Archive for July, 2010

It is hard to describe the beauty if Hokkaido in a few sentences. I am going to try and make an effort. Located in the northernmost tip of Japan, Hokkaido is a large island quite different from neighboring Honshu, which is where most of Japanese humanity exists. Blessed with acres of open farmland, beautiful mountains and hot springs, a trip to Hokkaido transports you to a different planet. When we landed in Asahikawa airport in northern central Hokkaido, we could immediately perceive the difference from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, it seemed quiet here, one could actually hear insects and not the sound of cars. The vastness of the landscape made us feel we were back in the American outdoors- the scale of things was so different.

We visited several flower farms as this is the season to see lavender, and many different varieties of wildflowers. The smell of lavender was overpowering, as was the beauty of the scores of planted flowers! we did not know where to take a picture there were so many pretty sites! we saw many beautiful butterflies! – the flower farm even offered lavender ice cream and soda, which was purple in color but did not taste like lavender(thank god!)

We also saw the amazing Asahidake area, famous for the Daisetzusan national park and Tenninkyo onsen. The Tenninkyo area has a wonderful easy hike to the base of a waterfall which on a rainy day was breathtakingly beautiful. The stillness of the forest, the loud rumble of the waterfall as it sloshed against some huge rock faces was both  humbling and powerful.

The interesting part about travel in Japan is that landscapes vary but there is almost always an onsen or hot spring to be found. A soak in the hot waters of Shirogane Onsen was cleansing and relaxing. What a great way to end the day!

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My eternal fascination with vending machines in Tokyo continues. They seem to have the most interesting drinks, never mind that I still cannot read most labels and usually go by color(pink for a strawberry drink, brown for chocolate) , pictures of fruits(hopefully indicate juice) and pictures of tapioca pearls hopefully indicating a tea concoction or coconut milk with tapioca pearls. Jasmine tea is the easiest to identify with a very pretty bottle with a label of jasmine flowers.

There are several varieties of teas. The more common japanese green tea or “matcha” the interesting tasting oolong, and the”good for health” tea with atleast 5-6 different kinds of herbs. My favorite is “afternoon tea” which tastes of regular indian tea without the masalas. Nothing beats holding a can of hot afternoon tea in your hand from the vending machine, on a freezing cold winter morning. Did I not mention that the machines dispense hot drinks on winter mornings? These hot cans make nice hand and face warmers. The location of an average vending machine is also very convenient, on a hot day like today, these machines are life saving refreshment stations!

I walk down my street with renewed vigor after a sip of an ice cold cantaloupe drink!- did I bother to check if it was full fat milk? nope, hopefully those extra pounds fell by the wayside while I ran towards the machine!

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I think I am strongly drawn to Buddhist temple festivals. There is something about a Buddhist temple in Japan that makes it special, Maybe it is  the street leading up to the entrance which is always festive, the myriad   interesting shops on the street selling dolls, chimes, purses, toys and senbei(japanese rice crackers) or just the people who are always so beautifully dressed in some beautiful kimonos.  In this case the street was more colorful than usual because of the festival! The Kawasaki Daishi temple holds the wind chime festival once a year. The temple, located in the city of Kawasaki a mere 15mins from Tokyo, by the super fast express is easy to get to. I went there with my kids to see the wind chimes, and was thrilled to see  the sight of Bon dancers with fans gathered at the beginning of the street to start the dance.

The music blared from a large speaker on the temple grounds, and a single taiko drummer beat the drum to keep the beat. Lines of japanese men and women dressed in colorful yukatas with the symbol of the temple moved gracefully along the street as I tried to squeeze past in front of them to take the best picture I could!

We saw the largest and most amazing  Daruma dolls in most of the shops on the street leading to the temple. Having never seen such huge dolls before, we had to stop and take a few more pictures! My girls wanted two of their own! Daruma dolls are a symbol for good luck and are sold with blank spaces for eyes. The japanese draw a single eye to symbolise a wish and then draw the second eye in when their wish is fulfilled!


The dolls come in many sizes, and colors and it is hard to pick just one to take home! My mind was filled with my endless wishes and I was afraid I would end up buying the whole shop!

We moved on to the entrance of the temple to be greeted by a huge display of wind chimes! there were the traditional “daruma” wind chimes each of which looked the same, but had a different sound because of the glass cutting. There were bonsai chimes, cat, fish, sumo wrestler chimes and many more! It was hard to just choose a few to buy, but I managed to pick a few for friends and for us!  What a lovely way to spend an evening!

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In Japan, great importance is given to honoring those that have passed on. The Obon festival honors the spirits of ancestors by lighting lanterns and praying at shinto shrines. One of the famous shrines in Tokyo where this is celebrated in a huge way is Yasukuni Shrine in Kudanshita. 29,000 large and small lanterns donated by families are hung along the walkways and the entrances to the shrine.In the evening light these lanterns look spectacular!

