Archives for posts with tag: Japan
Sleek. I’ll happily travel on the bullet train again.

I recently got my first COVID vaccine – or rather the anti-COVID vaccine. Apart for the slight pinch in my left arm, I felt excitement. Excitement at the thought of being able to travel again…not just yet, but if feels like it’s coming relatively soon. At the moment my second vaccine is scheduled for August 1st. Between now and then, I know I’ll be doing a lot of dreaming about where I want to head to first. Actually, I already “know” where I’m headed first….but that could change. As my current morning meditation says: “I make plans, and I am open to the surprises that life and the universe have for me”. So yes, I am “making plans,” and I’m open to whatever comes my way.

This renewed excitement about traveling got me thinking about where I’ve been the past few years, and I realized I hadn’t yet written about Kyoto. The one overnight trip out of Tokyo I managed in my time there.

I love train travel, and was excited about the bullet train. I did ride it once before, many years ago, when I was in Japan touring a French artist around the country. So I knew it would be comfortable and efficient. And even though you are moving incredibly quickly, you still get to see the countryside.

I traveled with my co-worker and friend, L. As we left Tokyo we talked about getting a glimpse of Mount Fuji on our way to Kyoto. No luck that day though, as it was hidden under clouds, as is often the case. On our return to Tokyo we got extremely lucky. There she was!

After checking into our hotel, we dumped our bags and headed straight out. We wanted to see as much as we could during our weekend and that meant spending as little time as possible in the hotel. Our first destination was the old city. We walked through its small streets and made our way up to a couple of temples.

I realized quickly how wonderful it was to be away from Tokyo’s high-rises, to wander through streets lined with buildings that felt welcoming. To not feel so small in a jungle of concrete, steel and glass.

From the old city we walked up the hill, towards the first of our temple visits. Unfortunately clouds rolled in, however that didn’t dampen the joy of being surrounded by trees and flowers.

Kiomizu-dera Temple is designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, with historic monuments of ancient Kyoto. Here, visitors pay their respects to Kannon, a deity of mercy and compassion. Kannon is said to embody “grateful hearts”. A reminder to be grateful for this life and all that we have – family, friends, opportunities like this one. A reminder to express gratitude and practice compassion – daily. Plus, it’s just really beautiful.

Like many areas in Japan, there’s a famous buddha statue in Kyoto. It’s hard to write about these things without always using the same words….beautiful, calming, peaceful – even with tourists milling about.

It felt like Kyoto had an endless supply of temples. Our next one was Yasaka-Jinja Shrine. Here what struck me was the beautiful way wood, stone, water and greenery come together.

I see this and can still hear the water flowing.
It’s always in the details for me. The stone and wood. The natural colours. Time and mother nature adding its touch.

We decided to head out of Kyoto to Nara for a day. An easy train ride away, although not without it’s adventure given the lack of Japanese spoken on our part, and the scarcity of English on theirs. I do love traveling like that though.

Nara is known for its park, and the deer that roam free. Now, I’m told they are docile, but don’t you believe it! I made the mistake of buying some cookies, from one of the many vendors, to feed the deer. “That’ll be fun,” I thought. Let’s just say they are NOT shy. After having more than one nibble on my butt, those cookies flew onto the ground. Help yourselves, and leave my tush alone, thank you very much!

Sure they are cute. But the sign doesn’t make them sound overly friendly! Does “deer mating season” make them more aggressive?

The best part of our day in Nara was Todaiji Temple, built at the request of Emperor Shomu, who hoped to position it as the head temple and Vairocana Buddha (“Buddha that shines through the world like the sun”). Inaugurated in 752 A.D., it was burnt twice during war times, and eventually restored between 1185-1133. A broad range of religious ceremonies continue to be performed here, some going back as far as a thousand years.

