Takayama, Japan 2017 – Day 8

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Our hotel stay also included a Kaiseki (traditional Japanese breakfast filled with seasonal ingredients). It was wonderfully presented with a great view overlooking the city as you enter the room. They have the main portion of breakfast presented to you at your seat with hida beef on a personal hamachi clay grill that is cooking on a leaf. There is also a buffet style area where you can pick and choose other items such as grilled mackerel/salmon, salad, pork and potato croquette, cereal, croissants, porridge etc. There are also unlimited fountain drinks as well as coffee and tea. You should try the milk if possible – very fresh and different from Canadian milk.

After breakfast we used the relaxation room and worked the chairs – massaging chairs. Went back to the room and packed before taking the free shuttle to Takayama Station as we were heading to our next hotel but also trying to meet up with Karen & Chi who were arriving around 930AM. As we got to the station and alighted off the bus, perfect timing as we spotted them on the other side of the street. We walked over to Hida International Hotel (2-60 Hanaoka-cho, Takayama, Gifu Prefecture 506-0009, Japan) together however it was a 3PM check-in so we left our things for storage and wandered about.

Our main reason for visiting Takayama was because of the Takayama festival. It is the largest festival to celebrate the change of season to spring also known as the Sanno Matsuri. Its a 2 day festival hosted by the Hie Jinja Shrine. People from all over Japan and tourists alike congregate to celebrate this special festival. They have giant shelters that are spread across the city where they floats are held when they aren’t being used but once they are out, they are beautifully showcased with the sun glistening on them. There are beautiful carvings, dolls and elaborate textiles that cover each float. These floats also are suppose to showcase the craftsmanship of the carpenters of the Hida area. Inside each float, you will find children manning each float as a few of them also feature little dolls that move or the children play musical instruments. There are actually 25 festival floats scattered around Takayama however they are designated to different seasons. For spring, there are 12 floats, 11 for autumn and 2 for others.

Old town got turned into a pedestrian only zone with people walking everywhere and on maps, the bridges are colour coded so you can figure out where you are easier. The main area where the first performance with the floats was being held got incredibly crowded as we were trying to get through the crowd following others, we got stuck as both directions stopped moving. It got incredibly hot. After the morning ceremony, we decided it was time for food. Karen had a lunch place picked out in her little book however with such a large group (we had 7) it was near impossible to seat all of us. We went to Jakson (5-5 Tenmanmachi Takayama Gifu 岐阜県 高山市 天満町 5-5) for curry but we did a take away order. I ordered the Curry katsu (fried pork) – 1200y. We ended up walking in search of Takayama’s version of takoyaki (octopus balls) but instead of octopus filling, it was said to be hida beef as we waited our 20 minutes for our lunch to cook – we did not find these hidayaki…? and slowly made our return to Jakson for our takeaway order. We ate in a nearby area with stairs and a small cafe table. The curry was quite nice but flavourful. Once again, Karen had many bucket list foods in her book and once we finished our curries, she was on a mission to find the Hida beef steam buns from the specific stall that got grave reviews and she eventually did find it. Apparently it was really worth it but I was way too full to even try it.

We eventually crossed one of the bridges and found ourselves on the street where all the floats were equally spaced out and slowly being prepped where people could take photos of each individual float before all the mayhem ensued at night. Again, we walked through old town and just continued walking about. We got separated and in the end made it back to the hotel for 5PM to officially check in. Our hotel stay included a hida steak dinner however the timeframe for dinner got pushed to a smaller timeframe so we made sure dinner was priority before heading back out as the price of our hotel stay for 1 night (a little more expensive than we liked) also factored in this steak dinner. What we didn’t know is that it became this 4-5 course meal that was elegantly presented. The hida steak was absolutely a delicious addition to this leg of the trip. The steak could be cut so easily with just a fork. We finished out meal satisfied and ventured back out to see the night parade of the floats which at this point had already started their procession (multiple locations on the map where we could watch the floats go by) with the lanterns all lit up and children playing instruments in all of them. The adults controlled the floats from the outside. The most difficult part was turn the floats. Think of Howl’s Moving castle and how tall but narrow it was (before it full transformed) that’s what the floats looked like.

Since we are in the mountainside, when the sun is up, the sun is strong and we all got a little tanned and red that day but once that sun goes down or into the shade, it gets cold. The main old town strip got turned into a night market festival with stalls selling food galore. We watched for a bit standing on a bench but in the end, didn’t stay to the last float.

