9 Part 2 in Nikko?

Stayed tuned for our last day in Tokyo!

Back to Japan – Day 9 Part 2 (Nikko)

Lunch was going to be at the Chuzenji Kanko Centre right next to Lake Chuzenji for which we had to take a long winding road up the height of two Tokyo Skytrees to the foot of Mt. Nantai. As the bus climbed, we caught glimpses of the massive blue lake perched under the sky through the leafy canopy. I find it amazing that a body of water can be held up so high in the sky, like a precarious cup threatening to spill.

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Heading to Lake Chuzenji

Lunch was a very Japanese affair, with my favourite low Japanese chairs which are easy on my notoriously creaky knees. Ma and I sat at the end of a table for an easy getaway should lunch not suit our picky palate (okay maybe not-so-easy getaway because we had to take off our shoes). We had another hot pot and by this time,  I’d had enough experience with hot pots to know that they’re not my cup of tea bowl of soup, so I dived straight in to the rice and explored my two tiered lunchbox where I discovered the magic that is fried chicken. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten fried chicken with as much enthusiasm as I did then. In fact, I was so enthusiastic that I even ate ma’s chicken and when my neighbour declared they don’t eat chicken, my eyes lit up and probably looked like those huge anime eyes, complete with sparkle. Alas for me, the chicken had someone else’s name written on it and I had to content myself with capsicum and eggplant tempura, ma’s included. I was full enough, for the time being, and the prospect of dinner at Saray Akasaka was enough to keep me going.

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Lunch that hid the golden jewel- fried chicken

Lunch polished off (okay nowhere near polished off because I had to resist the temptation to spice things up a bit with the inviting bottle of spicy powder at our table), we went downstairs and walked out to the shore of the vast lake before us which glittered like a jewel in the sunlight when the cloud cover parted.

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Beautiful in blue

We walked up the Sunrise Pier where we sat for a while to enjoy the silence and I wondered if in the land of the rising sun, this would make a good place to watch the sunrise. Possibly not, but it’s something I still have on my wishlist so I’m scouting locations for the next visit, if it should happen.

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I was adamant that this time around I take the swan boat but ma was an unwilling partner and Z had wandered off for a while so we took a break instead, sitting down by the lake watching the clouds roll past. When Z finally came back, he was up for the paddle boat, and we attempted to recruit a third willing volunteer in オサマ さん but he’d already been for one ride and it appeared that all the paddling had been too taxing on everyone. The speed boat option was a no-go because we needed much more than 3 people to set out, so we settled for Z and I taking the paddle boat by ourselves, helped along by some friendly advice from オサマ さん – don’t panic if the pin falls out of your pedal -just put it back in and continue pedalling. heart stops momentarily

With that bit of advice, any potential reservations I may ever have had came flooding back but we went ahead anyway, paddling our way to pleasure or peril. I’m admittedly not a thrill seeker, and while paddling a boat that looks like a swan nowhere near constitutes a thrill seeking activity, the thought of pins falling out and what not left me stealing more glances at the plastic bottom of the boat for signs of any pin looking things that may have dropped out than out at the lake. And with that I had only two basic instructions for Z – do not pedal too far out in case fallen pins that refuse to reinsert themselves should necessitate an embarrassing rescue operation (you see how far my imagination had run ahead) and second, take the wheel because at this point any lag in movement brought on by drifting with the currents would cause me to think we had lost the pin in our rudder too. You may laugh now.

We paddled out onto the lake, reveling in the splendour of the rolling hills and the stillness of the lake, broken only by our paddle boats and rippled with the wind. We stopped pedalling for a while, allowing ourselves to be buoyed along and rocked gently. Surrounded by all this beauty, came crashing the banal- the sudden remembrance that I had to find a restroom so ma could go before we headed on towards Kegon Falls. We cut our ride short, being short of time as it was, debated on where it was exactly that we’d taken the boat out from (everything looks decidedly smaller and unrecognizable when you look back on to shore) but finally we’d docked, without much crashing and incident. I headed to where we had spotted ma from our vantage point in the middle of the lake, and found her sitting with our other tour buddies, feet dipped into the cool waters of the lake. The opportunity was too good to pass up so off went the socks and we sat there relaxing as the cold water lapped up against our ankles.

