Roundup: Japanese Gardens

We visited 14 Japanese cities in three weeks; arguably, this was way too much moving. After a week of rest and therapeutic soup dumplings in Taipei, we’re still feeling hungover from Japan!

For future visits (and itinerary recommendations for friends), there’s some key culling we’d do. But as we sit here and discuss what we loved and what we didn’t, we can’t think of single garden we’d remove. And we made a point to see a lot. of. them. Before we left, my uncle Robby advised: “Go to as many gardens as you can. Each one is completely unique.” Added benefit: “You’ll be so exhausted, you won’t notice that you’re sleeping on the floor.” (For the record, we did notice we were sleeping on the floor. 😉 )

A few of our faves, in no particular order:

1. Isui-en Garden: Nara, Japan

After our awesome visit to Nara’s Big Buddha (a “Japan Top 10”, the post we plan to write next), we stumbled upon this gem. We visited late in the day and were literally the only visitors in the garden:

   

2. Shoren-in: Kyoto, Japan

This is a small garden at the tip of Southern Higashiyama in Kyoto. There was a wedding the day we visited, so naturally, we stalked their photo shoot. How beautiful is the bride in her traditional dress?!?

  

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3. Okochi Sanso: Arashiyama, near Kyoto, Japan

We weren’t going to pick favorites, but this multi-level garden behind the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is our mutual top pick. Like Isui-en, we hit it on a day with few tourists, good lighting, and brilliant fall leaves. We initially balked at the $10/ticket entrance fee, but in retrospect, we would have paid more. Our fave part: the gorgeous tea room, where I tested my hand at calligraphy.

     

4. Tenryu-jiArashiyama, near Kyoto, Japan

The award for best “wow factor” goes to this 700-year-old zen garden’s pond landscape, with its lichen-covered rock features, ancient trees, and raked gravel. If it wasn’t so busy, we would have stared at this scene for an hour.

   

5. Koto-in: Daitoku-ji complex in Kyoto, Japan

This temple complex was pretty far off the beaten path, but any garden that’s distracting enough to make you leave your Lonely Planet guidebook on its teahouse porch deserves some recognition. The maple leaves were truly stunning.

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6. Kenroku-en: Kanazawa, Japan

This garden felt the most unruly of all we visited, yet we saw more gardeners here than anywhere else: a pack of men sweeping the stream and a whole team of guys installing yukitsuri, conical like cages that protect the trees from Kanazawa’s heavy snows.

Taming nature to look wild. Is that what you’d call… postmodern? If someone knows the Japanese term for this, please share it. Wikipedia is not helping me out here.

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7. Kōraku-en: Okayama, Japan

Not a common stop on the tourist track, P and I chose to spend a night in Okayama for one reason: our guidebook author’s rave review of this garden. The city was refreshingly calm; this garden was refreshingly different from what we’d seen: lots of open space, views from every angle, a gigantic (gorgeous!) castle as its backdrop. I think if we had to pick a second fave, this would be it.

   

The Hunt for an Asus Adapter

Posts forthcoming on practically all of Japan… but first, an explanation of why we haven’t posted in almost two weeks. (Warning: This is long. You may just want to skim):

We were fastidious about what we packed, particularly in the electronics category – thanks to my dad. He spent hours and hours researching the best products, recording every model number and weighing every item on a kitchen scale (then preparing a fantastic spreadsheet, of course); and ensuring that every device had a back-up power/energy source. Well, every device except our new computer. The logic was sound: Carrying two USB connectors for your iPhone is a bit more practical than hauling two computer chargers. We agreed and set off on our trip with our 10.8 pounds of electrical goods.

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Our electronics spread, pre-trip.