As I enter the huge tori or gate of the shrine I watch spellbound as the festival is underway with vendors selling toys, cotton candy and finger food of various kinds. It is hard to make a choice of what to eat, well for me actually it is, because I am a vegetarian, and I grab a corn on the cob:) I walk further into the entrance and there is plenty more to see. Paper lanterns with some amazing art work decorate the inner grounds of the temple.

It is hard to just pick a few paper lanterns to photograph, but I am in a hurry and want to make sure I get the best pictures I can while there is still some evening light.

I walk around the shrine to see the smaller lamps along the sides of the shrine. Around me there are groups of families, friends, senior citizens and teens, all enjoying the evening. I join the line of people bowing at the main altar and think of members of my family that have passed.

From Yasukuni Shrine I head to the moat across the road where lamps are lit in the water by families that hire boats. There is a little stage there where a singer with the most amazing voice is singing some beautiful songs. I even hear a wonderful rendition of “amazing grace” families in boats, crowd around the stage and listen.

This is truly a special way to remember those who have passed on. I will never be able to forget the ambience and the spirit that goes behind this celebration.

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On climbing Mt Fuji

if anyone had told me or even asked if I would climb Mt Fuji, the answer would have been a “maybe” but having been in Japan for a year and having seen the mountain many times, that answer slowly changed. For most Japanese a Mt fuji climb is something to do atleast once and having been there I see why. My husband and me decided to attempt the climb over a period of 2 days. We started at kawaguchiko go gome or 5th station where it all begins. Our bus from shinjuku arrived there in a couple of hours. It dropped us at the very busy go gome square where we saw the first of many little groups getting the prep talk to climb the mountain. Having decided to climb ourselves after reading a couple of blogs, we moved on past the groups to find the entrance to the trail. As  expected Mt fuji has its own shrine which is located a little before the entrance to the trail. The shrine is beautiful and has an awesome view of the mountain on a clear day. The day we picked was more misty than clear, which was probably a good thing, because then it is possible we may have abandoned ship before we started.Go gome base station at kawaguchiko

The first part of the hike was relatively easy with some slow climbing until the 5th station. From the 7th station, the climb started getting a lot more difficult with some scrambling over steep  rocks and  huffing up pretty tough switchbacks. On the way we passed some huts which had satchets of an energy drink that claimed to give you the energy equivalent to a small ball of rice. Since energy reserves were seriously on the downhill path, I guzzled down quite a few of those, and felt like an athlete at the start of a race. As we kept moving and rising above the cloudline, the mist lifted and we were able to see the most unbelievable view of the mountain’s volcanic slope. Having never done a hike above a cloudline, this was extra special. The only time I have been standing above the clouds has been in Hawaii’s big island at mauna kia, which is easier to get to than Mt fuji partly because you can drive up.

We finally reached out hut at the 8th station after about 5 hours of cimbing! Our sleeping quarters were a part of a large dormitory of 200 or more beds. Since we were climbing at the end of the season, most of the place was empty. The cook agreed to cook a vegetarian version of the japanese curry and rice that I was supposed to eat. Here is a nice picture of our dormitory.

our beds for the night. We had most of the dorm to ourselves thank goodness! After some very tasty curry and rice with pickles and some great conversation with our hiking companions, an Australian couple, a couple of Americans and 2 Spanish people, we snuggled up in bed at around 8pm. It was hard to sleep with all the excitement of getting this far still we managed to get a short nap in before being woken up by the sound of voices and flashing lights, we realized that groups of hikers were going up to the summit already to beat the crowd coming in a bit later. We decided to exit too.

Boy, what an amazing sight to see a line of flashlights before us. The climb was steep, but in the midst of heavy breathing sounds(as the air thins) we heard the sound of chanting, then we saw them. A group of monks, clad in white with what seemed like  very basic slippers climbing the mountain and chanting Buddhist prayers. The chanting had a mesmerizing rhythm to it, which made it easy to take the next step. Breathing became a bit labored as the air thinned higher and higher up.  It seemed that this did not make a bit of difference to those heavy smokers who decided this was a good place to smoke that last cigarette.

Ah – finally we are at the summit- we enter the last Orange gate to mountain heaven and we know we have made it. The view is breathtaking- we are above the cloud-line and wait to see the rising sun that magically transforms the morning sky! we hug our fellow climbers some from colorado, some from canada and many from tokyo itself. We take a walk around and see Fuji san’s amazing crater, and then realize that it is really very cold at the summit. We rest with a hot cup of cider, it was the best cider that we had ever drunk.

As we prepared to hike back down, we realized how far we had actually come. The summit was a tough hike but going down was going to be harder it seemed. My knees were feeling the impact of the steep downhill ridge. As we literally slid down the steep incline we thought we had made it down to the base in an hour only to find we still had a lot of sliding to do. I began to think of whether I would be able to actually drive the car at my driving test the next day. Luckily it seemed that Fuji san had blessed me and I was to become the  proud owner of a Japanese driving licence.

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