It was then a quick rush back to the restaurant to scale the flight of stairs, and find a restroom, which we did in record time despite the hordes of students who had descended upon as at the staircase, only to find that the restroom was too dirty to use. A first in Japan. Resigned to our fate, we headed back to the bus with the promise that we’d find another restroom at the falls.

The falls were only a short drive away and as we got off the bus, it began to drizzle – a soft gentle drizzle which we decided to ward off with our raincoats (put to use at last) instead of our umbrellas. We stopped under the shade of a tree to negotiate our sleeves before headed down towards the waterfalls. What a sight it was. For a moment I felt transported back to New Zealand where I’d seen my first waterfall from up close. Since there weren’t many tourists around, we got to experience the waterfall in relative silence with the occasional exclamations of awe. We had the option of taking an elevator to go further down, but instead of wasting time we chose instead to enjoy the pitter patter of raindrops on our flimsy raincoats, the silently moving waves of white clouds drifting overhead and the sound of white waves cascading down to the river below breaking through the monotonous shades of green and brown.

The falls were also the site of another commemorative coin, so we left the roaring falls behind in search of the coin and a restroom, and while we were successful on the coin front, the search for a clean restroom came to naught. In fact this restroom was worse than the last and we were beginning to gloomily contemplate the long ride back when せんせい pointed out another restroom at the bus stop. Saved! As we loaded up on the bus, we passed a number of schoolchildren ready to go home. Our brief encounter left me with two thoughts. The first, that boys will be boys no matter where you go and there’s decidedly a set age when calling everyone around you ばか is  cool. The second was that some teachers should consider alternative careers with minimum contact with children. This thought was brought on when a teacher smacked one of the kids for cheerfully calling out hello to all of us as we passed. So much for encouraging positive social interactions. sigh

Now that we’d see the falls, we began to wonder what all the rush was about seeing as how we had nothing left in our itinerary except the long ride back home and dinner. We were in for a surprise in the form of Lake Yunoko.

Missed Day 9 Part 1 in Nikko?

Stay tuned for Day 9 Part 3 in Nikko!

Pinyin

a o e i u
a symphony of voices
sings in harmony

via Daily Prompt: Symphony

Back to Japan – Day 9 Part 1 (Nikko)

It was an early start for the long road trip to Nikko. It was also the second last day of the trip, which meant all our snacks were packed and we were all set to share the munchies during the 3 hour ride with our familiar guide Mikko さん. We were met with bright blue skies and cotton clouds dancing above the bright green rice paddies, the occasional rivulets and romantic by lanes disappearing up into the forested hills which is where most fairy tales are probably set.

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Rice fields and forests

We alternatively napped and snacked and got lost in the beauty outside our windows until we reached a rest house. You would think that restroom entrances don’t need to be cute to entice you to go in, but this one was with its origami mobiles swaying in the wind and fresh flowers arranged artistically at the washbasins. It was a quick 10 minute stop and we were off again past worlds we’d never know and people we’d never meet until we finally came to the famously mysterious vermillion lacquered Shinkyo Bridge or snake bridge, as it’s also called. The legend goes that a priest looking to cross the river Daiyo was aided by two snakes who magically transformed into the bridge we see today (okay so maybe this particular version of the bridge was reconstructed after several natural disasters, but it still counts). We were afforded only a momentary glimpse of the beautiful curve of red which stood out over the blue of the flowing river, before we pulled up at our destination – the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, also the final resting place of our very own villain turned repentant sinner Iyeyasu who had requested to be buried in Nikko. We had finally come full circle in the life of Iyeyasu.

The walk up to the shrine was simply divine. Water trickled down on either side of a gently sloping grey gravel path cutting through trees that touched a sky which had lost its vibrant blue, as though sombrely dressed for the occasion. I could have stayed there forever, but we had to move on until we reached a 5 storey pagoda standing tall before the main entrance to the temple, tinting a grey sky with vibrant reds and greens and tips of gold.

