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!

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!

 

Back to Japan – Day 7 (Fuji)

We’re going to Fuji and no swollen feet are going to stop us. Despite all our attempts to talk ma out of a long tiring day she insisted that the trip just wouldn’t be the same if she didn’t see Mt. Fuji. And that was that. The sole concession we could reach was to skip the ice and wind cave and the walk through the Suicide Forest between the caves.

We had packed everything we could possibly need for the long drive, from umbrellas to rain jackets and extra shoes and of course… snacks! We got together with the rest of the group before 9 and that’s where we met our guide for the day. It was, unbelievably, the same guide we had two years ago – Mikoさん! We’d had a great time with her before and while I’m always thankful for a familiar face a sudden realization dawned upon me. With Mikoさん as our chatty guide, between her folk tales laced with revenge, intrigue and rather questionable morals and stories of her attempts to scale Mt. Fuji, it was going to be very difficult to catch up on some much-needed sleep during the bus ride.

We were also met by some bad news at the lobby – which was that we should anticipate a day of heavy rains brought on by a typhoon. Out came the umbrellas en masse lent to us by the hotel and off we went, keeping in mind that all our plans were now subject to the whims of the weather. More ominously, we were aware that we may not get a chance to see Fuji…again. But no talk of rain or typhoons or any tale Mikoさん could tell could keep me up and when I finally woke up it was to the sight of beautiful green rice paddies at the foreground of dark forested hills interspersed with humble wooden farmhouses with the occasional solar panel installations flashing past my window. It’s such a contradiction – the serenity of the scene contrasted with the arduous labour that goes into producing an annual rice harvest. Quite unlike a cityscape where there’s a constant buzzing and movement for little nothings.

About a half hour before we were due to reach the Ice Cave, elusive and shy Mt. Fuji decided to show herself to us. And what a view it was. The snow-capped tip topped by lenticular clouds and wrapped in the hazy blue grey of the day. There is something to be said about the majesty of Mt. Fuji as it rises from the landscape- a gentle slope spanning the horizon and dominating the sky with it’s cotton tipped peak. We couldn’t take our eyes of Fuji and amid declarations from our guide that we must be a really blessed lot to have seen Fuji on a day when no one expected it to be visible, it was eventually lost to sight as we reached the parking area to the Ice Cave. Dissuaded by the gloomy weather forecast, no one had made it there save us and a school bus full of schoolchildren from Yokohama.

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Mt. Fuji shows itself

While everyone headed to the frosty blue cavern that is the Ice Cave with its promises of fogged up glasses, ma and I took a bathroom break and went off to the Wind Cave area where we’d meet up with everyone once they were done. The souvenir store was empty so we got a chance to look around at leisure. Ma picked herself up a deerskin wallet while I finally picked up a snowglobe for a friend (last trip no one we met seemed to know what a snowglobe was let alone where to buy one) . With that we were finally ready to enter the forest and walk up to the entrance area to the Wind Cave. The temperature in the forest was notably less than outside and thanks to the notable absence of visitors we got a chance to experience the forest as it was intended – in its silence broken only by the sound of leaves rustling in the gentle breeze overhead and the occasional song of birds hidden from view.

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Walking through Suicide Forest

It was a chance to marvel at the resilience of nature. To watch how trees, seemingly uprooted by the force of hot lava as it had once made its way down the mountain slope, had managed to cling on to life, the network of their gnarly roots exposed to view- a testament to their tenacity. To watch as trees sat in silence, perched above gas vents, watching Fuji breathe. To see trees wrapped around the trunks of other trees as lovers, reaching for the skies. To see the black stones that littered the forest floor covered with a green carpet of moss, lichen and ferns.

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Life in harmony

For the first time I got a chance to explore the forests of Fuji as I would have liked – in all its delicate intricacies, discovering a collection of insects too close for comfort yet impossible to appreciate from afar, pine cones in all stages of their life from unripe and uneaten to chewed on by unknown forest friends to dried brown cones rolling along the forest floor, the undersides of leaves covered in eggs creating a polka dot canopy.

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Polka dot leaves

Ma and I sat on a bench in the forest, grateful for the coolness afforded to us by the leafy canopy and took it all in, until everyone arrived. It was time then for a quick stop at the souvenir store and vending machines, a prayer break in a makeshift spot in front of the deserted vending machines before we all bundled back up on the bus ready for lunch.