My favourite part of the Kyoto weekend was discovering Nijo Castle. Thanks to my brother J for that tip! It’s the only time we decided on a guided tour, which was definitely a good idea. Our guide was funny and charming, and how else would we have known that the floors were intentionally built to squeak, so that Ninja’s wouldn’t be able to sneak in! I have no idea if it’s true, but it sure does make for some fun storytelling. This was our final discovery before heading back to the bullet train and Tokyo. The perfect way to end the weekend.

Ornate gates, sculpted trees, ponds, blue skies, spring blossoms – the perfect way to end a beautiful weekend get-away. As you can see, masks were being worn. It wasn’t long before our time in Tokyo would come to an end.

About time I came back for part two of my time in Tokyo isn’t it? This woman’s been busy… 🙂

Everyone always talks about the “quirky” nature of Japan. I think that if you live in a society where everyone pretty much wears the same clothes throughout school and is then expected to fall in line with the ‘norms’ while working…it’s no wonder they get creative whenever and however they can. Friends and I marvelled over the fact that when you walk by a dry-cleaner what you see in the window is ALWAYS the same – white shirts, dark suits. ALWAYS. It was so exciting for me when one of the people I worked with wore bow ties instead of a regular tie. He found a way to show his creative side, even in serious meetings. Thank you bow-tie-guy!

Another thing you always hear about are Japanese gardens. And yes, they are beautiful.

I love how they find ways to ensure there are peaceful gardens and green spots in the middle of the towers. No matter where you live, you can find a little respite from all the crowds and the hubbub. They also build around old temples – they don’t destroy them.

Luckily for me Shiba Park is right beside where I lived. It provided me with a wonderful place to go run through, walk through, sit in, and just go to when I wanted to get away from my computer, work and apartment. It was a lovely way to start the day, take a breather, or end the day.

Speaking of work and home….That was pretty much all in the same, roughly 400-square-foot, apartment.

Small, yes. Super-functional, definitely. I actually quite loved this little space. I have to say they really know how to make the most of every square inch – no wasted space here at all. Even though I spent most of my work time here (except for meetings with the local agencies), it really was my little sanctuary.

For the last three months of my time in Tokyo, I had a co-worker (she lived in the apartment below mine). That’s right – two of us working at that little table-come-desk all day long! Thank goodness we are friends as well as co-workers.

I found this place through a company called In The Hood. They were amazing. Extremely helpful in finding the right apartment and ensuring that I had all I needed. As their name suggests, they want to create a neighbourhood of travellers – enabling those who have common interests to meet and exchange ideas, conversation, travel experiences and generally fun times. Having traveled a lot themselves, they understand what people are looking for. On top of all that, when I traveled away from Tokyo for more than a few weeks, they stored my luggage and rented out the space to someone else – saving me from paying rent while I wasn’t there. If you, or anyone you know, are looking for a furnished apartment in Tokyo, I highly recommend In The Hood.

I was in the Higashi-Azabu area. Very central, easy access to the metro system (which is simple to use and amazing), and a great mix of both local and international inhabitants. Everything I needed was close by, including three grocery stores and a multitude of restaurants. There was this little spot that always had a line-up around lunch time – and I mean little – two customers at a time at most. So one day we decided to go check it out. It ended up being a little bakery/dessert spot. We still have no idea why people lined up to get in though. Let’s just say that with all the great food in Tokyo…dessert is not their forté. At least not that I could find. When I did, it was a “French” bakery…

My favourite neighbourhood restaurant. Sushi rolls are not the norm in Japan, so the fact that this tasty little treat was in my neighbourhood was definitely a nice surprise, and perk.
And right around the corner was this place. The hairdresser was a very cool looking, long-haired, well-dressed man. So I decided to give it a try. Let me tell you….it is custom in Japan that when they wash your hair during your appointment they also give you a really lovely head massage. I could have gone every day…and when I told him that he laughed. Most people think it would have been really expensive, however my first trip to a hairdresser in Montreal cost me more….What’s up with that???

Up the hill from my place you will find a very busy tourist attraction….