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Blending in and standing out

We gathered together, collected our tickets and climbed up through the Yomeimon Gate which lives up to its name Higarishino mon, the gate you’ll never get tired of looking at. The structure reminded me of the humble and demure Nijo Castle, yet this place was a glorious and gaudy tribute to Ieyaysu, filled with some of the most famous sculptures delicately carved – an elaborate and intricate labour of love. To this day, festivals take place commemorating the procession that had once carried Iyeyasu from Shizuoka to his final resting place in Nikko.

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Intricate carvings cover every structure

We were told to look out for three carvings in particular, which is rather difficult considering everything is covered with such beautiful carvings that everything looks like a masterpiece. The first one we were asked to spot was the famous 3 monkeys with their see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil mantra. And there they were, sitting on a beam over the entrance to the sacred stable in which stood a single tall white horse – a still and silent witness to the hordes of people flocking to the shrine. Despite all the people and all the constant chatter, I couldn’t help but thinking that he must be so lonely in the crowd. It’s a familiar feeling, and I pass on, unable to find the words to say I feel the same.

The next carving was of the imaginary elephants, not because they’re not really there, but because the artist who carved them had never seen an elephant before and had carved them based on what he had heard they looked like. It must have been quite the gamble, but he seems to have done rather well considering. I know I couldn’t draw an elephant even though I have seen one before. Sometimes it’s not the eyes in your head you need, but the ones in your mind.

The third sculpture came after we passed the storehouses and the ablution area and made our way to the entrance of the Inner Shrine. There sat a cat, peacefully asleep for all intents and purposes, in a beautiful field of peonies (which are incidentally considered as the king of flowers in Japan… fun fact). Except on the other side of the entrance directly behind the cat, is the carving of a sparrow. It’s an interesting carving, at once symbolizing harmony and at the same time conveying a sense of caution, that no matter how peaceful things appear, a cat can always eat an unsuspecting sparrow if so provoked. It’s an artistic reminder not to take advantage of someone’s good nature because everyone has another side to them that they’ve just been nice enough not to show you.

Like Nijo Castle, photography is not permitted inside the prayer hall which is where we went next, after having removed our shoes. There are a number of reasons why I’m a big proponent of no photography in places like these. For one, it’s a place of worship and tourists flashing their cameras about not only detracts from the experience of people who’ve genuinely come there to worship but is also disrespectful of the sanctity of the place (truth be told, I’m still waiting for a solution to be found for the haram). And then of course as a tourist you want to be able to truly appreciate the magnificent architecture and the solemn atmosphere and dated rituals, not limited by the scope of your lens.

We entered the prayer hall, lined with portraits of famous poets and their poetry, where prayers were in progress and watched silently as the priest bowed, clapped and bowed again, his small congregation obediently following. Amidst all the opulence, it was a gentle reminder of your place in the grand scheme of things. We filed back out, through the doorway guarded by ornate dragons and went to put on our shoes.

Our tour buddies helped me help ma down the steep flight of stairs painfully lacking a banister and we began the scenic walk back to the bus past tall trees and green brush covered with o-mikuji in a tangled mess of bad white fortunes. The only thing with a bad fortune appeared to be the trees though, with all that wasted paper tied to them like a bad joke.

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A more fortunate plant with less bad fortunes tied to it

Thanks to the beautiful weather and the long walk, we were now pretty hungry and looking forward to lunch at our next stop, Lake Chuzenji.

Missed Day 8 in Tokyo?

Stay tuned for Day 9 Part 2 in Nikko!

 

Back to Japan- Day 8 (Tokyo)

Good news and bad news. The good news is it’s time to hit the streets of Nakamise and Akihabara for some shopping! The bad news is that I’ve already bought everything on my list. More good news. This means I won’t be (theoretically) breaking the bank.

We met up at around 9 in the morning all set to go to Nakamise Street which lines the way up to the famous Sensoji Temple. Despite the fact that we had come here two years ago, I didn’t know much apart from the rebuilding history of the temple. This time though we learned more about how the temple came into being. Legend has it that two brothers were fishing on the Sumida river, when they pulled in a statue. Alarmed, they let the statue go, moved their boat further on and continued to fish only for the statue to appear in their nets again. The dropped the statue back in the river, moved further along and for the third time the statue appeared in the nets. Now positively alarmed, they took the statue back to their village where a village elder recognized the statue as the Goddess of Mercy and erected a temple for its worship – now the Sensoji Temple.