Lunch was going to be at a Japanese place near Kawaguchiko, which had been my favourite place during the last trip. I was looking forward to being at the lake more than I was lunch so after a quick attempt to wolf down the rice and warm pumpkin from the hotpot, the rest of which I left intact, I was ready to go. I strolled down, browsed through the souvenir store and then took a walk outside, all the way up to a car tunnel, which suddenly reminded me of the movie Tunnel and with that creepy thought I went back to the restaurant where ma and Z were waiting. We were headed up Mt. Kachi Kachi- the legend of which Miko さん had enthusiastically narrated to us on the bus complete with unique voices for each character. I cannot understand why fairy tales are so gruesome. It was the stairs vs a ramp if we were going to take the cable car up the mountain, so ramp it was, past a fruit vendor selling giant juicy green grapes, the commemorative coin machine, from where I picked up a coin courtesy of the three sisters on the group who donated change to my cause since the machine is picky about what it eats, up a flight of stairs and finally into the cable car. It’s only a three minute ride, but the view is breathtaking- the forest covered slopes of Kachikachi Yama and the rolling mist covered mountains behind lake Kawaguchi- there’s a peace to be felt there that I haven’t felt anywhere else, except maybe at the five storey temple of Nara.

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The mountains, the lake and the city

The crowning jewel though of our sightseeing from a height, was the first view of Mt. Fuji as we got off the cable car, enveloped in a hazy blue which made it look like something out of Hokusai’s 36 views of Fuji, in particular Ejiri in Saruga which captures the blue haze so well. The clouds rolled through the skies and every minute that past was like looking at a new view of Fuji. Luckily for us, the crowds were thinning fast so we got to spend a long time enjoying the beauty of Fuji, before we headed back down to the lake.

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Mt. Fuji in all its glory

The hydrangeas in the bushes on the walk up to the lake weren’t in full bloom this time around, which meant that we were privy to all the different stages of formation of a full blown hydrangea – from the first flat set of florets, to the small familiar round ball of a pinks, purples and blues taking shape. Just looking at the hydrangeas you know that something this beautiful, with all its complexity, cannot be the result of chance.

The lake was as beautiful as I had remembered it. We took the path down to the mouth of the lake, where we crouched down, for lack of a bench, to enjoy the stillness, the silence and the soft sound of ripples breaking against the shore. It’s probably a mark of how serene the place is, that none of us took note of a crossing boat which left us pleasantly soaked by the sudden waves that crashed into the banks where we were sitting. Ma’s shoes were soaked, but since we’d packed an extra pair we weren’t too worried. With that bolt of refreshment, we moved to higher ground, to enjoy the views from a bench. Some of the guys offered us grapes and as we sat under the overcast sky reflected in the mirror of the lake, it was as though my prayers were answered – and it began to rain, a light drizzle awakening a part of you that truly knows what it means to be alive. Our rain-sprinkled happiness however was put out by practicality. To avoid getting caught in a full-fledged downpour that would mean a risky journey back to Tokyo, we had to get back on the bus and bid the lake goodbye.

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We managed to escape any serious rain and were soon back in the familiar dry suburbs of Tokyo. We reached so early that we had time to get some rest before going to dinner, which was just a short walk away. The weather is an amazing thing. Dry one minute and pouring the next. When we got down to head to the Turkish restaurant, it had begun to rain, a nice steady rain which drummed steadily on our umbrellas, angled at times for maximum protection against the rain angling in with the gentle breeze. It was a lovely walk at night learning how to dodge umbrellas, surrounded by the bright Tokyo lights made even brighter by watery reflections on wet roads. It was interesting to note that most people, not all, carry the same white or transparent 7/11 umbrella which means you don’t have to worry about which one belongs to you when depositing at an umbrella stand. It reminded me of the haram in Makkah and Madina where the same philosophy applies, only to footwear.

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Nighttime meanderings

We reached Saray Akasaka, where we were greeted with the nicest tomato soup I’ve ever had and an eggplant and tomato dish that I wish I could have just taken back home, it was that good. We were happy that Mt. Fuji had given us a peek, well-fed, and willing to walk some more in the rain. Ma and Z were drenched by the time we got back so they went on ahead back to the hotel room, but I couldn’t bear the though of wasting all that good rain by being cooped up inside. Who knows when it’ll rain next back home – next year if we’re lucky. I took a walk to Bic Camera for some exploration to find any uncharted model territory. There wasn’t though so I called it a night and went back so we could figure out just how to dry clothes in a hotel room. We got our things ready for the next day (which would be an all out shopping day in Tokyo), left our clothes on the clothes line and our umbrellas in the bathtub before we finally managed to fall asleep.

Missed Day 6 in Tokyo?