As you saw in my Tokyo Times Part 1 post, I didn’t spend ALL of my time in my neighbourhood. I even had some guests come to town. One of the first places everyone wanted to see was Shibuya Crossing.

And this isn’t at a terribly busy time…at night there are even more people crossing every which way. You’d think there would be tons of people bumping into each other, but no. Somehow it all just works.

Once you are done having fun in the crazy crosswalk, there are a myriad of little streets and alleys to explore. It is very easy to get lost. Luckily it is also very easy to find fun spots and great food.

Shibuya Crossing at night. There’s definitely something about night time – an additional layer of energy provided by the dark skies and flashing neon lights.

Another popular spot was Team Lab. They have a few locations, and Borderless is my favourite. I first went with a friend who had lived in Tokyo for 12 years, and wanted to make sure I saw it while she was in town. Just about everyone who visited while I was there wanted to go, which means I went four times. I also saw their larger installation once, and didn’t enjoy it as much — too many different rooms, no real path to follow which meant you ended up in the same place more than once. I think it was just sensory overload as well.

If you want to calm your senses…I recommend Meiji Shrine and the surrounding parkland and woodland. There is just something about walking amongst tall, majestic trees, green space and flowers, that both calms and feeds the soul. Being a Shinto shrine, we are able to enjoy the pure, simple beauty of it all.

One really could go on and on and on about Tokyo. Wait…maybe I already have! 🙂

So, I will close again with some random fun photos to give you more of a feel for some of the experiences I have been lucky enough to have. #charmedlife for sure.

And if you have made it this far down the blog post – thank you! You deserve something extra-special for that. I present you with……The Robot Restaurant!

Thank you Tokyo. Such good times with some amazing people. As much as I wish I hadn’t been feeling like such crap most of the time I was there (I alluded to this in my Why I Run post), I really did enjoy discovering as much as I did. Thank you to LH for bringing a much-needed breath of fresh air to my last three months there, and to AK and SG for your constant support.

See you again Tokyo…one day….

A city of high-rises. The view from one of the office buildings I went to regularly.

I have been back in Canada for five months now…clearly about time I wrote about my Tokyo Times. I was in the city on and off between May 2019 – April 2020 for work, and although I wasn’t always feeling my best (I touched on this somewhat in my post on Why I Run), I did manage to have some pretty awesome experiences.

The question is … where do I start? I think it’s taken me so long to write because I was overwhelmed by this question. Tokyo offers so much that it’s hard to wrap my brain around it all. I think the best thing to do is start with a few of my favourite experiences and observations, including some of my favourite spots to take visitors.

When I first arrived, I spent my free time just walking around different areas of the cities – this wasn’t always easy and comfortable, given the almost 100-degree temperature with 100% humidity (or close to it!). I joked that everyone was just going to have to accept that from May to September 2020 I was going to be a walking ball of sweat… Obviously that’s not quite how 2020 turned out.

So as I sit here miles and miles away from Tokyo and think back on my time there, here’s what comes to mind.

The food! Clearly the best place to start is with the food. So much amazing food – even if you don’t eat fish (which I do). From sushi to ramen to pizza (yes, pizza) to tempura to steak to gyoza to soba noodles to sandwiches from the 7-Eleven (really very good, particularly the egg salad). One of my favourite things to do was visit the food level at a department store late afternoon as they markdown the sushi which needs to be sold quickly. Super fresh and well priced. Yummy! I wasn’t adventurous enough to try out the many strange looking “sweets” – to be honest, they just didn’t appeal to me, they didn’t look like they were meant to be eaten.

Nissan Crossing. One of the first places I took visitors to was Nissan Crossing – the Nissan feature store in Ginza. Sounds strange, I know…however, on the 2nd floor they have a café. Not just any old café though. Here you can have a photo printed onto the foam of your coffee or hot chocolate (or iced chocolate). Then you get to watch yourself melt away as you drink. I even saw teenagers asking for a photo of their K-pop idol on their drink! Just a fun thing to do while catching up and deciding where to go next. My friend B. introduced me to this place, and I took everyone who visited – whether they were in Tokyo for work or for play. I still think that if I had enough of these photos they’d make for a fun poster.