When I finished the last post from the cozy common room at our guesthouse in Kyoto, the “your battery has 5% remaining” warning flashed on the screen. What? The adapter was plugged in. I figured I must have been sitting next to a bad outlet, so I made my way around the hostel testing every outlet. Nothing. After testing in the tenth socket outside the women’s toilet on the second floor, panic set in. Patten calmed me for a few minutes (a recurring event), then I tried again. The charger worked. This allayed my fears for 24 hours until I tried the thing at the next hotel. Nothing. The hotel after that? Nothing. We officially had a dead adapter.

Life and death. One of the same. Buddhist philosophy in this land of temples. I would get through this and we’d easily find a replacement. This is Japan, after all.

Plan A: We’d find one in an electronics store. A few days into our predicament, we found a Bic Camera in Okayama. I’d heard about these stores, which supposedly carried every possible gadget imaginable. While they did carry 150 different hair dryers, the manager promised us they didn’t have adapters for this computer.

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Booking flights on a tablet: Not fun

Plan B: We’d order one from Amazon and ship to Japan. When we realized you cannot order from Amazon.com and ship to Japan, we tried Amazon.co.jp. Here, my brother found an adapter that looked exactly like what we had. Great! But when I tried to fill in the shipping information in a half English/half Japanese entry form, I got a bit nervous. Luckily, we had a friend in Tokyo (Yohei), who we recruited to order this for us and ship to his house. We’d be seeing him in a few days and could pick up the charger then.

Plan C: None. Harass the HQ receptionist in Taiwan, where Asus is based? The adapter came in a lovely package, which we opened ceremoniously after the delicious breakfast that Yohei’s wife had prepared for us that morning. When fully unwrapped, we realized this was not what was pictured online, nor did the adapter fit our computer. Yohei kindly offered to return this for us – at least Amazon JP does have free return shipping. “You are in Tokyo,” Yohei assured us, “This is the one place in the world where you’ll definitely find this.”

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So many keyboards!!!

The next day, desperation had sunk in. We spent hours trying to book flights/hotels for our next leg (Taiwan) using just cellphones and a Nexus tablet – a task that would have taken 30 min on a computer with a keyboard. We needed that adaptor. Hungry, but determined, we set off for Akihabara, the electronics capital of Tokyo. Yohei’s earlier words of encouragement kept us afloat, as we visited store after store, asking/pleading/begging for help with finding our charger. Finally, a kind man at one store drew us a map of the area and sent us to Yodobashi Akiba. Imagine Best Buy + Staples + Macy’s home section times 1000. Seriously. We were sent to the 3rd of 9 floors first, where we got lost in a row of keyboards and mice, before finding the adapter section. We found an Asus adapter replacement, but SURPRISE (!!!), it would not fit our model.

Next, we escalated down to floor 2. Momentarily sidetracked by the 230 or so various telescopes, we found yet another employee, who sent us down to floor 1. We found the laptops and a manager, who introduced us to a man with a blue vest on which the word Asus was printed. My heart skipped a beat. This could be it! He led us to our computer, which they were selling for 63,000 yen. For a moment, I considered buying it, just for the charger. We tried the display charger in my computer and it worked.

“Can I buy this one?” I asked, tugging at the display. He shook his head no, vehemently. “Please,” I begged, and then he disappeared for a while and brought back an English-speaking interpreter.

“We cannot sell you this one, but we will look for one,” she told us. Both of them scuttled off. We waited, while charging my computer on the display shelf. Classy, I know, but we needed all the juice we could get.

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She came back with a box. “He says this will work with your computer model, but he can’t assure you it will work in other countries.” We asked if we could test it out. She shook her head no, looked at him, looked at us, looked at him, and then she finally allowed us to open the box, but said we could not try the adapter in an outlet until we bought it.

“If it doesn’t work, we can return it?” Patten asked. Through some lengthy explanation, she told us we could not return it if used, even if only used for one second in the store to test out if it worked. But, we could return it if it were defective. Huh? We went back and forth on this for a while.

“Does he think it will work?” I asked, looking at the Asus guy. She asked him in Japanese and he shook his head in the affirmative. That was enough for me.