We went back to our hotel and went to the onsen. This one has 2 tier onsen on the 9th floor. Rooftop jacuzzi with 2 individual tubs to soak (this is the spot of the onsen personally) with a view of the city. The main floor has an outdoor pool with 1 inside and tons of shower stalls. It also featured a misting sauna. There apparently was one downstairs in the basement plus a swimming pool but we never made it down.

Tokyo, Japan 2017 – Day 2

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That jet lag never seems to amaze me. Woke up at 5AM and couldn’t fall back asleep. Eventually everyone woke up and stated they were hungry after discussing pancakes that were too far away at a restaurant that wouldn’t be opened for another 2-3 hours. We opted for the best alternative – 7-Eleven. We grabbed some hot food as well as onigiri (my old friend who saved me the last time around in Osaka).

We hopped on the train to meet my friend Yuko at Asakusa Station – Tsubasa Station however somehow we opted to walk part of the way there that made me a little late to meeting her. I met Yuko back in 2011 when I went on a Contiki tour of Europe – 7 countries in 10 days where we sat on a coach bus together whether we liked it or not but luckily our group was the better of groups as opposed to the examples we saw interacting with other groups. She was in school when I met her and she was studying music I believe. She is now a marketing researcher.

I had chatted with Yuko for a bit prior to the trip about a festival called the Asakusa Kannon-ura Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri – 4 Chrome, Taito – She had never been to it and we wanted to attend. This courtesan parade is held on the second Saturday of April each year. It consisted of a closed off street north of the Senso-ji Temple where there would be cute Japanese children in procession as well as Geisha/ Oiran Dochu procession to follow and ending off with a drumming performance.

The Oiran Dochu Procession (おいらん道中) in the Edo period was the procession of the Oiran courtesan accompanied by young females to a client’s residence after formal invitation. The Tayu (the top ranking woman) would wear tall footwear in which they would take strides dragging their feet in figure 8 patterns while holding the shoulder of a man (their body guard) to steady her. The steps would be slow but highly exaggerated to gain attention. The Tayu were witty, self-confident and skilled in calligraphy as well as ikebana (flower arranging). The young females that accompanied the Tayu were meant to become prostitutes. The Oiran courtesans were at the highest of standards of being companions  and being entertained by them was expensive that it could put a castle into debt. Although they would be paid handsomely, the Tayu could decline an invitation.

This procession is put on by volunteers to commemorate the history of the Oirans of North Asakusa, which was the red light district of the past.

We got there rather early for opening remarks and then the first round of children came at 1045AM waving fake cherry blossom branches and also a little brass band. The next rounds of kids were suppose to come but we decided we were hungry and went on our way to venture for food. The area of Taito is actually quite charming and I really liked the feel of the streets. We walked over to Senso-ji Temple where tons of cherry blossoms and their huge row of markets lined the front of the temple that both started and end with giant red lanterns. We of course did our fortune (100y) – if you get a bad fortune you must tie it up so that they can burn the bad fortune you received away. I absolutely hate being in crowds – what is worst is touristy crowds. We had such a large group that we ended up losing partial group halfway through the walk through the market but we gathered back together. We left Yuko in charge of finding us a good place to eat for lunch. We found ourselves on the second floor at a restaurant called Owariya (1-7-1 Asakusa) that specializes in shrimp tempura and soba noodles. I ordered the Kashiwa A-Seiro with stirred chicken sauce (1,100y)

Back to the festival for the actual Geisha procession – It was actually quite slow and not as eventful as I’d hope but none the less an experience. I ended up getting pulled to the front by an older Japanese lady because she saw me with cameras and so I sat down so everyone could see over me. The procession was very intricate because a few of the geishas were wearing shoes that were 10 inch platforms and slowly they kept dragging their feet in a figure 8 pattern. There were people dressed up with fox masks on who were dancing with ornate colours and fans – that was my favourite part.