Going, going, gone!

Asakusa. This is another area that B introduced me to, and to which I kept going back (with or without visitors!). It was fortuitous that my friend B (who I met while doing my yoga teacher training) happened to be in Tokyo two weeks after I first landed. She and her husband lived in Tokyo for many years and it was wonderful to have her show me around. There were many gems in her tours, and one of them was Asakusa.

We went to Asakusa with some of B’s friends who still live in Japan on the weekend of its neighbourhood celebration. This is a three-day celebration where local residents parade items from the local temple through the streets to bless the area. All neighbourhoods do this. Asakusa’s was a real eye-opener!

I was quite surprised to see men walking around baring their butts. When I asked one of my new friends why they were doing this I was informed that it’s a tradition for areas by water to also take the temple items into the water to bless it and pray for good fishing. Okay, I get that, it’s amazing. However….nobody here was going into the water… It also cracks me up that this man looks so happy and proud of himself, all while getting a wedgie…

Asakusa is a very popular destination for locals as well as tourists, and was usually teaming with people there to see the temple, shop at the little kiosks, and eat lots of food. On weekends you see a good number locals wearing traditional kimonos which are so beautiful.

While walking around Asakusa I would head over to Kappabashidogugai street which is a very long street filled with kitchen supply stores. Here you will find everything from ceramics to glassware to pots and pans to restaurant uniforms to utensils and wonderfully sharp Japanese knives. A number of my friends bought some lovely ceramic bowls and I always meant to go back and do that eventually, but I never did.

I did, however, buy me some sharp Japanese knives! Luckily for me I have friends who love to do a lot of research before they travel somewhere and they did the leg work on finding the best knife store. Kama-Asa. They sell much more than knives, but that’s what I was there for and that’s what I brought a few people there for. Some bought gifts for others, some bought gifts for themselves.

And one of the cool things is they will engrave your name or whatever you want on the knives in Japanese and in English. All done free-hand. So impressive!

And that, my friends is only a little insight to Asakusa. A few other interesting tidbits:

  • I was told that the Yakuza (mafia) have their head office in the area. As far as I know I didn’t see it, however during the neighbourhood celebrations you did see people walking around showing their tattoos, which are traditionally representative of being part of the Yakuza. When you go to pools or spas you generally see signs saying tattoos are not permitted or have to be covered. This poses an interesting challenge for the Japanese tourism industry as more and more international visitors have tattoos – and aren’t part of a crime syndicate.
  • The first “western style” bar that opened in Japan is said to be in Asakusa as well. Kamiya bar – I nearly went in….but we opted for something else that day.

I feel like this is already a fair amount of information. And really, Tokyo deserves more than one blog post – being the big, beautiful, complex, interesting city that it is. So I’ll save some for Part 2 and leave you with a few random sitings.

Suntory Hall – I happened by it one day to see the announcement that doors were opening – pipes emerge from above the Suntory hall sign, playing music to let everyone know it is time to come in. Lovely.
One of the main streets in Ginza is shut down to traffic on weekends, opening it up for people who are wandering the area, shopping, and yes, showing off their dogs wearing lion wigs. They were certainly the stars of the show that day!
You had to know there would be a “Japanese toilet” image of some sort! The seats are warm, it’s a toilet and a bidet all in one, with various degrees of water pressure – basically everything has a control. Mine at home even flushed automatically as soon as you stood up. But this one, this one may have gone too far……”wand clean”???? Um, I’m not entirely sure what they mean – and I did NOT want to find out.
Riding the monorail. I may or may not have been pretending to drive..
Crazy tall buildings and blue skies.
What time is that first train? Clearly I am just supposed to know… 🙂