We bought the charger. The ASUS guy took it out of the box, escorted us to a counter with an extension cord, plugged it in to our computer, and voila: That little red light that means “I’m charging” lit up. We’d found (we owned!) a working computer charger.

Bottom line: Long-term travel is not all zen gardens and pork cutlets, though there have been plenty of each. The constant problem solving — from finding a place to sleep each night to locating obscure power adapters — keeps your mind sharp, your legs strong, and your competitive spirit alive. It’s also exhausting. While we’ve still got a bit more mental energy, we want to discover a few more Asian cities. Then… it’ll be time for the beach.

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Yodobashi Akiba electronics megastore: The place where we finally found an adapter

“A tiny bar you will not find by yourself”

This is the way our innkeeper at IchEnSou (our guesthouse in Kyoto) described the place he was going, and asked if we’d like to join him. Patten and I were starving. We asked if this bar served food. “Yes. It is not good food. Just curry rice and things like that.” We were skeptical, but when invited to a tiny bar by a local, you just go.

lanternWe walk across the Kamo River, longingly looking up at a 5-story building on the its banks, each of the 20 or so rooms filled with diners sitting on the floor. We guess it must be kaiseki, the term for a multi-course, artistically crafted meal; i.e. the most expensive dining option in Kyoto; i.e. officially not on a ZINK year budget.

Onward we walk, up Ponto-cho Dori, a tiny street — maybe 8 feet across —  lined with paper lanterns of red chidori (wading birds) hanging from entrances of izakayas (bars), tearooms, and traditional restaurants. We hear laughing through the sliding doors; pots clanging through kitchen windows; the shuffling of those ahead/behind us, taking their time on this busy, romantic street. We take a left down an alley, a right on a larger street, then a right down a poster-plastered hallway. The innkeeper opens a door that looks like a wall and suddenly we are crammed around a small table in a bar the size of your bathroom. 

entranceWe each order a round of tall beers. We introduce ourselves. There’s Akira, a twentysomething banker from Tokyo who comes to Kyoto often for the weekend; Fanny, a French student from Grenoble who’s studying economics in Seoul; Yashi, our innkeeper who took on this lifestyle as a way to “stay connected with the world”; Kimi, a Taiwanese interior designer who speaks like six languages; and Andrew, a Canadian who’s just finishing 4-months of ZINK-ing through the Himalayas, SEA, and North Korea.

Our conversation covered plastic surgery variations by country, the strange five-foot doorway at the guesthouse, the femininity of men in South Korea, and so on. Important topics; lively discussion. Then plates of food came out from the shoebox of a kitchen: soft tofu covered in kimchi; nori cheese wasabi (exactly as it sounds: nori, dried seaweed, wrapped around cheese spread with wasabi), fried chicken joints (an elbow-like texture, we decided), and the less exciting, but surprisingly delicious fried rice and yakisoba, fried noodles.

The night proceeded a few hours more, ending at the door to the inn with the realization that all of us (save for Yashi) were staying together in the same “mixed dorm.” Upstairs and lights out. A great, serendipitous night with interesting, fun, fabulous international friends. More of this, please!

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Nikko, Japan

Part magic, part chaos: Our overnight trip to Nikko was a good study in the duality of tourism.

We took the rapid train from Tokyo’s Asakusa station to Nikko. Thankfully, we arrived 20 minutes before departure. This put us at the front of the line, and ensured we had a seat for the 2.5-hour ride. There were at least 50 people in our car alone that stood for the entire train trip. Sign #1 that Nikko would be swarmed.

We took a cab half-way to our hotel, jumping out early when we got stuck in a 100-yen-a-minute traffic jam on the main road. Our hotel — The Turtle Inn — was tucked away on the river, far from the crowds. The adorable innkeeper recommended we visit the Kanmangafuchi Abyss first, just a 10-minute walk from the inn.