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Kannondo Main Hall

The bus dropped us off under the bright blue sky, a far cry from the rainy night it had been, a short walk away from the famous Kaminarimon which was under renovation. We passed under the lantern and were ready to begin our trip down Nakamise lane. Now most locals would tell you that the main street is a tourist trap filled with overpriced goods potentially made in China and that the back alleys are where you’ll get to experience the real flavour of Japan. I would agree with them, except for the fact that there are quite a few authentically Japanese gems on the main street too. For us the find of the day was a store selling Furoshiki Bags which are made from hand printed cloth made in Japan, and are DIY purses, if you would believe such a thing exists. We got to pick out not just the pattern of the purse, but the handle to go with it and then watched as they demonstrated how to put the purse together. They were amazing enough to give us the instructions as well, and promised us they’d be uploading a tutorial on their website soon (yayy for technology!) With our beautiful bags and Z’s Japanese themed ties, we were now all set for an adventure.

Two years ago, we had come here with Hondaさん and at the time I couldn’t eat noodles so we had set off exploring the back alleys of Nakamise in search of some place where we could grab a halal non-noodle bite to eat. And that’s when we stumbled upon Candy, with its sandwiches that melt in your mouth. We were on a mission to find this place again so we could pack some lunch just in case the Japanese lunch of the day turned out to be another cold soba affair. I started my search online a month or so before we left for Japan, only we couldn’t remember the name of the cafe and which back alley it was in. I searched a number of cafes on Google maps to no avail. Which is when we decided to go through Z’s set of pics from the trip and see if his foodie adventures had somehow captured the name of this accidental place. They had – in a reflection. And so, with the name we read in the reflection captured in a picture taken two years ago, I began my online search only to find a lone review on Trip Advisor but with no location in French, which confirmed that this was indeed the place we were looking for – they too had chanced upon this cafe with its divine omelette sandwiches. That’s when I decided that I would throw my question out to my language exchange community and see if anyone could help. Help came in the form of a Korean lady who I’ve never met before, who located the cafe on Google Maps which showed the location in the Korean version of the maps (but not the English) and sent me a pin to verify if this was the place we were looking for. It was! 만세!

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The unassuming Candy with its familiar green canopy

In a world dominated by corporations that are either swallowing up minnows through acquisition or killing them off entirely through markets of scale, it’s refreshing to step in to a cafe that’s unique and far removed from the familiar franchises plastered around every city in the world you visit. おばあさん from two years ago wasn’t there, but おじいさん was there, ready to make our sandwiches and Z’s shaved ice. He went about his work methodically – a system developed perhaps from years of trial and error or perhaps more symptomatically designed to cope with old age and all that comes with it, carefully noting down the order, preparing one order at a time and accepting payment once our takeaway bags were ready.  Z wanted to take pictures, but おじいさん explained that it wasn’t allowed to take pictures anymore, thanks to countless Chinese and Korean tourists who’d come and stolen the design and theme of the shop, opening their own counterfeit versions of Candy back home. I can’t imagine what it must feel like when tourists come to the cafe and tell おじいさん that they have the “same” thing back home. You could see that his pride had been hurt, because something that was put together over a lifetime was stolen in a few pictures and that also, in poor taste. Whereas Japan’s Candy uses only fresh ingredients, cafes trying to pass themselves off as the real thing tarnish his reputation by using frozen items of poor quality. I felt bad for him, but we left him smiling with pride restored when we told him we’d come back there after two years, this time with ma in tow, simply because there weren’t sandwiches like his anywhere to be had.

We rendez vous’d with the rest of the group near the five storey pagoda just in time for the headcount and were all set to go to Ameyoko. The day had become rather hot and せんせい wisely decided to change the itinerary so we’d skip Ameyoko and go straight to Fuji TV instead.