Stay tuned for Day 8 in Tokyo!

Back to Japan – Day 5 (Nara)

Before we knew it we were already at the halfway mark of our trip! We were scheduled to check out and head to Nara, but we woke up to a serious problem. Ma’s feet had swollen up overnight, not just because we’d been walking a lot, but possibly because we’d walked alot on the heated asphalt of Dotonbori the day before. Unsure if ma would be able to make it through the long walk planned today, we began to plan ahead on which days we could skip so she could get some rest instead. As we waited in the lobby, we mentioned to Kaoru せんせい that ma wasn’t in the best of health only to find a few moments later that せんせい had rushed over to the nearby convenience store and picked up for ma a box of patches to reduce the swelling and a foot support! I cannot tell you just how grateful I was at that moment… there is no way we would have been able to find something to help ma on our own since all the labels are covered in only Kanji. The foot support fit well so Z and I rushed off to find another one before we headed to Nara. せんせい had been amazing enough to even help ma with her bags as we headed back from the convenience and soon we were all bundled on the bus.

The ride was short, only about an hour long and before we knew it we had pulled up at Nara Park to visit Todaiji Temple famous for its Great Buddha statue. Since the walk upto the temple would tire ma out we decided instead to first feed the deer and then relax by the lake. The weather was quite promising, not the hot July blaze of 2 years back which had made the walk seem like an eternity. Instead we had a beautiful blue sky with patches of white clouds and a sun determined to play hide and seek.

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Walking towards the temple, under blue blue skies

We entered the park to the sight of deer lazing about in the shade and others strolling along the walkway asking every passerby for food with those big watery Puss In Boots eyes. Z bought the food and handed it to me so I could start feeding. I tried to unwrap the paper, only to find myself surrounded by hungry but patiently waiting does and one very belligerent deer with great big antlers (okay, so maybe their proximity made them seem bigger than they really were). I couldn’t for the life of me manage to undo that flimsy paper strip which held the biscuits together, and while the does sensing my ineptitude went off in search of greener pastures, the deer just kept coming closer, just as I kept moving backwards holding the biscuits high in the air out of his reach. Eventually, his patience ran thin and in an attempt to stop me running off with his food, chomped down on my shirt and tugged me closer. So much for the make-deer-bow-before-feeding rule. He was going to make me bow first. Before this turned into a scene from a bad movie which would have me being chased down by a hungry deer, I threw the biscuits to at my brother and finally the deer let go…but not after having swallowed my shirt button first. I’m not complaining – at least he left me the rest of my shirt.

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Wanted! Greedy shirt munching button swallowing deer with deceptively good looks!

We continued on slowly , past this hilariously harrowing incident, up to and through Nandaimon Gate. Ma wanted to press on for a view of the temple, so on we went and when we reached the main gate to the temple, she wanted to press on and walk up to the temple.We continued and told her she could get a peek at the giant Buddha from the door, but she wanted to see the whole statue clearly, so we went in… explored the whole temple and then began the long walk back to the bus.

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Toadaiji Temple in all its glory

As we left the temple, we came across the statue of Pindola dressed up in a red bib of sorts. It is said that rubbing a part of the statue will cause the person’s own ailment there to disappear. Ma said her feet would heal themselves very well, thank you, and we moved on to pick up another commemorative coin and some souvenirs. So much for adventurous ma resting her feet by the lake ^^

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Pindola in his bib

While we didn’t get much time at the lake, some our tour buddies were lucky enough to catch videos of the fish in the lake which was amazing!

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Beautiful fish hiding underwater

With half the day already behind us, we headed for lunch at Jay Nara, an Indian restaurant where we helped ourselves to a buffet thali filled with butter chicken, naan, daal, rice, paneer and of course more papad. I cannot remember the last time I’ve eaten so much papad in the space of a week. The food was delicious, and the service excellent, seeing as how they offered everyone complementary yoghurt to cool down after no one could handle the spicy black pepper papad. Lunch was spent listening to stories by オサマさんabout the good old days (yes, we are just that old now) and after a quick prayer break everyone was ready to head to the Kasuga Taisha Temple.

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Feed me!

It was going to be another long walk to the temple, so this time I put my foot down that ma keep her feet up, and this time ma and Z decided to rest at the coffee shop while I went on ahead to scout the awesome quotient of this temple. The way up was breathtakingly beautiful, the branches of the trees reaching out from the forest edges, lined with stone lanterns and quiet deer watching and bowing from between the stone lanterns. While it wasn’t a very long walk up to the temple, since we weren’t entering the praying area, there wasn’t much to see so I came back down, determined to enjoy the natural beauty of the place more than the man-made temple.