The magic began. We headed towards the colorful mountains, on quiet, wet streets. Crossing a bridge, we followed the rocky, rushing, loud river up the to small gorge/waterfall that was the Abyss. Lining the way were 70 moss-covered statues of Jizo, a Bodhisatva who looks after the dead. (Across the river is a big cemetery, which we’d later stumble upon). We practically had the place to ourselves.

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More meandering around the river, cemetery, and side streets of Nikko (magical!) led to the main attractions and ALL THE PEOPLE (chaos!).

Nikko is famous for its temples and shrines, particularly for the massive mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Right up there with Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris, this place was over-the-top and over-run with tourists. It could have been magical on a week day in January, but with the changing leaves at their peak on a weekend day with perfect weather was… eeeeee…. not good.

Hoards were dishing over thousands of yen to enter the hillside of mass chaos. The more the merrier (!!!) is the MO here, with no crowd control measures in place. One particular moment of hell was trying to get to the tomb itself. First, you must pass under a carving of a sleeping cat, which has become a symbol for Nikko and an obsession of tourists. For the first time in Japan, we had people shoving us to try to get a blurry, cell-phone photo of this foot-long cat.

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Your reward for getting through the 15-minute bottleneck? Two hundred steep steps up to the tomb. Again, hiking through the ancient cedar forest on a quiet day would be ridiculously special. Taking just a few steps each minute on a crowded stairway was not so wonderful.

Also potentially magical: Walking through the temple gardens at night, trees lit from below. It was challenging the get in the moment though, when shuffling around the garden shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists.

A quick soak in our inn’s onsen (hot springs bath) and a tofu dinner at a sleepy restaurant, and all magic was restored. We woke up early and wheeled our bags a mile to the train station, through mist, light rain, and very quiet streets. Yes, Nikko is a special place. 

We recommend an overnight trip to Nikko wholeheartedly. Just plan to go on a weekday, during the off season. For more of our Nikko pictures, see our Flickr set.

Our Epic Day 1: Tokyo, Japan

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The day started at approximately 12:01 am on Nov 1, as we shuffled through customs at Haneda International Airport. I’d just slept 9 of last 12 hours on the flight (thanks to my dear friend, Xanex); Patten had been less fortunate with just a couple of hours under his feet. Ready or not, here came our first challenge: Getting to our hotel.

Ticket kiosks: found! The English button on ticket kiosk: Found! Credit card slot: Not found!

Seeing us fumbling, an agent came over and made the universal sign for no and one that we’ve come to learn quite well here in Japan: hands in an x. The “no” was for credit cards.

ATM machine: Found! English button: Found! Cash in hand, we were back at the kiosk buying tickets.

Soon after, we were on a train, excited we’d made the train we thought ended shortly after midnight. What we didn’t realize was that there was no way to get to a station by our hotel. So yet another interaction with another train agent at another stop, who made more hand x’s for us, and we finally made it on a train that took us about mile away from out hotel. From there, we walked and walked and walked until we reached Zion, i.e. Agora Place Asakusa. The process was long and confusing, but exhilarating, which is to say (and the point of this ridiculously verbose intro), it was reminiscent of just about every one of our first-time experiences with a foreign city’s mass transit systems. It was the perfect way to dive into a trip.

4:45 am: Tsujiki Fish Market

After a two-hour nap, we were in a cab with lace-covered seats, apparently the norm here in Japan. He zipped through mostly empty streets, on the left side of the road, until we reached the bustle of the fish market. “Skee-jee,” he said, while pointing vehemently down a road to our left.

We paid (a whopping 3000 yen), then exited the cab into the very early morning. Shop owners were unpacking their wares, laying out mushrooms, big boxes of fish flakes, bags of salts and seasonings; many were cooking, old men stirring steaming pots of unknown broths in big steel pots.