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The beautiful Sensoji Temple and the even more beautiful 5 storey pagoda

Last trip, we had the option of visiting Fuji TV but had gone to Aqua City instead so I was interesting in seeing what we’d missed. On our way there I learnt that the Fuji TV building had not only an observatory which afforded great views of the Odaiba area, but also had a rooftop garden and a “Wonder Street” where we could to explore the studios and sets where some of our favourite TV shows are made.

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Time for fun at Fuji TV

We decided to skip Wonder Street and headed straight to the top. The view was more stunning that I had expected, thanks to the beautifully clear blue skies. We managed to just make out Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree in busy skyline behind the Rainbow Bridge, but Mt. Fuji was lost to view. We even managed to get a bird’s eye view of the mini Statue of Liberty that we’d seen last time and I could even point out to ma from the 25th floor, the futuristic boat we’d taken 2 years ago designed by Leiji Matsumoto the famous manga author.

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Rainbow Bridge

While Z disappeared with せんせい on a quest to complete all the stamps at Fuji TV (something so Japanese!), ma and I took time out to relax in the rooftop garden where a beautiful breeze was blowing, defying the bright sun on the streets below. The rooftop gardens also gave me a chance to appreciate the beautiful building from below, and if I hadn’t been eager to avoid a social faux pas, I would have lay down and traced the beautiful edges and angles that shaped the sky overhead. There’s something about great architecture that tames the OCD within.

We took a quick trip to the souvenir store filled with goodies from Chibi Marukochan and One Piece among others, and I was convinced that the reason why Japan has a very high household debt ratio is because everything in the country is too かわいい not to buy. With that thought we said goodbye to Laugh, the blue Snoopy-like mascot of Fuji TV and headed straight to lunch.

Now lunch was going to be Yakiniku, and our last soba experience had taught me not to be too optimistic, so ma and I shared a sandwich on the bus and saved one in case lunch turned out to be not to our liking. Our fears were completely unfounded, thankfully and I ended up having, what would turn out to be, my favourite meal the whole trip. When we entered the restaurant and climbed up the stairs, I noticed a 한식 menu and was thoroughly confused, wondering if we had come to a Japanese restaurant or a Korean one. It turned out to be a Korean bbq halal Wagyu beef. I’m not really a big fan of beef truth be told, but this lunch just blew me away. I have never had such fine cuts of beef in what can only be described as the perfect marinade. For the sake of the tummy I sacrificed the kimchi and kept announcing every piece as my last, but it was too good to put down without a fight. I ate way more than I’m accustomed to, probably more than I should have, but there’s only so much you can fight your tastebuds before you give in.

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The most epic Yakiniku ever

With that absolutely delicious and filling lunch, we were now ready to hit the streets of Akihabara. With so many places to go…Laox, Mandarake, Anime Centre, Animate, Don Quijote, the Gundam Cafe, to name a few, you’re never really sure where to start but luckily for me, since I’d already done my shopping and exhausted my budget, I had the luxury of simply strolling around to take in the vibrant facades and loud signage without wondering where to go next.

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The riot of colours that is Akihabara

Z opted to head to the Gundam Cafe, while ma and I walked from Mansei bridge down Chuo Dori, looking at a little bit of everything. While I couldn’t convince ma to set foot in a game centre to try a single UFO catcher, I did manage to convince her to use a capsule machine to try and get Aegi a fruit shaped cat hat, which of course she’ll never wear, but just the thought of that melon hat on her is enough for a few good laughs. We stopped in a couple of manga stores looking for a copy of 君の名は in English, but it’s apparently too soon for a full release of all the volumes so I’ll just have to be patient. There were plenty of cat cafes, and even more maid cafes with a variety of themes including a samurai maid cafe. If there’s one thing I don’t get it’s the whole maid cafe thing, and watching those young girls handing out fliers and trying to attract customers in their get-ups made me think that there are ways to exploit women, and then there are ways to exploit women.

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Anyone played Project Diva 2nd before?