We decided to leave and skipped the drumming to grab ice cream. Not regular old ice cream but 7 levels of matcha green tea ice cream at Suzuki-en. Cassie’s high school friend who she hadn’t seen since high school – Atene joined us. Atene now lives in Yokohama and works for the government but studied architecture. We went to line up at Suzuki-en to be told we need to head to another building – their waiting room which literally was a waiting room for the extended line about a block away from the main store. Once our number was called, we were handed tickets and back we went to the main building where awaited the employees to serve you your level of choice for matcha or 4-5 other varieties of ice cream. Since we had such a large group, we all opted to get a double scoop and get each level of matcha possible. I grabbed a level 6 cone for Kanako and myself a level 3 & a level 7. My volleyball friend Kanako was in Hiroshima/Shizuoka visiting her grandparents but had a few days off to roam around so she took the train and joined us for half the day. You can definitely taste the difference in each level of matcha and in the end, I truly preferred the level 7 although it did taste a little powdery.

As a group, we decided to continue on together to Omotesando area. Slowly but surely made our way through Senso-ji temple to get to the trains and off we went. Omotesando is the high end shopping area with a lovely and large street that reminds me of Queen St West meets Yorkville in Toronto or Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées. We ended up walking through Omotesando Hills, a shopping mall and residential space designed by 1995 Pritzker recipient Tadao Ando. The design has this staircase in the middle that spans 3 floors. The staircase is used for runway shows from time to time. We visited a few galleries and artist’s stores and ended up at Tokyu Plaza (designed by Hiroshi Nakamura). The entrance has a giant mirrored escalator entrance and a beautiful rooftop (which we never made it to). We took some photos before Kanako said her goodbyes and went on to meet with her other friends.

We walked over to Yoyogi park where it was jam-packed with people (it was a weekend to begin) with white cherry blossoms adorning the park especially concentrated into one area. The hanami (cherry blossom) viewing  brought people out in droves picnicking with tarps under all the trees and tons of locals and tourists basking in the white glow of the cherry blossoms. At this point, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Tokyo.

Atene’s original plan was to get us to Roppongi but with the sheer amount of people in our group and how much walking we accomplished that day (29KM), we finished off our night in the Shibuya area. We walked through Shibuya Crossing and had dinner at Tsukada No Osusume that specializes in the Miyazaki region – mangoes, chicken and miso. They had this miso jam/dip that was so flavourful and you are able to purchase as well. For the amount of drinks and food we ate, the bill came out to about 16,000y.

Of course when in Japan, you just need to try out the purikura(プリクラ) – japanese photo booths. Let me tell you, we looked all kinds of wrong and different but funny. After all the excitement of purikura, we walked over to the subway station that has a bridge up where there is a famous mural by a Japanese artist as well as clear views (as clear as a window with the crisscross wire in them can be) where you can watch the whole Shibuya Crossing play out. We called it a night after we watched people cross a few times as Yuko and Atene still had a bit to go to get home and we were all in food coma mode.

Glenn’s journey to Japan has been a trek to say the least. He arrived at 1AM after 38 hours at Chicago airport. Turns out that someone made a fake bomb and brought it on the plane (not working) but nonetheless that that person was able to make it pass security and onto the plane.

 

 

Tokyo, Japan 2017 – Day 1

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Flew out of Toronto with Mike, Manwai & Cassie while Glenn was on another flight (Cassie was with ANA and the rest of us with United). This trip had started off badly for Glenn as his flight leaving for Chicago never left Toronto as there was an unmarked luggage that got aboard the plane from San Paulo.

We arrived in Chicago and Cassie caught her flight about 30-45 minutes before us. The main flight was about 12 hours and we got upgraded to economy plus. We originally booked with ANA but they are partnered with United so not as great as I wish it would be. No outlets but at least a screen to watch limited shows and movies.

We finally arrived at Narita Airport (half hour early) to 20C degree weather. Humid. We went up to the 4th floor towards the restaurants to meet Cassie who arrived earlier. We proceeded to the lower level to the JR pass lineup to activate our pass. It was an hour wait but still very hot. We ended up making new friends from New Jersey – Jennifer & Francis.