We asked several people where to meet for the tuna auction. They looked at us blankly. “Maguro,” I said, after finding the word for tuna in our Lonely Planet guidebook. This worked slightly better, various fingers pointing us to a large building 100 meters away. And so we trekked further in, now darting between hundreds of motorized carts, each carrying around styrofoam boxes filled with silvery fish. “Run,” Patten would say, and we’d sprint through an opening, luckily avoiding death each time. Eventually, some police men turned us away from the action, and pointed us to the tourist booth. A man behind the closed-window counter made an X with his hands. The tuna-auction tour had filled up, which we later learned, at 3:30 am that morning. Only 120 tourists are allowed in. If you’re there during a busy weekend, Lonely Planet’s suggestion about getting there at 4:30 am is a bit off the mark.

We were disappointed, but hungry. Next: We set off in search of the famous sushi breakfast. We found two restaurants, both busy. We ended up in the significantly longer line. An American behind us (one of the few we’ve encountered here) had heard this was the best place in the city to get high-quality, high-value sushi. 

So we waited. And waited. Two hours later (after fun conversations with Thai and Malaysian tourists), we sat down at the 12-person counter of Sushi Dai. Immediately, our itamae (sushi chef) welcomed us with a succulent, ruby-red curve of toro nigiri — Was it the two-hour wait? Our rumbling stomachs? The ambience of eating sushi at Tsujiki, something I’ve wanted to do for years? Biases aside, I do think this was the best piece of fatty tuna that’s ever slunk its way down my throat. Soooo good. 

  

The joy kept coming: baby snapper, red snapper, sea urchin, baby shrimp, yellow jack… each time, he’d lay the nigiri on the bar before us delicately, elegantly, and we’d pick it up with our fingers (as he instructed us to do) and savor the new flavors. Forty minutes and 6400 yen later later, our fun had ended and we were back on the wet, bustling streets.

Next, we walked to the wholesale market, the gigantic warehouse where Jiro comes each morning to pick out his fine fish. Even though we’d read it was the “largest fish market in the world,” the size of this place, the immense volume of fish, the thousands of fish merchants and purveyors, is truly unimaginable. 

We spent hours here wandering down the small aisles, gaping as they chopped off fish heads, sawed through hulking, frozen tuna bodies, bagged heaping piles of shellfish into styrofoam boxes. It was if the ocean had been reaped of every living thing. Both disturbing and awe-inspiring, It was one of the most amazing scenes we’ve seen, ever.

  

10 am: Hamarikyu Gardens

For a dose of calm, we headed to Hamarikyu Gardens. While impressed with the geo-located audio guide that started talking in your ear the minute you approached a particular point of interest, we were struggling to take in the very detailed history of the Tokugawas. Instead, we just walked in quiet. We watched as gardeners plucked dead needles from trees, making each pine brilliantly green, then headed to take matcha in the teahouse on the garden’s lake. It took us twenty minutes to realize that we needed to pay before we were served, so Patten shuffled back inside with slippers that were significantly too small for him (this continues to be a point of laughter), turned around backwards to slip them off at the door, handed over our 1200 yen, and came back with some sort of wooden token. The server then placed a laminated sheet of tea-drinking instructions before us. We learned how to hold the cup (in two hands), how to turn the tea with each sip, how to wipe the mouth, etc., and most importantly, how to eat the confection, which we were instructed to do before drinking the tea. We followed the rules exactly (at least to our best knowledge), while successfully multitasking: basking in the sun and charging my now drained cell phone with our Satechi energy station (fantastic purchase!).

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12 pm: Hot coffee from a vending machine

In our few short hours in the city, we’d noticed vending machines everywhere. Upon closer look, when Patten began to suffer from a lack-of-caffeine headache, we got very confused. What was tea? What was coffee? What was soda? The only English on the cans was the name of the brand: Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi. Beer companies make juices and teas? Not in America. We picked a small can of Gold, assuming it’d be coffee. “It’s hot,” Patten said as he pulled it out of the shoot. We marveled at this for far too long, then he quickly shot back the syrupy, warm coffee.