After roaming around stores with epic Gundam sales and exercising much self-restraint, we stumbled upon an art gallery which was selling the most colourful and intricate 3D cityscapes. While ma and I debated on what size to get and which Tokyo scene – dawn, dusk or night – we struck up a conversation with the salesperson who, fascinated to learn that we came from Dubai, proceeded to show us the cityscape of Dubai as well! We decided to stick to Tokyo and as if the artwork wasn’t beautiful enough, she topped it off with some well-timed flattery making ma feel years younger and the final cherry on her sales pitch was the offer to change frames free of charge if we wanted to choose another colour. We were sold ^^

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At the art gallery with its multi million yen 3D landscape

We made another stop to see if we could get ma some Japanese cosmetics, but not knowing any brands other than Shiseido and the fact that all labels were in Japanese, we were more than a little lost. Thankfully the salesperson tucked away between crowded shelves (crowded more with labels than products) on the second floor was very helpful and we managed to pick up some products in smaller sizes so ma could test them out first on her sensitive skin before committing to a larger, more expensive purchase.

We finally stopped for a quick restroom break at Bic where we picked up some household goodies (no, no models), marvelled at how convenient Japan made everything and then marvelled some more when we found out that Bic Camera actually accepts BitCoin as a form of payment. Talk about riding the tech wave. With that our short but sweet Akihabara adventure came to an end and we ready to move from the happening place for youngsters to the posh and newly opened Ginza Six.

Coming from the land of posh malls, we had nothing we wanted to see in particular (except the Noh theatre, which we couldn’t go to this time around) and nothing really that would fit our budget, so instead of wandering aimlessly around the mall, we armed ourselves with umbrellas and went straight up to the rooftop garden to enjoy the rain in lush green lawns floating in the air and light rain drops dancing on fountains resting on the ground. I cannot understand how anyone can underestimate the healing power of a garden in the middle of a busy metropolis. It’s high time rooftop gardens caught on around the world.

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Rooftop garden in the rain

After some much needed recharging, we ducked back inside- ma finding a place to relax at Starbucks while I roamed around the Tsutaya bookstore, filled with its oversized books that need the help of staff to open and peruse, and went straight to Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary tribute book filled with the most amazing pictures of Hello Kitty I’ve never seen including the Kiss version of Hello Kitty  When did THAT happen?

We didn’t have much to do, so we headed back outside, this time to the rain soaked terrace now surrounded by soft lights at dusk. It was going to be night soon, which meant it was now officially dinner time. I would have much rather just sat out there on the terrace, taking in the musty smell of earth that comes with rain, even in a concrete jungle.

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Enjoying the dusk and last moments of rain

Dinner was a short walk away, at Annam, an Indian restaurant which meant we got to enjoy the beautiful views of Ginza at night, with its posh buildings now all lit up in a tasteful rainbow of neon colours under the purpling sky. I always wonder if you notice these things when you live and work in a city for a long time. Does everything lose it shine slowly over time, or is it just that you stop noticing, your nose too deep in the daily grind to look up? I wonder if what I saw in Ginza is what the people there see on a daily basis. I wonder what things I miss back home, or take for granted, that a passing tourist would jot down as something memorable.

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Night time in Ginza

When we got to dinner, our guide, as had somehow become the custom since day one, sat alone at a table to eat. By this time, we’d had enough. Aside from the fact that it’s considered highly rude and disrespectful in Arab and Asian tradition to have someone sit alone at a meal, the great loss of not being able to learn more about Japan from our guide and the equally great lost opportunity of not being able to share our cultures with him was too great a travesty to let pass. And so, with the help of オサマさん and much coaxing and cooperation from the restaurant staff, we finally got him to sit with us at the same table for dinner.

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Time for dinner

It turned out to be a fun and informative session over a butter chicken and naan dinner, as we traded stories about Japan and back home, the best time to visit, our mother tongues and what the difference is between おちゃ, chai, karak chai and masala chai. It turned out that our guide’s mum shared my love for Korean dramas and was a big fan of period dramas and movies. 역시 With that we were ready to head back home. The short walk through Ginza showed that even in fancy Ginza, the shops closed early so with nothing to distract us, we went straight back to the hotel, and started getting ready for the much awaited day trip to Nikko.

Missed Day 7 in Fuji?

Stay tuned for Day 9 Part 1 in Nikko!