Once we activated our pass, we reserved our seats for the train to head to our Airbnb nearby Kawadacho Station in Shinjuku. 110 minutes into town from Narita. We arrived to find John, drop off our things and head to Shinjuku-Nishikichi to make our reservation time for Robot Restaurant. We opted for the show no meal but each ticket comes with 1 free drink ticket. We stopped by BIC Camera and got Cassie a Sim card – 21 days 5GB – $32CAD-ish. Walked over to Robot Restaurant with our reservation and then got another voucher and grabbed food at a nearby little restaurant before finally getting our actual ticket and heading inside. There is a holding area – lounge with a few performances and where we can redeem our drink tickets – oolong tea and alcohol mix – who would’ve known. I saw photos of the washrooms before we went which are ridiculously decorated but single stalls and the line was way too long to use/view them. The show takes place in the basement and I mean basement (it must be massive behind those curtains though to house all those robots). We went down 3 more levels and then got seated in our reserved seats. Sensory overload and I’m still not even sure if it was amazing or not. I mean, It was definitely bright, loud and shiny with high energy for sure with tons of dancing and “fighting”.

We left and grabbed some good old KFC then walked Golden Gai and Piss Alley. Golden Gai is a series of 3-5 streets that are riddled with small establishments that serve drinks and some bar food. The bars can hold 4-8 people at most. We didn’t participate but got to see the nightlife on a Friday night. We walked over to Piss Alley which was more open but we got there a little late in the night that the izakayas were closing. We started to head back to realize that the trains stop around 1230-1AM and had to find an alternate route back to our Airbnb. We ended up taking 2 taxis as they wouldn’t take 5 in one. I didn’t sleep until 230AM but I did get my SIM card to finally work.

If you haven’t joined and booked with Airbnb yet, follow the link and get credits for your first booking. www.airbnb.ca/c/ruu

Chiang Mai – Thailand – Southeast Asia – 2015 – Day 22

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It’s one of the biggest days of the year here in Chiang Mai – Loy Krathong!

A little history – Yee Peng (local name) is part of the festival of lights in Northern Thailand to show respect to Buddha. It’s date usually coincides with Loi Krathong which all of Thailand celebrates using floating lights on water. In Northern Thailand Yi Peng, which is celebrated alongside Loi Krathong, is different in that lights are placed into sky lanterns which float up into the air. Loi Krathong still happens in Chiang Mai but the actual Loi Krathong floating lanterns on water event happens the day/night after Yi Peng. as the twelfth month in the Thai Lunar Calendar corresponds to the second month in the traditional calendar of the old northern Lanna kingdom. The festival features beautifully illuminated lanterns, which are either carried, displayed in houses and temples, and even launched into the night sky. Krathong which are an offering – traditionally made out of a banana stalk and adorned with candles, incense and some money – are floated down the rivers. The Khom Loy, also known as Khom Fai, is a cylinder of paper about one meter high, braced with wire circles. Suspended from the bottom of the cylinder is a tray containing cotton soaked in kerosene. Fireworks and firecrackers are also often attached to the tray. These catch fire and explode after the balloon is launched. Once the cotton is lit it takes about a minute for the air inside the cylinder to heat up enough to lift the balloon into the air. It is believed that launching one of these balloons can send a person’s bad luck and misfortune away into the air, especially if it disappears from view before the fire goes out. Often people will say a short prayer before launching the balloon. Sometimes they will also place their address in the balloon, or write it on the outside. Anyone who later finds the balloon can then claim money from the sender. In this way the good fortune is shared.

We witness the pre-2 day festivities with loy krathong floating lanterns yesterday but it wasn’t massive. Near the US Consulate on the Ping River is where majority of it happens.

Sing Prasert GymBamrunburi – for a muay thai class – 400baht for 2 hour session. Taught by Kru Yoi who has over 30+ years experience and is 66 years old. We showed up and immediately he made us skip rope for 10 minutes. A couple from France joined us – Marion and Stan but only Stan took part. From there, he wrapped our hands and then did some quick stretches with us then broke it all down for us on the moves. You need to be relaxed and loose and unlike boxing, keep your hands high and up. My shoulders were to stiff and I kept trying to use then for all my jabs when it should be hips as your power source. No bouncing in boxing or volleyball. Left punch, right punch, upper cut, elbows, high knee, push – long kick, twist with elbow attack. It was a very intense 2 hours and he does this twice a day.