1 pm: Panasonic Living Showroom

Not much to say here. We saw a beautiful building with an interesting name. Panasonic makes furniture? So inside we went, and quickly found two leather recliners. Patten solved the riddle of the remote and soon enough, the chair was squeezing our butts tightly from the side, then massaging our lower back, upper back, then neck with hard, round spheres. Again, we marveled at this far too long, as the showroom workers in their high heels and business suits curiously smiled at us.

1:30 pm: Our first meal ordered from a vending machine

We’d just exited Yoyogi station (yet another feat to get across town on the subway — thank goodness for an English speaker near the kiosk), and were famished. Without our trusty Yelp here in Japan and way too confused by addresses to use our LP guidebook with any accuracy, our restaurant choices are driven by three criteria: the number of people in the place, pictures (or plastic models) of the food, and whether or not the price is listed in numeric form. We found a place that seemed to score well in all three — but first, we needed to figure out how to order. We watched a few people in front of us: 1) Feed yen into the money slot, 2) Press the picture of the meal you want, 3) Take your printed ticket to the counter. Easy enough. Two minutes later, we had a steaming bowl of shrimp tempura (tendon) noodles.

3 pm: Reunion with Shoko

It was time to head over to Shibuya, where we planned to meet Shoko, one of the friends I’d met when I studied abroad at Exeter. It’d been 10 years since we’d seen each other, but Facebook had kept us in touch. I’d remembered Shoko as effervescent, bright, and very kind — she was all three and more when we met up with her at Shibuya Hikarie, the new KaDeWe-like (but hipper) department store. We met at the 8th-floor restaurant, which overlooked Shibuya Station and its respective swarms of people. We tried three types of Japanese tea, a flight of clementine juices, and three different sweets (aka desserts) — our favorite was the chestnut custard.

Shoko received her masters in Jewish & Christian Relations in London, but she’s home now, working for her father until she’s ready to start school back up again — this time, working towards her doctorate. She gave us the breakdown of religion here in Japan. “We are not very religious people, but we culturally identify with all three,”  she continued, “For example, we go to a Shinto shrine to celebrate birth; we get married in a church (Christianity), and we go to Buddhist temple at death.” Then she made a very helpful flow chart for us about the three religions over the years in Japan. After our education and fully stuffed on sweets and tea, she took us for a quick tour of Shibuya. First, a giant gaming store that sold every possible video game ever created. Then, to Animate, an equally teaming store, this one filled with manga and anime and many teenagers with short skirts and face masks. (People here wear face masks when they’re sick to prevent spreading disease to others; however, teenagers have started wearing these daily “to hide their emotions,” said Shoko.) Patten and Shoko were very amused with a stuffed daikon (see pic) and we all giggled at the dirty comics: “Big boobs are universally appealing,” as Patten sagaciously offered. One last stop at a giant stationary store, then Shoko helped us buy our subway tickets home and sent us on her way with a giant smile. 

8 pm: Dinner at “an establishment” 

Even when we walked by the restaurant the next day and examined all the signage, we couldn’t figure out the name of this place. I’ve already exhausted myself writing this post, so I’ll keep this last stop in brief: Using our sniff test (as outlined above), we found a bustling family restaurant in Asakusa near our hotel. We were amused by the vats of cheese and gravy they seemed to pour over each concoction. Not brave enough to try their rendition of a hamburger steak, we each ordered the beer set: 20 oz Asahi and two small plates. Tipsy from one beer and our epic day, we giggled home to our hotel, first stopping at Mister Donut. As the dough-faithful know, a perfect day can never end without a donut.

Patten was snoring approximately 25 seconds after his head hit the pillow. I eventually dozed off, basking in the highlights of our first day and the promise of so many more new places, experiences, and people to come.

ZINK Year: We’re here!