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Gateway to the Kasuga Taisha Temple

I caught up with ma and Z at the coffee shop, and it was when we decided to try our luck and see if we could use the museum restroom instead of the public restroom outside, we discovered that we had tickets to visit the museum as well. Z went up to enjoy the exhibits, while ma and I stayed downstairs to watch a video, unfortunately all in Japanese, about the temple. Luckily for us, Kaoru せんせい was there to summarize. It turns out that the shrine is renovated every 20 years and has been renovated every 20 years for centuries! And it’s not just that the shrine is taken and apart and renovated, but it’s done so using brand new tools each time, made especially for this purpose. All in the name of keeping the traditional arts alive. In a day and age when everything around you is a dying art, I was so impressed by what I learnt. What is civilization, if not the passing of knowledge to the generations to come?

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Surrounded by beauty

We had just one more stop before bidding Nara goodbye and that was the Kohfukuji Temple. The bus stop turned out to be right next to the actual temple buildings, which mean we didn’t have to walk much before I discovered my architectural gem of this trip- the 50m tall five storey pagoda dating back to 1426. I have a thing for five storey pagodas (I was in love with the pagoda at the Horyu Temple last trip too, I admit), and this, let me tell you, was love at first sight. The pagoda and its neighbouring Eastern Golden Hall are together a symbol of marital bliss, the hall having been commissioned by the emperor (of the time) to pray for the recovery of his sick wife, and the pagoda having been commissioned by the emperor’s wife to pray for the recovery of the sick emperor. The temple is also famous for certain statues of Buddha of both religious and artistic value, but we didn’t get to see the special exhibit, something Kaoru せんせい had really wanted to visit.

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My love – the 5 storey pagoda

While we got tickets to enter the Eastern Golden Hall, photographs inside are prohibited and I was much more in love with the beautiful wooden structure next door so I didn’t waste any time inside and went straight over to stare at the second largest pagoda in Japan. By this time, the sun had disappeared behind a wave of clouds which just added to the serenity of the moment. If it had started raining at that point, I would have nothing left to ask for. While the others had set off in search of the other Golden Hall (not the Central one, which is undergoing renovations), we decided to just sit down on the rather warm stones and stare up at the pagoda which was radiating peace as the day wound down. I could have sat there for hours, but alas the time had come to say goodbye.

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Eastern Hall vs Pagoda – Pagoda wins!

We had to attend to more practical matters like picking up our bento for the Shinkansen ride to Tokyo. I took a sneak peek at the menu on the bus, and learning it was all seafood Ma and I decided it was better to forego the bento rather than open it up only to have the rice. As we walked to the station, we were overjoyed to discover a public bin where we all gathered and celebrated the public sorting and disposal of our rubbish (you can imagine just how rare it is to find a bin in Japan) before heading inside. We gathered at the group entrance but せんせい appeared to have disappeared. She came running in a few minutes later holding up a bag, announcing her last minute detour had been to a famous confectionery which can only be found in Kyoto to pick up some matcha biscuits which she would distribute later on in the Shinkansen. We had some time to kill at the station,  so we decided to roam around the station shops and look for some halal goodies. Thanks to our sensei’s ever willingness to translate ingredients on any kawaii candy we could get our hands on, we ended up with some tasty treats and were finally all set for the long ride to Tokyo, after many goodbyes to our lovely guide (who had probably lost 10kg in the space of a few days and who will most likely need a vacation from our vacation) who had looked after us so well. We tried to get some sleep on the Shinkansen, but it was in vain. Ma had her feet up on our purchases hoping for the swelling to subside and I was just too tired to go to sleep, if there’s a such a thing. Our bullet train journey was followed by a short train ride and soon, we were walking to our familiar hotel, where our luggage had already been sent up. A late night rendezvous in the hotel lobby let us know when we had to be up and ready the next day for our Shibuya. By 10pm, we were at our hotel room, which was sadly nowhere near the luxurious size that had surprised us at Osaka, but rather the compact size we were used to and we spent the night figuring out how to manage Mt. Fuji the day after tomorrow with ma’s feet still swollen up. We agreed that if they weren’t much better by morning, I would stay with ma and we could explore the streets of Tokyo instead, having already been to Fuji on our last trip. The next day’s itinerary also looked manageable so we hoped she’d be able to get enough rest for Day 7.

Missed Day 4 in Osaka?

Check out Day 6 in Tokyo!