We came back to shower and figure out the rest of the day. I had to go back to the mall for my VAT refund for my camera but Andrew didn’t want to come but Adam & Amy wanted cheap eats there. We decided to meet back at the hostel for 5PM and figure out from there the evening plans. Adam, Amy and myself walked to the mall and the sun was more intense than yesterday and also it was noon-1PM. We got there and immediately went down to the northern village food court. I grabbed a khao soi – 45 baht and a lemon lime tea – 35baht. The Khao soi was hot and hits the back of your throat but it was so good. I went back to Photobug and got my forms for the VAT refund within 10 minutes then back home in a tuktuk as Adam and Amy got hit by food coma and wanted to nap. By this time, it was about 230-3PM? So they took a nap and I went exploring on my own through little streets. I went east towards a cafe called Clay Studio Coffee in the garden that I read about before which is literally a cafe in a garden with statues and broken statues covering the premises. I grabbed a thai ice latte – 65 baht – tasty but really only there for the atmosphere. From there, I continued my wandering down random streets which would eventually lead me to the east wall and continue to the south wall that would bring me back to the hostel. There are already floats in the water and the people are prepping for the nights festivities.

The parade started at 7PM and the paper lanterns weren’t suppose to be launched until around 9PM but of course people launch them anytime they want. They send some into the sky during the day as well and attached sparklers or firecrackers to them. We opted for smaller roads and made our way east to the night bazaar. Coming to the east wall, we saw the start of the parade but it hadn’t started just yet. Amy was getting “hangry” so she pushed towards finding food and not stick around for the parade. We continued east past the gate to the river and night bazaar and came to stalls that were all facing inward against the street as there is still active traffic but there weren’t really any stalls for food there so we went into the Anusan night market where there were established restaurants but considering we have been eating at the local food market stalls where food is 30-60baht seeing lowest of 120baht for the same food we ate for half the price detoured us. We ended up eating at Roadside something and I ate the chicken pad thai for 60baht – it was ok but the cheaper ones I’ve had were much better and service was much faster. We finished our meals and followed the crowd towards the river. We walked up Charon Prathet Rd and followed the people and sounds. Little stages and stalls were set up for beauty pageants, food and games with people making and selling the floating lanterns. It was very congested as motorbikes, cars, and people took over the street simultaneously trying to go north. One crossroad that was packed was Charon Prathet Rd and Loi Kroh Rd. We continued straight and all of a sudden passing that street we looked up to see a sky full of lanterns gracefully floating away – so surreal.

We eventually made it to the epicentre of Tha Phae Rd / Praisanee Rd / Chaoroen Prathet Rd and Thanon Charon Mueang where massive amounts of lanterns were being lit and released but so much light pollution to get a true effect. Mae Jo University is apparently the BIG BIG place to release but that one you need to purchase a ticket in advanced and I think it is sold at $100USD for that experience. We watched and wanted to purchase lanterns ourselves. The best deal is 3 lanterns for 100baht. Don’t buy for 50 or 100baht! If you buy further from the site, much cheaper. We went looking for lanterns and the ones within that vicinity were selling for 100baht each and illegally as police were present stopping hawkers. We walked further down back to Loi Kroh Rd where we found a guy selling them on the side of the alley where we bargained and got 4 for 40baht each. We walked east through an alley. There were food stalls and even a spot for carnie games set up. We made it to the bridge where some were releasing it but it wasn’t anything special. Underneath the bridge, people had gotten down and were releasing their floating lanterns. We crossed that bridge and went back north (tons of cheap food stalls and floating lanterns on sale here) on Chiang Mai – Lamphun Rd toward Thanon Charon Mueang and we situated ourselves at the beginning of the bridge. I was the first to go and pretty much you open it up and either holding the top end open and lighting the cotton/wax circle you flip it over and wait for the air to inflate it and is ready for take-off. The lanterns send off bad luck and you can make wishes on them as they float into the sky. It was so cool to actually release one myself and watching them float away is amazing. The next to do it was Adam then Andrew then Amy. But be warned, wait for it to truly fill up with air or they will come back down or float away really slowly and beware of falling wax!

We watched for a bit there before making our way across the Thanon Charon Mueang bridge towards Tha Phae Gate. So many police cars trying to get through which cleared a path for us to follow but man I felt bad for the motorbikes stuck in the swarm of people. Also note, don’t try to release your lantern too close to trees or wires are they will get stuck and may catch on fire. I at some point grabbed a red horse beer (not cold so not enjoyable) from a really busy 7-11 and then also grabbed a banana rotee – 25baht. We decided that it would be a better option to walk home especially in all this traffic so we continued south on Mun Mueang Rd which is the east wall and walked down the south wall back to our hostel. Definitely an experience I would recommend people to do.